Meeting date: Thursday, November 10, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 10 November 2016
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Accessible Hospital Transport, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Climate Change Action, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education and Training Strategy, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Accessible Hospital Transport
- Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time
- Climate Change Action
- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education and Training Strategy
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00445)
As this is our last session of First Minister’s question time before armistice day and remembrance Sunday, I am sure that all members want to pay tribute and express our gratitude to those who sacrificed their lives for the way of life that we all value.
Later today, I will have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
I associate myself and my party with the First Minister’s message.
I know that events elsewhere in the world are taking precedence in the news right now, but this Parliament has a job to do in holding the Government to account. In March, we discovered that the Scottish Government had signed a £10 billion memorandum of understanding with two Chinese companies. We discovered that only because a picture appeared in the Chinese trade press. We learned this week that the deal had collapsed, and we learned about that only thanks to the Scottish Sunday papers. Does the First Minister think that that is the mark of a transparent Government?
This Government is focused on one of our core responsibilities, which is to try to attract jobs and investment to Scotland. That is something for which I will never apologise, and it was the whole purpose that underpinned the memorandum of understanding to which Ruth Davidson referred.
The memorandum did not commit us to particular investment, but it committed us to exploring opportunities for investment. We were made aware in August that, due to the political climate, our partners in the memorandum of understanding felt that they could not proceed at that time. We did not take that as a cancellation of the memorandum of understanding and we remained committed then, as we remain committed now, to pursuing all opportunities for investment.
I regret that the partners now consider the memorandum of understanding to be cancelled, but let me end by saying this: the reason for that is the political climate that was created. As First Minister, I will certainly reflect on lessons that the Scottish Government should learn from the experience, and—I say this sincerely and genuinely—I hope that the Opposition parties will also reflect. Scrutiny and questions are, of course, legitimate. I agree with Ruth Davidson that the Opposition’s job is to hold the Government to account. However, all Opposition parties should be careful not to create in this country a climate that is seen to be inhospitable to investment, because if that happens it is not good for our economy or for any of us.
The First Minister is demanding that the rest of us take responsibility for a deal that we did not even know existed. The Parliament would have scrutinised the deal if she had not hidden it from the Parliament.
The First Minister might have answered a question, but once again it was not the question that she was asked, so let me answer that one for her. It is not the mark of a transparent Government; it is the mark of a Government whose first instinct is to duck and dive and think that it can escape scrutiny when it wants to. This is a Government that even tries to hide which of its MSPs backs Brexit.
The double standards that we see from this shower are extraordinary. The First Minister’s former cabinet secretary Richard Lochhead said the other day that it was unacceptable that the United Kingdom Government should do deals without full disclosure, and yet here we have a Scottish Government that did not tell us that the Chinese deal was on and which failed to tell us when it was called off. We have just heard the excuse that Opposition parties dared to ask questions. In all seriousness, is it really the First Minister’s position that the collapse of the deal is everybody else’s fault and nothing to do with her Government?
If Ruth Davidson cared to listen, she would have heard me say that I, as First Minister, would reflect on any lessons that we had to learn from the experience, and I say that again.
I repeat the fact that the memorandum of understanding was a commitment to build relationships and explore opportunities. It was not actually a commitment to any particular investment. That is why I think that the charge of double standards from Ruth Davidson is a bit staggering. She represents a party that has apparently made commitments to Nissan, yet it refuses to publish the letter that would tell us what those commitments are, even if they are commitments that might carry a price tag for the taxpayer. I suggest that she concentrates on getting her own party’s house in order before she comes here to lecture the Scottish Government.
On the wider issue of Brexit, there is certainly no secrecy around who in the Tory party supports Brexit because they all support Brexit now, regardless of what they might have said before the referendum.
I do not think that the Conservatives have any excuse for lecturing anybody when it comes to trade and investment. Let us not forget that the Conservative Party is the one that wants to rip Scotland out of the European Union and out of the single market against our will. That is what will have a damaging impact on jobs and investment in this country.
I cannot believe that the First Minister persists in coming to the chamber to say that the Chinese Communist Party pulled the plug on the deal because they heard the Scottish Liberal Democrats roar. The entire saga is embarrassing for the Government and it is embarrassing for our country. Let me spell out what actually was at stake, or what we are now being told was at stake, which was hidden at the time: it was £10 billion that could have been invested in housing and transport. That is exactly the kind of investment that we expect the Scottish Government to pull out all the stops to secure. Therefore, could we not have expected that at least one of the First Minister’s ministerial team would have picked up the phone to the potential investors after May to make sure that the deal was still on track? Why was that call not made?
We continue to engage not just with the partners in this deal but with anybody if we consider that that could lead to investment in Scotland. That is part of our core responsibilities.
It is a bit rich for the Opposition to stand here today and complain about the collapse of a deal—it was actually a memorandum of understanding to explore potential deals—when, for weeks during and after the May Scottish Parliament elections, Opposition parties repeatedly demanded that the whole thing be cancelled. They demanded that it be cancelled and then they have the nerve to come here and say all these things about how the situation has developed as it has. That is double standards and staggering hypocrisy.
The Government will concentrate on making sure that we focus on our job of doing everything that we can to create jobs, investment and trade in and for Scotland. That is even more important now than ever before, given the fact that Ruth Davidson’s party is determined to take us out of the European Union against our will.
Again, the First Minister has not answered my question about what calls were made by ministers to try to save the deal. According to John Swinney, there have been no discussions between the First Minister or other ministers and the Chinese investors since May.
This Government loves to preach from its high horse, but it cannot face up to evidence of its own incompetence. Let me recap. The Government failed to tell us that a deal was signed, it did nothing to keep it going, it failed to tell us when it collapsed and it is all everybody else’s fault.
There is an important question here about what happens now. In 2012, the Scottish National Party published a strategy for engagement between Scotland and China to double the number of major Chinese investors here by 2017 and to position Scotland as a base for Chinese investment. If the Government wants to bring forward transparent, well-thought-out plans for Chinese inward investment, it can expect a fair hearing. Rather than blaming us, Brexit or the weather, will the First Minister remove the shroud of secrecy from such deals and be straight with the Scottish people?
Ruth Davidson is absolutely entitled to ask questions of this Government, but to talk about a “shroud of secrecy” when her party is refusing to publish the details of the commitments that have been given to Nissan is, frankly, double standards on stilts.
On how this Government will proceed, we will continue to try to attract investment from China and from other countries—from anywhere that wants to invest in Scotland with reasonable investment proposals. That is our job.
I will end this exchange where I started. I and the Government will reflect on lessons that we need to learn from the experience. That is important, and I accept responsibility for that. However, we have an Opposition that demanded the cancellation of the memorandum of understanding and had a hysterical, over-the-top reaction to the memorandum of understanding. Yes, I take responsibility for learning lessons, but I really think that the Opposition also has to reflect on its behaviour, which led to a political climate in which the partners felt that they could not proceed. Perhaps if we all do that, we might be in a better position in the future.
I associate myself and the Labour benches with the First Minister’s remarks on remembrance Sunday.
To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00462)
The Cabinet will next meet on Tuesday.
Today is equal pay day. From today until the end of the year, women are essentially working for free. Equal pay day comes just one day after the most experienced presidential candidate in American history—who just happened to be a woman—was defeated by the least qualified candidate ever. We still have so much to do to break the glass ceiling that women face.
Donald Trump’s behaviour towards women sends a danger signal across the world. What steps is the First Minister taking to make Scotland a fairer and safer place for women?
Kezia Dugdale is right to raise this issue. As I said yesterday, I regret the result of the United States election. It was not the outcome that I wanted, but I respect the verdict of the American people.
Hillary Clinton’s defeat yesterday perhaps tells us, among many other things, that we are not as far down the road to true gender equality as we hoped that we were, so we have a great deal of work still to do.
Kezia Dugdale raised the fact that today is equal pay day. This is the day that marks the point in the year after which, because of the pay gap, for every other day of this year women are effectively working for nothing.
In Scotland—this is the good news—we are making progress in closing the gender pay gap. It is at 6.2 per cent, which is still far too high, but it is lower than it was and it is lower than that across the United Kingdom as a whole, which stands right now at 9.4 per cent. We still have a long way to go.
The Equal Pay Act 1970 was passed in the year that I was born. It is an absolute scandal that we do not yet have equal pay in this country. We are doing a range of things, from funding close the gap to trying to deal with some of the underlying issues, for example by expanding childcare. We are also using the powers that we have to try to create greater transparency around pay. For example, we recently lowered the threshold at which public authorities publish their gender pay gap and equal pay statements from those with more than 150 workers to those with more than 20 workers. Those are some of the steps that we are taking; there are others, too.
Today is a good reminder, for all sorts of reasons, about equality. When it comes to the battle for true gender equality, much has been achieved but there is still much to do.
I agree. The reality is that, in January 2017, we will have a misogynist in the White House—a man who has boasted about assaulting women and used the most degrading language possible.
Today, we learn from the Educational Institute of Scotland about the unacceptable level of bullying in our schools, including the use of sexualised and derogatory language. That is happening right here in Scotland. What is more, 42 per cent of our teaching staff have witnessed homophobia and transphobia in Scottish schools. Does the First Minister agree that the figures are alarming? What action will the Government take to tackle bullying in our schools?
We have given a range of commitments to the time for inclusive education campaign; among others, we will continue to back efforts, stand behind efforts, and step up efforts to make clear that there is zero tolerance of bullying in our schools. That is particularly related, of course, to homophobic bullying.
However, I was very concerned to read the reports this morning that teachers think that, after the Brexit vote, there has been an increase in bullying. That is a reminder to us of the responsibility that we all carry to promote the principles of tolerance, respect and diversity.
There is a lot of debate, as there was in the aftermath of Brexit, about the reasons underlying the US election result yesterday. There is no doubt whatsoever that many people feel economically alienated. I was talking about that in relation to Brexit just this week. We all have a responsibility to oppose austerity and to address those issues. However, we must never allow those legitimate issues to give a veneer of respectability to racism, misogyny or intolerance generally. We all have a responsibility to do that now, perhaps more than ever before.
Of course, Donald Trump’s intolerance is not just aimed at women. We all remember the sickening sight of him mocking a disabled journalist. We cannot forget his plans to build a wall or to ban people of one particular faith from entering America.
However, I am sure that the First Minister would agree that Scotland is not free from that intolerance. We have seen reports of hate crimes against disabled people soaring by 300 per cent since 2010, and cases of Islamophobia have nearly doubled. The events of this week are distressing for those of us who believe in a society that is stronger together; who believe that we can achieve more working together than we can standing apart; and who believe that what unites us is far greater than what divides us.
Does the First Minister agree that co-operation and inclusion can still trump the politics of division and isolation?
Yes, I do. It was rather a sad irony that yesterday, as well as being the day that we found out the result of the US election, was also the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. That, as well as many other aspects of the election result, made us all very reflective.
I got some criticism yesterday for having expressed my view of who I wanted to win the US election, as indeed did Kezia Dugdale. However, during the campaign, I found so many of President-elect Trump’s comments to be deeply abhorrent and I never want to be—I am not ever prepared to be—a politician who maintains a diplomatic silence in the face of attitudes of racism, sexism, misogyny or intolerance of any kind.
It is important today that, first, we hope that President-elect Trump turns out to be a President who is very different from the kind of candidate that he was and that he reaches out to those who felt vilified by his campaign. However, people of progressive opinion the world over have to stand up for those values of tolerance and respect for diversity and difference.
There is more of an obligation on us now than there perhaps has been on our generation before. This is the time for all of us, no matter how difficult and no matter sometimes how controversial or unpopular it may be in certain quarters, to be beacons of hope for those values that we all hold so dear.
I have a constituency supplementary from Anas Sarwar.
Figures published this week by the Information Services Division show that more than 1,500 patients are trapped in hospital as delayed discharges, cleared to go home but unable to secure a care package. One of those patients is Janice Arundal. She is blind, has learning disabilities and will turn 59 on Christmas eve. Her clearly emotional and distressed brother David came to my surgery to explain that Janice has been in hospital since November 2015, having fallen and broken two bones in her neck.
Janice was cleared to leave hospital in April and became a delayed discharge. As of today, she has been waiting 209 days at the Glasgow royal infirmary. It should not take a question in Parliament to sort that, but sadly it seems that it does, despite the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport promising to eradicate delayed discharge. What can the First Minister say to Janice and her family, and to the other 1,500 patients and their families, about this scandalous situation?
That situation is completely unacceptable and I would never suggest otherwise. I would expect the local health board and the local council, which now work together in an integrated joint partnership, to rectify the situation without further delay. Obviously I do not know any more details of the case other than those that Anas Sarwar has just shared with us, but from what he said I find it completely unacceptable.
On the wider issue of delayed discharge—which is extremely important, principally because of the impact that it has on individuals but also because of its impact on the wider healthcare system—we have taken and continue to take a number of actions. I have talked about the integration of health and social care, which no previous Administration managed to bring about. We have done that and it is a step in the right direction. We are transferring resources from the acute health sector to integrated partnerships so that we can do more to build up social care services.
We are seeing progress in reducing delayed discharges. The number of bed days that are lost from delayed discharge has decreased over the past year, and the number of delayed discharges is on a downward trend, although I want that move downwards to be faster and more consistent. Those are real priorities for us, on which we are taking action to get the results that we want.
Anas Sarwar rightly reminded us that behind all the statistics that we cite in the chamber lie human beings. If he wants to pass on to the health secretary the details of the case that he mentioned, I will ensure that she liaises with the health board and the local council to ensure that action is taken.
To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-00435)
Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.
Minorities across America are frightened and people around the world are horrified by the election of President Trump. I agree with the First Minister that we all need to stand together for tolerance and compassion. What has happened shows that our democracy is precious and that scrutiny of Government is important, so I hope that the First Minister will not mind me asking questions—at the risk of being accused of hysteria—about the collapse of the Chinese deal.
The First Minister has criticised those who have previously asked questions about the deal. Organisations such as Amnesty International have concerns about one of the companies: the Chinese state-owned CR3. The First Minister said today that the deal is not dead yet. It has been a few months since the deal was signed. Has the First Minister carried out an investigation into the company’s human rights record yet?
Amnesty International rightly and responsibly raised concerns with the Scottish Government and we have responded to that, if my memory serves me correctly—I will certainly check that that is the case.
We take seriously concerns of that nature that are raised and we carry out proper investigations. The point that I made previously about the memorandum of understanding, and that I have already made again today, is that the memorandum itself did not commit us to any investment. Had there been any specific projects coming forward, full due diligence would rightly and properly have been carried out at that time.
I have said that the Government will reflect more widely on any lessons that we have to learn from the experience, and I hope that the Opposition will do so too. I am not trying to blame anybody—I am simply stating a fact. When something comes to an end because of a political climate, we all have to ask ourselves how that political climate came about.
There is an irony in Willie Rennie’s question, or at least in the preface to it, in which he talked about the collapse of the deal. Willie Rennie is the chief Opposition politician who has demanded that we cancel the deal ever since he first knew about it. We will continue to take forward exploration of investment and we will do so responsibly, learning the lessons from the experience that we consider are appropriate.
Of course I want the deal cancelled, because the Scottish Government had not even bothered to find out about the human rights record of the company in the first place. It is a dereliction of duty by the Government to so casually sign a memorandum of understanding with a company that it knows nothing about. What is the value of the First Minister’s signature if it can be so easily dismissed and binned after there has been no scrutiny?
The First Minister was incapable of answering my question. Has she done an investigation into the company’s human rights record? I suspect not—she has not even bothered.
Ruth Davidson was absolutely spot on when she said that the First Minister has blamed everybody else. This is an important point; it is about the performance of the Government with regard to human rights. Ruth Davidson was right to say that the First Minister has blamed everybody else in the chamber for the collapse of the deal, but she has not even bothered to pick up the phone. Why did she not even bother do to that? If it was that important, surely it was worth a phone call. Surely she is responsible for the collapse of the deal, and nobody else.
I am afraid that Willie Rennie has to make up his mind. Either he wanted the deal—to use his word—cancelled or he wanted me to pick up the phone to try to retrieve and rescue it. He cannot have it both ways.
Contrary to what Willie Rennie has said, those watching will have heard me say a number of times that I accept that there are lessons for the Government to learn, and we will reflect on and learn those lessons. However, when we have partners saying that they feel that they cannot proceed with investment because of the political climate created, we have the right to question who contributed to creating that political climate. That is what I am doing. We will learn the lessons. All that I am saying is that Opposition parties should perhaps also reflect.
There are a number of supplementaries, the first of which is from Gordon MacDonald.
The First Minister has rightly condemned the brutal Ministry of Defence cuts announced this week, which include the Redford barracks in the Colinton area of my constituency. She will also have noted that two Highland Tory MSPs chose to ignore the closure of Fort George in their questions on yesterday’s statement in Parliament. Unlike those Tory MSPs, will the First Minister confirm that her Government will fight not only for the Highlands but for all the areas affected by the base closures?
I was extremely angry when I heard about the United Kingdom Government’s proposals for the defence footprint in Scotland. I should say that the proposals were put forward with no consultation with the Scottish Government whatsoever, and if they go ahead they will represent a 20 per cent reduction in the defence footprint in Scotland. That is unacceptable. There are many communities, including those in the member’s constituency, that will be badly affected by those decisions, so it is right that we oppose them and seek to understand more about what the UK Government intends to do to compensate the communities involved, and that we stand side by side with communities. Those on the other side of the chamber may not always want to do that, but those on this side of the chamber will do so. The proposals represent a Government that always seems to be willing and able to find money to invest in Trident nuclear weapons but cannot find the investment to safeguard our conventional footprint here in Scotland. I think that those are the wrong decisions.
In response to a parliamentary question that I lodged, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, stated that Police Scotland has powers to move on unauthorised Traveller encampments where there are exceptional circumstances, including vandalism, antisocial behaviour and encampments of six or more caravans. However, Inspector Colin Taylor from Police Scotland in North East Scotland, the area that I represent, stated that there is nothing within the law that allows police simply to move on trespassers. From responses such as those, it is clear that the Scottish Government is saying one thing and that the police are saying another. On 21 September, I wrote to the First Minister on the issue and I am still waiting for a response. Can she please confirm now what steps the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that the police are aware of the powers that are available to them and feel comfortable enough to use them?
I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to write to the member to clarify the issue. Trespass is not a recognised law in Scotland. I do not know for sure, but that may be the reason behind the comments that the member has cited. It seems to me that the answer to which he referred was pretty clear, but I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to contact the member to answer any further questions that he has about the matter.
What is the First Minister’s reaction to the UK Government’s announcement of the long-awaited new bidding for its contract for difference scheme, supporting low-carbon projects?
The decision that was announced yesterday is deeply concerning. The UK Government, after a great deal of delay, announced its decision on contract for difference and there are two aspects of that announcement that are of extreme concern to Scotland.
First, there is what I can only describe as the betrayal of our island communities by not treating onshore wind developments in those communities as an unusual form of energy and therefore able to bid into the auction for the contract for difference. That is completely contrary to commitments that were given to our island communities. Secondly, not having a ring-fenced amount for marine technology in this contract for difference raises real concerns for world-leading projects such as MeyGen.
We will continue to liaise with the UK Government. Again, though, just like the basing review that we have been discussing, this announcement was made yesterday, when eyes were elsewhere, without any consultation with the Scottish Government. I do not think that that is the right way to proceed, particularly when these decisions have such an impact on our economy right across the country.
US Presidential Election
To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of the impact on Scotland of the outcome of the US presidential election. (S5F-00450)
While the outcome of the US presidential election is not the one that I had hoped for, it is the verdict of the American people. That said, I hope that the new President will reach out to those who felt marginalised and, often, vilified by his campaign. I hope that he makes clear that he will be a President for all of modern multicultural America and one who values the principles of tolerance, respect and diversity. The Scottish Government will continue to monitor developments during the transition period between now and January. We will fully assess the impact for Scotland once President-elect Trump forms the new Administration and its priorities are made clear.
On 19 November 1863, at Gettysburg, the founder of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, said that his nation was
“dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Does the First Minister agree that, although the US President-elect’s comments during the election barely connected with that proposition, he will have our support if he embraces, in his acts and his thoughts, Lincoln’s statement as a proper foundation of what can truly make America great again and a great friend of ours?
I agree with that. I was struck yesterday by comments made by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, when she said that she wanted to have a constructive engagement with the new President but one based on the values of respect for all, tolerance and diversity. I echo that sentiment. The relationship between Scotland and the United States of America is a strong one, which I believe will endure. As the elected First Minister of Scotland, I want to engage positively and constructively with the American Administration, but I will never, ever shy away from standing up for those important principles. I very much hope that we see a President Trump who is very different from the candidate Trump whom we have all witnessed and by whom many of us have been appalled in the past few months.
No doubt the First Minister will be urgently considering whether Mr Trump’s election represents a material change in circumstances.
Mr Trump has said that he will expedite a new trading relationship between a United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the United States. How will the First Minister ensure that that new potential trade, Scottish business and Scottish jobs are not prejudiced as a result of her direct intervention against the new White House, to which she has just referred, and her dismissal of the President-elect as a business ambassador for Scotland, to which role he had been appointed by her predecessor?
I am not sure whether anything that I have said about Donald Trump even comes close to some of the tweets about him from Ruth Davidson that I saw earlier, which I believe have now been deleted from her Twitter account.
Maybe I am misadvised about that.
What I have just said is important. The relationship between the United States and Scotland is a long-standing one and is based on ties of family, culture and business. I want those ties not just to continue but to be enhanced and to get even stronger. As First Minister, I want to engage with the next American Administration, just as we have engaged with the current one. However, I believe that it is important for all politicians, at this moment in our history, to stand up and be counted on important principles of tolerance, respect and diversity. I will not shy away from doing that. I hope that Donald Trump builds an Administration that is founded on those principles. If he does that, we can continue to ensure that that close relationship gets even closer in future.
Memorandum of Understanding
I fear that we may have been here before.
To ask the First Minister what lessons have been learnt following two Chinese companies withdrawing from a memorandum of understanding with the Scottish Government. (S5F-00452)
The purpose of the memorandum of understanding was to build relationships with a view to developing investment projects in Scotland. Although the partners made clear to us in August that moving forward at this time was not possible given the political climate, we remain committed to exploring investment partnerships with China and other countries. Securing jobs and investment is a key part of the job of this Government, particularly at a time when Brexit puts our economy at risk.
The Ernst & Young attractiveness survey shows that Scotland’s record in attracting foreign direct investment projects from China is not as good as that of the United Kingdom as a whole. China is in the top five origins for investment in the UK but does not even feature in Scotland’s top 10. Perhaps that is no surprise, given that we have just seen what the Chinese have dubbed “the Scottish shambles”. How will the Scottish Government improve its handling of deals with China so that we can see a greater level of Chinese investment in Scotland?
We will continue to work hard to attract more investment from China, as well as other countries.
It is interesting that Murdo Fraser chooses to cite the EY report, and I am glad that he has done so. Of course, unfortunately, he forgot to say that that report shows that, for many years now, Scotland has been the most successful part of the UK, outside of London, at attracting inward investment. That is something to be proud of. It demonstrates the success of the Government and our enterprise agencies in bringing investment and jobs into Scotland. That is what is now put at risk by the Tories’ obsession with taking us out of Europe and why it is so important that we continue to do the job that we are determined to do.
Temporary Accommodation (Children)
To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to reduce the number of children in temporary accommodation. (S5F-00470)
We know that the number of children who are in temporary accommodation has fallen since 2007, but it is still too high. Scotland’s strong homelessness rights mean that families are in temporary accommodation while they wait for appropriate permanent housing. We want the time that children spend in temporary accommodation to be as short as possible, which is why we will introduce a cap of one week for families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Of course, we are fully committed to the prevention of homelessness, and will deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes by the end of this parliamentary session, to ensure that vulnerable families have more housing options available to them.
The First Minister will know that, of the groups in temporary accommodation, households with children spend the longest time there—an average of 23 weeks. This Christmas, 591 more families with children will spend their time in temporary accommodation than was the case last year. Shelter has described that as “a scandal”. The figure seems to be on the rise; it does not seem to be decreasing. I am sure that the First Minister will agree that children’s health, education and wellbeing are affected by the issue.
Will the First Minister consider two further steps that she could take, in addition to what she has said today about the one-week cap for people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? First, she could consider strengthening the statutory duty in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014 that gives reasons why families should be housed as a matter of priority.
Secondly, I welcome what she said about her target of building 50,000 affordable homes, but could she consider ensuring that there are conditions on house builders with regard to the types of houses that will be built in association with that target? For example, if we build more pensioner houses, that would free up family accommodation to house desperate families who need urgent action from the Government.
I am happy to give further consideration to those suggestions, including the idea of amending the 2014 act. I agree with the second point, about the type of housing, but I point out to Pauline McNeill that it is already the responsibility of local partners, when they put together their strategic housing investment plans, to consider the range of housing that is required in their areas. That kind of planning already exists in the system and it is important that it is undertaken properly.
I agree with Pauline McNeill that we do not want any children living in temporary accommodation. The numbers have come down since 2007, although there has been a slight increase in the most recent year. Most temporary accommodation is in the social rented sector and is generally of high quality. I do not say that as any sort of excuse, but it is an important contextual point that should be pointed out. Nevertheless, it is not good for children to live in temporary accommodation, which is why it is important to reduce the cap to one week so that children get into settled accommodation as soon as possible.
Our underlying ambition to build more houses is a key part of the solution, and we will continue to ensure that we make the right decisions to ensure that we meet the target.
Given the UK’s callous cap on benefits and the prediction that thousands of children and families will be thrown into poverty, with the possibility that they will be unable to meet rental payments, does the First Minister foresee further pressures on temporary accommodation for children and families? If so, how will the Government cope with that?
Yes, I foresee such pressures. The issue worries me greatly. The increase in temporary accommodation might in part—although not exclusively—be down to benefit changes, to the extent that it results from more people suffering homelessness. It is therefore important that we have the right frameworks in place, including the right support frameworks with regard to the benefits system.
Some of the changes that have been made—for example, the reduction of the work allowance in universal credit and the transfer to public housing of arrangements on limits on the amount of housing benefit that can be claimed for private sector housing—are worrying and might well make the situation worse. That is why we will continue to put pressure on the UK Government not to do those things. Moreover, as we take more—though not enough—responsibility around some of the matters ourselves, we will try to ensure that we have the right systems in place.
Religious Observance (Schools)
To ask the First Minister whether optional religious observance in schools for 16 to 18-year-olds will support the values of a diverse and outward-looking Scotland. (S5F-00438)
Religious observance is a school community activity that offers opportunities for young people to reflect meaningfully on different points of view and values, including their own. It promotes critical thinking and helps young people to become aware of different ideas and beliefs about life. The values of a diverse and outward-looking Scotland are fully supported by that aspect of the school experience, and any decisions about a young person withdrawing from it should involve parents or carers and the young person, especially as that young person grows in maturity and understanding of their own learning.
Can the First Minister assure constituents of mine in West Scotland, as well as people beyond it, that within the parameters of any consultation or potentially amended guidance or legislation in respect of the matter, there will be no threat to faith schools and how they choose to deliver education?
Nothing in the consultation that has been announced is about faith schools, so I absolutely give that commitment. However, we are, as the member has indicated, considering a consultation on revising the guidance. That principally concerns the issue that has been raised by the Humanist Society Scotland, in a court action that has now sisted, about whether young people can, without the agreement of their parents, withdraw from religious education or observance. We are looking at that issue, and it is right for us to do so. After all, as young people get older, their responsibility for making such decisions clearly becomes enhanced. Of course, that position already exists in England and Wales. We are considering a consultation on that particularly narrow issue.