Meeting date: Thursday, May 18, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 18 May 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Snaring, Partnership Action for Continuing Employment, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Partnership Action for Continuing Employment
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-01271)
Later today, I will have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland. This evening, I will take part in the ITV leaders’ debate, which, of course, Theresa May is ducking.
We do not have enough teachers in Scotland. Given that all sides accept that, does the First Minister agree that, when young people in Scotland choose teaching as a career, we should do everything we can to ensure that they stay?
As we have discussed in the chamber before, in common with many other countries, Scotland faces a challenge with teacher recruitment. That is why we are increasing the intake into initial teacher education and why the General Teaching Council for Scotland is looking to encourage more people into teaching and at different routes into teaching.
I suspect that Ruth Davidson is going to ask me about Teach First. I have said before that I am open to looking at ideas about how we get more young people into teaching, but we must make sure that such ideas work for Scottish education. We will continue to do everything that we can to address the challenges that we face.
The First Minister raised the issue of Teach First, so let us have a little look at, shall we? This week we learned that, in the past five years, almost 400 talented graduates have left Scotland to teach elsewhere in the UK. That is because they were attracted by the very successful Teach First programme. Despite versions operating in 40 countries around the world, it still has not been allowed to set foot in Scotland. Four hundred enthusiastic young teachers could be in our schools right now, but they are not, because Nicola Sturgeon says so.
In recent days, we have heard about the huge quality issues surrounding teacher training here. Can the First Minister give me a single good reason why she is stopping new schemes such as Teach First running here in Scotland and seeing whether they can improve matters?
I have met representatives from Teach First and discussed whether it would be possible to adapt its schemes to fit with Scottish education. We have a principle in Scottish education that the people who are teaching in our schools should have a teaching qualification, and I think that that principle is right.
Not long after I became First Minister, I visited a school in London that had taken part in the London challenge. We looked carefully at the London challenge and incorporated some of its learning into our attainment challenge. However, the headteacher that I spoke to in that school was quite sceptical about Teach First. One of the things that she said about it was that, in her view—I appreciate that there will be other views—it was quite short term and there are often difficulties with retaining those teachers.
We will continue to discuss with the GTCS, the teaching profession and local authorities how we can make sure that we get the brightest and best teachers into our schools. Indeed, the GTCS has already been looking at different ways of bringing young people into schools.
Ruth Davidson does not talk about all the fantastic graduates in Scotland who go into teaching in Scotland and I certainly want to encourage more of them to do that. We will continue to look at all these issues as we drive forward with determination, drive up standards in our schools, and close the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest.
So in answer to my asking for a good reason why the First Minister will not allow Teach First to operate here, we have, “I spoke to a woman in London, but I am not entirely closing my mind to it.” That is odd, because it is exactly the answer that the First Minister gave me on 14 January 2016, which was the last time that I asked her about it, almost 18 months ago. Is a decision anywhere in our future?
The scheme operates successfully in 40 countries but not here. We have to question whether the First Minister really understands the problems that we face. We have 4,000 fewer teachers than we had when she came to power. We are not recruiting nearly enough trainees to fill the gaps. Sixteen per cent of training places for English teachers are unfilled and more than a quarter of places for maths teachers are unfilled.
The First Minister claims that her Government is on top of the issue, so let me ask her this: if she is on top of it, what percentage of secondary schools says that a lack of teachers is constraining the number of subjects that they can offer?
I have been very clear about the challenges that we face, in common with other challenges for teacher recruitment. That is why John Swinney has been working with the GTCS to look at how we can get more teachers into education. It is also why we have been considerably increasing the intake into initial teacher education.
As I said in relation to Teach First, we have had initial discussions about whether the programme can be adapted for the particular circumstances of Scottish education. We will continue to look at those issues in the round and to drive forward our plans, such as the national improvement framework, which is already seeing reforms in school education; the attainment challenge; the attainment fund; and, in particular, the pupil equity fund, which, as we speak, is channelling resources into the hands of headteachers so that they can drive the improvements that they want in their schools. While, week after week, Ruth Davidson—quite legitimately—asks questions about the issue, this Government will get on with taking action that finds solutions.
What a lot of waffle. I am very pleased that the First Minister thinks that it is legitimate for me to ask questions about our failing education system; frankly, I think that it is my duty to ask those questions.
My question was about the proportion of our schools that is constrained in the number of subjects that they can offer their pupils because of teacher shortages. The answer is 70 per cent. That was the figure that was reported to this Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee. Seventy per cent of schools cannot offer their secondary 4 pupils the subjects that they want to offer, because her Government has not recruited the teachers. However, instead of that crisis being faced, what do we get? This week, we have seen backslapping about 10 years in power, while education has been getting worse.
The reality is that this is a First Minister who has presided over a teacher recruitment crisis, who has fallen asleep at the wheel on education, whose response to bad test results is, “Let’s just take Scotland out of the tests,” and who knocks back good ideas such as Teach First for reasons that even she cannot explain, apart from, “Some woman in London told me to ca’ canny.” We have all had enough. Is it not time that we had a First Minister in charge who does not just admit the occasional mistake, but does something about all of them?
The international summit of teaching experts that the Deputy First Minister attended just before Easter recognised that there are teacher recruitment challenges right around the world, including in England. For Ruth Davidson to suggest that, somehow, the problem is unique to Scotland is unfortunate.
It is also unfortunate that, week after week, she—rightly—points to areas in which we need to improve, but repeatedly fails to talk about the improvements in Scottish education such as that, in our schools right now, our young people are coming out with record higher and advanced higher passes; that more young people now achieve national 5 qualifications; that record numbers of young people go on to positive destinations—if they do not go into higher or further education, they go into training or work—and that we are starting to see, on a number of indicators, the beginning of the closing of the gap between the richest and the poorest.
I am the first to admit that there is much more to do, but Ruth Davidson should stop doing a disservice to teachers and pupils around this country by using terms such as “failing education system”. We do not have a failing education system in Scotland and Ruth Davidson should be ashamed to suggest that we do.
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-01267)
Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
Yesterday, the First Minister and I met Brendan Cox, the husband of Jo Cox. At that meeting, the First Minister—rightly—agreed that there is no place for abuse of any kind in our political debate.
A few weeks ago, a prominent internet blogger said of Oliver Mundell, a member of this Parliament, that he
“is the sort of public speaker that makes you wish that his dad had embraced his homosexuality sooner.”
Does the First Minister agree that there is absolutely no place in society for homophobia like that?
Of course I do. It is deeply unfortunate for Kezia Dugdale to get up in here and suggest that I would condone homophobia in any way, shape or form. On such issues—it was the kind of issue that we all discussed with Brendan Cox yesterday—we should all make it very clear that that kind of language and any form of abuse of any minority, or of any politician, are completely unacceptable. Daily, I see abuse being hurled at me, at my colleagues and at people on my side of the political spectrum, but I do not hold Kezia Dugdale personally responsible for that. We should all join together and say that that kind of abuse is unacceptable, and at least have that as an issue on which we have consensus and not division.
I very much welcome that response from the First Minister. The remark that I am referring to was posted on Twitter by Stuart Campbell, who writes for the website “Wings Over Scotland”. In the Daily Record, I called out Mr Campbell for his homophobic comments—[Interruption.] Members should listen if they are serious about tackling homophobia and abuse in all its forms. Mr Campbell has written to me via his lawyer to demand a £10,000 payment for “damage to reputation”. I stand firmly by my comment: I have never kowtowed to a bully, and I will not start today. There is a catalogue of evidence that demonstrates the bile that Stuart Campbell appears to believe is acceptable. Given that we are in a general election campaign, will the First Minister condemn “Wings Over Scotland” and anyone else who poisons the political debate in our country?
I have just condemned anybody who indulges in that kind of language or abuse. I am not responsible for Stuart Campbell any more than Kezia Dugdale is responsible for people who hurl abuse at me in the name of their being supporters of the Labour Party.
Let us cut to the chase about what is going on here. Kezia Dugdale is asking me about this today because she hopes that it means I will not be able to remind her that her colleagues in Aberdeen City Council voted for a Tory administration there yesterday. What we are seeing here is bit of a political smokescreen, so let me put it beyond any doubt: I condemn anybody who hurls abuse on social media or anywhere else. All of us should do that. The abuse that I see being directed at me daily would make people’s hair curl, and some of it comes from people who profess to be supporters of Kezia Dugdale’s party. I do not hold her personally responsible for that. We should all accept that there are people out there who will do that, and we should unite in condemning it.
When my colleagues do something that I disagree with, I take action. I am asking the First Minister to do the same. The comment from “Wings Over Scotland” was published by an individual who not only distorts our political debate but regularly spouts hatred, yet SNP politicians continue to positively engage with him and to alert their followers to his beliefs. There are a few SNP politicians who have called him out, but 44 per cent of SNP MSPs and 50 per cent of SNP MPs have actively encouraged him along. I have the list here in my hand, and it includes 10 Government ministers—among them the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the Minister for Transport and the Islands.
Social media can be a force for good, but as leaders we have a duty to stand up when it becomes an outlet for aggression, intolerance and hatred, so I want to ask the First Minister a clear yes or no question. Will she today order her politicians and her ministers to denounce and shun “Wings Over Scotland” once and for all?
I follow thousands of people on Twitter, and I am followed by hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter. Is Kezia Dugdale really saying that, if I was to go through her tweets or the tweets of members of her group or members of her party and found retweets that were in some way unsavoury, she would hold herself personally responsible for that? This is an absolutely ridiculous line of questioning.
I unequivocally condemn abuse of any kind. I have here a list of abuse that has been hurled at me by many people who are now Tory councillors in Scotland. I have had abuse from people who are members of the Labour Party. I have been called a fascist and a Nazi—or my party has—by Ian Smart, who was a senior member of the Labour Party, but I did not hold Kezia Dugdale responsible.
Let us cut to the chase. Kezia Dugdale is creating a smokescreen because her party is in disarray—it is in civil war and it is in meltdown. She is directing this line of questioning at me in order to hide the simple fact that the leader of the Scottish Labour Party is not in control of her own party and cannot stop her councillors going into coalition with Tories up and down the country. She is using her questions as a smokescreen to protect herself against the state of her own party.
We will now have some constituency questions, the first of which will be asked by Graeme Dey.
Will the First Minister join me in welcoming the Government’s appeal victory against the judicial review judgment that blocked the development of offshore wind farms in the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay, which is good news for Scotland on the climate change, green energy and jobs fronts? Will she also join me in encouraging RSPB Scotland, which instigated the original action, to accept the appeal decision and resolve its concerns about seabirds by working with the developers on, for example, sympathetic siting of turbines?
I very much welcome the judgment. I think that the development of offshore wind is important not just for environmental reasons, but for economic development reasons, so I hope that the judgment means that the developments in question can continue.
What happens now is for RSPB Scotland to decide. I certainly hope that we will see an end to the court action. However, I have another point to make, to which I hope the RSPB will listen. Protecting the environment is very important, and I know that that organisation has legitimate concerns about the developments. I say clearly to it and to others who have concerns that we want to ensure that we work in a way that allows the development of offshore wind, with all the benefits that it brings, and in which protection of the environment is paramount. I hope that we can move forward on that basis.
The First Minister might be aware that an estate agency based in Edinburgh—McEwan Fraser Legal—is demanding a buyer’s premium fee on the sale of property. If prospective buyers do not agree to pay it, the property is offered to the next bidder who can pay it. Concerns about the practice have been raised with me by a constituent who has spent 12 years saving for his first flat and who is now expected to pay a buyer’s premium fee of £2,940 on a £130,000 flat.
Does the First Minister agree that the buyer’s premium fee is an example of unscrupulous, unethical, rent-seeking sharp practice by McEwan Fraser Legal? Will her Government look into the issue and assess the legality and morality of a practice that adds further costs to the process of buying a house? Does she agree that the subject matter of the Estate Agents Act 1979 should be devolved so that this Parliament has full powers over matters relating to the acquisition of land and property?
I am happy to look further into that matter. I certainly agree with Andy Wightman that the powers in question should be devolved. Regulation of estate agents is currently reserved because it is covered by the consumer protection reservation in the Scotland Act 1998.
I absolutely agree that fees that are charged by estate agents should be completely transparent and clear. I understand that the Scottish Government has recently received one complaint about the charging of a buyer’s premium. I will make further inquiries about the point and the case that has been raised by Andy Wightman, and I will write to him on the matter once I have further information.
The First Minister will know that NHS Grampian announced this week that it can no longer guarantee surgery within 12 weeks of diagnosis—it is not in a position to meet the targets that she has set. Will her Government therefore step up to the plate and provide NHS Grampian with the funding that it should receive under the Government’s own NHS Scotland resource allocation committee formula, which is nearly 10 years old and has still not delivered that?
We have moved health boards much closer to parity, as it is called, than they were when we took office. Under NRAC, which replaced the Arbuthnott formula, we continue to do that.
On the specific issue that Lewis Macdonald raised, we are clear with all health boards that patients who are waiting for treatment such as elective surgery must be seen as quickly as possible. It is important that patients with the highest clinical priority, such as cancer patients, are seen extremely quickly.
We are investing additional resources. We have also been working with NHS Grampian and other health boards on further investment, which we will announce soon. That investment will help boards to build up their capacity, and particularly their elective capacity, to make sure that all patients are treated in a timely fashion.
Waiting times in our health service are shorter than they were when the Government first took office, but demand on our health service continues to rise, mainly because of the ageing population, so we must continue to work with health boards and make sure that they have the resources that are required to continue to deliver the standard of service that patients deserve.
My constituent Dr Kevin Parsons, who lives in Bearsden with his wife and two children, is due to be deported on 11 June. He is a University of Glasgow lecturer who has recently been awarded a £1.32 million research grant from the United Kingdom Government, which supports the employment of a further three people. The Home Office has repeatedly given Dr Parsons the wrong information, which has led to this personal crisis.
Dr Parsons is a Canadian national; his wife qualifies for UK citizenship and one of his children was born in the UK. Will the First Minister intervene and use her influence to assist in allowing Dr Parsons to remain here in Scotland and continue his valuable work?
I do not know all the details of the case that Gil Paterson raises, but I would be happy to look into the details and to see whether the Scottish Government can do anything to appeal to the Home Office to see sense, if that is what is required.
From the details that he has shared with members today, the case that Gil Paterson has outlined seems to illustrate the complete wrong-headedness of the UK Government’s approach to immigration. As the Tories publish their manifesto today, we see a recommitment to an immigration target that they know is undeliverable. They also know that, in trying to deliver that target, they will do untold damage to not just the Scottish economy but the UK economy as a whole.
Today, we also see the Tories reportedly publishing proposals to increase the amount of money that employers have to pay if they want to employ skilled migrants from outside the European Union. As the British Medical Association has pointed out, that includes doctors, nurses and other people who work in our health service. Not only will it be harder to recruit people into the health service—and perhaps harder to recruit people from outside this country into the teaching profession—but our public services will be charged when they recruit people.
That sums up the fact that the UK is pursuing an immigration policy that is damaging to the country’s economy. The Tories are doing that as they increasingly morph into the UK Independence Party. That makes it all the more important that, after the general election, there are strong voices to stand up to the Tories and make sure that Scotland’s interests in this area, and in so many other areas, are properly protected.
To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-01280)
A few days ago, the Prime Minister showed how hugely in touch she is with the country’s priorities by declaring that she has “always supported fox hunting” and that she maintains a commitment to its reintroduction. Today, the Conservative manifesto promises a step backwards in reintroducing this cruel and barbaric act to parts of these islands. It has also been revealed that one of Ruth Davidson’s former colleagues, who recently resigned, is a member of a fox hunting club in Scotland and has claimed that fox hunting is part of her way of life.
An estimated 800 foxes are killed by hunts each year in Scotland, 20 per cent of which are killed by packs of hounds rather than being shot, which is in clear breach of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. The First Minister will be well aware of the huge anger and concern that exists among members of the public about the issue. Does she agree with the members of the public who are contacting all parties to demand a ban on this brutal act? Does she agree with her party leader at Westminster, who says that he totally opposes fox hunting? If she does, will the law in Scotland totally oppose fox hunting?
Before I come on to the Scottish Government’s position, I say first that it says a lot about the priorities of Theresa May and the Tories when they go out of their way to deny Parliament any say over the hugely important issues that are associated with Brexit and yet they are committed to giving Parliament a free vote on reintroducing fox hunting. If ever something said that a Government had completely the wrong priorities, I suspect that that would be it.
When David Cameron spoke about the matter previously, it raised an issue about the differences between the law in England and in Scotland. At that point, we committed to looking at loopholes in the Scottish law. As Patrick Harvie will be aware, we have had Lord Bonomy look at the matter in detail. We are now consulting on his recommendations and considering whether changes in the law are required as a result.
I understand the concerns of people who are writing to us; I have always been an opponent of fox hunting and I remain so. We need to ensure that the law in Scotland operates appropriately, and that is exactly what the process is intended to ensure.
I think that the very many people who are contacting politicians about the issue will want a clearer answer about what is proposed in Scotland. The Bonomy review was welcome, but it followed a very narrow remit defined by the Scottish Government, which specifically excluded consideration of a full ban. Indeed, his lordship said that he
“always had in my mind the notion that there must be a way of preserving”
fox hunting, and he said that he was minded not to abolish fox hunting but to
“find a way of maintaining it.”—[Official Report, Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, 28 March 2017; c 14.]
Some of the proposals might go beyond the status quo, but they would be tantamount to proposing that the Scottish Government should endorse a form of regulated fox hunting.
If the Scottish Government means to consult openly on the issue, will the First Minister confirm that the consultation will include consideration of a complete ban on mounted fox hunting in Scotland? Failing that, will she remove the exemption in the 2002 act that allows the flushing of foxes to guns, given the significant evidence that that activity is used as a decoy for traditional brutal and barbaric fox hunting?
I understand the concerns that people are expressing and I share some of them, but I think that Patrick Harvie mischaracterises the Scottish Government’s position. The exemptions in the current law were debated and agreed by this Parliament before—I think—Patrick Harvie was a member of it. In the first session of Parliament, a member’s bill was introduced and the issues were fully debated.
Concerns have been raised about what I have described as loopholes and about whether we need to tighten the law further. We have embarked on a process and Lord Bonomy has looked at the matter in detail, and we are now consulting on what he said. Given that the consultation is live, we should allow it to take its course. If Patrick Harvie wants to make a submission to that consultation—he may already have done so, in which case I apologise—he can do so and argue for us to go further than we are proposing. That submission would be considered as part of the consultation.
We should go forward with the process as that is the right thing to do, but members should be in no doubt at all that the Government opposes fox hunting. That is a position that we have long taken and which we continue to take.
To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-01268)
Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.
Children in Lothian waited 666 days to get important mental health treatment. For anyone, that must feel like a lifetime; for a person so young, it must feel like eternity. Why are waiting times so bad when the First Minister said that mental health would be a priority?
It is a priority. There are still some long waits for mental health treatment that are unacceptable, but we are making progress in bringing waiting times down, we are increasing investment in mental health services, generally and in child and adolescent mental health services, and we have seen the number of people working in those services increase. It is a priority—and it is a priority, I know, not just for this Government but for parties across the chamber. We will continue to make sure that we bring forward the investment and the other actions that are required to ensure that all young people who come forward for mental health treatment get it, and get it timeously.
As we have said before—this is true of many of the challenges that we grapple with in the health service, but it is particularly true here—we have a vastly increased demand for mental health services, which we should think is a good thing, because it means that the stigma is reducing. However, it also means that we have to equip services to deal with the demand. We are seeing improvements in terms of waiting times, investment and the number of people working in mental health services, and we will make sure that we see that improvement continue.
I am afraid that we have heard all that before. I quote what the First Minister told me last year when I asked about the issue:
“This is one of the most serious issues that we face as a society”.—[Official Report, 22 September; c 17.]
When we discussed the issue during the budget process, however, we discovered that the Government was much further behind than even we had feared. Children in Lothian are not alone in having long waiting times, because in the 10th year of her Government, the wait in the Highlands is 623 days; in Fife, it is 611 days; in Ayrshire and Arran, it is 448 days; and in Grampian, it is a year.
The Government published independence legislation in weeks, but it took 15 whole months to get round to a mental health strategy. These children deserve better from this Government and this First Minister. Will they still be waiting as long next year, or is she going to do something different?
Willie Rennie is completely mischaracterising the position of the Government. The facts speak for themselves. I recognise the challenge of improving these services, which is why the CAMHS workforce has increased by just under 50 per cent under this Government, spending on mental health has increased by 42 per cent and, in this year alone, spending will increase to £1 billion for the first time, as we continue to take steps to ensure that mental health services get an increasing share of the overall health budget. So, the commitment is there and it is evidenced in the action that we are taking.
Although we are seeing waiting times reduce generally, there are some long waits, which we are seeking to tackle. However, to put that in context, 82.5 per cent are now seen within 18 weeks, which is a 3.5 per cent increase from the previous quarter. I do not pretend that we have not still got work to do here—that is a feature of the increasing demand that we are seeing—but the investment, the workforce and the progress on reducing waiting times are also there to see.
Further, our mental health strategy contains a range of actions that rightly focus on prevention and early intervention to meet the mental health needs of children and young people and to step in promptly where such needs develop—for example, a review of the role of pastoral guidance and counselling services and a review of rejected children and adolescent mental health service referrals.
Yes, Willie Rennie is right to say that this is a challenge that we need to address, but he is wrong to say that we are not taking the action to address it, because we very definitely are.
We have a couple of supplementaries. The first is from Joan McAlpine. Is Joan McAlpine here? No. Okay, we will take a supplementary from Anas Sarwar.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Today, the Israeli ambassador, Mark Regev, is in the Scottish Parliament. Will the First Minister or any representative of her Government be meeting him? If so, can she deliver a very loud and clear message: that, after 50 years of Palestinian oppression, the illegal occupation of the West Bank, the illegal expansion of settlements and the illegal siege of Gaza must end; that the free access of food, medicines and supplies into the Gaza strip must be allowed; and that the ambassador must understand that without justice, equality and freedom, there can never be peace?
Fiona Hyslop will meet the Israeli ambassador later today, but during that meeting she will deliver on behalf of the Scottish Government a very strong message on justice for Palestine and for Palestinians covering the very issues that Anas Sarwar raises.
This Government has been very clear on our support for people in Gaza and on the range of injustices and hardships that they suffer and have suffered many times. I have led a debate in this chamber about Gaza. Ultimately, of course, we remain committed to the two-state solution in Palestine. That message will be delivered strongly by Fiona Hyslop on behalf of the Scottish Government when she meets the ambassador later today.
Given the actions of the Labour council group in Aberdeen and reports of two further deals between Labour and Conservatives, does the First Minister agree that the clear message to voters is that if they vote Labour, they will get Tory?
In large parts of the country, that certainly seems to be the case. This is a serious point. Yesterday, Labour votes in Aberdeen were used to put the Tories into administration, and I think that that should say something to everybody who might be considering voting Labour in the future—that, if people vote Labour, they often do not get Labour; they get the Tories. That is the reality.
Perhaps Kezia Dugdale will want to take the opportunity to make it clear that the suspensions of the Aberdeen councillors yesterday will not miraculously be waved away after 8 June. Perhaps she could tell us that at the first opportunity, because I suspect that, as soon as the general election is out of the way, we will see these Labour and Tory coalitions taking effect all over the country. That, I think, says everything that we need to know about Labour and the Tories and the alliance between the two of them.
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to tackle homelessness in Glasgow and across the country. (S5F-01282)
The Scottish Government has ensured that homeless people in Scotland have some of the strongest housing rights anywhere in the world. Our recent focus on the prevention of homelessness through initiatives such as housing options has led to consistent falls in homelessness applications, including in the city of Glasgow, but there is more to do, particularly to address rough sleeping.
We know that providing a home is not the only support that people—particularly vulnerable people—need, and that is why our current priorities include strengthening the development of approaches such as housing first, which is currently being piloted in Glasgow. It provides permanent accommodation alongside intensive peer support to help individuals with complex needs to sustain their accommodation.
I thank the First Minister for that reply, and particularly for the support that is being given to homeless people in Glasgow with their various needs. I say to the First Minister—and I am sure that everyone in this Parliament will agree—that it is unacceptable that a country as rich as Scotland should have anyone dying on the streets due to homelessness.
Further to that, does the First Minister share my deep concerns that homelessness will be exacerbated in Glasgow and the rest of Scotland with the move to universal credit, and that delays in payments and the United Kingdom Government’s welfare changes will put more people at risk of being homeless, which is absolutely unacceptable?
Yes, I do, but before I go on to that, I underline how important it is to this Government to continue to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. I know that that is a key priority of what I hope will be the new administration of Glasgow City Council by the end of today, and we will work with it to ensure that we do not have a position where people are sleeping rough and anybody is facing the prospect of dying on the streets of our country. That is utterly unacceptable and not a situation that I am prepared to see happen in our country.
The wider point about benefit changes is important. I was in Inverness at the end of last week, visiting a food bank and talking to some people who work on the front line with benefit applicants. The reason why Inverness is important is that it is a part of Scotland where universal credit has already been rolled out. The experience there should send a shiver up and down our spines at the thought of universal credit being rolled out more widely, because the experience is of people’s benefits being hugely delayed, people not getting the money that they are entitled to on time and people often not getting all of the money that they are entitled to when they get it. I heard stories of people falling into rent arrears and debt, all through absolutely no fault of their own.
The other point that I make is that, although I do not think that that experience is acceptable for anybody who needs social security support, many people who are finding themselves in those positions are people who are working. They are working hard to try to support their families, and they are being treated in that way by a Conservative Government that is rolling out benefit changes that clearly are not fit for purpose.
The roll-out of universal credit should be halted until the Tories can assure everybody that they have it right, because the price of not doing that and carrying on will be to plunge many more people into misery and potential homelessness, and that would be unforgivable.
In April, third sector organisations such as Shelter Scotland emphasised the need once again for the Scottish Government to develop a new national homelessness strategy. Will the First Minister listen to those organisations’ concerns and commit her Government to developing that strategy?
We will continue to work with organisations such as Shelter to ensure that we have in place not just the right strategies but the right practical policies to back up those strategies. We already have in Scotland some of the strongest rights for homeless people, and we have seen consistent falls in homelessness applications, but we know that we have to keep making progress, and that we have a particular issue around rough sleeping.
I repeat the point that I have just made, particularly to a Conservative member of this Parliament. Any strategy that we have for tackling homelessness or tackling and lifting people out of poverty will continue to be undermined as long as we have at Westminster a Conservative Government that is intent on driving more and more people into poverty by cruel and callous social security cuts. I throw the question back to the Tories and ask them to go and tell their bosses at London to stop penalising the poor and work with us to help the poor instead.
There is anecdotal evidence at least that rough sleeping is increasing in Scotland. Most people who I talk to say that now they see more people sleeping in doorways. Few things are more shocking than people dying from cold or hunger on the streets of Scotland. I know that there are many reasons why that is happening, some of which the First Minister has already mentioned. In view of that, I urge the First Minister to review the current strategy on housing and rough sleeping and review the fact that local authorities may need more resources to take on the problem. Although the figures may not bear it out, the evidence is strong enough that we should review the current strategy.
I know that the First Minister has agreed to look at the housing first approach, which I raised the last time that I spoke about homelessness. She is committed to that, but, in all seriousness, when we have seen deaths on the streets of Glasgow, is it not time to at least have another look at the current strategy?
Indeed. That is why we are taking action to help councils deal with the issues.
I cite the rough sleeping statistics with a degree of caution—many of us think that there will be underreporting, because of the nature of the issue that we are dealing with—but they do not show an increase over the past few years. They show a steady state. However, as I said, I do not underestimate the fact that there may be underreporting in the statistics.
We are already taking action to strengthen the homelessness prevention strategy group so that we have the right strategic direction, and we are also taking practical action: we are funding a post in Glasgow City Council’s housing access team, for example, to ensure that we are improving liaison between the council and housing associations. In addition, we are looking to extend the housing options approach, which has been piloted in Glasgow.
When he came into office a year ago, the soon-to-be ex-moderator of the Church of Scotland raised the housing first approach with me. It is important because it recognises that often, particularly for a vulnerable person, we have to do more than provide accommodation—support is needed around that.
We are continuing to work with councils to ensure that we are actively addressing the issues.
Shop Vacancy Rate
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking in response to the Scottish Retail Consortium report indicating that the shop vacancy rate rose in the period from January to April 2017. (S5F-01288)
We have already taken significant steps to help the retail sector. Our town centre first principle and town centre action plan are designed to tackle key issues such as empty shops and to improve the vibrancy of our town centres. We are delivering a highly competitive business tax environment, and we have lifted 100,000 properties in Scotland—[Interruption.] I will say that again for the benefit of the Tories: we have lifted 100,000 properties in Scotland out of non-domestic rates altogether. For the benefit of the record, I will add that the Conservatives voted against 100,000 businesses being taken out of business rates. We have also funded relief for two thirds of retail properties and, of course, we have given local authorities the power to reduce rates further.
It is important to note that the shop vacancy rate in Scotland is lower now than it was in 2015, and it remains lower than that of the United Kingdom. However, we continue to want to do more to support the retail sector and to get shops in our town centres occupied and providing services to the public.
The fact that shop vacancies are up while productivity growth in Scotland’s retail sector is slower than that in the rest of the UK is further evidence that this Scottish Government’s economic policies are failing. With the business rate revolution hitting Scottish retail hard, the Government needs to get back to the day job of focusing on the economy or it will be the Scottish retail sector that will have to pay the price.
We have seen an increase in the vacancy rate from 9 to 9.2 per cent from January to April, but I point out that back in 2015, the rate was 10.6 per cent, so it is lower now than it was then. Moreover, the Scottish Retail Consortium report highlights that footfall in Scotland’s high streets and retail parks actually grew by 3.2 per cent, which was the third fastest growth rate of all the UK’s nations and regions and the fastest growth in Scotland since July 2014. Those are just a few facts to perhaps correct some of the mischaracterisations at the heart of the question.
The member cites Scotland’s wider economic performance. Like other parts of the UK, we have work to do to get our economy growing faster, but that will not be helped by the extreme Brexit that the Tories are pursuing. However, yesterday we saw unemployment again fall below the UK average and employment in Scotland increase, and productivity growth in Scotland has been around 7 per cent over the past few years while it has been completely stagnant in the rest of the UK. We will get on with the hard work of supporting our economy, but unfortunately we face a Tory Government at Westminster that, through its extreme Brexit, appears intent on undermining our economy. That is the reality.