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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 2, 2023


First Minister’s Question Time

Covid Pandemic (Message Retention)

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

In June 2021, the Scottish Government was told to retain messages relevant to its handling of the Covid pandemic. However, five months later, the Scottish National Party introduced a policy of destroying WhatsApp messages. That is the digital equivalent of building a bonfire to torch the evidence. Why did the SNP bring in a policy of deleting messages after it had been told to keep them?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

First of all, the policy that Douglas Ross refers to is a general policy on mobile messaging, including informal messaging, such as on WhatsApp. What is key is that, when we got the advisory notices, particularly from the Scottish inquiry but also when we received information from the United Kingdom Government in relation to the UK inquiry, it was made very clear to officials, civil servants, ministers and cabinet secretaries that any information that was relevant or potentially relevant to the inquiries should be retained and, of course, appropriately recorded in our record management system. That is why 14,000 WhatsApp messages are in the process of being handed over now that we have the section 21 order. That is why 19,000 documents have already been submitted. That is why, when I submit my final statement, unredacted WhatsApp messages will be handed over to the inquiry. I should say that that is in stark contrast to the approach of the Prime Minister, who tried to take the public inquiry to court and lost, of course, and is still refusing to hand over his WhatsApp messages.

Douglas Ross

People who are viewing this are listening for the First Minister to tell us what the Scottish Government is doing. It is not up to Humza Yousaf or any current or former SNP minister to decide what is relevant to the inquiry and to pick and choose which messages are going to be handed over.

It is absolutely clear that the SNP brought in an auto-delete policy not just after being told not to do so by the UK Covid inquiry but after Nicola Sturgeon had set up a separate Scottish inquiry. That policy was introduced two months later. Nicola Sturgeon went on television to say that she could not withhold messages even if she wanted to. However, this week, it was reported that she has deleted her WhatsApp messages.

We know that destroying or withholding evidence from an inquiry is illegal. Does Humza Yousaf accept that, if Nicola Sturgeon or any Government minister has destroyed WhatsApp messages that are relevant to the inquiry, they would be breaking the law?

The First Minister

As Douglas Ross has mentioned the former First Minister, let me remind him and, indeed, the chamber, that, in terms of accountability and transparency, Nicola Sturgeon stood up day after day—virtually every single day—and did 250 media briefings—[Interruption.]


She made 70 parliamentary statements. There was full accountability and full transparency in answering questions. [Interruption.]

First Minister—

The Conservatives do not want to hear that, Presiding Officer, because, of course, that refutes their allegations—

The Presiding Officer

First Minister, take your seat for a moment.

We are not going to continue this session in this vein. Members are required to conduct themselves in an orderly manner. Let us treat one another with courtesy and respect, and members should not decide to contribute from their seats.

The First Minister

I remind the Opposition, particularly the Conservatives, that when the former First Minister stood up and did those daily media briefings, spoke to the public and took questions from the media, it was the Opposition that wanted to stop that happening in the first place.

Let me be absolutely clear, because this is such an important issue—[Interruption.]

What are you hiding?

Mr Kerr, I must ask you to cease shouting from your seat. I would be very grateful if you could comply.

The First Minister

It is important that Opposition members do not shout from a sedentary position, because there are family members who have been bereaved by Covid who want assurances.

I reiterate what the Deputy First Minister said a couple of days ago in the chamber. The Government apologises to those families who were bereaved by Covid for any anxiety or distress that we have caused them; it was certainly not our intention.

We received clarification from the Covid inquiry last week of its expectations. It has provided us with a section 21 order, and we are in the process of providing 14,000 WhatsApp messages. On top of that, I will give my WhatsApp messages—unredacted—to the Covid inquiry, because we set up that inquiry for one reason only: to get to the truth and to ensure that there are answers for those families who suffered the most during Covid.

Douglas Ross

I cannot believe that Humza Yousaf has just stood up and, in the strongest possible way, defended Nicola Sturgeon, who has been accused of deleting vital WhatsApp messages. He did not answer the question, “Would she have broken the law if she had done so?” but the law is clear: deleting evidence that is required by an inquiry is a criminal offence.

That is in writing, in the Scottish Covid inquiry’s letter. The SNP Government was told

“to make sure that no material of potential relevance to the inquiry is destroyed, deleted or disposed of”,

as it would be

“an offence under section 35 of the Inquiries Act 2005”.

The problem with the SNP’s policy is that the messages are deleted before the inquiry can judge whether they are relevant or not.

Humza Yousaf previously told the chamber:

“any material that is asked for ... will absolutely be handed over to the Covid inquiries and handed over ... in full.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; c 15.]

Why has the SNP Government now failed to deliver on that promise by deleting evidence?

The First Minister

Douglas Ross continues to say that we are not handing over WhatsApp messages. That is incorrect. We are in the process of handing over 14,000 messages.

On top of those 14,000 messages, I will, when I submit my final statement, be handing over many messages, not just with cabinet secretaries or with ministers but with UK Government ministers and Opposition politicians across the chamber with whom I communicated.

I will do so unredacted, because this Government believes in accountability, which is very different from Douglas Ross’s leader, the leader of the Conservative Party, who is refusing to hand that material over.

I understand why Douglas Ross wants to talk about process as opposed to substance. The reason why, of course, is that—in this week alone—we have seen utterly scathing, damning evidence about the UK Government’s handling, or mishandling, of the Covid pandemic.

I am, and this Government is, absolutely committed to being transparent and accountable, because we want the truth to be heard not just by the public but, in particular, by the families who were bereaved by Covid. We certainly do not have anything to fear from the truth—I suspect that the Conservatives absolutely do.

Humza Yousaf is all over the place with this. He starts by saying that he is going to hand over all the messages—[Interruption.]

Let us hear Mr Ross.

Douglas Ross

Now he says that he is going to hand over “many” of them and that he does not hide “from the truth”.

We do not know what the truth is, because messages have been deleted, and they have been deleted because of a policy of the SNP Government. That policy means that that Humza Yousaf can cherry pick the information that the inquiry sees. Crucial discussions may have been destroyed by the SNP’s auto-delete policy, and any uncomfortable information may be lost, never to see the light of day.

That secretive approach treats the Covid inquiry, and grieving families, with contempt.

No, it doesn’t.

Douglas Ross

The Deputy First Minister is saying, “No, it doesn’t.” I urge Shona Robison to listen to Margaret Waterton, who lost her mother and—[Interruption.] Jenny Gilruth, listen to someone who lost her mother and husband to the virus.

I would be grateful if members would show one another courtesy and respect. When a member is meant to be speaking in the chamber, let us listen to them.

Douglas Ross

Senior Government ministers in the SNP do not want to hear what grieving families think about their actions. Margaret Waterton, who lost her mother and husband to the virus, said that the news that the Scottish Government has withheld evidence from the Covid inquiry is “frankly shameful”. Jane Morrison, a member of the Scottish Covid bereaved group, said:

“If someone deliberately deleted stuff to avoid us getting to the truth, then morally and ethically, as well as legally, it’s totally in the wrong.”

Does the First Minister regret letting down those families and so many others?

The First Minister

Douglas Ross has every right to ask those questions. We have a responsibility to remember that many people lost loved ones to Covid, including many in the chamber as well in my Government. I reiterate the apology that was made by the Deputy First Minister to the Scottish Covid bereaved group and its representatives that we did not mean to cause them the anxiety that they clearly felt as a result of what was said at the Covid inquiry last week. That is on us and we intend to make that right. That is why we will release the 14,000 messages and I will also release my messages.

The absolute purpose of the inquiry is to get to the truth of the handling of Covid matters and, where mistakes were made, to learn from them. Ultimately, everyone will have an interest in that, from businesses across the country to members of the public—but those with the most acute interest will be the families who have been bereaved by Covid. I will give them an absolute assurance that we are here to co-operate fully with the inquiries.

I remind Douglas Ross of what we already know about his party’s mishandling of Covid. [Interruption.]


The First Minister

Families could not say goodbye to their loved ones, and family members had to attend funerals by themselves without their family or friends around them, all while the Conservatives were partying, breaking Covid rules in number 10.

Briefly, First Minister.

We know that the Conservatives do not believe that the rules apply to them. We have seen that in the evidence that has been given to the inquiry this week.

Thank you, First Minister.

I give an absolute commitment that the Scottish Government will fully co-operate with both inquiries.

Covid-19 Inquiry

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

During the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic in Scotland, thousands of people died. It is for those people that we should be thinking about our questions and answers today. The Government sent untested and Covid-positive patients into care homes, with devastating consequences, and millions suffered from the effects of lockdown. That is why both the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries are crucial, because we need to understand what happened in order to learn lessons for the future.

The Deputy First Minister and the First Minister have talked a lot about individual responsibility in relation to the inquiry. However, the First Minister is responsible for the conduct of the Scottish Government. Will he take personal responsibility for ensuring that the Government complies in full with all requests from the Covid inquiry?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Of course, it is my responsibility and I will liaise closely, as Anas Sarwar would imagine that I would, with the permanent secretary in order to ensure that the organisation fully complies. I said that to Anas Sarwar previously. We will hand over whatever material has been retained by the Scottish Government; 14,000 WhatsApp messages are in the process of being handed over, on top of the 19,000 documents that we have already submitted. It is appropriate that every member and official in the Government complies.

On Anas Sarwar’s specific point, I am responsible for my witness statement. I do not know what other requests have gone to individual ministers or cabinet secretaries, nor do I know what they have submitted. That is appropriate. Anas Sarwar is mouthing “Why?” The reason is that there are confidentially requirements for any public inquiry that must be adhered to. If I tried to break that, Anas Sarwar would be the first one to drag me over the hot coals and say, “Why on earth are you breaching the confidentiality of an inquiry that could potentially prejudice any said inquiry?”

To make it absolutely clear, my understanding is that the information about the confidentiality of the inquiry has been sent to the Scottish Parliament information centre, but we can make sure that Anas Sarwar gets a copy for his information.

Anas Sarwar

I think that Humza Yousaf is missing the central point. He is the First Minister; he is responsible not only for his own actions as an individual but for the actions of the Scottish Government, ministers and officials. I do not think he has read last week’s transcript from the Covid inquiry, which is absolutely damning about the actions of this Government and about his own behaviour. In June, I asked the First Minister directly:

“Will the First Minister confirm that all ministers and officials, past and present, have complied with the do not destroy instruction? Will he give a guarantee that all requested emails, texts and WhatsApp messages will be handed over in full to the inquiry?”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; c 15.]

He gave a direct answer. He said, “Yes, they will.” There was no equivocation and there were no caveats or grey areas, but we now know that messages have been deleted. Crucially, it is for the judge, and not for individual ministers and officials, to decide what is relevant.

Once again, this is about the conduct of the Scottish Government. Can the First Minister tell us how many of the 70 ministers and officials have failed to comply with the do not destroy notice and how many have deleted messages?

Let us be absolutely clear. Anas Sarwar—[Interruption.]


The First Minister

Anas Sarwar is asking me to demand witness statements from individual witnesses so that I can see what they have or have not handed over, because that is the only way that I could know whether former ministers have or have not submitted information—[Interruption.]

Members, let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

—or what that information is. That would, in my view, be a pretty serious breach of the confidentiality of the inquiry.

Anas Sarwar has also asked me about the organisation. It is absolutely my expectation, and that of the permanent secretary, that potentially relevant information should be kept, recorded in the appropriate way and handed over to the inquiry when that is requested. That is why we are in the process of handing over 14,000 messages. I do not know, because I have not seen the detail, but I suspect that many of those messages—given that they came from WhatsApp groups, as the Deputy First Minister outlined earlier this week—may not be relevant. Anas Sarwar is right that it is for the inquiry to determine that. That is why I, as First Minister, will hand over all my WhatsApp messages in unredacted form.

I return to the point that I made to Douglas Ross: the Scottish inquiry was set up to get to the truth of the matter. That is why, as part of its terms of reference, the inquiry will examine the issue of the discharge of patients, and we will fully co-operate with that.

Anas Sarwar

The public, and indeed the inquiry, can see that the First Minister was unequivocal in June but that he is now dodging responsibility in the answers that has given today. It is also clear that the section 21 notice was issued to the Government, not to individual ministers and officials, and that it is the Government that is responsible for collating that evidence and providing it to the inquiry. To abdicate responsibility is frankly shameful, and people right across the country will see that.

The harsh reality is that the First Minister has lost control of his Government. He does not know how many ministers or officials have complied with the “do not destroy” notice, he does not know how many have deleted messages and he claims that the Government’s response to the inquiry is for individuals, rather than for his Government.

The First Minister promised members that he would ensure that all material was handed over to the inquiry in full. We have seen this week how important those messages are. Why does the First Minister believe that his Government should be held to a lower standard than the Tories at Westminster? What is he doing to identify those who did not comply with the “do not destroy” notices? What action is he taking against those who failed to comply, or should we conclude that his word means nothing?

The First Minister

I will again try to clarify some of the issues that Anas Sarwar has raised. It is crucial to say that, when the UK Government inquiry asked us in June for details of the various WhatsApp groups concerning Covid 19, it did not request the messages themselves. The messages were asked for in September, just a matter of weeks ago. The Scottish Government then asked for a section 21 order because of the personal information in some of those messages, and that was received. Now, of course, we will meet the deadline of 6 November to hand over 14,000 messages in unredacted form.


The First Minister

I can hear Jackie Baillie shouting, “Destroyed!”, but the 14,000 messages have not been destroyed. We are handing them over, and they include ministers past and present. We do not know which ministers—again, for confidentiality purposes—but we know that they include ministers past and present.

I go back to the point that Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross have every right to ask about messages being handed over. I give an unequivocal guarantee to those families who have been bereaved by Covid that the messages that we have retained will absolutely be handed over—and handed over in full. As First Minister and the head of the Government, when submitting my statement, I will be handing over my messages in full and unredacted.

Post-cancer Breast Reconstruction Surgery (Waiting Times)

To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on waiting times for post-cancer breast reconstruction surgery. (S6F-02497)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We recognise the importance of breast reconstruction surgery. I am aware that there are still unacceptable waits in some specialties, but we are committed to delivering sustained improvements and year-on-year reductions through service redesign and national working.

Waiting times are not published by individual procedure, but the most recent national statistics from June show that almost 7,500 patients are waiting for in-patient day-case treatment in the plastic surgery specialty in Scotland. Breast reconstruction surgery covers a range of procedures, and delays can be caused by a number of factors. We know, of course, the impact that the pandemic has had, but I assure Pam Gosal that we are working hard to reduce those waiting times.

Pam Gosal

Breast cancer treatment is not just physically demanding—it is emotionally taxing, too. Reconstructive surgery gives women the chance to regain control of their bodies. I have received a response to a freedom of information request that shows that the average wait time for that surgery is nearly 400 days in Greater Glasgow and Clyde. However, I have a constituent for whom it has been more than three and a half years since her mastectomy. She was told that she would have a date for her surgery by 21 October, but that date has come and gone. Does the First Minister accept that that is not good enough? What steps will he take to cut waiting times for that surgery and ensure that patients such as my constituent are not left waiting for years?

The First Minister

I thank Pam Gosal for raising the case of her constituent. Obviously, I do not know the details, but Pam Gosal can write to me if she has not done so already. I am happy to look at the case and the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care will be happy to raise it with the health board.

I agree with Pam Gosal’s premise that waits of that length are unacceptable. She speaks powerfully around the emotional and physical impact of breast cancer, in particular. We have been working towards improvements in waiting times, and we have met the 31-day standard, according to the most recent statistics, but I am afraid that we have fallen short of where we need to be with the 62-day standard.

We will continue to progress work and action to reduce those waiting lists. I will ensure that the cabinet secretary for health writes in detail to Pam Gosal about some of the actions that we are taking. In the meantime, if Pam Gosal provides me with the details of her constituent, we will liaise with the health board to see whether anything further can be done.

Firework Safety (Public Awareness)

To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to increase public awareness of firework safety ahead of bonfire night. (S6F-02498)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We have recently launched our annual public awareness campaigns across a range of media platforms. Those campaigns reinforce appropriate messaging around attending organised displays and how to stay safe over the bonfire weekend. I encourage everyone to familiarise themselves with those campaigns and the firework code.

In addition, we have distributed more than 200,000 safety leaflets to retailers, the Scottish Wholesale Association, trading standards teams and third sector partners to increase awareness of firework safety and the law at the point of sale.

It is, of course, illegal to sell or give fireworks to anyone under the age of 18, to use fireworks before 6 pm or after 11 pm—that is extended to midnight on the 5th—and to use fireworks in the street or other public places. Ultimately, that is so that the public—and, crucially, our emergency services—can have a safe bonfire night.

Clare Adamson

Recent data from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service shows that the number of deliberate fires in the three weeks up to 5 November has fallen by 30 per cent since 2018, to 907 last year. That is very welcome news but, every year, our emergency workers are subjected to immense pressure due to the misuse of fireworks, which is compounded by antisocial behaviour.

Does the First Minister agree that the public can do a real service for our emergency services by taking the decision to attend a public display, which is by far and away the safest and most enjoyable way for a family to spend bonfire night?

The First Minister

I agree with that. Fireworks can be a great spectacle and enable communities to come together. As injuries are less likely to occur at a public display, we would always encourage people to attend one. I know that many communities, regional and national organisations and local authorities do fantastic work to organise such displays.

As members know, we have strengthened the law around access to the use of fireworks, with the aim of reducing demand on our emergency services. The new law also makes attacks against emergency workers an aggravated offence that can be considered by courts when sentencing offenders. As Clare Adamson has articulated very well, I encourage people to attend those public displays where they are available.

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

Scottish National Party ministers claim that their new firework control zones will improve public safety around bonfire night, but my party has found that at least 28 of Scotland’s 32 councils have no plans to introduce them. That includes Dundee, where riot police are on the streets to tackle gangs that are using fireworks to inflict chaos and terror.

Will Humza Yousaf explain why his rushed firework law is being ignored by councils that are suffering from severe SNP cuts?

The First Minister

It is for local authorities to make an application for a control zone. I assume that Conservative-led councils also do not have control zones in place. I do not think that we should blame local authorities or the Government for the actions that we saw in Dundee. We should be very clear that those who misuse fireworks, particularly when they endanger the public and our emergency services, should be held to account for their reckless actions. We should be getting behind our fire service, Police Scotland and the Scottish Ambulance Service, which all do a fantastic job in the run-up to bonfire night and on bonfire night itself.

We have introduced legislation, and a number of applications are in for control zones, which will be given due consideration.

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

I declare an interest as convener of the cross-party group on animal welfare.

The safety of people, especially children, is obviously paramount, but does the First Minister agree that we should be mindful of the effect of fireworks on our pets and livestock, to keep them safe, too, and that, if in doubt about what to do, people should follow the advice of animal organisations, including NFU Scotland?

The First Minister

Yes, I agree with that. There is excellent guidance from a number of third sector partners, including the NFUS. I know from the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others that some very good guidance is available. Christine Grahame is right that we often focus on members of the public, but we should absolutely include our pets, which we know can suffer during the lead-up to bonfire night and on bonfire night itself.

As Christine Grahame has suggested, I ask those who are unsure about animal welfare and safety during this period to please look at the range of third sector organisations that can provide excellent advice.

National Health Service Dentistry

5. Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that dentists are suitably funded to be able to continue taking on NHS patients, in light of reports that some dentists in Edinburgh are ceasing to accept NHS patients altogether. (S6F-02489)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

That is a serious problem, which has been exacerbated by the global pandemic. I am pleased to say that there has been an improving picture in NHS dentistry since the pandemic. Building on that progress is an absolute priority for the Government. We have been working closely with the British Dental Association Scotland and the wider sector on payment reform, which launched just yesterday. That is the most significant change to NHS dentistry in a generation and it provides practitioners with a whole new suite of fees that are designed to provide a full range of care and treatment to NHS patients.

I am confident that reform will provide longer-term sustainability to the dental sector and will encourage dentists to continue to provide NHS care, helping to further mitigate some of the access challenges that we are seeing.

Foysol Choudhury

My constituent Claire was informed that her dentist would be privatised from January and that her family would need to start paying monthly fees or leave the practice. That is not an isolated case; another family in the west of Edinburgh was also informed that their dentist would be privatised. Neither family has been able to find another dentist in their area who will take on NHS patients.

Can the First Minister outline what action the Scottish Government has taken to support dentists and their staff to ensure that their services remain accessible for all?

The First Minister

As I have said, the issue that Foysol Choudhury has raised is extremely important. I hope that, when we can provide him with the details of the payment reform, he will see that we are doing our very best in our work with the sector to incentivise NHS dentistry. For example, a dentist who provides a full set of dentures will now receive £366.80, which is an increase of more than 60 per cent. We have increased the fee for providing surface fillings by almost 45 per cent. We are trying to incentivise NHS dentistry because of the issues that Foysol Choudhury is right to mention.

We are also working with the BDA and others on the recruitment and retention of dentists, particularly in areas where we know that the problem is most acute. I will ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care writes to Foysol Choudhury with a full and detailed response on all the actions that we are taking in that regard.

Public Transport (Affordability)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is making public transport more affordable. (S6F-02494)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We are taking a range of actions to deliver an affordable public transport system for people throughout Scotland.

Earlier this week, we announced that £2 million will be made available in next year’s budget to progress free travel for people seeking asylum in Scotland. This week, we announced the expansion of the existing national ferry concessionary travel scheme to all island residents under the age of 22. Right now, passengers throughout Scotland are benefiting from low fares as a result of our decision to pilot the removal of peak fares on ScotRail. In addition, thanks to the most comprehensive concessionary travel scheme in the United Kingdom, more than 2 million people are eligible to benefit from free bus travel, and 3 million such journeys are taking place every single week.

Mark Ruskell

I thank the First Minister for outlining those successes. Free bus travel has been described as life saving for people seeking asylum. When those people, having escaped from persecution, war and suffering, are forced to live on just £6 a day, the very least that we can do is extend a hand of help.

Does the First Minister agree that it is our responsibility to use the full extent of our powers to welcome those who are forced to flee their homes? Does he agree that, by extending free bus travel to people seeking asylum, we are showing that we are a country and a Parliament that are proud to protect all those who seek safety here?

The First Minister

That is absolutely well said by Mark Ruskell, and I agree with every single word of it. We have long campaigned—often with other political parties, including the Greens—against the UK Government’s inhumane asylum processes. Those processes have left many asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work, almost at the point of destitution—in fact, many of them are in destitution.

Mark Ruskell is right to challenge the Scottish Government on what more we can do to assist them. That is why I am pleased that we have announced that £2 million will be made available in next year’s budget to progress free bus travel for people seeking asylum. It is an issue that our Green colleagues have been keen to pursue with urgency and pace. The announcement is the next step in ensuring that our transport system and our country are fair and accessible to all.

I could not agree more with Mark Ruskell that, when people are seeking sanctuary from war, persecution, extreme poverty and hatred, we all have a responsibility to step up to ensure that we help them as best we possibly can.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I am sure that the First Minister agrees that the UK Government’s £2 bus fare cap scheme is a very positive initiative. It has made a real difference for thousands of people and has encouraged more people to use the buses. When can we expect to see something similar in Scotland?

The First Minister

The lacklustre response to that question from the member’s own colleagues is probably quite merited, because we have, of course, the most comprehensive—it is very comprehensive—concessionary travel scheme in the UK, and we have just expanded it, as I mentioned in my response to Mark Ruskell.

The point that Mark Ruskell made, which I agree with entirely, is that we are having to step in here because asylum seekers—the origin, of course, of this question—are suffering so badly because of the inhumane laws of the UK Government. Because of those inhumane laws and because of the fact that the UK Government is inflicting destitution on many asylum seekers, we have to step in. We are proud to do that, but we should not have to step in. We should not have to continually mitigate the worst excesses of the UK Government. It would be far better if we had the powers in our own hands.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The origin of the question was how we can make bus travel more affordable. The fact is that, while we have a good and comprehensive policy in place for those who are aged up to 22 and those who are over 60, people in the middle are finding it very difficult. It is people who are on low pay, with low incomes, who are asking the question. When Andy Burnham introduced the £2 fares in Greater Manchester, usage went up by 10 per cent in a month. When are we going to look seriously at helping that group of people—the low paid, who are struggling the most and are finding bus travel unaffordable?

We can compare concessionary travel schemes across the UK. I go back to the point that we have the most comprehensive concessionary travel scheme in the UK. [Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

Young people, those with disabilities and older people are all being assisted through our concessionary travel scheme. That ensures that millions of journeys are made every week, which in turn helps the bus companies, particularly in the face of the challenges that they struggled with in the course of the pandemic.

I say to Alex Rowley that we also have our fair fares review to ensure that a sustainable and integrated approach is taken to public transport fares. I am sure that he and others will take a great interest in that when it is published. However, wherever we can act, whether that is on our buses, in removing peak rail fares, or on our ferries when it comes to the expansion of the concessionary scheme, we will act where we have the power to do so.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

For those living in the smaller isles in my constituency, ferries to and from the Orkney Mainland perform the same role as bus transport elsewhere in the country. Can the First Minister confirm that young islanders who rely on those lifeline routes will also be included in any future free ferry fares scheme?

The First Minister

I will, of course, consider the very important point that Liam McArthur raises. He raises the crucial point that those links are lifelines. They are important to young people on islands just as rail and bus services are on the mainland. We will give further details in due course, but that point will be given serious consideration.

We move to general and constituency supplementaries. If members are concise, we will be able to get more members in.

Emergency Access Naloxone Scheme

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

I am sure that members across the chamber will join me in welcoming the emergency access naloxone scheme that is beginning this week. It will see access to potentially life-saving naloxone kits, which can reverse the effects of opioid overdose, being expanded to include community pharmacies right across Scotland. Can the First Minister say any more about how that will complement the Scottish Government’s on-going work to widen access to naloxone as part of the national mission to reduce drug deaths?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I am very pleased that access to naloxone is being expanded to community pharmacies right across Scotland through our national mission to reduce drug deaths and drug harm. We have already invested more than £3 million in widening access to naloxone, including through our emergency services Police Scotland and the Scottish Ambulance Service.

However, we are now going further, and the new nationwide service that was launched on Monday is a welcome addition to existing services. It has been backed by £300,000 of Scottish Government funding and will ensure that every community pharmacy will now hold at least two life-saving naloxone kits. I am very grateful to all the people in community pharmacies who are supporting our £250 million national mission to reduce drug deaths.

Eljamel Public Inquiry (Chair)

When will the chair of the Eljamel independent public inquiry be in post?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Liz Smith will be aware that we have to consult the Lord President on that issue. It will be for the Lord President to nominate an appropriate senior judge for the inquiry. Those discussions are very much under way.

I completely understand the desire of the people who suffered so badly at the hands of Professor Eljamel for pace and urgency, so there is no dither or delay at all from the Government: we simply have to go through the appropriate processes. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care to write to Liz Smith with further details, but I reiterate that nomination of an appropriate judge lies with the Lord President.

Housing Supply (Edinburgh)

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

It is expected that, this afternoon, the City of Edinburgh Council will declare a housing emergency, following a call from Shelter Scotland. Will the Scottish Government now accept that there is a housing emergency in our capital city, and will the First Minister look at targeted solutions and investment to increase housing supply in Edinburgh?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We will, of course, watch proceedings at City of Edinburgh Council very closely. There is simply no getting away from the real challenge that City of Edinburgh Council faces in relation to housing. That is why the Government has a very good track record of not just building houses, but building socially affordable houses. From April 2007 to the end of June 2023, we delivered more than 123,000 affordable homes, more than 87,000 of which are for social rent, including 22,994 council homes. We are the party that also ended the right to buy, which has protected an estimated 15,500 social homes. Sarah Boyack will also be aware of the measures that the Government has taken to control rent.

We will continue to liaise with City of Edinburgh Council, as we would with other local authorities, to see what assistance we can provide to deal with the real and significant challenges that it faces in relation to housing.

Medical Evacuation from Gaza

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

Will the First Minister provide an update on the Scottish Government’s latest engagement with the United Kingdom Government on any plans for the medical evacuation of injured civilians from Gaza in the light of his commitment to treat injured civilians in Scottish hospitals in the event that there is a medical evacuation?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I will make the point that I have made in the chamber before. The people of Palestine and Gaza are very proud people. They should not have to leave their land, but many of them have been forced to leave—in particular, those who have been moved from north Gaza to south Gaza.

Many people are lying injured and dying in hospitals, which are running out of fuel and medical supplies. When we can bring those injured people for treatment in Scotland and the UK, Scotland is certainly prepared for that. Our officials are in regular contact with their counterparts at the UK Department of Health and Social Care. No request has been made for the UK to receive medical evacuations from Gaza, but we hope that, if that request comes, the UK and Scotland will be ready to play their parts.

I reiterate the calls that I have been making for many weeks now: for an immediate ceasefire to allow the humanitarian corridor to open; to allow supplies, including fuel, to come into Gaza; and, of course, to stop the bombing and killing. We have seen horrendous scenes during the past week, let alone the past three and a half weeks—in particular, the sickening bombing of Jabalia refugee camp, which must be condemned in the strongest possible manner.

Police Funding Cuts

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

On Tuesday night, in the Kirkton area of Dundee, large gangs caused chaos by damaging property, setting fires and blocking roads into a housing estate, which prompted the intervention of riot police. That behaviour is unacceptable and Kirkton’s residents deserve better. The police force is stretched because of funding constraints, which are making it increasingly challenging for it to handle large-scale incidents such as that one. Will the First Minister get behind the police and reverse police funding cuts?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Let me just say very clearly that there was a very efficient response by Police Scotland. We should thank our police officers for what they do every single day, putting themselves in harm’s way in order to protect the public.

On funding for Police Scotland, I have said in the chamber on many occasions in recent weeks that we have provided an increase to Police Scotland’s revenue budget in this financial year.

I am very grateful to not just Police Scotland but the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and other partners for their swift attendance and efficiency in dealing with that damaging and reckless behaviour. There is an open police investigation under way, so I urge anyone who has information about the disorder to contact Police Scotland.

School Meals Debt (Cancellation)

Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

Aberlour has called for the cancellation of school meals debt. Through its research, it has identified that

“income thresholds for free school meal eligibility have barely risen in the last twenty years.”

Delays to the extension of free school meals mean that some parents and families are now feeling the impact of the Government’s inaction. Will the First Minister back calls for the cancellation of school meals debt? Will he consider an immediate uprating of the income thresholds to give working families some much-needed relief and further reduce the likelihood of hunger in schools?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We will, of course, consider any suggestions—not just from trusted third sector partners such as Aberlour, but from members right across the chamber, as we head into the budget process. We have a very generous free school meals offer and, as per my programme for government, we will seek to expand that.

However, we know that we still have significant challenges around poverty in Scotland. It is due to the Scottish Government’s actions, including the game-changing Scottish child payment, that an estimated 90,000 children will be lifted out of poverty this year. Instead of our having to continually mitigate the harm from Westminster—such as from the two-child limit, the benefits cap and the rape clause, some of which we can mitigate and some of which, I am afraid, we simply cannot mitigate—would not it be much better to have the full powers in our own hands, so that we could not only reduce poverty but eradicate it altogether?

That concludes First Minister’s questions.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

In the First Minister’s answers this afternoon, he said of the request for messages from the Scottish Government that

“The messages were asked for in September, just a matter of weeks ago.”

However, commenting on that, at the UK Covid inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC said:

“requests have sought not only information, but also access to potentially relevant messages ... requests for such information and such messages were issued in late 2022”.

Can the First Minister confirm that counsel to the inquiry is correct? If so, will he revise the statement that he made to Parliament?

The Presiding Officer

The point that Mr Ross raises is not a point of order. Mr Ross’s comments are now on the record, and there might or might not be a response. However, the content of a member’s contributions are a matter for the member.

12:48 Meeting suspended.  

12:49 On resuming—