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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 2, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 02 February 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, Ferry Services, Budget (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Scottish Wide Area Network

To ask the Scottish Government when the revised Scottish wide area network project will be completed and delivered in full. (S5O-00629)

The Scottish wide area network, or SWAN, is an on-going programme of work. The contract, awarded in February 2014, allows public sector organisations to become SWAN members until February 2020. From February 2020, no new members can join but existing members can add and revise services until February 2023, by which time the programme will be delivered. SWAN will remain operational until the last member’s contract has expired, which will be no later than February 2026.

The cabinet secretary will be all too aware of the shortcomings of the contract with Capita and the delivery of information technology services thus far, and of the low broadband speeds that are being delivered. He will also be aware that the day after this question was lodged, an additional £110,000 was allocated to provide extra bandwidth in the service locally.

Will the cabinet secretary tell us when the service will be fully delivered in Ayrshire, why the original contract was so unambitious in terms of broadband speeds, why delivery dates have not been met thus far, whether financial penalties have been levied or alternative contractors considered, and whether NHS Ayrshire and Arran or the Scottish Government are paying for potential cost overruns in this apparently struggling project?

Presiding Officer, I might have some difficulty in getting you to indulge me in giving a full and comprehensive answer to that question. I will endeavour to get the information to Mr Scott and I am happy to arrange a briefing at which we can go over all of the issues and complexities and look at the way forward. The information can be shared with the member and, indeed, anyone else who is interested in the network.

Surgery (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh report, “Standards informing delivery of care in rural surgery”. (S5O-00630)

We welcome the report as a useful contribution to discussion on the sustainability of rural surgical services. The report highlights a number of recommendations that are consistent with the direction of travel for NHS Scotland that is set out in the national clinical strategy.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the difficulties with the recruitment of surgeons to rural general hospitals. What is the Government doing to enhance surgical training and recruitment to ensure an appropriate standard of care for patients in rural hospitals?

In the short to medium term, a range of actions are already being taken to support NHS boards to recruit in remote and rural areas, to encourage those who trained or worked in NHS Scotland to return to work in the health service and to encourage others to come from elsewhere to work here. For example, we support the development of flexible networks between rural and urban hospitals, such as Raigmore and Caithness general, to maintain and enhance surgeons’ skills where patient numbers are small.

The longer-term solution lies in implementing recommendations from the report of the shape of training review to achieve a better balance between general and specialist medical skills. On working with the surgical colleges, proposals for a revised training curriculum that will equip trainees with the competences to deliver elective and emergency general surgery are well advanced. That will be very good news for our rural general hospitals.

One of the issues that have been raised at the Health and Sport Committee is that, in some cases, people are not going to rural parts of Scotland because their partners cannot find work or because of broadband connections. Is that an area that the Government will also look into so that we can make sure that rural practice and surgery become attractive career options in future?

Miles Briggs makes an important point and the Government has done a lot on broadband, particularly for remote and rural areas. He is right about the infrastructure that is required to deliver some of our enhanced services in rural healthcare through the use of technology, particularly in primary care.

The issue of partners is an important one. I know that health boards have worked hard to help the partners of people who come to work in the health service also to find employment and to offer other incentives, whether accommodation or other support, particularly for those who are new to the area. Those are important issues when it comes to retaining and recruiting people in our rural areas.

Does the cabinet secretary agree with the concerns of the British Medical Association that the erosion of support for professional activity time in consultant contracts is partly to blame for the chronic shortage of staff and the unfilled vacancies in some rural areas and across the country? If so, will the Government commit to reprioritising the implementation of the 8:2 contracts across all health boards as a matter of urgency, to ensure that consultants can develop the level of expertise that a world-class health service requires and that Scotland can continue to attract and retain the best talent?

The issue has been raised with me directly by the British Medical Association. The area where it is more of an issue is in fact Greater Glasgow and Clyde, not a rural health board area. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is the board with the most 9:1 contracts. We will continue to discuss the matter with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, particularly when a new chief executive is appointed there. That is one of the issues that we would expect the board to pursue with the consultant workforce in its area.

NHS Dentists (Registered Patients)

3. Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how many people are registered with a national health service dentist, and how this compares with 2007. (S5O-00631)

As at 30 September 2016, there were 4,924,974 people registered with an NHS dentist in Scotland. The equivalent figure for 2007 was 2,669,990.

That answer is welcome. The cabinet secretary will recognise that there remains inequality between deprived and affluent areas. What steps will the Scottish Government take to help to address child dental health inequalities?

We are continuing to make progress to reduce oral health inequalities among children. Comparing the two years to September 2016 with the two years to September 2007, for example, there has been an increase of 36 per cent in the number of children in the most deprived areas attending their dentist.

We recognise, however, that more work needs to be done, and that is why I have decided to expand our flagship child smile programme. As is announced in the “Fairer Scotland Action Plan”, we will be expanding the programme to nursery and primary 1 and 2 children in the most deprived 20 per cent of areas across Scotland. The programme provides additional oral health interventions, such as fluoride varnish application, for children from the most deprived areas. I think that will help to make a real difference.

Although an increase in dental registrations is to be welcomed, it is important to note that the 2016 dental report says that because of the change to lifetime registration, the registration rate has become “less informative” in measuring patient access to dental services. On the trend for patients actually seeing a dentist—the participation rate—the report states:

“Participation rates ... have been falling across all NHS Boards.”

Furthermore, patients in the most deprived areas are least likely to have seen a dentist in the previous two years.

What steps is the Scottish National Party Government taking to ensure that people of all ages are not just registering with but are actually being treated by a dentist?

NHS dentistry and its transformation across Scotland is a success story that we should be immensely proud of. However, let me address the member’s questions.

Figures show a significant increase over the past decade in the number of people attending their dentist. Under this Government, attendance has risen from 2.5 million in the two years to March 2007 to 3.5 million in the two years to September 2016, so more people are now attending their dentist.

Dentists put considerable work into encouraging regular attendance. To give one example, dentists have access to the NHS mail system, which allows them to text message patients an appointment reminder, which has been shown to improve attendance. We should remember the very important role that the public have to play in ensuring that they—and, importantly, their children—regularly attend appointments.

It should be noted—and, I would hope, welcomed—that access to NHS dentistry in Scotland is at an all-time high. There is more capacity than ever before to accommodate the needs of patients. I would have thought that members across the chamber should welcome that.

I declare an interest: I used to be a practising NHS dentist and my wife continues to practise as a dentist in the NHS.

I congratulate the cabinet secretary on the spin of the week on the dental figures. She is not comparing like-for-like figures. The reality is that, in April 2006, people were registered for 36 months, whereas now there is lifetime registration. It is more important to look at the participation rates—the proportion of people who access NHS dentistry. If we look at the proportion of people who participate, we see that, in September 2006, 99 per cent of adults participated with a dentist with whom they were registered and 100 per cent of registered children participated. The current figures are 69 per cent of adults and 86 per cent of children.

Therefore, although there is much to welcome, will the cabinet secretary recognise the challenges that exist in dentistry and perhaps give the figures a check-up of their own?

I have never heard such a glass-half-empty question being asked in the chamber. NHS dentistry is a success story. Even Anas Sarwar cannot take that away. Given his clinical experience, I would have thought that he would have realised that lifetime registration is a good thing, because it keeps people registered with a dentist throughout their lives.

I will provide a couple of figures that even Anas Sarwar surely cannot complain about. The figure for primary 1 children with no obvious decay rose from 54 per cent in 2006 to 69 per cent in 2016, and the figure for primary 7 children with no obvious decay rose from 59 per cent in 2007 to 75 per cent in 2015. Even Anas Sarwar must welcome those figures.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (Board)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will reconsider removing the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. (S5O-00632)

There should be no doubt that, under this Government, HIE will remain firmly in place at the heart of the Highlands and Islands economy. We have repeatedly committed to maintaining the dedicated support that is locally based, managed and directed by HIE.

Phase 2 of the enterprise and skills review will look to deliver for businesses and individuals in the Highlands and Islands additional access to and support from national services as part of a more coherent system. The Scottish ministers have asked Professor Lorne Crerar, the chair of HIE, to lead a governance review, working with all four enterprise and skills agencies, their existing boards and other experts in developing the detailed scope, potential structures and functions of the new board.

In addition, as I have said on a number of occasions, I am happy to meet representatives from all parties to discuss the way forward, as we consider how best to ensure that HIE is best placed to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future.

The very simple ask that I make of the cabinet secretary today is to retain a fully autonomous board for Highlands and Islands Enterprise—one that is based in the Highlands and Islands and which is fully responsible for the strategic direction of the organisation. For the cabinet secretary to change his mind on the issue at the 11th hour would be a strength, not a weakness, and would show that the Scottish Government is listening to the wave of public opinion in the Highlands and Islands.

I underline the point that has been made previously. A number of people have expressed concerns. Whether those concerns have been expressed by the council leaders of the various northern authorities, all of whom I met yesterday, by Jim Hunter, who has been mentioned by a number of parties in previous statements, by Scottish Nationasl Party MSPs, who have asked for meetings to discuss their concerns and to progress matters, I am continuing to listen to them.

We await the report from Professor Lorne Crerar, the current chair of HIE, who will look at those issues as well as at what else can be done to strengthen the work of HIE, whether that is in terms of internationalisation or more powers in relation to skills or driving up exports. It is important that we build on the success of HIE. Just as we are asking the rest of the agencies in the review to see how we can improve things further to take Scotland from the third to the first decile in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s league tables, it is important that HIE looks at itself—along with others—to see how we can improve the services that we provide to individuals and companies across the Highlands.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm, as he did previously in Parliament, that following the conclusion of the governance review, any decision on the future of the HIE board will be brought back to Parliament? Will he reiterate his support for the continuation of local decision making?

As Gail Ross says, during the debate on Highlands and Islands Enterprise I said that I would be more than happy to come back to the chamber once the governance review was complete. Again, I reiterate that the future of HIE is secure. It will continue to be locally based, managed and directed, providing dedicated support to the local economy.


To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent figures suggesting that Scottish exports to the rest of the United Kingdom were four times that of exports to the European Union. (S5O-00633)

The Scottish Government welcomes the latest export figures for Scotland. They show that, excluding oil and gas, our total international exports increased by £1 billion in a year, which is something that deserves commending. Trade with the rest of the UK is hugely important to Scotland’s economy, and increased by 4.4 per cent to £49.8 billion in 2015. It is worth noting that trade with the rest of the EU also increased by 4.4 per cent over that period.

In line with our trade and investment strategy, we are continuing to work with our partners to grow Scottish exports to our key markets—including the UK and the EU—and to support our businesses to exploit opportunities in new international markets.

In response to a written question, the Scottish Government says that it is

“well aware of the importance of these markets to the Scottish economy”—[Official Report, Written Answers, 1 February 2017; S5W-06267]

In evidence to the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee last year, expert witness Professor MacKay said:

“The UK will be Scotland’s most important trading relationship and trading partner. Anything that comes between that will have a challenging impact on the Scottish economy.”—[Official Report, Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, 8 November 2016; c 21.]

Will the cabinet secretary join me in acknowledging that the figures are accurate and that the UK market is worth protecting, and will he put to bed any alternative myths about the importance of the UK domestic market?

All those things are evident from the answer that I just gave to Jamie Greene. I have recognised the size of the trade with the UK. It is also worth recognising the size of the trade going the other way that the rest of the UK has with Scotland. Scotland is an extremely important market for the rest of the UK.

If you look at the history of exports from the Irish Republic, for example, you will see that it managed to achieve substantial advances in international exports. I am not sure why that should be such a problem for Tory members. We want to increase exports to everywhere—whether that is the rest of the UK, the rest of the EU or around the world. That should be a subject of consensus between us.

It is also worth saying that the 4.4 per cent increase in trade with the rest of the UK is a good thing, but so is the 4.4 per cent increase in trade with the rest of the EU—we do not hear much about that from the Conservative side of the chamber. It is worth emphasising that positive outcome and building on it, rather than constantly denigrating Scotland’s economic performance, which is what we hear from the party opposite.


To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to improve levels of innovative activity in the economy. (S5O-00634)

Boosting innovation is critical to driving inclusive economic growth. We are working with our agencies and stakeholders to develop a more innovative and entrepreneurial culture to encourage and support more businesses to become innovation active and to increase levels of research and development, supported by our network of innovation centres and Interface, which facilitate collaboration between business and academia.

The innovation action plan, which was published on 11 January, sets out some immediate steps to make a difference to our innovation performance, such as the use of the public sector to catalyse innovation in projects such as CivTech, the world’s first cross-public-sector technology accelerator and to complement the manufacturing action plan, which was published in February 2016, which sets out our proposal for a national manufacturing institute for Scotland.

I thank the minister for the part of his answer that I was able to hear—I could not hear all of it because of the chorus of approval that greeted the arrival of the Greens in the chamber. [Laughter.]

As the minister knows, the number of patent applications that are filed is used to measure the level of innovative activity in the Scottish economy. Figures from the Scottish Parliament information centre show that the number of patents filed per 10,000 head of population in Scotland in 2015 is well below the United Kingdom average. The UK Government’s newly published industrial strategy recognises the need to build on research strengths in businesses as well as universities. In light of the figures, will the Scottish Government commit to do the same?

I give some encouragement to Mr Tomkins by saying that the recent UK innovation survey 2015, which is carried out on the same basis in Scotland and UK-wide, shows that in Scotland there has been an increase in the proportion of enterprises that have an “innovation active” approach, to 50.4 per cent. That is still slightly behind the UK average, but it is a substantial increase of 7 percentage points, so we are catching up.

There are great opportunities in the industrial strategy, and we will work closely with industry to try to maximise them. On the important point about patents, we should not lose sight of the fact that between the most recently published data, for 2014-15, and the data that we are seeing from Scottish Enterprise, we have seen a substantial increase from 649 to 1,200 innovation active businesses. What SE and Highlands and Islands Enterprise are doing to increase innovation in our business community is working, and I hope that we will see progress in due course.