Meeting date: Thursday, June 15, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 15 June 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Stink Pits, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Education Governance, Edinburgh Festivals, Business Motion, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Stink Pits
- Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time
- Education Governance
- Edinburgh Festivals
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Presiding Officer, I start by offering my thoughts and, I am sure, the thoughts of the whole Parliament to everyone affected by the horrific events at Grenfell tower in London yesterday. I offer my thanks to those who responded and those who continue to respond today.
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-01381)
We have all been horrified by the tragic events in London this week. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole Parliament are with everyone affected and, in particular, with those who have lost loved ones. I also want to record my gratitude and appreciation to the emergency services, who have been responding and who continue to respond.
The investigation into the fire is clearly at a very early stage, and although there appear to be very serious questions to be answered, we must be careful not to speculate at this stage. That said, members will wish to know that the Minister for Local Government and Housing has this morning discussed the fire with local authority colleagues, and a ministerial group will be convened to review Scottish regulations and ensure that we are standing ready to take any actions that are necessary as lessons are learned from this catastrophic fire. In the meantime, our thoughts remain with all those affected.
Later today, I will have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
Last week, the Scottish National Party lost half a million votes and 21 members of Parliament—this, after the First Minister had put her plan for a second independence referendum as early as next year at the heart of her campaign. With the benefit of hindsight, does she now think that that was a mistake?
Of course, last week, the SNP won the election in Scotland. We won more seats than all the other parties in this chamber put together. Of course, we achieved that result having been clear in our view that the people of Scotland should have a choice at the end of the Brexit process.
However, I have also made it clear that I will now reflect on that position, not just in light of how people in Scotland voted but also in light of what the election, United Kingdom-wide, now means for the Brexit process, and I will set out my views on that once I have had the time to properly consider the interests of not just my own party but Scotland as a whole.
Given the results of the election UK-wide, I think that it is a dereliction of duty for Ruth Davidson or any other politician to be focusing only on what might happen at the end of a Brexit process and not on what is about to happen in just four days’ time. On Monday, this hapless UK Government is about to start a formal negotiation with the EU with no mandate for its hard Brexit position and no consensus even within its own ranks, let alone in the country more widely, about what it is trying to achieve.
In short, in just four days’ time, we are going to be led off the cliff edge by a Tory Government that is devoid of legitimacy and credibility and utterly clueless about what it is trying to achieve. That is the real and present danger to Scottish jobs, investment and living standards. Any politician with the national interest, rather than just party interest, at heart will be focused on trying to protect Scotland from a disaster that the Tories are in the process of leading us into, and that is what I am focused on doing.
Nicola Sturgeon talks about having Scotland’s national interest at heart, but Thursday’s election was not the only test of public opinion in the last week. Today, fully 60 per cent of people in Scotland say that they do not want a second independence referendum, which is more than double the number of people who back one—indeed, even a third of yes voters say that they do not want another referendum. I have a pretty simple question. In light of the election result last week, does the First Minister not think she should listen to them?
Of course, 62 per cent of people in Scotland did not want the Tory Brexit, but the Tories do not appear to be interested in listening to that.
I have already said that I will reflect on all those factors when deciding on the best way forward, not just for my party, or any party in the Parliament, but for the country as a whole. That is the right and proper thing to do.
No one in Scotland should be taking any lectures from the Conservative Party. Let us just recap what the Tories have managed to do to the UK in the space of just one year. First, they called a divisive and unnecessary European Union referendum, entirely for reasons of Conservative Party management. Having lost that gamble, they are now pursuing a hard Brexit, purely to appease the right wing of the Conservative Party. As if that was not enough, they then called an unnecessary general election, purely in the self-interest of the Conservative Party. Having mucked up that campaign, they are now putting the country in hock to the Democratic Unionist Party.
That is what the Tories have done in less than a year. They have jeopardised the economic security of the UK and are running the risk of making the UK an international laughing stock. As if that were not bad enough, they have put the Irish peace process at risk into the bargain. What a shower of charlatans the Tories are. No one should take any lessons from them.
It is the same every single time. You ask her for her referendum plan and she hides behind her Brexit bogeyman. It happens every single time.
Let us hear what the message from the First Minister on the referendum plan has been. It is hunker down, attack anyone who asks for a little bit of clarity and hope that none of us notices that she is pressing on regardless. We all remember what happened after the Brexit vote last summer. Within hours of the result, the First Minister pounced to put a second independence referendum on the table, yet this week, when independence is under threat, she suddenly insists that it would be wrong to take a knee-jerk decision. That is a total double standard—[Interruption.]
Some of the First Minister’s colleagues, such as Alex Neil, understand it. He says that we should recognise that indyref 2 is not going to happen in this session of the Scottish Parliament. If he gets the public mood, why can she not?
What people deserve and will get from me over the next few days is some calm reflection.
Ruth Davidson has just demonstrated and is increasingly demonstrating to the Scottish people that she is nothing more than a one-trick pony. If she has to confront any issue other than an independence referendum, she is left floundering.
Ruth Davidson has asked for clarity. Is it not the case that people in Scotland have a right to expect some clarity from the Conservatives about what is due to happen, not in some months’ time, but in just four days’ time? Perhaps the next time that Ruth Davidson gets to her feet she will give us some clarity around these issues. Is Ruth Davidson’s position that we should be in or out of the single market? Is her position that we should be in or out of the customs union? Alternatively, is her position exactly what her position has been over the past year, which is that she will do exactly what Theresa May tells her to do, regardless of what is in the best interests of the country?
I will give Ruth Davidson a chance to prove that she has some ability to think independently on those matters. In or out of the single market? In or out of the customs union? Why do we not get some clarity on a negotiation that is about to start in four days’ time?
I make no apologies for raising the First Minister’s referendum threat today, given—[Interruption.]
Given that she will not even talk to her own Cabinet members about it, I thought that it would be nice for them to hear what the plan is.
The First Minister talks about making decisions in the best interests of Scotland. Does she not realise that that is precisely what we did in 2014? The majority of people in Scotland believe that staying in the UK is in the best interests of Scotland.
Let us cut to the chase. This has got nothing to do with listening to the people. It is all about how the First Minister can find a way to refloat or rebrand her sinking dream of independence. The people of Scotland just want to put it behind us. She says that she is listening to the folk of Scotland, and so she should. Her referendum is not wanted, so will she ditch it now?
Everybody watching will notice that Ruth Davidson completely dodged all the issues about what this country is confronting in four days’ time. From me, people will get the calm reflection in the national interest that I have promised.
I say this again: in four days’ time, this country faces the prospect of being taken off a cliff edge by a Tory Government in Westminster that does not have a clue what it is doing. That is completely unacceptable. The people of Scotland want to know from Ruth Davidson what her position is on these vital issues. Scottish jobs depend on it, Scottish investment depends on it and Scottish living standards depend on it.
I will continue to stand up for Scotland and Scottish interests on Brexit and every other matter, while the Tories simply do whatever they are told to do by their bosses in London.
I add the heartfelt condolences of Labour members to everyone who has been affected by the events at Grenfell tower. Once again, we find ourselves in awe of the heroics of the emergency services. We all looked on in horror, anger and dismay and we all share a collective desire to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to prevent future tragedies like this. In that spirit, I strongly urge the First Minister to listen to the concerns of the Fire Brigades Union.
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-01379)
Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
In last week’s election, voters sent the First Minister a clear message to focus on what really matters to people. The First Minister still pretends that education has always been her top priority, but we all know that her Government has presided over our having 4,000 fewer teachers while class sizes have gone up. Scotland is falling down international tables and parents are being asked to fill in in the classroom. While she has taken her eye off the ball, we have had college lecturers on strike, and now even teachers are threatening industrial action. The First Minister cannot blame negative media coverage for that. Why is it always someone else’s fault and never hers?
With the greatest respect, I have to say that Kezia Dugdale is talking nonsense. As will be demonstrated this afternoon when the Deputy First Minister outlines to Parliament the next stage in our education reform programme, this Government takes full responsibility for ensuring that we equip our education system to raise standards and close the attainment gap. That is why we have in place the new national improvement framework and the new attainment fund, including the pupil equity fund, which has put £120 million directly into the hands of headteachers.
This afternoon, the Deputy First Minister will outline the outcome of the governance review, which will include steps to ensure that we have a school system that puts schools, teachers, headteachers and pupils at its centre.
Kezia Dugdale raised the important issue of the recent colleges dispute, which gives me the opportunity to set out my clear expectations on that. On 19 May, agreement was reached that allowed the strike to be called off, which was extremely welcome. Since then, discussions have continued on some outstanding issues. However, I am very clear that what was agreed on 19 May now needs to be fully implemented. I spoke yesterday to the chair of the employers association, which will meet again on Monday, when it will be asked to ratify the agreement that has already been reached, including payment of the first instalment of the cash settlement. I hope and expect that that ratification will take place on Monday and that any prospect of further strike action will be removed completely.
The problem for the First Minister is that this week the Educational Institute of Scotland revealed what teachers really think about Scotland’s education system. Their workload has increased and fewer than half would recommend teaching as a career. There is a recruitment crisis, with hundreds of vacancies, some of which will take up to three years to fill, and new figures reveal that teachers are receiving up to £6,000 less than they would have received had their pay risen in line with inflation. It is little wonder that teachers are saying enough is enough.
What will the First Minister say to teachers who are struggling in our schools? Can I suggest that “Sorry” might be a good place to start?
What we will continue to do is what we are doing—investing with local authorities to make sure that we maintain teacher numbers, and putting more resources into the hands of headteachers to equip them to respond better to the challenges that they face in schools.
The Deputy First Minister will continue to take action to reduce unnecessary workloads for teachers. That is why the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland are reducing and clarifying the guidance that they provide to teachers. Education Scotland has published clear advice for teachers on what they should and should not be expected to do in the classroom. Definitive benchmark guidance on literacy and numeracy has also been published: in fact, benchmarks for all the curriculum areas have now been published, which will replace the much larger volume of existing materials.
We will continue to get on with responding to the challenges that we face by taking the action that we are taking. That is what responsible Governments are expected to do, and that is what this Government will continue to do.
The response from the Scottish National Party back benchers says it all. Never has the First Minister sounded so out of touch with the reality on the ground. The truth is that the First Minister has taken teachers for granted for years. Now they are threatening strike action just to get John Swinney to sit up and pay attention.
The SNP’s answers to the crisis are to send untrained teachers into our classrooms and to introduce league tables and high-stakes testing in primary schools. The First Minister has even flirted with opt-out schools. Each and every one of those is a failed Tory policy. Does that not prove, First Minister, that if you vote SNP, you get Tories?
From the leader who advised some people in Scotland to vote Tory, that is a bit rich. No wonder Kezia Dugdale is blushing right now—but let us get back to serious matters.
First, it is simply not sufficient for Kezia Dugdale to come here and make it up as she goes along. There is no question whatsoever of there being untrained teachers in schools in Scotland. John Swinney will set out the Government’s position on all aspects of the governance review later this afternoon.
We will continue to get on with the job of reforming and investing in Scottish education, including providing extra money to help teachers with the job that they do, carrying out the reforms that are necessary to ensure improvements in our schools, and ensuring that politicians are held much more to account because of the greater transparency that we are introducing in the system.
What is striking again today—as so often in the past in the chamber—is that when we come forward with policies, ideas and initiatives to address the challenges, all Labour does is oppose them. Labour never brings forward any constructive ideas of its own. That is probably why, Presiding Officer, for the first time in living memory in a Westminster general election, Labour came third in Scotland. That is the reality of Labour in Scotland today, as the SNP continues to get on with the job.
We have a couple of constituency supplementaries. The first is from Bob Doris.
Presiding Officer, I extend my sympathies to everyone who has been impacted by the horrific and deeply shocking events of the Grenfell tower fire tragedy.
My constituency has several high-rise tower blocks; many MSPs will have similar stock across their constituencies. I also know that my local housing association will place a significant priority on safety, including fire safety. However, that will not stop the people who live in such properties having understandable concerns.
Although I welcome the steps that the First Minister has already taken, which have been outlined today, does she agree that we must ensure that the most appropriate and rigorous fire safety regulations possible are in place, and that we reassure worried householders? Does she also agree that any lessons that must be learned from the Grenfell tragedy in the weeks and months ahead are learned and acted upon here in Scotland?
I agree very much with Bob Doris. I know that many members across the chamber, perhaps especially members such as Mr Doris—and me, in fact—who represent urban constituencies in which there are high-rise flats, will feel particularly concerned by the tragic events in London this week. As I said earlier, the most serious questions have to be answered about that tragic fire, but given how early a stage the investigation is at, it is important that we do not rush to judgment or early speculation about the causes.
Nevertheless, I am acutely aware of the responsibility that the Scottish Government bears here. We must stand ready to provide whatever reassurance we can to people across Scotland who are living in similar accommodation and who might have very understandable concerns as a result of what we have seen this week.
We must also stand ready to learn any lessons that require to be learned as the causes of the fire become clearer. That is why the Minister for Local Government and Housing had early discussions with local authority partners this morning. We will also discuss these matters, particularly with regard to fire safety and regulation, with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
The ministerial group that I have referred to will be convened to ensure that on an on-going basis, and in as close to real time as possible, we learn any lessons that have to be learned and take whatever steps are required in Scotland. I know that all members have a human interest in the issue, but we will be happy to keep any member who has a particular constituency interest very closely updated on steps that the Scottish Government considers appropriate.
Yesterday, a Press and Journal report revealed that last month an Aberdeen man died following a 999 call-handler error. Information regarding the call had not been passed to the dispatch team; by the time the error had been realised and an ambulance dispatched, 33 minutes had passed and, tragically, the man had passed away. What action will the First Minister take to ensure that such a catastrophic incident does not occur again?
I am aware of what has been reported about that tragic case. First and foremost, I want to say that my heartfelt sympathies are with the family and friends of the individual who sadly passed away.
The case is under investigation by the Scottish Ambulance Service, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has already spoken to the chief executive of the service to seek assurances that the investigation will be full and proper. Given that the investigation is under way, it is not appropriate for me to go into any more detail about it or to speculate on its outcome. The health secretary will be happy to correspond further with Liam Kerr when we have more detail from that investigation.
As the First Minister will be aware, the energy regulator, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, and SSE have this week announced the closure of Lerwick power station, with the loss of 25 permanent jobs and apprenticeships. They are going to replace the power station with a cable that will import wind power from Caithness but that will not allow energy from large-scale renewables to be exported from Shetland. Will the First Minister ask Ofgem to consider how such an ill-conceived proposal has seen the light of day?
I am happy to ask the relevant minister to discuss the matter with Ofgem. We are aware of the proposed new energy solution for Shetland, which seeks to connect Shetland with the Scottish mainland for the first time while also having some on-island diesel supply. Although aspects of the proposal contribute to our approach to cleaner energy, there are understandable concerns about security of supply and, indeed, the issues around export that Tavish Scott has referred to.
The proposal has been made by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks and is being overseen by Ofgem, which is an independent regulator. Nevertheless, I recognise the concerns that Tavish Scott has expressed on behalf of his constituents and I will ask the relevant minister to speak to Ofgem to make sure that those concerns are conveyed and then to have further discussions with Tavish Scott as a result of that.
I, too, express my concern and the concern of my party for those who have been affected by the shocking events at Grenfell tower and our concern for those who are suffering, who are grieving or who are worrying about friends and relatives and fearing the worst.
To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-01382)
The Cabinet will next meet on Tuesday.
Two weeks ago, the Government’s consultation on fracking and unconventional oil and gas was closed. It is reported that there have been tens of thousands of responses. The First Minister may already be in a position to confirm whether that is one of the biggest ever responses to a Government consultation.
Since the consultation closed, even more concerns have been raised about the health impacts of fracking, with more than 150 studies linking the chemicals that are used in the fracking industry to cancer risk and permanent lung damage, for example, through the exposure of workers to benzene and silica dust, among other substances. The concerns extend to wider public health fears, too.
The temporary moratorium has been in place for a year and a half, and we know that it cannot last for the long term—the Government knows that it is going to have to make a decision. It previously gave a commitment that a final decision on a full ban would be made by the end of this calendar year. Now that the consultation has closed, will the First Minister confirm that timetable and give a clear commitment that the decision will be made and a vote brought to the Parliament before the end of this year?
That is the timetable to which we continue to work, and I restate our commitment to bringing a vote to Parliament. We said that we would do that when we launched the consultation, and nothing has changed.
Patrick Harvie specifically asks about the scale of the consultation responses. The final numbers are being confirmed through the validation and verification process, but about 60,000 responses have been received. A considerable number of those responses have been received via postcard and petition campaigns.
I am sure that Patrick Harvie will agree that it is important that we properly analyse the consultation responses and use that analysis as a factor that we will take into account in reaching a final decision.
Patrick Harvie is right in saying that a moratorium, by its very nature, is temporary—there is no doubt about that. We have always said that the moratorium is in place pending a final decision on the substantive issue.
It is also important to recognise that we have taken a cautious and precautionary approach exactly because of the concerns that Patrick Harvie has outlined. Many people have a range of different concerns about fracking, including about the impact on the environment, health and transport, and none of those concerns could or should ever be brushed aside. That is why we are taking this approach. We will continue with our approach and will take into account all the views and concerns.
I reassure people that, while the process is under way, the moratorium remains in place. Therefore, no fracking or drilling for coal-bed methane can take place in Scotland until the outcome of the process is known.
I am pleased that the extraordinary number of responses demonstrates the breadth of concern about the issue. I am also pleased that the number of responses will not be used as an excuse to delay the process. Of course, there needs to be analysis of the responses, but we need clarity and every one of the 60,000 people deserves clarity that the decision will be made this year. There will be a widespread expectation that the decision will be for a full and permanent ban on these extraction techniques.
The Scottish National Party’s 2016 manifesto said:
“We will not allow fracking or underground coal gasification in Scotland unless it can be proved beyond any doubt that it will not harm our environment, communities or public health.”
Following the publication of that document, we still see SNP activists campaigning wearing “Frack off” badges, and we hear SNP politicians say that it is time to bring an end to
“the Tory days of gung-ho fracking policies”
in Scotland and that
“Jobs, water quality, food and drink would all be unnecessarily put at risk”.
Those comments are clearly incompatible with a decision to give the green light to those techniques.
Does the First Minister also agree that, if Brexit goes ahead as the United Kingdom Government plans, a huge number of environmental controls and protections that would affect the fracking industry and many other industries that threaten public health in Scotland will be decided here? Can we have a clear and absolute guarantee that not one of those regulations will be downgraded, watered down or weakened in Scotland?
I will take the latter part of Patrick Harvie’s question first. Even our harshest critic would suggest that the concern about the watering down of environmental regulations post-Brexit is not one that people should have about this Government, although it is certainly a concern that people should have about the current UK Government. We take environmental protection and regulation very seriously. Indeed, one of my many concerns about the Brexit process is the fact that there will be a fragmentation of environmental protection through the process of the UK leaving the European Union.
Returning to the issue of fracking, I would have thought that Patrick Harvie would welcome the fact that he is able to quote so many members of the SNP agreeing with his position. I have previously described myself—and I would continue to describe myself—as somebody who is personally very sceptical about fracking for many of the reasons that Patrick Harvie has outlined. What we said in our manifesto on the subject absolutely stands, and that is the standard by which we will assess the issue.
We have embarked on a process of consultation that follows the process of the expert research work that we did into a range of issues. It is vital that we conclude that process with all due process and in good faith. We will do that in the timescale that we set out, and we will come to a final decision within that timescale.
As I said in my first answer, people in Scotland can be assured that, pending the outcome of the process, there will be no fracking in Scotland. That is why the moratorium is so important.
Roaming charges within the EU have been abolished from today, meaning that we do not get billed excessive amounts for making calls and sending text messages abroad. Has the Scottish Government had any assurances from the UK Government that it will work to preserve that benefit in Brexit negotiations?
To the best of my knowledge, we have had absolutely no assurances from the UK Government on what is a very important issue for people who use mobile phones in other European countries. There is no doubt that the abolition of roaming charges is one of many benefits arising from the digital single market. It is vital that Scottish consumers continue to benefit from that post-Brexit.
In spite of the continued lack of meaningful engagement on the part of the UK Government on any of these matters, the Scottish Government will continue to engage in good faith to ensure that our interests are represented as the negotiations get under way—I remind members—in just four days’ time.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to support LGBT rights. (S5F-01394)
I am very proud of the Government’s record on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, including the introduction of civil partnerships and, now, equal marriage for same-sex couples. We have robust and inclusive hate crime legislation in place, we have established the LGBTI inclusive education working group and we intend to reform gender recognition law. Those actions show why Scotland continues to be ranked as one of the most progressive countries in Europe regarding LGBTI equality.
It is not just the actions that we take for people living in Scotland that are important; so is our willingness to stand up for LGBTI rights across the world. The Government is determined to continue to do that.
The First Minister will be aware that the LGBTI pride celebrations are happening across Scotland this month, and in Belfast next month. At the same time, the Tories, in a desperate attempt to cling on to power at Westminster, will be dealing with the Democratic Unionist Party, which has used its veto to block the legalising of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland a total of five times. Does the First Minister share my concerns about the message that that arrangement sends out to members of the LGBTI community, along with many others, and does she agree with me that that highlights the importance of complete transparency for any proposed Tory deal with the DUP before it is signed and sealed?
First, I recognise up front that the issue of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland is one to be decided by politicians in Northern Ireland. It is not an issue for decision in this Parliament. However, I think that it is regrettable that Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK where loving same-sex couples cannot get married, as they can in England, Wales and Scotland. I hope that we see that change for the better in the not too distant future.
Secondly, I record my deep-seated concern and, I believe, the deep-seated concern of many people not just in Scotland but across the UK at the prospect of some kind of grubby deal between the Tories and the DUP to allow Theresa May to cling to office. I have just listened to Ruth Davidson talking about the national interest, but that kind of deal is not in the national interest in any way, shape or form, particularly if it is not completely and utterly transparent. I say that not just because of some of the views of the DUP, which perhaps not all but many of us feel deeply uncomfortable about, but because of a concern about the disregard that has been shown for the Northern Irish peace process. One of the most shameful aspects of the whole Brexit process since the beginning has been the disregard that has been shown by many for the peace process. Under the Good Friday agreement, the UK Government is meant to be an impartial broker in Northern Ireland and there is a real question—
First Minister, the question is about LGBT rights.
There is a question, which has been raised by John Major and others, about whether that can be the case. Those are serious matters. I have seen some suggestions this morning that the deal—if there is a deal between the Tories and the DUP—will not be published in full, which would be completely unacceptable.
In September 2015, the Scottish Government received a letter from Arlene Foster, the present leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, in her capacity as a Government minister. The letter was about Scotland’s equal marriage legislation, and my colleague Clare Bailey, Green MLA for South Belfast, described it as part of Mrs Foster’s anti-equality offensive. Rather than hide behind freedom of information legislation, will the Scottish Government publish that letter?
I am happy to give consideration to that. My understanding is that that letter was about the translation of civil partnerships into marriages in Scotland.
The commitment of this Government to equality—shared across the Parliament—is beyond question, which is something that we should celebrate. We are responsible for our own actions in that regard, but on issues such as equality—whether LGBTI equality or any other equality issue—it is important not just to do the right thing at home but to stand up for the right thing in other countries the world over. I am very aware of that responsibility.
Common Agricultural Policy Futures Programme
I refer members to my register of interests.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Audit Scotland update on the common agricultural policy futures programme. (S5F-01392)
One of these days, I will ask Peter Chapman which particular page of his register of interests he is referring to.
Over the past year, we have made significant changes to the development and implementation of the CAP futures programme. Clearly, there is a lot more for us to do, but I welcome the fact that the update report from Audit Scotland recognises some of the progress that we have made and reinforces the actions that we have taken since last May. We will carefully consider the findings in the context of the significant improvement activity that is under way.
I am absolutely shocked by how complacent the First Minister is, because farming communities are not as relaxed as she is about the issues. The information technology system has created the worst farming cash crisis in a generation. Now we learn that there is still no back-up system should the IT system fail and that there is a possibility of £60 million-worth of fines from the European Union for non-compliance, and yet more money is needed to get the system working. Farmers around Scotland are still waiting for 2015 and 2016 payments and, worst of all, we face at least another year of chaos until the system is fully compliant.
In the light of that catalogue of errors, does the First Minister take responsibility for the catastrophe? How can our farmers ever trust her again?
As I have said in the chamber before, I take full responsibility for everything that the Scottish Government does. There is not a shred of complacency on the Government’s part about the issue. Fergus Ewing has already apologised to farmers, as have I, for the failures that have been experienced in the system, which is why a significant part of his time and energy each day is taken up with ensuring that the system delivers as farmers have a right to expect it to.
The member made a number of comments that require to be challenged and, just before First Minister’s question time started, Fergus Ewing challenged similar comments.
On disallowance risks, the figure of £60 million is entirely speculative, just as the figure of £125 million, which was quoted in last year’s Audit Scotland report, was entirely speculative and turned out not to be the case. On the budget issue, the financial ceiling for delivering a compliant CAP system is being held to. On payments to farmers, it is because we are acutely aware of the importance of cash flow to farmers that we put in place the loan scheme to ensure that they got their payments. As Fergus Ewing said this morning, 99 per cent of payments in the 2015 round have been made, and we are continuing to work through the 2016 payments.
We will continue to give the matter our absolute and full focus and attention to ensure that farmers get the service that they deserve.
On 31 May last year, in his first appearance in the chamber after his appointment as the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing said:
“The farming industry needs to have confidence in the payment timetable and that we will do what we say. There must be no repeat of the problems that were faced in 2015-16.”—[Official Report, 31 May 2016; c 5.]
Does the First Minister have confidence that Fergus Ewing has fulfilled that promise?
Yes—that is entirely what Fergus Ewing is focused on doing. That is why we have in place the loan scheme and why we are taking steps to ensure that farmers get the money that they expect while we take steps—many of which are narrated in the Audit Scotland report today—to ensure that the IT system does the job that it is there to do and while we continue to pay attention to the overall budget and the value for money issues that are at the heart of the matter. Led by Fergus Ewing, we will continue to focus absolutely on ensuring that we deliver in the way that farmers across the country have the right to expect.
Second Independence Referendum
To ask the First Minister whether work by Scottish Government officials on a second independence referendum will now cease. (S5F-01401)
In case I did not mention it earlier, I note that last week the Scottish National Party won the general election in Scotland with more MPs than those of all the other parties combined. As I have said, I will reflect carefully on the election result before I set out my views on the next steps. It is clear that the people of the United Kingdom have rejected a hard Tory Brexit, and it is imperative that we now build a cross-party, four-Government approach that will protect all our interests at this time.
She lost a heap of seats, her flagship policy cost her votes, yet she seemed to think that she had won the election. [Interruption.]
That was Theresa May last week, but this week Nicola Sturgeon seems to be equally in denial.
Given that the First Minister has said that she wants to be involved in negotiating Brexit on behalf of the UK, will she now recognise that she cannot possibly be sitting at the top table and heading for the exit at one and the same time?
I have made clear my position on the reflection that I will now give to the issue of an independence referendum.
As for Scotland being represented in the Brexit negotiations, whatever our disagreements on other matters might be, I would have thought that every MSP of every party across the chamber would agree that Scotland should be represented in those negotiations. What has been said speaks volumes; I would expect it from the Tories, as they want Scotland’s position to be just to keep quiet and do whatever they tell us to do, but I am astounded that not only Labour but Lewis Macdonald in particular—he has actually been very sensible on these matters over the past year—is not getting behind the Scottish Government and demanding that Scotland, Wales and both sides in Northern Ireland are fully engaged in the negotiations. Anything else would be completely unacceptable, and I cannot believe that Labour would ever go along with it.
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is marking carers week. (S5F-01391)
First, I thank carers for all that they do. The Scottish Government continues to support carers week, which encourages all of us to better understand the challenging circumstances that unpaid carers across Scotland can face. Aileen Campbell and Jamie Hepburn visited LifeCare in Edinburgh yesterday to recognise the work of carer positive employers, which support unpaid carers in their workplace. In partnership with Young Scot, we are also running our week-long benefit take-up campaign this week to increase awareness and uptake of carers allowance among young adults with caring responsibilities.
I very much welcome the actions that the First Minister has just highlighted, but will she outline what further measures and support will be provided to unpaid carers in coming years?
The Carers (Scotland) Act 2016 will, from next April, extend and enhance the rights of carers to support, which will help them to continue to care, if they so wish, and to maintain a fulfilling life alongside caring. We will increase carers allowance to the same level as jobseekers allowance from the summer of 2018, and we are committed to increasing carers allowance further for those who look after more than one disabled child. We will continue to promote the carer positive scheme to employers, which links with our fair work agenda. So far, 72 organisations have been recognised as carer positive employers, which covers just short of 300,000 employees. The scheme helps carers to balance caring and employment responsibilities, and it helps employers to retain valuable staff. Across a range of issues, we are absolutely determined to do everything that we can to support carers in the invaluable work that they do.