Meeting date: Thursday, June 13, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 13 June 2019
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Environment Day 2019, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Disclosure (Scotland) Bill, Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Wild Animals in Circuses (No 2) Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- World Environment Day 2019
- Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Disclosure (Scotland) Bill
- Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Wild Animals in Circuses (No 2) Bill
- Point of Order
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Education (Subject Choice)
Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills took issue with our raising questions about Scottish education in the chamber, so I would like to return to the matter. Recently, Mr Swinney claimed that there has been no narrowing of subject choice for senior pupils in Scotland. Indeed, he said that choice is “blossoming” and that the range of options that are available to young people is “colossal”. Where is the evidence for that?
Perhaps I could quote Ruth Davidson’s education spokesperson, Liz Smith, who, a couple of weeks ago, in the relevant committee, said that there is “more choice” for young people. So, there is some evidence. However, I think that the best evidence of how our education system is performing is the results that our young people are achieving. Whether we look at level 5 qualifications, level 6 qualifications, the number of young people who are getting more than five highers or the narrowing of the attainment gap, we find improvement on all those measures.
That takes me to the flaw in Ruth Davidson’s argument. She wants to tell people that there is something terribly wrong in our education system. Unfortunately, the pupils of Scotland are proving her wrong by doing better each and every year.
The First Minister talks about the number of qualifications that are being gained, but what she does not say is that the number of A to C grades has dropped by 3 per cent on her watch.
We asked for the evidence on subject choice, and here is what we found. We got results from every school in Scotland, setting out the average number of qualifications that have been taken by pupils in secondary 4 over the past few years—not just national 4 and 5, but every qualification that has been taken. In 2013, when curriculum for excellence was introduced, there were 308 secondary schools in which pupils took an average of seven or more qualifications in S4. By 2018, that figure had fallen to just 182—a drop of more than 40 per cent. By contrast, the number of schools where pupils took six subjects or fewer went up from just 46 in 2013 to 165.
To go back to the education secretary’s comments, does that sound like “blossoming” choice to the First Minister?
As we have discussed many times in the chamber, it is not simply a matter of the qualifications that young people take in S4. What matters is the qualifications that young people leave school with—the qualifications that they take over the entirety of the senior phase of education. The head of education in Tory-led Aberdeenshire Council has said:
“Young people mature at different rates, and having qualifications available to them over a three-year period gives much greater flexibility and allows them to learn at a stage when they are ready.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 15 May 2019; c 3.]
It is the entirety of the senior phase that matters.
Here are the facts. At level 5 and level 6, we see the percentage of pupils getting qualifications increasing. In 2009, 22 per cent of young people left school with five highers or more, and that figure is now more than 30 per cent. Further, we are seeing the attainment gap narrow.
I come back to this fundamental point: the evidence does not bear out Ruth Davidson’s analysis. The evidence is of an education system that is improving and young people who are doing better.
To be fair, I did not expect a completely impartial answer from the First Minister, so, in anticipation, we decided to seek one out. We put all our findings to Professor Jim Scott, the former headteacher who has probably spent more time than anyone examining changes in subject choice in Scotland. He says that the data confirms that, since the introduction of curriculum for excellence,
“just over 200 schools have declines, or significant declines, in the number of entries (for SQA qualifications) whereas just over fifty demonstrate an increase.”
Does the First Minister accept that, or is that just part of some great moanfest conspiracy, too?
Much of the analysis that Professor Scott has done has looked at qualifications at S4, but the fundamental point that we are making is that, although that is, of course, important, what is more important is the qualifications that young people leave school with, and we are seeing more young people leave school with more qualifications. We are also seeing the gap between the richest and the poorest narrow. A report this week from our commissioner for fair access says that we are making significant progress in narrowing the attainment gap in terms of young people going on to university. Further, we have a record number of young people going into positive destinations overall.
We will continue to work hard to make progress in education. No matter how much Ruth Davidson wants to talk down the performance of Scottish education, the facts are, quite frankly, proving her wrong.
If we are going to improve education in this country, we need to accept information and evidence, whether on combined classes or on subject choice being restricted, and the First Minister and the education secretary need to listen. The issue is not just down to schools exercising choice; it is down to schools not having enough teachers or support to provide full choice. Children from disadvantaged areas are suffering the most, because they are still the ones who are most likely to leave school at the end of S4.
The Parliament is already conducting an inquiry into the matter. Will the First Minister and her education secretary spend a bit less time attacking the messengers and a bit more time listening to the evidence that they come forward with?
We will continue to spend time looking at the evidence. Ruth Davidson never quite manages to respond to the actual evidence, so let me set it out for her again. When this Government took office, just over 70 per cent of young people left school with a level 5 qualification. The figure is now 86 per cent. When we took office, just over 41 per cent of young people left school with a level 6 qualification, and now it is 62 per cent. In 2009, 22 per cent of young people left school with five highers or more, and the figure is now more than 30 per cent. We are also seeing the gap in attainment narrowing. Those are the facts, but Ruth Davidson does not like them because they do not suit her.
On teacher numbers, there are more teachers in our schools now than at any time since 2010. There are more primary school teachers in our schools than at any time since I was at primary school. Ruth Davidson has a bit of a cheek to talk about the number of teachers in our schools when she is the leader of the austerity party in Scotland and the leader of the party that would give tax cuts to the richest and take money out of our education system.
We will get on with the job of improving education, and we will leave Ruth Davidson to defend whichever latest Tory ends up imposing austerity on Scotland.
This week, our pensioners faced a direct attack on their living standards when the BBC announced its plans to scrap universally free television licences for the over-75s. The Scottish Pensioners Forum said that the decision is
“potentially plunging older people into a solitary existence with no means of contact with the outside world.”
It is right. Will the First Minister add her name to a letter that I am circulating today to all party leaders in the Parliament, which calls on Theresa May—in one of her final acts as the Prime Minister—to take back responsibility, honour her 2017 manifesto pledge and reverse the decision, because our pensioners deserve so much better?
I am very happy to look at any letter that Richard Leonard wants to send me, but I understand that the Scottish Government has already written to the United Kingdom Government on the matter and has made clear our position. We have not waited until today; we have got on and done it, but we will consider any proposed cross-party action.
I oppose the decision that has been taken by the BBC. As Richard Leonard alluded, the BBC has been left to take the decision but the responsibility for the decision lies fairly and squarely with the Tory Government at Westminster. Let all of us in the chamber—I challenge the Scottish Tories to do so as well—stand up and back the continuation of free TV licences for all pensioners not just in Scotland but across the UK.
Our pensioners suffered another blow this week when the Scottish Government voted to slow down and water down its plan to end fuel poverty. Back in 2008, when addressing the Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon said:
“I reiterate the Scottish Government’s continued commitment to tackling fuel poverty and to meeting the 2016 target, which is to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that no one is living in fuel poverty by 2016.”—[Official Report, 19 November 2008; c 12483.]
However, instead of eradicating fuel poverty by 2016, the First Minister now wants to eradicate it by 2040. Instead of having a definition of vulnerability that extends to all pensioners, the Scottish Government has now excluded everybody below the age of 75, even though life expectancy in Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities is less than 75. When will all of Scotland’s pensioners finally be lifted out of fuel poverty?
I am confused. This week, Labour voted for the Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill. It is strange that Richard Leonard now seems to oppose it.
The latest figures, which were published in December last year, show fuel poverty in Scotland at the lowest recorded rate since 2005. However, we all have work to do, which is why we passed that legislation. The Scottish Government is among only a handful of European Governments to define fuel poverty, let alone to set standards related to its eradication, and we will continue to work to eradicate fuel poverty. The targets that we set this week will focus us on doing that. I hope that we will have the support of Scottish Labour not just in passing legislation on the targets but in taking the action that will make sure that we meet those targets.
These are the facts: pensioner poverty is up; free TV licences are under attack; care and support needs are unmet; life expectancy is falling; and the promise to end fuel poverty is broken. The way that we treat our elderly citizens is a mark of the kind of society that we are. They are people who have contributed all their working lives. Many of them are still contributing today, as unpaid carers, yet too many of them are forced to choose between heating and eating.
The First Minister’s target date for ending fuel poverty was 2016; now, it is 2040. Does the First Minister appreciate the anger that will be felt by pensioners when they realise not just what the Tories are doing this week, but what the Scottish Government has done this week?
We will continue to be one of the only Governments across Europe that is setting targets to eradicate fuel poverty.
The regulation of energy prices in this country is a reserved matter, and pensions and television licences are reserved matters. If Richard Leonard wants this Government to have responsibility for all those matters, I will be the first to agree with him. Having reversed his position on a second European Union referendum at the weekend, perhaps he will now see the light and reverse his position on a second independence referendum, so that this Parliament can take control of those matters out of the hands of the Tories and serve our pensioners along with the rest of our country.
Duchess of Hamilton Park War Memorial
The First Minister might be aware of reports that the first world war memorial in the Duchess of Hamilton park in my constituency has been vandalised. My great uncle is remembered on that memorial. Does the First Minister share my disgust at that abhorrent act, especially in such close proximity to the commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings? Will she join me in sending a message that hate crimes and hate behaviours have no place in a modern Scotland? Will she urge those who are responsible to reflect on the hurt and upset that they have caused my constituents, and to come forward and take responsibility for their actions?
I thank Clare Adamson for raising that issue.
I was disappointed and disgusted to hear of the vandalism of the first world war memorial in Motherwell and I join Clare Adamson and others in condemning such a wicked and despicable act. That it happened at a time when we have been commemorating the sacrifices that were made by our armed forces makes it all the more abhorrent. The police are investigating it. I call on the perpetrators to reflect on their behaviour and come forward. I agree with Clare Adamson that we must all join in sending a clear message that hate crime has no place in Scotland and that it will not be tolerated.
European Social Fund
A charity in my area that is waiting for European social fund payments has contacted me to say that it is struggling with costs and that it found out that there was an issue with the fund only when someone read about it in a national newspaper. Given the third sector’s limited budget and need to control cash flow, does the First Minister think that it is acceptable for the Scottish Government to communicate with the sector in that way? Moreover, while the charity is trying to resolve its administration issues with the fund, perhaps the Scottish Government might consider paying its proportion of the grant in advance.
The Scottish Government met the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations just yesterday to update it on the situation and to provide further reassurance. Of course, the concerns relate to evidence provided by lead partners in these projects that this is a common issue with European social funds, and similar problems have been identified in England, but we are determined to avoid any charity or third sector body suffering as a result of this.
We continue to make payments to projects unaffected by these issues, and we are working to resolve the situation as quickly as possible with the European Commission. We have already sent a list of proposed solutions to the Commission, and we await confirmation that it is content to accept the proposals, which will ensure that lead partners in the various projects are able to generate the evidence that they need to support their claim for payment. The Government is doing and will continue to do everything to resolve this situation as quickly as possible.
Gas-Fired Power Stations
The First Minister might be aware of proposals by Peel Ports for a significant development adjacent to the Hunterston nuclear power station in my region. The proposals are varied; some are very interesting and could provide much-needed jobs, but one that is causing local residents serious concern relates to liquefied natural gas and a proposal for a terminal, a storage facility and a new gas-fired power station. Does the First Minister agree that new gas-fired power stations in Scotland are not compatible with her declaration of a climate emergency?
I certainly appreciate and echo Ross Greer’s sentiments with regard to the climate emergency, and we want to do everything possible to meet that challenge.
As for any proposed developments, Ross Greer will be aware that they will have to go through a whole series of applications and considerations, and it would not be correct for me to pre-empt any of that process. However, this Government’s commitment to tackling climate change and reducing emissions is very well evidenced across our energy policy.
St Ambrose and Buchanan High Schools
I know that the First Minister is aware of the situation at St Ambrose and Buchanan high schools in my constituency, and I whole-heartedly welcome John Swinney’s announcement yesterday of an independent and impartial review into the matter. However, given that more than 400 people attended a public meeting that I arranged last week and more than 14,000 folk have signed an online petition, what reassurances can the First Minister give that the review will involve hearing the views of parents and school staff? Will the review’s public health lead have the power to order appropriate tests and investigations in order to get a full understanding of the safety of the site?
I appreciate this opportunity to address an issue that I know is causing parents considerable concern, despite the efforts of the council and the health board to assure people of the safety of the schools. Indeed, that is why we announced the independent review yesterday; it will engage with parents, teachers, staff and, perhaps most important, all pupils in the schools, but exactly how it will be taken forward is rightly a matter for the review itself, given the importance of ensuring its independence.
The same is true with regard to the question of testing. Let me be clear: if the review’s experts conclude by recommending further tests on the site itself or, with the appropriate parental permission, on the pupils, that is exactly what will happen. However, we must respect the review’s independence and allow it to reach its own conclusions. The critical point about this work is that the review must be—and must be seen to be—independent and impartial. Nothing less will be acceptable to staff, parents and pupils, and nothing less will be acceptable to the Government.
In my Glasgow region and the First Minister’s constituency, a school has been forced to take desperate action to eliminate a four-year bedbug infestation ordeal. Kids are getting rashes; pest control teams are visiting every few months; and staff have had to destroy their home furniture. First Minister, what century is this?
This is an issue in different parts of Glasgow. From my constituency interest in the case that Annie Wells cites, I know the intensive work that is being done by the council. I speak to council officials regularly on these matters and about the other issues that are raised in this area of my constituency and I know that intensive work is going on. All of us have to encourage those involved in this to follow all the guidelines so that the work that is being done has the best chance of succeeding.
General Practice (Funding)
Like me, the First Minister will have received hundreds of emails from constituents this week backing calls for 11 per cent of national health service funding to go to general practice, to enable our local surgeries to employ more doctors and nurses, to provide longer appointments, and to tackle the health inequality that continues to blight Scotland.
In April, Parliament voted for a Green motion demanding an urgent review of GP recruitment, resources and funding. When will the Scottish Government respect the will of Parliament and launch such a review?
We are taking a range of actions to boost recruitment into general practice. The Government is committed to increasing the proportion of funding going to primary care services to 11 per cent and half of that will go to GPs in particular, but of course GPs do not work in isolation. Increasingly, it is the entire primary care team that is important in terms of delivering the services that people need in communities, and shifting the balance of care from acute services to primary care. We continue to work to achieve that aim and to work on the different actions that we are taking to ensure that we are recruiting the right number of people, not just into general practice but into different professions across our health service.
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of patient contacts are made with our GPs, yet they receive less than 8 per cent of the NHS budget. Although 11 per cent of the budget may be going to primary care, the call is for 11 per cent to go to GP practices. They are overstretched and underresourced. A quarter of GPs do not think that they will be in general practice five years from now and the Royal College of General Practitioners is warning that this untenable situation is putting patient safety at risk.
If we want to look after people in their homes and communities rather than in our hospitals, we need more GPs. The RCGP says that surgeries will struggle to deliver the healthcare that we need without at least 11 per cent of the NHS budget. Are the GPs wrong?
We continue to talk to and work with GPs. I understand that the health secretary will meet the RCGP shortly to have further discussions about its report. We are taking a range of actions on recruitment. The number of trainee doctors, for example, has increased by more than 10 per cent since 2007 and the majority of new places are focused on primary care and general practice. The number of trainee GPs in 2018 was at its highest level for over a decade. We will continue to take those actions.
We have made a commitment to increase the share of funding going to primary care and we will meet that commitment. General practice is a vital part of that but—as anybody who understands how the health service works will know, and I know that Alison Johnstone knows this—general practice does not work in isolation. It is part of a multidisciplinary team. Increasing the share of funding going to primary care helps not just the entirety of the primary care team but general practice, because tasks that might currently be done by GPs can be done by other members of the team. This is an important commitment and we will continue to make progress in meeting it.
In-care Child Abuse Survivors (Advance Payment Scheme)
The First Minister will be aware of the advance payment scheme for older survivors of in-care child abuse. In a recent written answer to me, the cabinet secretary for education said that no application to the scheme had been refused. Some survivors, however, are reporting that applications are being refused on the ground that they do not have the documents to prove where they were in care. Of course, we know that some organisations running children’s homes destroyed many of their historical records.
I ask the First Minister to have this investigated as a matter of urgency, given the distress that this may be causing to people who, throughout their lives, have had their trust betrayed.
As I hope that Johann Lamont will recognise, this important issue has been taken seriously by the Government. We owe a debt to these people and we are determined to do what we can to repay that debt.
My understanding—although of course we will look into the information that Johann Lamont has just provided—is that, so far, no application has been refused for lack of documentation. Johann Lamont is giving me different information and I will make sure that the Deputy First Minister looks into that. We will write to Johann Lamont as soon as we are in a position to do so.
The First Minister will be aware of the announcement that Serco plans to resume its lock-change eviction programme across Glasgow. What action will the Scottish Government take to prevent such inhumane treatment of asylum seekers by Serco?
I deeply regret Serco’s decision. It is inhumane to evict people from their homes by changing the locks. The Scottish Government has made its views known; we have worked and will continue to work with Glasgow City Council to protect asylum seekers as much as we can.
The root problem is the inhumane asylum policy that the Home Office and the United Kingdom Government have pursued, which needs to change. Given her partnership with the Home Secretary, perhaps Ruth Davidson will take the opportunity to ask him to end the situation in which people can be evicted from their homes in such a way. I look forward to hearing from her once she has done that.
Figures that have been released today show that Scottish student debt has soared to £5.5 billion, which is three times what it was in 2007. The average individual debt is more than double what it was when the Scottish National Party came to power. When the First Minister says that we should judge her by her record on education, are Scotland’s students and graduates, who were promised no student debt, entitled to judge the situation as a betrayal that grows bigger year by year?
I will focus on the exact loan debt figures. The individual loan debt figures are £35,950 in England, £22,920 in Labour-run Wales, £23,550 in Northern Ireland and £13,800 in Scotland—that is some £9,000 less than in Wales, where Labour is in government. Average student debt increased by £670 in the most recent year but, in Labour-run Wales, it increased by £1,610.
Labour’s hypocrisy on the issue knows no bounds. The fact is that we are increasing support for students and increasing student bursaries. We are determined to keep education in Scotland free. That is the difference between the SNP and the Tories, Labour and the Liberals.
Today’s Daily Record reports on the Tory party’s latest priority, which is that it wants its new Westminster leader to rip up the Scotland Acts and seize control of spending and decision making in devolved areas. Does the First Minister condemn that latest attempt at a power grab on Scotland’s Parliament?
Everything that the Tories do and say now, and the shrill way in which they say it, demonstrates that they know that they are losing the argument on independence, so they are reduced to trying to frustrate democracy. The Tories are not interested in more money for Scotland—if they were, they would have stood up against the cuts that the Tory Government imposed on this Parliament. The Tories are interested in undermining this Parliament. We have had the legislative power grab; we have seen the petty but completely unsuccessful attempt this week to constrain the ability of the Scottish and Welsh Governments to represent our interests overseas; and now we have the money grab.
We are learning two things. First, the Tories cannot be trusted with devolution. Secondly, and perhaps more interesting, the Scottish Tories know that they will never be in government in Scotland. If they had any hope of that, they would not allow a UK Tory Government to undermine this Parliament in the way that it is.
University Hospital Hairmyres (Industrial Action)
The First Minister will be aware of press reports that the GMB union is balloting 300 members of staff at Hairmyres hospital on taking strike action. A payroll system change means that the staff are collectively owed £72,000, have been paid two weeks’ wages for three weeks’ work and have been offered a loan instead of wages that they are rightly owed, which has pushed many into debt. Will the Scottish Government make a public intervention, in line with the workforce’s wishes, to ensure that staff are paid what they are owed and to avert strike action, with its likely knock-on effect on patients in my region?
The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has already made a public intervention. She has written to the company, she has met representatives of the union concerned and she continues to encourage the company to adopt an approach that is fair to staff and that avoids any disruption to services. We will continue to do everything that we can as a Government to bring about that resolution.
The issue comes from the private finance initiative contract for Hairmyres hospital, which I seem to remember came about under the most recent Labour Administration. This is one of the symptoms of PFI, which Labour was so happy to support all those years ago, and which its members now have the nerve to complain about in the Parliament. We will continue to do the work that we can to resolve the matter. Perhaps Labour should spend a bit more time reflecting on why we find ourselves in this situation.
Road Closure (Stranraer)
Has the Scottish Government had any contact from Dumfries and Galloway Council following the closure of Church Street in Stranraer, which is due to safety concerns over the dilapidated grade B-listed George hotel, on whether assistance could be offered?
We will be happy to liaise with the council and to do everything that we can to help with the situation, which I know is of concern to Emma Harper’s constituents. I would be happy to ask the relevant minister to look further into the matter and to get back to Emma Harper as soon as possible.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to make people aware of scams, in light of reports that nearly half of people in Scotland have been targeted at least once in the last year. (S5F-03429)
The number of people targeted by scams is of great concern. The Scottish Government believes that prevention through education and raising awareness is key to reducing the harm caused. We are funding Citizens Advice Scotland to deliver an awareness campaign, in partnership with trading standards Scotland, Police Scotland, Young Scot, Age Scotland and other agencies. The campaign, which was launched this week, aims to challenge perceptions and stigma associated with scams and urges people to speak up and report them.
We also fund Crimestoppers, which has been working with Police Scotland on the “Shut out scammers” campaign to raise awareness of doorstep crime and to protect the most vulnerable in society. We are also working with stakeholders to develop a prevention strategy so as to ensure a more co-ordinated response to tackling the issue across Government.
Does the First Minister agree that the efforts of Citizens Advice Scotland and Police Scotland to make people aware of scams are welcome, but that we should all remain vigilant and that we should highlight the point that, regardless of whether scammers are successful, they are committing a crime? Does the First Minister also agree that scams are a continual problem and that we need to continue that partnership working, both to raise people’s awareness and to target the criminals?
Yes, I agree with all of that. We must be vigilant and report any concerns to the police, regardless of whether a scammer is successful. As I have just said, the Scottish Government is working with a range of partners to embed cyber-resilience within our education and lifelong learning systems at all levels. That will help to ensure that everyone has a fundamental awareness of cyber-risk and of how they can take basic but important steps to reduce it.
I very much agree that scams are an on-going problem, and that partnership working of the type that I spoke about in my initial answer will be key to raising awareness and preventing crimes of that nature.
The Scottish Conservatives called for a vulnerable persons aggravator almost exactly a year ago, after that was recommended by the Bracadale review. That would mean that those who commit crimes targeted at the elderly and disabled would be punished more harshly by the courts. Why has the Scottish National Party Government failed to introduce that?
We consulted on changes to hate crime legislation, and the results of that are currently being taken forward. Parliament will continue to scrutinise the decisions that Government makes and, ultimately, the decisions that Parliament makes itself. It is important that we consider carefully any aggravations to crime, making sure that we have the right evidence base in place and that we take the right action to protect vulnerable groups, whoever they are. We will continue to take action of that type.
Glasgow and Aberdeen Airports (Strike Action)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to strike action taking place at Glasgow and Aberdeen airports. (S5F-03416)
It is very disappointing that the industrial action is taking place. It is a matter for AGS Airports and the trade union, and I would encourage them to work together to reach a resolution to the dispute. I appreciate that the strikes will be concerning for passengers, particularly as we enter the summer holiday season. I know that measures have been put in place to minimise the impact on passengers and that no flights have been cancelled at either airport because of the industrial action, but I urge AGS Airports and Unite to continue talks to resolve the matter and to avoid any disruption to passengers.
The First Minister is no doubt aware of the strategic importance of Glasgow airport, not just to the city but to the wider west of Scotland region, for business and tourism. I am sure that similar can be said of Aberdeen airport.
Given that potential further strikes are planned and that the peak travel season is upon us, it is important that the dispute is resolved fairly and quickly. How will the Government, its ministers or its agencies provide assistance to either party, to help to settle the dispute quickly?
The Scottish Government is not a party to the dispute. I am sure that that is appreciated. That said, the Scottish Government always stands ready to help, if there is help that we can provide, to resolve such disputes.
This is fundamentally an issue between the airport company and the trade unions. As I did a moment ago, I encourage them to work together, with a view to reaching a resolution that avoids disruption for passengers and that is fair to the workers in the airports. The airport company is a private company, so we do not have a direct role in the talks. However, we want the dispute to be resolved as quickly as possible and if there is anything that we can reasonably do to help to bring about that outcome, we stand ready to do it.
Hundreds of workers in my region have been forced to strike because their pay and pensions have been attacked, in violation of an Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service agreement, and strikebreaking labour is being used despite serious safety concerns. Unite repeatedly offered to talk up to the strike action, but Glasgow airport, which has made profits of more than £90 million, will not work with the union to end the dispute.
Given the airport’s vast profits, which are projected to grow by a further 6 per cent, can the First Minister justify why hundreds of workers in my region should be treated in such a way?
The Scottish Government is not a party to this dispute; AGS Airports is a private company. I was very deliberate when I said in my previous answer that I want to see a resolution that avoids passenger disruption and that is fair to the people who work in the airport, because the company—as with any company—cannot function without the work of its employees. I want to see fairness for workers.
I encourage the airport to get round the table with trade unions and come to a resolution, and I hope that all members will do that. There has to be a recognition that this is not a dispute to which the Scottish Government is a party, but that does not stop us encouraging those who are parties to the dispute to get round the table and come up with a solution that is fundamentally fair.
Scottish-European Growth Co-investment Programme
To ask the First Minister for what reason only £3.2 million out of a £200 million Scottish-European growth co-investment programme has been spent in supporting Scottish businesses. (S5F-03432)
The Scottish-European growth co-investment programme has provided £12 million of investment so far—the £3.2 million to which the member referred is the Scottish Enterprise contribution and includes deals that are currently being finalised. There have been challenges with take-up of the scheme, including on-going uncertainty around Brexit. Scottish Enterprise is continuing to work with investors and companies to secure investment decisions and maximise the number of businesses that benefit from the scheme.
The Government is committed to supporting small businesses. The co-investment programme is just one part of the Scottish growth scheme, which is funding a range of financial interventions that are aimed at helping small and medium-sized enterprises to realise their growth and exports ambitions. Overall, the growth scheme has supported 158 companies, with £125 million of investment so far.
I have to say that £12 million out of £200 million is not much better, at a time when the economy appears to be contracting, manufacturing is declining and, according to the Clydesdale Bank SME health check index, small business confidence is at its lowest since the bank started recording it.
When the fund was announced in the programme for government in 2016, it was welcomed across the Parliament. It was designed to help businesses to grow, in the face of Brexit. This week, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work claimed that the very fund whose aim was to help to prepare for Brexit has been affected by Brexit.
Will the First Minister tell me whether the Scottish Government completely misread the market, given that there is so little demand, and whether the co-investment programme, which is largely financial transaction money, will be revised to ensure that the right help is available for businesses in these difficult times?
I say in response to the last part of the question that we will always look at how we ensure that we provide the kind of help that businesses need, and if we need to make changes to the design of programmes we will certainly do that.
However, I think that most people understand and appreciate that Brexit has had and is having an impact on investment decisions, which is having a knock-on impact on the number of companies that are coming forward to take part in such schemes. That is a reality that I would have thought that Labour, at least, if not the Tories, would have been able to understand.
Overall, the growth scheme is helping a number of companies—as I said, so far, £125 million of investment has been provided to 158 companies. We will continue to do everything that we can to make sure that that very helpful funding gets to companies, but we require companies to come forward with investment propositions, and we will keep encouraging them to do so.
In the 2016 programme for government, the First Minister announced that the Scottish growth scheme would provide £500 million of loans and guarantees to business, but support under the scheme is now largely provided in the form of equity finance. Why do Scottish firms now have to sell part of their business, often to foreign fund managers, in order to get support under the Scottish growth scheme?
A range of financial interventions is available, and discussions will take place with companies about what best suits their business needs, whether that is loan funding or other forms of funding.
I would have hoped that Mr Lockhart, as a Conservative member, would have recognised that such schemes are being affected by companies’ reluctance to invest because of the Brexit uncertainty. That a Tory in particular can ask such a question when he seems to be oblivious to that situation just underlines the fact that the Tories have no regard whatsoever for the damage that their policies are doing to the economy of the United Kingdom right now.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. We will have a short suspension before the next item of business.12:41 Meeting suspended.
12:43 On resuming—