Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, May 18, 2023
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Fostering Friendly Employers Scheme, Portfolio Question Time, Non-domestic Rates, Sustainable Food Supply, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Fostering Friendly Employers Scheme
- Portfolio Question Time
- Non-domestic Rates
- Sustainable Food Supply
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
The Daily Mail has today reported that Scottish National Party minister Jenny Gilruth, who is sat just behind the First Minister, might have broken the ministerial code. The former Minister for Transport, whom Humza Yousaf promoted to be Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, changed plans that had been agreed for 18 months, with just weeks to go. The original plans would have involved a small closure to rail services around her constituency for a few days just after Christmas last year, to allow essential upgrades to happen. Jenny Gilruth appears to have forced a change in order to give preferential treatment to her constituents, at a higher cost to taxpayers and far more disruption to passengers. Does the First Minister think it acceptable for a minister to make a political decision for her own benefit instead of acting in the interests of all of Scotland?
Douglas Ross is making a very serious accusation. Of course, if there are any accusations that the ministerial code is being broken, they will be appropriately investigated so, if Douglas Ross is making such an accusation, we will appropriately investigate it. However, I do not believe that the way in which Douglas Ross has characterised the situation is at all correct.
On Sunday 21 May, ScotRail’s new timetable will come into effect. That is another important step, as Scotland’s railways continue to recover.
What does that have to do with the question?
Such timetable changes happen regularly. When Jenny Gilruth was Minister for Transport, they happened for the correct reasons, according to the investigation that I did this morning, when the story that Douglas Ross talked about came into the public’s consciousness.
We have invested heavily and significantly in railway services. We are proud to have taken ScotRail back into public ownership, and every decision that we make—every decision that any transport minister under this Government has made—is for the benefit of the entire railway network, including passengers up and down the country. I do not believe that the way in which Douglas Ross has characterised the situation is what took place, but I will, of course, investigate the issue further.
Let us just clear up some of the things that the First Minister said. He said that he is going to investigate, but he also said that he investigated this morning and sees no fault in what Jenny Gilruth did.
He also questions my characterisation of what happened, so let us go through some of the pages and pages of the freedom of information emails that we have seen. A freedom of information response makes it clear that, instead of a few days of closures after Christmas, Jenny Gilruth pushed for changes that would lead to six weeks of disruption, including four full weekends. [Interruption.]
Jenny Gilruth is very keen to intervene, but I am just reading out what we have received—[Interruption.]
Mr Ross, give me a moment.
I am absolutely sure that I do not need to remind members of the rules regarding behaviour in the chamber. I would be grateful if we could adhere to those rules.
Jenny Gilruth seems to have a lot to say about this. It would be interesting to hear what she has told the First Minister, because ScotRail advises in these emails that the plans that Jenny Gilruth put forward would mean that 9,000 more customers every day would be disrupted. ScotRail reviewed the decision and concluded that there would be
“greater costs with more customers disrupted or inconvenienced with a revised access plan”.
Jenny Gilruth’s decision to scrap those changes appears to have cost the taxpayer at least £1 million.
Scottish Rail Holdings board papers, also released under FOI, state:
“The Board is asked to note that Network Rail and ScotRail chose to do the work at this time precisely to minimise the number of passengers impacted, and Transport Scotland were fully aware of and endorsed this approach”.
How can Humza Yousaf defend Jenny Gilruth when she went against the advice of Network Rail, ScotRail and Transport Scotland?
First and foremost—as I remember well from my time as transport minister—whenever such decisions are made it is crucial that we engage with communities. [Interruption.] It is so crucial that we engage with communities to understand from them what the impact of any potential closure will be. [Interruption.] I can hear groans from the parties at the sides of the chamber at the mention of engaging with communities, but we always engage with our communities when it comes to any potential disruption to our transport network.
The proposed decarbonisation works on the vital rail line would have caused significant disruption right across the whole east coast of Scotland, including for passengers travelling across—yes—Fife, but also to Dundee, Perth and Aberdeen. [Interruption.]
The former transport minister has stated that she was not content that everything was being done to minimise inconvenience over a busy festive period when people were rightly travelling up and down the country to see their loved ones, particularly in the context of disruption that was taking place due to industrial action at the time. Therefore, and rightly in my view, she asked Network Rail to postpone the works—which it agreed to do—in order to give time to engage with the communities that would be impacted by the closure.
For me, whoever the transport minister is—whether it is Jenny Gilruth, as was previously the case, or the current transport minister—it is vital that the needs of passengers are always front and centre when such decisions are made. That was clearly the case when Jenny Gilruth made that decision.
This is getting worse for the First Minister. He is now saying that Jenny Gilruth was right to do this. He also said that Jenny Gilruth, as the former transport minister, thought that there were problems with the matter. Well, we come to another email from 19 October 2022, which states:
“Ms Gilruth understands why they are doing it but it is not going to land well.”
She agreed with the proposal, but was worried about how it was going to land with her constituents. She should not even have been involved in the decision. She should have recused herself because of the clear potential for a conflict of interests.
Concerns were raised about the minister’s actions. One civil servant, whose name is redacted in this FOI response, said:
“It might be wise to be clear why this is appropriate for Fife in particular, because other areas might expect similar”.
The political interference might even have forced a senior executive to resign. [Interruption.] Chris Gibb worked in the rail industry for more than 40 years. He chaired ScotRail in 2022. He resigned just a few weeks after Jenny Gilruth’s decision—after he advised against the change. In board papers that we have seen, he raised concerns about political interference and
“micromanagement by Scottish Ministers, advisors and officials.”
First Minister, did Chris Gibb resign because of Jenny Gilruth’s inappropriate actions?
Douglas Ross is once again making really serious accusations without, I am afraid, any evidence. [Interruption.] He is hoping, because he is undoubtedly desperate, to throw as much mud as possible—[Interruption.]
He will throw as much mud as possible and hope that some of it sticks. I say to Douglas Ross that conflicts of interests and the Conservative Party are definitely not a combination that he should look to raise. [Interruption.]
In response to Douglas Ross reading out the emails, I say that he is being selective in what he reads out. He forgets to mention that the disruption that would undoubtedly have been caused because of the works would have affected passengers travelling across not just Fife but to Dundee, Perth, Aberdeen and other parts of the network, too. As is absolutely right, I would expect my transport minister and any member of the Government to ensure that they take account of all those who might be impacted and affected.
I say to Douglas Ross that he should look at the facts, not just throw around mud hoping that some of it will stick. Speculation, to be frank, does not help anyone in the chamber and certainly does not help passengers for whom we are committed to improving the rail network.
What did not help passengers was the former Minister for Transport’s decision. She was emailed on 7 November 2022 at 17:40 and told by ScotRail that there would be greater costs and that more customers would be disrupted and inconvenienced with the revised plans. There will be at least £1 million extra in associated costs and 9,000 additional passengers every day will be affected because of the decision that she took, so the First Minister can cut out all that rubbish about standing up for passengers when it is clear that the decision that Jenny Gilruth took led to a poorer service.
It looks like there has been a clear breach of the ministerial code. Jenny Gilruth is smirking at that; well she might, because the First Minister already seems to believe that she is innocent. However, the ministerial code states that a minister “must keep separate” the role of a minister and their role as a constituency MSP.
This case looks not just like preferential treatment in the constituency but a truly awful decision that will cost taxpayers millions and lead to greater disruption. Five months on, the essential works that Jenny Gilruth delayed have still not happened. It looks like a clear-cut sackable offence. At the very least, it needs more than the First Minister looking at it over breakfast: it needs an urgent investigation now. Will the First Minister confirm to Parliament right now that he will launch an investigation into his minister today?
To my understanding, this is not the first time that the issue has been raised. I think that it was raised months previously, as well. Of course, I was not First Minister at the time. As I said in response to Douglas Ross’s first question, I will look at the accusations that are being made.
I say to Douglas Ross that Jenny Gilruth was not and is not also the MSP for Dundee, Perth or Aberdeen. The decisions were taken because the works would affect railway passengers right across the network, particularly in the north-east of Scotland. [Interruption.]
From the information that I have in front of me, it seems to be pretty clear that Jenny Gilruth made those decisions so that disruption would not affect more passengers right across the network. I would have expected her to do that at the time and would expect the current Minister for Transport to do it. When vital works, particularly on decarbonisation, have to take place, we have to ask how we do them in a way that minimises disruption, particularly during the busy festive period.
I say to the Conservatives that we take the ministerial code extremely seriously, which is not something that could be said about them in any way, shape or form.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde
Next month, it will be three years since the Scottish hospitals inquiry was announced. These are the facts that we already know: first, two children died because of infections that they contracted at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital; secondly, there were serious failings by the board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, which resulted in the board being put into special measures; and, thirdly, Louise Slorance, whose husband Andrew died after contracting aspergillus, was kept in the dark by a cover-up. Despite all that, the chair and chief executive of the health board still have their jobs and no one has been held responsible.
This week, the health board, under the same leadership, has shamefully refused to accept many of the oversight board’s conclusions and has even called into question the basis of the independent review that exposed fatal infections in clinically vulnerable children. Why should people who refuse to accept even the most basic facts be trusted to run Scotland’s largest health board?
Anas Sarwar has—rightly—raised those issues on many occasions. As he said in his question, a public inquiry has been taking place in relation to a number of the issues that he has raised. It is important that we do not prejudice an inquiry that is taking place and that we wait for the full outcome of that inquiry. Appropriate action will, of course, be taken on those issues. We have made it clear that it is important that we do not wait for that inquiry to finish if we can take remedial action to improve the situation.
Anas Sarwar is right to raise a number of those issues in the chamber. My understanding is that not only have many of the oversight board’s recommendations been accepted but work on them is well under way.
It is important that members across the chamber raise such issues here. My thoughts are with all the families that have been affected by the challenges that the health board has undoubtedly faced. The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care and I will continue to engage with the board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to ensure that the oversight board’s recommendations are taken forward.
The First Minister misses the point, which is that we are going backwards. The health board’s leadership has said that it does not accept many of the findings of the oversight board and that it now does not accept the findings of the independent case-note review that highlighted the infections. That is the point that the First Minister is missing.
As Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Jeane Freeman understood that grieving families needed justice. She listened to the voices of families and campaigners, put the health board into special measures and established the inquiry. When Humza Yousaf took over from her, he was too weak and easily led—he lifted the board out of special measures and empowered the people who had failed. Less than a year later, the leadership of the board is trying to rubbish the independent review and is questioning the accepted facts.
Kimberly Darroch, whose daughter Milly Main died, has said that the board is making the families’ lives hell. Louise Slorance said:
“Enough is enough, patients have been harmed, others lost their lives. Families lied to and bullied. For what? To protect the reputation of Scotland’s flagship hospital and that of the Scottish Government.”
Will the First Minister allow the leadership of the health board to rewrite the facts and continue to prolong the agony for those families?
We will absolutely hold the health board’s leadership to account in relation to the recommendations that the oversight board has made. The reason why NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde was de-escalated from special measures was that the majority of the oversight board’s recommendations had been accepted, work was under way and many of the recommendations had been completed. That is why decisions to de-escalate were made.
In relation to patients and people who have suffered—Anas Sarwar raised the cases of Milly Main and Andrew Slorance—the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care and I will be happy to meet the families who are involved. We have brought forward a number of measures to improve transparency and to ensure that families get answers. Unfortunately, in rare cases, things go wrong. In April 2018, we introduced an organisational duty of candour, which places a legal duty on all health and social care organisations to be open and honest when something goes wrong.
We also introduced the Patient Safety Commissioner for Scotland Bill in response to Baroness Cumberlege’s important report. When I was the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, I made it clear that whistleblowing is an integral and important tool that staff should use in order to raise concerns when they feel that it is necessary and appropriate to do so. In my time as Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, I met every single whistleblowing champion from health boards up and down the country, including the whistleblowing champion at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.
We will do everything in our power and will absolutely hold the health board to account. In my conversations with the leadership of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, it certainly understood the seriousness of the issues.
In the rare times when things go wrong—the vast majority of people get a good service from our health service—the Government will ensure, on behalf of the people of Scotland, that families get the answers that they deserve.
The First Minister has not held the people responsible to account; he has empowered the people who have failed those families. Frankly, staff at the hospital, patients who have been failed and families will listen to that answer from the First Minister with rage and think that he is completely out of touch with the reality that they face every single day.
We are six years into the scandal and the established facts are being denied by a health board leadership who are prepared to do anything to protect their own jobs. Of course, that is what we have come to expect from the Scottish National Party Government. No one ever takes responsibility, and failure is rewarded with promotion. The chair of the health board is still in his job; the chief executive has been given an excellence in leadership award; the health secretary when the hospital was opened and Milly Main died is now the Deputy First Minister; and the health secretary who took the failing board out of special measures is now the First Minister. Under the SNP, failure is rewarded, incompetence is excused and the Scottish people are left suffering the consequences.
If the First Minister is too weak to stand up for those grieving families fighting for justice, how can the people of Scotland trust him to stand up for them when it really matters?
This is the point: Anas Sarwar can spin in any way he wishes, but the people of Scotland have continued to trust the SNP with the health service time and again. Why have they done that? They have done that because we have invested record amounts in our health service, because we steered this country through the biggest shock that the NHS has faced in its 74-year existence and, of course, because our NHS staff are the best paid anywhere in the United Kingdom.
We value our staff. I remember quite well that, following a health debate in the chamber that I took part in, Anas Sarwar, who had led for Labour, was criticised by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde—doctors and nurses—for his politicisation of the health service in Scotland.
The decision to de-escalate NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde was made because of the evidence that we had in front of us. I am happy for Anas Sarwar to see that evidence and the details of that once again.
We will continue to make sure that, on the rare occasions when things go wrong, we do everything in our power to make sure that there is absolute transparency and that families get the answers that they want. As First Minister, I am more than happy to meet the families that Anas Sarwar mentioned, who have undoubtedly been affected by situations in which that failure has happened.
Sewage Discharges (Monitoring)
To ask the First Minister for what reason only 4 per cent of Scotland’s sewage discharge points are monitored, compared with 91 per cent in England. (S6F-02135)
Our approach to assessing sewage discharges is more effective than that in England. Scottish Water has completed a more extensive environmental study programme to monitor and model the impacts of its facilities on water quality. Data from monitoring is also being used to determine any actions needed to improve Scotland’s water environment. Scottish Water has already invested £686 million since 2010 in improvements, and has committed a further £500 million during 2021 to 2027. That has contributed to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s most recent classification, which shows that 66 per cent of Scotland’s water bodies are in good ecological condition, which compares with just 16 per cent in England. That is in line with aims to achieve 81 per cent by 2027.
The problem for the First Minister in relation to the money that he has identified for those extra monitors is that 70 per cent of all dumping point pipes will still go unobserved whereas, in England, every pipe is due to be monitored by the end of this year. When on earth will we catch up?
Look at what we have discovered in the last few weeks: human waste dumped around Scotland’s best loved beaches, wetlands of international importance and special protection areas from Shetland to the Clyde. The First Minister should take particular interest in the most-used sewage dumping outlet in Scotland, which recorded 127 releases last year—enough to run 100 million baths. He will know that site well, because it is on the bank of the Clyde in his Glasgow Pollok constituency—perhaps that is why he moved to Broughty Ferry.
Will the First minister commit today to the introduction of legally binding targets to tackle sewage dumping in Scotland?
I moved to Broughty Ferry so that my step-daughter could see her father more often. That is the reason why I moved there, and that is not a state secret by any stretch of the imagination.
On the serious issue that Alex Cole-Hamilton raised, we know that combined sewer overflows are a serious issue, and he was right to raise them in his question. However, they are also integral to ensuring that sewers do not, during periods of heavy rainfall, back up and end up flooding homes, businesses and streets throughout our country.
Our monitoring is more comprehensive, and I would be happy to provide Alex Cole-Hamilton with more detail on that. I have the detail of the monitoring that Scottish Water has done, and I can send it to him. That was done over a number of years, and it allows us to comprehensively monitor where the spill overflows are happening. Scottish Water is not just sitting on its hands or resting on its laurels. It has published “Improving Urban Waters—Route Map”, which outlines how we intend to invest in the Scottish water environment. A number of projects are currently under way to monitor and ensure that we make improvements to our sewer network. We take the issue extremely seriously.
I will end on the point that I started on, in response to Alex Cole-Hamilton’s first question. Notwithstanding the very serious issues that he has raised, our water quality in Scotland is very good. SEPA’s most recent classification shows that 66 per cent of Scotland’s water bodies are in good ecological condition compared with 16 per cent in England. We aim to improve that to 81 per cent by 2027.
Scotland’s natural environment is not just the envy of the world; it is vital to our health. Therefore, it is no surprise that reports of more than 14,000 sewage spills have prompted protests across the country, including one this Saturday in Stonehaven, which is in my region. In December 2021, Scottish Water vowed to increase the number of storm drain monitors to more than 1,000 by the end of 2024. However, according to a freedom of information response obtained by the i newspaper, as of 1 March this year, not a single new device had been installed. Can the First Minister tell us exactly how many of those 1,000 storm drain monitors he expects to be installed by the end of this year?
Of course, it was always the plan that the installation programme would take place over the course of summer 2023 and into 2024. We are still confident, and Scottish Water remains confident, that we will have those 1,000 spill monitors in place by the end of 2024. I would be happy to provide Mercedes Villalba with further detail on that if she wishes.
I go back to the point that there has been comprehensive monitoring. Scottish Water did studies between 2015 and 2021. We have extensive computer models that can allow Scottish Water to understand when the combined sewer overflows will spill—under what rainfall conditions, for example—and what impact those spills will have on the natural environment. There is a whole host of data, because of the excellent and extensive work that Scottish Water has done.
To answer Ms Villalba’s question directly, we are still confident that 1,000 spill monitors will be installed by the end of 2024.
Residential Properties (Cladding)
To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on the work of the Scottish Government to address potentially dangerous cladding on residential properties. (S6F-02113)
The safety of residents is, of course, an absolute priority for the Government. We are acting decisively to protect lives through a programme of cladding assessment and remediation. The current programme includes 105 buildings that will each go through a comprehensive technical assessment. Although we expect that the majority will be safe, if the assessment identifies an immediate fire risk, we will act without delay, as we have already done.
As assessments are completed, we will agree plans and take action to deliver full remediation. That means that I also expect developers to take responsibility to remediate their buildings where the public purse is not needed to do so. I urge them to do so voluntarily, but we will use all the levers at our disposal, including legislation if necessary, to remediate buildings and protect residents.
The First Minister will understand that people’s lives have been put on hold and that some people are at the end of their tether. Local authorities are asking for building warrants for remediation work and developers are putting safety measures in place that are severely imposing on the lives of people who live in those buildings, but many residents and constituents of mine feel that remediation is not moving quickly enough.
My constituents just want their lives back. What further measures can the Scottish Government take to further encourage local authorities and developers to work co-operatively to remove unsafe cladding from these buildings more quickly?
Kaukab Stewart is right to make a couple of key points. One is about the frustration of her constituents—and, perhaps, constituents in other parts of the country—because things do not seem to be moving as quickly on the ground as they would like. I understand that frustration.
Kaukab Stewart is also right to mention that we are trying to take a collaborative approach with developers, local authorities and others in relation to this particular situation. I can understand how worrying it is for those living in buildings with unsafe cladding. That is why we put the safety and wellbeing of residents at the very heart of the cladding remediation programme. Developers must do the same—they must step up and fix their buildings.
Our preference has always been to have that voluntary agreement with developers through the Scottish safer buildings accord, but let me be clear that we are putting the safety of residents first and foremost and we will use all the powers that we have. I reiterate what I said in my first answer to Kaukab Stewart that, if necessary, we will also use legislation to ensure that developers do the right thing, so that we can get on with remediating buildings in line with Scottish building standards.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to a recent poll that found that more than a third of people in Scotland would consider relocating if income taxes were increased further. (S6F-02130)
The Scottish Government is proud to have the fairest and most progressive tax system in the United Kingdom. Consideration of behavioural changes is a vital part of our tax policy decisions. Our evaluation of the move to a more progressive tax system in 2018-19 found no evidence of significant behavioural change, including in relation to cross-border migration.
That should come as no surprise, because our social contract with every citizen goes significantly beyond the provisions in the rest of the UK. It includes free prescriptions, free higher education and support for more than 400,000 children who are eligible for the Scottish child payment. We will continue on that path of progressive taxation and there will be robust analysis behind any changes that we make to the tax system.
Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Chartered Institute of Taxation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Archangel Investors Ltd and D J Alexander Ltd are just some of those who are warning of the dangers of widening the tax differential with the rest of the UK. Sandy Begbie, of Scottish Financial Enterprise, is warning of the resulting effects on Scottish productivity and economic growth.
Will the First Minister give a categorical assurance that he both accepts and understands the widespread and serious concerns among the business community and that the future tax policy of the Scottish Government should be fully focused on making Scotland the most competitive part of the UK rather than the most highly taxed part of the UK?
What is fascinating is that, in that question from Liz Smith, she did not mention a single anti-poverty campaigner in the list that she gave. Why would she not do that? Of course, if we want to invest money in tackling poverty, we have to have the money to be able to do so. That is why progressive taxation, which allows us to increase revenue to spend on tackling poverty, is so crucial.
However, I would say to Liz Smith that of course we will listen to those organisations that she listed—I have met many of them already—and we will continue to listen to them where we possibly can. We will have robust analysis behind any decision that we make about taxation.
I do not see and have never seen a conflict between growing the economy—something that is front and centre of the prospectus that I published in the first couple of weeks of being First Minister—and ensuring that we have a progressive tax system so that we can invest in anti-poverty measures.
We will continue to make those careful balanced decisions in relation to taxation and we will make sure that we are informed by robust analysis and evidence from many of the organisations that Liz Smith mentions, as well as from the Scottish Fiscal Commission. However, if we had listened to Liz Smith and the Conservatives and given tax cuts to the wealthiest, we would have much less money to spend on things such as free prescription charges, ensuring that higher education is free and, of course, that game-changing Scottish child payment.
Data shows that, regardless of tax rate changes, Scotland continues to attract more working-age people from the rest of the UK than move in the other direction—about 20 per cent more annually. Although I know that the Government will do the due diligence and sensitivity analysis for any proposed tax changes, I make the point that a modest increase in inward migration from the rest of the UK to Scotland could significantly increase tax revenues by hundreds of millions of pounds to spend on public services in Scotland and support Scottish businesses with skills to tackle the challenges that they face. What is the Scottish Government doing to proactively attract more workers from the rest of the UK to live and work in Scotland?
Ivan McKee makes an excellent point. [Laughter.] I am not sure why the Conservatives are laughing—
Thank you, members!
They do not like to listen to the facts. The facts that Ivan McKee has presented are absolutely right. We have seen a modest increase in inward migration from the rest of the UK, which is an important point. Scotland’s record on inward migration from the rest of the UK dispels much of the hysteria from the Conservative Party on the impact of our tax policy.
However, it is important to recognise what more we can do, which is why we are committed to establishing a talent attraction programme and a migration service for Scotland. That will help us to build on the success that we have already had in this space. The talent attraction and migration service will improve Scotland’s ability to attract and recruit workers from outside Scotland with the skills that our economy needs. It will support international workers in the migration and relocation process and will ensure, where we have the levers over pay and terms and conditions, that we are embedding fair pay and ensuring that our staff are some of the best paid in the UK. We are doing that in the national health service, where our staff are the best paid anywhere in the UK. I hope that that helps to attract them to Scotland. We will put progressive taxation and fair pay at the heart of everything that we do in the Scottish Government, in stark contrast to the approach that has been taken by the Conservatives in England.
Social Care Workers (Sick Pay Provision)
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a member of the GMB trade union.
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will reintroduce the social care staff support fund, or take other action to improve sick pay provision for social care workers, in the light of reports of a survey by GMB Scotland stating that 80 per cent of social care workers in the private sector have considered quitting, and wider warnings that the care sector is on the brink of collapse. (S6F-02119)
I recognise that Monica Lennon, rightly, often raises incredibly important issues to do with adult social care. We all know that Covid-19 created an enormous challenge for the social care sector throughout the United Kingdom and in Scotland. That is why we introduced the social care staff support fund in order to support the workforce and protect our most vulnerable people. I thank the social care workforce for all the vital work that they did during the height of the pandemic and the work that they are currently doing under significant pressure and extreme challenge. Our fund continued for longer than funds in any other UK nation, but it was always a temporary measure, particularly when self-isolation rules were in place.
Fair work is central to improving recruitment, retention and staff wellbeing in the sector, so we will continue our work to promote those practices and improve pay, conditions and the workers’ voice. To that end, we have guaranteed an additional £100 million to uplift pay to £10.90 per hour, which took effect from April this year. We have made a commitment to reaching £12 an hour for adult social care workers who are delivering direct care.
Carers who are in the gallery, their colleagues and the people they care for deserve much better than that. The fund was time limited, but the crisis in social care is getting worse by the day. As was highlighted in the Sunday Post, carers are urging the Government to reinstate the fund because they cannot afford to get sick. Removing that financial safety net now without an alternative solution will accelerate the collapse of social care and push the NHS further into crisis.
To her credit, Jeane Freeman listened to the workers and worked with Scottish Labour to introduce the fund in the first place. Will Humza Yousaf’s Government listen, meet the workers and our unions, and do the right thing?
We will be happy to meet trade unions, which we do regularly. The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care will do that, and I am happy to continue my engagement with trade unions.
We are taking action to address pay, which is why we funded a further pay increase to the tune of £100 million this financial year. It is also why the work that is being done to introduce legislation on a national care service and get the service up and running is vital. At the heart of that service are fair work principles, such as sectoral bargaining.
We will not wait for the national care service to be in place—work is already going on through the fair work in social care group, which has developed a set of minimum standards for terms and conditions that reflect fair work principles. Those standards include sick pay and maternity and paternity pay to assist with recruitment in the sector. We want to continue to make progress with the national care service exactly because the adult social care landscape, which involves private providers, in-house local authority providers and third sector providers, is fragmented. How much better it would be to have national consistency across the country, which we can only really achieve with the national care service.
We move to general and constituency supplementary questions. I ask for brief questions and responses.
Scotland’s social care watchdog has said that children as young as 12 are allowed to consent to the use of puberty blockers. That guidance fails to acknowledge the interim Cass review of gender identity services in England, which identified several failings in the Tavistock centre’s management and a lack of evidence to support the use of puberty blockers. More and more brave young people are coming forward to talk openly about detransitioning, about their harrowing stories of surgery and about the lack of mental health and emotional support that they received. Does the First Minister support prescribing of puberty blockers for 12-year-olds?
I support such decisions being made by clinicians—by the people who have clinical knowledge. That is what we should do. We should trust those who have clinical expertise, as opposed to standing here in the chamber—we do not have such expertise—making judgments about what is best for young people who need gender identity services.
The Cass review has produced an interim report. It is well understood that health services in England differ quite significantly from those in Scotland. We have taken account of the interim report and we will look at the final report when it is ready. To go back to my initial point, I note that it is so important to trust clinicians, who have the medical expertise and knowledge, on such important decisions.
Renfrewshire Council (Dargavel School Provision)
Renfrewshire Council’s education and children’s services policy board will meet today to discuss school provision for children in Dargavel following the council’s catastrophic school roll miscalculation. When I previously raised the issue, the expected cost to fix the mess was £20 million; it is now an incredible £75 million.
Parents are looking for the Scottish Government to help to resolve the situation. Does the First Minister agree that no child in Renfrewshire should have to pay for the council’s incompetence and lose out because of the resulting shortfall in school budgets? If so, what will the Scottish Government do to ensure accountability for this failure and ensure that the appropriate primary and secondary provision is urgently put in place?
I will ask the current Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to have discussions with Renfrewshire Council when they can. I know that the previous education secretary was involved in discussions. It is a local authority matter. Neil Bibby has asked me to take money out of the school building programme and redistribute it to another project. He must say what school we would take that money from, because every single penny is accounted for in the current budget.
We will continue to have discussions with Renfrewshire Council, as we have done. I will ask the education secretary to touch base again with the council, because I agree with Neil Bibby’s premise that no child should feel that their education or their educational attainment has suffered as a result of any decision that has been made in national or local government.
Mental Health Awareness Week
The First Minister is aware that this week marks mental health awareness week, which this year has a particular focus on anxiety. As the cost of living crisis deepens and household bills soar, what action has his Government taken to mark that important period?
We know that poverty is a key driver of poor mental health and we are prioritising work to support the people who are most at risk. As part of mental health awareness week, the Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport met money advice and mental health organisations just yesterday to hear at first hand the impact that the cost of living crisis is having on mental health in Scotland.
We have developed advice for front-line advisers, we have created resources for the general population on the “Mind to Mind” wellbeing web pages and we will continue to work with money advice and mental health partners on what more can be done. We continue to do everything that we can do to urge the United Kingdom Government to use all the powers at its disposal to tackle the cost of living crisis, because of the serious impact that it is having on the mental health of the population.
Child Protection (Independent Inquiry)
Whistleblowers and campaigners have called on the First Minister to support an independent inquiry into the mishandling of complaints relating to child protection in Edinburgh, East Lothian, the Borders and Aberdeenshire. Campaigners believe that a wider independent inquiry is now needed in order to investigate safeguarding concerns and how reports from parents, guardians, carers, professionals and the public have been mishandled in relation to on-going unresolved child abuse and child protection concerns. The current on-going Scottish child abuse inquiry remit is narrow and focuses only on historical abuse, specifically with regard to children who live in care.
First, will the First Minister agree to meet me and the campaigners to discuss their concerns? Secondly, will the Scottish Government now take forward an independent inquiry into those concerns?
I will ensure that the appropriate minister meets Miles Briggs and, of course, I am more than happy to consider the request for a meeting from Miles Briggs, on behalf of the families. I pay credit to Miles Briggs, who has raised the issue on a number of occasions in the chamber on behalf of the families who have been affected.
This Government takes child protection absolutely seriously. In reference to the issues that Miles Briggs has raised I will, as I have said, ensure that the appropriate minister meets him as soon as possible, and I will consider the invitation to meet Miles Briggs and the families who are involved.
St Andrews University (Student Halls Rent Increases)
In the middle of the cost of living crisis, the University of St Andrews is increasing rents in its student halls by 8 per cent. Students are at risk of being plunged into poverty as the university lines its pockets. Does the First Minister agree that a rent increase of that scale is completely unacceptable? Will he join me in calling on the university to reverse that decision?
That is a decision for the university to make, but I completely understand why Mark Ruskell raises that important issue. As he knows only too well, we have introduced legislation for ensuring fair rents where appropriate, but there might be areas where we can go further, so we are exploring that quite actively. I agree with Mark Ruskell that everybody in our fantastic educational institutes—in this case, higher education, but it applies also to further education—should absolutely be aware of the responsibilities that they have for students who are, undoubtedly, suffering from a Westminster cost of living crisis that is impacting everybody—in particular, of course, our students.
That concludes First Minister’s questions. There will be a short suspension before the next item of business.12:48 Meeting suspended.
12:50 On resuming—