Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Thursday, September 29, 2022
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Mesh Treatment Clarity, Portfolio Question Time, Excellence in Scottish Education, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Points of Order, Decision Time, Correction
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Mesh Treatment Clarity
- Portfolio Question Time
- Excellence in Scottish Education
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Points of Order
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Ferry Procurement (Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd)
This week, it emerged that Ferguson’s shipyard received preferential treatment from this Government and its agencies in the shipyard’s bid to build two ferries. Ferguson’s was the only bidder that was given special access to a 424-page cheat sheet on how to build ferries—a cheat sheet that it literally copied page after page from. It received a confidential in-person meeting with the people who were involved in buying the ferries. It was the only bidder that was allowed to resubmit with a new design, which a former technical director of CalMac Ferries called “completely wrong”. Then, after the deadline, it was the only company that was allowed to change its price.
Why did Ferguson’s shipyard, which was then owned by a Scottish National Party Government economic advisor and prominent independence supporter, receive special treatment from the First Minister’s Government?
Before I come on to the specifics of the question, I note that Douglas Ross might want to make his mind up about what his allegations are. For months, now, he appears to have alleged—wrongly, I hasten to add—in the chamber and elsewhere that the Scottish ministers directed and forced Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, against its will, to award the contract to Ferguson’s shipyard. Today, it appears that he is alleging that CMAL in some way collaborated with Ferguson’s to ensure that the contract went to the shipyard. Perhaps he needs to get a little bit of clarity about the allegations that he is making.
I turn to the specifics. Ministers are not aware of any impropriety in the procurement process. That said, ministers were not involved in the process; we were not sighted on procurement documents or privy to exchanges between CMAL and bidders. However, the allegations in the BBC’s “Disclosure” programme are serious, and, earlier this week, I asked the permanent secretary to engage with Audit Scotland about further investigation. I welcome the confirmation from Audit Scotland that it will look at the substance of the allegations.
On the allegation relating specifically to the CalMac statement of operational and technical requirements, of course it needs to be properly investigated. However, as I understand it, there is no suggestion that it was CMAL that passed the document to Ferguson’s. In fact, the BBC suggested that it was a design consultant who did so.
The allegations are serious, and they should be investigated in the normal way. In the meantime, we will continue to support Ferguson’s shipyard in its work to complete the ferry contract.
The only conclusion that any reasonable person can draw is that the deal was rigged. It seems that Nicola Sturgeon is the only one who saw this week’s programme who does not think that the deal was rigged.
She has asked for clarity, but it would have been helpful for members who are trying to get clarity if all the information had been available, rather than it coming out as it did this week. The documents that were finally revealed show that Ferguson’s had the cheat sheet. It had its answers whispered in advance and then it got to change its answers after the deadline. No other company got to do that.
We did not find out any of that until a leaked dossier was uncovered by investigative journalists. Nobody knew about the depth and breadth of the special treatment that Ferguson’s received. During lengthy investigations, neither Audit Scotland nor the parliamentary committee concerned got any of those details. Instead, we got secrecy. The public were kept in the dark, the Scottish Government’s auditor was kept in the dark and this Parliament was kept in the dark. It is clear that there has been a cover-up by the First Minister’s Government and its agencies.
Why has none of that come to light until now?
The Scottish Government has fully co-operated, and will continue to fully co-operate, with parliamentary investigations, and it will fully co-operate—as Audit Scotland has noted that it has done—with any Audit Scotland investigation.
The clarity that I asked for from Douglas Ross is important. People watching First Minister’s question time will have heard him suggest in the chamber, in previous weeks and months, that CMAL did not ever want to give the contract to Ferguson’s shipyard and that it was somehow forced to do so against its will by the Scottish Government. That was wrong, and I think that it has been evidenced that that was wrong. Today, of course, Douglas Ross has come to the chamber and said the contrary—that CMAL somehow colluded with the yard to ensure that the contract went there.
We will continue to ensure that investigations are supported. As I said, this week I asked the permanent secretary to engage further with Audit Scotland, and I welcome Audit Scotland’s statement. The procurement process was conducted by CMAL. Rightly and properly, ministers were not involved in it. The job of ministers was to save the shipyard from closure and to save and support the jobs of the people who continue to work at the shipyard, and we will continue to offer that support.
By giving Ferguson’s special treatment, as details that were unearthed only this week show, it appears as if the Government has broken European Union laws, and it may have committed fraud, but the First Minister thinks that that is no big deal, that it is just another SNP disaster, to which no one should pay any attention, and that there is nothing to see here.
However, this does matter. [Interruption.]
It matters to the islanders who have been abandoned by the Scottish Government. It matters because the price and the delays keep spiralling further. Yesterday, it emerged in a letter from Ferguson’s to a committee of this Parliament that the delays are continuing. Hull 802 will now be six years late. According to Ferguson’s, its total project budget was £125.5 million in March of this year, but the maximum budget is now £209.6 million. That is an increase of £84 million. In its letter to the committee, Ferguson’s says that it briefed Scottish ministers on that last week.
What did Ferguson’s say to ministers? Is the latest enormous cost increase correct?
I agree with Douglas Ross on the fact that these things matter, which is why I and the Government take them as seriously as we do.
The information given to ministers by the new management at Ferguson’s shipyard is the information that is set out in the letter that will be sent to the parliamentary committee tomorrow. [Interruption.] If Douglas Ross wants to wait for the rest of the answer, he might get the detail that he is requesting.
On the delivery schedule, the target date for 801 has not changed. On the target date for 802, there is an estimated further slippage of one to two months.
On costs, Ferguson’s has set out its latest estimate of costs, but—this is the key point—ministers have yet to properly scrutinise that estimate, so no decision has yet been taken about any further increase in the budget for the ferries. As that process of due diligence, which the Government has to undertake, is completed, we will update Parliament in the normal way. That is what we will continue to do as we work to continue to support the shipyard, to support the completion of the ferries and—yes—to support the jobs that depend on that shipyard. That is the responsible approach to government.
Finally, I am not sure that Conservative Douglas Ross is on very strong ground at all today in talking about Government disasters.
Given that answer, I do not think that Nicola Sturgeon will ever be on strong ground in talking about ferries, because—incredibly—she is saying that the £84 million increase projected in a letter to a committee of this Parliament and spoken of to her Government ministers a week ago will not be scrutinised. That is basically the First Minister saying that there will be an £84 million increase for three months. I am not sure what scrutiny of those estimates will come up with, other than to say that a three-month delay is basically costing taxpayers about £1 million a day, because that is what £84 million works out at.
The First Minister told me in March of this year that she took ultimate responsibility for the deal and that the buck stopped with her. So, let us hear her take ultimate responsibility for the great ferry scandal. Her Government agreed a deal for the ferries without agreeing a design for the ships. Her Government ignored experts who advised it not to go ahead with the deal and it waived the refund guarantee that is a mandatory requirement in that kind of contract.
Now it appears that the whole deal was rigged. The Government seems to have given special treatment to a political adviser and ally. That looks like corporate fraud and there is a stench of political corruption, but nobody has been sacked, and the Government says that nobody is responsible and nobody is to blame.
What happened to the First Minister who used to have a monthly photo call at Ferguson’s shipyard? The First Minister used to pose for pictures at the yard and shouted from the rooftops that it was one of her proudest achievements. Nicola Sturgeon was happy to take all the praise. When will she start to take the blame?
Douglas Ross is now reduced to simply standing up and making up things that I have said in answer to questions. I will never apologise for the actions that this Government has taken to save the jobs of the people who work at Ferguson’s shipyard. Unlike my counterparts in other Governments, I will always take responsibility for the actions of this Government.
I whole-heartedly agree that the issue matters—it really matters. People who are out there watching right now will want to see me and my Government held to account on this. That is right and proper, but the people who are watching this session are also terrified. They are terrified about the inability to heat their homes and the inability to pay their mortgages. [Interruption.]
Members, we like to hear each speaker when they are on their feet. Please continue, First Minister.
They are terrified about the security of their pensions.
All week, people have heard Douglas Ross demanding that I match Tory tax cuts for the richest people in our society. Those tax cuts have already sunk the pound, crashed the mortgage market, brought people’s pensions to the brink of collapse and forced the Bank of England into an emergency bailout, and they will force deep reductions in public spending. I think that people might have wanted to hear Douglas Ross explaining today why he thinks that the Scottish Government should emulate those policies.
For the avoidance of doubt, we will not emulate those policies, but Douglas Ross’s silence about his demand that we do so says everything about his appallingly poor judgment.
Energy Generation (Public Ownership)
We have a Tory Government that is hell-bent on crashing the economy. Energy bills are rising, mortgage payments are going up and the markets are in free fall.
In the face of that economic illiteracy and moral bankruptcy, Labour has a plan: it is a plan for a publicly owned clean-energy generation company that would be established in the first year of a Labour Government. It took the SNP months to back Labour’s proposal for a windfall tax. Will the First Minister today back Labour’s plan for a publicly owned energy company to bring down bills, create jobs and deliver energy security? (S6F-01377)
Yes—I am happy to give support to policies of that nature. Perhaps Anas Sarwar would back a situation in which Scotland had the full powers over the energy market and the access to borrowing that are necessary in order for us to establish an energy generation company of that nature.
I am happy to support things that I agree with, but since we are on this ground today, here are some other policies that the SNP Scottish Government has introduced that Labour would perhaps now like to back. How about we see Keir Starmer and United Kingdom Labour backing a £25 per week child payment like the one that we have in Scotland? How about we see Labour backing an end to the benefits cap, or backing the abolition of prescription charges, or backing free personal care, the abolition of university tuition fees, higher health spending per head of population and more nurses and doctors per head of population? How about a rent freeze such as is being introduced here, in Scotland?
If we want to swap good ideas, I am happy to accept them when they come from Labour. Perhaps Labour needs to look to Scotland and to start emulating some of what we are doing here.
I am pleased to hear that the First Minister backs Labour’s plans. How times have changed—from the First Minister telling Scotland, “You’re never getting a Labour Government again” to her now making proposals to the next Labour Government. Perhaps we can see more of that.
The First Minister wants to talk about her powers. In 2017—[Interruption.] The SNP front bench might want to listen to this.
In 2017, the First Minister promised to create a Government-run energy company that would sell Scottish renewable energy to customers at
“as close to cost price as possible”,
using the powers that the Government has. That promise was broken. A Labour Government will establish a public energy company in year 1. After 15 years of SNP Government, we are told that we still have to wait.
This matters. In January, the First Minister sold off Scotland’s sea bed on the cheap. If we had a publicly owned energy company in Scotland, that sea bed would have been in the hands of the Scottish people; they would have had a stake. Instead, we have the ludicrous situation in which Vattenfall, which is a publicly owned company in Sweden, will profit more than taxpayers here will. Why is it the First Minister’s priority and policy that our natural resources fund schools, transport and hospitals in Sweden but not those in Scotland?
Our having a Labour leader in Scotland who is reduced to talking down the fantastic ScotWind programme just counts as one of many reasons why—whatever might or might not happen in the rest of the UK—Scotland will not be getting another Labour Government any time soon.
Yes—we committed to a publicly owned retail energy company. Covid, unfortunately, changed those plans. We will shortly set out our plans for the national public energy agency. However, if Anas Sarwar is going to come here and ask me such questions, surely he must know that to set up a publicly owned generation company would require that this Parliament have powers over the energy market and access to borrowing that we do not have.
If Anas Sarwar wants this Government to do that—[Interruption.]
Thank you, members.
—when will he back independence and full powers for this Parliament, so that we can do it?
There we go: the old slogan about talking down Scotland. I have been hearing Nicola Sturgeon shout that slogan since I was at school. I say to the First Minister that it is time to change the record.
For 15 years, we have had an SNP Government that has chased the headline but has not done the work. It promised a national energy company, but that has now been scrapped. [Interruption.]
The SNP promised 130,000 green energy jobs, but it failed to deliver. We should remember that it promised that we would be the “Saudi Arabia of renewables”. Instead, it is selling off our assets on the cheap.
This week, the people of Scotland have seen that change is coming with Labour: change with our ambitious plan to freeze energy bills, change to invest in energy security, change to create tens of thousands of high-skilled well-paid jobs here in Scotland—[Interruption.]
Thank you, members.
—and change to get rid of the economically illiterate and morally bankrupt Tory Government. Even the First Minister must surely see that those are the changes that Scotland needs.
Anas Sarwar says that he has for years been listening to me accusing Labour of talking down Scotland. That is probably true, but it is because I have for years listened to Labour constantly talking down Scotland. That is all that it seems to be able to do. That is why Scotland decided to get its own back on Labour and to start doing down Labour in electoral terms. I do not see any evidence that that will change any time soon.
Under this Government, we have a position where our net energy consumption is already provided by renewable energy sources. [The First Minister has corrected this contribution. See end of report.] Scotland leads the world when it comes to renewable energy, and ScotWind is a shining example of that.
In the interests of finding a bit of consensus, I say that I want to see the back of the rotten, corrupt and failing Tory Government, just as much as anybody does. However, if it is to be replaced at United Kingdom level by a Labour Government, surely everybody has a right to hope that that Labour Government would be very different to what it would replace.
I will make another suggestion. Perhaps Labour could start by committing to reversing the Brexit that Scotland did not vote for. Just as the Tories are, Labour is now a pro-Brexit party, regardless of the economic damage that Brexit is doing. The fact is that, in relation to Brexit, as with so many other issues, the only way for Scotland to reach its full potential is through independence. Are not we really seeing what would be the benefits of independence right now? The sooner it comes, the better.
We move to constituency and general supplementary questions.
The First Minister will, no doubt, share my deep concern about research by KPMG that states that the cost crisis is forcing three in 10 people in the United Kingdom to rely on savings in order to afford basic necessities such as food, shelter and fuel. Does she agree that the Westminster Tory UK Government’s crashing of the economy can only make the situation worse, and that missing-in-action Prime Minister Liz Truss must ditch the policies from last week and think again?
The issues could not be any more grave or serious. When we had exchanges at this time last week, it would have been very true—frighteningly true—to say that people were worried about being unable to heat their homes. That remains true. However, this week, people are also increasingly worried about their ability to keep their homes, because of what the Conservatives have done to the mortgage market, what they have done to the value of the pound and what they are doing to the economy in general. People are terrified about the cost of living, their mortgages, their ability to keep their homes and the security of their pensions.
All that comes from a UK Government decision to borrow vast amounts of money in order to give enormous tax cuts to the very richest people in our society. That is morally abhorrent and economically disastrous. In all sincerity, I call on the UK Government—if it does nothing else—to reverse its decision to abolish the cut in the top rate of tax and at least give a signal of a return to some common sense in its approach to economic policy.
Yesterday, as many people were, I was critical of the fact that the Prime Minister was missing in action. However, having heard her this morning, and watched the market reaction as she spoke, I say that perhaps we are all better off when the Prime Minister is missing in action than we are when she is out there talking about the disaster that she has inflicted on the country.
A development on green-belt space near Duntocher, in my region, is set to go ahead despite being widely unpopular with local residents and having been rejected by West Dunbartonshire Council. Across Scotland as a whole, last year local councils were overruled on nearly half of the planning applications that were appealed to ministers. Does the First Minister truly believe that her Government has the interests of local communities at heart when such projects can go ahead against their wishes?
We have a statutory planning process that allows local councils to take decisions, but also has in place measures for ministers to look at those decisions, in certain circumstances. Clearly, this is a planning matter. From the question, I am not sure exactly what stage in the planning process that project is at, but I will not—in case it is with ministers—comment further on the specific detail of the issue.
Scottish Landfill Tax (West Dunbartonshire)
The Scottish Landfill Tax (Prescribed Landfill Site Activities) Amendment Order 2022 was approved on 7 July. At the time, the Government and Revenue Scotland advised that there were no financial implications for councils and no expected increase in tax. That appears to have been incorrect.
Barr Environmental Ltd, which has contracts for landfill with West Dunbartonshire Council, Argyll and Bute Council and Inverclyde Council, is increasing the cost per tonne as a result of the order, following discussion with Revenue Scotland. That will cost West Dunbartonshire Council alone £1.5 million extra. It simply does not have that money.
Will the First Minister consider whether the order can be paused while the issue is investigated? Time is pressing, and, unless the Government can rectify the perceived error, the contract might end in a couple of weeks and rubbish will be piling up on the streets of West Dunbartonshire.
First, Revenue Scotland operates independently of Scottish ministers in its role as our tax authority. It would not be proper for me to comment on what is an individual taxpayer dispute. I will ask the relevant minister whether more information can be provided and, if so, to write to Jackie Baillie.
I can say that our view is that the recent amendment order does not alter or expand the scope of the Scottish landfill tax; rather, the order provides additional confirmation by making it explicit that particular landfill site activities are within its intended scope.
European Union (Nature Protection)
The Truss budget has unleashed chaos on households, but the United Kingdom Government has also threatened to renege on vital protections for our natural world, which have been developed over 40 years when we were part of the European Union. Scotland did not vote for Brexit. We did not vote for this catastrophic UK Government or its malicious and deeply damaging attacks on nature.
RSPB Scotland has called on the Scottish Government to do everything that it can to ensure that our nature is strongly protected, so will the First Minister and her Government lead the fight for Scotland’s nature?
Yes, we will continue to support Scotland’s nature and our natural habitats. I support the comments that the RSPB made in the wake of UK Government announcements in the past few days. I am deeply concerned about UK Government policies and their potential impacts on the environment. I am even more concerned about the implications of Brexit, which make it more difficult for the Scottish Government to insist on the highest possible environmental standards.
It is the case that Brexit was done to Scotland against our will. It was done through the Tories and, as I said in an exchange with Anas Sarwar, even Labour is no longer promising to reverse Brexit. The only way for Scotland to get back into the European Union and to fulfil our potential with regard to nature, as in so many other ways, is to become an independent country.
Proposed Rent Freeze
To ask the First Minister what the response has been from stakeholder groups regarding the Scottish Government’s proposals to introduce a freeze on rent. (S6F-01387)
Those measures have been welcomed by a number of stakeholder groups that recognise the huge pressure that the cost crisis is placing on households and the importance of urgent action. However, in advance of the publication of our detailed proposals, we have also been carefully considering reasonable points that have been made by other stakeholders, including landlords and, within that, social landlords. We will continue to engage with all stakeholders as we continue to develop the detail of the proposals.
Irrespective of our political views about the proposed legislation, which most stakeholders agree is both complex and controversial, does the First Minister think that it is acceptable practice for it to be pushed through Parliament in just three days, when MSPs will see the bill for only an hour before it is due to be debated? Can she confirm whether it is correct that some stakeholders are being provided with prior sight of the bill before MSPs?
First, I do not think that emergency legislation is ideal. I would rather that we were not in the position of having to introduce emergency legislation to protect people from the impact of rent increases, but I also wish that we were not in a deteriorating cost of living crisis that has been caused and is, right now, being exacerbated by Liz Smith’s party in government at Westminster. We have a duty to take action as far as we can to protect people from that cost of living crisis and we will continue to do so.
We are committed to working with the sector, and we are having discussions ahead of any decisions that we are taking. As I came into the chamber for First Minister’s question time, I think that I heard Patrick Harvie talking about a meeting on Tuesday this week of a short-life task and finish group, involving stakeholders.
We will, of course, continue to talk to stakeholders, and Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise the proposals when they come before us in the coming days.
At the Social Justice and Social Security Committee this morning, we heard from Shelter Scotland, which said that the recent short-term emergency measures in the programme for government to ensure that citizens can access their right to a home are very welcome in the context of the cost of living crisis but that it waits to see the final detail. What is the First Minister’s response to that important contribution?
I welcome both parts of it. I visited Shelter Scotland on the day after the programme for government launch and heard directly from advice workers on the massive challenges that tenants experience day to day and the urgent need to support tenants who are in difficulty. I also discussed in general terms the measures that we had announced.
Of course, it is important that everybody scrutinises the detail and that we carefully consider it. Shelter is one of a number of stakeholders that will do exactly that alongside members of the Parliament.
Scotland’s tenants union, Living Rent, continues to report rent increases on its members despite the First Minister’s announcement of a rent freeze on 6 September. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that every tenant and landlord knows about the rent freeze and the moratorium on evictions? Do they include writing to everyone who is affected?
We will take all reasonable steps to ensure that there is high awareness of our proposals and of the law that will be introduced if Parliament passes the bill. I will certainly consider whether we can take steps such as writing to people who are affected. It is important not only that we take those measures but that people are aware of them. It is a constructive suggestion and I will give further consideration to it.
National Health Service (Winter Pressures)
To ask the First Minister what provision the Scottish Government is making to cope with the anticipated pressures on the NHS this winter. (S6F-01394)
Recognising the challenge that the winter represents and the pressure that our health and care systems are under, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care will make a statement to the Parliament next week giving an overview of the wide range of work that is under way to ensure that health and social care services are well prepared for winter.
Our vaccination programme is a critical first line of defence, protecting the most vulnerable and reducing staff absences. We also seek to maximise capacity across health and social care services by expanding the workforce to manage expected demand. Public messaging is also crucial to ensure that people have the right advice and support to access the right care at the right place and at the right time.
The disastrous economic policies of Liz Truss—the lady has indicated that she is not for turning—pile even more pressure on folk who face terrifying energy bills. The pound is tumbling in value against the dollar and the euro, so every import, including food, becomes even more costly. Spiralling interest rates will increase credit card and mortgage payments. It is an economic tsunami, except for bankers and the rich.
Does the First Minister agree that there can be no doubt that pressures on our health services will increase as a direct result of those policies? Will she consider including in discussions for her winter planning for the health service agencies such as mortgage companies, social landlords in the rented sector and Citizens Advice Scotland, which will also be on the front line and might help to prevent some of the damage that is being done to our nation’s health?
I absolutely agree with Christine Grahame. She is completely correct to highlight those risks. It is important to understand that the economic and financial crisis that is being created by the Tories right now will potentially become a public health crisis in future. That will put significantly increased demand on our national health service, so it is important that we continue to work with the NHS and other partners, including Citizens Advice Scotland, to try to mitigate and manage that impact.
There is, of course, a more direct threat to the NHS for any Government that was to go down the path of tax cuts for the rich. I was struck this week by comments by the former deputy governor of the Bank of England, who, I think, is a current member of the Office for Budget Responsibility, although I will be corrected if I am wrong about that latter point. What he said was frightening. He said that the scale of the spending reductions that will be required to pay for the tax cuts would, in effect, mean the end of the NHS as we know it.
That is why it is vital that the United Kingdom Government reverses the tax cuts, but it is also why it would be wrong for anybody to demand that the Scottish Government follow suit on cutting taxes, given the risk that it poses to the NHS and other public services.
This week, it was revealed that hundreds of additional surge beds that were made available to health boards across Scotland last winter continue to be occupied, and the vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr John-Paul Loughrey, said:
“Every hospital in Scotland just now is under the cosh.”
The bed shortage is a direct consequence of the Scottish Government’s actions. Our hospitals have 4,000 fewer beds than they had in 2010—and we know who served as health secretary in that period. The situation is unacceptable. We cannot normalise our national health service being in a perpetual state of crisis. Therefore, what is the First Minister going to do to address that crisis as well as the crisis in capacity and staffing across the NHS? Will she take action? That is something that the current health secretary seems unwilling or unable to do.
Public Health Scotland’s most recent annual health figures show that, in fact, the average number of staffed acute beds has increased compared with the previous year. We also have more beds per head of population than England does. There is huge pressure on our national health service, but we continue to support it through investment, recruitment and work with the service.
It is a bit galling to hear a Labour member talk about bed reductions in the national health service. In the seven years or so of the last Labour Government in this Parliament, there was a reduction of 5,425 in the number of hospital beds in Scotland. That includes non-acute beds, but the rate of bed reductions was justified at the time for many reasons, including reducing the length of stay in hospital. Of course, many of those reasons still apply now. I think that Labour should perhaps check the facts and check its own history before it makes criticisms of this Government.
Arjowiggins Paper Mill
To ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government will make available to the reported 372 members of staff affected by the Arjowiggins paper mill at Stoneywood in Aberdeen entering administration. (S6F-01395)
This is an exceptionally difficult time for people being made redundant at Arjowiggins in Aberdeen, and those affected are our immediate priority. Of course, they are already receiving support through our partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—initiative, and a partner event is taking place in Aberdeen today, with a jobs fair arranged for 10 October.
Scottish Enterprise has been working extensively with Arjowiggins. Unfortunately, conditions deteriorated and, despite everyone’s best efforts, it was not possible to secure a sale of the business. Scottish Enterprise is working with administrators to understand possibilities for the business going forward.
The Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise is providing regular updates to local elected representatives, has spoken with Unite the union today and will speak to the administrator this afternoon.
It is now a week since the firm went into administration, and this is the first time that I have heard the First Minister mention it. When BiFab went into administration, the First Minister flew back from Germany. When Ferguson’s went into administration, the Scottish Government nationalised the yard. When the Michelin factory in Dundee closed, Scottish Enterprise turned it into an innovation park. However, when it comes to jobs in Aberdeen, the First Minister is nowhere to be seen and we are met with a wall of silence. When will the First Minister come up to Aberdeen to speak to the workers whose livelihoods are in jeopardy? What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that the mill can be saved or that all of the people affected can find alternative employment? The loss of more than 300 jobs needs more than the usual PACE response.
Of course, the actions that the member sets out in relation to other companies are regularly criticised—as we have heard just today—by the Scottish Conservatives.
On this serious issue, which I understand his concern about, the member is doing a disservice to everybody affected. Since 2019, when it first became clear that the company was facing administration, the Scottish Government has been working, principally through Scottish Enterprise, to try to find an alternative future and to find a buyer for the company. Despite all of those best efforts, that has not proved possible, which is deeply regrettable. However, as I set out in some detail in my original answer, the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise will continue to provide support to the workers and will continue to do all that we can to understand what possibilities there might be for the business.
The business minister is always willing to speak to local elected representatives in such situations. That is as true in this situation as it is in any other situation.
I am sure that Douglas Lumsden’s concern for the workers involved is absolutely genuine, but I encourage him to engage with the minister and the Government so that, notwithstanding our many differences, we can perhaps work together in their interests.
I put on record my thanks to the business minister for the call that I had with him yesterday regarding the impact on my constituents of the closure of the Stoneywood mill. I would be grateful if the First Minister could provide a commitment that the Scottish Government and partners will continue to support all constituents who are impacted by the closure, and if she would join me in condemning outright the employment practices of the mill’s owners, who have not consulted the unions or employees and have provided no notice to workers of redundancies while locking them out of the workplace. Will the First Minister urge the administrators to engage with me, as the constituency MSP, to discuss staff redundancies? I have had no response so far.
I absolutely agree with Jackie Dunbar, and I give her the assurances that she has asked for. I commend her for the work that she has done, and continues to do, on behalf of her constituents who are affected by the situation.
The Scottish Government firmly believes that there must be meaningful dialogue between employers and employees to ensure that, at all times, workers are treated fairly. As I have already outlined, we are committed to supporting all those impacted by the closure.
Jackie Dunbar has raised a really important issue about fair work practices. Employment law is, of course, a reserved matter, but it is our firm belief that a progressive approach to industrial relations and an effective voice for workers are at the heart of a fairer society in Scotland.
As I mentioned earlier, the business minister spoke with Unite the union earlier today and reiterated our on-going support through the PACE initiative and Scottish Enterprise. As I also indicated, he is speaking with the administrators this afternoon. He will emphasise the importance of engaging with all relevant stakeholders—including, of course, Jackie Dunbar, as the constituency MSP—and he will continue to update all elected representatives.
To ask the First Minister how the recent fall in the value of sterling will affect the finances of the Scottish Government. (S6F-01384)
Potentially disastrously—and that is of deep and profound concern to me and, I am sure, everyone across the country. As the Bank of England had warned even before the recent falls in the value of sterling, a falling pound will add to inflationary pressures in the economy. With inflation already at 10 per cent, the Scottish Government’s budget is already worth about £1.7 billion less than it was when it was announced in December. The latest devaluation raises the risk of more real-terms reductions not just in the Scottish Government’s budget but in the incomes of already struggling households and businesses throughout Scotland. The spending cuts that will be required to pay for the Tories’ tax cuts for the richest also have potential implications for the Scottish Government’s budgets in the period ahead. As a first step to restoring the United Kingdom’s badly damaged financial credibility, the Chancellor of the Exchequer should urgently reverse the unfunded and unjustified tax cuts for top earners.
The First Minister will know—this has been mentioned many times already today—that the International Monetary Fund is openly condemning the Tory UK Government over the reckless plans for tax cuts for the highest earners and a range of staggering decisions that will plunge millions into poverty and cause a public health crisis. I think that it is extremely ill judged for the Scottish Tories to demand that we replicate those tax cuts, which would lead to significant personal gains to them and their donors at the expense of our citizens in crisis and our public services, which they come to the chamber every week to ask us to put more funding into. What is the First Minister’s view?
My view is that, when Gillian Martin says that it is “ill judged” for the Conservatives to ask the Scottish Government to emulate tax cuts for the richest that have sunk the pound, crashed the mortgage market, threatened people’s pensions and forced a bailout from the Bank of England, she is probably being diplomatic and polite. I think that people will listen to the Conservatives calling on the Scottish Government to deliver tax cuts for the richest—and, in so doing, to slash public spending for public services—and wonder what planet they are living on. What happened last Friday, in the so-called mini-budget, was economic vandalism, and it was economic vandalism that was done knowingly and, it appears to me, deliberately.
Gillian Martin rightly mentions the IMF; it is extraordinary to hear such comments from the IMF about a G7 country. However, the comments from others are just as damning. The chief executive of the Resolution Foundation describes the mini-budget as
“the worst unforced economic policy error of my lifetime”,
while the Institute for Fiscal Studies talks about “gambling” and “betting the house”. Unfortunately, the chancellor was not betting on his own house; he was betting on the houses of people across the country.
The decisions are disastrous and need to be reversed—not because of some political or ideological debate, but for the sake of the homes, the living standards, the pensions and the security of people across this country—-and they need to be reversed now.
Police Officer Numbers
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that police officer numbers dropped to 16,610 at the end of June, below Police Scotland’s “full officer establishment” of 17,234. (S6F-01389)
Officer numbers fluctuate due to the cycle of recruitment and retirement. The latest statistics reflect the impact of Covid restrictions and the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—which reduced the capacity to train new recruits at the Scottish police college. The statistics also reflect the impact of recent pension changes.
It is important to note, however, that a further 300 officers were recruited in July. That figure is not yet reflected in the statistics that have been quoted. On 2 August, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland published its assurance review of Police Scotland’s strategic workforce planning and recommended a focus on
“developing a workforce based on the skillset and mix required to meet the current and future challenges for policing in Scotland”.
Although the recruitment and deployment of police officers in Scotland is, of course, a matter for the chief constable, the Scottish Government will continue to discuss that and other recommendations with the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland.
I acknowledge that the figures will fluctuate from week to week, but I see that the Scottish Government has ushered in a permanent reduction in police establishment numbers of about 600 officers. If that were not concerning enough, Chief Constable Iain Livingstone is on record as saying that cuts to the police budget mean that we are already
“seeing the impact in our service of having fewer officers across a range of operational areas including a responsiveness to calls from the public”.
I understand that we could lose up to 1,000 additional officers from our service. It is important to bear in mind that 80 per cent of calls to Police Scotland are not crime related. That marks out the distinctly Scottish nature of a police service that is responsible for wellbeing, which, I hope, the First Minister will defend.
Is the First Minister concerned about the chief constable’s comments and the effect of brutal cuts in police numbers? What action will she take to ensure the resilience of the police service and to ensure that our police officers can do their jobs? I plead with her to recognise that, unlike other forces in the United Kingdom, the police service in Scotland has a distinct nature, and we should never accept the possibility of losing that.
I lead a Government that has worked throughout the entire time that we have been in Government to protect police numbers and to support our police officers and the staff who support them. We will continue to discuss these issues in what is a very difficult context with the chief constable, Police Scotland and, of course, the Scottish Police Authority.
We will always do everything that we can to support the work, wellbeing and resilience of our police officers; they do a fantastic job day in, day out. I take this opportunity to thank the police for their recent outstanding work during operation unicorn. We will continue to do everything that we can to support our police and our other public services.
However, it is incumbent on me to point out, again, the reality of the context that we are operating in. We are operating within a fixed budget that has, because of inflation, already been eroded this year to the tune of £1.7 billion.
We are trying to give public sector workers the fairest possible pay increases, and I am pleased that we were able to conclude a pay deal with the police. These are difficult situations, which force us into difficult decisions.
We come at this with the determination to protect public services. I say to Pauline McNeill, as I would say to any member, that, in these really tough times, when much is completely beyond the control of the Government, if members think that we should be making different decisions, they should come and say that. However, members cannot simply ask us to spend more money in one area without saying where they think we should spend less. That is the responsibility that is demanded of the Government right now, and I think that it is the responsibility that people demand of all their politicians during this difficult time.
If the First Minister wants a suggestion, why does she not stop spending money on independence white papers and start properly funding our police force? We are seeing damaging cuts, and the First Minister has broken her manifesto pledge to protect and support the police and to protect the police budget? It is shameful, First Minister.
I am not sure that anyone needs any more evidence this week of the financial, fiscal and economic illiteracy of the Conservatives, but I think that we have probably just had some more thrown into the bargain.
The Tories keep mentioning the money for an independence referendum, which would fall into the next financial year, not this financial year. However, in this week of all weeks, I think that it is pretty obvious to people why we so desperately need to be an independent country. We have a UK Government that Scotland did not vote for, that has already imposed Brexit on us against our will—a Brexit that is doing real damage to living standards and to the economy—and that has, this week, crashed the entire UK economy. The cost of that is being borne by ordinary people across the country. What has caused the crash in the economy? It is £45 billion in tax cuts that prioritise the very richest people in our society. Independence is about getting away from Tory incompetence and, frankly, Tory immorality. The sooner the people of Scotland have the choice of independence, the better for us all.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a short pause before we move on to members’ business.