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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 24, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 February 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Torness Nuclear Power Station, Portfolio Question Time, Ports, Ukraine, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time

Before questions, I invite each party leader to make a short statement on the situation in Ukraine.

The Parliament will discuss the unfolding situation in Ukraine later and will express its solidarity with a country whose very existence as an independent democracy is now under attack. However, at this first sitting since Russia’s full-scale invasion, I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the unprovoked imperialist aggression of Vladimir Putin.

There can be no doubt that he must now face the severest of consequences: sanctions on him and his network of oligarchs and agents, and their expulsion from countries across the world; sanctions on his banks and their ability to borrow and function; sanctions on his energy and mineral companies; and, here in the United Kingdom, an immediate clean-up of the swirl of dirty Russian money in the City of London.

Just as Putin must face and feel the wrath of the democratic world, the people of Ukraine must feel and not just hear our support and solidarity. The world must now help and equip Ukraine to defend itself and resist Russian aggression. We must ensure humanitarian aid and assistance and we must all stand ready to offer refuge and sanctuary, where necessary, for those who may be displaced.

This is a critical juncture in history, and perhaps the most dangerous and potentially defining moment since the second world war. We live in this moment, but it is true to say that historic precedents will be set in the hours and days to come. Those will determine the new norms of what is or is not acceptable in our international order.

Putin is an autocrat. His control of the apparatus of state and of the economy, the military and the media can make his power seem impregnable. However, as with most strongman leaders, underneath the veneer of power lie insecurity and fear. There is fear of democracy and of freedom, and fear of the kind of popular uprisings witnessed over recent years in Ukraine ever happening in Russia.

On that point, let us not assume that he is now acting in the name of the Russian people. We must ensure that anti-Putin forces within Russia also have our encouragement and moral support.

Future generations will judge the actions that the world takes in this moment. There are, of course, many complexities but, at its most fundamental, this is a clash between oppression and autocracy on one hand and freedom and democracy on the other. We must all ensure that freedom and democracy prevail. [Applause.]

The world that we woke up to this morning is a far darker and more unstable place than when we went to sleep last night. I said on Tuesday that the situation in Ukraine was at the forefront of all our minds. Since then, the escalation in the aggression by Russia towards Ukraine confirms that President Putin’s only intention was war, no matter what the cost.

The cost will be high. In the first few hours, lives have already been lost and the images of people fleeing the cities of Ukraine and the videos from those who have stayed behind capturing the invasion are difficult for us all to watch. That must be so much more difficult for Ukrainians here in Scotland and across the UK and for anyone with friends, family or loved ones still in the country.

The pain of war is felt by people. Families will lose loved ones and whole communities will be displaced. Children will be left with lifelong scars, both physical and mental. I always thought and hoped that war on this scale in Europe was something that I would know of only through history lessons in school but, sadly, after this morning, it is part of our daily lives once again.

I support the United Kingdom Government and allies around the world in their condemnation of this Russian war and their united efforts to avert further bloodshed. We can only hope and pray that they will succeed. We stand with the people of Ukraine. [Applause.]

Today, a hard-won and fragile peace in Europe has been shattered. It is a dark day, and my party and I stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine is unprovoked and unjustifiable. Across the world today, the message is clear: peace and democracy must prevail, and we will not bend to Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions.

Our first actions now must be to support the Ukrainian people. In supporting the fight against Russian aggression, we must provide urgent humanitarian assistance to defeat the horrors of war: hunger, destitution and need. The UK must urgently reinforce our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies; the hardest possible sanctions must be taken against all those who are linked to Putin; and the influence of Russian money and disinformation must be extricated from public and political life in the UK, including here in Scotland.

The message from this Parliament must be loud and clear. We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Peace will prevail. Vladimir Putin will pay a heavy price. [Applause.]

On behalf of the Scottish Green Party, I offer our solidarity with the people of Ukraine in this moment of crisis.

Ukraine is a sovereign democratic nation whose people have the inalienable right to self-determination. It is a European nation, as its people have made clear by majority, time after time in recent years. Today’s escalation of a Russian invasion that started in 2014 is a flagrant and grievous breach of international law, which must be responded to in the most comprehensive terms. No form of sanction should be off the table. Action against Russian state-backed corporations and other entities must be swift, and here in the UK it is essential that we tackle the money-laundering networks that are used extensively by Russian elites.

It now seems inevitable that there will be a significant flow of refugees from Ukraine in the coming days, weeks and months. I trust that Scotland stands ready to play our part to support them in any way that we can. Let us all hope, even at this hour, that a prolonged war can be prevented, as the devastation that that would bring does not bear thinking about.

We are proud to stand with the people and the Government of Ukraine, and I am very pleased that that message is coming from the entire chamber. [Applause.]

I rise to offer the solidarity of Scottish Liberal Democrats with the people of Ukraine.

We awoke this morning to a much darker world. A few hours ago, for the first time this century, a land war has begun in continental Europe and we have no idea how it will end. The Russian regime has violated the sovereignty of a democratic state, broken international law and threatened the very fabric of peace and security in our world. It is very likely that the invasion will lead to a catastrophic and wholly needless loss of human life. It will displace thousands of Ukrainians, and we must be ready to help.

The city of Kyiv is twinned with the city of Edinburgh. That relationship has to mean something, so we must be prepared to offer all those who are fleeing that conflict safe harbour in the villages and towns of Scotland. Today, the Parliament and all parties in it speak with one voice. We utterly condemn the expansionist aggression of the Russian regime and stand in total solidarity with the people of Ukraine. [Applause.]


National Health Service (Recovery Plan)

Does the First Minister have full confidence in her Government’s national health service recovery plan?

Yes, I do, but the Government will continue to work hard to ensure that the recovery plan continues to develop, evolve and be fit for the purpose of getting the NHS through the remainder of Covid and on to a path not only of recovery but of sustainability for the future.

Audit Scotland has, of course, this morning published its regular review of the NHS. I welcome that report. It is challenging but fair and balanced. The report recognises that the task that all Governments face of recovering their health services from Covid is difficult and that there are no easy answers, but it also fairly recognises the work that the Government and the NHS have done throughout Covid and are doing as we enter into recovery from Covid. It also recognises the plans that the Scottish Government is now implementing with the NHS to ensure sustainability for the future.

“Yes, I do”. Those three simple words from the First Minister confirm that everything that she has put forward in her NHS recovery plan has her backing. It is what she believes to be the way of getting our health service out of the struggles of the pandemic. However, it is a different view from that of Audit Scotland, which gave a damning verdict this morning on the Government’s plan to rebuild Scotland’s NHS. It states:

“There is not enough detail in the plan to determine whether ambitions can be achieved in the timescales set out.”

There is not enough detail in the plan that, moments ago, the First Minister said she is happy with. Will she accept that the recovery plan does not go far enough and urgently needs to be redrafted to address the serious concerns that have been highlighted?

No, I do not agree with that. However, I agree—I said this in my initial answer—that the Government must ensure the implementation of that recovery plan and must ensure that it is flexible and adaptable so that it is fit for the very significant challenge that Scotland faces and, indeed, countries across the world face in recovering our health services from the pandemic.

Today’s Audit Scotland report is very fair and challenging. People can go and read it for themselves. It also sets out and acknowledges the work that is under way. For example, page 3 of the report says that Scottish Government plans have

“the potential to help the NHS become sustainable”.

Later on, the report says:

“The Scottish Government recognises that the risks relating to workforce capacity and wellbeing are significant”

and

“has introduced a range of controls to mitigate”

those risks. It also says that

“The Scottish Government and NHS are implementing lessons learned during the pandemic”

and

“The Scottish Government’s plans for the recovery and redesign of NHS services are ambitious”,

although it goes on to say that they are “challenging”. It further says:

“The NHS has implemented a range of new ways of working to improve access to healthcare services”.

That recognises and records the work that is under way.

Finally, I simply note that we are investing record sums in the national health service. I think that it is just over £100 per head more than equivalent investment south of the border, which I think equates to £600 million more being spent on the NHS than would be the case if we followed the investment of the United Kingdom Government. There are also record numbers of people working in our national health service.

I recognise the challenge. It is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that faces us and other Governments, but we are focused on it, the recovery plan will help us to address it and we will continue to ensure that the plan and the resources that back it up are fit for the scale of that challenge.

I notice that the First Minister picked elements of the report that were positive for her Government but failed to address the substance of my question, which was about the lack of detail—“not enough detail” is in the report—and the lack of clarity on the timescales that need to be met to reach the ambitions that are set out in the plan.

The First Minister also mentioned that there are record numbers of people in the workforce, but the report makes it plain that the recovery plan will fail unless the Government recruits enough people with the right skills. It highlights vacancies being at record highs throughout the health service.

Scotland’s NHS staff have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic to keep the public safe, but they are now stretched to their limit. Today, on top of the damning Audit Scotland publication, there are reports of junior doctors who are exhausted, burnt out and even leaving Scotland to work in health services elsewhere. How will the First Minister’s plan to cut down waiting times achieve the desired outcomes when staff are at breaking point or, worse, preparing to leave our NHS?

First, we have record numbers of staff working in our national health service and, of course, those numbers do not include vacancies; they are staff in post. However, we recognise the recruitment challenges and, as Audit Scotland recognises, we are investing in the wellbeing of staff as well as investing heavily in recruitment. Douglas Ross suggested that I had selectively quoted Audit Scotland’s report. I am absolutely clear that it is a very challenging report and that it has real lessons for the Scottish Government, but it recognises fairly the work that we have been doing. On the topic of selective quoting, I note that the Audit Scotland report says about staffing that

“the UK’s departure from the EU ”

will

“further reduce the pool of workers available in future years”.

That is another reality that is exacerbating the recruitment challenge, and Douglas Ross might want to reflect on that when he next gets to his feet.

These are big challenges, so we are meeting them with investment and support for staff. With regard to the detail in the recovery plan, the plan sets out our ambitions and the broad plans that we will implement to meet those ambitions. Of course, we have also asked health boards to produce detailed implementation plans, which they will deliver next month, so that the detail of implementation is there and we can scrutinise that and hold them to account.

Nobody should underplay the scale of the challenge that countries everywhere face in getting their health services back on track, but we are supporting the health service with investment, we are supporting staff and we will focus on ensuring that our health service recovers and is firmly on a path to sustainability for the future.

The Audit Scotland report lays bare that Scotland’s NHS is on an emergency footing. New evidence, which was submitted this morning to the Parliament’s COVID-19 Recovery Committee, spells out the true cost of this Government’s failure. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has said that delayed accident and emergency admissions in Scotland led to

“over 500 excess deaths in 2021”.

Its evidence to the committee this morning states that those avoidable deaths are

“entirely attributable to the delay to admission these patients experienced.”

Five hundred lives were lost because the Government did not act early enough, despite receiving warning after warning that Scotland’s NHS is in crisis. If the Audit Scotland report is not a wake-up call for the First Minister and her Government, surely those deaths must be.

I know that Douglas Ross probably scripted that contribution before he came into the chamber, but anybody who is listening will hear me taking very seriously the Audit Scotland report, the challenge that it poses and the challenges that our NHS faces, which are in common with challenges that health services across the world face. People can go and read the report for themselves; they do not have to take my word or Douglas Ross’s word for what it says. However, people will also have heard me set out that the report recognises the work that the Scottish Government is doing. The report rightly questions the detail of that work and says that our ambitions are “challenging” and will take time to deliver. As it always does, the Scottish Government will pay very close attention to the recommendations that the report makes.

I take all the comments about accident and emergency seriously. Of course, the NHS is and has been on an emergency footing. It would have been unthinkable for it not to have been on an emergency footing, given that we have faced the emergency and crisis of a global pandemic. The consequences of that for our NHS and for people who are waiting for care has been severe, and I recognise that. However, if we look at A and E on its own, there are absolutely big challenges for us to confront, but our A and E units are still the best performing anywhere in the United Kingdom and have been for six years in a row. We have invested in staffing in our accident and emergency units and redesigned them to ensure that only those who need emergency care access it in that way, so they get quicker treatment. I do not shy away from the challenges. Recovery of our health service is a massive challenge for us and Governments everywhere, but we are addressing it with resources, support and the absolute focus that people have every right to expect from us.


“NHS in Scotland 2021”

Today’s Audit Scotland report, “NHS in Scotland 2021” paints a devastating picture of the state of Scotland’s NHS. It details out-of-control waiting times that are “ever-increasing”, a workforce that is burnt out and burdened by stress and strain—with 61 per cent of nurses saying that they are thinking of leaving their job because they are undervalued—and a system that is financially unsustainable. The impact on patients could be devastating. As the report says,

“health conditions will go undetected for longer, leading to potentially worse outcomes for people.”

After 15 years in power, how did it come to this?

Anas Sarwar is possibly the only person who has not noticed that we have been in a global pandemic for the past two years. I think that people across the country understand the reasons for the pressures that Scotland’s national health service is facing, that England’s, Wales’s and Northern Ireland’s national health services are facing, and that health services across the world are facing.

I take those pressures seriously. The Audit Scotland report has a lot of positive things to say about how the Scottish Government and the national health service responded to the pandemic and how they prepared for this very challenging winter. It recognises the steps that we are taking to put the NHS on that path to sustainability, but it also poses serious and challenging questions for us, as it has every right, and the responsibility, to do.

Anas Sarwar wants to look back over the past 15 years at the NHS, and I am more than happy to do that. For example, if we look at funding of our national health service, we see that, since this Government took office in 2007, funding for the health portfolio has increased by over 90 per cent. Front-line health spending is 3.6 per cent higher per head in Scotland than in England—that is more than £100 per head, as I reckoned earlier on. If we total that up, it is equivalent to £600 million, or 14,000 nurses. Since this Government took office, NHS staffing is up by over 27,000 full-time equivalent staff members, which is an increase of more than 20 per cent, and that does not include vacancies.

We will continue to face up to these very, very real challenges. We will do that with investment, with support and with determination and hope.

The First Minister wants to pretend that these problems have all been created by Covid, but that is not true. Scotland’s NHS was in crisis before Covid hit, and that is why we are struggling to recover.

Here is a reminder of what was happening before Covid. The Audit Scotland report on the NHS in 2017 recorded

“a 99 per cent increase in the number of people waiting over 12 weeks”

for an appointment. The Audit Scotland report for 2018 said that NHS Scotland’s “performance continued to decline”. The report for 2019 said that Scotland’s NHS was “financially unsustainable”.

Year after year, there have been the worst reports in the history of devolution. How many more devastating reports does the First Minister need before she acts in the interests of patients and staff?

I do not pretend that all of the challenges that our NHS or other health services face are down to Covid. The health service has been facing demographic pressures. It has faced the pressure of a decade of Tory austerity, which actually started under the last Labour Government, in case we forget that point.

On what was happening before Covid, our waiting times improvement plan was making progress—it was reducing the longest waits in our national health service.

Anas Sarwar wants to pretend that Covid has not had a very significant impact, and he somehow wants to pretend that these challenges are unique to Scotland’s national health service. These challenges are being faced everywhere, across the world. This Government is investing more than many other Governments in its health service. We are doing a range of different things to support our health service, and we will continue to do exactly that, for the sake of those who work on the front line but also for the patients who rely on its services.

The First Minister’s response is, frankly, nonsense. There are 680,000 people on an NHS waiting list—that is one in eight of the population. That number was 450,000 before the pandemic. The NHS is 1,000 beds short; the First Minister cut beds before the pandemic. It is 3,500 night nurses and midwives short; the First Minister cut training places for nurses and midwives before the pandemic.

Staff and patients are crying out for help, and the First Minister responds with empty rhetoric rather than practical action. This Government has been solely responsible for Scotland’s NHS for 15 years. The result is staff who are burned out and wanting to leave, and patients who are being failed and are languishing on waiting lists. This Scottish National Party Government has put Scotland’s NHS at risk. How can it now be the one to save it?

People in Scotland make those verdicts and decide who they trust to steward our national health service through difficult times and on to the path to recovery.

Let me take the two issues that Anas Sarwar has raised. The first is bed numbers. We do have to reflect on the bed numbers that we will need as we come out of the Covid pandemic and face the likely challenges that Covid will present over the years to come, as it, I hope, becomes endemic.

Anas Sarwar is saying, from a sedentary position, that we have cut bed numbers, but bed numbers have been reducing in Scotland and in countries across the world for many years, because of advances in treatment. Many people who used to go into hospital for things such as cataracts now get those treatments on a day-case basis.

Let me remind Anas Sarwar—he can go and check this, as can anybody—that under the last Labour-Liberal Administration in this Parliament bed numbers fell every single year, reflecting that situation. Andy Kerr, who used to be health secretary, used to stand here and make the same argument that I have just made about advances in treatment and technology. Of course, looking ahead we need to address that.

Then look at staffing—look at nurses, for example. I do not underestimate the challenge that our nursing profession works under, but in Scotland we have 8.4 qualified nurses and midwives per 1,000 of population compared with just six in England—that is a 40 per cent higher staffing level of nurses and midwives.

Are there challenges in our national health service that we have to confront and support it through? Absolutely, but we are providing the investment, the support and the focus and determination. That is the trust that the people of Scotland have put in this Government, and we will get on with that job.

I will now take supplementary questions.


Renewables Developments (Transmission Charges)

The First Minister will be aware of the serious impact that exorbitant and unfair transmission charges are having on renewables developments across Scotland. Those charges are particularly punitive for the islands, where developers face higher costs than anywhere else in the United Kingdom to connect to the national grid. What can the Scottish Government do to lobby the United Kingdom Government to reform a system that penalises the very places where the renewables potential is greatest?

Transmission networks’ use of system charges remains a really significant barrier to achieving net zero in Scotland. Indeed, analysis by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets suggests that by 2040 Scottish renewable and low-carbon generators will be the only ones to pay a wider charge, with all others including gas generators elsewhere in Great Britain, being paid credits. Therefore, it is vital that we move towards identifying and progressing solutions as quickly as possible. A fundamentally new approach is needed and we will continue to raise that with Ofgem and the UK Government, as we have been doing repeatedly—we will continue to push for a fairer solution that recognises the massive renewables capability of Scotland.


Teachers (Abuse)

The Press and Journal this week reported a survey showing that nearly half of teachers in Aberdeen are considering quitting after being subjected to “high levels” of physical and verbal abuse. According to the survey, “rarely a day” goes by without assaults or abuse aimed at members of staff. Aberdeen City Council reports a “collaborative and co-operative approach” between it and the unions, but the issue will be nationwide. What is the Government doing, proactively, to stem such appalling abuse of our dedicated and hard-working teachers?

First, there are increasing numbers of teachers in our schools, thanks to investment provided by this Government. We will continue to support the wellbeing and safety of our teachers, working with local authorities—which are, of course, the employers—to do that. Frankly, all of us, regardless of political differences, should unite to say that any abuse or attacks on teachers or anybody else working in our public sector are completely unacceptable. We should all show complete zero tolerance towards that.


Student Poverty

Figures released this week by the National Union of Students Scotland show that one in three students are considering dropping out of college or university, one in four were unable to pay their bills in full as a result of financial pressure, and as many as 20 per cent of students from widening access backgrounds were dependent on food banks. Does the First Minister agree that urgent action is needed to address the surge in student poverty here in Scotland, starting with extending the recently announced £150 fuel payment to all students directly? Scotland’s young people cannot afford any more excuses from the Government.

Yes, I agree that we need to take seriously the financial pressures that students are living under in these very difficult times for many people across the country, and we will do that. We have provided support to students in a range of ways and we will reflect very carefully on the case being made by the NUS at this time. I am proud of the fact that students in Scotland do not have to pay tuition fees. One of the most important things that this Government has done—in the face of opposition at various times from the Conservatives, Labour and others—is to protect that vital principle of free education in Scotland, and we will always do so.


West Lothian Valneva facility

The announcement this week of an investment of £20 million from Scottish Enterprise for the Valneva facility in West Lothian is great news for jobs in the region. Although the company has not yet achieved final approvals for a Covid vaccine, does the First Minister recognise its potential for management of the pandemic globally?

As the United Kingdom Government previously cancelled its order, does she acknowledge the hard work and determination of the Scottish management of Valneva in helping secure a major European Union vaccine contract, and the contributions of my West Lothian colleagues, Hannah Bardell MP and Angela Constance MSP, in working with minister Ivan McKee to secure that welcome £20 million investment?

I strongly agree with all those points. Valneva’s decision to develop and manufacture its Covid vaccine here is extremely welcome, and I pay tribute to the local management for all their efforts. Valneva is a valued contributor to our life sciences sector, and the Livingston facility is a really important asset, developing and manufacturing vaccines for the prevention and treatment of many infectious diseases and supporting high-quality jobs.

The funding package will create employment and drive further research, and I hope that it will underpin Valneva’s operations here in Scotland. I want to take this time to recognise the hard work of all those involved for securing that additional investment as vaccine developments take place over the months and years to come.

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to Fiona Hyslop, Angela Constance and Hannah Bardell, who have fought very hard on behalf of that company, and I wish it every success for the future.


Sexual Harassment In Schools

Almost two thirds of pupils in Scottish schools have experienced sexual harassment at, or on their way home from, school. Highlighting guidance around sexual harassment does not go far enough when some pupils are unaware of what is considered sexual harassment. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that young people can identify sexual harassment when it happens?

We should come together to make it clear that harassment or abuse of any form, whether in the workplace, in schools, in the home or in society generally, is completely reprehensible and unacceptable. It is the conduct and behaviour of perpetrators that need to change if we are to end the culture of harassment and abuse.

We want all children and young people to learn tolerance, respect, equality and good citizenship to address and prevent prejudice as well as develop healthy relationships. The gender-based violence working group will consider that report in detail at future meetings. We also provide funding to Rape Crisis Scotland to help deliver its secondary school programmes that aim to tackle sexual harassment and violence.


Covid-19 Protection (Immunocompromised People)

An immunocompromised constituent recently got in touch to say that she has had very little antibody response to the Covid vaccination and is choosing to continue to shield. Consequently, she has not seen her family or friends since the start of the pandemic and has become unemployed, which negatively impacts her mental health.

It is not fair that, as life begins to return to normal for many of us, those who are immunocompromised, like my constituent, are forced to choose to continue to isolate. What can the First Minister say to my constituent and to people like her? Has the Scottish Government considered the introduction of antibody therapies for pre-exposure prophylaxis, such as AstraZeneca’s Evusheld, to protect immunocompromised people from the effects of Covid-19?

I will write to the member or ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care to write to her, with more detail of what I am about to say, because I will say it only in summary now.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advises further boosters for people who are immunosuppressed or immunocompromised, which might be helpful in this case.

I set out in my statement earlier in the week some of the new developments around treatment and the work that the Scottish Government is doing to ensure that those treatments get to people who need them most. Treatments have already been delivered to people who need hospital care, and they are now being delivered to people who do not need hospital care but might be at risk of it. New oral therapies are being trialled and I am sure that the point about antibodies is an important part of that process.

My last point is one that I sought to make on Tuesday in my statement. We cannot, and should not, tolerate a situation in which the majority of us can get back to normal but a minority feel that they need to continue to shield. That is why I say to people that, as we get back to normal, we have to show collective responsibility and solidarity. Those of us who might be frustrated with the situation might choose, for example, still to wear face coverings to make it more possible for those who are most vulnerable to get back to normal, too.

We must not allow the creation of a two-tier society as we recover from Covid. However, that requires all of us to take responsibility and to make sacrifices, and I hope that everybody across the country will take that seriously.


Climate Change Committee Report

The United Kingdom Climate Change Committee has today called for a “presumption against exploration” in relation to new oil and gas, making the case that renewables investment is the “best way” to tackle the energy price crisis.

I am proud of Scotland’s progress on renewables. Will the First Minister press the UK Government to end its policy of maximum economic recovery and to start listening to the climate science?

That is an important question. I have made clear the Scottish Government’s position on maximum economic recovery. We must make sure that we face up to the tough decisions as we progress towards net zero.

The Climate Change Committee report that has been published today is well worth a read for everyone. It does not quite go as far as to say that there should be no further exploration, but Mark Ruskell summarises it reasonably fairly when he talks about a “presumption”. It also says that it is wrong to say that new exploration will have a meaningful impact on energy costs for consumers.

All Governments have to take this issue seriously, but the powers lie with the UK Government, so we will continue to make our arguments very strongly.


Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-00832)

Tuesday.

I am grateful for that reply.

The aggression that has been demonstrated by the Russian regime in recent days asks us, once again, searching questions about our energy security. Fifteen years ago, Alex Salmond thundered that Scotland would become the “Saudi Arabia of renewables”. A few weeks ago, the First Minister boasted of a “truly historic” opportunity for renewables jobs. Now, the new owner of the Burntisland Fabrications site, InfraStrata plc, has secured work, but cannot find Scottish workers. There are not enough trained workers among the colossal wind farms of the Forth estuary to build even eight turbine jackets. Instead, the new owner has had to recruit dozens of workers from abroad, because the Scottish National Party has failed to train enough skilled workers here. Not only are most of the wind farms being built in the far east, but the work that we have won is not being built by workers from Scotland. Does that not show that the SNP’s renewables policy is all wind and no jobs?

I do not agree with that, but there are important issues are the heart of the question. Alex Cole-Hamilton has described the challenge, and my Government is getting on with offering the solutions. I have been frank in the past: I do not think that we have done well enough in securing the economic supply chain and jobs benefits of our massive renewables opportunities, and I am absolutely certain that we must do much better in the future.

A substantial body of work is under way to ensure that, as we take advantage of the opportunities of ScotWind, we build the economic advantages to go along with it. I am determined that we will get that right. There are global shortages of some of the skills that we are talking about, which is a problem, and there are recruitment challenges that are, of course, exacerbated by Brexit. We are focused on ensuring that, as we take advantage of the amazing opportunities, particularly of offshore wind, this and future generations will see the benefits in jobs and economic activity. I certainly look forward to keeping members updated on that in the months and years to come.


School Assault Allegations (Scottish Borders Council)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the report by Andrew Webster QC into the handling by Scottish Borders Council of school assault allegations, in particular those relating to the abuse of vulnerable children in the Tweeddale support unit. (S6F-00842)

The findings of the report are deeply concerning. First and foremost, my thoughts are with the children and families that have been affected. All children have the right to be cared for and protected from harm and to grow up in a safe environment in which their rights are respected and their needs are met.

Every local authority is expected to have in place appropriate child protection policies and procedures and effective processes to ensure that concerns about the safety and protection of children are identified and dealt with. The Scottish Government remains ready to work with Scottish Borders Council to assist it in addressing any concerns that are raised by the inquiry.

The QC described the actions of the council as “reprehensible”. The parents’ voices were ignored for four years. There was an internal inquiry and the parents were told that it was done and dusted—nothing to see here, please move on. They had to press for a successful criminal prosecution and for the independent inquiry, which took four years.

I asked the parents what they wanted to ask the Scottish Government. This is it: will the First Minister consider making it mandatory that, when children are in the care of a local authority and issues of child protection arise, investigations are not in-house, because there is more than a whiff of a cover-up in this case?

Given the fact that, during those four years, many of the relevant officers have retired or been employed elsewhere—one has even promoted to chief executive of another council—disciplinary proceedings are irrelevant and, in fact, redundant. Will the Scottish Government therefore consider exploring extending the principle of corporate crime to councils and their officials?

Given the seriousness of the issue, I want to say very clearly, through Christine Grahame, to the parents involved that I will, of course, consider any representations that are made to me.

Although I will not pre-empt consideration of the two specific issues that Christine Grahame has raised, I assure her that we will take them seriously and look closely at them. I am happy to communicate with parents through Christine Grahame as that consideration develops.

Learning from such cases is a vital part of an effective and improving child protection system. That, of course, includes looking at how the criminal law might operate. Alongside Education Scotland, the Scottish Government will seek to work with Scottish Borders Council on actions to address the inquiry’s recommendations, and to consider any learning that can be applied at the national level.

I will look at any further changes, such as those just outlined by Christine Grahame, that could further strengthen our child protection systems and make sure that parents and everyone who needs it has confidence in those arrangements. Few things in our society can be more important than that.

I am concerned about the role of the General Teaching Council for Scotland in child protection. When I asked the GTCS how many child protection concerns had been referred to it, I was told that it did not know, and it would be too expensive to find out. It says that it is not in the front line of child protection but, according to Scottish Government policy, everyone has a job in the safeguarding of children. Does the First Minister think that it is right that the regulator for teacher conduct is not in the front line of child protection?

I am happy to look at the issue because it is important, and I will come back to Willie Rennie when I have the opportunity to do so.

In principle, however, I believe that all of us in Government, local government, and Government agencies, as well as all of us as individual citizens, have an obligation and responsibility around child protection and we should consider that we are all in the front line of that, to a greater or lesser extent. The GTCS obviously has particular responsibilities.

I will consider the comments that Willie Rennie has attributed to the GTCS in the chamber today, and any difficulties with getting information out of the GTCS, and I will then be happy to come back with more detail when I have the chance to do so.


Scottish Crofting Commission

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the recent report on the Scottish Crofting Commission. (S6F-00816)

The Crofting Commission and the Scottish Government will reflect on the findings of the Public Audit Committee’s report, and consider what further actions might need to be taken on its findings and recommendations.

Action is already under way to address issues through an extensive improvement plan. To date, 28 actions out of a total of 41 recommendations that were made in the audit report undertaken by Deloitte have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented. Officials will continue to monitor the actions laid out in the commission’s improvement plan to ensure that improvements are achieved and maintained.

The report is damning and says that the Crofting Commission and the Scottish Government have failed to act on concerns that were raised in 2016. The SNP is in a state of paralysis on crofting reform. It failed to introduce a bill in the previous parliamentary session, and it dropped crofting law reform from last year’s programme for government.

Crofting has the potential to make a great contribution to rural Scotland, but the First Minister’s continued inaction is blocking reform and deterring new entrants. Why is the First Minister letting down Scotland’s crofters?

Not surprisingly, I do not agree with that characterisation, but I do agree about the importance of crofting to local communities and the overall landscape and economy of Scotland. These are important issues and we will continue to take forward crofting reforms as appropriate.

The rural affairs secretary has regular meetings with the Crofting Commission to discuss progress of the implementation of its actions and wider issues. We will continue to make sure that the Crofting Commission delivers on the actions in its improvement plan, and we will also take forward appropriate reforms so that crofters and crofting continue to have the important place in Scotland that they have had for a long time.

The Crofting Commission and other similar organisations that have had negative audit reports have cited interference by the Scottish Government. Boards need to be clear about their duties and responsibilities, and the Scottish Government needs to respect their role. Will the First Minister urgently carry out a review of the governance structures of the Crofting Commission and other similar bodies to ensure that they are fit for purpose?

Rarely a day goes by in this chamber—including today—when the Scottish Government is not called on to intervene and take action in relation to agencies or organisations that operate at arm’s length. When we do, we often face the accusation that we are interfering. We continue to try to get that balance right in the interests of the people we serve.

I said in my initial answer that we will reflect carefully on the Public Audit Committee’s report and consider what further action we need to take. It is, of course, important that organisations such as the Crofting Commission understand their roles and responsibilities, including in relation to the Scottish Government. We will reflect on the matter carefully, but we will also continue to support the Crofting Commission to implement the actions that are in its improvement plan.


Social Care Provision

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the reported view from Common Weal that action is needed to address weaknesses in social care provision due to it being in a critical state, not fit for purpose, underfunded, rationed, fragmented, centralised and risk averse. (S6F-00815)

I agree that action is needed, which is why we are taking forward the establishment of a national care service. That will help to end the postcode lottery of adult care in this country. A key aspect of that will be ensuring that it is designed with service users, so that the barriers to care that they too often face are taken down.

At this point, it would probably be helpful to quote Derek Feeley, who undertook the review of adult social care. He said:

“We won’t achieve the potential of social care support in Scotland without a new delivery system. We need a National Care Service to achieve the consistency that people deserve, to drive national improvements where they are required, to ensure strategic integration with the National Health Service, to set national standards, terms and conditions, and to bring national oversight and accountability to a vital part of Scotland’s social fabric.”

That is what we are seeking to achieve.

I am grateful to the First Minister for that answer. Although, as legislation is introduced, there will undoubtedly be a debate about what kind of national care service we will have, there are immediate problems that need to be addressed.

Will the First Minister agree to look at the inequality in the care workforce? In effect, we have a two-tier workforce. The majority of carers are women, and their pay and terms and conditions depend on whether they are employed in the public sector or in the private independent sector. Unless that is addressed now, we will not be able to fix the social care problems that are escalating out of control. Will the First Minister agree to look immediately at the issue of the unfair and unequal treatment of care workers in Scotland?

We are taking a range of immediate and short-term actions. For example, we are putting more investment into social care and taking action to increase the pay and improve the conditions of the social care workforce. I recognise that there are different employers involved, which leads to apparent inequities and injustices. One of the objectives of the national care service is to deliver national terms and conditions, but through, for example, the national living wage and our fair work practices, we are seeking to address such issues not just in social care but across the economy.

We will continue to take short-term actions while we build a new system that is fit for the future. I hope and believe that there will be a rigorous and robust debate in the Parliament about the detail of that. I really welcome that, but the Parliament has an opportunity to make a generational change in how we deliver social care across our country.

I call Michelle Thomson.

I apologise, Presiding Officer—I had a supplementary to an earlier question.

Thank you. In that case, I call Finlay Carson.


Curling

Will the First Minister join me in congratulating and recognising the remarkable achievements of Eve Muirhead and her team GB women’s curling rink in their historic victory in winning the gold medal at the winter Olympics in Beijing, and Bruce Mouat, who, alongside his team GB colleagues, won silver? Their success will now inspire many young men and women to take up what I believe is Scotland’s real national sport, which was first played here 500 years ago.

Will she also applaud the role of small community curling clubs and facilities such as the Dumfries, Stranraer, and Perth curling rinks, and many others across Scotland, which provide opportunity for players of all ages with a wide range of abilities and disabilities to take up the sport, and will she thank the Royal Caledonian Curling Club and British Curling, which not only nurture the sport at grass-roots level but create a world-class training environment for curling to thrive in? [Applause.]

I am tempted just to say yes to all of that and to sit down, which I am sure is what the member would prefer, but I will elaborate a little. I agree with all those points about the communities in Scotland who support curling, and about the work of British Curling, Scottish Curling and all who have contributed to the success that has been enjoyed over the past few days.

I begin by congratulating team Mouat, the men’s team, for their amazing achievement. That was a really tense match. They just missed out on gold, but they should be really proud of themselves. They did themselves, all of Scotland and team GB proud.

It gives me great pleasure to take the opportunity to say a massive congratulations to Eve Muirhead and to all of team Muirhead for winning an Olympic gold medal. There is no doubt that all of the team deserve our congratulations, but Eve Muirhead is well on her way to becoming one of the true global greats of her sport; in fact, I think that she is already there.

Congratulations to all of them. In what are really tough times, they gave us all something to smile about over the weekend, and we are grateful to all of them for that. [Applause.]


Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

I raise the case of my constituent Anne Sinclair, who, last October, after waiting seven months for diagnostic procedures, was told that she has an aggressive form of endometrial cancer, for which she is still awaiting treatment, due to the omicron wave.

The First Minister will be aware of the importance of early diagnosis in the successful treatment of cancer. Does she agree that Mrs Sinclair’s situation is not good enough? What assurance can she give to my other constituents who are waiting for a cancer diagnosis that they will not be left in a similar position?

Yes, from what the member has said, I absolutely agree that Mrs Sinclair’s situation does not sound at all acceptable. Through the member, I pass my thoughts to her at what I am sure is an incredibly difficult time.

We have sought to prioritise cancer care throughout the pandemic, recognising the importance of early diagnosis and early access to treatment. Plans are already being implemented to further speed up diagnosis and to ensure that treatment is swift and of high quality, but we want to make sure—and have a responsibility to make sure—that that is the experience of every patient who is suffering through cancer diagnosis.

I will not go too much further into the specific circumstances of Mrs Sinclair’s case, because it is not possible for me to do so. However, if the member will write to me with the detail, I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care to look into that in particular, and to come back to him as soon as possible.


Peterhead Prison Museum

The old prison at Peterhead was turned into a visitor attraction in 2016. After spending time there—as a visitor, not a resident—I say that it is an excellent day out. The museum is struggling financially, due to the pandemic, and I believe that it has written to the First Minister, pleading for financial assistance. Will she commit to providing financial assistance to save Peterhead Prison Museum from closure?

First, I am sure that I speak on behalf of all members when I say that we are all delighted that Douglas Lumsden was there only as a visitor. [Interruption.] Christine Grahame is saying that we only have his word for that, but I am sure that there is objective evidence as well.

It is a serious matter. Visitor attractions across the country have suffered greatly because of Covid, and we are seeking to help them recover. As I am sure the member will appreciate, I am not able today to give a commitment to financial assistance for Peterhead Prison Museum in particular, but I undertake to look in detail at the matter and to consider whether we can do more—or, perhaps more appropriately, whether the local council can be encouraged to do more—to support it.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a brief pause before members’ business.