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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 15, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 15 March 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Driverless Cars, Point of Order, Business Motion, South of Scotland Economic Partnership, Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Repeal) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Repeal) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Salisbury Nerve Agent Attack

On 4 March, two individuals were targeted in Salisbury in an attack using a weapons-grade nerve agent. A total of 21 members of the public have been treated as a result of the nerve agent attack, with hundreds directly affected in its aftermath. The attack could just as easily have happened on the streets of Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Glasgow. Yesterday, the United Kingdom Government announced a range of measures including further sanctions against Russia, the suspension of all high-level bilateral engagement between the UK and Russia, new powers to bar people suspected of hostile state activity from entering our country and the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats. Will the First Minister join me in welcoming those robust and proportionate measures?

I agree whole-heartedly that the Salisbury poisoning is a gravely serious issue. It puts potentially large numbers of people at risk and therefore demands a very serious response. In a democracy, people are right to ask questions and scrutinise the evidence. The investigation is, of course, on-going and will continue. However, on the basis of what I have been told, which includes briefing directly from the national security adviser, at this stage I believe that the conclusion that Russia was responsible is a reasonable one. Therefore, the matter demands a proportionate but very firm response.

As I said yesterday, that is why I support the initial steps that the Prime Minister outlined in the House of Commons. As further action is proposed, we will scrutinise that carefully, as I hope all parties will, and, as the investigation progresses, we will apply the same scrutiny to any emerging evidence. The key point, which I and others made yesterday, is that attacks of this nature simply cannot be allowed to take place on the streets of this country with impunity.

It is important that members in this chamber are seen to speak with unity of purpose on the matter. As I said in my question, there is no doubt that this kind of attack could have happened—and could still happen—anywhere in the United Kingdom. With that in mind, will the First Minister update the chamber on the preparedness of our emergency services, and can she make it clear that they have the resources that are required to keep people safe?

Scotland’s preparedness to respond successfully to attacks of this nature—chemical, biological or radiological attacks—has been developed over a number of years. In relation to the type of incident encountered in Salisbury, our excellent emergency services would be in a position to respond to the initial incident.

As the investigation progresses and more information comes to light, we will continue to discuss matters directly with our emergency services. We will, of course, look at our resilience arrangements more generally to make sure that they have the capability and the resources that are required.

When I was in London yesterday, I had the opportunity to discuss those matters with the Prime Minister, the First Minister of Wales and the national security adviser. If further action is proposed, such as asset recovery or sanctions, although that is the responsibility of the National Crime Agency in other parts of the UK, in Scotland it is the responsibility of Police Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and the civil recovery unit, in particular, so it is important that there is on-going discussion and dialogue on those matters as well.

If any criticism is to be made of the past behaviour of the UK, it is perhaps that there has not been a stronger response to the influence of Russian money. All such matters require to be looked at carefully, and I hope that there will be support for the so-called Magnitsky private members’ bill, which is co-sponsored by Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons.

I thank the First Minister for updating the chamber on the emergency and security preparedness. There is another issue: how the Russian state seeks to interfere in the affairs of this country and of others, notably through the state-backed television network Russia Today, which is little more than a propaganda mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin. Its editor-in-chief is on record as saying that its purpose is to fight

“An information war against the whole Western world.”

The television network has declared that the hard evidence linking Russia to the attack in Salisbury is “fanciful”.

This week, RT was placed under review by the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom. Does the First Minister agree that that review is long overdue and that we should all unite against propagandist channels that spread misinformation and undermine our values?

Matters relating to licences for Russia Today—or for any other broadcaster—are rightly a matter for Ofcom, and they should be considered independently. Perhaps one of the differences between this country and Russia is that it is not for politicians here to decide who gets to broadcast, because freedom of speech matters greatly to us.

On Russia Today generally, I have made my view known in the past and I have not changed that view. It is fair to say that there are a number of issues. If Ruth Davidson wants to take the debate to the matters that she raises, a number of other issues also require to be looked at, such as the influence of Russian money in our society and, indeed, Russian donations to political parties. I know that Ruth Davidson may herself be reflecting on such issues.

Bigger issues have been raised by what happened in Salisbury, and I hope that we can all continue to unite in saying that such attacks are simply not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Perhaps all of us should resist the temptation—we all succumb to such temptation from time to time—to reduce the issue to party political point scoring.

It is the duty of elected representatives to make their positions clear, and I hope that I have done so in this chamber. Russia Today exists for the sole purpose of promoting the agenda of Putin’s regime. It serves him well in that purpose—it acts as an apologist for a Government that all the evidence shows has directly or indirectly been culpable in a chemical attack on British soil.

In this country, we have a proud tradition of a free press that acts without fear or favour and media that seek to meet the highest standards of objectivity so that people get the truth. Does the First Minister agree that that objectivity is poisoned when state agents pump propaganda into the households of this country?

I do not support state propaganda. I have made my view on Russia Today clear in the past and, as I have said, I have not changed—and I will not change—that view. I said to Ruth Davidson that, if we want to look at the issue from that perspective, other issues require to be addressed, too. The difference between me and Ruth Davidson is that I have made known my view on Russia Today whereas I am not aware that she has made her views known on matters such as Russian donations to political parties. Perhaps she will take the opportunity to do so today. All these issues require to be looked at if one of them is going to be raised.

Let me repeat the point that I have made—and, in doing so, agree with the statement in Ruth Davidson’s first question—that what happened in Salisbury is a very serious national security matter that has grave implications. Those are the kinds of issues that I discussed with the national security adviser on Tuesday, and again yesterday with the Prime Minister, in London, and they are the issues that we should be focusing on. That is why I have given the Prime Minister support for the initial actions that she has taken, and we will continue to scrutinise any further actions.

That is the basis on which we should respond and, indeed, address all the other issues as they arise. The simple point that I am making is that, in seeking to do so, we should not be one sided.

Scottish Business Pledge

This Government’s big idea for delivering fair work standards is the Scottish business pledge, a voluntary scheme that companies sign up to if they are willing to commit to fair work practices. Following the collapse of Carillion, can the First Minister tell Parliament how many of the major outsourcing firms have signed up to the pledge?

I am happy to provide the precise information on that in writing to Richard Leonard—I do not have it to hand here. However, a large number of companies have signed up to the pledge. It is, of course, voluntary, but we have been encouraging companies to sign up to it. We have had debates on the issue in the chamber; indeed, I think that Patrick Harvie has led calls for the Scottish business pledge not to be so voluntary in future. We keep such matters under review.

Of course, the Scottish business pledge is only one aspect of our approach to fair work. Other aspects have been taken forward by the fair work convention; in fact, in my regular meetings with the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the most recent of which was last week, we discuss how we can raise the profile of fair work in general, and we have agreed to carry out further work in that respect. One of the things that I committed to at that meeting was that the Cabinet would discuss the matter in future and look at how we further mainstream the fair work approach in everything that we do in Government. I hope that that work will be supported right across the chamber.

My question was about how many of those companies have signed up to the Scottish business pledge, and the answer is: not one—not G4S, not Mitie, not Capita, not Interserve and not Serco. Perhaps that is no surprise when we see how those companies operate.

In Scotland, Carillion had a system under which workers on the Shotts rail electrification project were charged up to £100 a week simply to be paid their wages. We know that construction companies do the same thing across Scotland through a system of umbrella companies set up by employment agencies, which allows them to dodge tax, cut costs and exploit workers. Does the First Minister think that it is acceptable for workers to be charged up to £100 a week simply to be paid their wages?

No, I do not. I think that it is absolutely outrageous, and I would condemn any company that pursued any practice of that nature. I also take the opportunity—and I hope that, in this, I will be echoed by voices across the chamber—to encourage the kinds of companies that Richard Leonard has cited to sign up to the Scottish business pledge and to take action on their own practices that enables them to do so.

However, perhaps the most important and pertinent point that I can make to Richard Leonard is this: many of the practices that he has cited and which he and I agree are unacceptable and outrageous are, of course, matters relating to employment law, which remains reserved to Westminster. I would therefore put the issue back to him, given that the Scottish Labour Party has long opposed the devolution of employment law to this Parliament. If the Scottish Labour Party wants to enable the Scottish Government to take tougher action on such practices, will Richard Leonard now join me in calling for employment law to be devolved to this Parliament so that we can do exactly that?

This is not about employment law—this is about public procurement. The First Minister’s Government is handing over millions of pounds of public money to these companies, and they are treating workers shamefully.

Here is what that means in the real world. Today, Labour will release redacted payslips from workers on the flagship Aberdeen western peripheral route, which will show that they have been charged for the privilege of being paid. Therefore, on a contract funded by the First Minister’s Government, workers have blatantly been exploited. Given the collapse of Carillion, what is her Government doing to ensure that no worker will be charged simply for receiving their wages?

I will make a number of points that I hope will be helpful. First, we will look at any information that Richard Leonard wants to make available. Secondly, this Government has gone further than any other in the United Kingdom in embedding fair approaches to matters such as the living wage, zero-hours contracts and blacklisting in the public procurement process. We will continue to look at how we can take further action to do so. However, I am sorry to say to Richard Leonard that how companies operate and the legal context in which they do so are very often matters of employment law. If he wants to join us in asking for that to be devolved, I would welcome that.

There is another issue here. On employment law, our approach is to argue for additional powers to be devolved. However, it cannot have escaped Richard Leonard’s notice that, in the context of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, one of the powers that the UK Government wants, in effect, to re-reserve is that over public procurement, which would restrict the Scottish Government even further. Therefore, it is not enough for Richard Leonard simply to come to the chamber and raise problems; he also has to join us in equipping the Scottish Government with the solutions to them. When he starts to do that, perhaps he will be taken a bit more seriously.

Dr Gray’s Hospital (Children’s Ward)

The First Minister will be aware that, despite the best efforts of local management and staff, overnight admissions to the children’s ward at Dr Gray’s hospital in Elgin have once again been suspended—only temporarily, I hope—due to a shortage of paediatricians, which has been compounded by on-going issues with attracting trainee doctors to the hospital. That means that families face the possibility of their children being transferred all the way to Aberdeen for treatment, and it places more pressure on ambulance crews, who are waiting for a decision on an additional emergency ambulance and crew for Elgin. I am told that, on Monday evening, a crew had to hang about for four hours, waiting for a vehicle to return to Moray so that it could take over and answer local calls.

Will the First Minister urgently investigate further solutions that could be put in place to help to attract paediatricians to work in more northerly hospitals and doctors to places such as Dr Gray’s, where they are required? At the same time, will she seek a quick decision on the hoped-for increase in local ambulance provision?

I thank Richard Lochhead for raising the issue. As he knows and, indeed, has alluded to, NHS Grampian has been working, and continues to work, to fill posts in its paediatric services at Dr Gray’s hospital in Elgin. While it seeks to build on the three paediatric consultants who currently work in the hospital, the board has reluctantly introduced a temporary model on safety grounds. I stress that the grounds for its doing so relate to the safety of children. The board has set out that its decision has been taken in the best interests of children and their families, and I am sure that everyone would agree that clinical safety should be the primary consideration.

The board is doing everything that it can to fill vacancies and it continues to review its staffing model. Richard Lochhead also raises important issues about the ambulance service, which I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to consider in more detail and discuss with him. However, we hope that the situation at Dr Gray’s will be restored to where people want it to be as quickly as possible.

Babcock International (Job Losses)

The news of 150 job losses at Babcock International in Rosyth is a further blow for west Fife communities who are already reeling from the 250 job losses that were announced in November 2017. The yard supports not just the jobs of today but young people who will fill the jobs of tomorrow, with apprenticeships and a partnership with Fife College delivering courses in engineering and renewables at the dockyard campus.

Will the First Minister confirm that the downscaling will not impact on the training opportunities on site? Will the Scottish Government commit to supporting an action plan for the dockyard’s future that does not rely entirely on Ministry of Defence contracts?

I am very concerned to learn of the redundancies at Babcock International in Rosyth. I know that this will be a very difficult time for those employees and their families. The Scottish Government will continue to do everything that we can to support those who are affected through our partnership action for continuing employment team, which has already been in contact with Babcock, which has confirmed that the company will accept a full package of tailored partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—support.

Although it is very disappointing that the company is making job losses as a result of its internal restructuring, we hope that the decision will help to secure a sustainable future for the company for years to come. Scottish Enterprise is working with the company to support that.

The member is right to point to the need to make sure that we continue to support training opportunities and that we support the company to diversify. Those are issues on which Scottish Enterprise will be very much focused.

Childcare Fees (Glasgow City Council)

The First Minister will recall that she told her own party conference that childcare is

“the best investment we can make in Scotland’s future.”

Will she explain why her council colleagues in Glasgow have decided, without any consultation, to increase childcare fees, with some families, such as my constituents, paying an extra £190 a month, and others paying up to an extra £300 a month? Does she agree with my constituent who said that if a family’s mortgage, rent, gas or electricity bill was suddenly to rise by £190, there would be an outcry? Will she confirm whether her Glasgow colleagues have sought extra resources for her city to avoid that unfair increase? Will she use her influence to encourage her colleagues to rethink a decision that is short-sighted, unjust and utterly unacceptable to the families of Glasgow?

Glasgow City Council, in common with all councils across the country, has had from this Government a real-terms increase in its revenue budget for next year to enable it to continue to support services. Glasgow City Council, in common with all councils across the country, is also receiving additional funding to extend its childcare provision en route to the doubling of free childcare. That expansion will do more than anything else to reduce the costs that parents bear for childcare. I would hope that Johann Lamont and others across the whole chamber would support that whole-heartedly.

Continuous Glucose Monitoring (NHS Dumfries and Galloway)

In my constituency, Dumfries and Galloway NHS Board is not prescribing the continuous glucose monitoring system for which the First Minister announced £10 million of funding back in 2016. It is totally unacceptable that we are still expecting some children, depending on where they live, to pinprick and test at all hours of the day and night, when a more affordable solution is available that would massively increase the quality of life and health outcomes for not only the patient but the patient’s family.

Given that NHS Lothian is already prescribing the latest flash glucose monitoring system, which is a step ahead of the CGM system, what action will the First Minister take to end that postcode lottery, particularly for the young people in my constituency who face a lifetime of diabetes?

I agree very much with the sentiment behind the question. As Finlay Carson rightly said, the Scottish Government has funded health boards to increase the prescribing of diabetes monitoring equipment and I would expect all health boards to do so, because we know that that can often transform the lives of young people who are living with diabetes. I will personally look into the situation in Dumfries and Galloway and write to the member once I have had the chance to do so. I reiterate that I would expect all health boards to be doing the right thing to support young people with diabetes.

Mental Health

Last year, the Minister for Mental Health said that performance on children’s mental health waiting times was encouraging. Only a year later, however, performance is at an all-time low. Children have never waited longer since the targets began, and for the first time in years, the number of people committing suicide in Scotland has increased, with two people every day ending their lives. It is also one of the biggest killers of young men. Every time I raise the issue of mental health in this Parliament, the First Minister tells me that she is determined to tackle it, but performance continues to decline. Does she really have this under control?

First, I take the view that one suicide is one too many. We will see fluctuations year on year, but it is important to stress that the long-term trend in suicides is downward, and we want that not just to continue but to accelerate.

With regard to waiting times for mental health treatment for young people and adolescents, we absolutely recognise that there is more work to do, and we are working closely with health boards to deliver improvements. The Minister for Mental Health is meeting a number of boards where current delivery against the standards continues to fall short of what we expect.

However, it is also important to point out that average waits are at 10 weeks and that 11 out of 14 NHS boards have an average wait time of between five and 12 weeks, which is, of course, within the 18-week target. Seven boards have recorded an average wait time of under nine weeks, which is half the 18-week waiting time target. Our mental health strategy, which is backed by additional investment of £150 million over the five years of the current parliamentary session, sets out clearly how we also improve early intervention and ensure better access to services.

I do not doubt the First Minister’s sincerity on this, but it is just not backed up by the results. She talks about the long-term decline in the number of suicides but, this week, Samaritans made it very clear that this is a clear warning sign for the Government. The First Minister has previously talked about more people coming forward. I am surprised that she is surprised about that, because it is no comfort to the people who need treatment now that her Government is not ready for them.

The First Minister has also mentioned that the suicide prevention plan came out this week, but we have been waiting a year for that, and all we have is a draft, which Samaritans has said is disappointing. The mental health strategy was also delayed by the Government for a year, as a result of which important mental health spending was delayed. We were promised that child and adolescent mental health services were getting better, but only one in three people in Grampian is seen on time. All of that is truly terrible. Why do people have to wait until this Government gets its act together?

Although I accept Willie Rennie’s sincerity on this matter, I simply do not accept some of his characterisation. A great deal of hard and good work is being done to improve services for those who need mental health treatment.

It is important to be accurate about matters as serious as trends in suicide. During the past 10 years, for example, we have seen an overall decrease of 17 per cent in the rate of suicide in Scotland. In my view, that is not enough, and we want it to go down even further. I know that there is a question later on today about the draft strategy, so I will not say too much about it at the moment, but the reason why we publish strategies in draft is to allow organisations such as Samaritans to feed into the process. Moreover, as I have said to Willie Rennie in the past when he has talked about the so-called delay to the mental health strategy, one of the reasons for that delay was, as I recall it, that the Health and Sport Committee of the Parliament asked for further time to properly scrutinise it.

When we are dealing with matters that are as serious and complex as this, it is right for us to take the time to listen to, understand and reflect the views of expert organisations. I make no apology whatsoever for that.

Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Spring Statement

What is the First Minister’s response to the chancellor’s spring statement?

Unfortunately, the spring statement demonstrated the UK Government’s on-going commitment to austerity, which I deeply regret. More social security cuts are coming into effect next month, and there was nothing in the statement to alleviate their effects on the most vulnerable in society. The Resolution Foundation estimates that by 2022 the UK Government’s policies will have left the poorest third of households worse off by more than £700 a year on average and that average pay will not return to its pre-crisis levels until 2025, or 17 years after the pay freeze began.

It is fair to say that the chancellor missed an opportunity to follow the Scottish Government’s lead on public sector pay. Indeed, he also missed an opportunity to put an end to austerity once and for all, something that is well overdue.

University Staff (Industrial Action)

As the First Minister will be aware, a proposed agreement on changes to certain university sector pensions was overwhelmingly rejected this week by university staff. As a result, industrial action by staff is continuing. Will the First Minister support the determined efforts of University and College Union members to protect their pensions, and will she speak with the principals of affected universities in Scotland to urge them to ensure that an acceptable solution is found—and quickly?

Shirley-Anne Somerville has been engaging and will continue to engage with both sides in this dispute. I have great sympathy with the position of the university lecturers. Obviously, the current industrial action is an issue of considerable and increasing concern, particularly with concerns that it will start to impact on students’ assessments.

Everyone will agree that strikes are not in anyone’s interests, least of all those of students, and we have said repeatedly that a resolution will only be found round the negotiating table. Earlier this week, it looked as though a resolution was close, but it did not come to fruition.

I urge both parties to continue working together to find a solution. I hope that, as a first step, employers in the dispute will make further movement, and enough to allow the union to suspend the strike while talks continue. Indeed, I call on them to do so. Such a move would allow assessments to be protected and avoid unnecessary damage to the learning of students.

Pain Relief Services (NHS Ayrshire and Arran)

As the First Minister might be aware, pain relief services in NHS Ayrshire and Arran have been failing, with only 6 per cent of new patients being seen within the waiting time targets. Those figures are the worst in Scotland. Does the First Minister share my view that it is unacceptable that too many Ayrshire people are enduring pain for too long before receiving treatment? What can she do to help?

According to the most recent statistics, waiting times for chronic pain services reduced in the last quarter in general across the country. That is positive; we welcome it and encourage health boards to continue that progress.

I know that there is a particular issue in NHS Ayrshire and Arran, where progress has not been what we would want to see. The health secretary is engaging with the health board to make sure that it understands what it needs to do for progress to continue and, once she has had that engagement, she would be happy to have discussions with John Scott.

Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (New Procedure in Rape Cases)

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has produced a new procedure for dealing with what it calls reluctant complainers in rape cases, with the goal of increasing prosecutions. However, campaigners believe that the new rules, which would compel victims to give evidence in court, are more likely to put women off coming forward in the first place. What is the First Minister’s direct response to Sandy Brindley from Rape Crisis Scotland, who described the move as

“a step backwards and one that could have significant, lasting, negative implications”?

I understand the concerns that have been raised and the sensitivity of the issue. The first thing that it is important to say—and I know that members will understand this—is that this is a prosecution policy issue, which is a matter for the Lord Advocate and the Crown Office acting independently. That is an important principle.

That said, this is a sensitive issue. As I understand the policy, the views of complainers will still be taken extremely seriously, as we would all want and expect them to be. It is incumbent on us all—and it is certainly a responsibility for Government—to continue to work more with organisations such as Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid to support women who come forward, so that they feel that they have, where necessary, the support and confidence to give evidence that will see perpetrators brought to justice.

This is, as I understand it, a matter for the Lord Advocate acting independently, and I have discussed it with him, simply to make sure that I understand the reasoning. The Crown considers that it needs discretion. For example—this is only one example that I can put to the chamber—if an accused person was thought to pose a risk to other women and a complainer’s evidence was needed to prosecute that person, that factor would be taken into account. Of course, weight must continue to be given to the views of complainers. Overall, the responsibility of Government, working with everybody in the criminal justice system, is to continue to do more, as we have been doing, to support people in the system as they bring forward complaints.

Food and Drink Sector (Brexit)

I understand that Scotland’s food and drink exports hit £6 billion last year. A large part of that is clearly linked to the protected status of, for example, salmon and whisky, which is guaranteed by the European Union. Does the First Minister consider that there is any risk of imitation products entering the market after Brexit?

We should take the opportunity to celebrate the outstanding success of our food and drink industry. The figures that John Mason has just cited are further evidence of that success, and I want to congratulate everybody in the sector on their work.

However, Brexit poses a real risk to that sector, as it does to many sectors across our economy, and one such risk might well be around imitation produce. It is vital that we can get our produce to markets, and anything that puts barriers in the way might be hugely detrimental to the industry. That is why I—and those of us on this side of the chamber—argue so strongly that we should remain within the single market and the customs union. It is right for our food and drink industry, and I believe that it is right for our economy as a whole.

Prime Minister (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister what the outcome was of her meeting with the Prime Minister. (S5F-02154)

Yesterday, I attended a plenary meeting of the joint ministerial committee that was chaired by the Prime Minister and I also had a short bilateral meeting with her. At both meetings, we discussed the Russian security situation as well as matters relating to Brexit.

We all agreed on the need now for the JMC to undertake further urgent work on the role of the devolved Administrations in the next phase of negotiations with the European Union. Specifically on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, I reiterated the changes that the Scottish Government feels are required for that bill. No agreement was reached on clause 11 yesterday. The differences that remain between us on the clause are not insignificant, but with political will and respect for devolution, neither, in my view, are they insurmountable. We will continue to engage constructively with the United Kingdom Government on those issues. However, I repeat what I have said many times before: we will not recommend approval of the withdrawal bill to the Scottish Parliament if that bill allows the powers of this Parliament to be restricted without its consent.

I am encouraged by the positive nature of yesterday’s discussion. Will the First Minister guarantee, however, that the Scottish Government will not recommend approval of any bill that might diminish or restrict the powers of this Parliament without its consent?

Yes, I will guarantee that. Obviously, it is for the Parliament to decide, but I, as First Minister, will not recommend that the Scottish Parliament approve the withdrawal bill if that principle of consent is not very clearly enshrined and protected. It is not a new principle that we are trying to introduce. If an order was introduced now to change the powers of this Parliament, it would require the Parliament’s consent, and we have precedent for that.

If this Parliament’s powers are to be restricted, even on a temporary basis, that must have the consent of the members of this Parliament. We have been very clear that there will be matters on which UK-wide frameworks make sense and we have never shied away from that. However, those UK frameworks should come about by agreement, not imposition. The principle of consent is absolutely vital and we will always stand up and protect it.

Question 5 is in the name of Annie Wells, but I am aware that Ms Wells has lost her voice. There is a lot of public interest in this question—in fact, Mr Rennie has already raised the issue that it addresses—so with members’ permission, I ask Miles Briggs to ask question 5 on behalf of Ms Wells.

Suicide Prevention Plan

Thank you, Presiding Officer. It is not always Prime Ministers who lose their voice; sometimes it is even MSPs.

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to comments by Samaritans Scotland that the draft suicide prevention plan is very disappointing (S5F-02137)

First, I am sincerely sorry that Annie Wells has lost her voice and I hope that she gets it back very quickly.

On the serious question that has been asked, as I said in response to Willie Rennie on the same subject, the purpose of publishing a draft plan is to get stakeholders’ views and to allow those views to shape and, where necessary, improve the final version.

Suicide, as we all know, is a significant public health issue. In February, the Samaritans, working with the Scottish Government and other key partners, produced a report setting out the views of those affected by suicide. Over 100 people took part in engagement events to inform the report and we are grateful for their important contributions on what I know can be a very difficult issue to discuss. The final suicide prevention plan will fully reflect those contributions.

The Minister for Mental Health will work closely with the Samaritans to seek to address its concerns and we will carefully consider further feedback from the engagement events that are taking place in the coming weeks. I think that our goal is shared across this chamber: to deliver a plan that has the ambition of substantially building on the downward trend in suicides that we have seen in the past decade.

As the First Minister said, this is an extremely sensitive topic. Last year, as we have heard, suicide rates increased in Scotland for the first time in six years. Although it has been outlined that the suicide prevention plan is just a draft plan, it is clear that organisations believe that the Scottish Government needs to be more ambitious in taking forward the suicide prevention plan. For example, the current plan does not say anything about targets, timeframes or what resources will be allocated. I acknowledge the activity to which the First Minister referred in her earlier answer to Willie Rennie, but does she agree that a lot more work needs to be done before we have a comprehensive strategy that is fit for purpose?

I agree—there is always work that requires to be done between publishing a draft strategy and the final strategy. The purpose of publishing a draft strategy is exactly so that we can take account of all those views. The draft action plan is open for comment until 30 April, by the public as well as stakeholders, and I hope that we will all encourage people to take part in that.

Some of the issues that Miles Briggs raised will, of course, be reflected in the final plan. If we look at the example of funding, the final action plan is likely to include funding to support a number of suicide prevention initiatives—for example, NHS Health Scotland’s national suicide prevention programme, NHS 24’s breathing space telephone and web advice service, and the Samaritans in order to help it manage the additional costs that it is incurring since introducing its free call helpline. Those are important issues.

It is important to stress that suicides are on a downward trend in Scotland, but we should not be complacent about that. Indeed, as the most recent figures underline, the action plan is important for getting the next stage of our work right, and I encourage members across the chamber to contribute their views, thoughts and opinions to it, in order that the action plan is as good and strong as we all want it to be.

Milton in my constituency has had several tragic suicides in recent years. In particular, the area around its high flats may require to be designated as a location of interest—that is a technical definition in acknowledgement of the increased risk. I will shortly meet the relevant health and social work officials to discuss a possible local suicide prevention strategy. I ask the First Minister to take an active interest in that. How can the Scottish Government’s draft suicide prevention plan help those who are at risk in the communities that I represent?

First, we strongly encourage people from communities across Scotland, including—and, perhaps, particularly—those with lived experience, to consider and respond to the engagement paper. An online consultation is running from 8 March to 30 April, and is being supplemented by a series of public engagement events. I will make sure that Bob Doris gets details of those events in order that he can make his constituents aware. Bob Doris raised an important issue for his constituency, including the issue of the technical definition. I will ask the Minister for Mental Health to get in touch with him directly to discuss that aspect further.

Land Ownership

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking regarding the transparency of land ownership in Scotland, in light of the recent investigation by the Sunday Post. (S5F-02147)

We are committed to increasing the transparency of land ownership in Scotland. As Claudia Beamish knows, information about land ownership is published in the land register, which we have asked the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to complete by 2024. We will also introduce regulations later this year to establish a new public register of controlling interests, which will further improve the information on land ownership.

The article in the Sunday Post highlighted the extent of land ownership in Scotland by overseas companies, and raised concerns about tax avoidance. We take tax avoidance very seriously and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution has previously written to the chancellor seeking assurances that the United Kingdom Government will take concrete action to combat it, given that Government’s particular responsibility for capital gains and inheritance tax.

As the First Minister knows, the Parliament made important improvements to the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill in 2016 during stage 3 consideration, as a result of representations. Those improvements required the introduction of the regulations to which the First Minister referred. There is international interest in the road that Scotland is travelling towards greater transparency on land and property ownership, and the prospect that Scotland could become an international exemplar of good practice.

Can the First Minister assure me, and those of us in the chamber across the parties who have a serious concern in the matter, that the regulations that are to be introduced will deliver the promises made to the Parliament during the passage of that bill—which is now an act, as we know—and that we, by our actions in this Parliament, using the powers that we have, can secure a system of readily accessible and transparent arrangements, which the article in the Sunday Post showed is required?

I am glad for the recognition that, in this respect, Scotland is in many ways leading the way, and is seen globally to be leading the way. We want that to continue to be the case. The regulations, which will create a new public register of controlling interests in landowners and tenants, will be introduced in the spring. The proposals are about delivering increased transparency about the individuals who are taking decisions on Scotland’s land, including land that is owned by overseas companies. We are also liaising closely with UK counterparts on their related proposals for a register of overseas entities beneficial ownership. We will take account of their position as more details emerge.

I am determined that Scotland and this Parliament will lead the way in making sure that we have maximum transparency about the ownership of land. Our land is one of the greatest assets that we have as a country, and it is vital that we ensure that it is used for the benefit of all across our country.

If the Scottish Government is leading the way, why does the overseas report, which formed the basis of the Sunday Post story, cost more than £1,500 to obtain when data is free in England and Wales? Why has the Scottish land information service, which was launched in October 2017, so abysmally failed to deliver the comprehensive information that was promised by John Swinney in 2015? Why does Historic Environment Scotland redact ownership information on scheduling documents? Does the First Minister agree with the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto that committed them to provide land information in England and Wales as open data?

I am delighted to hear of the new alliance between Andy Wightman and the Conservative Party. Andy Wightman should be more positive about the work that has been done, not least because he has been at the leading edge of much of the progress that we see being made.

It is true that Registers of Scotland operates as a trading fund and relies on incomes from fees but, as an open register, information on individual properties is available to all for between £3 and £24 per transaction.

Last October, Registers of Scotland launched the Scottish land information service—ScotLIS—which is a new map-based online land information service, which means that anybody can access information about land or property in Scotland. Initial searches are free of charge. ScotLIS will continue to be developed and improved based on customer feedback.

I hope that the Parliament, on those important issues and the wider issues about land reform, will continue to make the progress that we have seen being made in recent years.

What steps has the Scottish Government taken to ensure that fiscal incentives relating to land ownership, such as capital gains tax exemption, do not make land ownership and management practices in Scotland more unfair and unproductive?

I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution.

Kate Forbes raises an important point, because some of the issues on taxation, particularly on capital gains tax and inheritance taxation, are not within the powers of this Government. At the moment, we need to try to persuade the UK Government to close loopholes and to take action that deals with the issues that are raised about incentives that relate to land ownership. Ultimately, it would be better if we had the ability in this Parliament, in the context of our wider land reform programme, to take action over those matters ourselves. I hope that people across the chamber will get behind us as we make that argument.