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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 6, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 06 June 2019

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, First Responders (Trauma Recovery and Support), Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Fuel Poverty (Target, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3


General Question Time

Scottish Qualifications Authority (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the SQA and what was discussed. (S5O-03348)

Cabinet secretary, Richard Lochhead. I am sorry—minister.

Thank you for the promotion, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy First Minister holds regular meetings with the chair and chief executive of the SQA. He last met them on Tuesday 16 April, when a range of matters were discussed. In addition, Scottish Government officials are in regular contact with SQA officials.

I thank the—still—minister for that response.

Given the Sultan of Brunei’s deplorable views towards his gay subjects—including, unbelievably, his attempted introduction of death by stoning, until international pressure forced him to make a U-turn—does the minister agree that the SQA should reconsider its links with Brunei and reaffirm its role as an equalities champion for Stonewall?

As I am sure we all agree, the new legal regime in Brunei, which so clearly oppresses the country’s LGBTI community, is abhorrent and has no place in the modern world.

Although it is independent of ministers, as a public body the SQA has a duty to contribute to the advancement of equality. With that in mind, the SQA carries out due diligence for all its contracts, and has regard to Scottish Government policy and Foreign Office advice and guidelines.

The SQA approves all its centres, including international centres, to the same standard. Every centre that offers SQA qualifications must ensure that there are no discriminatory barriers, and that everyone who is eligible to take a qualification has an equal chance of benefiting. The standards include a requirement that a centre have in place a number of policies and procedures, including a candidate equal opportunities policy and a candidate complaints policy. I hope that that gives James Dornan reassurance on the Government’s position and the SQA’s position on such matters.

Will the minister confirm that the organisation of this year’s SQA diet of exams was highly successful, and that no major issues have been reported to the Scottish Government?

As Liz Smith can imagine, we are in regular contact with the SQA on a wide range of issues. It has assured us that the 2019 exam diet, and all activity in connection with it, remains on track. Given some of the issues that it is dealing with just now, we have agreed contingency plans with the SQA and partners to ensure that there is no disruption to the qualifications and awarding system.

Glasgow City Council (Pest Control)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that Glasgow City Council has received more than 14,000 requests to deal with rats since 2016. (S5O-03349)

I am aware of recent media reports about the number of rats that Glasgow City Council has dealt with since 2016. Under section 2 of the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949, local authorities in Scotland are obliged to take such steps as are necessary to ensure that, as far as is practicable, their district is kept free from rats and mice.

Glasgow City Council discharges its statutory responsibility through its in-house pest control team, and by ensuring that there are adequate waste-collection services for households, which is a duty that is set out in the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Does the minister share my concern about the scale of the problem and the implications for the health and wellbeing of the citizens of Glasgow? No matter what the responsibilities of the council are, there is clearly a serious problem. When will the Scottish Government accept that its choice to make substantial cuts to Glasgow’s budget is having a direct impact on the front-line services that we all rely on, and when will the minister take responsibility for ensuring that Glasgow gets the fair funding that it so evidently needs to keep our streets clean and our citizens healthy?

I share Johann Lamont’s concern about the increase in pests, wherever it happens. However, I do not share her view on local government funding. This Government has been extremely fair over the years in relation to the settlements that Glasgow and the 31 other local authorities have received.

Glasgow City Council is currently investing £6.5 million in a three-phase bin-replacement programme, which will involve replacing approximately 48,000 existing small dustbins with 80,000 larger-capacity wheeled bins, in order to stop bins overflowing, which can attract pests. That programme could have been done under the city’s previous Labour regime, but it has taken a Scottish National Party led council to sort out the problems.

NHS Tayside (Drug Deaths)

To ask the Scottish Government when NHS Tayside’s next annual report on drug deaths will be published. (S5O-03350)

I understand that the Tayside drug death review group plans to publish its annual drug death report this month. That will include information on all drug-related deaths that occurred in Tayside in 2018. National Records of Scotland is expected to publish its annual report on national drug death statistics in July.

ISD Scotland published data last week that shows that

“Over the past 20 years, there was a fourfold increase in the rate of drug-related general acute hospital stays”.

That includes a critical increase in admissions by approximately 50 per cent across Tayside over the past decade, driven by the region’s most deprived citizens.

Does the minister agree that that state of affairs is devastating for the people who are affected? Can he advise the chamber of what is being done to address deprivation levels, which are reaching breaking-point across national health service boards?

The number of people who are suffering from drug-related harms and death represents an emergency in Scotland. That is why we have a new drugs strategy, which it is intended will look at the services that we provide within our current competencies.

However, it is also important to look at the options for reducing harm that are not currently devolved to this Parliament. I strongly urge the United Kingdom Government to accept the public health emergency that we are in and to support the proposals for a safe consumption space in Glasgow.

Mental Health Services (NHS Orkney)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the provision of mental health services in Orkney. (S5O-03351)

The Scottish Government wants everyone to be able to access mental health services to get the help that they need, when they need it.

We are supporting health boards across Scotland to achieve that through £54 million of funding over the next four years for capacity building and improvement support; through an additional £250 million of investment in mental health through our programme for government; and through funding for an extra 800 mental health workers, which will rise to £35 million per year by 2021-22.

The Scottish Government expects NHS Orkney and its partners, including the health and social care partnership and NHS Grampian, which also provides specialist care, to ensure that there is appropriate provision of mental health services for residents on the islands.

In her review of Orkney’s mental health provision in 2017, Professor Linda Gask classified the need for increased capacity in child and adolescent mental health services as “urgent”. With an increase in referrals, the pressure on the local CAMHS team has only intensified since then. I am also aware of specific concerns in relation to the availability of support for people who are affected by eating disorders. Will the minister therefore undertake to work with the local NHS board to ensure that any existing gaps in CAMHS and the wider mental health team are filled as soon as possible?

Following my exchange with Clare Haughey last November, will ministers also review the issue of patient transfers to the Royal Cornhill hospital, which now requires staff—including CAMHS staff—to travel from Orkney, which impacts on scheduled appointments and puts additional pressure on an already stretched service?

Long waiting times for CAMHS treatment and support are unacceptable, so I thank Liam McArthur for raising that particularly important point. We expect all health boards to deliver the standard of 90 per cent of patients being seen within 18 weeks of referral. The Scottish Government is working with NHS Orkney to agree its annual operational plans, including how it will deliver the standard.

The member mentioned transfers to the Royal Cornhill hospital. Of course, the service level agreement on that is a matter for the two health boards. NHS Grampian has confirmed to officials that it has adequate mental health nursing capacity for provision of services.

However, the Scottish Government expects health boards to meet their service level agreements and to ensure appropriate provision of mental health services for residents. I understand that NHS Orkney and NHS Grampian are reviewing the service level agreement, which will be an opportunity to address the issue of patient transfers. The Minister for Mental Health has asked officials to look at the matter further. The minister is aware of the issues around Cornhill, and I am sure that she will be content to discuss the matter further with the member.

Falkirk Council (Housing)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met Falkirk Council to discuss its plans for 1,000 new social and affordable homes by 2024. (S5O-03352)

Scottish Government officials last met Falkirk Council to discuss its affordable housing programme on 15 May 2019. I am pleased to say that we remain on track to meet our ambitious 50,000 target. We are proud of our record on delivering affordable homes in communities across Scotland, with more than 82,000 delivered since 2007. During the current session of Parliament, £50 million is being made available to Falkirk through the affordable housing supply programme, and that investment has already supported the delivery of 295 homes over the first two years of the programme.

In relation to housing delivery, beyond the current programme, we are committed to continuing to promote increased supply across all tenures and to build on our more homes Scotland approach. We are working with stakeholders to develop a shared vision for our homes and communities for 2040 and a longer-term approach to housing delivery that will help to make that vision a reality.

I join the minister in welcoming Falkirk Council’s ambitious plans. However, at a recent briefing from the council, I was informed that, according to the affordable housing supply programme benchmark, the council receives between £57,000 and £59,000 per unit, but registered social landlords in the Falkirk Council area receive up to £72,000 per unit for most areas and £74,000 for rural areas. Can the minister advise why there is unequal treatment of local authority housing services in relation to grants, tax and other forms of subsidy, when compared to the treatment of RSLs? Will he commit to reviewing the situation with a view to there being a fairer outcome, not just for local authorities but for tenants and, in particular, council tenants?

Our grant subsidy benchmarks are in line with the recommendations of a working group on which the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers were represented. Benchmarks are not fixed grant amounts: that is important, because it means that there is flexibility to approve additional subsidy if that is required to enable higher-cost projects to proceed. If a project is found to be deliverable and provides value for money, we will support it.

Beyond that, as I have said before in the chamber, if an authority is looking to build more specialist housing, including wheelchair accessible housing and homes with more bedrooms, we will look to be very flexible indeed with subsidy levels.

When the minister next meets Falkirk Council to talk about affordable housing, will he raise the issue of sprinklers? He will know that the Government has adopted my member’s bill to ensure that, by 2021, sprinklers are fitted in all new housing, which will ensure the safety of tenants and avoid another Grenfell tower disaster.

I am always happy to hear suggestions from David Stewart. He and I have worked co-operatively to ensure that his vision for sprinklers becomes a reality in our social housing in the near future. I am always happy to ensure that local authorities know about our future plans when it comes to building and fire safety, and David Stewart can be assured that that will continue to be on the agenda when I meet every local authority.

Scottish Ambulance Service (Investment)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to invest in the Scottish Ambulance Service. (S5O-03353)

The Scottish Ambulance Service will receive baseline funding of £259.9 million in this financial year, which is an increase of £9.2 million on the previous year’s amount.

To support the Scottish Ambulance Service strategy for patient treatment to be delivered out of hospital where it is safe to do so, investment totalling around £24.6 million has been made since 2016-17.

Last year’s figures showed that Aberdeenshire areas such as Turriff and the Mearns suffer some of the worst response times, with averages of 18 and 15 minutes respectively—well outwith the target of eight minutes. A recent report by Unison said that Scottish Ambulance Service staff are being overworked and patients are being put at risk by Scottish Government underfunding. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is unacceptable? How does she propose to improve emergency response times in rural areas of north-east Scotland?

I do not accept the central premise that our Scottish Ambulance Service is underfunded. I am sure that Mr Chapman has familiarised himself with the strategy, which now has significant external evidence from across the United Kingdom to show that it remains a valid model and that implementation is on track.

In the next year, the Scottish Ambulance Service will concentrate on the further development of its clinical response model, including improvements to lower-acuity calls, development of its workforce, continued investment in fleet, equipment and new technology and quality improvement work. All of that is designed to improve response times, particularly in relation to lower-acuity calls.

On the recent Unison survey, we take such matters very seriously, as does the Scottish Ambulance Service. The Ambulance Service is involved, with Unison, in the demand and capacity implementation group, which is looking at precisely the issues that Mr Chapman addresses. We will continue to take those matters seriously and to make progress with our Ambulance Service.

Firefighters in two areas of my constituency, Turriff and Maud, participated in the trial scheme that was launched in 2015, which saw specially trained firefighters deployed to administer vital cardiopulmonary resuscitation or to use a defibrillator to try to save people who were experiencing cardiac arrest. I have spoken to firefighters in Turriff who participated in the trial, and they are very keen to use their skills. Can the cabinet secretary advise Parliament if and when that approach will be rolled out?

The primary aim of the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest co-response trials is to reduce response times to incidents, with the longer-term aim of improving patient outcomes. The trials involved 18 stations, which responded to 276 incidents. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service made 83 potential life-saving interventions, with 28 positive results. Given those outcomes, I think that we can consider the trials to have been success. I am keen to see that work being rolled out.

However, there are on-going discussions and negotiations with the Fire Brigades Union and management in relation to the remodelling of the firefighter role. While those discussions are under way, the involvement of the Fire and Rescue Service in such work has been paused.

Broadband (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to deliver superfast broadband to rural communities. (S5O-03354)

The £400 million digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has already delivered truly transformative results across all Scotland’s local authorities, providing fibre broadband access to more than 930,000 homes and businesses so far. Thinkbroadband figures show that more than 93 per cent of Scotland’s premises can now access superfast broadband of 30 megabits per second and above. The equivalent figure for Aberdeenshire is 81.7 per cent.

Our £600 million reaching 100 per cent programme will deliver resilient and future-proofed broadband infrastructure that will ensure that every home and business in Scotland can access superfast broadband services, regardless of remoteness or rurality.

Openreach is responsible for delivering broadband in Old Portlethen in my constituency. Unfortunately, due to long lines, the community is experiencing frustrating speeds and will have to either wait until 2021 for the R100 programme to deliver superfast broadband, or engage in the community fibre partnership. What support can the Scottish Government give in order to ensure that a faster and more cost-effective solution can be found for communities that are affected by long lines?

I recognise the challenge that Maureen Watt has set before the Government. As she is aware, the matter is reserved, but we are trying to use our resources to tackle the issue. We recognise that it is a source of great frustration for the people who are affected.

We are deploying R100—I appreciate Ms Watt’s point that people are concerned about how long they are waiting for that. There is also gainshare funding through the deployment of the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, which has continued through 2018-19 and will continue for the rest of 2019, extending coverage as far as possible. For communities that are still struggling with poor connectivity, there are interim solutions such as the UK Government’s better broadband subsidy and rural gigabit voucher schemes. They might not deliver services at 30Mbps or better, but they might provide an interim solution while R100 is being deployed.