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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 24, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 June 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Cervical Screening, Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill, Points of Order, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask members to take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber, and to please only use the aisles and walkways to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.

Scottish Qualifications Authority

As schools across Scotland prepare to break up for the summer, I take this opportunity to thank them for all that they have done to support young people in extremely challenging circumstances over the past year, often with little or no help from the Government.

Three weeks ago, the First Minister told the Parliament that she had full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which is now being scrapped. What happened in that time to change her mind?

First, as I did on Tuesday in the chamber, I straightforwardly reiterate, with no equivocation or snark attached to it, a big thank you to teachers and all support staff in our schools, and to parents and young people. This has been the most difficult year that any of them will ever remember, both professionally for those who work in our education system, and for those who are learning in our education system. I can never find the words to thank them enough, but I hope that everyone knows how deeply appreciative everyone is in the Scottish Government—and across Scotland, I am sure—for everything that they have done.

I will be candid. The longer I am in politics, the more frustrated I get at the inability of our political discourse, for which we are all responsible, to engage in nuanced arguments that are not just binary black or white. It is perfectly consistent to say that, with regard to what the SQA is doing—[Interruption.]

We will hear the First Minister.

I also get frustrated at the inability to take serious issues seriously in our parliamentary chamber.

I have confidence in the work that the SQA does around the certification of national qualifications. It is important for me to say that, not only for my assurance as First Minister, but for the benefit of young people and their parents across this country. I say it again today.

It is also the case that it is time for reform. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills made a statement here earlier this week on the subject. We have accepted the recommendations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in that respect, and have therefore given a commitment that we will carefully consider the nature and the detail of the issue, and that we will replace the SQA and remove the inspection function from Education Scotland.

All of that, taken in the round, is how people—whether they agree or disagree with every decision that the Government makes—would expect a grown-up, responsible Government to behave, and that is how this Government will always conduct itself.

There is absolutely nothing grown-up or responsible in the Government claiming that it has changed its mind on the quality of the SQA because of an OECD report that it has had, not just for the past three weeks, but for months. The Government had the report before the election that we have just been through.

That damning OECD report criticised the confusing and unhelpful communication that was given to schools. Is it really any wonder? Nicola Sturgeon says that she has full confidence in the SQA, so she scrapped it. It is just another example of a Government that has lost its way in education, and that says one thing and does another with no vision of where it is going or how it gets there.

Today is the final chance in the Parliament, before courses start next term, for the First Minister to give young people and teachers, who have faced so much uncertainty over the past year, a clear answer. Will there be traditional exams next year?

I am sorry if the complexities of the arguments in the chamber are sometimes a bit challenging for Douglas Ross. However, most people who are listening will understand the argument that a First Minister can say, as I have done, and I will repeat it today, that I have confidence in the SQA’s work around the certification of qualifications this year—which is an important message for every young person who has been waiting for their grades over the course of this week and into tomorrow—and that I can also say that it is time for reform more generally. We have reflected on the arguments that have been made across the chamber, and on the OECD report, and we have come to the decision that it is right to move ahead to replace the SQA, but to do so carefully and with proper consideration of the detail of the replacement.

On the question of what will happen with exams next year, if I stood here while we are still in the grip of Covid, with rising case numbers—albeit it with increasing vaccination, which we hope will keep the cases under control—and in a knee-jerk, ill-considered way decided what will happen with exams next year, people across the country would rightly criticise me for doing so. That would not be the responsible, considered thing to do. Instead, and as the education secretary set out in Parliament, we will consider the issue as the Covid situation develops over the summer, and we will set out the position in August, so that, when they return, schools will know what the situation will be. That is the responsible way to proceed.

The OECD report is an important publication, and I know that every member of the Parliament has paid, and will continue to pay, close attention to it. However, I will provide some balance and context, which, if we listened only to Mr Ross, would be completely and utterly lacking. The following are quotes from the OECD report:

“Curriculum for Excellence continues to be a bold and widely supported initiative”,

and it is

“an inspiring example equated with good curriculum practice”.

The report says that

“Scotland has ranked among higher-than-average country performers on international assessments ... usually scoring at or above OECD average in mathematics, reading and science”,

and that

“Education is ... a source of pride in Scotland”.

There are challenges to be addressed, and reforms are needed, and this Government will take them forward. However, for the benefit of young people across our country, Opposition leaders should occasionally recognise the strengths in the Scottish education system.

The OECD report—[Interruption.]

Can we please hear Mr Ross?

The OECD report is so important and crucial that Nicola Sturgeon kept it in her drawer over the election period to make sure that there could be no challenge to her Government’s shambolic record on education. In all the quotes that she read out, she did not say that the OECD report said that “Confusing and unhelpful” communication has been given to schools. That one slipped the briefing from the First Minister.

The First Minister also says that she cannot stand up and give a definitive answer to young people about whether they will face exams next year and that it would be irresponsible for her to do so. However, the First Minister stood up in the chamber earlier this week to give the country a route map out of restrictions. Therefore, on the one hand, we know how we will get out of the Covid-19 restrictions, but on the other, young people are left in limbo with no answers as to whether they will sit traditional exams next year.

Let us look at what Scotland’s experts on education are saying about it. Keir Bloomer, who helped to write the curriculum for excellence, said that if the Government goes

“too far ... we will see a fall in standards.”

The University of Edinburgh professor Lindsay Paterson said—[Interruption.] I am really sorry that the Deputy First Minister of Scotland and a Scottish Government minister are criticising an independent expert in education before I have even read the quote. John Swinney has the gall to nod his head. Perhaps if he had listed to Lindsay Paterson, he would not have been sacked as education secretary.

Lindsay Paterson said that it is unlikely that a system that relied wholly on coursework would ever command public confidence.

The Scottish Conservatives firmly believe that traditional exams are the best and fairest way for young people to show what they know and what they can do. Does the First Minister agree?

I agree that we have to get all of this right. We absolutely have to consider very carefully the place of traditional exams in the future of qualifications. No decisions have been taken around that, and one of the reasons for that is that we are awaiting a further report from the OECD in August, which will help to inform those decisions. I do not know whether Douglas Ross was just unaware of that, but there we go.

I will quickly run through all the many questions that Douglas Ross asked. I am not shying away from the tough messages in the OECD report—we have accepted all its recommendations, which is evidence of that.

On the timing of the report, I know that Douglas Ross was not a member of this Parliament before the election, but that was canvassed fairly extensively at that time. The timing of the publication of the OECD report was entirely a matter for the independent OECD. Before the election, some of the correspondence was put into the Scottish Parliament information centre, so that members could see what the OECD was saying about that. Had we, against the wishes—actually, I will put it more strongly than that. Had we, against the instruction of the OECD, published the report anyway, I am sure that the Conservatives would be among the first to get to their feet to criticise us for going against an independent organisation.

The decision on exams next year is really important. What I set out on Tuesday was a contingent route map. I very much hope that we can meet those deadlines and get the country back to normal, but decisions around things such as exams next year will be dependent on whether we can meet those milestones. It is right—and essential—that we take these decisions in proper order. Many young people have had to self-isolate over the past few weeks. We want to reduce that as we go into the new academic term, but we have to take account of the wider Covid situation and take these decisions properly, and that is what we will continue to do. Whether people agree or disagree with the ultimate decisions, that is the way in which they would want us to approach the matter.

I do not ignore the comments of Lindsay Paterson or Keir Bloomer. We take account of those views and comments, as we do a range of views and comments. Let me offer some others. The parents group Connect said:

“We are pleased that the OECD team could see that ‘education is a source of pride in Scotland’ ... There is huge commitment ... to improving children’s lives through education.”

The NASUWT said:

“We look forward to working with the Government to build on the many strengths which the OECD has rightly identified”.

The Scottish Youth Parliament said that the report

“offers Scottish education an opportunity ... going forward”.

There is a variety of views.

The OECD had many good things to say about the strength of Scottish education. It is actually possible to recognise that while also saying that there are real challenges to address and overcome, and this Government is going to do both. It is that prospectus that we put before the Scottish people just a few weeks ago, and we were roundly re-elected to deliver on it.

On the specific question of the teaching of exams in Scotland, the First Minister said—I wrote this down, to make sure that I quote her correctly—that she will “consider their place” in education, going forward. Given that the First Minister has been in Government for 14 years and First Minister for seven, and given that she pledged that education would be her number 1 priority, I think that people across Scotland will expect her to be able to quite clearly say whether she is for or against exams, but she absolutely did not do that in that answer.

The First Minister’s Government no longer seems to value traditions that have served us well—traditions that helped the First Minister and I get from great local schools to this Parliament. Our education system has always been distinct. It is uniquely our own; a cornerstone of what makes us Scottish. If the Scottish National Party removes the focus on fundamentals, stops valuing core knowledge and ditches exams, will the First Minister’s Government not be abandoning the very things that made Scotland’s schools great?

I am glad that we finally got an admission from Douglas Ross that Scotland’s schools are great. At least we are making some progress.

I will try to say this in the most straightforward way. I think that exams are important. With my colleagues, I have been in Government for 14 years, but the only reason why I am still in Government, standing here as First Minister, is that a matter of weeks ago, the Scottish people re-elected me in a landslide election victory. They have taken account of all this and decided that they trust this Government to take Scotland forward on all these matters.

On exams, the most important principle is that we, like any country, have a robust and respected system for awarding qualifications to young people. However, whether I like it or not, right now there is a debate in Scotland about what the correct balance is between traditional exams and continuous assessment in ensuring that we have that robust system. We have asked the OECD to do further work; it will report to us in August and we will take account of all that. At that point, the Parliament will have the opportunity to debate the issue.

The core principle here, though, is the quality of the system that gives young people qualifications. That is the outcome that we should all be focused on, and we should not fear a real debate about the best way of achieving it. That is what we will take forward, and we look forward to views from across the Parliament.

Before we move to question 2, I ask members, wherever possible, to ask succinct questions and to provide shorter responses. That will enable us to include more members in proceedings.

Covid-19 (Government Communication)

The Government has previously communicated well during the pandemic, but that has started to slip, risking public trust and confidence. In recent weeks, we have allowed 3,000 football fans to attend a fan zone, but parents cannot attend an outdoor sports day. Trampoline centres can open, but soft play centres cannot. Hospitality venues can open late for penalties but the Government says that it is not safe for them to do so on other days. We have had an avoidable public argument between the Scottish Government and the mayor of greater Manchester.

If we are to navigate the coming months, communications have to be clear and decisions consistent. The Government’s own polling said that one in five people did not know what was expected of them, and that was before those recent decisions were announced. Now the hospitality sector, the aviation sector, the wedding industry, retailers, children’s play centres and more are speaking out to express their frustration. Will the First Minister change her approach, engage and listen to them and adopt a can-do approach to this new stage of our pandemic response?

What I will do is avoid easy slogans such as “can-do approach”. It is really important that we continue to move forward cautiously. We all want to get back to normal. We have a greater degree of normality than we have had at almost any time in the past 15 months, but there is a further distance to travel. However, we have to do that carefully. Reported case numbers for yesterday, which will be published this afternoon, show another rise of just short of 3,000 cases, and there is a positivity rate of, I believe, 7.7 per cent. Case numbers are rising and we have to be cautious.

Communication is very important. As we come out of restrictions, things—we hope—will get easier in many ways, but they will also get more complicated, so communication will be more challenging. Nobody knows that better than I do. I will continue to do my level best to communicate clearly with people the reasons why certain decisions have been taken and why some things can happen and other things cannot, even though that appears to be inconsistent. As I make use of the media briefings over the summer recess—I think they have stood the country in good stead over the past 15 months—I hope that I will not hear any further criticism for that from Anas Sarwar’s deputy, as I have at many points over the past few months. I agree that communication to the public is important.

Many of the decisions that Anas Sarwar has talked about were reached for pragmatic reasons. The change regarding opening times during football matches that might go to penalties is meant to prevent people from crowding out of pubs at the same time while they are still wanting to watch football. It is about trying to avert a risk in a pragmatic way. Similarly, the fan zone decision is about trying to ensure that there is a relatively safe environment for fans, given the regulations, because we recognise that, no matter what I say, people want to watch the football. I understand that those things can be difficult for people to accept. This is possibly one of the most difficult phases of the pandemic, as we try to navigate our way from here back to normality, while knowing that there are still a lot of risks that we have to avoid or get around.

Lastly, although the decisions are the Government’s and I take responsibility for them, every single decision that is taken is informed by clinical advice, so that we get those decisions right as far as we possibly can.

The First Minister misses the point—the can-do approach is not about a slogan. She should speak to individual businesses. Every single member who has walked down the Royal Mile to come into the Parliament will have seen how frustrated the businesses there are. They are what I mean by “a can-do approach”. Behind every business, there are people trying their best to get by.

They are people such as Cammy Hudson, who has built a successful wedding photography business. Last year he was meant to have 49 weddings; instead, he had just six. He says that the Government does not understand his industry, that it follows one-size-fits-all approach and that it refuses to listen, and he is not alone. This year’s bookings are all but gone, and, because of the uncertainty, people are choosing to book as far ahead as 2023. Cammy cannot afford to turn down a job, which is why, two weeks ago, he found himself driving from Brighton to Inverness overnight to accommodate two bookings. That meant being awake for 39 hours straight, working two 10-hour shifts and being forced to drive 600 miles through the night. Having to risk his health to put food on the table and pay the bills is an unacceptable situation for anyone. Does the First Minister think that that is an acceptable situation?

If the member is asking me whether I think that any of this is acceptable, the answer is no, I do not. I do not think that it is acceptable that any of us have to live through a global pandemic. Every single impact of this is horrendously difficult for the people who are having to bear it, so I will not stand here and try to defend the horrible situations that people find themselves in.

However, I will say that nobody is doing that to people deliberately or for any reason other than to try to keep the country as safe as possible in a really difficult situation, and we listen as we go. We have a much greater degree of normality now—for example, shops on the Royal Mile were completely closed a matter of weeks ago and are now open. Of course, trading is not completely normal, because, apart from anything else, people still have a degree of nervousness. We have to encourage the whole country back to normality and give them a sense of safety as that happens.

It is important to talk about the economics of the wedding sector, but, for many couples who have had to postpone and repostpone weddings, that has been one of the most difficult impacts. We listen—for example, a request was made yesterday by the representative body of the wedding sector, which asked that, if we can go to level 0 on 19 July, we bring that forward to 16 July so that the weddings that are booked for that weekend can go ahead. We are actively considering such requests, and we are trying to be flexible. On the other hand, we know that some outbreaks have originated, understandably, in life event-type settings, when families have come together and were hugging and those kinds of things. That is the painful thing about Covid—it is those kinds of things that pose the greatest risk.

Like everybody else does, I hate every aspect of this. I hate every decision that we have to make that restricts people’s ability to live their lives, and no part of me wants to do that for a second longer than is necessary. I know that these decisions are not easy, and I do not pretend that we get every single one of them right. I know that we do not, because of the nature of what we are trying to do. However, we try to get them right, we listen and we rectify things when we are clear that we have got something wrong. That is what we will continue to do, and, if we all continue to pull together, the day when we can lift all restrictions will be within sight. But getting from here to there still involves us being cautious and careful. I know how difficult that is, but I also know how necessary it is.

I accept that we have to be cautious and careful. I am not saying that the Scottish Government needs to defend the decisions, and I am not saying that the decisions are deliberate. The First Minister can say that she is listening, but businesses do not believe that she is listening; they think that she is telling them what to do rather than engaging with them. She gave the example of the Scottish Wedding Industry Alliance, which today said that the decisions do not go far enough and that the Government is still not communicating effectively with it.

The issue is about more than financial support. These businesses and individuals have spent 15 months working out how to operate safely. It would be different if it was just one sector, but it is more than just one sector—sector after sector is speaking out publicly about the Government’s poor communication and inconsistent decision making. The Government’s current approach is not working for this stage of the pandemic and it needs to change.

We all started this session saying that we would focus on recovery, and that work has to start now. The vaccine is working and we have spent the past two years building up our testing and tracing capacity, so will the Government change its approach, have a can-do attitude that is demanded by people across the country, stop the inconsistency, get round the table and engage with those businesses and individuals and start the important work of rebuilding our country?

John Swinney was at the table with those stakeholders this morning. We do that regularly and we will continue to do that—we listen. I readily concede that there will be many things that business asks us to do that we consider but cannot do. The reason for that is not that we are not listening; it is down to the one thing that, no matter how much I wish I could, I cannot do, which is magic away the virus. If I could do that, I would do it in an instant. We have to continue to take careful decisions.

Anas Sarwar says that the vaccines are working—all of the evidence says that the vaccines are working—and we are vaccinating as fast as supplies allow. However, although the number is reducing every day, a significant proportion of the population is not yet fully vaccinated. That is why cases are going up again. As I have just said, 2,999 cases from yesterday will be reported today. We hope that, because of the vaccine, that will not translate into hospital admissions as that kind of number would have done earlier in the year.

Reporting to the Parliament earlier this week, I said that 10 per cent of cases were translating into hospital admissions earlier this year; it is now down to 5 per cent. That is really positive news, but 5 per cent of a daily case rate of 3,000 is still a massive number heading into our hospitals. That is loss for people. That is pain and suffering, as well as pressure on the national health service.

This phase is the most difficult phase, because we are on the route back to normality—we can see, hopefully, the finishing line in August—but getting from here to there demands care and caution. What will be determined by how we behave in the short term is not whether we get to that finishing line—I am confident that the vaccines are going to get us there—but how many more lives are lost between now and then, how much pressure we put on our NHS and how many more families have to suffer the pain that too many have suffered already.

My heart breaks for every business, every individual and every sector of our society that is still suffering because of Covid, but I do not do my job properly by rushing decisions that will make the situation worse; I do my job properly, no matter how difficult these decisions are, by trying to get us safely to that end point. That is what I am going to dedicate every day to doing until we are at that end point.


This week, ITN revealed that the Amazon warehouse in Dunfermline is destroying millions of new, unsold items, including televisions, laptops and face coverings. That level of waste is obscene. In 2020 alone, Amazon’s net profits were more than $20 billion. It is a company that has refused to pay the living wage, that uses zero-hour contracts and that keeps its workers in such a state of desperation that some of them are reduced to sleeping in tents. It is a company that has resisted trade unions and that avoids paying corporation tax.

The Scottish Greens have previously challenged the giving of millions of pounds of public money to Amazon through Scottish Enterprise. In the most recent financial year, the Scottish Government gave the company £4.7 million for web services. Can the First Minister tell us when her Government will stop giving Amazon money?

As Lorna Slater knows, and as many members across the chamber have rightly called for, we increasingly attach fair work conditions to all the grant support that Scottish Enterprise, or any other enterprise agency, gives. I do not have the figures in front of me, but I am happy to look into the details of the particular support that Lorna Slater has referenced to see exactly what it was for and what conditions were attached to it. We will continue to make sure that any taxpayer money that is going to businesses is about creating not just jobs but fair jobs and that companies are being challenged as well as supported.

On the broader point, clearly I am not responsible for the practices of Amazon, but we had a report just yesterday from Zero Waste Scotland about consumption and the need to become much more sustainable as a country and a society. We all have a duty to do that, but companies certainly do, and there are real questions about the acceptability of destroying things as has been reported this week.

Only yesterday, the Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work told me that he wants to see public money going to companies that treat their employees well. Public money should be going to small companies and those that need it to recover from the pandemic. At the heart of that obscene level of waste is an economy that puts a disposable, throwaway culture ahead of the needs of people and planet. It is shocking that a company of that size would rather destroy new items than give them away to people in need. That shocking revelation underlines the fact that Governments must do more, through regulation and fines, to force companies to reduce waste when they fail to act. Will the First Minister commit to enshrining the circular economy in robust laws that will prevent such needless volumes of waste in the future?

Our commitment to a circular economy—and to legislating for it—is known, and I look forward to taking that forward with co-operation across the Parliament.

I agree with the comments on what has been reported about Amazon. Governments have to do more to persuade everybody. We must lead by example in order to persuade individuals and companies, more generally, to cut down on waste and become much more environmentally responsible. However, I do not think that a company of the size and scale of Amazon should need a Government to tell it that it should not be destroying large amounts of things that—as Lorna Slater rightly said—could be given to people who are in need. I hope that Amazon will reflect carefully on that. That is a big challenge for all Governments across the world, and I hope that Scotland will lead by example.

Similarly, on the subject of fair work, I am not sure of the detail of the financial support—whether it is a grant or procurement for services—so I will look into that, but it is really important that we attach fair work conditions to any support that the Government gives to companies.

Post Office Branch Closures

To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with the United Kingdom Government, the Post Office and CJ Lang regarding the proposed closure of 31 post office branches across Scotland. (S6F-00143)

That unfortunate decision to roll out a programme of post office closures until February next year is a commercial one that was made by CJ Lang & Son. As postal services are a reserved matter, the Scottish Government was not involved in that decision-making process, but the Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth recently met Post Office Ltd to seek assurances about continuity of services to any community that is affected by closure. He also met representatives from CJ Lang & Son to seek assurances about the remaining post office branches in the company’s Spar stores and to confirm that no job losses will be suffered as a result of those closures.

Yesterday, I wrote to the Post Office on behalf of a cross-party group of MSPs and MPs, to ask it to do all that it can to engage quickly with CJ Lang to see whether any of the 31 Spar-based branches can be saved. That is especially important for communities such as Allanton in my constituency, where the Spar store is the only realistic option for a post office branch. Will the First Minister agree to continue doing what she can to quickly bring both players and the UK Government—which has responsibility—to the table, in order to look at all options to save those crucial post offices across Scotland?

I am happy to agree to do that. I certainly agree that the proposed closures will have a big impact on the local communities and I urge all parties that are involved, including the UK Government, to look at the matter again. As I mentioned in my previous answer, there has already been ministerial contact with senior representatives from CJ Lang and the Post Office, but we will make sure that those contacts continue and bring people together to explore what is possible. Scottish Government officials also continue to have regular dialogue with officials in the UK Government and Post Office Ltd around that issue more generally, and I have asked to be kept updated on that.

Woodland Birds (Decline)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to curb the decline of iconic woodland bird species in Scotland. (S6F-00164)

Addressing the twin challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change is a central priority for the Government. Although the index of abundance for Scottish terrestrial breeding birds shows that the long-term trend is for numbers of woodland birds in Scotland to increase, and it is likely that that will continue as we deliver our targets to expand forest cover and create new native woodland, population numbers for some woodland bird species continue to be a concern. We have been taking action to address that, for example by providing specific support for capercaillie from the forestry grant scheme between 2016 and 2025, as well as funding through the previous rural priority scheme’s capercaillie package.

Nature is under threat—not just the capercaillie but our waders, plovers and curlews—and this Government has failed to meet 11 of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets. Farmers have told me that they can be part of the solution to the climate change crisis, and the Government has sat on its hands for too long. There is a climate emergency, and the custodians of our land are keen to protect and meet those biodiversity targets. Today, will the First Minister commit to give clarity on agricultural policy and ensure that biodiversity targets are improved, by extending the agri-environment climate scheme beyond 2024 to protect those iconic bird species?

This is an important issue. I recognise that, for some species, there is cause for concern. It is the case that we are seeing an increase in some species, with increases of more than 400 per cent. However, where there are declines, it is important that we address them, and the biggest long-term decrease is that of more than 50 per cent in capercaillie.

On the specifics, we consider short-term and long-term funding to ensure that we are supporting the objectives. Right now, we face a climate crisis and a biodiversity crisis. Those are obviously closely linked. The Government is very serious about addressing them both, doing what we need to do here in Scotland, and in so doing, setting an example for the rest of the world.

I welcome the tone of the question. I hope that the question is a signal that, when it comes to the detail of what is needed to meet those objectives, there will be more support from the Scottish Conservatives than there has been in the past. Recently, we have seen scaremongering about the talks with the Greens and what that might mean, rather than all of us recognising—[Interruption.] I know that the Conservatives do not like it when we talk about the details of some of this stuff. However, instead of just willing the ends, we must be prepared to do the means. That is harder and often controversial. I hope that the question and its tone, which I welcome, signal a change of heart from the Scottish Conservatives.

National Health Service (Support)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is supporting the national health service, in light of reports of wards being full and an increase in patients with serious and complex conditions. (S6F-00144)

Remobilising and supporting the NHS is one of the top priorities for the Scottish Government and the other Governments across the UK—as I am sure that supporting their health services is for Governments across the world. We will shortly publish our NHS recovery plan, which will set out how we will continue to support patients to receive the highest quality of care and to expand NHS capacity.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the ability of the NHS to operate normally for the past 15 months. That has consequences. I thank our NHS staff for the work that they continue to do to ensure that people who are in need of urgent care get it. They are working flat out to get care and treatment to people who saw that being delayed due to Covid.

To help staff, a range of wellbeing and mental health resources have been put in place locally. Staff tell us that they value that. Those services are supplemented by national resources, such as the national wellbeing hub, which has more than 100,000 users. We will continue to put in place the support that staff require.

I welcome the NHS recovery plan being on its way, but the problems are happening now. Consultants in accident and emergency are seeing more people with more chronic and undiagnosed conditions presenting as emergencies. They warn that medical beds are at 120 to 130 per cent capacity, which has an impact on elective surgery. The number of people waiting over a year for operations has almost doubled. Activity is below pre-pandemic levels, which is understandable, but in some areas there are simply not enough hospital beds to cope with even those admissions. What is the First Minister’s response to staff who are worried that they do not have the capacity to treat all the patients coming through the door?

Generally, the NHS is getting much closer to pre-pandemic capacity, and many parts of the NHS are beyond that—Jackie Baillie cited the example of A and E, where attendances have gone above and beyond what they were going into the pandemic. Urgent suspicion of cancer referrals, for example, are now at 120 per cent compared to April 2020.

We are supporting the NHS. It is a difficult task—particularly for those on the front line—to ensure that the balance between Covid and non-Covid treatment is where needs to be.

The one thing that I would say—it relates to my exchange with Anas Sarwar earlier—is that one of the big challenges that we have right now is to ensure that we continue to manage Covid in a way that does not distract from the efforts of the NHS to deal with the backlog and get back to normal. Last year, when we talked about not overwhelming our NHS, at that point we had pretty much set aside the whole capacity of the NHS. Right now, the situation is different—the NHS is getting back to normal, so the margins around that are much tighter. That is why, in answer to Anas Sarwar’s question about why we cannot get back to normal in more areas, more quickly, I said that we have to take great care not to allow cases to rise in a way that generates more hospital admissions for Covid, which would set back the recovery plan.

That is all important stuff, but it is also really complex. Right now, that is a very sensitive balance. That is one of the main reasons why, difficult though it is for many sectors, we must continue to be cautious as we navigate our way through the next few weeks.

Covid-19 Vaccinations

What action is the Scottish Government taking in response to high numbers of people not attending their appointments at Covid-19 vaccination clinics? Is the Government exploring innovative ways, such as text messaging, for vaccination team staff to contact people about vaccination, which could help to ensure attendance?

I remind members that I am a member of NHS Dumfries and Galloway’s vaccination team.

I thank everybody in our vaccination teams across the country. I have taken the opportunity to thank people generally, but I also say that because Emma Harper is a member of a vaccination team. As well as carrying out her responsibilities in Parliament, she has been vaccinating people, so I thank her and the many others who have been doing that across the country.

Emma Harper has raised a key priority relating to the vaccination programme, given the stage at which it is. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and I were at a meeting earlier this morning about that very issue. Uptake rates are exceptionally high, which is really positive, but they get slightly lower the further down the age spectrum we go, although they are still much higher than they have been for previous vaccination programmes.

We are at an advanced stage of the programme, so we are looking at different ways in which we can get people who have not, for whatever reason, attended their appointment, to attend another one. We are considering providing more drop-in facilities and greater use of texting and other technology. Young people who register on the portal already get their appointment by text, but we need to go back and do a sweep to try to get to people who have not attended. I reassure Emma Harper and other members that over the next few weeks a lot of work will go into getting as many people vaccinated as possible.

One of the factors that Scotland is dealing with right now—we can see this in the Office for National Statistics survey that is published weekly—is that because we have generally had lower infection rates over the past 15 months, we also have lower population immunity, so more of our population is still susceptible. What does that mean? It means that it is even more important for us to get as many people as possible vaccinated. All of us in the Scottish Government are absolutely focused on that key priority.

Domestic Abuse (Custodial Sentences)

Figures that were released this week tell a horrendous story of domestic abuse in Scotland. The number of domestic abuse cases has risen for the fourth year in a row, with 63,000 incidents having been reported last year. Second to our drug crisis in Scotland, that is our national shame.

Education and prevention are, of course, important, but so is punishment. How many perpetrators who, historically, would have received a custodial sentence did not receive one under the Government’s presumption against short sentences? If the answer is more than one person, we have to ask ourselves what message that sends to the tens of thousands of victims of abuse—who are mostly women—about whose side justice is on.

I think that everyone will agree that one case of domestic abuse is one too many. We should have, and the Scottish Government does take, a zero-tolerance approach.

It is important that we all understand a point of context. The figures for 2019-20, which were reported last month, show that half the rise in the number of convictions was accounted for by the new offences under the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018. The numbers are going up because we have legislated to make more domestic abuse behaviours criminal offences. No one should ever celebrate a rise in the number of domestic abuse cases, but what underlies the statistics is a sign that, as a country and as a Parliament, we have taken the issue even more seriously. Marsha Scott, from Scottish Women’s Aid, has said:

“Although it is very early data, our new domestic abuse law shows signs of living up to its global ‘gold standard’ label.”

On punishments, as Jamie Greene knows, we have had debates in other contexts over the past few months about whether the provisions on separation of powers between Parliament and the judiciary and criminal justice system are as robust as they should be. I think that they are. Every member should know that I do not decide what punishment a person gets when they are convicted of an offence, although we set the statutory framework for that. As Jamie Greene said in the question that he posed to me, there is a presumption against short sentences. The decision on whether a perpetrator goes to jail is not for me or for any member of the Government; it is a decision for the judge who presides over the case. That is how it should always be.

Sexual Abuse (Redress for Survivors)

What is the First Minister’s reaction to the outcome of the case that was taken to the Court of Session by survivors of abuse at the hands of the Sailors Society? The case failed because the court determined that a defence could not be mounted because those who had allegedly perpetrated the abuse have since died. The decision seems to set a new and, frankly, impossible threshold for many survivors of child abuse.

What impact will that have on the Government’s considerations as it sets up redress Scotland, given that it might increase the number of people who will have to seek compensation through the scheme? Does the First Minister agree that organisations should understand that the moral threshold might be considerably lower than the legal threshold in order for them to meet survivors and to agree compensation for those who suffered abuse by the organisations, which should have cared for them?

I hope that my answer will be helpful. For reasons that Daniel Johnson will understand, I will not rush to give too detailed an answer, because the Government wants to take time to properly consider the court judgement and its implications.

I have two responses to his question. The first is not to try to second-guess decisions that have been made by courts, which would be wrong. However, Daniel Johnson used the phrase “moral threshold”; I agree with the sentiments that lie behind his question. The instances of systemic child abuse that the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry is currently looking at should shame us, as a country. The redress that we owe to people is, not only in a financial sense but in a wider sense, a serious obligation. The phrase “moral threshold” stands beside any legal or financial threshold and is important for us to recognise.

The second point is that the threshold for the redress scheme is already low, so we will have to consider whether the judgement has any implications for that. I am happy to ask the Deputy First Minister to write to Daniel Johnson once we have had the opportunity to look at the point in detail.

Brexit (Impact on Trade)

We understand that United Kingdom food and drink exports to the European Union were down by 47 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and that Scotland’s gross domestic product could fall by £9 billion by 2030. After Covid, should the people of Scotland have a choice between a disastrous Tory Brexit and friendly relations with all European nations?

Of course they should. That is the case not only because it is what I think, but because it is what the people of Scotland voted for in an election a few weeks ago. Not only do I think that they should have that choice, I am determined that they will. That is an important choice for people in Scotland to make.

The impact of Brexit is only now starting to hit home. John Mason cited evidence of the fall in exports, which is serious and damaging to businesses across much of our country.

There are, however, many other impacts. Yesterday, I visited EU nationals who are having to go through the indignity of applying to stay in their own country. I spoke to one young woman whose case, for me, sums up the deep injustice of Brexit. That young woman came to this country from Germany at three years old and has spent periods of her life in the care system here. Listening to her, one would not think that she was anything but Scottish. She is Scottish—as Scottish as I am—but because she came from Germany at three years old she is having to go through the process of applying to stay in her own country. I cannot find the words to describe how offended and angry that makes me on behalf of every EU national who lives in our country. I do not think that that is who we are, as a country.

After we are through the Covid crisis, we should have the opportunity to decide whether we want to be governed by Brexit Tories, or by Governments that we elect for ourselves based on the values that most of us in Scotland hold dear.

Organised Crime (Attacks)

The family home of Councillor Graeme Campbell has been targeted on three occasions. The most recent attack came last weekend, when his cars and home were torched. Graeme and his wife count themselves lucky to have survived. He believes that those cowardly attacks are linked to organised crime and he tells me that he now has no option but to quit politics. Will the First Minister condemn mob rule by organised crime in Scotland and will she tell Parliament what the Scottish Government is doing about this attack on democracy?

I do not just unreservedly condemn organised crime; I unreservedly and unequivocally condemn the attacks on Councillor Campbell and his wife. I cannot imagine what they have been through in facing those attacks. I am sure that the thoughts of everybody across not just the chamber but the country are with them. I want to send Councillor Campbell and his wife a message of solidarity from me and from my party today.

Those matters have to be treated with the utmost seriousness. Nobody should feel, for whatever reason, that they have no choice but to leave politics or abandon any part of their life because of threats or attacks from organised crime or anywhere else. Of course, it is not for me or the Government but for the police to investigate and—I hope—bring to justice those who perpetrated the attacks. I offer my full support to the police in the actions that they will take to do that. However, for the purposes of today, I reiterate that message of solidarity to Councillor Campbell and his family.

BBC Pacific Quay Studios (Transfer of Ownership)

Next month, the BBC will make a final decision on the proposal to transfer ownership of its Glasgow Pacific Quay studios to a subsidiary company. Staff have been warned that that could result in dozens of redundancies and no Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations transfer. There are wider concerns across the Scottish production sector that the transfer will restrict access to the studios, as decisions on access will be made from London. What representation has the Scottish Government made to the BBC about the proposal? Will a Government minister meet the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union to discuss how the jobs can be saved?

We regularly make representations to the BBC on such matters, which of course have nothing to do with the BBC’s editorial decisions. For example, personally, I have made representations in the past about the need to build up production capacity in Scotland and for the BBC to spend more of the licence money that Scottish viewers pay in Scotland to support the economy and production opportunities here. I therefore share the concerns that Ross Greer has raised, and I hope that the move does not go ahead. I cannot see—and have not seen—anything that suggests that it would be in the interests of Scotland as a whole or of the production sector in particular.

The Government would of course be happy to meet a BECTU representative. If that has not already been arranged, I am sure that it quickly can be.

Glasgow McVitie’s Factory (Closure)

I declare an interest as a member of GMB Scotland.

The First Minister will be aware that, sadly, Pladis, the owner of the McVitie’s factory in Glasgow, has issued redundancy notices to 500 workers. Some of them were here today with their union—the GMB—to present a petition to the First Minister by 75,000 petitioners. I hope that the First Minister will be happy to take the petition from me on their behalf.

I put on the record and commend the work of the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, Kate Forbes, and the working group, along with the trade unions GMB and Unite. I know that the First Minister is fully behind that. Will the First Minister use her international recognition and her skills to eyeball directly the owners of McVitie’s and put everything possible on the table to make sure that they are presented with an offer that they cannot refuse? I believe that the First Minister needs to lead this charge and that we will all be behind her in doing that. The McVitie’s factory in Glasgow cannot be allowed to close.

As Pauline McNeill is aware, the finance secretary, with the leader of Glasgow City Council, co-chairs an action group to try to save the McVitie’s plant in the east end, which I am 100 per cent behind. Just this week, the finance secretary is communicating with Pladis senior management to make very clear our disappointment at the lack of constructive engagement on the options, with Scottish Government support, for saving that site.

We will not give up, and we will do everything that we possibly can. I will certainly do everything that I can to make sure that any options to save the plant, the site and those jobs are taken forward by the Government. We cannot force a company to accept offers of help that we give, but we will do everything that we can to make sure that those offers are credible and are accepted. That is what we have done in the past with other industrial plants. We are often criticised for that later on when opportunistic reasons arise to allow that to happen. However, that will not prevent us from doing everything that we can to save the McVitie’s plant or others that end up in a similar position.

On the petition, the workers do not have to petition me and the Scottish Government. We are on their side, and we will do everything that we can to save their jobs. I will not be able to accept the petition in person because, after First Minister’s question time, I will travel to Arbroath to attend the funeral of one of our former members—Andrew Welsh. I want to take the opportunity to say, in response to the passing of someone who was widely respected across the political spectrum, how much my thoughts are with his family. However, I will arrange for another member of the Government to accept the petition on my behalf.

Covid-19 (Safe Travel to Islands and Rural Areas)

With many people choosing to staycation this summer, the First Minister will be aware of reports that rural and island communities will have a significant number of domestic visitors. Many in the isles will be worried about the rising number of Covid infections across the country, including in Orkney and Shetland, and are concerned that testing is not being undertaken by those who are travelling. What can the Scottish Government do to ensure that domestic travel to all our islands and rural areas is safe and sustainable?

Beatrice Wishart raises a really important point. Our islands, in common with the rest of the country, want to get back to normal. Tourism is a big part of normality for Scotland. We want that for our islands, but it is really important that it is safe. That is why we have given very strong advice—which we reiterate regularly; I do so again now—to anybody who plans to travel to our islands to test before they go. Lateral flow tests are available to allow them to do that.

Beatrice Wishart is right to point this out—in today’s figures, cases have been reported in Orkney and Shetland. Although the numbers are very small, that is a reminder that the virus has not gone away. If people intend to travel to our islands or any other part of our beautiful country over the summer, I ask them to please do so safely, to test themselves and to respect all the advice that is in place in any particular area to help to keep themselves and the local population safe.

12:56 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—