Meeting date: Thursday, June 27, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 27 June 2019
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Justice (Electronic Monitoring)
If a convicted criminal who is wearing an electronic tag removes it in order to wander the streets undetected, should that not automatically be regarded as a crime?
As Ruth Davidson was, I was in the chamber when such issues were debated at stage 3 of the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill earlier this week. I thought that there was a good discussion. Many members made the point that a tag being removed for medical reasons, for example, should perhaps not be regarded as a crime. However, the bill includes a new offence of being unlawfully at large. Given Ruth Davidson’s previous interventions on the issue, I would have thought that she would welcome that.
Through the passing of the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill and last night’s approval of the Presumption Against Short Periods of Imprisonment (Scotland) Order 2019, this week has shown that the Government is introducing reforms to the justice system that will make our country safer. It is about smarter justice, and we have introduced exactly the kind of reforms that Ruth Davidson’s colleagues south of the border are pursuing. Perhaps it is Ruth Davidson who is somewhat out of line.
Let us spell out exactly what will happen under the Government’s newly passed Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill, about which the First Minister talked. The Scottish National Party says that it wants to start emptying the jails and to let lots of people who would have been in prison out on the streets, wearing tags instead. [Interruption.] That is what she said.
In my view, taking off a tag is equivalent to scaling the walls and making a run for it because, but for that tag, the person would be in a cell. Under the SNP’s new system, all that will happen is that the person will be sent a letter asking whether they would mind turning themselves in, please. A person cutting off their tag is not automatically a crime, and no extra penalty will be added to their sentence. Does the First Minister think that that sounds like justice to most people?
If what Ruth Davidson said was correct, she might have had a point, but it is not correct. It is worth pointing out that there are already—even before the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill was passed this week—consequences for people who tamper with their electronic tags. If a person who is on a home detention curfew tampers with a tag, that is immediately reported back to the prison, and that person is recalled to custody.
The steps that we have taken in the bill to bolster the law specifically create a new offence of remaining unlawfully at large for people who do not return to custody once they are recalled. That approach gives the police more powers to apprehend prisoners who are considered to be unlawfully at large, including when prisoners have tampered with their electronic tag. Those are precisely the changes to the law that people have been asking for.
Ruth called for them.
Indeed—the justice secretary is saying that Ruth Davidson called for the changes.
The proposals that came from the Tories this week did not contain robust provisions. Under them, someone who damaged a tag in the course of their employment, or when carrying out sporting activities, for example, would have been committing an offence, with there being no appropriate defence in law. We have put in place robust and appropriate provisions, which is why they have been widely welcomed.
Ruth Davidson’s questions on justice and law and order seem to be based on the view that Scotland somehow takes a “soft on crime” approach. Nothing could be further from the truth. I ask Ruth Davidson to reflect on the fact that Scotland has the highest prison population in western Europe. The problem is not that we do not send enough people to prison; the problem is that we are not smart enough in our justice interventions.
As I said a moment ago, Ruth Davidson’s colleagues at Westminster are looking at and are emulating the proposals that we have taken forward this week. Perhaps Ruth Davidson should reflect on the fact that it is she who is out of line on these matters.
What I asked the First Minister was whether the measures sound like justice to her. Here are the people to whom they do not sound like justice. Scottish Women’s Aid has said:
“To be a credible deterrent, breach of the electronic monitoring condition must be an automatic criminal offence.”
Victim Support Scotland has said that breaches of a tag must be punished
“to maintain the trust of victims and the community”
because, as Victim Support also said,
“communities have no faith in community sentencing ... because ... it takes too long for someone to be found to be in breach of their order.”—[Official Report, Justice Committee, 8 May 2018; c 39.]
The SNP could have fixed that by making the breach of a tag a specific offence punishable by a sentence. Was it just because it was a Tory suggestion that the First Minister refused to do that?
No. We did not follow that suggestion because it is not the right approach. That is why we instead put into the law a workable provision that will make a difference and will actually deal with the problem that has been identified. We have created a specific new offence to deal with people having tampered with electronic tags and being unlawfully at large because of that.
Ruth Davidson’s proposals, which her colleagues elsewhere have brought forward, would have meant that a person accidentally tampering with their tag would be an offence, and there would have been no defence in law. We have put in place a workable provision that makes sense. Perhaps it is the fact that it makes sense that left the Tories unable to support it in Parliament this week.
Our proposal made sense for Scottish Women’s Aid and for Victim Support Scotland.
Let us talk about the unlawfully at large issue that the First Minister has been waving around as a defence. It is two years since father of three, Craig McClelland, was stabbed to death by James Wright—a criminal who was unlawfully at large for six months after tampering with his electronic tag. This week, Mr McClelland’s father, Michael, said this:
“Why was James Wright out on a tag, how did he get it off and why wasn’t he lifted? ... where was the system when my son was murdered and why won’t they answer these questions?”
What is the First Minister going to tell Mr McClelland about why cutting off a tag is not a crime?
As I have done previously, I record my condolences to the McClelland family for everything that they have gone through. I would say to Craig’s father that when that dreadful tragedy and crime took place, the specific offence that we have put into law this week—that of being unlawfully at large—was not on the statute book. The case is one of the reasons why we considered the matter and decided to legislate this week to put that specific crime on the statute book. I would say to Craig McClelland’s family and to others who have suffered under such circumstances that the measures are a response to that, specifically.
The Cabinet Secretary for Justice has also taken other action to respond to what happened in that case. Issues to do with and decisions about wider considerations of the case fall to the independent law officers. It is precisely because of that case that the change in the law was made this week—a change in the law that my party and my Government voted for, and which Ruth Davidson’s party voted against.
To ask the First Minister how many Government debates there have been on education policy in the parliamentary year ending today.
I do not have the number of Government debates, but I know that, earlier this week, John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, made a statement on education reform. Last week or the week before, he made a statement on attainment and assessment in primary schools.
As members would expect, the education secretary and I spend a considerable amount of our time ensuring that we continue the progress of raising attainment in our schools and closing the attainment gap—making more progress than I believe was made under previous Labour Administrations.
Yes, we know that the cabinet secretary is happy to read out statements but not to take part in a debate, take interventions and have a vote. The answer to the question that I asked is that, in the past parliamentary year, there have been no Government debates on that top priority of education. There has not been one since 2 November 2017.
We have had ministerial statements, such as this week’s mercy killing of the Education (Scotland) Bill, but no debates. What is the Government afraid of debating? Is it the teacher recruitment crisis, the narrowing of the curriculum, the explosion of multilevel teaching or the growing crisis in additional support needs, or is the Government afraid because, when we debate and then vote on its record on education, it is defeated in this Parliament?
Richard Leonard has a point. We could have come to the chamber and debated the 10 per cent pay rise for teachers in our country or the 500 more teachers in our schools this year. [Interruption.]
We could have debated the fact that we have more teachers in primary schools now than at any time since 1980. The education secretary made statements this week and last week. It is not my fault if Richard Leonard cannot manage to ask questions on those statements.
How many times has Richard Leonard come to the chamber and said that the single biggest thing that we have to do to raise attainment and close the poverty-related attainment gap in our schools is tackle child poverty? In recent weeks, how many times has he come to the chamber and called on me to introduce an income supplement? Today, the day after we introduced a £10-a-week income supplement for the poorest families in our country, in order to tackle child poverty and help us raise attainment, Richard Leonard has nothing to say about it. That suggests that he is not interested in children and that he is interested only in the politics.
That was an astonishing answer.
The First Minister’s claims on education do not bear examination. That is why the Government dares not debate them. If education is a Government’s top priority, it invests in it. Therefore, why is this Government spending £427 less per pupil in our primary schools?
It is not just schools. Why does the Auditor General for Scotland say that our colleges are not achieving financial sustainability? If education is the Government’s top priority, why does research that we are publishing today show that, since it came to office, the Government is spending more than £1,000 less per student on teaching in our universities?
Is that not the record on education that the Government is unwilling and unable to debate? It is a record of cuts to Scotland’s schools, colleges and universities.
Unfortunately for Richard Leonard, the facts tell a different story. In each of the past two years, there have been real-terms increases in education funding by councils. In each of the past three years, there have been increases in the number of teachers in our schools. The pupil equity fund is putting more money into the hands of headteachers in our schools. That is probably why we have rising exam passes in our schools, a record number of young people going into positive destinations and a record number of young people from the poorest parts of our country going into higher education, including university.
That is the Government’s record on education. We will get on with the job of continuing to make that progress. Presiding Officer, that is progress that we are proud of.
Moray Council Budget Cuts
Moray Council has already endured millions of pounds’ worth of cuts to its budget, as local government funding has been squeezed by the Scottish Government. We have now heard from the Scottish National Party leader of Moray Council that it faces another £19.3 million of cuts by 2021, with future budgets “very challenging”. Therefore, local people in Moray now see more of their basic public services under threat and their council tax bills rising. For how many more years will Moray have to endure local budget cuts at the hands of an SNP administration in Elgin that is content to take another bad deal from its SNP colleagues in Edinburgh?
I seem to remember that the Conservatives recently resigned from the administration of Moray Council because they wanted to implement cuts. The Scottish Government has increased funding for local government and will continue to protect it and be fair to it in all the budgetary decisions that it makes.
The last point that I will make to Jamie Halcro Johnston is one that I have made many times before in this session but which is worth making again. If we had followed the Tories’ proposals to give tax cuts to the richest people in our country, our budget would be £550 million smaller than it is and local authorities would have paid the price for that. The Tories have a cheek to come here and talk about budgets.
Holiday Hunger Strategy (Glasgow)
As schools in Maryhill and Springburn and right across Scotland break up for the summer holidays, holiday hunger will become a reality for too many children. Glasgow City Council has invested £2 million in its annual holiday hunger strategy, through which children can get involved in free youth activities across the city and be provided with free food without stigma, which is important. Will the First Minister urge families in Glasgow to check the council’s website and libraries for more information on local activities that are available for children in their area? Does she agree that we must do all that we can to tackle child poverty not just outwith term time but all year round?
Yes, I agree with that and very much welcome Glasgow City Council’s efforts. Food insecurity during school holidays is driven by families’ incomes being too low to meet their needs, which is why we continue to challenge the United Kingdom Government’s punitive welfare cuts and have focused £2 million of our £3.5 million fair food fund specifically on school holidays. It is also why, yesterday in the chamber, we announced bold action to tackle child poverty in Scotland. Over the past year alone, we have introduced the best start grant and a financial health check service and have increased school clothing grants. By the end of 2022, our new Scottish child payment, which will be worth £10 per week, will be available to all eligible children aged under 16, and we will deliver early payments for under-sixes before the end of this parliamentary session.
School Buildings (Highlands)
In order for young people to realise their potential, we must provide them with a good-quality learning environment, This week, we have been told that the budget to upgrade crumbling school buildings in the Highlands has been cut by a third. The Highland Council says that that is because it has received £25 million less than expected from the Scottish Government.
This matter is clearly of huge concern to parents, teachers and pupils—not least those associated with the sub-standard St Clement’s school in Dingwall, which is a school for pupils with additional needs that was not even on the list for replacement. Will the First Minister tell us why that has happened? Will she also ask the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to meet me so that we can seek a resolution to this concerning matter?
I am sure that the education secretary would be more than happy to discuss those issues with John Finnie. We have increased capital funding for local authorities and have funded additional school projects over and above that. As I said a moment ago, we treat local government fairly within a very tight financial situation and we will continue to do so. It is partly because it is recognised that we have treated local government as fairly as we possibly can that we had the Greens’ support for our budget earlier this year.
Glasgow Kelvin College (Teaching Staff)
Earlier this month, some 40 members of the teaching staff at Glasgow Kelvin College were told that their contracts would be terminated tomorrow. None of the staff or union representatives knew that that was coming. One of the lecturers who are affected has written to me to say:
“My confidence in the college has been completely eroded. These redundancies will taint the learning and teaching experience for the new cohort of students we are due to receive in August. The overall impact of these changes is a blow to the working class communities we serve in our college.”
Come August, there may not be enough staff in place to teach the more than 3,000 students who have already enrolled on courses. Does the First Minister think that that is an acceptable way to treat our college lecturers and their students?
As Patrick Harvie knows, colleges operate independently of Government. They have responsibility for their own staffing provision, and these are operational matters for individual colleges. However, I would expect colleges—as I would expect all employers—to engage meaningfully with trade unions and to treat staff fairly. It is, of course, incumbent on colleges to make sure that they can staff courses properly.
We invest heavily in our colleges. We have met and, in fact, exceeded the commitment that we made on student numbers at our colleges. I am pleased to say that an agreement has just been reached on a pay rise for college lecturers, which I hope is a sign of how much the contribution that they make to our society is valued.
I am glad that the First Minister said that we should expect better treatment from all employers, but colleges are not some part of the private sector that we cannot regulate; they are public services, and the Scottish Government funds and regulates the sector.
Under the terms of the national agreement, many of these lecturers should have been moving on to permanent contracts. This is a cynical move by the college management, and it will prevent those lecturers from achieving their two years’ service and put courses at risk. Ultimately, it will be students who pay the price.
The Scottish Government has a fair work agenda, but the college sector uses casual contracts that can be terminated at a moment’s notice—that is far from unique to Glasgow Kelvin College. The unions—the Educational Institute of Scotland Further Education Lecturers Association and the University and College Union—consider the use of casual contracts to be endemic across the higher and further education sectors. Workers’ rights are being eroded and students will pay the price. Does the Scottish Government accept that it has a responsibility to review the use of such contracts across the further education sector as a matter of urgency?
In general terms, I agree with and have a great deal of sympathy with Patrick Harvie’s comments about casual contracts more generally across the economy. I also strongly endorse the comments that he made about fair work. I am happy to undertake that the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will raise those concerns with the college sector.
However, as I said a moment ago, these are operational matters for individual colleges. The Government’s responsibility is to fund our colleges, and, as Audit Scotland has said, the Scottish Government has been providing colleges with real-terms increases in revenue funding since 2016-17. Colleges are expected to plan and manage their activities within the budgets that we give them.
I am very happy to ask the education secretary to raise the concerns that Patrick Harvie has raised about the use of casual contracts with the college sector, and I am sure that he will be happy to report back once he has done so.
The annual number of suicides was steadily going down, but last year it was at its highest for five years. Among young people, the number of deaths from suicide is up 50 per cent. Mental health services cannot cope—3,000 people waited over a year for treatment. The police cannot cope. The chief constable says that the police are picking up when other services fail. Prisons cannot cope. The parents of Katie Allan blame the culture. What we are currently doing is just not enough, so what more will the First Minister do to stop the number of suicides from rising again next year?
I thank Willie Rennie for raising the issue. The statistics on suicides that were published this week are, of course, a concern not just to me and the Government but to everybody across our society. There is still a longer downward trend in suicide, but that is of no comfort to anybody whose life has been touched by suicide. As, I am sure, everybody would agree, one suicide is one too many, and it is an issue that the Government takes very seriously. We have recently established the national suicide prevention leadership group, which is chaired by the former deputy chief constable, Rose Fitzpatrick, and the suicide prevention action plan was published last year, setting out a range of actions that we are taking.
On the broader question of mental health, we have a situation in which more people are presenting for help with mental health—which we encourage—as the stigma reduces. We need to do two things, and we are working through additional investment in a range of other initiatives to do them. First, we need to make sure that the specialist mental health services are there for people who need them. Secondly, we need to shift the balance of care much more towards prevention. That is particularly important for young people, which is why we have made and are currently implementing commitments around more school counsellors and plans for a new mental wellbeing service for those in the five-to-24 age group.
It is an important area in which the Government is taking, and will continue to take, a range of actions.
I have warned the First Minister for years about this important subject. I will not rehearse the arguments about delayed strategies. It breaks my heart to hear families talk about their loss; such losses affect communities such as mine, in Kelty, where a spate of suicides have occurred in the past month.
All of us in the Parliament have a responsibility to care and to reach out to those who are struggling and ask about their health, but the First Minister has a special responsibility. The Scottish Association for Mental Health has reported today that 5,000 children have been rejected from mental health services. No one should be turned away. That mental health charity has called on the Government
“to immediately implement all ... 29 recommendations they promised to deliver”.
Will the First Minister do that?
I agree with Willie Rennie that, although all of us have a responsibility, I, as the First Minister, have a particular responsibility. I say in all sincerity to him that nobody feels that responsibility more than I do. I take it very seriously, and I have set out the actions that we are taking on suicide and mental health.
Willie Rennie asked about SAMH’s report today about rejected referrals, and we will take forward the recommendations that that report makes. One outcome of the audit of rejected referrals, which reported some months ago, was the establishment of the children and young people’s mental health task force. I understand that, next week, the task force will publish a set of recommendations, which we look forward to receiving. Among other things, those recommendations will help to inform the development of the community mental wellbeing service that I spoke about in my earlier answer.
We work closely with organisations such as SAMH. We always take seriously what they say and we always take seriously their recommendations. That will be the case with the report that has been published today.
The annual Government homelessness statistics, which came out this week, make for pretty grim reading. Almost every homelessness indicator has gone up in the past year—the number of homelessness applications has risen by 3 per cent; the number of homeless children has risen for the fifth year in a row; and, every 17 and a half minutes, a household is made homeless. Shelter Scotland says:
“On an industrial scale, thousands of men, women and children are being denied their most basic right to a safe home.”
For how much longer is the First Minister prepared to tolerate that?
Any rise in homelessness levels is unacceptable, and I am concerned about the statistics that were published this week. The long-term trend in homelessness applications is downward, but we take seriously the recent increase.
The figures that were published this week largely predate the publication of our ending homelessness action plan—the plan was published in November and the statistics cover 2018-19. The plan sets out a range of actions to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping and is backed by £50 million of investment.
I say to Graham Simpson that everybody who knows anything about the subject knows why homelessness applications are increasing. He might not want to take my word for that, so I will quote the United Nations special rapporteur on poverty. The Tories might do well to listen to what the special rapporteur said in his statement on Wales, which has wider applicability. He said:
“There is wide consensus among stakeholders that benefit changes are one of the structural causes behind the increase in poverty, rough sleeping and homelessness”.
The Crisis homelessness monitor report also said that local authorities’ view is that welfare cuts have
“almost all acknowledged that”
“impacts had been mitigated by the Scottish Government”.
We will do everything in our power to tackle homelessness. However, I say to Graham Simpson and to every Tory in the chamber that, instead of coming here and asking the Scottish Government to take more action to mitigate the actions of their Tory Government at Westminster, it would be fitting for them to make a case to their Tory Government for stopping the cuts altogether.
Glasgow Women (Equal Pay)
Today, money starts arriving in the bank accounts of claimants in Glasgow, particularly and principally women who worked for Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council, which discriminated against them by paying them less because of their gender. Will the First Minister join me in welcoming that huge step towards righting that historical wrong and will she extend her thanks to the people who have fought hard for that very fair deal?
I am absolutely delighted that, as of today, women in Glasgow, including many of my constituents, will start to get the money that they were denied for years and years. That was a historical wrong that past administrations of Glasgow City Council failed to put right. I am extremely proud that the Scottish National Party administration in Glasgow has righted that wrong and is, as of today, delivering justice to the women who have been denied it for so long. I put on record my particular pride in Susan Aitken, who has made it a priority from the minute she was elected leader of Glasgow City Council. The women take principal credit for the campaigns that they have waged, but Susan Aitken, as leader of Glasgow City Council, also deserves a lot of credit.
Armed Forces Week
This week has been armed forces week and in Parliament we have seen Glasgow’s helping heroes, one of many organisations that do so much to help our armed forces personnel and veterans. Will the First Minister join me and many others in appreciating the work that our armed forces personnel do for our country, and the work of the many organisations that do so much to support the people who protect us and our veterans?
Yes, absolutely—I am happy to join Maurice Corry in saying a heartfelt thank you to all our armed forces, who work so hard and often sacrifice so much to keep the rest of us safe. I put on record again, as I have done many times before, my thanks to our veterans. We owe a great debt of gratitude and also a great responsibility to them.
As the member said, there are many organisations that do great work to support our veterans. I will name one, in particular: Scotland’s Bravest Manufacturing Company, which I visited a couple of weeks ago. It employs veterans to make signs and, like many other similar organisations, it is doing fantastic work. We should support them as they do so.
Monklands Hospital (Closure)
I supported Nicola Sturgeon’s decision as health secretary in 2007 to stop the downgrading of Monklands accident and emergency services, but today her health secretary has taken a decision to close the whole hospital on its current site. The people of Airdrie and Coatbridge need our hospital in the heart of our community, so will the First Minister order a rethink of that shocking decision, which has been taken just as we are going into recess?
I am not sure whether the member listened to what the health secretary said just before First Minister’s question time started. Elaine Smith supported my decision to save Monklands accident and emergency services from closure, although if it had been down to her party there would be no A and E in Monklands and—who knows?—there might have been no Monklands hospital by now.
Elaine Smith is wrong in what she is saying. There is an absolute commitment on the part of this Government to see a replacement for Monklands hospital built, which, incidentally, will include A and E services. An independent review panel has put forward recommendations around the site. The issue with the current site is that there is not enough room there to build a new hospital. That would require demolition of the existing hospital and would raise lots of issues around patient safety.
Elaine Smith cited the Queen Elizabeth university hospital and the Southern general hospital. The Southern general was able to continue operating while the Queen Elizabeth was being built, which would not be possible on the Monklands site. Therefore, the health secretary has said to NHS Lanarkshire that it must continue consultation on a range of options, including those that have come forward more recently.
Not only has this Government saved A and E services in Monklands hospital; this Government will make sure that there is a replacement for Monklands hospital, serving those communities well into the future. I am not sure that any of that would have happened, had Labour still been on these benches.
In light of the reports today that the couple who did their civic duty and reported the domestic disturbance in the Boris Johnson flat have now had to move out and require security assistance, and in light of the fact that the latest victim of Ruth Davidson’s endorsement, Jeremy Hunt, has admitted that the Tory Government, in contrast to the SNP Government in Scotland, has gone far too far in cutting police numbers, does the First Minister agree that the Tories in the Scottish Parliament are guilty of almost criminal hypocrisy?
I appreciate the question, but I do not think that any of it relates to the First Minister’s responsibilities. I can tell that it is the last day of term.
We will move on to a real question from Stuart McMillan.
General Wellbeing of Adults
To ask the First Minister, in light of the Heriot-Watt University report, “Hard Edges Scotland”, what the Scottish Government is doing to improve the general wellbeing of adults. (S5F-03473)
We welcome the publication of the “Hard Edges Scotland” study, which is an important contribution to understanding how we can better support those with complex needs and who face severe and multiple disadvantage. The study adds further support for the Scottish Government’s preventative approach, which aims to ensure that services reach people earlier to better address mental ill health, substance use, homelessness or issues in life after prison. Our recent mental health, alcohol and drug and homelessness strategies, as well as our focus on adverse childhood experiences and child poverty, show how we are putting adults’ and children’s general wellbeing at the centre of our work. The voice of lived experience is a key part of the study, and public services need to put that experience at the centre of their collective response.
The First Minister will be aware of the challenges in my constituency regarding poverty and drug use. The report notes that, although many people face multiple problems, services are often set up to address single issues. Does the First Minister agree that we should look to strengthen services such as I:DEAS—Inverclyde delivering effective advice and support—in my constituency, which has a person-centred and cross-agency approach, in order to help adults with the support that they require, and that that will become even more important if a no-deal Brexit hits the economy and the cost of living increases?
Yes, I very much agree with that. Treatment and support services must address people’s wider needs in relation to poor mental health, poverty, isolation, employability and homelessness, and the “Hard Edges” study confirms that. We are absolutely committed to tackling poverty in Scotland. In 2019-20, we will continue to invest more than £125 million to mitigate the worst impacts of welfare cuts and to support those on low incomes. Yesterday, we laid our first annual progress report on child poverty, which sets out the steps that we have taken and the further steps that we will take.
Stuart McMillan is absolutely right that the prospect of Brexit, and in particular the potential for a no-deal Brexit, exacerbates all those issues. That is why it is beyond my comprehension that the contenders for the Tory leadership are prepared to contemplate that catastrophic outcome, which shows just how out of touch the Tories are with opinion in Scotland, on that issue and on so much else.
Childhood Vaccination Programmes
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that parents have access to clear and accurate information about childhood vaccination programmes. (S5F-03484)
It is very important that clear and accurate information is made available to those consenting to vaccinations, either for themselves or on behalf of a child. NHS Scotland provides a wide range of information on vaccinations on its websites. Parents and carers are provided with an information pack ahead of scheduled vaccination sessions to ensure that they have access to the information that they need. In Scotland, uptake of the first dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in children up to age five has remained above the 95 per cent target since 2009. However, we are not complacent and we will continue to make every effort to promote and encourage childhood vaccinations.
Research suggests that levels of vaccination tend to be lower among people from less affluent rural areas. NHS Scotland’s vaccination transformation programme identifies a number of possible interventions to address that, including providing greater access to vaccinations in a non-clinical setting. Can the First Minister confirm whether the Scottish Government supports that approach and can she say how the Government will support its implementation?
We support making sure that access is as easy as possible, particularly for those in deprived communities. In fact, our whole health service strategy is about making sure that there is good access to health services for those who live in our poorer communities and in rural communities. That is certainly the case with vaccinations. It is important to stress, as I did a moment ago, that childhood immunisation rates across Scotland remain very high, and we want them to stay that way. We will continue to look at the information that we give and the practical arrangements that we can put in place to ensure that the rates remain at that high level and, indeed, get higher in future.
Budget 2018-19 (Underspend)
To ask the First Minister for what reason the 2018-19 Scottish budget was underspent by £449 million. (S5F-03474)
The finance secretary provided a full statement and a detailed briefing paper to members on 20 June that explained the 2018-19 provisional outturn position. Under the current devolution settlement, the Scottish Parliament is not permitted to overspend its budget and I do not think that it takes too much consideration to understand why we need to plan carefully to make sure that we do not do so.
The underspend, which is part of careful management, represents a tiny fraction of our overall budget and it is carried forward in full through the Scottish reserve, with most of it supporting the 2019-20 Scottish budget. The position also enables us to increase our reserves to ensure that we can respond to future challenges, such as Brexit, and of course every single penny of any underspend is used to support public services in Scotland.
I have to point out that that position is in stark contrast to that of the Labour-led Scottish Executive, which between 1999 and 2007 returned a total of £1.5 billion to the United Kingdom Treasury because it could not work out how to spend it.
Last week, the First Minister told Parliament that every penny in the Scottish budget was accounted for. What she did not—[Interruption.] What she did not tell us, and what we know now, is that nearly £0.5 billion was being kept back in a Scottish Government slush fund.
I agreed with Nicola Sturgeon previously—[Interruption.]
I agreed with Nicola Sturgeon previously when she said that the Tory two-child benefit cap is abhorrent. Therefore, why did the Government not allocate £69 million in the 2019-20 budget from the £449 million underspend to cancel out that horrendous Tory policy?
I am really sorry to say this, but I actually feel quite embarrassed for James Kelly right now. After so many years in the Parliament, that he does not have even a basic grasp of the basic principles of government and budgeting is really quite staggering.
Let me try to explain it simply to James Kelly. Every penny of the underspend, as he describes it, that can be allocated is already allocated in the Scottish budget for this year and not a penny of it goes back to the Treasury. Yes, we put some of it into reserves—I think that doing so is common sense. What if we have a major flooding incident or have to respond to Brexit, as we will undoubtedly have to do? It is commonsense budgeting.
I will leave James Kelly with two final things to ponder over the summer recess. I have already mentioned the first thing—the £1.5 billion that the last Labour Government gave back to the Treasury. The second is this fact: the total cash underspend that was reported this week is 0.9 per cent of our budget. That compares to 1.1 per cent in the previous year, so it has gone down. By comparison, in the same year in which the underspend here was 1.1 per cent, the Labour Party in Wales had an underspend of 2.1 per cent. Like us, it knows that it has to budget sensibly.
All James Kelly has done today is demonstrate why fewer and fewer people in Scotland ever want to see the Labour Party sitting on the Government benches.
As well as a £449 million underspend, according to the Scottish Fiscal Commission, the Scottish Government has a looming £1 billion black hole in its budget. Yesterday, the Fraser of Allander institute told us that the Scottish Government’s £500 million tax raid on hard-working Scottish families will not deliver one extra penny for Scottish public services, because all that money disappears into the black hole.
The finance secretary does not have a clue what to do about the problem. Does the First Minister?
I know that we are about to break for the summer recess, but when I get James Kelly followed by Murdo Fraser, it feels more like Christmas than summer. What a tremendous way to end the year.
There is no black hole in the Scottish budget, as anybody who understands the figures and what the Scottish Fiscal Commission actually said would know. However, let me tell the chamber what would put a black hole in the Scottish budget: Tory tax cuts for the richest in our society, costing £550 million. That is what would put a black hole in the Scottish budget, which is why fewer and fewer people in Scotland want to see the Tories sitting on the Government benches.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. There are no questions to be put as a result of today’s business. I will see you all on Saturday—enjoy the recess.Meeting closed at 13:46.
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