Meeting date: Thursday, May 24, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 24 May 2018
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller Community, Ferry Services (Northern Isles), Draft Revised National Outcomes, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller Community
- Ferry Services (Northern Isles)
- Draft Revised National Outcomes
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
To ask the First Minister what the most important issue facing Scotland is and how she thinks that spending months debating independence will help it.
Growing our economy, so that we are creating the wealth and revenues to support the strong national health service, strong education system and strong public services, which I know that the Tories do not support, is the most important challenge that Scotland faces. Across all those things, this is a Government using its powers and resources to best effect to make as much progress as we can.
However, we are determined to do even better. The hard fact for unionist parties across the chamber is that small, independent countries across the world consistently do better than the United Kingdom and better than Scotland within the UK. The positive debate that we look forward to leading is about how Scotland raises its game even further and matches the best in the world for the benefit of people right across our country. We will do that with our current powers and we will look to equip this Parliament so that it is even stronger, in order to deliver on behalf of the people we represent.
For me, the most important issue is making sure that our children get a good education. The First Minister used to claim that that was her priority, too. How times have changed. It is hard to see how dragging Scotland back down the rabbit hole of a debate on independence will improve our schools.
Let us take just one area where action has been repeatedly promised by the First Minister: getting more pupils into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. Those are the subjects that will produce the engineers, the scientists and the programmers of tomorrow’s economy. Can the First Minister tell me in which of the key STEM subjects—biology, chemistry, physics or maths—are more pupils taking highers than were doing so at the time of the last independence referendum in 2014?
First, if Ruth Davidson is serious about education being the most important thing to her and her party, the question for her surely must be why she is a member of a party that is not just paralysed on Brexit but is paralysed by Brexit and doing nothing else besides.
We have set out an ambitious package of education reform that starts by doubling childcare provision in our country and goes through to reforming school education—we will soon see which parties in this chamber are prepared to back the reform programme that we have put together—getting more young people leaving school with more qualifications. As I set out last week, we have more young people leaving our schools with qualifications, including highers and advanced highers, across a range of subjects.
Yes, we want to get more young people studying STEM subjects. That is why we have a range of initiatives to do exactly that. We will continue to focus on all those things, improving our education system for all pupils regardless of their background.
It was not a complicated question, but the First Minister still could not answer it. The answer is none: in biology, physics, chemistry and maths, not only are fewer pupils taking highers but fewer pupils are getting highers than did so back in 2014. It is a mystery to me how spending months restarting the debate about independence will do anything to improve that.
Let us go from high schools to primaries. On education, the Scottish National Party used to make bold promises about reducing class sizes in primaries 1 to 3 to a maximum of 18 pupils. In fact, Mike Russell was once so confident as to claim that
“The SNP phased implementation programme to reduce class sizes would be completed in 7 years.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2001; c 980.]
After 11 years of the SNP in government, how many classes in the First Minister’s constituency meet that target?
Before Ruth Davidson is allowed to move swiftly on from STEM subjects, she asked me about STEM subjects first, so let me—[Interruption.] She does not want to hear the answer. [Interruption.] Okay—I hope that everybody is listening.
In 2017-18, we increased student intake targets for STEM subjects for the sixth year in a row. Let us also look at STEM qualifications—she asked me about this. STEM qualifications at school have gone up by 9.6 per cent between 2007 and 2017. That includes all sciences—it includes biology, human biology, chemistry, physics, geology and environmental science—that is the reality.
In terms of primary school education, as we have discussed in this chamber before, we are determined not just to improve standards in our schools but to make sure that we are closing the attainment gap in our schools. That is why the attainment fund—the pupil equity fund—is transforming primary education across our education system.
If Ruth Davidson got out a bit more and spoke to more teachers in the education system, she would find out that that is exactly what they are saying as well.
If the First Minister got out a bit more in her own constituency, she might know the answer to the question that I asked her.
Out of 91 early years classes in her Glasgow Southside constituency—[Interruption.]
Order, please. Order.
I am standing in my constituency. I am her MSP.
Out of 91—[Interruption.] Perhaps the First Minister’s back benchers might want to listen to this. Out of 91 early years classes in the First Minister’s Glasgow Southside constituency, the latest figures show that just four were small enough to meet the promise that the SNP made more than a decade ago. That is four classes out of 91.
That is just like the SNP, is it not? Promises that it made to get elected are abandoned the moment that they become inconvenient. However, there is one thing that the SNP is never willing to put aside. Tomorrow, the First Minister is going to launch yet another blueprint on independence, dragging this country back to the debates of the past. She has repeatedly claimed that education is her number 1 priority and so it should be, but the facts show the difference. With her, it is independence first and everything else is a long way behind. The country is asking, “Why won’t she give it a rest?”
First, I am not sure that a comparison of constituency surgeries would end very well for Ruth Davidson. Secondly, was it not ironic that the “give it a rest” line was first used this week by Ruth Davidson on Monday when she boldly said that I and the SNP should give it a rest when it came to talking about the constitution? Where did she say that? She said it at a conference in London where she was talking about the constitution.
Some people might say that that is a tad hypocritical of Ruth Davidson. I, of course, could not possibly comment. The truth about Ruth Davidson is that she loves nothing more than talking about the constitution. She just does not want the case for independence to get a hearing. I am sorry that we are going to have to disappoint her on that front.
This Government will continue to take the action that is required to improve our education system. That is why we are investing £120 million in the pupil equity fund and when I talk to teachers across my constituency, that is something that they enthusiastically welcome.
We will continue to improve our health service, which has had the best-performing accident and emergency services anywhere in the UK for three years now. We will continue to protect the vulnerable from the cuts being imposed by the Tories and, unlike Ruth Davidson, we will continue to stand up for Scotland against the Brexit ideology of the Tories and get the best deal.
We are full of ambition for this country of ours. I know that positivity and ambition do not sit well with the Tories. What was it that Ruth Davidson called them this week? The “dour”, “joyless” and “authoritarian” Tories. I know that they do not like positivity and ambition, but this Government does, and we will continue to be ambitious for Scotland.
National Health Service (Treatment Time Guarantee)
As we have just heard, the long-delayed Scottish National Party growth commission report is published tomorrow. That might excite the SNP back benchers, but it will exasperate the millions of people throughout Scotland who just want the First Minister to focus on public services such as our national health service.
In 2012, the SNP gave patients the right to treatment within 12 weeks. It named that the treatment time guarantee. However, in 2015, 16,394 people waited longer than 12 weeks for treatment. That was Nicola Sturgeon’s first full year as First Minister. Will she tell us whether the number of patients who were failed last year went up or down? (S5F-02359)
Because of the treatment time guarantee that we introduced back in 2012, more than, I think, 1.5 million patients have been treated more quickly than they would have been without it. We are investing record sums in our national health service and employing record numbers of staff working in it.
We know that the demands on our health service are increasing. That is why there is pressure on waiting times. However, we invest more per head of population than anywhere else in the United Kingdom and will continue to do that so that our NHS can continue to deliver the services that have so much approval from people throughout the country.
I asked whether the number had gone up or down. It went up. More than 54,000 people waited longer than the 12-week guarantee in 2017. That is a 234 per cent increase since Nicola Sturgeon became the First Minister. She tells us that the NHS faces the challenge of treating more patients than ever before. How many more patients were seen under the treatment time guarantee last year compared with her first year in office?
As I already said, 1.5 million patients—more than that—have been seen within that target time, ensuring that they were treated more quickly as a result. More patients are coming to the NHS because of the ageing population. That is why we, unlike the Labour Party at the last election, are committed to providing more resources for our national health service and employing more people in it to ensure that patients continue to get the treatment that they deserve.
In fact, the number of patients seen has gone down. In 2017, 28,000 fewer patients were seen than in 2015 but more people waited longer. Let us recap. The SNP promised that people would be treated within 12 weeks. In Nicola Sturgeon’s first year as First Minister, that promise was broken to one patient in every 20. Last year, it was broken to one patient in every five.
This is the fifth time in six weeks that I have raised the NHS with the First Minister. There are serious problems across the health service and they are growing. That is what the people of Scotland want the Government to focus on, not another referendum and not more division. When will the First Minister finally realise that the people want her to put the NHS before the SNP?
The Scottish Government will remain focused on improving our NHS each and every day. That is why, right now, our emergency services in Scotland perform better than the emergency services do in any other part of the UK. It is why many of the other services that the NHS provides are better than they are in any other part of the UK, including the only part of the UK where Labour is in government, which is Wales. We are putting record amounts of investment into the national health service and employing record numbers of people.
The NHS is seeing more patients every year and will continue to deliver its services and have the record high patient satisfaction that it currently has. That, of course, is testament to everybody who works in our NHS. We will continue to support them every day.
There are a few supplementary constituency questions.
Marine Scotland (Review)
The First Minister is aware of the case of my constituent DeeAnn Fitzpatrick, about whom I have previously written to her. The First Minister cannot be anything other than shocked by the photograph that was published by the BBC, which showed one aspect of DeeAnn’s abuse. Will the First Minister now intervene, investigate the abuse and stop DeeAnn’s persecution at the hands of Marine Scotland? Will she also remove the gagging clause that stops DeeAnn telling her own story, because it is in the public interest that she is heard?
Like everyone else who has seen the photograph that has been in the media over the past 24 hours, I am absolutely horrified by it. I am also horrified by the circumstances in which that photograph is alleged to have been taken. Bullying, abuse, sexism and racism have no place in any workplace, and—let me be very clear—they will not be tolerated in the Scottish Government or our agencies.
As Rhoda Grant is aware, there is, of course, an on-going employment tribunal and there is also an on-going internal investigation, so I am somewhat limited in what I can say. However, I can tell members that, this morning, I asked the permanent secretary to the Scottish Government to conduct a full review of the circumstances of the case, and a review of the action that has already been taken and of any action that is proposed to be taken, and to report to me personally on her conclusions as soon as possible.
Edinburgh Woollen Mill
Yesterday, Edinburgh Woollen Mill announced plans to move its headquarters to Carlisle. That was a bitter blow to Langholm, where the company was founded. That news is doubly disappointing, because it comes as uncertainty continues at Pinneys of Scotland. Will the First Minister confirm what contact the Government has had with Edinburgh Woollen Mill and set out what support is being offered to boost the economy in lower Annandale and Eskdale, which is clearly struggling?
I was very disappointed to hear that Edinburgh Woollen Mill has confirmed plans to move its head office from Langholm. Unfortunately, the company’s plans seem to be fairly well developed but, notwithstanding that, we will do all that we can to encourage a different course of action in order to retain jobs and economic benefit in the town and the community and the company’s headquarters in Scotland, which is important. The Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy is speaking to the company today to see what support the Scottish Government and our agencies can offer. We have already offered support through our partnership action for continuing employment initiative for any employees who may be facing redundancy. I know that the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy would be happy to speak to Mr Mundell in more detail about the actions that we can and will take.
On the wider question, as Mr Mundell will be aware, we are committed to establishing the new south of Scotland enterprise agency. In advance of that, we have established the south of Scotland economic partnership, which is supported by £10 million of additional resources. When I attended the national economic forum in Dumfries just last week, that was very warmly welcomed. I hope that it will support economic activity across the south of Scotland.
National Health Service (Complaints Process)
In 2015, a constituent of mine underwent surgery at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital and was readmitted twice with serious post-surgical complications. She has lasting health issues and serious concerns about the treatment that she received and the ensuing national health service complaints process.
I welcome the fact that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has requested Healthcare Improvement Scotland to independently review the care that my constituent received, but does the First Minister agree that, in such cases, the first action that Healthcare Improvement Scotland should take should be to meet the family and carefully listen to its experience? Furthermore, does she agree that it is unacceptable that, following my representations to NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde regarding inaccuracies in medical records and alleged system failure, we are still waiting for a response two months later?
I definitely understand the concerns that Bob Doris has raised and agree that it is important that the experiences of the individual and the family are listened to.
I know that Bob Doris has raised his constituent’s concerns directly with the health secretary. She has recently referred the case to Healthcare Improvement Scotland for its consideration. Scottish Government officials have also raised with NHS chief executives the health secretary’s expectation that they should respond quickly to any concerns that have been raised by elected representatives or individuals.
We want everybody to be confident that they will get the best possible care and treatment from the NHS, which does an excellent job in the overwhelming majority of cases. However, on any occasion in which it falls short of expectations, health boards must listen and act. In rare cases of clinical negligence, boards and care professionals must learn from those situations and make improvements.
I know that the health secretary will update Bob Doris as appropriate and will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that his constituent’s concerns are properly addressed.
Marks and Spencer (Closures)
Marks and Spencer has announced that it will close its Falkirk and East Kilbride plaza stores in the central Scotland region. I know that the First Minister pays close attention to the activities of M&S and will share my concerns for the workforce and communities who will suffer from that decision. More than five weeks ago, I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown, outlining my fears for the future of East Kilbride’s town centre and asking whether the Government has a strategy to ensure that Scotland’s first new town has a bright future. I am still waiting for an answer. Does the First Minister know the answer, and will she ask the cabinet secretary to take up my invitation to visit East Kilbride and meet local businesses before any more devastating job losses are announced?
Marks and Spencer has announced the closure of a number of shops, not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom, over the next four years. That is deeply regrettable. I am certainly very concerned about the announcement that it will close two of its stores in Scotland, in East Kilbride and in Falkirk. We have been in contact with the company to offer support through partnership action for continuing employment and any other support that might be appropriate. I will ask Keith Brown to respond to the member. I am sure that he has visited East Kilbride on many occasions.
I grew up in a new town and I know the importance of new towns to the economy of our country and in a wider sense, as well. We want new towns to continue to be central to the future of Scotland, and I am sure that Keith Brown would be happy to discuss those issues further with Monica Lennon. We are already working with partners to deliver against the themes in the town centre action plan, and we have committed to the town centre first principle, which is an important way of ensuring that our town centres—whether in new towns or elsewhere—are properly supported.
Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill
Nearly a decade ago, the Greens worked with others across Parliament, and with many thousands of campaigners across Scotland, to say that the Government’s Climate Change (Scotland) Bill, as it was then, was not strong enough or bold enough. Together, we pushed a minority Government to make that bill stronger and accelerate action on climate change. Why, then, has the Government today published a new Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill that sets out slower emission reductions and slower progress over the next 20 years than we have seen over the past 10 years? Why on earth should Parliament vote for that?
Patrick Harvie is just wrong in his characterisation of the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill. What has been published today is the most ambitious statutory target for reducing carbon emissions anywhere in the world. The bill sets the target of a 90 per cent reduction by 2050, which—let us remember—the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change says is at the outer limits of feasibility. The bill also sets out a clear process for raising that target to 100 per cent as soon as is practically possible.
Other countries are often cited as being more ambitious but, as I am sure Patrick Harvie knows, when we compare commitments on a like-for-like basis that is simply not the case. Let us take Sweden as an example. It is often held up as already having a target of a 100 per cent reduction, but Sweden reserves the right to achieve 15 per cent of its reduction through international credits—in other words, by paying other countries. Scotland’s target will require to be met by domestic measures alone, which is much, much tougher. Other countries also exclude aviation and shipping from their targets—we do not. Scotland continues to be the only country that includes aviation and shipping. As well as setting long-term targets, Scotland, unlike other countries, also sets annual targets in legislation.
When we look at all those factors, it is inescapably the case that the bill that has been published today is the most ambitious anywhere in the world. We should be proud of that, although, of course, we look forward to the discussions that will take place during the parliamentary progress of the bill.
It is abundantly clear that the 2050 target that the Scottish Government is proposing represents a slower rate of emissions cuts and a slower rate of progress on climate change than we have seen for the past 10 years. It takes some nerve to publish a bill the first section of which is titled “The net-zero emissions target” but that fails to set a net zero emissions target.
The First Minister told us what we should all know about Sweden. If Sweden counted its forestry and land use emissions in the same way as we count ours in Scotland, it would reach net zero emissions by 2045, which is way ahead of the Scottish Government’s ambition. Is it not clear—not just to us, in Parliament, but to the many thousands of people around Scotland who care passionately about the urgent challenge of climate change—that we will, once again, have to work together across the political spectrum with many thousands of campaigners in Scotland to push a minority Government beyond its comfort zone on the issue?
Putting a target in legislation that our expert advisers on the Committee on Climate Change describe as being at the outer limits of feasibility can be described in many ways, but staying in our “comfort zone” is really not one of them.
On what Patrick Harvie is asking us to do, let me be clear that we are committed to reaching net zero emissions as soon as we can look the people of Scotland in the eye and say that we know how to do that. We could put a target in legislation, but that would not be particularly honest if we were saying to the people of Scotland that we had no idea how that could be achieved.
Patrick Harvie is asking us to ignore the Committee on Climate Change. If he is asking us to emulate other countries, he is asking us to exclude shipping and aviation from our targets, and, if he is asking us to emulate countries such as Sweden, he is asking us to include international credits in the calculation of our achievement against targets. Sweden reserves the right to achieve 15 per cent of its reductions through, in effect, paying other countries rather than through what it does itself; we think that it is better to meet our targets by what we do domestically in Scotland.
Let us have the debate as the bill progresses through Parliament. However, Scotland is leading the world with not just our ambitions to tackle climate change but our achievements in tackling it. For goodness’ sake, I would have thought that a member of the Green Party might have managed to welcome that.
Brexit (Medical Professionals)
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
This week, the British Medical Association said that there is “absolutely no clarity” on plans for future immigration and that “virtually no progress” has been made on allowing medical professionals to come and work in Scotland after Brexit. There is “no clarity” and “no progress”. How will the First Minister continue to impress on the United Kingdom Government that that situation is simply no use?
It is a really serious situation, and I hope that everybody across the chamber recognises that. Companies the length and breadth of the country are expressing concerns about their continuing ability to retain and attract talent. Now, the BMA has expressed concerns about the ability of our national health service to attract doctors from other countries, and it is all because of the ideologically driven Brexit obsession of the Tories. As a country, we need to look at better alternatives, continue to argue for a commonsense approach and consider what we need to do to attract the best and the brightest in the world to come here and make a contribution to Scotland. That is what this Government will continue to focus on, and I hope that we will have the support of other parties in this chamber, if not of the Tories.
Prince & Princess of Wales Hospice
A number of my constituents in Rutherglen and Cambuslang receive palliative care at the Prince & Princess of Wales Hospice, in Glasgow. After limited consultation, the national health service board plans to move those patients to a different facility, in East Kilbride. Those who use and support the facility, their families and the general practitioners who support the patients locally are understandably concerned about the change. What assurances can the First Minister give my constituents that any changes are being made in the best interests of those affected?
I am a huge supporter of the work that the Prince & Princess of Wales Hospice does. I have visited it on many occasions and know how highly it is valued by patients and their families. I will ask the health secretary to look into the specific issue that James Kelly raises, in order to understand the reasons why the health board has taken the decision that James Kelly describes, and to reply to him as soon as possible.
Whisky Industry (United States Post-Brexit Trade Deal)
To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of how any proposed post-Brexit trade deal with the United States could impact on the whisky sector. (S5F-02366)
The United States is the largest export market for Scotch whisky. In 2017, exports to the US were worth £922 million and accounted for more than 20 per cent of all Scotch whisky exports. The industry employs around 10,000 full-time equivalent employees, and a similar number are employed in the wider supply chain. It makes an important contribution to our economy, particularly in Richard Lochhead’s constituency.
The Scottish Government and, I believe, the Scotch Whisky Association are opposed to any weakening of the whisky definition post-Brexit, as a result of trade negotiations with third countries or via any other means. That protection is vital to protect consumers and the industry from deception and unfair competition from domestically produced spirit drinks that have no age provenance.
I invite the First Minister to join me in congratulating the Edrington Group on investing £500 million in The Macallan, including £140 million in the truly spectacular distillery and visitor centre that was unveiled in Speyside this week.
Does the First Minister agree that that massive investment, along with others across the industry, underlines the need to protect this valuable industry and ensure that it is not damaged by an increasingly desperate UK Government that may sign up to a damaging post-Brexit trade deal with the United States, which, it has been reported, would like to break down trade barriers and reduce protections for the likes of Scotch whisky? Can she advise the chamber how we can bring more transparency to the trade deal negotiations and ensure that the UK Government acts in rather than against Scotland’s interests? Would it be possible for the Scottish Government to have observers at the trade negotiations to safeguard this country’s key economic interests?
I very much welcome the development by Edrington at Craigellachie. More than £0.5 billion of investment has gone into industry sites in the past five years, and seven new distilleries have opened in the past year alone. That is hugely positive, and I am sure that everyone welcomes it.
Only yesterday, the Scotch Whisky Association reported that, without Scotch whisky’s export performance, the UK trade deficit would be almost 3 per cent greater than it already is. I hope that everybody would agree that, where the Scottish Government has a significant interest, it is absolutely vital that it is actively involved at all stages of the process of negotiating future trade deals, including as members of or observers on the negotiating team. It is only in that way that the UK Government’s stated aim of having a trade policy that reflects the interests of all parts of the UK will become a reality.
Such issues underline why it is so important that the Parliament does not give its consent to a power grab on the powers of the Parliament that will be so important to protecting such interests in the future. I hope that we will have the support of all parties in the Parliament when we do our very best to make sure that Scotland’s interests are heard loudly and clearly in any future negotiations.
Whisky exporters to the United States now face massive currency uncertainty as a result of the First Minister once again calling into question Scotland’s future currency. [Interruption.]
Order, please. Let us hear the question.
Can the First Minister explain to Scotch whisky exporters what her latest currency plans involve or—like some of her colleagues—is she not a currency expert?
Even the members on the Tory front bench had the good grace to look embarrassed while the member asked that question. I have to break it to Dean Lockhart that that is not the issue that people in the whisky industry are raising with me. I will tell him what issues are being raised with me; I am afraid that they are about Brexit.
The whisky industry is worried about potential trade barriers. It is worried about what we have just talked about—possible damage to the protection of Scotch whisky. It is worried about its ability to continue to have the export success that is so important to the trade balance of the UK. If Mr Lockhart spoke to more people in the whisky industry, he might have known that and not embarrassed himself by asking the question that he has just asked.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that nearly £4 million is being spent on sending X-rays and computerised tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scans to radiologists outwith Scotland. (S5F-02379)
The provision of high-quality and safe services to patients is an absolute priority, and our radiology staff do an excellent job. To ensure that scans are seen quickly by qualified professionals, national health service boards have the option of using the services of radiologists outwith Scotland. That allows them to ensure that they direct their local capacity to treat patients. That approach is not unique to Scotland; it is also a method that is used by the NHS in England and the NHS in Wales. However, to help grow local capacity, we are investing £4 million in a radiology transformation programme to improve capacity across Scotland.
The £3.8 million that was spent on outsourcing radiology services between April 2017 and February 2018 represents an astonishing rise of 35 per cent on the figure for the previous year. The cause of that is clear: there is a serious shortage of radiologists in Scotland, with the latest statistics showing that one in seven posts is vacant.
I understand that the First Minister has said that she is investing £4 million in new services, but can she confirm that she will ensure that the backlogs of radiology work and the filling of vacant posts will be dealt with through health boards spending less money?
First, for a Tory to stand up here and talk about vacancies in the NHS after we have just been talking about the concerns that have been raised by the British Medical Association about being able to attract people into our NHS takes the biscuit.
Secondly, let me put the £4 million investment that she talks about into some context. That represents 0.03 per cent of health resource spending.
I want to make a more fundamental point. With the greatest of respect to Annie Wells, I think that she misunderstands slightly the issue around radiology scans. The option to utilise diagnostic imaging assessment services to ensure that scans are seen as quickly as possible is available to boards and is routine practice in the NHS across the United Kingdom, because using digital methods helps to deliver results more quickly and in real time, which works to deliver benefits to patients who are most in need of NHS services.
The approach is not one that is just happening in Scotland. For example, Radiology Reporting Online is a joint venture between University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Imaging Partners Online, which is a company that is based in Sydney. It exists to provide a rapid round-the-clock reporting system. Members need only go to the Official Journal of the European Union to see a number of NHS trusts in England advertising for provision of radiology reporting services outwith the UK. The approach involves processing the scans in order to speed up the overall process and maximise the use of capacity here. This is a perfectly normal process, and I am sure that the health secretary will be happy to provide even more information to the member in order to inform her views on this further.
Proposed Education Bill
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to calls at the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association conference for the proposed education bill to be shelved. (S5F-02375)
I think that teachers in Scottish schools, whether in primary or secondary, share our ambition to improve the education and life chances of our children and young people, and I hope that that ambition is shared across the Parliament. Our reform proposals aim to empower teachers to make the decisions that most affect the education of pupils and their schools and to support them with advice and expertise through regional improvement collaboratives.
We are listening carefully to the views that are expressed by a wide range of stakeholders, including the SSTA, as we finalise our proposals. Of course, our proposals will be finalised in the near future.
The First Minister does not have to listen too hard to the SSTA. We are not talking about a close confidence vote. The demand to halt the education bill was unanimous—in fact, the only person at the SSTA conference to back Mr Swinney’s bill was Mr Swinney.
Perhaps if the First Minister got out a bit more and spoke to teachers and parents, she would know that they agree with the SSTA that the bill is unnecessary and unwanted. When it comes to our schools, why does the First Minister think that everyone is out of step except her and her education secretary?
On the theme that seems to be recurring today of getting out a bit more, when I was chairing a public question-and-answer session with the whole Cabinet in Glasgow on Monday, I was talking to some teachers. They were enthusing about the pupil equity fund and its transformative effect in their schools.
Our reforms are unashamedly about empowering our front-line teachers and getting more resources into their hands, so that they can make the decisions about how they invest those resources to raise standards in our schools. We hear repeatedly what Labour is against and what it opposes, not just in education but across a range of subjects. Why do we not hear more about what Labour actually proposes to raise standards in our schools? We will continue to take forward bold and ambitious reforms in our schools, because raising standards in education is our priority and we are prepared to do something about it, unlike Labour.
Does the First Minister accept that one of the main concerns about the proposed education bill is its apparent contradiction of allowing teachers to have greater control yet imposing a central regional set of collaboratives? Will she address that matter when the new bill comes to Parliament?
I do not accept that contradiction. The purpose of the regional improvement collaboratives is to provide best practice, advice and expertise to teachers, so that they can use that in their classrooms. That is a perfectly sensible way to proceed. Some of the advice that we have taken on the reforms has come from our international council of education advisers, and the importance of best practice in our schools has been a recurring theme in those discussions. We will continue to pursue reforms that will make a difference in our education system.
It is quite right for Opposition parties to challenge the Government to do more about school standards, but we are getting to the point at which we will find out whether Opposition parties will be prepared to back us when it comes to doing the tough stuff that is required to achieve better standards, or whether they will continue to shout from the sidelines.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the vision of Scottish Swimming: “Everyone can swim”. (S5F-02378)
We support the vision of Scottish Swimming and are committed to increasing engagement in sport and physical activity. Swimming is a great way of keeping active. We have invested in Scottish Swimming: more than £1.3 million was provided through sportscotland last year. Scottish Swimming supports a range of activities to increase participation in swimming and improve the delivery of swimming lessons. I also welcome the partnership between Scottish Swimming and Scottish Water that was announced last year, which will help more than 100,000 children across Scotland to swim over the next two years.
That is very strange, because swimming lessons have been cut for all primary school pupils in Dundee. I will tell the First Minister what Labour is for: Labour is for swimming lessons for all primary school children across Scotland. The Scottish National Party has managed to make a political dog’s breakfast of the issue. The SNP tells headteachers to raid the pupil equity fund to mitigate the cuts, then John Swinney says that that is not on and SNP council leaders blame press officers for getting it wrong when primary headteachers’ minutes explicitly say that swimming lessons have been cut for all primary schools in Dundee.
What is the First Minister going to do about the ridiculous policy of cutting swimming lessons, on top of the cuts to physical education teachers and music teachers in schools? The reality is that the First Minister and I had more opportunities at school under Thatcher than schoolchildren in Scotland have under the First Minister’s negligent Government. [Interruption.]
I am glad to hear Jenny Marra confirm Labour’s admiration for Margaret Thatcher. We have long suspected that, but now there is no hiding from it.
Let me first deal with Dundee, and then I will come back to Labour’s position. We have received assurances from Dundee City Council that there will be no cuts to funding for swimming lessons in schools. The Deputy First Minister has been clear that he would not agree to pupil equity funding being used to replace existing provision—that is the case not only in Dundee but across Scotland.
However, I know of at least one council in Scotland that is cutting funding for swimming lessons. Labour-controlled North Lanarkshire Council—I have an extract from its budget document in front of me—cut £164,000 from its budget last year and ended swimming lessons for primary 5s completely. We will take no lessons from Jenny Marra and Labour, even if they admire Margaret Thatcher so much.
Swimming is not just an activity, but a life skill, yet 40 per cent of Scotland’s children go to secondary school unable to swim. The First Minister’s Government withdrew £1.7 million-worth of funding that was allocated to ensure that all primary school pupils got the opportunity to learn to swim. For many, that means that the ability to learn to swim and to be included in an activity that speaks to the health and wellbeing of our children—an issue that has been prevalent in recent discussions in the Parliament—will depend on the ability to pay for those lessons. Does the First Minister not recognise that denying access to swimming lessons for all exacerbates inequalities and detracts from the validity of any discussions that her Government is having about tackling childhood obesity?
The importance of tackling childhood obesity is recognised by us all, and we recently set a bold target to tackle it. Swimming, as part of a broader physical activity programme, is extremely important. That is why we continue to fund Scottish Swimming, it is why we are delivering real-terms increases for council resource budgets this year, and it is why we are giving pupil equity funding to headteachers across Scotland, who can decide what is best for young people.
However, when Brian Whittle talks about funding such things, we must reflect on the fact that, if we had followed the advice of the Scottish Conservatives when we set our most recent budget, we would have had more than £500 million less to allocate in it than is the case today. They wanted to give tax cuts to the richest, rather than fund local authority services. I am really glad—and I think that people across Scotland will be really glad—that we did not follow that advice.
That concludes First Minister’s questions. We will have a short suspension so that the gallery can clear before the next item of business starts.12:47 Meeting suspended.
12:52 On resuming—