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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, April 21, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 21 April 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Ferry Services (Public Ownership), Portfolio Question Time, Blue Carbon, Antimicrobial Resistance, Health and Care Bill, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Charges for Drivers (Edinburgh and Glasgow)

I begin by wishing Her Majesty the Queen a very happy 96th birthday. On behalf of the whole chamber and people across Scotland, we send our best wishes to the monarch, who has been a constant in our country for many decades. Through good times and difficult periods, while the country has been at war and during peace time, she has been a global figure and our remarkable head of state. I know that everyone in the chamber will join us in wishing Her Majesty a very happy birthday.

Does the First Minister support plans for drivers who live outside Edinburgh and Glasgow to be charged extra to get into Scotland’s two largest cities?

I, too, take the opportunity to wish Her Majesty a very happy 96th birthday. Her service has been, and continues to be, an inspiration to many, not just in Scotland and the United Kingdom but across the world. I know that all of us, in sending her our very best wishes today, will also wish her many happy returns.

It is right that we support people who require to use our roads and that we do that in a range of ways—for example, by ensuring good maintenance of our roads and pressing for action on the part of the UK Government to cut the cost of motoring, particularly just now when people are suffering due to the cost of living crisis. However, we also all have a big responsibility to ensure that we make the transition to net zero, which means decarbonising our transport system. Therefore, local authorities will consult on a range of issues. It is important that those responsibilities are kept in our minds, but also that the views of the wider public are taken fully into account.

So, the First Minister wants to support people who use our roads, and her answer is this: tax them more. The Scottish National Party Government brought in the workplace parking tax and the SNP group in the City of Edinburgh Council has charged ahead with plans to introduce it—plans that would hit anyone who needs their car to get into work in the city. Now, in its manifesto for the local election, the SNP has included proposals to charge vehicles just to come into the capital. That is a commuter tax on people all over the country who travel to work in Edinburgh, come to do business, visit family and friends or use vital services. Scottish Conservatives are completely opposed to that proposal, so why is the SNP intent on making driving in our cities unaffordable?

I think, perhaps on many issues, Douglas Ross needs to decide what his position actually is and avoid rendering himself ridiculous by having contradictory and inconsistent positions.

Talking of manifestos, let me first quote the Tory local government manifesto from 2017, which says this:

“We need to empower councils and give them a renewed sense of meaning and purpose”.

[Interruption.]—I can hear Douglas Ross say, “That is not up to date enough”, so let me cite the Conservative manifesto from the Scottish Parliament election just this time last year. Again, I am quoting. It said:

“Councils should lead post-COVID reviews of changed travel patterns in their area and be encouraged to create more low traffic neighbourhoods”.

[Interruption.]—So, on the one hand, Douglas Ross wants to empower local councils, but then he stands up and says that I should rule out the local councils having the ability to decide on things that could help us with that transition to net zero, while, of course, supporting travel patterns across the country. Not for the first time, Presiding Officer, and I suspect not for the last time, Douglas Ross’s position is completely inconsistent and bordering on being ridiculous.

“Bordering on being ridiculous” is the dismal answer. The two things that are bordering on being ridiculous are the fact that SNP back benchers think that that was a good answer, and the complete deflection from the SNP proposals. There was nothing from the leader of the SNP—the First Minister—about the specific question that I asked. Her pre-prepared answers about what I might or might not have said do not really sit well—[Interruption.]

Colleagues—[Interruption.] Colleagues—thank you.

Her pre-prepared answers on what I might or might not have come to the chamber to say—[Interruption.]

I do not know what it is difficult for the SNP to understand. The First Minister—[Interruption.]

Excuse me, Mr Ross. Can we please hear Mr Ross? Thank you.

The First Minister is trying to predict what I will say at First Minister’s question time and has a script ready that has nothing to do with the issue that we are raising, which is about the SNP raising the cost of driving cars in cities, which people rely on to get to work, to visit friends and family, and to use vital services.

In response to the news of that commuter tax, this morning, the Federation of Small Businesses urged councils to avoid additional cost for business. It made it clear that a commuter tax would hit tradespeople coming from the Lothians, the Borders, Fife and further afield.

It is not just those areas that would be hit with extra charges from SNP councillors. Anyone who is working in Glasgow also faces the prospect of extra charges for driving into their city. Glasgow City Council’s SNP leader Susan Aitken has suggested capping traffic on the M8, and she is considering introducing road tolls. A previous SNP Government scrapped those charges. Will the First Minister give the categorical answer that she will not bring them back in again?

Douglas Ross might want to reflect on the fact that members in the chamber were not laughing with him a few moments ago.

I was quoting from Conservative manifestos that put the finger on the really important issue here. Everybody across the country and everybody in the chamber knows that all of us—not only in Scotland but across the world—will face some really difficult, tough and challenging decisions in the years to come about how we heat our homes and how we travel around the country, so that we can meet our climate change obligations and make the transition to net zero, but also have a transport system that still supports our economy and the travelling public.

It is easy for the Scottish Conservatives to reduce those challenging decisions in the simplistic way that they have, but the rest of us know that those decisions have to be faced. This is about empowering local councils to consult on the decisions, consider the options and arrive at decisions. That is what we are doing and what the Conservatives used to, but clearly now do not, support.

As a Government, we continue to support the transport system across the country. Since this Government took office, we have invested in excess of £9.5 billion in managing, maintaining and improving Scotland’s trunk roads and our motorway network. We are also investing more than £500 million for bus priority measures to support people getting out of car use. We will continue to take the tough decisions, to consult the public, to come to sensible decisions and back those decisions with investments. That is serious government as opposed to ridiculous opposition.

There have been three questions so far to the First Minister, but zero answers. The last one was very straightforward: will the First Minister rule out re-introduction of road tolls in Scotland? She was silent—she did not even attempt to answer the question.

Across the chamber, all parties agree on the need to do more to meet our climate change targets—[Interruption.]

SNP members laugh about that, but in many industries, and across rural areas especially, people still need their cars. Right now, there could not be a worse time for a further hike in the cost of driving. We are in the middle of a cost of living crisis and petrol prices are rising globally, yet Nicola Sturgeon wants to tax people off the road by hammering anyone who owns a car. The people who will be hit the hardest are not the wealthiest people, but ordinary working people who need their cars and who are already struggling with the cost of living.

If the First Minister carries on down that road, Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP councillors will force Scotland’s economy into the slow lane. The commuter tax should be abandoned, toll charges should be ruled out and her workplace parking tax should be ditched. Will the First Minister drop that triple whammy of anti-driver taxes?

I do not support road tolls, but I do support local councils being empowered to consider the tough issues that they face, to consult the public and to take sensible decisions—[Interruption.]

Excuse me, First Minister.

We will hear the First Minister. Thank you.

I will say two more things. Yes, people continue to need their cars, in particular in rural and remote parts of our country, which is why this Government has invested so heavily in maintaining and improving our trunk road and motorway network. We have delivered improvements right across the country to meet the needs of all the population—they include the Queensferry crossing, the Aberdeen western peripheral route and the M8, M73 and M74 motorway improvements—and we will continue to do so.

I will make one final point, which I know Douglas Ross will not want to face up to. What is hammering people—including motorists—across the country right now is the Tory-created cost of living crisis, which an out-of-touch Prime Minister and an out-of-touch Chancellor of the Exchequer have refused to do enough about. Perhaps we should focus on the immediate problems that are being faced by people and the solutions that need to come from Douglas Ross’s colleagues at Westminster.


Scottish Government Spending

I join others in wishing Her Majesty the Queen a very happy 96th birthday and in this, her platinum jubilee year, I thank her again for her service.

Before Easter, I highlighted the £2 million that the Government wasted on a turnaround manager at Ferguson Marine, who left the yard in a worse state than he found it. The First Minister supported paying him more than £3,000 a day while Scots faced a cost of living crisis. However, that is not the only waste of public money that the First Minister has supported. Can she tell members in the chamber how much money her Government has wasted since 2007 because of delays, loan write-offs or avoidable spending?

I do not have that figure to hand, but I am happy to look at that. I suspect that I would not agree entirely with the way that Anas Sarwar is characterising it, but I am more than happy to look at the detail of his question and write to him with the information in due course.

The answer is over £3 billion. That is the cost of Scottish National Party failure—the loss of public money due to SNP incompetence.

The list is endless: £152 million on a failed ferry contract at Ferguson’s; £146 million on fixing the Government’s mistakes at the Edinburgh sick kids hospital and the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Glasgow; £40 million—and rising—on the malicious prosecution of Rangers; almost £200 million on failed industrial interventions and loan write-offs; nearly £1 billion for agency workers in the health service because Nicola Sturgeon cut training places when she was Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing; and more than £1 billion on delayed discharge because of her failure to fix the social care crisis.

The total is £3 billion—that is the equivalent of a £1,200 bill for every household in Scotland. Every penny of that wasted money could have been more cash for the national health service, more cash for our schools or more cash to tackle the cost of living crisis. Rather than helping people with the cost of living crisis, why is this Government instead making them pay for the cost of SNP failure?

I said that I suspected that Anas Sarwar’s characterisation would be an utter mischaracterisation—it turns out that I was absolutely right on that.

Before I come on to the detail, some of which is ridiculous—I did not think that the Opposition would be exceeded in being ridiculous in their questioning today—

Which one is wrong?

I will come on to that in a second.

What Anas Sarwar failed to mention is that this Government has had 15 years of unqualified accounts. That is the reality in terms of our stewardship of the public finances—[Interruption.]

Obviously some members do not understand that point, but it is rather important.

I come on to the detail. I will take two of the examples that Anas Sarwar talked about. One was prosecution. Prosecution decisions are, of course, a matter for the independent Crown Office. Is Anas Sarwar seriously saying that I, as First Minister, or any minister of this Government, should have interfered in the independent prosecution decisions of the Crown Office? Perhaps he should clarify that.

The second example that I will use is one where he is downright wrong, and that is the £146 million of additional costs in relation to hospitals. I have looked at that figure closely because I have heard Labour use it before, and the majority of it relates to planned costs that were in no way new, unexpected or avoidable. For example, £80 million of it related to preparatory works that were separate to the main contract but were budgeted costs that were included in the business case. Another £33 million related to the annual service payment, which is also part of the original business case.

There is therefore a lot of nonsense in the question that Anas Sarwar has just asked. Perhaps he should reflect on that.

I asked about wasted money, but that was a waste of an answer from the First Minister right there.

For the first time ever in Scottish history, £40 million was spent on a malicious prosecution. Perhaps the Government should reflect on that. The bill for Edinburgh sick kids hospital, which failed to open—perhaps the Government should reflect on that. The failures at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth hospital—perhaps the Government should reflect on those.

Right around the country, we are seeing the cost of SNP failure. At the same time, energy bills are up, petrol prices are up, and the weekly shop is more expensive than ever. Right now in Scotland, mums are skipping meals so that they can feed their kids. People are knocking back items at food banks because they cannot afford to cook them. In the face of the biggest drop in living standards since the second world war, both our Governments are not doing enough. Instead of wasting billions of pounds in paying for SNP failures, we should be supporting families through the cost of living crisis.

The £111 million loan write-offs could have been used to top up the Scottish welfare fund. The £152 million that was misspent on mismanaging Ferguson’s could have been used to halve rail fares for three months, not three weeks, and to cap bus fares. The £1 billion spent on delayed discharges could have been used to give our care workers the pay rise that they deserve.

While families are being forced to account for every single penny of their spending, why does the First Minister think that it is acceptable for them to pay the £3.2 billion-and-rising cost of SNP failure?

There are some really serious issues in there and I hope that, if not during this meeting then after it, Anas Sarwar will clarify at least two of his points. First, there is a serious constitutional question. He has twice referred to the Rangers prosecution and the cost of settling that. If he thinks that that is something that I could have influenced, is he saying that ministers should have been involved in or should have influenced independent prosecution decisions, or intervened in any way in that case? If he is going to suggest, as he has, that that money was wasted by the SNP, he really must answer that fundamental question. Does he think that I should have interfered in the prosecution decisions of the Crown Office?

The second point goes back to the £146 million in relation to hospitals. Is Anas Sarwar saying that £80 million should not have been spent on essential preparation work? That is the logical conclusion of what he is saying.

The spin and soundbites might sound good when Anas Sarwar is rehearsing these questions, but he should pay a bit more attention to the detail.

First Minister, if I may interrupt. A lot of contributions are being made in the background at the moment. I would be grateful if they ceased and we could hear the First Minister.

The important part of the question is about the cost of living crisis. Anas Sarwar referred to rising petrol costs and energy costs. I remind Anas Sarwar that powers over energy and the cost of petrol are still reserved to Westminster. If he wants to change that, he should argue for those powers to come here.

On the wider cost of living, we have increased the benefits for which this Government is responsible. We have doubled the child payment. If we are to be able to do more, Anas Sarwar needs to support us in calling for greater welfare powers to come to the Parliament.


Cost of Living (Free Childcare)

As the cost of living soars and thousands of families across the country are already feeling the crush of grossly inflated energy bills, can the First Minister give an update on the number of families that are benefiting from free childcare? How much money is it saving them at such a critical time?

More than 111,000 children were accessing funded early learning and childcare in January of this year, and the families of 87 per cent of those children have taken up the full entitlement. Families who take up the full entitlement can save up to £4,900 each year for each child. Ours is the most generous early learning and childcare offer anywhere in the United Kingdom, and it will, of course, also deliver better social and educational outcomes for Scotland’s children.


Long Covid

It is estimated that 132,000 people in Scotland are suffering from long Covid, 59,000 of whom have experienced symptoms for more than a year. We face a ticking time bomb, and yet the Scottish National Party Government is merely sticking its head in the sand, having dropped the proposed debate on long Covid from this afternoon’s schedule, thereby preventing the Parliament from having an opportunity to discuss the issue. When will we have specialist long Covid clinics in Scotland?

We are currently implementing the commitments in the long Covid approach paper, which is all about improving care and support for people in Scotland with long Covid. Long Covid clinics are one model that health boards can consider, but we have always recognised—rightly, I believe—that no single approach will fit all areas and circumstances, so health boards must look at a range of approaches.

As far as the issue of a debate on long Covid is concerned, we have made it clear and given a commitment that we will have such a debate in the next few weeks. At that time, we will provide a full update on progress. The intention is that we will provide Parliament with a detailed update on the outcome of the planning process that is currently being undertaken with national health service boards to determine the first allocations of the long Covid support fund, which is what MSPs have called for.


Abortion Services

The anti-abortion lobby now sees Scotland as an easy target, with campaigners following the Texas playbook. Last September, I raised concerns with the First Minister and highlighted the urgent need for protest-free buffer zones at abortion services. Does she regret the fact that swift action has not been taken in that respect? Can she also tell us when telemedicine for early abortion will be made permanent, as Scotland now trails behind England and Wales on that important healthcare matter?

On behalf of the Scottish Government, but also as First Minister and personally, I say that we are committed to ensuring that all women are able to access timely abortions without judgment. I condemn in the strongest possible terms any attempts to intimidate women as they choose to access abortion services. Of course, people have a right to protest against abortion, but they should do so outside Parliament, where the laws are made, and not outside a hospital where women are undergoing abortions, in the course of which they often experience extreme distress.

The buffer zones working group has been meeting, and it is looking at ways of preventing any patients from feeling harassed or intimidated when they access healthcare. There are complex legal issues involved here—there is no way of avoiding saying that. We must make sure that the approach that we choose is consistent with the law. I know that the Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport is committed to seeing whether that work can be accelerated—I think that she might have said as much to Parliament earlier today. We will keep Parliament updated on that work.

I say again to those who take a different view on abortion from the one that I and many people in this chamber take: by all means protest—you have a democratic right to do that—but come and protest at Parliament. Do not intimidate women who seek access to abortion at hospitals.


Bank Branch Closures

The proposed closure of 19 Bank of Scotland branches will mark the loss of the last bank in town in Dunblane and many other communities. As a result, vulnerable people in Dunblane who do not have access to digital banking would need to make a 12-mile round trip to the nearest branch. Does the First Minister agree that the proposed move is clearly out of step with our ambition to build 20-minute neighbourhoods, regenerate our high streets and connect communities to lifeline services?

I share those concerns and those sentiments. We all understand that the way in which people access banking services has changed—in some respects, quite fundamentally—and that banks must respond to that and make sure that the services that they provide are reflective of that.

However, the physical presence of banks and other facilities can be very important in sustaining access and the life of local communities, so it is really important that banks try to find the right balance. I personally and the Government generally have communicated those views to the banking sector and will continue to do so.


Flood Prevention Schemes (Airth)

Communities such as Airth, in Falkirk district, are being left behind by the Scottish National Party Government’s cuts in funding for flood prevention. We need only ask the people of Airth. They are caught up in a game of piggy in the middle between the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Falkirk Council, which are engaged in the worst kind of buck passing. How can people in villages such as Airth have confidence that Nicola Sturgeon will deliver flood prevention schemes, given her woeful track record of cuts to local schemes?

We have provided significant and sustained funding for local flood prevention schemes. Decisions on individual schemes and the ranking of schemes are matters for local authorities. I am happy to come back to the member with any more detail that I am able to provide about the Airth scheme, but it is right that local authorities consult SEPA and local communities in taking forward those schemes and that the Scottish Government continues to provide funding, where appropriate.


Homelessness (Glasgow)

The Homeless Project Scotland in Glasgow has today said that it is seeing high numbers of families attending its soup kitchen. This morning, Shelter told the Social Justice and Social Security Committee that the equivalent of a whole classroom full of children will be homeless by the end of today and every day. What more will the Government do to support the project in Glasgow, including helping it find a building in which it can bring people together, instead of having to do that outside? Moreover, what will the Government do to pick up the pace of building new homes in Glasgow?

I am happy to engage with the Homeless Project to see whether there is more that we, as a Government, can do to help it find a building. The work that it does is extremely important. We all wish that it was not necessary, but I pay tribute to the project for its work.

Over and above that, the Scottish Government will continue to do all that it can to help people with the cost of living, which is heaping misery upon people who, in many cases, were already living in poverty. I have already referred to the increase in benefits, the doubling of the Scottish child payment and support for the welfare fund. All those policies will continue. Glasgow City Council, working with its partners, has a very good record in delivering affordable housing. We will see what happens in a couple of weeks, but I know that the current administration has plans to build on that progress.

It is incumbent on all of us with any influence and power to do everything that we can to help people suffering the cost of living crisis. However, for us to be able to do as much as we would want to would necessitate more power over those crucial issues lying in the hands of this Parliament and not in the hands of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak at Westminster.


Cabinet (Meetings)

On behalf of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I echo the good wishes that have been expressed to Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her 96th birthday.

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-00987)

Tuesday.

In January, the Scottish Government announced that it had sold the lion’s share of Scotland’s sea bed for £700 million. Huge wind farms will be built on it. What ministers did not tell Parliament that day was that the Scottish Government and the Crown Estate Scotland had explicitly stopped companies paying a vast amount more. There was a cap of £100,000 per square kilometre on bids despite the fact that, in England and Wales, where there was no cap, a similar sale achieved four times that amount in initial deposits alone.

We know that wind farm jobs are going overseas—it happened again last week in Moray. The First Minister cannot tell Parliament that this is about employment. Scotland’s sea bed can be sold only once, and the sale price matters because the cash flows straight into the Scottish Government’s budget for schools and hospitals.

The Scottish Government has sold those national assets on the cheap and has thrown away a fortune. When the auction south of the border netted four times as much, why was the First Minister still determined to limit how much companies in Scotland should pay?

First, the process used by the Crown Estate in making those decisions was fully transparent—rightly and properly so. Secondly, we must be careful in making comparisons between the Scottish auction round and similar rounds elsewhere. There are differences in the complexity of the projects in Scotland, which is partly to do with the depth of the water that the projects are taking place in.

Although Alex Cole-Hamilton’s points about the £700 million are correct, that is not the only income from those projects. There will be annual rental costs as well, and, if we do this correctly—which we are determined to do—there will be a very significant economic benefit.

I remind members of the vast potential of this. We went into the auction round with a planning assumption of 10GW of offshore wind power and we have come out of it with potentially 25GW of offshore wind power. It is a massive opportunity for Scotland that all of us should be extremely positive about.


Channel 4 (Impact of Privatisation)

To ask the First Minister what assurances the Scottish Government has had from the United Kingdom Government that the reported privatisation of Channel 4 will not negatively impact the development of the creative sector across Scotland and the growth of new Scottish talent. (S6F-01005)

The Scottish Government strongly opposes the privatisation of Channel 4. In its present form, Channel 4 makes a significant contribution to the creative sector in Scotland. It has invested over £200 million in Scotland-based productions since 2007 and, of course, it opened a creative hub in Glasgow in 2019. Since the UK Government’s announcement of its privatisation plans on Twitter, no further information has been forthcoming from the UK Government. As soon as it provides clarity, we will seek assurances about how it will ensure that there is no negative impact on the creative sector in Scotland.

Does the First Minister share my concern that Channel 4 is currently under threat from a Tory Government that appears to be doing all that it can to undermine the principles of public service broadcasting for its own narrow political interest?

Yes, I do. I think that that is absolutely what is happening. The proposals represent cultural vandalism, but they also represent an attempt by the UK Government to undermine public service broadcasting. I cannot see any reason whatsoever why Channel 4 should be privatised—especially at the very time when it has shown resilience in weathering the pandemic and has strengthened its content spend and investment in Scotland. The current model is a good and successful one that upholds the principles of public service broadcasting. We should all get behind that and seek to see off these misguided Conservative proposals.


Attainment Gap (Libraries)

To ask the First Minister whether she can provide an update on the Scottish Government’s strategy to include libraries in the policy to address the attainment gap. (S6F-00989)

Libraries deliver a range of benefits. They provide vital access to learning materials and resources, helping to improve literacy and tackle the attainment gap.

Although local libraries are the responsibility of local government, the Scottish Government is committed to supporting libraries directly. As part of our programme for government, we launched a £1.25 million public library Covid relief fund to support 30 projects across Scotland to remain open and tackle the attainment gap. That is over and above the money invested since 2017 through the school library improvement fund and the continued annual public library improvement fund, which supports new projects in libraries. As part of the £1 billion Scottish attainment challenge, the framework for recovery and accelerating progress encourages collaboration across local authority services, including education and local libraries.

The First Minister set great store by the national strategy for school libraries, which was launched in 2018. However, the Scottish Library and Information Council and the Scottish Parliament information centre have told me that the advisory group met on four occasions in 2018 but there are no records of any recent meetings and no updates on progress made—particularly regarding how effectively the school library fund is being spent. I am also told that a large number of primary schools remain without a library or—just as important—without a librarian.

The strategy was supposed to be a key component in schools addressing the attainment gap, but we know that the curriculum for excellence achievement levels in primary 1 to primary 7 literacy declined between 2018 and 2021. Why has there been no formal parliamentary update on the strategy, and why are primary school literacy levels going backwards, not forwards?

We are seeing improvements in attainment in Scotland’s schools, although all of us understand the impact of Covid over the past couple of years. That has made it all the more important that we focus on initiatives to improve attainment.

I will write to Liz Smith, or I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to do so, with more details on the work around school libraries. However, in my first answer, I talked about the investment that we are making through the school library improvement fund. That demonstrates the Government’s commitment to supporting libraries in schools and local community libraries as well.

It is absolutely right to highlight the importance of libraries in closing the huge attainment gap that we have in Scotland. What does the First Minister have to say to the young people of Kirkton in Dundee—an area of deep deprivation in which the level of attainment is among the lowest in Scotland—whose attainment funding the Scottish National Party Government is cutting by 79 per cent while the SNP-led council is closing the library?

The decisions that we have taken on attainment funding are in recognition of the fact that there is deprivation in all parts of the country. Those changes to the allocation of the attainment fund were fully supported by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, including the member’s colleagues on it.

As I said in my earlier answers, we support school libraries through the school library improvement fund, and we will continue to do so.


Private Rental Costs

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to bring down the cost to tenants of private rent in the coming year. (S6F-01011)

We are all aware of the significant pressures that are faced by private renters, which is why our commitment to introducing rent controls is so important. Of course, that means doing detailed work to ensure that we implement an effective system of rent controls that is right for Scotland, is robust against challenge and will stand the test of time. Our housing bill will begin that process and will strengthen existing rights by ensuring that anyone who believes that their rent increase is unfair can apply for adjudication without fear of their rent being put up.

We are also providing immediate financial support for people who might be struggling. That includes doubling the Scottish child payment from the start of this month, as I have already referenced, and investing up to £86 million this year in discretionary housing payments.

Although the Scottish Government’s commitment to introducing rent controls is welcome, rents are rising right now, so tenants cannot afford to wait for three or more years for action. Rightly, the First Minister has called for more action from the United Kingdom Government to help to tackle the cost of living crisis, but this Parliament has powers to address one of the biggest pressures that is faced by people in Scotland right now: rising rent costs. Already, some councils have taken the positive step of introducing rent freezes for social tenants. Will the First Minister commit today to exploring the implementation of an emergency rent freeze to support all renters in Scotland?

As a matter of good faith, I will undertake to explore any suggestion that is made in the chamber. We all want to do everything that we can to help. The member will understand that to legislate, particularly on a complex matter such as this, takes time. That was recognised by her colleague Mark Griffin in the debate before Christmas, when he said

“We certainly do not expect legislation to come into force in year 2 of this parliamentary session, but we would look for details of the framework for the rules”.—[Official Report, 21 December 2021; c 45.]

We will continue to look at how we can, if possible, accelerate progress on the bill, but in the meantime take further action. We have already strengthened tenants’ rights in recent years, and it is not the case that we are not providing help in the meantime. We have the £10 million tenant grant fund, which is focused on helping private and social tenants who are struggling financially; we are providing £86 million in housing support this year; and we provided £39 million of additional funding to avoid evictions as a result of the pandemic. We will continue to make support available but we will also continue to look closely at any suggestions for further action that might be made.

We return to general and constituency supplementary questions.


Asylum Seekers

I am proud of the record of Glasgow, and of Glasgow Kelvin in particular, of supporting asylum seekers. What is the First Minister’s reaction to the sending of asylum seekers who arrive in the United Kingdom to a detention facility in Rwanda for processing?

That decision is utterly abhorrent—morally and ethically. It is a total abdication of the UK’s moral and international responsibilities to asylum seekers and refugees, and will make it more challenging and prolonged for people to seek safety from war and persecution. In that decision, the UK Government is ignoring the welfare of extremely vulnerable people.

For all those reasons, that policy has, rightly, been condemned by many. Given that we have heard Theresa May—who as Home Secretary sent “go home” vans around Glasgow—describe that policy in the House of Commons as morally, ethically and practically wrong, all of us have to realise how far the UK Government is going from any moral course on this issue.


A75

A recent review by Sir Peter Hendy for the United Kingdom Government found that the A75 is the road most in need of an upgrade anywhere in the country. Will the First Minister admit that the failure to upgrade that dangerous road—often referred to as “the goat track”—represents a broken promise by the Scottish National Party to the people of the south-west of Scotland and the haulage and ferry companies that depend on the route to move goods to and from Northern Ireland?

No, I do not accept that. The second strategic transport projects review recommends, of course, that safety, resilience and reliability improvements are made on the A75 corridor to support access to Stranraer and to the port at Cairnryan. We will continue to take decisions that support that access, which all of us accept and agree is extremely important.


ScotRail Ticket Prices

Given the rising cost of living, does the First Minister welcome the announcement yesterday that the newly publicly owned ScotRail will be slashing off-peak ticket prices in half for the month of May?

Yes, I absolutely welcome the half-price fare offer that the newly publicly owned ScotRail announced yesterday. It was postponed due to omicron, but people are now able to book discounted tickets between 9 and 15 May for outward travel between 9 and 31 May, with return travel to be completed by 30 June. The ScotRail “kid for a quid” discount will be able to be used in conjunction with the offer, which means that up to four children can travel for £1 return each, with each adult.

We want people to return to travelling by rail, but we know that we need to make it affordable for it to be a truly attractive alternative to using the car. Public ownership of ScotRail means delivering a service that listens and responds to passenger needs. We will continue to develop further initiatives that make rail a better choice, as we work towards our ambitious net zero target.


South Lanarkshire College (Governance)

The Auditor General said today:

“Independent audit was unable to conclude that governance at South Lanarkshire College”

In East Kilbride

“was satisfactory over the last year.”

There have been serious issues at the college. Whistleblowers have made a number of allegations, with reported claims of fraud, theft and general malfeasance. The principal, Aileen McKechnie, ordered an audit report that the college is refusing to publish. She and the interim clerk to the board were then suspended; I suspect that she was ruffling feathers.

The college has now published an action plan that says that procedures should be changed in areas such as procurement, preventing bribery and carrying out supplier due diligence. A light needs to be shone on what has been happening at the college. Will the First Minister order an investigation and commit to making its findings public?

I have some sympathy with the sentiments of that question. I know that significant issues have been raised. Colleges, of course, are self-governing institutions, but the Scottish Funding Council has an important role and, if the Scottish Funding Council considers it appropriate for there to be further inquiry or investigation, of course it is able to carry that out.

I am happy to consider whether there is any further action or procedure that the Scottish Government can initiate and I will come back to the member in writing if I conclude that that is the case.


Parole Licence Conditions (Breaches)

The Parole Board has issued warning letters to 25 life-sentence prisoners who have been accused of breaching their licence conditions. Does the First Minister seriously think that murderers and rapists will care about a warning letter, or will she back our plans to recall lifers who breach parole and block their future early release?

It is right that we have a robust system of parole. If, on any occasion, it is concluded that that system needs reform, that should happen. As we have covered in exchanges in this Parliament before, it is right that people who commit heinous crimes are properly punished, not only for the sake of punishment but to keep the public safe. We have a justice system that supports rehabilitation as well, because that is in the wider public interest. We will continue to ensure that the parole system is fit for purpose.

That concludes First Minister’s question time.