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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 13, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Holistic Family Support, Portfolio Question Time, Car Travel, National Mission on Drugs, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

Members who wish to ask constituency or general supplementary questions should press their buttons during question 2. Members who wish to ask supplementaries on questions 3 to 6 should press their buttons during the relevant question.


Financial Support for Businesses

1. Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

On 14 December, I asked the First Minister to confirm that vital financial support that was needed by businesses that were affected by her Covid restrictions would be delivered before Christmas. The First Minister stood there and promised to do everything possible to deliver that, but she has failed. Many businesses have contacted us to say that they cannot even apply for that funding yet, let alone receive a single penny. Can the First Minister tell us how many businesses in Scotland have received funding so far and how many are waiting to receive it?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

This is an important issue for many businesses across the country. I said before Christmas, and I repeat today, that the Scottish Government, in partnership with local authorities, which are responsible for administering the significant bulk of the funding that we have made available, is working to get that money to businesses as quickly as possible. As I am sure that everybody will accept—including, I hope, Douglas Ross—there are some checks that councils have to make to guard against fraud and any businesses trying to claim money that they are not entitled to. I am not suggesting that many would do that. That process is on-going.

For the hospitality strand, for example, businesses that previously got support have been contacted, or the vast bulk of them have been contacted. They have been asked to complete a declaration, and then money will start to flow when those declarations have been returned. I know that many councils are in the process of making the payments. The City of Edinburgh Council and Midlothian Council, for example, have started to make payments, and Glasgow City Council is starting today on the back of that process.

The nightclub closure fund, on which I know there has been commentary this week, is also open for applications. Nightclubs are being asked to submit an application. As soon as they do so—within days—money will be allocated to them.

This is an on-going process, but everybody is working hard to get the money into the bank accounts of businesses as quickly as possible.

Finally, I remind Douglas Ross in particular that, where the Conservatives are in power—that is a touchy subject today, I know—some of this money is not being provided at all to businesses. This Government has made sure that we are providing financial support to businesses. Many businesses that are suffering the same impacts of Covid south of the border are not getting the money that businesses will get in Scotland.

Douglas Ross

Let us look at the First Minister’s answer. Apparently, this is an important issue, yet she could not tell us how many businesses in Scotland have received the funding and how many are still waiting. She stood in this chamber and promised to do everything possible to deliver the funding before Christmas. Here we are in the middle of January and businesses are telling us that the process is going at a snail’s pace, but the First Minister somehow defends it or blames councils for not acting quickly enough.

The responsibility is on the Scottish Government. The Scottish National Party added the restrictions in Scotland, which have impacted businesses, but it has not delivered the funding. A business group here in Scotland said yesterday:

“not a single penny of the funding we were promised before Christmas has reached businesses”.

Now, a month after the funding was announced, John Swinney has come forward to say that it is

“difficult to give a precise timescale”

for when the money will be paid.

I say to the First Minister that this has happened time and again during the pandemic. The SNP is quick to demand more funding from the United Kingdom Government but very slow to get it out to the businesses that need it. Is a month-long wait for this vital funding really good enough for our businesses?

The First Minister

At least under an SNP Government, money is being allocated to businesses and will get to them. Under a Tory Government, money is not getting to businesses at all.

I am sure that, if either central Government or local government was to disburse money without basic checks to guard against fraud, for example, Douglas Ross would be one of the first to get to his feet and complain about that as well.

The nightclub closure fund, for example, is open for applications. Businesses that have previously received support are being contacted and asked to complete their application, and then payment will be made within a matter of days once that application has been received.

With the hospitality fund, for example, businesses are being asked only to complete a declaration, not to submit a new application. Businesses are being proactively contacted and councils are starting now—some have already started and some are starting today—to pay that money. I am not criticising councils. I know how hard and how quickly they are working to get that money out of the door.

I come back to the point that we all want this to be done as quickly as possible but, although businesses in every part of the United Kingdom are suffering some of the same impacts of Covid, in Scotland they will be getting financial support that businesses are not getting south of the border, where the Conservatives are in government.

Douglas Ross

Businesses in other parts of the United Kingdom were not shut down in the same way that they were shut down by Nicola Sturgeon. We all remember her Public Health Scotland telling people not to go to Christmas parties, and the First Minister went on television the next day to confirm that. That is why funding is required here in Scotland, and that is why it was required in December, not the middle of January.

The First Minister said that the delay is because there are basic checks to be made to ensure that the money goes to the right people. We cannot make the basic checks if in some areas the application process has not even opened. That is the problem that businesses are telling us about.

This week in Scotland, businesses were dealt another blow. Restrictions on them were extended by a further week without any clear evidence. The omicron data is now far more positive, and the First Minister herself has accepted that the Government’s predictions in December were wrong, so why are hospitality businesses still being held back by her Government? Can she explain to people across Scotland why it is now safe for tens of thousands of people to go to stadiums but not safe for someone to walk from their seat to the bar in their local pub?

The First Minister

Douglas Ross must be the only person in the entire country who, in the run-up to Christmas, did not hear the howls from hospitality businesses south of the border about the collapse in footfall, the loss of revenue and the dire straits that they were in. He is standing here trying to suggest that businesses in every part of the UK have not suffered these Covid impacts. The difference in Scotland, of course, is that the Scottish Government has responded in a much greater way than the Government south of the border has.

On the application process for hospitality—I have already said this; Douglas Ross might want to listen—businesses are being contacted and asked to complete a declaration. That process is under way and the money has started to flow. The application process for the nightclub closure fund is open, and that money will be flowing soon as well, because we take seriously our responsibilities to allocate money and get it to businesses in a way that the Tory Government is simply not doing to anywhere near the same extent.

The projections before Christmas were not wrong. What happened was that we did not just fold our arms and accept them as inevitable. We took proportionate, sensible and balanced action. The public responded—as they have done throughout the pandemic—magnificently, and we were able to change the course of those projections. Is Douglas Ross really saying that, if he had been standing here—something that I know is hard to contemplate for people in Scotland, and even harder for some people in his own party, it seems—he would not have responded to those projections in December? If that had been the case, we would have been in a seriously difficult position right now. Because we took sensible action, we are now lifting the restrictions, but we are doing so in a safe and responsible way.

Had I followed the advice of Douglas Ross over these past months, we would not have face coverings still being used in Scotland and we would not have some of the mitigations that we have in schools. We would not have taken many of the sensible actions that we have taken, and we would be in a much worse position than we are in now. I will continue to follow a sensible and responsible course to lead this country as safely as possible through the remainder of this pandemic.

Douglas Ross

If the First Minister had listened to me and voices from the Scottish Conservatives in December, businesses would not be telling her in January that they are not getting the funding that they need. She said that I have to listen to her answers. I ask her please to listen to the businesses here in Scotland that are telling her that she made a promise to them that she failed to deliver. [Interruption.] They are waiting for that vital funding to protect their businesses and protect jobs, and the First Minister shaking her head and dismissing what they are saying undermines everything that they are trying to do to keep their business alive through this toughest possible time.

The First Minister tells us to live with Covid, but she does not trust the public. She imposes restrictions but does not deliver compensation. She says that the data on omicron—on Covid—is more promising, and then she threatens businesses with a wider vaccination passport scheme. She demands more money from the UK Government, and then she does not give it to businesses here in Scotland.

When our economic recovery is so fragile, that is simply not good enough. Why are Scottish jobs and Scottish businesses always an afterthought for the First Minister and her Government?

The First Minister

That is—not for the first time from Douglas Ross—arrant nonsense. We cannot give more money from the UK Government to Scottish businesses because we did not get more money from the UK Government—money that not just the Scottish Government but the Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments asked for.

We managed to find, within our own resources, additional money, so that we can get extra support to Scottish businesses, because we accept how important it is, in the face of this on-going challenge, to provide as much support as we can to businesses. Right now, the Scottish Government is working with local government to get that money out of the door and into the bank accounts of businesses.

I come back to a central point. That is money that will get to businesses; counterpart businesses south of the border will not get that money, even though they have suffered much the same impact as businesses here in Scotland have suffered.

Week on week, I lose track of what exactly Douglas Ross thinks we should or should not do to tackle Covid. All that I can conclude is that his approach to tackling a global pandemic is simply to oppose everything that the Scottish Government tries to do. Thank goodness he has not been responsible for these difficult decisions because, given his display in Opposition, the country would be in a sorry mess over Covid had he had anything to do with them.

We will continue to take responsible decisions, we will continue to support businesses and we will continue to lead this country, as safely as possible, through the Covid pandemic.


NHS Lanarkshire

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Almost 10 months ago, the First Minister said that her focus was on getting the NHS back to normal. Today, however, almost two years into the pandemic, things are getting worse, not better. Although I accept that omicron has put more pressure on our NHS services, many of the problems that we are facing were avoidable.

In September, residents in Lanarkshire were told to expect delayed and cancelled operations when the health board was put into code black. This week, the health board has gone further, introducing a suspension of many general practitioner services for at least the next four weeks. Patients were told that NHS services would be cut except for the ones that, in the health board’s words, it would “never wish to stop”.

This is an unprecedented situation that is affecting the health and wellbeing of more than 650,000 Scots. Is it not the case that, for people in Lanarkshire, their entire health service has in effect been turned into an emergency-only service?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

No, that is not the case.

Let me reflect on Anas Sarwar’s first point, which is that, 10 months ago, I stood here and accepted that that would be the case and said that we were focusing, at that point, on getting the NHS back to normal and back on track. Ten months ago—if my memory serves me correctly—we had not had the delta variant, nor, of course, had we had the omicron variant. This pandemic has dealt us two significant additional blows since that time, 10 months ago.

I accept that that means that what we had hoped would be the case—

It was after delta.

The First Minister

Anas Sarwar says that it was after delta. That may or may not be the case, but what I am saying—which any reasonable person who is listening to this would accept—is that the pandemic has continued to deal us blows that we were not necessarily anticipating. Yes, that means that our NHS is still struggling with the weight of Covid in a way that we all hoped would not be the case by now. However, every single day, our NHS boards and those who work in the NHS are undertaking the task magnificently.

NHS Lanarkshire has operationalised level 2 of its general practitioner escalation framework. That is not the most serious level—there are levels 0, 1, 2 and 3. The health board has said that level 2 is initially for a four-week period, but we have asked it to review that weekly and to report to the Scottish Government on the status of that. The health board previously had to do that at an earlier stage of the pandemic, in 2020. That ensures that, given the staff absences that are being experienced right now, the health board can continue to focus on the patients who most need care.

None of us wants to be in this position. We hope that we will be out of it sooner rather than later, but that involves all of us continuing to take the responsible action to get Covid under control so that we can get our NHS fully back to normal.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister says that what I said about emergency-only services is not the case. However, the previous guidance did not include primary care. That is now included, and the board has said that it is now essentially protecting only what it calls its “never” services.

It is also important to note that that was after delta, as the First Minister said, so we cannot say that it is all due to omicron. NHS Lanarkshire was warning of pressure last July, and code black was put in place in October. That was long before omicron arrived in the United Kingdom. By allowing the situation in NHS Lanarkshire to reach crisis levels, the First Minister has let down patients and staff who believed her when she said that a recovery plan was in place.

Across Scotland, more than 650,000 people are now languishing on NHS waiting lists, and 60,000 have been on a waiting list for more than a year. In one month alone, more than 1,600 operations were cancelled just hours before they were due to happen. The number of people and the length of time that they are waiting keep going up.

The First Minister promised a recovery and a catch-up plan. Should recovery not mean that things are getting better rather than worse? Should catch-up not mean that waiting lists are coming down rather than mounting up?

The First Minister

First—and I say this not to be pedantic, but because it is a really important part of the context—Anas Sarwar, in his first question—as, I think, the Official Report will bear out—referred to something that I said 10 months ago and then tried to say that that was somehow after delta. Delta was identified as a variant of concern in, I think, April or May of last year. Since delta, which caused significant additional disruption to the health service and society, we have, of course, had omicron, and we have been dealing with that. None of us wants to be in this position, but any reasonable person would realise that that has seriously frustrated the attempts on the part of the NHS, just as it has frustrated attempts across wider society, to get back to normal. That is the context that we are dealing with.

When it comes to NHS Lanarkshire, I think that Anas Sarwar is mixing up two different escalation frameworks. There is the Scottish Government’s NHS board performance escalation framework, which he has cited to me before in the context of the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. However, at the start of the pandemic, the GP escalation framework was also put in place, which goes from level 0 to level 3. NHS Lanarkshire is currently at level 2, which means that practices may need to request reduced access to some services in order to focus on the most seriously ill patients. That level has been put in place in Lanarkshire for a short period, and we have asked for it to be reviewed weekly.

On waiting times more generally, we are focusing as much as possible on supporting boards to recover the position in terms of backlogs and waiting times, but key to doing that is reducing the pressure on boards and in hospitals that is being caused by Covid. Hopefully, over the next few weeks, as we start to see the omicron position ease, that will happen and those recovery efforts will escalate and accelerate.

This is a really difficult position for the NHS, but it is one that we need to support it through. The sooner that we get Covid back under control, the sooner those efforts can step up again.

Anas Sarwar

Ten months ago was the first time that the First Minister said that we would get the NHS back to normal, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care published the catch-up plan after the election in May, which was also after delta. What patients expect, and what it is reasonable to expect after almost two years of the pandemic, is a return to normal NHS services—access to basic health services—so that we can protect people’s lives and livelihoods.

Nicola Sturgeon wants to pretend that all the problems in the NHS are because of the pandemic. However, she has been in Government for 14 years and has been the First Minister for seven years. The NHS was underresourced and undervalued by the Government and we had a workforce crisis before the pandemic. There were more than 3,500 nursing and midwifery vacancies. Let us not forget that Nicola Sturgeon, as health secretary, cut the number of training places. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has said that we are at least 1,000 beds short in the NHS. The Government cut double that number and—staggeringly—450,000 of our fellow Scots were on NHS waiting lists even before the pandemic.

Patients are suffering and staff are burnt out. Is it not the case that we need a plan for recovery not just from Covid but from 14 years of this Scottish National Party Government?

The First Minister

The people of Scotland had the opportunity to make that choice less than a year ago, and they recorded a verdict on that.

On the impact of the pandemic, I am not suggesting for a second that all the challenges that the national health service faces are down to the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the NHS was dealing with changing demographics and the impact of technology, all of which was putting pressure on the NHS. We stood here and had exchanges on that at the time. However, Anas Sarwar seems to be trying to deny the significant effect that Covid has had—and continues to have—on the NHS. Over the most recent period, as the NHS has been dealing with omicron, there has been a 65 per cent increase in Covid-related staff absences. That is the kind of pressure that the NHS is dealing with. We need to get that under control, bring the NHS and the country out of the pandemic and get back to dealing with other challenges.

I come back to my starting point. The SNP Government has put in place the solid foundations to deal with those challenges. Health spending is at a record high level in Scotland right now. NHS staffing is at a record high, and, since the SNP Government came into office, NHS staffing has increased by 27,000 whole-time-equivalent staff members. We have put in place the foundations. We need to get through Covid and then we will support our NHS to recover in full and continue to deliver the services that patients across Scotland need and deserve.

We move to supplementary questions.


Independence

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Does the First Minister agree that the unmasked disdain that the UK Government has shown in the past 24 hours for its own colleagues in Scotland—including by dismissing the Scottish leader as “a lightweight”—makes it crystal clear that Scotland needs to become an independent country so that we can escape the sleazy, corrupt and criminal Westminster system for good?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As we have just seen, I have big political differences with Douglas Ross, but even I am not as derogatory about him as his own Tory colleagues. The comments that he is “not a big figure” and “a lightweight” are not just personal insults directed at the leader of the Scottish Conservatives but say something much deeper about the Westminster establishment’s utter contempt for Scotland. If they cannot even show basic respect for their own colleagues, what chance do the rest of us have?

Westminster thinks that Scotland does not need to be listened to and can be ignored, and now we are being told that we have to follow a Prime Minister whose own colleagues think he is not fit for office. Independence is fundamentally about empowerment and aspiration, but an added benefit of being independent is that we will no longer have to put up with being treated like something on the sole of Westminster’s shoe. Today, I suspect that even Douglas Ross finds that a really attractive proposition.


In-Patient Vaccination

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

There are a number of people in hospital who have missed their vaccination appointments. In her answer to my colleague, Rachael Hamilton, the First Minister stated that that was for clinical reasons. Could the First Minister investigate the possibility of reviewing the policy and protocols in acute hospital settings in order to give those patients—and anyone else who wants it—an in-patient vaccination?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and social Care to look at that to see whether any changes require to be made. However, I repeat the point that I made earlier, and ask the member to take it in good faith: there is no blanket policy in place right now that prevents in-patients in hospital getting a vaccination if their clinician thinks that they should have it. If she can accept that that is the case, I undertake to see whether there is anything else in the wider protocols that is leading to a situation where people who could or should be getting a vaccination are not getting it. I will ask the health secretary to look into that and write to the member once he has had the opportunity to do so.


NHS Lanarkshire (Code Black)

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I listened to the First Minister’s reply to Anas Sarwar and I have to be blunt: people in Lanarkshire are very afraid of becoming sick. Those who are already physically or mentally unwell are already at breaking point because many of them—such as Liz Barrie, who I have mentioned before—have been on waiting lists since before the pandemic.

The code black situation has been going on for 12 weeks now. On 9 December, I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, who is, I think, sitting beside the First Minister, to ask for an urgent meeting with all the MSPs in Lanarkshire, because we are all worried, and I did not even get a response.

What am I supposed to tell constituents in Lanarkshire who are reaching for the Samaritans Scotland phone number because they cannot get through to general practice surgeries and they feel that they are not allowed to go to accident and emergency? The letter from NHS Lanarkshire yesterday did not even mention mental health. It is very scary for someone who is not a doctor and cannot decide whether they are an urgent case to hear about the suspension of services. Can we please get the meeting that I asked Humza Yousaf for, and can we get sight of a plan so that people in Lanarkshire can sleep better at night?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I understand that this is a really anxious time not only for patients in Lanarkshire but for patients across Scotland and, indeed, the wider public, because of the on-going challenges of Covid and the impact that it is having on the national health service, secondary care and primary care, and in many aspects of life that, pre-Covid, people would have taken for granted as normal. All of us want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and key to that is getting and keeping Covid under control and supporting the NHS to recover as we do that and come out of Covid.

On the step that has been taken in NHS Lanarkshire, of course nobody wants any health board to be in that position, but it is about ensuring that access can be maintained to essential GP services at a time of unprecedented demand and unprecedented staff absences. People can, of course, continue to use GP services where that is essential, wider community pharmacy services or NHS Inform if they have questions or queries that they need to be answered.

The measure is a short-term one. Nobody wants or will allow it to be in place for longer than is necessary, and we will continue to take steps to support the NHS to get all services back to normal as quickly as possible for all patients across the country.


National Entitlement Cards

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

This week, we have seen tens of thousands of young people successfully applying for national entitlement cards, which will open the door to free bus travel across Scotland at the end of this month. We have also seen some schools and libraries help those who are the hardest to reach to apply for the card. What more guidance can the Government give to councils to ensure that those who could benefit most from the scheme successfully get their cards by the end of the month?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am delighted, as I am sure many people are, that applications are now open for free bus travel for young people under 22. The scheme will go live from 31 January, and it will make public transport much more affordable for children and young people.

Obviously, local authorities are key delivery partners, so we have already provided them with a toolkit to help them to communicate the scheme to local residents, including providing information on the range of ways in which people can apply. As Mark Ruskell has said, schools in some areas are co-ordinating applications on behalf of pupils. Councils are using public libraries. All partners are working hard to make the application process as accessible as possible.

We know that some people might need additional support, so we are working with delivery partners to ensure that all young people and their families can be reached so that they are aware of the scheme and know what they need to do to make an application.

I hope that everyone across the Parliament recognises the substantial social and economic benefits that the scheme will bring for children and young people and families and, crucially, for our climate and environmental policies, and I hope that they will help to promote it to young people and families in their own constituencies.


Health Certification Rules (European Union)

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

We understand that new European Union health certification rules will come into effect this weekend. Has the Scottish Government had any reassurance from the United Kingdom Government that Scottish exporters will not be damaged by yet more delays at borders?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We seek assurances from the UK Government on an on-going basis that the implications of Brexit will not cause disruption or, indeed, continued disruption, to Scottish exporters. I do not think that I could say that we have been given adequate assurances, because I am not sure that there are adequate assurances that can be given. By its very nature, all that Brexit brings in its wake causes disadvantage and disruption. For our part, the Scottish Government will seek to do everything we can to support businesses through that. That underlines again the fact that Brexit is against Scotland’s interests and that it has been done to us against our democratic wishes.


Airports (Support)

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

At the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee this week, we heard that 400 jobs had been lost at Aberdeen airport since the start of the pandemic. Can the First Minister outline what support the Scottish Government will give to our airports, or is that industry another industry that the First Minister has turned her back on?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

To take one example of the support that we are giving to aviation businesses, I note that we extended the rates relief that leisure, hospitality and aviation businesses were entitled to for another year. If I am getting this wrong I will stand corrected, but I think that that is more than the United Kingdom Government did around aviation. We are already providing additional support.

Airports, aviation and the travel sector more generally have been very severely hit by the pandemic, not just in Scotland or the UK, but across Europe and the world. We will do everything that we can to support the sector as it gets back to normal, as it hopefully does as we come out of the omicron wave.


Scottish Qualifications Authority (Examinations Process)

To ask the First Minister what deadline the Scottish Government has set for making any further changes to this year’s SQA examinations process. (S6F-00639)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Given that we are still living through a global pandemic, contingencies are needed in education as in all other aspects of life right now. Should any of those contingencies be required—there are two key contingencies in education as far as exams are concerned—we would notify that as soon as possible.

I hope that that is not the case: I hope that we do not need to activate those contingencies. As has been clear since August, our firm intention this year is that exams will go ahead.

Oliver Mundell

The First Minister is right that contingencies are needed—but not the type that her Government proposes. She should be guaranteeing that exams will take place this year. Does she reflect negatively on the confirmation from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills yesterday at the Education, Children and Young People Committee that no additional resources are being put in place to allow that to happen safely?

What has happened to suggestions about acquiring larger community spaces? What about putting additional invigilators in place? What about one-to-one support, most importantly for young people who have lost out on their learning?

The First Minister

Oliver Mundell says that the contingencies that we have put in place are not the type that should be put in place, but that is probably a standard for the Conservatives: we say one thing, and they will say another.

Let me say what those contingencies are, so that people can judge for themselves. The first contingency is that, if education is further disrupted because of developments in the pandemic—and we all hope that it will not be—additional support will be provided for those who are studying for exams. I am interested to hear that Oliver Mundell does not think that that is an appropriate contingency; I think that it is, indeed, an appropriate contingency.

The second contingency is that, if public health advice says that it is not safe for young people to come together to sit exams in the traditional way, we will go back to a situation that is akin to the past two years, where teacher judgment comes to bear instead of exams. Again, I think that that is an appropriate contingency.

We do not want to have to use either of those contingencies because we want exams to go ahead, as we think that is in the interests of young people.

Oliver Mundell asks me to guarantee things. I would love to be able to guarantee all sorts of things, but we are still living through a global pandemic. As we were reflecting on in my exchange with Anas Sarwar, we have had two new variants in the past few months alone. None of us can guarantee the immediate future in the context of the pandemic, but we make plans based on what we hope will be the case. Right now, that is to allow young people to sit their exams this year as normal, but to have sensible and appropriate contingencies in place in case something happens that makes that impossible.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

To be frank, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has made a right mess of this. She issued two conflicting statements within two days, which included making a major announcement on Twitter, which is hardly the forum for such announcements. There was such confusion that the SQA had to step in to clarify things. Does the First Minister think that that is the right way to treat pupils who are preparing for exams right now?

The First Minister

That is a complete misrepresentation of the position. I am sorry if Willie Rennie missed it, but the education secretary set out in a statement to the Parliament in August last year, I think, what the Scottish Government’s intention was in relation to exams this year, which was that exams would go ahead.

As she was reflecting, and as I have just reflected again, contingencies have to be in place when we are living through a global pandemic. However, the intention for exams to go ahead has not changed.

If Willie Rennie is referring to the same Twitter exchange that I saw, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills was rightly seeking, not to make announcements on Twitter, but to deal with some of the confusion that, if I may say, the misrepresentations of Opposition politicians have added to, as we have just heard from Willie Rennie.


Green Transition (North Ayrshire)

To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government will take to urgently progress the green transition in North Ayrshire, following the closure of Hunterston B power station on 7 January. (S6F-00650)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The workers of Hunterston B have made a really valuable contribution to our energy security over many years, and I have no doubt that they will continue to distinguish themselves through the safe decommissioning of the site.

Although that process will take time, we must plan and invest in the green transition of North Ayrshire. We have invested £103 million in the Ayrshire Growth Deal, and we are working with partners to deliver projects that I know will help to create the good green jobs that are needed in the region.

We will also publish a draft energy strategy and just transition plan this year, which will set out how we will work with businesses, trade unions and communities, to manage the economic and social impacts of a changing energy system.

Kenneth Gibson

The closure of Hunterston B is the end of an era for North Ayrshire, regardless of one’s view on nuclear power. One hundred and twenty-five jobs have been lost, with more to follow over the next eight years, as the plant defuels and is then decommissioned.

Significant investment that would bring 900 jobs is considered with regard to subsea solar energy cable manufacturing at Hunterston Port and Resource Centre—PARC. Does the First Minister agree that the efforts of the Scottish Government agencies that are working with North Ayrshire Council must be redoubled and on-going to attract and consider further potential job-creating developments at Hunterston?

The First Minister

Yes, I agree. As Kenny Gibson knows all too well, I grew up in North Ayrshire not too far from Hunterston B power station, so I know first-hand how important it has been, over many years, to the local economy.

As the station is decommissioned, it is important that we support that green transition, to which the Ayrshire Growth Deal is central. The Scottish Government and our agencies are working with regional partners to support the delivery of the Hunterston Port and Resource Centre project, the proposed subsea cable manufacturing project, to which Kenny Gibson referred, as well as multiple other projects across Ayrshire that are included in the deal. Colleagues in North Ayrshire Council lead and drive those projects on behalf of the wider deal.

It is important that we fully support that transition and I give an assurance that the Scottish Government will continue to do so.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

Last month, I raised the point with the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise that, although North Ayrshire Council has set up a task force to look at the economic development at Hunterston, its ambition has always been that the Scottish Government be involved, with a ministerial task force to look at the development of the Hunterston PARC site.

Will the First Minister look at that, given how important it is to ensure the creation of good quality trade-unionised green jobs? Since the area is of environmental importance and includes a site of special scientific interest, will biodiversity and environmental concerns also be taken into account?

The First Minister

I am happy to consider that wider point. I accept the importance of the environmental consideration for the reasons that the member has set out.

It is for the Scottish Government to set the wider policy and strategic framework, which we will do through the draft energy strategy and the just transition plan to which I have referred, both of which we will publish over the course of this year.

Beyond that, it is right that local councils and agencies drive those plans. As I said earlier, the Scottish Government is contributing more than £100 million to the Ayrshire Growth Deal. That balance between local leadership and strategic direction from the Scottish Government is always one that we need to be careful to get right. However, I will consider the wider point and revert to the member as soon as possible.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I, too, thank the workforce at Hunterston, who have been an integral part of the North Ayrshire economy and community.

Nowhere in Mr Gibson’s question, or in the First Minister’s answer, did I hear an explanation as to how the Scottish National Party’s current moratorium on exploring new nuclear energy technology, or even having a sensible debate about it, will support either job creation in North Ayrshire or secure reliable energy for Scotland.

Why is the Scottish Government simply not interested in exploring Scotland’s potential to be a world leader in that field?

The First Minister

People will continue to debate the issues and that is right and proper. I and my party have made clear our views on new nuclear power over many years. In summary, there are two reasons why I am behind that view: new nuclear power is not good value for money for taxpayers, to be blunt about it, and there is still the issue of what we do with the nuclear waste that comes from nuclear power, which nobody has really been able to satisfactorily resolve.

Scotland has an abundance of renewable energy potential. In the not-too-distant future we will, for example, hear the outcome of the ScotWind leasing round, which is about ensuring that we maximise our offshore wind potential. We are focused on making sure, both for our energy needs and for the jobs and economic needs of the country, that we maximise the vast renewable low-carbon potential that we have and that is what we will continue to do.


Cancer (Data)

5. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what data the Scottish Government has collected on the number of people diagnosed with cancer, and the stage at which they were diagnosed, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and how this compares with pre-pandemic data. (S6F-00665)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Public Health Scotland published the latest staging data for breast, lung and colorectal cancers in November last year. That report showed that the number of people diagnosed at the early stage is lower than would have been expected had the Covid pandemic not happened. However, more recent data shows that more patients are now being treated on an urgent suspicion of cancer pathway compared with the situation pre-Covid. Also, since the start of the pandemic, we have established the first early cancer diagnostic centres and launched public campaigns, including on lung cancer, to raise awareness of the vital importance of early diagnosis. We have also committed an additional £20 million to the detect cancer early programme.

Brian Whittle

I have a friend who has just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer that has unfortunately spread to other areas. He was diagnosed at stage 3, having waited six months for his test. As we are all aware, the national health service is under severe pressure and that kind of story is, I am sure, replicated across the country, so collection of that kind of data for non-Covid conditions is critical in planning for the challenges that may be coming down the track.

Today, in the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, we were told by an adviser that the data that is being collected is inadequate to make properly informed decisions on those matters. Does the First Minister agree that data collection and analysis is crucial for forward planning, including post-Covid planning, and if so, what will the Scottish Government do to support the development of data collection as quickly as possible to help the NHS as it plans its future strategy?

The First Minister

First, I agree strongly that data is important in all sorts of areas, and particularly in this one, to make sure that we are diagnosing cancer as early as possible and treating it as quickly as possible after that. I spoke in my initial answer about the data on staging that Public Health Scotland publishes. I will certainly speak to Public Health Scotland about the additional data that it may be possible to gather and collect.

We put a big focus on early diagnosis, for reasons that everybody understands. Through the “Detect cancer early” programme, we have focused on some of the most common cancers, but one of the functions and purposes of the new early diagnostic centres is to make sure that symptoms that are perhaps not the ones that people may suspect are cancer are also treated more urgently. We are trying to widen that net as much as possible.

Staging is really important in anybody’s cancer journey, to make sure that they are diagnosed as quickly as possible, but so too is access to treatment. Even during the Covid pandemic, once the decision to treat was made, cancer patients waited between two and five days on average for treatment. All of those different stages are important and data is vital to understanding performance now and how we improve performance. I will certainly take back the points that have been made and discuss them further with Public Health Scotland.

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

Covid-19 has undoubtedly had a challenging impact on the delivery of NHS services. Does the First Minister agree that the establishment of the three early cancer diagnostic centres that she has just mentioned, including the one in my constituency, are providing a welcome referral route for patients who do not have the standard cancer symptoms and that those centres will be the way in which we can get patients on the most urgent of pathways, specifically in unfortunate cases of later-stage diagnosis due to the lack of the traditional presenting symptoms?

The First Minister

I agree very much with that, and that is the point that I was seeking to make in response to the previous question. The urgent suspicion of cancer referral route is really important, but it refers people who have symptoms that are most traditionally and commonly indicative of cancer. The early cancer diagnostic centres seek to add to that and provide primary care with access to a new fast-track diagnostic pathway for patients who have non-specific symptoms that might be suspicious of cancer, such as weight loss and fatigue, which could be cancer but may be other things. That widens the ability of primary care to get people who might have cancer into that fast-track pathway as quickly as possible. The centres add something very important and I hope that they will give additional reassurance to people who may be worried that the symptoms they are suffering are indicative of a cancer diagnosis.


Energy Costs (Support)

To ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government can provide to people struggling to pay their energy bills. (S6F-00662)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Powers over the energy market are reserved. We have written to the United Kingdom Government calling for urgent action to support such households. In our view, such support should include a reduction to VAT, as one of the simplest short-term measures, and action on the warm home discount and the cold weather payment.

We have also taken action, within our powers and from our resources, through our £41 million winter support fund, which includes a £10 million fuel insecurity fund to help people with heating costs and provides £25 million of funding to local authorities to tackle financial insecurity. In addition, we continue to invest in making people’s homes warmer and more affordable to heat, with more than £1 billion allocated since 2009 to tackling fuel poverty and improving energy efficiency.

Christine Grahame

I note those mitigations, but added to the misery of skyrocketing energy bills are the five per cent increase in the cost of living, the £20 cut to universal credit and the national insurance hike, which all push more Scots into poverty and desperation. All those issues are reserved to Westminster, but the impact and fallout lands on our devolved public services. Does the First Minister agree that only with independence and full power over our economy could we prevent that economic tsunami? While I am at it, I invite Douglas Ross to join us in that, because I am sure that he would have a better political future in an independent Scotland.

The First Minister

Those issues are really important; we sometimes debate them in the chamber as if they are abstract, but they have real meaning in people’s lives. Inflationary pressures will be one of the biggest issues that we deal with in the months to come and will have a severe impact on household budgets. We have to recognise, as we try to decide how best to help people, where the powers and resources lie. Right now, levers over energy costs, 85 per cent of welfare spending, the minimum wage and national insurance are all held at Westminster. Although the Scottish Parliament might want to act, it is not able to do so. We have also seen the Westminster Government take £20 a week out of the pockets of the poorest families in our country. Instead of helping, we see it do things that make life harder for those who are already struggling.

It is the case, in not an abstract but a tangible sense, that we should take more of the powers that are being misused by Westminster into the hands of the Scottish Parliament, so that we can use them in the interests of people across the country. Yes, Christine Grahame is right. We can try to do that through increased devolution—and we will always try to do that—but fundamentally, the best way of resolving the situation is for Scotland to become an independent country so that the Scottish Parliament can take the decisions that are in the interests of the country and not constantly have to hope that a Prime Minister who everybody in the chamber, I think without exception, thinks is unfit for office, will take those decisions for us.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a brief pause before we move on to members’ business.