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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 14, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 14 November 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Products (United States Tariffs), Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


The First Minister confirmed this week that she wants not just one referendum next year, but two. Given that she has ignored the result of the previous two, why would anyone believe that she would behave differently this time round? (S5F-03706)

Well, I am rumbled, because I want the people of Scotland to be able to escape a Tory Brexit that will damage our economy, our society and the prospects of future generations. I want Scotland to be able to escape years and years of further Tory wrangling on Brexit and, yes, I want the people of Scotland to have the opportunity to choose a different future. I will seek to persuade the people of Scotland, in making that choice, to choose independence so that we can build the more prosperous, fairer and more equal Scotland that I believe we are capable of being. I cannot understand why anybody on any of the Opposition benches would not want exactly the same thing.

Interestingly, the one thing that the First Minister did not say was that she would behave any differently if she lost next time round. She is always confident that she is going to win a referendum, but her track record shows that she always loses.

I ask the question because I am just not sure that the First Minister has thought through her big double referendum promise. As she keeps telling us, she would ask Jeremy Corbyn for a referendum on independence and demand that it is held next year. We know, too, that she would support Mr Corbyn’s plan for a second Brexit referendum, also to be held next year. Can the First Minister clarify for me a simple question on timetabling? When is all that supposed to happen? Would both referendums be on one day or on different days? Which vote would come first: indyref or Euroref?

I cannot believe that Jackson Carlaw has not actually cottoned on to this yet—he should maybe listen a bit more—because my priority is to give the people of Scotland the opportunity to choose independence next year and I look forward to delivering on that.

Jackson Carlaw is mistaken when it comes to past referendums, and he might also be conveniently forgetting this fact: in the 2016 Brexit referendum, I campaigned for remain—actually, memory tells me that so did Jackson Carlaw. Scotland voted to remain in the European Union by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. That is the referendum result that I want to see honoured. The question for Jackson Carlaw is why he is so willing to ignore how people in Scotland voted on that question.

We heard it from the First Minister there: her priority used to be education, but now it is independence.

I am not surprised that the First Minister cannot answer the basic question, because, frankly, none of it makes sense. As well as supporting a second Brexit referendum, not only is Nicola Sturgeon going to demand that a second independence referendum be held next year, but she is also telling people that she is going to help form what she grandly describes as a “progressive alliance” with other parties across the United Kingdom. That is the same UK, if we follow her rightly, that she hopes to leave weeks later. I am intrigued. Can the First Minister explain how she can hope to form an alliance with the same people that she is planning to walk out on?

I think that Jackson Carlaw has probably confused himself as well as the rest of the population with that question.

First, Jackson Carlaw asked me what my priority was between different referendums and I made clear to him—I will do it again—that my priority is to give the people of Scotland the opportunity to choose independence. Secondly, perhaps Jackson Carlaw might reflect on this: if, as he says, referendums are so dreadful, why did David Cameron, the Tory Prime Minister at the time, foist a Brexit referendum on Scotland? Thirdly, yes, I would want to be part of a progressive alliance to lock Tories out of government in Westminster. Why? Because Tories wreak misery and havoc. It is a year today since Theresa May presented her Brexit deal to her Cabinet, unleashing a year of chaos and division at the hands of the Tories. Welfare cuts, austerity and pushing more and more children into poverty: no right-minded person in this country would want anything other than an alternative to that Tory misery.

I see that we are back to our shouty, megaphone-inclusive, speech-making First Minister.

All that is complete nonsense from the First Minister, but, helpfully, her colleague and close ally David Linden clarified matters last night. He revealed that, even if the UK stayed in the EU after a second vote, the Scottish National Party would come up with yet more reasons for a grievance rematch on independence anyway. So, after indyref 2, it would be indyref 3, then indyref 4—everyone knows that we would be doing the indyref for ever. All the grand talk of alliances is just a nationalist game. Unlike some in this chamber, the Scottish Conservatives are not buying it. We will stand up for Scotland’s lifetime decision to stay in the UK. Is not the real question why she and Jeremy Corbyn are refusing to do so?

The Scottish Tories have never stood up for Scotland in their puff. We have seen ample evidence of that over the three and a half years since Scotland voted to remain in the European Union—that vote was ignored and has been ignored every single day by the Conservatives. I want to put Jackson Carlaw’s mind at rest on one thing: I believe that Scotland will vote for independence when it comes to indyref 2, so he will not have to worry about any further occasions.

I cannot believe that Jackson Carlaw or anybody else is in any doubt about this, but let me be absolutely candid: I support independence for Scotland. I want Scotland to escape a position where our future is imposed on us by Boris Johnson, who is now having his strings pulled by Nigel Farage. The Tory party is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. I do not want that to be Scotland’s future; I want the people of Scotland to have the opportunity to choose their own future, and to choose independence, so that we can build the kind of Scotland that we know we are capable of becoming.

Education and Social Work Staff (Health and Wellbeing)

This week, new figures published by the charity Education Support revealed that more than a third of those working in education in Scotland have experienced mental health issues in the past 12 months and that more than half have considered leaving the sector due to pressures on their health and wellbeing over the past two years. After more than 12 years in office, Scotland’s schools have faced plummeting investment and a recruitment and workload crisis. The health of our teachers is being harmed, but our children’s education and life chances are being harmed, too. What does the Scottish Government intend to do to change that?

We value our teachers and the contribution that they make to the education of our young people, day in and day out. Investment in education is rising in Scotland, and rightly so. We have given teachers the best pay deal of any of the United Kingdom countries. As part of that, we have taken additional measures that are aimed at addressing issues relating to workload, wellbeing and teacher empowerment. We are taking action that is designed to ensure that our teachers have the support that they need to deliver what they are required to deliver for our pupils.

All the evidence shows that attainment in our schools is rising, and much of that evidence is regularly cited in exchanges at First Minister’s question time—I had an exchange with Jackson Carlaw about the issue last week. In the past couple of days, a professor of education at the University of Stirling who is not without criticisms of curriculum for excellence has published a blog in which he says that the evidence is that attainment in national 5s and highers is rising. The narrative that the Tories, aided and abetted, as usual, by Labour, want to put across about Scottish education simply is not borne out by the facts.

There are 3,000 fewer teachers now than when the Scottish National Party took office.

It is not just teachers who are considering leaving their profession. Today, Unison Scotland launched a new report based on a survey of social work teams in Scottish local authorities. It reports that 90 per cent of staff are considering walking out of their jobs. Is it any wonder? Here is just one social worker’s experience:

“We are under pressure to hit saving targets. Many staff are stressed to the point of their own health being compromised resulting in higher risk of poor care ... Time spent with vulnerable adults is too short. So many are lonely and depressed. Many staff work extra hours without pay, just to get jobs done.”

This morning, Unison told the BBC that the service is at “breaking point”. What does the Scottish Government intend to do to change that?

First, to finish the subject of teachers, there are now 1,200 more teachers in our schools than there were when I became First Minister. We are putting more money into education and we are rewarding teachers for the job that they do.

In relation to social workers, I welcome the Unison report. It is always important to study such evidence carefully. However, since 2008, there has been a 5.4 per cent increase in the number of practising social workers. The workforce has increased. The latest official statistics that we have for the social services workforce show that, at the end of 2017, it was the largest that it has been since 2008. Over the past five years, we have provided more than £25 million to support the training of social workers. We are investing heavily in mental health support services.

To Richard Leonard, I say that we have been doing all that in the face of continued Tory austerity. Again, that begs the question—if, as I believe he is, Richard Leonard is concerned about the impacts of austerity, why does he want to keep Scotland’s future in the hands of Tory Governments at Westminster, rather than allow Scotland to take more of those decisions ourselves?

To state the obvious, I do not want to see the future in the hands of the Tories. I want to see the future in the hands of a Labour Government. I hope that the First Minister listens to the first-hand real-life experiences of the people who deliver those services. Those voices deserve to be listened to.

Two weeks ago, I raised with the First Minister the growing mental health crisis—stress and anxiety—among national health service workers. Today, the human cost to Scotland’s education workers, social workers and social work teams is also plain to see. Is it not clear that those working people and the people who depend on the critical services that they provide are being let down because of decisions that this Government has taken?

Scotland’s public services desperately need investment—investment that the First Minister has failed to deliver. A Labour Government will deliver it. Last night, the First Minister threatened to bring down a Labour Government. [Interruption.]


Why does the First Minister not admit that Scotland needs a decade of investment under Labour, not the decade of cuts prescribed in her blueprint for an independent Scotland?

We can always tell when Scottish Labour members are desperate; they take themselves back to 1979. [Interruption.]

Order, please.

I will never support the Tories or put them in power, unlike Labour members, who prefer a Tory Government at Westminster to self-government for Scotland. That is inexplicable.

On the question of teachers, NHS workers and social workers, we take seriously the stresses and strains under which all those public service workers operate. They do a fantastic job and they deserve our support. That is why we are increasing the number of teachers, increasing their pay, putting more money into education, increasing the number of social workers and, with record funding for our national health service, increasing the number of people who work in our NHS. Instead of the empty rhetoric that, day after day, we get from Labour, we will continue to take those actions, which support public service workers across the country.

NHS Highland Orthopaedic Operation Delays

Last week, I asked the First Minister about the poor financial management of NHS Highland. In the past, I have asked her about the appalling bullying in NHS Highland. This time, I rise to ask about the 78-week delay for orthopaedic operations in NHS Highland. Only 54 per cent of patients get operations within the treatment time guarantee. What has the First Minister asked the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to do in order to resolve those serious issues?

I hope that Edward Mountain is familiar with the actions that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is taking. The Sturrock report looked at the allegations of bullying in NHS Highland. We work closely with NHS Highland and other boards with regard to their financial management. We are putting record funding into the health service. An £850 million waiting times initiative is targeting national health service waits that are too long. Of course, although Audit Scotland had many important things to say in its most recent report, it also recognised that, in the face of rising demand, performance is improving against most of the waiting times targets.

Queen Elizabeth University Hospital

Something is seriously wrong at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital campus. Since its opening, there have been a series of scandals, but this one has broken me: information has been shared with me that shows that senior managers have been repeatedly alerted to the fact that a previous review failed to include cases of infection that were related to the water supply in 2017. Central to that whistleblowing evidence is that there were 26 infections at the children’s cancer ward; in one case a child died as a result. To this day, the parents have never been told.

That is not just a scandal; it is a heartbreaking human tragedy. The First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport are not being told the truth. I implore them, for the sake of the staff who have been put in this unforgivable situation, for the sake of all the patients who use the hospital, for the sake of public trust in our institutions, and, most of all, for the sake of the parents, particularly of the child who lost their life, will they personally intervene to seek answers, to get justice for the families and to take the necessary actions so that this never happens again?

First, the health secretary is personally involved in all these issues and regularly keeps me apprised of developments.

I cannot even begin to imagine the pain of families who have lost loved ones. It is because of that that we are absolutely determined that these matters are fully investigated. The Government has been working closely with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and staff on infections in recent months, and that work will continue, to ensure that the health board is doing all that it needs to do to maintain a safe environment for patients.

Patient safety is paramount. That is exactly why the health secretary commissioned an independent review of the design, build, commissioning and maintenance of the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. It is also why, on 18 September, a public inquiry into the issues that have arisen at that hospital and the Royal hospital for children and young people in Edinburgh was announced.

We are determined to address the concerns of patients and families, and the health secretary has committed to return to the Parliament to set out the full details of the public inquiry as soon as possible.

Dementia Care (Borders)

I have been contacted by distressed and angry constituents who have partners with dementia and advanced dementia who found themselves with no suitable care package in place when the Scottish Borders Council closed its day centres. Assessments were done only after the closures. Is there a role here for the Scottish Government, or are such matters to be left to the vagaries of the Scottish Borders Council?

There are responsibilities here for the council and integrated health and social care partnerships, but I would be happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to look into the particular circumstances that the member raised, because it is of course the case—rightly so—that the Government takes a close interest in how patients are being dealt with and how delayed discharges are being tackled, to ensure that patients get the care that they need in place, in the setting that is most appropriate for their needs.

Violence in Schools (Fife)

Figures on aggressive confrontations reported by Fife education staff last year show a 63 per cent increase. Violence in any workplace should not be tolerated and the level of violence and aggression towards teaching staff is unacceptable. The Educational Institute of Scotland has recommended additional training for teaching staff on how to deal with aggressive situations; what action will the First Minister take to ensure that that happens?

Any violence in any workplace, including schools, is completely unacceptable. That should be the clear message from all of us.

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills liaises and works closely with the EIS and will take seriously any suggestion that the EIS makes on training. I am sure that he will be happy to update the member on the issue that he raised.

Ferry Provision

The First Minister will be aware of the chaos that has been caused in the Western Isles and Argyll islands due to the breakdown of the MV Loch Seaforth and inadequate ferry provision. The problem has been exacerbated by the moving of boats to routes for which they are not suitable, which means that they cannot sail in poor weather. Earlier this week, 25 out of 28 services were affected. Will the First Minister listen to islanders and ensure that there are enough suitable boats to provide lifeline services?

We monitor very closely the performance of all the lifeline ferry service operators. Service disruption on Monday 11 November was mainly due to poor weather conditions. The decision to delay or cancel a sailing is never taken lightly by any operator.

We have been investing heavily in ferry services; despite the reductions in our budget, the Scottish Government has invested more than £2 billion on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, the northern isles ferry services and ferry infrastructure since 2007. We will continue to invest to ensure that our island communities have the lifeline services that they require.

Accident and Emergency Services (Waiting Times)

The First Minister will be aware that the latest four-month average waiting time figures for accident and emergency across Scotland, including Forth Valley Health Board, are over 90 per cent. That shows the pressures on the national health service and the achievements of NHS staff. Is she also aware of the figures released this morning that show an average of 83 per cent in England, which is the lowest figure on record? Does she believe—as I do—that one Government in the United Kingdom is committed to doing the day job and that it is not the incompetent Tory UK Government? [Interruption.]

I know why the Tories are getting a bit edgy about that question. It is a serious matter. Our A and E services are under pressure. Those who work in them do a fantastic job. Our A and E services have performed better than those in other parts of the UK for four and a half years now. That is to the credit of everyone who works in our NHS. The figures for England that were published today are a matter of concern. There are great pressures on the NHS in England, as there are in Scotland.

The Conservatives and Labour get a bit upset when we compare the performance of the Scottish NHS with that of the NHS in England and Wales. We do that because both of those parties claim that if they were in government in Scotland, the NHS would be performing better. It is reasonable to look at where the Tories are in government in England, where the NHS is doing worse, and where Labour is in government in Wales, where the NHS is also doing worse.

In accident and emergency servcies, the NHS in Scotland is the best-performing part of the whole of the UK. I know that Labour and the Tories do not like that, but patients across Scotland certainly do.

Court of Session Ruling (Lock-change Evictions)

I hope that the whole chamber shares my horror at yesterday’s Court of Session ruling that Serco’s despicable policy of lock-change eviction of asylum seekers is lawful. If it is lawful, we must still say that it is certainly not right. It effectively strips people of their human rights and puts them at immediate risk of street homelessness. That includes people such as Muhammad and Khadija, a married couple in their seventies, with severe health problems, who are among those facing being turfed out on to the streets, in the middle of winter.

Greens believe that we must treat people who arrive on our shores seeking refuge with dignity and compassion. I think that most people in Scotland share that view. The Scottish Government statement said:

“we will consider the implications of the judgment”.

The situation is urgent. What immediate actions will the Scottish Government take in response to this humanitarian crisis?

We will liaise closely with Glasgow City Council. I agree with Patrick Harvie and I am horrified at the implications of the judgment. If lock-change evictions are legal—issues under the Human Rights Act 1998 are reserved to Westminster—they are certainly not moral, which is the key issue.

Let us be clear: we have ended up in this position because of an inhumane and degrading UK Government asylum system that leaves people destitute and homeless in the country in which they have sought refuge. We should be giving refuge to people who are fleeing some of the worst circumstances that any of us can imagine.

First and foremost, we need a long-term sustainable solution to asylum so that we can put in place a humane system. In the meantime, the Scottish Government will do everything in its powers to ensure that we are providing the care and help that asylum seekers need. The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government will liaise closely with stakeholders to see how we can best support people who have been placed in that situation by an inhumane asylum system.

In the longer term—I hope that it is not too long term—we need control over immigration and asylum in the Scotland Parliament so that, just as we are doing right now with social security, we can build from scratch a system that has humanity, respect and dignity at its very heart.

I agree that the UK Government’s inhumane and degrading hostile environment is at the root of this tragedy. It is using destitution as a deliberate policy tool, which is morally indefensible. However, a long-term solution is not what people need in the here and now. We should be striving towards that, but in the here and now people need somewhere to stay. We cannot simply accept what the UK Government is doing to people: the Scottish Government can and must respond.

Last November, I asked about this situation because we knew that this crisis was coming. The First Minister told me that the Scottish Government would take the action necessary to prevent a humanitarian crisis, but adequate emergency accommodation is still not in place. We know that at least 150 people face imminent eviction and homelessness in the winter months ahead. We know who is to blame for the brutality of UK asylum policy, but those people do not need someone to blame; they need shelter, food, warmth, healthcare and support. This is an urgent crisis, which demands a rapid humanitarian response to ensure that those basic needs are met.

When will the First Minister be able to confirm that arrangements are in place, including emergency accommodation, for all those who need it now?

I say to Patrick Harvie in all sincerity that this is not simply about trying to apportion blame: this is about being clear about where, first, responsibility, and secondly, legal powers, lie. The Scottish Government’s record on this speaks for itself. We will do everything that we possibly can to shield asylum seekers and those who have been subject to welfare cuts from the implications of policies that we consider to be inhumane and which we deeply disagree with.

Aileen Campbell will be happy to liaise with Patrick Harvie about what is possible, in a practical sense, working with Glasgow City Council. We will leave no stone unturned within the legal powers that we have, but I do not, and Patrick Harvie does not, do anybody any favours if we are not clear about the root of this problem; otherwise, we will not be providing the real solutions that people need.

In the short term, we will do everything we can; the member has my absolute assurance on that. However, if we are to solve this problem we need to get the powers over this area out of the hands of the Tory Government, which is leading to such situations, and into the hands of a Parliament that will build a system that does not have such inhumane consequences built into it right from the start.

Police (Mental Health)

The police staff survey helps us to understand the welfare of people across the force, but it is now three years late. The delay is making people suspicious that it is going to be bad news for the police—the last survey showed that only tiny numbers believed that the force cared about their welfare—so we have investigated it ourselves. We have found that the number of working days police officers lost to mental ill health has gone up 11 per cent in just two years. For police staff, the figure is 25 per cent. What do those shocking numbers say about the state of our police six years after centralisation?

I will be happy to write to Willie Rennie with details of exactly when the staff survey will happen. Overall, our police, like our NHS workers, social workers and teachers in our schools, clearly do jobs that are incredibly stressful. Police are receiving training to deliver brief stress interventions to others, but their own welfare is very important. That is exactly why we have maintained police numbers at a level that is well above the level that we inherited when we came into office, in contrast to what has happened elsewhere.

That is also why we are ensuring that our police officers are properly rewarded for the job that they do, through a pay increase that, again, is much greater than increases elsewhere. We will continue to work closely with the Police Service of Scotland to make sure that it is equipped. We are protecting the revenue budget of the Police Service in real terms over this session. We will do all those things to make sure that our police officers, like our other public sector workers, have the support that they deserve from their Government.

I fear that that will be cold comfort to the staff who are off sick. The chief superintendent in charge of policing in Tayside said that mental health is,

“a huge amount of our demand”.

The Scottish Government promised that new mental health staff would be working alongside police, to help them to cope. In the past week, we have discovered that that adds up to a miserable seven and a half extra staff. Police staff will be lucky to have seen those extra staff in the canteen, let alone to have worked with them. We have police staff off sick and the police have massive demands on their time, but just seven and a half extra staff to help them. That is just not good enough.

Will the First Minister take time off from pontificating about other parties and her referendum, and take practical action to increase mental health support for our police?

Given that the matter is serious, I will resist the temptation to reflect on Willie Rennie and pontification, and will instead move on.

Those are important issues. That is why we are investing in the Police Service and in mental health support workers across a range of settings. We have made a commitment to do that during this session of Parliament and we are delivering it.

We have a higher number of police officers than when we came into Government, and we are maintaining numbers well above that level. We are investing in policing resources, we are making sure that our police officers are rewarded, and we are investing heavily in improving mental health services.

One of the things that we talk about in respect of the general population, and which is reflected in all public services, is people being more able to come forward and seek help if they are suffering from mental health difficulties. That is a good thing, but it means that we must continue to invest in and improve the services that are available. We are, every single day, focused on doing exactly that.

Rape Victims (Mobile Phone Charges)

I draw the First Minister’s attention to reports in the Sunday Post that rape victims whose mobile phones have been retained by Police Scotland for investigation purposes are still being charged by mobile phone companies. It is scandalous that women who are enduring an experience in which they are so vulnerable are being treated in such a hard-hearted manner. Mobile phone companies have rightly been criticised by Rape Crisis Scotland for profiteering from people who are enduring traumatic experiences.

Does the First Minister agree that mobile phone companies should immediately cease charging rape victims, in such circumstances? Will she ensure that Police Scotland reviews and updates its procedures in order properly to support rape victims in such situations?

I agree that the issue is important, and I certainly share Rape Crisis Scotland’s concerns.

I will deal with the police and mobile phone companies separately, although I know that the issues are connected. First, investigation of any crime is a matter for the police, but I am very clear—as are senior officers—that a rape victim’s phone should be withheld only for as long as it is required for evidential reasons.

Secondly, I think that it is unacceptable that mobile phone companies continue to charge people whose phones have been withheld in that way. I would expect companies to respond sympathetically and with care to individuals who have experienced the trauma of rape or sexual assault, and whose phones have been taken as evidence. It is not acceptable that they continue to be billed for a phone that they are not in possession of and are not able to use.

We will continue to do what we can. Obviously, we will work with the police while, of course, respecting their operational independence in investigating crime, and we will work with mobile phone companies. I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to update James Kelly once we have had the opportunity to make progress.

United Kingdom Benefits System

Does the First Minister share my concern and disgust that the analysis of five years’ worth of data shows that only one in two ill or disabled people who appealed against the denial of their rights to employment support allowance and disability benefits was successful? The system is morally bankrupt and broken. Is it time that the Tory United Kingdom Government started listening to the calls that have been made for many years from the Scottish Parliament, and to the concerns of the United Nation’s special rapporteur, that people in our society who are ill and disabled need to be treated with dignity and respect?

Clare Adamson is right to raise that issue. The number of appeals that the data shows are being upheld strongly suggests that the system is fundamentally broken and is working against the very people whom it should assist. That is the exact opposite of the approach that we are taking with Scotland’s social security system

People have repeatedly told the UK Government that its welfare system causes stress and anxiety. Although employment and support allowance will remain reserved, I urge the UK Government to listen carefully and to pay close attention to the evidence.

From next year, the Scottish Government will start to deliver disability benefits. We have already committed to a number of improvements, including significant reduction of the requirement for face-to-face assessments and, when they are necessary, provision of a flexible service that works better for the people who rely on such benefits.

In addition, from the beginning of the application process the focus will be on gathering the right information to ensure that good decisions are made, so that we do not see a high number of appeals being overturned—which is, sadly, the hallmark of the current Department for Work and Pensions system.

I urge the UK Government to pay close attention to the data and—perhaps by learning from the approach that we are taking in Scotland—to take action to put its system right and, as has been done in the immigration system and other aspects of the welfare system, to start to put dignity, humanity and respect at its heart.

Youth Unemployment Figures

Last week, the First Minister rightly apologised to Tom Mason after she had misled Parliament. Earlier this week, the Scottish Government boasted that youth unemployment had fallen, only for a leading economist from the Fraser of Allander institute to point out that the figures were “misleading”. Will the First Minister take this opportunity to offer an apology for those further misleading statements?

No. The stats that were published earlier this week, and which were referred to, were the most up-to-date ones, and are contained in the labour market study. Of course, the Government looks at other stats as well. I do not particularly want to get into what other people tweet, but the economist himself has tweeted the labour market stats on youth employment in past years.

All of us—especially Government ministers, given the rules on official statistics—have to be very careful about how we use statistics. The Scottish Government will always reflect on any comments or criticisms that are made of it. However, I repeat that those figures were published earlier this week, and the economist’s tweet that Liam Kerr referred to simply quoted published statistics that were also official statistics.

Ayrshire Growth Deal

Will the First Minister provide an update on progress on the Ayrshire growth deal, to which the Scottish Government is contributing some £100 million?

Since we announced our £103 million commitment to the Ayrshire growth deal in March, the Scottish Government and our enterprise and skills agencies have worked with Ayrshire partners to help them develop the business cases that are necessary for us to agree a final deal in partnership with the United Kingdom Government. We will continue to match the ambition of our Ayrshire partners, with the aim of agreeing a final deal as soon as possible. As part of the Ayrshire growth deal programme, we have already approved the business case for Kilmarnock’s HALO project, which I know is in Willie Coffey’s constituency. I am very pleased to note that work on the project has commenced, offering the prospect of hundreds of local jobs and a boost for businesses in the town.

Equal Pay

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to promote equal pay among men and women. (S5F-03716)

In March this year, the Scottish Government launched a gender pay gap action plan that was the first of its kind in the United Kingdom. It contains more than 50 actions to tackle the root causes of the gender pay gap.

Our refreshed Scottish business pledge has, as one of its three core elements, the taking of action to address the gender pay gap. This year, we are providing £800,000 to 22 projects under the workplace equality fund, more than £200,000 to Close the Gap and £159,000 to the Family Friendly Working Scotland partnership, all of which will help to make workplaces fairer and more flexible.

It is incumbent on us to tackle the issue further—and, indeed, to eradicate the gender pay gap, which is outrageous in this day and age. Of course, it would help us to do so if all employment powers were to lie in the Scottish Parliament’s hands.

Today is equal pay day—the day of the year on which, based on data and relative to the position of men, women stop earning. To mark the day, the Fawcett Society has launched a campaign to equip women with a legally enforceable right to know the basic pay information that they need to work out whether they are being discriminated against. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, does the First Minister welcome that campaign, and does she agree that women should not still be waiting for equal pay for equal work?

I agree with that. It is shameful that equal pay day occurs at this point in the year. I hesitate to say this, given that Gillian Martin has just said that it is approaching its 50th anniversary, but the Equal Pay Act 1970 was passed in the year that I was born. It is outrageous that, almost 50 years on, we still do not have equal pay in this country.

It is positive that the median gender pay gap has reduced by more than half over the 20 years of the life of this Parliament—it is at 7 per cent in Scotland, which is lower than the United Kingdom level—but there should be no gender pay gap at all. We cannot and will not have true gender equality as long as women are being paid less than men for the same work.

Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us, whether employers or Government, to tackle this deep unfairness. A clear action that can be taken is to improve the transparency and reporting regulations, and we have called on the UK Government to do that, because the relevant powers lie with it. We will continue to take action in our sphere of responsibility to end the scourge of the gender pay gap once and for all.

Diabetes, Heart Disease and Stroke (Over-65s)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to reduce levels of diabetes, heart disease and stroke among over-65s. (S5F-03719)

We continue to implement the diabetes, heart disease and stroke improvement plans, which set out our priorities and actions to deliver improved prevention, treatment and care. Those plans are making a difference: between 2008 and 2018, the mortality rate for coronary heart disease decreased by 37.2 per cent and the mortality rate for stroke decreased by 42.7 per cent.

We are also leading the way in the United Kingdom with innovative public health policies. Our diet and healthy weight delivery plan strives to make a significant impact on the prevention and remission of type 2 diabetes, and our tobacco action plan is delivering results, as the smoking rate for adults has continued to fall. Those policies strive to help people make healthier choices and support them to live healthier lives.

I know that the First Minister is aware of a recent report that asked for gastric band surgery for over-65s to be available on the national health service to address obesity-related diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. Does she agree that a better use of that resource would be to encourage and promote activities that help with people’s physical and mental wellbeing, such as walking football and walking netball? Does she agree that that should be the first step to tackling obesity, long before such invasive surgery is promoted?

I thank Brian Whittle for raising those issues. As he will be aware, bariatric surgery, as it is called, is available on the NHS, but whether it is appropriate for a particular patient will be a clinical decision. If such surgery is clinically appropriate for a patient, it should be provided on the NHS. I agree with that.

I also agree that prevention is the key here and is what we should be principally focused on. That is why the public health work that I spoke about is so important, along with ensuring that there is early diagnosis of illness and good care and treatment. The strategy that I mentioned is focused on all those things. As we continue to take such action, I very much hope that we will continue to see the mortality rates for heart disease and stroke reducing.

The First Minister will be aware that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has pledged that the Tories will cut overall immigration and end freedom of movement if Boris Johnson wins—

I am sorry to stop you, Ms Watt, but I thought that you wanted to ask a supplementary to Mr Whittle’s question. I am afraid that supplementaries have to follow the question, which, in this case, was on diabetes and healthcare.

The First Minister will be well aware that today is world diabetes day. Does she share Diabetes Scotland’s view that all people living with diabetes should receive the appropriate emotional, psychological and mental health support that they need to self-manage their condition, as people with diabetes are twice as likely to experience depression?

Yes, I agree with that, and the Scottish Government will continue to work to achieve that aim.

I pay tribute to David Stewart, who I know has taken a long-standing interest in issues associated with diabetes; he showed that while I was health secretary. As a result, he will know about the work that the Scottish Government is doing not only to reduce the incidence of diabetes and to maximise the reversal of type 2 diabetes, but to make sure that the right support and services are there for people who are living with diabetes.

Before we move on to the next item of business, we will have a short suspension to allow some visitors to come into the gallery and members to change seats.

12:44 Meeting suspended.  

12:50 On resuming—