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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 31, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 31 May 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Edinburgh City Bypass (A720), Portfolio Question Time, Medium-term Financial Strategy, Housing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Priorities

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

The First Minister is in every paper today for spending her time on social media, defending her independence blueprint from attacks by her own supporters. That is in a week in which we have seen rising waiting lists at hospitals, fewer young people from deprived backgrounds going to university and violent crime on the increase. Does the First Minister wonder why the people of Scotland question her priorities?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We have seen an increase in the number of young people from our most deprived communities going to university—that is very clear from the most recent Universities and Colleges Admissions Service statistics. It is also the case that, despite the significant challenges that our national health service faces, it is performing “brilliantly”. That is the word that was used by Ruth Davidson just two days ago.

If Ruth Davidson wants me to give some highlights from—what did she call it?—the day job, I will be delighted to indulge her. I will take her through what I have been engaged in over the past 24 hours or so. I have announced Scottish Government investment of £5 million in a new subsea engineering centre of excellence in Montrose. I have set out the next steps in the creation of the new national manufacturing institute. I have had separate discussions with three major inward investors to Scotland in the areas of energy, tourism and low-carbon technology.

I will widen the picture out to the Government overall. It has extended the scheme to tackle period poverty with £0.5 million of investment and has announced an end to child burial fees. It has led the way in taking action to tackle plastic use, it has had a new Islands (Scotland) Bill passed and it has confirmed funding for the Stirling and Clackmannanshire growth deal, putting in more money than the United Kingdom Government is putting in.

Ruth Davidson may like to hear something about the past 10 days or so. We have announced additional investment in the Clyde Gateway, to create new jobs, and a new £100 minimum school clothing grant, which will help 120,000 families across the country. We have announced an additional £50 million to tackle waiting times, we have published the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill and the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill, and we have announced a £7 million investment in projects to help fishing fleets and coastal communities as well as a new £7.5 million innovation fund for new approaches to tackling child poverty.

Would Ruth Davidson like me to go on, or is that enough for her? I am not sure what Ruth Davidson has been doing for the past few days, but that is what the Scottish Government has been doing.

Ruth Davidson

As far as the country can see, the only result of the past 10 days’ activity to restart the independence debate is that the First Minister has had to firefight because her own supporters are fighting among themselves, which I am not sure is what she intended. The truth is that we have a First Minister whose prime concern seems to be to appease her own independence army rather than to govern Scotland. [Interruption.] They do not like to hear it, but it is true.

We already know that we have had some of the worst NHS waiting times ever and that access to education is being restricted. I will ask the First Minister about another area of responsibility that deserves her attention. On a scale of one to 10, how satisfied does she think rural Scotland is with the actions that her Government has taken?

The First Minister

The country can see all the initiatives that I have just outlined. The question for Ruth Davidson is this: if she does not want us to talk about independence, why is she using her weekly opportunity at First Minister’s question time to raise the topic herself? Is it not the case that Ruth Davidson loves nothing more than talking about the constitution because she has got nothing else to talk about and she does not want the positive case for independence to be heard?

Ruth Davidson asked me about rural communities. I hope that she was listening to the long list of initiatives that I outlined, because she would have heard me talk about the £7 million investment in projects to help fishing fleets in coastal communities. We are working hard to ensure the delivery of common agricultural policy payments, having already made loans to most farmers, and we will continue to deliver for rural communities across Scotland. Yesterday, in this chamber, we passed the Islands (Scotland) Bill to help our island communities. We will continue to deliver for rural communities, island communities and all communities across Scotland.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister just mentioned CAP payments. That was bold. Let me tell her what farmers are saying. Jim Walker, the former head of NFU Scotland, made his feelings clear yesterday. [Interruption.] SNP members might not want to hear what Jim Walker has to say, but I think that the chamber should listen.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

One second, Ms Davidson. There is too much noise in the chamber today. Please let us hear the questions and the answers.

Ruth Davidson

Let us listen to what Jim Walker has to say. Three years on from the introduction of the Government’s botched farm payments system, almost half of Scotland’s farmers are still waiting to be paid what they are owed. Mr Walker says:

“This is a national scandal of epic proportions and taxpayers in Scotland are footing an ever increasing bill.”

He goes on to say that the First Minister is presiding over

“the biggest funding scandal in modern Scottish history”.

Perhaps, rather than pulling us all back to theoretical debate about what currency we might use, the First Minister should concentrate a bit more on paying Scotland’s farmers the actual currency that they are owed.

The First Minister

Let us run through some of the facts. We have made basic payment scheme loan payments worth more than £314 million to 13,577 businesses, and the loan payments were made before the CAP payment window opened on 1 December last year. Almost 75 per cent of farmers have received 90 per cent of the support that they are entitled to under the basic payment scheme. We have paid £217 million in basic payments, 63 per cent of businesses have now been paid and we are working hard to meet the target by the end of June.

Perhaps the most pressing question that is faced by farmers in Scotland and right across the United Kingdom—Ruth Davidson’s UK Government colleagues cannot answer it, but perhaps she can—is what will happen to CAP payments after the Tories have dragged us out of the European Union.

Ruth Davidson

They have been guaranteed.

Let me tell the First Minister what Jim Walker is saying—I will answer her directly with this:

“Enough is enough. It is time to call a halt to this pantomime. Why should suppliers and farmers bank roll a sector amongst ourselves while our own government sits on our money.

This is the responsibility of the First Minister who is ultimately responsible for the proper use of public funds on our behalf.”

It is not just Scotland’s farmers who are being let down. Here is the reality of the Scottish Government’s record. This week, we learned that 17,000 people in a single month have waited beyond the six-week deadline for diagnostic tests, including tests for cancer; that it has become harder for young people from our poorest communities to get a place at university; and that communities right across Scotland are suffering from rising levels of antisocial behaviour and violent crime. Those are the important issues that the people of Scotland really care about. Why are the only folk who are getting any of the First Minister’s attention not patients, students or victims of crime but her own independence supporters?

The First Minister

I am afraid that the fact that Ruth Davidson wishes that to be the case does not make it true.

Ruth Davidson knows that she is wrong about access to higher education. The most up-to-date statistics on access to university show that there has been a 12 per cent increase in the number of 18-year-olds from our most deprived communities who are going to university. At all ages, the increase is 13 per cent. Figures that were published this week show that more care-experienced young people are going into higher education and that there are improved retention rates among the young people from our deprived communities who go to university.

We are also putting more money into the NHS, in the week in which Ruth Davidson admitted that the biggest risk to our health service is the preference of the Tories for tax cuts over investment in our public services. Perhaps this is a good moment to remind Ruth Davidson that, if we had taken her advice when we passed our budget for this financial year and had given tax cuts to the rich instead of investing in our NHS, we would have £500 million less to spend. That is equivalent to 12,000 nurses in our NHS. We will continue to invest while the Tories continue to do all the damage that Ruth Davidson has at least had the grace to admit to this week.


Radiology Services

2. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Presiding officer,

“Radiology services in Scotland are in need of resuscitation ... this matters because when radiology fails, the health service fails”.

We are now

“witnessing a national radiology service that is starting to crumble.”

Those are not my words; they are the words this week of Dr Grant Baxter, the head of the Royal College of Radiologists in Scotland. I ask the First Minister: is Dr Baxter wrong?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We will continue to work with clinicians such as Dr Baxter to address the challenges that our national health service is facing. In the statistics published this week on diagnostic tests, there are eight diagnostic tests, and if we look at the four radiology tests, we see performance of over 90 per cent, in terms of meeting the target. Endoscopy test performance is not as good as that, which is why the health secretary has outlined further action this week.

We know that our NHS is facing significant extra demand. The demand, for example, for out-patient appointments has gone up by 10 per cent in the past decade. This is not unique to Scotland, but is a challenge that health services across the world are facing. That is why we are taking action to invest more in our health service. We are investing record sums: we will invest an additional £2 billion over this parliamentary session, and just this week the health secretary announced £50 million of additional funding to help to tackle waiting times.

We are also taking steps to reform our health service, to shift the balance of care and to do more to recruit into key specialties. We will continue to take that action—it is action that is needed and we are determined to continue to take it.

Richard Leonard

The action that is being taken is not working. Dr Baxter goes on to say:

“Waiting times continually increase—largely due to imaging backlogs—cancers go undiagnosed, patients cannot be treated as their scans are not reported on time, patients’ anxiety and worry over pending scan reports can last for weeks and months”.

These are real lives, First Minister, and this is about the fear of having to wait for a cancer diagnosis, the anxiety and trauma of a longer-than-necessary wait for treatment, and the difference between early and late diagnosis.

The Government has a target that patients should not wait longer than six weeks for these tests, yet, just two days ago, it was revealed that one in five patients is now waiting too long. Can Nicola Sturgeon tell the chamber what that figure was when she became First Minister?

The First Minister

As I have already said, there are challenges around diagnostic tests, but I would encourage Richard Leonard to look at the detail of the figures. For the four radiology tests, performance against the target is above 90 per cent.

When it comes to scopes, performance is not as good as we want it to be. That is why, this week, the health secretary has announced action that Bowel Cancer UK has described as an

“important announcement”

that is

“a step in the right direction”.

We have also invested an additional £5 million to support access to diagnostics for suspected cancer patients. Of course, health boards assure the Scottish Government that where somebody is suspected of having cancer, they are treated as a priority and within six weeks. In fact, the vast majority of cancer patients are seen within two to three weeks.

The 62-day standard for cancer is an important one. Once a decision has been made to treat, the average wait for cancer treatment is only six days. Where there are issues—and we are very frank about where those issues are—the Government will continue to take action to address them.

If we look at in-patient and day-case waiting times over the decade that the SNP has been in Government, the overall numbers are up, but the number of people waiting more than 12 weeks is down by 30 per cent and the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks is down by 43 per cent.

We will continue to invest and we will continue to carry out the reforms to how our health service delivers care, which will mean that patients are treated in the way that they deserve to be.

Richard Leonard

One in 13 patients waited too long when Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister. Today, it is one in five. That is a 171 per cent increase in the number of patients waiting too long—patients waiting for diagnostic tests and investigations, including for cancer. That is what the people of Scotland want the First Minister to focus on, not promoting another divisive referendum or taking to Twitter to defend the decade of cuts and austerity that would come with leaving the UK.

There are serious problems in our national health service and they are growing. Labour raises them in this Parliament week after week. The SNP, however, is expending more energy on its cuts commission than cutting NHS waiting times. When is the First Minister going to stop putting nationalism before the national health service? [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

That is quite enough, please.

The First Minister

Richard Leonard has just shown his true colours. It is interesting, is it not, that the only people to have mentioned independence in the chamber today are the better together parties. That speaks volumes.

This is the week in which the health secretary has announced extra action, which has been welcomed by Bowel Cancer UK. It is the week in which the health secretary has announced the investment of an additional £50 million to tackle waiting times. When we made similar investment last year, it had an impact on out-patient waiting times. The recent statistics this week show improvement in out-patient waiting times and we will target this investment on in-patient waiting times.

We will continue to take the action on health, education and the whole range of issues that I have spoken about today. We will leave the better together parties to speak about whatever they want.

The Presiding Officer

There is a lot of interest in asking questions today. The first constituency question is from Bruce Crawford.


Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

Does the First Minister agree that it is great news that the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal heads of terms were signed this morning in Stirling? The total package of £95.2 million includes an additional £5 million from the Scottish Government for infrastructure projects at Callander and Kildean.

Does the First Minister also agree that the United Kingdom Government has overpromised and underdelivered, given that the Scottish Government will invest £50 million in real terms over 10 years, while the UK Government will invest only £40 million over 15 years, once the notional £5 million valuation for MOD Forthside is discounted?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, it is very welcome that the Stirling and Clackmannanshire deal has been agreed today. It will be good for that area, and credit is due to Bruce Crawford and others who campaigned so hard for it.

We had hoped to see a UK Government investment of £58 million. That was what we were prepared to commit. That is what the Scottish Government has committed. It is disappointing that the UK Government has committed to significantly less. The Scottish Government’s overall commitment to city region deals now stands at £1.3 billion, compared with just £1 billion for the UK Government. We will continue to encourage the UK Government to do more, but we will not hold back in giving those cities and regions the investment that they deserve.


Immigration Policy

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

The First Minister is aware of my constituent Denzel Darku, who faces the prospect of deportation and huge uncertainty about his future.

Denzel is a young man who has built his life in Paisley, who was once a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, a Commonwealth games baton-bearer and a student nurse who wants to work in our NHS, but who is also the victim of bogus migration targets and the Home Office’s hostile environment policy. He has contributed a huge amount to this country and he wants to stay in Scotland and the UK, so that he can contribute even more. Given the reaction of many people in my community and across the country, it is clear that people want him to stay here, too.

Will the First Minister make clear to the Home Office the impact that its immigration policies are having on young people in Denzel’s position. Does the First Minister agree that there can be no justification for driving a young man such as Denzel away from the place that he calls home? [Applause.]

Members: Shame!

The Presiding Officer

Order, please.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The complete lack of support that the Tories have just shown for a young man who has Scotland as his home and who wants to continue to have Scotland as his home says everything that we need to know about the Conservative Party today. Shame on them.

I am aware of the case of Denzel Darku. I have met Denzel in the past. He is a fine young man and he is an absolute credit to Scotland. It is outrageous, scandalous and a disgrace that he is threatened with deportation. We should be trying to attract more young people of his calibre to Scotland, not chase them away. Denzel wants to be a nurse in our national health service. How many times do the Tories stand up in this chamber and complain about matters in our national health service? How many times do they stand up and complain about staffing shortages in our health service? However, the Tories want to deport a young man who wants to contribute to our national health service. Ruth Davidson is saying from a sedentary position that she did not agree with the targets, but she wants Scotland to remain locked into those immigration targets that are so damaging to our economy and society. The immigration policies of the Tories are disgraceful.

I will do everything that I can to make the case for Denzel Darku and to argue that case, as I am sure that Neil Bibby, as the MSP who has taken up the case, will do. However, we need more than action in one case; we need a change to immigration policy and a more humane policy that recognises the needs of our country. That is what all of us should be campaigning and arguing for.


Visitor Levy

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

Will the First Minister’s Government bring forward legislation to enable the city of Edinburgh to become a normal European city by having the power to introduce a visitor levy or tax?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We will continue to consider such issues in the context of our budget planning. I encourage the member to discuss that issue, as I am sure that he has done in the past, with the finance secretary. It is not currently a proposal that the Scottish Government is putting forward, but of course we will continue to listen to representations made.


Policing (Ayrshire)

John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

What additional support might the Scottish Government be able to provide to hard-pressed police in Ayrshire after up to 2,000 young people arrived, mostly by train, at Troon on bank holiday Monday and caused alcohol-related disturbances on the beach?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, it is regrettable if young people behave in a way that results in antisocial behaviour or causes disturbance to local communities. The bank holiday Monday that was enjoyed across Scotland was a fantastic day and many individuals and families took the time to enjoy it in a thoroughly positive way.

Of course, we are investing in the police service. In this financial year, the resource budget of the police service is increasing in real terms and, unlike the situation south of the border, we have maintained, broadly speaking, police numbers; I think that in England we have seen 20,000 police officers lost from the service. We will continue to invest in our police service and continue to support the police in the fantastic work that they do.


Treatment Time Guarantee

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

Presiding Officer,

“When Nicola Sturgeon announced a legally binding treatment time guarantee, she said that there would be

‘a straightforward system of redress, on the rare occasions when things go wrong.’

It was rare that things went wrong at first—that is true; only five patients waited longer than 12 weeks. It is not rare any more; there are 13,005 patients waiting now.”—[Official Report, 1 June 2017; c 19.]

The First Minister will recognise those words. They are the words that I used exactly one year ago when I questioned the First Minister. Not much has changed, except that the number of patients who are waiting has gone up yet again. More people are waiting for longer, which is letting down patients and staff. A year ago, the First Minister promised me that things would get better. When is that going to happen?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The figures that were published this week are not good enough, as far as I am concerned—although since the treatment time guarantee was introduced, 1.6 million patients have received their treatment within the required timeframe. However, the figures are not good enough.

We have seen improvement in out-patient waiting times because of the investment that has been made and the work that has been undertaken. The additional investment that was announced this week will help us to drive further improvements in in-patient waiting times.

Willie Rennie has raised a serious issue. We know that the national health service faces significantly increased demand. If we compare the situation now with the situation in 2007, we see that there are 10 per cent more new out-patient attendances a year, and that there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of in-patient attendances. That is why we are doing the hard work to prepare our NHS for the future. We are investing record sums. Under this Government, the NHS budget has already gone up by £4 billion and will go up by a further £2 billion. NHS funding per head is 8 per cent higher in Scotland than it is in England. I have already mentioned the £50 million that was announced this week for tackling waiting times.

We are taking action—much of which Willie Rennie has called for—to shift the balance of care, to do more in social care and in community settings, and to invest more in mental health services. We will continue to do the hard work. Scotland is not the only country that faces such challenges; Governments across the world face them. That is why we must do the hard work to make sure that we prepare our NHS for the future.

As I said earlier, if we look at the longer-term trend over the past 10 years, we see that the number of people who have to wait more than 12 weeks and the number of people who have to wait more than 18 weeks for in-patient and day-case treatment are down significantly. However, it is true that we face challenges, which is why we are taking all the action that I have outlined.

Willie Rennie

The First Minister talks about extra money being provided. That extra money was announced this week, but patients were crying out for it months ago. While patients were waiting in pain and anxiety for treatment, the Government was holding back the money until the newspaper headlines got too bad for the First Minister to bear. That money is to treat patients, not to cover for the Government’s failures in the NHS.

Waiting times are the worst ever; the waiting time guarantee means nothing. We have had failure after failure, and the First Minister has still not answered my question. Previously, five people had to wait longer than 12 weeks for treatment, then 13,000 people had to do so, and now the figure is 16,000. The figure is supposed to be zero. That is the law—the treatment time is guaranteed. When is the First Minister going to obey her own law?

The First Minister

Willie Rennie is just wrong in what he says about NHS funding. Funding to NHS boards is increasing, but of course it makes sense for us to have the ability, if NHS boards face particular challenges, to have funding to target particular challenges. That is a sensible way of proceeding, so we will continue to take that action.

Last year, £58 million was invested to deal, in particular, with challenges in out-patient waiting times. Since last September, there has been a 23 per cent reduction in the number of people who have to wait longer than the target period for an out-patient consultation. Of course, if more people are seen as out-patients, that increases the pressure on in-patient treatment. That is why the new funding allows health boards to target in-patient waiting times.

We will continue to do the hard work that is required. As I have said on many previous occasions in the chamber, health services in the United Kingdom and across the world face the challenges of an ageing population. That means not only that the number of people who seek treatment is going up, but that the complexity of cases is increasing. Our investment, along with our reform work, is all about making sure that the NHS is supported during a difficult period of transition. We will continue to get on with that work.

The Presiding Officer

We will have some more supplementaries.


Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Maintenance of Assets)

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

Does the First Minister share my concern for the safety of communities, given that Audit Scotland’s recently released report on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service found that there are serious concerns about the cost of maintaining the service’s vehicles, equipment and properties, and warned of an increased risk of fire engines breaking down? Will the Government follow up on Audit Scotland’s call for an annual investment of £80.4 million so that the service’s assets can be brought up to “satisfactory” standards?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

It is important not to be irresponsible in how we characterise this morning’s Audit Scotland report. Overall, the report is extremely positive about the progress that is being made by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

It is important to say that the figure on the capital backlog includes some expenditure that is certainly desirable, but is not essential. It is particularly important to note that fire service assets must comply with stringent safety requirements. There is no suggestion whatsoever that equipment is unsafe.

In this year’s budget, the Scottish Government increased the spending capacity of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service by £15.5 million. In the previous financial year we increased capital funding by almost £22 million and have maintained that increase in this year’s budget. Since the single fire service was launched in 2014, the fire service itself has invested more than £94 million in property, vehicle fleet and other assets. We will continue to support the fire service to make those investments, and we will continue to ensure that it has the funding that it needs.

As I said in response to Ruth Davidson, we should remember that if we had followed the Conservatives’ recommendations on the budget for this year, we would have £500 million less to spend. The Tories cannot continually argue for tax cuts that would reduce our spending power, but then come to Parliament asking us to spend more on every single area of responsibility. That is not credible and it is why the Tories are not—and probably never will be—credible, either.


University Admissions (Widening Access)

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

The First Minister set a target that 16 per cent of people starting their first full-time degree by 2021 will be from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland. Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council figures that were released yesterday—I know that the First Minister will not dispute them—show that for the period 2015-16 to 2016-17, participation fell by 0.2 per cent across Scotland, with some individual institutions showing a bigger fall. What action will the First Minister take to understand why progress appears to be stalling? Will she consider reviewing the targets to include young people such as a constituent of mine who is from a very low-income family, but does not live within one of the most deprived areas, and so does not benefit from current Scottish Government action?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I do not dispute the figures, but it is important to understand them. [Interruption.]

I hope that members will listen to my answer, because this is an important issue. As Johann Lamont rightly said, the figures are for 2016-17; they pre-date the widening access commission recommendations. The figures justify the decision to set up the widening access commission.

It is, however, wrong to look at just those figures, because we have more up-to-date figures: we have the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures for 2017-18. Just to be clear, I point out that 2017-18 comes after 2016-17—[Interruption.] This is a serious point. The 2017-18 figures show an increase—UCAS has described it as an increase—of 12 per cent in 18-year-olds from our most deprived communities going to Scottish universities, and an increase of 13 per cent in people of all ages from our most deprived communities going to universities.

That is progress, but it is not enough progress, which is why we have set the targets that Johann Lamont mentioned. However, it is progress, so for Opposition members to contort the figures in order to suggest that we have not made progress is a bit rich—[Interruption.]

I am trying to answer the question seriously. Johann Lamont has raised a serious issue about how we measure deprivation. The commission on widening access’s report was very clear about the value of the Scottish index of multiple deprivation as a measure of deprivation, and it recommended that we continue to use the SIMD for tracking and monitoring targets on fair access. However, we recognise the SIMD’s limitations, which is why we are open to ways in which other measures can be used.

I heard a member shout earlier, from a sedentary position, “Why are you not doing anything about it?” We established a working group to consider how we can refine the measurement to deal with concerns that have been raised, and we are making progress on that. Given the legitimate concerns that have been expressed by people across Parliament and further afield, I would have thought that even though people say that we need to make more progress—rightly so—they would also welcome the progress that has already been made.


Royal Bank of Scotland (Branch Closures)

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

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on suggestions by the Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive that post offices are the “best solution” to replace local banks that have closed. (S5F-02410)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Communities across Scotland stand to be adversely affected by the on-going programme of bank branch closures. There is not and cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to maintaining access to banking services in affected areas. Post offices provide many essential services, including basic banking transactions, and are a lifeline for many communities, but there are significant limitations on the range of services that they are able to offer, particularly for small businesses. Many customers also remain concerned over the level of privacy that is available in post office premises. I encourage banks, including the Royal Bank of Scotland, to listen to the needs and concerns of their customers and ensure that practical solutions are put in place to allow all communities in Scotland to access essential banking services.

Christine Grahame

It should not be news to Ross McEwan, managing director of RBS, that post offices have closed right, left and centre in my constituency in places such as Earlston, Innerleithen and Newtongrange, and RBS will close its branch in Penicuik next month. Does the First Minister agree that the comment by Ross McEwan that RBS should piggy-back on post offices was not only insulting but ill informed? Does she agree that, given that he heads a company with 72 per cent public ownership, he should get out and about, starting with my invitation to him to come round Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale to chat with my constituents and with small businesses to see what they think of his closures and his grand solution?

The First Minister

I am sure that most people would be delighted to accept Christine Grahame’s invitation to visit her beautiful constituency.

I recognise and share many of the concerns that Christine Grahame has expressed. This is an issue that I have discussed personally with RBS in recent times. I am meeting the chair of RBS later this afternoon and no doubt we will discuss this issue then.

We recognise the importance of post offices to local communities, but we have made it clear to the United Kingdom Government and Post Office Ltd that they have a responsibility to ensure that existing services are maintained rather than reduced. We also continue to fund Citizens Advice Scotland research into post office outreach services. Post offices have a role to play, but I share Christine Grahame’s view that they cannot necessarily provide all the services locally that people want to see.

I say to all banks, including RBS, that they have an obligation to listen to and address the concerns that their customers have about their ability to access services in Christine Grahame’s constituency and in other constituencies across the country.


Human Trafficking and Sexual Violence

5. Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to tackle human trafficking and rising sexual violence in Scotland. (S5F-02409)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The long-term increase in recorded sexual crime in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is due to a range of factors, including victims having more confidence to come forward to report to police what has happened to them. We will shortly be publishing the first annual progress report on the implementation of our trafficking and exploitation strategy. That report will set out the wide range of action taken since publication of the strategy last May.

Michelle Ballantyne

This week, we heard again from the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers how Roma children and young women in Govanhill are being sold into sex slavery by gangsters while others live eight to 10 to a room working 12-hour days for a pittance in return. The Scottish Government published its strategy on trafficking and exploitation a year ago. Will the First Minister give us some highlights of an assessment of how the strategy is working in practice, whether it is achieving everything that it aimed to achieve and when we can hope to put an end to this human tragedy?

The First Minister

I am obviously very well aware of concerns that are raised about Govanhill; it is an issue that I speak to the police about regularly. My message is first that people should come forward and report to the police any concerns that they have. I know that the police rigorously investigate and have investigated all concerns that have come forward to them.

More generally on the strategy, as I said in my original answer, we will shortly be publishing the first annual progress report on implementation of the strategy, which will set out the range of actions that have been taken since publication and we will also look at the further action that requires to be taken.

The areas that we have been working on include, for example, raising awareness and strengthening the protection for victims of trafficking. We have also increased funding for victims of trafficking. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 strengthens the legal protections and the police powers that are available to tackle this. We will continue to take those actions. I think that the member described it as a “human tragedy”. It is a human tragedy that any individual is trafficked or subject to exploitation in this way. We must treat it as such, and the Scottish Government will continue to treat it extremely seriously.


Sustainable Growth Commission (Independence Referendum)

6. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will call an independence referendum before the end of the current parliamentary session, in light of the report by the sustainable growth commission. (S5F-02412)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

My goodness, the Opposition parties just hate talking about independence, don’t they?

As I have said before, when we have greater clarity on the Brexit outcome, I will set out my views on the best way forward for Scotland. I welcome the report of the sustainable growth commission. Crucially, it allows us to focus on how we can build a better, more prosperous and fairer country instead of just managing the consequences of Tory austerity and the decline of Brexit. I know that that is Labour’s preference, but it is certainly not mine.

Jackie Baillie

I know just how much the First Minister likes talking about independence. It is, however, fair to say that the growth commission report has caused deep splits in the Scottish National Party—[Interruption.] Oh, yes. Alex Bell—[Interruption.] They clearly do not like hearing this, so I will wait until they are ready.

Alex Bell, who helped to write the SNP’s independence white paper says that the commission’s report will mean spending cuts and no economic freedom. Kenny MacAskill, the former SNP justice secretary, says that

“the acceptance of so many aspects of neo-liberal doctrine”

in the report is a step too far.

Given that all the candidates for the SNP deputy leadership have said that they expect a referendum within this session of Parliament, with Keith Brown even telling us that it could be 12 months away, I ask the First Minister whether the growth commission report is a device for bringing forward a referendum or a vehicle to convince party members to delay.

The First Minister

I have some analysis that I will share with the chamber. It will be of embarrassment to the Tories and, hopefully, of interest to Labour.

If the spending recommendations of the growth commission had been applied over the past 10 years, the £2.6 billion real-terms cuts that have been imposed on the budget of the Scottish Government by Tory Governments at Westminster would have been completely wiped out. It would have eradicated austerity in Scotland. That is the reality.

The growth commission report is welcome. It allows us to focus on how to build a better Scotland. It shows that, even if independence does not lead to faster growth, the deficit that has been created by Westminster can be turned around without austerity. The report is explicit in its rejection of austerity and explicit in its recommendation for real-terms spending growth, and, as I have said, if that approach had been taken, we would not have had to put up with the cuts that we have done over the past 10 years.

The really important bit of the report is that it sets out how the powers of independence can enable us to make our economy even more successful so that we can match the success of other small countries—powers to grow our population, powers to close the gender pay gap and powers to tailor our economic policies to our needs, not the deeds of London and the south-east of England.

I know that Labour’s preference is to leave us with Tory rule, austerity and the decline of Brexit. I will leave Labour to argue that with the Tories; I am going to argue for a better alternative.


Cystic Fibrosis (Drugs)

7. Alex Neil (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will take urgent action to ensure that appropriate life-saving drugs are made available to people with cystic fibrosis. (S5F-02406)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Scottish Government and officials from the national health service will be meeting Vertex Pharmaceuticals next month to continue to encourage it to make a fresh application to the Scottish Medicines Consortium for the drug Orkambi. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has strongly encouraged the manufacturer to make that submission, at a fair price, as quickly as possible.

As this kicked off when he was health secretary, Alex Neil will be aware that a new process known as the peer-approved clinical system—PACS—tier 2 goes live across Scotland from tomorrow. That will provide clinicians with the ability to make requests on an individual patient basis to the local health board for medicines that are not yet approved by the SMC.

Alex Neil

I particularly welcome the fact that, from tomorrow, CF patients will be able to submit an individual patient request for the new drug Orkambi. However, there is still concern, as expressed by Professor Gordon MacGregor in the Daily Record on Monday, about the lack of the general availability of Orkambi. Will the First Minister do all that she can to ensure that Orkambi becomes generally available, without people having to submit an individual request—which, of course, is not always successful—including, if necessary, reinvesting the rebates money from the pharmaceutical price regulation scheme to ensure that CF patients get the life-saving drugs that they need, as happened with Kalydeco in the past?

The First Minister

I agree with all of that. Alex Neil is right to say that Orkambi is currently not routinely available in the NHS anywhere in the United Kingdom, although I understand that it is available in the Republic of Ireland. As I said in my opening answer, Government and NHS officials will meet the pharmaceutical company next month. We want the company to make a submission as quickly as possible for the medicine at a fair price.

We will continue to ensure that any rebate from the PPRS is invested in new medicines, as we have done in the past. Negotiations are about to start but, again, the UK Government leads such negotiations with pharmaceutical companies.

As I have spoken about previously in the chamber, we will continue to implement the reforms, one of which is the PACS tier 2 initiative. Access to new medicines has increased significantly in recent years due to such reforms. We will continue with the reforms and continue to ensure that any rebate is invested, and we will encourage pharmaceutical companies to bring forward new medicines at fair prices so that, across Scotland, people who need such medicines have best access to them.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time. I suspend for a few moments to allow those in the public gallery who wish to leave to do so and our new guests to arrive.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  12:50 On resuming—