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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 20, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 20 December 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, Lockerbie Bombing (30th Anniversary), First Minister’s Question Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Rail Services (Performance)

I associate myself entirely with the remarks that the First Minister has made and with those that the Prime Minister made yesterday.

As I was preparing for Christmas that year, so were the Somerville family. Jack Somerville had been the retail vehicle sales manager in our family business for some 20 years before he retired. I remember him with great affection—yes, he had a sheepskin coat, like all the best used-car sales managers do, he was fond of a cigar and he was a big personality. He and his family were in the house on which the plane landed, and they were obliterated. Each year when the anniversary comes around, I, and many of his former colleagues, along with all those who lost relatives and friends, think fondly of those who died.

Punctuality in our train service has reached its worst point for 12 years. Hundreds of trains have been cancelled. There have been shortages of staff, because people are being trained to use the new class of trains—the introduction of which has also been delayed, causing another 100 services to be cut last month. Does the First Minister think that train passengers across Scotland are owed an apology?

Yes, I do. ScotRail has made it clear that it regrets the cancellations and delays that have been caused. Let me be perfectly clear: the level of cancellations—this week, in particular—has been unacceptable.

Of course, the cancellations have been due to a combination of factors—not least train crew shortages, but also a number of other issues. Infrastructure issues, such as Monday’s signals failure at Perth, have accounted for a significant number of cancellations.

However, the blame for the cancellations cannot simply be laid at the door of ScotRail. Tragically, we must recognise that understandable knock-on disruption followed the loss of life on the railways this week. I am sure that the sympathies of everyone in the chamber go to the families and loved ones of those who have died.

That said, I want to be clear that we have seen a significant and unacceptable number of delays that are clearly ScotRail’s responsibility. I can report to Parliament that the number of cancellations of that type has fallen as the week has progressed, from approximately 144 on Monday to an estimated 40 today. Progress is being made but it is not good enough. We expect—indeed, we demand—better from the rail operator, and the transport secretary continues to work closely with it to ensure that we will continue to see improvements in the days to come.

That is interesting, because we have new official figures that show that, since 2011, there have been more than 35,000 cancellations or part cancellations caused entirely by ScotRail. That amounts to 5,000 a year.

People want to know why the Scottish National Party Government is failing to deliver. Let us examine its record. Two years ago, which was the last time we had problems on the tracks, the then transport minister, Humza Yousaf, played the big man and hauled in ScotRail, threatening it with “serious consequences”. He fumed:

“they were left with no uncertain terms that I expect improvement”.

What has happened since? The level of punctuality has fallen. Instead of serious consequences, Mr Yousaf has done a ministerial bunk to the justice department, where he is now clearing up the mess left by Mr Matheson, while Mr Matheson has swapped seats to clear up the mess left by Mr Yousaf. Talking tough, playing cabinet musical chairs, failing to deliver improvements and then giving in—is that not the record of this Government on our rail network?

I am not sure that the Tories are on particularly safe ground here, but I will leave that to one side for the moment.

When Humza Yousaf, the then transport minister, took that action with ScotRail, we saw improvements. However, I am not standing here and saying that ScotRail’s performance is good enough, because it is not. Its performance on punctuality is usually better than the performance of other large train operators elsewhere in the UK.

Our responsibility is to continue to work with ScotRail to deliver improvements. In the past few weeks, there have been issues with shortages of train crews and, as ScotRail has set out, that is largely down to two issues. The introduction of the new timetable has been affected by the late delivery of the Hitachi trains. There is not quite the number of Hitachi trains in service that was expected. There was also industrial action, which, I am glad to say, is now resolved.

ScotRail is working hard to resolve those issues, as I have said. Again, I am not saying that this is good enough and I recognise the frustration of the travelling public, but during this week, the number of cancellations has been reduced and I expect to see that number continue to reduce and continued improvement during the next few days, particularly as we go into the holiday period and then the new year.

The transport secretary discusses those issues with ScotRail regularly. He spoke to the managing directors of ScotRail and Abellio earlier this week and made clear the urgent need for improvement.

Right. Let us recall something else from two years ago, when the transport minister handed out £3 million of discounted fares following the disruptions. That, he said, was

“to thank passengers for their patience”.

Two years on, it is not passengers who are getting a break; it is the train operator. The current transport minister has decided to waive the sanctions that the train operator was facing for missing targets. Why? Because it would have breached the franchise agreement had the targets been kept in place. There was support for passengers in one year and a bail-out for the train operator in the next. Who is getting the better deal here—Scotland’s hard-pressed commuters or the owners of the rail franchise?

Tough sanctions for failure to deliver are in place, and it is right and proper that that is the case. Of course, passengers contribute to the cost of running the railway through rail fares, and again, I absolutely understand the frustration of passengers who are paying rail fares and not getting the performance that they deserve.

However, it is important to stress that the Scottish Government meets the majority of the cost of rail passenger services in Scotland. We have taken action to minimise the impact on passengers by capping increases for regulated ScotRail peak fares at the level of the retail price index. Regulated off-peak fare increases are capped at 1 per cent lower than the rate of inflation, which means that, in Scotland, average rail fare increases are lower than they are in England and Wales.

We will continue to do what we can to keep rail fares as reasonable as possible, and we will continue our work to invest in our railways, to improve the number and quality of services, and to ensure that ScotRail is taking the action that it needs to take to resolve the difficulties that have been experienced in recent weeks.

That was so downbeat that I do not think that it will be going faster than the slowest train. I am afraid that it is classic SNP. One minute, the SNP is talking tough, telling everyone that it is going to sort things out, and two years down the line, when things have actually got worse, it is all somebody else’s fault—all while passengers are still waiting, trains are late and millions of pounds are lost to the Scottish economy. Ministers have a role to play: to hold management to account and to stand up for hard-pressed passengers. As well as having—I hope—a very merry Christmas, what will the First Minister and her ministers do to ensure that in 2019 we have a railway network in Scotland that is fit for purpose?

We will do the hard work to ensure that those issues are resolved and that ScotRail continues to perform better than other train operators elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We will continue to take forward work to allow a public sector bid for the next rail franchise, and we will do what I would expect the architects of privatisation on the Tory benches to oppose tooth and nail: continue to argue for full devolution of all powers over the railways, so that we are responsible for Network Rail as well as ScotRail and so that this Parliament has the opportunity to nationalise our railways and to undo the damage of privatisation caused by the Tories.


I associate my party with the remarks made by the First Minister about the Lockerbie tragedy. I recently visited the Dryfesdale cemetery and garden of remembrance to pay my respects and I found it a very moving experience.

I turn to a question that I think is topical, because today our schools are getting ready to break up for the Christmas holidays. I remind the chamber that, back in October, the First Minister encouraged Scotland’s teachers to write to her with any concerns that they had about Scotland’s schools. Here is a comment addressed directly to the First Minister just last week by a schoolteacher in North Lanarkshire. She wrote:

“despite what you have said yourself on many occasions, it is becoming clear that education is not a priority for this government.”

Is that teacher wrong?

It is my job to demonstrate to that teacher that that is not the case. Education is a priority for this Government. That is why we are continuing to ensure that there is investment in our schools. For the past couple of years, as we have narrated in the chamber before, investment in our schools has increased and the Scottish Government has taken action through the pupil equity fund to get more resources directly to headteachers. We see in the statistics that were published last week the rising number of teachers in our schools. We are also seeing evidence that the attainment gap in our schools is starting to close, as is the attainment gap in terms of access to universities, and of course standards in our schools generally are continuing to improve. We will do the hard work to continue that progress and to persuade that teacher and all the other teachers across the whole country that we value what they do and that we consider education to be the top priority that it rightly is.

The letter that I quoted was from a teacher called Esther and it was published in the Scottish Educational Journal. Esther is not only a lifelong Scottish National Party voter but an SNP member and a local activist, but her concern about workload and the pressure on Scotland’s teachers is now so grave that she writes of

“a crisis where schools are understaffed”,


“How can we close the attainment gap when our schools do not have enough teachers?”

She is not alone. Dean, another teacher and another SNP member, wrote in the same journal:

“I hear the rhetoric that education is at the forefront of the Scottish Government’s priorities but see little evidence of this.”

When we raise concerns about education on behalf of teachers and parents, the First Minister chooses not to listen. Will she at least listen now to the grave concerns that are being openly expressed by members of her own party?

I listen very carefully every time Richard Leonard rises to his feet in the chamber. Of course we listen carefully to the views of teachers and parents and young people across the country.

If we take teacher numbers in particular, just last week we saw the number of teachers in our schools rise by almost 500. That follows a rise the year before and the year before that. Since I became First Minister, I think that teacher numbers have increased by more than 1,000. The number of teachers who are working in our primary schools right now is at its highest level since I was at primary school in 1980. The investment that we are ensuring in our schools is delivering those numbers of teachers and it is delivering resources for headteachers to target the attainment gap and to start to narrow the attainment gap.

We will continue to support teachers as best we can. Of course, we have an on-going negotiation about a revised pay offer to teachers. I note in passing that, last week, Labour councillors at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities voted against making a revised offer to teachers. We want to support teachers by having resources in the classroom, by having the right number of teachers in the classroom and by making sure that they are fairly and properly rewarded for the excellent job that they do. As we go into the new year, we will continue to get on with that job.

All I am asking the First Minister to do is to listen to members of her own party. There are 3,000 fewer teachers in our classrooms than there were when the SNP came to power. No progress has been made in closing the attainment gap and Scotland is facing its first teachers’ strike since Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street. The First Minister told us again this morning that education is her top priority, but parents do not believe that, teachers do not believe that and now even her own party members do not believe that. Can the First Minister tell us why anybody in Scotland should believe that education is her top priority?

As I have just said, teacher numbers are rising. Richard Leonard cannot deny that, because the numbers speak clearly for themselves. As I said a moment, ago, the number of teachers in our primary schools is at its highest level since 1980. I think that the number of teachers overall is at its highest level since around 2010, so teacher numbers are rising.

We are seeing the attainment gap start to close. It is not true for Richard Leonard to say that that is not the case.

Richard Leonard commented on the prospect of industrial action in our schools. I do not want to see that happen and I will work as hard as I can to avoid it. That is why, thanks to SNP councillors and others at COSLA on Friday, a revised offer on pay has been made to teachers. I say again—and I ask Richard Leonard to reflect on this very carefully—Labour councillors at COSLA voted against making a revised offer. If it had been down to Labour councillors at COSLA last week there would be no revised offer to teachers on the table and, as a result, industrial action would be closer. Perhaps Richard Leonard needs to reflect on the actions of his own party, just as I will continue to listen to members of my party and to teachers across the country.

Police Scotland (Deaths in Custody)

Many people will have been shocked by the content of the BBC documentary on the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody. The programme highlighted concerns over the police response, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner investigation and how the family was treated. I appreciate that it is a live case and that the First Minister may feel restricted in her response, but does she recognise that the BBC programme shone a light on serious concerns over deaths in custody in Scotland that the Government must deal with. Will she today commit to holding a comprehensive inquiry into deaths in custody in Scotland?

I thank Claire Baker for raising an extremely important issue and I thank her for recognising that what I can say in response is restricted by the fact that this is an on-going live case. I recognise the concerns that have been raised by the BBC documentary, although I cannot go into the detail of those concerns.

In relation to the Sheku Bayoh case, I will say a couple of things, which I think I have said before in the chamber. First, I am sure that I speak for everybody in the chamber when I say that my thoughts are very much with the family and friends of Mr Bayoh at what will be an extremely difficult time for them as we approach Christmas.

The Government has absolutely not ruled out holding a public inquiry into the Sheku Bayoh case and the more general issues that it raises. However, as Claire Baker is aware, the process to decide whether there will be a criminal prosecution, which is governed by the Lord Advocate completely independently of ministers, has not yet concluded. When it has concluded, the Government will consider the next steps carefully at that point. As I have said before, one of the options open to the Government is a full public inquiry, which has certainly not been ruled out by the Government.

Richard Irvin Energy Solutions

I am sure that the First Minister will be aware of the reports this morning that the mechanical project services firm Richard Irvin Energy Solutions, which is based in Aberdeen, has gone into administration, with the expected loss of 110 jobs. This is clearly a distressing time for all involved. What assistance can the Scottish Government provide so that staff are not struggling when Christmas is just around the corner?

I thank Tom Mason for raising the issue. This will be an extremely difficult and stressful time for the employees of the company. In such circumstances, as the member will be aware, the Government’s partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—initiative offers employees assistance with looking for alternative employment.

However, before that or, often, simultaneously with it, the Government is always keen to talk to companies to see whether there is any action that we can take to help to avoid redundancy situations. I will ask the economy secretary to correspond with Tom Mason about the actions that the Government has taken. We will do everything that we can, not just in the run-up to Christmas but after that, to provide all possible assistance to those affected.

Cystic Fibrosis Medicines

The First Minister will be aware of the decision by Vertex Pharmaceuticals to resubmit Orkambi to the Scottish Medicines Consortium and to submit Symkevi for the first time. She will also be aware of the very welcome agreement with the Scottish Government about access to Orkambi now for individual patients as part of the peer-approved clinical system tier 2—PACS2—process.

I place on record my thanks to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and her officials, the cross-party group of MSPs, including Alex Neil, Anas Sarwar and Miles Briggs, and the Daily Record for their tireless support. I know that the Gallachers and all the families are delighted and regard this as a wonderful Christmas present. Will the First Minister ensure that PACS2 requests are considered quickly and that there is no delay within health boards in people with cystic fibrosis accessing the drug?

I am very pleased indeed to confirm to Parliament that Vertex Pharmaceuticals has agreed to make submissions for its cystic fibrosis medicines to the Scottish Medicines Consortium. That follows constructive discussions between the Scottish Government and the company to ensure that our new medicines appraisal process is as flexible as possible while ensuring rigour in its assessment. The company has also confirmed that each of its applications will be submitted with a patient access scheme to improve the cost effectiveness of the proposals. The decisions about whether the medicines will be made available are, of course, taken by the SMC independently of Government.

I, too, recognise the very hard work of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and Scottish Government officials to get us to this point, as well as all those, including Jackie Baillie, who have campaigned to make progress on the matter. It is important to say that, in the meantime, while the considerations are on-going after the submissions are made and when the medicines are prescribed through the new peer-approved clinical system for individual patient access to medicines, Vertex has agreed to make them available to the national health service at a discount. That process is available to clinicians and patients, and it is one that I expect all health boards to operate as quickly as possible. I hope that this good news will be welcomed across the chamber. I know that it will be welcomed by the many families that are affected by cystic fibrosis, in particular.

Ferguson Marine

The First Minister will be aware of the news today that Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow has posted a loss of £60 million for 2016. The yard blames “interference and disruption” from the Scottish Government for the loss. Does the First Minister recognise that assertion?

Far from there being interference and disruption, the Scottish Government has—as has been debated in the chamber on many occasions—worked very hard to support Ferguson Marine to deliver the ferries that it is currently contracted to deliver and to diversify its business. When the shipyard was under its previous ownership, it was action by this Government that stopped it from closing. It is action by this Government in support of those who own, operate and run the shipyard that, I hope, will see it continue to have a very bright future.

Brexit (People’s Vote)

The Prime Minister is indulging in a form of psychological no-deal warfare in a desperate gamble to revive her dead deal. The Scottish National Party has been on a journey and is now giving whole-hearted support to a people’s vote—hallelujah!

The Conservative councillors in Perth backed a people’s vote this week, Amber Rudd indicated possible support yesterday, and Sarah Wollaston said that she would quit the Conservatives if they backed a no-deal Brexit. Momentum is with us—[Interruption.] What can the First Minister do to get the leadership of the Labour Party on board?

I am sorry, Presiding Officer, but the noise in the chamber—I am not sure whether people were laughing with Willie Rennie or otherwise—obscured the end of his question, so I did not quite catch what he asked me. However, I think that I got the gist of the question.

I agree with Willie Rennie that momentum is building. I am not sure that it is building for the Liberal Democrats, but it is building in support of a second European Union referendum that would give people across the United Kingdom the opportunity to change their minds. Of course, people in Scotland do not need to change their minds, because we voted to remain the first time round. That vote has been ignored, and I hope that Willie Rennie agrees that, if there is another referendum, the vote of the people of Scotland should be recognised and respected.

I have to say that, right now, the biggest barrier to making decisive progress in that direction is the Labour Party at Westminster. It is inexplicable to me why it has not thus far supported the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Plaid Cymru in bringing a vote of no confidence in the incompetent, sorry Tory Government. If such a motion were passed, we would get rid of that incompetent Government; if it were not passed, it would force Jeremy Corbyn to make a decision on a second EU referendum.

Perhaps, instead of constantly asking me about this, Willie Rennie—outside the chamber—could put a bit more pressure on the Labour Party, as I am doing, to try to get it off the fence into a supportive position. Perhaps then, in the new year, we will see the momentum towards a second referendum become unstoppable.

With great foresight, the First Minister has anticipated my next question. The Labour Party was once a beacon of hope in the world; now it is not even a beacon of hope for the Labour Party. Chuka Umunna, Kezia Dugdale, Daniel Johnson and Ian Murray all back a people’s vote, and 86 per cent of Labour members back a people’s vote. I am sure that the First Minister will be as frustrated as I am with a Labour leadership that does everything it possibly can to avoid backing a people’s vote.

How many Labour supporters have to lose their jobs before the Labour leadership understands that there is no such thing as a jobs-first Brexit? How chaotic does Brexit have to get before Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard get off their backsides and stand up to stop it? What words can the First Minister find to encourage Labour to live up to its responsibilities?

First Minister, you may answer briefly, but I suggest to Willie Rennie that the First Minister is not responsible for answering questions on behalf of the Labour Party.

I am always happy to offer my services to the Labour Party if it is looking for some real leadership, which it desperately needs right now.

I think that I am getting to like this new-style Willie Rennie at First Minister’s questions—we will see if it continues into 2019.

I am slightly struggling to remember the days of Labour as a “beacon of hope”—it has certainly not been that within my lifetime—so I might have to pause on that.

Nevertheless, there is a serious issue here. This is advice to myself as much as it is to anybody else: I do not think that we should fall into the trap—as the House of Commons did yesterday, when it was faced with the biggest crisis that the UK has faced for a very long time—of becoming a pantomime. It is obvious to me that the Prime Minister’s tactic is to run down the clock so that it gets to the point at which it is either her deal or no deal. That is a dreadful approach to take when there are alternatives.

However, it seems to me that it is also Jeremy Corbyn’s tactic to run down the clock so that he does not have to make a decision on a second referendum. I know that he is not in this chamber, but I appeal to him to reflect, over the Christmas break, on the views of his party and of many of his members of Parliament as well as, above all else, the interests of people the length and breadth of the UK, and, when he comes back in the new year, to support a second EU referendum so that people across the UK can have the opportunity—at long last—to reverse Brexit and find a way out of this sorry mess. It would be good news for the new year if Jeremy Corbyn were to find it within himself to show such leadership.

Unaccompanied Child Refugees

Currently, 22 child refugees—boys between the ages of 14 and 17, which is not much older than my son—who have been accepted under the Dubs scheme are stuck at Calais, waiting for local authority placements. The organisation Safe Passage UK is liaising with the Home Office, but there is a bottleneck in sourcing placements. It has reached out to Scotland and our local authorities, which have been generous in the past. I know that the Scottish Government has been in contact with both the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Home Office but that our care system is currently at capacity. It is an impossible and heartbreaking situation, but it is also not one that we can accept. Therefore, I simply ask the First Minister what more can be done by her, by the Government and by all of us here today to get behind and galvanise efforts to find a solution for all our children this Christmas.

I thank Angela Constance for raising that hugely important issue. She is absolutely right to identify it as a heartbreaking situation, and the Scottish Government is, of course, very aware of it. We have been clear—and will continue to be so—about the need to welcome unaccompanied children into the United Kingdom and to support their recovery from the trauma that they have endured.

As Ms Constance has indicated, the Scottish Government has already been in touch with both COSLA and the Home Office, and we appreciate the urgency of the situation. Although I gather that there are physically no placements in Scotland to offer these children at the present time, COSLA continues to work with the Home Office and Scottish local authorities to identify appropriate placements for unaccompanied children when they are available.

I give Angela Constance and the chamber my assurance that the Scottish Government will continue to do all that it possibly can and that we will work with COSLA and the Home Office to offer the practical support that these young people desperately need. We will continue to monitor the situation over the holiday period and will offer any help and support that we possibly can.

Air Departure Tax

At the weekend, online blog The Ferret reported that Government ministers had held 14 meetings with representatives of the airline industry who were lobbying for a cut in the proposed air departure tax. Will the First Minister explain why, when trade unionists lobbied the Parliament last week, no Government minister was available to meet them yet ministers are falling over themselves to meet members of the airport executives who are lobbying for a cut that would take money from the Scottish Government’s future budgets?

Details of all ministers’ engagements are published online, so there is no secrecy about those at all. Ministers meet people with a whole range of interests. I meet almost countless numbers of individuals and organisations over any given year. I hazard a guess that, if we were not doing that, James Kelly would be one of the first to get to his feet and criticise us for not getting out there and meeting people with different interests.

I meet trade union representatives regularly, as do all ministers. I also attend the biannual meeting with the Scottish Trades Union Congress. We have a very good relationship with the STUC and with individual trade unions although, at times, there is tension in those relationships, as is the case for all Governments, because of issues that we are trying to resolve.

This Government values and respects trade unions. We put fair work at the heart of our agenda, and we will continue to make sure that the views and values of trade unions run strongly through everything that this Government does. In doing that, I hope that we have the support of the Labour side of the chamber, although I am not sure that we have support from the Conservative side.

We will also meet businesses, those who run our airports and interests from every corner of the country, because that is what an open, accessible, listening and engaged Government does—and I am proud that that is exactly what this Government is.


A fortnight ago, I warned the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills that schools in the north-east are at breaking point. New Scottish Government statistics show that in the most deprived areas of Aberdeenshire four out of every five secondary 3 pupils are not reaching required levels of literacy. They are 14 years old and they cannot read or write to the expected level.

The First Minister is not giving our kids a chance. After more than a decade of Scottish National Party Government, will she apologise for failing so many Scottish children?

There was a huge amount of misrepresentation in how that question was asked. The figures from last week show improvement in many areas of literacy and numeracy, and one source of evidence shows the beginning of narrowing of the attainment gap. That is because of the efforts and progress that have been made in initiatives that I spoke about in response to Richard Leonard’s questions. We will continue to do the job in order to make progress and to support all those who work in our education system.

To be fair to Liam Kerr, he did not call for more money for education, although I am sure that he would, because it is what his colleagues do in the chamber all the time. Let us remember that the Tory party prioritises tax cuts for the richest people in society over investment in our public services. While that continues to be the case, not many people—if any—will take the Tories at all seriously.

European Council Summit

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the outcome of the recent European Council summit. (S5F-02907)

The entirely predictable reaction at last week’s summit of the European Union 27 countries to the Prime Minister’s position clearly demonstrates that the United Kingdom Government must now stop wasting time. We are now just over three months away from the date on which the UK is currently due to leave the EU and, as things stand, it seems to be clear that the Prime Minister’s deal will be rejected by the House of Commons and will not be renegotiated by the EU.

The best outcome, in line with the views of the people of Scotland, is to retain EU membership. That is why we support another referendum, which I just talked about with Willie Rennie. It would be outrageous if the Prime Minister’s plan is instead to run down the clock to no deal. That simply must not be allowed to happen.

Yesterday, the European Commission released a number of papers on the no-deal scenario, and said that, in the event of there being no deal, only “basic connectivity” would be maintained between Scotland’s airports and airports on the continent. Does the First Minister agree that, in such circumstances, we should revoke article 50 in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit?

Joan McAlpine is absolutely right. My position, which I made clear to the Prime Minister yesterday in London, is that the Government should request an extension to article 50. An extension would have to be agreed by the EU 27, but the Government should do that in order to allow time for a second EU referendum. If—as I would hope—the result of that referendum not just in Scotland, but throughout the UK, were to be remain, article 50 could be revoked.

We know from the recent European Court of Justice judgment that it is possible for the UK to retain its EU membership on current terms, contrary to the false choice that has been offered by the Prime Minister. It seems to me that she has given up trying to make a positive case for her bad deal and is instead—extraordinarily for a Government leader—threatening to impose the disaster of a no-deal outcome on the people whom she is supposed to serve. Following the ECJ judgment, that is not a tenable or necessary position.

I call on the UK Government to start acting in the interests of the people whom it serves, to ask for the extension, to allow people to look at the matter again and, if the people change their minds, to revoke article 50 and end this sorry mess once and for all.

Draft Budget 2019-20 (Council Budgets)

To ask the First Minister by how much councils’ core budgets will change under the draft budget. (S5F-02895)

In the context of a Scottish Government budget that has been cut in real terms throughout this decade by the Conservative Government at Westminster, this Government continues to treat local government fairly, with a total funding package of £11.1 billion. The local government settlement for the coming year provides an increase in local government day-to-day spending for revenue services of £197.5 million, which is a 2 per cent increase, and provides an increase in investment for capital spending of £207.6, which is a 23.7 per cent increase.

Local authorities also have the ability to raise an additional £80 million to support essential services, should they choose to use the power to increase council tax by 3 per cent. Taken together, the total funding settlement delivers an increase of £495 million in the overall resources to support local services, which is a real-terms increase of 2.7 per cent.

The First Minister has avoided answering the question, as usual. She will have seen the figures that we all saw from the Scottish Parliament information centre this week, which provide the answer that she should have given. Once ring-fenced money is stripped away, councils face a real-terms cut of £319 million—reductions of £43 million in Glasgow City Council, £22 million in the City of Edinburgh Council, £19.8 million in North Lanarkshire Council and £9.8 million in Dundee City Council. No council escapes. If the First Minister really believes that councils are getting a fair funding settlement, can she name a single one that will not have to increase council tax, cut services, or apply a combination of both?

What matters is the totality of the money that local government has to spend. Let me quote the SPICe report. It says:

“Once Revenue funding within other portfolios (but still from the Scottish Government to local authorities) is included, the total is ... a cash increase of 3.8% ... or 2% ... in real terms.”

That is the reality. It is for councils to set their own budgets.

I make the same offer to the Conservatives as I made to Labour last week. If the Conservatives want more money to go to local government in the budget, we will listen, but they need to come and tell us where in the budget they want the money to come from. They need to tell us how that would be possible when they are proposing to take half a billion pounds out of the budget for public services and to give it in tax cuts to higher-rate taxpayers.

The Tories have no credibility on the issue. We will wait with bated breath: the Tories are free to bring forward funded proposals. Over the next few weeks, let us see whether the Tories step up to the plate and do that.

NHS 24 (Capacity)

To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of the capacity of NHS 24 to deal with demand over the Christmas period. (S5F-02898)

All health boards, including NHS 24, submit winter plans to the Government, which are stringently reviewed to ensure that each board has the capacity and the contingency measures in place to deal with the increased pressures that winter and the festive period bring. NHS 24 submitted its final winter plan on 31 October. It was assessed and signed off on 16 November.

Last Christmas saw unprecedented burdens on our hard-pressed front-line NHS staff. For many Scots who are elderly or who have chronic health problems or a disability and have little family support, the festive season is a time for anxiety and concern, not celebration. Will the First Minister reassure Parliament that vulnerable people will not have to wait hours for a response from NHS 24. Can they rely on a festive gift of timely support? They deserve nothing less.

I agree with that. It is important to note that NHS 24 continues to provide a highly effective and safe triage system. It answered almost 1.6 million calls in 2017-18. It is also important to stress that about 70 per cent of those calls are handled by NHS 24 without any requirement for a call back to the patient. Where a call back is required, clinical priority very much determines the timeframe in which that call back takes place.

We recognise that the demands on all health boards, particularly NHS 24, increase over the winter and the festive period. That is why we are ensuring that higher numbers of staff are working in NHS 24 over the peak festive period this year than were working last year; for example, 458 call handlers and nurses will be working on boxing day this year, compared to 397 last year and 373 the year before. We will continue to work with NHS 24 to ensure that it provides the service that people demand and expect.

One pressure on accident and emergency departments at this time of year results from an increase in trips, slips and falls. How does the Scottish Government promote safety, particularly to older people, during snowy and icy conditions?

That is a good question. Obviously, we always advise people, particularly the elderly, to take extra care at this time of year. We encourage people to take sensible measures to prepare, and to look out for their neighbours, who might need an extra hand during periods of severe weather. The “Ready Scotland” website is a source of useful advice on what to do to prepare for icy weather conditions. We can all play our part in giving people the right advice and looking out for people who might need extra help over the winter period.

Festive Period Working

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will acknowledge the people from across the country who will be working over the festive period to keep Scotland going. (S5F-02899)

I am happy not just to acknowledge them, but to take the opportunity to thank, on behalf of the Scottish Government and, I am sure, the Scottish people, all those who will be working over the festive period, including people in our emergency services, those who keep transport moving and those in the hospitality sector, to name just a few. We value very highly the contribution that they make throughout the year, but at this time of the year it is particularly important to recognise their efforts in keeping Scotland going. I am sure that all members will wish to join with me in saying a very big “Thank you” to everyone working over the festive period and, although they will be working, to wish them nonetheless a very happy Christmas. [Applause.]

I, too, pay tribute to people in the emergency services and public services who are working during the Christmas period, including in the national health service and the fire and police services. I mention in particular the voluntary groups that are working over the period, including mountain rescue services, Her Majesty’s coastguard, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Samaritans. I would be grateful if the First Minister would also acknowledge the extra work that they will put in over the festive period.

I am certainly very happy to do that. Volunteers the length and breadth of our country make a huge contribution all year round, but it is especially important at this time of year to recognise what they do. The organisations that Edward Mountain mentioned, including mountain rescue services and the coastguard, do an absolutely exemplary job. I thank everybody who will be working hard to keep the rest of us safe over the festive period.

As this might be my last answer today, Presiding Officer—although that is, of course, entirely up to you—I take the opportunity to wish you and everybody in the chamber a very happy Christmas.

That cheery note concludes First Minister’s question time. I wish everyone a merry Christmas.

Meeting closed at 12:48.