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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 23, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 December 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

The next item of business is First Minister’s question time. Members who wish to ask constituency or general supplementary questions should press their request-to-speak button during question 2. Members who wish to ask supplementary questions to questions 3 to 6 should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

Covid-19 (Self-isolation Rules)

I wish everyone in Parliament and across Scotland a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy new year when it comes.

I want to return to the issue of the self-isolation rules, which I have raised with the First Minister at the previous two Covid updates. We have been seeking changes to the household contacts who can end self-isolation with a negative test and a reduction in the 10-day self-isolating period if someone tests negative twice. Those changes would help to protect our essential services and our economy from grinding to a halt because of staff absences. The Government has already adapted its position on those rules. Will the First Minister now go further and make those necessary changes?

I wish the Presiding Officer, everyone across our Parliament and, indeed, everyone across the country a very happy and safe Christmas. I know that we all hope and wish for a much brighter and healthier new year.

The issue that Douglas Ross has raised is one of the most important issues that the Government is grappling with now and will grapple with over the days to come. In short, the answer to the question is yes, we will make changes just as soon as the public health advice says that the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks of doing so.

To be fair to Douglas Ross, I think that he has captured this point in his question. When we make changes to the self-isolation rules, I want us to try to do that not in a piecemeal way but in an overall, coherent way, so that there are not just changes to the isolation rules for index cases—for those who are infectious—but changes to the rules for contacts, particularly household contacts, who currently have the most stringent isolation rules.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and I discuss these issues with public health and clinical advisers literally on a daily basis. Given the very fragile stage that we are at with omicron, the advice right now is that we must be careful that, in easing self-isolation, we do not inadvertently allow further spread of the virus and thereby compound rather than alleviate a problem. However, as soon as the public health advice says that it is safe to do so, we will, of course, do so. I hope that, over the next days—certainly the next couple of weeks—we will start to move to a more proportionate system of self-isolation.

I recognise the impact on the economy of people becoming infected and having to self-isolate—in fact, I have cited that as one of the reasons why we need to take omicron very seriously. That is why, from today, we have updated guidance on sector-based exemptions for certain industries to try to alleviate the pressure now, while we consider the wider impact on key sectors of our economy.

The First Minister said that we need to be careful. We understand the need for caution, but the current rules are not sustainable. The First Minister started to say that it might be days, and she went on to say that it could be weeks. That is troubling, because the rules are leading to a shortage of workers in our vital services, in our transport system and across the public sector right now. The rules are forcing whole families and households to self-isolate for 10 days, even if they have tested negative.

The First Minister accepted that exemptions were necessary and introduced them, and she has just mentioned sector-specific guidance. However, we hear concerns about how long it takes to get those exemptions granted and, indeed, the numbers that have been approved. People throughout Scotland cannot afford the situation to continue for weeks, as the First Ministers said. Can we really afford to leave the rules as they are in the interim period when essential services and our economy are already taking a hit?

I will come back to the point about essential services and the economy.

I recognise the importance of the issue, and I ask Douglas Ross to recognise that there is a difficult balance to strike, particularly at the moment. The first and perhaps most fundamental point to make, because it feeds into the process of consideration that we are undertaking, is that it is not the self-isolation rules that are hampering the economy; it is the virus that is hampering the economy. The reason why we have tightened the isolation rules for household contacts is that one of the things that we already know about omicron is that it has a much higher attack rate within groups of people who live closely together. Therefore, even more than was the case with previous strains, if one member of a household tests positive or is positive for omicron, the likelihood is that all members of that household, or significant numbers of it, will become positive in the days that follow.

That is why we need to be cautious. The danger is that, if we move away from that too quickly, all that we will do is spread more infection, and the impact on the economy, which I absolutely recognise, will get greater. We need to be careful about that. I absolutely agree that we should not take too long, but nor should we move too quickly at this critical stage of trying to manage our way through the omicron challenge.

The point about critical services and the economy is that quite a significant number of exemptions have been approved, but we have moved—the updated guidance has been published today—to a sector-based exemption process. The advice and the consideration that the Government has given is that that is more likely in the short term to alleviate the pressures on the economy in a safe and sustainable way than opening up the self-isolation rules much more widely now.

However, this is something that is going to change in the period ahead. I know that Douglas Ross picked up on my use of the words “days” and “weeks”. There is uncertainty about this. I hope that it is soon, but we cannot take a view that we need to base what we do on careful public health considerations and then arbitrarily set a date for doing it. This is something that, even over the Christmas period that is ahead, the Government will be reviewing very carefully. Just as soon as the public health advice says that the benefits outweigh the risks, we will move to a more proportionate system, but in the meantime, through the exemptions scheme, we will work to alleviate the pressure that is being felt on the economy, and particularly on critical services.

The First Minister has just said that she is basing her decisions on public health advice, so let us look at what experts in public health are saying right now.

The epidemiologist Irene Petersen said yesterday that a move to a seven-day isolation period is a good idea. Clinical advisers to the United Kingdom Government have also endorsed the move. Yesterday, we received a game-changing Scottish study on omicron. It is one of the most detailed and promising studies to date, and it says that the evidence shows that omicron is substantially

“less likely to result in COVID-19 hospitalisation than Delta.”

It confirms that the booster dose offers

“substantial additional protection”

and it suggests that the

“reduced severity may also have implications for isolation rules”.

Does that report, which was published last night, not give us a basis to change the rules now and avoid the risk of threatening the viability of essential services and our economy?

I will come on to the very encouraging study that was published yesterday in a moment. That is important, but I also think that it is important that we get the timing of all this right.

Douglas Ross talked about and quoted clinical advisers. He talked about the clinical advisers to the UK Government. I am not dismissing the views of any of those people, but I think that most people would accept that the clinical advisers that I have to listen to most carefully are the clinical advisers to the Scottish Government. We are basing our very careful considerations on the advice that we are being given and, of course, that advice will continue to inform the difficult judgments that we make.

Two studies were published yesterday—the Scottish study and another study from Imperial College London. They are very encouraging, because they suggest that the proportion of people with omicron who are requiring hospital care might be lower. They estimate that there is a 30 to 70 per cent lower risk of people needing hospital care than there was with previous strains. That is all good but, where we are right now, we have to take care that we do not allow the much higher transmissibility of omicron to outweigh the benefits of, perhaps, its lower severity.

Let me quote some of the authors of those reports. Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, who is one of the authors of the Edinburgh report, said:

“An individual infection could be relatively mild for the vast majority of people, but the potential for all these infections to come at once and put serious strain on the NHS remains.”

Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London said:

“It is clearly good news, to a degree.”

However, he said that the reduction is

“not sufficient to dramatically change the modelling”

and that the speed with which omicron is spreading means that

“there’s the potential of still getting hospitalisations in numbers that could put the NHS in a difficult position”.

We need to take care at this critical moment because, if we allow the spread of omicron to get too far ahead of us, even if it is significantly less severe, that is going to overwhelm us. Therefore, anything that we do right now that risks increasing spread, such as removing or weakening self-isolation rules too quickly, could be seriously counterproductive just at the point where we see some very good news on omicron.

These are difficult judgments and they require difficult deliberation. That is what the Scottish Government will continue to give these questions in a very serious manner.

The First Minister prefaced her answer by saying that she has to take advice from Scottish Government clinical advisers. Is she telling Parliament that their advice is different from the advice that I cited from the UK Government? I am not making a political point. [Interruption.] The First Minister says, “Clearly”. They are independent advisers so, if the UK Government is getting advice on self-isolation rules, what is the different advice that the First Minister is getting from her clinical advisers in Scotland?

The changes that we are calling for are necessary to protect essential services and our economy. The First Minister wants to be cautious, but she seems too cautious. Why do people who have tested negative for Covid need to remain in isolation for 10 days? That level of caution belonged before we had the data from the new study that was announced last night. Does the First Minister not recognise that, although we need to tackle Covid, we also need our services to function fully and our economy to keep running?

I accept all that, but I stress and underline the point that, if we act rashly in these days—I am talking days—we risk a counterproductive effect that makes what we are living through longer rather than shorter. That is the weight of responsibility that rests on the shoulders of those of us who have to take the decisions. The new studies are positive, but they are also early data, as the authors point out. When even the authors tell us not to get carried away yet with what the studies tell us, we should listen.

Clinical advisers advise Governments and it is up to the elected decision makers to decide how much weight to put on that advice. I accept that, ultimately, the buck stops with me in terms of decisions, but I listen carefully to clinical advice. It is for the UK Government to do likewise. I know that there will be clinical advisers advising the UK Government right now to do what the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive have done and impose a few more protections to try to slow down omicron but, as is its right, the UK Government is deciding not to do that.

We are all coming to our decisions. I am following the advice that is given to me by clinicians and experts, applying my judgment to that with my Government colleagues and coming to a balanced decision. Yes, we hope that, in the very near future, we will feel much more confident about opening things up in all sorts of ways because we know much more about omicron. We are not quite at that stage yet, despite the positive reports and, if we move too quickly, by the time the Parliament returns after recess, I suspect that members from around the chamber would look at me and ask why I did it and prolonged the agony that we are living through.

Making these decisions is not a perfect or exact science all the time but, particularly at critical moments such as this one, these judgments are very important. If we err on the side of too much caution and things work out better than we hoped, we will be able to lift the restrictions earlier but, if we err on the other side, we do a lot more damage and some of that damage is measured in human lives. That is why these judgments are so important and why we must take them so seriously.

Homelessness (Rough Sleeping)

Presiding Officer, I wish you, everyone in the Parliament and everyone in the country a merry Christmas and a healthy, happy and peaceful new year.

During the first wave of the pandemic, a huge effort was made to reduce rough sleeping in Scotland. If we took urgent action then, we should take it now, although it should not take a virus for us to act. Covid remains a risk and, as we head into the coldest month of the year, the Government’s most recent homeless statistics show that nearly 2,500 people who made a homeless application had slept rough in the three months before. Nearly 1,500 had slept rough the night before applying. That is clearly an underestimation of the true numbers of people sleeping rough in Scotland. Will the First Minister guarantee that, as we head towards Christmas, no one will have to sleep on the streets this winter?

The Government will certainly do everything in its power to ensure that that is the case. We are working with, and I pay tribute to the efforts of, organisations on the front line of the issue. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, one of those organisations made the point that the numbers of people rough sleeping in the city of Glasgow, which is home to Anas Sarwar and me, had reduced markedly, which is positive.

However, many people are still at risk of homelessness and of rough sleeping. We have updated the ending homelessness together action plan and we are investing significantly in making sure that there are support services for people who face the risk of homelessness or rough sleeping. We will continue to do what we can and work with others to make sure that nobody is on the streets over this winter period.

I welcome any reduction in rough sleeping, but those numbers are disputed. One person rough sleeping is one person too many. I hear what the First Minister says, but that still means that people will sleep rough this winter, and it does not need to be that way. We can eradicate rough sleeping now, but that means taking real action to end homelessness, too.

Once people find their way into temporary accommodation, it should be just that—temporary. A home is more than four walls and a roof above your head; it is a basic human right. Too many people will spend this Christmas in temporary accommodation. The most recent Government statistics show that there are more than 3,500 households, with children or a pregnant woman, in temporary accommodation. On average, a couple with a child stay in temporary accommodation for 341 days, but in some parts of Scotland it is as many as 865 days. That is more than two years without a home to call your own.

Scottish Labour has a housing strategy that includes new homes, fair rents and banning winter evictions—

Can I have a question, please?

Will the Government support our strategy?

I am certainly happy to look at any proposals that could help us collectively tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. The Scottish Government does not just have a strategy; we are implementing policies and proposals. We have funded record numbers of new affordable homes and we have investment plans to do more of that. We are investing in the housing first approach, which is an important way of making sure that those who have experienced homelessness or are at risk of homelessness move into settled accommodation and have support services around them, so that they can sustain that accommodation.

I agree with the point that temporary accommodation should be temporary. I know that local councils work very hard to move people from temporary to permanent settled accommodation. During the period of the pandemic, when the first priority has often been to get people off the streets and into accommodation, the numbers of people in temporary accommodation have risen. Temporary accommodation is often of good quality, but that is not always the case, and it can take time for local authorities to find the right accommodation, particularly for families and for larger families. The principle of temporary meaning temporary is a very important one.

This is an area of priority for the Government; even our critics would say that there is a lot of good work being done, but I am always open minded to other suggestions and proposals.

The problem has been getting worse year on year since 2013, long before the pandemic. The Government was on track to miss its housing target before Covid, which is why we need a coherent plan to end homelessness, but we must act to eradicate rough sleeping now. Organisations the length and breadth of the country will be working through Christmas and new year to support the most vulnerable. I visited one of them recently, the Homeless Project Scotland, to see its amazing work. I pay tribute to all the charities and each and every one of the volunteers. They should not have to do it, but thank goodness that they do.

However, Government needs to do its job, too. To eradicate rough sleeping this Christmas, will the First Minister commit to outreach support during the night to help identify people sleeping rough on our streets and find them accommodation? Will she open up public buildings to allow volunteers to feed the most vulnerable in a safe, warm setting where support services are also present to help? Let us not deflect responsibility; let us act to end rough sleeping, because this is about who we are and what we are willing to tolerate.

I do not think that anybody listening to me would have heard me deflect responsibility on to anyone. This is a collective challenge. Central Government has a leadership obligation, local government has a big obligation—I will come back to that in a second—but we work with fantastic charities and voluntary organisations that do most on the front line.

In relation to affordable housing—this is a statement of fact—Scotland has led the way in the United Kingdom on the delivery of affordable housing. More than 105,000 affordable homes have been delivered since 2007, and more than 70,000 of those are for social rent, which is way in excess of anything that has been done elsewhere in the UK. However, it is about more than that, which is an important point to recognise; it is about the support that is provided to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Through the ending homelessness together fund, we have already increased funding to enable those on the front line to much more rapidly help people and have access to the funding to do that. I am certainly happy to ask the housing minister to look at whether there is more that we can and need to do ahead of the festive period and into the winter.

I am happy to explore the point about public buildings. Of course, many public buildings are in the ownership not of the Scottish Government, but of local authorities, and there are often issues that they have to deal with around that. We have seen that in Glasgow in recent times. We take all those issues really seriously and we are doing a significant and huge amount of work across all those strands.

I will end on a point of consensus. I agree that, for as long as one person is sleeping rough in our streets, there is more for all of us to do, which is why I will never close my mind to suggestions and proposals, no matter where they come from.

Breast Cancer Services (NHS Tayside)

The First Minister will be aware of reports that relate to breast cancer services in Tayside. Can she provide an update on the Scottish Government’s discussions with NHS Tayside regarding those issues? What assurances can the Scottish Government provide to my constituents about the on-going service in Tayside?

First, I am aware of the concerns that have been raised, and NHS Tayside is also fully aware of those concerns. Let me be very clear—I expect NHS Tayside to properly consider and investigate any issues that are raised, and the Scottish Government has been advised that the board has thoroughly investigated the matters that have been raised. NHS Tayside has provided a comprehensive timeline of correspondence and meetings, which shows that issues relating to breast cancer oncology were openly discussed in a wide range of forums, and the individual who raised those concerns was present at and actively contributed to many of them. However, I repeat that I absolutely expect NHS Tayside to properly investigate any concerns that are raised.

Secondly—and finally, Presiding Officer—we are fully supportive of a continued breast cancer service in NHS Tayside. NHS Tayside currently offers a full breast cancer oncology service, with all patients treated in Tayside, and continues to ensure that there is a focus on recruitment, in order to continue that service for patients across Tayside.

Outdoor Education Centres

Like the rest of us in this chamber, the First Minister received a letter from Scotland’s outdoor education centres earlier this week, which set out the blunt financial plight that they are facing. Many of those centres are facing closure, including those in Mid Scotland and Fife. What will the urgent response from the Scottish Government be?

The Scottish Government will respond, as we will respond to any organisation that raises understandable and legitimate concerns with us. Although we need to consider that letter and will respond in due course—albeit as quickly as possible—Liz Smith will recall that, around the last time that she raised these issues with me, the Scottish Government provided support to outdoor education. I say that only as an indication of the fact that we are always keen to help and will look positively at helping any organisation through the difficult times that they face now.

Ambulance Service Review (Prestonpans)

Ambulance station staff in Prestonpans in East Lothian have approached me about the roll-out of a demand capacity review that began in 2016-17. I understand that the Scottish Ambulance Service intends to roll out that review across Scotland. The result in Prestonpans will be a reduction in ambulance cover to the public and a change in shift patterns, all because of a review whose findings are disputed.

Our ambulance workers feel a responsibility and pressure that I hope most people never endure, and our communities might look to those people over Christmas. Does the First Minister agree that forcing change without the agreement of drivers, technicians and paramedics at Christmas reflects a managerial approach that is inappropriate in Scotland, particularly in 2021, particularly at Christmas and particularly during a pandemic?

I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care to look at the specific issue of the demand capacity review’s implications for Prestonpans and to write to Martin Whitfield.

More generally, given that we are at Christmas, I pay tribute to our paramedics and ambulance technicians across the country. They do an outstanding job in circumstances that the rest of us can only imagine, and my gratitude to them is deep and very long standing.

It is important that where change in the health service is being contemplated, not just at Christmas and not just in the Ambulance Service—and let us not forget that the motivation for such changes, whether or not people agree with the detail, is to improve the service to patients—those who deliver the services should be fully involved in making those decisions.

When I previously did Humza Yousaf’s job, as Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, I would often have that discussion with the trade unions, and with the Ambulance Service and its management, to ensure that that happened. It is really important that those views are taken into account.

Those are my views in principle. On the specific issues around Prestonpans, I will ask the health secretary to respond in more detail.

Lockerbie Air Disaster

Tuesday this week marked the 33rd anniversary of the Lockerbie air disaster, which resulted in 270 people from 21 nations losing their lives when Pan Am flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie in my South Scotland region. I remember the night well as I was working in Dumfries and Galloway royal infirmary at the time, and I remember the huge emergency service response.

Will the First Minister join me in marking the 33rd anniversary of the disaster and sending our thoughts to the families of all those who lost their lives, and in paying tribute to all those who were involved in the huge emergency service response on Wednesday 21 December 1988? [Applause.]

I thank Emma Harper for raising the subject. Like all of us of a certain age, I vividly remember switching on the television that night and being utterly horrified by the scenes that were unfolding.

Those memories, even for those of us who were not directly affected, do not dim with the passing of years, and for those who were directly affected, this time of year must be particularly hard.

I therefore take the opportunity to mark the sadness of the anniversary, which is a sad moment every year, and to remember all those in Lockerbie for whom those memories are very painful; all those who lost loved ones; and all those who were affected in any way. I thank the emergency services and those who responded that evening, who, I am sure, still live with those very painful memories. I also thank the journalists who reported on the disaster. I have spoken directly to some who reported from Lockerbie that evening, and they will never forget the horror that they encountered there.

It is a dark moment in Scotland’s history that we will never, ever forget. For now, our thoughts are with everyone who was directly affected.

Covid-19 (Young People)

I recently raised the plight of the silent victims of Covid: those who are dying of physical disease. Today, I raise the plight of those who are dying of non-physical causes. Job losses, financial pressures, social isolation and a lack of mental health support are not only the hallmarks of a lockdown, but the causes of a breakdown. Scotland has the highest youth mortality rate in western Europe. Last year, tragically, one Scot took their own life every four days. Those statistics are not just sad—they are shocking.

I ask again today what I asked previously. In our efforts to curb the spread of Covid, what is being done to ensure that those measures are not failing a generation of young people, who will suffer and are already suffering as a result?

It is important and right to highlight the impact on so many people, in so many different ways, of the steps that we have had, by necessity, to take to control Covid.

In many different ways, because many people have been affected in many different ways, we are seeking to provide support, whether that is by helping children to catch up with their education or through investments in mental health to help support people’s wellbeing.

There is an important point, which I know that Jamie Greene will recognise. The person whom I have heard articulate this point best and most powerfully in recent days is Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England. At times, it can be tempting for us all—I include myself in that—to think that, if we did not take steps to control Covid, we would somehow escape the other impacts. However, that is not the case. If we did not control Covid, all the other impacts—the direct health impacts, and the impacts on the economy and on wellbeing more widely—would be even worse.

It is the virus that is causing all those problems, and until we deal with the virus, through vaccination eventually but in the meantime through action to suppress it, we will continue to see those cycles of impacts. There is no easy way through this, but we need to help all those who are affected in as many ways as we can, and we will continue to seek to do that.

Quantitative Easing

Twice in the past 13 years in times of great crisis, this country has relied on quantitative easing to save livelihoods, protect our economy and avoid a catastrophic depression. Earlier this week, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy posed a quite extraordinary question, which I hope the First Minister might answer. To be clear, this is not my question; it is one from the finance secretary:

“would it be such a great loss not to be able to conduct quantitative easing?”

I think it would be a great gain if we had economic management that avoided the need for such things. Nobody should think that they are good things, because the situations that make them necessary are not good things.

That is the kind of question that I would expect from the other side of the chamber. However, I think that, over the past few years—and particularly now—it would have been so much better for Scotland if we had not been in the position of having austerity imposed on us, given its impact on individuals and communities. I think that it would be so much better if, right now, we were in a position—with financial arrangements to support that position—where our public health response to a global pandemic was not being constrained by the decisions of a Conservative Government that is in a complete mess. Labour may wish to reflect on that and leave that kind of question to the Tories.

Cabinet (Meetings)

I wish you, Presiding Officer, and everyone else a merry Christmas, and I give thanks to those who will be working over the festive period, not least those who keep us safe and those who are caring for others.

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-00615)

Cabinet is next scheduled to meet on Tuesday 11 January, following the parliamentary recess. However, I would be utterly astonished if Cabinet did not meet before that, during the recess.

Yesterday, we learned that the Government’s social care workforce strategy is to be delayed until the spring. That came on the same day that social work directors admitted that lives could be lost because of the growing shortage of home carers. In their words,

“care is being rationed like never before”.

Alarm bells are ringing across the country, in East Lothian, Fife and Glasgow. That means vulnerable people not getting washed for days on end, with meals, medicines and safety visits missed. One woman has been stuck in her bed for 19 hours a day for weeks, while a man was left soiled for hours because there was not a second carer on hand to help change him.

The Government has been warned about staff shortages before. I have raised the issue, as have others. The First Minister has to acknowledge that this is the deepest crisis that we have ever seen in social care. I ask her: what is the plan?

Alex Cole-Hamilton would know the answer to that question if he had listened to some of what the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care said.

First, I will address the point about the strategy. We have decided—I think rightly—to take a bit longer over a longer-term strategy for workforce planning so as to take proper account of the experience of and the lessons learned through the Covid pandemic, and to take proper account of our on-going work to integrate health and social care through a national care service. That is not the same as saying that we are not taking action now.

Perhaps the most important thing that we have done is to fund the recruitment of 1,000 more members of staff to deal, in the immediate term, with some of the issues that Alex Cole-Hamilton is addressing. There are short-term pressures that we are funding health boards and local authorities to deal with now, while we learn properly from the experience of Covid in relation to longer-term workforce planning. That is a sensible approach to take through what is an emergency crisis situation for health and social care.

I return to the point that we need to suppress the virus to allow all those services to start to get back to normal.

Teachers (Wellbeing)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the recent survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland, which found that at least 50 per cent of teachers said their wellbeing was poor or very poor. (S6F-00612)

First, I acknowledge the dedication of teachers across the country. In particular, I acknowledge their exceptional efforts in helping to ensure that young people and children have been supported through this challenging time.

We take the health and wellbeing of teachers very seriously. Although local authorities have a key role to play in supporting staff—teachers are employed by local authorities—the Scottish Government has invested more than £2 million in teacher wellbeing in the past year, with a package of support having been developed with the education recovery group. The Government has also committed to reducing class contact time by 90 minutes per week to give teachers more time to plan and to ease their overall workload.

Of course, we continue to make good progress on recruitment, with teacher numbers increasing this year for the sixth year in a row. I am pleased to say that the ratio of pupils to teachers is now at its lowest level since 2009.

As a former secondary teacher—albeit that it was a wee whilie ago—and with teachers past and current in the family, I am aware of the dedication to the job and the stresses that go with it. With the priority to keep schools open and, as I understand it, to reintroduce exams in 2022, can more support be given to the profession, which is key to Scotland’s future?

As I know how much Christine Grahame works to keep me on my toes in her current role, I have always considered myself lucky not to have been a pupil in one of her classrooms when she was a teacher. She is probably thinking that she is not old enough to have been one of my teachers—I am not sure whether she is correct there. [Laughter.] I can feel an unusual unity of sympathy for me right now across the chamber, so I will swiftly move on.

We will continue to do everything that we can to support teachers as we try to get education back to normal. I said the other day, and I will repeat, that our priority is to keep schools open and not to have further disruption to children’s education. However, I recognise how difficult that is for teachers. Our main way of supporting teachers now is to recruit more of them into classrooms and, as I said, to reduce class contact time so that their overall workload is eased.

Christine Grahame raises an important point, which allows me to recognise again how vital the contribution of teachers has been during the pandemic.

The added workload from meeting the needs of children with additional support needs was in the top three causes of stress, according to the survey. Since 2010, the number of ASN teachers has fallen by nearly a fifth, while the number of children who require additional support has increased by almost 70,000. Does the First Minister agree that the need for ASN teachers has been overlooked and must urgently be addressed?

Some changes to definitions have taken place, which means that the figures need to be treated with a degree of caution, but it is important to recognise the overall point. The overall numbers of teachers are rising. Although teachers who focus specifically on additional support needs are vital, to support children with additional needs is a job and a responsibility for all teachers. Our investment in recruitment and the rise in the numbers of teachers are important for the support of children with additional needs as well as for pupils generally.

Support from Charities and Community Groups (Festive Period)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that vulnerable individuals are able to access support from charities and community groups over the festive period despite any required Covid-19 measures. (S6F-00614)

Charities and community groups can remain open over the festive period if they wish, in order to provide the range of services that they offer in line with the protective measures that are advised for everyone now. Those groups provide a range of really valuable support to service users, and the Scottish Government is committed to supporting them as much as possible.

For example, we recently invested £1 million to support organisations that tackle social isolation and loneliness, and we established the £15 million communities mental health and wellbeing fund.

I take this opportunity to express my appreciation and gratitude to all organisations, staff and volunteers that support so many people across the country, and to send my very best wishes to them for Christmas and the year ahead.

I recognise that the Scottish Government has put in place funding for third sector and community organisations, especially in tackling addiction. However, organisations in my area are saying that the funding does not always make its way to the front line.

In Kilmarnock, the foundation hub, which is part of Recovery Enterprises, has had 900 attendances since opening in April, delivering services that mainstream providers are unable to provide. However, it is reporting a chronic lack of funding. The Kilmarnock Station Community Village has 25 therapists who deliver mental health interventions, with a waiting list of only one week, but it has no central funding.

I am sure that the First Minister agrees that those services are needed now more than ever. How is the Scottish Government ensuring that the funding that is put in place ends up where it is intended to go?

There are two points there. I recognise that experience—it is one that is often recounted to me by community organisations in my constituency.

We must first ensure, as far as we can within our financial constraints, that the overall quantum of support for organisations is good and rising. I have talked about some of the additional sources of support that we have put in place.

It is then important—I know that local authorities work hard at this, and the decisions about which organisations are funded are taken not exclusively but often, by local authorities, not by central Government—to ensure that as much funding as possible gets to the organisations that are closest to the communities that they serve. In my experience, it is those organisations that deliver the best services, because they are the most responsive to the people who they are trying to help.

I recognise Brian Whittle’s points, and it is incumbent on all decision makers to ensure that they are reflected in the decisions that are taken.

Thanks to the United Kingdom Home Office, vulnerable refugees in Scotland will be spending Christmas warehoused in run-down hotels, including in Perth. Such institutional accommodation has no place in Scotland. It harms people who are seeking asylum, infringes their basic human rights and has been described as being like prison.

Will the First Minister provide an update on any correspondence that the Scottish Government has had with the Home Office on using hotels in that way?

I am happy to ask the relevant minister to make available any recent correspondence. I do not think that I am exaggerating when I say that there are acres of correspondence going back a long time between the Scottish Government and the Home Office about all matters relating to immigration and asylum and, in particular, on the use of hotel accommodation. It is fair to say that the correspondence that comes from the Home Office to the Scottish Government is rarely satisfactory on those matters.

Through its asylum policies, the UK Government treats asylum seekers inhumanely. The use of hotel accommodation in the way that Mark Ruskell has described is just one aspect of that.

How we treat people who are fleeing circumstances that we can scarcely imagine and who are seeking refuge here reflects on who we are as a society. As we go into a new year, I can only hope that the UK Government and the Home Office reflect on those matters and start to treat asylum seekers with the dignity, respect and humanity that they deserve.

Missing Person Investigations

To ask the First Minister how many missing person investigations have been carried out in 2021. (S6F-00633)

In the 2021 calendar year—I note that these figures are often reported by financial year—Police Scotland has conducted 15,839 missing person investigations. Police Scotland’s management data suggests that there has been a decrease in the number of investigations since 2016-17. However, there is no complacency, and work continues to improve multi-agency efforts across Scotland through the implementation of the national missing persons framework. I pay tribute to the dedication and expertise of Police Scotland and its partners because, thanks to them, more than 99 per cent of the people who go missing each year are traced and found to be safe and well.

I thank the First Minister for her response. Paul Harley from Coatbridge has been missing since 2014, but there has been a potential sighting of him and, in today’s Daily Record, his son Paul has sent the message to his dad that, “It’s never too late to come home”.

It is important that the missing and their loved ones are supported. The charity Missing People is working hard to reunite more families this Christmas. Will the First Minister help to get the message out that the charity’s trained helpline staff can be reached by a call or text on 116 000? Will the Scottish Government do everything that it can to support the charity’s mission, which is for every missing child and adult and every loved one left behind to find help, hope and a safe way to reconnect?

That is a really important issue to raise. All over Scotland and the United Kingdom right now, there will be families who are missing loved ones and worrying about their whereabouts, health and wellbeing. If you are one of those loved ones and you are able to pick up the phone to your family, that would be the most wonderful Christmas gift that you could give them. I say to Paul’s family that I hope that you get some news.

I agree that it is important that, as well as the work that the police do, there are services in place to support people in such horrendously distressing situations. I absolutely reiterate Monica Lennon’s advice that there is help available. The Missing People number, 116 000, is there should people need it.

The Scottish Government provides some funding to the Missing People charity to increase awareness and use of its support services among people who are or who have been missing, and their families. That important help is there for people and I encourage anybody who is in such a difficult situation to make use of it.

I end by thanking Monica Lennon for raising such an important issue.

SaxaVord Spaceport

Given the £50 million investment of private sector funding in the Shetland space centre, does the First Minister agree that the SaxaVord spaceport on Unst will be of national strategic importance to Scotland’s space economy?

A development like that would be of strategic importance, as well as being important to the local community and economy. Scotland has many attributes when it comes to space technology and I hope that, next year and beyond, we will see that strength grow even further.