Meeting date: Thursday, January 23, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament 23 January 2020
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Air Traffic Control (Highlands and Islands), Farming and Crofting (Support), Portfolio Question Time, Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 1, Consumer Scotland Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Air Traffic Control (Highlands and Islands)
- Farming and Crofting (Support)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 1
- Consumer Scotland Bill: Financial Resolution
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
I note that the Prince of Wales is today joining world leaders who are gathering in Israel to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, survivors of which continue to live happily among us in Scotland. We will mark the occasion with a debate next week. Scotland will remember and always stand in memory of those who perished, in order that we can prevent any such horror happening again. [Applause.]
Water pouring in through ceilings and windows, mushrooms growing in the carpets and rats scurrying about the mouldy floors—what word would the First Minister use to describe the state of some of Scotland’s police stations?
First, I take the opportunity to associate myself with the remarks of Jackson Carlaw about the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The anniversary is very much in the thoughts of us all at this time. The horror of what was experienced there is beyond our imaginations and, as we prepare to mark the anniversary in our own way here in Scotland next week, we must all be determined to play our part in ensuring that a horror of that nature and on that scale can never be allowed to happen again.
Jackson Carlaw has something of a nerve to raise issues such as policing. Before I address that directly, I remind Jackson Carlaw and other members that it is the Conservative Party that has reduced the resource budget of this Government by £1.5 billion, which is 5 per cent in real terms, since 2010. It was also the Conservatives who robbed the Police Service of Scotland of £125 million in VAT, which should never have been claimed.
However, despite all that, the annual budget for policing in Scotland has increased by more than £80 million since 2016, bringing it to £1.2 billion this year. The capital budget of the service has increased by 52 per cent this year alone to support the roll-out of mobile technology. We are investing in police officers, maintaining 1,000 more police officers in our communities, while the Tories have cut 20,000 officers from the streets of England.
We will take no lectures from the Conservatives on matters of public services. As we prepare our budget for the year ahead, our priority will continue to be investment in public services. We will leave Jackson Carlaw to argue for tax cuts for the highest paid people in our country.
The cliché meter was ringing loud there, was it not?
I noticed that, in the First Minister’s long peroration, the one word that she did not use was “hyperbole”, yet that is exactly how her Cabinet Secretary for Justice reacted when he was confronted with shocking descriptions of working conditions in some of Scotland’s police stations. It is no wonder that the head of the Scottish Police Federation is furious at Mr Yousaf’s denial. Warnings from front-line police officers about the conditions in which they are being forced to work have been made year after year, but little or nothing has been done. Who is right—the Scottish Police Federation or Mr Yousaf?
What Jackson Carlaw refers to as “cliché” is actually investment by this Government in our vital public services. I repeat the commitment of this Government to our hard-working police officers who, yes, work under pressure, like all our public sector workers do—that pressure having been exacerbated over the past 10 years by austerity imposed on this Government by Conservatives at Westminster.
This Government, in contrast to what we see south of the border, is protecting Police Scotland’s revenue budget during this Parliament, which includes in this year alone a £42.3 million increase in funding. Police Scotland’s total capital expenditure is the fourth highest of all United Kingdom police forces and there has been a £12 million increase in this financial year alone. We are also providing reform funding to the Scottish Police Authority and, of course, we are maintaining police numbers significantly above the level that we inherited in 2007. Into the bargain, we gave our police officers a higher pay rise than police officers got in any other part of the UK.
I know the pressure that police officers work under and I am grateful for the job that they do each and every day. We will continue in our budget decisions to prioritise our public service workers. I think that the Tories should actually be ashamed at their record in Westminster in that regard.
I say to the First Minister that those long perorations from civil-service-prepared briefs really do not cut it. This is not just about unpleasant, uncomfortable and potentially unsanitary situations in which police officers and staff are expected to work; there are major safety concerns, too. Even as Mr Yousaf was dismissing concerns as “hyperbole”, the ceiling was falling down at the police station in Broughty Ferry—not just literally but metaphorically, on Mr Yousaf’s denial. Under the Scottish National Party, out of 45 UK police forces, Police Scotland is the fifth-worst funded. However, yesterday, the UK Government announced over £1 billion extra for policing, with the Scottish Government receiving some £100 million. Will the First Minister assure our hard-working police officers that that additional funding will be used to protect police officer numbers and, at the very least, improve the environment in which they are expected to work?
Of course, while the Conservatives have been cutting the budget of this Government, we have been protecting the budget of Scotland’s Police Service. Because of the incompetence of the UK Government, we will require to set our budget for the next financial year before we have seen the colour of the money that Jackson Carlaw keeps saying is coming our way, so I certainly hope that those promises turn out to be accurate.
We will continue to do everything that we can within our powers and resources to protect our police service the length and breadth of the country. As I said a moment ago, total capital expenditure in Police Scotland is the fourth highest of that for all UK police forces. We have increased capital budgets in this year by 52 per cent, we are protecting the revenue budget and police numbers, and we are making sure that our police officers get the rise in pay that they deserve and which police officers elsewhere in the UK are not getting. We will continue to support our police officers, as they continue to support the people of Scotland, in the excellent work that they do each and every day.
The budget that the SNP Government receives from Westminster is on the rise, but what do we have to show for it? Leaking police stations and collapsing ceilings; half-built ferries; boarded-up hospitals and closed-off children’s wards; and a crisis in Scotland’s schools. We have had years of missed opportunity from a distracted and disengaged Government. We are promised yet more updates on her favourite topic next week. What chance is there of the First Minister updating us instead on when her Government is going to start sorting out the things that really matter, which are failing under this SNP Administration?
I will just update Jackson Carlaw again on the reality in Scotland, as opposed to what he wants people to think: £1.5 billion in real terms removed from this Government’s budget by the Conservatives over the past 10 years. However, in spite of that, we have continued to invest in our national health service, taking it to record levels of funding. We have continued to invest in our Police Service and have continued to support our public service workers who are working so hard across the country.
I will just draw to Jackson Carlaw’s attention what the Fraser of Allander institute has to say about the proposals that he has put forward in the past couple of weeks. The Fraser of Allander institute makes clear—
Read it out!
Oh, I am about to read it out.
To quote it directly, Jackson Carlaw’s proposals
“would reduce the government’s income tax revenues by around £270 million”.
Read on to the end!
Jackson Carlaw wants me to go on, so I will go on. In addition to that, the institute says that this is not about middle earners. It says:
“a policy framed as supporting ‘middle earners’ predominantly benefits households at the top of the distribution of household income.”
There we have it—£270 million would come out of our public services and would be handed to the richest people in our society. That is what Jackson Carlaw would deliver; I will continue to deliver investment in our public services.
I associate the Scottish Labour Party with the remarks about the importance of commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, and about ensuring that we all accept that it is the duty of us all never to forget the Holocaust—not just for this generation, but for future generations to come.
The Scottish National Party came into office promising students that it would “dump the debt monster”, but it did not dump the debt; it dumped the promise. This week, Audit Scotland revealed the consequences of that dumped promise. Student debt has soared to £5.5 billion—more than double the level in 2011. That is not simply down to expansion in student numbers; the report showed that average student debt per head has more than doubled. We know that the poorest students from the poorest communities are forced to borrow most. Will the First Minister simply admit that the SNP misled students and apologise to them?
I point out that because of the policies of this SNP Government—not the least of which is to keep access to university free of tuition fees—Scotland has the lowest level of student debt in the United Kingdom.
Let us look at the figures. The stats that Richard Leonard cites show that average student-loan debt in Scotland is £13,800. However, that compares with a figure in England of £35,950 and a figure in Northern Ireland of £23,550. The figure of £13,800 in SNP-governed Scotland compares with a figure of £22,920 in Labour-run Wales, so perhaps the Labour Party is the party that should be apologising for its record in Wales.
Some students in Scotland have debts of £27,000; the First Minister knows in her heart of hearts that she is failing to support our students properly. That is why three years ago she set up an independent review of student support. Two years ago, it reported, and the First Minister accepted its recommendations. Parliament supported its core recommendation of a guaranteed minimum student income based on the living wage.
However, two years on, nothing has happened. The First Minister is letting students down. How many generations of Scottish students will have to go through university before the Government keeps any promise on support for student living?
I hope that Richard Leonard will listen carefully to the detail of this answer, However, before I get on to the detail, I say that Scotland has, as I have already told him, the lowest level of student debt in the UK. In addition, we have also seen the smallest increase in student debt in the countries of the UK. There has been an increase of £7,800 in Scotland, but there has been an £9,840 increase in Wales, where Labour is in Government. Richard Leonard says that total debt has increased in Scotland; it has, but in the rest of the UK it has trebled.
Those are the facts—but let us come to support for poorer students. Full-time students from the poorest areas receive more support than those from the richest areas, and 67 per cent of students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas got a bursary, compared with 22 per cent of those in the richest areas.
However, the part of what Richard Leonard said that I want to come on to in detail is what he said about action after the student support review. He said—I think that I am quoting him directly—that “nothing has happened.” This is the detail that I would like him to pay close attention to. Since that review was published, we have begun to implement its income guarantee by increasing the bursary for care-experienced students to £8,100 a year. Following the recommendations, we have also raised the higher education bursary threshold, increased bursary support for the poorest young students, and increased bursary support for the poorest independent students in higher education.
In further education, we have increased the bursary to £4,500 a year. We will introduce a guaranteed system of further education bursaries and move further on the other recommendations. Although Richard Leonard might describe that as “nothing”, for students across the country, it means more money in their pockets, which I think they will welcome warmly.
First Minister, here are the facts. In 2013, the Government decimated bursary support. In 2013, bursary support in Scotland was worth £2,640 a year. The Government has only just put it back to £2,000 a year—more than £600 less than it was before.
To recap, I repeat that the First Minister promised to dump the debt, but student debt has soared, and students from the most deprived backgrounds are leaving university with the heaviest burden of debt. The Government is letting down our students, and it is letting down our universities.
Universities Scotland describes
“a pattern of cuts to core budgets”
Those cuts add up to a 12 per cent real-terms decrease since 2014-15, which is a cut of £700 for every Scottish student since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister. The fact is that Government funding for our universities is decreasing faster than the Scottish Government’s own budget, which has led Universities Scotland to conclude that
“university funding has been deprioritised.”
When the budget comes to Parliament next month, will the First Minister reprioritise Scotland’s universities? [Interruption.] Will she reprioritise Scotland’s students, or will she—[Interruption.]
Will she dump more cuts on our universities, and more debt on our students?
I remind Richard Leonard that, yesterday, his party brought to Parliament an Opposition debate demanding that we prioritise additional money for local government in the budget. Today, less than 24 hours later, he is here in the chamber demanding the same for higher education. I suggest that he come along next week to tell us where he thinks all that money should come from. Labour has no credibility on budgets; his performance demonstrates exactly why.
However, let us go back to higher education. What Richard Leonard has managed to establish today is that we have the lowest student debt anywhere in the UK and rising support for students in Scotland, including students from our most deprived areas.
Let me give him some other facts. Total full-time student support is up by 1.3 per cent, average higher education student support has increased, and more full-time higher education students than ever now receive support. In addition, of course, the access stats that came out last week show that we have record levels of Scotland-domiciled full-time first-degree entrants to university, and that the number of entrants from our most deprived areas is also at a record level.
Those are the facts. That is the reality under the SNP Government, and it is why people do not want Labour back in Government ever again.
UNICEF Guidance (National Health Service Interpretation)
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am—[Interruption.]
I am privileged to have a wonderful baby-food bank in Springburn in my constituency—[Interruption.]12:19 Meeting suspended.
12:20 On resuming—
After that short pause, I ask Bob Doris to continue with his question.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I am standing up to support a wonderful baby-food bank in Springburn in my constituency, although I am saddened that it is required. NHS health visitors used to refer families in need to it, but that appears to have largely stopped due to the national health service’s interpretation of UNICEF guidance on breastfeeding and the use of formula milk. A local Trussell Trust food bank is now also reviewing its guidance. I still await a reply from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, but can the Scottish Government provide clarity in order to at least make sure that vulnerable families know where to go to get that valuable and vital support?
I thank Bob Doris for his question and for representing the food bank that he has raised. Nobody should ever have to rely on charitable food provision in a country as rich as Scotland, especially families with young children. That is why we are committed to eradicating child poverty and have enhanced support across the early years with the best start grant and the best start foods payment card. We will also introduce the new Scottish child payment for eligible children under six by Christmas this year.
In relation to the specific point, I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to engage with the health board so that we can help with interpretation of UNICEF guidance if that is possible and also encourage a pragmatic approach regarding the provision of sustenance for infants, which is so important.
Low-carbon Economy (Jobs)
The Scottish Government published “A Low Carbon Economic Strategy for Scotland: Scotland—A Low Carbon Society” back in 2010, and on the subject of offshore wind it stated:
“this sector alone offers the potential for 28,000 direct jobs and a further 20,000 jobs in related industries and ... investment in Scotland by 2020.”
However, the jobs and opportunities are not coming to Scotland. While the yards in Fife and elsewhere lie empty, the jobs are going to the United Arab Emirates, Belgium, Spain, Indonesia and China—anywhere but Scotland. What is the Government doing to fight for Scotland, to bring jobs to Scotland and to make sure that the people of Scotland get the benefits from Scotland’s natural resources?
I thank Alex Rowley for raising that, because I share his frustration. The Government is working extremely hard to make sure that more of the economic benefit of such projects is experienced here in Scotland.
It is not true to say that no jobs are coming to Scotland. If we look at the Neart Na Gaoithe project, we hope that jacket fabrication work will go to BiFab, but we have also seen, for example, I & H Brown in Perth being awarded onshore substation work. We have seen the port of Dundee confirmed as the installation port and Eyemouth harbour confirmed as the maintenance base. Similarly, with Seagreen—I met senior management at SSE about Seagreen last week—we see work going to Montrose, and the announcement that was made last week about Petrofac is beneficial to Aberdeen.
However, we want to see more fabrication and manufacturing work coming to Scotland, which is why we established the summit that met last week. It is also why we have announced the future arrangements around the Crown Estate leasing round that will happen soon. Developers will be required to set out the anticipated level and location of supply chain impact, and the commitments will be part of the agreement process, so there will be contractual consequences if they are not delivered.
That is what the Government is doing within the powers that we have. However, I know that Alex Rowley is absolutely sincere about this, so I hope that he will agree that we must keep putting pressure on the United Kingdom Government to do more through the contracts for difference process, because that is where the real levers lie. I know that the trade unions agree with that. I certainly think that that is important, and I hope that we will get support from Alex Rowley and Labour as we continue to pressure the UK Government to do more within its powers as well.
Over the past week, almost 2,000 objections have been sent to Transport Scotland—objections to the proposals for a £120 million flyover at Sheriffhall that the Scottish Government agrees will lead to even worse traffic. In the face of the climate emergency, does the First Minister agree that it is time to ditch that dated and dirty project from a bygone era and instead to invest that sum in public transport, park-and-ride facilities, cycling and walking? Does she agree that we should invest in the solutions and not in the problem?
Obviously, the objections will be considered. There is a process to be gone through, and it is important that the matter is properly considered. I have said many times in the chamber that we have to be prepared to look at all sorts of things to make sure that we are meeting our climate obligations.
In terms of the Sheriffhall roundabout, congestion will increase if we do nothing; it will possibly increase faster, and make the situation worse. We must make sure that we are thinking carefully about such things, and that we are taking balanced action that reduces our emissions and, of course, encourages active travel as well.
The budget that we will bring forward, as well as the updated climate change action plan, will look to do all those things in the proper and sensible way.
Police Officers (Mental Health)
We must remember, so that we can learn, so that those awful events are never repeated: Holocaust memorial day is indeed so important.
The First Minister knows that I have deep concerns about the mental health of many of our police officers. New research has found that 35 per cent of police officers were turning up to work while mentally unwell. In the past few weeks, four police officers have died from suicide. We do not know the reasons behind those tragedies, but police officers across the country want to know whether work contributed to those deaths. Will the First Minister order an investigation into the mental health of police officers and the support that is available to them?
Willie Rennie is right to raise an important issue. I express my condolences to the families of the police officers who have died in recent weeks.
I hope that Willie Rennie will appreciate and agree that we do not yet know all the causes and factors behind those deaths. It is important that they are all properly investigated, and I do not think that it is helpful, appropriate or sensitive for us to speculate too much on individual cases.
The mental health of our police officers, indeed of everyone working in our public services, is hugely important. I have spoken in the past in the chamber—in response to Willie Rennie, I think—about some of the work that the Police Service is doing to support the wellbeing and mental health of police officers. Police officers and staff can access a range of services to care for both their physical and their mental health, including through Police Scotland’s your wellbeing matters programme. The Scottish Government is providing funding to extend the Lifelines Scotland wellbeing programme to blue light responders, including Police Scotland. In 2017, Police Scotland launched a wellbeing programme that includes the introduction of wellbeing champions. That has raised awareness of the services available, such as occupational health and employee assistance, which offers counselling. A force-wide wellbeing and engagement survey will be launched soon that will help, I hope, to identify factors that impact on the wellbeing of officers and enable Police Scotland to prioritise further activities and investment.
I agree that we have to consider further action in that regard, but it is important that we make police officers as aware as possible of the support that is already there for them within Police Scotland right now.
That is a helpful response from the First Minister. We need to understand more about the mental wellbeing of our police.
I urge an investigation to look at the contracted-out welfare service for police officers. Before centralisation, each police force had dedicated welfare officers, who were directly responsible for looking after the wellbeing of a number of police. However, the service has been contracted out and Calum Steele of the Scottish Police Federation says that it is a poor substitute. Will that service be part of an investigation?
In the spirit of trying to respond helpfully on such an important topic, I will take that issue away and discuss it with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the chief constable. I will be happy to come back to Willie Rennie on that.
There are, rightly, investigations into individual circumstances, and I have already talked about some of the work that the Police Service is doing. Such matters should be, and will continue to be, investigated. I rule nothing out, and nothing should be ruled out, in terms of how we improve the mental health and wellbeing support for police officers. We want proper support to be available, given the stressful nature of the job that police officers do, and it is right not only that I am able to stand here and say that it is a quality service, but that the police officers who themselves rely on the service feel that it is a quality service.
I am happy to give further consideration to Willie Rennie’s questions, and I am sure that we will come back to the issue in the future.
Last month, coronavirus, which causes a respiratory disease, emerged in Wuhan in China. The virus has so far killed at least six people and infected hundreds more, and it has spread to other Asian countries and Australia. Concerns have already been expressed by virologists that, due to the virus’s incubation time, when no symptoms are present, many other people will already be infected. Wuhan has international air links with around 60 cities, including London, and, of course, many more Chinese people travel at this time of year because of Chinese new year. Will the First Minister advise the Parliament as to what precautions have been and are being taken to deal with coronavirus, should it reach our shores?
I assure Kenny Gibson and other members that, together with Health Protection Scotland, we are closely monitoring what is a rapidly evolving situation. I should say that the risk to the public in Scotland and, indeed, in the United Kingdom is currently classified as low, but obviously that is kept under review. Health Protection Scotland is liaising with national health service boards and is currently in daily contact with Public Health England and liaising daily with colleagues in the UK Department of Health and Social Care. We are also paying close attention to the decisions of and advice from the World Health Organization.
Enhanced monitoring measures have been implemented for flights from Wuhan city to Heathrow. Those will involve each flight being met by a port health team, who will check for symptoms of coronavirus and provide information to all passengers. We are considering whether any further information could helpfully be provided at Scottish airports. Obviously, the situation is evolving and we will monitor it extremely closely. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport or I will ensure that Parliament is appropriately updated in the days and weeks to come.
Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (Solicitors’ Pay)
I draw the First Minister’s attention to the concerns of FDA union members in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service about the fact that, over a seven-year period, entry-level solicitors at other Scottish Government departments are being paid a total of £94,000 more than those working in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. That is deeply concerning, given the importance and sensitivity of the cases that are dealt with in the COPFS. Does the First Minister agree that that pay gap is unacceptable and will she commit to taking urgent action to ensure that those who carry out similar roles and responsibilities are paid equally?
I am aware of that situation. We value highly the work of lawyers in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. Obviously, we are in a budget process right now. Pay discussions are primarily between employees and employer, which in this case is the Crown Office. However, we will seek to address all those matters in the budget decisions that we take to ensure not only that we value people who do those jobs but that we move to a situation as quickly as reasonably possible in which we have pay cohesion not just in that area but across our public services more generally.
Infrastructure Commission for Scotland
Yesterday, the First Minister called for a wellbeing economy. This week, her Infrastructure Commission for Scotland laid out a path to deliver it involving a switch away from road building to road repair and an investment in congestion-busting public transport—a rebalancing of priorities and actions. Given the urgent need to tackle the climate emergency, improve our health and keep the economy moving, will the First Minister act on that advice in the forthcoming budget?
Yes, the advice of the Infrastructure Commission will be an important part of our budget consideration. Obviously, we established the commission. Its phase 1 report, which was published in the past few days, is a helpful contribution to ensuring that the country has fit-for-purpose infrastructure over the next decade and beyond, and in a way that is consistent with our climate change obligations. Therefore, in relation to our budget and our work to update the climate change action plan, the commission’s work and recommendations are extremely helpful as we decide the best ways forward.
Shipbuilding (Port Glasgow)
Yesterday, at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, Edward Mountain asked whether we would be better off building CalMac Ferries vessels in South Korea rather than Scotland. Will the First Minister take this opportunity to reiterate the Scottish Government’s commitment to shipbuilding in Port Glasgow?
Yes, we want to ensure that shipbuilding can continue in Port Glasgow, which is why we have taken action to secure both the jobs at Ferguson Marine right now and the future of the yard. Clearly, a parliamentary inquiry is under way into the contracts for the ferries that are being built there, but we want them to be built as quickly as possible and, in the longer term, we want shipbuilding at Ferguson’s well into the future. I am not sure what the Scottish Conservatives’ position is, but that is clearly the Scottish Government’s position.
Toxicology Services (University of Glasgow)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to address the reported problems with toxicology services at the University of Glasgow. (S5F-03881)
Forensic toxicology services are provided by the University of Glasgow under a contract between the university and the Crown Office. Last month, the Crown Office announced an extension of that contract until September this year. Those services are essential for the independent functions of the Lord Advocate to effectively prosecute crime and investigate deaths.
The announcement of the contract extension was accompanied by a £300,000 investment for the university to recruit additional staff, buy new equipment, address the backlog of cases awaiting analysis and secure better provision of the service until September. I very much appreciate the impact that delays in the service have on the families who are affected. The Lord Advocate keeps me closely updated on the steps that the Crown Office is taking to urgently address those issues.
Like me, and as she has said, the First Minister appreciates the pain and frustration of those who are grieving and waiting on these reports to be completed. I acknowledge that these services are contracted independently by the Crown Office, but will the First Minister confirm that the Lord Advocate’s office is taking steps not only to secure the future provision of these services but to resolve the outstanding cases as quickly as possible?
I thank Sandra White for raising what is an important issue. I understand that the Crown Office has identified another provider and is working with it on a transfer of staff and service provision. That is part of an overall programme of work for the longer term for pathology, mortuary and toxicology services. In the meantime, for some casework Crown Office officials are looking at increasing capacity for those services and, in discussion with health colleagues, the Crown Office is looking at the assistance of the national health service in the short to medium term.
Negative analysis amounts to 40 per cent of the outstanding cases and Crown Office officials are working with the university to identify what analysis is required in each remaining case. That will allow them to ascertain how best to manage that. We will, of course, provide whatever support we can to those efforts to ensure that the outstanding cases are resolved as quickly as is possible.
This week, I was contacted by constituents who lost a family member in distressing circumstances in October but who have still not been told of the cause of death some three months later, due to delays in the toxicology service. I am sure that the First Minister would agree that that is highly distressing for already grieving parents. Can she give the family some assurance as to when they might get the information that they are waiting for?
Yes, I understand how distressing that is for the affected families. If Murdo Fraser wants to provide the details of his constituent, I will ask the Crown Office to contact them directly to provide what further information they can on that individual case.
More generally, I have already talked about the additional investment to recruit staff and some of the other steps that the Crown Office is taking to reduce the backlog, as well as indicating the direction of travel for the service in the longer term. I discuss the matter regularly with the Lord Advocate, who keeps me updated. I want the chamber to understand how seriously I take this situation and how important and urgent I think it is that the backlog is dealt with and that the service in the future does not incur such backlogs again.
To put this into context, almost 2,000 families, and possibly more, have been failed. Some have waited as long as nine months to find out why their loved one died. We have had assurances from the Lord Advocate that he would fix this and, months ago, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice told me to accept those assurances that it was all under control, but the issue has escalated into a national disgrace. Families are suffering and vital public health information, including on drug-related deaths, is being disrupted. Families want to know why this has been a low priority and why ministers and the Lord Advocate have given false assurances, but most of all they want to know why their loved ones have died. Is it not time that the First Minister gives this issue her full attention, because that is what it deserves?
This issue has my full attention. This is a Crown Office matter and, as I said, I have discussed it, and am discussing it, regularly with the Lord Advocate. I have set out the actions that are being taken. Those are not false assurances—they are the concrete steps, including additional investment, that are being taken to resolve what is a serious matter.
It is important that the backlog is dealt with so that the drug death statistics can be published. I want to be clear that no decision on a delay to this summer’s publication has been taken and there has certainly been no indication put to ministers that publication will be delayed until next year—I saw that being speculated on in the media a couple of days ago. This is a serious issue that is commanding serious attention, and serious steps are being taken to ensure that it is resolved as quickly as possible.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the rise in pollution levels on main thoroughfares in Scotland’s cities. (S5F-03884)
Compared to the rest of the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, Scotland enjoys a high level of air quality and has more stringent air quality targets, but there are still areas in which the air quality is below an acceptable level. The remaining pollution hotspots are partly attributable to road transport emissions in urban areas. We are therefore working to deliver low-emission zones across our four biggest cities by the end of this year, with the first already having been introduced in Glasgow.
We are also supporting local authorities to tackle local air pollution hotspots through £4.5 million of annual funding. An independent review of the cleaner air for Scotland strategy has identified priorities for additional action, and a new strategy will take those findings into account when it is published, later this year.
It is simply unacceptable that air pollution levels continue to rise across Scotland and consistently break the legal limits, causing respiratory problems and even premature deaths. On 22 May last year, I asked the First Minister whether the Scottish Government was taking the damaging impact of air pollution seriously. Clearly, little has been done, as we see no progress and the situation is worsening.
The Scottish Conservatives have long called for air quality monitors to be given to schools, to reassure parents that their children are breathing clean air on the way to school. For the second time, I ask the First Minister to finally take affirmative action and commit to air quality monitors for all schools across Scotland for the sake of children’s health.
We will consider all positive suggestions, including that one.
It is important to put this serious issue in context. The number of sites that exceed the objectives is reducing. For nitrogen dioxide, that number has fallen from 14 sites in 2013 to six in 2019, and for particulate matter, it has fallen from 17 in 2013 to just one in 2019. That is a reduction in the number of such sites. Nevertheless, while there are any, there are too many.
The Government is committing to low-emission zones in our four largest cities. That is important. I have already talked about the review of the cleaner air strategy, and we are considering recommendations to inform a new air quality strategy. We have already set more stringent air quality targets than the rest of the UK, and we were the first country anywhere in Europe to legislate for PM2.5, which is a pollutant that causes special concern for human health.
The Government is taking serious action, and it is making other proposals such as the proposal to give local authorities the power to introduce the workplace parking levy, to keep cars out of our cities and towns where that is possible. I say gently to the Conservatives that, if they stopped their knee-jerk opposition to such proposals, perhaps they would be taken a bit more seriously on these issues.
Unpaid Care Work
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to figures from Oxfam Scotland, which estimate that the value of unpaid care work across the country is £36 billion. (S5F-03878)
Our carers make an immense contribution to our society, which is why the Government is determined to do everything we can to support them.
It is important to note that Oxfam’s £36 billion figure covers unpaid care and a wider range of unpaid tasks such as childcare, cooking and housework. The Carers (Scotland) Act 2016 gives every carer the right to a personalised plan and support to meet eligible needs. We are fully funding the act, having provided £17.4 million to local authorities last year and providing an additional £10.5 million this year.
Also this year, our package of investment in social care integration exceeds £700 million, which is a 29 per cent increase over the previous year. Under our new social security powers, our carers allowance supplement gives eligible carers an extra £452.40 this year over what is paid to carers in the rest of the UK.
I take the opportunity to thank unpaid carers for the work that they do each and every day.
The work, which is backed by One Parent Families Scotland, Carers Scotland and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland, highlights that
“Those living in or at risk of poverty tend to spend more hours caring”.
Oxfam’s polling also found that seven in 10 Scots support increased social security benefits for carers.
The First Minister will know that, when the Department for Work and Pensions increases the carers allowance earnings threshold by just £5 in April, it will not keep pace with the national living wage. Carers risk losing the benefit if they go 1p over the threshold, and they will be forced to negotiate with employers to potentially reduce their hours or stop working altogether.
Does the First Minister agree that the carers allowance earnings threshold cliff edge is a disincentive to work and should be urgently reformed?
I certainly agree that the DWP does not provide adequate support to carers. I would like to see that support increased and extended—Mark Griffin makes a legitimate point. That is why we are using our powers here, in Scotland, to increase the support that carers are entitled to. I said in my original answer that the carers allowance supplement gives just over £450 extra a year to each carer, which is an increase in carers allowance of around 13 per cent. We are also introducing the young carers grant, which will be an annual £300 payment.
It is about not only financial support but providing support in other ways as well. It is vital that we continue to do that. I hope that, collectively as a Parliament, we continue to urge the United Kingdom Government to give better support as well.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. We will have a short suspension, to allow members, ministers and people in the galleries to change seats for members’ business.12:46 Meeting suspended.
12:49 On resuming—