Meeting date: Thursday, May 9, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 09 May 2019
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Pension Credit, NHS Highland (Sturrock Review), Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Pension Credit
- NHS Highland (Sturrock Review)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Business Motion
- Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Education (Positive Destinations)
Does the First Minister accept that what she describes as “positive destinations” for young people when they leave school, in fact “may be no such thing”?
No. We want all our young people to go into not only positive but meaningful destinations. That means further education, further training or a good and meaningful job.
At the weekend, I heard Ruth Davidson talk about lifelong apprenticeships. I am not sure whether she is aware that we already have lifelong apprenticeships in Scotland—there is no age limit to our modern apprenticeships. We are increasing the number of such apprenticeships, as we are increasing the reach of vocational education in our classrooms. We will get on with the job of improving early years and school education, further and higher education and the routes into work for all our young people.
My question quoted directly from the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland—a well-respected think tank, which this week welcomed the Scottish Conservatives’ proposals to introduce a new skills participation age of 18. IPPR Scotland warned that what the Scottish National Party Government calls “positive destinations” for young people are often “no such thing”, and that, in reality, we are letting down young people right across Scotland. Keir Bloomer, the architect of curriculum for excellence, said that the leaver destination statistics are “a fraud”.
Under the SNP Government, the proportion of pupils who leave school with no qualifications whatsoever is at the highest level since 2011. Many others are leaving school at 16, without going on to get the skills and education that they will need to thrive in the modern world. I know that that is the First Minister’s stated priority, so can she tell me what percentage of 16 to 19-year-olds are currently not in education or any formal training?
Three months after leaving school, 95 per cent of young people are in work, training or study. I am sorry to disagree with Ruth Davidson, but I do not consider a young person who is in further or higher education or is doing a modern apprenticeship as doing something that is not positive and meaningful.
Since 2014, we have reduced the level of youth unemployment in this country by 40 per cent. The number of young people who stay on in school is rising; more people stay in school beyond the age of 16 than has ever been the case. Record numbers of people are going into positive destinations.
A couple of weeks ago, I had an exchange with Jackson Carlaw about school qualifications. A higher proportion of young people get qualifications at level 5—the figure was 71 per cent in 2007 and is now 86 per cent. A higher proportion of young people also get qualifications at level 6—the figure was 41 per cent in 2007 and is now 62 per cent. More young people now leave school with five or more highers.
The problem with the analysis that Ruth Davidson brings to Parliament is that it is not borne out by the excellent results that are being achieved by young people the length and breadth of our country.
I might have been away for six months, but the format has not changed—once again, the First Minister is answering a different question from the one that she was asked. The figure is one in five: fully 20 per cent of our 16 to 19-year-olds are without any form of education or formal training. That figure has been flatlining for years and that is simply wrong.
The Conservatives are not the only people who are talking about a skills participation age of 18. Indeed, that approach already works well in Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands. It had previously been proposed here in Scotland, too, yet when the Scottish National Party Government came to power, the idea was quietly dropped and no explanation was ever really given as to why. Does the First Minister believe that that was a mistake?
The policies that we are pursuing to ensure that more of our young people leave school with qualifications and that more of our young people go into work, training or further study are the right ones and we will continue to pursue them.
As an aside, I suspect that many of the young people that Ruth Davidson has just referred to as not being in study or training are young people who are in work. I go back to the statistics that I quoted earlier: we have reduced youth unemployment in Scotland by 40 per cent in the last five years. We see the number of modern apprenticeships increasing and foundation apprenticeships are now available at the vast majority of secondary schools across our country—their numbers are also increasing.
More of our young people are leaving school with qualifications, more of our young people are leaving school with vocational qualifications and more of our young people than ever before are going into good, positive and meaningful destinations. The attainment gap is narrowing, too. We will continue to pursue and implement the policies that are delivering those results for young people all over our country.
Half the time the First Minister complains that folk do not bring ideas to the chamber and today she is complaining when we do.
Ours is a serious proposal, and there is no reason why it cannot command cross-party support. We can all agree that we are not doing nearly enough for young people who do not go to university and that politicians of all stripes need to up our game to deliver for those young people.
We spend so much time debating the powers of the Scottish Parliament—this week, we have seen the Government put another power on hold—but education and training is an area in which the Parliament can act immediately and without question. Does the First Minister accept the need for change now? When it comes to a skills participation age of 18, will she give a firm commitment to act now?
I make the commitment that we will continue to act as we are doing: we will continue to take forward the policies in our schools and on modern apprenticeships, foundation apprenticeships, the places at further education and the investment in free higher education, which will always continue under the SNP. As I said earlier to Ruth Davidson, and as I said to her deputy a couple of weeks ago, the problem with their analysis is that it is not borne out by the results that young people are getting in our education system and as they go on into work.
We will consider ideas from wherever they come. However, if Ruth Davidson’s idea is such a great one, why did she not bother to mention it in the leaflet that she sent out to every voter across the country? She manages to mention independence 15 times and me 12 times—I thank her very much for the free publicity—but she does not offer a single idea or policy, because the Tories do not actually have any.
This week marks 20 years of the Scottish Parliament—20 years during which the Parliament has had full control over housing policy. During that time, the private rented sector in Scotland has trebled in size. We have seen the return of private landlordism and rents have soared, while wages have stagnated. The Government’s response is rent pressure zones. However, the City of Edinburgh Council has concluded that rent pressure zones are not fit for purpose. Does the First Minister agree?
The private rented sector has increased—I know that from experience in my constituency; many members will know it from theirs, too—which is why we have introduced legislation to reform the sector. For example, the policy that has just been announced for consultation south of the border, on getting rid of no-fault evictions, is something that this Government has already done and implemented.
Rent pressure zones are the way forward; we will continue to examine whether they are appropriate and satisfactory and, where further action is required, we will consider taking that further action.
We are also—I have to point out that the Labour Administration in the early days of the Scottish Parliament did not do this—investing in affordable social housing for rent. We are putting record sums into that and are delivering record numbers of affordable and social houses. We also made reforms to get rid of the right to buy. This Government’s record on housing is a good one. We will continue to ensure that we deliver the policies that people across the country need.
I think that the First Minister’s calculator needs adjusting, because Labour built 35,000 social houses when it was in power.
Over the past 15 years, a private rented home has become the only housing option for an increasing number of families across Scotland. Housing costs are eating into people’s incomes and, year on year, rents are going up. The average rent for a two-bedroom home in greater Glasgow has increased by more than 30 per cent in the past decade, and in Lothian the increase has been more than 40 per cent. Those increases are driving more and more families into poverty. Can the First Minister tell us how many children in Scotland in the private rented sector now live in poverty?
Too many children, whether they are in the private rented sector, the social rented sector or any sector, are living in poverty, and the increases in poverty are largely down to the welfare cuts that have been imposed by a Tory Government, and which Richard Leonard still wants it to be able to do.
We have already taken action on the private rented sector. The Private Housing Tenancies (Scotland) Act 2016, which was the most significant change for private renting in Scotland for 30 years, gives tenants greater security, greater stability and greater predictability. Private residential tenancy landlords cannot evict a tenant simply because the tenancy has reached its end. Of course, the act also provides a range of measures to help to tackle high rents by limiting rent increases to one in 12 months, by enabling tenants to challenge unfair rent increases and by providing local authorities with the power to designate areas as rent pressure zones.
Perhaps it is because of all of those measures that the latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that increases in rents in Scotland across all private tenancies are lower than they are in England or in Labour-run Wales. We are taking the action that needs to be taken, and will continue to do so.
Unlike Richard Leonard, we will also not only continue to oppose the Tory welfare policies that are driving people into poverty; we will continue to oppose those powers being in the hands of the Tories, in the first place.
If the Government were to use the powers that it has, it might have a better case to make for having more of them.
The First Minister spoke about the latest data. The latest data according to the Scottish Government’s figures show that more than 40 per cent of all children who live in the private rented sector in Scotland are now living in poverty. That is 60,000 children. Here in Edinburgh, there is a particularly acute problem, which is why Dr Jim McCormick of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently concluded that
“Here and now, the single biggest challenge for Edinburgh is housing costs. The pathway to poverty reduction in Edinburgh has a lot to do with getting control of rents in the private rented sector.”
Next week, Labour will take the next step in the parliamentary process of our Mary Barbour bill. We think that private sector rent rises should be capped and controlled. The First Minister has a choice: will she take the side of rogue landlords and a broken housing market, or will she join with us and side with tenants, tackle poverty and back our Mary Barbour bill?
We will continue to do what we have done over the past few years, which is to lead from the front with the changes that people in the private rented sector need.
Child poverty rates are too high in Scotland—not just in the private rented sector, but across our society. In Scotland, the child poverty rate is 22 per cent, which is far too high. However, it is lower than the 26 per cent child poverty rate in Wales, where Labour is in Government right now. That shows that although Labour politicians talk about all the things that they would do in Government, when they are in Government, they somehow forget to do any of them.
We will continue to take the actions that keep rent increases in Scotland lower than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom, and which will get child poverty rates down. We will consider on merit all proposals that come forward, but we will not wait for Labour. If we had waited for Labour over the past number of years, we would not have had the changes that we have had, and we would not have the record numbers of affordable and social houses that are being delivered around Scotland—which stands in sharp contrast to the six council houses that were built under the previous Labour Government.
NHS (Staff Bullying)
The First Minister will be aware of allegations of staff bullying in NHS Ayrshire and Arran hospitals. I share the concerns that were raised by staff in the press. My concern is for patient safety, as well as the safety and mental health of not just staff in one radiology department but all hospital staff. Regrettably, in the past, my constituents have made similar allegations of bullying in those hospitals.
Today, the Sturrock report on allegations of bullying in NHS Highland will be published. Will the First Minister consider a similar investigation into the concerns that have been raised by staff in Ayrshire?
We take all allegations of bullying in the national health service extremely seriously, as members would expect. This afternoon, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will make a statement to Parliament on the Sturrock review, which is a sign of how seriously we take such matters when they are raised with us.
On the NHS Ayrshire and Arran situation, the health board has advised that it is in contact with the Society of Radiographers, and that the chief executive offered to meet the staff concerned. That offer was declined, so arrangements are now in place to hear the grievance in accordance with the board’s policy. It is important that the internal grievance process is given the chance to conclude in line with employment law before there is any consideration of further action.
I give an assurance that such issues are always taken extremely seriously by the Government.
Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (Parking)
Changes to parking policy at the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh have meant that the staff parking permits of several of my constituents who work there are now under review. If the permits are revoked, the option of public transport does not exist, because of shift work and travelling from rural areas. Some people might even have to give up their jobs, and they are already experiencing stress.
Notwithstanding that the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh is a private finance hospital and the contract for parking is private, is there a role for the Scottish Government, given that the changes must surely affect the delivery of healthcare at that hospital?
I thank Christine Grahame for raising this change to policy, and I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to look into it and see whether any action requires to be taken. We want the staff who work in our national health service to be able to park at our hospitals, if they are required to do so.
Of course, if the private finance initiative contract for the Edinburgh royal infirmary had not been entered into under a previous Administration, we would be able to abolish car parking charges there as we have done already for NHS car parks around the country.
I undertake to ask Jeane Freeman to look into the specific issue that Christine Grahame raises and get back to her as soon as possible.
The Central private nursery in Shetland will close in a month’s time. The nursery failed to recruit staff because public sector nurseries are paying more and recruiting to fulfil the expansion of childcare. Twenty families will be directly affected by the loss of the nursery, which is run by Mairi Jamieson and her team. What can the First Minister do to ensure that wraparound care is provided, particularly for mums who want to stay in work, at a time when the expansion is happening? What can she do so that such private sector nurseries can stay open, rather than being forced to close?
I am happy to ask Maree Todd, the Minister for Children and Young People, to liaise with Tavish Scott and Shetland Islands Council about the particular issue that he raises about the nursery.
Generally speaking, the expansion of early years and childcare is extremely important. In terms of recruitment and funding, part of the funding deal that we reached with local authorities includes money to allow fair funding rates for private sector nurseries, so that they can pay fair wages as well. We insist on the living wage being paid.
It is important that, as well as the expansion, we work with local authorities and they work with private and third sector providers to ensure the wraparound care that is important for parents. I will ask Maree Todd to look into the specific issues and, after that, to come back to Tavish Scott in more detail.
School Attainment (Dundee)
On Monday night next week, Dundee City Council will consider a very worrying report on attainment in our schools. At secondary 3, Dundee’s results are down across every literacy and numeracy indicator and the attainment gap is closing, not because results are markedly better in our poorest communities but because attainment has declined rapidly among our most affluent pupils. Does the First Minister think that the problem could be the £3 million that the Scottish National Party has taken out of Dundee’s education budget this year alone, the 160 teachers that it has taken out of our secondary schools since it came to power in the city, its blanket policy across the city of limiting Dundee pupils to six qualifications in S4, teaching S4, S5 and S6 in the same classroom in some schools and the disappearance of some core subjects in some schools? What does the First Minister think the problem is, or the reasons are, and what is she going to do about it?
It is right that Dundee City Council looks closely at its attainment figures and, if there is action that it requires to take, it should take that action. The Scottish Government is providing additional funding to local authorities generally, but also additional funding specifically for attainment through the pupil equity fund, which schools and teachers the length and breadth of the country are using to good effect to close the attainment gap. We will continue to work with and support councils to make sure that the right action is taken, not just to raise attainment but to close the attainment gap. That applies to Dundee City Council as it does to every council across the country.
Climate Change (Policies)
This week, the Scottish Government abandoned its plan to abolish air passenger duty. It said that it is not consistent with its climate change ambitions. Is the First Minister seriously telling us that she has only recently discovered that hundreds of extra flights are bad for climate change? Will the Government now ditch its support for the third runway at Heathrow?
I am sure that Willie Rennie did not forget to notice that last week we had a new report from the Committee on Climate Change that recommended increased targets on tackling and reducing emissions. We, unlike any other Government in the United Kingdom so far, have accepted those recommendations. That means that we have to look across the range of our policies to make sure that they align with that increased scale of ambition. The air departure tax is one of those policies. There is a case that can be made for it—I have made that case often in the past—but it does not any longer align with our ambition to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.
As I said in the chamber last week, very openly, we will require to look at all our policies across all areas of Scottish Government responsibility through that new lens of climate change. Whether it is the policy that Willie Rennie cites today or any other policy, that is the commitment that we are making. I put the same challenge that I put last week to all the Opposition parties in this chamber, with the exception of the Greens: when we come to discuss workplace parking over the next few weeks, will the Opposition parties look at that through the lens of climate change or will they stick to their knee-jerk anti-climate change opposition?
I think that everyone will have noticed that the First Minister deliberately dodged my question. The question was about Heathrow and the third runway. The time for dithering is over, First Minister. A third runway with hundreds of extra flights will not help climate change.
I cannot understand why the Scottish Government chose the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament to hand a raft of powers back to Westminster. When John Swinney handed back income tax powers, we thought that it was a one-off, but this week it was powers away on value added tax and, of course, social security powers have been sent back for five years. We have had the shambles of the police merger, the law on waiting times broken, schools slipping down the international rankings and the failing railways. After 12 years in power, is it not true that the First Minister is handing back powers to Westminster because her Government is so incompetent that it just cannot cope?
If all of that is true, imagine how frustrating it must be for Willie Rennie to know that we are still around 30 points ahead of his party in the opinion polls. For goodness’ sake! The fact of the matter is that, whether it is polls or real elections, people in Scotland know about the achievements of this SNP Scottish Government, which is why they want us to continue in office.
On powers for this Parliament, it is because of our use of new welfare powers that every carer across Scotland is getting an extra £450 a year and low-income families are getting more help when they have a child, when that child goes to nursery and when that child starts school.
What power over VAT is being devolved to this Parliament? What is being offered is not a power to set the rates or levels of VAT, but an assignment of revenues based on dodgy estimates. When the Fraser of Allander institute says that that process exposes the Scottish budget to “unnecessary” and “unreasonable” risk and is
“not a good way forward”,
why on earth do the Scottish Liberal Democrats want to do that to the Scottish budget? If they keep taking positions like that, they will keep languishing in the opinion polls.
I will take a few supplementaries.
This week, I have been contacted by constituents who are victims of mesh but do not want to be named. They have raised with me the issue of women being directed to the so-called centres of excellence in Edinburgh and Glasgow for treatment, where many have received partial mesh removal that has produced very poor and debilitating results. The belief is that clinicians at those centres do not have the required skill set to carry out full mesh removal using the latest techniques.
One woman who is not a constituent of mine who has broken her anonymity is Claire Daisley, who will lose her bowel and bladder if she does not get a full mesh removal procedure within the next two months. Will the First Minister personally intervene in Claire’s case to ensure that she gets the treatment that she deserves? Will she halt partial mesh removal at the Edinburgh and Glasgow centres until a full appraisal has been carried out?
I thank Neil Findlay for raising what we all agree is an important issue. Obviously, I will not clinically intervene in any individual’s case, but I undertake to have the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport look into the case that has been brought to the Parliament’s attention to make sure that everything possible is being done for the individual concerned.
More generally, as Neil Findlay knows—he might have facilitated the meeting; he certainly attended it—the health secretary met a group of affected women. As a result of that, a group of medical directors and senior clinical managers are looking at a range of options to improve care and support. Among a range of issues, the group is considering the course of care for women who suffer complications. It met for the first time in early April, it will meet for a second time tomorrow and it aims to make recommendations to health board chief executives by the autumn. It will fully take into account the views that patients are expressing.
I absolutely understand why some women will want to retain anonymity and privacy, but if Neil Findlay is aware of any women who want to speak confidentially to the health secretary or health officials, we would be happy and, indeed, keen to facilitate that on the assurance that we will protect their privacy and anonymity.
Visitors from China spend £36 million per year in Scotland. Last year, the First Minister said:
“Tourism is a vital part of Scotland’s economy, and these figures demonstrate the growing significance of Chinese visitors”.
However, yesterday we learned that the provider of Scotland’s only direct route to the country has stopped taking bookings from September and that the future of the route is now in doubt. Does the First Minister share my concern that the loss of that route would represent a huge loss to the Scottish economy and Scottish tourism, and that the Government should do everything in its power to retain such routes?
The Scottish Government works very hard with our airports to protect air routes. We are disappointed that Hainan Airlines has suspended the winter schedule for its service. We hope that the service will return for the summer season, when passenger numbers are likely to be higher, and we will work with the airport and the airline to secure that. Hainan Airlines obviously operates other services, and we hope that it will continue its Dublin and Edinburgh service.
Our tourism sector has been an area of success in recent years. We know that the sector faces a number of challenges, and we will continue to work closely with it to support the continued sustainable growth of that Scottish economic success story.
Last week, Michael Gove told the Tory conference that he wanted to change the rules so that the United Kingdom Government could get involved in areas that are devolved to Scotland, such as health and education. Does the First Minister agree with me that, after 20 years of devolution, the Tory Government at Westminster should keep its grubby hands off the Parliament of the people of Scotland?
Yes, I do. When the UK Government devolves powers, it should not send us faulty goods, as it has tried to do on VAT and air departure tax. It should stop the creeping centralisation that we are seeing as a result of its Brexit chaos. This Parliament is better placed than a Tory, or any, UK Government to decide what is right for the people of Scotland, and the sooner we see more powers in this Parliament—in fact, the sooner we see this Parliament as an independent Parliament—the better for everyone.
Her Majesty’s Royal Naval Base Clyde (Appreciation for Staff)
For 50 years, generations of submariners based at Her Majesty’s Royal Naval Base Clyde, which is in Faslane in my region, supported by their families, have borne the huge responsibility of protecting the United Kingdom. They have accepted the sacrifice and commitment inherent in that duty. Their professionalism has never wavered, and they have delivered on their key task, often for many months at a time. Will the First Minister join me in recognising the professionalism, innovation, dedication and skills of the thousands of people at Faslane and Coulport who have supported and crewed our submarines for more than 350 patrols without one minute’s break for 50 years? Will she thank them, their families and veterans most sincerely for their dedication and support to the Royal Navy submarine service and to our country’s security?
Yes, I will. I take a very different view from the member on the future of nuclear weapons and the nuclear deterrent. I want Scotland and, indeed, the world to be free of nuclear weapons. That is no reflection on the professionalism and the dedication of our service personnel—I would want Faslane in a nuclear-free Scotland to continue as a naval base. I take the opportunity today to pay tribute to the dedication, commitment and professionalism not just of submariners working in our services but of all service personnel who work so hard to keep us all safe.
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government considers that drug policy should be devolved or amended. (S5F-03317)
We believe that there is a compelling case that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 needs to be substantially amended so that action can be taken to help halt the drugs deaths emergency. If the United Kingdom Government continues to refuse to allow Scotland to take innovative approaches to tackling drug deaths, such as establishing medically supervised drug consumption facilities, we call on it to devolve the powers to this Parliament so that we can do what is necessary. This week, the Scottish Affairs Committee began its inquiry into problem drug use to examine the issue. The evidence that has been submitted to the committee so far overwhelmingly supports the need for Scotland to be given additional powers in this area.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. Despite the emergency, the UK Government still refuses to act. Last November, every party in this Parliament except the Tories voted to call on the UK Government to change the law to allow the provision of safe consumption facilities, or to empower the Scottish Parliament to do that. Does the First Minister agree that further UK Government delay will mean further harm to and the further deaths of some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland?
Yes, I do. I think that there is a recognition across the Parliament—I think that that is without exception—that we need to look at different ways of tackling the drugs challenge and, in particular, reducing the number of people who lose their lives to drugs. As Jackson Carlaw and I spoke about a few weeks ago, that means a willingness to look at different approaches and to be innovative.
The Tories have called on the Government to do that—and we are willing to do that—but again I call on them to drop their knee-jerk opposition to safe consumption facilities. Just recently, Dr Andrew McAuley, senior research fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University, said that Glasgow’s case for a drug consumption room is
“arguably the most compelling Europe has seen”.
If the United Kingdom Government will not act in that way, it should devolve the powers to allow this Parliament to do so as part of an overall approach to taking innovative action to deal with what is a massive challenge for all of us.
I agree with the First Minister that there is a cross-party consensus on the need for change on this matter, but there are two things that she could do: first, have an independent review of the methadone programme in Scotland; and, secondly, have a third sector-led review of recovery services. Will she commit to those actions today?
We are already convening an expert group to examine exactly what changes either in practice or in the law could help to save lives and reduce harm. We are doing the kinds of things that Miles Briggs is calling on us to do.
Our mind is not closed to any suggestion about how we can do this differently, but my ask of others is that they do not close their minds, either. When health professionals and experts in this field are saying that this is one of the most important things that we can do in Glasgow right now, it is unconscionable for the UK Government—which has admitted that it knows what benefits the move might bring—to stand in the way of it. If we are going to take an open-minded approach to this—and I have certainly signed up to that—it has to apply right across the board, and I am sad to say that, so far, the Tories have been found completely lacking and wanting in that respect.
Shop Closures (Action)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking in light of recent analysis, which suggests that a record number of Scotland’s shops closed in the first three months of the year. (S5F-03305)
We are doing everything in our power to support all sectors of our economy, including retail. We have put in place enhanced measures to support new development and the reuse of vacant properties in town centres as part of a total rates relief package of around £750 million. That package also includes the small business bonus scheme, which is lifting more than 100,000 properties out of business rates altogether.
In addition, we have established a £50 million capital town centre fund to enable local authorities to stimulate and support a wide range of investments and encourage town centres to diversify.
Finally, in 2017-18, there were more than 1,600 new starts in the retail modern apprenticeship framework.
Is it not the case that the single most detrimental effect on our high streets comes from crippling business rates, particularly the large business supplement that this Government is imposing on hard-working retailers? Some business owners in my region have had to endure eye-watering increases that are making the costs and stresses of operating premises unsustainable. What further action will the First Minister take to turn the tide?
We will continue to support retail and our town centres, but I have to say that I find the question absolutely staggering in how much it ignores what is already being done in Scotland. We have the most competitive business rates package anywhere in the United Kingdom, with the lowest business rates poundage in the UK, meaning that over 90 per cent of properties are being charged a lower rate than they would be charged in England.
We also have the most generous package of reliefs, which, as I have said, is worth over £750 million. It includes the small business bonus; the business growth accelerator, which is unique to the UK; the UK’s first nursery relief; and, of course, enhanced relief for broadband. We have also expanded the small business bonus scheme, lifting a total of 100,000 premises out of business rates altogether. Moreover, following the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, councils have the power to go even further and reduce rates even more at local level.
We are doing more than any other Government anywhere else in the UK and we will continue to do so. However, we would not be able to afford to do most of that if we went along with the Tories’ suggestion to take more than half a billion pounds out of our budget to give tax cuts to the richest people in our country.
Biodiversity (Transformative Change)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report’s call for transformative change. (S5F-03316)
I welcome this important report and the new evidence that it provides. We are already doing a great deal here in Scotland to address biodiversity loss through our biodiversity strategy. We will consider the report’s findings carefully and we will look to ensure that our actions produce the transformative change that is needed.
The report is a significant step on the way to the 2020 conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, to be held in China, where world Governments will agree their response to the new evidence. Scotland is playing an active role in the work and I can tell members that we have agreed with the convention that a conference that will contribute to developing the response will be held in Scotland early in 2020, in the lead-up to the China conference of the parties.
The report is, indeed, a stark look at how we are letting down our natural world globally. Scotland faces the same challenges. One in 11 species in Scotland is at risk of extinction and we need stronger laws and stronger implementation. In our climate and environment emergency, biodiversity deserves the same collective focus and energy as climate change does.
Does the First Minister agree that it now seems extremely unlikely that we will meet our 2020 global biodiversity targets, and will she commit today to developing a long-term plan for action post 2020?
I agree with the general thrust of what Claudia Beamish is saying. On biodiversity targets, Scotland has more to do, just as all countries have more to do. We are currently on track to achieve seven out of the 20 targets agreed by the international community in 2010. We are progressing towards meeting another 12 targets, but we need to step up our work to meet the deadline. That is not good enough, but it compares favourably with the global picture, where progress has been made on only four of the 20 targets.
We recognise the additional work that all countries, including Scotland, have to do. We are committed—and, if we do this, we will be the first country anywhere to do so—to carrying out a thorough analysis of what we are already doing, what more we need to do and what we need to do differently. By the end of this year, ministers will write to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee with their initial assessments on that.
I agree with the member about the importance of biodiversity; it is as important as the challenge on climate change and, as on climate change, I do not underestimate the difficulties, complexities and challenges. However, as on climate change, I—and, I am sure, all of us—want Scotland to be leading the way.
The United Nations-IPBES report highlights once again that our seas are under attack and beautiful habitats such as our flame shell reefs risk extinction. One fifth of Europe’s coastline is in Scotland. Does the First Minister believe that just two fisheries protection vessels are enough to defend our coasts from vested interests intent on illegally plundering our marine protected areas?
That is something that we as a Government require to keep under review. I believe that our current fisheries protection resources are appropriate but, as with all such issues, the Government has to look into the situation on an on-going basis.
The protection of our natural environment is such a priority that, just as on climate change, the obligation on all of us is to look afresh at everything that we are doing and make a decision—as we had to make a difficult decision this week—about whether we are living up to our obligations.
As a Government, we are committed to doing that and I hope that we have not just the co-operation but the whole-hearted support of parties across the chamber as we do so.
On 14 September 2016, I raised with the environment secretary the need for a biodiversity baseline in order to monitor the success of our efforts to protect Scotland’s wildlife. Given the First Minister’s answers, will she now recognise that a biodiversity baseline should be a priority?
As I said in a previous answer, we are carrying out an analysis of what we are doing, where we need to do more and what we need to do differently. We will report on that analysis to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee by the end of this year, which will provide the baseline that Maurice Golden is asking for. He is absolutely right that we need to know the baseline so that we can then monitor our performance against it.
There are big challenges here for Scotland and for all countries. We can take some pride and some confidence from the fact that we are already leading the way globally, but that is not enough. As we have done on climate change, we need to raise the bar of global leadership and make sure that we are continuing to get much higher over the bar than anybody else. We are committed to doing that and I look forward to having the support of members across the chamber as we do so.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. We will have a short suspension to allow the gallery to clear and members and ministers to change seats before the next item of business.12:44 Meeting suspended.
12:45 On resuming—