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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, March 28, 2024


General Question Time

NHS Highland Capital Funding (Grantown Health Centre)

1. Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will reconsider its decision to pause capital funding for NHS Highland in respect of completion of the refurbishment of Grantown health centre, in light of reports that these works were nearly completed and that the pause of the contract may lead to additional costs in excess of the notional sum saved. (S6O-03284)

The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care (Neil Gray)

Based on the latest forecast, our block grant for capital is expected to reduce in real terms by 8.7 per cent by 2027-28, which is a cumulative loss of more than £1.3 billion. That has had an inevitable effect and led to difficult decisions, in common with all health capital investment projects that are in development. Phase 2 of the Grantown health centre project has been paused at this stage until the necessary capital funding becomes available.

Fergus Ewing

The cabinet secretary is aware of the cross-party campaign that is supported by me, Edward Mountain and Rhoda Grant—it is a non-political campaign. The cost of the project is £2.4 million but, unlike every other project in NHS Highland, it is nearly completed. Of the £2.4 million, costs of £2 million have already been incurred. The materials are on site, waiting to be installed. However, if the decision to pause is not overturned within the next three weeks, abortive costs will be incurred, which, together with the running costs of the old Victorian Ian Charles building that was to be decommissioned, will mean that the overall cost will far exceed the notional savings.

Will the cabinet secretary, whom we met yesterday and whose willingness to listen was much appreciated, seriously reconsider, given that a small sum of £400,000 would help to save this vital project that was promised to the community nearly a decade ago?

Neil Gray

I thank Fergus Ewing for his question. I am grateful for his engagement and that of Edward Mountain, Rhoda Grant and the Grantown-on-Spey medical practice in NHS Highland, all of whom, as Fergus Ewing said, met me yesterday to discuss the situation. I am grateful for the further information that was provided by all the participants in the meeting. I gave a commitment yesterday that I would, without prejudice and without giving a commitment, consider the position and the potentially exceptional situation that exists there. I committed to coming back to those who were in the meeting as soon as I could.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I, too, am pleased to be working with Rhoda Grant and Fergus Ewing. The 2015 redesign of healthcare in Strathspey and Badenoch required the closure of two hospitals and an upgrade of two general practitioner practices, including the Grantown practice. The non-completion of the Grantown medical centre, which was the final piece in the jigsaw, will leave this Government and NHS Highland without one shred of credibility in Speyside. I ask the cabinet secretary to reflect on that when he makes his decision.

Neil Gray

I thank Edward Mountain for reiterating a point that he raised with me yesterday. Of course, that will be part of the consideration in this case, and I look to take a swift decision—either positive or negative—as quickly as possible.

Museum Sector (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it is supporting the museum sector. (S6O-03285)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development (Kaukab Stewart)

The Scottish Government provides significant support to the museum sector and will continue to do so. For example, we have given cultural bodies, including National Museums Scotland, a funding uplift in 2024-25. We continue to support the national development body for Scotland’s museum sector—Museums Galleries Scotland—and we have committed to provide an uplift of £800,000 to the V&A Dundee, despite the Scottish Government’s challenging 2024-25 budget position. I am pleased that our investment continues to support our museums and world-class collections, ensuring that they are cared for and enjoyed by everybody across Scotland.

Murdo Fraser

I am sure that the minister will want to join me in welcoming this week’s opening of the new Perth museum, which is a fantastic new resource that Perth and Kinross Council has created, with the assistance of £10 million from the UK Government by way of the Tay cities deal. The museum is now home to Scotland’s stone of destiny. How will the Scottish Government help Perth and Kinross Council to capitalise on the economic and cultural opportunities that are offered by the new museum?

Kaukab Stewart

I thank Murdo Fraser for raising the issue. I am very pleased that Perth museum will reopen on 30 March after a significant redevelopment project. Alongside the stone of destiny, the museum houses the Perth and Kinross collections, which are recognised as being of national significance, and is situated in one of Scotland’s heritage buildings.

As Murdo Fraser knows, Perth museum will be managed in partnership with Perth and Kinross Council and Culture Perth and Kinross. The project was supported by the Tay cities region deal, which received funding from the Scottish Government, alongside other partners, including the UK Government and regional partners.

As I mentioned, the Scottish Government continues to provide funding to the national development body for Scotland’s museums sector, MGS, which provides valuable strategic investment, advice, workforce development and advocacy.

Puberty-suppressing Hormones (Under-16s)

To ask the Scottish Government how many children aged 16 and under have been prescribed puberty suppressing hormones through NHS Scotland since 2014. (S6O-03286)

The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care (Neil Gray)

The Sandyford young people’s gender service, which is based in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, offers a range of support to young people and their families. Referral to paediatric endocrinology for consideration for endocrine intervention is only one potential option in the overall clinical pathway that is offered.

According to figures provided by NHS Scotland, from 2016 to December 2023, the Sandyford clinic referred just under 100 young people aged 16 or under to paediatric endocrinology in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and NHS Lothian for further assessment for puberty blockers. Not all of the young people who were referred would have been assessed as being suitable to progress on to that medication.

I understand that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is currently reviewing its data systems, and I shall write to Ash Regan with the relevant information for the 2014 to 2016 period when it is available.

Ash Regan

Following medical evidence reviews, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, France and England now sharply restrict or prohibit the use of puberty blockers for gender dysphoria. There is weak to no proof that they help, but there is much evidence of serious side effects. Puberty blockers prevent bone density development, they render children infertile and they can cause damage to the heart and severe depression. Class action lawsuits involving thousands of patients who have been damaged by puberty blockers are now under way in the US courts. What will it take for this Government to step in and protect Scotland’s children from this unethical experiment?

Neil Gray

We are aware of the new clinical policy that NHS England has recently issued on the routine prescription of puberty-suppressing hormones for children and young people as a treatment option for gender dysphoria. The details of that are being closely considered by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, as the provider of the young people’s gender service at Sandyford, and its relevant clinical team. Any decision on how such healthcare is delivered in Scotland will rightly be made by health boards and their clinicians.

It should be noted that NHS England’s announcements follow its interim policy position last year and its recommendation that puberty blockers be accessed only via a research programme that it is establishing. The Scottish Government and NHS Scotland remain observers of that study development, and we are considering what further engagement may be appropriate.

Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

The Cass review was clear in its recommendations. Given that the action that was taken in England was taken on the basis of a lack of evidence that puberty-suppressing hormones were safe or effective, many people in Scotland will be expecting action from the Government. What discussion has the cabinet secretary had with NHS Scotland in the light of the decision that has been taken in England? If action is to be taken here, will he set out to Parliament what the timescales are for such action?

Neil Gray

We have been consistently clear that the on-going findings of the Cass review, and that review’s final report, once published, will be closely considered by both the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland, in the context of how such healthcare can be best delivered here in Scotland.

Although the Cass review extends only to services provided by NHS England, Scottish Government officials and NHS Scotland clinicians have met Dr Cass on many occasions to share information about improvement work in Scotland. We look forward to the outcome of that review.

We have much to get through, so concise questions and responses would be appreciated.

Asylum Seekers (Mental Wellbeing)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support the mental wellbeing of asylum seekers accommodated in hotels in Scotland. (S6O-03287)

The Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport (Maree Todd)

The Home Office is responsible for the provision of asylum accommodation and support and for the use of contingency hotels. The Scottish Government has consistently made it clear to the United Kingdom Government that hotels are not appropriate accommodation, and we continue to be concerned about the effect that prolonged stays in hotels have on people’s wellbeing.

People seeking asylum who are living in Scotland are entitled to access healthcare, including referral to mental health services. The Scottish Government funds a range of action to support mental health and wellbeing and that is available to anyone living in Scotland, regardless of their residence status.

Maggie Chapman

The minister will be aware of the overwhelming evidence of worsening mental health among hotel-accommodated asylum seekers. There have been at least five suicide attempts in the past few months. Asylum seekers do not feel safe; they feel as if they are in open prisons. The Ferret and the Scottish Refugee Council have identified a rise in far-right hostility and the fact that about 500 asylum seekers have to share bedrooms with strangers as being contributory factors to that. How can the Scottish Government and public agencies, including the national health service, mitigate the impacts of those measures and provide increased safety, reassurance and mental health support to people who are seeking asylum?

Maree Todd

We absolutely recognise that the circumstances and uncertainty that asylum seekers and refugees face are often distressing and can lead to increased risk of suicide. In implementing the Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities suicide prevention strategy “Creating Hope Together”, we are working hard to tackle the inequalities that can lead to suicide and are prioritising communities and groups—including asylum seekers and refugees—with a heightened risk of suicide.

We are engaging with public sector partners, including the NHS, to improve the mental health and wellbeing of our asylum seeker and refugee community. We are also connecting with existing projects that support asylum seekers and refugees, such as the Mental Health Foundation’s elevate project. We also continue to fund Simon Community Scotland, which is doing excellent work in supporting asylum seekers and people with no recourse to public funds. This year, our partnership is delivering peer support for people living in Glasgow and is being developed to meet the specific needs of that community.

More widely—

Thank you, minister. I need to move to the next question.

Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Act 2022

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Act 2022. (S6O-03288)

The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

The emergency act has provided tenants with extra protection and stability at a time when rents have been rising across the United Kingdom but, as Parliament agreed, it must come to an end on 31 March. All rent increase notices that are issued until 1 April must still comply with the cap, as well as giving three months’ notice. We know that, although many landlords will continue to act responsibly from then on, there could—without action—have been cases of tenants facing sudden, extreme rent increases. I am therefore pleased that Parliament recently approved regulations to temporarily modify the rent adjudication process by which tenants can ask for a review of rent increases. That will protect tenants by preventing a cliff edge as we transition out of the emergency legislation, while continuing support for responsible landlords.

Ariane Burgess

During the 18 months of the emergency rent cap, the number of privately rented properties on the public landlord register has grown by more than 5,000, despite attempts by landlord groups and some Opposition members to claim the opposite. Yesterday, the minister published a bill that will deliver much of the new deal for tenants that was part of the Bute house agreement, including new rights for tenants and long-term rent controls. How does he think that those proposals should be greeted by responsible landlords, who want to provide a good and fair service?

Patrick Harvie

The member is right to say that the private rented sector has always been dynamic, with some landlords leaving and others entering. That is further demonstrated by the evidenced growth over the past 18 months in the number of registered properties that are available for private rent.

I acknowledge that there are limitations to the data. For example, there could be a time lag in landlords deregistering properties. However, it is in the interests of tenants and responsible landlords to have a fair and well-regulated private rented sector, which can also be attractive to investors. Our proposals will help to improve affordability for tenants in the private rented sector while recognising the importance of landlords investing in the quality of their property.

Tenant Support

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to support tenants, in light of reports of accelerating rents. (S6O-03289)

The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

As I said in my answer to the previous question, the Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Act 2022 has provided tenants with much-needed stability in tenancies at a time when rents have been rising across the United Kingdom. In 2023-24, we invested more than £83 million in discretionary housing payments, which are a vital tool to reduce poverty, safeguard tenancies and prevent homelessness.

I am delighted that the new housing legislation that was set out in the programme for government has now been introduced. The Housing (Scotland) Bill will enable the delivery of our commitment to longer-term proposals for private rented sector rent controls, the strengthening of tenants’ rights and other protections, and duties that are aimed at preventing homelessness.

Katy Clark

I welcome the publication of the bill and congratulate Living Rent, tenants unions and all who have campaigned for rent controls legislation. As the minister knows, we face a housing emergency, and he referred to the concern about a cliff edge. The adjudication system that the Scottish Government is proposing is complicated, and there is concern about the burden on councils. Living Rent is calling for a rent cap. What consideration is being given to interim measures to help tenants while we wait for the legislation to come into force?

Patrick Harvie

I join the member in congratulating all those who have campaigned for progress in this area for a long time, as I have. I first proposed rent controls in the Parliament well over a decade ago, and I got very little support at that time from any part of the political spectrum. I am glad that the case has much more support today.

The member will be aware that the temporary emergency legislation that the Parliament passed had a time limit. If it had not had that time limit and had not been temporary emergency legislation, it would have failed the legal test of proportionality and necessity, which we have to meet. That legislation was challenged in court, and the reason why we won that challenge was largely that we met the proportionality and necessity test because of the emergency legislation’s temporary nature.

The adjudication provisions that we have drafted are by necessity more complicated than a rent cap, but we have put a great deal of effort into raising awareness of tenants’ rights and making sure that they are able to exercise the rights and protections that are available to them.

Scottish Child Payment (Aberdeen)

To ask the Scottish Government how many children in Aberdeen have been lifted out of poverty since the inception of the Scottish child payment. (S6O-03290)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

It is estimated that the Scottish child payment will keep 60,000 children out of poverty in 2024-25. The impact cannot be broken down by local authority area. However, published statistics show that more than 327,000 children in low-income families were receiving the Scottish child payment in December 2023, and more than 10,000 of those children were in Aberdeen city. Since the Scottish child payment was launched, payments that total more than £570 million have been made to the families who need them most, and more than £18 million of those payments were to families in Aberdeen city.

Kevin Stewart

It is gratifying that the Scottish child payment has contributed to 100,000 children in Scotland being lifted out of poverty. Has the Scottish Government discussed with the United Kingdom Government whether it will replicate the scheme south of the border, given that possible Barnett consequentials for Scotland could help us to do even more to lift people out of poverty here?

Paul McLennan

Yes. We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to make key changes to reserved benefits, including the introduction of an essentials guarantee and the reversal of damaging welfare cuts such as the two-child limit. Those steps would lift 40,000 children in Scotland out of poverty next year.

The First Minister wrote to Keir Starmer in January to find ways of working together to tackle poverty, should Labour form the next UK Government. No reply has been received from Labour or the current UK Government, and neither has indicated any intention to match the ambitious anti-poverty measures that are being taken here in Scotland.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

The minister rightly points to the impact of the Scottish child payment but, given last week’s poverty and inequality statistics and his Government’s budgetary decisions, which include slashing the housing and employability budgets, does he accept what the Institute for Public Policy Research, Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have said, which is that the interim poverty targets are at risk of being missed or are going to be missed? Does he agree with those experts?

Paul McLennan

We will continue to do all within our powers to reduce child poverty while mitigating the impact of the ingrained austerity of successive UK Governments. I come back to the point that I mentioned in my answer to Kevin Stewart—we have written to Keir Starmer about what he is currently saying, but we have had no answers back. [Interruption.]

Let us hear the minister.

Paul McLennan

Another point is very important—in contrast, for example, the UK Government scrapped its child poverty target in 2016 and has continued its campaign of austerity. If Paul O’Kane wants to compare records, I note that children’s groups, along with the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, criticised the Labour-run Welsh Government in January for failing to set targets.

That concludes general question time.