I intend to take constituency and general supplementary questions after question 2, so members wishing to ask supplementaries should press their request-to-speak buttons during question 2. I will keep a note of members who press their buttons and may take further supplementaries from those members if we have any time in hand after question 6. Members wishing to ask a supplementary to questions 3 to 6 should press their buttons during the relevant question. The Scottish National Party’s vaccination passport scheme comes into effect in just a few hours’ time and, although the judgment has now been delivered, as late as this morning businesses were still in court trying to halt the scheme. Guidance is still being published, and the app was to be launched today.
So far, we have the app to check vaccination passports, but we do not have the app for vaccination passports. Everything has been left to the last minute, and that is not the way to run any scheme, let alone one that will affect people right across Scotland. The First Minister and I disagree strongly about the policy, and my party wants it scrapped but, surely, even she must accept that the scheme is not ready and needs to be delayed? No, I do not agree with that.
Perhaps understandably, from his perspective, Douglas Ross wants simply to gloss over this morning’s decision by the Court of Session, which rejected the application for interim interdict. Therefore, let me summarise and paraphrase the reasons that were given for that rejection: the scheme had been consulted on; there had been an opportunity to take part in the consultation; the scheme that was introduced was not “disproportionate, irrational or unreasonable”; it was reasonable to bring in the phased approach; there was no discrimination; and, in summary, the scheme attempted to address legitimate concerns in a reasonable and “balanced way”. All along, I have been very candid and clear. None of us wants to be in this position and none of us wants to take any of the steps that we have had to take over 18 months, in order to seek to contain the virus, keep people safe and limit the damage to health and other damage that the virus does. However, we are still in the pandemic; there are around 1,000 people in our hospitals with the virus or because of it and, of course, we face what might be the most difficult winter that any of us can imagine.
The vaccination passport scheme is a targeted and proportionate way to try to reduce the harm that the virus will do over the winter months, while keeping our economy fully open, functioning and trading. The judgment from the court this morning recognises both those reasons and the way in which the Government has gone about that. The legal obligation for the passport scheme comes into force tomorrow, and we will continue to engage with business, not just in the run-up to the enforcement, which comes into place on 18 October, but afterwards, to make sure that we are listening and understanding and that all of us work collectively to keep the country as safe as possible, as we go through the winter months. No, I do not agree with that. Perhaps understandably, from his perspective, Douglas Ross wants simply to gloss over this morning’s decision by the Court of Session, which rejected the application for interim interdict. Therefore, let me summarise and paraphrase the reasons that were given for that rejection: the scheme had been consulted on; there had been an opportunity to take part in the consultation; the scheme that was introduced was not “disproportionate, irrational or unreasonable”; it was reasonable to bring in the phased approach; there was no discrimination; and, in summary, the scheme attempted to address legitimate concerns in a reasonable and “balanced way”.
All along, I have been very candid and clear. None of us wants to be in this position and none of us wants to take any of the steps that we have had to take over 18 months, in order to seek to contain the virus, keep people safe and limit the damage to health and other damage that the virus does. However, we are still in the pandemic; there are around 1,000 people in our hospitals with the virus or because of it and, of course, we face what might be the most difficult winter that any of us can imagine.
The vaccination passport scheme is a targeted and proportionate way to try to reduce the harm that the virus will do over the winter months, while keeping our economy fully open, functioning and trading. The judgment from the court this morning recognises both those reasons and the way in which the Government has gone about that. The legal obligation for the passport scheme comes into force tomorrow, and we will continue to engage with business, not just in the run-up to the enforcement, which comes into place on 18 October, but afterwards, to make sure that we are listening and understanding and that all of us work collectively to keep the country as safe as possible, as we go through the winter months.
Again—no, I do not. Although very few people, if any, like the measures that we are having to take in order to control the virus, the vast majority of people across Scotland understand the reasons for those measures and would prefer a situation where people are asked to show proof of vaccination over a situation where venues such as nightclubs or large-scale events have to close or stop again. That is the balance that we are seeking to strike. With regard to the legal challenge, any organisation in a democracy has the right to challenge the decisions of Government right up until those decisions come into force and, indeed, afterwards.
Interestingly, the Tories south of the border are seeking to take the right to judicial review away completely, or at least limit it considerably. However, the judgment of Lord Burns this morning is very clear and emphatic. On the point about some venues and some circumstances being covered but not others, again, I paraphrase and summarise, but the judgment recognises that it is widely known that the combination of alcohol and dancing, late at night and inside, create a high risk environment for the transmission of Covid, which does not occur to the same extent in other venues. There is no perfection when you are dealing with an infectious virus. All the steps and measures that we have to take are imperfect, and of course they are far from ideal. However, we cannot simply wish Covid away. We have to take the steps to get cases back under control. I said this the other day, and I think that it is worth repeating.
Over recent months, Douglas Ross has opposed almost every step that we have tried to take, from face coverings through to Covid vaccination certification. If I had listened to Douglas Ross, we would probably not be in the position that we are in—thankfully—of having cases on a downward path. Perhaps it is Douglas Ross who needs to reflect a bit more on some of the arguments that he makes in this chamber. If the First Minister had listened to those of us on these benches, she would not be introducing a scheme from 5 am tomorrow that sees hundreds of people get their vaccination passports checked as they walk into a venue, when, if the music gets unplugged, they will suddenly, miraculously, not need a vaccination passport at all.
If she had listened to those on the Conservative benches, she would not be introducing a scheme from 5 am tomorrow that cannot be enforced for more than a fortnight after that. Businesses have never had a tougher time than right now, but they are getting guidance on vaccination passports at the very last minute. The evidence case for those passports—if it can be called that, because there is barely any evidence for this policy—was put before a Scottish Parliament committee for the first time this morning. There are so many flaws littered throughout the scheme, and proper consideration has not taken place. Let us look at just one key part of the legislation. Who has the Scottish Government consulted with over regulation 16A, and what was the outcome of those discussions? We have consulted with a range of stakeholders.
I do not have the regulations in front of me right now. I am very happy to come back afterwards and go through every particular regulation and say who precisely we have consulted with. Let us come back to the heart of the matter here. There is one point that I agree with Douglas Ross on: if I had listened to him and the Conservatives, many of the steps that we have taken to try to get Covid cases back under control would not have been taken.
I am afraid that the consequence of that might well have been that Covid cases would still be rising. Just a few weeks ago, Douglas Ross was complaining about the continued legal requirement to wear face coverings. He has opposed, literally, almost everything that we have done. I think that this is just part of a pattern, and it will probably leave most people to think that it is a good thing that Douglas Ross is not standing here, facing the need to take these decisions.
Douglas Ross. Thank you, Presiding Officer. My apologies, I assumed that the First Minister had finished. I was going to address the points about evidence, because evidence is important. Douglas Ross likes, quite legitimately, to quote different people in the chamber. With regard to the scrutiny of the regulations that took place in a meeting of the Covid-19 Recovery Committee just this morning, let me reflect on the comments of Professor Christopher Dye, who is professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford, in which he commended the evidence paper and said that, with one of two comments or queries, he would “broadly agree with its recommendations.” He also said: “I think that it is a very good report, actually, and I agree with its basic recommendations, which is that vaccination certification is a useful device and approach to support the vaccination programme in Scotland.” That takes us back to the heart of the matter.
We have an infectious virus circulating that has taken far too many lives. It is still doing too much damage: 1,000 people are in our hospitals with Covid right now, as we speak. It is incumbent on Government to take responsible, reasonable and targeted measures to keep the country safe as we go into a potentially very difficult winter. That is a responsibility that I am going to continue to treat and discharge with the utmost seriousness.
The First Minister had two bites of the cherry to answer that question, and she could not do it. There are only half a dozen regulations in her legislation, which comes into effect from 5 am tomorrow. If it is somehow unreasonable to expect her to know about regulation 16A, which was discussed in the COVID-19 Recovery Committee this morning, she can turn to her Deputy First Minister, who appeared before the committee, and ask for answers—but I see that he does not seem to know, either. That just shows the lack of engagement and the lack of consultation that there has been and the SNP’s lack of understanding of its own policy.
The Government seems to be making it up as it goes along. Just look at what John Swinney said at the COVID-19 Recovery Committee this morning. He could not even tell the members what will be the criteria to end the Covid passport scheme. He is whispering in the First Minister’s ear, so let us hope that she can tell us because he could not at the committee this morning.
The SNP Government is the only one in Europe to run a scheme like this, relying purely on the vaccination status of people and banning them from venues unless they can produce official paperwork. It is the only Government in Europe forcing higher costs on to businesses and such restrictive rules on to the public. Nicola Sturgeon wants independence in Europe: well, she has got it. She is completely alone in pursuing this shambles of a scheme. Why are countries across Europe, thousands of Scottish businesses, the Scottish Beer and Pub Association, the Scottish hospitality group, the Night Time Industries Association, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association and the Scottish Human Rights Commission all wrong, but Nicola Sturgeon is right? It is interesting that in the course of that ramble Douglas Ross appears to have completely changed the basis for his opposition to Covid certification—Anas Sarwar changed the basis of his about a week ago.
Up until now, I understood that, for Douglas Ross, the objection was that it was far too difficult for businesses to comply with the scheme, but now it is because we are requiring proof of vaccination only, not proof of a negative test. I have set out clearly why we are not doing that at this point and the fact that we will keep that under review. The principal reason why we are taking that approach right now is because we are trying to drive up vaccination rates. We set out the rationale, the reasons and the detail, a court has looked at that over the past 24 hours—I have already summarised the judgment of the court, which was delivered this very morning—and the committee has scrutinised it again this morning. We have listened to businesses, which is why we have delayed enforcement to allow businesses a grace period to test their arrangements in practice. I come back to the central point. I am left wondering what exactly Douglas Ross would support us doing to keep Covid under control, to protect people’s health, to protect our economy and to save lives. The position that he is taking right now is to oppose everything that the Government does, simply for the sake of opposition.
That is irresponsible at any time, but in the face of a deadly virus that is particularly irresponsible from the Conservatives. We are facing a cost of living crisis. Today, furlough, a lifeline for so many, comes to an end; next week, universal credit will be cut for millions of people across the country—I am sure that the First Minister and I agree that that is a shameful mistake by the Tory Government; and, tomorrow, the energy cap will rise by £139, meaning that many people will face a choice between eating and heating this winter. Even before this cost of living crisis, that was an unacceptable choice faced by too many people in our country, particularly our elderly.
Will the First Minister tell the chamber, right now, how many people in Scotland are living in fuel poverty and how many of them are pensioners? Far too many. With apologies to Anas Sarwar, I do not have the precise figures in front of me right now, but I know that it is too many. The Government is, of course, taking action to help people on the lowest incomes with the cost of living crisis, because I absolutely agree that that is what we are facing. For example, by the end of October, we will make a £130 support payment to every household that receives council tax reduction—an investment of up to £65 million that will benefit more than 500,000 households—and we have introduced the Scottish child payment, which is also intended to help those who are living in poverty. I suspect that Anas Sarwar’s next question will be to ask us to make additional payments to people who are living in fuel poverty.
I hope that we can agree between us that, if the Government had the wherewithal to do that, we would do it, because we all want to help those on the lowest incomes. However, we come again to the nub of a matter. The Scottish Government—any Government in the Scottish Parliament—is simply unable to continue, week after week, month after month and year after year, mitigating the impact of reserved policies from within a limited and finite devolved budget. It is simply not possible to do that without hitting our devolved responsibilities hard.
I come back to this point: if we want, as I do, the Parliament to be able to do all the things that no doubt Anas Sarwar is going to ask me to do, we cannot just wish the ends; we have to give the Parliament the means. We have to give the Parliament the powers, and we have to ensure that it is this Parliament that holds the resources. Anything short of that from Anas Sarwar is, I am afraid, just an empty sound bite, and what we face now is far too serious for that.
The matter is indeed far too serious, which is why the soundbites are coming from the First Minister. We have the means, and we should use the means that we have. We have the power to have a winter fuel payment from the Parliament, but the First Minister has chosen to give that power back to the very Tory Government that she rightfully criticises. Let us use that power to make a difference. On the question that I asked the First Minister, the answer is that 613,000 people live in fuel poverty, of whom 200,000 are believed to be pensioners. One in four households across our country are unable to make ends meet and are forced to make heartbreaking choices right now. This week, we heard that Scotland had recorded the first death by starvation of an older person in a decade.
An older person in our country, which is one of the richest in the world, starved to death in their home. Words cannot describe how tragic and awful that is, but words will not keep people warm this winter. The Scottish Government can, and must, take action now. Earlier this week, we called for a £70 increase in winter fuel payments to help the poorest pensioners this winter. Today, we learned that the Scottish Government would receive an additional £41 million to support hard-pressed families over the coming months, so now we can go even further. Will the First Minister enhance the winter fuel payment, and not just for the poorest pensioners? Will she also give targeted support to struggling families, such as those with a child with a disability or those that are in receipt of council tax reduction? We have the means, so let us use them. First, the £41 million to which Anas Sarwar refers is, I assume, what will flow from this morning’s UK Government announcement of a UK-wide £500 million fund for low-income families. I am surprised to hear Anas Sarwar talk about that fund positively. It was announced by a Tory Government that is taking £6 billion out of the pockets of the lowest-income families through the universal credit cut and expecting praise—which it seems to have got from Anas Sarwar—for putting £500 million back.
It is an absolute disgrace and an insult. I give the absolute commitment that every penny of consequentials that we get from that fund will go to support low-income families. That will be in addition to the support that I have already talked about—a £130 support payment by the end of October that will go to every household that receives council tax reduction, supporting more than 500,000 households across the country. We are also doubling the carers allowance supplement in December to try to help carers with the cost of living increase and, as I have already said, we have introduced the Scottish child payment. Only yesterday, I visited Social Security Scotland in Dundee, which is delivering 11 benefits already, seven of which do not exist anywhere else. That is how seriously we are taking the obligation to help those most in need. I come back to the point that our resources are finite.
Anas Sarwar is asking me to find money from within a devolved budget that has already been allocated in order to mitigate—again—the impact of reserved policies. Would it not make more sense for us to have the powers here, in this Parliament, with the accompanying resources, so that we can take different decisions? I make Anas Sarwar two open offers. First, I ask him to back the Scottish Government in its call to devolve all, and not just some, of social security to this Parliament. Secondly, if he wants us to make another payment, he can, by all means, tell me from where in the already allocated Scottish budget he wants me to take over and above the £41 million that he has mentioned, which, as I have already said, will be fully allocated. If he wants anything over and above that, he should come and tell me where from within the Scottish budget he wants me to take that money.
I am happy to listen to him if he is prepared to do that. I am conscious of time, so I would be grateful for shorter questions and responses. The problem is that the First Minister wants to shout pre-prepared attack lines rather than listen to what I am saying. I was not welcoming the new money as some kind of relief for universal credit; I was taking seriously what the First Minister often says, which is that, if we have a proposal, we should tell her where the money is coming from. I quite clearly told her that we should use that £41 million to make a difference. The First Minister gave examples, and I welcome them, but they were announced before we had a cost of living crisis.
We can shout about the new powers that we want, but let us use the powers that we have to change people’s lives in the here and now. This is urgent: people are facing rising costs today, energy bills will rise tomorrow and people need help now. We cannot dither and delay when families need that reassurance. The Scottish Government has the power to do something about it. We know that the additional £41 million is on its way, and families need to know that support is also on its way. Warm words will be cold comfort for people who are at risk of suffering this winter. Will the First Minister guarantee that the Government will act, that she will back our plan, and that she will make sure that the £41 million gets into people’s pockets before it is too late? People who are watching this will have heard me say that every penny of the £41 million will go directly to help low-income families.
Anas Sarwar said that that is where the funding for his proposal should come from, but he announced his proposal before we knew about the £41 million. Maybe I am getting his proposal wrong, but I assume that the £70 increase that he wants is over and above that. All that I am saying to him is that he should tell us where the money should come from. Sometimes, consequentials do not turn out to be what they appeared to be, but, on the assumption that the £41 million does come from the UK Government, every single penny of it will go to help low-income families. That will be in addition to the other sources of support that I have just outlined, such as the £130 support payment and all the other steps that we are taking: the doubling of the carers allowance and the seven benefits that do not exist anywhere else in the UK that Social Security Scotland is already delivering.
We act to use our powers and our resources, but the cost of living crisis is caused by the decisions that the UK Government is taking within its reserved powers. We cannot go on raiding a finite devolved budget to mitigate the impact of those decisions. We need to get those powers out of the hands of UK Governments and into the hands of this Parliament.
As long as Anas Sarwar prefers to leave those powers in Boris Johnson’s hands, he will not have the credibility that he wants to have before this chamber. Mike Coffey of Scotland’s Rural College said: “With the state of the planet, we need to do something rather urgently. We no longer have the luxury of having decades to breed … plants and animals.” The Roslin Institute, the NFU Scotland and the SRUC are all concerned that the SNP Government is adopting an outdated European Union position in rejecting gene editing and putting farmers in Scotland on the back foot instead of grasping science and innovation. Does the First Minister agree with David Michie of the NFUS that gene editing will benefit animal welfare, public health, the environment and farmers? I have not seen those comments in full, but I am happy to look at them and to consider them carefully.
Those are serious issues. The quality of our food and agriculture is important. I do not support genetically modified crops; opposition to that is important. I know that we are not talking about exactly the same thing, but it is important to consider all these things carefully. I will consider the comments and say more once I have had the opportunity to do that.
While in Washington last week, Boris Johnson claimed that the US ban on imports of lamb had been lifted. United Kingdom Government memos that have been obtained by the Daily Record, however, reveal that the ban has not been lifted and that the PM was “misleading”. I am quoting UK civil servants. Does the First Minister agree that the way in which the Tories are treating the industry is disgraceful, and that Boris Johnson must apologise and set the record straight? Jim Fairlie appears to be suggesting that not everything that comes out of the mouth of Boris Johnson can be relied upon. Perish the thought. Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether anything that comes out of the mouth of Boris Johnson can be relied upon. Jim Fairlie is absolutely right. The Prime Minister owes an apology because what he said is not the case and has been described as “misleading”. Of course, the UK Government has betrayed our farmers and our fishermen, and each and every day right now our entire agricultural sector is paying the price of the Tory Brexit. That price is getting higher and higher with every day that passes. Perhaps the PM should apologise not just for the misleading statement about the import ban on lamb but for all the damage that the UK Government has done through Brexit.
Today, the furlough scheme comes to an end. The most recent figures showed that more than 100,000 people in Scotland were still on furlough. Although the headlines might discuss labour shortages, labour market statistics show that the number of jobs in the economy is still significantly below pre-pandemic levels. Although the transition training fund is welcome, it will account for a small fraction of the jobs shortfall. Does the First Minister think that her Government is doing enough to help people who might find themselves out of work at the end of this month, given the stress and anxiety, and the impact on household finances that they will experience as a result? We will continue to do everything that we can. The question about the need for us to look on an on-going basis at whether we are doing all that we reasonably can to help low-income families and to help people who are unemployed is a fair one. I certainly give the assurance that we will do that on an on-going basis. I return to the answer that I gave to Anas Sarwar.
I am afraid that we, and people across the country, are suffering the impact of decisions that are beyond the control of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. There will always be a limit to what we can do to mitigate the impact of those decisions. It would be far better if we did not have to go cap in hand to a United Kingdom Government to ask for furlough to be continued. It would be much, much better if we could take such decisions here in Scotland, in this democratically elected Parliament.
If Labour is serious about such matters—I respect the fact that Daniel Johnson is—it must stop holding to the position of merely willing the ends of things. It must get into a position in which it gives Parliament the means to do the things that we all want it to be able to do. As we sat listening to the exchange about vaccination passports, I was contacted by someone from a hospitality venue in the Highlands, who says that it hosts weddings. It is holding one tomorrow night. The person understands that all guests will need to provide evidence of having had two vaccinations to be allowed in. There will be music, dancing and all the rest of it. Some of the guests are family members who are over from China.
Will they be allowed in? As we have made clear, weddings are exempt from the vaccination certification scheme. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the announcement of a temporary visa scheme to tackle skills shortages? We discuss such matters with the UK Government on an on-going basis. The Scottish Government has on many occasions made clear its opposition to the UK Government’s immigration policies—in particular, the ending of free movement. We welcome anything that enables more people to come here to work.
However, to describe the changes to the visa rules that were announced last week as a sticking plaster would be an exaggeration, because I do not think that they even amount to that. They are woefully inadequate. I am afraid that the price of those policies will be paid and felt by people across the country for some time to come. Abortion rights are under attack around the world and, here in Scotland, women are being harassed as they try to access abortion clinics safely. The implementation of buffer zones around clinics has stalled, and campaigners such as Back Off Scotland are looking to the Scottish Government for leadership and support. Does the First Minister agree that anyone who accesses abortion healthcare in Scotland should be able to do so safely and free from harassment? Will the Government reassess its position on legislating for abortion clinic buffer zones? Yes, I agree whole-heartedly.
I am a very strong believer in a woman’s right to choose on abortion. I am, if it is possible, an even stronger advocate—as everybody should be, regardless of the fact that people have different views on abortion—of the position that any woman who has an abortion should be able to do so without fear of, and without actual abuse or harassment. There is work to be done to make sure that that is the case. My party’s election manifesto had things to say on the matter, as did the manifestos of other parties, and we will consider steps that we can take to ensure that women can exercise that right in reality. Reputational damage is being caused to some Shetland businesses as Transport Scotland fails to address the need for adequate year-round ferry fleet capacity. One removals company has had future bookings cancelled, which resulted in a house owner sitting on the floor in their empty new home.
That is just one recent example. There can be no economic growth without sufficient infrastructure. The matter has been raised before, but the response was that pinch points are recognised and that all options are being considered. There is growing frustration and anger in the isles that no interim solution has been found. Will the First Minister indicate what Transport Scotland does with the freight information that northern isles stakeholders provide to it? When will the Scottish Government address that serious problem? The Minister for Transport has engaged on the issues, which are important. There are plans to develop two new freight vessels, which will address the issue in the long-term.
The minister has also given an assurance that work is under way to explore potential short-term actions to alleviate some of the pressures on the busiest sailings. I will ask the transport minister to write directly to Beatrice Wishart. If she wishes to provide details of the particular case that she cited, those will be passed on. I will ask Graeme Day to provide more detail about the work that is under way to resolve the issue in the short term as well as in the longer term. To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of the on-going economic impact on Scotland of Brexit. The Scottish Government estimates that the new relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom could cut Scotland’s gross domestic product by around 6.1 per cent by 2030, compared to continued EU membership. That would be equivalent to £9 billion in 2016 cash terms. In particular, we have forecast that one of the immediate impacts will come from challenges in recruiting and retaining EU citizens as workers here.
That has, indeed, proved to be the case. The fuel crisis and the labour and skills shortages that are now being experienced across the economy and in public services lay bare the economic recklessness of a hard Brexit. The UK Government pressed ahead with leaving the EU, despite repeated requests for delay. Everyone in the country is now seeing the result of that short-sighted ideology everywhere we look. The people of Scotland never voted for Brexit. We now face soaring energy prices and forecourts are running dry. A labour shortage affects sectors from care to haulage. We are even threatened with shortages of Irn Bru if the situation is not urgently addressed. The Conservative response to that is the pathetic offer of a three-month visa for EU truck drivers. It is clear that the Tories have nothing to offer Scotland but cuts, hardship and cruelty. Their latest plans for replacing EU subsidies yet again take powers from this Parliament and threaten our plans for a green recovery. Is the First Minister concerned about that latest power grab, and will she reaffirm her commitment, as outlined in our co-operation agreement, to offering the people of Scotland a way out of Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain with a referendum on Scotland’s future, before the end of this session of Parliament? It was interesting that, as Gillian Mackay was asking that very pertinent question, the Tories were getting very twitchy.
They do not like to hear or to listen to the reality of the damage that their policies are doing to people the length and breadth of Scotland. They will not be able to hide from that damage in the weeks and months to come. Regarding immigration, in the run-up to the Brexit referendum and since, the Conservatives have given the impression that people from other countries are not welcome to work here. Now, they want people to come here for three months to help the UK Government out of its self-imposed crisis, only to send them back again on Christmas eve. That is absolutely disgraceful. Across a range of issues today, we have heard the power of the argument for this country to be independent, so that we can take such decisions ourselves and are no longer dependent on the decisions of a UK Government, and so that we can respond to the needs of people throughout this country here, in the democratically elected Parliament of our nation.
I continue to believe, and intend, that that will be the case and that people across the country will have the opportunity to choose independence in a referendum within this session of Parliament and, I hope, within the first half of the session. Does the First Minister agree that local authority budgets have been badly affected by the disastrous Tory Brexit deal? Councils such as Aberdeenshire Council are struggling to repair potholes because contractors cite additional costs relating to supplies and staff. I ask colleagues to please bear it in mind that we all wish to hear the questions that are asked. I hope that you heard the question, First Minister. I did, Presiding Officer. People will draw their own conclusions, but the fact of the matter is that the Tories do not want people to hear these questions because they hope that people will not see the damage that Tory policies are doing to people across the country. However, people are feeling it in their jobs, in their pay packets and in their energy bills. They will see it and they will know exactly who is responsible. On local government budgets, during a decade of Tory austerity we sought to treat local government as fairly as possible and will continue to do that.
However, whether it is through austerity or Brexit, we see the damage that the Conservatives are doing, which is why more and more people think that this country should be independent. To ask the First Minister what engagement the Scottish Government has had, and plans it has made, with key Scottish industries to support vulnerable households this winter. I have already, in answer to previous questions, set out the range of measures that we are taking to directly support vulnerable households across this winter. More generally, we are engaging with people and businesses across the country. We have been engaging with industry and consumer groups, including fuel poverty organisations, to develop plans for what we can reasonably do to further support those in vulnerable circumstances. The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, Michael Matheson, met the United Kingdom secretary of state on Monday and pressed for further UK Government action on skills, industry and support for the most vulnerable, and we intend to keep making that case. As the First Minister knows, there is just one week to go before the UK Government cuts universal credit, plunging over 60,000 families and 20,000 children in Scotland into poverty.
Tory MSPs have spent this week defending the indefensible. Will she join me in saying to the Tories, “It’s not too late. Do the right thing. Defend your constituents and stand with the Scottish Parliament against these cuts”? Yes. Obviously, as part of the cut and thrust of democracy and political debate, I disagree with and oppose many of the UK Government’s policies, just as the Conservatives will oppose many of the policies of this Government. However, I do not think that there has been anything quite so morally indefensible as the cut to universal credit that is planned to take effect in a week’s time. Taking—at this time, in particular—£20 a week away from the most vulnerable, lowest-income households across the country simply cannot be defended in any way, shape or form.
I ask the Conservatives in the chamber—if Douglas Ross wants to get off his phone for a moment while we are talking about this really serious issue—to please, over the next few days, try to persuade their UK Government colleagues not to do this. It is their constituents, just as it is mine and those of every member in the chamber, who are going to find it difficult to feed their children, pay their energy bills and live with dignity if the cut goes ahead. For goodness’ sake, let all of us unite to say to the UK Government, “Do not do this.” To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that, in the last year, ministers overturned almost 50 per cent of planning applications. It is simply incorrect to say that ministers have overturned almost 50 per cent of planning applications. The vast majority of planning appeals are decided by independent reporters from the planning and environmental appeals division of the Scottish Government.
It is right and proper that ministers have no involvement in cases that are delegated to reporters. In the last financial year, 135 decisions on planning appeals were made, and planning permission was granted on 67 occasions. However, in the same period, local planning authorities decided on approximately 25,000 planning applications, and 94.5 per cent were granted planning permission. Planning approvals issued by reporters were approximately 0.3 per cent of the planning permissions granted over the course of this year in Scotland.
That is my response to that claim. We know that national planning framework 4 will give ministers additional powers over local planning. Council leaders, including those from the First Minister’s own party, have voiced real concerns about the impacts of the Government’s proposals regarding the centralisation of services and further loss of local accountability and decision making. Those include concerns about alcohol and drug partnerships and children’s services being swept up in proposals for a centralised system.
I ask a very simple question of the First Minister. By the end of this session, will councils have fewer or more powers? We seem to have gone from planning applications to children’s services. We work in partnership with local authorities to make sure that we are delivering for people across the country. Let us go back to planning applications. There is no centralisation here. As I said, in 2020-21, 25,000 planning applications were decided by local planning authorities. The vast majority of them—94.5 per cent—were granted planning permission. There were 135 decisions on planning appeals made through the arrangements in the Scottish Government, which I have set out, and Scottish ministers made the final decision on four recalled planning appeals. The whole premise of the question is deeply flawed, which is probably why Miles Briggs chose to go on to something else after my first answer rather than stick with the subject matter of his question.
The national planning framework will be published and consulted on soon. When does the Scottish Government intend to publish the national planning framework participation statement, setting out the consultation process? I am very happy to get back to the member with the date—if we have set a date—on which that will be published. I will ask the relevant minister to write to the member as soon as possible. To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that social care services in Glasgow have been temporarily suspended because of staff shortages. All of us understand how vital those services are to many people, and I understand the concern that any changes to the operation of such services brings. The Glasgow health and social care partnership has sought to assure the Government that the suspension of services is temporary. The situation will be regularly reviewed and services will be reinstated as quickly as possible. We have been working, and we will continue to work, closely with all local areas, including Glasgow, to ensure that services are delivered safely.
That has included introducing measures to address recruitment and retention issues, such as working with the Scottish Social Services Council and key partners to promote opportunities and encourage take-up of vacant posts, which includes work on training and developing the workforce. In addition, we are running a campaign to attract more people to the sector, and we are accelerating routes into the sector in recruitment processes. I thank the First Minister for that answer, but people who require care will probably find little comfort in it. Last week, Glasgow City Council took the operational decision to suspend day-care services on the basis of mounting staffing pressures in what has been described as a “critical shortage” of care workers—a shortage that I, as a care user, am acutely aware of.
Does the First Minister accept that there is a crisis in social care recruitment and that her Government’s continued year-on-year underfunding of local authorities and social care has impacted on vacancies and the pay that is available? How many vacancies are there currently in social care in Scotland, and will the Government commit to publishing that information? What action is the Government taking to tackle the crisis, including the grossly unfair low pay in the sector? There were a number of perfectly reasonable questions there. Obviously, local authorities generally are the employers of social care workers, so the data is likely to be held mainly by local authorities, but I will undertake to look at whether we can publish the kind of information that Pam Duncan-Glancy is asking for, so that we have greater understanding and transparency around the level of vacancies.
I absolutely agree that—notwithstanding my previous answer or, probably, this answer—the temporary suspension of services will be of profound concern to everybody who is affected by it, and everybody wants to see those services reinstated as quickly as possible. We will continue to have debates in the chamber about funding. We are increasing funding to social care, and it is important that we do that. There is a recognised need to drive up the pay and conditions of the social care workforce. That is part of our national care service proposal, but the issue needs to be progressed in the lead-up to the delivery of that proposal. I take all of this very seriously.
I do not want to get back into the exchanges about Brexit that we had earlier, but I will say that we face a shortage of labour in this country that is affecting haulage companies—as we can see right now—and many aspects of the private sector. We all have to recognise that it is affecting our health and care sector, too, and that is likely to be exacerbated in the coming period. Yesterday, the health secretary and I discussed the issue with officials, and we have a number of plans in progress to try to increase recruitment into social care. We will do everything that we can to do that. It is one of the impacts of decisions that have been taken over recent years that will cause difficulty for us in the coming months. We all have to recognise that and resolve to do everything that we can to overcome it.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Yesterday, in the chamber, during the debate on the drug deaths crisis, Scottish National Party MSP Jim Fairlie suggested that the Scottish Conservatives were “cynically using the death toll that drugs are taking in our communities to attack the Scottish Government”. I suggest that that kind of language goes beyond the robust debate that we want in the chamber. That is offensive to those members from all parties who, over the past few years, have stood up, represented our communities and debated the issue with a view to finding solutions.
If Mr Fairlie is suggesting that Opposition parties should not use their debating time to highlight a crisis that has made Scotland the drug deaths capital of Europe and the First Minister concede that the Scottish Government has taken its eye off the ball, I am not sure what we are supposed to use our time for. It is because of the drug deaths rate that we continually raise the matter—members from all political parties recognise that and work constructively to help tackle that shame. I recognise that Mr Fairlie is one of the newer members of the Scottish Parliament, and I put on record the fact that I respect him and work with him in committee. Perhaps he will reflect on the use of inflammatory language. That brings me to someone who should know better. The SNP chief whip stated that Conservatives were playing “political games while people’s live are at stake”—[Official Report, 29 September 2021; c 87.] and that, apparently, it was “a damned disgrace”.
He may be relishing his time in the spotlight, but, since the start of the pandemic, 18 months ago, the Scottish Government has consistently reassured members that it would bring important decisions to the Parliament for approval and scrutiny. Asking the Scottish Government to adhere to its commitments should not result in the Government’s chief whip suggesting that we are putting lives at stake. It is because people’s lives are at stake that we continue to press for that information.
Presiding Officer, you know that I am an advocate of robust—and heated—debate in the chamber, but I have to say that the language that is creeping into our debates is deteriorating. The First Minister has suggested that we need to consider our behaviour and language. Suggesting that anyone is using the deaths of others or that we are putting lives at risk for questioning the Scottish Government is unparliamentary and goes too far. I seek your opinion on whether parliamentary protocol has been breached. I thank Mr Whittle for his point of order. He is entirely correct in saying that, although parliamentary debates can be robust, they must also be conducted in terms that demonstrate courtesy and respect for other members. The Deputy Presiding Officers and I will always intervene when we feel that language has been used that is not acceptable. MSPs have a leadership role in their communities and across Scotland, and the way that we conduct debate in the Parliament should set a positive example to people across the country. I ask all members to reflect on that in relation to their conduct in the chamber.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Brian Whittle referred several times to the Minister for Parliamentary Business as the chief whip, which is incorrect. Thank you, Ms Mackay. Your comment is on the record. We will now move on to the next item of business. I ask members to please leave the chamber quietly.