Meeting date: Thursday, January 31, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 31 January 2019
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
- Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill: Stage 1
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Princess Royal Maternity Hospital
The desperate further news from Glasgow’s Princess Royal maternity hospital last night will have shocked us all here and across Scotland. Our deepest sympathies go out to the families of the two babies who have died. For any new parents, there can be no news worse to bear, and it will have been difficult for the many dedicated healthcare staff involved as well. In the light of those events, I invite the First Minister to update the chamber.
I thank Jackson Carlaw for providing me with this opportunity. I put on record my heartfelt and sincere condolences to the parents of the two babies who died after contracting a staphylococcus aureus infection. A third baby remains in neonatal intensive care and I am sure that the best wishes and thoughts of everyone across the Parliament are with that child, their parents and their wider family.
Our primary concern—and, indeed, that of the health board—is the safety and wellbeing of patients and their families at all times. The health board is taking all necessary steps to manage the incident and to ensure patient safety. It has been in contact with affected families and with other families in the unit to advise them of the incident and the actions that it is taking. Those actions include regular screening of the newborn children and the provision of information to patients, families and staff. Enhanced cleaning schedules have been put in place and a review of standard infection control precautions—for example, hand hygiene, the cleaning of equipment and the correct use of personal protective equipment—is also being undertaken. Finally, the health board has asked Health Protection Scotland to investigate the incident and to provide a report.
The last thing I will say—and I preface this by saying that I am in no way trying to detract from the seriousness of the incident that we are discussing today—is that staphylococcus aureus is, unfortunately, not an uncommon infection in people in hospital, including babies in neonatal units. Indeed, the infection can be found in about one in four people. That makes it all the more important that hospitals have in place rigorous infection control procedures. It is my job and the health secretary’s job—working with the board, Health Protection Scotland and, indeed, the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate—to ensure that that is the case. For now, I know that for all of us, our thoughts will be with the families affected.
I thank the First Minister for that response and I completely endorse the last point that she made. I am framing my questions today very much in the light of that understanding.
We learned from the statement that was released by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that the investigation was triggered last Thursday, on 24 January. When were the First Minister and the health secretary first made aware by the health board of these cases, and what specific assurances have ministers sought since?
I understand that the health secretary became aware of the infection on Monday of this week. At that point, she asked for assurances. Of course, given the previous incidents that we discussed last week, the health secretary has been in regular contact with the health board, as Jackson Carlaw would expect.
There are standard procedures in place—I know that they have been the subject of discussion over the past few days—for the actions that health boards are required to take to assess infection outbreaks and for the reporting and notification requirements that they have to undertake. We are satisfied that in all these cases the health board has done that. The important thing is that all of us ensure, not just in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, but in all health boards, that proper infection control procedures are in place. The health secretary and her officials are taking all appropriate steps to ensure that that is the case.
Turning to the wider picture, there was a report last week that around half of Scotland’s hospitals have not been inspected by the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate since it was set up a decade ago. When asked about that during a television interview on Sunday, the health secretary agreed that, if true, that would be unacceptable.
To be clear, we know that the Princess Royal maternity hospital was last inspected in 2017 and met the targets that it had been set. The question remains whether it is the case that, as has been reported, around half of Scotland’s hospitals have not been inspected by HEI in the past decade. Irrespective of the number, if hospitals have not been inspected, what steps are being taken now to ensure that they are?
I will seek to give Jackson Carlaw and the chamber as full information on that as I possibly can. The Healthcare Environment Inspectorate was established in 2009. I was health secretary at the time and, from memory, I think that Jackson Carlaw may have been shadow health spokesperson. The inspectorate was asked to undertake at least one announced and one unannounced inspection of all acute hospitals across the national health service every three years.
A list of the hospitals to be subject to inspection was published at the commencement of the programme in 2009. It covered acute general hospitals, children’s hospitals and maternity facilities. From October 2010, the Golden Jubilee national hospital, the Scottish Ambulance Service and the state hospital were included. From 2013, we rolled the programme out further to include inspections of community hospitals.
As I am sure Jackson Carlaw is aware, inspections are based on intelligence and are risk based. Based on HEI inspections since 2009, facility visits have covered more than 90 per cent of the acute and community hospital beds in NHS Scotland. Since the inspections started, 259 reports on the safety and cleanliness of hospitals have been published. In the last financial year, 16 inspection reports were published.
I go back to a point that I made a moment ago. It is important that a risk-based approach is taken to inspections. That is why I am sure that it will be the case that acute hospitals are inspected more regularly than smaller community-based hospitals. As I am sure all of us would expect, it is up to the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate to set the schedule for those inspections.
Finally, I raise the key issue of how hospitals respond when faced with tragic incidents. Obviously, patients and families need to have confidence that, when such cases emerge, everything—everything—is done to minimise the further spread of infection.
The current national guidance says that an investigation should begin only when two or more cases of the same type of bacteria are found. Given the concerns that have been raised over recent weeks, does the First Minister believe that the framing of the guidance remains sufficiently robust and clear? Would she encourage health boards to examine their plans to see whether improvements can be made?
In light of such incidents, my starting point would be that we should always review the protocols, procedures and guidance that are in place. That will be the case in these instances. Health boards should always make sure that they respond appropriately. The guidance that Jackson Carlaw refers to will be informed by expert opinion, and that is right and proper.
In terms of the procedure that is in place right now for reporting infections, health boards are required to follow the healthcare infection incident assessment tool. That procedure is followed by infection prevention and control teams or health protection teams in assessing every healthcare infection incident—that means all outbreaks and incidents in any healthcare setting. What I said a moment ago is worth repeating: we consider that, in each case that has been reported over the past couple of weeks, the procedure has been followed.
In brief, the tool has two parts. First, it assesses the impact of a healthcare infection incident or outbreak on patients, services and public health. Secondly, it supports a single channel of infection incident or outbreak assessment and information reporting, both internally within the health board area and externally to Health Protection Scotland and the Scottish Government. That includes public reporting and the preparation of information for the media. That is a robust procedure.
When I was health secretary, I remember having cause to look at the tool and health boards’ compliance with it on more than one occasion. When we have infection outbreaks such as those that we have been speaking about, it is important to review procedures, and if any changes are considered to be required, they should be made.
New figures released this week confirm that, for the first time in a decade, homelessness in Scotland is rising. As a result, two days ago Shelter Scotland declared that Scotland faces a housing emergency and said:
“The upcoming budget should be seen as an opportunity for the Scottish Government to ensure councils are properly resourced to deal with this unacceptable rise in homelessness in Scotland.”
Does the First Minister in all conscience really believe that a £319 million cut to local government is properly resourcing Scotland’s councils?
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work will set out his budget statement later on this afternoon. I very much hope that we can reach an agreement that delivers a majority for that budget at 5 o’ clock this evening. Work on that continues. However, work on that does not continue with the Labour Party, because we are still waiting for Labour to bring forward any credible proposals for the budget. To be fair, Alex Rowley—I am not sure whether he is in the chamber—did bring forward proposals. He is a front-bencher, but it turned out that the proposals were not approved by the rest of the Labour Party.
On the important issue of homelessness, I agree with Shelter’s sentiments. For context, the long-term trend shows a significant decrease in the number of homelessness applications—the slight rise this year follows an eight-year decline in homelessness applications. All the evidence suggests that that is largely down to welfare changes, which Richard Leonard and I oppose, although we differ on whether the Parliament should be responsible for the welfare system.
It is also important to note that the figures pre-date the establishment of the ending homelessness together action plan, published in November, which has 70 different recommendations and was backed by organisations such as Shelter Scotland and Crisis, which were represented on the task force that produced the recommendations.
Back on the budget, we have committed to a £50 million ending homelessness together fund and committed £23.5 million from that fund to support a transformation around rapid rehousing.
This is an issue of the utmost seriousness, which the Government takes extremely seriously, as will be reflected in our budget and in the other work that we are doing with organisations such as Shelter Scotland.
The First Minister refers to a fund that is worth £50 million over five years, compared with a budget that cuts council funding by more than six times that in one year alone—as it stands, the budget that we will vote on this afternoon will cut council funding by £319 million.
We are talking about cuts to social work and housing and homelessness support services, as well as cuts in the number of staff to deliver them. As a result, people in need, including children in need, are falling through the cracks. In the 12 months up to September 2017, 833 households cited a lack of support from health, housing and social work services as the reason for their homelessness.
This week, the Government announced the figure for the year ending September 2018. Will the First Minister tell us whether that figure was up or down?
I am going to guess that Richard Leonard would not be asking me that if the figure was down, so I am sure that it is up.
Members: You don’t know?
I do not have the figure to hand but I will happily supply it after this meeting.
These are important issues. On the rise in homelessness in the past year after an eight-year decline, everybody, including the United Nations special rapporteur on poverty, knows that that is largely down to changes in welfare that I opposed but do not have the ability to influence because we do not have the power in this Parliament.
Notwithstanding that, we are taking action to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, through the work that we did through the task force and the recommendations that came from it, and through the ending homelessness together fund. We will continue to work with organisations to deliver improvements.
Richard Leonard talks about the budget. I repeat again that, in the draft budget, we are delivering a real-terms increase to councils. We have been prepared to listen to parties that say that that does not go far enough and we have simply made the point that if other parties want us to increase the money to local government, they have to come forward and tell us where that money should come from. Labour has failed to do so; the Green Party is the only party that has made constructive proposals.
Perhaps the most significant item in the budget relating to homelessness and housing, which Richard Leonard did not mention, is the £826 million that the Government is investing to deliver new affordable housing. Fundamentally, building more houses is a key part of how we tackle homelessness. Previous Labour Administrations were not all that successful at that, but this Government has been determined to prioritise it and we will continue to do exactly that.
The facts, from the Government’s own figures, released this week, are that 1,178 households found themselves homeless in Scotland in the past year as a result of a lack of support from public services. That is a rise of 41 per cent.
Our councils have a legal duty to vulnerable people, including children, and the First Minister has a moral duty to deliver the funding that councils need. By asking the Parliament to vote for a budget that cuts council services by more than £300 million, the First Minister is failing in that duty. [Interruption.]
Order, please. Let us hear the question.
The last time that I asked the First Minister about homelessness, she told me:
“for as long as one single person is homeless or rough sleeping in our country, we still have work to do.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2018; c 15.]
Last year, the First Minister’s budget led to the first rise in homelessness in a decade and a housing emergency. Why is her response to that rise and that emergency to cut council funding this year even further?
Council funding is increasing, and Derek Mackay will set out further details of that later.
I absolutely stand by what I said—homelessness and rough sleeping are not acceptable. The increase in homelessness is down to welfare cuts and changes, and everybody understands that, including, I believe, Richard Leonard, in his heart. If he joined me in calling for responsibility over welfare to be held in this Parliament, perhaps we could do something more about it.
Notwithstanding that, we continue to take action through the recommendations and the fund that I have spoken about, and by working with organisations such as Shelter and Crisis and with local authorities to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. We are also investing record sums in building new affordable housing. Our budget reflects all of that.
I go back to the point that Richard Leonard criticises the budget but has failed to bring forward a single alternative budget proposal, which is simply not acceptable. I mentioned Alex Rowley’s proposal. To give credit to Alex Rowley, at least he brought forward a proposal. Given that he is a front bencher, we assumed that it was an official Labour proposal, but Labour members cannot even get their act together to agree with each other on the budget, let alone with anybody else. Alex Rowley suggested that we free up more money for local government by, in effect, taking 3 per cent out of every other budget, except the health budget. That would have included social security. Therefore, a proposal to take 3 per cent out of our social security budget is the closest that Labour has come to making any budget proposals.
I simply say to Richard Leonard that if he wants not just me but anyone, across the country, to take Labour seriously on the budget, he has to do more than stand here and moan—he actually has to start bringing forward proposals, because so far he has not done so.
A lot of members wish to ask supplementary questions. We will see how many we get through.
TalkTalk Job Losses (Stornoway)
What can the Scottish Government do to assist the workforce of the TalkTalk call centre in Stornoway, in my constituency, who have just learned that they are all to lose their jobs this summer? The First Minister will appreciate that 59 job losses leaves a very big hole in a small, self-contained island economy, comparable to perhaps 1,800 job losses in Glasgow. I urge the Scottish Government and its agencies to do everything possible to seek alternative options to help those workers and the wider community.
I thank Alasdair Allan for raising the issue. I was very concerned to learn of the developments at TalkTalk in Stornoway yesterday and the impact that they will have on the affected employees, as well as on the local community and economy. His point about scale is very well made. Our agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, is already in direct contact with TalkTalk, at local and national level, and we are committed to doing everything possible to address the situation urgently, in the hope of attaining a positive outcome.
In the unfortunate event of individuals facing redundancy, we stand ready to provide support through the partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—initiative, but our first priority is to explore all options to avoid redundancies. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work will be happy to liaise with Alasdair Allan on the action that we are taking, and any further action that the Scottish Government and our agencies could take.
I am sure that the First Minister will have seen last weekend’s newspaper coverage of the 13-year detention of Kyle Gibbon at Carstairs, which quoted the Scottish Government’s announcement of plans to hold an inquiry into why Mr Gibbon, along with eight other people with autism or learning difficulties, had been detained in a maximum-security hospital. A previous article in December said that the Minister for Mental Health would carry out an inquiry into Carstairs by the end of January. Will the First Minister confirm that Kyle’s case is being investigated?
I will ask the Minister for Mental Health to correspond with the member with more detail on the case. I hope that everyone across the chamber will understand if I say that it would not be appropriate for me or the Government to comment on individual patient cases due to patient confidentiality. I will say that diagnosis of a behavioural disorder is not in itself cause for detention and that there are significant safeguards where compulsory treatment is necessary, including the right of appeal. Admission to the state hospital is based on diagnosis of a mental disorder that requires treatment under conditions of special security and which cannot be suitably cared for in a hospital other than the state hospital.
The Minister for Mental Health pays very close attention to such cases and we will do everything possible to ensure that all rules and regulations are being properly adhered to. I will ask her to write to the member with whatever further detail it is appropriate to share with him.
Street Valium (Glasgow)
Since mid-November in Glasgow, over 20 homeless people have died due to the availability of a high-strength street valium known as street blues—that is three deaths a week. Drug users have been warned that they are dicing with death. The situation is unprecedented and presents a new problem on our streets. Last month, a drugs gang was jailed for producing at least £1.6 million-worth of that type of street valium, but that has not dented the supply.
The problem is not confined to Glasgow—it is in other cities in Scotland—but it is certainly biggest in Glasgow. Can the First Minister assure the Parliament that there will be a considered response, and ensure that people are warned about the dangers of this drug? There must also be a much wider multi-agency approach to get these deadly drugs off our streets and to save lives where we can.
Pauline McNeill raises a very important matter that has affected my constituency in the past, so I am very aware of the issues underlying this question and their impact on individuals and communities. Obviously, we are aware of an increase in street valium being implicated in deaths, usually when it is used in combination with opiates. Significant harms are associated with poly-drug use; most drug-related deaths are of people who take more than one substance.
I can tell the chamber that the Glasgow city alcohol and drug partnership has already met to discuss this issue and what further action can be taken to respond. It continues to promote a range of outreach activity as well as provide harm reduction information specifically on the issue of street valium. The partnership is implementing a treatment protocol for the management of dependence associated with the use of street valium for those most at risk and identifying barriers to treatment through focus groups with people at risk who are not already in contact with treatment services. We will continue to work closely with all alcohol and drug partnerships to monitor drug trends and ensure that public information is as it should be. We also work closely with the police in all aspects of drug policy and enforcement, including counterfeit prescription medication.
Those are important issues and all agencies involved have a responsibility to ensure that the action that is being taken meets the challenge that is posed. I would be very happy to ask the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing to meet Pauline McNeill if she wants further information on the action and discussions being undertaken.
Blue Water (Coatbridge High Schools)
The First Minister will be aware of reports of blue water at Buchanan and St Andrew’s high schools in Coatbridge. She might also be aware of reports that staff are being warned against speaking to parents and politicians about the issue. Can she outline what steps the Scottish Government can take to ensure that there is a full investigation into the problem by North Lanarkshire Council and that the council is keeping the parents, families and pupils who are involved fully informed in a transparent manner?
Scottish Government officials have been in contact with North Lanarkshire Council about the issue and I understand the concerns that are being raised. The council has informed us that a range of measures is already being taken, including replacing pipe work, and has advised us that that process will be completed next month. The council has also advised that parents and pupils have been kept informed by letter. Clear communication about the issue and the steps being taken to address it is in everyone’s best interest and I encourage the council to ensure that that is done. I advise and assure Fulton MacGregor that my officials will continue to liaise with the council and offer any appropriate support as it seeks to resolve this serious issue.
Hepatitis A Outbreak (St Mary’s Primary School)
The First Minister might be aware of the recent outbreak of hepatitis A at St Mary’s primary school in my region, which has resulted in staff and pupils having to be vaccinated. The source of the outbreak is currently unknown. What assurances can the First Minister give that measures will be taken to fully investigate the outbreak and prevent it from happening again?
Again, that is an important and serious issue to raise. Vaccination has been undertaken and is either on-going or completed, but that is an important step that has been taken. Obviously, investigations will continue to try to identify the source of the outbreak. Health ministers will be more than prepared to keep the member, and other members who have an interest in the issue, updated as more information becomes available.
People’s Development Trust (Legacy Hub)
Can the First Minister give any reassurance to the community in Dalmarnock about the future of the legacy hub, which is a fabulous facility funded by the Scottish Government, Glasgow City Council, Clyde Gateway and the Big Lottery Fund as a legacy from the Commonwealth games but which, sadly, has now closed as the People’s Development Trust has gone into administration?
I was really sad to hear of the People’s Development Trust entering administration and of the impact that that has had on the trust’s staff and, indeed, the local community that has relied on its services. Glasgow City Council staff have met parents affected by the closure of the nursery to discuss the options available for replacement childcare and the availability of nursery places within a 2-mile radius. The council is, rightly, leading on engagement with the administrator with the aim of ensuring that the hub can remain an important asset for the community in the future. That is fundamentally a matter for the administrator and Glasgow City Council. However, we absolutely recognise the importance of the legacy hub to the people of Glasgow, so the Government will remain in close contact with the council and with interested parties as the situation evolves and we will offer any support that it is appropriate for us to offer, including, if necessary, support through the partnership action for continuing employment initiative for any member of staff faced with losing their job.
Raytheon (Scottish Government Support)
The Scottish Greens have regularly raised the issue of Scottish Government support to the arms industry and, in particular, to Raytheon, the third-largest arms firm in the world and the largest producer of guided missiles. The firm sells missiles to Saudi Arabia, where they have been linked to alleged war crimes, such as the bombing of civilians.
When we raise these issues, we are often told by the Scottish Government—as The Ferret was told recently, in response to an inquiry about a report that it was publishing—“We are very clear that we expect the UK Government to properly police the export of arms and investigate whenever concerns are raised.” I do not expect that. I fully expect that the United Kingdom Government will continue to facilitate arms sales to human rights abusers and to countries that are involved in war crimes and atrocities around the world. I do not think that people in Scotland should be expecting the Scottish Government to continue to back this industry.
In the past week, my colleague Ross Greer published research—[Interruption.] If colleagues would like to hear this—[Interruption.] Perhaps some of them do not care.
My colleague Ross Greer has published research showing that Scottish Enterprise is providing bespoke services to Raytheon to help it grow, by offering advice and helping it to access finance and new markets. What on earth is the justification for the Scottish public to back such a company, which has reported sales of £22 billion in 2017, to grow its business? Is it not time for the First Minister to reverse the Scottish Government’s support for the arms industry?
First, I have not personally seen the research by Ross Greer that Patrick Harvie refers to. It might be available to the Government. I am more than happy to ask Government officials to take a look at it.
As I have said in the chamber before in response to questions that Patrick Harvie has raised on this issue, the Scottish Government and our enterprise and skills agencies do not provide funding for the manufacture of munitions—that is, weapons or ammunition particularly for military use. Any support that we give to companies such as Raytheon is focused on projects for non-military uses and for business diversification. For example, laser guidance components have a broad range of navigation uses, including landing guidance for helicopters. Of course, as Patrick Harvie has alluded to, licences for arms sales are provided by the UK Government.
We will continue to provide support for firms in areas such as innovation, workplace efficiencies and training. These firms support a large number of jobs in Scotland. However, we cannot and will not provide support for weapons or ammunition or munitions in general.
The First Minister often uses the word “diversification” as a cover for support to the arms industry. Can the First Minister tell us anything about the extent to which diversification has happened? According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2007, 92 per cent of Raytheon’s total sales were arms sales and, in 2017, that figure was 94 per cent. What we are seeing is not diversification but the opposite, and the support of the Scottish Government, through the account management that is delivered by Scottish Enterprise, is specifically to grow that business and access new markets.
Can the First Minister tell us anything that the Scottish Government intends to do differently in the future? Meanwhile, is there not an overwhelming case to withdraw the constant stream of support from the public purse for this company and others to grow their lethal business?
The Scottish Enterprise funding to Raytheon has supported a range of activity for diversification into non-military and civilian markets and has helped to re-site Raytheon administrative staff; it is not funding to support munitions, ammunition or weapons. That remains the case. There are jobs that are supported by these companies. Of course, they are often global companies that do not just operate in Scotland, so their overall business will depend on what they do in a range of different countries. However, that is the focus of support for Scottish Enterprise.
I remain open to hearing concerns about this matter and to considering whether there are any changes that can be made to tighten up the procedures that Scottish Enterprise uses. However, I make no apology for our enterprise agencies trying to support our economy and jobs. Often, members in this chamber rightly raise concerns about job losses. The job of the Government, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise is to try to create and support employment. However, Patrick Harvie is right to say that it is important that that is done ethically and morally, and that is what Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise do.
We will continue to listen to views on the matter and, if there are changes that we can make, we are happy to consider making them.
Restraint Practices (Schools)
Vulnerable, disabled schoolchildren are being physically and mentally harmed by restraint practices in Scottish schools that may be illegal. That is the conclusion of a report by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland. More than 2,600 instances were recorded in just one year; 2,600 does not sound like a last resort to me.
The Scottish Government has until the end of today to respond to the report. What will it say?
We will respond to the commissioner’s report. I believe that we will respond by the end of this week, which is within the time in which we are required to do so. It is courteous that we respond to the commissioner and we will.
Although we will, of course, look to make changes if required, the guidance that is in place is clear about the importance of de-escalation in situations in which restraint may be considered. It is also clear that restraint must only ever be used in cases of absolute last resort. That is exceptionally important. However, we will respond to the commissioner and look at making changes to guidance or practice, if that is considered to be appropriate and necessary.
Last week, the First Minister told me to wait and see what she was going to do on the demands of the United Nations on the age of criminal responsibility. At this morning’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee meeting, her MSPs voted to reject those demands. It is therefore fair to question the First Minister and her commitment to children’s rights, rather than to wait and see.
A child with a mental age of three was left traumatised and distraught after being locked in a school cloakroom. There are reports of children being tied to chairs, being prevented from going to the toilet and being dragged across the floor, causing injury. The voices of those children are often not heard, so it is important for us to speak up for them.
The children’s commissioner said that the Scottish Government is not complying with the advice of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The commissioner said that guidance is inconsistent and ambiguous and that he is not certain that restraint is used as a last resort. Will the First Minister take the advice of the children’s commissioner and dramatically cut the use of restraint on vulnerable, disabled children in Scotland?
First, I say to Willie Rennie that rarely—probably never—does a week go by in which I do not personally and directly listen to the voices of children and young people. It is a very important part of the job that I do and it is a very important part of how this Government conducts itself.
Once a year, we meet as a full cabinet with the Scottish Children’s Parliament and the Scottish Youth Parliament. That is just one symbolic example of our commitment to hearing young people’s voices.
We will respond to the commissioner and, if there is a view that changes are required, we will make those changes. We will continue to take whatever action is necessary to support an overall system in Scotland that is respectful of children’s rights in general and that puts children’s interests at the heart of everything that we do—not just in the cases that Willie Rennie cited.
Of course, we have committed to incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law. That will require a whole range of work to be undertaken across the Scottish Government to ensure that we are fully compliant with that convention. That is an important indication of how seriously we take these issues.
Where we fall short—as all Governments do from time to time—it is important that we recognise that, and take action to rectify it. That is my personal commitment as First Minister and it is a commitment that runs right through our Government.
I am not sure how much time we have, but I will try to squeeze in a couple of supplementary questions.
Sexual Offences against Children
The First Minister will be aware of reports this week about a dental student who was convicted of serious sexual abuse against a child, but who was given an absolute discharge, which has devastated the child’s family.
I know that the First Minister cannot comment on individual cases, but does she agree that serious sexual offences against children should be punished severely, and that we need more transparency around sentencing in cases such as this?
In general terms, of course I agree with the sentiment of that question. I am grateful to Liam Kerr for acknowledging that I cannot comment on the detail of the particular case.
I absolutely understand the concerns that have been expressed about what has been reported about the sentence. However, the sentencing decision in any criminal case is entirely a matter for the judge. The judiciary acts entirely independently, on the basis of the facts and circumstances of individual cases. The judge will take into account a wide range of factors, including the age of the offender and any previous convictions.
The member may not be aware of this, because it happened shortly before First Minister’s questions, but the court has issued a statement this morning, providing more detail on the factors involved in the case. I will not go into detail on that, because the statement is available for members to read. However, in the closing paragraph, it describes the decision in the case as “wholly exceptional” and that is undoubtedly a fair description.
I understand the concerns, but we must protect the principle in Scotland that sentencing decisions are not a matter for politicians; however difficult and controversial they may be for the public, sentencing decisions are rightly and properly matters for judges.
Will the First Minister update Parliament on the on-going teachers’ pay negotiations and what the current offer would mean for teachers in the lowest pay grades?
The teachers’ pay ballot opens today, so the matter is very much in the hands of teachers. An improved offer has been made to teachers and the additional investment required to fund that offer will be provided by the Scottish Government.
For all teachers on the main grade, the deal will involve an increase of 9 per cent by April 2019, with another 3 per cent in April 2020. The lowest-paid teachers will see an increase in their salaries by 16 per cent by April 2019, rising to almost 20 per cent by April 2020. That is important because we know that one of our challenges is attracting more people into teaching as a profession and I hope that that increase will help us to do so.
Teachers at the top of the pay scale will also see their pay rise to more than £41,000 by April 2020. Finally, the restructuring of the pay scale will mean that teachers will reach the top of the scale faster—within five years.
It is now for teachers to make a decision. I hope that teachers will consider the detail of the offer and I very much hope that they will decide to back the deal, which I believe is in the interests of the teaching profession and of pupils the length and breadth of the country.
Mountain Rescue Services (Support)
To ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government provides to mountain rescue services. (S5F-03036)
The Scottish Government provides annual grant funding of more than £300,000 to Scottish Mountain Rescue to help all 28 volunteer mountain rescue services carry out their work. We are the only Government to fund mountain rescue in that way. We are also contributing £100,000 over three years from 2016-17 to help towards the cost of replacing the Scottish Mountain Rescue team’s ageing very high frequency radio equipment, as well as assisting with the procurement process.
Scottish Government officials work collaboratively with Police Scotland, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Scottish Mountain Rescue to help resolve any issues around search and rescue that arise from time to time.
Given the harsher weather conditions across the country, will the First Minister go into further detail on the dialogue between the Scottish Government, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Police Scotland in relation to helicopter support? Does the First Minister agree that the voluntary work of the Scottish Mountain Rescue service is invaluable? [Applause.]
I whole-heartedly agree. Mountain rescue volunteers, including the cave and dog teams, do a vital job and often put their own lives at risk. I am sure that we would all want to thank them for that.
Recently, there has been some concern about search and rescue helicopter support. The levers for change around that remain with the United Kingdom Department for Transport. However, following recent discussions between Police Scotland and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, we understand that guidance has been updated to address the issues that have been raised around support for body recovery and for lifting volunteers from the hill following a rescue.
Police Scotland’s helicopter has also been introduced as a last resort to assist mountain rescue teams with body recovery, thus helping to improve the situation. I understand that the chief pilots of both Prestwick and Inverness air crews met the four independent mountain rescue teams just before Christmas to discuss how they can better work together in the future.
Social Media (Harmful Content)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to address the risk of young people being exposed to harmful content on social media. (S5F-03017)
Internet safety regulation and legislation are a reserved matter, but we are taking action where we can to keep young people safe online, not least by working with Education Scotland to ensure that internet safety has been embedded in curriculum for excellence and the school inspection quality framework.
We published the “National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People” and we are working with the police, education services and third sector partners to consider new and emerging risks. In particular, we recently commissioned a study of the reported worsening mental wellbeing of young people, with a focus on teenage girls. The results of that study will be published shortly and will include analysis of the role of technology and social media.
I am sure that the First Minister will have seen the clear will of the United Kingdom Government and those elsewhere to hold social media companies to account for protecting children and young people from harmful content, whose shocking implications have been made all too stark by recent events.
Does the First Minister agree that, as well as ensuring that social media companies take their responsibilities seriously, it is equally important to educate children early about the risks and realities of using social media and about what to do when problems arise? With that in mind, what action will the Scottish Government take to promote that approach?
In my original answer, I covered action that we are taking to embed internet safety in the school curriculum—I agree that education is vital here. We all want young people to enjoy and take advantage of the enormous benefits of the internet, but we also want to ensure that they are safe. That is often a difficult balance to strike, and everybody must play their part in that.
Internet and social media providers have a key responsibility, and I agree that it is vital to hold them properly to account. They are in a powerful and privileged position, so they must take their responsibilities seriously.
Education helps to empower young people to know and understand the risks and therefore avoid the risks. To conclude where I started, it is essential to embed internet safety in education and the school inspection framework, and the Government is committed to continuing to take forward that work.
That concludes First Minister’s question time.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Last week, the Parliament’s members—including the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity—agreed unanimously to support urgent progress on the Glasgow airport access project. In taking forward the Parliament’s unanimous decision, the cabinet secretary has now announced his decision that the project should be scrapped.
Presiding Officer, will you advise the chamber how we can ensure that cabinet secretaries implement the Parliament’s decisions, rather than entirely ignoring them and announcing at short notice a decision that directly contradicts the Parliament’s decision? The Parliament took the decision on that important project only last week.
I thank Johann Lamont for her question, which is not a point of order. She sounds as if she has a political question, which could be asked through the normal mechanisms, such as written questions, or through her business manager and the Parliamentary Bureau.
I apologise that 12 members could not ask supplementaries at First Minister’s question time. I again implore all members and the First Minister to keep their questions and answers short.
Before we move to members’ business, there will be a short suspension to allow the public gallery to clear and to allow ministers and members to change seats.12:48 Meeting suspended.
12:50 On resuming—