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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, September 29, 2022


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time.

Educational Institute of Scotland (Industrial Action Ballot)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent ballot for industrial action by members of the Educational Institute of Scotland trade union. (S6O-01404)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Industrial action in schools is in no one’s interest, least of all that of pupils, parents and carers, who have already faced significant disruption over the past three years.

It is disappointing that the unions have rejected the latest pay offer. If they had accepted the offer of 5 per cent teachers would have received a cumulative pay increase of 21.8 per cent since 2018.

The Government has a strong record of support for teachers, and we are absolutely committed to supporting a fair pay offer through the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, which is the body that negotiates teachers’ pay and conditions of service.

Paul Sweeney

The cabinet secretary will be well aware that teachers are not the only public sector workers who have been forced to look to industrial action over pay and conditions. This year alone, cleansing and refuse workers have taken industrial action, railway workers are still taking industrial action, and healthcare workers look set to take industrial action for the first time in their history. Now it looks as though teachers will do the same.

When will the Government get its head out of the sand, start treating workers in the public sector with some respect and actually pay them what they deserve in order to keep ahead of inflation?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As the member will be well aware, the Government is absolutely committed to delivering a fair settlement for public sector workers. That has been demonstrated in the work that has been going on, particularly in the wider local government family.

I say to the member that the Scottish Government already has a fully committed budget and it has used reserves in full to deliver the 2022-23 budget. There is no capacity to borrow to meet pay pressures and we are not permitted to raise taxes in year. Therefore, as the Deputy First Minister has outlined to Parliament, a range of savings have already been made to enable us to increase the pay offers to public sector workers and to mitigate the cost crisis.

To fund any increased pay offer to teachers, further cuts to existing commitments would have to be made. That work is on-going, and I am determined to ensure that we have a good, fair and collaborative discussion with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the unions as we take forward the matter in what is a very financially difficult and challenging time.

Cost of Living (Support)

2. Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is, regarding the impact in Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, to United Kingdom Government announcements regarding support for people facing poverty as a result of the rising cost of living and inflationary energy costs. (S6O-01405)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

Scotland is facing the most severe economic upheaval in a generation, which is significantly impacting people, businesses, public services and the third sector across our country.

The Scottish Government has repeatedly urged the UK Government to focus its efforts on those who are most impacted. That did not happen in last week’s mini-budget, which instead caused further economic chaos, which will lead more people into hardship. It is clear that the UK Government does not recognise the scale of the struggle for many households, who are already facing a winter unable to afford essentials such as food and heating their homes.

Christine Grahame

Since lodging my question, as the cabinet secretary said, the pressures on my constituents have been compounded by the terrifying economic policies of Liz Truss, with the value of the pound plummeting—which adds more cost to all imports, including food—and interest rates skyrocketing. Does the cabinet secretary therefore share my additional concerns for my rural constituents, who were already paying prices that are higher than those in urban areas?

Shona Robison

Yes, I do. This morning, I met the Poverty and Inequality Commission and people with lived experience from urban and rural Scotland. People are terrified and angry. We discussed the fact that it feels as though the UK Tory Government has effectively declared war on the poor, with tax cuts for the rich; bankers’ bonuses; inflation and interest rates impacting negatively on costs; going after people who are on universal credit and who are already working; and, now, massive cuts to public sector budgets to pay for all of the mistakes that it made last week.

We need full powers, not just fiscal flexibility, to tackle poverty and protect people from the current cost of living crisis—[Interruption.]. I would not utter a word were I on the Conservative benches, by the way, given the state of the economy and what you are doing to poor people. I do not want to hear anything from those benches today about poor people—not a word. You do not have the right to come here and talk about poor people at all. It is outrageous. Christine Grahame is quite right to highlight what is happening to her rural constituents, but it is happening to everybody across this country and, in particular, to the poor. The Conservatives should be ashamed of themselves.

I remind members to speak through the chair at all times.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care last met with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and what issues were discussed. (S6O-01406)

We last met on 26 September and discussed matters of importance to the local populace.

Neil Bibby

The last time that the cabinet secretary visited the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley was in March this year. Since his visit, things have gone from bad to worse. Even fewer patients are now being seen at accident and emergency within four hours: the average for the six months since his visit is under 60 per cent, while in March it was over 66 per cent.

The national health service recovery plan clearly is not working, and nearly one in five beds has been cut at the hospital over the past 10 years. Staff have very serious concerns about services and the patients that they are caring for.

What action will the cabinet secretary take directly for the RAH now to reverse that appalling decline and to ensure that people can access the healthcare that they need?

Humza Yousaf

Neil Bibby raises some very important points indeed. As he knows, when I was at the RAH, I also met a number of staff and staff representatives. I am grateful to the staff at the RAH. Data on the RAH that was published last week shows performance improving from the week before, when it was not at acceptable levels at all. The data recorded that the number of 12-hour-long waits had significantly reduced from the week before, as had eight-hour waits. I am really grateful to the staff for what they have done.

Next week, I will come to Parliament to give details of our winter plan. We will continue to invest in staffing. In Greater Glasgow and Clyde, for example, there has been a significant increase in staff since last year—both registered staff and healthcare support workers, who are helping on the social care side, where there is significant pressure, too. I will continue to engage with staff and to expand the workforce. We have record levels of staff working in our NHS under this Government. I will update Parliament fully next week.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

During yesterday’s meeting of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, the medical director of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Dr Jennifer Armstrong, raised concerns with MSPs about significant impacts on mental health and primary care services as more families are pushed into food and fuel poverty.

Does the cabinet secretary share those concerns? Does he also agree that the United Kingdom Government needs to use the economic levers at its disposal to protect households that are struggling to pay their bills and heat their homes, instead of leaving it to the Scottish healthcare system to pick up the pieces?

Humza Yousaf

Yes, I agree. I am not sure why there are moans and groans coming from those on the Conservative benches. As Bill Kidd rightly says, that issue was raised by Dr Jennifer Armstrong. It is fair to say that the cost crisis—the UK Government’s economic vandalism—is a public health crisis. There is no doubt about that whatsoever. People have to choose between heating and eating, and either choice will leave them worse off with regard to their health.

This Government will step up and do what we can in terms of anti-poverty measures. We will look to mitigate as much as we possibly can. However, we know that the meaningful levers—the fiscal and economic levers—lie in the hands of a Government that, frankly, no one has seen. It is about time that it came out of hiding and did the right thing.

Social Rented Sector (Affordability)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will work in partnership with landlords in the social rented sector to keep rents as affordable as possible for tenants. (S6O-01407)

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

We are engaging actively with landlords in the social rented sector as we develop our temporary emergency measures, as well as the safeguards that will come alongside them. We continue to seek close partnership working with them to determine the best way forward from 1 April 2023.

To support that important work, officials convened the first meeting of a short-life task and finish working group earlier this week, bringing together leaders from across the sector. The group will help to support consideration of the decisions that we and social landlords will take on rent affordability and related matters next year.

Bob Doris

I have met local housing associations in my constituency that have raised concerns over potential unintended consequences for the sector of the rent freeze from April 2023. They say that there will be an impact on their ability to continue to invest in their core stock to deliver net zero, meet pay demands and be able to borrow, and service borrowing already taken out, to build the new homes that we all want to see. The measure also potentially undermines the statutory consultation processes for setting rents that social landlords are required to complete. What is the minister’s view of those concerns, and does he agree that dialogue and partnership with the sector would be the best way forward?

Patrick Harvie

I agree that dialogue and partnership are necessary. Both I and the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government have had repeated conversations with the social rented sector and we absolutely understand the multiple pressures that Bob Doris has rightly highlighted. I can assure him and the sector that the Government is committed to continuing to work with social landlords on the development of our emergency measures and their interaction with our ambitious housing programme. I stress that no decision has been taken about the use of emergency measures after the initial period that runs to 31 March and that any such decision will be informed both by the cost of living situation as it develops and by our on-going active engagement with the sector, which is already under way.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I agree with Bob Doris and the concerns that he has raised. I understand that this is a very difficult area, but we have very long waiting lists for people who are desperate for social housing. Does the minister fully understand the consequence that the Kingdom Housing Association raised with me just this week, which is that the house building programme will potentially be impacted by the change? How is he going to address that?

Patrick Harvie

Obviously, some of the issues will be debated in more detail next week once the emergency legislation is introduced. I hope that not only Mr Rennie but other members and the social housing sector will recognise that we have taken an approach that balances all those factors. The Scottish Government is fully committed to working with the social housing sector, both on housing supply and on the important transition to net zero, as well as other areas where its investment is necessary. The context in the social rented sector and that in the private rented sector are different, and that will be reflected in the way in which we engage with those sectors and make future decisions.

NHS Lanarkshire (Risk Level)

5. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to safeguard patients and staff within NHS Lanarkshire, in light of reports of the national health service board returning its risk level to code black. (S6O-01408)

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

Scotland’s health boards operate their own escalation policy for the management of whole-system capacity. That includes well-established processes with locally agreed trigger points for maintaining a safe service and ensuring patient safety. The Scottish Government is in daily contact with NHS Lanarkshire to monitor the situation. It has an improvement plan in place, which we are also closely monitoring.

Monica Lennon

I know that the cabinet secretary is fed up with listening to me on the issue, but I put on record that the code black emergency in NHS Lanarkshire has lasted for a total of 260 days between last October and now. This year alone, it has been at code black level for 189 days. That means that there is no capacity and that it is unsafe for patients and staff.

I am grateful that the cabinet secretary has agreed that we need an emergency summit. Can we get an update on when that is likely to take place and an assurance that trade unions will be invited? I have had emails, including from Mr Downie about his wife Rosemary, who was admitted to hospital last week but waited for more than 10 hours in accident and emergency. She should have been seen by a consultant last December but does not yet have an appointment. Mr Downie’s concern is not only for his wife but for the staff, who are on their knees. Will the trade unions be involved at that summit?

Humza Yousaf

I am not at all fed up with hearing from Monica Lennon—far from it. She has raised that issue with me on a number occasions recently and she has every right to do so. I am extremely concerned about the situation across our national health service, given the pandemic pressures that we are facing, but particularly in NHS Lanarkshire, where those pressures are significantly acute.

If my office has not already reached out to Monica Lennon, it will be reaching out to her this week about possible dates for that meeting. I think that MSPs and MPs from across political parties will be invited. I will consider whether it is appropriate to invite trade unions to the meeting or whether a wider separate meeting should take place. I regularly meet and engage with our staff-side trade unions, which are a key stakeholder in getting Lanarkshire out of that highest level of escalation and on to a steadier footing.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

NHS Lanarkshire does not have problems just in A and E. It has real problems with delayed discharges—the average wait for discharge is 33 days. General practices are suffering, too. One practice in East Kilbride is emergency only. Patients cannot get to see a GP. That is not acceptable. I urge the cabinet secretary, when he holds the summit, to widen out the discussions so that they are not just about A and E, because there are severe problems in Lanarkshire across the board.

Humza Yousaf

The meeting is not just about A and E. Delayed discharges have an impact on A and E, because the capacity issues affect flow, which then has an impact on the front door of any Lanarkshire acute site. I will ensure that the conversation is broadened out to MSPs and MPs of all political parties and that it addresses the whole healthcare and social care system.

The Scottish Government will continue its record levels of investment in the NHS. I ask Graham Simpson, if he has any influence with the United Kingdom Government—I doubt that he does—that he plead with it not to take a hatchet to public services as it is threatening to do because of its economic vandalism of this country.

Extra-curricular Activities in Schools (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the funding of extra-curricular activities in schools. (S6O-01409)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Decisions about extra-curricular activities in schools are made locally and are funded in a variety of ways. For example, the Scottish Government has provided more than £12 million this financial year to local authorities to support opportunities to be active before, during and after school through the sportscotland active schools programme. We have also provided £12 million this academic year, in addition to the significant sums that local authorities are already investing in music, so that learners can access free instrumental music tuition in schools.

Sue Webber

Last week, it was reported that the £9 million funding for the youth music initiative was to be cut with immediate effect. It was then reported that the funding was to be paused, before it was finally confirmed as being secure. That flip-flopping caused legitimate concern and confusion, as that funding is vital for our talented young people.

Despite those concerns, the Scottish National Party refused to touch the £20 million that it has set aside for a referendum to feed its constitutional obsession. Can the cabinet secretary provide much-needed clarity on the Scottish Government plans for the funding of the youth music initiative?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As has been said in the chamber many times already, the £20 million that is often referred to is for the next financial year. If we are going to discuss this year’s budget, let us actually discuss this year’s budget. As the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development confirmed on 15 September, the funding is secure and Creative Scotland has issued the contracts to delivery partners on 21 September.

I agree with the member that the youth music initiative plays a vital role in nurturing talent, which is why I am pleased that it is being supported.

Quite frankly, Presiding Officer, I will take no lessons from a Conservative on financial management, given the state of our economy and of the United Kingdom finances, and the impact that that will have on our public services, including on education, across Scotland.

General Practitioner Services (Accountability)

To ask the Scottish Government what accountability mechanisms are available to communities who believe that they are receiving inadequate general practitioner services. (S6O-01410)

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

As the member is aware, GP practices are run by independent contractors, which must have arrangements in place that operate in accordance with section 15 of the Patient Rights (Scotland) Act 2011. In the first instance, patients should raise their concerns with the GP practice manager, which allows concerns to be addressed at the level at which they can be most easily remedied.

If patients are not satisfied with the practice manager’s response, they can go to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman for consideration. If patients have concerns about how their health board is providing GP services, they can raise a complaint through the national health service complaints handling procedure.

Oliver Mundell

I have been inundated with concerns from constituents in Moffat and Lockerbie who are struggling to access GP appointments. They report that there are frequently times when no GP is available to see anyone face to face and that they offered telephone consultations only, which forces people towards accident and emergency departments. I and other local representatives, including the chair of Lockerbie community council, who is in the public gallery, have raised concerns with the health board, but it refuses to intervene. What can be done?

Humza Yousaf

I thank Oliver Mundell for raising the issue. For the sake of brevity, I will take the discussion offline and get more detail from him, if he is able to provide it. I will ensure that my officials are in touch with NHS Dumfries and Galloway to discuss how it will support the practices to improve patients’ experience.

When it is clinically necessary, we expect people to get a face-to-face appointment. It might be that people are not seen by a GP because it is more appropriate for them to be seen by another staff member of the practice. Nonetheless, Oliver Mundell has raised some serious concerns, so I will get more detail from him offline and revert back to him on what we can do to support his constituents.