Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, February 8, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

Michael Matheson (Resignation)

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

I begin by sending my deepest condolences and, I am sure, those of the entire chamber to the family of Keith Rollinson, who tragically died following an assault at Elgin bus station last Friday. Keith died serving his community, and there is a huge amount of shock and anger across Moray. Keith was a loving husband and father, and our thoughts are with his family at this deeply tragic time, as well as with his many friends and colleagues at Stagecoach.

I echo what the Presiding Officer said earlier this week, following the King’s announcement that he is receiving treatment for cancer. We wish His Majesty and the entire royal family all the very best for the King’s full and speedy recovery. [Applause.]

Michael Matheson has finally resigned as health secretary, months after it emerged that he was dishonest and misled Parliament over an £11,000 iPad bill that he charged to taxpayers. Humza Yousaf described Michael Matheson as

“a man of integrity and honesty.”

How much does the First Minister now regret those words?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I, too, pay my condolences, as I did earlier this week, to the family of Keith Rollinson. His tragic killing has undoubtedly impacted not just his family but the local community. As someone whose family members were previously bus drivers, I know that that community is extremely close, so all of the bus-driving community will be impacted and affected by that tragic killing.

I echo what I said earlier this week. After His Majesty’s openness about his recent prostate treatment, I, like many, was moved and saddened to hear of his subsequent unrelated cancer diagnosis. As a supporter of many cancer charities over the years, His Majesty’s candour is admirable. A cancer diagnosis is a cause of great worry in any family, and I wish His Majesty a speedy and full recovery. He and the entire royal family are in my thoughts and prayers and, I am sure, the thoughts and prayers of everybody in the chamber.

On the question of substance that Douglas Ross asked, Michael Matheson made a mistake and has apologised for that mistake. What he asked for was due process. I think that somebody who has served this Parliament, served his country and served in the Government—not for years but for decades—should be afforded that due process. As that due process comes to its conclusion, Michael Matheson has concluded that he should stand down, and I have accepted his resignation.

The Conservatives talking about integrity in public life will be quite galling for those who are listening. I remind Douglas Ross that he called Boris Johnson an “honest man”. That would be the Boris Johnson who lied about partygate. That would be the Conservatives, of course, who awarded multimillion-pound personal protective equipment contracts to their pals. If there is one party in the chamber that has no credibility in talking about integrity in public life, it is the Conservatives.

Douglas Ross

As clear as day, there was not a bit of regret from the First Minister about claiming that Michael Matheson is

“a man of integrity and honesty.”

The First Minister said that the former health secretary came to his decision after due process. Mr Matheson says in his two-page letter that he has not received the findings of the review but thinks that it is in his best interests and the best interests of the Scottish National Party Government that he resigns. If he is so keen on due process, why not wait for the report to be published?

Let us be clear. Michael Matheson was dishonest about his £11,000 iPad bill. He made a false claim for thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money. He misled the public, the press and this Parliament. He kept on being dishonest, even as his story changed. He has resigned, but Humza Yousaf should have sacked him the minute it became clear that Michael Matheson had not told the truth. In the former health secretary’s lengthy letter, there is not one word of apology to the people of Scotland for what he did and for his dishonesty. I hope that the First Minister will apologise on his behalf.

Why did Humza Yousaf continue to have this disgraced minister in his Government for months after the situation first came to light?

First Minister, before you begin, I remind members that the investigation process, which is a confidential process, is still on-going.

The First Minister

As I said, Michael Matheson reiterated in his letter that, as the process is coming to a conclusion, he has offered his resignation, and I have accepted his resignation.

I remind Douglas Ross that, when it comes to mistakes being made, he forgot to declare tens of thousands of pounds of income—he simply forgot to do that. I do not think that I asked for Douglas Ross’s resignation at that time, because we understand that mistakes can happen.

Douglas Ross said that Michael Matheson did not apologise, but that is incorrect—[Interruption.]

Can we please have quiet so that we can all hear the questions and responses?

That is incorrect. If Douglas Ross wants to look at the Official Report—[Interruption.]

Mr Ross!

The First Minister

Douglas Ross might not want to listen to what I have to say, but he can read the Official Report of the personal statement that Michael Matheson made in the chamber. He reiterated his apology on numerous occasions for the mistake that he had made. He did make a mistake; I am not suggesting that he did not. All that I am suggesting is that a man who has served this Parliament for many years—decades, in fact—and who has worked diligently and hard in every role that he has been in should be afforded due process. He has been afforded that due process and has come to the conclusion that he should stand down.

What he has helped to achieve is the recovery of our national health service. That process is, of course, on-going but, under Michael Matheson and this Government, we have been focused on the recovery of the NHS. That includes, of course, record funding for our NHS—

Briefly, First Minister.

—which is in stark contrast to the Conservative Government, which is imposing real-terms cuts on the NHS in England.

Douglas Ross

Michael Matheson tried to cheat the taxpayer out of tens of thousands of pounds. He has been backed every step of the way by Humza Yousaf, and he is still being backed by the First Minister. Even when the former health secretary’s story changed, Humza Yousaf was still there defending him. He stood by him even when Michael Matheson had to cancel appearances at general practitioner surgeries and stop doing his job to avoid scrutiny. Humza Yousaf let Michael Matheson continue to be health secretary while he was distracted and was a distraction. The First Minister was just about the only person who still supported Michael Matheson. Humza Yousaf staked his own personal reputation on backing the former health secretary. Why was he willing to tolerate such dishonesty?

The First Minister

Let me again remind Douglas Ross what we have been focused on. Let us look at the facts and at the recovery of the NHS. In Scotland, we have the best-performing accident and emergency departments in the entire United Kingdom. We have provided a real-terms uplift for the NHS in Scotland while the Tories have inflicted a real-terms cut to NHS England to the tune of more than £1 billion. Under the Scottish National Party, there is record staffing in NHS Scotland, which is up by more than 31,000. In Scotland, we have the best-paid NHS staff anywhere in the UK. The number of out-patients who have been waiting for more than two years has reduced by almost 70 per cent, and the number of in-patients who have been waiting for more than two years has reduced by more than 25 per cent. [Interruption.]

First Minister.

The Conservatives do not want to hear it, Presiding Officer, because it points to an NHS recovery.

Can I remind all members of the atmosphere that we wish to have at this session? We want members to be able to put questions and to respond in an orderly manner, and we wish to be able to hear one another.

The First Minister

Unlike where the Tories are in charge, Scotland has not lost a single day of NHS activity to strike action—due to the deal that Michael Matheson concluded, that includes strike action by junior doctors. We are a Government that takes great pride in supporting our NHS at its time of greatest need, which is in stark contrast to a Tory Government that is gutting NHS England to the bones.

Douglas Ross

From that answer, it is as if Humza Yousaf does not realise that his disgraced former health secretary resigned this morning. It is incredible.

Humza Yousaf said that the £11,000 claim was a “legitimate parliamentary expense”. Months ago, the First Minister claimed that the matter was closed—that there was nothing more to see here. Last year, he told me in the chamber that he had “absolute and full confidence” in Michael Matheson. He said that Michael Matheson was

“a man of integrity and honesty.”

Humza Yousaf backed him to the hilt, but most of Scotland has known from the very beginning that Michael Matheson was dishonest. Humza Yousaf’s own reputation is in tatters over the scandal. He looks weak.

Trust in this Government is gone, the SNP’s credibility is gone and Michael Matheson is gone, but Humza Yousaf, the human shield, is still here defending him. How can anyone trust a single word that this SNP Government says ever again?

The First Minister

Well, well, well, Presiding Officer. Douglas Ross wants to talk about trust, but did he not see yesterday’s Ipsos MORI poll, which showed that we in the SNP are trusted—[Interruption.]

First Minister!

We are simply not going to conduct our business in this manner. I ask front-bench members, in particular, to set the best of examples.

The First Minister

The Tories do not want to listen to the facts. The facts show that the SNP continues to be trusted by the people of Scotland over the NHS, the economy, transport and health, in stark contrast to the Conservatives.

How dare Douglas Ross talk about standards in public life in the week in which his leader, the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

First Minister!

Mr Ross, you have put your questions. The First Minister is now responding. Let us do one another the courtesy—we might not always agree with what we are hearing, but we are simply not going to shout at one another, are we?

The First Minister

How dare Douglas Ross stand up in this Parliament, in this chamber, in this week of all weeks, and talk about standards in public life when his leader, the Prime Minister, quite literally gambled with the lives of the most vulnerable? Just yesterday, the Prime Minister decided to punch down on one of the most marginalised communities in the entire country. Of course, he did that not just on any day; he did it on the day that Brianna Ghey’s mother was in the House of Commons. That was a disgrace. It was shameful. So, I will take no lectures whatsoever from the Conservatives on standards and integrity in public life.

NHS (Delays in Accessing Treatment)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I join colleagues in paying our respects and passing on our condolences to the family of Keith Rollinson. He was a much-loved member of his community. I know from my family in Elgin how deeply wounded and hurt the community in Elgin is feeling over this period.

I also echo the comments that have been made about sending our thoughts and best wishes to King Charles and his loved ones. We hope that His Majesty makes a full and speedy recovery.

After months of Humza Yousaf battling to keep Michael Matheson in his job, today the health secretary has finally resigned. That will make the headlines today, but the crisis in our national health service has been 17 years in the making. Humza Yousaf might hope that swapping one failing Scottish National Party minister for another will solve the problems, but it will not.

I want to ask about the real-life consequences of the Government’s failure. Although the Government pretends that there is no crisis and that it has everything under control, that is not the experience of patients across the country. For many people, delays in accessing treatment can be fatal. Can the First Minister tell Parliament how many people called an ambulance last year but died before they could reach an accident and emergency department?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I do not have that figure in front of me, but I can say that a significant chunk of the winter funding that we announced was to recruit additional staff to the Scottish Ambulance Service.

I take real exception to Anas Sarwar’s characterisation of the situation as one in which nobody in the Government understands the real challenges that the NHS is under. We do. In fact, we are the ones who brought forward the recovery plan that is helping the NHS to recover. That is why there has been a reduction in the number of out-patients who have been waiting longest—those who have been waiting two years or more. That figure has reduced by almost 70 per cent. The number of in-patients waiting more than two years has been reduced by more than 25 per cent.

There is not a single person on the this front bench who does not understand the significant challenges for the NHS. That is why we are ensuring additional resources for the Scottish Ambulance Service. I would be happy to write to Anas Sarwar with the details of what we are doing to tackle the far-too-long ambulance waiting times across the country.

Anas Sarwar

That answer proves how much Humza Yousaf has his head in the sand. He talks about a recovery plan, but waiting lists have gone up since he published his recovery plan, and more than 800,000 of our fellow Scots are on NHS waiting lists while he dithers around looking for a decent statistic in his book. He needs to wake up to the reality that is faced by far too many Scots.

The answer to the question that I asked is that there were more than 12,000 people last year for whom an ambulance was called but who died before reaching hospital. That figure is up from just over 7,100 in 2019, which is an increase of more than 70 per cent in just four years. Many of those people might have survived if an ambulance had reached them sooner or if they had been admitted to hospital more quickly. That is the real-world consequence of the SNP’s incompetence and its failure to get to grips with the crisis in our NHS.

Here is another example. Back when Humza Yousaf was health secretary, the Government promised that all 150,000 women who had been wrongly excluded from cervical screening would be contacted by August 2021. More than two and a half years later, 65,000 women are still waiting to have their cases reviewed and to hear whether they are at risk. Why has the Government failed those women?

The First Minister

Anas Sarwar rightly raises a couple of important issues, but when he interrogates issues in the health service, he talks about the past four years without giving any recognition to something quite significant that happened in the past four years: there was a global pandemic, which was the biggest shock that the NHS has faced in its 75-year existence. NHS services in Labour-run Wales, in Conservative-run England and in SNP-run Scotland are all facing really significant challenges because of that global pandemic. Anas Sarwar cannot simply say that things have deteriorated in four years without giving any context whatsoever. It is quite something for Anas Sarwar to say that things should have got better in the midst of a global pandemic.

Regarding current waiting lists, there is no suggestion from me that we should do anything other than focus on reducing those waiting times. I can look at the throughput of operations performed. In the past year, there was an 11 per cent increase in the number of operations performed, compared with the previous 12 months, and a more than 15 per cent increase, compared with the 12 months before that. There is no doubt that too many people in Scotland are waiting. We are working to reduce that number, where we can.

I can give Anas Sarwar more detail in writing about the women who might have been affected by issues with cervical cancer screening. Having done an initial audit, NHS boards reached out to women who were deemed to be most at risk and have taken the appropriate action, where necessary. I am more than happy to write to Anas Sarwar with more detail, but it would be incorrect to suggest that they are at risk, or at high risk. There has been a focus on the women who were impacted and whom clinicians believe to be at the highest risk of cervical cancer.

Anas Sarwar

I am honestly gobsmacked by the First Minister’s outrageous answer. He says that there is no evidence that those women are at high risk, but that is why their cases are being reviewed. Three women have died while waiting for that review and 65,000 women still have not been processed by the review. I think that he should look seriously at what is actually happening in the national health service that he presides over, because the reality is that those women, and too many other people who need the NHS, are being failed by an incompetent SNP Government. The result is that A and E delays get worse, waiting lists grow, staff burn out and patients’ lives are put at risk.

The Government would rather deny its incompetence than face up to the problem. Its financial mismanagement is further threatening front-line NHS services. It would rather continue with a culture of secrecy than learn the lessons of its failures.

Whoever this weak First Minister chooses to be the next health secretary, is not it the case that we need more than a change of health secretary, and that we need a change from this failing and incompetent SNP Government?

The First Minister

Anas Sarwar has completely mischaracterised what I said. As he knows—I am happy to provide him with more detail, if he does not—the review of cervical screening exclusions had two parts to it. There was the initial review of 1,500 records, which was completed in 2021, and a much wider review of all exclusions from the programme, which is very much on-going and covers about 150,000 individuals. I am more than happy to provide Anas Sarwar with the full details of the progress that is being made.

Under this Government’s stewardship of the NHS there has been record staffing, and we have the best-paid staff anywhere in the United Kingdom. We have not lost a single day to strike action, unlike Labour-run Wales and Conservative-run England. We are making a dent in the longest waits for people who were impacted by the global pandemic.

What does not help recovery is the devastating cuts to the budget by the Conservatives. It would be really helpful if Anas Sarwar was able to confirm that UK Labour, if it forms the next UK Government, would reverse those Tory cuts. What we have had from Labour, Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves, however, is absolute confirmation that they will not reverse Tory spending cuts.

Briefly, First Minister.

I am afraid that, while we currently face headwinds of austerity from the Conservative Government, it does not look like the situation will change under a UK Labour Government.

Scottish Government (Use and Retention of Informal Communications)

3. Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Scottish Information Commissioner’s intervention into its use and retention of informal communications, in light of the United Kingdom Covid-19 Inquiry. (S6F-02813)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

The Government is committed to complying with all of its legal obligations in relation to freedom of information and records management legislation. We received details about the intervention yesterday afternoon, and we will, of course, fully co-operate with the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office once we have considered the contents fully.

I have already instructed that there should be an externally led review looking at use of mobile messaging apps and non-corporate technology. Given that we have heard that the former Prime Minister, the current Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland were unable to provide the UK Covid inquiry with any WhatsApp messages, due to their having been deleted, the Deputy First Minister has written to the UK Government, the Welsh Government and the new Northern Ireland Executive to invite them to participate in that externally led review

Craig Hoy

On the day that the disgraced health secretary is forced to quit the shambolic and secretive Scottish Government, it is worth reminding Parliament that the Scottish National Party’s deputy leader, Keith Brown, claimed last year that the SNP was

“the most transparent party in Scotland”.

Since then, Nicola Sturgeon has revealed that she deleted each and every one of her informal Covid-related messages—in line, she said, with Scottish Government policy. Last October, however, Humza Yousaf claimed that he kept and retained his WhatsApp messages from that period. To assist the Scottish Information Commissioner with his investigation, will the First Minister now confirm who breached his Government’s record management rules—Nicola Sturgeon or Humza Yousaf?

The First Minister

A poll that has come out in the past few days has shown that 51 per cent of Scottish voters—[Laughter.] Members are laughing at this; they do not want to hear it. It said that 51 per cent of Scottish voters feel that the Scottish Government handled the pandemic better; just 13 per cent thought that the UK Government had handled the pandemic better. I really do not think that the party that was secretly handing over multimillion-pound personal protective equipment contracts to its donors and friends should be lecturing anybody about transparency. That party’s leader took the inquiry to court and lost. That party was breaking the rules, with partying in number 10 while people were missing the funerals of their loved ones. Of all the parties that might lecture anybody on public integrity or transparency, it should certainly not be the Tories—and certainly not Craig Hoy.

Long Covid

4. Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on what progress the Scottish Government has made towards implementing the recommendations of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee’s report, “Long COVID”. (S6F-02821)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Since the publication of the “Long COVID” report, to which we responded in June 2023, a number of recommendations have been implemented. They include publishing a suite of educational resources on NHS Education for Scotland’s learning platform to improve healthcare staff’s knowledge and understanding of the condition of long Covid and NHS National Services Scotland commissioning the University of Leeds to support the initial evaluation of long Covid services in Scotland.

Over this financial year, we have made available £3 million of the £10 million long Covid support fund to support national health service boards to increase the capacity of the services that support those with the condition, develop those services into more clearly defined local pathways and provide a more co-ordinated experience for those who need to access support.

Jim Fairlie

Addressing stigma and the lack of a single point of contact, evaluation of other approaches to treatment and signposting for affected patients was all recognised as being vital for us to make progress to help sufferers. Will the First Minister reassure the people who are affected that those issues are being taken forward to allow them to learn to live with the condition or to be treated, and to get on with their lives?

The First Minister

Yes. Jim Fairlie makes important points about stigma and establishing in every health board a single point of contact for long Covid patients. I mentioned the funding that was provided. I am also happy to write to Jim Fairlie with details of long Covid services that are available in our health boards.

We continue to engage with people who are living with long Covid to develop case study videos for NHS Inform, which will provide an insight into people’s personal experiences of living with the condition, and to help us to co-design the policy that is required in relation to long Covid.

The identification, assessment and management of people with long Covid is very much guided by United Kingdom-wide clinical guidelines, which were developed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the Scottish intercollegiate guidelines network and the Royal College of General Practitioners. The guidelines were developed using a living approach, which means that they will continue to develop and evolve as we learn more about long Covid.

I therefore give Jim Fairlie an assurance that is not just about tackling the stigma involved in seeking help, because nobody—at all, ever—should feel that they cannot reach out for help; I give him a further assurance that any policy that we design in relation to long Covid will be co-designed with those who have lived experience.

Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

The First Minister mentioned the publishing of material. On 31 January, the Scottish Government issued an update on long Covid guidance on NHS Inform via the official @scotgovhealth channel on X, formerly known as Twitter. It was endorsed by the Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health, Jenni Minto. The video downplays the challenges that individuals who are grappling with long Covid encounter, fails to fully represent the diversity of symptoms and the severity of long Covid, and disregards treatment for symptom management. In a joint statement, UK long Covid charities urged the Scottish Government to withdraw the video and to apologise. Will the First Minister do so?

I declare an interest as a practising NHS GP.

The First Minister

I will, of course, listen to what long Covid charities have to say. We take the issues of long Covid very seriously indeed, and we recognise the impact that it has on the health and wellbeing of those who are affected—not just adults but children as well. We know that people can have a range of experiences.

The video that Dr Gulhane mentioned was made with the input of health professionals and people who are living with long Covid. I give him an absolute guarantee that we will continue to engage with those who have lived experience, including the organisations that he referenced, and will take on board their comments.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

A report from Washington University in St Louis found that those who had had Covid-19 had a 72 per cent increased risk of heart failure, a 63 per cent increased risk of heart attack and a 52 per cent increased risk of stroke, regardless of age. Similar things are happening to other organs in people who have symptoms that are characteristic of long Covid. The problem has not gone away; long Covid persists.

The recommendations in the committee’s report were largely about the collection of data, because little evidence is collected centrally by the Government. What progress has been made to ensure the consistent collection of long Covid data?

The First Minister

Jackie Baillie is absolutely right that one of the report’s recommendations was on data collection. The Scottish health survey provides annual monitoring of the population prevalence of long Covid. It includes questions about self-reported long Covid and, more qualitatively, the impact on day-to-day activities. The Scottish health survey for 2022 was published on 5 December 2023. We should seek to see what more we can do to improve that data collection, as per the committee report. I am happy to ensure that Jackie Baillie gets full details of what health boards are seeking to do to improve their data collection on long Covid.

The Promise

5. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Who Cares? Scotland research report, “Is Scotland Keeping the Promise?”, which reportedly indicates that, on the fourth anniversary of the publication of “The Promise”, key pledges made to care-experienced people are not being fulfilled. (S6F-02810)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I thank Who Cares? Scotland for the continued important work that it does to support the care-experienced community across Scotland. We are carefully considering the findings of the report. We are determined to drive forward the transformational change that is required to keep the Promise and make Scotland the very best place in the world to grow up in, where all children are loved and feel safe and respected.

Yesterday, I had the enormous pleasure of visiting the Hub for Success, which is hosted by Edinburgh Napier University and supported by Scottish Government Promise partnership funding. I met care-experienced students, who shared the positive impact that the service had on them.

There is, as the report has undoubtedly highlighted, more work to do, which we do not shy away from. However, we should also share and celebrate where change is being felt. One key area in which there has been clear progress is in the number of looked-after children. The latest statistics show that there were almost 2,000 fewer looked-after children in July 2022 than there were when the Promise started in July 2020. That does not take away from the work that still has to be done, but I am pleased by some of the progress that we are seeing.

Monica Lennon

I agree that Who Cares? Scotland deserves credit for the report, which highlights areas of progress but also major areas of concern. To give one example, its freedom of information investigation uncovered that care-experienced children have lost more than 1.3 million school days to exclusion, despite the Promise pledging to end that exclusion. That could be just the tip of the iceberg, as several councils could not provide any data.

We need transparency, accountability and leadership if we are to fulfil the Promise, but lack of data is a constant theme of the report. Does the First Minister agree that, to keep the Promise, we have to tackle quality of data? Will he and his Government urgently review the data that is held by public authorities and report annually to Parliament? What we have here is not good enough.

The First Minister

I largely agree with Monica Lennon and the Who Cares? Scotland report that data collection, recording, monitoring and reporting is key to tracking progress and ensuring that we are delivering the change that we need. I assure her that we are working closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Promise Scotland and wider stakeholders to develop the national Promise performance outcomes framework—which will be aligned to the 2024 to 2030 plan—to track progress.

I entirely take the points that Monica Lennon made. I am happy to ensure that the appropriate minister writes to her with details of the conversations that we are having with local government about data collection.

School exclusions were mentioned to me in my meeting with the care-experienced community just yesterday. A whole raft of work has been going on to reduce school exclusions to the absolute minimum where we can. I thank Who Cares? Scotland and all the other stakeholders that are working with us to deal with those challenging issues.

Concise questions and responses will enable more members to be involved.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

The Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill will play an important part in keeping the Promise. As Parliament moves forward and looks to further improve the bill at stage 3, does the First Minister agree that, despite the complexity of doing so, it is crucial that, in reforming the care and justice system, we uphold and promote the rights of all children, whether they are in direct contact with the system as witnesses, victims or perpetrators or are impacted because of a family member?

The First Minister

Yes—I absolutely agree. I am proud that Scotland became the first nation in the United Kingdom to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law. The Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill is taking measures to promote that and to help Scotland to keep the Promise.

Action to improve the experiences of child victims and their families is an absolute top priority for all of us, I am sure, and particularly for the Government. We have engaged with stakeholders including Victim Support Scotland, which has helped to inform the bill, and the bill completed stage 2 just yesterday. Protecting and promoting the rights of all children who come into contact with the justice system is at the heart of the bill, which will be an important step towards improving outcomes for young people as we keep the Promise.

Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I note the First Minister’s reference to 2,000 fewer children being in the care system. However, I highlight the report’s statement that that could evidence a “worrying failure”. Given that social workers have a crucial role in keeping the Promise, the revelation that more than 83 per cent of social workers had an absence from work in 2023 because of sickness is very concerning. How will the Scottish Government ensure that local authorities receive adequate support and funding to enable them to have sufficient staffing levels so that care-experienced children, young people and their families receive the support that they deserve?

The First Minister

We will ensure that we fund our local services and local authorities adequately. That is why they are getting a real-terms uplift in the budget, as announced by the Deputy First Minister. That is despite the fact that we have seen a real-terms cut to our budget of about £500 million over the past couple of years.

The social work workforce is employed primarily by local authorities, which monitor staff absence levels. We recognise the pressure that that workforce is under. We are working with partners who have a collective responsibility to our front-line workers to seek ways in which we can support that workforce. That includes the development, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, of a joint workforce improvement plan that seeks to address the recruitment and retention challenges that the profession faces.

We have formed a joint social care and social work services workforce task force, which is considering how we could deliver improvements for the workforce in adult social care and children’s social care. Our proposals for the national care service include the establishment of a national social work agency to support and invest in the profession by providing national leadership, raising the status of social work as a profession and considering the future needs of the workforce.

Long-term Empty Homes (Enforcement Powers)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to strengthen enforcement powers in relation to long-term empty homes. (S6F-02798)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Tackling empty homes is a priority. We want to see more homes being returned to productive use as warm, safe and secure housing. That is why we continue to fund the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, which since 2010 has helped to bring more than 9,000 homes back into use. We have recently given councils the power to increase council tax on second homes by up to 100 per cent. We have also consulted on proposals for primary legislation to give councils powers to raise council tax above 100 per cent for long-term empty homes. Where we need to rely on enforcement, local authorities have broad compulsory purchase powers that can be, and are being, used to bring empty homes back into use.

Ariane Burgess

More action on empty homes is a commitment in the shared policy programme between the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Government. Therefore, the proposal to allow councils further powers to increase council tax on long-term empty properties is important, as is effective use of enforcement powers. Last week, in Glasgow, a backstop was evidenced, with the news that three properties are to be acquired through compulsory purchase for use by housing associations. Does the First Minister recognise the need for reform of the compulsory purchase order system to make it more workable? Does he agree with the recommendations of the independent audit of the Scottish Government’s long-term empty homes policy that it should also consider the merits of enforced sales and rental orders?

The First Minister

I welcome the news of Glasgow City Council’s use of compulsory purchase order powers. I agree that consideration of how we might reform and modernise the CPO process is vital, which is why we committed to progressing the matter in our programme for government. I am pleased to say that we will shortly establish an expert advisory group to inform us on the development of options.

We have also committed to continuing to consider the case for introducing compulsory sales orders. The expert group will consider the extent to which CPO reform could achieve the same aims. The same considerations would also apply to compulsory leasing.

Most long-term empty homes are returned to use through proactive work with the owner to identify barriers and ways to overcome them. We will continue to support that work, alongside ensuring that taxation and enforcement tools to incentivise the reuse of such homes are available.

We move to constituency and general supplementaries.

EE Greenock Call Centre

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

At 11 am this morning, EE announced that it will be closing its Greenock call centre site on 30 November. That will affect more than 450 people in my constituency, who will now be forced either to work in Glasgow or to find another job.

Can the First Minister give a guarantee that the Scottish Government agencies will be on hand to assist those who require it? Will he provide an assurance that the Scottish Government will leave no stone unturned to help Inverclyde? We are now to have another large facility left empty, when we need a replacement for both Greenock police station and the West College Scotland campus.

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

This Government has a good record on investment in Inverclyde, and we will continue to work with the local authority to see what further support we may be able to provide.

First and foremost, my thoughts are with all of the 450 workers at the EE site in Greenock; I am very sorry to hear of the news that was given to them at 11 am. I can give those workers, and Stuart McMillan as the local MSP, an assurance that the Scottish Government will engage not only with the local authority, as I said, but with the company directly, where we can.

We will do what we can through our PACE—partnership action for continuing employment—initiative to help those workers who have been affected, should they need it, to look for further employment should that be required. I will ensure that the appropriate minister keeps Stuart McMillan updated on those conversations.

NHS Borders (Deficit)

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

Rural health boards in Scotland have been forgotten about. The disgraced former Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care has been too focused on covering his own tracks and has failed to deliver for the rural health service in Scotland.

This week, we learned that NHS Borders is facing a potential deficit of £45 million. Front-line services will have to be cut, which will put my constituents at risk. Will the First Minister step up, once and for all, and deliver much-needed support to ensure that residents in the Borders do not receive second-class treatment?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

First and foremost, we do support rural health services. The national centre for remote and rural health and care is backed by an investment of £3 million until 2026. That centre will focus on improving the sustainability, capacity and capability of primary care and community-based workforces. We also offer incentives for general practitioners, for example, to work in rural locations, and we are funding 50 GP speciality training bursary posts in 2024-25 to attract GPs to rural Scotland.

Not only that, but—as I referred to in a previous response—the Scottish National Party Government is giving a real-terms uplift to the national health service in Scotland. That is in stark contrast to the Conservatives, who are gutting NHS England with a cut of more than £1.3 billion. Not only that, but in the autumn statement, we received a paltry £10.8 million in health consequentials from the United Kingdom Government. That would have provided not five weeks nor five months, but five hours, of NHS activity, so we will take no lessons from the Conservatives on funding our NHS.

Fatal Accident Inquiries (Deaths Abroad)

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Scotsman David Cornock died in Thailand in 2019. His father, Davy, believes that there is strong evidence that he was murdered. The Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Act 2016 was meant to enable the Lord Advocate to instruct fatal accident inquiries in such cases, yet it appears that zero fatal accident inquiries into the deaths of Scots abroad have taken place since the law was passed in 2016. The definition of “residency” that is used by our Scottish justice system appears to be at the heart of that failure. Does the First Minister agree with me, and with the families of Scots who have died abroad, that they should be afforded the same chance as other citizens across these islands to know the fate of their loved ones? What can he do to help to ensure that they get the answers that they deserve?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

First and foremost, I once again give my sympathies and condolences to the family of David Cornock. I agree with the premise that those Scots who lose loved ones should be able to get answers to their questions.

I am more than happy to look at legislation. Michael Marra is absolutely correct that it is the issue of residency—in that particular case, ordinary residency—that is causing the issue in that instance. He knows that decisions around FAIs are decisions not for the Government, but for the independent Lord Advocate, to take. Legislation is our responsibility, however, so I am happy to take a look and speak to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs on that matter. I will consider it further and respond to Michael Marra in due course.

State Pension

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

In the lead-up to the independence referendum, the better together campaign told people that “pensions are safer” in the United Kingdom. How hollow those words are now. Westminster has presided over the injustice that has been done to Women Against State Pension Inequality—WASPI—women; the state pension is shamefully inadequate as a result of years of austerity; and, although the state pension age is expected to rise to 68, reports this week suggest that it may rise even further, to 71. Can the First Minster give his response to how Westminster is failing Scotland’s older people time and time again?

It is hardly a surprise that the—

I am sorry, but that is not a question on a devolved matter.

Rail Services (East Lothian and Edinburgh)

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

This week, rail commuters travelling between East Lothian and Edinburgh experienced the consequences of Scottish National Party mismanagement, with a reduction in carriage numbers on the trains during the busy morning commute and overcrowding. One of the commuters, Gregor Millar, said:

“It’s uncomfortable, you have to stand and it becomes hard to hold onto anything. When I get on at Prestonpans you have to stand, when it gets to Wallyford people are just squeezing on, and at Musselburgh people can’t get on.”

Given those on-going issues, what assurances can the First Minister offer to Gregor Millar and other constituents that commuters who travel between East Lothian and Edinburgh can depend on a robust and reliable train service?

I was surprised that I was not able to answer the previous question, because it was related to pensioner poverty. I will give Clare Haughey a written answer—[Interruption.]

I am sorry, but I did not hear what you said, First Minister.

I will give Clare Haughey a written response to the question that she asked about pensioner poverty.

The Presiding Officer

Members will be aware of the requirement at First Minister’s question time to put questions that are the responsibility of the First Minister and the devolved Government. I think that, at this stage of the session, members are very well aware of how to achieve that, and I ask members to remind themselves of that.

The First Minister

Indeed, Presiding Officer.

On Martin Whitfield’s question, I do not at all minimise the impact that rail disruption can have on constituents and their everyday lives, when they are going to work and attending their educational establishments. I say to Martin Whitfield’s constituent that we are investing in our rail services. We have invested in our rail infrastructure, in new rail lines on the Borders railway, in new railway stations throughout the country, and in making our railways more affordable by, for example, introducing a pilot that abolished peak fares.

I say to Martin Whitfield that we are, of course, apologetic for any disruption that has been caused on our rail infrastructure, and I am more than happy to ensure that the appropriate minister writes to him with the details of the investments that we are making not just between East Lothian and Edinburgh but throughout the country.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a short suspension to allow those who are leaving the chamber and the public gallery to do so.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  


12:49 On resuming—