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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 30, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 30 January 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Public Works Loan Board Rate, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, European Union Exit, Drugs and Alcohol, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


Yesterday, the Scottish Government demanded an urgent debate about which flags should be flown on the pavement outside this building. Will the First Minister support my demand for a statement next week on why her Government is failing to meet its own target to improve education in Scotland’s most deprived schools?

It is for the Parliamentary Bureau to decide the business of Parliament, but I am very happy—[Interruption.] I am very happy for this Government to give statements on the work that we are doing to improve education.

The attainment fund points, at national level, to an improving system. For example, the gap between school leavers from the most and least deprived areas is narrowing, as we have covered many times before in the chamber. More young people are leaving school with highers, more are leaving with five highers and more are leaving with national 5 qualifications.

Yes, there is work to do, but we are getting on with that job. I am sure that the Deputy First Minister will always be happy to advise the chamber on that progress.

I am pleased to have the First Minister’s support for a statement next week, and I am sure that the Parliamentary Bureau will have taken note of that.

However, this week, it has been all too clear what the First Minister’s priority really is—and it is not raising the standard of education in our schools. Her Government has set out a range of targets that need to be met to help close the attainment gap between pupils in our wealthiest and poorest communities. Those include targets that, by the end of this school year, 68 per cent of primary pupils from the most deprived areas should meet the required standards in literacy and 75 per cent should meet that standard for numeracy. On the basis of the most recent figures available, will those targets be met?

Our schools across the country, backed by education authorities in our local councils, are working with teachers to meet those targets. It is right that we set stretching, ambitious targets—and that is what we have done. I think that it is wrong to say that our schools are not working right now to meet those targets.

As I said in my original answer, if we look at the situation across the country, we have evidence already that points to the improvements in the system. If we look at the gap between those from the most and least-deprived communities, we see that it is narrowing.

We now have full-time attainment advisers in place in each local authority, working in a focused way with our schools to make sure that we meet the targets. Last December, we published the most comprehensive set of data and evidence on performance in education through the national improvement framework. We will continue to set out that detail, and we will be held to account on it.

I back our teachers to get on with the job of making the improvement that we are seeing across Scottish education.

Well, that sure sounds like a First Minister getting in her excuses early. We all have a profound respect for the work done by our teachers, but it does the First Minister no credit to hide behind their hard work to mask her Government’s failures.

From analysis published this week, there is little cause for optimism. The University of Glasgow says that there needs to be a tenfold increase, in just one year, on the progress that has been seen in the past three years. Progress—where it exists at all—is taking place with nothing like the urgency required. There is next to no progress in closing the attainment gap in primary or secondary school when it comes to literacy and numeracy. Today we learn that, since the introduction of the Scottish National Party’s botched curriculum for excellence in 2015—[Interruption.]

Order, please. Let us hear the question.

We have learned today that the pass rate in 32 of the 46 Higher subjects has dropped, including in English, maths, chemistry and history. Is that progress? First Minister, is any of that in any way acceptable?

I will address all those points.

On the direction of travel in Scottish education, whether in exam passes—I will come back to that in a moment—or the narrowing of the attainment gap, if Jackson Carlaw does not want to take my word for it, I will quote the international council of education advisers. They said:

“Scotland is heading in the right direction and taking the right approach to improving education”.

That is what we will continue to do.

I turn to the pass rates that Jackson Carlaw talked about. As I have said repeatedly, overall, more young people now leave school with highers. Two thirds of young people get at least one, which compares with fewer than half when we took office. Thirty per cent get five or more highers, which compares with 22 per cent in 2009.

Let us look at the 32 subjects that Jackson Carlaw talked about. We have committed to publishing our analysis of the exam results, and it is absolutely right that we look at the reasons why exam pass rates are falling. I am not for a second suggesting that some of the subjects that I am about to talk about are not important; they are all very important. However, although classical studies, for example, is down, maths is up. Yes, drama is down, but physics and geography are up. If we look at the top 10 subjects in Scotland, most have exam pass rates that are up. Mathematics, chemistry, modern studies, physics, biology and geography pass rates are all up since 2015. I am not saying that we do not look at subjects for which the opposite is true—we are doing that—but the overall picture, as is so often the case, is not the one that Jackson Carlaw wants to present.

That was lamentable. We are seeing a drop in the pass rates for 32 out of 46 higher subjects and I think that people are getting increasingly angry about the First Minister’s spin and denial of the failure of education under her Government. Being on course to miss all four of the Government’s own educational attainment targets is a definition of failure. It is as simple as that.

Primary and secondary, literacy and numeracy—those are four areas in which the SNP said that it would change things for good, but they are four areas in which the SNP is failing. There are record low scores in maths and science, missed targets on the attainment gap and, as we know today, falling pass rates in the vast majority of higher subjects.

First Minister, how many more times do we have to listen to the same lines and excuses about education being this Government’s number 1 priority, when the evidence shows that its record is one of unmitigated, continuing failure?

Jackson Carlaw has just described as lamentable the fact that, for the 10 top subjects in our education system—those for which there are the highest number of entries, as they are the ones that most pupils do—compared with 2015, which is what Jackson Carlaw is putting to me, the majority have pass rates that have improved. He might not think that that matters, but I will again talk about the subjects on which we are focusing. In maths, the pass rate is up since 2015, as it is in chemistry, modern studies, physics, biology and geography—two thirds of the top 10 subjects. That does not suit Jackson Carlaw’s argument, but that is the achievement of pupils and teachers around our country. That he might want to talk that down is what I think is disgraceful.

We will continue to make investment in and focus on where improvements are needed. I never shy away from saying that, but I will not stand here while Jackson Carlaw talks down education in Scotland in the way that he does.

Non-profit-distributing Model

The Scottish National Party Government claimed that its so-called non-profit-distributing model took the profit motive and shareholder dividend out of the building and running of public infrastructure projects in Scotland. However, this week’s Audit Scotland and Accounts Commission report blows a hole in that claim. Does the First Minister accept their conclusions, or is she in denial?

When I was thinking about what Richard Leonard might ask me about today, I thought, “He won’t really go with private finance initiative, will he?” However, he has, and who am I to complain?

I will first give the background. We used the non-profit-distributing model because, if we had not, due to the £6 billion cumulative cut to our capital budget that was imposed by the Tories, we would not have been able to build 117 schools, hospitals and other public sector buildings. We did that through a system in which we made improvements on Labour’s PFI, with profit capping. Under Labour’s PFI, if surpluses were made, do members know they went? They went into the pockets of investors. Under our system, surpluses get reinvested into the public sector. Under Labour PFI projects, the repayments amount—because they are still being paid—to five and a half times the capital value of the projects. We got that down to just three and a half times. We made the improvements that Labour did not make. I cannot believe that Richard Leonard has the brass neck to stand up here and talk about PFI.

I anticipated last night how the First Minister might respond to my first question, so I went back to look at a report that I wrote 25 years ago—[Interruption.]


Here is an extract from it:

“The PFI is something of a con trick, predicated on a buy-now-pay-later mirage. It is a mirage because the taxpayer or the user will simply pay more in the end. It is smart accountancy but bad economics. The fact is that Government can always borrow at a lower interest rate than the private sector.” [Interruption.]

Will members keep the noise down, please?

I have been consistent on this question. Has the First Minister? [Interruption.]

The Accounts Commission concluded this week that the Scottish Government has failed to properly monitor and evaluate billions of pounds’ worth of privately financed contracts—[Interruption.]

Hold on a second, Mr Leonard.

There is an unacceptable level of noise. I am sorry, but we should treat each other with respect in the chamber. Please listen to the questions that are put and then answer them in a respectful way, with less of this barracking.

The Accounts Commission concluded that, without proper transparency and accountability, the risks have increased and the costs have sky-rocketed. We pay three times the capital value of assets in unitary charges alone. It is what the Accounts Commission has described this week as

“a private finance cost premium”.

Why, for the past 13 years, has the First Minister presided over this rip-off?

First, Richard Leonard says that NPD projects cost three times the capital value. That is a vast improvement on five and a half times the capital value, as it was under Labour schemes.

On transparency, under the old Labour-supported schemes, we used to have to wait until 25 years after the asset was complete before we got the information about it. We now publish most of that material two years after an asset is complete, so there is much greater transparency.

Richard Leonard—bless—wrote a report 25 years ago. Is it not a shame that the Labour Governments that followed in the years after that ignored everything that he said? It took an SNP Government to act on the things that he said, capping the profits on the projects and making sure that surpluses go back into the public sector and not into the pockets of investors, which Labour used to allow to happen?

With my last point, I will be brief. I am sorry—I may be enjoying myself too much. Richard Leonard says—rightly—that public borrowing would be cheaper. Yes, of course, but we did not have the power to borrow publicly because Labour preferred those powers to stay with the Tories at Westminster, rather than our having them here in the Scottish Parliament. If that is belated support for increasing the borrowing powers of this Parliament, maybe we have made some progress today after all.

We are in favour of increasing the borrowing powers of this Parliament, and we are against PFI, NPD and all the successor bodies.

Instead of the First Minister using the Parliament to speak to her party about a divisive referendum that the people do not want, or obsessing about the symbolism of a flag, let us look at the symbolism of the sick kids hospital in this city—a hospital that will not open for more than a year but which is costing £1.4 million a month in charges. That proves, as this week’s report by Audit Scotland shows, that, with her finance model, there is a transfer of reward to the private sector but no transfer of risk.

This week has shown that the First Minister has the wrong priorities. Tomorrow, she speaks to her party faithful. Today, why does she not speak to the patients, the families and the staff who are being let down in this city? Why does she not focus on their priorities?

Richard Leonard should just be relieved that he is not speaking to his own party faithful tomorrow, because they would be in despair, based on what we have just heard.

We have used the non-profit-distributing model because, over the past decade, the Tories have cumulatively cut £6 billion from our capital budget, and we did not have borrowing powers. In the past couple of years, we have obtained very limited borrowing powers, which we are using to the full. Labour did not support borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Instead of continuing to use the PFI that Labour favoured, which was such a bad deal for taxpayers and the public, we introduced a new scheme that capped the profits while transferring risk, which did not allow surpluses to go to investors and which reduced the overall cost to the taxpayer. That is what we did, after Labour presided over the PFI scandal for all those years. Notwithstanding what he wrote 25 years ago, Richard Leonard should have a long, hard look at Labour on the issue, before he comes to the SNP.

A huge number of members want to ask supplementary questions. I hope that we will get through quite a few of them.

Property Factors

Apex Property Factor Ltd was struck off the property factor register in April last year, after a string of breaches of the code of conduct. An appeal was heard in December and was refused. The company did not appeal again. Kevin Stewart wrote to former clients of Apex on 13 January, to tell them the good news. Three days later, constituents of mine in Motherwell received another letter, on Apex headed paper, citing an “ongoing legal dispute” and saying that an associate company, Klean Kut Ltd, had been established in order to ensure “continuity of maintenance services”. My constituents have since received a further letter, and an invoice. It is an appalling and outrageous situation, and MSPs across the chamber have concerns about it.

Will the First Minister look at providing extra help for those homeowners to find new factors? Does she agree that the process for removing bad factors takes far too long, and that the case that I have mentioned highlights a loophole that should be closed?

Given the nature of the constituency that I represent, where there are a lot of tenemental properties, I regularly deal with constituents who have issues with factors, so I understand some of the frustrations that people have. That said, a lot of factors do a good job. The reason why we have a property factor register, and why companies can be removed from it, is to make sure that high standards are applied.

I am more than happy to look at the case that Graham Simpson raises. I do not know the details of any letters that Apex Property Factor may be sending out, but it is essential that the system works to protect homeowners. I am happy for him to send the details to the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, so that we can look into the situation and see what more action, if any, the Scottish Government is able to take.

Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation Statistics (Inverclyde)

Following the publication this week of the Scottish index of multiple deprivation statistics, what assistance can the Scottish Government offer Inverclyde Council to improve Greenock town centre?

Does the First Minister agree that it would be unlikely to improve the SIMD statistics across Inverclyde as a whole if, as Dr Alf Baird suggested at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee yesterday, we stopped building two vessels at Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow and built four smaller ships in China instead?

We are investing significantly in communities that face disadvantage. For example, last year more than £1.4 billion was spent in targeting support at low-income households.

On Greenock specifically, we are supporting investment through the £500 million Glasgow city region growth deal, in which Inverclyde Council is a full partner. We are making £45 million available to Inverclyde Council across this parliamentary session to support regeneration and provide affordable and energy-efficient housing. We have also made more than £20 million available to Inverclyde through the attainment Scotland fund, of which £6 million is available this year.

SIMD data is a helpful tool that supports us to target resources across the public sector, and we will continue to work in partnership with local government and others to support work to reduce inequality and the regeneration of towns and cities.

On shipbuilding, I absolutely agree with Stuart McMillan that we want to see ships built here—particularly, where appropriate, at Ferguson’s—rather than see that work go to China or anywhere else.

A83 Landslip

The First Minister will be aware that earlier this morning a significant landslip led to the closure of the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful pass, with drivers currently forced to take a local diversion. Landslips regularly close that section of road, cutting off huge swathes of Argyll and the west Highlands, and many communities and businesses are at their wits’ end as a result. Will the First Minister now concede that papering over the cracks is simply not working and that a long-term, permanent solution is urgently required?

I am aware of that very difficult situation. As I understand it, the landslip that happened earlier this morning is in a different area from where landslips have been experienced in past years. We have done a lot of work in past years to make the reserve road available, although I understand that it is not necessarily available today. Transport Scotland and others are exploring the situation. We want to make sure that the road is reopened as quickly as possible, but safety is a key priority. In the context of our wider transport strategy, we will continue to look at further improvements that can be made. I absolutely understand the inconvenience and frustration that travellers who use that road will be experiencing today.

Kilbowie Outdoor Centre

Tomorrow, councillors in North Lanarkshire will have to vote on the future of the Kilbowie outdoor centre in Oban. The facility offers every primary 7 pupil in North Lanarkshire, many of whom are from some of our most deprived communities, the opportunity of a residential week away to build self-esteem and improve learning through outdoor activity. The Scottish National Party council group has already stated that it will vote against the proposal. Will the First Minister join me in calling for the ruling Labour group on North Lanarkshire Council to put our young people first and to take the closure of that vital facility off the table?

Obviously, that is a matter for the local council, but I agree with Fulton MacGregor about the importance of outdoor learning. It delivers numerous benefits, including improved mental and physical health; it also helps to increase academic attainment, and it gives pupils an appreciation of the natural environment. Indeed, that is why it is built into the school curriculum. I will certainly ask the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to look into the issue and to provide Fulton MacGregor with a more detailed response in due course.

Coatbridge Freightliner Terminal

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests, which shows that I am the convener of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group.

I understand from the union that the Freightliner freight terminal in Coatbridge is currently under threat of closure. Will the First Minister advise whether the rail freight fund, which was announced by the Scottish Government just last year at the Coatbridge terminal, can be used to safeguard its future and the 100 jobs that may be affected?

I am very happy to look into the specifics of that suggestion and come back to the member with a detailed answer. We would certainly want to do everything that we can to help secure the terminal’s future, and if the fund is available we would want to make sure that it is used. Rather than give a categoric answer today, I want to have the opportunity to look into the matter and come back to the member properly.

Marches (Glasgow)

The First Minister will be aware that there was another march in Glasgow last Saturday, and that a police officer was injured. Can she give any assurance that the number of marches in Glasgow will be reduced? They are a real frustration to both residents and businesses.

I understand that frustration. I am very clear—I have said this in the chamber before—that peaceful protest is an important part of our democracy, but violent and sectarian disruption should play no part in our democracy or our society. We support Police Scotland in taking appropriate action to deal with disorder, such as was witnessed on Saturday, to ensure public safety. What we saw on Saturday was unacceptable.

The Scottish Government supports local authorities in making decisions to achieve the right balance between the rights of marchers and the rights of the communities affected. I am encouraged by Glasgow City Council’s cross-party response to marches and parades and I look forward to hearing any recommendations that the group brings forward.

Maternity Services (Moray)

As I have raised with the First Minister previously, the maternity unit at Dr Gray’s hospital in Elgin has been downgraded since 2018, with many expectant mothers having to undertake long journeys to Aberdeen or Inverness to give birth or receive vital care. This week, it has been reported that one expectant mother from Moray was forced to travel as far as Fife—more than 160 miles away—because the Raigmore and Aberdeen maternity hospitals were at capacity. With Moray being hit by winter weather this week, I am sure that the First Minister will agree with me, and with families across Moray, that that is simply unacceptable.

Will the First Minister now intervene to ensure that her health secretary acts in the interest of local families and takes urgent direct action to restore full maternity services in Moray as a priority?

The health secretary will visit Dr Gray’s hospital on 11 February to discuss those very issues.

I agree absolutely that it is important that women are cared for and get to deliver their babies as close to home as possible. In the part of the country that we are talking about, large distances add to the distress that patients, and new mothers in particular, can experience.

I understand that, but I hope that the member will understand and accept that it is vital that we ensure the provision of safe services. He is well aware of the challenges that Dr Gray’s has faced, but the health secretary is working closely with the local health board to help it to overcome those. That is why she will visit the hospital very shortly to have further discussions, and I am sure that she will be happy to keep the member updated.

Budget Proposal (Public Transport)

A week from now, the Scottish Government will publish its budget, and the Greens have made the case that it needs to be a climate emergency budget. The First Minister has repeatedly told me that, in the face of climate change, everything is under review. That must surely include transport, the emissions from which are going up, not down, as a result of the Scottish Government’s choices.

We all know that continuing to increase road capacity just generates more traffic, more congestion and more pollution. Will the First Minister give us a budget that will stop money being poured into our multibillion-pound road building programme and instead commit to making public transport more available, more reliable and more affordable?

As Patrick Harvie said, we will publish the budget this time next week, or almost this time next week, so I am not going to go into the detail of what it will include. Suffice it to say that I am pretty sure that, when Patrick Harvie scrutinises that budget, he will see the Government’s commitment to tackling climate change and making sure that we meet the obligations and targets that we have set.

It is absolutely vital that transport is part of the transition that we make. Emissions from transport form a significant chunk of our overall emissions, and we need to get them going down. Public transport has a massive part to play in that, which is why, in the programme for government, we announced significant investment in new bus infrastructure to make bus journeys more convenient. We need to have the right balance between roads and public transport, and our decisions will, of course, be informed by the first-phase report of the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland, which was published just last week.

The Infrastructure Commission’s report is much more consistent with the Green transport policies of the past decade or two than it is with the policies that the Scottish Government has pursued over recent years.

The First Minister has kept telling us that the Government will get on with putting new, radical policies in place, but we are still waiting. If we are serious about the climate emergency, we need to give people cheap, reliable alternatives to the private car now. The Scottish Greens have made a budget proposal that would set us on that path. Our proposal is for a policy that is radical but affordable: make bus travel throughout Scotland free for young people, just as it is for senior citizens.

Does the First Minister acknowledge the huge benefits that that policy would bring to people such as the family who spoke at a Poverty Alliance event, whose son has to pay £17 a day to travel to college in Inverness? That is a huge cost for a family that is already struggling to get by. Does the First Minister deny that that Green proposal would cost a fraction of what is currently being spent on the road building programme?

We will consider all proposals made by all parties that choose to put forward budget proposals. We have to consider our revenue budget and our capital budget and how we can use them both appropriately to meet the needs of people in all parts of our country as well as our targets and obligations in respect of climate change.

Parallel to the work that is being done around the budget is the work to update the climate change plan, which will be published in April. One of the Green Party members, Mark Ruskell, is on the working group that will update the climate change plan, and that work is on-going. No one is in any doubt about the obligations that we have to meet. I am certainly not in any doubt about the challenging decisions that will have to be taken along the way. It is important that we get those decisions right, but it is important that we meet our obligations in a fair and just way that caters for people in our rural communities as well as those in our urban ones and does not leave people isolated or left behind.

There is an absolute commitment on the part of the Scottish Government. That will be evident in our budget and even more evident in the updated plan when we publish it, in April.

National Health Service (Waiting Times)

In 2018, after 11 years in power, the Government published its national health service waiting times recovery plan, to dig it out of a hole of its own making. However, even the interim targets have not been met and the treatment time guarantee has now been broken 250,000 times. Why is there no recovery with the recovery plan?

That is not the case, and I will tell Willie Rennie why he is wrong about that in a second. When Willie Rennie gets up to talk about these very important issues—it is entirely legitimate for him to do so—it would be good if, on occasion, he recognised that the biggest pressure on our public services over the past 10 years has been the austerity that his party started when it was in government with the Conservatives. An acknowledgement of his responsibility for the pressures that our public services have been working under might give him a bit more credibility on these issues.

Let me turn to the progress of the improvement plan. The number of out-patients waiting more than 12 weeks has already reduced by 10.6 per cent in the most recent year, compared to the previous year. We have also seen a 14 per cent reduction in the number of patients who are waiting more than 12 weeks for a new out-patient appointment. The number of diagnostic endoscopy waits of over six weeks has reduced by more than half in the past year.

Those are the actions that we are taking through the waiting times improvement plan, and we will continue to take such action. We will continue to invest record sums in our health service, supporting record numbers of staff, despite the austerity that Willie Rennie’s party imposed on the Scottish Government’s budget.

There will come a time when the First Minister stops blaming everyone else and accepts responsibility for her own decisions.

That is not the reality. The interim targets have not been met. The First Minister’s waiting time promise for accident and emergency services has not been met for two and a half years. It is as bad in mental health: 806 children have been waiting for more than a year for treatment—the figure is up by 157 per cent. Social care is in trouble, too. Delayed discharges were supposed to have been abolished by now—does the First Minister remember that?—but 1,000 people are stuck in hospital because of a lack of home care.

Will the First Minister admit, for once, that her recovery plan is not working? How long do patients have to wait to get the treatment that they have been endlessly promised by the Scottish Government?

I take full responsibility for what I am responsible for. I say to Willie Rennie that anyone who thinks that our NHS has been immune to the austerity that has been imposed on us over the past 10 years does not know what they are talking about. His party was the co-architect of that austerity—even to acknowledge that would be a step forward.

We are seeing improvements as a result of the waiting times improvement plan—I have set them out—and, in spite of austerity, we will continue to invest the sums to support that progress. Let us take the treatment time guarantee figures. In Fife—Willie Rennie’s area—between September 2018 and September 2019, we have seen a 50 per cent reduction in the number of patients waiting more than 12 weeks. That is the kind of progress that our NHS staff are making, and we will continue to support them to make further progress.

We have some further supplementary questions.

European Arrest Warrant (Transition Period)

Scotland is about to be dragged out of the European Union by the Tories. The United Kingdom Home Office says that the European arrest warrant, which has proved to be a tremendous tool in dealing with international crime, will continue to apply during the transition period, but that is not the case. Germany’s constitution does not allow its citizens to be extradited unless that is to another EU country, so Germany has said that it will not execute UK warrants in respect of its citizens during the transition period. There is also uncertainly in relation to Austria, Slovenia and perhaps other countries. The Home Office states that, if a country’s laws prevent extradition to the UK, it will

“be expected to take over the trial or sentence of the person concerned.”

Scotland’s justice system is being weakened by Brexit. Will the First Minister advise what contact there has been from the UK Government about such a significant erosion of Scotland’s crime-fighting capability and how matters that were previously covered by the European arrest warrant will be dealt with in the transition period and beyond?

I thank John Finnie for raising an extremely important issue. There has been a lot of contact between Police Scotland, the Crown Office and the Scottish Government and Westminster counterparts, and we have raised our concerns about the issue. There is no doubt that Brexit, immediately and more particularly at the end of the transition period, will have a significant impact on the operation of our criminal justice system and the ability of the police to keep people safe. That is a matter of extreme concern.

I say that there has been a lot of contact, but there has not been much reassurance coming in the opposite direction, which is one of many reasons why, at a practical level, we should all be profoundly concerned about what will happen tomorrow.

More generally, for three years, we have had a UK Government telling us that everything will be fine and that nobody will notice any difference. This morning, I noticed online some travel information that the UK Government has put out, which tells people what it will be like at the end of the transition period. The European health insurance card will no longer apply, people will no longer benefit from EU mobile phone roaming charges and things will be much more difficult. We have not had any of that honesty from the Tories up until now: it is only now that they start to seep out the impacts.

When we leave the European Union tomorrow night, let us never forget that doing so is against the will of the majority of the Scottish people and that we should have the right to choose a better future.

NHS Highland

In the past four years at NHS Highland, we have seen a botched service redesign, a radiology crisis, a bullying scandal, budgets that never balance, delays in the construction of the elective care centre and now the appointment of a third chief executive officer in 15 months.

On a daily basis, I am contacted by frustrated medial staff telling me of the latest problems that they are facing. Will the First Minister take the time to come to the Highlands and meet me and some of the doctors, nurses and patients who have been so let down?

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will meet NHS Highland in the Highlands on 10 February, and I look forward to visiting in the future.

We will continue to work with national health service boards to support them in the challenging job that they do to deliver services. Our health boards deliver excellent services to the vast majority of people in Scotland, day in and day out. Anybody who thinks that our health service has been immune from Tory austerity in the past 10 years really needs to think again. Perhaps Edward Mountain could help us in putting more pressure on his Tory colleagues, who have told us that austerity is going to end, while yesterday we saw that the chancellor is trying to force 5 per cent cuts across Whitehall.

Let us stop the austerity and the cuts that are coming from Westminster. That is one good thing that the Tories could do to help our national health service.

Alcohol (Minimum Unit Pricing)

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the impact of minimum unit pricing of alcohol. (S5F-03921)

Analysis published this week shows that in the first full year of the minimum unit pricing policy being implemented, there has been a 3.6 per cent fall per adult in off-trade alcohol sales. That shows that we are moving in the right direction, particularly when compared with England and Wales, where there was a rise of 3.2 per cent over the same period. I would describe that as a promising start for minimum unit pricing, which shows that the policy will play an important part in our wider work to try to save lives from the effects of alcohol misuse.

It is hugely encouraging that off-trade alcohol sales fell following the implementation of minimum unit pricing. Does the First Minister agree that the positive results after one year will be of interest to other countries, which will be monitoring the progress in Scotland with a view to implementing the policy elsewhere?

Yes, I absolutely agree. When I attended the British-Irish Council meeting in Dublin last November, it was very clear that the interest from other countries in minimum pricing remains very high. We look forward to Wales implementing it on 2 March, and I know that Ireland intends to follow suit.

I am delighted to see that the sixth global alcohol policy conference, which is being held in Dublin in March, includes presentations on the evaluation of minimum unit pricing in Scotland. We know that there is already worldwide interest in the issue and there will be interest in the event. As an outward-looking nation, we are always very keen and happy to share our learnings with European and international partners.

Scottish Prison Service (Sickness Leave)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that Scottish Prison Service officers average three weeks’ sickness leave per year. (S5F-03904)

We recognise the importance of providing a safe environment for staff who work in our prisons. In the calendar year 2019, prison officer sickness absence fell by 3.3 per cent, compared with 2018. For the past five consecutive months, sickness absence has fallen.

However, prison officers work in a difficult and intensive environment. The Scottish Prison Service provides a range of measures and interventions for staff who require them, including occupational health support and access to counselling services. It is to the great credit of staff who work in our prisons that they perform well and that good order is maintained.

Last year, more than 14,000 officer days were lost due to stress-related absence. That figure is up by 32 per cent. Many of the pressures that lead to stress have been building for years; they include the changing nature of the prison population, the high incidence of complex mental health issues, the proliferation of new psychoactive substances and the delays in replacing the estate. Instructing establishments to deplete resources in order to cover HMP Grampian only makes the situation even more precarious.

The Scottish National Party has a record of 13 years of failure while in charge of Scotland’s prisons. When will the First Minister’s Government finally improve the situation for our officers, or can they expect more of the same and ever-rising levels of stress?

We will continue to support our prison officers. We are investing in modernising the prison estate. Crucially, we are also taking a range of actions, most of which have been and continue to be opposed by the Tories, to reduce our prison population, in order to make sure that fewer people—who would be better punished in the community—go into our prisons. We need to continue that important work.

As I said, over the past calendar year, sickness absence fell by 3.3 per cent. At HMP Inverness and HMP Grampian, there is a downward trend in the number of working days that are lost due to sickness. The SPS continues to work to maintain that trend.

We also support our prison officer staff. In Scotland, there will be an increase in pay of up to 6 per cent for the lowest paid, compared with a pay award of 2.2 per cent south of the border.

Although I take full responsibility for what we do in Scotland, often, when we get such questions on public service issues, the general accusation is that, somehow, it is all down to the SNP. That is why it is important to compare and contrast. The Tories are in government in England, Labour is in government in Wales and the SNP in Scotland. We can compare whether the SNP is doing better or worse. A report about Doncaster prison that is out today shows that 700 inmates are doubled up in single cells. The chief inspector of prisons in England talks about the “dangerous combination” in prisons. I will take responsibility for what we do but, when we see the state of public services south of the border, the cheek of the Tories takes some beating.

Problem Gambling

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to work with football authorities and clubs to reduce problem gambling. (S5F-03917)

There is widespread recognition that some people who engage in gambling activity experience harm. The Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Professional Football League have stated that they have taken steps to reduce the harm that is associated with problem gambling in the football community and in wider society. We have discussed with the football authorities what more can be done. The issues of betting and gaming remain reserved to the United Kingdom Government. I am happy to join Monica Lennon in arguing for the full transfer of powers in that area to this Parliament, so that problem gambling can be dealt with in a more holistic way here, in Scotland.

Problem gambling is a serious public health issue. Like other addictions, it ruins lives in football and in all walks of life.

Brian Rice, the head coach at Hamilton Accies, has shown courage in disclosing his gambling addiction. Today, a Scottish Football Association hearing into his alleged breaches of its betting rules is under way. It is a sad situation.

Does the First Minister agree that addiction is an illness and that we all have a responsibility to end the stigma that prevents people from seeking help? Does she agree that a gambling amnesty in Scottish football could create a safe environment for players and staff to access support?

I agree very much with those sentiments. As Monica Lennon said, a hearing is under way right now, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that. However, I agree that Brian Rice has shown great courage and I hope that he gets the support that he needs.

More generally, gambling addiction—like any addiction—is an illness, and it should be treated as such. We should focus much more on the support that we can provide. That is certainly the approach that the Scottish Government will take, and we are happy to work with others to provide whatever additional support we are able to.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. We will turn shortly to a members’ business debate in the name of Keith Brown, on the Public Works Loan Board rate. We will have a short suspension to allow members, ministers and people in the public gallery to change seats.

12:45 Meeting suspended.  

12:47 On resuming—