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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, June 23, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Celebrating Success of Rugby, Portfolio Question Time, Provisional Outturn 2021-22, Medication Assisted Treatment Standards, Business Motion, Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and responses.

Population Decline (Argyll and Bute)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to tackle population decline in the Argyll and Bute constituency and other rural areas. (S6O-01276)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

There is no quick fix for the challenges that lead to depopulation. We must work with regional, local and community partners to ensure that we collectively deliver a sustainable solution to the challenges facing our rural and island populations.

Many such challenges have been exacerbated by Brexit. Increased barriers to the migration that has helped to offset an ageing population and keep services running will leave a particularly damaging gap in our rural communities. The Scottish Government continues to call upon the United Kingdom Government to make vital reforms to the immigration system to meet Scotland’s needs.

Jenni Minto

Scotland’s rural communities often face social and economic challenges for a range of reasons. However, as the cabinet secretary has highlighted, they all have one thing in common: they have all been impacted by an ideologically motivated Tory Brexit. There can be little doubt that many of those often fragile communities have had their populations impacted in some way by that act of social and economic vandalism.

What is the cabinet secretary’s latest assessment of the impact of Brexit on the population of rural Scotland? How is the Scottish Government seeking to repair the damage that that has caused?

Angus Robertson

The detrimental impact of Brexit on our rural and island communities has been profound, especially where reliance on tourism, accommodation and hospitality-related employment is acute. Such jobs help to sustain rural and island economies. However, we know that those sectors are particularly vulnerable to Brexit impacts including labour shortages, with which 57 per cent of island businesses reported difficulties in 2021.

The Scottish Government is clear that we need practical, deliverable and evidence-based migration solutions that meet Scotland’s needs. One example of our work in that space is the development of a proposal on a rural visa pilot that is to be submitted to the UK Government.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that reliable transport is essential to preventing depopulation, and that infrastructure such as interisland fixed links would benefit island populations and economies in places like Shetland?

Angus Robertson

Beatrice Wishart is absolutely right to ask such questions. Great lessons can be learned from other island groups in northern Europe—for example, the Faroe Islands, where the various island communities have been successfully integrated.

I am open to suggestions on the issue, and to hearing about best practice. We need to understand what can be done to ensure that our island communities—in Orkney, Shetland or the Western Isles—have the best infrastructure that is available. I would be happy to discuss the issue further with the member.

In-patient Births (Galloway Community Hospital)

2. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with NHS Dumfries and Galloway regarding the reinstatement of in-patient births at the community maternity unit within the Galloway community hospital. (S6O-01277)

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

Officials and the chief midwifery officer met the head of midwifery at NHS Dumfries and Galloway in May 2022. The Scottish Government is aware of the potential issues, and we continue to engage with the health board to explore ways forward.

Colin Smyth

It is four years—long before the pandemic—since in-patient births at the Galloway were halted because poor workforce planning meant that we had a chronic shortage of midwives. The minister will know that, in rural areas, not being able to fill even a couple of vacancies can mean that a service does not exist at all.

Does the minister agree that it is utterly unacceptable that women in Wigtownshire face the real fear of having to give birth in a lay-by en route to hospital in Dumfries, which is two hours away, because the community maternity unit on their doorstep is closed? More importantly, will he say what specific action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that we have the midwives who are needed in rural communities? Women in Galloway should not be treated differently just because they live in a rural area.

Kevin Stewart

The Scottish Government expects all boards to provide maternity services that are delivered as close to home as possible, including the option of home birth services. However, that has to be balanced with ensuring the safety of mothers and babies when they need access to hospital maternity and neonatal services.

Under this Government, the number of nurses and midwives has grown. I recognise that there are difficulties in recruitment in certain parts of the country. My colleague Maree Todd is working on that. She is taking a close interest in the situation, and I am sure that she will be willing to speak further with Mr Smyth to ensure that progress is made.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

Although I understand that the NHS Scotland resource allocation committee is the regularly and independently reviewed system of working out funding allocations to health boards across Scotland, and that health boards are free to make decisions on where their priorities lie, we have already heard that the midwife-led community maternity unit in Stranraer, which was once the eighth busiest of Scotland’s 22 such units, is closed for births, whereas other similar CMUs are still in place. If the formula is fit for purpose for rural areas, it should address the health inequities that pregnant women in Wigtownshire face in having to travel for two hours to get to a maternity hospital. Will the minister look at that shocking situation and commit to a reassessment of NRAC, specifically for rural and island communities?

Kevin Stewart

I am sure that the cabinet secretary would be willing to look at any proposal that Mr Carson has on NRAC. However, that is the formula that is in place. If Mr Carson is calling for a review, he should write to the cabinet secretary. That might be popular in some areas but not in others. From my time in local government, I know about the arguments on the local government funding formula.

I repeat to Mr Carson exactly what I said to Mr Smyth—

Briefly, minister, please.

The Government expects all boards to provide maternity services that are delivered as close to home as possible, in a safe manner.

Industrial Action by Rail Workers (Impact on Night-time Economy)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is putting in place to mitigate the impact of industrial action by rail workers, including on the night-time economy. (S6O-01278)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Network Rail strikes began on Tuesday this week, with today and Saturday presently earmarked as days for strike action. Noting that the dispute is a reserved matter for Network Rail and the relevant train operating companies to resolve, I have written to both Network Rail and the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Transport outlining this Government’s position on no compulsory redundancies, and urging all parties to resume talks to ensure a quick and timely resolution.

Sharon Dowey

Arts and theatre venues have expressed their concerns about reduced rail timetables and their impact on the re-emergence of live performances and culture in Scotland. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to provide certainty to the Scottish culture sector, and what forms of compensation for theatres, if any, is it considering to mitigate the impacts of restricted timetables?

Jenny Gilruth

Sharon Dowey seems to be conflating industrial action, which is happening today and happened earlier this week, with the legitimate action of the train drivers’ union in refusing to work on rest days. It is important to say that the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen—the train drivers’ union—has said that that is not formal industrial action. I accept that—as I had thought the Conservatives did, although maybe we should seek some clarity on that.

ScotRail is running a reduced timetable. I am hopeful that we will be able to reintroduce the previous full timetable in the coming weeks.

When it comes to cultural impacts, Sharon Dowey will recall that I have previously served in Government as a culture minister. I recognise that this has been a deeply challenging time for our theatres and for the culture sector more broadly, which had to contend with the imposition of pandemic restrictions until quite far into last year. The Government sought to support the culture sector and provided additional funding, which the United Kingdom Government did not provide.

When it comes to the work that will have been undertaken by the relevant minister, I defer to Neil Gray to answer the specifics of the member’s question, but I am sure that he will have been meeting regularly with the event industry advisory group, as I did throughout the pandemic, to ensure that we put in place the additional support that is required to help the culture sector in what is a really challenging time.

Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

The dispute between the United Kingdom Government’s Network Rail and RMT is having an enormous impact on Scotland, and the Tories are clearly continuing the dispute for political and ideological purposes. Mick Hogg recently told “The Nine”:

“Perhaps the UK Government should take a feather out of the Scottish Government’s hat and ... propose 5 per cent, along with a five-year no compulsory redundancy agreement”.

In Scotland, we recognise the valuable role that trade unions play in our industrial relations, but it is clear that the Tories would use the dispute to weaken the role of the unions.

Question, please.

What discussions have taken place with the UK Government regarding the impact on Scotland of its ideological dispute?

Jenny Gilruth

I fully agree with Siobhian Brown. On engagement with the UK Government, meetings were scheduled to take place between the devolved Governments and the UK Government on Monday, but they were cancelled at short notice. I was meant to meet Wendy Morton, the minister who is responsible for rail, on Wednesday, but that meeting was also cancelled at short notice. Despite repeated representations from me to Grant Shapps, there has been limited consultation between the UK Government and this Government, which is deeply regrettable because, of course, at this moment in time, Network Rail remains reserved. This situation is yet another reason why we need full devolution of Scotland’s rail services back to Scotland.

Care at Home (Recruitment and Retention)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making to address the reported recruitment and retention problems in the delivery of care at home. (S6O-01279)

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

I thank Mr Rowley for raising this important issue. The social care workforce has experienced unprecedented challenge during the pandemic. The Scottish Government is committed to supporting social care providers to recruit and retain a skilled and fulfilled workforce.

My officials are working with local Department for Work and Pensions jobcentres to host a number of jobs fairs across Scotland. We have also approved funding to extend the myjobscotland recruitment website until September 2022.

Our most recent recruitment campaign, which ran during the winter, targeted a younger audience using social media. The data that we have received following evaluation of the campaign indicates that there were increased rates of young people entering the sector, which we will continue to encourage through work to improve career pathways.

I reiterate that we are fully committed to improving the experience of the social care workforce, including by improving pay and conditions. From April this year, we have provided funding to deliver a £10.50 minimum wage for adult social care staff in commissioned services.

Alex Rowley

When the Government launched its National Care Service (Scotland) Bill on Tuesday, Fiona Collie of Carers Scotland said:

“There need to be actions in the interim to actually make the changes that are needed. For example, investment in social care, investment in breaks for carers, investment in the people who deliver social care. There are huge pressures on health and social care and those pressures are falling on carers, and unless we do something now, we cannot wait five years for the bill to go through.”

Does the minister accept that the unequal treatment of care workers is a key reason for the recruitment and retention problems that we have, and that the only way that we will address that is by putting in resources now and starting to treat care workers properly? Otherwise, this problem will just get worse and worse.

Kevin Stewart

I agree with Fiona Collie and Mr Rowley that we cannot wait until we have the national care service to resolve some of the issues that are in play at this moment. That is why the Government has paid for three pay rises in the past year—an increase of 12.9 per cent. In his question, Mr Rowley mentioned the right to breaks. That is built in to the NCS, but we cannot wait for that, which is why, in this financial year, we have put additional money into breaks for unpaid carers. That is the right thing to do.

We will continue to co-operate with partners, including the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, to ensure that we get this right as we move forward. We will not wait until NCS comes into play.

Hydrogen Action Plan

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its hydrogen action plan. (S6O-01280)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

We will publish our updated hydrogen action plan later this year. Following the publication of the draft hydrogen action plan in November 2021, we undertook a 10-week consultation process to allow comments. That feedback has been reviewed and is informing work that is currently under way to review and update the hydrogen action plan.

Fiona Hyslop

The Government’s draft hydrogen plan has good intentions. With the energy market making green hydrogen potentially more attractive and other countries now investing in deploying hydrogen electrolysers, what Scottish companies is the Government supporting to create the step change that will be needed to grow the industrial base and to develop the hydrogen production that we will need for domestic use and for exports as part of the energy mix, in order to deliver net zero?

Michael Matheson

We have a strong track record of supporting a range of hydrogen demonstration projects across the country, from the £7 million that we are investing in the SGN H100 hydrogen heat network in Fife, the hydrogen bus fleet in Aberdeen, and the surf ‘n’ turf programme, which is being taken forward by the European Marine Energy Centre—EMEC—in Orkney. Alongside that, we have also committed to investing £100 million as part of our hydrogen action plan.

I assure the member that we have on-going discussions with a range of companies that are engaged in the hydrogen sector and are interested in developing hydrogen production facilities in Scotland. Later this year, we will host a hydrogen supply chain event in Edinburgh in order to bring together companies in Scotland that are interested or are working in the hydrogen sector.

Electric Vehicle Charging Network

To ask the Scottish Government what work it is undertaking to ensure that there is a suitable and sustainable electric vehicle charging network in place across Scotland. (S6O-01281)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

Scotland has the most comprehensive public charging network in the United Kingdom outside London, with close to 3,000 public charge points, of which at least 740 are rapid chargers. Our focus is on growing that network so that it works seamlessly wherever you live or need to get to.

Our priorities are threefold: to encourage commercial investment through our new £60 million electric vehicle infrastructure programme; to introduce regulations on charge point installation in new buildings and developments; and to work with communities and designers to make charging as simple and reliable as visiting your local filling station.

Jim Fairlie

One of the key things that I am hearing from electric vehicle users in my constituency is that we need more EV charging points, and that we need to make sure that the existing ones are reliable. Can the minister explain how the electric vehicle infrastructure fund will help to increase the number of charging points in my constituency?

Jenny Gilruth

Our new fund will at least double the number of charge points over the next few years. For constituencies such as Perthshire South and Kinross-shire, our focus is on working with commercial providers so that investment will target gaps in the network, and not just areas of high traffic.

In that regard, it is true to say that we will require to leverage private investment to support some of that work, but we will also need to work with our local authority partners in order to make sure that that works. Funding is, of course, available to all 32 councils, including the council in Mr Fairlie’s constituency.

In relation to developing the EV charging strategy and the infrastructure plans, as Mr Fairlie has correctly pointed out, reliability is front and centre in people’s minds when they are considering the switch to an electric car or van. Although the reliability of the ChargePlace Scotland network is typically high, I know that any unavailable charge point is a source of frustration and that that can also be an inconvenience. As we roll out our new fund, we will work with providers to deliver a network that works for everyone, whenever they need it.

Nurses (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will address the reported shortage of nurses in rural areas. (S6O-01282)

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

Although Scotland’s nursing and midwifery staffing is at a record high, the Government understands that health boards that are operating in primarily remote or rural communities face distinct recruitment challenges. That is why we will develop a remote and rural recruitment strategy by the end of 2024, and a national centre for remote and rural health and social care, which is expected to be operational by spring 2023. That will support employers to ensure that the health and social care needs of people who live in remote and rural communities are met.

Finlay Carson

The latest figures show that the number of unfilled nursing posts continues to grow, which puts pressure on already overworked and exhausted staff members. In Dumfries and Galloway, we have a 14 per cent vacancy rate in paediatrics; a 14 per cent vacancy rate in school nursing; and a 10 per cent vacancy rate, which is more than the national figure, for mental health nursing.

Is the minister aware of the huge impact that that is having on Dumfries and Galloway royal infirmary, which is currently cancelling more operations than those that are going ahead because of staff shortages? Families of patients in one specialist ward have been asked to help out with basic care, such as feeding the patients. There is also a situation where one registered nurse has been left alone in charge of an entire adult mental health ward. Can the minister tell me what urgent action he will take to address those issues?

Kevin Stewart

The Government will continue to invest in the recruitment and retention of healthcare staff, including nurses in remote and rural locations. That includes a record £11 million in the lifetime of this parliamentary session to support further international recruitment. We have also doubled the number of funded training places in nursing and midwifery over the past 10 years.

If we take NHS Dumfries and Galloway in Mr Carson’s area, since this Government came to power, staff levels are up 19.1 per cent, or 633.3 whole-time equivalent posts, and the number of qualified nurses and midwives in Dumfries and Galloway is up by 11.3 per cent, or 131.9 WTE posts—much greater than south of the border, where the Tories are in power.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes general questions. Before we move on to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery the Honourable Nathan Cooper MLA, who is the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. [Applause.]