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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, April 27, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 27 April 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Edinburgh Airport (Consultation), Social Security Agency, Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-01184)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

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

Ruth Davidson

Last week, Willie Rennie failed to get a single answer from the First Minister on whether the Scottish National Party will support full European Union membership in its manifesto. He should have waited a week, because now we have two: Nicola Sturgeon’s stated position is to be a full member of the European Union; her MPs’ stated position is to leave the common fisheries policy. However, full membership of the European Union means full membership of the common fisheries policy. Is that not the case?

The First Minister

Ruth Davidson has clearly not been paying attention. The SNP has been consistent over many years in our criticisms of the common fisheries policy and very clear about our intentions to see it fundamentally reformed. Our 2007 manifesto pledged to

“continue to work for withdrawal from the Common Fisheries Policy”.

In 2011, our manifesto stated:

“The CFP is well past its sell-by date.”

The 2014 white paper on independence stated that independence for Scotland in the European Union would

“give Scotland the opportunity to take a leadership role in driving reforms to the CFP”.

The reality is that it is the SNP that always stands up for Scottish fishing and always will stand up for Scottish fishing. The uncomfortable truth for Ruth Davidson is that it is successive Tory Governments that have sold out the fishing industry. I know that Ruth Davidson does not want to hear what is coming next, but we remember the words of the Tories:

“in the wider UK context”

the fishermen

“must be regarded as expendable.”

That is the Tory record on fishing.

We know that the Tories are lining up to sell out fishing again, because the Brexit white paper makes it clear that fishing will just be a negotiating chip in the Brexit talks. The SNP stands up for fishermen; Tories sell them out.

Ruth Davidson

That is priceless. The First Minister quoted internal SNP documents, so let me quote a document—chapter 13 of a little thing called the EU conditions for membership, which “requires the introduction” and

“participation in the common fisheries policy”.

It does not get much clearer than that.

Let us spell out the complete absurdity of the SNP’s position—or should I say positions? First is the SNP’s position that Brexit is a terrible threat to Scotland and that fishermen are better off being governed by the EU’s hated common fisheries policy. That is the position that Angus Robertson outlined at the weekend, when he said, “We’re in favour of Scotland being a member state of the European Union and we are in favour of a reformed common fisheries policy.”

However, it is also the SNP’s position that Brexit is a “Sea of Opportunity” for our fishermen and that

“We must avoid any policy, practice, regulation or treaty which could return us to the Common Fisheries Policy”.

We know that because, on Tuesday, Eilidh Whiteford and Mike Weir, two of Mr Robertson’s parliamentary colleagues, signed a pledge written by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation saying so.

I ask the First Minister, was Mr Robertson wrong when he was on the telly at the weekend, or are Ms Whiteford and Mr Weir wrong? Or does the SNP plan to try to say that they are all right, because they think that people are so daft that we will not notice?

The First Minister

Ruth Davidson has managed to hold several different positions on Brexit all by herself. “Brexit is a terrible threat to Scotland,” is what Ruth Davidson says is the SNP’s position, but the problem for Ruth Davidson is that that used to be her position as well—we remember her screaming it from Wembley. Now, of course, her position is different; she has fallen into line with Theresa May and now Brexit is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

On this issue, Ruth Davidson flip-flops more than a fish being landed—flip-flop, flip-flop on Brexit. The truth of the matter is that the SNP always has stood up and always will stand up for fishing.

We have already heard that the Tories think that fishing is expendable—“expendable” was the word that the Tories used about Scotland’s fishing industry. However, let us come more up to date. In the Brexit white paper, paragraph 8.16 says:

“Given the heavy reliance on UK waters of the EU fishing industry and the importance of EU waters to the UK, it is in both our interests to reach a mutually beneficial deal that works for the UK and the EU’s fishing communities.”

Let me translate that for Ruth Davidson: it means that the Tories are lining up to sell out the fishing industry in the negotiations and to allow European countries what they say they do not want, which is access to Scottish fishing waters. The Tories are preparing to perpetrate a con on Scotland’s fishermen and they will not get away with it. The SNP stands up for our fishing industry.

Ruth Davidson

Maybe Nicola Sturgeon’s MPs did not report back to her, so let me quote to her what the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation told MPs at Westminster this week:

“Two Secretaries of State and two Ministers said that the UK is leaving the CFP and we will regain control over our fishing”.

If she wants to go toe to toe over fishing, let us bring that on.

This week, Mike Russell was in Brussels, speaking to fishing industry chiefs. His pitch is that Scotland will leave the EU with the rest of the UK and that, after independence, it will go straight back in but will opt out of all the things that it does not like, including the common fisheries policy. That is utter nonsense.

Right now, we have SNP MPs in fishing communities saying that the CFP is terrible and that Scotland would pull out. At the same time, we have Nicola Sturgeon standing up in Edinburgh trying to win the votes of remainers by saying that Scotland would go straight back in. Does the First Minister not see the utter hypocrisy here?

The First Minister

I see utter consistency, over years, in the SNP’s position on the common fisheries policy; from the Tories, I see flip-flopping all the time on Brexit and on fishing.

If Ruth Davidson’s argument is that the Tories are not preparing to sell out the fishing industry and use it as a bargaining chip in the negotiations that lie ahead, I give her the opportunity today to explain to the chamber in simple terms what exactly the Brexit white paper means when it says that the UK Government wants a deal

“that works for the ... EU’s fishing communities.”

What does that mean if it does not mean allowing Spain and other countries access to Scottish fishing waters? Why can Ruth Davidson not be honest with the fishing community? The Tories are preparing to treat it as being expendable all over again. It is the SNP that will always stand up for fishing.

Ruth Davidson

After Brexit, we will be out of the CFP, but members of Nicola Sturgeon’s party want to take us back in.

The SNP says that it is in favour of joining the European Union, but the First Minister is not confirming whether the SNP will back full membership in its manifesto. The SNP says that it is in favour of the common fisheries policy—except for MPs in fishing communities, who say that they are against it.

Then we have the real whopper. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon says that the coming election has nothing whatsoever to do with independence, but from the broadcasting studios of London, up pops Alex Salmond to confirm that the SNP wants to use this election to demand a referendum that the rest of us do not want.

If the First Minister thinks that on fishing, on EU membership and on independence she can face both ways and promise all things to all people, is it not the case that she is treating the electorate as fools?

The First Minister

As I said yesterday morning, this election is an opportunity to determine who chooses Scotland’s future: is it a Tory Government at Westminster, or is it this democratically elected Scottish Parliament? That is exactly the same as Alex Salmond’s comments of yesterday afternoon.

Let us get back to fishing. What we have just seen is Ruth Davidson all at sea, drowning in our fishing waters, because she cannot explain what she really must explain, in simple terms, to Scotland’s fishing communities. I gave her the opportunity to do so once and she failed, so I will give her the opportunity again. What does it mean when the UK Government says that it wants a deal

“that works for the ... EU’s fishing communities”?

It can only mean that the Tories are preparing to sell out Scottish fishermen, grant other European countries access to fishing waters and treat that vital Scottish industry as being expendable once again. That is crystal clear from what Ruth Davidson has said today. It is the SNP that will, as it always has done, stand up for Scottish fishing.


2. Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-01180)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

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

Kezia Dugdale

Next week, voters will go to the polls to decide the future of local services such as our schools. The First Minister used to claim that education was her number 1 priority, but even she does not claim that any more. After 10 years of Scottish National Party government, Scottish education is facing challenges like never before. Since the SNP took office, there are 4,000 fewer teachers and 1,000 fewer support staff and class sizes are bigger. International studies show that Scotland is declining in maths, reading and science. John Swinney’s response has been to publish a mini-manifesto repeating the very promises that he has broken every year since 2007. Can the First Minister tell teachers, parents and pupils why they should believe the SNP this time around?

The First Minister

Education is my top priority. That is why—[Interruption.] Kezia Dugdale does not like to hear this, but that is why, right now across Scotland, headteachers and teachers have in their hands £120 million of additional funding. That is why local government services are better off to the tune of £400 million under this SNP Government.

I say to Kezia Dugdale that she has zero credibility left—not a shred—on the issue of local government funding. For years—and in her local government manifesto that was published just days ago—she has complained about the council tax freeze and how it is strangling local government services, yet, of the eight councils that are freezing the council tax in this election, how many are Labour led? All eight. This is from Stirling—“Stirling Labour Freeze Your Council Tax”. Kezia Dugdale should not come here talking about funding for local services when it is her councils that are failing to raise the money that we need for our schools.

Kezia Dugdale

That is from a First Minister who has cut £170 million out of local services this year alone. If education was her top priority, she would be listening to the teachers across Scotland who are crying out for help. Blackhall primary school in Edinburgh felt the need to email all parents to say:

“As you may be aware, there is currently a national shortage of teachers. This makes it challenging for head teachers around the country who are trying to fill vacant posts or cover classes”.

There is a teacher shortage in Scotland, so will the First Minister be honest? How many schools are struggling like Blackhall? How many teacher vacancies are there across the whole of Scotland?

The First Minister

John Swinney and I and this Government have never shied away from the fact that Scotland—like many countries right now—has an issue with teacher recruitment. That is one of the reasons why we have increased the intake to teacher training to train more teachers to work in our schools and close the attainment gap.

The fact is that this SNP Government is investing in local services. Whatever Kezia Dugdale tries to say, there is £400 million extra available in this financial year for council services. The question for Labour is this: if it does not think that there is enough money for council services, why are eight Labour-led councils going into this election promising to freeze the council tax? Maybe Kezia Dugdale will give us a straight answer to that straight question.

Kezia Dugdale

In all of that, there was no answer to the question that I asked. I will give the First Minister the answer. There are 700 teacher vacancies in Scotland, and 400 of them are in our secondary schools, where pupils will begin exams in a matter of days.

I can reveal today that the Government’s own internal documents admit that it could take up to three years to fill those vacancies—three years for the Government to ensure that there are enough teachers to educate our children; three years to clean up the mess that the SNP has been making for the past 10; three years to give our young people a fair chance in life. However, we all know that Nicola Sturgeon will spend the next three years campaigning for independence. Can the First Minister really keep a straight face and tell teachers, parents and pupils once again that education is her number 1 priority?

The First Minister

As I said, we recognise the challenge in teacher recruitment. Scotland is not unique in that regard. Kezia Dugdale might not want to listen to this, but that is why in 2017-18 we are making resources available to train an additional 371 teachers, and it is why the General Teaching Council for Scotland has a number of initiatives under way to encourage people back into teaching and to encourage new people into teaching. Those are the actions that we are taking to tackle what is a problem and a challenge for many countries. Of course, we are doing that in conjunction with our national improvement framework, our attainment challenge and our attainment fund, which is putting extra resources into the hands of headteachers, because our commitment to raising attainment and closing the attainment gap is absolute. We will get on with the hard work of doing it, leaving Labour, as usual, carping from the sidelines.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

The First Minister will be aware that, last Thursday, Diageo announced plans to cut up to 100 jobs in Scotland, potentially affecting up to 70 workers at its Leven premises in my constituency. The GMB union has laid the blame squarely on a Tory hard Brexit. What reassurance can the First Minister give my constituents who now potentially face redundancy due to Conservative recklessness?

The First Minister

Obviously, I was concerned to learn that Diageo has begun a consultation with the staff over potential job losses at its sites in Leven and Shieldhall, and I know that this will be an extremely anxious time for the company’s employees and their families. Keith Brown has already arranged to meet Diageo, and officials in Scottish Enterprise are already fully engaged with the company. We will do all that we can to explore all possible options for supporting the business and protecting jobs in Scotland.

Although the families and individuals who are affected by this situation also have the right to expect a similar response from the United Kingdom Government, it is troubling that the main union, the GMB, appears to have raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on these jobs and has got very little response from the UK Government. This is yet another example of the threat that Brexit poses to Scotland—what Ruth Davidson used to tell us but does not any longer, but what I still believe and what examples such as this one, sadly, illustrate. However, we will continue to do everything possible to support the workers at Diageo.

John Lamont (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I declare an interest as a trustee of the St Abbs Lifeboat trust.

One of the best examples of a community campaign that I have ever seen was the campaign in St Abbs in Berwickshire for the creation of an independent lifeboat when the Royal National Lifeboat Institution withdrew its service. The community rallied together and organised a tremendous fundraising effort to raise the funds needed to establish its own lifeboat service for this important part of the coastline. When the donations started to roll in, the local St Abbs Community Trust was used to collect the funds while the new lifeboat trust was set up. The money was then transferred to the new lifeboat trust and the new boat was purchased.

I had the pleasure of sitting beside the First Minister at the launch of the new lifeboat.

Members: Question!

John Lamont

On Twitter, the First Minister spoke of the “incredible achievement”, of the “community coming together” and of the community having “achieved something really special”.

It now transpires that Scottish Water’s Business Stream has stripped the St Abbs Community Trust of its water rates exemption for the community cafe and the Ebba centre. I have been in correspondence with the SNP’s Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, but she has confirmed that she will not give an exemption to the community trust.

Members: Question!

John Lamont

Given the exceptional circumstances surrounding this situation, will the First Minister—unlike her back benchers—apply some common sense to this matter?

The First Minister

The water and sewerage charge of around £900 that has gone to St Abbs Community Trust has already been drawn to my attention. From the investigation into the matter that I have done so far, that charge appears to be a direct result of the trust’s excellent efforts to raise funds for the St Abbs lifeboat—funds that did not belong to the trust but which it held and then transferred to the lifeboat trust’s account when that account was set up.

Given those circumstances, I am hugely sympathetic to the situation that the trust finds itself in, and I have this morning instructed my officials to look again at the issue in order to find a solution. I was at the launch of the St Abbs lifeboat, which was a fantastic example of a community coming together to preserve a service that is vital to life in that community. I have looked into the matter and it seems unfair, which is why I have instructed officials to see what they can do to fix it. That is the kind of action that people can expect from an SNP Government.

Cabinet (Meetings)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-01188)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I think that I heard that question. Tuesday.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I think that the reason why the First Minister could not hear was the fact that the Deputy First Minister was shouting across the chamber and into her ear. I know that this is an election time, but I suggest that all members be a little more respectful to all other members so that we hear the questions and the answers.

Patrick Harvie

If the Deputy First Minister wants to continue to distract the First Minister, that is no great skin off my nose.

This week, the Scottish Government proposed tax cuts for aviation, which we all know—even though the Scottish Government at first denied it—will increase the carbon emissions that are driving climate change at a time when we should be cutting them radically.

Even if the First Minister thinks that aviation’s damage to the climate can be ignored, it is clear that the tax cut will also be very unfair. Research that has been published by the Green Party has shown just how unfair it will be. Even if the airlines pass on the full tax cut through reduced ticket prices, the highest-income households stand to gain far more than anyone else. Of the £90 million-odd tax giveaway going to United Kingdom leisure passengers alone, the richest 10 per cent of households will gain more than £33 million while the poorest 10 per cent stand to benefit by just £8.5 million.

When public transport, which people depend on every day, remains expensive and unreliable, how can it possibly be fair to offer a tax break that drives up both pollution and inequality?

The First Minister

I will deal with both those issues, taking the climate change issue first, as that is extremely important to the Government. We are, of course, meeting our climate change targets although we have some of the most ambitious climate change targets anywhere in the world. The UK Committee on Climate Change has previously commented on the issue and has made the point—it is a point that I would endorse more generally—that, when any policy has a potential adverse effect on emissions, that increases the responsibility of the Government to make sure that we balance that in other ways. Our overall ambition to meet our climate change targets is an absolute commitment that the Government has set.

On the wider issue of reducing air departure tax, I should say that the discussions and vote in Parliament this week were not about rates; they were about transferring the legal responsibility over the tax from the Westminster Parliament to the Scottish Parliament. This is about trying to improve Scotland’s connectivity, because we know that improving Scotland’s connectivity is one of the key things that we need to do to grow Scotland’s economy. We all know that growing Scotland’s economy is really important to supporting the public services that we all rely on, which is why we must have a balance in our policies.

As Patrick Harvie will be aware, in response to the Finance and Constitution Committee’s stage 1 report, we have confirmed that we will commission an independent economic assessment and that the Government will bring forward tax exemptions at stage 2, so there will be plenty of opportunity for the Parliament to scrutinise the detail of the proposals.

It is important that we get our policies right in the round not only so that we support our vital public services but so that we support the economic growth that is vital to our doing exactly that.

Patrick Harvie

Indeed, the vote this week was not on rates and bands. The Green Party will move amendments to introduce some social and environmental principles into the legislation, and we will not vote for it unless those amendments are agreed to.

The First Minister cites the UK Committee on Climate Change, which has argued for a cap on aviation emissions growth. She also says that we need more connectivity. It is perfectly clear from the continuing growth of our existing aviation sector that air passenger duty has not stopped that growth. Even for routes where rail is a perfectly viable option, we are failing to ensure that that is the affordable choice for people to make. Relentless aviation growth cannot possibly be sustainable.

Today, we have visitors to Parliament: those who are most directly affected by that growth and the noise and pollution from increasing numbers of flights here in Edinburgh, and those who are campaigning against an additional runway at Heathrow. The aviation industry can well afford to lobby hard, sponsoring lavish events here, at Westminster and even at the First Minister’s party conference. Should we not be listening more closely to those whose lives will be most affected by increased inequality and pollution here at home and by the effects of climate change around the world? Is it not time that the Scottish Government had a coherent policy on aviation levels, including a cap on emissions and protections for communities from the direct impacts that they have to live with daily?

The First Minister

First, I will try to find consensus. Of course it is important that all voices are listened to. The Scottish Government has made clear its view that there are benefits to Scotland from Heathrow expansion. However, it will be for the UK Government, in taking forward that policy, to answer the questions on the impact both on people living around that area and on the environment. We will continue to pay very close attention to the answers to those questions and to the case that is made as it develops.

On our policy, Patrick Harvie talks about “relentless” growth in aviation. That is not what I am proposing, and it is not what the Scottish Government is proposing or advocates. We advocate good connections for Scotland. Of course good rail connections are vital. I encourage people to use the train when travelling across the UK, but our economy also needs good aviation connections. We know the constraints in our economy that there have been over past years from the lack of certain routes, particularly the lack of direct flights into and out of Scotland.

We need to get the policies right. We must grow our economy. How many times—rightly and understandably—in this chamber do we talk about the challenges facing Scotland’s economy and the need to have policies to grow our economy? That is a key Government priority, and connections for business and exporters are a vital part of that growth. However, we must ensure that all our policies, taken together, pass the climate change challenge.

It would be one thing to level such criticisms at the Scottish Government if it was not meeting its climate change ambitions. We are not only meeting those ambitions—and we have been praised by the UK Committee on Climate Change for our record—but meeting the targets ahead of schedule. We are not complacent about that—indeed, we want to up our ambition and go further—but we need to have balance in our policies, so that we support economic growth and have the support for the public services that all of us across the chamber want to see.

Cabinet (Meetings)

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

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-01181)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.

Willie Rennie

The First Minister has done nothing in the past 20 minutes to avoid her party looking shifty and evasive on Europe and independence. On Monday, the First Minister, said that this election is not about independence. Yesterday, we saw her sitting on a “Yes to independence” branded motorbike, in the shadow of the Wallace monument on the B road to Bannockburn. What is the First Minister’s position today?

The First Minister

My position is as it has always been, so maybe Willie Rennie should listen carefully, because he seems to be struggling to understand it. I support Scotland being independent and being an independent member of the European Union. There you go. How can Willie Rennie struggle to understand that?

Willie Rennie is right. Yesterday, I went to Bannockburn. I visited a fantastic heritage project—the proposed restoration of Bannockburn house, where Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed back in those days. It was a fantastic visit.

I am proud in this election to be getting out there, making the case for a strong opposition to the Tories at Westminster and making the case that, on the key questions, including independence, it should be the voice of this Parliament—this democratically elected Parliament—that determines the future of Scotland, not the voice of an increasingly right-wing Tory Government at Westminster.

Willie Rennie

Does the First Minister really think that we are all buttoned up the back? Once again, she has refused to say that the election is about independence, but her predecessor was on the radio saying that that is exactly what it is about. It is about independence—first, last and every priority.

Last week, the First Minister was evasive about her future plans on Europe. This week, there is utter confusion about independence, starting with denial and ending with a Hells Angels tour of the central belt. Meanwhile, the economy is teetering on the edge of recession, our performance in the international education rankings has slipped and the mental health strategy is months behind schedule. The First Minister should be ashamed of that record. The best way out of all that is for her to do what the majority of people in the country would applaud her for. Why can she not just cancel the divisive independence referendum campaign and get back to doing her job for Scotland?

The First Minister

So says the guy who is going around the country arguing for a second EU referendum. In direct answer to Willie Rennie’s first question, I think that most people watching this would start to think that, yes, the Liberal Democrats appear to button up the back. If the cap fits, perhaps Willie Rennie should wear it.

Willie Rennie raises in passing issues such as education, the economy and mental health. I agree that they are fundamentally important issues, which begs the question why he did not take the opportunity of his questions to ask me about any of those matters. He had the opportunity to do that. Here I stand. He can ask me anything that he likes but he chooses not to ask me about education, health or the economy. Why is that? It is because all the Opposition parties are the ones that want to talk only about independence. Why is that? It is because that is a smokescreen—none of those parties is prepared to talk about its own policies or record.

I will tell members what I will work to do in the election: I will work to win it. No other party in the chamber is prepared to say that that is what it is trying to do.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I have a question on domestic matters. It is about education.

The First Minister will be aware that college lecturers are on strike today. They are gathering outside Parliament for a rally this afternoon after talks at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service on Tuesday, which were aimed at resolving the continuing industrial dispute, failed to reach a resolution.

The Scottish National Party has been promising lecturers equal pay since 2011. Lecturers have already compromised by agreeing to stagger pay harmonisation over three years up to 2019 but, despite that, the deal that was agreed last year has still not been honoured. What message does the First Minister have for the striking lecturers? What urgent action are ministers taking to resolve the dispute?

The First Minister

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science will meet the lecturers who are visiting Parliament, or their representatives, later today.

I want the dispute to be resolved because strike action in our colleges is in no one’s interest. It is certainly not in the interests of college students. However, let me be clear what has happened. As we were asked to do, we have put in place arrangements for national bargaining. When we have arrangements for national bargaining, the issue becomes, ultimately, a matter for the trade union and the employers to resolve.

As I understand it—I pay close attention to such matters—the dispute is not actually about pay. The pay increases have, broadly, been agreed. The dispute is now about terms and conditions: the amount of class contact time and numbers of holidays. I would encourage the employers to go the extra mile to resolve the dispute and I hope that they will be able to do that through discussion with the union.

The move to national bargaining is a significant step forward. However, once we have the Government stepping in to resolve those matters, we no longer have national bargaining. If we want national bargaining to work, both sides must be prepared to come to a resolution. I hope that that happens very soon.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The First Minister will know that farmers and crofters have three weeks to make 2017 payment applications. She will also know that the £180 million computer system to make the payments does not work. Given that the system continues not to work, will she undertake to give her long-suffering officials in department offices across Scotland the tools to make their job possible, which does not include continuing with a computer system that does not work?

The First Minister

We support our officials across the country and the officials working on the matters raised by Tavish Scott are working exceptionally hard. We will ensure that they are equipped with the tools that they need to do the job. It is vital that payments to crofters and farmers more generally are paid, and paid on time. Fergus Ewing is very focused on that.

I am happy to ask Fergus Ewing to meet Tavish Scott to discuss the action that we are taking, listen to any concerns that he continues to have and set out what we are doing to address them.

Children and Young People (Online Protection)

5. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to protect children and young people online. (S5F-01206)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Last week the Minister for Childcare and Early Years launched the Scottish Government’s action plan on internet safety for children and young people. It contains a range of actions that we will undertake, working in partnership with the police, health boards, third sector organisations and—crucially—children and young people.

Our approach seeks to help children and young people develop the skills that they need to be safe on the internet and to support parents and carers to be more aware of the potential risks that their children face online.

Fulton MacGregor

I welcome that development. It is vital that we all do what we can to keep children safe in every aspect of their lives. What role is envisaged for service providers and technology businesses, which clearly also have a key responsibility to protect children from harm online?

The First Minister

The online industry and social media providers in particular have a key role and responsibility in ensuring that children and young people stay safe online. It is reassuring to see the industry taking its responsibility to protect children seriously through a range of actions and measures. Where it is necessary, we should continue to put pressure on the industry to take appropriate action. There is more for the industry and providers to do.

There is more that we can all do to help keep children safe online. The action plan that we published last week sets out how the Government will take the steps that it is our responsibility to take and I look forward to the industry playing its role fully, working with ministers and other stakeholders to implement those measures.

Overwhelmingly, the internet is a force for good and we should embrace that positively. The internet opens new worlds to children every day, but the downside is the dangers and risks that children face. We must tackle those so that children can continue to enjoy and benefit from the internet in the ways that many of them do.

“Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland”

6. Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government's position is on the accuracy of the GERS figures. (S5F-01182)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

GERS is a national statistics publication, which means that it has been independently assessed by the United Kingdom Statistics Authority to ensure that it meets the code of practice for official statistics. That code ensures that statistics are of high quality and of public value.

GERS estimates the level of public revenue raised in Scotland and the level of public spending for residents of Scotland under the current constitutional arrangements. It is based on a range of estimates and is not an indication of the finances of an independent Scotland, which would be dependent on a range of other factors, including the spending choices and priorities of the Government of the day.

Liam Kerr

I thank the First Minister for that reply. She must say that to those Scottish National Party supporters, including members of the Scottish Parliament, who in recent months have mounted a concerted campaign to undermine and delegitimise GERS. Will she also put on record that GERS are official statistics, produced by her Government to the highest standards, and that people who denigrate the figures—including those in the chamber—are simply wrong?

The First Minister

May I recommend to the member that when he comes to the chamber and asks a question, he listens to the answer? Let me repeat what I said in my first answer—[Interruption.] The member stood up to ask his supplementary question and asked me to put on record that the GERS figures are national statistics. The first words in my original answer were:

“GERS is a national statistics publication”.

A bit of listening, instead of heckling, might have gone down well.

The simple point that I am making is this: GERS does not tell us anything much about the finances of an independent Scotland. It is not just me who says that—the Fraser of Allander institute says that GERS reflects “current constitutional arrangements”, and, of course, a leading anti-independence campaigner himself said on the radio recently:

“Nobody suggests that the GERS figures show what a future independent Scotland would look like.”

Yes, they are official statistics; official statistics are known for being high quality and of public value. They are underpinned by a range of estimates, as everyone is aware, and, crucially, they reflect the position in Scotland—as the Fraser of Allander institute said—under current constitutional arrangements, not under independence.

Free Personal Care

7. Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government will take to ensure that older people receive the free personal care payments that they are entitled to, in light of research by Age Scotland, which suggests that thousands are missing out due to delays in assessing and arranging care. (S5F-01192)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Age Scotland’s figures show that 95 per cent of older people who are assessed as needing care receive the services that they need within six weeks, and that the majority of assessments for older people with critical or substantial needs are conducted within two and a half weeks.

That said, no one should have to wait longer than necessary to receive their care package, which is why we continue to work closely with councils to make provision even better than it already is.

Alex Rowley

The fact remains that for many individuals and many families, far too often their experience of health and social care is not good. Pope Francis said:

“Where there is no honour to the elderly, there is no future for the young.”

Provision of support and care for older people at the point when they need it must be the accepted will of every Scottish Government. Will the First Minister agree to set up a review to examine progress to date in rolling out integrated health and social care, to consider what is working and what is not working and why, to build on best practice across Scotland and to ensure that every individual who needs health and social care can access it?

The First Minister

I agree very strongly with the sentiments behind Alex Rowley’s question; caring for our older people is very often the mark of a civilised society. That is why I think that we should all be proud of free personal care in this country, and that we should all be proud that the vast majority of older people get good high-quality care timeously, based on an assessment that says that they need that care.

Yes, there are still individuals for whom that is not the experience. We must continue to work to resolve that, and we are determined to do so. It is exactly for that reason that the Government took the step that no previous Government was prepared to take, which was to integrate health and social care formally, by statute. It is also why, as Alex Rowley is aware, we are doing the difficult thing—which, again, Governments have shied away from for a long time—of transferring money from acute health services to social care and community care, in recognition of the fact that those services are essential for individuals, especially older people, and for relieving pressure on our acute health service.

Alex Rowley asked for a review. The progress of integration is, and will continue to be, under constant monitoring and review, which is absolutely the right thing to do. Initiatives of such magnitude clearly meet challenges along their way, but I regularly speak to people who work in healthcare and people who work in social care in various parts of the country, who point to improvements that are already being made because of integration.

We—or, rather, the people out there who are working in the services—are delivering high-quality services for the vast majority of older people. Our determination—working with local authorities, the health service and voluntary organisations, which are crucial in this—is to ensure that that is the experience for every older person in Scotland.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

As the First Minister is aware, the introduction of free personal care in 2002 has saved, over 15 years, tens of millions of pounds for the Treasury, because it is not required to pay out attendance allowance. Those tens of millions could have gone towards free personal care. Does the First Minister agree that it is ironic—indeed, hypocritical—that the Tories, in the same breath as they defend their cruel rape clause and demand that the Scottish Government provides funding to support victims of that callous clause, refuse to pay out savings that we in the Scottish Parliament have made through our compassionate policies?

The First Minister

Christine Grahame is absolutely right. Actually, it remains something of a national scandal that the United Kingdom Government clawed back attendance allowance from Scotland following the introduction of free personal and nursing care under a previous Administration, in 2002. I may have misheard, but I think that Christine Grahame talked about the tens of millions of pounds that have been lost to the Scottish Government as a result of that move by past and current UK Governments. Let me tell her exactly how much that is over the past 15 years. It now amounts to £600 million—more than half a billion pounds that rightly should be here in Scotland helping to support our older people, but which is now currently in the pockets of the London Westminster Treasury.

I have to say that the policy was started by a Labour UK Government, although it has been continued by a Tory UK Government. If either of those parties now wants to say that it stands up for pensioners—although that will be difficult for the Tories, who are preparing to abandon the triple lock on pensions—and talk about what more we need to do for older people, its support for the Scottish Government in trying to get that money back for Scotland, although certainly overdue, would be very welcome indeed.

Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. During this edition of First Minister’s question time, Nicola Sturgeon made a number of claims. One of them was that there is not a fag paper between her position and Alex Salmond’s position on whether the general election is or is not about independence, and a second, in response to Willie Rennie, was that only the Opposition wants to talk about independence. I wonder whether the First Minister is aware that, at the exact time that she was making those statements, her predecessor, Alex Salmond, was on Sky News and can be quoted as having said that, in this general election, one of the issues will be whether

“to back our Parliament’s right to decide when to have an independence referendum”,

and that it would “reinforce” the mandate of Holyrood to do so. I just wonder whether the First Minister would like to reconsider her comments in the light of that embarrassing intervention by her predecessor, as she was speaking.

The First Minister rose—

The Presiding Officer

I am sorry, First Minister, but this is a point of order for the chair and not one for debate. I suggest that those matters are best pursued outside the chamber—[Interruption.] Excuse me, Mr FitzPatrick—it is a point of order and a question for the chair to rule on. I rule that it is not a point of order. Those are debating points to be conducted in the general election context outside the chamber. The point has been made. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but that was not to open up a debate; it was a question for the chair. It was not a point of order. We are finished FMQs and will now move on to members’ business.