Meeting date: Thursday, December 17, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 December 2020
Agenda: Trade (Disclosure of Information) Bill, First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time
- Trade (Disclosure of Information) Bill
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Before we start First Minister’s question time, I ask the First Minister to update us on the Covid situation.
The total number of cases reported yesterday was 858—4.4 per cent of all tests reported—and the total number of positive cases is now 109,296. A total of 1,012 people are now in hospital, which is 19 fewer than yesterday, and 50 people are in intensive care, which is one more than yesterday. I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 30 deaths were registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days. The total number of people who have died under that daily measurement is now 4,203. Again, my condolences are with everyone who has lost a loved one.
Shortly, we will publish the latest estimate of the R number. We expect that that will show that the R number has risen slightly this week and is now around 1 again, as opposed to just below 1. That underlines the importance of having taken a cautious approach to this week’s levels review and why we have reinforced our guidance to people ahead of the Christmas period. I will briefly re-emphasise that guidance.
First, the safest way to spend Christmas this year is to stay within your own household and in your own home. My strong recommendation is that that is what people should, do if at all possible. Any interaction that you have with another household should, if possible, be outdoors. However, if you consider it essential to meet indoors with someone from another household—pragmatically, we recognise that some people might—you should limit both the duration and the numbers as much as possible.
The five-day period over Christmas is a limited window, not a period of time that we think that it is safe to meet for. My recommendation to anyone who considers it essential to form a bubble is to not meet up with people in it on any more than one day over the Christmas period and to keep the duration as short as possible. People should also limit numbers as far as possible. Three households and eight people is a maximum that tries to account for the fact that families come in all shapes and sizes—but the smaller, the better. Please make sure that you keep a safe distance from others, wash your hands and surfaces, and keep windows open. Lastly, we recommend against travel from high-prevalence to low-prevalence parts of the United Kingdom, and that includes advising against travel between Scotland and tier 3 areas of England.
The five-day window of opportunity over Christmas is a pragmatic recognition that some people might not be willing to leave loved ones alone, and therefore it is an attempt to put some risk-reducing boundaries around that. I reiterate that our clear advice is that the safest way to spend Christmas this year is to stay within our own homes and households and to keep any interaction with other households outdoors. We now have a real prospect of vaccination within weeks for many and within months for most. All of us should therefore should do all that we can to keep one another safe until then.
Finally, Christmas aside, I briefly remind everyone how important it is to stick to the general rules and guidance. The postcode checker on the Scottish Government’s website is there if you do not know what the rules are in your area. Please do not visit one another’s homes, stick to the rules on travel and follow FACTS: wear face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and surfaces regularly; keep 2m distance from people in other households; and self-isolate and get tested if you have symptoms. As always, doing all those things is the best way of protecting ourselves, our communities and one another, and of protecting the national health service as we go further into the winter.
Thank you. The First Minister will now take questions. I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons.
There were 1,264 drug deaths in a single year: a record number of deaths; the sixth year in a row of record numbers of deaths; double the loss of life from drug deaths in 2007; and three and a half times worse than in other parts of the United Kingdom. Scotland’s recorded drug death rate is the worst not just in Europe but in large parts of the rest of the world.
However, just an hour from here, there are world-class rehab facilities—at Castle Craig—which help get people off drugs entirely. In 2002, those facilities admitted 257 national health service patients; by 2008, the number had dropped to 145. First Minister, what was the number in 2019?
This is the first opportunity that I have had to address the issue in the chamber. The figures that were published this week are completely unacceptable and no one will hear political answers from me on the subject today. We have much to do to sort this out—and sorting it out is our responsibility, and it is a serious responsibility.
Behind every one of the statistics is a human being whose life mattered: someone’s son or daughter, mother or father, brother or sister. I say that I am sorry to every family who has suffered grief. Every person who dies an avoidable death because of drug abuse has been let down.
The fact is that the issue is difficult and complex, but that is not an excuse. There is much work under way, which is being led by the public health minister and the drug deaths task force. However, the figures tell us that we need to do more and quicker.
The next meeting of the task force will take place on 12 January. I will attend the meeting to take stock with the task force and to consider what further, immediate steps we need to take. I will make a statement in the chamber before the end of January after I have had that discussion, to set out what further steps we intend to take.
Undoubtedly, part of that will involve rehabilitation facilities. We have been doing mapping work—we asked a working group to do that. Between the private sector, the third sector and the public sector, there are 365 rehabilitation beds across the country. We are not satisfied that that is necessarily sufficient, or that they are being used sufficiently.
That is not the only issue; it is one of the issues that require to be considered properly and fully as we move forward to discharge that responsibility for sorting out something that is completely unacceptable. I think that all of us take that view.
The First Minister’s apology is welcome, but it does not answer my question about rehab beds. The answer is just five. Castle Craig could be saving more than 250 Scots a year—it has done it before—but instead, the number is five.
Another rehab facility said that 60 per cent of its patients were not from Scotland. We have leading facilities on our doorstep to tackle the exact crisis that we face. Those facilities are full, but they are not full of people from Scotland. They are treating people from Eindhoven and Amsterdam, while people in Possil and Dundee are dying.
Castle Craig and the other rehab facilities want to treat Scottish patients again. It is not their fault—the Government no longer funds places there. From the Scottish National Party’s own report, it seems that universal credit funds more rehab beds than this Government does.
I know that rehab is no panacea, but it can work and it does save lives. Why did her Government stop funding those beds? How many lives has that decision cost?
Alcohol and drug partnerships across the country fund a number of beds in rehab facilities. However, I agree that there is a question about why that does not happen more.
As members are aware, we have had a working group gathering information on residential rehab beds. That information was published for the first time last week. It sets out the number of rehab beds across the country. Of the 365 total, around 100 are estimated to be taken up by those who are resident outwith Scotland. The majority of the beds are provided by the third sector; relatively few are provided by private or statutory providers.
That is one of the issues that the drug deaths task force is rightly considering, but it is not the only issue. There are a number of issues that it is right and proper that the task force continues to consider, and I will discuss all those issues with it on 12 January. I will come back to the chamber with a statement before the end of January to set out the further action that we intend to take.
That was a really long way of saying it, but the First Minister is right to say that, today, to get rehab, people need to be really lucky and get charity help, or they need to be wealthy enough to afford it, because the Government provides only 13 per cent of rehab beds in Scotland.
The First Minister’s own report says that people can be on a rehab waiting list for a year. Charities cannot do this on their own. Jericho house does not get a penny and warns that its position is unsustainable. It runs three facilities, including the only residential rehab centre in Dundee, which has now overtaken Glasgow as Europe’s drug death capital. Not that it is much better in Glasgow. A year ago, the Mungo Foundation’s cothrom eile rehab service closed for good. That service was in the First Minister’s constituency.
In 2006, Nicola Sturgeon stood where I am—right on this spot—berating the then Scottish Government for cutting rehab funding. In fact, she went further, claiming that it showed why Scotland needed a new Government. If cuts to rehab funding were to be condemned in 2006, as they should have been, why does the First Minister think that they should be accepted now?
I said at the outset of our exchange that I am not going to give political answers. Many of the criticisms that are being made of the Government are valid and legitimate, and we have much work to do to ensure that we sort the problem of people dying avoidably from drugs. That is what we are already doing. The drug deaths task force has already undertaken many actions and recently published its forward work programme. It is not true to say that work is not being done, because considerable work is being done. However, as I said in my original answer, I believe that there are hard questions for us to address about whether that work is sufficient and whether it is being done quickly enough. I am not going to shy away from that today. That is why I will meet the task force in January and consider with it the work that is being done and the additional steps that require to be taken. As I have already said, I will come back to the chamber before the end of January and set out the conclusions from that meeting.
Rehabilitation is, undoubtedly, a part of that, which is why work is already under way to look properly at rehabilitation services across the country: what is there just now, what use is being made of those services, what more we need to do in relation to funding and access to rehabilitation services, and what needs to be done in other ways. As everybody recognises, rehabilitation is important, but it is not a panacea. We need to focus on many other things to ensure that people are not dying avoidably from drugs. That responsibility lies with me and with this Government, and it is one that we take extremely seriously.
I agree about the range of interventions that need to be made, but cutting the number of fully funded rehab beds in Scotland to just 22 is not one of them.
Let me give the context. The rest of the United Kingdom and half of Europe do not have consumption rooms, which I know is a preferred policy of the Government; they also do not have this number of deaths. Drug classifications are the same everywhere in these islands. The “Trainspotting” generation theory has been busted because the number of young people dying has doubled in the past two years. The thing that is different about Scotland, because it is entirely devolved, is drug treatment and rehabilitation, and that is what this Government has cut to the bone.
People on the front line—the charities that are working with drug users—are calling for an immediate extra £20 million in ring-fenced rehab funding, just to make up for the past 13 years of cuts. Will the First Minister commit to that today, so that next year we do not see a repeat of these horrendous figures, or possibly figures that are even worse?
I will commit to ensuring that the resources are available for the actions that we consider to be necessary. That will include rehabilitation services.
In every year since this Government took office, apart from two years when funding for drug and alcohol services did decline, funding has increased. That is not to say that funding has increased sufficiently or adequately, and I accept that.
However, this is about more than money; it is about the approaches that we take and, at the heart of all this, it is about everybody accepting that none of us should accept a situation in which people who use drugs are allowed to fall through the cracks and we see the deaths that we have seen in recent years. They are real people whose lives matter, and I am absolutely determined that we take actions to fix this.
I do not make comparisons with what happens elsewhere because I think that the problem in Scotland is worse than it is elsewhere. We see that in the figures, and we have to take that seriously.
I am not going to shy away from this; I am not going to deflect the criticism. Instead, working with colleagues in Government, I am going to make sure that we do what we have already started to do through the task force, which is to take the actions that are about sorting this and making sure that we do not let down people who use drugs and instead prevent, intervene early and provide the services that allow people to get the help that they need when they need it. It is also about taking action around overdoses and deaths that are avoidable. Safe consumption rooms are not the only part of this, but they are a part of it, and it is important that we also focus on them as part of the package of measures that we need to take forward.
I will begin with a quote:
“Since Scotland’s drug death day of shame just two days ago, another six people will have died in Scotland. Three will die today. We will not have a daily briefing about these three people or any news coverage. Don’t let them be forgotten about until they come out as a statistic.”
Those are the words this morning of drugs policy activist Peter Krykant. First Minister, what are you going to do to stop Scotland’s other pandemic taking more lives?
I think that Peter Krykant is right when he says that. I have spent almost every day this year dealing with a pandemic and trying to work out how we stop people dying from that pandemic.
People are dying through the use of drugs and their lives matter every bit as much as those whose lives we are trying to save for other reasons. The drug deaths task force has already started a programme of work looking at early intervention, at how risk is reduced and at how overdoses can be avoided so that we stop people dying.
That work is under way and I do not think that it is right that we ignore that work; the task force is doing the right things. However, we have a serious question to ask about whether that work is enough and whether it is going quickly enough. I take the issue seriously. This is not comfortable; it should not be comfortable. I am not going to stand here and try to defend the indefensible. These lives matter too much and we owe it not only to those who have lost their lives but to those whose lives can still be saved to make sure that people like me do not engage in the usual political defensiveness but accept criticism where it is due and valid and redouble our efforts to do the right things to resolve this.
That is why I am determined that that is what we will do and, as I have said a couple of times already, I will come back to the chamber before the end of January, having spoken to the drug deaths task force, to set out the work that is being done and the additional, urgent and immediate steps that we intend to take.
The problem that the First Minister has got is that, back in 2007, the Scottish National Party manifesto said:
“There are no short term fixes to the problems of drug misuse in Scotland.”
Yet, here we are, over 13 years on, with the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing still defending the Government’s record, telling the Parliament this week that there is no short cut. People do not expect short cuts, but they do expect the Government to do its job. Instead, they have seen cuts to funding for rehabilitation beds; cuts to the funding of alcohol and drug partnerships; cuts to third sector support and rehabilitation organisations; and an abject failure to integrate mental health and substance misuse and recovery services. In that way, the Government has ignored its own 2008 road to recovery strategy, the 2013 review of opiate replacement therapy and the 2019 Dundee drug commission report.
Why has the Government ignored those repeated warnings and presided over a 178 per cent increase in drug deaths since 2007?
I do not believe that it is right to say that we have ignored recommendations. However, setting out what the Government has done, as the public health minister did in the chamber earlier this week, does not mean that we are standing here saying that, therefore, there is not an issue on which we merit valid criticism and scrutiny and it does not mean that there is not much more that we need to do. That is what I am seeking to set out openly and candidly today.
In every one of the years since we took office, bar two—I am not saying that those two years are not important or have not had implications—the money being invested in drug and alcohol services has increased under this Government.
We need to continue that, and we need to look not just at the totality of investment but at what that money is supporting. Rehabilitation services are part of that, but they are not the only part. It is not right or fair to ignore the work that is already under way through the drug deaths task force—that important work is looking at the three areas of earlier intervention, reducing risk and avoiding deaths for people who are at risk of overdose.
That is important work, and it is work in the right direction, but it is equally valid to say that we need to accelerate the pace of that and we need to be very critical in looking at whether what we are doing is sufficient. I undertake to do that, and we will continue to do it. We will absolutely be clear about what requires to be done.
I hope that, as we go forward, although there will be legitimate criticism of the Government, we can build consensus on the steps that have to be taken to resolve the issue and sort what is an unacceptable situation, as I think we all agree.
None of the alcohol and drug partnerships that I speak to would recognise that description of what has happened to its funding over the past 13 years. I was in the chamber for the public health minister’s statement to Parliament on Tuesday, and it was woeful. I heard him say:
“We cannot change things overnight”.—[Official Report, 15 December 2020; c 45.]
However, the Government has been in power for 13 years. He also said on Tuesday that the Scottish Government is
“doing everything in its powers”,
but the exercise of the Scottish Government’s powers has made things worse, not better. There are now three and a half times more deaths from drugs in Scotland than there are anywhere else in the United Kingdom, with the same legislation. We have the worst record of drug deaths in Europe. Therefore, is it not time that the First Minister exercised her power, sorted it out, got a grip and fired her public health minister?
I absolutely accept that the issue is for this Government to sort out. I have not mentioned any other Government or made any reference to powers that lie elsewhere. I am focused on what we need to do and what we are determined to do. I have set out the action that I personally, as First Minister, will take in the weeks to come. I will come back to the chamber and set out clearly the outcome of that exercise.
As we have canvassed in the chamber many times before, there are issues over where legal responsibility lies for things such as safe consumption rooms. That is an important part of the issue, but it is not the only part. My starting point is what powers we have right now and what the responsibility of this Government is, and that is how I intend to proceed. We will continue to have discussions about the issues that lie outwith our powers, but the starting point is what this Government is responsible for, and it is this Government’s responsibility to sort out the issue.
Heathrow Airport (Third Runway)
Even during a pandemic, we need to recognise the far longer-term emergency that we face: the climate emergency. Yesterday, in the same week as the update to the Scottish Government’s climate change plan was published, the Supreme Court breathed new life into the disastrous plan for a third runway at Heathrow airport, ruling that existing climate targets simply do not need to apply to those plans. That decision flies in the face of the warning last week from the United Nations that the world is on course for 3° of warming, which is a trajectory that would be devastating for the future of all of us.
Given that the Scottish Government signed a memorandum of understanding with Heathrow in 2016 backing that third runway—a move that would hugely increase flight numbers and emissions—can the First Minister explain why building that extra runway would be good for the climate, or is she finally ready to drop her support for that deeply irresponsible project?
That is not a decision for the Scottish Government. I am clear that we have a responsibility to meet our climate change targets. Unlike some other Governments, we include aviation emissions. I agree that there is a big question over new runways at a time when all of us are focused on ensuring that we reduce emissions and reach net zero, in our case by 2045. We will focus on making sure that we meet those targets across transport and how we heat our homes and buildings, and through the continued work that we are doing on electricity, for example.
This week, we published the updated climate change plan, which sets out the scale of the Scottish Government’s ambition and the very detailed steps that we will take to meet not just the ultimate 2045 target but the interim 2030 target.
I certainly did not say that building the new runway at Heathrow is the Scottish Government’s decision, but it has entered a memorandum of understanding with Heathrow and given its support to that project, and the decision about whether to continue that support is one for the Scottish Government to make. It is not enough to say that there are questions about new runways; it is important for the Scottish Government and the First Minister to say what their policy is.
As for the climate plan update, there are elements in it to welcome, such as the free bus travel for young people that will start next year, the increased budget for low-carbon homes and the infrastructure for cycling and walking. All those policies are ones that the Scottish Government had to be persuaded to adopt by the Greens—they were brought forward by the Government only because of the pressure that we brought to bear.
As for the rest of the plan, the Scottish Trades Union Congress has described it as “More rhetoric than action” and WWF has called it “a missed opportunity”, with big decisions over the future of farming and energy standards for homes being dodged and delayed. In addition, of course, the Scottish Government says that it wants to cut traffic, but it continues to plough billions into new roads.
In the end, it is making tough decisions and taking action that counts. I am talking about decisions such as the decision by Norway to end fossil fuel exploration now and set a date for ending extraction, or the decision by New York to commit to a huge programme of divesting public money from the fossil fuel industry. Will the Scottish Government finally be ready to back such bold steps before the global climate conference meets in Glasgow less than a year from now?
We will look at all the different ways in which we can ensure that we meet those targets. Some of the countries and cities that Patrick Harvie talks about already look to Scotland and consider it to be a world leader in taking action in this area. We have gone further than most other countries in the world in reducing emissions so far.
I disagree with Patrick Harvie; I think that the scale of our ambition is demonstrated in the climate plan update, which sets out across all our areas of responsibility the very specific—and, in many cases, really tough—actions that we require to take, and we will continue to focus on that.
On Heathrow, I think that there is merit in the case that Patrick Harvie makes. The memorandum of understanding is about ensuring that, if the Heathrow expansion goes ahead—that is not our decision—Scotland will benefit economically from that. However, I think that the climate emergency and the responsibility that all of us have mean that those who are responsible for that decision must think very carefully about how that fits in with the determination to reduce emissions and become net zero.
We will continue to take a leadership position on the issue up to COP26 in Glasgow in November, and beyond that, too. As I said, we are focused very much not just on the ultimate 2045 target but on the extremely stretching target that Parliament agreed for 2030. Meeting that target will involve our taking extremely tough decisions along the way, but given that Parliament has agreed the target, it is now incumbent on the Government, with Parliament, to make sure that we take the actions that enable us to meet it.
It should not have taken this year’s record deaths for the First Minister to step up and take the lead on drug use. We have had record numbers of deaths for years, and I am particularly angry about how that situation has developed. Since I first entered Parliament, I have raised the issue repeatedly—with the First Minister’s predecessor then with her—and I offered solutions. The truth is this: for a decade, while drug deaths were on the rise, the Scottish Government’s response was to cut the funds for drug rehabilitation. I think that the First Minister knows that that was a reckless decision.
The First Minister says that she has not pointed to any other Government or to any power that she wants the Scottish Parliament to have, but her Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing has been doing that all this week. We now need real leadership. It is a huge responsibility and we need a minister who is able to drive change. Whatever his talents, Joe FitzPatrick is not that person. I ask once again: will the First Minister appoint a new drugs minister?
I am going to work with the drugs minister to make sure that we collectively accept that responsibility and take the actions that are required to fix the problem.
The question of where powers lie is not irrelevant, but I have not focused on it today because I think that it is right and proper that I do not stand here and try to defend a position that is indefensible. Instead, I accept candidly that we have not done enough and that, although serious work is under way, we have to ask ourselves whether it is enough and whether it is going fast enough. I am not going to shy away from that and I am not going to try to defend things that I should not stand here and defend.
However, there are issues—in particular, to do with safe consumption rooms—about where power lies and whether, if power does not lie here, we are able to work together with the UK Government to resolve some of the issues. They will not go away, so we will continue to take that forward.
I will continue to lead; I will lead the Government’s efforts on the issue over the period ahead, but I will do that with the drugs minister and with the Government as a whole. The matter is our responsibility and I will not shy away from it. Instead, I will make sure that we put in place plans to fix the situation—not only for the sakes of those who have lost their lives, and of their families who grieve those lost lives, but for the sakes of those whose lives we can save. Every single one of those lives matters; that is the most important thing for all of us.
I just wish that the First Minister had taken that determined approach 13 years ago, when she first became health minister.
I want to follow up on schools. Yesterday, the First Minister tightened the advice for Christmas, but she is still opting for many schools to stay open until Christmas eve. Teachers are not on the vaccination list and are not on the routine testing list. Those who were on the shielding list have been told to keep on working in schools. Teachers are feeling forgotten.
I understand the need for pupils not to miss out on yet more education, but the fact is that little useful learning will be done in schools next week. If there is such learning to be done, it can be switched to online provision, because we are ready for that. We should be able to make arrangements for childcare, just as before.
Spreading the virus in schools next week could spread it to vulnerable relatives at Christmas. Will the First Minister think again and close schools next week?
Back in the summer, or as we came out of the summer, I recall questions from Willie Rennie that actually berated me for taking such decisions and leaving parents without childcare. The decisions have to be looked at in the round.
On schools, the most important thing is education of our young people. Given that they have already had a term out of school this year, our objective and our priority should be, as far as possible, to have children in school for the remainder of the term and to have them in school again after the Christmas period. That is important.
That does not mean that teachers are “forgotten” or that we do not listen to their concerns. It is because we listen to those concerns and want to address them that Public Health Scotland has done a lot of analysis of the impact of Covid on teachers and on pupils in our schools, the latest part of which was published yesterday. That is also why we continue to liaise with teachers. The Deputy First Minister chairs the education recovery group, on which teachers are represented.
We will put public health first at every single stage. The coronavirus advisory group’s sub-committee on education gives us the public health advice that allows us right now to judge that it is better for young people to be in school than to be out of school. However, we will continue to monitor that carefully. We are, again, in a period when Covid cases are rising, so the cautious and precautionary approach will continue to guide all that we do.
We should have, as our priority, maintenance of full-time in-school education. If that means that adults—the rest of us—have to make more sacrifices and be under more restrictions, I think that that is a price that we should all be willing to pay.
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government’s statement of intent on biodiversity will support Scotland’s transition to net zero. (S5F-04674)
The science is clear that climate change and biodiversity loss are intrinsically linked. We are determined to tackle them on that basis.
Scotland is blessed with the opportunity for nature-based solutions to climate change, such as tree planting and peatland restoration, which remove carbon from the atmosphere and secure it in natural habitats. We have already committed investment of £250 million over 10 years to peatland restoration, and an additional £150 million over the next five years to forestry.
The latest policies and proposals are outlined in the recent “Securing a Green Recovery on a Path to Net Zero: Climate Change Plan 2018–2032—update”. As well as supporting biodiversity and tackling climate change, the investments can provide good green jobs and support the economic and social wellbeing of our community, which is central to a green recovery from Covid.
I want to quote the Committee on Climate Change’s “Reducing emissions in Scotland: Progress Report to Parliament”, which was published in October. It says:
“the Scottish economy has decarbonised more quickly than the rest of the UK, and faster than any G20 economy since 2008. Emissions have fallen rapidly while the economy has grown.”
Clearly, that recognises the scale of Scotland’s ambition and action.
The CCC has also noted that much progress has come from success in decarbonisation of electricity, and that we should focus on rapid action outside the electricity sector. Can the First Minister outline how the climate change plan update that was published yesterday does that?
I very much agree with the premise of the question and welcome the Committee on Climate Change’s assessment of Scotland’s progress to date. Of course, it is imperative that we continue to build on that progress.
“Securing a Green Recovery on a Path to Net Zero” updates the 2018 plan with more than 100 new policies, and boosts or accelerates more than 40 more across all sectors, including transport, land use and buildings. It includes investment of £120 million in zero-emissions buses, £50 million to transform vacant and derelict land, and £70 million to improve recycling infrastructure. Actions across the board are building on the success in the electricity sector and are seeking to replicate it across the other sectors. That will be challenging, but it is absolutely vital if we are to meet the net zero target by 2025.
To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the conditions regarding blood donations. (S5F-04667)
I begin by saying how grateful I am—as, I am sure, we all are—to everyone who donates blood. We welcome the recent research recommendations on blood donation and have asked the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service to make changes by next summer to the questions that blood donors are asked. The changes will ensure an up-to-date individualised assessment of risk of blood-borne virus infection. It will apply to all donors, and men who have had sex with another man in the past three months will no longer be automatically deferred from donating blood.
The changes mark the adoption of the recommendations of the UK-wide FAIR—for assessment of individualised risk—group. The advisory committee on the safety of blood, tissues and organs has confirmed that the proposals will not impact on safe supply of blood.
Donating blood is one of the simplest and purest ways to help others, yet for many years many men, even if they were healthy and willing, were barred from donating blood due to archaic rules, the roots of which were in the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. I was one of those men.
The new recommendations by the FAIR group represent a pragmatic and world-leading shift in our approach to fairness and equality, which has been a long time coming. The change, which has been achieved thanks to relentless campaigning by organisations from Freedom To Donate to the Terrence Higgins Trust, and thanks to many cross-party efforts, is welcome.
Right now, the national health service desperately needs tens of thousands more male blood donors to counter a 25 per cent drop in donations in the past five years. Will the First Minister join me in making a much wider call to those who are willing and able to donate blood to come forward and do so, safe in the knowledge that they will be treated with dignity and respect?
I absolutely agree with Jamie Greene. I, too, take the opportunity to thank all the organisations that have campaigned for the change. It is a change that I have long had sympathy with, although as the Government, of course, we have to be advised on such decisions by the advisory committee on the safety of blood, tissues and organs. I am very pleased that the recommendations have been made and accepted.
I completely understand the sense of iniquity, unfairness and injustice that many men have felt over the years, when they have not been able to give blood. On making a wider call, the answer is yes—I appeal to everybody who is able to donate blood to come forward and do so. It is one of the things that not all but many of us can do to help to save lives, to keep people safe and to contribute to our collective sense of wellbeing—the importance of which we have all been reminded of in recent months.
University Students (Accommodation Costs)
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government plans to help students who will lose out financially on their accommodation costs as a result of the staggered return to universities. (S5F-04672)
The Scottish Government has no direct role in the provision of student accommodation, whether it is managed by universities or private sector organisations. However, we expect universities and accommodation providers to support students to come to an appropriate resolution of issues around tenancy agreements. Universities and providers must make those judgments in contact and consultation with their student community. Universities and providers should treat students sympathetically and take their circumstances into account so that they are not disadvantaged. We will continue to discuss those issues with Universities Scotland and the National Union of Students Scotland.
Any student who faces additional hardship as a result of Covid should apply for financial support from the higher education discretionary funds. Earlier this year, we provided emergency funding of £5 million for students impacted by the pandemic, and we brought forward access to more than £11 million of higher education discretionary funds.
I welcome that answer from the First Minister. The First Minister will be aware that the National Union of Students has said that students should be given additional financial support to pay for accommodation that they are not using when they face a staggered return to university next term. Many students were encouraged back to university only to find that all their classes were online.
Today, I launched Scottish Labour’s housing charter, which includes the right to form a tenants union. In principle, students should be protected from exploitative practices during the Covid pandemic. I am sure that the First Minister agrees with that sentiment, but can she continue to assure Parliament that she will keep in contact with universities when students are returning to campus to take up university accommodation, to ensure that students benefit from face-to-face teaching and are not in their accommodation unnecessarily, and that they get the financial support that they need for their rents?
Yes, we will do all of that. I agree that students should be protected from any exploitative practices, not just in principle but in practice. With only very limited exceptions, undergraduate students will restart their studies at home at the start of next term and return to term-time accommodation only when they are asked to do so by their university. It is therefore really important, as I said earlier, that universities and accommodation providers discuss with students how they will not be disadvantaged. We will also discuss with Universities Scotland and NUS Scotland any support that the Scottish Government can provide for that.
I have already set out the discretionary funding that is available for students who find themselves in financial hardship. Students are among the many groups in society that have been impacted severely by Covid, and it is absolutely right and proper that we do everything that we can to support them.
We turn to supplementary questions. Clare Adamson will be followed by Finlay Carson.
The Conservative Government has failed to broker access to the Erasmus+ programme for Scotland. That programme was instigated by Winnie Ewing, and it has, of course, been life enhancing for generations of Scots students and students from the rest of the United Kingdom and across Europe. Does the First Minister agree that that failure is an act of cultural vandalism by a floundering Conservative Government?
We should all be really proud of Erasmus+. Winnie Ewing was, of course, the driving force behind the programme and, as Clare Adamson said, many young people not only in Scotland but across the UK and Europe have benefited in many ways from participation in it. It has also delivered real economic benefits to Scotland. Its loss is therefore deeply regrettable.
It is unfortunate that the Conservatives did not prioritise securing the future of Erasmus+. Obviously, we want to consider ways in which we can keep its benefits. What has happened is one of the many reasons why people throughout Scotland deeply regret the Brexit that has been foisted on us by the Conservative Government.
Finlay Carson cannot join us remotely, so Miles Briggs will ask the next question.
New Eye Hospital (NHS Lothian)
Yesterday, NHS Lothian informed local elected representatives that Scottish National Party ministers had informed it that they were withdrawing funding for the new eye hospital for Lothian. Plans for a replacement for the 50-year-old Princess Alexandra eye pavilion were at an advanced stage; indeed, contracts were awarded some two years ago. Will the First Minister personally intervene today and restore that funding for my constituents across Lothian?
I am not sure that the situation is quite as characterised, but I undertake to look into it further and correspond with the member. As is the case for Governments across the United Kingdom, funding is constrained and we have to make difficult choices. Making sure that we have fit-for-purpose, state-of-the-art health facilities in every part of the country is a priority. However, I will come back to the member in due course.
Retail Staff (Covid Vaccinations)
I have been made aware by a constituent that a major retail company is refusing to give eligible front-line staff time off for their Covid vaccine appointments. I will not publicly name the company, because the staff are worried about getting into trouble by alerting us to that. What message would the First Minister send to that company and to any other company that puts its staff and wider society at risk by such unreasonable behaviour?
The vast majority of employers have acted responsibly to help to protect their workers against the risk of Covid, and facilitating the ability of workers to get vaccinated is part of that. I send a very clear message to any company that does not behave in that responsible way that they should rectify that and put concern for their workers and fair work more generally at the heart of everything that they do.
I appreciate why the member does not want to name the company publicly, but if she wants to let me know privately which company it is, I will see whether there is any dialogue that we can have to rectify the situation.
Will the First Minister provide an update on changes to legislation that would entitle all four-year-old children to access funded childcare when their parents choose to defer their place for a year? Will she join me in thanking the give them time campaign, particularly its founding members Patricia Anderson and Diane Delaney—the latter is from Stepps in my constituency—for their tireless work in raising awareness of the issue and fighting for change?
I join Fulton MacGregor in thanking the give them time campaign for its continued engagement on the matter. I know that the Minister for Children and Young People has met members of the campaign on a number of occasions, most recently on 3 December, and has found those discussions extremely helpful.
As members are aware, we laid an order before the Parliament on 7 December to extend the obligation on education authorities to provide an additional year of funded early learning and childcare to all children who defer their primary 1 start from August 2023. Yesterday, we announced that five local authorities will pilot implementation of the entitlement during 2021-22. Those pilots will help us to assess the likely uptake of the extended entitlement and will inform wider delivery.
Secondary School Grades Assessment (West Lothian)
I have been contacted by and on behalf of secondary 6 pupils in West Lothian. Their understanding is that they will be asked to sit a Scottish Qualifications Authority paper as part of their grades assessment at a different time from other schools in their area. Their question, which I put to the First Minster, is this: how would that be an acceptable, equal or fair way of assessing them for their grades?
Schools have to judge and assess pupils’ performance, and they will use different ways to do that. The way that the member has set out may well be a way that some schools decide to use. I am happy to look into the particular issue that the member has raised and to come back to him in writing if there are issues that we want to address. However, we need to recognise that in an environment where, regrettably, exams cannot take place as normal, schools will use other ways throughout the year to assess their pupils’ performance. That is right and proper.
Drive-in Entertainment (Closures)
From this weekend and over Christmas, drive-in movies and drive-in pantos were planned for Loch Lomond Shores in West Dumbartonshire and across many areas in Scotland. However, those have had to be cancelled, with the potential loss of hundreds of creative sector jobs. Many families in my constituency are disappointed as they thought that that was a safe way to have a little enjoyment at Christmas. Can the First Minister advise why those events are not allowed, when apparently they are allowed in every other country in the United Kingdom?
We are trying to take as many precautions as possible to stop the increase in Covid cases, and we look carefully at all those things. Drive-through events are one of the class of events that we look at carefully—I can understand why people think that they are safe. However, we are advising against car sharing at the moment because we know that the enclosed environment in cars can pose a risk of transmission. Drive-through events also have to have things such as toilet facilities, and there is often catering on those sites.
The combination of those factors has led us, regrettably, to the conclusion that it is not safe in the current circumstances for those events to go ahead. I know that that is disappointing. Everybody is bitterly disappointed that this Christmas cannot be celebrated in the normal ways and I am really sorry for that, particularly for children who cannot do all the things that children love doing at this time of year, from going to Santa’s grottoes, to pantomimes and all sorts of things. We hope that by this time next year, everybody will be taking part in those activities much more normally, but I ask people, no matter how disappointed they are, to be understanding of the reasons why those decisions are, unfortunately, essential.
Climate Change Plan Update
I am sure that the First Minister will agree that the climate change plan update that was published yesterday and discussed earlier is an extremely ambitious action plan. It is clear that Scotland is doing everything that it can, but we are inevitably held back by the limits of devolution. What action does the United Kingdom Government need to take now to ensure that Scotland is not held back from meeting our world-leading target and ending our contribution to climate change?
The climate change plan and the ambitions in it are world leading, as I have said already, but it is our responsibility—all of us, across the Parliament—to make sure that we are taking the actions to meet the targets in that plan. There are, of course, some powers that do not lie with us. They remain reserved to the UK Government and, therefore, we need to work with the UK Government and look to it to also take action on a number of areas. Those would include, for example, reforming the contract for difference arrangements to support wave and tidal generation and local supply chains; supporting new technologies such as carbon capture and hydrogen; and decarbonising the gas grid. The Scottish Government cannot do those things on its own and we rely on the UK Government also living up to its obligations. We hope very much that it will do exactly that.
North Lanarkshire Councillors (Pay Rise)
Councillors in Labour-run North Lanarkshire have recently voted to give senior officers an average pay rise of £10,000. That leaves a yawning gap between them and the next best paid of £30,000, which is a salary that many of the people who have lost their jobs during the Covid crisis would love to have. Does the First Minister agree that giving council bosses eye-watering five-figure pay rises at this time is wholly inappropriate?
I am not sure that support for the very highest income earners in society is the strongest ground for the Tories to be on, but we will leave that to one side. I am not aware of the particular arrangements. That is a matter for the local authority. Those of us in public sector positions, particularly at the higher end of the income scale, have a real obligation to show constraint and responsibility in these difficult times. The Scottish Government has had a pay freeze in place since—I think—2008, and that will continue. That arrangement will apply next year for members of the Scottish Parliament, as well. I would expect all councils and bodies across the public sector to continue to have those principles in mind. We all want to make sure that we help people at the bottom end of the income scale as much as possible, but I will not comment any further on a decision that is for the council in question, not the Scottish Government.
Racist Incidents (Police Resourcing)
Is the First Minister concerned about the appalling racist attack in Edinburgh last Friday and will she say what work is being done to ensure that the police are resourced to address racist incidents during the pandemic? My constituents are now extremely concerned about their personal safety.
I condemn in the strongest possible terms any racist abuse or attack, including the one in Edinburgh. I know how seriously the police take crimes of a racist nature. Obviously, how they deal with individual incidents is an operational matter for the police. We have a responsibility, which we discharge, to make sure that the police are properly resourced and there are more police officers on our streets now, as a result of the actions that this Government has taken. It is really important that all of us stand firm, shoulder to shoulder, in complete solidarity against any racist abuse, crimes or attacks. That is not who we are and we should never, ever, show any tolerance whatsoever for it.
Northern Ireland Protocol
At a meeting of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee earlier this week, I asked Michael Gove whether the Northern Ireland protocol would disadvantage the Scottish economy, as Northern Ireland’s being tariff free while trade from Scotland would attract tariffs would mean that there would not be a level playing field. Of course, he did not give a straight answer—just prevarication. However, I know that the First Minister will give me such an answer. What will be the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol on the Scottish economy?
Of course it will disadvantage the Scottish economy. I do not grudge Northern Ireland the arrangements that it will have; I am pleased about those. I hope that we will have a situation whereby Northern Ireland can continue to benefit from some kind of relationship with the single market. Of course, I very much hope that a hard border between the north and south of Ireland can be avoided.
However, any “best of both worlds” arrangements for Northern Ireland will have an impact on Scotland. We will be competing for inward investment in many situations, so I am really concerned about the impact of that on the Scottish economy, just as I am deeply concerned about the overall impact of Brexit. Let us never forget that Brexit is being done to Scotland against our will. The sooner that Scotland is not forced down paths on which we do not want to go and instead is in charge of its own future, the better for us all.
Air Discount Scheme
Since my former colleague Tavish Scott first introduced the air discount scheme in 2006, it has benefited thousands of people who live and work in communities across the Highlands and Islands. Accessing our lifeline air services remains costly, but much less so as a result of ADS support. To its credit, the Scottish Government has continued that support, albeit that it has been cut for those who travel for work. However, the current scheme is due to end in a fortnight. As yet, there has been no confirmation from the Government that ADS will continue beyond 31 December. Can the First Minister therefore assure my constituents, and others who rely on such support to enable them to access lifeline air services, that ADS will indeed continue beyond the end of this year?
We have supported that vital scheme, as the member has noted, and we continue to recognise its importance. I will ensure that I get an answer on the detail of the timing of any development to the member later today. However, the Scottish Government’s support for the scheme is well known and continuing.
Tay Cities Deal
Will the First Minister join me in welcoming today’s signing of the Tay cities deal? Does she agree that the deal, which includes £20 million-worth of investment by the Scottish Government in a regional skills and employability development programme, will be crucial in helping Dundee’s economic recovery from the impacts of Covid-19?
I am pleased to say that the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity this morning signed the Tay cities deal, thereby confirming our £150 million investment in the region. That is vital investment at a time of unprecedented need and will enable the deal to get under way and start to deliver real benefits for the region’s people and businesses.
The commitments made with our partners will help to deliver sustainable, inclusive growth in the region. Our partners anticipate that the deal has the potential to secure 6,000 jobs and to lever more than £400 million-worth of investment into the region, which I think everyone would agree will make a crucial contribution to economic recovery and renewal in the years to come.
Health Boards (Resources)
Earlier, the First Minister and Ruth Davidson spoke about two epidemics—the first of Covid-19 and the second of the drug deaths that have happened on the First Minister’s watch. I want to ask about a third epidemic, which consists of people in Scotland dying because of the lack of routine scanning and treatment. For example, there are cancers that are treatable if diagnosed early, but that is no longer happening. Does the First Minister also regret that? What further resources is she giving health boards to help to resolve that third epidemic, which is causing too many unnecessary deaths now and will continue to do so in the future?
There has been an impact on other health treatments in Scotland—as there has been across the United Kingdom and indeed across many other countries—because of the pandemic crisis that we have faced. That is deeply regrettable for us all, but over the past few months it has been unavoidable.
The Scottish Government is working to recover such services as quickly as possible. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has already set out much of the detail on services in general, but with particular reference to cancer services. The cancer recovery plan has been published and that work is being progressed. We continue to have engagement and dialogue with health boards on the subject, as we do on all matters, including appropriate resourcing. We are investing record sums in our national health service and that will continue. The importance of that investment, as we recover from the impacts of Covid, will be greater in the months and years to come.
Drug and Alcohol Services (Budget Cuts)
This week, well-respected researchers at the University of the West of Scotland identified that there has been a 55 per cent cut in drug and alcohol service budgets since 2007. Will the First Minister reinstate every single penny, plus interest, of that money? Will she stop prosecuting a man with a van who is saving lives? I ask this seriously: will she please listen to the voices of members of the Scottish Parliament who believe that we need someone who is competent and capable of driving change at ministerial level?
I accept, as I have done previously, that there are questions about the adequacy of the funding that we are dedicating to drugs services in general, and to rehabilitation services in particular. As a matter of fact, in 2008, the funding for drugs and alcohol services was £71 million in real terms and this year’s funding is £95 million. That funding has increased in most of the years in between, apart from the years that I spoke about earlier. However, I accept the general point that we have a duty to ensure that the funding supports the steps that we require to take.
I accept the genuine intent and sentiment behind Neil Findlay’s question on prosecution, but he knows that I do not prosecute people. Prosecution decisions are, rightly, independent from ministers. On the provision of safe consumption facilities, I understand the desire of the individual referred to by Neil Findlay and I share that desire to see safe facilities. There is a debate about how we best do that in Scotland. I know that Neil Findlay is aware of that debate.
On the responsibility of the Government, I have made it clear that many, although perhaps not all, of the criticisms being levelled at the Government are legitimate. It is for me to take that squarely on the chin. It is my responsibility as First Minister, working with my team of ministers, to ensure that we support the task force in its work. We must ensure that the right steps are being taken and that there is sufficient pace behind those steps to fix a problem that we all believe to be unacceptable.13:22 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—