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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 26, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 26 November 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Independent Review of Grouse Moor Management, Violence against Women, Tied Pubs (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon, colleagues. We start today’s business with First Minister’s question time. As usual, I ask the First Minister to update us on Covid.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will give a short update on today’s statistics and on one other development.

The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,225, which is 4.7 per cent of all tests reported. There are currently 1,125 people in hospital, which is 31 fewer than yesterday, and there are 90 people in intensive care, which is six more than yesterday. In addition, I am sorry to report that in the past 24 hours a further 51 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive in the previous 28 days. Again, I convey my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one throughout the pandemic.

We will shortly publish the latest estimate of the reproduction number in Scotland. We expect that it will show the R number to be unchanged from last week, which means that it is still slightly below 1. That indicates that the current restrictions are having an effect on curbing transmission of the virus, but we cannot be complacent; we want infection rates to come down further and faster. That is why, with the exception of East Lothian moving from level 3 to level 2, there was no change this week to the current levels of Covid restrictions.

We have, however, confirmed with other Governments across the United Kingdom that there will be a temporary, and very limited, easing of restrictions for a five-day period over Christmas, from 23 December to 27 December inclusive. That is the one development on which I will give a brief update now.

This morning, the Scottish Government published initial guidance about the Christmas period, which is available to view on the Scottish Government website. The guidance reiterates that the safest way for any of us to spend Christmas is with our own household in our own home and our own local area. Just because we are allowing people to meet up in a limited way does not mean that people have to do so, and people should not feel under pressure to do so. The virus spreads when people come together, so we ask everyone to think carefully before using those flexibilities. With the possibility of vaccines now so close, none of us will want to take unnecessary risks, in particular with older or more vulnerable relatives.

We should all consider whether there are alternative ways to have Christmas contact this year with those we love—for example, by meeting outside on a family walk or by using technology. However, we recognise the reality that, at Christmas, some people will feel the need to meet up with others, so the guidance sets out advice on how to do that as safely as possible. However, it is important to stress that the advice, even if it is fully implemented, will not completely eradicate the risk.

In summary, travel restrictions will be lifted across the UK between 23 and 27 December, but only to allow people to travel to join a bubble. There should be no more than three households in a bubble, and in Scotland we ask that that includes no more than one extended household. In general, our advice is to keep any bubble as small as possible and to have no more than eight people over the age of 12 within it.

People—other than students—who share flats should try to stay in the same bubble as each other over Christmas, but if they join different bubbles, our advice is that they should isolate from flatmates for around a week both before and after the Christmas period. Members of a bubble should not change. Someone cannot meet with two households on one day and with a different household on the next day. As well as meeting in each other’s homes, those in bubbles can meet outside or go to a place of worship together, but they must not use hospitality together or go shopping together.

Finally, we advise that, if you want to visit someone in a care home or hospital at Christmas, you should not form a bubble. Meeting other people indoors and then visiting someone in one of those settings increases the chances of transmitting the virus in a care home or hospital.

We have given very careful thought to the guidance, and it has not been easy to come to those conclusions. I know that some people will think that the guidance is too strict, and others that any relaxation is reckless. I understand both points of view. We are trying to balance two conflicting priorities as best we can. We know that some people will come to the view that the right thing for them at Christmas is to spend time indoors with friends and loved ones who might otherwise be isolated and alone, so we want to ensure that clear guidance about boundaries is in place.

We also know that the virus will not take a break over Christmas and that indoor gatherings present a high risk of transmission. In particular, it can be risky to have a gathering of people from different generations. As we know, younger people who have to go out to work and who often live in shared accommodation are more likely to have been exposed to the virus.

I urge everyone to consider carefully what arrangements they make at Christmas and to think about the balance of the risks that are involved. If all of us can find a different way of marking Christmas this year, it will be a safer—albeit tough—alternative for everyone.

For the moment—this is my final point—the best way in which all of us can try to make the Christmas period, and what comes after it, as safe as possible is to get infection rates down as low as we can now. The best way to do that is for all of us to stick to the rules that are currently in force. If you are in any doubt about the rules in your own area, visit the Scottish Government website and use the post code checker.

I finish with a brief reminder of the key rules: please do not visit each other’s homes except for essential purposes; abide by the travel restrictions that are now law; and, finally, remember the facts advice, which is to wear face coverings, avoid crowded places, clean your hands and hard surfaces, keep a 2m distance from people in other households, and self-isolate and get tested immediately if you have any Covid symptoms.

Thank you, First Minister. We turn to the first question. I encourage members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Legal Advice (Publication)

Last year, the First Minister promised the Parliament that she would fully co-operate with the Salmond inquiry. She said:

“The inquiries will be able to request whatever material they want and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2019; c 14.]

Yet, despite losing two votes in Parliament, the Government is refusing to hand over the legal advice that it received on the matter. Key Scottish Government officials who could shed light on the affair are blocked from giving evidence, which led the convener of the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints—a member of the Scottish National Party—to say that its inquiries were being obstructed.

The simple question is: why has the First Minister broken her promise?

That is not the case. The Scottish Government is co-operating and will continue to co-operate with the inquiry. Nobody is being blocked from giving evidence. I have recused myself from the decisions in relation to the issue for the good reason that it is partly my conduct that the inquiry is considering.

In relation to legal advice—an issue in the context of this inquiry—the Deputy First Minister set out clearly to Parliament that ministers have to abide with the terms of the ministerial code. That code says at paragraph 2.38 that ministers “must not divulge” the content of legal advice, while paragraph 2.40 recognises that “in exceptional circumstances”, ministers can consider that the “balance of public interest” favours disclosure.

Ministers, and the Deputy First Minister, are considering whether that test is met. If ministers consider that it is, they must then get the prior consent of law officers. As the Deputy First Minister has set out, the process is under way and he will update Parliament when it has concluded.

The blunt fact is that the only conceivable reason that the First Minister is breaking her promise is that she has something to hide. Let us try the question differently: I will say what the legal advice contained and the First Minister can tell me whether I am wrong.

The advice that the Scottish Government’s senior counsel received warned that the Scottish Government’s handling of the sexual harassment allegations was deeply flawed, and that the judicial review would find in favour of Alex Salmond, as it duly went on to do.

The advice was proffered to the Scottish Government long before it finally collapsed its own case, running up hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of bills in the process, and utterly failing the women who came forward. Can the First Minister tell the public which part of that I got wrong?

As Ruth Davidson knows, were I to go into the detail I would stand here right now and breach the ministerial code. Perhaps Ruth Davidson wants that to be the case, but I will not do that.

I have just narrated the ministerial code and quoted directly from it. The code sets out a process that ministers have to go through with regard to whether legal advice should be divulged. I remind members in the chamber, and people who are watching, that the starting point in the ministerial code is that ministers must not divulge the contents of legal advice unless certain tests are fulfilled. Right now, we are going through the process of considering those tests. That is the right and proper way to do it. Once the process has concluded, the Deputy First Minister will update Parliament about the outcome.

The cynical obfuscation that we have seen with regard to the committee, from the Deputy First Minister in last night’s debate, and from the First Minister here today only serve to show why the advice needs to be brought into the open. It is an argument that the First Minister herself once accepted, and an argument that the whole Parliament has considered, debated and now voted on twice. Twice, the Government has refused. If the Parliament votes for a third time to release the documents, will the First Minister again disrespect the Parliament and the people who voted for us?

It is because of the votes in Parliament that ministers are now undergoing the process that is set down in the ministerial code. If we were to take a decision having not gone through that proper process, ministers would be in breach of the ministerial code and I suspect that members of the Parliament would raise a concern that we were acting outside of the code.

The starting point in the ministerial code is that ministers must not divulge the contents of legal advice. That is not unique to Scotland—there are such provisions governing many different Administrations. The two-stage process is that ministers have to consider whether the “balance of public interest” favours disclosure in a particular case; should they decide that it does, they have to get the “prior consent” of law officers. That process is under way and when it has been concluded the Deputy First Minister will update Parliament. That is the right way to do it.

For my part, I have given my written evidence to the committee. I have not yet been invited to give oral evidence to the committee, but when I am invited to do so, I will, as I am bound to do. The Government and I will co-operate fully with the inquiry, as we have already been doing.

The sheer hypocrisy is overwhelming. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP never tire of lecturing anyone who will listen about the will of Parliament and how it should be respected, except when it does not suit their purpose. She says that her Government will co-operate with the committee; in fact, she obstructs it. She says that all relevant documents will be made available, but she refuses to hand them over. She says repeatedly that the will of Parliament should be respected, but the only one who is disrespecting it is her, by ignoring two votes whereby the majority in the chamber—the chamber that we are sitting in right now—demanded that legal advice to her Government be shown to the country.

During this affair, the First Minister has conveniently forgotten key information such as dates, meetings and conversations. Has she not forgotten something far more fundamental, too?

The Government is acting in line with the ministerial code. Of course, on any occasion on which she or her colleagues believe that the Government, or any minister in the Government, has acted outwith the ministerial code, Ruth Davidson will get up and demand inquiries, investigations and accountability. That is right and proper.

The Government is not ignoring the votes in Parliament. As a result of the votes in Parliament, the Government is going through the process that is required before legal advice can be divulged, which is explicitly set out in the ministerial code. If we did not go through that process, we would be breaching the ministerial code, and I am sure that Ruth Davidson’s position would go full circle and the line of attack on the Government would be something completely different.

The Deputy First Minister has set out the process that the Government is going through, and I have set it out again and quoted from the ministerial code. When the process is concluded, the Deputy First Minister will advise Parliament of the outcome.

Covid-19 (Care Home Deaths)

The Crown Office is now leading operation koper, which is investigating care home deaths in Scotland. As part of the investigation, does the First Minister believe that she and her ministers will need to be interviewed about the decisions that they made? Has she made all evidence and correspondence, without reservation, available to the investigation? Does she consider that, at the very least, there was negligence in assuming that care homes could manage the risk of cross-infection?

What evidence the Crown Office seeks in relation to any investigation that it is involved in, and who it chooses to speak to in relation to any investigation that it is involved in, is a matter for the Crown Office, and it would be completely wrong for me to seek to comment on that in any way that tried to influence the outcome of that or any other investigation.

As we have discussed many times, the Government acted in a way that was intended to protect the population, and those in care homes, as much as possible. I have never suggested that we got nothing wrong in the face of a new virus, the challenges of which have been significant.

We have sought to learn as we have gone along; we have changed policy; we have changed practice; however, all along, our intention and determination have been to take the right decisions to keep the population, and in particular vulnerable groups within the population, as safe as possible at all times. That continues to be my daily focus, as it is of the entire Government.

I do not think that it would prejudice the investigation to give a commitment that all evidence, and all correspondence, without reservation, would be made available.

I turn to the substance of the issue. Back in April, when the scale of the tragedy in our care homes was becoming clearer, we were told that Covid-19 patients would require two negative tests before being transferred to care homes. Last week, when Neil Findlay highlighted examples of patients who had tested positive for Covid being transferred to care homes now, the First Minister stated:

“There is no such policy and there will not be one.”—[Official Report, 19 November 2020; c 22.]

This week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport told us that people will be admitted to care homes following a positive test only if it is in their clinical interests, and following a risk assessment. She also said that that was happening only in

“a very small number of exceptional cases”.—[Official Report, 24 November 2020; c 3.]

I ask the First Minister: how many cases?

I cannot give that information, because those are clinical decisions, taken by clinicians. The policy is very clear. If somebody is in hospital for a Covid-related reason, they require to have two negative tests before being discharged to a care home. If they are in hospital for a non-Covid reason, they still require to have a negative test. That is the policy in any situation.

I have had lengthy discussions with the chief medical officer and clinicians about this. In any policy, there are ethical and clinical reasons why there have to be exceptions in some circumstances. If Richard Leonard does not want to take my word for that, perhaps I can share the words of the president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, Professor Jackie Taylor:

“As doctors we spend much of our time weighing up risks and benefits, and trying to make the best decisions that we can. Policies and guidance are of fundamental importance in clinical practice, but none can cover all eventualities.”

She went on to talk about the fact that the test is invasive and that, in exceptional circumstances, if that test would cause distress to a frail elderly person or if consent could not be obtained, it would be ethically wrong to carry it out.

Those are the kinds of exceptional circumstances that have to be catered for, for any policy, in a clinical setting. It does not change the presumption or the policy, which is as I have set out.

Given that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has described it as “a very small number”, I would have thought that it would make sense for the Government to monitor the number of Covid-positive and untested patients being discharged to care homes, because, during this pandemic, people were discharged untested from hospital into residential care homes. Even now, some who have tested positive for Covid-19 are being discharged into care homes.

There is a police investigation into care home deaths. There is the scandal of “do not resuscitate” notices, the blocking of hospital treatment, shortages of personal protective equipment, and the denial of visiting rights. In addition, once again, we are learning daily of serious and multiple outbreaks of Covid-19 in residential care homes. In the past month, 223 of our oldest and frailest citizens have lost their lives to Covid in care homes.

We welcome yesterday’s announcement that the Government will, at last, introduce testing for care home visitors. In October, however, the Government announced testing for all care home staff, who will now have to wait until March. Six months ago, in May, the Government announced routine and regular testing for all care home staff, but last week one in five were still not being tested, so what confidence can people have—both residents and the families waiting to see their loved ones after months and months of separation—that this time the First Minister will move heaven and earth to honour that promise, and that this time they will not be let down?

There are a number of issues there that all deserve to be addressed individually, and I will try to do so briefly. Before we leave the issue of testing those who are being discharged from hospital to care homes, I repeat that the policy is very clear. As with any policy in a clinical setting, however, it must cater for exceptional circumstances. I will complete the quote that I relied on earlier from Professor Jackie Taylor. When she referred to the policy, she said that

“There are situations ... where this may simply not be possible”

and that

“carrying out this invasive procedure might cause enormous distress and actually be very difficult to conduct. Should this then mean that a patient is denied return to what is essentially their home?”

Another point that flows from that is that, in a care home situation, a 14-day period of isolation must be completed in all circumstances where there is a discharge, whether or not a person has had a Covid test and whether the result is negative or not. Testing is part of the protections that are in place; it is not the only protection that is in place.

In relation to testing more broadly, care home workers are tested weekly, but not all care home workers will be at work every week and they, like everybody else, have to consent to being tested, so there is a system of regular, routine care home worker testing in place and it is working very well. To try to speed up that process, we are transferring the processing of the tests from the Lighthouse laboratory network to the NHS Scotland network, and that work is well under way.

We are now moving to go beyond that to test designated visitors to care homes and, as the health secretary set out, that will begin in the next month, before Christmas and over the Christmas period. Where there is no access to lateral flow testing, designated visitors will be offered access to polymerase chain reaction testing in the weeks over the Christmas period. We are also moving to regularly test care-at-home workers using lateral flow technology.

As the technology develops, we will be able to introduce it, but one of the constraints on lateral flow testing is that it is not yet licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency for unsupervised use; we hope that that will change soon. As that new technology becomes available, we are rolling it out and using testing more and more as part of our overall response to Covid.

Covid-19 Rules (Christmas Relaxation)

I recognise that there were difficult judgments to make about relaxing the Covid rules over the holidays, especially after public expectations had been built up, but within a day of announcing the looser rules, the First Minister appealed to the public not to use them. That is a confusing message.

Let us look at what the public health experts have said. Professor Andrew Hayward, who is a member of the scientific advisory group for emergencies, said that

“It is likely to lead to a third wave of infection, with hospitals being overrun, and more unnecessary deaths.”

Professor Devi Sridhar said that

“we are going to pay for Christmas holidays with probably a January national lockdown.”

This morning, at the COVID-19 Committee, the national clinical director confirmed that no risk assessment has been made of the impact that the relaxation will have, which seems deeply irresponsible. Can the First Minister confirm that that is the case? If it is, how will the Government ensure that our national health service is prepared for the third wave that the new rules risk creating?

I recognise that this a complex situation. Like so many of the decisions that have been taken in relation to Covid in the past few months, it is one that we have agonised over. It is difficult to be absolutely certain what is the right thing to do.

There is a recognition of the reality that, at Christmas, because of the particular circumstances and nature of that time of the year, people worry more about leaving loved ones alone and some people might feel that they cannot stay within the rules as they are just now. Instead of allowing that to happen naturally, in a haphazard way, we decided that it was better to put guidance and boundaries around it, but also to make it clear to people that that carries risk.

Therefore, the default advice and position is that, if people can get through this Christmas without interacting physically, particularly indoors, with members of other households, they should do so. It would be easier for everybody if those decisions were not complicated and were clear cut in one direction or the other.

We try to communicate difficult, nuanced messages as carefully as possible. I would not try to speak for the public health experts, but they will be concerned about any situation in which people come together, as I am. Devi Sridhar is an adviser to the Scottish Government, and I have had interaction with her in the past couple of days; I am not trying to speak for her but I think that she would welcome the overall balance of the Scottish Government’s messaging around the situation.

With regard to risk assessment, we have not modelled the arrangement, but we are looking at whether and how it is possible to do so. There are difficulties in trying to model the arrangement, particularly when we are trying to persuade people to use flexibilities only where necessary. If Patrick Harvie wants me to talk about risk, I can say that I am being very open with people that the arrangement carries risk, which is why, where people can get through Christmas without mixing with others, my advice to them is to do so. If they feel the need to mix with others, they should pay close attention to the advice and try to keep well within it.

I hope that, whatever their view on all these issues, every member in the chamber will help us to communicate that difficult and complex, but really important, message to the public over the next few weeks.

With vaccines perhaps just around the corner, people will wonder why we are choosing to run that risk now. One factor in the resurgence of Covid after the summer was the failure of the Government to plan properly for students arriving on university campuses, yet it appears that the Government has still not prepared a plan for the potential return of students to campus in January. I welcome the fact that students will be tested as they head home, but there are no details yet about testing them again prior to their return to university.

As we have heard, it looks increasingly likely that cases will rise again in January, and adding thousands of students in university halls to that mix would be a recipe for disaster. Can the First Minister confirm exactly what the testing arrangements will be for students when they return in January, and whether she agrees with the National Union of Students Scotland that online learning should be the default, where possible, after Christmas? Will she ensure that those who have to self-isolate receive wraparound support, so that we are not faced with a repeat of the disaster that we witnessed in September?

With regard to self-isolation and wraparound support, universities have a responsibility to ensure that the welfare needs of students in that situation are catered for. In general, they have put in place good arrangements in that regard, and we continue to liaise with them.

With regard to the overall arrangements for students, the priority in the past few weeks has been the arrangements to enable them to return home for the festive period, should they choose to do so. With regard to the testing programme, students will be offered two lateral flow tests before they return home and given guidance and advice on what to do to make that as safe as possible. That testing programme will get under way next week.

We are currently considering and will shortly finalise and announce the arrangements for students’ return after the festive period for the new term. We are looking at testing in that regard and considering whether we will have a delayed or staggered return and whether there will be a period of blended or remote learning before students come back. Those matters are under active consideration, and I hope that we will be able to confirm our conclusions on them very soon.

Care Homes (Visiting)

In the answer to Richard Leonard, I still did not hear why it is taking so long to get families in to see their loved ones in care homes. Almost every family has a story about being denied access. The testing that was announced yesterday is still weeks away and it is only for a handful of homes in some council areas.

Just listen to the testimonies:

“It has been the worst eight months of my life.”

“My Mum was a very social person prior to lockdown, now she looks so sad.”

“I have not seen my husband for almost 8 months.”

I am sorry to read this one out, but we have to fully understand the agony that some people are going through:

“Every conversation mum tells me how she wants to die.”

We know that visits can be done safely and I know that the First Minister cares, but the families just want action. Time is running out. Why do families have to wait for yet more weeks before they have the slender prospect of seeing their loved ones?

Everybody has had a torrid eight months and that is particularly true of people who have loved ones in care homes. Willie Rennie is right to read out those comments. I get emails with comments like those and I make a point of reading as many as I can. I know that it is hard for all of us to listen to those comments, but perhaps that gives members some insight into how hard it is to feel that it is my decisions that are influencing the situation. In some ways, it is trite to say this, and I do not mean it to sound trite, but I take the matter as seriously as it is possible to take anything. Such decisions weigh heavily on me and the choices that we have to make right now are difficult—none of us finds them easy.

We are trying to navigate our way carefully and safely through a really difficult and, for many people, dangerous situation. The reason why people are unable to visit loved ones in care homes as normal is that we are trying to prevent the virus from getting into and transmitting in care homes. I am not seeking to criticise in any way those people who, rightly, ask why we cannot speed up getting visiting in care homes back to normal, but they are often the same people who, rightly—and this is also not a criticism—raise issues about the transmission of Covid in care homes. The decisions are not easy. All I ask people to understand is that, if we thought that it was possible to go more quickly on these things, we would. Nobody wants loved ones to be in that situation.

We have to be careful to get the situation on testing right. The lateral flow test has not been available for long and there are still issues about the constraints on its use. However, we have now set out a clear programme, which we will assess on an on-going basis. The health secretary and I have been discussing this morning how we can speed up the roll-out of lateral flow testing so that it more quickly becomes a routine part of the process for visiting a care home.

Although the use of such testing is being rolled out in the way that the health secretary set out yesterday, given that it will not be available for everybody straight away, she announced plans to make PCR testing available in the three weeks over the festive period, while that work continues. We will continue to try to speed things up as much as possible, but that will be consistent with the safe use of the roll-out of technology that people working in care homes are not yet familiar with and continuing to keep those who are in care homes are safe as possible.

We need to change the situation in relation to visiting care homes. Change has been promised repeatedly, for far too long. Things must change soon.

I am also frustrated by how slow the Government has been on the expansion of testing. In the spring, thousands of new residents were not tested before admission to care homes. At that time, care home staff were also not tested. Students were not tested before they arrived back on campus after the summer and, as we have just discussed, it will be weeks before families will be tested so that they can get access to loved ones in care homes. It is just not good enough. The effects of the Government’s reluctance to embrace testing at the beginning are being felt now.

Thousands of students in Northumberland were tested, Liverpool has offered testing for everyone and Slovakia tested 3 million people. As a result, thousands of people were self-isolating and thus protecting the lives of others. What is the response from the Scottish Government? It tests 12,000 people in a small town in Renfrewshire. When is the Government going to catch up on testing?

It is easy to stand up and say that we should be doing things more quickly. No doubt, if I were in opposition, I would be doing so, too. Willie Rennie used the word “reluctance”—why would I be reluctant to do things that could make a difference in the battle against Covid?

Often, these things are more complex than they appear. We have to roll out technology safely and ensure that people are trained and supported to use it properly. We have to ensure that the use of testing, important though it is, is part of a bigger approach and does not inadvertently undermine some of the other important messages that we are trying to get across. That work is complex and, unfortunately, takes time. I am frequently frustrated that things cannot go more quickly.

However, Willie Rennie is underplaying some of the work that is being done on testing. Next week, we will start a testing programme for all students, and we will continue to look at the role of testing in the student population. He can dismiss a pilot project for mass population testing in Johnstone, but that is very important, because Johnstone is one of the areas with the highest prevalence in the country right now. That project will allow us to learn a lot about the use of such testing to get stubbornly high prevalence rates down.

Yesterday, the health secretary talked about the other work that we are doing with all 11 local authorities in level 4 and the five health boards that cover those areas to roll out a mix of PCR and lateral flow testing across a range of different geographies. We have been looking carefully at the Liverpool pilot, which involves a lot of hard lessons, particularly on how we get a good uptake of testing that is offered in that way.

We will continue to do that work. We are not reluctant to do anything that will help, but we are keen to get it right and do it properly. There are big things at stake—not least human health and life—which is why we take the decisions as seriously as we do.

Scottish National Investment Bank (Launch)

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the launch of the Scottish National Investment Bank. (S5F-04606)

The bank opened for business on Monday. That is, of course, the delivery of a key commitment in the programme for government. The Government will capitalise the bank with an initial £2 billion over 10 years.

It is the first mission-oriented bank in the United Kingdom. The bank will address key societal challenges, help to shape future markets, spark innovation—I hope—and deliver a range of environmental, social and economic returns. Its primary mission—rightly so—will be to support our transition to a net zero carbon economy.

I believe that it is perhaps the most significant economic development in the lifetime of this Parliament, and I think that generations to come will look back and understand its importance.

I thank the First Minister for her reference to decarbonising the economy. What will the Scottish National Investment Bank be doing, as we emerge from the pandemic, to help Scotland to meet its ambitious climate change targets?

The bank’s primary mission will be to support the transition to a net zero economy in response to the climate emergency. As I said, it opened for business this week, so it will increasingly become part of our green recovery from Covid, too. The bank will provide finances for businesses and projects that are working towards achievement of net zero emissions.

Earlier this week, the bank confirmed that its first investment will be in a company called M Squared Lasers Ltd, to advance further its research and development. The investment is key to upscaling the pioneering work that it is doing in quantum innovation, alongside the technologies that it uses and develops to help to monitor and tackle climate change. Consideration of the climate and the climate emergency is very much at the heart of that first investment. I think that we will see that theme developing strongly.

Question 6 is from Michelle Ballantyne, who joins us remotely.

Offensive Weapons

To ask the First Minister for what reason crimes involving offensive weapons reportedly continue to be on the rise, and what action the Scottish Government is taking to tackle this. (S5F-04595)

Although there have been increases in such crime in the past few years, the longer-term trend is positive. Over the past decade, the number of crimes of handling an offensive weapon that have been recorded and the number of emergency hospital admissions due to assault with a sharp object have more than halved.

Over the past decade, we have invested more than £20 million in violence prevention programmes. That includes funding for the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, Medics Against Violence and No Knives Better Lives. Alongside enforcement and prosecution options, we will continue to work with partners to deliver targeted violence prevention programmes in local areas where such crimes occur.

We have seen a downturn in the number of crimes. That has no doubt been brought about partly by the pandemic that we are experiencing.

However, although there has been a decrease in crime in most local authorities, Midlothian is rare, in that there has been a 5 per cent increase, even if we discount crimes that are counted under the new coronavirus legislation. For comparison, I note that there has been a 15 per cent decrease in crime in Glasgow.

At the start of this year, Midlothian Council very nearly lost its police community action teams, which have been doing fantastic work. That was because of lack of funding. Having seen the latest figures, will the First Minister commit to ensuring that there is ring-fenced funding for the Midlothian community action team, to ensure that the numbers do not continue to rise? Can she explain why there are still significant increases in crime in areas including Midlothian and Moray?

I am happy to have the particular local issues looked into; I do not know what the circumstances are in those areas. There are often fluctuations from area to area, and relatively small increases in numbers often result in high percentage increases—which is not to say that the increases are less important because of that.

I will not give the commitment that the member asked for, because deciding where resources are best targeted in order to prevent and investigate crime is an operational matter for the chief constable. It is right and proper that such decisions are for the chief constable.

As with all national figures, there will be local variations within them. However, it is not true to say that crime is down because of the pandemic. Recorded crime in Scotland is at one of its lowest levels since 1974 and has come down by 41 per cent since 2006-07. Therefore, the long-term trend in crime in Scotland is firmly downward. However, that should not give anyone a ground for complacency.

I know that the chief constable continues to take all such matters seriously and makes decisions that ensure that resources are targeted where they are required most.

Covid-19 (Infection Rates in Areas of Greater Poverty and Deprivation)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to address concerns that Covid-19 rates are higher in areas with greater poverty and deprivation. (S5F-04597)

Obviously, I am concerned about the overall impact of Covid. However, I am also concerned about the disproportionate effect that it has on certain groups in the population.

Many experts and researchers are working to get a deeper understanding of the impact of Covid. We already know that the issues behind higher levels of infection in particular ethnic communities and areas of poverty and deprivation include—among other things, no doubt—housing conditions and more people living in smaller accommodation.

We have tried to put equality and social justice at the heart of our response to Covid. We have provided significant financial support, including a communities package to help those who are most in need. We have since increased the funding considerably—in particular by giving additional funding to local authorities in tier 4 areas. We have also taken decisions including the decision to extend provision of free school meals through to the Easter holidays next year.

We will continue to try to understand the reasons for the disproportionate impacts of Covid, and to do everything that we can to address the needs of those who are impacted.

Yesterday’s Daily Record devoted substantial coverage to the scandal of poverty in Scotland. In particular, it highlighted that a quarter of kids will grow up hungry.

In addition, a recent survey found that nearly half of people run out of money before they get to their next pay day. That is a really desperate situation for many people in the country to live in. Glasgow city, where there is a high proportion of Covid hotspots, contains 24.8 per cent of the areas of greatest deprivation in the country. Therefore, there is a clear link between poverty and Covid infection rates. Will the Government commit to ensuring that in any Covid recovery plan specific packages will be targeted at those areas of poverty and deprivation in order to ensure that those communities are not left behind?

We have sought to do that since the start of the pandemic and we have—as I said in my initial answer—made available significant additional funding to help specifically with the community impact. In doing so, we are recognising that areas of pre-existing poverty and deprivation will be particularly hard hit.

We have also made additional money available to local authorities to help with financial insecurity over the winter. We are now considering plans, which we will make known in the weeks to come, on how we can provide particular help over the winter and beyond, as we start to recover from Covid.

On poverty more generally, this Government is determined to eradicate child poverty in particular. We are taking significant steps to do that. We are the only part of the United Kingdom that is introducing the new child payment. The first phase of applications is now open and the first payments will be made early next year. Many poverty campaigners have described it as a “game changer”. It is a signal of our determination to do everything that we can, within the powers that we have, to tackle poverty—child poverty, in particular. We will have more to say about that in the weeks to come.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer missed an opportunity yesterday. He could have chosen to make permanent the uplift to universal credit, which was rightly introduced because of Covid. He did not do that. I hope that this Parliament will unite in calling on him to rethink that decision and to right that wrong.

Covid-19 Outbreaks (Food Processing Plants)

The First Minister will be aware of the worrying outbreak of Covid at the Kepak McIntosh Donald plant in my constituency, where 78 cases have been detected. That is another example of an outbreak in a food processing plant.

Do we now have a better understanding of why those outbreaks occur? What measures can be taken to prevent them?

We have known throughout the pandemic—even before we had experience of it in Scotland—that food processing plants pose some particular risks. There are various reasons for that, which include the very low temperatures in some plants and some of the other working conditions. As that understanding has developed, so too has the response from public health experts.

A lot of work has been done to make sure that the right precautions are taken in food processing plants and that where there are cases those are identified quickly and the right steps are taken. That includes testing the wider workforce to minimise spread within workplaces and, most important, to minimise the risk of an outbreak in a plant such as Kepak moving into wider community transmission. That is an important focus for the public health teams in Grampian.

Without taking away from the seriousness of the situation, I can perhaps say one more positive thing about this. Although we have seen a rise in cases in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire—I have commented on that in the chamber in the past couple of weeks—we can take some assurance from the fact that much of that rise can be attributed to outbreaks such as this one, rather than being indicative of more widespread increases in community transmission. We continue to monitor that carefully, but it is one of the reasons why, notwithstanding those increases, we have not felt it necessary to move Aberdeen or Aberdeenshire up a level.

Flu Vaccine (Supplies)

I have been contacted yet again by pharmacies in the Helensburgh and Lomond areas of my region. They are still unable to access supplies of the flu vaccine, despite assurances from the Scottish Government that they will get those supplies. Does the First Minister agree that that is totally unacceptable? Will she ensure that adequate supplies of the flu vaccine are made available to pharmacies in my West Scotland region?

I am happy to look into that situation. I am not aware of the reasons for that. I can say that the flu vaccination programme is progressing well; significant numbers of people have been vaccinated and that will continue over the rest of this year and into next.

We procure through the United Kingdom-wide procurement system. We have adequate supplies, but we know that uptake in some groups has been higher than usual. That is a good thing and we encourage it.

I will look into the particular issue with pharmacies in the member’s region, and either I or the health secretary will reply to him as soon as possible.

Covid-19 Local Protection Levels (West Dunbartonshire)

West Dunbartonshire was raised to tier 4 last Friday, despite a 35 per cent decrease in the number of positive cases in the preceding week. In the week before 20 November, the drop was a significant 25 per cent, which was much greater than the drop across Scotland as a whole—at the time, that was 9 per cent.

I understand that it is difficult to get the balance right, but this is having a significant impact on my constituents’ economic and mental wellbeing. Will the First Minister review the position in West Dunbartonshire? People are unclear why they are in tier 4 when there are local authority areas with a higher number of positive cases that are currently in tier 3.

Those are perfectly legitimate questions. As I have tried—and will continue to try—to explain to the best of my ability, when we make these decisions, we take account of the indicators that we set out publicly, which are about case numbers, test positivity and pressure on hospital and intensive care unit services. We also have to make judgments about the direction of travel: whether the position in a particular area is coming down fast enough and whether it remains significantly above the national average. It was a judgment about that balance of factors that led to the area that Jackie Baillie’s constituency is in being put into level 4.

We have said that the level 4 restrictions will end on 11 December, and that remains the case. Between now and then, we will be looking at the particular circumstances in West Dunbartonshire. My apologies; I do not have the West Dunbartonshire figures in front of me, but I will get the most up-to-date figures later today. Certainly, until very recently, they were above the national average.

We will look at the direction of travel as we make decisions about what level each area will go into after 11 December. That is a process of consideration not just for West Dunbartonshire but for all those 11 council areas; that will be under way for the next couple of weeks.

Covid-19 Testing (Learning Disabled People)

We learned yesterday that care workers of learning disabled people will not be tested until next year—perhaps not until spring, in some cases—even in regulated accommodation that is similar to care homes, whereas groups such as students and family visitors will be tested in December.

The Scottish Government’s guidance for testing says that vulnerable groups will be prioritised, and we know from Public Health England’s recent data that learning disabled people’s deaths from Covid are six times higher than those of the general population; in younger groups, they rise to 30 times higher. Of course, it is more difficult for this group to take additional measures to protect themselves, such as social distancing and face mask wearing.

Can the First Minister explain the clinical reasons why the protection of this vulnerable group does not appear to be a priority in the testing roll-out?

It is not that it is not a priority. There are different practical challenges with different groups that we are expanding testing to, and they have to be properly considered and thought through. The roll-out to the group that the member is asking about begins in January and it will be completed as quickly as possible. The practical challenges that we need to look at include the settings that people are in, who will be administering tests and, obviously, the availability of tests. We will continue to do that as quickly as possible, and the health secretary will keep members updated as appropriate.


NFU Scotland has raised serious concerns regarding fly-tipping in rural communities during the pandemic, not just in my region but across the length and breadth of the country. It has received widespread reports of the dumping of commercial, human and hazardous materials, the removal of which requires specialist treatment.

One of the major areas of concern is that there seems to be a fragmented approach across local authorities, with no universal mechanism for the recording and reporting of fly-tipping. Will the First Minister join me and NFUS in calling for the creation of a national database of fly-tipping as a matter of urgency?

We will give that consideration, as we will any reasonable suggestions that are made by organisations such as NFUS. Fly-tipping is a problem, and the Scottish Government has done and continues to do a range of work to try to combat it. I will ask the environment secretary to write to the member to recap that work and give feedback on consideration of the policy suggestion that has been made.

I know that NFUS, like others, is concerned about fly-tipping. Organisations such as NFUS are also very concerned—perhaps even more concerned—about Brexit and the looming end of the transition period. I will consider that proposal, and I hope that the Conservatives will continue to press the United Kingdom Government to make sure that we do not leave our farmers, fishermen and others at the mercy of a no-deal or flimsy-deal Brexit at the end of the year.

Covid-19 Tests (University Students)

I have received an email from a constituent who is studying at the University of Edinburgh. Earlier this week, they spent seven hours trying to access the online system for booking the Covid test that they require in order to return home safely this Christmas. When they finally managed to log on, the only dates that were available for the two required tests were 24 hours apart, which is well short of the five days that are required.

The First Minister will surely agree that, given the issues at the start of the university term, we can ill afford such issues with testing at the end of term. Does she have confidence in the system that is in place for student testing? Will she urgently investigate the issues regarding the booking systems and whether all students have been able to get the two tests with sufficient gap between them?

I would be grateful if Daniel Johnson could send me the email from his constituent, because I am not entirely clear whether he is talking about the portal system, which is the United Kingdom-wide booking system, which is used for the polymerase chain reaction test. That system works well, although, obviously, there will be some occasions when an individual finds that it takes time to get a test, particularly if they are ordering a home test. That system is governed overall by the UK Government, and we work constructively with it on that.

If I am wrong about that, and Daniel Johnson is highlighting a particular issue in accessing the university’s lateral flow tests, I am happy to look into that. I would like to understand which system is being talked about, so that I can take that up and come back with a full and proper response.

Burntisland Fabrications Ltd (Supply Chain)

On the important issue of BiFab, aside from the failure of the majority shareholder, JV Driver, to step up to the plate with a financial guarantee, a key issue has been, of course, the lack of conditionality in the United Kingdom Government-controlled contracts for difference. Can the First Minister confirm that a key priority for the joint working group that is to be set up will be to remove the barrier that the UK Government has inflicted on the Scottish domestic supply chain?

Annabelle Ewing has raised a very important question. Before I address that, I make it clear that, just as we have done for the past few years, the Scottish Government will continue to do everything that we possibly can to support BiFab within the legal constraints in which we operate.

Anyone who cares about companies such as BiFab should recognise the importance of this point. For some time, we have called on the UK Government—members will have heard me do so in the chamber many times before—to make greater use of supply chain plans as part of the contracts for difference process and to remove the loophole so that we can ensure greater use of domestic renewable energy supply chains. We welcome the UK Government’s announcement that it will shortly consult on the supply chain plan, and we hope that that shift will allow our domestic supply chain to benefit more from developments around our natural energy resources.

Both Governments are working to finalise and agree the working group’s terms of reference, and I hope that the group will make a significant contribution to strengthening renewables in Scotland.

Local Planning Decisions (Appeals)

Last year, four in 10 council planning decisions that were appealed to Scottish National Party ministers were overturned, meaning that hundreds of developments went ahead against the wishes of democratically elected local representatives. Will the First Minister support Scottish Conservative proposals to restore local decision making and stop the central Government in Edinburgh undermining local communities?

I would be really cautious about giving a commitment to back the Tories on planning policy, to be perfectly honest.

There is a statutory process for planning permissions. I do not have the figures in front of me today, but a relatively small percentage of planning applications come to the Scottish ministers and, of that figure, a relatively small percentage result in a different decision from the one that was originally taken. There is a rigorous process that must be gone through. That includes real independence in the approach that ministers take—and that is right and proper.

However, I know from my constituency perspective as well as from the perspective of a minister that, with most planning applications, whatever the outcome, some people will think that it is the wrong decision and some people will think that it is the right decision. That is why it is really important that we have the rigorous process that we have in place right now.

Covid-19 Travel Restrictions (Young People)

I have received an email from a family who live in East Ayrshire, on the boundary with South Ayrshire. Although the kids can travel to their nearest school in South Ayrshire each day, they can no longer take part in their twice-weekly organised outdoor activity with kids from the same school, because that activity takes place in South Ayrshire, half a mile from the family home. That is despite the fact that both East and South Ayrshire currently operate under the same level of restriction and the fact that, under that restriction, organised outdoor activity is, rightly, allowed.

My constituents have asked me why their kids can take part in organised outdoor activity but are prevented from doing so because the Government’s travel restriction regulations would make it a criminal offence for them to travel to take part in such sport, that not being classed as a reasonable excuse for travelling. I do not know the answer to that question. Can the First Minister help me to tell my constituents what it is?

Yes, I can. There are two reasons, which are interrelated and interconnected.

The first is that, in a global pandemic, we can enable only so much human interaction to happen without the virus running out of control. Therefore, we have to limit overall human interaction and make choices about activities that can and cannot go ahead. I think that most people would recognise that having young people in school is a priority. That does not mean that other activities that young people want to do are not important, but in such a pandemic we cannot do everything without allowing the virus to run out of control.

The second, and related, reason is that, when we are trying to control the virus and limit its spread from one part of the country to another, we have to try to prevent people from travelling between those areas. These are unpalatable choices, but they are essential and necessary.

I have to say that I have tried really hard to understand Scottish Labour members’ position on travel restrictions, but I just cannot do so. Their counterparts in Wales know what the sensible approach is right now. There were internal travel restrictions there at a much earlier stage in the pandemic than was the case in Scotland, and, of course, there are still travel restrictions on people going in and out of Wales.

I know that the current situation is hard for constituents the length and breadth of the country, but so, too, is having a loved one with Covid, who is perhaps in hospital, or having to watch them die with the virus. We are all having to do difficult things right now, but they are all done with the intention of keeping this dangerous virus under control.

United Kingdom Government Fiscal Policy

Yesterday, the Westminster Government announced that it proposes to freeze public sector pay for many workers on the front line and to scrap the proposed increase in the national minimum wage. It has also failed to extend the £20 uplift to universal credit and working tax credit beyond next year. Does the First Minister agree that its approach will leave many Scottish families struggling to feed and clothe their children?

Yes, I do. I know how difficult it is for the UK Government—as it is for all Governments—to balance financial and fiscal challenges right now. I welcome many of the decisions that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken during the Covid pandemic, and I have been open about that.

However, as we come out of the pandemic—as we hope that we now are—and start to rebuild, we cannot have the natural Tory instinct of allowing that financial burden to fall on those who can least afford it. Many aspects of the chancellor’s statement yesterday seemed to herald a new age of austerity for public sector workers, those on low incomes and those already living in poverty. The Scottish Parliament must stand up firmly against that approach and on the side of those who need us most.

Covid-19 (Tenant Evictions)

I have a constituent who, along with her disabled son, will be ejected from her home by sheriff officers next Wednesday. The local council is putting suitable facilities in place in a new home, but the Covid crisis has delayed matters. If my constituent’s case were happening in England, her ejection would be unlawful under regulations made on 13 November, under which no officer of a court can evict a person from their home between 17 November and 11 January. I do not expect the First Minister to respond to the particular case that I have mentioned, but I would like to know whether she will introduce similar regulations for Scotland.

I am happy to look into that. There are legal protections in place on such matters, and we have taken a number of other steps to provide help for people who are struggling to pay rent during the pandemic. Updated guidance has already been issued to members of the Society of Messengers-at-Arms and Sheriff Officers, advising that evictions should not be carried out in areas in levels 3 or 4. However, if there is more that we can reasonably do—as Andy Wightman knows, because we have previously discussed it—I will be happy to look at the issue. I will also look in more detail at the particular case that he raised.

Christmas Travel (Island Communities)

The First Minister will be aware that arrangements for people to be with family at Christmas take account of the additional travel time that may be required by those needing to get to and from Northern Ireland. She will also know that no such arrangements have been put in place for our island communities, even though travel times are often longer and options more limited than they are in relation to Northern Ireland.

Does the First Minister accept that that risks creating serious bottlenecks on ferries and flights over the Christmas period? Does she further accept that it means that islanders could have less time to spend with family members? Will she therefore urgently review the proposed rules to ensure that the needs of our island communities are properly taken into account?

I know, because I had a discussion with colleagues this morning about it, that we are going to publish a slight update—if we have not done so already—to the guidance that was published this morning, to take account of and refer to the timing of overnight ferries from Shetland over that period and to make sure that that factor is catered for. We will also look as reasonably as we can at any other exceptional circumstances. There is, of course, a general exemption for exceptional circumstances in which people are travelling, but we will try to look as favourably as we can at all particular circumstances.

However, generally, I do not want people to lose sight of the overall default advice. People should think very carefully about travelling over Christmas and about coming together with other households. In our islands, the prevalence of Covid is very low and we hope to see even more normality introduced there over the next period, so people should perhaps be particularly careful about taking the virus to the islands over the festive period. I recognise the difficulties and we will try to be as flexible as we can be, but let us not lose sight of that overall public health advice.

Capita Job Losses (Skypark)

First Minister, Three UK is not renewing its contract with Capita at Skypark, in my constituency. That will result in 500 jobs lost over the next couple of months. Will the Scottish Government commit to exploring every avenue to save jobs at Skypark, and will it give an assurance that it will provide substantial and tangible support to employees who are affected by the decision?

I was concerned to learn that Capita has entered into consultation with its customer service staff who support the Three UK contract. I know that this will be a worrying time for those workers, particularly given the difficult time that the whole country is going through.

Sandra White has already spoken to the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills about her concerns, and he told her that he has spoken to Capita, to encourage it to fully explore redeployment opportunities along with all possible options to mitigate any potential job losses. Scottish Enterprise is also engaging with Capita and is offering its support now and through the consultation period.

If this does, sadly, result in job losses, the Government will provide support to all affected employees through our initiative for responding to redundancy situations: the partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—initiative, which is well known to members.

We will do everything that we can to support people in what I know is a very difficult set of circumstances.

Thank you, colleagues. That concludes First Minister’s question time.

13:28 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—