Meeting date: Thursday, May 27, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 27 May 2021 [Draft]
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Covid-19, Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask that members take care to observe them, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use the aisles and walkways only to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.
The first item of business is First Minister’s question time. Any supplementaries will be taken after question 7, and I ask members to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as they can.
I call Douglas Ross to ask question 1.
Relationship with Business
Does the First Minister agree that the Scottish Government needs to reset its relationship with business?
The Scottish Government has a duty to have a good, constructive working relationship with all sectors of Scottish society, and that very much includes the business community.
This has been a really difficult period for the business community. I personally—and, to an even greater extent, my ministers—have engaged with business organisations and different sectors of the economy during the pandemic. I took part in business discussions during the election campaign and gave the absolute commitment that if there is a need to reset or restart—whatever language one wants to use—and make sure that we are focusing on all the key issues, as First Minister, I am of course not just willing but very keen to do that.
It is not just me or the Scottish Conservatives who are calling for that reset. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce said last month that a reset was necessary, but it has not happened.
Six weeks after it was promised, taxi drivers are still waiting on the second £1,500 payment. Businesses in Glasgow had their plans upturned with 48 hours’ notice, which the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland said was the latest in a line of miscommunications around unlocking that have had serious consequences. The Scottish hospitality group is now warning that more businesses will go bust unless they are given more help and that they cannot continue with such loss and uncertainty.
Yesterday, the First Minister said in the chamber that she would
“work with the business sector, to provide as much clarity and support as possible.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2021; c 9.]
In that spirit, will she set out the specific progress necessary to ease restrictions in Glasgow and, crucially, the further support that will be provided to protect businesses right now?
I understand that the Scottish Chambers of Commerce engaged in a call earlier this week—I think—with the Deputy First Minister in his new capacity of overseeing Covid recovery. I have had a number of calls during the pandemic with the organisation, and that engagement will continue.
I understand the frustration of the business community, just as I understand the frustration of every single citizen across the country as we continue to grapple with a global pandemic of an infectious virus. In the past few weeks, as we were making very good progress, we have been confronted with another new variant of the virus. Unfortunately, with the best will in the world, I cannot take away all the impacts of a virus of this nature, but we work as hard and as closely as we can to give as much notice and detail of our response as possible.
However, I am afraid that, in the interests of health and human life, it is sometimes necessary for people such as me in leadership positions to take very quick decisions because, as we know from bitter experience over the pandemic, it is often the failure to take quick and firm decisions that leads to loss of life. Anybody who is in any doubt about that had only to listen to a fraction of what Dominic Cummings described as the chaotic response of the United Kingdom Government at key moments of the pandemic. I will continue to try to take difficult decisions as well as I possibly can.
A range of different support streams are in place for business. Those will remain in place for as long as is necessary and we will, of course, continue to discuss with the different sectors of the economy what more support we can give.
We want to get Glasgow back on track as quickly as possible, but that must be done responsibly and safely. On today’s numbers, I can tell members that 464 positive cases were identified yesterday—1.8 per cent of all tests. Today, we see a reduction in hospital cases and a small reduction in intensive care unit cases. There are reasons to be optimistic but, in the interests of business and everyone else, we must continue to take careful and cautious decisions in order to get the whole country back to normality.
The First Minister answered a question about restrictions in Glasgow and more support for affected businesses by referencing Dominic Cummings. I am sure that there will be plenty of time for her to answer scripted questions about Dominic Cummings from her back benchers. I want to focus on what is happening in Scotland’s largest city and the impact that that is having on businesses in our communities.
Glasgow has been under Covid restrictions for 269 days, during which time businesses have been struggling to survive. Yesterday, Stuart Patrick, the chief executive of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, said that funding grants “fall far short”, that 90 per cent of businesses will get less than they were promised and that
“The financial support offered bears no relationship to the economic damage now being done by restrictions.”
Does the First Minster agree with him? What will she now do to deliver on the promises that she and her Government have made to those businesses?
I say to Douglas Ross that the point that I was making in my earlier answer was about the importance of careful, cautious and responsible decision making in the face of a deadly virus. I was also pointing out, with reference to some of what we heard yesterday, what the impact and implications can be if a leader does not take careful, cautious and responsible decisions. I think that most people across the country understand the seriousness of my point, which is relevant and not deflective because we are still facing the pandemic and it remains important that we take those careful decisions.
I know how long the city of Glasgow has been under restrictions because, unlike Douglas Ross, I am a resident of the city of Glasgow, and the restrictions apply to me just as they apply to others. I know how difficult the situation is for residents and businesses across Glasgow, but I also know how dangerous it would be if we were to ease restrictions too quickly and allow a new variant of the virus—a variant that we know is spreading perhaps even more quickly than the variant that we saw at the start of the year—to take a grip again. That is why public health interventions—surge testing and accelerated vaccination—are under way across Glasgow. I said earlier in the week that we see cautious signs for optimism that those interventions are working.
We will continue to monitor that very carefully, and we will continue to discuss with businesses how, in the face of this difficult situation, we can support them to the best of our ability and with the best of the resources that we have at our disposal.
However frustrating I know that it is for business, the worst thing that somebody in my position could do for businesses and individuals would be to act in a way that would allow the virus to take over again, because that would lead to more businesses being closed and more lives being lost. Therefore, we need to continue to steer a careful course through this, and, difficult though I know that it is for everyone, that is what I will seek to do.
The First Minister knows Glasgow and, in answering the question, she showed that she knows the numbers relating to Glasgow. However, she completely ignored the point made by the chief executive of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, who said that 90 per cent of businesses will get less than she and the Scottish Government promised.
This Government’s approach to business needs a reset. More than that, it needs a complete overhaul. Businesses do not see anyone around the Government table fighting their corner. Even one of the First Minster’s economic advisers has said that her Government is anti-business. However, instead of businesspeople who understand how to create jobs, it is the Greens who might get a seat at the First Minister’s table. The Green Party does not even believe in economic growth, it ignores business unless it wants to celebrate at a high-end bar in George Street, and it wants to risk the entire oil and gas industry and the tens of thousands of jobs that it supports.
This SNP Government needs to reset its relationship with business. Does the First Minister honestly believe that a coalition with the Greens is the way to do that?
I think that most people across the country, and most responsible businesses that I speak to and have interaction with, know that, although it is important to support a strong, vibrant and sustainable economy, it is also vital—in fact, it is a moral imperative—to do that in a way that meets our obligations to the planet and delivers our climate change targets. From his final question, I am not sure that the climate is particularly high up Douglas Ross’s agenda. We will continue to ensure that we support industry and the economy, and that we also support the country to move to net zero, which is a key priority and should be a key priority for all of us.
On the questions about the Glasgow business community, I believe that, on Tuesday of this week, Stuart Patrick from Glasgow Chamber of Commerce was in a call with the Deputy First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy. I expect and assume that the issues that Douglas Ross has raised today were raised in that call and that the Scottish Government will be taking those issues seriously and working with the business community to address them. That is how we operate as a Government. We always look for ways in which to improve engagement and responsiveness, and we will continue to do that.
To go back to the central point, this country, like much of the world right now, is in the grip of a global pandemic. The pandemic has taken too many lives already and, if we do not get the decisions right, it has the potential to take more lives in future. The situation is very difficult for everybody, including businesses and individuals. My responsibility—I am not complaining about this, because it is what I am elected to do—is to try to take those difficult decisions in the best way possible to get the country through this as safely as possible. I will continue to treat that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.
Queen Elizabeth University Hospital
In November 2019, I shared damning evidence from senior clinicians that contaminated water at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital had led to the deaths of at least one child cancer patient, and that the child’s family had not been informed. Milly Main’s mum, Kimberly, had to learn the true cause of her daughter’s death in the newspaper and join the dots, which is unforgivable. The evidence that I shared back then warned that there might have been a second child and that that child’s parents, too, might not know the truth.
A case note review in March confirmed that there were more than 30 infections in children and two children’s deaths due to waterborne infections. The First Minister promised then that all the affected families would be told within weeks but, this morning, it has been confirmed that one family has not been informed, and it is feared that they are the family of the second child who tragically died. When was the first attempt made to contact the family, how many attempts have been made and why does that family not yet know the truth?
First, I take the opportunity to yet again extend my deepest sympathies to the families of patients who died and to everyone who was affected as a result of the issues at the Queen Elizabeth hospital. Of course, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any individual’s care, but I will seek to answer the question as best I can in general terms.
The expert panel has provided individual reports to the families of patients who were included in the case note review and has offered to discuss individual findings with them. I understand that the review team has managed to contact all families with the exception of one. Regrettably, despite extensive efforts by the team and by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, one family has not been able to be contacted. However, any family who wishes to get in touch with the independent case note review team can email the team at [email protected]
I am happy to seek to provide later the specific answers on when the first attempted contact was made and how many attempts have been made, but I have had an assurance that rigorous attempts have been made to contact the one remaining family that has not been contacted and, unfortunately and regrettably, it has not been possible to contact them. I know that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde will continue to take all reasonable and appropriate steps to locate the family.
I am sorry, First Minister, but that is not good enough. The reason why it is not good enough is because the key question is about when the first attempt was made. I raised the case in November 2019. The case note review team should not be the ones who are trying to inform the family, because senior clinicians informed the health board about the death of two children in July 2019, months before I raised the case. Scotland’s duty of candour law means that the families should have been informed as soon as the health board became aware of the issue. That means that the family should have been informed at least 18 months ago, rather than being contacted for the first time just a few weeks ago. You have broken that law.
To be clear: two children died in Scotland’s flagship hospital due to a waterborne infection; one family had to find that out by fighting the health board; and the other family may not even know. I say to the First Minister, with all due respect, that handing out an email address is not good enough. One family still does not know. This is the biggest scandal of the devolution era, so will the First Minister take personal responsibility for ensuring that the family in question is found and told the truth about what happened to their child?
This is a matter of the utmost seriousness and, because of that, it is really important to be clear. A case note review was undertaken, which looked at 118 episodes of serious bacterial infection in 84 children. All the families of those children, with one exception, have been contacted and the information from the case note review has been shared with them, and I am sure that a number of questions have been asked. There is one family whom, despite various attempts—serious attempts—having been made to contact them, it has not proved possible to contact. I think that that is deeply regrettable, but in a situation in which 83 out of 84 families have been contacted, I simply say to Anas Sarwar that it is reasonable to conclude that that is the case not because the health board does not want to contact the family in question, but because, despite its attempts, it has not so far proved possible for it to do so. Therefore, to characterise matters as me simply handing out an email address is unfair. We are talking about an inability to make contact with a family.
I will certainly seek to provide further information about the number of attempts that have been made to contact the family and when the first attempt was made, and I will certainly ensure that the health board is doing everything that is reasonably possible to locate the family. However, as I understand it, this is a case of attempts having been made, but it having proved impossible to locate the family. I think that everybody who is involved wants the family to be located so that information can be shared and any questions can be answered.
I repeat that all the families, with one exception, have been contacted, and it is important that further reasonable attempts to contact the remaining family continue.
I think that the First Minister misses the fundamental point. The case note review happened as a result of families fighting with the health board to get that review, which took place in 2019. The child died in 2017. Clinicians highlighted the case to health board officials in 2017 and then in 2019. Why have we waited until now—this year—to try to find that family? It is one thing to break the law when it comes to a treatment waiting time, but it is another thing to break the law when it comes to telling a family the truth about how their child died.
This scandal involved denials, bullying of clinicians, cover-ups and parents of sick children being blamed for their illnesses. Clinicians have been raising the alarm for years. The result of inaction is tens of children getting infections and, tragically, two children dying but, inexplicably, there are still families fighting for truth and justice. This case proves that the response from the First Minister has not been good enough. She was health secretary when the hospital was commissioned and she was First Minister when it opened. Despite an independent review finding that the water supply was not safe, the only people who have paid the price for the scandal have been the families and the whistleblowers. Years on, why has no one taken responsibility? Why have there been no consequences? Why are families still having to fight for the truth? Who is going to be held accountable?
All the points that Anas Sarwar raises are very serious, but there is one important fact that he omits to raise, which is that the Scottish Government has established a full, independent public inquiry. That public inquiry is under way and is still to do its work and to report. [Interruption.] Anas Sarwar says that we cannot wait for that, but—this is an important point—he called for a public inquiry and we have established one.
In the lead-up to that public inquiry, there has been an independent review. There has been a report from the oversight board that was established, and there has now been the case note review process, which has produced an overview report and also, of course, the individual case reviews for each of the affected children and families.
What I am not disputing, because nobody could or should dispute it, is that this is an incredibly serious matter. What I am disputing is that the Government is not taking it seriously and is not determined—through, ultimately, the full independent public inquiry—to get to the bottom of everything that happened, from the opening of the hospital right through to now, to make sure that families have the answers that they need. That process will continue until we feel that we have got to the point where all questions that can be answered have been answered. I think that it is a real omission to say all the things that Anas Sarwar has rightly said but to leave out the fact of the full independent public inquiry that is already under way.
Finally, I come back to the point that one family has not been contacted. That is regrettable, but I stress that it is not because there have not been attempts to contact them. The health board will continue to take steps to contact that family as it has already contacted the other families involved.
Freedom to Crawl Campaign
The United Kingdom Home Secretary has declared that immigration dawn raids in Glasgow are
“what the British public ... voted for”.
I expect that the First Minister will agree that Scotland did not vote for that. The Conservatives were rejected at the ballot box in Glasgow and across Scotland, and this month we witnessed the people of Glasgow taking direct action to protect their neighbours from the actions of an institutionally racist Home Office.
Immigration and asylum are reserved to the UK Government, but there is no doubt more that we can be doing here in Scotland.
Is the First Minister aware of the Freedom to Crawl campaign that is being launched today by the roof coalition, including Shelter and other charities and grass-roots organisations, to draw attention to the abysmal standard of accommodation that is provided by Mears on behalf of the Home Office for asylum seekers who are pregnant or who have babies and toddlers? Does she agree that the rights that are set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are being breached? What will she do to challenge the UK Government on its failings towards some of the most vulnerable people in our communities?
I have not seen the detail of the campaign that Patrick Harvie refers to, but I will look at that.
I have profound and fundamental objections to the principles underpinning the UK Government’s system of immigration and asylum but also to many of the practical aspects of that, not least the provision of inadequate accommodation for asylum seekers in the city of Glasgow. This Government has raised those concerns directly with the Home Office on many, many occasions and has often been met with indifference to them, but we will continue to raise them.
The provision of accommodation is an important right for anyone, but particularly where children are concerned. Just before the election, this Parliament took a unanimous decision to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law. That is being challenged in court by the UK Government, and the issue that we are discussing perhaps brings into sharp focus why the UK Government is seeking to challenge that, because it does not want the decisions that it is taking on things such as immigration to be subject to that kind of legal protection and scrutiny.
In my view, that is exactly why we need the UN convention to apply to everything that happens in Scotland, because the rights of a child matter whether that child was born here in Scotland or is the child of an asylum seeker. They are a child living in Scotland, and all children should have the same rights.
The campaign was launched only today but, just so that the First Minister and everybody in Parliament is aware of the concerns that are being raised about the accommodation for mothers and babies in Glasgow, I note that the campaign says that the rooms are cramped and inadequately furnished; that there is virtually no floor space in the rooms for children to play or move around safely in; that there are multiple safety issues with the living, cooking and sleeping areas; that there is no respect for privacy; and that alleged infractions against the rules are posted publicly, humiliating the mothers. It says that all of that breaches the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the health and care standards and the current Care Inspectorate space standards.
The Scottish Greens have long argued that responsibility for housing asylum seekers should lie with local authorities, which are much better placed and, frankly, more inclined than the institutionally racist Home Office to provide appropriate accommodation. In the Smith commission, the UK Government and every political party committed to discussions on powers on asylum housing and support services coming to Scotland. More than six years later, those discussions have still not taken place. Will the Scottish Government put that issue on the agenda for the next joint ministerial committee and work with Glasgow City Council and charities to develop a public sector bid for those services so that Scotland can provide them to a standard that we can be proud of, instead of allowing a shameful situation to continue?
Yes, we will seek to put that issue on the agenda for the next joint ministerial committee, but those meetings do not exactly take place frequently, so it is important that we continue to take it up in other ways as well.
Patrick Harvie is right about the Smith commission. Discussions to devolve more powers to the Scottish Parliament in the area of immigration have not progressed. We have a UK Tory Government that is more interested in taking powers away from the Scottish Parliament than bringing powers to it. [Interruption.] That is the reality. I know that it is an uncomfortable reality for Mr Ross, but it is the reality nevertheless. I am sorry if it was not Mr Ross but one of his colleagues who shouted, “Rubbish.” However, it is a fact that the UK Government seems more interested in taking powers away.
These issues are important because they are about fundamental human rights and fundamental human dignity, and they bring into sharp focus why the powers should lie with the Scottish Parliament. Notwithstanding the many differences that we have across the chamber, I believe that the Scottish Parliament would take a much more humane approach to immigration and asylum and that we would respond more positively to the demographic challenges that we face and the need to attract more people to live and work in Scotland.
This is a good example of why we need to see those powers lie with the Scottish Parliament. As with many other things, the sooner we can get those powers out of the hands of a Tory Westminster Government, the better for everyone.
Trade Deal (Australia)
Congratulations on your new role, Presiding Officer. I look forward to working and engaging with you over the coming years.
To ask the First Minister what dialogue the Scottish Government has had with the United Kingdom Government on the potentially damaging tariff and quota-free trade deal that has been proposed by the UK and Australian Governments. (S6F-00015)
I take the opportunity to welcome Jim Fairlie to Parliament. Seeing him in his place in the chamber makes that afternoon in the torrential rain in Letham all the more worth it.
The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands and the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise met UK Government ministers on 25 and 26 May to reiterate our concerns about the devastating impact that the UK Government-proposed deal could have on our farming communities. That followed an earlier letter from the rural affairs secretary to the UK Secretary of State for International Trade, on 19 May. However, the UK Government seems determined to shut the Scottish Government out of that decision-making process, just as it has ignored our interests throughout the Brexit process.
We are extremely concerned that, yet again, a crucial decision that affects Scotland’s future is being taken by the Tory Government not just against the wishes of people who live here but fundamentally against their interests.
Yesterday, the First Minister gave multiple opportunities for the Opposition parties to work with the Scottish Government in supporting the people of Scotland. Does she share the concerns of the president of NFU Scotland, who is based in John Swinney’s constituency? He said:
“We were promised that any future deal wouldn’t undermine Scottish and UK farmers with any deal … we would feel betrayed if that were to happen.”
Four days after my nomination, Douglas Ross wrote to all the farmers in my constituency and told them that he was going to be the farmers’ champion in Scotland. I wonder whether that will be one of the red lines that he will gaily skip over like a new-born calf. Does the First Minister agree that that would be a total betrayal of Scotland’s farmers, as it has been with the fishermen?
For some reason that is best known to him, Douglas Ross seems intent on telling Jim Fairlie that he is a lamb, not a calf. However, the general point that no Tory member seems willing to stand up for the interests of Scottish farmers stands. The Tory party has, of course, already betrayed Scotland’s fishing communities, and it now seems to be about to betray Scotland’s farming communities.
We must see that any imports of Australian agri-food will be produced to equivalent standards of Scottish production, and imports must be controlled by tariff rates and quotas. Anything short of that, which would be short of what the Tories promised, will be a betrayal of our farmers and deeply damaging to the Scottish economy.
We hear a lot of rhetoric from the Conservatives about standing up for Scottish business; we have heard that again today. Perhaps it is about time that they actually stood up for our farming community and told their bosses in the UK Government that what is proposed is simply not acceptable.
I congratulate the Presiding Officer on her new role.
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government plans to implement a national moratorium on incinerators, such as the proposal at Overwood Farm site near Stonehouse, in light of the reported detrimental impact that incinerators could have on Scotland’s bid to tackle the climate emergency. (S6F-00027)
I welcome Meghan Gallacher to Parliament.
Our commitment is to transition to net zero by 2045. To help us to do that, building a circular economy by reducing, recycling and reusing resources is vital. With that and our climate change targets in mind, my party stood in the election on a commitment to review the role that incineration plays in Scotland’s waste system, and we will update Parliament on plans for that review as soon as possible. In their capacity as constituency members, my colleagues Christine McKelvie and Màiri McAllan have also been pushing for that.
However, it is worth noting that, in 2019, the whole-life carbon impact of Scotland’s household waste reached its lowest level since official recording began. We are fully committed to further accelerating progress by ending the practice of sending biodegradable municipal waste to landfill by 2025.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a councillor in North Lanarkshire.
Residents of Stonehouse and surrounding areas feel let down because, for the second time, they have had to fight against a proposal for the building of an incinerator in their area. What will the Scottish Government do to reassure my constituents that, should South Lanarkshire Council oppose the planning application, the Scottish Government would not overrule that local decision were it to be brought before the Government reporter?
I am sure that, as a councillor, Meghan Gallacher knows that, if I were to answer that question in any way that pre-empted or prejudged a planning decision that could ultimately come to the Scottish ministers, it would not be helpful for any of the interests concerned. Fundamentally—and, of course, initially—it is a matter for the local council. After that, there are rightly robust statutory processes in place for any applications that come to ministers. It is very important that ministers do not prejudge cases.
I understand the concerns that are being raised in general, which is why my initial answer is important. It is time to review—and the Government is committed to reviewing—the role that incineration plays in our overall waste system. It is also important to recognise the progress that we have made in reducing the whole-life carbon impact of household waste and to look at the variety of things that we need to do to continue that progress.
I am sure that, if there is an application in this case, it will be dealt with by all the appropriate processes.
Education (Support for Teachers)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government plans to take to support teachers with the challenges they face, in light of the reported concerns from teaching unions that there is a culture of “fear and anxiety” across Scottish education. (S6F-00012)
In the past year, teachers have done an extraordinary job in the most challenging of circumstances, and they have refocused their work to support pupils in a range of different ways.
We recognise the pressure on schools and on all teachers at all times to work in a safe, positive, respectful and supportive environment. We have already committed more than £400 million to education recovery, and we have introduced a support package for schools that includes a very important focus on mental health support for staff. That is in addition to existing guidance for local authorities and schools on managing behaviour.
We will continue to put the health and wellbeing of pupils and staff at the forefront of our recovery plans. We look forward to continuing to work constructively with stakeholders to ensure that everybody nurtures an environment in our schools that has at its core the highest quality of learning and teaching.
I am sure that, like me, the First Minister is worried that the NASUWT said this week that violence and the abuse of teachers are “becoming normalised”. It also revealed that a union survey found that 53 per cent of teachers considered leaving the profession in the past year feeling demoralised, unsupported and unrecognised. Does the Government recognise those concerns? Does the Government accept that among the actions that must be taken is a year-on-year substantial increase in school budgets and that we also need to see significant increases in the number of teachers and teaching assistants across the school estate?
Education spending has risen in every single one of the past four years, and significant additional resource has been provided to local authorities in the face of Covid, supporting a range of activities including the provision of additional teachers in our schools.
Of course, I recognise the concerns of teachers and so many others after what has been the most difficult, challenging and bruising of years, when we have all had to cope with the implications of Covid in different ways. It is really important that we listen to and understand those concerns and that we respond in a variety of ways.
No teacher should have to suffer verbal or physical abuse in school, and nobody should ever accept violence becoming normalised in our schools. I am sure that the education secretary will be more than happy to discuss those concerns in more detail with the trade union concerned.
It is important that we support teachers in a range of different ways. We are doing that, and we will continue to talk to teaching unions about what more can be done to support teachers, as they do a very important job on behalf of us all.
Lord Advocate and Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (Reform)
To ask the First Minister what plans the Scottish Government has to reform the roles of the Lord Advocate and Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, in light of the resignations of the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General. (S6F-00031)
I take the opportunity to briefly put on the record my deep gratitude to the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General for their extremely distinguished service during the past five years. I am sure that I will have more to say about that in the days and weeks to come, but I record my appreciation, gratitude and respect for them both.
The Government will put nominations for new law officers to Parliament for approval shortly. Until then, of course, the current law officers will remain in office.
As we said in our manifesto, the Government intends to publish a consultation on the dual functions of the law officers, and we will do that in due course. It is vital that the systems of criminal prosecution and investigation of deaths, as well as the role of the law officers in Government, continue to enjoy the full confidence of the public, and I believe that they do.
I, too, pay tribute to James Wolffe and Alison Di Rollo for their service and for their willingness to engage, particularly with those of us who sat on the Justice Committee.
Reform is, however, needed and the First Minister has the power to deliver change. The role of the Lord Advocate needs to be split in order to end the conflicts of interest, including by appointing a director of prosecutions. Fatal accident inquiries must be removed from the Crown Office, as families are still waiting too long. It is a scandal that we still do not know the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill on the M9 six years ago. After the landmark vote in the Parliament in March, we also need change to ensure that those who are in the grip of drugs are diverted to treatment rather than to prosecution and imprisonment.
In hiring the new law officers, will the First Minister commit to those much-needed reforms?
I will make a number of points, which I hope are helpful. Given potential reform of this nature, it is necessary that there is widespread consensus about the path that we eventually take. First, it is really important to recognise—as, I am sure, everybody in Parliament does—that the dual role of the law officers is not new. It was not created under a Scottish National Party Administration; it has been that way since the dawn of devolution, and the dual roles were held under previous Governments.
Secondly, I think that there is a case for reform, which is why my manifesto committed to carrying out a consultation on that, but it is really important that we take the time to get it right. As I was listening to Liam McArthur, one thing came to mind that Parliament will want to consider during the course of such a consultation. Because of the dual role of law officers, they can be called to Parliament to answer questions, and, on all the issues that fall within the prosecutorial function of the law officers, they can be questioned in the chamber. If we separate those roles, it may not be possible to do that in the same way in the future. Parliament might be comfortable with that, but it is just one example of why there is a need to take care over the matter. We must make sure that we get the consultation right and try to move forward on the basis of as much consensus and proper consideration as possible.
These issues are really serious, and I hope that all members, including Liam McArthur, will engage with them seriously over the course of any consultation that comes.
There are a few supplementary questions. I would be grateful for succinct questions and responses.
Pladis McVitie’s (Proposed Factory Closure)
The First Minister will be aware of the plan by Pladis McVitie’s to close its factory in Tollcross in my constituency, with the potential loss of more than 450 jobs. Will the First Minister reassure the staff, me and my constituents that the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise will do all that they can to persuade Pladis to remain in Glasgow?
I thank John Mason for raising an extremely important issue. I was, as were many others in Glasgow and beyond, deeply concerned to learn that Pladis had entered into consultation with its Tollcross workforce. It is a bitter blow to the staff who have been so loyal to the company for such a long time, and it is a big blow to the local area, given the importance of the McVitie’s factory to Tollcross.
We—by which I mean the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise—will do everything that we can. I know that Glasgow City Council, too, has made that commitment. We have put together an action group that is co-chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy and the leader of the council, Susan Aitken. Membership of the action group includes trade unions, Scottish Enterprise, Clyde Gateway and Skills Development Scotland.
The group met yesterday and will pursue every opportunity to secure the long-term future of the Tollcross site and the associated jobs. However, that requires willingness from Pladis to engage in the process. Let me make it very clear in Parliament today that I am calling on Pladis to do that constructively, in the interests of its workforce.
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy is also writing to the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make him aware of the situation and the on-going work of the action group.
Post-travel Covid-19 Tests (Cost)
Recent reports and representations that have been made to me by Aberdeen airport suggest that passengers returning to Scotland from abroad might have to pay more than twice as much for a Covid test than those who return to England. That will price many people in the north-east out of travelling, hinder the ability of Scottish airports to re-establish connectivity and, potentially, push passengers to travel to and from English airports. Will the First Minister offer some comfort to the industry and hard-pressed passengers by committing to reviewing the guidelines and to introducing a more equal testing system?
We will, of course, do that. I undertake to look at that issue, which was raised with me earlier this week, I think.
I will be corrected if I get wrong any of the details that pertain to England, but my understanding is that the difference is, in summary, that in Scotland we require that all tests be national health service tests, whereas in England many tests are outsourced to private companies. One of the reassurances that I can give, therefore, is about quality, because we believe that the NHS provides quality assurance. To be blunt, I say that I am not sure that going down the same route on testing as England is the right thing to do, but we will review the matter and give those points consideration.
More generally, I do not want—nobody wants it—the requirements for testing and quarantine to be in place any longer than is necessary. However, those protections are important right now. Everybody knows about my frustration with what I might describe as the lack of robustness of United Kingdom border control in the past. They are important protections in trying to do everything that we can to minimise the risk of importing the virus. That is why it is important that everybody abides by the requirements for testing and quarantine, when they come into the country.
Savings Banks Museum (Proposed Closure)
The First Minister will be aware that the world’s first savings bank was established by the Rev Henry Duncan in the village of Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire in 1810. The very building that housed the bank is today the home of the Savings Banks Museum, but the owner—TSB—has just announced plans to close the museum, to remove the historic artefacts from the community and to place them in its head office in Edinburgh. Will the First Minister consider whether the Government can make representations to TSB, asking it to put the closure plans on hold and to work with the local community to find a way to retain that important part of our nation’s history where it belongs, which is in the village of Ruthwell?
In the interests of fairness, I note that Oliver Mundell, as the constituency member, indicated in advance of First Minister’s questions today that he intended to raise the issue with me, so I thank him and Colin Smyth for doing so.
I am not aware of all the detail of the issue. However, given that two members have raised it with me today, I will look at the circumstances and consider whether the Scottish Government can make representations to retain the museum, which certainly sounds to me as though it is a valued part of the local community that should be treasured to enable future generations to learn all that that history has to offer. I will get back to both members in due course.
Universal Credit (Two-child Limit)
The Children’s Commissioner said that the United Kingdom Government’s two-child limit is a
“clear breach of children’s human rights”.
Dropping the universal credit uplift will, in effect, knock out the benefits that the Scottish child payment brings to families. Does the First Minister think that the United Kingdom Government should focus on strengthening children’s rights, rather than on continually undermining efforts to do so?
I agree. That is an important point that shows starkly the difference between our two Governments and our two Parliaments. This Government and this Parliament are focused on tackling poverty through significant investments, including the £100 million fund to support families through the pandemic, the £50 million for expansion of universal free school meals and, of course, the introduction of the Scottish child payment, which we are committed to doubling.
By contrast, the UK Government penalises families through the two-child limit—which cuts £500 million from low-income families in Scotland alone—through the benefit cap and through the plan to remove the universal credit uplift. This Government, with the unanimous backing of Parliament, has strengthened children’s rights by enshrining them in law, but the UK Government wants to take us to court over that. That illustrates, again, why we need more powers being taken out of the hands of the Tory Government at Westminster and put into the hands of this Government and this Parliament.
Communities in Perthshire and across the Highlands have campaigned for years for the A9 trunk road to be made dual carriageway between Perth and Inverness, so it is good to see works progressing on one stretch, at the moment.
However, concerns have already been raised that any deal that the Scottish National Party Government strikes with the Scottish Green Party could jeopardise that vital road safety project. Can the First Minister assure us that that will not be the case?
When Murdo Fraser says that
“concerns have already been raised”,
he really means that he is desperately trying to stir up concerns of that description. He should know by now that the two things are not the same. This Government’s commitment to upgrading the A9 is clear; that commitment continues.
That concludes First Minister’s questions.12:47 Meeting suspended.
14:00 On resuming—