Meeting date: Thursday, December 15, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 15 December 2016
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Edinburgh World Heritage Site, Point of Order, Draft Budget 2017-18, Food Waste, Scottish Land Commissioners and Tenant Farming Commissioner (Appointment), Business Motion, Presiding Officer’s Ruling, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Edinburgh World Heritage Site
- Point of Order
- Draft Budget 2017-18
- Food Waste
- Scottish Land Commissioners and Tenant Farming Commissioner (Appointment)
- Business Motion
- Presiding Officer’s Ruling
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00636)
Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
We are used to seeing budget U-turns after budgets have been announced, but it is quite something to see a budget falling apart before it has even been published. The Scottish National Party Government has been telling us for months that it will press ahead with its flagship plan to raid council budgets to pay for an attainment fund. Now, a few hours before the most important budget in the Parliament’s history, we read that that policy has been dumped. Is that not a shambles, First Minister?
I concede that the Tories know quite a lot about shambles. The Parliament does not have too long to wait until Derek Mackay outlines the Scottish Government’s budget. It is a budget that will deliver in full on the commitments that we have made to extra investment in our schools to tackle the attainment gap and raise standards. It is also a budget that will deliver fairness for local government services.
Overall, it is a budget that will invest in our economy, protect public services and ensure fair treatment for householders. No matter how much they might like to moan about the budget, members across the chamber will have to welcome it when they hear it this afternoon.
It is a bit late to tell us to wait until 2.30 when the information is on the front pages of today’s papers. I do not know whether the First Minister has taken the time to speak to anyone in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities who was at the meeting on Tuesday. I am in no doubt whatsoever that, if she had, they would have confirmed that the story in today’s press is 100 per cent true.
If the SNP is going to dump the plan, that is good. Local communities were absolutely right to say no to a national Government wanting to snatch local funding.
Here is what many people will be asking today. Back in September, all the Opposition parties in the Parliament sent a crystal-clear message to the Government that it should ditch the proposal. We might think that, if something put us and the Greens on the same side, that would be a warning shot that there was a problem, yet the Government ignored Parliament and councils. It has climbed down now, at the last minute, only because it has been told that the proposal will not work. Everybody else saw that coming, so why did the Government not see it?
I thought that the comedy turn at First Minister’s questions was reserved for Willie Rennie. It seems that there is a new incumbent in that post.
Let me check that I have got Ruth Davidson’s position right. I think that I heard her say to the Scottish Government, “How dare you dump a plan that we absolutely demanded that you dump?” That appears to be her position.
When the budget is presented in a couple of hours, Derek Mackay will outline the Government’s absolute determination to do what we promised we would do by investing more money in schools to raise standards, help teachers and close the attainment gap. The chamber will also hear a budget that delivers fairness for local government services. When the chamber hears the budget, some of the claims and accusations that we have heard in recent days from people across the chamber will sound rather silly.
When the First Minister talks about claims and accusations that link local government funding to the attainment fund, does she mean those that were given by her deputy? He said:
“We secured a mandate at the recent election to raise an additional £100 million per year, through our council tax reforms, specifically for raising educational attainment.”—[Official Report, 28 September 2016; c 12.]
That sounds pretty specific to me.
All this chaff aside, the real answer is that the Government thought that it could make councils pay for a Scottish Government policy, and councils told it to take a running jump. We now have to assume that, despite the Government’s complaints and long list of grievances, Mr Mackay is able to find a spare £100 million down the back of his sofa to pay for the attainment fund, unless the plan is to lop an extra £100 million from the councils’ central Government grant. Who will pay for the fund—will it be the councils or the Government?
I am confused at Ruth Davidson’s line of questioning. I cannot work out whether she wants us to do something or does not want us to do something. We do not have long to wait to hear the budget being outlined. When we hear it being outlined, Ruth Davidson will look back on her line of questioning—particularly that last question—and conclude that it probably was not the most sensible line to have pursued.
The budget will deliver on the promise that we made to get extra investment into schools. It will also deliver fairness for local government and respect local democracy and accountability. I would have thought that people across the chamber could welcome each and every one of those aspects of the budget and I certainly hope that that will be the case. The budget that Derek Mackay will outline in just over two hours’ time is one that I am extremely proud to have outlined for the Government, and I hope that the entire chamber will get behind it.
It sounds an awful lot as if, instead of taking the money out of the councils’ front pocket, the First Minister is going to take it out of their hip pocket instead.
This morning’s headlines make it pretty clear that, at the very moment when we need a Scottish Government that is in control, we have instead one that is distracted and utterly adrift. It is one that has allowed us to fall behind the rest of the United Kingdom in 25 out of 30 key economic indicators. It is one that is deterring investment because of its threat of a second independence referendum. It is one that tries to spin its way out of a rise in unemployment by pretending that that rise is not happening.
The spin and the drift need to end, because what we need now more than ever is a Government that has a real focus on the economy and which uses the powers that the Parliament now has to create new jobs and not to deter skilled workers by setting the highest taxes anywhere in the UK. The First Minister is right about one thing: in two and a half hours’ time, it will be decision time. The Government is either for keeping Scotland competitive, so that we can grow the economy, or for taxing people more and putting a block on growth. The First Minister cannot have it both ways, so which one is it to be?
Nobody who is watching this will have any idea what on earth Ruth Davidson is asking me, and I do not think that she knows, either. That was totally confused and shambolic. We always know when Ruth Davidson is drowning at First Minister’s questions because she gets on to an independence referendum. That is the straw that she keeps clutching at.
I have to say that it is a bit ironic that she talks about economic uncertainty on the very day that we see a story in the media—she is fond of citing stories in the media—that the UK Government is being advised, by its own European Union ambassador, that it will take 10 years to put in place a new deal with the EU. That is the economic uncertainty that is being created for businesses across the country, and it is entirely on the Tories’ watch.
Let us get back to the budget. When Ruth Davidson hears Derek Mackay’s budget later, she will look back to the start of the long, winding and confused question that she asked me and realise how misinformed and ill informed it was. The budget is not about taking money from local services but about investing in them, and that will be the hallmark of the budget this afternoon.
I take us back to the core issue, which is raising attainment in our schools. I have made absolutely clear the priority that I attach to that, that the Deputy First Minister attaches to that and that the entire Government attaches to that. This afternoon, the chamber and Scotland will see a budget that matches the investment to the ambition that we have to ensure that we raise standards in our schools and create a world-class education system.
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-00643)
Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
Today is budget day. It is the day when the Scottish National Party will prove, beyond doubt, that it would rather pass on Tory cuts than use the powers of this Parliament to do things differently. Nowhere is that clearer than in our education system. The past two weeks have exposed a decade of failure under the SNP. Even SNP councillors are now speaking out. In Dundee, they have said that the real problem in education is not who runs the school budgets; it is the fact that the budgets are being cut. Does the First Minister agree with her SNP colleagues in Dundee?
I agree that we need increased investment in our schools. That is what the SNP pledged to deliver when we won the election in May, and that is exactly what Derek Mackay’s budget will deliver this afternoon.
I hope that the First Minister has read the paper from her SNP colleagues in Dundee to the Scottish Government. It is pages and pages of a plea to stop the cuts to education. The truth is that there really is nothing progressive about the SNP. We saw that yesterday, when it once again voted with the Tories against a 50p top rate of tax for the richest 1 per cent. We see it in the state of our schools: 10 years of the SNP have led to falling standards, a shameful gap between the richest and poorest children and more than 4,000 fewer teachers. Whatever spin she puts on the budget this afternoon, does the First Minister really think that it will reverse a decade of damaging cuts?
This week, we saw an increase in teacher numbers. Part of that increase was delivered as a direct result of the attainment fund that the Government set up. Today, we also see evidence of a narrowing of the attainment gap in terms of access to universities. We have said that we are determined to go further in our universities and schools. We had the data published this week so that we can ensure that we focus absolutely on raising standards and closing the gap, and on holding Government to account for that.
On our tax policies more generally, I seem to recall that, yesterday at decision time, Labour voted with the Tories against the Government’s position. We put our tax policies to the people of Scotland in the election. I know that Kezia Dugdale does not like being reminded of the election in May because she led her party to the humiliation of coming third in it. In that election, we put forward fair, balanced tax proposals and the people of Scotland endorsed them. We will deliver on them in our budget this afternoon.
I know that the SNP Government has a problem with its numeracy standards but surely even the First Minister can see that an increase of 250 teachers in one year does not take away a loss of 4,000 over the past 10 years. Teachers, janitors and care workers are uniting outside the chamber today against SNP cuts that are damaging valued public services and which Nicola Sturgeon has spent her whole life saying that she could stop if only she had the powers. Well, now she has the powers and she is refusing to use them, so local services will face more cuts—cuts that will hit everybody but hurt the most vulnerable. Labour will not vote for a budget that will inflict such pain on Scotland. The question is: why would the SNP?
We will not do that, because the budget that we will outline this afternoon invests in public services. I absolutely believe that, when we hear the budget, not only the questions that we heard from Ruth Davidson but some of those that we heard from Kezia Dugdale will turn out to be completely unfounded. We will outline a budget that supports our economy, protects public services and ensures that we do not further punish hard-pressed workers throughout the country. When we hear the budget this afternoon, the question will not be why the Government would vote for it—we are proud of it—but why anybody else in the chamber would not vote for it. It is a fair budget and a good budget and I hope that the entire chamber will get behind it.
We have a couple of constituency supplementaries.
Is the First Minister aware of the level of concern about the proposals to remove in-patient beds from the centre for integrative care? The Scottish health council has deemed the change not to be major, much to the anger of patients and campaigners throughout Scotland. Will the First Minister explain what happened to the pledge made by the health secretary during the election campaign that she would consider giving the CIC national funding? Will the First Minister and the health secretary agree to meet campaigners before next week’s meeting of Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board?
The health secretary is always happy to meet campaigners and patients and does so regularly.
The decision about whether the service change is deemed a major one has been informed by the Scottish health council. We ask it to look at proposed service changes and give us advice on whether they are major or not. The advice on the centre for integrative care proposal is that it is not a major service change proposal. All the other proposals from Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board have, of course, been deemed to be major service change proposals.
That is the right way to make those decisions, and that should be recognised across the chamber. The health secretary will, of course, continue to engage with patients on this issue and on a range of other issues.
On Sunday, more than 500 people took to the beach at Nairn to complain about the transfer of oil between ships on the open seas of the Moray Firth. The plan will create no jobs, but will put at risk the marine environment, coastal communities and the Highlands and Islands tourism industry, which is the region’s most important industry. In 2007, the Scottish Government vigorously opposed such a plan for the Firth of Forth. Will the First Minister personally review the Scottish Government’s position on the matter and join the growing opposition to that significant potential threat?
I absolutely understand the concerns that people are expressing but, as John Finnie will be aware, the matter is reserved to the United Kingdom Government. The Scottish Government has repeatedly requested devolution of that function since 2014, but we currently have no formal role in the process, despite our having devolved responsibility to protect the environment. The Secretary of State for Transport in the UK Government must take account of the advice that was previously given by Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
I understand the concerns, and we will continue to make those views known to the UK Government. I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform would be happy to meet John Finnie to discuss the matter further.
The First Minister may be aware of my constituent Angela MacDonald, who faced having to go to England or Northern Ireland due to a shortage of appropriate neonatal cots in the national health service in Scotland. She bypassed the Vale of Leven maternity unit, there were no neonatal cots at the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley, and she ended up in the Victoria hospital in Fife without family or friends. She was then told that she might need to go to Newcastle or Belfast because of pressure on neonatal cots. That is simply unacceptable.
Why were there no suitable neonatal cots in all of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde? Why does there appear to be a shortage of cots across Scotland? Why do the resources to buy equipment appear not to exist? If the First Minister agrees that what happened is unacceptable, what will she do now to stop women travelling hundreds of miles to have their babies?
I am not going to comment on the individual case. I have read the media report on it, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport would be very happy to correspond with Jackie Baillie about the particular constituency case that she raises. I simply say that I hope that her constituent and her constituent’s baby are doing well. I wish them all the best.
On the more general issue that Jackie Baillie raised, maternity and neonatal services are vital services in our country. That is why we commissioned the review of maternity and neonatal services, the outcome of which is due out early next year. The review will look across a range of issues to ensure that we have the right services, and the right configuration of services, in place across our country so that mothers get the best possible care.
To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00651)
The Cabinet will next meet on Tuesday.
It is not a new habit of politicians, but it is a bad habit to criticise an opponent for a policy that we do not like and to criticise them again when that policy is reversed. Therefore, I warmly welcome the change of direction that appears to be happening on the decision to raid local tax revenues to fund a national policy. The Greens have been consistent in arguing that local taxation should be for local priorities and local decision making.
If there is going to be a change of direction, it will be a positive one, but if the reason for the change is an inability to get agreement between central and local government, surely there will be two consequences. One consequence is for national Government—the Scottish Government. The ability to make Scotland-wide decisions on policy on investment in services has to be funded by national taxation powers. That is exactly what those tax powers are for. Secondly, those in local government need the flexibility, unhampered by central control, to make decisions about tax levels and tax rates at the local level to meet local priorities, because they work hard in every community to deliver the services that we all depend on every day of our lives.
I am not going to comment in detail on the budget, because Derek Mackay will outline it shortly, but I will say a number of things, which I have said in response to other questions. I hope that when members hear the budget statement this afternoon, there will be a recognition that what I am about to say is at the heart of our budget.
We have put together a budget that will protect nationally funded public services, that will absolutely deliver on our commitment to get extra investment into schools to help us to raise standards and to close the attainment gap, and that will seek to protect local services, while respecting local democracy and accountability. Those are three important principles; we will put forward a budget that delivers on each and every one of them.
The First Minister saying that she was not going to comment on the detail of the budget was a phrase that we all expected to hear, and we understand that we will hear the detail later. I was asking about the broad direction of travel. If the First Minister is describing it correctly as a budget that will protect national services and protect local services from cuts, I will look at it with an open mind.
Yesterday, no party gained a majority in the chamber on the taxation debate. No party, including the Government, was able to convince a majority of the Parliament on its tax position. Some have described that as a stalemate. It is in all our interests to avoid a stalemate when the budget comes to be voted on or when the rate resolution—the tax rates—comes to be voted on.
It is significant that Scottish National Party, Green, Labour and Lib Dem MSPs were united yesterday in rejecting the Tory ideological demand that taxes should be no higher in Scotland. If we want to avoid that stalemate, all we need to decide is who is going to pay more taxes. On the Green benches, we believe that that should be people on the wealthier end of the income scale, not those who are low earners. Will the First Minister confirm that people like ourselves—MSPs and ministers in the Scottish Government on high incomes—will be paying more in tax next year than we did this year?
I will let Derek Mackay set out the details of the budget. We put our tax policies—national and local—to the electorate, and we emerged by some considerable distance as the largest party in this chamber.
More broadly, I welcome the fact that Patrick Harvie says that he will listen to the budget with an open mind. I think that he will find and hear plenty in the budget that he can agree with. I say to him that it is important that we seek to build progressive alliances in this chamber, and I am very happy and willing to do that. This afternoon, we will find that there are acres of common ground in the budget that we can all build on.
I look forward to working with those across the chamber—or at least in certain parts of the chamber—to try to build that progressive alliance that supports our economy and public services and makes sure that we deliver fairness to people across the country who are already starting to pay the price of the higher inflation imposed on us by the Tory Brexit obsession. Those are the principles at the heart of our budget; I hope that everyone in the chamber will be able to support them.
Will the First Minister join me in condemning Halfords, which wants to charge one of my constituents in Speyside an astonishing £50 for delivering a pair of car towels costing £5.99? To make matters worse, the company implied that the high charge is to put off customers in the north of Scotland from ordering—so much for the season of goodwill.
Does the First Minister agree that, as more rural residents buy online in the run-up to Christmas, they should not be treated with contempt, fleeced by greedy companies or discriminated against for living in the north of Scotland? Will the First Minister and her colleagues in Government put as much pressure as possible on the United Kingdom Government to sort out this matter once and for all?
Richard Lochhead raises an important issue. Yes, we will continue to apply pressure to the UK Government to take action.
The level of charge that Richard Lochhead has outlined is shocking. Based on what he has said, it seems vastly out of proportion. I am in full agreement that excessive charging for parcel deliveries is unacceptable, particularly when we know that more and more customers are taking advantage of the benefits of shopping online.
We played an active role in developing a statement of principles for delivery charging, which reputable companies should adhere to. However, as Richard Lochhead has alluded to, the UK Government has the power, and indeed the obligation, to prevent that kind of situation from arising, and we will continue to press it to do much better by our rural citizens than it does right now.
Since February of this year, the Scottish Prison Service, on behalf of the Scottish ministers, has had the power to release prisoners up to two days early so that they can access services in the community, a move that was supported by parties across the chamber. The Scottish Government’s policy memorandum at the time stated that some 4,000 prisoners a year are released on a Friday and that release on the days preceding weekends is
“consistently raised as a key barrier”
to accessing services. I have found out that, in the 10 months since the provision was made available, it has been used for only one prisoner. What is the First Minister’s assessment of the use of the power?
It certainly sounds as if we should look into that issue further, and I am happy to do so. I do not have the detail in front of me, but the reason for the policy that the member has outlined is to help prisoners, on their release, to reintegrate and access services in the community, which is an important part of trying to reduce reoffending. I give an undertaking to the member to look into the issue and to have the Cabinet Secretary for Justice write to him with the detail that he has requested.
Presiding Officer, humanity is dying before our eyes and the world looks on, helpless. Looking at the scenes from Aleppo, I feel angry, broken, helpless and lost—angry that this can happen in our world; broken, because I can only imagine if it was my children staying awake at night because of the sound of gunfire and explosions, or if my boys’ only hope in life was to stay alive; helpless, because I do not know what I or anybody else in the chamber can do to make a meaningful difference; and lost, because every option that I think of can mean only more bloodshed and violence. We need to do something, but I honestly do not know what that something is. I know that warm words will not save a single life in Aleppo, but I hope that all of us in this chamber can encourage people across Scotland to take part in the humanitarian response in Syria and to send a strong message of solidarity, humanity and peace to every man, woman and child struggling in Aleppo.
I thoroughly endorse Anas Sarwar’s comments and I share the sentiments that he has expressed. Each and every one of us finds the scenes from Aleppo that we are witnessing on our television screens nightly to be heartbreaking and deeply distressing. In the circumstances, it is very difficult for any of us to say exactly what can and should be done to resolve the situation, but we know that, on this occasion, the world cannot, as it has done so often in the past, continue to stand back while the scenes of slaughter and destruction happen before our eyes.
There are things that we should be supporting, such as more humanitarian intervention. For example, the suggestion of humanitarian air drops should be further discussed. We should support evacuation of the wounded. For example, Red Cross evacuation is happening as we speak, and we should support more of that. There should absolutely be a determination to hold to account for their behaviour anyone who is guilty of what would be war crimes. The international community must unite behind that. I endorse Anas Sarwar’s plea that all of us should bear in mind the humanitarian crisis and seek to do what we can as individuals to help with the humanitarian effort.
More widely—this does not in any way take away from the horror that we are witnessing in Aleppo—this time last week, after First Minister’s questions, I visited a group of Syrian refugees who arrived in Edinburgh round about this time last year. I saw a number of people still suffering trauma and real anxiety and concern about relatives in other countries and in some cases still in Syria, but I also witnessed what can happen when, as a society, we come together and are determined to act in a humanitarian way, giving refuge and a home to people who need it. Let us hope today—as we hope on all days, but particularly as we get so close to Christmas—that we can see a future where the love based on that humanitarian instinct can overcome the horror that we witness all too often.
I am sure that we can all welcome the announcement this week about the 253 full-time-equivalent teachers, many of whom will be directly funded by the Scottish Government. As Parliament will learn of the budget later today, does that not reinforce the message that all politicians—in Parliament and local government—should get fully behind the attainment Scotland fund?
Yes. I hope that the entire Parliament will get behind the attainment Scotland fund and the attainment challenge, which is focused on raising attainment in our schools. As First Minister, I have been very clear about the level of priority that I attach to the work that the fund supports.
The teacher numbers that were published earlier this week show an increase, but it is important to note that part of that increase—I think 160 out of the 253 extra teachers—is teachers who are funded directly through the attainment fund. It is a relatively small number, because the fund is still in its early stages, but it is a demonstration of the power of that kind of directed and targeted resource. The budget this afternoon will set out our plans to ensure that that kind of approach continues.
Oil and Gas Industry
To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with the oil and gas industry in the light of recovering oil prices. (S5F-00664)
The Scottish Government has worked closely with the oil and gas industry, through the work of the energy jobs task force, to overcome the challenges that it has faced as a result of the downturn. Although oil prices have recently risen slightly, we are under no illusion about the challenges that the sector continues to face. Of course, the United Kingdom Government holds the main levers to support the sector, so we were disappointed that it provided nothing new by way of support in the autumn statement.
We remain committed to supporting the sector. With up to 20 billion barrels of oil still to be recovered from the North Sea, it is clear that with the right investment and the right interventions now, the industry can and will have a bright future.
Yesterday I received an update from BP—as did, I am sure, other north-east MSPs—in which BP’s chief executive officer, Bob Dudley, is quoted as saying:
“The myth that the North Sea is finished is absolutely that ... There’s a demonstration of new activity and new big fields coming on stream ... there’s real economic activity that will support thousands of jobs. And there is an active exploration programme that could create something really new and exciting.”
Given that the Westminster Government has completely failed to support the oil and gas sector and north-east Scotland’s economy, can the First Minister outline what work the Scottish Government is doing to maximise investment in that vital sector and to encourage exploration?
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in advance of the autumn statement, outlining further action that the Treasury could take to support the oil sector at this time, including vital measures to stimulate exploration. It is disappointing that the chancellor chose not to act, so I hope that there will be further action from the UK Government over the months to come on exploration, and around the operation of tax relief on decommissioning, which is very important for the stage that the North Sea industry is at right now.
The Scottish Government will continue to do all that we can to support the industry. The task force that I mentioned remains focused on supporting the people who have been affected. At the same time, it is looking to the future and laying the foundations for a vibrant industry for decades to come. The £12 million transition training fund that has been established by the Scottish Government has been very successful and has so far supported more than 1,200 people who were made redundant to retrain and upskill. Those are real and tangible efforts to support workers in the industry at this time.
Through the city deal with the UK Government—although the Scottish Government is investing more in infrastructure—we are supporting Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to ensure that they have the infrastructure that they need in order to compete in the future.
I will quote directly to the First Minister what Oil & Gas UK said in response to the autumn statement. Deirdre Michie, the chief executive, said:
“We are pleased to hear the Chancellor re-commit to HM Treasury’s Driving Investment plan today. This sends a strong signal to investors that the government recognises that the UK oil and gas tax regime needs to be predictable and internationally competitive.”
When the industry is so positive about the UK Government action, why cannot the First Minister be?
Oil & Gas UK will, of course, speak for itself, but the industry has been calling for more. I attended, a few months back, a meeting in Aberdeen with Oil & Gas UK, at which we discussed some of the particular issues that I have been talking about today, including more support for exploration and, in particular, how tax relief on decommissioning will be dealt with to ensure that it can support new entrants into the sector. Those are important practical measures. I recognise some of the earlier steps that the UK Government took around investment, for example, but all of us should say that more needs to be done. We should unite to ask the UK Government to do more. That would be a perfectly reasonable approach.
In the meantime I, as First Minister, should ensure that the Scottish Government fulfils its obligations to support retraining and upskilling, and to support efforts to ensure that when the industry recovers—as it will—we still have the skills in the north-east of Scotland to ensure that it can flourish. If we work together—which I think would be a good thing to do on this and other matters—we can ensure that a vital Scottish industry has the support that it needs and can have a very bright future.
Basic Payment Scheme
To ask the First Minister, in the light of recently reported issues, what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that farmers can have confidence in the national basic payment support scheme. (S5F-00640)
It is clear that it is important to learn lessons from all recently reported issues in order to give farmers the confidence that they need in the common agricultural policy payment scheme. We have already accepted all of Audit Scotland’s recommendations, and a range of internal actions are being undertaken by officials to implement internal checking processes.
It is crucial that the issue does not risk delivery to farmers and crofters. I hope that all members would agree that the thing that we can do that will give farmers most confidence in the 2016 scheme is to deliver it by the end of June, which is the timescale that the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity set out. He, I and the entire Government are focused on achieving that.
Last week, Scotland’s rural communities saw our Government overpay loans to 166 farmers, to a total of £746,000. We also saw a foul-up with the beef efficiency scheme’s data protection, which led to a breach that accidentally released thousands of email addresses. That is all on top of a dismal record on getting CAP payments to farmers and crofters. Will the First Minister commit to delivering the balance of this year’s CAP payments as soon as possible and, at the very latest, by June next year?
Yes. I just said that we are absolutely focused on doing that.
Data protection is a serious matter. The breach was a human error in the Government. Appropriate action will, of course, be taken to ensure that such errors do not happen in the future.
The overpayments were identified on the day that the loans were issued. Affected businesses were contacted the next day, an apology was issued and discussions have taken place about how the money will be repaid. Prompt action was taken to alert customers about the overpayment and to agree repayment.
On the more general issue—which farmers and crofters are, of course, concerned about—more than 12,500 farmers and crofters have received a nationally funded loan. The total loans amount to £256 million, which is getting money into farmers’ pockets, where it needs to be. Fergus Ewing has been very clear that we are absolutely determined that the scheme will be delivered in full by the deadline of June next year, and I hope that Peter Chapman will get behind him and the Government as we seek to ensure that that is the case.
Almost a third of farm businesses are so confident about the Scottish Government’s loan scheme, which closed yesterday, that they are not taking it up. That means that more than £200 million that was due to be spent in the rural economy this month—it is December every year—is sitting in the Scottish Government’s bank account. The First Minister is laughing at that. Does she not understand that the continued failure to deliver farm entitlements—that is what they are—on time is damaging our whole rural economy?
We are absolutely focused on supporting the rural economy.
We made a loan scheme available, which was the right thing to do and was widely supported not just across the chamber but by the industry. With the greatest of respect to Mike Rumbles, I say that I cannot force farmers to agree to take a loan. The offer was made and many farmers have taken it up: as I said, 12,500 farmers and crofters have received a nationally funded loan. If some farmers and crofters opt not to take a loan, that is their decision and the Government must respect it.
In terms of payment of the overall scheme, 99 per cent of payments in last year’s scheme have been made, and we are absolutely focused on ensuring that we learn the lessons from what happened so that payments for this year’s scheme are made by the June deadline that we have been speaking about.
I have apologised to farmers and the rural economy repeatedly on previous occasions, and have no hesitation in doing so again, for the mistakes that were made and the delays that were encountered in the 2015 scheme. We are determined to learn lessons and to put things right, and to ensure that we meet the deadline next year. That is what we will do.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to figures released by the Care Inspectorate that show that 70 per cent of four-year-olds were recorded as receiving funded childcare. (S5F-00648)
It is very important to note, as I hope Mr Johnson will, that the 70 per cent that he has derived from the Care Inspectorate’s figure is based on a trial statistic for numbers of funded four-year-olds. The Care Inspectorate itself has said that those are trial statistics and may well be incomplete. In fact, its own report clearly indicates that the data has been collected for the first time, and states:
“there are some uncertainties regarding the data quality.”
I, and the Care Inspectorate, therefore urge caution in drawing conclusions from those trial statistics.
Daniel Johnson may wish to note that the latest statistics that the Scottish Government published this week, which are validated and quality assured, showed that uptake for four-year-olds remains at near-universal levels.
I thank the First Minister for that answer, but the fair funding for our kids group has been telling the Government for two years that the way in which it measures childcare is wrong and that children are missing out. Indeed, it is ludicrous to rely on statistics that show rates of well over 100 per cent in some areas. The Care Inspectorate’s figures confirm how misleading the Government’s figures are. If we cannot have confidence in the Government’s figures on the uptake of 600 hours, how can we be confident that we are on track to deliver double that number of hours, especially when the Government’s blueprint on childcare has already been delayed?
I am happy to ask the Minister for Childcare and Early Years to write to the member to set out some of the detail of the matter, because it is important that people understand it. The figure of 98 per cent for four-year-olds comes from the Scottish Government’s figures, which are quality assured and validated. We have recognised, partly as a consequence of our discussions with the fair funding for our kids group, that there will be some duplication in that figure. However, taking account of that duplication, we are confident that more than 95 per cent of four-year-olds are registered for their childcare entitlement. That is getting very close to universal levels.
Equally, I have conceded in the chamber many times in the past that we must do more to improve the flexibility of the provision that we are offering, and work is well under way with councils to do exactly that. We are now focused—as our budget this afternoon will reflect—on doubling the provision over the lifetime of this session of Parliament, because it is the doubling of provision that will deal with some of the inflexibility that parents understandably find difficult. This policy is vital for the good of our young people and to help parents to get into work, and I will, on behalf of the Government, be very proud to see it implemented in this session of Parliament.
Can the First Minister outline how much money the Scottish Government has invested in early learning and childcare, and how much local authorities have spent? Does she agree that it is the height of hypocrisy for Labour politicians to come to the chamber and bemoan ELC when Labour councils such as Fife Council have taken Scottish Government funding and run?
We know from the financial review that was carried out that the expansion of childcare to 600 hours has been fully funded. Since 2014, local authorities have been provided with £500 million for that, and we are committed to further funding to support the doubling of provision that I have spoken about—the draft budget will touch on that later today.
The financial review also highlighted the estimated significant underspend in the funding that was given to local authorities to support the expansion to 600 hours. I expect local authorities to spend the funding that we make available to them to provide the hours, flexibility and choice that parents and children have a right to expect. I also expect to see clear progress from authorities that have low levels of registration but which have failed to make full use of their funding. Those issues are important. It is vital that the Scottish Government funds its commitments, but it is also vital that local authorities use the funding to deliver those commitments.
That concludes First Minister’s questions.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Section 3 of our code of conduct covers declarations of interests. It covers written declarations of interest, but it also makes clear that spoken declarations of interest in the chamber are required on certain occasions. It states:
“A member must declare an interest when speaking or intervening in a debate where that interest relates to the subject being debated.”
It later says:
“If the member wishes to take part in the meeting in any way, other than simply attending or voting, they must make an oral declaration.”
I ask for your guidance, Presiding Officer. Does that section cover farm payments? Will you look at the Official Report of today’s First Minister’s question time and consider whether the code has been complied with?
I will look into the matter that Mr Harvie raises.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. While you are investigating that matter, could you also seek clarification about whether parliamentary liaison officers who ask questions should also declare an interest? I think that that has happened on this occasion. [Interruption.]
Order, it is not lunch time yet.
I can tell Mr McArthur that the First Minister’s PLOs need to declare themselves but that PLOs who have a link with a cabinet secretary do not, even if the subject of their question relates to that cabinet secretary’s portfolio. That is the arrangement that we have come to.