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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 23, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 23 November 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Building Regulations (Fire Safety), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Motion without Notice, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Scottish Growth Scheme

I take this opportunity to welcome Richard Leonard to his post. Despite the differences between our two parties, I believe that leadership is a privilege and can also be a joy, so I wish him well. [Applause.]

Let me move on to substantive matters. I ask the First Minister, is her Scottish growth scheme a con?

Let me also take the opportunity to congratulate Richard Leonard on his election as leader of Labour in Scotland and welcome him to his place today. I look forward to our exchanges taking place in just a few minutes’ time.

As Ruth Davidson is aware, the Scottish growth scheme was announced last year in the programme for government, and work has since been done to establish the scheme. Through the different strands of the Scottish growth scheme, we intend to see companies supported in the very near future.

Of course, we want to go further. We have announced our intention to establish a Scottish national investment bank to provide long-term, patient capital for Scottish businesses and support the strategic development of the Scottish economy—something that I would hope that members right across the chamber would support.

I asked the question because, in a parliamentary answer a few weeks ago, the Scottish Government confirmed that the first £50 million of the fund will come from the financial transactions budget. That is a method of funding that finance secretary Derek Mackay described yesterday as “a con”. Of course, when the First Minister announced her big Scottish growth scheme last year, she used quite different language. She said:

“This is a half-billion pound vote of confidence in Scottish business, Scottish workers and the Scottish economy.”

Like everyone else in this Parliament, I would welcome half a billion pounds of investment in the Scottish economy—if any penny of that were to appear quite soon. However, I am just curious as to whether the First Minister can explain why when the Scottish Government uses that method to invest in Scotland, it is a vote of confidence, but when the United Kingdom Government does it, it is a con.

Let me explain exactly why the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement in the budget yesterday is accurately described as a con, because I was watching. He stood up and said, without qualification, that his budget would deliver an extra £2 billion for Scotland. Here is what the Fraser of Allander institute said yesterday about the £1.1 billion of that that is in the form of financial transactions:

“Financial transactions ... can’t be used to support day-to-day spending on public services.”

The chancellor tried to give the impression that this was somehow a big boost to our health service, our education system and public services the length and breadth of the country but, as Ruth Davidson knows, that is far from the truth. In fact, the reality following yesterday’s budget is, as the Fraser of Allander institute confirmed, that Scotland is facing a real-terms cut in our day-to-day budget next year of more than £200 million, and more than £500 million over the next two years.

If Ruth Davidson is prepared to stand up in the chamber today and argue that that is somehow a good deal for Scotland, she is even more of a party stooge for her Westminster masters than I thought she was.

We usually hear from the Scottish National Party that it is not getting enough money. Today we have a brand new one: it is the wrong kind of money that it is being given. Money that can be spent on housing? No, thank you. Money to tackle fuel poverty? How dare the UK Government! Only this First Minister could be handed an extra £2 billion in spending power and still sound like somebody has stolen her scone. Should the First Minister not spend a little less time complaining about where the money is coming from and a bit more time thinking about the positive things that she can do with it?

If I was a Tory these days, I would not be standing up in Parliament and talking about scones, given the number of Scottish families who are being forced to food banks because of the policies of the Tory Government.

Here is another fact about the chancellor’s so-called largesse towards Scotland. Not only is it the case that this money, in the words of the Fraser of Allander institute,

“can’t be used to support day-to-day spending on public services”,

it has to be repaid by the Scottish Government to the UK Government.

Let us cut to the chase. I know that Ruth Davidson desperately wants to pretend that yesterday’s budget was a great deal for Scotland, but I invite her to address the central point, which is that, even if everything that she is saying about yesterday’s budget is true, after all that is taken into account, this Government’s day-to-day spending budget will be £200 million less in real terms next year. I invite Ruth Davidson to tell us where she thinks we should take that £200 million from? Should it be taken from the health service or education? If not those things, where does Ruth Davidson think that these Tory cuts should be made?

The First Minister is standing there telling us that she is being short-changed, but some of us think that an extra £2 billion more than she had when she woke up yesterday morning is quite a bit of extra change. That money is available now for the Scottish Government ahead of its budget next month.

The First Minister faces a test. At the election, we promised to raise the minimum wage and to increase the personal allowance so that we did not take that increase back in tax. Yesterday, that promise was delivered. The SNP promised to protect the basic rate of income tax and it is now preparing to hike it up. Is that not the difference between us? When it comes to tax, we keep our promises to Scotland’s workers and she breaks hers.

Ruth Davidson does not want to take my word for what the budget means for public spending in Scotland, so I will read word for word from the blog that the Fraser of Allander Institute published yesterday. I assume that no one in the chamber will question these findings. It says:

“the resource block grant remains on track to fall in real terms over the next two years.

By 2019/20 the resource block grant will be around £500 million lower than in 17/18”.

Over the next two years, £500 million will be cut from Scotland’s budget by the Tories, and Ruth Davidson has the nerve to stand up here and try to tell us that the Tories are doing us some kind of favour.

As we conclude our budget deliberations in the next few weeks, we will consider how to protect our public services in the face of those cuts, how we will protect vulnerable families, so many of whom have been forced into poverty and to food banks by the Tory Government, and how we can continue to invest in the infrastructure and support that our businesses need to thrive and grow the economy. We will take decisions that are in the interests of the people of Scotland while the Tories continue to impose cuts on the people of Scotland.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Cuts)

This morning, I had the honour of addressing a rally of firefighters from right across Scotland who are lobbying Parliament today. Those courageous women and men put their lives on the line to keep the rest of us safe. Since Scotland’s fire and rescue services were centralised, those heroic firefighters have seen more than 700 front-line jobs axed, and they have watched their pay being cut in real terms year upon year. They see a service that is in decline. Will the First Minister explain why, on her watch, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has been cut? (S5F-01731)

I will take this opportunity to pay tribute to our firefighters. They do a fantastic job day in, day out and, as Richard Leonard rightly said, they regularly put their lives on the line in the interests of our safety.

I will address the important issues that Richard Leonard has raised: it is because they are important that the SNP Government has increased the operational budget for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in this financial year by £21.7 million to support investment in equipment and resources. As a result of yesterday’s budget and after years of pressure by the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service will be able to reclaim £10 million in VAT next year, and will benefit from the whole of that additional £10 million.

Since reform of fire and rescue services, there have been no compulsory redundancies and no station closures. One hundred firefighters were recruited in January this year and a recruitment campaign for 300 additional firefighters will be launched next week. Our focus has been, and will continue to be, on protecting front-line services.

Pay negotiations for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service are on-going, as Richard Leonard will be aware. In terms of the next financial year, the Scottish Government remains, to this day, the only Government in the United Kingdom, including the Labour Government in Wales, that has given an unequivocal commitment to lifting the 1 per cent public sector pay cap. It is deeply regrettable that the other Governments—including the Labour Government in Wales—have not yet agreed to do likewise.

The poster of the Fire Brigades Union in Scotland made it clear that there should be no more cuts, so the people of Scotland will have to make up their minds whom they believe: the firefighters on the front line, or the First Minister on the side line.

Under my leadership, the Scottish Labour Party will work with the Government and the trade unions to try to claw back the millions of pounds that have been lost, but that in itself will not be enough. Will the First Minister guarantee that there will be no more cuts to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service?

I have just run through the facts for Richard Leonard. The operational budget for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service for this year has increased. Far from there being further cuts, which Richard Leonard asked about, the service has already recruited 100 extra firefighters this year and is about to open a recruitment campaign for 300 more firefighters on 30 November. That is increasing the number of front-line firefighters, not reducing it. As I said, we will ensure that the fire service gets the full benefit of the VAT that it can reclaim next year.

We will continue to stand up for front-line public services, for the people who work in our public services and for those who work in private companies, just as we did last week when getting a deal together to save Burntisland Fabrications and the jobs that depend on it. We will continue to act in the interests of public and private sector workers around Scotland, As we do so, I hope that we will have the support of Richard Leonard and his colleagues.

It is not just the firefighters whom this Government is failing. After seven years of Tory austerity and a decade of mediocrity and indifference from the SNP, the results are falling wages, shrinking public services, rising poverty and widening inequality. Local government budgets have been decimated, and a quarter of a million children are living in poverty. Hundreds of thousands of pensioners will face the choice this winter between eating and heating.

More of the same just will not do; Scotland needs real and radical change. Will the First Minister stand up for Scotland’s firefighters and public service workers, and stand up for all of Scotland’s people? Will she finally use the powers of this Parliament to stop the cuts?

I think that I heard Richard Leonard mention, in that rather rambling question, the issue of pensions, which I remind him is a reserved matter. However, if he wants to join us in a campaign to devolve responsibility for pensions to this Parliament, I will be delighted.

We have opposed and will continue to oppose austerity. I remind Richard Leonard that the current period of austerity was actually started by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling under the last Labour Government.

Mr Leonard also mentioned wages, I say again that this Government, unlike any other in the UK, has committed to lifting the 1 per cent public sector pay cap. That will form part of the budget that we will present to Parliament in just a couple of weeks. I suggest to Mr Leonard that it is easy for Labour, out of power, to call on those in Government to do things, but such calls are not credible when, in the only part of the UK where Labour is in power, it refuses to do the things that Labour in this Parliament is calling on us to do. Before Richard Leonard next asks me to do those things, he should persuade the First Minister of Wales—the Labour First Minister of Wales—to do them, too.

The budget that we will introduce will be a budget to protect public services and the low-income and vulnerable people of our country. Overall, it will be about standing up for Scotland, and when we publish it, I will challenge all parties across the chamber to back it in the interests of the country that we serve.

United Kingdom Budget

I, too, congratulate Richard Leonard on his election and welcome him to his place on the Labour front bench.

One of the most short-sighted mistakes in the United Kingdom budget is the decision to cut stamp duty, which all serious analysis shows will push house prices even higher and entirely fail to benefit first-time buyers. Moreover, the proposed methods of investment in new housing are likely to provide more benefit to developers and landowners than to people who are truly in need of genuinely affordable housing.

The equivalent of stamp duty is devolved in Scotland, but the Scottish Government has previously given ground to pressure from the Tories by cutting it to compete with George Osborne’s policy. Will the First Minister give a clear guarantee that the Scottish Government will not repeat that mistake and will this time refuse to follow a foolish decision by a UK Government? (S5F-01732)

Of course, we already have a more progressive system; what is called stamp duty south of the border is called land and buildings transaction tax here in Scotland. Yesterday, the Treasury said that the policy announced in the budget was intended to exempt 80 per cent of first-time buyers from stamp duty, but let me run through the current position here. In Scotland, 65 per cent of first-time buyers are completely exempt from LBTT; 80 per cent already pay either no tax at all or less than £600 in LBTT; and 100 per cent of first-time buyers who buy at or below the average Scottish house price are already exempt from the tax. We already provide much more generous support to first-time buyers.

Of course, as we finalise our budget over the next couple of weeks, we will consider whether it is appropriate to give any further assistance to first-time buyers. In that respect, two points will be very much part of our consideration. First, house prices in Scotland are lower than those in the rest of the UK; for example, a house that costs £300,000 in the rest of the UK would cost around £175,000 in Scotland. Secondly, we will, of course, be very mindful of the point that Patrick Harvie has made. Yesterday, the Office for Budget Responsibility said that, in its view, the policy announced by the chancellor will push up house prices and result in first-time buyers paying more for their houses than they would have paid without the policy. Even with the voodoo economics that we get from the Tories, I do not think that that makes much sense. Those are the considerations that we will have in mind as we finalise our budget proposals over the next couple of weeks.

I agree that it would not make much sense; indeed, it did not make much sense the last time the Scottish Government did it. Throwing tax cuts into a dysfunctional housing market solves nothing.

Of course, housing is not the only area in which the UK Government is determined to help those who are least in need. We have yet another income tax cut for high earners, while people who work hard to deliver public services have still not been given a fair pay rise. If the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader meant what he said in the Westminster chamber yesterday—that public sector pay should match the cost of living, a statement that I do not think we have heard from the First Minister yet—and if we are to see that and to avoid handing on Tory cuts to our local services and other parts of the Scottish budget, is it not time for the First Minister to come off the fence on income tax and to accept that we need a radical redesign along the lines that the Green Party has proposed: protecting low earners, cutting inequality and raising revenue from the likes of the First Minister and me, who can afford to pay more, to invest in the services that our country needs?

On the specific proposals that the Green Party put forward at the election, the detail of the paper that we published just a couple of weeks ago shows that what would be raised from those proposals would certainly give us pause for thought about whether that was, in fact, the right way to go. However, we have set out options around income tax that will allow us, if we choose to follow any of the options, to see tax revenue make a contribution to meeting the challenges that we face in our budget.

On public sector pay, I have been very clear that the 1 per cent pay cap should be lifted and that we have to have pay settlements for those in our public sector that are, of course, affordable—that is just a statement of fact—but which also reflect the real-life living circumstances of public sector workers.

I know that everybody across the chamber—and no doubt those in the press gallery, too—understandably wants to hear me say today specifically what our proposals on tax and public sector pay will be when we produce our budget. However, we will go through the perhaps less dramatic but certainly more appropriate process of finalising our budget proposals and presenting them to the Parliament in just a couple of weeks’ time, and then everybody will be able to debate them and—I hope—support them, because the proposals that we put forward will be in the overall interests of this country, its people, its public services and its economy.

We have a number of supplementary questions, the first of which is from Marie Gougeon.

Dundee (European Capital of Culture Bid)

The First Minister has no doubt heard the news today that Dundee’s bid to become the European capital of culture in 2023 has been dealt a fatal blow because, according to reports, the United Kingdom will no longer be able to host the European capital of culture because of Brexit. Dundee’s bid had the potential to have a massive positive impact not just for Dundee, but for the likes of my Angus North and Mearns constituency and the wider north-east. What conversations have the First Minister and the Scottish Government had with the UK Government on the matter?

I thank Marie Gougeon for raising that issue. I am absolutely dismayed by the news that I heard this morning from the European Commission that Dundee’s European capital of culture bid looks as if it will be the latest victim of the Tories’ obsession with taking this country out of the European Union against our will, and they should hang their heads in shame.

The Scottish Government, of course, anticipated the issues concerned; late last year, Fiona Hyslop wrote to the UK Government to highlight the enormous benefits that international cultural engagement can bring and to seek reassurances then that the UK would continue to participate in partnerships like the European capital of culture. It is now deeply concerning that the amount of time, effort and expense that Dundee has put into scoping out its bid could be wasted, thanks to the Brexit policy of the Tory Government.

We are now in urgent contact with the UK Government and Dundee to understand the potential implications of the situation and to establish what action the UK Government will take to address it. Let me leave the chamber in no doubt: I call on the UK Government today to make clear not just why this has happened but how it intends to fix it so that Dundee can continue to aspire to be the European capital of culture that it so richly deserves to be.

Dads Rock

Will the First Minister join me in expressing concern that Dads Rock, a charity based here in Lothian that is well known to the Scottish Government for the good work that it does in helping dads to develop better relationships with their children, is having to reduce services, including play groups and counselling, following recent funding cuts? Will she ask her officials to meet me and Dads Rock to see what help can be given in the short term and long term to support that worthy cause?

First, I thank Jeremy Balfour for raising the issue of Dads Rock, which is an organisation that I know of, having seen at first hand the excellent work that it does to help fathers develop better relationships with their children; for the good of society overall, that is a very worthwhile cause. I will have my officials look into the particular issue that Jeremy Balfour raises and write to him once they have had the opportunity to do so.

The final point that I would make, which is not intended to have a go at Jeremy Balfour, who is legitimately raising an important constituency issue, is that here we are seeing one of just many of the real-life implications of what I was saying to Ruth Davidson earlier: next year, we face a £200 million real-terms cut in our day-to-day budget and these are the kind of implications that we will have to face as a result. I am afraid that that is bringing the Tories face to face with the real consequences of the budget decisions that they make.


I remind the chamber that I am a board member of Remembering Srebrenica Scotland and the parliamentary liaison officer to the First Minister.

Yesterday, former Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic was jailed for life for atrocities committed in the 1990s Bosnian war, including the 1995 genocide at Srebrenica, in which more than 8,000 mainly Muslim men and boys were slaughtered. That verdict will be of interest to many in Scotland, particularly those in our Bosnian community. Does the First Minister agree that yesterday’s verdict is a tribute to the international community that has importantly worked together, and particularly to groups such as the Mothers of Srebrenica who have campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the victims? Will the First Minister commit Scotland to helping in any way it can to deliver a stable and prosperous future for our friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

I share Gail Ross’s sentiments. I very much welcome yesterday’s verdict and the sentence handed down to Ratko Mladic.

I have visited Srebrenica, as I know that other members have—I visited the memorial at Potocari. I know from the people I met there how much this verdict and sentence will mean to them, to all who suffered in the 1995 genocide and indeed to everybody across Bosnia-Herzegovina who suffered as a result of genocide and war.

We need to ensure that the victims of violence—and perhaps in particular the victims of sexual violence—are heard and the crimes against them are not forgotten. Groups such as the Mothers of Srebrenica, who I have had the privilege of meeting, provide an inspiration for us all—Governments and communities right across the world—to act to reduce and ultimately eradicate violence against women. Today it is appropriate for all of us in this Parliament, on behalf of the people of Scotland, to send a message of commemoration, solidarity and support to the people of Srebrenica.

United Kingdom Budget

Yesterday the independent Fraser of Allander institute passed its verdict on the United Kingdom Government’s budget and branded UK growth prospects as “dire”.

I am an MSP for a rural part of Scotland that will feel the impact first—and I am parliamentary liaison officer for the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution. Does the First Minister agree that the case for continued membership of the single market is growing stronger by the day?

Yes, I do. The case for remaining within the European Union is possibly growing stronger by the day, but as a minimum we should remain within the single market and the customs union.

We are starting to see, on almost a daily basis, the consequences of Brexit, from the confirmation earlier this week that the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority are to leave London for other European capitals, to the news today about Dundee’s European capital of culture bid, to some real financial consequences.

It was striking that in yesterday’s budget the chancellor set aside more money to deal with the consequences of a Tory hard Brexit than he set aside to help the national health service with the pressures that it faces. That says everything that we need to know about the warped priorities of the Tory Government at Westminster.

As every day passes and the consequences become more stark, the case for making sure that our country is not ripped out of the European single market will get ever stronger.

United Kingdom Budget

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the autumn budget. (S5F-01753)

Yesterday’s budget provided few measures to grow the economy, tackle inequality or invest in public services. The announcements in relation to the North Sea and ending the VAT obligation on police and fire services are certainly welcome, albeit long overdue.

However, as I have said, our block grant for day-to-day public spending has been cut by more than £200 million in real terms next year, and by 2019-20, our discretionary budget will have been reduced by £2.6 billion in real terms over the decade.

Although the budget provides some consequentials, more than half of those are financial transactions, which the Scottish Government cannot spend on front-line public services and which have to be repaid to the Treasury. Overall, the budget contained little to help Scottish households, businesses or public services.

I note the real-terms cut to Scotland’s revenue, which is a real disappointment. Yesterday, revised Office for Budget Responsibility growth figures underlined the fact that Tory austerity is failing. On top of that, average wages are set to fall and taxpayers will pay through the nose for Brexit. When Scotland badly needs growth in our economy, is it not time for real investment with no strings attached and more powers for this Parliament to grow our economy?

I agree that the more power that we have in this Parliament to take our own decisions, the better it will be for people the length and breadth of our country.

The Resolution Foundation is reporting this morning—this is a serious point that I know the Tories will not want to listen to, but they really should—that average pay will not return to its pre-crisis level until 2025. That will be 17 years after the pay squeeze began. In the budget yesterday there was not one single extra penny confirmed to help lift public sector pay. That is the priority that we see the Westminster Government attach to the living standards of people across our country.

We will use next month’s budget to put forward an alternative approach that allows us to invest in our public services and also allows us to protect those who are on the lowest incomes in Scotland from the impact of the Tory cuts that are biting so hard.

The chancellor announced yesterday that the Scottish police and fire services can now reclaim VAT, thanks to pressure from 13 Scottish Conservative MPs in Westminster. [Interruption.] Will the First Minister now accept that that was a mess—

Order, please.

—entirely of the SNP’s own making. It went in to the police and fire services mergers with its eyes fully open, fully aware of the consequences of its actions. [Interruption.]

Quiet, please.

Will the First Minister now take the opportunity to thank the Conservative chancellor for clearing up the SNP’s mess for it?

I increasingly love it when Murdo Fraser gets to his feet. It is like Christmas come early every week. I remind the chamber what one Murdo Fraser—I assume that he is the same one we have just heard from—said about a police and fire VAT refund, not eons ago but just a matter of weeks ago. On 31 October 2017, Murdo Fraser got to his feet in the chamber and said:

“there is no justification for a VAT refund”—[Official Report, 31 October 2017; c 77.]

for police and fire services. I think that it was really, really cruel of his Tory colleagues at Westminster to prove him so completely and utterly wrong—but then, he is often completely and utterly wrong.

Yesterday, the Tories were forced to concede that they have been wrong all along on this issue. The argument is that it was all because the SNP pursued a policy of a single police force. Do members know the flaw in the Tories’ making that argument? The Tories also proposed a single police force. The argument that it is all a mess caused by SNP policy kind of falls apart when we see that the Tories had exactly the same policy all along.

The fact is that the Tories knew that they were in the wrong and in an indefensible position, but refusing to do the right thing until they thought that they could somehow wring some party political advantage out of it just shows how small-minded and partisan the Tories are. It reflects really badly on them.

My final point is this: having conceded that it is wrong to take VAT out of the pockets of our emergency services, it is not enough just to fix it for the future. Let us have back the £140 million that has been nicked from our emergency services.

Local Government (Funding)

The First Minister will be aware that, last week, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities published a report demonstrating how the Scottish National Party Government has systematically penalised local government, resulting in £1.5 billion of cuts and 15,000 job losses. The issue is not just the figures but the impact on local communities, the day centres that have closed and the libraries that have disappeared from local areas. The First Minister has fudged the issue of taxation all the way through this parliamentary session. When will she finally show some leadership and produce a budget that uses the powers of the Parliament to deliver progressive taxation and give fair funding to local government in order to protect local jobs and services?

James Kelly asks when we will set out our position on tax and on all the other matters. The answer to that question, which I think he knows, is 14 December, when we will publish our budget in the chamber.

The member talks about local government funding, which is a very important aspect of our budget considerations. In the budget for this financial year, we took steps to protect the spending power of local government. In fact, we increased the spending power of local government considerably, and we will continue to do everything that we can to protect front-line services.

I say again what I have said previously to Labour members who have stood up in the chamber and raised the issue of local government budgets. Last year, we gave councils the option to increase their council tax by up to 3 per cent to help with the pressures. The only councils that thought they had enough money and did not have to do that were Labour councils. Labour stands here calling for more money, but its own councils ignore it by refusing to use the options that they have to raise more money. It seems as though Labour councils listen to James Kelly just as closely as Kezia Dugdale did when he told her that she was not allowed to go to the jungle.

Scottish Ambulance Service (Work Pressure)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the recently published internal staff survey from the Scottish Ambulance Service, which suggests that work pressure had affected the health of more than half of the respondents. (S5F-01734)

The Scottish Ambulance Service staff who responded to more than 740,000 incidents last year provide an exceptional service across Scotland, often in the most difficult circumstances. Yesterday, the health secretary met the chief executive of the Scottish Ambulance Service to set out our expectations of the support for the health and wellbeing of staff.

Pauline Howie, who is the chief executive of the Ambulance Service, and her senior team are considering the findings of the survey in detail. They are clear that they will take additional steps to address the issues raised.

Back in June 2008, when the First Minister was the health secretary, she gave the Scottish Ambulance Service one month to introduce plans to end the single staffing of its emergency ambulances and told it to

“take action to eliminate rostered single manning.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2008; c 9260.]

However, a freedom of information request shows that, last year, single manning occurred more than 2,200 times. What reassurances will the First Minister give to front-line staff that that situation will not continue and that they will not be put in that intolerable position?

The single crewing of ambulances should happen only in exceptional circumstances, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely with the Scottish Ambulance Service. The most recent quarterly figures, which are for April to June 2017, show that the number of single-crewed shifts increased slightly, by 28 shifts, on the previous quarter but that they remained only 1.3 per cent of the total number of shifts that were carried out over that period. We will continue to work closely with the Ambulance Service to ensure that single manning occurs only in genuinely exceptional circumstances.

We are committed to supporting the Ambulance Service to train 1,000 additional paramedics over this parliamentary session to further reduce the pressures on accident and emergency services and to support primary care transformation. That work is under way.

As I have said, those who work in our Ambulance Service do an exceptional job. We all recognise that working for the Ambulance Service is one of the most challenging jobs that anybody could do. The Ambulance Service has an employee assistance programme, which includes counselling for staff who witness dramatic events, therapeutic services and fast-track access to physiotherapy, for example. As part of its consideration of the survey, the Scottish Ambulance Service will consider what further steps it needs to take to give the appropriate support to those who work for it.

Student Minimum Income Entitlement

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government plans to take to support students, in light of the call in the report, “A New Social Contract for Students: Fairness, Parity and Clarity”, for them to be given a minimum income entitlement of £8,100 per year. (S5F-01740)

The Government is committed to ensuring that all students, especially those in our most deprived communities, are provided with the financial support that they need to succeed. That is why we commissioned the independent review of student support. I thank Jayne-Anne Gadhia and the members of the review board for all their hard work on that over the past year.

The report sets out a number of recommendations that would fundamentally change the way that students are supported. It is only right that we now take some time to consider those recommendations in detail and, of course, as part of the current budget process and future budget processes. We will set out our next steps in due course.

The key question for the Government’s response is the balance that it strikes between grants and loans. The review’s central recommendation is disappointing in that it would embed the cuts to grants for university students that the Government made in 2013 and would, yet again, increase student indebtedness. Those debt levels have already doubled under the Government in spite of its promise to “Dump the Debt”, and poorer students come out of university with the highest debt. Will the First Minister now listen to the National Union of Students Scotland and shift the balance of student support back towards higher grants rather than there being just more debt?

On a point of consensus, Iain Gray is right in saying that that is not the only key point that is relevant to the Government’s response to the report—it is one of the key points. As I said, we will respond to the report in due course after carefully considering the recommendations.

I do not disagree with Iain Gray about the importance of the issue, but the level of total student support is now up. The average support per student is now up, more full-time higher education students than ever are receiving support and almost 3,000 additional students qualified for a non-repayable bursary or saw their funding increase last year. Those are the results of the decision that we took to raise the income threshold for bursaries. We also paid out more in grants and bursaries last year than in the previous year.

That is our record. We now want to consider how we will build on that.

I understand the issues that are raised by student debt—indeed, that is one reason why we are so determined to keep tuition fees out of Scotland. However, the average student loan debt in Scotland is significantly lower than it is in any other part of the United Kingdom. In England, the average student loan debt is £32,220; in Scotland, it is £11,740.

We have work to do, and the report provides us with the basis on which to do that work. However, it is important to recognise that, in many respects, students in Scotland get much greater support than students elsewhere in the UK.

How will the Scottish Government meet its commitment to raise the student loan repayment threshold and reduce the payment term?

We are actively considering how to do that. It was a manifesto commitment that we made at the most recent election. We had already committed to that even before the report was published this week, and we will shortly set out the details of how we will meet that particular commitment.

St John’s Hospital (Accident and Emergency Waiting Times)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to concerns that A and E waiting times at St John’s Hospital have been misrepresented. (S5F-01746)

I declare an interest in that both my wife and my daughter work in St John’s hospital.

The Government’s concern is reflected in the action that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has taken. Last week, she ordered an independent review of concerns about waiting times practices and staff pressure in St John’s hospital accident and emergency department. That followed her instructing NHS Lothian to examine the claims that were raised with her by a whistleblower, which confirmed certain areas of concern. As a result, she asked the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties in Scotland to undertake an external review to investigate those concerns. That review will report back to her early in the new year.

This week, the Health and Sport Committee heard from representatives of accident and emergency staff, doctors, allied health professionals and nurses how staff shortages and cuts are impacting on staff morale, the culture across the national health service and, ultimately, patient care. I hear repeatedly from staff at St John’s hospital who desperately want to do their job well but are unable to do so because there are not enough staff. The latest revelations about the misreporting of waiting times appear to be yet more evidence of that. In the forthcoming budget, will the First Minister ensure that the NHS is fully funded and staffed appropriately and safely and that those who care for us are paid a fair wage for their efforts?

I agree with Neil Findlay’s comments about the importance of the work of those who work in our NHS in general—particularly those who work in accident and emergency departments.

As a former health secretary, as the First Minister and as a citizen of this country, I readily recognise the pressure that those who work in our health service are under. The job has always involved people working under pressure but, with our ageing population, we know that the pressure is increasing. That is why we have increased the budget of the front-line health service by providing an additional £3 billion over the tenure of this Government so far, and it is why, at the election last year, we had the most extensive commitment of any party to additional funding for the NHS over this parliamentary session.

We see additional people working in the health service and, as well as additional funding, we need to see continued reform of how health services work and how they work in conjunction with social care services.

We will continue working, through the budget that will come to the Parliament in a couple of weeks’ time and beyond it, to make the best possible decisions to ensure that our health service has the support that it needs.

That concludes First Minister’s questions.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am sure that the First Minister did not mean to mislead the chamber or the public, but I would like to clarify that the funding cut to Dads Rock came from third-party organisations, not from national Government either here or at Westminster.

Thank you for that clarification. However, I am not sure that it was a point of order.