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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 March 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Greensill Capital UK (Administration), Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, Motion of Thanks, Decision Time, Presiding Officer’s Closing Remarks


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon, colleagues. We will start today’s business with First Minister’s question time, but before we turn to questions I invite the First Minister to update the Parliament on the latest situation with the Covid pandemic.

For the final time in this parliamentary session, I will give an update on the day’s statistics. Yesterday, 692 new Covid cases were reported, which is 3.1 per cent of all the tests that were carried out yesterday. The total number of confirmed cases now stands at 215,075. There are 321 people in hospital, which is 20 fewer than yesterday, and 31 people are currently receiving intensive care, which is three more than yesterday.

I regret to say that, in the past 24 hours, a further three deaths have been registered, which takes the total number of deaths under the daily measurement to 7,562. National Records of Scotland has just published its weekly update, which includes cases in which Covid is a suspected or contributory cause of death. Today’s update shows that, by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths linked to Covid under the wider definition was 9,897. Sixty-five of those deaths were registered last week, which was 39 fewer than the week before. That represents a fall of more than 50 per cent in the past two weeks, which is further welcome evidence that the vaccination programme is now reducing deaths in the community as well as in care homes.

That said, the total number of deaths also reminds us of the dreadful toll that Covid has taken. Again, I want to send my condolences to everyone who has been bereaved.

I will also quickly provide an update on the vaccination programme. As of this morning, more than 2,249,612 people had received a first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 34,940 since yesterday. That means that we are on track, by the end of today, to have given a first dose to more than half of the adult population, which is a significant milestone. In addition, yesterday, 13,581 people received a second dose, which brings the total of second doses given to 249,252.

From today, Public Health Scotland will publish a daily breakdown of first and second doses within priority group 6, which comprises adults with a particular underlying health condition and unpaid carers. It will also provide more detailed figures on vaccinations for health workers and social care workers, broken down into those two distinct categories. For the first time, it has also just published an analysis of vaccinations by ethnicity and deprivation level.

Returning to today’s figures, a first dose of the vaccine has now been given to virtually everyone over 65, 93 per cent of people aged 60 to 64, 63 per cent of people aged 55 to 59, and 41 per cent of people aged 50 to 54. Today, we will publish an update to the vaccine deployment plan, which confirms that we are on course to offer first doses to all of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s priority groups by mid-April. It also confirms that, supplies permitting, we will have offered a first dose to all adults by the end of July.

All that is encouraging and very hopeful. As we take part in the final First Minister’s question time of this parliamentary term, a return to greater normality for the country is now much more in sight. Of course, that all remains dependent on our continuing to suppress the virus. Therefore, for now, it is vital that everyone continues to follow the stay-at-home rule, except for essential purposes, and to follow all the FACTS guidance. That is how we will continue to protect ourselves and one another. It is also how we will get back—I hope soon—to a much more normal way of life. I thank everyone, again, for all their co-operation and sacrifice.

Thank you, First Minister. Any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button.

Education (Attainment)

I add my condolences to those of the First Minister, for all those who have died, and I thank all those who are helping in the health and vaccine effort as we tackle Covid across the country.

Three major publications have been released this week. On the first two of those, questions remain about the lack of accountability and the serious flaws in the Government’s handling of sexual harassment complaints. However, in my last First Minister’s question time, I want to make sure that the third document—the Audit Scotland report on the attainment gap, “Improving outcomes for young people through school education”—does not go unexamined.

Before we get into the detail of that, the Deputy First Minister said at today’s Education and Skills Committee meeting that he was nervous about the use of the phrase “catch up” when talking about pupils affected by the pandemic, as that assumes that all children have fallen behind. Does the First Minister agree with that view, or does she share my concern that everything possible must be done to help pupils catch up after the better part of a year out of the classroom?

I will come directly to that question but, first, I say that Ruth Davidson could have chosen to ask me about education in any previous week, but she has chosen to indulge in smears instead of focusing on the issues that people want to focus on. I am therefore pleased that she is back on to the issue of education and attainment in what is, of course, her last FMQs before she goes to the unelected House of Lords.

On attainment, the Audit Scotland report published this week has lots for us to think about as we head to the election and as a new Government takes office after that. It narrates much progress, both in raising attainment and in closing the attainment gap. It recognises the obvious impact that Covid has had on that progress but also, I think, can give us confidence that the key building blocks are in place—through, for example, the attainment challenge, increased funding and increased numbers of teachers.

On Ruth Davidson’s specific question, I agree with the Deputy First Minister. I think that it is really important that we support young people to catch up on their education. The Scottish Government has announced significant additional investment, supporting increased numbers of teachers and a host of other initiatives, to help with that. However, I make no apology for saying that, when it comes to the wider wellbeing of young people, it is really important that we recognise the impact of Covid not just on their education, which has been really significant, but on their mental health, in being away from their friends, grandparents and families, and that we take that holistic approach. Therefore, for example, we will be introducing a summer programme, backed by £20 million of additional investment, that will allow us to focus on the broader wellbeing of children, so that we make sure that they recover and catch up in that wider sense. Education is part of that, but it is not the only part.

A bit of contrition from the First Minister might be in order, after the failures of her Government have been exposed, rather than a lack of honour or indeed any contrition. I do not know how the Deputy First Minister can say that he is concerned about the words “catch up”, because there is simply no way that pupils who would otherwise have spent the entire year in class can have done anything other than fall behind, through no fault of their own or of their teachers, over the past 12 months. The only question is, “How far?”

While we respect the summer work, we want to know what else the Government will do to turn the situation around. It is not as if there was not already a serious problem in Scotland with a deeply entrenched attainment gap.

This week’s Audit Scotland report says that the attainment gap “remains wide” and that improvements are not happening quickly enough. It specifically says that those

“in the most challenging circumstances have been most affected”

by the impact of school closures, and that those same disadvantaged children have less access to remote learning and to online resources.

The Government has had years in charge of education, so why is progress on closing the attainment gap so slow?

First, Ruth Davidson has spent weeks misrepresenting me. Many legitimate questions should have been, and have been, asked of me, and I have shown plenty of contrition where that has been merited. However, I have heard on the grapevine that there is a lot of division within the Conservative Party about its tactics over the past few days, so, moving on from misrepresenting me, Ruth Davidson is now misrepresenting the Deputy First Minister.

I am really not sure what many people could find to disagree with in the view that, yes, we should help young people to catch up in their education, but, as we do that, we should help them to recover from the overall wider impact that Covid has had on them. That is the point that the Deputy First Minister was making. I find it really hard to see how and why Ruth Davidson would disagree with that.

The Audit Scotland report has much to say about progress. For example, it says:

“At the national level, exam performance and other attainment measures have improved ... There has been an increase in the types of opportunities, awards and qualifications available to children and young people and an increase in the number awarded.”

The report also focuses on the impact of Covid, and that is why we are so focused on dealing with that in the widest sense. We have committed almost £400 million of new funding over this year and next year as part of education recovery. That involves funding a range of actions, including the recruitment of 1,400 additional teachers, 200 additional support staff, new digital devices and youth support work—all the things that we need to do to support young people. That funding is also supporting the introduction of a £20 million pupil equity funding premium, which will be part of record investment through the attainment Scotland fund.

I hope to be standing here again in the next parliamentary session—that is up to the Scottish people. While Ruth Davidson is off taking £300 a day to sit in the unelected House of Lords, those of us who are in this chamber will be getting on with the job of improving education for all.

I appreciate that this is a political exchange, and I always allow some latitude, but you have twice mentioned the House of Lords, First Minister. The point has been made. [Interruption.] It is a political exchange—I get it, and I understand it—but the point has been made, and I would rather that it was not so personal.

Gallant but not required, Presiding Officer.

The First Minister turns a good line on this:

“My aim—to put it very bluntly—is to close that attainment gap. Not by a bit, but to close that attainment gap completely.”

That was said more than five years ago; as a promise, it has been proven worthless. The Government was running out of solutions well before the pandemic struck. The Audit Scotland report criticises the slow rate of improvement and it highlights the attainment Scotland fund, but it also makes the point that the attainment fund needs to change. Reading and writing are the basic core skills of every pupil, but the attainment gap for literacy in attainment challenge areas increased from 2017 to 2018, and it increased again from 2018 to 2019.

Seven months ago, after the previous return of pupils to the classroom, the Scottish Conservatives were calling for measures to help them get back up to speed: 3,000 extra teachers, a national tutoring service and an independent inspectorate to ensure that schools were getting back on track. That has all been ignored, while our children are continuing to pay the price for Government complacency. Five years ago, Nicola Sturgeon said that she was going to shut the attainment gap “completely”. Can she now tell the country when that will happen?

If the Scottish people re-elect me to be First Minister, I will continue the work that we have been doing over those five years to improve attainment and close the attainment gap. Looking at the first five years of the Scottish attainment challenge programme, there is evidence that almost all the short-term and medium-term outcomes have been achieved. There has been demonstrable progress on several of the long-term measures to close the attainment gap. For primary pupils, the gap in literacy and numeracy has narrowed. For secondary 3 pupils, the numeracy gap has narrowed. The gap in the proportion of young people in education, employment and training has narrowed year on year. The gap between the most deprived and least deprived pupils achieving one pass or more at level 5 has gone from 33.3 percentage points to 20.8 percentage points. I could go on.

Progress has been made, albeit that it has been hampered by a global pandemic. That is why we are investing in, and not just talking about, recruiting more teachers—we have recruited more teachers. As is shown in the Audit Scotland report on education, spend on education in Scotland has gone up by 5 per cent in real terms. We have the highest spending per head of any of the nations in the United Kingdom, and we have the highest number of teachers since 2008. Indeed, we have the highest number of primary teachers since 1980.

We will get on with the hard work of improving attainment and closing the attainment gap. At the risk of upsetting you, Presiding Officer, which I would never want to do, I will add that I am sure that Ruth Davidson will be watching us from afar.

Nicola Sturgeon described closing the attainment gap as her “sacred responsibility”, but the Audit Scotland report is clear that the attainment gap that was meant to be closed is just as wide as ever. Who is to blame on that vital issue? Why, it cannot be the party that has been in full control of our education system for the past 14 years—no. On Monday, we heard the Government’s only solution when confronted by more than a decade of failing Scotland. It was another independence referendum bill, because that is all it has.

For my last question to Nicola Sturgeon in the chamber, I ask her this: how many times will she demand another independence referendum before she finally gets round to closing the education attainment gap?

There will be another independence referendum if the people of Scotland vote for another independence referendum. That is called democracy, which I know is a principle that Ruth Davidson perhaps does not, these days, recognise as much as she might once have done.

It is not me who is running away from responsibility and accountability—I am about to put myself before the Scottish people. I will put before the Scottish people my record in office; tell them, in areas where we have not made as much progress as we wanted to make, why that is the case; and put forward a positive case for the future. I will put forward the plans that will see us continue to improve attainment and close the attainment gap; continue to improve the health service and support economic recovery; and—yes—continue to support plans to allow this country to choose its own future, so that we can build that recovery firmly on the basis of the values of a majority of people in Scotland, not the values of Ruth Davidson and her Westminster bosses.

As that was her final question, I say that I genuinely wish Ruth Davidson well. Five years ago, she was trying to persuade people that she was the next First Minister. That did not quite work out—but I hope that she has a happy time in the House of Lords, Presiding Officer.

Hospital Infections

I join the First Minister and Ruth Davidson in sending our condolences to all those who have lost a loved one and in saying thank you to all our heroes on the front line.

There has been a lot of focus on two reports this week, but, no matter how devastating they were or could have been, nothing is more devastating than the report that I have here. On Monday, the “Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and Royal Hospital for Children: Case Note Review Overview Report” was published. The review looked into infections of children and young people who were receiving treatment in the cancer ward at the Royal hospital for children, and its findings were heartbreaking. It found that almost 40 infections

“were ‘Most likely’ linked to the hospital environment”

and that, tragically, they played a part in the deaths of two children.

We would never have got to this point if it was not for the bravery of national health service whistleblowers, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Can the First Minister confirm that every family of a child who had an infection as a result of the hospital environment has been informed—in particular, the families of the two children who tragically died?

First, I agree with the member’s characterisation of the report. I also agree that there are questions that still require to be answered, and there are undoubtedly questions that families want to be answered, which is why we have instructed a full public inquiry into the matter. The inquiry was formally launched on 3 August last year, and we look forward to that inquiry doing its work in the months to come.

I am pleased that “The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital/NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Oversight Board: Final Report” has been published. That report sets out a number of failings of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, as well as a series of recommendations that the Government expects the board to take forward and implement. I also welcome the publication of the case note review overview report. It was essential that those who were most deeply affected by the events at the Queen Elizabeth hospital had their voices heard and, as far as possible at this stage, their questions answered.

With regard to families, the expert panel is—as, I am sure, Anas Sarwar is aware—now preparing individual reports for families who have been affected. It is expected that those reports will be issued to the families in the week beginning 12 April, in order that they will have not only the information from the overview report but specific information relating to the circumstances in which their own children were placed.

I understand what the First Minister says, and I welcome the public inquiry, but it has taken far too long for families to be informed of the possible outcomes for their children. We have a duty of candour law in Scotland, which means that there is a duty to inform all families. I suggest that there have been breaches of that duty of candour law.

One of those families is the Darroch family. Kimberley Darroch’s 10-year-old daughter, Milly Main, had leukaemia and was in recovery but, sadly, caught a deadly water-borne infection and died. For years, Kimberley was never told the true cause of her child’s death. Nothing that I have done in my time in the Parliament has been more important or difficult than raising the case of Milly Main. I promised that I would not rest until I got answers and justice for Milly and all the families affected. Four years on from Milly’s death, we are finally starting to get answers. Milly’s family have demanded a fatal accident inquiry. They understand the delays due to Covid, but it is unfair to prolong their grief.

I know that the First Minister cannot direct the Lord Advocate, but, given the findings in this report, does she agree that there must now be that fatal accident inquiry?

I will genuinely try to be as helpful as I can be within the constraints of my responsibilities. First, I agree with the view that, I think, comes through in the overview report, that among the lessons to be learned by the health board are lessons around transparency and openness. That point has been firmly and clearly made, and it is one that I would expect the health board to reflect on seriously.

I note that Anas Sarwar has worked closely with Milly’s family and Milly’s mum, in particular. To that family and the families of all the children affected, I say that there is a determination on my part and on the part of the Government to get the answers that are required but also to ensure that lessons are learned, and we will not rest until that is done as well.

Milly’s care was reviewed as part of the case note review, and, as I said in my initial answer, the expert panel is now preparing individual reports, which will include one on Milly. I know that Milly’s family are—as is their right—engaged in legal proceedings, and, obviously, I do not want to say anything that would prejudice any of that.

The decision about whether there should be a fatal accident inquiry is not for me to make, and—this is important, given the separation of powers—I should not say anything that could be seen to be putting undue influence on the law officers, whose decision that is. That said, I completely understand and sympathise with the view of Milly’s family that there should be a fatal accident inquiry, and I am sure that the strength of that feeling is understood by the law officers, although they have considerations that they have to weigh in reaching that decision, as they have in all cases. However, I absolutely understand why Milly’s family want that inquiry to happen.

We cannot put all of this on the health board. There are lessons for the health board, but there are also lessons for the Government. Nicola Sturgeon was the health secretary when the Queen Elizabeth university hospital was commissioned and built, and she was the First Minister when the hospital was opened. We now know that, one week before the hospital was opened, an independent report found that the water supply was not safe and posed a high risk of infection. That report was ignored and the hospital was opened anyway. That is another example of secrecy and failure that has had devastating consequences, and no one would have known about it without the bravery of national health service whistleblowers, which led to the issue being exposed in Parliament.

This case is just one of the huge challenges that our country was facing even before Covid—there are countless others—and we know that, even when lockdown ends and the virus is defeated, we will need to focus all our energy and effort on delivering the strong and fairer recovery that Scotland needs. We cannot come back after 6 May and carry on with the old arguments, with politicians fighting with each other, focused on their own interests and not the national interest. Why can the First Minister not see that?

I will come on to that final point in a moment, because it is important and I have a particular perspective on it after this past year. First, though, on the issue of the Queen Elizabeth hospital, I agree that there are issues for the Government, as there are for the health board. I hope that, whatever people think about my decisions, my politics or my views on things, they agree that this is a Government that is prepared to face up to issues that arise and learn lessons. The public inquiry that has been instructed here is a key part of doing that. It will look at all the issues, parties and players that are involved and reach its conclusions, as is right and proper.

I mean no disrespect to other ministers—every ministerial job is really important and carries heavy responsibilities—but, as health secretary, I recognised each and every day the particular import of the decisions that I made, so those things weighed heavily and I carried that responsibility very heavily. Therefore, when things go wrong, I absolutely realise the importance of recognising that and learning lessons.

On the issue of focusing on the things that matter, plenty of things divide us in this chamber, and that is the hallmark of a healthy democracy. We should be able to have those debates and differences of opinion without resorting to personal attacks. That is what I hope will change in the next session of Parliament. Some people will agree with the decisions that I have taken and some people will not, but, every day over the past year, I have focused 100 per cent on trying to lead a country through a crisis, and that will continue to be my focus for as long as I am First Minister.

The crisis changes our perspective. It has changed my perspective and, as we come back from the election, although we have differences of opinion and we should debate those things rigorously, the future of the country really matters, and it matters that we get it right. We should not shy away from debating the powers of this Parliament and the values that guide our recovery, but we should do so respectfully, civilly and with the recognition that, although we might disagree, we all have the best interests of this country at heart. I hope that those of us who come back after the election will bring that spirit back with us into the new session of Parliament.

Education (Attainment)

What the First Minister has just described should be the spirit of the Scottish Parliament and we all have a responsibility to try and live up to that. In the past year, however, I am afraid that Scottish politics has been poisonous and it needs to change.

The Audit Scotland report on the attainment gap said that the Scottish Government’s performance on education is “limited and falls short”. The First Minister said that she would close the poverty-related attainment gap completely, but that was six years ago.

“It will not be done overnight,”

she predicted, but we have had 2,000 overnights since then. The First Minister did not answer the question earlier, so I ask her again. How much longer will young people have to wait before the First Minister delivers on what she promised?

I intend to continue doing what the Government and I have done for the past five years, which is making the progress, taking the decisions and making the investments to progress that work. Building on the progress in this parliamentary session, I expect us to make significant progress over the next session, if that is what the people of Scotland choose.

It is right to prioritise raising attainment and closing the attainment gap. The Audit Scotland report recognises

“that the complexity of contributory factors means that it will take time”

to achieve that. It also recognises that Covid has undoubtedly hampered progress:

“Pupils living in the most challenging circumstances have been most affected by school closures ... inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid”.

However, the report also narrates progress when it says that

“exam performance and other attainment measures have improved”

and that there has been an increase in the opportunities, awards, qualifications and the number of those being awarded, as well as an increase in school investment over the past few years.

The building blocks are in place, and progress has been made. If the people of Scotland put their trust in me and us again, my focus and determination are to make sure that we continue that progress in the next parliamentary session.

I do not think that the First Minister should trumpet a 36-point poverty-related attainment gap. The First Minister has not been in power for five years; the SNP has been 14 years in power, and she is responsible for the state of education today. At this rate of progress, it will take 35 years to have equity in education. Meanwhile, yet more generations and thousands of young people will be left behind. There is a yawning attainment gap; 5,000 teachers are on casual contracts; maths and science results are at a record low in international league tables; an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report is hidden from the voters on purpose; and even the Government’s website admits that performance is worsening.

The Liberals Democrats have put forward a plan to get Scottish education back up to being the best. We even supported measures in the budget on education—that is how determined we are to turn the situation around. The First Minister said, “Judge me on education.” Now is the time for people to judge. Does the First Minister accept that she has had enough time and that she has not done enough for young people in Scotland?

No, I do not accept that, but it is not really up to me; we are about to go into an election campaign and it will be up to the Scottish people. In the election campaign, I will put forward my record and that of my Government. I will be straight with the Scottish people about the challenges that we face, where we have not made enough progress and what we intend to do about that. On 6 May, people in Scotland will make their decision. They will either re-elect this Government or they will not. That is democracy; that is accountability and scrutiny, which I welcome and relish.

I say to Willie Rennie that I did not trumpet anything. I say very gently to him that, through his continued mischaracterisation of the position with the OECD report, he is almost engaging in Trump-like behaviour. The OECD has said that we cannot publish the report before it is finalised, because it is the author of the report. We got its agreement to place a summary report in the Scottish Parliament information centre, but the OECD set the conditions for sharing the report with the Parliament. Anybody in the Parliament who has taken the opportunity to read the report will know that Opposition claims about it do not stack up with the reality.

I am absolutely willing, prepared and looking forward to putting the Government’s record before the Scottish people. I know that we have more work to do in all sorts of areas, but I will read out what the International Council of Education Advisers says about Scottish education, which is an important antidote to those who want not only to highlight where there is more work to be done—which is absolutely right and proper—but to talk Scottish education down in order to do down the Government. It is important to put what it says on the record. It says:

“Scottish education exhibits many strengths. It values equity as well as excellence. It has an excellent standing internationally. It is investing effort and resources to narrow attainment gaps, working with and strengthening the teaching profession”.

That is the foundation that we have. If the Government is re-elected, we will work every day in the next parliamentary session to build on that foundation.

Child Poverty

I, too, send my most sincere sympathies to all those who have lost a loved one during the pandemic, and my most grateful thanks to all those who are working on the front line.

The link between poverty and educational attainment cannot be overstated. One of the most important moments of this parliamentary session was in 2017, when we unanimously agreed targets to tackle child poverty. Of course, targets need action, and I am proud that the Scottish Greens have played our part. For example, this month’s budget deal will extend free school meals to all primary school children, which will benefit 200,000 children, and £100 million in pandemic relief payments will be paid to the poorest households across Scotland between now and Christmas.

The pandemic is hitting the poorest families the hardest, and the Tory Government’s callous decision to scrap the £20 uplift to universal credit from September will, according to experts, push another 20,000 children in Scotland into poverty.

We need to do more. The Scottish child payment will make a difference, but it is not enough. Will the First Minister join the Greens and commit to increasing the Scottish child payment at the earliest opportunity?

I will publish a manifesto in a few weeks’ time, when I will set out the plans that my party will take into the next parliamentary session if we are re-elected. We are, of course, the party that introduced the Scottish child payment, which is “game-changing”, in the words of campaigners against child poverty.

Alison Johnstone is right that although setting targets to reduce child poverty is important—I think that Scotland is still the only part of the United Kingdom that has such targets, but I will be corrected if I am wrong about that—actions to back up those targets are what matter most. We are certainly the only part of the UK that has a child payment that puts money into the pockets of the poorest families in order that they can give their children a better start in life, which then helps with their education.

We have also made a commitment to extend the provision of free school meals to all primary school children all year round. Of course, at an earlier stage in the pandemic, we made payments to the poorest families, and we have agreed, as part of the budget negotiations, to continue those payments.

The Government’s record is strong. There is more to be done on all such areas, particularly in the light of Covid. One thing that makes the decision and the debate about Scotland’s future so important in the next parliamentary session is that we should not have to face up to such challenges with one hand tied behind our back. As we put more money into the pockets of the poorest families, the Tory Government at Westminster takes that money out of their pockets. That is why we need to complete this Parliament’s powers through independence, so that we can genuinely build the kind of country that we want, based on the values that we want it to be based on.

The First Minister will be aware that the End Child Poverty coalition is calling for a minimum boost of £10 to the Scottish child payment.

We will miss another target that the Parliament passed—our climate target—unless we choose a different future. This week, Scotland’s Climate Assembly, which was established under a Scottish Green Party amendment to what became the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, showed a clear appetite for more ambition from the Government. The assembly said:

“If we fail to act now, we will fail our current and future generations, in Scotland and across the world ... Politicians ... must have the courage to act now”.

For two years in a row, climate targets have been missed. Transport emission levels keep on rising. Last week, the First Minister would not even speak out against the continued exploration for new fossil fuel reserves in the North Sea, even though we already have far more fuel than we could burn within the terms of the Paris Agreement. Will the First Minister find the courage to act now and make a clear statement that our future depends on leaving such reserves in the ground and issuing no further licences?

First, we will not fail to act now and are not failing to act now. Our climate change plan sets out the range of policies across all our responsibilities that are necessary to take now, not just to get to net zero by 2045 but to meet our very ambitious interim targets along the way. We are already a world leader in that; other countries recognise us in that position. We have made substantial progress but, as with all such things, there is much work still to do.

On the comments about oil and gas, I spoke up last week for a just transition—a transition to net zero that does not leave people behind and does not leave people on the redundancy scrapheap but instead supports people who work in sectors that we want to leave behind to move into the sectors of the future. Our continued support for the oil and gas sector in north-east Scotland is conditional on a sustainable, secure and inclusive energy transition.

There is no dubiety or disagreement about the destination, but how the journey is made matters to people’s jobs, their quality of life and their living standards. That is important. The Scottish Government will not ignore such issues.

Unpaid Carers (Vaccinations)

To ask the First Minister how many unpaid carers have been vaccinated to date. (S5F-04925)

As of this morning, 85,692 unpaid carers have received a first vaccination dose. As I said earlier, Public Health Scotland will publish new data on that and other aspects of vaccination later this afternoon. I reiterate that the Scottish Government recognises the importance of protecting all who provide care for others. That is why we launched the NHS Inform portal last week, which allows unpaid carers to register to receive the vaccine.

I thank all unpaid carers, who have helped many people throughout the pandemic—I thank particularly those in my Greenock and Inverclyde constituency but also those across Scotland. Does the First Minister agree that all unpaid carers should register via the self-registration website to ensure that they are vaccinated in priority group 6?

Yes—I will come back to that in a moment. I echo Stuart McMillan and thank all who have cared for relatives, friends and loved ones through what has been a really difficult 12 months and who continue to care for them. We owe unpaid carers an enormous debt of gratitude at all times, but that is particularly true of their contribution in the past year.

To answer the question, I strongly encourage those who are eligible to register on the NHS Inform portal so that they can have an appointment to receive the vaccine arranged. To support that and ensure awareness, we are running a national marketing campaign via digital channels, the press, radio and other public relations activity, as I said yesterday. That will ensure that everybody is aware of the system. I hope that unpaid carers will take the opportunity to come forward and get vaccinated.

School Inspections

To ask the First Minister for what reason more than 700 schools have not been inspected in over a decade. (S5F-04927)

Scotland has a three-level approach to evaluating and improving education: schools have a responsibility to evaluate their own performance; local authorities have statutory duties of quality improvement and reporting; and the third level is external inspection.

Education Scotland has significantly strengthened its scrutiny functions. In 2018-19, there were 252 school inspections, which was an increase of more than 30 per cent on the previous year. Education Scotland was on track to exceed that figure in 2019-20, before inspections had to be paused in March last year due to the pandemic. In addition to individual school inspections, Her Majesty’s inspectors of education carry out national thematic inspections focusing on key priorities in education. Those often include visits to individual schools.

Education rightly deserves a good airing at First Minister’s questions. I cannot think of anything more important for us to shine a light on at our own end of term. No one in the chamber ever tires of thanking teachers or school staff for their efforts, but it is worth reminding the First Minister of some key figures that she cannot blame on Covid.

There are 704 Scottish schools that have not been inspected in more than a decade. Another 1,600 have not been inspected in the past five years. The Government has also failed its own manifesto pledge to reduce class sizes and, despite the spin that we heard earlier, there are 1,700 fewer teachers in the system than there were when the Scottish National Party took office. A leading architect of the SNP’s own curriculum reform concluded that its implementation had slashed subject choice for young people, not increased it.

The First Minister asked to be judged on her record on education above everything else. How would the First Minister rate her performance?

That is not up to me or to Jamie Greene—it is up to the Scottish people on 6 May. They will have that opportunity.

Education deserves an airing at First Minister’s questions every week, but I do not choose the questions that I get asked. Ruth Davidson has chosen week after week recently to ask me about something completely different. It is good that the Tories are finally focusing on issues that actually matter to people across the country.

I have set out some responses to the Audit Scotland report and have set out the three levels of inspection and scrutiny in Scottish education. I intend to continue—with the agreement of the Scottish people, should they choose to give that in a few weeks’ time—to get on with the job on increasing attainment and closing the attainment gap. If the Conservatives continue to sit there in the next session of Parliament—or perhaps over here—I hope that they will ask more about education and health than they have chosen to do in recent weeks in this one.

Self-isolation Support Grant (Approval of Applications)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that local authorities with the highest deprivation rates are least likely to approve self-isolation support grant applications. (S5F-04929)

Local authorities have built the self-isolation support grant to fit within the wider Covid supports that they have in their areas. Any variation in the number of applications for the grant or in the award rate depends on the spread of the virus. There is no consistent link between deprivation and award rates, although areas of high deprivation tend to make a greater number of awards.

Early engagement with local authorities suggested that a major reason for applications being rejected was that they came from people who earned more than the income threshold for the grant. We significantly increased that threshold in February. We will begin reporting the impact of the updated eligibility from April and will continue working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and with local authorities to identify further potential improvements.

Overall, fewer than one in three of the people in Scotland who have applied for a self-isolation grant have received one. Worryingly, approval rates are as low as one in six in some council areas. It is rapidly becoming a postcode lottery. In North Lanarkshire and Glasgow, two of the council areas with the highest deprivation levels, the success rate for applications is below 20 per cent, whereas in Edinburgh almost 50 per cent of those who have applied for the grant have been successful. Does the First Minister agree that such wide variation suggests that something is not quite right about the system, particularly if areas of high deprivation have such low success rates? Will she commit to an urgent review of the scheme to ensure that there is a higher success rate, particularly in areas of high deprivation where our poorest communities may be losing out?

I do not think that we need to have an urgent review, because we are reviewing the situation on an on-going basis, and the changes that we have already made to eligibility would bear that out. When we think that changes are required, we are responding to make sure that more people get access. We are seeing that the number of applications being approved is increasing. In January, awards were 33 per cent higher and applications were 36 per cent higher than was the case in December. Eligibility has, of course, been extended.

We will continue to look carefully at the situation. There is some variation between local authorities, although not necessarily all, and that is something that we need to look at carefully, but some of it will be explained by the fact that some local authorities have different supports in place. Self-isolation is part of a wider arrangement of how people are being supported. We look at that regularly and we will continue to make changes as we think necessary to ensure that people are getting the support that they need to self-isolate, because we know that self-isolation will continue to be a key part of our defence against Covid.

Tuition Fees

Tuition fees in England and Wales have been mired in broken promises. Instead of keeping fees low, the Tories have bumped them up, making it much harder for students from deprived backgrounds and areas to access higher education. If the First Minister is re-elected, will she commit to maintaining free tuition? Does she agree that students should not leave university with a mountain of debt before they have even started work?

Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with Sandra White. As long as I am First Minister, there will be no tuition fees in Scotland. That is a commitment that I make very strongly, and I say that not just politically but personally. Had there been tuition fees when I was younger, it is unlikely that I would have gone to university. Having had the opportunity of a university education, it would be wrong for me to take that opportunity away from others.

Sandra White has raised this question and I think it is appropriate that she has done so in what will be her final contribution in the chamber. Sandra White represents a large number of students and has represented them extremely well, as she has represented her entire constituency. She and I have been colleagues from Glasgow in the Parliament since 1999. She has made an outstanding contribution. She is a great colleague and a great friend, and we are going to miss her greatly. I wish her all the best in her retirement.

Store Closures (Aberdeen)

Less than two hours ago, Aberdeen was rocked by the announcement that, after more than 30 years in the city, John Lewis in Aberdeen will not reopen. That comes just two weeks after Debenhams shut the doors of its Aberdeen store. That means that 256 employees could be made redundant and, given that BHS remains empty five years after closing, Arcadia has shut several stores in the city and Debenhams is now empty, the outlook for Aberdeen high street is bleak.

What will the Government do to help employees and reinvigorate Aberdeen retail after the pandemic? Does the First Minister now agree that the SNP’s decision to delay the business rates revaluation has had a devastating impact on businesses in Aberdeen?

First, this morning’s news from John Lewis is a blow to Aberdeen and my thoughts are with all the employees of John Lewis who will be affected.

As the member is aware, the Aberdeen store is the only one in Scotland among a number across the United Kingdom that John Lewis has decided not to reopen after lockdown. The reason that he gives for that does not bear any scrutiny.

However, the member raises an important issue, and he is right to raise it. The Scottish Government will engage with John Lewis directly. The partnership action for continuing employment initiative will be used to help employees who are affected. We will, of course, also engage with Aberdeen City Council.

The revitalisation of our high streets will be one of our priorities as we come out of lockdown and out of the pandemic. We will work with local authorities and the Scottish Retail Consortium to make sure that we are taking the right steps. In the short term, we will do everything that we can to support the affected employees.

Breast Cancer Waiting Times

Breast cancer waiting times in Tayside are now 17 weeks from general practitioner referral to first appointment. As the First Minister knows, that is a severe breach of Government-recommended maximum waiting times and an eternity for patients.

I asked the First Minister about the issue a month ago. She said that she would get more detail and come back to me. I have heard nothing. Women are worried and are waiting for a long time. Will the First Minister look into the issue—today, please—and tell me what has been done, before this parliamentary session ends?

We have already taken action in that regard. I know that Jenny Marra is stepping down from Parliament, and I will ask the health secretary to give more detail later today. For example, Glasgow and Edinburgh are providing assistance to Dundee to help with its waiting times, so that women are not waiting an inordinate amount of time for the breast cancer care that they need.

This is a really important matter. Part of the remobilisation and recovery of the health service is about making sure that any cancer treatments and care that have been delayed—most cancer care will have proceeded as it should have done—are caught up on as quickly as possible. We have already taken steps to deal with the situation in Tayside.

As I said, we will get further information to Jenny Marra today. Given that this is likely to be her last contribution to Parliament, I take the opportunity to wish her well in the future.

Covid-19 (Recovery of Town Centres)

Further to Liam Kerr’s question, how will the Scottish Government support town centres to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic?

We are providing financial support to all businesses, many of which will be in town centres. Grants for the retail, hospitality and leisure industries will be paid in April. That will include final support for closure as well as start-up support. We have, of course, extended 100 per cent non-domestic rates relief for retail, leisure and hospitality premises for the entirety of the next financial year. The place-based investment programme will also help to progress some of the steps that we need to take to support town centres and wider community-led regeneration.

This week, we published a joint response with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to the town centre action plan expert review group’s report. We will work with partners to respond fully to the group’s recommendations, if we are returned to Government at the election.

Health Records (Veterans)

On leaving the British armed forces, many veterans experience long delays in their general practitioner surgeries getting access to their military health records. That could delay GPs’ diagnosis of any health issues. Will the First Minister ensure that that matter is addressed as soon as possible, to prevent veterans’ health issues from increasing due to unnecessary delay?

I undertake to look into the issue that the member raised. I hope that there is a general acceptance and agreement that we take the healthcare of veterans extremely seriously. Veterans should have access to healthcare in the same way as anybody does, and we have taken our wider responsibilities to veterans extremely seriously.

I am happy to look into the member’s specific point and have the health secretary write to him as quickly as possible.

Harassment Complaints (Scottish Government Handling)

The First Minister has acknowledged the catastrophic failure of the Scottish Government in the handling of harassment complaints, and I welcome her comments.

The development of the policy was flawed, the appointment of the investigating officer was wrong and documents were even withheld from the Court of Session. I do not believe that the First Minister is happy with any of that, so why, three years on, has no one assumed responsibility? Why does she still have confidence in the permanent secretary who presided over all that terrible mess?

I take responsibility for what happens in the Scottish Government, and I take responsibility for acknowledging when things go wrong and for putting right things that go wrong.

Many things matter to me. If I am re-elected as First Minister, there are—as we have reflected on during this First Minister’s question time—many priorities and many things in my in-tray and on my desk. However, few things matter more to me than making sure that we have a culture in the Scottish Government in which anybody who believes that they have been subjected to harassment can come forward and have confidence and trust that their complaints will be listened to and addressed properly.

The Government did make a mistake on that—I have certainly never shied away from that. However, I will also never shy away from saying this: it made a mistake in the course of trying to do the right thing. The Government was determined that—unlike what would undoubtedly have happened in years gone by—such complaints would not simply be swept under the carpet. That is the right starting point. What we must do now is put right the things that went wrong, so that mistakes are not made in the future. I deeply regret what happened, and I have apologised—and will continue to do so—to the women who were let down.

My final point is this. I do not say this in an adversarial sense, but I hope that Jackie Baillie will reflect on the fact that, in doing its important work, the committee also let women down by leaking misrepresentations of their evidence. Therefore, we all have things to learn. I hope that we will learn the important lessons that are there for all of us.

Scottish Census (Deferral)

I note that the Scottish census has been deferred until March next year. Will the First Minister say whether that is a consequence of the Covid pandemic?

Yes, that was a consequence of the pandemic. I know that other United Kingdom nations took a different decision, and there have been controversies relating to that. We want to see the census happen on its renewed timescale, because the information that it provides us with is incredibly important.

Clinical Trials (Recruitment)

As we all know, the pandemic has impacted on much of our daily life. I have not heard mention of recruitment for clinical trials restarting. Such trials are crucial to the development of new medicines and treatments, and can give hope to many people. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that clinical trials are fully restarted?

I will ensure that information is provided on exactly what is happening across the whole range of clinical trials. The chief scientist’s office has already taken steps to ensure that they restart. Scotland has a very good record on recruitment to such trials, and to clinical and medical research overall. Over the course of the pandemic, it has played its part in terms of recruitment of people for trials of the coronavirus vaccines, which have been so important. As is the case for all aspects of healthcare, there is now a real focus on getting things back to normal as quickly and as safely as possible.


In an interview with the BBC, Sir Keir Starmer has claimed that in the forthcoming Scottish Parliament election Trident is not on the ballot paper, because it is not a matter for Holyrood. However, in 2015, here at Holyrood, Labour voted to oppose nuclear weapons, which was brilliant.

Does the First Minister agree that spending increasing billions on weapons of mass destruction is disgraceful? Does she also agree that it is clear that Sir Keir Starmer has proved, once and for all, that people cannot ride two electoral horses when it comes to scrapping nuclear weapons?

By this time next week, we will be taking part in all sorts of election debates, so I look forward to Anas Sarwar proudly articulating Scottish Labour’s policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and of getting rid of Trident nuclear weapons from the Clyde. If he does not do that, I will have to assume that Sir Keir Starmer has not allowed him to do so. We will find that out in the course of the election campaign. [Interruption.]

Anas Sarwar is saying that he is the boss. We might find out, over the course of the campaign, whether that is so. It will be a real test of whether Mr Sarwar backs Scottish Labour’s policy on nuclear weapons or whether the policy of Sir Keir Starmer and Jackie Baillie will prevail. I am looking forward to finding out the answer to that question.

In my view, nuclear weapons are both immoral and a grotesque waste of money that we should be investing in health, education and conventional defences. As I have done for my entire life, I will continue to put forward the case for unilateral nuclear disarmament and getting rid of Trident from the Clyde once and for all.

Covid-19 Restrictions (Island Communities)

Last week, the First Minister’s statement on Covid-19 restrictions left our island communities in limbo. While the rest of Scotland prepares for such restrictions to be eased from 26 April, islanders remain in the dark.

According to the First Minister’s statement yesterday, they will remain in the dark for a further “few weeks”. The Government has now launched a consultation process, but that has not included the local council or the local member of the Scottish Parliament. It sets out a binary choice for islanders of either staying in level 3, despite there having been no cases here for weeks, or of moving to level 2, with tighter restrictions on travel into and out of the islands. Why was the consultation not undertaken before last week’s announcement? Does the First Minister still believe that she is following the data and the science?

The data says that allowing people to come together and to travel means that the number of cases of the virus will rise. That is what we are trying to avoid. It feels as though Liam McArthur would have criticised us whatever we had done. Had we decided to impose a decision just on the islands, no doubt we would have been accused of being centralist and of not listening to islanders’ views. However, because we have decided to consult and take views before reaching a decision, we are being accused of leaving islands “in limbo”.

Neither of those things is correct. There is a really difficult decision for islands about going down a level, as the data at the moment would justify, and opening up their economies. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the virus and the threats that it poses, it is not possible immediately to do both of those things. Therefore, we want to come to an agreement with islands councils about which option is best for them. That is the right way to proceed, instead of simply taking a decision here in Edinburgh and trying to impose it on islands, from the centre. We will take that decision in partnership with the islands as quickly as possible.

Thank you. I apologise to the half dozen members whom I was not able to select.