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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, November 23, 2023


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Michael Matheson (Expenses)

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I understand that the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body has announced the launching of an investigation into the health secretary’s expense claims. Although that investigation is welcome, the health secretary still has to come to Parliament to give full answers and the First Minister must give us a frank response today.

For a moment, let us set aside the doubts about Michael Matheson’s latest story about how he racked up a massive bill on his phone while on holiday. If we believe the unbelievable, suspend our disbelief and assume that that fable is true, just for one minute, that still does not explain why, back in February, Michael Matheson claimed £11,000 of taxpayers’ money for a bill that he could not account for. He promised Parliament, and gave written assurances, that the bill was the result of constituency work and only of constituency work. His new version of events proves beyond doubt that that claim was false.

The First Minister said that it was a “legitimate” expense. Does he still believe that?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Let us remember that, when Michael Matheson discovered what had happened, after speaking again to his family and to his teenage boys about the use of his iPad, and as he laid out in full in a personal statement last week, he took the immediate decision to pay back the full amount.

Michael Matheson has made mistakes in handling the issue. That is something that he has admitted to. In what I thought was a very emotional statement in the chamber, he gave the reasons why that happened. He wanted to protect his teenage boys from the frankly harsh political and public scrutiny that often comes with the roles that we occupy. On discovering from his teenage boys what had happened, he immediately agreed to pay back the full amount.

Let me read a quote from an interview on STV:

“I’m sorry. It was a big mistake. It’s something that shouldn’t have happened, but I am ultimately the only person responsible for that ... This was a big mistake, by me, for which I’m deeply sorry. I know how badly I performed here and how much I’ve let people down and for that I’m very sorry.”

That was a quote from Douglas Ross, when he failed to declare £28,000 of income.

The point here is that we did not call for Douglas Ross to quit. We accepted the point that he had made an honest mistake. People will see through the hypocrisy of Douglas Ross saying that it is fine for him to make an honest mistake but that it is not fine for Michael Matheson to make an honest mistake.

We will not get distracted by Douglas Ross’s political opportunism. The health secretary is getting on with the job of ensuring that our health service recovers through what will be a difficult winter.

I ask for briefer questions and responses.

Douglas Ross

Let us be very clear: my apology, which was full and frank, was about not declaring something; Michael Matheson tried to dupe the taxpayer out of £11,000. He wanted the taxpayer to pay £11,000.

Is that the reason why the First Minister could not answer my question? Because he did not answer it, I will put it again. The First Minister previously said that that was a “legitimate” expense claim. Does he still believe that?

Michael Matheson claimed that £11,000 from the taxpayer and promised Parliament that it was for constituency work, but his story has changed. We are now supposed to believe that he did not understand why he had been billed so much and that he was clueless. Michael Matheson supposedly did not know anything about it, but he was certain that it was the taxpayers’ problem and that the bill was theirs to pay. If he had no idea what the bill was for, why on earth did he claim taxpayers’ money to pay it?

The motivation for Michael Matheson’s actions last week—

Why?

Listen!

—before his personal statement—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

First Minister, I ask you to resume your seat.

Mr Ross and Mr Swinney, I expect better behaviour from both of you. We need to hear the answers from the First Minister and we need to hear the questions as well. First Minister, please resume.

The First Minister

They clearly do not want to hear the answers. That is the exact point. [Interruption.] You can hear that they really do not want to hear the answers, Presiding Officer.

Michael Matheson, in what I would say was a very emotional personal statement to the chamber, laid out in full detail the handling of the issue of the expenses in relation to his iPad, and he was clear that he should have handled it better. I agree with that. On discovery of the fact that his iPad had been used by his teenage boys, he agreed immediately to pay back the full amount. As a father of two children, including a teenager, I can understand the motivation to protect one’s family, but I agree with others in the chamber that it should not have been handled in this way, and Michael Matheson, of course, admitted to that.

After making that personal statement, Michael Matheson has been getting on with the job of health secretary. That is why, on Monday, he chaired NHS Forth Valley’s annual review. That is why, this week, he has announced £42 million for an extra 153 doctor training places—the largest expansion on record. It is why he visited Glasgow Caledonian University’s school of health and life sciences. It is why he met the Royal College of Nursing this week. As much as Douglas Ross and the Conservatives want to distract him, what I have is a health secretary who is getting on with the job.

I am going to have to require briefer questions and responses.

Douglas Ross

We have a health secretary who claimed £11,000 from the taxpayer and a First Minister who will not simply answer whether that was a legitimate claim to make or not. Michael Matheson is taking the public for fools. He supposedly found out on Thursday two weeks ago what really happened. He apparently learned at that stage that there was personal use of the iPad and that other people had incurred the data costs. However, the following Monday, Michael Matheson was asked point blank whether there was any personal use of the iPad. He said no. He was asked directly whether anyone else had used it. He said no. Was the health secretary telling the truth when he gave those answers?

The First Minister

I say for the third time that Michael Matheson accepts, admits and admitted to this chamber that he made mistakes in the handling. [Interruption.] Douglas Ross shouted at me, “Why?” I say again that Michael Matheson addressed that. He did what he did to protect his teenage boys. Did he make mistakes? Absolutely. Has he admitted that? Absolutely. Has he agreed to pay back the full amount? Absolutely.

Is it not telling that Douglas Ross wants to talk about the health secretary? What he does not want to talk about is the savage cuts that the UK Government has unleashed on the health service through yesterday’s autumn statement. If we want to listen to those in the health service, let us hear from the Royal College of Nursing’s chief nurse, Professor Nicola Ranger. She said that the autumn statement is

“short-sighted”

and that

“The NHS faces a multi-billion pound deficit”.

The Conservatives do not want to hear from nurses. They want to try to distract, deflect and dodge away from the fact that their autumn statement has led to savage cuts to the health service. We will not let them forget that.

Douglas Ross

The only person deflecting here is Humza Yousaf, who cannot give honest answers. If everything to do with Michael Matheson was an honest mistake, why have there been so many dishonest statements about it?

While Michael Matheson’s story has unravelled, Humza Yousaf has been caught up in it. He was told by Michael Matheson last Tuesday what actually happened with the personal use, but the following day—last Wednesday—Humza Yousaf told the press and the public,

“For me, the matter is now closed.”

He continued that Michael Matheson had taken the decision

“given the honest mistake he has made in relation to the updating of the SIM card”.

He stuck to the same story that he knew was false.

This morning, the Deputy First Minister was further embroiled in the scandal. She was asked whether, on a point of principle, ministers in the Scottish Government always tell the Parliament and the public the truth. She refused to answer that question, so let me ask Humza Yousaf a question. If Government ministers need to be honest, why is Michael Matheson still in a job?

The First Minister

I will say, for the fourth time, that Michael Matheson admits to making mistakes in the handling of this issue. It is astonishing that the party of Boris Johnson—a man who Douglas Ross described as “honest”—can lecture anybody about standards in public life.

It is telling that, today, just before First Minister’s question time, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, said:

“In the interest of fairness to all, and to avoid prejudicing its investigation, the SPCB will, as of now, not comment on any matters that could have a bearing on this process or provide a running commentary.”

I think that it is right that we let the SPCB get on with the job that it has got to do, and Michael Matheson will get on with the job of ensuring that he protects the health service through what will be a difficult winter.


Honesty and Integrity in Government

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Honesty and integrity on the part of members of both our Governments are essential for the restoration of faith in public life. This morning, on the BBC, the Deputy First Minister was asked twice whether ministers in the Scottish Government always tell Parliament and the public the truth. The answer should have been an unequivocal and simple yes. However, instead, the Deputy First Minister’s answer was that they only “aim to do so.” People have known for a long time that this Government has a problem with the truth, but is that now the official Government position?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We should all be telling the truth in our interactions, whatever they are and wherever they occur. I will say, once again, what I said four times to Douglas Ross: Michael Matheson of course admits to mistakes in the handling of this entire episode, but, when he found out on the Thursday night of the week before last that his family had used the iPad, he took the immediate decision the next day to pay back the full amount, and, in a personal statement to the Parliament, he not only admitted the mistakes that he made but set out the reasons for those mistakes.

Michael Matheson has undoubtedly reflected on what has happened and, this week, he has got on with his job as health secretary of ensuring that he supports our national health service through what will be an incredibly difficult winter.

Anas Sarwar

I am pleased that the First Minister said that we should always tell the truth, because, in the short time that Humza Yousaf has been First Minister, the Official Report of this Parliament has had to be corrected three times because of wrong information that he has told this chamber. Once, the correction concerned the serious issue of the Covid inquiry and deleted WhatsApp messages, and another time it concerned a response to me in this chamber, when he gave an inaccurate answer about Scotland’s renewables. On the latter occasion, instead of immediately correcting the record, the First Minister took up hours of civil service time in order to try to spare his blushes. We know that, because Labour now has the full unredacted emails between the First Minister’s office and officials, which show that, when civil servants pointed out that he was wrong, he rejected their advice and his advisers had civil servants spend a month trying to cover up the mistake with a new line and by manufacturing statistics to fit his answers.

If those are the lengths that the First Minister will go to in order to hide the truth about a simple mistake, should anyone be surprised that he will not sack Michael Matheson for knowingly misleading the public?

The First Minister

There is a reason why the people of Scotland time and again have elected us to be the Government of Scotland, and there is a reason why Anas Sarwar’s party and the Conservative Party sit here in Opposition. [Interruption.]

There is far too much barracking and background noise as the First Minister is responding to the questions. Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

Anas Sarwar was shouting that they have not elected me. I remind him that I have won elections to this Parliament and that, in fact, the seat that I represent was held by a Labour MSP until I won it, so I will not take lectures from Anas Sarwar about how to win an election.

Of course, it is incumbent on all of us—Government ministers and back benchers—to correct the record if any inaccurate statement has been made. I take that responsibility very seriously. However, on the issue that Anas Sarwar points to, when it comes to Scotland’s energy potential, I will not apologise for the fact that we have an incredible renewables potential in Scotland—a potential that we will invest in and unleash for the workforce. While we will talk up our energy potential, I know that Anas Sarwar is interested only in talking it down.

Anas Sarwar

The people of Scotland have had only one opportunity to pass judgment on Humza Yousaf as First Minister, and that was the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, when there was a 20 per cent swing to Labour, and Labour got double the vote that the Scottish National Party got. Come the next general election, I will give the First Minister lessons on how to win an election.

These emails show a gross breach of the relationship between ministers and officials. Such behaviour has become the norm for the First Minister and the Government, but it is also a gross breach between ministers and the public when a minister knowingly misleads them. That is why Scottish Labour has long called for a clean up Holyrood act, to sweep away the culture of secrecy and cover-up that the SNP has allowed to thrive. After the Salmond inquiry, the ferries scandal, the failures of the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow and the Royal hospital for children and young people in Edinburgh, and the deleted Covid WhatsApp messages, the Deputy First Minister is now saying that the Government only aims to tell the truth. Under the SNP, trust and faith in Scotland’s institutions have been lost.

Is it not the case, as represented by the good people of Rutherglen and Hamilton West, that this Government is running out of road, is desperate to save its ministers’ jobs and is willing to say anything in order to cling on to power?

The First Minister

That is clearly not the case, because we have been re-elected time and time and time and time again by the people of Scotland to run our public services in Scotland.

With regard to freedom of information, I am more than happy to provide a written response to Anas Sarwar about the improvements that we have made in responding to requests, because we take our obligations very seriously.

Anas Sarwar talks about trust and values. I am sorry, but I do not know what Sir Keir Starmer’s values are when it comes to the United Kingdom Labour Party. Actually, I take that back—I do know what the values of Sir Keir Starmer are. The values of Sir Keir Starmer are to make sure that he retains the two-child limit, the bedroom tax and the rape clause—which, of course, Anas Sarwar disagreed with but now suddenly agrees with. We know what our values are, and nobody from London or party headquarters will tell us otherwise.


Fossil Fuel Boilers (Replacement)

3. Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests: I own a house and am a private landlord.

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government policy to require households to replace their fossil fuel boilers with heat pumps or other green energy systems in off-gas properties from 2025 and in on-gas areas from 2030 is still going ahead. (S6F-02557)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Our 2021 “Heat in Buildings Strategy” committed to introducing legislation to phase out

“the need to install new or replacement fossil fuel boilers”.

We will consult very shortly on detailed proposals for a heat in buildings bill and we will ask everyone across Scotland to help us design and deliver that in the best way possible. That consultation will provide more detail on when and how the proposed changes will take effect.

Moving to clean heating systems will tackle climate change and reduce the exposure of homes and businesses to volatile fossil fuel prices. However, our 2021 strategy also set out the need for the United Kingdom Government to take urgent action. That includes rebalancing gas and electricity prices and ensuring that energy companies play their part in delivering that vital transition. Let me be clear that we simply cannot meet our legal targets for tackling climate change if we do not end our use of gas boilers.

Edward Mountain

I thank the First Minister for that attempted answer, but I am not sure that I am any clearer about whether those targets will be met—it appears that we will have to wait.

I am sure that the First Minister will agree that it is vital that we reach net zero. In order to do so, we need to take the public with us. Does he therefore acknowledge, as some of his Scottish National Party MSPs do, that the unrealistic and poorly thought-out policies that have been set by his Green Party colleagues in the Government, including the one that I mentioned and the deposit return scheme, are doing more to damage efforts to reach net zero than they are to achieve it?

The First Minister

We come to the crux of the Conservatives’ issue, which is the problem here. In the face of a climate crisis that, in the summer, engulfed many parts of our planet in flames, and in recent weeks and months has flooded many others at home and abroad, Conservative members tell us that they are not climate sceptics or climate change deniers, yet they oppose every single measure that the Government proposes on tackling climate change. Every time we introduce a sensible proposal that is necessary to meet our targets—and we all voted for those targets—it is the Conservatives who oppose it. They have to decide what side they are on. Are they on the side of trying to protect and save our planet or on the side of climate deniers and climate sceptics? Shamefully, they have chosen to make climate change and culture war election issues. The Tories are not just bad for Scotland or the UK; it seems that they are bad for our planet, too.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

We all agree that there is an acute housing shortage in this country, yet Homes for Scotland, Cala Homes, Taylor Woodrow and Persimmon—all of which are major house builders—have repeatedly warned that the heat pump targets, especially for new builds, have had the effect of forcing up house-building costs so that fewer homes are being built in Scotland. If the First Minister wants to tackle the housing shortage, will he consign the Scottish Green Party’s half-baked, pie-in-the-sky policy to the bin, where it belongs, alongside the deposit return scheme and highly protected marine areas? Will he recycle his Green ministers to the back benches, where they belong, and then meet industry and real experts—actual experts—

I call the First Minister.

—to work out a plan to solve the problem? [Applause.]

We will have a response from the First Minister.

The First Minister

Perhaps the applause coming from the Conservative benches might demonstrate to Fergus Ewing that his proposals are not the most sensible ones for him to suggest that we introduce.

I do not believe that we can simply put our heads in the sand and ignore the scale of the climate crisis that we face. It is true that the house construction sector faces challenges. We need only look at the sky-high, rocketing inflation that has been caused by the Conservative UK Government. Let us tackle that inflation and those high construction costs. Not only have we had targets for house building; we have made significant investment in the sector in the course of this parliamentary session and beyond. When it comes to ensuring that we replace gas boilers, we will not consign that policy to the dustbin of history at all. In fact, history will judge very poorly people who are climate sceptics or climate deniers in the face of the climate crisis that is harming our planet.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

While the UK Government sinks into another culture war, cheered on by climate change deniers and naysayers, here in Scotland we are realising our ambitions on heat transition. From next April, all new buildings will need to meet our new standards for clean heating, and our package of funding support for households is the most generous in the entire UK. Does the First Minister agree that our upcoming budget must drive forward pioneering work on tackling fuel poverty and empower households and businesses to make the move to clean heating?

The First Minister

I agree that, in the transition from direct-emissions to zero-emissions heating systems, the Government has a significant role to play through legislation and the budget. However, let us be equally clear that the transition to net zero will require private investment, too. Barely a Government in the world will be able to self-finance such a transition entirely on its own. We have seen the report of the green heat finance task force, and I am looking forward to acting on the good work that it has done.

Mark Ruskell is absolutely right that we must ensure that we take the public with us. That is why we have such generous grants for households available—they are the most generous such funding support in the UK. However, I go back to the point that I have made to everyone who has asked questions on this subject. In the face of the existential threat that is posed by the scale of the climate crisis, none of us can deny that action is needed and that we must accelerate that action as quickly as we can.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

On 14 September, the First Minister told the chamber that the climate change plan would be published before Christmas. Despite the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition’s assertion that the delay was down to the UK Government, Chris Stark, the chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, said that there were only minor impacts on the Scottish plan and that there were potentially positive impacts from the UK-wide strategy to accelerate grid infrastructure, but that those were reasons to go faster. When will the climate change plan be published?

We will publish the plan—

Members: When?

The First Minister

—before the statutory target. Of course, we aimed to do it a year before the statutory target for publishing the plan. I say to Finlay Carson that the UK Government’s rollback on its climate ambitions, which we have seen in its many U-turns, is not just bad for people who live in the rest of the UK but will clearly have an impact on Scotland. It is right that we look to explore in detail what those impacts are.

Frankly, it is shameful that an issue of existential crisis has been turned into an election issue—a culture war issue—by the Conservatives. Would it not be far better if we had an element of consensus on the fact that all of us have to pick up the pace and urgently accelerate the work of tackling the climate crisis? If we do not, our current generation and future generations simply will not forgive us.


Energy Costs (Support for Households)

4. Alasdair Allan (Western Isles) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government is providing to households that are experiencing the pressure of increased energy bills, in light of Citizens Advice Scotland launching its worried this winter awareness campaign. (S6F-02572)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Energy bills remain significantly higher than they were two years ago, due to a volatile energy market and the United Kingdom Government’s complete and utter failure to act. Campaigns such as Citizens Advice Scotland’s worried this winter campaign, together with our current Home Energy Scotland campaign, which will drive vital referrals to HES’s warmer homes programme, are extremely important.

I have consistently called on the UK Government to fully utilise the fiscal and policy levers that it has at its disposal to introduce measures such as a social tariff as a means of targeting support at people who need it the most. Unfortunately, it failed to do that in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s autumn statement, thereby leaving people in businesses and communities who are already facing fuel poverty to suffer even more.

Alasdair Allan

The First Minister will be aware that energy costs are a particular worry in our island communities, which experience disproportionately high levels of fuel poverty. In yesterday’s autumn statement, the chancellor rejected Scottish National Party calls for a £400 energy rebate. With energy prices set to rise again by 5 per cent, can the First Minister assure my constituents that the Scottish Government will continue to support people who are struggling with their energy bills while the UK Government so evidently ignores them?

The First Minister

I can reassure the member’s constituents on that point. With energy bills set to rise again in January, it is unacceptable that the UK Government’s autumn statement completely failed to deliver support for the people who need it the most. Through the islands cost crisis emergency fund, this Government has provided an additional £1 million this year to support islanders who are facing high fuel, food and energy costs in order to help them to meet the cost of living pressures.

While we continue to help people to make their homes warmer and easier to heat through our heat and energy efficiency support schemes, and to support people in fuel crisis through our fuel insecurity fund, unfortunately, the powers to make a real difference remain with the UK Government. Frankly, it is only when those powers are put in the control of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government through independence that we can unleash the full potential of our energy-rich nation.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

Given the impact of fuel poverty on the 38 per cent of households that experience it and the 30 per cent in extreme fuel poverty, what lessons has the First Minister learned from the failure to deliver £133 million of investment to make people’s homes energy efficient so that people can afford to heat them? What will happen for next year? How many homes will get that energy retrofitting in place?

The First Minister

We have taken action to help with fuel poverty. One of my first acts as First Minister was to ensure that we not just doubled but tripled the fuel insecurity fund. From 2 October, our relaunched warmer homes Scotland scheme has been providing more funding and help for households to receive a climate-friendly heating system. In 2022-23, we delivered measures in almost 5,500 households, which is a record number of installs through the warmer homes Scotland programme. As I said, we have already agreed to triple the fuel insecurity fund, and we also have the child winter heating payment.

I am more than happy to ensure that the relevant minister or the cabinet secretary writes to Sarah Boyack with full details of how we are supporting those who are facing fuel poverty this winter. Again, instead of having to mitigate the failures of a Westminster Government, how much better would it be if we had the powers in our own hands?


General Practitioner Surgeries (Expanding Role)

To ask the First Minister what work is being done to support the expanding role of the general practitioner surgery. (S6F-02562)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Since 2018, we have significantly expanded the range of healthcare professionals supporting GP practices. Across Scotland, there are now more than 4,730 primary care multidisciplinary team members working in areas such as pharmacy, physiotherapy, phlebotomy and other disciplines. That means that the average practice now has access to more than five MDT members of the medical department team, alongside GPs and their practice teams. Through our £190 million primary care improvement fund, we are enabling those vital teams to free up practice time so that GPs can focus on more complex community care and reduce referrals to secondary care. That will ensure that more people get the right care in the right place at the right time.

Sue Webber

The expanding role of GP surgeries is critical in helping to prevent acute hospitals and accident and emergency departments from being overwhelmed. However, they cannot recruit and retain the various MDT members that the First Minister has referred to.

Colinton surgery in my region has contacted me to express its concern about the disparity in pay that is developing between GP surgery staff and national health service staff. There is now a two-tier NHS pay scale. Staff at the surgery are frustrated and demoralised. Pay for GP staff was uplifted less than it was for their NHS colleagues under the agenda for change. Will the First Minister find the investment to ensure that an uplift can be agreed to support those expanding GP practices that continue to struggle?

The First Minister

It is incredible that we are being asked to provide more funding for fairer pay when next year the United Kingdom Government will give us the paltry amount of just under £11 million in health consequentials. That represents 0.06 per cent of our health budget in Scotland. Given the level of health consequentials that the UK Government is giving us this year, it is remarkable that that is not recurring next year. We will concentrate on making sure that our NHS staff are the best paid anywhere in the UK.

On those who work in GP practices, Sue Webber will be well aware of the independent recommendations of the review body on doctors’ and dentists’ remuneration. We will continue to work with our GP practices across the country to ensure that we do everything that we can not only to recruit staff, which we have done, but to retain them. However, I say to Sue Webber that this Government has an excellent track record when it comes to fair pay in our NHS, in very stark contrast to the UK Government.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

GPs in Glasgow tell me that they are firefighting but are still being expected to do more with less. The mental health and wellbeing strategy is making more demands on GPs, but there is little detail on additional capacity or resource. Does the First Minister acknowledge the pressure that GP practices are under? Does he agree with those practices that the mental health strategy is simply not deliverable without further support?

The First Minister

We seek to support and invest in mental health services, and we have a good track record of doing so over the years. I am more than happy to ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance engages with the Labour Party, and any political party, in relation to what more we can do in the upcoming budget.

Mental health has been and always will be an essential part of general practice, and mental health issues commonly feature in consultations. The mental health and wellbeing strategy, which was referenced by Paul Sweeney, acknowledges the need to increase mental health capacity in general practice.

I say to Paul Sweeney that we have a good track record of investment in the health service. This financial year, we have taken the amount to £19 billion. We are more than willing to work with members from all parties to see what more we can do. However, I say to Paul Sweeney that, in the face of significant financial constraints, those who are suggesting that we spend more money in particular areas will have to say where that money will come from.


United Kingdom Government Autumn Statement

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the autumn statement. (S6F-02554)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

That is the first time that the autumn statement has been raised in a question, and I am not surprised that Conservative members did not want to go near it, because they are as embarrassed as they absolutely should be about such a dismal autumn statement. It is deeply disappointing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has failed to provide in it the funding that devolved Governments need. That makes the challenge of our budget next year even more severe.

Yet again, the Conservatives have completely failed to take action to support struggling households, businesses and public services, and missed the opportunity to invest in the services that people rely on and infrastructure that is vital to our economy. The increase in the minimum wage falls short of taking it to the real living wage and, despite the cut in national insurance, hard-working people are still seeing their living standards fall.

We are once again at the mercy of poor United Kingdom Government decisions that compound the pressure on our public finances and increase the misery that struggling households face. Would it not be far better if we did not have to mitigate and wait for autumn statements from an unelected UK Government, but instead had the powers in our own hands?

Kenneth Gibson

The First Minister will be aware that the £25 billion in election bribes that the autumn statement contains is less than half of the £55 billion in tax increases and spending cuts that the Tories imposed after the disastrous Truss mini-budget last year. Does he share my astonishment that, at a time of high inflation, the shockingly low extra £11 million for Scotland’s national health service is barely a two thousandth of its annual budget, that capital budgets will be severely cut next year, which will impact on essential infrastructure, and that Scotland’s public services will inevitably pay the price of yet another abysmal Tory budget?

The First Minister

I absolutely agree with Kenny Gibson. Yesterday’s autumn statement provided the very worst-case scenario for Scotland’s finances. At a time when we need investment in infrastructure to help to grow the economy and investment in public services that so many people rely on, instead we ended up with a cut in national insurance that will deprive those vital services of the much-needed funds that they require.

As a result of the UK Government’s disastrous handling of the economy, projected growth is just 0.7 per cent next year, and inflation is still running at more than twice the Government’s target. We needed an autumn statement that would grow the economy, invest in public services and protect the most vulnerable in our society; instead, we had proposed sanctions that will penalise those very people.

As we develop Scotland’s budget next month, we will, of course, do so in line with our missions of equality, community and opportunity.

I remind members that, when the UK Government did its disastrous mini-budget, the Conservatives demanded that we copy them and follow suit. Thank goodness we ignored them. No wonder the people of Scotland ignore them.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The autumn statement told small businesses in England and Wales that they will benefit for another year from a 75 per cent discount on business rates. I ask again whether the Scottish Government will ensure that that is also the case for small businesses in Scotland.

The First Minister

We have, of course, a very good track record when it comes to supporting our businesses. There is the small business bonus scheme, of course, and we have a very generous business support package.

We will consider the consequentials that come our way and what more we can do to support businesses, but I say to Liz Smith that the small relief that the UK Government is giving to businesses is miniscule in comparison with the damage that her party has inflicted on business through Brexit. The disaster of Brexit that is being felt by businesses throughout this country will not be undone by the paltry sums given by the chancellor yesterday.

We will move to constituency and general supplementary questions.


Israel and Hamas Agreement (Hostages)

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

It is welcome that Israel and Hamas have reached an agreement to exchange 50 hostages held in Gaza for a four-day pause in fighting. However, much more work is needed to secure a ceasefire and prevent further loss of innocent lives. What is the Scottish Government’s response to that development, given that the Parliament has expressed its view on a ceasefire?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I commend members across the chamber for a very good debate on a ceasefire. I was pleased that the Parliament backed by a majority the call for a ceasefire.

I know that the four-day pause will be very welcome relief for those in Gaza who have suffered complete and utter devastation over the past six and a half weeks. I thank, in particular, those who have been involved in helping to negotiate the four-day pause—the United States, Egypt and, in particular, Qatar, which has been at the centre of the negotiations.

I think that all of us will welcome the four-day pause; however, we want it to be not a four-day pause but a permanent ceasefire. I urge the UK Government to use whatever influence it has, alongside the international community, to ensure that, after four days, the bombing of innocent men, women and children does not simply resume but we actually have peace. Not only that, but they must all strive towards a long-term peace, which must be predicated on a two-state solution.


National Health Service Dentistry

Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

Oldmeldrum dental practice and Laws Dental in Carnoustie have told patients that they have no choice but to ditch NHS treatment because of increasing costs and the recent changes that have been enacted by the Scottish National Party-Green Government. Far from the Government protecting dental treatment for NHS patients, we are seeing an exodus of dentists from the NHS because of the Government’s actions. Will the First Minister commit to finding a better working structure for dentistry to ensure its long-term sustainability?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We have invested in NHS dental services, and just recently we agreed some additional NHS dental reforms. The purpose of those reforms—the exact point—is to incentivise NHS dentistry. That has led to some increased fees for dentists, and I am happy to ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care writes to Tess White with the full details of that. In addition, it is fair to say that NHS registration is significantly higher in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom, with more than 95 per cent of our population registered with an NHS dentist.

However, that is not to take away from the important points that Tess White raises. We know that, on the back of the pandemic, there have been, and continue to be, challenges for our dental sector across Scotland and the UK, and I will ensure that the health secretary writes in detail to Tess White about what we are doing to support NHS dentistry.


University of Aberdeen (Languages)

Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Constituents who work in modern languages at the University of Aberdeen have contacted me about the university management’s plans to withdraw honours degrees in languages, cultures and societies. Given the Scottish Government’s commitment to improving language learning in schools and the existing shortage of language teachers in the North East Scotland region, does the First Minister agree that Scotland cannot afford Aberdeen losing those languages degrees?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I agree with much of what Mercedes Villalba says. Learning an additional language is a great skill for any person to have, and the news that she gives to the Parliament is of concern. It is, of course, ultimately a matter for the university, and it is appropriate that it makes those decisions. I will ensure, however, that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills—or, indeed, the Minister for Further and Higher Education—engages with Mercedes Villalba to see what support we are able to offer.


Grangemouth (Petroineos Announcement)

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

Workers in Grangemouth, in my constituency, are fearful for the future after the announcement by Petroineos this week that it is moving from being a refinery to being an import facility. Although I will ask an urgent question later today, will the First Minister take this chance to confirm that he will do all in his power to protect that vital industrial asset and workers’ jobs?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Yes—I give that absolute confirmation. I thank Michelle Thomson for raising the issue. As she said, there will be an urgent question later this afternoon.

Neil Gray and I both met with Petroineos earlier this morning. Neil Gray then went on to meet with the trade unions as well, and I believe that he has offered a briefing for all MSPs tomorrow. We absolutely will engage with the owners of Grangemouth—who will engage, as we have been doing, with trade unions—and with the UK Government, and we will do everything that we possibly can to secure a sustainable future for Grangemouth refinery.

In my conversations with Petroineos, it was very clear that a whole range of factors have to be addressed. Some of those are domestic, but many of them are undoubtedly global. I give Michelle Thomson an absolute assurance that we will work with everybody to ensure that there is a sustainable future for Grangemouth.


Scottish Budget (Agriculture and Rural Communities)

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

On Tuesday, Shona Robison, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, failed to guarantee to farmers that £28 million of ring-fenced funding will be returned to the Scottish agricultural budget. Furthermore, £45 million is being cut from the rural budget. Why is the First Minister abandoning rural communities and farmers?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

That is astonishing from the party of Brexit—talking about abandoning our farmers. It is the party that has inflicted the biggest and most dangerous self-harm that our society and economy has ever seen—and for what? I do not think that Rachael Hamilton and the Conservatives have an ounce of credibility when it comes to standing up for our farmers.

We will continue to invest in our agricultural community and in our farmers. We will ensure that they do not have to suffer any more of the pain that has been inflicted on them by the Conservatives’ hard Brexit.


Unpaid Carers (Respite)

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

Today is carers rights day, when we should all express our appreciation for what unpaid carers do. The state of caring report that has been published today makes for harrowing reading. In particular, 51 per cent of carers who are struggling financially have not had a break. Why was the First Minister’s carers strategy of last year so thin on respite commitments? Does he agree with calls, including those from Labour members, for at least two weeks of respite to support carers who are in such need?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I am more than happy to look into the suggestion that Paul O’Kane makes. I start exactly where he did, by thanking all our carers for the incredible work that they do. Every carer I meet rightly challenges the Government by saying that they do not need just warm words—they need to see action. That is why the Government has acted, and I am more than happy for the cabinet secretary to write to Paul O’Kane, setting out in detail the measures that we have taken and will take to support carers now and into the future. We will consider his suggestion on respite.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a pause to allow members to change seats.

12:46 Meeting suspended.  

12:47 On resuming—