Meeting date: Thursday, May 12, 2022
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 12 May 2022 [Draft]
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Striking University Staff, Portfolio Question Time, Cladding Remediation, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Appointments to Scottish Fiscal Commission, Business Motion, Decision Time, International Nurses Day
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Striking University Staff
- Portfolio Question Time
- Cladding Remediation
- Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Appointments to Scottish Fiscal Commission
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- International Nurses Day
First Minister’s Question Time
Ferries (Construction Contract)
Yesterday, the Government finally found the missing documents in its ferry fiasco. For a brief moment, it looked like islanders and taxpayers here in Scotland might finally get the answers that they deserve, but they did not. For weeks, Nicola Sturgeon has stood in this chamber and told MSPs that Derek Mackay signed off the vital contract for Ferguson Marine to build replacement ferries, but operation blame Derek Mackay has a fatal flaw. This new document, which was previously hidden from the public, reveals that the person who signed the deal at the final stage was the Deputy First Minister. Civil servants escalated this to John Swinney and they waited for the Deputy First Minister to give the green light. Honest John’s hands are all over this dodgy deal.
How does the First Minister explain blaming Derek Mackay when her own documents confirm that John Swinney signed off the deal?
I think that all that Douglas Ross is displaying right now is his own utter desperation, which perhaps is not surprising given events since we last all gathered here for First Minister’s questions in the chamber.
Let me read from the emails that were published yesterday. On the important one, people who have listened to this will remember that I said that I thought that, if this email could be found, it would be a one-line email saying that the minister was content with the proposal. Here is the email from Derek Mackay’s office:
“The Minister is content with the proposals and would like”
“to be moved on as quickly as possible”.
That was the decision to proceed with the contract.
The email from the official who had briefed the Deputy First Minister then says that the Deputy First Minister
“now understands ... that Mr McKay has cleared the proposal.”
It seems pretty obvious to anybody who is looking at this that the Deputy First Minister did not take the decision. He was not even copied in to the advice of 8 October that was the basis of that decision. He was simply briefed on the decision after it was taken, not even at his request, but on the initiative of an official.
It is really not unusual for finance secretaries to be briefed on all sorts of decisions that involve the spending of money. It does not mean that the finance secretary actually took the decision. I would say that Douglas Ross should know that that is how Government works, but of course Douglas Ross does not know how Government works, and on recent evidence Douglas Ross is unlikely to ever know how Government works.
It seems from that answer that the First Minister does not know how emails work, because it is very clear in the documents that officials escalated it to John Swinney, waiting for his green light. In the emails, civil servants state that the Deputy First Minister confirmed—this is a quote—
“the absence of banana skins”.
John Swinney could not find a single banana skin when they were absolutely littered around him. There were more banana skins in this project than there are in the monkey house at Edinburgh zoo.
I turn to the latest incompetence from this SNP Government. It published a series of responses to the requests for more information that were heavily redacted, with lines blacked out, except that it has done such a poor job of redacting the documents that, if they are copied and pasted into Microsoft Word, the information is revealed. One section of the redacted document warns of a risk of legal challenge for the contract. It states:
“The impact of a successful legal challenge could be high—in the worst case the contract could be declared ineffective”.
In other words, going ahead with the contract was such a bad idea that it could open up the Government to even more losses than it has already experienced.
I say to the First Minister that it is now clear to everyone why she and her Government wanted that redacted, but it is now in the public domain. We all knew that this was a bad deal, but will she tell us whether it was also unlawful?
Douglas Ross has, no doubt unwittingly, just holed his own arguments below the waterline—pardon the pun.
There are two matters. First, on the Deputy First Minister not seeing any problems with the award of the contract, that is because the Deputy First Minister had not been copied into the paperwork that formed the basis for the decision. The Deputy First Minister could not have been the person who took the decision, because he was not copied in to the paperwork of 8 October. He was not the decision taker. [Interruption.]
As the email makes clear, he was briefed on the decision after the Minister for Transport and Islands had taken it.
Secondly, on the issues of legal challenge, ministers are briefed on many issues on which decisions could be subject to legal challenge. On the minority of occasions, such a challenge comes to pass; on most occasions, it does not. Ministers have to weigh up such issues in reaching decisions. However, where Douglas Ross undermines his own case is that it did not come to pass that the contract was legally challenged. Ministers weigh up all such issues and come to decisions.
What is now beyond any doubt—I suspect that this is what is really annoying Douglas Ross—is that the minister who took that decision was Derek Mackay. That is now clear from the email chain.
That is not clear; in fact, the exact opposite is clear, and maybe the stony silence from John Swinney—which is unusual in these exchanges—is telling in itself.
There we have it, Presiding Officer: the SNP’s secret Scotland has been foiled by copy and paste. They cannot even redact documents properly. It is little wonder that those ferries are not on time and on budget.
Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd warned the Government about the risks, and we now know that the legal advice to the Government was that the situation was high risk, but it went ahead anyway, and taxpayers and islanders are paying the price for its failures.
The new emails state that John Swinney
“understands the background and ... the way is clear to award.”
If he did not clear the deal, it would not go ahead—that is what the emails say. He went ahead, knowing, as we have just revealed, that doing so could open the Government to legal challenge. We now know all of that, but we still do not know why the Deputy First Minister ignored all those banana skins.
Still missing is the most crucial document in the affair—the one that explains why John Swinney charged ahead against expert advice. Last night, Audit Scotland said:
“there remains insufficient documentary evidence to explain why the decision was made to proceed with the contract, given the significant risks and concerns raised by CMAL.”
Why did John Swinney go ahead with the deal, against the advice of experts, when he knew that the contract was so bad that it could be challenged in court and rendered ineffective?
I will make three points.
First, in Government, finance secretaries are often briefed on decisions that involve the spending of money. In this case, of course, the budget had already been approved by John Swinney.
Secondly—and interestingly, because he has to do this to sustain the case that he is trying to make—Douglas Ross has selectively quoted from the email from the official who briefed John Swinney. That email starts:
“Just finished my call with DFM”—
the Deputy First Minister, who was finance secretary at the time. Douglas Ross read out:
“He now understands the background and ... the way is clear to award.”
I will read out the bit that Douglas Ross did not read out. After
“He now understands the background”,
the email goes on to say:
“and that Mr McKay has cleared the proposal.”
Had Douglas Ross read out that bit, his entire argument would have fallen to pieces—that was a bit misleading, Presiding Officer. [Interruption.]
I am not sure that Douglas Ross should be speaking to any other leader about their back benchers. I suspect that he might have issues rather closer to home.
Finally, the reasons for the decision are clear. The basis for the decision, and, in particular, the mitigations that had been put in place to address the risk of having no full refund guarantee, are set out in the paperwork of 8 October. Without the email that we now have from Derek Mackay, we could have assumed that that was the case, but I accept that we did not know for sure. However, now that we have that email, it is clear that the decision was taken on the basis of all the information and mitigations that are set out in the paperwork of 8 October 2015. That paperwork was not copied to John Swinney; it went to Derek Mackay as transport minister, and Derek Mackay took the decision. That is clear to anybody who reads the emails that are now published.
What is clear to anybody and everybody from these emails is that the junior transport minister agreed something, and it was escalated to the Deputy First Minister for the green light and approval, so that it could be said in the email that
“the way is clear to award.”
That was from the Deputy First Minister—he had to sign it off. However, the document that is still missing is the crucial one; the one that explains why John Swinney did this. The First Minister has forgotten—her memory has gone blank again—but the good news is that the man with all the answers is sitting right next to her. If the First Minister will not tell us all the details, let us hear from the Deputy First Minister. Let us hear why he chose to ignore expert advice and forge ahead with a deal that has cost taxpayers £250 million. Let us hear why John Swinney decided to give the green light to a deal that opened up the Government to potential legal action.
The stench of cover-up and corruption is running through this whole sorry affair. If the First Minister—[Interruption.] If the First Minister will not come clean, let us get John Swinney on the stand. Will the First Minister agree to the Deputy First Minister appearing—[Interruption.] Will the First Minister agree to the Deputy First Minister appearing before Parliament and giving a statement in the chamber today, facing scrutiny and telling the public what on earth he was thinking?
It is not my job to help out desperate Douglas Ross, frankly, Presiding Officer.
On this issue, the Deputy First Minister was briefed as finance secretary because a decision had been taken by the transport minister that involved the spending of money. That is why it was a finance official who briefed him. I repeat that Douglas Ross has only been able to sustain his argument today—although he has not done so particularly well—by selectively quoting from an email and by missing out the crucial words that underline what is already clear in the email from Derek Mackay’s office: Derek Mackay took the decision.
I do not know whether Douglas Ross has actually bothered to read all the paperwork, but, from his questions, I suspect that the answer is no. The paperwork that shows why the decision was taken has always been there; it is the paperwork of 8 October 2015. We now know that Derek Mackay took the decision on the basis of the advice that is set out there. Those are the facts. I am sorry if Douglas Ross cannot accept them—I am sorry if he is too desperate to do so—but I am afraid that that is his problem.
Cabinet Ministers (Bullying Investigations)
Can the First Minister confirm how many investigations into bullying by current or former Scottish National Party cabinet ministers there have been, whether those investigations have concluded, and what the outcomes of those investigations are?
I have been asked this question by journalists over the past few days, and, as I made clear to them, I am not in a position to get into the issues because I am bound by very considerable legal data protection issues.
Governments have a duty of transparency, but they also have a duty to abide by the law on privacy and data protection. By its nature, a complaint includes personal details and data relating both to the complainer and the person complained about. That personal information can be made available outwith the narrow confines of the complaint only if there is a lawful basis to do so in the general data protection regulation. The law governing that is United Kingdom legislation, not legislation that was passed by this Parliament. Yes, there is a duty of transparency, but there is also a duty to abide by the law.
Anas Sarwar should perhaps confer with his deputy, Jackie Baillie, because she was one of the co-authors of a report that was published by a committee of this Parliament last year into complaints about another former minister. The report says:
“The Committee believes that the fundamental principle of any complaints process is that confidentiality must be observed ... The Scottish Government has a duty to ensure the confidentiality of the process”
and says that the
“Confidentiality of an investigation is of paramount importance.”
That is what the committee of this Parliament said, and those are the constraints within which I answer those questions.
That committee also found the First Minister guilty of misleading this Parliament—I do not think that she should forget that, either.
No one is asking the First Minister to reveal confidential details; they are asking her to reveal the outcome of those investigations.
The First Minister did not answer the questions, so I will quote something to her:
“we have to lead by example, we have to show leadership and we have to make it very clear that those who work in Parliament and those who work elsewhere in society need the fullest protection”
from bullying. Those are the words of the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, speaking with regard to the Priti Patel case. I agree with him. After the allegations against Alex Salmond and then Derek Mackay, and the bullying allegations against UK Government ministers, we need to restore trust in politics, and that must start with complaints being handled transparently. Therefore, will the First Minister today confirm the outcome—not the personal details—of the bullying investigation into Fergus Ewing? Will she confirm whether there have been any other investigations into current and former Scottish ministers? And will she commit to make public the conclusion of any and all complaints that are upheld against ministers in this Government?
This Government and I take very seriously any complaints about any ministers. That is evidenced by the development and the publication of the updated procedure for handling complaints made by civil servants about current or former ministers. This is not a question of any complaints, if raised, not being investigated. However, that has to be done within the law. I have to abide by the law. I have a duty to uphold the law. There are laws on privacy and data protection that apply in relation to the matter that we are discussing and, if I answer questions on it, I will be at risk of breaching that law. If I did so, I am sure that, next week or the week after, Anas Sarwar or his colleagues would ask for me to be held to account for doing that.
These are serious issues. They must be treated seriously, but they must also be treated within the confines of the law that applies.
Let me be very clear. I am not asking for the data or for the personal details of the person making the complaint; I am saying that the public deserve to know the outcome of investigations relating to ministers in the SNP Government. That is an issue of public transparency.
The fact that Nicola Sturgeon cannot escape from is that her Government and the SNP operate in a culture of secrecy and cover-up—it is not the first time that we have heard that today. There are cover-ups when it comes to allegations against ministers, cover-ups when it comes to the awarding of Government ferry contracts, and cover-ups—shamefully—when it comes to the deaths of children in hospital. Further, there is a culture of contempt for journalists and anyone who dares to ask a difficult question of the First Minister—one standard for them and another for everybody else. There is a culture in which an SNP MP can avoid being disciplined for sexual harassment and can, instead, lead a parliamentary debate on the subject.
In 2003, Nicola Sturgeon said this of the then Scottish Government:
“They have the arrogance of a party which has been in power for too long and no longer believe the common values of fairness, decency and honesty apply to them.”
I cannot think of a more appropriate way of describing this Government led by Nicola Sturgeon. After 15 years of being in government, why does Nicola Sturgeon think that there is one standard for her and another standard for everyone else?
The people of Scotland have had two opportunities in just a year to decide whether they think that my party has been in government for too long, and their answer on both occasions has been pretty clear.
These issues are important. First, on Queen Elizabeth university hospital issues, I am so opposed to transparency there that, with my Government, I have established a full independent statutory public inquiry into those issues.
Secondly, I stand to be corrected if somebody can challenge me on this, but I have probably answered more questions from journalists over the past couple of years than any other political leader anywhere on these islands has.
Thirdly, in my view, I have ended up being the subject of investigations over the past couple of years because I was not prepared to cover up accusations against a former minister. The fact is that I have to abide by the law. Whether I like it or not, all parties have rights under data protection law that protect their personal data. That includes the fact or the detail of complaints. The processing of that data can, under the law, occur only if there is a lawful basis to do so. That is the legal position.
Governments have a duty of transparency and I take that duty very seriously. However, Governments also have a duty to abide by the law on privacy and data protection. If we breached that law, Anas Sarwar would be among the first standing up in the Parliament to accuse us of doing so.
We will now move to constituency and general supplementary questions.
Scottish Football Writers’ Association Dinner
I am sure that the First Minister and others across the chamber will join me in condemning reports of sexist, racist and homophobic comments at the Scottish Football Writers’ Association gala dinner and will offer support to those who walked out in protest. Although I recognise that an apology has been issued, does the First Minister agree that what happened appears to be a shocking illustration of the outdated discriminatory attitudes that still exist in football and, indeed, in journalism, and which need to be eradicated?
Yes, I very much agree with those sentiments. From what I have read about what occurred at that particular awards dinner, it was unacceptable. I pay tribute to Eilidh Barbour and others, who courageously took a stand against it and spoke out. It is never easy for any woman to speak out in that way, particularly in what is traditionally a man’s world, and Eilidh Barbour and her colleagues deserve credit for doing so.
What we have seen over the past week—that is one example; I think that another has been reported—is that sexism and misogyny still run far too deep in our society and it is a reminder that they must be tackled. It is also a reminder that that starts with male behaviour and that it is male behaviour that we must see changed.
The First Minister may be aware that the timetable for the new Reston station in my constituency does not include adequate evening services. That is a problem for my constituents. The Rail Action Group East of Scotland has said that there are no plans for ScotRail to provide evening services and that it is for Transport Scotland to confirm that.
We already have 40 per cent of trains to Tweedbank from Edinburgh being cancelled by the pay dispute, and now we have no evening services for my constituents. Will the First Minister confirm that she will work with Transport Scotland to ensure that there are evening services? Does she think that the current service is adequate for my constituents?
It is important that people in all parts of the country have access to appropriate rail services. I certainly agree on that general point. I am happy to raise that issue with Transport Scotland and to come back to the member in due course.
Mental Health Services (Tayside)
My constituent Ryan Caswell has been a resident patient in Carseview mental health unit in Dundee for two years and three months as a result of delayed discharge. Ryan has autism spectrum disorder and learning disabilities, and his parents are beside themselves with worry due to the lack of appropriate medical care being provided to their son. They fear for his life.
Ryan struggles to communicate and, for much of the past year, he has been crying out in severe pain, which has led only to restraint and sedation. After many months of suffering without help, he had five impacted molars removed. The staff available to him do not have sufficient medical training to diagnose patients in their care.
There have been two damning reports on mental health services in Tayside. The second of the Strang reports has been described to me as the most worrying report in Scottish public life. This has gone on for years, as people suffer and die. When will it change?
Those are really important issues. The independent oversight and assurance group on Tayside’s mental health services provides scrutiny and assurance on the implementation of the recommendations of “Trust and Respect—Final Report of the Independent Inquiry into Mental Health Services in Tayside”, and that group continues to work with partners, the third sector and people with lived experience to deliver improvements to mental health services and achieve outcomes that local communities and individuals have a right to expect.
I am not familiar with all the details of Ryan Caswell’s case, but from what Michael Marra describes, the situation sounds unacceptable. In fairness to Ryan and his parents, who are understandably anxious and distressed, I want to look further into it, and when I have had the opportunity to do so, I or the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care will reply in more detail to the member.
Cost of Living Crisis
Does the First Minister share my disgust at the comments that were made in the House of Commons by Tory Member of Parliament Lee Anderson, who said that people who use food banks across these islands do so because they “cannot cook” and “cannot budget”, and does she agree that that clearly demonstrates that the Tories are completely out of touch with people who are suffering from the cost of living crisis that they created?
Those comments were despicable and disgusting. It seems to me that every time a Tory MP opens their mouth right now, they demonstrate how out of touch they are with the suffering of too many people across Scotland and the entire United Kingdom.
People have to go to food banks not because they cannot cook but because they do not have enough money to feed themselves and their children. My Government is doing and will continue to do everything that we can to get money into the pockets of the lowest-income families across the country, and the Scottish child payment is the chief example of that. However, it is well past time that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the UK Government stood up, stepped up and took action to get money into the pockets of those who need it, to stop people having to decide whether to heat their homes or feed their children.
First Minister, midwifery services across Scotland are at breaking point. A survey conducted by the Royal College of Midwives revealed that three quarters of midwives in Scotland are thinking of leaving the profession due to understaffing, burnout and fears that they cannot provide safe care. That is despite the Scottish Government having provided £12 million of funding to support the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce; it clear that that has had little effect. The lives of women and babies are at risk. The situation is not safe, sustainable or acceptable, so what urgent action can the Scottish Government put in place to rectify it?
Midwives play a key role in making sure that women receive the care that they need when they need it, and we value the role that the RCM and its members have played in our on-going response to the pandemic. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care met with the RCM this week to discuss that report and its recommendations, and we will continue to work with the RCM and midwives generally to address the pressures that they and other health professionals work under.
Overall, nursing and midwifery staffing in Scotland is at a record high; it has increased by 14.5 per cent since this Government took office. That is the fact of the matter. All our health professionals are working under extreme pressure, and through our investment, support and reforms, we will continue to support them in the invaluable job that they do.
Mental Health (Loneliness)
The First Minister will be aware that this week is mental health awareness week, with a focus on loneliness. Findings from the Mental Health Foundation show that 25 per cent of people who were surveyed had felt lonely some or all of the time over the previous month, and it is concerning that 31 per cent of people who were surveyed said that feelings of loneliness had negatively impacted on their mental health. Action is needed.
Despite having 15 years in office, the Scottish Government has failed to deliver an effective mental health strategy that supports the wellbeing of the Scottish population. Why has the First Minister failed so badly in that regard, and what steps can she set out today on prevention and intervention to address the crisis in our mental health services?
Mental health is and will continue to be a priority, as I have said many times in the chamber. The fact that more people feel able to come forward with mental health problems is something that we should continue to support, but we must make sure that services are there for them when they need them. The focus of mental health awareness week is loneliness and isolation, and the Scottish Government supports a range of work in that area.
Last year, we provided more than £20 million to local communities through the communities mental health and wellbeing fund, which supports adults. Earlier this month, we announced that a further £15 million would be available in this financial year. That fund is supporting almost 2,000 local community projects, many of which address loneliness and isolation. We are investing £10 million over the course of the parliamentary session to tackle social isolation and loneliness specifically. We will continue to make investments and to do everything that we can to support the many organisations across the country that do such good work.
To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-01083)
I am grateful for that reply.
Raw sewage is released into our rivers every day. It is routinely dumped by Scotland’s Government-owned water company. Thanks to investigations by The Ferret, we now know that that happened more than 10,000 times last year, which was 30 times a day. Scottish Water is required to monitor only 3 per cent of sewage release points, so the true figure will be much worse. Scotland is way behind England on that.
The SNP-Green coalition claims to champion the environment, but the Minister for Environment and Land Reform described the routine dumping of untreated human waste in our rivers as “vital”. That should not be allowed to happen. We are talking about excrement, wet wipes and sanitary towels. Right now, in west Edinburgh, there are otters, fish, children and dogs playing in the River Almond, where sewage has been dumped hundreds of times.
I ask the First Minister, why are there no targets to end the release of sewage into rivers? How long does she plan to allow that to continue?
Alex Cole-Hamilton has raised an important issue. The cleanliness of our rivers and seas is of paramount importance. How we deal with waste in all forms in our country is a big issue and it is a big challenge for Governments everywhere. I apologise to Alex Cole-Hamilton—I have not seen the investigation by The Ferret, but I will take steps to ensure that I do. I will come back to him with more detail about what the Government is doing and what more it, like all Governments across the world, needs to do to tackle that serious issue.
Owner-occupied Homes (Decarbonisation)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the report that was published last Friday, “Owning the Future: A framework of regulations for decarbonising owner-occupied homes in Scotland”, which was commissioned by the Existing Homes Alliance. (S6F-01081)
The Scottish Government welcomes the publication of the research that was commissioned by the Existing Homes Alliance. Heating our homes and our places of work is the third-largest cause of emissions in Scotland. In the light of that, our “Heat in Buildings Strategy: Achieving Net Zero Emissions in Scotland's Buildings”, which was published in October, sets out over 100 different actions to support households and businesses to make energy efficiency improvements and transition from fossil fuel heating systems.
The strategy includes a commitment to regulate for minimum standards in homes. We will consult in detail on our proposed approach in the coming year. The Existing Homes Alliance and others have worked positively and constructively with us to date, and we will continue to engage with that organisation and others as we finalise our approach.
I thank the First Minister for her detailed reply. It is a highly complex area and there are very detailed recommendations in the report, including on the need for legislation, if we are to fully decarbonise our buildings by 2045. Scottish solutions that were identified in the report include installation of low-temperature heat pumps, district heating and, for some homes, biomass boilers. The key driver will be the improvement of building fabric efficiency.
Can the First Minister confirm that, as we focus more on decarbonisation, her Government will prioritise a fabric-first approach, introduce a fabric energy efficiency standard, begin the phasing out of fossil fuels for heating and act to ensure that we have in our communities the skilled workers who are necessary to deliver on our vital climate change targets?
We have a long-standing commitment to taking a fabric-first approach, which is critical to reducing energy demand, making homes warmer and preparing them for zero-emissions technologies. We have committed to regulating minimum energy efficiency standards in homes by 2033, which will be equivalent to the energy performance certificate, reformed to focus on fabric measures.
Fabric improvement alone will not get us close to net zero; we need a strong focus on heating-system change. We will phase out the need to install new replacement fossil fuel boilers in off-gas areas from 2025, and in on-gas areas from 2030. The opportunity that is presented by the heat transition will require further capability and capacity in our supply chains, so we are also developing a new heat in buildings supply chain delivery plan with industry, so that we can deliver that work at the pace and scale that are needed.
I thank Kenny Gibson for raising the issue, because 28 per cent of people in Scotland live in tenemented dwellings, and the proportion is even higher in my constituency. On page 3, the report sets out clearly that we need to look at existing forms of heating, because air source heat pumps simply will not work for people in tenemented dwellings. Likewise, the current legal framework makes it difficult for tenement-dwelling owners to do the required retrofitting.
Will the Scottish Government give consideration to plans for investment in municipal heat networks and for a change in the law to make it easier for tenement owners to come together to do the retrofitting that is required to heat homes sustainably?
Yes, we will do all that. I certainly have a lot of sympathy with the points that have been made. I, too, represent a constituency—albeit that it is in a different city—that has a high number of tenement properties.
The £300 million heat network fund will support large networks that are suited to urban environments as well as supporting small rural and community-led heat networks and communal systems.
The issues are complex, as I acknowledged in my response to Kenny Gibson. We are working through those issues in partnership with industry. It is important that all those points are borne in mind as we continue to do that.
The cost of the heat in buildings strategy is £33 billion. This Government has offered £1.8 billion towards it. Who will pay the rest?
Liam Kerr should know the process that we have under way, right now. Of course, the £1.8 billion will come over the course of this parliamentary session. That significant investment will support those who are least able to pay, as will Scotland’s heat network fund and the social housing net zero heat fund. We have also established the green heat finance task force, which will recommend ways to increase private sector investment and look at contributions from individuals, which we all want to keep to a minimum.
As the Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights set out when he launched the strategy, it will require us to lever in significant private capital investment. I was at the All-Energy 2022 conference yesterday, where I heard Keith Anderson of Scottish Power make that point. The good news is that significant investors of private capital are looking for ways to invest in the net zero transition, so the task force has an important job to do. That work is under way.
Early Learning and Childcare
To ask the First Minister what meetings the Scottish Government has had with the private and voluntary nursery sector regarding the delivery of its early learning and childcare strategy. (S6F-01082)
We continue to engage with the childcare sector in open and constructive discussions as we develop a new strategic plan for our childcare commitments for the remainder of this parliamentary session.
Providers in the private, third and childminding sectors are playing a crucial role in the successful delivery of the transformational 1,140 hours offer, through which more than 111,000 children are accessing high-quality, funded early learning and childcare.
Scotland has the highest ELC funding rates across the United Kingdom. As a result of the expansion, the average rates that are paid to providers—for three to five-year-olds who receive funded ELC—have increased by 48 per cent between 2017 and 2021. We continue to work closely with partners in local government to ensure that providers are paid sustainable rates that reflect the cost of delivery.
Scottish Conservative MSPs have met concerned representatives from nurseries across the private, voluntary and independent sector, who have continuously raised concerns over their relationship with local authorities. We have tried to arrange a meeting with the Minister for Children and Young People in order to raise those concerns on the nurseries’ behalf. A particular concern is the funding formula that creates inequality between local authorities and the PVI sector. Regrettably, the minister has now rescheduled two meetings that were due to take place. These matters are pressing. If the minister cannot meet concerned MSPs, will the First Minister do so?
Scottish Government officials met representatives of ambition 1140 recently to discuss their specific concerns. A commitment has been given to hold a further meeting in the near future to continue those discussions and, of course, there will be ministerial engagement as required.
It is important to recognise that the funding agreement between the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to support the expansion that has been delivered so far allows local authorities to pay sustainable rates to private and third sector nurseries that provide free early learning and childcare places, as well as to childminders. However, I know that there are concerns, and we want to address them.
The financial sustainability health check that was published in August 2021 found that 88 per cent of private and third sector providers that delivered funded ELC planned to pay all staff in their setting the real living wage from August last year. That can be compared with the position before the expansion in 2016, when around 80 per cent of practitioners were paid less than the living wage.
Of course, public funding accounts for around 33 to 45 per cent of overall income for private childcare services, the majority of which also provide private services, so there are bigger issues that need to be addressed. We will continue to engage with those in the sector, and we have a determination to do so.
With energy bills and inflation skyrocketing, unchecked by the United Kingdom Tory Government, thousands of parents are having to resort to skipping meals to ensure that their children can get fed. As more and more young families struggle to stay afloat through the cost of living crisis, what further action is the Scottish Government taking to help new parents make ends meet, so that neither they nor their children need to go hungry?
I call the First Minister, but I remind members of the need to ensure that supplementaries reflect the substantive question.
The member raises a really important issue. The difficulties that people are having feeding their children right now is perhaps one of the most important issues that any politician and any Government has to address.
The expansion of free childcare is very relevant here. It is worth up to almost £5,000—£4,900—each year for eligible children, so it is one of the significant interventions that the Government has made. In addition, there are five family benefits, including the Scottish child payment, which is now £20 per week and is set to be extended to under-16s and rise to £25 per week by the end of this year.
The problem is that there is a massive exodus of staff from the private and voluntary sector, because there is no fair funding formula and those nurseries cannot compete with council wages. That has a direct impact on not only the capacity but the flexibility that the First Minister will remember she promised would be available for parents across the country. The situation is stark, so will the First Minister intervene and fix it?
The fact of the matter is that parents across the country have more funded childcare available, and it is available more flexibly. The funding agreement between the Scottish Government and COSLA to support the expansion allowed local authorities to pay sustainable rates. I have recognised, however, the issues that those in the private and voluntary sector are facing, and I have given a commitment that we will continue to engage with them to seek to address those issues.
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will convene an emergency summit on abortion healthcare in response to anti-abortion rights action in Scotland and around the world. (S6F-01094)
Women have the right to access abortion without fear or intimidation. To that end, let me say this again to anyone who wants to protest against abortion: do it outside Parliament. Protesting outside hospitals or sexual health clinics targets women, not lawmakers, and it causes stress and anxiety to those who are accessing healthcare. That, in my view, is deeply wrong.
I strongly support the introduction of buffer zones, and the Government is actively considering how this Parliament can legislate in a way that is effective and capable of withstanding legal challenge. I am also aware that Gillian Mackay might shortly consult on a member’s bill on the issue.
On the latter point about legality, members will be aware that the law on buffer zones that was passed in Northern Ireland has recently been referred to the Supreme Court. The outcome of that might have relevance for any steps that we take here. In the meantime, as we consider and, I hope, resolve issues around national legislation, we will support any local authority that is willing to use byelaws to establish buffer zones.
Finally, I am very happy to convene—indeed, I will personally chair—a round-table summit to discuss buffer zones and any other matters that need to be addressed to ensure safe and timely access to abortion services in Scotland within the current law.
I warmly welcome the First Minister’s agreement to convene an urgent summit, which more than a dozen women’s organisations have called for. I also welcome her personal commitment to chair the talks and to facilitate politicians, campaigners and healthcare experts working together. That is hugely important, and I thank her.
Does the First Minister agree that we must use the forum to actively demonstrate our solidarity with women in America, and around the world, who fear that their legal rights are slipping away, while we also take urgent action to deal with the challenges facing people who access and provide abortion healthcare in Scotland?
Although it is the case that operational policing matters are for Police Scotland, does the First Minister agree that it is important that any member of the public who experiences harassment or intimidation when seeking to access or provide such healthcare must feel confident that if they come forward to the police with complaints, those will be properly investigated?
I agree with all that Monica Lennon has said. I will address each of her points briefly.
First, I agree that it is important to show solidarity on such issues. The attack on abortion rights that we are seeing—chiefly in the United States, as a result of the concern about the overturning of Roe v Wade, but also in other countries—is deeply concerning. Let us call it what it is: an attack on the right of women to control our own bodies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and that those of us who hold that view have a duty to show solidarity with those in other parts of the world where that right is coming under most significant attack.
On police powers, of course those are operational matters for the police. It would be wrong for me to say how the police should use those powers, but there are powers under antisocial behaviour legislation that are there for the police, should they judge that it is appropriate to use them.
Finally, everybody, without exception, should have the right to access healthcare without fear and intimidation. That applies to any woman—no woman does this lightly—who is seeking to access abortion services completely within the law. I say again to those who want to protest: in a democracy there is absolutely a right to protest, but come to Parliament and protest against lawmakers. Do not cause women to feel fear, anxiety and intimidation.
If there is going to be a summit on abortion healthcare, will the 24-week limit be under review? Science and medicine have moved on since 1990 and many children are surviving at 23 weeks.
No—that would not be on the agenda of the summit that I have agreed to convene. I do not support a reduction in the current time limit for abortion. On the contrary, the challenge in Scotland is to ensure that women—and I repeat that this is something that no woman does lightly—who need to access that right can do so in a safe and timely manner.
As we have heard, the First Minister will be aware of the loud protest outside the Sandyford clinic in Glasgow yesterday. Not only do such protests intimidate many of the people who use those services, but clinicians have contacted me to say that the protest forced the clinic to close particular rooms on one side of the building, due to the amplification system that the protesters were using. As part of the summit that the First Minister has just committed to, will she ensure that clinical and trade union representatives are present, as well as patients’ representatives, to ensure that clinicians are not subject to harassment when they are simply doing their jobs?
I will give that commitment. I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to Gillian Mackay for the work that she has done on the issue. I hope that she will agree to take part in the summit that we are talking about.
Even if the Sandyford clinic was providing only abortion services, the protests outside it would, in my view, be wrong because they cause women to feel intimidation and anxiety. However, a range of sexual health services are provided by the Sandyford clinic. The last thing that anybody should be doing is making it harder for people to access those services and clinicians to go about the jobs that they do.
I appeal again to those who want to protest. Let me underline this point: it is a right in a democracy to protest—I am not questioning that in any way, shape or form—but the place to protest is where the laws are made. The people to protest to are us—parliamentarians and lawmakers. Allow people to exercise the right to access healthcare in the way that we all have a right to do, without any fear and intimidation and without added stress and anxiety; that is the decent thing to do.
That concludes First Minister’s question time.