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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 8, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 08 December 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Doon Valley Boxing Club, Disability Delivery Plan, Intergovernmental Relations, Business Motion, Decision Time


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-00605)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

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

Ruth Davidson

I thank you, Presiding Officer, the First Minister and members for your comments over the last 24 hours about Alex Johnstone. We are all in mourning right now. However, Alex would not want me to talk about him, but would want me to get stuck into the Government’s record.

This week, the latest set of programme for international student assessment figures were released. After a decade of Scottish National Party control of Scottish education, those are the worst set of results ever recorded. To pre-empt the usual excuses, who does the First Minister blame for that? Is it the Labour Party or is it us?

The First Minister

I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the late Alex Johnstone. With his passing the Scottish Parliament has lost one of its great personalities and he will be sorely missed across the chamber. All our thoughts today are with Linda, the rest of his family and all his colleagues.

I take responsibility, on behalf of the Scottish Government, for the performance of Scottish education. If anyone thinks that I will stand here and give excuses, they are wrong. There is lots of other evidence on Scottish education that I could cite, but I am not going to do that today because the results of the PISA survey published earlier this week show that we are not where I want us to be. They are not good enough. I am determined that we take the action that will lead to improvement.

The only thing that I will say about those figures is the contextual point—I say it simply because it is a fact—that the survey was drawn from a sample carried out almost two years ago, in March 2015. I say that because that was around the same time that we had the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy, which prompted the programme of reform that is now under way.

Our programme of reform in education is firmly based on the advice that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development gave us in its review of curriculum for excellence back in 2015. I am determined that we move forward with that reform and that that will lead to the improvements in Scottish education that we all want to see.

Ruth Davidson

The answer was the same as it always seems to be: “Don’t worry, bear with us, give us a bit more time and it’ll all be fine.” It is a stuck record and we have heard it all before.

In 2007, education secretary Fiona Hyslop, in response to falling standards, said:

“We are determined to reverse that trend.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2007; c 4069.]

In 2013, Alasdair Allan, the minister for learning, in response to falling standards, said:

“I am confident that we will see continued progress in future years.”

Just last year, Angela Constance, in response to falling literacy standards, promised that she was the one, after all the previous education ministers, who would sort things out. That went well.

We have had 10 years of promises from education secretary after SNP education secretary. How does the First Minister mark their efforts—pass or fail?

The First Minister

We have a record number of exam passes in Scottish education; that is simply a statement of fact. We also have a higher percentage of young people going to positive destinations than was previously the case.

I come back to the point that I made earlier. The PISA survey results are not good enough and I want to see them improve. Last year, we asked the OECD to carry out a review of curriculum for excellence. That review was published in December 2015. The OECD report told us to focus on a number of things. First, it said that we had to focus on closing the attainment gap, so we have established the attainment fund. That is already working in schools across our country.

Secondly, it told us to put in place a measurement system, so we established the national improvement framework. Initial data at school level from the national improvement framework will be published next week and, from next year, it will be informed by new standardised assessments that we are going to introduce.

Thirdly, the OECD told us to simplify the curriculum, and John Swinney has been taking action to strip away bureaucracy, reduce teacher workload and allow teachers to focus on what they are doing.

The OECD said that we had to put schools at the heart of the system, so the governance review is now looking at how we empower schools. Finally, it said to improve leadership in our schools, so we are taking forward a new programme of developing head teachers through the Scottish College for Educational Leadership.

Those are hard, concrete and tangible actions. I know that the Opposition will want to criticise for the PISA survey and I can have no complaint about that. However, it is now important for us all to get behind the reforms because they will lead to the improvements that we want to see in Scottish education.

Ruth Davidson

That was not even an attempt from the First Minister to defend her ministers’ performance. We have been warning about the state of our education system for years.

The First Minister talks of a governance review that is to come, but we still await the details. Given the evidence of this week, that has to go deeper.

The single biggest education reform under the SNP Government has been curriculum for excellence. Nobody here can simply brush aside the fact that, since it has come in, standards have fallen. I am telling the First Minister today that our on-going support for curriculum for excellence cannot be taken for granted. I believe that the entire project should now be put on probation.

I ask a simple question, and I ask it in all sincerity: if standards are going down because of curriculum for excellence, why are we sticking by it?

The First Minister

 

“The principles behind the curriculum for excellence are absolutely right. There is unanimous agreement within the Parliament that it is the right way, as there is within the teaching professions and we have to accept that this is something that can work.”

Those are not my words. Those are the words of the Tory education spokesperson, Liz Smith, on 7 December. I believe that curriculum for excellence is the right way forward.

Ruth Davidson has, quite rightly and understandably, quoted the PISA survey, which was carried out by the OECD. We asked the OECD to review curriculum for excellence. It has said that curriculum for excellence is the right thing to do but it has given us the advice that I narrated in my previous answer about how we can improve it and how we can improve standards in our schools. We will continue to take forward that action because that is what the parents and pupils of the country have a right to expect.

Ruth Davidson

That was a pretty selective summary of what the First Minister wants us to believe that the OECD report says. Let me read out what the OECD report actually says:

“We emphasise that this summary is not an evaluation of CfE itself, and indeed the evidence is not available for such an evaluation”.

All that we have had from this Government is bland platitudes, and all the while, standards have gone down. We have gone backwards in reading, backwards in science, backwards in maths, and this week, the First Minister’s SNP colleagues told us that, despite all the challenges that we face right now, what would be good for Scotland is a constitutional crisis. It is not another constitutional crisis that we need; it is a Government that faces up to its failures and tackles them head on. What is more important—picking yet another fight over the constitution or picking a fight to improve our schools?

The First Minister

It might have escaped Ruth Davidson’s notice, but the entire United Kingdom faces a constitutional crisis right now. It is being played out in the Supreme Court this very day, as it has been all week, and it is a constitutional crisis that was created by the European obsession—the Brexit obsession—of the Conservatives.

I will leave Ruth Davidson to do the politics today. I want to get back to the important matter of Scottish education. I noticed that Ruth Davidson did not comment on the quotation from Liz Smith from earlier this week, when Liz Smith said that the principles behind curriculum for excellence are “absolutely right”. That is the view of the Tory education spokesperson; it is also my view and the view, I think, of most members of this Parliament.

What we need to do now is focus on implementing the OECD’s recommendations, ensuring that we invest in raising attainment, as we are doing through the attainment fund, ensuring that we have much more data available at school level about our schools’ performance, and ensuring that we are taking away bureaucracy and investing in educational leadership. Those are the hard actions that this Government will get on with, because that is what parents across this country have a right to expect us to do—and we will do it.


Engagements

2. Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

This is indeed a sombre day for the Parliament. On behalf of Scottish Labour, I extend our condolences to the family and friends of Alex Johnstone. He had a reputation as a proud and devoted family man and a great character, and as a politician he was respected widely throughout the Parliament.

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-00610)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

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

Kezia Dugdale

Across Scotland, every day of every week, thousands of children attend football training sessions—young boys and girls who are desperate to emulate their sporting heroes. In recent days, we have discovered that our national game is not so beautiful. Football has become enmeshed in society’s shame: child sex abuse. Once again, trusted people who were expected to nurture and care for our children have been found to have been abusing them.

Former footballers have found the courage to come forward and disclose how they suffered at the hands of paedophile coaches. Does the First Minister agree that those survivors of abuse deserve to have their courage matched by justice?

The First Minister

Yes—of course I do. The allegations of abuse that are surfacing in relation to football are extremely serious and sicken all of us. The inquiries that must now take place into the allegations of abuse are first and foremost police inquiries, so that anyone who has been the victim of abuse gets the justice that they so rightly deserve. What is being alleged is criminal behaviour of the most serious kind.

The Scottish Football Association and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have established a dedicated advice line for anyone who has concerns that relate to abuse in football. All agencies are committed to working with the police to ensure that allegations are thoroughly and properly investigated, so that anyone who has suffered abuse can get access to justice.

Kezia Dugdale

We are all horrified by child sex abuse and we all hope that current regulations ensure that such abuse could not happen now, but that is no comfort to the ex-footballers who have come forward—such abuse happened to them. They will not be able to bring their cases to the Scottish child abuse inquiry, because they were not in care when they were abused. That is true for all those who suffered abuse in youth clubs, in parishes or in sports clubs.

Survivors groups have asked for the inquiry’s remit to be extended to all situations where a duty of care existed. Labour has backed that call, and the growing tide of revelations from footballers adds to that demand. Will the First Minister reconsider the inquiry’s remit?

The First Minister

First, I say again that the inquiries that must take place now into the allegations that are being made about football are first and foremost police inquiries. What is being alleged is criminal behaviour, and the police must investigate thoroughly and robustly.

I turn to the question about the child abuse public inquiry. Of course I understand the motivations of those who now call for that inquiry’s remit to be extended. Kezia Dugdale is right to say that some survivors groups have called for that extension, but it is equally true to say that others have said that they do not wish the remit to be extended in that way.

The Government has given the issue the most careful consideration. The inquiry, which is already the most wide-ranging public inquiry ever to be held in Scotland, deliberately focuses on in-care abuse—abuse that took place in institutions or other settings that had a legal responsibility for the long-term care of children in place of their parents. Widening the remit of that inquiry would mean that it would take perhaps many years longer to conclude its investigations and would risk becoming completely unwieldy, and I think that we would be at risk of breaking our word to the survivors of in-care abuse.

We should allow the inquiry to get on with its job and we should allow the police to get on with their job of investigating allegations of abuse in football. As the police inquiries take their course, if it emerges that there are wider systemic issues to be addressed, we will of course consider very seriously how that should be taken forward.

Kezia Dugdale

I understand that all abuse is criminal and that there are practical concerns about inquiries. I get that, but this is about a fundamental principle. The First Minister should look to Australia to see how this can be done. Survivors of child abuse deserve justice and the wait for the inquiry has already been too long.

The inquiry holds out the promise of justice but, in restricting who and what will be investigated, it will deny that justice. As it stands, the inquiry is excluding the vast majority of people who were abused. First Minister, how can that be right? Please think again.

The First Minister

The Government has considered the issue very carefully and John Swinney made a statement on that very matter a couple of weeks ago. We take it very seriously, and we have to balance a number of issues.

We owe it to survivors of in-care abuse to have an inquiry that can reasonably quickly give them the answers that they want, to ensure that we learn the lessons that they want to be learned and so that we can say that such in-care abuse will never be allowed to happen again in Scotland.

Of course we should look at experience in other countries; we should also, perhaps, look at the experience in England now of what could happen if an inquiry’s remit becomes unwieldy. We have to take those issues into account and come to a balanced conclusion, and that is what we are seeking to do.

All abuse and any abuse, no matter who is the victim of the abuse and where it occurs, is serious and must be properly and fully investigated. There is a distinction that concerns in-care abuse, in which the institution where the abuse happened was in the place of the child’s parent and had legal responsibility for the child’s long-term care.

We will continue to take all those issues very seriously and through all our actions—whether that is through the public inquiry or the action that we fully support by the SFA and by the police, which they will rightly take—we will continue to make sure that anybody who is the victim of abuse, no matter where it happens, gets access to justice, because they deserve that justice.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

There is a constituency question from Sandra White.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

What discussions has the Scottish Government had with Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board about the movement of staff from the minor injuries unit at Yorkhill hospital in my constituency? That movement could lead to the closure of the unit, which has raised great concerns that there will be no minor injuries unit in the west of Glasgow and that constituents will need to go to Stobhill hospital in the north or to the Southern general hospital in the south.

The First Minister

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport had discussions this morning with the chair of Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board about that very issue. The health board has announced that it plans to move some staff from the minor injuries unit at Yorkhill to the Queen Elizabeth university hospital as part of its overall plans for the winter. As I said, the health secretary spoke this morning to the chair of the board, who has given assurances that the move is temporary and is intended to make best use of expert nursing staff, in order to help as many people as possible. The health secretary will be more than happy to discuss the issue in more detail with Sandra White and to have further discussions with the health board as required.

Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

What is the First Minister’s response to Tuesday’s announcement of 270 job losses at Doosan Babcock in Renfrewshire? How will her Government assist the local economy, as that latest announcement follows on from the recent announcements that Chivas Bros and Scottish Enterprise are moving out of Paisley?

The First Minister

The business minister has met Chivas Bros and Renfrewshire Council, and they are convening a round-table discussion in February to discuss the best way forward following the announcement. An option that I have previously discussed with Renfrewshire Council is to set up a task force.

We are extremely concerned to hear that Doosan Babcock intends to consult staff on potential job losses at the Renfrewshire site. It will be a difficult time for the workers there. Scottish Enterprise is in contact with the company and will continue to engage with it throughout the consultation period to explore all possible options to support the business and to protect jobs.

I encourage the company to do all that it can to avoid redundancies. Of course, in the unfortunate event that any redundancies proceed, we will make sure that the support of the partnership action for continuing employment is there to help the affected workers. We will do everything that we can to help in those circumstances.


Cabinet (Meetings)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I associate the Scottish Green Party with the remarks that have been made about Alex Johnstone. Over the years, we all enjoyed many debates with Alex, not least when we disagreed—which, let us face it, was probably most of the time. He always took that role in a spirit of good humour and respect. We will miss him.

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00617)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Cabinet will next meet on Tuesday.

Patrick Harvie

In February, I described Donald Trump as

“an arrogant and racist bully”

and a “dangerous extremist”—to be honest, I could have said much worse. The First Minister said that she

“would probably use more diplomatic language”—[Official Report, 25 February 2016; c 21-22.]

but thought that her “views on Donald Trump” were “not materially different” from my own.

Like others around the world, we need to work out how to deal with the reality that Donald Trump will be the US President without denying what kind of person he truly is. As he fills his team with powerful economic elites, white nationalists, misogynist homophobes and now climate change deniers, we must consider how our relationship with the US is going to have to change. Does the First Minister agree that the appointment of Scott Pruitt—a climate change denier who has helped the fossil fuel industry to undermine climate policy—to lead the Environmental Protection Agency is, as Bernie Sanders put it, a “sad and dangerous” decision, and that that decision will be dangerous not just for US domestic policy, but for the global climate change agenda?

The First Minister

We should challenge the views of anybody who denies the science around climate change. This Parliament has shown a lead in years gone by, and it is really important that it continues to take a lead in arguing the case for the action that is necessary to tackle climate change.

Patrick Harvie asked me when the Cabinet will next meet, and when it last met on Tuesday, we had a substantive discussion about our climate change plan, led by Roseanna Cunningham, and our plans for further legislation to toughen our targets on carbon emissions and tackling climate change. We should continue to lead by example.

Whether on climate change or anything else, all of us should stick up for our principles. We should also seek to work at protecting the relationship between the peoples of Scotland and the United States of America. As I have said previously, it is an important and long-standing relationship of culture, family ties and, of course, business. I will continue to do what I can to make sure that that relationship goes from strength to strength.

Patrick Harvie

I look forward—as I am sure that we all do—to the results of that Cabinet discussion. At the weekend, the First Minister gave a more detailed speech on climate policy than I can remember her giving before, so we all look forward to more progress on the issue at the domestic level.

If the relationship with the US, which the First Minster rightly says is important, is going to be of value to us all—to them and to us—surely it has to be with those state and city governments that want the US to continue to be a progressive force on climate change and which are willing to resist the dangerous policies of the Trump regime once it comes into power? There is a range of regional climate change initiatives, individual state Governments and networks of city mayors that are active on that agenda. What actions is the Scottish Government taking to make contact with people who will be genuinely useful allies in the climate change agenda around the world and to help them resist the actions of the Trump Government?

The First Minister

We are very active in working with other states and regions. We work very closely with the Committee of the Regions. In fact, this time last year, I was in Paris for the climate change talks and took part in discussions with that group, within which Scotland is seen as a leader.

Patrick Harvie makes a very important and accurate point that, in the United States, much of the action that is required to tackle climate change comes not from the federal Government but from state Governments. A couple of weeks ago, along with many members, I was at the Scottish business awards dinner, which was addressed by Leonardo DiCaprio, and I had the opportunity to meet the man who now runs the Leonardo DiCaprio climate change foundation, who was previously the climate change adviser to Governor Schwarzenegger in California. Some of the work that California is doing around clean, green energy and many other aspects of the agenda should give all of us a lot of cause for optimism.

We will continue to work with the American Administration on these and other issues but we will also work with states in America and states and other regions across Europe and the wider world. As we do so, we will continue to make sure that we are taking action here that gives us genuine credibility as a world leader.


Cabinet (Meetings)

4. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

He was a mischievous, humorous and engaging man and I know that the whole chamber will miss Alex Johnstone.

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-00616)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.

Willie Rennie

Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Estonia, Canada, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Slovenia, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Norway, Austria, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Russia and France—Scotland used to have one of the best education systems in the world; now we have dropped behind all those countries. After 10 years of Scottish National Party rule, we are not even as good as England any more. Scotland’s children and teachers have still not had a proper explanation. Can the First Minister tell them what has gone wrong?

The First Minister

I am not going to rise to the bait on the politics of this issue, because it is too important to all of us. However, as I said in response to an earlier question, I can point to much in Scottish education that shows improvement, whether that is exam passes, positive destinations or the evidence on the narrowing of the attainment gap—although that is not yet going far or fast enough.

As I said in response to earlier questions, the outcome of the programme for international student assessment—PISA—survey is not where I want Scottish education to be. It is not good enough. That is why I am not going to rise to the bait on the politics; I am going to continue to focus the Government that I lead on taking the action that will change the position. That is why all the action that I ran through in response to Ruth Davidson’s question is so important, because that is what will make the difference in Scottish education.

Out of everything that I talked about earlier, perhaps the most important thing in terms of holding the Government to account as well as making sure that we see improvements is the data that we will publish starting next week. For the first time, we will publish data not just at local authority level but on a school-by-school basis. From next year, that data will be informed by standardised assessment, which Willie Rennie has opposed at every turn so far in the chamber.

We will continue to focus on taking the action that needs to be taken. We are serious about making those improvements and I hope that the whole Parliament will get behind us, because some of what we are going to do over the next period will be controversial and some of it will run into resistance. At that point, it will be interesting to see whether the Opposition parties are behind us on these things or not.

Willie Rennie

When the First Minister accuses other parties of politics, it is because she has no answers, and there have been no answers again today. Children have been denied the explanation as to why we are where we are and why we are behind all those countries. They deserve an explanation.

Complacency has been oozing out of ministers for a whole decade. Keith Brown said:

“We are now in an era in which the performance of Scotland’s teachers will finally be matched by the performance of Scotland’s Government.”—[Official Report, 16 Jan 2008; c 5087.]

Angela Constance said:

“The Government’s record is, of course, far superior”—[Official Report, 22 September 2015; c 63.]

The ever-modest Michael Russell delivered a speech entitled, “Scottish Education—from Good to Great”.

All of that while they presided over the worst results ever, and yet they all still sit round the cabinet table and block the transformational investment that our education needs. They prefer the reintroduction of Thatcherite school league tables, the centralisation of education and 20,000 pages of guidance. Will the First Minister overrule all those ministers and invest £500 million in education in the budget next week?

The First Minister

Here is the nub of the matter. Investment in education is important, which is why we have established the attainment fund to ensure that the £750 million of investment gets to the areas of greatest need. However, if Willie Rennie cares to read the December 2015 report that we commissioned the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development to do, he will find this observation—in chapter 8, I think. Although investment is, of course, important, it is not in itself enough. The report makes the point that the difference in PISA scores between countries is less to do with variation in investment and more to do with differences in policy and practice.

Yes, we will invest, but we will also ensure that we carry forward the reforms to our school system that require to be made. Every single one of the reforms that we have brought forward so far has been opposed—we heard some of that just now—by Willie Rennie. The proof of the pudding is coming. As we bring forward the necessary reforms in our schools, will we have the support of the chamber and the Opposition? The Opposition is good at the rhetoric around all this, but will we have its support when we come to do the tough things that need to be done in Scottish education? We will find out sooner rather than later.

The Presiding Officer

We have two supplementary questions.

Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con)

My constituent Elaine Holmes has been an outstanding leader of the campaign arising from the transvaginal mesh implant scandal. She, and so many other Scottish women, have been full of anticipation ahead of the publication of the report of the review that was commissioned by the former Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, Alex Neil. However, they are dismayed that, just weeks before publication, the independent chairman has resigned and will be replaced by a serving senior health board medical practitioner, amid suggestions that there has been undue influence on either the conclusions or the recommendations of the review.

Can the First Minister give an assurance that there has been, and will be, no interference and no pressure? Can she couple that with a comment regarding a letter that I received from Shona Robison? In that letter, Shona Robison accepted that counterfeit material may well have been inserted into women, but she noted that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—a United Kingdom body that has singularly failed women in Scotland and the rest of the UK—had said that, because there have been no adverse incidents so far, no further action is required. Surely it is not the Scottish Government’s position that the fitting of counterfeit material is acceptable. If it is not, what next?

The First Minister

Jackson Carlaw raises a very important issue, and I take this opportunity to give credit to the women who have so bravely brought it to the fore. It is absolutely the case that there has been no undue influence on the inquiry, and nor will there be any undue influence. I am aware of the resignation of the chair, which is an unfortunate development.

In response to Jackson Carlaw’s question, I will personally look into all the issues, and I will write to him or have the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport do so in order that we can give an assurance that the inquiry will conclude and that whatever recommendations and findings it publishes will be taken forward.

On the second part of Jackson Carlaw’s question, what he describes is not the position of the Scottish Government. The MHRA is an independent regulatory body and therefore a reserved matter that is not the responsibility of this Parliament. However, the issues that have been raised are serious and extremely painful for the women concerned, and we want to ensure that the inquiry concludes properly and that any lessons or actions for the Scottish Government are taken forward as people would expect. As I said, I will ensure that we respond in full to give the even more detailed assurance that Jackson Carlaw is looking for.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

This week, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians has exposed contractors on the Forth crossing project that are ripping off workers and undercutting the pay of joiners and other tradesmen by up to £5 an hour. It has also exposed health and safety breaches, a culture of harassment, failure to pay holiday pay, the use of umbrella companies and workers being allowed on site without appropriate safety accreditation. Will the First Minister meet me and UCATT representatives to address those issues and ensure that this iconic bridge is not built on the backs of exploited workers?

The First Minister

The kinds of practices that Neil Findlay outlines—if they are indeed practices that have been undertaken—are completely unacceptable and the Scottish Government would not tolerate such behaviour. I am more than happy to ask the cabinet secretary to discuss the matter with Neil Findlay, so that we can ensure that we are taking forward whatever action is necessary. Neil Findlay is right: the bridge, which is nearing completion, is an iconic structure and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to every worker who has worked hard on it. However, we owe them more than a debt of gratitude. We owe it to them always to take seriously any such allegations. I assure the chamber that we will very much do that.


Fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency (Funding)

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

To ask the First Minister how much the Scottish Government has allocated to tackle fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency in this parliamentary session. (S5F-00622)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

This year we have allocated more than £130 million, and by the end of this session we will have committed more than £1 billion, to improve the energy efficiency of Scotland’s homes and tackle fuel poverty. Figures that were released on Tuesday showed that almost 100,000 fewer households were living in fuel poverty in 2015 than in 2014. Although that is welcome news, we know that a great deal more work is still to be done.

Half of that reduction, incidentally, is due to lower energy prices during that time, which is why we have continually called on the United Kingdom Government to do more in response to above-inflation energy price increases in recent years.

Kate Forbes

I welcome the finding that rural fuel poverty has fallen, partly due to the falling price of domestic fuel, as the First Minister has said, but energy prices are higher in the Highlands and Islands, despite multiple requests for the UK Government to do something about that, and those higher prices remain a major driver of household fuel poverty. What more can the First Minister do to help low-income households with their fuel bills?

The First Minister

There are particular issues in rural areas and many of them were looked at by the working group that concluded recently. We will continue to take action to improve the energy efficiency of our homes, which is why the Scottish Government investment that I spoke about is so important. We will continue to work with energy companies to ensure that there is fair treatment, particularly for those on low incomes. For example, it is unacceptable that the most vulnerable consumers, particularly those on pre-payment meters, should be paying more.

Next week, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities is convening a meeting with facilities companies to challenge them to help low-income consumers to get a better deal on their fuel bills. We will carry on taking action across a range of the issues to ensure that the trend that we have seen in the most recent figures, which is a reduction in the number of people in Scotland who are living in fuel poverty, continues.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

Recently, I met Di Alexander, the chair of the Scottish rural fuel poverty task force. He was keen to promote energy carer schemes, which are

“high quality, in-home locally delivered holistic support in bringing verifiable affordable warmth improvements to cold, vulnerable fuel poor households living in any part of remote rural Scotland.”

What proportion of any investment that the Government will make in tackling fuel poverty will be spent on energy carer schemes?

The First Minister

We will respond in full at the start of next year to the report that Andy Wightman cites, when we will lay out the actions that we will take in response to all its recommendations. Andy Wightman raises an important issue, and of course we want to address such areas with the funding that we have committed to. More detail of our approach to that and other issues that were raised in the working group’s report will be set out at the start of the year by the communities secretary.


Dangerous Driving (Sentencing)

6. Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on increasing the sentences imposed for causing death by dangerous driving. (S5F-00612)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Those who drive dangerously and kill people ruin lives; not just the lives of those who die but the lives of their family and friends. The United Kingdom Government is consulting on whether courts should have increased powers to deal with such offenders. While increasing available penalties cannot ever compensate for the loss of a family member or friend, it might help to discourage people from driving dangerously in the first place. Of course, this important area of law is not devolved to Scotland, and I encourage all those with views on it to respond to the Government’s consultation.

Alison Harris

With the review on-going, is the Scottish Government aware of The Falkirk Herald’s drive for justice campaign, and will it support the campaign’s aims of increased sentences for the worst offenders; longer driving bans for those who risk causing death and serious injury; an end to the loophole through which drink-drivers often get shorter sentences if they flee the scene of the accident; and a review of the number of drivers who cause death while driving but are charged with the lesser offence of careless driving?

The First Minister

I endorse The Falkirk Herald’s campaign. It is very important to raise awareness of the dangers associated with anyone driving a car dangerously and it is perfectly legitimate to campaign for tougher sentences—although I point out that sentencing anyone who kills someone while driving dangerously is always a matter for the courts.

Some of the issues raised by the member that are part of the campaign are, of course, being looked at in the United Kingdom’s consultation, which is why I encourage everyone not just in the Parliament but across the country to respond to it. I think that there is a strong case for toughening up the sentences that are available to the courts in such circumstances, and I very much hope that that will be the UK Government’s direction of travel once it has had the opportunity to consider the consultation responses.


EY Scottish ITEM Club (Growth Forecast)

7. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the recent revised growth forecast by the EY Scottish ITEM club. (S5F-00608)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The EY ITEM club’s recent growth forecast for Scotland signals a weaker outlook for the Scottish economy than was forecast in June, prior to the European Union referendum, and the report makes it clear that the referendum result has had an immediate impact on economic and business confidence in Scotland, from which slower growth is expected over the next couple of years. As a result, the Government’s immediate focus is on seeking to safeguard Scotland’s place in Europe and our membership of the single market in order to protect us from Brexit’s negative economic impacts, which I think are becoming clearer by the day.

Jackie Baillie

Given that every economic forecaster has now revised its growth projections downwards and that growth is expected to be even slower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, will the First Minister order a review of the economic strategy published in March 2015 and the inward investment strategy published in March 2016—before Brexit—to reflect the challenging market conditions for our businesses?

The First Minister

Jackie Baillie has raised reasonable points. We keep our economic strategy under review on an on-going basis, as I think people would expect us to, and we are looking particularly closely at some of its aspects in light of Brexit. Our budget next week will set out our plans to ensure that Scotland is a competitive place to do business and that we are absolutely focusing on growth in our economy.

Of course, the enterprise and skills review is very much about making sure that all of our agencies in this area are working in a co-ordinated and comprehensive way to take forward the economic strategy. We will continue to review the strategy to ensure that we have the right measures in place, and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work will be very happy to discuss the matter in more detail with any member in the chamber.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

How will making Scotland the most highly taxed part of the United Kingdom help our economy grow?

The First Minister

I intend to ensure that we have fair and balanced taxation for individuals and companies in this country. One of the things that has been imposed on us by the Tories and which we are dealing with is not just Brexit but deep cuts to public spending, which impact on this Government’s budget. We will balance all of those things in our budget and ensure that we focus not just on growth but on protecting our public services and the most vulnerable in our society. Conservative policies are hitting the most vulnerable and making it harder to protect public services. Next week, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution will set out our budget, and that budget will be in the interests of Scotland in all of those areas.


Loneliness (Age Scotland Campaign)

8. Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government can take in light of Age Scotland’s campaign to tackle loneliness during the festive season. (S5F-00631)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Dealing with loneliness and isolation can be incredibly difficult, but at this time of year it is especially heartbreaking to think that many of our older neighbours will spend Christmas alone. That is why on Monday I helped launch Age Scotland’s festive no one should have no one at Christmas campaign, and I encourage people throughout Scotland to reach out to older people in their local communities. We are developing a national strategy to help to tackle the problems of loneliness and isolation; we have invested £0.5 million pounds in a specific social isolation and loneliness fund; and our £20 million empowering communities fund currently supports seven projects that tackle the social isolation experienced by older people.

Christine Grahame

We cannot leave everything to Government and personal neighbourly contact is important. Will the national strategy that the First Minister referred to consider the isolation that is experienced by older people, who might have a concessionary bus pass, but no transport—let alone buses—particularly in rural areas of the Borders and Midlothian in my constituency?

Knowing that loneliness has serious implications for physical and mental health, I believe that money spent on it could save money for the national health service and give older people a better quality of life. Will that have a place in the strategy?

The First Minister

Christine Grahame raises a very pertinent point about the power of preventative spending: if we invest small amounts of money in tackling some problems, we save even more money for the NHS, local authorities and other services. She also raised important points about those who live in rural areas, for whom the issues of isolation are often more acute. I can give Christine Grahame and other members an assurance that, in developing the national strategy that I spoke about, we will consider all those issues across Government so that we tackle them as effectively as possible.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time.

On behalf of the Parliament, I thank all the party leaders for their thoughtful and touching remarks following the death of our colleague, Alex Johnstone. As a mark of respect, our flags are flying at half-mast today and there will be an opportunity for members to pay their own tributes during a debate on a motion of condolence when that is scheduled. There will also be a book of condolence available after First Minister’s question time today in room P1.02, and I know that members and staff will wish to add their names.