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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 7, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 07 December 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Brain Tumour Awareness, Air Quality (Low-emission Zones), Sea Fisheries and End-year Negotiations, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Named Person Scheme

I am sure that the whole chamber will join me in wishing Paisley well in its bid to become the United Kingdom city of culture 2021. The bid team has run an incredible campaign and we all wish them well for this evening.

I ask the First Minister, after yesterday’s events, why the Scottish Government is persisting with its named person scheme?

First, let me also take the opportunity to wish Paisley 2021 the very best of luck this evening. All of Scotland is behind the bid. The bid team has done an absolutely fantastic job and I am sure that the whole country is proud of them and will rejoice if Paisley wins the bid this evening, as all of us hope that it will.

The Scottish Government will proceed with its named person plans for the simple reason that they are in the best interests of children, particularly vulnerable children, across the country. Often, when Ruth Davidson raises the issue, she does so from a political perspective—that is her right; the Tories oppose the named person scheme in principle—but when we talk about it we do that from the perspective of the protection of children. I submit that that is the most important—indeed, the only—consideration that should drive us.

In relation to the Education and Skills Committee decision, concerns have been expressed at and by the committee about the draft code of practice. The draft code of practice is exactly that—it was always intended to be illustrative, and the Deputy First Minister has committed to working with practitioners to develop the final code of practice. He has also developed a practice development panel that will be led by Ian Welsh and, crucially, he has committed to giving this Parliament the final say on the draft code of practice.

We are disappointed by the committee’s decision—we think that it is unnecessary to delay stage 1—although we recognise it and will now work with the committee and the Parliamentary Bureau on the timing. In the meantime, we will get on with the important work of developing that code of practice, and I will end this answer where I started it: it is about the protection of children. The bill is not about the principle of the named person scheme, but about the information sharing that is necessary to ensure that vulnerable children do not fall through the gaps in services.

We all want to protect vulnerable children, but after yesterday’s events it is clear that this is not the way to do it.

Let us run through the timeline: the original legislation was passed in 2014; it was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court in 2016; the Education and Skills Committee of this Parliament has said that it cannot provide a report—[Interruption.]

Order, please, Mr Swinney.

—because of the lack of clarity on how changes would work; and now we are told that it will be late 2018 before the Scottish Government can even provide a satisfactory code of practice. So far, the only people who have benefited from that mess are the lawyers, who have coined in more than £800,000 in legal fees. Given that record, does the First Minister honestly think that the policy can be salvaged?

Ruth Davidson should be very careful not to mislead the chamber inadvertently. She said that the Supreme Court said that the named person policy was unlawful. As anybody who has read the judgment will know, the named person principle was said by the court to be “legitimate and benign”. The Supreme Court made a number of pronouncements about the information-sharing provisions, and it is those provisions that the bill is intended to address. Information sharing is vital as part of the efforts of those who work on the front line to protect children, and particularly vulnerable children. In the words of Social Work Scotland:

“information sharing is vital to getting it right for every child”.

Ruth Davidson has asked me about the timeline. It is a bit rich for a party that has sought to politically undermine and delay the named person policy at every juncture, and that now supports a committee decision that would further delay the introduction of the policy, somehow to criticise the Government for the policy taking too long to be introduced. We will continue to do what we said we would do, which is to work with practitioners, through the new panel that has been established, on the final code of practice and to give Parliament the final decision on that.

Lastly, Ruth Davidson said that all of us are concerned with the protection of children. I certainly hope that that is the case. If it is, I hope that all of us will pay attention to what those on the front line, and who work with vulnerable children, are saying. Notwithstanding the concerns that, I concede, they had about the draft code of practice, a whole range of organisations called on the Education and Skills Committee to pass the bill at stage 1, so that work on the code could be continued. That is the sensible way forward. Notwithstanding the developments of yesterday, we will continue to develop the final code so that we can get on with putting in place measures that are fundamentally about protecting children.

The weaknesses of the policy have been exposed by the lengths to which the Government has gone to try to prop it up. The Deputy First Minister has already been forced to apologise over the failings in the new bill. We have now discovered that witnesses to the parliamentary committee have been lobbied by the Scottish Government in advance of their appearance. The Government says that that is entirely innocent, which is okay. However, if there is nothing to hide, will the First Minister publish the minutes of and the lists of attendees at those private meetings with the committee’s witnesses, so that we can all see what has been going on?

If Ruth Davidson is seriously standing up in the chamber and suggesting that a Government that is taking through legislation on an important issue such as this should not seek to engage with and talk to organisations such as Aberlour, Children’s Health Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland, Enable Scotland and Social Work Scotland about their concerns, she is demonstrating why she should never be anywhere near Government in Scotland.

It is our duty, as the Government, to listen to the concerns that such organisations have and to seek to address them. It is on the basis of such discussions that the organisations such as those whose names I have read out have said that they think that the committee should pass the bill at stage 1, to allow the Scottish Government to continue to work with them to address their concerns and to finalise the code. That is the sensible way to proceed. If the issue is about the protection of children, rather than political point scoring, that is the way in which all of us should be determined to proceed. Let us put children at the centre of the debate.

It is usual that organisations lobby Government and not that Government lobbies organisations. What the First Minister does not understand is that the policy is a mess. It is only she and the Deputy First Minister who cannot seem to see that. Everybody wants protection for vulnerable children, but it is now clear that Parliament has joined the public in no longer having confidence in the named person plans. We should focus resource on those who actually need it, rather than having blanket interference for every family in Scotland. We are willing to get around the table to find a fresh solution but, first, the First Minister needs to ditch this broken plan. Her named person policy is in tatters. Will she simply concede that, so that we can all move on?

Let me explain the difference between the Tories and this Government when it comes to engaging with stakeholders. Yes, stakeholders lobby the Tories when they are in government and the Tories ignore them. Organisations lobby this Government and we respond and seek to address the concerns that they have. That is how responsible government operates.

Now, Ruth Davidson says that this should be about reflecting the opinion of not just Parliament, but people outside Parliament. We should pay particular attention to those who work on the front line with children, particularly vulnerable children. I am about to read the second paragraph of a letter to the Education and Skills Committee signed by Children in Scotland, Aberlour, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, Action for Children, The Institute for Inspiring Children’s Futures, Crossreach, Social Work Scotland, Children’s Health Scotland, COSLA, Includem, One Parent Families Scotland and Enable Scotland—this is what the letter from all those organisations says,

“we are writing to ask you to approve the Bill at Stage One in order to allow time for the Scottish Government to demonstrate its commitment to making improvements to it, and the proposed Code of Practice.”

That is what those working on the front line with children want us to do and, as a Parliament, we should listen to them and respond.

Local Government Funding

Investment in the arts and culture can be a pathway to economic regeneration and employment, but it can also lift the horizons of the people, so I take this opportunity to extend the support of the Scottish Labour Party to the people of Paisley in their bid to be the city of culture for the UK. The bid has been initiated and led by Renfrewshire Council.

Last week, I asked the First Minister whether Scotland’s 32 councils will get the more than £0.5 billion in funding that they need just to stand still in maintaining local services, but I received no answer. Austerity is not an abstract concept: it means real cuts to real local services; it means the closure of breakfast clubs; it means the axe falling on holiday activity programmes for children with disabilities; and in the real world, it means cutting teachers for children who have additional support needs. How can the First Minister possibly justify those kinds of cuts to local services?

Richard Leonard asked me last week what the budget would have in store for local government, and I said to him that he would find out in two weeks, when Derek Mackay presents the budget to Parliament. I can update that answer today: he will find out one week from today, when Derek Mackay presents the budget to Parliament.

Just as we have done in previous years, this Government will do everything possible to protect front-line services from the impact of Tory-imposed austerity. We face, in the coming financial year, a real-terms cut to our day-to-day spending of more than £200 million that is being imposed by the Tory Government—which Richard Leonard still prefers having control over those issues, rather than a Government of this Parliament.

However, in response to Richard Leonard last week, I also pointed out that the only councils that have not, in this financial year, taken the opportunity to maximise their revenues through the council tax, are Labour-led councils. If he is concerned about the services that he has talked about, he can perhaps address the point now. Why is it only Labour councils that this year are not using every penny at their disposal to protect front-line services?

I have to report to Parliament that the cuts to children’s services that I listed are not being planned by just any council—they are being planned by the SNP-run Falkirk Council. They were being discussed yesterday. New figures that were published last week show that 39 per cent of children in Falkirk live in material deprivation. Meanwhile, the SNP council there is planning to cut childcare to the bone, to close down breakfast clubs, and to axe teachers for children who have additional support needs. Does the First Minister believe that we will—if she fails next week to properly resource councils and to invest in local services—see the material deprivation that is faced by Scotland’s children go down, or will we see it go up?

We are not just protecting the health service: we are also protecting, as far as we possibly can, local services, and we are investing more money directly in our schools through the pupil attainment fund. We will continue to do that.

When the budget is published next week, whoever leads councils will be able to finalise their budget plans. When Richard Leonard and others see the budget next week, they will see evidence of a Government that is continuing to protect front-line services where they matter most.

Richard Leonard has still not addressed my point. If he thinks that local government is short of cash, why are Labour councils not maximising the money that they have to spend? If Labour wants to have a properly constructive discussion, it is about time that it made some concrete proposals. Richard Leonard wrote to Derek Mackay late last week about the budget, but there was not a single figure in the letter—there was not a single concrete proposal about what should be spent and how the money should be raised. If Richard Leonard was to engage in a proper and serious discussion, we might start to take him seriously.

One of the things that too many children who are living in material deprivation miss out on is a new winter coat to keep them warm. Yesterday, I visited the Cottage family centre in Kirkcaldy, where I had the privilege of meeting the volunteers, including a group of selfless pupil volunteers from Balwearie high school. They were sorting parcels for needy families for Christmas. The parcels included winter coats, scarves and gloves to be delivered to families who are living in abject poverty. That is the reality of Tory Britain, and the reality of SNP Scotland. [Interruption.]

Order, please.

It is a Dickensian Scotland, where too many families are forced to turn to food banks, and where schoolchildren are dispatching emergency parcels to help their classmates at Christmas.

If cuts to children’s services are imposed by the First Minister, she is not standing up for Scotland: she is failing the children of Scotland. Will the First Minister use her powers, show her political will, stop Tory austerity in its tracks and protect funding for those vital services? Yes or no?

When Derek Mackay sets out the budget a week from today, he will show that the actions of this Government stand in sharp contrast to the empty rhetoric of the Labour Party.

Poverty, in particular child poverty, is an issue that is of the utmost seriousness. In the past couple of weeks, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report that shows that poverty is lower in Scotland than it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and that child poverty has fallen faster and more sustainably in Scotland than it has elsewhere in the UK.

My view is very simple. For as long as one child is living in poverty, that is one child too many, so we have more work to do. That is why the Government has recently legislated for statutory targets on child poverty, which makes us the only Administration in the UK to have set statutory targets. That is why we have established our poverty and inequality commission to advise and challenge the Government to go further. It is also why we outlined in the programme for government our intention to set up a new tackling child poverty fund.

I could list a wide range of policies in other areas, from council tax reduction to free school meals, and a host of other Scottish Government policies to tackle child poverty, many of which are not happening anywhere else in the UK. We will continue to show the priority that we attach to it not just through our budget, but through every single policy that we pursue.

Fife Rape and Sexual Assault Centre

The First Minister might be aware that the Fife Rape and Sexual Assault Centre took the difficult decision yesterday to close its waiting lists. The service that the organisation provides is a vital lifeline to women and men in Fife who have been the victims of sexual violence. Does the First Minister agree that Fife Council must ensure that funding is maintained for the Fife Rape and Sexual Assault Centre?

Yes—and I hope that that will be the case. I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to look into the issue to see whether there is more that the Scottish Government can do. Such services are absolutely vital in protecting the most vulnerable women and children in our country. I hope that we can, whatever political disagreements we might have, can come together across the chamber to support the work that organisations such as Fife Rape and Sexual Assault Centre do for the benefit of us all.

Integration Joint Boards (Major Service Changes)

The First Minister will be aware that the Western Isles integration joint board is carrying out a review of dental services on the Uists, which could leave some patients facing a 60-mile round trip to visit the dentist.

Currently, if a health board implements a service change, the Scottish Health Council can determine whether it is a major service change and, if so, refer it to Scottish ministers. However, it has come to light that the Scottish Health Council has no formal jurisdiction to rule on IJB matters and, therefore, cannot make a determination that would enable the service change in dental services to be called in. That means that any such proposals by an IJB can go ahead with no scrutiny from Scottish ministers. Will the First Minister impose a moratorium on such decisions until that loophole is closed?

No—it would not be right to impose a moratorium on the work of local integration joint boards because they have a duty to get on with the work of designing and improving services for their local populations. However, I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to write to Rhoda Grant. It is my understanding that the Scottish Health Council can decide to involve itself in advising integration joint boards about such matters. All integration joint boards are expected to consult fully their local population on any proposed service change. I will ask Shona Robison to look at the detail of the issue and to respond to the member as soon as possible.

Paisley (United Kingdom City of Culture 2021 Bid)

Will the First Minister join me in congratulating the Paisley 2021 bid director Jean Cameron and her team on all their endeavours to get Paisley to this stage in the United Kingdom city of culture 2021 competition? As everybody will be aware, the winner will be announced tonight. Will the First Minister wish the bid team and the great town of Paisley the very best of luck? We look forward to the team bringing the title to Scotland.

Today would not have been complete without George Adam getting to his feet to do what he does best, which is to stand up for Paisley. As I said earlier, I and, I am sure, all members across the chamber wish the Paisley 2021 team every success this evening. Jean Cameron, the bid director, has done an outstanding job, and everybody who has been associated with and backed the bid, formally and informally, has been awesome. Paisley deserves to win the bid, so let us all root for Paisley for the remainder of the day and hope that it has the success that it deserves when the results are announced this evening.

Waverley Line (Performance)

The First Minister will be delighted to hear that performance on the Waverley line has improved recently. However, I have received complaints from constituents in the Scottish Borders about overcrowding and no additional carriages being put on, despite a predicted increase in demand. Does the First Minister agree that every passenger on the Waverley line deserves a seat, no matter the time of year?

Yes, I do. I have been glad to see the improvements that have been made but, if further improvements are required, they must be taken seriously. If Rachael Hamilton would like to write to me or, perhaps more appropriately, to the Minister for Transport and the Islands with concerns that have been raised by her constituents, I will make sure that they are properly responded to.

Rail Fares

I add the support of the Scottish Green MSPs for Paisley’s bid for city of culture and congratulate everyone involved in the bid.

It was confirmed this week that rail fares will see their biggest increase in five years. From next month, those who commute to work at busy periods will see a 3.6 per cent increase. That is alongside the overcrowding, the delays and the daily problems that rail users across Scotland experience. Does the First Minister agree that that is simply an unacceptable situation? Does she agree with the findings of research by Common Weal and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association that, under a public operator, if the money currently being extracted from the system for private operators’ profit was reinvested, we would instead be seeing an average cut in fares of 6.5 per cent?

First, I absolutely understand that people do not want to see any increase in rail fares. I think that we all understand that. It is important to point out, though, that regulated fares in Scotland will increase by less than the rate of inflation and increases in Scotland will be below the average rise reported for England and Wales, meaning that Scotland will have the lowest level of fare increase in the United Kingdom.

It is also important to point out that in Scotland, fares fund a lower percentage of the total funding for railways than is the case elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish Government funds 55.5 per cent of the cost of the Scottish rail industry, compared with the UK Government, which funds only 34 per cent of the cost in England.

It is fair to point out that ScotRail’s performance has continually improved over the past year, resulting in it becoming the best-performing large train operator in the UK.

On the issue of a public sector rail bid, Patrick Harvie is aware that we secured the right for a public sector operator to bid for the next franchise. We did that after it was repeatedly denied by successive Labour and Conservative Governments. We welcome the TSSA report because we, too, recognise the social and economic benefits to be derived from a publicly-run railway. That is why we committed in our programme for government to enable a public sector body to bid for future rail franchises. Work to ensure that is under way.

Rail franchising and competition policy are still reserved to the UK Government. Neither a direct award of the contract nor full renationalisation is currently possible, due to the legislative constraints of the Railways Act 1993, which is reserved to the UK Parliament. Patrick Harvie will agree with me that all of those powers should be devolved to the Scottish Government, and I hope that he can help us to persuade other parties in this chamber that that should be the case.

I am very glad that the First Minister welcomes the TSSA report. It is unacceptable that people will see an increase in their fares when we know that a cut in fares would be possible under a public operator. I welcome the fact that there is some appetite for that. If the matter were to be brought to the chamber, the First Minister would find that there is a strong majority here in favour of a public sector operator. Our railways have been run for profit for more than 20 years. In that time, public transport fares have gone up relentlessly, while high-carbon modes of transport have become cheaper. The Scottish Government, with its tax plans, wants to make them even cheaper.

Investment is needed, too. Our analysis shows that the Scottish Government’s capital spending is far too dominated by high-carbon projects. Reopening rail lines and stations would be a hugely positive way of redressing that balance. There are examples around the country, such as the Levenmouth line, that could be taken forward quickly and easily. Will the First Minister commit the Scottish Government to backing our proposals for low-carbon infrastructure, including those obvious quick and easy opportunities to improve Scotland’s railways?

We will always look favourably at good ideas, but we have our own plans for low-carbon infrastructure. When I set out our programme for government back in September, it was described by environmental campaigners as

“the greenest programme for government”

in the lifetime of this Parliament. The commitment to the low-carbon transition in transport across other sectors of our society will be reflected not just in that programme but in the budget that we present next week.

We will continue to take steps to support what needs to be done to secure that transition in a range of sectors, including in transport and our energy sector. I look forward to continuing to have environmental campaigners consider us to be the greenest Government in the lifetime of this Parliament.


It was supposed to be buccaneering Brexiteers striding the globe, but this week we witnessed the pitiful reality. Halfway through her soup, Theresa shuffles out of a Brussels lunch red faced, because Arlene has told her no. The Conservatives are weak—split from top to bottom and in hock to the Democratic Unionist Party. However, the good news is that a Survation poll at the weekend showed that a majority of people in Britain want the power to reject a bad Brexit deal. They do not trust the Conservatives and the DUP to decide what is good enough. Will the First Minister join me and support a public vote on the Brexit deal?

I think that the Prime Minister fell into her soup, rather than being halfway through it. This week, the Tory United Kingdom Government—strictly speaking, it is a Tory-DUP UK Government—has been shown to be dissembling, mendacious and totally and utterly incompetent. It is not just leading this country over a Brexit cliff edge; it seems determined to do so blindfold. I do not think that we have seen a more incompetent UK Government in my lifetime, and that is saying quite something.

In my view, the priority now has to be to unite those who think that the most commonsense compromise option is for the UK as a whole to remain within the single market and the customs union. I believe that if Labour was to get its act together—if Jeremy Corbyn was to get his act together—that position could command a majority in the House of Commons. Let us try to unite all those who are of that opinion to stop these incompetent, reckless, ideological Tories taking the UK, and Scotland with it, off a Brexit cliff edge.

Surely the best way out of this is to give the British people the final say. Last week, the Conservatives agreed to pay billions, when the national health service was expecting £350 million a week. On Monday, there was the shambles of the Irish border; yesterday, there was the chaos of David Davis; and next week, there is the deadline of the European Council, and the Cabinet has not even discussed what kind of trade deal it wants with Europe. If the Conservatives cannot trust themselves to decide, why should we let them? Surely the British people should decide what is best. That is why now is the time. The First Minister can help build the momentum for a new vote across the UK. She can persuade others. Labour’s Sadiq Khan is on side. Businesses are outraged. I think that the public mood is changing. Will the First Minister help us build that campaign?

It is interesting how selective Willie Rennie is in his support for second referendums. In all seriousness, I would say that that is a decision for later. I have said publicly, and I will say it again, that it may well be that the case for giving people across the UK another opportunity to have their say on Brexit becomes difficult to resist. However, the more immediate necessity is to stop this reckless UK Government driving the entire UK over the cliff edge. I think that the majority exists in the House of Commons—if Labour gets its act together—and across the whole UK to stop that happening. The sensible compromise option and the best option—or the least damaging option—for our economy is to stay within the single market and the customs union. Everybody who is of that view should come together now and make that happen.

The real lesson from this whole debacle for those of us in Scotland is that as long as we continue to allow our future to be in the hands of Tory Governments at Westminster, rather than in our own hands, we will always be at the mercy of reckless decisions taken by them. The sooner we are in control of our own future here in Scotland the better. This week has proved that.

There are a couple more supplementaries. The first is from Anas Sarwar.

Middle East

Yesterday, President Donald Trump made the frankly dangerous decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is now clear that under his leadership the US cannot be seen as an honest broker for peace and that, in fact, he is a threat to a just settlement, to a viable independent Palestinian state and to wider middle east peace. Will the First Minister add the voice of the Scottish Government, and urge the United Kingdom Government to add its voice, to the growing consensus in the international community, from the Pope, the United Nations secretary-general, the European Union and our NATO allies, including Germany, France and Turkey, in condemnation of President Trump’s decision? Will she resolve to work right across the UK in order to urge the international community, in our world of chaos, to make the case for middle east peace?

Yes, I will. I have already condemned Donald Trump’s decision on behalf of the Scottish Government and I am glad to see that, for once, the UK Government has also condemned that decision.

Let us remember that Jerusalem includes occupied Palestinian territory. The decision that Donald Trump took on Jerusalem was reckless, wrong and a real threat to peace in the middle east. That is why the decision has rightly been condemned across the international community.

The status of Jerusalem should be determined in a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians and ultimately, of course, Jerusalem should be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian states. That is an important principle.

Yesterday’s decision, as I say, was reckless and wrong. It threatens peace in the middle east and it is incumbent on all of us to condemn that decision and to work even harder to secure peace in the middle east and, even at this late stage, to call on Donald Trump to think again. [Applause.]

Accident and Emergency Waiting Times

Reports this morning show that fewer patients in Scotland are waiting more than four hours in accident and emergency than they did five years ago; in Tory-run England, the number of patients waiting has doubled. What investment is the Government making in our health service to ensure that it continues to improve?

This gives me the opportunity to do what I hope all of us across the chamber will want to do, which is to thank everybody who works in our national health service, because the figures that Ivan McKee has just cited are to the credit of those who work so hard in our emergency departments and across our NHS.

The figures show that long waits in A and E departments in Scotland have reduced over the past few years by 9 per cent. In England, they have gone up by 155 per cent. That difference is a tribute to the hard work of A and E departments in Scotland. This Government will continue to support them through record investment in our NHS. During our time in office, we have increased the budget of our health service by around £3 billion and next week’s budget will underline continued investment in our NHS.

Knife Crime

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is tackling knife crime. (S5F-01787)

There has been a sustained, long-term reduction in violent crime in Scotland over the past decade. That includes a 59 per cent fall in the number of people admitted to hospital due to assault with a sharp object, which is the equivalent of almost 800 fewer admissions in a year.

Alongside enforcement of legislation, we have invested more than £14 million in violence prevention since 2006-07, including almost £9 million for Scotland’s national violence reduction unit and funding of more than £3.4 million for the no knives, better lives programme.

Much of our effort has been focused on young people in schools, and local authorities are supporting us in the implementation of wider strategies to prevent knife crime.

A decade ago, knife crime in Scotland had doubled under Labour and the Lib Dems. However, since 2007, under this Government, the number of people carrying knives has plummeted by 69 per cent, from 10,110 to 3,111. In North Ayrshire, the fall is a heartening 77 per cent. Between 2006 and 2011, 40 young people died in homicides involving a knife; that fell to eight deaths in the following five years, with thankfully none so far this year.

In England and Wales, 2017 looks set to become the worst year for knife deaths in a decade according to The Guardian’s beyond the blade report, with 35 deaths so far this year. Does the First Minister agree that with 1,000 more police on our streets compared with a fall of 20,000 down south, Scotland’s communities are safer than they have been for 43 years? Will she commend Police Scotland, Medics against Violence, the violence reduction unit and the no knives, better lives campaign for the enormous contribution that they have made to that historic success and will she encourage authorities elsewhere in the United Kingdom to follow Scotland’s approach?

I certainly agree that the figures are extremely encouraging. There is still a way to go before we can finally put a stop to the culture of violence, but the decline in knife crime in Scotland over the past decade has been dramatic. I am sure that, across the chamber, members will join me in paying tribute to the work of Scotland’s national violence reduction unit and front-line police, schools and national health service workers, who are driving that positive trend and challenging the behaviours that have held us back in the past. The success is due to a range of policy interventions and it is fair to say that other Administrations throughout the United Kingdom could perhaps learn something from our experience.

In October, we revealed that almost half of councils do not collect data on the number of knives that are found in schools. In response, the First Minister promised to take action to ensure that they do. What progress has the Government made?

We are making sure that there is progress on that. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to write to the member to update him on precisely what is being done.

Ensuring that we have the data on such issues is part of the work that we require to do to continue to make progress on reducing knife crime and knife incidents. It can safely be concluded from the figures that we have just been talking about that the policy interventions that have been undertaken in Scotland are working, so we must continue to ensure that we pursue them vigorously.

Organ Donation

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to improve the availability of organs viable for donation and transplant. (S5F-01800)

We continue to work with national health service staff to increase the numbers of donors and transplants that are available in Scotland. We will also introduce legislation in this parliamentary year to bring forward a soft opt-out system of organ and tissue donation. Over time and as part of our wider package of measures to promote a culture change in favour of donation, that should help to increase the number of deceased organ donors further.

The issue holds great personal significance for me, as it does for many. I was blessed with the gift of a grandmother thanks to a kidney donor in the 1980s and have family members who passed at an early age but, through donation, gave the gift of life and health to others. However, a report released this week by the Welsh Government found that, despite the introduction of an opt-out system for organ donation two years ago, the number of donors had not increased. What steps will the First Minister take to ensure that any such system in Scotland takes into account any potential issues with availability, eligibility and family overrides while addressing any other concerns that the public might have with the plans?

Those are important and legitimate questions. The early indications from the Welsh system are mixed. Complex factors are involved in donation. Donor numbers fluctuate and the evaluation report in Wales suggests that a longer time is needed to draw firmer conclusions about the impact of the change in the law. We will continue to learn from the experience in Wales and, indeed, other countries that have already adopted an opt-out system in order that we can deliver a workable, safe system in Scotland. It is important that we take the time to get it right.

I will make two quick points. First, there has been an increase in donations in recent years. Between 2007-08 and 2016-17, deceased donor numbers in Scotland increased by 146 per cent. All of us should welcome that.

When I was health secretary, I came at the issue having a long-standing instinctive position in favour of moving to a soft opt-out system. In my various discussions with transplant surgeons and others, they persuaded me that we should not rush to make that change and that it was more important to do what they described to me as the hard miles—to put in place the infrastructure that would support an increase. We spent a lot of time doing that and it is behind the increase that I just cited. However, having done that, it is now time to consider that move and that is what the proposed legislation will allow the Parliament to do openly and responsibly. In doing that, we should pay attention to what is happening in Wales and other countries.

General Teaching Council for Scotland

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Educational Institute of Scotland’s reported opposition to plans to disband the independent General Teaching Council for Scotland. (S5F-01792)

We are currently consulting on the establishment of the education workforce council for Scotland, which would take on the functions of the General Teaching Council for Scotland. The workforce council would create a national system that would ensure that the full range of practitioners, not just teachers, have the skills and expertise that are required for them to do their jobs effectively.

The consultation makes clear that we intend for the body to operate independently from Scottish ministers. A strategic working group has been established, with representation from the General Teaching Council for Scotland, to consider the full implications of establishing the education workforce council. We will consider all responses to the consultation when it closes on 30 January 2018.

Does that mean that the proposed body would be independent of the Scottish Government and all its education agencies? Why has the Government not carried out any legal, financial or risk assessment of the proposals? Will yet another discussion over education structures help with narrowing the attainment gap and the professional learning and development of Scotland’s teaching profession from Stranraer to Shetland?

I will make a number of points. First, we are consulting on the proposal at the moment. As I said, the consultation does not close until the end of January next year and we will look at the consultation responses, reach a final decision and then do whatever work is required after we have taken that decision.

As I said in my original answer, the intention would be for the new body to operate completely independently from Scottish ministers. I appreciate that there will be a range of different views on the matter and I think that it is important that we debate them openly and frankly. However, we should be mindful of what underlies the proposal, because the education workforce has changed significantly in recent years and there are a number of professionals working within education who are currently not required to register with the GTC; that includes classroom assistants, additional support needs auxiliaries, teaching and support staff in the higher education sector and school library staff.

What is proposed is about making sure that, for everybody who works in our schools with children, we have the appropriate arrangements in place. Let us take it forward in that way and, of course, we will reflect on all the points that are made in the consultation and by members in the Parliament.