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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 13, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 13 December 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, General Practitioner Out-of-hours Facility (St Andrews), UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill (United Kingdom Supreme Court Judgment), Demonstrating Leadership in Human Rights, Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Commission (Scotland) Bill: Final Stage, Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Commission (Scotland) Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Block Grant

Yesterday, Derek Mackay once again complained about the United Kingdom Government’s block grant for Scotland next year. Other than our Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, who in Scotland is claiming that the amount of money that he receives from Westminster will go down next year?

In my experience, people the length and breadth of Scotland are complaining about Tory austerity and Tory cuts to the budget of this Government. Most of the money that Jackson Carlaw claims is extra in the Scottish budget is for the national health service, which we more than pass on to the NHS. [Interruption.] Jackson Carlaw might want to listen to this. Most of the rest comes from a capital uplift relating to changes in how Network Rail is funded. It does not translate into any additional investment whatever.

As Derek Mackay set out in Parliament yesterday, the facts are these. The money that is available to us for everything other than health is down by £340 million—1.3 per cent in real terms—in just this year, and, over the decade, Tory austerity has taken £2 billion out of this Government’s budget, which is 7 per cent in real terms. When we consider that Derek Mackay managed a £750 million pound increase for the national health service, real-terms protection for local government and the education portfolio and more spending on the limited areas of welfare that we are responsible for than we inherited from the UK Government, I think that Derek Mackay has done a very good job indeed.

Once again, there were nice excerpts from the First Minister’s big book of Voldemort’s excuses but there was no answer to the question that I put. The Fraser of Allander institute says that the block grant is going up, the Scottish Fiscal Commission says that it is going up and the Scottish Parliament information centre says that it is going up. It is a pity that, typically, the First Minister refuses to acknowledge that. Even her own budget document shows that it is going up by more than £500 million, so let us give her another chance. In a further boast yesterday, Mr Mackay claimed that 99 per cent of Scotland’s taxpayers will pay less tax next year than this year. Will the First Minister tell us who is most responsible for that welcome tax cut: is it Derek Mackay or Philip Hammond?

I am sorry to disappoint Jackson Carlaw. I did not have to go even to page 1 of my big book, because his questions were not that testing for me. Even now, I will not have to open it. The fact of the matter is not just that 99 per cent of taxpayers in Scotland will pay less tax next year than they have paid this year, but that, due to the decisions of Derek Mackay, 55 per cent of taxpayers in Scotland will pay less tax than their counterparts in the rest of the UK, making Scotland the fairest-taxed part of the UK.

What is really irritating Jackson Carlaw today is that we have chosen not to give a tax cut to higher-rate taxpayers like him. We have not increased tax for higher-rate taxpayers; we have just chosen not to reduce it. I know that Jackson Carlaw wants us to match the tax cut for higher-rate taxpayers in the rest of the UK, so I offer him this invitation again, which he did not take up last week—maybe he will do so now. If we were to do that it would cost £500 million. When he replied to Derek Mackay yesterday, Murdo Fraser, whom I cannot immediately see because he is probably hiding at the back—

I am here.

Not only did Murdo Fraser call for us to spend an extra £500 million on cutting tax for higher-rate taxpayers; he also seemed to call for us to spend an extra £1 billion on local government. Will Jackson Carlaw explain to me, right now, where in the budget he wants us to take the money from? Is it from health? Is it from education? Is it from local government? I am waiting with bated breath for the answer to that question.

I am here to ask the questions, but let us turn to that point. “Scotland’s Economic and Fiscal Forecasts December 2018” states that the SFC expects Derek Mackay’s decisions yesterday

“to start to have an effect on tax residency decisions.”

The First Minister cannot tax people who are not coming to Scotland to be taxed. Unless she starts to ensure that residency decisions are taken by the people we need in our hospitals to fill consultancy vacancies, and unless she starts to take decisions that affect the number of employers we have, she will not have higher-rate taxpayers here that she can continue to tax as she currently does.

Let us return to my line of questioning. I have asked two questions and I have failed to get two answers. The answer, of course, is that it is Mr Hammond who has reduced taxation. According to the Scottish Government’s own figures, from April next year, a household with an income of £15,000 a year will get a tax cut of £130.49. However, £130 of that much-deserved tax break is the result of the decision by the United Kingdom Government to increase the tax-free personal allowance. How much of that tax break will be down to the Scottish Government’s budget, which was announced yesterday? All of 49p. That is the real difference between the parties in government—a £130 tax cut for low-paid workers delivered by the Conservatives while the Scottish National Party gives them the price of a packet of crisps.

Let me give the First Minister one last chance to see whether she can be straight with people today. Mr Mackay boasted yesterday that, in 2018, the economy was predicted to grow at a faster rate in Scotland than in the UK as a whole. That is great news if it is true. However, according to the Scottish Fiscal Commission, in how many of the following years is that predicted to be the case?

It is already growing faster this year than the economy in the rest of the UK is, and that was not predicted a year or so ago, so I am not entirely sure that Jackson Carlaw’s question in that regard takes him very far.

Let me return to some of his other questions. He talks a lot about the personal allowance, but I gently remind Jackson Carlaw that the personal allowance is reserved to the UK Government, which opposes its devolution. He also talks about behavioural impacts. If he read the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s reports a bit more closely, he would see that the numbers fully take account of any predicted behavioural impact. Even taking account of that, Derek Mackay’s decision to freeze the higher-rate threshold rather than increase it with inflation raises £68 million in the next financial year. If Jackson Carlaw does not want us to do that, he has to tell us where that £68 million should come from, and if he wants us to go further and match Philip Hammond’s tax cut, he has to tell us where the £500 million is going to come from.

Since he likes comparisons, let me give him a few. Yesterday, Murdo Fraser talked about public sector workers, so let me give Jackson Carlaw a few illustrations of the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK. These illustrations take account of the Scottish Government’s tax plans and the Scottish Government’s pay policy. An NHS porter at the top of agenda for change band 2 will be £800 better off in Scotland than if they worked in NHS England. A radiographer will be £380 better off in Scotland. A new-start police officer will be £4,500 better off in Scotland. A police constable at the top of their scale will be £1,200 better off in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. For our final illustration, let us take a paramedic who is working hard in our ambulance service; they will be £400 better off in Scotland than if they worked in the rest of the UK.

So, the budget is a good deal. Of course, all of that does not even take account of the fact that the children of someone who lives and works in Scotland do not have to pay £9,000 a year to go to university, and their elderly relative does not have to pay for personal care. Taxpayers in Scotland, whatever they earn, get a far better deal under this Government. Long may that continue.

It is so long since I asked my question that I will remind members what it was. I asked the First Minister in how many of the coming years the Scottish Fiscal Commission predicts that economic growth will be greater in Scotland. The First Minister did not answer that question because the answer is none. The Scottish Fiscal Commission predicts that, in every year from 2019 until 2023, Scotland’s growth rate will be lower than that of the UK as a whole. Scotland is in the slow lane with the SNP.

It is no surprise that we do not get answers from the First Minister, as she simply prefers to shout abuse from the sidelines. This week, she stoked up her indignation to berate the Prime Minister. That is the same First Minister who, for the past year and a half, has dangled Scotland on a thread as she has danced and dodged around her deeply divisive second independence referendum. Double standards and hypocrisy—are they not the hallmarks of this SNP Government?

Embarrassingly for Jackson Carlaw, he talks about people shouting abuse when Tory MPs have spent the week shouting abuse at each other while they plunge the entire country into chaos and crisis.

However, let me go back to the gross domestic product figures and the performance of Scotland’s economy. The point that I made about Jackson Carlaw’s questions on forecast GDP growth is that, if we wind the clock back, we see that the figures did not predict that our economy would grow faster than the UK’s in this year, yet it is growing faster than the UK’s in this year. Scotland’s GDP outperformed that of the UK in the first six months of this year. Scotland’s unemployment rate is the lowest on record and is lower than that in any of the other UK nations. Scotland’s exports are increasing faster than the increase in any other UK nation. And, of course, we continue to be the best part of the UK outside London when it comes to attracting foreign direct investment.

We have an economy that is doing better and a budget that is fairer and that gives a better deal to hard-working people in our public sector and across our private sector. That is what we get with real strong and stable Government in Scotland with the SNP. What a welcome contrast that is to the utter shambles that the Tories are presiding over at Westminster.

Before we turn to question 2, I just say that the opening exchange took 12 and a half minutes, which is too long. I expect succinct questions and answers from now on.

Two-Child Benefits Cap (Mitigation)

Yesterday, Derek Mackay said that the Scottish Government will continue to “mitigate the worst impacts” of the Tory Government’s social security cuts. Is the two-child cap on tax credits and universal credit not one of the worst impacts?

As Richard Leonard knows, the Government does everything that it can to mitigate United Kingdom welfare cuts, and we spend in the region of £100 million every year to do that. The fact that we cannot mitigate every cut is not because of a lack of political will; it is a fact of basic arithmetic. We do not hold the budget for reserved areas of welfare, so every penny of mitigation has to come from another area of our responsibilities. As the United Nations special rapporteur on poverty said just a few weeks ago:

“Devolved administrations have tried to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity ... But mitigation comes at a price and is not sustainable.”

I again ask Richard Leonard, if he wants us not simply to mitigate UK Government Tory welfare cuts but to stop them at source, whether he will join me today and ask for all the powers over welfare to be devolved to the Parliament. That is the real answer, so why will Richard Leonard not back it?

Here are the facts: this Parliament has the power to mitigate the two-child cap, and that would immediately benefit 3,780 families across Scotland, some by more than £2,500 per child per year.

The urgent issue for those families is not which Parliament sets social security policy, but whether their kids go to bed hungry tonight and whether they can clothe them tomorrow morning. It would cost only 0.2 per cent of the Scottish budget to deliver, so why will the First Minister not act?

I am going to make a genuine offer to Richard Leonard, and I hope that it is one that he will take seriously. When Derek Mackay set out the budget yesterday, he fully allocated all the resources that are at the Scottish Government’s disposal. I know that Labour thought that we kept £300 million in a reserve, but it misread the budget; we had taken £300 million out of reserve to spend on public services. So, we have used our tax powers and we have allocated all the resources that are at our disposal. We have chosen to invest in the health service, education, local government and welfare.

Of course, there are many other things that I would love to have the money to do. If Richard Leonard wants us to spend money on other things, he has to come to us. We will help him to cost those things, because we know from comments from his colleagues this week that Labour has difficult in costing its proposals. Once they are costed, if he wants to have any credibility and to be taken seriously, he has to tell us where he wants that money to come from in the draft budget. Is from heath investment? Is it from local government? Is it from other areas of welfare? That is an offer to Richard Leonard. If he tells us, we will listen seriously. Let us see if Labour is prepared to step up to the plate.

Derek Mackay said yesterday that the choice is between either reducing public services or taxing more of the lowest earners. What about taxing more of the highest earners? In the end, the issue comes down to what this Parliament was created for in the first place. It should be a platform to lift people out of poverty.

There is precedent for that. In 2014, this Parliament came together to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax in Scotland. The SNP said then that it could not be done and that it did not want to let Westminster off the hook. This is about lifting children out of poverty, not letting the Tories off the hook, so why does the First Minister not do that?

As we heard in the exchange that I just had with Jackson Carlaw, we are already asking higher-rate tax payers in Scotland to pay a bit more than they would if they lived elsewhere in the UK. That is fair and reasonable.

What about the top earners?

I hear a member asking about top earners. We have raised the top rate, but all the assessment and modelling suggests that, because of behavioural changes, if we were to raise it further that could lose us revenue. Even if Richard Leonard does not agree with that—[Interruption.] This is a serious budget point. Even if Richard Leonard does not agree with that—even if I do not agree with that—if that is what the Scottish Fiscal Commission says, we do not have that money to spend. Anybody who knows anything about budgeting must know that.

Of course, as a source from Labour said this week, it does not even have a plan.

“At least when we had a plan, ridiculous as it was, we had a plan ... Now we have nothing. It’s a shambles.”

That comes from Labour’s own benches.

I will make the offer again. We have some weeks before Parliament has to decide on the budget. I would love to do what Richard Leonard is suggesting on the two-child cap. I am making a serious offer here. If Richard Leonard and his finance spokesperson come to me and Derek Mackay and say, “We think that you should take the money from this or that area of the budget,” I will listen. The offer is there for Richard Leonard. We have allocated all the money in the budget. If he wants to spend more, he has to tell us how much his tax proposals will cost. We heard this week that Labour does not have a tax plan. I say again, let us see whether Labour is going to step up to the plate over the next few weeks.

We have a number of supplementaries, the first of which is from Willie Coffey.

European Union Citizens (Access to Benefits)

I have recently been contacted by my constituent Laura Nani, a European Union citizen who has lived in Scotland for more than 30 years. Although Laura has lived in Scotland for all her working life, the Department for Work and Pensions has determined that she has no right to reside in the United Kingdom. What can the First Minister and the Scottish Government do to help European Union citizens who are residing in Scotland who have wrongfully been denied universal credit through the habitual residency test?

The case that Willie Coffey has raised is shameful. The right to reside test is applied to low-income benefits that are reserved to the UK Government. It is a complex barrier for EU nationals whom the UK Government deems “economically inactive”. The European Commission has described the test as:

“direct discrimination based on nationality”.

I advise the chamber that we are taking a more humane approach through our new best start grants, because the Scottish system is defined by dignity, fairness and respect. We value EU nationals and we will not subject them to needless stress, anxiety and financial hardship. EU nationals who are in Laura’s position might be eligible for support from the Scottish welfare fund.

The UK system is increasingly known for two things: inhumanity and incorrect decisions. Therefore, I advise Laura to seek independent advice on whether there is a case for appeal. I encourage members across the chamber to continue to press the UK Government to scrap universal credit and to have an overall welfare policy that is based on dignity, respect and—above all else—humanity, because the current system is definitely not.

Ferry Services (Gourock to Dunoon)

In a written answer that was published yesterday, the Government made no mention of any new vessels for the Gourock to Dunoon ferry service. Indeed, no attempt was made to give any assurance to long-suffering passengers that they might have any prospect of receiving an adequate service. Passengers have had to put up with a record level of cancellations and repeated delays on the route. When will the Scottish Government provide a decent service on the route?

The Scottish Government is committed to providing not just decent but good services on all our ferry routes, including Dunoon to Gourock. In my previous ministerial roles, I was closely involved with the Dunoon to Gourock ferry service. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity to write to the member specifically on the current situation, and I am sure that he would be happy to meet the member and constituents to discuss fully any of their concerns.

Gemini Rail Services UK (Springburn Site Closure)

Yesterday, news broke that Gemini Rail Services UK plans to close its Springburn site, with the loss of up to 200 jobs in my constituency. That is a devastating blow for the workforce, our communities and our proud locomotive industry, with the St Rollox site dating back to 1856. I have spoken to Unite and to the company that leased the site to Gemini Rail. Although there is anger and concern, there is also determination, both to save jobs and that the site will have a future.

Will the First Minister commit to bringing together all relevant parties, including Gemini Rail, trade unions and Scottish Enterprise, so that we do all that we can to secure the future of as many jobs as possible at that historic site? Previously, the Scottish Government has shown strong willingness to act in such circumstances. Will it act now—not just for the workers and my constituents but for the strategic interests of the Scottish economy?

I thank Bob Doris for raising the issue. Yes, I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity to bring together all interested parties in the way that Bob Doris described. The Scottish Government learned of the development only through the media, and I am extremely disappointed that that was the case. Officials met the new owners last week, but no reference was made to any immediate plans to make such an announcement.

The Scottish Government will continue to engage constructively with the owners in the interests of the affected staff and in the interests of the overall Scottish economy. We are committed to supporting rail services, and we have made record investment in rail in recent years. The market for the refurbishment of older rolling stock is challenging, but there remain opportunities to bid for future work. I will ask the transport secretary to convene a meeting of interested parties, and, of course, to ask Bob Doris to be part of those discussions.

Aberdeen City Region Deal (Rail Improvements)

It has emerged that the £218 million from the Aberdeen city region deal that was to be used to slash train journey times to the central belt by 20 minutes will cut times by only two minutes. The money will certainly not dual track the Usan junction, on which the Scottish National Party first made a promise to the north-east in 2008—a promise that it reheated in 2016. What reassurances can the First Minister give that the 20-minutes claim was sufficiently evidenced in advance, and that the city region deal funding will generate real improvements for rail customers in Aberdeen?

At the risk of keeping the transport secretary very busy, I will ask him to write to the member on the specifics of the evidence behind the 20-minutes issue.

On the overall question, we are committed to ensuring continuing improvement for rail passengers in every part of the country. As Derek Mackay made clear in the budget statement yesterday, we are also committed to city region deals—and not just to the current deals, but to the roll-out of such deals across other parts of the country. City region deals offer huge potential for improvements, not just in transport, but in other areas of the economy.

Pilton Community Health Project (Funding)

In the budget statement yesterday, it was stated that investment in social care and integration will increase to more than £700 million next year. Last Thursday, the Pilton Community Health Project in north Edinburgh was told that its funding would be cut at tomorrow’s meeting of the Edinburgh integration joint board. Folk have worked at Pilton Community Health Project, which is Scotland’s oldest community health project, to tackle social isolation and reduce health inequalities in one of the country’s most deprived areas. The project’s 40 staff risk losing their jobs. In light of yesterday’s budget statement, what support can the Scottish Government provide to ensure that that funding decision is reconsidered?

I thank Andy Wightman for raising the issue. The decision is a local one, although I understand the concern that has been raised about Pilton Community Health Project. As I understand it, the Edinburgh integration joint board will consider the recommendations of its health and social care grants programme steering group on 14 December and will make a decision on future funding of all the projects that have applied. I hope that Andy Wightman accepts that, in those circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an individual application until after that meeting has taken place. I will ask the health secretary to update him once things have progressed further.

Amanda Cox

The First Minister will be aware of the tragic death of my constituent, Amanda Cox, who, after having given birth to a premature son and visiting him in the special baby unit at the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh on Monday, became disorientated and went missing for seven hours. It was not until after 10pm that she was found, seriously ill, in a disused part of the hospital. She died shortly afterwards. It is a dreadful tragedy for the family, and a small child has been left without a mother.

An internal inquiry is under way and the procurator fiscal has issued a report. However, this morning, I heard from Amanda Cox’s husband, Michael, that the hospital administration has requested a meeting with him to discuss a “review of processes”. The man is grieving and traumatised. Such a request is highly inappropriate and looks like face saving.

Will the First Minister ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport keeps a very close watching brief on the matter? In the meantime, will the First Minister confirm that none of our hospitals has processes that would let people down in such a tragic manner?

My thoughts and sympathies are very much with Amanda Cox’s family at this extremely sad time. It is an absolutely tragic situation. Our thoughts are with all her family, particularly her husband and her little boy, who remains in hospital.

NHS Lothian is assisting the police with the investigation into the circumstances of this tragic case. In addition to the police investigation, the board urgently wants to review the care that Amanda received to ensure that all appropriate lessons are learned. I know that the board is in close contact with Amanda’s family to ensure that they are kept informed while the review is carried out. However, Christine Grahame is absolutely right to say that such contact must be handled appropriately and sensitively, given that Amanda’s husband in particular is grieving deeply at this time.

I will communicate the concerns that Christine Grahame has raised to NHS Lothian, whose staff are also very distressed by the tragic circumstances that have unfolded, as I am sure everyone understands.

The health secretary will keep a close watch on developments and I am sure that she will be happy to discuss the matter with Christine Grahame as more facts, information and understanding of what happened come to light.

In the meantime, I am sure that all members will want Amanda’s family to know that our thoughts are with them at this impossibly difficult time.

Carbon Dynamic (Administration)

The First Minister will be aware that, last week, we received the news that yet another business in Ross-shire, Carbon Dynamic, has gone into administration. Will the First Minister outline what help and support the Scottish Government can give the 40 staff who have been made redundant, and what help it can give to efforts to find a buyer for the business, which still has a healthy order book?

I thank Gail Ross for raising the situation. I am aware of the position at Carbon Dynamic—the full name of the company is CLDB Ltd—and I know that this will be an extremely anxious time for the staff who work at the company, their families and the whole community. Obviously, the individuals who are affected by the announcement are our immediate priority and we recognise the important role that they play in the economy. We will do everything in our power to help those affected.

The partnership action for continuing employment team has already been in contact with KPMG to offer support to affected employees. On Friday of last week, KPMG issued redundancy guides and information about support to all employees, and it will continue to provide skills development and employability support. The economy secretary will be happy to talk to and meet Gail Ross to see whether the Scottish Government can bring further assistance to bear.

Draft Budget 2019-20

Yesterday, the Scottish Government’s finance secretary claimed that he was providing a “real-terms increase” of more than £200 million to local services around the country, such as the service that was mentioned by my colleague, Andy Wightman. However, once again, that claim ignores the fact that the Scottish Government is forcing councils to use their resources to fund Scottish Government policies.

Within hours of the budget being published, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities shared its analysis, which showed that the reality was a more than £175 million cut. A few hours later, when COSLA had seen through some of the Scottish Government’s sleight of hand, it revised its analysis and said that it was a £200 million cut. Later, the Scottish Parliament’s independent research unit—whose impartial work sometimes shows the truth as being somewhere between what the Scottish Government and local government say—produced more detailed work, which said that the truth is a more than £300 million cut to local services.

Councils around the country are now being forced to look at cuts to schools, social care, parks and libraries—where does the First Minister think that those cuts should fall?

I thank Patrick Harvie for raising the issue. The settlement that was outlined by Derek Mackay yesterday delivers a real-terms increase in both revenue and capital funding to local councils. That is before we take account of councils’ own ability to raise revenue through the council tax.

Yes, that includes funding that the Scottish Government has made available to increase childcare—£210 million in revenue. Yes, it includes a transfer from health to help to fund social care. Those are all important priorities and it is absolutely right that the Scottish Government and local councils work together to ensure the delivery of those priorities.

However, I will make the same offer to Patrick Harvie that I made to Richard Leonard. On past form, Patrick Harvie will be more likely to step up to the plate on this than Richard Leonard will be. We have allocated all the resources at our disposal in this budget. I would like to do more for local government and health in a whole range of different areas. However, if Opposition parties want extra spending in some areas of the budget, they have a duty to say what areas of the budget they think that money should come from. We are happy to have those constructive discussions. As I said, I think that we are probably more likely to have them with Patrick Harvie and his colleagues than with other parties in the chamber. Nonetheless, they have to be hard-headed discussions, because we cannot create money out of nowhere. I look forward to having those discussions in the weeks to come.

I have not for a moment suggested that the new national policies are bad or inappropriate—they are important. However, if they are national policies, they should be funded from national resources and not from a raid on council budgets. Nor was there a word in the statement yesterday about fairer local taxation. There was nothing about genuine steps towards a replacement for the broken, unfair council tax—which the Scottish Government claims that it wants to end—and nothing about new ideas to help councils to raise money in new ways to fund the services that are needed.

The Scottish Government keeps saying that it is open to dialogue on those issues, but we have been trying to have that dialogue, on the basis of detailed proposals, since the end of the last budget process at the start of this year. The question is not who is going to step up and have dialogue; the question is when we will hear a response from the Scottish Government. When will it show any hint of urgency or leadership, even in making its own policy on council tax a reality?

I will answer the question in two parts. First, on the spending decisions that we have made in the budget and the national priorities, we have given extra money to local government to meet the costs of those priorities. As far as spending is concerned—this is simply a statement of fact—if any Opposition party wants us to spend more in a particular area, it has to tell us where it thinks that we should spend less. It is a simple matter of arithmetic.

Secondly, on the issue of local tax reform, we set out yesterday our tax and spending decisions, as is appropriate when we publish the draft budget. I know that there have already been discussions between Patrick Harvie and his colleagues and the finance secretary about tax reform, and Derek Mackay is keeping me updated on that. We expect those discussions to continue, and I very much hope that we can come to an agreement that sees a commitment made to local tax reform and a greater commitment to the devolution of tax powers to local authorities. There is a willingness to do that, and I am sure that, as is normal, we will have between now and the final votes on the budget lots of very productive discussions—or at least what I hope will be productive discussions.

Institute for Statecraft

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator states that an organisation cannot continue to be a charity if

“it is set up to be or advance a political party”


“its governing document allows it to use its assets ... for non charitable purposes”.

Does the First Minister believe that the Institute for Statecraft, based in Fife, should continue to be registered as a charity with OSCR, given the revelations this week that it has been engaged in partisan political activity?

I was concerned about the revelations published in the Sunday Mail on Sunday involving alleged actions of the Foreign Office. It is not for me to investigate their veracity or otherwise, but it was certainly, on the face of it, a concerning report, and I hope that there will be a full investigation and full answers to the questions that people will rightly and understandably have.

On the question whether an organisation is a charity as far as OSCR is concerned, I absolutely understand the sentiment behind Neil Findlay’s question and why he is asking me it, but I know that he will appreciate that OSCR takes these decisions independently—and rightly so. I am sure that OSCR keeps the charitable status of a range of organisations under review if concerns are raised about them. If, as he clearly and understandably does, Mr Findlay has concerns about this issue, I encourage him to raise those concerns directly with OSCR.

Road Traffic Accidents (Drink-driving Limit)

As reported in The Lancet this morning, road traffic accidents in Scotland have increased by 7 per cent since the introduction in 2014 of the Scottish Government’s lower alcohol limits for drivers. Is that a direct result of yet another failed Scottish National Party Government policy?

As I recall, when the Parliament decided to lower the drink-driving limit, it did so unanimously. Obviously, that must mean that the Conservatives supported the move, and I give them credit for doing so. However, it cannot reasonably be said that road traffic accidents are increasing because we have cut the drink-driving limit. That makes no sense.

I say in all seriousness that, now that we are in the festive season—we should do this all year round, but particularly at this time of year—the unanimous message that should come from all of us to everybody across Scotland is: do not drink and drive. I find it deeply regrettable that today, as we go into the Christmas period, we have a Conservative MSP standing up and somehow seeming to suggest that lowering the drink-driving limit was a bad thing to do. I hope that he will reflect very seriously on the question that he has just asked.

Best Start Grant

To ask the First Minister what progress the Scottish Government is making in delivering the best start grant. (S5F-02884)

I am pleased to say that we are now delivering the best start grant pregnancy and baby payment. By the end of the first day, which was Monday, more than 4,000 claims had been submitted, which was an exceptional response and an important moment for Social Security Scotland. The payment will provide £600 on the birth of a first child, which is £100 more than the United Kingdom system that it is replacing. The first payments will be made before Christmas, as promised, and will begin to reach bank accounts next week.

We have also extended eligibility and the application window. Moreover, unlike the Department for Work and Pensions system, we will not put a cap on children and there will be a £300 payment for second and subsequent children. As the very significant number of claims submitted in the first days shows, our work to encourage take-up of this benefit for low-income families is paying off, and I am delighted that we are using our new social security powers to provide improved financial support to all children of low-income families.

I am delighted to hear that so many people have applied for the new Scottish Government benefit. It will greatly help many of my constituents in Motherwell and Wishaw. Does the First Minister agree that the best start grant is another example that clearly demonstrates that the Scottish National Party Government believes that social security exists as a safety net that supports people who are on low incomes and encourages the take-up of benefits, which is in sharp contrast to the shameful othering of people who are on benefits that is perpetrated by the Conservative Government?

Yes, I agree with that. The fantastic response to the best start grant is a clear sign that people know that Scottish social security will be different from the current United Kingdom system. We see social security as an investment in our people and we are doing all that we can to ensure that people get the financial support to which they are entitled, which includes encouraging them to apply for the new benefit. Our communication alongside that of stakeholders is focused on new parents and, importantly, families who would not have received a UK sure start maternity grant for their child because the child was not the first born. Those families know that they can be supported by our best start grant, so we expect that a significant proportion of applications will be for second children. That is important because this Government is determined to give all children the very best start in life.

Mental Health (Teachers)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to a recent survey which suggests that 51 per cent of teachers believe that their job has a detrimental impact on their mental health. (S5F-02876)

We recognise the pressures and challenges that teachers face, such as those that have been highlighted by the Mental Health Foundation Scotland. That is why we have taken action to reduce teacher workloads, to clarify and simplify the curriculum framework and to remove unnecessary bureaucracy. We also continue to take forward a range of actions to support the mental health of both teachers and children and young people, including delivering specific resources for mental health education to teachers across Scotland and providing mental health first aid training for schools.

It is clear from the survey that was carried out by the Mental Health Foundation Scotland that teachers are under immense pressure, with seven out of 10 saying that they lack the skills to support pupils who have mental health problems. On top of that, the total number of teachers has reduced by more than 3,000 since the Scottish National Party came to power, which has resulted in additional workload and pressures, with serious implications for teachers’ wellbeing. I welcome the commitment to have counsellors and mental health nurses in schools, but when will we see a delivery plan for counselling and mental health training in schools, which I have called for repeatedly, and what action will be taken to drastically improve the position with current vacancies?

The most recent statistics, which were published on Tuesday, show that teacher numbers this year are up by 447 on the previous year. There are now more teachers working in our schools than at any time since 2010 and primary teacher numbers are at the highest level since 1980—when I was still at primary school. Teacher numbers are rising. Since I became First Minister, the number of teachers in Scotland has increased by more than 1,200. Of course, teachers still work under significant pressure. One of the pressures on teachers is dealing with young people who have mental health issues. That is why we have announced the plans to put more counsellors into schools and to improve training for teachers. All of us need to become more mental health aware. The Minister for Mental Health will set out further details of that, including the timeline, soon and I hope that the whole Parliament will get behind those measures.

Fuel Poverty

To ask the First Minister how many people will be taken out of fuel poverty in 2018-19. (S5F-02889)

The national measurement of fuel poverty is based on the annual Scottish house condition survey, so the 2018 rate will not be published until December 2019. The most up-to-date statistics that we have for 2017 show that, since 2013, fuel poverty has reduced by 11 percentage points, from 36 per cent to 25 per cent, which is a reduction of almost 250,000 households. Despite fuel poverty levels being at their lowest since 2005, it is unacceptable that around 25 per cent of households are still in fuel poverty, which is why we are taking action on energy efficiency and fuel poverty. By the end of 2021, we will have committed more than £1 billion since 2009 to make homes warmer and to lower fuel bills. Over 120,000 homes have benefited through our home energy efficiency programmes since 2013.

More than one in four people in Scotland live in fuel poverty. For an energy-rich country, that is a national scandal. In that context, the First Minister’s target of ending fuel poverty by 2040 is deeply unambitious. More than a decade ago, Energy Action Scotland told the Scottish Government that it needed to spend £200 million a year if it was serious about wanting to end fuel poverty. However, the budget provides only about half of that amount, and £30 million of that is financial transaction funding, which requires to be repaid.

As we face the prospect of a very cold winter, will the First Minister adopt a greater degree of urgency, bring forward the date by which fuel poverty will end in Scotland, and stop the scandal of older people having to choose between eating and heating?

There is urgency on the part of the Scottish Government. I repeat that, between 2014 and 2017, the fuel poverty rate reduced and almost 250,000 households moved out of fuel poverty. That is not enough; I do not want to live in a country where 25 per cent of households live in fuel poverty. That is why we have set ambitious but deliverable targets. As well as the 2040 targets, our route map outlines minimum standards for the private rented sector from April 2020, which will be the first time that the private rented sector has been regulated. Next year, we will introduce regulations for all PRS properties to reach energy efficiency band D by April 2025. We have consulted on increasing that standard to require band C by 2030 and we will confirm the next steps on that measure next year. We are determined to take the necessary action.

On Ms Baillie’s funding point, I will make the same point that I have made repeatedly today. As we move into the next stages of the budget, if any member of the Parliament wants us to spend more on particular areas, we will listen. We will be constructive and we will listen to all ideas, but they must come with suggestions of where—in our fully allocated draft budget—that money would come from. I look forward to hearing those proposals in due course.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. Last week, I appealed to members for short questions and succinct answers. I appealed again this week, but I do not think that members are listening. I have spoken to business managers and I have written to ministers and members. I will not become overly interventionist overnight, but unless the questions and answers are short and succinct, I will cut members off and make sure that we get through more members and more questions. Please listen to my advice.

12:48 Meeting suspended.  

12:50 On resuming—