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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 9, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 09 June 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Treaty of Perth (750th Anniversary), Dignity, Fairness and Respect in Disability Benefits, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Engagements

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00038)

Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

We know the problems that our national health service is facing: an ageing population, increasing demand, and a Scottish Government that has quite simply failed to keep up with the need to recruit and retain the staff who are required.

Earlier this week, we discovered that £157 million of the NHS budget is spent on bringing in agency nurses because of staff shortages. We therefore know that there is a problem with nurse recruitment, but can the First Minister tell me how many vacant NHS consultant positions have been lying unfilled for more than six months?

The position with NHS vacancies now is in some cases better than it was when we took office and in other cases almost the same.

What people across Scotland will be particularly interested in is the fact that today we have record-high staffing in the NHS. Compared with when the Scottish National Party took office, there are today almost 11,400 whole-time equivalent additional staff working in our NHS: qualified nurses and midwives are up by nearly 6 per cent; doctors are up by more than 26 per cent; and medical and dental consultants are now at a record high, up by 42.9 per cent.

That is the reality of the workforce in our NHS. All of those doctors, nurses and supporting staff are working hard to make sure that patients are seen quickly and that they get world-class treatment when they do so—all of us owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for that.

The First Minister is pretty keen to give us every single number—apart from the one that I asked for.

Let me give the First Minister that answer: there are 162 unfilled consultant posts. That is up 14 per cent in just three months, and up by more than 300 per cent since 2011. Dr Nikki Thompson of the British Medical Association’s Scottish consultants committee says:

“The Scottish Government must recognise that they have a major recruitment and retention problem, and take action”.

Does the First Minister recognise that in the way that Dr Nikki Thompson wants her to, and will she prioritise that action without delay?

We are prioritising action to make sure that we recruit and retain staff in our NHS.

Ruth Davidson speaks specifically about the consultant vacancy rate. The consultant vacancy rate in our NHS today is lower than it was when this Government took office: it was 7 per cent when we took office and it is now 6.5 per cent. That is a percentage of a total number of consultants working in our NHS that is much higher than it was when we took office. Therefore, however we cut it and however we look at the statistics, there are more people—including more doctors and nurses—working in our NHS today than was the case when the SNP took office.

I think that that is a record to be proud of, but I know that we must continue to improve our NHS so that it continues to provide good-quality care for people across Scotland. That is why we set out at the election, in the manifesto that we were elected on, plans not only to invest record sums in our NHS—more than any other party proposed—but to make sure that we are reforming our NHS in the years to come to ensure that it continues to do the fantastic work that it already does.

Let us look at the facts on the ground. I have here the latest NHS Lothian report into the on-going problems at St John’s paediatric unit in Livingston. The report says:

“There is continuing, heavy reliance on a small number of staff doing additional night and weekend shifts and prone to short notice collapse because of sickness or other unplanned absence.”

It adds that

“only four of the nine out of hours slots filled on a substantive basis.”

It continues:

“The middle grade medical rota … remains unstable due to vacancies and on some occasions Advanced Nurse Practitioners ... or Paediatric Nurse Practitioners are required to fill rota gaps.”

In other words, the unit is backfilling for doctors because it cannot get the staff. That may be an exceptional case, but it is utterly unacceptable. The doctors say that we need action. Is that situation not the consequence of inaction from the Government?

There are challenges in paediatrics at St John’s hospital—I do not think that that comes as news to anybody—but it was exactly those challenges that prompted NHS Lothian to commission an expert report on the paediatric unit’s future. NHS Lothian is considering that report, and I know that, with the Scottish Government’s support, it will take forward whatever actions require to be taken forward.

I should point out that, under the SNP, the situation in general at St John’s hospital is a lot more positive. The hospital is in a much stronger position than it was in when the Government took office. We provided funding for a new magnetic resonance imaging scanner and for a new short-stay elective surgery unit. We redesigned accident and emergency, and we refurbished the labour ward and the special care baby unit. A new laboratory medicine training school and a new regional eating disorders unit have opened. A range of improvements has been made at the hospital, and we are determined to do the same thing in paediatrics.

I will never stand in the chamber—for goodness’ sake, I am a former health secretary—and say that there are no challenges to overcome in our national health service. In that sense, Scotland is not unique. However, we have more staff in our NHS and we are investing record sums of money in our NHS. That is why many waiting times in Scotland are not just lower than those when we took office but considerably lower than those in other parts of the United Kingdom.

If we make a comparison with the situation in England, where the Tories are in government—[Interruption.] I know that the Tories do not like this. Junior doctors have been on strike in England but not in Scotland. We can look at A and E as just one example. Performance in our core A and E units in Scotland is 10 percentage points better than performance under the Tories in England. We will keep working to improve our national health service, but we will take no lectures from the Tories on how to do it.

I know that the First Minister is off to London tonight for a debate, but we are talking about the Scottish NHS, which her Government has been in charge of for nine years. She is right to point out that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is about to publish a report on St John’s, but she did not mention that the SNP Government tried to push back the report’s publication until after the election because it was worried about what the report might say. She did not mention that that was against the wishes of health bosses in the area, who feared that a delay in publication would only add to uncertainty about the paediatric ward’s future.

We need a serious and honest debate about how we best create a sustainable NHS; we do not need an SNP spin operation that tries to bury bad news because it is politically inconvenient. We have gaps in nursing, gaps in consultants and gaps in general practitioners. After nine years, is it not time that the SNP Government sorted that out?

I know that the Conservatives have replaced Labour as the official Opposition, but I did not appreciate that that meant that Ruth Davidson would recycle scare stories about St John’s hospital from Neil Findlay. I thought that she might aspire to better than that, but that is clearly not the case. The fact is that decisions on the expert report, on its timing and on taking forward its recommendations will be for NHS Lothian, and the Scottish Government will support the board in that.

I say to Ruth Davidson that we are talking about the Scottish NHS, and I am talking about the improvements that we have seen in the Scottish NHS under this Government. All that I did was compare that with some respects in which the NHS, where the Tories are in charge of it, has gone backwards instead of forwards. We have had the sight of junior doctors out on strike because of the Tory Government’s intransigence.

We will keep taking action to improve our health service. The Scottish Government has now been in office for nine years, and let me remind members of what we have seen in those nine years. We have record-high staffing levels—staffing numbers are up by more than 11,000. Nurse numbers are up, doctor numbers are up, consultant numbers are up, paramedic numbers are up and GP numbers are up. Incidentally, senior manager numbers are down, because we have more than met our target to reduce them. The NHS is in good hands, and we will ensure that it keeps moving in the right direction.


Carers Scotland (Meetings)

2. Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister when she will next meet Carers Scotland. (S5F-00070)

I hope that I will have the opportunity to meet Carers Scotland soon. The Minister for Public Health and Sport will meet Carers Scotland next week and, of course, as everyone in the chamber will be aware, this week is carers week, so I take this opportunity on behalf of all members to thank carers and young carers for everything that they do on our behalf.

Earlier this week, the First Minister was named as the 50th most powerful woman in the world. Today, a report by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service confirmed that the number of students from poorer backgrounds going to university has dropped. When will the First Minister use some of her immense power to improve the life chances of Scotland’s young people?

Kezia Dugdale clearly pays more attention to those things than I do, but never mind. If she keeps trying, I am sure that she will get there eventually. [Laughter.]

However, on the important and serious matter that Kezia Dugdale rightly raises, I have studied the figures in some detail, as people would expect me to have done. They show that we are absolutely right to prioritise fair access to university, but it is also important and appropriate to look at the figures in the round. They come with the usual health warning that they do not include the substantial number of students in Scotland who enter higher education through college, but let us look specifically at what they do show.

If we look at 18-year-olds exclusively, we see that the numbers from our most deprived areas dropped slightly from 2014 to 2015, but are nevertheless up considerably compared with 2010. However, a more fundamental point is that not everybody who goes to university goes at 18, so when we look at the figures for people of all ages we see that the numbers from the most deprived areas who are both applying to university and being accepted are up in 2015 compared with 2014, in both cases by about 10 per cent. We have got work to do, and I have been clear about that. That is why implementing the widening access commission report is so important, but it is simply wrong to say that progress is not being made.

What I heard was three different excuses about why the numbers are wrong, rather than an explanation as to why the First Minister’s Government has not done enough. The figures clearly show that there has been a drop in the number of people from poorer backgrounds applying to university, and that there has been an even bigger drop in the number of poorer people being accepted when they do apply. That is what happens when grants and bursaries are cut by a third. The Government recently tried to scrap a scheme that secured university places for the poorest students, and students are worried that the First Minister will try that again. She says that, by 2030, she wants 20 per cent of university students to come from the poorest backgrounds. Given that ambition, can she guarantee today that her Government will fully fund the scheme for the lifetime of this parliamentary session?

I have made it clear that we are determined to increase access and to do what is required to do that. I hope that Kezia Dugdale and I can find some agreement, because I did not say that the figures that she cited were wrong. On the contrary, I said that they were right. I simply pointed out what the figures actually say. What Kezia Dugdale says they say is right for 18-year-olds entering university in this year, but the number of 18-year-olds from our most deprived communities entering university has gone up between 2010 and 2015. In terms of people of all ages going to university, whether they are applying to university or entering university, the numbers from our most deprived areas have gone up in 2015, both of them by 10 per cent. I am not saying that the figures are wrong. I am simply setting out factually for the chamber what the figures actually say. I think that that is the appropriate thing to do.

I have made it clear that, although we are making progress, I do not think that that progress is going far enough or fast enough. That is why I commissioned the widening access report and why I have committed to implementing all of its recommendations. We will shortly appoint a widening access commissioner, and if that commissioner tells us that universities are not doing enough we will use the statutory powers that we legislated for, and which Labour voted against, to ensure that universities do more. We are determined to do that, we are committed to doing it, and I would hope that Labour could get behind us.

Earlier this week, when the First Minister missed her health targets, she moved the goalposts. Today she is trying to move the goalposts again when it comes to the UCAS figures. It is simply a fact that when we look at the UCAS figures for 2015-16 we see that the situation is getting worse, not better.

Let us look at the overall picture. Poorer people are less likely to apply to university under this Government; when they do, they are less likely to be accepted; and when they get there, they are more likely to drop out because of the cuts that the Government has made to bursaries and grants. Labour’s manifesto pledged to reverse the SNP Government’s cuts to bursaries; surely, in light of today’s news, the First Minister will pledge to do just that.

When we last made changes to the bursary threshold, it was the National Union of Students president—who, I accept, would like us to do more and who was of course a member of the widening access commission—who described them as

“great news for Scottish students”.

One of the other things in our manifesto was a commitment to a review of student support, which we will take forward in the course of this parliamentary session.

I say again to Kezia Dugdale—and I will send her again for her information, because I know that she is genuinely interested in this, the statistics that I have just been reading out—that she is wrong to say what she has said. I have not moved a single goalpost; I point out, in fairness, that I am simply saying what the figures actually show. She is right that in terms of 18-year-olds there has, for one year, been a slight decline, but since 2010, the figure is up.

However, the more fundamental point that I am making—and which Kezia Dugdale does not seem to grasp—is that if we look at people of all ages, whether we are talking about applications or entry to universities, we see that the numbers from our most deprived communities are up 10 per cent—up 10 per cent for applications and up 10 per cent for entries. That is simply a fact, and it is a fact that is in these figures.

Instead of arguing over the facts—and we cannot argue over these facts, because they are what they are—let us get behind the action that this Government has decided to take. I look forward to Labour having the gumption to get behind us and make sure that we can achieve what we have set out to achieve.


Cabinet (Meetings)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00036)

Tuesday.

Recent days have seen further revelations from businesses such as Sports Direct and BHS about the extent of deeply unethical business practices in this country, from exploitative zero-hours contracts to payments below the minimum wage, brutal disciplinary procedures and the intimidation, bullying and harassment of workers. Major names on our high street stand accused not only of paying poverty wages but of playing fast and loose with people’s health and throwing their employees on the economic scrap heap on a whim, even while the owners line their own pockets. The First Minister and I agree that Scotland should be able to make more decisions about workplace and employment matters, just as the Scottish Trades Union Congress advocated, but does she agree that we need to use to the greatest extent possible the existing devolved powers and to push at the edge of those powers to ensure that unethical and exploitative business practices are driven out of the Scottish economy?

Yes, I do. What we heard this week in evidence down at Westminster from Mike Ashley about practices at Sports Direct was absolutely and utterly appalling, shameful and unacceptable, and every right-thinking person in this country should condemn that unequivocally.

As Patrick Harvie knows, we as a Government have established the business pledge, which is intended to promote good business practices. We are also absolutely clear that there should be zero tolerance of unethical business practices of the kind that we heard about this week, such as exploitative zero-hours contracts and companies not paying the minimum wage—although, of course, we want companies to go beyond the minimum wage and pay the living wage. Patrick Harvie and I have had discussions before on whether there should be more compulsion around the business pledge, and that is something that we will continue to consider.

Although, because of the purdah rules, I am not able to go into this in great detail here, one of the reasons why I am going to be in London tonight to take part in the debate on the European Union referendum is that I do not want to move to a position of having a completely deregulated labour market and people like Boris Johnson being able to rip up the workers’ rights that the EU guarantees in this country.

I certainly agree with those final comments. We have given the Government credit where credit is due for developing the fair work agenda and for promoting it by means of the business pledge.

The First Minister says that she is willing to consider compulsion. However, is it not abundantly clear, given the scale of the abuses that we know are taking place every day in our country, that we need to do more than just encourage the willing and that we need to make it clear to the unwilling that those deplorable practices will not be accepted? Will the First Minister ensure that the fair work agenda will in future have real consequences for the employers who exploit their workers, use tax havens, have poor environmental performance and exhibit the rest of the litany of bad practice, so that they will no longer have access to taxpayer-funded Government support, grants, loans and public sector business support services?

I am committed to ensuring that our fair work agenda, including the business pledge, has the ability to do what we want it to do.

I am broadly in agreement with what Patrick Harvie is saying. Some of the practices at Sports Direct that we heard about this week were not just unethical but illegal—not paying staff the minimum wage, and other practices that broke the law. When companies break the law in the way in which they treat their staff, they should be held to account not only in terms of the fair work agenda and how we distribute Government money but in terms of the law of the land. I hope that everyone in the chamber agrees with that.


Cancer Patient Experience Survey

4. Mairi Evans (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the publication of the cancer patient experience survey. (S5F-00066)

I welcome the results of the first ever Scottish cancer patient experience survey, which shows that 94 per cent of respondents were satisfied with their care. However, we know that there is more to be done, which is why, earlier this year, we announced our cancer strategy, which is supported by £100 million during this session of Parliament. That makes clear the importance of listening to what people with cancer are saying about what matters to them, and then acting on what they tell us.

Does the First Minister agree that, although our Scottish national health service is achieving world-class cancer outcomes, we cannot afford to be complacent? Can she outline how the Scottish Government’s £100 million cancer strategy will help to ensure that we deliver the best cancer care for the people of Scotland?

Cancer services have come a long way in the past decade. For example, cancer mortality rates have fallen by 11 per cent over that period. However, Mairi Evans is right to say that there is more that we still need to do.

The £100 million cancer strategy that Mairi Evans asked about will be implemented in partnership with people with cancer; their clinicians; service providers; charitable organisations, which do a fantastic job; and, of course, other parties in the chamber. That money will be invested to ensure that we are doing more to support the prevention of cancer and the early diagnosis of cancer, and to ensure that, by taking advantage of advances in areas such as radiotherapy, we allow people access to the best possible treatment. In all of that, we will ensure that the other needs of people with cancer—their emotional needs, the financial needs that they often face and the needs of their family—are taken account of holistically. I am determined that we do that in order that we can continue to provide world-class cancer services for people who need them.

I thank Macmillan Cancer Support and the Scottish Government for the publication of the cancer patient experience survey. It contained some deeply disturbing statistics. For example, 49 per cent of patients who asked for information on financial support and benefits did not receive it; 66 per cent of patients did not receive a care plan; 32 per cent of patients said that they did not get adequate support from health and social care after their treatment; and one in five patients said that they did not get an appointment soon enough after the suspicion that they had cancer arose. Given those statistics, and the on-going challenge of the fact that cancer is the biggest killer in Scotland, can the First Minister confirm that the current expectations on cancer treatment will not be included in her review of targets?

Earlier this week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport set out the purpose of the review and said how that will be taken forward. The review is backed by clinicians and organisations such as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and many others. We have also said that there are certain access targets in the NHS that are vitally important to people with regard to giving them certainty about when they will be treated, and there is no intention whatsoever to undermine that.

Anas Sarwar is right to focus not only on the aspects of the cancer survey that were positive but on the ones that tell us that we have more work to do—finding out that information was the whole purpose of carrying out the survey. Many of those areas involve not only the clinical aspects of cancer care but the emotional ones. Those are some of the areas in which we have most work still to do.

I remember launching the first Macmillan financial advice service when I was health secretary. Those services do fantastic work, but the findings say that we have more work to do. We are focused on prevention, early diagnosis and speedy access to treatment, but also on the wider support that patients, in the survey, tell us that they want and need.


Oil and Gas Industry (Government Support)

5. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the First Minister, in light of the findings of the latest Bank of Scotland research series report on oil and gas, what support the Scottish Government will offer the industry. (S5F-00040)

The oil price has increased since that survey was conducted, but the report undoubtedly highlights the challenges that the industry and its workforce face. Keith Brown and Paul Wheelhouse visited Aberdeen last week, where they reiterated our commitment to securing a long-term future for the sector. We continue to provide practical support to the workforce and industry through, for example, the transition training fund, the energy jobs task force and our enterprise agencies.

The United Kingdom Government retains control of the key taxation levers that affect the sector. A clear conclusion from the report is that more action must be taken on that front, with around half of all companies wanting to see a basin-wide fiscal stimulus for exploration. We continue to press the UK Government to support exploration and to deliver on its commitment to consider loan guarantees for offshore infrastructure.

I remind members that there is a briefing in committee room 2 immediately after First Minister’s question time from Bank of Scotland on the report.

One helpful thing that the report tells us is that a majority of large companies see the opportunity to diversify into shale gas. Sadly, the opportunities—and the jobs that will be created—will be located outside Scotland due to the Government’s moratorium on fracking. The First Minister says that we need to listen to the science on the issue, but she should know what the science is already, because her Government commissioned a report on unconventional oil and gas from an independent expert scientific panel. The report, which was published nearly two years ago in July 2014, concludes:

“The technology exists to allow the safe extraction of such reserves, subject to robust regulation being in place”.

Why is the First Minister not listening to her Government’s own scientists on the matter? Why is she holding back the vital oil and gas industry?

That is complete nonsense. The moratorium on fracking has been introduced so that we can carefully study all the different aspects before coming to a decision that is guided by and based on evidence, and also takes into account public opinion—the opinion of members of the public who would have to live in areas affected by such technology. That is absolutely the right thing to do.

Interestingly, when it comes to diversification, Murdo Fraser did not quote the report fully, because the companies that talked about the opportunities of diversification also talked about the opportunities of diversification into renewables. I wonder why a Tory member of the Scottish Parliament did not want to mention renewables. It is because—against all the evidence, against the wishes of people the length and breadth of this country, and against some of the investment decisions of our companies—the Tory UK Government is currently destroying our renewables potential by the wrong-headed decisions that it is taking. Perhaps Murdo Fraser would be better advised to get on the phone to his colleagues in the UK Government and ask for support for renewables before he comes to this chamber to talk about fracking.

On 21 January, the First Minister was asked when she would provide an updated “Oil and Gas Analytical Bulletin”. She did not answer then, but I am persistent, so I am giving her a second opportunity.

Given the severe challenges facing the oil and gas industry, outlined starkly in the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce survey in May, will the First Minister now publish a revised oil and gas bulletin? When will we see it?

A revised oil and gas bulletin will be published in due course, and I will make sure that Jackie Baillie is one of the first to know when it is due out.

However, I say to Jackie Baillie in all seriousness that, although it is important that we publish such publications routinely—we will continue to do so—we do not need a revised oil and gas bulletin to tell us about the challenges that the sector faces right now. We know about those from our discussions and engagements with the industry and from reports such as the one that we are talking about today.

Yes, we will publish the revised bulletin in due course but, in the meantime, we will continue to get on with the job of supporting the industry, providing practical support on the ground and calling on the UK Government to do the right thing as well.

The First Minister will be aware that the decommissioning industry could be very important to Scotland and the UK in the coming decades. When she meets Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, tonight—although for different reasons—will she make the point that tax relief should be used to ensure that the jobs in that industry are retained here, in Scotland, rather than taken overseas to Norway or other European countries?

Yes, I can give the commitment that we will make that case—I will do my best to do so tonight—on an on-going basis, because the matter is important. Although we do not want to see premature decommissioning in the North Sea, decommissioning nevertheless is a massive economic opportunity for us and we want to make sure that the benefit of that opportunity is enjoyed here in Scotland and not elsewhere. Part of what we need to do to secure that is, of course, what Tavish Scott says—to make sure that the tax incentives and the tax environment in place are the right ones. We will continue to argue that case very strongly.


Science and Computing (Women Students)

6. Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to reverse the reported fall in women studying key subjects in science and computing at higher level since 2007. (S5F-00049)

Interestingly, Iain Gray talks about the “reported fall”, because it is not an actual fall in most cases. The figures that he released to the media over the weekend are simply wrong. Every subject that he named, with the exception of computing, has seen rises not falls in the number of girls studying them. Physics, chemistry, biology and human biology—every one is up. Even when computing is included, the total number of entries is up 10 per cent from 2007.

Members might be asking, “How come the figures are so wrong?” I will tell them. Iain Gray arrived at his figures by counting only the old higher that was in the process of being replaced and he excluded both the revised and the new highers. I think that the question is whether Iain Gray did that deliberately, or whether the Labour education spokesman did not know that highers were being reformed. Frankly, I am not sure which would be worse.

In contrast, the Scottish Government will get on with encouraging young people into science, technology, engineering and maths, because those subjects are vital to their future and to Scotland’s economic future.

Perhaps the First Minister and I can argue about the numbers another time. [Interruption.] However, I think we agree that we need more women to choose science.

I want to use this opportunity to congratulate the First Minister on the appointment of Professor Sheila Rowan as chief scientific adviser for Scotland. That is a great appointment; she is also a fantastic role model, who will encourage more girls and young women into science. Like me, she is a physicist, which is always good.

When Anne Glover was appointed as the first chief scientific adviser for Scotland, she had direct, open-door access to the then First Minister. In recent years, the adviser has not had such access. It would be another welcome and powerful signal if the First Minister were to re-establish that access. Will she consider doing so?

I will consider everything that will help us in that regard. I thank Iain Gray for his comments about yesterday’s appointment; I agree that it is a very positive appointment. However, we cannot just gloss over the issue that he raised. I suppose that the matter goes back to my exchange with Kezia Dugdale. I hope that Labour and the Scottish National Party can be allies on the education agenda, but we must have a debate based on facts, not on distortions.

Let me underline what Labour did at the weekend. It compared the numbers of girls going into STEM subjects in 2007 with the figures for 2015. It took 2007 as the baseline, when young people sat only highers. It then went to 2015 and counted only the old highers; it did not include the new highers or the revised highers that are replacing the old highers. Labour then went to the media on the basis of that information and said that there was a fall in the number of girls studying those science subjects. That was flatly wrong; it was a distortion of the reality. Frankly, it was a disgrace.

If we are going to move forward and build consensus and alliances on improving education for our young people—as I am determined to do—and if Labour wants to be part of that, let us stop the distortion and do that on the basis of facts.

An all-girls’ team from St Andrew’s and St Bride’s high school in East Kilbride recently reached the final of the Go4SET equal engineering challenge, which is run by the Engineering Development Trust. Does the First Minister agree that, to ensure the on-going success of the Scottish Government’s strategies in the engineering field, it would be worth while to consider targeting such initiatives, on a local and national basis, specifically at girls and young women?

Yes, I do. I congratulate the girls from St Andrew’s and St Bride’s high school in Linda Fabiani’s constituency on their success. I understand that a team from Govan high school, which was in my previous constituency, was also successful. I congratulate all the teams involved.

I also agree with Linda Fabiani about the work of the Go4SET scheme. Such initiatives have a huge role to play in inspiring young people and helping them to develop their skills and an awareness of the world of work. They often help us to tackle outdated stereotypes about so-called boys’ jobs and so-called girls’ jobs. Therefore, we have been pleased to support schemes of a similar nature and will continue to do so.

I congratulate again all the teams that took part in the Go4SET scheme. I should, of course, remember the team from Kirkcaldy high school, which ultimately won the Scottish final.


Queensferry Crossing

7. Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

To ask the First Minister on what date the new Queensferry crossing will open. (S5F-00058)

As the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work announced in Parliament yesterday, the Queensferry crossing is expected to be open to traffic by mid-May, which, of course, is ahead of the contractual completion date of June 2017.

Many people will find it hard to understand why 25 days lost to adverse weather can lead to a five-month delay in opening the crossing. Indeed, it has been an open secret in my constituency that the delay was inevitable. I learned in January that the facility in Rosyth that makes concrete road decks did not have capacity to meet the target.

Does the First Minister really believe that Parliament and my constituents believe that the first that ministers knew of the delay was just after the election and that they knew nothing about the problem with the road decks?

If Alex Cole-Hamilton has any evidence to the contrary, he should, in all fairness, bring it forward. What the cabinet secretary said yesterday is absolutely the case. Ministers were informed on 26 May that the Forth crossing bridge constructors consortium was examining weather impacts. On 1 June, the FCBC board ratified the revised programme. Since then, ministers have been making sure that Transport Scotland subjected that revised programme to rigorous scrutiny.

I met the contractors on Tuesday this week to satisfy myself that everything possible was being done to accelerate progress. In that meeting, we took the decision—rightly—that Parliament should be informed at the earliest possible opportunity.

Those are the facts of the matter, and I hope that all members accept that. The delay and its implications were set out clearly by Keith Brown yesterday. The constructors now believe that deck installation will take two to three months longer than originally expected. That creates a knock-on effect for subsequent activities such as road surfacing and the installation of wind barriers, which will now take place in the winter months. That is the reason for the timescale that has now been set out.

The bridge will not be late. The contractual completion date is June 2017. The December target date, which was six months ahead of schedule, will not be met but the bridge will still open ahead of schedule. It is one of the most wonderful and complex construction projects that is being undertaken anywhere in the world and we should all be proud of it and the people who are building it.

Given the timescales, which have now proven to be wildly optimistic, and the previous attempts to project short timescales for the repairs of the old bridge, would it not be wise for the First Minister to generate a little bit more wriggle room?

I am not sure that I quite understand the question. We are putting forward the estimated completion date based on the rigorous assessment and modelling that the contractors we pay to build the bridge have given us. I say to Alex Johnstone that that is not for me as First Minister. I know that Kezia Dugdale praised me earlier for being so powerful in the global context, but I am not a bridge engineer and I do not have expertise in building bridges—other than the ones that I build across the chamber all the time. [Laughter.] I prefer to take my advice on the timescales and on the details of the construction of this fantastic new bridge from the experts we are paying to build it. That is the sensible thing to do. Incidentally, it is also the thing that ensures that we do what matters more than anything else: protect the safety of the brave people who are building the Forth crossing.

The First Minister mentioned timescales from experts. We can all understand why weather might delay a complicated civil engineering project such as the new Forth crossing. However, any complicated project will have contingency built into the project timeline. At what point did the Scottish Government know that that contingency had been used up? Would it have been prudent for ministers to continue to claim that the December 2016 date was realistic if they already knew that that contingency had been used up?

Let me try to put this simply: if ministers had known what Keith Brown outlined to Parliament yesterday earlier, of course it would not have been prudent or appropriate for us still to say that the new crossing was going to be open to traffic in December. However, that is not the case. I have just set out what Keith Brown set out yesterday—that ministers became aware on 26 May that the contractors were looking at the weather impacts. I have also set out the timeline of what happened after that.

The fact of the matter is that, in such a complex project, there are challenges to be overcome all the time. The contractors have overcome those but, in doing so, they have eaten into the contingency time. Until May, they were still confident that, notwithstanding the worse-than-predicted weather, they could still meet the December 2016 date, which was six months ahead of the contractual completion date. They then revised that, because they realised that that was not possible. They informed ministers in the appropriate way, and ministers have informed Parliament in the appropriate way. That is what has happened.

Now, for goodness’ sake, let us all get on with backing the people who are building the bridge, because we are all looking forward to it being open to traffic next year.


Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service is adequately funded. (S5F-00063)

Well, £43 million is currently being invested in a new, purpose-built, state-of-the-art national centre that will deliver a first-rate service in the processing, testing and supply of, and research and development on, blood and human donor tissue and cells. The centre brings together several core activities of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service in one, purpose-built site.

NHS National Services Scotland, which is the parent organisation of SNBTS, has been provided with record levels of funding, including a baseline funding increase of £10 million in 2016-17, which is a 2 per cent real-terms increase.

I thank the First Minister for that answer, but Marc Turner, the medical director of the service, has warned that the Scottish Government’s funding cuts are so severe that, over the course of this session of Parliament, the service will face serious cuts.

Does the First Minister believe that funding reductions on such a scale will help us to achieve the aim of increasing the number of blood donors in Scotland? Will she agree to reconsider the funding of the service over the course of the session?

We have pledged to provide above-inflation increases in funding to the health service over the course of the session.

I should point out that the Scottish Government does not directly fund SNBTS; we fund the parent organisation, which is NHS National Services Scotland. As I said, the funding for NHS National Services Scotland has increased by £10 million in this financial year, which is a 2 per cent real-terms increase.

I know how vitally important the work that SNBTS does is. When I was health secretary, I used to see that with my own eyes on a regular basis. It is an important and highly valued service, and we will continue to do everything that we can to support it.

My final point is about the new centre, the purpose of which is to bring all the services together in one, purpose-built site. As well as improving the quality of the work that SNBTS does over the years ahead, the centre will enable the service to provide its services in a more joined-up, effective and efficient way. That is why that capital investment is so important.