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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 16, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 16 November 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Incontinence, Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Commission (Scotland) Bill: Preliminary Stage, Veterans and Armed Forces Community, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Motion without Notice, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

A month before last year’s Scottish elections, the Deputy First Minister promised that basic-rate taxpayers would not see their tax bills rise. He said that that was

“the right reassurance to give to people who are already finding it challenging to make ends meet. We’ll give them that assurance for the remainder of the parliamentary term.”

Will he stick to that promise? Yes or no?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

As Ruth Davidson knows, the Scottish Government is engaged in dialogue and discussion with the public—which is the right thing to do at this moment—to consider the steps that we should take on taxation. That debate has been led by the finance secretary. A range of options have been set out, including an assessment of the plans of various political parties.

The questions that the Government is engaged in discussing with members of the public are about the correct stance to take on taxation to make sure that we can fund public services effectively to meet the needs of people in our country and to invest in developing the Scottish economy, given the significant economic challenges that we face arising from Brexit. Those are the issues that the Government will discuss as part of the consultation with members of the public. That is the right approach, and the finance secretary will announce the conclusions in the budget in December. [Applause.]

Ruth Davidson

Aw—that was a bit lacklustre.

It sounds to me as though the Deputy First Minister is not prepared to stick to that promise, but I will give him another chance. Again, before the 2016 election, he made another promise. When he was asked about what he would say to local government staff who were worried about their jobs, he replied:

“I say to those individuals that the Scottish National Party is determined to protect their incomes, not punish them with a tax rise”.—[Official Report, 3 February 2016; c 21.]

Before the election, the Deputy First Minister said that a tax rise would be a punishment. Now, apparently, it is a virtue. Will the Deputy First Minister explain why the Scottish National Party said one thing to people about taxes when it needed their votes and another once it had them?

John Swinney

I do not think that Ruth Davidson follows closely what the Government says on these questions. The Government says that it will act to protect, at all times, the interests of low-income individuals in our society. That is what runs through this Government’s promise.

When the United Kingdom Government slashed council tax benefit, the Scottish Government—this former finance secretary—came to the rescue of low-income families in Scotland. When the bedroom tax was applied by the Conservative Government, this former finance secretary came to the rescue of low-income households in Scotland. I am absolutely determined to make sure that we stand shoulder to shoulder with low-income households in Scotland and take the right decisions to protect their incomes.

Ruth Davidson

The truth is that the SNP wheeled out Mr Swinney—Honest John—before the election to tell people that their taxes would not go up, but as soon as the party got back in, those promises turned to dust.

Just to be completely fair, I will give the Deputy First Minister one more opportunity. Just a few weeks before the election, he said:

“I want to say to teachers and public service workers the length and breadth of the country … that I value the sacrifices that they have made, and that the last thing that I am going to do is put up their taxes.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2016; c 19-20.]

He said “the last thing”. It turns out that the only thing that his lot are going to do with taxes is put them up. It is one thing before an election and the exact opposite after. Does that sound to the Deputy First Minister like honest government?

John Swinney

The Scottish Government is engaged in a substantive debate with members of the public about the real choices that we face in government when we try to address the fact that the United Kingdom Government has slashed public expenditure and that austerity continues to roll forwards year by year—although the chancellor has an opportunity next week to bring that to a halt. We are involved in that discussion because we have to take the real, hard decisions in government.

Ruth Davidson comes to the Parliament and raises the issue of tax but does not talk about her proposals, which would reduce taxation for some of the richest people in our society and would remove £140 million from public expenditure in Scotland. I will give Parliament an illustration of what £140 million looks like. It looks like going to every school in this country that is in receipt of pupil equity funding and saying that, because of the Tory tax cuts, we are taking that money away from them and giving it to the richest in our society.

The Government is determined to use public expenditure to close the equity gap in Scottish education to deliver the best future for young people in our country and we are determined to resist the Tories’ attempt to take it away from them. [Interruption.]

Ruth Davidson

The SNP members are all shouting today, but they were shouting something completely different a year ago. Last year, they were shouting, “Vote for us and we won’t put taxes up.” It is all change.

Members on the Conservative benches are just saddened that the Deputy First Minister has lost his way. There was once a time when he and Alex Salmond used to preach the merits of competitive taxation. Now, Mr Swinney takes his directions from Derek Mackay and Mr Salmond takes his from Mr Putin. How the mighty have fallen. That is the SNP: broken promises, higher taxes and Putin’s pals. Is it not time that the SNP apologised to the people it misled?

John Swinney

The only sad thing today is Ruth Davidson’s miserable contribution to First Minister’s question time. [Interruption.] That is what is sad. Week in, week out, we have that miserable contribution to the debate about the future of Scotland. The Government takes the serious decisions about our country’s future and will leave Ruth Davidson weeping in the Opposition benches.

Burntisland Fabrications Ltd

2. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I declare an interest as a member of the GMB trade union.

The announcement earlier this week that Burntisland Fabrications Ltd, known as BiFab, is possibly going into administration is deeply worrying news for communities in Fife and the Isle of Lewis and for the wider Scottish economy. Some of the workers are here today and such is their commitment that they have been working without pay to keep things going. I hope that the Deputy First Minister will join me in welcoming them to the Parliament.

More than 1,000 skilled jobs are at stake. The business is a key strategic player in Scotland’s renewable energy sector and, thanks to its workforce, has built up a solid reputation for carrying out such work. We understand that BiFab is experiencing financial problems due to disputed contracts with Seaway Heavy Lifting, a Dutch company that has received significant public funding from the United Kingdom Government for SSE’s Beatrice offshore wind farm development. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with BiFab, Seaway, SSE and the UK Government to keep the work and jobs in Scotland?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

I welcome the issue that Jackie Baillie has raised. BiFab is very important to the communities that Jackie Baillie referenced, but it is also important to the whole country. It is important to our proposition on manufacturing and renewables and I cannot overstate the importance of the contribution that the company makes.

I deeply admire the workforce, not only for their skill, capability and capacity but for their tenacity in working through the difficult and unnerving circumstances that they all face at the moment. I reassure Parliament, the workforce and the communities involved that the Scottish Government is doing everything that we can to try to bring the matter to a resolution. Fundamentally, this is a private contractual dispute among players in the consortium involved—the Scottish Government has been talking to each of them.

The Government has had an extensive relationship with BiFab for many years. Fergus Ewing, Keith Brown, Paul Wheelhouse and I have met the company and know it well. On Thursday evening, when the present circumstances became clear to us, Keith Brown and Paul Wheelhouse became immersed in discussions with the trade unions, BiFab, SSE, SHL and the United Kingdom Government.

Yesterday, the First Minister, who is in Bonn attending the climate change talks, spoke to the leadership of SSE and SHL. She is returning early from her trip to Bonn to be available this afternoon to convene face-to-face discussions at St Andrew’s house, if those are required. Further discussion will take place shortly, during First Minister’s question time, which will give us further information about progress that has been made.

However, I want to reassure Jackie Baillie that the Scottish Government is doing absolutely everything that we can—by convening discussions and by driving the process—to ensure that we protect BiFab, that we protect the employment of everybody involved in the three sites and that we protect the enormous investment that has been made to build the skills to develop manufacturing and renewable energy capacity in Scotland.

Jackie Baillie

I very much thank John Swinney for the tone and content of his response. I hope that it reassures the thousands of workers whose jobs are at stake.

The Scottish Government’s energy strategy prioritises renewables. It is an industry in which more work is expected and BiFab should be at the forefront of delivering that infrastructure. That is one of the key reasons why the Scottish Government has interests in BiFab, through Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Will the Deputy First Minister tell Parliament the total value of the disputed contracts that led to these problems? Has an impact assessment been carried out of the value of BiFab to the wider community, both in Fife and in the Isle of Lewis?

John Swinney

The total value of the Beatrice project is the best part of £1 billion. It is a colossal investment in the renewable energy sector, although not all of that activity is taking place at BiFab. The various parties are in dispute over issues in the contractual arrangements, and the Government is actively involved in trying to resolve those disputed sums and reach a conclusion that will create the pathway for future stability and activity at BiFab.

The Scottish Government, through our agencies—Scottish Enterprise at Burntisland and Methil and, in the Highlands, HIE at Arnish—has been heavily involved in supporting BiFab in developing its capacity and capability. The Government and our agencies are very much prepared to continue to take forward discussions in that respect.

On the economic analysis, the Government is involved with BiFab because we recognise the economic significance of the organisation to the renewable energy sector. Jackie Baillie very fairly refers to the fact that there are significant opportunities in the renewables sector—a process to which BiFab would be a fantastic contributor. That is why the Government is determined to ensure that we secure the future of BiFab.

Jackie Baillie

I very much welcome the return of the First Minister from Germany, where she has been talking about climate change, particularly given that one of Scotland’s biggest sources of renewables jobs is facing administration. Members on these benches will support the Government in any way that we can in its efforts to secure the jobs that are at risk at BiFab and keep the work in Scotland. It is essential that all options are explored, and I am encouraged by the Deputy First Minister’s words. I am sure that workers in Burntisland, Arnish and Methil will welcome them, too.

However, what those workers need is a cast-iron commitment—a commitment that will allow them to continue to work and prepare for future renewables work. Will the Deputy First Minister give them a commitment to provide financial support up front if required, so that the company can remain operational until the jobs are secured and the work remains in Scotland?

John Swinney

My ministerial colleagues Keith Brown and Paul Wheelhouse have been keeping members in touch on this issue. Keith Brown responded to a topical question from my colleague David Torrance, who is the local member, earlier this week. Later today, a briefing will be issued to members of the Scottish Parliament to advise colleagues of the progress that has been made in these discussions—it should be available later today.

The Government, of course, stands ready to engage in any discussions on financial involvement and assistance. Quite clearly, there are rules within which the Government has to operate in the deployment of public expenditure, but our fundamental focus just now is on resolving the contractual issues that have led us to this situation. Our energies are concentrated on that. That is why the First Minister is coming back early from Bonn; it is why she has been involved in dialogue; and it is why Keith Brown and Paul Wheelhouse have been involved directly in discussions to try to resolve these questions. Of course the Government will remain open to discussions about financial support, should that be required.

We are in the situation that we are in, with an opportunity of a slightly longer time window to try to resolve this than we first thought we had, because of the commitment and dignity of the BiFab workforce. That is why we are where we are. I thank every one of those workers, who have been having a very uncertain time since the news broke, for demonstrating that tenacity, which is seen around the world as an illustration of the commitment of workers in this country to manufacturing. We are proud of all of them. [Applause.]

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

There are a number of constituency questions. I imagine that the first of them, which is from David Torrance, is on the same subject.

David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

Further to my question to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work on Tuesday, will the Deputy First Minister guarantee that he will keep Parliament and local MSPs updated on any discussions with BiFab in the future? What message does he have for the members of the workforce who have gathered outside Parliament today?

John Swinney

The Government will keep members of Parliament informed in the course of today. We will issue a briefing from the relevant ministers later this afternoon and of course issues will be communicated more widely if there is further progress. We are seeing some progress in the discussions with the relevant parties, but we have not reached a conclusion at this stage. I think that we have some way to go before we can get to a conclusion that provides the workers with the assurance that they are quite understandably and quite rightly searching for.

We very much value the contribution and expertise of the workers at BiFab, which is a key strength in our renewable energy sector. The Scottish Government is determined to do all that it can to protect their long-term future.

Chronic Pain Service (Shetland)

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The Deputy First Minister will appreciate that Shetland’s chronic pain service has been provided by two consultant anaesthetists. One left Shetland last week and the other will leave by Christmas. That will affect not just chronic pain sufferers and patients but, potentially, women waiting to deliver babies, given the need for anaesthetists with the necessary maternity skills. What will the Deputy First Minister do to ensure that there is continuity of care for those who need it, particularly given the need for the requisite skills in the maternity service?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Mr Scott raises a significant issue that is directly related to the continuity of important services that we all want to see delivered in Shetland in a way that is accessible to members of the public. We will have discussions with NHS Shetland about these questions. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will be happy to discuss the issue directly with Mr Scott to make sure that we take all necessary steps to ensure that there is a continuity of service for members of the public who clearly depend on it in our remote island communities.

Parcel Delivery Charges

Richard Lochhead (Moray) (SNP)

Today, I will meet Ofcom to discuss the impact of parcel delivery charges on customers in Moray and the wider region, which, as the Deputy First Minister can imagine, is a growing issue that is at the forefront of people’s minds in the run-up to the festive period, as more and more people buy online. Is the Deputy First Minister aware that it is now cheaper, according to many of my constituents, to buy online from overseas companies than to have things delivered from elsewhere in the United Kingdom? There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason for the wild variation in delivery charges. Even some Ellon-based companies, as we learned this week, are charging more to deliver to Elgin than to Essex.

Will the Deputy First Minister join me in urging consumers to shop around and name and shame those retailers that are fleecing northern and rural customers? Will he discuss with his colleagues what more can be done to tackle the issue, which is costing rural Scotland millions of pounds in ridiculous surcharges? How can we put more pressure on the UK Government, which, after all, has the responsibility for regulating such issues?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Richard Lochhead raises a very important issue. I understand its significance for his constituents in Morayshire, but it will also apply across a much wider geography in rural Scotland. I welcome the conversation that he is having with Ofcom. That is mirrored by conversations that the Scottish Government is having, and I reassure him that we will do all that we can to influence the discussion and debate around these questions with the United Kingdom Government and Ofcom.

I certainly associate myself with his call to consumers to set out their concerns about these issues, because consumer opinion on them is very strong and it can be of enormous significance in changing the minds of individual companies that are not responding in a sympathetic and positive way to the issues that Mr Lochhead raises. They should not have to be raised, because individuals in the country should be able to have access to delivery services without being punished for the location in which they live.

Climate Change

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

It has been acknowledged that the Deputy First Minister is answering questions today because the First Minister has been at the climate change conference in Germany. Greens have been pushing for Scotland to follow the lead of countries such as Sweden and set a target for net zero emissions, and we believe that meeting that target can be achieved by 2040. Achieving it any later than that would involve a slower rate of improvement than Scotland has been achieving so far.

I welcome the statement that the First Minister has apparently made that the Government will come to an early decision on when Scotland will aim to have net zero emissions. That implies that it is a matter of when and not if. Is a goal of net zero emissions now Government policy? Will a target date be made explicit in the forthcoming climate change bill?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The first thing that I want to do is to set out to Parliament the reaction that the First Minister has had to the commitments that have already been made by Scotland and the performance that we have already delivered on climate change. The First Minister and I have spoken a number of times over the period in which she has been in Bonn, and she has been struck—as has the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, who was there earlier in the week—by the tremendous level of international respect for the leadership that Scotland has deployed. That includes not just this Government, but this Parliament, which unanimously approved the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill back in this Government’s first session. That leadership has inspired other countries. The Government clearly wishes to maintain that position of leadership on the issue of climate change.

Mr Harvie is absolutely correct in that the First Minister said yesterday that we will come to an early decision on when we will aim to reach net zero emissions. That is the issue that we are currently considering within Government. How we will take it forward will be set out to Parliament in due course, and that will obviously have a bearing on the commitments that are made in relation to the climate change bill, which will be before Parliament shortly.

Patrick Harvie

It will be for all political parties to commit to ensuring that a realistic—and ambitious—date for that target of net zero emissions is set in legislation. However, it is very clear that reaching such an ambitious target and making that progress cannot be done without much more offshore wind energy. I therefore welcome the comments that the Deputy First Minister and others have made about Burntisland Fabrications—a company that has been at the forefront of our transition from fossil fuels towards a renewables economy. The commitment that has been shown by the workers, which the Deputy First Minister has recognised, needs to be repaid by us all—by this Government, the Westminster Government and the other companies that are involved. They deserve no less than that.

If we are going to retain the jobs, it is important that we show commitment to a transition to a renewable future for Scotland. After all, if the Scottish Government can bail out an airport, we can surely show a level of commitment to, and investment in, the renewable energy industries that will be critically important for our future. Can the workforce at BiFab have confidence that the Government’s transition plan will involve urgent support for their jobs and the many others that can be generated, and involve an industrial strategy that commits wholeheartedly to fossil fuel decommissioning and to our renewable industries?

John Swinney

In my answers to Jackie Baillie and David Torrance, I hope that I have made clear the Government’s determination to ensure that there is a secure future for the three BiFab sites in the country. In so doing, we are fulfilling the practical manifestation of our commitments on renewable energy.

This Government has been criticised by many people for being very determined to pursue a renewable energy route, and others in this Parliament—I am looking at some of the Conservatives—have challenged us to take a different approach to energy policy. However, we have been trenchant in our commitment to renewable energy development. I make no apology for that; it is one of the many things that this Government has delivered over the past 10 years and I am enormously proud of my association with that.

Patrick Harvie fairly says that it is not all in our gift because there is an interaction with UK energy policy and the wider energy debate, and we pursue that actively with the UK Government. When I attended the convention of the Highlands and Islands recently, I was pleased at the news that had emerged from the UK Government about some better opportunities for us to activate renewable energy in our island communities such as the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

We are beginning to make some progress on putting in place a framework that will enable us to support wider renewable energy development. I give Mr Harvie the assurance that renewables will be at the heart of the Government’s energy policy. He should also take heart from the fact that we made it crystal clear in the programme for government that transforming our approach to energy generation will be a central part of our industrial strategy, particularly in relation to the decarbonisation of transport in the course of the next 20 years, and that we are determined to take forward that agenda. I hope that that reassures Mr Harvie about the continuity of Government policy in that regard.

Alex Salmond (Russia Today)

4. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Does the Deputy First Minister believe that the presenter of a talk show that legitimises RT—Russia Today—would be a fit and proper person to own Scotland’s oldest national newspaper?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

One of the things that I do not control is the ownership of newspapers in our country—or not yet, anyway, although Mr Rennie is no doubt suspicious that I might find myself in that position at some stage.

Alex Salmond has made a choice about the platform for his television programme and the First Minister has set out her perspective on that. I understand, although I have not seen it myself, that Mr Salmond had guests from the Labour Party and the Conservative Party on the programme that was broadcast earlier today, so I suspect that that reflects the plurality of the choice of guests who will be on his programme.

Willie Rennie

I am disappointed that the Deputy First Minister is seeking to make light of the matter. Newspaper regulation is devolved, so it is reasonable to ask whether Alex Salmond would be a fit and proper person to own The Scotsman when he is being paid by President Putin’s propaganda channel. Members should remember that it is a TV channel that seeks to undermine western democracy and ignore human rights abuses at home. The Estonian ambassador told members this morning that Russia Today is Kremlin-backed propaganda, so it should turn our stomachs to know that a former First Minister of this country is giving the channel credibility and legitimacy by launching his show on it.

Scotland’s reputation abroad has been damaged and the small countries along the Russian border in particular will be deeply concerned by the decision of Alex Salmond. However, he does not speak for Scotland in that regard. What is the Government doing to distance itself from Alex Salmond?

John Swinney

I thought that Willie Rennie might have checked up before asking me his question today, because on 23 September 2015, none other than Vince Cable appeared on Russia Today.

Members: Oh!

John Swinney

It is important to say that the First Minister set out that if she had been asked what channel it was appropriate for Alex Salmond’s programme to be broadcast on, she would not have chosen Russia Today. However, it is an issue that Alex Salmond, who is not currently an elected politician, is free to take forward as he wishes. It is fair for me to say about the whole question, however, that I have been struck by the stinking reek of hypocrisy from every other political party on it. That is perhaps the best way in which I can close my answer to the question.

The Presiding Officer

We have supplementary questions, and the first is from John Finnie.

ScotRail (Jobs)

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Two days ago, ScotRail issued the document that I hold in my hand, which is about the launch of a voluntary leaver scheme that is available to a range of positions in the organisation. I am advised that this is the third time since 2015 that ScotRail has sought to encourage people to leave the organisation, which relies heavily on agency staff. I am also told that there are 256 vacancies and that the total worth of their salaries is £6 million per annum. Will the Deputy First Minister get the Scottish Government to intervene to ensure that the 256 posts are filled and that it is public service rather than profit that drives Scotland’s railways?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

First, there are in the Abellio ScotRail contract clear contractual obligations that have to be fulfilled. What is clear from events over the past few months, when this issue has been raised and has been a significant topic of discussion, is that the Minister for Transport and the Islands has assiduously pressed Abellio ScotRail to ensure that those contractual obligations are fulfilled, and that the services to which the organisation is committed are delivered. It is important that that monitoring and presence are sustained by the transport minister. I give Mr Finnie the assurance that that will be the case.

Obviously, there is a commitment and an obligation in the contract to there being no compulsory redundancies. That is a contract stipulation. Clearly, Abellio ScotRail will make judgments about recruitment and deployment of its staff, but that must be done in the context of fulfilling the contractual obligations to which the organisation signed up. I assure Mr Finnie and Parliament that the Government will ensure that that is the case in all circumstances.

Secure Residential Psychiatric Care for Children

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The Deputy First Minister will have seen the tragic story earlier this week of Libbi Toledo, the 17-year-old young woman who took her own life following a life of struggle with severe mental health issues. Her mother powerfully made the point about her frustrations regarding the lack of secure residential psychiatric care for children in Scotland. Indeed, the Scottish Government has now agreed in principle to create nine secure beds. Will the Deputy First Minister take the opportunity now to clarify when we will have those beds? Does he agree that Libbi Toledo’s case seems to follow the weary pattern of missed opportunities, with Libbi having been identified as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder, but with that not being followed by formal diagnosis, specific follow-up or support?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

First, I appreciate unreservedly the deep sorrow that is associated with the death of Libbi Toledo, and the deep anguish that it will be causing her family, given the struggles that the young woman clearly had in her life. Daniel Johnson will understand that I cannot go into an awful lot of detail about the case, but I assure Parliament that there has been interaction with services over a sustained period. However, that is of absolutely no comfort to her family, given the trauma with which they are now having to come to terms.

The Government is committed to the creation of secure in-patient units, so work is under way to implement that commitment. The unit will be housed by NHS Ayrshire and Arran, and is at a relatively advanced stage in the planning process. We are working to complete it as quickly as possible.

I give Daniel Johnson the assurance that we recognise the significance of the issue and the necessity of creating the facilities, so active work is under way to ensure that that happens as quickly as possible.

Building Industry (Training)

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

It is widely accepted that there is a skills shortage in the building industry and that the industry is sitting on a demographic time bomb. I was therefore concerned to hear that the Construction Industry Training Board is seeking a new operator for its national construction college’s site in Inchinnan, and that it will withdraw from the site once a buyer has been found. What steps will the Scottish Government take to ensure a seamless transition? How does it plan to step up training in the sector?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

It is clear that the Government recognises the importance of having appropriate and adequate skills available to the construction sector. We will need those skills to ensure that the house-building programme that the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities will preside over in the public sector can be taken forward, in addition to our wider infrastructure ambitions.

The work that we will take forward on the development of apprenticeships and the expansion of apprenticeships to 30,000 over this session of Parliament is an important foundation of that commitment, as is our commitment to the developing Scotland’s young workforce agenda, which is about ensuring that we develop the skills that are required.

On the specific question about the Construction Industry Training Board’s facility, obviously the Government will engage with the CITB to ensure a seamless transition, because disruption in that respect is in nobody’s interests.

This week, we saw a 4 per cent unemployment rate in Scotland—the equal-lowest rate in the United Kingdom. It is equal to Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate and lower than the unemployment rate in the rest of the United Kingdom. We have a very strong position with growth in employment in Scotland. A very large—indeed, overwhelming—proportion of our population is in employment, and we still have vacancies in various parts of the public sector and the private sector. We want to encourage the filling of those vacancies. I simply pose this question to Parliament: how on earth can we think that that will be helped by turning off the tap of free movement of labour, which can help us to address the issues? That is the lunacy that the Conservative Party is associating us with.

United Kingdom Budget

5. Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

To ask the Deputy First Minister what representations the Scottish Government is making to the United Kingdom Government ahead of the autumn budget. (S5F-01710)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 10 November, ahead of the forthcoming budget. The letter called on the chancellor to recognise the serious challenges that Scotland faces as a result of Brexit, to bring forward sustainable measures to boost the economy, and to ease the pressure on the public sector and those who work in it. The cabinet secretary also urged the United Kingdom Government to reverse plans to impose a further £3.5 billion-worth of cuts on Scotland and to pause the roll-out of universal credit. In the Prime Minister’s meeting with the First Minister this week, the First Minister reiterated the Scottish Government’s long-standing opposition to the United Kingdom Government’s austerity agenda.

Bruce Crawford

I welcome the representations that have been made to the chancellor ahead of the UK budget next week.

I turn specifically to the payment of VAT by our police and fire services. I may be naive, but I hope that four years of consistent Scottish National Party campaigning on that issue will pay off and that the chancellor will at last give Scotland’s police and fire services the same exemption from VAT that every other territorial force in Scotland has. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that, in all fairness, the Treasury should also pay back the £140 million that has already been paid? [Interruption.] Does he also agree that the noises from Conservative members show that they are more concerned about standing up for their masters in London than about defending public services in Scotland?

John Swinney

I think that Mr Crawford makes a strong point to Parliament today. I agree that the Treasury should hand back the £140 million already paid. We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment, given yesterday, to look at the issue of VAT paid by Scotland’s emergency services. Police Scotland remains the only territorial police service in the United Kingdom that is unable to reclaim the VAT that it pays on goods and services, with the same inequality applying to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. We have consistently pressed the UK Government over that disparity, and we urge it to finally bring this unfair situation to an end and to do the right thing for Scotland’s front-line emergency services.

High Street Shops

6. Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I declare an interest as a small business owner.

To ask the Deputy First Minister what action the Scottish Government will take in light of reports that one in 10 shops are lying empty and fewer people are visiting high streets. (S5F-01718)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The Government is taking forward a number of measures, principally through Scotland’s town centre first principle and through the town centre action plan, to tackle key issues such as empty shops and to improve the vibrancy of our town centres. This year, we have reduced the rates bill’s poundage by 3.7 per cent and have funded total rates relief of around £660 million, including the small business bonus scheme, which will lift 100,000 properties out of rates altogether. We also plan to increase the incentive for occupation of empty properties through an expansion of our fresh start rates relief from April of next year, and we have introduced powers for councils to further reduce rates in their areas.

Rachael Hamilton

I thank the Deputy First Minister for that answer, but the Scottish National Party’s large business supplement is double the United Kingdom rate and, despite its name, it does not punish only large businesses. Many struggling high street stores that already have to cope with reduced footfall are being hit by that additional rate, although they are family-run local businesses. Will the Deputy First Minister accept, as he did once in 2012, that the poundage rate should be

“no higher than that set in England”,

to help attract and retain businesses?

John Swinney

As I said in my original answer, the Government has taken a sustained range of measures, particularly through the small business bonus scheme, to relieve many of the businesses on our high streets that are in exactly the situation that Rachael Hamilton describes from the burden of business rates. As I go round the country, I have met many small business owners who are deeply appreciative of the fact that that commitment has been in place. The Government has, over the years, given consistent support to our small business community in our town centres, and we will continue to do so as we take forward our commitments to boost the Scottish economy.

Alcohol Awareness Week

7. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Deputy First Minister, in light of it being alcohol awareness week, whether he will provide an update on what action the Scottish Government is taking to reduce alcohol harm. (S5F-01705)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The Government’s efforts to reduce alcohol harm will be significantly enhanced by yesterday’s judgment by the Supreme Court, which confirmed unanimously the legality of our minimum unit pricing policy in Scotland. We will implement minimum unit pricing as soon as practicable, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will make a statement to Parliament on Tuesday about tackling the high-strength, low-cost alcohol that is causing so much damage to our communities. We also have about 40 other measures in our alcohol framework, which has had an impact and which we will update shortly to take further measures to assist in that respect.

Monica Lennon

I join the Deputy First Minister in welcoming the Supreme Court’s decision to approve the implementation of minimum unit pricing. Alcohol harm costs Scotland £3.6 billion each year and is ripping lives apart. Minimum unit pricing will help to reduce alcohol harm over the longer term. It is the right thing to do and I congratulate the Government on pursuing it. However, minimum unit pricing on its own is not a panacea. Changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol and reducing harm will require a radical culture change. Will the Scottish Government consider initiating a national information campaign about the consumption of alcohol to proactively increase awareness of the chief medical officer for Scotland’s updated guidelines on weekly alcohol intake?

John Swinney

I whole-heartedly welcome Monica Lennon’s comments on the Supreme Court judgment. I talked of my pride in this Government’s record in my response to Patrick Harvie, and I am enormously proud of the tenacity of my ministerial colleagues, who have led in this process. It is nothing to do with me. It has been the First Minister, Kenny MacAskill, Alex Neil, Shona Robison, two Lord Advocates, our health and justice officials and many stakeholders who have absolutely led this, and we appreciate the support of Parliament in getting us to this position. There has been an enormous challenge to our agenda, and I am so delighted that this Government and Parliament held its nerve and won the day at the Supreme Court this week.

Monica Lennon has a close and very personal contribution to make to the debate on alcohol. She spoke about costs; she knows better than all of us that costs are not just the monetary costs of the impact of alcohol on people’s lives. We will certainly consider the suggestions that she has made about a national information campaign. As I indicated in my original answer, the alcohol framework will be updated; Aileen Campbell, the Minister for Public Health and Sport, will lead on that process in the Government and she will be delighted to discuss the suggestions that Monica Lennon has made.

I accept Monica Lennon’s point that minimum unit pricing will not be the panacea. There has to be a culture change in our society. However, if we look back at the culture changes that have taken place in the country—with regard to the ban on smoking in public places or since we entrenched equality between individuals—and the changes that they have led to in our society, Scotland is a better country for being bold in those respects. I am very proud of what this Parliament has legislated for. [Applause.]