Meeting date: Thursday, September 14, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 14 September 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Borders Talking Newspapers, Community Justice, Food and Drink Strategy, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Borders Talking Newspapers
- Community Justice
- Food and Drink Strategy
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
This week, we learned that at Trinity academy in Edinburgh children are having to be taught maths by teachers from other subjects, and that the situation is so bad that the school has written to parents to ask them to help out—all because of the Government’s failure to train enough new staff. We know that that has happened in Perthshire and we now know that it is happening in Edinburgh. Can the First Minister confirm that the situation is not more widespread and that it is not happening anywhere else?
As Ruth Davidson and other members are aware, we—like many other countries—face a challenge in teacher recruitment. At the start of the school term in August, the vacancy rate was around 1 per cent—just above it, to be precise—of the total number of teachers. We expect that vacancy rate to reduce as the school term proceeds. We face that challenge, and nobody within the Government has ever sought to say otherwise. That is why we are taking a range of actions to deal with and address it. Let me again set out some of those actions.
We have increased student teacher intakes for six years in a row. Back in 2011, the intake to student teaching was 2,297, and in the most recent year it was more than 4,000. We had 231 more newly qualified probationer teachers starting the induction scheme in August than started in the previous year.
We have also recently launched the next phase of the teacher recruitment campaign. We are developing a national approach to support recruitment of teachers from outside Scotland, and we are developing a specific campaign for headteacher recruitment. We are also right now finalising a specification for a new route into teaching to help us even more to attract teachers—in particular, to parts of the country and to subjects that are under pressure. That is the range of actions that we are taking to tackle a challenge that is in no way unique to Scotland.
Finally, let me say that the biggest threat to all the action that we are taking is, of course, the restrictions that Ruth Davidson’s party wants to put on the ability of people—teachers, nurses and doctors—to come to this country from other parts of Europe. That, as in so many other areas, is the biggest challenge that we now face.
From a Government that cut 4,000 teaching posts before Brexit even happened, that is the most pathetic excuse that I have ever heard. If that was supposed to cover up for the fact that the First Minister did not answer my question and clearly does not know whether what I described is happening elsewhere, it is not going to work. The first thing that she should have done was to get on the phone and find out.
Teacher shortages are not just in Perthshire and in Edinburgh. When the schools went back last month, Angus Council, for example, asked the Scottish Government for 40 probationer teachers to cover the staff shortages in its area. It got about half of that number; it got 23. Children are starting school knowing that there are not enough teachers to do the job. In May, John Swinney admitted that this Government’s cuts to teacher training “probably” went too far. With all that we know now, should that “probably” not be “definitely”?
I will say two things to preface my substantive remarks in answer to Ruth Davidson’s question. First, I started my first answer by recognising that teacher recruitment is a challenge in all parts of Scotland.
Secondly, it is interesting that in order to back up her flawed and false narrative—that the situation is somehow uniquely down to actions of this Government—Ruth Davidson has to go back several years to a point when her party and other parties across this chamber were regularly coming to First Minister’s questions to ask my predecessor and the then education secretary about the problem of teacher unemployment, because they thought that we were training too many teachers for the jobs that were available. In every single one of the past six years, we have increased the number of student teachers going into teacher training.
As for probationer teachers, which Ruth Davidson mentioned, I said in my original answer that 231 more newly qualified probationers are starting the induction scheme this August than did so last August. In terms of numbers and the other actions that we are taking, we are addressing what is a difficult challenge for Scotland, and for many other parts of the world.
Ruth Davidson has not yet addressed a very relevant point. As we are working, in all the ways that I have set out, to increase the numbers coming into teaching and to attract teachers from other parts of the world to come and use their talents here in Scotland, her party is trying to put the shutters up to stop people coming in. If she wants to be taken seriously on the issue, she should at least have the good grace to address that point.
The First Minister wants me to talk about people coming to teach here from outside Scotland, so let us do so. For years, we have been calling for people who have qualified outside Scotland and who want to teach here to be fast-tracked. That is just one of the ways to help the situation.
Yesterday, we received an email from a couple who moved to Scotland five years ago. The husband did his teacher training in mathematics and worked down south for 15 years as a maths teacher; however, when he moved here, he was told that he could not teach maths without a full year’s retraining as a student. That qualified maths teacher is not allowed to teach maths in Scotland.
He is not alone. We have a crippling shortage of teachers, but according to evidence that was presented this year to the Parliament, more than 550 qualified teachers from outside Scotland applied to teach here but were told by the Government to go back to school themselves. We have been asking for years for the system to be speeded up as a way to help, so why has there been a delay in implementing that?
Unfortunately for Ruth Davidson, I, too, received that email yesterday, and I have been able to look into it. The circumstances—[Interruption.] My answer is going to include something that I thought Ruth Davidson would have known. Given that she clearly does not, I am going to tell her about it.
The circumstances that are narrated in that email—I am very grateful to the woman who sent it to me—relate to 2012. Since then—this is the bit that I would have thought that Ruth Davidson, as she is raising the issue today, would have been aware of—the General Teaching Council for Scotland has introduced provisional conditional registration, which allows teachers who have qualified outside Scotland to become registered and to take up a teaching post in Scotland while they work towards meeting the minimum requirements. Ruth Davidson asks me why we have not fixed the situation. I am afraid that the answer is that we have—she just did not bother to do the research to find that out.
It is absolutely right that the individual in question would not have been able to teach in 2012, but he might now be in a position to do so. That is why we will be contacting him to see whether he wants to take up a teaching post. To be frank, I am gobsmacked that Ruth Davidson did not bother to find out about that change in circumstances before she came here today.
What the First Minister has not brought to the table is that the matter was only talked about by the General Teaching Council for Scotland in May and has not been taken through yet. It is smoke and mirrors. Again, the First Minister stands here and says, “This is my top priority, and after 10 years of Government and 10 years of failure, I want a herogram for only now beginning to try to fix what has been going on for years.” [Interruption.]
Let us hear the question, please.
The record that the First Minister cannot run away from is this: after 10 years, there are 4,000 fewer teachers; 40 per cent of teachers—[Interruption.]
Just one second, Ms Davidson. Let us hear the question, please.
The Scottish National Party does not want to hear the record, but you are absolutely right, Presiding Officer. I will say it again.
On the First Minister’s watch, there are now 4,000 fewer teachers, 40 per cent of Scottish teachers are considering retirement in the next 18 months, and hundreds of qualified teachers are being held back from getting into classrooms because of the Government’s bureaucracy. For all the promises for the future, that is the record of 10 years of failing our children. Does the First Minister get a pass or a fail? She gets a fail.
We always know when Ruth Davidson has lost the plot at First Minister’s question time, because we just get the angry waffling in place of a question.
I say again that this Government is taking action. It is clear that Ruth Davidson wants to ignore some of it. Some of it, she just does not even bother to find out about. The truth of the matter is that Ruth Davidson is not interested in solutions—she is interested only in talking about problems.
We will continue to take the action that is right for our education system, our teachers and young people across the country, and we will leave the Tories—unfortunately—to continue to do the damage that they are doing to this country through their reckless Brexit approach, which is going to make finding the solutions to such issues all the harder. Ruth Davidson never wants to talk about that.
Fire Safety (Resources)
It is three months since we witnessed the horror of the fire that engulfed Grenfell tower, killing at least 80 people. We have since heard from many experts that fire sprinklers in high-rise flats can play a vital role in saving lives. I know that the Government has set up a ministerial working group, which met for the first time on 20 June, and I look forward to finding out what recommendations it makes.
I invite the First Minister to comment on the Fire Brigades Union’s submission for yesterday’s meeting of the Local Government and Communities Committee, in which it said:
“Scotland has lost 24% of its ... fire safety inspecting officers since 2013/14”.
Of course, it is the responsibility of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to make sure that it has the right staff doing the right jobs in the right place. I understand that the 68 uniformed fire safety enforcement officers that are deployed across Scotland, which I think is the number that was referred to at yesterday’s meeting, are supplemented by 13 specialist non-uniformed auditing officers. In addition, the Fire and Rescue Service has a team of senior fire officers who are also competent in fire safety enforcement, thereby ensuring that we have a national 24/7 capability to respond to fire safety-related matters. In the budget for this year, we increased the overall operational budget by £21.7 million to support investment in equipment and resources.
These are hugely serious issues, and we will continue to work closely on all of them with the Fire and Rescue Service and to listen carefully to the views of staff. As Alex Rowley rightly says, following the Grenfell tragedy, we established a ministerial working group, which has now met on a number of occasions, most recently last week. It is considering all relevant measures to ensure the safety of residents in high-rise domestic buildings. That includes a review of the evidence on sprinklers, which Alex Rowley mentioned. We will continue to work—through that group and more generally with all relevant stakeholders and partners—to ensure that we are doing absolutely everything to ensure the safety of people who live in high-rise buildings and other relevant buildings across the country.
But it is, of course, the responsibility of Government to make sure that the Fire and Rescue Service has the resources that it needs.
I have talked to many firefighters and have met the Fire Brigades Union, and some serious concerns are being raised. Despite ministers’ assurances that they would protect the front line, the FBU says that more than 700 front-line firefighter jobs have gone. There are growing concerns about whether staffing levels are adequate and about the future of fire stations.
Will the First Minister give Parliament an assurance that there will be no further job cuts in our fire service and that no programme of fire station closures will be introduced in Scotland?
I give an absolute assurance that we will continue to work with the fire service and to work in dialogue with the FBU to make sure that we are protecting those who keep us safe from fire. We have sought to do that, and we will continue to work to do that, in terms of the number of fire officers and others who work in the Fire and Rescue Service and of the configuration of fire stations across our country.
We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all firefighters, who do a very dangerous job to keep us safe. In the aftermath of Grenfell, it is absolutely vital that we look carefully and critically at every aspect of fire safety, including all those that Alex Rowley has raised, and we will continue to do that. As we do so, we will not only talk regularly to the Fire and Rescue Service, as we do now, but hear the views of the FBU and those who work in the service. We will try to come to decisions that are about not just protecting the front-line service but making sure that it is configured to keep the people of Scotland safe. I give that assurance. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs regularly have discussions about these matters and they will continue to do so.
We certainly owe a debt of gratitude to all firefighters—of that there can be no question. However, the First Minister needs to look again at some of the big issues that are being raised. We need assurances about further job cuts and closures, which we have not had today.
It is now four years since the Government merged eight fire and rescue services into one. I am told that progress on harmonising terms and conditions and wages for firefighters remains very slow, which is having a great impact on staff morale in the service, which needs to be addressed.
Does the First Minister accept that a background of continuing cuts to the fire service is unlikely to help resolve those issues and that cuts within our Fire and Rescue Service cannot be allowed to continue?
We are protecting those who fight fire and keep us safe. I think that I said in an earlier answer to Alex Rowley that in this year’s budget we increased the overall operational budget by more than £20 million to support some of the investment that the Fire and Rescue Service needs to make. Obviously there are on-going negotiations around pay and conditions and I hope that those discussions continue in a constructive way.
Alex Rowley has asked me to look carefully at all these matters and he is right to do so. We have an absolute responsibility to ensure that we do that at any time, but particularly given the tragedy that we saw happen in London over the summer. That is why the ministerial group is looking at all these individual issues very carefully and recommendations will undoubtedly come forward in due course. It is also why we continue to have such discussions with the Fire and Rescue Service in a wider sense to make sure that we are putting in place the resources that it needs to do the job that the rest of us across the country depend on it to do.
We have a constituency question from Monica Lennon.
Neurological Conditions (Support)
Today Sue Ryder published a report on the support available to people with neurological conditions. It featured the story of Thomas and Dee McGreevy, constituents whose case I have been helping with for several months. Dee, a former nurse who is only 58, has an undiagnosed neurological condition. She has been in an older persons’ care home for the past two years and has been largely confined to her room for 24 hours a day.
Mr McGreevy’s tenacity in battling for better support for his wife has been incredible, but very little support is available for Dee and others like her.
Will the First Minister agree to look further into the details of my constituents’ case? Will the Scottish Government be considering the report’s recommendations in full?
First, of course the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will be happy to look at the individual constituency case if Monica Lennon wants to provide the details of it.
On the report that has been published today, I pay tribute to Sue Ryder, which is a fantastic organisation that is doing very good work. The Scottish Government works closely with it and took action based on the priorities that it identified last year to make progress on data and clinical standards.
The report has made five recommendations and we will take forward work on all of them. It is perhaps most appropriate today to say that we have already started to develop Scotland’s first national action plan on neurological conditions. The Minister for Public Health and Sport has made it clear that she wants new standards of care to be developed for people with neurological conditions as part of that work.
I will make one final point that, given the details that Monica Lennon shared with the chamber, might be relevant to the case that she mentioned. Our decision to take forward and implement Frank’s law will allow those under 65 with some neurological conditions to access personal care in the way that those over 65 already can.
On a range of these issues we are already taking action and we will continue to do so. As we do so, we will continue to work closely with Sue Ryder.
Scottish education is judged by international inspectors as just average. We have lost thousands of classroom assistants, teacher vacancies are up to 700—thousands more want to give up, too—and a school that is less than 3 miles from Scotland’s Parliament is desperate for maths teachers. Has the First Minister had any doubts about her Government’s education programme over the past 10 years?
As I have said repeatedly, there are many strengths in the Scottish education system and it does no service to anybody in that system for us not to point to those strengths. For example, there has been a 30 per cent increase in higher passes over the past number of years and more young people, particularly from our deprived communities, are coming out of school with qualifications and going to university.
However, I want us to go even further, which is why we have under way the most radical programme of school education reform in the Scottish Parliament’s lifetime. I note again that Willie Rennie is opposing almost every aspect of that reform programme, although it is entirely his right to do so and I am not suggesting otherwise. We will continue to take forward the actions that are necessary to ensure that improvements in our education system are made.
With regard to vacancies, we have increased the numbers of student teachers going into teacher training in each of the past six years, as I said to Ruth Davidson. That is why, compared with last year, we had more than 200 additional newly qualified probationer teachers starting in our schools in August.
We will not shy away from those challenges—far from it—and we will continue to focus on taking the action that is needed to address the challenges.
That was quite an astonishing answer. The First Minister has no doubts about anything that she has done in education in the past 10 years. She listed all those great things and I agree that there are great things about Scottish education. However, in reality, under her leadership, education in Scotland has got worse over that time.
The First Minister knows that Scottish teachers are on the edge. Their pay is lagging way behind that of those in other countries. A study found that there will potentially be an exodus from teaching, yet we already have 700 vacancies.
The McCrone report was delivered by the Liberal Democrat-Labour Government, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s opposition. It transformed education and had future teachers queuing up to join the profession but, after 10 years of the Scottish National Party, that is not happening any more. Is it not time for the First Minister to urgently establish a new McCrone inquiry to reinvigorate teaching and have future teachers queuing up once again?
No, I do not think that the right thing to do is to embark on a review that could take years to undertake and complete. The better thing to do is to take the hard, tangible actions that we are taking right now, such as increasing the number of student teachers coming into the profession with the various recruitment initiatives that I have already spoken about, or the action that we are taking to put more powers and resources into the hands of headteachers to ensure that they and the teams of teachers who they work with are real leaders of learning in their classrooms. That is not only good for motivating teachers, but evidence tells us that it is the best way to raise standards in our schools.
We will get on with the programme of reform and investment in our schools that we have embarked upon. I look forward to continuing to debate the detail of that in this chamber, but I hope that members will engage on the actions that we are taking right now, rather than doing what Willie Rennie appears to be trying to do, which is to kick everything into the long grass with a review that will take forever to report. We are taking action now to deal with the challenges that we face.
European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
Is the First Minister aware that the First Secretary of State Damian Green warned this week that there are no post-Brexit framework agreements across the United Kingdom on issues such as agriculture and that the devolved Administrations could adopt policies that are at odds with the UK Government’s views? In other words, he wants framework agreements to be drawn up to smother and silence devolution and this Parliament’s right to decide what is in the interests of Scotland. Does she agree that that is another example of Conservative ministers’ strong desire to use Brexit to undermine devolution and Scottish democracy?
Yes, I agree. That is not just the view of this Government. We have seen that view expressed in House of Commons briefing papers and we have seen organisations such as the Law Society of Scotland talk about how the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will centralise at Westminster powers that should lie with this Parliament. That is wrong, and it is a deeply retrograde step.
This week, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum. The Scotland Act 1998, on which this Parliament is built, is based on the important principle that everything is devolved unless it is expressly reserved. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill turns that principle on its head and means that every power, if it comes back from the EU—even in devolved areas—is reserved at Westminster unless a United Kingdom Government decides that it is going to devolve it.
Damian Green, in the comments that were reported today, gives the game away. The UK Government wants to take that approach in order to restrict the freedom of decision and manoeuvre of this Parliament in devolved areas. There are deeply concerning aspects to that. Take agriculture for example. Damian Green talked about “subsidy wars”. Is that code for wanting to reduce the funding that goes to our farmers? Right now, farmers in Scotland get 16 per cent of farm funding. We should get more than that, because of the percentage of land. Does the UK Government want to see that amount reduced?
This is a serious issue. It has serious consequences for different parts of society and our economy; it is also serious in principle. Matters that are devolved should be for this Parliament to decide; they should not be re-reserved to Westminster to allow a Westminster Government to do whatever it sees fit. It is a big issue of principle, and the Tories would do well to start standing up for this Parliament, instead of just doing what their bosses at Westminster tell them to do.
Scottish Rural Development Programme
I will stay with that theme. Two weeks ago, Fergus Ewing announced £109 million-worth of cuts to the Scottish rural development programme, blaming Westminster for its failure to transfer the European Union convergence payments. Our research shows that those convergence payments were never included in the original budget and therefore cannot be the reason behind the cuts. Will the First Minister explain to Parliament what the real reason is behind the cuts to the SRDP, which will impact on communities, businesses and our rural environment?
I am sorry, but the full convergence funding—this is a matter of fact—was not passed on by the UK Government. This is additional funding that was made available to the UK, principally because of issues in Scotland. The funding should have come to Scotland but, because it did not, Scottish farmers were short changed to the tune of £160 million over the course of the common agricultural policy programme. That is the reality. All of us in this Parliament should be getting behind the call for that wrong to be righted and for farmers to get the money that they are due.
Sexual Offences Committed by a Child
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the number of reported cases involving a child committing a sexual offence against another increasing by a third over the last four years. (S5F-01515)
Those figures are extremely concerning. Our priority is to ensure the safety of children. Of course, it is too soon to say to what extent the reported increase reflects a rise in offending, because we know that greater confidence in the reporting of sexual offences might also be a factor.
Last week, the Deputy First Minister spoke at an education summit organised by the Solicitor General for Scotland to highlight the importance of a preventative approach in helping to stop children becoming either victims or perpetrators of sexual offending. Our review of personal and social education also supports that approach.
Later this month, we will publish new analysis looking at sexual crimes committed through the internet, including the age of both victims and offenders. That will help to inform how the justice system responds to such offending.
Will the First Minister join me in encouraging all schools, youth groups and parent groups to get involved in tackling issues about the sharing of unsolicited images and in initiatives such as digi, aye?, which is run by Young Scot? What can Government, and we as MSPs in our areas, do to highlight the issues and to encourage cyber-resilience in young people and their parents?
That question is important. I particularly mention the Young Scot digi, aye? campaign, which the Government supports with funding. That is one of a range of actions that we are taking as part of our internet safety action plan.
Gillian Martin is right. This is first and foremost, and fundamentally, a community issue—and it often takes a community approach to deal with such issues effectively. Not all sexual offending shown in the statistics will be offences committed on the internet, but we know that the internet can often be an unsafe place for young people. All MSPs can play our part in our communities in raising awareness and helping to educate parents about the steps that they can take to keep their children safe online.
Police Scotland (Leadership)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that there is public confidence in the leadership of Police Scotland. (S5F-01509)
The Government is committed to ensuring that Police Scotland has a strong, resilient and effective senior leadership team. As the Cabinet Secretary for Justice set out in his parliamentary statement on Tuesday, Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone will provide leadership to Police Scotland in the chief constable’s absence. As the DCC designate, he will have all the powers of the chief constable during this period. He is, of course, ably supported by the other experienced and capable members of the senior team. I have confidence that, along with all our police officers and staff, they will continue to provide the excellent police service that keeps our communities safe and has helped to bring crime down to a 42-year low.
This is not about political posturing in difficult times. The public and our police officers must have unequivocal confidence in the leadership of Police Scotland. Given that leadership requires scrutiny and scrutiny requires leadership, and that there is currently a perceived vacuum, will the First Minister tell us how she will ensure that the chief constable retains or gains the respect of all those whom he or she leads and serves?
I agree with the sentiment of that question. The Scottish Police Authority has recently taken a number of steps to increase transparency around its conduct and decision making, and the ability to scrutinise that. We should all welcome that.
Members will appreciate that I am not going to comment—it would not be appropriate for me to do so—on the allegations that have been made about the chief constable. However, it is important to say that there is a well-established process in place for investigating and coming to conclusions about complaints of the nature of those that have been made. That process is now under way. In those circumstances, the chief constable was right to take leave of absence while the investigation is on-going.
Iain Livingstone is a senior police officer who has many years of experience. He will be known to many members across the chamber. He is a highly respected officer and I know that he will do an excellent job while he is carrying out the functions of chief constable.
We continue to reassure the public. Edward Mountain talked about a perception of a vacuum. Although all members have a scrutiny role to perform in Parliament, I think that it is important that we do not say to the public that there is a leadership vacuum because there is not. An acting chief constable is in place, and the chair of the SPA is in place and will continue to be in place until his successor is appointed.
Police officers right around our country do an excellent job, often in very difficult circumstances. We can take a step back from all this and remind ourselves yet again that crime in this country is at a 42-year low, which is down to the hard work of police officers in every part of Scotland.
One area in which Police Scotland is involved is undercover policing. Today, lawyers are at the Court of Session to seek a judicial review of the exclusion of Scottish victims from the United Kingdom-wide public inquiry into illegal and unethical undercover policing and the Scottish Government’s failure to carry out a parallel inquiry.
What does the First Minister say to the victims, including women who were violated and tricked into relationships and who even had children by undercover officers with assumed identities? Some victims describe that as state rape. Why is there no full public inquiry in Scotland?
I deprecate the kind of actions that Neil Findlay has outlined, and I hope that everybody does.
Neil Findlay started his question by referring to the court case and said that it is in court today. Clearly, it would be completely inappropriate for me to make any comment on that judicial review.
On the wider issue, I assume that Neil Findlay is aware that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland is conducting a review of undercover policing. That will conclude in due course. If there are recommendations for the Scottish Government, we will take them forward.
Combustible Cladding on Public Buildings
To ask the First Minister what progress the Scottish Government has made in the identification of combustible cladding on public buildings, in light of reports that it was found at the Edinburgh royal infirmary. (S5F-01530)
Following the Grenfell tower tragedy, the ministerial working group on building and fire safety focused on identifying combustible cladding on high-rise buildings that are over 18m in height. The national health service has identified two hospitals—the Queen Elizabeth university hospital and the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh—where some combustible cladding is present. However, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has confirmed that patients are safe. That is because there are other fire-stopping measures and good fire safety management procedures in place at both hospitals.
As Alex Rowley pointed out earlier, today marks the three-month anniversary of the tragic fire at Grenfell tower. Over those three months, combustible cladding has been found in schools, university buildings and hospitals in Glasgow and Edinburgh, as reported in recent days. In light of that information, will the First Minister tell Parliament how many publicly accessible buildings still remain to be checked and which those are? When does she believe that the Government will have a comprehensive picture of the use of combustible cladding? Can she confirm how she will keep Parliament informed of and up to date with progress towards getting that comprehensive picture?
First, as I should have said earlier, it is appropriate to say that, at this moment in time, our thoughts should be with the Grenfell tower victims and their families, given the three months that have passed and the opening of the Grenfell tower inquiry. Every day of the past three months will have been incredibly difficult for them; as the issues start to be looked into, that trauma is underlined.
There has been on-going transparency as we have done that work. As the member will be aware, we have focused—for reasons that I think everybody will both understand and agree with—on buildings that are over 18m in height. That is because, in the event of fire, it is more possible for the fire service to gain access to buildings that are underneath that height. The ministerial working group has been very open about its deliberations and there has been reporting, first on the work around high-rise flats and domestic dwellings, and then, as it has been carried out, on the work around hospitals and schools. I will ask Angela Constance to write to the member with full and up-to-date details on exactly where that work has got to.
All along, if issues have been identified, steps have been taken to mitigate any risk. For example, when cladding of a particular type was identified at Queen Elizabeth university hospital, the health board set out the steps that it was going to take to remove that cladding. I should say that further tests are being carried out on the cladding at the Edinburgh royal infirmary; notwithstanding that, particular mitigations have been put in place to ensure the safety of patients and anybody visiting the hospital, which is absolutely paramount.
We will continue to update Parliament as appropriate on that work. As I said, I will ask Angela Constance to write an update letter to the member, setting out exactly what work remains to be carried out.
Fire safety goes beyond issues of combustible cladding. The Local Government and Communities Committee has heard a suggestion from the Fire Brigades Union that there should be a series of intrusive inspections of high-rise buildings in Scotland to interrogate fire safety procedures and to take the opportunity to improve fire safety further. Is that something that the Scottish Government will give consideration to?
We will of course continue to give consideration to any suggestions that are made, particularly that come from the experts in fire safety. Through the ministerial working group, we are already carrying out a review of building and fire safety regulatory frameworks and other relevant matters.
It is important to say that no aluminium composite material cladding, which was the particular type of cladding on Grenfell tower, has been found on any high-rise social blocks in Scotland. We would expect all building owners to have been doing their own fire safety risk assessments and of course if they have any concerns, they should seek further advice from the fire service.
Through the working group, we will continue to consider all relevant measures. I have already mentioned the work that has been carried out around sprinklers. The suggestion that Bob Doris highlights will be taken fully into account in the deliberations of the working group.
Devolution Referendum (20th Anniversary)
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is marking the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum. (S5F-01524)
Like many others, I marked the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum on Monday. The point that I sought to make, which I will make again today, is that, whatever divides us in the Parliament—many things divide us in the Parliament—it should still be possible, as we proved 20 years ago, to try to find areas of agreement. That should be true about the powers of the Parliament and about other issues, as well. As I said on Monday, to that end we will in the coming months publish a series of papers on extending the powers of our Parliament. Those papers are not intended to be the final word; they are intended to stimulate debate. I look forward to discussing them across the Parliament as we seek to defend our current powers from the threat that is posed by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and as we look, in light of Brexit and the other challenges that we face as a country, at what additional powers would allow this Parliament to address those challenges and concerns even more effectively.
Damian Green has let the cat out of the bag: he has said explicitly that the United Kingdom Government plans to take control of Scottish agriculture at the very time when we should be celebrating the many achievements of the Scottish Parliament. The Tory party at Westminster is staging a power grab. Does the First Minister agree that the Tory party’s attempt to undermine the Scottish Parliament is completely unacceptable?
It is unacceptable—I hear grumbling from Tory members. I was not in the chamber for Mike Russell’s statement the other day, but I managed to catch some of it and I thought that the Tories were very constructive in their approach. I hope that we can find a way of working together to protect the powers of our Parliament. With not just the Scottish National Party Scottish Government, but the Labour Welsh Government and many other organisations saying that, in its current state, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is unacceptable and represents a power grab from the devolved Administrations, the UK Government should sit up, listen, take notice and agree to amendments.
Many Brexit issues are highly technical, so they can often be quite difficult, but, as I said earlier on, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill reverses the very principle on which the Scottish Parliament is founded. Every power that comes back from the EU in respect of devolved matters will go to Westminster instead of coming to the Scottish Parliament, and that will allow the UK Government to make decisions on a whole range of matters, including agriculture, fisheries and the environment—justice would also be included. In 111 different areas, which Michael Russell talked about the other day, the UK Government will be allowed to take decisions on issues that are rightly devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Whatever else we disagree on, surely we can all come together and agree that that is simply unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand. That is the Scottish Government’s position, and I hope that we will have the backing of every other party in the Parliament on that.
In that light, I ask the First Minister to reflect on the rhetoric that she has deployed in response to Richard Lochhead’s and Maree Todd’s questions. Her minister warmly welcomed the offer that we made in all sincerity on Tuesday to work with ministers to seek to find solutions to the issues that arise from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which I believe the Scottish Government has raised in all good conscience.
I am concerned. Does the First Minister want a soap box to promote a grievance agenda and to deploy rhetoric that is designed to scupper that work, or does she genuinely want to seek to find a solution to the problems? Will she give members an assurance that that is the case, because what she has said almost seeks to undermine the spirit in which we offered to work with her Government to find a solution?
I am genuinely not sure how much attention Jackson Carlaw has being paying to this—I do not mean that pejoratively. [Laughter.] This is a really serious point. Although I welcome the change of tone from the Conservatives on Tuesday, surely Jackson Carlaw can understand—if he has been paying attention—that we have been trying to find solutions since the early summer, when the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was first published. We have been trying to find common ground and compromise with the UK Government since the EU referendum more than a year ago, and all that we have had every step of the way has been occasional warm words. When push comes to shove, the UK Government’s approach has been, “It’ll be our way or no way.”
With the greatest respect to Jackson Carlaw, it is nice to have a suggestion now that the Scottish Tories might be on the side of protecting the Scottish Parliament, but I am sure that he can forgive the degree of frustration on the part of the Scottish Government that, thus far, all the attempts that we have made to find compromise and common ground have been rejected by the UK Government. If that is going to change, I welcome that but, frankly, I want to see some of that in action rather than just—if Jackson Carlaw forgives me—in rhetoric.