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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 11, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 March 2021

Agenda: Business Motion, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Motion Without Notice, Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner (Appointment), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

The next item of business is First Minister’s question time. Before we turn to questions, I invite the First Minister to update the Parliament on Covid-19.

Thank you, Presiding Officer; I will do so.

Yesterday, 591 new cases were reported, which is 2.5 per cent of all the tests that were carried out. That takes the total number of confirmed cases to 207,747. There are 556 people in hospital, which is 26 fewer than yesterday, and 42 people are in intensive care, which is seven fewer than yesterday.

I regret to report that a further 22 deaths have been registered of people who first tested positive for Covid in the previous 28 days, which means that the total number of people who have died, under the daily measurement, is now 7,483. Once again, I send my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

I turn to the vaccination programme. As of 8.30 this morning, 1,825,800 people had received their first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 16,642 people since yesterday. In addition, 141,433 people have received their second dose, which is an increase of 8,673 people since yesterday. In total, 25,315 people received a vaccination yesterday.

From tomorrow, Public Health Scotland will make changes to its Covid dashboard to improve the reporting of vaccine uptake among health and care workers and care home residents.

I confirm that virtually all those over 65 have now had their first dose, as have 45 per cent of 60 to 64-year-olds, 38 per cent of 55 to 59-year-olds and 31 per cent of 50 to 54-year-olds. We remain on track to offer first doses to everyone over 50, all unpaid carers and all adults with underlying health conditions by mid-April.

It is exactly a year ago today that the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic. The past 12 months have been incredibly—indeed, unimaginably—tough for everybody, but, as I indicated on Tuesday, we now have real grounds for optimism, albeit cautious optimism. The numbers of cases, hospitalisations and deaths have all fallen in recent weeks, and when we publish the latest estimate of the R number later today, we expect to show that it remains below 1. The vaccination programme has now given a first dose to 40 per cent of the adult population, and it is set to significantly accelerate over the next few weeks.

Because of that continued progress, I confirm that we will go ahead as planned with the next stage of the reopening of schools on Monday. In addition, changes to the rules on outdoor meetings and activities, which I set out on Tuesday, will come into force tomorrow. Further, as I have indicated, I will provide more information next Tuesday about our plans for the phased reopening of the economy.

Those plans will take account of the positive news that we see at the moment, but they will acknowledge the risks that we still face. Case numbers are still high and the new variant is highly infectious, so we must continue to exercise caution. For that reason, my advice to everyone is to continue to follow the same stay-at-home rule for now: stay at home except for essential purposes and follow the FACTS advice when you are out. That remains the best way for us all to protect the NHS and save lives. I thank everyone for continuing to follow that advice.

Judicial Review (Costs)

Last week, we asked about legal advice in the Alex Salmond case and the First Minister refused to answer any questions. We were told that every issue had been covered. The next day, after First Minister’s question time and two days after her evidence session, John Swinney released another tranche of legal advice that was even more damning than the last. I will ask the questions that the committee could not ask about the evidence that the Government was so reluctant to release.

The new evidence shows that the Government’s senior lawyer, Roddy Dunlop QC, warned the First Minister personally not to “plough on regardless” because of

“the large expenses bill that would inevitably arise”.

I ask the First Minister how much taxpayers’ money the case cost from that moment on.

We set out the costs of the judicial review. I do not have that breakdown to hand, but I can look into whether we can provide that breakdown to Parliament. Ruth Davidson, in some respects, makes my point for me. Let me say first that, whether the Opposition wants to believe this or not, I take the matter extremely seriously and I take very seriously the obligation on me and my Government to learn lessons from it.

The point that I think Ruth Davidson is making for me is that she is quoting from the legal advice that has been published. We have published all the substantive legal advice, which sets out very clearly—[Interruption.] I can take Parliament through exactly what we have published in response to the request for that advice. We have set out the substantive legal advice and, although I suspect that most people who are watching right now probably want to hear about vaccination, Covid and when we might come out of lockdown, anybody who wants to read the legal advice can go on to the Scottish Government website and do that.

What that legal advice sets out very clearly, warts and all, is an unvarnished account of what went wrong and the opinions of senior counsel at different stages of the judicial review. It sets out very clearly the error that was made by the Scottish Government and the way in which that error came to be fully realised and understood. It also sets out the view of the law officers—under the ministerial code, that is what matters to ministers—that, well into December and notwithstanding all of that, the Government should continue to defend the case for the wider reasons that have been set out, and then, later in December, the reasons why that was no longer possible.

The impression that I think the Opposition is trying to give is that what we have published is somehow a rosy picture and that there are horrors lurking underneath that are being concealed. Anybody who reads the advice can see very clearly that that is not the case. A serious error was made by the Government in that investigation, and, as the judicial review proceeded, that error became very apparent. That is why, ultimately, the judicial review had to be conceded. Perhaps, instead of chasing phantoms, the Opposition should focus on what is there, because it sets out very clearly the mistake that the Government made, the lessons that it needs to learn from that and the lessons that I am determined that the Government will learn from it.

I asked the First Minister a very specific question. Whatever that was, it was not an answer. We have since learned that, from the moment that Roddy Dunlop wrote that note, on 17 December, to the time when the Government finally conceded, the bill exceeded £100,000—perhaps even £200,000—but we do not know for sure, because the Government will not tell us its side of the bill.

Before the First Minister’s committee session, we knew that Queen’s counsel had stated that

“the ‘least worst’ option would be to concede the case”.

That was on 6 December 2018, a month before the case was finally collapsed. What we did not know last week and found out only on Friday is that the First Minister personally disputed that advice. We know that because Leslie Evans sent a note that said that she and the First Minister were unclear about what had changed since the previous notes and the first ministerial meeting. Again, I put it to the First Minister that, if she had conceded then, hundreds of thousands of pounds would have been saved. Why did the First Minister think that she was a better lawyer than Roddy Dunlop QC and the advocate Christine O’Neill?

I did not and I most definitely do not. What I do know is that it is my job as First Minister to ask questions, to query things when I do not fully understand what has been put before me and to make sure that I have as full an understanding of the decisions that lie before me as possible. I actually think that it would be more remarkable and more deserving of criticism if I did not ask questions such as the one that Ruth Davidson has just suggested that I asked.

Ruth Davidson talks about advice in the early part of December. One of the things that I was questioned about and talked about extensively before the committee last week was the summary from the law officers on 11 December. That sets out very clearly—people can read it—that the view of the law officers then was that, taking account of everything, they believed that we should continue to defend the case and that there were “credible arguments”—I think that is a quote from the summary note on 11 December—across all of the points of the petition, including the appointment of the investigating officer, which was the key area of difficulty for us. It sets out that that was because, as long as the case was statable, there was a wider interest in getting a judicial determination on the array of challenges that had been made both to the fundamentals of the procedure and the application of the procedure.

Therefore, it is not that those issues were not properly considered. Judgments were made, but everyone can see the views of counsel, the conclusions of the law officers, on which ministers are duty bound to base our decisions, and what happened later in December that led to the decision to concede the judicial review. Of course, we also see a note from counsel—I think that it is dated as late as 17 December—in which they say that they believe that the case is still statable, albeit that they have significant concerns about it.

There are always judgments for ministers to make, taking account of a range of things. The Government made a mistake in the application of the procedure. As that became fully understood during the progress of the judicial review, that ultimately meant that we could not defend the judicial review, but there were wider interests that we were right to take into account and carefully consider at every stage of the process. The point is that people do not have to take my word for it: they can go and look at all the material that has now been published in an unprecedented fashion and draw their own conclusions—as, indeed, can the committee, and I am sure that it will in due course.

The new evidence that was withheld from the committee until after Nicola Sturgeon appeared shows that Roddy Dunlop QC wrote back when the First Minister challenged his advice, and we now know what he told her in response. He wrote that there were two options and said:

“I doubt either will work.”

Then, a week later, both senior lawyers said that their advice had been “discounted”. Roddy Dunlop is the current dean of the Faculty of Advocates. He is the most senior lawyer in Scotland. As he had previously explained to the First Minister, conceding the case early would “reset” the procedure and allow for a “renewed investigation” that was less open to challenge. In effect, the women’s claims could be looked at again but with the Scottish Government doing it the right way rather than spending all that time and money defending the indefensible in court and letting those women down all over again. Why did the First Minister not listen to that?

We did listen to counsel. Lots has rightly been said about the ministerial code. I will not get into that, because another person is looking at it right now, but anybody who reads the ministerial code will know that, in terms of the obligations on ministers, we are duty bound to ensure that we take into account the views of the law officers. I have just narrated the views of the law officers. Of course, the law officers, in coming to their opinions and judgments, take account of the advice and views of the counsel that Government instructs, but they also take account of the Government’s wider interests and the wider public interest as well. We take account of all of that.

Ruth Davidson is just not correct in saying that, until a very late stage, we were “defending the indefensible”. Yes, counsel had mounting concerns, but the case was considered to be statable even by counsel up until, I think, 17 December, and there were wider interests that the law officers thought it was important to take into account.

A different First Minister might have reached different judgments—that is absolutely undeniable—but any First Minister in the job has to take decisions on the basis of the array of advice that we have and weighing up the right things. It is undeniably the case that the Government made mistakes, which I and we are determined to learn from. Part of that involves looking at why we got into a position in a judicial review whereby it became indefensible and we therefore ceased to defend it. The advice that Ruth Davidson is quoting from, which is from the latter part of December, is the start of that process of the Government realising that it could no longer defend the judicial review and taking the appropriate steps to concede the judicial review at that point.

There is lots and lots that I and the Government have to reflect on, and I am absolutely determined to do that. However, the public have, if they choose, the ability to read all of it for themselves. They will, I hope, shortly have reports from the committee and from James Hamilton on the issues with the ministerial code, as well as the report that the Government instructed from Laura Dunlop QC into some of the internal issues that we have to reflect on. We are taking the issues really seriously, and in unprecedented fashion—not just for this Government but in the lifetime of the Parliament—we have put into the public domain information that allows the public to draw their own conclusions.

At her committee appearance, the First Minister became very forgetful, and she seems determined to forget that it was her Government that failed the women so badly. According to five people now, including a QC and a civil servant, her Government is responsible for leaking a complainant’s name to Salmond’s team, yet nobody has been sacked or even reprimanded.

Despite all the First Minister’s protests, the flawed procedure that let the women down has never been changed. The First Minister just mentioned, a second ago, that, six months ago, another QC, Laura Dunlop, started a review of the procedure. Our clear understanding is that Ms Dunlop has reported back to the Scottish Government in writing on her work. For the sake of confidence in the procedures, will the First Minister publish that report now? This week has shown again—and I do not say this lightly—that sexual harassment complainants cannot trust the ruling party to deal with a complaint properly.

The first allegation that Ruth Davidson has made is disputed. I disputed it at committee last week. I was not party to the conversation that it is based on, and I am limited in what I can say, for legal reasons. Let us be clear, however, that it is disputed.

On the procedure, what was found to be flawed was the application of the procedure. The procedure itself may well have been found to be flawed had the judicial review proceeded, but it was not. Obviously, we will await the outcomes of the various inquiries before reflecting on changes that we need to make. I have not seen Laura Dunlop’s review, but it will be published in early course, once we have seen it.

I want everything about this to be open and transparent, because I want to learn lessons. In recent days, perhaps belatedly, Ruth Davidson has started to talk about the women, and I welcome that, as that is the issue at the heart of this. I will be haunted, probably for the rest of my life, by the way in which the Government, through an error—one that was made in good faith, but an error nonetheless—let those women down. I have apologised for that. I was not involved in the investigation, so I was not aware of the error at the time, but, as the head of the Scottish Government, I take and feel responsibility for that, which is why I think it is important to cast aside the politics in this and focus on the substance. That is what I am determined to do, and that includes a determination to learn any and every lesson that any one of the inquiries tells us that the Scottish Government needs to learn.

Cancer Treatment Services

The first Covid death in Scotland was a year ago this week. Since then, more than 7,000 people have tragically died, and I send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

Official Government statistics show that 7,000 fewer people had a confirmed cancer diagnosis in the first eight months of the pandemic. That does not mean that cancer has gone away; cancer remains Scotland’s biggest killer. We understand why the resources of our national health service were redeployed to deal with the virus, but the knock-on impact has been huge. Thousands of people who have cancer do not know it, so they are not receiving treatment. We know that there is a direct link between early diagnosis and survival rates. What action will the First Minister take right now to fully restart cancer services, begin a catch-up programme and find the missing 7,000?

I say this not—and please take this sincerely—as any sort of jibe at Anas Sarwar but so that we recognise the full extent of the Covid tragedy: more than 9,000 people have died from Covid. The number is more than 7,000 under the daily measurement, but the National Records of Scotland figures show that the toll is even higher.

One thing that Anas Sarwar is right to raise—we perhaps do not talk about this enough—is the fact that many people have suffered and even died because of the impact and consequences of what we have had to do to deal with Covid. That is why, when we come out of this and look back and reflect on all of this, we will find that the toll was much greater than just the direct toll of the pandemic.

On cancer services, it is important, first, to recognise that the majority of cancer treatments have continued and will continue throughout the pandemic. Some patients’ treatment plans will have changed to minimise the risk that they might have faced from Covid, but the majority of treatments have continued, and it is important to note that.

We are funding health boards right now to support cancer services through this year, in order to start to remobilise those services that Covid has directly impacted. It is important that I take the opportunity to say directly to anybody who has worries about symptoms or changes in their bodies that cause them concern that they should contact their local general practitioner now. The NHS is open, it is there to help people and nobody should sit back worrying about potential cancer symptoms when they can, should and are encouraged to come forward.

This week, somebody in my family needed an assessment for something that was worrying them and they were thankfully able to be reassured. I know from that experience that cancer services are there. We must make clear to people that they should come forward if anything is worrying them.

MacMillan Cancer Support has said:

“Unless Scotland’s missing cancer patients are found urgently, the country is likely to face a rapid rise in people being diagnosed with very advanced cancers.”

It has also said that progress is

“nowhere near fast enough for those still to be diagnosed.”

The truth is that thousands of people do not know or do not suspect that they have cancer. They need to be diagnosed and to have their treatment started to improve their chances of survival.

Urgent cancer referrals have dropped by 22 per cent, but thousands more suspect that they have cancer, have made it on to a waiting list and are waiting for diagnosis. Those individuals and their families feel the anxiety and stress of a potential cancer diagnosis piled on top of the anxiety and isolation that come from Covid. Diagnosis is vital, and early diagnosis even more so. It is what saves lives, not just for cancer but for other conditions too.

Can the First Minister tell the chamber how many people who have been referred for any diagnostic test including cancer are currently waiting more than the six-week target?

I do not have that figure to hand. I might have it in a different folder. However, to ensure that we get it right, I will provide it after today’s session of First Minister’s questions.

I really agree with all this. The first thing to say is that we should encourage people who have concerns to come forward. Understandably, during Covid, many people often do not want to put additional pressure on the NHS when it is dealing with a crisis. People might understandably also have concerns about the Covid risk that coming forward and going to their GP would pose. However, people who have symptoms that worry them should come forward.

Secondly, the screening programmes that had to be paused have restarted. I am at the age at which I have had a couple of appointments for those screening programmes in the past three weeks. It is important to detect cancers that people perhaps do not have symptoms of.

We have to get treatment services moving quickly. Under the cancer recovery plan, two new early cancer diagnostic centres are being established within existing NHS infrastructure by the spring of this year. A programme of prehabilitation is in place, which helps patients prepare for their treatment, and there is a new single point of contact for cancer patients to support them through the treatment journey. A resource is dedicated to the national oversight of clinical management guidelines. A range of actions have been taken to ensure that any treatment that has been delayed because of Covid restarts and that we can catch up as quickly as possible.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that many cancer treatments have continued and will continue through the pandemic. That is why the fundamental message with which I started is so important.

I recognise and welcome the steps that the First Minister has outlined, but they will be little comfort for the missing 7,000 when they do get a late cancer diagnosis that will directly impact on their survival rate.

I have the answer on the diagnostic test, which is that 44,516 people are waiting more than six weeks for such a test. The analysis shows that the figure has more than doubled in a year. I recognise that Covid has placed a huge strain on our NHS and even more pressure on an already overstretched NHS workforce. However, Covid did not create this problem; it has made a bad situation worse. This Government has not met the 62-day cancer waiting time target since 2012—nine years. Nicola Sturgeon has failed to meet that target for the entire time that she has been First Minister.

Does that not show that we cannot come through Covid and go back to the old arguments? Instead, we in this Parliament should focus on what unites us as a country, rather than what divides us. Should the focus of this Parliament not be on recovery and a catch-up plan for our NHS, so that we never again have to choose between treating a virus and treating cancer?

Recovery from Covid, whether in relation to cancer services, health services generally, or the country generally, is, and will continue to be, the focus of this Government, just as dealing with the acute impact of Covid and steering the country as best we can has been my focus and the focus of the Government literally seven days a week, sometimes what has felt like almost 24 hours a day, for the past year. That will be the case for as long as is necessary.

On cancer waiting times, before Covid, the average waiting times between diagnosis and the start of treatment were very short in Scotland. For a long time, we have recognised that there is more to do to meet targets and reduce waiting times further. Undoubtedly, Covid has been a serious difficulty due to the pause in many normal aspects of the NHS that it has necessitated. That is why, through investment and reforms to how treatments are delivered, and through many of the actions that I have set out, we are now focused on getting the NHS back to normal. I hope that none of us ever again has to face the reality that we have faced over the past year. Our NHS has coped admirably with it, but the focus now is on getting the NHS back to the point at which it is dealing with whatever Covid still throws at us but is also recovering and seeing patients whose treatment has been delayed over the past year due to Covid.

GFG Alliance (Lochaber)

When the GFG Alliance took over the aluminium smelter and power station in Lochaber in 2016, it received a Scottish Government guarantee that was worth £575 million. The company promised to build an aluminium wheel factory, create 2,000 jobs and add £1 billion to the local economy. It said that the plan was “oven ready”. Five years later, there is no wheel factory.

The company said that it would invest in a new aluminium-bottle plant, but that has not happened either. Since the collapse of its financial partner, Greensill, what update has the First Minister received about the 2,000 promised jobs for Lochaber?

The Scottish Government is in regular contact with the GFG Alliance, at Lochaber, at the Dalzell steel plant and at overall group level. The original investment plan for Fort William was impacted by the sharp fall in the United Kingdom’s automotive industry output. The business has put forward new investment plans totalling £94 million, and we continue to liaise closely with it about the challenges that it faces and the steps that it needs to take to make sure that it delivers on its commitments.

As Parliament would expect, we have taken a series of securities over the assets of GFG Alliance at Lochaber, including the smelter, the Lochaber power station and landholdings, and we have a series of other protections in support of the guarantee.

Serious difficulties have been posed for companies, individuals and the public sector—as we have just reflected on with regard to the national health service—by Covid. We need to work through, recognise and resolve them.

At the starting point, which predates Covid, had the Government not worked to try to facilitate GFG becoming the owners of the aluminium smelter at Lochaber, the smelter would have closed and we would not have been able to protect any jobs there or give any hope for the future. Sometimes, Governments have to be creative and work hard under all the constraints that apply in doing our best to save jobs and provide positive economic outlooks for parts of the country that badly need them. That is what we have tried to do with the smelter and the Dalzell steel works; it is what we will always try to do in such industrial situations.

The First Minister went to the smelter, had her photograph taken, and said that it was boom time. To a great fanfare, she went to Burntisland Fabrications, backed by millions of pounds, but that did not work out, either. Five years ago, she signed a deal with the Chinese company SinoFortone, which said that it was worth billions of pounds. The company was not a billionaire; it owned a pub in Oxford. The deal involved lots of selfies and lots of taxpayers’ money, but there are certainly not 2,000 new jobs.

The public and the workers deserve an explanation. How much money has been lost? How can it be right that a company can use a 30-year Government financial guarantee to make profits yet fail to deliver the jobs that it promised?

Those are choices that Governments have to make, because the alternative to trying to work with companies to secure the future of industrial sites or plants and to secure jobs is just to let such places go to the wall there and then, after which there are no jobs, no opportunities and no prospects for the future.

In many cases, because of the action that we have taken—for example with the Dalzell steel works—we have managed to protect jobs when the only alternative would have been complete and utter closure. Similarly, on BiFab: yes, it struggles and we have a long way to go, but the alternative to the work that we did was just to let BiFab there and then go to the wall.

The same is true for Prestwick airport. The investments that we have had to make there have protected jobs. Although the situation remains difficult and challenging, the only alternative is simply to give up on things—to give up on the jobs and on the economic prospects, and to say that there is nothing that the Government can do. We are not that kind of passive “stand back and wash our hands of problems” Government, nor will I ever want that to be the case. We are an activist Government when it comes to trying to protect jobs and economic prospects; that is what we will always be.

Air Passenger Duty

Presiding Officer, this Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the Dunblane shooting—a tragic day that Scotland will never forget. The Scottish Greens, and, I am sure, all members, can take it as an opportunity to remember the lives that were lost that day, and to commit to making sure that such a thing never happens again.

Yesterday, the United Kingdom Government unveiled deeply irresponsible plans to cut air passenger duty on internal flights and to expand roads in Scotland. That is irresponsible because it undermines this Parliament and because it flies in the face of the climate emergency. It is not a one-off. It follows approval for a new coal mine, a freeze on fuel duty, hikes in train and bus fares and a barrage of anti-climate policies as we approach COP26—the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—in Glasgow.

It therefore falls on us to show leadership. However, the only reason why air passenger duty has not already been cut in Scotland is because of the Greens. Will the First Minister take responsibility and ensure that APD is not cut in Scotland, whatever the UK Government does?

First, I, too, take the opportunity to reflect on the 25th anniversary on Saturday of the Dunblane atrocity. I am sure that every single one of us, particularly those of us who are old enough to remember that day vividly, will be thinking of the families who lost children that day, the family of the teacher whose life was taken and, of course, all the community in Dunblane. That day is etched on the memories and in the hearts of people across Scotland, and my thoughts are very much with everybody who is associated with that dreadful day in Scotland’s history.

We have no plans to cut air passenger duty. I will not rehearse the history of that. Right now, we are focused on trying to work out the best way to recover our economy from the catastrophe of Covid in a way that is consistent with our moral obligations to meet our net zero targets and to live up to the responsibilities up to, and long after, the COP26 summit that will take place in Glasgow later this year. That offers a range of questions and obligations for Governments everywhere.

Anybody who looks at our budget—including the aspects of it that we were able to agree with the Greens—and at our policy priorities will see the very strong commitment to a green sustainable recovery. That is right, I think, for job creation in Scotland, but it is also absolutely right for the future of the planet.

The fact remains that transport emissions are going up, which is causing Scotland to miss its climate targets. That is why the Scottish Greens have prioritised that area. I am pleased that we have secured free bus travel for everyone aged 21 and under and increased funding for cycling, walking and wheeling, and that we have commitments to take forward key rail projects. However, we need to go further and faster.

This week, the First Minister told business leaders that COP26 is perhaps our only chance to tackle the climate emergency. She said that Scotland

“will do everything we can to play our part”,

yet on the day when the United Kingdom Government released its planet-wrecking plan, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity confirmed his plans to expand roads, which is a policy that we know increases emissions and congestion. Is the transport secretary delivering the First Minister’s or Boris Johnson’s agenda?

I do not think that that is a particularly serious suggestion, or one that many people will take seriously.

We have a balanced transport policy. All our policies must be assessed against our 2045 net zero target and ambition, and against the interim milestones, which are in many respects even more stretching because they are closer, so the ambition that we need in order to meet them kicks in now. That is part of the assessment process that the Government goes through.

We are extremely serious about using COP26 is a catalyst for that, and to make it a pressure point for Governments and an opportunity for us to use whatever influence we have to encourage other countries to do likewise. Because of the urgency of the issue and the need to take the steps now that are necessary if we are to meet the medium-term to long-term targets, COP26 might be the best, if not the only chance we have of getting the whole world behind that agenda.

We will continue to play our part to the full. We are trying to galvanise the efforts of the Under2 Coalition of cities and regions in the world. Scotland is currently the European co-chair of the organisation. I spoke at the end of last week to President Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, to consider again what steps Scotland can take to work with the wider world.

Alison Johnstone is right, however, to say that it is not just what we say that counts; what we do also counts, therefore our policies in the round must be measured against that. It will always be easy to pick one policy and say that it somehow jars with the ambitions that we have set, but we have to look at our policies in the round and ask whether they are meeting those ambitions.

That is the challenge for the Government and it is absolutely what Opposition members should make sure that they hold us to account on.

Economic Recovery (Overseas Workers)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government's response is to reported concerns expressed by the construction, care and hospitality industries that a lack of overseas workers after the Covid-19 pandemic threatens economic recovery. (S5F-04889)

Before I answer the substantive question, I assume—I might be wrong—that this may be Richard Lyle’s last question in Parliament before his retirement when Parliament rises for the election. As a long-term colleague and, even more importantly, a long-term friend, I thank Richard Lyle for his contribution over many, many years, first as an elected councillor and latterly as a member of the Scottish Parliament. It has been a sterling contribution and I and colleagues on the Scottish National Party benches will miss him greatly when he departs the Parliament. [Applause.]

People born overseas who live in Scotland make an invaluable contribution across our public services and economy. United Kingdom immigration policies will, bluntly, make it much harder for people to come here and make that positive contribution. As we face the biggest economic crisis in decades, the UK Government should urgently rethink its immigration plans to allow for the level and type of migration that Scotland and, I would argue, the rest of the UK’s economy and communities need to prosper. Denying access to those uniquely skilled workers will be disastrous for our economy and for our society, and risks acute labour shortages in the sectors that Richard Lyle mentions.

I thank the First Minister for that reply and her kind comments. The past 45 years have been a blast—I say that particularly as a member of the SNP since 1966.

The Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that the UK population in future may be substantially smaller than official estimates suggest, as people leaving Britain causes a scarring impact. Does the First Minister agree that the day is long overdue for Scotland to have the powers to design its own migration system so that we can chart a different course?

I agree. The day when Scotland has full powers to chart our own course, shape our own destiny and play our own positive part in the world is long overdue. I believe that that day is coming.

I very much share concerns about the impact of UK immigration policies on our long-term population levels, particularly in the rural parts of our country. Those impacts will be felt more severely in Scotland, because of our different demographics, than in the rest of the UK. The expert advisory group on migration and population estimates a net migration reduction of 30 to 50 per cent by 2040, which would mean our working-age population declining by up to 5 per cent. Overall, we estimate that immigration changes could result in a reduction in gross domestic product of around £5 billion. There is no doubt that those policies will harm Scotland. I hope that the UK Government thinks again and changes course, but I also hope that the opportunity for Scotland to shape those policies for ourselves is not too far into the future.

Covid-19 Vaccination (Clinically Vulnerable People)

To ask the First Minister what percentage of clinically vulnerable people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. (S5F-04882)

Clinically extremely vulnerable people are part of Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority group 4. As of today, 91 per cent—that is, 163,111 people—of the clinically extremely vulnerable group have received their first dose of the vaccine. By way of context, up to yesterday, the published uptake figure for clinically extremely vulnerable people in Wales was 88 per cent. In England, the latest published statistics go only up to 28 February but, as of that date, the figure was 88.3 per cent.

I thank the First Minister for that update. As we have heard, it has been a year since the first tragic Covid death, and, today, we all remember everyone who has suffered and lost as a result of the virus. In the course of that year, science, Governments, academia and pharmaceutical companies have developed, tested and produced the vaccines that are already in the arms of 23 million people across the United Kingdom. We owe everyone involved in developing, testing and producing the vaccines a huge debt of gratitude, as well as those who volunteered in trials, our health workers and the armed forces, all of whom have played an important part.

Nonetheless, it is the waiting that makes our most vulnerable in society nervous and anxious. Many people watching today are nervous and anxious, waiting on that appointment letter. I ask the First Minister to comment on reports that there may be up to 900,000 doses of the vaccine allocated to Scotland but unused. If that is the case, can she outline how the Government will get any unused vaccines into the arms of our most vulnerable as quickly as we can, irrespective of where they live?

First, I agree with the substantive part of Jamie Greene’s question. We owe everybody involved in researching, developing, manufacturing and administering the vaccines an enormous debt of gratitude. The progress that has been made in such a short space of time is quite extraordinary. We have had a lot of tough, negative, difficult things to contend with in the past year, but that should give us all a sense of both pride and real hope about what human ingenuity can achieve. I very much agree with Jamie Greene about that.

On the second part of Jamie Greene’s question, I will try not to strike a discordant note, but I had hoped that we were beyond this point. Supplies of the vaccine have been allocated and distributed to Scotland and then within Scotland, and we are vaccinating people as quickly as possible. We have to model the supplies over a period to make sure that we are getting the number of appointments right, not just against the supplies that we have today but against the supplies that we will have next week and the week after that. For the past few weeks, we have also had to reserve a proportion of the supplies for second doses, which have started to fall due, given that it is 12 weeks since people began to get the vaccine in early December.

All of that has to be—and is being—carefully managed. That is true in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We are vaccinating people as quickly as supplies allow, and that will continue to be the case. There has been a dip in supply over the past two to three weeks, which is reflected in our daily figures. If members look at the dashboards that are published across the UK, they will see similar effects there, too. From the middle of this month, which we are getting close to, we expect supplies to increase significantly again, and we will then see an acceleration in our vaccination programme.

I know about the anxious wait. I am now in one of the age groups that, hopefully, will get the blue envelope in the not-too-distant future. Particularly for those who have an underlying health condition, I absolutely understand the anxiety of waiting for their appointment. We are going as quickly as possible. We have made more progress than I would ever have thought possible at the start of this year, and we will continue to do everything that we can to vaccinate everybody in the adult population as quickly as supplies allow.

Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Reduction)

To ask the First Minister for what reason the Scottish Government has chosen not to extend the reduction to land and buildings transaction tax beyond March. (S5F-04894)

The Scottish Government was clear from the outset that the measure was temporary. It was intended to support the housing market in this financial year and we always said that it would come to an end on 31 March 2021.

The decision takes account of the specific circumstances of the Scottish housing market, which showed record levels of activity under LBTT in the final quarter of 2020. We have seen no evidence of the overall blockages in the market that have been reported in England. From 1 April, the progressive rates and bands will continue to support first-time buyers and others who wish to buy a home. In particular, the first-time buyer relief will mean that an estimated eight out of 10 first-time buyers will pay no LBTT at all. We have taken decisions that we believe to be right for the particular circumstances of the Scottish housing market.

The decision not to extend the reductions to land and buildings transaction tax, similar to the extension of the stamp duty holiday in England and Northern Ireland, is disappointing for Scottish home buyers. Rather than seeing decreased revenues, in December, we saw healthy land and buildings transaction tax revenues, with the highest recorded monthly figure.

That all follows the Scottish Government’s recent closure of the help-to-buy scheme and a 70 per cent cut to the first home fund, which remains closed until April. Now that it has ended those key policies, the Government does not have a comprehensive policy to support young and first-time buyers and those who are low earners. I am particularly concerned about young people buying first homes. Would the First Minister reconsider a more comprehensive approach to ensure that, in making decisions on each of the funds, consideration is given to young buyers and low earners?

We have taken the right decision on LBTT for the Scottish housing market. For example, in the latest three-month period, which was to the end of January 2021, transactions were 28 per cent higher than they were in the previous three months. LBTT transactions have risen in eight of the past nine months and rose to record highs in four of the past five months. The market looks very different now compared to when the temporary change was made, when transactions had fallen by 41 per cent over the three months to May 2020. It would not make sense for us to continue to design LBTT policy based on the housing market a year ago at the start of the crisis, which was very different.

LBTT is structured in a way that is intended to support first-time buyers. As Pauline McNeill says, we have had additional support for first-time buyers. We want to make sure that the resources that are available to us are targeted as effectively as possible. That means targeting first-time buyers and helping people get on to the housing market for the first time.

I appreciate that those decisions are difficult for people who are directly affected by them. I sympathise, but we have to take such decisions in the round. We are striking the best balance overall.

We move on to supplementary questions.

Liberty Steel (Administration of Greensill Capital)

The administration of Greensill Capital, one of the United Kingdom’s largest providers of supply chain finance, is a cause for concern for many manufacturing businesses. One of those impacted is Liberty Steel.

As a constituency MSP and as a member of the steel task force under the stewardship of Fergus Ewing, I note how vital and welcome the Scottish Government interventions were in securing both production and jobs over the intervening five years. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with Liberty Steel to understand the potential impacts of the situation?

Clare Adamson is absolutely right. As she is well placed to know, given her productive involvement in the efforts to save what is now Liberty Steel, had we not worked with the company to enable that, those jobs would have been lost there and then. That is why I will always prefer that activist approach of trying to save jobs and secure the future of such industrial plants.

There is no doubt that the administration of Greensill Capital will impact on a wide range of businesses across the UK that rely on it for supply chain financing. GFG Alliance, which includes Liberty Steel, has acknowledged the challenges posed to its businesses and has indicated that it is seeking alternative long-term funding arrangements. We take some comfort from the public statements of GFG Alliance that it is performing strongly and has access to sufficient resources for its business needs. However, we will continue to monitor the situation closely. As I said to Willie Rennie, we maintain regular dialogue with the business.

Covid-19 Vaccination Programme

I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are becoming increasingly concerned about the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme in Edinburgh and about the inconsistencies relating to people in different age groups being called to be vaccinated. I have raised those concerns with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. I appreciate that there will be some overlap within age groups, but there seems to be confusion about when those in the 60 to 65-year-old age group will receive their vaccination in Edinburgh.

I am sure that the First Minister agrees that it would be unacceptable for NHS Lothian residents to be behind those in other health board areas. What additional resources will NHS Lothian receive? Will she investigate the situation? Why is the Scottish Government not publishing age-specific vaccination uptake figures for health boards?

As I have said, we will continue to break down, as far as we can, the information that is published. Earlier today, I said that, as of tomorrow, Public Health Scotland will improve its reporting, so we continue to try to improve the granularity of the data that is published.

The vaccination programme is going better than we ever anticipated. More people have been vaccinated than we anticipated at the start of the year. That said, I absolutely understand, and identify with, people’s anxiety about getting their appointments as quickly as possible.

I can understand the concern if people know somebody in a younger age group who has been vaccinated ahead of them. I will make two points about that. If that is the case, it is likely to be because the person in the younger age group has an underlying health condition that gives them the same level of priority as the older person.

There is also a practical issue. If we were to work through people in a strictly chronological order and to not start vaccinating, for example, 55 to 59-year-olds until we had completed vaccinating 60 to 64-year-olds, the problem that Jamie Greene put to me—a bit unjustly, if I may say so—would become a real problem, because we would not be using vaccines as quickly as we could. Vaccines would be sitting on the stocks if we took that approach. We are taking the approach that we are taking to get to people as quickly as we possibly can.

Forty-five per cent of 60 to 64-year-olds have been vaccinated already. Others in that group will get their vaccination appointments on an on-going basis. General appointments will start going out to those in the 55 to 59-year-old and 50 to 54-year-old age groups. If people in those age groups have already been vaccinated, it is likely to be because they have an underlying health condition.

I know that the approach that we are taking can create anomalies in people’s minds, but it is the best and quickest way to get through people as speedily as possible. That is why I can stand here and say—with a considerable degree of confidence—that, assuming that there is no unexpected interruption to supplies, everybody in the country who is over 50, every unpaid carer and every adult with an underlying health condition will have had the first dose of the vaccine by mid-April, and that, assuming that supplies allow it, the whole adult population will have been offered the first dose by the end of July.

Gupta Family Group Alliance

I remind members that I am a member of the trade union Community.

In response to Willie Rennie’s questions regarding the threats to GFG Alliance, the First Minister outlined a series of securities and guarantees that the Scottish Government has undertaken, but she did not confirm the total liability that the public purse is exposed to because of those guarantees. Will she take the opportunity to set out what the figure is? Will she request that Audit Scotland urgently reviews the deals and how they were put together, given the reports in the press in recent days? Ultimately, workers want Scottish Government interventions to save their jobs for the long term, not just for a few years, which is why we need to know what has gone wrong here, and in other such interventions.

On the first part of Daniel Johnson’s question, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, there is a limit to what we are able to disclose. The important point is that a full and detailed process was followed, which culminated in the guarantee being approved by the Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee, which, of course, includes members from parties across the chamber. That is often how such things are done when there are issues of commercial confidentiality but a need for proper parliamentary scrutiny.

All such matters are taken extremely seriously, because the Government has to satisfy itself on issues relating to legality and use of taxpayers’ money. For example, Labour members repeatedly said to me that the Government should nationalise and buy out the train refurb site at Springburn, in Glasgow, and I had to stand here and say that we could not do that because we could not satisfy those tests in that situation. Those are serious issues, and Government takes them seriously and goes through a process with them.

It is not for me to tell Audit Scotland what it can and cannot look at; Audit Scotland is free to look at whatever it thinks appropriate.

Where it is possible—where Government can satisfy the legal and taxpayer money requirements that it has to, and we can satisfy the Finance and Constitution Committee of them—I will not apologise for trying to save jobs and give an economic future to places like Dalzell and the aluminium smelter in Lochaber.

Covid-19 (Pig Farmers)

I have a great many pig farmers in my constituency, and they have been adversely impacted by the aftermath of the temporary closure of the abattoir at Brechin because of a Covid outbreak there. They face severe disruption because of the suspension of certificates to export to China, which is a big market for them, and the backlog in sending pigs to slaughter, which is leading to increased cost and capacity issues. Can the First Minister advise what assistance the Scottish Government can offer those businesses?

I am aware of the challenges that Scottish pig farmers face following the temporary closure of the Brechin processing plant due to a Covid outbreak. Fergus Ewing and officials are liaising closely with Quality Meat Scotland, farmers and the abattoir operators to address the problems that have been caused. Active consideration is being given to what, if any, hardship support can be provided to the farmers affected.

It is disappointing that the temporary closure resulted in the suspension of the China export licence. It is key to try and restore that as quick as possible, and advice has been provided to the operators regarding the steps that are needed to achieve it.

Officials liaise regularly with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Beijing embassy officials to examine all options that can help expedite the relisting process. Although I am sure that he is doing it already, I will ask Fergus Ewing to keep Gillian Martin updated on progress.

Gupta Family Group Alliance (Fort William Plant)

Given the seriousness of the situation around GFG Alliance, will the First Minister commit the economy secretary to making a statement to the Parliament next week to update members? The First Minister talked about the securities that the Scottish Government holds. Could she advise whether those securities could lead to the Fort William plant being taken into public ownership?

I am happy to come back, within commercial confidentiality and other constraints, on the detail of what exactly the securities allow the Scottish Government to do.

I am sure that the economy minister would be very happy to come and make a statement to the Parliament, but of course it is for the bureau to determine parliamentary business, particularly during the very congested last couple of weeks of business. However, I say openly that if there is a desire for that in the Parliament, then of course the Government will provide such a statement.

Air Traffic Control Centralisation (Island Communities Impact Assessment)

The Highlands and Islands Airports Limited island communities impact assessment on air traffic control centralisation lists a series of serious negative impacts for Shetland. They range from job losses to side effects for the local economy. No positive impacts were noted, and the same can be seen in Orkney.

The report entirely undermines either the proposals made by HIAL or the credibility of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. Which is it?

The decision to proceed with the air traffic management system was taken before the islands act was passed, but HIAL undertook to do a retrospective islands impact assessment. That was carried out by an independent consultant and the assessment was published on the HIAL website on 5 March.

We recognise the need to modernise air traffic control to ensure more sustainable and reliable air services in the Highlands and Islands. HIAL has been tasked with taking that process forward to find both the safest and most sustainable solution. HIAL has taken its decisions based on the best available information and analysis of the different options. No alternative has been proposed that addresses the issues that the project aims to resolve, but I know that HIAL will want to continue to liaise closely with staff and key stakeholders as they take forward plans.

I apologise to those members I could not call, but we must move on to the next item of business.