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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 2, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 02 November 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, Point of Order, First Minister’s Question Time, Diabulimia, Inclusive Education, Decision Time


General Question Time

Orthopaedic Treatment (Waiting Times)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce waiting times for orthopaedic treatment. (S5O-01375)

We are taking significant action to reduce waiting times. I recognise that some patients are experiencing long waits, and that is why I have made £50 million available to NHS Scotland. I expect to see improvements between now and the end of March.

On 29 August, I announced the setting up of an expert group to reduce waiting times and improve the way in which elective care services are provided. The elective access collaborative programme will bring together experts from the Scottish Government, the national health service and the royal colleges to provide support to health boards. That approach has seen us deliver improvements in unscheduled care. I will make a further announcement on that shortly.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that patients in Lothian who require new hips or knees are being told by NHS Lothian that it cannot meet the target of 12 weeks for referral for a new out-patient appointment and that, instead, they will have to wait for up to 37 weeks—more than nine months—just for an initial appointment with a consultant? Will the cabinet secretary apologise to my constituents in Lothian who are suffering in pain for many months before being able to see a consultant and discuss the surgery? Is that not yet another indictment of the Scottish Government’s shambolic NHS workforce planning?

I do not want any patient to wait longer than they should, but NHS Lothian has done a lot of work in this area. Under this Government, the number of consultant staff in Lothian with a speciality in trauma and orthopaedic surgery has increased by more than 14 per cent, but demand has increased at the same time.

NHS Lothian has risk assessed the specialties for which there are long waits based on clinical priority and risk to the patient, and the board is undertaking a comprehensive review of its trauma and orthopaedic services, which will include the provision of an integrated back pain service; a redesign of the foot and ankle pathway and the fracture pathway; investment in significant additional physiotherapy and advanced physiotherapy practitioners to support the new service models; the redesign of the hip fracture pathway to optimise care of frail and elderly older people; and the improvement of performance through the enhanced recovery after surgery programme, which seeks to optimise patient recovery after joint replacement. I believe that all those things will make a significant difference.

It is a bit rich of Miles Briggs to raise the issue of workforce planning, given that the Nursing and Midwifery Council has today published figures that show that the number of nurses from the European Economic Area who left the NMC register between October 2016 and September of this year represented an increase on the previous year of 67 per cent. In addition, the number of new initial registration nurses from the EEA who joined the register fell by 89 per cent compared with the previous year. Therefore, I will take no lectures from Miles Briggs on workforce planning when the Conservatives’ ridiculous Brexit policy is having a huge impact on our nursing and midwifery workforce in the here and now.

The cabinet secretary will be aware from our correspondence of the lengthy delays that orthopaedic patients in Orkney are facing as a result of a lack of capacity in NHS Grampian. A constituent who was referred to a surgeon in May was told that she would have to wait six to eight months, only to receive the same letter in September, which informed her of a further delay of six to eight months.

This week, NHS Orkney has talked about plans to develop proposals with NHS Western Isles to address what it calls the “large backlog”. What steps will the cabinet secretary take to ensure that orthopaedic patients in Orkney are treated within the 12-week timeframe set out by the Scottish Government?

I appreciate the concerns that Liam McArthur has raised. Patients in Orkney rely on the services of NHS Grampian, as do others. NHS Grampian has had a significant share of the £50 million to address some of the longest waits, and we expect progress to be made on those by the end of March.

Going forward, there will be a lot of collaboration between the boards in the north of Scotland. A key plan of theirs is to work together to plan elective care far more efficiently and to ensure that all the capacity in the northern boards is used. I would be happy to keep Liam McArthur up to date on those developments as they progress.

Electric Vehicle Loan Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to extend the electric vehicle loan scheme beyond 2018. (S5O-01376)

Yes, low-carbon transport loans will be provided until at least 2020. They are one of a range of incentives to promote the adoption of electric vehicles.

The Scottish Government has set admirable and ambitious targets for phasing out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032. What longer-term initiatives, such as advantageous loans and infrastructure investment, has the Government in mind to encourage the motoring public to embrace electric vehicles?

During the coming months, we will make a number of announcements in this area. They will cover infrastructure and supporting the uptake of the vehicles in the public and private sectors. They will build on the strategy that is set out in the switched on Scotland action plan, which was launched by the Minister for Transport and the Islands in June 2017.

So far, the electric vehicle loan scheme has been offered only for new vehicles. Will the Scottish Government consider extending the scheme to used vehicles?

We are always happy to consider suggestions and we can consider that one. The loan scheme has been fairly successful thus far and we want to build on it. Funding has also enabled grants for 1,381 charging points and a free advice helpline. The existing scheme is therefore quite comprehensive but, of course, we want to build on it and, as I have said, we will make further announcements in due course.

Ferry Freight (Cost Increase)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the proposed cost increase for ferry freight from 1 January 2018 will have on the northern isles, in light of reports that it was believed that prices would remain frozen. (S5O-01377)

I can confirm that the revisions to freight fares reflect the terms of the northern isles ferry services contract, which allows for increases based on the consumer prices index. The revisions follow two years during which freight fares have been frozen.

On 22 August, it was announced that passenger and car fares would be reduced on ferry services to the northern isles in the first half of 2018, fulfilling a key manifesto pledge. In light of that planned reduction in fares, in the interim we have frozen passenger and car fares on the northern isles ferry services.

For freight, we are conducting a comprehensive freight fares review, as per the commitment that was made in the ferries plan for 2013 to 2022. The review will fully consider the impact of any freight fare changes on island economies. The process is complex, but the outcome of the review will be announced as soon as possible.

Although I welcome the review, the cabinet secretary will be aware that an increase in freight costs, such as the increase that will come into being early next year, is tantamount to a tax on everything that is transported to the islands. We already have online retailers who will not deliver to the islands because of costs. If we are to grow the islands’ economies, which is part of the reason behind the Islands (Scotland) Bill, surely the increase flies in the face of that ambition.

The Government is proud of its achievement in introducing the road equivalent tariff, which has been a terrific success for individuals, especially those who are resident in the islands. It has also helped to promote the economy of the islands. I am pleased that Rhoda Grant has welcomed the proposed reduction in fares for the northern isles. I am sure that Ms Grant will appreciate that the freight fares review is an important and complex process and we shall announce it in due course.

As far as retailers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere not being willing to deliver or imposing additional charges is concerned, I and the Scottish Government have been working on that for a number of years. The postal delivery service is reserved to Westminster and it has utterly failed to take any action whatsoever for decades. As Rhoda Grant has said, many people in the Highlands and Islands have suffered through having to pay extra or not being able to receive goods as a result of that total inertia from the UK Government.

Council leaders from Orkney and Shetland will be meeting with the finance secretary later this month in relation to interisland ferries. In today’s Orcadian, Orkney Islands Council has warned that the services may fall back to 1960s levels and have knock-on effects on council budgets unless action is taken. Is the minister content with that as a possible outcome and how does it possibly fit with the Scottish Government’s commitment to fair ferry funding for the northern isles?

If Mr Briggs had been listening, he would have heard that we are just about—

Members: It is the other one.

It is the other one, sorry.

It is Mr Halcro Johnson.

If he had been listening, he would have heard that we are about to reduce fares to the northern isles. We are proud of that. I do not recall many occasions when previous Administrations have taken this action. We are the Administration that introduced road equivalent tariff.

If any members of the Conservative team, whoever they are, wanted to put forward any serious plan of any sort for any public service budget, that would be a precedent. All we hear week after week is the Conservatives calling for more public money and tax cuts at the same time. Perhaps Ms Davidson will get real and bring forward some grown-up policies in this Parliament.

Brexit (Impact on Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what research it has carried out or commissioned on the likely impact on Scotland of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, and whether it will publish this. (S5O-01378)

The Scottish Government has published a number of papers, which include research and commissioned work, including “Scotland’s Place in Europe” and, more recently, “Brexit: What’s at Stake for Business”, highlighting the impacts on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. The dedicated Europe section on the Scottish Government website contains links to those, as well as to a number of other relevant publications, including the First Minister’s letter to EU citizens in Scotland and the minutes of standing council meetings.

The Scottish Government believes in the need for transparency in the Brexit negotiations and will continue to press the UK Government to publish its own analysis of the likely impact on Scotland of leaving the EU.

Since I lodged the question and since yesterday’s debate at Westminster, the UK Government has been forced to accept that it must publish its sectoral impact analysis statements. I welcome that, although I wonder what other issues in the news it is trying to distract from by publishing information merely about the destructive impact it is going to unleash on the country’s economy.

How long will it take the Scottish Government to take those sectoral impact analyses and turn them into a more robust impact assessment about Scotland geographically? Bizarrely, that work has not even been attempted by the UK Government.

The UK Government has had several positions on that matter, including an assertion by the Secretary of State for Scotland that such an analysis existed and would be published and a denial from the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union that an overall analysis for Scotland existed.

Yesterday, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, the Rt Hon David Davis MP, asking for access to the 58 sectoral studies that have been referred to from time to time at meetings with the UK Government but have never been brought forward. Once we have those, we will look to see what we can do with them. I fear from some of the speculation yesterday that what will appear will be documents that are heavily redacted, if they have any substance at all. We have not seen them and we do not know the depth of the research or how the work has been undertaken. If we get the material, I will be happy to discuss it with members.

Does the minister share my concern that the uncertainty over Brexit is influencing businesses to delay decisions over capital investment, which could impact negatively on future productivity?

I do agree. There is growing evidence that businesses are exceptionally worried about the lack of information and the uncertainty. Many are telling the UK and Scottish Governments that decisions that they have to make will have to be made by the end of the year. If there is no certainty and no information by the end of the year, they will have to work on the worst-case scenario.

German companies who are part of the German chambers of industry and commerce have already been told by the central organisation that if they have business interests in the UK, they should plan for a cliff-edge Brexit. That is very bad for those companies and their plans, and it is very bad for other companies that are based in Scotland.

We continue to say that the UK Government should be much more transparent and open and should be making progress on telling people what it intends. However, it is working both by hiding and not publishing information and by allowing other information to emerge that will cause only uncertainty. For example, today’s Chatham House report on farming indicates very strongly that for many people who back Brexit, the best way forward is to abandon farming subsidies, the effect of which on the constituencies of almost every member of the Scottish Parliament would be catastrophic, particularly for those of us who represent areas in the Highlands and Islands—it would mean the end of agriculture and much of the rural population in the Highlands and Islands. The UK Government must get a grip and recognise that Brexit remains a fool’s errand.

Glasgow City Council (Budget Allocation)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities has held with Glasgow City Council regarding its budget allocation. (S5O-01379)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including Glasgow City Council, to discuss a range of issues, as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland. I met the Glasgow City Council leader, Susan Aitken, on 8 August, and I have no doubt that the Scottish Government can continue to have a strong and productive relationship with Glasgow City Council, which will benefit the people of Glasgow and the rest of Scotland in the months and years to come.

I am not sure whether I can thank the cabinet secretary for that response. As a representative of Glasgow, I believe it to be entirely unacceptable that the Scottish National Party Government has cut Glasgow’s budget every year since 2007, forcing savings of £377 million, which is a cut of 17.5 per cent. What assessment has the cabinet secretary made of the terrible impact on individuals, families and communities in Glasgow of those decisions, which have been made by a Government that claims to care about inequality?

What representations did the leader of Glasgow City Council make to the cabinet secretary about the budget allocation? Did she seek an increase in her budget? Is she willing to stand up for Glasgow and those vulnerable communities that are currently facing the cuts made as a result of the cabinet secretary’s decisions?

Susan Aitken, the SNP leader of Glasgow City Council, is sorting out the mess that she inherited from the Labour Party—and doing a grand job. I have to correct Johann Lamont: Glasgow City Council’s budget did not go down. The budget for local services has increased as a consequence of our decisions. The spending power for Glasgow’s local services saw an increase—not a reduction—of some £45 million. That is a 3.4 per cent increase on the previous year.

I look forward to the exciting plans around infrastructure, childcare and housing, where we are able to invest more in services right across Scotland. Glasgow City Council has a new, mature administration, which has taken Glasgow back into the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities so that we can work in partnership with local government to ensure that it continues to have a fair settlement from the Scottish Government.

Part-time College Students (Numbers)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address the reported decline in the number of part-time college students. (S5O-01380)

As the First Minister stated at First Minister’s questions last week, short courses for younger and older students alike continue to be available. Indeed, 72 per cent of the total enrolments at college in 2015-16 were on part-time courses.

Does the minister acknowledge that for months the policy has been described as inflexible with a serious loss of part-time places, often for students who are furthest removed from the labour market? Particular difficulties have been created for students who are trying to balance a college course with other work and family commitments.

As I said, enrolments in part-time courses are still 72 per cent. The majority of students in colleges are women.

The policy was included in my letter of guidance to colleges and universities in March. Today, I checked how widely distributed that letter was. As well as going to the Scottish funding council, it went to the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee, college and university representatives, every single trade union that is involved and all the Government agencies.

The policy has been developed to ensure that all our colleges are responding to the needs of young people, returners-to-work and those in wider society, as well as to the needs of our economy. I am confident that our colleges will do just that.

There has been a complete restructuring of colleges under the Scottish Government, which has meant that there are more full-time places than ever before in our colleges, which are preparing more of our younger people for work. In fact, 79,000 of the part-time courses that have been reduced were a mere five hours—not five hours a week but five hours in total. Does the minister agree that reducing such minuscule courses has allowed colleges to invest much more in providing not only full-time courses but part-time courses that allow our young people to get the work that they require?

Mr Gibson is quite right to point out that a decision was made to ensure that colleges were asked to look at recognised qualifications leading to employment, which is something that I thought that the Conservatives would welcome rather than mock. We did that to ensure that youth unemployment came down. The rate of youth unemployment is now one of the lowest in the European Union, which should be welcomed across the chamber and which proves that the college policy has worked well for our young people and for the economy.