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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, June 13, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

National Health Service (Urgent Care)

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

I begin by wishing Scotland’s men’s team the very best of luck as they open the Euro 2024 tournament tomorrow night against Germany. The tartan army has travelled in huge numbers to support Steve Clarke and the team, and I know that we will all be cheering them on to success. [Applause.]

This week, during the election debate in Glasgow, Anna McLintock asked John Swinney what he would do to improve Scotland’s health service. She spoke about her 93-year-old mother, who needed urgent care but had to wait six hours for an ambulance to arrive and then another two hours outside the hospital before she was admitted. John Swinney did not have answers for Anna on Tuesday, so what does he say to her now, and to so many other people across Scotland who have found themselves in the same situation?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

Before I address the substantive question that Douglas Ross has put to me, I, too, put on record my good wishes to Scotland’s men’s team, which will play hosts Germany in the opening match of Euro 2024. If I can say so to the Parliament, it is great to see Scotland back in Europe, where we rightly belong.

As First Minister, I wish Steve Clarke’s team the best of luck, and I wish the huge numbers of Scotland supporters who are making the journey a safe and memorable trip. I know that the tartan army will be an absolute credit to Scotland, and I know that the team will be a credit to Scotland, because it has inspired so many of us by its success in getting to Euro 2024. I look forward very much to being present to encourage the Scotland team on Friday evening, to ensure their success on Friday night.

Mr Ross has raised a significant issue. In the television debate the other evening, I apologised to Anna McLintock for the experience that her mother had had.

One of the challenges that we face is the volume of demand for health service utilisation in Scotland. There is also a challenge because of the level of delayed discharges from hospitals, which means that our hospitals are operating at very high levels of occupancy.

What we are doing about that is to try to work with local authorities to tackle the issue of delayed discharge. We have had extensive discussions. I, personally, have had discussions with the leadership of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has followed that up to work to reduce delayed discharges and congestion in our hospitals.

In addition, we are investing in our health service to the extent that we now have record levels of staffing to ensure that we can meet the needs and demands of the population in Scotland.

Although I acknowledge that not everybody is getting the treatment that they require as quickly as they require it, a very focused effort is being undertaken within the Government and our health boards to make sure that that can be delivered in all localities in Scotland.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister has apologised again to Anna McLintock, but many more people like her are concerned about the safety and wellbeing of their parents and grandparents. Anna asked the First Minister and other party leaders, “Is our NHS broken?” That is the concern of people up and down Scotland, who cannot get a general practitioner or dentist appointment; who are waiting too long for ambulances or to get into accident and emergency departments; and who need urgent care but cannot get it when they need it. All that those people seem to get from John Swinney and the Scottish National Party are excuses. Do they not deserve to hear the solutions?

The First Minister

I have set out the solutions in my earlier answer to Mr Ross. The Government is very focused on ensuring that the national health service meets the needs of individuals. We all want the NHS to be able to deliver what people require when they require it.

The Government has taken the hard decisions to increase the resources that are available to the NHS. If we had, for example, just passed on the consequentials to the health service that were allocated through United Kingdom funding formulas, we would have passed on a lower amount of money than we have actually invested in the national health service. This Government has taken hard decisions about increasing tax on higher earners so that we can allocate more resources to the national health service.

I accept that, even having undertaken that allocation of increased resources, there remain significant strains on the national health service. The point that I made on Tuesday evening—in the discussion in which Mr Ross and I were involved—is that we cannot have, as an outcome of this election, a continuation of the Conservative Government’s austerity, because that would be disastrous for the national health service.

Douglas Ross

The national health service in Scotland has been under the remit of the SNP and John Swinney for 17 years. Another audience member said to Mr Swinney on Tuesday that he should not put the blame elsewhere but should take responsibility. Again, we are getting the same from John Swinney—he is taking no responsibility for Scotland’s NHS. He said that the NHS should meet the needs of individuals, but it is not doing so. It is clear to all of us that it is not meeting the needs of individuals.

Elderly people are routinely left waiting for care in our national health service for far longer than they should be. We have a response to a freedom of information request that shows just how stark the situation is. Patients who are aged over 100 are some of the most vulnerable in our communities. In just over a year, hundreds of them have been made to wait beyond the target treatment time in A and E departments. In more than 100 cases, people aged over 100 have been waiting more than 12 hours for emergency treatment. People who are over 100 are waiting for more than half a day to get emergency treatment in Scotland’s NHS. Those are only the figures for people aged over 100—many more elderly people are waiting in agony, too. John Swinney must surely agree that that is appalling and unacceptable. What is he going to do to fix it?

The First Minister

As I always indicate to Parliament when I am responding to questions, I take responsibility for the actions of my Government and the public services delivered on its behalf—that is my duty as First Minister on all occasions.

I suspect that the situation that Mr Ross recounted is addressed by the fact that our hospitals are operating at such a level of congestion that individuals are not able to be transferred from accident and emergency into wider hospital care for the simple reason that those hospitals are congested because of delayed discharge. That is the explanation of the problem.

The solution to the problem is, as I said in my first answer, to work with local authorities to expand the provision of social care in the community to ensure that we address the delayed discharge issue.

Ultimately, it comes back to the resources that are available to the national health service. I have set out that this Government has taken responsibility for that, because we have been prepared to take the hard decision to increase tax and ensure that more resources have been allocated to the national health service.

Mr Ross would be in a stronger position if he had not argued for me to follow the budget of Liz Truss. That was what Douglas Ross wanted me to do. He wanted me to follow—[Interruption.]


He wanted me to follow the tax-cutting agenda of Liz Truss. If I had done that, it would have been catastrophic for the country and the national health service, and I am really glad that I did not do it.

Douglas Ross

I would quite like John Swinney to focus on Scotland’s NHS and our elderly patients, who are waiting far too long to get the treatment that they deserve. He mentions delayed discharge. The cabinet secretary to his left—Shona Robison—promised to eradicate it seven years ago. Seven years ago, the SNP was going to get rid of delayed discharge altogether, but it is still having a huge impact on our NHS now.

Our FOI query only shows the problems in A and E departments and in ambulance waiting times. However, as we have raised with the SNP many times, there is a crisis at every single level of Scotland’s NHS. The number of GP appointments has fallen by 146,000 in the past three years. Over the past 10 years, the number of GP practices has reduced in every single health board across the country. In rural areas, they are shutting at twice the rate of those in urban areas. People across Scotland do not have access to the healthcare that they need and deserve, and that has to change.

We already know what will be line 1 of the SNP’s manifesto. How far down John Swinney’s list of priorities will Scotland’s NHS be?

The NHS is at the top of my list of priorities—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

That is why Scotland has an accident and emergency system that is the best performing in the United Kingdom and has been so for the past nine years—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

That is why the NHS is at the top of my list of priorities. On general practitioners, we have more GPs per head of population in Scotland than any other part of the United Kingdom, which are able to provide care to people in various parts of our country.

On priorities, I say to Douglas Ross that we can tell how Governments act by the resources that they allocate. This Government has taken the tough decision to increase tax on higher earners so that we can invest more in the NHS than was proposed by the Conservative Government in the consequentials. That tells us that the Scottish Government is giving the necessary priority to the national health service.

Mr Ross asked me about the question of independence, and I will answer his question very directly. Scotland would be in a stronger position to take greater decisions about investment in the NHS if we had the full powers of independence to use the resources of our country to create the best future for our country. I am proud to represent that position.

National Health Service

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I join others in wishing manager Steve Clarke, captain Andy Robertson, vice-captain John McGinn and the entire Scotland men’s team all the very best for the Euros. I also wish the tartan army a safe and enjoyable visit to Germany.

Before I was elected, I worked in our national health service as a dentist. Dentistry is just one part of our NHS that is currently in crisis. Earlier this week, I visited a practice in Fife. Much to the frustration of the staff there, the practice cannot take any more NHS patients. In fact, four out of five practices across the country are not accepting new NHS patients, and more and more people are being forced to go private and pay.

The issue does not exist just in dentistry; it is all across our health service, and the problem is growing. The number of people who are being forced to pay for their own care has gone up 86 per cent since 2019 and is at the highest level ever. Labour created our NHS to be free at the point of need. Why does that principle not apply under the Scottish National Party?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I recognise the challenges that exist in dental practice, but I point out that Scotland has 57 dentists per 100,000 of the population, compared with 42 per 100,000 in England and 46 per 100,000 in Wales. The investment that the Government has made in the national health service, and particularly in dentistry, has been an important contribution to establishing and achieving that position. That would not have happened had the Government not given that area priority since we came to office in 2007.

The Government has also undertaken a significant intervention through the introduction of a root-and-branch reform of the NHS dental payment system in November last year. We are in the early days of the implementation of that reform package.

Through the combination of the investment in the workforce and the investment in that reform package, the Government is supporting dentistry in Scotland to achieve the necessary delivery of service to people around the country.

Anas Sarwar

I note that the First Minister did not respond to the fact that there is an 86 per cent increase in people having to go for self-payment because of a lack of access to our NHS. Also, the stats that John Swinney quoted will be zero comfort to people who cannot access NHS dentistry and are being forced to go private. I think that he needs to get his head out of the sand.

Labour founded our NHS to be free at the point of need and open to everyone, regardless of the ability to pay. Under the SNP, people again and again are forced to pay because they cannot get treatment in time. Last year, more than 1,500 people in Scotland were forced to pay for knee replacements, at a cost of nearly £16,000 each. There were 8,000 private operations for cataracts, at more than £2,800 each, and almost 3,000 hip replacements, at a cost of more than £14,000 each. In the middle of a cost of living crisis, when mortgages, energy bills and food prices have all gone up, how much have people had to dig into their own savings or borrow from friends and family in order to pay for their own treatment?

The First Minister

I regret the fact that people have felt the need to take recourse to private treatment. I have made it clear in my answers over several weeks that, particularly as a consequence of the increase in case loads because of the cancellation of procedures during the Covid pandemic, the presentation of demand on the national health service has increased. We are working to reduce waiting times and waiting lists to ensure that people get treatment at an earlier time than is the case just now.

I have to say to Anas Sarwar that he is on very thin ground when he challenges me on the question of private involvement in the national health service. I remind him of the comments of Labour’s shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, who said that a United Kingdom Labour Government would

“hold the door wide open”

for the private sector in the national health service. He also said:

“We will go further than New Labour ever did. I want the NHS to form partnerships with the private sector that goes beyond just hospitals.”

What we have here is a classic example of what Anas Sarwar gets up to in public debate. He comes here and says one thing in Scotland, and in England his bosses are doing a completely different thing, which will have an effect on our budget here in Scotland. Anas Sarwar has already been caught out on that this week. It is not good enough for him to say one thing in Scotland and be contradicted by his bosses in London.

That is, frankly, an embarrassing response to the fact that 3,000 people in Scotland—[Interruption.]

Let us hear Mr Sarwar.

Anas Sarwar

—have had to pay £14,000 for a hip replacement. Mr Swinney wants to do quotes, so I will quote two simple sentences from the UK Labour manifesto, which was published today, as they are a direct response:

“We have saved the NHS before, and the next Labour Government will do so again. With Labour, it will always be publicly owned and publicly funded.”

There will not be more people going private, as under the SNP. I will quote another sentence:

“There will be no return to austerity”,

so stop the scaremongering, stop the misinformation and be truthful with the people across Scotland—[Interruption.]


Anas Sarwar

I asked John Swinney how much people have had to find from their savings or to borrow from friends in order to pay for private treatment, and John Swinney very deliberately failed to answer the question. Let me tell him. Just for hip, knee and cataract surgeries in Scotland last year, people had to pay more than £83 million. That is what families had to find in the middle of a cost of living crisis, because of SNP incompetence. The SNP’s mismanagement of our NHS is so bad that it is those who are in pain, sick and injured who are forced to literally pay the price.

Perhaps most horrifyingly of all, there are people who are forced to go private and pay for their cancer treatment. To all the hecklers at the back, I say that that is the reality under the SNP Government. Cancer, Scotland’s biggest killer, is something that touches us all—

I must have a question, Mr Sarwar.

Anas Sarwar

Every second that is wasted in the fight against cancer decreases the chances of survival—[Interruption.]

Heckling cancer patients who must pay private fees—is that the height of the SNP’s ambition?

Mr Sarwar, I would be grateful if you could please put a question to the First Minister.

I am coming right now to the question, Presiding Officer.

Last year, more than 1,000 rounds—

Mr Sarwar, I will allow one further opportunity—

This is my question.

I certainly hope that it is.

Anas Sarwar

Last year, more than 1,000 rounds of chemotherapy were paid for privately. Why does the First Minister believe that people in Scotland should have to pay for their life-saving cancer treatment—1,000 rounds—because of his party’s failure and incompetence?

The First Minister

I do not want anybody to have to pay for cancer treatment, but I have to face up to the reality of the challenges that our national health service faces.

Let me just give Mr Sarwar a statistic. The rate of people self-funding for private healthcare in England is 66 per cent higher than it is in Scotland—[Interruption.] Oh, Jackie Baillie says, “But it is the Tories.” Well, we will give Labour-run Wales as a comparison: the rate is 13 per cent higher in Labour-run Wales than it is in SNP-run Scotland, so I say to Jackie Baillie that it is perhaps not a good idea to heckle me when I am in mid-flow.

What that all comes down to is the financial envelope that is available for the national health service. The Government is taking the hard decisions to increase tax in order to improve the amount of money that is invested in the national health service.

There was a day when the Labour Party supported us on that, but now it has deserted the pitch and run away. On orders from London, the Labour Party in Scotland is now voting against higher taxes on higher earners, because its bosses in London have told it to do exactly that. That will undermine the investment in our national health service, which is why Anas Sarwar has not a scrap of credibility when he tells me that there will be “no return to austerity” under a Labour Government. A Labour Government will have to make £20 billion-worth of spending cuts to pick up where the Tories have left off, so it will be continued austerity from Labour, and Scotland should vote against it.

The Presiding Officer

Before I move to the next question, I point out that the length of time that we have taken to reach this point in this item of business is disadvantaging back benchers who wish to put questions to the First Minister. I would be grateful if members could reflect on that.

Oil and Gas (New Licences)

3. Lorna Slater (Lothian) (Green)

Presiding Officer,

“As clean energy expands and fossil fuel demand declines ... there is no need for investment in new coal, oil and natural gas.”

That quote is not from the Scottish Green Party manifesto; it is from the International Energy Agency. This week, the Scottish Government continues to equivocate on new licences for oil and gas. The First Minister’s latest position is that the Scottish National Party is okay with new oil and gas if it passes a climate compatibility assessment. How does the First Minister think that any climate compatibility assessment will say that it is okay to drill for new oil when global experts in the energy industry say that it is not?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

It has been the Scottish Government’s position for a formidable amount of time—it is certainly not something new this week—that climate compatibility assessments have to be undertaken on any particular new oil and gas licence applications. That has been the Scottish Government’s position for some considerable time.

The Government’s position is that we have got to assess our energy security needs, reduce our emissions in line with our climate commitments and deliver affordable energy supplies. The commitment that I willingly give to Lorna Slater is that the Government recognises the absolute necessity of the journey to net zero, which is why there has to be a climate compatibility assessment on any consideration of oil and gas licensing. That is why I will have no truck with the commitment of the Prime Minister to 100 new oil and gas licences without a question being asked.

Lorna Slater

Our position on the energy transition needs to be evidence based. That evidence does not change on a case-by-case basis. The Scottish Government’s position is like a 40-a-day smoker being told by the doctor, “Stop smoking. You’re killing yourself,” and the smoker replying, “I’ll treat each cigarette on a case-by-case basis.” That position is not only threatening our environment but putting off investment in the green jobs of the future that our communities so desperately need. When will the Scottish National Party get off the fence, get behind the science on this and admit that Scotland’s future relies on green energy and on Scotland’s oil staying in the ground?

The First Minister

It might just be me, but I am not sure that the analogy that was conveyed in the question worked particularly well. People would expect their Government to act in an evidence-based fashion. That is exactly what we will do. We will look at the evidence in any individual application, although I point out for factual accuracy that we do not take those decisions. Those decisions are taken by the United Kingdom Government, but we would argue for that consideration. That is why I say that a reckless commitment to 100 new oil and gas licences is just the territory of climate denier status, and I will go nowhere near that.

A really good volume of investment in green jobs is being undertaken. The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Energy was in Nigg just a few weeks ago at the inauguration of the Sumitomo plant, which has been a fabulous investment in the renewables sector. I was in Ardersier, where there has been a significant investment in green jobs in a project involving the Scottish National Investment Bank and Haventus.

Over the Scottish National Party Government’s time in office, we have substantially decarbonised electricity generation in Scotland, whereby, if my memory serves me right, our net electricity generation has gone from 26 per cent to 113 per cent in the most recent data. All of that demonstrates our commitment to renewable energy, which will be absolutely central to the Government’s energy strategy when it is published.

UK Economic and Trade Performance

4. Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of any implications for its policy for economic development in Scotland of the findings of the Resolution Foundation’s recent report on the United Kingdom’s economic and trade performance. (S6F-03239)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The report by the Resolution Foundation highlights that the UK has faced a decade of economic stagnation and low productivity growth. It also shows that the UK’s trade openness has declined by 0.7 percentage points since 2019, compared with a 1.2 percentage point rise for G7 countries excluding the United Kingdom. A hard Brexit that Scotland voted to reject has damaged our economy. Scotland is open for business, trade and investment, but actions by the UK Government, such as taking us out of the European Union, and the UK Government’s damaging approach to migration, are holding back our economy. Only independence will give Scotland the full range of powers to take economic decisions that are based on our own needs, with the full fiscal and tax levers of a normal independent country.

Jackie Dunbar

The report indicates that the principal driver of economic growth in the UK since 2010 has been immigration. Will the First Minister outline how the conclusions of the Resolution Foundation report feed into the work of the Scottish Government’s “Building a New Scotland” series, in which the migration paper outlines Scotland’s unique migration needs and proposals designed to meet our demographic challenges?

The First Minister

The issue of migration is central to the economic wellbeing of any society. The United Kingdom is putting itself at a formidable competitive disadvantage by taking such a hostile attitude towards migration. We can see that beginning to have an effect on some of our universities, which have been absolutely wonderful examples of international institutions but are now finding their opportunities constrained by the approach to migration, which is damaging to the interests of Scotland. I signal the Scottish Government’s willingness to engage constructively on finding routes to support migration, which will help to boost our economy.

I note the information that was published this week in the Royal Bank of Scotland purchasing managers index report, which showed that, notwithstanding those challenges, private sector business activity growth in Scotland was the second highest across the United Kingdom’s 12 nations and regions, which demonstrates that Scotland is very much open for business.

Drug-related Harm

5. Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what progress the Scottish Government has made in reducing drug-related harm, in light of the latest quarterly statistics showing a 17 per cent increase in suspected drug deaths. (S6F-03229)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I was disappointed to read the statistics that came out this week. The loss of life from drugs in Scotland is truly devastating, and I express my heartfelt condolences to anyone who has lost a loved one through addiction.

The Government is working to tackle the drugs crisis by delivering the £250 million national mission to reduce the number of drug deaths and improve the lives of those who are impacted by drugs. The mission has led to investment in a range of measures to prevent deaths and reduce harms, including implementation of medication assisted treatment standards, widening naloxone access, increasing residential rehabilitation capacity and improving surveillance.

The emergence of new substances raises further concerns. However, for those who are affected by problem substance use and for those who work in the field supporting people every day, I reinforce our commitment to continue to do all that we can to reduce the tragic loss of life.

Sue Webber

The data that was published last week reveals that around 25 people a week are dying from drug use. The new stats that were published this week show that, compared with last year, suspected drug deaths are up 10 per cent in the 12 months to March 2024. The number of deaths is not reducing. The Scottish Recovery Consortium has called that a move in the wrong direction. Will the First Minister explain why successive Scottish National Party leaders have failed to tackle the drug deaths crisis in Scotland and, instead, have followed the same failed approach? Will he finally accept the need to change tack and give us full backing for our right to recovery bill?

The First Minister

I acknowledge the seriousness and significance of the issue. On the question of the proposed right to addiction recovery (Scotland) bill, I have indicated that I will happily meet Douglas Ross to discuss it. I am open to taking seriously any elements of that bill that will help us in our efforts as part of the process. I say to Sue Webber that the Government has tried—and, under my leadership, will continue to try—to be as open as possible to constructing measures that will be effective in delivering better outcomes than we are currently delivering.

At First Minister’s question time a couple of weeks ago, I responded to Sue Webber’s colleague Russell Findlay by indicating that additional threats are coming our way because of the strength of some of the synthetic opioids that are now entering the drugs market in Scotland. That has to be tackled, and we are trying to tackle it.

However, I signal the Government’s willingness to engage constructively across the Parliament to find ways and interventions that will allow us to reduce the number of drug deaths, because I acknowledge the severity and seriousness of the harm that is caused to families and individuals. I remain open to a wide cross-party discussion on that question.

Rape and Sexual Assault Reports

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that hundreds of rapes and sexual assaults that had been reported by sex workers were not acted upon. (S6F-03233)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I was deeply troubled by those reports. Any violence against women, whenever that has occurred, is abhorrent.

It would not be appropriate for me to comment on criminal investigations and prosecutions, but I note that Police Scotland launched an operation in 2018 to examine historical sex offences. I want all victims to have the confidence to report sexual crimes, no matter when they happened. Therefore, I am pleased that Police Scotland has encouraged anyone who has not previously reported such assaults to come forward and do so.

Pauline McNeill

Scottish Labour endorses the First Minister’s comments on the need to tackle violence against women and girls. However, during the Emma Caldwell murder investigation, nearly 300 rapes and sexual assaults that were reported by sex workers, including those by Emma’s killer, were not dealt with by police at the time. A former detective said that, when he worked on the murder inquiry, he received multiple reports of rape, including by Emma’s killer, but that they were boxed, marked as irrelevant and not followed up.

Does the First Minister agree that that was a shameful period in time when attitudes meant that sex workers who reported rape were not taken seriously, that those women were vulnerable and should have had their chance to be heard before a jury and, furthermore, that if there had been an investigation at the time, Emma’s murderer might have been caught sooner?

The First Minister

Pauline McNeill is a very experienced and long-serving advocate in the whole area of criminal justice, and she knows how much I respect her contribution to Parliament on this matter. She will understand, therefore, that it is difficult for me to comment on some of the issues that she has raised.

Having given that caveat, I absolutely accept that it is a necessity that any reporting of crimes of a sexual nature is taken deadly seriously, and it is my expectation that that will be the case at all times.

I will quote the words of Deputy Chief Constable Bex Smith in relation to this matter. She said:

“Time is no barrier to justice ... and if women feel like they want to come forward and report now, then absolutely it’s the time to do that.”

I encourage individuals to follow the deputy chief constable’s invitation and to do that.

In general—with the caveat that I have put on the record already—I think that it is essential that any woman who feels that they have been the victim of a sexual assault, at any stage, should come forward. My expectation of Police Scotland and of the Crown is that that would be taken seriously.

We move to constituency questions and general supplementaries.

MV Isle of Arran (Rescue)

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

On Monday evening, a female passenger on the MV Isle of Arran fell overboard as the vessel approached Ardrossan. Using the vessel’s rescue craft, the crew acted with incredible speed to rescue the woman from the sea and help her to recover on board. The crew’s training and speed of action were the difference between life and death. Will the First Minister join me in paying tribute to the Isle of Arran’s crew for their heroic efforts in saving a life? [Applause.]

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I record my personal thanks to the master and the crew of the MV Isle of Arran for the speed and intensity of their response. The level of professionalism that was deployed by the crew is to be commended, but, of course, the training and professionalism of members of staff of the CalMac Ferries network is built up through their commitment to ensuring that they run and operate a safe network. That example should give the public great confidence in the strength and capability of CalMac personnel.

As well as providing a lifeline service to communities across the west coast, CalMac is a key part of the maritime framework in those areas and is regularly tasked with supporting maritime incidents, given its presence in the area. On behalf of the Scottish Government, I express my warmest thanks to the staff who were involved in that important exercise.

Rail Services (Stranraer and Ayr)

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

For more than nine months, there have been no rail services in my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries, with all rail services between Stranraer and Ayr having been stopped following the arson attack on the Ayr station hotel. Given the considerable disruption to my constituents and visitors over that lengthy time period, and as an incentive to get people back on to the trains, will the First Minister explore every opportunity to work with me, constituents and ScotRail to provide special offers or reduced fares to encourage people back on to the trains when the service restarts in July?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The good news is that we are able to get services running back down to Stranraer in July. I am grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, ScotRail, Transport Scotland, Network Rail and South Ayrshire Council for the work that has been undertaken, because the problem has been a very difficult one. Mr Carson knows the ins and outs of the public safety issues involved in the fire at the station, and I have just answered a question from Mr Gibson on safety on the transport network, so we all know the realities here.

I will give consideration to Mr Carson’s proposal. Of course, such things always cost money, which we would have to try to find. However, if Mr Carson would care to write to me with any suggestions that he thinks would be helpful, I would be happy to consider them, along with the transport secretary.

Teacher Jobs (Glasgow)

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

The First Minister has spent quite some time claiming that he is anti-cuts, but the reality is that he is the architect of austerity. Just ask teachers in Glasgow, who, this week, as a result of his Government’s cuts, have voted to strike in their latest attempt to save their jobs and protect education. Teachers have spoken, parents and pupils have protested and Parliament has voted. Will the First Minister now finally listen, step in and save those jobs?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I understand the significance of the issues that Pam Duncan-Glancy has raised. In previous answers, I have made it clear that, had the Labour Party’s budget proposals been accepted by Glasgow City Council, the reductions in the teaching workforce could have been greater than those that are proposed by the existing city council administration.

However, this is where we get to the hard realities of the public finances. Earlier this year, Pam Duncan-Glancy voted against the tax increases that we had put in place in the budget. That would have reduced the amount of money that is available for public services. [Interruption.]

How is it remotely credible for the Labour Party to come here and ask me to spend more money on local authority services and education services when it wants to deliver austerity in the Scottish Parliament as well as austerity in the United Kingdom Parliament?

That is desperate.

The First Minister

That is the hard reality that is about to confront Mr Sarwar, who is shouting and muttering at me all the time during my answers. However, he cannot have it both ways; he cannot come here and demand that we do more when a Westminster Labour Government is going to propose to cut our budget because of austerity.

Strathclyde Partnership for Transport ZoneCard

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Several constituents have contacted me about eye-watering increases of up to 135 per cent on their Strathclyde Partnership for Transport ZoneCard costs. Some Maryhill commuters are now paying the same as someone travelling from much further afield, such as East Kilbride, for example.

I have written to the SPT asking to meet it and urging it to pause the increases scheduled for 24 June. Does the First Minister share my concerns about the wholly unacceptable increases for my constituents during a cost of living crisis? Are there potential implications for the Scottish Government’s fair fares review and its ambitions to have capped fares and integrated ticketing?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I am aware of the issue that Mr Doris raises and the Cabinet Secretary for Transport has written to the SPT about it.

The ZoneCard is a commercial ticket that is managed by bus, rail and subway operators. Neither the Scottish Government nor Transport Scotland were part of the fares discussions by the companies involved. We want to make it easier and more affordable for people to choose to travel by public transport, as it will support economic growth, tackle inequality and address climate change.

The fair fares review presents a package of measures to make public transport more accessible, available and affordable, with the cost of transport being more fairly shared across Government, business and society. I hope that some of the thinking in the fair fares review can lead to a different outcome in relation to what is a very significant issue for Mr Doris’s constituents and others in the west of Scotland.

Ferry Network

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I, too, commend the actions of the crew of the Isle of Arran during the aforementioned incident. I hope that the First Minister will also acknowledge the many on-going disruptions that are taking place on the west coast ferry network.

Yesterday, no fewer than four vessels were out of action for technical reasons. That is on top of long-standing issues on the Arran route, where the Caledonian Isles vessel is undergoing a series of repairs and is due to be out of action for most of the summer. I hope that the First Minister will understand the disruption that that is causing for our island communities. I have grave concerns that we are simply staring down the barrel of a summer of chaos on our ferry network.

What is the First Minister’s Government doing about that chaos? Is he as disappointed as I and my constituents are that not one of his back-bench MSPs signed my motion to allow a members’ business debate on that very subject next week?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

There are obviously instances and examples of problems on the ferry network. We have an ageing fleet and the Government is investing significantly in new vessels. There will be six substantial new vessels in the ferry fleet by 2026, the first of which will come into the network later this year. As Mr Greene will be aware, the second of the Islay vessels was launched successfully from the yard in Turkey at the weekend.

On a short-term basis, the chartering of the MV Alfred has helped on the Arran routes while the MV Caledonian Isles has been in dry dock for extensive repairs. We also supplemented the network with the purchase of the MV Loch Frisa.

I understand the disruption that is experienced by island communities. As Mr Greene knows, I am a frequent user of the CalMac network, and I will use it again in the next few weeks. We are working with the network, but it is also important to recognise that the network performs superbly well on many occasions, not just in relation to safety issues that Mr Gibson raised, but also in the delivery of essential lifeline services to our communities. I thank CalMac and its staff for their efforts to do so.

Nuclear Energy

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

What is the First Minister’s response to the GMB union’s call for the Scottish Government to end its opposition to nuclear energy? The union has warned of a risk of this nation

“returning to the days of power cuts and candles”,


“hundreds of skilled Scots ... already leaving to go abroad”

because of this decline.

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I respect the fact that people have a different opinion from me, but I am not a fan of the nuclear industry and I do not support investment in nuclear power plants. I never have and I never will. The country should focus on creating clean, green, renewable energy resources.

We have a formidable track record of investment in Scotland and a formidable record of transformation in the generation of electricity in our country. What would help us is reform of the electricity market in the United Kingdom, which might result in people living in the areas that generate the electricity not having to pay exorbitant energy costs, which is the current procedure in the UK energy market. That might be something that Mr Whitfield could take up with his colleagues, should they be in a position to influence those issues on 5 July and later.

A9 Dualling

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

It is with great sadness that I must report that another person has lost her life on the A9. Our hearts go out to her family and the others who were injured in the incident.

Some weeks ago, at his first First Minister’s question time, the First Minister kindly agreed to meet me and fellow MSPs from the Conservative, Labour, Liberal and Alba parties, in order for us all, on a cross-party basis, to put the case for acceleration of the announced programme for completion of the dualling of the A9, which, of course, will have the consequence of fewer lives being lost. I appreciate that the First Minister is limited in what he can say during purdah, but will he give that request the most serious, thorough and sympathetic consideration?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

First, I echo the comments of my colleague Fergus Ewing about the lady who died last night on the A9 near Carrbridge. I am very sorry to hear that news and I express my sympathies to her family and to everyone who has been affected by the incident.

As Mr Ewing will know, the Government has an on-going programme of investment in the A9 dualling—it was set out by the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Energy some months ago. The Cabinet Secretary for Transport now expects to authorise the procurement for the Moy to Tomatin stretch in July. That is our expectation of the completion of the procurement process there.

Just the other week, the procurement process for the Tay crossing to Ballinluig, which is a substantial stretch of the road, was commenced. We did that deliberately to ensure that there is continuity in the delivery of the contract.

Mr Ewing knows me well enough to know that I will give thorough, serious and thoughtful consideration to all the proposals that are put to me, and I look forward to the cross-party group meeting, which I understand is scheduled for next week, to enable me to hear at first hand from colleagues across the chamber about the importance of the issue and how we might act together to accelerate the proposals that are before us.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s questions. There will be a short suspension before the next item of business to allow those who are leaving the chamber or the gallery to do so.

12:49 Meeting suspended.  

12:51 On resuming—