Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, February 2, 2023
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, ME Services, Portfolio Question Time, Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time, Male Suicide in Scotland
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- ME Services
- Portfolio Question Time
- Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 1
- Decision Time
- Male Suicide in Scotland
First Minister’s Question Time
Gender Self-identification (Rapists)
The public have rightly been outraged that a double rapist changed their gender after being charged by the police. This week, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, Keith Brown, was asked whether that rapist should now be considered a woman. This is what Keith Brown said:
“I think that is the case. We have to accept people identify, as in this case, as women.”
Does the First Minister agree with her justice secretary?
I think that a rapist should be considered a rapist. That is what I think. That individual has been convicted of rapes and therefore that is the terminology. I will not get into the individual circumstances of that particular individual’s claims to be a woman, because I do not have enough information about that, but the individual has been convicted of serious sex offences, and that is the relevant consideration in terms of which prison they should be accommodated in.
I will say briefly that, in addition to that, these issues have obviously had great public and media attention in recent days, but these issues are not new, nor have the arrangements within the Scottish Prison Service for dealing with transgender prisoners changed in any way. As the chair of the Prison Officers Association Scotland said this week, the Scottish Prison Service has been making risk-based decisions about the accommodation of trans prisoners for many years, and indeed it has been doing that effectively and safely.
The risk assessment processes in the cases that have been reported in recent days are under way. It is not the case that any decision had been taken to allow either of those people to serve their sentences in women’s prisons. However, given the nature of the coverage and the potential—the reality—for that to cause concern among women prisoners and the general population, and indeed to cause distress in the trans community, the overwhelming majority of whom, like the overwhelming majority of the general population, have never committed any offences, led us to clarify the matter and put it beyond doubt.
The position now, pending the review that was already under way, is that no transgender prisoner with a history of violence, including sexual violence, against women will be housed in or transferred to a women’s prison. That is what is important, and it is that clarity that matters to the public.
The First Minister’s final words there were about clarity. That answer was anything but clear. Her justice secretary is very clear that he thinks that a double rapist is a woman. He has enough information to come to that conclusion. The First Minister says that she does not have enough information to come to that conclusion.
I want to look at an area where we agree, which is that trans people are not the problem here. However, here is where we disagree. When a man rapes two women, we do not think that he should be considered a woman just because he says so. We should call out criminals such as that one, who are abusing the system—they are not trans people, but dangerous and violent men. Adam Graham, who wants to be known as Isla Bryson, raped two women. He is an abusive man who seeks to exploit loopholes in the Government’s current policy.
Nicola Sturgeon’s answer to me was that she wants to call a rapist a rapist. However, can she just give a clear answer to my question—not the question that she wants to answer, but the one that I want to ask her: is that double rapist a woman?
That individual claims to be a woman; I said that I do not have information about whether those claims have validity. I do not think that Douglas Ross and I are disagreeing here. What is relevant in this case is not whether the individual is a man or claims to be a woman or is trans; what is relevant is that the individual is a rapist. That is how the individual should be described and that is what should be the main consideration in deciding how the individual is dealt with—that is why the individual is in a male prison and not a female one. Those are the issues that matter.
Douglas Ross talked about current policy. I accept that he has not done so today, but I have read many things in recent days that have tried to conflate the situation in prisons with the legislation that Parliament passed overwhelmingly before Christmas. The two are, of course, not connected and would not be connected even if that legislation was in force, which it is not. The current policy, which is, in my understanding, broadly similar to the approaches that are taken in other jurisdictions, has been in place in the Scottish Prison Service since 2014. As the chair of the Prison Officers Association Scotland said himself this week, the prison service has been taking risk-based decisions about transgender prisoners for many years and it has been doing that safely and effectively. That is what it should continue to do, albeit with the presumptions that were set out for clarity at the weekend.
The First Minister is right to say that I have not mentioned the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill at all. I am speaking about the current Scottish Government policy—I have it here—which states that
“it is the view of the Scottish Government that trans women are women”.
It is the view of the First Minister’s justice secretary that a double rapist is a woman. I am not sure what the First Minister’s view on that is. She says that there is no disagreement between her and me on that point, but there is a massive disagreement. I believe that a double rapist or anyone who rapes a woman is a man—they cannot be considered anything else.
This all matters for very good reasons. It matters because when a violent criminal, such as Adam Graham, gets out of prison, under Nicola Sturgeon’s current Government policies—the ones that I have just spoken about, which she raised—he is considered a woman, which means that sex offenders such as him can keep forcing their way into women’s spaces.
Adam Graham was already able to access a beauty class after raping two women. Twenty-one-year-old Rachel Ferguson was in that class with him and told a newspaper:
“It really scares me to look back and realise she was watching me with no clothes on after being charged with this. It makes me feel physically sick and violated.”
This is a fundamental question about women’s safety. I refuse to trust the word of a rapist. Why does the First Minister do so?
I do not, and nothing that I have said suggests that I do.
Can I set out the reality here? In rightly dealing with the matter and in my answering questions about that very serious individual case, it is important that we also remember—and it bears repetition—that trans women are a very tiny proportion of our society and that the overwhelming number of them never commit any offences of any description, as is true for the overwhelming majority of the general population. In dealing with individuals such as that one, who have to be dealt with very seriously, it is important that we do not inadvertently undermine the rights of the law-abiding majority of trans people in our country. That is an important principle of which we must not lose sight.
Rapists should be dealt with as rapists—I do not think that there is any disagreement on that, and it does a disservice to the victims of crime to suggest that we disagree on that issue.
On access to single-sex spaces, it is the case that, under current law—the Equality Act 2010, which is of course legislation that is reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament—there are provisions to exclude trans women from single-sex spaces. Those exemptions can be applied whether or not a trans woman has a gender recognition certificate. It is important that, as we discuss these important issues, we do so calmly—I recognise that we are having a calm exchange right now—and without misrepresenting the position, even inadvertently, because that would do a disservice to the trans community more generally, the victims of male violence against women and the population at large.
I will remind Douglas Ross of another point, which I have made before. I do not pretend to speak for them, but organisations such as Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid, which deal day and daily with women who have been the victims of male violence against them, were supportive of the legislation, and they deal with the situation around trans women every day. We could all do with listening more to them, because they are in many respects the experts in their field.
We are having a calm debate, which is right for this sensitive issue. However, I am feeling frustrated, as I was last week, that I have repeatedly asked the First Minister for an answer that she refuses to give.
Under law, a rapist has to be a man. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans thinks that this rapist is a woman. In my final opportunity today, I would like to get a clear answer from the First Minister. Is Adam Graham—this double rapist—a man or a woman?
Let us remember that, in court, this man lied. He told people that he did not rape two women. However, under Nicola Sturgeon’s policy, he is believed when he claims to be a woman. He can keep on demanding access to women’s spaces, he can keep forcing victims to call him “she” and he can keep terrifying and traumatising women.
There is murmuring among SNP members, so I ask them and the First Minister to listen to the words of one of Adam Graham’s victims. This survivor was raped by him. On Sunday, she said:
“I don’t believe a word ... I don’t believe he’s truly transgender. I feel as if he’s made a mockery out of them using it ... I’m sure he’s faking it.”
This brave woman summed up the feeling of the majority of people in Scotland when she said:
“You’ve got genuine cases where people are desperate to get reassignment for the right reasons because they’ve been born into that body … not because they’ve raped two people and decided that’s an easy way out.”
Why is the First Minister giving rapists an easy way out?
That does a disservice to victims of crime. I will say a number of things, which are all extremely important.
On the quote that Douglas Ross narrated, my feeling is that that is almost certainly the case, which is why the key factor—and only important factor—in the case is not the individual’s claim to be a woman but the fact that they have been convicted of rape. The individual is a rapist: that should be the deciding factor in decisions about how that prisoner is treated, which, indeed, is what is happening in relation to where the prisoner is.
On more than one occasion today, Douglas Ross has used the terminology of forcing access to women-only spaces. Those are important considerations, but that language ignores the exemptions under current equality law, which is law that, even if this Parliament wanted to, it could not change. Those exemptions enable trans women to be excluded from single-sex spaces when the tests in that legislation are met, regardless of whether they have a gender recognition certificate.
The other thing that Douglas Ross’s questions ignore is the fact that, for any sex offenders who are released from prison, there are monitoring arrangements—the well-established MAPPA or multi-agency public protection arrangements—to ensure that any continuing risks that are posed by individuals, regardless of gender, are properly managed.
It is really important that we look seriously at all these issues, but, in doing so, we should bear in mind two things. First, as I have said, we should not further stigmatise trans people generally. That is important. Secondly, we should not cause undue concern among the public. If there are issues to be addressed, we should address them, but we should do that in a way that is not just calm, but which does not misrepresent the situation, because that is in nobody’s interest.
If all of us come at such debates in that spirit, we can work our way through all these issues, respecting the rights of those whose rights deserve to be respected, but also protecting the public—and women, in particular—from men who want to and do commit violent acts against them.
Local Government Funding
For the past 15 years, the Scottish Government has short-changed local councils. It did not matter whether the Scottish Government’s budget went up or down; local authorities had their budgets cut. Now, they are at financial breaking point.
This week, two of Scotland’s most senior councillors said that council services face being
“either significantly reduced, cut, or stopped altogether”,
“Local authorities will have to consider cutting pupil support staff, libraries, youth work and other vital services”.
Are those councillors wrong?
Councillors are not wrong to say that we live in times of real financial difficulty and constraint. That is true of the Scottish Government, and it is absolutely true of councils across our country.
At this time every year—I think that I made this comment a couple of weeks ago—we hear such questions, as councils look at options that are put before them. Often, those options are not taken forward. However, it is important that all councils look carefully at how they balance their budgets, but that they do that in a way that also fulfils their priorities.
In the budget for the financial year that is about to start—of course, Parliament will debate the Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill at stage 1 this afternoon—we are proposing an increase in the resources available to local government of more than £570 million. That is a real-terms increase of £160 million.
Times are difficult for local government, but within the constrained financial resources that we have, which will be increased by decisions that we are taking—we are proposing to Parliament that we ask those who earn the most to pay a bit more—we are treating local government as fairly as we can.
Finally, I make an invitation to Anas Sarwar and to any member across the chamber: if, as we go through the budget process, they have a proposition to give more money to local government, they should by all means make that suggestion, but they should also tell us where in the budget we should take that money from. That is the only grown-up and mature way to approach budget deliberations.
Why are the councillors whom I quoted considering budget cuts? They are considering cuts because of decisions that the Scottish Government has made—there have been £6 billion of core budget cuts since 2013-14.
The words that I quoted were the words of Scottish National Party councillors Shona Morrison and Katie Hagmann, who are the president and the resources spokesperson of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Those two SNP councillors have been brave enough to say out loud what the SNP Government knows is the truth.
Councillor Hagmann also said:
“Councils are left with little choice other than to potentially raise council tax, raise our fees and charges, or cut or potentially even stop our vital services that we are currently providing”.
When she was asked whether council tax might have to rise by as much as 10 per cent, she said:
“all options are very much on the table.”
The public are being asked to foot the bill for public services that are getting worse by the week because the Scottish Government has underfunded councils for 15 years. First Minister, why are people across Scotland being asked to pay more for less?
That is not the case.
I repeat the offer that I made to Anas Sarwar. As a Parliament, we will debate the budget for next year in this afternoon’s stage 1 debate on the Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill. The budget proposals will then go through the other stages before the budget is passed by Parliament as a whole.
We have put forward a balanced budget. We have allocated all the resources that we have at our disposal. Within that budget, we are increasing local government resources by more than £0.5 billion. If Anas Sarwar is saying that he thinks that local government should get more money than that, let him bring forward that proposal but also tell us—because there is no unallocated pot of cash—where we should take the extra money from. Should it be from the national health service? Should it be from the police? Should it be from the central Government education budget? Those are real questions.
If Anas Sarwar is standing here arguing for a bigger increase for local government—which is legitimate and which he has a right to do—and if he wants to be taken seriously, he must also say where that money should come from. I am waiting for, and am open to, any suggestion that Anas Sarwar wants to make.
The First Minister wants to ignore all this Government’s waste, the vanity projects and the money hidden behind the sofa for the deal with the Greens. We have had cuts right across the country, and she knows that she has taken the decisions that have slashed council budgets. For 15 years, the SNP has underfunded councils, even when her ministers had more money to spend—[Interruption.]
Let us hear Mr Sarwar.
People across Scotland are now facing the double whammy of increased income taxes and hikes in council tax. That means that taxes will go up—not only for the richest but for almost every household in Scotland—but that services will still be cut.
Now, a leaked COSLA document reveals potential job losses on a massive scale. COSLA estimates that more than 7,000 jobs will be lost—7,000. Here is what council leaders from her own party say:
“This budget settlement will have a detrimental impact on vital local services. It will lead to the loss of jobs both within local authorities and within the local companies who supply goods and services to councils.”
After 15 years of command and control, things have got so bad that many of Nicola Sturgeon’s own colleagues are no longer willing to blindly follow orders. Her MPs have lost faith in her strategy, her councillors have lost faith in her decisions and now her MSPs face a choice. Will they vote through those cuts or will they finally—finally—stand up for their local communities?
The problem for Anas Sarwar is that it is the verdict of the Scottish people that matters, which is why I am standing here and he is sitting over there.
Anas Sarwar has just demonstrated that he does not yet deserve to be taken seriously in these exchanges. He is absolutely correct to say that these are really difficult times for local government, as they are for central Government, when it comes to the allocation of resources. We have put a draft budget before Parliament. I stress the word “draft”. Parliament is about to debate that budget.
All the resources that we have are allocated within that draft budget. If it is Anas Sarwar’s proposition that he would like more money to go to local government, that is a legitimate proposal to make, but he has to say where he wants us to take that money from, because it would have to come from the national health service, from the police or from other budgets. Anas Sarwar has that opportunity, and I will wait to hear whether a proposition comes from Labour this afternoon. If he wants us to increase the allocation to local government, he has to say that we should reduce the allocation to some other part of our budget. He must let us know where he thinks that money should come from, and then we can perhaps have a proper, grown-up discussion, rather than the one that he has just made us have.
When we are told to run from danger, our emergency workers run towards it. Last week, Edinburgh firefighter Barry Martin did just that and paid the ultimate price for so doing. I hope that the First Minister will join me in paying tribute to Barry and will support our efforts to see him posthumously awarded the George cross, the highest award for civilian gallantry.
To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-01775)
The Cabinet will meet on Tuesday.
I also take the opportunity to convey my deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of firefighter Barry Martin. He typifies the bravery and courage of all our emergency service workers, particularly our firefighters. I have written to Firefighter Martin’s family. The thoughts of everyone, from across the chamber, are very much with them at this time. I hope that, at this horrendously sad time for them, they will take some comfort from the love that has been expressed by all who knew and worked with Barry.
I am particularly grateful for that reply.
I remind the Parliament that my wife is a primary school teacher and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.
We have calculated that, after the disruption of the pandemic, Scotland’s school pupils have now lost more than 2 million days of education due to strike action. That will double if an agreement is not reached. Today, it is Dundee and Argyll and Bute. Tomorrow, it is South Lanarkshire and the Western Isles. Teachers care deeply about their pupils, and closing the gates is the last thing that they want to do, but the previous pay offer was made to them back in November, and there has been nothing new since then.
This generation of young people has had it harder than any other, and life-qualifying exams are coming over the horizon. Waiting for teachers to buckle or inflation to fall is not a strategy. What will the First Minister do personally to keep those school gates open?
First, I agree that no one wants to see—I certainly do not want to see—any further disruption to children’s education. Alex Cole-Hamilton is right to point to the disruption that Covid caused to children and young people. I also share and echo the respect that he expressed for teachers.
I very much hope that we will reach a resolution and a pay agreement soon that avoids further disruption, but it is important that that continues to be discussed and negotiated through the mechanisms that are in place.
The final thing that I will say—I have said this before—is that the Government is not simply digging its heels in. Any resolution has to be fair and has to be affordable. On the point that we do not simply dig our heels in, we can point to other pay negotiations through which we have managed to reach resolutions that have avoided industrial action in other public services.
We will continue to seek a fair and affordable resolution with teachers that continues to reward them for the excellent work that they do.
To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities with regard to the proposals in some local authorities to reduce teacher numbers, given its commitment to increase teacher numbers by 3,500 by the end of the current parliamentary session. (S6F-01787)
I am very firmly of the view that a reduction in teacher numbers would not be in keeping with our commitment to raise attainment and close the attainment gap in our schools. Indeed, as Christine Grahame has set out, this Government is committed to recruiting additional teachers and classroom assistants. We have provided an additional £145.5 million in this year’s budget specifically to recruit additional teachers. That funding will also be included in next year’s budget for councils, as part of our on-going commitment on teacher numbers.
The Deputy First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills met local government representatives on Tuesday to discuss how we can best deliver on that commitment and protect learning hours, and the education secretary will set out further steps to the Scottish Parliament over the coming days.
I thank the First Minister for her answer. As a former secondary school teacher—although it was some time ago—I have huge regard for the commitment of the profession. Indeed, I benefited, as someone from a working-class background, from state education through to university.
However, context is all, and budgets are, as a result of 10 per cent inflation, under severe pressure at Scottish Government and local government levels, with the same pressures applying in Wales and England, where teachers are on strike.
The issue of funding for education is not a Scottish Government problem: it is a United Kingdom-wide one and is a direct consequence of raging inflation, which Anas Sarwar sidestepped in his exchange with the First Minister. Is not it time that Rishi Sunak ditched his current policy of austerity to tackle the UK Government’s self-inflicted inflation, increased funding to the Scottish Government—and Wales, while we are at it—and dealt with the fallout of a decade of failed Tory policies, which have been exacerbated by Brexit—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Ms Grahame—
Out of all the—[Inaudible.]
Please draw your question to a close.
—four Tory chancellors in one year, and who could forget Liz Truss?
Christine Grahame is absolutely correct. The discomfort among Conservatives was palpable while she was speaking. I also detected a bit of discomfort among Labour members, although I am not quite so sure why that should be the case.
The fact of the matter is that the budget that this Government works within is constrained by decisions that are taken by UK Governments, which still hold most of the financial levers, but within that we are doing everything that we can do to protect public services and secure the fairest possible pay deals for the people who work in them.
However, Christine Grahame is right: the Parliament—and the Government—would be able to do so much more if Rishi Sunak loosened the purse strings, started to negotiate fair pay deals with public sector workers in England and increased funding to the devolved Administrations. Surely, all of us, across the chamber, should unite to call for that.
We have heard a bizarre question followed by a bizarre answer. There is a bizarre situation that only Nicola Sturgeon could have concocted: reportedly, the Scottish National Party Government is now threatening to sanction local councils because of SNP underfunding. The First Minister is forcing councils to choose between deep cuts to local services and above-inflation tax increases. How else, exactly, does she expect them to pay for her commitment to increase teacher numbers?
It is only a couple of weeks since Stephen Kerr’s leader in this Parliament said that the Government had to ensure that there will be no reductions in teacher numbers. The Tories should make up their minds about which side they are on.
However, if Stephen Kerr wants the Government to allocate more resources to local government or to any other part of public services, either he must tell us—as I challenged Anas Sarwar to do—where that money should come from, or his colleagues should call on their bosses at Westminster to deliver more funding for the devolved Administrations.
Finally, the Conservatives should probably drop their call for tax cuts for the richest people in our society. Just this morning, I saw that Liz Smith has said that one of the priorities for the Scottish Government in our budget should be to narrow the tax gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK. That tax gap exists because we ask those who earn the most to pay a bit more. Obviously, what she said means that the Tories still want tax cuts for the richest, which would reduce funding for public services. There is no consistency or principle whatsoever coming from the Tories.
Disabled People (Support with Energy Costs)
To ask the First Minister what schemes the Scottish Government has in place to support disabled people with the energy costs of running lifesaving and independent living equipment at home. (S6F-01771)
High energy prices, along with the wider cost of living crisis, are causing extreme challenges for many people, right now.
We provide a range of disability benefits to help disabled people and those with long-term conditions. The child winter heating assistance and carers allowance supplement provide financial support that is available only in Scotland, as does our new winter heating payment, which will begin in a few weeks. We have also doubled the fuel insecurity fund to £20 million, and some patients who use haemodialysis or oxygen equipment at home are already accessing financial support.
It is deeply regrettable that the United Kingdom Government is cutting, from the end of March, the support that is provided to hard-pressed families. I hope that it will reverse that decision and that members all across the chamber will call on it to do so, and that it will continue to provide the assistance that households need so badly at this time.
Given that the cost of running life-saving equipment, such as a ventilator, can reach as much as £750 a month, does the First Minister agree that energy costs are putting at risk the health and human rights of disabled people, and will the Scottish Government commit to an urgent meeting with me and stakeholders to discuss urgent action to support families to run life-saving and independent-living equipment?
I am happy to ask the relevant minister to take part in such a meeting, and we would be happy to discuss what more the Scottish Government can do.
I agree with Jeremy Balfour about the impact of sky-high energy costs, which is why I think that the UK Government, which holds the levers, has to do much more to help people with the impact of those costs. This Government is doing everything that we can do within our powers and resources. I have pointed to the range of disability benefits that we provide and, in particular, to the doubling of the fuel insecurity fund to £20 million, which will help some of those who are dealing with the kinds of impacts that Jeremy Balfour has set out.
We will continue to look at what more we can do, but in this case the UK Government needs to act to deal with the root causes of rising energy prices and to take action now to help those who are dealing with the impact of them.
The cost of living crisis is being felt most acutely by people with caring responsibilities and those who are in receipt of care.
The Scottish Government commissioned the independent review of adult social care, which included a recommendation to scrap non-residential care charges, but we know that action has not been forthcoming to deliver on that recommendation. The removal of non-residential social care charges would, overnight, improve the lives of more than 100,000 people in Scotland by relieving the financial pressure on their households. Why has the First Minister failed to listen to experts such as Derek Feeley, and to scrap non-residential care charges?
The commitment that we gave on that recommendation, which I agree is important, was to achieve that over the course of this parliamentary session. We are currently looking to see how quickly that might be possible within the financial constraints that we are talking about. I absolutely recognise how important the issue is, but we have to deal with it within the budgets that we have.
I will repeat what I said to Anas Sarwar earlier in the context of the budget for next year. Any member who wants to propose additional funding for any line in the budget is, of course, entitled to do so, but they have to accompany that with an explanation of where they think the additional resources should come from. That is the hard part of setting budgets; Opposition members who want to propose extra money for parts of the budget really cannot escape that responsibility.
Cost of Living Crisis
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to research commissioned by Citizens Advice Scotland, which reportedly found that people are struggling to afford everyday goods, including period and hygiene products, and the energy costs associated with showering, bathing and laundry, due to the cost of living crisis. (S6F-01770)
We remain very concerned about the hardship that people are facing right now due to the cost of living crisis, which is not yet abating. The majority of the key policy levers are, of course, held by the United Kingdom Government, including those that are related to energy bills. We will continue to press the UK Government to use all the levers at its disposal to tackle the emergency on the scale that is required.
In the meantime, we will continue to do all that we can do to help households within the limited budgets and powers that we have. We have allocated almost £3 billion in this financial year to initiatives to help people with the cost of living crisis. That includes £1 billion to provide services and support that are not available anywhere else in the UK. As I said in response to the previous question, we have also doubled the fuel insecurity fund to £20 million this year and we recently announced £2.4 million for action to help tackle food insecurity.
I will follow up on two points on the levers that we have here. I think that since the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 took legal effect last August we have all been hugely impressed by the work that is being done by councils, schools and others to make free period products widely available. Along with period dignity campaigners, I am keen to meet the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government to discuss ways to build on that success, so that we can raise awareness more and help the people who are highlighted in the Citizens Advice Scotland survey.
Secondly, we all know that rip-off energy bills are exploiting people and putting their lives at risk. The whole rotten system needs to be dismantled but, in the meantime, people need urgent support. Can the First Minister guarantee that everyone who is due the winter heating payment in Scotland will receive it this month?
Social Security Scotland is taking forward roll-out of benefits and, of course, it is always the priority to make sure that people get benefits to which they are entitled as quickly as possible.
In terms of wider issues around energy bills, which I covered in response to a previous question, it is important that we continue to consider everything that we could do, but the key levers lie with the UK Government.
On period poverty, all of us across the chamber—Monica Lennon was clearly a key person in this—should be proud of the progress on tackling period poverty. She is right to point to the progress that has been made, but she is also right to say that we should collectively look at how we can now build on that. I know that the social justice secretary would be happy to meet her and campaigners to discuss exactly how we might take that forward. I hope that on this—if not, perhaps, on many other issues that we discuss in the chamber—we can build some real consensus for the future.
We move to constituency and general supplementaries.
United Kingdom Economy (International Monetary Fund)
New analysis by the International Monetary Fund has found that the United Kingdom is set to be the only major economy to shrink in 2023, with all other developed nations experiencing growth, even sanctions-hit Russia. That, on top of everything else, will severely impact on devolved nations and our responsibilities.
Why does the First Minister think that the UK is performing so poorly compared with other economies? Could it be because of the perfect storm of Westminster’s economic incompetence and a disastrous Brexit that Scotland did not vote for?
Natalie Don is absolutely right. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, real discomfort on the Tory benches. Perhaps Tory members have just seen that another consequence of Tory economic and financial incompetence and mismanagement is that interest rates have been increased yet again by the Bank of England, which has real implications for people.
The IMF’s forecast is deeply worrying, but it should come as no surprise. The Scottish Government and others in Scotland have repeatedly warned that Brexit, particularly the hard Brexit that was chosen by the UK Government, would be devastating to Scotland’s economy and the UK as a whole. The economic impacts are already being felt. Britain’s gross domestic product was 5.5 per cent lower by the second quarter of 2022 than it would have been had Brexit not occurred. The consequences of that economic incompetence are devastating for businesses and individuals alike. Thanks to Brexit, the UK is facing a worse cost of living crisis than elsewhere.
Briefly, First Minister.
That is the reality. I think that it is time that the UK Government, and, indeed, the main Opposition at UK level, woke up to that fact and abandoned the disaster that has been Brexit.
The British Heart Foundation is in Parliament today to raise awareness of the importance of learning cardiopulmonary resuscitation. My constituent Stephanie Bain had to perform CPR on her five-week-old baby after he stopped breathing in his cot. Neither Stephanie nor her partner knew how to do CPR on a baby, and I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been for them and their family. The family is now urging parents to learn vital first aid skills that could save the lives of their young children. My office has been in touch with Stephanie, and I am pleased to say that Finlay is now doing well. I have also reached out to the British Heart Foundation to encourage it to create digital content that shows parents how to perform CPR on children who are under the age of one. As February is heart month, will the First Minister support the campaign to ensure that everyone, especially parents, has access to CPR training, as it saves lives?
Yes I will—I am happy to give my support to that campaign. I welcome the British Heart Foundation to Parliament today and commend the organisation for the excellent work that it does, which has an impact on families across Scotland—we are very grateful to it for that. It is important that we work to raise awareness of education and training in CPR. I understand that the British Heart Foundation has an online tool called RevivR, which is about CPR. That is important, but there is more work that we can all do collectively. I am happy to give my support to that and to consider what more the Scottish Government can do to support those efforts.
Muirhouse Millennium Centre
The Muirhouse millennium centre in my region is facing financial difficulty. Several meetings have been held to address the centre management’s concern about the lack of future core funding, which could mean the risk of closure. When community centres are not funded property, it is not only the centre that loses out; the families depending on them for support and help, particularly during the cost of living crisis, are left without a lifeline. Will the First Minister increase funding to local authorities to ensure that they have the necessary funds to support essential community centres such as the Muirhouse millennium centre?
From my constituency, I know the importance of community centres and facilities, so I certainly agree with the sentiment that is being expressed. The individual issue that the member has raised is for the local council. On the central question about whether the Scottish Government will further increase the allocation to local councils, as I said earlier, the draft budget already proposes an increase in resources to local government of more than £0.5 billion. However, as I said to the leader of the member’s party some moments ago, if Labour wants to further increase that allocation, it is entitled to put forward that proposition, but it needs to point to the line in the budget where it thinks that we should take that money from. This afternoon and during the remainder of the budget process, we will wait to see whether any balanced proposals in that regard come from members on the Labour benches. However, based on the experience of past years, I will not be holding my breath.
Brexit (Social Care and Health)
This week marks the third anniversary of Brexit and last night, on the BBC, we heard Dr Donald Macaskill of Scottish Care outline the devastating impact that Brexit is having on our social care and health sectors. Dr Macaskill said that we have lost thousands of front-line staff because of Brexit and an immoveable visa and immigration system from Westminster.
Does the First Minister agree with Dr Macaskill and, if so, what does she think needs to happen to secure a better future for those sectors?
I agree with Donald Macaskill and I think that he was very clear in his comments last night when he said that we have lost thousands of front-line staff in nursing and in direct social care because of Brexit and because of the Westminster visa and immigration system. Of course, the wider cost crisis is also having an impact.
As a country, we need to find a way back to Europe. As a country, we need to find a way of ensuring that we have an immigration system that is not just humane but meets our social and economic needs. It is clear—and it is becoming clearer every day—that Scotland will not find either of those things as part of the Westminster system of government. The route to both is through Scotland becoming an independent country.
Deposit Return Scheme
Incredibly, there is still no operational blueprint for the deposit return scheme, despite it launching in just a few months. No wonder businesses are tearing their hair out. Retailers are investing a quarter of a billion pounds in the scheme this year alone, but they are being forced to take a best guess at how it is going to work. The Scottish Retail Consortium is now calling for a complete operational blueprint to be released by the end of the month. Can the First Minister confirm that that will happen—yes or no?
Circularity Scotland continues to work with businesses as they finalise operational delivery plans ahead of the launch in August. It is also developing and constructing the logistical network that will support the effective operation of the scheme. I will ask Lorna Slater, the relevant minister, to write to the member to set out further details of the steps that are being taken between now and the launch in August.
Winter Heating Payments
Last night, it was confirmed that the Government cannot guarantee that the winter heating payments will be paid this month. As the First Minister said in response to my colleague, the Government has said that it is Department for Work and Pensions data that is the issue.
Ministers set a deadline of 31 January for the DWP to share that necessary data. The relevant minister confirmed in committee that the payments would be made in February if the Government got that data; it did, so I ask the First Minister, has the Government failed to properly plan for the delivery of the payment? Has it underestimated the time needed to properly execute the policy? Will our constituents get the payment this month or will the winter heating payment end up being the Scottish summer payment, paid too late to keep people warm this winter?
We will continue, as we have done with all benefits, to ensure that people who are entitled to these benefits get the money timeously. We received the data from the DWP and payments will be made to the 415,000 people eligible for the payment automatically over the course of February and March.
Ariane Burgess has the next question.
Apologies, Presiding Officer—I meant to press my button again to withdraw the question.
Thank you. That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a brief pause while the gallery clears before we move on to members’ business.