Meeting date: Thursday, June 17, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 June 2021
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Provisional Outturn 2020-21, Law Officers, Drug-related Deaths, Point of Order, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Provisional Outturn 2020-21
- Law Officers
- Drug-related Deaths
- Point of Order
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask that members take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use only the aisles and walkways to access your seats and when moving around the chamber.
The first item of business is First Minister’s question time. I have begun discussions with parties on our shared aim to include as many members as possible in FMQs, so I would be very grateful if all participating members would bear that in mind.
This afternoon, the Scottish Parliament will debate the next steps to tackle Scotland’s drug deaths crisis. Does the First Minister accept that people in Scotland today are still being denied access to rehab, and that her Government’s addiction treatment is fundamentally broken?
I accept that we are not yet in the place where we want to be in terms of drug treatment and services generally, and in terms of drug rehabilitation services, in particular. Angela Constance, who is the Minister for Drugs Policy, will of course later set out the progress that we have made, the funding that we have committed and the steps that we are taking to address the matter. There are few things that the Government is more serious about doing. We are keen—and are open to doing so—to work across the chamber, as far as possible.
I have been open—notwithstanding our efforts and determination in this area of policy—in saying that I do not think that we have yet developed a package of policies that is sufficient to tackle the severity of the challenge that we face. I do not shy away from that. However, we are determined to ensure that we do just that; I know that Angela Constance is determined and is working hard to do it.
I think that the First Minister accepted that her Government’s strategy on the matter is fundamentally broken. I look forward to hearing more later this afternoon about what the Government will bring forward, because although the new standards that Angela Constance has already set out will be an important move in the right direction, they are not game changing. They are the basics; they are the very least that the Government should do.
People on the front line in the hardest-hit communities have been here before. They are hearing the same promises and warm words, but at the same time are seeing their families, friends and neighbours dying from drug abuse. All they hear is that, by next spring, the Government might manage to meet the bare minimum of expectations—which is that people who need treatment actually get it.
However, without teeth, the new standards will not make a dent in the crisis. Unless we give them a legal basis they are, in effect, optional and can be overlooked.
Can we have a question, please?
The Conservatives’ solution, which is backed by front-line campaigners, is a right to recovery bill that would give people a right in law to the treatment that they need.
Is the First Minister content to stop at the basics, or will she back our proposal and give people the power to get their lives back on track?
I will try, as briefly as I can, to address and engage with those points in substance, because they are important. However, I ask Douglas Ross to do similarly. Repeatedly, he stands up and puts into my mouth words that I have not said. That is okay for politics, but if we are genuinely—as I sincerely am—trying to find consensus on matters that are so serious, we all have a duty to try to put some of the politics to one side.
People are working across the country, including at grass-roots level, to deliver excellent services for people who have problems with drug misuse. I see it in my constituency. That is why it would not be fair for me to say that the system is “broken”; to do so does a disservice to their work.
However, that does not mean that I am denying that we have much more to do and that often in the past—I am being very frank—our response has not matched the response of the people at the grass roots. I am trying genuinely to engage on the issue.
In that spirit, I note that I understand that the Conservatives have raised the idea of a right to recovery bill. I met Annie Wells to discuss it a couple weeks ago. I said at the outset of this session that we would look at it in detail; we are doing so. Many of what I understand to be the key strands in the proposed right to recovery bill are being taken forward as recommendations of the residential rehabilitation working group. We can go into that in more detail.
My mind is not closed to there being a statutory underpinning. However, we have to be cautious about waiting as long as it takes to pass legislation before getting on with the work. Work is already under way on each strand that would be in the proposed bill; I want to take that work forward as quickly as possible. That does not rule out there being a statutory underpinning, but we all know how long it takes—rightly and for good reason—to get legislation through Parliament. Therefore, for goodness’ sake let us not put other things on hold while we talk about legislation.
I am serious about wanting to engage in good faith across the chamber. I hope that others will join us in doing exactly that.
The First Minister has now accused me twice this week of putting words in her mouth. [Interruption.] Let me be clear—the Official Report is accurate. On Tuesday, I was quoting her national clinical lead and asking whether the First Minister agreed with him. Today, I was quoting the First Minister accepting that the system is broken, which is why we are dealing with the case that I will put in front of members today.
The system is broken. If I may, Presiding Officer, I want to describe a case. I will keep the man’s identity anonymous, but if the First Minister will personally intervene, I will provide her with his details through the charity FAVOR—Faces and Voices of Recovery UK—which is acting on his behalf.
The man was part of the Scottish Government’s independent care review. He was abused as a child and still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He has been in the system in Glasgow for four years, without a care plan. He has been trying to get into rehab for two years, but keeps hearing that he is “not appropriate for rehab”. He is at death’s door. Today he is having a mental health assessment, which is just another hoop that he has to jump through because he wants to get better. His only hope, it seems, is private rehab, which is only possible because of a charity’s generosity.
That individual case is shocking, but the same is being repeated all over our country. The Government has been in power for 14 years. How much longer do we have to wait for the real action that is needed to tackle the crisis?
When it comes to individual cases, I do not know all the details and, as Douglas Ross fairly said, they are rightly kept confidential when we debate such things in Parliament. Of course I will look at the details of the case, if they can be passed on to me.
I hope that people will accept that it is not for me—as a politician who has no clinical qualifications or expertise—to decide whether an individual is, to use the term that was used, “appropriate for rehabilitation”. I think that we all accept that not everybody is “appropriate”, although perhaps that is not the best way to put it. Not everybody is deemed to be likely to benefit from residential rehabilitation.
I am very clear that, when the judgment of those who have expertise is that a person should have residential rehabilitation and will benefit from it, that person should get it. That is why we are, for example, significantly increasing investment in residential rehabilitation. The Minister for Drugs Policy has already spoken about that, and it will be part of what she sets out this afternoon.
This might be an unorthodox way of doing politics—people might be expecting me to stand here and defend everything that we have not got right in the past, but I am not going to do that. We have failed in aspects of drugs policy, so I am determined that we will get it right. I will not describe the system as being completely broken, because that would do a disservice to the many people across the country who are delivering services for people who are in need. However, I accept that the Government’s response has not always matched that need, and that we have to get that right.
We must provide the funding and the right approaches; there is absolute determination to achieve that, so many strands of work are under way. It is difficult work and there are no easy solutions—I think that we all accept that. Change will not happen overnight, but we are determined to make the change that is required. That is why Angela Constance, as Minister for Drugs Policy, reports directly to me. The issue is one of the key priorities of the Government over the coming period; we are absolutely determined to make the change that people deserve.
I will ensure that the First Minister receives details of the case this afternoon.
We must tackle the issue now. Scotland’s drug death figures are the highest in Europe and are only going to get worse in the next few years if nothing is done. The First Minister said that we cannot be overly cautious or wait too long before passing legislation, and I agree. In facing the Covid crisis during the past year and a bit, Parliament has been able to act and to pass legislation at record speed. We need exactly the same urgency in dealing with Scotland’s drug death crisis.
My party will publish our proposals for a right to recovery bill before Parliament rises for recess next week. Will the First Minister agree with me, with addiction campaigners such as FAVOR, and with people on the front line, and back our bill to give everyone a legal right to recovery?
I have said previously and have repeated today—at least, I have given a strong indication, but am happy to say it more expressly—that I will look with an open mind at any proposals, including proposals for legislation. Douglas Ross has said that he has not yet published the draft bill. When it is published, we will look at it.
If there is consensus in Parliament about introducing legislation quickly and putting it through the process on an accelerated timescale, we will also consider that. However, we all know that even when there is consensus on the principle of legislation, there is often not—for good reasons—sufficient agreement on the detail to allow that. It is therefore important that we look closely at such things.
I am committed to doing that, but whatever route we take on legislation I will not hang back on the work that is under way. The Minister for Drugs Policy will set out the many strands of that work and give an update to Parliament this afternoon. It covers residential rehabilitation, which is the main issue that the Conservatives have pushed, as is reasonable, but there are many other aspects. The work is also about the quality of community services and access to same-day treatment, which is why the standards that Douglas Ross talked about in his first question are so important. We have a range of things to do and to get right.
Legislation might have a part to play; I am open-minded about that. However, we have to get on with the work, for the reasons that have, rightly, been set out.
Covid-19 (Personal Protective Equipment)
The report published today by Audit Scotland lays out the truth about personal protective equipment provision during the pandemic. It confirms that the Scottish Government was not prepared.
I accept that the specific challenges of Covid-19 might have been unique, but a major pandemic was not unexpected. Three planning exercises were held: Silver Swan in 2015, Cygnus in 2016, and Iris in 2018. All three made recommendations about PPE and all three were ignored.
When Covid struck, that meant that we did not have adequate supplies and struggled to cope, particularly in the early stages. Why did the First Minister and the Scottish Government not act on those three reports?
We acted on all those reports. I have said before and I will say again that whether it is on PPE, the response to previous exercises, or indeed many other aspects of the pandemic, the Government, in common with Governments all over the world no doubt, did not get everything right. We have lessons to learn and, as I have said many times already, I do not shy away from that.
I am sure that there will be more scrutiny in the months to come, but one of the legitimate criticisms is that many of us, particularly western Governments, rested too much of our planning and preparedness on thinking that a pandemic would be a flu pandemic. That is relevant to the Audit Scotland report, and the remarks that I heard from Auditor General on the radio this morning reflected on some of our preparations around PPE. I recognise that.
However, anybody who has read the Audit Scotland report and who listened to the Auditor General this morning will also have heard something else. I will quote the Auditor General:
“The Scottish Government and NHS National Services Scotland worked well together under extremely challenging circumstances to set up new arrangements for the supply and distribution of PPE”
across the country. At no point did we not have PPE. At no point did we run out of PPE. At times, central stocks were very low, as they would have been in many countries given the intense global demand. Again, as is reflected in the report, we worked hard on the supply to make sure that health boards across the country had supplies of PPE, often on a same-day turnaround. We now have domestic supply chains for PPE that are much better than they were before the pandemic, when about 100 per cent of all our PPE was imported. The majority is now manufactured here in Scotland.
There are lessons to learn, but I pay tribute to everybody in NHS National Services Scotland and in health boards across the country who worked hard to ensure that Scotland did not run out of PPE at any point.
The First Minister may not have run out of PPE on her spreadsheet, but it ran out in hospitals and in our care settings. If she asks the healthcare workers, they will tell her the truth.
Today’s Audit Scotland report confirms that central stocks of PPE were so low at points that they could have run out within eight hours. In April last year, intensive care unit doctors raised the alarm that they were having to reuse visors. In Glasgow and Lanarkshire, out-of-date PPE with fake labels that had been put on top of the expiry dates was being used, and more than 1,000 social care staff were forced to organise a petition to get PPE in their workplace. Across Scotland, we heard the same horrifying story and saw tragic images. A lack of PPE had devastating consequences. It cost lives.
In Scotland, a sixth of all Covid cases admitted to hospital during the first wave were healthcare workers or members of their household. In total, 21 healthcare staff and 28 social care workers have, tragically, lost their lives to Covid-19 in Scotland. Does the First Minister accept that that is partly the consequence of her Government ignoring its own warnings and not being prepared?
No, I do not think that that is the case, although there is much scrutiny still to come of the Government’s handling of the matter. I welcome that and think that it is important.
I pay tribute to everybody who worked in our national health service in the early days of the pandemic and everybody who has worked in it up until today. People are still working hard in the face of the pandemic.
On whether Scotland ran out of PPE, I accept that this sounds like a bit of an arid political debate to somebody who works on the front of our health service, but if Anas Sarwar does not want to take my word for a simple statement of fact, I will again refer him to what the Auditor General said on the radio this morning, which was that people worked really hard to ensure that we did not run out.
I know and accept that supply was low at times. I was centrally involved in our response at that time. The Audit Scotland report says that stocks were low, but there are two other points that have to be made. First, that is a reference to centrally held stocks. As the report recognises, additional stocks were held at that time in local health board areas. Secondly, the most fundamentally important point—again, I will quote directly from the Audit Scotland report—is that supplies did not run out. The report says:
“there were always incoming orders to help manage the supply, with stock arriving and being shipped out to NHS boards on the same day at some points.”
That is down to the work of NHS National Services Scotland and people throughout the country.
When Richard Leonard was in Anas Sarwar’s place, he, too, used to raise the point about expiry dates. At the heart of Anas Sarwar’s argument, which is not an illegitimate one, is the idea that we should have bigger stockpiles. However, in relation to the stockpiles that we did have, when material that has been in a stockpile for a while is taken out of it, it often has to be revalidated because it will have passed an expiry date. Richard Leonard described that as
“Palming off out-of-date PPE”,
but that is, basically, what happens when there is a stockpile. However, we had arrangements to ensure that PPE was available.
We will continue to take steps. We have made significant changes to the supply chain and the distribution routes.
I will make a final point. Mutual aid arrangements were in place across the United Kingdom. At no point did Scotland have to make use of those mutual aid arrangements, but we provided mutual aid to England and Wales, following requests. We did not have to ask anybody else for mutual aid, because we did not run out of PPE. [Applause.]
I am not sure that that is something to applaud—
Well, it did not run out.
I hear the Deputy First Minister saying that PPE did not run out. I do not deny that the Government worked hard, but I will take the word of the ICU doctors and the general practitioners who sent the pictures of out-of-date PPE, and I will take the word of the 1,000-plus care work staff who had to sign a petition to demand that the Government give them PPE. Those are the people whose word I will take. I accept that the ministers had to make tough decisions, but the hardest decision was for those who risked exposing themselves to the virus, and possibly taking it home to their family, in order to care for others. They are the people we should be thinking about today.
The law requires that workplace-related deaths be reported for investigation. However, it is left to the employer to determine whether
“there is reasonable evidence that a work-related exposure is likely to be the cause of disease”.
We have all applauded NHS staff and care workers on the front line, and we rightly call them heroes. Some of our heroes have, tragically, died, and their families deserve answers. The procurator fiscal is currently investigating only 27 deaths of workers across all sectors, but we know that 49 health and social care workers have lost their lives to Covid. All of those deaths should be referred to the Crown Office for a full and proper investigation, to establish that they were linked to the workplace. Can the First Minister give a commitment today that that will happen?
I want to ensure that every relevant aspect of the handling of this pandemic, whether in general terms or as it affected individuals, is properly and robustly scrutinised. I do not just welcome that scrutiny—I think that it is really important.
With regard to prosecutions, I ask members to cast their minds over the past few months and to think about how often, in completely different contexts, we have heard misguided allegations about how governments have tried to politicise the role of prosecutors. Prosecutors act entirely independently, which is right and proper, and any politician who suggests otherwise should think about that point.
The matters we are discussing are important. Anas Sarwar said today that we should think about those who work hard on the front line of our health service. I agree with that, but there is not a single day that I do not think about them.
Anas Sarwar mentioned care homes. The Audit Scotland report narrated that, before the pandemic, under all Administrations in the lifetime of this Parliament, the Government, through NHS National Services Scotland, did not supply PPE to the care home sector or to primary care. Instead, those sectors used to get it directly from private suppliers. One of the changes that we made was to directly supply the care home sector from the national health service.
There are undoubtedly lessons to learn, but it is not wrong in my view to say that we did not run out and that that was a good thing in the teeth of a global pandemic, when competition for supplies of PPE was so intense. Although I hope that we will not need the same volumes in the future, we now have significantly higher stocks of PPE. The Audit Scotland report and the words of the Auditor General reflect that we have worked hard every step of the way to ensure that our staff had PPE, and we will continue to do that each and every day.
During the election, the First Minister had to explain why her Government had missed two climate targets in a row. This week, a third annual climate target came and went, and Scotland is falling even further behind. On home energy use, transport, farming and land use, the Government is failing to live up to the rhetoric about world-leading targets. Year after year, the Greens propose stronger action and, year after year, we are told, “Don’t worry, we have a new climate plan.” With this third year of missed targets, the only difference is that the Government has had to admit, just months after the publication of its new plan, that that too needs to be replaced. That is not the bold leadership that we need. What does the First Minister think that her Government is doing wrong?
I want to ensure that we are being factually accurate. The figures in this week’s report, which I will address in a second, are for 2019 and pre-date the updated climate change plan, so they take no account of the changes that were in that plan. It is important to be accurate about that.
Scotland is ahead of most other countries in the world, so I do not think that the question is about what we are doing wrong. On climate change, none of us is yet doing enough right to get to the point we need to get to. All of us need to accelerate our progress.
On the question of missed targets, we of course want to hit our targets and we have more to do to get there, but we should not overlook the scale of our progress. This week’s report shows that emissions in Scotland are down by 51.5 per cent—the target was 55 per cent. That means that we are more than halfway to net zero, which is further ahead than the rest of the United Kingdom and further ahead than most other countries across the world. However, there is more to do. We will publish a catch-up to show not only what we are doing through the plan but how we will accelerate to catch up. For example, we see that transport emissions are down year on year but there is more to do there.
All of us across the world have to live up to the challenge. Scotland, like other countries, needs to accelerate progress, but Scotland is already further ahead than most other countries, and I want to make sure that we not only maintain that position but get even further ahead so that we are leading more by example.
I am not so fussed about being further ahead of the rest of the UK, because I do not think that that would be any great boast. I want to us be further ahead of where our own targets say we should be.
If we take farming and land use as one example, at the moment, Scottish farmers are facing a perfect storm. They need to make even bigger emission cuts to make up for the wasted years, they need to adapt to a changing climate and protect wildlife—and the UK Climate Change Committee said this week that both the Scottish and UK Governments are failing on that agenda—and now they face an Australian trade deal that threatens to flood the country with cheap imports. We need to radically reform agricultural subsidies to meet those challenges, but the Scottish Government currently intends to put off doing so until 2024. Does the First Minister accept that that is simply too late for not only the next half-dozen climate targets but the rural communities that need to see change if they are to have a sustainable future?
Yes, I think that how we use land is an important part of how we meet our targets for the future, and we need to support our farming community—and not undermine it as the UK Government is doing right now in trade deals—to make the changes that will allow them to deal with that. There is a great appetite and willingness across the farming sector, and we will continue to support it through funding mechanisms and in other ways.
This week’s figures include a major technical change to the reporting of our emissions from peatlands, which is part of the report that was published. Agriculture is a central part of the process. I am not suggesting that Patrick Harvie is saying that we can do so, but we cannot just wish all the changes into being—hard work is under way and there is more hard work to be done to bring them about.
I am not simply comparing us with the rest of the UK—I want us to lead by example, and we are ahead of most other countries in the world. Is it going far enough, fast enough? No, but it is important in motivating us all to go further that we do not lose sight of the significant progress that we have already made.
One of the reasons why I hope that my party can reach a co-operation agreement with Patrick Harvie’s party is that it is important that we are all challenged to go further and faster on the issue. The determination is there, which I am sure is shared across the chamber, so let us celebrate the progress that we have made but also use it to motivate us all to go further. That is what we owe to the generations that will come after us.
Covid-19 (Business Support)
To ask the First Minister what engagement the Scottish Government has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding Covid-19 business support, in light of the rise of the delta variant. (S6F-00134)
We recognise that deviating from our route map impacts on businesses. We have funded additional financial support to businesses in areas in which it has been necessary to retain restrictions for an additional period. We also continue to emphasise to the United Kingdom Government the need for additional funding to be made available for businesses. The situation exemplifies why it is so important that we have the requisite fiscal powers here to respond to the pandemic and, increasingly, to the recovery from it. The furlough scheme also continues to be hugely important to Scottish businesses and workers, and we again call on the UK Government to maintain that support for as long as it is required.
I certainly agree with the First Minister’s comments about the furlough scheme. With 3.4 million people still on furlough, and 553,000 fewer people in payrolled employment, it would be utterly unthinkable for the Tories to cut support prematurely.
The Scottish Licensed Trade Association, along with other businesses and trade unions, has called for
“an extension to the current support schemes available such as furlough, VAT reduction”
“deferral of loan repayments”.
Does the First Minister agree with that call?
Yes, I agree with it, and I thank Michelle Thomson for raising points that are important to businesses across the country. It is vital that furlough is extended for as long as possible, and the VAT reduction and deferral of loan repayments are important, too. Many companies will have taken advantage of the loans that have been made available. I welcome the fact that loans were made available, but consideration needs to be given to how, when and, in some respects, whether those loans should be repaid by businesses that need to get back to normal and a position of sustainability.
I recognise the responsibility that is on the shoulders of the Scottish Government to do as much as we can, but many of the levers lie in the UK Government’s hands, and it is important that it uses them properly to support business.
Malicious Prosecutions (Inquiry)
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will provide an update on the commitment to hold an inquiry into the malicious prosecutions concerning Rangers Football Club. (S6F-00116)
Both the Lord Advocate and the then Minister for Parliamentary Business made clear to Parliament on 10 February this year that the Scottish Government supports both parliamentary and wider public accountability when it comes to these cases. In February, the Parliament passed a motion in support of a judge-led inquiry. The Government supports and is committed to that. That inquiry can happen only when related legal proceedings are completed. Legal proceedings on the cases remain live, but there will be an inquiry once they have concluded.
We do not yet know how much these malicious prosecutions will end up costing taxpayers. The self-inflicted damage to the Crown Office’s reputation is unquantifiable. The Scottish National Party has agreed to most of the Scottish Conservatives’ demands in relation to the inquiry, but one big question remains unanswered: will the judge who leads it be from outwith Scotland? That is a yes-or-no question.
Yes, I think that there is an argument for that. However, such decisions must be taken in the proper way and at the proper time. We are committed to this. Of course, in prosecution matters, the Crown Office acts entirely independently of ministers. It is important that there is a remit for the inquiry and that it is led by a judge who commands confidence. That is in the interests of everyone and we will take those decisions once the legal proceedings have concluded.
Psychiatric Hospitals (Discharge Delays)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking in response to reports that some patients are having to wait over three years to be discharged from psychiatric hospitals. (S6F-00111)
No one wants people to be receiving care in psychiatric hospitals for any longer than is deemed to be clinically necessary in every case. Delays in discharge can be very challenging for individuals, but, for example, significant packages of care often need to be linked to specialist accommodation, which sometimes has to be commissioned, specially designed or even purpose built. That can take considerable time, during which those concerned continue to receive appropriate care in a hospital setting.
To help address the issue, in February this year, the then Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport announced a £20 million community living change fund, to be allocated to integration authorities via health boards. The fund has been made available to help partnerships drive further service redesign, in order to adopt a preventative and anticipatory approach to supporting people who have very complex needs, which can help them avoid the need for institutional care in the future.
The figures that were reported were stark and unacceptable. As well as delayed discharges, there are serious issues of people being offered only out-of-area placements for care. Will the First Minister commit to introducing, through the legislation for a national care service, a statutory duty on integration joint boards to provide care in the community for people who leave psychiatric hospitals, rather than leave people in limbo for years, as has been reported this week?
Obviously, the whole Parliament has to debate the detail of the legislation that will establish the national care service. However, in principle, that is an important part of it.
I agree that it is important to make sure that people with complex needs have the right care in the community and do not have to be in institutional care when that is not necessary or appropriate. As I tried to set out in my original answer, the challenge is often the complexity of the needs of individuals, which means that it takes time to ensure that the right provision is available in the community. Sometimes, that can mean that accommodation has to be specially designed, commissioned or even purpose built.
There is a real obligation on everybody involved to speed up that process as much as possible, but what is really important is that the right provision is in place for the complexity of the needs of each individual.
We move to supplementary questions.
Removal of Dental Charges
I welcome yesterday’s announcement that not only will dental charges be removed for care-experienced young people, as set out in the Scottish National Party manifesto, but the policy has been extended to all 16 to 25-year-olds. Can the First Minister tell us how that will benefit young people and what plans she has for the expansion?
This is a really important commitment. Having committed to removing dental charges, our first step in doing that was to remove them for care-experienced young people under the age of 26. When we considered that, we decided that our first step should be removing charges for all young people under the age of 26. That was an important step and I am delighted that we could announce it this week. Approximately 600,000 people will benefit from that commitment.
As I said, our plans are to remove dental charges completely, because for some people they can be a barrier to getting the treatment that they need. For some people, that can lead to them needing emergency treatment. Removing that barrier helps individuals and helps the national health service make sure that people get the treatment that they need as early as possible, in the setting that is most appropriate for them.
ScotRail Strike Action
Since March, conductors and ticket examiners at ScotRail have been taking strike action and it is believed that that will go on into the summer. That has led to a huge reduction in services on Sundays, including for a number of key workers who have told me that there are only limited bus services to various hospitals around Scotland. What is the First Minister’s view on those strikes and what is the Scottish Government doing to bring the action to a close and end the travel disruption for millions of passengers?
I do not want to see strike action being taken anywhere across the country and I do not want to see it being taken on rail services either. It is really important that the employer tries to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. Collective bargaining rests with the operator and the trade unions concerned. I know that the transport minister has agreed to meet with trade union representatives later this month to discuss their concerns in more detail, and I hope that we will see a resolution as quickly as possible.
Over the months to come, we will be doing work to take ScotRail into public ownership, which will bring a range of different benefits to people across the country.
Asylum Seekers (Glasgow City Council)
The First Minister may be aware of reports that Glasgow City Council intends to extend the ban on asylum seekers coming to Glasgow as a result of the constraints of accommodation. We all know about the inadequacies of the Home Office’s policy and its privatised service, but surely that is tantamount to an abdication of responsibility by us as Scots and Glaswegians to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Does the First Minister agree that we should seek to lift the ban as quickly as possible and explore every possible opportunity to improve quality of life for the 5,000 or so asylum seekers in Glasgow, such as extending concessionary travel to them free of charge?
I say this in relation to the current political leadership of Glasgow City Council, but also, to be fair, in relation to its last Labour leadership: Glasgow City Council is probably the last organisation that deserves to be criticised for how asylum seekers are treated. It has been one of the few areas that has welcomed asylum seekers and done everything that it can to support them.
However, there is an issue about the responsibility of taking in asylum seekers when the Home Office and the United Kingdom Government are refusing to put in place adequate provision for accommodation. These are difficult issues, but the target of our criticism—I suspect that Paul Sweeney and I agree more than we disagree on the issue—and the target of demands for change should be the UK Government, not Glasgow City Council.
I want asylum seekers to be welcomed here and I want to make sure that we have provision for asylum seekers that has dignity and support at heart, and that could not be further removed from the very punitive and heartless approach of the Home Office. I genuinely say to Labour that we should be united on the issue and should not seek to blame Glasgow City Council for a problem that is not of its making.
Accident Prevention Messaging (Water Safety)
I am sure that the First Minister and the whole chamber will join me in sending sincerest condolences to the friends and family of 13-year-old Aidan Rooney and to the wider St Aidan’s high school community in Wishaw. Aidan died tragically after getting into difficulty in the River Clyde in what was, sadly, drowning prevention week. As we approach the school holidays, what is the Scottish Government doing to promote accident prevention messaging, particularly on water safety, to our young people and families?
I extend my deepest and sincerest condolences to Aidan’s family. Aidan was, of course, the young boy who so tragically lost his life in the Clyde last week. I cannot even begin to understand the impact on his family, his friends and the wider community. Although such incidents are thankfully rare, each and every drowning is one too many. They demonstrate the vital role of initiatives such as drowning prevention week, which is due to run from this Saturday.
We will do everything that we can to support the work of the Royal Life Saving Society and Water Safety Scotland, which work hard to prevent such tragic incidents. I encourage everyone to use the water safety resources that are freely available to ensure that everyone can enjoy water safely over the summer months.
For now, I am sure that the thoughts of us all are with Aidan’s family.
Eating Disorder Services (Children and Young People)
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has received figures that show that the number of referrals of children and young people with eating disorders soared to crisis levels during lockdown. Constituents in my region have been in touch to say that virtual appointments, loss of support structures, staff shortages and less activity in community services have fuelled the crisis. What action can the Scottish Government put in place to improve services and ensure that face-to-face consultations return as soon as is practically possible?
Everybody understands that eating disorders have a devastating impact on individuals and their families. Rapid intervention is essential and must be available. We published the “Scottish Eating Disorder Services Review” in March, and we will announce further steps by the end of June. We will also establish an implementation group to ensure that the review’s recommendations are taken forward quickly. Intensive home treatment is an evidence-based intervention for treating eating disorders, and part of the review group’s work will be to expand such services across Scotland.
In relation to mental health services more generally, as members know, work is on-going to extend the provision of community services, particularly for children and adolescents.
Scottish Qualifications Authority (Non-submission of Grades)
Evidence in today’s Scotsman shows that young people who have been judged to have failed a course are not having their grades submitted to the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Although non-presentation of candidates for exams is a feature of our system in normal years, decisions this year are being taken after the result is known. Crucially, this year, young people whose grades are not presented to the SQA will lose their ability to appeal against how they are being judged. Does the First Minister believe that that is an acceptable practice? Will her Government issue guidance against that practice, ahead of the grade submission deadline next week?
I am not aware of any evidence that suggests that that practice is being used this year in a less appropriate way than last year, but if there is evidence that anybody wants to put forward, we will look at it as a matter of urgency. The Educational Institute of Scotland has said that it is
“not aware of this as an issue in schools”.
As Michael Marra rightly says, in a normal academic year, decisions are made about whether it is right to put a young person forward for a qualification or an exam, and such decisions should always be taken in line with the interests of the young person. That will be happening in some cases this year, but if anybody has evidence that it is happening inappropriately, we will, as I said, look at that as a matter of urgency.
United Kingdom and Australia Free Trade Deal
NFU Scotland has said that the agreement in principle with Australia “sets a dangerous precedent” for future free trade agreements. The deal has been done with no consultation, no consent and no parliamentary scrutiny. Does the First Minister agree that, if the United Kingdom Government is so confident about the benefits of the deal, it should be put to a vote, rather than the UK Government selling out Scotland’s farmers and crofters, just as it sold out fishing communities?
Yes, I agree. The detail of the deal should be published in full. I suggest that it should be put to a vote not only in the House of Commons but in this Parliament, so that we can represent the interests of the farming community across Scotland.
I am deeply concerned about the implications of this trade deal and future trade deals for our farming sector in Scotland. I noted, as I am sure others did, the words of the Australian Deputy Prime Minister—just last night, I think—who said:
“The big winners are Australian producers, Australian farmers, indeed Australians full stop.”
When he was asked about Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish beef producers, he said:
“I’m not so worried about those”.
It is not his job to worry about Scottish producers, but the fact that he is not worried suggests that the UK Government is not standing up for those producers’ interests in those talks. Therefore, we should open the issue up to scrutiny, including in Scotland’s national Parliament.
Breast Cancer Screening (Self-referral)
As the First Minister is aware, self-referral for breast cancer screening by women over 70 has been paused. That is giving rise to concerns for all those who are affected in all parts of the country, but particularly in places such as Orkney, which rely on mobile screening units visiting once every three years. As one constituent put it to me earlier this week,
“for many of us this will mean a wait of another 3 years—making 6 years in total without receiving a mammogram.”
Given the risk of cancers going undetected for such a prolonged period, will the First Minister ask our health secretary to look urgently at what can be done to reopen self-referral opportunities for women over 70 in island and rural communities?
That is a really important issue. When the breast screening programme resumed in August last year, it was done in a way that was in line with expert clinical advice and the recommendations of the Scottish screening committee. Initially, patients who receive non-routine appointments were prioritised; more recently, patients between the ages of 50 and 70 who receive routine appointments have been invited. Liam McArthur is right to say that we need to ensure that the service gets back to normal as quickly as possible, but that has to be done safely and in line with expert recommendations.
Although it does not directly address the problem for over-70s, since the screening programme resumed, more than 120,000 people have attended for breast screening. Over a similar period, in normal times before the pandemic, the number was around 135,000. There is work still to be done, but the service is getting back to normal and we want it to get to complete normality as soon as possible.
Autism Assessments (NHS Fife)
Families in Fife who are waiting for autism assessments for their children are at crisis point. There have been no assessments since the start of the pandemic, and there is now a backlog of more than 1,000 children waiting for support. Given that there is currently nothing in Government guidance to prevent autism assessments from taking place, what more can the First Minister do to ensure that NHS Fife clears the backlog and gives families the support that they desperately need?
A decision was taken through NHS Fife’s multidisciplinary management group not to conduct remote assessments via Near Me during the pandemic, but the board plans to start face-to-face autism assessments in July, so there is a need to get that service back to normal and address the backlog. We will continue to work with NHS Fife and other health boards to support them to do that.
The importance of a diagnosis cannot be overstated and families’ frustration and anxiety around delays is understandable, so there is a need for NHS Fife and other health boards to make sure that the issue is being addressed. I will ask the health secretary to write to the member with more detail on exactly how and when that will happen.
Travel Restrictions (Impact on Tourism)
This week, I met a Borders-based travel agent who has legitimate concerns about the effect of travel restrictions on his business. Like many others, my constituent has lost commission from tour operators because of cancellations. Will the First Minister’s Government consider further support for travel agents? What is her assessment of the proposal that individuals who have received double Covid jags could avoid quarantine on return from countries on the amber list?
We continue to consider—on a four nations basis but also with regard to global considerations—what role vaccination might play in future in easing international travel. The impact on the tourism industry is understood, and we will continue to do everything that we can, within the resources that we have available, to provide support for affected sectors, including tour operators and tourism businesses. As I said in response to an earlier question, we will continue to urge the United Kingdom Government to make more support available.
The situation around international travel is really difficult. Unfortunately, that difficulty inescapable if we want to avoid in future what we have not been able to avoid now, which is the importation of new variants. I understand how difficult it is for those in the sector, and we will continue to do everything that we can to support them to get back to normal. Vaccination might have a role to play, but we have been clear that we have to be careful about some of the considerations around that.12:49 Meeting suspended.
14:00 On resuming—