Meeting date: Thursday, May 3, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 03 May 2018
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Save the Hampden Roar, Digital Connectivity, Decision Time, Correction
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Save the Hampden Roar
- Digital Connectivity
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Police Officer Numbers
This week, we discovered that the number of police officers in Scotland is at its lowest level for nine years and that, over the longer term, police ranks could fall even further. A fall of 1,200 officers, as has been reported, would be completely unacceptable to Conservative members. Would it be unacceptable to the First Minister, too?
That is great—it would be unacceptable. The fall will not be 1,200. What we need to know now is how many it will be. Will it be 600? Will be 800? Police Scotland is facing a £30 million black hole, so we know that the cuts are coming, and people outside Parliament have a right to know where they will fall.
We know that Police Scotland is under extreme pressure, the effects of which are becoming clear. This week, we learned that 872 charges, which included firearms offences, drug dealing and child sex crimes, had to be dropped last year because police reports were filled in too late. When action is dropped against hundreds of suspects in cases as serious as those, and it is all down to officers being overworked, under pressure and flooded by paperwork, it is clear that something is very wrong. If that is the case, how can any cut to front-line policing be justified?
I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by Ruth Davidson’s line of questioning. She started by saying that the issue had emerged this week. The issue to do with police numbers has not emerged this week; it emerged in June last year, when “Policing 2026: Serving a Changing Scotland” was published. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice came to the chamber to make a statement about the strategy. What he said then, among other things, was that officer numbers will remain significantly above the number that we inherited—that will continue to be the case—but as part of policing 2026 the police have asked for the ability to rebalance the workforce, to take account of the changing nature of policing and their plans to increase operational capacity by moving officers from back-room to front-line roles.
That was all set out in June last year, as were the plans to reduce police officer numbers by up to 100 in 2018-19 and 300 in 2019-20. Therefore, when Ruth Davidson says that we have to be clear about this, I simply say to her that we were clear about it last year, and that it is not really my fault, or the Cabinet Secretary for Justice’s fault, that she was not paying attention.
Of course, all that is being independently monitored and assured by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland, which has confirmed that Police Scotland made good progress last year in moving about 85 officers from support roles into the front line, and that it is on course to increase that number. It has given an assurance that Police Scotland’s commitment to bringing the budget into balance in a sustainable way did not reduce operational capacity. That will continue to be monitored and assured.
Lastly, and on the second issue that Ruth Davidson raised, which was delayed police reporting to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, I say that that is, of course, regrettable and we want to ensure that it does not happen. However, let me put the matter into context: the numbers that Ruth Davidson cited account for 0.3 per cent of the overall number of cases. We will continue to make sure that Police Scotland is timeous in what it does, because that is important. I am sure that Ruth Davidson would not want to give a misleading impression to Parliament.
I am sure that 872 victims of crime who did not see those crimes being prosecuted will have been delighted to hear the answer that the First Minister has just given, about how little the crimes against them matter to her.
However, this is what is puzzling to police officers. The justice secretary claims that reductions to police numbers are fine, because more police time will soon be dedicated to front-line policing. However, yesterday, the Scottish Police Federation said that it is baffled by the justice secretary’s claims, because it sees no evidence of officers being freed up to spend more time on the front line. Who should we trust here? Should we trust the First Minister and her Government, who say that everything is fine, or Scotland’s front-line police officers, who say that it is not?
In my previous answer, I cited HMICS, which I hope all of us, regardless of political differences, trust. Let me repeat what I said in that answer; perhaps Ruth Davidson will actually listen to it.
HMICS has confirmed that, during 2017-18, Police Scotland has made good progress in moving approximately 85 officers from support roles to the front line. It also confirmed that Police Scotland is on course to increase that number. Of course, it is to HMICS that we look for independent assurance that the increase in front-line capacity is being delivered.
Let me repeat that the numbers that have been published this week show that the number of police officers in Scotland is 963 more than the number that we inherited in 2007. [The First Minister has corrected this contribution. See end of report.] Let us look at the rest of the United Kingdom. In England, where Ruth Davidson’s party is in Government, we have seen a decline in police officer numbers of about 20,000 over recent years. We will continue to make sure that we keep police officer numbers above the level that we inherited, and to support the police with real-terms increases in their resource budget, to ensure that they can continue to do the excellent job that they are doing in keeping crime at historically low levels.
We always know when the First Minister has had to go on the back foot, because then she looks to England and Wales or anywhere apart from at her own responsibilities in Scotland.
The facts are these. We were all told—the country was told—that the creation of a single force would free resources and provide huge savings to spend on front-line policing. The reality is that, five years on, we have a £30 million black hole in police accounts, and officer numbers are going down and we do not know how many more are for the axe. Front-line officers say that they are not getting the equipment or the time that they need to do their jobs. Hundreds of crimes are going unprosecuted because police are overworked.
Although money is short, this is the moment at which the Scottish National Party proposes to spend half a million pounds per officer on merging the British Transport Police with Police Scotland, which is a move that raises serious security risks.
Scotland’s police officers are asking how they can be expected to do their job in those circumstances. Can the First Minister answer them?
Police officers up and down the country are doing a fantastic job. Let us inject some reality into this exchange. I have already cited HMICS. Let me do so again, by quoting from its most recent annual report. This is the reality, across Scotland. It states:
“Operational performance remains strong for the fourth year of the single service, with officers and police staff at all levels committed to providing a good service to communities across Scotland. Users of policing remain positive about their experience”.
Of course they do: the vast majority of people in Scotland experience no crime whatsoever. Crime is at a 43-year low. The majority of people believe that their local police do either a good or an excellent job, and the Scottish crime and justice survey shows that crime has fallen by more than a third just since 2008-09.
Of course, our police service faces real challenges, as our other public services do, partly because of the austerity that is being imposed by the Conservative Party, but under this Government it is getting real-terms increases in its resource budget. We will continue to protect police officer numbers that are significantly above the level that we inherited, and we will continue to support our police officers to do the excellent job that they do every single day of the week.
Yesterday, the Samaritans warned that suicide prevention is not being taken seriously enough by this Government—that it is not a top priority. Are the Samaritans wrong?
No. I would not for a minute say that the Samaritans are wrong. We are looking to work closely—I think that we are working closely—with the Samaritans and other organisations as we finalise the new suicide prevention strategy, which is intended to make sure that we have the best facilities in place for people who need help. We will continue to do that. Maureen Watt, the Minister for Mental Health, has already made it clear that the feedback from the draft strategy will be listened to and built on in shaping the final strategy. I hope that all those who have an interest feel able to contribute, and I thank those who have done so, so far.
As the First Minister will know, Scotland’s suicide rate is more than twice the rate for Britain as a whole, and that in Dundee the suicide rate has increased by 61 per cent in a year. Behind those statistics are real people and real families who have lost loved ones, including the family of David Ramsay.
In the autumn of 2016, David Ramsay made three separate attempts at suicide in the space of a week. After harming himself and attempting to take his own life by overdosing, David’s family convinced him to seek urgent help from his doctor. His general practitioner referred him to the Carseview centre in Dundee because the GP believed that, in her words, he “required admission”. Twice he had emergency assessments and twice he was turned away. It then took more than 32 hours for him to get his medication. A care plan was supposed to have been drawn up for him. It has never been seen and is now missing. David hanged himself on the morning of 9 October 2016, four days after being turned away by the centre. He was 50 years old.
Tragically, David Ramsay’s story and the experience of his family is not unique in Dundee, so when I was in Dundee in March I backed the call by families for a public inquiry into mental health services at NHS Tayside. Why has the First Minister’s Government remained silent on this crisis and silent on that demand for a public inquiry?
First, I take the opportunity to convey my deep condolences to the family of Mr Ramsay. I understand that a member of his family has been in touch with the Scottish Government and that the Minister for Mental Health sent a reply to that relative last month.
Richard Leonard has raised issues about the Carseview centre in NHS Tayside. It is not right or fair to say that the Government has “remained silent”. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has visited Carseview on a number of occasions.
I understand that the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland carried out an unannounced inspection of Carseview in March, and made a number of recommendations. Let me make it very clear today, as the health secretary and the mental health minister have already done, that we expect NHS Tayside to respond fully to the recommendations within three months. The recommendations have also, I understand, been shared with Healthcare Improvement Scotland. We will pay very close attention to NHS Tayside’s response, and if we consider that further action is required, that action will be taken.
Dozens of families want an inquiry. David Ramsay’s niece, Gillian, and his father, David, are in the gallery today. They have had to come to Edinburgh because the Government has ignored them. Gillian wrote to the First Minister directly in June last year, and then again in February this year, but nothing has changed. They are yet another family that has been failed by the Government. How many more families must be failed? How many more families need to suffer before the First Minister finally recognises that now is the time for change?
Again, I convey my condolences to Mr Ramsay’s family. As I said, there has been communication with the family. It is important to repeat what I said earlier: it is simply not the case that no action is being taken. The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland has carried out an unannounced inspection, and recommendations have been made. It is now the Government’s expectation—it should be everybody’s expectation—that NHS Tayside responds to and implements those recommendations. We will monitor that very carefully.
In terms of a wider inquiry into the individual case—or any other cases—it is open to law officers to order a fatal accident inquiry. That is a matter for law officers and not for ministers.
We will continue to monitor the changes that are made by NHS Tayside. In addition, there will be additional investment in locally based preventative mental health treatment, as well as additional investment in the Carseview centre, in order to improve the quality and standard of care that is provided to the population of Tayside.
I return to my earlier answer on the new suicide prevention strategy, which is extremely important. Richard Leonard referred to suicide rates in his second question. My view is quite simple: one suicide is one too many. However, it is important to recognise that, although the numbers fluctuate from year to year, the five-year rolling average shows that suicide rates are on a downward trend in Scotland. Our responsibility is to ensure that we accelerate that progress and ensure that action is taken, and investment is provided, to support that progress.
I hope that we can agree that the issue is one on which we should all be prepared to work collaboratively. We will continue to do our job in ensuring that NHS Tayside responds to recommendations. We will also take the action to ensure that we have in place the best possible suicide prevention strategy, which we expect to publish in the summer of this year.
There are a number of constituency supplementaries, the first of which is from Kenneth Gibson.
EDF Energy (Hunterston B Nuclear Power Station)
The First Minister will be aware that EDF Energy, the owner of Hunterston B nuclear power station in my constituency, has shut down reactor 3 for repairs until the end of 2018, as a precaution, after expected new keyway root cracks in the reactor core were found to be happening at a slightly faster rate than expected. Rightly, EDF has put the safety of its workforce and local communities first.
I understand that the First Minister will meet EDF’s new chief executive, Simone Rossi, at 2 pm today. Will she seek assurances that safety will remain EDF’s number 1 priority and that, once repairs are completed fully, Hunterston B will continue to operate at least until its planned closure in 2023 and prior to the commencement of decommissioning?
Yes, I will raise those points. As the member mentioned, I have a meeting with EDF this afternoon, which was arranged some time ago. We are in regular contact with EDF, as well as with the nuclear safety and security regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, on this very important issue. I know that the company is seeking to reassure the public about safety at Hunterston. For our part, we are always very clear that the Scottish Government expects the strictest environmental and safety standards to be met at Scotland’s nuclear power stations. I will be happy—indeed, keen—to seek further assurances on that point when I meet the company today.
Deaths in Police Custody
Today is the third anniversary of the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody. We are still waiting on full details of what happened that morning, and three years is a long time for a family to wait. Is the First Minister confident that the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner has the appropriate powers, capacity and leadership to investigate deaths in custody? Following the independent inquiry into such deaths in England and Wales, which was chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini, will the Scottish Government now commit to undertake an inquiry into deaths in custody in Scotland to restore confidence in the system?
I thank Claire Baker for raising this issue. My thoughts and, I am sure, the thoughts of everyone across the chamber—particularly today—are with the family and friends of Mr Bayoh.
This is, of course, a live investigation and therefore members will understand that I require to be careful about what I say. The Crown Office has to undertake further work before a decision can be made about whether there should be any criminal proceedings. It is a complex investigation, but I know that the Crown Office has indicated that a decision will be made as soon as possible. The previous Lord Advocate made clear in 2015 that, regardless of the outcome of this investigation, a fatal accident inquiry will be held. Hopefully, that will provide public scrutiny of the circumstances of this tragic incident.
Claire Baker asked me about two further points, the first of which was whether I am satisfied that the PIRC has sufficient resources to meet the demands placed upon it. Yes, I am. In recognition of the additional demands that are faced by the PIRC, we acted to ensure that its budget for this financial year has increased by more than £1 million.
On the issue of Dame Elish Angiolini’s review of deaths in police custody in England and Wales, robust structures are in place in Scotland. The Lord Advocate is the head of the investigation of deaths system here, and the Crown Office can already ask the PIRC to carry out an independent inquiry into a death in police custody. Custody arrangements in Scotland are distinct from those in England and Wales. For example, since 2014, healthcare in police custody has been delivered by the national health service, to ensure that services are as effective as possible. Indeed, the Angiolini report urges the United Kingdom Government to implement that approach in England as well.
We will continue to consider whether any further action is necessary, but I hope that my answer gives some reassurance to the member today.
On Tuesday, a car crashed in Springburn in an event that is now being treated as attempted murder. A few weeks ago, a man was shot and killed by a masked gunman in Maryhill Road, only a couple of hundred yards from my office. In March, a man was shot at and stabbed in a residential street in Springburn, very close to my home.
These are extremely serious and violent crimes that have happened within weeks of one another in a relatively small area. Obviously, local residents are concerned. What reassurances can the First Minister give to the community that the Scottish Government is working alongside Police Scotland to prevent such crimes from taking place?
These are extremely serious incidents. Annie Wells will appreciate that some, if not all, of them continue to be the subject of police investigation and that therefore it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail. Suffice to say, the police are very active in tackling serious and organised crime. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and I are regularly briefed by the police on their efforts and progress.
The Crown Office has had some recent success in bringing serious and organised criminals to justice. I can give an absolute assurance that the Scottish Government will continue to work closely with the police and the Crown in ensuring that that happens, and that the public can be assured that such crimes are treated extremely seriously.
DGOne Leisure Complex
This week, Professor John Cole published the report of his independent inquiry into the flawed construction of the DGOne leisure complex in Dumfries. Although there are lessons for the council, he concluded that full responsibility for the defective construction lay with the contractor, Kier Construction. From breaches in the law with regard to building warrants to a fire escape strategy that completely compromised safety, its actions were criminal, in my view.
Does the First Minister therefore believe that it is acceptable that Kier Construction continues to rake in millions of pounds from the taxpayer, building schools and hospitals for the Scottish Government? Further, given that Professor Cole concluded that there are striking similarities between the safety-related failings by a major contractor that were exposed in this inquiry and those that were exposed in the one that he carried out into the construction of Edinburgh schools, surely the time has come for a fundamental review of the way in which we plan, procure, design and manage public sector construction projects so that we can stop cowboy construction firms ripping off the public and, frankly, putting lives at risk.
The Edinburgh schools situation—a very serious one—involved private finance initiative schools and, of course, the form of PFI that was used by previous Labour Administrations is no longer used to build public buildings in Scotland. I hope that the member welcomes that.
On the wider issues, we are required to openly procure such projects. Of course, some of the issues that are raised are for the particular local councils, not directly for the Scottish Government. However, we will pay extremely close attention to the findings and recommendations of the report that the member cites. If that requires us to take any further action, that is exactly what we will do.
Education Reform (Consultation)
I suspect that everybody in Parliament and throughout the country wants Scotland to have a great education system, in which teachers feel supported to do their jobs and in which we successfully tackle the poverty-related attainment gap that our country still experiences. However, this week, the Government released the analysis of yet another consultation on its plans for education reform, which have more to do with regional structures than with schools, teachers and the resources that they need. That is the Government’s third time of asking, and, for the third time, it has been told that its plans do not have the support of teachers, parents and education professionals—and we know that they do not have the support of Parliament. Is it not time to say “Three strikes and you’re out” to the proposals? The Government should return with a change of direction that is more about the resources that our schools and teachers need than about the reform that nobody but the Government seems to want.
The regional structures that Patrick Harvie has referred to—I guess that he is talking about the regional improvement collaboratives—are all about providing support for front-line teachers to do exactly what all of us want, which is to improve attainment and standards in our schools. Our education reforms are all about putting teachers and parents at the heart of decision making in the life of a school, because we know that decisions that shape the education of young people should be made by the professionals who know them best—teachers—and parents.
Patrick Harvie mentioned resources. We have increased the resources that go to our schools—not just the real-terms resource increase in local authority budgets but the pupil equity fund, which is putting more than £100 million directly into the hands of head teachers. If Patrick Harvie visits schools, as I and the education secretary do regularly, I am sure that he will hear, as we do, the very positive feedback about how pupil equity funding is allowing teachers to transform what they do to raise attainment in schools.
This should not be about party-political point scoring; it should be about us all uniting around the changes that our schools and education system need. Greens are by no means the only people to agree with the teaching unions, for example, which say that the pupil equity fund is no substitute for the money that has been cut from our education system, year after year. Scotland has lost thousands of teachers, additional support needs specialists, school librarians, school counsellors and other staff—the people whose talents and professionalism our schools need.
Does the First Minister understand that, if she changes direction on the issue and focuses on the resources, skills and professionals that our schools need, she will not only gain support in Parliament and among those who work in schools up and down the country but help to make teaching the fantastic, attractive profession that we all want and need it to be? Will she ask her cabinet secretary to change direction and come back with a plan that is focused on the resources that our schools need?
Teacher numbers have increased for two years in a row. Many of the additional teachers are directly down to the pupil equity fund, which is helping—[Interruption.] Labour members obviously do not like to talk about additional teachers in our schools. Many of the additional teachers are funded directly by the pupil equity fund, and we will continue to ensure that those resources go directly to head teachers to allow them to do the good work that they are doing.
We will continue to pursue reforms that are all about empowering teachers, head teachers and parents, because the evidence says that that is how we will make the biggest difference in schools to the poverty-related attainment gap. There are, of course, things that we need to do outside schools to help to close that gap, and much of that will be done through our reforms around social security and child poverty, but we will continue to focus on how to make sure that the power lies where it should lie in our education system: with front-line teachers and head teachers.
I am delighted to hear Patrick Harvie say that this is not a party-political issue. It is certainly not a party-political issue from my perspective or from that of the education secretary. Time and time again, I have heard Opposition parties across the chamber call for action to be taken to close the attainment gap in our schools, but every time that proposals are made to do that, they always manage to oppose them. That does not quite add up.
There are a number of supplementaries—I will take up to four, if there is time.
Baby Box Safety
Yesterday, we learned that one of the world’s leading experts on cot deaths, who is an adviser to the Scottish Government, had raised significant safety concerns about the Government’s baby box scheme. We also learned, for the first time, that he had raised those extremely serious concerns with the Government early last year. Will the First Minister agree today to set out in full all the advice that the Government has received from experts on the safety of the boxes? Will she confirm whether they have been accredited in full by the British Standards Institution?
The Tories should be deeply ashamed of themselves for needlessly trying to frighten parents. I saw that, this morning, Miles Briggs tweeted a call for all the safety accreditation documents to be published. That was done months ago. I do not believe that Miles Briggs does not know that. Therefore, the question is: why is he trying to wilfully mislead people about that?
Let me briefly address the issue, because it is really important to parents. The baby box conforms to all relevant safety standards. There is not yet a specific British standard for baby boxes, but the baby box conforms to the standards that are in place for a crib or a cradle for domestic use. That includes passing all the necessary stability, static load and strength safety tests.
Yesterday, there was focus on the fact that the safety certificate—which has been published—says that materials under clause 4(1) of the standard were excluded from testing. Clause 4(1) has three parts to it. One relates to materials made of wood, which is not relevant to the baby box; another relates to products made of metal, which is not relevant to the baby box; and the third requires materials to conform to another standard, and the baby box conforms to that further standard.
Concerns have also been raised about fire risk. The baby box complies with all relevant safety standards. There are clear instructions in the box not to place it in the vicinity of open fires; the mattress in the box is fully compliant with BS 1877, on flammability; and the construction complies with BS 7177, on the specification for mattresses for children’s cots. I hope that that helps to allay, if not the concerns of the Tories, any concerns that the Tories might have caused in the minds of parents.
What is it about the baby box that so offends the Conservatives? Is it just because it is Scottish National Party policy? Is it because we are giving state support to families, when the Tory preference is always to take that away from families? Is it because we have not insisted on a rape clause for eligibility for the baby box? The baby box is a good thing, and the Tories should stop unfairly criticising it.
Has the First Minister had a chance to review David Mundell’s comments at committee this morning, where he refused to confirm that the United Kingdom Government will respect a decision of the Scottish Parliament on legislative consent for the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill? Is it therefore fair to conclude that the UK Government is prepared to ignore the will of the Scottish Parliament?
I am sad to say that I did not have the opportunity to watch David Mundell at committee this morning, but I have heard reports of what he said. Two issues are relevant. First, the secretary of state refused to say that the UK Government would respect any decision that this Parliament takes on legislative consent for the withdrawal bill. In the absence of such a commitment, how can we be expected to take the UK Government at its word when it says that it would respect our decisions on consent when it comes to any orders that might be laid at a later stage?
Secondly, the secretary of state also seemed to confirm that, even if every single member of this Parliament were to vote to withhold consent to an order that was being laid to reserve power at Westminster, the UK Government could take that to be consent and do it anyway. That is not a definition of consent that anybody across the country will be familiar with.
We want to reach agreement, but we will not do so if the UK Government insists on riding roughshod over the powers of this Parliament.
Is the First Minister aware of the Health and Safety Executive’s comments last week about major hydrocarbon releases every year putting the lives of multiple offshore workers at risk? Is she aware that researchers at Robert Gordon University have reported on substantial fatigue and psychological distress offshore as a result of changes to on/off rotas? Is she aware that the quality assurance company DNV GL reported this week that 46 per cent of professionals in the sector believe there to have been underinvestment in inspection and maintenance of infrastructure offshore, saying that they would not rule out the possibility of catastrophic failure as a result?
In the run-up to the 30th anniversary of Piper Alpha, what reassurance can she give offshore workers that her Government is alive to those concerns and will support trade unions and United Kingdom and Scottish regulators in seeking to ensure the safest possible working environment for Scottish workers offshore?
My overriding message is that safety in the North Sea is paramount. Nothing is more important than ensuring that the safety of those who work offshore is paramount. That was a regular area of discussion at the oil and gas task force.
The Scottish Government has supported, and will continue to support, trade unions in raising any concerns with operators in the North Sea. I expect any recommendations that the Health and Safety Executive makes to be taken seriously and implemented. If Lewis Macdonald wants to raise specific concerns, I would be happy to look into them further.
Immigration Powers (Devolution)
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will seek the devolution of all immigration powers. (S5F-02308)
Yes, we will. The United Kingdom Government’s immigration policy not only is inhumane but is harming Scotland’s interests. It is damaging communities, breaking up families and, if targets for reducing net migration to tens of thousands are pursued, could cost Scotland’s economy up to £10 billion a year by 2040.
In February, we published a paper demonstrating why migration is essential to Scotland’s prosperity and how a different approach with new powers for the Scottish Parliament could operate. We outlined options for devolution within a UK framework to create a new route for people who want to settle in Scotland. That proposal would be additional to the current routes that the UK has in place.
The numerous scandals that have come to light in recent weeks, which have been caused under consecutive Tory Home Secretaries, reinforce the urgency for Scotland to have its own system and have control over immigration.
In the past week, the Home Office has backed down after threatening to deport a family in Fulton MacGregor’s constituency by mistake, and the Home Secretary has resigned for misleading Parliament and the public over the setting of immigration targets. There is also continuing fallout from the Windrush scandal, and there are claims that the Prime Minister herself blocked requests from her own Government to allow more doctors from overseas into the UK. Nevertheless, we are expected to believe that the Home Office can handle the more than 3 million applications for settled status from European Union citizens. That is not to mention those who already have settled status and felt compelled to leave the country or now just do not want to come.
That situation leaves shortages across farms in Angus, for example, where there is expected to be a shortfall of around 15 to 20 per cent in the number of seasonal workers this summer. How bad does it have to get before the Tories accept that they are failing the people of Scotland on immigration and put the powers in this Parliament’s hands?
Mairi Gougeon is absolutely right, and I hope that members around the chamber will support those calls. I had the opportunity briefly to meet the family from Fulton MacGregor’s constituency when they attended First Minister’s question time a couple of weeks ago. I heard directly from them about the stress and anxiety that they have suffered because of Home Office ineptitude. The other scandals that have come to light in recent weeks underline the fact that such cases are just the tip of the iceberg.
I said “ineptitude” a moment ago, but much of what we are talking about is not just ineptitude; it is the result of deliberate policies that the Tory Government is pursuing. The hostile environment policy, which is the policy of the Prime Minister—who was previously the Home Secretary—is dehumanising migrants to this country and is casting suspicion over anybody who chooses to make this country their home. It is absolutely despicable, and it must end. I hope that the new Home Secretary will change the culture and policy fundamentally. Above all, I hope that more powers over immigration come to this Parliament soon, so that we can exercise them humanely and in the interests of the country’s economy.
Schools (Access to Arts Education)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that all pupils, irrespective of social background, have full access to arts education. (S5F-02293)
Curriculum for excellence recognises the value of the expressive arts as one of the eight curriculum areas in Scotland. Local authorities are, of course, responsible for ensuring that all children and young people have access to the full curriculum, including the expressive arts. For our part, we are supporting them by delivering a real-terms increase in revenue and capital funding to local authorities.
During a recent visit to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the principal, Jeffrey Sharkey, assured the Education and Skills Committee that his institution is wholly committed to a diversity of intake and widened access, but he warned that that commitment was being seriously undermined by the fact that a diminishing number of pupils in Scotland have access to quality arts provision, especially music tuition.
Does the First Minister agree with Professor Sharkey’s assertion that the issue is a serious one that is having
“a detrimental effect on the cultural life of the nation and on the ... creative potential of our young people”?
Will she undertake, in the review that the Scottish Government is about to commission, to examine all possible channels of additional funding, including those that might be offered via private sector partnerships?
I thank Liz Smith for raising an important issue. I have a couple of brief points to make.
As I said in my original answer, in Scottish schools the subject of music is part of the expressive arts area of curriculum for excellence. Instrumental music tuition is an additional, discretionary service that is provided by local authorities, which means that local authorities decide what instrumental music tuition to provide and how to provide it, depending on their priorities and traditions.
My second point is that I share the concerns about the decisions of a number of local authorities to reduce access to instrumental music tuition for young people. The Deputy First Minister has asked his officials—while, of course, respecting the autonomy of local councils—to identify ways of ensuring that instrumental music tuition remains accessible to people, regardless of background, in the future. I understand that, following the intervention of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, West Lothian Council is already looking again at its decision.
The issue is an important one to which the Scottish Government pays close attention. Over and above what I have mentioned—although I appreciate that the programmes that I am about to mention are not the equivalent of music tuition in schools—since 2007, the Scottish Government has invested more than £100 million in the youth music initiative, which has had an impact in helping young people to access opportunities to make music. Since 2012, we have also provided more than £2 million to Sistema Scotland, which is a charity that provides opportunities for young people to get involved in big noise orchestras, one of which is based in my constituency. Across Scotland, that reaches 2,000 children every week.
As I said, I appreciate that those programmes are not equivalent to tuition in schools, but I hope that they reflect the Scottish Government’s commitment to ensuring that young people get the opportunity to experience music in all its forms.
Asda and Sainsbury’s (Proposed Merger)
To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with Asda and Sainsbury’s regarding their merger and any impact this might have on jobs in Scotland. (S5F-02301)
The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity held a call with representatives of Asda on Tuesday of this week, in which it was made clear that the proposed merger will result in no store closures in Scotland. We were also informed that Asda intends to keep its two distribution centres at Falkirk and Grangemouth open, and there are no indications of job losses. However, we will continue to engage with both supermarkets to ensure that those promises are followed through, that Scottish consumers benefit and, crucially—this is a really important point—that Scottish suppliers benefit and do not lose out.
I very much welcome the First Minister’s response. It would appear that local managers in Asda have been briefing their staff that jobs in stores are safe for a year. Although that is welcome, it is pretty meaningless, given that the Competition and Markets Authority will not report on the merger until the end of 2019.
That said, I have not heard any guarantees about the future of jobs at the Asda distribution centres, which, as the First Minister will be aware, employ around 1,100 workers in Falkirk and Grangemouth. I understand that the GMB trade union, which represents thousands of Asda staff, has written to the Scottish Government, asking it to get involved. Will the First Minister ensure that there is transparency on Asda’s plans for jobs in the company’s stores and that an undertaking is given on its continued commitment to Grangemouth and Falkirk, in particular?
Jackie Baillie is right to refer to the Competition and Markets Authority, which has indicated that it is likely to review the merger. That process has still to be undertaken.
Fergus Ewing tells me that he has already written to the relevant unions to offer meetings. That work will be taken forward, and we will do everything that we can to make sure that the unions are kept fully up to date.
I have outlined the commitments that Asda has given to the Scottish Government. They are commitments at this stage, and we will monitor the situation very closely to ensure that the promises that have been made—including promises about the two distribution centres—are followed through. We will, of course, seek the same discussions and commitments from Sainsbury’s.
Asda and Sainsbury’s play a significant role in enabling the sale of quality Scottish produce, which supports farmers and food and drink producers throughout Scotland. What assurances has the First Minister had about their continuing commitment to promote and sell locally produced and locally sourced Scottish food and drink? I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing.
That is an important point, given in particular the concerns that there often are in the food and drink supply chain and primary producers’ concerns that they do not always enjoy the benefits of the huge growth in food and drink. I note and understand the concern that NFU Scotland has expressed that the immense purchasing power that would be generated from such a merger could give the organisation an opportunity to bargain even harder with suppliers throughout the supply chain.
Both Asda and Sainsbury’s have provided assurances to us that they think that significant opportunities will be created for Scottish suppliers to develop new product ranges and grow their businesses. However, as with commitments around jobs in the distribution centres, it is important that we ensure that those promises are followed through. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity will be very focused on that.