Meeting date: Thursday, June 2, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 02 June 2016
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Taking Scotland Forward: Creating a Fairer Scotland, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Taking Scotland Forward: Creating a Fairer Scotland
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon. The first item of business is First Minister’s question time. As members will know, having introduced a new format I would like to take as many contributions as possible. In that spirit, I ask all members to keep their questions short and their answers as succinct as possible.
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00011)
I will have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
This week, we learnt that a third of secondary 2 pupils are not meeting basic standards in numeracy; that, in the past four years, the percentage of primary 4 pupils performing well in numeracy has fallen by 10 per cent; and that the attainment gap between children from richer and poorer backgrounds has, under the Scottish National Party, got wider.
We have already had one ministerial apology in the chamber this week for the Government’s performance. Are parents and pupils not due one, too?
I have made clear, as has the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills this week, that the findings of the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy are not acceptable. The duty of this Government—my duty as First Minister—working, of course, with local authorities and others, is to ensure that we have an education system in which standards are rising and the inequality gap is closing. That is what we are determined to bring about, which is why we have embarked on a major programme of reform and improvement in our education system.
A key part of that is making sure that, in future, we have much better data than the data provided for us in the SSLN. That survey is limited in its coverage—it is based on a sample that includes just four pupils per primary school and 12 pupils per secondary school. Crucially, although it gives us a snapshot of performance at national level, it does not enable us to tell—school by school—how schools are performing. That is why the national improvement framework will lead to more comprehensive school-by-school data that will allow us to target our efforts more closely.
Of course, the survey predates any impact from the work that we have already started—work on the attainment challenge, focusing on literacy and numeracy, and additional resources through the attainment fund that are targeted on schools in our most deprived areas.
In the delivery plan that John Swinney will outline before the summer recess, we will set out plans for further reforms—a new funding formula, more resources going directly to schools and greater empowerment of headteachers and parents.
I have made clear on numerous occasions—I do so again today—how important this issue is to me and to this Government and we are determined to drive the improvements that all of us want to see.
The view might be different from this side of the chamber, but the answers are still the same and they are just as long.
Let us turn to the First Minister’s plan to make this right. She mentioned data. Last year, she said that she was frustrated that the Government did not know enough about standards for younger pupils and that she wanted more information about performance to be made available. The Deputy First Minister—now, of course, the education secretary—also admitted that there was a “weakness” because information was not collected nationally. In other words, no one was able to see what was going on. Their answer was standardised assessments. Will those assessments give all the information that the First Minister has said the country needs?
If Ruth Davidson had read the national improvement framework, and if she had listened closely to the debate over the previous weeks and months—as I am sure she did, to be fair to her—she would know the answers to those questions.
Standardised assessments will be introduced and work is on-going to ensure that they are introduced later this year. Standardised assessments will, for the first time, inform the judgments that teachers make about the number of pupils who are meeting the required levels of curriculum for excellence.
For the first time, we are going to publish—not just local authority by local authority, but school by school—the percentage of pupils who are and, crucially, who are not meeting the required levels of curriculum for excellence. That will give us data that allows us to target our efforts much more closely. It will also enable us, for the first time, to measure comprehensively what the attainment gap is, because the information will also be broken down on a socioeconomic basis. It will allow us to set measurable and tangible targets for closing that attainment gap.
As I have said, I want to see us make significant progress in closing the attainment gap within the lifetime of this session of Parliament and substantially eliminate the gap over the next 10 years. I am very clear on what we are seeking to do and about the plans that we have to put in place and implement to do that. I hope that members on all sides of this chamber will get behind us. Other parties are very fond—rightly so, to be fair—of talking about the importance of this issue. Let us see whether they have the courage of their convictions when it comes to backing us in the action that we need to take.
I am interested in the First Minister’s reply, but I have to say that others have been an awful lot clearer than she has been on this. The Educational Institute of Scotland has just published an advice note, which I have here; it claims that her plans—the plans of her Government—have been watered down. It says that the Government’s original idea was to assess young people and have the results of all those assessments published. However, the EIS now says that it has forced changes. It says that
“standardised test scores will not be collected ... nor published”.
Further, it adds that there is actually no need for all pupils to sit assessments in the first place.
The First Minister said that publishing more information and more data was vital if we are to improve our schools, but it now appears that she has backed off from her original plans. Why has she not stuck by them?
Firstly, and very clearly, I say that I have. If Ruth Davidson had listened to the comments that I made when I published the national improvement framework earlier this year and, indeed, looked at the detail of the national improvement framework, I think that she would have found the answers to those questions. The data that we will publish is comprehensive data that has never been published before about the percentage of children meeting the required levels of curriculum for excellence. It is not a snapshot survey and not a national survey but information that will be provided school by school and local authority by local authority, informed by the assessments that will be carried out. That was made clear in the national improvement framework and it will continue to be so.
On the point about whether or not all pupils will be required to sit assessments, let me make it absolutely clear: yes, they will be. That is my expectation and that is what I intend to see happen. Clearly, there will be some pupils, for very particular reasons—special needs, for example—for whom there may be a different approach, but the general thrust is that the assessments will be carried out in our schools and they will inform the judgments that teachers make. That will lead to the publication of information that will give us for the first time a clear picture of what is happening in each of our schools and then we will be able to take action if any particular school or area is not performing in the way that we think necessary. That is a clear plan of action that is designed to deliver the very clear objectives that I am setting.
The fact is this—this time last year, the First Minister said that she was “determined” to publish more information for parents and for the Government to see, school by school. She could not have been clearer. In fact, in January, when she was asked by The Financial Times
“Do you think you will make all the NIF data publicly available ... ?”
she answered “yes.” However, we now have the teachers’ union—the teachers themselves—saying that that is not what is happening.
We have an education secretary who has asked for more time. This Government has had nine years—nine years of SNP education failures. We need much more information on the state of our schools. Full publication, not just a sample, was the right answer six months ago and it is still the right answer today, but the Government is backing off from it. That is what it has told teachers across our country. The First Minister and I agree that this needs to be done. We will absolutely stick to our guns. Why is she not sticking to hers?
The leader of the main Opposition party may have changed, but there does not appear to be any greater ability on that leader’s part to adapt her questions to the answers that she is actually given, so let me try to make it clearer. First, all the data that the national improvement framework says will be gathered and published will be gathered and published. That has not changed and it remains the case now in the way that it was when I published the national improvement framework—there is no change whatsoever to that.
Secondly, Ruth Davidson has just said that the data should not be a sample. Was she not listening to a single word that I said? The problem with the SSLN data that we are all talking about this week is that it is sample information. If we go to—I think—section 6 of the SSLN publication and see the methodology, we find that it is a sample drawn from information based on four pupils in every participating primary school and 12 pupils in every secondary school. That is a sample survey.
We are now talking about publishing information on the percentages of pupils—all pupils, not samples of pupils—and whether or not they meet the required levels of curriculum for excellence, local authority by local authority and school by school. That is detailed, comprehensive information that allows us to see not just a snapshot of how our education system is performing, but how each and every school across the country is performing. It means that, if we have to take action in particular areas or in particular schools, that should be done.
That is information that no previous Government has published. It will be published for the first time, which is a sign of our determination to deal with the problem that we are talking about. If Ruth Davidson is serious in saying that she wants to get behind the Government, she should stop trying to find manufactured differences and actually get behind us; she should put her money where her mouth is.
Scottish Trades Union Congress (Meetings)
To ask the First Minister when she will next meet the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress. (S5F-00006)
I meet the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress on a regular basis—biannually. At our previous meeting, which took place on 9 March, we discussed matters including the economy, the Trade Union Act 2016 and the European Union referendum. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work will meet the general secretary of the STUC later today.
We have just heard the First Minister and the Tories dance around how they need to collaborate to test our pupils harder, but surely their priority must be to ensure that our children can learn better in our schools. There was one thing missing from that exchange: neither the Scottish National Party nor the Tories have faced up to the fact that Government cuts are devastating our schools.
This week, the Government’s own figures have showed a scandalous decline in numeracy levels, with every stage getting worse. The gap between the richest and the rest is growing and just one in four children from the most deprived backgrounds has the maths skills that they need to get on in life. That is a disgrace.
Does the First Minister agree with the conclusion of one newspaper this week, which simply said:
“You have failed our kids”?
Interestingly, when the national improvement framework was published earlier this year, I seem to recall Kezia Dugdale—I am sure that she will correct me if I am wrong—and Iain Gray backing the approach that we are taking to assessment. Today, she appears to be jumping on the Liberal Democrat bandwagon in saying that it is all about testing our children. She really should make her mind up about which side of the debate she is on.
We have been very clear about the need to increase resources to tackle attainment. That is why the plans that we set out at the election—plans that were approved by the Scottish electorate, which is why I am standing here answering questions again today—are to increase funding by an extra £750 million over this session of Parliament, specifically targeted at attainment.
By the end of this session of Parliament, we will be spending an extra £0.5 billion on early years education and childcare, because all the evidence says that giving young people the best start to their education in life is key to solving the challenge. We are also getting more of that resource direct to headteachers.
We have said not just that we are going to increase the resource, but that we will have a new funding formula so that the resource gets to the places where it is needed most—places in which more children come from backgrounds of deprivation. Not only do we have the plans for the national improvement framework and the reform plans that will be set out in the delivery plan, but those plans are backed by substantial additional resources.
I say the same to Kezia Dugdale as I have just said to Ruth Davidson: if she is serious about wanting us to raise standards in education and close the equality gap, she should get behind us. Let us make a national effort on behalf of our children, rather than engage in another petty party-political point-scoring exercise.
If the First Minister is serious about tackling the attainment gap, she would not have waited nine years to get started.
Now—here goes. The First Minister tells us that tackling the attainment gap is her number 1 priority, but page 48 of her party’s 2007 manifesto states:
“We will pay particular attention to raising the achievement of the poorest ... 20 per cent of school pupils, with increased early intervention and support.”
How dare the First Minister come to Parliament after nine years and say that she is finally getting round to it? That is a disgrace.
These statistics are the reality of this Government cutting the education budget by 10 per cent: young people are left without the basic skills that they need to prosper, young working-class people are denied places in our universities, and real people are paying a real price for the real cuts that this SNP Government has made. The SNP Government has been in power for nearly a decade now. Surely the First Minister regrets cutting 10 per cent from the education and skills budget.
Let me talk about some of the progress that has been made during our time in office. I do not think that that progress is enough—that is why we are making the issue such a big priority. Let me look at what the situation was in terms of the gap between our 20 per cent most deprived and least deprived pupils achieving a qualification at level 5. When we took office, that gap was 36 percentage points. Today, it is still too big, but it is down to 22 percentage points. The number of pupils from the 20 per cent most deprived areas leaving school without any qualifications has more than halved since we took office in 2007. That is the progress that we have made. I do not think that that progress is far enough or fast enough, which is why we have made education such a priority, backed by the substantial extra resources about which I have spoken.
I have left no doubt about the scale of the challenge that I think rests on my shoulders and on the shoulders of this Government. However, I think that there is also a challenge here for the Parliament as a whole. If we are all serious about raising attainment and closing that equality gap, it is time to get behind the efforts of the Government so that, together, we can make the progress that we need. The question today is this: is the Opposition capable of rising to that challenge?
A 10 per cent cut, Presiding Officer. Let us put that in terms of real money. It is £850 million that the SNP Government has cut from education and training budgets since 2007. The First Minister stands there and tells us that she will put £750 million more in over the next five years, but she has taken £850 million out. I know that numeracy is not a strength for the First Minister this week, but surely she can work that one out. She is faced with a choice: she can work with parties on the left, to invest in education and skills, or she can side with the Tories and impose even deeper cuts on our schools.
The First Minister and I agree: the gap between the richest and the rest in our schools is shameful. However, there is an even bigger gap, and that is the one between the First Minister’s ambition and the reality of her budgets. When will the First Minister do the math and accept that she cannot close the attainment gap while she is cutting school budgets?
In point of fact, between this Government taking office and 2014-15, which is the most recent year for which I have a figure, the money that was available for education and training rose by 7.8 per cent. That is just one particular fact to share with Parliament.
Kezia Dugdale asks me to pick sides in this chamber. On the question of education and raising attainment for children across Scotland, in particular for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, I make it very clear that I am on the side of Scotland’s children and Scotland’s young people, and nobody else’s. I will do whatever it takes to make sure that we have an education system with rising standards, and with an equality gap that is closing, not growing.
As I have already said, there are signs of progress in key areas, but there are other areas where we need to do more and we need to do it faster. I am clear about the challenge that I face. I believe that I am up to that challenge. The question for the Opposition parties is this: are they?
I will take a number of constituency questions, the first of which will be from Jenny Gilruth. Before I take her question, I make the chamber aware that it relates to the tragic case of Liam Fee. As members might be aware, the case is still active—sentence has not yet been passed—so there are a number of restrictions in place, both on the questioner and on the response.
I know that the First Minister and every member in the chamber will join me in condemning the murder of Liam Fee in my constituency. I recognise that the Fife child protection committee has instructed a significant case review, but will the First Minister assure me that, once that review is concluded, all relevant facts pertaining to Liam’s short life and untimely death will be placed in the public domain, and that any failings of the relevant organisations involved will be dealt with robustly?
I am sure that I speak on behalf of all of us in the chamber when I express my horror and sadness at the tragic death of Liam Fee. My deepest sympathies go to everyone affected by this horrific crime, including, of course, the two other young boys who also suffered appalling abuse and neglect.
I welcome the Fife child protection committee’s announcement that a significant case review will be carried out. We fully support the publication of all appropriate findings of significant case reviews. The decision on whether to publish the report will ultimately be for the relevant child protection committee, and, of course, in cases like this there will always be sensitive information that cannot be shared. Taking those things into account, we hope and expect that the committee will decide to publish as much of the information as they possibly can.
It is essential that any lessons that need to be learned from this appalling tragedy are learned and acted on swiftly. In order to ensure that learning gets into the system more quickly and consistently, we are reviewing key aspects of the child protection system, including significant case reviews, as part of our child protection improvement programme.
It is important to say—this is a fundamental point—that the only people who are responsible for the death of Liam Fee are the people who were convicted of his murder. They are to blame and no one else. However, questions are rightly being asked about whether there is any more that the system could or should have done to protect that little boy. Those questions must be examined in detail and answers must be given, and that is what will happen in the weeks and months that lie ahead.
To ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government will provide to the 88 workers who are likely to be affected by the First bus proposal to cease operations in East Lothian and close its depots in Musselburgh and North Berwick.
I am concerned about the prospect of job losses at First, and I know that this will be a difficult time for all those who are affected and their families. The Minister for Transport has met First Scotland East’s management to discuss its plans. The company has started a collective consultation process with trade unions to discuss potential redundancies and options for redeployment within the company. In parallel, East Lothian Council is in contact with other operators to consider how to mitigate the impact on passengers of First’s withdrawal of bus services.
Of course, through our PACE—partnership action for continuing employment—initiative, we have already offered support for any employees who may be affected. The company has accepted that offer of support. We will continue to engage with the company to try to mitigate the impact of its plans and we will do everything that we can to help the employees who might be affected by them.
The First Minister will know that the University of the Highlands and Islands is planning new student accommodation. Is she aware that the proposed development in Lerwick would mean the removal of an engineering business that employs 16 men and women on that site? Will she speak to or contact the university and make sure that the timescale for the development gives the engineering business enough time to move to the new premises that it is planning?
I am aware of that. I believe that Tavish Scott is referring to HNP Ltd, which is an engineering business in Lerwick. I understand the concerns that he expressed and I understand that a number of local partners have already been involved in dialogue about the sale and future use of the land on the site. I will be very happy to ensure that officials make contact with all relevant colleagues in Shetland, including the University of the Highlands and Islands, to establish the current context and provide any advice and assistance that we can to help to secure a satisfactory outcome for all parties involved, including the company that Tavish Scott mentioned. I will also be happy to ask the minister concerned to meet Tavish Scott to discuss what more can be done.
The final constituency question is from Mairi Evans.
The First Minister will be aware of the Airbus Super Puma that crashed off Norway in April, killing 13 people, including Iain Stuart, an oil worker from Laurencekirk in my constituency. There is news today that Norway has added search and rescue flights to its ban on Airbus Super Puma H225 helicopters, due to signs of metal fatigue in the crashed helicopter’s gearbox. What assurances can the First Minister provide that the Super Puma fleet in Scotland is held to the highest safety standards?
First, I take the opportunity to convey my sympathies and condolences—and, I am sure, those of the whole Parliament—to the family of Iain Stuart, who sadly died in this tragic accident.
The safety of workers in the North Sea and on search and rescue operations remains paramount. I give the assurance that the Scottish Government will continue to liaise closely with the oil and gas industry and with relevant regulators. In addition, industry body Oil & Gas UK has formed a helicopter resilience working group, which brings together platform operators to share information and develop further opportunities to safeguard workers’ safety and to collaborate on maintaining and improving production.
We will continue to liaise with all interested parties to ensure that safety is absolutely at the top of everybody’s agenda. I would be happy to ask the minister who is responsible for such issues to liaise with Mairi Evans and share with her any matters that are of interest to her constituents.
To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00015)
Many of us had expected to hear, before the end of the previous parliamentary session, a formal response from the Government to the report and recommendations of its independent adviser on poverty and inequality. We did not get that response before the end of the session, but the First Minister gave us a commitment in her statement last week to implement all those recommendations. I very much welcome that commitment.
Recommendation 9 was that the Government should
“Be bold on local tax reform”.
The report recognised that the council tax is widely viewed as no longer fit for purpose. Does the First Minister agree, as she always used to, that the council tax is no longer fit for purpose?
I confirm again that, as we said in our manifesto and as I said in the chamber last week when I outlined our priorities for government, we accept and will take forward all the recommendations of the independent poverty adviser. The formal response to her report will be published shortly, and I will appoint another independent poverty adviser soon. The work that the adviser did was valuable and I want to continue to have such input.
It will not surprise Patrick Harvie to hear me say that the plans that we put forward in the election campaign—they seemed to meet with the approval of a significant proportion of the Scottish electorate—to reform local taxation in the short term and more fundamentally in the longer term, are bold. The plans are about making local taxation fairer and more progressive, and they ask those who live in the most expensive houses to pay more. Crucially—this goes back to issues that we discussed earlier—that will raise an additional £100 million every year for education. I intend that money to go directly to headteachers in our schools.
I believe that the plans are bold and far reaching. However, on this and a range of issues, as we go through the session and particularly as the finance minister starts to put together our budget for next year, we will liaise with, consult and talk to parties across the chamber, and we will be happy to listen to ideas about how we can further improve our plans.
Surely tweaking the upper bands for the council tax does not sound to anybody like bold reform of local taxation. This is not a time for tinkering with a broken system. As the adviser’s report stated,
“this is a central moment of political decision, an opportunity to introduce a much more progressive system”.
What the First Minister has announced clearly falls well short of that.
The First Minister has the commission on local tax reform’s report on one hand and the report from the poverty adviser on the other. Following her commitment to the chamber last week to implement the adviser’s recommendation for bold local tax reform, this is a moment for much bolder action. If that is not enough, what on earth will it take to persuade the Government that it is time to kill off the council tax for good and adopt a modern, fair and flexible system for funding our local services?
We put forward our plans in the election campaign and I believe that they are bold. Patrick Harvie put forward his plans in the election campaign and the electorate cast their votes. It is fair to say that I am standing here as First Minister with a mandate to take forward the proposals that we were elected on. However, as I have always said and will continue to say, we will reach out across the chamber to try to build consensus on some of the big issues that confront us.
I am happy to confirm to Patrick Harvie that, as we head towards our budget, we will talk to him and his colleagues and to others in the Parliament, so that we hear other parties’ ideas on strengthening proposals. That is an open invitation to Patrick Harvie and others. I intend to be as collaborative as I possibly can be in taking forward the Government’s proposals and policies and doing the right thing for the country. However, I am mindful that I stood on a manifesto and that a significant proportion of the Scottish electorate voted for me to be First Minister on the strength of that manifesto, and I have a duty to be true to that, too.
To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-00004)
Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.
Can the First Minister give a guarantee that there will be no Scottish Government contracts with China Railway No 3 Engineering Group?
Any proposals for specific contracts involving specific projects would be subject to full and normal due diligence, and the Scottish Parliament would have the opportunity to scrutinise them and reach a view on their pros and cons and their merits. However, the fact is that there are no particular proposals at that stage, which means that, in a sense, Willie Rennie is asking me an entirely hypothetical question. I will continue to ensure that Parliament has a full opportunity to scrutinise any proposals.
I am referring not to an email chain between office juniors, but an official Government document that bears the signature of the First Minister of our country. It is a memorandum of understanding with one of the most powerful nations in the world and it is worth £10 billion. Why would the First Minister bother signing such an agreement if it did not mean anything? We are right to ask why she put her name to the agreement, given that Amnesty International condemned the company’s human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo and that the company is blacklisted by the Norwegian oil fund because of the risk of gross corruption. I cannot understand why she continues to defend that. Why does she?
Hold the front page: First Minister of Scotland seeks to explore opportunities for investment in jobs in Scotland—shock, horror!
That is part of the First Minister’s job, and the fact that Willie Rennie does not recognise that that is one of the job’s core responsibilities is probably part of the reason why he will never stand here as First Minister of this country.
The memorandum of understanding that was signed is—as anybody can see, because it is there to be read on the Scottish Government’s website—an agreement to explore where there might be opportunities. Not a penny of investment has been agreed or released yet. If proposals for specific investment are brought forward, they will be subject to full due diligence, and all the issues that Willie Rennie has just cited will be fully examined and taken into account. That is the right and proper way to proceed.
As First Minister, I will always seek to act in the best interests of this country. That partly involves encouraging investment that will then support job creation in Scotland, and I will continue to do that to the best of my ability.
Will the First Minister join me in calling on the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee or the European and External Relations Committee to consider not only the China deal but the Qatar deal? Both contain elements that need real scrutiny.
I would be delighted for any committee of this Parliament that wished to consider any of those matters to do so. It is not for me to tell committees what they should look into, but I would be happy if they chose to do what the member suggests, and the Scottish Government would co-operate fully with that.
Air Weapons (Impact of Ban)
To ask the First Minister what impact the introduction of a ban on air weapons has had. (S5F-00033)
The Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015, which gained royal assent on 4 August last year, sets out a new licensing regime that will allow the police to issue certificates only to those who have a legitimate need or use for an air weapon. That will help to reduce gun crime and improve public safety. Advance applications for licences can be made to the police from 1 July this year, and, from 31 December, it will be an offence to use, possess, purchase or acquire an air weapon without the necessary certificate or permit, unless a person is exempt under the legislation.
Ahead of that, the police are running a three-week hand-in campaign, which runs until 12 June. There has been a good response so far, with more than 2,300 air weapons being surrendered in the first week alone.
In many areas, such as rural Aberdeenshire, which I represent, the use of air weapons is a part of life, particularly in land management. Can the First Minister assure me that the legislation will not change that, and will simply help to ensure that such weapons are only ever used in a safe and responsible way?
We have always acknowledged the important role that shooting plays in rural and agricultural life. In fact, the legislation makes specific provision to allow young people to continue to shoot to help protect crops and livestock, or to control pests. As in all other cases, if a person can satisfy the chief constable that they are a proper person to have an air weapon, that they have a legitimate reason for having one and that they can shoot in a safe environment, they should be able to apply for and obtain a certificate. I think that that takes account of the legitimate concerns that Gillian Martin has raised.
Although over 2,000 air weapons have been handed in to the police already, it is estimated that there are 500,000 air guns in Scotland, and Police Scotland already faces a backlog of firearms and shotgun licences. What additional funding will the Scottish Government put in place to help Police Scotland deal with the new air weapons regime?
As I understand it, the police are satisfied that they have the resources in place to deal with the implications of the legislation. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to write to Oliver Mundell with the detail of the resource requirements and the resources that are available. I hope that all of us across the chamber recognise the objective of the legislation and the objective of the hand-in campaign, which is to get guns off our streets and make Scotland safer. The police have a crucial part to play in that and the Government has a crucial part to play in supporting the police to do that job.
“The Lockerbie Bombing”
To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with the former Cabinet Secretary for Justice prior to and since the publication of his recent book. (S5F-00018)
The content of the recently published book is a matter for the former justice secretary and his publishers. In line with the requirements of the ministerial code and what are called the Radcliffe principles, a draft of the manuscript was provided to the permanent secretary in February this year by Kenny MacAskill. In response—again, in line with the requirements of the code and the Radcliffe principles—it was made clear to Kenny MacAskill that ultimate responsibility for the content of the book was a matter for him. No discussions have taken place since publication.
In his book, the former cabinet secretary reopened old wounds, contested the judgment of three law lords and cast significant doubts over the Scottish judicial system, which he was responsible for. Will the First Minister ask the new Lord Advocate to investigate the former justice secretary and the claims made? Given that the First Minister sat at the same Cabinet table as Kenny MacAskill and that both were part of a Government that repeatedly stated that it did not doubt the safety of the conviction, will she make herself and all other ministers who served with Mr MacAskill available to an inquiry?
In fairness, I know that the member has not been in Parliament for long, but the First Minister does not direct the Lord Advocate when it comes to investigation—that is a pretty fundamental element of our constitution.
Much of the question is ludicrous in nature. I have not yet had the opportunity to read the book, so I am going on what has been printed in newspapers. I am sure that it is an interesting read, but its content is a matter for Kenny MacAskill and his publishers.
The Lockerbie conviction stands. I say again—as the Crown Office has said in the past—that there is confidence in the safety of that conviction and for the conviction to be overturned there would require to be a successful appeal. That was the situation before the book was published, and it remains the situation today.
I declare an interest as a signatory of the Justice for Megrahi campaign.
Given that the former justice secretary and the former First Minister now both state that Megrahi was not the purchaser of the clothes in Malta, and having regard to the finding of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission that, if Megrahi was not the purchaser, there was insufficient evidence to convict him, I ask the Government to reconsider its position that there is
“no reason to doubt the safety of the conviction”.
Surely now there is.
It is not for me, any First Minister or any member of the Government to decide that a conviction is unsafe; that is a matter for the courts of the land. That is the position in this case, as it is in any other criminal matter.
The situation is clear. It remains open for close relatives of Mr al-Megrahi to ask the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to refer the case again to the appeal court. Ministers have repeatedly made it clear that they would be comfortable if that were to happen, but that is the process that must be undertaken if the case were to be looked at by the appeal court. Convictions are determined in courts; convictions can only be upheld or overturned in courts. That is how we do these things in this country; it is the right way to do them.
Rape Victims (Support during Police Investigation)
To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that victims of rape are supported during a police investigation. (S5F-00014)
The Government is committed to ensuring that the justice system responds sensitively and appropriately to those who report sexual offences. In line with our manifesto commitment, we have prioritised the allocation of resources to fund a review of how medical boards undertake forensic medical examinations. We have also legislated, through the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014, to ensure that those who report sexual offences should be able to choose the gender of their police interviewer. Additionally, last year, we awarded just under £2 million to Rape Crisis Scotland to enhance the support available for survivors of sexual violence. Police Scotland’s national rape task force, which was established in 2013, ensures that specifically trained officers are involved in the investigation of rape and sexual offence cases.
I welcome the First Minister’s answer. She will be aware of Glasgow Caledonian University’s recent study into the treatment of rape victims. Medical examinations are still predominantly carried out by male specialists; examinations are often delayed due to the lack of an available doctor; and Police Scotland officers describe some victims’ treatment as “despicable” and “horrendous”.
I welcome the resources pledged by the Government over the next few years, but victims are reporting concerns now. When can we expect the much-needed improvements—including an increase in the number of female specialists—to be delivered?
I intend the improvements to be delivered on an on-going basis. I recognise the difficulties that Claire Baker has outlined. Some of the difficulties in implementing what is now in statute around allowing people to choose the gender of their examiner come down to a lack of female specialists. We are considering that matter. There are also issues around forensic examinations and we have allocated funding to deal specifically with that area.
The objective here is clear, and I know that it is one that Claire Baker will support. Victims should be offered an examination by someone of the gender of their choice at an appropriate location and within an appropriate timescale. I accept that that does not always happen right now for victims of rape. The purpose of all the work that is under way is to make sure that that happens in future.
Victims of rape have undergone horror and trauma that nobody should ever have to undergo. We must make sure that the justice system does not—however inadvertently—add to that trauma and horror through the way in which investigations are carried out. I am sure that there is a determination across not just the chamber but all the relevant services to make sure that the improvements happen quickly.
Local Government Reform
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s plans are for local government reform. (S5F-00023)
We will continue to work positively and collaboratively with local government. Our aim is to transform our democratic landscape while protecting and reforming our public services.
Our Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 will strengthen communities’ voices in the decisions that affect them. In future, we will work with local authorities to review their roles and responsibilities and we will put more power into communities’ hands. We will also consult on a bill that would require local authorities, where appropriate, to decentralise functions, budgets and democratic oversight to local communities. One size does not fit all, but enabling local control not on behalf of but by a local community should be the key guiding principle.
I thank the First Minister for her comprehensive answer.
This year, the United Kingdom Tory Government cut our resource budget by £371 million and similar cuts are to come in each of the next three years. Labour’s only answer is to burden low-income Scots by hiking their income tax year on year.
The Scottish National Party manifesto pledges to
“review the roles and responsibilities of local authorities”
and their relationships with
When will that review begin? Will the protection and enhancement of front-line service delivery to minimise the impact of Westminster cuts be a key driver?
We have committed to work with local authorities to review their roles and responsibilities and their relationships with health boards. The purpose of all that is to get more powers into the hands of communities. We will outline the details of how we will take that forward in the forthcoming legislative programme at the start of the new term. I will shortly begin discussions with key stakeholders on the scope and timing of the review, and it will be under way before the end of the year.12:45 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—