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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 8, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 08 November 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Motion of Remembrance, Care Homes (South Lanarkshire), Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Inclusive Education, Business Motion, Prescription (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Prescription (Scotland) Bill, Code of Conduct (Breach), Decision Time, Point of Order


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


General Practice (Investment)

Why is the Scottish National Party Government still choosing to invest less in general practice than is invested in other parts of the United Kingdom?

I do not accept that characterisation. We are investing record sums in our national health service more generally. Per capita spending on the NHS in Scotland is significantly higher than it is elsewhere in the UK. If we were to match UK levels, we would require to take around £850 million out of our NHS budget in a single year. Our spending levels are therefore ahead of the rest of the UK.

In general practice, or primary care, which is the more appropriate term these days as we seek to expand primary care teams, we have set a clear target to shift the balance of spend towards primary care and achieve a particular proportion of the overall NHS budget that is dedicated to services in GP practices and the wider primary care team.

We will get on with doing that work. It is the right direction of travel. When it is accompanied by, for example, the integration of health and social care—we are the first part of the UK to undertake that reform—it underlines the fact that the Government is investing in our NHS and carrying out essential reforms to it.

That was a pretty speech, but it was not an answer to the question that I posed. In each and every one of the past five years, investment in general practice has been lower in Scotland than it has been south of the border. That is a spending gap that has amounted to a whopping £660 million of support lost to primary care in Scotland. The Royal College of General Practitioners is now warning that, during the next five years, as a consequence of extra demand on services, we could be short of more than 900 family doctors in Scotland because of, in the RCGP’s words, a “long-standing underfunding” of GP practices. Is the RCGP wrong?

We are working with general practitioners and wider primary care teams. I have already made the point that is beyond any argument about the higher levels of per capita NHS spend in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

By the end of the current parliamentary session—and this is a clear target that we have set—we will be investing an additional £500 million in primary care, including £250 million in direct support for general practice. That will raise primary care’s share of the NHS front-line budget to 11 per cent by the end of the current parliamentary session. I seem to recall that, when that target was set, it was welcomed by GPs and the wider primary care teams.

We will also ensure that there is a pay rise for GPs so that general practice remains an attractive career. We have a whole range of recruitment initiatives and incentives to get more people into medical professions, and general practice in particular. We also have the new GP contract in place, which ensures that GPs are well rewarded and that we have the right focus on building primary care teams.

Finally, when I make comparisons with the rest of the UK, Jackson Carlaw says that it is not legitimate to do so, but he is doing exactly that today. We have more GPs per 100,000 of our population than the rest of the UK has. In Scotland, we have 91 for every 100,000 people compared to just 71 per 100,000 people in England. Our record withstands scrutiny and we have set out a clear direction of travel for the future.

I am sure that the RCGP will be very impressed with that slap down.

Last week, in very revealing language, the First Minister said that the £550 million coming to health was “only £550 million.” I have had a look, and it turns out that it is almost £200 million more than the Scottish Government’s own increase for the NHS in its previous budget. Why is it all hearts and flowers when Nicola Sturgeon comes up with the money and all grudge and grievance when Westminster gives an extra £550 million to Scotland’s NHS?

We are clear that more of that increased resource should be going to general practice because, self-evidently, more funding for GPs will help our NHS, keep people out of hospital and reduce demand on critical services. The Scottish National Party says that it will eventually increase spending on primary care to 11 per cent of NHS spending, but GPs have been told that they will have to wait until 2021 to see it. Why will they have to wait? Will the First Minister do the right thing and give Scotland’s GPs and patients the support that they need now?

Perhaps if Jackson Carlaw had looked at the matter more closely in advance of question time, he would have known that investment in primary care has gone up in every year of this Government. Of course, we are now working towards that 11 per cent target. Why does that have to be done on a phased basis? It is so that we do not destabilise acute services. We have to get the balance right.

Let me give Jackson Carlaw a few more facts to chew over after this exchange has finished. Overall health spending is more than 7 per cent higher per head in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. As I said a moment ago, if we were to match the UK Government’s health spending plans, our NHS would lose £850 million in this year alone. We have given a commitment to pass on all revenue consequentials to the NHS. Those consequentials are not just a gift from the UK Government; they come from Scottish taxpayers’ money that goes to the Treasury before it comes back to Scotland.

Three contextual points still require to be made. First, those consequentials would be wiped out if we were to give tax cuts to the richest, as the Tories want us to do. Secondly, that £550 million, however welcome it may be, is not the £600 million that the Tories promised the Scottish budget. Yet again, the Tories are short-changing the Scottish budget and the Scottish health service. Finally, it does not take away the fact, which was confirmed by the Fraser of Allander institute in its report this morning, that from the Tories coming to power in 2010 to the end of this decade, the Scottish budget will reduce by £2 billion in real terms.

Therefore, we will take no lectures from the Conservatives on these matters. Instead, we will continue to provide record funding for our national health service.

Actually, the Fraser of Allander institute is crystal clear that the growth in health spending in Scotland will double the previous projections.

The Government’s record no longer fills people with confidence. We just heard the First Minister say that it does not want to destabilise the NHS, but this is a week in which we have had warnings of huge job losses in NHS Tayside, reports of locum consultants in the Highlands picking up £400,000 a year and news that delayed discharge in Scotland has reached its worst level in two years, despite promises to abolish it. That is all part of a growing legacy not just of destabilising Scotland’s health service but of 11 and a half years of SNP incompetence.

The £550 million budget investment in Scotland’s NHS is an opportunity to put in place a sustainable long-term plan. This morning, the Fraser of Allander institute explicitly reports that, if the SNP does not take that opportunity, even more money will eventually be needed.

Saving the family doctor is our priority; securing the future of GPs is essential. Will the First Minister use the investment to plan for the long term, or is it to be squandered yet again, as it has been for more than a decade, on short-term fixes?

Jackson Carlaw started his questioning by suggesting that we are not spending enough money on the NHS. He then cited a Fraser of Allander institute report that shows that the proportion of the total Scottish Government budget that is dedicated to health is rising and has been rising year on year. He talks about confidence but forgets to tell us that patient satisfaction is at a record high since 2014, with 86 per cent of people rating their in-patient experience positively. He also forgets to tell us that the Fraser of Allander institute says that, per capita, the real-terms reduction in the Scottish Government budget over the decade is 7 per cent. Those are the facts.

Jackson Carlaw also mentioned delayed discharge. The most recent annual report, which was published in September, showed a reduction of 6 per cent in bed days lost to delayed discharge, which builds on reductions of 3 per cent in the previous year and 9 per cent in the year before that. There has been a decrease of 37 per cent in delayed discharge since 2006.

Those figures are the fruits of our investment, and we will continue to invest in the health service and to reform it. While the Tory Government at \Westminster continues to preside over real-terms cuts to the Scottish budget, we will get on with the job of delivering for patients across the country.


Debt (Time Limits for Recovery)

Time limits are essential in any legal system, but does the First Minister think that governmental bodies should have up to 20 years before they begin to pursue a person for debt? (S5F-02744)

I am sure that Richard Leonard will go on to tell me the particular context in which he has asked that question. When he does so, I will be happy to seek to answer it in detail. Obviously, the different contexts that might apply might have implications for the answer that I would give. I look forward to hearing his next question.

This afternoon, Parliament will debate the Prescription (Scotland) Bill. Under the current system, the Department for Work and Pensions can take up to 20 years to notify people of debt relating to overpayment of benefits. However, the problem is not just about the DWP; Scotland’s councils also have 20 years in which to notify people about council tax debts.

The Scottish Labour Party thinks that it is unfair that, 20 years after it was incurred, a person can be chased for a debt of which they had no knowledge, when no previous action had been taken. That situation could be ended in Parliament this afternoon when, in the stage 3 debate on the Prescription (Scotland) Bill, Scottish Labour will move amendments that would cut the period to five years. That would mean that, under Scots law, Scotland’s councils and the DWP would have five years, not 20, in which to notify people of debt. Why are Scottish National Party members planning to vote against that proposal this afternoon?

They will do so to protect debtors, actually.

I am glad that Richard Leonard has told me what he was asking about. Had he done so in his first question, I could have given him the answer that he was looking for.

In the submissions that it made at stage 1 of the Prescription (Scotland) Bill, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities was very clear that any amendment that shortens the period in which overpayments can be recovered would hurt debtors most. If a debt had to be recovered within five years, that could mean higher repayment instalments, which could cause greater hardship to debtors. We have listened to COSLA’s view. It also said:

“The consequences of moving to a 5-year prescription period would be so significant that any consideration of such a change should be subject to full public consultation and financial scrutiny.”

The bill is not the place in which to try to make changes to council tax—or to reserved benefits—by the back door.

There may be a wider discussion to be had on the matter, but Parliament has considered such issues as the bill has gone through its stages. The Scottish Government has accepted the view of the Scottish Law Commission that the proposals should be accepted, and that exceptions should maintain the status quo as it is generally understood.

Let me be clear: Labour’s amendments are supported by Citizens Advice Scotland, Money Advice Scotland and StepChange Debt Charity Scotland. Those organisations are on the front line: day in and day out they witness the human cost of such an unfair and unjust system. They have told us of a parent who stopped receiving child tax credits 10 years ago and was recently presented with a bill for almost £4,000, and of a son who moved in with his mother in order to care for her who was handed a bill for more than £3,000 for council tax arrears going back eight years.

The system as it stands is not only unnecessary: it is cruel. It does not serve the interests of the individual, but it does not serve the public interest, either. This afternoon, we have the opportunity to change that. Why will the First Minister not grab it?

I have explained the reasons for that. The issues have been considered as the bill has gone through its parliamentary stages. However, it is important to say that there was, as I understand the situation, no dedicated consultation on the amendments in question. There is a view that there might well be a wider debate to be had on the matter. I certainly hope that all councils and other organisations would act sensitively in cases of the kind that Richard Leonard has raised, but it is better to have that debate properly, and with full scrutiny and full public consultation. I am happy to give an undertaking that the Government will consider whether that wider discussion is merited. However, the bill is narrowly drawn, and it would be wrong to make such changes by the back door instead of focusing on them properly.

We have a number of constituency supplementaries, the first of which is from Shona Robison.


Michelin Tyre plc (Dundee)

Will the First Minister take this opportunity to join me in paying tribute to the Michelin workforce and local managers in Dundee for showing such resilience, tenacity and flexibility in the face of previous and, of course, current challenges? Will she reaffirm her support and that of the Scottish Government, and do everything within her power and whatever is possible to help either to retain or to repurpose the plant, and save as many jobs as possible?

Finally, will the First Minister use her offices to persuade the United Kingdom Government to contribute, as a minimum, a further £50 million to the Tay cities deal in order to match Scottish Government funding?

I thank Shona Robison for her question and for engaging with Derek Mackay over the past few days to ensure that discussions with the local management at Michelin and the unions have been as constructive as they have been. Clearly, this week’s news has been devastating to the 845 workers at Michelin, their families and, of course, the wider community in Dundee, and my thoughts are with all of them at this time.

Let me be clear, as Derek Mackay was in the chamber earlier this week: we will do everything we can to find a sustainable future for the plant. Our absolute priority is to pursue options for the site to continue with commercial production, and we will leave no stone unturned in working with Michelin, Dundee City Council and other partners to secure a positive future for the plant, its workers and the wider community. I hope that we have the support of all parties in the chamber as we take that work forward.

We will continue to call on the UK Government to match the Scottish Government’s contribution to the Tay cities deal. As Derek Mackay told Parliament on Tuesday, the Scottish Government will continue to look at all reasonable suggestions for additional funding that it might provide, but a good place to start would be for the UK Government to commit an additional £50 million to match the contribution from the Scottish Government, and to ensure that all partners can look to invest the money for the benefit of the wider community. We will do everything possible to support Michelin, its workers and Dundee.


Stranraer Train Services

Stranraer was without a train service for more than two months, because of the closure of platform 4 at Ayr station as a result of safety concerns about the stability of Ayr Station hotel. Moreover, road closures on several weekends led to lengthy delays. Such a situation would be totally unacceptable elsewhere.

I put on the record the hard work of the ScotRail Alliance and others on the task force in getting trains running again last weekend, but line closures must not happen again. Will the First Minister give the people of Stranraer her personal commitment that she will intervene to ensure that contingency plans are instated quickly so that temporary platforms can be set up at the south of Ayr station in the event of platform 4 being closed in the future?

We will do everything possible to mitigate any future disruption. I know how difficult the situation has been. Of course, what happened at Ayr station was unavoidable, and ScotRail acted as quickly as possible to ensure that disruption was kept to a minimum.

It is good that trains are running again, but we must all work to ensure that the right plans and contingency options are in place so that the disruption is not replicated, so I give that undertaking today.


Skretting UK

Skretting UK has announced this week that it will cease all operations in the United Kingdom, including its manufacturing base in Invergordon in my constituency. What support can the Scottish Government give to the employees both in Invergordon and at the storage site in Kishorn who will be affected by this decision?

I was very concerned to learn that Skretting plans to cease production at its plant in Invergordon and to close its distribution centre on Shetland. This will obviously be an anxious time for the company’s staff, their families and the local areas involved.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise is engaged with the company locally and is seeking to engage with Skretting management in Norway. Highlands and Islands Enterprise is exploring all possible avenues of support to help secure a buyer for the business and retain jobs. However, in the unfortunate event of there being job losses, our partnership action for continuing employment team stands ready to offer its full support to staff. PACE does everything that it can to help those affected by redundancy to get back into work as quickly as possible. We understand that there are no immediate prospects of job losses at the warehouse in Kishorn that is used by Skretting and operated by a third party, and I can assure Gail Ross that everything possible will be done to support the company and the workers involved.


Craig McClelland (Public Inquiry)

I am sure that the whole chamber is aware of the tragic case of Craig McClelland, and that all our thoughts are with his three little children, who will grow up without their father. They will do so because he was murdered by a dangerous criminal who was unlawfully at large and had been for nearly six months. Two reviews have indicated that there were significant failures, but they were not specifically tasked with looking at what went wrong in this case.

Craig’s family have conducted themselves with unbelievable strength and dignity. Unfortunately, they have not been able to find the answers to the questions that they have been asking, and they still do not have confidence that the correct lessons have been learned or that changes have been made to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to another family. The McClelland family now believes that only a full public inquiry will give them the answers that they deserve. Can the First Minister give them her support?

This was an absolutely awful crime, and I cannot begin to imagine how Craig McClelland’s family and friends are feeling. I am not surprised that there are answers that they still seek and that they feel that they have not yet had the opportunity to get those answers.

The two inspectorates reviewed the processes that led to James Wright, who committed this awful crime, being released and the actions that were then taken to apprehend him. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice set out the Scottish Government’s acceptance of all the recommendations from the inspectorates and set out in this chamber a number of immediate additional safeguards that have been or will be put in place to strengthen the home detention curfew processes. For example, there is now a presumption that individuals who are convicted of violence and knife crime will not, in normal circumstances, receive home detention curfews, so lessons have been learned from this dreadful, tragic case, and I hope that members across the chamber welcome that.

On the further action that Craig McClelland’s family consider is appropriate, the justice secretary has offered to meet them again and that offer stands. The justice secretary will be happy to discuss with them the actions that they consider appropriate and we will give full consideration, as a Government, to each and every one of them.


Michelin Tyre plc (Dundee)

I want to return to Michelin in Dundee. It affects real people’s lives and real people’s jobs. They have a right to expect Governments and local authorities to stand up for them. Michelin has been a giant presence in the city of Dundee. We need to do everything that we can through the Tay cities deal and other measures to keep as many jobs in the city as possible. When Michelin pulled out of its Ballymena plant, there was a decent redundancy deal for the workers that paid proper respect to their services. Workers deserve that. Will the First Minister ensure that any Dundee workers who are made redundant get that Ballymena deal or better?

I thank Willie Rennie for raising the issue and I agree with him entirely that it is incredibly important. It affects real people and real jobs, and the Government will do everything that we possibly can to support people in these incredibly difficult times. In agreeing with Willie Rennie’s point, I hope that he will understand when I say that, if redundancies are inevitable, we will want workers to get the best possible deal, and Michelin has, as I understand it, already given commitments that that will be the case.

However, we do not want to assume at this stage that that is an inevitable outcome. Right now, our focus is on doing everything that we can to find a sustainable future for the plant that will see commercial production continue there. The action group that will meet on Monday, under the convenership of Derek Mackay, will be focused on bringing together a plan and Scottish Enterprise will be central to that.

In such situations, I cannot stand here and guarantee that that will prove to be possible. However, if it does not prove possible, that will not be for want of trying. I hope that Willie Rennie understands that that is what we want to focus on in the short to medium term, but that if redundancies have to happen, we will absolutely demand that workers get the best possible package.

The First Minister is right to focus on keeping as many jobs as possible. I am pleased that the company has given that commitment and I hope that we will hold it to that commitment.

Brexit is another issue that will not help those Michelin workers. I was pleased that, yesterday, the Scottish Parliament officially backed a people’s vote—the support for that from members of the Scottish Parliament has gone from five to 65 MSPs. Momentum is building for the British people to have the final say and to save us from the economic damage that will come with Brexit.

Previously, the First Minister has talked about compromising with the United Kingdom Government. The backstop could involve the whole of the UK remaining in the customs union for an unspecified time. Will the First Minister clarify whether that would be enough for her to support the deal? I hope that she rejects it and opposes everything but a people’s vote. What does she think?

That would not be enough for me to give my support to the deal. I make no apology for trying to compromise in the interests of the Scottish people. However, I have said openly, expressly and explicitly that the bottom line for me, the Scottish Government and the Scottish National Party is permanent, unequivocal membership of both the single market and the customs union. That said, I would prefer that we remained in the European Union as full members—I would prefer Scotland to be in the European Union as a full independent member.

We will continue to do everything that we can to protect Scotland’s interests, Scottish jobs and Scottish living standards. That is why we have said that if the proposal comes before the House of Commons, we would support the option of a people’s vote, to give people across the UK the opportunity to change their mind. Of course, that would not involve people in Scotland changing their minds, because the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union at the first time of asking.


Instrumental Music Tuition (Fees)

Yesterday, the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee heard from two members of the Scottish Youth Parliament, who told us how the rise in instrumental music tuition fees of hundreds of pounds was creating Victorian levels of inequality, where only the wealthy can afford to take up an instrument. Does the First Minister believe that that is acceptable and does she recognise that councils need powers to raise the money that they need to give our young people all the opportunities that they deserve?

Some councils already provide music tuition on the basis that Ross Greer is suggesting and we would encourage other local authorities to consider that. The Scottish Government provides support for other music initiatives, such as Sistema—although I am not suggesting for a second that Sistema is a substitute for music tuition in schools.

On the overall support that we provide to councils, in this financial year—with the agreement of the Green Party—we are providing real-terms increases in local government budgets. We are currently in the process of finalising next year’s budget and I am sure that local government finance as well as a range of other matters will continue to be the subject of intense discussion.


Attacks on Neil Lennon (Bigotry and Racism)

The First Minister will be aware of last week’s attack on Neil Lennon and the subsequent comments from Mr Lennon that the numerous attacks that he has endured in Scotland resulted from bigotry and racism. Such treatment is wholly unacceptable in a modern and progressive country. Will the First Minister join me in condemning anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-Irish racism and commit the Scottish Government to urgent action to root out those unacceptable attitudes and behaviour?

I thank James Kelly for raising an issue that is of huge concern to people across country. I condemn unequivocally the attack on Neil Lennon that took place last week. It is a matter for the police to thoroughly investigate. I saw some of Neil Lennon’s press conference at the end of last week and I thought that he conducted himself with great dignity. I am sure that we all agree that nobody should have to suffer the abuse and attacks that he has had to suffer.

I unequivocally condemn anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-Irish racism. I condemn sectarianism in any shape or form. This Government will continue to take the action that is needed to ensure that Scotland is a country that demonstrates zero tolerance of that kind of bigotry. Whatever our football loyalties may be, or if we have none, such conduct has no place in modern Scotland and all of us must unite to make that absolutely crystal clear.


Poverty and Human Rights

The United Nations special rapporteur is in Scotland to begin an inquiry into rising poverty across the United Kingdom. That comes on the back of Trussell Trust figures showing that food bank use in Scotland has risen by 15 per cent, driven by the roll-out of universal credit. How will the Scottish Government engage with that inquiry?

I will meet the UN special rapporteur later this afternoon. Other Government ministers will also meet him and his team, and we will be very constructive in our engagement with the inquiry. We will set out the actions that the Scottish Government is taking to tackle poverty and how we see the assault on poverty as a human rights-based issue, which I think is extremely important. We will also take the opportunity to raise concerns about universal credit and about the UK Government’s welfare cuts more generally, because those cuts are driving more and more people into poverty, and we are seeing demand and reliance on food banks rising. I hope that when the inquiry concludes and its outcome is published, it will be a helpful contribution to the work that all of us are doing to consign poverty to the dustbin of history.


Real Living Wage

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government supports the real living wage. (S5F-02767)

Currently, 80.6 per cent of employees in Scotland are paid at least the living wage, making Scotland the best performing of all United Kingdom countries. This week, I announced an increase in the real living wage rate. People in Scotland who receive it will earn £9 an hour. We have provided funding to enable adult social care workers to be paid the real living wage, and from 2020 that rate will be paid to all workers delivering funded childcare hours. We continue to work with partners to deliver our commitment to lift at least 25,000 more people on to the real living wage in the next three years. We are also working to adopt a fair work first approach by extending fair work criteria, including payment of the real living wage, to as many funding streams, business support grants and contracts as we can.

I thank the First Minister for that answer, but does she agree that it is a disgrace that the UK Government failed to use its budget to put in place—finally—a real living wage for every worker and that it continues to subject workers who are under the age of 25 to lower pay for no justifiable reason?

Yes. I absolutely agree with that. I would make two points. First, the UK Government should unequivocally get behind the real living wage, which is independently assessed as the level that people need for a decent standard of living.

Secondly, the age discrimination that is currently part of the Government’s living wage is unacceptable in modern times. We think that people who do the same job should be paid the same wages, regardless of their age. That is one of the many reasons why I hope that in the not-too-distant future we will see powers in that regard devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so that we, instead of the UK Government, can take those decisions.


Arthritis (Loneliness and Isolation)

To ask the First Minister, in light of the study, “Defying Arthritis at Every Age”, what the Scottish Government is doing to reduce loneliness and isolation among people with the condition. (S5F-02759)

I welcome the research and recognise the importance of raising awareness of the challenges that people who live with arthritis can experience. We know that particular groups of people, such as those with long-term health conditions, can be at greater risk of experiencing social isolation and loneliness. We are committed to publishing a strategy to tackle social isolation and loneliness, which will reflect those risks and outline a programme of work that is designed to address the issues.

The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing will meet the group that commissioned the research this afternoon, to discuss how we can work together to improve the lives of people who are living with arthritis.

Despite the fact that a staggering one in six people is living with arthritis, a lack of understanding of the condition has led to an epidemic of isolation, according to the Versus Arthritis report.

Yesterday, the British Society for Rheumatology published its report, “Rheumatology in Scotland—The State of Play”. In the report, the society notes that since 2010 the average waiting time for a first appointment has almost doubled, from 41 days to 79 days, against a 2016 Scottish Government target of 28 days. The report states that there is a 12-week window after the onset of arthritis symptoms in which referral to a specialist can reduce the symptoms, thereby helping to reduce disability and work limitations.

Given that a lack of mobility is often a key factor in increasing loneliness and isolation, when does the Scottish Government expect to hit its stated target on waiting times for rheumatology appointments?

A couple of weeks ago in the chamber, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport set out the waiting times delivery plan that we are working towards. We are investing considerable sums of money to make sure that we achieve the targets in that plan.

More generally, it is absolutely correct that we need to do more to raise awareness of arthritis and to make sure that people who suffer from it—in particular, the newly diagnosed—get access to the support that they need so that they can continue to be active and independent in their communities.

As I mentioned, the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing will meet Versus Arthritis this afternoon, and he looks forward to discussing all aspects of the research so that we can ensure that Government policy, whether on health service waiting times or on the wider work on loneliness and social isolation, reflects the action that needs to be taken to address some of the issues that the report has identified.

Digital connectivity can make a significant contribution to tackling loneliness and isolation for older people, yet 38 per cent of 65 to 79-year-olds report not being able to use a computer at all. How is the Scottish Government seeking to address such inequalities in tackling loneliness among our older citizens?

It is very important that older people can get online, and the Scottish Government is certainly committed to helping them do so. The most recent Scottish household survey shows a significant increase in internet use by adults over 60—in the 10 years between 2007 and 2017, the figure increased from 29 per cent to 63 per cent.

We want more people to benefit from digital opportunities. Our digital participation charter fund, which was launched in partnership with BT, has made awards of more than £200,000 to 26 organisations for digital inclusion projects, and older people are a priority group for that. In addition, the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy is leading work with older people to better understand how digital technologies can add value to their lives in ways that are meaningful to them.

Many people with multiple sclerosis and arthritis say that they would benefit from the use of medicinal cannabis, because it would help with muscle spasms or stiffness. I have raised the issue with the First Minister previously. I am sure that she will recognise the action of the UK Government in, and congratulate it on, allowing medicinal cannabis to be prescribed.

Can the First Minister say when the Scottish Government might be able to issue guidelines so that general practitioners can freely prescribe medicinal cannabis when they think that it is appropriate to do so? She will know that many arthritis sufferers feel that they would benefit from that.

I am told by the health secretary that we have already issued such guidance, so I will ask her to send Pauline McNeill a copy of that.

More generally, as I have said in previous exchanges with Pauline McNeill on the issue, I am broadly supportive of the medicinal use of cannabis or drugs that are derived from it. Such issues are not entirely within the control of the Scottish Government, which is why we rely on Westminster decisions.

I will make sure that a copy of the guidance is sent to Pauline McNeill later today.


Mountain Rescue Teams (Support)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to support mountain rescue teams. (S5F-02752)

The Scottish Government provides annual grant funding of more than £300,000 to Scottish Mountain Rescue to help the organisation and all 27 Scottish civilian volunteer teams to carry out their vital work effectively. We are the only Government in the United Kingdom to fund mountain rescue in that way.

As well as providing £100,000 over three years from 2016-17, we are providing advice on procurement to assist with the replacement of Scottish Mountain Rescue’s radio equipment. In addition, Scottish Government officials work with Scottish Mountain Rescue and responder agencies to help to resolve any issues that arise to do with the co-ordination of multi-agency working.

Mountain rescue volunteers put their lives at risk to save others, so it is sad that mountain rescue teams believe that they are seen as “expendable” by the agencies. If they were recreational climbers, they would be airlifted off the hill.

Is Police Scotland able to task rescue services with airlifting mountain rescue teams on and off the mountains? If it is, will the First Minister ensure that they do that, especially when volunteers are carrying out the distressing task of retrieving the bodies of people who, sadly, have perished on the hills; when the time that it would take to get back to base is excessive; or when they are carrying equipment that poses a danger to their safety? Will she make sure that agencies support and protect our mountain rescue teams?

I thank Rhoda Grant for raising the issue. I take the opportunity to say that mountain rescue volunteers do a vital job, often putting their lives at risk. I do not consider them to be dispensable, and I do not think that anybody in the chamber or across the country would consider that to be the case. I am sure that we all want to take the opportunity to thank them for the role that they perform.

I am aware of concerns that have been raised by independent Scottish Mountain Rescue about the current search and rescue helicopter support arrangements. Scottish Government officials have previously raised those issues with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, following earlier correspondence with the teams. Police Scotland has legislative responsibility for search and rescue in Scotland, but the levers for change around search and rescue helicopter support remain at United Kingdom Government level.

Police Scotland is introducing its helicopter to assist mountain rescue teams as a last resort for body recovery. I know that Police Scotland has written to independent Scottish Mountain Rescue about the changes and that the response has been positive. I understand that the coastguard agency has also now written to extend an invitation to a meeting, which I understand has been accepted.

I will ask the relevant minister to write to Rhoda Grant with more detail of the work that we are doing to ensure that the appropriate arrangements are in place.

Does the First Minister accept that, among the concerns that have been raised by mountain rescue teams, one issue is the centralisation of Police Scotland, which has diluted the interaction between mountain rescue teams and local police officers, who know the relevant area much better than anyone else? According to the mountain rescue teams, that can impact on the ability to co-ordinate mountain rescue and to respond with the necessary experience.

No, I do not agree with that at all, and I do not think that there is any evidence that that is the case. However, a number of issues have been raised—the issues that I have just gone through with Rhoda Grant. As I say, we take responsibility where we have it, as does Police Scotland, but much of the responsibility lies with the coastguard agency and at UK Government level.

We will continue to take action and make the appropriate representations to ensure that mountain rescue teams get the support that they need. I hope that all of us will resist the temptation to be party political about this issue and instead will get behind our mountain rescue teams and the fantastic work that they do.


Scottish Water (Single-person Discount)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the proposal by Scottish Water to remove the 25 per cent single-person discount from at least 500,000 customers, including older people. (S5F-02746)

There is no proposal to remove the discount. We recently consulted on investment priorities and principles of water charging for the 2021-27 regulatory period, which included consulting on whether reducing the single-person discount could fund an increase in the maximum discount available to households on full council tax reduction, from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. We are currently reviewing the responses to the consultation but, crucially, any detailed changes to charging policies would be subject to further consultation with customers and stakeholders, in the course of the next year, prior to implementation in the 2021-27 period. I stress that absolutely no decisions have been taken on the issue.

It turns out that it is not a Scottish Water proposal; it is actually a Scottish Government proposal. We can fight over whether the word is “remove” or “reduce”, but in effect the Government is proposing to cut the discount. On that basis, will the First Minister rule out now any cut to the single-person discount for water? No one would dispute the need to help the poorest more, but the Government should not fund that by taking money from lone pensioners on fixed incomes, who equally are struggling.

Because people are concerned that this is the thin end of the wedge, will the First Minister take the opportunity to rule out cuts to the single-person council tax discount, which is something that her Scottish National Party MSPs have in the past suggested should be scrapped? Will the First Minister give a commitment now that her Government will not penalise single households, particularly as many of them are pensioners on low fixed incomes?

What I will do is say that the Government will continue to review the responses to the consultation, and then we will take decisions in the normal course. That is called responsible government. When we take the decisions, they will be progressive—they are all about making sure that the help that we provide goes to the people who need it most.

Citizens Advice Scotland has said that it

“welcomes the ... proposal to increase the maximum reduction for recipients of the Water Charges Reduction Scheme from 25% to 50%”

because that

“will provide additional benefit to over 340,000 households on full Council Tax Reduction, and another 160,000 on partial Council Tax Reduction.”

The issues are important and it is right for the Scottish Government to consult fully on them. Any detailed changes would require to go through a further consultation process, so Parliament would have plenty of opportunity to discuss any proposals. No decisions have been taken at this stage, and the Scottish Government will continue to give the issues proper and full consideration.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. As members know, we normally move to members’ business at this time. However, given the significance of the anniversary on Sunday, today we will move to a motion of remembrance to mark 100 years since the end of the first world war.

Many members of the public who are in the gallery need to leave now, and many more wish to come in, so we will have a short pause to allow the gallery to clear.