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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 15, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Affairs and Islands

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon, colleagues. The first item of business is portfolio question time, and the first portfolio is rural affairs and islands. I ask any member who wishes to pose a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

Short-term Let Licensing (Impact on Rural Economy)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the rural affairs secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding an assessment of the impact of short-term let licensing on the rural economy. (S6O-01996)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

I regularly engage with colleagues on a variety of issues that affect our respective portfolios. In relation to short-term lets, the Scottish Government published seven impact assessments to accompany the licensing legislation, including a business and regulatory impact assessment and an island communities impact assessment.

The licensing scheme offers considerable flexibility to local authorities on how it is implemented. We recognise the challenges that businesses face at this time, which is why we have extended by six months—from 1 April to 1 October this year—the deadline for existing hosts to apply for a licence. We remain committed to monitoring the implementation of the scheme, and we will undertake a review in 2024.

Graham Simpson

The Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Business Development has found that 77 per cent of operators feel that their business is threatened by the new licensing scheme. Rural businesses are struggling to keep afloat, and the regulations are making things worse. How is the cabinet secretary supporting owners of rural businesses who fear that they will have to close their business as a result of the legislation?

Mairi Gougeon

I thank the member for raising that important point. Obviously, this work is being led by my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government. I will be happy to pick up those issues with her and get back to the member with a response.

We need to try to get the balance right. We should ensure that the scheme is flexible because it is, ultimately, for local authorities to implement the scheme in their own way. Monitoring of the scheme’s implementation is vital, and the review that will take place next year will be critical in that regard.

I am more than happy to raise those issues with my colleague.

A number of members would like to ask a supplementary question. I would be grateful if the questions could be as brief as possible.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Short-term lets have contributed positively to our tourism industry, but high numbers of them can make it harder for people to find homes to live in. Data indicates that house prices in the Western Isles have risen by 135 per cent over the past 18 years. Given that such increases are likely to price young islanders out of areas that retain large numbers of second homes, does the cabinet secretary share my view that it is crucial to address those concerns?

Mairi Gougeon

I do, and I thank the member for raising that issue, which is raised with me whenever I am out and about visiting rural parts of Scotland and our islands. Local areas need to have the tools and powers to take action to address imbalances between tourism, second homes and residential housing that are causing problems for local communities and economies and affecting the sustainability of public services.

In addition to providing more than £43 million over the current parliamentary session to support the delivery of affordable housing in the Western Isles, we agree that action needs to be taken on second homes. That is why, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, we are exploring proposals to give local authorities powers to increase council tax on second homes.

I call Rachael Hamilton.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is—

Ms Hamilton, is this a supplementary question?

No. I am sorry.

In that case, I call Willie Rennie. I will come back to Rachael Hamilton shortly.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I would welcome seeing the details of the plans on second homes.

I have been critical of the licensing scheme, which has been particularly burdensome, but I am a strong supporter of short-term let control areas. My frustration is that Fife Council says that it has to wait until the licensing scheme is in place, but it wants the local development plan to be developed in tandem with the implementation of control areas. Will the cabinet secretary and her colleagues have a discussion with Fife Council to encourage it to move a little bit faster?

Yes. I am more than happy to raise that issue with colleagues.

Food Security

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is, regarding the implications for the food and drink supply chain in Scotland, to the National Farmers Union’s petition on improving food security. (S6O-01997)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

I fully agree with the National Farmers Union on the importance that it places on our food security and the need for the United Kingdom Government to have plans in place to deal with the UK’s security of food supply. I have raised repeatedly with the UK Government the critical issues that are impacting on the sector and the need for it to intervene to provide more support to the food and drink sector. I have also set up a food security unit in the Scottish Government to monitor supply chain vulnerabilities and strengthen food security and supply in Scotland.

Rachael Hamilton

Given the critical importance of food security in the current climate, will the cabinet secretary use the opportunity to revisit the benefits of genetic technology, which will enable Scotland’s farmers to sustainably grow food, lower their emissions, reduce the risks of a poor harvest and improve the health of the nation?

Mairi Gougeon

I am sure that Rachael Hamilton is aware of our position on that. I have talked about the immediate concerns and some of the immediate issues that we face, which are really important, and the action that we have taken in setting up the food security unit in the Scottish Government, which will monitor the on-going supply chain vulnerabilities that exist to ensure that we are not caught out again should there be further challenges. We have already been through the pandemic, Brexit and war in Ukraine, and we have seen the impact that they have had on our food supply. Therefore, we want to ensure that we have resilience.

There are a couple of brief supplementary questions.

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

Martin Kennedy said:

“we have a UK Government that wants to blame everyone except themselves for the current and impending food shortages.”

In a speech at the NFU conference, Minette Batters highlighted three areas that threaten to jeopardise the industry: labour shortages, the uncertainty that is posed by the phasing out of direct payments, and soaring energy prices. All those issues sit outside the Scottish Parliament’s remit. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that, if the Tories want to discuss food security, a good place to start would be to get the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs secretary in front of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee?

Mairi Gougeon

Who the committee invites to give evidence will ultimately be a decision for it to take. Obviously, it is not for me to account for the actions of the secretary of state, but I absolutely agree that the food and drink sector has been beset by a wide range of issues arising from some of the things that I have mentioned—the pandemic, Brexit and the conflict in Ukraine, which is now having further impacts.

It is important to focus on the action that we have taken in Scotland to mitigate some of the impacts. Together with industry, I established a short-life food security and supply task force in March last year. The outcome of that work was a report that we published in June, in which we recognised that the UK Government ultimately holds many of the levers to address the cumulative issues that are impacting the sector, which Jim Fairlie has mentioned. Labour and skills shortages, rising costs and energy costs are among the most significant issues.

I have written repeatedly to the UK Government to highlight the need for it to intervene and provide vital support for the industry. I received a response only this week. We are still waiting for meaningful engagement and action to be taken.

Other than writing to the UK Government, given that the responsibility is largely down to the cabinet secretary, what has the short-term task force delivered, or what is it expected to deliver?

You should be brief, cabinet secretary.

Mairi Gougeon

I do not think that Finlay Carson could disagree with me about the fact that the issues that I have talked about are ultimately up to the UK Government. Ultimately, some of the biggest risks that the sector currently faces, such as energy costs and labour shortages, are the responsibility of the UK Government.

We recognise that we need to take action in Scotland. That is why I set up a task force. If Finlay Carson had listened to my response to the previous question, he would have heard me say that a direct outcome of that work has been the establishment of a food security unit in the Scottish Government.

All the recommendations in the task force’s report, which was published in June last year, have been completed.

Kenny Gibson should be brief.

Can the cabinet secretary advise what impact Brexit has had on the food and drink supply chain, most recently with the shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables?

You should be as brief as possible, cabinet secretary.

Mairi Gougeon

We know, of course, that there have been weather challenges in other parts of the world that have affected fruit and vegetables and the supply chain during the winter period in the UK. However, those have, of course, been exacerbated by the UK Government’s approach to Brexit. Scotland’s food and drink sector lost many of the benefits that we once had when we were trading with the European Union and were part of the single market.

The impact is clear and evident when we look at the figures. Many Scottish food industries continue to suffer from lower exports to the EU. We saw a 49 per cent fall in fruit and vegetable exports and a 15 per cent fall in dairy and egg exports in the first nine months of last year compared with the same period in 2019.


Proposed Agriculture Bill (Consultation)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on when its response to the agriculture bill consultation will be published. (S6O-01998)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish Government is committed to introducing a new agriculture bill to Parliament this year. A public consultation on the proposed bill, which sought views on proposals to assist with delivering our vision for agriculture and the legislative framework that will be required to replace the current common agricultural policy from 2025-26 onwards, closed on 5 December. We are carefully considering the diverse range of views provided, and we aim to publish responses in the spring.

Pam Gosal

We will undoubtedly hear more about the plans for agricultural reform during this afternoon’s debate. Without pre-empting what the cabinet secretary might have to say about that in a few moments’ time, is she able to say whether the Scottish Government has made any assessment of the potential for existing proposals in the agricultural support package to reduce food production on productive land in favour of carbon sequestration measures? If the Government has not done so, does she accept that its failure to do so could jeopardise our nation’s food security?

Mairi Gougeon

We are not jeopardising our nation’s food security. We need to be clear about the fact that, when it comes to what we introduce in our future framework, it is not a choice between food production and taking action for nature and the climate. Ultimately, it is a case of making our food production systems and our businesses more resilient to some of the changes that we know are coming down the line.

In this job, I am really fortunate in that I get to travel the length and breadth of Scotland to meet our farmers and producers and to see the action that they are taking on the ground in producing food in a way that works with nature and for the climate, and which, ultimately, will help to make businesses more sustainable, resilient and profitable. [Interruption.] We are keen to ensure that we enable that and that we enhance our activity in that area.

Mr Carson, please desist from chucking comments across the front benches.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

The industry has repeatedly told us how important it is that we get the new agricultural support system right, given the importance of the proposed bill and the Scottish Government’s commitment to listening to the sector.

Co-development, co-design and discussions with farmers and crofters are fundamental to that approach, which is in contrast to the shambles that the environmental land management schemes have caused south of the border. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that it is right that we take our time and that we need no lessons from the Tories when it comes to safeguarding the interests of farmers, crofters and growers in Scotland?

Be as brief as possible, cabinet secretary.

Mairi Gougeon

I will try to be as brief as possible. It is important to remember how vital it was that we committed to a period of stability and simplicity, and that we delivered on that commitment, to ensure that our farmers, crofters and land managers would continue to receive direct payments.

The work that the member touched on is vital. As we look to develop our future policy, we want to make sure that we do it right, in a way that works for the industry and for our farmers and crofters, so that we bring them along with us. It is critical that they help us to develop future policy. That takes a bit more time, but it is vital to ensure that we get the process right.

Agricultural Support

4. Joe FitzPatrick

To ask the Scottish Government when it last engaged with the United Kingdom Government regarding support available through future budgets to support agriculture in Scotland, including the replacement of European Union agricultural funding. (S6O-01999)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

EU exit means that we no longer have long-term certainty of funding. HM Treasury has provided yearly allocations for the current UK parliamentary session, but there is no funding commitment from 2025 onwards.

The UK Government promised full EU replacement funding and collective engagement on future funding, which was reaffirmed by previous secretaries of state.

The Scottish ministers raised the issue of replacement funding for the rural affairs and islands portfolio at prior meetings of the interministerial group for environment, food and rural affairs, as well as directly, and we continue to make representations to the UK Government that it should fulfil its commitments.

Joe FitzPatrick

Last Wednesday, the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee heard from members of the ARIOB—the agriculture reform implementation oversight board. The evidence that was given to the committee highlighted the long-term nature of the agriculture sector and the concerns that exist regarding the inability of businesses, following Brexit, to plan ahead.

Does the cabinet secretary share my view that the Tory UK Government is completely failing our farmers, crofters and growers? Will she continue to advocate active farming and food production? Will she commit to having continued engagement with the UK Government, with a view to securing some clarity for the industry?

Mairi Gougeon

Yes, I will. I know how important future funding certainty is. One of the biggest issues that I hear about directly from farmers, crofters and other businesses is the ability to plan for the future and know what funding will be in place. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to provide that certainty, for the reasons that I outlined in my initial response.

We share the frustration that our stakeholders have expressed about the lack of clarity, the lack of collective engagement on future funding and the impact that that has on the development of future policy. That is before we even look at the impact of trade and migration policies and the threats that are posed by the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the Subsidy Control Act 2022.

I remain committed to supporting active farming and food production in Scotland with direct payments, because that provides certainty to the industry, and we will deliver on our commitments.

Agricultural Support (Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports agriculture in Ayrshire. (S6O-02000)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish Government provides access to agricultural support from a number of payment schemes that are open to eligible farmers, crofters and land managers. We have committed to support active farming and food production with direct payments to provide certainty to the industry, and we brought forward the 2022 common agricultural policy payment date to provide support to businesses with immediate cash-flow challenges.

Willie Coffey

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Ayrshire plays a prominent role in farming in Scotland and that the quality of our beef, sheep and dairy sectors is among the best in the world, with produce of the highest standard. With significantly rising costs affecting production, our farmers are facing an extremely challenging task simply to keep pace. Will the cabinet secretary outline the Government’s plans to help them to meet that challenge, to increase local food production in Scotland and, of course, to encourage everyone to buy Scottish farming produce in support of our local farmers?

Mairi Gougeon

I could not agree more with the member’s point about the fantastic produce that comes from his region. I had the pleasure of visiting a dairy farm with him a wee while ago now. The Ayrshire agriculture sector is hugely important to Scotland and, over the past year, we have provided around £31 million in support payments for the various schemes that I talked about.

The member raises important points about something that we could all do more to encourage: buying local produce and supporting local production. We have set out a local food strategy and, last year, I took the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022 through the Parliament. That is about Scotland being that good food nation, ensuring that people in Scotland have access to the food that we produce in this country and strengthening local food supply chains. We are of course looking to do all that we can to encourage that and encourage people to buy local produce and support local production.

Decarbonisation of Transport (Rural Economy)

6. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the rural affairs secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding how it will ensure that the needs of the rural economy are considered in its plans for the decarbonisation of transport. (S6O-02001)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

I regularly engage with my ministerial colleagues, including the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, on transport matters. For example, I do that through the islands strategic group, which met last week. The Government’s ambitions for future transport investment priorities for the whole of Scotland are included in the second strategic transport projects review, which was published in December last year. They have the potential to decarbonise transport and transform the way that we travel in rural areas. The recommendations focused on active travel, bus priority and the safety and resilience of the transport network, all of which will support the rural economy.

Brian Whittle

The minister will know that our rural areas are being left behind when it comes to the decarbonisation of transport. We have a huge opportunity here and I wonder whether the cabinet secretary recognises it. We have an opportunity to connect main arterial routes such as the A75, the A77 and the A9 in an electric and hydrogen superhighway that will bring up our rural economy to the standards that we are looking at in urban areas. Does the minister accept that that investment is required?

Jenny Gilruth

I recognise the sentiment of Mr Whittle’s question. It is worth saying that a lot of cross-Government work is on-going on this matter. For example, only last week, as I alluded to in my first response, the islands strategic group met and, as a result of a request from me, transport will now be a standing agenda item for that group. It is important that we have a cross-Government approach to transport, particularly where there is a connection across portfolio areas.

I would also point to the fact that the convention of the Highlands and Islands will be in the Western Isles next week and, again, transport will feature on the agenda. There are undoubtedly challenges in rural Scotland that do not exist in other parts of the country.

The member makes a fair point in relation to electric vehicles. It is worth pointing out that, in Scotland, we have the most comprehensive public charging network in the United Kingdom outside of London. However, there is more that we need to do, working with our local authority partners and particularly in rural areas.

I will take a brief supplementary from Beatrice Wishart.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Although ferries are integral to the transport of livestock, fish and aquaculture produce throughout Shetland and for export, our interisland ferries also contribute significantly to Shetland’s carbon emissions. How will the Scottish Government assist island communities in decarbonising ferry transport while meeting their economic needs?

As briefly as possible, minister.

Jenny Gilruth

The member might be aware that the Deputy First Minister and I met Shetland Islands Council yesterday to discuss this very matter of the sustainability of Shetland’s interisland ferries. That work is on-going with the local authority. We absolutely need to focus on the decarbonisation of the fleet, which at the current time is, of course, the local authority’s responsibility.

I call Kenneth Gibson for a brief supplementary.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

The carbon neutral islands project demonstrates that Scottish islands and their economies are at the vanguard of innovation and are leading the way in the journey to net zero. Can the minister advise how the experience of delivering the carbon neutral islands objective, specifically in relation to transport, can be applied to other parts of Scotland, both rural and urban?

As briefly as possible, minister.

Jenny Gilruth

The carbon neutral islands project is intended to benefit all of Scotland, not only those islands that have been directly included in it, but of course that will happen through knowledge exchange and the sharing of good practice. The project is very soon to release the community climate change action plans that have been developed by island communities; those plans will be hugely important and we look forward to analysing their content and working closely with our delivery partners.

Windsor Framework (Impact on Food and Drink)

To ask the Scottish Government what its initial assessment is of the potential impact of the Windsor framework on the food and drink supply chain in Scotland. (S6O-02002)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

First of all, we need to be clear that the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol was of the United Kingdom Government’s own making, threatening what would have been a catastrophic trade war with the European Union in the middle of a cost crisis. Therefore, although the Scottish Government broadly welcomes the Windsor framework agreement, Scotland did not vote for Brexit, which has brought nothing but harm to people, communities and businesses in Scotland. The UK Government must also clarify policy on Northern Ireland to Great Britain trade and the impact on devolved responsibilities, including physical checks on food safety and animal and plant health and on associated infrastructure, such as a border control post at Cairnryan.

Clare Adamson

Indeed, Scotland is the only constituent nation of the UK to have had its vote on Brexit comprehensively ignored, threatening our food security in the process.

Given NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy’s description of what has been

“significant and costly disruption to long-established trading arrangements between Scotland and Northern Ireland”,

does the cabinet secretary agree that Scotland must be given dispensation similar to that given to Northern Ireland in the Windsor framework so that our food and drink sector has the economic security of access to the EU single market?

Mairi Gougeon

We have repeatedly called for the UK Government to find a negotiated solution to this entirely avoidable dispute with the EU. The Scottish Government unequivocally supports the Good Friday agreement, and we welcome the new agreement that has been announced on the Northern Ireland protocol, but the fact is that Scotland did not vote for Brexit and yet we continue to suffer from its consequences, including the exacerbation of the current cost of living crisis.

The member is quite right. Northern Ireland has now been given preferential access to the huge European single market, while Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, has been ignored by the UK Government and subjected to the full damage of a disastrous hard Brexit. Brexit has brought nothing but harm to people, communities and businesses in Scotland, and the Scottish Government remains committed to realising Scotland’s potential as an independent nation within the European Union.

I will take a brief supplementary from Alexander Burnett.

Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

I am glad that the Windsor framework will enable the resumption of trade in seed potatoes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, something that the NFUS has called a “significant breakthrough”. What assessment has the Scottish Government made of the impact of that on Scottish farming?

As briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Mairi Gougeon

We broadly welcome that element of the framework, because that was trade that was switched off overnight and which we have not been able to access since. Again, though, all of this could have been avoided in the first place. Although we broadly welcome the move, the fact is that we did not need to be in this position.

Rural Economy (Sustainability)

8. Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the rural affairs secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding supporting sustainability of the rural economy in areas such as Argyll and Bute. (S6O-02003)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

I am in regular contact with my ministerial colleagues with regard to supporting the sustainability of our rural and island communities and economies. We actively work together to support the rural economy, including through different fora such as the islands strategic group, the convention of the Highlands and Islands and the convention of the south of Scotland.

Jenni Minto

Over the past few weeks, I have been meeting farmers and fishers in my Argyll and Bute constituency, and both groups have raised the importance of investing in local infrastructure. How is the Scottish Government ensuring that local knowledge and good practice in rural and island communities are fully harnessed?

Mairi Gougeon

The member raises an important point. If we want to deliver on our ambition for a fairer Scotland, we have to start at the local community level. Our infrastructure investment plan and islands programme set place-based investments that reflect the needs of our communities and the delivery of this Government’s priorities of a net zero, place-based, wellbeing economy.

Our planned investments for Argyll and Bute’s transport infrastructure, for example, include solutions to address the landslip risks on the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful. I know that the transport minister continues to engage with local stakeholders via the A83 task force meetings, the most recent of which was chaired by my colleague on 25 January this year. Again, it is vital to get that local engagement and listen to our local communities.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests as I am a member of a farming partnership.

Farmers often play an important part in keeping rural businesses open and trading by opening up the roads during bad weather. Will the cabinet secretary speak to local councils about the importance of them providing equipment such as snowploughs to help farmers to do that?

I am more than happy to raise that with local government colleagues or the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

That concludes portfolio questions on rural affairs and the islands. There will be a brief pause while the ministers change over and we move on to the next portfolio.

Health and Social Care

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The next portfolio is health and social care. As ever, if a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, I invite them to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

Question 1 has been withdrawn.

NHS Tayside (Recruitment of Oncologists)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the recruitment of breast cancer oncologists in NHS Tayside. (S6O-02005)

The Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport (Maree Todd)

NHS Tayside cancer services are currently operating at a stable level with mutual aid from other health boards for systemic anti-cancer therapies for breast cancer. The health board is actively recruiting and has recently seen positive developments that will be shared with the public if and when confirmed.

Willie Rennie

It is frustrating that we do not have any more detail. I have heard positive reports about recruitment, but the problem has been going on for some time. The indications are that hundreds of people have had to go outside NHS Tayside for treatment, and we are still way short of the number of consultants that we need. Some posts have been advertised and vacant for 900 days. When can we expect some real positive news for the people of NHS Tayside and Fife? This has been going on for far too long.

Maree Todd

As I said, we will share the positive news with the public as soon as we possibly can. I reassure patients in Tayside that the oncology service is now able to offer the majority of breast cancer treatments to patients wholly in Tayside, and only a small number of people—in single figures every week—require to travel to other specialist centres.

We well understand the impact of that. Mr Rennie is talking to a rural member of the Scottish Parliament, and from my constituency inbox and from my friends and family, I understand the challenging situation faced by patients who have to travel for care.

There are hopeful signs of recovery in international interest in the recruitment of senior clinicians. Dialogue is on-going on that. We are also fairly certain that we have managed to develop a pipeline of clinical oncologists to take up posts as soon as their training is completed.

Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

The reality is that a large part of the oncology department in Tayside has gone and, as we have heard, vacancies have proved to be impossible to fill. Does the minister think that it is acceptable that women in Tayside must travel miles from home for breast cancer treatment? Can she tell us what the threshold is for these arrangements to come to an end?

Maree Todd

As I said, I understand how difficult it is for individual women to have to travel for treatment for breast cancer. I know how difficult that situation is because I represent and live in a rural constituency, where many of the women have to travel long distances to seek specialist cancer treatment.

I am absolutely certain that we are seeing green shoots of recovery in relation to that historical situation in Tayside, which has been so difficult for all the people who live in Tayside, and certainly for all the people who work in that department. I am very certain that the situation is going to improve. I very much look forward to the day that I, or my replacement, can update the Parliament on that good news.

Hospital Waiting Lists

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that over 600,000 people are on a hospital waiting list. (S6O-02006)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Humza Yousaf)

We have already seen a huge effort by our national health service to clear the backlog caused by the pandemic. The total number of patients waiting more than two years for an out-patient appointment was reduced by 60 per cent in six months, and the majority of in-patient day-case specialities now have fewer than 10 patients waiting more than two years.

We have also progressed significant immediate and long-term solutions to support boards to clear the significant backlog that remains. In addition to the targets that were introduced last year, the centre for sustainable delivery is supporting boards to maximise their capacity and increase theatre efficiencies. Of course, four new treatment centres will also open later this year.

Russell Findlay

Patients across Scotland agree with Kate Forbes on Humza Yousaf’s disastrous handling of Scotland’s NHS. Evidence of his incompetence was laid bare in a recent BBC “Disclosure” investigation, but medics say that they were banned from speaking to the BBC and that every mainland health board refused the BBC access to hospitals, despite that being routine elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Will Mr Yousaf reveal whether his Government had any involvement in blocking media access to the NHS? If it did not, in his final days as health secretary, will he put an end to this secrecy culture?

I am not sure whether that question relates to hospital waiting lists, but I will invite the cabinet secretary to respond.

Humza Yousaf

No, it does not—it is, of course, politicising the health service. I urge Russell Findlay to take off that tinfoil hat that he wears so often in the chamber. There is no conspiracy. Nobody in the Government is trying to silence anybody in the health service—in fact, quite the opposite is the case. I have had a number of conversations with whistleblowing champions, and I encouraged them to raise staff concerns directly with management.

As for incompetence, maybe I should listen to Russell Findlay, because he is certainly an expert in it.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Can the cabinet secretary advise how waiting times in Scotland compare with those in England—where Mr Findlay’s party is in power—and, indeed, with those in Wales? [Interruption.] Does the cabinet secretary agree that the shortage of health professionals is due to the rapid rise in demand since the pandemic, which the Tories’ Brexit, now enthusiastically backed by Labour, has only exacerbated?

Humza Yousaf

I can hear the Conservatives shouting, “Give him a job!” I will tell them one thing: none of them will be getting a job, because they will be sitting in Opposition for a long, long time to come.

Kenny Gibson is absolutely right. The Tory Brexit, backed by the Labour Party, has had a detrimental effect not only on health services but on social care services up and down the country. It makes health workers and social care workers sick to the stomach to listen to a Prime Minister extolling the virtues of the Northern Ireland protocol while denying that very same right to the people of Scotland, who, of course, voted against Brexit.

On the question about comparisons, some direct comparisons cannot be made because of the way that data is recorded. Nonetheless, it is worth saying that data to December 2022 shows that, in Scotland, 114 patients per 1,000 of the population were waiting for treatment time guarantee and new out-patient appointments. That is fewer than in England, where 127 patients per 1,000 of the population are on the referral to treatment waiting list, and it is fewer than in Wales, where the figure is 237 patients per 1,000 of the population.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.

NHS Boards (Cost of Capital Projects)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact increases in prices and energy costs have had on the ability of national health service boards to deliver capital projects. (S6O-02008)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Humza Yousaf)

The Scottish Government has been notified of significant increases in the cost of capital projects by NHS boards due to inflation. Increases in energy costs have an effect at all points in the construction supply chain and are contributing to the overall increases in construction costs. We are, of course, reviewing the projects that are under way.

It is clear that increases in prices and energy costs have had an impact on all budgets. Has the Scottish Government undertaken any assessment of the risks of delayed implementation of future capital projects?

Humza Yousaf

Colin Beattie is right that inflation and high energy costs have had an impact on capital projects across the entire Scottish Government, including our health capital projects. In the United Kingdom Government’s budget announcement, it could have taken action to drastically reduce energy bills, but it has chosen not to do so. That will have an impact on capital projects right across the UK, including health projects.

We continuously review capital projects because of those inflationary pressures. If Colin Beattie is concerned about a specific project, I am more than happy to hear directly from him.

A number of members want to ask a supplementary question.

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

Last week, it was announced that Aberdeen’s new Baird family hospital and the ANCHOR—Aberdeen and north centre for haematology, oncology and radiotherapy—project would be delayed yet again. As they are now three years late and the costs are now more than double the original budget, can the cabinet secretary give an update on when those two hospitals will be open?

Humza Yousaf

The member asks a question without any self-awareness of the inflationary pressures that have been caused by his Government. His party’s economic vandalism has caused high energy costs and high inflation. He also knows that Covid had an impact on a number of our capital projects.

The Baird family hospital and ANCHOR projects are very important, and I am pleased that John Swinney confirmed funding for them. I will write to the member with the latest information on the timescales for opening.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Shetland needs a modern hospital that is fit for the 21st century. The last time that I asked the health secretary about Shetland’s hospital, he said that he would update me on the situation when the Scottish Government was able to make further progress on the site. That was in November. I recognise that other things have cropped up in the health secretary’s diary, but how is the Scottish Government assisting NHS Shetland in developing a new facility, as well as supporting the service with rising energy and construction costs?

Humza Yousaf

I work closely with health boards. If the member did not get a response, I will make sure that she does. I hope that she will forgive me if a response was not forthcoming.

I have made the point already that our budget—particularly our capital budget—is extraordinarily stretched because of high inflationary costs, including higher energy costs. Under our current capital programme, we have committed to a number of projects right across the country. The member knows that a replacement hospital for Shetland is not one of the projects on which I am able to give absolute certainty and confirmation. However, having visited Shetland not too long ago, I recognise the strong case for a replacement hospital there.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that I have been campaigning for a new Port Glasgow health centre, because the current facility is ageing and is very much in need of replacement. I have engaged with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and with the cabinet secretary on the issue. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on potential proposals to deliver a new Port Glasgow health centre?

Humza Yousaf

Again, I will write to the member with the detail. Members are rightly asking questions about their constituencies and regions, but such questions demonstrate the pressure that we are under. There is significant pressure on our health capital budget, which is used to deliver a number of projects right across the country. We will take each project on a case-by-case basis. I will give an update in writing to the member on the business case for the Port Glasgow health centre.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

The national treatment centre that is scheduled to be built at St John’s hospital in Livingston has doubled in price to £184 million, while the cost for the replacement for the Edinburgh eye pavilion has increased from £112.5 million to £123 million. That additional capacity is essential to tackle the waiting lists for treatment across the Lothian region. Both sites have a projected operational date of 2027. What reassurance can the cabinet secretary offer to those who are suffering while waiting for treatment that they are a priority of his? Is he waiting until 2027, too?

Humza Yousaf

I would say to them that we are very sorry that the UK Government’s economic vandalism has meant that the prices of those projects have risen so much due to inflationary pressures. Sue Webber might want to think about saying the same to the constituents whom she represents.

I support the national treatment centre programme and the delivery of the new eye pavilion. However, we need to review the investment programme so that it remains affordable, particularly given the high levels of inflation. The very large inflationary increases might mean that some NHS projects have to be delayed. I am urgently reviewing the plans for a new national treatment centre in Livingston, and when we have gone further through the process of a full business case review, I will ensure that the member is updated.

NHS Golden Jubilee (Additional Capacity)

6. Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on any on-going work with the NHS Golden Jubilee to make additional capacity available for elective operations in order to minimise pressure on waiting times. (S6O-02009)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Humza Yousaf)

The national eye centre at the Golden Jubilee hospital ran 18 months of weekend cataract sessions, over and above standard provision, to December last year, supporting the treatment of 1,251 patients in 2022. The facility is on target to deliver more than 11,000 cataract operations through core activity in the year to March 2023. The board’s endoscopy plan will also provide capacity for more than 7,500 patients in 2023-24.

Kaukab Stewart

I pay tribute to the staff at the Golden Jubilee hospital for their valued work in providing the highest-quality treatment and care for NHS Scotland patients. As elected members, we are all aware of cases where referral for treatment at the Golden Jubilee for cataract surgery has reduced the prospect of potentially lengthy waiting times by a significant number of weeks or months. Does the cabinet secretary agree that redirection to the Golden Jubilee eye centre is having a significant positive effect on local health board cataract waiting lists?

Humza Yousaf

I agree and, for the life of me, I cannot understand why there are mumbles and groans from Conservative members when Kaukab Stewart is rightly raising concerns and praising the staff at NHS Golden Jubilee for their phenomenal work in ensuring that people get cataract operations on time. I am really grateful to those NHS staff. I applaud all our NHS staff, particularly those in the Golden Jubilee, who managed to phenomenally increase the volume of cataract procedures that are undertaken per session, supported by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. That will provide sustainable improvements.

That is the value of our national treatment centres—they are national. The clue is, of course, in the name and the four that will open later this year will support people right across Scotland.

Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

The only grumbles that the cabinet secretary heard were from Kate Forbes yesterday. Increasing capacity requires staff to do the operations, so does the cabinet secretary welcome the UK Government’s removal of the lifetime limit for pensions and a 50 per cent increase to the annual limit, because that will allow senior consultants to come back to work to do extra? Will the cabinet secretary now do his bit for NHS pensions?

Humza Yousaf

Let me remind Dr Sandesh Gulhane that the only nation in the entire UK not to have lost a single day to NHS workers’ strikes is Scotland, under my leadership, of course—not under that of the Conservatives, who have ignored, stonewalled and treated our NHS workers with complete and utter contempt. This Government, of course, has ensured that they remain the best-paid staff in the entire UK, and that is a record that I am very proud of.

There is a further supplementary question, but I again remind members to keep the supplementary questions relevant to the initial question.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I wonder what the cabinet secretary would like me to tell my constituent who was told in November that she would be able to join the cataract waiting list in July this year. Does he think that that is acceptable?

Humza Yousaf

Again, I am happy for Mr Mountain to raise that case with me directly. He will know that, because of the impact of the Covid pandemic, there has undoubtedly been an increase in backlogs. However, I go back to Kaukab Stewart’s original question. We have a fantastic facility in NHS Golden Jubilee, which has increased capacity. The centre for sustainable delivery is working right across health board areas to see what more we can do to increase capacity, and I am looking forward to the opening of the treatment centre in NHS Highland, too.

Question 7 has been withdrawn.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. (S6O-02011)

The Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care (Kevin Stewart)

The Scottish Government is committed to preventing the harm that is caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy and to supporting those who are impacted by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The clear message from the chief medical officer on alcohol during pregnancy remains “no alcohol, no risk”. That message features in the booklet “Ready Steady Baby!” and on NHS inform, where there is information on why women should avoid alcohol when pregnant or trying to conceive.

All pregnant women in Scotland are asked about their drinking habits as part of their booking appointment with maternity services. If required, they are also provided with an alcohol brief intervention—a short conversation that aims to get them to think about their alcohol consumption and how they might cut down.

Gillian Martin

I thank the minister for his answer and for the reply that he sent to my office in response to my constituents’ concerns about the issue. It is estimated that between 3 and 5 per cent of people may be undiagnosed with FASD. It is the most overlooked neurodevelopmental condition in Scotland. What is being done to ensure that health providers have the tools to diagnose cases of FASD and to provide support for people who have complex needs as a result of the condition?

Kevin Stewart

The Government has provided more than £1 million in funding during the past four years to the fetal alcohol advisory support and training team—FAAST—which is based at the University of Edinburgh. The funding supports the delivery of training to improve knowledge of and attitudes towards FASD as well as confidence among professionals who are working with individuals who have it. That includes training on diagnosing the condition.

FAAST has devised a tiered approach to training. In November and December 2022, the team delivered its training on the fundamentals of FASD for health and social care practitioners to more than 300 health and social care workers, and more dates have been organised for 2023. That training will increase the knowledge and skills of practitioners so that they are able to better support people who have FASD. Training on diagnosing FASD for professionals commenced in December, with 34 participants from across the country. The course will enable those professionals, who include clinical psychologists, paediatricians, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists to have the knowledge and skills to be able to support and diagnose FASD. The course also includes information about how to translate assessment findings into meaningful indications of what post-diagnostic support will be required.

In his answer to the first question, the minister referred to something called, “Ready Steady Baby!”, and I would be grateful if he could tell me what that is.

I will ensure that all members get information about that publication, and I will also send copies of it to Mr Findlay and others so that they can peruse it for themselves.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders have a devastating impact on the lives of children who have been impacted by alcohol in the womb. What further action will the Scottish Government take to raise awareness of FASD among prospective parents in order to reduce the number of children who are born with this debilitating syndrome?

Kevin Stewart

We all have a part to play in highlighting FASD. It is one of those areas that the public are not completely aware of. I pay tribute to Siobhian Brown for recently holding a members’ business debate on this important subject. Mr Gibson has raised the issue on many occasions, too.

We will look to see what we can do with our marketing budget to promote more awareness of FASD and highlight the difficulties that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause to babies while they are in the womb.

That concludes portfolio question time.