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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 18, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 18 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Road Safety (Falkirk), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Shared Prosperity Fund and Levelling Up Agenda, Point of Order, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Justice System (Release from Prison)

Sixty-seven-year-old Esther Brown was raped and murdered by Jason Graham. This is a man who was a registered sex offender and had 23 previous convictions. In 2013, he was given a seven and a half-year sentence for the rape of a retired nurse, but he got released early on licence. After Graham was sentenced yesterday for this brutal attack and murder, one of Esther’s friends said:

“She was the type of person that would go and help anybody.”

Can the First Minister honestly say that her Government’s approach to justice is keeping the people of Scotland safe?

First, and most important, my thoughts and sympathies are with Esther Brown’s family and friends. Absolutely nothing, including nothing that I or anybody else in the chamber can say, will ease the pain that the family is suffering or the pain of anyone who knew her. I hope that the sentence yesterday will bring some closure to the family, but I do not underestimate the pain that they will be suffering and will continue to suffer for some time.

Obviously, I cannot comment on the detail of individual cases. First, it is important to recognise that, in this case, there will be a significant case review, which will assess the circumstances of the protection arrangements that were in place and the roles of the operational agencies that were involved. That will be done with a clear view to learning any lessons. It is right and proper—indeed, it is essential—that lessons are learned and acted on as appropriate.

Automatic early release has, of course, been an issue of contention for many years in the Parliament. Back in 2015, the Government legislated to end the previous system of automatic early release for prisoners. Of course, that legislation could not apply retrospectively, but it was an important move to make. We will continue to ensure that our justice system protects people from criminals and ensures that victims get the justice that they deserve. I am not talking about this case when I make this point, but we also want a justice system that tries to ensure that the principles of rehabilitation and reducing reoffending are at its heart.

This case is yet another damning example of the glaring flaws in Scotland’s justice system. Jason Graham was released early. He was not monitored properly. Yesterday, he got 19 years in prison—yes, that is a long sentence, but it is not nearly enough for such a horrific crime.

This week, the Scottish Government launched a consultation, proposing that violent criminals could get out of prison after serving just six or seven years of their sentence. The Government’s document suggests that long-term prisoners could be considered for release after serving just a third of their sentence. Does the First Minister not see that the proposals would take our justice system even further in the wrong direction and would risk public safety?

These are very serious issues. Before I come on to early release and the consultation that the Government published in recent days, it is important to say that processes and procedures are in place—they clearly did not work in this tragic case—through the multi-agency public protection arrangements to minimise the risks that are posed by registered sex offenders. As I said, in such cases, it is right that there will be a significant case review to ensure that any appropriate lessons are learned.

My Government did not introduce the previous automatic early release arrangements, but we did legislate to end them. It is important that we recognise that it is necessary to have in place a justice system that punishes those who deserve to be punished—that is always an important principle of the justice system—but that also promotes rehabilitation and tries to reduce reoffending.

One thing that is often lost in these discussions—I reiterate that I am talking in general terms here, not about the case of Esther Brown—is that, in Scotland, we imprison a higher proportion of our population than any other country in western Europe does. It is not that we do not send a lot of people to prison. The question is whether prison is always the effective punishment for people. It will be in many, many cases.

We want to have a system of release from prison that, first, has risk assessment and victim safety at its heart, and that also looks at what is most effective in reducing reoffending. The consultation that was published this week is a consultation, and I encourage people across the chamber and indeed the wider public to respond to it.

It is important to say—this will be my last point in this answer, Presiding Officer—that the abolition of automatic early release for the most dangerous, long-term prisoners is not affected by any of the consultation proposals that were published earlier this week.

The First Minister started her answer by saying that there are processes and procedures in place. Those processes and procedures did not save Esther Brown from being raped and murdered, so I am sorry, but that does not cut it when we are dealing with lives being lost, and it is not an individual case.

The SNP Government consultation does not stop there, however. It also proposes automatically releasing short-term prisoners after just a third of their sentence. The First Minister previously told the Parliament:

“Our objective remains to end the policy of automatic early release completely as soon as we are able to.”—[Official Report, 2 April 2015; c 19.]

That was six years ago, yet now, far from keeping dangerous criminals off our streets, this Government is proposing to let them out even earlier. Is it not the case that this Government’s course of action has let some of the worst offenders back on to our streets, where they are free to commit further offences?

First, and the record will bear this out, I said in my previous answer that the arrangements that are in place through the multi-agency public protection scheme to protect people from registered sex offenders clearly did not work as intended in the case of Esther Brown. I know that nothing that I can say on the generality of these issues will bring any comfort to her family. I want to make that clear again.

I have also been at pains to say that I appreciate that some of the comments that I am making—because there are clearly wider issues here, which Douglas Ross is right to raise—are not applicable to the specifics of Esther Brown’s case. I want to be clear, again, about that. I absolutely understand that anybody who loved her, listening to me right now, will take no comfort whatsoever from anything that I say, but the Government has a duty to ensure that the overall justice system has the right principles at heart when things go wrong and that lessons are learned, and that is what we will always seek to do.

This Government did legislate to end automatic early release for certain categories of prisoner—those serving sentences of four years or more. I do not want to get into politics on such a serious issue, but the Conservatives did not vote for those reforms. Other parties in the chamber did vote for them. It is important that, as we move forward, we continue to keep all the arrangements under review.

The consultation that was published this week is a consultation. It seeks views on whether certain prisoners who are serving short-term sentences could be released earlier than halfway if—and this is an important “if”—that was felt to better support their successful reintegration into society and, therefore, help to reduce the risk of reoffending. We look forward to seeing the responses to the consultation and we will consider them all carefully.

Rates of crime in Scotland—again, I appreciate that this is no comfort at all for any victim of crime—are at their lowest level for many years, and we send a higher proportion of our population to prison than any other country in western Europe does. We have to ask ourselves whether the way that we use prison is as effective as it could be. It is therefore right that we consider these things carefully, and we will certainly do so. As we do that, we will of course learn lessons from tragic cases such as the one that we are discussing today.

More dangerous offenders such as Jason Graham are being released all the time. The most recent annual figures show that more than 95 per cent of the criminals who are sent to prison in Scotland will be eligible for automatic early release—more than 95 per cent. Far too often in the Scottish National Party’s soft-touch justice system, criminals are put first, not victims. It is too late for Esther Brown, but that must change.

Our victims law would restore confidence that is sadly lacking. This Government has a choice to make: having emptier prisons from letting out early even more criminals, or protecting the public and putting victims first. I choose public safety and supporting victims. Which side is the First Minister on?

We should all be on the side of victims of crime, but we should also all be on the side of making Scotland as a whole safer. That means trying to ensure that we have in place a penal system that not only punishes—–a vital principle in any justice system—but helps us to reduce the risk of those who serve sentences in prison reoffending. That is the wider issue that we have a responsibility to consider.

I know that it is an easy soundbite for the Conservatives, but it is simply not accurate to describe our country as having soft-touch justice when we have some of the lowest crime rates in many years and, as I have already said today, send a higher proportion of our population to prison than any other country in western Europe.

The question that we have to ask ourselves is whether our justice system and the approaches that are taken to dealing with offenders are always as effective as they should be, both in punishing and reducing reoffending. I accept that that presents difficult, challenging and, at times, contentious issues, which is why we are consulting carefully on the proposed reforms. We will listen carefully to all the responses that we receive.


Queen Elizabeth University Hospital

I have repeatedly come to the chamber to raise tragedy after tragedy at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. Despite that, we still have a culture of cover-up, denial and families being failed. Everyone should read the heartbreaking words of Louise Slorance, the widow of Andrew Slorance, who died in December after being treated for cancer in the hospital. Andrew was the First Minister’s official spokesperson in 2007, then head of the Scottish Government’s response and communication unit. He was at the heart of the Covid pandemic response.

Andrew went into hospital to get treatment that would prolong his life; instead, in hospital, he contracted Covid and a fungal infection—Aspergillus, which is a deadly bacteria that is often linked to water or mould. He died just days later. His wife, Louise, told me that she was never informed about the fungal infection. She had to uncover that in his medical notes after his death. She has spoken courageously of her anger, shock, distress and disappointment.

Why, despite everything that has happened, do we still have a culture of cover-up, secrecy and denial, with families being forced to take on the system to get the truth?

I assure members that I have read Louise’s words very closely. I always do that when relatives of people who have died or received substandard care in our national health service speak out, as that is part of my duty. In this case, I have obviously also done that because I knew Andrew very well.

Andrew was a greatly valued member of the Scottish Government team. He is deeply missed by everyone who had the privilege of working with him, which certainly includes me. I first met Andrew on the very first day that I served in Government, back in 2007. He made an exceptional contribution to the Scottish Government’s work, and my thoughts are often with his loved ones and, in particular, his wife, Louise, and his children.

My officials have already engaged this morning with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde so that the concerns that have been raised are properly investigated. We will do everything possible to ensure that Andrew’s family members get the answers that they seek, and we will consider carefully whether the concerns that Louise Slorance has raised raise wider issues that require to be addressed. The chief operating officer of NHS Scotland has contacted NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde this morning to start to establish the facts, and I have asked for information to be available later today, when we will assess what further steps require to be taken.

This Government and I will not tolerate cover-ups or secrecy on the part of any health board. Where there are concerns about that, we will address those concerns.

In relation to the issue at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital, and other issues that have been raised over the years about the hospital, including by Anas Sarwar, a public inquiry is under way. I hope that that is a sign of our determination to ensure that any issues that are raised are properly investigated and that answers are forthcoming. The Government and I are determined that that will be the case in relation to Andrew Slorance’s death.

The First Minister says that she has heard these concerns from me for years, so why are these things still happening? If even the widow of Andrew Slorance cannot get the truth and justice that he deserves, when he was at the heart of this Government, what chance does anybody else in our country have? This is a repeated pattern.

Consider the scandal at the children’s cancer ward that led to the tragic death of Milly Main. In that case, a bacteria linked to water, Stenotrophomonas, was identified by infection-control doctors, ignored by management and covered up. In this case, a bacteria linked to water and mould, Aspergillus, was identified by infection-control doctors, ignored by management and covered up. That is a culture of secrecy and denial, and the Government cannot escape that fact.

Such cover-ups have deadly consequences, so I ask the First Minister agree to Louise Slorance’s demands: first, an independent case note review into all Aspergillus cases at the hospital; secondly, an independent Crown Office-led investigation into hospital-acquired Covid infections; and thirdly, for the public inquiry remit to be expanded to include Aspergillus cases.

Crucially, though, the health board leadership has lost the confidence of clinicians, patients, parents and the public. Given everything that has already happened, and everything that has been uncovered, why is the health board leadership in Glasgow still in place?

I will continue to address the issues raised. I said in my initial answer that my officials have already engaged with the health board today, and I have asked for further information. Later today, when I have had the opportunity to look at and assess that information, I will consider, with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, what additional steps are required.

I note that Louise Slorance has requested a case note review. A case note review was carried out in relation to earlier issues at the Queen Elizabeth, so it is a reasonable request, which I will consider with the health secretary later.

On Louise Slorance’s other two requests, I absolutely understand why the requests have been made but, as I know Anas Sarwar is aware, the Crown Office is independent of ministers and can look into any cases that it deems appropriate. It is not appropriate for me, as First Minister, to instruct the Crown Office in these matters. Similarly, the public inquiry is, rightly and properly, operating independently of ministers. It is able to look at any issues associated with the Queen Elizabeth that it considers appropriate. To be beyond any doubt, there is no objection on the part of the Government to the public inquiry looking into any of the issues that have been raised in relation to Andrew Slorance by his wife today. However, it is not for me to instruct the public inquiry, because it is operating independently of ministers and will decide which issues it wishes to consider.

I accept what the First Minister says, but I note that she dodged the question altogether about the leadership of the health board in Glasgow.

I am sorry—the answer is not good enough because, as the First Minister herself noted, these issues have been raised for years. The right thing to do would not be to ask an official to make contact with the leadership of the health board and have the process that comes back. The right thing to do would be for the First Minister to grip the issue, take ownership of it and get it sorted out.

Despite the tragic loss of life, the cover-ups and the denials, not a single person has been held accountable for the catastrophic errors at Queen Elizabeth university hospital. That cannot continue. From start to finish, the scandal has happened under Nicola Sturgeon’s watch. She was health secretary when the hospital was commissioned and built, and First Minister when it was opened. Since then, water reports have been ignored; there have been deadly building flaws; patients have been getting infections; wards have closed; there have been patient deaths; and staff have been bullied and silenced. There has been an independent review, a case note review, a public inquiry, criminal investigations and continued failings and cover-ups. Families are still having to go public to fight the system and get the truth.

Enough is enough. This is the worst scandal of the devolution era. In any other country in the world, there would be resignations and sackings, but under this Government, there is denial and cover-up. How many more families have to lose loved ones before anyone is held to account?

There is, right now, an independent statutory public inquiry under way. I think that that is right and proper. It was instructed by the previous health secretary of this Government. If the Government were to start to pre-empt the outcomes of that public inquiry, I think that, with some justification, Anas Sarwar and perhaps others would say that that is wrong as well, because we were seeking to interfere with the work that the inquiry was doing.

These are serious issues, and I think that they deserve to be treated seriously and on their substance. The public inquiry is doing that work right now. The findings and any recommendations that fall from that public inquiry absolutely should be, must be and will be acted upon.

I think that it is incumbent on all of us who care about these issues—and I know that that includes all of us in the chamber—to allow that public inquiry to do its work.

We move to supplementary questions.


Weir & McQuiston (Administration)

The First Minister might be aware that Wishart-based, family-owned Weir & McQuiston (Scotland) Ltd entered administration this week. WMQ was one of Scotland’s leading mechanical and electrical contractors, and that is a devastating development for the owners and the 90 members of staff who are affected. What engagement has the Scottish Government had with administrators through partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—and what support has been put in place for the people who are affected by those job losses in my constituency?

I thank Clare Adamson for raising what I know is an important constituency issue for her. I was also very sorry to hear that Weir & McQuiston had ceased trading after such a long period of time—some 45 years. My thoughts are with the employees who are affected by that decision and their families. I can assure Clare Adamson that our local PACE team has already been in touch with the administrators. It is working closely with the redundancy payments office, which will ensure that information on pay support is issued to the affected employees. We stand ready to do anything reasonable that we can to support them at this very difficult time.


Booster Vaccinations (Ayrshire and Arran)

I have a constituent in the vulnerable category who went to book a booster vaccination and was told that there was no availability until mid-January. I have had it confirmed by NHS Ayrshire and Arran that booking is completely full. With that in mind, does the Government have any plans to expand the booster vaccination scheme to ensure that those who should get a booster jab have access to one?

Yes, we do. I am happy to look into that particular case and into the wider issue in Ayrshire and Arran. We have plans in place and are working to ensure that all those who are eligible—and remember that eligibility for the booster means six months on from receiving the second vaccine dose—are vaccinated as quickly as possible and before the end of this year, wherever possible.

That is how we have designed the system—there is flex in it. Just this week, we are seeking to increase capacity further so that we can start vaccinating those in the over-40 age group. People should be getting appointments quickly. I will certainly look into any situation in which somebody who is eligible and has already passed the six months is being told that it will be January before they can get a booster. If there is not a good reason for that, we will certainly take that up with Ayrshire and Arran NHS Board.


Glasgow Transport Fares

Delegates to the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—were handed free smart cards like the one that I am holding up to access integrated public transport across the central belt of Scotland. However, my constituent, who was cleaning toilets for the world leaders at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, had to pay £5 for a bus ticket and another £3 for the subway every day, compared with £3 for publicly controlled Transport for London services or £3.60 on publicly controlled and owned Lothian Buses services. In Glasgow, on minimum wage, an hour’s pay each day is spent on getting to and from work.

Does the First Minister therefore agree that a green new deal for workers in Glasgow must include using the powers of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to bring all public transport in greater Glasgow under a single, integrated, publicly controlled franchise, with London-style capped fares?

There are two related issues there, and I certainly agree with the sentiment behind the question.

On the integration of ticketing, Transport Scotland is already working towards all journeys on our public transport networks being able to be made using some form of smart ticketing or payment. Progress has already been made towards that objective.

The second issue is affordability. I think that an important part of our journey to net zero and getting more people to use public transport is making public transport much more affordable and therefore more accessible. We need to do that in a way that we can accommodate within our budgets, and we are looking at that right now, in the context of our budget process.

One of the things that we were able to confirm during COP was the introduction of free bus travel for under-22s, which will come into force at the beginning of next year. We need to go further than that and we are considering how quickly we can do that within the resources that are available to us. Making sure that public transport is more accessible in terms of affordability and ease of use is a key priority for us.


Booster Vaccinations

Will the First Minister join me in thanking all the staff, volunteers and people in Scotland who have helped make Scotland the first United Kingdom nation to give the extra vaccine dose to half of over-50s? I remind members that I am part of NHS Dumfries and Galloway’s vaccination team.

I again thank everybody who is working hard to design the vaccination programme and work out how we get the capacity that we need and where the capacity should be, and I thank those who are administering vaccines in vaccination centres the length and breadth of the country, which I know includes Emma Harper. The programme is going very well and we have become the first part of the UK to vaccinate more than 50 per cent of over-50s with the booster, but there is still a long way to go. Vaccination remains our best line of defence against the virus, so I encourage anybody who is not yet vaccinated with either their first or second dose and anybody who is eligible for the booster to get vaccinated, because it will protect them and others—please do it without delay.


Oil and Gas Jobs (North East Scotland)

On Tuesday, the First Minister turned her back on 100,000 oil and gas workers, many of whom are in the north-east. Yesterday, the Scottish National Party turned its back on its commitment to fully dual the A96. Can the First Minister explain to the people of the north-east why she has turned her back on them?

Like much else that comes from the Conservative Party, that is nonsense, and it completely ignores the responsibility that we all have to address climate change. These issues are complex, difficult and often contentious, but let us be clear that the transition away from oil and gas, which the science says is essential, must be just. It must not put 100,000 workers into unemployment or increase reliance on imports. The question that flows from that is the key question. Do we say that, because we have a current jobs and energy reliance on oil and gas, we continue with new developments and unlimited extraction, or do we say that we need to break that cycle of reliance by investing in the alternatives and speeding up our move away from fossil fuels?

Our obligation to the planet says that we need to do the latter. That is why the Scottish Government is investing in a just transition. That just transition would be easier if the United Kingdom Conservative Government had not turned its back on carbon capture and storage, the Scottish cluster and the Acorn project—perhaps the Scottish Conservatives should take that up with their colleagues in London.


Queen Elizabeth University Hospital

The heartbroken family of Andrew Slorance is not the only family seeking answers about what happened to loved ones at Queen Elizabeth university hospital. Theresa Smith, as reported on front page of the Greenock Telegraph today, has spoken of the deep pain that her family has endured since the death of her daughter, Sophia, in April 2017 at just 12 days old. Sophia died of an infection that she contracted at the Queen Elizabeth, despite initially responding well to treatment for breathing problems. The family was not informed and had to fight for a post mortem to know the truth. Theresa and her family have described the tortuous journey to try and get answers about what happened, with phone calls, emails and letters stonewalled. She, too, has pointed to a cover-up.

I heard what the First Minister said in response to Anas Sarwar about the public inquiry. Does she recognise that the inquiry did not save Andrew Slorance and will not save patients right now? What is the Government doing immediately to prevent such terrible and tragic deaths from happening again?

Infection prevention and control is a priority in every hospital all the time, which is absolutely right and proper, as is the need to learn lessons when things go wrong. That is a daily priority for hospitals and health boards across the country.

I convey my sympathies to Sophia’s family. If the member wants to correspond with me, I am very willing to see whether there is something that the Government can do to help get the answers that Sophia’s family understandably want. In a situation such as this, it is right, and it was called for, that we have a proper independent statutory public inquiry. That is not the sign of a Government trying to cover things up; it is the sign of the opposite. It is the sign of a Government that is determined to get to the truth, determined to find the facts, determined to get the answers, and determined to learn the lessons, and that is what we should be seeing.


26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (Impact)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government anticipates the lasting impact of COP26 will be for the people of Glasgow and Scotland. (S6F-00470)

I think that the lasting impact will be a very positive one. We can all feel pride in the leadership that Scotland, the people of Scotland and, in particular, the people of Glasgow showed during the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties. I think that the outcome, although it did not go as far as many of us would have liked, will accelerate or help to accelerate our delivery of net zero, and it is important that people and communities are at the heart of that.

We are currently funding a number of projects in Glasgow through the climate challenge fund, which supports communities to reduce car reliance, cut waste, grow local food and lower energy use. We are also building a new model to support further community climate action. That will be part of the longer-term legacy from COP26 in Glasgow over two weeks.

For many countries in the global south, the impacts of climate change are already being felt. We have a moral responsibility to acknowledge that and to take action. The Scottish Government has led the way by providing £2 million of funding for loss and damage. That commitment has been widely welcomed, including by the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, but we cannot act alone. How will the Scottish Government continue to push for climate justice globally post-COP26?

First, we will try to lead by example through our actions at home. That is why the decision that we have taken to increase our climate justice fund and our decision to allocate resources to the issue of loss and damage are important. That allows us to use that leadership to seek to encourage others to do likewise.

I have already had discussions on the issue with other Governments, and I know that there is a willingness now to step forward on loss and damage. We will continue to play our part in building that momentum.

It is really important that we focus on actions to mitigate climate change and to help countries to adapt to the future impacts of climate change. However, as Kaukab Stewart has rightly said, many countries across the world are suffering loss and damage right now. They are struggling to cope with that, and the developed world, which has, of course, done the most to cause climate change, has a real moral obligation to step up and play its part in helping with that. Scotland will continue to do everything that we can to play our full part.

As my colleague Paul Sweeney has said, one of the positives from the COP in Glasgow was that delegates benefited from smart, integrated ticketing. The First Minister promised Scotland that almost a decade ago, but she has never delivered it. This week, Dublin is rolling out a new 90-minute ticket across buses, trams and trains. Glasgow and Scotland are falling further behind our neighbours. When will the First Minister finally make seamless and affordable public transport a reality for Scotland’s passengers?

That work is already under way. I will not repeat everything that I said in response to the previous question on that—it is an important question and it is an important priority—but let me repeat one point. From January next year, every young person under the age of 22 will have free bus travel in Scotland. That is a significant step forward, but it is not the end of the journey. We have to build on that to go further. However, we are taking concrete steps to make public transport more accessible and more affordable, and we will continue to make that progress in the years ahead, as we have to do a range of different things to live up to our own climate change targets.


Face-to-face Advocacy Services

To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of the impact of reduced face-to-face advocacy services on vulnerable people, such as victims of domestic abuse. (S6F-00472)

I commend the work of front-line advocacy services, which have worked tirelessly to ensure that people, including those experiencing domestic abuse, have been able to access support throughout the pandemic. We are in regular contact with those services to understand the challenges that they face and to support them as best we can.

Over the past 18 months, we have invested an additional £10 million to allow the rapid redesign of services and to address backlogs, and we have supported organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland. In addition, our delivering equally safe fund recently confirmed funding for 112 organisations, which will help them to provide key services and prevent gender-based violence.

It is important that, when the issue is raised, all of us say how utterly abhorrent domestic violence is. It should never be tolerated, and, if anyone is in need of help, whether from the police or from a support agency, they should not hesitate to seek it.

I especially welcome the additional funding for the equally safe campaign. However, it is clear that the loss of face-to-face advice will have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable members of our communities. Recently, Rachel Moon, who is a senior solicitor at Govanhill Law Centre, said:

“For the ... most vulnerable in our society—those with no literacy, no English, no family or monetary support, and a history of discrimination—they need a physical place ... to see a real person to hand over their eviction documents ... we must remember those people who cannot phone, zoom, or scan documents.”

Violence against women is sadly endemic in our society and, as the First Minister has recognised, levels of domestic abuse are rising alarmingly. However, it can be impractical for people who are in a controlling and abusive relationship to seek help remotely at home. What will the Scottish Government do to review the funding that it gives to law centres and the free advice sector so that vulnerable people and women who are experiencing domestic violence have safe places where they can access face-to-face legal advice?

As I said in my initial answer, we will continue to do all that we can to ensure funding for front-line organisations that provide advocacy services. There are a range of such services—I mentioned some of them—particularly in the field of dealing with gender-based violence. There are also law centres, which I know—I used to work in a law centre, many years ago—provide valuable advice and services.

On the issue of face-to-face access versus telephone or online access, organisations themselves will often be best placed to make decisions about the correct balance. It is really important that, where necessary, people have the face-to-face option. However, I know that, during the pandemic, some organisations have found that the necessity of moving to more digital access has allowed them to extend their reach, so it is important that the balance is right.

It is challenging in the current circumstances, but I hope that our commitment to funding those organisations, as far as we possibly can, will help them to return to normal and to provide the essential services that they offer to so many people across the country.


Advocacy Services (Funding)

Advocacy services are an important lifeline for many different groups, including vulnerable older people. However, even before the pandemic, reduced funding for advocacy organisations across Scotland meant that they were struggling to meet demand. Does the First Minister agree with independent advocacy services that increased funding is necessary to allow those organisations to protect vulnerable individuals’ rights?

Yes, I do—I agree strongly with that. We do not have unlimited resources—that is a statement of fact—but, within the resources that we have, we are seeking to ensure that front-line organisations that support and provide help to vulnerable people have the funding that they need, although that will continue to be challenging.

Of course, given the range of circumstances—I am not talking specifically about domestic abuse—in which people feel the need to access advocacy support, we also need to do more to deal with the root causes of some of those things. Many people who are accessing services—citizens advice bureaux, for example—right now will be doing so because of the cuts to their benefits, given the position of destitution that that often puts people in. We all have a responsibility to support front-line services, but, equally, we all have a responsibility to try to deal with some of the root causes that lead people to need those services. I hope that the member will, on behalf of his colleagues, reflect on that.


Minimum Unit Price for Alcohol

To ask the First Minister what consideration the Scottish Government has given to increasing the minimum unit price for alcohol. (S6F-00467)

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that, as we move forward, we have in place a level of minimum unit price that remains effective in reducing alcohol harms. At the point when minimum unit pricing was first introduced, we did not know that we would be facing a pandemic, which has had an impact on the use and consumption of alcohol. Prior to the pandemic, however, we were seeing early and very encouraging signs of a reduction in alcohol sales and in alcohol-specific deaths.

The evaluation of minimum unit pricing is on-going, and a final report from Public Health Scotland is expected in 2023. Of course, any change to the level, or to any detail, of the minimum unit pricing policy must have a robust evidence base.

I remind members that I am a member of Moving On Inverclyde, a local addiction service.

The First Minister will know that the most recent statistics indicated that Inverclyde had the highest level of alcohol-related deaths during the peak of the Covid pandemic. Every death is a tragedy and I offer my condolences to the people affected.

It is clear that minimum unit pricing was having a positive effect but, due to inflation, the effectiveness of the 50p unit price will have declined. Bearing in mind the fact that alcohol was 64 per cent more affordable in 2017 than it was in 1980—particularly in supermarkets and off-sales—will the First Minister consider increasing the minimum unit price in line with inflation or even slightly above that in the upcoming budget? Will she also commit to setting up an external commission to consider when future increases should occur and what level they should be?

I will consider any suggestions of that nature and will take Stuart McMillan’s suggestions into account.

It is really important that we do two things, which are obviously related. First, we should properly and robustly evaluate the policy of minimum unit pricing. Indeed, a commitment was given to do that when the legislation was passed and the policy was introduced. That process is under way and we will know the outcomes of the Public Health Scotland evaluation in 2023.

It is also important that we keep the level of the price under review and take account of factors such as inflation, because the level of the price is critical to ensuring that the policy continues to be effective. There were encouraging signs pre-pandemic that it was being effective, and we need to take account of changes since then. Those issues will receive on-going, careful and evidence-based consideration by the Government.

Stuart McMillan is right. It has been a decade since the 50p rate was first set, inflation is rising dramatically and the sunset clause is coming into effect soon. The First Minister and I agree on minimum unit pricing but I am concerned about the lack of urgency in her answer. We need to move faster on increasing the rate. Today, 28 organisations spoke out to say that it should be 65p. Will she back the science?

I hope that Willie Rennie and others accept that there are few people in the chamber more committed to the policy of minimum unit pricing than I am. I was the minister who took the legislation through the Parliament. We then had a lengthy court challenge and have been committed to the policy throughout, including at times when few people were prepared to predict that it had any chance of becoming operational. Therefore, I take those points extremely seriously.

We need to consider all the points carefully and we are doing so. I do not want to sound in any way complacent about the matter. Minimum unit pricing will have the desired effect only if it is set at an effective level.

There is one other complicating factor right now—I say this as a statement of fact, not for any other reason—and that is the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Any changes in the price, whether by inflation or any other level, could engage that act. That is a source of great concern for us and one of the many reasons why we raised such profound concerns while that act was going through the Westminster Parliament.

I hope that, as we take forward the work on minimum unit pricing, members will engage rightly and properly on the detail of where the price should be set. That must be evidence driven. I hope that we will have the support of members around the chamber if we find that the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 is a serious obstacle to ensuring that minimum unit pricing remains effective, because that would be deeply regrettable, given the policy’s history and how difficult it was to get it into operation.

Sadly, alcohol-related deaths in Scotland rose by 17 per cent in 2020, to 1,190. Those devastating figures emphasise the point that action must be taken and that a range of methods, including minimum unit pricing, should be implemented to tackle harmful alcohol consumption.

I know that the Government plans to consult on the marketing of alcohol. Will the First Minister consider implementing other measures, such as mandating nutrition and health information on alcohol labels and placing a social responsibility levy on alcohol retailers?

Without commenting on the specific suggestions that Gillian Mackay made, although they are both important, I say in general that we remain open minded to every action that can help us to deal with the harm that alcohol misuse does. In fact, when we first proposed minimum unit pricing, it was one of, I think, 40 different actions that were put forward in our alcohol strategy.

Minimum unit pricing is important but it is not the only initiative that needs to be taken. We will consider other initiatives and very carefully consider their evidence base. Within the powers that we have, that includes the suggestions that Gillian Mackay made.


Tenants (Private Sector)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as an owner of a rented property in North Lanarkshire.

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to support tenants, in light of University of Glasgow research indicating that around a quarter of private tenants are in arrears, totalling around £126 million. (S6F-00463)

We are very much aware that rising rent costs cause hardship for tenants. Although that has been the case for many years, the pandemic has further exacerbated the financial situation for many people. That is why the Government has already taken significant action. For example, we have supported and are supporting tenants through a variety of schemes, with an additional £39 million. That includes a £10 million tenant grant fund, an increase in discretionary housing payments and a £10 million tenant hardship loan fund. This year we have committed £82 million in discretionary housing payments.

In the longer term, we have committed to tackling high rents by implementing an effective national system of rent controls by the end of 2025 and to introducing a new deal for tenants, so that there is quality, affordability and fairness at the heart of the rented sector.

I am grateful for the First Minister’s answer but, with social sector arrears growing by £9 million just between July and September this year, it is clear that arrears are set to dwarf that £10 million grant fund. To my surprise and the surprise of those in the sector, that is not even new money; it has been raided from the ending homelessness together fund. Also, the loan fund appears to be completely useless. It offers tenants in arrears more debt, and most applicants are simply refused. In the first four months of this financial year, just £42,000 was paid out.

Tenants fear a tidal wave of evictions and homelessness, yet last week’s report says that landlords want notice periods for arrears to be slashed to the pre-pandemic level of 28 days. Can the First Minister assure tenants that their rights on notice periods will not be slashed? Can she commit to rent controls in next year’s housing bill—not by 2025, as she suggested in her previous answer?

The member can take it from my previous answer and from the overall commitments from the Government that our objective is to strengthen the rights of tenants, not weaken them in any way. I take his points about financial assistance, although I would say that helping tenants with rent arrears is an important part of helping to prevent, and therefore end, homelessness. That point needs to be made.

In the course of the budget process, we will of course consider what more we can do to help not just tenants but others who are dealing with difficult financial circumstances right now. If the member wishes to make proposals about how we free up more money in the budget, the housing minister would be perfectly happy to have that conversation.

We are happy to engage about the timing of legislation on rent controls. The Parliament rightly wants proper time for consultation and scrutiny of proposed legislation, and we are open to discussions about the legislative programme and how quickly we can move to introduce reforms.

The reforms will be contentious. I do not believe that they will be unanimously supported within this party—within this Parliament, I mean. I hope that they will be unanimously supported within this party, but I am not sure that they will be within the Parliament. It is perhaps those members who might oppose them who are now murmuring from a sedentary position.

To be serious about it, this is a real issue. Overall, inflationary pressures from energy costs, rent and rising food prices will pose significant challenges for many people across the country, and the Government will do everything that we can within our resources to help people to deal with those pressures.