Meeting date: Thursday, January 20, 2022
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 20 January 2022
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Nuclear Weapons Treaties, Portfolio Question Time, Strategic Transport Projects Review 2, Prestwick Airport, Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Motion Without Notice, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Nuclear Weapons Treaties
- Portfolio Question Time
- Strategic Transport Projects Review 2
- Prestwick Airport
- Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Motion Without Notice
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Covid-19 Restrictions (Christmas)
Does the First Minister agree with Pete Wishart, who is currently the Scottish National Party’s longest serving MP at Westminster, who said earlier this week that it was “a fair point” that her Government had imposed too many Covid restrictions over Christmas?
I am not sure that that is a fair representation of Pete Wishart’s comments.
First, I want to take the opportunity to recognise that Pete Wishart is, I think, Scotland’s longest serving member of Parliament, which goes to show what an outstanding service he does for his constituents. I am sure that Douglas Ross will join me in taking the opportunity to pay tribute to Pete Wishart’s public service.
I think that we introduced a series of balanced protective measures over the Christmas period, which, coupled with the extraordinary response of the public in changing their behaviour and, of course, the extraordinary success of the booster programme, means that we are, thankfully, now in a better position than we might have been when we looked ahead before the Christmas period.
However, we not in a position that allows us any complacency. Covid rates are still high and there are still significant uncertainties ahead, which is why doctors, nurses and national health service managers and trade unions all expressed some concern about yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister to lift all restrictions at this stage, including the requirement to wear face coverings.
We will continue to take a proportionate and balanced set of decisions to get through the next—and, I hope, final—phase of the pandemic and to keep the country as safe as we can while we do so.
The First Minister said that what I put to her was not a fair representation of Pete Wishart’s comments. It was a direct quote. When asked whether the First Minister in Scotland had introduced too many Covid restrictions over Christmas, his response was:
“That is a fair point.”
He agreed with the premise of the question.
The First Minister went on to laud Pete Wishart’s parliamentary career; perhaps she could listen to him, when he, an elected SNP representative, said that the restrictions that were imposed over Christmas were too much.
The First Minister imposed restrictions that had a massive impact on jobs, businesses and people’s mental and physical health, but we can now see that they were not needed. It was the Scottish public’s actions, not the SNP Government’s restrictions, that got this right. The First Minister has tried to build a reputation for caution during the pandemic, but she was far too gung-ho in imposing extra restrictions last month. Will she now accept that her Government went too far?
The public did comply—they complied with what the Government asked them to do.
I think that Douglas Ross is striking rather a desperate note right now. If he is seriously describing Pete Wishart showing—as all elected representatives should—some respect for the point that somebody was making to him as evidence that he agrees with Douglas Ross rather than with the Scottish Government, all that that says to people is that Douglas Ross is showing rather more political desperation than even we thought he might have done.
We have taken a balanced approach. Let me just say what I think.
“At the moment, this cautious approach is the one that we should be taking.”
That is my sentiment, but those are not actually my words. Those are the words of Sandesh Gulhane MSP on BBC Scotland on 7 January. If Douglas Ross is basing his entire line of questioning to me on something that Pete Wishart said, what is his response to his own MSP saying that the cautious approach is
“the one that we should be taking”?
In addition, Professor Susan Michie, who is a member of the United Kingdom Government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies, said:
“Scotland is doing something that is very good from a public health point of view”.
The Scottish approach is in line with the Welsh Government’s approach and the Northern Irish Government’s approach. We are taking a sensible approach through this. That is why infection levels, although they are now, thankfully, dropping in all parts of the UK, are lower in Scotland than they are in England right now. Over the festive period, the number of people who were in hospital was proportionately lower.
We are not out of the woods yet, although things look far more positive. I will continue to take a cautious approach because, frankly, the price of throwing caution to the wind is not paid by Governments; the price of throwing caution to the wind is paid by people across the country in ill health and, in some cases, serious illness and death. I do not think that I should impose that price on the people of Scotland.
Serious illness and death come not only from Covid; they come from restrictions being put in place that have a massive impact on people’s mental and physical health.
We have been living with the pandemic for two years. The First Minister would do better to respond to the points that have been made. She may not like them, but she should answer those points and questions rather than launching personal attacks on Opposition politicians who raise them.
Not only did the First Minister impose unnecessary restrictions, but she actually wanted to go further. Throughout December, the First Minister repeatedly claimed that the UK Government was holding her back from putting Scotland into lockdown again. She wanted to close down the economy, no matter the impact that that would have on Scottish jobs and businesses.
When her restrictions were introduced, the First Minister promised compensation. Now that we are coming out of those restrictions, that compensation still has not been delivered to many businesses. They have not received a single penny. This week, the Federation of Small Businesses said:
“Thousands of Scottish businesses needlessly go under every year because of late payment.”
Will the First Minister accept that her Government is currently the worst offender in Scotland in making late payments?
No. I say to Douglas Ross that it is the pandemic that is causing the serious impact on businesses and individuals across Scotland, the UK, Europe and the entire world. Much as we might all like to be able to do so—and, believe me, I would love to be able to do so—we cannot just magic that away. No country is able to do that.
Since Douglas Ross returned to this chamber, he has stood here at every key juncture in the management of the pandemic and has opposed the decisions that the Scottish Government has taken, even at times when exactly the same decisions were being taken by his colleagues in the Westminster Government. He has decided to take an entirely opportunistic approach to the handling of a global pandemic. People will judge that, and I do not think that they will judge it kindly.
If we had listened to Douglas Ross over the past months, we would not have had sensible measures such as asking people to wear face coverings. We would not have had other mitigations in our schools. We would not have sensibly advised people to work from home. Therefore, we would not be in the stronger position that we are now, when we are able to lift those protective measures from Monday of next week. Given that Douglas Ross has called it wrong at literally every juncture of the pandemic, forgive me if I do not start listening to him now.
On business support—[Interruption.]
Incidentally, on the issue of Opposition politicians quoting people, Douglas Ross opened his line of questioning today by misrepresenting, in my view, Pete Wishart. Then he took issue with the fact that I used a direct quotation from Sandesh Gulhane. I will repeat that direct quote:
“At the moment, this cautious approach is the one that we should be taking.”
On business support, much of that support will not be available to businesses suffering the same impacts south of the border. [Interruption.] If Douglas Ross does not think that they are suffering the same impact, I suggest that he needs to get out a little bit more.
All local authorities have begun processing payments. Some have made very good progress and say that they have already paid almost all the hospitality and leisure businesses that are eligible for support. All local authorities are on track to complete 100 per cent of payments to hospitality and leisure businesses that were affected by Christmas cancellations and physical distancing by 31 January. That is support that is available here but not available elsewhere. We will continue to do the right thing by businesses.
The First Minister needs to make her mind up. She accuses the Conservatives of opposing every measure that she puts forward, but then, in the same breath, she accuses the Conservatives of wanting a cautious approach.
It is not opportunistic to trust that the people of Scotland can learn to live with Covid rather than having to live with her Government’s restrictions. Those restrictions are having a massive impact on jobs and on businesses and communities across Scotland, which are not getting the money or the support that they were promised.
The First Minister has got the big decisions wrong over the past few months. She was too quick to bring in unnecessary Covid restrictions, too late to launch mass vaccination centres, too late to change the self-isolation rules and too late to get funding to businesses that need it. The First Minister says that she does not shy away from mistakes that she has made in the handling of the pandemic. Can she finally just admit that, by introducing the tough restrictions here in Scotland before Christmas and by wanting to introduce even tougher restrictions, she has simply made the wrong call?
I will let the people of Scotland judge the impact of the calls that I and my Government have made, but let me say this: right now, on first doses, second doses, third doses and booster vaccination doses, Scotland is the most vaccinated part of the United Kingdom. If Douglas Ross’s proposition is that we left it too late, what on earth does that say about his colleagues in the Westminster Government?
The Office for National Statistics figures this week show that infection levels in England are over 20 per cent higher than those in Scotland. I do not think that it is a competition, but if Douglas Ross wants to make these comparisons, there is the data.
I say gently to Douglas Ross, because I know that he is having a tough time politically, that it is entirely inconsistent—there is no consistency in this—to say, as his health spokesperson did, that the cautious approach is the one that we should be taking, and then oppose every cautious measure that we choose to take, for opportunistic reasons.
I suggest that Douglas Ross gets his own house in order, perhaps suggesting to more of his colleagues that they obey the rules that are in place when they are in place, and leaves this Government to get on with steering this country responsibly and in a mature, grown-up fashion through the global pandemic.
Offshore Wind Projects (Human Rights)
The First Minister has said that the auction of major offshore wind projects was
“one of the most significant days ... that Scotland had seen in a very long time.“
I welcome inward investment, but it should not come at a cost to the Scottish economy, our just transition or our values.
Let us be clear about what has happened. The Scottish National Party Government has sold, on the cheap, the right to profit from Scotland’s energy transition to multinational companies that have questionable human rights records. One of the new owners of Scotland’s sea bed was fined $54 million for bribing Nigerian officials and $88 million for bribing Indonesian officials. Another was found to have committed human rights abuses at one of its construction sites, destroyed villages in Myanmar and relied on forced labour and used slavery to build pipelines. Surely those are not people with whom the Scottish Government should be doing business.
Crown Estate Scotland made the decisions on the companies—the consortiums—that would be awarded the status to develop projects around our coast. It has appropriate processes in place to do due diligence.
However, the sale is one of the most exciting things for Scotland in a long, long time, which is probably why Scottish Labour is being so negative about it. Not only does it give us the potential to meet our own energy needs from renewable sources, but it positions us with the ability to be a major exporter of renewable energy, including green hydrogen, and it gives enormous potential for our supply chain. The estimate is that for every gigawatt of power that will be generated from the projects, there will be £1 billion of investment in our supply chain. For the first time, of course, the companies had to set out in statements what they will do to support our supply chain.
The sale is good news. Complicated consenting and planning processes lie ahead, but it offers massive potential to Scotland—potential that we intend to seize with both hands.
I agree about that opportunity. However, values matter. Just last week, the Scottish National Party was right to accuse the Tory Government of tolerating human rights abuses as a “price worth paying” to secure deals for the United Kingdom. This week, the SNP has done the same. In effect, Nicola Sturgeon is saying that it is bad when the Tories do it but is okay when the SNP does it.
There is another concerning part of the deal. One of the new owners of Scotland’s seabed is the Swedish state-owned energy company, which can now use its part of the Scottish sea bed to keep energy bills down for people in Sweden. The First Minister once promised a Scottish state-owned energy company. In fact, the SNP Government spent almost £500,000 of taxpayers’ money on the project before scrapping the plans. Why is it that the people of Sweden now own a bigger stake in Scottish energy supply and distribution than do the Scottish people? The SNP is not “Stronger for Scotland” but stronger for Sweden.
Sweden is an independent country that has full control over energy—which, of course, this Government and this Parliament do not have. Anas Sarwar might want to reflect a little more on that.
Today, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport is talking about the opportunities and consultation on our plans for a public energy agency to steer such developments in the future.
This is a thoroughly positive opportunity for Scotland. It is no wonder, then, that Scottish Labour just wants to girn about it and be negative. That has characterised Scottish Labour for a long time and is why its members are sitting where they are, these days. They are not on the main Opposition benches, and they are certainly not on the Government benches.
I will just repeat what the opportunity is. It is an opportunity to meet our own energy needs from renewable sources and to keep energy costs down; to export renewable energy to other countries; to grow a supply chain and create thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of jobs; and, of course, to raise revenues for the Scottish Government, for public services in Scotland—£700 million from the lease options alone and then, when the projects are operational, rental fees in addition to that. This is a thoroughly positive opportunity, so perhaps, just for once, Anas Sarwar could find it within himself to be positive about the potential of Scotland.
I have said that I welcome inward investment. I have said that I welcome and recognise that opportunity. However, that was such a desperate and poor reply.
The First Minister often accuses Opposition parties of demonstrating a brass neck. There was a brass neck being shown by the First Minister in that reply—accusing the Tories of having bad values on human rights, but accepting bad human rights values as being part of the price that is worth paying for Scottish opportunities.
It is about the Scottish supply chain, Scottish companies and Scottish jobs. The sad reality is that the SNP Government does not understand economic development. Scottish bridges are built with Chinese steel. Scottish wind farm turbines are built in Indonesia. Ferries are built not in Scottish shipyards but in Poland and Turkey. Now, Scotland’s sea bed will be owned by foreign multinationals that have woeful human rights records.
We have heard before a list of promises from the First Minister. A state-owned energy company was promised but never delivered.
That Scotland would become the Saudi Arabia of renewables was promised, but never delivered. One hundred and thirty thousand green jobs were promised, but never delivered.
Question please, Mr Sarwar.
After 15 years, is not it the case that the SNP Government has sold out Scottish jobs, sold off Scottish assets and, now, sold out Scottish values?
I have been sitting here reflecting, almost disbelievingly, that Anas Sarwar has just accused me of behaving like a Tory, the day after his party threw open its doors to a Tory MP. There is now so little difference between Labour and the Tories that their MPs are interchangeable. When it comes to brass necks, I think that Mr Sarwar will be polishing his for the rest of the day.
Anas Sarwar and his many predecessors as Scottish Labour leader—I have to say that I have forgotten how many predecessors he has had—have been trotting out those negative talk-down-Scotland tropes for years, but all that has happened is that they have gone further and further down in the ratings in Scottish politics and lost more and more votes, while my party’s share of the vote has increased. I came into this chamber today expecting political desperation from Douglas Ross; I think that I have seen even more from Anas Sarwar, which probably says all that we need to know.
I will get on with encouraging the potential for Scottish renewable energy, Scottish jobs and revenue for the Scottish Government, and I will be delighted, at the next time of asking, to put that record before the Scottish people. I am not so sure that Anas Sarwar will be quite so keen.
We will now take supplementary questions.
Increasing energy prices are of very real concern. What discussions has the First Minister had with the Westminster Government on help for families to combat the spiralling financial costs of the energy crisis?
The energy and cost of living crisis is increasing on a daily basis. It is of deep concern to this Government, and we are taking a range of measures, including our £41 million winter support fund and seven new benefits aimed at low-income households. Shortly, we will double the Scottish child payment.
Of course, key powers remain reserved to Westminster. We have written to the United Kingdom Government countless times about poverty. Just last week, we set out further actions that it must urgently take to tackle rising energy bills.
If a Government, as is the case with the Westminster Government, is so busy trying to deal with self-inflicted sleaze and scandal, and daily defections and deflections, its focus is not on the cost of living crisis but on itself. That is both deeply regrettable and deeply serious, because right now the Westminster Government is neglecting the real issue that people are facing right across the country.
Diabetes rates are rapidly increasing across Scotland, with diagnoses more than doubling in the past 20 years. Last week, Diabetes Scotland reported that access to the correct diabetes technology, such as insulin pumps, can be life changing for patients, but just over 10 per cent of 18-year-olds with diabetes use insulin pumps. The gap in diabetes outcomes between affluent and deprived areas in Scotland is widening. What urgent action can be put in place to ensure that that worrying trend is reversed?
That is an important issue and we will work with Diabetes Scotland to take forward the findings of the report. Making sure that not only young people but people of all ages have access to insulin pumps is important, but it is also vital that they are used effectively. We have made improvements on that in years gone by, and we will continue to focus on making further improvements for the sake of people across Scotland who live with the condition.
National Insurance Contributions (Local Authorities)
The First Minister will be aware of the anger in local authorities across Scotland that the Scottish Government is not planning to compensate them for the upcoming rise in national insurance contributions in the way that councils in England and Wales are being compensated. That will eventually cause further cuts to already-stressed services. How does the First Minister justify leaving Scottish local authorities worse off from this change than their English counterparts?
The United Kingdom Treasury block grant to the Scottish budget does not identify consequential funding for national insurance contributions, so there are no identifiable consequentials to pass on. However, we are providing to local government a settlement that is fair and, crucially, affordable. The overall local government funding package of more than £12.5 billion represents an increase in real terms of 5.1 per cent and, in revenue alone, it is a real-terms increase of 4.9 per cent. We will continue to treat local government as fairly as possible and support it as far as we possibly can in delivering the services that people across the country rely on.
As the First Minister will be aware, my Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2021 is now in force, and it provides Police Scotland and the courts with greater powers to investigate those who allow their dogs to worry, attack or kill livestock in Scotland’s countryside. Livestock worrying can have serious animal welfare implications as well as significant financial and emotional impacts on farmers. In light of the approach of lambing season, can the First Minister outline what action the Scottish Government is taking to promote public awareness of the updated legislation?
I again congratulate Emma Harper on her success with the legislation, which is extremely important. I can assure her that the Scottish Government will take appropriate steps to raise awareness of it and, of course, we will do everything that we can, working with partners as appropriate, to ensure appropriate enforcement of it. It is a significant step forward and one that I know will be particularly welcomed across rural Scotland.
Free Personal Care
Since the extension of free personal care to people under 65, no data has been recorded on the number of people who have now received such care. We have seen problems during the pandemic for people accessing care packages, with many care packages being removed or cut. More and more people are reporting that it is individuals with complex needs and life-limiting conditions who are not getting that care.
Will the Scottish Government agree today to establish a national recovery group, alongside the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, to ensure that people who are entitled to free personal care get that care, and that free personal care is fully restored and delivered across Scotland?
First, everybody who is entitled to free personal care should get free personal care. Entitlement to free personal care in Scotland goes far beyond the situation in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I will not give a commitment today to the member’s proposition. I will consider it carefully, but I will not say, before I have had a chance to consider it, whether I think that it is the right way forward.
I will also look at the issue of data and come back to the member with an indication of when data is likely to be published, which will give a sense of how many people are taking up free personal care entitlement.
Flammable Cladding (Lancefield Quay)
Constituents in Lancefield Quay in Glasgow are living with what have been deemed 22 intolerable risks to life as a result of flammable cladding on their building. They have been struggling to get a single building assessment on the cladding, which was promised in June 2021. What could the First Minister and her Government do to assist my constituents in obtaining that information, as a matter of urgency?
I know, from my position as constituency MSP, how important that is. The Government is taking steps to ensure that single building assessments take place. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government to write to the member with a full update on that work and what the next steps are.
BBC Licence Fee
What is the Scottish Government’s response regarding the impact on Scotland of reports that the BBC licence fee will be cut after the current funding deal ends in 2027?
I am sure that every member across the chamber will, from time to time, have gripes about or criticisms of the BBC, but it is an important part of our broadcasting framework and we should all defend the principle of public service broadcasting.
I am deeply concerned by the announcements, or hints of announcements, that we heard earlier this week from the United Kingdom Government. I suspect—there is some evidence—that that was an attempt to divert attention from the Prime Minister’s troubles. Nevertheless, all of us have to stand up for those principles and guard against the UK Government and the damage that it seems willing to do to key institutions, often just to try to save its own skin.
Nationality and Borders Bill
To ask the First Minister what impact the United Kingdom Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill will have on devolved functions. (S6F-00675)
The Scottish Government has profound concerns about the bill. We are currently considering its potential impact on areas that are devolved. If we conclude that there is an impact on the legislative competence of this Parliament, we will lodge a legislative consent memorandum, setting out the relevant provisions. There is no doubt, however, that the bill will have significant impacts on devolved services, local authorities and communities.
The Scottish ministers have written to the UK Government in relation to the bill five times, outlining our significant concerns, along with the Welsh Government, which shares those concerns.
I note that the House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights said yesterday that the reforms to the asylum system that are proposed in the bill
“would fail to meet the UK’s human rights obligations and risk exacerbating the already unacceptable backlog”.
We will continue to urge the UK Government to introduce a humane, effective and efficient system that delivers for people living in Scotland, including those who are fleeing war and persecution.
The Prime Minister’s intention to use the military to prevent asylum seekers reaching the UK is deeply immoral, as is the possibility of trading access to Covid vaccines for the right to open detention centres in other countries.
The First Minister will be aware of the appalling circumstances faced by many asylum seekers in Scotland, including in Aberdeen, in my region. They are accommodated in hotels, but not given basic support or things like toiletries, culturally sensitive food, language classes and so on. Although we do not have the powers to counter those racist policies, we can make sure that asylum seekers and refugees in Scotland are treated better.
I am sure that the First Minister will join me in condemning the plans by the Prime Minister and his cruel and inhumane Home Office. Will she also outline what lessons have been learned from the tragic death at the Park Inn in Glasgow, and say what more we can do to prevent the growth in the use of institutional accommodation across Scotland and improve the support available through local authorities so that asylum seekers are treated with dignity?
There is a lot of detail in that question and I undertake to ask the relevant minister to write to Maggie Chapman with more detailed answers than time will allow me to give today, including on the question of lessons learned from the dreadful circumstances around the Park Inn in Glasgow.
The UK Government’s plans to divert vessels in the channel are dangerous. It is important that we are all clear that they will significantly increase risk to life. Médecins Sans Frontières has stated:
“Pursuing a policy of forced returns and engaging in pushback tactics is dangerous, inhumane and is in breach of international law. It puts lives at risk at sea.”
People seeking asylum in the UK should be accommodated in communities where they can begin to rebuild their lives and have access to essential services and the support and advocacy that they need, and so that they can make a contribution to those communities. The UK Government is failing to provide that.
The Home Office has not yet shared its review of the tragedy at the Park Inn but, as I said, I will ask the Scottish Government minister responsible to write to the member with further details on that.
The comments that we saw at the weekend about the use of the military—a bit like the comments on the BBC—were an attempt to divert attention from the self-inflicted troubles of the Prime Minister. We should not be using the BBC, and we should absolutely not be using refugees and asylum seekers, in that way. I say “we”, but it is the UK Government that is using refugees and asylum seekers in that way. It is utterly despicable and is another sign of the moral decay at the heart of the UK Government.
Stephanie Callaghan is joining us online.
Care Home Places
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to Public Health Scotland’s census data, which states that three out of four care home places are now provided by private companies. (S6F-00699)
Although the percentage of private sector care homes has increased, the overall balance of provision in care home places between the public and private sectors has not changed markedly over the past decade. The number of care home places has remained relatively stable, which reflects our policy to support people at home for as long as possible.
As we move towards the creation of the national care service, an ethical approach will be at the heart of how we commission and deliver services. All social care providers across Scotland from the independent, third and public sectors will continue to be subject to the same regulations, standards and guidelines, ensuring that the continuation of high-quality care home provision is and will continue to be the priority of the Scottish Government.
Given the prevalence of private care home provision across Uddingston and Bellshill, and Scotland more widely, how will the national care service deliver improved terms and conditions for private care home staff and ensure high-quality care for residents?
There is no doubt that the national care service will be the most significant change in public services, probably since the establishment of the national health service. We are committed to delivering a service by the end of this parliamentary session in order to ensure that everyone gets the high-quality care that they are entitled to, regardless of where they live in Scotland.
The consultation on the establishment of the national care service proposed that it will oversee the delivery of care, improve standards, ensure enhanced pay and conditions for workers and provide better support for unpaid carers, as well as supporting ethical commissioning of care. All of that will lead to better outcomes for those who rely on our care services. It is important, difficult and, in many aspects, controversial work. I hope that by the end of this session of Parliament it will be a significant public sector reform that future generations will look back on as fondly as we look on the establishment of the national health service.
Irrespective of the status of the sector, the employees in social care are predominantly female and are predominantly low paid—it is still the case that people can get paid more working in hospitality and retail. There were vacancies before the pandemic, and the situation has been made worse by the pandemic. Will the First Minister back the GMB and Unite the union in their campaigns to pay care workers £15 per hour, starting with an immediate rise to £12 per hour in April?
We are increasing the pay of those who work in the care sector. It is important that, while Jackie Baillie sets out the problem, as she always does, it is the Scottish Government that is delivering the solutions. We are increasing the pay of social care workers, and we will continue to do that. We of course have to do that within the bounds of affordability, and we will do so, but we are also committed to a national care service that will have absolutely at its heart collective bargaining and better pay and conditions for social care staff. We will continue to get on with doing the hard work that delivers the outcomes that Jackie Baillie calls for.
R100 Broadband Programme (Lot 1)
To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the delivery of lot 1 of the R100 programme. (S6F-00677)
Of course, broadband investment is reserved to Westminster. However, given the United Kingdom Government’s failure to deliver on that, alongside its failure to deliver on many other things, we have had to step in and make a difference.
The R100 north contract was signed in December 2020. Despite the pandemic, a huge amount of preparatory work has been completed since then. A remodelling exercise ensured that every connection that is delivered will be full fibre. Survey work has been done for more than 5,000 properties and 16 subsea cables, which will deliver vital backhaul connectivity to 15 Scottish islands.
We anticipate that, by the end of June, the north lot contract will have delivered more than 4,000 connections. The R100 Scottish broadband voucher scheme also ensures that everyone who wants a superfast broadband connection can now have one. Around 750 connections have already been delivered in the north of Scotland.
I am not surprised by the First Minister’s response. She will no doubt continue to try to fool the public into believing that the roll-out of broadband is reserved.
The practical roll-out of broadband is devolved to the Scottish Government. Like the patience of people in rural Scotland, that line is wearing thin.
The Scottish National Party talked up the scheme as being about reaching 100 per cent, but rural communities are not getting what they expected. Nearly 37,000 properties in lot 1 will not get fibre from the main scheme, and the voucher scheme that the First Minister talks about is delivering nothing, with an uptake of only 4 per cent so far. Surely the First Minister should rename the R100 scheme that the SNP promised as the R40 scheme—and it is five years late. The SNP promised that its flagship R100 scheme would be delivered to everybody by 2021. Will the First Minister now apologise to people and businesses in rural and remote communities who might not get connected at all? Most of them will not get connected until 2027.
Through the R100 contracts, the R100 Scottish broadband voucher scheme and, of course, commercial coverage, we have ensured that every premises in Scotland can access a superfast broadband connection. Despite telecommunications being reserved—that is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact in the Scotland Act 1998, which Finlay Carson is free to check—to date, the UK Government’s contribution to the R100 programme totals £31.5 million, which is 5 per cent of the total, compared with £579 million invested by the Scottish Government. The UK Government’s own project gigabit has yet to award a single procurement contract.
Again, the Scottish Government is getting on with the job of delivering connections while all that the Scottish Conservatives can do is gripe and girn about it.
I remind members to desist from shouting across the chamber when we are trying to hear questions and answers.
ScotRail Ticket Offices
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to ScotRail’s plans to cut ticket office opening hours at 120 stations and to close three ticket offices entirely. (S6F-00698)
The aim of the review is, of course, the modernisation of railway stations. It is clear to most people that technology has changed how people want to access information and tickets, but we also need to acknowledge, of course, the importance of local staff services on the ground where and when they are needed. The consultation offers the public the chance to have their say on how to provide an efficient modern service for the future, and we encourage people to get involved in it. We will await the consultation findings before any final decisions are made on the proposals.
Ticket office staff play a crucial role in making our railways safe and accessible. Many of those workers go above and beyond, such as those at Dalmuir whose quick thinking recently saved a life. A properly staffed rail network is essential to reduce car use and meet Scotland’s climate ambitions. However, under the Government, rail is being undermined. ScotRail is cutting 300 services per day, fares will be hiked up by 3.8 per cent next week, ticket desks are shutting, and there is still no fully integrated smart ticketing for passengers. To drive modal shift, the rail network must be more attractive and more accessible to passengers. Will the First Minister therefore stop these ticket office closures?
We will consult on what a modern system of railway stations and offices looks like. I absolutely agree on the importance of ticket office staff and, where they are necessary, it is important to recognise that. However, everybody knows that, in many railway stations, the ticket process is now automated. We have to reflect that in how those services are delivered in future, and it is right that we consult properly so that we come to the right balanced decisions. We are investing heavily in our railways and we will continue to do so to ensure that they provide a service that the people of Scotland need and deserve, and have a right to expect.
To continue the theme of Opposition parties calling for things while this Government gets on with delivery, this Government is in the process of bringing ScotRail into public ownership, delivering the nationalisation that Scottish Labour only talks about.
Given that passenger numbers on the railways are dramatically down, and ScotRail therefore depends on the public purse for an increased subsidy, does the First Minister agree that ScotRail has to look at its costs and reduce them if possible?
We have to make sure that we have a modern and efficient service and, of course, one that provides taxpayers with value for money. Right now, we are supporting our rail franchises with more than £1 billion, including £450 million of additional funding via the pandemic emergency measures. We will continue to do so in order to ensure that Scotland has the railway service that it needs and deserves. As I said earlier, we will bring ScotRail into public ownership, which I think the majority of people will welcome.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Cancer Diagnosis)
Fifty per cent of lung cancer patients are diagnosed at stage 4, and mortality rates for that cancer are high. During Covid restrictions, 25 per cent fewer people were diagnosed, and there were 25 per cent fewer people in treatment. Does the First Minister recognise that Covid restrictions have a significant impact on many other conditions that will be felt long after the Covid pandemic has passed?
Yes, I do. If memory serves me correctly, I think that we had an exchange on this important issue last week. Early diagnosis of cancer, and the earliest possible staging of cancer, is vital. That is why we are investing so heavily in the detect cancer early programme, and why we have established, or are establishing, fast-track cancer diagnostic centres so that people with less common symptoms of cancer can get the same fast-track access—and, we would hope, fast-track diagnosis—as those on the urgent suspicion of cancer referral pathway. That is really important, and we are absolutely committed to ensuring the earliest possible diagnosis.
Of course, staging is not the only important thing; we then need to ensure that people have quick access to high-quality care and treatment, and that is a big part of our focus in cancer services.
Child Poverty Targets
United Kingdom inflation is hitting a 30-year high and energy costs for households are spiralling, with no action from the UK Government, and the UK Government has cut the standard rate of universal credit by £20 per week. Will the First Minister outline what impact all that has had on her Government’s ability to meet her child poverty targets, and say whether she supports the Poverty Alliance’s campaign for the UK Government to scrap the punitive welfare cap?
I fully support the Poverty Alliance campaign. I will be blunt about it: the UK Government is making the poorest poorer, and it is doing so knowingly, which is utterly despicable. The removal of the £20-a-week universal credit uplift has impacted on some of the poorest families in our society. Those actions are making it more difficult for the Scottish Government to live up to our responsibilities to tackle child poverty.
However, we are doing more—for example, we are doubling the Scottish child payment. A payment like that does not exist in any other part of the UK and, having established it, we are now taking steps to double it. We are doing everything that we can, but if we were not up against a Government that is pulling in the opposite direction, we would be able to do more and have a much greater impact. That is, of course, a powerful argument for having all the levers in the hands of Scottish Governments and the Scottish Parliament, and not leaving them in the hands of Westminster Governments.