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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 7, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 07 February 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Kilmarnock Football Club 150th Anniversary, Glasgow Airport Access Project, Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


General Question Time

Bank Branch Closures

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the impact on communities of banks reportedly closing branches without consultation, such as Santander in the South Scotland region. (S5O-02869)

I am sorry to be answering this question again. I remain deeply concerned at the scale of branch closures across Scotland. Those concerns will be shared by communities, vulnerable members of our society and small businesses that rely on access to local banking services, particularly in rural areas such as that represented by Claudia Beamish. I appreciate that banks must operate on a commercial basis. However, Santander and other banks must take into account the needs of all customers. Digital should never be exclusive and the only means by which customers can engage with their banks.

The minister raised a very interesting point and I agree with her, but what steps can the Scottish Government take to ensure that there is a banking presence on our high streets? That is very important. It is also important to make sure that there are measures that the Scottish Government can take to make it easier for credit unions to have a high street presence as well.

Although we bear it in mind that banking is a reserved area, we appreciate that the impact on communities is not reserved. Just yesterday, I had a meeting with Which?—it has done a lot of research on the matter—and with Unite the union, to look at the impact that branch closures are having on communities and on the employees. Steps that the Scottish Government has taken include regular meetings with banks to make clear our disappointment with the scale of closures and the lack of consultation with communities in many cases. We also look at alternatives. One of those alternatives is credit unions, and it is worth noting that a much higher level of the Scottish population, at 7.3 per cent, is enrolled in a credit union than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In November, we launched a campaign to encourage people to sign up to credit unions. We have previously funded junior saver schemes and the First Minister has written to employers to look at partnering with credit unions. We have also engaged with the Post Office.

There was no consultation in advance—just a letter telling longstanding members of the Santander branch in Helensburgh that they need to travel 40 miles for their nearest bank branch. The minister said that she regularly meets some of the banks. Has she met Santander, and will she seek a meeting specifically to encourage it to reconsider the extent of the closures?

I will happily meet Santander. I meet the bank regularly and make clear my disappointment in those areas. I know well the impact of closures, particularly in rural communities. Scottish Government officials are currently in contact with Santander and will continue to engage with the bank. We do all that we can with the powers that we have to make clear our displeasure, but at the end of the day, when it comes to regulation, that is a reserved matter.

St John’s Hospital Parking

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to alleviate the reported parking problems at St John’s hospital. (S5O-02870)

Scottish Government health officials met NHS Lothian yesterday. The board takes the matter seriously and has taken steps to manage availability of spaces and to provide alternatives to on-site parking, along with alternative forms of transport. The board remains committed to on-going engagement with patients, staff, visitors and neighbours to understand and address parking-related issues.

Hundreds of patients, staff and local residents have contacted me about the parking chaos in and around St John’s hospital. I have invited NHS Lothian officials to attend a public meeting so that they can hear ideas from patients, staff and residents about how the problems can be resolved. So far, they have refused to attend such a meeting, but surely NHS Lothian has to be accountable for its actions. Will the minister instruct officials to come to a public meeting in Livingston to hear ideas from patients and those who use the area in and around the hospital on how we can resolve the problems?

Sixty-six per cent of the parking spaces are available to staff. The board has reconfigured some of the spaces to increase the number that are available to patients to ensure that they are not late for appointments, and has received positive feedback about that. The board advises me that it has received a very small number of complaints—two to four—from neighbours, which have been dealt with directly.

The board engages with staff through the local partnership forum, which is a successful way for our national health service to engage with staff across an entire health board or in a particular site and to reach shared solutions on different matters. The board continues to engage with staff through the partnership forum as it looks to plan the new elective centre, which will be based at St John’s hospital.

It is not for me to instruct the board on that matter; it is for me to make clear to this board and others that I expect them to engage effectively and continuously with their local communities, neighbours, staff, patients and others.

The board has done some work to ensure that there is a corporate discount scheme for local transport and it has taken on a number of suggestions that it has received from patients and staff through the work that it has undertaken. Mr Findlay might feel that that is inadequate, but it is not for me to instruct the board as to how it undertakes such matters—criticism would come my way if I were to do that, probably from members on the Labour benches. Rather, it is for me to ensure that the board engages constructively, which I will continue to ensure that it does.

Energy Performance Certificates

To ask the Scottish Government when it plans to consult on setting a target for all homes to have at least a C energy performance certificate rating. (S5O-02871)

The Scottish Government has already consulted on whether all homes should have to have at least an energy performance certificate band C rating. We consulted on that proposal last summer following the launch of our energy efficient Scotland route map and we welcome the on-going cross-party support for that ambition. An analysis of the responses that were received was published on 22 November and is available on the Scottish Government’s website.

The minister will know that Paul Wheelhouse made a further commitment in November and that, in answer to a question on 31 January, said that the Government would consult in March,

“seeking views on whether Energy Efficient Scotland can be accelerated and how the risks of doing so can be overcome.”—[Written Answers, 31 January 2019; S5W-21335.]

In that context, does the minister recognise that the certificates are currently calculated on the basis of cost efficiency, which fails to take into account the cost disadvantages of rural communities that are off the gas grid? Will he consider taking the opportunity to base future ratings on kilowatts of energy used per square metre, so that they measure carbon emissions, rather than cost to consumers?

As Mr Macdonald pointed out, Mr Wheelhouse gave some detail on how we will progress those issues in answer to Tom Arthur on 31 January. Mr Wheelhouse said that we will set out more detail about the suite of legislation that the Scottish Government will bring forward to deliver the energy efficiency Scotland pipeline. We will do that in the near future.

We will look at concerns right across the board, both urban and rural. As Mr Macdonald and other members are probably well aware, we spend more on energy efficiency per head of population in rural areas than in urban areas, which we will continue to do.

On that note, what solutions is the Government considering to assist those in rural areas with limited choice in heating fuel and, often, with harder-to-heat properties?

As I said to Mr Macdonald, we are committed to continuing to spend more per head on energy efficiency in remote rural areas where we know that installation and labour costs are higher. Since 2013-14, our remote and rural areas have received almost £64 million in investment through our home energy efficiency programmes for Scotland.

The funding is distributed based on an assessment of need, which means that remote areas receive more money per head of population in order to tackle fuel poverty. For example, since 2013, the maximum grant that is available to households in very remote and rural areas through the HEEPS area-based scheme has risen to £9,000. That is compared with a maximum grant of £7,500 for other places in Scotland.

We have reviewed our warmer homes Scotland programme—our national fuel poverty scheme—to see how it can better support people in rural communities. Ms Martin and others can be assured that we will continue to do that work.

I note my entry in the register of members’ interests that relates to property.

There is an increasing frustration in the housing sector about the lack of guidance from the Scottish Government on the proposed EPC regulations that are due to come into force in 14 months’ time. Details were supposed to be published early this year, but none have been forthcoming. Does the minister understand the issues that are created by the lack of details at this late stage? Can he clarify exactly when the information will be available?

We are going through a rigorous process to ensure that we get all the detail absolutely right. We want to ensure that companies in Scotland—including the one that Mr Burnett owns—benefit from our energy efficiency programme, and that we do our very best for the people of Scotland. We want to grow supply chains here and ensure that we have the labour and skills to develop our energy efficiency programme properly.


I realise that there are people who want us to move further and faster, but we will do this right.

Cumbernauld Village Surgery Closure

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of the proposed closure of the Cumbernauld village surgery. (S5O-02872)

We are aware of the situation at the branch practice. NHS Lanarkshire has been in discussions with the practice about options for the future. The board will ensure, as it is required to do, that a primary care service continues to be made available to all patients, and that patient safety is maintained at all times. My understanding is that the practice recently closed a consultation that included two options, but no decisions have been taken yet.

If the proposed closure goes ahead, patients will go from having a service on their doorstep to having to take a 5-mile bus trip, which is a journey that none of us would want to undertake if we were ill. Given the previous interventions by health boards to directly run general practitioner surgeries, in the event that the surgery closes, will the cabinet secretary ask NHS Lanarkshire to step in and protect the vital service on which my constituents in Cumbernauld village depend?

I completely appreciate the sentiment that Mr Griffin is expressing and the concerns of local residents who use the practice about what might happen. Through our discussions with the health board and through the health board’s discussions with the practice, we will ensure that primary care continues to be available and accessible. It would be wrong of me to leap to conclusions until I see what the practice partners want to do as a consequence of their consultation and their further discussions with the health board. However, I assure Mr Griffin that my officials and I will keep in close contact with those involved, and that we will do all that we can to ensure that a primary care service of the highest quality remains available and accessible to the patients in the area that the practice serves.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm the increase in funding to front-line health services and explain what that will mean for general practices across Scotland?

As Mr Lyle will know, there is a significant increase in funding to our front-line services in the budget. We are moving very quickly towards our overall aim of more than 50 per cent of all health funding being directed towards front-line services. Significant investment is being made in primary care and primary care reform and in the general practitioner contract, which is an essential part of that reform. There is also significant additional investment, from my portfolio area to local government, for health and social care partnerships and integration services.

I am happy to give Mr Lyle the specific numbers for his area, and to provide that information to other members. It is clear that resourcing in this area is significant. We have the plans and the commitment; we now need to carry on and further the delivery of our ambitions.

Mental Health Services Budget

To ask the Scottish Government what financial support it has provided for mental health services in the current parliamentary session. (S5O-02873)

In 2019-20, the Scottish Government will increase direct investment in mental health by £27 million, which will take overall funding for mental health to £1.1 billion. Mental health expenditure over the four years since 2016-17 will amount to £4 billion. As Mr Dornan is aware, mental health is a priority for this Government, as evidenced by the appointment of a specific Minister for Mental Health and significant investment in the Scottish Government’s mental health strategy. I updated Parliament last year on progress on the strategy and there is a commitment to do so annually.

Would the minister agree that the proposals in the draft budget to invest an additional £250 million over the next five years to improve mental health outcomes for children and young people are a step in the right direction? Would she also agree that it is deeply disappointing that the Liberal Democrats, who have championed mental health services over the past few years, will not support that important investment because of their constitutional obsession?

I agree with James Dornan. The £250 million investment will support the ambitions that were set out in the programme for government to build on the principles of early intervention and to radically change what we do to ensure that care and support are available as close as is possible to children, young people and their families. The “Better Mental Health in Scotland” delivery plan that was published in December 2018 includes a number of actions to reform children and young people’s mental health services. By April, health boards are expected to have in place improvement plans with clear milestones to be achieved over the next two years.

While the Liberal Democrats talk about the need to invest in and expand mental health services, it is worth remembering that last week they voted against a budget that will deliver significant investment in mental health care. It appears that the Liberal Democrats might talk the talk, but when they have the opportunity to support the Scottish Government in improving mental health services, they refuse to take it.

Local Councillors Pay

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to increasing pay for local councillors. (S5O-02874)

A Scottish statutory instrument to increase the level of remuneration payable to local authority councillors by 2.8 per cent with effect from 1 April this year was laid before the Parliament on 1 February.

Members of Parliament are paid some £77,000, members of the Scottish Parliament get £62,000 and councillors get £17,000. That seems a bit uneven, given that—in my view, certainly—many councillors work just as hard as some MPs I know. Does the minister agree?

Mr Mason has pointed out the basic salary of councillors. As he is aware, many councillors also receive special responsibility allowances above that. In 2005, the independent Scottish local authorities remuneration committee considered whether councillors’ pay should be comparable to that of MSPs, but concluded that it should not, because there are more significant differences between the two roles than there are similarities. Of course, MSPs are legislators with a national role, whereas councillors are responsible for local services. The remuneration committee revisited the issue in 2010 and came to exactly the same conclusion. As a former councillor, I appreciate the contribution and hard work of councillors across the country, but I am not persuaded that recalling the remuneration committee at this point would lead to a different conclusion.

Tenant Farming Commissioner (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the Tenant Farming Commissioner. (S5O-02875)

Scottish Government officials last met with the Tenant Farming Commissioner on Thursday 24 January at his tenant farming advisory forum.

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, the conduct of some land agents has caused concern for many. What progress has been made in creating a code of conduct for individuals who provide land agent services, which the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 provides for?

The member raises an important issue. The Tenant Farming Commissioner’s report on the operation of land agents and tenant farming agents was published in May 2018 and I welcomed its findings. It highlighted that the majority of landlords and their tenant farmers are content with their relationship but for some individuals there are still issues. The Tenant Farming Commissioner is working with the relevant professional bodies on producing a code of practice for land agents, which will include the standards expected of an agent and how to complain if an agent fails to meet those standards.