Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, April 20, 2023
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Damp Housing, Portfolio Question Time, Deposit Return Scheme, Climate Change and Just Transition, Motion without Notice, Decision Time, Points of Order, Eurasian Lynx
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Damp Housing
- Portfolio Question Time
- Deposit Return Scheme
- Climate Change and Just Transition
- Motion without Notice
- Decision Time
- Points of Order
- Eurasian Lynx
First Minister’s Question Time
Scottish National Party Finances
The rules of the Parliament prevent me from asking crucial questions about the scandal over the Scottish National Party’s finances, so I cannot dwell on that, but I want to use my opening question to give the First Minister an opportunity to be transparent.
Last night, the First Minister became the SNP’s treasurer, so, although this is still a party matter, it is also now a Government matter if the First Minister is compromised, if his hands are tied, if the party of government is about to go bankrupt or if he himself becomes involved in the police investigation. Yesterday, the Deputy First Minister said:
“Going forward, the governance of the party needs to be ... about transparency, openness and people should be able to be able to question ... about the accounts.”
We agree, and we believe that there are legitimate questions that the Scottish public deserve answers to. In the interest of transparency, will Humza Yousaf agree to make a statement to Parliament on the financial scandal that is engulfing the party of government in Scotland?
Mr Ross, according to the Parliament’s standing orders, First Minister’s question time gives the opportunity to put questions to the First Minister that fall within the responsibilities of the First Minister as First Minister and, of course, the responsibilities of his Government. I am not entirely clear that that question met the requirements of the standing orders. I am looking at the First Minister to see whether he wishes to add anything to what I have said.
I am happy to answer the question. I know that there are, of course, some serious issues for the party that I lead—the SNP—to address; I am not going to shy away from that. That is why in my very first act as SNP leader, attending my very first national executive committee, I am pleased that we got agreement from that committee—the body that oversees the party, which is elected by our members—to our review of transparency and governance. There was agreement not only to a transparency and governance review but to one that has external input, particularly on issues of finance oversight.
That is an important role for me, as leader of the SNP, but let me also say that what I am doing—and what the Government that I lead is doing collectively—is focusing relentlessly on the day job. That is why, in the first few weeks of being First Minister, I not only doubled but tripled the fuel insecurity fund. I know that Douglas Ross will not want to talk about that, because it lays bare the harm that the Tory cost of living crisis is doing to households up and down the country. [Interruption.]
I suspend proceedings. First Minister, please resume your seat.12:03 Meeting suspended.
12:04 On resuming—
Please continue, First Minister.
Douglas Ross will no doubt be pleased that it was me that got interrupted for once.
That is why, in my first few weeks as First Minister, I announced £15 million for school-age childcare that is targeted towards the lowest-income households, an additional £25 million to support the just transition, additional funding to support general practices in our areas of highest deprivation and £25 million to be able to buy back or long lease empty properties for the social rented sector. Those are priorities for me, and they are the priorities of the Scottish people. Although I take my responsibility as leader of the SNP extremely seriously, I and the Government that I lead will focus relentlessly on the priorities of the Scottish people.
The first words from the First Minister when he stood up were that he was happy to answer the question, but he then basically refused to do so. I simply asked for a statement and for transparency, which I think are needed from the First Minister, because the secrecy must end.
I will move on to one of the matters of substance that the First Minister should be focusing his attention on, instead of on the huge distractions within his party. Last year, an SNP Government agency introduced guidelines that encourage more lenient sentences for under-25s, even for some of the worst crimes. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs was asked about that in the session before First Minister’s question time. Does the First Minister fully support the policy that was brought forward for consultation when he was justice secretary?
That is a very important issue. Although I will not comment on individual sentencing decisions, as it would not be right for me to do so as First Minister, let me clarify some important issues around the sentencing guidelines. I heard Angela Constance make these points in response to the question earlier.
Sentencing guidelines are, rightly, entirely the responsibility of the independent Scottish Sentencing Council. Decisions about whether to approve those guidelines are for the High Court. The new Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs has written to the chair of the Sentencing Council to discuss its important work. That letter notes that she will discuss how the council plans to keep those published guidelines under review.
It is also important to note not only that decisions on sentencing are rightly for the independent judiciary but that they are evidence based. Anybody who has read those sentencing guidelines—I assume that Douglas Ross has done so—will have seen a comprehensive guideline that is evidence based in relation to the sentencing of young people.
Notwithstanding all the good that is in there, the last point that I will make on that sentencing guideline is that it is very clear that there is no bar on imposing a custodial sentence on a young person where the judiciary considers that to be appropriate. However, that must be a decision neither for the First Minister or Government ministers nor for Opposition colleagues; it is a decision that is, rightly, for the independent judiciary.
A few weeks ago, my party and almost everyone in Scotland were outraged at the case of a 13-year-old girl who was raped at a park in Dalkeith. Her attacker, Sean Hogg, was found guilty of rape, but he did not go to prison. All that he had to do was carry out 270 hours of unpaid work. The judge said that, if Hogg had committed that crime when he was over 25, he would now be behind bars. That confirms that the problem is the sentencing guidelines that were introduced. It is very clear that the SNP’s justice system is broken. Will the First Minister fix it?
Before I ask the First Minister to respond, I remind everybody in the chamber that this is a live case and that any reference thereto should therefore be made with extreme caution.
With that caveat in place, let me also say in reaction to that case that I can understand why people have concerns. However, I must go back to the central point that sentencing decisions are, rightly, for the independent courts and judiciary. The Lord President reminded me of that when he made some remarks on the public record when I attended the Court of Session to give my oath as the First Minister of Scotland. I committed to upholding the independence of the judiciary, which is a responsibility that I take with the utmost seriousness.
I read the very distressing account of the victim, who was 13 years old at the time. I also heard from her family in the public statements that have been made. Everybody would sympathise with the strong feelings of the victim. Talking generally and not about that specific case, I think that it is important to say that 98 per cent of all those who were convicted of rape between 2018 and 2021 received a custodial sentence.
It is important that we continue to give the judiciary the independence that it has, and that we have that separation between Government and judiciary. However, in the letter that Angela Constance sent to the Scottish Sentencing Council and the Lord Justice Clerk, she said that the Government would like to discuss the issues around how the sentencing guidelines are kept under review. I take Douglas Ross’s point that there is clearly public interest in the sentencing guidelines.
The First Minister mentioned that he had seen the comments from the victim and her family—they are all in the public domain and it is legitimate to raise them in the chamber.
The grandfather of the victim said:
“With this new ruling they’ve got, any person under 25 can go out and do any crime they want, however horrendous it may be, and there’s a good chance that they will get a community payback.”
The survivor of the rape said:
“When I was told he had been found guilty I felt a wave of emotions. I didn’t know how to react. I cried, I think I cried with relief ... Now it makes me think, why did I even bother reporting the rape in the first place.”
“Whoever is in charge of the justice system needs to sort this out: you say you care about victims like me, but how can a serial rapist receive 270 hours community payback?”
Her final line was,
“Why is it ok to rape anyone and not go to jail?”
The First Minister seems to be hailing the statistic that 98 per cent of people who are convicted of rape go to prison. One hundred per cent of rapists who are convicted of that crime must go to prison. I will repeat the words of the victim as my question to the First Minister:
“Why is it ok to rape anyone and not go to jail?”
Speaking in the general and not about a specific case, I agree with the sentiment that, if somebody commits rape, they should go to jail. I believe that, but I also believe very firmly that it is up to the independent judiciary, including judges in the High Court, to make a decision about the appropriate punishment for an individual for the crime that they have committed.
I refer back to the sentencing guidelines, which are the central issue that Douglas Ross raises. The guidelines make it clear that, as well as looking at issues around rehabilitation and consideration of sentencing for young people under 25, other factors, including
“protection of the public; punishment ... and expressing”
“disapproval of offending behaviour”,
should also be taken into account.
Therefore, the courts can still, even with the guidelines that are in place, impose a custodial sentence on a young person if they consider that to be appropriate in the light of all the facts.
I take what has been said by the victim and her grandfather very seriously. That is why we are looking to improve the justice system, particularly when it comes to women, who are often the victims of sexual offences and rape. We will shortly introduce a criminal justice reform bill, which will seek to make those changes to the court system and to the justice system in order to improve the experience and outcomes of justice for victims of sexual offences and rape. I hope that it will get support from across the chamber.
On Tuesday, Humza Yousaf tried to convince the country that he represented a fresh start. Sixteen years of command and control, financial mismanagement and a complete lack of transparency—that is not only how the Scottish National Party governs its party; it is how it governs the country.
Just one example is the on-going ferry crisis—£200 million over budget, with no ferries in sight. Last week, I was in the Western Isles, and I heard directly from people about the consequences of that failure—cancelled ferries, meaning missed cancer appointments, lack of supplies coming in, produce not getting out and businesses going to the wall.
In 2017, the then SNP Minister for Transport and the Islands said that resolving the Western Isles ferry crisis was a priority. Six years on, people are still waiting, and it has got worse. Who was that incompetent transport minister and where are they now?
I recognise the challenges that those who rely on our ferry services—our island communities—have suffered in the past few weeks, particularly over the Easter tourism season.
However, let me speak clearly to those island communities. We not only understand their frustrations but are taking action to ensure that we bolster the ferry network services. That is why this Government has bought and deployed an additional vessel in the MV Loch Frisa. That is why we chartered the MV Arrow to provide additional resilience and capacity. That is why we commissioned two new vessels for Islay. That is why we commissioned two new vessels for the Little Minch routes. That is why we progressed key investments in ports and harbours. That is why we confirmed additional revenue funding for the operation of local authority ferry services. That is also why we are looking forward to the MV Alfred and why we provided additional funding to Caledonian MacBrayne for it, to provide additional resilience, not just for the next few weeks but for the next nine months.
It is, of course, a very serious matter that Anas Sarwar has raised, but we are a Government that is taking action to ensure that we have resilience on our ferries network.
That was a great example of what has become typical of this leadership in the past three weeks: comical Ali, saying everything is fine, while the house burns down behind us.
Island communities will not believe those excuses from the First Minister. He and this Government are totally out of touch. Six years ago, Humza Yousaf, as Minister for Transport and the Islands, made a promise to fix this, but the Scottish National Party Government has failed to get a grip, and its financial mismanagement has cost us hundreds of millions of pounds.
It has cost people in the islands dearly, too. The impact on the local economy has been devastating. One report has estimated that the loss of the Lochboisdale to Mallaig ferry alone cost nearly £50,000 a day. That is almost double the average annual salary on the islands. As one business put it,
“No ferry means no income, no jobs, no people”.
Businesses in Uist have asked the Scottish Government to compensate them for their losses. Last year, Transport Scotland took millions of pounds in fines from CalMac because of the lack of services. Will the First Minister commit to compensating islanders, and at the very least pass on the fines that the Government has collected from CalMac to the people who have been affected by the crisis?
I will look at any proposals that are suggested by anybody across the chamber, including the one that Anas Sarwar just mentioned.
I completely accept, and am unequivocal in saying, that the Government understands and regrets any delays and disruption that have impacted our island communities. What does not help island communities are easy soundbites from Anas Sarwar—[Interruption.]—that are not an attempt to provide any solutions but silly personal attacks around comical Ali. That is not going to help those in our island communities one single bit.
What will help our island communities is delivering—[Interruption.]
—six new major vessels to serve Scotland’s ferry network by 2026. That is a priority for this Government.
Let us look at the facts. Of course there has been disruption—I do not deny that at all—but in 2022, there were 170,000 scheduled sailings across the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services network, and around 6.6 per cent of them were cancelled. Over half of those cancellations were due to weather-related issues. Around 1.1 per cent of the total scheduled sailings were cancelled due to technical issues. The vast majority of scheduled sailings take place when they are meant to. We should and will bolster the ferry service network’s resilience, and I look forward to the charter of the MV Alfred in the coming days.
I will say to Anas Sarwar that I will end where I started. Any sensible suggestions from the Opposition, and from across the chamber, will be listened to by the Government.
The harsh reality is that island communities just do not believe him. Island communities feel completely let down, and they have heard these excuses for years. They cannot wait for more years of Government failure. This is impacting the lives of islanders right now. Businesses are failing right now. Millions of pounds are being lost right now. Exports are stuck on the islands right now. People need support right now, and that is why they need that compensation scheme.
This is no fresh start. Humza Yousaf has served in Government for over a decade. He was a failed transport minister, with hundreds of millions of pounds wasted on ferries that never sailed. He was a failed justice secretary, with millions of pounds wasted on botched prosecutions and court delays. He was a failed health secretary, with over £300 million wasted on delayed discharges, while people waited to get life-saving treatment. Now, just three weeks in, he is a failed First Minister, bogged down in scandal, unable to lead and completely out of touch with the priorities of the people of Scotland.
Therefore, I ask the acting SNP treasurer: why should Scots keep paying the price for SNP failure?
I say once again to Anas Sarwar that we are acting now. That is why the MV Alfred—an additional vessel for which we have helped to fund CalMac—is coming on board in the next few days. That is tangible action that will make a difference to our ferry networks, right here and right now. He says that the people of Scotland do not trust us and that he was in the Western Isles. I remind him that the Western Isles has an SNP MP and an SNP MSP, so the people of the Western Isles absolutely do trust us. [Interruption.]
Members! We need to hear the First Minister respond.
He says that we have not been getting on with the job. Well, I am afraid that people in Scotland disagree with him. I stood here on Tuesday and announced and articulated our policy prospectus, and I am delighted that it got support from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and that some of the policies that I announced got support from Dr Liz Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. There was support from Transform Scotland in relation to the pilot for peak rail fares being abolished, and support from the Scotch Whisky Association, the Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland, the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, Crisis Scotland, Reform Scotland, the Poverty Alliance, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland and Parkinson’s UK.
This is a time for new leadership, of course, which I am delighted to bring to this Government, and time for a fresh start. The people of Scotland recognise that; maybe it is time for Scottish Labour to recognise it, too.
Rosebank Oil and Gas Field
To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on what recent engagement the Scottish Government has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the proposed development of the Rosebank oil and gas field, in light of the Scottish Government’s draft energy strategy and just transition plan. (S6F-02014)
Licensing of exploration and production of the offshore oil and gas sector remains reserved, regrettably, to the UK Government. The Scottish Government is clear that unlimited extraction of fossil fuels is not consistent with our climate obligations. It is not the solution to the energy price crisis, to meeting our energy security needs or, indeed, to ensuring a just transition for our oil and gas workers, as North Sea production inevitably declines.
That is why we need a new plan for Scotland’s energy system. The draft energy strategy and just transition plan seeks to do that. The Scottish Government is absolutely committed to a just transition and to ensuring that we take workers with us on the important journey to net zero. We will not do to the north-east what Thatcher did to mining and steel-working communities right across Scotland.
I thank the First Minister for that response. While recognising that licensing is reserved, the draft energy strategy and just transition plan sets out the position that
“in order to support the fastest possible and most effective just transition, there should be a presumption against new exploration for oil and gas.”
Since the draft plan was published, the United Nations secretary general has said:
“our world needs climate action on all fronts—everything, everywhere, all at once. ... Ceasing all licensing or funding of new oil and gas ... Stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves”
“Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to a just energy transition.”
Whether it is Rosebank today or other proposals to drill tomorrow, does the First Minister agree that a just transition on a liveable planet depends on our firm commitment to a fossil fuel free future?
I agree that we should all want a fossil fuel free future and, on that, I agree that delivering on our climate obligations is an absolutely priority. As one of the first things that I did—I think that it was my second official visit as First Minister—I went to the north-east of Scotland and spoke to people who are absolutely committed to that just transition, particularly in the north-east. I want the north-east of Scotland to be the net zero capital of not just Europe but the world, and I believe that it has the potential to do so.
Maggie Chapman is absolutely right that, first and foremost, we have to make sure that any decisions that are taken by the UK Government must be taken in relation to our climate obligations. We want the UK Government to strengthen its climate compatibility checkpoint. We have asked for tougher and more robust climate tests.
Secondly, we should ensure that the decisions align with our energy security needs.
My third point is really central, and I believe that Maggie Chapman will agree with me. We must take the workers of the north-east with us. As I have already said, we will never do to the north-east what Margaret Thatcher did to our mining and steel communities. We will not decimate sectors and we will not leave a single worker on the scrapheap. That is why I will continue to invest in and accelerate the just transition as quickly as possible.
New exploration and production in the North Sea would protect more than 70,000 Scottish jobs. It would help our energy security and it would have a positive impact on emissions, rather than offshoring our responsibilities. Will the First Minister therefore re-examine the plans in his threadbare energy strategy to close the North Sea, or will he continue to be dictated to by a cabal of Green MSPs?
That is, of course, not what is in the draft strategy. If we truly unleash and unlock the green economy, we would be talking about tens of thousands of jobs over the next couple of decades. We want to take the workers of the north-east in particular with us on that journey.
What a cheek Liam Kerr has to stand there and talk about Scottish energy jobs when the party that he belongs to and the UK Government have continued to block, delay and dither when it comes to the Scottish Cluster and the Acorn project, which it has refused to give permission on and has relegated to track 2. I say once again that the Tories can never be trusted when it comes to protecting Scottish jobs.
Scotland and the UK will continue to need and rely on gas for decades to come. In many cases, gas is imported from the US, but its gas is produced with more than four times the carbon emissions of Rosebank. Does the First Minister therefore agree with me that sacrificing the development of our own gas resource would not only decimate tens of thousands of highly-skilled well-paid jobs in a form of economic masochism that is advocated by the wine-bar revolutionaries in the Green Party but make climate change worse, not better?
Before the First Minister responds, I remind members of the requirement to treat each other with courtesy and respect.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I suspect that that is not the first time you have had to tell your brother off.
Let me make a point of agreement with Fergus Ewing and say that nobody I have heard in the Scottish Government or the Green Party has said that extraction must stop tomorrow. We understand that a just transition means that we have to take the workers of the north-east with us. The point is that the transition has to be just, which is why we believe that we must accelerate the just transition with further investment in non-fossil fuel alternatives.
Independent research that was based on industry projections found that production in the North Sea will be around one third of 2019 levels by 2035. We therefore know that it is a declining basin, which is why we have to make sure that we accelerate the just transition. Meanwhile, as at 2019, only 16 per cent of the oil and gas that comes into Scotland, including imports from Norway and beyond, is consumed in Scotland. Reducing our energy consumption while ramping up our energy generation capabilities through renewables and hydrogen will mean that a net zero Scotland will not only be less reliant on imported oil and gas but will, I hope, be a net exporter of cleaner and greener energy to the rest of the UK and beyond.
Business Community (Engagement)
To ask the First Minister, in light of his recent visit to the Port of Aberdeen, what engagement he has had with the business community since taking office. (S6F-02027)
Resetting the relationship with business is a core priority for the Government. On Tuesday, I set out plans to agree a new deal for businesses and the introduction of a new group, to be co-chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy, that will explore how Government can better support our businesses and communities using all the policy levers that we have at our hands.
During my visit to the Port of Aberdeen, I announced, as I have already said, £25 million to be invested in the just transition away from oil and gas. That was the first of many meetings that I have planned as part of an extensive programme of engagement with business and industry leaders across all of Scotland’s sectors to identify priority areas of challenge and opportunity. Later today, I will meet the main business organisations to personally reiterate my commitment to that new working relationship and to talk about how we can deliver on our mission to have a fairer, greener and growing wellbeing economy for all of Scotland’s people.
The Scottish Government’s commitment to agree a new deal for business has received an extremely positive response from the business community, and we all agree that it is absolutely vital that we work together constructively to develop our wellbeing economy.
Given the substantial pressures that many businesses are facing from rising costs and a disastrous Brexit, it is clear that urgent and sustained action is needed to maximise the support that is available to them. Can the First Minister say any more about the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that it can best support our businesses using the full amount of policy levers that it has at its disposal? Does he agree that we would, if full powers over our economy rested with this Parliament, be much better placed to support our businesses to thrive?
Of course we would. I can hear groans and jeers from the Scottish Conservatives, so let us hear what the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility said about the impact of Brexit on the United Kingdom economy. He said that it was of the same “magnitude” as the impact of the Covid pandemic and the energy price crisis. In addition, the Centre for European Reform has found that Brexit has cost the UK a staggering £33 billion in lost trade. This is not just the opinion of the Scottish National Party-led Scottish Government; it is the opinion of experts in the economy who are saying that Brexit has seriously impacted on trade in the UK and in Scotland.
Businesses are the backbone of the economy—I am the proud son of a small business owner. That is why the new deal for business, which I articulated in our policy prospectus on Tuesday, is so important. It is crucial. Through the Scottish budget, we responded to business’s biggest ask on non-domestic rates by freezing the poundage for 2023-24, which it is estimated will save ratepayers £308 million.
We will continue to use the powers of devolution that we have to the absolute maximum effect in order to grow and transform our wellbeing economy. However, I agree with Audrey Nicoll that we need significantly increased policy levers to ensure that Scotland will be wealthier, fairer and greener, and that the wellbeing of our people is enhanced. Until we have that, I am afraid that the Scottish Conservatives will continue to have the levers that, as we can see, they use to harm our people and our business and trade, here in Scotland.
Connectivity between the Port of Aberdeen and the freeport in Cromarty will be vital for the north-east economy, so will the First Minister grow a backbone, stand up to the Greens and fully dual the A96, as promised?
That question goes to the heart of the Conservatives’ hypocrisy. They demand that we go further in tackling the climate emergency, yet anything that we do—including, for example, a review of sections of the A96 for climate compatibility—they oppose. It does not matter what the Scottish Government tries to do to ensure that we tackle the climate emergency in order to leave a cleaner and more sustainable planet for future generations—the Conservatives will always oppose it.
We are absolutely committed to dualling the A9 as well as the A96 from Inverness to Nairn, including the Nairn bypass. I have already said to my good friend Fergus Ewing that we will bring forward a timetable on that as soon as possible.
Highly Protected Marine Areas
To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s plans for highly protected marine areas, following the end of its public consultation. (S6F-02002)
Our initial consultation on highly protected marine areas closed on Monday, and it is only right that we take some time to carefully consider all the responses—there has been a substantial number of responses—before we set out our next steps, especially given the strength of views that have been expressed on the issue.
Our seas must remain a source of prosperity for the nation, especially in remote coastal and island communities. It is vital that those communities help to shape the creation of HPMAs, which is why we chose to consult very early on in the process. My officials have held more than 40 meetings relating to the process, and my colleague Màiri McAllan will continue to engage directly with coastal and island communities before we decide on our next steps together.
I make it clear that no sites have been selected. That will not begin until we have considered the feedback from the consultation and the engagement process is complete. We are determined to ensure that as many voices as possible are heard in the process.
Earlier this week, the First Minister said that HPMAs should not be imposed on communities that do not want them. Not one community in the Highlands and Islands wants the HPMAs.
We all acknowledge the need to protect our marine environment, but the HPMA proposals will devastate coastal communities—the fishing sector, in particular—and threaten their very way of life. It is no wonder that the policy has been compared with the clearances—people cleared off the land and cleared off the sea.
Given the anger that the policy has caused and the widespread opposition to the plans, including from many in the First Minister’s own party, and given that he wants to be First Minister for the whole country, will he now scrap the plans once and for all and start again?
The point is that there are no plans yet. There is a consultation, but we do not yet have set sites or set criteria. We are at a very early stage—an inception stage—in which we want to work with our coastal, island and fishing communities. I believe that, ultimately, there is agreement on the outcome. The outcome that we all want is a sustainable marine environment. We want our fishing industry and our seas to be sustainable for the future. We want the industry to continue. However, that can happen only if the marine environment is sustainable. I believe that there is agreement on that.
Of course, our fishing, island and coastal communities have often been at the forefront of the effort on sustainability, so we want to work with them and engage with them.
All that said, I reiterate what I said on Tuesday: this Government will not steamroll through or impose on any community a policy that it is vehemently opposed to. My colleague Màiri McAllan will engage with those island and coastal communities, and we will analyse their responses very carefully. I say to all those who have expressed their opposition to highly protected marine areas that we are willing to engage and to listen. Let us hope that we get to the agreed outcomes together.
Does the First Minister agree that the no-take zone in Lamlash bay has had no adverse impact whatsoever and, indeed, has shown that conservation can help to revitalise our fishing sector, and that identifying potential highly protected marine area sites would allow more effective direct engagement to take place with concerned fishers and communities?
That is absolutely right. Far from having any adverse impact, the Lamlash bay no-take zone has shown us the benefit for the marine environment and the people who rely on it. The example of Lamlash bay is a very good one—it was the community that wanted the no-take zone to be established. That goes to the central point, which is that we will work with communities to get to the outcome that I hope that we all agree on, which is having a sustainable marine environment.
Based on studies that were co-ordinated by the community group at Lamlash bay, it has been noted that, since protection was established, commercially important species such as the king scallop and the European lobster have increased in size, age and density. The 2008 designation of the Lamlash bay no-take zone off the coast of Arran was a result of campaigning by the local community, and I think that that is a good model for us as we take forward our work on highly protected marine areas.
Earlier this week, Orkney Islands Council joined its counterparts in Shetland and the Western Isles in voicing the strongest possible opposition to the Government’s plans for highly protected marine areas, given their potential impact on island communities.
On the same day, the First Minister announced welcome, if long-overdue, U-turns on his deposit return scheme and alcohol advertising sanctions. I therefore urge him not to spend months defending the indefensible and to confirm, in the light of the significant and growing opposition in coastal and island communities, that his Government will now rethink its plans to arbitrarily designate 10 per cent of Scottish waters as HPMAs by 2026.
Liam McArthur will be well aware that, when I was Minister for Transport and the Islands, I brought forward island proofing, which is something I believe into my very core. Therefore, we will not impose upon any community, island or otherwise, a policy that it vehemently opposes.
We will analyse the consultation responses and agree on the outcomes. I think that there is general broad agreement on the outcomes. We want to have a sustainable marine environment and a fishing sector that is sustainable in the long term and protecting our biodiversity helps us with that outcome.
I will continue engaging personally, as will Màiri McAllan, who will, no doubt, travel across the country, including to Orkney and Shetland, to meet with those who have expressed concerns. I hope that, together, we can get to a place where we all agree on the outcome and can move forward to protect our marine environment and make it more sustainable for the future.
Ferry Services (Highlands and Islands)
To ask the First Minister what immediate action the Scottish Government will take to improve the situation regarding ferry services across the Highlands and Islands, in light of recent reports of unprecedented disruption. (S6F-02011)
As I already said in my response to Anas Sarwar’s question, I recognise the significant impact that delays and disruption have, regrettably, had on our island communities during the annual overhaul programme. We know that not only individuals but businesses in our island communities rely on those lifeline services.
I am committed to investing in our ferry services and we will be delivering six new major vessels to serve Scotland’s ferry network by 2026: that is a priority for me and for the Government that I lead. We have already procured the MV Loch Frisa, we previously chartered the MV Arrow and we look forward to shortly welcoming the MV Alfred into service to provide additional resilience in the network. In the meantime, we will continue pressing Caledonian MacBrayne to consider all options to minimise the impact on communities and businesses.
I know that the Minister for Transport is engaging very closely on that issue. He has held resilience calls with CalMac and Transport Scotland in the light of the latest disruptions and has proactively engaged directly with local stakeholders, with our operators and with Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd to improve reliability and resilience right across the network.
The transport minister refused to take responsibility for the ferry crisis and also refused compensation payments for local businesses that are going to the wall because of ferry failures. Now that constituents on Uist will have no mainland ferry services from Sunday, which is in three days’ time, is the First Minister going to do the same, or is he going to tell us what emergency provision he will put in place? Has he asked the Ministry of Defence for help and what compensation will he give to the businesses that will close as a result of this?
I already said in my response to Anas Sarwar that we will consider the issues of compensation and of what more we can do to support businesses when there is disruption. I do not agree with the premise of the member’s question. I know that Kevin Stewart has been directly involved in engaging with CalMac and with the island communities that have been affected.
I go back to my responses to both Anas Sarwar and Rhoda Grant: we have the MV Alfred coming on board—I hope—in the coming days, which will provide further resilience to our network. However, I take the points that have been made. Of course, any disruption to our ferry network is regrettable. The other point that I know that Kevin Stewart has been engaging on is that we want to ensure that we improve our communication and CalMac’s communication with islanders when such disruption takes place.
The Scottish Government has now officially asked the United Kingdom armed forces to step in and provide a temporary replacement service across the Corran narrows. Although that service is run by Highland Council, it highlights the lack of resilience and the growing crisis in Scotland’s ferry network.
Can the First Minister advise me if he was involved in signing off that request to the MOD and, if so, when he did that? Given the need to ensure that this kind of disruption, and the severe impact that it has on local communities, does not happen again, will he today commit to either he, or his new transport minister, visiting the area at the earliest opportunity to meet with local residents and businesses?
I have a slight correction to Jamie Halcro Johnston’s question: it is our MOD. Our Scottish taxpayers’ money helps to fund the MOD, so when he talks about the MOD stepping in, it is important to say that it is using assets that Scottish taxpayers contribute towards. That is a really important point of clarification.
The Scottish Government has been helpful. We have helped to facilitate engagement between Highland Council—because we know that the Corran ferry is its responsibility—and the MOD. It was my colleague Ian Blackford, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, who helped to ensure facilitation between Highland Council, the MOD and the Scottish Government.
We will do everything that we possibly can in relation to that military aid to the civil authorities request. My understanding is that the MOD is currently doing initial assessments. Whatever the next steps are in relation to that process that involve the Scottish Government, we will be as helpful as we can possibly be.
I also remind Jamie Halcro Johnston that it was the former Deputy First Minister who announced in his final budget that the Scottish Government would provide full revenue funding to councils that run their own ferry services. Our officials are in very proactive engagement with Highland Council about these costs. Kevin Stewart would, of course, be happy to visit the Highlands and talk to the local community about the Corran ferry route.
Cancer Testing and Screening Programmes
To ask the First Minister what urgent action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that everyone who is eligible for any cancer testing and screening programme is receiving their invitation on time, in light of recent reports that 13,000 women who were mistakenly removed from the national database are being offered an appointment for a cervical smear. (S6F-02017)
I thank Beatrice Wishart for raising what is an incredibly important issue. The national audit of the cervical screening programme is under way. It is a result of an incident that was brought to our attention in 2021 where a small number of women were incorrectly excluded from the cervical screening programme after having subtotal hysterectomies.
This final stage of the audit is precautionary. It follows an initial audit in 2021 of those women who were considered to be at the highest risk of being wrongly excluded. No cervical cancers were detected as part of that audit and the risk to participants in this audit is very low. The actual number of patients who need to be reinstated to the screening programme will obviously not be known until the audit is complete and all affected individuals are contacted.
Funding has been made available, particularly to GP practices to ensure that they can absorb any increase in demand.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. I recognise the complexity of the case. We are talking about a statistically small number of people, but each of them will, no doubt, be concerned when they receive a letter. Can the First Minister assure those with concerns that measures are in place to ensure that similar errors are not repeated and that all those who are affected will be contacted as swiftly as possible? Will he indicate what work is under way to improve access to screening, including the introduction of self-sampling, to ensure that this news does not further impact uptake?
Beatrice Wishart is absolutely right. Although the numbers may be small, when someone receives the letter, I can imagine the impact, the concern and the worry that they will have. That is why I was very keen to reiterate that the women who were called in the first audit were the ones who were most at risk. If someone receives a letter or is asked to come back in for screening, there is low risk but, of course, there is still risk, and that will be a concern for those who receive the call-up as part of the audit.
Beatrice Wishart is also right to ask what we have done to ensure that the error does not occur again. It is an error that has occurred, I am afraid, in the system for many, many years. We have made improvements to the information technology systems in relation to the cervical cancer screening programme. We have also improved the record-keeping process, and 14 territorial boards have taken action in relation to their audit activities.
We expect the audit to be fully completed in the next 12 months. I note again that we have started with those at the highest risk.
In relation to cervical cancer, Beatrice Wishart mentioned some of the initiatives that we are taking forward, but we are also seeking to do more in relation to mobile screening units, which we know are particularly important in rural, remote and island communities. Beatrice Wishart raises a very important point indeed around the fact that we need to make sure that screening for all cancers—cervical cancers, of course, included—is as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
We will now move briefly to general and constituency supplementary questions.
The First Minister will be aware of an article in this morning’s Telegraph by Conservative peer David Frost, which proposes to reduce and remove powers of devolution and undermines this Parliament. How does the Government intend to defend the powers of this Scottish Parliament from unelected Tories at Westminster who are intent on dismantling devolution? Does the First Minister agree that it is for all MSPs from all parties to defend this Parliament from an attack on democracy?
Absolutely. Lord Frost, an unelected Tory peer, gave the game away. He said the quiet bit out loud. He said what every Scottish Conservative really thinks. I will quote him. He said:
“Not only must no more powers be devolved to Scotland, it’s time to reverse the process.”
He also said:
“Ministers should make it clear that, if re-elected, they will review and roll back some currently devolved powers.”
It is hardly a surprise that the party that did not support the Scottish Parliament now wants to dismantle it.
Let me be abundantly clear. Whether it is in relation to the section 35 veto, the Conservatives’ inability to grant an exemption under the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 or the fact that they want to curtail our excellent international development work and external engagement, the Scottish National Party-led Scottish Government will always defend our democracy and we will always defend the voice and the will of the Scottish people.
Children in Care
The First Minister will be aware of the report by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Scotland, “#Keeping the Promise to Infants, 0-3 Years”. It states that Scotland’s care system has a “baby blindspot”. It also states that, despite the fact that the youngest children are the most vulnerable to harm, the zero-to-three age group can often be overlooked, which is shocking, especially when a quarter of all child protection orders are for infants under 20 days old. It makes reference to the need to improve, support and redesign services in order to keep the Promise.
Given the public commitments by the former First Minister, what will the current First Minister do to ensure that the baby blindspot in Scotland is removed once and for all?
Roz McCall raises an important issue. She is right to scrutinise what the Government is going to do to keep the Promise. I made an unapologetic and unequivocal commitment in relation to this Government’s determination to keep the Promise. Of course, I have appointed a minister who has responsibility for keeping the Promise, and Natalie Don will report directly to me, as First Minister, on that issue.
The Government will lay out in detail what we can do for care-experienced young people. This Parliament has passed some relevant legislation on issues such as sibling separation, but what I heard from care-experienced young people in particular is that we need to go further in terms of the implementation of that legislation on the ground. Roz McCall rightly raises the issue of what the NSPCC refers to as the baby blindspot, and that is another issue that I am determined that we will do more on.
As I say, I give an unequivocal commitment that this Government will keep the Promise not just in relation to babies and young people, which is important, but in relation to care-experienced people, because care experience is lifelong.
Scottish hospices face a perfect storm of rising staff costs, increased energy and running costs and a tough fundraising environment. They need urgent funding to match the national health service pay uplift so that they can offer their staff the fair wage that they deserve.
Hospice UK met the First Minister in his old role as health secretary some five weeks ago, but all that it has had since are holding responses. Time is running out and hospices will need to make decisions in order to sustain their services. Will the First Minister act swiftly—indeed, today—and provide hospices with the additional funding that they so urgently need?
We are investing a record £19 billion in our health and social care system this year. That has been possible only because of the progressive taxation that the Scottish Government has brought forward. I will, of course, speak to the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care to see what more we can possibly do and what funding we are able to provide. However, every penny of our funding has been allocated.
I understand that the issues that Jackie Baillie has raised on behalf of Hospice UK are important and I value the work that hospices do—I have personal experience of that work from when I lost an uncle to pancreatic cancer many years ago—so I take the issues that she raises seriously and we will look to do whatever we can to support the excellent work that our hospices do across the country.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a short suspension before the next item of business to allow those leaving the chamber and the public gallery to do so before the debate starts.12:54 Meeting suspended.
12:55 On resuming—