Election 2021

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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 11 December 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


General Election (Private Conversations)

1. Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con)

At the last general election, Nicola Sturgeon revealed that the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, had told her in a private conversation that she wanted to drop Labour’s opposition to a second independence referendum. On the eve of this election, would she like to share any private conversations that she is having with Jeremy Corbyn?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

None.

Jackson Carlaw

I am sorry—I did not hear. Was that a “no” or a “none”?

The First Minister

None.

Jackson Carlaw

I am not sure that that is credible, because I thought that the First Minister said in the chamber a few weeks ago that she had had conversations with Jeremy Corbyn.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Order, please.

Jackson Carlaw

Last night, Nicola Sturgeon said that she did not think that Labour’s spending plans are credible, yet still she is happy to hand Mr Corbyn the nation’s credit card, all because he will give her what she really craves—that second independence referendum. However, in a recent BBC “Breakfast” interview, the First Minister warned that, if she did not get the referendum that she is demanding, “all options” would be open. She even declined to rule out legal action. Will the First Minister clarify what she meant by “all options”? Seriously, would she sue her way to indyref2?

The First Minister

There is an easy solution to all the worries that Jackson Carlaw clearly has, and it is this: the Tories could just respect the will of the Scottish people and respect how the Scottish people vote. If the Scottish National Party wins the election tomorrow, perhaps that is the best advice for Jackson Carlaw.

However, let me tell Jackson Carlaw what my priority is tomorrow. It is to make sure that I do everything that I can to ensure that we do not wake up on Friday morning to a Boris Johnson Government, because a Tory Government will mean more cuts to our public services, rising child poverty and a hard Brexit. That is what a Tory Government will mean for Scotland, and the way to stop that happening is to vote SNP. The SNP is the main challenger to the Tories in Scotland, so if we want not to be waking up to Boris Johnson on Friday, vote SNP for a better, brighter future for Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

Hang on one second, Mr Carlaw. I encourage members not to indulge in direct electioneering such as encouraging—[Interruption.] No, no—I recognise that it is the day before the general election, and I recognise the topics that are going to be discussed. I am absolutely happy with that, but would members mind not ending questions or answers with calls to vote for one party or another? Thank you.

Jackson Carlaw

Yes. Thank you, Presiding Officer.

The First Minister has never respected the settled will of the people since the question on independence was put in 2014 so, to borrow the phrase that ministers are so fond of, it is a bit rich of her to start talking about others respecting election results, when she has refused to accept the result of any referendum to date.

After last night’s leaders’ debate, I had a message from a viewer, Kenny from Ayrshire, who said:

“Nicola Sturgeon says she wants me to make my voice heard, but what’s the point when she just ignores everything I have to say because it doesn’t suit her. I voted No to independence and so did most people in Scotland, but she just won’t leave it alone. Why is it she only listens to some folk but not others?”

Why is that? Why does the First Minister have a habit of listening only to those people who agree with her? Why do the voices of the more than 2 million Scots who voted no in 2014 not count with her?

The First Minister

I am genuinely surprised that Jackson Carlaw wants to raise the issue of the BBC leaders’ debate last night, because anybody who watched it would have seen him getting a roasting from an audience that was scunnered and disgusted by Tory austerity driving people into poverty.

Let me talk about the settled will of the Scottish people—the 62 per cent who voted to remain in the European Union. Jackson Carlaw used to believe in and argue for remaining in the European Union, as well, until, of course, he got his instructions from Boris Johnson. He is now a born-again Brexiteer.

The difference between me and Jackson Carlaw is that he thinks that it is okay for Boris Johnson to dictate Scotland’s future to the people of Scotland, whereas I think that it is for the people of Scotland to choose our future. The fact that the Tories do not want the people of Scotland to have that choice shows that they are running scared of the verdict of the Scottish people. I stand for choice. On Friday morning, we can wake up to the future of this country being in the hands of the Scottish people and not in the hands of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party.

Jackson Carlaw

The people of Scotland did choose. Nicola Sturgeon’s “Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland”, which she arranged to send to every household that requested it, said in writing that the vote was

“a once in a generation”

vote. She signed up to that commitment with her predecessor in the Edinburgh agreement. She has never respected or honoured the result of the referendum; she has simply ignored the majority and kept the issue in place, because that is all that she is interested in doing.

Let us cut to the chase. Is it not the case that people face a very stark choice tomorrow? They can support the SNP and, come Friday, see the First Minister hijacking every vote that was cast on Thursday as a mandate for a second independence referendum, which would take us back to more division and extended chaos next year, or they can choose a different option. They can choose the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party to stop indyref2 and let the country move on.

The First Minister

In 2014, people in Scotland voted no to independence because they were told that that was the way to protect Scotland’s membership of the European Union. Here we are, five years later, with Jackson Carlaw and the Tories trying to drag Scotland out of the EU against our will. In a democracy—I know that the Tories are not keen on democracy—people have the right to change their mind when circumstances change.

I agree with Jackson Carlaw that people face a stark choice tomorrow. The election is the most important of our lifetimes. Down one path, there is a future dictated to us by Boris Johnson and the Tories. We would be ripped out of Europe, child poverty would rise and there would be more cuts and austerity for our public services. Alternatively, the people of Scotland can vote SNP. A vote for the SNP is a vote to lock Boris Johnson out of Downing Street, to escape the mess of the Tory Brexit, and to put Scotland’s future into Scotland’s hands. That is the better, brighter option that I hope that people across Scotland will choose tomorrow.

The Presiding Officer

I urge members not to use the words “vote” or “choose”.


Primary Care

2. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Does the First Minister agree with her Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport that primary care is the “bedrock” of the health service?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, I do think that primary care is the bedrock of our health service. That, of course, is why the Scottish Government is taking action to invest more in primary care, and to invest a greater percentage of the health budget in primary care, in order to shift the balance away from acute and specialist healthcare and into the community.

Primary care is, of course, about much more than general practitioners, vital though they are. That is why we are promoting the multidisciplinary primary care team. There are big challenges for the health service, but it is really important work that we are determined to get on with.

Richard Leonard

An integral part of the new 2018 GP contract is “The National Code of Practice for GP Premises”, which recommends that health boards reduce pressure on doctors by providing them with premises.

However, last week, GPs from the Maryfield medical centre in Dundee contacted me. They have for almost two years been embroiled in protracted negotiations over the transfer of their lease to NHS Tayside. Even though the health board started to run services from the medical centre more than a year ago, and even though the building has been assessed as being fit for purpose, NHS Tayside is still demanding that the GPs pay more than £100,000 for work that even the landlord deems to be completely unnecessary.

The doctors have told us that up to a third of general practices in Tayside might be facing the same situation. They have petitioned the Scottish Government for support, but nothing has been done. Does the First Minister think that that is acceptable? Will she listen to the GPs? Will she act to support them? Will she intervene?

The First Minister

I am very happy to look into the specific issue that Richard Leonard has raised. I would have thought that lease negotiations would best be conducted between GPs and the heath board in question, but because Richard Leonard has raised the issue I will, of course, look into it.

We are investing heavily in supporting general practitioners and general practice. The number of GPs working in Scotland has risen. By 2021, we will have invested £50 million in our groundbreaking new GP premises sustainability loan scheme, which is aimed at securing general practice for the future. Practices are already being reimbursed with £41.5 million through the Primary Medical Services (Premises Development Grants, Improvement Grants and Premises Costs) Directions 2004. We support GPs and the premises in which they work.

As I said in my earlier answer, we want to support the multidisciplinary primary care team, which is why we are also supporting pharmacists and physiotherapists to work with GPs in order to ensure that people have the best care possible in the community.

I am happy to look into the particular case that Richard Leonard mentioned. However, generally speaking, the Scottish Government provides continued and growing support for GPs, who do a very difficult and challenging job.

Richard Leonard

The Maryfield medical centre wrote to me last week, at the same time as it wrote to the First Minister. The truth is that general practice and primary care are under immense pressure right across the country. The British Medical Association has warned that there are workload pressures and that there is a GP shortage. The truth is that Scotland is in the grip of a GP crisis; the very survival of GP surgeries is at stake.

Incredibly, the Government still has no accurate and up-to-date information, so it has no idea how many full-time equivalent GPs there are in Scotland. It has no accurate and up-to-date information, so it has no idea how long patients are waiting to see a GP, but we all know that they are waiting too long.

Patients who need a GP appointment are being let down. GPs such as those in Dundee who need the First Minister’s support are being let down. After 12 years of her Government, Scotland is being let down. When will the First Minister finally recognise that Scotland is facing a GP crisis and that GPs and patients need a Government that is on their side?

The First Minister

The most recent figures show that the number of GPs who are working in Scotland is 5,049, which is an increase on the previous year. Incidentally, there are significantly more GPs per head of population in Scotland than there are in England, and there are significantly more GPs per head of population in Scotland than there are in Wales, where the Labour Party is in Government.

Next year, we will double our primary care improvement fund from £55 million to £110 million specifically to help to accelerate the expansion of multidisciplinary teams. The most recent figures show that, since 2006, there has been a 17.3 per cent increase in the number of GP training places, and we are, as I said earlier, investing in GP premises.

Through all those and other things that I could talk about—including initiatives relating to rural recruitment and, of course, the new GP contract, which was supported heavily by the BMA—we are taking action to support GPs, and to ensure that they are at the heart of the jewel in the crown of the Scottish national health service, which is primary care.

Unlike Governments elsewhere in the UK—one of which is, of course, run by Labour—the Scottish Government is getting on with the job of facing up to the challenges in the NHS and bringing to bear the solutions that the people who work in our NHS and the patients who rely on it need. I had hoped that Labour would welcome that.


St John’s Hospital (Paediatric Service)

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

This week, a freedom of information response that I obtained revealed that more than 1,000 youngsters have been taken by ambulance to the Royal hospital for sick children here in Edinburgh from St John’s hospital in Livingston because of the closure of the children’s unit there. In October, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport pledged to reinstate the 24/7 paediatric service at the hospital, three years after the service was cut. That promise has been broken. Families across West Lothian feel completely failed by the Scottish National Party Government. Parents have asked me to ask the First Minister this question. When will the 24/7 service return?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

That service will return 24/7 when doing so is clinically safe. I would have thought that that was the priority for everyone.

Last month, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport met local parents, and NHS Lothian will continue to listen to suggestions on how to improve the service further and maximise out-patient activity.

Of course, the service is not closed, but children who are sick need to be cared for in the best possible place with the best-quality clinical care, which is exactly what the Government will continue to prioritise.


Cameron House Hotel Fire

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

The First Minister will be aware that 18 December marks the second anniversary of the tragic fire at Cameron House hotel. Two years on, Mrs Midgley, who lost a son in the fire, is still waiting for answers. She has not had a face-to-face meeting with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in more than seven months. Will the First Minister ensure that the Lord Advocate meets her? The investigation has concluded and reports have been received, so will the First Minster please ensure that decisions are made by the Crown Office without any further delay?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I take the opportunity again to convey my thoughts to the families who were bereaved in the Cameron House hotel fire. It is impossible for any of us to imagine what they are going through, particularly at this time of year, as we approach the anniversary.

I hope that Jackie Baillie can take this answer in the spirit in which it is intended. It is not appropriate for me to instruct the Lord Advocate, because he operates independent of ministers in investigation of deaths and in respect of potential criminal prosecutions. I will, of course, convey Jackie Baillie’s question and request to the Lord Advocate and ask him to respond directly to her, but the independence of the law officers in such matters is a very important part of our constitution, which I am sure all of us want to respect. I understand the legitimate desire of families to have their questions answered; I think that we all want to see that happening as soon as possible.


NHS Grampian (Funding)

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Some months ago, I was contacted by a constituent from near Peterhead. He told me that an elderly family member suffering from significant underlying medical conditions, which make him particularly vulnerable, was unable to get a general practitioner appointment for a flu vaccination for more than two months. The Scottish National Party’s failures have led to NHS Grampian having some of the worst waiting times, GP practices closing and many patients not getting vital vaccinations. Thanks to record national health service funding coming to Scotland from the United Kingdom Government, the SNP has the powers to end the underfunding of NHS Grampian. Will the First Minister show that she is serious about improving NHS Grampian by delivering the £165 million that The Press and Journal reports today it has missed out on?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

There is record investment in our NHS, notwithstanding the austerity cuts that the Conservative Westminster Government has imposed on us. The Conservatives do not like hearing this, but I remind them that, next year, the Scottish budget will be £1.5 billion lower in real terms than it was when the Conservatives took office at the start of the decade. Notwithstanding that, we are investing record sums in the national health service. Spending on the national health service in Scotland is £136 more per person than it is in England, where the Conservatives are in government, and we have record numbers of people working in our national health service. We will continue to make investments, deliver the reforms and get on with the job. I hope that, come the end of this week, we will not have a Conservative Government imposing yet more austerity on the Scottish budget.


Fossil Fuels

3. Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

This week, half a million people marched through Madrid during the 25th conference of the parties, or COP25, to demand climate action. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s plans for tackling the climate emergency have been rated “insufficient”. It is no wonder that Tories have been absent from climate debates during the election. However, there is a cosy consensus in the Scottish Parliament that also ignores the science. The science says that we must not use all the fossil fuels that we know about, let alone explore for more. Opening COP25, the United Nations secretary general called for the

“political will to stop subsidies for fossil fuels”

as the planet is close to

“the point of no return”.

Will the First Minister accept the science, as the progressive New Zealand Government has done, and recognise that fossil fuels need to stay in the ground?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Roseanna Cunningham, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, is at COP25 in Madrid right now, representing the Scottish Government and, of course, helping with the preparations for COP26, which will take place in Glasgow next year. The Scottish Government accepts the science. That is why we put forward and had passed in the Parliament the most ambitious climate change targets of any country in the world—not just the headline targets but what is included in our calculation of emissions.

I have made very clear that we are in a transition away from fossil fuels. That transition must accelerate, but we must make sure that it happens in a way that satisfies two things. First, it must not lead to an increase in our dependence on imports, which would increase, not decrease, our carbon footprint in the short term; and secondly, we must do it in a way that is just and fair, so that we do not leave people behind. That is why we have established the just transition commission. We will continue to take actions on this front. Seventy-five per cent of our electricity already comes from renewable sources and we now need to replicate that success in how we heat our homes, how we travel to work and in other ways.

I hope that the consensus in the Parliament is around the sometimes quite tough actions that we will have to take to meet those world-leading targets.

Alison Johnstone

The First Minister is fond of saying that the tap cannot be turned off overnight, and no one is suggesting that, but the just transition that she speaks about has to start now. Frankly, the evidence that it is happening is unavailable. The Scottish Government is not doing enough to reduce demand for fossil fuels. The First Minister could take her huge road expansion fund and put it into expanding public transport. Her Government could decide that it wants to properly insulate every home to eliminate fuel poverty. Instead, incredibly, since the Paris agreement oil and gas extraction is up in Scotland, transport emissions are up and the world-leading targets are being missed. Instead of kowtowing to the fossil fuel lobby, will the First Minister please get her act together before thousands march at COP26 in Glasgow?

The First Minister

The transition is under way. As I said, 75 per cent of our electricity already comes from renewable sources. The Scottish Government supports renewable energy, but some of that has been frustrated by the perverse decisions that UK Governments have taken, particularly around onshore wind and the continued obsession of the Tories—and Labour, I am sorry to say—with nuclear power. I point to energy efficiency schemes to help people insulate their homes; the new regulation that we have spoken about to put in place rules that say that, from 2024, houses should not have fossil fuel boilers but should have boilers using renewable sources; and the £500 million investment in bus infrastructure to encourage people out of their cars. We are ahead of the rest of the UK—I think that we are ahead of most of Europe—when it comes to a charging infrastructure to support the move to electric and low-emission vehicles. These things are already happening. Of course, we want them to accelerate, but perhaps the Greens should get involved in discussions about what is actually happening. I would certainly welcome that.


European Union Migrants

Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

Boris Johnson has said that, for too long, EU citizens have been

“able to treat the UK as though it is basically part of their own country”.

Does the First Minister agree that those comments are disgraceful, that migrants who have chosen to live in Scotland are welcome and that not only do we want them to stay, we want them to feel that Scotland is their home?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Boris Johnson’s dog-whistle anti-immigrant rhetoric is disgraceful. In my view, it is one of many reasons why he is not fit to hold the office of Prime Minister and I hope that on Friday he will not hold that office.

My view on this is very straightforward. It is one that I have expressed consistently and I am glad to have the opportunity to do so again today. If somebody comes here from another country in Europe or elsewhere, makes a contribution to Scotland and decides to make this country their home, they have every right to treat this country as their own, because it is their own—it is their home. They are welcome here, we appreciate and value the contribution that they make and we want them to stay.

I want Scotland always to be a country that is open, welcoming and inclusive. The Tories are a real and present danger to that, which is one of many reasons why we need to get rid of them.


National Health Service Waiting Times

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Patients who live with chronic pain conditions continue to face excruciating waiting times. Quarterly figures that were released yesterday confirm that the proportion of people who wait more than four months for their first appointment is increasing. Why is progress not being made? Will the First Minister apologise for that to the thousands of people who feel that their quality of life is suffering because they are stuck on national health service waiting lists just to get their first appointment?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Progress is being made through the waiting times improvement plan, which covers those who are waiting for appointments for chronic pain as well as for other conditions. To reduce the longest waits in our health service, £108 million has been invested so far this financial year out of the total of £850 million that is in the waiting times improvement plan. That is about increasing capacity to reduce waiting times right across the NHS. We will continue to work with NHS boards on the various actions that they are taking to remodel their services and build extra capacity, because that is the work that we need to do.


Newsquest Job Cuts

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

The First Minister will be aware of job cuts at Newsquest, where journalists have voted for strike action. She will be aware that that is just the latest challenge for Scottish print media, following a 44 per cent decline in circulation since 2006. Does she agree with me that a free press is a vital part of any democracy? Does she agree that journalists losing their jobs undermines the vital role that the media play in holding power to account? Does she agree that, at a political level, we need to explore what can be done to restore and sustain healthy and vibrant print media?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, I agree that having a free media is essential to the health of our democracy. It is always a matter of concern and regret when journalists lose their jobs and are made redundant. All politicians feel the discomfort of media scrutiny from time to time, but it is essential that journalists are there to hold us to account and ensure that that scrutiny on behalf of the public happens.

Some of the cuts that are happening at Newsquest in particular are deeply concerning. I will not comment too much on the vote for strike action, as that is for the workers there to decide, but I fully understand the sentiment.

Politicians always have to be careful about how we look to intervene or do anything that could be construed as interfering in the media. However, I think that all of us want to make sure that we are doing what we can to support not just a free and fair media but a vibrant and successful media in Scotland and in countries around the world.


Snares

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

I preface my question by declaring an interest as convener of the cross-party group on animal welfare.

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will ban the use of snares. (S5F-03782)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We have already led the way in the United Kingdom on regulation of the use of snares. We have by far the strongest laws on snaring in the UK. They require that snare operators be trained and registered with the police, and that snares carry a tag that identifies the operator. There are also requirements on keeping snaring records, types of snares and where snares can be placed. The use of illegal snares is a wildlife crime, and offenders will be pursued by the police.

Christine Grahame

Notwithstanding the regulations, the First Minister will be aware that the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, OneKind and the League Against Cruel Sports have graphic evidence of deer, badgers and even domestic cats being caught in snares. All those organisations have called for an outright ban, which I have supported all along.

Snaring is indiscriminate and cruel. Notwithstanding Scottish Natural Heritage’s review of the use of snares in 2016, if the First Minister cannot agree to an outright ban, will she support calls for an independent review of all traps that are used in Scotland, to be done by academics who specialise in animal welfare, who would be disinterested parties?

The First Minister

I thank Christine Grahame for raising the issue. I am aware of the images to which she refers, which are shocking and understandably distressing. I say to anyone who is concerned about the inappropriate use of snares that they should report it to the police.

We keep snaring under review; it is reviewed every five years under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I say clearly that we will not hesitate to take further action if there is evidence that the current regulation is being abused.

Snaring might well be an issue that the new animal welfare commission, which is currently being set up, will want to consider.

We want to encourage alternative approaches, such as the wildlife management approach that Forestry and Land Scotland takes, which was highlighted on “Countryfile” this week. That approach focuses on creating suitable habitats in which predator and prey can co-exist.

I understand and recognise the member’s concerns. The Government will continue to keep the matter under review and ensure that appropriate action is taken, including further regulation if necessary.

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

Scottish Labour has long supported the ban on snares and said that it should be made a legal ban. The practice is completely unacceptable and is a random form of animal management that, in many cases, represents deplorable animal cruelty. The matter is quite simple. It is not about when the system is being abused. When is snaring going to be banned. Will the Scottish Government move into the 21st century on this issue and implement a full ban on this barbaric practice, and if not, why not?

The First Minister

We keep this matter under review and will continue to do so. As I have said—this recognises some of the points made by Christine Grahame and Claudia Beamish—we already have the toughest regulation of any country in the UK, but we need to make sure that it is fit for purpose, and we will continue to review it and consult as necessary, if we think that further changes to legislation are required.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

As we have heard, snaring causes extreme suffering. A ban must be delivered now, but we also need more experts in the field to detect and report on illegal snaring and other wildlife crimes. Does the First Minister agree that it is time to empower the Scottish SPCA to investigate and tackle wildlife crime by giving them additional powers to those that they already have under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 in relation to domestic animals?

The First Minister

I am happy to consider the issue of more powers for the SSPCA. We have introduced the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, which will increase the maximum available penalties for domestic animal and wildlife offences. Those issues will come before the Parliament in any event, and I am happy to give consideration to the point that Mark Ruskell made.


Loneliness

5. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what assistance the Scottish Government is providing to public services and the third sector to address the issue of loneliness among older people over the festive period. (S5F-03792)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We know that loneliness can be felt at any time and at any stage of life, but, over the Christmas period, it can be particularly hard for older people.

The needs of older people are one of the priorities of our national strategy on social isolation and loneliness, which is supported with up to £1 million in funding. This year, we have provided £140,000 to Age Scotland’s helpline, which is a vital link for some older people. We have also committed £80,000 to the Befriending Networks.

However, we can all play a part. Christmas is a time for remembering that a simple act of kindness towards an older person, who may be lonely, could go a long way. Perhaps we should all reflect on that over the next couple of weeks.

Jamie Greene

I associate myself with some of the First Minister’s words. She will be aware of the research that found that, this year, over 100,000 people will sit down alone to Christmas dinner—a rise of 40,000 in just two years. One in four pensioners who live alone identify themselves as lonely, and the impact of that is well-documented and contributes to declining mental and physical health among our elderly population. Given that there is still a huge amount of stigma surrounding this subject, does the First Minister share the view of Age Scotland that tackling loneliness as a public health crisis should be a priority? Will she also join me in sharing the message that we all have a role to play in reaching out to those in our communities over the festive period, and that sometimes small gestures make all the difference to someone living on their own?

The First Minister

I very much agree that we should see this as a public health issue, and, as I said in my initial answer, we should all reflect on the role that each of us can play with small acts of kindness and caring for others, particularly older people, in our own families and communities.

A lot of good work is being done to raise awareness of this issue, including, for example, The Scotsman campaign encouraging readers to reach out and a new app that has been piloted to help loneliness in the Western Isles and Argyll and Bute.

We are also the first country so far in the United Kingdom to have a national strategy on social isolation and loneliness, which contains a lot of good suggestions about how we can take this work forward collectively.

Whether it is the Government or Parliament as a whole, working with the third sector and communities across the country, this is definitely an issue that we have to do more on, and there is an opportunity for us to send that message over the Christmas period.


Secondary School Subject Choices

6. Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to research suggesting that children in poorer areas have almost 10 per cent fewer choices of subjects in secondary schools than those in better-off areas. (S5F-03787)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Pupils should be able to choose their preferred subjects. When a subject cannot be offered in one school, there is flexibility to consider alternative approaches, such as travel to a nearby school, college or university. We know from the recent headteacher survey that that is happening, because 97 per cent of headteachers said that they are flexible in their approach and that they offer individualised timetables wherever that is possible. We are also already seeing progress toward closing the attainment gap at Scottish credit and qualifications framework levels 3, 4, 5 and 6; the gap in attainment between the most and the least deprived pupils reduced considerably between 2009-10 and 2017-18.

Daniel Johnson

The comprehensive principle means that pupils should have the same opportunities, regardless of the school that they go to or where they live. However, the research calls into question whether that is still a reality for young people in our poorest communities. At secondary 5, data shows that the average number of entries in the most deprived schools is 3.4 compared to 4.3 in the most affluent—that is a 20 per cent gap in choices between the richest and the poorest pupils who are taking their highers. In practical terms, that means that the brightest kids from the poorest neighbourhoods will find it harder to get on to the best university courses because the option of taking particular combinations of subjects to higher and advanced higher level is simply not open to them. The Government will regularly trot out the line that there are more options and more qualifications available, but what does that matter if young people do not have the opportunity to take them or if there are different options at different schools in different areas? Does the First Minister accept the author of the report’s conclusion that, in Scotland, the poorer someone is the fewer choices they get, or is the comprehensive principle simply no longer important to this Government?

The First Minister

No. I do not accept that, and I do not think that the evidence backs that up. As I said in my original answer, young people should be able to take their preferred subjects. There will be occasions when that cannot happen in their own school. That was the case when I was at school, and it meant that travel to a neighbouring school was occasionally required. However, it is not just about trotting out a line; there are more qualifications and there are more options available for young people today than has ever been the case. If all the credit and qualification framework levels are looked at—3,4,5 and 6—it can be seen that young people are leaving school with more qualifications and credits, and that the gap between the richest and poorest is closing. There is more work to be done, but progress is being made and we will continue to focus on accelerating it in the years to come.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

If the First Minister disagrees with the available evidence on subject choice inequality, will she instruct her education agency to assess the scale of the problem? Although the Education and Skills Committee has repeatedly asked it to do so, it has, for some reason, believed that that is not its responsibility.

The First Minister

As I am sure that Ross Greer is aware, that is part of the purpose of the senior phase review, which the Deputy First Minister has already instructed and which will progress over the coming months. It is important that young people have the choices that they want to have in terms of subject choice, but, as I said, the evidence on the numbers of qualifications and the gap in attainment in terms of qualifications suggests that, across the whole of the senior phase, young people are attaining and achieving more, and the focus of this Government is on ensuring that we continue to see that progress.


Climate Change

7. Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is working with international partners to tackle climate change. (S5F-03789)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Tackling the climate emergency is a priority for all of us, and is something that we all have a moral responsibility to do. However, it is not something that any one country can do on its own. That is why our partnerships with other countries and our work with them through organisations such as the Under2 Coalition are so important.

Over the past decade, the Scottish Government has played an important part in the United Nations international climate conferences, and, as I said a few moments ago, Roseanna Cunningham is currently in Madrid, preparing the ground for the 26th conference of the parties—COP26—in Glasgow.

We all want COP26 to be inclusive; we want all voices to be heard in a respectful and collaborative way, including the voices of the global south. We recognise that climate change disproportionately impacts poorer nations. That is why we established the climate justice fund—we were the first of any Government in the world to do so.

Angus MacDonald

We know that the only way that we can successfully tackle the global climate emergency is for all nations to work together. That said, in order for Scotland to meet the ambitious target to reach net zero by 2045, we need action from across the United Kingdom. Will the First Minister outline where the UK Government has, thus far, failed to step up?

The First Minister

We need the UK Government to take action. The Committee on Climate Change was very clear about the areas in which the UK Government needs to take action if Scotland is to meet its targets. Carbon capture and storage and accelerating the UK’s transition to electric and low-emission vehicles were two of the areas that it highlighted. I also want to see the UK Government give more support to onshore wind and drop the obsession with nuclear power. Those are just some examples of the actions that we need to see the UK Government take.

After this election, I hope that we have a UK Government that gives greater priority to tackling the climate emergency—not just to the setting of the targets but to the actions that have to be taken to meet those targets. It was deeply regrettable that Boris Johnson did not come to the leaders debate on those issues. That sends a rather poor signal of the level of priority that the UK Government gives to those issues.

There is no doubt that the Scottish Government will lead by example. We will seek to work with the UK Government and Governments across the world, in order to tackle the driving moral imperative of getting our emissions to net zero and tackling the climate emergency.