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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 28, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 28 February 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Hearing Day and Hearing Awareness Week 2019, European Union Exit (Impact of United Kingdom Immigration Policy), Devolved Benefits (Delivery), Point of Order, Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Standards Commission for Scotland (Appointment of Member), Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

National Health Service (Treatment Time Guarantee)

How would the First Minister characterise her legal guarantee to treat people within 12 weeks being missed in a quarter of all cases?

As Jackson Carlaw is well aware—he certainly should be aware of it—this Government is investing record sums in the national health service. We also see record numbers of people working in the national health service, but demand for it is rising, which results in pressure on waiting times. That is exactly why we have in place the waiting times improvement plan, which is backed by £850 million of dedicated resources, the first resources of which have already been allocated by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport.

I regret the fact that some people are not being treated within the treatment time guarantee, but I remind Jackson Carlaw that since that guarantee was introduced, more than 1.7 million patients have received their treatment within the required timeframe—patients who, had that guarantee not been in place, perhaps would not have been treated within the 12-week timeframe.

Frankly, the First Minister missing her legal guarantee in one in every four cases is surely an unqualified failure. The First Minister talks about the efforts that are being made now, but let us look at her record on reducing waiting times.

For example, last year, the previous health secretary launched a big new campaign to recruit much-needed radiologists into Scotland, who are vital if we are to reduce waiting times. We have now learned that the campaign resulted in the recruitment of just five members of staff. It is no wonder that we saw—in just the past year—a 38 per cent rise in the number of people who waited for more than six weeks for diagnostic tests. Why should we have any faith in this Government’s promises now, when we know that previous, much-hyped promises have flopped?

As I hope that Jackson Carlaw is aware, radiology is currently experiencing acute shortages worldwide, not just in Scotland. That is why we have increased training places in Scotland and we are acting to improve recruitment.

It is also worth noting that since this Government took office, the number of consultant radiologists has increased by 45.4 per cent. By 2022, we will have increased specialty training places in radiology by approximately 75 per cent from 2014 levels. The international radiology recruitment campaign, which was launched in 2018, generated interest from clinicians around the globe, and health boards are now finalising a number of offers of appointment. I hope that Jackson Carlaw will have the good grace to welcome some of that.

Before I finish this answer, I will draw the attention of the chamber—and Jackson Carlaw in particular—to a letter in today’s The Times that is signed by 24 medical professionals from around Scotland. I will quote it to Jackson Carlaw.

“As doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals in Scotland, we see the damage that Brexit is already inflicting on the NHS ... The loss of thousands of European staff has led to crippling staff shortages.”

I take my responsibilities seriously. When will the Tories take responsibility for the damage that they are doing to our national health service?

The acute shortage of radiologists was identified in 2014. By the First Minister’s logic, it is clear that the uncertainty caused by possible Scottish independence was responsible for that.

The issue is not just about the wait to get into hospital; it is about the safety and cleanliness of the hospitals in which doctors and nurses have to work and in which patients are treated. As the health secretary said earlier this week,

“public confidence has been shaken”—[Official Report, 26 February 2019; c 13.]

by the infection outbreaks that we have seen reported in recent weeks.

How many safety and cleanliness inspections have taken place in Scotland’s hospitals in each of the past five years?

I do not have that precise information to hand, but I will ensure that it is provided to Jackson Carlaw. What I do know is that a trend started when I was health secretary—before I speak about that, I say that I am not in any way underplaying the recent experiences at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital—and infection rates in our hospitals have reduced dramatically. For some infections, the reductions have been more than 80 per cent. That is down to the dedicated work that is done by cleaners and others in our hospitals, and I hope that Jackson Carlaw recognises that. We continue to take these responsibilities seriously.

I will go back to my earlier point, which Jackson Carlaw referred to as being my “logic”. The words that I quoted were not my words or the health secretary’s words; they were the words of health professionals across Scotland. I will repeat them and I ask Jackson Carlaw to respond to them.

“The loss of thousands of European staff has led to crippling staff shortages.”

The UK Government’s

“Brexit deal would be terrible for Britain and for patients’ health ... We cannot allow Brexit to cause more damage than it already has.”

That is why they urge MPs to stop this harmful Brexit.

Those are the words of health professionals. Will Jackson Carlaw respect them?

Presiding Officer, if you are keen to establish an Opposition leader’s question time each week for 45 minutes, I will be very happy to answer questions then. However, this is First Minister’s question time, and what we have all become used to is Nicola Sturgeon referring back to her ever-bigger book of excuses, which, like Pinocchio’s nose, has grown much bigger since the start of this year.

The figures that I asked for were given in an answer to a parliamentary question last night, so let me enlighten the First Minister: from a high of 38 safety and cleanliness inspections in 2014-15, there were just 19 in 2017-18 and only 14 over the past 11 months—fewer than half the number of just five years ago. Whatever excuses are given by the First Minister, I think that most people will conclude that that is also a failure and it is unacceptable. I suggest that when this Government legislates to set a guarantee, it meets it. When people lack confidence in the cleanliness of hospitals, the Scottish Government’s record is to cut the number of inspections by half. Does the First Minister agree?

Jackson Carlaw’s response that he does not really fancy addressing the point will come as no comfort to health professionals the length and breadth of this country who are worried about Brexit.

I suggest that Jackson Carlaw does a bit more delving into how the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate does its work. It decides on the inspections that it carries out and it decides on their schedule. Its inspections are risk based, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, and—this is a point that perhaps Jackson Carlaw does not know—in addition to cleanliness inspections, the HEI now does thematic inspections that look at the broader patient experience and include cleanliness and infection rates in hospitals. Perhaps a bit more research on Jackson Carlaw’s part would pay dividends.

I come back to the point of the experiences that Jackson Carlaw and I have discussed in recent weeks about infection outbreaks at the Queen Elizabeth and the Glasgow royal infirmary. They are serious and are taken seriously, but the overall trend in infection rates in Scotland’s hospitals is downwards. In the early days of my time as health secretary, Clostridium difficile and MRSA were big concerns in our hospitals, and there have been 80-plus per cent reductions in the rates of those infections. For Jackson Carlaw not to recognise that does not do a disservice to me or the health secretary but does an enormous disservice to staff right across our national health service.

Caledonian Railway Works (Consultation Deadline)

The 45-day consultation to decide the future of the Caledonian Railway works in Glasgow ends in just four days’ time. Time is running out to save this critical part of Scotland’s railway infrastructure and to save 200 highly skilled jobs. Will the First Minister update the chamber on the steps that her Government has taken to safeguard those jobs and to retain the site?

As Richard Leonard knows, the minister who is involved has taken a very close interest in the matter. He has spoken to unions and the company, and he has encouraged the company to extend the consultation in order to allow other options to be properly investigated—including options that would involve Transport Scotland. The consultation has not yet closed, and we will continue to apply as much pressure on the company as we possibly can, because the jobs are important and I think that the way that the workforce is being treated is unacceptable.

Presiding Officer,

“It’s a good decision and I’m glad we’ve reached this outcome, because it allows us to protect not just the asset of Prestwick Airport but the jobs that directly and indirectly depend on it.”

That is what Nicola Sturgeon said after she took Prestwick airport into public ownership in 2013. If it was good enough for an airport then, why is it not good enough for our railways now?

Richard Leonard should, I hope, understand and appreciate that, before we can take a decision such as the one that we took around Prestwick airport—which I think was a good decision at the time—we have to undertake due diligence and look at all the different aspects. That is why we have encouraged Gemini Rail Services to extend the consultation, because the current consultation period is too short to allow any serious exploration of alternative options. I hope that Richard Leonard will join me, even at this late stage, in asking the company to extend that consultation, because we are prepared to look at all options and we will continue to do so. As Richard Leonard has just demonstrated, we have a good interventionist record when it comes to saving industrial jobs across the country.

The consultation ends in just four days’ time. I wrote to the First Minister almost four weeks ago, stressing the urgency of the situation, but she has said nothing in response. The workers and their unions are awaiting a proper response as well. Out there, in the real world, people’s livelihoods and the national transport asset are at stake. Will the First Minister take decisive action? Will she step in and bring the Caledonian Railway works back into public ownership?

Far from our having said nothing, Michael Matheson has led two parliamentary debates on the matter, there has been ministerial discussion and engagement, and we will continue to look at and consider all options.

I say to Richard Leonard, in all seriousness, that the consultation timescale is not in my gift. It is not me who has set it, and the Government has not set it. We continue to call on the company to extend that timescale. It is worth noting that the railway works has an order book for ScotRail train refurbishment that runs until July, so there is absolutely no need to proceed as quickly as the company is doing.

Scottish Enterprise is working towards having a rail engineering hub at one or more locations in Scotland where heavy maintenance or innovation can take place. That work is under way, and Scottish Enterprise has had discussions with the site owner about how the railway works could fit into that strategic hub idea.

We will continue to look positively at all options, but I ask Richard Leonard to join me in calling on the company to extend the consultation period. I cannot remember whether he has one more question, but, if he has, perhaps he could take the opportunity to make that call now. As we did at Prestwick, and as we have done in a range of other cases, we will always act in the best interests of workers and jobs across the country.

There are a number of constituency supplementary questions, the first of which is from Clare Adamson.

Kinship Carers (Support)

I want to raise the constituency case of a young woman whom I met recently. In 2015, at the age of 17 and after the tragic death of her mother, my constituent took on the responsibility for caring for two of her younger siblings. North Lanarkshire Council’s social work department was in full knowledge of my constituent’s circumstances and visited her home to assess its suitability prior to her siblings moving in. However, since 2015, and despite verbally seeking support on a number of occasions, my constituent has never been able to access additional financial support as a kinship carer. Does the First Minister agree that the case raises serious concerns that vulnerable families may be failing to access the support to which they are entitled?

I thank Clare Adamson for raising that tragic case. It is, indeed, a sad and tragic situation for all three siblings, and I know that everyone here will recognise the circumstances that Clare Adamson has shared with us.

I know, from speaking to kinship carer families, about the impact that bereavement has on children and carers and that it is really important that everyone involved is able to access the support that they are entitled to. We would expect a local authority to carefully assess the needs of the carer and the children in such a situation and to consider what support—financial or otherwise—is appropriate. The Scottish Government funds Citizens Advice Scotland to provide a specialised advice service, including information on financial and legal matters, and we continue to work with social security colleagues, including those at Westminster, to ensure that kinship carers can access a range of benefits to alleviate the additional costs of caring.

I would be happy to ask the minister to speak with Clare Adamson to see whether the Scottish Government can offer any further assistance and help in that particularly tragic case.

NHS Grampian

What is the Scottish Government’s response to recent figures that show that more than 9,000 people waited beyond the 12-week target for in-patient or day-case admission in NHS Grampian? Does the First Minister recognise that that figure has been rising every year, that it is now eight times higher than it was in 2013, and that NHS Grampian is the worst-funded health board in Scotland, with a shortfall of £239 million over the past decade, based on the Scottish Government’s own official figures? Does the First Minister agree that the people of the north-east deserve much better?

As I said in response to Jackson Carlaw’s question, right now waiting times are not as good as we want them to be, nor are they as good as patients deserve them to be. That is why we have the waiting times improvement plan, which is backed by the £850 million of dedicated resources that I have spoken about. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will continue to work with health boards to ensure that we see the improvements that need to be made.

We know that record resources are going into the health service and all health boards, and that record numbers of people are working in our health service, but rising demand is creating pressure, so we must respond to that.

Finally, as I have frequently done in the chamber, I simply remind the Tories that had we followed their advice in budget decisions this year and last year, we would right now be grappling with a situation in which we would have £550 million less to invest in our public services—our national health service, in particular. I know that the Tories do not like to hear that, but it is a fact, and it is about time that they started to face up to it.

Burntisland Fabrications Ltd

This week, the awarding of contracts for the Moray East and Kincardine offshore wind projects was announced. So far, Burntisland Fabrications has received no work. It is over a year since its yards, which were on the brink of closure, were purchased by D F Barnes with support from the Scottish Government. There has been no employment at the Fife yards and there have been no contracts since then.

The GMB and Unite unions are warning that the Fife yards could end up with nothing, as we see Scottish renewables projects being awarded to overseas companies and the Scottish supply chain being squeezed out. Will the First Minister respond on that situation and give an update on expectations for the future of the Fife yards?

I thank Claire Baker for raising that issue, which is extremely important and very close to my heart.

It is, of course, important to note that BiFab has secured a contract to fabricate 150 pin piles for the Moray East project. That fabrication will be done at its Arnish yard and will provide work for 90 people. It will start in March.

Beyond that, we continue to work extremely hard; indeed, I note that the unions have been clear that both D F Barnes and the Scottish Government are fighting hard to secure contracts. We will continue to do that. I share the frustration of the unions and the frustration that Claire Baker has just articulated. We will discuss the unions concerns with them. Pat Rafferty and Gary Smith have talked about BiFab competing against

“established supply chains of preference”.

There are concerns that BiFab is not competing on a level playing field, so it is important that the concerns be addressed.

In the short term, we will continue to work as hard as we can to secure work for BiFab. We have supported it throughout. In the medium to long term, we will work with the trade unions and others in order to try to address underlying issues that might be getting in the way of a successful operation such as BiFab winning the contracts.

General Practitioner Shortage (Upper Annandale)

Does the First Minister agree that it is totally unacceptable for 1,000 patients to be transferred to a different general practice in another town because of GP shortages? Following the closure of another GP practice, will the Scottish Government commit to reviewing GP provision in upper Annandale?

I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to look into that local issue and to respond to Oliver Mundell.

Health boards have a duty to ensure that there is GP provision for all the patients whom they serve. Oliver Mundell will be aware that the Scottish Government is taking a range of actions—from increasing the number of places at medical schools, to increasing GP training places, to incentive schemes for increasing the GP workforce. We will continue to invest in those initiatives in order to address the shortages.

Climate Change (Transport Emissions)

This week, the Government published its transport figures, and they make for grim reading. We are all aware of the urgency of the environmental crisis and the impatience that people are expressing—from people who are on school strikes to climate scientists. Nobody has seen the February heatwave without recognising that it is not normal. We need to change the way we live, and we need to do so urgently.

Transport is one of the areas in which the Scottish Government has been repeatedly told that it needs to do better, yet we are seeing more road traffic, more air traffic, less bike use and less public transport use. Transport emissions have gone up by 5 per cent in the past five years, when they should have been going down. What is the Government getting wrong on transport and what is it going to change? (S5F-03087)

I agree with the broad thrust of Patrick Harvie’s question. I will, in a second, come on to what I agree with.

First, there are a couple of points to note to provide better context. There have been increases in traffic volumes: I will return to that. It is worth noting, however, that greenhouse gas emissions from road transport are lower now than they were in 2007. Although there has been an increase in aviation emissions, they currently account for less than 5 per cent of total Scottish emissions, and we are one of the few countries in the world that include aviation emissions in our calculation of overall climate change targets.

Generally, I agree that it is important to encourage people to consider using different modes of transport, which is good not just for the climate but for public health. That is why we invest more than £1 billion per year in public and sustainable transport for encouraging people on to public transport and to use active travel. That includes £250 million per year to support our bus industry. We will continue to make such interventions and we will look to make improvements where we can. The Transport (Scotland) Bill aims to give local transport authorities more flexibility in relation to bus services.

Finally, the situation should make all parties in the chamber think long and hard about the kind of knee-jerk opposition that we see every time the Government so much as contemplates anything that is designed to encourage people out of their cars. The transport statistics should be a wake-up call to all of us.

The First Minister says that the Government is “encouraging” public transport use, but we are still seeing a shift away from public transport use towards car use. It is not working.

The First Minister also says that we are counting our aviation emissions. We are—but we are not cutting them. Counting them is of use only if it helps us to cut them.

The reality is that transport emissions as a whole have not been going down, but have been going up. There has been no reduction at all since the long-term 30-year trajectory was established, for which we were supposed to be cutting emissions across the economy. We are still shifting away from public transport and active transport towards car use, when we should be going the other way. When will the Government address the fundamental lack of any attempt at traffic-demand reduction in its transport and climate change plans?

We have doubled our funding for active travel—we took it from £40 million to £80 million per year last year, and we are maintaining it this year. We also support low-emission zones and—having worked with the Greens—we propose extra powers for local councils to do more if they so choose to do so. We are taking a number of actions. Patrick Harvie is right that we should continue to look for ways in which we can do more and go further.

Patrick Harvie seemed to take issue with my use of the term “encouraging people”. People have choices: we cannot force them to use one form of transport over another. What we can do is invest in the alternatives, as we are doing, and make it as attractive as possible for people to use methods of transport other than cars. We will continue to do that.

I hope that we will continue to have the support of the Greens. There is a challenge to the other parties, whose knee-jerk opposition to initiatives sometimes gets in the way of us all, in trying to do the right thing.

Hospital Waiting Times

In June 2017, I asked the First Minister about waiting times in our hospitals. She told me that she was making targeted investment and ensuring that improvements happened, but the situation got worse. In October 2018, I asked again. That time, the First Minister told me that she had a funded plan that would substantially reduce waiting times. Therefore, was the First Minister surprised on Tuesday that waiting time performance fell yet again?

No, I was not, and if Willie Rennie had read the waiting times improvement plan he would not have been surprised either. It is regrettable that we are where we are with waiting times, but we set out very frankly the challenge, and the trajectory that waiting times improvement would take. It is all set out in black and white in the waiting times improvement plan.

We are making targeted investment. I have referred twice now to the £850 million of investment to back that plan. Just last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport announced almost £30 million, including, for example, extra money to Forth Valley hospital to deliver two new theatres by October this year, which will bring additional capacity for 1,500 more joint replacements. By June this year, the hospital will have a second MRI scanner to allow 8,000 more diagnostic examinations to take place per year. The Golden Jubilee hospital will purchase an additional CT scanner, which will be operational by March and which will provide an additional 10,500 images annually. Those are the targeted investments that will deliver the improvements in waiting times that the improvement plan set out very clearly.

It has been eight years since the law was passed and it has been eight years of excuses just like that. It seems that the longer people have to wait, the bigger the excuses from this First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon told us that her Patient Rights (Scotland) Act 2011 was the way to cut waiting times, but it is just flim-flam. Tricking patients does not get them treated any quicker. The law is broken 200 times every day; 13,000 people were waiting and now it is 18,000. What are the consequences for the First Minister next time she breaks her own law, the time after that and the time after that? Will the First Minister pay any price, or is it only the patients who will suffer?

We will continue to focus on doing the job that we are elected to do as a Government, which is to deliver the improvements that are set out in that plan. We will back that with record investment and record numbers of people working in our national health service. We know that demand is rising. Health services across the world are having to deal with that challenge, and Scotland is doing that better than any other health service across the United Kingdom right now.

On the Government’s overall record on people waiting for longer than 12 weeks for treatment, it is worth noting that since this Government took office in 2007, the number of people waiting longer than 12 weeks has reduced by 21 per cent. That is not good enough and it has to go down further—it was 104,867 people in 2006-07 and it is 82,660 people now. That is not good enough, but we will continue to target the investments to make sure that we see the improvements that patients have a right to expect.

Caledonian Railway Works

The Caledonian railway works that was previously referred to is in my constituency. I draw the First Minister’s attention to a live tender by which the Porterbrook Leasing Company will determine which company gets the work to refurbish around 100 class 170 carriages, some of which will run on the ScotRail network. If that work goes to Springburn, it could secure around 40 jobs for around three years. I have written to Porterbrook commending the skills and dedication of the workforce at the Caley. I very much hope that they secure that work.

Although I appreciate that the First Minister cannot directly interfere in a tender process, does she agree that Gemini Rail Services has an absolute responsibility to bid for that work, to seek to bring it to the Springburn yard, to halt the 45-day notices and threats of redundancy and to offer hope to my constituents, not redundancies?

Yes, I agree 100 per cent with Bob Doris. I commend him highly for the way in which he has defended the jobs and interests of his constituents in this case.

Gemini should remove the threat of redundancy and extend the consultation. It should certainly be prepared to bid for any work that is going and to give us all time to look at all options for securing the jobs at the Springburn works for the future.

Ninewells Hospital (Replacement)

The First Minister will be aware of NHS Tayside asking her Government for £12 million for repairs to an outdated electrical system at Ninewells hospital and a huge backlog of maintenance. I believe that it is not in the public financial interest for boards to come back asking for more money—millions of pounds—to be spent on piecemeal repairs to our hospitals.

Glasgow and Edinburgh have new hospitals, and there are new facilities in Aberdeen. If the business case adds up and is sustainable, will the First Minister commit to replacing the oldest acute hospital in Scotland and support a new hospital in Dundee?

Business cases are looked at robustly and properly, as are all requests for funding by health boards for backlog maintenance, which is the situation in this case. The Scottish Government’s capital investment group is tasked with doing that. That process is in accordance with capital projects of such a scale. I encourage the health board to continue to talk to the Government and the capital investment group, so that proper decisions can be taken on the matter in the proper way.

No-deal Brexit

Last night at Westminster, all parties had the chance to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Instead, the Tories chose to put 100,000 Scottish jobs at even greater risk. With just 29 days until Brexit, what is the First Minister’s message to Theresa May?

It is scandalous that we are just 29 days from Brexit catastrophe being inflicted on Scotland by the Tories.

Last night, all parties, including Scotland’s Tory members of Parliament, had the opportunity to vote for Ian Blackford’s amendment and remove the risk of a no-deal Brexit, not just at the end of March but for ever. It is absolutely disgraceful that the Scottish Tory MPs refused to do that. [Interruption.]

Order, please.

Watching David Mundell, the so-called Secretary of State for Scotland, squirming in an interview last night as he tried to explain why he did not vote for that amendment was quite mind boggling. The Tories are not standing up for Scotland’s interests—they never were—and if that Brexit catastrophe hits, every one of them will bear the responsibility.

Landfill Ban (2021 Target)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government is confident that it will end traditional black bag waste and a range of recyclable materials being buried in the ground by its target of 2021. (S5F-03103)

Since 2012, there has been a statutory duty to recycle in Scotland, so recyclable material should not be going to landfill or to energy from waste. Scotland has already met relevant European Union targets, but our forthcoming ban on sending biodegradable municipal waste to landfill, which will apply from January 2021, deliberately goes further and sets a marker for our environmental ambitions. As such, it is disappointing that there is uncertainty about the readiness of some councils to deliver that ban.

We are aware of the significant challenges that are associated with delivering the ban and are working with public and private sector partners to tackle those challenges. Our focus now is on working with authorities that do not have a solution in place to identify ways in which they can comply with the ban as soon as possible.

On challenges, I advise the First Minister that when I recently purchased a small musical toy torch with whirly coloured lights for my granddaughter, aged one, it took me at least 20 minutes to remove it from its packaging, which I did with the aid of a Phillips screwdriver. That illustrates yet again how fighting packaging seems to be a losing battle—even the humble turnip is now prewrapped, for goodness’ sake.

What can the Scottish Government do to reduce idiotic and wasteful packaging, perhaps starting with toys and turnips? That would certainly help it to reach its targets by 2021.

I should perhaps begin by saying that I am relieved to hear that the toy torch with whirly coloured lights was for Christine Grahame’s granddaughter. [Laughter.]

On the serious issue, I agree that we all need to tackle plastic packaging. The Government is committed to substantially reducing unnecessary and difficult-to-recycle packaging, to increase recycling rates. Earlier this month, we, along with other United Kingdom Administrations, commenced a consultation on the reform of the packaging producer responsibility across the UK, which is aimed at ensuring that business meets the full cost of managing packaging at end of life. The consultation runs until 13 May.

In the meantime, we will continue to explore how any new arrangements might best be given effect, including exploring how they would align with our plans to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers in Scotland.

I declare an interest in respect of my previous work in the environment sector.

There is genuine cross-party concern that many environmental targets will not be met, due, in part, to a failure to take an evidence-based approach when setting targets and to subsequent weak implementation plans. Examples include banning plastic straws without knowing their weight and volume, cutting food waste by a third without knowing how much food waste there is and, now, the 2021 ban on waste to landfill. Does the First Minister accept that our environmental targets and the implementation of plans require a robust, evidence-based approach?

I have to say that it is a bit rich for any Tory to stand up and talk about evidence bases and the importance of environmental action, given the knee-jerk opposition to the workplace parking levy discretionary powers for councils that we have seen in the past couple of weeks.

On this issue, we will always act in an evidence-based way. The 2021 ban is right because it sets a level of ambition that we should all be working towards. Of course, 14 local authorities already have in place a long-term solution. Those include our major authorities, for example in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Our focus will be on working with those authorities that do not have a solution in place, so that we can identify ways for them to meet the target as quickly as possible.

Scottish Qualifications Authority (Possible Strike Action)

To ask the First Minister what engagement the Scottish Government plans with the SQA to prevent possible strike action during the forthcoming summer exams. (S5F-03092)

I urge the SQA and unions to continue constructive discussions to reach a resolution. The Deputy First Minister met the SQA’s chief examiner just yesterday and sought assurances that the SQA is taking all appropriate measures to ensure that the exam diet is not disrupted. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Parents and pupils across Scotland are already—quite rightly—very worried about the possibility that some teachers will take strike action; and now they have the additional worry that there could be strike action at the SQA at what would be, I think members in the chamber will agree, the worst time in the school year.

Six days ago, a member of the SQA was quoted in The Herald newspaper as saying that the SQA has in place “robust contingency plans.” Will the First Minister tell parents and pupils exactly what the Scottish Government believes those contingency plans to be?

An annually updated contingency plan is in place to respond to any scenario that might pose a risk to the qualifications system, and the Deputy First Minister will be happy to write to Liz Smith with more detail on that.

Of course, we want to ensure that that contingency plan is not required, and that should be our focus.

It should be noted that the proposed ballot at the SQA is of a relatively small number of staff—about one in 10 of its roughly 1,000 staff. That said, industrial action would not be in the interests of young people, so I urge the SQA and the unions to continue their discussions to reach a resolution. We will remain in touch with the SQA on the matter.

On the wider issue of teachers, the pay offer to them is the best offer that has been made to any group of public sector workers not just in Scotland, but anywhere in the United Kingdom. The offer is for teachers’ salaries to increase in April by a minimum of 9 per cent compared with current salaries. I hope that, in the near future, we can reach a resolution to that dispute as well, because it is not in anybody’s interests for there to be industrial action in any part of our education system.

The First Minister will be aware that pay talks between Colleges Scotland and the Educational Institute of Scotland broke up less than an hour ago with no improved offer from the employers on the table. There is now the very real prospect of further strike action over the coming weeks that will affect colleges across Scotland, including West College Scotland, which covers my constituency.

Does the First Minister agree that the pay claim made by college lecturers is entirely in keeping with the Government’s public sector pay policy? Will she therefore instruct the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to take a, perhaps, less passive role, to ensure that a reasonable settlement is reached soon, which is something that he has done in the past?

The Government does not take a passive role in any of these things, but we do respect negotiations. I would hope that, as someone who I am sure would describe themselves as a trade unionist, or trade union supporter, Jackie Baillie would also respect collective bargaining and on-going negotiations in a particular sector.

As for the college lecturers, I certainly hope that we can get people back round the table and that a resolution can be reached. I remind the chamber that the dispute is about a cost-of-living pay uplift over and above the harmonisation increase, which, on average, saw pay increases for college lecturers of 9 per cent over three years. However, the EIS and the Further Education Lecturers Association view the cost-of-living uplift as distinct from the harmonisation deal, while employers obviously take a different view. Again, I encourage them to get back round the table to reach a resolution that is in the interests of not only lecturers but students across the country.

Live Animal Exports (Ban)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on a ban on live animal exports. (S5F-03110)

The Government is committed to the highest possible welfare standards for animals and to ensuring that, where it is necessary, livestock in Scotland are transported humanely and with respect and dignity. We recognise that there are complexities, and we certainly recognise the concerns around transportation; our position is that, ideally, the process of quality meat production should take place close to where animals are born and reared. We are also working with the farming sector to explore ways of rearing more male dairy calves productively and profitably instead of exporting them.

Does the First Minister agree that scenes of weeks-old, unwanted calves being transported hundreds of miles, from Scotland to Ramsgate, for hours on end, then being shipped abroad, purely for slaughter, to countries whose animal welfare conditions are inferior to our own do nothing to enhance the reputation of Scotland and our vital agriculture industry? Is she satisfied with the conditions in which those calves are transported? Will she show leadership on the issue, send a clear signal that the Scottish Government will end live animal exports for slaughter, and state now that if the rest of the UK introduces a ban, Scotland will not seek an opt-out?

First, there is no transport of livestock from Scotland to continental Europe for immediate slaughter. There is transport for rearing and, as I said in my initial answer, we are exploring alternatives to that to ensure that more male dairy calves can be productively and profitably reared here instead of being exported.

It is also important to point out that very high welfare standards are in place and that we expect all legislation and rules on the transport of livestock to be adhered to. The Animal and Plant Health Agency approves export journey plans on behalf of Scottish ministers and investigates any non-compliance in that respect. We recognise the concerns that have been raised and we are committed to working with the sector to explore alternatives to live exports.

As for the possibility of a ban, the Scottish Government consented to the United Kingdom Government’s call for evidence on proposals to ban export for slaughter, and we will wait for the result of that review before deciding what further action to take.

That concludes First Minister’s questions. Before we move to members’ business, we will have a short suspension to allow the gallery to clear and to allow members and ministers to change seats.

12:44 Meeting suspended.  

12:49 On resuming—