Meeting date: Thursday, March 16, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 16 March 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Non-domestic Rates (North East Scotland), Draft Climate Change Plan, Farriers (Registration) Bill, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Non-domestic Rates (North East Scotland)
- Draft Climate Change Plan
- Farriers (Registration) Bill
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-01028)
Following yesterday’s launch of the East Africa crisis appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee, the Scottish Government will donate £200,000 to the appeal. The funds will support agencies to provide vital food and water supplies and medical treatment to those who are affected by the famine in South Sudan that was declared by the United Nations on 20 February.
Later today, I will have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
On behalf of my party and myself, I thank the First Minister for that answer and welcome the Scottish Government’s contribution.
How can the First Minister divert this country into another unwanted, divisive referendum when she cannot sort out issues in our local schools?
The education secretary and I work to raise standards and close the attainment gap in our schools each and every single day. That will continue to be our priority.
On the wider issues, the reality here is quite simple: I want to give people in Scotland a choice over their own future. We know that change is coming; the European Union referendum last year made that change inevitable. We know that the Tories want to lead us off a hard Brexit cliff edge. The people of Scotland should not have to simply accept being told what their future should be by a Conservative Government that we do not support. Instead, we should have the chance to choose a better future, and that is a choice that I intend to give the people of Scotland.
I thank the First Minister for her answer to my question, but I wonder whether it would have been delivered in quite the same tone had she known that the question was not actually mine but was a question that was put to one of my MSPs earlier this week by a parent who contacted our office. That parent, like all parents at Deputy First Minister John Swinney’s local high school in Blairgowrie, received a letter from the school head earlier this week to see whether a relative could fill in to teach maths because of a lack of cover. The parent was furious to see, on the very same day, the First Minister of Scotland standing in Bute house, putting her job to one side and threatening to take Scotland back into another divisive referendum on independence.
When the First Minister meets parents who are frustrated with the decline in standards in schools, how does she explain to them that another referendum will help their child?
Let me address the situation at Blairgowrie high school. As the education secretary has said many times in the chamber and outwith it, a number of different parts of the country and specific subjects are facing challenges with teacher recruitment. That is why we have increased the intake of students to initial teacher education and why we have expanded the range of routes into teaching to make the process faster for those individuals.
Blairgowrie high school is seeking to identify properly registered teachers to come in and teach maths; of course, the law says that teachers have to be properly registered.
We will continue to address the challenges in our education system, as we will continue to address challenges that exist in health, education or any other area. It is because the people of Scotland see us addressing those challenges that they continue to have confidence in this Government to run this country.
On the wider issue, I see it as part of my job to protect Scotland’s interests and to protect Scotland from the prospect of a hard Tory Brexit. The reality is that Ruth Davidson knows that Brexit will be a disaster. We know that because she told us that Brexit would be a disaster, but now she tells us that we simply have to accept Brexit—a hard Brexit—regardless of the consequences. Yesterday, we saw David Davis saying that the Tories have not even bothered to do an analysis of the costs of a hard Brexit. Luckily, analyses have been done by others, and we know that the path that the Tories are trying to take this country down could cost every household in the country more than £5,000.
The answer to Ruth Davidson’s questions about the impact on young people in our country is that the impact of Brexit on everybody in our country is going to be disastrous. That is why I have a duty to allow people the choice to opt for something better.
The truth is that a referendum will not help pupils in Scotland, it will not help patients to come off waiting lists, it will not help to solve the general practitioner crisis, and it will not cut violent crime; it will just take this Government away from the day job, which is supposed to be its focus.
Something else that parents are asking is how independence will help their school. This morning, we read that an independent Scotland would be £11 billion in the red and would need higher taxes, lower spending and increased borrowing just to fill the gap. The same warnings were given before 2014—warnings that the First Minister chose to ignore. Is it her policy to ignore the evidence once again and carry on regardless?
Scotland has a deficit like the United Kingdom has a deficit. That is a deficit created on Westminster’s watch. It is about time we had the tools and the ability to work our way out of deficits that Tory and Labour Governments have created in Scotland. [Interruption.]
Let us look at the alternative to independence, which is more Tory austerity, extending well into the next decade. Cuts to Scotland’s budget by the Tories by the end of this decade will be 10 per cent in real terms. Ruth Davidson talks about “the day job”. Yesterday, we saw the biggest U-turn from the Tories in decades, blowing a £2 billion hole in their budget. Because of Brexit, every household in the country could be facing a bill of £5,000.
I think that Scotland deserves a choice, and the choice is this: either to take control of our own finances to build, grow and innovate our way to a better future, or to allow the Tories to continue to make the same mistakes over and over again and make the situation worse.
Earlier this week, the First Minister chose not to come before this Parliament to spell out her views on a referendum. I choose to put this Parliament first. [Interruption.]
The Scottish Conservatives reject the proposals that were set out by the First Minister on Monday. A referendum cannot happen when the people of Scotland have not been given the opportunity to see how our new relationship with the European Union is working, and should not take place when there is no clear political or public consent for it.
Our country does not want to go back to the divisions and uncertainty of the past few years. Another referendum campaign will not solve the challenges that this country will face. We do not want it; we do not need it. Why will she not listen? [Interruption.]
I was elected as First Minister less than a year ago. [Interruption.]
That is enough, please. Order.
They do not want to hear this, Presiding Officer.
I was elected as First Minister a year ago with the highest share of the constituency vote in the history of devolution, on a manifesto commitment that said that this Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if the Tories tried to drag us out of Europe against our will. That 46 per cent share of the vote is 10 percentage points higher than the 36 per cent share that the Tories used to have the EU referendum in the first place. We hear from the Electoral Commission this morning that the vote share that they got in the 2015 election was rather dodgy. [Interruption.]
This Parliament has an independence majority in it. Ruth Davidson says that she wants to put this Parliament first. I issue a direct challenge to Ruth Davidson and to the Conservative Party: if, on Wednesday next week, this Parliament votes for an independence referendum to give the people of Scotland a choice over their own future, will the Conservatives respect the will of this Parliament, or are they running scared?
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-01027)
Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
Andrew Wilson is responsible for rebuilding the Scottish National Party’s battered economic case for leaving the United Kingdom. This week, it was reported that he told Nicola Sturgeon that it could take up to 10 years for Scotland’s economy to recover if we left the UK. Does the First Minister think that a lost decade is a price worth paying to drag Scotland out of the United Kingdom?
The reports that appeared this week about the work of the growth commission were 100 per cent wrong—plain and simple—as Andrew Wilson has said. Contrary to what was reported, the growth commission is looking at how we get from the position that we are in right now—saddled with a deficit that has been created by Labour and Conservative Governments down the generations—to a stronger and more sustainable future.
The question for Kezia Dugdale is this—is she happy to see Scotland locked into Tory austerity, not just for the rest of this decade but into the next one? Is she happy to see Scotland at the mercy of Tory cut after Tory cut after Tory cut or, this time, will she stand up for the right of this country to choose a better future for itself?
If the First Minister is so confident of the contents of the work of the growth commission, she should publish its work, but of course, we have been here before—SNP ministers assert one thing in public and admit another in private. We all remember John Swinney’s leaked paper, which warned of cuts to our public services and to our pensions. Now, Andrew Wilson has revealed in private what Nicola Sturgeon refuses to admit publicly—that leaving the UK would be devastating for Scotland’s economy. It would mean even more cuts for schools, hospitals and those who are most in need.
The First Minister said this week that she did not want a fact-free debate, so let us start with one fact that she cannot deny. Is it not the case that, according to her Government statistics, leaving the UK would mean £15 billion-worth of extra cuts?
The band is well and truly back together, is it not? Tory and Labour are combining again to talk this country down. Here is the reality—Scotland has a deficit that was created on Westminster’s watch and we have to deal with that deficit whether or not we are independent. Is it not much better to have the tools and powers of independence to deal with that deficit in a way that is consistent with our values and not Tory values?
If we are not independent, we face years and years and years of Tory austerity. I do not want that for my country and I think that it is shameful that Labour now backs that for this country. However, Labour is all over the place on this; it cannot even get its own story straight. We have Kezia Dugdale telling us that Labour will vote against another referendum and we have Jeremy Corbyn telling us that UK Labour will not vote against another referendum—it is no wonder that Labour’s new slogan is, “We are divided enough”.
This matters because it is about the money that we have to spend on our public services. The First Minister used to say that education was the defining priority of her Government. Now even she laughs when journalists ask her if that is still the case.
The reality is that the Government will once again grind to a halt for years. Closing the attainment gap is not the priority any more; fixing the mess that the First Minister made of the national health service will be on the back burner; and investing in the care of the elderly can wait, too. Can the First Minister tell us this? Does she plan to spend the next few years leading a Government or a campaign?
As First Minister, I will continue to lead a Government that is focused on making sure that we raise standards in our schools and continue to improve the NHS, but do you know what? All those things get more difficult if we are subjected year after year to Tory cuts, which will be made worse by the hard Brexit that the Tories are pursuing and which Labour seems willing to support. It is absolutely shameful that, instead of standing up for Scotland, Labour simply supports the Conservatives and whatever they want to do.
I want this country to take charge of our own future, so that we can build a better country than Labour and the Tories have managed to. When people have a choice—as I am determined that they will have—to say what kind of future they want, I will be arguing for this country to be in charge of its own finances and future and of building a fairer society and a stronger economy. Kezia Dugdale will be on the side of Ruth Davidson and Theresa May yet again, and her party will continue to die as a result.
We have three constituency questions.
The First Minister will be aware that NHS Shetland has decided that Shetlanders with medical appointments in Aberdeen must now use the 14-hour overnight ferry service rather than take a 45-minute flight south. That policy will mean two days away from home and work for Shetlanders. There has been no consultation, and Loganair’s managing director tells me that there has been no formal negotiation with the national health service on reducing flight costs to make savings.
NHS Shetland said last night that it could consider closing general practice surgeries or the maternity unit in Lerwick. If I suggested such a course of action, the First Minister would accuse me of scaremongering.
I ask the First Minister to tell her appointed board to reverse its decision until there have been commercial negotiations with Loganair and until there is a public consultation and a full understanding of what any change to the existing travel policy would mean for islanders from Unst to Fair Isle.
NHS Shetland has already provided assurance that decisions about travel arrangements will continue to be clinically led, and patients for whom ferry transport is not suitable will continue to be offered air travel. It is vital that the board ensures that it continues to provide high-quality direct patient care for the people of Shetland, and we will continue to work with it to reduce the number of patients who need to travel at all, for appointments or treatment, by expanding the use of video consultations on Shetland, for example. I will ensure that Tavish Scott’s comments are conveyed to NHS Shetland, and I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will be happy to meet him to discuss the issues in more detail.
As politicians get all flustered about constitutional politics, back in the real world 400 workers face losing their jobs at Ethicon in Livingston, as Johnson & Johnson threatens to close a plant that has been profitable for three decades. Will the First Minister agree to meet me and representatives from Unite the union, which represents the workforce, so that we can all see what we can do to retain jobs at Livingston?
Of course we will always be more than happy to meet unions and representatives of the workforce. We are already engaging with Johnson & Johnson; I and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work have engaged directly with the company, as have our enterprise agencies, and we are exploring every possible support for the site. Detailed and intensive work has been done so far to look at what we can do to help to address immediate business challenges and to maximise the site’s future potential. We will continue that engagement and continue to give as much support as we can to the workforce. As I said at the outset, we will be happy to meet representatives of the workforce at any time.
In light of the recent traffic incidents on the Forth road bridge and the serious effect that they have had on residents and businesses in Mid Scotland and Fife and in the Lothians, will the Scottish Government undertake to have urgent talks with Transport Scotland to put in place measures in addition to the tougher penalties that the police are imposing on offending drivers, so that more is done to prevent the blatant disregard of traffic restrictions in the first instance?
This was another very regrettable incident on the Forth road bridge. A multi-agency response was quickly put in place to respond to the closure and people worked effectively to manage the associated travel impacts and to get the bridge reopened as quickly as possible. I thank everybody who worked hard to make sure that that happened.
Transport Scotland will shortly host a stakeholder conference to discuss what more can be done to prevent such incidents from happening and it will involve the office of the traffic commissioner for Scotland, Police Scotland, the Forth road bridge operating company, local authorities and industry representatives from the freight sector. We are also committed to the largest road investment programme ever, which includes the £1.35 billion Queensferry crossing project. As part of that investment, wind shielding is being fitted to reduce any wind-related closures on the new bridge. However, for the existing bridge, it is important that we continue to explore what we can do to avoid people flouting advice, which results in closures that should be completely avoidable.
To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-01025)
Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.
Is it possible that an independent Scotland could be outside not only the United Kingdom single market but the European single market?
I want Scotland to be in the European Union and I want Scotland to be in the single market. That is why I think that it is important to give people in Scotland that choice. However, what we know right now—beyond any doubt—is that if Scotland does not become independent, we will be out of not only the EU but the single market. By considering independence, we of course give ourselves the ability to secure a relationship with Europe and to secure the jobs, the investment and the collaborations that depend on that. That is why giving people in Scotland the choice is so important.
The First Minister dodged the question. It was a simple question: could we be out of both single markets? The answer is yes. The reason is this: it is just as difficult to get into the European single market as it is to get full EU membership, because all 27 EU members would need to agree. We heard from the Spanish Government again yesterday on that. Her route guarantees nothing; it is exactly the same hurdle. That is why her plans could leave us outside both the UK and EU single markets. If she thought that a Conservative hard Brexit was going to be damaging, just wait for that. It is absurd to use the EU as an excuse for another referendum when there is no guarantee that Scotland could get back into the EU. She is sooking up to the Eurosceptics on her side while cynically selling out the pro-Europeans on the sly. Why cannot she just admit that?
Of course, Willie Rennie spends most of his time sooking up to the Tories, so I will take no lessons from him. However, I really cannot believe the brass neck with which Willie Rennie has just asked that question. We should remember that Willie Rennie is one of the politicians—Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale are another two—who in 2014 looked the people of Scotland in the eye and said, “If you vote no in the referendum, your membership of the European Union is secure; and if you vote yes, Scotland will not be allowed in.” Two and a half years later, when that unionist alliance has contrived to make sure that we face being taken out of the European Union against our will, they have the absolute temerity to stand up again and try to scaremonger that independence is putting our EU membership at risk. That is absolutely breathtaking in its hypocrisy, and the people of Scotland will simply not fall for it again.
We know that the more the First Minister blusters, the more she hides the truth. I ask the question again. Will Scotland be guaranteed to be a full member of the European Union, or not? Can she guarantee that? If she cannot, it is all just bluster again.
Independence gives us the ability to be in the EU to secure a relationship with Europe. Not being independent guarantees that we are out of the EU and out of the single market.
Willie Rennie—who, I think, has a PhD in bluster—has a position here that is completely incoherent. He wants there to be a second referendum across the UK to give the people of the whole UK a choice even though he knows that there is not a chance of that happening, yet here in Scotland, where there is the opportunity for people to have a choice, he is completely opposed to that. According to Willie Rennie, we just have to accept a Tory hard Brexit come what may.
I think that it is about time people in Scotland had a choice so that we can take the future of our own country into our own hands.
Will the First Minister tell us whether discussions were held with the Treasury ahead of the planned national insurance tax hike, or at the point when the Conservatives realised that they had broken their manifesto promise, or before they decided to U-turn, or even after yesterday’s embarrassing climbdown, given the impact that it would have on many self-employed people across Scotland?
There were no discussions with the Treasury either about the original policy or about the embarrassing U-turn yesterday. The Tories are in complete and utter chaos. We have had lectures—have we not?—week after week after week from the Tories here about tax, yet it was a Tory Government that was going to hike up taxes on self-employed people and then, of course, in a screeching U-turn, changed its mind.
We will get on with doing our best to deliver for the people of Scotland while the Tories continue to descend into utter chaos.
This week, I learned in a response to a written question that, among 120 secondments into the Scottish Government, which come almost universally from other bodies in the public sector, was one from the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards. That comes on the back of a previous answer that revealed that the director of policy at NFU Scotland has been embedded within the Scottish Government since November 2016. Three days a week, he works lobbying the Scottish Government on behalf of his organisation, and for two days he works at the heart of Government, developing policy. Does the First Minister believe that that is a healthy development? Will she explain the purpose of having those representatives of the landed class at the heart of Government? Does she agree that there is an obvious conflict of interest?
No, I do not. I know that it is not fashionable these days to consider the views of experts as being worth listening to, but I think it is right that, in Government, we have expertise from a range of different areas helping to inform and develop Government policy. We have that from a range of different interests so that a broad spectrum of expertise is feeding into Government policy.
I am happy to correspond with Andy Wightman if he has particular concerns but, in general, for the Government to use the expertise that exists across our country is a good thing that should be welcomed.
How will people be given the opportunity to shape Scotland’s new social security system?
Key to the design of our social security system, as we have said, is working alongside people who have direct personal experience of the current social security system. We want to hear directly from them about what works, what needs improved and what our new system can do to better support them.
From today, people across Scotland will begin to receive letters inviting them to join the experience panels that will shape our new social security system. The invitations have been sent to 18,000 people who have recent or current experience of the system. I hope that people will take the time to look at the invitation and join the panels and will take the opportunity to be part of building a new social security system in Scotland that will have fairness, dignity and respect at its heart—all principles that are missing from the social security system that is currently under Westminster’s control.
Pupil Equity Fund
To ask the First Minister what guidance the Scottish Government has issued regarding the use of the pupil equity fund. (S5F-01032)
On 1 February, the Deputy First Minister announced the pupil equity funding school-level allocations for 2017-18. Draft national operational guidance was published on the same day and was issued to local authorities and direct to schools. The guidance sets out clear principles to support schools and local authorities to work in partnership and to plan how to effectively invest the additional £120 million in order to raise attainment and close the attainment gap. I have been absolutely clear—as has the Deputy First Minister—that that funding must be used at the discretion of headteachers; it must be additional to existing provision; and it cannot be top-sliced for other purposes. It must be used to improve the educational outcomes of children most affected by poverty.
The First Minister will be aware of reports that North Lanarkshire Council has proposed that headteachers return a considerable proportion of the pupil equity fund to the general education fund. The pupil equity fund is intended to go direct to headteachers for the benefit of the most deprived children in Scotland, to help to address the attainment gap. Does the First Minister share my concern that that is an abhorrent proposal from a Labour council?
I am indeed aware of the issues raised in relation to North Lanarkshire’s pupil equity funding. I am particularly disappointed that the Labour council has chosen to cut classroom assistants. It made that decision on 23 February despite the options open to it to avoid that. The expectation that headteachers should then subsidise that cut with their pupil equity funding is simply unacceptable. Those issues have been raised with the council and discussions are continuing. I very much hope that the council will reconsider its approach.
It is important to be very clear. The Scottish Government will release that funding only if the council agrees that it goes to the schools, as intended, and that it is not used by it to pay for existing resources. Anything else would, quite frankly, be a betrayal of the disadvantaged children of North Lanarkshire.
North Lanarkshire Council is facing a £27 million cut to its core budget. It is trying to protect and enhance the jobs of over 200 classroom assistants—precisely to raise attainment and close that gap. It is supported by the Educational Institute of Scotland, by Unison and by its headteachers, 77 of whom have written to the Deputy First Minister to say so. In response, the Scottish Government is threatening to cut almost £9 million more from the council’s budget. Will the First Minister explain how that politically motivated blackmail is supposed to help schoolchildren in North Lanarkshire?
Interestingly, Iain Gray omitted to tell us about something else that North Lanarkshire Council is choosing to do, which is to freeze its council tax next year. Clearly, having asked the Scottish Government for the ability to put its council tax up, the council has decided that it does not need that money and that, instead, it will try to pilfer resources from the pupil equity fund.
This Parliament was very clear that the pupil equity funding—£120 million of it—was money to go direct to schools, to be used at the discretion of headteachers. Iain Gray tells us that, apparently, there are people who support the council’s approach. As I understand it, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland does not support it. The issue is quite simple: that is money that we want to give direct to headteachers and direct to schools, but North Lanarkshire Council wants to use it for something else. We are determined that that money will go direct to schools. It is utterly shameful that the Labour Party is defending an approach that would see the money used by North Lanarkshire Council to fund things that are its responsibility to fund.
In light of that controversy, I ask the First Minister what measures will be put in place to assess whether the key principles behind the pupil equity fund—namely, that headteachers will have access to the full amount and that spending must be on additional activities to those currently employed—will be adhered to?
The guidance that I referred to in my first answer is there to ensure that there are clear principles to guide how the money is used and our monitoring and assessment of the benefits of the money.
Let us get back to the core issue. Week after week—rightly and understandably; I have no complaint about this—members of the Opposition come to this chamber and raise the issue of the attainment gap. I have said repeatedly that closing that gap is my priority. That is why we set up a pupil equity fund of £120 million, which is being directed to schools to help, in particular, young people living in disadvantaged circumstances. That is what the fund is all about and why it is so deeply concerning that we have a local authority that sees the opportunity to make a cut in its budget and substitute that cut with money from the pupil equity fund. That is not what it is for; that is not what it is about. If that approach is allowed to continue, frankly, that would be a betrayal of the most disadvantaged pupils in North Lanarkshire who are meant to benefit from the fund. As First Minister, I am not prepared to allow that to happen.
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to tackle gun crime. (S5F-01034)
The number of recorded crimes and offences in Scotland involving firearms has fallen by nearly three quarters in 10 years. Firearms crimes where a person was killed or injured fell by more than 25 per cent between 2014-15 and 2015-16.
The Scottish Government has taken action. We have some of the strongest firearms legislation in the world, which we have strengthened further with our new air weapon licensing regime. Police Scotland is committed to tackling gun crime and clear-up rates for those offences remain high.
There is no room for any complacency. Recent incidents show that we must keep the situation under review and continue to address gun crime wherever it occurs in our communities.
That response will be of little consolation to the people of Glasgow, a city that has seen five separate incidents of serious gun crime in the past 12 months alone. We know that, between 2014-15 and 2015-16, cases of attempted murder or serious assault increased in Scotland by 27 per cent. We know that, despite the attacks mostly being targeted, the crimes are taking place on the streets. One crime in Glasgow happened outside a primary school. What conversation will the First Minister have with Police Scotland to ensure that such crimes do not take place on our streets and that innocent bystanders are not put at risk?
Those are really important issues. Let me be clear: both I and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice are periodically updated and briefed by the police on the types of incident to which the member refers; we are also updated on the police’s work to try to combat such offences.
It is important to reiterate that gun crime, generally, is falling. As I said, it has fallen by nearly three quarters in the past 10 years and crimes where a person was killed or injured by a firearm fell by 25 per cent between 2014-15 and 2015-16.
The incidents to which Annie Wells refers in Glasgow—the part of the country that I represent—are deeply concerning. One of the incidents was in my constituency. According to the police, those are targeted incidents linked to serious and organised crime. That makes it very important that the police continue to use the resources and the intelligence that they have to deal properly with the offences and to bring to justice those who are responsible.
The police will continue to update the justice secretary and me on those important issues, but we should not allow them to take away from the fact that gun crime generally is falling. Although we should not be complacent, that is a good thing and it should give reassurance to communities all over the country.
Unit Assessments (Changes)
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government will ensure that changes to unit assessments will not increase teacher workload, in light of reports that 63 per cent of teachers believe that they will. (S5F-01060)
The Deputy First Minister announced the changes to the qualifications following discussions with the working group on assessment and national qualifications and the curriculum for excellence management board. The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, whose survey is being referred to, is represented on both groups.
The changes mean that teachers and young people will not have to undertake formal unit assessments during the year, which teachers and others had told us were significantly contributing to workload. Indeed, the moves were welcomed by teacher unions last year.
We continue to work with partners, including the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Education Scotland and teacher unions, to ensure that workload is reduced as a result of the changes. The assessment and national qualifications group is meeting this afternoon and will continue to discuss the implementation of the changes.
John Swinney came into his new job promising to slash teacher workload and burden, but this survey reveals that teachers think that the changes to unit assessments will increase, not decrease, their workload, especially in science. What work has been done and assessment made to ensure that these measures have a positive impact on teacher workload? Can the First Minister reassure the chamber that this will not lead to yet another embarrassing setback and delay arising from the Deputy First Minister’s ill-thought-through reforms?
I am not sure that Daniel Johnson listened to my first answer, because he would have found there the answer to the question that he has just asked me.
First, the reforms that Mr Johnson has talked about as being ill judged and rushed were actually reforms that teacher unions wanted. They are not the only changes that have been made to reduce teacher workload and the unnecessary bureaucracy that teachers have to deal with, but they play an important part in that, and that is their intention.
Clearly, it is important to take steps to ensure that the integrity of the exams system is not undermined and, in response to the member’s previous question about what we are doing, I referred to a meeting this very day of the assessment and national qualifications group in order to ensure that the concerns that have been highlighted in the survey that he referred to do not materialise and that these changes, which have the intention that I have just outlined, turn out to deliver in reality.
We will continue to work with teachers and others to make sure that that is the case, and I would have thought that Daniel Johnson would have welcomed that.
The fact that this Government has listened to teachers’ concerns about workload is welcome both for them and for children and young people. Will the First Minister advise the chamber on the other measures that are being taken to free up time for teachers to teach?
As I said to Daniel Johnson, addressing the issue of workload has been a priority for the Deputy First Minister. Literally thousands of pages of guidance have already been stripped away, and a teacher panel was established to test proposals to reduce workload that go beyond those that are the subject of this particular question. Last year, every teacher in Scotland was sent a clear and concise statement on curriculum for excellence along with benchmark guidance on literacy and numeracy, and that definitive guidance makes it clear what teachers should and should not be required to do.
We are determined to take the actions that will free teachers from unnecessary bureaucracy and workload. Indeed, we are determined to free them to do what they do best: raise the bar for all and close the attainment gap in our schools.
We have heard today from the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association about the crisis in recruiting headteachers because of workload. With regard to the Scottish Government’s claim to be committed to reducing teacher and headteacher workload, does the First Minister agree that that is absolutely not happening and that there is now a real threat of a lack of leadership in schools because people simply will not apply to become headteachers?
No, I do not agree; actually, I fundamentally disagree. We have listened to teachers, including headteachers, and we have taken steps, some of which I have outlined today, that will reduce unnecessary—and I stress the word “unnecessary”—workload for teachers. We are doing that in partnership with teachers.
I understand that, as we go through the process, we will hear the kind of scepticism that we have heard from the SSTA about the effect of these changes, and it is our job to make sure that the changes are implemented in a way that will have the desired effect. We are listening; we are introducing these changes; and, as I have said in previous answers, we are getting on with implementing them to ensure that we make an appreciable difference to the workload of teachers in our schools across the country.
That concludes First Minister’s questions.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. During question time, the First Minister made it clear that it was important to listen to the will of Parliament. Last week, the Government lost a vote in Parliament and the week before, it lost two votes in Parliament. On those occasions, Presiding Officer, you said from the chair that those votes were non-binding, and I would like to hear another ruling from you on whether the votes after the debate next Tuesday and Wednesday will be non-binding, too.
As the member knows, motions of this Parliament are not binding, and that was not a point of order.