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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 26, 2023


First Minister’s Question Time

Women’s Prisons (Rapists)

Should a convicted rapist ever serve time in a women’s prison?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I point to the fact that some matters that we will discuss during today’s First Minister’s question time are sub judice. However, the issues raised are operational matters for the Scottish Prison Service and, given understandable concerns that have been raised, it is important that I address them. I will take some time to set out the situation and answer Douglas Ross’s question directly and very clearly.

In general, first, any prisoner who poses a risk of sexual offending is segregated from other prisoners, including during any period of risk assessment.

Secondly, there is no automatic right for a trans woman who is convicted of a crime to serve their sentence in a female prison, even if they have a gender recognition certificate. Every case is subject to rigorous individual risk assessment and, as part of that, the safety of other prisoners is paramount.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I heard the chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland say yesterday,

“I don’t see how it’s possible to have a rapist within a female prison”,

and I am very clear that I agree with that statement. Bearing in mind what I have just said about the importance of individualised risk assessment as a general principle and presumption, that statement is correct.

I turn to specifics. In the case that has been in the media in recent days, the risk assessment is under way. As in all cases, the Scottish Prison Service will not wait until an assessment is completed if it thinks that action is required more quickly. In respect of any prisoner, it would not be appropriate for me to give details of where they are being incarcerated. However, given the understandable public and parliamentary concern around this case, I confirm to members that the prisoner will not be incarcerated in Cornton Vale women’s prison. I hope that that provides assurance to the public, not least the victims in this particular case.

Douglas Ross

I appreciate the First Minister’s response. However, the rapist is in there; he is in segregation in a women’s prison at the moment, so I am unsure what the First Minister is trying to say. The reality is that this double rapist—this beast—is in a women’s prison right now. We think that it is wrong that a rapist is sent to a women’s prison, and we believe that a rapist having access to a women’s single-sex space is a threat. Given what the First Minister has just said, and given that he is currently in Cornton Vale, does the First Minister believe that it is possible for a rapist to be held in a women’s prison, as he is just now, and not be a threat to women?

The First Minister

I think that Douglas Ross should perhaps have listened more carefully to what I said. I have a responsibility, even when standing in this Parliament, to be mindful of issues around the safety and security of everyone. I made some comments in general that I think should give reassurance to the public. In relation to this specific case, I said that the risk assessment is under way but that, as in all cases, the Scottish Prison Service will not wait until an assessment is completed if it thinks that action is required more quickly. The prisoner will not be incarcerated in Cornton Vale women’s prison.

In terms of the interim situation and how the situation that I have set out is going to be achieved, I must be mindful of the need to allow the Scottish Prison Service to do its operational job and to do that properly, but I go back to one of the general points that I made, which applies to any prisoner, regardless of whether they are trans, and regardless of whether they are in a male or a female prison. If any prisoner poses or is considered to pose a risk, or is considered to give rise to any concern about sexual offending, that prisoner is segregated from other prisoners, and that applies during any period of risk assessment.

I think that I am being very clear to Parliament, in the light of public concerns, but I am also allowing—having regard to important issues of security and safety—the Scottish Prison Service to undertake its operational responsibilities in relation to an individual case.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister just has to be clear with people. Can she confirm that a double rapist is currently being held in a women’s prison? That is the situation.

Let us hear what the former governor of Cornton Vale prison, Rhona Hotchkiss, has said about the situation. She said:

“I am absolutely clear about the fact that they should be in a male prison—you simply cannot have someone like this terrorising women.”

She went on to say that it was

“a red line I would not have crossed”.

This double rapist decided to change gender only after he was charged by the police. It took the threat of jail for this criminal to decide to change his gender. That is not a coincidence; it was a conscious decision.

The First Minister is hiding behind the Scottish Prison Service, but it is a Government agency that is accountable to Scottish National Party ministers, so all this really comes down to is what ministers decide. They had the power to prevent this happening, and they still have the power to change this in the first 72 hours, under rule 19(1)(a) of the Scottish Prison Service rules. So, I ask the First Minister, above asking where he currently is: was there any ministerial involvement in the decision to send this rapist to a women’s prison? Before that period of 72 hours expires tomorrow, will the First Minister personally intervene and remove this double rapist from Cornton Vale?

The First Minister

I will repeat some of what I have already said. Let me be clear: this prisoner is not going to be incarcerated in Cornton Vale, either short term or long term.

Members: Where is he?

Members, let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

It is important to allow the Scottish Prison Service to give effect, operationally, to what I have just said. It is important to stress that. These are operational matters for the Scottish Prison Service. I am standing here and addressing them, and I think that most people who are listening to what I am saying right now will understand fully what I am saying. I am not “hiding behind”—to use Douglas Ross’s phrase—anyone.

I have set out very clearly that I agree with yesterday’s comments by the chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, who said:

“I don’t see how it’s possible to have a rapist within a female prison”.

It is, of course, right and proper that individualised risk assessments are done on every prisoner—that is important—but I agree with that statement. I have said that, either in the short term or in the long term, this prisoner is not going to be in Cornton Vale, but it is important to allow the Scottish Prison Service to give effect, operationally, to the decisions that it has taken.

Douglas Ross

I am sorry; I have asked this question three times now. I will take my fourth and final opportunity to ask it again: where is this double rapist at the moment? Is he currently in a women’s prison here in Scotland—yes or no?

I am sorry. We have heard a lot of stuff about the Scottish Prison Service. I have here the rules that the SPS has to work to. Rule 15(1), on the allocation of prisoners, allows ministers to intervene. Ministers could have intervened before now. Rule 19(1)(a) gives 72 hours for such a decision to be challenged. That period expires tomorrow, and we heard nothing from the First Minister about what she is going to do about that.

We have warned for months that violent criminals just like the sex offender we are discussing today—this absolute beast—would try to exploit loopholes in the law and attack and traumatise women. As we have said all along, the problem is not trans people; the problem is violent offenders. Now, before the Scottish National Party’s Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill has even come into force, rapists are exploiting the current laws. We should not make it any easier for them to attack women.

Nicola Sturgeon seems to reject the idea that the fact that he is currently in Cornton Vale could be a risk to women. I cannot agree with her. I ask the First Minister whether she will go to Cornton Vale and explain personally to the women there, who are sharing their prison with a double rapist, why on earth her Government is allowing them to be in a cell next door?

The First Minister

If Douglas Ross was listening and paying attention to the facts that I am setting out, he would know what I am saying.

First, I am saying that the Scottish Prison Service is in the process of giving effect to the decision that it has taken not to incarcerate that prisoner in Cornton Vale. It is my expectation that, before the 72-hour period that Douglas Ross has referred to expires, that prisoner will not be in Cornton Vale prison. I think that, for most reasonable people, that would be a very clear explanation of the situation.

A very small number of trans women are currently in prison custody, and many of them are, in fact, in male prisons. There is no automatic right for any trans woman to serve their sentence in a female prison. That is subject to robust risk assessment, which is right and proper.

To be fair to Douglas Ross, he made an important point. When we have these exchanges, we must always be careful that we do not, even inadvertently, suggest that trans women somehow pose an inherent threat to women. Predatory men, as has always been the case, are the risk to women. However, as with any group in society, a small number of trans people will offend. Where that relates to sexual offending, public concern is understandable. That is why the systems that the Scottish Prison Service already has in place are robust and why, as I am setting out here, those systems will lead to the right outcome in this individual case.

Accident and Emergency (Waiting Times)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Tomorrow marks Holocaust memorial day, when we remember the 6 million Jews and other victims who lost their lives to Nazi persecution and also remember the victims of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. We see division in politics every day, but today we stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of antisemitism and all other forms of prejudice and hate. We unite to say, “Never again,” but we cannot be complacent. We still have a long way to go to create a more equal and more peaceful world.

Last week, one in three people waited for longer than the four-hour standard in accident and emergency. There is a continuing crisis in Scotland’s accident and emergency departments, which is caused by decisions made by the Government over the past 15 years. Patients are waiting longer than ever before for care, and we know that long waits cost lives. Will the First Minister tell us how many people waited for more than 24 hours in A and E in the past year?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, I associate myself with Anas Sarwar’s comments about Holocaust memorial day. This week, we remember all victims of genocide. That is important, but it is also important on this occasion to rededicate ourselves to the fight against prejudice, hatred and intolerance. I know that we are all united in that endeavour.

Anas Sarwar asked for a specific figure. I suspect that he is about to give that to me but, if he does not, I will provide it to him later.

The situation in our accident and emergency departments remains very acute. There is significant pressure on the national health service in general and on emergency care in particular. However, we are seeing an improving situation at this stage—for example, since the beginning of January, waits of more than eight hours and more than 12 hours have each fallen by about 40 per cent.

There is still work to do, and we are supporting the NHS in that work, but we hope that the severity of the winter crisis is starting to abate and we hope to see further improvements in the weeks to come.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister is right—I do know the number and she should know it, too, because it impacts people across this country every single day. The answer that she was looking for is that 6,362 people waited for more than 24 hours in A and E last year. In 2019, the number was 48. Let me repeat that: 48 people waited for more than 24 hours in 2019. In 2022, that number increased to 6,362, and some waited even longer—1,356 people waited for more than 36 hours in A and E, and 390 people waited for more than 48 hours. That is two whole days waiting in A and E.

This is the worst it has ever been. Staff are burned out, patients’ lives are at risk and A and E doctors are telling us that 36 people could die because of long waits this week alone. What is the First Minister doing right now to prevent such unnecessary deaths this week, next week and in future weeks, too?

The First Minister

I have set out in recent weeks the actions that we are taking—the investment in the winter plan and in additional interim care beds, for example, and other support for the national health service. Long waits, whether they are in accident and emergency units or in any other part of the NHS, are unacceptable, and they have consequences, which is why we work so hard to reduce and eliminate long waits in the NHS.

Of course, there is always something missing from Anas Sarwar’s questions—important though those questions are—when he compares figures from 2018 with figures now, and that is the global pandemic that we have been dealing with in the intervening period. That said, it remains the priority to tackle waits in our national health service, which is why we are cautiously optimistic, although not complacent, about the improvements that we are seeing in accident and emergency units. The latest weekly figures, for example, show that four-hour performance is up by 6.7 points on the previous week and, as I said, we are starting to see significant declines in the percentages and the numbers of people who are waiting for more than eight hours and more than 12 hours.

However, there is still a lot of work to do to support staff. Of course, one of the things that we have done here in Scotland but which has not been replicated in England or in Wales, where there is a Labour Government, is to offer staff the best possible pay increase that we can—on average, it is 7.5 per cent here in Scotland, as compared with 4.5 per cent where Labour is in government in Wales.

Anas Sarwar

From listening to the First Minister’s response, I can understand the anger of staff and patients. This is what one nurse told the Daily Record this week:

“Patients are not angry at the NHS but with the Scottish Government. The First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary need to speak to these patients. The Scottish Government do not see these patients as human beings, as someone’s mum or dad.”

This is about human life—about each and every single one of the SNP MSPs’ constituents whose lives are at risk every single day.

It is not good enough for the First Minister to keep making excuses or to talk about Covid, because demand on A and E is actually down by nearly 120,000 people compared with 2019. Fewer people are using A and E, but waiting times are still longer than they have ever been. Scotland’s NHS is at breaking point, and things are only getting worse on Nicola Sturgeon’s watch. We have the longest-ever waits at A and E; patients waiting hours in ambulances to even get into A and E; 776,000 people—one in seven Scots—on an NHS waiting list; and record-breaking delayed discharges.

Our NHS, our patients and our staff deserve so much better than that. Why should people across Scotland continue to accept the unacceptable from the SNP Government?

The First Minister

First, every single patient who is seen in our national health service is a human being and, frankly, I think that it demeans Anas Sarwar’s argument to suggest that any of us does not think that that is the case. [Interruption.] Anas Sarwar is responsible for what he says in the chamber; nobody else is responsible for what he says in the chamber.

My second point is that Anas Sarwar asked me in his previous question what action the Government is taking, and he then pointed to reduced demand for accident and emergency services, which is actually because of the action that is being taken. The Scottish Ambulance Service sees and treats, which means that many more patients now get seen and treated without ever having to go to a hospital. NHS 24 is working to reduce attendances at and admissions to hospital. That is an example of the actions that we are taking having an impact.

Lastly, I take responsibility, as does the health secretary, for NHS Scotland every single day of the week. However, Anas Sarwar’s argument seems to be that this is all, somehow, uniquely down to the SNP. I know that he does not like comparisons but, if he is going to make that argument, I am afraid that they are inevitable. If it is all down to the SNP, why, in the latest full month for which we have statistics, is A and E performance in Scotland 6.2 percentage points better than performance in Wales, where Labour is in government?

The fact of the matter is that pressure on the health service is intense in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland; we are dealing with that pressure; and in many respects—

Briefly, First Minister.

—those who work so hard across our NHS in Scotland are doing a better job than we find in many other parts of the United Kingdom.

Homelessness (People with No Recourse to Public Funds)

3. Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that dozens of people living in Scotland with no recourse to public funds are being made homeless and forced to sleep rough on the streets or in cars. (S6F-01743)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Preventing people who are facing destitution from accessing support when they need it most is unacceptable—and, I think, shocking. It is disturbing in the extreme that the United Kingdom Government’s policy of no recourse to public funds prevents local and national Government from providing support to people and remains the biggest barrier to eradicating rough sleeping in Scotland.

Immigration and the policy of no recourse to public funds are entirely reserved matters. We have repeatedly raised the devastating impact of those policies. We will continue to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to improve access to support and services for people who are subject to those policies, as far as is possible within devolved powers.

Maggie Chapman

No one should be made homeless, be forced into destitution or have their human rights infringed, regardless of their immigration status. The UK’s immigration system—including the NRPF policy in particular—prevents people from accessing essential safety and lifeline services in times of need. Lack of provision and support risks leaving some people open to modern slavery and exploitation.

In Scotland, the ending destitution together strategy seeks to ensure that those who have no recourse to public funds are protected as far as is possible within devolved powers. What has been done to ensure that as much support as possible is available and that people make use of that support? How is information, including information about nationalities, being collected on how many people with no recourse are homeless or at risk of being homeless?

The First Minister

I thank Maggie Chapman for raising those issues. Information on the number of people who are at risk of homelessness will be collated via on-going engagement with the third sector and local authorities.

As I said in my previous answer, we will continue to do all that we can within devolved powers, including funding support and advice services—for example, we have provided more than £900,000 since 2020 to ensure the operation in Edinburgh and Glasgow of winter support that is open to everyone. In addition, COSLA has produced guidance to ensure that people who are subject to the policy of no recourse to public funds are supported to access services that are available to them. Updated guidance will be published later this year. However, it is critical that the UK Government changes the policy of no recourse to public funds, so that we can act to support everyone in Scotland at times of crisis, regardless of their immigration status.

Levelling Up Fund (Allocations in Scotland)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the second round of the United Kingdom Government’s levelling up fund allocations in Scotland. (S6F-01745)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We fundamentally disagree with the Westminster Government’s making decisions in devolved areas. Of course, any additional funding is welcome, but that should be devolved through the Barnett formula, just as we were promised that the European Union funding would be devolved after Brexit, to allow Scottish ministers and councils to make decisions about its use.

The fund overlooks Scotland’s distinct economic needs, and the latest awards show that many remote, rural and sparsely populated regions are being ignored. I am further disappointed that UK ministers decided, after bids had been submitted, to consider which local authorities had received funding in the first round—meaning that councils in Scotland wasted money, time and effort in bidding for funds that they were no longer eligible for.

The evidence is clear: the so-called levelling up approach means that Scotland is losing out.

John Mason

It seems that less well-off areas such as Glasgow have lost out in round 2 and were, possibly, misled by the UK Government as to the bidding process. Does the First Minister share my opinion that a levelling up fund should target poorer areas? Surely, funding decisions have to be based on either levelling up or geographical spread. It cannot be both.

The First Minister

John Mason is absolutely right. I share his concern that Glasgow and other council areas in Scotland that have high levels of deprivation have lost out.

Of course, if the Scottish Government had been given control of that funding, which would have been the correct and sensible course of action, we would not have taken the competitive dash for cash approach favoured by the UK Government. The UK Government can still choose to devolve funding to Scotland for our share of the remaining levelling up funding, and we would be happy to discuss that with it.

That is not just our view. The Tory mayor of the West Midlands described this as another example of

“Whitehall’s bidding and begging bowl culture”.

He said that he

“cannot understand why the levelling up fund money was not devolved for local decision makers to decide on what’s best for their areas.”

I completely agree.

Unethical and Illegal Dog Breeding

To ask the First Minister what steps are being taken to tackle unethical and illegal dog breeding, in light of recent reports of high-value extreme breeding programmes operating in Scotland. (S6F-01753)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The recent BBC programmes on illegal and unethical dog breeding paint an alarming picture. The Scottish Government is actively working with a number of Government and key stakeholder organisations, including the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Police Scotland, to disrupt the activities of those involved in the unlicensed puppy trade.

New animal licensing regulations were introduced in 2021, covering the breeding and selling of dogs, to tackle the growing issues linked to puppy farming. We intend to consult on the potential licensing of other activities, including canine fertility clinics, later this year.

Furthermore, several puppy campaigns have been run over the past few years to highlight the cruelty of the trade, raise public awareness and provide advice on how to buy a puppy safely.

Jamie Greene

Anyone who saw the episode of the BBC’s “Disclosure”, which I recommend to the chamber, will be as horrified, disgusted and angry about the issue as I am. It is a multimillion-pound pet industry that has been fuelled by consumer demand for designer dogs. It is being run by organised crime and is a pet industry based on nothing but greed. I am afraid to say that those dogs are now more valuable to criminals than drugs. The consequences are often tragic, involving the loss of life. It is happening right here, right now, in Scotland.

Why are there so few prosecutions for illegal dog breeding here in Scotland, relative to the number of incidents reported?

Secondly, what specific legislation is the Scottish Government willing to introduce to crack down on illegal and unethical breeding and selling? That includes closing any loopholes on co-ownership of dogs.

Finally, will the whole Parliament now send the strongest possible message to those involved in this disgusting trade to say that we will not put up with their cruelty any more and that, if they break the law, they will pay a heavy price for it?

The First Minister

I absolutely agree with Jamie Greene. He is right to bring these issues to the chamber. This behaviour is despicable, illegal and unethical, and people who engage in it should expect to face the full force of the law.

Jamie Greene asked me about numbers of prosecutions. As he understands, prosecution is not a matter for ministers. Decisions about prosecution are matters for the police and the prosecution authorities. I will ask law officers to write to him if there is further information that they can helpfully provide.

I indicated in my previous answer that, having introduced regulations in 2021, we intend to consult on the potential licensing of other activities later this year. Everyone across Parliament will have the opportunity to contribute to that consultation.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I welcome that exchange and, further to that, I welcome the Government’s support for my welfare of dogs bill, which will shortly be introduced. If passed, the bill will require prospective dog owners to consider rigorously and fully all aspects of the welfare of the puppy, including the breeding, before buying.

Does the First Minister therefore agree that if that leads to educated demand, the supply of cruelly-bred puppies will reduce, which will cut off the vast profits—already referred to—that go to criminals who care nothing for the welfare of the puppies, seeing them only as fashionable, marketable commodities?

The First Minister

Yes, I very much agree, and that point is very well made. We have got to consider the issues of supply and demand and the interrelationship between them. I very much welcome any and all proposals that support animal welfare, and I take the opportunity to applaud Christine Grahame for all her hard work over a long period to introduce the legislation that she refers to. I look forward to the bill’s imminent introduction, which I understand will raise much-needed awareness about the responsibility of owning a dog. I am sure that the bill will have strong support from all parties right across the chamber.

Human Papillomavirus Vaccine

6. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to increase uptake of the HPV vaccine, in light of warnings from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust that girls in the most deprived areas of Scotland are missing out. (S6F-01754)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Scotland has the highest uptake rates for the human papillomavirus vaccine across the four nations of the United Kingdom, but we want to go further and increase uptake in particular in the most deprived areas. Therefore, from 1 January this year, a simplified one-dose schedule was introduced for all eligible girls aged up to their 25th birthday. We anticipate that that approach will further increase uptake.

One-dose HPV vaccine uptake is currently 91.5 per cent for girls in secondary 4 and 88.4 per cent for girls in the most deprived areas. We have provided more than £400,000 to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust to support its campaign work on screening benefits. My officials will also be happy to work with the trust, along with Public Health Scotland and health boards, to understand how we can maximise uptake rates in areas of deprivation.

The creation of a women’s health champion provides a further opportunity for such issues to be promoted and addressed. I am delighted to announce today the appointment of Professor Anna Glasier as Scotland’s first women’s health champion. Professor Glasier’s work will be key to driving improvement in women’s health and helping to address the inequalities that have persisted in that area for far too long.

Jackie Baillie

I welcome the First Minister’s announcement. However, it has come 18 months later than was originally intended.

The World Health Organization’s target for fully vaccinating girls against HPV is 90 per cent, but the latest figures for Scotland, which are for last year, show that only 77 per cent of girls in the most deprived areas were fully vaccinated. The WHO also recommends that 70 per cent of women be screened, but women from the most deprived areas are less likely to take part in screening programmes, with uptake there reaching only 63 per cent.

We have the tools to end cervical cancer in Scotland, but the Scottish Government is not using them. Vaccination rates are too low and the roll-out of self-sampling is too slow. Women with abnormal smear tests face waits of a year for colposcopy appointments, and there continue to be inequalities for women in the poorest communities. Will the First Minister commit to addressing those issues as a matter of urgency? Will she set out a clear plan in the next month so that cervical cancer can be eliminated in Scotland?

The First Minister

We already have a women’s health plan that addresses those and many other issues—in fact, I think that Scotland was the first part of the UK to have such a plan. Professor Glasier will now have the key task of driving it forward.

Those issues are really important, but I do not think that it is the case that the Scottish Government is not using all its levers. As I said earlier, Scotland has the highest uptake rates for the HPV vaccine across all the four UK nations. However, we have recognised that we need to do more and we are doing so through, for example, the introduction of the simplified one-dose schedule. We are seeing the benefits of that approach. Since the vaccination of girls started in 2008, the number of cases with pre-cancerous cells identified in that population at cervical screening has reduced by almost 90 per cent in comparison with rates in women who were not vaccinated. We will continue to take those important steps to improve the health of girls and women in that respect and indeed in all others.

We move to general and constituency supplementary questions.

Prepayment Meters (PayPoint Facilities)

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I draw the attention of the First Minister to the experience of a constituent of mine, who has informed me that they were told to make an in-store purchase ahead of using a PayPoint facility to top up their energy meter. PayPoint has confirmed to me that that should never happen, and it has contacted the business in question. Does the First Minister agree that, although the vast majority of PayPoint vendors are professional and provide an important service, where unacceptable practices exist, such as the one that I have just highlighted, they should be reported swiftly and acted upon? Does she also agree that my constituent’s experience highlights yet again the barriers and vulnerabilities that many people who use prepayment meters face?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I very much agree with that. I echo Bob Doris’s concerns and what he has said in response to them.

I am aware of similar issues, and I urge people to raise their concerns with advice agencies and their energy providers to get the necessary advice and support. However, because such issues relate to a reserved matter it is incumbent on the United Kingdom Government to take further action on prepayment meters. Forcing people on to those meters, in particular for small amounts of debt during winter, makes matters worse for people—not better—and is more likely to increase debt and leave people unable to heat their homes. I urge the UK Government to respond to that concern and to listen to the many calls to ban energy companies from being able to force people on to the use of prepayment meters.

Swimming Pool Closures (Falkirk Council)

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

Falkirk Council is considering closing four school swimming pools and one public pool in order to make ends meet. I have had numerous emails about that; it boils down to council funding cuts from the Scottish Government. Does the First Minister agree that closing swimming pools is a retrograde step? What does she intend to do about it?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Council budgets are not being cut: the draft budget for this year proposes a £570 million increase in the local government settlement. Of course, had the Tories had their way and we had seen tax cuts for the very richest in our society, council budgets would have had to be cut. Thankfully, we did not follow Conservative advice in that regard.

We are still in the budget process, so I make an offer to the member, and indeed to all members on the Tory benches. We work within what is effectively a fixed budget, and where we can increase revenue, we are doing so by asking those who earn the most to pay a little bit more to help public services. However, if the Tories in Scotland want to see more money for councils or for anybody else—that is contrary to their actions south of the border, of course—they should tell us from where in the draft budget we should take that money. We are happy to have a conversation about that.

Asylum (Placement of Unaccompanied Children)

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

The First Minister may recall that, before Christmas, I put to her a question regarding councils placing unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum in hotels. Since then, there have been reports that at least 200 children are missing or have been abducted from six Home Office hotels in England. I know that the First Minister will share my horror at that, as—I am sure—will members in the chamber.

Regarding the safety of unaccompanied children in Scotland, can she give an assurance that that is being delivered here, regardless of which authority is providing their accommodation?

Is she aware of any instances occurring in Scotland that are similar to those that have been reported in England? Can she provide an update on what steps the Government is taking to ensure that unaccompanied children are being moved from hotels into secure accommodation?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I recall the question that was asked before Christmas. I will write to the member with any update that I can give him on actions that are being taken by councils in Scotland, supported where necessary and appropriate by the Scottish Government, to address those very real concerns. I will include any information that councils have about unaccompanied children in Scotland.

In relation to the general issue, I think that everybody must have been deeply shocked to hear this week the revelation that 200 children have gone missing when they should have been effectively in the care of the Home Office. What is perhaps even more shocking is how little attention seems to have been paid to that. If a child in this country goes missing, there is rightly a lot of attention paid, and that should be no different in the case of these unaccompanied children.

While those children are here, they are our responsibility, and we should care for them and love them and ensure that they are looked after. I will respond to Paul Sweeney’s question in relation to local authorities in Scotland, but I hope that all members, on all sides of the chamber, can unite today to demand for everybody, but in particular for children, much more humanity in the United Kingdom Government’s approach to immigration and asylum.

Men’s Sheds (Funding)

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Men’s sheds in communities across Scotland provide a place for men to meet, socialise and pursue hobbies, and it is increasingly recognised that they make a tangible difference in tackling isolation, loneliness and mental ill health. That is why the men’s shed movement commands strong cross-party support across the chamber, and why more than 40 MSPs recently wrote to the Deputy First Minister to express concerns about proposed funding cuts.

Will the First Minister guarantee that her Government will protect the core and development funding for the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association in order to allow that invaluable public health movement to be maintained and expanded?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The men’s shed movement does fantastic work—I associate myself with Liam McArthur’s comments about the work that it does and the impact that it has.

My understanding is that there have been discussions with the Government and an offer of financial support has been made for the next financial year. I will ask the minister concerned to write to the member with more detail and, indeed, to make that known to Parliament more generally.

Teacher Numbers

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I am concerned about the reports of potential reductions in teacher numbers, especially with regard to Glasgow. Can the First Minister reveal what action the Scottish Government can take to protect teacher numbers?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Government will act to protect teacher numbers. This Government has a commitment to increase teacher numbers and councils are being given additional funding specifically to deliver that. It would not be acceptable to me or the Scottish Government to see teacher numbers fall. Therefore, I can confirm that the Government intends to take steps to ensure that the funding that we are providing to councils to maintain increased numbers of teachers actually delivers that outcome, and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will set out more details to Parliament in the coming days.

A96 (Dualling)

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

In a spate of crashes on the A96, two weeks ago, two people were seriously injured; last week, three people were hospitalised; and just yesterday, two more were hospitalised. A poll run by The Press and Journal showed 93 per cent of respondents demanding that the road be dualled and, at the weekend, Gillian Martin wrote persuasively:

“we must dual the A96 for safety, equity and environmental reasons”.

However, it is reported that no final decision on dualling has been made, and that one might not be made for years. How many more accidents and injuries will it take before the First Minister’s Government listens to the people of the north-east, stops the delaying tactics and delivers on its decade-old promise to dual that appalling road?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, my thoughts go to everyone who sustains injuries on our roads, and, indeed, anyone who is bereaved through accidents on our roads.

The Scottish Government’s commitments in terms of dualling and upgrading the A96 stand. Of course, there are assessments and reviews—not least environmental ones—under way, as is right and proper, and the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport will keep Parliament updated as appropriate.


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

The west of Scotland is our country’s industrial heartland, with a heavy concentration in the Glasgow city region, which has 57 per cent of the worst 15 per cent of areas on the Scottish index of multiple deprivation, yet an excellent freeport bid—the Clyde green freeport bid—was not supported by the Government, even though it fully met the criteria in tackling deprivation and boosting manufacturing.

It is important to note that eight local authorities supported the bid. That was a central requirement for submission, and it was not easy to pull together. However, the successful bids were in the east, with none being in the west.

Is the First Minister satisfied with that? How would she justify those positions? Can she outline what the plan is to compensate Glasgow, the wider city region and the Clyde communities that were involved in the bid?

I do not know why the bid was rejected. However, in the interests of full transparency, I think that we need to see the reasons why there was no designation of a freeport in the west of Scotland. I do not know the full implications of a freeport designation but, as a member for Glasgow, I am concerned about the fact that there is no freeport in the west of Scotland.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

A number of high-quality bids were submitted, including the one that Pauline McNeill refers to. They were assessed in line with the published criteria, and there was a joint decision-making process between the Scottish Government and the UK Government, with the successful bidders being announced two weeks ago.

I understand the disappointment on the part of the bids that were not successful. It does not mean that those bids were not of a high quality, but successful bids had to be selected.

The Scottish Government is committed to continued work with unsuccessful bidders and the regions that were part of the bid to see what we can do to support them to deliver on their ambitions and objectives for the future.

Holocaust Memorial Day

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

Tomorrow, 27 January, is Holocaust memorial day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation, 78 years ago, of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. Does the First Minister support the great work that is done by the Holocaust Educational Trust, our schools and others in teaching successive generations of our children about the atrocities that saw millions of people murdered and slaughtered, including 6 million Jews and many other minorities? Does she agree that that educational work is essential, so that we never forget the lesson that atrocities and oppression must be fought, wheresoever they occur?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I associate myself whole-heartedly with Fergus Ewing’s comments on Holocaust memorial day. Indeed, throughout the year, I am very proud that the Scottish Government strongly supports the excellent work of the Holocaust Educational Trust to enable young people across Scotland to continue to learn from the atrocities of the Holocaust as we challenge the oppressions of the present.

I know that some members will have had the privilege this week of hearing directly from the Holocaust Educational Trust’s young ambassadors about the impact of Holocaust education on their lives. That is a privilege that I have had in previous years. Indeed, I had the opportunity a few years ago to visit Auschwitz with the trust. That was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life.

I think that we all agree that education has a key role to play in building a society that actively challenges discrimination, hate, intolerance and prejudice in all its forms and advances equality. We should do that all year round. However, Holocaust memorial day gives us the opportunity every year to rededicate ourselves to that very important responsibility.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s questions. The next item of business is a members’ business debate in the name of Fergus Ewing. There will now be a short suspension to allow those who are leaving the chamber and the public gallery to do so before that debate begins.

12:46 Meeting suspended.  

12:48 On resuming—