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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, January 11, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

Post Office Horizon Prosecutions

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

The Post Office scandal involving Horizon is a horrendous miscarriage of justice that has ruined hundreds of lives. Politicians of all parties will rightly reflect on what they should have done sooner. The United Kingdom Government has now acted to overturn the wrongful convictions of innocent victims. In Scotland, however, prosecutions were handled by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, not the Post Office. Has the First Minister established whether passing a legislative consent motion to the proposed UK law will be the fastest way to clear all victims here in Scotland? Will he confirm to Parliament how he will work with the UK Government to overturn those convictions as quickly as possible?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

First and foremost, I pay tribute to Alan Bates and the hundreds of other campaigners, sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses—[Applause.]—who have worked tirelessly over decades to ensure that they receive justice—justice that they are still waiting for. Of course, it should not have taken the showing of a television drama before action was taken.

Douglas Ross is right that there is a need for reflection on the part of all those involved. The Post Office is a wholly reserved institution that is accountable to UK Government ministers. As he rightly pointed out, the difference is that prosecutions in Scotland have been conducted by the independent Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. I spoke to the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General this morning. The Lord Advocate is willing to provide a briefing for any members of the Scottish Parliament who have an interest in the Crown Office’s handling of the issues.

To answer Douglas Ross’s question directly, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has written to her counterpart in the UK Government to say that we are willing to work with it on the legislation that it is introducing to overturn wrongful convictions. The quickest way to do that would probably be through the legislative consent motion process, but there are a number of complexities to navigate, for the reasons that Douglas Ross has already highlighted. We will, of course, engage on that immediately and urgently, as we have already done with the UK Government. It is absolutely certain that, whether people who have been impacted and affected by the scandal are in Scotland or any other part of the United Kingdom, some have waited far too long for justice. They should not have to wait a moment longer.

Douglas Ross

I join the First Minister in congratulating Alan Bates and others, as I did in the House of Commons earlier this week. Victims and the public will rightly ask why it has taken so long for this deep injustice to be corrected. Multiple political parties and many individuals should have, and could have, acted sooner. Blame starts with the Post Office, but people are understandably examining what others could have done. Scotland’s Crown Office was made aware of concerns with the Horizon system in 2013—more than 10 years ago. This week, Dr Andrew Tickell, a senior law lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, said:

“The revelation that the Crown Office knew of problems is huge.”

He continued:

“Did they stop prosecuting? Did it occur to them that any of their cases before 2013 might now be unsafe because of these uncertainties?”

He added that Scotland was

“just at the beginning”

of addressing the miscarriages of justice, while cases in England and Wales—[Interruption.]—were

“much, much further down the road”.

I am just quoting a law professor. [Interruption.]

Let us hear Mr Ross.

I simply ask the First Minister whether he agrees that the process in Scotland needs to be accelerated.

The First Minister

First and foremost, we must remember that a public inquiry is under way, but it has already been well established that the inaccurate data and evidence that was presented by the Post Office is at the very heart of the scandal. The Post Office is, and has been, accountable to UK Government ministers over many successive parliamentary terms. That will undoubtedly be a matter for interrogation and questioning at the public inquiry.

I reiterate that the Lord Advocate is willing to meet members of the Scottish Parliament to talk them through what the Crown Office has done here, because it involves the independent functions of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

My understanding is that, in 2013, when Post Office solicitors told the Crown Office about the challenges around the Horizon evidence, it continued to have dialogue with the Post Office but, immediately, at the earliest possible point in time—September 2013—it provided guidance to every Scottish prosecutor to treat cases reported by the Post Office with regard to their individual facts and circumstances and evidence that did not rely on Horizon. It then spent the next couple of years—between 2013 and 2015—in continual dialogue with the Post Office to try to get further detail around the evidential basis.

To conclude, on the position post-2015 with regard to assurances that have been provided, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service issued instructions to all prosecutors in 2015 not to proceed with any Post Office case in which a sufficiency of evidence was dependent on evidence from the Horizon system. Therefore, no case was effectively prosecuted from 2015 in which the evidence was dependent on evidence from the Horizon system.

On where we are in relation to the process with the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission—

Briefly, please, First Minister.

—I am willing to work with the UK Government to look at a process that effectively seeks to overturn any wrongful convictions en masse.

Douglas Ross

The actions of the Post Office were despicable and probably criminal, but the actions of the Crown Office here in Scotland should trouble us greatly. There was a sudden spike in cases involving people who were among the most trusted in their communities, but the Crown Office proceeded anyway. That was until 2013. Suddenly, it decided not to proceed with a case in the Gorbals.

The First Minister has just articulated that it was in September 2013 when the Crown Office first found out and sent out that information, but it was not. We know that, on 29 January 2013, a procurator fiscal cited “issues with Horizon” as the reason for not proceeding with a case. That was in January 2013, not in September 2013. The convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s criminal law committee, Stuart Munro, said that the procurator fiscal should have gone public. He said:

“The Procurator Fiscal has a legal duty to disclose relevant information to those accused of crimes, and that duty continues even after a trial is concluded. As soon as the Fiscal became aware of concerns about the reliability of Horizon, that should have been disclosed.”

Does the First Minister agree that Scotland’s Crown Office has serious questions to answer?

The First Minister

I say genuinely and in sincerity to Douglas Ross that the real questions are for the Post Office and are about the information that it provided not just to the Crown Office but to Government ministers. [Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

That is why a public inquiry is so important. Anybody who has questions to answer should co-operate with that public inquiry. Let us not forget that the Post Office is a wholly reserved institution that is directly accountable to UK Government ministers.

There are legitimate questions to ask of the Crown Office, which, of course, operates independently of Government ministers and independently of me, as the First Minister, as it should. There are legitimate questions that individuals and members of the Scottish Parliament will have for the Crown Office. I repeat what the Lord Advocate told me this morning. She is more than happy to provide a briefing to members of the Scottish Parliament who have an interest in the matter.

I will end by reiterating the points that I made at the very beginning. Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have waited far too long for justice, and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that we get them not just access to that justice but access to compensation.

Douglas Ross

The UK-wide inquiry that the First Minister has mentioned will look at all those issues, and it is right that it continues to scrutinise what happened. However, we must examine the unique circumstances in Scotland, where the Crown Office was responsible for prosecutions of innocent people. If the Crown Office knew of specific problems over a decade ago, that raises serious questions. We do not know what it did—if anything—with that information.

The Horizon Post Office scandal has devastated lives. It is the most appalling miscarriage of justice. Good people were criminalised because of an information technology failure that they had nothing to do with and a cover-up that lasted for years. It is right that no stone is left unturned in seeking answers. The Crown Office in Scotland must be transparent. Prosecutors were aware of issues with the flawed Horizon system more than 10 years ago. We do not need meetings or briefings from the Lord Advocate; we need her here in Parliament to answer questions about the scandal. Does the First Minister agree that the Lord Advocate should urgently come to this Parliament to answer questions?

The First Minister

I remind Douglas Ross—this is an important point—that, when the Lord Advocate discharges her functions as head of the prosecution service, she does so independently of me. When I spoke to the Lord Advocate this morning, she was more than happy to consider whether to provide a briefing, a ministerial statement or whatever was appropriate. I am certain that the Lord Advocate is listening to these exchanges, and it will, of course, be for her to determine, in her independent function as head of the prosecution service, how she should answer any of those questions.

Let me reiterate the point that, in September 2013, Scottish prosecutors were told to treat cases that were reported by the Post Office in regard to their facts and circumstances and using evidence that did not rely on Horizon—they should be reported in their individual regard. Then, from 2015, no cases were prosecuted where the sufficiency of evidence was dependent on the evidence from the Horizon system. My understanding, again from the conversations that I have had with the Lord Advocate, is that, in its engagement with the Post Office between 2013 and 2015, the Crown Office was assured by the Post Office and its legal representatives that issues that arose with the Horizon system in England did not impact on any live Scottish cases. The Crown Office continued to seek those assurances, as well as taking the action that it did in 2013 and 2015.

I simply end where I started. Time and again, sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were telling the UK Government and ministers that the Post Office, for which the UK Government and ministers are wholly responsible, was lying; it was simply not telling the truth about the Horizon system. Time and again, the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were not listened to. They have waited far too long for justice and far too long for compensation. The Scottish Government will work with the UK Government to ensure that they get access not just to justice but to the compensation that they so rightly deserve.

Post Office Horizon Prosecutions

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

The lives of potentially hundreds of Scottish sub-postmasters and their families were ruined by the Post Office and Fujitsu. People lost their livelihoods and, in some cases, even lost their lives. They have described being ostracised in their communities, their families shunned and their children targeted. It is a national disgrace. I welcome that the convictions will be overturned, but there is more to the scandal.

Unlike in England and Wales, where the Post Office itself brought the prosecutions, in Scotland they were carried out by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. As we have heard, ministers and the Crown were made aware of concerns about unsafe prosecutions in 2013. What conversations have the First Minister, his Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs and the Lord Advocate had about the role of Scottish institutions in prosecuting those cases and how that was allowed to happen for so long?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Again, let me be clear: whether as justice secretary at the time or in my current role as First Minister, it would be wholly inappropriate for any Government minister to demand to see the evidential basis for a case that the Crown was prosecuting. [Interruption.] I know that Anas Sarwar is not asking that, but I am making the point that, if the issue is the evidence that was provided by the Post Office, it would be wrong for me, in any ministerial position, to suggest that I need to see that evidential basis in any individual prosecution.

Anas Sarwar asked what conversations I have had with the Lord Advocate. Again, I had a conversation this morning with the Lord Advocate, when she stressed a number of points. She is happy to provide a timeline of how the Crown has responded and she is very confident about the Crown’s response. It was told in 2013 about possible problems, and it issued guidance to its individual prosecutors in 2013. After a period of continual conversation with the Post Office, in 2015, it stopped prosecuting cases where the sufficiency of evidence was dependent on the Horizon system.

The Lord Advocate is open to briefing members of the Scottish Parliament, as we have already heard, and I am sure that she will reflect on whether that is through a briefing or a ministerial statement.

Anas Sarwar is absolutely right that at the heart of this are hundreds of people right across the United Kingdom whose lives and reputations have been tarnished and ruined. It is incumbent on this Government that it works with any other Government in the United Kingdom, including the UK Government, to ensure that justice is forthcoming and that access to compensation is not impeded.

Anas Sarwar

There are big questions for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and it would be right for the Lord Advocate to come to the Parliament to answer those questions from members. However, the matter goes beyond convictions.

Disturbing accounts from the public inquiry have revealed that Post Office employees were going door to door in Scotland to threaten and extort money from sub-postmasters. With behaviour that was reminiscent of the mob, those stories show that the Post Office behaved like a private police force and showed little regard for the law in Scotland. Sub-postmasters were pressured into accepting accusations of false accounting and were forced to hand over thousands of pounds that day or face imprisonment. If any other organisation had behaved like that in Scotland, we would expect to see criminal investigations into its conduct. Does the First Minister agree that potentially criminal behaviour by Post Office officials in Scotland should be properly investigated so that the scandal does not go unpunished?

The First Minister

I say to Anas Sarwar—I should have perhaps said this at the beginning of my response to Douglas Ross—that I absolutely empathise in the strongest way possible with the harrowing tales that we have heard from sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses up and down the country. My family members are sub-postmasters—my late grandfather was a sub-postmaster and my stepgran continues to be so, although they were not affected by this particular scandal. The big difference from the situation in England and Wales is that the Post Office does not have the ability to lodge private prosecutions in Scotland. It is absolutely right that the behaviours of the Post Office should be interrogated, which is why there is a public inquiry. If there were any behaviours in Scotland that were possibly criminal, it would not be for me to investigate them—rightly, the independent Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service would do so. I have every confidence that the Crown will look into any allegations that are made to it about any potential criminal behaviour.

Anas Sarwar

Too often in this country, when there is an injustice, the first instinct of institutions and Government is to protect themselves. Whether it is sub-postmasters taking on the Post Office, the Hillsborough scandal, the Clostridioides difficile—C diff—scandal at the Vale of Leven hospital or victims at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital, it should not take victims disclosing the most harrowing moments of their lives to shame both Scotland’s Governments into action, but it happens too often. The Government is meant to be on the people’s side, but, tragically, when victims come looking for justice, all they get are more barriers put in their way. The silence, denial and cover-up compounds the injustice and amplifies victims’ pain. Ministers—whether Scottish or UK Government ministers—always say that we must learn the lessons and that it cannot be allowed to happen again, but it does. Does the First Minister agree that the priority for Government should be truth and justice for victims, rather than protecting institutions or individual reputations?

The First Minister

I agree that that is of paramount importance. I remind Anas Sarwar that the Labour Party was in the UK Government for a number of years while sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were telling UK Government postal ministers—Labour ministers—that the Post Office was presenting inaccurate data. It is important for all UK-based parties to reflect on their relationship with the Post Office and whether they were listening or not.

On the Government’s approach, we can demonstrate that, time and again, when issues have been brought to this Government, we have engaged—often in really difficult conversations—with individuals who bring forward harrowing stories and tales. Where necessary, we will always investigate, whether that is through independent commissioners, such as the patient safety commissioner—I am pleased that the Patient Safety Commissioner for Scotland Bill has been passed—through the duty of candour in relation to the national health service, or through the public inquiries that we instruct. The Government’s approach has been and will always be to ensure that we seek the truth and that we do right by the people of Scotland. When it comes to sub-postmasters in Scotland, we will work with whoever we need to, including the UK Government, to ensure that those individuals get access to not only justice, but the compensation that has been denied to them for far too long.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-02695)


Alex Cole-Hamilton

Nitazenes are a type of synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin. They are often delivered in a single pill or disguised as other substances entirely. The synthetic opioid epidemic has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives across North America and public health officials and charities are worried that those drugs are coming to Scotland. We know that nitazenes have been linked to the deaths of nine Scots since last summer.

The front line in our response to those new substances is made up of information, detection and treatment. We still have the worst rate of drug deaths in all of Europe, so why does the First Minister’s budget deliver a real-terms cut to drug services just as a new threat is emerging?

The First Minister

We are committed to, and have not reduced the money for, the national mission to deal with drugs deaths.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is absolutely right about the danger of nitazenes. The drugs minister and I spoke about that threat recently and, when I was there last year, I spoke to the New York health commissioner about the real dangers of synthetic opioids. Alex Cole-Hamilton is right to say that there is a real epidemic in America and we are not complacent about the challenges that we face here.

We will continue to invest in the national mission to tackle drug deaths. We are taking a number of specific actions in relation to nitazenes and synthetic opioids. I am more than happy for the drugs minister to meet Alex-Cole Hamilton to give him more detail about the range of actions that we are taking in that regard.

Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill (Climate Implications)

4. Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is regarding any implications for its net zero ambitions of the United Kingdom Government’s Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which seeks changes to the licensing regime, including how regularly licensing rounds are held. (S6F-02700)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Decisions on offshore oil and gas licensing remain reserved to the UK Government. The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, along with other recent announcements, demonstrates that the UK Government is not serious about the climate crisis. Instead of licensing ever more fossil fuel extraction, which the bill would have happen on an annual basis, the UK Government should be supporting a fair and just energy transition, in line with its climate commitments.

We have repeatedly called for a rigorous climate compatibility test to be applied to all new oil and gas developments. However, the checkpoint introduced by the UK Government before the latest licensing round is neither robust nor, frankly, transparent.

In Scotland, we remain absolutely committed to a just transition to net zero by 2045.

Stuart McMillan

The former UK energy minister Chris Skidmore recently resigned as a member of Parliament in protest at the bill, and Sir Alok Sharma MP, president of the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—has stated that the bill reinforces

“that unfortunate perception about the UK rowing back on climate action”.

Even those in the Tory party recognise that the UK Government is not serious about climate change.

Does the First Minister agree that a just transition to retrain and reskill the oil and gas workforce is vital to helping to deliver the energy that we use, that any party that forms the next UK Government must be serious about climate change and the push towards net zero, and that only as an independent nation will the people of Scotland get an energy policy that is fit for the future and for the emergency that we are facing?

I agree with that. The fact that the Prime Minister spent more time on his private jet getting there than he did at COP28 tells us his level of commitment to tackling the climate crisis. [Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

It is also true that 2023 has been confirmed as the hottest year on record. Those who refuse, in the face of all the evidence, to take the necessary actions are completely abdicating their responsibility not only to current generations but to future ones and to our planet.

I agree that responding to the climate emergency is an absolute imperative. There should be a political consensus on that, and I look forward to meeting with party leaders in the coming weeks to discuss how we can work collectively to tackle the climate crisis. It would be really helpful if, every time the Scottish Government proposed action to tackle the climate crisis, the Opposition did not oppose it simply for opposition’s sake.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

The latest episode in Tory climate denial threatens to deepen our reliance on climate-wrecking fossil fuels exactly when we should be doubling down on cheap and clean renewables.

In Scotland, we are making great progress—there has been record investment in renewables as a result of planning reforms and there are tens of thousands of quality new green jobs. The “Draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition plan—delivering a fair and secure zero carbon energy system for Scotland” reflects both the scientific evidence of climate change and that economic opportunity by clearly stating a presumption against new oil and gas fields. What impact will the new bill have on that exact commitment?

The First Minister

The Scottish Government absolutely values the exceptional role that the oil and gas industry has played over many decades in Scotland, as well as the exceptional efforts of the incredibly hard-working workforce in the oil and gas industry, which is a vital, key component of Scotland’s economic success. However, regardless of what anybody says in the chamber, the facts are the facts. Given the decline of the North Sea basin and the exceptional potential of our renewable sources, it is not just in the planet’s interest—although, of course, it is—to have a just transition to net zero but in our economic interest to ensure that that potential is unleashed.

We are in the process of finalising the energy strategy and just transition plan in the light of the consultation responses that were received. Our focus will be on reducing emissions and the just transition away from fossil fuels and towards unleashing the potential of our net zero green technologies.

Ash Regan (Edinburgh Eastern) (Alba)

As the Rosebank oilfield comes on stream and the Forties pipeline, which accounts for around 40 per cent of UK oil production, continues to flow, refining must be carried out at Grangemouth. Will the First Minister today commit to bringing together Unite the union, Petroineos and the UK Government to create the required rescue package to increase the profitability of the plant and secure its long-term future as a Scottish refinery?

The First Minister

The future industry board, which is looking at that issue, is meeting in the coming weeks. Neil Gray and I have had conversations with the owners of the Grangemouth refinery, and there will be continued and on-going discussions. All of us want to see a viable and sustainable future for Grangemouth, and—of course—we will do our best to ensure that there are no job losses at Grangemouth. We will do what we can. The future industry board will meet, and I will ensure that Neil Gray writes to Ash Regan with the full details of the actions that we are taking, which include engaging not just with the owners of Grangemouth but with trade union colleagues.

Care-experienced People

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that the Promise is not on track to deliver effective change for Scotland’s care-experienced people. (S6F-02708)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Keeping the Promise is an absolute top priority for this Government. When I met Fiona Duncan, the independent strategic adviser for the Promise, late last year, she confirmed her view that the Promise can be met by 2030. I am determined that we will do exactly that.

Over the past year, we have made substantial progress on a range of aspects of the Promise, including the Scottish recommended allowance for foster and kinship carers and the investment of £6 million in the bairns’ hoose pathfinders.

There is simply no doubt that there is more to do, but I assure the chamber that this Government will do everything in our power to keep and deliver the Promise to Scotland’s care-experienced people.

Roz McCall

Four years on, and the lives of care-experienced people in Scotland are no better. The First Minister will be aware of the comments by Megan Moffat of Who Cares? Scotland, who said that, despite laudable ambitions, there is

“no clear detail on how that should happen, who should do it, when by and how much it will cost”.

The outgoing children’s commissioner stated that Nicola Sturgeon “absolutely” failed Scotland’s young people, and that self-same MSP admitted recently that

“there is an implementation gap”.

When will the Scottish National Party-Green Government stop tinkering around the edges of meaningful change, empower and adequately fund our councils to do the job, get the Promise back on track and stop failing the most vulnerable people in our society?

The First Minister

It takes some brass neck for a Conservative member to stand there and demand more money for local services and local government when the Conservative Government is continually—time and again—cutting our budget in real terms over a number of years.

I also disagree fundamentally with Roz McCall’s suggestion that things have not improved. The latest published data shows that there were almost 2,000 fewer looked-after children in July 2022 than there were at the start of the Promise, in July 2020, which is a 12.9 per cent reduction. That is not just a number; that is almost 2,000 children, young people and families who have been impacted and affected positively.

I am not suggesting to Roz McCall or to anybody else that there are no issues with the implementation of the Promise. However, in my recent meeting with Fiona Duncan, who is widely respected by members across the chamber, there was a determination and understanding that we can absolutely keep the Promise. That is why we will work with Fiona Duncan and all the stakeholders in relation to keeping the Promise through plan 24-30. I promise those care-experienced young people and other care-experienced people, whatever stage of life they are at, that the Government is absolutely resolute and unwavering in its commitment to keeping and delivering the Promise to them.

Nicola Sturgeon (Glasgow Southside) (SNP)

Does the First Minister agree that, if we are to keep the Promise, the significant progress that has already been made needs to continue and now intensify? In particular, does he agree that the whole family wellbeing fund is absolutely essential to providing the funding to transform services so that families are better supported and fewer young people need to enter care in the first place? To that end, will he give a commitment that the fund will be delivered in full and that it will be fully invested in to improve the lives of the young people—present and future—to whom the Promise has been made?

The First Minister

Absolutely. First and foremost, I recognise that there would not be a Promise if it were not for the efforts of the former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and she would be the first to say that there would be no Promise if it were not for the efforts of young care-experienced people. I pay tribute to them for the impact that they have had on us all—not just on those of us in Government, but, I suspect, on every member of the Scottish Parliament who has engaged with care-experienced young people and care-experienced people more generally.

I have had the pleasure of engaging with a number of care-experienced people in my time as First Minister and before. Most recently, I hosted them in Bute house for a Christmas party, which was not only great fun but gave me the opportunity to hear from them directly on the improvements that we have to make.

To answer Nicola Sturgeon’s question, the whole family wellbeing fund is a central component in keeping the Promise. Despite the very challenging autumn statement and the continued cuts to our budget over a number of years, we have prioritised £50 million for the fund in the 2024-25 budget. We have done so even in the face of significant financial constraints, which reflects the priority and importance that we attach to keeping the Promise.

Mental Health

To ask the First Minister what urgent steps are being taken to address reports of a mental health crisis with an increase in calls to the NHS 24 mental health hub. (S6F-02713)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

There is no question that, for many people, recent times have been extremely challenging, exacerbated by Covid and the cost of living crisis. We are committed to supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing, just as we are to supporting their physical health.

Our recently published mental health and wellbeing strategy delivery plan and workforce action plan recognise that an effective mental health system must address all levels of need. They set out what people have a right to expect from high-quality mental health services and the actions that we are taking to achieve those aims. Those actions will continue to evolve over time, and I am always open to constructive dialogue with Opposition parties on where they think that we can go further.

Paul Sweeney referenced NHS 24 call volumes. It is good that more people feel able to come forward and ask for help with their mental health, and our substantially increased investment in NHS 24 is helping to ensure that more calls can be responded to.

Paul Sweeney

Data from NHS 24 reveals that the number of calls regarding alcohol problems has risen by more than 600 in two years and that the number of calls regarding psychotic symptoms has more than doubled since 2021. Those calls are not simply from people who are presenting for the first time, but from people who are not being seen urgently in the way that they should.

Last year, astonishingly, more than 7,000 children and young people were turned away from child and adolescent mental health services, which is an average of 26 children a day. Primary and community care services are under growing pressure, but ministers have failed to start recruiting to the promised additional 1,000 mental health roles while cutting the budget for the coming year by £5 million after inflation is taken into account. Will the First Minister accept that his mental health strategy will fail unless it is properly resourced?

The First Minister

When it comes to mental health funding, the Government has a record that we are proud to stand on, and that is in the face of the most difficult set of financial circumstances and constrictions that we have had in the history of devolution.

The autumn statement from the United Kingdom Government was the worst-case scenario for Scotland. Difficult budget decisions have had to be made across Government, but that has not stopped us from focusing on our key priorities. Since 2020-21, the mental health directorate’s programme budget has more than doubled. When it comes to staffing, which Paul Sweeney mentioned, following our record-breaking investment in CAMHS, CAMHS staffing has more than doubled under this Government—it has gone up by more than 126 per cent since 2007.

Difficult decisions are being made right across the United Kingdom because of the cuts from the UK Government. Here is a quote from the budget for 2024-25 of—

Thank you, First Minister.

The First Minister

—Labour-run Wales:

“we can no longer increase funding by £15m in 2024-25, as was originally planned. We have ... reduced the existing mental health ... budget by a further £6m”.

My point is that we will do everything that we can—

Briefly, First Minister.

—to increase investment in mental health, but we cannot do that in the face of continued cuts from the UK Government.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Research indicates that 10 per cent of children and young people have a clinically diagnosable mental health issue, which is about three children in every class. In particular, neurodivergent children and young people are struggling now, as Scotland faces a severe shortage of medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which affects approximately 26,000 people. What can the Scottish Government do to address the issue?

The First Minister

Karen Adam raises a very important issue, which I know impacts a number of people across the country. I recognise the impact of the global medicine shortages on people living with ADHD and on their families.

The pricing and the supply of medicines are reserved matters for the UK Government, but we engage with it regularly, including specifically on this issue. The shortages have been caused by a combination of manufacturing issues and a global increase in demand, and Brexit red tape has certainly not helped. It is anticipated that most of the shortages of ADHD medicine will be resolved this month. NHS Scotland has robust systems in place to manage medicine shortages when they arise, and anyone who is affected should speak to their clinical team in the first instance.

We move to general and constituency supplementary questions.

Matrix International (Jobs)

Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

Matrix International is one of Brechin’s biggest employers, but most of its employees are awaiting news of their jobs as the manufacturing firm considers its future. Storm Babet was blamed when the factory found itself under 4 feet of water, with extensive machine damage. What has the First Minister’s Government done to protect and preserve those highly skilled jobs in Brechin, and when will the Scottish National Party finally fulfil its promise to support the town in its time of greatest need?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I visited Brechin after storm Babet, and we have been able to dispense thousands of pounds in business recovery grants—I can provide Tess White with the exact details of that. We are stepping up to help the people and businesses of Brechin through the funding that we have made available. We were quick not just to visit but to act.

More broadly, the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy and Scottish Enterprise are engaged on the issues relating to Matrix International. I was very disappointed to hear reports of potential job losses at Matrix International. The Scottish Government will provide support through our partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—initiative, whose members have already met company representatives to offer support to the workforce. Neil Gray will remain engaged on the issue, as will Scottish Enterprise. I am happy to write to Tess White with further details of that engagement.

Children and Young People with Additional Support Needs (Support)

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

During the stage 1 debate on my Disabled Children and Young People (Transitions to Adulthood) (Scotland) Bill, the Government argued that a change in the law was not needed because good practice on additional support needs was spreading. New data from the Government’s school census shows that the number of children with ASN who are getting legal support via a co-ordinated support plan has reached its lowest point ever. Despite the fact that the Government has promised action as far back as 2016, things are getting worse, not better, and a generation is being failed.

Given that the First Minister’s Government has made countless promises that things will get better, why is support for young people with additional support needs getting so much worse?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We have invested significantly in ASN support for our young people. I say to Pam Duncan-Glancy that there are a number of reasons why the Government did not feel that it could support her bill, but we are always open to working with her or with any member across the chamber to see what further work we can do—what more we can do—to support our young people when it comes to the ASN support that they require.

As well as investing in that, we will continue to engage with our local authorities. The significant increase in their budgets that local authorities are getting in the 2024-25 budget that the Deputy First Minister presented to Parliament will, I hope, help in that regard.

XL Bully Dogs

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

Like many other members, I have been contacted by constituents about the Scottish Government’s position on the XL bully dog breed. In the light of the new controls on the breed in England and Wales, which will come into effect on 1 February, will the First Minister outline when his Government will reach a decision of its own on the issue?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

It is probably worth saying, first and foremost, that what is happening in England and Wales cannot be described as a ban on XL bully dogs. Owners can still keep an XL bully dog, but they must make sure that it is registered on the exemption index and must fulfil the other criteria of the legislation.

When the UK Government’s action on XL bully dogs was first announced, which was done without any consultation with the Scottish Government or, as far as I can see, with animal welfare stakeholders, we committed to engaging with animal welfare stakeholders and, of course, to continuing to engage with the UK Government.

I am afraid that it has become clear in the past few weeks that we have seen a flow of XL bully dogs to Scotland as a result of a number of people bringing such dogs to the country. That being the case—we will give further details of this to members of the Scottish Parliament through a ministerial statement next week, if the Parliamentary Bureau agrees to that—we will, in essence, replicate the legislation that exists in England and Wales here in Scotland.

Ultimately, although we have a very good system of dog control notices and we take a deed-not-breed approach, we must respond to the situation as it currently stands. Therefore, we will do what we need to do to ensure public safety. Further detail will be given by the appropriate minister next week, subject to that being agreed by the Parliamentary Bureau.

A96 (Dualling)

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

New figures show that 11 people have died and 69 have been seriously injured in accidents on the A96 in the past four years. In 2011, the Scottish Government promised that the road would be dualled by 2030, but that is now subject to a review at a cost of £5 million, the publication of which has been delayed by more than a year. When will that review finally be published? Will the Government ever dual this killer road?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

What does not help when it comes to our capital infrastructure projects is a 10 per cent cut to our capital budget over the next five years. Conservative members cannot come to the chamber and demand that we continue to invest in roads while simultaneously cutting our budget time and time and time again. [Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

As we confirmed in our programme for government, we remain absolutely committed to improving the A96. That includes dualling the Inverness to Nairn section and the Nairn bypass, which already has ministerial consent, following the public local inquiry.

The Minister for Transport is due to meet members who have an interest in the A96 on 25 January. We will provide a more detailed update on the scheme, along with details of how the review of the wider A96 corridor is being undertaken. However, in the interim, I assure all members that preparation work continues at pace on the Inverness to Nairn section, including the Nairn bypass. I can advise the chamber that I expect that orders for the scheme will be made in the first quarter of 2024, with a view to completing the necessary statutory process.

Renfrewshire Council (Dargavel Schools)

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

The Accounts Commission is today discussing its report into Renfrewshire Council’s handling of the Dargavel schools debacle, which is estimated to cost Renfrewshire’s children and taxpayers up to £170 million. The commission has stated that the council faces a challenge to rebuild trust and confidence. It has also stated that the community will be dealing with the consequences of that error for some time. Given that, how can the First Minister have confidence in Renfrewshire Council, when so many local parents do not? Funding for a new Thorn primary school has been rejected by the Government, so what support will the Government provide to Renfrewshire’s children to stop them paying the price of their council’s incompetence?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Neil Bibby is right to raise—as he has been doing for a number of months—the serious concerns that parents in Renfrewshire have about that situation. The council will have to reflect very hard on how it will rebuild trust with parents in that regard.

The Scottish Government has a good record of investing in new schools and refurbishments across local authorities, including in Renfrewshire. Through the budget for 2024-25, which was announced by the Deputy First Minister, the Scottish Government will be giving a significant uplift to local government. We will continue to engage with local government and Renfrewshire Council on the issue, but it is the responsibility of Renfrewshire Council to ensure that it rebuilds trust with the parents and families affected.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s questions. There will be a short suspension to allow those leaving the chamber and public gallery to do so before the next debate begins.

12:46 Meeting suspended.  

12:47 On resuming—