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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 29, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 29 September 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Mental Health Education, Early Learning and Childcare Provision, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Engagements

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00283)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland, including discussions with the cabinet secretary for the economy to follow up on yesterday’s welcome resumption of production at the Dalzell steel plant.

Ruth Davidson

Is the First Minister in favour of shale gas being used in Scotland?

The First Minister

Ruth Davidson is well aware of the Scottish Government’s position. We are taking a cautious, evidence-based approach to shale gas and fracking. That is the right approach, given the range of environmental, health, transport and community impact concerns that have been raised. We have a number of research exercises under way that will report over the next few weeks, followed by a full public consultation. When that has ended, the Scottish Government will come to a considered judgment. Given the seriousness of the issue, that is the right and proper way to proceed.

Ruth Davidson

That is interesting, because the Gemmell report was due out in the summer, and on Saturday it will be October.

Let us set out, for a moment, this Government’s principled stance on shale. For the past year, when it has come to shale gas in this country, the Government has leapt on its high horse, preached about a moratorium and boasted that it is the planet’s best friend. However, when the gas is poured into a tanker and shipped all the way across the Atlantic to our shores, the Government turns a blind eye and hopes that if it ignores it, everybody else will too.

Not surprisingly, the First Minister and her Cabinet have refused absolutely every media opportunity to talk about the issue this week, so I will give her the chance now. Will she explain the Scottish National Party’s total double standards on the matter?

The First Minister

The decision about the import of shale gas to Grangemouth was taken by Ineos, which is a company that is absolutely free to take such decisions. Ineos, of course, is an extremely important company in the Scottish economy.

I appreciate that the Scottish Conservatives’ position on fracking in Scotland is to ride roughshod over local opinion and the range of environmental and other concerns that have been raised. Ruth Davidson is perfectly entitled to argue that position.

I think that it is better to take the evidence-based, precautionary approach that this Government is taking, because we should not play fast and loose with our environment. We will continue to undertake the work that we have set out, the detail of which is well known. When the research projects report, we will embark on a full public consultation. Everybody with any opinion on or interest in the issue, including the Scottish Conservatives, will be able to contribute to that consultation.

When we take account of all the issues involved, we see that that is absolutely the right and responsible way to proceed, and that is what the Scottish Government will continue to do.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister has already ignored her own experts on shale gas. The results of its expert advice in 2014 are on its own website, for everyone to see.

Let me try another question. It is quite possible that shale gas will get the go-ahead in the rest of the United Kingdom soon, if local communities back it. Providers say that if it gets the go-ahead, much of the gas will go to Grangemouth and will end up in the national grid, powering Scottish homes. We could end up with a ban on Scottish gas, but with Scottish homes reliant on English gas to keep the pipes warm. Is the First Minister entirely comfortable with that?

The First Minister

I know that the Scottish Conservatives are a party that is controlled by London but, in the era of devolution, I think that it is right that we take the decisions about fracking in Scotland here in Scotland in our national Parliament, and that is what we will continue to do.

Given the concerns that have been raised domestically in Scotland, in other parts of the United Kingdom and in many other countries, we will continue to take an evidence-based approach. I will leave Ruth Davidson to explain to communities across the central belt of Scotland why her party would choose to ride roughshod over the concerns that have been raised.

From an energy point of view, of course this is an important decision, and it will be considered carefully by the Scottish Government. I thought that Ruth Davidson might want to take the opportunity to talk positively about the record levels of renewable energy that are being generated in Scotland and some of the world-leading projects in tidal energy and offshore wind that are being taken forward here. However, the Tory Government at Westminster is, of course, more interested in undermining renewable energy than it is in supporting it.

We will continue to take decisions that are right for Scotland and right for our future energy needs. As I said, I will leave Ruth Davidson to explain her position to communities across Scotland.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister might want to pick her own questions, but she still has no answer to the one that she is being asked. I am not surprised by that, because she is a First Minister who does not want to admit that her Government’s failure on energy will leave us reliant on others to keep our homes heated. [Interruption.] There are 10,000 jobs in central Scotland that are reliant on shale gas coming here from other countries, but we still have no answers on shale gas at home.

I fully accept that there are differing views on fracking, but nobody is well served by a Government that hides from view and kicks the issue into the long grass. The moratorium was announced nearly two years ago. Her Government has been overtaken by events, because the first tanker of shale gas arrived this week. Will the First Minister give the country some proper answers? When will they be forthcoming?

The First Minister

We set out the timescale for the reviews, and the moratorium is in place while those reviews are under way. The process and timescale were described by Friends of the Earth Scotland as

“a well designed process, over a sensible timescale”,

and I would agree with that.

Being lectured on energy by a representative of the party that is pouring public money into the white elephant that is Hinkley Point is a bit rich. Ruth Davidson has asked a series of questions about energy, but she has somehow managed to forget to mention the statistics that have come out today that show that 2016 is on track to be a record year for renewables generation in Scotland. That is a real success story, and I think that we have just heard that the Scottish Conservatives do not like talking about success stories in Scotland.


National Autistic Society Scotland (Meetings)

2. Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister when she will next meet the National Autistic Society Scotland. (S5F-00309)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I pay tribute to the invaluable work that the National Autistic Society Scotland does to help to support people with autism in our local communities. This month, the Minister for Childcare and Early Years made a speech at the 11th Autism-Europe congress in Edinburgh, and he will soon meet the director of the National Autistic Society Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale

That is hugely welcome—thank you.

The day after May’s election, on the steps of Bute house, the First Minister said:

“We will always respect the people—now and in the future. We simply ask that other parties do likewise.”

Last night, the members of this Parliament—the representatives of the people of Scotland—spoke with one voice on the planned cuts to local national health services. Will the First Minister now respect the will of this Parliament?

The First Minister

Kezia Dugdale raises an important issue. It is important first to emphasise that no decisions have been taken on any of the proposed service changes. It is also important to stress, as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport did yesterday, that there is a well-established and long-standing process in place to consider proposals for service change. The early stages of that process—which Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board is currently engaged in—inform the judgment about whether a particular service change is to be considered major and, therefore, ultimately decided by ministers.

When the long-established process has reached the stage at which that judgment can be made, the health secretary will report it to Parliament. In reaching that judgment, of course she will take account of yesterday’s debate and the decision of the Scottish Parliament.

Kezia Dugdale

We recognise that there is a due process. That is why we are angry that Scottish National Party candidates during the election promised people that the services were safe when they were not. The truth is that the Parliament agreed that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport should call in proposed cuts by health boards in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and the Lothians. That is because the services concerned are vital to communities throughout the country but are now at risk. We are talking about maternity services at the Vale of Leven hospital, the Lightburn hospital in Glasgow, cleft palate services in the Lothians and many more. Now that the Parliament has spoken, will the health secretary immediately call those decisions in and reject the planned cuts?

The First Minister

That is another example of the complete incoherence at the heart of Scottish Labour. Kezia Dugdale says that she recognises that there is a due process. It is a five-stage process. I have a copy here and anybody can read it on the Scottish health council’s website. At a certain stage of that process, the decision about whether a service change is major is taken. When we reach that point, the health secretary will take that decision. She will take account of the Scottish health council’s views and, of course, of the views of this Parliament.

Week in, week out, the Labour Party stands up in the chamber and accuses the Government of undermining local decision making. Today, it stands up and demands that we undermine local decision making. It is an absolute shambles. We will continue to follow due process. We will take no lessons from Labour when it comes to standing up for local health services because, unlike Labour, we have demonstrated time and again a willingness as a Government to block changes when they are not in patients’ interests. When Labour was in government, it sat to one side and allowed services such as the Vale of Leven accident and emergency unit to close.

Labour allowed services to close; this Government protects local services.

Kezia Dugdale

If the First Minister did it then, she could do it now. There is a democratic process at work: it is called the will of the Parliament.

In March, Shona Robison told the Parliament that services at the Royal Alexandra hospital, the Vale of Leven hospital and the Lightburn hospital would be maintained, but each faces major cuts. George Adam said that we were scaremongering when we said that services in Paisley were at risk, but cuts are on their way. Before the election, the SNP told people that their local services were safe. Even the First Minister did it on the front of the Greenock Telegraph.

The Parliament has now said that promises that were made before the election must be delivered. If the vote of the Parliament, which was elected by the people of Scotland, does not make the First Minister keep her promises what will?

The First Minister

Unless Labour is taking the position that local health services never change no matter the change in demand or demographics—and I assume that it is not—it must accept that there is a process through which we go to consider and reach judgments on such changes. That process is long established. It has been in place for years. I have a copy of it here. When we get to the stage in the process at which the health secretary has to decide whether it is major service change, that is what she will do.

I say again that, week after week, the Labour Party accuses the Government of overriding local decision making but, today, it wants us to override local decision making. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

Will members please keep it down?

The First Minister

We will do the right thing. Let us never forget that it is because of this SNP Government that we still have an accident and emergency service in Monklands and in Ayr. Lightburn hospital is still open because we stepped in and prevented its closure. The Vale of Leven emergency services are there only because the Government stopped the trend that Labour had started to remove them completely.

We stand up for local services; Labour used to stand aside while they were closed.

The Presiding Officer

I will take a couple of constituency questions.

Mairi Evans (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

I am sure that the First Minister will share my concern at the news of potential job losses at A G Barr, including at a number of sites in Angus in my constituency, as well as in Cumbernauld. Although consultation on redundancies is still at a very early stage, what support will the Scottish Government give to assist the business and the staff who are affected at this challenging time?

The First Minister

Of course, I was disappointed to learn of potential job losses at A G Barr. This will obviously be an anxious time for the company’s employees, their families and the local communities in both Forfar and Cumbernauld. Scottish Enterprise is working closely with the company to understand any potential impacts on the two Scottish sites and to establish where and how they can support the sites and the workforce. In the unfortunate and, I hope, avoidable event that any redundancies proceed, the Scottish Government stands ready to assist those who are affected through our partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—initiative, which helps people who are faced with redundancy. The economy secretary will be happy to engage with the local members of Parliament as the situation becomes clearer.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

The First Minister will be aware that Highlands and Islands Enterprise, like the Highlands and Islands Development Board before it, plays a valuable role in the Highlands because of its dual remit of promoting both economic and community benefit. She will also be aware of press speculation regarding its future. Can she give an assurance that those two important functions will continue to be discharged by HIE in the Highlands and Islands?

The First Minister

Yes. Highlands and Islands Enterprise does a fantastic job. It has done a fantastic job over the past 50 years and I give the member an assurance that we will make sure that it is in a position to continue to carry out those functions and provide its excellent services to the Highlands of Scotland.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The First Minister may be aware that, earlier this week, agreement was reached between Orkney Islands Council and Historic Environment Scotland that will allow Maeshowe, in my constituency, to be reopened. As Maeshowe is an absolutely key component of Orkney’s world heritage site, its closure would have had a disastrous effect on the local tourism industry. Does she accept that a planned shuttle bus service can be only a temporary solution, and will she encourage Historic Environment Scotland to act on the planning permission that it already has for a visitor centre, car park and pedestrian underpass, so that Orkney’s world-class attractions are served by world-class facilities?

The First Minister

Yes, I am happy to encourage those discussions to continue. The health and safety of both visitors and staff at Maeshowe are obviously of the utmost importance, so I welcome the collaboration between Historic Environment Scotland and Orkney Islands Council on the project. They have worked hard to develop an interim solution, and they continue to work towards a sustainable long-term solution to enhance and enrich the tourism offer in Orkney. I know that Liam McArthur will continue to be very closely engaged with the issue and I am happy to ensure that the relevant minister corresponds with him as the situation develops. One thing that is certain is that Maeshowe is one of the world-class attractions in Orkney, and we want to do everything possible to ensure that it continues to be so.


Cabinet (Meetings)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00289)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

On Tuesday.

Patrick Harvie

One of the first debates that the Parliament had when we returned from the summer break was about refugees. The First Minister and her colleagues backed a Green amendment that called for the devolution of the accommodation and support services that asylum seekers in our communities need. Since then, the most significant change that we have seen, which was announced in a press release from Serco, is that it will be taking over from Orchard & Shipman the provision of accommodation services.

What involvement or communication did the Scottish Government have with those private sector providers or with the United Kingdom Government in advance of that decision? What was the Scottish Government’s awareness? Has the Scottish Government been able to influence the decision at all, and what is the First Minister’s response to it?

The First Minister

We have said before that we are deeply concerned about the continuing allegations about the standards of asylum seeker accommodation and about allegations of the mistreatment of asylum seekers. As Patrick Harvie knows and indicated in his question, asylum seeker accommodation is a reserved matter—these are not our decisions. We frequently make our views on such matters known to the UK Government, but the decisions are taken by the UK Government. I would very much like the decisions to be devolved to this Parliament.

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities is due to meet the UK Minister of State for Immigration early next month—in the next two weeks, I think—and will raise the issues with him. I understand that the communities secretary will also meet the Scottish Refugee Council later today, when, I am sure, the issues will be raised as well.

The issues are of the utmost importance because they go to the heart of how we treat some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I assure the Parliament that we will continue to press very strongly with the UK Government the case for dignity in how we treat asylum seekers.

Patrick Harvie

I welcome that response. Again, I encourage the Scottish Government to be proactive in putting together a public sector bid to take on the provision of the services. We know that the Scottish public sector and Scottish non-governmental organisations and charities can provide them to a higher standard of dignity than is being provided at present.

The UK Government is putting pressure on Scottish local authorities to expand the asylum seeker dispersal programme. That may well be a legitimate goal, but it has to be done in a decent way, involving negotiation and respect, with communities and local authorities. If that expansion happens, the Scottish Government will have a role, because designation orders to achieve that UK objective will require the Scottish ministers’ consent. Will the First Minister use the purchase that the Scottish Government now has on the issue to the maximum to advocate for an asylum seeker dispersal programme that meets the needs of people on the basis of respecting their humanity, while ensuring that local authorities are provided with resources to provide the service to a high standard and that those services are brought back into the public sector as a matter of urgency?

The First Minister

The short answer is yes, but I suspect that Patrick Harvie wants me to give a slightly longer answer. Our position and principle have always been that asylum seeker accommodation should be provided in the public sector. I am certainly happy, together with Angela Constance, to consider Patrick Harvie’s suggestion of a public sector bid and to consider whether that would be feasible. I am happy to engage further with him on that.

On the question about asylum seeker dispersal, we will use whatever influence we have to the maximum to ensure that the arrangements for looking after asylum seekers are as humane and dignified as we would all want them to be. We have considerable experience from the programme for welcoming Syrian refugees to Scotland. Many of them went to areas other than Glasgow, and there was good engagement with local authorities through our task force and other agencies to ensure that all the support arrangements were in place. We have some useful experience to bring to bear.

I am happy to ask Angela Constance to engage with Patrick Harvie about some of the detail that underlies the issues, but I end by giving an assurance that we will always seek to act on the issue in a way that prioritises the humanity and dignity of the support that we give asylum seekers here in Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

There are a number of supplementary questions.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The First Minister will be aware of the reported crime statistics that were published this week. Although they show a welcome overall drop in crime, there is a worrying increase in sexual crimes. That is partly because more victims are prepared to come forward, but there are growing concerns that there are more and more sexual crimes involving young people, particularly online, such as those that relate to the sharing of images and videos. I ask the First Minister to consider the call from Rape Crisis Scotland for more support for its sexual violence prevention project, so that it can reach every secondary school in the country.

The First Minister

We will consider that. We work closely with Rape Crisis Scotland. Claire Baker is absolutely right to say that we should in no way be complacent about the trend in sexual offences. Particularly in these days of social media and online activity, there is a real need to prioritise education and awareness.

I am sure that Claire Baker will recognise the point that I am about to make. There is a sense and a suspicion that, in years gone by, sexual offences were underreported. A lot of work has therefore gone into encouraging and supporting people to come forward and report sexual offences.

Claire Baker mentioned Rape Crisis Scotland. Earlier this week, when the statistics were published, the national co-ordinator of Rape Crisis Scotland said:

“It is important that people have confidence in reporting sexual crime. Changes introduced by Police Scotland in recent years have transformed how sexual crime is investigated in Scotland. It is likely that at least some of the increase in recorded sexual crime is due to people having more confidence to report what has happened to them.”

We should welcome that and we should continue to give people that confidence, but Claire Baker is absolutely right that we should not take our eye off the ball regarding some of the underlying trends. I will ensure that her specific suggestion is followed up.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

There were reports this morning that the United Kingdom Government has spent £65 million on establishing Brexit departments, but it seems still to have no plan in place. Does the First Minister agree that it is time for the Prime Minister to set out exactly what Brexit means?

The First Minister

Yes—I do. We are now more than three months on from the referendum and we have no greater clarity today than we had on 23 June about exactly what Brexit means. The United Kingdom Government and the Prime Minister in particular have to start to set out the detail of that extremely soon. I am not the only one making such comments. I noticed that two Conservative MPs—Ken Clarke and Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary—made similar comments today. The latter said that, if the UK Government does not start to define what Brexit means, other people will do that for it.

The UK Government needs to get a grip. I want the UK to take a negotiating position that keeps us in the single market. I know that Ruth Davidson used to support that position, but I do not think that she does any more, as she has become a bit of a born-again Brexiteer. Nevertheless, I hope that common sense will prevail. We need to start seeing the detail, and soon.

Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

In light of the £5 million General Medical Council investigation into the conduct of eight consultants at Aberdeen royal infirmary clearing all eight of wrongdoing, what action will the First Minister take to reform management practices in NHS Grampian?

The First Minister

The concerns that were raised were investigated in the normal way by the General Medical Council and a conclusion has been reached. Obviously, it is for the local health board to consider the conclusions and learn any lessons from them. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will ensure that that happens and will be happy to correspond with the member if he has any further questions on the issue.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

As the Scottish National Party Government has stepped in to save Scotland’s steel industry, Ferguson’s shipyard and Prestwick airport from closure, and as it has invested in support for oil and gas workers, does the First Minister agree that it is high time for the UK Government to step up and take decisive action on exploration and development in the North Sea, or else to take the blame for one of the most shameful betrayals in Scotland’s industrial history?

The First Minister

Yes—I agree. [Laughter.] This is actually quite an important matter and a serious issue for the oil and gas sector in Scotland, and I think that people should perhaps show it slightly more respect.

Earlier this week, Oil & Gas UK published a report that showed the work that the oil and gas industry has done to reduce its costs and become more efficient so that it can be sustainable and, it is hoped, competitive in an era of low oil prices. Last Monday, I visited Aberdeen and met Oil & Gas UK to discuss in more detail the work that has been done. One of the key themes that came through in that meeting and is coming through in much of what we hear about the sector is the need for further support for exploration, because today’s exploration is the production of tomorrow. As we saw in the report this week, there are still potentially 20 billion barrels of oil to be exploited in the North Sea. However, unless the exploration happens now, there is a danger that we will not get the benefit of that.

I call on the UK Government to do what it has done previously and announce in advance of the autumn statement additional investment in exploration so that we can continue to support the oil and gas sector as it comes through these difficult times.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Given the number of the First Minister’s Westminster colleagues who are now helping the police with their inquiries, is she confident that Police Scotland has the resources to deal with this upsurge in its workload?

The First Minister

As the member is aware, we have committed to real-terms protection of the police revenue budget, which will ensure that Police Scotland has an additional £100 million to spend over this parliamentary session. That is a particular achievement when we consider that, since 2010, the Conservative Government in London has cut our budget by 5 per cent in real terms.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

Can the First Minister explain how any political party can claim to be autonomous from London while relying on money from London to keep it afloat?

The First Minister

I do not think that any political party that relies on its London parent party for funding can claim to be autonomous. That seems to be a contradiction in terms.


Brexit (Reciprocal Healthcare Arrangements)

4. Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what representations the Scottish Government will make to the United Kingdom Government to ensure that reciprocal healthcare arrangements are a priority in Brexit negotiations. (S5F-00307)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We understand the importance of European Union healthcare arrangements that allow Scots to receive necessary healthcare using the European health insurance card in the event of illness and accident while travelling in the European economic area. We also recognise the considerable benefits of being able to travel in the EEA for planned treatment under the S2 scheme and of our state pensioners receiving state healthcare under the S1 scheme when they choose to live in other EEA countries. We will therefore make it absolutely clear to the UK Government that citizens must retain the right to access healthcare in Europe under the various schemes, and I am of the view that that must be treated as a priority in Brexit negotiations when they finally take place.

Tom Arthur

I am sure that members across the chamber share my astonishment at hearing that the Tory Government made no contingency plans for the future of the European health insurance card service, as it potentially means hefty medical bills for Scots travelling abroad. Three months on from the EU referendum, has the First Minister had assurances on any services, benefits or rights to which we are currently entitled as members of the EU and the single market and on how the UK Government is working to ensure that we do not lose out on them?

The First Minister

As I think has become abundantly clear in the three months since the referendum, the UK Government did no contingency planning for any aspect of Brexit. I think that that was a shameful abdication of its responsibility.

On the specific issue, we have to date had no assurances from the UK Government on the future of the services, benefits or rights to which Scots are currently entitled as members of the EU and the single market. That uncertainty is disconcerting to our businesses, universities, farmers, fishermen and the Scottish people in general, and it is why we will continue to work as hard as we can to protect the interests of Scotland and the people of Scotland as these discussions progress.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Given that reciprocal healthcare depends very much on healthcare that is actually provided in this country and given what the First Minister said earlier about healthcare, is she aware that the decision to remove orthopaedic and trauma services from Monklands hospital, which was one of the downgrading options that she stopped 10 years ago, was made in July with no public consultation? Will she now call in that decision in line with the will of the Scottish Parliament and try to stop that downgrading?

The Presiding Officer

I am sorry, but I am not sure that that is a supplementary on Europe or the Brexit talks.


Police Scotland (Finances)

5. Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the comment by the chief constable that it will

“take a two-to-three-year adjustment period”

to balance Police Scotland’s finances. (S5F-00310)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As I announced in December and indeed mentioned a few moments ago, we are protecting the police resource budget in real terms in every year of this session of Parliament, which means a boost of more than £100 million by 2021. The Scottish Government is in regular dialogue with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority on the police budget and the steps that are being taken to manage current pressures.

Douglas Ross

The cancellation of the i6 project, the cost of which has been estimated at £60 million, was announced hours after Parliament rose for the summer recess, even though the Scottish Government was made aware of its termination two weeks before that. Does the First Minister agree that the shambolic failure of that project undermines the great effort of police officers and staff across the country, who are dealing with ever greater demands, including the challenges of dealing with a growing elderly population?

The First Minister

No, I do not. Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority take decisions that they consider to be appropriate, and let us not forget that our police do a fantastic—and very difficult—job. As we have seen from the crime statistics earlier this week, recorded crime in Scotland is now at a 42-year low, and we should thank every single police officer across our country for that. We will continue to work closely with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority to ensure that pressures on their budgets can be properly managed, and the protection that I have already mentioned will, of course, help protect front-line policing services.

However, as I said a moment ago to Murdo Fraser, it beggars belief that Conservative MSPs raise in this chamber issues of public spending when the Conservative Government at Westminster has reduced our budget by 5 per cent in real terms since 2010. Indeed, as we have seen in the Fraser of Allander institute report, it looks likely to cut our budget by up to £1.6 billion over the rest of this session. If Tory MSPs want to make a case for well-funded public services, I suggest that they start doing so with their colleagues at Westminster.

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

Would the Conservatives not be better to challenge their own Government to return the £75 million of VAT that has been paid by Police Scotland, which is the only police service in the whole of the UK that has VAT levied on it?

The First Minister

Christine Grahame is absolutely right. Police Scotland is the only police force in the whole of the UK that has VAT levied on it. If the Conservatives at Westminster want to ease the burden on Police Scotland, they could do so at the stroke of a pen by reimbursing the VAT payments, and I call on them to do that.


National Strategy for Survivors of Childhood Abuse

6. Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to calls by those working with abuse survivors for an urgent investigation into the direction of the national strategy for survivors of childhood abuse. (S5F-00304)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are absolutely committed to preventing and tackling child abuse, and we have consistently engaged with survivors and support organisations across the country to inform our policy, and to shape services and support. Our current framework builds on the original Survivor Scotland strategy of valuing support groups, and it responds to the most recent evidence on the impact of child abuse. It specifically responds to what survivors have told us matters most to them. We will, of course, continue to engage with the organisations that have raised concerns to understand their views more fully, and to ensure that everybody has an accurate and up-to-date picture of the current approach and evidence base for our strategy.

Iain Gray

These are difficult and sensitive issues, but they have to be addressed and every day seems to bring fresh concerns. When some of the leaders in the field tell us that the national strategy for survivors of sexual abuse has lost its direction and deviated from the original survivor strategy, and when they have described the key body, Survivor Scotland, as “unacceptable and unethical”, it is not enough for the First Minister to provide simple reassurance. We have heard serious allegations against the head of survivor support in the Scottish Government, and we have seen the resignation of two out of three panel members of the historical abuse inquiry amid allegations of Government interference. I do not doubt the sincerity of Government efforts to get this right, but the First Minister must accept that, as far as survivors are concerned, the Government is getting it wrong. Will she personally investigate that and take the action that is required to correct it?

The First Minister

Of course I will continue to take a personal interest in these issues. The Deputy First Minister has ministerial responsibility for these issues and, as we have seen in the chamber in recent weeks, takes them extremely seriously.

Iain Gray referred to the independent inquiry, and I take the opportunity to stress the independence from Government of that inquiry. The Deputy First Minister has appointed Lady Smith to chair it. She is a respected judge whose appointment, I think, removes completely any suggestion of anything other than complete independence.

On the other points that Iain Gray raised, we take these complex and sensitive issues very seriously. When I answered his original question, I took care to say to him that we will engage with the organisations that have raised those concerns to understand them more fully. Without going into detail, at this stage we would not agree with all the concerns, but we want to ensure that we understand them so that we can respond properly to them.

We will continue to engage with survivors and survivors groups so that we ensure that the arrangements that we have in place for support of survivors are the right arrangements that take full account of the impact of abuse on survivors.

We take the matter hugely seriously. These are never going to be easy issues to get complete consensus of opinion on but we will strive, each and every day, to do our best to achieve that.


Teacher Vacancies

7. Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on reports that there were 729 teacher vacancies the week before the start of the 2016-17 school term. (S5F-00311)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Well, there were not. The figure of 729 teacher vacancies is wrong. To get that figure, Tavish Scott included 200 vacancies in Argyll and Bute.

As of 9 August—the date of the Liberal Democrats’ freedom of information request that resulted in that figure—there were not 200 vacancies in Argyll and Bute; there were 12. I also understand that yesterday the Lib Dem convener of education in Argyll and Bute informed Tavish Scott of that. I hope that he will take the opportunity today to correct the record. What is more, in the time since the Lib Dem FOI request, many vacancies that did exist will have been filled.

All that said, we all want schools to have the right number of teachers with the right skills so that every child has the opportunity to fulfil their potential, and that is exactly what we continue to work to achieve.

Tavish Scott

I understand that those figures are of course correct, but I do not think that it is fair to blame a junior FOI officer in Argyll and Bute Council, which is the implication of the line that the First Minister has just taken.

Does the First Minister accept that there were 500 teaching vacancies at the start of the school term and that the steady increase in the numbers of teachers leaving the profession is a cause for concern? Does she know that, yesterday, Keir Bloomer, the architect of curriculum for excellence—the way in which we teach our children in schools—said that the system is bedevilled by red tape, which he described as “self-evident lunacy”? In those circumstances, will the First Minister not look to the General Teaching Council for Scotland or the Government to investigate the reasons behind the number of teacher vacancies?

The First Minister

First, I did not blame anybody, other than perhaps Tavish Scott; I simply made the point that the figure that he had used previously was wrong and that he knew it was wrong. I thought that, given that he had just repeated it in Parliament, he might have wanted to take the opportunity to acknowledge that it was wrong.

At the start or before the start of school terms, there will be vacancies and they will reduce in number as we go into the school term. The figure of around 500 that Tavish Scott has now quoted will already have reduced. Of course, we continue to work with local authorities to keep teacher vacancies to an absolute minimum and to ensure that we have the right numbers of teachers in our schools.

On the comments by Keir Bloomer, with the greatest of respect, I would say that that is exactly why John Swinney has been working as hard as he has been in recent weeks to reduce the bureaucracy and unnecessary workload that teachers face and of course to commence the governance review, which will take a long hard look at exactly how our schools are governed. The Government is getting on with the reforms that we need in our schools, and I hope that we have the support of members from across the chamber as we do so.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Can the First Minister tell us when the GTCS reforms that will allow people who have qualified as teachers in other countries to teach in Scotland will come into force?

The First Minister

I am happy to provide the precise information to the member. We are absolutely determined, as part of the work that we are taking forward, to ensure that the arrangements that we have in place through the General Teaching Council support our objective of getting the brightest and best people into teaching in Scotland. We are committed to doing that. I do not have the details of the question to hand, but I will ensure that they are provided to the member very soon after today’s session.

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Dundee suffered chronic teacher shortages last year. This year, the vacancies in primary schools are exclusively in schools in the most deprived areas of our city. Council officials tell me that there is significant underrecruitment to teacher training. Why is that, when there is such an impact on children and their education?

The First Minister

We have continued to work to expand teacher training. We have of course provided funding to local authorities to maintain the number of teachers in our schools, and we will continue to work hard to ensure that we get the right numbers of teachers into our schools. A range of initiatives has been taken to address particular shortages in particular areas. For example, we spoke earlier about the difficulties in the oil and gas sector in the north-east of Scotland, and one initiative that has been taken forward there is to help train former oil and gas workers in teaching to get them into our schools. A range of initiatives is under way to ensure that we have the right numbers of teachers in our schools. As I have said repeatedly in the chamber, making sure that we have the best education system in the world for all our young people, whatever their background, is the Government’s top priority.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time.