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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 22, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 22 March 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Down’s Syndrome Awareness Week, Major Infrastructure Projects, Fair Work, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Attainment Gap (Schools)

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

Examination result data for every secondary school in Scotland has been published in recent days. Once again, we have learned of the stark gaps in attainment for rich and poor areas. Attend a school where the vast majority of pupils are from the most deprived backgrounds, and only 15 per cent achieve five or more highers. Go to a school where the vast majority of pupils are from the most affluent backgrounds, and that achievement rate is more than four times higher.

Where advances have been made in reducing the attainment gap, we welcome that. However, does the First Minister believe that progress on doing that—her Government’s stated number 1 priority—is fast enough?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

No, I want to see it accelerate. I have made no bones about that. We know that we have an attainment gap in our schools. It is fair to say that Scotland is not unique in having an attainment gap between our most-well-off and least-well-off pupils. We have identified that gap as something that is unacceptable and we are determined to see it close.

We have seen evidence across a range of data in recent times, as Ruth Davidson acknowledged, of that attainment gap closing. We see that in our schools. We see that also, for example, in access to universities and higher education. That progress is welcome.

It is exactly because we want to not just continue but accelerate that progress that we are investing £750 million over this session of Parliament through our attainment Scotland fund. Ruth Davidson will be aware of the recent interim evaluation of the first two years of that fund, in which 78 per cent of headteachers indicated that there has been improvement or that they expect to see improvement in attainment as a result of the fund.

That is progress, and very positive progress. I have made it clear that we will not close the attainment gap overnight, but I am determined that we make the progress that we have committed to making over the course of this session of Parliament and beyond.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister mentions the report into the Scottish Government’s attainment fund, which was published last week. She fails to mention one part of that report, which is that millions of pounds from that fund, intended to drive up the performance of poor pupils, is lying unspent because of difficulties in recruiting. In other words, money that should be spent on cutting the attainment gap now is instead lying in the Government’s bank account because it cannot find the teachers to spend it on.

Does the First Minister agree that we will not close the attainment gap in schools if we cannot find the teachers to help do it?

The First Minister

Ruth Davidson’s question, with the greatest of respect, displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the funding behind the attainment programme. It is a £750 million commitment across this entire session of Parliament. Any money that is not spent in one year rolls forward to the next year, and every single penny will be spent on measures to reduce the attainment gap. In the early years of a programme, while plans are being put in place and recruitment of extra staff is taking place, less money will be spent than will be spent in the later years of that programme. However, I will give members some idea of the scale of the programme and the increase in funding.

In the first year of the programme, less than £10 million was spent in our schools. In this financial year, £179 million will be spent through the attainment fund. That includes the money that goes through schools but £120 million will be spent through the pupil equity fund, which has been received positively by headteachers and teachers generally, certainly in the schools that I have visited and much more widely. Every penny of that money will be dedicated to raising attainment and closing the gap that we have identified and which everyone in the chamber wants to see closed.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister knows that there are serious questions about other parts of her attainment challenge scheme. Yes, there are millions of pounds in the attainment fund that have not yet been spent, but there are also serious questions about the way in which the pupil equity fund is being allocated. That £120 million is designed to be targeted at the poorest pupils across Scotland. Claims are being made across the sector that that money is instead being spent on plugging gaps that have been left by budget cuts or to pay for other costs, such as campus police, staff bonuses, and installing an astroturf pitch. That is all well and good, but it is hardly closing the attainment gap.

Can the First Minister assure me today that taxpayers’ money that is intended to help poorer pupils will do just that and will not be siphoned off elsewhere?

The First Minister

Ruth Davidson is simply wrong about this. However, if she wants to bring me examples of attainment fund money not being spent on measures that headteachers consider will help to raise attainment, I will look at them.

One example has been rehearsed in the chamber previously. If memory serves me correctly, it was about North Lanarkshire and there was a suggestion that the money was not being used in an additional way, as intended. The Government stepped in—it was criticised by Labour for doing so—and made sure that that money was additional to other budgets. We will absolutely continue to take that approach.

I would have thought that Ruth Davidson would have welcomed the key point about the pupil equity fund: it is not for me, for the education secretary, or for local councils to determine how the money is spent. It is for individual headteachers, in consultation with their staff and parents, to decide how that money is spent, based on their assessment of what will best raise attainment and close the gap.

In recent times, I have been to a number of schools in which I have seen at first hand the work that has been done. Perhaps, at first glance, many people would wonder whether some of those things are appropriate in raising attainment, but in the headteachers’ assessment, they are. For example, I was at a school recently at which attendance had been an issue, so the school took some pupils and parents on a weekend trip. Attendance has improved in some of the most deprived communities because of that. Those are the things that headteachers say help to raise attainment in their schools.

My final point is this. Ruth Davidson said that concerns about the pupil equity fund are widespread across the sector. Frankly, she needs to get out more and visit a few more schools. When I visit schools, I hear that the pupil equity fund is the single most important thing that is happening in raising attainment in our schools.

Ruth Davidson

I started my questions today by saying that where or if progress has been made, we welcome it. However, the fundamental point is that if we are going to close the attainment gap, we need the teachers to do it. During the past six years, there have been 1,000 empty places in training colleges. The Scottish Higher and Further Education Funding Council said that those places were needed but they were never filled.

The targets have been increased, but this year alone, there are more than 500 vacant secondary school trainee places. We all want schools to improve. We all want the attainment gap to close. However, if the money is not being released and not going where it should, and if the staff are not being recruited, how will that ever happen?

The First Minister

There are more young people and people generally in teacher training. We know that recruitment is an issue and not just in Scotland. Last week, or the week before, I heard the education minister in England saying that recruitment was one of the most significant challenges that is faced there. However, in terms of vacancies in our schools, the figure is lower than 1 per cent of the overall number of teachers; and, of course, we have in place a range of schemes and initiatives to boost recruitment into the teaching profession and into our schools.

Ruth Davidson asked me a stream of questions, about the attainment fund in particular, that I have to say are simply not well founded. On the interim evaluation—we should remember that it is the interim evaluation of the first two years of the attainment fund, so it is prior to the pupil equity fund kicking in—78 per cent of headteachers say that there has been improvement or that they expect to see improvement as a result of the attainment fund, and 97 per cent of headteachers expect to see improvements in closing the attainment gap over five years as a consequence of attainment Scotland fund initiatives.

In literally every school that I visit, I hear a range of issues being raised, but the pupil equity fund is considered by headteachers, teachers and parents who I speak to as the single most important transformational thing that has been done in our schools to help close the attainment gap. I would hope that, instead of moaning about that, Ruth Davidson would get behind it because it is one of the things that will help us in this Government to close that attainment gap for the benefit of pupils across the country, now and for many years to come.


Scottish Government Contracts (Workers’ Wages)

2. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Last week, I raised the serious issue of umbrella companies charging workers on Scottish Government contracts for the privilege of being paid their wages. Can the First Minister tell us what steps her Government has taken in the past seven days to investigate that con trick and to crack down on it?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, I can. Immediately after the issue was raised by Richard Leonard last week, Transport Scotland ordered an urgent investigation into it. The payslip that was sent in the past couple of days—I think—to my office from Richard Leonard was found to be from an employee who was employed on the Aberdeen western peripheral route project through an agency by one of the subcontractors. This next bit is quite important—not just for people who are listening in the chamber, but for those outside the chamber. It is, of course, at the discretion of individual employees to choose whether to work through an agency, but on the AWPR—

Members: Oh!

The First Minister

Hold on. This bit is important: there is no requirement for employees on the AWPR project to work through an agency, because the subcontractor offers to employ directly all employees who are working on the project. That means that any worker who wishes to be paid directly by the subcontractor can be paid directly, which avoids application by agencies of practices that I condemn. The contractor has confirmed that more than 90 per cent of workers who are employed through agencies are paid on a pay-as-you-earn basis and that all direct employees—all employees have the option of being direct employees—are paid on a PAYE basis.

We take the issue very seriously, and I deprecate the conduct by agencies that was outlined last week. However, it is not required that anybody who is working on the AWPR project be employed through an agency, because there is the opportunity for direct employment. I hope that Richard Leonard warmly welcomes that.

Richard Leonard

Evident from that answer, and borne out by my understanding, is that no one from the Scottish Government or Transport Scotland has, over the past seven days, contacted the trade union that represents the workforce on the Aberdeen bypass. The First Minister said that she is outraged by this issue, but her Government has made no attempt to contact the trade union about it.

I make it clear that the exploitation is not confined to just one project; workers on the Waverley station platform extension project, just half a mile from Parliament, have also been charged just to get their wages. I can show members a copy of the payslip of a worker on an hourly wage that is based on the national minimum wage who, on top of that, had to pay a fee to an umbrella company to get his wage. The payslip is dated 11 January this year. Is not it the case that the First Minister has no idea how widespread the practice is in the public projects that she funds?

The First Minister

I will come on to the Waverley project in a second, because I want to comment directly on it. However, before I leave the AWPR issue I say that I am sorry if there has been no contact with the trade union and that we will contact it. We did what Richard Leonard asked us to do: we investigated the issue, and I have given the explanation that I deprecate the practice of anybody who is employed by an agency having to pay to get their wages. However, on the AWPR project, there is no requirement for any worker to be employed through an agency, because the opportunity of direct employment exists. That is a contract funded by the Scottish Government. I had hoped that that would have been welcomed by Richard Leonard.

I come to dealing directly with the Waverley station project. It is a Network Rail contract: I have to point out to Richard Leonard that the Scottish Government has no involvement in the awarding of Network Rail contracts, despite the fact that we fund them. Network Rail is a wholly owned subsidiary of the United Kingdom Government and remains accountable to the United Kingdom Government. However, in the spirit of consensus, I say to Richard Leonard that if he wants to join me right now to ask, as we have asked many times in the past, for responsibility for Network Rail to be devolved to this Parliament and Government, we will make common cause on that.

Richard Leonard

Let us be clear. This is about taxpayers’ money, and about the exploitation of workers through unethical business practices, half a mile from this Parliament, with Scottish Government money. That is not good enough, but the First Minister can do something about it, because Carillion is gone and a new contractor will take over the work in a matter of days.

Meanwhile, the workers on the project have been left in limbo. They deserve some reassurance today. This Parliament and Government should never underwrite immoral exploitation of working people, so will the First Minister commit today to working with the union to protect the workforce, and will she ensure that no worker on Scottish Government funded contracts will be charged simply to get their wages?

The First Minister

I think that I am speaking in English, and that most people who are listening to me would understand what I am saying, but Richard Leonard does not appear to understand. I have set out clearly the issue on the AWPR, and I could not have made it clearer that I deprecate the behaviour by agencies that Richard Leonard has outlined, but I make the point that direct employment, in which those practices do not happen, is offered to all employees on the AWPR contract.

On the more general issues, we expect companies that deliver public contracts to adopt ethical and fair business practices, despite employment law being a reserved matter. Richard Leonard may not like that, but it is a fact. We use all the powers that are at our disposal to encourage ethical business practice and to drive inclusive growth.

I return to Network Rail. We fund the contracts, but we do not have control over awarding of Network Rail contracts. In case Richard Leonard did not hear it the first time, I repeat that Network Rail is a wholly owned subsidiary of the UK Government. We could fix that, but it would involve Richard Leonard doing more than willing an end; he has also to will the means. If he wants the Scottish Government to be able to do those things—I do, too—he has to help to equip us with the powers to do them. I will give him another opportunity. Will he join me right now in calling for responsibility for Network Rail to be devolved to this Parliament—yes or no?

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

There are a number of constituency questions. The first is from Sandra White.


Glasgow Sauchiehall Street Fire

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

The First Minister will be aware of the massive fire that has occurred in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow city centre, which has engulfed Tiffany’s and is now in the Pavilion Theatre. Sauchiehall Street is now completely closed down. Will she offer the emergency services, Glasgow City Council, local businesses and the general public any further help that they require at this terrible time?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

That is a deeply concerning incident in the city of Glasgow. As I understand it, at 8.18 this morning the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was alerted to reports of a well-developed fire that had taken hold in the roof space of a commercial premises. A number of fire engines were mobilised to Sauchiehall Street, where firefighters are currently at the scene working to extinguish the fire. I understand that crews have already safely evacuated the occupants of several nearby properties, but firefighters remain at that extremely challenging scene. Our thoughts and our thanks are with them, right now.

The Scottish Government’s resilience unit will remain in contact with the fire service as the incident develops, and I will be kept updated over the course of the day. However, I am sure that the whole Parliament will want to convey our thoughts to everybody who is affected by what appears to be an extremely serious incident.


Aberdeen City Council (Funding)

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I seek factual clarification from the First Minister. The Scottish Government tops up council funding such that no council gets less than 85 per cent of the Scottish average. This morning, a report suggests that Aberdeen City Council’s top-up is £1.6 million short of that minimum. In the media, the Scottish Government says that top-up funding has been given, but it does not say whether it meets the 85 per cent minimum. I will ask a genuine question to clear up the confusion. Does the top-up funding that is given to Aberdeen City Council meet the expected floor or not?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We introduced the 85 per cent floor to which Liam Kerr refers, and which had, I know, been called for for a long time. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution to write to him later this afternoon with the specific amounts in terms of funding for Aberdeen City Council. However, the guarantee to councils is an important one to which we are fully committed not just this year, but for the future.


Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Car Parking Charges)

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The First Minister may be aware that, last Thursday, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd announced its intention to introduce car parking charges at Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Stornoway airports. She will be aware that Sumburgh is 25 miles from Lerwick and that there are no direct public transport links to most of Shetland. Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd has done that with no consultation whatsoever. Will she look into the matter and reverse that decision?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will certainly look into the matter. I absolutely understand the point that Tavish Scott makes, given the geography of the airport in Shetland. If it is the case that there was no consultation, that was remiss of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. However, I will look into the issue and get back to him when I have had the opportunity to do so.


Multiple Sclerosis (Stem-Cell Treatment)

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I want to raise with the First Minister the case of my constituent who was diagnosed in 2016 with remitting and relapsing multiple sclerosis. I am doing so because that person is desperate to know whether NHS Scotland will provide new stem-cell therapy treatment that has this week been described as effective and safe and a “game changer” The trial produced results that were

“stunningly in favour of transplant against the best available drugs”.

With there being higher than average incidence of MS in Scotland, will the First Minister confirm for my constituent what consideration has taken place in the Scottish Government to have the treatment made available to Scottish sufferers of MS just as soon as it will be in England?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Mark Griffin for raising a very important issue. We know that there is a higher incidence of MS in Scotland—not just higher than in other parts of the United Kingdom, but higher than in many other countries.

We are absolutely determined that patients with MS have access to the best possible treatment. As Mark Griffin will be aware, decisions on access to medicines are taken by the Scottish Medicines Consortium, and there is an independent and rigorous process. I will have the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport write to him about the specific treatment and the stage at which it is in that process. Such decisions are taken independently of ministers.

As Mark Griffin will be aware, a range of reforms to the process have been made in recent times in order to improve access to treatment—not just for MS patients but for patients with a range of conditions. It is an important issue: we want to make sure that patients are getting the best possible treatment. The health secretary will update Mark Griffin further in the next few days.


Avon Gorge (Closure)

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

The First Minister will be aware of yesterday’s closure of the A801 at the Avon gorge, which is in my constituency, for a period of five weeks due to the appearance of significant cracks in the carriageway, which is causing disruption to businesses and residents in the Falkirk district and West Lothian. The A801 forms a key strategic link between the M8 and M9 corridors and provides a strategic freight route between Grangemouth docks and various distribution centres in West Lothian. It has also been an accident black spot for decades.

The project to build a replacement crossing at the Avon gorge has been shovel ready for more than four years, but work is not scheduled to start on it until 2020-21. Will the First Minister advise what options the Scottish Government has to help Falkirk Council and West Lothian Council to bring forward that project, given the current condition of the A801 at the Avon gorge?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Angus MacDonald for raising an issue that is hugely important to his constituency. The A801 is vital to communities and businesses in Falkirk and, indeed, West Lothian. It also has strategic importance in linking the docks at Grangemouth with the industrial and distribution facilities along the M8 corridor.

The Government has approved a tax incremental financing business case from Falkirk Council, which envisages contributing to the cost of the scheme, with the remainder of the funding coming from West Lothian Council and the Scottish Government. I understand that Falkirk Council’s business case notes that a review will be required to confirm that it is viable to commence the upgrade. I will ask officials at Transport Scotland to initiate discussions with the two local authorities, to establish a programme for that review and, ultimately, delivery of improvements, and I will make sure that either I or the Minister for Transport and the Islands write to Angus MacDonald with a full update, in due course.


Low-emission Zone (Glasgow)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

The First Minister knows that Glasgow, among other places in Scotland, has suffered illegal levels of air pollution for many years, with a profound effect on people’s health, and that transport policy has been making that worse.

We are now, finally, seeing steps towards a low-emission zone in Glasgow, but we have a responsibility to make sure that this first zone in the country does not set a precedent for weak action, because dozens of other communities around Scotland need there to be a sense of urgency.

Glasgow City Council’s proposals have been widely criticised as painfully slow in relation to the timetable for buses to comply with the zone, and there is no action on private cars and other polluting vehicles. Friends of the Earth Scotland—of which I am a member, as is recorded in my entry in the register of members’ interests—has described what is proposed as a “no ambition zone”.

Greens and other opposition councillors have worked together to try to improve things. Does the First Minister accept that, as it stands, this half-hearted plan guarantees that Glasgow will fail to achieve clean air by the Government’s target date? To borrow the First Minister’s phrase, if we will the end, surely we must will the means.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I do not entirely accept Patrick Harvie’s characterisation of the low-emission zone plan in Glasgow, although I am sure that the council will continue to discuss with a range of interests changes or improvements that can be made. For example, the Glasgow low-emission zone proposal incorporates all vehicles and therefore represents one of the most challenging all-encompassing low-emission zones in Europe. It is more akin to the London ultra-low-emission zone, in contrast to many other zones in Europe, which target only specific vehicles and set much lower targets for emission levels.

I understand the frustration when there are lead-in times, but a very high number of European zones have utilised a four-year lead-in time. That is based on pragmatism, to allow time to adapt vehicles. However, we should not wait until the deadline to act: all road users should start to prepare now, notwithstanding that lead-in times are essential to allow owners to prepare for the new emissions standards prior to enforcement starting.

I am sure that there will continue to be discussion, but I think that Glasgow is to be commended for getting ahead of the game. Of course, we have wider plans in place for rolling out low-emission zones in other areas.

One of the criticisms of the Glasgow plan that I have heard is that it will have no signs to mark entry points. The intention is actually the contrary; the intention is that automatic number plate recognition cameras will be developed and utilised to help with enforcement.

I encourage everyone who has an interest in the issue—and that should be everyone who lives in or visits the city of Glasgow—to engage with it over the next period. Of course, in Scotland we have set more stringent air quality targets than have been set in the rest of the United Kingdom. I know—or at least I hope—that that is something that Patrick Harvie welcomes.

Patrick Harvie

I am very sorry to hear that the First Minister does not accept any of the valid criticisms that have been made. Even if we use the figures and analysis of the impact from the Government’s own environment agency—the Scottish Environment Protection Agency—it is impossible for the low-emission zone as currently proposed by Glasgow City Council to eliminate illegal air pollution levels in Glasgow on the timescale that is being set out.

We also know that there seems to be a lack of clarity. The council does not seem to know even whether it can access all of the £10.8 million that the Government has allocated to the low-emission zone. It does not seem aware that the financial transactions figure of £10 million is available to it to invest. The money has been allocated, but it is not being spent, at a time when the Government is happy to issue press releases about the past 10 years of climate challenge funding while failing to back a net zero target for the next climate change bill.

Does the First Minister understand the genuine concern that it is Transport Scotland—her Government’s agency—that seems, once again, to be the biggest barrier to change, given its acceptance of the self-interested arguments of profit-driven bus companies? Will she take on Transport Scotland’s cautious business-as-usual attitude and turn the agency into a catalyst for change that pushes forward the agenda, gets the resources spent and challenges councils to do more instead of holding them back?

The First Minister

In my initial answer, I said that I did not accept Patrick Harvie’s characterisation of the Glasgow proposals; I certainly do not accept his characterisation in his second question. However, I also said that I expected discussion and debate to continue on the detail. I expect a range of ideas to be put forward about how Glasgow can go further faster, and I hope that the city council will engage positively with that work.

Patrick Harvie mentioned a number of things. The climate challenge fund is a huge success. Last Friday, I was delighted to award the 1,000th grant under the fund. The fund has helped a range of community projects to deal with the impact of climate change.

The new climate change bill will be published in due course, and we will set out our thinking on renewed targets as part of that. I say with real confidence that the new bill will further establish Scotland as one of the leading countries in the world—if not the leading country in the world—in tackling climate change.

Air quality is a hugely important issue not just for the environmental reasons that we often talk about in relation to climate change, but for the health of people living in areas such as Glasgow. I should say that we meet domestic and European air-quality targets across much of Scotland. There are still hotspots of poorer air quality, so I welcome the Glasgow proposals. I say again that they incorporate all vehicles, which puts them ahead of many European comparators.

The discussion will continue, and I welcome that. Let us make sure that not just Glasgow but the other areas that need to take action do the right things to improve air quality for all.


China (Human Rights)

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

Next month, the First Minister is off to China for her first visit since the so-called “Scottish shambles”, when she was so easily duped into signing up with two Chinese companies that were offering £10 billion, although all they owned was a pub in Buckinghamshire and a suspect human rights record. When the economy secretary apologised last year, he promised a new human rights assessment process. Where is it? How many times has it been used?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I was reading an update on that issue a couple of days ago. The economy secretary will come forward with an update in due course.

I am delighted to be visiting China in the Easter recess. The trip has been endorsed and welcomed by the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Scotch Whisky Association and, no doubt, others. I will be in China promoting Scotland and the Scottish economy.

I will tell members what I will not be doing in China: I will not be mentioning Willie Rennie. If it was up to Willie Rennie, or if people listened to Willie Rennie, nobody would want to invest in Scotland, because all that he does is talk down Scotland and the Scottish economy.

Willie Rennie

Scottish Enterprise will have set up a number of signings with companies for the First Minister’s visit to China. Can she confirm that all those companies have had a human rights check? Human Rights Watch is highlighting current human rights abuses. When she visits China, will the First Minister raise the case of Tibetan language rights advocate Tashi Wangchuk? Just last month, six United Nations human rights experts called for his release from prison. Will she speak up for lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who was jailed last November for defending Government critics? Will she speak up for human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who was detained by police in August 2015, but has not been heard from since? Will she do the right thing and speak up for those people?

The First Minister

I will speak up for human rights in China, as I did on my previous visit there. I bow to nobody in my determination to play my part in promoting human rights internationally. I hope that that is an issue that would unite everyone across this chamber.

I will also speak up for Scottish companies, jobs, tourism and food and drink when I am in China, as I do when I am in any other part of the world, because my job is to promote Scotland, the Scottish economy and Scottish jobs. That is probably one of the differences between me and Willie Rennie.


Orkambi

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

In 2016, 367 children and 541 adults in Scotland were registered as active cystic fibrosis patients. Two people living in my constituency have been in touch regarding the availability of Orkambi, a combination drug that is available as a single pill for treating cystic fibrosis.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals is engaged in fresh discussions with NHS National Services Scotland regarding the pricing of Orkambi. Although the ultimate decision for approval lies with the independent Scottish Medicines Consortium, the Scottish Government expressed the hope that Vertex will make Orkambi more affordable so that it can be used in Scotland. Will the First Minister update the chamber on the progress of those discussions?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Kenny Gibson is right to point out—as I did in response to an earlier question—that approval decisions are taken by the Scottish Medicines Consortium, which acts independently of ministers and Parliament. However, last year, the health secretary strongly encouraged Vertex Pharmaceuticals to enter into discussions with NHS National Procurement. Those discussions are on-going and are commercially confidential at this stage, but I would strongly echo the health secretary’s calls for Vertex to offer a fair price and resubmit an application for Orkambi to the SMC as soon as possible, in order that those who could benefit from the medicine can get access to it.


Drugs Deaths

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Scotland has the highest level of drugs deaths in Europe. If those deaths were due to knife crime or flu, there would be national outrage. Carrying out the same policy and expecting a different result just will not work. Will the First Minister take a bold step and seriously consider working across the Parliament on a major change to drugs policy in order to end the public health crisis and prevent people from dying?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

It is a national outrage that so many people die as a result of drugs. Previously, we have had debates in Parliament about one of the issues being the cohort of people who used drugs when they were younger. We should all remember and welcome the fact that drug use among the younger population is falling, which is a good thing.

However, there is still a major challenge around drugs, and that is why we should be bold and innovative. I am very sympathetic to the recent proposal from health professionals in Glasgow, but we do not have the power to implement it. I would hope that there would be some cross-party consensus on asking the United Kingdom Government to give us the power to authorise proposals such as the one made in Glasgow—although I accept that that proposal would require widespread consultation in Glasgow.

Perhaps unusually, I agree with Neil Findlay: there is always a need for new and bold thinking on the issue, and we should try to come together to do that. Where there is an evidence base, we should be prepared and have the courage to do things that may be controversial and unpopular in some areas. I want the Scottish Government to be fully part of that and to lead on those issues.


European Union Negotiations (Fishing)

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Is the First Minister aware of the very real anger among fishermen, fishing communities and people right across Scotland that, after being promised last week by Ruth Davidson that the common fisheries policy would not apply once we left the European Union, we find that we have surrendered at UK level and that in 2020, the CFP will apply without the UK, fishermen or authorities having any say in the rules that will apply to fishing? Does the First Minister share my anger?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, I do. Earlier in First Minister’s question time, I was thinking that Ruth Davidson’s choice of question—important though it was—was perhaps partly designed to keep her as far away from fishing as possible.

It is a really serious issue. This week we have seen a broken promise and a complete betrayal by the Scottish Tories of the Scottish fishing industry. It is disgraceful. It was only a week or so ago that Ruth Davidson was issuing press releases—co-authored with Michael Gove, of all people—saying that the fishing community would be free of the common fisheries policy by March next year. Now we find out that the Scottish fishing community will still be governed by the CFP—and, to add insult to injury, there will be no votes around the table for it. It is utterly disgraceful. The only question for Ruth Davidson and the Tories is: when she issued that press release a couple of weeks ago, did she know that the promise was going to be broken, or is she just completely out of the loop with her United Kingdom colleagues?


Organised Crime

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

To ask the First Minister what discussions she has had with the Prime Minister regarding Scottish limited partnerships and concerns regarding their reported involvement in facilitating organised crime. (S5F-02180)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The misuse of Scottish limited partnerships is a serious concern, and the finance secretary has written on a number of occasions to urge action by the United Kingdom Government on the matter. Scotland has a strong international reputation for financial services, and it is important to prevent SLPs from being misused for criminal purposes.

Although I welcome the Prime Minister’s correspondence to my Westminster colleagues yesterday, indicating that she will now engage on these issues, it is now more than a year since the UK Government’s call for evidence on this matter closed. Despite that, the UK Government has yet to outline specific proposals on how it plans to tighten the regulatory framework around SLPs. To reinforce how seriously we take the issue, I have today written to the Prime Minister, pressing her to take immediate steps to reform the law in this area.

Stuart McMillan

I am sure that the whole chamber welcomed the new regulations, which came into force on 26 June 2017 and brought around 30,000 Scottish limited partnerships into line with the new European Union-wide anti-money laundering rules. However, media reports are still appearing about SLPs allegedly being used for organised crime. Today’s report in The Herald is very much to be welcomed, but will the First Minister commit to continually raising the matter with the Prime Minister to ensure that we protect Scotland’s excellent business reputation, which is now more important than ever with Brexit looming?

The First Minister

I absolutely agree with the member. First of all, I very much welcomed the introduction of the People with Significant Control (Amendment) Regulations 2017, which came into force last June. They are aimed at identifying individuals and companies behind SLPs, which is an important first step in preventing their misuse.

However, as many have highlighted, there continue to be revelations of criminality being facilitated through SLPs. More needs to be done by the UK Government. This is a reserved area, and we will continue to press the UK Government to take concrete action to prevent the misuse of such partnerships.

It is also appropriate to take this opportunity to acknowledge the persistence of Westminster colleagues on the issue and the efforts of David Leask at The Herald and others to keep it in the public eye. Nevertheless, I assure the member that, as I have done in my letter to the Prime Minister today, the Scottish Government will continue to put pressure on the UK Government to take action and to ensure that people cannot act criminally using Scottish limited partnerships as a shield for their criminal behaviour.


Attainment Scotland Fund

6. Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the First Minister for what reason £15 million of the £52 million attainment Scotland fund provided to local authorities and schools has reportedly not been spent. (S5F-02164)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am tempted to give the same reasons that I gave to Ruth Davidson just a few minutes ago. However, our commitment is to invest £750 million over this session of Parliament, and that is exactly what we will do.

In 2015-16, spending through the attainment Scotland fund stood at less than £6 million—I think that I said £10 million to Ruth Davidson earlier—while in the coming year, £179 million of spending is planned. That is a 30-fold increase, and it includes £59 million for the nine councils that form the challenge authorities and for the challenge schools across Scotland, and £120 million in pupil equity funding, which is, of course, spent at the discretion of headteachers in almost every school in the country.

As the programme has accelerated, some elements rolled their budget over into the following year, largely where time was needed to recruit staff. However, the value of making a pledge for the whole of the session was that it allowed the money to be rolled over and that not a single penny of the £750 million was—or, indeed, will be—lost.

Liz Smith

As well as the problems highlighted by Ruth Davidson, many local authorities have pointed out that the timescales for the financial year, which govern national and local government budgets, do not coincide with the timescales for the school year. They report that that is detrimental to the effective spending of the attainment fund, since the bulk of the activity has to be put into the period between October and April. Does the First Minister agree that that is a genuine concern among schools and will she agree to address the matter with considerable urgency?

The First Minister

We will of course talk to local authorities and schools about how we ease that. In the later years of the programme, it will be less of an issue, because there will be more certainty about funding between different years.

I am sure that the member will appreciate that, to some extent, the timescale of our budgets is dependent on the timescale of Westminster budgets, because so much of our funding is still determined by the block grant. The Finance and Constitution Committee has recently been looking at that issue in detail. Within those restrictions, though, we will do all that we can to ensure that there is as much certainty as possible about the funding available to schools, which will allow them to use that money to maximum effect. It is a reasonable issue for Liz Smith to raise and we will continue to seek to address it.