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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament 09 September (Hybrid) 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Mineworkers Pension Scheme, Portfolio Question Time, Deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell, Covid-19 Vaccine Certification Scheme, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

Before we begin, I say that I intend to take constituency and general supplementaries after question 2, so any member who wishes to ask such a question should press their request-to-speak button during question 2. However, any member who wishes to ask a supplementary specifically on questions 3 to 6 should press their button during the relevant question.


Scottish Ambulance Service (Waiting Times)

1. Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

It has been reported today that the average wait for an ambulance following a 999 call is six hours. Does the First Minister not find that shocking and unacceptable?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I do not find it acceptable that anyone waits longer than they should for an ambulance. We know that the pressure that the Scottish Ambulance Service is under at the moment is because of many of the other pressures on our national health service that have been caused and, in some respects, exacerbated by the pandemic.

We are working very closely with the Scottish Ambulance Service to resolve the issue. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care spoke to the chief executive of the Ambulance Service this morning. Next month, 90 additional technicians will come into employment by the service.

We are also funding the health service. We bolstered investment by £10.5 million last year, and an additional £20 million has been invested this year.

Although any individual wait is unacceptable, and we must work to resolve that, it is worth bearing it in mind that despite all the challenges, and despite the fact that our Ambulance Service serves some of the most rural areas in the United Kingdom, during 2020-21 our crews responded to more than 70 per cent of the highest-priority calls in less than 10 minutes, and to more than 99 per cent in less than 30 minutes.

We will continue supporting our Ambulance Service through this challenging period—just as we continue to support the entire national health service.

Douglas Ross

People are dialling 999 and are asking for an ambulance. On average, they are waiting six hours, not 10 minutes. The First Minister tries to say that that is because of the pandemic. Our ambulance staff and technicians have done fantastic work during the pandemic and before it, but the problems began long before Covid-19.

In 2018, a Government report found that only 20 per cent of ambulance crew members thought that there were enough staff. A 2019 staff survey showed that demand for ambulance services had increased far beyond the available resources. Almost half of paramedics who were surveyed in 2019 said that they often thought about leaving the service. Just yesterday, the trade union Unite’s convener at the Scottish Ambulance Service said:

“Serious adverse events from the ambulance service have been on an upwards trajectory since the start of the year. They are through the roof.”

That all adds up to a service that was in crisis well before Covid hit. Does the First Minister agree?

The First Minister

I agree that there were pressures before Covid. I do not think that anyone can or should deny that those pressures have been significantly exacerbated by Covid, and not only here in Scotland: we see similar pressures on health services across the UK, and further afield.

Because we have been aware of those pressures, we have been working to address them. Last year, we commissioned a working group to agree and implement a range of actions to improve turnaround times. As part of that, 296 additional ambulance staff are being recruited as a result of the investment that we have made available in the past two years. In the north of the country—the part of Scotland that Douglas Ross represents—there will be an extra 67 front line staff, who will be a mixture of experienced and newly qualified paramedics and technicians along with nine patient transport service staff, who will be located across the region.

I will not stand here and suggest that it is in any way acceptable for anyone to wait too long for an ambulance. In the week up to 7 September, which is the week for which we have the most recent figures, the Scottish Ambulance Service responded to 10,435 emergency incidents, which was more than in the previous week. The median national response time in that week for all calls about immediate life-threatening need was nine minutes and three seconds. That is slightly higher than we want it to be; the target is seven minutes.

The Ambulance Service is working hard under incredibly challenging circumstances. My job, and that of the health secretary, is to support them with funding and in other ways, to ensure that they can meet the challenges for the sake of all patients across Scotland, who deserve timely responses from the Scottish Ambulance Service.

Douglas Ross

People who are listening at home will be wondering about that time of seven minutes. To have an ambulance come in seven minutes would be great for people who are waiting for hours, often in agony.

All over Scotland, people are waiting for ambulances. I have some examples. At an Abbeyfield assisted-living complex in Bearsden, a resident had symptoms of stroke and phoned for an ambulance at 2.30 pm. They were not picked up until 4.45 am, more than 14 hours later. A general practitioner from Dumfries called for an ambulance during a home visit and was advised that there would be a four-hour wait. The patient reached hospital nine hours later. The doctor told us that the whole service is in crisis.

When cases are life threatening, ambulances are expected to arrive within seven minutes. That is not happening. Jim from Pitlochry told us that his 17-year-old son, who had collapsed by the side of the road, needed an ambulance when he fell unconscious. About 30 minutes later, with no ambulance in sight and with his son’s lips turning blue, he drove him to the nearest hospital, but even then he struggled to get medical attention.

Thankfully, a nurse came to the rescue and his son is doing better, but Jim wanted me to ask the First Minister these questions. What would have happened if his son had taken a turn for the worse? If he had been a more vulnerable person, would they still be alive?

The First Minister

I do not know whether Jim is watching, but he might be, so I will address him directly. First, I am extremely sorry that the wait that you had happened, and I do not think that that is acceptable. I am trying to address the issues genuinely, because I do not think that the cases that Douglas Ross has cited are acceptable, and nothing that I have said today suggests that they are.

We know the reasons for the pressure on the Ambulance Service. There are a variety of pressures on our national health service. Of course, some of those pressures were there before Covid, but they have been significantly exacerbated. We know that our accident and emergency departments are under pressure and we know that there is a backlog of treatment. One of the issues that the Ambulance Service faces is longer turnaround times, which puts a lot of pressure on ambulance resources. I acknowledge all that, and we are working hard with the Ambulance Service to address the situation. Nothing that I have said or that I am saying is intended to suggest in any way that the kind of waits that we have heard about today are acceptable.

However, I would also say—I refer to the figure that I cited in my previous answer—that the median response time for the most urgent calls in the most recent week was just over nine minutes. That is not good enough, because it should be within seven minutes. For amber calls, the median time was 21 minutes 26 seconds. Again, that is slightly above the target. There is work to be done here, but that is exactly why we are making the investment. We are supporting recruitment of additional paramedics and technicians to bring waiting times down again.

Perhaps even more important to note is that some of the pressure on the Ambulance Service comes from pressures elsewhere in the health service, which is why the NHS recovery plan and the investment that supports it are so important. We will continue to focus on the service with health boards—including the Scottish Ambulance Service—every day to address the very serious issues.

Douglas Ross

I agree with the First Minister: this is not good enough. The Government has allowed the long-term issues to spiral into a crisis. The knock-on problems are bringing our NHS to its knees and are putting lives at risk, and it is only going to get worse this winter.

People cannot see a general practitioner in person. They call for an ambulance, but it is delayed for hours. When they reach A and E, they find that waiting times are at their worst levels since records began. Unite the union said this week that ambulances were parked outside hospitals for seven hours, missing three other 999 calls while they waited. However, this week’s programme for government set out nothing—no new money for the Scottish Ambulance Service. Will the First Minister accept that there is a crisis? Will she tell us what she is going to do about it now, before lives are lost?

The First Minister

The Ambulance Service is receiving additional money. We increased investment by more than £10 million last year, and additional investment of £20 million is being invested this year. The £1 billion recovery plan funding will include support for the Ambulance Service, just as it will include support for health services across the country.

I do not challenge any of what Douglas Ross is saying; there are big, big issues facing our national health service. However, because we know that, we are making the investment and doing the work with the service to address the issues.

However, I take issue because the issues for Scotland, and for other countries in the United Kingdom and around the world, have been significantly deepened and exacerbated by a once-in-a-century global pandemic—although saying that does not make things any easier for patients across the country who are waiting too long for elective treatment, for A and E treatment or for an ambulance. We need to support our NHS to recover from the pandemic.

There are headlines today from other parts of the UK about the longest waiting times on record. Some of the problems that our Ambulance Service is facing are problems that ambulance services elsewhere are facing. That does not remove the responsibility—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

Excuse me, First Minister. Mr Kerr, I would be grateful if we could hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

The point that I am making is a serious one. It does not in any way take away the Scottish Government’s responsibility for addressing the problems in Scotland. However, I think that most people understand that exceptionally difficult circumstances have prevailed over the past 18 months, and they understand the difficulties that all Governments and health services are having as we try to recover. That is why we are making investment, why we have the recovery plan and why we will continue—every single day—to support our health service and everybody who works in it to recover and to get the NHS fully back on track.


Vaccine Certification

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Today, the Parliament will vote on the introduction of vaccine passports. Scottish Labour will not support the proposals. We have supported the Government at key moments throughout the pandemic, but this is about what works and what will make a meaningful difference.

The scientific advisory group for emergencies, on which the Scottish Government’s chief medical officer sits, says that any proposals should consider these three key points:

“1) isolate those that are infectious from the rest of the population”—

vaccine passports will not do that;

“2) reduce the likelihood that they enter higher-risk settings or situations”—

vaccine passports will not do that; and

“3) attempt to decrease the transmission risk from an infectious person in any given environment.”

Given the high transmissibility of the delta variant, vaccine passports will not do that. What evidence has led the First Minister and her ministers to change their minds, disagree with those scientists and now back vaccine passports?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, I have not changed my mind. I said to the Parliament, on 3 August most recently, but before that in April and February, that we were considering the issue of vaccine certification. We had not ruled it out but had wanted to properly consider all the issues, and that is what we have done.

We have also listened to and continue to listen to a range of evidence. Ahead of the debate today, I recommend that all members of the Parliament read on Twitter the comments of Steven Reicher, who is one of the members of the Scottish Government Covid-19 advisory group but who is entirely independent. He sets out very fairly, and very well, the benefits of vaccine passports, the conditions that need to prevail in order to make their operation a success and, frankly, some of their limitations.

That takes me to the nub of Anas Sarwar’s question. Vaccine certification is not a 100 per cent solution in and of itself. All the things that Anas Sarwar rightly ran through have to be done but, in addition, vaccine passports can provide an added layer of protection. Take, for example, a nightclub, where people come together and there is the potential for superspreading events. If we make sure that, in addition to all the other protections, everybody in that nightclub has been fully vaccinated, we do not eradicate the risk of transmission, but we reduce it and significantly reduce the risk of illness. Crucially, we also give an alternative to the possibility, as we go into winter, of the closure of those kinds of events.

Is it a complete solution? No, but in the face of this challenging pandemic, there is no one single solution. We have to take all the ways that we can to act as proportionately as possible to keep the country as safe as possible. That is the responsible way in which the Government is going to continue to act. Some of what we have heard from the Opposition suggests that a bit more genuine grown-up politics on this issue would go a long way.

Anas Sarwar

I have respect for all of the First Minister’s answer apart from the end part. Is she saying that all the businesses out there that are worried are being disrespectful? Is she saying that the thousands of people who have emailed us are being disrespectful? These are serious questions that deserve serious answers.

The First Minister has published a document this morning that contains no evidence that vaccine certification will make a difference and no details of how it will work. She references nightclubs, but the document suggests that the Government still does not even know what “nightclubs” means, and they will be expected to introduce the measures in three weeks’ time. The First Minister is expecting businesses across the country, many of which have only just reopened, and some of which are still closed, to implement and enforce the scheme in that short period. That will put immense pressure on them and even greater pressure on the staff who have to administer it.

Earlier this year, the UK Government undertook a consultation on vaccine passports, to which it received 52,000 responses, including from major industry bodies that would be impacted by the change. Can the First Minister detail what engagement she has had with the relevant sectors? Can she confirm that there has been a public consultation in Scotland and, if so, how many responses have been received?

The First Minister

Engagement is and will continue to be on-going, and the Parliament will debate and vote on the issue this afternoon. We engage with the public on a range of issues all of the time.

I made a comment about Anas Sarwar’s position—it was not a comment about anybody else’s position. To say categorically, as he did at the weekend, that, no matter what, he would vote against something is, frankly, opposition for opposition’s sake. I think that that reflects rather poorly on Anas Sarwar, but that is my opinion, and people can agree or disagree with that.

Of course businesses have concerns about any of the measures that we have to take to try to tackle and contain Covid. I wish that we were not in this position at all—I wish that we were not even having to consider any measures to constrain the spread of an infectious virus—but we are in this situation. It is a very difficult situation, particularly with the increased transmissibility of delta, which is one of the other things that have changed since we first started talking about this. I would think that, for businesses in higher-risk settings, it will, on balance, be a choice between being able to continue to operate over the next few months or finding themselves facing a period of closure again. I am sure that there will be a variety of opinions, but I think that many such businesses would prefer this targeted, proportionate measure to closure.

Scotland is not alone in considering vaccine certification. An increasing number of countries across Europe are already using vaccine certification on a much more wide-ranging basis than we are proposing. In some cases—France, for example—vaccine certification is pushing up rates of vaccination uptake and helping to constrain and reduce transmission. We need to use every tool at our disposal to drive down infection rates and keep people safe while, at the same time, keeping our economy open. Anybody who buries their head in the sand in the face of that is not doing the economy or businesses any favours.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister wanted us to wait for the publication of the document that it has published today. There are businesses that will be impacted by vaccine certification that have longer cocktail menus than that document. We need some real-life experience from the First Minister on this issue. Instead of creating a new system, we should fix the systems that we already have. That means, after 18 months, finally giving test and protect the support that it needs.

We know that the vaccine works—we know that it reduces hospitalisations and deaths—but, even if someone has had the vaccine, they can still get the virus and spread it, so it is more important to ensure that anyone going into a venue has had a negative result. Under the Government’s proposals, however, someone who does not have a vaccine passport and does not have the virus will not be allowed to enter a venue, while someone who has a passport and has the virus will be able to walk straight in. How does that make sense? There are no details published in the paper, no evidence to back up the proposals, no meaningful engagement with the sectors involved and no public consultation. Is it not the case that the First Minister is rushing the proposals through Parliament in an attempt to look in control of a virus that is clearly out of control?

The First Minister

Most people who are watching this will probably breathe a sigh of relief that Anas Sarwar is not standing here. Clever quips might sound good in a student union, but when we are trying to deal with a global pandemic, it is more important that we have the solutions that help to keep people safe.

Let us take some of Mr Sarwar’s points in turn. He appears to be saying that negative test results should be used in place of proof of vaccination. We suggest to people that they test themselves regularly. Lateral flow device testing is an important part of our overall response, but one of its constraints, which means that it does not make sense to put too much reliance on it for the kind of thing that we are talking about here, is that it is a self-reported test. I heard the United Kingdom vaccines minister make that point yesterday in the House of Commons. We have to be careful that we do not introduce false security around such a system.

The other point is that people can still get the virus if they are vaccinated. Anybody looking at the current statistics knows that, but vaccination reduces people’s risk of getting the virus. Do you want to be in a nightclub in which some people are unvaccinated or do you want to be in a nightclub in which everybody is vaccinated? In the latter, your risk of getting the virus is going to be significantly lower than in the former. Is the risk eradicated? No, but no single measure will eradicate risk.

This is about having a basket of measures. It is about testing and making sure that people isolate when they are required to. It is also about ensuring that we use vaccination to its fullest effect. We need to drive up vaccination rates and then ensure that we use the protection of vaccination as effectively as possible. This measure is one part of a solution.

Anas Sarwar says that we are rushing this through in Scotland. Actually, in Scotland we are behind the curve on this, as so many countries in Europe are already doing it and finding the benefits of doing so. Let us get on with it and discharge our responsibility to keep this country as safe as possible.


CalMac Ferries (Winter Maintenance Programme)

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

The October to February period is often a challenging time of year for CalMac Ferries. The company uses the period to dry dock and refit vessels as the tourist season comes to an end. However, with continued demand for staycations, it seems likely that Scotland’s islands will continue to be busy beyond the normal shoulder months. With that in mind, will the First Minister outline what preparations are being made for this year’s maintenance programme?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We need to ensure that vessels are safe and well maintained. Every CalMac vessel requires essential annual maintenance over the winter months. Scheduling of the overhaul programme, including the relief vessels that are used, is complex and must take account of a range of factors. CalMac now has a long-term strategy in place for dry docking.

We continue to encourage CalMac to do everything possible to minimise the impact that is caused by maintenance work over the winter period, and we continue to support CalMac to deliver services in the face of the challenges that Covid continues to pose for us all.


Mental Health Waiting Lists (Young People)

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

From April 2019 to July 2021, more than 7,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 16 were reported missing. I am sure that we all agree that that statistic is horrific for all concerned. We know that poor mental health is often the root cause of such incidents, and that the proportion of young people who are waiting more than a year for specialist help has trebled in the past 12 months. What action will the First Minister take now, to address the shame that is mental health waiting times for young people in this country?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As I set out on Tuesday when I outlined the programme for government, we are making immediate investments of £120 million into mental health, with a particular focus on prevention and early intervention. We are already funding health boards to improve community child and adolescent mental health services and to enable the expansion of community services for people aged 18 to 25. The funding that I announced will enable the clearing of historical waiting lists, which I accept are too long. They were long as we went into Covid, and that has been further exacerbated by the experience of Covid. The funding that we will make available is specifically targeted to deal with the issue that Jamie Greene raises.


Public Services

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

We can argue about the impact on public services of failed Tory austerity, the Scottish Government’s failure to workforce plan and Covid. The one thing that is absolutely clear is that many public services are in meltdown across Scotland. How can the First Minister possibly justify using Government resources and taxpayers’ money on working up proposals for an independence referendum at a time when the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament should surely be wholly focused on addressing the emergency in our public services?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I do not think that we can argue about the impact of United Kingdom Government austerity on services the length and breadth of Scotland—it has been utterly devastating. The problem is that, unless we do something to get ourselves out of the grip of Tory Government after Tory Government, people across Scotland will suffer more.

Just this week, we have seen a national insurance increase that will punish the lowest paid in our society—[Interruption.] Well, we all want to see extra money for public services but raising that money in a way that punishes the poor is the bit that we do not agree with—no one should agree with it if they care about those issues. We are also about to see the UK Government make the biggest overnight cut to social security since the 1930s, when it takes away the £20 per week uplift to universal credit.

It may be something that Alex Rowley and I have to disagree on—he can explain that to his constituents. It is right that people in Scotland have the opportunity to choose a different and better future, in which we take control over social security and how we raise funds, into the Scottish Parliament, so that we do not have to stand here and—to use Alex Rowley’s phrase—argue about the impact of another Government on people the length and breadth of Scotland.


Fishing Vessel Safety

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

My constituent, Jason Campbell, a young person who I am told has met the First Minister and read a poem on fishing, has raised with me concerns about the safety of fishermen, including some who are his friends. There are reports of non-United Kingdom fishing vessels that are, to quote Jason, “dumping their fishing gear overboard”. That is dangerous as well as being bad for the marine environment. Jason has also asked why fishery patrol vessels are not doing more at sea.

Will the First Minister tell Jason what is being done to keep our fishing vessels and those on board them safe at sea?

The First Minister

I remember Jason and I hope that Beatrice Wishart will pass on my best wishes to him. I am happy to engage with Jason through Beatrice Wishart, or he can email me directly, to set out exactly what the Scottish Government and our agencies are doing to keep fishermen as safe as possible. Our fishery protection vessels have a key part to play in that. He clearly has some real concerns, and that reflects my memory of him as a very engaged young man. I would be happy to have a further discussion with him directly.


ScotRail (Industrial Action)

3. Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with ScotRail and the trade unions regarding industrial action on the network. (S6F-00220)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Minister for Transport meets ScotRail and trade unions regularly. He met trade union representatives on 24 June, and subsequently met Abellio. I met the Scottish Trade Union Congress on 12 August. On each occasion, we expressed our disappointment about the current dispute affecting ScotRail’s Sunday services and urged all parties to seek resolution.

I understand that the transport minister is meeting Unite the union today and has offered with to meet the other rail unions. We want all parties to get around the table and identify solutions to the challenges that our rail services face.

Maggie Chapman

I note the comments made on Tuesday by the transport minister, in which he called on everyone to act responsibly.

It has been six months since people were able to get a train on a Sunday. It seems that Abellio has little interest in acting responsibly, given that the ScotRail franchise is soon to be transferred to public ownership. It is clear that we need a long-term partnership between the workers, passengers and the Government to avoid the problems that have arisen with Abellio.

Will the First Minister tell me how her Government will bring the situation to an end in the short term? Can she also give us an assurance that when ScotRail is brought into public ownership, the governance structure will include representatives of workers and passengers, as well as appointees, on the board?

The First Minister

I can give an assurance on fair work; in my view, part of fair work is having good industrial relations as well as engagement and discussion with trade unions. I expect that to be at the heart of ScotRail services as they come into public ownership.

I know that members are aware of the reasons behind the current dispute, which arose from an agreement made during Covid for enhanced rest-day working. Now that additional ticket examiners and conductors have been recruited, the issue of excessive rest-day working has been resolved. The unions and workers—I understand why this is the case—want to keep the temporary allowance and make it permanent, whereas ScotRail’s view is that that is not sustainable. Again, I call on both parties to get around the table to find an agreement. It is in no one’s interest—not least the workers’ interest—for the dispute to continue any longer. We will continue to encourage the parties to do that. We will also continue to do the work to bring ScotRail into full public ownership, which we expect to conclude in the early part of next year.


Corporate Travel Management

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

To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had regarding the functioning of Corporate Travel Management. (S6F-00211)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The managed isolation service in Scotland is operated under a United Kingdom Government contract, which places responsibility for setting the quality and levels of service on the UK Government. The Scottish Government’s international passenger co-ordination team is in regular contact with Corporate Travel Management, which is the UK Government’s travel agent, and we continue to work with them to ensure a high-quality service for travellers.

Christine Grahame

As we are all aware, the situation is very distressing and costly for students who come from red list countries. I put on the record my thanks to the universities for stepping in with practical help.

Of course I appreciate that CTM was tasked by Westminster, and I understand the relationship with the Scottish Government’s international travel co-ordination team, which liaises with the CTM Westminster arm. Has there been any positive response? Are we any further forward for students who are anxious to start their courses?

The First Minister

I very much agree with Christine Grahame’s comments about international students. We always want to offer a warm welcome. They make a significant cultural, economic and intellectual contribution to our universities and, indeed, to the whole country, and they are welcome here.

Scottish Government officials have been engaging directly with universities on the issues that are highlighted in the question. They have contacted CTM, which has said that it is addressing those issues as a priority. My officials will continue to work with the universities to improve processes.

Students should, of course, contact their universities if they continue to experience issues with the booking system.

In recognition of the difficult circumstances that international students have faced, the Scottish Government has also taken steps to put support in place. For example, international and European Union students can apply for financial hardship support from the Scottish Government’s higher education coronavirus discretionary fund.


Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd (Air Traffic Control)

5. Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on HIAL’s proposed centralisation of air traffic control services. (S6F-00230)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Although that is a matter for Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, it is clear that the Scottish Government has a strong interest in it. We are liaising and monitoring the process closely.

The investment that is being made in air traffic control is essential to secure the long-term future of air services in the Highlands and Islands. The objective of the central surveillance centre in Inverness is to ensure safer, more sustainable and more reliable air services for the communities that rely on them. We know that the decision may affect where staff work in the future, and I understand that HIAL is engaging directly with the Prospect union on the detail of a commuting policy and other measures to mitigate that. However, we should not lose sight of what the investment and change are intended to deliver in the long term, which is security for the islands’ connectivity, with related social and economic benefits.

Donald Cameron

Yesterday, the union Prospect sent a letter that was signed by representatives of all five major political parties as well as the three island local authority leaders which called for an urgent meeting with the Minister for Transport in light of the impact that the proposed centralisation will have on local jobs on the islands. I understand that a ministerial meeting with stakeholders is proposed to happen in two months’ time. Given the urgency of the situation, will the First Minister instruct the Minister for Transport to bring forward that meeting? Can she explain how centralisation can be justified, given her Government’s stated intention to encourage people to move to our islands and reverse depopulation?

The First Minister

There are some serious and perfectly valid issues in there—complex issues. Of course we want to see the repopulation of our islands, but we must also ensure that there are sustainable services that support the connectivity of our islands. Those are often complex issues that require very careful thought.

On the Minister for Transport’s meeting with Prospect, my understanding is that he is due to meet the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Prospect next month to discuss aviation generally, and I am sure that the issue that has been raised will feature in that. We will certainly look to see whether diaries can enable that meeting to be brought forward. It is important that that engagement takes place.

As I said in my original answer, it is also important that HIAL engages directly with Prospect to address issues that have been raised about how it can make changes that improve the sustainability of the services. The kind of model that is being discussed already operates at London City airport, for example. Obviously, that is very different from our islands, but this is about the sustainability of those services in the longer term.

Important issues have been raised by the union, and I expect HIAL to engage properly with it. As I said, I will ask the Minister for Transport to see whether the meeting can be accelerated.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

It is clear that the situation is very challenging for island communities. They value air traffic provision being delivered locally, because that gives them a sense of security and ensures that much-needed skilled jobs are based on our islands. For obvious reasons, people are nervous about the implications of HIAL’s proposed new centre in Inverness. What reassurance can the First Minister provide, particularly regarding what might happen to those jobs in the future?

The First Minister

When it comes to the jobs, the issues around relocation are important, and those were what I was alluding to. It is important that HIAL engages with the unions and with workers in considering the policies in place that allow workers who are working under the new system nevertheless to continue to live in and contribute to our islands. That will not always be easy, but that is the work that we are expecting HIAL to engage in properly.

On some of the other concerns, safety issues have been raised with me directly, for example in Shetland. Those issues must be taken seriously. Loganair, the main airline flying in the Highlands and Islands, which is already operating under the system at London City, is supportive of the changes and the safety benefits that it says will be delivered. New air-traffic control procedures and the operation of such a centre will go live only following a rigorous assessment and approval by the Civil Aviation Authority.

I understand the concerns that are being raised—it is important to say that. There is a responsibility on HIAL and indeed on the Scottish Government to seek to address those concerns as we move forward.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I disagree with the First Minister that the programme is essential to ensure the long-term viability or indeed safety of air traffic in the Highlands and Islands. Digital Scotland classed the project as an amber-to-red risk. Added to that, the Sumburgh radar project, which is part of the scheme, is currently believed to be running six to 12 months behind schedule and costs have already increased. Is the First Minister still convinced that it is the right project to go forward with, and what steps is she taking to avoid another vanity transport project in the Highlands and Islands?

The First Minister

I thank Rhoda Grant for her perfectly reasonable question, although I am not sure that anybody would describe it as a vanity project. There are sustainability issues in the services as they are. The project is about improving and securing the sustainability of the services in the future. The project is still at an early stage, but it is proceeding in line with the approved business case. HIAL obviously has the responsibility to ensure that that continues to be the case.

There can be no compromise on safety on any aviation matter, which is why, to return to a point that I made in my previous answer, the processes that must be gone through, ultimately resulting in approval by the Civil Aviation Authority, are so important.

I recognise the concerns. A change such as this will always result in worries and questions for people. Therefore, HIAL and, indeed, the Scottish Government will address those in order to give people the reassurance that they need.


Oil and Gas Industry (Just Transition)

6. Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking ahead of the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—regarding the future of oil and gas exploration and securing a just transition for workers. (S6F-00228)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

While oil and gas and issues around the licensing and exploration of offshore oil and gas are reserved to the United Kingdom Government, we have called for the UK Government to significantly enhance the climate conditionality associated with offshore exploration and production and to reassess licences that have already been issued but where field development has not yet commenced.

The programme for government includes a commitment to develop an energy just transition plan. We have committed to working with communities and with those who are most impacted across Scotland, including our very highly skilled oil and gas workforce, to co-design that plan, and we have committed to take forward a 10-year £500 million just transition fund for the north-east and Moray.

Mercedes Villalba

The Scottish Government cannot make the same mistakes as the Tories and leave whole communities facing unemployment. An offshore training passport would allow oil and gas workers to move freely between the offshore and onshore energy sectors. The Government should really be supporting standardisation of skills across sectors. Will the First Minister commit today to developing an offshore training passport, as supported by Friends of the Earth and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers?

The First Minister

Yes—I am very happy to consider all constructive discussions. I am happy to ask the minister to engage directly with the member. Those are exactly the kinds of constructive proposals that we need. Will every constructive proposal be able to be taken forward? No—that is rarely the case—but, because we are so serious about a just transition, we will engage properly on all those issues.

I suspect that I am a fair bit older than the member, but I have first-hand memories of the devastation in the community where I grew up from the mistakes that previous Governments made around deindustrialisation. We must not repeat those mistakes in the process of decarbonisation, which is why the just transition process is so important. I thank Mercedes Villalba for that question, and I am happy to engage with her on the detail.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Given that an Oil and Gas Authority report endorsed by Sir Ian Wood shows that the carbon footprint from imported gas is more than double that of domestically produced gas, does the First Minister agree that currently, while there remains a Scottish demand, the most environmentally friendly approach, and one which recognises the climate emergency, is to ensure that we support the Scottish oil and gas sector?

The First Minister

Where I agree with Liam Kerr—I will try to find points of agreement here—is that we must make the transition not only in a way that is just for workers, which is fundamentally important, but in a way, and at a pace, that does not become counterproductive because it inadvertently increases reliance on imports. In principle, that point is important; I have made it many times myself. Underneath that, though, there is greater complexity. Right now, we export a significant proportion of what is produced in the North Sea, and we already import a lot of the oil and gas that is used, so there is often greater complexity lying beneath the headline claim.

We need to engage properly with these issues. We are in a transition, whether we like it or not, from fossil fuels to renewable and low-carbon sources of energy. We owe that to the planet, and none of us can—nor should we try to—escape that responsibility, but we need to do that in a way that is fair and just and which actually has the intended effects.

These things require a lot of careful consideration and a large amount of careful work, but we cannot escape our moral and economic responsibility to make the transition and to meet our net zero targets. The Government is incredibly serious about doing that, and about, on occasion—not just on this issue but, I am sure, on a whole range of other issues—facing up to the difficult challenges that it entails.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I recently met Equate Scotland and discussed the importance of putting an equalities lens on the just transition for workers. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that there is equity for women in the just transition for workers, in particular as they have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?

The First Minister

That is an excellent and extremely important point. In fact, it should run through all the work that we do as a Government.

The programme for government recognises the point that Karen Adam makes. The impacts of Covid have been, and will no doubt continue to be, experienced disproportionately by various groups, including women. I assure her that our engagement on the development of just transition plans will seek to amplify the voices of underrepresented groups, and to actively work to ensure that we create a better, greener future for all.

More generally, we have committed to take forward a programme of work to embed equality, inclusion and human rights throughout Scotland. That is an important part of our overall commitment to ensuring that while the transition happens, it happens in a way that is just and fair.


Vaccination Records

The Presiding Officer

As we have a little time in hand, I call Rachael Hamilton to ask a supplementary question.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

Constituents are reporting errors in their vaccination records, which are held on the NHS Scotland website. Wrongly logged dates and incorrect vaccine types are being flagged, and the only way to resolve those issues is to sit in a very long telephone queue. One constituent reported that she had waited in a queue of 92 people.

Is the First Minister aware of the extent of that problem? Does she trust the system? Will she consider a vaccine data resolution system?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

In short—yes, I trust the system. As I have said in relation to Covid and the various different systems and approaches that we have had to take over the past 18 months—not least the vaccination programme in general—there will, in a system so big and complex, be individual cases of things going wrong. We should not shy away from that, but what is important is that we have processes in place to fix those things.

Yesterday, in my Covid statement, I gave the number of the helpline that people can phone to have any such mistakes rectified, and I encourage them to do so. I know that the system is taking on a number of those questions and very quickly resolving them on a daily basis.