Scottish Government Priorities

– in the Scottish Parliament on 26th May 2021.

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Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on Scottish Government priorities. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

During the election campaign, my party promised to focus on steering Scotland through the Covid crisis, we set out an ambitious programme to drive recovery and we pledged to give people in Scotland a choice over our future when the crisis has passed. We were elected on a clear mandate, with a record number of votes, to deliver on those commitments, and that is what we intend to do.

We have already started that work. Our most immediate priority is to lead Scotland safely through and out of the pandemic. To that end, we will steer a careful course back to normality. We will support our test and protect teams, we will implement enhanced public health measures when outbreaks arise and we will deliver vaccinations as quickly as supplies allow. We will also work with the business sector, to provide as much clarity and support as possible.

We recognise that, as we come out of the pandemic, there will be bumps in the road, as we are experiencing in Glasgow just now. However, the vaccine roll-out gives us firm hope that we are on the right track. Therefore, over the next three weeks, we will set out our expectations for the stage beyond level 0, as—we hope—we return to a much greater degree of normality.

We will also act now to learn lessons for the future. We have already committed to there being a comprehensive public inquiry and, within our first 100 days, we will establish a standing committee on pandemics. We will also lead a wider mission of national recovery and renewal. I have appointed the Deputy First Minister as Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery, and today he will convene the first meeting of the new cross-party steering group on Covid recovery.

A central part of the Government’s programme is to support our national health service. In our first 100 days, we will publish an NHS recovery plan setting out how we will achieve a 10 per cent increase in activity in key services. We are already implementing a 4 per cent average pay increase this year for NHS agenda for change staff. That increase, backdated to December, will be in payslips from next month.

Further, we are on course to open the first three rapid diagnostic centres for cancer. The Dumfries and Galloway centre opened last week and saw its first patient on Monday. Centres in Fife and in Ayrshire and Arran will open in the next few weeks.

As part of our 100-day plan, we are taking steps to permanently end charges in private finance initiative hospital car parks. We will prepare legislation to remove dental charges for care leavers, as the first step towards abolishing dental charges altogether. We will also publish a women’s health plan.

During the course of this parliamentary session, we will increase spending on the NHS in Scotland by at least 20 per cent. We will complete construction of the new elective treatment centres and, by 2025, recruit an additional 1,500 staff to work in them.

Over the next decade, we will invest £10 billion in the NHS estate to support the renewal and replacement of health facilities across the country, including the Edinburgh eye pavilion here in our capital city.

One important investment that I can announce today is the £12 million that we are providing to take East Ayrshire community hospital into full NHS ownership, bringing its PFI contract to an early close. We will also increase direct investment in mental health services by 25 per cent over the course of this session, and we will deliver on action to reduce the unacceptable toll of drug deaths in our country.

The pandemic has brought home to all of us just how much we rely on care services and carers. I can therefore confirm that in our first 100 days we will legislate to ensure that all those who receive the carers allowance supplement will in December receive a double payment, worth £460.

Moreover, in our first 100 days we will begin the consultation on legislation to establish a national care service. We intend to introduce that legislation during the first year of this session and expect the service to be operational by the end of it. It will, in my view, be the most important public sector innovation since the establishment of our national health service.

We will also during the first 100 days complete one of the previous Parliament’s major legacies. From August, all three and four-year-olds, and two-year-olds who need it most, will be eligible for more than 1,100 hours of free early learning and childcare each year. In this session, we will expand childcare further by developing the provision of wraparound care and after-school clubs.

We will also continue our work to close the school attainment gap. In our first 100 days, we will publish the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on Scottish education and start to implement its recommendations. We will provide local authorities with the first instalment of our expanded £1 billion Scottish attainment fund.

We will fund councils for the first phase of our commitment to recruit 3,500 more teachers and classroom assistants. We will begin work to ensure that all children have access to a laptop or tablet and will take steps to remove charges for core curriculum activities and for music and arts education, including those for instrumental music tuition.

We will fund a special £20 million programme of support and activities this summer for children and young people. We will make free breakfasts and lunches available to all primary 4 children in Scotland as the next step towards extending those meals to all primary school children, all year round.

We will increase the school clothing grant and the best start food grant and—before we formally expand the Scottish child payment next year and prepare to double its value—we will provide interim support for eligible children, which will include a £100 payment near the start of the summer holidays.

To support young adults we will, during this session, raise the age at which people become liable for council tax from 18 to 22. We will establish a new grant of £200 a year for care-experienced young people as part of our promise to those with experience of care. We will continue to develop the young persons guarantee, ensuring that every young person has the opportunity of education, training or work. We will fund colleges to deliver 5,000 short, industry-focused courses for young people and we will establish a green jobs academy and set out the next phase of our national transition training fund.

That support for skills and young people is part of our wider mission to create a fairer Scotland. During our first 100 days, we will provide 40,000 digital devices to the households that need them most. We will develop a plan to tackle social isolation and loneliness. We will begin longer-term work to develop a minimum income guarantee. We will also invest the first part of our multiyear £100 million commitment to support specialist front-line organisations tackling domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Throughout this session, we will also support safer communities by investing in our police and fire services and will continue to support good quality affordable housing. In our first 100 days, we will begin work on a new strategy for the rented sector and a review of student accommodation. We will invest a total of £3.5 billion during this session to support our pledge to deliver 100,000 new affordable homes by 2032. We will continue our work to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. We will invest a further £1.6 billion and introduce new housing standards to support the decarbonisation of heating.

We will also work with councils, businesses and third sector organisations to improve local neighbourhoods. That will include legislation to support community wealth building and steps to ensure more local procurement. In our first 100 days, we will launch the Scotland loves local campaign to encourage more support for local businesses.

That is just one of the ways in which we will promote economic recovery. During our first 100 days, we will establish a new council for economic transformation. We will support specific business sectors, including food and drink and tourism. We will publish a plan for the safe reopening of cultural venues and performances and we will work with the events sector to support its full resumption.

We will continue to support our digital ambitions. In our first 100 days, we will restart the digital boost scheme and open a new 5G innovation centre in Dundee. We will fully implement the Logan review during this session. We will also complete our investment in the National Manufacturing Institute, continue to promote our vision for trade and increase infrastructure spending. We will also capitalise the Scottish National Investment Bank with a further £1 billion.

We will work to ensure that our recovery is fair. We will promote fair work, including through public sector procurement. We will support women entrepreneurs with £50 million of funding for a women’s business centre. We will boost our rural economy through, for example, a rural entrepreneur fund. Over the course of this session, we will help willing companies to pilot a four-day working week as we explore whether the changes in working practices that have been brought about by the pandemic can improve wellbeing and productivity in the long term.

We will also ensure that our recovery is a green one. In less than six months’ time, Glasgow is due to host the 26th UN climate change conference of the parties—COP26—the most important discussions to take place in the world this year, so in our first 100 days we will publish an indicative national defined contribution, setting out how Scotland will become a net zero nation by 2045.

We will take further steps to decarbonise our transport network, including, in our first 100 days, beginning the process of taking ScotRail into public ownership. We will work with local authorities to resume low-emission zones in our cities and we will encourage active travel, which will include a scheme to provide bikes for children. We will also introduce legislation to make bus travel free for young people under the age of 22 and convene a bus decarbonisation task force to remove the majority of fossil-fuel buses from public transport by the end of 2023.

Over the parliamentary session, we will protect and enhance our natural habitats and reduce waste. We will increase woodland creation from 12,000 hectares a year to 18,000 hectares a year. Over this decade, we will invest more than £250 million in peatland restoration. We will ban single-use plastic cutlery, launch a deposit return scheme for single-use drinks containers and introduce a bill to promote the circular economy.

Finally, we will work to seize the economic opportunities that a move to net zero will create. In our first 100 days, we will set out a strategic investment assessment, as we seek to support the offshore wind supply chain. Over the parliamentary session, we will invest £100 million to support the development of hydrogen technologies. We will help companies in high-carbon sectors transition to low-carbon technologies and services. As we do all that, we will stay true to the principle of a just transition, both here in Scotland and around the world.

As I very much hope is obvious from the policy initiatives that I have just set out, the Government is focused on steering Scotland through the Covid crisis and building a sustainable and fair recovery from it.

There are many elements of our vision and our programme that I hope will command support across the chamber. Having talked about what we intend to do, however, I will say a few words about how we aim to do it.

It is often said—and I think that it is broadly true—that among at least some of the parties in the chamber there is more, in a policy sense, that unites us than divides us. Indeed, when the Parliament was established, the hope was that a more consensual and constructive way of working would take root. The promise back then was that the old ways of Westminster would not simply be transplanted here to Holyrood. We may not always have lived up to that, but if there was ever a time to renew that promise, it is surely now.

In Scotland—and right across our world—we have massive challenges to confront and overcome: a global pandemic, the climate emergency, and the need to build an economic recovery that is strong, sustainable and fair. In the face of all that, people across Scotland expect—indeed, I suspect that they demand—a grown-up and co-operative approach to politics that puts the interests of the country first.

Without any doubt, my party won a substantial mandate in the election. As I have just set out in summary, we have an ambitious policy programme to take forward, but we do not claim a monopoly of wisdom. We want to reach out and find the best solutions to the toughest of problems. Our duty is to co-operate, not in order to find the lowest common denominator, but as a way of raising the bar ever higher.

That is how I will seek to govern in this new session of the Parliament. Indeed, shortly after the election, I met Anas Sarwar to discuss areas where the Scottish National Party and Labour might work together. I am keen to develop those discussions further and I extend a similar offer to other parties across the chamber.

Most significantly, I can share with the Parliament that, since the election, I have had a series of exploratory discussions with the Scottish Green Party about how we might work together more formally in the future. Initially, even though we were not negotiating a coalition, the discussions were supported through the formation of Government facility that is available to all parties during and immediately after an election. Since the new Government was appointed last week, the discussions have been supported by the civil service, at my direction.

I am pleased to advise the Parliament that, at a meeting in Bute house last night, I agreed with the Scottish Green Party that we will move the informal discussions to the next stage. I confirm that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party will enter structured talks, supported by the civil service, with a view to reaching a formal co-operation agreement, if we can.

The talks will focus on exactly what the content, extent and scope of any agreement will be. Any agreement that emerges from the talks will be subject to the necessary approval processes of the Cabinet and each of our parties.

What we hope to achieve is potentially groundbreaking. In the coming weeks, we will seek to agree policy areas in which we would formally co-operate and, within each, identify the shared objectives and policy initiatives that we would agree to work together on. I am confident that those policy areas will include the climate emergency and how we can accelerate our progress to net zero. However, we are keen to identify other issues, too—not just those on which we have a similar outlook but those on which co-operation would be more challenging for both of us.

We will seek to agree a model of joint working in government to support progress in the areas of co-operation. That could include formal processes of consultation and, in our agreed areas of co-operation, the Green Party’s involvement in Scottish Government policy development and delivery. It would also include details of any reciprocal support that the Greens would give to aspects of the Government’s legislative, policy and budgetary programmes.

We need to see how much progress the talks can make, and we should not get too far ahead of ourselves today but, as we embark on the process, we set no limits on our ambition. In that vein, let me be clear that, although the outcome is not guaranteed or pre-agreed, it is not inconceivable that a co-operation agreement could lead in the future to a Green minister or ministers being part of the Government.

The key point for today is that we are both agreeing to come out of our comfort zones to find new ways of working for the common good—to change the dynamic of our politics for the better and give meaning to our Parliament’s founding principles. What we are embarking on will require compromise on both sides, but it will also require us to be bold. Given the challenges that we face, that is a good thing, and it is also the whole point.

It is worth noting that neither of us does this because we need to; it is not being forced on us by parliamentary arithmetic—indeed, we are taking a risk that the talks will not succeed. However, we are prepared to do this because, if we succeed, the benefits to the country could be significant. By working together, we can help to build a better future for Scotland.

As we look to Scotland’s future, one obvious point of agreement between us is that that future should be in Scotland’s hands. As we emerge from crisis, a fundamental question must be addressed—who has the right to decide the kind of country that Scotland will become after the crisis is over?

There is a choice of two very different futures. There is the Westminster choice of a hard Brexit that costs jobs, hits living standards and holds back recovery; trade deals that threaten our rural communities; social security cuts that put children into poverty; callous dawn raids; and an increase in nuclear warheads while overseas aid is cut. All of that is against the wishes of most people who live here. Or there is the alternative—not a panacea, but a future in which this Parliament has the full range of powers to shape and build a fairer and more prosperous country. In that future, we are an equal partner with our friends in the rest of the United Kingdom and across Europe.

The path that Scotland takes should not be the choice of any single politician or party; it must be a decision of the people. That is why, once the crisis is over, people in Scotland should have the right to make that choice. The election result delivered a substantial majority in the Parliament for an independence referendum in the current parliamentary session. There is no justification for the UK Government to seek to block that mandate—to do so would suggest that the Tories no longer consider the UK to be a voluntary union of nations, and it would be profoundly undemocratic.

The question of what powers the Parliament should have will always be debated passionately, but our different opinions on that should not obscure our common desire to make the most of the powers that we have. That task is more urgent than ever. This session of Parliament will be the most important in our devolved history.

The past 15 months have been full of sadness and heartbreak, but they have also reminded us of the human capacity for ingenuity, compassion and solidarity. New vaccines were developed from a standing start, testing infrastructure was established from scratch and people pulled together in ways that would once have been unimaginable. There are fewer changes now that seem unimaginable or unachievable.

The plans that I have set out are unashamedly ambitious. We will tackle the Covid crisis as our immediate priority. We will lead by example in addressing the climate crisis. We will create a national care service to match the post-war national health service. We will widen opportunities for young people. We will build a modern, high-tech economy while staying true to enduring values of fairness and compassion. We will seek a better politics and we will put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands.

Our programme is rooted in today’s reality, but it also shows the way to a brighter tomorrow. I look forward to working across the chamber as we get on with the job of delivering it.

The Presiding Officer:

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow 40 minutes or so for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. It would be helpful if members who wish to ask questions were to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

For most of the First Minister’s statement, she spoke of the pressing issues facing Scotland right now: finally putting more teachers in our schools; finally delivering on childcare promises; and finally focusing on climate change and the climate emergency. On those issues, there are points where we can agree and work constructively with parties across the chamber. However, ultimately—as always—it comes down to independence for the Scottish National Party. It was there in the third line of her statement—it took just 15 seconds for Nicola Sturgeon to talk up the prospect of another referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon speaks—[

Interruption

.] Of course we are not going to go back to the old ways of Westminster, unless it suits the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon speaks of bringing people together, and then pushes the most divisive proposal imaginable. That was not a speech to unite Scotland or a statement of the people’s priorities; it was regurgitation of the SNP’s top priority. It sets up the same old us-versus-them choice, the same bitterness, the same division and the same proposals that the SNP thrives on.

However, this Parliament has a choice. Either we can be a Parliament of action that focuses 100 per cent on people’s priorities and gets things done using the powers that the Parliament has right now, or another five years will be wasted as this Government gets more and more distracted as time goes on.

The Scottish Conservatives have set out our priorities: at least 15 bills to rebuild Scotland, spread opportunities across the country and restore power to our communities. Will the First Minister agree to bring forward a right to recovery to tackle our shameful drugs deaths in this country? Will she work with us on a victims’ law to put our justice system on the side of victims? Will she bring forward an enterprise bill that delivers economic recovery for every single part of Scotland? Why should any of those pressing issues take a back seat to the First Minister’s drive for another independence referendum?

The First Minister:

In summary answer to the question that Douglas Ross ended on, I say that, yes, I am happy, as I said in my statement, to discuss all those ideas and suggestions as we finalise—as we will do later this year—our programme for government for the first full year of this new parliamentary session. That invitation is there and the door is open. I hope that we will see parties across the chamber walk through it and work with us. We should not pretend that we do not have differences of opinion—after all, we live in a democracy. Instead, we should be prepared to rise above those differences to work together for the common good. I think that I have made clear today my willingness to do that.

My more general response to Douglas Ross is that we have, of course, just had an election—that wonderful expression of democracy. In that election, I said to the Scottish people that if I was re-elected as First Minister, I would prioritise first and foremost leading us through the Covid recovery and would put forward an ambitious policy programme to drive our economic recovery, and then, when the crisis was over, I would propose that the people of Scotland got the opportunity to choose our long-term future. My party won that election, and I have set out today how I intend to deliver on the commitments that I made in it, which were so thoroughly endorsed in the mandate that the Scottish people gave us.

Douglas Ross is right that most of my statement focused on what we will do just in our first 100 days, building on the progress that we have made. He mentioned teachers and childcare. Teacher numbers in our schools have been increasing ever since I became First Minister. We have been progressing plans to double childcare. That has been slightly delayed because of Covid, but that promise will be delivered in full from August and we are now moving on to the next phase. That is our focus.

I ask all parties in the chamber to stop re-fighting the election. The people of Scotland had their say and made their decision. Let us debate our differences robustly and in a spirit of civility, but let us come together where we can to work on the things on which we can agree in the interests of the people of Scotland.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I recognise the scale of the challenge that our country faces as we come through the pandemic. I am willing to work with anyone in the national interest on issues on which we agree. However, let us be clear: this is not day 1 of an SNP Government; it is day 5,136. Rhetoric is no longer enough—we need action.

It was good to see in the statement the Greens formalising and accepting their long-standing coalition of cuts, but this country needs a bold and ambitious Opposition and a credible alternative, which, under my leadership, Scottish Labour is determined to build.

This Government, too, must be bolder and more ambitious. If the First Minister is serious about focusing on recovery, will she commit, in the first 100 days, to delivering a genuine jobs guarantee scheme for young people and the long-term unemployed; to doubling the Scottish child payment to challenge child poverty; and to remobilising the national health service to confront cancer, which is Scotland’s biggest killer? Further, will she take urgent action to avert a repeat of the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s exams fiasco?

The First Minister:

Anas Sarwar is right: this is not day 1 of an SNP Government; this is the beginning of a re-elected SNP’s term of government. The people of Scotland had the opportunity to pass judgment on—what did he say?—5,136 days of an SNP Government, and they re-elected it with a record number of votes. Everybody in the chamber, if they care about democracy, has to recognise that basic fact. However, I want to reach out and work together. Not long after the election, I initiated a meeting with Anas Sarwar that I thought was constructive, and I look to build on it.

On the specifics that Anas Sarwar asked about, we have already established the young person’s guarantee and we are absolutely willing to have discussions about how we build and develop it. Our first budget will set out how we will proceed with the doubling of the Scottish child payment, which is something that we all want to do as quickly as possible. On cancer, the work to remobilise our NHS is already under way. I said in my statement that we have already opened, in Dumfries and Galloway, the first of the rapid diagnostic centres that I committed to during the election, and that two more will open over the next few weeks.

All that work is under way. The Government will get on with it, whether or not the Opposition parties choose to co-operate with us. However, the door is open. Let us genuinely try to do our politics differently. Let us respect differences and debate them vigorously, but, yes, let us come together.

During the campaign, Anas Sarwar made much of wanting a different style of politics. It is now time to prove whether he is prepared to put that into action. He will find my door open and a real willingness for us all to work together.

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

There is no doubt that the decisions that we make in this chamber over the coming years will shape the future of the whole of Scotland, our society and our place in the world. It is our responsibility to get it right, to come together and to take action to secure a fair and green recovery for Scotland. I look forward to our talks progressing.

We need to roll up our sleeves and practise the grown-up politics of negotiation, co-operation and consensus building. A green recovery means jobs; it means leaving no one behind; and it means reducing carbon emissions and restoring our natural environment. We can succeed, but only if we all pull in the same direction.

Does the First Minster recognise that tackling the climate crisis and building a wellbeing economy means leaving our comfort zones and taking ever-bolder action? Will she integrate that objective across all levels of Government decision making?

The First Minister:

I want to pick up on what Lorna Slater has said about being bold, taking risks and leaving our comfort zones. The parliamentary arithmetic of the chamber means that my Government could decide to govern alone, as we did in the previous parliamentary session, and the Greens would be justified in saying that they do not want to have any formal co-operation. However, both parties have decided not to do that, not because we need to but because we think that it could be in the interests of the country.

In doing that, we are taking a risk. I hope that the talks that we are holding go well, but they might not succeed. However, we think that it is a risk worth taking because of the scale of the challenge that we face and the public’s expectation of seeing politicians work together where we can.

It is correct that the challenges that we face are huge and have implications for every aspect of what we do. We need to see them in a holistic way. That is why, for example, I have appointed a Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, bringing together areas in which there is normally tension and recognising the fact that meeting the challenges that we face will take cross-Government action. I am determined to lead in that way.

I welcome the constructive way in which the Greens have entered discussions, which I hope will develop positively. The Greens are to be commended for taking that risk, and I think that the people of Scotland stand to benefit. I very much look forward to progressing our agenda in that spirit.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

We will seek to co-operate as we have done during the pandemic over the past year.

In the election, the First Minister promised—rightly—that she would defer a referendum until the effects of the pandemic were over. By May 2026, will patients wait longer than 12 weeks for their NHS treatment, will young people wait longer than 18 weeks for their mental health treatment, will Scotland no longer have the highest drug deaths rate in Europe, and will the poverty-related attainment gap in schools be completely closed? Will those promises be delivered on before the First Minister presses for a referendum?

The First Minister:

Next week in Parliament—certainly in the next couple of weeks—we will set out our plans to remobilise the NHS and get waiting times not just back to where they were pre-pandemic but to where we want them to be. We will also set out more of our plans on closing the educational attainment gap. Everything that I said to the Scottish public in the election is what we now seek to take forward and deliver.

Willie Rennie and I disagree on Scottish independence. However, although we will not pursue a referendum until we are out of the Covid crisis, it is nevertheless the case that the powers and levers that we have in this Parliament and the issues of recovery and what we are recovering to are interlinked—they cannot be separated. In his heart, Willie Rennie does not want Scotland’s recovery to be guided and steered by Boris Johnson any more than I do. If we are to avoid that in the long term, we have to take decisions into our own hands.

Fundamentally, Willie Rennie and I can disagree on independence, but it should not be for us to decide—it should be for the people of Scotland to decide. That is the proposition that we put before people in the election and it is the proposition on which we were overwhelmingly elected.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

The First Minister has outlined an ambitious plan to take Scotland forward, which I welcome. The UK Government has proposed and passed bills including the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and has launched the levelling up fund and the shared prosperity fund, which shows that the UK Government can undermine Scottish Parliament powers that are set out in the Scotland acts. Given that, will the First Minister outline how UK Government bills will impact on or impede the priorities of the Scottish Government? What action can be taken to prevent an attack on our Parliament’s powers?

The First Minister:

We have already seen, in the previous parliamentary session, the variety of ways in which the UK Government seeks to encroach on the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament. That is undeniable and undisputable. We are starting to see the potential implications, including the potential for trade deals that will devastate our rural communities. That is not abstract or hypothetical—it is real. It brings to the fore a key issue, which is that the debate about Scotland’s future over the next period is not a debate between a benign status quo and independence, but is a debate about whether we continue to allow a UK Government to take powers away from this Parliament or decide to take more powers into our own hands, so that we can build the country that we want Scotland to be.

People in Scotland have a right to make that decision. Of course they want my focus to be on leading us through the Covid crisis; it absolutely will be, for as long as that is required. However, as we come out of the crisis, the questions about what kind of country we want to be and who makes such decisions are absolutely central to what we recover to and the values that underpin it.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Recently, the Auditor General for Scotland heavily criticised the Scottish Government for

“a lack of clarity and transparency” on the spending of public money, and he said that much more should have been done to provide value for money and to facilitate the necessary parliamentary scrutiny. What steps has the First Minister put in process to address the Auditor General’s very serious concerns?

The First Minister:

We respond to all Audit Scotland reports and we set out the steps that we will take in response to recommendations that are made, which will be the case for that report. Scrutiny of the Government is a key part of the responsibilities of the Parliament. We are, even given the resounding election victory that we have just enjoyed, a minority Government. It is, therefore, incumbent on all of us to work together to make sure that scrutiny is robust. We all have a job to do—the committees of the Parliament, the Opposition parties in the Parliament and us, as a Government—to make sure that we aid that transparency.

On that, as on everything else, I note that the election is over. We all had our say and had the arguments during the election, and the people have decided. In many ways, this is the opportunity for a fresh start to respect the differences between us. I say again: my door is open, and the door of the Government is open, to anybody who wants to come to us with good ideas about how we can make life better for the people of Scotland. I am ready to listen—the question is whether other parties in the Parliament are ready to work in that way.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

Can the First Minister provide more details on the £100 million digital boost scheme for small businesses and, in particular, the steps that the Government will take to promote digital innovation and digital accessibility, so that we do not lose the momentum on that that has been evident during Covid?

The First Minister:

I thank Willie Coffey for his question. Since he is a good and dear friend of mine, I will stay completely clear of the issue of football for the duration of my answer.

On the specifics of the question, we will shortly set out the detail of the digital boost fund and our other funding commitments to improve the digital connectedness and capability of the country. One of the important commitments that we have given—I have mentioned it already today—is to implement in full the Logan review, which will be so important in our realising the economic potential of becoming a high-tech nation.

Also, crucially, we recognise that there is work that we have started that must still be progressed in order to make sure that we close the digital divide. Getting devices and connections to the people who are most in need is critical—we have committed to work to ensure that every young person in our schools has access to a laptop or a tablet. We must ensure that we have the appropriate digital infrastructure and that people have the skills to use the infrastructure, devices and connections. It is an exciting programme of work that will bring many benefits to Scotland and will—if we do it right—give Scotland a competitive edge in the global economy.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Even before the pandemic, waiting lists for diagnostics and treatment were growing and the SNP’s improvement plans were failing to deliver. At the end of 2019, 26,000 patients—a third of all patients—were waiting longer than the 12-week treatment time guarantee, and another 18,000 people waited more than six weeks for a diagnostic test. When the treatment time guarantee was introduced in 2012, 62 people were waiting longer than 12 weeks; now, the number is 62,000. We had an NHS remobilisation plan less than a year ago; now, another NHS remobilisation plan has been announced. What patients want to know is when they will be seen. How much longer will people have to wait?

The First Minister:

If Jackie Baillie is seriously saying that a remobilisation plan that was, rightly, published in the very early stages of a global pandemic should not be updated a year into that global pandemic, I am not sure that she will find many people across the country who agree with her. The remobilisation plan, which is for the longer-term recovery of our national health service—it covers the short, the medium and the longer terms, as we seek to put the NHS on a sustainable footing for the future—is a key part of our plans. Humza Yousaf will set out more detail on it shortly.

On waiting times, before the pandemic, our £850 million waiting time improvement plan was starting to reduce the longest waits and to have a positive impact on waiting times. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic has set back all that, and more. Therefore, the job of work and the scale of the task ahead of us are considerable. That job is partly about building capacity in our NHS—a range of plans to do that are under way—but it is also about redesigning pathways of care. The centre for sustainable delivery in the NHS, which is a relatively recent innovation, will be key to some of that work.

It is a big job of work—not just for the Scottish Government, but for Governments across the world—to get health services back on track and on to a sustainable footing. Few things that we do will be more important than that over the coming weeks and months.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

How will the Scottish Government continue to take forward the actions in the equally safe strategy? Will the First Minister commit to giving serious consideration to the recommendations from Lady Dorrian’s review, so that we can deliver a justice system in which survivors of sexual crimes have confidence?

The First Minister:

Yes. Our manifesto—if memory serves me correctly, it was not the only manifesto that did so—committed to taking forward, obviously with appropriate consultation, the recommendations in Lady Dorrian’s report. I am very committed to doing that. I hope that it is an area on which we can build significant cross-party consensus.

The equally safe plan is important. One of the key commitments that we made in the election was to a new £100 million multiyear fund to support the specialist front-line services that do so much to help and support people who are affected by domestic violence and sexual violence. I have set out today that we will, within our first 100 days, make available the first of the money from that fund. The organisations across our country that provide that specialist support do a fantastic job, but their services are under pressure. There are often waiting times for access to the services; we are determined to address that.

Photo of Annie Wells Annie Wells Conservative

We did not hear an answer to Douglas Ross’s earlier question, so I will ask it again. Despite Scotland’s appalling drug-death figures, many people are being denied the help that they need. Therefore, will the First Minister support our proposals for a right to recovery bill, in order to enshrine in law that everyone should have access to the drug or alcohol treatment that they need?

The First Minister:

I am afraid that Annie Wells would—if she had listened—have heard an answer to the question.

Yes—I am prepared to discuss that matter. I do not know all the detail of what the Scottish Conservatives are proposing. It is important that we, as a Government, understand the detail of any proposal before we commit to taking it forward. I hope that the Scottish Conservatives can find it within themselves to embrace the areas in which we might find common ground. There is willingness—there is an open door—to discuss that. [

Interruption

.] If Annie Wells would stop mouthing things at me from a sedentary position, we could, perhaps, find some genuinely common ground. I cannot be more positive or fairer than that. It is up to the Scottish Conservatives to choose whether to respond in an equally positive way.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

I thank the First Minister for her statement. I appreciate not only the focus on recovery from the pandemic but the clear and bold ambition for the future that is based on finding consensus.

Yesterday, the Social Justice and Fairness Commission that the First Minister established published its report, which included a call for the extension of the Scottish child payment. I welcome the work in that area that is already under way and the work that will be done over the summer, ahead of its further extension. How many children and families are due to benefit as the roll-out continues, and what impact is that intervention expected to have on child poverty rates in Scotland?

The First Minister:

I thank Neil Gray for his question. I think that this is the first opportunity that I have had in the chamber to welcome him formally to the Scottish Parliament. I have no doubt that he will be a really valuable addition to our discussions and debates.

The report of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission, which was an SNP and not a Scottish Government initiative, was published yesterday and contains some fantastic ideas, suggestions and policy initiatives that I hope will find their way into not just the policy programme of this Government—many of them have already done that—but the policy programmes of other parties as well.

At the heart of our efforts to tackle and, in time, eradicate child poverty, which should be our objective, is the doubling of the Scottish child payment. Tens of thousands of children—I do not have the precise figure in front of me—are already benefiting from that and many more will benefit as we extend the reach of the payment next year and then double its value as soon as possible.

That is a really concrete, tangible example of what we can do when we have powers to act here, at Holyrood. Unfortunately, we have a UK Government that is still saying that it will take away the universal credit uplift and potentially make changes that will put more children into poverty. That is the argument for having complete powers over social security here, in the Scottish Parliament, so that we can tackle such problems in a genuinely joined-up and holistic manner.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

Presiding Officer, I extend my good wishes to you in your new role.

I thank the First Minister for her statement. Can she confirm that the commitment on additional teachers and classroom assistants refers to 1,000 full-time-equivalent teachers and 500 classroom assistants? Can she confirm that the local authorities will be given their share of that breakdown as soon as possible, given that planning for next term is already taking place?

The First Minister:

I welcome Martin Whitfield to Holyrood and wish him well for his time here.

The additional 1,000 teachers and 500 classroom assistants are part of our overall commitment to 3,500 teachers and classroom assistants. Those are whole-time-equivalent figures, but the precise balance in each local authority will be for the authority to judge on the basis of need.

We will work with local authorities to get the detail of that to them as quickly as possible in order to aid with the planning that is under way. The commitment builds on the additional teachers that were recruited over the previous session of Parliament.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

As the First Minister will be aware, our Clyde and Hebridean ferry services have had to cope with vessel breakdowns and weather-related cancellations in recent days, while having 70 per cent fewer passengers due to social distancing. The result is that islanders struggle to travel and tourists, who are the life-blood of island economies, cannot visit, which impacts on the islands’ recovery.

Social distancing restrictions do not apply to those who fly to our islands; when can further easing on ferries be expected?

The First Minister:

Before I address the question of physical distancing, I note that Graeme Dey, the new Minister for Transport, has just answered a question in the chamber on ferry provision. We recognise how unacceptable the recent disruption has been, and everyone is working hard to address and resolve that as quickly as possible.

On physical distancing, we need to take care as we come out of the crisis, because we do not want to set ourselves back. We are already seeing—as I described them earlier—bumps in the road in Glasgow, and we want to minimise any potential to set our progress back. However, as I announced a few weeks ago, after the election, we are carrying out a more fundamental review of physical distancing, and we will set out the outcome of that review as soon as possible.

That work is about looking in the longer term to the time when we will restore a greater degree of normality and considering whether it is possible to have shorter distances in different environments—or, in some environments, ultimately, perhaps, no distance at all. It is important that we get that work right. It has relevance for ferries, of course, but it has wider relevance, too, and we will publish the outcome as soon as possible.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

Despite the best efforts of teachers, parents, carers and young people, most pupils in Scotland have lost out on an estimated 16 weeks of classroom lessons over the past year. That disruption follows 14 years of SNP failure and the First Minister’s broken promise to make education her number 1 priority. Surely, now is the time to put our young people first. Will the First Minister consider funding all 3,500 new teaching and learning assistant posts now so that they can make the maximum contribution to helping our young people to catch up and give those who need it most the best chance of success?

The First Minister:

Oliver Mundell raises reasonable questions, but his characterisation and assessment of the Government is not shared by the Scottish people. I stand here as a re-elected First Minister with a record number of votes. I suspect that, if the Scottish Conservatives continue to refight the election over and over again, they will end up having the same outcomes.

On the substance of the question, we will consider how quickly we can make available the funding for the 3,500 teachers and classroom assistants. As Oliver Mundell will be aware, the issue is not just about funding; it is about how quickly it is practically possible to recruit teachers. That priority is important for us, and we will take it forward as quickly as possible. In our first 100 days, we will make available the funding for 1,000 teachers and 500 classroom assistants.

More generally, there is a job of work to do to help young people to catch up, not just in educational terms but in social and wellbeing terms. That is why the summer programme that I mentioned in my statement is important, too. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will make more details of that available shortly.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

On the back of our very welcome manifesto commitment to renew every play park in Scotland, will the First Minister give an indication of when funding for that work will start to be distributed? What consideration has been given to providing sensory play opportunities for children with autism?

The First Minister:

I welcome Collette Stevenson to Parliament. I am delighted to see her here.

The commitment that we made during the election to make available funding to refurbish all play parks across Scotland was, as I very quickly realised, one of those election commitments that penetrates beyond the political bubble. On the—I think—one day of good weather that we had during the whole election campaign, I was in Queen’s park, in my constituency, where many young people were talking about that commitment. That illustrates that, during the pandemic, people have realised how important it is that they get outdoors and that children have good, safe places in which to play. The commitment that we have made is really special and one that we are determined to take forward as quickly as possible.

I will respond to the two questions. We will discuss the allocation of the funding with local authorities, and we will seek to start to make the funding available within the Government’s first 100 days. We will ensure that the importance of sensory play parks is recognised. I remember, a few years ago, opening a sensory play park for children with disabilities in Fife. It was an absolutely wonderful place. We want to ensure that play parks are fully accessible to all children. The point that has been raised is really important.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

I congratulate you on your new role, Presiding Officer.

Just over a year ago, the Government announced that important bills including the good food nation bill, the circular economy bill, a bill to introduce a proper ban on hunting and a bill to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004 would all be not scrapped but paused due to a lack of parliamentary time caused by the pandemic. Will the First Minister confirm that all those paused bills will be brought before Parliament before another referendum bill is introduced?

The First Minister:

All those bills will be brought before Parliament. As is customary, we will set out—on, I think, the first sitting day after the summer recess, subject to the agreement of the Parliamentary Bureau—our legislative programme for the next year in our programme for government. That will set out the timing and the timescales for all our proposed legislation.

I repeat a point that I made earlier. In this parliamentary session, we have already had suggestions from Opposition parties of bills that they would like us to take forward. The door is open if people want to suggest bills beyond those that we are already considering.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

The First Minister’s statement on priorities for the first 100 days rightly focused on tackling child poverty and inequality. One of the raft of measures in that area is the removal of additional charges for core curriculum activities in school subjects such as music, technology, science and home economics. Will the First Minister provide an indicative timescale for when we can expect to see those changes in our classrooms?

The First Minister:

As I said in my statement, we will start discussions with local authorities within our first 100 days to ensure that we are taking the necessary steps and providing the wherewithal for councils to do that. Once we have had those discussions, we will be able to set out a firmer timescale for when the charges will be removed. I hope that that will happen soon, in the early stages of this parliamentary session, because, for a variety of reasons, it will be good to ensure that young people can take advantage of music education, for example, without the barrier of cost, which I know has held some back in recent years.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

The First Minister mentioned the first moves to take ScotRail into public ownership during the first 100 days. Can she give any more details of the timescale for that? Is that affected by the UK Government’s announcement of the so-called great British railways?

The First Minister:

No. We will take forward that commitment as planned. That will require lots of planning and discussions, but much of that is already under way. The timescale aligns with the end of the current contract, of course, which is why it is important to get that work under way within the first 100 days. The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport will set out updates in due course—indeed, I imagine that he will set out regular updates to Parliament on the progress of that work.

I do not underestimate the challenges that are involved, but I hope that, across the parties, we can celebrate bringing our railways back into public ownership as a really good move and take the opportunity to accelerate the decarbonisation of our railway system as well. We will ensure that Parliament is kept fully updated as that work progresses.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes questions on the First Minister’s statement on Scottish Government priorities. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the campus, and I ask members to take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber.