Meeting date: Thursday, September 8, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 08 September 2016
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Living Wage in Scottish Football, Named Person Policy, Refugees, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Living Wage in Scottish Football
- Named Person Policy
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
I take this first opportunity to congratulate all of team GB on its Olympic success and to wish all our Paralympians the best of luck in the forthcoming games. [Applause.]
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00159)
I also take the opportunity to warmly congratulate team GB on its stunning success and to wish all our Paralympians every success in Rio over the next two weeks. I am sure that the whole Parliament will agree that they are an inspiration to us all and they do us proud.
Later today, I will have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
Will the First Minister spell out why the public will be made safer as a result of the Scottish Government breaking up British Transport Police and absorbing it into Police Scotland?
Scotland is being made safer by the decisions of the Scottish Government and, more important, by the actions of our police officers the length and breadth of the country. We have a situation in Scotland right now where crime is at a 41-year low, and I think that that is a credit to police officers working in every single community across Scotland.
As Ruth Davidson knows, responsibility for the British Transport Police is being devolved to the Scottish Government and, given that we have created Police Scotland and ensured an efficiently running police service, I think that there is a strong case for also including the British Transport Police within that framework while allowing it to continue to provide its specialist policing functions. That will be the subject of legislation in the current session of Parliament, as I announced on Tuesday, and I am sure that all members will want to participate in full scrutiny of that legislation.
As in the statement on the programme for government on Tuesday, there was not a word there on either why or how the change would improve safety, and I think that I know why.
Since the Scottish Government first outlined its plans, I have received a series of emails from some of the 300 serving British Transport Police officers in Scotland. Let me tell the First Minister what some of them say. This came from an officer with nine years’ experience:
“If this goes ahead the effect on policing services would be horrific. We are a specialist force for a reason. Cross-border crimes would potentially become unmanageable.”
Another police officer with 17 years’ experience said:
“Like many others imposed on us, this is a ludicrous idea with no consultation to those actually doing the job at hand.”
Another with 24 years’ service said:
“I cannot understand why this decision can possibly be made without full consultation with the travelling public ... or even Police Scotland.”
Added to that, the British Transport Police Federation said this week that the change could leave the whole network “unguarded”.
Why is the federation wrong, and why are serving police officers who keep us safe on the railways wrong, too?
We will fully consult and listen to all views. Let me quote the British Transport Police Federation just before this Parliament went into its summer recess. It said:
“We are fully involved in the consultation process”.
In a blog in August—last month—the federation chair said:
“it is fair to say we are achieving a healthy working relationship with the Scottish Government”.
Those are the direct views of the British Transport Police Federation. I am sure that there will be a range of views across the British Transport Police and the wider public about the right course of action to take, and we will consider that carefully.
Let me address clearly the issue in Ruth Davidson’s first question. She said, “Why?” Integration will enhance railway policing through giving it direct access to the local, the specialist and the national resources of Police Scotland while ensuring that it continues to carry out its specialist railway policing function and retains the expertise and the capacity that it already has, but within the broader structure of Police Scotland. That is the right step to take, and as we take that step and develop the legislation that comes before this Parliament, all members will have the opportunity to contribute. I am sure that many members of the public, as well as members of the British Transport Police, will take the opportunity to contribute, too.
The First Minister says that she is consulting on the matter, but—as she knows well—she is consulting only on how to carry out the takeover, not on whether it is right to do so. The First Minister should know that the British Transport Police has laid out two other more practical options that are still consistent with the Smith commission.
People might accept the First Minister’s reforms if the British Transport Police was failing, but the opposite is true. Indeed, 83 per cent of passengers say that they are satisfied with safety levels on Scottish trains, which is above the level seen in England and Wales—and no wonder, because crime on our railways has halved. Why is the Scottish Government imposing a reform that the police do not want on a system that does not need to be tampered with?
I have set out very clearly the reasons why we think it is the right thing to do. Why is the decision on the table right now? It is because of the devolution of responsibility for the British Transport Police. As Ruth Davidson rightly says, there was cross-party consensus on that within the Smith commission.
Specialist railway policing expertise and capacity will be maintained and protected, allowing the British Transport Police to continue to deliver the excellent levels of service that Ruth Davidson has just said that it delivers. Of course, crime on our railways—just like crime across the country generally—is falling, and is at some of its lowest levels. By integrating the British Transport Police within the wider Police Scotland structure, we also give the BTP access to the specialist and national resource that Police Scotland has access to. That appears to me to be a commonsense way of proceeding—so commonsense that perhaps it eludes the Conservative Party.
As we go forward, we will continue to engage with the British Transport Police Federation. I remind Ruth Davidson that the federation appears to think that it has a good working relationship with the Scottish Government. I am not suggesting that that means it agrees with everything we are suggesting that we want to do, but we continue to talk and engage with it. That is the right way to proceed. Members of this Parliament will have the chance to contribute in the legislative process, as normal.
The shortened version of that response is that the First Minister thinks that she knows better than police officers—[Interruption.] It is very hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to the Scottish Government, good practice always plays second fiddle to pretty shoddy politics, because the Scottish transport police federation does not want this, rank-and-file police officers on our railways do not want this, and the public see absolutely no need to change. However, as was the case with the single police force, the Scottish National Party Government wants to grab more control and to ram this through regardless.
Last week, the First Minister unveiled a massive listening exercise. Today, she is turning a deaf ear to our police. Her Government has made enough mistakes with police reform. Why will she not listen to those who are trying to stop her making another mistake?
First, this Government has protected 1,000 extra police officers on the streets of Scotland, while the Conservatives south of the border have decimated police numbers on the streets of England. That is point 1. Point 2 is that because of our police officers’ dedication, crime in our country is at a 41-year low. It is important to remember that and to give credit to our police officers.
Ruth Davidson always tells us that the Tories are going to be a strong Opposition—we have not seen any evidence of that yet—but then she comes to this Parliament and suggests that this Government can just “ram through” legislation. She is always telling us that we are a minority Government, so if we want to get the legislation through Parliament, we will have to persuade people of the case. That is what we will seek to do.
Instead of coming to this chamber today and indulging in “shoddy politics”, perhaps Ruth Davidson can do her day job and contribute constructively to the process when it gets under way.
Prime Minister (Meetings)
To ask the First Minister when she will next meet the new Prime Minister. (S5F-00177)
I have no immediate plans, but I expect to speak to the Prime Minister regularly as we continue to discuss the implications of Brexit for Scotland and the United Kingdom.
Today, we woke up to the news that in the past year 900 Scottish children had phoned Childline contemplating suicide. That news followed official figures released this week showing yet more missed waiting time targets for child and adolescent mental health services. Will the First Minister tell the chamber how many children and young people have waited more than 52 weeks for treatment since the start of last year?
There have been several hundred young people waiting more than 52 weeks, and that is far too many—one young person waiting more than 52 weeks is far too many.
This is one of the most important challenges that we have to deal with over the years ahead, not just as a Government—although it is our responsibility—but as a society. Demand for child and adolescent mental health services has increased by more than 30 per cent over the past two years. Actually, I take the view that that is a positive development. It does not sound like one, but that increase means that the stigma associated with mental health is decreasing and that more people—in particular, more young people—are feeling able to come forward for help. The figures from Childline that Kezia Dugdale quoted are deeply shocking, but they mean that more young people are coming forward for help.
The challenge that that poses for us, and the responsibility on my shoulders and on the Government’s shoulders, is to make sure that, in the face of that rise in demand, we are building up services to cope with it. That is what we are doing. We have increased funding and resourcing for mental health services, and of course we plan to further increase that funding and resourcing over the course of this parliamentary session.
In the summer, Labour revealed that 460 young Scots had waited more than a year for the treatment that they desperately need. In this week’s figures, the number has risen to 608. That is utterly shameful and nothing short of a national scandal. It is also just the tip of the iceberg. Since January last year, more than 9,000 Scottish children have been referred for mental health treatment, only to have that referral rejected or denied. We do not know why. I say to the First Minister that I am sorry, but I do not consider that to be a positive development.
Can the First Minister explain why thousands of children seeking help have been turned away? If she cannot, will she task her health secretary with commencing a review?
Of course I will ask the health secretary to look into that. There will be a number of clinical reasons why people who are referred are not given treatment, but that does not mean that there will not be underlying system reasons as well.
I absolutely agree that the numbers of young people waiting too long to access services are not good enough, which is why I am absolutely committed—as we have been over the past few years—to building up services. Since this Government took office, investment in mental health services in the national health service has increased by almost 40 per cent. The number of CAMHS psychology posts has more than doubled in the period that we have been in office, and we were the first country in the world to set a target for access to child and adolescent mental health services.
I readily acknowledge that there is more work to do, which is why we set out in our manifesto commitments on health service spending that outstripped by a long way those set out by Labour in its manifesto. As part of that, we have committed to bringing forward a new mental health strategy, as I said on Tuesday, and to backing that strategy with an additional £150 million of resources over the course of this parliamentary session.
I do not deny the importance of the issue and I do not take issue with Kezia Dugdale about its importance, but I hope that she will acknowledge the significant extra investment and significant planned extra investment.
The Information Services Division report says that clinicians are making the referrals, so to suggest that decisions to reject referrals are clinical decisions is a weak argument. I would ask the First Minister to look at that again.
I welcome the £150 million investment. Labour’s manifesto in May proposed guaranteed access to a qualified counsellor for every high school in Scotland. That would cost £8 million, which is a fraction of what the First Minister has committed to spending, and it is exactly the type of early intervention that she tells us she supports. Given that we are the only country in the United Kingdom without a national strategy for school-based counselling, I ask her to seriously examine the proposals that Labour is publishing. If today’s figures do not move the First Minister to act, what will?
The last part of Kezia Dugdale’s question was unfair. There is not one person in the chamber who is not moved by any young person coming forward to seek help for mental health issues. To suggest that the Government is not serious in its intent to tackle the issue is unfair.
I will consider all and any suggestions that anybody makes. If Kezia Dugdale wants to send me proposals, I will ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport considers them.
One of the things that are already being considered as part of our plans for a new mental health strategy is the provision of link workers in general practitioner surgeries as well as in schools. Of course, the person who is already actively considering that is Maureen Watt, who is the dedicated Minister for Mental Health I appointed after the election in May.
There is an absolute commitment on the part of this Government to building up services to deal with the increased demand. However, I say to members across the chamber that we must recognise the context in which we are talking about the issue. This is not about resources having been reduced; resources have increased substantially. The number of people who are working in the area has increased substantially. I mentioned psychology posts, and—although I acknowledge that this is a local authority responsibility—we are also seeing an increase in the number of mental health officers working in Scotland. Resources are increasing but, because demand is also increasing, we must do more. That is exactly why we have in place plans to do more in terms of the strategy and the resources that back it.
We have a local supplementary question from Oliver Mundell.
What action is the Scottish Government taking to help avoid 140 potential job losses at Penman Engineering, which is in my Dumfriesshire constituency and which entered administration last week? Will she guarantee that Scottish Enterprise will pull out all stops and give future financial support in order to help assist the administrator find a suitable buyer?
Scottish Enterprise is already doing just that. Obviously, I was disappointed to hear that Penman Engineering had entered administration, putting 140 jobs at risk. I know that this will be a really difficult time for those who are affected—for the families as well as the local area.
Scottish Enterprise is already working closely with the administrators to help them find a buyer for the business and retain as many jobs as possible. Of course, our partnership action for continuing employment organisation is actively engaged as well, providing support to those who might be faced with a redundancy situation. It has already contacted the company to offer support in the event that redundancies proceed. However, I stress and underline the fact that Scottish Enterprise is working with the administrators to try to avoid redundancies taking place.
We have another local supplementary question, from Sandra White.
What action does the Scottish Government propose to take in light of recent revelations regarding the investigation into the Clutha tragedy?
I was concerned to read the revelations that Sandra White talks about. My thoughts—and, I am sure, the thoughts of everyone in the chamber—continue to be with the families and friends of those who were killed and injured in the Clutha tragedy.
Following the publication of the air accidents investigation branch report into the tragedy, the Crown Office is conducting further investigations into some of the issues that were raised, and a fatal accident inquiry will be held as soon as possible. It is absolutely right that all the evidence can be vigorously tested in a public setting and can then be the subject of judicial determination. The Crown Office will continue to keep the families advised of progress with its investigation.
Given the scale of the tragedy and the impact that it has had on many lives and on the city of Glasgow, it is vital that the families who are affected get the answers that they deserve so much.
To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00161)
I was disappointed earlier this week that the First Minister’s colleagues at Westminster were unsuccessful in persuading the United Kingdom Government to take action on the scandal surrounding Scottish limited partnerships, which are legal entities that are openly marketed as tax avoidance vehicles and which have been associated with corruption and money laundering. This is a scandal that the Scottish Greens first raised last year in the chamber. Since then, there has been growing attention to the matter, including investigative journalism by The Herald and now a campaign by Oxfam in Scotland, which is calling on all politicians to back its statement against tax avoidance in general and to take action on Scottish limited partnerships in particular. The Scottish Greens support that statement. Will the First Minister give her backing to it as well?
Yes, I certainly support the sentiments. I was also disappointed that the debate that was sparked by Scottish National Party MPs in the House of Commons did not result in the action that Patrick Harvie and I wanted to see. I was disappointed that the Conservatives voted against the SNP amendment—that does not sit well with the new Prime Minister’s stated commitment to taking on the unethical practices of some big businesses. We need to be firm in saying that companies should pay the taxes that they are due to pay, because those taxes fund the public services that we all rely on. It is a reserved issue, as Patrick Harvie is aware, but SNP MPs in the House of Commons and the Scottish Government, to the extent that we are able, will continue to press for action in the area.
I am glad to hear that answer and hope that the Scottish Government will be vociferous in rattling the cage of the UK Government on the matter. My colleague Andy Wightman is in correspondence with ministers about the issue as well, and I hope that every opportunity will also be taken to use devolved responsibilities where they connect with the issue of tax avoidance.
I have called for the Scottish Government to restrict the availability of taxpayer-funded support to businesses that indulge in tax avoidance—for example, by using tax havens. The First Minister has this week announced a new £0.5 billion fund to provide loans and guarantees to companies. Surely we have a right to expect that such taxpayer-funded or taxpayer-guaranteed schemes are not available to the corporate kleptomaniacs who indulge in tax avoidance. Will the First Minister give us a guarantee that such taxpayer-funded and Government-provided support schemes will not be available to tax dodgers?
I was in the chamber the other day when Keith Brown answered a question on that very point—from Patrick Harvie, I think, although I may have got that wrong. Keith Brown said that we will, of course, take account of that issue in any schemes that we are responsible for. The growth scheme is principally designed to help small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly new ones in emerging markets. We will continue to press the UK Government to take action on the issue that Patrick Harvie raises and SNP MPs will continue to take the actions that I have spoken about.
Patrick Harvie might be interested to know that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution wrote to Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, last month to ask that SLPs be included in the central register of people with significant control under the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015.
We will continue to press the UK Government to take action where it has responsibility and, where we have responsibility, we will continue to act accordingly. I know that the point has been made in the chamber many times before but, where we have tax responsibility, we have put in place some of the toughest anti-tax avoidance measures that exist anywhere in the world.
We have a number of open supplementary questions.
Last week, Ruth Davidson’s office issued a comment on Christian Allard, the former MSP, questioning his right to comment on issues in his home constituency due to the fact that he is a European Union citizen. Rather than immediately apologise and withdraw the deeply offensive and xenophobic remark that had been issued from her office, Ruth Davidson first asked her spin doctor to apologise and, when pushed, last night issued a contemptuous, sarcastic response that in no way acknowledged the seriousness of the issue. Does the First Minister agree that, in the tense political climate that has been caused by the EU referendum, all politicians have a duty to lead by example and set the right tone for political debate? Does she agree that Ruth Davidson should publicly issue a personal apology without further delay?
I saw Ruth Davidson laugh when James Dornan asked that question, but I think that this is a serious issue. The remarks that were made about Christian Allard from Ruth Davidson’s office, suggesting that an EU citizen—even though they live here and contribute here—does not deserve a say about the community that they live in, are unacceptable. In the current climate, political leaders have a responsibility to set the tone. This week, we heard that the Home Secretary has had to assure the Polish Government that the UK Government takes seriously the concerns that exist about hate crimes being committed towards Polish citizens in the UK. How much are those efforts undermined when the leader of the Conservatives in Scotland casually dismisses completely unacceptable remarks about EU citizens?
If another day passes when Ruth Davidson fails to offer a full retraction and an unreserved apology for the remarks that were made from her own office, the people of Scotland will be entitled to question the character of the Conservative Party.
During the parliamentary recess, the “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland” figures were published. The figures demonstrated that there is a union dividend worth £1,600 for every man, woman and child in Scotland, equating to more than £7,000 for a family of four in one year. The First Minister claims to be concerned about the impact of austerity. Why would she impose that super-austerity on Scottish families by taking that money away from them?
I know that the Conservatives are desperate to talk about anything right now except the uncertainty that they have visited on the Scottish economy in the form of Brexit. It is the Conservatives’ reckless gamble over the EU referendum that has taken us to the exit door of the EU against our will and it is the Conservatives’ complete inability to answer any questions about what Brexit might look like that is causing so much uncertainty for the Scottish economy. It is about time that, instead of scaremongering about other things, we got some answers from the Conservative Party. Maybe the Scottish Conservatives can answer the question that Theresa May could not answer yesterday: should we be in the single market, yes or no?
Earlier this week, the First Minister referred in her legislative programme to the development of a strategic action plan to reflect the significant possibilities of oil and gas decommissioning, which will require facilities around the country. She may be aware that Lyness, in my constituency, is under consideration for the development of such proposals, drawing on the deepwater harbour at Scapa Flow and indeed the proximity to the North Sea, which WWF has said makes environmental sense. Will she assure me and my constituents that, in developing the strategic action plan, Scottish Enterprise will fully reflect the skills, resources and opportunities for development of those facilities?
I am delighted to give that assurance; in fact, I will ask the chief executive of Scottish Enterprise to arrange a meeting between relevant officials there and Liam McArthur in order that the legitimate and valid points that he has raised today are fully incorporated in that action plan.
International Council of Education Advisers (Update)
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will provide an update following the first meeting of the international council of education advisers. (S5F-00184)
The first meeting of the international council of education advisers was very successful and extremely helpful. The advisers were able to share their wide experience of working in education systems around the world. Discussion was wide ranging, but had a focus on Scotland’s twin aims of excellence and equity for all children.
Going forward, the council will look in more detail at capacity building, collaboration and closing the equity gap. It will meet again in plenary session in February.
“teachers in the 21st century need to be critically informed with professional values, knowledge and actions that ensure positive impact on learners and learning.”
Those are not my words, but those of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, which is the body that sets professional standards for teachers in Scotland. Does the First Minister agree that headteachers and local authorities must work collaboratively in planning appropriate professional learning opportunities for all staff, thereby ensuring that teachers can engage with educational research to develop teaching practice and thus contribute to closing the attainment gap?
Yes, I agree with that. Ensuring that our teachers are supported to have opportunities for professional development is absolutely central to giving children the best-quality education possible. That is why this year we are investing £1 million in masters-level training for teachers.
I agree with the General Teaching Council that collaboration and high-quality professional learning opportunities are important. Teacher professionalism and school leadership feature strongly in the national improvement framework and delivery plan that was published in June by the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education. In fact, one of the key themes of the discussions at the international council of education advisers last week was the importance of supporting teachers to develop professionally as much as possible.
Will the First Minister confirm whether her international panel of experts has provided the evidence that shows that there is a very strong link between a rise in educational attainment and greater school autonomy?
The international council of education advisers met for the first time last week; we are asking it to advise us and give us the benefit of its expert opinion on a range of issues. However, there is evidence on the link between school attainment and the amount of autonomy that individual headteachers have. That is why one of the key themes of the governance review that John Swinney will publish next week, and on which we will then consult, is how we can empower headteachers and give teachers much more responsibility so that they are able to drive the improvement that we need. Our council of education advisers will advise us on the best ways of doing that and will scrutinise our plans. The link is one that I think we have already accepted in formulating our plan so far.
It emerged this week that the only educational advice underpinning the Scottish Government’s national standardised assessments amounted to four emails from two educationists, and that most of their advice was not taken. Even at this late stage, will the First Minister undertake to ask the international council to examine and advise on that central policy?
The council advises us on all such issues and will do so on an on-going basis.
I have to say that last time that I looked Labour supported the approach that we are taking on standardised assessments, although the way things change in Labour, I could be forgiven for missing something.
As I have said repeatedly in the chamber, standardised assessments are not tests; they are assessments to inform the judgments that teachers make about the performance of young people. It is important that they exist in order to ensure that those judgments are informed in an objective way and that, from that, we are given information that allows us to assess the attainment gap and to set targets to close it so that we can be accountable to Parliament and the wider public on the commitment that we have given to close that gap. I am absolutely determined that we will do that. We will take advice from our council and others, but we will be unwavering in our commitment to deliver the best education for all young people across Scotland.
To ask the First Minister what measures the Scottish Government is taking to reverse the reported decline in inward investment, including as a share of the United Kingdom total. (S5F-00153)
We are looking in detail at the recently published Department for International Trade figures, which showed a small decrease in inward investment to Scotland over the past year. Those figures have a different methodology from the more specific foreign direct investment figures that were published by Ernst & Young in May. The EY survey has placed Scotland in the top two locations for foreign direct investment outside London for the past six years. It also showed that 2015 was a record year, with 119 foreign direct investment projects secured, which is a 51 per cent increase on 2014. That reflects the important role that Scottish Development International plays in attracting inward investment to Scotland.
Scotland remains a highly competitive business location, but one of the key reasons why inward investors come to Scotland is access to the single market. That is why it is essential that we retain that.
I am aware of the figures and the different studies to which the First Minister referred. However, the DIT figures are the latest ones and they show the reality that investment in Scotland is down 9 per cent on last year, new jobs are down 23 per cent and Scotland’s share of new UK projects is down from 6 per cent to 4.9 per cent. It is not the European Union referendum that can be blamed for that but, rather, the First Minister’s threat of a further independence referendum, which hangs like a dark cloud over Scotland. The people of Scotland have spoken in plain English. No means no. When will she accept that?
The EY figures are for the calendar year 2015, whereas the DIT figures are for the financial year 2015-16, so there is a difference of a few months. Let me wonder: what was the uncertainty that hung over the Scottish economy in the latter part of the financial year 2015-16? The only uncertainty that hung over the Scottish economy at that point was the looming referendum on EU membership.
I still remember 2014, when the Tories went all around Scotland telling people that voting no was the only way to secure European Union membership, but now they are trying to wriggle off the hook because they have put that membership in jeopardy. The uncertainty that faces our economy now is the reckless gamble of the Tories in taking us to the EU exit door. For the people who have caused the problem to try to blame those of us who are trying to find solutions is a bit like an arsonist trying to blame the fire brigade. The Tories should be utterly ashamed of themselves.
I am sure that the First Minister shares the disappointment that, having seen positive inward investment figures, we are now seeing subsequent decline. We can argue over whose figures are right, but it is the case that inward investment figures are down, as is the number of jobs generated, and we appear to be doing less well than the rest of the UK.
I absolutely disagree with Gordon Lindhurst. It is not the case that Brexit has had no impact, but that Brexit and continuing uncertainty about a potential referendum have had an impact on inward investment. What will the First Minister do to address this?
It is not that long since Jackie Baillie agreed with Gordon Lindhurst; she, too, travelled Scotland in 2014 telling us that we had to vote no to protect our European Union membership. She should reflect on that.
Let me address directly inward investment. Scotland is a success story in inward investment—the EY reports going back six years show that. In the new climate that Scotland is in, we will have to work even harder to attract inward investment. That is why I announced in the programme for government the new investment and innovation hubs that we are establishing in London, Dublin and Brussels, that is why we are supporting Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International, and that is why we are announcing all the initiatives to support the economy.
Jackie Baillie talks about uncertainty. The problem for the Labour Party is that there is one certainty now if Labour does not get its act together. Owen Smith said that the other day and Kezia Dugdale has said it. It is the certainty of Scotland being governed by the Tories for 20 years. Jackie Baillie and Labour have nothing to say about that. We will get on with the job of supporting the Scottish economy and leave Labour to stew in the juice of its own making.
Train Services (Safety)
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will convene a working group of ScotRail representatives, passenger and disability groups and trade unions to review and report on the delivery of safer train services. (S5F-00147)
We welcome the views of all parties on how we can further improve our railways. Elaine Smith will be aware of forums already established through the ScotRail franchise, such as the stakeholder equality group and advisory groups that include attendees from passenger and mobility groups. We will also shortly be publishing the accessible travel framework for Scotland to ensure that disabled people are involved in improving all aspects of transport from policy to delivery.
The safe operation of our railways remains our first priority, and of course we must respect the remit of the independent safety regulator in overseeing the safe operation of our railway, which continues to be one of the safest in Europe. The Minister for Transport and the Islands, Humza Yousaf, will be very happy to hold a meeting with Elaine Smith to discuss this issue further if she is interested in taking up that offer.
Rail passengers in Scotland—particularly those with disabilities—and the members of the National Union of Rail and Maritime Transport Workers in the public gallery today will be disappointed by the response that there will not be a working group convened. Is the First Minister aware that thousands of driver-controlled trains are operated by ScotRail without a second member of staff on board? Does she appreciate that the guards’ safety-critical role is not just about operating doors—vitally important though that is for safety? It involves numerous responsibilities around passenger safety, assistance, comfort and security.
Given the current suspension of strike action, I would be pleased to accept the offer to meet the transport minister to discuss how we can guarantee the safest possible operating procedures on our trains.
Elaine Smith raises very important issues and the transport minister will engage fully, both with her and other members and with the RMT and other unions.
It is important to point out that, with driver-controlled operation, the rail safety regulator and the Rail Safety and Standards Board have publicly confirmed that in their view it is a safe method of working. They did that because Humza Yousaf asked them to reaffirm their view in the context of the recent dispute.
Positively, as Elaine Smith has indicated, industrial action has now been suspended while both parties look to work through an agreement. I hope that that process ends in a positive agreement and that we can look forward to a situation in the months ahead where passengers do not have any further disruption to the services that they rely on.
General Practice Surgeries (Training Places)
To ask the First Minister for what reason more than a quarter of training places in GP surgeries were not filled at the end of the 2016 recruitment round. (S5F-00163)
I am surprised that Alex Cole-Hamilton does not know that we are not at the end of the 2016 recruitment round yet—it is still on-going.
From the first round of advertising this year, three quarters of places have been filled so far; even at this interim stage, we have recruited 4 per cent more year 1 GP trainees than when the full recruitment process was completed last year.
This summer, a second round has started, which has advertised a further 100 places. That takes the total number of places advertised for recruitment this year to 439, which exceeds our target of advertising 400 places. This year, of course, we are also offering £20,000 bursaries for harder-to-fill places.
When we take all general practitioners in training into account—not just year 1 entrants—the current fill rate for GP training is 92 per cent.
It is nevertheless clear from the statistics that making places available does not necessarily mean that trainees will emerge to fill them. Indeed, in the year since the Liberal Democrats started repeatedly to raise the GP crisis at First Minister’s question time, we have lost a further 90 to the profession.
One in four patients presents to Scottish surgeries with underlying mental health conditions. Does the First Minister agree that we can relieve pressure on GPs’ practices, such as those in my Edinburgh Western constituency in particular, by stationing qualified full-time mental health practitioners—not just link workers—in every surgery in Scotland?
I very much agree with Alex Cole-Hamilton: it is a statement of the obvious to say that it is not just advertising places that counts; it is a matter of filling those places with doctors. That is why I hoped that Alex Cole-Hamilton would have welcomed the fact that, at this interim stage in 2016, we are already ahead of where we were at the end of last year’s process. There is still work to be done, but clear progress is being made.
We are taking a number of steps, including the bursary that I spoke about, to ensure that places in harder-to-fill areas are more attractive to doctors to take up.
On the wider point about relieving pressure on GPs, that is, of course, why we are working with GPs to transform primary care. We have plans in place to put 250 community link workers into GP practices. That directly addresses the point that Alex Cole-Hamilton made about mental health support.
We also have plans to ensure that all GP practices get access to an enhanced pharmacist. We are investing in an additional 500 advanced nurse practitioners to bolster the skills of the profession, and we are looking to recruit 1,000 new paramedics to work in community settings. That will help to take the pressure off not just GPs but our accident and emergency services.
I recognise the pressure on GPs, and I thank them for the incredible work that they do. We are determined to work with them to ensure that we have a primary care system and a health service generally that are fit for the challenges of the future.
Brexit (Business Support)
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is ensuring accelerated funding and additional business support in light of Brexit uncertainty. (S5F-00183)
Earlier this week, I announced that we intend to use the strength of our balance sheet to establish a new Scottish growth fund. Over three years, that will provide small and medium-sized enterprises with up to £500 million of investment guarantees and some loans up to a maximum of £5 million per eligible business.
I also announced 16 projects that will support and create employment as part of our £100 million capital investment package. They include a £20 million investment in energy saving measures for homes and public sector buildings, £23 million to upgrade the higher education estate, and £10 million that will go towards local economic development projects throughout the country. All of that spending is, of course, accelerated into this financial year.
Responding to the Federation of Small Businesses, we have also created a new single point of contact for businesses in Scotland to enable individual companies to submit any questions or concerns that they have about the impact of Brexit.
Does the First Minister agree that it is high time that the United Kingdom Government followed our lead and announced its own economic stimulus package rather than continuing to brush off all concerns about the future of our economy by repeating its meaningless mantra “Brexit means Brexit”?
Yes, I do. On 10 August, when I announced the £100 million package, I called on the UK Government to urgently develop its own economic stimulus plans. One month on, we have not seen any meaningful action to alleviate uncertainty. For goodness’ sake, we do not yet even know the date of the autumn statement. That is the extent of the uncertainty that currently engulfs the UK Government.
I have great confidence in the resilience of Scottish business, but there are real concerns that the damage to the economy and jobs from the Brexit decision and the UK Government’s confusion since then will be severe and long lasting.
The Parliament has given the Scottish Government a mandate to seek to protect Scotland’s interests, and that is exactly what we will continue to do.
Can the First Minister reassure our farming businesses across Scotland that the shambles of this year’s direct farm payments will not be repeated in the coming year? Never mind accelerated payments, I had farmers at my door at the weekend telling me that they still have not received the payments that were due from the Scottish Government nine months ago.
As we have said previously, we acknowledge our shortcomings when it comes to making payments to farmers this year. We have apologised for that, and I do so again today.
As of 5 September, of 18,300 eligible farmers, more than 17,700 have had payment, more than 17,400 have been paid in full and we have paid loans to those who are still awaiting the payment.
Fergus Ewing will give a full update to Parliament next week, on 13 September. As well as giving an update on payments for this year, he will set out our intentions regarding the 2016 payments.
That concludes First Minister’s questions.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am sure that all members—back-bench members, anyway—will appreciate the new arrangements for First Minister’s questions, which give back-bench members more opportunities. Could I clarify with you that supplementary questions on question 3 and question 4 do not have to be sent in advance to your office, and that they can be more spontaneous?
Also, Presiding Officer, you wrote to us about the subject matter of questions. Could you confirm that, although a subject might have been raised at general questions, that does not preclude it from being raised at First Minister’s questions? To give an example, I had hoped to ask about the downgrading of Monklands hospital and to issue a request to the health minister to attend. That was a subject matter at general questions but not at First Minister’s questions. Is that the kind of question that would be in order at question 3 or 4?
I thank Elaine Smith for the question, and yes—she is correct on both points. Members do not have to submit to me the supplementaries that come after the final leaders’ questions. It might help if you do, if you think it is likely to increase your chances of being selected, but do not feel obliged to—it might decrease your chances. [Laughter.]
Secondly, Elaine Smith is right that members cannot ask the same question as is on the Business Bulletin for First Minister’s questions, but if the subject has been raised in general questions, they should feel free to ask again. I hope that is helpful.