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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 19, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 19 January 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Jobcentres (Glasgow), Draft Climate Change Plan, Rural Development (Funding), Decision Time, Points of Order


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Engagements

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00751)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

Ruth Davidson

Bev Robertson helps to run a small engineering business called Precision Oiltools in Kintore, which employs 12 people. She has just found out that her business rates will go up by 63 per cent in April. This morning, she described that as

“nothing short of daylight robbery”.

Does the First Minister think that such an increase for a small local firm is acceptable?

The First Minister

Of course, 2017 is a business rates revaluation year and, in such a year, all commercial premises have their property value reassessed by the independent assessor. The Scottish Government has no locus to intervene in that process. As Ruth Davidson will be aware, assessors published draft revaluations online before the end of the year. Those will be subject to change when revaluation notices are posted out in March. Crucially, all ratepayers will have until 30 September this year to appeal their revaluation if they think that it is wrong. That is the process of revaluation that is under way.

All that said, the Government recognises the importance of having a fair and competitive business rates regime. That is why Derek Mackay announced in the budget our plans to lift 100,000 small businesses across the country out of business rates altogether. I do not know whether the business that Ruth Davidson cited will benefit from the small business bonus, but 100,000 businesses across our country will pay no rates at all, such is the importance that we attach to small businesses acting as the engine of growth in our economy.

Ruth Davidson

There was absolutely nothing in that answer for Bev Robertson’s business and her 12 employees.

Bev’s firm is not alone. Yesterday, we spoke to another engineering firm, Score Group, which is based in Peterhead. It is a fantastic firm that runs the largest private apprenticeship programme anywhere in the country, but it has now discovered that it will have to pay an extra £120,000 come April, and it fears that it will have to turn apprentices away as a result. Yesterday, its managing director, Conrad Ritchie, told us:

“We have some of the highest rates here and this increase will price many businesses out of the markets they compete in locally, nationally or worldwide.”

The company’s chamber of commerce says that that will

“drive firms which have managed to stay afloat into insolvency or at best lead to further job losses.”

That is the reality. What action will the First Minister consider to help out businesses such as Score Group?

The First Minister

If Ruth Davidson had listened to my first answer, she would have heard what I had to say. I stress again, because it is important, that the businesses that Ruth Davidson cites do fantastic work in our country to help us to grow the economy. This Government is on the side of business the length and breadth of the country.

However, the process that Ruth Davidson cites is a revaluation that is being carried out by independent assessors. The kind of increases that Ruth Davidson mentioned are tied to increases in the rateable value of premises. I have already outlined the process. Draft valuations have been published and final valuations will be published later this year, but all businesses have until September to submit appeals if they think that their valuation is wrong.

Ruth Davidson asked what we are doing to support small businesses that employ people and contribute to the economic success of our country. As I said, the small business bonus, which goes way beyond anything in any other part of the United Kingdom, is lifting 100,000 small businesses out of business rates altogether. Ruth Davidson might also be interested to learn that, in 2017-18—the financial year that is about to start—more than half of all rateable properties in Scotland will pay nothing at all in rates, because of the small business bonus and the range of other business rates reliefs that are in place.

Of course I understand the concerns that will arise for businesses from revaluation. That is why I stress the independent nature of that process and the ability of businesses to appeal. However, the Government has ensured that we have a competitive small business rates regime; indeed, it is probably the most competitive small business rates regime anywhere in the UK, because that is the importance that we attach to small businesses.

Ruth Davidson

Yet, in a double whammy, both Precision Oiltools and Score Group have been hit by the doubling of the business supplement that the Scottish Government instituted overnight.

Those stories come in a week in which we learn that growth in Scotland is now a third of what it is elsewhere in the UK. Liz Cameron, from Scottish Chambers of Commerce, says:

“Scottish government actions must be aimed squarely at increasing this rate of growth and utilising the powers at its disposal to support businesses, giving them the edge over businesses in other parts of the UK and enabling them to grow.”

Does the First Minister really believe that setting higher taxes—putting higher burdens on employers, such as Score and Precision Oiltools—helps to do that?

The First Minister

I will repeat the facts again for Ruth Davidson: 100,000 small business premises across the country have been taken out of business rates altogether. The threshold for the large business supplement has increased, meaning that fewer businesses will be subject to it. As I presume Ruth Davidson is aware, a wider review of business rates that is being led by Ken Barclay is under way to ensure that we continue to have a competitive and fair business rates regime. That is the kind of action that Liz Cameron rightly calls for from the Scottish Government, ensuring that we support our businesses.

Ruth Davidson mentioned apprenticeships. Let me just remind her that it is a Conservative Government that is imposing the apprenticeship levy on businesses above a certain size the length and breadth of the country. It is not the Scottish Government—[Interruption.] Ruth Davidson is shouting at me from her seat about how we are spending that money. Let me remind her that it is not new money—what we get from that levy, the UK Government has taken away in other ways. All that money is being spent on supporting training, skills and apprenticeships across the country. We will continue to support our businesses.

However, the last thing that our businesses need right now, whether they are in Scotland or in other parts of the UK, is to be ripped out of the world’s biggest single market. That is the future that they face because of a Conservative Government’s obsession with immigration, rather than putting the interests of the economy first. We will continue to provide fair support through the business rates scheme to our businesses, but we will also continue to argue that our businesses should continue to be free to trade in the European single market.

Ruth Davidson

Whenever the First Minister is under pressure, she runs to Brexit, but the truth of the matter is that Precision Oiltools did not raise Brexit today but raised the increase in its rates bill that is happening right now; and Score Group did not write to me about Europe but wanted to talk about the Scottish National Party Government’s failure to support it. Scottish Chambers of Commerce has said specifically that if we are drawn into tunnel vision on Europe, we will miss the chance to transform Scotland’s attractiveness as a place to do business. That is what the First Minister should be focusing on.

The facts are these: unemployment in Scotland is up, employment is down and, while confidence for small firms in other parts of the UK is going up, here it is falling through the floor. Yet we have a finance secretary who has hidden from companies that say that rates are pushing them to the wall, and we have a Government that taxes people and firms more in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK and which, again this week, is threatening further instability with its own referendum—this time another one on independence.

The Scottish Government is about to present the most important budget since devolution, which will decide on the taxes that Scots pay. Will the First Minister stick to her current plan to make Scotland the most highly taxed part of the UK, driving out businesses and jobs or will she change course and give Bev, Score Group and thousands of people like them the backing that they need to succeed? That is the question to focus on. How is she going to act?

The First Minister

Let me point out a few facts to Ruth Davidson. First, the Lloyds Bank report “Business in Britain”, which was published on 3 January, shows that business confidence is increasing markedly in Scotland, more so than in the rest of the UK. Let us look at employment in the tourism sector, which is up by 11 per cent in Scotland, compared with just 4 per cent in the rest of the UK. This morning, the Scottish Retail Consortium showed retail sales increasing. The latest Bank of Scotland purchasing managers index is signalling that Scotland’s private sector output and employment returned to growth in December. Unemployment is down over the year. Gross domestic product per head is up 2.2 per cent in Scotland since before the recession; the figure in the rest of the UK is much lower than that—I think that it is 1.5 per cent there. The Government will continue to do everything that it can to support our business community.

Let me also remind Ruth Davidson of some other facts that I know are not very welcome for her. Let us look at this ridiculous claim about Scotland being the highest-taxed part of the UK. If someone is a taxpayer in Scotland, they do not pay tuition fees for their children to go to university. If their elderly parent is in care, they do not pay for personal care. They have a healthcare system that is free at the point of use. Taxpayers in Scotland get a far better deal than taxpayers in the rest of the UK.

Finally, on Brexit, I am determined to save Scotland from Brexit. It is not just the case that the Tories are running towards Brexit. They want to drag Scotland kicking and screaming over that Brexit cliff edge, and I am determined that they are not going to get away with it.


Engagements

2. Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-00750)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Still engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale

Our national health service is on the verge of a “system breakdown”. Those are the stark words of the chairman of the British Medical Association in Scotland. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Glasgow, where new figures show that more than one in four patients are waiting longer than four hours in accident and emergency at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. Last week, pregnant women were turned away, and this week the Daily Record told the harrowing tale of Karen Meikle, who had to travel 300 miles a day to see her sick child, Alex, because there were no beds in Glasgow. Does the First Minister agree with Dr Peter Bennie that Scotland’s NHS is facing a “system breakdown”?

The First Minister

As I have readily said in the past, of course our NHS is working under pressure. The pressures that come from the changing demographics and the ageing population mean that we need to do even more to support our national health service. That is why we are investing more in our NHS—over the current session of Parliament, £500 million more than the rate of inflation. I remind Kezia Dugdale, as I frequently do, that the commitment from Labour was simply to increase funding by inflation. The commitment from this Government is greater, and that is helping to support record numbers of staff.

However, as I have also said before, it is not enough just to invest more and to have more members of staff working in our health service; we also have to reform how our health service operates. That is why this Government, unlike any other Government across the United Kingdom, took action to integrate health and social care. It is why we are transferring investment from the health service into social care services. That is why we have the best performing accident and emergency departments in the UK and why we are starting to see delayed discharges going down.

There is much work to do, and of course our hard-working NHS staff work under considerable pressure, but we will continue to support them in doing the fantastic job that they do.

Kezia Dugdale

The First Minister can come to the chamber and attack Labour’s health spending plans every week, but that does not make what she says true. No wonder the BMA says that it is sick of SNP spin.

The problems in our NHS are not just confined to the central belt. Elaine Hanby from Nairn is a 48-year-old mother of two. She is the chairwoman of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Widows Association and she was diagnosed with a cataract two years ago. Her condition now impacts on her quality of life and her optician referred her to Raigmore hospital in Inverness for surgery. The Scottish Government target is that patients should wait no longer than 12 weeks for their first consultation, but Mrs Hanby was told to expect not a wait of 12 weeks but a minimum wait of 12 months. What explanation can the First Minister give Mrs Hanby and other cataract patients for the shocking waiting times in NHS Highland?

The First Minister

I am not going to comment on an individual case. As I repeatedly say, if there are individual cases that any member wants to raise with the health secretary, they should do so.

However, let me say this. This is a serious issue. Our NHS is perhaps the most serious issue that we discuss in the chamber. Of course we want waiting times to go even lower, but waiting times today, whether they are in-patient or out-patient waiting times or waiting times for accident and emergency services, are lower than they were when the Government first took office. Our responsibility is to continue to work with healthcare professionals to get those waiting times even lower than they are now.

Kezia Dugdale asks about what we are doing to bring that about. I know that it is uncomfortable for her, but what I said about her spending commitment is true. Anybody who doubts it does not have to take my word for it; they have only to read Kezia Dugdale’s manifesto from the election campaign last year. Our commitment is to greater investment in the NHS than that promised by any other party in that election.

The commitment that was in our manifesto, which we are already in the process of implementing, is to expand capacity at the Golden Jubilee national hospital for operations such as cataract operations and to create more elective treatment centres around the country, so that we build capacity for those operations and, in the process, take pressure off our emergency services. That is all part of the reform that goes with our record investment in the NHS.

As I always do, I recognise each and every day the pressure that NHS staff work under, but the Government is committed to working with them to ensure that they continue to deliver excellent services all over the country.

Kezia Dugdale

There was little comfort in that for Mrs Hanby. Labour MSPs are dealing with cases just like that, from Caithness to Paisley and from Dumbarton to Aberdeen. Do we have to bring each and every individual case to Parliament for something to happen?

At the start of the First Minister’s answer, she said that, if people have individual complaints, they should take them to the health secretary. That is exactly what Mrs Hanby did. She wrote to Shona Robison, and I have a copy of the response that she received last week. In it, the Government admits that a 12-month wait is “totally unacceptable”, but its response was to give her a guide on how to travel to Europe for treatment. I have it here. If a 300-mile round trip can be described as “system breakdown” and a 12-month wait as “totally unacceptable”, how would the First Minister describe a 3,000-mile round trip to Europe for treatment?

The First Minister

Our commitment, not just to the patient whose case Kezia Dugdale cites but to every patient across the country, is to provide the best-quality treatment as quickly as possible in every part of the country. That is what we are focused on and dedicated to delivering, in partnership with our NHS staff, each and every day.

I know that there is much work to be done. The nature of the NHS means that there will always be more work to be done, but I say again: waiting times, whether they are out-patient, in-patient or accident and emergency waiting times, are lower today than they were when the Government took office. That is because of our increased investment and the increased number of staff. We are committed to further increasing investment and also, crucially, to carrying out reforms in our NHS to ensure that it can cope with the pressures on it. That is our commitment, and we will continue to take forward that commitment, day in and day out.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

There are a number of constituency questions.

Mairi Evans (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

Last week NHS Tayside took the decision temporarily to close the Mulberry unit, which is a mental health in-patient facility at Stracathro hospital, in my constituency. That decision was taken on safety grounds, because of a lack of junior psychiatric doctors to cover the three sites in Tayside. The closure will have a big impact on patients, their families and carers, and staff living in Angus. What will be done to mitigate the impact of the closure? What steps are being taken to encourage doctors into psychiatry? Will the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport meet me and service users in my constituency to discuss their serious concerns?

The First Minister

Patient safety is the absolute priority, and it is right that the board listens to the advice of its clinicians to ensure that all patients across Tayside continue to receive a safe service. The health board has assured the Scottish Government that the measure is temporary, and we will provide every support to the board and the local health and social care partnerships as they continue to work with their partners to develop a sustainable model for the longer term.

Through our national workforce plan, we are working with boards to identify further steps that can be taken to fill training posts in disciplines that have been harder to recruit to in recent years. NHS Tayside has already approved an attraction and recruitment strategy that is designed to support its workforce plan, including for psychiatry.

The health secretary will be happy to keep the member and any member who is interested in the issue fully up to date.

Alex Neil (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

I draw the First Minister’s attention to the announcement yesterday of the closure of the Airdrie Savings Bank after 182 years of trading. The closure has been forced by the level of regulation that now makes it very difficult—indeed, impossible—for a small community bank such as the Airdrie Savings Bank to survive in today’s world. As a result, 70 people will lose their jobs. Can I have assurances from the First Minister that the Scottish Government and all its agencies will do everything that they can to ensure that the 70 people who face forced redundancy get the maximum help to find alternative employment, and that the Airdrie Savings Bank will be appropriately assisted by Scottish Enterprise and other agencies to ensure an orderly run-down, with productive use made of the bank’s very fine premises in Airdrie and other parts of Lanarkshire?

The First Minister

Yes, I am happy to give Alex Neil those assurances. I am sure that we were all sad to hear the news from the Airdrie Savings Bank yesterday. The reality is that the bank is no longer able to compete in a very changed banking world—it is not of a scale to accommodate that change. The board has therefore made the difficult but responsible decision to wind down now in a controlled and orderly manner while customer deposits are absolutely safe and protected, and of course without the need for any public sector bailout. That reflects the bank’s prudent, capable approach to banking—an approach that has served the local community well over many years and which will be so sadly missed.

I know that this will be an extremely difficult time for those affected: obviously, for the bank’s customers, but perhaps more particularly for its employees and their families. I can confirm that, through our partnership action for continuing employment initiative, we will provide skills development and employability support for any employee facing redundancy. I understand that the TSB will share local vacancies with the staff who face redundancy.

It is important to stress that public intervention, had it even been possible, would not have changed the board’s decision. It is a sad decision, but I think that it is one that most people understand. Our focus now must be on supporting the communities served by the bank and those who work for it.

Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

As the First Minister might be aware, there are on-going discussions about the future of 30 long-term care beds in St Margaret of Scotland Hospice in Clydebank, in my constituency. Yesterday, at a special full meeting of West Dunbartonshire Council, a motion on the hospice in the name of the former provost, Denis Agnew, was passed. The hospice is concerned that proposals by the integration joint board to use beds as social care beds might raise questions about the hospice’s charitable status and, more important, its ethos. I believe that an amicable solution is entirely possible. To that end, can I request a meeting with the health secretary to explore whether the Scottish Government can play a role in supporting a resolution to this very important issue between the integration joint board and the hospice?

The First Minister

First, I know how valuable and valued the services provided by St Margaret of Scotland Hospice are to those who benefit from them. When I was health secretary, I had a very close interaction with the hospice and, indeed, helped to allay some of the concerns that it had back in those times.

As I understand it, the West Dunbartonshire health and social care partnership has said that there is nothing in the proposed arrangements that would undermine the hospice’s charitable status. However, it is clear from what I have already heard and from what Gil Paterson has said in the chamber that the hospice still has concerns, and it is important that we try to address those concerns. Gil Paterson has asked specifically for a meeting with the health secretary, and she will be happy to meet him to discuss how the integration joint board and the hospice can find not only an amicable solution but, most important, a solution that will allow St Margaret of Scotland Hospice to continue to provide the excellent care that it provides for people in its surrounding communities.


Cabinet (Meetings)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00758)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

On Tuesday.

Patrick Harvie

This week, we heard a statement from the Prime Minister that was confused, contradictory and dangerous. The Scottish Conservatives may now be trotting along merrily behind the Brexit cheerleaders, but it seems like only five minutes ago that they were all for protecting our place in the single market. We have heard from the Prime Minister empty words about “considering” Scotland’s position but, from everything else that she is saying, it seems that she has already ruled out doing anything about it. I want to hear reassurances from the First Minister that there will be no delay to the legislation to keep open the option for the people of Scotland to decide for themselves whether they want to stay on the Brexit bus as it heads over the cliff.

We know that there will be deeply damaging economic impacts from ripping Scotland and the United Kingdom not just out of Europe but out of the single market. I have never believed that economic growth should come at the expense of social justice or sustainability, but the UK Government now seems to want to ignore all three aspects because of its relentless hostility to immigration and immigrants. What assessment has the Scottish Government carried out not only of the direct economic impact on Scotland—on jobs, on incomes and from inflation—but, since the Scottish budget is now based partly on economic performance, of the impact on the public finances if we lose our place in the single market?

The First Minister

The Scottish Government continues to make those assessments, but we have also seen independent assessments that the impact of a hard Brexit will be a loss of 80,000 jobs and £2,000 per person in real wages. Those are real impacts for people the length and breadth of the country.

Patrick Harvie is absolutely right. The Scottish Government and the Scottish people did not choose to be in this position. Scotland did not vote for the path that the Prime Minister set out on Tuesday. Even more important, that path is against our interests as a country. It puts jobs, wages, living standards and investment on the line. It threatens to change fundamentally the kind of country that we are—and not for the better.

The Scottish Government has put forward proposals to protect Scotland’s interests. Just last night, those proposals were described by Lord John Kerr, who is a former very senior UK diplomat, as impressive, serious and substantive. Thus far, the UK Government has not considered those proposals with the seriousness that they merit. That exposes talk of a partnership of equals in the UK as nothing more than empty rhetoric.

The joint ministerial committee, in sub-committee form, is meeting today. There will be a plenary session at the end of the month. The Scottish Government will continue to engage and to seek further compromise.

However, we should be in no doubt that time is fast running out for the UK Government to convince us that it cares one jot about Scotland’s interests. If it does not do so, Scotland will face a choice. Do we go down the damaging path set out by Theresa May—with all the impacts that we know that it will have, and in the knowledge that our voice does not matter in the UK—or do we decide to take our future into our own hands and take control of our country’s future? The difference between me—and Patrick Harvie—and others in the chamber is that I believe that that should be a decision for the Scottish people.

Patrick Harvie

The First Minister is clearly right about the profound change that is threatened, but I do not yet hear an assessment of the impact on the Scottish public finances, for which the Scottish Government is responsible. That impact will happen before Brexit; it is already happening.

Eight months ago, we all stood for election to the Parliament, each with our manifesto commitments. The Greens promised to be bold and to use the Scottish Parliament’s new powers to protect services and provide the investment that the country needs. The Scottish National Party said that it wanted to offer an alternative to Tory austerity.

It is a rare year in which circumstances change so dramatically; we have had the Brexit vote and a change of UK Government, and we now have the threat to cut us off from the single market. Given the impact of that, is it not now abundantly clear that the Scottish Government’s economic policies, which were written nearly a year ago and based largely on a status quo position on income tax, cannot be treated as though they are written in stone? Surely the case is now stronger than it has ever been for using our tax powers fairly to protect people on low and middle incomes and ensure that words such as “progressive” come to mean something and that the services that every community in the country depends on are protected.

The First Minister

We have put forward budget proposals, including tax proposals, that are fair, reasonable and progressive. We are in a budget process and, as Patrick Harvie knows, the finance secretary continues to discuss with him and with parties across the chamber the content of those proposals. Those discussions will continue over the next few weeks.

I agree with Patrick Harvie about the impact of the decisions that are being made by the Tory Government at Westminster on our economy, on jobs and on our public finances. Of course, we need to respond, and we will continue to respond, just as we responded to welfare changes by setting up the welfare fund and mitigating the effect of the bedroom tax. We are taking action to mitigate the worst impacts of the wrong-headed decisions that are being made at Westminster, and we will continue to do that.

However, sooner or later, there comes a fundamental choice. Do we want to continue, as a Parliament and as a country, always having to mitigate the impacts of decisions that are out of our hands and made by a Tory Government at Westminster that a majority in this country do not vote for, or do we want to take into our own hands control of our country’s future? That is the choice that is looming for the people of Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

There are a couple of supplementary questions.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The First Minister will be aware of the landmark decision this week by the Court of Session to award damages in a rape case—the first in a civil court. This week has also seen the publication of “Criminal Proceedings in Scotland 2015-16”, which confirms that only 12 per cent of police-reported rapes and attempted rapes proceed to court, where the conviction rate is very low. Rape Crisis Scotland advises that more and more rape complainers will turn to the civil justice system, but rape is a heinous crime that should always result in a criminal charge. What will be the implications for the justice system if victims feel that they can get justice for those criminal acts only through the civil courts system?

The First Minister

That absolutely should not be the message. Many of the decisions that Claire Baker talked—rightly—about are decisions for the independent prosecution service and for the courts. I know that she understands that. I do not think that anybody can be in any doubt about the Government’s determination to ensure that there is a really tough approach to anybody who commits sexual crimes or domestic violence.

In the statistics that were published this week, the number of convictions for sexual crimes and domestic abuse remains high, and the number of convictions for sexual crimes is at an all-time high. Of course, we all take sexual crimes very seriously, which is why it is good to see that more people are being convicted of sexual offences and that the average length of sentences for rape and attempted rape has increased by 8 per cent since last year.

However, we all know that much more work needs to be done. I hope that there is a lot of consensus on the issue. This is not on the specific point about rape that Claire Baker raised, but we will shortly introduce new legislation to address domestic violence. All of us have a duty to make sure that there is a system in place whereby victims feel that they can come forward and in which, when they come forward, those who are guilty are brought to account and given appropriate sentences.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Last night, Parliament voted to keep the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Will the First Minister confirm to Parliament right now that that is, indeed, what will happen?

The First Minister

Of course, we will reflect carefully on the vote that the Parliament took last night, as we always do. I hope that, whatever the disagreements are about particular proposals, there will be a lot of agreement on our objectives.

We talked earlier about the economy. We recognise that all our individual economic development agencies do a fantastic job, but we want to make sure that they are greater than the sum of their parts and that we are all working towards the goal of supporting Scotland’s economy. That is the genesis of the proposals in the first phase of the review that we are talking about.

Let us be clear that even the proposals as they are at this stage would see HIE retaining its chief executive, based in Inverness; retaining its headquarters, based in Inverness; retaining control of all staffing levels; and continuing to operate from its headquarters in Inverness. That is the commitment to the Highlands.

The review is now in its second phase and, as part of the on-going consideration, the debate and the vote in Parliament yesterday will of course be taken fully into account.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

This week, the widely respected economic think tank the Fraser of Allander institute confirmed that, contrary to all the Scottish National Party claims about Tory cuts and Westminster austerity, the total Scottish Government budget has gone up in real terms by 0.4 per cent since 2010-11. The institute went on to say that the way in which the Scottish Government presents its budget is flawed and that

“the selective data that the government presents often appears designed to support their arguments rather than to help inform debate.”

Will the First Minister take the opportunity to apologise on behalf of herself and her finance secretary for all the disgraceful spin that they have put on their budget figures and will she undertake to deliver a budget process that is fit for purpose?

The First Minister

I was really hoping that Murdo Fraser would get up and ask about this, because it is a spectacular own goal on his part. I will quote from the very Fraser of Allander institute blog that he cited. It says:

“In terms of discretionary spending, and the amount the government has to spend on day-to-day public services such as schools and”—[Interruption.]

The Tories do not like to hear this so I will repeat it:

“In terms of discretionary spending, and the amount the government has to spend on day-to-day public services such as schools and hospitals ... the budget has declined by around 5% in real terms since 2010/11.”

The blog also makes it clear that if we were to include in the calculation all the things that Murdo Fraser says should be included to get to his measly 0.4 per cent, the calculation would have to include money that is

“not real money that can be spent on goods or services”.

I know that the Tories frequently live in fantasy land, but I am not sure how they think that we can fund the health service or the education system with money that is not real and cannot be spent on goods or services. To quote the Fraser of Allander blog, the money that this Government has to spend on services across our country

“has declined by ... 5% in real terms”

as a result of decisions taken by the Conservative Government in Westminster.


Maternity Wards (Treatment and Care)

4. Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what procedures are in place to ensure that the necessary treatment and care in maternity wards is provided at peak times. (S5F-00784)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The arrival of a baby for any family is not only a time of joy but is, clearly, a time of stress and worry. Our aim is that our national health service provides the services that expectant mothers need to ensure that both they and their babies get the best possible care. Indeed, that is why we will soon publish our national review of maternity and neonatal care.

However, we are very clear that on the rare occasions—they are rare—when maternity units have to divert care, boards must have in place contingencies to ensure the safety of mothers and babies while maintaining the quality of care at all times.

Stuart McMillan

I thank the First Minister for that reply. Does she therefore agree that larger hospitals and community maternity services working together collaboratively to ensure safe services is of real benefit and is, by far, preferable to a marketised health system?

The First Minister

There is an important point to be made here. One of the benefits of having an integrated healthcare system is that hospitals—and health boards, in certain circumstances—can support each other.

The question has arisen, I am sure, because of the circumstances in Glasgow at the end of last week at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital, where admissions were diverted for a short time due to an unusual combination of a high number of admissions and a number of women developing complications. Three women were diverted to other units and another two had planned procedures deferred for a few hours. However, it is because of our integrated healthcare system that contingency plans were activated and care for the women could be provided safely at other hospitals. Such occasions are very rare, but on those rare occasions it is absolutely vital that such arrangements are in place and that they work well.


Children with Additional Support Needs (Support for Teachers)

5. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government considers that appropriate resources are in place to support teachers of children with additional support needs. (S5F-00754)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are very clear that all children and young people must get the support that they need to reach their full learning potential. The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 places duties on education authorities to identify and provide for the additional support needs of their pupils, and although the Scottish Government has published statutory guidance to support education authorities in fulfilling those duties, it is for education authorities themselves to show that they have the appropriate resources in place to do so.

Jeremy Balfour

Additional support needs workers are essential to the Scottish Government’s getting it right for every child policy, but a survey that was published this week by Unison Scotland shows that staff working in additional needs are under enormous pressure, are exhausted and feel undervalued, stressed and lacking in training and support. Does the First Minister accept that the report is, after a decade of Scottish National Party management, clear evidence that the Government is simply failing front-line staff?

The First Minister

No—I do not think that that is a fair characterisation of the position. I acknowledge the pressure and stress that are, by definition, associated with the job of teachers who support children who have additional support needs. I know that Jeremy Balfour takes a very close interest in these matters, so he will know that since 2004 there has been a fundamental change in how children with additional support needs are catered for in the education system, with the vast majority of pupils now being in mainstream education.

The other point to stress is that although teachers specifically for pupils with additional support needs are vital in our system, it is the job of all teachers to ensure that all pupils get the care and support that they need. That is why this Government is putting such emphasis on supporting schools, with the additional resources through the attainment fund going directly to schools. We will continue to work with local authorities and teachers to ensure that support exists when and where it is needed.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

Since 2010, almost 500 additional support needs teachers have been cut. As the First Minister knows, if we are really to close the attainment gap, we must support young people who have additional support needs. Will the Government use the tax powers that it now has and amend its budget proposals to prevent local authorities from being forced to make cuts, many of which will fall on education and will result in even fewer additional support needs teachers in our schools?

The First Minister

Of course, a key part of the budget is the £120 million that is going directly to schools’ headteachers, so it is for them to determine how to invest that money in order to raise attainment and close the attainment gap. If headteachers want to use the money for additional support needs, that option is available to them. That is part of our determination to get resources not just into the education system generally, but direct to schools and headteachers in order to ensure that resources have the biggest impact. I hope that members across the chamber will support that.


National Health Service

6. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the comment by the chair of BMA Scotland that the national health service is “stretched pretty much to breaking point”. (S5F-00777)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Our NHS and care staff do a fantastic job in the face of increased demand, and they have my thanks for the work that they do. For our NHS to provide the services that our people need long into the future, we must deliver the twin approaches of investment and reform. As a result, our “Health and Social Care Delivery Plan” sets out a range of actions to ensure that we have sustainable services, including bringing forward a national health and social care workforce plan this spring to ensure that our NHS continues to have the right numbers and skills mix for the future. That, of course, is backed up by our commitment to increase NHS investment by £500 million more than inflation by the end of this session of Parliament.

Anas Sarwar

I want to quote the chair of BMA Scotland, Peter Bennie. He said:

“we’re just fed up with a mantra that says from the Government we have more doctors than ever before.

The question is do we have enough doctors, do we have enough nurses, do we have enough staff outside the health service to provide the care that people need? And at present, we don’t.

The majority of staff in the health service are working way beyond what they’re actually supposed to be doing just to keep things running.

And eventually that leads to personnel breakdown and eventually it leads to system breakdown.

The impression that Government tries to give is that things are ok just now, they are not.”

Who is telling the truth: Nicola Sturgeon or Dr Peter Bennie?

The First Minister

We work closely with the BMA, the Royal College of Nursing, all staff organisations and staff the length and breadth of the country. That is why we have set out a very clear direction of travel, building on the progress that has already been made in our national health service over the past 10 years. Yes—we are continuing to increase staff numbers, but we are also making sure that we have the right mix of skills.

For example, many of the concerns about the pressure on general practitioners will be addressed by building up the multidisciplinary teams in primary care. That is why the health and social care workforce plan that will be published in the spring is so important.

It is also fundamentally important that we continue to back the plans with investment. I say again—I know that Labour members do not like it—that our commitment to investment is much stronger than the commitment that they made. It is a fact that if Labour had won the election last May—unlikely though that was—the NHS today would have had less funding, and that would be the case for the duration of this parliamentary session.

Investment, reform and working with the health service will continue to be how we take forward improvements.