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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 10, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 10 January 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, End-of-Life Carers Support, UK Immigration White Paper, Future Rural Policy and Support, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time

I want to extend in British Sign Language, if I can—my sign language is rusty—a warm welcome to the Scottish Parliament to the many members of the deaf community and BSL users and signers who are present in the public gallery today. I am sure that members will be pleased to hear that, for the next six months, we will provide a signed translation of First Minister’s questions, and we will review that after the summer. I will end with an appeal to the First Minister, our party leaders and all members who wish to ask a question today to keep their questions concise. [Interruption.] Yes, and the answers. The First Minister signed her approval.


Alex Salmond Investigation

I can try, but I cannot promise.

I would very much like to give the First Minister a further opportunity to explain some of the inconsistencies surrounding the investigation into Alex Salmond. On Tuesday, the First Minister claimed that “there is no manual” for dealing with situations such as the complaints that Mr Salmond faces. Except that such a manual does exist: it is the Scottish Government’s complaints process, which the First Minister signed off in December 2017. It makes clear that the First Minister should become involved only when an investigation is complete. Discussing the case with the subject of the investigation on five separate occasions is surely getting involved, is it not?

No, it is not. I intervened in the process at no stage. It would have been wholly inappropriate for me to do so. The procedure that was signed off, as Jackson Carlaw rightly points out, says that I should not have known about the process, which was why the permanent secretary did not tell me about the investigation that followed from the complaints. As First Minister, I had no role in that process. That is the position, which is right and proper.

Obviously, like other party leaders here, I have responsibilities as leader of my party and I took part in meetings in that capacity. However, all along, in every decision that I took, I was anxious and determined to ensure that I did not intervene in a process in which I had no role to play.

I am sorry, but if the First Minister had said that to my grandmother, my grandmother would have given the First Minister what she called “an old-fashioned look”. In my book, meeting the subject of a complaint is getting involved, and I am surprised that the First Minister does not appreciate that.

In the First Minister’s statement this week, she said that she

“did not know what was going on in the investigation”,

yet she also told us that, on April 2, Mr Salmond detailed to her the nature of the complaints and that, in subsequent meetings, he set out his

“concerns about the process”

and the

“proposals that he was making ... for mediation and arbitration.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; c 64, 61.]

So she did know, because Mr Salmond told her. How does the First Minister square her claim that she did not know what was going on with the fact that Mr Salmond was telling her what was going on?

I did not know how the Scottish Government was dealing with the complaint, I did not know how the Scottish Government intended to deal with the complaint and I did not make any effort to find out how the Scottish Government was dealing with the complaint or to intervene in how the Scottish Government was dealing with the complaint.

As Jackson Carlaw has said, Alex Salmond informed me of the investigation at a meeting on 2 April 2018. I was so anxious not to even inadvertently create any impression that I was seeking to intervene that I did not immediately tell the permanent secretary that I was aware of the investigation. I changed that judgment when Alex Salmond asked to meet me a second time.

As Jackson Carlaw has said and as I set out on Tuesday, Alex Salmond set out his concerns about the process. It was clear from what he told me then that he was considering a legal challenge. When he requested a second meeting, I was concerned that that challenge could be imminent, so I told the permanent secretary then that I knew about the investigation and I told her about the previous meeting, including the reference to a potential legal challenge. I told her that I supported her decision to investigate and that I would not seek to intervene in the investigation in any way. I also said that I would make it clear to Alex Salmond again that I would not intervene. That is what I did in the second meeting on 7 June 2018, and I told the permanent secretary of all subsequent contact.

Self-evidently, I did not intervene in the process. It seems to me that I am being simultaneously accused of being involved in a conspiracy against Alex Salmond and accused of colluding with Alex Salmond. Nothing could be further from the truth. Neither of those things is true.

Since I found out about the investigation, I have tried to do the right thing in a situation that, no matter what happened, was never going to be easy for me. The most important thing here has always been and continues to be the complaints that were made and the people who made those complaints.

The First Minister is an experienced politician. The obvious, commonsense thing to have done after Alex Salmond advised her of the allegation on 2 April 2018 would have been to decline to meet him or speak with him on four separate occasions.

Again on Tuesday, the First Minister said that the five conversations that she had with Mr Salmond about this matter “were not Government meetings”. In other words, her position appears to be that a meeting between the First Minister of the Government and the former First Minister of the Government about a Government investigation involving two Government employees was not Government business. Really? How? To be completely clear, will the First Minister confirm whether she and the former First Minister were the only two people at those meetings or whether other people were present? If other people were present, who were they?

At the first meeting, my chief of staff was with me and Mr Salmond was represented. Of course, my chief of staff is a special adviser who also has the ability to assist me—[Interruption.]—in party matters. At the other meetings, no one else was present.

I accept unreservedly the scrutiny on me; I did not choose to be in the situation that we are in—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the answer, please.

All along, I have been absolutely clear that the most important thing was that I did not intervene in the Government process in which I had no role. The fact that I had no role in the Government process is why it would not have been appropriate for the meetings to be Government meetings. I have responsibilities as party leader, as other leaders do.

I did not intervene in the process—self-evidently, I did not intervene in it because, as Jackson Carlaw referred to, things such as mediation and arbitration did not take place. I acted appropriately. I accept that there will be others who think that I made wrong judgments along the way, and they are absolutely entitled to think that. However, I will stand by and defend the judgments that I made. I am absolutely adamant that I did not intervene in this process, as it would have been entirely inappropriate for me to have done so.

So a Scottish Government special adviser, who is an employee of the Government, was present at the meetings, which we are told were not Government meetings.

This whole sorry business simply does not stack up. At the heart of it are two women whose complaint has been entirely botched by the Government. We have the former First Minister claiming, incredibly, that there is a political plot led by this Government to destroy his reputation. It is incredible. All we have to show for it is a bill estimated to be at least £500,000, which the taxpayer will now be left to settle.

If the Government will not explain convincingly what has happened—frankly, the First Minister has not done so today—I and others believe that the Parliament should be given the authority to do so. Will the First Minister agree today that her officials and ministers will provide evidence on this matter, because the public deserve to know?

As all members know, it is entirely for Parliament—rightly and properly—to decide what it wants to look into and inquire into. Ministers and Government officials will co-operate fully with that, as they do in all inquiries.

Jackson Carlaw puts his finger on a point that I made earlier. I am right now being simultaneously accused of being engaged in a political conspiracy against Alex Salmond and accused of colluding with Alex Salmond. Neither of those things is true.

The fact of the matter is that complaints came forward. The permanent secretary was right to investigate them. I absolutely agree with Jackson Carlaw that the most important thing is that people brought forward complaints and it is right that those complaints are investigated. The question whether behaviour is criminal is a matter for the police and is not for me to comment on.

It was for the Scottish Government to investigate whether the behaviour was inappropriate. The Scottish Government did not get that right. In all this, that is what I deeply regret. That is why I am also determined that the Government will learn lessons from that. If Parliament wants to be part of that process, I would certainly welcome that.


Alex Salmond Investigation

I hope that all of us in the chamber remember that at the centre of this week’s court case are two courageous women who put their faith in a system that has let them down badly. We owe them a duty of care, and they have the right to access to justice.

Labour backs a parliamentary inquiry, because serious questions need to be answered—for example, about the First Minister’s five conversations with Alex Salmond. The First Minister has already said that she does not consider those to have been Government meetings, even though they were meetings and conversations between the current First Minister of the Scottish Government and the former First Minister of the Scottish Government about a Scottish Government investigation into allegations of sexual assault that had been reported by two Scottish Government civil servants.

Why does the First Minister not think that the public has a right to know the basic facts of those discussions?

On Tuesday and again today I have told Parliament and, by extension, the public about the subject matter of the discussions.

I still say that the most important point—this is absolutely self-evident—is that I did not intervene in the process in any way.

On the question about a wider inquiry, it is entirely for Parliament to decide whether it wants an inquiry into all this. As I said on Tuesday, and as the permanent secretary said on Tuesday, the Government intends to review the procedure that it applied in which it was in error. That is something in which Parliament will have an interest. Of course, Parliament also has an interest in the wider issues. It is not for me to say what Parliament should and should not do, but obviously I, the Scottish Government, the permanent secretary and any other member or official of the Scottish Government will co-operate fully with whatever Parliament decides to do.

Presiding Officer,

“If Ministers meet external organisations or individuals and find themselves discussing official business without an official present—for example at a party conference or social occasion ... any significant content ... should be passed back to their Private Offices as soon as possible after the event, who should arrange for the basic facts of such meetings to be recorded”.

That is paragraph 4.23 of the “Scottish Ministerial Code: 2018 edition”.

Will the First Minister say whether she is in breach of that code? Alternatively, if she placed a record with the permanent secretary, will she publish it?

If there is a parliamentary inquiry, we will, of course, make all appropriate information available. I have just set out to Jackson Carlaw when and of what I informed the permanent secretary, and we will make that information available. I am satisfied that I conducted myself appropriately and in line with all the rules, but Parliament will perform its scrutiny role in the best way that it considers necessary.

On Tuesday, the First Minister invited us to judge her decision to hold a series of meetings and discussions with Alex Salmond about the cases. That was a grave error of judgment, but it was also a clear potential breach of the ministerial code of conduct. After the events of this week, people need to have trust and confidence in the system. That is why the First Minister should back a full parliamentary inquiry, and it is why she should, today, refer herself to the panel of independent advisers on the ministerial code. Will she commit to doing so?

I will consider any request that is made, including that one. I am perfectly happy for Parliament to hold an inquiry. The simple point that I am making is that it is not for me, as First Minister, to tell Parliament what it should or should not inquire into. If there is a parliamentary inquiry, I will ensure that all parts of the Scottish Government co-operate fully with it.

We have a number of constituency supplementaries, the first of which is from Alasdair Allan.


HMY Iolaire (Military Maritime Grave)

The communities of Lewis and Harris recently commemorated the centenary of the loss of HMY Iolaire, which on new year’s day in 1919 claimed the lives of 201 servicemen. The First Minister will, from her recent very welcome visit to Lewis, be aware of the deep feelings that the tragedy still invokes. Will the Scottish Government give its support to the communities’ calls for the Ministry of Defence to designate the site as a military maritime grave?

I thank Alasdair Allan for raising the issue. On 1 January, I attended the very moving commemoration of the loss of HMY Iolaire. Clearly, the event is still keenly felt by the local community. The bodies of about one third of those who were lost in the tragedy were never recovered, so I support the call to have the wreck of the Iolaire recognised as a war grave. The Scottish commemorations panel, whose members are appointed by the Scottish Government, has already raised the matter with the Ministry of Defence, with whom the decision rests. The Scottish Government will continue to support the call.


Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Glasgow (Laundry Supplies)

Last week, it was reported that patients at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital Glasgow were unable to wash because of a lack of fresh laundry. Patients who were awaiting surgery had to sleep in dirty linen. That is completely unacceptable and is a demonstration of the crisis in the national health service. Will the First Minister apologise to the patients who were affected, and set out what immediate action the Government will take to ensure that such a disgraceful episode does not happen again?

I understand from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that laundry supplies were affected by a particularly busy period over the new year. The board has already apologised—I echo that apology—and given assurances that the issue has been resolved. It was quickly resolved, but such issues should not happen. I expect the board to learn and apply lessons from the experience.


Hourstons Ltd (Closure)

The First Minister will be aware that Hourstons Ltd in Ayr is scheduled to close on 16 February. Although my primary concern is for the future of the 81 members of staff, I am also concerned about the loss of the long-established and iconic store to Ayr. I am aware that Government teams have already met Hourstons staff, but can anything further be done to help to protect the future of the staff and the business?

I, too, am concerned to hear the news about Hourstons in Ayr. I was brought up in Ayr and knew the store well when I was much younger. Clearly, the news is a blow not only to the staff but, given the longevity of the store in Ayr, to the town, as well. The Scottish Government will, as we always do in such situations, liaise with the employer to see whether anything can be done to help. If the closure cannot, unfortunately, be averted, we will make sure, through the partnership action for continuing employment initiative, that appropriate support is provided to staff. I am sure that the news will raise wider issues about regeneration in Ayr, which the Government would also be happy to be involved in.


Medicinal Cannabis

At the end of November, in the chamber, I raised with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport the plight of six-year-old Cole Thomson from East Kilbride. Cole has debilitating epilepsy, and medicinal cannabis could save and transform his life. I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for meeting Cole’s mum, Lisa Quarrell, last month.

However, I have learned that Epidiolex has been rationed to only a handful of children in Scotland and that Cole is on a very long waiting list. In a letter to Lisa Quarrell, Jeane Freeman said that specialist centres in Glasgow and Edinburgh will each be limited to applying for treatment for five children. Lisa has now secured medicinal cannabis privately from Spain, but at significant financial cost.

Will the First Minister do everything that she can to help Cole, and children like him who are suffering in Scotland, to receive the medicine and treatment that they need from our national health service?

My thoughts are with Cole and his family. It is absolutely heartbreaking to watch any loved one suffer, and even more so when it is a child. We take such calls from families very seriously.

Monica Lennon knows the position on medicinal cannabis, which is that the medicine is unlicensed in the United Kingdom. The manufacturer has applied for a licence, on which the European Medicines Agency is expected to make a decision early this year.

In the light of Monica Lennon’s latest question, I will ask Jeane Freeman to look again at Cole’s case in particular to see whether there is any more that the Scottish Government can reasonably do to help in his situation.


Additional Support Needs (Funding)

Like MSPs across the chamber, I have been hearing from colleagues and constituents from around the country about the cuts that local councils are now having to contemplate and the devastating impact if councils are forced down that road.

I would like to tell the First Minister about one disturbing example of that. Ryan is five years old, lives in Falkirk and has severe autism. His mum wrote to explain that the family were happy when his nursery recommended sending him to a mainstream primary school, because the support that he needed was there. She said:

“The first few weeks were challenging but we were amazed at how his social interaction improved—he can now speak! He is very intelligent & we are very proud to be his parents and want to thank the school for all their input.

On Monday, my husband was pulled aside by his teacher who told us that as of THAT DAY, Ryan’s support has been slashed from 2 hours PER DAY to 2.5 hours PER WEEK!!”

This is a young boy whose condition means that he cannot go to the toilet by himself. Now, in order for him to remain in school, his parents will have to go into his class twice a day to change him. Those two hours a day of support were essential to give him a chance to benefit from his education and to flourish.

Ryan’s parents have been told clearly that the school can do nothing about the cut. Ryan’s mum says:

“Not only is this disappointing & stressful, we fear it will completely undo all the work that’s been done to give Ryan a routine. God forbid he has a bowel movement in-between the allocated changing times!

This slash of hours affects all kids with support needs, not just our son.”

Does the First Minister think that that situation is remotely acceptable?

The situation that Patrick Harvie describes does not strike me as acceptable. I know how important it is for children with special needs in mainstream education to have the appropriate support. Patrick Harvie has given a fair amount of detail about Ryan’s case, but I do not know all the circumstances of that case. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to look at that case and any wider issues that it raises, and he will be happy to correspond with Patrick Harvie when he has had the opportunity to do so.

I appreciate the offer to correspond. I understand that the First Minister does not know all the individual details, but the First Minister does know that—despite the number of children with additional needs more than doubling—there are 500 fewer additional support needs teachers in Scotland’s schools in 2018 than there were in 2010, because we have been making that case for a long time, as have others across the spectrum. That situation and others in local services will only get worse if more cuts are forced on our councils. ASN and every other local service will suffer. New ring-fenced funds for new policies that the Government imposes on councils will not make up for the cuts that are proposed to their core services.

Since the Scottish National Party lost its majority, the Greens have been persistent in seeking positive changes to protect local services, but we do not demand the impossible. The Government admits that there is an extra £500 million in the coming year’s budget because of the fairer tax plans that we persuaded it to adopt last year. Why, then, should we saddle our councils with a staggering level of funding cuts, which the First Minister knows will inevitably deny vulnerable pupils and many other people in Scotland the support they need?

Before I come on to the budget point, let me return to the ASN point, because it is an important issue. I had an exchange with Richard Leonard on that point in the chamber a few weeks ago. The overall number of staff in schools who are working with children with ASN has increased. Obviously, teacher numbers have generally increased in the last couple of years, but I do not underestimate the pressures of dealing with children with special needs of that nature.

On the budget point, I will say what I have said to Patrick Harvie and to others before. We have put forward a draft budget. Patrick Harvie is right that resource is available in that draft budget because of the tax decisions that the Government has taken, but we have allocated that resource to the national health service and to local authorities—for example, for the roll-out of the doubling of childcare provision.

The simple point that I make to Patrick Harvie and others is that, if people want us to change our judgments about allocations in order to put more money into an area of the budget, there has to be a discussion about which area of the budget that money should come from. That part of the discussion cannot be avoided, because what is not in the budget is £500 million of unallocated resource. Every penny that we have available to us has been allocated.

Obviously, we want to have budget discussions, and we are prepared to have those discussions with parties across the chamber, but those discussions have to be rooted in reality. We cannot create money from nowhere. If more money is to go to one area of our budget, we have to be honest about where we are taking that money from.


Primary 1 National Assessments

The Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, has repeatedly claimed that there are many people who “emphatically” support his primary 1 national tests. We asked the Government who those many people were. It turned out that there were just two of them. One was Professor Dylan Wiliam—an education adviser to Education Scotland. However, he has said that John Swinney’s claim that he “emphatically” argued for the Government’s tests was a

“substantial, and ... perverse misrepresentation of my work”

and that the person who made that claim was

“too stupid to be doing that job”

or

“deliberately misleading”.

Can the First Minister tell us: was John Swinney “deliberately misleading” or is he

“too stupid to be doing that job”?

Let me address the substance of the issue. The Scottish Government referenced Professor Wiliam’s work because we interpreted his research as being supportive of a formative approach to assessment. If that is not the case, we are happy to recognise that. It was not our intention to imply that he supported the specifics of the Scottish national standardised assessments, but it is the Scottish Government’s view that—in line with international best practice—the assessments provide formative, diagnostic information to teachers on aspects of literacy and numeracy and that the information is then important in allowing teachers to ensure that their judgments get the right support to pupils in the right way. All of that is crucial to our objective of raising attainment and closing the attainment gap.

Mr Rennie, before you ask your second question, I advise you that your first question was on the borderline of what is acceptable. Be careful about insulting other members of the Parliament.

Presiding Officer, those were the professor’s words, not mine.

Mr Rennie, you quoted the professor and then tried to turn it into a clever question that was almost an insult. I will not accept other members being insulted in the chamber. Be careful about how you word your next question, Mr Rennie.

The First Minister is absolutely wrong. We asked John Swinney’s office for the names of academics who support P1 tests, and the professor’s name was supplied. The professor is now owed an apology, as is Professor W James Popham, whose name is second on the list. He said that the claim

“Whether made from ignorance or malevolence ... is flat-out incorrect.”

The First Minister must apologise for insulting that global expert.

Teachers are against the tests. The Educational Institute of Scotland opposes the tests. Councils are ditching the tests. Parliament voted against the tests. Now, the cabinet secretary’s preferred experts think that his tests are useless and use the words “ignorance”, “useless”, “malevolence”, “stupid” and “misleading”. Will the First Minister finally dump these tests?

The work of the professors was cited as we believed that it was evidence of support for formative assessments. If we got that wrong, of course, we apologise to the professors for that. We did not say that they specifically supported the Scottish national standardised assessments.

The assessments are important. It is important to have something that allows teachers to moderate their own judgments, although teacher judgment remains the definitive assessment tool in our schools. It is important that we can know which pupils are doing well, which pupils need to be stretched and which pupils need extra help.

On the point about councils withdrawing from assessments, that is not the case. Councils that are withdrawing from the standardised assessments that we have put in place are going back to old assessments. Fife Council, for example, is going back to doing two assessments a year instead of one, and it is using a system of assessment that is not aligned to curriculum for excellence. It is important to be clear about that.

We will continue to support an approach in our schools that allows us to get the right support to pupils and that helps to close the attainment gap.


Industrial Investment (Tayside)

On Monday, the First Minister announced £10 million for the Tayside industrial strategy. That is, of course, welcome, but will she confirm and reiterate the previous Scottish Government commitment that Michelin in my constituency will receive resources beyond those that are already allocated in the Tay cities deal to repurpose the site and create a true economic legacy for the Michelin workforce? Will she also undertake to press the United Kingdom Government to step up to the plate and fund the Michelin legacy, given that it has already short-changed the Tay cities deal by £50 million?

The Scottish Government was clear all along that we were prepared to invest £200 million in the Tay cities region and we have delivered on that promise. Like Shona Robison, I remain disappointed that the UK Government has chosen not to match that scale of ambition; I hope, even now, that it changes its mind.

The £50 million that I announced on Monday will include £10 million for the needs of manufacturing businesses across the region. I am sure that future options for the Michelin plant in Dundee will be a key focus of discussions with regional partners as they work with us to shape the industrial investment programme. However, we are absolutely clear that we will also provide additional support to deliver on the memorandum of understanding that we signed with Michelin in December. As a member of the Michelin action group, I expect the UK Government to do likewise.


Dundee City Council (Redundancies)

I am disappointed that this week the First Minister had £50 million to allocate to our region and, following the closure of Michelin, managed to find only £10 million for any industrial development in Dundee. I and many people in Dundee would have expected a full share of the £50 million to come to our city.

As a result of the First Minister’s budget, jobs are under threat in Dundee. Compulsory redundancies have been mooted by Scottish National Party councillors, when we all know that the First Minister has a policy of no compulsory redundancies. Will she confirm that policy today and guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies in Dundee City Council while she is First Minister?

As members across the chamber frequently remind me, councils are autonomous and take their own decisions. The Scottish Government’s policy of no compulsory redundancies remains in place. If my memory serves me correctly, I do not think that any such policy was in place when Labour was previously in government.

As for the start of Jenny Marra’s question, only a Labour MSP could stand up in the chamber and say that they are furious that we announced £50 million of additional investment. What a pathetic response that was. Of that, £40 million will be for transport infrastructure that will open up investment across Tayside and £10 million will help with manufacturing, which is important for Dundee and other parts of Tayside. All parts of Tayside gave Monday’s announcement a warm welcome; it is disappointing that Jenny Marra cannot find it in herself to welcome it, too.


Fox Hunting

With fox-hunting legislation set to be significantly strengthened, what message is being sent to those who might seek to flout the rules? How will Police Scotland’s hand be strengthened in tackling illegal hunts?

Mairi Gougeon, the responsible minister, set out our proposed way forward on fox hunting yesterday. We will implement the majority of Lord Bonomy’s recommendations and introduce a new limit, so that no more than two dogs can be used to find or flush foxes. Hunting or chasing wild mammals, including foxes, will continue to be against the law, as at present. We also intend to ensure that no loopholes would allow hunting to continue.

That sends a message about the importance that we attach to animal welfare, which I hope that Ruth Maguire and others will welcome. As with any strengthening of the law—of course, the proposals have still to get Parliament’s support—the police will be given options to ensure that illegal activity does not take place.


Kaiam Europe Ltd

When problems were identified at Michelin in Dundee, the Government worked with the company and the workforce and kept employees informed of developments. In contrast, workers at Kaiam in Livingston were kept in the dark, although the Government knew about the company’s problems a month before it went into administration. This week, we learned that the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, Jamie Hepburn, did not even lift the phone to the company throughout the month before the closure. Is that good enough?

First, I express my sympathy for the position that the Kaiam workers are in. Any support that the Scottish Government can give them to find alternative employment or on other matters will be provided.

I am not saying that Neil Findlay has deliberately misrepresented the Scottish Government’s position, but he has mischaracterised it. The Scottish Government is frequently given information about companies that are in difficulty or have cash-flow problems or whose future is in jeopardy. Principally through Scottish Enterprise, we seek to support companies—I understand that that was the case with Kaiam—to find an alternative buyer, solve cash-flow issues and get investment in. In many cases that people never hear about, such work proves successful, but in some circumstances—regrettably—that is not the case, and that is the situation for Kaiam.

When efforts to save a company are on-going, it is not for the Scottish Government to tell employees about that; that is a matter for the company. It is also not for the Scottish Government to do anything that would undermine a company’s efforts to find alternative ways forward. When we can intervene to save a company from closure—to be fair, I think that Neil Findlay recognises that this applies to Michelin and other companies—we will do that, but we will not pretend that that is always possible, because unfortunately it is not.


Brexit (Preparations)

We are within 80 days of the potential disaster of a no-deal Brexit. What we have seen this week—lorries parked in an airfield and a ferry contract awarded to a company that has no ferries—instils no confidence among the population. Are the preparations adequate? What share of resources is Scotland receiving to help our country to prepare? Can Scotland establish better direct links with Europe by sea and air to counter the damage of Brexit?

As everybody knows, a no-deal Brexit will be catastrophic, but let us be plain about it: any Brexit is going to be bad for Scotland—and, of course, Scotland voted against Brexit. The Prime Minister’s deal is bad for Scotland; and it is bad for the United Kingdom, which is why it looks like a majority of people in the House of Commons will vote against it.

In response to the question, of course the Scottish Government has to look at all contingency options, including how Scottish companies in different sectors of the economy can get their products to market, and we will continue to do that. However, the fundamental issue, which is becoming ever clearer for people in Scotland, is that until we are in charge of our own destiny and are able to make these decisions ourselves by being an independent country, we will always be at the mercy of damaging Westminster decisions. In that respect, the sooner Scotland decides to become independent, the better.


Universal Credit Roll-out

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that the United Kingdom Government plans to halt the full roll-out of universal credit. (S5F-02930)

Amber Rudd’s announcement of a pilot for managed migration does not change the reality of those who are already suffering under universal credit because previous calls to halt the roll-out were completely ignored. Nor will that announcement prevent an estimated 1.6 million people across the UK from naturally migrating to universal credit, due to changed circumstances, ahead of full migration from 2020.

I still take the view that there should be a complete halt to universal credit in order for fundamental changes to be made, because people are suffering and being driven into poverty and debt because of universal credit; that is completely and utterly unacceptable.

My constituency of Clackmannanshire and Dunblane was unfortunate enough to be at the vanguard of universal credit, which, in many respects for Scotland, is reminiscent of Thatcher’s poll tax. Despite the hardship and damage that it has caused and continues to cause to many of my constituents, and despite the fact that Conservative members in this chamber have ignored, denied and downplayed its effects, I am hugely disappointed that the UK Government plans to proceed with its managed migration without any changes to the current deeply flawed system, which has forced many thousands into poverty.

Does the First Minister agree that the UK Government must listen to the calls from many people, including the United Nations, to fix this failing policy? Will her Government raise the issue with the work and pensions secretary, and does she agree that the full powers of the welfare system should be devolved to Scotland?

I agree whole-heartedly. Keith Brown talked about universal credit being reminiscent of Thatcher’s poll tax. I hope that I am not misquoting him, but I think that John Major, a former Tory Prime Minister, has also described universal credit as being like the poll tax. It is time for the UK Government to listen to the overwhelming evidence of the failings of universal credit, which the UN special rapporteur on poverty recently described as “universal discredit”. The UK Government should make fundamental changes to make it fit for purpose and halt it in the meantime.

The Scottish Government has repeatedly raised those failings with a succession of work and pensions secretaries and we will continue to do so. As I have said in the chamber before, rather than having to plead with a Department for Work and Pensions minister in Westminster, I would prefer that this Parliament had full powers over universal credit and the wider social security system so that we could take our own decisions. That is another reason why, sooner or later, this country should become independent.


Antisemitism

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to tackle antisemitism. (S5F-02933)

The Scottish Government—I hope in common with everybody across the chamber—is committed to tackling hate crime and prejudice, and I want to reassure Scotland’s Jewish communities that there is no place in Scotland for any form of antisemitism or religious hatred. We value our Jewish communities. We value the contribution that they make to Scotland, and that is a message that should go out strongly from this chamber.

As well as our ambitious programme of work to tackle hate crime and build community cohesion, we have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. That sends a strong message that we believe antisemitism to be entirely unacceptable in Scotland.

The First Minister will be aware of recent press reports of comments made by Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, in this very Parliament. He said:

“Mostly the Jewish community used to feel that Scotland was a good place to be Jewish but for many that has reversed. Many Jews actively discuss leaving Scotland because they feel alienated, vulnerable and not at home.”

I hope that the First Minister is as worried and saddened by that assertion as members on these benches are.

What guidance has been issued specifically to Police Scotland to address the scourge of antisemitism in Scotland? Will the First Minister join me in calling for all political parties represented in this Parliament to do everything in their power to make sure that no one in the Jewish community feels vulnerable or unwelcome in Scotland?

I encourage all parties to do exactly what Jamie Greene has called for. As for the police, I believe that they have a good relationship and work very closely with the Jewish community to tackle antisemitism and address its concerns about security.

With regard to Ephraim Borowski’s comments, I have huge respect for him and the work that he does, and I have personally discussed this issue with him in the past. He is more than capable of speaking for himself, but I do not think that there was any suggestion that the very legitimate concerns that he raised at the weekend were in any way unique to Scotland. I think that he was reflecting not only a feeling of the Jewish community across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, but an apparent rise in antisemitism not just across the UK but further afield. We all have to be very vigilant about that, and my responsibility is to make sure that that is the case, particularly in Scotland. As I have said, I have had and will continue to have discussions with the Jewish community about exactly that.

I made this point when I spoke earlier this week at the reception in Parliament for the Holocaust Educational Trust, and I will say it again here: the Jewish community is a valuable and vital part of our society in Scotland, and if one member of that community feels unsafe here, all of us have a duty to respond to that and do everything possible to change it. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously for the Jewish community and for any other minority community living in our diverse country, and I hope that all members will agree with and echo that. [Applause.]

That concludes First Minister’s question time.

We will move shortly to members’ business, but we will have a short suspension to allow members to change seats and the gallery to clear.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  

12:52 On resuming—