Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 21, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 21 June 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Motor Neurone Disease Awareness Week, Provisional Outturn 2017-18, World Refugee Day, Business Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Literacy and Numeracy (Standards)

This week, the education secretary patted himself on the back and declared that more than 90 per cent of pupils in secondary schools are reaching the required standards in literacy and numeracy. Can the First Minister confirm that under the Scottish National Party’s new rules, a pupil is deemed to have met those required standards of attainment even if they fail English and maths?

The statistics that were published this week, of course, were around the Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 5 literacy standard and the similar standard for numeracy. They showed that more than 80 per cent of school leavers in 2016-17 had reached that level in literacy and that 68.8 per cent had reached the standard in numeracy. That is welcome progress, but we are determined to go further.

I should say that that is not the main indicator that the Scottish Government is using. As a result of the introduction of standardised assessment and the new way in which we are monitoring performance, instead of the previous Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy data, we will now have data on every pupil in the country, which will allow us to determine progress in reducing the attainment gap.

That was not an answer to the question that I asked. I asked whether Scottish pupils are deemed to have reached the required standards of literacy and numeracy even if they fail, and the simple answer to that question is yes.

It used to be the case that we could measure literacy and numeracy standards fairly, with accurate surveys, but when it turned out that rates were going down, the SNP cancelled the surveys. We now have a new system in place, and under that system, a pupil can fail their national 4 or their higher English and maths but still be counted as having achieved the right standards in literacy and numeracy. In other words, they are deemed to have passed even when they have failed.

The First Minister keeps saying that she wants to boost standards. How does cancelling surveys, rigging the stats and lowering the bar for literacy and numeracy help to achieve those higher standards?

I think that Ruth Davidson is—perhaps deliberately—mixing up different stages in education. The figures that were published this week were about attainment against level 5 of the SCQF, for literacy and for numeracy. What those figures show is that for literacy, performance increased from 70.1 per cent in 2013-14 to 80.8 per cent in 2016-17, and that for numeracy, it went from 59.5 per cent in 2013-14 to 68.8 per cent in 2016-17. Ruth Davidson talked about highers and level 4; those statistics are specifically about level 5, therefore we would not compare them to performance against highers or level 4. That is the first point.

Secondly—and this is an issue that has been discussed in this chamber on many occasions—SSLN was a sample survey. As I think that I have said in the chamber before, in some schools that survey could be based on the performance of just a dozen pupils. What we have done now is ensure that we have data on all pupils across our schools. That is based on teacher judgment, of course, but that teacher judgment is now assessed against and informed by pupils’ performance on the standardised assessments.

Therefore, we are actually deepening and making much more robust the measures by which we measure pupil performance. I think that that is progress. All the statistics that were published this week show that we are making progress, and I would have thought that members across the chamber would have welcomed that. Yes, there is more to be done, but progress is very much going in the right direction.

The First Minister disputes the changes, but let me read from her own document, which was published on 20 June:

“Standard Grade courses were not unit based so a pupil would have to pass the course in order to achieve literacy or numeracy at that level”

and now they do not. This is not a system that parents can trust. It has a complete lack of rigour and it does nothing to help Scotland’s children.

If we are talking about rigour, let us look at school inspections. Under this Government, the number of inspections has crashed to its lowest level since devolution. I have asked the First Minister about that repeatedly, and she said that it would all get better, but this week we have learned that some of Scotland’s schools are going 16 years without being inspected, and one fifth have not been seen for at least a decade, including one in the First Minister’s constituency and two in the education secretary’s patch. How can the First Minister defend schools going uninspected for more than a decade?

Ruth Davidson managed to confuse herself with the first part of that question. I was talking specifically about performance against level 5 literacy and numeracy, and those statistics were published this week. We should welcome the fact that performance is improving.

I know that Ruth Davidson will want to hear the answer about school inspections. Education Scotland has taken action to increase the overall number of school inspections to 250 schools a year in the academic year 2018-19. That amounts to an increase of more than 30 per cent on the number of inspections that have taken place in the current academic year.

As most members will be aware, Education Scotland gathers a range of views and comments on behaviours and performance as part of the pre-inspection questionnaires that are sent out. Education Scotland is in the process of recruiting additional inspectors to support the commitment to enhanced inspection activity.

I would have thought that all of those moves are things that Ruth Davidson and other members across the chamber would welcome. We are seeing progress in the right direction in education. We are seeing performance improving. We are seeing the attainment gap start to narrow. There is more work to be done but I hope that everybody across the chamber and parents across the entire country will welcome that progress.

I think that we have just seen the utter complacency that we have come to expect from this Government when it comes to education reform. This is a Government that deals with slipping standards by cancelling the tests that expose them. It vows to increase the number of inspections—it has done so again today—but it has dropped them to their lowest historical level. It cooks up a new measure of attainment in literacy and numeracy to con parents into believing that things are getting better. That will not restore Scottish education to global excellence; the Government will not do that by massaging the statistics and slapping itself on the back. When will this Government face up to the challenges in Scottish education and not duck them?

It is this Government that is facing up to those challenges. That is why we are seeing the improvements and the progress that I have outlined. Other statistics that were also published this week show record numbers of higher passes. More than 150,000 highers were passed, even though the cohort has been reduced for a couple of years in a row.

Ruth Davidson is just wrong in much of what she said. Nobody is cancelling tests. We have replaced a sample survey with comprehensive data on the performance of pupils right across the country. We have taken a survey that looks at a handful of pupils and replaced it with data on every pupil across Scotland. I would have thought that Ruth Davidson would have welcomed that.

The statistics that Ruth Davidson has sounded confused about measure against the standards of our curriculum. I have also said that we are increasing the number of inspections in our schools.

This is the Government that is investing £750 million to improve attainment. The pupil equity fund is going direct to headteachers, and the headteachers and teachers that I speak to across the country say that that has been transformational in improving standards. Ruth Davidson is saying that it is about standards: yes, it is about standards and that money is helping us to improve them.

We will continue to take action to improve performance in our schools. Even if Ruth Davidson and other members across the chamber do not want to welcome the progress that has been made, parents across the country will welcome it.

Bield Sheltered Housing and Care Homes

In January, I raised the serious concerns of relatives who had family members in Bield sheltered housing and care homes. On 18 January, the First Minister said that there would be no compromise on the continuity and quality of care and that the interests of residents would be protected. Will she provide us with an update?

As Richard Leonard knows, in October last year, Bield announced the closure of eight of its 12 care homes, which it said would happen in two phases. The remaining four homes are being transferred to new owners, and the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations process applies.

All the residents from the other homes have been re-accommodated since early May, which I understand was ahead of schedule. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport met the save our Bield campaigners on 6 February. I understand that Neil Findlay, Johann Lamont and Unison were present at the meeting.

As I have said before, I know how difficult a matter this is for any affected residents and their families, but it is important that, when such deeply regrettable things happen, the Government works with partners to ensure that residents can be re-accommodated quickly.

I am very happy to ask the health secretary to send further information to Richard Leonard, if there are particular issues on which he still wants more information.

One Bield resident who was forced to move was 87-year-old Christina Wilson. She led an active life and worked in Tesco until she was 74. At the age of 84, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and moved into what is termed a very sheltered flat, which was provided by Bield in Bonnybridge. Following Bield’s decision to walk away from the market, she was forced to move out and into the nearby Bankview care home.

Sadly, Christina Wilson passed away last week. Her granddaughter, Laura Owens, told me what Christina’s final weeks were like. She said:

“Within weeks of my gran moving, despite best efforts by the new care home staff, she had stopped eating, broke her shoulder, there was a significant deterioration in her dementia, she became unable to walk, became more confused and agitated, she forgot who people were ... she was tearful a lot of the time, and made claims of no longer wanting to live, fundamentally giving up on life.”

First Minister, what does that say about what is happening in our care system?

We have a good care system in this country and our job as the Government is to work with all partners and providers to ensure that it not only continues to be good, but improves in any way that it requires to.

Unfortunately, the Scottish Government was not in control of the decisions that Bield took. However, we worked with Bield to ensure that residents could be re-accommodated and that they have been re-accommodated. Where any former residents—such as Christina, whose case Richard Leonard has outlined today—have died, I convey my deep condolences to their loved ones. Richard Leonard cited Christina’s granddaughter. I am very happy to ask the health secretary to meet her granddaughter to discuss the concerns in greater depth.

None of us wants to see such situations happen, but organisations that are independent of Government will, on occasion, take decisions such as the one that we are talking about. Our responsibility is to work as hard as we can to ensure that the impact on individuals is minimised as much as possible. That is what we did in this case, and it is what we will continue to do, if there are future instances like this one.

Because the dignity with which we treat our older citizens is a measure of the society that we are, we need to get this right. That is why Labour introduced free personal care for the elderly.

For Christina Wilson, it was not necessarily that there was a compromise in the quality of the care that she received, but that there was a huge breach in the continuity of care that she received. That was all because her care home provider walked away from the market. As a result, this woman in her late 80s, who had dementia, was forced to move home.

I am not sure that any of us can really begin to feel the distress and trauma that has been caused, but we have a duty to understand it. Christina Wilson’s family demands a review of the human impact of what they describe as these “forced transitions”, and they are right.

Will the First Minister establish a review into what happened at Bield so that all the wider lessons can be learned?

We will continue to look very carefully at all those issues. As I said in my previous answer, I will ask the health secretary to look specifically at the circumstances of the very sad case that Richard Leonard has outlined. The offer to meet family members stands.

Richard Leonard talks about a decision that a provider took to walk away from the market, and he is right about that. That was not a decision of the Scottish Government, and it was not a decision that the Scottish Government was able to stop Bield taking. The Scottish Government’s responsibility was to work with all partners to ensure that residents were re-accommodated and that the disruption to individuals was minimised as much as possible. That is exactly what we did and what we will do if such regrettable circumstances arise in future.

We take very seriously our obligations for the continuity and quality of care of our older residents. Richard Leonard mentioned free personal care. This Government has protected free personal care each and every year that we have been in office, and we are now taking steps to extend free personal care to those under 65 in certain circumstances.

These are important issues, and they are often very difficult issues. However, we will continue to discharge our responsibilities with the dignity and respect that we owe our older residents very much at the top of our minds.

Private Rent Levels (Edinburgh)

In my constituency of Edinburgh Pentlands, private rented property is being offered at up to £800 for a two-bedroom flat and £1,900 for a three-bedroom house. What is the First Minister’s reaction to recent news that Edinburgh’s private rent levels, including in the Sighthill area of my constituency, have some of the highest percentage yields in Scotland? What is being done to assist tenants who are struggling to meet ever-increasing rent demands?

I am aware of a recent report by Totally Money on rental yields in Edinburgh. The new private residential tenancy that the Scottish Government introduced last year protects tenants against sudden or excessive rent increases. Under the new tenancy, private sector landlords can increase rents only once every 12 months and are required to give tenants three months’ notice of an increase. Tenants can also challenge any increase that they consider unfair by referring it for adjudication by a rent officer.

In addition, all local authorities can apply to ministers to cap rent increases under the tenancy by designating areas of particularly high rent increases as rent pressure zones. The Scottish Government has recently discussed with the City of Edinburgh Council the evidence that the council would need to provide to seek such a designation. I know that the Minister for Local Government and Housing would be happy to share that information with Gordon MacDonald in order that he can further assist his constituents.

Road Equivalent Tariff (Northern Isles)

On the eve of the Easter recess, I asked the First Minister when people in Orkney and Shetland could expect to see the benefits of road equivalent tariff on northern isles ferry routes. She was unable to answer the question, although, with remarkable foresight, she predicted that I would bring it back to Parliament if I was not satisfied with the answer.

As we approach the summer recess, with still no confirmation of a start date, can the First Minister assure my constituents that RET will be introduced on our lifeline routes, as promised, before the end of the first half of 2018?

The Minister for Transport and Islands is currently considering the issues that arise here—the legal state aid issues—and will make a further announcement in due course. I hope that that announcement is made sooner rather than later, but as Liam McArthur will be aware, the transport minister and the Government have to satisfy ourselves about a number of issues before we can outline the detail of that announcement. I know that Humza Yousaf will keep Liam McArthur updated on progress.

Stracathro Hospital

Last week, a story was published that claimed that Stracathro hospital in my constituency was set to be closed and then sold off by NHS Tayside. Understandably, that has caused a great deal of concern and distress, not just to the staff who work there but to the wider community, who are now in fear that that vital facility is to close. Since then, I have been inundated with correspondence about it.

The closure story was raised at a meeting with NHS Tayside last week, where it gave its assurances that that is simply not the case. Can the First Minister clarify the situation in relation to Stracathro hospital and offer her categorical assurances that the hospital will not close?

The hospital will not close and the claims that it is facing closure are simply not true. Anybody who is making such claims is doing the public a real disservice.

The chair of NHS Tayside recently met local representatives as a result of the false claims about the future of the hospital and gave MSPs and MPs an unequivocal assurance that Stracathro hospital is not closing. He has said explicitly that NHS Tayside sees the hospital as being key to the future delivery of local healthcare services and any suggestion to the contrary is wholly unfounded.

I take this opportunity to remind the chamber that it was this Government that brought Stracathro hospital back into the national health service after it had been privatised by a previous Administration.

Coul Links (International Obligations)

I wrote yesterday to the Minister for Local Government and Housing asking that he call in a Highland Council decision to grant approval for a development at Coul Links, which is a site of special scientific interest, a special protected area and a Ramsar site. Will the First Minister confirm that, in or out of the European Union, the Scottish Government will respect all international treaty obligations, including the Ramsar convention?

Yes. It is our intention to honour obligations that currently arise from EU membership, but we have been clear in our resolve not to see environmental protections or other protections downgraded as a result of Brexit. I hope that that makes the Scottish Government’s position extremely clear.

National Testing (Five-year-olds)

The First Minister said earlier that she was making progress in education, but how can we be making progress in education with national testing for five-year-olds? Is it progress when Children in Scotland says that that is a “detrimental ... waste of time”? Is it progress when teachers say that time is being “swallowed up” and that the testing is “actively harmful”? Is it progress when the teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland says that it is opposed to national testing for five-year-olds? Even her own special adviser, Sir Harry Burns, says that the Government should move away from “nationwide testing”. Why does the First Minister think that all those people are wrong and only she is right?

First, the assessments are not high-stakes assessments; there is no pass or fail associated with them. The results are there to help teachers plan for children’s progress and to inform teacher judgment about achievement against curriculum for excellence levels. Children’s and young people’s interests are very much at the heart of the assessments.

Primary 1 assessments are designed around the early level of curriculum for excellence and they are compatible with play-based learning approaches in primary 1. In best practice, the assessments are experienced by children as part of on-going learning and teaching activities in the classroom. They are appropriate to the age of the child, but, to go back to the question from Ruth Davidson that I answered earlier, they are important in making sure that we replace survey data on the performance of children with comprehensive data on the performance of children, which allows us to know the progress that we are making in closing the attainment gap.

If what was happening was in the children’s interests, the First Minister would stop the national tests right now. Older pupils are being brought in because P1s cannot operate the computer—because they are only five. Parents are concerned about the impact on their children—because they are only five. I listed earlier the concerns that teachers have—because the children are only five. However, the First Minister ignores all those concerns, because all she is interested in is her computer machine, with all her assessments and data to try to drive forward her claim that she is going to improve the education system. Why will she not listen to all the people who have expressed concerns? Why will she not change, and scrap the tests now?

What drives me is the determination to improve standards in our schools in the interests of young people and to close the unacceptable attainment gap in our schools. We need good data to assure not just ourselves but parents that we are doing exactly that.

Willie Rennie said that primary 1 pupils cannot use the computers. I do not know about him, but I have met many primary 1 pupils who are better at using computers than I am. I mentioned being in a school in Largs last week, where young primary school children showed me how to computer code. All the P1 assessment questions have been designed with Education Scotland and with other education professionals; they are aligned to the curriculum for excellence benchmarks for P1, which is the early level.

Willie Rennie might be interested to know, if he is not aware of this already, that we are conducting a user review of the first year of assessments and part of that is about listening to the experiences of teachers. We will publish the user review report in August, at the start of the new school year, and we will set out any changes and enhancements that we will make to the system for next year. We will very much listen to the views of teachers; we will also very much continue to take the action that we consider necessary to improve standards in our schools and to close the attainment gap.

There are some further open supplementary questions. The first one is from James Kelly.

Hate Crime

My constituent Sam Ross, who has Down’s syndrome, was spat at in her face by a stranger as she got on the train home from work in Glasgow. Sam has a job and she was getting the train at Queen Street station, just like thousands of other people. She should not have to face being spat at when all she is doing is travelling independently. Sam will be representing Scotland when the world Down syndrome congress comes to Glasgow next month; hundreds of people with Down’s syndrome will travel to the city from around the world for the event.

Will the First Minister join me in condemning that hate crime and will she set out what she will do to make Scotland a safe place for everyone?

First, Sam should not have had to face such treatment. It is despicable and unacceptable and all of us should be very clear that behaviour of that kind will never be acceptable in Scotland. I thank James Kelly for raising Sam’s experience in the chamber to allow me to say that unequivocally.

We look forward to welcoming the world Down syndrome congress to Glasgow next month. I have recorded a message and I think that the Deputy First Minister may be speaking at the congress. The congress will be an opportunity for us to celebrate the amazing contribution that individuals with Down’s syndrome make to our society. We should and we do value them and this is an opportunity to say that loudly and clearly.

The police take such behaviour very seriously and we must all make sure that, in our actions as well as in our rhetoric, we support a zero-tolerance approach to any abuse or discrimination. What I would say to Sam is that she should continue to work and go about her daily life and know that as she does so, as does anybody with Down’s syndrome, she has not just the full support but the admiration of everybody across this chamber.

Donald Trump (United Kingdom Visit)

Does the First Minister think that it is appropriate for the United Kingdom Government to roll out the red carpet for Donald Trump, given the shocking reports of families being split up and the heartbreaking scenes of children being detained and caged at the US border? Will she relay the serious concerns of the people of Scotland to the UK Government?

I do not think that it is appropriate at this time for the red carpet to be rolled out. Meetings are one thing, perhaps, but red carpet treatment is another. I do not think that there can be anybody—perhaps with the exception of Nigel Farage and his ilk—who has not been appalled. I do not think that there can be any decent person across the UK, across Europe or across the world—including the vast majority of people in America, for that matter—who has not been appalled by the images and the stories from America of young children being separated from their parents and incarcerated in what look, to all intents and purposes, like cages.

I am glad that the President appeared to make a U-turn on that position yesterday when he signed an executive order. However, I think that we all have to be careful not just to assume that the situation is okay now because it appears that, instead of children being detained without their parents, we will still see children being detained with their parents.

I will continue to raise my voice against such instances. Of course, it is not just in America this week that we have seen reasons to be concerned. In Italy, there is the conduct around the Roma community and there are reports today that Hungary has decided to criminalise lawyers and activists who help asylum seekers. That should make us all pause for thought. We should be standing up for the rights and values that all of us hold dear as human beings. The world has a collective responsibility to deal with those who are seeking refuge and asylum. It is important not only that we do that collectively, but that we do that with human dignity at the very forefront of our minds. That is my view and I hope that it is the view of everybody across this chamber.

Fox Hunting

In 2015, the Scottish Government asked Lord Bonomy to review the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, which he did in 2016. The Government consulted on his review in 2017, and the consultation closed in January this year. Five months on, the Scottish Government has yet to respond.

Just over a year ago, the First Minister told the chamber:

“I have always been an opponent of fox hunting and I remain so.”—[Official Report, 18 May 2017; c 19.]

Is that still the case? If so, will the First Minister commit to legislation to introduce a real ban on fox hunting in Scotland?

I oppose fox hunting, and that remains my position. As Alison Johnstone rightly says, Lord Bonomy looked at it in detail for us. It is important to say that he did not find evidence of widespread flouting of the law, but he had comments to make on the need for more clarity in it and for better enforcement and monitoring to deal with illegal practices.

In due course, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform will make a further announcement on the issue, which will set out any further steps that the Scottish Government intends to take.

National Health Service (Barnett Consequentials)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government has received details of the financial implications for Scotland of the United Kingdom Government’s investment in the national health service. (S5F-02503)

The information that we have managed to extract from the UK Government on the potential funding and its sources has been incomplete at best. On Tuesday, two days after its announcement, the UK Government provided a nominal profile of Barnett consequentials but, so far, has refused to confirm that there will be a net benefit to Scotland. In fact, a paper placed by the UK Government in the House of Commons library states:

“The final Barnett consequentials for all three devolved administrations will be confirmed at upcoming Fiscal Events and at the next Spending Review”.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution has requested details from the UK Government as a matter of urgency, to ensure that Scotland is not short changed.

Has the First Minister had any guarantees at all from the Treasury that the £2 billion increase that is associated with the UK Government’s announcement will be a net increase in funding for Scotland’s budget, or could the money result in there being cuts elsewhere?

I will make a couple of quick points. First, I welcome the fact that the UK Government is now talking about using tax rises to fund the NHS. It is just a pity that, when the Scottish Government increased taxes for those who can afford to pay to fund increases for our health service, the Scottish Conservatives opposed that tooth and nail and submitted tax proposals that would have taken £550 million out of the Scottish budget, which is equivalent to 12,000 nurses.

Secondly, we do not yet know that any consequentials will represent a net increase. We have some experience on that. For example, last year, when there was the promise of consequentials of £33 million from winter funding, we ended up receiving just £8.4 million of that because of the way in which the commitment was funded. Until we know from the UK Government how it intends to fund the commitment, we will not know how much there will be for the Scottish Government in consequentials. We know that none of the money will come from a Brexit dividend, because there is no such thing. However, until we know where it will come from and know that it will not involve cuts in other devolved areas, we will not know the final amount. Therefore the sooner we get that information, the better—and we will continue to press the UK Government for it.

The First Minister is known for never wanting to seek grievance and division between England and Scotland. However, a key aspect of what she has not mentioned today is the fact that, under the Conservatives in England, health spending has grown at a rate of twice that in Scotland. Does the First Minister not accept that, since 2010, her Government has received £2.46 billion in additional Barnett consequential funding for our health service? As we celebrate the NHS turning 70, can she not find it in her heart to welcome that additional funding?

When we know what the additional funding is, and if it amounts to the kind of sums that have been talked about, of course we will welcome it, but we do not know that right now. I repeat that we were previously promised £33 million but, when we saw the detail of that, it turned into £8.4 million, so forgive me, but I will wait to see the colour of the money first.

On comparisons between Scotland and England, I am not sure whether Miles Briggs is aware of this, but health spending in Scotland is £163 per person higher than it is in England—that is 8 per cent higher per head. Miles Briggs wants us to match the English levels of health spending. If we were to match levels of health spending per head in England, we would have to take £880 million out of the NHS budget. That would be the price of matching spending in England. If Miles Briggs does not mind, we will continue to fund the health service fairly in Scotland and we will continue to do so by being honest with people about the need for modest tax rises instead of pretending, as the Tories do, that there is some mythical unicorn of a Brexit dividend.

That went well, Miles.

Antidepressants (Accidental Drug Deaths)

Let us hope that this goes better, then.

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the recent report by ISD Scotland, which suggests that antidepressants are detected in nearly half of post-mortems involving accidental drug deaths. (S5F-02497)

The recent report was extremely helpful in allowing us to deepen our understanding of the issue. It is important that our actions are informed not only by which drugs are detected in those who die from drug misuse but by cases in which a drug is assessed as being implicated in the death. This week, ISD analysis showed that antidepressants were implicated in combination with other substances in 10 per cent of accidental drug-related deaths but that they were implicated in combination with other substances in 43 per cent of intentional drug-related deaths. That analysis of already-published data reinforces the point that large numbers of those who are most at risk often suffer from poor mental health. We are already working to develop better dual-diagnosis service arrangements for those suffering from substance misuse and mental health problems, because we know that the use of antidepressants alongside the use of opioids can bring additional risks.

The right context to consider the difficult and nuanced question of how prescription drugs and illegal drugs are linked is the Scottish Government’s overall strategic approach to drugs. However, it is now almost a year since the Scottish Government promised a refresh of its drug strategy and I cannot find any sign of when it is coming. Can the First Minister give us a guarantee that the refreshed strategy will be published before we come back from summer recess?

The forthcoming substance use strategy will be published shortly. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to write to the member when the date for that is known. The strategy will look at how services can adapt to find people most in need and then deliver services that address their specific circumstances. We have been clear that behaviours and culture around substance misuse have changed and that we think that services are not currently meeting the wide range of very complex health and social care needs of those who are most at risk. That is why it is right to take time to develop the strategy. I hope that, when it is published, the member will engage with it and, I hope, will be able to welcome it.

Universal Credit (Roll-out Report)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the National Audit Office report “Rolling out Universal Credit”. (S5F-02483)

The National Audit Office report provides further evidence that the United Kingdom Government’s shambolic universal credit is failing people and causing debt, rent arrears and hardship across Scotland and the UK as a whole. The report states that there is no evidence that universal credit will provide value for money to the taxpayer or achieve its targets in relation to getting people back into work. Of particular concern is the finding that the Department for Work and Pensions is showing

“a lack of regard in failing to understand the hardship faced by some claimants”.

In my view, that is damning, and it is even further evidence to support what the Scottish Government, alongside many others, has long and repeatedly called for: a halt to the roll-out of universal credit so that fundamental flaws with the system can be fixed. The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities has written yet again to Esther McVey, urging the UK Government to do just that.

We agree that universal credit must be halted and must be fixed. In my region, 9,500 families with children are suffering the misery and destitution from universal credit that the Tories are wilfully forcing on communities. The Scottish Government has announced plans for an income supplement through the social security system. We proposed a child benefit top-up because it would future proof against means testing, conditionality, sanctions and the destitution of universal credit. The First Minister cannot deliver dignity and respect using universal credit. Will she today rule out using universal credit for her planned income supplement?

We are considering all options for the income supplement. We want to introduce that in the way that is best for those who will be in receipt of it. Angela Constance set out our current thinking around that when the child poverty strategy was published, and we will continue to inform Parliament as our thinking on that develops. We see that as a very important part of our efforts to reduce child poverty, in particular.

Of course, we are also taking other action to mitigate the impact of some of the welfare cuts that we are seeing coming from Westminster. From its introduction next summer, the best start grant will give additional financial help to new parents in low-income families when a child is born. We will continue to take action across a range of areas to make sure that we are helping those who most need our help.

I hope that all of us, certainly in Mark Griffin’s party and in the Government, will join together to call for a halt to universal credit because, even with us using our devolved powers, 85 per cent of the welfare budget and powers still lie with Westminster. I hope that, one day soon, we will see all the powers lying with this Parliament, but until that day comes, I think that it is incumbent on all of us to call on the UK Government to stop policies that we know are doing so much harm to so many people across the country.

The Social Security Committee regularly hears evidence of the devastation that the roll-out of universal credit causes, pushing people into debt and rent arrears. Considering the strikingly different approach that Scotland is taking to social security from that of the UK Government, does the First Minister believe, like me, that the only way to ensure fairness, respect and dignity is for all social security powers to be devolved to this Parliament?

Yes. I believe that the sooner that happens, the better, and I hope that we can get Labour’s support for that now in a way that we did not have previously. We have the opportunity to show—and we are already showing—that, where we have powers, we can do things differently and better, and do things in a way that makes sure that fairness, respect and dignity are very much at the heart of all our policies. The more we demonstrate that through the use of our limited powers over social security, the more the argument for having total devolution of social security becomes simply overwhelming. I hope that we will see that happen very soon.

The Great Get Together

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to support the Jo Cox Foundation initiative, the great get together. (S5F-02481)

I am delighted to say that the Government is supporting this year’s great get together, which of course follows the success of last year’s events. I was able to offer my support and encouragement to Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbetter, when I met her in May. This year’s events will take place this weekend, which would of course have been Jo’s birthday, and I am pleased to see that a number of events will take place the length and breadth of Scotland.

I thank the First Minister for her response and for her continued support for the Jo Cox Foundation. When Kim Leadbetter, Jo’s sister, was in Parliament recently, she said that Jo would want to be remembered for how she lived and not for how she died. Jo’s legacy has taught us that being kind and compassionate does not make politicians or communities weak; it is what made her strong.

This weekend, in tribute to Jo on what would have been her birthday, people right across the United Kingdom will come together to celebrate our diverse communities and to demonstrate that, just as Jo once said,

“we are far more united and have far more in common ... than things that divide us.”

Will the First Minister join me in encouraging people to take part in the great get together events that are happening across Scotland, where they will be warmly welcomed, including at the coffee morning that I am hosting in Hamilton on Saturday? Does she agree that our communities will be strengthened if we all endeavour to love like Jo?

Yes. I agree with that. I encourage people to take part in events in their communities over the weekend. I think that they help to bring people together. For all our divides and disagreements, which are natural and necessary in any vibrant democracy, I would like to think that we all work hard—although we might not always succeed—to ensure that kindness and compassion are the hallmarks of how we approach politics.

I did not know Jo Cox personally—I wish that I had had that opportunity—but everything that I have read and heard about her says that she was a passionate, vibrant, energetic individual who put those principles and values into practice. Those values were very evident in her sister when I met her a few weeks ago. Many issues, perhaps more so now than has been the case in recent times in our politics, cause deep disagreement. We have talked about some of them today and I have no doubt that we will continue to do so. However, at the end of the day, it is useful always to remind ourselves—and Jo’s memory helps us to do it—that there is always more that unites us as human beings than will ever divide us as politicians. This weekend is a good opportunity to remember that and I encourage everybody to take part in those events very much in that spirit.

12:46 Meeting suspended.  

12:50 On resuming—