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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 03 May 2017

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, General Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motions, Point of Order


General Question Time

Waiting Times (Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce waiting times at the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh. (S5O-00939)

The Scottish Government is actively working to provide support to ensure that significant progress is made to help all boards, including NHS Lothian, to deliver better capacity planning to meet demand and to ensure that all patients are seen and treated as quickly as possible.

The baseline allocation of NHS Lothian has increased to a total of £1.3 billion in 2017-18. In addition to that increase, the board will receive an increase of £19 million in NHS Scotland resource allocation committee parity funding, which is the largest increase of any NHS board in Scotland.

We have also already committed to investing £200 million over the next three years to create a network of five new elective diagnostic and treatment centres across Scotland, including in Edinburgh and Livingston. The centres will enable people to be treated more quickly and will help to meet increasing demand, while easing pressures on unplanned and emergency treatment.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but the reality on the ground, as reported in the press, is that doctors at the Royal infirmary have been told to send patients home in order to avert a crisis there. Patients are having to wait 17 hours in accident and emergency—Presiding Officer, can you imagine waiting in a waiting room for 17 hours to get your injury seen? Does the cabinet secretary agree with Scotland’s former leading clinician, Dr Anna Gregor, that under the Scottish National Party the national health service in Scotland is “hurtling over a precipice” and has been starved of cash? That is a direct quote. What assurances can the cabinet secretary give me and my constituents that the waiting list crisis at the Royal infirmary and across Scotland will end?

First, I say to Daniel Johnson that the NHS, including NHS Lothian, has record levels of resources. However, demand is also increasing, which is why the reforms that we are putting in place are so important.

Daniel Johnson conflated a number of issues in his question, but let me address the issue of A and E waits, which it is quite right to say were not acceptable. We do not want any long waits in whatever hospital we are talking about, and the board has offered assurance that it quickly recovered its A and E performance following higher-than-average attendances at the infirmary on Thursday 20 April after the Easter break.

What I can say to Daniel Johnson—I hope that this will reassure him—is that the latest published weekly performance for the Royal infirmary was 95.4 per cent for the week ending 16 April and 93.9 per cent for the week ending 23 April. I hope that he will accept that performance in a general sense at the Royal infirmary’s A and E department is actually very good. Yes, it had a surge in demand after the Easter break, but those figures speak for themselves and I hope that Mr Johnson supports the action that the board has taken.

Daniel Johnson raised the issue of delayed discharge. When there is a surge in demand, it is the responsibility of the whole hospital and its social care partners to ensure that people who are ready to be discharged are discharged in a timely manner so that that does not lead to unnecessary waits in the A and E department. We expect everyone in the hospital and the social care partners to get behind and address issues with any surge in demand. I am very happy to provide Daniel Johnson, if he so wishes, with more detail on the action that NHS Lothian is taking to address these matters.

Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Revenue)

To ask the Scottish Government why its land and buildings transaction tax will generate £800 million less than its original estimate. (S5O-00940)

The £800 million figure is deliberately misleading. The latest published data shows that land and buildings transaction tax revenues across 2015-16 and 2016-17 were close to forecast. The Scottish Government has used the Scotland reserve to manage volatility in receipts across years, reflecting prudent financial management.

The Scottish Government’s forecasts were based on the best information available at the time of the forecast and have been endorsed as reasonable by the independent Scottish Fiscal Commission. When the information changes due to changes in the economy, or due to changes to the forecast methodology developed in the light of feedback from the Scottish Fiscal Commission, the tax forecasts will be revised to reflect that.

A recent study by Alma Economics commissioned by the Scottish Government described its LBTT modelling as

“ill-suited for scenario analysis and fiscal impact costing”

and “poor”. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that its tax modelling is fit for purpose?

I am sorry to say that, again, Alison Harris has not fairly characterised the information that we have. I am sure that, prudent as she is, she has checked the report, as I have done; it analyses the range of forecast methodologies and goes through the various determinants. It actually concluded that our system is “good”; that was the overall assessment of that particular type of methodology.

I say again that the £800 million figure is totally inaccurate. I said that our forecasts were very close and within range; the actual figures for both financial years were £919 million as the forecast and £906 million as the outturn—or 1 per cent of a difference over both years. As an accountant, Alison Harris will know that it is easier to count up what has already been collected and much more difficult to forecast ahead, but I think that in anyone’s book that range of forecasting is somewhat impressive.

Let us face it: there has been turbulence in the economy, including the downturn in oil and gas, and there have been the Brexit impacts. Therefore, forecasts will, of course, change and we will, of course, take that into account, including when the responsibility for forecasting transfers to the Scottish Fiscal Commission, which can, of course, determine its own methodology. That is why the report that was commissioned in light of recommendations will be so helpful.

To further reassure Alison Harris and other members, when the Government received more from devolved taxes than we had projected, we put that in the cash reserve to ensure that it was there in the event of our receiving less than had been forecast.

All those actions show that the Scottish Government is managing Scotland’s public finances very well.

What percentage of purchasers have paid the same or less in LBTT since its introduction compared with under stamp duty land tax?

For the first two years of LBTT, almost 93 per cent of those who bought a house for £40,000 or more paid either less tax compared with under United Kingdom SDLT or no tax whatsoever.

Superfast Broadband Coverage

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the cost of delivering 100 per cent broadband coverage by 2021, and how much it has invested in this programme to date. (S5O-00941)

It is not yet possible to determine the cost to the public sector of delivering our 100 per cent superfast broadband commitment. That will be determined through the procurement process, which will start later this year. A key driver is to maximise investment from suppliers, which will reduce the cost to the public purse.

We are currently pre-procurement, so there has been no capital investment in the reaching 100 per cent programme to date, but we have provision to invest up to £112 million during 2017-18 to improve digital infrastructure throughout Scotland. That funding will support the final phases of the £400 million digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, which will deliver 95 per cent fibre broadband coverage across Scotland and enable new activity to begin on the delivery of our 100 per cent superfast broadband commitment and our mobile infill plans. That funding is in addition to the £18 million that is being reinvested through the two DSSB contracts as a result of gainshare.

Ofcom believes that it will cost up to another £250 million to reach everyone with superfast broadband by 2021. By what date will Parliament be told how much of the Scottish Government’s budget is contributing to that programme? Does the cabinet secretary have confidence that his colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution will be forthcoming with all the necessary funds?

I have supreme confidence in my colleague, whose ability was evidenced by his forecast in a very difficult matter to an accuracy of 1 per cent. That was quite an outstanding success; it is just a shame that others are so churlish that they cannot recognise that.

Ofcom, which Mr Rumbles mentioned, recognised that the success in Scotland in the delivery of broadband has exceeded by some measure the performance of our friends down south.

When will we deliver the coverage? We will make progress over the summer and proceed with procurement at the end of this year or the beginning of next year. As I informed Mr Rumbles in a 90-minute evidence session just this morning, we will keep him fully informed.

Given that telecommunications are a reserved matter, when did the cabinet secretary last meet United Kingdom Government ministers to discuss their role in achieving 100 per cent superfast broadband in Scotland?

I first sought a meeting with the relevant UK minister, Matt Hancock, by letter in October, then by letter in January, and then by letter in February. To date, he has not agreed to a meeting, so we have not yet had Hancock’s half hour, if that is what it is to be called.

To be serious, it is disrespectful that the UK minister will not meet us to discuss serious matters that are of real importance to Scotland. That does not really suggest that the UK Government cares for Scotland a great deal, does it?

Contrary to what the cabinet secretary has just said, is it not the case that, of the £412 million being invested in broadband in Scotland, only 15 per cent of that funding came from the Scottish Government and over £100 million came from the UK Government? Will the cabinet secretary join me in cheerily welcoming that UK Government investment in Scotland’s digital infrastructure?

I struggle always to be cheerful, despite the provocation that we have in this place. However, as a lawyer, I remind the member that schedule 5, part II, section C10 to the Scotland Act 1998 states quite clearly that responsibility for investment in broadband, internet and mobile telephony rests entirely—100 per cent—with the UK Government. The member asking me to be grateful that the UK Government is contributing about a quarter of the total funding suggests to me that the Tories are not fit to stand up for Scotland.

Impact of Leaving the European Union (Third Sector Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government how leaving the European Union will impact on third sector funding in the West Scotland region. (S5O-00942)

EU funding benefits the third sector across Scotland significantly, including in the member’s region. Although we have been assured that funding contracts for structural funds projects that are entered into before the United Kingdom leaves the EU will be paid in full, there are no guarantees on European funding streams after the UK leaves the EU. In order to address that uncertainty, the Scottish Government has confirmed that it will be passing on the current UK Government guarantees in full to Scottish stakeholders to provide stability and certainty for key sectors of the Scottish economy. The Scottish Government will continue to do all that it can to protect Scotland’s interests in Europe during the UK’s negotiations to leave the European Union.

Despite the minister’s reassurances, third sector organisations across West Scotland and the rest of Scotland continue to be worried about the impact of funding being withdrawn. When the UK leaves the EU, it is clear that new funding streams and mechanisms for delivery will have to be developed. Post-Brexit, does the Government support a UK-wide cohesion programme or a distinct Scottish system? Does the Government envisage that a Scottish system will be subject to the Barnett formula? Will the minister give a commitment to ensuring that the third sector is closely involved in establishing any new funding programme?

I can not only give that commitment, I can demonstrate it. I met the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations yesterday for the second time in recent months to discuss issues to do with the funding of the third sector. I will be working with the SCVO on an event in Brussels in June and I have given a commitment to ensure that there is further engagement with the SCVO and others to look at the situation not just in Scotland but, interestingly, as the member indicated, across the UK. The constant complaint from the third sector is that it can get no information from the UK Government and cannot even get meetings with that Government, much as Fergus Ewing has experienced difficulty in trying to get meetings with it.

I can give a commitment to the member that we will continue to engage with the third sector nationally and locally and that we will engage with the third sector outside Scotland to discuss how funding should be developed, because there are serious risks, as the member has indicated. We will also make those representations to the UK Government and in Brussels.

What proportion of the Scottish Government’s expenditure for the third sector is now being delivered in a three-year, rolling funding structure?

I am happy to write to the member with that information, but none of the expenditure will be delivered in a three-year funding structure if the EU is not involved in funding key third sector projects. I therefore recommend that Mr Corry and other Conservatives focus on ensuring that money continues to flow from the European Union, rather than on the ideological nonsense that they are presently engaged in.

Local Taxation

To ask the Scottish Government what it considers to be the fairest system for councils to raise local revenue. (S5O-00943)

We are committed to ensuring fairness in all taxes. As the First Minister reiterated to the chamber on 20 April, the Government is willing to discuss, across the political spectrum and with council administrations the length and breadth of the country, matters relating to local taxation.

There was no chance, I am relieved to say, that the cabinet secretary was going to say, “council tax”.

At election after election after election, the Scottish National Party has stood on a commitment to scrap the unfair, hated council tax. Now that the Government is consulting on its Scottish approach to taxation, which is based on four key principles, it seems abundantly clear that council tax as it stands is not only broken and antique, but out of step with the Government’s own taxation principles.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the councillors who are elected later this week to councils up and down Scotland should not be consigned to seeing their revenue come from a broken system of taxation, and that they should instead have available to them a new, modern replacement system of local taxation that will be legislated for during the current session of Parliament?

I wish all candidates the very best of luck in the council elections. I look forward to working with local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities leadership on those matters, and with all parties in Parliament in the spirit of our debate on 22 September 2016, in which I spoke to a motion that said:

“the Parliament ... supports continued discussion by all parties, with local government and wider society, of measures to improve progressivity and local financial accountability over the current parliamentary session.”

The Government has been delivering on the commitments in its 2016 manifesto that relate to taxation. We will continue to do so, and to engage with other parties and local government to make progress in this area.