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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 7, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 07 October 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Mental Health Day 2021, Portfolio Question Time, Heat in Buildings Strategy, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill, Withdrawal of Scottish Statutory Instruments, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Point of Order, Decision Time, Correction


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time

I intend to take some constituency and general supplementary questions after questions 2 and 3. Members who wish to ask supplementaries should press their request-to-speak buttons during question 2. I will keep a note of members who press their buttons and may take further supplementaries at the end, if we have time. Members who wish to ask a supplementary to questions 4 to 6 should press their buttons during the relevant question.


Drug Deaths

Every day in Scotland, four people lose their lives as a result of drug misuse. That is four lives every day cut needlessly short and families mourning the loss of loved ones every single day in Scotland. That is a crisis and a national shame. The longer we wait and the longer we fail to act, the more lives will be lost. People are looking to the Parliament to deliver solutions to halt that crisis and save lives.

Today, I published the Scottish Conservatives’ right to recovery (Scotland) bill to guarantee that everyone who needs treatment for addiction can get it. I shared that with the First Minister earlier this morning.

In June, the First Minister said that she would

“look with an open mind at any proposals”

that are brought forward,

“including proposals for legislation.”—[Official Report, 17 June 2021; c 5.]

Will she commit to her Government fully supporting our proposal to tackle Scotland’s drug deaths crisis?

I will certainly repeat what I said before. We will look at any bill very carefully. I received the consultation this morning, and I have an open mind on it. As a point of fact, unless I am mistaken, I understand that Douglas Ross did not publish a bill this morning; indeed, the consultation that was sent to my office stated that, at this stage, there is no bill but only a draft proposal. I am not criticising that; it is important that legislation is properly consulted on. We will consider the proposals in the consultation and, as and when that develops into actual proposed legislation, we will consider that in detail.

I think—perhaps this is a point of agreement—that speed of action now is essential. We all know that legislation takes time to go through the proper processes. I looked briefly at the document that was sent to me this morning and, on the face of it, it does not appear to suggest anything that goes beyond what we are already doing, although it suggests that those things should be enshrined in legislation. I will take funding as an example. Part of the consultation is in regard to the establishment of a new national funding scheme that is separate from alcohol and drug partnerships, but it does not appear to suggest additional funding. For example, it says that what is proposed is

“well within £50 million annual spending”

that is already being delivered.

We will continue with the action that we have set out. I do not think that it is right to wait for legislation, but I repeat that we remain open minded to looking at the details of legislation when it comes from the consultation that has been published today.

The First Minister will be aware that I am going through the non-Government bills unit’s detailed process and that I am following the advice of parliamentary officials. I am very grateful that they have provided that advice to me and the Conservative Party.

On the issue of funding, we know that the money that is currently being spent on the issue to try to save people’s lives is not getting to those who need it most. That is why we are saying that there are alternative ways to do it. I hope that the First Minister will continue to be positive in her response to the consultation and the legislation that comes forward.

Earlier this week, the First Minister proposed that we go on a joint visit. She knows that I immediately agreed to that offer. A key author of the bill and his colleague, the manager of Bluevale community club in Haghill, have suggested that the First Minister and I visit them to see the need for a right to recovery. Volunteers at that club pointed out that it is in the second most deprived area in Scotland. People in places such as Haghill are 18 times more likely to die from drugs than people in the most affluent areas are. Bluevale is trying to build a whole community and a whole-systems response to the drugs crisis, and the bill would help it to get even more lives back on track. Will the First Minister agree to a joint visit with me to Bluevale so that we can find some common ground and get around the table with those on the front line to hear why the bill is so desperately needed?

I will come to that point in a moment, but I want to complete the point that I addressed in my first answer.

I think that I said explicitly that I was not criticising the process that Douglas Ross is going through, but in his initial question to me he said—I think—that he had published a bill this morning, and I was simply making the point that that is not the case.

We will consider the consultation fully and with an open mind, and when that is translated into an actual bill, as I expect that it will be in the fullness of time, we will consider that in the normal parliamentary processes that all legislation goes through. I do have an open mind and I hope that we can find maximum common ground. I suspect that there will continue to be issues that divide us on the correct responses to the drugs crisis, but I hope that none of us in this chamber allow those issues to get in the way of the areas where we can build agreement and consensus.

On the issue of a visit, I am glad that Douglas Ross accepted my suggestion earlier in the week that we go together to a working-class community. My office will be in touch to take that forward shortly. I am certainly willing to meet organisations and, indeed, individuals affected by drugs misuse, as I have previously.

This is an equally important point and I hope that it is one that will be accepted by Douglas Ross: the issues faced by working-class communities go beyond drugs. Indeed, drug misuse can, in some cases, be a symptom of deeper issues—poverty, for example—so I am sure that Douglas Ross will agree that, if we are to undertake such a joint endeavour, it will also be important to meet, for example, those who have just had their universal credit withdrawn, driving them deeper into the poverty conditions that then sometimes lead to the other issues that we are talking about. So, I look forward to finalising the details of that and to meeting people who will, no doubt, have things to say about Scottish Government policy, what we are doing and what more we should do, but also people who are being deeply affected each and every day right now by United Kingdom Government policy that is doing a lot of damage in working-class communities the length and breadth of the country.

I am grateful to the First Minister for that answer, and I give an unconditional acceptance to an invitation to meet any community anywhere at any time, because this is an issue of national importance. I am raising the issue of drugs deaths today because of the consultation that I have brought forward. I know that the First Minister has said this a couple of times, but if I could just introduce a bill right now—[Interruption.]—no, it is important that everyone understands this. If I could introduce a bill right now, I would, but the non-Government bills unit, which the Parliament supports, sets out a very specific process for those not in Government to go forward with.

We heard from the drugs minister and others in the Government that they were waiting to see our proposals, and our proposals are in the consultation document that was launched today. This bill has been built by front-line experts like FAVOR Scotland and has the backing of recovery groups across the country. One of those is—[Interruption.]—I am sorry, but this is—

Continue, Mr Ross.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

This is a serious issue, because I was saying that what we are putting forward has been backed by recovery groups across the country. One of those is Recovery Enterprises Scotland in Kilmarnock, whose founder, Mark Gallagher, says that people have given up trying to access treatment because they see the system as broken.

That is why he believes that we need to take forward the proposal that I have launched today. Will the First Minister listen to those experts and, instead of delaying any longer, commit her Government to backing our bill at stage 1 so that Parliament can properly scrutinise it? The First Minister’s concern seems to be the lack of scrutiny. Her saying right now that she would approve our proposals at stage 1 would give Parliament the opportunity to look at them in detail.

I am genuinely trying to be helpful and to build some agreement here. I have said twice that I understand the process that Douglas Ross is going through. My comments are not meant to be a criticism. I would simply ask him, in return, to understand the proper and due process that any responsible Government has to go through in considering legislation. I cannot engage with a bill that does not yet exist, for the reasons that we have heard. We will engage with the proposals in the consultation. There is one that, having looked at it briefly already this morning, I would immediately welcome. For example, when it comes to treatment, the consultation document seems to recognise that we need a range of different interventions and services and that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.

That is a welcome step forward from the Conservatives, who previously have appeared to suggest that the only solution was residential rehabilitation. Already, I see the emergence of some common ground and I genuinely want to treat the consultation with the respect that it deserves. However, equally, Douglas Ross must know that I cannot stand here and say that I will vote for a bill—giving it carte blanche—when, by his own admission and for understandable reasons, that bill does not yet exist. Therefore, let us try and move forward with a genuine determination to build consensus where we can.

My final point is one that I made earlier: there is a real need to move forward at pace with this work. With the best will in the world—as we are demonstrating today—legislation takes time and it does so for good reason. I do not want to wait for legislation, however merited or otherwise it might turn out to be. We have set out a very detailed plan of action, which is backed by significant additional resources and has, at its heart, guaranteed standards of treatment, including access to same-day treatment. We will get on with that plan and if, as a Parliament, we think that legislation can help to underpin it in the future, I am open minded about that, as I have said many times. However, if we want to build consensus, let us both understand the processes that we have to go through, in order that—hopefully, in the interests of people across the country—we can get there.

That is a fair comment, but stage 1 of a bill is about agreeing its general principles, and the First Minister has already looked at some of the principles that we are putting forward. [Interruption.] She has already looked at the issues around funding and the areas where there is agreement.

Although there seems to be opposition from her back benchers, I am more encouraged by her response than that of those behind her. Our proposal is also supported by grieving families and, if Scottish National Party members want to talk over grieving families, shame on them. I will speak about the case of Vicky, who has lost two brothers to drugs and lost Stewart just last year. A father of twins, he was only 43 and he came from a loving family. Vicky said that Stewart tried to get treatment, but that

“He was moved from pillar to post. He was passed about by the system. He was treated like he didn’t matter.”

Vicky is backing the proposals. She cannot know for sure that the bill would have saved Stewart, but she told us:

“If we had this bill, I wonder how many people would still be here?”

The First Minister was absolutely right to say that we have to move forward at pace, so will she listen to the experts and the grieving families and ensure that urgent parliamentary time is given to consider our proposals on such an urgent issue?

I think that Douglas Ross has accepted that I am genuinely trying not to make this exchange politically divisive, because, although we do not agree on all the detail or the background, we all agree that this Parliament and Government have much work to do.

I will try and make some progress here. I cannot agree to vote for a bill that does not yet exist, because I do not know what the bill will say in detail. I received the consultation only this morning and I will study it in more detail later, but I have had a chance to have a brief look at it and, if its broad proposals translate into the general principles of a bill, it is likely that we will want to give that bill a fair wind through Parliament, in order to see whether we can reach consensus on the detail. Given that we are talking about a bill that is not yet in existence, any reasonable person would think that that is a reasonable response from a First Minister who has a duty to make sure that we go through all the right processes. I hope that we can agree that that is a reasonable starting point.

With regard to the fact that we have a duty—which I feel very strongly—to make sure that what has not worked well in our drug treatment services in the past is rectified for the future, we also have an obligation to make sure that we listen to lived experience and use it to drive proposals. My condolences and sympathies are with Vicky on the loss of Stewart and with every other family who has lost someone to drugs. They are the ones we must keep in mind, but part of keeping them in mind and living up to our responsibility to them is making sure that we think seriously about what has to be done. We are demonstrating today the time that it takes, understandably, even to get a draft bill before Parliament so, while we consider that legislation, we are moving on with various measures now. That is the commitment that the Government has given and will continue to take forward.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek clarification. The objections that I made from a sedentary position when Douglas Ross was speaking were because he seemed to be trying to bypass the normal governmental rules and processes for a bill, which we all have to go through, whereby there is a proposal and a consultation and then a bill is introduced. I seek clarification about those exchanges. Is Mr Ross trying to bypass the process that other members have to go through?

I thank Ms Grahame for her point of order. The member and other members will be well aware of the processes that a bill has to go through, and that will apply in this case as it would for any other bill.


Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (Water Contamination)

Two years ago, I stood in the chamber and revealed what brave national health service whistleblowers had uncovered about water contamination at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow. It was met with denial, delay and attempts to bully into silence by the health board. Two years on, we have had a discredited independent review, a case note review, the commencement of a public inquiry and on-going police investigations. Every step of the way, we have had to fight the system to bit by bit, piece by piece, uncover the truth.

Thanks to the case note review, we know that two children’s deaths were linked to hospital-acquired infections. There is now a criminal investigation into one of those deaths, that of Milly Main. However, the health board referred Milly’s case to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service only when her family applied for a fatal accident inquiry.

The health board did not take that opportunity to refer the case of the second child, nor did it take the opportunity to refer it when the case note review was published. I met the Crown Office, which did not know the details of the second child and had to ask me to provide them. I could do so only thanks, once again, to the bravery of whistleblowers. That case note review was commissioned by the Scottish Government. Why was that child’s death not reported for investigation?

These are serious matters that the Government has taken and continues to take seriously. The Government commissioned the independent review, and I do not accept that it is discredited, although the Government also accepted that there had to be further process to ensure that parents and families who had been affected by what happened at the Queen Elizabeth hospital knew that it had been fully and properly investigated. The Government established the public inquiry that is under way. It will take its course and is completely independent of Government and, of course, of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. As Anas Sarwar has said, there is also a live police investigation into some of the cases that have been discussed in the chamber before.

For all those reasons, it would not be right, appropriate or helpful to the families concerned for me to get further into the detail of any of those cases, given the independent processes that are under way. However, as I have said before, I want to leave no one in any doubt about how seriously the Government and I take these issues, or about how determined we are, through the processes that we have established in the form of the public inquiry, to get to the answers and the truth. Then all of us, as a Parliament, will have the opportunity to reflect on those findings and consider what further action is necessary.

I think that the First Minister misses the fundamental issue here, which is that campaigners, families and whistleblowers are still having to take on the system to get answers, instead of the system working in their favour.

At the heart of this is grieving families. We know that one of the families had not been told the truth about why their child died and had not been contacted. The First Minister gave Parliament a personal commitment that every effort would be made to contact that family. I would appreciate an update on progress with that.

There is a fundamental issue here. In the one case, Milly’s family is fighting for answers, and they now have a criminal investigation into her death. The other family had been kept in the dark, and until now there has been no criminal investigation into their child’s death. Those cases should not be being treated differently. It should not take a family publicly fighting for answers—that is not acceptable. Criminal investigations should have been launched into both deaths as soon as the circumstances became clear. Why is it still falling to whistleblowers, families and campaigners to do the job of the health board and the job of the Scottish Government for them?

I have the greatest respect for whistleblowers, and I have the greatest respect and the greatest sympathy for the families. I do not hesitate to say that.

I go again to the point that I made earlier: it was the Government, through the previous health secretary Jeane Freeman, who commissioned and established the public inquiry. The public inquiry is now under way. There are criminal investigations under way. It is, rightly, not up to me which cases are investigated from a criminal perspective and which are not. It is up to the police and the Crown Office.

As I said in my previous answer, it is important to try not to divide on such issues, but to recognise the actions of, in this case, Anas Sarwar. I know that he cares deeply about the families involved. That is why I also know, or at least hope, that he will recognise that the worst thing I could do, standing here as First Minister, in light of the independent processes that are under way—a statutory public inquiry and criminal investigations—would be to in any way inadvertently prejudice either of those processes by getting further into the detail right now.

We have done what I think is the right thing in establishing the independent inquiry. It is entirely for the police and the Crown Office to determine what criminal investigations are undertaken. It is incumbent on all of us who take the issues seriously and want to get to the answers that we allow those processes to take their course. Of course, when we have the findings from them, the Parliament will have not just the opportunity but the duty to reflect on any further action that is necessary.

I note that the First Minister did not give an update on the progress in finding the family, and I would appreciate that in her response to this question. However, I think that she is also missing the fundamental point that it should not take a family having to campaign in a newspaper to get a child’s death investigated, which is fundamentally what has happened. Milly Main’s death is being investigated because of the bravery of Kimberly Darroch in going on television and speaking in a newspaper about what happened to her daughter. The other family does not have the opportunity to do that because they do not know what happened to their child. That cannot be a reason not to have a criminal investigation into that child’s death. Months ago, I asked the First Minister to help to find the family and, years ago, I asked her to hold the health board to account. Every time we ask the Government to take action, little happens. Every bit of progress has been fought for by the families and the campaigners.

I note what the First Minister says about the public inquiry, but it was hard fought for and won by the families and the campaigners, frankly, not by the Government. Nicola Sturgeon was health secretary when the hospital was commissioned, she was First Minister when the hospital was opened and she has been in charge throughout this scandal. Surely there must come a point when it stops being whistleblowers, families and campaigners taking on the state in order to get answers and, instead, the state takes the side of the whistleblowers, families and campaigners to find the answers and get justice. We cannot wait for the outcome of the public inquiry for families to get justice. That could take years. Words of sympathy from the First Minister are, frankly, wearing thin. What is it going to take for Nicola Sturgeon to take responsibility, own the crisis, get a grip of this rotten health board and get the families the truth and justice that they deserve?

Before I go on to that question, I apologise for not addressing the point about the efforts to trace the second family. Last time Anas Sarwar asked about that, I set out the steps that the health board had taken to try to locate the family. As I understand it, the board has not located the family. As I understand it, that is not for the want of trying and effort, and appropriate steps will continue to be taken.

On the issue of criminal investigations, it is a fundamental point of constitutional democracy that it is not up to the First Minister of the country—at any time, whoever he or she may be—to determine what cases are and are not subject to criminal investigation. It would be deeply improper if that was the case.

On the question that Anas Sarwar has just posed to me again, a Government that has established a full, independent, statutory public inquiry cannot be said to be trying to hide away from getting to the truth. We want the answers so that, if there are issues to be addressed with the health board or in Government policy, they can be addressed, and, fundamentally, so that the families, the most important thing of all, get the answers that they want.

However, It is not credible for Anas Sarwar to say that a public inquiry was fought for and campaigned for—I accept that, although the Government did establish the inquiry—and then in the next breath say that the inquiry does not matter, we cannot wait for it and we have to do something different. It is an independent statutory public inquiry. Those who have a genuine interest in getting to the answers and the truth now have a duty to allow that inquiry to properly do its work. That is what the Government will do and I would suggest that that is what Anas Sarwar needs to do, as well.


Pig Cull

The First Minister will be aware of the Prime Minister’s outrageous and condescending response on “The Andrew Marr Show” and elsewhere regarding the cull and incineration of pigs that should have gone into our food system. Does she agree that that waste is unacceptable, as is the financial and emotional toll on the farmers involved, and that having a robust supply chain is completely undermined by the lack of a trained workforce?

Yes. It was deeply regrettable that the Prime Minister treated the very serious issues of animal welfare with such disdain on Sunday, just as it was outrageous that he made an entire speech to his party conference yesterday and did not mention the fact that his Government took away £20 a week from the poorest families across the country on that very day.

The Government is monitoring the specific issue that Jim Fairlie raised very carefully. At the heart of that issue is labour shortages, which are impacting on many sectors of our economy. Those labour shortages have been significantly exacerbated by the ending of freedom of movement that came about because of Brexit.

Although we will do what we can through employability and skills work to try to address that, fundamentally, the answers and the solutions have to lie with the United Kingdom Government. I call on it to take urgent action to ensure that the problems that are already being experienced do not get even worse as the winter progresses.


Mental Health Treatment (Young People)

There have been long-standing issues with mental health treatment in my region. It is therefore troubling to learn about reports of inappropriate admission of children under the age of 18 into adult psychiatric wards. It is vital that young people, who often have complex needs, get the help that they need and deserve. What action will the Scottish Government take to address those failings?

It is important that everybody who needs mental health treatment gets that treatment in the best possible setting. That is especially important when we are talking about children and adolescents.

The Government is already taking a range of actions to further develop community wellbeing services for children and young people. For example, we are providing funding for counsellors in schools so that there is much earlier intervention for young people so that fewer of them require the services of more specialist provision. A range of work is under way, which we will continue to progress with additional funding over the months to come.


Police Scotland (Culture)

Yesterday, an employment tribunal upheld former police officer Rhona Malone’s claims of victimisation against Police Scotland. The judgment was damning. It found that the firearms unit in which she served was an “absolute boys’ club” and that the culture was “horrific”. It also found that evidence that had been provided by officers from the professional standards department—the department that is responsible for investigating complaints within the police—to be “implausible” and “wholly unsatisfactory”.

I am sure that the First Minister has, as I do, huge respect for the work that the police do locally and nationally. However, I am concerned that the experience of Ms Malone is not unique. In recent years, I have been approached by female officers who have raised issues regarding culture, out-of-hours behaviour, deployment rotas and equipment. Their complaints are often lost in a system that is difficult and stressful to navigate, which has ultimately led to officers resigning from the force rather than pursuing their complaints.

I know Rhona Malone and have spoken to her. Will the First Minister join me in commending her for her bravery in pursuing her complaint? In the light of the Sarah Everard case, does the First Minister feel that there is a need for fuller investigation of and inquiry into the culture and practice in Police Scotland in relation to sexism and misogyny?

First, I will take the opportunity to pay tribute to Rhona Malone and to say how deeply troubling the findings of the tribunal are. I commend her bravery in taking her case to it. The findings paint a picture that should trouble us all.

In confronting the issues—as we all must—it is important that, first, we do not assume that any such case is necessarily an isolated incident, and secondly, that we do not assume that any organisation in our society, however well respected it is by us all, is somehow immune from the misogynistic culture that pervades our whole society.

The findings of the tribunal must be taken seriously, so I welcome the response of Police Scotland in accepting the findings and expressing how serious it is about addressing the issues.

More generally, the case is another reminder—there have been too many painful reminders of this in recent weeks—that behind the spectrum of unacceptable experiences that women have, which goes from inappropriate comments to discrimination in the workplace to violence and serious sexual assault, lies unacceptable behaviour on the part of men. That is the problem that must be addressed and rectified.

I am old enough to have seen and experienced some parts of that spectrum over the years. It has taken too long to get to this point so I do not say this lightly, but I hope that we are finally at a watershed moment and a turning point at which we stop expecting women to fix the problems and instead put the full glare where it belongs—on men who behave in deeply unacceptable and misogynist ways.

I say to all the men in the chamber and across the country that they should challenge such behaviour when they see it in other men that they know, and that they should challenge their own behaviour. Then let us, as a society, turn the page and turn the corner so that women can live free of fear of harassment, abuse, intimidation, violence and—in the worst cases—death.


Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-00339)

Tuesday.

Muscle spasms, chronic fatigue, diarrhoea, and air hunger to the point of gasping for breath—figures released today show that 79,000 people are now living with long Covid. It could be the biggest mass disabling event since the end of the first world war.

The Scottish Government’s initial intervention could help only 60 people a month, which is why the much-delayed long Covid plan that was published last week should have been transformative. I have spoken today with a constituent who suffers from long Covid. He was, in his words “devastated” to discover that nothing has changed. I have previously warned that people who have the condition are better off moving to England where there are well-established clinics and a care pathway, and nothing in the Government’s long Covid plan will match that.

Long Covid Scotland has been trying to meet the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, but he has refused at every turn. If he has not met those people, how can he possibly know what they need? Will the First Minister either meet them herself or instruct her health secretary to do so at the earliest possible opportunity?

I believe that the health secretary has met long Covid patients and am sure that he would be more than willing to meet others. It is a serious issue, the impact of which we will be living with for some time.

I am not going to comment, because I am not an expert on the arrangements south of the border, but I suspect that they do not in detail live up to how they are talked about in the chamber—but that is another matter.

We have published the long Covid strategy to which Alex Cole-Hamilton referred. There are 16 commitments in it that are backed by a £10 million funding commitment. Part of that is for furthering our understanding of the reasons for and the implications of long Covid, so that the services that are developed properly address them. There is nothing to stop health boards from establishing specialist provision right now, but we also want to make sure that, throughout more general national health service provision, clinicians are capable of addressing the impacts of long Covid as they present.

The issue is serious now and will continue to be an obligation on the Government, which is why the commitments in the strategy are so important.


Smoke and Heat Alarms (Retailers)

—[Inaudible.] fire and heat alarms in Scottish homes by February 2022. Is the First Minister aware that several retailers are still selling the previous generation of smoke and heat alarms that cannot be interlinked and cannot meet the new standards that are being brought in? Does she agree that such stores should be clear with customers about the February 2022 regulations ahead of any purchase being made? Will there be any support for homeowners who are struggling to pay for installing such smoke and heat alarms?

Are you content that you heard enough of the question, First Minister?

I think so, Presiding Officer. I apologise to Bob Doris—I missed the start of the question. The sound could not be heard here in the chamber, but I think that I got the general thrust of the question.

Such issues are important, given the expected demand for smoke alarms ahead of 1 February next year, when the new standard is due to come into force. There is significant public interest in the matter because of the public awareness campaign. We know that some retailers might have short-term supply issues, but we have been assured by manufacturers that there is a sufficient supply of alarms available to meet expected demand.

We will continue to consider whether there is more that we need to do to support home owners to be compliant with the new standard. We will take a range of actions, should we consider that to be necessary. The public awareness campaign has been important in making sure that people have increased understanding of what will be expected as of February next year.


Domestic Abuse Charges (2020-21)

A report that has been published by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service reports that there were 33,425 charges of domestic abuse in 2020-21. That suggests that there was an average of 91 incidents of domestic abuse every day in Scotland, which is the highest level since 2015. The figure relates only to cases that were reported.

I know that the First Minister has taken an interest in that unacceptable situation. Does she agree that the Scottish Government needs to review the policies that are currently in place? Will she also investigate the possibility of establishment of family violence courts?

We will consider any reasonable proposal. As people will know from her background, the new Lord Advocate has a very strong interest in ensuring that victims of domestic abuse and women who are victims of male violence get appropriate and speedy access to justice. I know that she is very keen to ensure that all the Crown Office’s policies and procedures are helping to ensure that that ithate case.

I have commented on the underlying driving reasons for domestic abuse and violence against women and girls. When women and girls experience them—it is important to recognise that some men experience domestic abuse, but the majority of people who do are women—it is important that the justice system responds appropriately.

Although the numbers are deeply troubling—that anyone is a victim of such crimes is deeply troubling—the increases in the numbers might mean that people are now feeling that they are more able to come forward and report such crimes, which we should welcome. In addition, of course, Parliament, to its great credit, passed a new law that made criminal certain behaviour—coercive and controlling abuse—that was not previously criminal. We must bear those factors in mind when we look at the numbers.

However, making sure that people have access to justice is an important part of our overall approach to reducing the impact of domestic abuse and violence on women.


Libraries

To ask the First Minister, in light of this being libraries week, what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that some libraries remain closed. (S6F-00343)

Libraries week is an opportunity to celebrate the contribution that libraries make to our communities. A small number of libraries across the country have not yet reopened after the Covid closures. I understand that there are a number of reasons for that, including the fact that some are still being used as Covid test centres and some are co-located within schools, and in some cases there is a requirement for refurbishment before reopening. However, I hope that most of the others will reopen soon.

Of the 481 libraries across Scotland, 432 are open as of Monday, and a further 24 have announced reopening dates that will be forthcoming. Therefore, well over 90 per cent of all libraries across the country are already open, and I think that we should welcome that.

In the programme for government, we announced a £1.25 million public library Covid support fund, which is intended to give local authorities and libraries support in getting open again and staying open, because libraries are a vital and integral part of communities across our country.

I thank the First Minister for her detailed response. Many libraries are indeed open, although some of them are open on reduced hours, including in Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale.

Does the First Minister agree with Pamela Tulloch, chief executive of the Scottish Library and Information Council, which administers that welcome £1.25 million libraries recovery fund, which is targeted at libraries in areas of deprivation, that although that money helps, part of the problem has been the councils’ understandable redeployment of staff elsewhere during Covid? Does she agree, therefore, that, as we move out of Covid, full staffing of libraries should again be possible, with the result that all libraries can be fully open?

I agree: that is important. Every reasonable person recognises the impact of Covid on not only libraries, but many of the other services that local authorities deliver. There will be a period of getting back to normal and of again reconfiguring services that had to be reconfigured at the start of Covid. It is important that libraries fully re-open, unless there is a very good reason why that cannot happen, such as a need for refurbishment or use as a test centre.

It is important that libraries give people—especially young people—access to books. It was access to a library that fuelled my own love of reading when I was young. That is vitally important. Libraries are also used for many other things these days. It is important that that community provision is there. In Glasgow, where my constituency is, the vast majority of libraries are open again, as is the case across the country, and that is welcome. It is important that we support councils to open the remaining libraries as quickly as possible.


Primary School (Deferral of Start)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will review the implementation date for changes to allow parents to defer their child’s start at primary school. (S6F-00348)

Entry to school can be deferred if a child is not yet aged five on the first day of primary school. Not all children who are deferred are yet automatically entitled to a funded place in early years education. However, we have introduced new legislation to guarantee funding for early learning and child care during any deferred year. That legislation comes into force from August 2023, on a timetable that has already been approved by the Parliament.

There are no plans to change that timetable, because it has been developed in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities so that it is realistic and achievable. In the meantime, we have already committed £3 million to fund five local authorities to deliver early learning and childcare in 2021-22 as part of a pilot programme to support the wider roll-out of that commitment. The Minister for Children and Young People will soon announce additional pilot authorities for 2022-23.

Despite legislation being approved by the Parliament, parents are still being refused the right to defer their child’s school start. The Scottish Government has opted for a trial approach that has created a postcode lottery for whether a council will grant permission for a child to start school one year later. School deferrals were not even mentioned in the Scottish Government’s recovery plan. Why has the full implementation date been delayed until 2023? Will the Scottish Government commit to bringing that date forward so that all parents have the same right to make the best possible decision about their child’s education?

I appreciate that the member was not in the Parliament on 3 February 2021, when the August 2023 implementation date was agreed. Unless I am mistaken, it was supported by all Conservative members at that time. There is a pragmatic reason for that date: we have to work with COSLA to ensure that that date is achievable and deliverable. That was the consensus that was reached and backed by the Parliament.

Along the way, as I said, we are piloting the approach in a number of local authorities to deliver on that commitment and to support the wider roll-out. I understand that parents want that to happen straight away and I understand their reasons for that, but we are doing this in the proper way so that it is deliverable and is properly delivered, so that when we get to that implementation date, should parents want to defer their child’s entry to primary school, they will have that right.


Scottish Qualifications Authority (Public Sector Equality Duty)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the announcement that the Scottish Qualifications Authority has entered a two-year agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to improve equalities practices after the Commission established that the SQA was not routinely assessing the impact of its policies and practices against the three needs of the public sector equality duty. (S6F-00341)

The education secretary met the chief executive of the SQA earlier this week and impressed upon her the need to deliver against the section 23 agreement. The EHRC’s findings refer to historical omissions at the SQA. Learners can be assured that all the required equality impact assessments regarding the awarding of national qualifications in the past two years were completed and published by the SQA and the Scottish Government. I welcome the SQA’s action plan and its commitment to complete any outstanding equality impact assessments for all of their current policies and practices, with 28 new equality impact assessments already having been published since August.

The First Minister spent the whole of the last parliamentary session telling us that education was her number 1 priority. One of the causes of the attainment gap that she claims her Government is working so hard to close is, infamously, inequality. Can she tell me, if it was her absolute priority, why she never thought to ask her education governing body whether it was looking at the question of equality?

I would expect the SQA and all bodies, whether they are Government agencies or otherwise, to have equality at the heart of everything that they do. That has been impressed on the SQA, as I said in my opening answer. As I also said, the EHRC’s finding refers to historical omissions. Over the last period—indeed, since the current chief executive was appointed—any new SQA policy or practice that has been introduced has been subject to an equality impact assessment in line with duties under the Equality Act 2010. The SQA is right, now, to go back and make sure that that applies to all current policies and practices, and the Government expects it fully to do so in line with its action plan.