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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 23, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 September 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Day, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Decarbonising Scotland’s Transport, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time

The next item of business is First Minister’s question time. I intend to take constituency and general supplementary questions after question 2, so members wishing to ask such supplementaries should press their request-to-speak buttons during question 2. I will keep a note of members who press their buttons and may take further supplementaries from those members if we have any time in hand after question 7. Members wishing to ask a supplementary to questions 3 to 7 should press their buttons during the relevant question.


Accident and Emergency (Waiting Times)

On Tuesday, Public Health Scotland revealed that 1,000 fewer people were admitted to accident and emergency this week compared with the same week two years ago, but the number of patients waiting for more than half a day to be seen at A and E is now 10 times higher. Covid has made things worse, but there are bigger longer-term issues in Scotland’s health service. The Government failed to properly resource our ambulance service, it reduced the number of hospital beds and it did not plug the gaps in Scotland’s national health service workforce. Which of those decisions taken before the pandemic does the First Minister regret most?

First, and perhaps most important, since the Government took office the number of A and E consultants working in our national health service has increased by 242 per cent. That is the investment in our national health service, and in the workforce of our national health service, that the Government has supported and will continue to support. Our accident and emergency departments are working under intense pressure, as is the NHS as a whole. That pressure has been considerably exacerbated because of Covid.

The figure that we saw last week of just over seven in 10 people being seen within four hours in A and E is not good enough. It is important to put that into context, because health services across the United Kingdom, Europe and the world are struggling with that pressure in similar ways. If we look at the last month for which full figures are available, performance in our core A and E departments in Scotland against the four-hour target was 79.5 per cent. That compares with 67.7 per cent in England and 60.7 per cent in Wales, so we clearly see pressure right across the UK.

For our part, we are supporting actions to allow our accident and emergency departments to address that pressure and improve waiting times. That includes, for example, work to enhance discharge processes, the redesign of urgent care, the opening of additional bed capacity, strengthening links with social and community care to maximise the community response and enhancing evening and weekend working.

We will continue to invest in staff and the NHS overall, and we will continue to support the reforms that allow patients to flow through the national health service more quickly than is the case at the moment. I would hope—although we are not complacent about this, given the pressures that we are facing—that we will start to see some improvement in the A and E waiting times in the weeks ahead.

The First Minister says that she is not complacent about it, but she spent her whole answer dismissing the fact that people are waiting more than half a day to be treated in A and E and that the number is 10 times higher now than it was two years ago, before the pandemic. We got the usual tactic from the First Minister of saying, “Look at what is happening in Wales. Look at what is happening in England.” Nicola Sturgeon is Scotland’s First Minister and she was Scotland’s health secretary, and I would like her to take some responsibility for what is happening in Scotland’s health service.

Nicola Sturgeon is hiding behind Covid, but it is not all down to the pandemic. Since 2015, more than 850,000 people have waited longer than the four-hour target time at A and E. Why has that happened? From 2015 to 2020, the number of staffed acute beds in Scotland has dropped by more than 2,500. The First Minister has finally agreed that the NHS is in crisis, but we need action now. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine said that we need 1,000 more acute beds. How many of those extra beds has the Scottish Government now identified?

First, I do not think that anybody listening to my answer would have heard me dismiss the pressure that the NHS is under in any way, shape or form.

The reason for my giving some context is that Douglas Ross seeks to give the impression that the situation is simply unique to Scotland, and all because of the Scottish National Party. Our national health service is under pressure because of a global pandemic. It is important, not least in the interests of those who are working hard across our NHS, that we see that wider context as we take action to support them and improve performance.

We are, of course, continuing to ensure that we invest in staff in our health service. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Douglas Ross did not refer to this point in his follow-up question, but I said that there has been a 242 per cent increase in A and E consultants since the Government took office. The NHS’s budget and staffing across the NHS generally are at record levels. There is work to do to redesign how patients are cared for, which is why the redesign of urgent care is so important. That redesign will ensure that patients get the care that they need where they need it, and that our A and E departments and the most acute parts of our NHS can deal more quickly with those who need that aspect of care.

On the subject of hospital beds, we saw a change in the profile of bed numbers way before this Government took office, as lengths of stay in our hospitals decreased. Again, that picture is replicated across the whole of the UK. Most recently, we have actually seen a slight increase in the number of acute beds that are operational across our health service. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care is meeting with the Royal College of Emergency Medicine today, and I discussed with officials yesterday how, for example, we will free up additional bed capacity through increasing the pace at which people who no longer need to be in hospital are discharged to more appropriate settings.

A range of work is under way in these challenging circumstances to ensure that we support the NHS, and I will continue to focus on that work every single day to support those who work so hard on the front line.

In both her answers, the First Minister talked about the A and E consultants statistic. Clearly, one of her many media advisers told her that that statistic was a zinger and that she should use that answer for anything about A and E waiting times. The statistic gives little comfort to the 850,000 people who have waited longer than the target time that she and her Government set for people to be seen in A and E.

The crisis is happening throughout the NHS. Capacity is down across the board. Let us just take one alarming example. The country was shocked when it was uncovered that 200,000 women were excluded from Scotland’s cervical cancer screening programme. Tragically, lives were lost as a result. Of all the services that should return to pre-pandemic levels, that is a vital one. However, new figures show that the number of cervical cancer screenings is a third lower this year compared with the same period in 2019, which cannot possibly all be blamed on Covid. Why have cervical cancer screenings dropped so dramatically, when the NHS is supposed to be remobilising?

First, before I come on to the important issue of cervical cancer screening, I want to complete the answer on A and E, as Douglas Ross went back to that point in his last question. If Douglas Ross did not want me to state the fact that A and E staffing has increased substantially under this Government, he should not have asked me why we had not invested in A and E staffing. I am simply making the point that we are investing in staffing and capacity in our NHS.

I said clearly in my first answer that the waiting times in our accident and emergency departments are not good enough. According to the most recent weekly figures, around seven out of 10 people have been seen within four hours. That statistic is not good enough, which is why we are taking the range of actions that I set out in my initial answer to support staff and improve the situation. I hope that we will see improvements in that area over the coming weeks.

I say again that the figure is not good enough, but, to give the context, we continue to have the best performing A and E anywhere in the UK, even in these difficult circumstances. That suggests that the actions that we are taking—although they need to go further—are helping to support those who deliver that care on the front line. We will continue to do that in probably the most difficult circumstances that our NHS has faced since its establishment.

On cervical screening, the Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport has now made two statements to Parliament on the error, which goes back many years and pre-dates this Government, that led to some women being wrongly excluded from cervical screening. She has set out the audit work that has been done and the steps that have been taken to rectify the error, so that women in those circumstances are seen and we make sure that they have been provided with appropriate follow-up care. It is important that we continue to see that work through to give women the reassurances that they need.

That work is important, and I do not want in any way to underplay its significance. However, there are clearly wider issues around encouraging women to come forward for screening, whether for cervical screening or breast screening, or for any of the screening programmes.

Covid has had an impact on people coming forward for routine healthcare, including the screening programmes. We had a relatively short period during which our screening programmes had to be paused. They are now operational again, and we want the numbers coming through those screening programmes to increase even beyond where they were before the pandemic. That is why we will continue to focus on screening and the importance of early diagnosis. We can all help by getting clear, loud and consistent messages across to women and to others who are eligible for screening that they should come forward for those appointments because the programmes are open and they are extremely important.

The First Minister’s answers all add up to a Government that is reacting to circumstances, not one that is in control of them. The Government is scrambling about putting sticking plasters over each new crisis instead of planning to stop them in the first place. It reacts only when disaster strikes.

We are short of hospital beds. We are short of front-line staff. We are short of leadership from the Government. The First Minister is once again hiding behind Covid and, as we have heard today, deflecting attention to the rest of the United Kingdom. Is it not the case that the pandemic has completely exposed her Government’s poor record on running Scotland’s NHS? Is it not the case that the crisis that has spiralled during the past few weeks has shown how ministers are constantly behind the curve? Is it not time that the First Minister and her health secretary finally got a grip of events?

I have two points to make about the pandemic. First, anybody who stands up in the chamber and tries to pretend that the pandemic has not had an extremely significant impact on all of this is insulting people’s intelligence and lacking any credibility.

Secondly, in the midst of a global pandemic, it is important that Governments respond to circumstances, that they adapt and that they are flexible. That is what this Government has done and will continue to do. I make no apologies for making sure that, when there is a need, we provide extra funding and take new initiatives to help the health service cope with an unprecedented set of circumstances.

Of course, it is true that our NHS was under pressure before the pandemic, but Douglas Ross does not want to look at the progress that was being made then in tackling exactly those problems. For example, if we look at the waiting times improvement plan, which was published in October 2018, we see that the number of out-patients who were waiting for their first appointment had reduced by 21 per cent in the 18 months up to March 2020, just before the pandemic struck. The numbers who were waiting for more than 12 weeks had fallen by more than 32 per cent. The number of patients who were waiting for more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test had reduced by more than 25 per cent. More in-patient treatments were being offered and more patients were being seen.

The point that I am making is that there were challenges and that those challenges were being addressed. Real progress was being made.

No, they weren’t.

Douglas Ross says, “No, they weren’t”. I have just given him evidence of the fact that they were. For the past 18 months, we have been in a global pandemic. We are still in that pandemic and it is creating the most extreme of circumstances for our NHS. Therefore, in common with Governments everywhere, we will continue to take action to support the NHS. We will focus on that job each and every single day.


Ferries

Last week, the health secretary told the public to think twice before calling an ambulance. This week, islanders on Islay and Colonsay were told to travel on Scotland’s ferries only if it was necessary. Their service relies on a 36-year-old ship that is stuck in a dry dock, undergoing repairs. Scotland’s ancient CalMac fleet urgently needs to be replaced.

It should therefore have been welcome news that a contract to build ferries for Scotland’s island routes is progressing to the next stage, except that the Scottish yard did not even make the shortlist. Instead, the contract will be awarded to a shipyard in Poland, Romania or Turkey. I applaud the Scottish Government for protecting shipbuilding jobs, but it is a pity that none of those jobs is in Scotland. Can the First Minister explain to us all how it is that a Scottish yard that supports Scottish jobs, and which is owned by the Scottish Government, failed to even make the shortlist to build Scotland’s ferries?

Before I come on to the issue of ferries, I will address another point. Anybody in this country who needs an ambulance should phone for an ambulance. I am clear about that and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care is clear about that. Obviously, if somebody needs a part of the health service that does not require an ambulance, they should phone NHS 24 or another part of the health service. It is not helpful for people in the chamber to misrepresent the position when people’s lives are at risk.

On ferries, let us not lose sight of the fact that the Scottish Government has protected shipbuilding jobs here in Scotland. Without its intervention, Ferguson’s would not still be open and operational, and there are hundreds of people who are currently employed at Ferguson’s who would not be employed there. That is the protection of shipbuilding jobs that this Government has delivered.

In addition, of course, such procurements are bound by rules and regulations that Anas Sarwar is aware of.

Ferguson’s is on a journey back to recovery. Its focus right now—as the Opposition has regularly called for it to be—[Interruption.]

Colleagues, I would very much like all members to be able to hear the First Minister. Thank you.

I suspect that the members concerned do not want to hear what I am saying because they do not want to hear what this Government has done to protect shipbuilding jobs in Scotland.

The focus of Ferguson’s is on completing the two ferries that are currently delayed. I hope that the work that is under way at Ferguson’s will equip the yard to compete for new orders and new contracts in the future, but let us not lose sight of the fact that, without the Government’s intervention, there would be no Ferguson’s shipyard and the hundreds of jobs that are currently dependent on it would not even exist.

The First Minister says that the company that she owns is “on a journey”, but people want ferry journeys—that is what the Government needs to address.

Saving the yard is one thing, but sustaining it is another. Launching a ferry with painted-on windows—really? Is that the best that we can hope for from the Government?

The truth is that the failure to deliver the ferries in question is the result of complacency and ineptitude on the part of the Scottish National Party Government. That a Scottish Government-owned company cannot win a Scottish Government contract to build ships is a national scandal that is now an international humiliation. The Government has no strategy to expand services, no fleet to meet Scotland’s needs and no plan to fix the problem. The model is not working, it is not fit for purpose and it must be replaced.

There are 15 ferries in the fleet that are over their original 25-year life cycle, which means that there are more than enough projects to keep Ferguson’s in work and even to expand our industry here in Scotland, if only it was run properly.

Therefore, I ask the First Minister to raise her game, to stop wasting taxpayers’ money, to halt the tender process, to scrap Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and to stand up for Scottish jobs.

Maybe Anas Sarwar should raise his game and find one iota of consistency. Had we followed Anas Sarwar’s advice, we would not have saved Ferguson’s from closure. Back in 2018, he warned about

“a risk that it might appear that decisions are being made for political or other reasons, not purely financial or economic reasons”,—[Official Report, Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, 29 November 2018; c 7.]

so I suspect that he would not have saved Ferguson’s.

We will continue to support the shipyard and the workers there, and we will continue to do everything to make sure that it is in a position to compete for and win contracts in the future, and to do that—of course—within the law and the constraints around procurement that apply. I say to Anas Sarwar that a closed Ferguson’s—which is what would have happened if he and his party had been in charge—would not have been able to compete for or win contracts. We have kept Ferguson’s open and we will do the work to ensure that it is a success.

I am not sure that using quotes is safe ground for the First Minister.

Nicola Sturgeon likes to quote a long list of excuses. Let me quote her at First Minister’s questions in 2005, talking about ferry contracts at Ferguson’s:

“The First Minister must raise his game. Will the work go to Poland or will it go to Port Glasgow? ... Instead of cowering in a corner in case someone in Europe gives him a row, he should take the decision and make it clear that, if it is challenged in court, he will defend it. That is called standing up for the national interest.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2005; c 18051 and 18053.]

That was Nicola Sturgeon talking about the national interest when in opposition, but in government she puts Scottish jobs at risk. She delivers jobs for China, which provided steel for the Queensferry crossing, and jobs for Indonesia, which supplies wind turbines, and now jobs for Turkey, Romania or Poland to provide our ferries. To quote Nicola Sturgeon again, what is it going to take to make her

“come down on the side of a Scottish industry, a Scottish shipyard and Scottish jobs?”—[Official Report, 16 June 2005; c 18052.]

Is it the case that the only thing the SNP is good at manufacturing is a grievance?

It is a sure sign that the Labour Party is in deep trouble when its leader talks about the Queensferry crossing. That is desperate stuff.

I did say that to Jack McConnell. Back then, Ferguson’s was on the brink of closure and Jack McConnell was not prepared to do anything about that. I lead a Government that saved Ferguson’s from closure. If Anas Sarwar had gone on to quote Jack McConnell’s answer, he would have found that Jack McConnell told me that what Anas Sarwar is now asking for would have broken the law. A bit of consistency is required.

This Government has saved Ferguson’s. There are hundreds of jobs at Ferguson’s that would not exist but for this Government. Compared to Labour, which stood by and let the industry go to the wall, this Government has a track record of standing up for industry and for manufacturing jobs across the country.

We will now take supplementary questions.


Parades Commission

The First Minister will have seen the reports last week of the disgraceful anti-Catholic singing during the Orange Order marches throughout Glasgow, including in my constituency. At least three of the routes involved marching past Roman Catholic churches, which caused great distress and concern to the members of those parishes and the wider church in Scotland.

Given those events, will the First Minister consider the creation of a parades commission, similar to that in Northern Ireland, to take a non-partisan and independent look at the number and routes of such parades? Anyone old enough to remember the annual battles at Drumcree will verify the difference that the commission has made in Northern Ireland.

There were also shameful reports of Glasgow city councillors receiving death threats when any possible restriction of Orange Order parades was discussed. I am in no doubt that, just as in Northern Ireland, a parades commission would go a long way towards taking some of the heat out of the discussion of parades. I am sure we can all agree that, if those parades are to go ahead, they should do so in a way that least threatens and intimidates those of another faith or opinion.

Regarding James Dornan’s proposal for a parades commission, I am happy for the Government to give that further consideration. I have already asked the justice secretary to consider what further action could be taken to maintain the important balance of rights between peaceful procession and freedom of speech and the ability of people to go about their daily lives without feeling unsafe or facing harassment. I will ask the justice secretary to consider the possible creation of a parades commission as part of that.

It is important to stress that peaceful public assembly and freedom of expression are fundamentally important rights. I know that we are all committed to upholding them. It is also a fundamental right for any person or community to go about their daily business without fearing for their safety. I know that members will join me in unequivocally condemning all the instances of anti-Catholic bigotry that we have recently seen on our streets. There is no place for that in a modern Scotland, and we must all show zero tolerance towards it.

I confirm that we will give the specific proposal consideration and will report back to Parliament in due course.


Vaccination Passports (Evidence)

In today’s meeting of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, the panel of experts indicated that the case for introducing vaccination passports has yet to be demonstrated in the public domain and that there has been no effective engagement with those who will be most affected by their introduction. Given that the Scottish Government has assured the committee and Parliament that the evidence does exist and will be published, will the First Minister say when that is likely to happen?

The regulations and supporting evidence will be published over the coming days—next week—before the introduction of the scheme. This morning, we have published a paper that sets out further details.

We see from countries across Europe that vaccination certification schemes can play a part in helping to stem the transmission of Covid, and I believe that they will play a part here. No single measure is going to control the virus on its own, so we need a range of targeted measures to keep transmission under control while keeping our economy open, and that is what vaccination certification is intended to do. We have engaged extensively across business interests and, indeed, with other stakeholders, and we will continue to do so up to and beyond the introduction of the scheme.

Nobody wants to be in a position of having to impose any measures to deal with an infectious virus, but unfortunately that is the position that we are still in. I think that having proportionate and targeted measures is the right thing to do to keep people safe over the winter period.


Libraries (Funding)

Today, across Glasgow, many people cannot access libraries to get books—which I know the First Minister enjoys—because the libraries, like many other leisure venues, are closed. What assessment has the Scottish Government made of the financial shortfall that is being experienced by Glasgow Life and other sport, leisure and library providers? Will the First Minister commit to giving the city the money that it needs to get the venues open and functioning again?

Across the city of Glasgow, the vast majority of libraries are open and available to people. A small number of libraries are not open, and there are reasons for that, which I know the council has set out. We indicated the provision of some further financial support to councils to get and keep libraries open, given the strong recognition of their importance in communities.

On the wider issues around funding for local government, we are entering the budget process and the Scottish Government will set out the budget for the next financial year in early December, as was confirmed this week. We will have discussions across the chamber about the budget, as we always do, and we will have discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about the local government settlement. We will, as we have done every year, in difficult financial circumstances, be as fair to local government as we can possibly be.

Of course, any member and, indeed, any party has the ability to come to the finance secretary and say where they want to see more money allocated. All that I would say is that, if they want to do that, they also have to say where they think that money should come from. That offer is open to parties across the Parliament.


Long Covid (Employment)

I refer to the joint agreement that was signed by the Scottish Government and organisations such as the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Institute of Directors, which states that no worker should be penalised if they are off work following medical advice relating to Covid-19. I have a constituent with long Covid, and she is being pressured by her employer. Does the agreement apply to people who have been diagnosed with long Covid?

Yes. In principle, of course it does. I am not going to comment on individual cases, because people’s circumstances will be different, but I would say that the principles behind that statement should apply to anyone with any health condition. Nobody should feel pressured to go to work if their health says that it is not right for them to be at work. That applies in relation to people who have suffered from Covid and, given the nature of long Covid, it absolutely should apply to those suffering from that condition as well.


City of Culture Status (Borderlands Bid)

This week, we learned that Scottish National Party members of Dumfries and Galloway Council are threatening to oppose a joint bid with Scottish Borders Council, Carlisle City Council and Northumberland County Council to win city of culture status for the Borderlands region. It is not entirely clear why that is their position, other than the fact that the bid would involve both English and Scottish councils. Will the First Minister confirm whether she will support such a cross-border bid for the Borderlands? If so, what support can the Government make available to the bid team as it moves forward?

I will happily look at what the situation is. Often, claims that perhaps do not bear all that much scrutiny are made by the Conservatives in the chamber about the views of SNP councillors or councils. However, I do not know exactly what the circumstances are in this case, and I am happy to look into that.

I have been an enthusiastic supporter of the Borderlands initiative, so I slightly regret some of the undertone of the member’s question. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is important that we take all opportunities, particularly in these circumstances, to support culture and cultural initiatives. I will be happy to have a discussion with the council, or to ask the relevant minister to do so, about what support might be available from the Scottish Government to support any bid.

There will sometimes be differences of opinion on such things, but let us try to get behind any reasonable bid and, for goodness’ sake, shy away from any claims about some of the motives behind why people might be taking a particular position.


Prestwick Airport

Yesterday, the First Minister visited Prestwick airport, where the elephant in the room was the future of the airport itself. The chief executive of Edinburgh Airport has said that Prestwick is “doomed”. More than six months after a preferred bidder was chosen, can the First Minister tell us whether the sale of Prestwick is going ahead? If it is, when will that happen? Will that sale guarantee the existing jobs and the full repayment of the £40 million of loans?

It was very good to visit Prestwick yesterday, and it was actually quite a good news day—Prestwick airport set out the next details of its spaceport bid. I was visiting Spirit AeroSystems, which has just opened a new innovation centre that is obviously a very important part of the aerospace cluster there. It was a good news day in Prestwick, which is a part of the country that is very close to my heart.

It is the Government’s intention to return the airport to the private sector, and that has always been the case. Obviously, the process of doing that has been impacted by Covid. We will set out further details of that in due course.

Finally, I make a point that I made to Anas Sarwar in relation to Ferguson’s. It was right that we kept Prestwick airport open, and it was right that we invested to protect the jobs and the economic activity there. Those are often the things that Labour calls on us to do in the abstract, but, when it comes to putting our money where our mouth is, metaphorically speaking, Labour is just full of criticism. This Government, again, is the one that, time after time, actually stands up for jobs and industry.


Free Ports

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s work with the United Kingdom Government to create free ports in Scotland. (S6F-00271)

The green port model is an adaptation of the free port model that places a strong emphasis on fair work and the move to a net zero economy. The Secretary of State for Scotland wrote on 6 September to confirm that the UK Government would not support green ports for Scotland and would not accept our proposals for higher labour or environmental standards as part of its free port model. All mention of green ports was to be avoided and reference to payment of the real living wage by employers benefiting from tax incentives was not to be permitted.

Fair work and net zero are central tenets of Scotland’s future economy and we are simply not prepared to see those commitments watered down by the Tory UK Government, so we will now progress plans to develop a green port model that is tailored to Scotland’s economy, workers and communities.

The SNP refused to acknowledge the benefits of any kind of port in Scotland for a long time. As a result of the Scottish Government’s refusal to work co-operatively with the UK Government, it would appear that funding is available for only one Scottish green port, due to the increased operating costs of that model. Can the First Minister confirm whether there will be only a single green port in Scotland? If not, where will the additional funding for the remainder come from?

We will continue to develop and set out our proposals on green ports.

The issue was not about the SNP not being prepared to see advantages and benefits; we were simply not prepared to compromise on fair work or the environment. If, as I am sure is the case for the member, the Tories want to see the free port model go ahead in Scotland, the question has to be: what objection could they possibly have to fair work and environmental conditions being built into it? Perhaps that gives the game away.

There is another aspect. It was crucial, obviously, that Scotland would have a fair allocation of funding to help to establish ports, but actually the UK Government’s recent offer failed even to provide an equivalent to what it is making available to free ports in England.

If the UK Government had been serious, all those issues could have been addressed, but that was up to the UK Government. We will continue to take forward our plans for green ports, with fair work and environmental progress absolutely at their heart.

I call Pam Gosal.

I am sorry, Presiding Officer. My light went on, but it is for a supplementary question later on.


Low Incomes (Support)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to support people on low incomes. (S6F-00283)

We have taken a wide range of actions to support people who are on low incomes, investing around £2.5 billion just last year, including nearly £1 billion that is targeted at children.

We are putting money in the pockets of hundreds of thousands of low-income families through Scottish child payments and bridging payments. That is an investment of around £130 million this year. Around 500,000 low-income households will receive a one-off £130 pandemic payment by the end of October, which is an investment of £65 million. We have increased the value of the best start foods payment and the school clothing grant, and we will double the December payment of the carer’s allowance supplement. In addition, we have guaranteed the Scottish welfare fund budget at £41 million and committed a further £83 million for discretionary housing payments.

Scotland is facing a perfect storm with surging energy prices, the end of furlough and the biggest cut to social security since the 1930s. The United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty has condemned the £20 universal credit cut as a move that breaches international human rights law and is likely to trigger an explosion of poverty. Does the First Minister agree that the only way to protect the most vulnerable in society from devastating Tory policies is to become an independent country?

Yes, I believe that having control over tax, welfare and all the levers that other countries have at their disposal would be better for Scotland. That would, of course, be possible only if Scotland became an independent country.

On the immediate term, Marie McNair is absolutely right when she talks about a perfect storm. There are significant worries about energy inflation and food inflation over the winter months, and those threaten to plunge more and more already low-income families into poverty.

Against that backdrop, for the United Kingdom Government to even consider the removal of £20 a week from some of the poorest families in our country is unthinkable; it lacks any basic morality. If the UK Government was not prepared to reconsider before, it should surely do so now. It would be indefensible to take that money literally out of the mouths of children and to plunge more families into poverty. Given what many people will face this winter, I argue that it is essential for the UK Government not just to keep that payment but to look at additional payments—as this Government has done through our pandemic payments—to help people to deal with, for example, rising energy costs. That is what we should be getting from a UK Government with any concern for the poorest in our society.


Police (Spitting on Officers)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that incidents of spitting on police officers increased by 15 per cent in 2020-21, compared with the previous year. (S6F-00284)

It is utterly unacceptable for police officers or staff to be attacked or abused in any way, and I fully support the actions of the police and our independent prosecutors and courts in dealing robustly with perpetrators. Our police officers have been protecting the public throughout the pandemic. It is disgusting that some people have chosen to attack officers by spitting or coughing at them. Police Scotland has reaffirmed its commitment to tackling assaults, including through the chief constable’s assault pledge. The pledge promises to reduce the impact of violence, improve the safety of officers and staff, and provide appropriate support when assaults occur.

The phraseology that the First Minister has used is absolutely correct: the attacks are disgusting and vile. The rising trend should worry us as well. It is no surprise that 6,500 work days were lost last year due to our officers being attacked or assaulted. That is a rise of more than 400 days on the previous year.

The Scottish Police Federation recently wrote a letter to the Criminal Justice Committee, the content of which could not be more damning. It said:

“Police officers have throughout this pandemic felt neglected and unsupported by government. The impact on officer morale of that abandonment should not be underestimated.”

We have rising levels of assaults, rising levels of sick days and, now, rising criticism from the front line. We can surely do something about that. We propose doubling the maximum sentences for assaults on emergency workers. Will the First Minister back us on that? Is it not about time that we sent a clear message to our front-line workers that we in this Parliament—

A question, Mr Greene.

The question is, will the First Minister back the proposals? Let us send workers the message that we have got their backs.

I am very happy to consider any sensible proposal. Of course, sentencing is a matter for courts and judges. Judges retain, even in respect of short sentences, the discretion to pass the most appropriate sentence, based on the facts of the case, which includes a custodial sentence if they decide that the alternatives are not appropriate. Statistics show that the proportion of people who are given community sentences for convictions under the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 has actually remained very similar over the past 10 years. Nonetheless, we will consider any reasonable proposal.

This Government has supported the police throughout the pandemic, and we will continue to do so. Again, I express my deep gratitude to the police for everything that they have done in these really difficult circumstances. During our time in government, we have maintained the number of police officers above the level that we inherited, while we have seen numbers of police officers decline considerably in other parts of the United Kingdom. We will continue to support our police in all possible ways. I will end where I started, by thanking the police for what they do and condemning, in the strongest possible terms, anybody who chooses to abuse or attack our police officers.

As we all know, police officers have served their country during the pandemic in people’s homes; in accident and emergency departments in hospitals; and on our streets, working alongside other dedicated public service teams. As we have heard, they are exposed to significant risks in their jobs.

Has the First Minister questioned the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation clinicians on why police officers were not a priority for vaccination? I appreciate that, in the past, she has said that it is a matter for them. However, I wonder whether it is time to question why they would not be a priority for the booster programme. That decision should perhaps be reconsidered in the light of the exposure to risk, and so that we are clear as a Parliament, and as a Scottish Government, that we stand up for serving police officers who are facing those risks.

With regard to the vaccination programme so far, the JCVI has set out its rationale. The benefits of the vaccine are obviously greatest for those who are at greatest clinical risk, which is why the prioritisation approach that was taken was based on greatest clinical risk and on age, which is associated with clinical risk.

With regard to the overall programme, all police officers will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated, and any police officer who was in any of the higher clinical risk categories would have had the priority that flowed from that. It was important that we deployed the vaccine programme in the way that would best reduce the overall harm from the virus, and that is what we, in common with other Governments across the UK, have done.

These issues are possibly even more relevant to the booster programme, because the efficacy of the booster jag will be increased if it is given at the right time after a second dose. That is why the JCVI has recommended a six-month gap. It is important that we follow the best clinical and expert advice, and that we, as politicians, do not try to substitute our—understandable and often legitimate—political considerations for the clinical advice that will determine the order in which people are vaccinated so that the overall programme has the biggest impact on keeping the country safe.


Energy Price Increases (Engagement)

To ask the First Minister what engagement the Scottish Government has had with the United Kingdom Government and energy providers in light of the reported increase in wholesale prices. (S6F-00282)

I am particularly concerned about the impact of rising costs on consumers who are already struggling with pressures on household finances. While the increased default tariff cap reflects underlying increases in prices and will provide some protection for consumers over the coming price-cap period, many households will be badly affected by price rises.

We engage frequently with the United Kingdom Government, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, energy suppliers and third sector bodies to discuss the energy system overall. The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport has spoken with Ofgem’s chief executive to raise our concerns, which build on wider worries about the effect of high transmission charges in Scotland. He has also met a range of suppliers and consumer groups.

We have also written to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, highlighting our views and pressing for long-term solutions to maintain our energy resilience. In my view, it is vital—as I said a few moments ago—that the UK Government urgently considers financial support for low-income households in order to prevent fuel price increases from plunging more people into poverty this winter.

Yesterday afternoon, I convened a meeting of the Scottish Government’s resilience committee to discuss all those issues. We will continue to meet regularly to ensure that the Scottish Government—even though most of these matters are reserved to the UK Government—is doing everything possible to help those who are impacted.

This week, the UK Conservative business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has admitted that it could be a very difficult winter, with rising energy bills and the cut to universal credit. What assurances, if any, has the First Minister had from the UK Government that people will not be forced to choose between heating and eating this winter?

That will be the stark choice that many could face if appropriate action is not taken. I would not say that we have had any assurances from the UK Government to the effect that those choices will be avoided. We will continue to press for those assurances.

As we have been discussing in the context of the national health service, for all sorts of reasons and in different ways, the period ahead will be more difficult than any winter that most of us can remember. It is incumbent on all Governments—including the Scottish Government—to support people through the winter. Where issues are reserved to the UK Government, as many of the energy cost issues are, it is incumbent on the UK Government to do everything that it can to help, too.

I have already referred to two appropriate things that the UK Government can do: it can not go ahead with the cut to universal credit and it can consider additional financial support for low-income households to give then specific help with energy cost rises. We will continue to press the UK Government to do those two things.


Endometriosis (Diagnosis)

To ask the First Minister what steps are being taken to ensure that women who have endometriosis are diagnosed within a year. (S6F-00287)

Reducing the time for endometriosis diagnosis to under a year is a key aim in the women’s health plan. Work on that is already being undertaken by the national health service centre for sustainable delivery, which is developing a pelvic pain pathway, starting with endometriosis.

Over the past year, the Scottish Government has funded Endometriosis UK to carry out research to identify the challenges to diagnosis in primary care and the implementation of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guideline on endometriosis.

It is an important priority for many women across the country and we are committed to seeing real improvements in that area.

The women’s health plan sets out a goal to reduce endometriosis diagnosis from eight years to less than a year in this parliamentary session. However, there is very little detail on how the Government plans to reach that goal, especially in remote rural areas, where proximity to services poses a unique challenge. Campaigners in Caithness are calling for a review of all women’s services, including in relation to endometriosis, to highlight the challenges that they face. Will the First Minister listen to those campaigners and review women’s services in areas where there is a greater distance from such services, such as Caithness?

I am happy to consider that. We are listening and have listened on the issue. We are the first country in the United Kingdom to publish a women’s health plan. The plan sets out more than 60 different actions to ensure that women get the best possible health response throughout their lives.

A recent report from the UK all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis made some recommendations that we will consider further—they are already being considered in the context of the women’s health plan.

The particular target for endometriosis diagnosis is very challenging. Right now, the average time for diagnosis is more than eight years. It is right that we set a target to bring that down to under a year. A range of things have to be done to achieve that. I referred to the work that the centre for sustainable delivery is doing around the pelvic pain pathway, which is an important part of getting the interventions right, as is doing more to understand some of the barriers to diagnosis in primary care.

We will report regularly on progress on all the actions in the women’s health plan, and on that point in particular.

Several members want to ask supplementary questions on this issue. I regret that we are already over time and are impinging on the next item of business, so that will not be possible today.

I would like to enable more members to put questions to the First Minister during First Minister’s question time, but the length of some earlier questions and responses means that that is not possible today. I urge members to ensure that their questions and responses are as succinct as possible.