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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 9, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 09 January 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Digital Connectivity, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Education (Exam Results)

In September, while publicly berating Opposition critics, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills privately commissioned his officials to probe the increasing failure rate in higher exams. Will the First Minister publish their findings today?

We will publish findings that the Parliament should be aware of as and when we have them.

I take issue with what Jackson Carlaw has just said, because on 27 November the Deputy First Minister informed this Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee of the analysis that he intended to carry out on the 2019 Scottish Qualifications Authority results. I do not think that the Deputy First Minister can be held responsible if the Tories are incapable of paying attention to what is going on in Parliament. [Interruption].

Although it is not something that I encourage, I always defend people’s right to express their view if they have the opportunity to do so.

Actually, I was not on my feet fast enough, because I had not realised that that was it from the First Minister. I see that she intends to begin this year in the same slippery fashion that she ended the last one. It was not only the Conservatives; it seems that the whole world misunderstood what the cabinet secretary said.

To take the spin out of the First Minister’s answer, let us give the facts. In August of last year, we learned that the number of students achieving A to C grades in highers had fallen. Mr Swinney promptly attacked us for daring to suggest that that revealed that something might be wrong with his handling of education. Then, over Christmas, we learned that—at the same time—he had asked his officials to find out what is going wrong.

Yesterday, in a letter to the shadow education secretary, Liz Smith, Mr Swinney declared that he does not need to explain himself to this Parliament because there is nothing new to say—that is what he said in his letter. I know that education is no longer the Government’s number 1 priority, but does that not smack of arrogance—even to the First Minister?

I gently suggest that perhaps Liz Smith should have a go at explaining things better to Jackson Carlaw, because Jackson Carlaw has stood up in the chamber and suggested—as the Tories also did over the recess—that John Swinney secretly commissioned an analysis of the 2019 exam results.

John Swinney has pointed out, and I have done so again today, that he informed the Education and Skills Committee on 27 November that he had asked for such an analysis. I think that Jackson Carlaw should reflect on the premise of the question that he is asking me today. The Deputy First Minister also informed the committee that, following that analysis, partners have been asked to look at further work to support learning and teaching through a number of actions. As that work progresses, its outcomes will be shared with the committee and with Parliament. As I understand, it may be for that reason—although Jackson Carlaw can correct me if I am getting this wrong—that the Tories withdrew their request for a parliamentary statement this week, when that information was pointed out to them.

On wider performance, we know that there is more work to be done in Scottish education, which is why it remains this Government’s top priority. However, attainment is increasing. The percentage of school leavers who are getting a level 5 qualification, such as a national, has increased from 71 per cent when we took office to 85—almost 86—per cent now. Also, the number who are getting a higher qualification has increased from less than half to almost two thirds. Lastly, for the first time ever, more than 30 per cent of pupils are achieving at least, or more than, five passes at higher level, which is up from just over 20 per cent in 2009. We also see the attainment gap reducing.

That is the progress that has been made in Scottish education. It is down to the hard work of teachers, pupils and parents across the country, and it is the progress that we will focus on continuing to make.

So, spin to the first question, denial to the second—spin and denial; the twin pillars of this Government. Of course, we all pay tribute to the teachers, students and parents, who are working hard, but let us return to the issue at hand. The education secretary asked a fair question of his officials: what does the falling pass rate for highers tell us about the health of education in this country? Therefore, let me put that question to the First Minister, and give her the opportunity to explain. What does a drop in that pass rate tell us about education? What does a record low in programme for international student assessment—PISA—scores tell us about school performance? What does the declining school subject choice tell us about her Government’s record?

I have just set out a range of statistics that reflect the real performance of Scottish education. I can understand why Jackson Carlaw chose not to listen to those, because they do not suit the argument that he is making. However, let us not gloss over the issue at hand, which, of course, was the subject of his first question. He might want to call it spin, but he has stood up in this chamber and repeated an accusation against the Deputy First Minister that was made during the recess and which is flatly wrong. That is not acceptable, and I do not think that Jackson Carlaw should get away with it. I think that he should perhaps reflect on that and take the opportunity to apologise for it.

We will continue to focus on the progress that is being made. On the day that this year’s exam results were published, the Deputy First Minister recognised that there had been a fall in the overall pass rate for highers, although it remains very high. However, in general, we saw a strong set of exam results, with three quarters of candidates attaining a pass at higher grades A to C; more than a quarter of candidates achieving a grade A at higher; and an increase in entries and pass rates across national 5, including a rise in passes for English and maths. Coupled with the statistics that I gave Jackson Carlaw in my previous answer, I think that that performance shows improvement. I want to see more improvement, which is why we will get on with the job at hand and leave Jackson Carlaw and the Tories floundering around making baseless accusations.

So, basically, the Deputy First Minister’s position is, “I am just so misunderstood”—so misunderstood, in fact, that journalists, students, teachers and parents all misunderstood what he said.

The issue is simple. Clearly, there is something wrong with our education system. Parents know it, teachers know it, students know it and, in private, the education secretary knows it, too. The problem is that, when it comes to action, we have a First Minister and an education secretary who are more concerned with hiding their record than with admitting to it and correcting it.

Presiding Officer, 2020 will be the year that this Government’s diabolical domestic record on education will come home to roost—a year when we will see the Scottish National Party Government put its own survival in the light of events before the priorities of the people.

Having promised five years ago that education would be her number 1 priority, is it not time for the First Minister to make it exactly that?

Of course, just a matter of weeks ago, the people got their opportunity to cast their verdict on the performance of this Government, and I think that we all know how that ended up.

I say this seriously to Jackson Carlaw: I think that the only people who have misunderstood anything are the Scottish Tories. Of course, I am being charitable when I say that, because, actually, I think that what the Tories are doing is not misunderstanding but misrepresenting, and they should be apologising for it.

Jackson Carlaw says that the Deputy First Minister, the Government and I are seeking to hide our record. Here is what the Deputy First Minister said on the day that the exam results were published:

“there has been a fall in the overall pass rate.”

That does not strike me as an attempt to hide the matter.

Jackson Carlaw then said that, having denied that fact, the Deputy First Minister somehow commissioned in secret an analysis of why the pass rate had fallen. What I have told him today—and what the Deputy First Minister told Liz Smith earlier this week—is that the Deputy First Minister informed the Education and Skills Committee of that on 27 November. Perhaps it is the Scottish Conservatives who need to wake up and pay a bit more attention. This Government will get on with the job of improving performance in Scottish education, and perhaps Jackson Carlaw needs to think about making a less stuttering start to 2020.

Home Care Services (South Lanarkshire)

On 17 December 2019, the Care Inspectorate served an improvement notice on South Lanarkshire Council’s home care service for Hamilton, Larkhall and Blantyre. Inspectors found that the hard-working staff were feeling overwhelmed, stressed and frustrated, that care users were anxious, frightened and stressed, and that the service was “chaotic and disorganised”. The council must make changes by the end of the month or face the real prospect of the Care Inspectorate cancelling the service registration. Does the First Minister accept that that situation is entirely without precedent in South Lanarkshire? What will happen to those of our most vulnerable people who depend on those vital home care services if the council's registration is cancelled?

It is the council’s responsibility to take the actions that the Care Inspectorate has recommended or instructed it to take, and to ensure that what Richard Leonard has outlined today does not happen. The reason why we have the Care Inspectorate is to ensure that we have the highest standards of care across the country. It is important that that system works properly and robustly.

The responsibility of the Government is to ensure that we work with councils in the provision of health and social care and that we do so in a more integrated way than has been the case in the past. We are also responsible for properly funding local government services, as best we can within the resources at our disposal. That is why the local government budget increased in real terms in this financial year. The Government will continue to work with councils to ensure that they deliver the services that elderly people and everybody else across the country have a right to expect.

On 20 December 2019, just three days after serving the improvement notice on the Hamilton service, the Care Inspectorate issued a report on South Lanarkshire Council’s home care service for Rutherglen and Cambuslang. It was another damning report. Inspectors highlighted practices that they said were

“unsafe for both services users and care staff.”

Care users and their families are entitled to hold those who are responsible for the mismanagement of care services to account.

It has been almost five years since the integration of health and social care and still the system is not working. This week, Scotland’s councils have warned that this Government’s cuts have put their budgets at breaking point and community services at risk. Will the First Minister accept that the responsibility, of course, lies with councils such as SNP South Lanarkshire Council but also with the SNP Government?

If Richard Leonard had listened to my previous answer, he would have heard me talk about the responsibility of councils and of the Government. Our biggest responsibility is to work effectively in partnership.

As I said, the reason why we have a Care Inspectorate is to ensure that we have the highest standards of care across the country. It is right and proper that the Care Inspectorate should look at service provision and, where it considers it appropriate, make recommendations. The clear responsibility of any council is to respond to and address those recommendations. I would expect South Lanarkshire Council to do exactly that.

With regard to the responsibility of my Government, the integration of health and social care is an important reform that is helping to deliver improvements in the delivery of social care. We are also investing significantly more resources into social care services and will continue to make that a priority.

Within the confines of a budget that has been reduced over the past decade by a Conservative Government at Westminster, which Richard Leonard and his colleagues appear to be content to allow to make the big decisions about budgets in Scotland, we have delivered a real-terms increase in local government budgets in this financial year. Of course local government works under pressure. This Government also works under financial pressure, but we will continue to work with councils to ensure that the delivery of local services is the priority and has the priority that it deserves.

Let us fix on responsibility. The Government is responsible for quadrupling the cuts to local government over the past 10 years. The claims of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities are backed up by Audit Scotland, which reported at the end of last year that 19 integration joint boards across Scotland required a financial bailout, and just over a year ago we warned that acute pressures on social care services meant that they were reaching breaking point. Now we have care services in the constituency of the Minister for Older People and Equalities being served with an improvement notice. Is it not time that Scotland had a Government that properly valued care services? Is it not time that Scotland had a Scottish care service that was properly resourced, had consistent standards and had compassion for both staff and care users—one that meets their needs and respects their rights?

As I said to Jackson Carlaw, the people in Scotland have very recently had an opportunity to cast a verdict on the performance of this Government. They did that and we know the outcome of it.

Let us look in detail at local government funding. If we look at the time at which this year’s budget was set and take health out of the equation, because I think that all of us—even the Tories, although their policies do not quite match their rhetoric—accept that health should be protected, we see that the Scottish Government’s resource budget will be 7.8 per cent lower in real terms this year than it was in 2013-14. If we look at our funding to local government, we see that we have managed to keep the pressure on local government beneath that figure, so in relative terms we have protected local government. Local government budgets have increased in recent years but, because of the deep austerity over the past decade, there has been a reduction in those budgets over that time. However, it is less in Scotland than it is in Labour-controlled Wales.

Members: Oh!

Labour does not like this, but there has been 6.2 per cent pressure in Scotland while over the same period there has been 11.5 per cent pressure in Labour-controlled Wales. In a very difficult financial circumstance, this SNP Government is doing more to protect local government than Labour has managed where it has the responsibility. That might help to explain why the people of Scotland cast the verdict that they did in December in the general election.

We have a couple of constituency supplementaries.

Drumbrae Care Home

Last year, my constituent Malcolm Muirhead died after losing a stone and a half in a month while residing at the Drumbrae care home, which is run by the City of Edinburgh Council. A social work report raised concerns that he was being washed only once a week, in a sink, and that he had bloated and infected feet and overgrown nails. The home was closed to new admissions. This week, an unannounced visit by the Care Inspectorate found serious concerns about staff competence, the distribution of medication and the treatment of residents. The care home will be deregistered in February if improvements are not made. Does the First Minister agree that that is symptomatic of a crisis in social care in our country and that our constituents have a right to expect a higher standard of care from public sector homes?

Let me certainly agree in part with Alex Cole-Hamilton: what he has described is completely unacceptable. I believe that residents of care homes and their families have an absolute right to expect better standards than those that he has outlined in the very tragic case of Malcolm Muirhead. Where I do not agree—a disagreement that I express sincerely—is that it is, to use his words,

“symptomatic of a”


“crisis in social care”.

Social care is under pressure, as are healthcare and public services, because of the austerity—[Interruption.] Labour members are shouting, “Whose fault is that?” The architects and authors of austerity are the Tories at Westminster, previously helped by the Liberal Democrats. That is whose fault it is. It is to escape that that I take a very different view on the future of the Scottish Parliament from other parties in the chamber. We will continue within a very constrained budget, as I have outlined in detail today, to take the action that protects health and social care as best we can. That is what we have done and what we will continue to do.

NHS Lothian (Neurology Services)

In October, I raised with the First Minister the case of my constituent who has been waiting for an operation. She has severe neurological pain, has been off work for a very long time and has to take 48 tablets a day to try to alleviate the agony that shoots through her head and face every few seconds.

Following my question, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport wrote to me, saying:

“there is no suggestion of any kind that the delay to the new department of clinical neurosciences has anything to do with the case of your constituent”

and that my

“constituents’ case would be resolved by NHS Lothian.”

Well, my constituent’s case still has not been resolved by NHS Lothian. She remains in agony, has had her operation cancelled again and has again been told by NHS Lothian officials that that is due to a lack of staff and a lack of theatre space because of the debacle around the sick kids hospital and the neurology centre.

Will the First Minister take this opportunity to speak directly to my constituent—who is watching this session—and give her some hope that her living hell will end soon?

When any individual does not get the standard of care that they have the right to expect from the national health service, I always apologise to them readily, and I will do that to Neil Findlay’s constituent.

As Neil Findlay has said, he raised the issue before, and the health secretary wrote to him. Neil Findlay and his constituent clearly and understandably do not consider that the issue has been resolved. I will therefore ask the health secretary today to look again at this issue and liaise with NHS Lothian, and respond as quickly as possible to Neil Findlay once she has had an opportunity to do so. [Interruption.]

We will have a short suspension.

12:21 Meeting suspended.  

12:21 On resuming—  

We will resume First Minister’s question time.

Public Transport

The Government often quotes the work of Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. His report said:

“Transport ... should be considered an essential service, equivalent to water and electricity, and the government should ... ensure that people living in rural areas are adequately served.”

We are a long way off from that vision. Since devolution, bus fares have almost doubled, so it is no surprise that passenger numbers are down by 15 per cent. Many of Scotland’s communities are so poorly served that people feel that they have no choice but to drive, and the situation is getting worse, not better.

We can change that. Scottish Green proposals to give councils the power to run local bus services, which could improve reliability and fares, were included in the recent Transport (Scotland) Act 2019. What practical help is the Scottish Government giving to our local councils to help them use those powers?

We have given local government those powers and it is for local government to decide how to use them. As on any other use of powers, we will always be open and willing to discuss with local government how we can support it to do that.

I and the Scottish Government very much want to see an increase in people using our bus services, not just in rural parts of the country, although that is particularly important, but across all parts of the country. That is why one of the key commitments in last year’s programme for government was the £500 million investment in improving bus infrastructure. Patrick Harvie is right that sometimes the barrier is cost, but often the barrier is a lack of convenience and flexibility. We want to improve that and, through the range of policies that we are undertaking, that is what we are determined to do.

That £500 million on infrastructure is welcome, but it is spread over a very long period and it is a fraction of what the Government is spending on new road capacity.

We all know that transport in Scotland is unfair, unhealthy, costly and pushing carbon emissions up, when they should be coming down. We urgently need to ensure that public transport is always the cheapest and most convenient option for people.

With First Group moving out of its United Kingdom bus operations, there is a clear opportunity across Scotland, including in Glasgow and Aberdeen, to bring those services back into public ownership, but that will not happen without clear, proactive support from the Scottish Government. It is time to end the power of the private operators who cherry pick the profitable routes, and instead build a public transport system that works for the public interest.

Will the First Minister be bold and ensure that that happens across Scotland, in urban and rural areas alike, so that all communities can be served by a quality integrated transport network that is fit for the 21st century?

We have already taken important action in that regard. The Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, which Patrick Harvie referred to, made important steps in the right direction by giving new powers to local government. Alongside that, as I mentioned in my previous answer, we will deliver transformational long-term funding for better bus infrastructure. Importantly, that is in addition to the £260 million that we invest in bus services every year. I absolutely agree that we need a convenient, flexible, integrated bus service that is much easier and more convenient for people to use. The bus partnership fund will deliver that step change to improve the offer that buses can make.

Patronage on our buses has been declining for a long time; in fact for my entire lifetime, and probably before that—at least since the 1960s. We need to turn that around by making sure that bus services are affordable, convenient and flexible for people to use. That is exactly what we are determined to do through legislation and additional funding.

Heathrow Expansion Plans

The memorandum of understanding between Heathrow airport and the Scottish Government supports 40 new long-haul flights, the growth of domestic flights and a £10 discount for every domestic passenger for 20 years.

It is a plan for the expansion of the airline industry, and it is fully endorsed by this Scottish Government. Last May, the First Minister promised me that she would review the Scottish Government’s support for Heathrow’s expansion following the recommendations of the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change. What was the outcome of that review?

Across the Government, we are still reviewing policies as part of the process of updating the climate change action plan. The cabinet discussed the progress that we are making towards that plan just this week. When we set out our plan across aviation and a range of the Government’s responsibilities, we will set out what we need to do differently. I remind Willie Rennie that when Heathrow last came to a vote in the House of Commons, Scottish National Party MPs did not vote for it. As a Scottish Government, we are not in control of the decision about a third runway at Heathrow, but if it is going ahead, then Scotland should seek to maximise the economic impact and benefit of it.

The climate emergency, the updated advice from the Committee on Climate Change, our responsibilities to not just meet, but exceed, the obligations in the Paris agreement, mean that we need to review all that. That is exactly what the Government is doing with a rigorously and vigorously open mind. Some of what comes out of that process will be challenging, and I would bet my life that some members in this chamber—hopefully not Willie Rennie, based on the tenor of his question—will oppose some of what we have to do to meet our climate change obligations. We are absolutely determined that, having set those world-leading targets, we have to take the action now to ensure that we can meet them and lead the world by example.

Thank you. We have some further supplementary questions—[Interruption.] Apologies, Mr Rennie. [Interruption.] That was my fault, not Mr Rennie’s.

The SNP does not want to hear the question, Presiding Officer, and we know why.

This is months on, First Minister. Is the Scottish Government still reviewing the case for support for Heathrow expansion? This is urgent—it is a crisis right now. If her MPs have not supported it at Westminster, why is the First Minister still supporting Heathrow expansion here in Scotland?

Climate change has brought Zambia to the brink of famine. Australia has been burning since September. The ice caps continue to melt. Yet the First Minister continues to support Heathrow expansion. When COP26 delegates come to Glasgow, will the First Minister be able to look them in the eye and say that she is doing everything that she can on climate change?

Yes. Let me go back to a really important point. Unless I am remembering this incorrectly—I do not think that I am—the Liberal Democrats voted for the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill a matter of weeks ago. The 2019 act puts a responsibility on the Scottish Government to introduce an updated draft climate change plan within six months of the act receiving royal assent—which is by the end of April. We are going through that process right now to ensure that we come forward with a comprehensive plan of action to meet the targets in the 2019 act. That is the right and responsible way for a Government that is determined to tackle climate change to behave.

When we propose the plan, I hope that Willie Rennie will have the courage of his convictions. Before he reminds me, I know that this is First Minister’s question time, and he is rightly posing questions to me, but, equally, I could ask him why, in the light of the climate change crisis that we face, his party still opposes policies such as the workplace parking levy, which is a way of trying to get people out of their cars. All of us across the chamber and across society have big questions to ask of ourselves and to answer, and this Government will not be found wanting. I am not sure that the same can be said of Opposition parties when it comes to the detail of this debate.

Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill

Does the First Minister share my concern that amendment 9 to the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill, which was agreed to at stage 2 by Green, Tory and Labour MSPs, will abolish uniform non-domestic rates and lead to the loss of more than £300 million of rates relief to businesses across Scotland each and every year. Does she agree that Parliament should seek to reverse amendment 9 when we get to stage 3, as is being advocated by the Scottish Retail Consortium, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the Federation of Small Businesses and many others?

I strongly agree. Amendment 9, which removes uniform business rates, will make it virtually impossible for the Government to continue to provide the support that we currently provide to small businesses. Kenny Gibson has outlined the breadth and depth of opposition to the amendment. I do not think that any member in any party in the chamber can claim to be on the side of small businesses the length and breadth of our country if they do not vote to reverse the amendment at the next opportunity. I hope that members across Parliament will reflect very seriously on that.

New Year’s Day Trading

The First Minister might be aware that the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—the retail workers union—was campaigning outside Parliament today to end new year’s day trading for large stores. Many retail workers in Scotland had to work on 1 January instead of spending time with their families. Parliament has already put in place legislation covering Christmas and new year’s day trading that would stop large stores from opening, but the new year’s day provisions have not been implemented. Will the First Minister commit to backing USDAW’s calls, to consulting on new year’s day trading and to giving shop workers the festive break that they deserve?

Shop workers deserve a festive break such as the rest of us get the benefit of. I commit to looking very carefully at the USDAW campaign. I absolutely understand the motivations that are driving the campaign, and I will consider what further steps the Government can take to address those concerns. When I have had the opportunity to do that, I will be happy to ask the relevant minister to reply in detail to Jackie Baillie.

Prestwick Airport (Use by United States of America Military)

The First Minister has been critical of the American Government’s escalation of military conflict with Iran. Has she taken the one measure that is available to the Scottish Government to restrict such escalation? Has the Scottish Government taken any steps to restrict the US military’s use of Prestwick airport, which the Government owns on behalf of the Scottish public?

Prestwick airport, of course, operates commercially and at arm’s length from the Scottish Government. If it did not do so, we would not be able to keep it open, as we have done.

We expect Prestwick airport to operate ethically, as we do of any company. The Government will continue to speak up for international law and human rights, whether that is in the context of the recent very worrying developments in Iran or in a wider context.

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

Yesterday, the Scottish Parliament voted overwhelmingly to refuse consent to the UK Government’s European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. If, as we expect it will, Westminster now presses ahead and legislates in devolved areas without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, what will be the implications for the devolution settlement and our democracy?

The refusal of the Scottish Parliament to consent to Westminster’s withdrawal agreement bill reflects the strong opposition of the people of Scotland to Brexit, which was reaffirmed as recently as the general election in December.

We are now in a situation in which the vast majority of people in Scotland do not want Brexit. This Parliament has refused to give its consent to the legislation that is facilitating Brexit. If added to that is the situation—which I think, sadly, Gillian Martin is right to anticipate—of the Westminster Government continuing to ride roughshod over the views of this Parliament and the wider Scottish public, that will demonstrate that the United Kingdom, as it is currently constituted, cannot accommodate the differing views of people in Scotland. The lesson that I take from that is that people of Scotland deserve the opportunity to choose a different future—to become an independent country and to protect our place in the European Union.

Proposed Glasgow Metro Rail System

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the proposed Glasgow metro rail system that will connect Glasgow airport to the rail network. (S5F-03831)

Improving connectivity for the region is a priority of the Glasgow city region deal, to which the Scottish Government has committed £500 million of the total £1.13 billion.

We are committed to improving connectivity to Glasgow airport. In the 2019 programme for Government we welcomed the Glasgow connectivity commission report and committed to consideration of a Glasgow metro as part of the second strategic transport projects review. That review is the largest strategy in transport appraisal for a decade. Work on it is under way, and it will make recommendations in early 2021 on the transport interventions that are required to deliver the priorities and outcomes of the new national transport strategy.

In addition to that, Transport Scotland officials have already committed to working with the relevant local authorities to inform the on-going appraisal of the metro proposal.

Connectivity to Glasgow airport has been debated for many years. The current proposal is the most ambitious yet, and is the best option to provide opportunities for the airport and Paisley. Does the First Minister support the case for a Glasgow metro stopping at the airport and at Paisley Gilmour Street, and does she agree that the metro would have significant benefits not only for the airport but for Paisley, Renfrewshire and Glasgow Southside?

Yes. I have enormous sympathy with the case that the councils are putting forward, as the MSP for Glasgow Southside. That is, of course, one of the reasons why we have committed to working constructively with partners to consider the proposals carefully and seriously. I absolutely recognise the potential to enhance connectivity, including to the airport and Paisley, which is why the programme for Government committed to appraising the scheme in the strategic transport projects review. That is the right way to proceed.

There will undoubtedly be challenges, which is why it is important that we work closely with local authorities, as Transport Scotland has committed to doing.

I welcome the fact that progress has been made on the issue. Will the First Minister provide the simple reassurance that her Government is entirely committed to ensuring that, no matter what the end solution looks like, Glasgow airport will be connected to the city of Glasgow?

I have already made pretty clear my views on the importance of good, and better, connectivity to Glasgow airport.

No responsible Government would stand here and say that regardless of

“what the end solution looks like”,

we will go ahead and do something. It is absolutely vital that we go through proper processes. There has not yet been a full appraisal of the business case that has been made for the metro system—that is part of the work that is still required. The Government’s position—committing to appraising it as part of the strategic transport projects review, and Transport Scotland agreeing to work with the councils—is the best way to take forward the case and to consider collectively how it can be delivered.

It is important to say that although we all—I certainly do—understand the merits of the proposal, potential investment of such scale must be subjected to normal processes and, in particular, to normal statutory processes.

We have been here before. Promises have been made and people have been let down. In 2009, the Scottish National Party Government cancelled the Glasgow airport rail link. In 2019, the SNP cancelled another Glasgow airport rail link. It now appears to have cancelled the personal rapid transit system to Glasgow airport. When does the First Minister think she will cancel the latest project?

I say to Neil Bibby that throughout the period there have been many opportunities for the people of Glasgow to make known their views on the actions and performance of this Government. The outcome has not been particularly pleasant for the Scottish, or the Glasgow, Labour Party.

The proposal is being progressed by the councils in the region. The purpose of the Glasgow city region deal is to ensure that the councils can decide on priorities and take them forward. This Government will support them—I have set out how—as they do that. As we do so, we will continue to work hard to ensure that the SNP Government and the SNP retain the confidence of the people of Glasgow that was demonstrated, again, just a few weeks ago.

Local Authorities (Cash Reserves)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that local authorities are having to spend millions of pounds from cash reserves in order to balance their budgets. (S5F-03824)

My first response is, of course, to sympathise with local councils, which, like this Government, are bearing the brunt of Conservative austerity.

Local authorities have a duty to set a balanced budget, and they have to decide how they do that. In 2019-20, the Scottish Government, for its part, provided local government with a settlement of £11.2 billion, which, in itself, is a real-terms increase. Taken together with the flexibility around council tax, local authorities have had access to an additional £602 million, which is a real-terms funding increase of 3.8 per cent.

It is up to individual local authorities to make their own final budgetary decisions on how to utilise that package of funding to deliver the positive outcomes that people across Scotland expect and deserve. All councils will consider properly how they use any cash reserves when they consider it prudent to do so.

The Accounts Commission’s recent report states that

“councils face the increasing challenge of meeting changing and growing demands on their services”.

Council incomes are “straining to keep pace” under a 7.6 per cent decline in real terms since 2013-14. This Scottish Government is piling additional pressures on to councils through its priorities on education and home care, which are having a detrimental effect on their finances.

The First Minister’s Government has been in charge for 12 years. During that time, her Government has systematically eroded resources that are a lifeline to local authorities. When will the First Minister take responsibility and provide councils with the necessary funds, which they deserve, so that they can support the communities that they represent?

Alexander Stewart is nothing if not brave. Local authorities are working under real pressure because of the austerity that is being imposed on this Government by Alexander Stewart’s party.

The Accounts Commission found that local government resource budgets went down by about 6 per cent in real terms between 2013-14 and 2018-19, which is the period that it talks about in its report. Over the same period, the Scottish Government’s budget was 7.8 per cent lower in real terms than it had been in 2013 as a direct result of Tory austerity. That reduction of 6 per cent for local government in Scotland shows that, in relative terms, the Scottish Government has acted to protect local government. What is the equivalent figure in Tory-run England? I do not know whether Alexander Stewart wants to get up again and tell me. On the assumption that he does not, I note that the equivalent figure is a 22.8 per cent real-terms reduction in local government funding imposed on English local authorities by a Conservative Government. Therefore, I will take no lectures from the Tories when it comes to local government funding.

If we had followed the advice of the Scottish Conservatives and had given tax cuts to the richest in our society, local government services would be struggling even more. I think that that is one of the many reasons why the Tories lost more than half their seats at the general election.

University Applications

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that 14,000 applicants missed out on a place at university last year. (S5F-03840)

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data covering 2019 show that more than 35,700 Scottish students were accepted to a United Kingdom university and 94 per cent of Scottish 18-year-olds who applied through UCAS received at least one offer of a place. That is the highest level since 2009.

In 2017-18, there was a record high number of Scotland-domiciled full-time first-degree entrants to Scottish higher education institutions, which was an increase of nearly 16 per cent since 2006-07.

It is three years since Audit Scotland told the Government that it had failed to raise the cap on numbers of Scotland-domiciled students studying at Scottish universities in order to meet increased demand. Indeed, the number of would-be students who are missing out on university has almost doubled under the SNP Government. For those who do get into university, funding has been cut by £700 per student. Will the First Minister commit to restoring university funding and to reviewing the cap on university places, in order to increase and widen access for students from all backgrounds?

I repeat, for Iain Gray’s benefit, the information that I gave in my first answer.

Since 2006-7, we have seen a 16 per cent increase in Scotland-domiciled full-time first-degree entrants to Scottish higher education institutions. The 2019 figures that he has referred to show the third-highest number of acceptances on record, and the number of applicants who are not getting a place at university is at its lowest level since 2009. That is the record of this Government.

We are continuing to invest strongly in higher education and in supporting young people to go to university. In terms of student support, we have raised the higher education bursary income threshold from £19,000 to £21,000. We have increased bursary support for the poorest young students from £1,875 a year to £2,000 a year, and we have increased bursary support for the poorest independent students in higher education. We have also introduced the care-experienced bursary and have removed the age cap from it. We have done all of that within a budget that the Labour party has sat by and watched the Tories have the right to reduce over the past decade.

Whether it is on health or education, within a constrained budget, this Government is doing the job of delivering the best that we can for people across Scotland. That is probably why people in Scotland again expressed confidence in this Government when they last had the chance to do so.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. We will shortly move to members’ business, which is a motion in the name of Maurice Corry on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We will have a short suspension to allow the gallery to clear and members and ministers to change seats.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  

12:50 On resuming—