Meeting date: Thursday, March 9, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 09 March 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Community Jobs Scotland, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2017 [Draft], Biodiversity, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Community Jobs Scotland
- Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time
- Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2017 [Draft]
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
To ask the Deputy First Minister what engagements he has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00983)
The First Minister is in London today at the unveiling by Her Majesty the Queen of a memorial to commemorate those who have served in recent international conflicts. The First Minister has asked that I respond to questions on her behalf.
Later today, I will have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
In the 2014 independence referendum, did the Scottish Government consider oil as just a bonus or as the basis of the Scottish economy?
I certainly consider oil to be a big bonus. It has certainly been a huge bonus for the United Kingdom—there has been £300 billion-worth of revenues for the United Kingdom. Of course, I am not the only person who thought that oil was a bonus. In 2014, the Prime Minister came to Aberdeen and said that, if Scots voted no in the referendum, there would be a £200 billion oil boom bonus for Scotland. I say to Ruth Davidson that yes, oil is a bonus and it has propped up the UK economy for many years.
The Deputy First Minister is sticking to the line that oil is a bonus and not the basis of the Scottish economy. It is what would make every single person in Scotland richer if we were independent—that is how he tried to sell it just three years ago, yet this week, Andrew Wilson, the head of the Scottish National Party’s growth commission, finally exposed the truth when he admitted that
“we did have oil baked into the numbers and it was indeed a basis.”
In other words, the economic prospectus on which the SNP based its entire case for independence was bogus. I have a simple question for the Deputy First Minister—is Andrew Wilson right?
I have already explained to Ruth Davidson the importance of oil to the UK economy and the huge bonus that it has been to the UK over these 40 years.
When the Prime Minister was in Scotland in 2014, he said that there would be a massive oil bonus for Scotland if we voted no. Other promises were made to Scotland about what would happen if we voted no—on the same day that the Prime Minister suggested that there would be a £200 billion oil bonus, he said to people in the north-east of Scotland that, if they voted no, there would be a £1 billion carbon capture project for Peterhead. That project has been cancelled. Then, of course, there was the other almighty commitment of the no campaign—vote no to stay in the European Union. Oil, carbon capture and the EU—the no campaign was shattered by those broken promises.
The question was about John Swinney’s oil claims being taken apart by his own side—no wonder that aspect is the one aspect that he did not want to talk about. Of course, we all know what has happened since the Deputy First Minister spoke about all our big bonuses—oil receipts have collapsed. People across Scotland now have a simple question: without those oil receipts, can the Deputy First Minister point to any independent analysis that shows that Scotland’s economy would fare better right now if we were outside the United Kingdom?
What people in Scotland want to hear is more action to support the North Sea oil and gas sector. That is what this Government and the finance secretary have been arguing for. What the UK Government has been doing is talking about possibly setting up a talking shop, which it talked about setting up a year ago. Even that has not materialised yet.
We know why the Tories are not interested in supporting the oil and gas sector. Their spokesman, Alex Burnett, let the cat out of the bag. He argued that no measures should be taken to support oil and gas in Scotland. We know that Mr Burnett is a bit poor at declaring his own interests. He is certainly bad at standing up for the interests of the north-east. At a time when the onshore productivity of Scotland is increasing at four times the rate of the rest of the United Kingdom, which the chancellor cited in his budget statement yesterday, there are grounds for a great deal of optimism about the strength of the Scottish economy.
I have here the response from the oil and gas industry to yesterday’s budget:
“We welcome the chancellor’s response to our call to ... maximise recovery of remaining UK oil and gas reserves.”
The oil and gas industry can welcome the moves from the UK Government. It is no surprise that the Scottish Government does not, because it does nothing for the north-east.
Again, people at home will have noticed that the Deputy First Minister did not answer the question. It is a shame that there is nobody on the SNP front bench who is prepared to be as up front as Mr Wilson was on the radio.
This morning, we had the First Minister gunning for a referendum on independence next year. She called it “common sense”. I call it nonsense, because most people in Scotland do not want it. Most Scots do not want to go back to the division and uncertainty of an independence referendum. Most Scots think that it is irresponsible to talk of a second referendum, which is only going to damage the Scottish economy yet further. That is common sense. Why is the Deputy First Minister not listening to it?
On the substance of action to help the North Sea oil and gas sector and the north-east, let me set out for Ruth Davidson three things that this Government has done in the recent past. The First Minister launched a decommissioning challenge fund to support the development of the supply chain to tackle oil and gas decommissioning. Secondly, we launched a £12 million transition training fund to support individuals to retain their skills in the sector. Thirdly, the energy jobs task force has remained focused on supporting those affected by the downturn in the oil and gas sector and will remain so in the years to come. That is the concrete action that we have taken to support the north-east and the oil and gas sector.
It is interesting that Ruth Davidson moves on to the question of the constitution. That is no wonder, because it has been very topical today. Today, an opinion poll on the constitutional question that was published just before question time shows support for independence at 50 per cent. We should not be at all surprised by those numbers, as that is the people of Scotland being exposed to the hard-right politics of the Tory party, seeing the mess that it is getting us into about Europe and deciding that it is time for this country to choose its own future.
To ask the Deputy First Minister what engagements he has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-00999)
I have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
Before the independence referendum, John Swinney said:
“the early years of an independent Scotland are timed to coincide with a massive North Sea oil boom.”
However, yesterday, the Office for Budget Responsibility confirmed that North Sea oil and gas actually cost the Treasury money last year. Can the Deputy First Minister tell us why the Scottish National Party did not tell the people of Scotland the truth about oil?
Is it not revealing that at the first available opportunity Labour and the Tories have come together again? [Applause.] It is like they have never had a moment apart. I would have thought that, after the calamity that Kezia Dugdale led the Labour Party into in the 2016 election, she might have learned to have nothing to do with that lot over there. [Applause.]
Can we have a little bit of order, please, and slightly less applause?
The Deputy First Minister can shout and scream and clap all he likes about better together alliances, but he cannot escape the reality of his own words. Here are more:
“it is clear that future tax receipts”
from North Sea oil and gas
“will be substantial and represent a significant resource for the people of Scotland.”—[Official Report, 4 September 2013; c 21967.]
The reality is that people in Scotland were given false hope by the SNP, based on a false prospectus. They were told that we could build a fairer country only with independence, but we now know beyond all doubt that that was just not true. New analysis published by Labour today reveals that the SNP’s—[Laughter.]
Excuse me. There is too much noise in the chamber today.
SNP members will not be laughing when they realise that the analysis is based on the SNP’s own numbers and record. The SNP’s estimate for oil revenues in what would have been the first two years of an independent Scotland could be out by as much as £21 billion—£21,000 million in old money. That would have delivered turbocharged austerity and would have made that fairer nation all but impossible to build. Does the Deputy First Minister feel any guilt about offering the people of Scotland such false hope?
If we are to pass accusations about guilt around the chamber, the Labour Party has to think long and hard about how it has enabled the Tory party to govern the United Kingdom because of the Labour Party’s awful stance in the 2014 referendum, which ushered in a Tory Government that is taking us out of the European Union, punishing vulnerable people in our society and damaging people’s life chances. The Tory budget yesterday has been assessed by the Resolution Foundation as consigning people in this country to the lowest level of wage growth in more than 200 years. That is what the Labour Party is guilty of ushering in by its stance in the referendum. [Applause.]
Despite that rant, the truth that John Swinney cannot escape from is that the economic case for independence is well and truly bust. We all remember his leaked paper—[Interruption.]
Order. Will members please settle down? There are too many interruptions and too much applause and shouting. Will members please listen to the questions and the answers? I call Kezia Dugdale. [Interruption.] Excuse me, please. Thank you.
We all remember the leaked paper, which was the one in which John Swinney admitted privately that the sums did not add up, that oil revenues were volatile and that pensions would be at risk under independence.
Today, Nicola Sturgeon has again backed herself into a corner on a second independence referendum. Maybe the Deputy First Minister can apply some common sense to help her get out of it. He has looked at the numbers and he knows that the case for independence lies in tatters, so why will he not scrap the plans for a second independence referendum?
I say to Kezia Dugdale that the Labour Party, if it wants to progress, has to learn the lessons of the mistakes that it made in 2014. The arguments, the narrative and the explanation that Kezia Dugdale is coming out with today—her entire line of attack—could have been delivered by Ruth Davidson. It is almost as if Kezia Dugdale wandered into the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre last weekend and listened to the speeches by Theresa May and Ruth Davidson and has come to this Parliament to deliver them to members. I have some helpful advice for the Labour Party: it should get on to Scotland’s side, and then it might progress.
We have some constituency supplementaries. The first is from Christine Grahame.
The Deputy First Minister may be aware that FirstBus is pulling out of all services across the Borders and Midlothian in my constituency. I have already written to the Minister for Transport and the Islands and had a lengthy conversation with the commercial director of West Coast Motors, which will be taking over as of 25 March. A further meeting is already pencilled in.
There are 113 employees across the piece. The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations apply and I am hopeful that the change of provider will be good news, but what reassurance can the Deputy First Minister give my constituents, both employees and passengers, about their jobs and their rural bus services, which are so vital?
I acknowledge the significance of the issue that Christine Grahame raises. We are aware of the proposed sale of First Scotland East’s Borders operation to West Coast Motors. The proposed deal will of course be a commercial transaction, as she will know, but we are engaging with the operators and the relevant local authorities to understand the situation and any implications for the staff and the travelling public.
We welcome the assurances that First has given that all jobs, pay and conditions will be protected. The Minister for Transport and the Islands will be speaking with the managing director of First Scotland East next week to discuss the issue, and we will consult publicly later in the year on measures in the transport bill to address some of the issues that are raised. The transport minister will be happy to have further discussions with Christine Grahame and other interested members if that would be helpful.
My constituent Mrs Norma Henderson, who lives in Airdrie, requires an operation for a very serious and worsening gynaecological condition. She is aged 61 and is the primary carer for her disabled daughter. She first went to see her general practitioner in August. Since then, her treatment, if it can be called that, has been woeful. She has had two provisional operation dates cancelled, and the 12-week Scottish national health service treatment guarantee was reached on 13 February without her having had an operation. She was then given another provisional date for this month, but that has been and gone. Would the Deputy First Minister like to apologise to Mrs Henderson? What can he say to assure her that this on-going disgrace will not continue?
First of all, I say to Mr Simpson and directly to Mrs Henderson that the national health service undertakes a huge volume of clinical activity on a daily basis and members of staff around the country work extremely hard to put in place services that are designed to address patients’ needs and to support them. I recognise the particular circumstances that Mr Simpson raises. Mrs Henderson is the primary carer for her daughter and, obviously, we must do all that we can to try to support her in that circumstance.
We have seen data published just this week that shows that the level of operations that are cancelled for non-clinical reasons is just 2.5 per cent, so 97.5 per cent of operations go ahead as planned.
We will look at the specific issues that Mr Simpson raises about the case. If he would care to pass the details to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, they will be looked at immediately to determine the circumstances, and the health secretary will be happy to meet Mr Simpson to address any issues that come out of that analysis.
Staff at Heriot-Watt University, which is in my constituency, are concerned about the sudden announcement on Friday of 100 job losses. The university stated that the move is a direct result of “a number of factors”, including post-Brexit uncertainty over immigration and research grants, which has led to a shortfall in postgraduate applications. What assistance can the Deputy First Minister offer my constituents who face an uncertain future?
I am aware of the issue, which the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science has discussed with the principal of Heriot-Watt University. As autonomous bodies, universities are responsible for their own finances and staffing. However, I would expect Heriot-Watt to work closely with staff and unions on the matter. It is absolutely vital that student experience is not diminished.
The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science and I have had discussions across the sector, and we are acutely aware of its unease about Brexit’s implications. Any member who is listening to the higher education sector could not fail to see and recognise its concerns.
On the Government’s part, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council has increased the resources that are available to Heriot-Watt University for the forthcoming academic year, and that is welcome. However, the university is wrestling with significant uncertainty around the position on European Union citizens. I would encourage the United Kingdom Government to provide clarity on the ability of EU citizens and students from across the globe to study at one of Scotland’s universities in the future. We hope that the chancellor can give further reassurance to our excellent universities, so that they can maintain the income that they draw from competitive EU research funds, which is central to the strengthening of our university sector.
To ask the Deputy First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00984)
The Cabinet will next meet on Tuesday.
Given the volume in the chamber a few minutes ago, when the other political parties debated their shared desperate attachment to the economics of the fossil fuel industry, people might find it hard to believe that later this afternoon the parties will join together to promote earth hour and demonstrate a claimed shared commitment to action on climate change. Yet over recent weeks, parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s draft climate change plan has exposed serious omissions and contradictions.
We have seen the environment secretary defending a plan that includes nothing to improve bus use and saying that car journeys are destined to go up by 25 per cent, whereas the transport minister said no, that is only the worst-case scenario. We have had the environment secretary telling the chamber about a Government policy for compulsory soil testing to reduce fertiliser use. A fortnight later, the rural economy secretary wrote to committees to say that no, that is definitely not happening.
Although the finance secretary admits that there has been no attempt to build a credible economic case for his plan to cut aviation tax, he tells us that the rest of the economy can make up for the extra emissions from all that flying—even though the climate change plan is utterly devoid of detail on how that is to happen.
The draft climate change plan is barely half baked. Is it not clear that major changes are needed if we are to ensure that the ambitious choices that Scotland needs to make are actually written into the plan?
The Government committed to publish a climate change plan in 2016-17, and the draft plan was published on 19 January, as Patrick Harvie knows. The detail that Mr Harvie has gone through demonstrates the rigorous scrutiny that parliamentary committees exercise on the Government, as they should—these issues should be properly tested in committee. My experience of interacting with Parliament committees is that we have that rigorous interaction.
The Government’s climate change plan includes a huge number of measures and interventions across Government to enable us to meet the targets that we have set for ourselves. I remind Patrick Harvie that the Government has already met—early—the 2020 targets for carbon emissions reductions that we put in place. We should all, as a Parliament, be proud of that. We passed that ambitious legislation a number of years ago, and we are now seeing it fulfilled as a consequence of the Government’s leadership and actions.
There is a process of parliamentary scrutiny to be undertaken, but I ask Patrick Harvie to consider the achievements that have been made so far and to work with the Government on taking forward measures that will have a substantive effect on reinforcing the targets in years to come.
The low-hanging fruit are now pretty thin on the branches, and I suspect that the Parliament will need to see far more consistency and detail from the Government before this climate plan passes. The four parliamentary committees that have produced reports on the plan are due to publish tomorrow, but even looking at the submitted evidence that is already in the public domain and the questions that MSPs have asked, I think that it is very clear that there is serious concern and that there will need to be equally serious changes to the draft plan.
I will say, though, that the situation is not as bad as it is with the United Kingdom Government, even if that is setting the bar pretty low. Climate change was the elephant in the debating chamber during yesterday’s budget statement, with not a single mention of climate change by the chancellor either on the challenges that we face or on the opportunities arising from the low-carbon economy that the UK Government’s policies have done so much to undermine.
I regret the fact that the Scottish Government’s criticism of the chancellor with regard to the North Sea is probably that he is not doing enough to support the polluting oil industry in extracting fossil fuels that the world cannot afford to burn. Can the Deputy First Minister give us one commitment, which is to ensure that the extra capital funding that is going to be available will be committed to low-carbon infrastructure to help break our reliance on fossil fuel consumption and build up the new industries and genuinely sustainable jobs that the country will need in the post-oil era?
I am very surprised that Mr Harvie thinks that my criticism of the chancellor might be limited to one issue—I have lots to criticise the chancellor about.
I certainly agree with Mr Harvie’s analysis that the United Kingdom Government has not done all that it could have done to help us advance the agenda that this Parliament has been interested in advancing, principally in respect of renewable energy. The First Minister was in the Western Isles on Monday, and on Tuesday she reported to Cabinet the frustration in the Western Isles at the lack of progress that is being made, despite the sterling efforts of Fergus Ewing and Paul Wheelhouse over a number of years with the support of many parties in Parliament, on securing an interconnector to enable the renewable potential of the Western Isles to be fully realised.
I am quite happy to balance out the criticism to ensure that those issues are properly put on the record. We will work with the United Kingdom to try to make progress on that interconnector; indeed, it is an issue on which the Conservatives here, if they have influence with the UK Government, might be able to help us. That would allow an economic opportunity that could really transform lives and attack fuel poverty in the Western Isles to be realised for the people in the Western Isles.
Mr Harvie asks me whether I will commit the extra capital that was announced by the United Kingdom Government yesterday, but I have to say to him: times have changed. I no longer control the purse strings in the Government; indeed, I am now a supplicant entering with trepidation the office of the finance secretary to try to secure capital assistance. If it is okay with Mr Harvie, I will properly respect the role of the finance secretary, who will make announcements to Parliament on these questions in due course. However, I will commit to putting in a good word for Mr Harvie’s objectives.
The Audit Scotland report on the failed i6 project makes grim reading. It is yet another botched information technology project on the Scottish National Party’s watch, and it clearly should have been abandoned far sooner. True to form, the Scottish Government’s response has been to welcome a number of areas of good practice highlighted in the findings while shamefully ignoring the conclusion that
“Police officers and staff continue to struggle with out-of-date, inefficient and poorly integrated systems.”
Does the Deputy First Minister recognise the difficulties that police officers and staff face as a result of this IT shambles, and what reassurance can he give officers and staff who face the prospect of using these worn-out systems for years to come?
The first thing that I would say is that I acknowledge the importance of the system redesign that has to be undertaken. That work has to be done, and it has to be done in an orderly fashion to ensure that our police services have access to the high-quality information technology that can assist them in their work. The Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland are absolutely committed to doing that.
I think that the best thing for me to do to answer Mr Ross’s point is to quote the Auditor General for Scotland, who said on the radio this morning:
“One of the positive things about this particular project is that because of the strength of the contract that Police Scotland has signed with Accenture, they were able to recover both the £11 million they had paid over to their contractor and also to recover an extra £13.5 million ... to reflect staff time and payments that had been made for hardware and software. So in purely cash terms Police Scotland isn’t out of pocket.”
That is what the Auditor General for Scotland said this morning in reflecting on the fact that although, because of the scale of the challenge between Police Scotland and the contractor, the programme has not been taken to completion, the public purse has not suffered as a consequence. As we would expect, Police Scotland will now take forward an organised approach to ensure that we have in place systems that give police officers access to modern IT in the period to come.
With the substantial reduction in oil revenues, it is surely time for a new oil and gas bulletin. The last publication was in June 2015, and the First Minister promised me in June 2016 that the new one would be published soon. Frankly, if the Scottish Government was on performance-related pay, it would get nothing. Will the Deputy First Minister ensure that a new bulletin is published before June 2017 and before another year passes?
If the Labour Party was on performance-related pay, it would be paying back for that IT system that Douglas Ross talked about.
The Government has published a range of information on oil and gas. We published a compendium of energy statistics and analysis on 23 February; I encourage Jackie Baillie to refer to that document, which is a substantial compendium of statistical information.
United Kingdom Budget
To ask the Deputy First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the United Kingdom budget. (S5F-01019)
The chancellor’s statement confirmed that the Scottish Government faces a £2.9 billion budget cut over the 10 years to 2019-20. Although the limited consequentials that were announced yesterday are welcome, they do not represent an end to austerity. Recent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the UK Government’s austerity will continue well into the next decade. The budget provided no support for low-income families, who face deep cuts to their incomes as a result of the chancellor’s cuts to social security and who will bear the brunt of the costs of Brexit. We will continue to do everything that we can to boost the economy, tackle inequality and provide high-quality public services, but yesterday’s budget does little to support those aims.
I call Liam—I am sorry; I mean Bruce Crawford.
Ian somebody? I do not know who that is.
We all welcome the additional £350 million of funding for the Scottish budget as a result of the chancellor’s announcement yesterday, albeit that that is over three years. However, does the Deputy First Minister agree that we should not let that welcome news blind us to the real and hard reality that Scotland’s budget will face a real-terms cut of £2.9 billion as a result of 10 years of a Tory Government that the people of Scotland did not vote for? That £2.9 billion cut will do untold damage to the economy, to vital public services and to the cause of equality in Scotland. It is obvious that the Labour Party in Scotland would prefer to have that Tory Government than to have Scotland take control of its own affairs.
Mr Crawford makes an important point, as he always does. UK austerity is cutting the funding that is available for Scottish public services. Moreover, the UK Government’s austerity measures are cutting the incomes of some of the most vulnerable in our society. The latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts show that, by 2021, real average earnings will still be below the level that they were at in 2007, which represents more than a decade of lost growth. The Treasury’s distributional analysis demonstrates that low-income households will see larger cuts to their incomes than virtually everyone else, except the richest households, as a direct result of the UK Government’s policies over this Parliament. That is the consequence of UK Government policies in Scotland.
The chancellor’s budget decisions will deliver a welcome additional £145 million in Barnett consequentials for next year. Given that a lot of the consequentials arise from money that the chancellor is allocating to English councils to address business rates rises, how much of the additional money that will be at the Scottish Government’s disposal will it allocate to councils such as those in north-east Scotland that want to set up local rates relief schemes?
That question is a bit odd, because the Conservatives in Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council voted against the business rates relief schemes that were proposed. That is the first point about Mr Kerr’s question.
The second point is that the Conservatives have been arguing that the consequentials provide our opportunity to cancel the removal of the tax cut for high earners. That was Murdo Fraser’s proposition, and he and Mr Kerr are sitting cheek by jowl in the chamber. The Conservatives are trying to spend the same money twice.
Maybe that is something to do with sitting on the Opposition benches, because that is what Labour members used to ask us to do when I was the finance minister and they were sitting where the Conservatives are, in second place. Labour used to ask us to spend the same money twice and, now that the Tories are the second party, they are asking us to spend the same money twice.
The finance secretary will continue to do what he is doing magnificently. He will make decisions that sensibly steward the public finances, and there will be wise investments in the future of the Scottish economy.
To ask the Deputy First Minister for what reason life expectancy is no longer increasing in Scotland. (S5F-00982)
Reducing health inequalities is one of the biggest challenges that we face. They are a symptom of wider economic inequalities, which is why the Government will continue to take action and has invested £296 million since 2013 in mitigating the harmful effects of the United Kingdom Government’s welfare reform. It is concerning that, between 2012 and 2015, life expectancy rates remained static, although we have seen an increase over the year from 2015 to 2016.
The causes of Scottish mortality are complex, multiple and interwoven. That was the conclusion of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health’s landmark report in 2016. Danny Dorling, who is a professor of geography at the University of Oxford, said over the weekend that austerity measures may have contributed to the stalling in life expectancy. He said:
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the SNP government. I think the same thing would have occurred had Labour held power in Scotland. It is the fall in funding due to the financial crash of 2008.”
The Deputy First Minister will know that life expectancy levels in the east end of Glasgow are dramatically lower than those in other, more affluent parts of the city. The Commonwealth games offered an unparalleled opportunity to take specific action to reduce health inequalities and mortality rates in the neighbourhoods that hosted the games, yet it seems that no targets were set to achieve that. The London boroughs that hosted the 2012 Olympics set themselves the explicit target of narrowing the gap between male and female life expectancies in the east end and those in the rest of London. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that Glasgow should follow London’s lead on that? What actions will the Scottish ministers take to address the health inequalities that persist in Glasgow?
I reiterate the point that I made in my initial answer. The implications of austerity have increased the challenge that we face in addressing long-term health inequalities that have been present in Scottish society for the whole of my lifetime.
The Government is taking a co-ordinated approach to tackling the issues through the measures that Mr Brown is taking on the regeneration of the east end of Glasgow and the support that we have put in place for the Clyde Gateway; the work that Shona Robison undertakes with the health service to ensure that we have an integrated service in areas of multiple deprivation that addresses not just the health needs of individuals but the whole wellness agenda; and the work that I undertake through measures such as the pupil equity fund, which is targeted directly at supporting young people from deprived backgrounds to achieve their potential in our education system. Schools in the east end of Glasgow are—rightly—benefiting enormously from such measures. There are also the measures that Angela Constance is taking as part of the Government’s social security work, to ensure that we focus on supporting the vulnerable in our society.
I reassure Mr Tomkins of the Scottish Government’s determination across all our responsibilities to focus on ending the income inequalities that have bedevilled so many individuals in our society and to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to progress in our society, although people’s health difficulties and background may have undermined that.
“Dying from inequality”
To ask the Deputy First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Samaritans’ report, “Dying from inequality”, which suggests that there is an increased risk of suicide in the most deprived communities. (S5F-00979)
Any death by suicide is a tragedy. Sadly, the link between deprivation and the risk of suicide is well known. We will take the report’s recommendations into account, including by placing an emphasis on inequalities as we develop a new suicide prevention strategy for publication early next year.
Although suicide rates are higher than average in most deprived areas, it is important to recognise that that inequality gap has narrowed over the past decade. Scotland’s suicide rate has reduced by 18 per cent over the past 10 years, and the number of suicides in 2015 was the lowest in a single year since 1974.
We heard from the Minister for Mental Health in the chamber just last week, shortly before publication of the Samaritans’ report, that there has been no formal evaluation of the last suicide prevention strategy. There appears to be no plan to embark on one before the next strategy is produced. The World Health Organization tells us that evaluation is a central pillar of effective suicide prevention strategies. Now that we have the Samaritans’ report, will the Deputy First Minister commit the Government to an evaluation of the actions in the previous strategy before it embarks on the next one?
Monica Lennon raises a significant issue. In policy terms, we have to be open to questioning whether particular interventions have been successful, given that we all recognise the importance, the imperative, and the necessity of ensuring that the measures that we put in place are effective in supporting individuals in those circumstances.
If Monica Lennon will forgive me, I will not give her a definitive answer today, but I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to look closely at the serious point that she has raised. We will reply to her on the specific point about an evaluation of the strategy.
I give Parliament the assurance that the Government is determined to take all the measures that we can possibly take to support vulnerable individuals in those circumstances.
Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the report by the chair of the advisory group on tackling sectarianism in Scotland. (S5F-01017)
I take this opportunity to thank Dr Morrow for undertaking this important review. He gathered evidence from a wide range of sources, including all parties in Parliament, and I thank everyone for their constructive contributions.
It is clear from the review that work remains to be done and that we all have a responsibility to meet the challenge. The Scottish Government is fully committed to building on Dr Morrow’s work. We have invested £12.5 million over the past five years to tackle sectarianism, including £9.3 million directly invested in community-based projects across Scotland—more than any public expenditure in this field in advance of this announcement.
One of the responses that came to Dr Morrow was from Action of Churches Together in Scotland, which covers a number of denominations. It mentioned the concern and the worry that, if any changes were made to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, that could be viewed “as ‘legitimising’ sectarianism.” Does the Deputy First Minister share my concern that we must not do anything that would legitimise sectarianism?
I agree that we must do absolutely nothing to legitimise sectarianism.
The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs made a statement just the other week about the steps that the Government has taken to commission a review into all of our hate crime legislation to ensure that it is fit for purpose in the coming period.
The approach that we are determined to take is to look for alternatives and to see how the measures in the 2012 act can be improved. In line with constructive views that have been offered by the Equality Network, Stonewall and the Law Society of Scotland, the independent review of hate crime legislation will include an analysis of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012. That will set out the issues that we must address in ensuring that we have legislation that is fit for Scotland in the 21st century.
I do not doubt the Deputy First Minister’s words on opposing sectarianism. However, they are undermined slightly by the fact that the Government has cut by £2 million funding to initiatives that have been fighting sectarianism in their communities.
The Government’s flagship policy for combating sectarianism has been the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012. Unfortunately, one of the policy outcomes of that act has been to criminalise young men and introduce them to the criminal justice system for the first time. That is not consistent with Scottish Government justice policy, and it was not the intention when the Government introduced the legislation. Will the Deputy First Minister take the opportunity to rethink the Government’s approach to that failed legislation, and its overall approach to tackling sectarianism?
The Government has taken such steps by commissioning the independent review to consider the issues that are raised on sectarianism in the context of hate crime legislation. That is an open process that should be welcomed across Parliament.
The financial commitments that the Government has made to tackling sectarianism have resulted in the investment of £12.5 million over the past five years. That is more than any other Government has done in the past and it is a measure of our commitment to ensuring that we tackle the issue effectively through the support that is in place.
I appreciate Mr Kelly’s strong views on the question, and he acknowledged my commitment in the points that he made. However, I ask him to accept that the Government is determined to tackle the issues in a way that addresses the wider questions that have to be considered on the matter, which is important.
That concludes First Minister’s questions. We will take a few moments to change seats before we move to members’ business.