Meeting date: Thursday, June 6, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 06 June 2019
Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, First Responders (Trauma Recovery and Support), Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Fuel Poverty (Target, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Business Motion
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- First Responders (Trauma Recovery and Support)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Business Motion
- Fuel Poverty (Target, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
First Minister’s Question Time
Education (Multilevel Teaching)
I am sure that, today, we all want to recognise the bravery of, and the sacrifice that was made by, the service personnel who, 75 years ago this morning, took part in the D-day landings. We all owe them a debt that we can never repay. [Applause.]
In recent weeks, we have heard a lot about the difficulties that teachers face due to staff shortages and subject choice restrictions. We now learn that, in many schools, teachers are having to teach different qualification levels of the same subject in the same class at the same time. That means that pupils of different ages, all thrown in together, are studying different topics for different exams. Last week, the education secretary said that he had
“never heard anybody argue that, educationally, there is something wrong with it.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 29 May 2019; c 27.]
Does he stand by that statement?
I am deputising for the First Minister today because she is in Normandy for the 75th anniversary commemoration of the D-day landings. The First Minister is honouring those who fought fascism, defended democracy and gave their lives for our freedom. As we look around our world today, we must all remember the debt that we owe the D-day generation. Now, as then, we must stand together against those in our society who would choose the road of fascism. [Applause.]
In relation to the point of substance on education that Ruth Davidson raised with me, multilevel teaching has been a feature of the education system in Scotland for many years. It was a feature of the education system when I was going through it, all those years ago. Clearly, there is an active debate on the issues around subject choices, but I stand by my remarks that multilevel teaching is delivered effectively in our schools by teachers who are trained to deliver professionalism of that quality and standard.
I am not sure how the education secretary could have missed the largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, saying that there has been an “explosion” in the number of combined classes, which is putting teachers under “increasing pressure”. How did he miss the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers saying that the issue is causing “intolerable” workload and stress or the Association for Science Education saying that teaching a combined class is like
“spinning two plates at one time”?—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 8 May 2019; c 35.]
I am not sure how he missed principal teacher Iain Aitken telling the Parliament that “It’s a disgrace” that “schools actually have” national 4, national 5, highers and advanced highers “in the same classroom”, or Marjorie Kerr, the president of the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers, saying that the qualifications are
“not aligned to be taught in that way”
“national 5 pupils ... are definitely disadvantaged if they end up in a class in which the higher is also being taught because the courses do not match up.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 8 May 2019; c 34.]
Now that the education secretary has heard the arguments against combined classes, does he recognise that all those people have a point?
Of course, I recognise that there is a debate to be had. There is a debate to be had about every topic in education—education is a part of our society that is actively the subject of debate. I am interested in making sure that our education system delivers the best outcomes possible for the young people of Scotland, and the evidence is substantial that the education system is doing exactly that.
We see young people now achieving more in our schools; we see attainment at level 6 rising, equipping young people with the qualifications that they require; and we see young people leaving school to the highest level of positive destinations on record. I recognise that there is a debate to be had, but I also want to make sure that we do not lose sight of the phenomenal achievements of young people in our education system today.
The education secretary has said that there is no evidence of the “explosion” in multilevel teaching that the EIS talks about. Indeed, he says, it has been a factor in Scottish education for ever. Well, we have the evidence, because we sent freedom of information requests to all 32 local authorities, asking them how many combined classes there are in their schools. Of the 238 schools that we have got information back on, 112 have classes in which three qualification levels are being taught in the same classroom, and in a further 11 schools four levels are being taught together, such as in Inverclyde academy, where maths is being taught at national 4, national 5, higher and advanced higher all in the same classroom. We will give the education secretary all the evidence that he asks for, but the question is, will he act on it?
This is where we get into some of the interesting fault lines and contradictions in the Conservatives’ position. I believe fundamentally in empowering the schools of Scotland to decide exactly how the curriculum should be delivered. That is what I believe in. [Interruption.]
That is what this Parliament supported when it supported curriculum for excellence—a flexible curriculum to put power back into our teaching profession to enable it to deliver on behalf of the people of Scotland. What we are now seeing in our schools, as I have said already, is rising attainment by our young people, an improvement in the destinations that are available for young people, a rising number of teachers being available to teach in our classrooms—a record level since 2010—and rising resources being put into schools, including £750 million from this Government that is being put directly into the hands of schools and local authorities to close the poverty-related attainment gap. That is the investment that we are seeing in Scottish education, and that is why it is delivering results for the young people of Scotland.
I am sure that the schools of Scotland are delighted to hear that they have been empowered by the education secretary into staff shortages and subject choice restrictions. However, the point is this: a week ago, the education secretary told Parliament that he had never heard anybody say that there was anything wrong with combined classes and that there was no data to suggest that the problem was widespread. I have come here today and given him the arguments from the experts and the data. After 12 years of Government, is it not time that we had ministers in charge who were prepared to face up to the challenges in our schools instead of denying that they exist, or is it the case that defending their failed record matters more to this Government than educating our young people across the country?
I engage with the education system more than anybody else in this chamber, every day. Yesterday, while Ruth Davidson was cooking up the latest moanfest to bring to Parliament, I was at the Scottish education awards, listening to case after case from the length and breadth of the country on literacy, numeracy, attainment, achievement and the long service of our teachers. I spent my day listening to all those fabulous examples while Ruth Davidson was cooking up her moanfest to bring to Parliament today.
Crucially, what matters is not the litany of complaints that Ruth Davidson brings to Parliament but what is being achieved—[Interruption.]
What matters is what is being achieved by the young people of Scotland: attainment is rising, they are gaining more highers and the number of positive destinations is improving year on year. That is what Scottish education is determined to deliver, that is what it is delivering and that is what I am happy to celebrate. I am not going to take any moanfest from Ruth Davidson on the subject.
Today is a day for reflection on the sacrifice and the courage of those who liberated France and so liberated Europe. We owe them a huge and enduring debt.
“The Scottish Government urgently needs to consider how they can progress”
the income supplement
“quicker or, if this is not feasible, what interim measures could help.”
“strongly fees that many families need additional money in their pockets now.”
Those were the stark warnings of the Government’s own Poverty and Inequality Commission in response to the Scottish budget. If the Government’s own Poverty and Inequality Commission says that the poorest families in Scotland need
“money in their pockets now”,
what makes the Deputy First Minister think that they can afford to wait?
I acknowledge the seriousness of the issues that Richard Leonard raises. We have made it abundantly clear—it has been made clear weekly at First Minister’s question time—that poverty levels in Scotland are too high and that the Government is determined to do all that it can to tackle the issue. On the income supplement, the Government has made it clear that it will report to Parliament before the conclusion of the parliamentary year at the end of this month.
Of course, the Government is taking forward a whole range of different interventions to address the issue, some of which I will set out. The interventions include: the implementation of free school meals, which more than 130,000 primary 1 to P3 children are benefiting from; the £750 million attainment Scotland fund; the investment that we make in the council tax reduction scheme; the work and the investment that are in place to mitigate the effects of the welfare reforms that are being imposed on the people of this country by the United Kingdom Government; and the best start grant, which has been applied and has already delivered significant and meaningful results and impacts for individuals across the country.
Yes, there is more work to be done, but I assure Richard Leonard and members in the chamber that the Government is determined to do all that it possibly can to support individuals who live a life in poverty and to help them to work their way out of that life, with active support from the Scottish Government
Is the Deputy First Minister seriously arguing that the Poverty and Inequality Commission does not know about the initiatives that he has just listed? The commission is making a point about the income supplement.
It is not only a question of welfare. Only this week, Douglas Hamilton, who is the chair of the Poverty and Inequality Commission, said of the Government’s commitment to inclusive growth:
“despite a high level of commitment to make this new economic agenda work, very little has changed ... As a result, it appears to be more of a concept than an approach that results in real change in people’s lives.”
When will we get deeds, and not just words?
I have just gone through with Richard Leonard a number of areas in which we have undertaken deeds to tackle the issue. The Government is taking a whole series of policy initiatives that are making an impact, and which led to the very positive endorsement of the Scottish Government’s work from the United Nations special rapporteur, who reported recently on the strength of the response of the devolved Administrations to the crisis that individuals face as a consequence of welfare reform.
The steps that the Government is taking through the fair work agenda, the investment that we are making in early learning and childcare, the investment that has been undertaken through the best start grants and our taking forward of the devolved social security powers are all concrete deeds that the Government is undertaking to address the issues of poverty that individuals face.
We are determined to do more, but we have to recognise that we are doing so under a whole series of pressures that arise out of welfare reform and the decisions of the United Kingdom Government, which are deeply damaging to the lives of individuals in Scotland.
The Deputy First Minister used the word “crisis”. While the Government has been delaying the income supplement, child poverty in Scotland has continued to rise. While the Government has been offering up concepts, out in the real world more people are queuing up at food banks.
Only yesterday, a Child Poverty Action Group report, produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research, concluded that the greatest reduction in child poverty relative to the cost of any single option would be achieved by addressing the two-child cap.
When will the Government at long last think about its moral responsibility? When will it finally use its powers to protect families in Scotland from the two-child cap? Does John Swinney still think that families should be left to suffer, in order to stop
“letting the Westminster Government off the hook”?
What an appalling accusation to throw across the chamber of this Parliament. [Interruption.]
Richard Leonard puts to me the moral question. The moral question is whether this Parliament should be dictated to by a Tory Government that Richard Leonard is quite happy to keep in office, thereby inflicting misery on the people of Scotland as a consequence of his unwillingness for this Parliament to take responsibility for these actions.
Richard Leonard needs look no closer than the man who is sitting on his right—Iain Gray—who sat on the Smith commission and refused point blank to devolve responsibility to the Scottish Parliament in order to give us the powers to tackle these issues. [Interruption.] Richard Leonard has no right to trade moral responsibility with me across this chamber—[Interruption.] He has crossed the road and is walking on the other side, doing nothing to take into the hands of this Parliament powers that could transform lives. He is happy to leave the Tories in charge; I most definitely am not.
I appreciate that this is an emotive subject, but I recommend that members do not shout across the chamber.
There are five constituency questions.
Arjo Wiggins Fine Papers Ltd (Stoneywood Mill)
The Deputy First Minister will be aware that the administrators for Stoneywood mill have ended their discussions with the preferred bidder and the sale is no longer being taken forward.
Although that is, understandably, a major disappointment, a management buyout has emerged as a potential means of securing the future of the business and the workforce. I plan to meet management tomorrow. I understand that the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills is meeting management today, and I am advised that Scottish Enterprise is offering on-going support.
Will the Deputy First Minister say whether the support that the Scottish Government can and will provide extends to financial support? Will the Scottish Government consider making a statement in the Parliament that sets out the support that has been provided to date and the steps that will be taken to help to secure the future of a profitable business and a skilled and dedicated workforce?
Mr McDonald’s final point is the most significant one: Stoneywood mill is a profitable site and there is a skilled workforce there. In the Government’s view, it is perfectly possible for a viable business proposition to be made. That is why the business minister was at Stoneywood this morning for discussions, and it is why Scottish Enterprise is deeply engaged in all the issues.
I give Mr McDonald and the Parliament the assurance that the Government is doing everything that it can do, with our agencies, to ensure that all possible support can be made available. We have to operate within the normal rules and context, with which Mr McDonald will be familiar, but I assure him that absolutely everything that can be done to safeguard the future of the plant will be done.
It has been a disappointment that the discussions with the preferred bidder have concluded. However, there are active discussions about a management buyout and the business minister will be happy to update the Parliament, in due course, on the steps that are being taken to resolve the situation and give certainty to the workforce of the paper mill at Stoneywood.
Out-of-hours Dental Service (St John’s Hospital)
I have been passed a consultation document, which is not publicly available, on the future provision of the out-of-hours dental service at St John’s hospital. Three of the five options propose the partial or full closure of the service, with a move to Edinburgh. That would leave West Lothian with no emergency dental service at our hospital.
That follows the out-of-hours closures of the children’s ward and the recent threat to the out-of-hours general practitioner service. Why are we constantly having to fight proposals to remove services from St John’s hospital? Are not the proposals yet more evidence that workforce planning in the national health service is shambolic and is failing staff and patients?
I point out to Mr Findlay that the children’s ward that he mentioned among the issues that he raised has reopened. The situation involves consideration of a range of options. If any of those were to be adopted, that would constitute a major service change, and there will be full and active involvement in consultation for all members of the public and of Parliament.
I make clear to Mr Findlay that the Scottish Government believes that there is a very strong need for a wide range of services to be provided at St John’s hospital. It is critical that the sizeable population in the West Lothian area is supported by those services. Such issues will be uppermost in the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport’s consideration in the period to come.
Family Contact Centres (Disabled Access)
Around a year ago, a court granted one of my constituents supervised contact with his disabled son at a family contact centre in Glasgow. However, an issue with disabled access to toilet facilities has meant that contact has not taken place since the order was granted. I am unclear about the situation, but it may be that no such centre in the greater Glasgow area has appropriate facilities that comply with legislation on disabled access. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that it is wrong that such centres appear not to be subject to minimum standards such as those on disabled access? Indeed, I understand that there is little regulation regarding such centres more generally. Will the Deputy First Minister seek to remedy those matters, so that parents—and, perhaps more importantly, children—can have appropriate contact and parental alienation can be reduced?
All public facilities should have appropriate access for all disabled people. If Mr Doris provides me with details of the situation, I will ensure that they are investigated by the appropriate minister. We will work to ensure that all possible remedies are put in place. Individuals’ disabilities should present no barriers to their being able to pursue their legitimate activities. I will ensure that such issues are looked at very carefully.
The Buteman (Closure)
The Deputy First Minister will have heard the sad news that publication of The Buteman is to cease this month, 165 years after it commenced. The newspaper’s journalism jobs left the Isle of Bute some time ago, but the need for local news has not. Will the Deputy First Minister advise how the Scottish Government can support local journalism, particularly in our island communities?
I was very sorry to hear the news about The Buteman, which, as Mr Finnie has said, has had a long and distinguished history and is part of the firmament of local newspapers that faithfully report activities and initiatives the length and breadth of the country. Such matters obviously involve private companies, but the Scottish Government is happy to engage in wider work in that respect. Last weekend, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, was involved in discussions on the role of journalism in our society, and she made the point that we all rely on having a free and open press to ensure that there is proper reflection of local priorities and appropriate discussion of national, political and wider societal issues. The Government greatly supports the activities of local newspapers and is happy to provide—as it often does—lots of news for local newspapers to report on.
NHS Borders (Finances)
The Deputy First Minister will be aware that, this week, Scottish Borders Council is handing over an extra £3.2 million to the region’s health and social care integration joint board, following continued concern about the state of the finances of NHS Borders. At a recent meeting, the integration joint board revealed that it needs to make savings of £11.7 million in the financial year 2019-20. All that comes in a week in which NHS Borders reported the worst average waiting time for child and adolescent mental health services in Scotland. On average, young people are having to wait 22 weeks for treatment, which is appalling. Will the Deputy First Minister commit to the Scottish Government’s funding NHS Borders properly, as the current financial situation is clearly unsustainable?
NHS Borders is funded through the financial arrangements that the Scottish Government has in place, which distribute the largest-ever national health service budget in history to the health boards of Scotland. Its appropriate share of that budget will have been driven by the formula that is applied in that respect.
Rachael Hamilton raises significant issues relating to mental health services for young people. She will know that the Government is investing significantly in expanding mental health services at a variety of levels, whether it is through the expansion of the school counsellor network or the expansion of mental health services that are provided by the national health service. All those different interventions will be taken forward to strengthen mental health services.
Health and social care integration at local level is a joint endeavour of the health service and local authorities to serve communities. It is important that open discussions take place about the financial requirements of the joint service. The way in which Rachael Hamilton characterises money being handed over from one body to another does not get across the concept of partnership that lies at the heart of the integration of health and social care. She might know that one of the Conservative leadership candidates, Mr Rory Stewart, is looking actively at the failures in integrating health and social care south of the border, and he has reflected on some of the partnership work that has been taken forward in Scotland. Before Rachael Hamilton bandies about such language in the chamber, she should reflect on the importance of partnership at local level between the health service and local government.
Transport (Infrastructure Projects)
I join the other political parties in commemorating the actions of those who took part in the D-day landings. As we see the forces of the far right reinvent themselves in the United Kingdom, the US and so many other countries—too often aided and abetted by people in mainstream politics and the media—we must remind ourselves that the fight against the far right is one for which every generation must be ready if we are to properly remember and respect the memory of those who did not return from the fight 75 years ago.
At the end of April, the First Minister declared a climate emergency, as did the Welsh Government. Now, barely a month later, the Welsh Government has announced the welcome decision to scrap plans to build a £1.4 billion motorway relief road. However, the Scottish Government is pressing ahead with spending £6 billion on dualling the A9 and A96. Since she made her announcement, the First Minister has repeatedly said that, when it comes to the policy changes that are needed, everything is under review. Does that include the next phases of those road projects?
Patrick Harvie has reflected on the issues that we all face in relation to climate change, but the Government must take forward its agenda in a sustainable way. We have already made changes to our policy framework that he is familiar with in relation to air departure tax.
The Government also has a duty to ensure that the country is equipped with the appropriate infrastructure to meet the needs of all our population. Anyone who is familiar with the A9 and the A96 will know that both those roads have serious and alarming safety records, given their current construction and the volume of traffic that uses them. Such issues need to be addressed, and the Government will do so as part of its programme.
However, my comments should be taken in the context of the Government’s absolute obligation to meet the climate change targets that we have set out and to which we have committed. Roseanna Cunningham has lodged amendments to the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill to ensure that we fulfil the commitments that we have given to Parliament and to the people of Scotland.
The Deputy First Minister seems to disagree with the First Minister, who said that everything is under review. He cites the problem of the volume of traffic, but the current plans will do nothing to control the volume of traffic that uses the roads.
The Scottish Government has an opportunity to change direction by redirecting expenditure from road building to investment in a modern, affordable and efficient rail network. The single-track Highland main line, which runs parallel to the A9, has been described as an antiquated embarrassment. Dualling and electrifying that line could be done for a far lower cost than the cost of the Government’s road-building scheme. It is more than 10 years since the Scottish Government promised significant investment to ensure that
“railway travel to the heart of the Highlands ... is competitive with roads.”
People in the Highlands have been waiting since 2008 to see improvement in journey times. How much longer will they have to wait?
Improvements are being undertaken on the Highland main line as we speak, and structural change has already been undertaken on the line to ensure that it can deliver shorter journey times. Through the ScotRail franchise, there has been investment in enhancing the rolling stock that is available for the Highland line, which has resulted in an expansion of capacity between Inverness and the central belt.
All those investments are taking place to improve the attractiveness of the rail network, but it is clear that we have wider obligations to ensure that, in every respect, we equip the country with the connectivity that is required. The massive investment that has been put into digital connectivity is hugely beneficial to communities in the Highlands and Islands. We are delivering those advantages as part of a balanced package, but I stress that that must be done in the context of fulfilling the climate change targets that the Government will enshrine in law in the weeks that lie ahead.
National Testing (Five-year-olds)
Seventy-five years on, I know that many thousands of people woke up this morning and thought of those in their families who served and sacrificed so that we may live freely today.
The Education and Skills Committee said that John Swinney was confused; teachers said that they had no real value; parents in his own constituency boycotted them; the teachers’ union wanted them to be scrapped; and Parliament instructed him to stop. I am talking about national tests for five-year-olds. On Tuesday, however, John Swinney claimed that the tests had been implemented without any difficulty whatsoever. On the very same day in London, Donald Trump claimed that he saw only cheering crowds. John Swinney and Donald Trump are two peas in a pod—they are both in denial. Is it not the truth that the national testing saga is symbolic of John Swinney’s performance as education secretary?
That ridiculous question is symbolic of Willie Rennie’s leadership of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. I do not think that it serves decent discourse in this Parliament for Willie Rennie to characterise his questions in that way. He can say what he likes to me—it is water off a duck’s back—but I do not think that it helps his credibility one iota.
On the question of primary 1 assessments, I said that the assessments had been implemented without any difficulty because, in the first year of the implementation of a complex information technology project—I remind Parliament that the public sector sometimes has difficulties with IT projects—650,000 assessments were undertaken the length and breadth of our country in 3,500 schools in Scotland. That is the evidence that I marshal to back up my statement that the assessments were undertaken without any practical difficulty.
I believe primary 1 assessments to be valuable—I will say more about this in a statement to Parliament on Tuesday, which Willie Rennie will know that I am to make—because I want to make sure that teachers have access to resources that will inform their judgment about the progression of young people through the education system. It does not serve young people well for any issues to do with their educational capacity not to be identified at the earliest possible opportunity. I thought that the Parliament believed in early intervention. Primary 1 standardised assessments are about early intervention, and that is why they are valuable to young people around Scotland.
John Swinney is ignoring the evidence again; he is not listening. Instead of bulldozing ahead, he needs to listen and scrap the tests.
There is a long list. The pupil equity fund is underspent by £50 million. Audit Scotland says that colleges have big financial problems. Recruitment for nursery education is way behind. Six out of 10 teachers work more than an extra day every week, and more than half of all teachers experience mental health issues because of their job.
John Swinney was brought in as a big-shot troubleshooter for the First Minister’s guiding mission. Does he really think that he has met the expectations that the First Minister had when she appointed him to that job?
Thank you. I was just about to encourage some brevity, so that we can get through the remaining questions.
Voluntary Organisations (European Union Funding)
The Deputy First Minister will be aware that millions of pounds of European funding could be withheld from voluntary organisations and local authorities across Scotland. Given that that could lead to employability projects closing, job losses and cuts to services for vulnerable people, why did the Government not heed the warnings more than a year ago? It is the Government’s responsibility to administer the scheme, so why has nothing been done to avert the crisis? Will the Deputy First Minister act urgently and guarantee to fund the £22 million gap? I will accept an answer of “Yes”.
Let me give Jackie Baillie slightly more—
Jackie Baillie knows that she is one of my favourites, so she would expect a bit more detail.
I acknowledge the importance of the issue and the manner in which the member sets it out, because the issue affects the prospects of a number of third sector organisations on which we all rely in our communities. We understand those concerns, and those of local authorities, and we have been engaging in discussion with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on that question. We are determined to avoid any charity or third sector body going out of business as a result of the issue.
We have been doing a great deal on the matter. We have been in discussion with the European Commission to explore resolutions to the audit issues. Last Friday, we presented possible solutions to the Commission, and we are awaiting a response.
We continue to make payments to projects unaffected by the issues. I assure Jackie Baillie that intense activity is under way to resolve the questions and to give the security and certainty that third sector organisations want. Ministers will be happy to update Parliament on those questions in due course.
It is rare that I say this to you, Mr Swinney, but some members cannot quite hear you. It is just when you are swivelling, so try to face the front when you are making your remarks.
European Union Membership
The National runs a letter today from the Spanish Government confirming that it
“will not block an independent Scotland’s entry to the European Union”,
that that has “always” been its position and that
“there is no queue to join the EU”.
Another better together scare story bites the dust. I will leave it to The Herald to explain why it failed to publish a letter on that issue that it received some weeks ago. Does the Deputy First Minister welcome that intervention from Spain?
I had better make sure that everyone hears this answer, Presiding Officer. Yes, I do welcome that intervention from the Spanish Government, because it confirms the fact that—as we have always known—Spain would not block an independent Scotland from joining the European Union.
Of course, that issue comes alongside the demolition of a host of other scare stories that were put about in 2014, such as having to vote no to protect our European Union membership—we know how well that went. Members of the public in Scotland were also told that they had to vote no to safeguard the future of the national health service, but Donald Trump is over here trying to get his hands on the NHS. We will have nothing to do with that on this Government’s watch; the same cannot be said for the Tories and the mess that they have got us into on Brexit.
Dungavel House (Children)
To ask the Deputy First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that children are still being held at Dungavel house. (S5F-03394)
If children are still being detained at Dungavel house a decade after the Home Office committed to ending that appalling practice, that would be completely unacceptable and a clear contravention of its stated policy.
The Scottish Government has repeatedly pressed the United Kingdom Government to implement more humane asylum and immigration systems. On 15 May, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government wrote to the UK immigration minister to express the Scottish Government’s deep concerns following reports about the detention of children and pregnant women at Dungavel house. On 1 April, she wrote to support calls for a time limit on immigration detention.
The Scottish Government continues to seek clarity from the Home Office about the detention of children at Dungavel house.
I ask the Deputy First Minister to cast his mind back to the Smith commission, all parties to which, as the Smith agreement notes, recommended that the operation of asylum support be devolved. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that having some responsibility for asylum and greater insight into what happens at Dungavel would allow us to better protect vulnerable adults and children, and can he give the Parliament an update on progress towards that recommendation?
I recall the discussions in the Smith commission that Linda Fabiani referred to. As a consequence of them, the Scottish Government had a number of discussions at official level with the Home Office on the commission’s proposals on asylum. However, despite the commission’s recommendations, the Home Office refused to accept the case for devolving asylum accommodation, financial support and advice or the ability for an asylum claim to be lodged in Scotland so that we could provide for a more dignified and humane system.
The fact that we were unable to make progress on something that was agreed by all parties to and participants in the Smith commission should perhaps come as no surprise to us, given that the Home Office has been continually criticised for creating a hostile environment in this area of policy. That serves none of us well, and it is, in my view, a scar on the United Kingdom’s reputation for welcoming people who face jeopardy in our world.
Income Tax Receipts
To ask the Deputy First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s prediction of a £1 billion shortfall in income tax receipts affecting the Scottish budget in the period 2020 to 2023. (S5F-03393)
I welcome and value the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s work. As the commission has made clear, significant uncertainty surrounds potential reconciliations, and the true position cannot be confirmed until outturn data is available. The Government will decide how to manage any reconciliation as part of each budget, and we will be guided in that by the principles that are set out in the medium-term financial strategy, including those on the use of the limited reserve and borrowing powers at our disposal.
However, although those forecasts have yet to be confirmed, I can confirm that, had we followed the Conservatives’ income tax plans and offered cuts to higher earners, the impact on our budget this year would have been around £500 million. If that situation had persisted year on year, the total amount could have been around £2.5 billion by 2023-24.
Of course, in addition to the £1 billion black hole that has already been identified, the Fiscal Commission yesterday told this Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee that the devolved social security costs could be substantially higher than the previously predicted £3.5 billion total. These issues are very serious for the Scottish public finances, and the Scottish Government cannot deflect criticism elsewhere. The Deputy First Minister sat on the Smith commission, which signed up to tax devolution; he also signed up to the fiscal framework, which determines the block grant adjustment and which already protects the Scottish budget from slower population growth here compared with the United Kingdom as a whole. How will those huge gaps in the public finances be filled? Will it be by cuts in public spending, further tax rises on hard-working families or both?
I find it interesting that at no stage in his supplementary question did Murdo Fraser refer to the fact that the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s report shows an increase of £490 million in projected tax revenues since the last assessment in December. At no stage did Mr Fraser comment on the fact that, between December and June, there has actually been a £490 million increase in the estimated tax revenue to be generated in Scotland, and an increase of £3.5 billion in the tax take over that whole period.
As I indicated in my earlier answer, those are forecasts from the Fiscal Commission, and the commission accepts that they can go up or down. What we are certain of is that, had we followed the Conservatives, we would have been taking £500 million out of public expenditure today. That would have been a disaster for public services—and thank goodness a Scottish National Party Government is here to protect Scotland from the Tories.
Football (Women and Girls)
To ask the Deputy First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to recent figures showing that the number of women and girls playing football in Scotland has almost doubled in the last five years. (S5F-03407)
We want to see more people taking part in physical activity, so I am pleased to see such a significant increase in the number of women and girls playing football. We have an excellent opportunity to further increase participation in our national game, as Scotland’s women’s national team will take part in the FIFA women’s world cup for the first time. I know that I speak for the whole chamber when I say that the Parliament and the people of Scotland could not be prouder of Shelley Kerr, her staff and the squad. We will all be cheering them on every step of the way in the women’s world cup.
I thank the Deputy First Minister for that answer—and for stealing some of my thunder in my supplementary question. [Laughter.]
I am delighted that, last October, the Scottish Government allocated funding that allowed all members of the squad to train full time from January 2019 through to the world cup. That can only have benefited our team.
The First Minister was one of the record 18,555 people who were, like me, at Hampden to see Scotland’s impressive 3-2 win over Jamaica last week. Does the Deputy First Minister want to indicate—once again—his confidence that the team will be very successful in the women’s world cup in France and will do Scotland very proud?
It would be impossible for me to steal the thunder of Kenneth Gibson on any occasion.
I join Mr Gibson in extending our warmest wishes to Shelley Kerr and the team. The fact that so many supporters turned out at Hampden is an indication of the growing enthusiasm and support for the women’s game. The stories that we have all heard about the pioneers of women’s football, who were again celebrated on the occasion of the match with Jamaica last week, indicate just how far we have travelled on the issue.
There can be rancour and division at First Minister’s question time, but I am sure that I can close this one with a moment of unity. We are all rooting for the women’s team on Sunday. We wish the team well in the whole competition, and I know for a fact that it will do Scotland proud.
That is a very good note to end on. I apologise to the large number of members who did not get to ask a supplementary question.
Before we move to members’ business, there will be a short suspension to allow members, the minister and people in the public gallery to change seats.12:47 Meeting suspended.
12:49 On resuming—