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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 23, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 23 February 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Oil and Gas Sector Co-investment, Point of Order, Budget (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Points of Order, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00903)

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

Last week, the killer of Glasgow schoolgirl Paige Doherty had four years taken off his sentence. In a case that has prompted grave concern, his lawyers successfully argued that he should have his time in jail reduced, simply on the ground that he was not as bad a killer as others are. In response, the justice for Paige group said:

“There are no words to describe how we feel. It’s heartbreaking and serves no justice to Paige and her family.”

Does the First Minister agree that it is entirely unacceptable that, less than a year after watching their daughter’s killer get locked up, the family should then go through the ordeal of seeing that murderer’s sentence reduced, simply because he was not as bad a killer as others?

My heart breaks for the family of Paige Doherty. I met Paige’s mother last year. There are literally no words to express the pain and grief that she and the rest of her family have gone through. Today, on behalf of everyone in the chamber, I want to put on record my deepest condolences to her for everything that she has suffered. I have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding the sentiments expressed by the justice for Paige campaign. If I had been a relative of Paige Doherty, I would have felt exactly the same, given the events that Ruth Davidson has outlined.

The only other thing I would say—being frank, this is the more difficult thing to say—is that the decision was made by an independent judge in a court of law. We have an independent judiciary in Scotland. As well as being the First Minister, I am a human being and there are many occasions when I look at decisions of courts and wish that different decisions had been reached. It may well be that this is such a case. However, I respect the independence of the judiciary. I do not think that any member—including Ruth Davidson—would expect me to interfere with such decisions. What I can say is that I understand and sympathise with the pain and grief that Paige’s family is experiencing.

I thank the First Minister for her response. She is absolutely right to point out that we should all uphold the independence of the judiciary. It is also right to say that Parliament makes the law and the Government sets the framework in which our judges operate. The Conservatives say that there must be change, because a system that cuts a child murderer’s sentence because he is deemed to be not as bad as others is rightly seen by most members of the public as a disgrace.

The Scottish Sentencing Council is currently examining guidelines on sentencing. We believe that appeals against sentences should be a key element of its work. Does the First Minister agree?

The Sentencing Council should consider any matter that it thinks appropriate. I would be happy for it to consider the issue that Ruth Davidson has raised.

I readily accept that although we have an independent judiciary and courts must be allowed to take decisions, the framework and the context of those decisions is often set by Parliament. No matter what context or framework Parliament sets in relation to any such issues, there will still be instances in which particular decisions by courts are felt by many people to be wrong. That is in the very nature of an independent judiciary.

I am very clear that where there is evidence that the law has to be changed or action has to be taken, the Government and the Parliament should reflect on that very seriously. That includes the experience of the specific tragic case that we are talking about today. That is why we have the Sentencing Council. It is right and proper that it looks at such matters in depth. If it suggests proposals for change to the Government, I assure members that the Government will seriously consider them and will bring proposals for change and reform to the Parliament if it is right and appropriate to do so.

Again, I thank the First Minister for her response, but the problem here is not just the Paige Doherty case; it is that too many families who have seen their loved ones killed simply do not feel that they are getting the justice that they deserve. They feel that the dice are loaded against them and in favour of the criminals.

We on the Tory benches have long campaigned for whole-life sentences to be introduced in Scotland so that judges could—if they wished—sentence the very worst criminals to spend the rest of their lives in jail. The Scottish Government has said in the past that it might consider such a move. What is its view now?

We will always consider proposals for change that we think are evidence based and—again, this is not always a popular thing to say—which are consistent with the European convention on human rights, which is an important protection for our justice system generally. We will continue to consider openly and frankly any changes that are considered to be appropriate.

Although I generally agree with the thrust of Ruth Davidson’s question, I do not think that it is fair, necessarily, to go from one case, our characterisation of which we are all agreed on, to saying that families are routinely let down by the justice system. We have a strong and well-performing justice system. Of course, one serious, violent crime is one too many—I want to stress that point before I make the next point; nevertheless, we have crime rates that have fallen over the past number of years, thanks in part to the good work of our police across the country.

None of that, however, takes away from the pain and anguish felt by a family that has experienced what Paige Doherty’s family has experienced. It is important for the Government and the Parliament to consider periodically—calmly and rationally—whether the rules that we have in place are the right rules or whether they require to be changed. I give an assurance on the part of the Government that we will always seek to do that.

I will simply inject the caveat, which I do not think that anybody is disagreeing with, that no matter what sentencing rules or frameworks we have in place, because we have—rightly and properly—an independent judicial system in this country, there will always be decisions taken by judges that some of us think are the wrong decisions. That is in the nature of the independence of the judiciary.

All that being said, we will continue to be open minded about proposals for reform and change in this area, as in any other area of our justice system.

I thank the First Minister for that reply, but it is one that we have heard several times before from this Government. As it stands, our judges do not have the tool of a whole-life tariff at their disposal. We say that they should. We can sit in this Parliament and wring our hands and express outrage every time that something like this happens, or we can do something about it. I want to do something about it.

If the Scottish Government will not act, I can say today that the Scottish Conservatives will do so by pushing ahead with a member’s bill making the case for the introduction of whole-life sentencing in Scotland, because we need to stand up for families who see sentences for murder cut less than a year after they have been handed down. We should change the law so that families such as Paige Doherty’s feel that the law is tipping back in their favour and that the worst criminals are kept off our streets forever. We have waited too long. Is it not time that we all acted?

It is important that we continue to look at these issues rationally, and Ruth Davidson is right to raise them. Over the course of our time in government, we have introduced a whole range of reforms to our justice system. I said earlier that the fall in crime is in large part due to the good work of our police officers. We are also seeing increases in the rates of conviction for some offences and, indeed, increases in the length of prison sentences for many offences. Much of that is down to the reforms that have been introduced to our justice system over the past decade.

We will continue to look with an open mind at proposals for further reform. I do not want to comment too much more on the individual case of Paige Doherty. I think that we are all agreed on the tragic nature of that case. I will simply say this: if the system that Ruth Davidson is advocating for today had been in place, there is no guarantee that that is the sentence that a particular judge would have opted for. That is an important point in this or in any other case.

I am not saying that what Ruth Davidson is proposing is absolutely the wrong thing to be considering. The point that I seek to make is this: we will always have cases, no matter what sentencing options judges have, in which a judge makes a decision that some people do not think is correct. Therefore, whoever happens to be occupying the Opposition benches at the time of the decision will perhaps raise the issue with whoever happens to be the First Minister or the Government at the time.

I think that these are serious issues—I would not underestimate or underplay their importance at all—but let us consider them in the proper, rational way, as all Parliaments should and as this Parliament has done on many occasions in relation to past reforms to our justice system.

I give a commitment to Ruth Davidson and to the Parliament today that the Government will continue to reflect—and to reflect further in light of this exchange at First Minister’s questions—on what further changes we might think appropriate. Parliament should then act in the way that it thinks best in light of all the circumstances.


To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-00913)

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

Earlier this week, Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board voted to close the children’s ward at the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley. The decision was opposed by Labour MSPs, Labour councillors and thousands of families and patients. It was the wrong decision.

Last year, during the live election TV debates, the First Minister was asked if the ward would close. She promised a voter:

“There’s no proposals to close that particular ward”.

However, there were proposals to close that ward, so why did she offer that false hope to thousands of families, on live TV?

This is an important and serious issue, but Kezia Dugdale should have been able to spot the contradiction in her own question. The proposal was voted on by Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board this week. By definition, therefore, the proposal did not exist in a form that the Scottish Government could consider last year before the Scottish election. That proposal does now—[Interruption.]


Labour has raised this as an important issue, so Labour members may want to listen to the answer that I am about to give.

This is an important issue. The health board has voted to put the proposal. I am not prejudging the Scottish Government’s view on the matter, because we now have to go through a formal process of our own, but let us remember that the proposal comes in the context of there being a new children’s hospital in the south of Glasgow, just a few miles away from the Royal Alexandra hospital.

The health board has now voted on the proposal. The proposal—this is something that Labour called for, so I would think that its members might welcome it—has been designated as a major service change. That means that it now comes to the Scottish Government—to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport—for proper consideration and for decision. That is why it would be wrong for me to go any further in prejudging the process today.

I will say this: the proposal will be given full and proper consideration. I ask Kezia Dugdale to reflect on this point. When I was health secretary, I never—unlike my Labour predecessors in the role—shied away from overturning health board decisions when I considered that they were not in the interests of patients. The Monklands accident and emergency unit is one example, and the Ayr accident and emergency unit is another, along with some of the proposed closures at the Vale of Leven hospital. We will continue to put the interests of patients first because that is what the people of Scotland—and, indeed, Renfrewshire—would expect us to do.

Where the First Minister was right in that answer is that the ultimate decision to close the ward at the RAH now rests with her Government. Here is her chance to do the right thing—but I am not holding my breath, given that the two local Scottish National Party politicians could not even be bothered to respond to the public consultation. The supposed poster girl of the anti-austerity movement, Mhairi Black, could not be bothered, and neither could George Adam. The SNP MSP for Paisley found the time to oppose the closure of a local McDonald’s, but not of a children’s ward in his own constituency.

Perhaps the First Minister will listen to Gordon Clark. He is the man who asked her the question about the RAH on live TV, and he is in the public gallery today. The First Minister promised Gordon that there were no plans to close that children’s ward, so what does she have to say to him now? Will she step in, keep her word and save the ward in that hospital?

First, I repeat what I said previously. There were no proposals; there are proposals now. Because of the decision taken by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, those proposals have been designated as a major service change, so they will come to her for decision. I would have thought that the Labour Party would welcome that, given that it is something that it called for.

The local MP and MSP have recognised that this is a decision for the health secretary, so they have got on with the job of contacting her. They have invited her to go to Renfrewshire to meet patients before she takes the decision, and the health secretary will agree to do that. That is the right and proper way to proceed. The health secretary will not just listen to the views of the health board; she will listen to those of patients, and we will—[Interruption.]


We will come to a decision that is in the interests of patients. That is in stark contrast to the way in which previous Labour Governments used to operate when it came to health service changes, because they used to ignore the voices of patients and simply rubber-stamp the health board proposals to close A and E units and other services across the country. This Government will act—as it has always done—in the best interests of patients, whether they are in Renfrewshire or anywhere else in Scotland.

Let me be blunt: parents of sick children do not want to hear a 10-year-old story about keeping A and E units open; they want to know about the future of that children’s ward.

The cuts in Paisley are not the only planned cuts to NHS services in Scotland. The maternity units at the Vale of Leven and Inverclyde Royal are now also under threat. This week, we learned that the SNP plans to remove all intensive care cots from nine neonatal units across Scotland. Because of the SNP’s failure properly to staff our NHS, children’s health services are in crisis. Parents want to know when the SNP Government will fix the mess that it has made of the NHS. When will the First Minister get on the job with that?

There are certainly some people who do not want to hear about a decision, taken almost 10 years ago, to save A and E services at Ayr and Monklands. Those people sit on the Labour benches, and they are the ones who wanted to close those services. The people who want to hear about that decision are the hundreds of thousands of patients who have been treated in those A and E units in the 10 years since.

I turn to some of the other issues that Kezia Dugdale raised. On the midwife-led maternity units at Inverclyde and the Vale of Leven, I assume that she knows that the health board is reconsidering its proposals around that issue, in light of the recommendations of the maternity and neonatal review. That is right and proper.

What Kezia Dugdale has just said about neonatal services is absolutely and utterly disgraceful. We have an expert-led report that sets out what we need to do to enhance a small number of neonatal units to make them specialist enough to care for the sickest babies in our country. Kezia Dugdale somehow suggests that the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport should ignore the experts’ opinions when it comes to the care of those babies. That is utterly disgraceful, and Kezia Dugdale and the Labour Party should be deeply ashamed of themselves. [Interruption.]

On the children’s ward at the RAH, to get back to that important—

First Minister, just one second, please. Will members please refrain from interrupting? I hear that members feel strongly, but if they wish to speak, they should stand up and make a point and should not speak from a sedentary position.

Presiding Officer, it is very clear in this chamber that the Labour Party is not particularly interested in patients; it is all about political point scoring.

Let me get back to issue of the RAH. I will say this to the parent who is in the gallery, and to every other parent in Renfrewshire who is understandably concerned about the issue. The Government will listen carefully, not just to the views of a health board, but to those of parents and other patients. We will come to a decision, rightly and properly, based on what we think is in the best interests of patients. That is the right way for a responsible Government to proceed, and that is perhaps one of the reasons for our being in government and why the Labour Party is not even the Opposition any longer but in dismal third place.

There are two constituency supplementaries.

Mr Brian Jay from Saltcoats in North Ayrshire set up and runs his own wedding car company, which he invested £60,000 in—something that we should all applaud. The company was going well until the Scottish Government introduced the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015, which is now forcing additional licensing charges on private operators across Scotland. Mr Jay has now ceased to take bookings and he is worried that he might have to close shop indefinitely. I have written to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work asking for clarification on the matter.

I ask the First Minister—[Interruption.] SNP members can heckle, but Mr Jay is sitting at home watching this and he is interested to hear what the First Minister has to say.

What guidance can the First Minister offer Mr Jay and many others like him across Scotland, what action is the Government taking to mitigate the negative effect that the 2015 act is having on their industry, and when will the Government undertake the assessments that they were promised?

Of course, the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015 was introduced with the interests of public safety firmly at its heart. I may be corrected if I am wrong, but I think that the Conservatives voted for the bill in the Parliament, and they were right to do so because of the motivation behind that piece of legislation. With any piece of legislation, though, it is vital that we strike the right balance between the legislation doing what it is intended to do and putting unnecessary burdens on businesses or anybody else.

The member says—and he was right to do this—that he has written to the relevant cabinet secretaries, and I will make sure that they reply to his correspondence. Indeed, the justice secretary will be happy—I am telling him now that he will be happy—to meet the business concerned to discuss the particular circumstances and whether anything further can be done to mitigate the impact on the business.

However, I hope that every member in the chamber will support the motivations behind and the provisions of the 2015 act, because it is about protecting public safety.

I say to members that I do not expect reverential silence but, just as there should be no chuntering while the First Minister is trying to answer questions, there should similarly be no interventions when someone is trying to ask a question.

The Clydesdale Bank and the TSB have each announced the closure of two branches in my constituency. Beith will lose two of its three banks as a result, Dalry will lose the last bank in the town—its TSB—and Saltcoats will lose its Clydesdale branch. Although banking is reserved to Westminster, what representations is the Scottish Government making to those banks to encourage them to maintain a high street presence in our towns and mitigate any closures?

Although the decision to close those branches is obviously a commercial decision, it is very disappointing for the customers, local communities and all the staff who are affected by such decisions. Although we recognise that branch activity and footfall may be declining due to the increasing number of bank transactions that are conducted online, the Scottish Government, in the contact that we have with banks, would urge them to consider branch closures always as a last resort and to consult staff and communities before making any final decision.

Often, bank branches—the same can be said of post offices—are very important not just in terms of the business that they do, but for the footfall that they bring to other businesses. Many customers continue to have a strong preference or a need for face-to-face provision of banking services, and I would expect banks to explore all practical options to boost branch footfall and to retain banking services in local communities wherever it is viable for them to do so.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-00900)

Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.

For years, the Scottish National Party Government has instructed the chief constables of Scotland to employ 1,000 extra officers. Is that policy still in force?

We have 1,000 extra officers at the moment and, under our budget for the coming year, I would expect that to continue. Willie Rennie will be aware from discussions in the chamber before and from the SNP’s manifesto at the most recent election that it is important that we not only maintain an appropriate level of front-line police officers but recognise the changing pattern of crime—the increase in cybercrime, for example—and ensure that the police have the right mix of specialist staff and the right crime-fighting force on the front line in our communities. Police officers will always be the most important part of that.

We have 1,000 more police officers than we inherited. I always expected us to have way more police officers than we inherited. We will continue to work with Police Scotland to ensure that the balance and mix are right.

As the member will be aware, Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority will shortly publish their consultation on their strategy for the next period. I hope that every member of Parliament will positively engage with that consultation.

For years, the First Minister has spoken about little other than the 1,000 extra officers; indeed, she has done it again just now. [Interruption.]

Order. Let Mr Rennie ask his question, please.

I would have thought that a change of policy, such as the change that seems to be happening now, would merit some kind of formal announcement from the Government.

Civilians are important, not least for dealing with cybercrime and staffing call centres such as Bilston Glen, but 2,000 valuable civilian posts have been lost in recent years. That is a sensitive and important issue, as we will soon find out the contributory factors in the events that followed the M9 crash. The policy really matters, and communities deserve to have a clear explanation of Government policy.

Next week, the chief constable will publish the policing plan for the next 10 years. What limits on officers has he been given by the First Minister?

First, I thank Willie Rennie for confirming that I talk about little other than justice, health and education, because it gives the lie to the accusation that I am always talking about other matters.

If and when there are major policy changes on this or any other matter, of course the Government will make that clear to Parliament. Earlier, I set out for Willie Rennie what our manifesto for last year’s election said. It was open about what we consider to be the challenges of policing, given the changing patterns of crime, and about how we have to work with the police service to make sure that it is equipped to deal with that. Maintaining an appropriate number of police officers, as we have done in each and every one of the 10 years that we have been in office, continues to be extremely important.

Next week, the chief constable and the Scottish Police Authority will set out their draft strategy for consultation. It is important that they consult widely on that and on the challenges and opportunities that they will have in the period ahead. I will not pre-empt what they are to say next week. They will continue to work with and be guided by the Government on the decisions that they take as a result of that consultation.

Perhaps unlike police forces in other parts of the United Kingdom, our front-line police services will have increased funding for the coming year. We have pledged to protect the increase in revenue funding for Police Scotland in real terms during the parliamentary session. There was also additional reform funding and, at stage 1 of the Budget (Scotland) Bill, Derek Mackay announced even more funding. We are putting the resources into our police service and we require to work with the chief constable, his colleagues and the Scottish Police Authority to make sure that those resources support a police force that is equipped to deal with crime now and in the years to come.

I have one other supplementary question, which is from Rhoda Grant.

On 7 December, Parliament voted that seafarers who are employed by Marine Scotland should receive a fair pay settlement rather than the pay cut that they face. Despite that vote, Marine Scotland has refused to increase its pay offer and put employees on an equal footing with other seafarers who are employed by the Scottish Government. Will the First Minister make sure that Marine Scotland respects Parliament’s decision?

The member knows about and shares the Government’s commitment to fair pay. After today’s First Minister’s questions, I will look into the matter and respond to her in writing. It is important that the public sector leads by example on issues of fair pay. When negotiations are under way, there will always be times when it would not be appropriate for the Government to get involved, but I undertake to look into the matter and return to the member as soon as possible.

Cancer Survival Rates

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the report by Macmillan Cancer Support, which highlights the disparity in cancer survival rates between people from more and less deprived areas. (S5F-00920)

In the past 10 years, the cancer mortality rate has reduced overall by 11 per cent. Our £100 million cancer strategy sets out a range of ambitions and actions that are aimed at improving survival for people who are affected by cancer, including targeted efforts to increase screening uptake in deprived areas to help to reduce cancer-related health inequalities.

In particular, our detect cancer early programme focuses on reducing inequalities in breast, bowel and lung cancer, and we expect to see continued improvements in survival. The most recent staging data shows that the largest increase, of 16.3 per cent, in early diagnosis—stage 1 diagnosis—in the three tumour groups that I mentioned has been in the most deprived areas of the country. We still have more work to do, but that data suggests that we are starting to see signs of a narrowing of that inequality gap.

I welcome the First Minister’s mention of detection, diagnosis and screening, because that is clearly a huge part of tackling the problem. Men in particular—I have to confess that I am one of them—have traditionally been reluctant to engage in screening and early diagnosis activity with health services. Does the First Minister feel that this is just a question of money, or do we somehow need to change underlying attitudes?

First, we have to resource screening programmes and prevention strategies. The detect cancer early programme, which was introduced when I was health secretary, is backed by £41 million of resource.

However, John Mason is right to say that this is not just about resources. It is also about changing attitudes—and, in some respects, changing cultures—and encouraging people not to be frightened to come forward for early examination if they are worried about any symptoms. All the evidence shows that, the earlier cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance of survival is. That is why we have put such an emphasis on early detection, on our screening programmes and on encouraging people to come forward. That is the whole ethos behind and motivation for the detect cancer early initiative.

This is particularly important for men who suspect that they have early symptoms of cancer. We know that men—I am generalising—are often less likely to come forward and see a doctor, so it is really important that we stress the message that people who have any concerns should take advice, as it will help to ensure that we detect cancer early. If we do that, we will save more lives. We all have a part to play in getting those messages across.

The research found that, compared with those from the least deprived areas, people from the most deprived areas are up to 98 per cent more likely to die from cancer. Other reports have found that, over the past 10 years of this Government, inequalities in health, attainment and wealth have widened. Does the First Minister agree that the greatest fight against cancer in deprived areas has been led by Glasgow City Council and Macmillan through the improving the cancer journey programme? Does she agree to work closely with that council and Macmillan on replicating the programme and rolling it out across Scotland?

We already work closely with organisations such as Macmillan and partner with it on a range of different areas. Similarly, we work with Glasgow City Council and other councils to mutually support our work in those areas, and it is absolutely right that we continue to do so.

I do not think that any of us should underestimate the challenges that are associated with this, and neither should any of us—of whatever party—somehow pretend that the issues have just arisen under one particular party. Issues of inequality, including health inequalities, are long standing and deep rooted in Scotland; for example, we saw this week some statistics on heart disease and stroke. However, it is important to note that, even in our most deprived areas, mortality rates for heart disease have decreased by 31 per cent and for stroke by 24 per cent over the past period.

We are making progress on some areas, but we need to do more. To go back to cancer, we know that prevention first and foremost is important, which is why the Government has put such an emphasis on it. In some respects, we have picked up on the work of the previous Labour Government on reducing smoking rates and dealing with the problems of alcohol misuse, because we know that those things drive some kinds of cancer. However, we are also focusing on early detection, which is why our screening programmes and the detect cancer early programme are so important. The detect cancer early programme encourages people to come forward, and the tumour types that it focuses on are responsible for about half all cancers in Scotland.

I hope that people across the chamber agree that a great deal of work is being done. Much of it is about ensuring proper resourcing, but much of it is also about changing long-held attitudes and patterns of behaviour. We should all come together on and play our part in achieving that aim.

Supreme Court Case (Legal Fees)

To ask the First Minister, in light of the verdict, whether the Scottish Government considers that it was worth while for it to spend £136,000 on legal fees in the recent Brexit case at the Supreme Court. (S5F-00924)

I think that it was not only worth while for the Scottish Government to be represented in that case, but absolutely essential.

Just as an aside, Mr Golden might want to say to his Tory colleagues in Westminster that it is about time they told us how much they spent defending a case that they always knew they were going to lose.

The Supreme Court case was necessary in order to force the United Kingdom Government to enact the legislation that is currently going through the Westminster Parliament before the triggering of article 50. The case also raised fundamental issues about the rights of people in Scotland and the role of this Parliament—so, yes, I think that it was absolutely right that this Government, like the Government in Wales, defended our interests in what was the most important constitutional law case for many, many years.

This is like a game of “Jeopardy!” The answer is, “Brexit, Westminster and the Tories”. What is the question? It is any question that you ask this First Minister.

My question was about use of taxpayers’ cash, because this Scottish National Party Government will say and do literally anything that it thinks will further its goal of tearing our union apart, and it does not care how much Scottish taxpayers’ money it squanders in the process. The £136,000 that I mentioned is one example of the tens of millions of pounds that the SNP Government spends on policy decisions that it believes will promote separation—for example, the unpopular plans to dismantle the British Transport Police. No one should be under any illusions about the fact that the SNP Government puts its own interests first, not those of Scotland.

With this SNP Government taking ever more money out of the pockets of hard-working Scots—

Please get to the question.

Will the First Minister cut out the needless spend on furthering the SNP’s unwanted campaign for independence, and instead focus on growing our economy?

We always know when Ruth Davidson is completely embarrassed by one of her back benchers—it happens quite regularly—because she starts having a completely separate conversation on the front bench, as if she were somewhere else and what is happening behind her is nothing to do with her. I sympathise with her, because I would have been embarrassed by that question as well, if it had been asked by one of my back benchers.

Are you going to answer him?

Don’t you worry—I am going to answer his question.

First, in the spirit of finding some consensus—because, as members know, that is always what I like to do—I agree with Maurice Golden that Brexit is like a game of “Jeopardy!” Unfortunately, the Tories are playing it at the expense of the rest of us, which is completely unacceptable.

Secondly—this point seems to have completely escaped Maurice Golden—there would have been no case at the Supreme Court for the Scottish Government to have to intervene in if the Tories had not insisted on appealing the case every step of the way to the Supreme Court, even though everyone knew that they were going to lose.

As I said earlier, it might be more appropriate for Maurice Golden to ask his Tory colleagues at Westminster how much they spent on the case, because so far they are refusing to say what the legal costs of the case have been for the Westminster Government.

My final point is this: another reason—not the main one, but another one—why I think that it was worth our while to take part in the case was that it exposed the fact that the Tories were misleading people when they told us that they were going to embed the Sewel convention in statute, and that it was going to make so much difference. That promise was exposed, in this case, as being utterly meaningless. Perhaps just another little benefit of the case is that we exposed the fact that the promises that the Tories make to Scotland can never, ever be trusted. [Applause.]

Order. That is quite enough applause.

Wealth Gap

We got to my question eventually.

To ask the First Minister for what reason the wealth gap between rich and poor in Scotland is widening. (S5F-00910)

The Scottish Government is committed to creating a fairer and more equal Scotland, and we are already taking a range of actions to tackle inequalities. Those actions include, of course, the introduction of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill and encouraging employers to pay the real living wage.

Although all categories of household wealth have increased, the main reason why the wealth gap between rich and poor in Scotland has widened slightly is the increase in private pension wealth, which is not distributed equally. As that increased by 39 per cent between 2012 and 2014, the wealth gap has also increased. However, we remain committed to doing everything that we can within our powers and with our resources to tackle poverty and close the inequality gap.

Wealth has become more concentrated under the Government, and the wealthiest 1 per cent alone own more than the wealth of the bottom 50 per cent. However, this week, the Government has chosen not to use the power to tax the wealthiest 1 per cent with a 50p top rate of tax. The Government’s newest adviser backs a 20 per cent top-up in universal credit. When will the Government choose to use the new powers over tax and social security to reverse those appalling trends?

On social security, just yesterday the Minister for Social Security made a statement in the chamber to update Parliament on the work that we are doing to create a new social security agency, and on our response to the consultation on social security. We have already set out a range of ways in which we will use the new powers to try to tackle poverty and disadvantage among those who depend on the social security system.

One thing that we will do, of course, is abolish the bedroom tax. We already mitigate it, but we want to abolish it at source. However, right now, the United Kingdom Government might effectively enforce its benefit cap so that what we give with one hand, it would take away with the other. I hope that everybody in the chamber, including the Tories, will get behind us when we say to the UK Government that that is completely unacceptable.

On tax, this afternoon we will debate the budget at its final stage. The budget strikes the right balance between raising extra revenue through tax, not giving higher-rate taxpayers a tax cut, and investing £900 million more in our front-line public services. Those who might vote against that budget would, if they were to do so, be voting against that £900 million of additional spending on our public services.

Finally, Mark Griffin talks about raising taxes on the wealthiest people. I encourage everybody who is interested in that to read Labour’s amendment to the budget motion, because that is not what it talks about; it talks about raising tax by 1 per cent for everybody who earns over £11,500 a year. That is Labour’s tax policy—it is not about tackling austerity, but about transferring austerity to the shoulders of the lowest-paid people. The difference between Mark Griffin and me is that I do not think that somebody who earns £11,500 qualifies as “wealthy”.


To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has held regarding the future of broadcasting in Scotland. (S5F-00940)

The Scottish Government has had several discussions on the future of broadcasting in Scotland through active involvement in the recent renewal of the BBC charter. The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs met the BBC’s director general just this morning to discuss yesterday’s announcements on the BBC’s plans for Scotland, including the welcome announcement of a new channel for Scotland from the autumn of next year. Prior to that, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs met the BBC’s director general on 29 February, 18 August and 17 October 2016 to reiterate the Scottish Government’s position on how the BBC can deliver better outcomes for audiences and Scotland’s creative sector.

I welcome yesterday’s announcement as a step in the right direction. I heard a bit more detail on the plans from the BBC at this morning’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee. Does the First Minister agree that, while it is a good start, the new channel must be properly resourced and that the BBC should work towards a far fairer share of the licence fee raised in Scotland being invested here, given that the plans would leave us lagging behind Wales and Northern Ireland in that respect?

Emma Harper is absolutely right, and I hope that we can all unite behind that. I unequivocally welcome yesterday’s announcement of a BBC Scotland channel. The Scottish National Party first called for a separate channel in April 2006, when we made a contribution to the previous charter renewal process.

I think that everyone agrees that it is vital that the channel is properly resourced, so I welcome yesterday’s commitments to resourcing. I particularly welcome the commitments that were made to the creation of an additional 80 journalist jobs in Scotland at this difficult time for journalists and the media generally. We should all welcome that announcement, but we must be firm in saying to the BBC that the channel must be properly resourced on an on-going basis.

Interestingly, when the Scottish Broadcasting Commission reported in 2009, it estimated that a similar channel would cost about £75 million a year. That is more than double the £30 million budget that was announced yesterday.

Yesterday’s announcement will see an increase in the percentage of the licence fee raised in Scotland that will be spent in Scotland. Again, I absolutely welcome that but, as Emma Harper says, that leaves the percentage lower than the corresponding percentages in Wales and Northern Ireland.

I absolutely think that yesterday’s announcements by the BBC were welcome progress, and I thank Lord Hall for making them. All of us have an interest in making sure that the announcements turn into a successful reality. For the channel to be successful, with high-quality content—we have the talent here to produce that—necessitates good solid funding for the long term, so let us all unite in making sure that the BBC delivers on that commitment.

I join the First Minister in welcoming the announcement. We heard from Lord Hall this morning that 60 per cent of the new channel’s programming will be new commissioning. Together with the BBC Studios initiative, the question for the Scottish Government is whether we are structured in Scotland to ensure that we can take advantage of that opportunity. There is widespread belief that Northern Ireland Screen, and how the devolved Administration works in partnership with the development agency there, allows the independent sector to take advantage of the opportunity created, whereas the relationship between the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and Creative Scotland does not facilitate that. At the same time, there are concerns about studio capacity in Scotland, with major studios being built and commissioned elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Will the First Minister ensure that ministers, too, take advantage of the opportunity that has been created to ensure that our creative sector in Scotland can take advantage of the opportunity that has been presented?

I agree with much of the thrust of that question. I am—genuinely—glad to hear the Tories welcome what was announced yesterday because, when I called for a separate Scottish channel back in 2015 at the Edinburgh television festival, Liz Smith said that I was showing how out of touch I was and that she did not want to see millions of pounds of licence fee funds diverted to pay for it. I am really glad to hear the Scottish Tories’ conversion.

On the wider issue that Jackson Carlaw has rightly raised, he will be aware of the changes that we are making and the funding that is being made available in Scotland to support the screen and film sector. It is vital that we make sure that the sector is equipped and that the relationships with Creative Scotland, the wider public sector and Scottish Enterprise are the right ones to encourage continued growth.

We are seeing lots of success in the film sector, for example, right now. I understand—I have many constituency interests that talk to me regularly about this—the view within the film sector that we need additional studio space. I do not want to say too much more about that, because some of the proposals are subject to planning decisions. However, I certainly agree that I would want to see the provision of studio space in the future. We have state aid issues that impact on our ability to directly fund that.

We have here a success story of the Scottish economy. We have the opportunity to turn it into an even bigger success story, so we should be enthusiastic and welcome the announcement with both hands.