2. I add the heartfelt condolences of Labour members to everyone who has been affected by the events at Grenfell tower. Once again, we find ourselves in awe of the heroics of the emergency services. We all looked on in horror, anger and dismay and we all share a collective desire to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to prevent future tragedies like this. In that spirit, I strongly urge the First Minister to listen to the concerns of the Fire Brigades Union.
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-01379)
In last week’s election, voters sent the First Minister a clear message to focus on what really matters to people. The First Minister still pretends that education has always been her top priority, but we all know that her Government has presided over our having 4,000 fewer teachers while class sizes have gone up. Scotland is falling down international tables and parents are being asked to fill in in the classroom. While she has taken her eye off the ball, we have had college lecturers on strike, and now even teachers are threatening industrial action. The First Minister cannot blame negative media coverage for that. Why is it always someone else’s fault and never hers?
With the greatest respect, I have to say that Kezia Dugdale is talking nonsense. As will be demonstrated this afternoon when the Deputy First Minister outlines to Parliament the next stage in our education reform programme, this Government takes full responsibility for ensuring that we equip our education system to raise standards and close the attainment gap. That is why we have in place the new national improvement framework and the new attainment fund, including the pupil equity fund, which has put £120 million directly into the hands of headteachers.
This afternoon, the Deputy First Minister will outline the outcome of the governance review, which will include steps to ensure that we have a school system that puts schools, teachers, headteachers and pupils at its centre.
Kezia Dugdale raised the important issue of the recent colleges dispute, which gives me the opportunity to set out my clear expectations on that. On 19 May, agreement was reached that allowed the strike to be called off, which was extremely welcome. Since then, discussions have continued on some outstanding issues. However, I am very clear that what was agreed on 19 May now needs to be fully implemented. I spoke yesterday to the chair of the employers association, which will meet again on Monday, when it will be asked to ratify the agreement that has already been reached, including payment of the first instalment of the cash settlement. I hope and expect that that ratification will take place on Monday and that any prospect of further strike action will be removed completely.
The problem for the First Minister is that this week the Educational Institute of Scotland revealed what teachers really think about Scotland’s education system. Their workload has increased and fewer than half would recommend teaching as a career. There is a recruitment crisis, with hundreds of vacancies, some of which will take up to three years to fill, and new figures reveal that teachers are receiving up to £6,000 less than they would have received had their pay risen in line with inflation. It is little wonder that teachers are saying enough is enough.
What will the First Minister say to teachers who are struggling in our schools? Can I suggest that “Sorry” might be a good place to start?
What we will continue to do is what we are doing—investing with local authorities to make sure that we maintain teacher numbers, and putting more resources into the hands of headteachers to equip them to respond better to the challenges that they face in schools.
The Deputy First Minister will continue to take action to reduce unnecessary workloads for teachers. That is why the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland are reducing and clarifying the guidance that they provide to teachers. Education Scotland has published clear advice for teachers on what they should and should not be expected to do in the classroom. Definitive benchmark guidance on literacy and numeracy has also been published: in fact, benchmarks for all the curriculum areas have now been published, which will replace the much larger volume of existing materials.
We will continue to get on with responding to the challenges that we face by taking the action that we are taking. That is what responsible Governments are expected to do, and that is what this Government will continue to do.
The response from the Scottish National Party back benchers says it all. Never has the First Minister sounded so out of touch with the reality on the ground. The truth is that the First Minister has taken teachers for granted for years. Now they are threatening strike action just to get John Swinney to sit up and pay attention.
The SNP’s answers to the crisis are to send untrained teachers into our classrooms and to introduce league tables and high-stakes testing in primary schools. The First Minister has even flirted with opt-out schools. Each and every one of those is a failed Tory policy. Does that not prove, First Minister, that if you vote SNP, you get Tories?
First, it is simply not sufficient for Kezia Dugdale to come here and make it up as she goes along. There is no question whatsoever of there being untrained teachers in schools in Scotland. John Swinney will set out the Government’s position on all aspects of the governance review later this afternoon.
We will continue to get on with the job of reforming and investing in Scottish education, including providing extra money to help teachers with the job that they do, carrying out the reforms that are necessary to ensure improvements in our schools, and ensuring that politicians are held much more to account because of the greater transparency that we are introducing in the system.
What is striking again today—as so often in the past in the chamber—is that when we come forward with policies, ideas and initiatives to address the challenges, all Labour does is oppose them. Labour never brings forward any constructive ideas of its own. That is probably why, Presiding Officer, for the first time in living memory in a Westminster general election, Labour came third in Scotland. That is the reality of Labour in Scotland today, as the SNP continues to get on with the job.
Presiding Officer, I extend my sympathies to everyone who has been impacted by the horrific and deeply shocking events of the Grenfell tower fire tragedy.
My constituency has several high-rise tower blocks; many MSPs will have similar stock across their constituencies. I also know that my local housing association will place a significant priority on safety, including fire safety. However, that will not stop the people who live in such properties having understandable concerns.
Although I welcome the steps that the First Minister has already taken, which have been outlined today, does she agree that we must ensure that the most appropriate and rigorous fire safety regulations possible are in place, and that we reassure worried householders? Does she also agree that any lessons that must be learned from the Grenfell tragedy in the weeks and months ahead are learned and acted upon here in Scotland?
I agree very much with Bob Doris. I know that many members across the chamber, perhaps especially members such as Mr Doris—and me, in fact—who represent urban constituencies in which there are high-rise flats, will feel particularly concerned by the tragic events in London this week. As I said earlier, the most serious questions have to be answered about that tragic fire, but given how early a stage the investigation is at, it is important that we do not rush to judgment or early speculation about the causes.
Nevertheless, I am acutely aware of the responsibility that the Scottish Government bears here. We must stand ready to provide whatever reassurance we can to people across Scotland who are living in similar accommodation and who might have very understandable concerns as a result of what we have seen this week.
We must also stand ready to learn any lessons that require to be learned as the causes of the fire become clearer. That is why the Minister for Local Government and Housing had early discussions with local authority partners this morning. We will also discuss these matters, particularly with regard to fire safety and regulation, with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
The ministerial group that I have referred to will be convened to ensure that on an on-going basis, and in as close to real time as possible, we learn any lessons that have to be learned and take whatever steps are required in Scotland. I know that all members have a human interest in the issue, but we will be happy to keep any member who has a particular constituency interest very closely updated on steps that the Scottish Government considers appropriate.
Press and Journal report revealed that last month an Aberdeen man died following a 999 call-handler error. Information regarding the call had not been passed to the dispatch team; by the time the error had been realised and an ambulance dispatched, 33 minutes had passed and, tragically, the man had passed away. What action will the First Minister take to ensure that such a catastrophic incident does not occur again?
I am aware of what has been reported about that tragic case. First and foremost, I want to say that my heartfelt sympathies are with the family and friends of the individual who sadly passed away.
The case is under investigation by the Scottish Ambulance Service, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has already spoken to the chief executive of the service to seek assurances that the investigation will be full and proper. Given that the investigation is under way, it is not appropriate for me to go into any more detail about it or to speculate on its outcome. The health secretary will be happy to correspond further with Liam Kerr when we have more detail from that investigation.
As the First Minister will be aware, the energy regulator, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, and SSE have this week announced the closure of Lerwick power station, with the loss of 25 permanent jobs and apprenticeships. They are going to replace the power station with a cable that will import wind power from Caithness but that will not allow energy from large-scale renewables to be exported from Shetland. Will the First Minister ask Ofgem to consider how such an ill-conceived proposal has seen the light of day?
I am happy to ask the relevant minister to discuss the matter with Ofgem. We are aware of the proposed new energy solution for Shetland, which seeks to connect Shetland with the Scottish mainland for the first time while also having some on-island diesel supply. Although aspects of the proposal contribute to our approach to cleaner energy, there are understandable concerns about security of supply and, indeed, the issues around export that Tavish Scott has referred to.
The proposal has been made by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks and is being overseen by Ofgem, which is an independent regulator. Nevertheless, I recognise the concerns that Tavish Scott has expressed on behalf of his constituents and I will ask the relevant minister to speak to Ofgem to make sure that those concerns are conveyed and then to have further discussions with Tavish Scott as a result of that.