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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 19, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 19 December 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Referendums (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Scottish Government (Priorities)

All this week, and again this morning, the First Minister has set out her one priority for Government. There is no prize for guessing what it is.

Let us see how she is getting on this week with the people’s priorities. For a commuter, the train that is overseen by the Scottish National Party is in chaos. For a person who lives on our islands, the ferry that they need to get to the mainland is in dry dock. For the parent of a sick child, either the hospital is not open or, if it is, the child might end up with a deadly infection. Is that a record with which the First Minister is proud to end the year?

The Scottish Government works and will continue to work hard on all those priorities.

When we encounter failures of private companies in commercial contracts, such as has happened on the ferries and the railways, we—unlike the Conservatives, who continue to defend the situation—take decisive action. It does not surprise me at all that the Conservatives do not like that very much.

Let me take the opportunity, at this time of year in particular, to thank all the people who work so hard across our health service, caring for sick children and patients the length and breadth of the country. I thank everyone who works in our public services for the sterling job that they do.

Of course, the record of my Government—indeed, the performance of my party relative to that of Jackson Carlaw’s party—was put to the Scottish people last week. The Scottish people recorded their verdict, and I think that Jackson Carlaw knows very well what that was.

People do not want the First Minister’s thanks; they want the leadership that is so obviously lacking.

If the First Minister’s Government is so decisive, will she answer me this? During the course of 2019, what is the Scottish Government’s detailed record on meeting its national health service waiting time targets?

Let me quote Audit Scotland, who said that, on seven out of the eight waiting time targets, more people were being seen within the targets than was the case in the previous year. We are investing in the health service, to build the capacity that is needed to address rising demand.

What this Government is doing stands in stark, stark contrast to the performance of the Conservatives south of the border and indeed in contrast to the performance of Labour in Wales. We have record investment in our national health service and we have a record number of people working in it. Because we did not do what the Conservatives wanted us to do in the most recent budget and the budget before that, which was to hand tax cuts to the richest people in our society, we have been able to avoid a further half a billion pounds cut in our public services budget—a cut that would have been imposed on top of the other cuts that the Tories have imposed on Scotland’s budget.

Well, First Minister, here is the current score. The 12-week treatment time guarantee—missed and never met. The 18-week referral to treatment—missed. The six-week wait for diagnostics—missed. The 18-week wait for psychological treatment—missed. The 18-week mental health target—missed. The 62-day target for cancer treatment—missed. The four-week wait for musculoskeletal treatment—missed. The chronic pain target—missed. That is the First Minister’s record in 2019.

When the First Minister was showboating before the cameras again this morning, did she not think—[Interruption.] This morning, did the First Minister not think that the thousands of patients who have been let down by her Government should have been due her apology?

I am sure that I am not the only one who is struck by the fact that Jackson Carlaw’s angry demeanour is always in inverse proportion to his levels of confidence.

On the issue of health service performance, let me remind Jackson Carlaw that this Government has an £850 million waiting times improvement programme, which is delivering improvements and making progress. For Jackson Carlaw, the leader—as he calls himself—of the Scottish Conservative Party, to stand up in the chamber, the week after the worst waiting times on record were recorded in England, under the Conservatives, is, frankly, a bit rich.

It is this Government in Scotland that is investing record sums in spite of Tory austerity. It is this Government that is supporting a record number of workers across our national health service, and we will continue to do that and stand up against Tory austerity. That is why the record and the performance of this Government were endorsed by the people of Scotland just a few days ago.

The First Minister can run from her record of missed targets, but she cannot hide from it. [Interruption.]

As we enter 2020, we have seen figures from the programme for international student assessment show science and maths performance at record lows; violent crime going up for the fourth year in a row; NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde suing the construction firm that built our largest hospital, which was commissioned by Nicola Sturgeon; and embarrassing failures in public transport, on sea and rail. Some might even say that it is unarguable that every public service that is in the care of this SNP Government ends 2019 in a worse state than when the year began. Surely, in 2020, fixing those issues should be the priority of any Government that is worthy of the name.

Those are my priorities, day in and day out. I do not run from the record of my Government—[Interruption.] I put that record before the Scottish people in an election last week, and let me remind Jackson Carlaw what happened: the SNP won that election comprehensively and the Tories lost it just as comprehensively. All those tired lines were rejected by the electorate just last week, which is why, in 2020, I will get on with the job of improving our public services and making sure that Scotland’s public services continue to perform better than public services do under the Tories in England and under Labour in Wales. By contrast, I am going to predict that the Tories will probably spend at least part of 2020 electing a new leader.


Renewable Energy (Burntisland Fabrications Ltd)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

On 22 May, speaking about the future of Scottish renewables and of the three Burntisland Fabrications Ltd yards in Scotland, the First Minister told me and the Parliament:

“I fully support the trade unions in their campaign to bring contracts and jobs to Scottish yards.”—[Official Report, 22 May 2019; c 66.]

Why, then, do we learn today that more contracts and more jobs are going to the far east?

I stand by what I said about BiFab and about other companies that are competing for such work in Scotland. I gently remind Richard Leonard that, if it was not for the action that this Government took, there would be no BiFab in Scotland as it would already have closed.

It is just a matter of weeks since BiFab won a contract, and we will continue to work with companies and trade unions to make sure that more of the work from the development of renewables in Scotland goes to the excellent Scottish supply chain.

I hope that that is an issue on which we will get the support of Scottish Labour; I hope that we will continue to get that support from Richard Leonard and his colleagues.

This is about jobs. Jobs for the NnG offshore contract are going to Indonesia. If this morning’s reports are correct, jobs for the Seagreen offshore contract are going to China. Fabrication yards in Scotland are underutilised and skills are lying idle, yet we know that less than 15 per cent of the work on the NnG contract is going to Scottish yards. This is not half a loaf; it is crumbs from the table. Even at that, these workers are being hired and fired on short-term, casual contracts. In fact, workers at Arnish point are being paid off tomorrow, just days before Christmas. Meanwhile, CS Wind in Machrihanish is also serving its workers with P45s.

A decade ago, Alex Salmond promised that renewables would create so many jobs that we would become the Saudi Arabia of marine power. He predicted that that there would be 130,000 jobs from offshore power generation. Ten years on, can the First Minister tell the workers at Arnish point, at CS Wind and at those yards in Fife how many jobs there really are?

I say to Richard Leonard that I genuinely appreciate his interest in these matters, but I point out to him that many of the powers that influence this—powers over energy and over employment law, for example—remain reserved to the United Kingdom Government, so as Labour continues its period of reflection and considers again, in a very welcome way, its position on independence, perhaps those are all points that he and his colleagues should bear in mind.

On the issue of the yards, I say to the workers in BiFab that there would not be a BiFab now but for the investment that this Government has made to secure its future and will continue to make. We will host the second summit for the offshore wind sector in Edinburgh in January and continue to maximise the potential of that sector. We have a good record in supporting the offshore wind industry and we will continue to do that, but our hand in that would be considerably strengthened if we had Scottish Labour’s support in getting all the powers into the hands of this Parliament. I hope that in 2020 that is a position that Scottish Labour will belatedly support.

But the Scottish Government is in charge of the licensing of the sea bed for offshore wind. In 2012, the SNP reached an agreement with China. It spoke of Scotland as “the destination of choice” for key areas, including renewable energy. In 2016, the SNP Government secretly signed a memorandum of understanding with China, but it seems that under this Government the destination of choice for renewable energy jobs is not Scotland but China. Why are companies such as EDF and SSE ignoring the First Minister? Will she urgently speak to the chief executive of SSE today? Will she pick up the phone this afternoon? Will she finally understand that we do not need more summits but an industrial strategy and a plan for jobs? This is too important to be left to the market.

I know that Richard Leonard has had a really difficult week, but that is really desperate stuff. I suggest to him that over the Christmas break he does a bit more homework on this. Maybe he could look at who controls the contract for difference process and who continues to control the regulatory framework for these issues. If he were to come back from that and actually support the devolution of those powers, perhaps we could have a more constructive conversation. He asks me to talk to the chief executive of SSE. It is the work that I did with SSE and other companies that made sure that BiFab did not close a couple of years ago. We will continue to support BiFab and all the other companies.

As on so many other issues, Richard Leonard cannot get away with simply willing the end; he also has to will the means for this Scottish Government. When he does that, perhaps—just perhaps—a few more people across Scotland might take him and his sorry party seriously.

We have some constituency questions.


Dover Fueling Solutions (Agency Workers)

I ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that Dover Fueling Solutions in my constituency has terminated, with little or no notice, the employment contracts of almost 200 agency workers, which is understandably devastating to many in the run-up to Christmas. Although it is a reserved matter, does the First Minister agree that it is time that the employment rights of temporary workers should be reviewed, in the light of that kind of practice?

Yes, I agree with that, and I thank Shona Robison for raising an important constituency issue. The news will obviously come as a blow to the agency staff affected at Dover Fueling Solutions in Dundee, especially at this time of year. I understand that some of the products and services are seasonal; that is what the company says requires a reduction in temporary staff. Partnership action for continuing employment staff have already made contact with the agency, and will offer support for any individuals if that is required. The Scottish Government, through Scottish Enterprise, continues to provide support to Dover Fueling Solutions, to help grow the business with new export markets and products.

The Scottish Government is fully committed to ensuring that all workers across the country are treated, and paid, fairly by their employers. In the absence of powers over employment law, which should come to the Scottish Parliament, but remain reserved to the United Kingdom Government, we will continue to do everything that we can to promote fair work practices.


Amy Lornie

Amy Lornie was a beautiful, happy five-year-old, who tragically passed away from a brain tumour in September. Her mother, Angela Bain, started a petition to bring in Amy’s rule, which she believes, like Ryan’s rule in Australia, could prevent others having to go through a similar tragedy.

At the beginning of November, Angela wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport seeking her thoughts both on the tragic death of poor Amy, and on Amy’s rule. Disappointingly, six weeks later, Angela has received no response to that letter.

Will the First Minister ask the health secretary to respond to Angela’s letter, to give her some sense that she is being listened to, as she faces her first Christmas without brave Amy?

I convey my sincere condolences to Amy’s family. It is indeed a tragic case, and I am sure that the thoughts of all of us are with the family as they face their first Christmas without her.

I am sure that the letter is being given full consideration. I give an assurance that it will indeed be given full consideration, and that a reply will be sent as soon as possible. We will take very seriously, and give proper consideration to, the suggestions that are being made. I will ask the health secretary to correspond with Liam Kerr once we have had the opportunity to conclude that consideration.


Cycle Storage (Planning Permission)

We are in the midst of a climate emergency. The First Minister has ambitions to decarbonise aviation and develop carbon capture and storage. However, simple commonsense measures are still being overlooked, as her Government’s failure to have even 10 per cent of journeys made by bike by 2020 looms. It is hard to cycle, of course, if you have nowhere to store your bike. People who want to install a simple bike shed in a front garden must apply for planning permission at a cost of over £200. Will the First Minister act now to make bike storage simple and affordable?

I am always happy to consider suggestions of that nature. Planning decisions are for local authorities; they are not for the Scottish Government to take nationally. However, I agree that it is important that we do the small things—I do not mean that pejoratively—as well as the big things, to help us deal with the climate emergency. We are investing in active travel; a couple of years ago, we doubled the budget for it. In the spirit in which I am sure the question was asked, I will take away that suggestion and come back to Alison Johnstone as soon as possible.


Life Expectancy (Dundee)

Under the current Government, Scottish life expectancy is falling and, last week, National Records of Scotland said that it is falling fastest in the city of Dundee. That very sad and disgraceful fact cannot be separated from the Scottish drugs crisis and the tragic suicide rate. I also believe that the lack of economic opportunities has a longer-term impact on the physical and mental health of our citizens. What special measures is the First Minister putting in place to look at the Dundee economy and at opportunities for our citizens? Also, what is she doing about the drugs crisis? As the weeks and months go by, it is not getting any better.

Over recent years, there have been welcome improvements in life expectancy not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom and the wider world. We have started to see those improvements stall, not just in Scotland but across the UK, Europe and the wider world, and all of us have to address that. That is why we continue to be ambitious in our public health measures not just on smoking and alcohol but in relation to the drug deaths task force, which is important to ensure that we learn from lived experience. I hope that we can build consensus across the chamber on some of the action that we want to take in the future.

In relation to Dundee, I will simply say a few words to Jenny Marra. The Government has invested in Michelin, the V&A museum and the waterfront development. There is no shortage of evidence in Dundee of the investment, commitment and confidence that the Government has in that great city.


Nursery Education

Chloe Milne is from the east neuk of Fife. She has a three-year-old daughter. She was expecting nursery education to be provided with flexibility and choice, as was promised by the First Minister, but she has been told that she can have only five half days—take it or leave it. Does that sound like choice and flexibility to the First Minister?

I am not familiar with the details of the case but, on the face of it, no—we want there to be greater flexibility. We are in the latter stages of the transformation of early years education and childcare, which is vastly increasing the hours of childcare to which parents are entitled and is increasing flexibility. I am more than happy to look into the individual case but, on the generality, there is no doubt that many more children will benefit from many more hours of flexible high-quality childcare in the years to come because of the investment and ambition of the Government.

I hope that the First Minister will look into the case, because she made that promise. This week, Chloe said to me:

“I’m really angry about these changes. These sessions are not suitable for anyone who works a full day.”

There are other problems with the nursery roll-out. The two-year-old take-up rate lies between poor and miserable, the graduate recruitment target has been missed and private nurseries are closing.

However, the problems are not just with nurseries. The sick kids hospital in Edinburgh is still not open, and the Queen Elizabeth university hospital has been beset by crisis. Our schools are falling behind in maths and science. The promised jobs in renewables have still not materialised. Homelessness services are broken beyond repair. [Interruption.] I notice that Scottish National Party back-bench members are shouting out their own examples of the failure of the Government. The cost of the two new ferries has doubled, and they are four years late. The ScotRail contract has failed, and mental health waiting times for children are at the worst levels ever. The Government should be embarrassed. [Interruption.]

Order.

Does the First Minister not see that every hour she takes off to hold another press conference at Bute house is another hour wasted in trying to sort out those issues for the people of Scotland?

Before the First Minister replies, I say to the chamber that it is unacceptable not to listen to a member when they are asking a question. [Interruption.] Mr Swinney, that was barracking a member. I ask members to please listen to members when they ask their question. We will now listen to the First Minister make her response.

I cannot help feeling for the Opposition parties this week—their frustration is palpable. Not for the first time, Willie Rennie appears to have borrowed Jackson Carlaw’s questions. As I said the other day, maybe they should just merge and be done with it.

Let me look at the individual issues that Willie Rennie raised. On early learning and childcare, he talked about graduate numbers and staffing. The number of staff working in funded ELC has increased, and more children are getting access to more hours of early learning and childcare as we double the entitlement from 600 hours to 1,140 hours, which will take full effect next year. That is good news, which is probably why the Liberal Democrats do not really like it.

We are investing record sums in the health service. We are ensuring that record numbers of staff are working in our health service, and we will continue to deliver the improvements in waiting times under the waiting times improvement plan.

On education, the programme for international student assessment results have shown a vast improvement in reading performance and we are going to ensure that that happens in maths and science, too. There are increasing numbers of teachers in our schools and we continue to invest in raising attainment and closing the attainment gap.

We will continue to do all those things and get on with the job of building a better, fairer, more prosperous Scotland—and that is what the Opposition does not like.


School Estate (Fire Sprinklers)

The First Minister will be well aware from reports in The Times yesterday that only one quarter of Scotland’s schools have sprinklers installed to slow down fires. According to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, 66 primary and secondary schools face a high risk of fire. New schools, of course, require sprinklers. Will the First Minister arrange an urgent meeting in the new year with local authorities to identify high-risk older schools and retrofit sprinklers in order to protect our pupils, teachers and staff?

I thank David Stewart for raising an important issue. I will ask the Deputy First Minister to respond in detail, including on the suggestion of a meeting in the new year. Of course, local authorities are responsible for the school estate, working with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to make sure that fire safety plans are in place for our schools and, indeed, for other public buildings.

The Government is investing and has invested heavily in the fabric of the school estate. The number of new and refurbished buildings across the country and the percentage of young people learning in good, fit-for-purpose and state-of-the-art buildings is increasing. We are determined to continue that investment.


Impact of United Kingdom Welfare Reform

The festive season is a difficult time of year for people who are homeless and for those struggling on low incomes, who might even have to seek the assistance of food banks. To what extent have such problems been exacerbated by the heartless United Kingdom Tory Government, which has impoverished so many, not least through its ideologically driven welfare reform policies?

I think that everyone, with the possible exception of the Scottish Conservatives, accepts the link between welfare cuts and the rise in poverty and homelessness. We know from expert opinion during the general election campaign that the policies in the Tory manifesto are likely to lead to a rise in child poverty, taking it to historically high levels. That is unacceptable and deeply shames the Conservative Party. I hope that the new Government—I do not have high expectations that this will happen—takes action to address that as a matter of urgency.

This Government will continue to take its responsibilities seriously. We are investing heavily in helping those who are homeless or rough sleeping. We are also changing how we provide those services. The housing first scheme is a key plank of what we are doing to try to make sure that people have access to housing and the support that they need to sustain tenancies. We will continue to mitigate Tory welfare cuts as far as we can and use our own welfare powers to lift those who are in poverty out of poverty. We will do everything that we can, but I hope that we see an urgent change of attitude and response from the UK Government.


Grouse Shooting (Werritty Review)

A month ago, the First Minister said to Alison Johnstone:

“We will continue to take the right steps to protect wildlife, and will do that without fear or favour with regard to any vested interests or other interests.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2019; c 21.]

We have waited more than two years for the Werritty review. Is the First Minister surprised that the representatives of the grouse shooting lobby she appointed to a review of grouse shooting have used their effective veto to sabotage what would otherwise be a clear recommendation to license grouse shooting?

The Werritty review has been published and all members can look at its recommendations. The central recommendation on the timescale for moving to greater regulation was not unanimous—Andy Wightman is right to point to that. That is one of the reasons why the Government will take time to consider the recommendation. I want to be very clear that part of that consideration will be looking at whether we move to regulation on a much quicker timeframe. We will take the views of stakeholders before coming to a final view on that.

The option of a licensing scheme needs to be considered. If that is the view of stakeholders and we consider that necessary—as I said, that is a serious consideration—we will move to implement that earlier than the five-year timeframe that was suggested by the review group.


Design and Build (Schools and Hospitals)

Yesterday, Audit Scotland published a section 22 report on issues surrounding the delayed opening of the new sick kids hospital in Edinburgh. It drew a clear and explicit comparison with the issues with Edinburgh schools that led to the wall collapse at Oxgangs primary school in my constituency. The Cole report on the Edinburgh schools centred on the issues with the design-and-build methodology—a methodology that outsources the quality control and detailed design of critical public buildings. Audit Scotland says that the lessons of those issues, which were identified by Cole, have not been learned by NHS Lothian.

Given that there is a total of five capital projects currently under construction in the health estate across Scotland, does the First Minister agree that we cannot wait for an inquiry in order to learn lessons, and that all those projects must be reviewed urgently to see whether they will be safe when they are opened? Does she agree that there are fundamental questions about the suitability of design and build when it comes to building critical buildings such as schools and hospitals? As one senior professional put it to me, design and build is fine if we are building supermarkets, but it is not good enough if we are building hospitals or schools.

I generally agree with Daniel Johnson’s comments. I will make two points: the first is more immediate and the second is slightly longer term, in relation to looking at fundamental questions.

As I am sure that Daniel Johnson is aware, we have made a commitment to establish a new national centre for infrastructure expertise. That has absolute relevance to on-going projects because we need to ensure that we are learning lessons as we go, rather than simply waiting for the public inquiry. That said, the public inquiry is very important. It is an opportunity to look at some of the fundamental questions. The Audit Scotland section 22 report that was published yesterday, which Daniel Johnson referred to, sets out areas that the public inquiry might want to consider, including clarity of guidance, contractual implications and the role and effectiveness of oversight and scrutiny.

We need to make sure that lessons that need to be learned are being learned now—they are relevant to on-going projects. However, we must also make sure that some of the longer-term questions are properly considered. The approach that the Government is taking is designed to do both those things.


Werritty Review (Implementation)

Further to Andy Wightman’s question on the long-awaited Werritty report, and recognising the complexity of the issue and the need for sustainable development for rural Scotland—let us all recall that a fifth of Scotland is driven grouse moors—Scottish Labour is very disappointed that the report recommends a five-year delay, in a climate emergency and a biodiversity emergency, before consideration is given to licensing. Does the First Minister agree that now is the time to consult on licensing; the possibility of the ban on burning deep peat, with appropriate exemptions as one of a range of options; the outlawing of particular types of snares and the mass mountain hare cull; and a range of other issues? Now is the time to do it—not in five years.

I answered that specific question in response to Andy Wightman, but I am happy to do so again. First, the Werritty review was independent of Government. It has made a set of recommendations, not all of which were unanimous, as has already been pointed out. We will give careful consideration to all the recommendations alongside other evidence before we issue a full response. As part of that, we will meet key stakeholders to discuss the review’s findings.

Secondly, on licensing, as I said very clearly to Andy Wightman, part of our consideration will be to move to a licensing scheme much earlier than the five-year timeframe that was suggested by the review group. We welcome the input of everyone who has an interest in the matter. We will issue our response to the Werritty recommendations as soon as we are able to do so.


Budget

4. Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister when the Scottish Government expects to publish its budget. (S5F-03813)

We are focused on introducing a Scottish budget for 2020-21 at the earliest practical opportunity, and we are working closely with the Finance and Constitution Committee and the Scottish Fiscal Commission to determine the best approach in the circumstances that we face. However, without the United Kingdom budget, we do not have clarity on the funding available for public services in Scotland. That unnecessary delay has knock-on effects, including for Scotland’s local councils, health boards and third sector. We will continue to engage with the Parliament, local government, trade unions and others in the process, but we need the UK Government to announce its budget date and publish its budget as soon as possible. I hope that that is what happens.

Since the election of the Johnson Government, has the Scottish Government been given any hard information on the date of the UK budget for the financial year 2020-21? I am aware of speculation that the UK budget could be set as late as February or even March. If that speculation proves accurate, does the First Minister agree that a UK budget at such a late stage shows either a fundamental misunderstanding of the serious problems that that creates for the devolved Parliaments or a total disregard for the consequences of the impact on vital public services and on the setting of local council budgets?

In truth, I think that it is a combination of all those things—misunderstanding, disrespect and disregard—but the most important thing, from the Scottish Government’s perspective, is that it makes it impossible for us to put forward a budget and pass it through this Parliament.

People assume that the budget was delayed because of the election. Of course, if we remember, the UK Government cancelled the budget before the election was called. There we have that misunderstanding, disregard or disrespect—call it what you want.

Since the new UK Government was elected last week, we have not had confirmation of the budget date. There has been, as Bruce Crawford said, speculation that it will not be until March, which would be completely unacceptable. The finance secretary wrote to the Treasury on the matter in early November, but still has not had a reply. I welcome Bruce Crawford’s recent letter to the Treasury, in his capacity as convener of the Finance and Constitution Committee.

The Treasury really should be in no doubt about the seriousness of the matter. I look forward to dialogue and meaningful progress, and I hope that, putting party differences and party politics aside, the whole Parliament will unite in making clear to the Treasury how important it is that a date is set as soon as possible, and that that date is as early as possible, so that this Parliament can get on with its vital task of setting a budget.

I am sure that the First Minister would acknowledge that there would have been no point in proceeding with a UK budget in advance of the general election, and that the general election, which she and her party called for, meant that the budget could not be brought forward at that time.

Will the First Minister also accept that the Conservative victory in the general election means that the Conservative manifesto pledge of billions extra in Barnett consequentials for the Scottish Government will now be delivered, in contrast to the pledges in the Scottish National Party manifesto, which the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has said would deliver greater austerity for Scotland than would be the case under the Conservatives?

I remind Murdo Fraser of what I said in response to Bruce Crawford: it is a myth that the election led to the delay in the budget. The Government pulled the budget before the election was called. It did so, as I recall, in a fit of pique after it lost one of the many votes that it lost in the House of Commons.

The UK Government was always playing politics with the budget. That has to stop, and I hope that it stops very quickly. I hope that even Murdo Fraser, with his blind loyalty to Boris Johnson and his Tory colleagues, will see how unacceptable it is for this Parliament not to be able to present and pass a budget.

As far as the consequentials are concerned, I hope that Parliament will understand that I will wait to see the colour of the money before spending it. We have had promises before from the Tories about extra money for the health service that did not fully materialise.

My final point is this: our budget next year will be £1.5 billion lower, in real terms, than it was at the start of the decade. That is the impact of Tory austerity. The UK Government is going to have to go some considerable way to make up the loss that Scotland has suffered because of Conservative Governments at Westminster. Hopefully soon, that will be coming to an end.


Pupils with Additional Support Needs

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to help pupils with additional support needs. (S5F-03811)

There has been a significant increase in the number of pupils with additional support needs. The latest statistics show that in 2019, 215,897 pupils were reported as having additional support needs, which represents 30.9 per cent of all school pupils. That is an increase of 2.2 per cent compared with last year.

To support education authorities in their duties under the Additional Support for Learning (Scotland) Act 2014, the Scottish Government will invest an extra £15 million, over this financial year, to recruit around 1,000 extra pupil support assistants to work with children with additional support needs.

We have also commissioned an independently chaired review on the implementation of additional support for learning. The findings of that review are expected in early 2020.

The First Minister is quite correct. We have had an 82 per cent rise since 2012 in schoolchildren who have been identified as having additional support needs. Although it is encouraging that we are now identifying these issues, organisations such as the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition and the Educational Institute of Scotland had highlighted the fact that children who require support are experiencing frustration and stress as demand for ASN specialists grows.

The Scottish Government’s own figures suggest that the problem may be getting worse. We have fewer teachers than in 2007, the number of special needs teachers has fallen year on year since 2013, and spending on ASN pupils has fallen by almost £1,000 per pupil.

In the past year, nearly 15,000 children across Scotland were handed exclusions. Although that is a welcome decrease, the figures highlight that students with additional support needs are five times more likely to be excluded than those without. As such, although it may be the right decision in some cases, does the First Minister recognise that the current framework can disadvantage pupils with ASN?

Those are important issues. First, it is important that the additional needs of children are being identified, which we should all welcome. That means that we must invest to ensure that those needs can be properly addressed. That is why what I said in my original answer about the extra investment to recruit around 1,000 extra pupil support assistants to work with children with additional needs is so important.

In addition, teacher numbers are rising. The statistics that were published just a week or so ago show that teacher numbers have increased for the fourth year in a row, and that there are now more teachers in our schools than at any time since 2009. The number of additional support for learning teachers has increased in the most recent years, as has the number of all staff who support pupils with ASN. We are investing in supporting local authorities to meet their duties under the legislation. That is one of the many reasons why this Government has always opted for—and will always opt for—investment in public services over the Conservative priority of tax cuts for the wealthiest in our society.


Homelessness (Mental Health)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to prevent people with mental health conditions becoming homeless. (S5F-03806)

Our mental health strategy aims to ensure that people get the right help at the right time, free from stigma, through a range of actions that are being rolled out across the country. We continue to work with partners to develop specific support that is aimed at tackling the risk of homelessness among those who experience mental health difficulties.

Scotland has some of the strongest rights in the world for homeless people, ensuring that those who are threatened by homelessness are entitled to help from their local authority to secure a stable home. Of course, we want to go further and end homelessness altogether. We have invested £32.5 million out of our £50 million ending homelessness fund into the delivery of rapid rehousing and the housing first approach, in order—together with local authorities—to support people into settled accommodation.

The First Minister will be aware that the number of people in Scotland who cite mental health as a factor in becoming homeless is rising. In fact, in the past year, compared to 10 years ago, more than twice as many people said that they struggled to maintain their accommodation because of a mental health condition.

Crisis suggested that hospitals that see more than 200 homeless patients a year should have a full pathway team—that is, a general practitioner, nursing staff and a dedicated housing worker—to stop the decline of an individual and, first and foremost, keep them in their home. Am I right that the Scottish Government has committed to a legal duty among agencies to prevent homelessness? If that is the case, will the First Minister tell Parliament whether the Government is committed to doing that, and whether any progress has been made? Would she also consider a commitment to ensuring that there are no winter evictions during the cold months, so that we can keep people in their homes before they lose their tenancies in the first place?

We are committed to taking forward all the recommendations that came out of the homelessness and rough sleeping task force. I will ask the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning to write to Pauline McNeill with a specific update on all that.

As a general response to Pauline McNeill regarding ending winter evictions, I want us to work towards a situation in which we reduce the potential for eviction not just in the winter, but at all times of the year, and support people to sustain tenancies. That is why the housing first approach is so important. Scotland is leading the United Kingdom in the investment and commitment that we are showing to that approach, which is about making sure that people who have been homeless, or who are at risk of homelessness, get not only stable accommodation but the range of support services that allows them to sustain that tenancy. Those are all important issues.

Pauline McNeill mentioned Crisis. We have worked closely with Crisis and will continue to do so in taking forward all those different strands of work. I will be happy to get an update to Pauline McNeill on where progress is at on each and every one of those strands.


Emergency Services Workers (Alternative Holiday Arrangements)

To ask the First Minister what alternative holiday arrangements have been made for staff from the emergency services who will be working over the Christmas period. (S5F-03803)

I am enormously grateful, as we all are, for the hard work of all our emergency services workers—at all times of the year but particularly over the festive period. I thank them and their families for the sacrifices that they make in order to support us to feel safe and well.

Emergency workers receive either time off in lieu or an additional payment for working on public holidays.

I thank the First Minister for those comments. I agree with her that we should all take time to remember and thank those who work over Christmas and the new year. They do so in order that we can celebrate that festive time with our families. They are working not only to keep us safe but to provide help, should we need it. Will the First Minister join me in thanking again all those who work on our behalf over the festive period? Will she encourage everyone to pause briefly over the Christmas period and remember those from the emergency and armed services who, because they have given us their all, will always be on duty? [Applause.]

Yes, I am happy to endorse those comments and that sentiment. I thank all those who work in our emergency services for what they do all year round but particularly for the sacrifices that they make at this time of year, in order to keep the rest of us feeling safe, secure and well looked after.

Therefore, I offer my grateful and heartfelt thanks to our nurses, doctors and everyone who works in our national health service; to our police officers, our firefighters and to those in the armed forces. Over this festive period, I encourage everybody to take that moment to pause and remember the great sacrifices that they make on behalf of the rest of us. I wish all of them a very happy Christmas. I wish the Presiding Officer, all members in this chamber and all members of the public across the country a very happy Christmas. [Applause.]

That concludes First Minister’s question time.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I realise that the excitement of Christmas is nearly upon us but it was utterly impossible to hear the latter part of Willie Rennie’s question and points. [Interruption.]

Let us hear Mr Corry.

Perhaps the Presiding Officer will invite him to repeat his question and points to the chamber now.

Thank you, Mr Corry. The point is well made. I excuse members today. They are tired after the election and are looking forward to Christmas.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  

13:45 On resuming—