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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 22, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 22 June 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Island Games (Support for Athletes), Provisional Outturn 2016-17, Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time, Point of Order


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Engagements

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-01410)

Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

Can the First Minister confirm whether the Scottish Government has in recent weeks made contact with the European Commission over delays to this year’s farm payments?

There are regular discussions with the European Commission about matters relating to the common agricultural policy and agricultural policy in general. The Government is extremely focused, led by Fergus Ewing, on ensuring that payments are made and that there is, in the meantime, a loan scheme available for farmers to ensure that we are taking care of their cash-flow issues.

That was not quite an answer to the question that I asked, so let me be a little bit more specific in the question that I put to the First Minister. As the First Minister knows, the deadline for processing the next batch of payments is just eight days from now. As she also knows, if the Scottish Government does not meet that deadline, it potentially faces paying millions of pounds in fines on top of those that have already been incurred, and farmers and crofters face yet more delays. Her ministers simply dodged the question yesterday, and they dodged it last week as well, so let me ask her this: Is the Scottish Government going to meet that deadline? If not, does the First Minister intend to ask the European Commission for an extension?

We will continue to operate on the same basis as we did last year. We will endeavour to make payments on time, and we will continue to discuss with the European Commission any contingency arrangements that we consider are required. Good progress is being made on making payments—both in the 2015 round and now in the 2016 round. We have ensured again this year, as we did last year, that we have loan arrangements in place so that the cash-flow concerns of farmers are catered for.

That has all been explored by Audit Scotland in its most recent report, as well as in its previous report. The issue of penalties was covered in both those reports and was referred to by Fergus Ewing in the chamber last week, I think. The Audit Scotland report last year made some statements about the risk of penalties. Those penalties did not materialise to the extent that Audit Scotland had warned they would last year. This year, the risk continues to be speculative.

We will continue to work hard to deliver the system. Of course, the big risk to the common agricultural policy is Brexit, which is being presided over by the Tories.

Now we know why Fergus Ewing dodged the question yesterday, and now we know why the First Minister is waffling about it today. She is refusing to answer a question about whether her Government has already made representations to the European Commission and whether she is going to ask for an extension, and she is not answering a question about whether an extension will be needed.

Scotland’s rural communities and Parliament deserve, having asked a number of times, to hear the answer. The question is really simple—it is a yes or no question. Let us take the First Minister through it again, step by step. There are eight days to go. Is the Scottish Government preparing to ask the European Commission to extend the deadline on farm payments because, once again, it has failed to get its act in order to deliver them on time? That needs a yes or no answer, so can I have a yes or no for Scotland’s farmers?

What we are doing in terms of meeting the 30 June regulatory deadline is working hard to process the remaining payments. We have been dealing with a small number of known defects that have been holding up some claims, and those are now being progressed. That is the position of the Scottish Government. We are working to meet the deadline and will continue to do so each and every day until that deadline.

With that inability to answer the question, everyone in the chamber can assume that the answer is yes, everyone in the press gallery can assume that the answer is yes and everyone who runs a farm in Scotland can assume that the answer is yes.

Here are the facts: £178 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on an information technology system that still does not work, farmers are still waiting on payments from last year and the average income in 2016 is down to £12,600—it has been cut in half from the figure for the previous year. There has been a massive knock-on effect for the wider rural community, and this year, with just over one week to go until the deadline, 6,000 applications have still to be processed, which is a third of the total for Scotland.

At the start of the year, Nicola Sturgeon spoke directly to farmers at the NFU Scotland conference, at which she said:

“We understand the difficulties that late payments caused to you last year. We apologise for those difficulties. We are determined not to repeat them.”

That is another promise broken. Why should rural Scotland ever trust the First Minister again?

That is exactly what we are doing. For the 2015 CAP pillar 1 payments, £342 million of payments were completed by the deadline. We continue to work to deliver this year’s 2016 payments—13,100 farmers have received 2016 payments worth £268 million. We continue to deliver the scheme and we continue to seek to deliver it by the deadline.

I gave directly to farmers the commitment that we would put in place loan schemes so that farmers got the cash that they depend on, and we have done that.

We will continue to deliver the scheme, and to work hard to rectify any problems in the IT system. We will also continue to argue for the protection of CAP payments in the long term. I say again that the long-term risk to the payments is the reckless Brexit that is being carried out by the Tories, which threatens to take away all support from our farmers in the longer term.


Engagements

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-01408)

Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

This week, the Scottish National Party unveiled plans to cut taxes for wealthy air travellers and voted to cut off puppy dogs’ tails. Now Audit Scotland has revealed the scale of the cuts to our colleges, with full-time student numbers at the lowest level since 2007.

There are almost 160,000 fewer students in Scotland’s colleges today than there were when the SNP first came to power. This SNP Government has cut courses, slashed student support and botched a pay deal for staff. Will the First Minister tell us why any college student or lecturer should believe that education is her top priority?

I am glad that Kezia Dugdale raised the Audit Scotland report on Scotland’s colleges, which I welcome. She has given me the opportunity to tell the chamber what the report’s headline findings are. Not surprisingly, Kezia Dugdale will not want to share them with the chamber or the Scottish public.

The report finds that colleges have exceeded the national target for learning in every year since it was set. The overall percentage of full-time equivalent students successfully completing their course increased on the previous year’s percentage. Most students continue to be satisfied with their college experience. More than 80 per cent of students who achieve a qualification go on to further study, training or employment. We have maintained the full-time equivalent number of students above our target. We have seen funding for colleges increase over the two-year period. Staffing numbers in colleges have gone up by 6 per cent in the past two years.

In other words, our college sector is delivering well despite the efforts of Kezia Dugdale to talk it down in the same way as she talks down everything else in Scotland. [Interruption.]

Order. It is a week away from recess. The election is over. Will members please conduct themselves responsibly?

If the First Minister thinks that the report is good, that shows just how out of touch with reality she is.

Colleges matter, because they are the engine of our economy. For many people, they are a second chance at education or the first chance that they never had.

Even if a young person makes it to college under the SNP, far too many do not complete their course. We can reveal today that the number of students dropping out of further education has more than doubled since 2011. It is now the equivalent of 12 people dropping out every day. How many of them does the First Minister take responsibility for?

I am not sure whether Kezia Dugdale has read the Audit Scotland report. I am prepared to pass it over so that she can have a proper look at it. One of the key findings—one of the earliest findings—is that the percentage of full-time equivalent students successfully completing their course has actually increased in the past year, according to Audit Scotland.

Colleges are exceeding the national target for learning, more full-time equivalent students are successfully completing their courses, the vast majority of students say that they are satisfied with their college experience and more than 80 per cent leave college with a qualification and go into further study, training or employment. In this country, we have one of the lowest rates of youth unemployment anywhere in Europe. That is the reality. We are seeing Government funding for colleges increase and the numbers of staff working in our colleges going up—that is confirmed by the Audit Scotland report.

The Audit Scotland report makes a number of recommendations and work is already under way on each and every one of them. I know the pressures that people in our public services work under. That is why I am glad that earlier this week agreement was reached between the unions and college employers to get the first instalment of the pay rise paid to college lecturers who work so hard. Despite those pressures, our college lecturers and students are performing well. It might be welcome to hear Kezia Dugdale, for once in her life, acknowledge the performance of our colleges across the country.

I ask members behind the leaders to stop having conversations while the First Minister is answering questions.

There we have it, Presiding Officer. Nicola Sturgeon’s idea of success is 160,000 fewer people going to our colleges and 12 people dropping out every single day.

A “sacred responsibility”—that is how this First Minister described her responsibility to every young person in the country. Well, they are being held back by our First Minister. It is harder to get into college under the Scottish National Party and even harder to stay there. It is getting harder to believe a word that comes out of her mouth. “Sacred responsibility” and “top priority”: those are meaningless words from a First Minister whom nobody believes any more. Is it not the case that under the SNP our colleges are simply expendable?

The problem for Kezia Dugdale’s floundering series of questions is that that is not what the Audit Scotland report says in any way whatsoever. This might be uncomfortable for Kezia Dugdale—in fact, I am pretty sure that it is—but we made manifesto commitments to maintain the numbers of full-time equivalent students in our colleges and we have done that. It is confirmed by official statistics that there have been more than 116,000 in every year since we set that target.

I heard that numeracy was down.

We also see that when unincorporated college places are taken into account the headcount numbers are increasing as well. We made that commitment on full-time equivalent places because we wanted to see more people going to college and getting a recognised qualification so that their chances of getting employment would increase. Today, 97 per cent of learning hours are delivered on courses that lead to a recognised qualification. That is a good thing, but we still provide courses for people who want part-time opportunities. The majority of total enrolments at college are still on part-time courses providing those opportunities for people who need them.

Are they up or down?

The fact of the matter, which is borne out in our employment and positive destination figures—and I say to Kezia Dugdale that the proof of the pudding is in the eating—is that we have more people going on to further study, into training or into employment and we have what is, I think, the third-lowest youth unemployment rate in the whole European Union. That is good news—for once in her life, could Kezia Dugdale not bring herself to admit it?

I ask Mr Johnson and Mr Kelly please to keep the noise down.

I have read the report and I suspect that the First Minister has not. I will put a question to her so that she can prove it one way or another. Does the Audit Scotland report confirm that the number of full-time equivalent students is falling this year for the first time?

Those are the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council statistics. We do not agree with the methodology. The Audit Scotland report says—it is even in big print—on page 8:

“colleges have exceeded the national target for learning”.

Full-time equivalent places are being maintained. The Audit Scotland report acknowledges that, when we take account of all colleges across the country, headcount numbers of places are going up. The fact of the matter is that, on whatever measure we look at our college sector, it may be performing under pressure, but it is performing exceptionally well. No matter how much Kezia Dugdale grasps around trying to find bad news to hammer the SNP, she will not succeed in talking down our colleges or talking down Scotland.

There is just one constituency supplementary today, from Liam Kerr.

Tayside NHS Board announced six months ago that it was temporarily shutting the Mulberry unit at Stracathro hospital, which is a vital and much-respected mental health unit. This week, the board has announced that the unit is almost certain to be permanently closed. That looks like an attempt to shut services on the sly, and it treats the patients of Tayside with contempt. When did the health board really decide to shut the unit permanently, and when did the First Minister’s officials become aware of that?

This is about ensuring that services are safe and sustainable, which is the first duty of any health board anywhere in the country. What would be letting patients down would be to have services that are not safe for them. Tayside NHS Board has consulted on the issue and, as I understand it, is currently looking at proposals and will bring forward its conclusions in due course. I would be more than happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to discuss the matter with the member if there is any further information that he wants at this stage, but it is a matter for Tayside NHS Board to reach conclusions on.


Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-01409)

Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.

The police officers who serve us in Scotland are under huge pressure, but four years after our police services were centralised there is still turmoil, with the chief inspector of constabulary identifying “fundamental weakness” and “dysfunction” in his latest report. The chairman of the Scottish Police Authority has resigned. That is three resignations in just four years. Can the First Minister guarantee that the turmoil will now end? Can she tell me whether anyone else is to go?

First, I welcome the report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland, which was published yesterday. It was the Cabinet Secretary for Justice who asked Her Majesty’s chief inspector to bring forward that aspect of his review of the SPA on an accelerated timescale. It is important to recognise what is noted at paragraph 4 of the report, which states:

“There have been positive signs of improvement in SPA Board operations over the last 18 months. The relationships between the SPA and Police Scotland have improved significantly and the shared development of the Policing 2026 Strategy has been a major milestone.”

He points to

“Other developments including improved financial reporting, investment in change management, governance of police call handling and the implementation of Board and committee workplans”

and cites those as

“evidence of good progress. There is also a strong commitment from ... all members to support policing and drive improvement.”

It is true to say that the report also makes comment on practices that Her Majesty’s inspectorate found unsatisfactory—issues that have been discussed in committees of this Parliament and in this chamber, such as holding committee meetings in private and not publishing board papers timeously.

The recommendations in the report are already being acted on, and action will be taken to recruit a new chair of the Scottish Police Authority as quickly as possible.

It is interesting that the First Minister could not tell me whether the turmoil was about to end and whether anyone else is due to go. I would appreciate a response to that in her next response. The chief inspector chose his words carefully. He said that there was “fundamental weakness” and “dysfunction”.

It is the First Minister’s legislation, her board and her chairman, so she cannot wash her hands of them now. Call centres, the M9 crash, stop and search, backfilling of civilian jobs, information technology programme collapse and failed audit after failed audit on finance are among the problems that have arisen in just four years. Our police officers and staff deserve better. They cannot go on year after year facing those barriers to their good work. In those circumstances, is it really wise of her to merge the British Transport Police into that organisation, as she proposes to do next week?

Anybody who was listening to my first answer would not have heard me trying to wash my hands of anything. On the contrary, the report that we are talking about was requested by the Scottish Government. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice specifically asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate to bring forward that aspect of the review more quickly than others. There is a recognition that some aspects have been found to be unsatisfactory, so action has already been taken on, for example, the transparency of board meetings and board papers. Action on those recommendations is under way. The Scottish Police Authority has been asked to put forward an action plan covering all the recommendations, which it will do, and there will also be follow-up work by Her Majesty’s inspectors.

Of course I cannot stand here in Parliament and say that nobody else will ever leave the employment of the Scottish Police Authority. Our focus right now is on making sure that the Police Authority functions in the way that people want it to function. In the chief inspector’s report, he specifically welcomes the action that the cabinet secretary announced last week to review how the executive of the SPA supports the board. It is also really important to recognise what I read out in my first answer, which was the recognition of the improvements that have been made.

Finally, the British Transport Police plays a hugely valuable role in keeping our railways safe, and we will ensure that railway policing is always strong and accountable to the people of Scotland. The reason for integration is to improve the way that our policing operates in a coherent and joined-up fashion. Some of what I have witnessed in recent times with regard to the police response to awful terrorist attacks has shown that that kind of co-ordination is to the benefit of not just the police, but the public around Scotland, too.

What is the First Minister’s response to the Queen’s speech and, in particular, to the confirmation that the United Kingdom Government plans a power grab of new powers following Brexit?

There is not much in the Queen’s speech to respond to. The Queen’s speech that was published yesterday was humiliatingly vacuous. The Tories at Westminster have clearly given up entirely on the day job—that is beyond any doubt. All that was in the Queen’s speech were damaging plans to rip the UK out of not just the European Union, but the single market. That is what the Tory Government now amounts to: perpetrating economic destruction on everybody around the UK.

Clare Adamson asked about a power grab. I remain extremely concerned about what appear to be plans to centralise power in the hands of Whitehall as powers come back from Brussels. I am also concerned that, despite the hints that we received yesterday, there is still no clear and emphatic acceptance on the part of the UK Government that the repeal bill will require the legislative consent of this Parliament. It is unthinkable that anything else will be the case, so perhaps the Tories could confirm that and stop prevaricating.

In relation to the Westminster Government’s programme—this is a serious point that the Tories would do well not to laugh at, as they usually do when such things are raised—in the High Court in England this morning, the Tory benefit cap was declared illegal and discriminatory against single parents and children. The judge in that case said that

“real misery is being caused to no good purpose”

by the benefit cap. That is a damning indictment of a callous and uncaring Tory Government. No doubt that is why it is in the state that it is in.

Last week, the Scottish Government published its education governance proposals. In its own documents, it acknowledges the widespread support for the current governance arrangements and the strong opposition to the proposals, so why is the Scottish Government proposing changes that only the Conservative Party seems to support?

We are proposing changes that we believe are in the interests of parents, teachers and pupils across our country. At the heart of the governance review that the Deputy First Minister announced in the chamber last week is a simple proposition: we want to get more powers and more resources into the hands of schools and headteachers. There is evidence that when that happens and we improve the quality of learning in the classroom, standards improve.

We will continue to press on with our reform programme through governance reforms, the national improvement framework, the attainment challenge, the attainment fund and the pupil equity fund, which gets more resources into the hands of headteachers. I call on everybody across the chamber to continue to engage in this debate and get behind these plans, because they are in the interests of pupils.

The uncertainty around Brexit is already impacting significantly on the United Kingdom soft fruit sector, with reports emerging of European Union worker shortages. This morning, Angus Growers from my constituency was on national radio to highlight once again its concerns about where this is headed. Will the First Minister outline what can be and what is being done here in Scotland to help support this important industry?

I thank Graeme Dey for his question, and I know that this is a significant concern in his constituency. We will continue to do everything that we can to support the soft fruit grower sector and make sure that the concerns that it has and which are particular to Brexit are communicated very forcibly to the UK Government.

Obviously this is a particular concern to that sector of our economy. However, this week alone, I have had two separate round-table discussions with business interests—I had another last week—and I am struck by how often the concern about access to skills is now being raised by businesses across our country. Many businesses face skills challenges that we are working to support them with, but there is a growing concern that Brexit and the reckless approach to it that is now being taken by this chaotic Tory Government at Westminster are going to make their jobs even harder and put a lot of businesses at risk. That is another reason why common sense must prevail and why we must all unite—as I hope we can as a Parliament—to demand that we keep our place in the single market and continue to ensure that our businesses can access the skills that they so badly need.

The terror threat level is at severe; transport hubs are a target; the Scottish Police Authority is in disarray; and next week, the Government wants to pass a bill merging the British Transport Police with Police Scotland. Train companies oppose the move, and rail unions have even threatened strike action over a merger that workers do not want and passengers do not need. This week, the British Transport Police Federation called for the bill to be suspended and questioned

“whether it is right that this integration continues while transport hubs and the country’s infrastructure is at such a risk from terrorism.”

The federation suggests that it is not. Our British Transport Police officers do a fantastic job in protecting the public. Will the First Minister listen to our police officers and drop this bill, or will she press on regardless and ignore these serious warnings from our police officers?

These are serious issues. We have listened very closely to the issues that have been raised by the rail industry, the police and the unions, and we have given guarantees to the unions in particular on jobs, pay and pension conditions.

However, this integration is about providing a single command structure for policing in Scotland to ensure access to wider support facilities and specialist resources, including Police Scotland counterterrorism capabilities. When the armed police response has been increased in response to recent events at, for example, at transport hubs, that response has been provided not by the British Transport Police but by Police Scotland. This is not about undermining the British Transport Police’s functions—it provides an excellent response—but about making sure that there is a unified command structure, that there is more access to specialist resources and that our police service works in a joined-up, co-ordinated way. We will continue to talk to all those who have a concern about this and seek to reassure them, but I think that what we have seen in recent weeks actually highlights the reasons for integration instead of taking away from them.


Scotland Office (Discussions)

To ask the First Minister what recent discussions have been held between the Scottish Government and the Scotland Office regarding opportunities for future intergovernmental co-operation and the new United Kingdom ministerial appointments. (S5F-01429)

There is regular contact between the Scottish Government and the UK Government, including the Scotland Office, to ensure that day-to-day business continues after the election. We stand ready to engage actively with the UK Government in order to protect our interests in Europe, and we will continue to insist that the devolved Administrations are fully involved in the development of the UK’s negotiating position.

Does the First Minister agree that the correct way to ensure that Scotland is represented in Brexit negotiations is for the democratically elected Scottish Government to join the talks, not unelected peers who were defeated at the ballot box?

I think that we have seen democracy Tory style in full action this week.

What I am about to say is not personal in any way against the individual concerned, but is it not absolutely outrageous that, a couple of days after a candidate was defeated at the ballot box, fairly and squarely in an election, the wishes of the people of Perth and North Perthshire are completely disregarded and that failed candidate is put into the House of Lords and installed as a minister in the Scotland Office, even though he was elected by absolutely nobody anywhere in Scotland? It is an absolute abomination and shows what contempt the Tories have for democracy.

The way to involve Scotland in the Brexit talks is to do what Ruth Davidson used to call for before she was told the error of her ways by her bosses in Westminster, which is to have the democratically elected Scottish Government at the negotiating table. When is Ruth Davidson going to start arguing for that again—or is that something she has been told she is not allowed to say any more because it does not suit her bosses in Westminster?

The First Minister will recognise the important role of this Parliament in scrutinising intergovernmental co-operation, not least in relation to Brexit. Can she therefore tell us today what actual proposals her Government has put or will put to the UK Government in relation to the negotiation of article 50, which is a process that has already begun?

Lewis Macdonald will be aware of “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, the substantial document that we published last December, which sets out in some detail how and why we think that the UK should stay within the single market and how and why, if that does not happen, Scotland should be able to stay within the single market, and also sets out in detail, across a range of different issues, the powers that we think should lie with this Parliament in order to protect our interests.

We will also continue to make specific proposals to the UK Government on a range of issues, such as the one that I was talking about earlier—the constraints that getting rid of freedom of movement places on our businesses in accessing skills—the impact on our agriculture sector of the removal of payments through the common agricultural policy, and the real fears that many have about our fishing industry being sold out by the Tories.

We will continue to make all those arguments, but it would be better if two further things happened: first, that this Parliament is properly consulted through the formal legislative consent process and, secondly, that the democratically elected Scottish Government has a seat at the negotiating table so that we can properly defend Scotland’s interests. I challenge all parties across this chamber to get behind us in demanding both those things.


Small Businesses (Confidence)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to improve small business confidence. (S5F-01422)

The foundations of Scotland’s economy are strong. Last week, figures showed the lowest unemployment rate on record, and we continue to be a top United Kingdom destination for inward investment. We are working to simplify regulation for small businesses, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, and make it easier for businesses to find the finance that they need in order to grow. We are also investing £10 million in the local economic development capital grant fund, which will support economic resilience and future growth across local communities, including in Fife, in the member’s region. Of course, we are also delivering a highly competitive business rates package, including an expansion of the small business bonus scheme so that 100,000 properties are lifted out of business rates altogether.

I thank the First Minister for that update. We welcome the announcement earlier today of the creation of a south of Scotland enterprise agency, not least because it was our idea.

After 10 years of countless new policy initiatives from the Scottish National Party, Scotland’s economy and the small business sector are still in decline. Last week, the Federation of Small Businesses announced that small business confidence in Scotland has been negative for more than five years and has been below UK levels for that time. According to the FSB, that reflects the fact that Scotland’s economy is underperforming in relation to that of the rest of the UK.

Why do the small business sector and the Scottish economy as a whole continue to underperform after 10 years of SNP Government? Just to be clear, I am not talking down Scotland; I am highlighting SNP failures after 10 years in government.

Actually, the Federation of Small Businesses found in its report, which was released on 19 June, that Scottish business confidence had risen for the second consecutive quarter. It also said that Brexit was having an impact in terms of increased prices for imported goods and services. We are seeing confidence increase, but the real risk to confidence is the Brexit that is being so recklessly pursued by the Tory Government.

We will continue to support not just small businesses, but businesses across our economy. As I have said, unemployment is at the lowest level on record—it is below the UK average. We continue to take a range of initiatives to support our businesses and our economy, from the growth fund that I spoke about, the first stage of which was announced last week by Derek Mackay, to the enterprise and skills review announced today by Keith Brown and our support for businesses through the small business bonus scheme. However, we must all be open-eyed to the big risk that faces every business across this country: the unnecessary risk that has been imposed on them by the Tory Government taking the UK out of not just the European Union, but the single market. The sooner that the Tories wake up to that, the better.

The Federation of Small Businesses tells us in its recent report that Scottish business confidence is lower than it is in the rest of the UK. It also suggests that business investment intentions are down in comparison with the previous quarter and that they lag behind those in the UK as a whole. Although aspects of the economy might be improving, other challenges are ahead, such as rising economic inactivity.

Will the First Minister offer any explanation about why we lag behind the UK? Now that the referendum is off the table, what action will she take to restore business confidence in Scotland?

I have outlined the range of initiatives that we are taking to support business confidence and our economy. I know why the Tories refuse to accept the real risks to our business community right now, but I am not sure why Labour continues to refuse to acknowledge those risks. What I find inexplicable is this: if Jackie Baillie is so serious about supporting the small business sector, as she appears to be today, why did Labour vote against our budget proposals, which lifted 100,000 businesses out of small business rates? That is inescapable for Labour. If Labour wants to support small businesses, it is not enough to come to the chamber and give them warm words; it needs to deliver the money that supports them, not vote against doing that, as Labour did.


Baby Box Scheme

To ask the First Minister how the national roll-out of the baby box scheme will improve public health and reduce health inequalities. (S5F-01417)

The baby box will help to reduce health inequalities by, first, ensuring that every family with a newborn has access to essential items needed in the first six months of a child’s life. Secondly, and this is important, the registration process for the box is designed to ensure that health professionals have the opportunity to engage with parents. That is an essential step in encouraging women who do not register for antenatal services to do so and ensures that they get appropriate support and care, both for themselves and for their baby. Lastly, information leaflets included in the box on issues such as safe sleeping practices aim to promote the wellbeing of babies, and the inclusion of items such as a digital thermometer help parents to monitor their child’s health.

Scottish Labour is a fan of the baby box scheme, which originates in Finland, and we want its introduction in Scotland to have similar success in tackling public health challenges and health inequalities here. Some of the feedback from the pilot research earlier this week indicated that more work needs to be done to link the box more clearly with other Scottish Government public health initiatives. This week is national breastfeeding week, and 30 experts are calling for better support for mothers and the need for a change in the culture and conversation on breastfeeding.

As the First Minister knows, rates of breastfeeding in Scotland among younger mothers and those from deprived areas remain too low. A point that I have raised with ministers many times is that the baby box provides a unique opportunity to improve that situation. Putting a packet of nursing pads for leaky breasts and a leaflet for a breastfeeding website into the box is not the best that Scotland can do. I would welcome the chance to explore those issues face-to-face with the Minister for Childcare and Early Years, and perhaps the Minister for Public Health and Sport, too. If we are allocating £9 million a year from the health budget, surely we all want to make the scheme as successful as possible. That must involve a stronger effort to push breastfeeding, across Scotland.

A question please, Ms Lennon.

The question is: does the First Minister agree?

Sometimes, when I listen to Labour politicians talking about the baby box, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they are supporters and fans of the baby box when it is introduced in any other country in the world, but when it is introduced by an SNP Government they suddenly become sceptics or opponents of exactly the same initiative. It comes back to the difficult position that Labour often finds itself in. It is so blinkered by its dislike of the SNP that it cannot even bring itself to give an unequivocal welcome to something as good as a baby box, for goodness’ sake.

The specific issues are important, but Monica Lennon knows—and I would be very happy to engage with her further on all these issues—that the ethos of the baby box is not just about a box of essential items, although that is very helpful to parents the length and breadth of the country. It is also about encouraging engagement with antenatal services by people who otherwise, sometimes, do not engage with them, and it is through that engagement that we can then work with mothers and expectant mothers to focus on things such as breastfeeding. Actually, the advice in the box is also extremely important.

Let us engage in all these things. The reason why we did the pilot exercise was to learn lessons from that and apply them. But, for goodness’ sake, can Labour not just—for once—accept that this is a really good thing? That is why countries across the world are now doing it. Can Labour members not get over their dislike of the SNP and bring themselves to welcome something that is such good news for babies across Scotland?

We have a final supplementary question from Fulton MacGregor, who I hope will declare an interest not just as a parliamentary liaison officer but as a brand new dad, and accept our congratulations. [Applause.]

Thank you, Presiding Officer, and thank you to the Parliament.

I am delighted to see that every family that receives a baby box will be provided with a baby wrap that is designed for parents to carry their baby comfortably and safely. Speaking as a dad of a newborn, I am aware of the importance of early, close contact between parents and babies, which we all know contributes so much to wellbeing. Will the First Minister advise how parents’ views and experiences have also helped to influence the contents of Scotland’s baby box?

I, too, congratulate Fulton MacGregor on his new arrival, although I will perhaps get in before Kenny Gibson in reminding him that he has some way to go to catch up with the Presiding Officer on this front. [Laughter.]

The experience of parents has been central to the development of the baby box—[Interruption.] That is me in trouble.

Parents have played a really big role in influencing the development of the contents of the baby box, and the contents have changed from the pilot to the full roll-out. For example, parents from low-income backgrounds particularly valued the inclusion of some high-cost items that are very important for the wellbeing of babies. I mentioned the digital ear thermometer as an example of that, but there is also the room and bath water thermometer and the baby wrap that Fulton MacGregor mentioned. Parents also asked for more than one book to be included and welcomed the inclusion of a play mat to support their children’s development.

We have made sure that all those items will be in the baby boxes that families with a newborn will begin to receive from 15 August this year. When that starts to happen, I really hope that everybody across the chamber will find it in their hearts to be happy about it and welcome this good news for newborn babies right across Scotland.