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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 14, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 14 March 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Longhope Lifeboat Disaster (50th Anniversary), Portfolio Question Time, Brexit (Impact on Further and Higher Education), Space Nation, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Point of Order, Decision Time, Correction


First Minister’s Question Time


Those who are calling for the Prime Minister’s deal to be supported include NFU Scotland, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Scotch Whisky Association, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the Confederation of British Industry. Are they traitors, too?

First, the Prime Minister’s deal is a bad deal. It is a bad deal for the United Kingdom and certainly a bad deal for Scotland. Let me just recap: it would take Scotland out of the European Union against our will, out of the single market and out of the customs union, with no clarity about the future relationship with the EU. I do not think that any MP with the best interests of Scotland at heart should vote for that proposition. However, I say gently to Jackson Carlaw that, even if every single Scottish National Party MP had voted for the deal earlier in the week, it would still have been heavily defeated, because the Prime Minister failed to persuade so many on her own side; indeed, she is failing to persuade those in her own Cabinet.

Jackson Carlaw mentioned NFU Scotland. Yesterday, NFU Scotland said that the tariff schedule that was published by the UK Government

“undermines the food security of the UK.”

What an appalling set of circumstances. It also wrote to every Scottish MP urging them to take no deal off the table. Perhaps Jackson Carlaw would therefore like to explain to the chamber and to the public today why, with just one exception—and I am not talking about David Mundell—none of the Scottish Tory MPs voted in the House of Commons last night to take no deal off the table? That is what was shameful, and perhaps Jackson Carlaw would care to explain it.

On Tuesday, the SNP cabinet secretary Michael Russell, who is sitting just next to the First Minister, accused those who backed the Prime Minister’s deal of being traitors to Scotland. As ever, he thought that he was being clever. He hid the accusation behind a hashtag, but that is the charge that he made. Surely the First Minister will disassociate herself from that inflammatory smear? It is telling that she has not done so. However, there is an important point here. There are many of us in Scotland—in politics and outside—who back the Prime Minister’s deal. Will the First Minister at least accept that we think that it is best for our country and that we do so in all good faith?

I am genuinely struggling to believe that Jackson Carlaw has come here to talk about a Twitter hashtag when the Government that is led by his party is in meltdown, is a shambles and is taking this country ever closer to the cliff edge. On the question of the historic ragman roll, he might be interested to know that Robert the Bruce signed it. If David Mundell ever wanted to get any of the spirit of Robert the Bruce, I am sure that all of us would warmly welcome that.

The fact of the matter is that, with the honourable exception of Paul Masterton, every single Scottish Conservative MP chose to put loyalty to the Prime Minister ahead of the interests of the Scottish people. I am afraid that that is a fact. I will give Jackson Carlaw another opportunity to explain why, with one exception, all of them refused last night to vote to take no deal off the table. Businesses such as the one I visited in Glasgow yesterday, the NFU and interests the length and breadth of the country wanted all Scotland’s MPs to take no deal off the table. Why did the Scottish Tories refuse to do that?

I am asking the First Minister to enhance the dignity of her office. She has chosen not to do so. Many joined the business organisations that I mentioned in backing the deal earlier this week because we believe that it is a good deal that offers certainty for business in the country. I respect those who disagree, but they now have a duty to spell out their alternative way forward. The First Minister’s preference is to support a second UK Brexit referendum, but that begs so many more questions. What would be the options? This time when leave or remain wins, shall we make it best of three? How would the delay guarantee people and businesses the certainty that they need and which the First Minister talked about last night. Would she accept the result or, as many of us suspect, is all this just a prelude to another referendum—the one that she really wants?

The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum in Scotland should have been accepted, because Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. That is one of the many areas in which Jackson Carlaw is struggling, not surprisingly given the mess that the Tories are making not just of Brexit but of the entire UK right now. I remind him again that if every single SNP MP had voted for the Prime Minister’s deal on Tuesday night, it would still have gone down to a heavy defeat, because she has not managed to persuade those in her own party, let alone anyone else.

On the question of spelling out a way forward, I spent more than two years suggesting compromise to the Prime Minister—a single market, a customs union—but that was cast aside, ignored and dismissed by the Tory Government, as every vote on the issue in this Parliament has been. The way forward is to put the issue back to the people. Parliament has failed to resolve it, and if Parliament cannot decide, the people should. I think that that is the way forward, and it is a better way than the Prime Minister trying to bully the House of Commons into accepting a bad deal. She should accept defeat, change course and open her mind now to the right way forward.

Not that the First Minister has ever sought to bully the Parliament when she has been defeated on an issue.

We have accepted the result of all referendums; the First Minister has accepted the result of none. The blunt truth is that the she will accept the result of any referendum only if it goes her way. I back a deal that gives our fishing communities the sea of opportunity that they want, a deal that is supported by our whisky industry and would give it frictionless trade across the continent, and a deal that our farmers say would ensure that there are no hard barriers to our biggest market. All those Scottish organisations and many people across Scotland are telling us to back the deal and get this done. Is it not time to respect the result and back an orderly Brexit? The whole country then gets a chance to move on.

I respect the result of the 2016 referendum. Scotland voted to remain in the EU. That is the best outcome for Scotland. If, for once in their lives, the Tories could find it within themselves to stand up for Scotland rather than a beleaguered Prime Minister, they would also recognise that it is the best future for Scotland.

It is frankly deluded for anyone to suggest that there is majority support across Scotland for the Prime Minister’s deal. There is not support for leaving the EU and there is certainly not support for leaving on the basis of such a profoundly bad deal.

The Prime Minister’s deal has been defeated overwhelmingly in the House of Commons, not just once but twice. It is time for her to accept that defeat and open her mind to an alternative way forward. Let us get no deal properly off the table. Let us seek a lengthy extension to allow this issue to go back to the people. If the Conservatives were listening, not to their bosses in Westminster but to majority opinion across Scotland, that is exactly what they would be arguing for. It is to their great discredit that they are failing to do that and are failing Scotland.


Last night, the House of Commons voted to oppose a no-deal Brexit, but, as the law stands, we will still be leaving the European Union on 29 March with no deal. The First Minister and I agree that no deal would be a disaster. For two years, Theresa May has claimed that no deal is better than a bad deal, which is nothing less than a lie. Does the First Minister agree that, despite last night’s vote, no deal remains an immediate and very real danger?

Be careful of your language, Mr Leonard.

Yes, I agree. Richard Leonard is right to point out that, notwithstanding the vote in the House of Commons last night, the legal default is leaving with no deal on 29 March, which is why I think the Government should come forward with a proposition to change the law so that the United Kingdom does not crash out of the EU on 29 March with no deal. I hope that Richard Leonard would support that proposition.

It is important for those who oppose the Prime Minister’s deal and for those of us who oppose Brexit—which I think includes Richard Leonard—to come together to find a better way forward. I ask him—I hope in a constructive spirit—to use his influence with Jeremy Corbyn to get him firmly behind the option of a second EU referendum. If Jeremy Corbyn would come off that fence, that option would become not just the best one but the most likely next step. Will he, perhaps this afternoon, get on the phone to Jeremy Corbyn and ask him at long last to show some leadership on the issue of Brexit?

Mr Leonard, I ask you not to use the word “lie”, even when talking about—particularly when talking about—people outside this chamber.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I remind the chamber that last week, in this Parliament, all parties voted to reject no deal in all circumstances, with the sole exception of the Tories. What does it say about the Tories in here that every one of them, without exception, voted for something that neither the Secretary of State for Scotland nor Jackson Carlaw’s own MP could support last night? The reality is this: without a majority in the Commons for an alternative, no deal remains a threat. Does the First Minister agree that tonight members of Parliament must vote for article 50 to be extended for long enough to allow for a majority in Parliament to be formed in favour of a different approach?

Yes, and Scottish National Party MPs have been tabling amendments to that effect and will vote for exactly that. In fact, it is time for the House of Commons to take control of this out of the hands of the Prime Minister and the Government and make sure that a sensible way forward is found.

I agree whole-heartedly with Richard Leonard about the Scottish Conservatives. He is right to say that this Parliament voted overwhelmingly to reject no deal last week and this Parliament is again being ignored, not just by the UK Government but by Scottish Tory MPs. It is to Paul Masterton’s credit that he did the right thing last night. However, the Secretary of State for Scotland cannot even manage to rebel properly. He pathetically opted for an abstention to save his own job rather than properly standing up for this country, and I think that that is a disgrace.

I say again to Richard Leonard—because on the issue of the way forward, we probably agree more than we disagree—that Jeremy Corbyn surely has to start showing real leadership. Even at this stage, it is not entirely clear to me what would be different about the situation that the UK is in now if Jeremy Corbyn—rather than Theresa May—was leading the Brexit negotiations. The way to break the parliamentary deadlock is to put the issue back to the people. I hope that Richard Leonard will seek to persuade his leader that that is the option that he should back. Then we can build a majority around that and find the right way forward not just for Scotland, but for the whole of the UK.

Jeremy Corbyn has made it clear that the House of Commons has two options: to secure a better deal or take it back to the people. That is the Labour Party position. We know that the House of Commons does not want no deal or Theresa May’s deal, but the Prime Minister is still not listening and she says that she wants to bring her deal back for a third time, even though the deal is dead. Does the First Minister agree that the Prime Minister cannot keep asking the same question until she gets the answer that she wants?

Yes, I agree with that. One of the Tories’ favourite catchphrases is, “We said no and we mean it.” Perhaps they should start applying it to the Prime Minister and the Government in London.

Richard Leonard says that the House of Commons has two options, one of which—according to him—is a better deal. I say to him that there is no good Brexit deal. A Labour Brexit would not be better or less damaging to Scotland than a Tory Brexit. It is Brexit that will do the damage to Scotland, and that is why we should be seeking to honour the vote of the Scottish people and reverse Brexit if we possibly can. I hope that we will be able to put a majority behind a second European Union referendum, so that the people not just in Scotland, but across the UK, knowing everything that they now know about Brexit, can take that opportunity to keep the UK and Scotland where we belong—in the European Union.

Fair Isle Bird Observatory (Fire)

The internationally recognised Fair Isle bird observatory was destroyed by a fire last weekend. Thankfully, no one was injured. Despite the valiant efforts of firefighters from across Shetland and the Fair Isle team that was led by Fiona Mitchell, David and Susannah Parnaby’s home was completely destroyed. Would the First Minister accept that Fair Isle is the kind of island that gets on and wants to move forward, and that its intention is to rebuild the observatory? Will her Government please provide every assistance towards that? Will she also ensure that lessons are learned from the Fair Isle fire for the emergency services that support firefighting efforts on islands where there is no full-time fire cover? Finally, will she recognise that three out of the nine local firefighting team members are French? Those brave women are having to apply to stay on Fair Isle because of the omnishambles that is Brexit.

Before I come to the substantive issue, I agree whole-heartedly with Tavish Scott’s last point. In my view, it is outrageous that any European Union national who has made any part of Scotland their home is having to apply to stay here. Tavish Scott has outlined circumstances that underline how shameful that situation is.

More generally, I thank Tavish Scott for raising the issue. My thoughts are with all those who are connected with the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust at this very sad time—in particular, the warden’s family, who sadly lost their home in the fire. As Tavish Scott said, we must be thankful that there were no casualties.

Incidents like this remind us of the bravery and professionalism of our firefighters. I note Tavish Scott’s point about islands with no full-time fire cover and we will reflect on that. This was a good example of an effective multi-agency response: the coastguard and Shetland Islands Council both assisted firefighters in reaching the scene. Investigations into the cause of the fire are under way, and we must await the outcome of those inquiries. Thankfully, the wealth of bird census data, which has been collected since 1948, is digitised and safely backed up.

Lastly, I acknowledge the efforts of the Fair Isle community, who, I understand, have raised almost £20,000 in crowdfunding support to help the warden’s family get back on their feet. I assure Tavish Scott and his constituents that the Scottish Government today stands ready to do anything that we reasonably can to help in this very tragic situation.

Dallas Family (Asylum Appeal)

My constituents, the Dallas family, have had their appeal for asylum refused. I understand that they fled to the United Kingdom in December 2017, after Mrs Dallas escaped a gun attack in Karachi that was fuelled by a fatwa against her, simply because she did not agree to convert from Christianity to Islam.

It would appear that the Home Office may place an undue weight on local police reports in making such determinations. Does the First Minister share the concern of the European Centre for Law and Justice over police torture of Christians in Pakistan, which makes victims nervous of reporting such incidents? Will the Scottish Government make representations to the UK Home Office asking it to take such concerns into account when cases such as that of the Dallas family are being considered?

I thank Bob Doris for raising that issue. I share the concern of the European Centre for Law and Justice and I strongly condemn—as I am sure everybody in the chamber does—any persecution of people from minority communities. Nobody should ever feel at risk because of their faith or beliefs.

The Scottish Government will always seek to champion human rights and we strongly support international processes such as United Nations scrutiny of individual member states.

Sadly, asylum is reserved to the UK Government and handled by the Home Office. The Scottish Government has consistently urged the Home Office to adopt fair and humane asylum policies and to ensure that full account is taken of all the individual circumstances in every case. We will continue to do that and if there is any assistance that we can offer to the Dallas family, we would be happy to discuss that with Bob Doris.

Fox Hunting (Fife)

I have been inundated this week with messages from constituents who are quite frankly disgusted—absolutely disgusted—by the images appearing on social media of a fox being ripped apart by the dogs of the Fife fox hunt last weekend.

I have a simple question for the First Minister—should dogs ever be used to hunt a fox?

I absolutely understand the distress that people feel at the images that Mark Ruskell refers to. I share that feeling. As Mark Ruskell knows, following Lord Bonomy’s review, the Government has announced proposals for further restrictions on fox hunting and those proposals will now rightly be debated by Parliament. I know that Mark Ruskell and others—including many on my own benches—who feel very strongly about the issue will make sure that they make their views known as the proposals go through Parliament. That is the right way for Parliament to proceed and I look forward to the debates that will follow.

Climbing Tragedy (Ben Nevis)

The First Minister will be aware of the tragic loss of life on Ben Nevis earlier this week, in one of the worst climbing accidents in recent history. Will the First Minister join me in expressing condolences to the families of those who died and in paying tribute to the volunteers of Lochaber and Glencoe mountain rescue teams and the coastguard, who worked so courageously in atrocious conditions to rescue the casualties?

I join Donald Cameron in conveying my deepest condolences to the bereaved and the injured and in expressing my deep gratitude, which is echoed, I am sure, across the chamber, to our emergency services, to those in our mountain rescue teams and to the coastguard—to all those people who put their own lives on the line trying to rescue people who get into trouble on our mountains. It is hard to adequately express the debt of gratitude that we owe to those people.

This deeply tragic event is a reminder that, no matter the joy and the beauty of our mountains and our landscape, they can be dangerous places and that has to be taken into account at all times. For now, my condolences go to the bereaved and I express my grateful thanks to all those who took part in the rescue.

Landfill Ban (Biodegradable Waste)

The Scottish National Party Government passed a law that bans sending biodegradable waste to landfill from 2021. However, according to an astonishing report by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which was published yesterday, the Scottish Government has admitted that it can meet that legal deadline only by dumping the waste in England. Is that environmentally responsible?

I am not sure that I agree with Willie Rennie’s characterisation of the situation. I had an exchange on this issue last week or the week before with another member. We are committed to the 2021 target. Some councils already have plans in place to meet it. Other councils need to do more work and we are working with councils to responsibly and appropriately deal with waste, as everybody expects us to do.

I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform to discuss further with Willie Rennie the precise plans that are required so that we can all get behind the target and see it being met.

I think that the First Minister should check out the OBR report, because it is all very clear in there.

The Government is making a bit of a habit of breaking its own laws: the SNP national health service waiting times law has been broken for 190,000 patients; the SNP class sizes law has been broken for 4,500 children; and we now find that the SNP Government is about to break its own law on waste.

The First Minister is right to be appalled by the chaotic Conservative Government over Brexit, but her smugness about the incompetence of the Conservative Government cannot hide her incompetence in her own back yard. Law after law has been broken by this failing Government. What sums up her Government best—thousands of pupils overcrowded, hundreds of thousands of patients waiting or a million tonnes of rubbish?

I urge all colleagues to try to be more respectful and not to be personal in their questions.

I think that that ship has sailed with Willie Rennie, Presiding Officer, but keep trying.

On the issue of landfill, I say to Willie Rennie that it is hard to understand how we can be accused of breaking a law, as he puts it, that is not due to even be in force until 2021. We are working towards delivery of that with our local authority partners. It is a very important objective, and it is an important responsibility that will be difficult and complex to deliver on, as many things are, but we will continue to work with our local authority partners, because that is the right thing to do.

As far as NHS waiting times are concerned, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has recently published the waiting times reduction plan. We are investing £850 million to make sure that waiting times are reduced in the areas where there is significant pressure, which comes from an ageing population and greater demand on our national health service.

Willie Rennie also mentioned education. There are more teachers in our schools—there are now more teachers in our primary schools than at any stage since I was at primary school in 1980. There are, I think, 1,200 more teachers in our schools than there were when I became First Minister.

Unlike the UK Government, which has completely ceased to govern in any meaningful sense, we are getting on with the important issues in our environment, in our health service and in our education system, and that is exactly what we will continue to do.

We have some further supplementary questions.

Malawi (Floods)

The First Minister will be aware of the devastating floods that have hit many parts of Malawi in recent days, which have resulted in 45 deaths and 577 injuries. There are at least two missing people, and 150,000 households or 750,000 of the population have been affected. More than 15,000 households have been totally destroyed, as a result of which 187 camps have been established throughout the country. I am sure that the First Minister will agree that that is a horrifying situation.

Given Scotland’s, the Scottish Parliament’s and the Scottish Government’s very close links with Malawi, what can the Scottish Government do to help the people of Malawi at this dreadful time?

I thank Maureen Watt for raising the issue. My condolences go to all those who have been affected by the disaster in Malawi. Our thoughts are with the people of Malawi at what is an incredibly difficult time for them.

I am pleased to tell the chamber that we have just announced the provision of £175,000 to support efforts to ensure safe water supplies in southern Malawi. Funding will be provided through the climate justice fund and will be delivered by our hydro nation partners, who are already working on the ground in southern Malawi to secure water resources that have been affected by the floods. Scottish Government officials will also work closely with partners on the ground to support the relief efforts.

As Maureen Watt indicated, Scotland has a historic relationship with Malawi that goes back 150 years. The people of Malawi are our friends. We do a great deal of work in and for Malawi, from which we ourselves benefit. We stand with the people of Malawi at this difficult time, and we will do everything possible to help.

Police (Pay Award)

Following the pay deal with teachers, I and some other members of the Scottish Parliament were contacted last week by a serving police officer from East Kilbride, who wrote:

“Whilst I appreciate that teachers have worked hard and do deserve a pay rise, why is it that NHS staff were given 9% and police officers only 6.5%?”

I remind members that those are the words of a serving police officer. He went on to ask:

“Does the Scottish Government place the value of Police Officers as only half that of School Teachers? Is it that the Government know that because Police Officers cannot strike or take any real industrial action that they are an easy target?”

What would the First Minister say to that police officer and thousands of others?

Parts of those comments were quite disgraceful. I value all public sector workers, and I thank them for the work that they do.

The police pay award is the best award for police officers anywhere in the United Kingdom. The Scottish Police Federation described it as the best pay award in 20 years. If the member thinks that 6.5 per cent is not good enough—and I would love to pay all our public sector workers even more than we are—I wonder what he makes of the 2 per cent that has been awarded to police officers in England by his Tory colleagues in the Westminster Government. It was described by the head of the Metropolitan Police as

“a punch on the nose”

for police officers.

Many of our national health service workers in Scotland get higher pay than NHS workers do in England, because of the value that we attach to the work that they do. Teachers were previously offered a very good pay deal and have now been offered an exceptionally good pay deal. That is a recognition of the good work that they do. I hope that the offer is now accepted.

I value all public sector workers. If people look at any group of public sector workers, they will find that the value that is attached to them by the Scottish Government is much greater than the value that is attached to their counterparts in England by the Tory Government at Westminster.

Spring Statement (United Kingdom Budget)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the spring statement. (S5F-03163)

The spring statement underlines again the chaos at the heart of the United Kingdom Government. It showed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has billions of pounds available that he could be investing in public services but has instead had to set aside to pay for the self-inflicted mess that is Brexit. The UK Government’s chaotic approach to Brexit is already undermining the economy. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast is that UK growth will slow and that, in both 2018 and 2019, business investment will contract. That would represent the weakest period of business investment since the 2008 financial crisis.

That, quite bluntly, is the cost of the UK Government’s economic mismanagement. Sadly, there is no sign that the UK Government is about to change course, or at least no sign that it is about to change course voluntarily.

Does the First Minister agree that we should welcome the chancellor’s recognition of the strategic importance of the University of Edinburgh and the requirement to invest in the Borderlands? Does she also share my deep disappointment, however, that the chancellor failed to take the opportunity to guarantee that all European Union funding to Scotland—worth over £5 billion in the current EU budget round—will be replaced in full or, indeed, to announce any funding whatsoever? That is simply not good enough from this Tory UK chancellor.

First, I agree with Bruce Crawford’s comments about the University of Edinburgh and the Borderlands. The Scottish Government confirmed yesterday that we will invest up to £85 million in the Borderlands growth deal over the next 10 years.

It is deeply disappointing that the UK Government has yet to provide any clarity on future arrangements for EU funding. Proposals on agriculture, fisheries and structural funding are vague and provide no certainty for the future.

The position on the proposed shared prosperity fund is particularly concerning, with no sign of the consultation that was promised in the autumn of last year, nor any meaningful engagement with the devolved Administrations on the matter. It is crucial that the UK Government urgently commits to replacing all funding streams in full and that we receive our fair share of that, to ensure that decisions can be taken in the best interests of Scotland. Funding decisions currently made by Scottish ministers should also continue to be made by Scottish ministers.

As the First Minister has just said, yesterday’s spring statement set out funding of £260 million from the UK Government and £85 million from the Scottish Government for the Borderlands growth deal, delivering a manifesto commitment from the Scottish Conservatives. The deal shows what can be achieved when both of Scotland’s Governments work together.

Cross-border links between the south of Scotland and the north of England are integral and must be enhanced to promote inclusive growth. With that in mind, does the First Minister agree that an extension of the Borders railway from Tweedbank to Carlisle would bring transformational change to the area?

I will come on to substantively agree with the sentiment of Rachael Hamilton’s question, but I feel obliged to inject a bit of clarity to the figures that she used at the start of her question. She said that the UK Government has confirmed that it will invest up to £260 million in the Borderlands deal, compared with the £85 million from the Scottish Government. That is true, but it is important to point out that, of the UK Government’s £260 million, only £65 million is for the Scottish side; the rest is for England. Nevertheless, given the nature of the Borderlands, it is important that the investment is on both sides.

I am a long-standing supporter of the Borderlands growth deal. I also have a lot of sympathy with what Rachael Hamilton is saying about the Borders railway, which is why the Government has been carrying out feasibility work on the issue. We will continue to support the initiative and I am glad that, given what was announced yesterday, the UK Government is prepared to support it, too.

The recent Scottish National Party-Green budget resulted in councils being forced to make cuts and to pass them on to local communities. Therefore, we have job cuts in Dundee, the ending of support to the citizens advice bureau in Clackmannanshire and the axing of free school bus travel in Moray. [James Kelly has corrected this contribution. See end of report.]

Why did you vote against the budget?

Order, please.

Will any Barnett consequentials that become available following yesterday’s spring statement be allocated to local councils, which have needed to inflict pain on local communities?

We have no clarity on whether there will be Barnett consequentials or on the amount of any Barnett consequentials. When we find out that information, we will share it with Parliament.

James Kelly talked about budget decisions. I thought that the Labour group’s decision yesterday to vote against an increase in the carers supplement was absolutely and utterly shameful. It was the only party in the Parliament to vote that way.

More broadly, as James Kelly well knows, the budget for local government has increased, which is positive, but we do not pretend that life is easy for local councils in the current climate. If James Kelly is as concerned as he claims to be about cuts to local government budgets or in any other part of the public sector, is it not time that he started to direct some of that anger at the Tory Government, which is the architect of such cuts? I remind him that, between 2010 and the end of the decade, the Scottish Government’s budget will have been cut by £1.9 billion in real terms—that is the reality—and, frankly, what we are living with is as a result of his work with his better together Tory partners in the 2014 referendum.

Retirement (Financial Readiness)

To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that people are financially ready for their retirement. (S5F-03161)

Unfortunately, matters relating to pensions remain reserved to the United Kingdom Government. However, we are committed to doing what we can, within our current powers, to ensure that people are financially ready for retirement.

We support the development of a labour market that offers good-quality and rewarding jobs for everyone, no matter their age. We also support older people through our financial health check service, which offers free advice to older people to help them to maximise their incomes. We do that work in the face of continuing attacks from the Tory Government on people who are reaching retirement age. Those attacks include the scandal of the thousands of women against state pension inequality who are facing delays in receiving their pensions and the disgraceful cuts to pension credit for mixed-age couples.

I do not know what Michelle Ballantyne’s follow-up question will be, but let me warn her that I will take no lectures on pensions from the Tories.

Given that I asked a question and was not lecturing, that is quite a sad response. I am heartened to hear that the First Minister is trying to do things for older people who are nearing retirement. However, through my conversations with younger people, I have found that most of them have only a very basic understanding of how their pension works and how to contribute to it during their lives.

Back in 2015, action was taken down south to create teaching materials to explain financial planning to youngsters, following research by the minister, Steve Webb, which found that teenagers’ expectations of a state pension stretched from £800 a week to £9 a week. Is the Scottish Government taking steps to educate school pupils on the importance of their pension and to include learning on that in the curriculum?

To be fair, the question is reasonable. In my original answer, I covered the work that we are doing to ensure that people are financially ready for retirement and it is reasonable to propose that we should also look at how we educate young people is. The matter is reserved, but we acknowledge our responsibility to contribute to it.

I ask Michelle Ballantyne to reflect on this point. If we say that we need to educate young people more on saving for their retirement, we should wonder what example has been set for them when more than 2 million women paid their national insurance contributions in full, in the expectation that they would receive their state pension at a certain age, only to be robbed of that pension entitlement by the UK Government.

If we want to encourage and convince young people to save for their retirement, we must start treating our current pensioners with more dignity and respect than the Government that is currently in charge of pensions is doing. I hope that Michelle Ballantyne will make that case forcibly to her Westminster colleagues.

Mesh Survivors (Meetings with Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government has taken following the recent meeting between the health secretary and mesh survivors. (S5F-03147)

Last week, the health secretary and the chief medical officer met mesh campaigners and Neil Findlay to discuss their concerns about access to specialist services for mesh removal. As the health secretary set out in a written answer on Friday, we are listening carefully to those concerns. We have asked a group of senior medical managers to look at a range of options for improving the care and support for the women, which will draw on international expertise in transvaginal mesh surgery. The group will draw on academics and other advisers, as well as advocates for the women who have been affected. The group’s first meeting will be held as soon as possible, and Jeane Freeman has committed to writing to the campaigners within one month to set out the probable timescales for the work.

At the meeting that the First Minister mentioned, mesh survivors made an emotional appeal for the Government to take up the offer from a top US surgeon to come to Scotland to carry out pioneering mesh removal and to train surgeons here. On Friday, the Government issued an ambiguous press release that hinted at progress but lacked clarity.

I seek a clear and straightforward answer on the mesh survivors’ behalf. When will Scottish mesh survivors have access to mesh removal procedures of the highest global standard? Will the Government now accept the offer from Dr Veronikis to come to Scotland and help mesh-injured women here?

Neil Findlay raises an important issue. Jeane Freeman listened carefully to those she met on Friday and, since then, has done everything that she told the campaigners she would do. As I said in my original answer, she has asked a group of medical directors and senior clinical managers to look at a range of options to improve care and support, which is the right way forward.

As for when there will be more detail, Jeane Freeman will write to campaigners within a month, setting out the next steps. That is the proper way to take the matter forward.

Decisions to remove mesh are made by a patient in consultation with a clinical specialist, who shares all the relevant information and provides support.

There is a commitment to taking forward the proposals that were made on Friday and to doing that in the proper way. I hope that we will have Neil Findlay’s support as we do so.

Drug Deaths

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking in response to the reported increasing number of drug deaths. (S5F-03157)

Our national alcohol and drug strategy, which was published last November, sets out a range of measures to prevent drug-related harm. The strategy’s focus is on improving how we support those who need support and how we address the wider issues that affect them. It outlines how we will work with and fund partners to strengthen links between traditional addiction services and initiatives in housing, mental health services and the third sector. That is backed by an additional £20 million a year for drug and alcohol services. The investment has been allocated to support new approaches that respond in a more joined-up and person-centred way to the needs of those who are most at risk.

The current approach clearly is not working, First Minister. There were 934 drug-related deaths in 2017 and, sadly, everything suggests that the figure for 2018 may be significantly higher. We are facing a public health crisis. Scottish ministers have the power to establish a public inquiry into any matter in which there is a large loss of life and/or serious health and safety issues. This situation clearly meets both of those criteria. Will the First Minister urgently establish a statutory inquiry into Scotland’s drug deaths crisis and commit to acting on its findings in order to end this on-going tragedy?

I absolutely agree about the seriousness of the issue. I am not immediately persuaded that a public inquiry would be the best way forward, but, of course, we will consider any proposal that is made.

Any death from drugs is one too many. Of course, many of the people whom we, sadly, see dying from drugs have lived with alcohol and drug use for a long time and become more vulnerable as they grow older. The 2018 drug-related deaths report showed that there had been fewer deaths among the under-25s than in the previous year. Recent reports also highlight falling heroin use, particularly in the under-25 age group. There is absolutely no room for complacency, but that is an important contextual point to make.

We want to look at different ways of addressing the issues. For example, we have supported Glasgow City Council in its request to set up medically supervised safer consumption facilities. We want to treat the issues much more as public health issues, bringing together different agencies. As we do that, we are, of course, prepared to consider any proposal that is made, and I will consider the one that John Finnie has made today.

That brings us to the end of First Minister’s question time. I say to colleagues that, despite making good progress in the past couple of weeks, the questions and answers were too long this afternoon. We need to revisit that, please, otherwise I will have to cut off members. [Laughter.] That was a rather unfortunate pun, I think. [Interruption.] It is typical of the press to pick up on that.

Before we move to members’ business, we will have a short suspension, to allow the chamber and the gallery to clear, and for members to change seats.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  

12:48 On resuming—