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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 25, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 25 February 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Budget (Scotland) (No 5) Bill: Stage 1, Scottish Income Tax Rate Resolution 2021-22, Scottish Fiscal Commission Appointment, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon, colleagues. We begin with First Minister’s question time. Before we turn to questions, I invite the First Minister to update the Parliament on the Covid pandemic.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Yesterday, 769 new cases were reported, which was 3.7 per cent of all the tests that were carried out. The total number of cases now stands at 200,406.

Currently, 967 people are in hospital with Covid, which is 51 fewer than yesterday, and 89 people are in intensive care, which is four fewer than yesterday. I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 31 deaths were registered. That means that the total number of people who have died from Covid under that daily measurement is now 7,084. Again, I want to send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

Turning to vaccination, I note that 1,515,980 people have now received a first dose, which is an increase of 27,903 since yesterday. The fact that more than 1,500,000 people have now received the first dose of vaccination is, I think, a really significant milestone. We have now given a first dose to almost exactly one third of the adult population, and that includes virtually everyone in the top four clinical priority groups as recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

In addition, 85 per cent of 65 to 69-year-olds have now had a first dose. We continue to be on course to complete that group by early March. Subject to supply, we expect to be able to offer first doses to all over 50-year-olds and all adults with an underlying health condition by 15 April.

I confirm that 56,661 people have now received a second dose, which is an increase of 6,540 from yesterday. Significantly, around a third of residents in older people’s care homes have already received the second dose. From Monday next week, we will start to publish that figure daily.

Once again, I take the opportunity to record my thanks to everyone who is involved in administering the vaccines and everyone who is coming forward to receive them.

The latest estimate of the reproduction number will be published shortly. We expect it to have remained below 1, but perhaps not very far below 1. That underlines the fact that, although everything is heading in a positive direction, there is still quite limited scope to ease restrictions while avoiding a potential resurgence in cases. That is why we continue to take a careful, step-by-step approach.

Indicative dates for easing restrictions have been given for the next six weeks, because that is the timeframe that we can be most confident about. That approach allows us to monitor the impact of initial changes and it means that we can accelerate the easing should the data support that. We will set out more information as we are able to, over the next few weeks.

For now, as vaccines do their work and as we learn more about controlling the new variant, it is vital that we proceed with caution. I ask people, for now, to stick with the advice and stay at home. It is very difficult, but it is also working. It is allowing the vaccination programme time to do its job and start to take more of the strain of suppressing the virus. I ask people to continue to stay at home and I thank them for doing so.

Ministerial Code (First Minister’s Evidence)

Presiding Officer,

“I have nothing to hide on this—nothing whatsoever.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2020; c 5.]

That is what Nicola Sturgeon said about the Alex Salmond crisis that is engulfing her Government and this Parliament. If she has nothing to hide, will the First Minister publish her evidence to James Hamilton QC over multiple ministerial code breaches?

I have no difficulty with my evidence to James Hamilton being published, but he is currently considering it, and I think that, out of courtesy to him, it is first a matter for him as and when he wants to publish it. I think that, if I were to try to do anything that interrupted the proper investigation and process of that, I would—understandably, perhaps—face criticism.

I have absolutely no difficulty with that being published. If James Hamilton does not publish it when he issues his report—that timescale is, of course, a matter for him—then I would be more than happy to consider publishing it afterwards. What I will not do is seek to interrupt or interfere with the process that he is engaged in.

On Monday, the First Minister summoned journalists to her office and challenged Alex Salmond to produce his evidence, only for the Crown to then demand that sections be censored.

Alex Salmond’s evidence states this:

“The First Minister told Parliament ... that she first learned of the complaints against me when I visited her home on 2nd April 2018. That is untrue and is a breach of the ministerial code.”

That is one of the sections that the Crown Office intervened on the Parliament to remove, despite the fact that it has been widely published elsewhere. It does not risk identifying complainers, which we all agree is an important safeguard for women who have already been grossly let down by the First Minister’s Government. What is it about those two sentences of evidence that is so damaging that they should be censored? Is it just that they are damaging to the First Minister?

The fact that Ruth Davidson has stood up and perfectly legitimately recounted that version of events—of course I will give my own account when I appear before the committee next week—demonstrates that all Mr Salmond’s allegations and claims about me are in the public domain. They have been widely reported. I have always fully expected to be questioned in detail about all those allegations when I appear before the committee next week. There is nothing, in terms of the publication or non-publication of evidence, that has ever led me to expect anything else. I absolutely expect to be questioned on every aspect of the matter. I will answer those questions fully and to the best of my ability, and people can judge those answers as they see fit.

Scrutiny of me and the Scottish Government—because the Scottish Government has made a mistake in this process—is not just legitimate, it is absolutely necessary. I do not shy away from that. I have waited a long time now to appear before the committee and I am glad that I will finally have that opportunity next week.

Anyone who is suggesting that prosecution decisions or decisions that the Crown Office takes on upholding court orders are in any way politically influenced or politically driven is not just wrong and completely lacking a single shred of evidence to back that claim up, but I suggest that they are signing up to a dangerous and quite deluded conspiracy theory that risks undermining the integrity and well-deserved reputation of Scotland’s independent justice system.

Political debate is right and proper. Politics is not and should not be for the faint hearted, but all of us have a duty to conduct these debates in a way that does not unfairly trash the reputation of people who are doing their jobs and doing them independently of the Government.

Here is why all the redacted parts of Alex Salmond’s evidence are important. They are exactly the parts that expose the First Minister. Twice on the BBC, she claimed not to know of anything about sexual misconduct claims before April 2018. Three separate times, she told the Parliament that she found out from Alex Salmond himself that month.

She has been desperate to shut down everything about the secret meeting in her office the month before, because it wrecks her whole argument and confirms that she misled the Parliament. The truth is that she knew about the allegations before April 2018. Worse, we now know that she discussed sexual harassment complaints against Alex Salmond with her chief executive, her chief civil servant and her chief of staff in November, four months earlier.

Does the First Minister understand why, to the public, it looks like a cover-up when the exact evidence that has been redacted is the most damaging to her personally?

The problem with Ruth Davidson standing up here, recounting all that and suggesting that there is some kind of cover-up is this: every single allegation, claim and assertion that she has just made was included in the written evidence that I submitted to the committee and which has since been published. If memory serves me correctly, I submitted that back in August last year. I have been waiting since then to appear before the committee.

All of that—the meeting on 2 April 2018 and the meeting three days earlier, on 29 March, and the fact that a completely separate matter, a media query, came to the Scottish National Party in November 2017—is not a cover-up. I put that in my written evidence and I submitted it to the committee months ago. People can go on to the Scottish Parliament website right now, if they want, and look at that. It is not a cover-up.

I expect to be fully questioned on all those matters when I sit before the committee—at long last—on Wednesday next week. By my count, that is the sixth date that I have had in my diary to appear before the committee. They have all been postponed up until now by the committee, for reasons that I understand. However, I want to sit in front of that committee, and I want to address all those questions.

As I said earlier, scrutiny of me is important, necessary and entirely legitimate. What is not legitimate is for someone to pursue a conspiracy theory or scorched-earth policy that threatens the reputation and integrity of Scotland’s independent justice institutions just because they happen to dislike the Government, and to sacrifice all that, if I may say so, on the altar of the ego of one man.

People can see the First Minister’s deflection for what it is. Just answer the questions.

This sorry affair is not just tarnishing the First Minister’s reputation; it is damaging the institutions that it is her responsibility to uphold. Majority votes by members to produce legal advice have been ignored. Crucial evidence that has been freely available elsewhere has been censored. Promises of openness and transparency have been broken. The chief executive of Scotland’s ruling party has been caught calling for the police to be pressured. The reputation of the Scottish Government has been tainted and the standing of the Parliament has been diminished. A culture of secrets and cover-up is only growing, and that is all taking place on Nicola Sturgeon’s watch.

There is just one further question that I want to ask. Is the First Minister saving her own skin worth all the damage that she is doing?

The most important thing to me is the reputation of our country and the integrity of our institutions. I will always act in a way that protects them.

There is a reputation that is perhaps disintegrating before our eyes—and it is not mine. Ruth Davidson has just gone through a litany of nonsense. She accuses me of deflection. What deflection? In her previous question, she asked me about meetings on 2 April and 29 March 2018, and she accused me of a cover-up. I simply stood here and said that that is a strange cover-up, as I offered the information in published written evidence to the committee. It is hardly a cover-up when I have been waiting for months, with five previously postponed dates, to appear before a committee. I am simply making the point that it is possible, and it used to be possible, in this country to have rigorous and robust scrutiny and political debate without a scorched-earth policy of conspiracy theory and without damaging the integrity of the independent institutions of the country. It is not me doing that—it is me standing up to them.

Ruth Davidson wants to lecture the rest of us about democratic integrity. That is the same Ruth Davidson who is about to depart from this elected institution, dodge an election, and take a seat in the unelected House of Lords, where she will pursue a political career at the taxpayer’s expense and never have to ask voters for their permission ever again. I do not think that Ruth Davidson is in a position to lecture anyone about democracy. [Applause.]

Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints (Confidentiality)

There was applause before I even started.

At the heart of the committee that was set up to consider the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints are two women who have been failed by the Government. The committee’s role is not to investigate the complaints but to understand what went wrong and why the women were failed, so that women can never be let down like that again.

I welcome the First Minister’s coming to the committee next week, but it is legitimate to explore some of the issues in the context of the ministerial code investigation that is being led by James Hamilton QC. One such issue concerns meetings that were held with Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff. Those meetings were the precursor to the discussion between Alex Salmond and the First Minister. I understand that, astonishingly, the identity of one of the original civil service complainants was revealed to the former chief of staff and then conveyed to Mr Salmond.

That is an extraordinary breach of confidentiality. On whose authority was contact initiated with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff? On whose authority was the name of a complainant revealed? That action was certainly not about protecting the interests of the women involved. Did the First Minister authorise the contact? If not, who did?

I will answer all those questions in detail when I appear before the committee. It seems that Jackie Baillie is standing here, before I have had the opportunity to sit before the committee, and accepting at face value Alex Salmond’s account of all this. I do not accept Alex Salmond’s account of much of this, which is why, when I sit before the committee, I will go through in detail what actually happened and what did not happen. I think that that is the right and proper way of proceeding.

What I agree with Jackie Baillie on is that there are women at the heart of this—women whom I have been accused of hiding behind, when I am actually seeking to stand up for them. Their voices have been sidelined, their motives have been maligned and they have been accused of being conspirators in the whole process. Not only is that deeply unfair to the women concerned, I think that it is deeply unfair to the efforts—which I think most of us agree with—to create a culture in Scotland whereby women feel that they can come forward with complaints. I want the women to be at the heart of all these discussions.

I say to Jackie Baillie that accepting at face value the conspiracy theories and the account of the man whom the women accused of harassing them seems to me to be quite a strange way of supporting and standing up for those women.

It is appropriate for the First Minister to come before this chamber and answer questions, because this matter, at its core, is about her judgment and her leadership. It is also, absolutely, about the women—the women who were failed by the Government’s botched handling of their complaints. Standing up for women takes more than warm words.

A complainant was named. That is not a conspiracy theory—a complainant was named. That is a fundamental breakdown in trust. It is beyond belief that anyone would tell the name of a complainant to the former chief of staff to Alex Salmond, which was then passed on to Mr Salmond. How on earth is that about protecting women? It is a gross breach of confidentiality.

Given the First Minister’s comments, in her daily Covid briefing yesterday, about Alex Salmond and his behaviour, why on earth did she repeatedly agree to meetings with him even after she knew about the serious allegations against him? How was that helping the women who had complained?

Alex Salmond claimed that the name of a complainant was given. That is not the same thing as accepting that that is the case. Those are exactly the matters, along with many other matters, that I will have the opportunity to get into when I appear before the committee. I will also explain why I met Alex Salmond and, crucially, what I did not do after I met him, which was to seek to intervene in the process or to, in any way, sweep the complaints under the carpet.

I heard Jackie Baillie give an interview some weeks ago—or perhaps it was longer ago than that. I think that it was when my written evidence had been published, in which I had set out that one of the things that Alex Salmond had asked me to do was to intervene to bring about a process of mediation. I declined to do that because I did not think it was appropriate for me to intervene. I heard Jackie Baillie in an interview seem to suggest that I should have done that—that I should have intervened to bring about a process of mediation.

Along the way here, I have faced accusations of collusion with Alex Salmond and of conspiracy against Alex Salmond. I hope that, by the time I get to the committee, the members will have made up their minds which one they are seeking to accuse me of. The fact of the matter is that neither of those things is true. When I became aware of the complaints, I declined to intervene because I thought it was important that a process happened.

For somebody in my position, on hearing what my predecessor, close colleague and friend of 30 years was accused of, perhaps the easier thing to have done—and perhaps what would have been done in days gone by—was to have swept the complaints under the carpet and not allowed them to be properly investigated. I opted not to do that. Whatever difficulties have happened since then, and whatever pain has been caused to lots of people in this process, I do not regret not sweeping the complaints under the carpet, because that was the right thing to do.

There is an inconvenient fact here for the First Minister, and it is not what Alex Salmond claims—it is not about the conspiracy. It is the fact that the former chief of staff to Alex Salmond said that, in one of those meetings, the name of one of the civil service complainants was given to him.

Members: Allegedly.

It is interesting that the more noise there is from the Scottish National Party members, the more I appreciate the difficulties they are in.

Members: Allegedly.

There we go. It is starting again. However, it is an inconvenient fact and it is extraordinary that that name was revealed.

This week, Scotland’s democratic institutions have been exposed in their inability to hold the Government to account. The Crown Office intervened with the Parliament, resulting in evidence being removed—evidence that any one of us can currently access on reputable news websites. We have a Government that has refused to co-operate, denying the committee access to the legal advice that the Government obtained for the judicial review, which cost the taxpayer £600,000. In addition, the rushed-through harassment policy lies on the shelf, gathering dust. It has not been used in the past three years at a time when there are more complaints against Nicola Sturgeon’s ministers than there were under her predecessor. We have seen, this week, that there is something rotten at the core of the SNP, and it is poisoning democratic institutions. This is not just about Alex Salmond, and it is not even just about the internal problems of the SNP: this is about the treatment of women in the future. So, what is the First Minister going to do to make it right?

What is poisoning our democratic institutions, in my view, is politicians standing up and hurling assertions and accusations without a shred of evidence to back them up. That is something that all of us need to seriously reflect on.

I am not sure when she became the chief spokesperson for Alex Salmond, but it is interesting that Jackie Baillie stands here, in this chamber, and takes as gospel every claim that Alex Salmond makes. When Alex Salmond was standing here, she did not believe a single word that he said. So, why do we not allow all these claims—Alex Salmond’s tomorrow, mine next week—to be properly scrutinised by the committee? Hopefully, it will be able to do that, and then people can make up their own minds.

At the heart of this are women who came forward with complaints—first to the Scottish Government and later to the police, and the police independently investigated all of that. It was right that the Scottish Government put in place a process to allow complaints to be investigated. It was right that, when they came to light, before I knew about them, the Government did not sweep them under the carpet, albeit that the Government made a mistake. When I became aware, it was right, in my view, that I did not collude with Alex Salmond to make them go away or sweep them under the carpet. That may have led to difficulties—it certainly made Alex Salmond very angry with me; I think that that is self-evident—but it was the right thing to do.

Yes, we need to have a rigorous political debate, but, if we are to be a country in which women can come forward, then all of us need to respect the independent institutions, including the highly respected justice system, so that Scotland is a place where the culture says to women: “If you have been harassed, no matter how powerful the person who might have harassed you, you can come forward and your claims will be treated seriously.”

Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints (Confidentiality)

Jackie Baillie has just made a very serious point about the handing over of the name of a complainant to Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff. Just to be clear, is the First Minister saying categorically that that did not happen—that the name of a complainant was not passed on to the former chief of staff to Alex Salmond before the meeting on 2 April?

To the very best of my knowledge, I do not think that that happened.

What I want to understand is this: following the revelation that that was an allegation, did the First Minister herself investigate the matter to find out the truth as to whether that information was passed on? The lack of such action by the First Minister would be negligence, because there is corroborating evidence that that did happen. Is the First Minister saying that they are lying?

It is not my belief that that happened, but a committee process is under way right now and there is a process separate from the committee in which the independent adviser on the ministerial code is looking at all these matters. I am allowing those processes to take their course, which I think is the right and proper way for me to proceed.

Homelessness (Winter Evictions Ban)

This week, National Records of Scotland revealed that, before the pandemic struck, Scotland had the highest death rate among homeless people in the United Kingdom. As we recover from the pandemic, we must not contemplate going back to the way that things were and to a broken economy that allows too many to fall through the cracks. During the crisis, we have seen unparalleled efforts to tackle rough sleeping, and of course it was pressure from the Greens that led to more support for tenants and the introduction and extension of the winter evictions ban. Now that it is clear that restrictions will continue for months, will the First Minister commit to extending the evictions ban to prevent more people from becoming homeless, and will she commit to making a winter evictions ban a permanent fixture?

We have already extended the ban on evictions, and we will do that again should it be necessary. It is important that people have protection against eviction, given the circumstances that we are living through.

I have previously had discussions with Alison Johnstone’s colleagues Patrick Harvie and Andy Wightman about the concept of a standing ban on evictions over winter months. We have had an open discussion about that. We come at the issue from the same perspective of wanting to reduce evictions and homelessness, but there are differences of opinion about the effectiveness and practicality of such a ban. I think that France is often cited as the country that has a winter ban, and there is evidence there that, once it is lifted and the country goes into spring, evictions spike again. We need to look at the issues properly and in balance and decide what is the best way of protecting people from eviction and homelessness. I am certainly open minded in those discussions.

Housing is, of course, a human right, yet homelessness figures show a system that still gives better protections to property investors than it does to vulnerable people. We stand in a rising tide of poverty, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Unless we shift our priorities, we will build a recovery that makes things worse, not better. That is why it is vital that, in this year’s budget, we direct support to our communities.

The Scottish Government was on track to miss its child poverty targets even before the pandemic hit, and now the need is even more urgent. Will the First Minister therefore show more ambition to boost household incomes, whether that is by strengthening the social security net, cutting public transport costs, making homes warmer or providing more free meals for children in Scotland now?

We are already taking action across most of those issues. For example, it is because of our concern about meeting our child poverty targets that we have introduced the Scottish child payment, which has recently launched and which will start to put money into the pockets of low-income families. In last year’s budget process, we had constructive discussions with the Greens on concessionary travel for younger people to reduce the cost of public transport, and we have set out plans for that. From my party’s perspective, we have made clear that, if we are re-elected in May, we will introduce free school meals all year round for all young people in primary school.

There is lots of work still to be done—I would be the last to suggest otherwise—but equally, to be fair, the Government has a good record of putting in place policies that tackle poverty and, in particular, child poverty, and I hope that we are in a position to continue that in the next session of Parliament.

Tenant Hardship Loan Fund

To ask the First Minister how much the tenant hardship loan fund has paid out to date to support tenants who are struggling with rent arrears. (S5F-04852)

We opened the £10 million tenant hardship loan fund on 7 December to offer interest-free loans to support tenants in managing and preventing rent arrears. Of course, the loan is only one part of the support that is available to tenants, and other, perhaps more suitable, options are available, such as housing benefit and discretionary housing payments.

The loan fund is part of wider action to support tenants, alongside extended notice periods, the ban on enforcement action in level 3 and 4 areas, the introduction of private landlord pre-action requirements and increases to discretionary housing payments.

As of 15 February, the loan fund had paid out or offered more than £200,000 to 73 tenants, but I understand that a further 357 applications are being processed.

I have been contacted by a local letting agent on behalf of its clients, who appear to be struggling to access the tenant hardship loan fund. To date, out of numerous applications, only one has had a positive outcome. I have been informed that there are two main issues. The first is the inability to check whether a tenant’s application has been accepted or rejected. Secondly, in addition to the inability to follow the progress of an application, when one has been rejected, it is not clear why that is the case.

Does the First Minister agree that the tenant hardship loan fund is an important way to help tenants who are struggling with rent arrears and that, when an application is rejected, an explanation should be given to the tenant outlining why that is the case and they should be signposted to other support services, should that be necessary?

I agree with that. That is provided, and it certainly should be. Tenants are given contact details of the loans administrator and a unique application number when they submit an application, so that they can check the progress of their application. A range of information and support is also provided for applicants and, in cases where a loan is turned down, information is supplied on alternative sources of financial support.

I am sorry that Stuart McMillan’s constituents have not had successful applications. However, most rejected applications are due to unaffordability, which is why I stress, again, that, although the fund is an important source of additional help, there might be longer-term and more sustainable forms of support that are more suitable for people facing arrears.

Mesh Implant Surgeries (Case Record Review)

To ask the First Minister what the anticipated outcomes and timetable are for the case record review into mesh implant surgeries, which is being led, as moderator, by Professor Alison Britton. (S5F-04844)

The review is based on a restorative justice model and will give women the opportunity to set out their concerns and have them reviewed by a panel of clinicians in a respectful manner. In each case, the outcome will be determined by expert opinion and consensus and the moderator will meet with each woman to discuss the findings. Clearly, I cannot prejudge what the outcomes will be in each case, but the review is intended to help the women who take part.

The length of time that the review takes will depend on how many women come forward, but I hope that as many women as possible will be able to benefit.

The review follows directly on from the meeting that the First Minister held at my request with mesh implant survivors in November 2019. Everyone understands that the pandemic has inevitably delayed progress since then, but the hopes and expectations for the review cannot be overstated. It is clear that a resolution of the issue will carry on into a third session of Parliament since the petition was heard in 2013.

Last week, together with Alex Neil and Neil Findlay, I met with Professor Britton and campaigners. Professor Britton shares concerns regarding the terms of reference, such as the concern about the seeming ability to amend patient records without reference, and I understand that, if she has not already done so, she intends to propose variations.

At the same time, Dr Wael Agur—the clinician who most inspires the confidence of the mesh women and who originally declined to participate in the review because of his own reservations regarding the terms of reference—has intimated that, were the terms of reference to be amended as Professor Britton and the survivors hope, he would now agree to participate in the review.

Amending the terms of reference and having Doctor Agur joining the review team would, more than anything else, secure the support and confidence of all those women. We cannot let them down again. Will the First Minister commit to making both things happen?

I do not know whether Professor Britton has raised her concerns about the remit with the Scottish Government yet—I see that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is indicating that she has not done so. Of course, she is perfectly free to do so, and we will take any suggestions that she makes very seriously. Obviously, without knowing in detail what amendments she wants to the terms of reference, I cannot stand here and give a commitment to agree. However, given her position, we will listen seriously to what she says.

Doctor Agur was asked to be part of the review but he declined. If that were to change or if the reasons for his declining previously were to change and he was willing to reconsider, we would also be open to that.

Scottish Courts (Covid-19 Transmission)

To ask the First Minister how the risk of Covid-19 transmission within Scottish courts is being mitigated, in light of the increase in prisoners testing positive within the prison estate. (S5F-04848)

The Government has provided funding to help to protect the safety and wellbeing of everyone coming to a court. We provided funding for remote High Court and sheriff court jury centres to help restore pre-Covid core capacity and funding to develop core technology.

Obviously, how all of that works in practice is an operational matter for the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service. Extensive risk assessments have taken place in all buildings, with guidance for staff and court users regularly updated to reflect the latest public health advice.

No accused person who has tested positive, has symptoms or is self-isolating is brought to court. The emergency coronavirus legislation allows accused persons to be excused from attending procedural court hearings, and it allows trial time limits to be extended where necessary. Any accused person with Covid concerns appearing from police custody joins the court custody hearing by videolink from the police custody unit.

The First Minister will be aware of concerns from solicitors regarding unsafe working conditions in courts. A number of them have caught Covid-19 and have passed it on to loved ones at home. The outbreaks in prisons and the huge increase in the number of prisoners having to self-isolate will only heighten solicitors’ concerns. Understandably, some solicitors are now refusing to meet clients in their cells, because it is unsafe. They need to protect themselves and their loved ones.

We already have huge backlogs in our courts, and the situation is creating further delays. What is the First Minister doing to investigate how those infections in the court and prison systems have occurred, and what is she doing to ensure that courts and prisons are safe?

Safety is paramount. Earlier this week, I discussed the recent outbreaks in prisons with the chief medical officer. One of the concerns about the new variant of Covid—it is a concern that is being monitored, and I would not say that there is a definitive understanding of the situation yet—is its rapid spread within institutional settings. That appears to be an issue of concern in prisons now, and it is under on-going review.

The safety of people who attend court settings and the safety of lawyers visiting prisoners in prison must of course be taken very seriously by the Scottish Prison Service and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, which is why some of the steps that I outlined are so important. They must keep up with the latest public health advice to ensure that the risks of transmission are minimised.

My final point applies to outbreaks wherever they occur. At the heart of the matter is the on-going necessity to suppress the virus and keep it at as low a level as possible. Avoiding the virus getting into institutions and spreading to different places will take all of us. That is why the cautious approach that we are taking remains so important.

We come now to supplementary questions.

Lifeline Ferry Services (Isle of Barra)

At the weekend, I spoke to constituents from the Isle of Barra, who had had only one ferry from the mainland in the previous 10 days, which meant that perishable essentials such as bread and milk were several days old on arrival, having travelled on a convoluted route via other islands. The islanders faced a similar situation last winter, due to a lack of resilience in the ferry fleet during the winter refit season. What action can now be taken, such as potentially chartering additional vessels, to ensure that residents in Barra and elsewhere do not face such levels of disruption to lifeline services in future?

I certainly acknowledge the frustration of customers during periods of disruption, and we are firmly committed to supporting lifeline services. The decision to delay or cancel a sailing is never taken lightly, as the operator always recognises the importance of the ferry services to island and remote mainland communities.

The recent prolonged severe weather caused a lot of disruption to sailings, and the situation has been compounded by technical issues. The operator has taken a number of actions to continue to support the lifeline services. Those have has included moving the MV Hebrides to cover Oban-based services in order to provide lifeline services to Coll, Tiree and Barra, and moving the MV Lord of the Isles north.

I will ask the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands to provide the member with more information, but I give an assurance that we understand the importance of those issues.

Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion

This week, Dr Hector Chawla, the former director of the Princess Alexandra eye hospital here in Edinburgh, said that

“the Scottish Government’s withdrawal of support for the proposed replacement ... appeared to be driven by saving money rather than any new concept of care”

for eye patients in Edinburgh. He described the Scottish National Party’s cuts to NHS Lothian as an act of “vandalism”.

Dr Chawla has warned that

“expecting people to travel long distances for treatment would mean”

worse outcomes, with

“more people risking blindness.”

Does the First Minister believe that it would be acceptable for Scotland’s capital to lose specialist eye services and for Edinburgh to become one of only a few cities across the United Kingdom not to have an eye hospital? Will she think again? On behalf of the people I represent in Edinburgh, I say that this cannot happen, and it must be an election issue if the Government will not think again on this key matter.

This is a really important issue. Somebody in my family is dependent on eye services in Edinburgh, and has been for a long time, so I know how important those services are. It is not the case that the Scottish Government has withdrawn support. We have asked NHS Lothian to examine the proposal again and we will continue to discuss with it how we can move forward sensibly.

It is of course important that Edinburgh has fit-for-purpose, state-of-the-art eye care services for people who need them, and that is what we are committed to working with NHS Lothian to ensure.

Breast Cancer Service (Dundee)

I asked the chief executive of NHS Tayside this past week at the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee whether he could guarantee the long-term future of the breast cancer service in Ninewells hospital. He said that he could not. My fear, and that of oncologists—whom world-leading cancer centres are now re-employing—is that women in Dundee will not travel to Edinburgh or Aberdeen for breast cancer treatment; if they cannot get treatment in Dundee, they will go untreated.

The demise of that service started with a prescribing query, then a ream of Government whitewash reports that took the official line despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Now, women in Dundee might not get the cancer treatment that they need. Will the First Minister commit to a long-term future for a breast cancer service in Dundee?

I certainly want to see breast cancer services have the long-term future that I am sure that everybody in Dundee wants to see. I am happy to look into the reasons behind the statement of the NHS Tayside chief executive to understand their basis and to reply to the member in more detail. I want to be clear: it would not be acceptable or appropriate for the women in Tayside to have to travel long distances for essential breast cancer support and care. If Jenny Marra forgives me, I will get further detail on the issue and come back to her as soon as possible.

Garden Centres (Reopening)

As we know, spring is in the offing and thoughts turn to gardening, which is good for the soul in these tough times—I declare an interest in that regard. Although one can buy plants and gardening equipment in B & Q and supermarkets, garden centres—most of which are mainly outdoors premises—are restricted to click and collect, which the Horticultural Trades Association has claimed has provided only 3 per cent of the usual turnover. This is an important time of the year for them. Will the Scottish Government revisit the matter? It does not appear to be a level playing field—a situation that impacts not only on small local garden centres but on all the local growers who provide seasonal stock.

I am not sure that my soul is yet quite so troubled as to require me to take to the garden. My apologies to gardeners and horticulturists—Roseanna Cunningham is about to get me into trouble; I know how important the subject is and will move on before I get myself into deeper trouble.

I know how important gardens are to all of us—including me—and how important the spring and summer period is to the industry. Limiting many garden centres to online sales and collection was a really difficult decision that we had to take to ensure that we suppressed the new, more transmissible strain of the virus. We have not taken the approach of prohibiting sales of particular items in essential stores—it is up to the individual retailer to decide that, provided that they operate within the guidelines. Garden centres remain open in tier 3 areas and, as I set out this week, I am hopeful that we will be able to see a phased but significant reopening of the economy in April, which would include the opening of non-essential retailers.

I reassure people—in case anybody got the wrong impression from the light-hearted start of that answer—that gardens and garden centres are really important to everybody across the country.

Thank you for that.

Covid-19 (Briefings)

A key recommendation in the report that the citizens assembly produced this past week is that it should be health experts, not politicians, who lead the daily Covid briefings that the Scottish Government holds. Does the First Minister accept that recommendation?

I struggle to work out what the Tories want. On one hand, they always tell me to concentrate on Covid—concentrate on the day job. On the other hand, they tell me to stop doing daily briefings to give the people of Scotland the information that they need.

I do not know whether that is what the Tories think I should do. Equally, is that what they think Boris Johnson should do? Last night, I saw the United Kingdom Government Secretary of State for Education lead a briefing. I have also seen the UK Government Secretary of State for Health and Social Care do so, and Boris Johnson does it regularly.

In a public health crisis, it is important that people get politicians who stand up, take responsibility and are accountable, and that those politicians are joined by public health experts who add important information. We are going into an election period, and I take very seriously my responsibility to ensure that the election is conducted properly and fairly. That will have implications for how we proceed with the Covid briefings during that period.

Places of Worship (Reopening)

In Parliament on Tuesday, the First Minister said that she hoped that communal worship would restart on 5 April, which is the day after Easter Sunday. However, she went on to suggest that it could happen a few days earlier, possibly in time for important religious festivals such as Passover and Easter Sunday, which is the greatest Christian feast day.

If the First Minister will not allow the immediate reopening of places of worship to give Scottish Christians and members of other faiths equality with those in the rest of the United Kingdom, will she at least confirm on what date she intends to allow places of worship to reopen, and whether she will base access on the size of a church or other premises, rather than on an arbitrary number of 20 people? Will she also confirm that meaningful discussions are taking place with religious leaders on the matter?

Yes, constructive discussions are taking place. On Tuesday, I said that I recognise that 5 April falls just after Easter and Passover, and that we would take account of that. Assuming that that phase of reopening can start, it would absolutely be the intention to allow places of worship to open in time for the full Easter weekend. On the question of discussions with faith leaders, later on Tuesday afternoon, I had discussions with the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and confirmed that to him.

In terms of the restrictions on numbers, we will need to carefully consider the state of the virus, because it is about keeping people safe. We want people to be able to go to churches to worship, but we want them to be safe from Covid as well. If we are able to start that phase of reopening, we will ensure that it happens for places of worship in time for those important religious festivals.

Mesh Removal Procedures (National Health Service Funding)

Further to Jackson Carlaw’s question about the Britton review on mesh records, will the First Minister undertake that waiting for the results of that review will not in any way hold up a decision on national health service funding for women who need urgent mesh removal procedures to be undertaken by Dr Veronikis in the USA?

I certainly undertake that we will not hold up any urgent treatment, or funding for urgent treatment, that any woman needs because we are waiting for the results of a review. The issues around getting access to Dr Veronikis in America, or his coming here, are longstanding, and there may be a variety of ways in which we need to support women. However, we will not hold up making appropriate decisions for women in order to wait for the conclusion of a review.

NHS Highland (Bullying)

All those affected by bullying in NHS Highland feel cheated that the Parliament has not found the time that was promised to debate the Sturrock report. I am still being contacted by former and current members of NHS Highland, who are asking how they register for the healing process.

Does the First Minister agree that tomorrow’s deadline for registering should be extended to ensure that no one who has suffered bullying and harassment in NHS Highland is excluded?

Given that the deadline is tomorrow, I am happy to look into the matter urgently, as I would not want anybody to be excluded. Mr Mountain should take it from that that I am broadly sympathetic to what he has said, although I will need to check the detail. I am looking at the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, who is indicating that she has undertaken to give a further update before Parliament stops for the election.

If the Parliamentary Bureau wants there to be a debate, and time can be found for it, I certainly cannot see a reason why that should not happen. It is right that that should come from Government, but I say simply as a matter of fact that Opposition parties have time in which they can choose what is debated in the Parliament.

I will ask the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, Graeme Dey, to discuss with business managers whether there is an appetite for such a debate and time remaining in the schedule to allow it to take place.

Discretionary Housing Payments (Low Earners)

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the incomes of 45 per cent of those living in the private rented sector had dropped, and that 58 per cent had borrowed or had used up their savings. In a month’s time, renters will face eviction, as protections end.

With those figures in mind, will the Scottish Government extend eligibility for discretionary housing payments to low earners and not just to those on benefits? Alternatively, will it consider providing grants rather than loans for those whose need is most acute? Many people may not have the means to repay those loans, and we can see the obvious consequences of that in the short and longer terms, in that more people might face eviction if we do not act now.

I will consider all those things. I have already covered some of that in my responses to Alison Johnstone and Stuart McMillan, about the tenant hardship loan fund. I made the point that not everybody is able to take out a loan and repay it, so other sustainable ways in which people can have support are needed. The discretionary housing payment is one of those ways. We look often at the quantum of support that is available through discretionary housing payments, so I will certainly take away the request to look at eligibility.

We are very serious about seeking to help people who are in that position. There is a range of ways in which we already do that, but if we can find and implement additional ways, we will certainly do so.

Covid-19 Vaccination (Mobile Testing Unit Staff)

The mobile testing units in Dumfries and Galloway have been doing an excellent job under difficult circumstances. However, I have been approached by a constituent who works in one who has told me that they are not classified as a front-line health worker and so are not in a priority group for the vaccine. Given that those workers—albeit with full personal protective equipment—are close to infectious people, does the First Minister believe that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has perhaps not got that quite right?

No—I think that the JCVI has got things broadly right, and we accept its recommendations. However, I agree with Joan McAlpine that we have to look at the broad categories to see whether there should be additions based on people’s circumstances.

Earlier this week, I think—on an issue that Joan McAlpine has raised before—we took the decision to add people with mild or moderate learning disabilities to cohort 6. The question is on a similar issue. Obviously, we hugely value the Scottish Ambulance Service’s contribution at the front line of the response to the pandemic, including in Dumfries and Galloway.

Staff at symptomatic test sites are regularly in the vicinity of people who have Covid, so we have taken the decision to include the symptomatic test site staff in the JCVI classification of front-line health and social care workers. I confirm that those workers will shortly receive invitations to be vaccinated.

Quarantine (Offshore Oil and Gas Workers)

Last week, I asked the First Minister to consider whether offshore workers returning from overseas could quarantine at home, in order to avoid spending—as in one case that was reported to me—up to 75 per cent of their salary, and 10 of their 14 days of field break, in a hotel.

This morning, it was announced that certain workers returning from installations in the North Sea will potentially be able to stay in their own homes. Will the First Minister confirm the rules for oil and gas workers who are returning from overseas? Will they still be required to quarantine in a hotel and, if so, is there any prospect of a further review in the near future that would permit self-isolation at home?

We review that on an on-going basis. We will always keep arguments and changing evidence under consideration. On Liam Kerr’s particular question, I will write to him as soon as possible. I want to make sure that I know exactly where we have got to in consideration of oil and gas workers before I confirm it in the chamber, and I will try to get that information to him as quickly as I can.

Easing Covid-19 Restrictions

The Scottish Government’s cautious approach to Covid has been very successful, and I very much welcome it. If we continue to make good progress, as we have been doing, is it possible that restrictions could be eased more quickly?

Yes—of course. We have an obligation under the coronavirus legislation to assess the on-going necessity and proportionality of the restrictions that are in place. We do that routinely, every time that we consider lifting or imposing restrictions. That is encapsulated in the four-harms assessment that I regularly talk about.

We have set out—rightly, I think—a cautious and careful step-by-step approach; however, if the data allows it, we will go more quickly. Nobody wants us to be living with the restrictions for a moment longer than necessary, so let us all keep that downward pressure on the virus while the vaccination programme continues to do its work. I hope very much that we will be out at the other end of this, perhaps sooner than any of us are thinking might be the case right now.

Travel Restrictions

Can the First Minister tell me when I will be able to visit my mother in Cumbria and when she will be allowed to visit me?

I cannot tell Graham Simpson that right now, but I desperately wish that I could. I absolutely understand how desperately difficult it is for people to be unable to see and hug and interact normally with loved ones. I appreciate that the member’s relatives are on the English side of the England-Scotland border, but many people in Scotland are in the same situation; I cannot visit my mum and dad, because they live in a different local authority area.

We all understand the situation and want the restrictions to be lifted as quickly as possible, but if I were to give a date right now, I would not be doing so based on any assessment that I could properly back up. I hope to be in a position to do that soon; I will do it as soon as possible.

Prisons (Face-to-Face Teaching)

The First Minister mentioned earlier the rapid spread of Covid in prisons. What guidance has been issued to lecturing staff on the return to face-to-face teaching in the Scottish Prison Service to ensure their health and safety?

Education provision is essential for rehabilitation. The Scottish Prison Service has a contract with Fife College to provide education services. Those services were suspended following the decision by Fife College to furlough staff from 18 January to 12 February this year, but have now resumed in all establishments except HMP Dumfries and HMP Greenock. All those who work in prisons are required to follow the Scottish Prison Service’s pandemic plan and are subject to health and safety assessment.

More generally, we published temporary lockdown guidance for colleges, universities and student accommodation that applies to on-campus and off-campus activity. The guidance states that institutions should

“ensure that only those staff who are required to support essential activities are requested to attend in person, and for no longer than is necessary.”

Educational Attainment (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Report)

Last week, the Parliament asked the Government to urgently release the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report into Scottish education, which is currently sitting on ministers’ desks. This week’s worrying attainment figures perfectly illustrate why it is vital that Parliament has a chance to scrutinise those findings before dissolution. I simply ask the First Minister whether the report will be released any time soon.

The OECD has not completed its work and has not completed its report. I understand that the OECD will be engaging over the coming period with stakeholders, and will be able to update them on any conclusions that it has reached so far. As I think I said in the chamber last week, the OECD is in charge of the process and timescale of that work. I am pretty sure that if the Government were to seek to intervene in that work, to truncate the timescales or to be seen to dictate to the OECD how it goes about its work, the Conservatives would be among the first to get to their feet to criticise us for doing so.

Scotch Whisky (United States Tariffs)

This month we heard that Scotch whisky exports had decreased by £1 billion in 2020, which was a drop of 23 per cent. That is due partly to the pandemic, but a significant part is due to the 25 per cent United States Government tariff on single malt whisky that continues to damage the industry. Can the First Minister update members, in relation to the United Kingdom budget next week, on what action the Scottish Government is taking to support removal of the tariff and what support it has given to the whisky industry?

That is an important issue. We will continue to fight for a resolution to it for our whisky industry, including through representations that we make in relation to the budget. Not only the whisky industry but other sectors, including cashmere clothing, have suffered since the US tariffs were imposed over a year ago. They are causing significant economic harm that has been estimated at £500 million of losses, and that is growing. The UK Government has so far failed to achieve anything meaningful, despite regular public statements on the issue, but we will continue to press to have the tariffs lifted. The jobs, livelihoods and businesses that are affected by them matter deeply to Scotland and should matter deeply to all of us.

Thank you very much. That concludes First Minister’s question time.

13:29 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—