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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 18, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 18 March 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2021, Drug Deaths and Harms, Urgent Question, Standing Order Rule Changes (Private and Hybrid Bills), Standing Order Rule Changes (Delegated Powers Memorandums and Emergency Bills), Standing Order Rule Changes (Financial Scrutiny), Code of Conduct Rule Changes (Register of Interests), Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon, colleagues. We will begin with First Minister’s question time but, before we turn to questions, I invite the First Minister to update the Parliament on the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Yesterday, 624 new Covid cases were reported, which is 2.7 per cent of all the tests that were carried out yesterday. The overall number of confirmed cases now stands at 211,854. There are 405 people in hospital, which is 17 fewer than yesterday, and 38 people are currently receiving intensive care, which is the same number as yesterday.

I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further seven deaths have been registered. The number of deaths under the daily measurement is therefore now 7,536. However, the latest National Records of Scotland data, published yesterday, shows that the total number of deaths related to Covid is now closer to 10,000.

On Tuesday, the first anniversary of lockdown, we will commemorate with a minute’s silence all those who have lost their lives, but today I again send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

Later today, we will publish the latest estimate of the R number. We expect it to show that the R number is around or just below 1.

I can also provide an update on the vaccination programme. I am pleased to confirm that, as of 8.30 this morning, more than 2 million people have now received the first dose of the vaccine, and 41,184 people received a first dose yesterday, bringing the total number of first doses to 2,023,002. In addition, 192,100 people have had a second dose, which is an increase of 10,221 since yesterday. That means that a total of 51,405 people received vaccinations yesterday. Virtually all over-65-year-olds have now had a first dose; so, too, have 74 per cent of 60 to 64-year-olds, 44 per cent of 55 to 59-year-olds and 35 per cent of 50 to 54-year-olds.

Many members will have heard reports over the past 24 hours that, across the United Kingdom, supplies of vaccine will be lower than expected. I have had discussions in the past two days with representatives of both Pfizer and AstraZeneca. At present, we expect that, over the next month, we will have approximately 500,000 fewer doses than we had previously anticipated. For that reason, there may be periods in April when we need to prioritise second doses. I want to be clear, however, that as things stand, we still expect to offer a first dose of the vaccine to the remaining priority groups as set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation by the middle of next month, as planned. To remind people, that includes everyone over the age of 50, unpaid carers and all adults with particular underlying health conditions. We also still expect to have offered a first dose to all adults in the population by the end of July. When you are invited for an appointment, please accept it.

We have always known that supplies will be subject to some volatility, but the roll-out of the programme overall continues to be really encouraging, and it gives us real cause for optimism now about the months ahead. Because of that, we have been able to provide more details about our plans for easing restrictions, and we have some reason to hope for a return to a more normal life over the course of the summer.

However, all of that depends on the continued suppression of the virus. For now, it is vital that everyone continues to follow the stay-at-home rule. It is important that, when we are out and about, we should follow the FACTS guidance. If we all continue to do that, as we vaccinate more and more people, we can expect a steady progression out of lockdown and a return to greater normality over the summer.

Thank you, First Minister. Ruth Davidson will ask the first question.

Court Proceedings (Legal Documents)

I add my condolences to the loved ones of those who have died.

This week, we have heard more allegations about the scandal engulfing Nicola Sturgeon’s Government. At her press conference yesterday, the First Minister refused to address their substance, but claimed to refute the allegations. It has been a while since I was a journalist but, back then, “to refute” meant to prove a statement wrong, and I do not think that its meaning has changed since then. I will therefore ask the same question that the journalist asked yesterday and which the First Minister refused to answer; maybe she can properly refute it now.

It has been alleged that a legal document had been deliberately withdrawn—in other words, suppressed—from being handed over to a court by Government officials. Is that something that the First Minister knows happened, and is that not a summary dismissal offence?

It did not happen. I will come back to that point in a minute. I am quite astounded that Ruth Davidson has not seen the position that has now been narrated about that.

First, however, having David Davis, a Tory MP, reading out in the House of Commons, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, his old pal Alex Salmond’s conspiracy theories about the sexual harassment allegations against him must be the very epitome of the old boys club. [Interruption.]

Order, please.

Holding this Government to account is vital, but anyone who chooses to cheer that on should not pretend to have the interests of the women concerned at heart.

On the specific question about the withheld document, as the Government confirmed yesterday, that claim is factually inaccurate. David Davis claimed that a document was withheld. Once we tracked down exactly what document was being talked about, we discovered that it was not withheld; it was handed over to the court on 21 November 2018 as production number 7.79. That is the answer to Ruth Davidson’s question.

I end by saying that, although parliamentary privilege might confer all sorts of protection, unfortunately for Mr Davis, it does not turn falsehood into fact.

I do not deal in conspiracies. I deal in facts—[Interruption.] It is a fact that her own lawyers said that it was

“unexplained, and frankly inexplicable”

that information had been kept from them. Although that is ground that we have tread before, there is something that she has not been asked about, because it was released to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints only on Monday. That is a document dated 4 November 2018, which has not been reported yet and which could have been released the whole time, but instead has been sneaked out in the dog days of the inquiry’s time.

We do not know who the note’s author is, because that is redacted, but we know that it was sent to the very top of Government and discusses whether officials really do have to comply with their duty of candour. I will quote directly from it:

“... they ... felt it better, more credible and less shifty-looking if we proceed as proposed.”

It goes on:

“it will probably all end up being out there anyway ... and better to face it transparently than having this dragged out reluctantly and portrayed as a failed attempt at a cover up.”

Why did the Government go ahead with the attempt at the cover-up anyway?

I think that everybody watching will have noticed just how quickly Ruth Davidson moved on from the first question that she asked. She stood up and suggested—as did David Davis in the House of Commons earlier this week—that a document had been withheld. I pointed out to her that that was factually inaccurate and gave her the production number of the document as it was handed over to the court on 21 November 2018, and she has the nerve to stand up and say that she deals in facts. I think that people will see for themselves that that could not be further from the truth.

What she has just quoted is counsel saying to Government, “Here are things we should hand over, and we should hand them over rather than have any suggestion that we are trying to cover up”—although I think that they were actually saying that we should amend pleadings. I will be corrected if I am wrong on that. What did we do? We amended the pleadings. All of that is, of course, out there for people to see. The thing is that people do not have to take Ruth Davidson’s word or the word of the old boys club in the House of Commons for these things any more. They can go on to the website of the Scottish Government and of this Parliament’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints and read it all for themselves and make up their own minds.

The fact of the matter is that David Davis made serious and specific allegations in the House of Commons this week and they have completely fallen apart, which I think he should be apologising for. He has been tweeting this morning no longer even trying to defend the specific allegations, but shifting the goal posts. “Shifty” is definitely a word that I would use today, but in relation to David Davis and Ruth Davidson.

The First Minister says that there is no cover-up, but six weeks after the note that I read out, her own lawyers said that the Government had not complied with what the court told it to do. We know that the First Minister attended a meeting on 13 November 2018 with legal counsel, and all records of that meeting have either vanished or been destroyed. It is beyond anyone’s imagination that no notes were taken when the First Minister, her chief of staff, the permanent secretary, and Queen’s counsel met. Is Nicola Sturgeon seriously trying to tell us that this is not a cover-up when, six weeks before key documents were finally dragged out of the Government, her own officials warned that it would look like a failed attempt at a cover-up; when her own lawyers, under her instruction, made false statements before a judge because a key email was withheld, despite emails around it in the same chain having been disclosed; and when all this would have stayed secret from the inquiry that is investigating it, but for the threat of John Swinney losing his job?

Ruth Davidson gets more and more desperate on the issue every single week that passes. As one conspiracy theory after another is demolished and falls away, she just dredges the bottom of the barrel.

The fact of the matter is that this Government made a serious mistake, and I have said so on a number of occasions. It is a serious mistake, which I regret deeply. A point that should not be lost is that it is a mistake that was made in the course of the Government trying to do the right thing. In the world of the old boys club, that mistake would never have been made, because the allegations would never have been investigated, and would have been swept under the carpet instead. Ruth Davidson will see that old boys club a lot more closely when she joins the House of Lords, in just a few weeks’ time.

The fact is that scrutiny of the Government on all such matters is vital and important. As I have said, people can go and read the documentation for themselves. However, every time that it crosses over into buying into Alex Salmond’s conspiracy theories, politicians have a choice to make. They are entitled to make that choice, but they should not pretend that, in doing so, they are standing up for the women at the heart of the issue. The women were let down. I have apologised for that, and I am determined to learn the lessons of it and make sure that the Government learns the lessons of it.

Day by day, week by week, and drip by drip, more evidence comes to light over how the matter has been mishandled by the First Minister and her Government. There have been allegations of legal documents being deliberately concealed, and the lawyers who acted for the Scottish Government were furious at making false statements to court because key evidence was withheld even from them. Now it is claimed that the First Minister’s own chief of staff intervened in the scandal. However, we only know that because the evidence was published not in this Parliament, but in another Parliament altogether.

The evidence mounts up, as do the Government’s excuses. However, nothing can excuse the way in which the women at the heart of the matter were failed, nor the taxpayers’ money that was wasted. The one thing that has not happened is anyone in this Government taking the responsibility that they should take. The circumstances demand that someone loses their job over the matter. It could be the permanent secretary, the First Minister’s chief of staff, or the First Minister herself, but, really, should it not be them all?

In just a few weeks’ time, I will put myself before the verdict of the Scottish people. That is the ultimate accountability, from which Ruth Davidson is running away. Never let us forget that.

Ruth Davidson has stood up here again and mouthed another of the conspiracy theories regarding my chief of staff. Yesterday, we heard a complainer who had asked for my chief of staff’s help say categorically that what was being suggested by David Davis was

“fundamentally untrue and ... deliberately misrepresented”.

Week after week, Ruth Davidson stands up here and claims that, for her, it is all about the women. If that is true, I suggest to her that it is about time that she started listening a bit more to the women at the heart of it, and a bit less to Alex Salmond and his cronies.

The fact of the matter is that Ruth Davidson and the Tories are not interested in the evidence. The day before I gave evidence to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, Ruth Davidson and her colleagues said, in terms, that they were not interested in anything that I had to say, because they had made up their minds.

At the heart of it is the fact that Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives are not interested in the women, nor in the evidence. They are interested only in using the situation as a political tool—because, frankly, they have nothing positive to put before the Scottish people. That is the reality.

Mental Health Services

My thoughts are with all those who have lost a loved one to Covid. I also want to thank our amazing national health service staff, who continue to go above and beyond.

We know that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the mental health of people across Scotland. Last month, a report from the Government showed that more than one in eight of our fellow Scots had reported suicidal thoughts. Among people with a pre-existing mental health condition, the number was more than one in three. According to the latest available figures, there were 833 suicide deaths in one year, and, according to early data, that number is, tragically, expected to rise.

During the pandemic, in-person mental health support has been more limited, and the Government has encouraged people to use the NHS 24 mental health crisis support line. The First Minister has said that her Government takes the issue of mental health very seriously. Will she tell us how many calls to the NHS 24 mental health hub have gone unanswered over the course of the pandemic?

I do not have that figure with me, but I am sure that Anas Sarwar is about to give it—if not, I am happy to look into that and to provide it.

That any such call goes unanswered is, I think, not acceptable. Having said that, people who are working across our mental health services, including in NHS 24, do an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances. It is important that we recognise that. There is no doubt that the impact of the pandemic on mental health has been severe and significant. The obligation on the Government and on the health service to respond to that in the months and, probably, the years to come is also very significant.

On 15 March, we published the third annual progress report on our mental health strategy, which contained updates on the progress towards some of the central commitments that we have made. We have already achieved our target of investing £60 million to give every secondary school access to counselling services, and we are on course to provide counsellors in further and higher education, to recruit additional school nurses and to expand the distress brief intervention programme to include people under 18. We are also taking a whole host of other actions, including the recruitment of additional mental health staff in the community.

We still have a lot of work to do, but a lot of work is under way to make sure that we are responding appropriately to people who need mental health support now and in the future.

The First Minister has followed the script; however, the answer is 24,947. That is almost 25,000 mental health crisis calls during the pandemic whereby individuals have built up the courage to pick up the phone and call for help but those calls have been ignored.

Today, Labour is publishing data that shows the steady increase in waiting times and in the number of abandoned calls to the mental health hub during the pandemic. In March of last year—at the start of the pandemic—133 calls went unanswered. In the latest month of this year for which data is available, that number is 5,452, which is 40 times higher. Those people are in crisis.

The story is the same for young people who reach out for help. One in four children and young people who are referred to child and adolescent mental health services is still rejected. Those who are successfully referred are supposed to be seen within 18 weeks, but when was the last time that the Government met that 18-week standard?

The figure for missed or unanswered calls is not acceptable. Anas Sarwar will recognise that many more people are getting access to a whole range of services; nevertheless, it is not acceptable that anybody who reaches out for mental health support does not get that support. We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that that need is met, which is why the range of investments that I have narrated, and the many others that we are making, are so important.

On child and adolescent mental health services, we recognised before the pandemic that waiting times for specialist services are too long. That is why we have embarked on a significant programme of investment and reform, to make sure that we focus on early intervention and prevention—for example, school counsellors, counselling advice services in further education and the extension of distress brief interventions to people under 18. That is all part of the programme of work to make sure that fewer young people need access to specialist services because they get services earlier on.

Long waits are always unacceptable, but there has been an improvement in CAMHS waiting times figures in this quarter compared with the previous quarter, which shows that the work to recover services is under way and is making progress. We continue to invest in that work and to undertake the necessary reforms. It is a key area of work that whoever is in a position of responsibility after the election will require to continue to prioritise for some time to come.

The answer that the First Minster was looking for is “never”. This Government and this First Minister have never met their mental health standard for children or adults. Failures have consequences—in this case, devastating ones—yet 1,500 children and young people have been waiting for more than a year for support in the midst of a pandemic.

Actions, not promises, save people’s lives. The issue did not start with Covid, but it has got worse as a consequence of it. Those 1,500 children and the people who made those 25,000 unanswered calls need a Parliament that is focused on a recovery plan for our NHS that includes mental health services. After 14 years of this Government and after seven years as First Minister, does the First Minister ever wonder what Scotland could have achieved for those young people if we had focused on what unites us and not what divides us?

I focus on such issues every single day. I agree with Anas Sarwar that it is about actions. It is perfectly legitimate for Anas Sarwar—who is in opposition—to question a First Minister and talk about the problems. I recognise the challenges that we face on mental health, but, unlike me, Anas Sarwar has not outlined, a few weeks before the election, a single positive solution. I have set out the investments that we are making, and I am setting out the reforms that we are undertaking to increase preventative early intervention services for young people, yet not a single positive solution has come forward from the Labour Party. In fact, just a week or so ago, we set out a budget in which, working with other parties, we increased the investment in mental health services, and the Labour Party failed to back it.

I agree very much with Anas Sarwar that it is about not just words but actions and commitment, which are what this Government demonstrates every day. That will be the programme and record that we put before the people of Scotland in a few weeks’ time.

Green Recovery (Oil and Gas Exploration Licenses)

I join other members in offering my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one because of Covid or who have been affected by the pandemic.

In just eight months’ time, the nations of the world will descend on Glasgow to discuss what to do next to tackle the climate breakdown. Our future depends on it. The Greens have successfully pushed the Scottish Government to commit more investment to green recovery, and I was delighted to see Green councillors in Glasgow securing more funds for a green recovery for the city and a legacy for the climate talks. However, the climate emergency demands more of us than that: fundamentally, it means that we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

This week, even Boris Johnson appeared to accept that, and he is reviewing licences for the oil and gas industry, including the option of giving no more permissions for new exploration. The Scottish Greens have called for that for years, but the first Minister has resisted supporting that vital move to protect our planet. Will the First Minister finally reconsider and join the Greens in calling for an immediate end to new exploration licences in the North Sea, for undeveloped licences to be revoked and for fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks to redirected to renewables?

I agree with the sentiments behind Patrick Harvie’s question, but, of course, many of those issues are reserved to the United Kingdom Government and those powers do not lie with us—in particular, those around offshore exploration and licensing.

We have to achieve a just transition in the interests of people whose jobs depend on certain sectors. I want to see that transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable sources of energy, and Scotland’s transition in that respect is well under way, but we need to do it in a way that supports people into new employment instead of leaving them unemployed and that does not substitute our energy for increased imports that add to our carbon footprint.

There is no disagreement about what we need to do, but how we do it matters for the jobs, livelihoods and living standards of many people across Scotland—and, in this case, many people across the north-east of Scotland. There will be no disagreement between me and Patrick Harvie about the moral obligation on our shoulders to get to net zero within the timescale that we have set out or about the hard actions that are required in order to achieve that. Again, those have this Government’s complete focus.

A just transition means transition, and it is not compatible with continuing to go looking for more fossil fuels when we already know that we have more available to us in existing reserves than we can ever afford to burn. The Scottish Government is failing to meet its climate targets, especially in areas such as transport, where those hard decisions that the First Minister is talking about are not being seen.

Last week, we pointed out that the First Minister’s Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity was unwilling to give up his support for climate-busting road expansions, a policy that has barely changed in decades. This week, we learned that another of her ministers, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, was lobbying the transport secretary for even more road expansions. That is hardly surprising from the rural economy secretary when it comes to the environment, because he is the same minister who failed to record private meetings with fish-farming giants and said that he would “deal with” their “detractors”; who lobbied for fox hunting on public land; who supported the destruction of ancient woodland in the Cairngorms national park; and who told Parliament that he would take no lessons from the Climate Change Committee. When the First Minister says that we will do all that we can to play our part ahead of the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—why are members of her cabinet doing exactly the opposite?

The minister whom Patrick Harvie is talking about has also presided over 80 per cent of all tree planting in the whole of the United Kingdom, which is one of the really important things that we need to do as part of our climate change ambitions.

The transition that Patrick Harvie talks about is well under way, and, in many respects, Scotland is leading the way in a global sense. With regard to oil and gas, we have already set up the £62 million energy transition fund, and the oil and gas transition leadership group is driving progress on decarbonisation. In transport, for example, we have what I believe is a world-leading ambition to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030. That was in our climate change plan. This week, we published our housing 2040 strategy and the heat and buildings strategy, alongside plans to invest £1.6 billion over the next five years to transform how we heat our homes and buildings. We are taking those actions right now. Many other countries across the world are looking to Scotland for leadership, because they recognise the leadership that Scotland is showing.

As we go further down the road to 2030 and 2045, the decisions get harder and more challenging. That is when we often see other Opposition parties—not, I hasten to add, Patrick Harvie—shy away from those difficult decisions. As we go into a new parliamentary session, there are big things that we have to confront and face up to, but the leadership that Scotland is already showing is something that should give all of us pride as we prepare for COP26, in November.

Teachers (Permanent Contracts)

This week, I met teachers who are employed on casual, short-term and zero-hours contracts. The numbers that are employed in that way have mushroomed in recent years. The group I met speaks for thousands of teachers who are desperate for certainty and permanent work. John Swinney met the teachers last July. He promised:

“I will give you a full and proper response once I have thought through all of the implications.”

They are still waiting. They saw the Government adverts and dreamed of nurturing young minds, but they have been stuck on short-term and zero-hours contracts for years and now they are thinking of leaving the profession. Does the First Minister believe that that is treating teachers with respect?

No, I do not, and I do not see why any teacher should be in that position. The Government does not directly employ teachers—we supply the funding for local authorities to employ teachers. There has now been almost five years of pupil equity funding made available to schools to support the employment of teachers. As a result of the pandemic, in summer 2020 we provided additional funding, which has supported the recruitment of more than 1,400 additional teachers in our schools and more than 200 support staff.

In January 2021, we announced a further £45 million of new funding for education recovery. That funding allows local authorities to deploy more support to schools and families as the crisis continues. They are able to use that money to recruit further staff if they believe that that is the most appropriate way to use the funding.

I am happy to look into specific cases that Willie Rennie raises, but, given that we have record numbers of teachers, I do not think that there is any reason for the situation that he outlines.

It is always someone else’s fault. It is not a small number of cases—it is thousands and thousands of teachers who were attracted to the profession by the Government. John Swinney is chuntering from his seat and shaking his head, but the Educational Institute of Scotland calls them zero-hours contracts.

The group of teachers told John Swinney that he had turned his back on them. One teacher works in a supermarket to make ends meet and another works in a cafe. One said:

“I have worked hard for six years, but it is impossible to secure a permanent post”.

Another said:

“I have been made temporary for a third year in a row”.

We must create new, permanent teaching posts to get rid of the growth of zero-hours contracts and the casualisation of the teaching workforce under the SNP Government. Thousands of pupils have missed out on learning due to the pandemic. Will the First Minister stand up and guarantee a job for those teachers to help the education recovery?

There is no reason why any teacher should be in that position. Willie Rennie says that that is shifting the blame, but it is just a statement of fact. The Scottish Government does not employ teachers directly—the employers of teachers are local authorities. Any time that a minister in the Government suggests that we take responsibility for things that lie with local government, people like Willie Rennie accuse us of centralisation.

He talks about having more permanent teachers. Since July 2020, we have seen the recruitment of more than 1,400 additional teachers and more than 200 support staff. Those should be permanent additional staff—that is what the funding is there to support. We have a higher number of teachers in our classrooms now than at any time since 2008. That is because we are providing the funding to local authorities to employ more teachers.

I encourage local authorities to give teachers permanent jobs because we are going to need more teachers in our schools for a long time to come as we continue the work of improving education for all.

Brexit (Commercial Activity)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is regarding the impact on Scotland of reported figures indicating that the barriers and uncertainty created by Brexit have had an impact on commercial activity between the United Kingdom and Europe. (S5F-04912)

The recent UK trade figures from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are a stark illustration of the unfolding costs of Brexit and the catastrophic impact of the UK deal on Scotland’s businesses. They confirm what exporters and stakeholders have been telling us since January, which is that what they are experiencing is not just teething troubles. The deal has created permanent new barriers to trade and places Scotland’s exporters in particular at a permanent competitive disadvantage. It is causing long-lasting damage to the economy.

The unilateral announcement last week to extend the grace period for customs and other checks on imports from the European Union effectively told our exporters that they no longer matter to the UK Government. Let me be clear: they matter to us and we will continue to do all that we can to help businesses to adapt to those unprecedented challenges.

The UK Government needs to re-engage in good faith with the EU to try to address all the barriers that are adding costs and causing exports to fall. To do nothing is not acceptable. Scotland’s export businesses deserve so much better.

Recently, I was contacted by a salmon smoker in my constituency who exports to the European Union via air freight, with items retailing at £150 on average. Post-Brexit, they have found that delivery and customs charges are now coming to about £100. That figure does not include additional costs relating to health certificates, the significant amount of time that they now devote to administrative work, or the fact that their deliveries are getting stuck in customs. Does the First Minister agree that, having recklessly placed Scottish food and drink businesses at a competitive disadvantage, the UK Government should now ensure that those businesses get the urgent support and compensation that they deserve?

I very much agree. Alasdair Allan has narrated a sadly all-too-common example of the devastating real-world consequences of Brexit, particularly for our smaller food and drink producers. The Tory Government is currently refusing to get back round the table with the EU. When giving one of the UK Government’s many empty promises, Michael Gove said that it would pull out all the stops to help businesses, but it has completely failed to do that. The UK Government also promised that it would meet all the Brexit costs, and it is failing to do that, too.

Right now, just as many people predicted, Brexit is failing Scotland’s economy. Boris Johnson’s Government is refusing to even try to fix things, and our food and drink businesses and our rural and island communities are paying a heavy price. That is one more of the many reasons why the sooner Scotland is in charge of our own future, the better that is for everyone.

Airline Sector (Revitalisation)

To ask the First Minister what plans the Scottish Government has to revitalise the airline sector. (S5F-04902)

We recognise that, not just in the United Kingdom but globally, the aviation industry faces one of the longest recovery periods, given the impact of Covid on route networks. That is why we have extended 100 per cent non-domestic rates relief for the aviation sector for another year. We have also provided training development support to help to provide training for staff in the sector.

We are working closely with airports to rebuild connectivity for business and inbound tourism once we are able to safely lift travel restrictions. Transport Scotland, VisitScotland and Scottish Development International are working to help our airports to recover routes that have been lost and to secure new ones. Now more than ever, it is essential that we are well connected to the rest of Europe and to the rest of the world, so we want to help airports to restore levels of connectivity as quickly as possible, but it is vital that that is done safely in order that we do not reverse our progress on Covid.

The First Minister promised a lockdown exit strategy based on data, not dates. So far, the aviation sector has had neither. Airports are telling us that they will not be able to sustain losses for much longer. Airlines are already considering moving aircraft and jobs out of Scotland to places from which they have certainty of flying. We risk turning the clock back decades.

This week, there was a hastily convened Scottish Government working group, which heard from officials that there might be restrictions on flying for the rest of the year. Is that the First Minister’s position? Those in the sector have said that they urgently need an aviation recovery plan. Will the First Minister provide one?

Graham Simpson talks about “certainty”. I would love nothing more than to give people—including those in the aviation sector—certainty, but we are in a global pandemic, with an infectious virus, and it is not possible to do that.

Other parts of the UK are often described as having given certainty, but I do not think that they have given it, either. Last night, I took part in a four-nations call that was chaired by Michael Gove, who was at pains to say that the 17 May date for the UK Government was not set in stone and that it would depend on the state of the virus. That is the reality of the situation that we face.

The situation that we face right now is that we are suppressing the virus domestically, although we are not complacent about that, given the trends in the past week, and we are rolling out a vaccination programme, which is going really well, although we are not complacent about that either, given the recent indications about interruptions to supply.

One of the biggest risks that we face is importation of the virus from overseas—in particular, importation of new variants that might undermine the effectiveness of our vaccines. Graham Simpson might think that I should simply ignore that, but it would not be responsible to do so. We are investing in all sorts of processes to try to mitigate those risks in other ways. Yesterday, I announced funding for a new genomic sequencing centre in Scotland, which will give us much faster access to sequencing of viral strains so that we know whether new variants are coming into the country.

However, there is no quick fix or magic-wand solution to the situation. Frankly, anybody who suggests that there is is being deeply irresponsible and doing a great disservice not only to people generally but to the aviation sector, too.

Scottish Mesh Survivors Charter

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will adopt the Scottish mesh survivors charter. (S5F-04901)

I have seen the charter and we are certainly committed to meeting its aims. We want to offer people an appointment as quickly as we can—sorry; I have to find the right question. My apologies—this issue is really important and I want to ensure that I am reading the right information.

We have already taken decisive action to improve services for women who suffer mesh complications and we are working towards meeting all the outcomes that the charter seeks. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport halted use of transvaginal mesh in 2018 and we are committed to keeping that halt in place. We have established a mesh fund and the health secretary has asked that the necessary steps be taken to extend its remit to allow reimbursement for past mesh removal surgery. A comprehensive service for mesh complications and removal is now in place, which will continue to develop in consultation with affected women.

NHS Scotland has already started a tender process for mesh removal surgery, which would be provided outside the national health service for those who feel unable to accept treatment in the NHS. Tenders will be accepted from the United Kingdom and overseas. Finally, we are committed to establishing a patient safety commissioner, as the Cumberlege report recommended.

The First Minister might want to look back at the script that she eventually found and correct the record, because frankly some of those points bear no relevance to reality. It took eight years for mesh-injured women to secure a meeting with the First Minister. They have had to fight and scrap for every small advance that they have made, and they have now been told in a letter from the cabinet secretary that they cannot get treatment from a surgeon of their choice—someone whom they trust and who they know has the required skills to remove the poison that has destroyed their lives.

The Government talks about putting the patient at the centre and person-centred care, but we will not find a single mesh-injured woman who believes that that is not just corporate sales patter. All leaders of the parties in the Parliament have signed the mesh charter. Why has the First Minister not signed it?

I am happy to give my support to the mesh charter. What I was trying to do, and to do accurately, was set out the ways in which we are already taking forward the aims of that charter. Neil Findlay, who, with others in the chamber, has rightly championed the interests of women who have been badly let down, says that there is more to do. We are making progress on all the key asks of the charter; on the asks on which we are not yet making progress, the health secretary has already given instructions—for example, on our finding a way of reimbursing the cost of mesh removal surgery, probably through an extension of the remit of the fund that has been set up.

The use of mesh has been halted—there is absolutely no intention to go back on that. The mesh fund, which we established after I had met with affected women, has been set up, and we are looking to extend its remit.

On the surgery issue, the comprehensive service has now been put in place, but we recognise that not all women will want to accept treatment in Scotland, which is why we are looking to establish a service, and are tendering for a service that could be outside Scotland, and taking steps to appoint a patient safety commissioner.

We are determined that all the things that the women who were let down want are progressed and delivered. We will continue to take all the necessary steps to achieve that.

Giorgi Kakava

I have previously raised the plight of my Springburn constituent Giorgi Kakava—a young man of 13 whose mother tragically passed away in 2018. Giorgi was three when they arrived in Scotland, fleeing danger.

The Home Office granted Giorgi and his grandmother leave to remain in 2018, but that has now expired. Once again, they will have to apply for permission for the right to stay in Scotland. Given the ordeal that Giorgi has already been through, that Glasgow has been his home since he was three years old, that the family’s friends are here and that the family is a valued part of the Springburn community, does the First Minister agree that the Home Office should move quickly to end uncertainty over the family’s future and confirm the right of Giorgi and his grandmother to stay in Scotland permanently?

I hope that everyone in the chamber would agree that Giorgi is Scottish. This is his home and he should get to stay here with his grandmother for as long as he wants to be here.

Giorgi and his grandmother are among the many families who fall victim to a United Kingdom Government policy that sees family migration as some kind of burden on society. We want to see a different approach. We have set out our own policies for a far more compassionate and flexible approach to cases, particularly those involving young people. Children who were born in Scotland or who have spent their formative years here should have the opportunity to stay here with their adult guardians. That is a fundamental and simple principle, based on what is right. It is also in our interests: we need to encourage people to come here and make a contribution to our society and economy. We should be making it easier for people such as Giorgi to stay here, not more difficult.

That is another of the many reasons why we need to be in charge of these things ourselves, so that Scotland can have a compassionate and humane immigration policy that is not only right in terms of the values that underpin it, but in the best interests of our economy and society.

Hotel Quarantine (Exemption)

My question also deals with flexibility in immigration. I have a constituent who is in the third trimester of her pregnancy and will soon no longer be allowed to fly. She is returning to Scotland next week from Hong Kong and urgently needs to know whether she and her 18-month-old child will be exempt from hotel quarantine.

If the member sends me the details of his constituent’s case, we will have it looked at today and will get back to him as soon as possible.

Care Packages (Withdrawal)

As Scotland emerged from the first lockdown, I highlighted to the First Minister my concern that care packages, which had been withdrawn as the virus took hold, had been reduced or ended—effectively, that is a cut to assessed support under the cover of the Covid crisis.

I have a constituent whose support of £5,000 a year was withdrawn. To put that in context, his care for the next 10 years would be less than the cost of coaching some Scottish Government witnesses at the current parliamentary inquiry. My constituent’s care was withdrawn, despite the difference that it made to him and to his family member, as it had allowed the family member to sustain full-time work and keep well enough to support him.

Does the First Minister think that that is acceptable? What advice would she give to my constituent? Does she accept that her persistent decisions over the years to cut back funding to local councils has resulted in the basic needs of the most vulnerable people and their families not being met, and that lack of care has now, under Covid, become an unbearable crisis for too many people?

Johann Lamont’s characterisation of this Government’s support for local authorities is just not the case. We treated local government fairly during the darkest days of austerity. It was not easy, but we made sure that councils got a fair deal. During the pandemic, significant additional resources have been made available to local government.

The health secretary and I have made it clear on many occasions that no local authority should be using Covid as a cover to cut care packages. Therefore, I do not think that what Johann Lamont has outlined is acceptable. If she writes to the health secretary this afternoon, we will look into the case. I am very clear about that.

However, I am also clear that we all have a responsibility to raise such cases. All through the pandemic, the Government has told members across the chamber to let us know about those cases so that we can help to fix them where we can. That offer is there for Johann Lamont. If it is possible for us to fix that particular case, we will do that.

The general point is that no local authority should be cutting care packages using Covid as an excuse, and there is no reason why they should be doing that.

Vaccination Appointments (Location)

In one recent case, a Borders constituent was asked to take a 140-mile round trip for a vaccination. Another was told to travel from Gorebridge to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, a journey that requires two buses, when the local vaccination centre is three minutes across the road. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, both cases were resolved.

Although I accept that the allocation of appointments depends on vaccine availability, is there any way that appointments could take more account of local vaccination sites?

With the whole programme, we are trying to be as flexible as possible and get the balance right. We are trying to do this as quickly as possible, which means that, particularly as we get down the age groups to people who are less vulnerable or frail, we have centralised the appointments system. Yes, some people are getting appointments at large-scale vaccination centres that might be further away from where they live, but that is essential if we are to do this as quickly as possible.

If someone gets an appointment that is not convenient, in terms of either the time or the location, there is the provision to rebook it. I would encourage anyone who is in that position to phone up the helpline and rebook their appointment. With older people and frail people in particular, vaccinations have been done through primary care, so people are going to their own general practitioner services.

I appreciate that a lot of people will feel that the location or time of their appointment is not as convenient as they think that it should be. We are trying to get the right balance of not only flexibility and convenience but the speediest possible vaccination of the largest possible number of people, and we will continue to try to strike that balance as best we can.

Rubislaw Quarry

On Monday, the Scottish Government reporter overturned Aberdeen City Council’s unanimous cross-party decision not to build on Rubislaw quarry, despite huge local protests and nearly 1,500 local signatures on my petition. Since May 2019, 10 separate planning applications in Aberdeen have been overturned in that way. Will the First Minister confirm that she endorses the Rubislaw decision? Does she oppose the Scottish Conservative policy to guarantee in law that local authority planning decisions are respected, so that developments are always carried out in conjunction with the wishes of local authorities?

As a matter of principle, I am always very sceptical about backing Tory policies, because usually they are pretty wrong-headed. On a serious point—[Interruption.] Ruth Davidson thinks that she is taunting me from a sedentary position about election results that are forthcoming. Of course, she does not have to worry about election results, because she will be sitting on the red benches of the House of Lords, pursuing a political career at the taxpayer’s expense—

First Minister, answer the question please.

Back to the question. There is a serious point here, which is that we have a statutory planning process, with different levels and stages, and it is important that ministers respect that. I am sure that there are people who think that any decision on planning that a local authority takes should be respected, but I know that many other people—I have had instances of this in my constituency—like the fact that they can appeal against local authority decisions and that there is a process after that. One of the many things that I have learned over my many years in politics is that, on planning in particular, depending on what the planning proposal is, some people will think that the local authority view should always prevail and some will think that it should never prevail. That is why we must have in place a proper, robust, independent process, which we do.

Seasonal Workers Pilot

Yesterday, Focus on Labour Exploitation and Fife Migrants Forum published a report on the risk of abuse and exploitation that the seasonal workers pilot presents. The report highlights serious human rights concerns in the horticultural sector in Scotland and makes recommendations to address concerns across the United Kingdom. Although the scheme is the responsibility of the UK Government—and I support the call in the report to urgently reform the system—the report makes recommendations for the Scottish Government, including calls for regulation of the accommodation sector and the introduction of a helpline. Will the First Minister respond to those recommendations and set out how the work of Government will take them forward?

We will consider fully the recommendations in the report and respond to them. I am not able to give a detailed response to each of the recommendations today, but I will undertake to have the relevant minister write to the member to set out our initial response at this stage. I very much welcome and support the general thrust of the report. Although much of the area is reserved, it is important that the Scottish Government takes forward recommendations for us. I will make sure that more detail is provided as soon as that is possible.

Tenement Repair and Maintenance

As a nation, we face quite a challenge with repairs and maintenance of tenement property—I should say that I live in such a property. Will the “Housing to 2040” report move us forward in that regard?

Yes, it will. “Housing to 2040”, which we published earlier this week, sets out the first long-term strategy that Scotland has had. As well as setting out the ambition to deliver a further 100,000 affordable homes by 2032, it sets out the intention to introduce a new housing standard, so that everyone can expect the same high standards. The new standard will support the commitment to address common standards in tenements by implementing the recommendations of the Scottish parliamentary working group on tenement maintenance, and it is our attention for the standard to apply to all tenures, including tenements, so that no one is left out of it. If the Scottish National Party is returned to government in May, we are committed to consulting on the new standard later this year.

A83 (Rest and Be Thankful)

Since last summer, the closure of the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful pass has caused misery for Argyll residents who use that lifeline route, with months of disruption. A newly formed campaign group of 1,000 local businesses has expressed its exasperation that Transport Scotland has suggested that a replacement route might take 10 years to fulfil. Can the First Minister finally commit today to a firm date for completing a permanent solution along the existing A83 corridor, in the light of the on-going frustration and anger that is felt by so many communities that are affected by the closure?

We want to make sure that the matter is resolved definitively, as soon as possible, which is why we committed to progress a long-term solution to the landslide risks at the Rest and Be Thankful. Today, we have announced a preferred corridor for a long-term solution, along with potential route options in that corridor for consultation. Of course, the importance of consultation is one of the reasons why I cannot give a precise timescale right now. We must complete the necessary statutory processes to guarantee delivery of the scheme. However, we absolutely recognise the importance of the issue to people across Argyll and Bute.

There is a determination in relation to the issue. In fact, Mike Russell, as a member whose constituents are affected, has been a champion on the issue in the Government, and we will continue to make sure that we progress the matter with all due priority.

Statutory Right to Food

The First Minister might be aware that, last week, my bill proposal to enshrine the right to food into Scots law received enough cross-party support to proceed and has now been lodged. I take the opportunity to thank the members who supported my proposal. Although the pandemic has highlighted concerns around food insecurity and poverty, food bank usage was already surging before the lockdown. Does the First Minister agree that malnutrition and hunger, and poor wages and conditions among workers in the food industry, are unacceptable in 21st century Scotland? What priority does she place on a statutory right to food?

I agree with much of that. Obviously, we are getting to the point when all parties in the chamber are focusing on our manifestos of what we will do if we are elected in a few weeks. I would expect a statutory right to food to feature in the election campaign. I certainly think that that is an important issue, and I will set out my manifesto in due course.

We have invested heavily in trying to deal with food insecurity but, as a Government—and, of course, we have seen the Parliament take a significant step in this direction in the past few days—we are keen to see a whole spectrum of human rights incorporated into our law, and there are perhaps fewer more basic rights than the right to food.

I hope that that gives Elaine Smith some indication of where my mind is at on the issue. Of course, most of us are about to put our plans before the Scottish people.

ScotRail (Public Ownership)

I welcome yesterday’s announcement that ScotRail will be brought into public ownership in order to provide stability and certainty for passengers. What are the consequences of the serial incompetence on the part of United Kingdom Government ministers, who have so far failed to publish a white paper following the Williams review?

First, I think that it is very positive news that ScotRail will in effect come into public ownership and that the railways will in effect be nationalised in Scotland. I am proud that it is a Scottish National Party Government that has set out the plans to do exactly that.

One of the frustrations—this is where that question is very important—is that we cannot yet implement our preferred model of an integrated public sector-controlled railway because we are seeing delays in the UK Government’s consultations and, of course, Network Rail still lies in the control of the UK Government. I think that we are taking significant steps in the right direction, but completing the powers that this Parliament has over rail, as well as over everything else, would allow us to do so much more and go even further yet.

Universities and Colleges (Teaching Schedules)

To ask the First Minister when universities and colleges across Scotland will be given sufficient information to allow them to plan their teaching schedules for the next academic year, given that their timetables are normally decided at the end of this month and they cannot wait until after the election.

Through the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, the Government is in regular contact with the university and college sector. On Tuesday I set out some indication, in particular about the college sector and the return of students to in-person teaching as part of the next phase of our exit from lockdown. That is particularly focused on college students who otherwise might be at risk of not completing their courses. As it is safe to do so, as the virus is suppressed and as we vaccinate more people, we want to see, at later stages, more young people coming back to the campuses of universities and colleges. We will continue to be in touch with the sector on the detail of that, even through the election campaign period.

Thank you very much. On that note, we will—

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I raise this point in relation to the reply that I received from the First Minister earlier. A number of mesh-injured women went through all stages of the process to seek agreement from the national health service to refunding payments that they had made for mesh removal surgery that they had had in the United States. They had borrowed, crowdfunded or used their life savings to fund that surgery.

Last week, in a letter to Jackson Carlaw, Alex Neil and me, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport confirmed that there is no route for that money to be repaid by the NHS. That completely contradicts the answer that the First Minister gave me earlier. Will she now look at that letter and correct it? Alternatively, will she now correct what she said earlier, because both cannot be true?

I appreciate that Mr Findlay disputes the account, but that is just a matter of disputation; it is not a point of order. Mr Findlay has championed the matter, the First Minister has put her views on the record and the letter is there, too. Mr Findlay can pursue the matter in writing with the First Minister if he wishes.

The First Minister rose

First Minister, it was a point of order for me in the chair, and I am saying that it is simply a continuation of the debate that we heard earlier.

13:32 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—