Meeting date: Thursday, March 31, 2022
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 31 March 2022
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Benefit Sanctions, Portfolio Question Time, Investment in Natural Capital, Scotland’s Vision for Trade (Annual Report), Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Point of Order, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Benefit Sanctions
- Portfolio Question Time
- Investment in Natural Capital
- Scotland’s Vision for Trade (Annual Report)
- Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Point of Order
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Ferries (Construction Contract)
“I think this is one of the achievements we are most proud of. This yard is iconic in Scotland”.
Those were Nicola Sturgeon’s words in 2016, when talking about the contract to build ferries at Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd. Does the First Minister accept that she has made the yard iconic for all the wrong reasons?
I still believe that the Scottish Government was right to do everything possible to save Ferguson’s shipyard. If it were not for those decisions, Ferguson’s shipyard would not still be open and employing significant numbers of people, as it is today. Douglas Ross and I may well take different views on this, but I think that it was right for the Scottish Government to protect and save jobs and the shipyard.
As I set out at First Minister’s question time last week, the delays to the timetable for the construction of the ferries and the cost overruns are a matter of deep regret. The Audit Scotland report that was published last week set out much of the detail on that, and the Scottish Government’s Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd is certainly intent on learning all lessons. However, I do not regret the fact that Ferguson’s shipyard is still operational and employing lots of people.
It is good that people continue to be employed; we welcome that. However, there was not a single mention in the First Minister’s answer of the island communities that have been waiting for years for those lifeline services. That is where her regret should lie, but they do not even merit a mention.
The deal that the First Minister is so proud of has become a disaster. We now know that the Government waived a crucial safeguard that would have protected taxpayers’ money. International guidelines say that the refund guarantee is the financial cornerstone of a shipbuilding project. The guidelines state:
“it is unlikely that any shipbuilding contract would be signed if there was no such guarantee”,
yet that is exactly what the First Minister did, knowing the risks.
Last week, when I asked about the guarantee, she said:
“That decision was clearly taken based on the balance of risks.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2022; c 13.]
In other words, she dropped a vital safeguard, which is standard for such contracts, in order to cut a deal. Five years on, does the First Minister accept that the risks were far too high and that it was a bad deal?
In my initial answer, I expressed deep regret—I think that those were my actual words—about the delay in the construction of the ferries and the cost overrun. Clearly, the people who are most impacted by the delay in the construction of the ferries are those who live on our islands. That is where my deep regret rightly lies.
On the wider question on the refund guarantee, I set out my response in full last week. There was a failure on the part of FMEL to offer the full-refund guarantee and, as I set out in detail last week, a number of steps were taken to mitigate the risk that was caused by that. The three key steps in mitigation that were taken were, first, the final payment that was to be made to FMEL for the delivery of the vessels was increased from 15 per cent to 25 per cent of the contract price. Therefore, in effect, CMAL would withhold more of the payment until the later stage. Secondly, CMAL would take ownership of all equipment, machinery and materials as they arrived at the shipyard. Thirdly, FMEL would require all major suppliers to offer the full refund guarantee, with CMAL as the payee.
Those were the mitigation steps that were taken, and there was then a requirement for ministers to take a decision on a balance of judgment. As the paperwork that has been in the public domain for some time now makes clear, CMAL articulated concerns about that—that is all laid out in the paperwork and the Audit Scotland report. However, there was also a view that the negotiations with FMEL had led to the best deal that could have been struck with FMEL.
Again, I express my deep regret at the delays and cost overruns in the construction of the ferries. Lessons have been, are being, and will be learned. I do not, however, regret the fact that the shipyard still exists and is now employing more than 400 people. As well as learning lessons from this experience, we are also determined to ensure that the shipyard has a bright future.
The First Minister stands there and says that lessons have been learned, but last week’s Audit Scotland report said:
“There is no evidence that the Scottish Government, Transport Scotland or CMAL conducted a formal project review exercise after the original contract failed.”
That is how to learn lessons, but her Government did not do that.
Despite her very long answer, the First Minister could not accept that the deal was a bad deal. However, she mentioned CMAL and its statements that are in the public domain and in the Audit Scotland report. CMAL knows that the deal is a bad deal because it said—let us remember that the company is owned by the Scottish Government—that it would not agree another contract with those conditions. A Government-owned company said that.
What else did CMAL say, according to the Audit Scotland report? Regardless of what Scottish Government ministers tell the company, because it is so opposed to the deal and can see the pitfalls, even if the Government and ministers told it otherwise, it would not take that approach. CMAL gets how bad the deal is, but the First Minister does not.
The issue is important to islanders and island communities, because the ferries are vital to their way of life and work, so let us look at what happened here. Nicola Sturgeon signed off a contract against the advice of experts. She started building ferries without agreeing a design. She threw good money after bad and £0.25 billion has been spent with nothing to show for it. Worst of all, the person who has ultimate responsibility, the First Minister, removed the essential safeguard that would have protected Scottish taxpayers.
A former Scottish Government shipbuilding adviser says that the final cost could rise to between £350 million and £400 million. Can the First Minister guarantee to Scottish taxpayers that that will not be the final bill?
The chief executive of the shipyard and CMAL have endorsed the latest cost estimate, which the finance secretary set out in the chamber last week alongside the latest updated timescale. That is significant, because it is the first time that it has happened. Those are the cost estimates, and all the efforts of those in the yard are now ensuring that the ferries are delivered.
I am not standing here and saying that there is not a great deal to deeply regret about the conduct of the contract. It clearly has not gone the way that anybody would have wanted it to. However, Douglas Ross said that there is nothing to show for it. As of the middle of March this year, 462 people have employment in Ferguson’s shipyard. That is something to show for the Government’s actions.
Douglas Ross also said that no lessons have been learned, then went on to narrate the lessons that CMAL has already learned and is putting into practice. We will continue to learn the lessons and, most importantly, we will continue to focus on completing the ferries, which is the most important thing for our island communities. We will also focus on ensuring that Ferguson’s shipyard and all those who work there now and in the future have that bright future that people across Scotland want.
I know that the First Minister does not like First Minister’s questions, because members hold her to account and seek answers from her, but she did not even make an attempt to give a guarantee. A former Scottish Government adviser has said that the costs will go to £350 million to £400 million, but we have heard nothing from the First Minister to guarantee to Scottish taxpayers that that will not happen.
What should have been, in the First Minister’s words, a proud achievement, has become a sign of the Government’s incompetence. In 2014, the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, said that the SNP would replace 12 ferries for £250 million, but it has not even built one ferry for that amount of money. It has ignored the experts, and islanders remain stuck with a rotten ferry service and no sign of improvement.
The First Minister’s Government struck a deal, on the balance of risks, that has been catastrophic for Scottish taxpayers, and any evidence as to why that call was made has mysteriously vanished. Audit Scotland could not find a shred of evidence—it says that in its report.
Nicola Sturgeon’s whole claim here, even after she has lost £250 million without building a single ferry, is that the deal was the best option available. Is she seriously saying that she would sign the same deal all over again?
That was the view at the time that the contract was signed. Obviously, we would not repeat what has happened; that is self-evident.
On the issue of the costs, Douglas Ross has quoted—I know that he was quoting somebody else—costs of between £350 million and £400 million. I simply do not recognise those numbers. The cost estimates are as they were set out by the finance secretary, and we stand behind those cost estimates. I have been very clear about that.
Our focus now is on ensuring that the ferries are completed in the interests of our island communities and that Ferguson’s shipyard and all those who work in it have a bright future. We will learn the lessons from what has happened. I have said several times today that I deeply regret the experience, and I take full responsibility—as I did last week—for that, but my focus, and that of the Government, is on learning the lessons and securing the future of the shipyard.
Ferguson Marine (Port Glasgow) Holdings Limited (Turnaround Director)
The waste of public money—a quarter of a billion pounds so far—by the Government at Ferguson’s does not end with the award of the ferry contract. In August 2019, Tim Hair was appointed as turnaround director at the yard. The emails that I have here, which were obtained through freedom of information requests, show that the appointment was rushed through, without the usual competition, in just a few days. Mr Hair was selected from a shortlist of only three people, all of whom were recommended by the corporate adviser PricewaterhouseCoopers. In the process of negotiating his salary, Mr Hair started by offering a rate of £2,000 a day, but he ended up being paid just under £3,000, plus expenses, per day. The emails also show that the First Minister was informed about all that and did not raise a single objection.
As people across Scotland tighten their belts, can the First Minister explain why she thought that it was right to pay Tim Hair more than £2 million, which meant that he earned in just 11 days what the average Scot earns in a year?
The decisions that were taken at the time were in line with proper processes and procedures and with market rates. I do not set the market rates at which people are paid.
A new chief executive is now in place at Ferguson’s, who has updated Parliament on the revised timescales and the revised costs for the ferries. We will continue to update Parliament, and Parliament will continue to hold the Government and the company—which, of course, is now in Government ownership—to account. We will concentrate on learning the lessons but, more than anything, we will concentrate on completing the ferries and on securing a good future for the shipyard. The Scottish Trades Union Congress has already said that that is of huge significance and that the Government was right to intervene to secure the future of the shipyard.
A market rate of £3,000 a day—was the First Minister signing Lionel Messi? Who is the First Minister kidding? I do not hear any apology or any regret for paying Tim Hair £2 million. Let us not forget that that £2 million was to turn around the yard, but the ferries have still not been delivered, are costing more and have been delayed again.
The email that I am holding, which was also obtained through freedom of information requests, shows that Government advisers suggested that Tim Hair needed a decent pay package so that life was not “unnecessarily painful” for him while he swapped Hampshire for Port Glasgow. That is shocking and out of touch.
At a time when families are having to count every penny, it seems that the First Minister is suggesting that Tim Hair was, as he said, value for money. Does the First Minister honestly think that he has been value for money? If not, what will she do to recover £2 million of taxpayers’ money?
I make it clear that I do not think that the experience of the contract has been acceptable in any way, shape or form, but the focus now, under the new chief executive of the shipyard, is to get the ferries completed in the interests of island communities and to secure the future of the shipyard. That is what the Government will continue to focus on. That is in the interest not only of island communities but of those who work in the shipyard.
We should not lose sight of the fact that, but for Government intervention, the shipyard would no longer be operational, it would no longer be open and nobody would be employed. Right now, we have more than 400 people employed in that shipyard, and we intend to do everything that we can to ensure that it has a bright future, which I think is what people in Port Glasgow and across Scotland will want to see.
We are all for protecting jobs, but let us be clear: this was a public relations stunt to protect Nicola Sturgeon’s job, Derek Mackay’s job and the jobs of Scottish National Party MPs.
While people see their bills going up, they see a Government paying a quarter of a billion pounds when there are still no ferries. Contracts and jobs are going abroad, and £2 million has been paid to one person. This Government and this First Minister are all about spin and PR, while the public pays the bill.
Nicola Sturgeon says that what happened was normal and was done by the book, but Audit Scotland says the opposite. She says that she is open and transparent, but Audit Scotland does not agree. Nicola Sturgeon says that the delays are unacceptable, but then accepts them. She says that she wants to learn lessons, but she does not want a public inquiry. She says that the Government takes responsibility, but not a single person has. Why does she think that it is acceptable that, while people need help with the cost of living, they are instead paying the cost of her Government’s failure?
I do not think that Anas Sarwar really does support the protection and retention of employment. If we had followed what he has just set out, there would be no Ferguson’s shipyard and no one would be employed in that shipyard.
From the point of public ownership to November 2020, the number of permanent jobs at Ferguson’s more than doubled. A level of more than 350 permanent staff has been sustained since then. There are currently about 400 permanent employees, and there are additional agency workers. Since August 2021, 42 apprentices have learned a trade in the yard, and the yard plans to take on more apprentices later this year. More than 70 per cent of all the people employed at the yard live in Inverclyde. Those are people who are employed right now and who would be finding the cost of living crisis much harder had the Government not saved the shipyard.
That is the reality. The experience of the contract is deeply regrettable, but what is not regrettable is saving the shipyard and the jobs of those who work in it.
We move to supplementary questions.
Ministry of Defence Housing (Use by Displaced Ukrainians)
In my constituency, many Ministry of Defence family homes around the Dreghorn and Redford barracks have been left empty for many years. Recently, I wrote to the Tory Secretary of State for Defence to highlight that issue again. Will the First Minister support my calls for the United Kingdom Government to consider using the hundreds of empty MOD homes in Edinburgh and across Scotland to house people who are being displaced as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine?
The scale of the humanitarian crisis means that it is important that all housing options are fully explored. I think that MOD housing should and must be considered as part of that process. I would therefore welcome the UK Government, which has sole responsibility for MOD property, making empty homes available to support displaced people from Ukraine.
The Scottish Government is already bringing together key partners to ensure effective co-ordination of plans to address the accommodation needs of people who are settling in Scotland. We are committed to working with all partners to ensure that all arrangements in place are safe and sustainable, and offer true sanctuary for those fleeing the war.
Commodity Costs (Support for Farmers)
The First Minister will be aware that the war in Ukraine, which is closely linked to global gas prices, is having an impact on agricultural commodities. Borders farmers are facing rising costs for inputs, including manufactured fertiliser. The United Kingdom Government has announced steps to address that uncertainty among growers and to keep costs down for farmers, but we have not yet heard anything from the Scottish National Party Government. What action is the First Minister’s Government taking to support farmers at this very challenging time?
We continue to work with farmers to give them whatever support we can. It is important to point out that, although the impact of the war in Ukraine is obviously being felt by our farming community, that community was already suffering from the impacts of Brexit, so, in many respects, real responsibility actually does lie with the UK Government.
Racial Profiling (International Students)
What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that international students are not subject to racial profiling when trying to access accommodation in Scotland?
Nobody—neither students nor anybody else—should be the subject of racial profiling, and we would take a very dim view of any evidence that that was happening. I would be happy to hear more of the information that lies behind the question, look into it if necessary and consider what action may be required as a result.
Fuel Poverty (Heating Oil)
I know that the First Minister is aware of the extreme impact of fuel poverty in the Western Isles, where 88 per cent of households are not connected to the gas grid. Although electricity prices will rise sharply across the whole of Scotland from tomorrow, the price of heating oil has already more than doubled since this time last year. There is little to no competition in my constituency, which leaves consumers without any choice of supplier. Will the First Minister give an assurance that the Scottish Government will continue to make representations to the United Kingdom Government to urge it to introduce proper regulation and price caps for the heating oil industry?
Yes, I assure Alasdair Allan that we will continue to make representations to the UK Government on that very important matter. It is an unregulated market and the powers to introduce regulation remain with the UK Government, but the Scottish Government recognises the impact of price increases on off-gas-grid energy consumers, and I am very aware of the severe impacts that fuel poverty has in rural and island communities.
We have confirmed that we will continue our fuel insecurity funding to support those who are struggling with bills regardless of what fuel they use, and we will continue to provide assistance for households to move away from dependence on heating oil where a low-carbon alternative is available.
Cancer Waiting Times Targets
This week saw the publication of another deeply troubling set of cancer statistics. They reveal that fewer than 80 per cent of urgent referrals are being treated within the two-month target, which is shamefully short of the target set by the Scottish National Party Government, and it cannot use the pandemic as justification for that. The target has now not been met for almost a decade and this is the worst performance since 2008. For all the time that the target remains unmet, patients and their families are left in limbo. What steps will the First Minister urgently take to recover 10 years of missed targets?
On the extremely important issue of cancer waiting times, the member will be aware that there are two key targets. We actually exceed the 31-day target. On the 62-day urgent suspicion of cancer referral to treatment target, although in percentage terms that target is not being met—we are working hard to meet it—more people are being seen within that target than was the case a year ago and two years ago.
We have announced additional funding of £10 million this year and a further £10 million in the coming financial year, with a particularly strong focus on the colorectal and urology pathways, which are two of the pathways that have the most challenges in relation to waiting times. The initiatives that the funding supports include, for example, upskilling nurses and investing in diagnostic tests. We have also established three pilot early cancer diagnostic centres and continue to invest in our detect cancer early programme.
A range of initiatives that are backed by funding are under way as we seek to shorten waiting times under the 62-day target in particular. It is important to point out that the median wait under that target is 46 days, which is well within the target.
This week, the Royal College of Nursing reported record vacancies in Glasgow; it also reported that spending on bank and agency nurses has risen to £76.5 million. That is unsustainable and unacceptable; it means delays and a lack of continuity of care for patients, increased pressure on existing staff and more strain on an already extremely tight budget. Can the First Minister say what new actions the Government will take to urgently address the crisis, because current plans are not working?
I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care met with the RCN yesterday. We have a range of initiatives in place, which I and the health secretary have spoken about in the chamber in recent weeks, to support recruitment in our national health service, which is very challenged at the moment for a variety of reasons that members are well aware of.
However, in Scotland right now, overall nursing and midwifery staffing—excluding vacancies, obviously—is at a record high. It has increased by 14.5 per cent since the Government took office. Overall NHS staffing has increased by more than 20 per cent to a record high since the Government took office. Record numbers are working in our NHS, but we want to recruit more and we have targets to do so. That is why we are investing heavily and working with NHS boards on targeted initiatives to make sure that that recruitment is successful.
To ask the First Minister what changes the recent shifts in fossil fuel prices and the need for energy security have made to the Scottish Government’s plans for decarbonisation. (S6F-00957)
The Scottish Government takes a comprehensive approach to meeting our net zero targets. Our draft energy strategy and just transition plan will consider technologies for transforming Scotland’s energy systems.
Through our heat in buildings programmes, we are driving the decarbonisation of homes and buildings, and we have enhanced support and advice schemes as part of the £1.8 billion investment over this parliamentary session. The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport recently wrote to the United Kingdom Government to outline Scotland’s proposals for decarbonisation, including accelerating the electricity network, increasing financial resources for renewables and resolving unfair network charges that are not aligned with net zero.
There is an urgent need for action. People are facing a cost of living crisis now and energy bills are going up from tomorrow—all while the UK Government seems determined to abandon climate commitments and increase the growing profits of oil and gas companies. A crisis of this nature needs a concerted and holistic response. We must deliver, at scale, measures to help those most in need. We must insulate Scotland, retrofit buildings, invest in low-carbon heating and grow our renewables potential.
What is the Scottish Government doing to supercharge renewables and energy efficiency programmes? What plans are in place to ensure that the necessary workforce and skills are in place? Does the First Minister agree that the oil and gas companies should not be profiting from the cost of living crisis?
We believe that the UK Government should be doing more—and have set out ways in which it can do that—to help people right now with the cost of living crisis. We ourselves are taking a number of actions but, in the main, the levers and resources lie with the UK Government.
We also believe that this is a time for trying to accelerate the transition to net zero, not for moving off that ambition in any way. As I said in my earlier answer, we have extensive plans in place across the energy sector to meet those targets. They include, for example, investing £100 million in the hydrogen sector and boosting support for households to improve their own energy efficiency and to transition away from fossil fuel heating. Our green jobs workforce academy supports existing employees to undertake necessary upskilling and reskilling to secure green jobs opportunities. We have also called on the UK Government for an extended windfall tax on organisations, including oil and gas companies, that are making significant profits right now. Our most recent budget sets out record levels of investment to address the climate emergency and deliver a just transition to net zero.
Will the First Minister welcome the achievement of an 11 per cent reduction in emissions from North Sea operations, and does she agree that the production of more gas on the UK continental shelf means less imported liquefied natural gas—cutting emissions by nearly 300 per cent?
Should we in Scotland not be in the lead on opportunities for decarbonisation, such as the use of offshore wind to power platforms, hydrogen technology, and carbon capture and storage, which the UK Climate Change Committee says is vital to getting to net zero? Does she recognise that, without a thriving oil and gas sector, Scotland may simply lose those major opportunities to lead on net zero, because that sector’s skills, technical expertise and operational experience are essential to delivering them?
I certainly welcome the efforts of the oil and gas sector to decarbonise its own activities. That is something that we should all welcome. Of course, we also have to think about the impact on the environment of the use of oil and gas. That is an important part of getting to net zero as well.
I agree, and have made clear my agreement, that the skills, expertise and infrastructure of the oil and gas sector will be extremely important in making sure that we make that transition to renewable and low-carbon sources of energy.
We need to make that transition as quickly as possible, for a variety of reasons—the importance of that has been underlined in recent weeks—but we need to do that fairly and justly, as well. When he was a minister with these responsibilities, Fergus Ewing played an important role in helping to ensure that the Government is on the right track.
Nobody wants to increase dependence on imports of oil and gas, so we must therefore ensure that we are investing properly in the transition to renewables, and that is what this Government is seeking to do.
The First Minister just said that
“Nobody wants to increase dependency on imports”,
but reports this week suggest that, without political backing, the United Kingdom could be wholly dependent on imports of oil and gas within 15 years, due to a lack of confidence to invest.
Given that the Cambo field is priced into the Climate Change Committee’s net zero projections for decarbonisation and could help to reduce the cost of energy bills, create around 4,000 jobs and significantly help the UK’s energy security, will the First Minister consider giving her political backing to production from Cambo?
I have made clear my views on Cambo—they are well known and well reported. I am not the decision maker on Cambo, but I have made clear my views on that.
Everybody—even the member’s colleagues in the UK Government—accepts the importance of moving away from reliance on fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and that we need to do that justly. The question is how we best do that. Of course, right now, a significant proportion of what is produced in the North Sea is actually exported.
We need to invest more in renewables and low-carbon energy sources. As Fergus Ewing rightly said, we need to invest in carbon capture and storage, and, again, it is regrettable that the UK Government has not prioritised the Scottish Cluster—the Acorn project.
The transition away from fossil fuels is inescapable and the war in Ukraine has just reminded us of how important it is. There will be differences of opinion about the best way to transition, but that we must do so is inescapable. For this Government, the investment in and support of renewables is a crucial part of that.
Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government anticipates the impact will be of the register of persons holding a controlled interest in land, which will launch on 1 April. (S6F-00968)
The new public register will increase transparency around land management and ownership. It will be held by Registers of Scotland and be free to access, and it will provide information about those who ultimately make decisions about the management or use of land, even if they are not registered as the owner. In short, it will mean that those who are in control of land and are taking the decisions about its use are not able to effectively hide their identities because they are not the registered owner.
The register will include overseas entities and trusts, irrespective of when the land was acquired, and the information will enable individuals and communities to identify and engage with those who make decisions about land that affect them. It marks a significant milestone in making land ownership in Scotland more transparent, which is a key objective for the Scottish Government’s land reform ambitions.
I welcome the legislation. To put the issue in practical terms, the First Minister will be aware that in many small towns, such as Galashiels in my constituency, town centres are blighted by many long-term vacant large retail outlets, whose actual owners or landlords cannot be traced, which prevents organisations such as Energise Galashiels and the local authority from redeveloping the town centre through either voluntary or compulsory purchase. Is that the type of difficulty that the legislation will, at long last, help to resolve?
That is certainly one of the issues that the register will help to resolve. As I said earlier, its main purpose is to improve transparency, so that the public have information about the people who are making the decisions about land use, wherever that land is, regardless of who is the registered owner of it. Anyone, including local authorities, who wants to contact the person who controls or influences those decisions will be able to use the register to find their contact details, where they are on the register. It will make it easier for communities to find and contact those who control land and properties, and then influence the decisions about the land and property that impact on them or their communities.
To ask the First Minister what immediate improvements the Scottish Government plans to deliver for passengers when it takes control of ScotRail on 1 April. (S6F-00958)
The transition of ScotRail passenger services into public ownership tomorrow will be a very significant milestone. It will also fulfil a manifesto commitment of this Government and mark a new beginning for ScotRail. It provides an opportunity to modernise and deliver passenger services that are efficient, sustainable, safe and fit for the future and that reflect the changing world we live in.
From tomorrow, services will continue as normal. It is important that we provide reassurance and familiarity to passengers in the immediate term, as we recover from the disruption and impact of the pandemic. Later this spring, we will launch a national conversation, offering rail staff, passengers and communities an opportunity to contribute to the future vision for Scotland’s railway and help to shape this new beginning for ScotRail.
We know that the Scottish National Party is no good at running things—we just have to look at the ferries for that. Given that fiasco, rail passengers should be worried that NatRail will turn out to be CalMac on wheels.
On Sunday, the Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth, was quoted as saying:
“From day one, you might not necessarily see anything that looks different but the major difference is accountability.”
Ms Gilruth obviously did not get the memo that the Government does not do accountability. So far, what we know is that we will have rising fares, service cuts and ticket office closures. What part of that is an improvement?
The Government has already delivered significant improvements on our railways, and that is even before the railway comes into public ownership, as it will tomorrow. I know that the Conservatives like being reminded of this, so I will say again that, since 2009, under this Government, the communities of Alloa, Laurencekirk, Armadale, Blackridge, Caldercruix, Conon Bridge, Shawfair, Eskbank, Newtongrange, Gorebridge, Stow, Galashiels, Tweedbank and Kintore have all been reconnected to the rail network through the reversal of cuts. In the next three years, Reston, East Linton, Dalcross, Cameron Bridge and Leven will follow.
Under the Tories, railway workers in England have faced a pay freeze. A fair pay deal was delivered in October last year for ScotRail staff.
Lastly, we have taken action to keep rail fares down. ScotRail fares are, on average, 20 per cent cheaper than in those areas of the United Kingdom that are governed by the Conservatives.
The public ownership of ScotRail is very welcome, both to all reasonable members in this place and to the public at large. Does the First Minister think that it will increase opportunities for the railway and better serve Scotland’s people and economy?
Yes, I do. Bringing ScotRail into public ownership and control is a historic moment, and I am delighted that it is happening under this Government. However, many others, including the rail unions, campaigned for this to happen and it is important to pay tribute to them, too.
Our commitment is clear: we have invested £9 billion in the railway since 2007. I have just listed the stations that have been reconnected since 2009, with five more to follow. We have delivered a pay deal for staff, in contrast to the pay freeze south of the border.
We will continue to press for full devolution of rail powers, including full devolution of Network Rail in Scotland, so that we can truly deliver the railway that Scotland wants and deserves.
Long Covid Support Fund
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will provide an update on what the £10 million long Covid support fund has been allocated for and how much has been spent. (S6F-00984)
Services and support are already being provided across Scotland for those with long Covid. We know that more is needed, not just now but for the long term, to support people in the most appropriate way. Our long Covid strategic network brings together clinical experts, national health service boards and those with lived experience, and will determine how we target the support fund at the areas where additional resource is needed and can make the biggest difference in the long term.
The first tranche of funding will be allocated over the next few weeks. The funding will be used by boards to strengthen the co-ordination of services across supported self-management, primary care, rehabilitation support and secondary care investigation and support.
I thank the First Minister for her answer, but long Covid sufferers say that there are very few services in place. That funding was announced in September 2021. No indication was given at that stage that, six months later, not one penny would have been allocated to health boards to develop services. Instead, as we have heard, the money will be spread over the next three years. The number of people suffering from long Covid has been estimated by the Office for National Statistics to be 119,000 and rising. Why has the pace been so slow? When will every health board in Scotland have dedicated long Covid services to help patients and their general practitioners?
As I indicated in my initial answer, we have set up the long Covid strategic network. We did that deliberately so that the targeting of the funding would be driven and determined by clinical experts on the front line and by people with lived experience of long Covid. In addition, we have launched a long Covid information platform to help people to manage symptoms. We have worked to raise awareness of long Covid and signpost people to appropriate support. NHS Scotland is already delivering care in line with the recommendations of the clinical guidelines developed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. That is underpinned in Scotland by the full range of NHS services, including primary care teams and community-based rehabilitation services with referrals to secondary care where necessary.
Long Covid clinics are one model that NHS boards may be considering. However, no single approach will fit all areas and circumstances. We will continue to support the development of multidisciplinary support services, because that support will be required for the long term.
Long Covid is becoming the biggest mass disabling event since world war one: there are nearly 120,000 sufferers. Those people need clinics, care pathways and long Covid nurses, yet we are still nowhere. I have asked the First Minister about the issue every month since the funding was announced in September and she said that an action plan was being implemented—six months later, we have just learned that not one penny of that £10 million has left the Scottish Government bank account. Will the First Minister apologise to Scotland’s long Covid sufferers? Will she wake up her ministers on the issue and get help to sufferers fast?
No, we will continue to support the development of services that are appropriate to those who need that support not just now but in the long term. That is already underpinned by the full range of NHS support services. I have outlined the work that has already been done and I have outlined why we took the decision to allow clinical experts and those living with long Covid to direct the nature of the funding that is being made available.
I have been encouraged by members in the chamber to follow the example of the approach that is, allegedly, being taken south of the border. A report was published just last week by the Westminster all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, which stated that the pathways that have been established by the UK Government
“including Long Covid clinics are inadequate and do not meet current demand”.
It also said that
“some of those clinics may be experiencing temporary or even permanent closures”.
The reason why we are doing this in the way that we are is so that we do not somehow suggest that there is one model of support. The support needs to be delivered across the entirety of the NHS.
Of course, we still need to understand more about the nature of long Covid, which is why, right now, the chief scientist office is funding nine Scottish-led research projects to enable us to continue to develop our understanding of long Covid and ensure that services develop alongside that.
Ukrainian Refugees (Protection)
To ask the First Minister what immediate safeguarding measures will be in place to ensure that arrivals from Ukraine are protected from organised criminal activity, human trafficking and exploitation. (S6F-00962)
Any form of human trafficking or exploitation is abhorrent and people must be protected from it. Police Scotland’s national human trafficking unit continues to engage with internal and external partners and enforcement agencies to maintain high visibility of human trafficking and exploitation risks at points of entry around Scotland. Anyone with concerns about human trafficking should contact Police Scotland.
On safeguarding, where people are opening their homes to displaced people from Ukraine, hosts can apply for expedited disclosure checks of the same level of scrutiny as the initial checks that are carried out for those working with children and vulnerable adults. That comes under the new regulations that were introduced last week to ensure that we have a safe, speedy and free vetting system.
We all thank the huge number of Scottish families who have come forward to open their homes to the Ukrainians who are coming here through the United Kingdom-wide scheme. However, we have to be realistic about the fact that, sadly, not everyone who offers help will be well intentioned. In fact, organised criminal gangs may see what is happening in Ukraine as more of an opportunity than a tragedy.
A number of important organisations, including the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance, or TARA, Survivors of Human Trafficking in Scotland and Scotland Against Modern Slavery have all raised valid concerns about the vulnerability and desperation of those who are arriving and the potential for harm as a result of arrivals being lured into low-paid, illegal or sexually exploitative activities or—even worse—simply being abused in private homes.
What work will be undertaken by the Government and its public agencies to adequately vet and prepare, and also educate, host families before the arrival of those who are coming to Scotland? After they have arrived and settled, what on-going safeguards will be in place in the medium to long term to ensure that we track, trace and monitor both the wellbeing and the safety of those who have resettled in Scotland to ensure that none of them is being exploited in any way whatsoever?
That is a very important issue. We are, and we have been, designing support services to ensure that appropriate safeguarding is in place and that we, and the partners with whom we are working, can take account of the on-going wellbeing needs of those who come to Scotland. Disclosure checks are an important part of that, but we are taking a multi-agency approach to ensure that people get the support that they need, not just on arrival and when they are first being accommodated but throughout the time that they may be in Scotland.
One of the reasons why we agreed the supersponsor route with the UK Government was to ensure that we could have an approach that gets people to Scotland quickly and accommodates them temporarily, while on a slightly longer timescale—I stress the word “slightly”—we can put in place all the wider support and do all the appropriate checks. We have support arrangements already in place, starting with the welcome hubs that have been established.
The big hold-up at the moment—we are working constructively with the UK Government to try to resolve this, and I met Michael Gove earlier this week to discuss it—is that, although we have the supersponsor route and the support in place, we are currently being held up by the slow pace of the granting of visas. I know that the UK Government is seeking to speed that up, and I hope that that happens quickly, so that we can start to welcome significant numbers of people to Scotland, with all the support that Jamie Greene rightly identifies as being vital for them.
That concludes First Minister’s questions.