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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 16, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 16 June 2016

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Points of Order, Post-study Work Visas (Rural Communities), Policing and Security, Children, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00080)

Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

Once again, we are facing the prospect of teachers either boycotting work or striking altogether, and potentially shutting schools. I accept that teachers have every right to raise legitimate concerns about their workload, but I do not believe that industrial action is the answer. It is simply wrong that parents and pupils will have to pay the price for a dispute between teachers and the Government. Does the First Minister agree?

The Government is working very hard to ensure that industrial action does not take place in our schools. I do not believe that it is in the interests of teachers and I certainly do not believe that it is in the interests of the young people in our schools.

As Ruth Davidson is aware, at issue is what teachers consider to be unnecessary workload. The Government has been very clear about our determination to take action to reduce teacher workload and we will continue to do that: indeed, that is why we established the working group on assessment and national qualifications. The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills published the group’s initial work on 26 May, which set out concrete steps that we are taking to reduce workload for teachers. This week the Deputy First Minister has written to all the teaching unions, asking for specific deliverable proposals to help to reduce workload.

We are determined to address the concerns and to do so in the interests of teachers, and, more important, in the interests of our young people.

I hear what the First Minister is saying, but the question is this: how was the situation allowed to get to this stage? Secondary teachers have been complaining for quite some time about the assessment requirement for national qualifications and we have all heard warnings about the added bureaucracy and the extra burdens that that is placing on classrooms. Given that, and given that we may now be facing industrial action, is the First Minister satisfied that the Government has done enough to sort this out before now?

Yes—we have been working to do that. I hope that Ruth Davidson will—if she is sincere, as I hope she is, about wanting to avoid industrial action in our schools—get behind the actions that the Scottish Government is taking.

It was because we were determined to tackle the issue that the working group on assessment and national qualifications was established earlier this year. That group has done very detailed work, and the report of that work was published at the end of May. It set out some concrete initial steps, which have already been announced. The Deputy First Minister will reconvene that group and has, as I said, issued an open invitation to the teaching unions to come forward and give examples of where they think there is unnecessary workload, and suggest what can be done to reduce it.

As we have debated in the chamber many times over the past few months, improving standards in education and closing the attainment gap is my top priority. Ruth Davidson, Kezia Dugdale and Willie Rennie joined us yesterday in an education summit that was very positive and constructive. Enabling our fantastic teachers across this country to do what they do best and to give our young people the best educational experience is absolutely central to achieving that goal. Everybody has an interest in ensuring that the issue is addressed, so I hope that Parliament will get behind the work of John Swinney and the entire Government, as we seek to so.

I have just listened to the First Minister say that the working group was established earlier this year, but Larry Flanagan of the Educational Institute of Scotland claimed last night that the need to remove duplication was first raised by teachers in August 2014. He claimed that, since then—I quote him directly—

“not a single unit assessment has been removed”.

After years of inaction from the Government, only this week is the education secretary asking for fresh ideas on how to cut down on bureaucracy. Teachers are preparing to take industrial action right now. Is all this not just a little bit late?

As Ruth Davidson knows—this view was, I believe, expressed by the chief examiner in Scotland—removal of unit assessment too quickly would actually compromise certification of qualifications. If that is what Ruth Davidson is suggesting, it is a deeply irresponsible course of action for her to be putting forward.

We will continue to work closely with the teaching unions and the teaching profession as a whole. We will continue to take sensible action to reduce unnecessary workload. It is in nobody’s interests—certainly not the Government’s interests, any more than it is in the interests of teachers or pupils—for teachers to be burdened with unnecessary workload. I want all our great teachers across the country to be freed up to do what they do best, which is teach our children and give them the best educational experience.

As I said, all the party leaders joined us at the education summit yesterday; I was very grateful to them for doing so. They will have heard many great examples, as we did. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development praised the many strengths of Scottish education and the work that the Scottish Government is taking forward. Many suggestions were made about what we need to do, including by the teaching unions. Let us get together in a national endeavour to take forward those actions in the interests of improving our education system for all our young people.

There is a wider point to be made. We have a system that is constantly sending out ever more directives, initiatives and diktats to our schools, but does not think about how they are to be implemented. Now, at the 11th hour, we have John Swinney saying that he wants “specific, tangible ideas” on how to cut down on teacher workload. He is acting as if this is year zero, but the Government has been in power for nine years. He is trying to clear up the mistakes that his Government has made.

If John Swinney wants clear and tangible ideas, let me give him one. The EIS said today that a “half-resourced” named person scheme will be

“potentially dangerous and ... worse than no scheme at all.”

Teachers are saying that it will be

“potentially dangerous and ... worse than no scheme at all.”

If the Government wants to scrap red tape on our teachers, it should scrap the unwanted named person scheme. It should cut out the bureaucracy and let teachers get on with the job.

I do not speak for the EIS, but I suspect that the EIS will be as horrified as I am by the Tory attempts to hijack its legitimate concerns, and the points that it has put forward, for the narrow political interests of the Conservative Party, which is clearly less interested in our children and the interests of our children than it is in trying to score cheap political points in Parliament.

To get back to the issue at hand, I say that John Swinney asked for suggestions in addition to the work that is already under way. For example—as, I assume, Ruth Davidson is aware—the chief inspector of education has already published for teachers and schools clear national expectations that will directly tackle workload issues and help to improve the learning experience for young people. It includes advice on preparation of young people in their broad general education, on the transition to the senior phase and on the importance of appropriate course choices. Those are sensible actions to deal with a legitimate issue, and are how the Government will continue to take the matter forward. That is what our teachers and young people deserve.

Stonewall Scotland (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister when she will next meet Stonewall Scotland. (S5F-00087)

I met representatives of Stonewall Scotland last night when I, with other party leaders, attended the vigil in St Andrew Square to show our sympathy and solidarity with the victims of the attack in Orlando and with our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. Ministers will continue to meet Stonewall on an on-going basis on a range of issues. Indeed, officials are meeting Stonewall Scotland this afternoon to discuss the new powers coming to Scotland under the Scotland Act 2016.

The First Minister’s words last night were very welcome, particularly her emphasis on the need to drive out homophobic bullying from our schools and to build an education system that is inclusive, so that every young person can be themselves and fulfil their potential. I hope that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will meet Stonewall Scotland at the earliest opportunity.

The Government’s recent export statistics confirm that the European Union is Scotland’s second biggest trading partner after the rest of the United Kingdom. What assessment has the First Minister made of how many jobs in Scotland are dependent on our unfettered access to the single market?

Right now in Scotland, there are more than 300,000 jobs that are associated directly or indirectly with Scotland’s access to the single market. In addition, more than 40 per cent of Scotland’s international exports go to countries within the single market and, of the more than 2,000 foreign-owned companies in Scotland, more than 40 per cent are owned by firms that are based in other European countries. Those are all positive reasons, related to the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of people across Scotland, for my conclusion that Scotland’s continuing relationship with Europe is absolutely vital.

In the days leading up to the referendum in 2014, this Parliament debated the case for and against independence. We did so with passion and with a sense of the importance of the decision that we were about to make.

This is a Parliament elected by the people of Scotland—much more than a public body. Next Thursday is about securing hundreds of thousands of jobs, protecting the rights of workers, and showing the world the type of country that we want to be. I ask the First Minister, when it comes to issues like terrorism, climate change and the refugee crisis, does she share my support for the principle of working together with the other nations of the world?

Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con) rose—

Yes, I do. I agree with that very strongly. As Kezia Dugdale, the whole chamber and—it is fair to say—the whole country know, I believe passionately that Scotland should be an independent country and I very much hope that in the near future we will be an independent country. I also believe very strongly that, in the modern, interdependent world we live in, independent countries must work together to tackle the issues that no country can deal with on its own, including issues like climate change, the refugee crisis and tackling terrorism. Independent countries working together on those issues makes us all stronger and safer.

I will take Margaret Mitchell’s point of order at the end.

The future of our economy is one of the biggest issues being debated outside of this chamber and sudden shocks would have a damaging impact on our ability to fund public services. People need to know what plans are in place. Can the First Minister tell us what contingency planning is under way to prepare for a shock to the UK economy?

I very much hope that such a scenario does not arise. Let me be very clear: as First Minister, my duty is to seek to protect Scotland’s interests in all circumstances and, therefore, I am ensuring that appropriate planning for all eventualities is being undertaken by the Scottish Government. Let me also say—I have said this many times before—that, if Scotland faces the prospect of being taken out of the European Union against our democratically expressed will, all options to protect our relationship with Europe and the European Union will require to be considered.

Prior to the election, the First Minister and the health minister dismissed concerns about cuts to services at the Vale of Leven hospital, Inverclyde hospital, the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley and Lightburn hospital in Glasgow as, somehow, scaremongering. They promised that the Scottish National Party Government would not approve any changes that would run counter to the vision for the Vale, as set out in the document before me.

I have been given a leaked document—the final draft of the local development plan for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde—which lists the closure of the Vale of Leven maternity unit, the closure of the Inverclyde maternity unit, the closure of Lightburn hospital and the transfer of children’s emergency care away from the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley. Will the First Minister keep her promise to my constituents so that babies will continue to be born at the Vale?

As Jackie Baillie knows, when I was the health secretary I took a number of actions and steps to protect the Vale of Leven hospital. When I became health secretary, the hospital was under threat from the previous Labour Administration. As I have made clear, and as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has made clear, we will not approve proposals that run counter to the vision for the Vale. I am not aware of the document that Jackie Baillie has—to the best of my knowledge, I have not seen it, and I would be happy to receive a copy of it—but I am sure that what she has just read out are, at most, proposals. Let me be very clear about this Government’s commitment to the vision for the Vale: we will continue to take forward that commitment.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-00072)

Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.

Last weekend, the education secretary was greeted by jeers, boos and cries of “Rubbish!” at the Educational Institute of Scotland teachers conference because he is making the problems with workload, which have already been discussed, worse with his plans for compulsory testing. Why does the First Minister think that her minister is right and the teachers are wrong?

I am astonished that Willie Rennie has asked me that question. He was in the room yesterday, at the education summit, when Larry Flanagan of the EIS made extensive comments about standardised assessment. He said—I am paraphrasing; it is for Mr Flanagan to speak for himself—that he thought that much of the opposition and objection to standardised assessment is based on a misunderstanding and a misrepresentation of what the Government is doing.

I am frankly staggered that, having sat in that education summit yesterday while those comments were made, Willie Rennie has come and asked me the question that he just asked.

I do not know who the First Minister thinks that she is building a consensus with, but it is certainly not teachers. We have already heard about their plans for industrial action. I do not know which planet she is on.

Testing small children is not the answer to our problems in education—we have already been down that blind alley before. Meanwhile, Scotland’s employers cannot get the skilled workforce that they need. Save the Children told us today about the lack of investment in early-years vocabulary, and nursery education targets have been missed, too. All the while, education budgets have been cut by the SNP Government.

Instead of fighting with teachers over tests, why does the First Minister not provide the investment, including the early-years investment, that we need for our future?

I notice that Willie Rennie did not respond to what I just said about Larry Flanagan’s comments yesterday at the summit that Willie Rennie also attended.

During that summit, Willie Rennie would also have heard the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development talk about the clear distinction between national testing, which we are not doing, and national assessment, which we are doing. He would have heard Andy Hargreaves of the OECD, who is a very respected educationist, praise the Scottish Government for trying to move from what he described as a culture of teacher judgment to a system of teacher judgment, saying that he thought that we are on absolutely the right track.

We are seeking to have the information that we need to ensure that our children—regardless of where they grow up and regardless of their background—get the best possible education. Willie Rennie can oppose that if he likes, but I am all for it and I am determined that we are going to achieve it.

Alcohol Sales (Restrictions)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government plans to restrict the amount of alcohol that can be sold in pubs and supermarkets. (S5F-00091)

We have no plans or proposals to restrict the amount of alcohol that can be sold in individual pubs or supermarkets, but we will continue to pursue an evidence-based approach to tackling alcohol harm.

The World Health Organization has a global target of reducing harmful alcohol use by 10 per cent by 2025. Through our on-going work to refresh our alcohol framework, we are examining whether there are merits to a Scottish target for reducing harmful alcohol use.

The First Minister will share my disappointment that, after steady decline in recent years, alcohol consumption is once again on the rise, with Scots adults last year each consuming an average equivalent of 41 bottles of vodka, with all the health and social ills that that implies. Does she agree that the sooner minimum unit pricing clears the courts and is implemented the better? Although I am pleased that no new legislation is being considered at this time, does she also agree that the effectiveness of existing legislation—for example, to restrict the overprovision of alcohol-selling outlets—should be reviewed?

I very much agree with the sentiments behind Kenny Gibson’s questions. As I said, we will continue to pursue an evidence-based approach to tackling alcohol harm.

Obviously, the court case remains active and that restricts what I can say, but I will say that I continue to believe that minimum unit pricing is more effective than tax, precisely because it is able to better target the cheap high-strength alcohol favoured by the heaviest drinkers. I am sure that I am not alone in wondering why a measure that would save 2,000 lives over the next 20 years is still so resolutely resisted by some parts of the industry.

Infrastructure (Impact of New Housing)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will ensure that existing infrastructure is expanded to cope with new demand from housing developments. (S5F-00097)

The delivery of a further 50,000 high-quality affordable homes is a key priority for this Government. To support that, we recently published draft planning guidance on housing and infrastructure, which recommends that planning authorities take into account current infrastructure capacity and future requirements when approving new developments. In addition, the recent independent review of the Scottish planning system made a number of recommendations to strengthen planning for infrastructure. We will respond to the recommendations shortly.

There are serious concerns in the south of Scotland, particularly in East Lothian, that new housing developments will mean that health services, schools and roads will not be able to cope with the new demand. Will the First Minister give a commitment that, before the new developments are built, East Linton station will be restored and the A1 will be dualled north of the border as set out in our Scottish Conservative manifesto?

We will continue to do what I said in my original answer. We have published draft planning guidance on housing and infrastructure, which recommends that planning authorities, wherever they happen to be in the country, should take account of current infrastructure capacity and future requirements when they are approving new developments. That is a sensible approach.

We need new housing. That is why we set and exceeded our target for affordable housing in the previous session of Parliament; that is why we have set an even more ambitious target in this session of Parliament. However, we must also ensure that the infrastructure is there to support new development, and our new approach to planning is all about achieving that.

I echo Rachael Hamilton’s questions and concerns. Just two weeks ago, the City of Edinburgh Council’s Scottish National Party-Labour Administration approved the garden city development in Gogar and Gyle against the advice of officials. The area is on the fringes of the A8, which is the most congested stretch of road outside the M25. It is also in the footprint of the Ladywell medical practice, which is at capacity. With 4,000 extra patients, the practice would have to close its list. Does the First Minister agree that the issue is not just about roads infrastructure, but about addressing the general practice crisis in our health service?

All those matters are important when any local authority is looking at new development. Of course, those are matters for local authorities. The Liberal Democrats frequently get up in this chamber and accuse the Government of centralisation and talk about the merits of localism, so they should probably start practising what they preach.

The Government is very clear, in the draft planning guidance that I have spoken about, about the importance of housing development—nobody can deny the need for new housing development in this country—and ensuring that we have in place adequate infrastructure, whatever the nature of that infrastructure. That is what we will continue to focus on.

Paediatric Services (Lothian)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the future of paediatric services across Lothian. (S5F-00090)

Next week, Lothian NHS Board will consider the recommendation of an independent review of its paediatric services by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. That recommendation is for the retention of in-patient children’s services at St John’s hospital. The Scottish Government stands ready to support NHS Lothian to implement the report’s recommendations, including retaining in-patient paediatrics to ensure that all necessary improvements are delivered for the benefit of patients.

The report by the royal college into children’s services has, indeed, recommended the retention of a 24/7 ward at St John’s. NHS Lothian must now accept that recommendation, which will be a tremendous victory for people power. However, the report also raises very serious concerns about management failure, recruitment, training, incident recording, information technology problems and staff morale, all of which affect the care of children.

Last week at question time, the First Minister took credit for a number of good things that have happened at St John’s. Will she now, after nine years in government—much of that time as health secretary—take responsibility for those failings and, more important, for putting them right?

I would have thought that Neil Findlay might come to the chamber and utter an apology for some of what he has previously said on the issue. Every time that he stood up in the chamber to raise the issue—it used to be from the benches of the official Opposition; now it is from the benches of the third party in the Scottish Parliament—he said or suggested that that independent report was somehow an underhand way on the part of the Scottish Government to force the closure of the in-patient paediatric service at St John’s. Now that the report has recommended the retention of the children’s in-patient service, surely he will have the good grace to admit that he got it wrong previously.

Now that the recommendation has been made, it is for Lothian NHS Board to discuss it next week. However, I repeat what I said earlier: the Scottish Government will support NHS Lothian to implement the recommendations to ensure that all necessary improvements are delivered for the benefit of patients. Then, we will be able to add the work that we do on those matters to the long list of improvements that the Government has helped to ensure happen at St John’s hospital.

The First Minister will be aware that the threat to the unit at St John’s has come from a shortage of staff within NHS Lothian. What action will the Scottish Government take to investigate that and will the First Minister agree to host an NHS summit to consider workforce planning across the country?

Recruitment and retention to the children’s unit at St John’s hospital have been under investigation and discussion. A lot of activity has been undertaken to recruit people for a long time. That will continue to be one of the central issues in taking forward the independent report’s recommendation.

I say in passing that we have many first-class clinicians from many different countries across Europe and the world working in our NHS. It would be a massive mistake to close off the supply of any of them in any decision that we might take over the next few days.

Only days before the election, the First Minister wrongly denied that there were proposals to downgrade or close paediatric services at the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley. Now, from Jackie Baillie’s question, we know that there are proposals to move in-patient paediatric services away from the RAH to Glasgow. Does the First Minister support those proposals?

Neil Bibby will have heard my reply to Jackie Baillie, but he might also want to reflect on the fact that, before the election, Neil Findlay stood up in the chamber week after week scaremongering about the Scottish Government’s plans to close paediatric services at St John’s hospital. Today, we are talking about the recommendation of an independent report about the retention of paediatric services. That underlines the Government’s commitment to quality, sustainable local services. That is what will continue.

Schools (Healthy Eating)

To ask the First Minister what progress the Scottish Government is making to reduce the availability of unhealthy products in schools. (S5F-00084)

School food legislation sets high nutritional standards that all food and drink provided in schools must meet. That includes lunches, tuck shops, breakfast clubs and vending machines. Although food and drink brought into school by pupils is exempt from those regulations, the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Act 2007 requires all schools to set health-promoting policies. We expect those to apply to food and drink permitted on school grounds.

As the First Minister will be aware, our country’s children now find it easier than ever to gain access to unhealthy food and drink. Energy drinks, which cause particular problems in schools throughout the country, have been cited by people such as Forfar academy head Melvyn Lynch as a contributory factor in many behavioural issues. He has introduced a ban, and I fully support the campaign by The Courier to get that ban in place across Tayside.

Tomorrow, I will visit a Dundee secondary school, and I would be delighted to tell the staff there that the First Minister will back the can it campaign. Will she join me in supporting that worthwhile cause?

I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Sport, Shona Robison, has already publicly supported The Courier can it campaign, and I think that it is a very positive campaign that is worthy of support.

As I outlined in my answer—I agree that some worrying conclusions have been drawn about the impact of energy drinks on young people—food and drink brought into schools by pupils is exempt from regulations but the 2007 act requires schools to set health-promoting policies. I would certainly expect such policies to apply to food and drink that is permitted on school grounds. Therefore, I think that schools have the tools that they need here. We continue to talk to local authorities about all those matters. We all have an interest in making sure that our young people eat healthily, because not only is it good for their health but it is good for their ability to learn.

The debate is about what is purchased by children near schools, as opposed to just within schools. Given that many of our children head out to supermarkets and local shops at lunch time or on the way home from school—and given that price, promotion and display influence what is purchased—would ministers be willing to engage with the retail sector about having better policies that promote healthier products as opposed to unhealthier ones?

Richard Lochhead is absolutely right. Not only are we willing to engage with retailers: we are already engaging with retailers and caterers through our supporting healthy choices framework. That challenges them to rebalance their promotions and to support children and families to make healthier choices.

As I have just said, we also welcome public health campaigns such as the can it campaign from The Courier. We will continue to engage with industry to promote healthier choices wherever possible. Any efforts in that direction are very welcome indeed.

As the First Minister has acknowledged, this is about more than what is sold within schools. Recently, North Lanarkshire Council tried to enforce a ban on fast-food snack vans operating in the vicinity of local schools. That ban was overturned in the courts, calling into question bans that operate across the country, in Glasgow, Renfrewshire and other areas. I ask the First Minister to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to look at that recent court ruling and to consider whether any legislative changes are required to give local authorities the power to enforce a snack van ban to improve the health of pupils in Scotland.

I will certainly do so, and I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to write to the member when he has done so.

In Vitro Fertilisation (Access to Treatment)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to improve access to IVF treatment. (S5F-00103)

This week, we confirmed that we would accept recommendations in the national infertility group’s report, to build on the improvements we have made to IVF access in recent years. That will see the number of IVF cycles offered on the NHS increase from two to three and also allow access for couples where one partner does not have a biological child.

I thank the First Minister for her answer and for the action that her Government is taking to ensure that IVF provision in Scotland is as fair and as generous as possible. When will those changes come into effect, ensuring that Scotland remains at the forefront on IVF action and rights across the UK?

We are working to ensure that Scotland remains at the forefront of IVF action and rights across the UK. That is in comparison with, for example, Northern Ireland, where eligible couples can access only one fresh and one frozen cycle of treatment; England, where the majority of patients can access only one cycle; and Wales, where couples can access only two cycles of treatment. The action that we are taking therefore puts us very much at the forefront.

Work is now beginning with health boards to develop a sustainable implementation plan that will include setting out final timescales for the introduction of each of the IVF criteria changes. I will make sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Sport keeps Parliament informed of the implementation as it progresses.