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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 6, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 06 December 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World AIDS Day, Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Business Rates

In his October budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer slashed business rates for thousands of small shops, pubs and high street stores. Business rates are devolved to Scotland, so those reductions do not automatically apply here. Thanks to the Barnett formula, the Scottish National Party Government will receive £42 million as a result of the chancellor’s decision. Ahead of the Scottish budget next week, will the First Minister confirm that small firms in Scotland will feel the full benefit of that funding?

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work will set out the full budget to Parliament next week and our proposals on business rates will be part of that budget.

I hope that the following information will be of interest to Jackson Carlaw and other members. The Scottish Government currently offers the most generous package of business rates relief in the United Kingdom. It is currently worth £720 million a year, which is up from £660 million in 2017-18. The average value of relief received by businesses in Scotland this year is more than £4,500. The comparable figure for England is less than £4,000. Finally, even after the announcement in the chancellor’s budget, average relief in England will still be lower than in Scotland, and that is before the Scottish Government’s budget for next year.

I am not sure that this will be Jackson Carlaw’s most productive line of questioning, but I hope that I have been helpful in providing that information.

In response to the answer that the First Minister has just given, I say that business leaders in her Glasgow constituency have described rate bills as “crippling” and have warned her that 20,000 jobs are at risk in the hospitality industry alone.

Let me focus on just one business. The owners of the Capercaillie, a restaurant and bed and breakfast in Killin, contacted us this week. They need support and they need it now. They are not eligible to receive the Scottish Government’s small business bonus and have been told that their current business rates of £333 per month could rise to as much as £1,750 a month next year, which is an increase of more than £17,000 per year. The business employs 16 local people and is now under threat and being put up for sale because of that devastating rise in rates.

How does the First Minister expect small businesses across Scotland that are faced with those increases to survive?

I think that the situation that Jackson Carlaw describes is a result of the revaluation process, rather than a result of policy decisions that have been taken by the Scottish Government. As Jackson Carlaw should be aware, the revaluation process is independent of the Scottish Government. We have placed caps on increases for business in the hospitality industry, which was widely welcomed. I am sure that the finance secretary will have something to say about that when he sets out his budget next week.

None of that takes away from the fact that when we go back to the Scottish Government policy decisions, we see that the rates relief that we provide to businesses in Scotland is worth more, on average, than the comparable rates in England. We have the most generous package of relief in the UK, which, as I said, is worth £720 million. The small business bonus scheme has provided record relief to almost 120,000 businesses across Scotland this year and has lifted more than 100,000 recipients out of rates altogether, and the total relief under the small business bonus scheme has risen to £254 million. We provide a fair deal to Scottish businesses.

The budget for next year will be set out next week. As with any tax issue, if the Scottish Conservatives want us to cut taxes in the budget, it is incumbent on them to tell us from what public service they want us to take the money. Perhaps Jackson Carlaw would like to have a go at answering that question.

It is clear that the First Minister will not have impressed business leaders in her constituency with that response; she will not have impressed the business that is to close and is up for sale in Killin, either.

We see the impact of high non-domestic rates on firms and businesses, but what about the impact of higher domestic rates on households across Scotland? We all know that, next week, SNP members will again flutter their eyelashes at the Greens to get them over the line—and we all know that the Greens will do that. However, we also know the price of that, which Patrick Harvie has spelled out—it is a brand-new tax on households across Scotland. Will the First Minister make it clear today that there will be no new tax on the homes of hard-pressed ordinary Scots?

At the risk of repetition, I say that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work will set out the budget to Parliament next week, when we will see clearly that not just businesses but taxpayers across Scotland will continue to get a fair deal from the Scottish Government.

For many years, the Government froze council tax levels in Scotland. There is now a cap this year on council tax increases of 3 per cent, which is much lower than the maximum allowable increases in England under the Conservative Government. Average council tax bills in Scotland are also lower than those in England. Given that, perhaps Jackson Carlaw would do better to lecture his colleagues in the Westminster Government rather than this Government.

I come back to a central point, which Jackson Carlaw sidestepped in his previous question. If we had followed the Scottish Conservatives’ advice to us on tax when we set this year’s budget, we would now have £550 million less to invest in our national health service, the education system and local government services. The Tories never said where that money should come from. If they are standing here today, just under a week before the budget, asking for tax cuts, will Jackson Carlaw use his one opportunity that is left to tell us which public service we should raid to fund such cuts? If he does not do that, people all over Scotland will draw their own conclusions.

I will tell the First Minister where the money comes from—it comes from businesses such as the one in Killin that will close down as a result of her crass indifference.

Yesterday, in an interview with the Financial Times, Derek Mackay declared—ominously—that he wanted to set “tolerable levels” of tax in next week’s budget. He sensed that he could squeeze people more; I sense a shudder down the spine of taxpayers everywhere. Tracy Black, who is the director of the Confederation of British Industry Scotland, said:

“One-off tax raids may look appealing but there’s only so many times you can raid the cookie jar.”

The First Minister’s budget is going up—she has the money to spend. The fact is that no further tax rises are necessary and the Scottish Government has the cash. Is it not the right choice this year to commit to no further increases for Scottish taxpayers?

In yesterday’s Financial Times, Derek Mackay said that the decisions that we have taken on tax policy do not risk a reduction in revenue. When he was asked directly whether Scotland was some way from that, he said, “That is my sense.” How Jackson Carlaw can translate that into squeezing people with more taxes is beyond me, but I presume that he can explain that.

I will get back to the fundamentals. If we had followed Tory tax suggestions for this year’s budget, we would have £550 million less to invest in public services. If we followed what Jackson Carlaw appears to suggest for next year’s budget, hundreds of millions of pounds more would be removed. He has not yet said where we should take that money from—is it the national health service, front-line local government budgets or the education budget? We do not know, because the Tories refuse to tell us.

The last point is that it seems as if Jackson Carlaw is taking a different approach to that of his leader, Ruth Davidson. In May this year, she said:

“If that choice is between extra spending on the NHS or introducing further tax breaks ... I choose the NHS.”

Perhaps Jackson Carlaw needs to clarify. Does he have a different opinion from Ruth Davidson or is he changing the Tory position? The Tories come to this chamber week in and week out and call for extra spending on this service and that service, and then in the same breath they call for tax cuts. The Tory tax policy and the Tory spending policies are not credible, but then, we are in a position where the Tories generally are no longer credible.

Additional Support Needs Teachers

Can the First Minister tell the chamber whether, since she came into office, the number of specialist teachers who support children with additional support needs in Scotland’s schools is up or down?

I do not have that figure to hand. What I do know, and can tell Richard Leonard, is that in the last two years we have seen increases in the numbers of teachers working in Scotland’s education system. Next week, we will publish this year’s figures for the number of teachers in Scotland’s education system and Richard Leonard will be able to look carefully at them. There are more teachers working in education and delivering an excellent education system for Scotland’s young people and I welcome that.

What the First Minister did not say was that the number of specialist teachers who support children with ASN in Scotland’s schools is down—in fact, there are 122 fewer, under Nicola Sturgeon. At the same time, the number of pupils who have been identified as having additional support needs has gone up by over 40,000. Need is up by over 30 per cent, but the number of qualified teachers is down by over 6 per cent.

Yesterday, I spoke to the mother of a 13-year-old boy called Callum. Callum has low-functioning autism. He struggled last year with his move to high school. He was placed in a department of additional support. Callum’s family believes that the teacher in charge of his class did not have the appropriate training for it and therefore did not make the right decisions for Callum, his schedule, his work or his environment. His mother told me that:

“This resulted in Callum going into meltdown on a daily basis ... the teacher would shout and things would escalate further. Callum would be manhandled to a soft room; the door would be closed on Callum, which again escalated his anxiety.”

First Minister, can you tell Callum’s family why the number of specialist teachers has been cut under your Government?

I thank Richard Leonard for raising Callum’s case. The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills would be happy to talk to Callum’s family, to understand his experience and to consider the implications of that for the decisions that the Scottish Government takes.

I will come back to the central question that Richard Leonard asked me about the numbers of qualified people working with young people with additional support for learning needs. The staff who support pupils with ASN includes teachers, educational psychologists, behaviour support staff and home-school link workers—the type of staff who are so vital in ensuring that young people with ASN have a good educational experience. Richard Leonard asked me about numbers since I became First Minister. In the year 2014, there were 15,871 staff supporting pupils with ASN. In 2017, the most recent year for which we have figures, the number was 16,600. Therefore, the overall number of staff supporting pupils with additional support needs has increased. I think that that is important. We always want to do more. We want to understand the experience of young people like Callum, which is why the Deputy First Minister would be very happy, if Richard Leonard wants to pass on the details, to speak with that young man’s family.

Callum is only 13 once, so we need to get this right. There are children just like him across Scotland. What they need are qualified teachers; that has been identified in report after report. They cannot wait. They need action now. Week after week, the First Minister claims in Parliament that education is her top priority and, week after week, people in the real world—teachers and parents—get in touch with me to tell me about the impact of her cuts. That is why the budget that is presented to Parliament next week must guarantee no more cuts to schools, no more cuts to teachers and no more cuts to additional support for pupils. Will the First Minister give that guarantee?

I have already spoken about the increase in the number of staff who support pupils with additional support needs. In addition, as I said a moment ago, the overall number of teachers in our classrooms is increasing. That has been the case for two years in a row, and the most recent figures will be published next week. On top of that, education authorities have increased the funding for additional support needs. The local government financial statistics for 2016-17 showed that local authorities increased the funding for education. Of that, £610 million went on additional support for learning, the spending on which was £584 million in the previous year. That was a 2.3 per cent increase in real terms.

In addition—this is an important point—achievement in schools for pupils with additional support needs continues to rise. Despite their challenging circumstances, children and young people continue to achieve. More than 87 per cent of school leavers with additional support needs have a positive destination, which is an increase of five percentage points since 2011.

All that information is important, but that does not take away from experiences such as that of young Callum, which Richard Leonard narrated. That is why I repeat the offer that the Deputy First Minister would be very happy to speak to Callum’s family to understand that experience in more detail. We will continue to support local authorities to take the right decisions to provide the support for learning that such young people need and deserve.

We have a number of constituency supplementaries.

Michelin Factory (Update)

Can the First Minister provide an update to Parliament on the work of the Michelin action group, including the new joint agreement with Michelin, and on what the next steps forward are to maximise employment opportunities on the Michelin site in Dundee?

Derek Mackay convened a very productive third meeting of the Michelin Dundee action group last Friday. Michelin will work in partnership with the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise, Dundee City Council and others to develop the next phase of the company’s presence in Scotland. Our shared aim now is to secure a long-term future for the site and to generate significant employment there. We will work together to transform the site into a key location for new economic employment opportunities in manufacturing, remanufacturing, recycling and low-carbon transport, and we will ensure that the workforce is fully supported to benefit from those new opportunities.

Michelin will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Scottish Government to deliver on those commitments; we are looking to sign that before the end of this year. Derek Mackay will keep the chamber, including local members such as Shona Robison, fully updated on progress. I again thank Shona Robison and others for the very constructive role that they have played in reaching the point that we are now at.

Edinburgh Fire Station Closure

The First Minister may be aware of an alarming situation that arose at the weekend when a fire station in Edinburgh was forced to close due to a lack of available firefighters, while two appliances at two other stations were also stood down.

A representative of the Fire Brigades Union has said that firefighters are

“embarrassed at what this service has been reduced to”,

against a background in which there are 500 fewer firefighters in Scotland since the regional brigades were centralised.

Is the First Minister concerned about the safety implications of those shortages? Will she commit to fully supporting the fire service?

We fully support the fire service and we will continue to do so. In the budget for this year, the Scottish Government increased the spending capacity of the fire service by £15.5 million. We will continue to support the funding of the fire service, and we will continue to support it in its efforts to transform the way in which it delivers services.

I think that the member is asking me about the closure of the Marionville fire station. That station was closed on Saturday 1 December. Of course, the fire service maintains a service to allow it to respond to every emergency call, and it is fully committed to addressing any crewing challenges, wherever they occur.

Fire appliances can be safely deployed only if a full crew is available. There are instances where appliances are off the run if crew levels fall short. That might be as a result of, for example, unplanned absence such as sick leave, or planned activities such as crew training in specialist activities.

The strength of a national service is that it allows the mobilisation of appliances and personnel from other stations across the area or further afield if required. It is worth looking at what Her Majesty’s fire service Inspectorate said, which was that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is

“operationally effective and more equipped to deal with major incidents ... than the previous legacy services.”

We are never complacent about the number of fire officers, and we will continue to support the fire service. The number of firefighters per head of population is higher in Scotland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, there are 11.8 firefighters per 10,000 population. In England, that figure is just 6.3. We will continue to ensure fair funding for our firefighters and to do everything that we can to support them in doing the excellent job that they do to keep us safe.

Social Care (Edinburgh)

This week, the Care Inspectorate produced a progress report into services for older people in Edinburgh, following its damning report 18 months ago. Its findings are stark and deeply distressing—the city is failing hundreds of its most vulnerable residents. When NHS Lothian repeatedly failed to improve its performance, the Government sent in a task force. Is it not time that the Government sent in a task force to fix Edinburgh’s social care crisis?

I expect all recommendations or observations of the Care Inspectorate to be heeded by health boards and indeed by integration joint boards. It is absolutely essential that NHS Lothian does that in relation to older people. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will have regular discussions with the health board about that. I will ask her to correspond with the member to update her on those discussions and to take forward any further concerns that the member has.

Energy Supplies (Disconnection)

A number of my constituents in the Wyndford estate have been disconnected from their community hot water and heating supply by Scottish and Southern Energy. That has happened for various reasons, but several people are struggling with debt and bills. One constituent, a lone parent, has been staying with friends because her house is so cold. She has offered £600 towards clearing her debts, but SSE has previously insisted that she clears 50 per cent of her debts, alongside a £272 reconnection charge. After some pushing, SSE might—might—now show some flexibility about reconnecting her.

As we enter the Christmas period, will the First Minister urge SSE and other providers to be as flexible as possible, to show some compassion and to do what they can to help, not punish, those who are struggling to heat their homes?

I thank Bob Doris for raising an important issue. I am always very concerned to hear of any disconnections, especially at this time of year, when temperatures are low.

The Government will always prioritise tackling fuel poverty, and we offer assistance to households through our funding for home energy Scotland. The Scottish Government is also preparing to bring forward regulations for heat networks in Scotland. We have had positive discussions with the UK Government to consider how provisions in reserved areas, such as consumer protection, can be implemented in Scotland.

In response to Bob Doris’s specific question, I would call upon SSE and all energy suppliers to be as flexible as possible and fair and compassionate in dealing with any customers who are struggling to pay their fuel bills. The most important priority for any of us should be to ensure that people have heat and are warm during the winter.

Landfill Tax

Is the First Minister aware that companies in the waste management sector, such as Patersons of Greenoakhill Ltd in Coatbridge, which have complied meticulously with the provisions relating to the landfill tax since it was devolved to Revenue Scotland in 2015, now face retrospective tax of £1.2 million and penalties of £700,000 for regulations that were not confirmed until 2016? Does she consider that acceptable?

I do not have all the details of that issue in front of me, but if Margaret Mitchell wants to send me more details, I will have the relevant minister look into that and correspond with her as soon as possible. I give her an assurance and an undertaking today that we will look at that as quickly as it is feasible to do.

Climate Change

I am pleased that the First Minister chose to go to Poland this week for the global climate change conference. As I raise this issue, I have no doubt that she will again seek praise for the progress that has been made and complain that the Greens should stop demanding more action.

Scotland has indeed made a decent start, and we are ahead of the pack. However, as global emissions reach yet another all-time high, being ahead of such a complacent pack is no great claim. In the new year, the Parliament will debate the new Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill, which sets no date for a full net zero greenhouse gas emissions target, proposes no increased urgency in the critical period over the coming decade and does not commit to the radical new actions that are needed to achieve that progress.

For the Greens, the case is clear. The bill must be upgraded to a climate emergency bill, with net zero by 2040, emissions cuts of more than three quarters by 2030 and a radical new programme of action to be rolled out within a year. If the Government does not back a real climate emergency bill, how will the First Minister, who believes in the principle of climate justice, respond not just to me but to the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, which has challenged her to accept that her current bill does not go far enough?

I thank Patrick Harvie for raising this issue. It is, as David Attenborough said so eloquently in Poland earlier this week, the biggest issue faced by the world and the whole of humanity. I do not criticise the Greens for challenging us to go further; it is right that they do so. Every single day, we challenge ourselves to go further and, indeed, to go as far as we possibly can as fast as we possibly can.

When I was in Poland earlier this week—the environment secretary will be there early next week—I was struck again by the fact that experts from many other countries and the United Nations, who are not susceptible to Government spin on this issue and know exactly what we are doing in Scotland, think that we are leading the world and acting in line with the Paris commitments.

Earlier this year, Laurent Fabius described the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill as a

“concrete application of the Paris Agreement”.

That praise is based not just on the headlines of the targets in the bill, which are carbon neutrality by 2050 and obligations on us to get to net zero for all greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as we feasibly can, but on the more rigorous approach that we are taking to meeting those targets. We are the only country in the world with annual statutory targets and one of the few countries to include aviation and shipping and, of course, there is our emphasis on domestic effort instead of international credits.

However, we want to go further and we are anxious to do so. That is why we have asked the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change to provide updated advice before Parliament votes on the bill. That advice, which will be on not just the long-term targets but the nearer-term targets, will be available to all members. It is right that we continue to debate this and to challenge ourselves and each other, but nobody—absolutely nobody—should doubt Scotland’s ambition and commitment to continuing to be a world leader on this most serious of moral obligations.

The First Minister was indeed present when David Attenborough warned that

“the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

I believe that she takes that warning seriously. She also says that Scotland gets praise for the actions that it is taking; I, too, give that praise. I say again that Scotland has made a decent start.

However, we need to join the dots between the warnings about the need for increased urgency in response to this emergency and the actions that are being taken, because we are not yet close to where we need to be. The science is clear that the critical period for progress is the next 12 years, but the Government’s bill proposes no change to the existing targets in that period. There is a growing awareness that what we are doing to our world threatens all our futures, and that changing light bulbs and even cars will not cut it; we need to change our whole economy.

The fossil-fuel age must be allowed to die, but the Scottish Government is still handing tens of millions of pounds to the oil and gas industry. This week, while the First Minister was still in Poland for the climate change conference, her colleagues at Westminster were arguing the case for yet another Tory tax break for the fossil-fuel industry, handing tens of billions of pounds over the coming decades to the giant businesses that are lining their own pockets while causing this crisis. Is it not clear that we need a stronger bill on climate change—a climate emergency bill, as the Greens propose—to accelerate our progress, to end the handouts to the climate criminals and to show the urgency that so many people understand is needed?

I do not criticise anybody’s passion on this issue. I share that passion, that concern and that ambition for Scotland to do the right thing.

As First Minister I have a responsibility and a duty, which I share with the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, to be ambitious in our targets, but we also have a duty to ensure that we have credible plans in place to meet those targets, and we take that work seriously.

The other point, which is relevant to the oil and gas point that Patrick Harvie raised—I understand why he did so—is that of a just transition. One of the things that Scotland was praised for in Poland earlier this week was the establishment of the just transition commission. We want to learn from previous economic disruptions and transitions that have left behind the most vulnerable in our society so that, as we lead the world in the transition into a carbon-neutral future, we do so in a way that does not risk people’s jobs, which ensures that they transfer into other jobs and which has the justice of that transition very much at its heart.

These are important issues. I was not actually present when David Attenborough spoke, but I have no hesitation in agreeing with his view that this is the biggest issue that we face. We might all be consumed by Brexit at the moment, but the issue that we are talking about is the biggest issue that the planet faces, and all of us must live up to that moral responsibility. I am determined that the Scottish Government will do so. However, we will do so in a meaningful way so that, when we set targets, we are confident that we have the plans in place to meet them. I suspect that we will have a robust debate in the chamber about the new bill, and I welcome that, because I think that those discussions will mean that, at the end of the process, we will end up with a bill that is right and which the whole Parliament can take pride in uniting behind.

I encourage members, and the First Minister, to ask slightly shorter questions and give slightly more succinct answers.


I was pleased that, yesterday, four parties in this Parliament put aside their differences in order to oppose Brexit. I was also pleased that this Parliament has backed the people’s vote. The Prime Minister’s deal faces certain defeat next week and I have never felt more confident that we can stop Brexit. Therefore, I was disappointed last night to see the Scottish National Party leader in Westminster arguing for the Irish backstop to be extended to Scotland—that is the discredited Irish backstop from Theresa May’s discredited Brexit deal. Can the First Minister assure me that that is not the policy of the Scottish Government?

Yet again, I will try in very simple terms to explain to Willie Rennie the Brexit position of the Scottish Government and the SNP. I say this more in sorrow than in anger, given that Willie Rennie and I agree on the issue of Brexit, but it is regrettable that he keeps trying to find points of disagreement when it would be more powerful for us just to come together and unequivocally agree.

Like Willie Rennie, I would prefer that Brexit does not happen. I want Scotland and the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union. The only difference between us is that, if the rest of the UK decides to go ahead and leave the EU, I think that Scotland should still have the right not to be dragged out of the EU against our will, which, of course, is a right that we would have if we were an independent country.

However, with the responsibilities of Government that I have, I must also contemplate how we protect Scotland if the UK leaves the EU and drags Scotland out with it. That is why I have always said that, in those circumstances, if we are in the realms of looking for the least worst options, staying in the single market and customs union falls into that category. I have argued that case consistently for two years. That does not take away from the fact that I would much rather that the whole of the UK stayed in the European Union.

We know why the Irish backstop is in place. I hope that that backstop is not activated because, like Willie Rennie, I hope that we now have an opportunity to reverse Brexit. However, if it is activated, the worst possible situation for Scotland to be in would be for us to be at a competitive disadvantage with Northern Ireland. That is why we need to have at least the same relationship with the single market and customs union that Northern Ireland is going to have.

Anybody in any doubt about that only had to listen to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in Belfast at the end of last week, saying that the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal gave Northern Ireland—I think that I am directly quoting her here—an “unrivalled” advantage in attracting foreign direct investment. That is the risk to Scotland in a nutshell. To summarise—I know that I am taking too long, Presiding Officer—we want to stay in the EU but, if that cannot be achieved, we want to see solutions that do the least damage to Scotland. Surely Willie Rennie can agree with that.

The First Minister might want to try to explain all that to her Westminster leader. She should not try to ride both horses. We have the Conservatives on the run—even the Tories do not agree with the Tories in this chamber. We should not be hunting for a compromise that has already been discredited.

Every kind of Brexit will damage the economy. That is why we should be opposing every kind of Brexit. I am frustrated that I need to keep raising this issue with the First Minister. I know that she wants to be reasonable, but how is it possible to be reasonable when it puts jobs at risk? I plead with the First Minister to reject all and every kind of Brexit.

Again, I say that I oppose all and every kind of Brexit. I do not want Brexit to happen; I want Scotland and the whole of the UK to stay in the EU. Where I would agree with Willie Rennie is that I think that there is a greater prospect of achieving that aim now than there has appeared to be at any other time over the past two and a half years, which is why the SNP will do everything that it can to bring that about. However, Willie Rennie describes me as riding both horses but—do you know what?—when you are First Minister, you work out how to protect Scotland’s best interests in all possible circumstances. If we cannot keep the UK in the EU, I have an obligation—which I accept that Willie Rennie does not have—to look at what will then best protect Scotland’s interests. If he cannot see that, that is perhaps a very good reason why everybody hopes that he will never be standing here as First Minister.

Finally, it surely cannot escape Willie Rennie’s notice that the only reason why we are standing here at all having these discussions is that Scotland finds itself possibly being taken out of the EU against its will. That would not be possible if Scotland were an independent country. Whatever the outcome of this Brexit process—and we both hope that it ends with us staying in the EU—if Willie Rennie wants to make sure that Scotland never faces this prospect again, the sooner he backs independence for Scotland, the better.

There are still a number of supplementaries. We are probably not going to get through very many, but we will try.

Real Living Wage (Prestwick Airport)

On Saturday, The Herald reported that Glasgow Prestwick Airport Ltd was advertising posts that were paid less than the real living wage—at £7.83 an hour, significantly less than the £9 rate of the real living wage. That is unacceptable given that the airport is owned by the Government and the First Minister and her ministers are always willing to talk up their so-called support for the real living wage. Will the First Minister therefore ensure that that advert is withdrawn and that the posts are readvertised at a rate of at least £9 an hour—the real living wage?

The Scottish Government fully supports the policy of the real living wage and we expect and encourage all employers to pay it. Of course, Prestwick Airport is run at arm’s length from the Scottish Government but, as I understand it—and I will have the transport secretary write to the member with more detail on this—Prestwick Airport is committed to the real living wage and is working towards having it paid to all those who work at the airport. The sooner it gets there, the better. We encourage all employers, without exception, to pay that rate to their workers because it is a core part of the fair work agenda to which we should all be committed and to which this Government is committed.

Universal Credit

As highlighted in the Daily Record this morning, universal credit’s minimum five-week waiting period for payments means that anyone making a claim this week will need to survive until January without the money that they need to live and to which they are entitled. Will the First Minister write urgently to the Department for Work and Pensions asking it to ensure that hardship payments are made available to everyone at the point of claiming? This utterly disgraceful situation has to be sorted out.

I am grateful to Bruce Crawford for raising this very important issue. It is disgraceful that a family applying this week for universal credit—by definition, a family that is probably already struggling to make ends meet—will have to wait until after the Christmas period before they get the money to which they are entitled. How the Tories sleep at night knowing that is beyond me. That five-week waiting time is unacceptable at the best of times, but at this time of year it is particularly unacceptable.

I saw the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday trying to suggest that there is not a five-week waiting time. I suggest that she gets out and about and speaks to more people applying for universal credit than she clearly has, because people in the real world know exactly what the situation is.

In response to Bruce Crawford’s question, I say that, yes, we will write to the DWP making that point, but we write to the DWP repeatedly on these matters and it does not listen. I will make a point that I have made many times before: the sooner we are in a situation where we do not have to write to the DWP asking it to do the right thing but have responsibility for these matters in this Parliament, the better off all of us will be.

Climate Change (International Work)

To ask the First Minister how Scotland is working with the international community to tackle climate change. (S5F-02865)

I was pleased to take Scotland’s strong messages on climate change to the international talks in Poland earlier this week. During my time there, I participated in an event with the United Nations secretary general, and took part in Al Gore’s “24 Hours of Reality” to raise awareness of the actions that we all need to take to address what Sir David Attenborough recently referred to as “humanity’s greatest threat.”

While I was there, I also announced funding for the Marrakech partnership for global climate action, which supports implementation of the Paris agreement, and a £1 million partnership with the Solar Impulse Foundation’s “1,000 solutions” project. That builds on our recent work with the international community, in which we have contributed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Talanoa dialogue, and to the European Union’s consultation on its long-term climate strategy.

As the First Minister said at the 24th conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—COP24—in Katowice, Governments, businesses and individuals have a moral obligation to do what they can to reduce and mitigate the effects of climate change. Will the First Minister outline what pressure her Government has put on the United Kingdom Government to join Scotland in finding practical and just solutions in working towards net zero emissions as soon as possible?

During the process of the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill in May, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform wrote to the appropriate UK minister of state calling on the UK to work with Scotland on reaching net zero emissions as soon as possible. That is necessary because—as, I am sure, all members know—there are several areas in which Scotland simply does not have the devolved competence to act unilaterally: for instance, decarbonising the gas grid, which is controlled by the UK Government.

We wrote again in September to restate the calls in advance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report, and we will continue to press the UK Government to match the ambition of the Scottish Government, so that we can continue to work together towards net zero emissions as soon as possible, which I am happy to restate is the goal and ambition of the Scottish Government.

Universities (Access)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that student access to Scotland’s universities is based on the principles of equity and excellence. (S5F-02842)

The Scottish Government is firmly committed to equal access to higher education. Every child growing up in Scotland, regardless of their background, should have an equal chance of going to university. That is why we established the commission on widening access and accepted all 34 of its recommendations in full.

The latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data shows that the number of Scots getting a place at university is at a record high, as is the number of students from deprived areas. That is testament to our commitment to maintaining tuition-fee-free university education for eligible students from all backgrounds.

We should welcome the most recent statistics that show those trends. However, we do not welcome the fact that recent statistics show that there are serious shortages of graduates in key sectors. One in four general practitioner practices has a vacancy, hospitals are short of 2,400 nurses and midwives, and half of Scottish businesses say that they have a digital skills gap.

The Scottish Government has been receiving letters from the parents of an increasing number of extremely well qualified Scotland-domiciled pupils who are being turned away from university in Scotland, even when places might be available, because they are Scotland-domiciled and fall foul of the Scottish National Party’s capping policy. Does the First Minister think that that is fair and beneficial to the economy in Scotland?

Before we move on, let me dwell on the latest statistics for a moment, because I hope that members across the chamber will want to welcome them. The statistics that have been issued by UCAS this morning show that the gap in getting places at university between those from the richest and those from the poorest backgrounds is now the smallest on record, and that it has been closing for the past three consecutive years.

On the wider question, the way in which Liz Smith characterises the situation betrays a misunderstanding of how the Scottish Government’s policy works. A set number of places are funded by the Scottish Government every year for Scotland-domiciled students. That is not a new policy. Those places are ring fenced; they are not subject to competition from students from the rest of the United Kingdom or international students.

The most important point, of course, is that the total number of funded places for Scotland-domiciled students in Scottish universities has increased. It increased in 2018-19 by 715 places over the previous year. Since 2012, there has been an increase of almost 2,500 places, with many of those having been targeted at areas including teacher education and nursing. The latest statistics show that the number of Scotland-domiciled students entering first-year medicine courses at Scottish higher education institutions has also increased.

Of course, resources are always finite: going back to our earlier discussions, I note that they will be even more finite if we follow the Tories’ tax policies. We will continue to take decisions that support record numbers of Scottish young people getting to university.

The final point that I will make is that I suspect that shortages right now of skilled workers in key sectors of the economy have a lot more to do with the Tories’ Brexit policy than with anything else.

I am conscious that a large number of members whom I was not able to call wished to ask supplementary questions today. I appeal to all members to keep their questions succinct, and to the First Minister to keep the answers similarly succinct. We will get more members in, that way.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  

12:51 On resuming—