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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 17, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 17 May 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Everyone’s Business Campaign, Veterans (Health and Wellbeing), Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Relief from Additional Amount) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Point of Order, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Secondary Education (Subject Choice)

Presiding Officer,

“I will not accept a situation in which there are restrictions”—[Official Report, 7 January 2009; c 13684.]

on subject choices in senior secondary school. That is what Fiona Hyslop, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, said when curriculum for excellence was launched. Has the Government kept that promise?

We want pupils in schools to have the widest possible choice. We are encouraging schools to be flexible in their timetabling and to look at options to give students choices beyond their own school. There are, right now, a number of very good examples of how that is being done.

I do not know whether Ruth Davidson is talking specifically about advanced highers, but the number of young people who are leaving our schools with advanced highers is increasing. Among young people from our most deprived communities, the number has increased by 40 per cent since 2011.

We will continue to work hard with local authorities and with schools to ensure that our young people have the broadest and widest possible choice.

I am slightly surprised by that answer, because subject choice is narrowing. A new survey has made it clear that restrictions are happening right across Scotland, right now. The majority of schools offer only six subjects in secondary 4. Although the survey is new, it only confirms concerns that have been raised by MSPs from across the chamber since the Scottish National Party took charge. The consequence is severely limited options for young people when it comes to choosing their highers—especially for those who hope to study multiple sciences or languages.

We have a broken promise, less choice for young people, and parents are still in the dark about what is going on. What does the First Minister say to them?

When we look at exam passes in our schools, we see that the evidence does not bear out Ruth Davidson’s argument. She mentioned a study; I think that she was referring to the work of Dr Jim Scott. I make no criticism whatsoever of Dr Scott’s work, but it looks solely at pupils in secondary 4. The senior phase in our schools is designed to be three years long—from S4 to S6. What matters is the qualifications that pupils leave school with, not just the subjects that they study in S4. When we look at the results of pupils leaving school, we find—contrary to what Ruth Davidson said—that the picture is steadily improving.

Dr Scott looked at the picture since 2013. Since then—[Interruption.] The Conservatives do not want to hear this. Since then, the number of higher passes has increased by 4 per cent. As I said, the number of pupils who leave school with advanced highers is increasing, too. We have more young people coming out of our education system with more exam passes. That is something that Ruth Davidson should welcome.

I am talking about subject choice. It is well seen that John Swinney is not sitting next to the First Minister today.

However, do not just take it from me. Here is what Keir Bloomer, one of the architects of curriculum for excellence, has said. He warned about this five years ago. He said:

“It will severely limit the options for those who want to study three sciences or several languages.”

How bad do things have to get before the SNP Government will own up to its mistakes? Teacher numbers are down, literacy standards are slipping and numeracy is stagnating, while subject choices are falling for our pupils. As always, the poorest parts of Scotland suffer most. A pupil who goes to a school in one of the wealthiest parts of Scotland has a 70 per cent chance of being able to choose from among 12 or more advanced highers. What is the figure for the poorest neighbourhoods?

I will be happy to provide that figure, which I do not have in front of me.

However, I can tell Ruth Davidson that I think that what matters is the number of our poorest pupils who are getting advanced highers. That number has risen for pupils from our most deprived communities by 40 per cent—six times the rise in our least deprived communities, where the increase was 6.8 per cent.

The qualifications with which young people come out of our schools are what really matter. The numbers are going up for advanced highers and for highers. As I said a moment ago, the number of higher passes has increased by 4 per cent since 2013 and, last year, higher passes exceeded 150,000 for the third year in a row, despite a fall in the size of that school year group.

In addition, we see that tariff scores—which include qualification results generally and not just highers—have also increased overall since 2013 across all attainment groups. Whether we are talking about deprived communities or non-deprived communities, we have more young people coming out of our schools with better exam passes. That is what is important. I would have thought that people would welcome that.

So, basically, the First Minister does not know the answer to my question. I can tell her. The figure is two: there are just two schools in the poorest parts of Scotland at which pupils can choose from among 12 or more advanced highers, and the rest get nowhere near that. That is the reality in SNP Scotland.

The First Minister wants to talk about Dr Jim Scott, so let us hear what he has to say. He has said that the S1 to S3 curriculum is in “significant disarray” and that pupils are “crashing” down suddenly to as few as six subjects in S4, which means that they are, in effect, picking their highers at age 14. Pupils in the poorest areas are being hit hardest.

There is a scandal going on in secondary schools, right now. The Government is curtailing the choice for our young people to pursue the same broad-based education as the First Minister enjoyed, and that I enjoyed, and from which generations of Scots have benefited. That cannot continue. We support the idea of having a parliamentary inquiry into the issue. Will the First Minister back it?

There has, indeed, been a scandal in Scottish politics this week. It involved the resignation of one of Ruth Davidson’s front benchers just yesterday. However, moving back to education—[Interruption.]

Thank you. Let us have some order.

I think that I hit a raw nerve, Presiding Officer.

In moving back to schools and education, let us just get back to the facts. Ruth Davidson talks—[Interruption.] I do not think that the Conservatives actually want to hear the answers, Presiding Officer. I wonder why.

Let us get back to subject choice. I am not sure whether Ruth Davidson is aware of things such as the advanced higher hub at Glasgow Caledonian University, the virtual school network in the Highland Council area and the initiative in the Western Isles. What are those things? They are about schools using different ways of timetabling and taking partnership approaches with nearby schools and other partners in order to extend choices for their pupils.

However, I cannot believe that Ruth Davidson does not think that what is important is the highers and other qualifications that our young people leave school with. So, let me recap for the benefit of the Tories, who do not want to listen to this: there are more young people, including young people from our most deprived communities, now leaving school with qualifications including highers, and there are more young people leaving school with advanced highers. In case Ruth Davidson did not hear it the last time I said it, there was a 40 per cent increase in the number of young people from our most deprived communities coming out of our schools with advanced highers. There are more young people with more qualifications. That is a sign of the success of our education system, which is why the Tories do not want to recognise it.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Audit of Referrals)

Up and down the country, every year, thousands of children and young people are referred to our national health service for mental health treatment. Every year, thousands are turned away, yet the Scottish Government does not know the reasons why. As far back as March 2017, after months of pressure, the Government finally promised an audit of the rejected referrals. It has been more than a year now, and that audit report is nowhere to be seen. Does the First Minister think that that is acceptable?

The audit is under way. There was always work that had to be done in order to complete the audit. The audit of rejected referrals is well under way, and the Scottish Association for Mental Health is conducting interviews and focus groups with young people and their families, as well as speaking directly to referrers such as general practitioners and teachers. That important audit is under way, it is progressing well, and I understand that it is due to be published by 30 June.

I look forward to the publication of the report but the trouble is that, in the time between the announcement of that review and now, there have been a further 5,410 rejected referrals—over 500 in Tayside, over 1,000 in Lothian and over 1,500 in Greater Glasgow and Clyde. That represents thousands of Scotland’s most vulnerable children, who have been let down.

This is mental health awareness week, but for those young people, this has been a wasted year; it is time that they cannot get back. Many of us believe that mental health must be given the same priority as physical health, but if thousands of children were being referred and rejected for surgery, would it really have taken the Government more than a year to find out why?

As I think everybody understands, there will be a range of reasons for referrals being rejected, but the audit is taking place exactly because we want to understand better what those reasons are, where those reasons are perhaps understandable, and where they are not and they are unacceptable. That will enable us to see what improvements are needed so that we can route young people to the most appropriate help and support.

When we undertake to do an audit, we have to painstakingly do the work to complete the audit and to inform any further work that must be done. As I said, that audit is under way, and I hope Richard Leonard will welcome that. It is going well. SAMH is leading the work on interviews and focus groups with young people and their families and, as I said earlier, it is also speaking to the people who refer young people, including GPs and teachers. That work is under way, and it will be important work, which will allow us to form a basis for the improvements that require to be made.

I would hope that Richard Leonard, having raised the matter—and he is right to raise it—will welcome the progress that is being made.

But there was a six-month delay before the audit started. The simple fact is that mental health services for children in Scotland are struggling. Labour has raised this issue with the Government week after week, and so have the Liberal Democrats. We have proposed a review of rejected referrals, and we are still waiting. We proposed access to a counsellor for every school, but the Government did not listen. We explained that cuts to councils would hit services for young people, but the Government made the cuts anyway. Children as young as five are being referred by one part of Scotland’s health service to another, and the referrals are then being rejected.

The First Minister once said that she had

“a sacred responsibility - to make sure every young person ... gets the same chance ... to succeed”.

Where on earth is that “sacred responsibility” to those children?

Before I leave the issue of the audit of rejected referrals, I say to Richard Leonard that we announced such an audit, and we had to plan how that would happen so that we would get it right. The work is now under way and I have given a progress report on it. It is important that we get that work right so that the actions that will flow from it will be the right ones.

More generally on mental health, and also on child and adolescent mental health services, I can say that funding for such services is increasing. In 2017-18, the budget for mental health exceeded £1 billion for the first time. The CAMHS workforce is also increasing: it has gone up by 65 per cent since 2007. The number of psychologists has more than doubled, and we are also investing in additional mental health workers in key settings such as accident and emergency departments, general practitioners’ surgeries and prisons.

Work is under way in schools, which is an important issue that Richard Leonard has just raised. Some schools already provide access to school-based services; others utilise the skills of pastoral care staff, while liaising with local educational psychology services for specialist support. Every school has a named contact in specialist CAMHS, who can provide on-going support. As part of our mental health strategy, we have started a national review of personal and social education that includes counselling in schools. We also continue to support Childline with funding for it to provide confidential advice and information to children, young people and their families.

A whole programme of work is under way to address the very issues that Richard Leonard has talked about. It is important that we continue to discuss such things, but I do not think that it would be asking too much for Richard Leonard to at least know what is already happening before he raises such issues at First Minister’s question time.

Ferry Services (Disruption)

This week, Caledonian Macbrayne’s managing director told the BBC that ferry services are facing the worst disruption in seven years, and that island communities are not always getting the service that they expect. I would call that an understatement. The busy summer season has not yet started, but we are already seeing reductions to services, postponed summer timetables and major vessels being offline for lengthy periods of time. Does the First Minister accept that islanders are sick and tired of the constant disruption? How confident is she in the handling by her Minister for Transport and the Islands of that catalogue of failures?

Those are important issues, with which the transport minister engages on a regular and on-going basis. We are investing heavily in ferry services; that includes building new ferries, as is happening right now at Ferguson Marine’s shipyard. Any disruption to or reduction in service to any community is deeply regretted and should be avoided in all possible circumstances but, of course, sometimes ferries need maintenance work. We will continue to work closely with CalMac to make sure that our island communities get the ferry services that they deserve.

Fixed-odds Betting Terminals

Does the First Minister agree with me in welcoming this morning’s news that the maximum stake in fixed-odds betting terminals will be reduced from £100 to £2 per spin? Does she commend all campaigners, including stop the FOBTs, the campaign for fairer gambling and Gamblers Anonymous, for their perseverance and determination? Does she acknowledge that this welcome decision is one that will help people’s lives?

Yes. I very much welcome the United Kingdom Government’s decision to reduce the maximum stake to £2. I commend all those who have campaigned for such a move—including Stuart McMillan, who has long taken an interest in and campaigned on the issue. The Scottish Government encourages any actions that can help to reduce the harmful impact of problem gambling. As Stuart McMillan said, Scottish stakeholders and many politicians have long pushed for robust action to be taken. Of course, we will study the detailed proposals with interest, and will continue to call for appropriate action to tackle the problem even more effectively.

Bowel Screening (Follow-up Appointments)

At the end of April, I was contacted by a constituent who, having submitted a bowel screening test, was contacted and advised to secure a follow-up appointment. When she made contact, she was told that she could not be given a definite appointment time at that point. She is still waiting and, understandably, is highly anxious.

I wrote directly to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and, following a further follow-up earlier this week, was advised that we will not get a response to the issue until about 12 June. I understand that the problem is affecting a significant number of people. Will the First Minister investigate it as a matter of urgency, in order that those who are affected can be reassured that, whatever the cause of the problem, appointments will be secured as soon as possible?

I know that Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board is doing work to address that issue. Obviously, I do not have all the details of Johann Lamont’s constituency case, but I undertake to investigate and look into the matter. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will respond to the member as quickly as possible.

Affordable Homes

At the previous Scottish Parliament election, in 2016, the First Minister stood on a manifesto that promised:

“we will invest £3 billion to build at least 50,000 more affordable homes”

over the next five years. Does that commitment stand?


I am very pleased to hear that, because that is not what we heard from the Minister for Local Government and Housing when he spoke to the parliamentary committee that asked questions about that this week. The change of language from “building” to “delivering” 50,000 homes might sound abstract, but it is measured in bricks and mortar.

We are almost approaching the halfway point of that five-year session, and more than a third of what has been done so far is not about building new homes. Refurbishing empty homes and bringing former council houses back into social rent are good ideas, but they do not increase the overall housing supply. We need to build new if we are going to achieve that. In particular, modern disability and accessibility standards that need to be met in modern homes will be met best by building new.

Will the First Minister have words with her housing minister and ensure that he recommits to the target of 50,000 new-build homes? Is that not the only way of ensuring that the overall supply of housing will be increased as it needs to be?

Our commitment is well known and has not changed, and we are determined to deliver on it.

I agree with Patrick Harvie on the general point about the importance of new-build housing as part of any investment in housing, but I slightly take issue with him on the broader point that there is no other way of increasing the supply of housing. I could point to areas in my constituency in which the refurbishment of existing housing is bringing houses back into productive use.

The investment that we are putting in is significant. In his opening question, Patrick Harvie mentioned the figure of £3 billion. That is a 76 per cent increase on our previous five-year investment, and that includes funding for 35,000 homes for social rent, which is important. There is £756 million available this year—in fact, I understand that there is more than that—to fund that ambition, and much of that has already been allocated to council areas across the country.

That is an important commitment from the Scottish Government, and we are absolutely determined to deliver on it in full.

Mental Health (Waiting Times)

A freedom of information request has shown that adult mental health waiting times are getting worse, with 1,000 adults having waited for over a year to get access to mental health treatment. More people are waiting for longer. Does the First Minister accept that access to mental health services in this country is getting worse?

As I said in response to an earlier question, we are seeing increased funding for mental health services. That is important, and I hope that it will be welcome. We are seeing a growing workforce for the delivery of mental health services, and we are trying to rebalance care away from hospital and general practitioner care into community settings when people would benefit from preventative mental health services. All of that work is encapsulated in our mental health strategy, which is backed by additional funding.

Adult waits are not yet where we want them to be. The Minister for Mental Health is working closely with local health boards to improve the situation, and it is important that that work continues. The average wait among territorial boards in Scotland is seven weeks, and the figures range from four to 17 weeks. That published data gives some context. Of course, we continue to work with health boards to improve the situation, and we consider that work to be extremely important.

I do not think that the First Minister understands. The number of people who are waiting over a year has doubled since the day that she appointed her dedicated Minister for Mental Health. Since Christmas, I have challenged the First Minister about specialist perinatal mental health services—in half of Scotland, there are none—the waiting times for children, which are longer, and her suicide prevention plan. The wait for that plan goes on and on.

The First Minister tells us that the service that people receive is getting better, but the evidence says that she is just plain wrong. People with poor mental health deserve an answer. Why are mental health services getting worse in this country?

Willie Rennie raises a number of issues. He is right to say that people want answers, so let me give him some specific answers. I will briefly go through the particular issues that he raises.

First, we want to bring waiting times down. In particular, we want to bring down the longest waiting times. As I said previously, the average adult wait is seven weeks. In child and adolescent mental health services, the average wait is 10 weeks, and there is an average wait of between five and 12 weeks, which is within the 18-week target, in 11 out of 14 health boards. That is the context, although we continue to work hard to improve the situation further.

Willie Rennie has raised the issue of perinatal mental health before, and I know that the Liberal Democrats have issued some suggestions on that today, which are very welcome. As I said the last time, we have established and are funding the perinatal managed clinical network, which brings together specialists in perinatal mental health, nursing, maternity and infant mental health and is working to improve the recognition and treatment of perinatal mental healthcare.

Many members across the chamber, including Willie Rennie, asked us to do more work on the suicide prevention strategy between the production of the draft strategy and the publication of the final strategy, and that work is under way. I understand that the final strategy will be published before the summer recess, but perhaps this quote from Samaritans will help to give some context. Samaritans, which had raised some concerns about the draft strategy, said recently that it is

“encouraged by commitments made”

by me and the Minister for Mental Health

“that the final strategy will cover more of the recommendations for change from the pre-engagement report that was shaped by those with experience of suicide.”

As in my replies to Richard Leonard, I absolutely recognise the importance of mental health. We are, of course, in mental health awareness week, and there are more people coming forward for mental health services and treatment. We should continue to encourage that, because it shows that the stigma of mental ill health continues to reduce. Our responsibility is to expand the capacity of services, and that is what we are working to do across the range of issues that have been raised today by Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie. We will continue to do exactly that.

Job Losses at STV

Yesterday, journalists at STV walked out in response to the announcement of the loss of 59 jobs, including 34 in news. Does the First Minister agree that that is no way for a public service broadcaster to behave, particularly as STV made a profit of £18 million last year? Does she share concerns that those cuts are part of a plan to prepare the channel for sale to ITV, which would be an absolute disaster for Scottish broadcasting?

I do share those concerns. I am very disappointed and concerned that STV is cutting jobs and closing its second channel only a year after that channel was launched. This will be a very worrying time for all employees of STV who are affected by yesterday’s announcement, and my thoughts—and, I am sure, the thoughts of all members in the chamber—are with them.

This is a time when it is more important than ever that the Scottish perspective on local, national and international news is reflected by our broadcasters. It is, therefore, crucial that the STV news service is not diminished and that its team of excellent journalists continues to produce a high-quality news service covering the whole of Scotland. I hope that STV will listen to the concerns that are being expressed right now.

On Joan McAlpine’s question relating to speculation about this being preparation for a sale to ITV—a concern that someone expressed to me yesterday—I have no knowledge to suggest that that is the case. However, it is not a move that I would wish to see, and I think it would be opposed and resisted by many people across the country.

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

Today is the international day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia, and it is an opportunity for LGBTI people and allies around the world to rally against all forms of discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity. In Scotland, 90 per cent of LGBTI people have faced bullying in schools, and I am troubled by the impact that that has on young people in my region. Scottish Labour therefore welcomes the Government’s commitment to work with the time for inclusive education campaign. Does the First Minister believe that statutory LGBTI inclusive education in Scotland will become a reality during this session of Parliament?

I recognise that today is the international day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia, and I express my support for that. I am proud to say that the rainbow flag is flying outside Scottish Government buildings today to mark the occasion. There is absolutely no place in Scotland for prejudice or discrimination. Everybody deserves to be treated fairly.

We should all be proud of the fact that Scotland is recognised as one of the most progressive countries in Europe in terms of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex rights. However, we know that we need to do more to tackle all forms of prejudice, which is particularly true when it comes to homophobic bullying in our schools. That is why we are working with the TIE campaign to take forward its pledges through the LGBTI inclusive education working group, which was set up by the Deputy First Minister to promote an inclusive approach to sex and relationships education. We will continue to work with the TIE campaign to take forward its pledges and any recommendations over the course of this parliamentary session.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

What engagement has the Scottish Government undertaken with the United Kingdom Government since Tuesday, when this Parliament—Tories excepted—united to refuse consent to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill?

We continue to ask the UK Government to listen to and, more importantly, respect the view of this Parliament, which was so decisively expressed in the vote on Tuesday.

The requirement in the convention to respect the views of this Parliament and not to proceed with legislation that affects the powers of this Parliament without our consent is “not a nicety” or an “add on”; it is a fundamentally important part of our constitutional settlement. Those are actually the words of Adam Tomkins, just a matter of weeks ago, so I would hope that the Tories will stand up for the rights of this Parliament and demand, like we do, that the UK Government listens.

There is still time to get an agreement on this, but an agreement can be reached only if it respects the rights of this Parliament and is based on the fundamentally important principle of the genuine consent of this Parliament.

Universal Credit

At this morning’s meeting of the Social Security Committee, we heard evidence from a range of stakeholders who told us that the roll-out of universal credit will put the Scottish welfare fund under pressure, that families with disabled children have been evicted because of Tory benefit caps and that carers are losing out because of universal credit. Will the First Minister renew calls for a halt to universal credit and urge the United Kingdom Government to think again?

Yes, I will renew that call. The fact of the matter is that universal credit and the other welfare cuts that are being imposed by the Conservative Government are causing misery for people not only in Scotland but right across the United Kingdom, and the Tories appear to be oblivious to the impact of their decisions. I hope that we will see a halt to universal credit, at least until the problems that are associated with it are properly sorted out, because vulnerable people the length and breadth of the country should not be paying the price for the ideology of the Conservative Party.

Mental Health Awareness Week

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which states that I am a registered mental health nurse who holds an honorary contract with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is marking mental health awareness week. (S5F-02355)

We very much welcome mental health awareness week. Good mental health is as important as good physical health, and we want to create a Scotland that is free from stigma around mental health.

The theme of this year’s week is stress. We can all take small steps to help ourselves cope better. As I have said on many occasions, one of mine is making the time to read books, but different people will find different ways. It is important that people pay attention to their mental health.

When I was in Dumfries yesterday for the national economic forum, I took the opportunity to visit the Crichton campus to talk to students about their experiences of mental wellbeing. On Tuesday, the Minister for Mental Health launched See Me Scotland’s forthcoming campaign on young people’s mental health. Through that, as part of the year of young people 2018, we are seeking to explore directly with young people what mental health means to them.

In many instances, those who complete suicide have accessed websites that actively promote, encourage and give information on methods of self-harm. It has been reported that internet providers are not removing those sites when advised of their existence. That results in suicide prevention organisations having to pay for expensive adverts to appear in search results in order to signpost those in need to appropriate support.

Can the First Minister join me and my colleague Gillian Martin in the campaign to get search engines and social media to take more responsibility in preventing access to this dangerous content?

This is an extremely serious issue, and I commend Clare Haughey and Gillian Martin for raising awareness of it. Search engine providers and social media should always take responsibility for preventing access to any form of dangerous content, which obviously includes material that advocates suicide methods. Our draft suicide prevention action plan, on which we recently ran a public engagement process, included a proposed action to work with partners to develop a strong online suicide prevention presence, and such an initiative would be likely to consider access to dangerous content and signposting to appropriate sources of support. It will certainly be an issue that the suicide prevention action plan looks at, and I hope that members across the chamber will continue to support efforts in that regard.

That there is not a mental health crisis centre in Dundee offering out-of-hours support is a glaring gap in mental health services. I visited the Edinburgh crisis centre a couple of weeks ago and found an excellent facility where people can get the care and support that they need, at any time of the day or night, by self-referral.

On 18 January, I asked the First Minister whether she agreed that one of those centres is needed in Dundee. She said that she “broadly” agreed. What progress has she made since then on delivering a mental health crisis centre in Dundee?

I will ask the health secretary to reply to Jenny Marra in more detail. As the member is aware, NHS Tayside is currently looking at a range of issues around its mental health services. I hope that NHS Tayside will give further consideration to this issue, and I will ask the health secretary to write to Jenny Marra with an update on discussions about it.

I, too, welcome mental health awareness week. A recent Scottish Association for Mental Health survey revealed that two thirds of teachers feel that they have not received sufficient training on mental health to carry out their role properly. Will the First Minister back calls from the Scottish Conservatives to roll out a national programme of mental health teacher training and improved counselling services for secondary school pupils?

Training is important, and we will continue to work with local authorities to ensure that teachers have access to the resources and training that they need. In response to an earlier question, I talked about some of the work that is being done in our schools. Generally speaking, what we want to do is to try to get more services in place in a more preventative manner, which means having access to people who can help where there are issues around mental health in schools and in other non-national health service settings. The work that is being done in our schools is part of that, and making sure that teachers and others who may be interacting with young people with mental health issues have the proper backing and training to do that is important.

Mental health awareness week reminds us that personal struggles can end in tragedy. All too often, suicides occur in so-called clusters, leaving families, friends and communities devastated, especially when they involve young people. What support can the Scottish Government give to communities facing the tragedy of suicide?

First, I do not think that any of us who have not directly experienced suicide through a member of our family or a close friend can properly understand the long-lasting trauma that is experienced, so it is important that, as well as doing everything that we can to prevent suicide, we provide support to families and communities that have been affected by the tragedy of suicide.

We have already set out three areas to Parliament that will be included in the new suicide prevention action plan, one of which is the delivery of more constant crisis support for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. The action plan will no doubt cover more ways in which greater support will be given to families and communities. It is an important aspect of the issue as a whole and, through the new action plan, we are determined to address it.

Prisoners (Right to Vote)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government position is on extending the right to vote to all prisoners. (S5F-02337)

I have noted the Equalities and Human Rights Committee report, which was published earlier this week. I have been clear that now that the power is devolved, the Scottish Parliament will need to consider how to ensure compliance with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. I am not of the view that that should lead to the enfranchising of all prisoners. I am sceptical, to say the least, that complying with the European convention on human rights requires all prisoners to have the right to vote.

As the committee has made clear, further consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, including victims of crime and the general public, is needed. The Scottish Government will respond to the committee’s report in due course.

I welcome the First Minister’s response. As she mentioned, earlier this week, Labour, Lib Dem and Scottish National Party MSPs on the Equalities and Human Rights Committee supported calls to give all prisoners the right to vote. In response to that, the victims campaigner John Muir, whose son Damian was stabbed to death in 2007, said:

“It is an obscenity that this is even being considered and an insult to all victims of crime. My son’s civil liberties died with him on the street—why should someone who has committed murder, or carried out a brutal rape, be afforded the privilege of being able to vote?”

Does the First Minister agree that all MSPs should listen to the victims of crime, such as Mr Muir, and stand up for their rights first?

I am sure that all MSPs will be very mindful of the views of victims of crime. The comments that I made a moment ago are very clear. I am not making any criticism of the committee—it has considered the issue and made recommendations, as it is entitled to do. The issues are difficult and sensitive. A power that was previously reserved has now been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and therefore we have an obligation to ensure that the laws in our country are compliant with the European convention on human rights.

It is my view that we should not give the vote to all prisoners. I am certainly not persuaded of the case for enfranchising prisoners who are in prison for the most serious and heinous crimes and for lengthy periods. I do not think that that is required in order for us to comply with the European convention on human rights.

Beyond that, the Parliament requires a proper, mature debate. I thank the committee for its report, which will inform that debate. The fact that I do not agree with all the recommendations does not mean that it is not a debate that we need to have. As I said, the Government will formally respond to the committee’s report in due course, but I hope that, as the debate progresses, we will all listen to the victims of crime—we all have a duty to do that. I hope that, together as a Parliament, we can bring the debate to a sensible outcome in due course.

The First Minister will be aware that the right to vote is enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights and that many people agree with the Prison Reform Trust, which says that voting is not a privilege; it is a basic human right.

Given that Tom Halpin, the highly respected head of Sacro, has evidenced the benefits of enfranchising prisoners, will the First Minister take the opportunity to ensure that Scotland joins progressive countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland in its approach to such an important issue?

There is a range of arrangements in place across other countries, just as there is a range of interpretations of European Court of Human Rights rulings. Murdo Fraser was right to say that we must listen to the victims of crime. It is also important to listen to those who work with those who are sentenced to prison. I am a huge believer in the importance of rehabilitation and doing everything that we can through our justice system to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce reoffending. That is reflected in many aspects of the Scottish Government’s justice policies.

It is a complex issue. I might be being naive by making this plea at the outset of what will undoubtedly be a sensitive debate in the Parliament. None of us comes at it from an absolutely fixed position: we can approach all the issues carefully and in a grown-up way and come to a balanced outcome.

I have been very clear that I do not support enfranchising all prisoners, but there is a debate to be had before Parliament takes a decision on that. We have the opportunity to have that debate and get the right outcome, for the best reasons. I hope that all of us—regardless of party—take that opportunity.