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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 03 May 2017

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, General Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motions, Point of Order


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Engagements

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-01217)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

Ruth Davidson

At the weekend, the First Minister’s predecessor was asked on television why one in five children leaves primary school functionally illiterate, and he replied that that was “just one statistic”. No, it is not; it is thousands of lives. Ten years to the day since the Scottish National Party Government took charge, and with councils across Scotland being asked to run our schools tomorrow, perhaps it is worth asking the current First Minister about some more statistics. Here is one: why is it that, between 2011 and 2015, the proportion of children performing well in numeracy fell in both primary 4 and primary 7?

The First Minister

I have made no bones about my determination to raise performance in literacy and numeracy and in attainment across the board. That is why we have established the new national improvement framework, the attainment challenge and the attainment fund, which—as we have talked about many times in the chamber—is now channelling additional resources directly to headteachers in order that they can decide the best ways in which to raise attainment. We will see the latest figures in the same vein as those that Ruth Davidson cites shortly. They are sample surveys. I am not dismissing them, but they are one of the reasons why we have taken the decision to start publishing comprehensive school-by-school, local authority-by-local authority data so that we know how our schools are performing and, crucially, so that we know what is working and can drive up attainment. We will continue to remain focused on an issue that is vital for young people and parents right across the country.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister talks about her intention to improve, but there was no acknowledgement that the failures have been on her watch.

Let us take another statistic. In science, the Sutton Trust has this year reported on the “pronounced and sustained” decline in able pupils’ performance under the SNP. Indeed, it says that that decline over the past decade, since the SNP came to power, is equivalent to around an entire year of schooling. I know that, in answer to every question, the First Minister is going to stand there and tell me that everything is going to be sorted soon. However, can she tell me why that drop in standards has happened on her watch?

The First Minister

Although I do not dismiss any of the statistics that Ruth Davidson cites, I think that she does a disservice to young people and teachers across the country. As we have set out before, we now see record numbers of higher and advanced higher passes in our schools and record numbers of positive destinations, which is more young people than ever before going into employment, further education or training. We are seeing far fewer pupils from our deprived communities leaving school with no qualifications, and we are starting to see—although I want to see this go much further—a narrowing of the gap between the least and most deprived areas in terms of access to university.

It is not simply a case of my standing here and saying what my intentions are, although my intention is solidly to continue to make improvement; I can—as I have just done—point to the improvements that we have already made. We will get on with investing the money, conducting the reforms and supporting teachers and headteachers to make sure that we see continued improvement for young people right across the country.

Ruth Davidson

I stand next to no one in my admiration of the hard work that our teachers do, but the guidance that they are given to work under is described by education experts as “self-evident lunacy”. That is what is coming out of the Government and its arms.

Here is what parents think: the SNP Government has presided over falling standards and has failed utterly to ensure that we have enough teachers in our classrooms to turn that situation around. Here is yet another statistic: there are 4,000 fewer teachers in Scotland’s schools than there were in 2007. We know that 16 per cent of training places for English teachers are unfilled and that more than a quarter of training places for maths teachers are vacant. There are possible solutions to that. Councils in some of our rural communities in the north-east and the Highlands are saying that they want more flexibility to tackle the crisis themselves in a way that suits their circumstances. However, they are having to hang around for an answer because John Swinney’s promised review of governance has been delayed and delayed again. It is a problem of the SNP’s making. We have councils saying, “Let us fix this now,” and an education secretary saying, “No, let me chew on this some more.” Again I ask—why?

The First Minister

First, the recommendations from the governance review will be published shortly, once we have properly analysed—as it is right and proper to do—all the submissions that have been made to that review.

One thing is certain if past experience is anything to go by. As soon as we set out the direction of travel over the governance review, the other parties in the chamber, which have been calling on us to do that for months, will suddenly decide that they oppose everything that we have decided to do—I would lay bets on that.

As Ruth Davidson well knows, the governance review is one part of a wider package of reforms: the national improvement framework, the attainment challenge, the attainment fund, the introduction of standardised assessments—which I remember Labour used to support but, as soon as we decided to introduce them, decided to oppose—and the publication of school-by-school, local authority-by-local authority figures so that we can track exactly how—

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

League tables!

The First Minister

There we go—the Liberal Democrats oppose those reforms. Time and again in the chamber, we see Opposition parties calling for things to be done but opposing them as soon as they are done.

We will get on and take the action, backed by investment, that is delivering improvements in our schools and which will continue to deliver improvements in our schools.

Ruth Davidson

I am sorry, but jam tomorrow just does not cut it because, with this SNP Government, it is not just one statistic or two or three—it is a 10-year record of failure, which is leaving us in a situation where, according to the architect of curriculum for excellence, our schools can no longer be classed as world leading.

Tomorrow, we elect the councillors whose job will be to support our schools on the ground. The SNP says that education is its top priority, but does its 10 years of failure not tell an entirely different story?

The First Minister

We will go into the local elections tomorrow pointing to the improvements that are being made in our schools and, crucially, pointing to the £120 million of additional resource that is now in the hands of headteachers to drive further improvement.

I am standing here wondering why, if education is of any priority to the Conservatives, they are putting out around the country leaflets such as the one that I have here, which I got through my door. It mentions me or the SNP or independence a grand total of 43 times. It mentions Ruth Davidson or the Tories just nine times, and one of those times is her signature. It mentions Ruth Davidson’s policies on education zero times. In this election, the Tories have not put forward a single policy on our schools, on social care, on roads, on transport, or on anything. They have a constitutional obsession; I will get on with raising standards in our schools.


Engagements

2. Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-01212)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I have even more engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale

In 2015, the First Minister said that she supported a 50p top rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000 a year. In 2016, she changed her mind and said that she did not support it, when she had the power to deliver it. Now, in 2017, without any sense of irony, the First Minister claims to support it again. Does she really expect people to believe her this time around?

The First Minister

Kezia Dugdale should maybe listen a bit carefully. In 2015, I said that I supported that across the United Kingdom. In 2016, I said that the advice that we had taken was that, if we did it only in Scotland without the powers to tackle tax avoidance—which we do not have because they lie at Westminster—that could potentially lose revenue. I do not think that anybody in the chamber would seriously stand up and argue that we should put up a tax if the advice said that it would actually lead to a reduction in the revenue. We are going into a UK-wide election in a few weeks’ time and we will publish our manifesto in due course.

Of course, this is Kezia Dugdale, the leader of the Labour Party, which, just a few weeks ago, published a local government manifesto saying that the council tax freeze had “crippled local government”, yet she is leading eight Labour-led authorities into the election promising to freeze the council tax. Perhaps Kezia Dugdale will comment on that before she comes here and asks me about taxation.

Kezia Dugdale

The First Minister has spent 10 years and two elections promising to scrap the council tax. I have just heard her say that we should not bother to try to tax the rich because they will just find a way around it, which is the same argument that the Tories have been making, week in and week out, for years. The truth is that the SNP has, in this chamber, voted against a 50p top rate of tax no less than eight times—so much for stronger for Scotland.

There is a pattern developing here. Nicola Sturgeon has spent her entire career campaigning for more powers to stop cuts to public services, but now that she has the power to do so, she refuses to use it. We have the ridiculous situation where a nationalist First Minister says that she wants to tax the rich, but only if England does it first. Is it not the case that Nicola Sturgeon has plenty of principles when she is campaigning and nothing but a list of excuses when she is in power?

The First Minister

Let me get to the nub of the matter. As I said, the problem is that we do not have the powers in this Parliament to stop the wealthiest potentially trying to avoid a higher rate of tax. I want those powers; Kezia Dugdale argues to keep them in the hands of a Tory Government at Westminster—that is the difference between me and Kezia Dugdale. She cannot really expect to be taken seriously on the issue of tax, because she has come here week after week saying that I should raise taxes not just on the rich but on ordinary working people as well. She has come here week after week saying that the council tax freeze is wrong, yet we are going into an election tomorrow with eight local authorities across the country promising to continue to freeze the council tax, and each and every one of those councils is a Labour-led council. How can Kezia Dugdale have a single shred of credibility on tax? I think that, tomorrow, voters will make their own judgment on Labour right across this country.

Kezia Dugdale

The council tax is unfair and regressive. How do we know that? Because the Scottish National Party has been telling us that for 10 years. We have just had another excuse for why the First Minister will not ask the richest people in society to pay a bit more tax—what a shame that it is the same one that the Tories have been using for years.

She claims to back a 50p tax rate, but she will not implement one here in Scotland when she has the power to do so. She claims to be protecting the national health service, but local services across the country face cuts and closure on her watch. She claims that education is her number 1 priority, but she spends every waking minute plotting how to force another independence referendum. Does Nicola Sturgeon feel any guilt at all as she tours the country warning against austerity, when it is her Government that has cut £1.5 billion from council services?

The First Minister

I will continue to do what I have done for the past few years, which is to argue against austerity at source. That is what I will campaign for in this election. The difference between me and Kezia Dugdale is that she does not want to scrap austerity; she wants to transfer the burden of austerity on to the shoulders of low-paid people right across this country. Why is that? It is because she prefers to allow a Tory Government at Westminster to take the big decisions about our economy rather than have them made here.

Kezia Dugdale is wrong in what she says about the NHS and council services. The NHS budget is more than £3 billion higher today than it was when this Government took office, and the number of NHS staff is almost 10 per cent higher than it was when we took office. We have the best-performing accident and emergency departments anywhere in the United Kingdom and we have £120 million going into the hands of headteachers.

I come back to the central question. If Kezia Dugdale is accusing this Government, albeit wrongly, of short-changing local authorities, this question remains: why are only Labour councils going into this election promising to freeze the council tax? Why are they not doing what SNP councils are doing: choosing to raise revenue for schools and social care? Kezia Dugdale has no credibility on this issue, and, from looking at her, I think that she knows it.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

There is one constituency supplementary, from Jackie Baillie.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Can the First Minister offer any hope to my constituents who are having to endure very lengthy orthopaedic waiting lists, in contrast to what she just said about the NHS?

I will give her an example. Mr Howie was told that he was to have a knee operation at the Golden Jubilee, only for funding to be withdrawn by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. He is virtually unable to walk and is in constant pain.

At the start of the financial year, when patients are in severe pain and their waiting time targets have been badly breached, why is NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde rationing treatment and denying people the opportunity to have operations at another NHS hospital, the Golden Jubilee? What action will the First Minister take to ensure that Mr Howie and many others like him get the treatment that they need and deserve, and that we put patient care first?

The First Minister

NHS boards across the country are investing to ensure that we have short waiting times, and waiting times today are much shorter than they were when this Government took office. Health boards are also focusing on ensuring that those waiting longest get priority in terms of treatment.

I want to know the detail of what Jackie Baillie outlined—I do not have all the details of the patient’s case. However, the health secretary has told me that this morning she spoke to the chief executive of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde about the particular case, which is being looked into. Once we have the detail of that I will ask Shona Robison to write to Jackie Baillie with the full details of the case, and I hope that that will be welcomed.


Cabinet (Meetings)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-01215)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Cabinet will next meet on Tuesday.

Patrick Harvie

The First Minister accuses Opposition parties of demanding changes in education and then complaining when the Scottish Government implements those changes. The Greens have never argued that a lack of standardised testing or reviews of governance structures are the root of the problem, and the Greens have never supported the stripping of local authorities’ power to make decisions about such matters.

We have consistently argued that resources are at the core of the question. If we want to recognise the thousands of teachers who have been lost in Scotland, the hundreds of additional support needs teachers, school librarians and classroom assistants who are needed, and the lack of resources that are available to our local authorities, is it not clear that resources have to be at the core of the solution, if that is what has been causing the problem?

The Greens forcing the Scottish Government to reverse £160 million of cuts to councils was an important and essential first start, but is it not clear that that must be the beginning of a change that puts resources back into our local authorities, so that they can support the professionals who are doing the job around the country?

The First Minister

Patrick Harvie and I have something of a disagreement when it comes to education reform; I certainly concede that. It is important that we do not strip local authorities of their responsibilities—that is not our intention—but that we give schools greater flexibility, autonomy and control. Much of the evidence says that, along with the capacity of teachers, the quality of learning and the involvement of parents, ensuring that is how we drive improvements in education. That is why we are taking forward the reforms.

It is vital that we have more rigour in how pupils’ performance is assessed and how that is reported publicly. That is why we are introducing standardised assessments—not to replace teacher judgment but to inform teacher judgment and have more rigour about such things.

We want to ensure that there is transparency about the performance of schools so—for the first time ever—we are going down the road of publishing not sample surveys based on a couple of pupils per school but comprehensive school-by-school data so that we can properly assess how we are performing. Those are the right reforms and I will continue with them because they are essential to improving attainment in our schools, which everyone in the chamber says that they want to happen.

I agree with Patrick Harvie on resources. We have always said that putting resources in the hands of headteachers is a vital part of our attainment drive, which is why—as I have said on a couple of occasions today—the £120 million that is going directly to headteachers is crucial. Headteachers are free to decide how that money is invested and, if they want to invest it in additional staff or additional support for learning staff, that will be up to them. The £120 million fund is part of the wider attainment fund, which totals £750 million over this parliamentary session.

Resources and investment are crucial, but we need to couple that with the reforms that will allow us to drive improvements faster. I make absolutely zero apology for that.

Patrick Harvie

I still do not believe that the Scottish Government has countered the concern that standardised testing—whatever its motivation—will end up being used for the same purposes as league tables, if they were called that. I also do not accept that teachers want to be managers or that headteachers want to be the chief executives or the chief financial officers of their schools. They want to focus on what they are passionate about and what they are talented at, which is teaching, education and developing the life chances of young people.

Four thousand teachers have been lost and, if we want to reverse the decline in the numbers of other important professionals, such as additional support needs teachers, librarians and classroom assistants, the overall level of resource needs to be higher. Over successive years, we need to resource local councils to make those decisions. At the national level, the Scottish Government is willing to cap council tax rates without legislation, and it is willing to tell England and Wales what income tax rates there should be, but it is not willing to change rates in Scotland by more than an inch. Is it not very clear that we need to reject the Tory notion of Scotland as a higher-taxed part of the United Kingdom and make sure that people such as the First Minister and me pay a bit more tax into the pot to produce the resources that will go into education to make a difference to the life chances of every child in this country?

The First Minister

Because of decisions that we have taken, higher-rate taxpayers in Scotland—who account for the top 10 per cent of income earners here—are paying a bit more than higher-rate taxpayers elsewhere in the UK. It is appropriate to take those tax decisions, which are right and balanced. When inflation is rising and living standards are under a lot of pressure, it is not right to increase income tax for those who are on the basic rate. People are free to take a different view, but that is mine.

On education and local government funding more generally, £400 million in additional spending power is available to local services in the current financial year and, as Patrick Harvie rightly said, some of that is down to the discussions that his party and my party had in the lead-up to the agreement of the budget. There is more resource in local government to support local services and, in education specifically, more resource is going directly to headteachers.

I assure Patrick Harvie that we have no intention of headteachers becoming bureaucrats. The point is to allow them to be the leaders of learning that they need to be to drive improvement, and to put into their hands the resources that they need to do that.

The reforms are sensible and will lead to improvement in our schools. It is right that we vigorously and rigorously debate the issues, but I am determined that we will take forward the reforms, which we will be held to account on. Other people like to dismiss the data as league tables, but parents have access to that information so that they know how their local school is performing. The public, including other members in the Parliament, have access to the information in order to hold me and the Government to account. It is absolutely right and proper that we publish that information and we will continue to ensure that it is available.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Last night on STV, Ruth Davidson repeated the fiction that, under the new two-child limit for tax credits, a woman only has to write her name and tick a box to prove that she has had a subsequent child as a result of rape. Is that true?

The First Minister

No—it is not true, and Ruth Davidson knows that it is not true. Just a couple of weeks ago, we had a powerful and, at times, emotional and emotive debate on the two-child tax credit cap and the rape clause. I find it hard to believe that Ruth Davidson could have sat through that debate as she did and listened to the testimony—particularly the letter from a constituent that Kezia Dugdale read out—and could still say on television last night that the process was just about ticking a box. That is disgraceful.

More important, that demonstrates, or at least gives the impression of—I choose my words carefully, as I hope that this is not the reality—a complete lack of empathy for the emotional trauma that any woman in such circumstances would go through in having to declare to a third party that her child had been conceived as a result of rape. Such a woman would probably be determined to do everything in her power to protect her child from ever being aware of those facts.

It beggars belief that anybody can defend the rape clause, which falls into the category of a policy that is indefensible, and that is why the Tories are struggling so badly to defend it. However, whatever disagreements we have about such policies—for goodness’ sake—when it comes to support for those who are often the most vulnerable people in our society, a bit of empathy and compassion and a bit less of the dismissive approach of saying “It’s just ticking a box” from the Tories would go down well.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The BBC has reported a response, through a freedom of information request, from Police Scotland, which shows that the number of serious assaults, murders and robberies is increasing. What is the First Minister’s response?

The First Minister

First, the information that the BBC is reporting today is management information. It is important to stress that. They are not official figures. It may turn out to be the case that the official figures reflect the information that has been reported today, but it is important to point out that sometimes that is not the case.

The more substantive point to make is that although figures fluctuate, we are seeing—and have been seeing for quite some time—a long-term-trend reduction in non-sexual violent crime. There has been a 52 per cent reduction in non-sexual violent crime between 2006-07 and 2015-16. In 2015-16, which is the most recent year for which statistics are available, the number of homicide victims was at its lowest level since comparable records began in 1976.

Of course, we have always to ensure that we support our police to keep all forms of crime low, but we are seeing a long-term reduction in violent crime, and we must continue to do everything possible to ensure that that continues. That is one of the reasons why, over the past number of years, we have supported the police to recruit additional officers—a time when 20,000 police officers have been lost south of the border—and it is why we will continue to support our police to do the excellent job that they do right across the country.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Does the First Minister support the 10,000 people—probably more—who have signed a petition against the imposition of a £2 drop-off fee at Glasgow airport? Does the First Minister agree that that will not reduce congestion and that, given that there are not great public transport links to Glasgow airport, a rail link might have made a difference, although the reality is that families going on the holidays to which they are entitled will be forced to pay? The measure will not reduce congestion one bit, because the area is smaller, and drivers will be locked in and forced to pay. Will the First Minister condemn that? It is a money-making venture that has nothing to do with congestion. I am raising the matter quite genuinely. There is public fury at the measure, so the public would appreciate the First Minister’s at least understanding that they do not think that it is justified.

The First Minister

I, of course, absolutely understand the concern of members of the public whenever such a change happens. Many of my constituents, in common with constituents of MSPs from across the chamber, use Glasgow airport regularly. My constituency is one of the closest geographically to Glasgow airport, so I understand that many people have concerns.

The measure is a matter for Glasgow Airport. It is incumbent on it to make the case for why it is necessary, and to allow that case to be scrutinised.

Pauline McNeill mentioned the issue of an airport rail link. In the parliamentary session before last we had debates about the Glasgow airport rail link, and decided for very good reasons not to proceed with it at the time. Pauline McNeill should be aware that, through the Glasgow and Clyde Valley city deal, which is being funded jointly by the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government, the councils in the area now have the ability, if they so choose, to undertake projects related to access to Glasgow airport. Let us wait to see who is in charge of those councils after tomorrow: whoever it is, they have the wherewithal to prioritise access to Glasgow airport.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

Does the First Minister understand that her plans for publication of school league tables could result in teachers teaching to the test rather than concentrating on teaching our children in the round, and that that might have the opposite effect to that which she intends?

The First Minister

I say in all sincerity that if Mike Rumbles understood properly what we intend to publish, he would not have asked that question, because he would have known that its premise was wrong. It is not test scores that will be published, but the performance of young people against the required levels for curriculum for excellence, judged by teachers and informed by tests. Why is that important? It is because it makes teachers’ judgment more rigorous and avoids the narrowing of teaching to the test, because not only the standardised test score is taken into account: the teacher will also look at homework and the performance of the child in school.

I say in all sincerity to members across the chamber, let us have such debates, but members should come to them informed by the facts of what we are doing, rather than by their own prejudices about what we are doing. That way, perhaps, we would have meaningful debates on that very important issue.


Population

4. Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to Scotland’s population rising to an all-time high of 5.4 million. (S5F-01229)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We welcome the news that Scotland’s population is growing, because we know that stimulating population growth is a key driver of sustainable economic growth.

The figures that were published by National Records of Scotland last week also underline the key role that migration has to play in our work to grow the population. There is robust evidence that confirms our longstanding view that migrants from outside the United Kingdom positively contribute to our society. They are mostly young, economically active and highly qualified. Scotland benefits significantly from the contribution that is made by people from across the world who have chosen to live, work and study here, bringing new skills and expertise and helping to underpin future economic growth, so we should take every opportunity to tell them that they are very welcome here.

Kenneth Gibson

In the half century before the millennium, more than 2 million Scots emigrated, and in the 20th century Scotland had the lowest rate of population growth of any nation on earth. Such was the much-vaunted union dividend that left us with an economy that was swiftly overtaken by so many others. Does the First Minister agree that while Scotland’s population is slowly increasing, the number of excess deaths over births—despite the best efforts of the Presiding Officer—is of concern, and that a hard Brexit that stops free movement of people will not only end Scotland’s population growth but lead to real skills shortages and damage our economy?

The First Minister

I feel as though I should start by thanking the Presiding Officer for his contribution, but I had better not.

The latest estimates that have been published show that our population increase is driven by migration. I make the serious point—which I know can be controversial and unpopular in places— that continued inward migration is critical to maintaining our population growth, which in turn is critical to driving economic growth. If current trends continue, net inward migration is projected to be the main contributor to our population growth over the next 25 years.

That is why—among all the things that should concern us all about Brexit and the outcome of the Brexit negotiations—any serious restrictions to the ability of European Union nationals to come and live in Scotland would be deeply damaging to our economy. It is important that all of us across the chamber and, I think, all of us in mainstream politics, have the courage to make that argument. If we allow the immigration and migration debate to be distorted, we will damage our economy and our society, as a result. The latest statistics are a stark reminder of that fact.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Relative to its population share, Scotland has consistently attracted fewer migrants to live here than have other parts of the United Kingdom. Why does the First Minister think that, after 10 years of Scottish National Party Government, Scotland is a relatively unattractive place for immigrants to come to?

The First Minister

What an utterly disgraceful thing it is for a member of the Parliament to stand up in the chamber and describe his own country as an “unattractive place” to live. Murdo Fraser should hang his head in shame. As I have said before in the chamber, I remember the days—they are becoming dark and distant days—when he used to be a serious politician. Now, it seems that he aspires just to be a figure of fun in the chamber.

The serious point to make is that we have to encourage people to come here. That more migrants settle in London and the south-east of England is partly down to geography, which anybody who applies a bit of common sense will see. However, we have just had figures that show the contribution that inward migration is making to Scotland’s population growth. Therefore, the real question is not the one that Murdo Fraser posed; it is whether we will ensure over the next few years that we continue to attract people to live in Scotland, or allow narrow-minded Tories to put barriers in the way of that. That is the big question and the big decision for Scotland in the next few years.


Pupil Equity Fund

5. Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the First Minister whether headteachers will require the agreement of the relevant local authority before a decision is made about how the pupil equity fund will be spent in their schools. (S5F-01216)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I have made it clear—the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has been equally clear—that £120 million of the pupil equity funding scheme will be used at the discretion of headteachers. The national operational guidance on use of the funding sets out clear principles to support headteachers in their decision making. Headteachers should work in partnership with one another and their local authority to share good practice, pool their knowledge and consider use of the funding. However, the discretion of headteachers will be the central factor in deciding how the money is spent.

Liz Smith

The First Minister is correct to say that John Swinney stated categorically on 13 September 2016 that, under Scottish Government reforms, there would be a

“presumption that decisions would taken at the school level.”—[Official Report, 16 September 2017; c 11.]

Why, then, is it clear from Scottish Government documents that there will be national and local authority guidance compelling headteachers to agree use of the pupil equity funding with the local authority, and to be accountable to the local authority for how the money is deployed? Will the First Minister tell Parliament whether headteachers will ever have real autonomy, or is it just spin?

The First Minister

The money is to be used at the discretion of headteachers. Liz Smith is misrepresenting—not intentionally, I am sure—the guidance and its purpose. I will point to some of the content of the guidance, which the commission on school reform wrongly claimed is highly prescriptive.

The directions in that guidance refer to the key principles, which set out that the activities that are funded by the pupil equity fund must, first, be additional to current spend. Who can possibly disagree with that? Secondly, they set out that the activities must be targeted at closing the attainment gap. Who could possibly disagree with that? That is what the money is for. Thirdly, they set out that the activities should be based on the evidence of what works. Again, that seems to be fairly sensible guidance. Next, they set out that parents, children and young people should be involved in planning the use of the pupil equity funding. Again, that is common sense because, as I said in response to Patrick Harvie, there is evidence that the involvement of parents and young people in initiatives to drive improvement is key.

Of course headteachers will share best practice with one another. Of course, as with any use of public money, there will be accountability—not least through the figures that are published about the performance of schools. However, the money is to be spent at the discretion of headteachers. I would have thought that, having called for that, members across the chamber would now support it and get behind it.


Sanitary Products

6. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government has taken to improve access to sanitary products. (S5F-01234)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Scottish Government is considering what support we can provide for women and girls on a low income to have access to sanitary production in a dignified way. Our fairer Scotland action plan sets out our commitment to tackling poverty. However, in the face of Tory welfare cuts and continued austerity, which are pushing more and more people into poverty, it seems that we do so with one hand tied behind our back.

Whether through the mitigation of the bedroom tax, the fair food fund, the Scottish welfare fund or the independent living fund—to name just a few of the Scottish Government’s policies—we spend hundreds of millions of pounds a year protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in our society from the worst excesses of a Tory Government. Of course, those are resources that we would rather invest in further anti-poverty measures, not in mitigating or putting a sticking plaster on Tory cuts.

Monica Lennon

I welcome some of the steps that the Government has outlined. Last year, when I asked about improved access to sanitary products, I was told that the Government had not done any work to assess the issue and that women could use food banks to access them. We have moved on since then.

Last year, we had our first debate in the Scottish Parliament on period poverty. Since then, I have announced my intention to introduce a member’s bill on the issue. There has been an outpouring of interest and support for addressing this gendered inequality in Scotland. The Scottish Trades Union Congress, the National Union of Students, the Scottish Youth Parliament, the Educational Institute of Scotland, Engender and the Trussell Trust—I could go on—all support the proposal.

No woman or girl in 2017 should face the indignity of not having access to sanitary products during menstruation. There is simply no excuse why that should be the case in a progressive, wealthy country such as Scotland. Does the First Minister agree with me that sanitary products are a necessity, not a luxury, and that the Scottish Parliament should, accordingly, take all necessary action to enshrine that right of access into law?

The First Minister

I commend Monica Lennon for taking forward this important issue, and I look forward to seeing the contents of her member’s bill. The Government is certainly open to working in partnership as we explore the ways in which we can deal with the issue.

I agree with Monica Lennon. Any woman—and, I hope, a lot of men—would agree that sanitary products are not a luxury but a necessity. We should not have a situation in which women are forced into situations of indignity because they are on incomes that cannot support the purchase of the products.

As Monica Lennon has acknowledged, the Scottish Government, led by Angela Constance, is exploring a number of ways in which we can help with period poverty. I know that Angela Constance would be happy to talk further with Monica Lennon as our consideration of the issues develops.

I hope that the Parliament can come to a consensus on ways in which the Scottish Government can—in a meaningful way—help. We are certainly keen to do that. It would make a welcome change to talk about how we help women in vulnerable positions, rather than debating the ways in which certain others in certain other places are trying to penalise women in vulnerable positions.


Air Pollution

7. Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

To ask the First Minister how the High Court of Justice decision to order the United Kingdom Government to publish its air pollution strategy impacts on Scotland. (S5F-01235)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The decision relates to the timing of the strategy’s publication, rather than to its content. I understand that the United Kingdom Government has decided not to appeal the High Court decision and will consult on the updated action plan.

The Scottish Government is committed to promoting air quality. The UK action plan will include a contribution from the Scottish Government, setting out how we intend to deliver further air quality improvement in Scotland through the actions that we set out in our air quality strategy, “Cleaner air for Scotland: the road to a healthier future”, and by establishing Scotland’s first low-emission zone.

Mark Ruskell

I am not prepared to put my family at risk any more on Scotland’s polluted streets. This is a public health crisis. Every year, 2,000 people die from pollution—not just in the First Minister’s city but across Scotland from Perth to Aberdeen. The UK Government’s plans were slated by the High Court. They rely on dodgy emissions data from car companies while putting off action to save lives today. The Scottish Government has made the same errors; it is captured by the same ruling. When will the First Minister step out of the shadow of these toxic Tory plans, urgently review Scotland’s clean air strategy and fund more than just a solitary low-emission zone?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am not responsible for the UK Government’s plans; I am responsible for those that the Scottish Government puts forward. On that issue, and any others, we are happy to discuss with other parties in the how we improve the plans that we have in place.

It is important to point out that, in Scotland, we are meeting both domestic and European air quality targets across much of the country, although there are still hotspots of poorer air quality in a number of areas, particularly urban areas. That is an issue that interests me hugely, not just as First Minister but as a member who represents an urban constituency. All local authorities with air quality management areas now have action plans in place. The Scottish Government is working with those authorities, including Glasgow City Council, to help implement such plans and deliver air quality improvements.

Another point that it is important to stress is that we have set more stringent air quality targets than the rest of the UK has. Scotland is the first country in Europe to legislate for particulate matter 2.5, which is a pollutant that is of special concern for human health.

We are providing practical and financial support to local authorities. We will continue to take action to address what I agree with the member is an issue of the utmost importance. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform will be happy to speak to the member in order to take his views about how we strengthen those plans further.

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

Will the First Minister provide further details on the work that is under way to deliver Scotland’s first low-emission zone?

The First Minister

We are working with local authorities and other partners to develop the first low-emission zone, which will improve health and help to create better places in which to live and work and for people to visit. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency has already developed the national modelling framework that provides the evidence base in designing the zone and informs the specific vehicle restrictions needed to deliver air quality improvements. The designation of low-emission zones is a matter for individual local authorities, but we look forward to agreeing with them the location of the first zone once the new local administrations are in place following tomorrow’s election.