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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 10, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 10 March 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Social Care Staff Pay, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Carmont Passenger Train Derailment, Climate Emergency, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Energy Security

It is now two weeks since the Russian war against Ukraine began. Yesterday, the tragic events hit a new low, with a children’s hospital being reduced to rubble. The Russians bombed a hospital and targeted children. Young, innocent lives have been lost in the most despicable and atrocious way. It is hard to express the anger and grief that we all feel at that appalling act.

I had the honour of being in the United Kingdom Parliament on Monday, to hear President Zelensky address the chamber. He spoke then of 50 children already having died in this war. Following yesterday’s bombing, more young lives have been lost because of the actions of Putin and his forces. The people of Ukraine are all in our thoughts and prayers just now.

I know that we all agree that more needs to be done to help refugees who are escaping war, and that needs to happen now. The situation has to be urgently addressed, because those who are fleeing for their lives need safety and security here in the United Kingdom, and we have to do everything that we can to support them.

In the light of Russia’s actions, will the Scottish Government update its energy strategy to outline how it plans to protect our energy security?

All of us are horrified and deeply distressed by what we are witnessing unfold in Ukraine on not just a daily but an hourly basis. Yesterday’s developments were a new low—a low that I believe that all of us hoped we would never see: the targeting of children and babies in a maternity hospital.

Vladimir Putin is committing, on a daily basis, crimes against international law. He is committing crimes against humanity. He is committing war crimes. It is important to do everything that is possible to stop Vladimir Putin, and it is also important to ensure that he pays the severest price for the actions that he is undertaking and the crimes that he is committing now.

I welcome the limited movements on refugees that we heard this morning from the Home Secretary, but they need to go further. I repeat my appeal to the Prime Minister to emulate the example of the Republic of Ireland and countries across the European Union: to waive visa requirements and put sanctuary first and paperwork second. I intend to write to the Prime Minister later today, to make that call again, and I would welcome the signatures of Douglas Ross, Anas Sarwar and Alex Cole-Hamilton on that letter. I will liaise with their offices later today.

These are important matters. Although refugee entry is a reserved matter, let me be clear that the Scottish Government is actively working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, councils and the Scottish Refugee Council to make sure that we are ready and able to welcome refugees from Ukraine and give them the support that they need.

On the question that Douglas Ross posed, as he knows, the Scottish Government is in the process of updating our energy strategy. That work commenced prior to the horror that is now unfolding in Ukraine, but, of course, the situation in Ukraine has an implication for energy prices. There is not so much of an implication for energy supply in Scotland or the UK, because we are not dependent on Russian oil and gas in the way that many other countries are, particularly in Europe, but we will all bear the burden of increased prices. Obviously, those developments will now be factored into the work on the energy strategy, which will be published when that work is complete.

All week, I have been working with colleagues in the UK Government to see what more can be done on refugees. I welcome the steps that the Home Secretary took this morning, but I agree that much more needs to be done to protect people who are fleeing for their lives.

The First Minister mentioned the updated energy strategy, but Russia’s appalling actions have put a renewed focus on energy security. In Scotland, we have the natural resources to protect our own supply and the resources to export to other countries, to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Last night, a former SNP energy minister said:

“In principle, we do need more oil and gas.”

He continued:

“we need all the oil and gas production we can get”.

I agree with Fergus Ewing—[Interruption.] Patrick Harvie laughs, but we can protect Scottish jobs and secure our energy supply.

First Minister, surely, now is the time to maximise oil and gas production in Scotland, using the energy on our own doorstep.

These are important issues. In light of what is happening in Ukraine, we have to look carefully at all the issues. As I said, the work on our energy strategy is under way, and it will allow us to properly understand our energy requirements as we make the transition to net zero.

I think that around 80 per cent of North Sea production is already exported—a fact that it is important to bear in mind. We need to consider very carefully the implications for us of the current volatility in the energy market. I repeat: for the UK, this is not an issue of security of supply. Only around 3 per cent of our gas supplies and around 8 per cent of our oil and petroleum supplies come from Russia, but we will all bear the burden of global price increases for energy, and, indeed, for food, which are driving inflation and the cost of living.

It is important that we understand the realities here. Even if we were to put to one side the environmental considerations—which none of us should do, because the climate crisis has not gone away—given the timescales and practicalities involved, it is not credible to suggest that the short-term solution to the crisis lies in increasing North Sea production. Existing fields in the North Sea are not currently operating under capacity. Expanding existing fields is possible, but that would take months, if not years. New fields take years, if not decades, to plan and develop. We should not go after solutions that might sound superficially attractive but whose practicalities and realities do not stand up to scrutiny.

In the short term, what we must see, in response to rises in global prices, is substantial and significant action from the Chancellor to shield households across the UK from that impact, including, as suggested from a sedentary position behind me, action on reducing VAT.

In the medium to longer term, as I have heard UK ministers and the European Commission say in recent days, the action that the world needs to take to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels is exactly the same action that the world needs to take to address the climate emergency. We must accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable and low-carbon energy, and that is what the Scottish Government remains focused on.

The First Minister started her answer by saying that she and her Government would look at all the issues and all the options, but she refused to say whether she agrees with me and the Scottish Conservatives that we have to maximise oil and gas production in Scotland at the moment to help with the current crisis and the crisis going forward.

The First Minister has said previously that no new oil fields should be developed. That is just not a realistic solution. It will simply lead to more imports from other countries. Right now, we purchase £3 billion of oil and gas every year from other countries, including Russia. If the First Minister is not prepared to move on domestic oil and gas supply, what are her alternatives? Scottish Conservatives support the increased use of nuclear energy. It is low carbon and it is safe. Should not nuclear be in Scotland’s energy mix, if we want to stop relying on Russian oil and gas and move to net zero?

If Douglas Ross had listened, as I am sure that he did, he would know that I am trying to explain the practicalities in the short term.

He quoted my colleague at me, which is perfectly legitimate. Let me quote one of his colleagues at him. On Sunday past, the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng, said:

“For as long as we depend on oil and gas—wherever it is from—we are all vulnerable to Putin’s malign influence on global markets.”

That is true, that is the reality, and if Douglas Ross’s colleagues recognise that, perhaps he should as well.

Douglas Ross is right to ask what our solutions are. All of us are grappling with what the right, best and deliverable solutions are. In the short term, given rising prices, it is inescapable that we need to see a substantial financial intervention from the chancellor to shield households across the country from the impact of rising inflation.

Of course, we need to look at our energy mix going forward. However, I go back to my practical point: increasing production from the North Sea in the short term is not a practicably deliverable solution. Take Cambo, for example; members may disagree about whether Cambo should get the go-ahead, but, even if it were to get the go-ahead, 2026 is when it would first produce oil. The same is true of nuclear. Even if—and, for the avoidance of doubt, this is not a position that I support—we were to give the go-ahead to new nuclear energy today, it would be years if not decades before any of that came on stream. That is the practical reality.

We need to find solutions now and we need to ensure that we are accelerating the transition to renewable and low-carbon energy because that is not only the solution to the issue of dependence on Russian oil and gas over the medium to long term, but the responsible action to take in response to the climate emergency, which—I repeat—has not gone away.

It has not gone away, which is why I mentioned the drive towards net zero in my questions. However, we also have to see that the situation has changed fundamentally, not just in months and years but in recent weeks. The First Minister’s position does not seem to recognise the new reality: Russia’s war has changed the situation and we must accept that.

Scotland could deal a blow to Vladimir Putin by increasing domestic oil and gas production. We could increase that production now and end the need to import foreign oil and gas and could export more to reduce international reliance on Russian energy. Now is not the time to be ideological; now is the time to be practical and realistic. We have heard that from SNP voices—Fergus Ewing and Ian Blackford—so why do we not hear it from the First Minister?

I am not being ideological. I am trying to set out hard, practical reasons why what Douglas Ross is calling for is not a solution. We all feel a desire right now to find solutions to what is happening on a humanitarian level—even on a military level—and in terms of the implications for energy, inflation and the impact on us all. However, we do no one any favours if we suggest solutions that do not provide that panacea in the short term.

Douglas Ross has not engaged with what I have said at all. Right now, if we were to give the go-ahead to Cambo, for example, 2026 would be the earliest that it would start producing oil. If we were to give the go-ahead for new nuclear today, it would be years if not decades before that came on stream. Even if I were to agree—and I do not agree on all those matters—that those were the right things to do, they do not offer the solution that Douglas Ross is trying to suggest that they do. That does no one any favours.

We have to look at what the solutions are. In the immediate term, financial intervention to shield people from the impact of inflation is essential. Perhaps we would be better advised to come together in the Parliament to call on the chancellor to do that and act as he did at the start of the pandemic to provide that assistance. Then we can come together to look at every opportunity to accelerate the transition to renewable and low-carbon sources of energy.

The other point that Douglas Ross did not engage with in his latest questions is the Kwasi Kwarteng quote that I have just shared:

“as long as we depend on oil and gas ... we are all vulnerable to Putin’s malign influence”.

That is the point.

Produce more domestically!

Douglas Ross is saying that we should produce more domestically. Twice, now, I have set out the timescales for new production, and existing fields are not operating under capacity. We all want to find the solutions, but we must look at realistic ones. Let us avoid the tendency to use the issue as a way to have a go at each other and instead come together to find sensible solutions in the interests of the people we serve.


Rail Accident Investigation Branch Report (Stonehaven)

First, I join other party leaders in expressing our continued solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We continue to be horrified and heartbroken by the scenes that are rolling across our screens of the tragedies that are taking place in Ukraine and of the people suffering and fleeing war. However, nothing is more heartbreaking than the sight of a maternity unit being bombed by Russian forces. Vladimir Putin must fail, but let us also be clear that he is a war criminal and he must face justice.

I want to make two other points. First, I thank all those across Scotland and the United Kingdom who continue to donate to appeals to support the people of Ukraine and all those who do collections to send supplies to Ukraine. However, there are frustrations about how those supplies get to Ukraine and the neighbouring countries. We all need to do more to encourage the free flow of supplies.

My second point is about refugees. This goes beyond party politics; it is about people fleeing war and needing not just sanctuary but a home in Scotland. I am willing to join every other party leader in calling on the Home Secretary and the Home Office to do everything necessary to allow people to flee and make their home in Scotland.

Today, my thoughts and the thoughts of everyone in the chamber will also be with the families and friends of Brett McCullough, Donald Dinnie and Christopher Stuchbury, who died in the Stonehaven rail crash in 2020. Their deaths were a tragedy, and they were avoidable.

This morning’s report should shame Network Rail and Carillion, but there are questions for Abellio and the Scottish Government, too. The train that operated on that route was decades old. The trains were first introduced into service in the mid-1970s, and they did not comply with safety standards that were set in 1994. The report says that it is

“more likely than not that the outcome would have been better if the train had been compliant with modern crashworthiness standards.”

It goes on to say that the damage to the train

“was very extensive. A significantly higher casualty toll would have been likely if the train had been heavily loaded with passengers”.

Why did the Government agree to run trains that were over 40 years old and did not meet modern safety standards? Will the First Minister listen to staff and unions and withdraw them from service?

My thoughts today are very much with the families and friends of Donald Dinnie, Brett McCullough and Christopher Stuchbury and, indeed, all those who were injured and affected by the dreadful crash. Today will be an extremely difficult time for the families of the three men who tragically lost their lives, and we should all be thinking of them.

I am sure that this will be of no comfort to his loved ones, but it is important to point out that a key finding of the report is that there was nothing in the way that Brett McCullough drove the train that caused the accident. He drove within the rules and within the instruction given to him. It is important to record that.

I thank the Rail Accident Investigation Branch staff for their important work and thorough approach, and for the clarity of their findings and recommendations. It is important that those recommendations are now implemented.

On the specific point that Anas Sarwar raised, it is important to say—indeed, the report notes this—that the refurbished high-speed train that derailed was fully compliant with legal requirements to operate. However, since it was designed and constructed, railway standards have continued to improve, to reflect lessons learned from such investigations. The train operator—in this case, ScotRail—has the statutory duty to ensure that the trains that it operates are safe, and, of course, it is the statutory duty of the Office of Rail and Road, as the regulator, to oversee that duty, with enforcement if and when necessary. The Office of Rail and Road will monitor the work that is undertaken to address the Rail Accident Investigation Branch’s recommendations. That duty will, of course, pass to the new publicly owned and controlled ScotRail on 1 April. However, at the time of the crash, ScotRail was not owned by the Scottish Government as it will be in the future.

The final point that it is important to make is that, although the report is very important, it will not be the last report on that tragic incident. A further report is being undertaken by the Office of Rail and Road, which involves a joint investigation with Police Scotland and the British Transport Police. That investigation will report to the procurator fiscal later this year, which will allow prosecutors to consider questions of criminal prosecutions and a fatal accident inquiry. However, those are, of course, matters for the Lord Advocate.

It is safe to say that we should not have allowed unsafe trains or trains that did not meet standards to be on our railways. I hope that, when ScotRail is under public ownership, that will be corrected immediately.

Three families have been failed, and staff continue to be failed because they are being asked to operate on trains that do not meet safety standards that were—I repeat—set in 1994. We know that Network Rail has plans to make more than 2,000 staff across the UK redundant, which is unacceptable. The Scottish Government, which will take ownership of ScotRail in a few weeks, is still refusing to rule out compulsory redundancies here, in Scotland. Let us not forget that we are talking about workers who kept us going through the pandemic. We cannot have a safe railway if we do not have a properly staffed railway.

In the light of today’s report, will the First Minister commit to no compulsory redundancies? Failing that, will she at least commit to no compulsory redundancies in safety-critical roles on Scotland’s railway?

I repeat that the thoughts of us all are with the families who have lost loved ones. It was a tragedy, and nothing that any of us or any report can say will remove or lessen the pain that they are going through. However, it is important that lessons are learned from any tragic incident such as this, and it is important that that is the case for this incident.

I will not repeat what I have already said in regard to the train, but it is important to underline the point that, according to the report, the accident was caused by a failure of the infrastructure and not the train, which was confirmed to have been properly licensed and approved to operate, albeit that I refer back to the comments that I made earlier.

On the transfer of ScotRail to public ownership, which I am proud that this Government is undertaking, we will, of course, continue to negotiate with the unions on all these matters, as would be expected of us. I will not pre-empt any of that, but I will say that this Government has a very strong record of no compulsory redundancies in the agencies for which we have responsibility. That commitment is important across a whole range of our responsibilities. The principles that have guided us to date will continue to guide us as we take over ownership of and responsibility for ScotRail next month.

The rail unions will welcome an unequivocal confirmation from the First Minister that there will be no compulsory redundancies, particularly in safety-critical roles.

Despite today’s report, there are still unanswered questions. We cannot allow it to be a report about which people say warm words but from which no meaningful action follows. The First Minister is right to say that we still have criminal investigations to conclude. There remain questions about the standard of trains and the levels of staffing.

What we must never forget is that at the heart of this are victims and families who have been failed by a powerful corporation and public bodies, and they should not have to wait years to get answers. We cannot allow this to become yet another in a long line of public scandals and tragedies in Scotland for which no one is held to account and from which institutions protect themselves rather than the public. As Kevin Lindsay of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen—the train drivers’ union—said, we must do

“everything we can to bring the people responsible for this catastrophic event to justice.”

Will the First Minister do the same?

I read ASLEF’s comments this morning, and I totally understand, without hesitation, why it feels so strongly about the report and its findings. The rail family in Scotland, as in many countries, is a very close-knit one. They have lost one of their own in the tragedy, and I absolutely understand why they are making the comments they are making.

Anas Sarwar rightly poses his questions to me, but it is important to stress the independence of the investigations and to repeat—he has acknowledged this—that not only is the report not the final report but the remit of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch is to investigate such incidents on a no-blame basis. It is not there to apportion blame; it is there to establish the facts, which is what it has done.

The further investigation that is under way by the Office of Rail and Road, in parallel with Police Scotland and the British Transport Police, will report to the procurator fiscal, then it will be for the law officers and the Crown Office to determine whether there should be criminal prosecutions or a fatal accident inquiry. That would be the moment to consider any wider issues of accountability. It would be completely wrong for me to pre-empt the investigations or to try to curtail them in any way by commenting on the appropriate timescale. As I understand it, the latter investigation is due to report later this year.

The comments that have been made about the train are, of course, for the operating company. That is ScotRail, which, from 1 April, will be publicly owned. The comments in the report about the infrastructure—the report found that there was an infrastructure failure—are matters for Network Rail. I again point out that Network Rail remains a reserved body that is accountable to the UK Government and not directly accountable to this Government.

Railway safety is also reserved. Perhaps one of the wider, longer-term lessons on which the Parliament will want to reflect is whether that is right or whether the Parliament could come together and make the case for it to change, so that we have devolution not just of the operation of the railway but of the infrastructure on which it operates.

There are lots of lessons to learn, and I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure that they are learned.


Ukrainian Refugees (Visas)

When talking about emergency visa waivers at Westminster yesterday, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Kingdom told the Home Affairs Committee:

“At particular times, drastic measures should be taken. I believe something like a drop-in could be considered as well.“

In the light of that direct plea from the ambassador of our war-ravaged European neighbours, does the First Minister agree that the UK Government should adopt the position of the Irish Government, which has removed all visa barriers, to allow refugees to be welcomed quickly, safely and securely without delay? Does she agree that post-arrival paperwork and biometric work should be conducted in concert with the Ukrainian consul so that arrivals can securely settle anywhere across the UK’s common travel area?

Yes, I strongly support that position. It is the position that the Republic of Ireland and countries across the European Union have adopted.

Yesterday, I spoke to a Ukrainian who lives in Scotland—a man who lives in Glasgow. His will be one of many stories. He spoke to me about the efforts to get his family members—his sister, in particular—to this country. She had managed to get to Poland after an arduous journey and the wall of bureaucracy that met her when she then tried to get to the UK was mind-boggling and inhumane in the circumstances.

As I said earlier, I welcome the movement that we appear to have had from Priti Patel and the Home Office this morning. When I came to the chamber, I was still trying to absorb all the details but, as I understand it, Ukrainians with a Ukrainian passport will now be able to apply for a visa online—but only through the family route, which is the only route that is open right now—rather than have to go to a visa application centre.

That is movement. I understand that, for such people, the biometric processes will be completed when they come to the UK. However, that approach still requires a visa application process, which is not good enough. We need to waive that process, allow people to get here and do the paperwork after that. That is not only the humanitarian thing to do; it is what other countries are doing.

We hope that, over the next couple of days, we will have confirmation from the UK Government of the opening of the community sponsorship route. That is being overseen by Michael Gove rather than the Home Office. I have had constructive discussions with him about it in the past couple of days. The Scottish Government has put to him and his officials a proposition that would allow us, in partnership with the Scottish Refugee Council and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, to run the scheme in Scotland so that we can ensure that people who come through it get the right support. The vast majority of people in Scotland want to welcome them with open arms, and that is what we are intent on doing if we possibly can and if the UK Government procedures allow us to do so.


Borders Railway (Extension)

Scottish Borders Council papers reveal that the Scottish Government seeks the removal from the local development plan of any indication of a preferred route for a Borders rail extension from Tweedbank to Carlisle via Hawick. Will the First Minister give my constituents assurances that the Scottish National Party Government will not derail the project and that the route will go via Newcastleton?

As I understand it and as I recall, those matters are being considered as part of the borderlands deal. We want to encourage the greatest possible connectivity and to get the greatest possible benefits from the Borders rail link and any extension to it. I will ask the Minister for Transport to write in greater detail about the processes that will be followed.


In Vitro Fertilisation (Suspension)

On Christmas eve, in vitro fertilisation treatment was suspended across Scotland for women who are not up to date with their Covid vaccinations. Scotland was the only part of the United Kingdom to do that and it was the only service in the national health service for which treatment was conditional on vaccination.

Last week, the chief medical officer announced that the service would resume, which is welcome. However, women arriving for IVF treatment have been sent away because a consent form from the Scottish Government’s central legal office had not yet been processed. That causes a continuing delay to treatment, which reduces the chances of women falling pregnant. Will the First Minister intervene to ensure that IVF treatment is not delayed any further?

First, it is important to stress that the recommendation to temporarily defer fertility treatment for women who have not been fully vaccinated was taken as a clinical decision in response to emerging evidence and clinical concerns about the risk to mothers and babies of not being vaccinated. Those concerns were raised by lead clinicians in the four national health service assisted conception units.

The concerns were based on patient safety, and the decision affected a small number of patients, although I understand the distress and trauma that it will have caused. For the vast majority of women, treatment was able to proceed without delay. The chief medical officer is now recommending that fertility treatment for unvaccinated patients no longer needs to be deferred. That decision will be given immediate effect, so that the treatment of patients can recommence. I am not aware of the administrative issue that Jackie Baillie has raised, but I will look into it and make sure that, if the issue subsists, it is rectified as soon as possible.


Gas Prices

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government will do to mitigate the impact of volatile gas prices. (S6F-00874)

Rising gas prices are causing many people to worry about energy bills, especially with the price cap increase due in April. Alongside a wider package of cost of living support, the Scottish Government is providing a further £10 million for our fuel insecurity fund to ensure that support remains available for people who are at risk of self-disconnecting or severely rationing their energy use. However, energy markets are reserved, so we urge the United Kingdom Government to do significantly more to support consumers, which should include a cut to VAT on energy. As I reflected earlier, in the longer term, the gas price surge reinforces the need to end our dependence on fossil fuels and accelerate the green transition, which the European Commission and UK Government ministers have been calling for this week.

The Conservatives have shamelessly used the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an excuse to further expand fossil fuel production. Indeed, Douglas Ross has just called for the Scottish Government to ignore climate science and ramp it up. Not only does that dismiss the advice of the United Nations, the International Energy Agency and the Climate Change Committee, it also contradicts the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, which states:

“Ensuring the supply of secure, affordable and clean energy is essential to the UK’s national interests.”

Is it not the case that the best way that we can promote peace and security, tackle fuel poverty and secure our energy supply is by reducing our reliance on gas through the net zero buildings strategy, and by supporting a scaling up of renewable energy?

I agree with that. I will not repeat all the points that I made in response to Douglas Ross. Although I do not agree with the UK Government on all those matters, those arguments are being made by Government ministers, too.

Anybody who thinks that the horror in the Ukraine, although it is rightly taking all of our attention at the moment, means that the climate crisis has gone away need only read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, which was published last week. The crisis has not gone away. Indeed, the impacts of climate breakdown are accelerating and we have a duty to take that extremely seriously. It is right that we have to accelerate the transition to clean sources of energy for the sake of the planet, but that is also right for the wider reason of energy security. We must all focus on doing that, which, of course, is what the Scottish Government is doing.

Fergus Ewing MSP has said that voluntarily ceasing exploration in the North Sea would increase Scotland’s carbon footprint by making it more reliant on fossil fuels from other countries. Alyn Smith has said that whether North Sea oil and gas production should be extended amid the war in the Ukraine is a “legitimate question”. Ian Blackford has pointed out that we can bring

“maximum pressure to be felt by Putin”

by cutting off western demand for Russian oil.

Does the First Minister recognise that support for her opposition to further North Sea exploration is now crumbling within her party, and that it is time to change course?

Members of my party are engaging in an intelligent way on the issues, and it is incumbent on us all to do that. On Ian Blackford’s comments, we should cut off demand for Russian oil and gas. For as long as states or companies are buying that, we are inadvertently helping to fund Putin’s illegal war and probably prolonging that war in the process. Therefore, I call for import bans on Russian oil and gas by countries and states, and I welcome the albeit still limited action that the UK Government announced in that regard earlier this week.

I do not know whether Douglas Lumsden listened to the answers that I gave to Douglas Ross. I obviously take a different view on some of the issues but, even if I were to stand here and say that we should increase North Sea oil and gas production, the timescales and practicalities involved mean that that would not offer a solution to the immediate challenges that we face. I set out in some detail the timescales that would be involved. In the case of Cambo, which is the project that is closest to potentially being given approval by the UK Government, 2026 would be the earliest that it would start producing oil.

Let us not grasp at false solutions. Instead, let us focus on our obligations. Oil and gas are part of our energy mix right now, and will continue to be so during the transition. It is important to recognise that, but existing fields are not operating under capacity.

We must now focus on ensuring that the transition is a just one, that we invest in alternatives and that we protect jobs, because that is in the interest not just of helping to defeat Putin but of ensuring energy security and protecting our planet.

Research by Energy Action Scotland shows that nearly 40 per cent of households will no longer be able to afford to heat their homes adequately due to rising energy prices. However, the Scottish Government has rowed back on its promise to create a publicly owned energy company, despite the outline business case showing that it would have produced annual savings for customers.

I seek clarity from the First Minister. Does she believe, as I do, that essential resources such as energy must be available to everyone on the basis of need, not ability to pay?

We have set out our position on a publicly owned energy company, why we changed our previous position and what we are focused on delivering now, so I will not rehearse all of that today.

I agree that energy is not a luxury; people have to be able to heat their homes. That is why it is so important that we do everything that we can, within our powers and resources, to help people to do that. However, such matters remain largely reserved to the UK Government, so it is incumbent on us all to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take the requisite action.

Come on!

I can understand why the Tories might groan at that answer, but I really do not understand why Labour members are doing so, because I am making exactly the same arguments that their colleagues in London are making right now. The chancellor must step up and act in order to protect households the length and breadth of the country. The question, and the mystery, is why Labour members are so upset by the fact that we are calling for that action.


Motor Neurone Disease (Barriers to Accessible Homes)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the MND Scotland report “No Time to Lose: Addressing the housing needs of people with MND”, which highlights the barriers faced by people with motor neurone disease in securing adaptations or accessible homes. (S6F-00873)

I welcome the report that has been produced by MND Scotland, and I recognise that more needs to be done to ensure that people with degenerative illnesses such as motor neurone disease have the choice, dignity and freedom to access suitable homes. We know that there are issues with the way in which adaptations are being accessed and delivered locally, so we are considering how the process can be streamlined and made easier for people who need adaptations.

We are working to increase the supply of accessible and adapted homes. Whenever possible, all new affordable homes are designed to be flexible so that they meet people’s needs as they change over time. We are also delivering a programme to retrofit homes in the social rented sector to makes them more accessible.

The report tells of one man who was being washed on his decking because his family were awaiting accessible shower facilities. Average life expectancy for people with MND is just 18 months from diagnosis, so some will never get the adaptations that they need. As the report rightly states, people with MND should be making precious memories with friends and family during the time that they have left; they should not be fighting for the adaptations and accessible homes that they urgently need.

Will the Scottish Government meet MND Scotland to discuss the report’s recommendations and do all that it can, in collaboration with partners in local government, to ensure that people with MND can live in accessible homes with the care and dignity to which everyone is entitled?

Of course, we want everyone, particularly at a time in their life when they are living with ill health or a condition such as MND, to be given the support that they need in order to live in their own home, and we want it to be suitable for them and their needs.

As I said a moment ago, I know that the adaptation system requires improvement and I recognise the particular need for speed for those with MND. As we take forward the review of the adaptations process, I or the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government would be happy to meet MND Scotland representatives to listen to their views and hear more about the MND Scotland report and its recommendations.

Last night, the Glasgow film festival premiered a film about Ady Barkan—a man with MND—and his activism, and I commend the film to all in the chamber.

At present, only 1 per cent of housing is fully accessible for wheelchair users; around 10,000 disabled people are on waiting lists; and I have constituents—disabled people—who have waited more than six years for an accessible home. Does the First Minister agree that that is unacceptable? What urgent action will the Scottish Government take to meet disabled people’s housing needs?

I have already made the point that more action is needed. In 2020-21, 95 per cent of new-build homes that were delivered by housing associations and councils—where information was returned on housing for varying needs—met the accessibility standards, but much more needs to be done across all tenures of housing.

We are currently reviewing “Housing for Varying Needs: a design guide”, which is a good standard but is now more than 20 years old. We also have flexible grant funding arrangements in place to ensure that specialist housing provision, which is identified by local authorities as a priority, can be supported. We will continue to focus on all these issues and I have already recognised how important they are for everybody who has particular needs but particularly for those who live with conditions such as MND.

I will make a point of watching the film that Pam Duncan-Glancy has brought to my attention.


Covid-19 Booster (Spring Roll-out)

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the spring roll-out of the Covid-19 booster vaccine. (S6F-00884)

Of course, vaccination remains a critical component of our Covid response. To date, 86.3 per cent of eligible people in Scotland aged 18 and over have received a third or booster dose of vaccine, and our vaccine delivery rate continues to be the highest of anywhere in the United Kingdom. We welcome the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s recommendation that we offer some of the most vulnerable groups an additional vaccine dose in the spring of this year. From the start of this week, we began the process of delivering that in care homes and also started to invite all those who are now eligible for their additional booster. Those vaccinations will continue over the next few months, as those individuals become eligible when they reach six months from the date of their last dose. We continue to act on JCVI advice and we are planning for a number of scenarios, including an annual booster programme for those who are most at risk.

The First Minister will recall that, during a previous vaccine booster campaign, there were several issues with the roll-out in the Highlands and Islands, including incorrect details on letters that went out to the public about where people should go to get their booster. Given that the spring campaign is targeted at the most vulnerable groups in society, what action has the Scottish Government taken to prevent such mistakes from happening again?

We have had engagement and dialogue with NHS Highland about the previous experience, and I hope that that mistake will not be repeated. However, it is important to point out that, among JCVI priority groups, NHS Highland uptake has generally been very good, particularly among care home residents, 98 per cent of whom have received a booster or third dose. Therefore, the delivery roll-out has gone well but, of course, we take action to ensure that administrative difficulties are learned from and not repeated. That is the case with NHS Highland and any other health board.

I welcome the programme for the roll-out of boosters in the spring, and I declare an interest, because I might be lucky enough to be in one of those cohorts. However, with the potential removal of mandatory face coverings and social distancing and the increasing prevalence of Covid infections, does the First Minister agree that lateral flow tests should remain funded and free on request? What discussions has the Scottish Government had with the UK Treasury in that regard?

Given that I know the age of people to whom we are now offering the additional boosters, I am too scared to suggest whether Christine Grahame is likely to be included in those groups, so I will err on the side of caution on that front.

Testing is an important issue. As I set out in the chamber a couple of weeks ago, we are developing a managed transition plan to ensure that Scotland continues to have an effective, albeit proportionate, testing response and an effective surveillance infrastructure. Access to polymerase chain reaction and lateral flow tests will continue to be supported throughout the transition phase and they will remain free of charge for any purpose for which we continue to advise that testing is required.

The health secretary and I have been in regular dialogue with the UK testing programme but, unfortunately, we still do not have clarity on the impact on Scottish Government funding. We continue to engage urgently with the UK Government to gain that clarity and I hope that we will do so soon.

Question 6 has been withdrawn. I will take a couple of brief supplementaries.


House Insulation (Western Isles)

The First Minister will be aware that Tighean Innse Gall, the housing agency in the Western Isles, announced last week that it would no longer be able to administer Government-funded insulation projects. That is not for any lack of funding but because of PAS 2035 regulations on ventilation, which have caused demand for such schemes to collapse in the islands. Given that the Western Isles is almost certainly one of the most fuel-poor communities in Europe, what can the Scottish Government do to urgently ensure that those vital insulation installations continue?

First, I understand that what is a new United Kingdom-wide set of retrofit standards has created challenges in the Western Isles. Over the past week, we have followed that up with the housing provider and the council, restating our commitment to finding a solution that enables them to continue to improve the warmth and ventilation of people’s homes. I know that Dr Allan has raised the issue before and I believe that he has received a copy of the most recent correspondence.

Officials are also working with the British Standards Institution to further improve the new retrofit standards to ensure that circumstances in remote rural and island communities are taken fully into account. We value the housing work that is done in the Western Isles and hope that the issue can be reconsidered now, in light of our further discussions, and that we will continue to see that expertise applied in the Western Isles.


Out-of-hours General Practitioner Services (Clackmannanshire)

Clackmannanshire’s out-of-hours general practitioner service is in crisis. Late last year, assurances were sought regarding the situation and reassurance was given by the local MSP and the council group leader that NHS Forth Valley remained committed to providing services in Clackmannanshire. However, despite the rhetoric, the service is being eroded. GPs who had been appointed to the service are being told that they are no longer required and NHS Forth Valley regularly goes into code black. The situation is jeopardising the safety of patients. What action can be put in place to maintain, retain and sustain the service for the people of Clackmannanshire?

That is an important issue. I am aware of the difficulty that NHS Forth Valley is facing and I have been assured that it is working hard to continue to provide a service and that it remains committed to doing so, which is important. The Scottish Government is currently working with NHS Forth Valley to review the service. That review is in its early stages, but the aim will be to ensure a safe and sustainable service moving forward. Officials are also following up with the chief executive as a matter of urgency to identify and secure solutions for the current situation and to develop longer-term plans. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has asked this week for further details on how the board intends to address the shortages. I am sure that he would be happy to correspond with the member with further detail when he receives that.


Ukrainian Seasonal Workers (Support and Assistance)

Today’s announcement from the United Kingdom Government on the Ukrainian humanitarian scheme is significant, but I agree with the First Minister that it does not go far enough. Ukrainian seasonal workers across Scotland, many of whom are my constituents in Fife, are still barred from bringing their family members to safety and still subject to the abhorrent no recourse to public funds conditions. What further support and assistance can the Scottish Government provide to Ukrainian seasonal workers who are still at the harsh end of the UK Government’s hostile environment?

We are trying to influence UK Government decisions on the matter every day right now. Currently, the only route open for Ukrainians is the family reunification scheme. It is still too limited, in my view, and it is also, as we have painfully seen in recent days, horrendously bureaucratic. We are asking for that to be streamlined and asking for visa requirements to be waived, but we are also seeking assurances, which I hope will be given, that people coming here, whether they come under that route or the community sponsorship route that I hope will open in the next few days, will be able to work and have access to public funds, and that the Scottish Government will able to work with our partners to ensure full support for everybody who comes here.

We continue to pursue those discussions with the UK Government. No country should have to be shamed into doing right by refugees. It is appalling that that is the case. As I said the other day, I hope that we get to a position in which we open not only our hearts to people in Ukraine—I think that we have all done that—but our doors, by allowing them to come here and ensuring that they have the support that they need to recover from their trauma and to try to rebuild their lives, while we all hope for peace in their country.


Deaths of Young People in Custody

Jack McKenzie, Katie Allan, William Lindsay, Robert Wagstaff and Liam Kerr—those five young people all took their own lives at Polmont young offenders institution within the past five years. The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland believes that the conditions for children in prison were in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the prohibition on torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment in article 3 of the European convention on human rights. How many more damning reports will be published and how many more young people will have to die before this shameful situation comes to an end?

I make it very clear that we fully support a presumption against any people under the age of 18 being dealt with through the criminal justice system.

Since the shift towards prevention in 2007, there have been positive changes in youth justice. According to official statistics, at 30 June 2007, there were 221 young people under the age of 18 in custody. As of Tuesday this week, the figure was 15. Between 2008-09 and 2019-20, there was an 85 per cent reduction in the number of children and young people who were prosecuted in courts and a 93 per cent reduction in the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who were sentenced to custody.

However, there is more to do. In line with our commitment to keeping the Promise, we are committed to reducing that number further. We all want Scotland’s young people to be safeguarded within the youth justice system and kept out of young offenders institutions, and we will consult shortly on necessary legislative changes to underpin the changes in practice that I have just narrated.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a brief pause before members’ business.