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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 26, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 26 January 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, Hate Crime, Improving Scotland’s Planning, Children and Social Work Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00789)

Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

The Royal College of Nursing said yesterday that there are not enough nurses to meet Scotland’s needs. Does the First Minister agree with it?

There are more nurses working in our national health service now than there were when this Government took office, by a considerable number. However, as I have said many times before in this chamber, we are committed to working with not just the RCN but the British Medical Association and all other professional groups to ensure that together we are investing in the health service and continuing to make the reforms that enable and equip our health service to meet the challenges of the future.

As Ruth Davidson may be aware, yesterday I visited Napier University to meet student nurses, where we confirmed not only an increase in the number of student nurses but the protection of the bursary—which is not being protected in other parts of the United Kingdom. We also confirmed £3 million of additional support for student nurses who have children or other dependents, to make it easier for them to pursue the fantastic career of nursing.

I am aware of the First Minister’s visit yesterday. What is interesting is that the RCN spoke after that visit. It was specific in what it said, which I will read to the First Minister:

“It is not enough to say that there are more nurses ... The question is whether the number meets the demand.”

The RCN says that it does not.

We should ask ourselves why we are in that situation. Six years ago, as health secretary, the First Minister embarked on two years’ worth of catastrophic cuts to nursing places in Scotland. Nursing leaders warned her that those cuts were “not sustainable” and that they could impact on patient care, and members across the chamber warned her of the short-sightedness of her approach. Now, as predicted, patients are paying the price, as routine operations are cancelled and treatment waiting times grow—all because of staff shortages.

If the First Minister had her time over again, would she still make those cuts to student nursing places?

Let me make a few points about that. I well remember that period: at that time there was the significant challenge of student nurses being unable to get work. There was a problem of nurse unemployment, and we took decisions, which we were right to do, on the basis of the data that was available to us at the time.

The second point that I will make is important. Over the lifetime of this Government, there has been, I think, on average 1,000 more nurses in training each year than was the case in a comparable period under previous Governments.

The number of qualified nurses and midwives in our NHS is up by 5 per cent: there are more than 2,000 additional whole-time equivalent qualified nurses and midwives working in our NHS today. That is a sign of this Government’s commitment to supporting and investing in our NHS.

I have been very clear and will continue to be clear about two things. The first is the need for continued investment. This Government was elected on a commitment to increase investment in the health service over this parliamentary session by £500 million more than inflation, which is a stronger commitment than that of any other party in this Parliament. Secondly, we have to reform our NHS, which is why we have integrated health and social care and why we are committed to getting more money into primary, community and mental health services.

Lastly, I simply say this to Ruth Davidson. Right now, she is arguing for a budget that would give a massive tax cut to the top 10 per cent of income earners in Scotland. I ask her to reflect on what it would mean for the health budget if we were to follow the advice of the Tories in this chamber.

That sounded very much as if the First Minister was asking for praise for trying to mop up a mess that her own cuts had made.

Let us focus on the real-life impact of what has happened. We were contacted this week by a gentleman called Hugh Falconer from Inverurie, who was put on an urgent referral for treatment last year and was told that he would receive surgery within 12 weeks. However, he has now been informed that Aberdeen royal infirmary is no longer able to book his operation and has also stopped referring patients to the Golden Jubilee in Clydebank. He has been told that he will not get the operation that he needs. That is on the back of reports this week that in NHS Grampian there are operating theatres that are lying empty, because hospitals do not have the staff.

I know that the First Minister cannot comment on individual cases, but I remind her of Audit Scotland’s findings last year that after 10 years of this Scottish National Party Government it has failed to do the long-term planning to build up a sustainable workforce in the NHS. Given that the Government has been at this for a decade, can the First Minister give an explanation to people like Mr Falconer who cannot get an operation while operating theatres are lying empty due to a lack of staff?

I mentioned the increase of qualified nurses and midwives in an earlier answer. Under this Government, staffing in total has increased by more than 11,500 whole-time equivalents. That takes staffing in our health service now to a record level; NHS Grampian, for example, is working to increase its theatre staff and its surgical team has just employed seven newly qualified practitioners. That is a sign of our commitment to staffing in our national health service.

However, we are committed to going further. Unlike other parties in the chamber—and certainly unlike the Conservative party—we are committed to further additional investment in our national health service. I will say it again: there will be £500 million pounds over and above inflation over the life of this Parliament.

I simply pose again the question that I posed in my last answer to Ruth Davidson, because it is important. Right now we are in a budget process in which we are committed to record investment in our national health service; instead, Ruth Davidson wants us to cut tax for the top 10 per cent of income earners in Scotland. I think that people have a right to expect some consistency from the Conservatives when they come to this chamber. We are choosing investment in our national health service, while Ruth Davidson thinks that we should choose tax cuts for the wealthiest. She is entitled to prioritise tax cuts for the wealthiest, but she cannot then come to this chamber and ask for even more money for the health service. It is time for Ruth Davidson to choose, because I choose investment in the health service.

We want to grow the tax base to fund our public services. The First Minister is damaging our economy. I simply ask her: if staffing is all fine, why are theatres lying empty and patients not getting the operations that they need?

This week, the First Minister asked what kind of country we wanted to be. I am going to tell her the answer to that: I want a country that is run by a Scottish Government that spends its every waking hour sorting out public services such as the NHS, not obsessing about another referendum. I want a Scottish Government that actually wants to deal with the child obesity crisis that has been exposed today, not one that plots how Brexit can be used to create more division and uncertainty in Scotland. That is the country that I want back. The First Minister says that we must confront independence, but I think that it is probably time for her to confront the failings of 10 years of this incompetent SNP Government and tackle them instead.

That is a bit rich coming from the party that created the Brexit disaster that the rest of us are now dealing with.

At least Ruth Davidson has posed the right question, because the question is about the kind of country that we want to live in. I will therefore go back to the question that I posed to her earlier, because she really cannot have it both ways. We are in a budget process right now, and Ruth Davidson’s priority is, as she has said before in this chamber, to cut taxes for higher-rate taxpayers. She wants to cut taxes for the top 10 per cent of income earners in this country. She is entitled to set that as a priority, but if we do that, the reality is that we will have less money available to invest in our national health service.

Yes, there is a choice: a choice about the kind of country that we want to live in. I choose a country that invests in its health service, not one that cuts taxes for the richest. That is the difference between this Government and the Conservative Opposition.

I will continue to take the action that we have taken over these past 10 years to get more staff into our health service, to get more investment into our health service and to reduce waiting times in our health service. I will continue to ensure that we take that action over this parliamentary session, and I will leave the Tories—the increasingly right-wing Conservative Party—to argue for tax cuts for the richest in our society.


To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-00802)

I have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

A new report that has been published today exposes the horrific gap in Scotland between the richest and the rest. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says that, in Scotland, a child from a poorer background is more likely to suffer from ill health than is a child from a wealthy area. In 2016—after a decade of Scottish National Party Government—a child’s path in life is still determined before they leave the womb, based on how much money their parents have. How does the First Minister think that cutting £327 million from local services will change that?

As Kezia Dugdale knows, that is not the case. The budget that we have proposed puts more than £200 million into local services.

The report that has been published today is important, and contains important messages for the Scottish Government and Governments across the United Kingdom. It is important to note at the outset the report’s view that

“There have been notable improvements in health indicators for children over recent years ... There is much that the Scottish Government is doing to reduce the impact of poverty and inequality and there is much in Scotland that can be celebrated and learned from.”

That said, I also agree with the report that

“more is required and we cannot be complacent”.

We will consider carefully all the recommendations in the report. Many of them are already in train, through initiatives including our child and adolescent mental health and wellbeing strategy, the family nurse partnership approach, investment in health visitors and our forthcoming child poverty bill, which has income-based poverty measures at its heart. There is the maternity and neonatal review that was published last week, action to reduce smoking harm, action to tackle obesity and improve physical health, including support for the daily mile in our schools, and our new mental health strategy. Those are all things that the report says we should do and which we are doing. Of course, as we get new welfare powers, we will, for example, introduce a new best-start grant for the poorest families across the country.

I hope that, on this most important of issues, we have support across the chamber for the measures that we are taking to improve child health and reduce inequality in our society.

It is not just the Labour Party that says that there are £327 million of cuts. The Scottish Parliament information centre, the Fraser of Allander institute, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Trades Union Congress say it, too. Does the First Minister have an “alternative fact” for each and every one of those organisations?

Last night, Parliament refused to provide a majority in favour of the SNP’s budget. I tell the First Minister this: Labour will not stand by while nationalist ministers who repeatedly profess their love for this country cut public services by £327 million, thereby hurting the most vulnerable people in the country.

The shameful gap between the richest and the rest follows young people into adulthood. New figures that were published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that, since the First Minister took office, more people are going to university. That is welcome, but here is the thing: since the First Minister took office, those people are 10 times more likely to be from richer backgrounds than from the poorest communities. Meanwhile, we also learned this week that there are now 150,000 fewer people going to our colleges. The First Minister said that closing the attainment gap is top priority. However, is it not the case that the gap between the richest and the rest is widening on her watch?

Let me try to take the issues one by one. On the budget, I heard Kezia Dugdale mention the Fraser of Allander institute. The comments that it issued immediately after the budget were along the lines that the headline from the budget is the more than £200 million of extra investment in local services—extra investment in our schools and extra investment in social care. Local councils are able to increase council tax to raise revenue. That is something that Labour councils have argued for, even though they promise that they will do the opposite in election after election. It is a strong budget that prioritises services, prioritises fair tax and prioritises boosting our economy.

Kezia Dugdale raised other issues in what I thought was a rather scattergun question—[Interruption.]. This week, we have seen the Government meet its commitment to maintain 116,000 full-time equivalent places in our colleges. That was our manifesto commitment; that is what we are doing. We are also proposing in the budget an increase of £20 million in the college budget and another £20 million, I think, in capital funding, so that we can continue the modernisation of our college estate.

On university access, if we look at the numbers, a record number of people from Scotland from the poorest backgrounds are getting places at Scottish universities through UCAS: the figure is up 3.2 per cent on the previous year and up 26.5 per cent on 2011.

As I was discussing with our new Commissioner for Fair Access when I met him earlier this week, there is much more to do. However, as we continue to take action, we are building on the solid progress that has been made by this Government.

That same Commissioner for Fair Access said this week—this can be read in this morning’s The Times, too—that he does not have enough money to do his job.

The First Minister’s answer can be summed up as “Move along, now—there’s nothing to see here.” Meanwhile, today’s report says, in effect, that hundreds of children in Scotland are dying because they are poor, that young people are unable to access university because of poverty, and that thousands of women who are desperate to make better lives for their families are being squeezed out of college. The First Minister’s response is to play a game of Russian roulette with the constitution and to impose cuts on schools and valued local services. She should stop grandstanding on Europe, end the games on independence and tell us this: what is the Scottish National Party’s top priority? Is it closing the gap between the richest and the rest or is it another divisive independence referendum?

That was very telling, was it not? Interestingly, it is the Conservatives and Labour who want to talk about the constitution today, not me or any SNP members. [Interruption.] Not so long ago, Kezia Dugdale used to say that we should protect our place in Europe. Not so long ago, she stood where she is today demanding that the Scottish Government protect our place in Europe. Today, she is “grandstanding”. Labour is—again—rolling over and doing exactly as it is told by the Conservative Party. It is no wonder that the Scottish Labour Party is in the pathetic state that it is in today—it does not have the courage of its convictions.

Let me turn again to the important issues that Kezia Dugdale raised: child poverty, inequality and getting more children from poorer backgrounds into university. Those problems did not start when the SNP took office, but developed under generations of Labour Government in this country. This Government has started to make progress to tackle the problems and is getting more young people from poorer backgrounds into university and tackling child poverty. We will continue to take the action that Scotland needs, and will leave Labour whining on the sidelines.

Edward Mountain has a constituency question.

Does the management of the Wick community campus project—which cost more than £48 million and was due to open in October 2016, but was only handed over to Highland Council this month—cause the First Minister concern? In the light of the recent well-publicised problems with Edinburgh schools, parents in Caithness are rightly concerned to hear about supporting scaffolding being found behind a completed staircase and hidden behind a plasterboard wall. Will the First Minister join me in calling for an independent inquiry into the project?

That project is a Highland Council project. There have been delays in it, and I know that Highland Council has been engaging with the local community around the reason for those delays. I am happy to look into the particular issue that Edward Mountain has raised, although I think that, in the first instance, it would be a matter for Highland Council. However, I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to look into it and to answer in writing that specific question to him.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-00786)

Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.

Yet again, this week, the Parliament and the Government have been dominated by the matter of independence. It has been like that—[Interruption.] Scottish National Party members laugh, but it is the Government that is obsessed with independence and not with solving the problems in this country. It has been like that for almost every day of every week for the years that the Government has been in power. However, this week, we have heard about college places being cut, economic growth being weak and unemployment levels rising. Threats about independence will not solve those problems; a budget for the economy and for young people will.

Our costed budget proposals are urgent. Yesterday, the First Minister’s Government failed to command a majority for her budget in the Parliament. It is not looking good for next week’s vote. Does she recognise that?

First, I do not know how Willie Rennie has spent his week; I know that mine has been dominated by talking about nurses in our health service, education and getting more students into university.

Let me say this about the constitution: I did not ask for Scotland to be in the position of facing being taken out of the European Union against our will. I remember, in 2014, Willie Rennie, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale looking the Scottish people in the eye and telling them that if they voted no, their place in the European Union would be protected. It was not me, it was not this Government and it was not the people of Scotland who asked to be in this position, so I will apologise to no one for standing up for Scotland’s interests and trying to protect them.

As for the budget, we will continue to talk to other parties if they are willing to talk to us in a constructive manner, which—in spite of the tone of his question today—I know that Willie Rennie has been doing with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution. We will continue to look for compromise and to take appropriate compromises. However, we will also be very clear that, as the largest party in the Parliament by a considerable distance, we have a duty to the people of Scotland to deliver on our manifesto. With that principle very much in mind, we will continue to talk to other parties about budget positions over this week.

The First Minister started her answer to the question by denying being obsessed with independence. She then spent almost all the rest of the answer doing exactly that. [Interruption.] If SNP members will calm down just a bit, I will try to finish my answer.

I am afraid that the First Minister is so focused on her lifelong mission for independence that she is incapable of seeing the problems on her own doorstep. Let us look at the child health report that was published today; the deaths at Polmont prison; and the mental health sickness rates—the list goes on. Each and every one of those represents a human tragedy. Those are the things that need the First Minister’s time, not more scheming about independence. With a week to go until the budget, the clock is ticking. Will she change in time? Will she look at the proposals from other parties seriously, rather than in the way that she is doing just now, or will independence always be first?

I will give Willie Rennie a bit of a tip. If he does not want me to answer on a particular issue, he should not ask me about it. If he asks me a question, I tend to try to answer it. If he had wanted to talk about the child poverty report or deaths at Polmont prison, he should have used all his questions to ask me about those really important issues, because they are the ones that I spend every single day looking at, considering and committing Scottish Government action towards.

Willie Rennie knows that we are carefully and seriously considering his budget proposals, as with any reasonable proposals that are made. I should say that we are not getting any reasonable proposals from the Conservatives or the Labour Party—they have already decided their position on the budget. If reasonable proposals are put forward, we will consider them. We will continue to seek to build compromise and consensus across the chamber, but we will also take seriously our duty to the people of Scotland, as by far the largest party in the Parliament, to deliver on the manifesto on which we were elected.

I will take a supplementary question from Jenny Gilruth.

What is the First Minister’s reaction to the United Kingdom Government’s failure to reconsider the rape clause in its planned reform of tax credits?

I am very disappointed. The rape clause is completely unacceptable. The Scottish Government has made it clear to the UK Government that no process should ever be put in place that involves a woman being forced to disclose whether she has been raped in order to access social security for her child.

The Minister for Social Security wrote to the UK Government in December to state our opposition to the entire policy of limiting child tax credits to a maximum of two children, because that will have a devastating impact on low-income families in Scotland. That is yet another example of how the Conservatives come to this chamber demanding action on such issues while their colleagues at Westminster take action that undermines all our attempts to tackle child poverty and to improve equality in this country.

Is the First Minister aware that Shetland Rape Crisis wants to ensure that women who have been sexually assaulted no longer need to travel to Aberdeen for forensic examination? Does she accept that the prospect of travel by plane or overnight ferry is a barrier to rape survivors contacting the police? Will she therefore ensure that the necessary medical equipment and training for medical staff are now provided so that victims of sexual assault can be examined quickly, securely and—above all—in Lerwick?

I very much agree with the sentiments behind Tavish Scott’s question. We are reviewing the way in which forensic examinations are undertaken for victims of rape to ensure that they are carried out appropriately and sensitively and to bring into force the provision in the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 that, for example, allows a victim to make a request about the gender of the examiner who will examine them.

I fully understand that there are particular issues and challenges when we are dealing with our island communities, but someone who has been the victim of rape in an island community has the same right to access to justice as a victim of rape anywhere else has. We will continue to work with Rape Crisis Scotland and other organisations to make progress on those issues, and I would be more than happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to discuss the issues as they relate to Shetland in more detail with Tavish Scott.

The First Minister will be aware that her Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution is due to visit Aberdeen tomorrow to meet representatives of Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce amid their growing concern about the enormous hikes in business rates. At that meeting, Mr Mackay will be handed a letter that has been signed by every member of Unight, the safety group for Aberdeen city centre, where some venues face a 300 per cent increase in their rates. Unight has warned that the downturn has already forced some businesses into administration and that rates rises will mean that more businesses simply disappear. Will the First Minister give a commitment to Parliament and to north-east businesses that her cabinet secretary will do more than pay lip service to affected businesses and will take expedient and meaningful action to address the issue and seek a solution to mitigate the potentially devastating impact?

The finance secretary will have the discussions in Aberdeen, as Ross Thomson said, but I presume that the member heard the exchanges at First Minister’s question time last week, when I explained that the revaluation process is independent and is not something that the Scottish Government can intervene in. Final valuations will be issued later this year. If any business thinks that the valuation for its property is wrong, it will have until September this year to issue an appeal.

The Scottish Government has the power to act on the reliefs and exemptions for business rates, and we have already taken action to lift 100,000 small business premises out of business rates altogether. We will continue to make sure—including by lowering the poundage rate—that we have a business rates regime that supports economic growth in this country.

United Kingdom Industrial Strategy

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the UK Government’s new industrial strategy. (S5F-00801)

Our ambitions for a sustainable and inclusive economy are underpinned by our economic strategy, our manufacturing action plan and, of course, our willingness to intervene in key strategic sectors, as evidenced by our action to save the steel plants and the Lochaber aluminium plant.

There has been widespread recognition that the United Kingdom has lacked a strategic approach to industrial policy for many years, so the publication of the industrial strategy this week is welcome. That said, there was a disappointing lack of engagement from the UK Government with the Scottish Government during the development of the consultation paper, which covers many devolved policy areas. We have written to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to confirm that we remain ready to work with the UK Government on the matter for the benefit of Scottish businesses and our economy, as well as the wider UK economy.

Does the First Minister agree that it is vital that any industrial strategy that aims to reduce regional disparity must be compatible with key economic development projects, such as the Ayrshire growth deal? Will she advise members of whether an industrial strategy that the Prime Minister claims will reach every corner of the UK, despite the Tories’ abysmal record on regional development, will be more likely to succeed in attracting investment and new talent while increasing innovation, research, development, employment and productivity with Scotland in or out of the single market?

I certainly agree with Kenny Gibson on the Ayrshire growth deal. Any industrial strategy has to be built on recognising and supporting regional economic strengths.

As I said in my initial answer, we have been disappointed by the limited consultation on the industrial strategy so far. In fact, the first time that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy got in touch was on Monday morning, just hours before the document was published. Keith Brown has written to him to request much stronger engagement for the future. That is in the interests of the Scottish Government and the UK Government.

On Kenny Gibson’s final point, there is a danger that the UK Government’s proposed hard Brexit will jeopardise the Scottish economy, our businesses and the jobs that they provide. That is why we continue to call on the UK Government to deliver membership of the single market, with its market of 500 million people, ideally for the UK as a whole, but certainly for Scotland.

Neonatal Services

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the recent claim by Bliss Scotland that three quarters of the country’s neonatal units do not have enough nurses. (S5F-00793)

I welcome the publication of the report by Bliss Scotland and commend it on the important work that it does in supporting parents who have babies in neonatal care. Bliss Scotland played a vital part in our own national review and the recommendations that were published last week.

Boards must, of course, ensure that their neonatal units are appropriately and safely staffed. When there are peaks in demand, boards work together at a regional or national level to ensure that babies receive safe levels of care. The neonatal managed clinical networks have put in place processes to manage and escalate concerns if any units are under particular pressure at any time.

I will quote directly to the First Minister what the chief executive of Bliss Scotland, Caroline Lee-Davey, has said about the reality that faces our service in Scotland. She said:

“neonatal units across Scotland are understaffed and under-resourced, and that is putting babies at risk”.

Bliss Scotland’s report states that just two of the units have any plans to recruit the necessary nurses to meet the bare minimum standards for adequate neonatal service provision. After 10 years of being in charge of our health service, will the First Minister apologise to parents throughout Scotland who see this workforce crisis in our national health service?

It is exactly those challenges, which are not unique to Scotland, that led us to carry out the review. As I said, Bliss Scotland was fully involved in that review. Miles Briggs quoted the chief executive of Bliss Scotland, Caroline Lee-Davey. I will quote her as well. She said that the review sets out a “progressive” and

“ambitious vision for family-centred care”,

which is good news for the future of Scottish neonatal services,

“and it is particularly welcome”

to see the focus on

“mothers and babies being kept together.”

Bliss Scotland is involved in ensuring that we take the action that ensures that there is high-quality neonatal care for babies when and where they need it. We will continue to press on with exactly that action.

I thank Bliss Scotland for a very powerful report.

Last week, the Scottish Government published the national review of maternity and neonatal services. There is a lot in that report that deserves consideration. I urge the First Minister to bring that forward with a statement to the Parliament. A key recommendation in the report is on local services. It says:

“a number of choices ... should be available to all women in Scotland including birth at home, birth in an alongside or freestanding midwifery unit, and hospital birth.”

Given that that recommendation goes against the proposals to close the maternity units at the Vale of Leven hospital and the Inverclyde royal hospital, will the First Minister finally accept the will of the Parliament, call those proposals in, and reject them?

The proposals that Anas Sarwar talks about in Glasgow and Clyde are not yet firm proposals, and we cannot call in something that has not been made in a firm proposal. The reason for that is that we made very clear that we expect health boards to have regard to the maternity and neonatal review recommendations before they take any decisions of that nature. That is exactly what NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is now doing—it is looking at the recommendations and assessing any decisions that it might want to take in the light of those recommendations.

On the review more widely, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has already said that, when we have had the opportunity to fully consider the recommendations—Anas Sarwar is right that there is an awful lot of detail in the report—she will of course come to the Parliament and set out the Government’s thinking on how we take that forward. We are determined to act on the review. The key recommendation in it is that every woman should have continuity of care from a primary midwife who provides the majority of their antenatal, childbirth and post-natal care, as part of a new model of care for maternity services in Scotland. That is presumably why the chief executive of Bliss described it as “progressive” and an

“ambitious vision for family-centred care”,

and we will be proud to get on and make progress on delivering it.

Universities (Funding)

To ask the First Minister what the impact would be on redevelopment plans for universities, following its decision to ask the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council to pay back £50 million. (S5F-00810)

There is no impact on our commitments to colleges and universities. The underspend was primarily due to the difference between academic and financial years, and it was recouped only on the basis of explicit assurances from the Scottish funding council that all financial commitments made to universities and colleges had been met.

Last month at the Education and Skills Committee, John Swinney said that all

“the financial commitments ... to universities and colleges had been met in full”.—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 21 December 2016; c 28.]

However, we have learned this week that projects to develop the Hamilton campus of the University of the West of Scotland and the Crichton campus of Scotland’s Rural College were thrown into jeopardy as a result of that clawback. Why did the First Minister’s deputy fail to mention those two projects, which were shelved as a result of that decision? At a time when universities describe their funding package as “unsustainable”, why did the Scottish Government take that money out of the university system?

I have already explained the reason for the underspend, and I do not think that the member’s characterisation of those capital projects is correct. The Scottish funding council will talk to colleges on an on-going basis about their planned capital investments. For example, the Hamilton campus project is taking its course, and I hope to see it progress. I repeat what I said earlier, which is indeed what the education secretary said to Parliament in committee: there were no changes to the planned allocation of funding to universities or colleges, so no institution has lost out as a result. I hope that that reassurance is welcome to members.

The First Minister has just been made aware of Labour’s shameful attempts to link the UWS Lanarkshire campus, which is currently in Hamilton, to the issue. Although I am saddened that the campus will not continue at the historic current site in the town centre, does the First Minister agree that the solution that UWS has arrived at—to build a brand new state-of-the-art eco-campus at Hamilton technology park—will accommodate more students and potentially more teaching staff and has the potential to bring substantial economic and social benefits to Hamilton? Although the support and advice provided by the Scottish funding council throughout the process have been most welcome, should capital funding be required to complete the project, might the First Minister consider that favourably?

Christina McKelvie has just underlined the point that I made, which is that the Hamilton campus project is in train and discussions are on-going between the Scottish funding council and the university. I am pleased that UWS will be developing the new campus, because it brings the potential benefits that Christina McKelvie highlighted, particularly for young people in her constituency. As I have said before, the funding council has been fully involved to date and I expect that support to continue as the project develops to ensure that it is realised.

The financial report to the Scottish funding council board dated 21 February 2014 confirms that the Scottish Government advised the Scottish funding council not to apply any of the £50 million of funds. However, beyond that point, until 2 October 2014, when the Scottish Government issued further confirmation that it wanted the money back, the Scottish funding council was discussing with individual institutions how to spend the money. Who is responsible for that gross mismanagement?

As I understand it, the Scottish funding council knew throughout that the money was to be returned to the Scottish Government. As I said in my previous answer, the decision to do that did not affect the planned allocation of funding to universities or colleges. The Government will continue to ensure that we give fair funding settlements to our universities and colleges. I said in an earlier answer that the budget that is currently before the Parliament proposes an increase in investment in our colleges of around £20 million in resource funding and another £20 million in capital funding.

Throughout the lifetime of this Government I think that we have invested in the region of half a billion pounds in modernising our college estate. We have brand new college campuses in Glasgow—one of those, the Riverside campus, is in my constituency; I opened the new Ayrshire College campus in Kilmarnock just a matter of weeks ago; and there is a new college campus in Inverness. The evidence speaks for itself on the investment that this Government makes in our colleges and universities sector.

National Health Service (Agency Nurses)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on reports of NHS boards spending over £1,500 on a single agency nurse shift. (S5F-00820)

We are clear with boards that they must make every effort to drive agency spending down, but we recognise that there might be times, due to peaks in demand or staff illness, for example, in highly specialised areas, when agency staff are used to ensure safe care of patients. Agency usage in the national health service in Scotland remains very low. It amounted to 0.4 per cent of our nursing and midwifery capacity in 2015-16. To make further progress, we are working with NHS National Services Scotland on a nationally co-ordinated programme for temporary staffing.

I think that my constituents in Lothian will be shocked by the figure and by the fact that some £4.8 million was spent last year on agency nurses and midwives in NHS Lothian alone. That is four times the amount that was spent in 2011-12, just three years ago. A humungous and increasing amount of money is being spent on supposedly temporary measures, and that money cannot be spent on

“investment in our national health service”—

to use the First Minister’s words. Surely the First Minister, as a former health minister who was responsible for cutting student nurse places, has the humility to accept some personal responsibility for the situation.

As I said, spend on agency staffing in the NHS is very low and agency usage amounted to less than half of 1 per cent of nursing and midwifery capacity in 2015-16. As I said earlier, we have increased the number of qualified nurses and midwives who are working in our national health service. We want reliance on agency staffing to reduce even further, which is why we are committed to investing even further in staffing.

I take personal responsibility for everything that is within the responsibility of the Scottish Government. I have not heard the member ask the Prime Minister or the health secretary south of the border to take responsibility for the report in July this year that an NHS trust paid more than £2,000 for a single agency shift.

We will continue to take the action that ensures that our NHS is properly staffed and delivers the excellent care that it delivers to patients across the country.