First Minister’s Questions (HD) – Scottish Parliament: 2nd October 2014

First Minister’s Questions (HD) – Scottish Parliament: 2nd October 2014


The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): We
now move to First Minister’s Question’s. Question number one, Johann Lamont. Johann Lamont (Glasgow Pollok) (Lab): To ask
the First Minister what engagements he has planned for the rest of the day. The First Minister (Alex Salmond): With your
permission, Presiding Officer, the Government will make an announcement this afternoon,
and I want to give the chamber notice of it. It is over 20 years since the poll tax came
to an end, and I believe that the expanded electoral roll should not be used to collect
poll tax debts. It is, of course, within the law for councils to use current information
to assess current council tax liability and, given that the council tax reduction scheme
protects 500,000 of our poorest citizens, the tax is being applied in a proper and fair
way. However, the relevance of information from the current electoral register to the
position of debts from 25 years ago is difficult to fathom except through some misguided political
intention. The total amount of poll tax debt that was collected around Scotland last year
was £396,000. I therefore announce today that it is the Government’s intention to
bring forward legislation to ensure that councils can take no further action to recover ancient
poll tax debts. After 25 years, it is about time that the poll tax was dead and buried
in Scotland. [Applause.] The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): It
would have been helpful, First Minister, if I had had some indication that you intended
to make an announcement. The Parliament might have been better served by a statement at
some point during today’s business. Johann Lamont: I look forward to the First
Minister’s legislative programme and to his ending the underfunding of local government
full stop. Let us get back to First Minister’s question
time. This week, we learned that the Scottish Government is failing to meet its targets
for cancer treatment waiting times and that we are flying in consultants from India to
cover weekend staffing shortages. The health service that the First Minister made front
and centre of his failed referendum campaign is facing £0.5 billion of cuts that his Government
refuses to acknowledge. Against that backdrop, how is the First Minister’s golf handicap
coming along? The First Minister: Two things: the performance
against the 31-day cancer treatment target is 96.3 per cent in Scotland, which is above
the 95 per cent target, and the performance against the 62-day target is 92.9 per cent,
which is below the target but a significant improvement not just on the previous quarter
but on any figure that was achieved when the Labour Party was in power. Johann Lamont will
remember that the target was never met in any quarter over the entire time that the
Labour Party was in power. The figure of 92.9 per cent is short of the target but significantly
higher than the achievements in both England and Wales. Nonetheless, we must strive to
meet our cancer targets in full, because they are hugely important for the Scottish people. The national health service budget will increase
in real terms next year. Mr Swinney will announce budget proposals for the following year in
his announcement next week. Johann Lamont can be absolutely certain that the Government
will honour its commitment to ensure that the front-line national health service budget
continues to increase in real terms—something that was not promised by the Labour Party
either in 2007 or in the run-up to the 2011 election. I suspect that that is one of the
key reasons why the Government is trusted on the national health service and the coalition
of Opposition parties is not. Johann Lamont: The First Minister might not
be aware of this, but Dr Peter Bennie, the chair of the British Medical Association Scotland,
has asked for “an honest, public debate”. The First Minister’s response fails on every
single count and reveals a degree of complacency that even I am astonished by. Just weeks before Scotland made the decision
to vote no, the chief executives of our health boards held crisis talks with Scottish Government
officials about the future of the NHS. They warned that £0.5 billion of cuts were coming
down the line. After two years of dismissing the daily warnings of staffing shortages,
missed targets and failures in patient care, is the First Minister now willing to have
the real debate about the future of our NHS that the health boards are asking for, or
is he going to concentrate his time on the golf course while we wait for Nicola Sturgeon’s
coronation before getting back to work? The First Minister: I will respond on those
two specific points. The 92.9 per cent performance figure, which we are not complacent about,
which is why we are working to bring it up to 95 per cent and beyond, compares with 84.5
per cent, which was the figure for the last quarter when the Labour Party was in office. Johann Lamont seems surprised and perplexed
that I should mention that. I merely say—quite rightly in my view—to the Labour Party and
the Opposition in general that while the 92.9 per cent achievement of the target is not
good enough, it seems relevant to point out that the figure was 84.5 per cent when Labour
left office. Of course, the health minister of the day hailed the cancer and accident
and emergency target performances as great achievements of the Labour Party in office.
If 84.5 per cent was a great achievement, how come 92.9 per cent is totally inadequate?
We work to improve the figures all the time. The real-terms budget of the front-line NHS
will continue to increase. That is not a commitment that was made by the Labour Party in opposition,
never mind when it was in government in 2007. It is also not a commitment that has been
redeemed by the Labour Party in office in Wales, which is facing the same political
and economic pressures from the Westminster Government. Let me repeat: Scotland’s national health
service real-terms budget will continue to increase on the front line. Johann Lamont: If anyone is “surprised and
perplexed”, it will be the people across this country and the staff and the patients
who listened to that answer and wonder whether the First Minister ever understands what is
going on in the real world. His own leaked papers say: “There is collective agreement from the
leadership across all the professional management and clinical groups that planning for immediate
transformational change is necessary and difficult; but radical and urgent decisions need to be
made … The status quo and preservation of existing models of care are no longer an option
given the pressing challenges we face.” Let me recap: “immediate”, “necessary”,
“urgent” and “pressing”—those are not my words but those of the people running
our NHS. After two years of dismissing the problems in our health service, how long must
the people of Scotland wait before the Government accepts the scale of the challenge and gets
round to fixing our NHS? The First Minister: Let us look at the pressures
on the national health service. There is the revaluation of pensions through a Westminster
Government decision; there is the withdrawal of the national insurance rebate, which is
another Westminster Government decision; and there are staff costs identified as a pressure.
What are the staff costs that are particular to the Scottish national health service? It
was our decision to increase the pay of nurses and other staff—that pay increase was not
reflected south of the border, where strike action is faced as a result of the betrayal
of national health service staff. All that indicates to me and, I suspect, to the people
of Scotland, that, in order to protect and preserve our national health service, we have
to control its finances, not just the administration. The pressures—and there are pressures—on
our health service are coming as a consequence of Westminster Government decisions, which
is why it makes the Labour Party’s incredible decision to campaign hand in glove and shoulder
to shoulder with the Conservative Party something that it will pay a heavy price for in the
coming weeks and months. Johann Lamont: Scotland’s doctors and NHS
managers agree that we need action to fix an NHS that was described by the BMA as a
“car crash”. For two years, Scotland has been on pause while Alex Salmond fought his
referendum. Now he has gone part time and there is no programme for government. What we see here is a rerunning of the referendum
argument, with the First Minister blaming Westminster rather than taking responsibility
and running the country. We deserve better from the First Minister of Scotland than simply
that response. There can be no doubt that our health service will come under even further
pressure this winter and action is needed. When will the Government get back to work
and fix our NHS? The First Minister: The national health service
budget has risen by 3 per cent in real terms over the Government’s term of office—an
increase in the front-line budget over and above inflation. In Wales, the national health
service budget has fallen 3.6 per cent in real terms under a Labour Administration. Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab): This is Scotland. The Presiding Officer: Mr Findlay! The First Minister: Johann Lamont seems to
shrug away the many indications that the Labour Party’s decision to campaign shoulder to
shoulder with the Conservative Party will cost it dear. The BBC says that “It was right to join Tories” according to Johann Lamont. Unfortunately
for her, that is not the view of Labour Party supporters in Scotland—or should I say former
Labour Party supporters? I have just been handed the indications from the latest Panelbase
poll, to be released today. [Interruption.] Well, I will not read out the whole thing
for Alex Johnstone’s benefit, because it is very bad news for the Conservative Party
as well. However, there is a 15-point lead for the Scottish National Party, which is
ahead at Westminster. Modesty forbids me from mentioning the trust
ratings for the various political leaders—mine in particular—but let me say that all of
the unionist party coalition are negative on trust. That does not surprise me. Nicola
Sturgeon emerges with glowing trust ratings, and I am sure that she will take up the cudgels
in the future. Ruth Davidson (Glasgow) (Con): To ask the
First Minister when he will next meet the Prime Minister. The First Minister (Alex Salmond): No plans
in the near future. Ruth Davidson: Yesterday, the Prime Minister
promised to protect health spending for the next five years—a promise that was similar
to the one that he gave before the 2010 general election. Alex Salmond made the same promise
a year later, saying that every penny of extra health spending down south would be passed
to Scotland’s national health service. Here is the difference: the Prime Minister kept
his promise but the First Minister broke his. We know that because the independent Institute
for Fiscal Studies crunched the numbers. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing
(Alex Neil): It was wrong. The Presiding Officer: Order. Ruth Davidson: Health spending by the United
Kingdom Government is up 4.4 per cent and health spending by the Scottish Government
is down 1.2 per cent. Alex Salmond has broken his health promises in the past, so what can
he do today to assure the people of Scotland that our NHS will not lose out in the next
five years, as it has done in the past five? The First Minister: National health service
spending in Scotland has increased in real terms and every single penny of consequentials
has been put into the front-line national health service budget in Scotland. The reason for the figure in the IFS report
is that it included sport; it included the Commonwealth games expenditure. As Ruth Davidson
might remember, the Commonwealth games was a big spend, but the health service and sport—although
the effects that they can have are interrelated—are hardly the same thing. Every single penny of health service consequentials
has been invested in the health service in Scotland. Unfortunately, of course, we now
find pressures coming through the back door from Westminster on pensions and national
insurance, which the Prime Minister forgot to mention in his speech. Perhaps 500,000
national health service staff in England are going on strike as a result of the Prime Minister’s
and Ruth Davidson’s lack of care for health service staff. Ruth Davidson: I thought that the First Minister
might say that, which is why—[Laughter.] It is why we phoned the IFS this morning and
spoke to the report’s author, who not only stands by the figure, but told us that he
spoke to the SNP to explain why the IFS was right and the Government’s frantic spin
about sport was way off the mark. I will read from correspondence with the IFS: “This sub-portfolio covers health only and
does not include things such as sport, the Commonwealth Games etc, which are separate
sub-portfolios.” That matters because, if the Scottish Government
had done what it said it would do and matched UK health funding, our NHS would have received
£700 million more. That is £700 million that the Scottish Government promised to spend
on doctors, nurses, cancer care and accident and emergency services but which it instead
funnelled somewhere else. That is £700 million that was promised but never delivered. That is serious and it is probably why the
Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing stood up last week—the First Minister has
repeated it this week—and cynically tried to rubbish the IFS’s work. Here is the problem:
Alex Neil and now Alex Salmond made that claim in the full knowledge that it was wrong. I
am happy to release the e-mail that shows it. The smaller question is why the health secretary
and now the First Minister have misled Parliament, but the bigger one is why the Government did
not give the health service £700 million that it promised. The First Minister: If Ruth Davidson knew
the answer, she should not have repeated the misinformation. The front-line health service budget in Scotland
has gone up by 3.2 per cent in real terms. Given the 7 per cent decline in the Scottish
Government’s budget, how on earth would that have been possible unless every pound
of consequentials had been passed on to the health service in Scotland? How would it have
been possible for us to have made improvements across the range of targets in the health
service over our period in office? How would it be possible for us to have more staff in
the health service? Above all, how has it been possible for us to ensure, under these
straitened circumstances, that national health service staff in Scotland are at work and
not on strike, as they are south of the border? If I was Ruth Davidson, the figures that I
would be looking at very carefully are the 9,120 families who will be affected by the
child benefit cuts in the single constituency in Scotland that the Tories hold at Westminster,
or the 5,600 people who will be affected by the extraordinary decision to reduce the amount
that is paid to the working poor in Scotland—people who work for a living, who are to be cheated
by the Conservative Party. Those are the people whom Ruth Davidson should be worried about. Willie Rennie (Mid Scotland and Fife) (LD):
To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. The First Minister (Alex Salmond): Issues
of importance to the people of Scotland. Willie Rennie: When the First Minister goes,
will he please take Kenny MacAskill with him? The First Minister: No. Willie Rennie: Surely the First Minister has
had enough of defending the Cabinet Secretary for Justice. The First Minister said that
he was comfortable with the policy on stop and search of children just before it was
abandoned, he rallied to Kenny MacAskill’s defence on the abolition of corroboration
before that was put on hold, and he stood on the very spot that he is on now lecturing
me that it was for public safety reasons that the police were armed routinely. Now that
has gone, too. Meanwhile, Kenny MacAskill shrugs with casual indifference, as if justice
is nothing to do with him. He is more trouble than he is worth. Now that the referendum is over, and to save
his successor the bother, will the First Minister please just take Kenny MacAskill with him? The First Minister: I am sorry that if, over
the years, Willie Rennie believes that I have been lecturing him. A lecture depends not
just on there being a willing teacher, but on there being a willing pupil. Therefore,
I have never tried to lecture him too much. I will give just one of the many reasons why
I will not do what Willie Rennie suggests. As was said by Graeme Pearson on the radio
this morning—so it must be correct—crime in Scotland is at a 39-year low. That is why
the justice secretary is on a high. Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP): To
ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to support people affected
by United Kingdom Government welfare reforms. The First Minister (Alex Salmond): We are
taking a range of actions to mitigate the impact of UK Government welfare reform. We
are providing £260 million over the period 2013-14 to 2015-16 to help those who are most
affected. We and our local government partners have committed a total of £40 million in
2013-14 and 2014-15 to fill the gap in funding from the UK Government for council tax benefit
successor arrangements, thereby ensuring that more than 537,000 vulnerable people in Scotland
have been protected from increased council tax liability. We have established the new Scottish welfare
fund, which we are funding with £33 million a year, to replace discretionary elements
of the social fund, and we have provided £7 million for welfare reform mitigation, such
as advice and support services, in each of the three years from 2013-14. We will continue to do what we can within
the powers that we have to help those who are most affected by cuts and changes that
are being imposed by the Westminster Government. Perhaps the better solution would be to bring
the relevant powers under the control of this Parliament. Kevin Stewart: The Deputy First Minister has
written to the Prime Minister calling on him to delay the implementation of universal credit
in Scotland until the Smith commission has reached its conclusions on welfare, which
is a position that I think that all parties in the Parliament could and should support.
Does the First Minister agree that this Parliament should have the powers that it needs to make
Scotland a fairer country, including welfare powers? The First Minister: As the Deputy First Minister
made clear in her letter to the Prime Minister yesterday, the roll-out of universal credit
undermines the unionist parties’ vow to devolve further welfare powers, which is made
more urgent by the Tories’ continuing attack on welfare, which their colleagues in the
Labour Party now seem to support. In that context, and given that vows are meant
to be kept, we can surely look forward to unanimous support in the chamber for the Deputy
First Minister’s letter and request to the Prime Minister. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): The First
Minister will recall the joint approach that Labour and the Scottish Government took in
the previous budget round to ensure that the bedroom tax was fully mitigated this year.
However, some people are being pursued for arrears from the previous financial year.
Will the First Minister make it clear today that local authorities are allowed to use
their current funding from the Scottish Government to clear bedroom tax arrears for 2013-14? The First Minister: John Swinney will address
that very point in his budget statement next week, so I shall let him do so. I am sure
that we will stand shoulder to shoulder with Jackie Baillie on the issues, and I am sure
that, once she realises the benefits of that approach, she will also realise the inescapable
logic of the argument that this Parliament not only could but should control welfare,
so that we can provide the same protection for the people of Scotland, in particular
the poorest people, on a range of other issues as we provide on the bedroom tax. Would it
not be much simpler if we had those powers in our hands? Graeme Pearson (South Scotland) (Lab): To
ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to COSLA’s agreement to oppose
the policy of allowing police officers to carry guns while carrying out routine duties. The First Minister (Alex Salmond): I am of
course aware of the position of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which was reported
following its meeting at the end of last week. Police Scotland announced yesterday that it
has reviewed the current position, taking into account current risk and threat, and
balancing that with the recent concerns that politicians and the public have expressed,
and has decided that the standing authority to carry firearms should remain in place for
a small number of officers: 275 out of 17,318 officers. However, the chief constable has also stated
that firearms officers will now be deployed only to firearms incidents or where there
is a threat to life. Graeme Pearson: Given the months of controversy,
does the First Minister now accept public concerns on the matter? Does he agree that
Parliament was promised a strong Scottish Police Authority that exercises diligence
in holding the chief constable to account through governance, accountability and transparency,
and that the authority should have examined the policy options to identify the best way
forward on the matter before any decision was taken? Does the First Minister also agree that, in
the absence of such action, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice should have called on the authority
members to take steps at a much earlier stage to allay justified public concerns? The First Minister: Actually, I think that
the process shows a police service that is responsive to political and public concern,
which should be applauded and complimented. I agree with a great deal of what Graeme Pearson
says on these issues, but I have trouble reconciling what he says now with what he said in his
previous existence as head of the then Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency. That is quite relevant,
because there is a lot of common sense in what he said as head of the SDEA: that he
wanted a standing authority for his officers—almost 200 officers in Scotland—to carry firearms.
I will read the exact quote. He said: “In the dead of night when we are dealing
with those that we identify as the most serious criminals in Scotland, and sometimes in Europe,
we could have an emergency situation where firearms predictably become an issue … I
think that my officers have the right to be protected and also have a duty to protect
the public.” I agree with that point, but I sometimes find
it difficult to reconcile the common sense of Graeme Pearson’s argument back in 2005
with some of the stuff that his colleagues have come out with in recent weeks. Graeme Pearson: In fairness, the First Minister
must acknowledge that there is a great deal of difference between the threat that is presented
in dealing with organised criminals who have previously been involved with firearms and
are suspected of murder, and the threat to an officer who is wandering the main streets
of our town. [Interruption.] The Presiding Officer: Order. The First Minister: Yes, and that is why I
accept and see the logic of the point that was made in 2005. [Interruption.] The Presiding Officer: Order. The First Minister: Let me repeat: there are
200 of those officers in Scotland. There are only 275 in total with standing authority.
What Graeme Pearson has to reconcile is how that number of 275 is compatible with 200
officers having standing authority for that one specific offence. That is why I think
that the logic and credibility of what he said in 2005 are very difficult to reconcile
with some of the arguments of his colleagues recently. Alison McInnes (North East Scotland) (LD):
Few of us think that the industrial scale of stop and search or the distinct policy
change on armed policing was purely and simply an operational matter, but the chief constable,
with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice’s tacit approval, has repeatedly relied on those
two little words to avoid proper scrutiny. Does the First Minister agree that it is time
to codify the scope and reach of the chief constable’s operational independence? The First Minister: No. I think that the process
that we have gone through on the issue has been a very good one. [Interruption.] The Presiding Officer: Order. The First Minister: I think that, when a police
service responds to public concern in a constructive way, it should be applauded for doing that,
and that the process has come to a conclusion that I hope and believe that people think
is satisfactory. Therefore, I think that protecting the chief constable’s operational independence
and his ability to deploy the resources that he has to best effect to keep the people of
Scotland safe from harm should be strongly protected. I would have thought that the process vindicates
the argument that we have a police service in Scotland that is held in the highest regard
and public esteem, and which responds to public concern when it is voiced. What on earth do
parliamentarians expect the police service to do if it is not to listen to parliamentary
and public concern? That should be applauded and complimented, not treated as some sort
of retrospective political argument. Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale
and Lauderdale) (SNP): Does the First Minister agree that buried in this is the most important
aspect, which is that 98 per cent of Scotland’s police force was unarmed and will, thankfully,
remain unarmed? The First Minister: I always agree with Christine
Grahame whenever I have the slightest opportunity to do so. She has made the extraordinarily
important point that the 275 officers represent around 2 per cent of the entire complement
of Scotland’s expanded police service. Just as we should recognise the sense and logic
of her point, we should recognise that it puts the matter into perspective, with its
satisfactory resolution. Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con):
In view of the First Minister’s comments about listening, does he support the introduction
of a whistleblowers helpline for police officers and staff to ensure that concerns about issues
such as the policy on the arming of police, as well as other ethical concerns since the
creation of Police Scotland, can be raised safely and confidentially and taken seriously? The First Minister: I am always interested
in constructive suggestions when they come forward, but I repeat that I would have thought
that the process indicates that we have a listening police service and a listening chief
constable. It is worth noting that the record numbers
of police officers in Scotland are particularly important. There are 17,318 officers across
Scotland. If we had followed the same policies that have been pursued in England, of course,
that number would have been dramatically diminished. In fact, I saw a figure that suggested that
the English police service has lost more officers than the record total that we have in Scotland.
It seems to me that morale in the Scottish police service is excellent, because people
are carrying forward their duty to protect Scotland and achieving a 39-year low in recorded
crime with many of their colleagues standing shoulder to shoulder as opposed to getting
their P45s, which is happening in England. Jim Eadie (Edinburgh Southern) (SNP): To ask
the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to promote and safeguard
employment. The First Minister (Alex Salmond): The Government
is taking a range of initiatives to create jobs and attract inward investment. The business
gateway, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise deliver that range
of support to start-up and expanded businesses, and therefore encourage job creation. Regional
selective assistance awards provide vital support to help businesses to grow. In the
year to 31 March 2014, those offers were worth a total of £52.5 million. They were accepted
by 117 businesses for projects that are expected to create or support 6,161 jobs. We should remember that, despite George Osborne’s
scaremongering, Scotland was the top-performing area of the United Kingdom outside London
for foreign direct investment in 2013. Jim Eadie: I welcome the thousands of new
jobs that have been created through the support of Scottish Enterprise, but does the First
Minister agree that the United Kingdom Government must keep to the vow—the solemn pledge that
was made during the referendum campaign—and set forth a clear commitment and timetable
to bring job-creating powers to the Parliament so that we can maximise opportunities for
the businesses and communities of Scotland? The First Minister: Yes, I agree. I am interested
in vows and guarantees. Many people in Scotland do not believe that it should take an online
petition to guarantee something that was guaranteed two weeks ago. People who stand surety for
such guarantees risk their personal reputation. People should never put themselves into a
Tory trap. That trap is not about job creation or income tax; it is about standing shoulder
to shoulder with the Tories in a referendum campaign without having any control of the
consequences. The Presiding Officer: That ends First Minister’s
question time. Ken Macintosh (Eastwood) (Lab): On a point
of order, Presiding Officer. From your comments earlier, I suspect that you share my concern
that the use of First Minister’s question time to make a parliamentary statement without
giving members from any party the opportunity to question the Government is an abuse of
parliamentary time and disrespectful to all members. Last week, we had the odd spectacle
of the First Minister opening a debate with a parliamentary statement—that is, a speech
delivered without interruption—and then being allowed to close the debate that afternoon,
despite its being a two-day debate. Presiding Officer, I know that you share my
desire to build on the democratic renewal that we have seen in Scotland. It is not power
used or wielded by the Government of the day that protects democracy but the accountability
that is exercised by the Parliament. I am sure that you will remember, as I do, a time
when Scottish National Party front benchers were among the most vocal in holding the Government
of the day accountable to the Parliament of the day. Do you agree that, if we respect
democracy, the procedures of the Parliament need to be protected and not treated as a
plaything by those with power, privilege or position? The Presiding Officer: Thank you, Mr Macintosh.
I think that I made perfectly clear my views on the announcement that was made at the beginning
of First Minister’s question time. In relation to the debate last week, its format was agreed
by the business managers in the Parliamentary Bureau.

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