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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 14, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 14 December 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Bank Branch Closures, Draft Spending and Tax Plans 2018-19, Race Equality, Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill: Final Stage, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Income tax

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

Presiding Officer,

“When inflation is rising and living standards are under a lot of pressure, it is not right to increase income tax for those who are on the basic rate.”—[Official Report, 3 May 2017; c 9.]

Does the First Minister agree with that statement?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution will set out the details of the budget later this afternoon and will cover our tax proposals and our spending proposals. We will seek to protect our vital public services from the cuts being imposed by the Tories, we will make sure that we protect those who are on low and middle incomes and we will invest in business and the economy. I can tell members that 70 per cent of taxpayers in Scotland and 83 per cent of all adults in Scotland will pay no more income tax after today’s budget than they do now.

Ruth Davidson

We look forward to hearing the details of that later. I can tell by the First Minister’s face that that flourish did not have quite the result that she was looking for. The reason why I asked the question is that I was quoting directly the words of the First Minister herself in May this year. I was not asking her to reveal her budget, although we are pleased to hear any details that might be forthcoming; I was asking whether she agreed with herself that all people who currently pay only the basic rate of income tax, which is 2.2 million people in this country, should not have to pay more. That was the promise that she made. Has she not just told at least some of them that she is breaking that promise?

The First Minister

I encourage Ruth Davidson to listen carefully to the announcements that the finance secretary will make in a couple of hours. In the budget, we will be balancing a number of different priorities. Of course, as the Opposition is fond of telling me, we are a minority Government and we require to build consensus around our budget proposals. We also have to deal with one of the most challenging economic and fiscal contexts that any Government in the lifetime of this Parliament has ever faced. As we heard confirmed this morning on the radio by the Fraser of Allander institute, our day-to-day spending for next year is being cut in real terms by more than £200 million and, over the next two years, Tory cuts will take £500 million in real terms out of the spending that this Parliament has available for our nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers. In light of that, is it not a bit rich for the Tories to come to this chamber and lecture anybody about tax and public spending?

On top of that, of course, as we found out just last week, every household across not just Scotland but the United Kingdom will be facing a bill of £1,400 to pay for the Tories’ Brexit obsession—that is the bill just to rip the UK and Scotland, against our will, out of the European Union.

In light of all of that, the proposals that we put forward this afternoon will be responsible and balanced. They will protect our vital public services from Tory cuts, protect the majority of taxpayers and invest in business and the economy. In doing all that, they will stand in stark contrast to anything that the Tories are doing.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister has just revealed that there will be tax rises in the budget, so perhaps she should listen to what Scotland’s small businesses are saying about that. This week, the Federation of Small Businesses gave her a blunt warning, when it revealed that three fifths of Scotland’s small businesses do not want any change in income tax rates—or they do not want them to go up—and two thirds believe that income tax increases would damage the economy. We are talking not about multimillion pound corporations but about small and medium-sized firms, which are the lifeblood of the economy and support 1.2 million Scottish jobs, yet the First Minister has just told them that there will be tax rises that they do not want. So who should we trust to know what they are talking about when it comes to growing the economy? Is it Scotland’s small business owners, who are warning against the very tax rises that the First Minister has just revealed, or the finance secretary, who wants to push taxes up?

The First Minister

I met representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses just last week, and one of the many things that they said to me was how highly they value the small business bonus, which is the most generous small business rates scheme anywhere in the UK. I do not think that I am revealing too much—although the finance secretary is starting to look at me with a worried expression on his face—when I say that the small business bonus scheme will be protected in the budget this afternoon. That of course lifts 100,000 small businesses out of business rates altogether, which is another way in which the budget will invest in business and in growing our economy.

There will be a lot of interest for Ruth Davidson and others when the finance secretary gets to his feet this afternoon to outline how the Scottish Government will protect people the length and breadth of our country from the cuts that are being imposed on us by Ruth Davidson’s party.

Ruth Davidson

Time and again, ahead of elections, the Scottish National Party Government makes promises to people on tax. Only in May this year, the First Minister was absolutely clear when she said that it is “not right” for any person on the basic rate to pay more. That would protect 2.2 million people in this country, but she has just stood up and said that some of them are going to take a hit. It is a simple matter of trust. Promises were made and she has failed to meet them, so how can Scottish workers ever trust her again?

The First Minister

I suggest that Ruth Davidson listens carefully to the budget this afternoon because, when Derek Mackay stands up and outlines his budget proposals, much of what Ruth Davidson has been saying over the past weeks will be seen to be complete and utter nonsense. We will set out fair, balanced and progressive budget proposals that protect our public services from more than £200 million in real-terms cuts being imposed by the Tories. [Interruption.] The Tories do not like hearing that fact, so let me repeat it: our spending is being cut by more than £200 million in real terms next year. The proposals that we put forward this afternoon will set out how we are protecting our national health service, our education system and other vital public services from that while protecting the vast majority of taxpayers and investing in business and the economy.

Of course, I am not sure how bothered Ruth Davidson really is by all of this because, no sooner have the Tories slumped back into third place in Scottish politics than we have Ruth Davidson setting out her escape plan for when she plans to jump ship to Westminster.

Members: Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio!

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)


Affordable Housing

2. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Every time we raise Scotland’s housing crisis with the Scottish Government, it spins out the same line: “We will build 50,000 affordable homes and 35,000 homes for social rent by the end of this parliamentary session.” This week, new housing statistics revealed that the Government is way off course from meeting its targets. Can the First Minister explain how those vital homes will be built?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We have set a target, and we will meet that target, to build 50,000 affordable homes over the life of this parliamentary session.

Richard Leonard was not a member in the previous parliamentary session, so he might not know that in the previous session we had a target of 35,000 affordable homes, and that periodically over the course of the session we had to listen to Labour MSP after Labour MSP tell us that we had no chance of meeting the target.

Well, do you know what? We met that target in the previous parliamentary session, and we will meet the new target for this parliamentary session. The finance secretary will set out funding plans to support the target in his budget this afternoon, and the announcement that he makes in the budget will be part of an overall funding commitment of £3 billion over this parliamentary session to build 50,000 affordable homes.

That is the record of this Government. Of course, Richard Leonard is the latest leader of the party that, when it was last in office, managed to build a grand total of six council houses.

Richard Leonard

I seem to recall a redefinition of the target in the previous session of the Scottish Parliament.

The shortage of affordable housing is a key cause of homelessness, so we should be thankful for the important work that is being done by the homelessness prevention and strategy group, which has fought for Government funding to help rough sleepers this winter. However, as long as the supply of affordable housing is stalling, and as long as this Government cuts the local authority budgets that provide housing support, temporary accommodation and funding for women’s aid and refuges, the strategy group is fighting an uphill battle to prevent homelessness.

Earlier this week, the director of Shelter Scotland, Graeme Brown, said:

“Some people think that homelessness in Scotland is getting better and can be fixed overnight. Sadly, over the last year, things got worse.”

Does the First Minister agree with the director of Shelter Scotland that last year things got worse?

The First Minister

This Government is increasing funding for affordable housing and, as I said, over this parliamentary session will invest £3 billion—a record sum—to deliver 50,000 affordable homes.

It is exactly because, like Shelter, I am so concerned about the rise in rough sleeping, in particular, that in the programme for government I announced the establishment of the homelessness prevention and strategy group, about which Richard Leonard just spoke. Within the first few weeks of being established, the group had already made its first recommendations to help to tackle rough sleeping this winter; the Government accepted all the recommendations and provided additional funding to help to implement them. We will consider, on a continuing basis, further recommendations that the group makes.

The reason why rough sleeping is increasing is the welfare cuts that are being imposed on Scotland by the Tory Government—[Interruption.] Right now, Labour MSPs are shaking their heads at the notion that welfare cuts are leading to an increase in rough sleeping, which, frankly, is a fact. I again call on Richard Leonard to join members of my party in calling for the devolution of all welfare powers to this Parliament, so that we can put a stop to the cuts at source.

Richard Leonard

We will see how committed the First Minister is to stopping the cuts this afternoon, when the Government announces its budget.

I want to share the experiences of Hanibelle, who is a young woman in Edinburgh who turned to the Crisis charity for help. She is a recovering drug addict and survivor of domestic abuse, and she became homeless. This week marked one whole year of her being stuck in unsuitable temporary accommodation. She has said that, in that accommodation, she is faced with

“People’s smoke coming through cracks in the walls and floors ... Sleeping in sheets that look like Swiss cheese from cigarette burns ... Blood spatter on the walls of the bathroom from people injecting heroin”.

What Hanibelle and thousands like her need is an affordable home and the local authority services that will get them back on their feet. Hanibelle does not have a choice, but the First Minister does. This afternoon, will she choose to use the powers of the Parliament to invest in lifeline council services and end Scotland’s homelessness crisis once and for all?

The First Minister

We will see in just a couple of hours the choices that the Scottish Government is making to protect Scotland from the cuts that are being imposed by the Westminster Tory Government.

Hanibelle’s experience, which Richard Leonard has just outlined, is completely unacceptable. That is why the homelessness strategy group, which we have already spoken about, has as its remit not just tackling rough sleeping but tackling and looking to improve the use of temporary accommodation. That is also why we announced in the programme for government an increase in funding to tackle alcohol and drug addiction and why we are establishing a £50 million fund to help to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. Those measures and other measures will be outlined in our budget this afternoon.

When Richard Leonard sees the choices that we are making, I hope that he will stay consistent with what he has said in the chamber and back our choices in the budget, because they are the right choices for the people of this country.

The Presiding Officer

We have a couple of constituency supplementaries.

Health Funding

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The family of a 91-year-old constituent have asked me to raise her extremely distressing health and care issue, which has wider implications. The elderly deaf and blind woman, who has a stoma bag, was discharged from hospital with insufficient care, only one daily district nurse visit, and at times no assistance available via the home care alarm. On several occasions, she therefore suffered the indignity, distress and discomfort of a burst stoma bag, and her family believes that her life is at risk. If that is happening to one elderly vulnerable person, many others will also be suffering as a result of funding cuts and the lack of adequate stoma care. Does the First Minister think that that is acceptable? If not, what will she do about it?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

From what Elaine Smith has just said, I do not think that that is at all acceptable. If she can provide the details of her constituent’s case to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport this afternoon, she will immediately look into it and then correspond with her. Elaine Smith can then feed that back to her constituents. I hope that Elaine Smith finds that response helpful as a way of taking the issue forward.

Civil Aviation Authority (Medical Certification)

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

A constituent of mine is close to securing a training placement with a commercial airline but, because they are HIV positive, the Civil Aviation Authority will not issue the required medical certification. It cites European Aviation Safety Agency rules. I understand that a deviation from those rules can be permitted. If my constituent stayed in the USA, Canada, New Zealand or Australia, or had contracted HIV as an existing commercial pilot, there would be no issues. Does the First Minister agree that that situation amounts to discrimination? Will the Scottish Government make representations to the CAA to seek to end that injustice and therefore allow my constituent to pursue their dreams?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am not aware of the full details of that case, but I am very clear that any employment policies or regulations in that area must be based on the most up-to-date facts about HIV, and not on outdated information or misconceptions. I understand that the Civil Aviation Authority has already said that it supports a rule change in the area and that it is working with the European Aviation Safety Agency to reassess the regulation. I will write to the CAA to make clear my support for that rule change.

We can all play a part in making life better for those who live with HIV, and we should all continue to work to eradicate the stigma around the virus and to tackle the false myths and prejudices that, unfortunately, still surround it.

Public Sector Pay

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

At this time of year, perhaps everybody wants to unwrap their Christmas present a wee bit early and, when it comes to the budget, we are no different. There are many thousands of people in Scotland who want to know whether there is anything in store for them. I am talking about the people who work to deliver our vital public services in every community in Scotland. They have seen their wages cut year after year in real terms, and they want to know whether their pay will again be cut this year or whether there is hope of at least an inflation-based increase. Does the First Minister agree with Grahame Smith of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, who has made the case—for not only this budget, but the longer term—that the pay settlement must begin the process of restoring the lost value in people’s wages and that it must be fully funded by the Scottish Government across our public services?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Scottish Government has already committed to lifting the 1 per cent public sector pay cap, and we remain the only Government in the United Kingdom to have made that commitment. Alongside the budget this afternoon, the finance secretary will also publish the public sector pay policy, which will include further details of the approach that we will take. As I have said previously, we want to see fair pay settlements for our public sector workers that recognise the rising cost of living, but are also affordable. We will set that out this afternoon. I am sure that Patrick Harvie will understand that he will have to wait just a little bit longer to unwrap the full details.

Patrick Harvie

One area that we will not have to wait any longer for, because we know that it will not be in the budget this afternoon, is a tax giveaway to the aviation industry. The Scottish National Party policy to halve and then scrap air departure tax was kicked down the road by at least one year, ostensibly for technical reasons, and a consultation and an economic assessment were planned. The results were published last week—they were so unhelpful to the Government that I can almost sympathise. Will the First Minister confirm that the consultation responses were overwhelmingly hostile to the Government’s policy, showing opposition of 96 per cent when all the responses were counted? Can she explain why one of the central economic arguments, which was that the bulk of the tax cut would benefit the wealthiest in society, was entirely ignored by the economic assessment?

The First Minister

Patrick Harvie and I have had exchanges on the issue in the chamber in the past. We want balanced policies across the whole range of policy areas—policies that help to boost our economy and those that protect our public services. That is the approach that this Government will take. As Patrick Harvie said, the issue will not feature in the budget this afternoon—not “ostensibly” for technical reasons but actually for technical reasons. We will continue to discuss those issues with the UK Government and will report back to this Parliament in due course.

Ferry Services (Pay)

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Last week, I warned the Government that the growing disparity in pay between Orkney Ferries crew and their counterparts in CalMac, which is funded directly by Scottish ministers, risked industrial action on Orkney’s lifeline internal ferry services. This week, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers confirmed that its members have voted to take such action. The consequences for the island communities who are utterly reliant on those services could be disastrous. Will the First Minister, even at the 11th hour, ensure that her finance secretary comes to the chamber this afternoon with a budget that honours his and the Government’s commitment, as well as the will of this Parliament, and which delivers fair funding for Orkney and Shetland’s internal ferry services?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, these are services that are run by the councils, not by CalMac or the Scottish Government. The finance secretary will continue to engage with those councils, as he has before, about what the future might hold for the services. We are open to constructive discussions in future on that issue. Liam McArthur and his colleagues ask us to put such a provision into the budget, but they still refuse to say that they will back the budget, even if that provision were in it. We will continue to have those discussions and will look to do the right thing by our island communities.

Fish Farm Expansion (Moratorium)

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

An investigation that was screened on BBC1 this week showed that hundreds of tonnes of dead salmon are being shipped across Scotland in lorries that leak waste on to the roadside. Any farming system in which more than one quarter of the livestock are diseased and die before they reach the market has a massive problem. Will the First Minister put in place a moratorium on fish farm expansion until this Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee have concluded their inquiries into the sector?

The First Minister

I am happy to ask the environment secretary to have discussions with the member on the issue. I understand people’s concerns about aspects of fish farming, and I know that some of the revelations in the documentary add to them. I know that those are issues of concern to the environment secretary, too, and she will be happy to discuss them further with the member.

Secondary Schools (Classrooms)

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

An independent report detailed in today’s newspapers predicts that Scotland will need an additional 500 classrooms in our secondary schools by 2020. That will come as no surprise to those in south Edinburgh, because, despite there being two new secondary schools, local forecasts show that the area will still be hundreds of places short within the next two to three years. Will today’s budget commit the funds required to build the extra classrooms that we need to meet the shortfall in south Edinburgh and across Scotland, given the increased capital at the Scottish Government’s disposal?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Of course, it is for individual local authorities to plan their education provision based on their assessments of need now and in future. However, I point out to the member that since this Government took office, more than 700 new or refurbished schools have come into existence across the country, and 86 per cent of young people are now learning in schools that are classed as being in good or satisfactory condition, which is a considerable increase since we took office. We will continue to discuss the issue with councils on an on-going basis, because it is absolutely essential that we have the right education provision where the numbers of young people are growing. I know that Edinburgh is one such case.

Brexit (Regulatory Alignment)

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

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government understands by the term “regulatory alignment”, and what this means for commerce between Scotland and Northern Ireland. (S5F-01841)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are seeking clarification from the United Kingdom Government on precisely what it means by regulatory alignment and what the impact would be for Scotland. The Irish Government has been clear that it would facilitate the free movement of people, goods and services across the border to Northern Ireland. On that basis, we would understand the agreement to create equivalent rules to those of the European single market.

Of course, if a differential deal is to be available to one part of the UK, it should be available to others. As we have made very clear to the UK Government, it would be entirely wrong and unfair for Scotland to be placed at a competitive disadvantage.

Christine Grahame

According to a House of Commons report, UK ministers will have to import 19,000 European Union rules and regulations into the statute book as a consequence of withdrawing from the EU. Does regulatory alignment mean keeping most of, if not all, the 19,000 rules and regulations? Given that cutting EU red tape was fundamental to the leave campaign, does the First Minister agree that this must be the biggest political fudge since records began? Indeed, speaking of fudge, will the fudge regulation still be in force as one of the 19,000?

The First Minister

Knowing the Tories, fudge regulations will definitely be safe from a cull.

Christine Grahame talks about the claims made by the leave campaign. Of course, that was the campaign that told us that Brexit would deliver £350 million a week extra for the national health service. We are still waiting for that; instead, we now find out that we are facing a bill of almost £50 billion just to leave the European Union.

The regulatory alignment issue is important. The legislative consequences of Brexit will be a major undertaking, but this is just one part of the massive effort that, if the UK Government continues on this course, will need to be put in place to get a deal that will be worse than the one that we already have as part of the EU. If there is to be alignment, that underlines even further the importance of the UK as a whole staying within the single market and the customs union. That would be the least damaging outcome for our economy, and I hope that we see people in the House of Commons coming together, as many of them did last night to defeat the Government on one particular amendment—although I note that no Scottish Tories were able to stand up to the Government—to keep the UK in the single market and the customs union.

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The First Minister will be aware of the detail of last Friday’s joint report by the UK Government and the EU, which says that the basic principles of regulatory alignment

“must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement”.

Can she tell us what her Government’s understanding is of the nature of that commitment and, in particular, how it is liable “in all circumstances” to be enforced?

The First Minister

Presumably it is a commitment that the UK Government will have to abide by. To hear David Davis at the weekend almost trying to wriggle out of the commitments before the European Council had even had the opportunity to endorse them says everything that needs to be said about the lack of trust that many on the European side of the negotiations have in the UK Government.

It is important that, as the negotiations progress—as we hope that they will—people can trust the commitments that the UK Government gives and, on the evidence of what happened at the weekend, that that trust exists is perhaps doubtful. The most important thing is that the negotiations are in the interests of the economy and of people right across the UK.

I wish that we were staying in the EU, but, given that the UK is leaving it, I want to see us stay in the single market and the customs union, and I hope that the Labour Party at Westminster will eventually get round to supporting that as well.

Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy

5. Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the First Minister for what reason the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy has been abandoned. (S5F-01815)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The SSLN has been replaced with more detailed and comprehensive information. It gave us a national picture of children’s progress in literacy and numeracy, but did not provide any detailed information for local authorities and schools about the progress of individual children. The achievement of curriculum for excellence levels data that we now publish is a much more comprehensive data collection. For the first time ever under CFE, it gives us the attainment levels of every child in Scotland at key stages in primary and secondary school, and provides detailed data at all levels of the system to help us to identify what works in raising attainment and closing the attainment gap.

Liz Smith

Every education expert in the land is telling the Scottish Government that it needs to improve the quality of the data set that can measure progress in our schools. They make the point that the Government’s assertion that things will get better will hold water only if standardised assessment is actually standardised across the country, and is less dependent on the wide variations in teacher judgment across local authorities. Does the First Minister not agree that parents have a right to expect use of data that is reliable and is respected for having a good track record, and that the decision to abandon SSLN at this in time, in favour of experimental data, was ill advised?

The First Minister

No, I do not agree with that. SSLN was important but, as First Minister, I know that the information that it provided was nowhere near detailed enough to allow us to target actions on improving performance and closing the attainment gap. As I have just said, the data that we now publish is much more comprehensive.

I also disagree with Liz Smith about teacher judgment. The International Council of Education Advisers said that we should provide a consistent support framework to teachers and then trust in their professionalism, which is exactly what we are doing.

As far as data is concerned, this year’s CFE levels data is more robust than last year’s, due to the quality assurance and moderation work that has been done in schools across Scotland. Of course, next year, that consistency and reliability will be further enhanced by the use of standardised assessments in all schools.

Let me repeat—because this is the most important point—that CFE levels data gives us the attainment levels of every child in Scotland at key stages in primary and secondary school, and provides detailed data at all levels. It helps us to target action to raise attainment and to close the attainment gap, which is what is most important in all of this.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

The truth is that educationists and the First Minister’s own statisticians have told her clearly that the literacy and numeracy survey was statistically valid for allowing national progress to be tracked, and that the new attainment data that she is using simply is not, and never will be. If raising attainment is really her priority, why will she not measure national progress properly, simply by reintroducing the literacy and numeracy survey, or is she afraid of what it might show?

The First Minister

The data that we now publish will tell us all much more than we have ever had before about the performance not just of Scottish education generally, but of every child in the Scottish education system. As First Minister, it is my view—I know that it is also the view of the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills—that when we look at the actions that we need to take to improve attainment in our schools, we want to have comprehensive and robust data. The SSLN did not give us that: it was, as I have said previously in the chamber, based on samples of as few as 12 pupils in some schools. We need comprehensive data, which is what the CFE levels data will give us. That is important.

Extreme Winter Weather (Remote and Rural Areas)

6. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what contingencies the Scottish Government has put in place to deal with the effects of extreme winter weather on rural and remote areas. (S5F-01828)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We recognise the serious impact that extreme winter weather can have on rural and remote communities. Our dedicated resilience operation actively monitors all weather and flood alerts and can be activated at any time, on any day of the year. Indeed, last week, during storm Caroline, the Deputy First Minister convened the resilience committee to ensure that all appropriate support was in place.

We also work closely with the emergency services, local authorities, health boards, power companies and others to ensure that we understand any challenges that are happening on the ground across Scotland, and to ensure that they can respond and co-ordinate appropriately at local level when any kind of emergency occurs.

Rhoda Grant

Already this winter, constituents have contacted me with concerns about how the weather is impacting on health services. One gentleman reached Inverness and was waiting for his appointment at Raigmore hospital when he was contacted by Stagecoach to say that his bus home had been cancelled due to bad weather. It cost him £200 to get home by taxi that night.

Constituents in Caithness are all very concerned because recent service changes are forcing more of them to go to Inverness to access health services. Already this winter, the county has been cut off because of landslides on the rail line and road closures due to accidents. Sadly, that is a common occurrence. What is the First Minister doing to make sure that my constituents do not face further trauma while accessing services this winter?

The First Minister

If Rhoda Grant wants to provide us with the details of the specific constituency case that she outlined, we would be happy to look into that.

We cannot take away altogether the impacts of bad weather during the winter—I think that everybody understands that—but we do have to work to make sure that everybody is pulling together to mitigate the impacts as much as possible. That is what we are doing—that is what is done at local level through resilience partnerships, which fully involve national health service colleagues, and it is what we co-ordinate at national level through our resilience committee.

On the wider issues around health in the Highlands, I understand the concerns that have been raised, particularly in relation to the number of outpatient visits that involve people having to travel to Raigmore hospital in Inverness, some of whom live 100 miles away. That is why NHS Highland has been working to develop long-term sustainable services across Caithness, and why it is reviewing the wider provision of hospital and adult community services. Those are important issues, which we will continue to work on with others.

However, as I said at the outset, if there are particular constituency cases that Rhoda Grant wishes the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport or other relevant ministers to look into, I ask her to pass us the details of them, please.

Domestic Abuse

7. Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with Police Scotland regarding tackling domestic abuse over the festive period. (S5F-01825)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

On Sunday 10 December, Police Scotland launched its anti-domestic abuse campaign. The campaign will run over the festive period, when, sadly, reports of domestic abuse increase by around a quarter. The campaign makes it clear that Police Scotland will take all necessary action to deal with the perpetrators of domestic abuse, and I hope that the member and the chamber will, like the Scottish Government, fully support that important and necessary campaign.

Michelle Ballantyne

I welcome the First Minister’s comments, particularly in the context of the Scottish Borders, where there has been a 40 per cent increase in the reported incidence of domestic abuse since 2008 and where more must be done to protect and support victims. That should be our utmost priority.

According to the Scottish Government’s figures, more than 12,000 people were convicted of a crime with a domestic abuse aggravator in 2015-16, many of whom were given a short sentence. Given the devastating impact of some domestic abuse, does the First Minister agree with me that abolishing prison sentences of less than a year, which allows perpetrators to escape with little if any punishment or rehabilitation, is an appalling way to treat victims whose lives have been tortured by abuse and that any Government that is genuinely serious about eradicating domestic abuse would not adopt such a policy?

The First Minister

No, I do not agree with that, because I do not really agree with the premise on which the question is based.

In the interests of consensus on an issue on which we should all try to come together and agree, I think that Michelle Ballantyne is right to say that protecting and supporting victims should be our absolute top priority.

I know that Michelle Ballantyne is particularly interested in the Scottish Borders, and I hope that she will agree with me that Scottish Borders Council’s domestic abuse advocacy support service is a great example of innovative partnership work. If an increase in the number of reports of domestic abuse through the advocacy service or, indeed, through the police shows an increased level of confidence among victims to come forward and report incidents, we should welcome that. The Scottish Government’s funding for that service in the Scottish Borders has totalled £585,000 since its launch in 2012.

Let me come to the less consensual part of my answer. Michelle Ballantyne said that we are abolishing short sentences—that is not the case. We are looking to create a presumption against short sentences, and many people working in the criminal justice field think that that is the right thing to do to reduce reoffending. However, the decision on the sentence in any individual case is always a matter for the judge who has heard the case—it is not a matter for me, as the First Minister, for the Scottish Government or, indeed, for any politician in this chamber. It is absolutely right and proper that decisions on sentencing rest, ultimately, with judges.