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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 11, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 11 May 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, International ME Awareness Day, Keeping Children Safe Online, Standing Orders (Rule Changes), Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Engagements

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-01239)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

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

Ruth Davidson

Today in Scotland, in a secondary 2 class of 30 pupils, on average five of them cannot write properly. That is double the number just four years ago. When the First Minister sees such statistics, does she feel embarrassed, ashamed, or both?

The First Minister

Actually, what I feel is utterly determined—determined to carry on with the changes that we are making in Scottish education so that we continue to see improvements in attainment and progress on closing the attainment gap.

Ruth Davidson points to the S2 performance in writing findings from the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy that was published this week. I am not going to try in any way to diminish the significance of those findings. However, it is important to say that the survey, which is a sample survey, measures S2 pupils against the standard that they are expected to reach in S3, and what we know now—from the much more comprehensive data that we are publishing through the national improvement framework, which we will continue to publish annually and which will become informed by the new standardised assessments—is that more than 80 per cent of pupils in S3 meet the standard that they are required to meet.

We will continue to take forward measures, guided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recommendations, such as our new attainment challenge, our new attainment fund—which, as the Deputy First Minister has just said, is directing resources to headteachers—and the new benchmarks for literacy and numeracy that have been put in place, backed by a range of targeted programmes, from the attainment challenge through to bookbug, the play, talk, read programme in the early years, the read, write, count programme in early primary and, of course, the reading challenge; and we will continue to take forward the new detailed measurement system through the national improvement framework, which will track progress not just by way of a sample survey, but by using data on every pupil in primary 1, 4 and 7 and in S3, broken down by local authority and school.

My answer to Ruth Davidson’s question is that I feel determined to continue to get on with those reforms to make improvements for pupils across our country.

Ruth Davidson

Ten years—and five out of every 30 pupils cannot write properly. We in Scotland like to pride ourselves on an education system that is the best in the world. After 10 years of the Scottish National Party Government, we can do so no longer.

Last week, I stood here and raised the fact that teacher training places are not being filled. Yesterday, we learned about the standard of that training. On the time that is spent on literacy, one trainee said that it is a single week: one week. Another said—I will quote her directly—that she and her fellow trainees do not have

“sufficient skills in numeracy to be able to teach it to 11-year-olds at a reasonable standard.”

We do not have enough trainee teachers coming through and the ones who are coming through are not being taught properly. That is not their fault, but if they are not getting the proper instruction, what chance do they have of teaching our children?

The First Minister

First, as I said last week, while we should not—and this Government does not—ignore the challenges that we face in Scottish education, equally we should not do a disservice to pupils and teachers across the country.

As I have just said, according to the comprehensive data that we publish, more than 80 per cent of pupils are meeting the required standards in writing. We are also seeing annual increases in the proportion of school leavers who are reaching national 5 level; we are seeing the gap between the richest and the poorest closing; and we have seen a record number of higher and advanced higher passes in the past few years.

I turn to the question of teacher education. On entry to initial teacher education, we have increased the intake as part of the work that we are doing to make sure that the required numbers of teachers are coming into our schools. On the content of teacher education, which is the substance of the question that Ruth Davidson asked and which was under discussion at the Education and Skills Committee this week, I will make a couple of points before I talk about the action that we have been taking.

First, it is universities, in partnership with the General Teaching Council for Scotland, that decide on the content and structure of initial teacher education. Here is a fact that Ruth Davidson will not like to hear because it says something good about Scottish education: the recently published edition of “The Complete University Guide” rated four Scottish universities in the top seven across the United Kingdom for teacher education.

We have recognised that we need to do more around teacher education, which is why—I am surprised that, from the content of her question, Ruth Davidson does not seem to know this—we committed, in the delivery plan that we published last year, to a review of Scotland’s initial teacher education courses. The report of that review will be published in the next few weeks.

On that aspect, as well as on the other issues, the situation is this: there is good performance across education in Scotland; there are areas where we have recognised that we need to do better; and this Government is getting on with the job of taking the action that will deliver those improvements.

Ruth Davidson

Here is a fact for the First Minister: bright young trainees are starting their careers in Scotland without the tools that they need to do the job. It is not me who is saying that—that is what they told the Parliament just yesterday.

As the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills acknowledged this week, we need inspections to flag up issues in our schools, but under the SNP the number of inspections has gone down. Why has it gone down? For one thing, we do not have enough inspectors; and the ones that we do have are being dragged off the job to sort out the complete mess that is curriculum for excellence.

Does that sound like a system that is in any way functioning properly?

The First Minister

In what Ruth Davidson just said about curriculum for excellence, she goes against not only what her party has said previously, but the judgment of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which did a review of curriculum for excellence. It said that it welcomed the reform, and it pointed out the areas where we had to improve further to deal with the challenges that we face.

What we have in education is good performance—and a range of international experts have said that; a number of challenges, not least the ones that the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy highlighted this week; and a programme of reform that is getting on with making the changes, backed by significant additional investment in our schools that is about delivering improvement. It is important that the Parliament scrutinises that on an on-going basis, but I, as First Minister, with the Deputy First Minister, am going to stay focused on taking forward that reform programme.

As I said last week, what we often find in the chamber is Opposition parties calling for us to make changes who, as soon as we make those changes and some people think that they might disagree with them, run for cover. This Government will continue to focus on making the reforms and making the changes that we think are required to drive the improvements that we are determined to seek.

Ruth Davidson

It is funny that the First Minister has talked about what a range of international experts have said about curriculum for excellence, because she did not actually say what they said, so let me read out what one of them, Professor Lindsay Paterson, said about it:

“CfE has ignored that need for deep knowledge, with the dismaying consequences that we now see.”

Every week we stand up here and we hear jargon about cross-curricular this and joined-up that, but it is not much help if we have children in our country who cannot add up, cannot write and cannot read.

Last week, the First Minister accused me of being obsessed with the constitution, but here is her record in this place: since last year, this Government has spent more time debating the constitution than debating education, health, transport and justice combined. We have had enough. After 10 years, do not the people of Scotland deserve a Government that, for once, will focus on their priorities and not on hers? [Applause.]

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Order. That is enough.

First Minister.

The First Minister

Let me share some of the views of the international experts who I was referring to. Page 13 of the OECD review of Scottish education states:

“The Curriculum for Excellence ... is an important reform to put in place a coherent 3-18 curriculum ... It rests on a very contemporary view of knowledge and skills and on widely-accepted tenets of what makes for powerful learning.”

The deputy director of the OECD directorate of education and skills states:

“We applaud Scotland for having the foresight and patience to put such an ambitious reform as Curriculum for Excellence in place”.

That is the support, and it is backed up by the International Council of Education Advisers, which said:

“We have been deeply impressed with the schools we have visited during our ... programme”.

We will continue to build on the strengths of Scottish education and to make sure that we drive the improvements through the action that I have been talking about: the attainment fund, putting £120 million into the hands of headteachers; the attainment challenge, driving improvements in literacy and numeracy; and the new national improvement framework, ensuring that we do not just have to rely on a sample survey, the SSLN, but have comprehensive data on every pupil in the relevant school years. We will continue to take forward that programme of reform.

Let me turn to the issue of priorities. First, when Ruth Davidson talks about the time spent in this chamber debating the constitution, what she is trying to distract attention from is the fact that that time has been spent debating the implications of Brexit and the disaster that the Tory party is leading this country into. Secondly, over the past week, the Scottish Tories have churned out press release after press release after press release. In all of those press releases, we have seen health mentioned once, education mentioned 12 times and me, the SNP or independence mentioned a grand total of 153 times. I will get on with the job of improving education, but I will take no lectures on priorities from Ruth Davidson or the Tories.


Engagements

2. Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-01249)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

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

Kezia Dugdale

Scotland’s nurses need a pay rise. Since 2010, they have seen a real-terms cut of £3,400 in their wages. Our national health service staff are underresourced and underpaid. The Labour Party will always argue for better wages because that means better performance. The reality of today’s NHS is that nurses are more likely to leave the profession because the work is not paying as well as it should, and the result is hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on agency staff. Why did the Scottish National Party vote against scrapping the pay cap last night?

The First Minister

The issue is really important not just for people who work in our NHS but for public sector workers generally. We have had a period of pay restraint, and the reasons for that were first the financial crash and then the long period of austerity, which was started under Labour and has continued under the Tories. No Government—and certainly not this Government—enjoys having such pay restraint, but the reason for it was to protect jobs in the public sector and protect investment in parts of the public sector such as our NHS. As I have said previously, we have more investment in our NHS today, under this Government, than we would have had if Labour had been in government, because it did not even pledge as much as we did.

We require to look carefully at pay now that inflation is rising again. Of course, the independent pay review body makes NHS pay recommendations, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport committed yesterday to working with the health unions to jointly commission work that we will submit to the pay review body for its deliberations for the next year.

We have taken action to make sure that we treat workers in our NHS as fairly as possible. Unlike Governments elsewhere in the United Kingdom, we have targeted low pay, we have always accepted the pay review body’s recommendations and we have made sure that people who work in our NHS are not denied the progression that they have sometimes been denied elsewhere.

As a result, while I do not deny for a second the pressure that people who work in our NHS are under, every entry-level NHS support staff worker in Scotland is paid over £1,000 a year more than their English counterparts, and nurses in Scotland at band 5, which is the level for a newly qualified nurse, are paid £300 a year more than those who do the same job in England and—crucially—£312 a year more than nurses who do the same job in Wales. Why do I mention Wales? Because Labour is in government in Wales, and it has not even done as much as we have done to protect nurses’ pay.

We will continue to work with our trade unions to get fairness for our nurses and for public sector workers.

Kezia Dugdale

In all that, there is no escaping the reality that, while nurses in Scotland might be £300 better off than nurses in England, under the First Minister’s Government they are £3,400 worse off than they should be.

The brutal reality of a decade of the SNP is complete and utter mismanagement of our NHS. Members should take a look at today’s Times newspaper, which reports that a £400 million contract for private doctors to work in our NHS went out to tender on 1 May. The brutal truth is that our hospitals have to turn to the private sector because they do not have enough doctors in the first place. Labour can reveal today that the number of consultant posts that have remained vacant for six months or more has increased sixfold since 2011.

That is the reality of the complete and utter mess that the First Minister has made of our NHS. Will she tell me why the SNP can find £400 million for private health companies but cannot find the money to pay our NHS nurses?

The First Minister

I will take no lessons on private sector involvement in our NHS from the Labour Party, which signed private finance initiative contracts in our NHS that continue to drain the budgets. The reality is that reliance on the private sector has reduced under this Government, and that is right and proper.

Let us go back to the important issue of pay, not just in the NHS but in the public sector. I absolutely understand why workers across our public sector think that the 1 per cent pay cap must now be lifted, and we will continue to talk to trade unions—I talked to civil service trade unions about this very issue earlier this week—and to ensure that the evidence that we submit to the NHS pay review body properly reflects the circumstances in the economy today. However, we have had pay restraint because we have had an extremely tight public spending environment and we have had to protect jobs in the public sector and investment in our NHS.

Another thing that Kezia Dugdale does not want us to mention is that in Scotland we have had a policy of no compulsory redundancies in the public sector. In the NHS south of the border, there have been 20,000 compulsory redundancies; there have been none in Scotland. I am not standing here saying that it is easy for anybody who works in our NHS, but we have taken action to target extra resources at low-paid people and make sure that people who work in our NHS get access to progression. Because of that, 60 per cent of agenda for change staff will be paid more than the 1 per cent uplift, when their progression and action on low pay are taken into account.

It is not at all fair of Kezia Dugdale to dismiss the fact that we have done more than any other Government in the United Kingdom to help public sector workers at this difficult time, and we will continue to do exactly that. The difference is that this Government stands on the side of public sector workers in the NHS and elsewhere.

Kezia Dugdale

Two things come from that. First, in all that answer, the First Minister is actually asking us to be grateful that she is not sacking nurses, because of her no compulsory redundancy policy. Secondly, there is a clear difference between our parties. I have a progressive plan to protect our public services and stop the cuts, whereas all that she has is a plan to see the private sector profit from Scotland’s sick. That is the reality.

A report in The Times today tells us that the amount of private money going into the NHS has doubled in the past two years alone under the First Minister’s watch. Let us look at the facts. Our hospitals do not have enough nurses, nurses do not have enough money in their pockets and our hospitals do not have enough doctors, but there is enough money for private health firms. Is that what the NHS looks like when the Government is more interested in running a referendum than running the NHS?

The First Minister

Let us look at private sector spend. Private sector spend in NHS Scotland fell last year; it represents 0.7 per cent of the total health resource budget. In comparison, in a trend that started under the previous Labour Government, the NHS in England spends 7.6 per cent of its budget on the private sector. We will continue to invest in the public NHS, not in the private sector.

Interestingly, one of the first things that I did when I was health secretary was scrap the private contract for the running of Stracathro hospital that the previous Labour Administration introduced. The problem for Labour is that all the things that it pontificates about in opposition are things that it failed to do when it had the opportunity in government.

I do not expect anybody who works in our public sector to be grateful to any Government, because I recognise that they are dealing with extremely tough times—that is particularly the case for people who work on the front line of the NHS. However, I would expect Opposition parties to recognise that, in these tough times, this Government has done more on public sector pay than any other Government across the UK. That is why agenda for change staff are paid more in Scotland than they are in England and why newly qualified nurses are paid more in Scotland than they are in England or in Labour-governed Wales.

We will continue to take the right action on our NHS, which means that we have record funding in our NHS and that we have record numbers of staff working in our NHS.

The Presiding Officer

I am conscious that we have taken a lot of time for our first two questions, which were on serious issues. A number of members wish to speak and there are a lot of questions. I ask all members to help us to make progress.

There are two constituency questions, the first of which is from John Finnie.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

North West Highlands geopark won its United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization status in 2015 after 10 years of hard work by the local community. That status, which is assessed every four years, is due to be assessed again in 2019. The Scottish Government has provided core funding to the geopark until now, but this year it decided not to provide that. The geopark launched a crowdfunder, which will close on Monday and has thus far raised only £12,767, which is 18 per cent of the total that is required.

Given the effort that went into achieving UNESCO status, it would be a disaster to lose that status. Will the First Minister have her officials examine options for providing the modest financial support that would allow the geopark to work to retain its UNESCO status?

The First Minister

I thank John Finnie for raising the issue. I am familiar with the geopark and its UNESCO status, which I agree is extremely important. As I recall, the Scottish Government provided initial core funding with a view to the geopark then becoming sustainable. However, I am happy to ask officials to look at the matter again and to consider whether the Scottish Government can do anything further to help. I will make sure that we report back to John Finnie once we have had the opportunity to do that.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Ardgowan bowling and tennis club in Greenock is a 175-year-old club that offers vital sporting facilities to the people of Inverclyde. Changes to water and sewerage charge exemption rules have left it facing a bill of up to £2,000 per annum, which it fears could drive up membership costs or even force it to close its doors. I am afraid that it is not the only club in that situation. What comfort can the First Minister give charities, clubs, village halls and sporting groups across Scotland that the Government will look seriously at such charges? Will she commit to a full and open review of the policy?

The First Minister

It is not too long since we had a full review of charities’ exemptions from water rates. I remember it well because I was the minister in charge of taking forward the recommendations from it. We put in place a system that is as fair as possible to as many charities across the country as possible. The tests for exemptions are based on charities’ incomes and the capital that they hold. Therefore, there will always be some charitable organisations that do not get exemptions because their income or capital is above the threshold.

I am more than happy to have the relevant minister look at the organisation that Jamie Greene cited—I am looking in the wrong direction, because that minister is Roseanna Cunningham, who is sitting on my right—to make sure that the rules are being applied appropriately. The genuine point is that I think that all members recognise that, in any system of exemptions, there will always be some organisations that do not qualify. I know that that is difficult for organisations that are in that position. I will ask Roseanna Cunningham to look at the case that has been mentioned and report back to the member in due course.


Cabinet (Meetings)

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

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-01241)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.

Willie Rennie

We have heard yet again about the poor statistics on education. The mother of a 15-year-old schoolboy told me yesterday that she is worried that her son could be one of those statistics because he is struggling with reading and writing. She is anxious about his future and she is angry with the Scottish National Party, which has been in charge for the whole of her son’s education. What does the First Minister have to say to that mother and her son?

The First Minister

I am concerned to learn of any parent anywhere in the country who has concerns of that nature about their child’s education. I state again how seriously this Government and I take the challenges that we face in education. I will not repeat—as I did in my answer to Ruth Davidson—all the strengths of Scottish education, but it is unfair to teachers working hard across the country not to recognise those strengths and some of the real improvements that we are making. I did not mention earlier the improvements in the attainment of pupils with additional support needs. It is because we recognise some of the challenges that we are taking the action that we are taking.

I do not know what school the child whose parent Willie Rennie quoted goes to, but it is likely that the headteacher of that school has in his or her own hands significant additional resources to invest in the specific areas that they think are required to improve attainment. We are determined to continue to drive forward exactly that kind of action.

I say to Willie Rennie that many of the reforms that we are taking forward are reforms that he opposes. It is absolutely right that members bring concerns to the chamber, but we have to be prepared to do the difficult things that are required to bring the improvements that we all want to see.

Willie Rennie

I am afraid that that answer was just more promises to improve school education at some point in the future. That will not help that schoolboy now. He could be part of a lost generation. He has been at school for a decade, on every day of which the SNP education secretaries have been in charge, and they still sit around the Cabinet table today. They are the education secretaries who rejected a pupil premium for six years, even though it raised attainment in England; delayed nursery education for two-year-olds; rejected a penny on income tax for education; and cut thousands of places from our colleges.

When the First Minister and her ministers have got it so wrong for years, why on earth should that mother and her 15-year-old son ever trust them again?

The First Minister

First, these are important issues and important challenges that we have to face, but I say to Willie Rennie that it does a real disservice to the young people of our country to use language such as “lost generation”. I think that is pretty disgraceful.

Secondly, Willie Rennie talks about investments that he thinks that we should have made years ago. I simply remind him that those years gone past are exactly the years when the Liberal Democrats were in a Westminster coalition with the Tories, cutting Scotland’s budget year after year.

The last point that I want to make is the most important. Willie Rennie asks what the things that I have talked about will do for the young man and the parent he talked about. The money that I talked about is in the hands of those headteachers right now. I have spoken to headteachers in my constituency who are already talking about the initiatives that they are taking forward with that investment. The additional investment directly to headteachers, the additional investment elsewhere, in our attainment fund, and the measures that we are taking forward to ensure that we can track the progress that has been made through those measures are important, but Willie Rennie repeatedly stands up in this chamber and opposes the things that we are trying to do to ensure that we can deliver those improvements and can be accountable to every parent across this country as well as to the chamber.

We will get on with doing the things that need to be done, even when they are difficult and do not get the support of the Liberal Democrats.

The Presiding Officer

I would like to squeeze in a few topical supplementary questions. The first is from Annie Wells.

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

Last night, BBC Scotland broadcast a shocking documentary on the human trafficking trade. It provided clear evidence that young girls are being trafficked from Slovakia to Govanhill in Glasgow, where they are forced into sham marriages to local men. That is a scandal and a human tragedy that is going on right under our noses right now. Can the First Minister set out what her Government will do to support girls who arrive here in such appalling circumstances, and what measures can be taken to cut down on traffickers who indulge in this evil trade?

The First Minister

This is an extremely important issue. As Annie Wells rightly says, human trafficking is a terrible crime, and it is also a global problem. It is important that we take robust steps to tackle it by cracking down on the crimes that are being committed and, as Annie Wells says, by ensuring that we support the victims.

With regard to tackling the crime, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 gives police and prosecutors enhanced powers to detect and prosecute those who are responsible for human trafficking. Police Scotland also uses joint investigation teams that are established under European law to work with Romanian and Slovakian police in this area. It is vital that Police Scotland continues to work closely with United Kingdom immigration services, Europol and other nations’ police forces in order to investigate human trafficking offences and bring those responsible to justice. We will continue to make sure that our police force has the power and resources to tackle what are evil crimes against those individuals.

The second point concerns how we support victims of human trafficking. We continue to support the invaluable work of organisations that offer assistance to victims. In 2017-18, the Government will provide grant funding of £800,000 to specific organisations that support adult victims of human trafficking, and that is an increase on previous funding. It will also continue to work with them to improve the support available to prevent retrafficking. There is a whole range of work—I do not have time to go into all of it, but I will be happy to write to Annie Wells with more detail of the work that we are doing.

We should all agree that the crime of human trafficking is evil. We have to bring those responsible to justice, but also provide the support that victims need. The Government will continue to focus on doing exactly that.

Richard Lochhead (Moray) (SNP)

The First Minister may be aware that there is huge disappointment and some shock following the decision by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service after a prolonged police investigation—and I am told, nine separate court hearings—to drop the case relating to the alleged illegal killing of a hen harrier in the Cabrach in my constituency in 2013.

The Crown Office appears to have taken the view that the video footage supplied by the RSPB Scotland was inadmissible, despite such evidence being accepted in the past.

Notwithstanding the progress that has been made by ministers in recent years to tackle wildlife crime, will the First Minister acknowledge that that case represents a serious crime against a threatened species? Given that wildlife crime is very difficult to detect, because most often it takes place in remote areas, will she acknowledge that the law and the approach of the Crown Office must take into account such factors?

I ask the First Minister whether she would be willing to investigate this case, with a view to ensuring that the justice system does not miss any opportunity to hold to account those who illegally kill our endangered species?

The First Minister

I agree with Richard Lochhead. As he well understands, decisions about the prosecution of crime are, of course, decisions for the Crown Office and in that respect law officers act independently of ministers. However, it is important that we take wildlife crime very seriously indeed, particularly in cases where, as Richard Lochhead has highlighted, it threatens a threatened species. I will be happy to ask the relevant minister, Roseanna Cunningham, to meet with Richard Lochhead to look at what more we can do, particularly taking into account his point about those crimes often taking place in remote areas and, therefore, being more difficult to detect.

It is important that we make sure that the policy framework, the law around this and the decisions that are taken by the Crown Office in respect of prosecutions—although, as I say, it is independent of ministers—do everything possible to crack down on those kinds of crime. I assure Richard Lochhead that we will continue to do everything that we can to make sure that that is the case.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

College lecturers have been forced out on strike for the fourth day in the current dispute, impacting on them and their families and on their students’ education and exams. For how many days will lecturers need to strike before the First Minister intervenes to ensure that the pay deal is honoured? Does she agree with me that preparation time is essential in order to enable high-quality learning?

The First Minister

Yes, I agree with that last point. I want to see this dispute settled. I do not want to see college lecturers on strike; it is not in their interest and it is certainly not in the interest of college students across the country.

As members will be aware—I will not go into all the detail of this—we have moved to a position of national bargaining and those discussions are about the harmonisation not just of pay but of terms and conditions, moving to a new national pay scale that will see a significant pay rise for the vast majority of college lecturers. That is agreed. The discussions now are about how different college-by-college terms and conditions are replaced with a national system. Talks continue, and I encourage both sides, including—and perhaps especially—the employers, given their position, to go the extra mile to reach an agreement.

I take the point about Government intervention very seriously, because ministers have spoken regularly with both sides in the dispute to try to make sure that we are doing everything to encourage them to move towards a resolution. The move to national bargaining was, rightly, long campaigned for by the unions and I am delighted that this Government delivered it. If we have a situation where, in order to resolve a dispute, a Government has to step in and intervene, that is not the success of national bargaining, that would be the failure of national bargaining. Ministers will continue to discuss with both sides. We will do everything that we can to bring the dispute to a settlement. Talks are on-going formally and informally, today, I think, and certainly tomorrow, and I hope that we will see a resolution of this. That is in the interests of college lecturers and also college students. I hope that reassures the member that the Government will continue to make sure that it is doing everything possible to bring that about.

The Presiding Officer

We have four more questions; perhaps we can get through them all.


Mental Health Awareness Week

4. Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

Before I ask my question, I refer members to my entry in the register of interests.

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is marking mental health awareness week. (S5F-01257)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I welcome the opportunity to highlight mental health awareness week. It is important that we all do what we can to raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental health.

To mark the week, the Minister for Mental Health met parents of children with experience of mental health services in Forth Valley, and last night she spoke at an event to discuss mental health stigma in the workplace.

We will hold the first meeting of a biannual stakeholder forum on 23 June. That is a specific commitment in our new mental health strategy, because we know that working with stakeholders will be key to building on the strategy’s actions in the years ahead.

Clare Haughey

One of the most important actions that are outlined in the recent mental health strategy is a commitment to introduce a managed clinical network for perinatal mental health. Will the First Minister outline how the network is being progressed and how it will help mothers who experience mental health problems?

The First Minister

Progress is being made in that regard. Indeed, I am happy to confirm that, just this week, the lead clinician for the managed clinical network for perinatal mental health was successfully appointed.

On Monday, Scottish Government officials attended the Maternal Mental Health Scotland annual conference and heard at first hand mothers’ experiences in asking for, and getting, the right help. I expect the new network to help us to get it right for parents and their children by driving up standards of care through integration of services and more collaboration.


Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Grangemouth)

5. Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government has had discussions with SEPA to encourage it to have staff based in Grangemouth on a regular basis. (S5F-01266)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Scottish Government is in regular contact with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to support its delivery of regulatory and other services, as well as the management of the SEPA estate.

SEPA staff are regularly present in Grangemouth as part of their duties to deliver regulatory functions. I understand that, following discussion with the community council and local elected members, SEPA has agreed to consider the benefits and costs of establishing a Grangemouth site that can support the wider Stirling-based area team.

Alison Harris

I welcome the fact that SEPA is going to have those discussions on Grangemouth.

The Presiding Officer

First Minister? That does not really require an answer, so we will move on.


Planning Authorities (Resources)

6. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to better resource planning authorities, in light of an increase in planning fees for major applications from 1 June 2017. (S5F-01264)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We need a planning system that supports both businesses and communities to deliver high-quality development on the ground. There has been a general understanding that fee levels are too low and that, in many instances, they are not in proportion to the work that is involved in processing planning applications.

We have always been clear that fees and performance go hand in hand. Therefore, we are increasing the maximum fee for major planning applications to provide further resources to councils to improve performance. The Government will continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure that planning services deliver for Scotland’s communities.

Pauline McNeill

The First Minister will be aware that, under the national review of planning fees that she mentioned, maximum fees have risen from £30,000 to £125,000. That is a welcome resource for local authorities. Many planning authorities have done an excellent job, despite cuts to personnel.

Organisations such as Homes for Scotland, the Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland and smaller building firms want to ensure that there is a corresponding improvement in the service that those fees pay for. Does the First Minister recognise that the fees could be prohibitive if there is not a dramatic improvement in waiting times? In particular, the house building figures show an average wait of 48 weeks.

I know that the Government has a strong interest in the issue, and that it plans to build 50,000 houses. What can the First Minister do to ensure that the additional fees are spent on improving the planning system itself?

The First Minister

I will make two quick points. First—it is important to stress this point—the increase in the maximum fee only applies to major applications, which account for less than 1 per cent of all applications. Therefore, it would not impact on our plans to deliver 50,000 affordable homes.

The second point is important, too. The fee increase is deliberately designed to give councils resources to improve performance. Improving planning performance and doing it on a consistent basis across the country is one of the things that we can do to boost economic growth in Scotland, so it is vital that the increases lead to that improvement in performance.

We are seeing improvements such as reductions in waiting times, but more can be done. I hope that the fee increase, together with the actions that we will take from our wider review of planning, will very much help with that in the period ahead.


Election Ballot Papers

7. Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister, in light of the local government elections, whether the Scottish Government will act to randomise the ordering of candidates by surname on ballot papers at future elections. (S5F-01244)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As someone whose surname starts with an S, I can see the attraction in it.

I want to begin by congratulating all the councillors who were elected last week. I am sure that everyone across the chamber will join me in wishing them well in their roles to support our local communities.

Following last week’s successful electronic count, randomised ordering of candidates’ surnames is one of the innovations that the Scottish Government will consider for future local government elections. I should say that no decisions have been taken, but it is one of the changes that will be subject to consideration.

Kenneth Gibson

As the Scottish National Party randomises its own internal SNP ballot, it seems only reasonable for the SNP Government to introduce such a measure in local elections. The single transferable voting system produces results that are heavily biased in relation to surnames, regardless of the vote management strategies that parties use to try to steer voters from one candidate to a party colleague. In 40 of the 43 contests in Glasgow in which two or more candidates from the same party stood, the individual in each party whose surname was closest to the beginning of the alphabet received the highest number of their party’s votes. Glasgow City Council is thus populated by a wheen of Aitkens, Balfours, Cullens and Dochertys.

Does the First Minister agree that after three elections fought under the single transferable voting system there is clearly something wrong when one’s surname can prove such a decisive factor in whether one is elected? Furthermore, does she agree that if the issue is not addressed, the very credibility of the single transferable voting system is at stake?

The First Minister

That has to count as a classic Kenny Gibson question. Before I address the substance of it, I want to say that I am absolutely delighted that an Aitken was elected in Glasgow and that Councillor Susan Aitken is set to be the new SNP leader of Glasgow City Council.

On what is a serious issue, I think that we would all agree that it is important that no candidate in any election is at an unfair disadvantage, and that is why we have already said that we will examine the particular issue that Kenny Gibson has raised. However, it is also important that we build consensus around any change to how we hold elections, because it is not for any one party to decide such things. As we consider the matter over the next few years, we will look carefully at opinion not just across the parties but across civic Scotland, and I encourage everyone not just in the chamber but across Scotland to contribute to our consideration so that we can build maximum consensus as we move forward.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you very much. That concludes First Minister’s question time.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. With regard to the selection of questions for First Minister’s question time, I note that every week question 3 is allocated as an open question to a leader of an Opposition party in order to hold the Scottish Government to account. Given that the Scottish Green Party is now, in effect, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Scottish National Party, is it still appropriate for the Green Party leader to be granted an Opposition question in that manner? [Laughter.]

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Fraser. I think that the chamber’s reaction tells you that that is a political point, not a point of order.