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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 7, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 07 September 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Universal Credit, Programme for Government 2017-18, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

Online Connectivity (Town and City Centres)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to improve online connectivity in town and city centres. (S5O-01215)

The Government is committed to driving technological and digital innovation to transform our economy. To do so, we need the right digital and connectivity infrastructure in place. In the coming year, we will seek to make Scotland the most attractive place in the United Kingdom to invest in telecommunications, which will include delivering free wi-fi throughout major town and city centres, building on the £1 million that we have already invested to provide wi-fi in public buildings around Scotland.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to delivering free wi-fi throughout city centres, particularly as not everyone currently benefits from that in Stirling city centre, which is in my constituency. How will the Government help businesses such as those in Stirling to make more use of the digital infrastructure? I note that the UK’s largest tech incubator company, CodeBase, has established itself in Stirling, which is an exciting development for a fabulous city.

Mr Crawford makes the good point that good connectivity has led to inward business investment in Stirling. It is relevant to point out that, in Stirling, thanks to the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, the percentage of business premises and households that are able to access digital superfast broadband speeds of, or in excess of, 24 megabits per second has risen from 59 per cent to 90 per cent. In other words, one third more people and businesses in Stirling have access to superfast broadband as a direct result of the Scottish Government investment and programme. That is solid progress on which we seek to build.

I welcome the announcement of the Government’s promise to deliver free wi-fi throughout major town and city centres. Will the cabinet secretary provide some clarity on how that will be delivered, and on what constitutes a major town? For instance, will towns such as Dumfries and Stranraer in my constituency meet the criteria?

In due course, we will bring forward details of our commitment to deliver free wi-fi to major towns and cities in Scotland, which was set out in the programme for government.

It is important to point out that, as a direct result of Scottish Government investment, we have already provided wi-fi access to a large number of libraries, community halls and sports centres, and to facilities for the most vulnerable in society, such as in homeless hostels and residential care homes. As a direct result of our investment, 99 per cent of Scotland’s libraries now offer free public wi-fi, which is an excellent facility that I am grateful for the chance to publicise.

If Mr Carson wants to write to me, I am happy to carefully consider his representations regarding any specific towns in his constituency.

Disability Assessments (Private Contractors)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to put specific provisions in the Social Security (Scotland) Bill to rule out private contractors conducting disability assessments. (S5O-01216)

We have made a clear commitment to this Parliament and to the people of Scotland that private contractors will not be used to conduct disability assessments. I will deliver that commitment. I want the member to know that I have looked at the issue in detail and my view is that a legislative ban is the wrong way to address the matter, because it brings with it significant potential for other difficulties and unintended consequences to occur. I have offered the member some examples of that, but I do not want to take up too much time now.

Like Pauline McNeill, I believe that the policy of not using private sector contractors is the right one to take for Scotland. I want to make sure that a legislative ban does not inadvertently deflect from or compromise the delivery. As the member knows, my door is always open and I am happy to discuss the issue further with her and talk through the basis of my decision.

I welcome the statements that Jeane Freeman has consistently made on the important question of who should be allowed to carry out assessments in the social security system. I am sure that she will agree that there is very strong feeling among claimants who have had traumatic experiences dealing with private contractors. I fully appreciate that she has given the matter full consideration. However, if it is not in the bill, how can we ensure that future Governments will respect the implementation of a public system, rather than a private one?

I thank Ms McNeill for her support and for her additional question, which raises the issue of future proofing what we are doing for social security, which has emerged over the summer and has been raised by many key stakeholders. There is a limit to what we can do. Through the legislation that will be debated in the Parliament in due course—the bill is currently in committee—we are setting out a robust framework for a rights-based social security system, founded on the principles of dignity, fairness and respect. We can set in statute some key elements. However, we cannot preclude future democratic decisions by people in Scotland on who they elect to the Scottish Parliament and who becomes the Government. There are limitations to future proofing.

As I have said, I am happy to talk further to the member and others about the issue and about our bill.

This morning at the Social Security Committee, we met and heard evidence from claimants—I hate to use the word “users”—who were adamant that they did not want private contractors to deliver social security, particularly the assessments. However, they welcomed the guidance in the bill and were very supportive of that flexibility, just in case—as the minister has said—there is a future Government that does not look on social security as favourably as the current Government does, which is with dignity and respect.

I am not sure that there was a question there, so a very brief response, please, minister.

Perhaps I could use the opportunity to say a wee bit about the work that we have begun on assessments.

We have another question, so perhaps you could respond to that.

The minister almost stole my thunder. If we are going to move in this direction, will the people who carry out the assessments be employed full time by the Scottish Government? If that is the case, where will we find physios, nurses and occupational therapists to fill those roles? What cost has the Government put on employing those people?

That is an excellent question for which I thank Mr Balfour. Private companies, with a necessary and understandable profit motive, are incompatible with a rights-based social security system. [Applause.] I fully appreciate that Mr Balfour is not as old as I am.

We are now working with experienced colleagues across the health and social care sector and with experts led by the chair of the British Medical Association general practitioners committee, who is a member of the expert advisory group that provides advice to me on carers and disability benefits, to devise a system of assessments that will be evidence based, fair and most certainly fewer in number because we will get our decisions right first time. They are working that through for me because the best people to solve such issues are the people who know about it.

We will use qualified, experienced professionals across healthcare sectors and social care to provide assessments when they need to be undertaken, ensuring—unlike the current system—that the individuals who carry out an assessment are experienced and professionally qualified in the condition that the person presenting has. In other words, we will make sure that our system can deal with fluctuating conditions, neurological conditions and mental health and will treat people with dignity, fairness and respect. I am comfortable about explaining in further detail at a future meeting of the Social Security Committee—I believe that I will be there in November—how those individuals who will not be employed full time by us will bring that professional expertise from their daily healthcare and social care practice to benefit our rights-based social security system.

General Practitioner Services (Lothian)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to expand general practitioner services in Lothian. (S5O-01217)

The Scottish Government is aware of the pressures facing general practice and is fully committed to supporting a model of sustainable general practice.

I met Lothian GPs last November to discuss how our significant national investment of £71.6 million for this year can directly support general practices in Lothian. The investment this year will improve GP recruitment and retention and expand the multidisciplinary primary care team, as part of a commitment to see an additional £250 million being invested annually in direct support of general practice by the end of this session of Parliament, which is part of a wider £500 million investment in primary care.

Since the meeting in November, health and social care partnerships across Lothian are supporting practices to use their receptionists to signpost patients who do not need to see their GP to the right person, which is helping to take the strain off GPs. Through cluster working, GPs are able to identify areas for improvement and to test solutions such as enhancing their multidisciplinary teams.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that over 40 per cent of GP practices within NHS Lothian are full, not accepting new patients or restricting registrations? Does she agree that that is an indication of the crisis that is affecting GP services as they struggle to cope with demand?

With the Royal College of General Practitioners now predicting a shortfall of 828 GPs across Scotland by 2021, does the cabinet secretary really believe that the Scottish Government is doing enough to ensure that areas such as Lothian, which has one of Scotland’s fastest-growing populations, will have adequate numbers of GPs to cover the increase in the number of patients?

Of course I am aware of the challenges in Lothian. As Miles Briggs will know, that is why I met Lothian GPs to discuss more closely some of their particular issues. He will be aware, as I laid out in my initial answer, of the investment that we are making in primary care, and in general practice specifically. There is a lot happening within the expansion of the primary care workforce. Of course, we are increasing not just the number of GPs but the number of other multidisciplinary team members. We have increased the recruitment and retention fund and we have specific initiatives including the GP development fellowship, which Lothian has taken advantage of.

I can tell Miles Briggs that in GP specialty training and recruitment more than 90 per cent of the 1,082 Scottish GP training places are filled. Some progress is being made, but I accept that there is more to be done, which is why we are working very hard with the British Medical Association to deliver a new general medical services contract that I think will help to transform primary care.

I wish the cabinet secretary would stop talking in euphemisms. We do not have “challenges”—we have a crisis in general practice. Over the summer I held a drop-in session for GPs in West Lothian and they told me of a staffing crisis, of the complete reliance on extremely scarce and expensive locum cover, and of practices that are but a resignation or a sickness absence from collapse. All practices in Midlothian have closed lists: what a damning indictment that is of the Government’s failure to plan for general practice. Will the cabinet secretary apologise to GPs and their patients for this crisis and tell us what is happening to resolve it now, and not some time in the future?

I say to Neil Findlay that what is happening now is a £71.6 million investment this year that is directly supporting general practice not just in Lothian, but elsewhere across the country. What is happening now is the negotiation of a brand new GMS contract that will transform primary care. That is important because we need to make general practice more attractive as a career, and the new contract will help to do that. What is happening now is that 90 per cent of GP specialty training places are being filled because of the efforts that are being made to promote general practice. So, a lot of action is being taken in the here and now to support general practice that will make a real difference in the here and now in Neil Findlay’s area and elsewhere in Scotland.

Local Festivals

To ask the Scottish Government what support it gives to local festivals. (S5O-01218)

Scotland’s local festivals are, in the main, supported by their local authorities. The Scottish Government provides support through the national funding bodies Creative Scotland and EventScotland. Creative Scotland supports festivals that apply directly to it for funding, and EventScotland supports a portfolio of events through its national, international and signature programmes, which are designed to assist event organisers to grow their audiences. Support is also available through themed-year funding, which in 2017 links inspirational events with the year of history, heritage and archaeology.

The year 2019 will mark the bicentenary of the death of the great enlightenment inventor, James Watt. I propose that a week-long James Watt festival should take place in Inverclyde, which is the place of James Watt’s birth, to celebrate the legacy of that great inventor. Does the cabinet secretary agree that such a festival could play an important role in re-establishing Scots’ place internationally as innovators, thinkers and cultural leaders, and that it would also have a positive impact on Inverclyde, on the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, and on wider society, the economy and culture?

Indeed. Events being planned to celebrate the life and achievements of James Watt would be warmly welcomed across Scotland, for the reasons that Stuart McMillan outlined, and by the community in Inverclyde. We are happy to consider approaches to Creative Scotland—in particular, to its open fund. Of course, on 23 August the Scottish Government announced £250,000 for annual science festivals because the inspiration that young people can find in the STEM subjects can be told through those festivals. Celebrating the great James Watt is one way of enhancing that programme in 2019.

Gypsy Travellers (Parking Sites)

To ask the Scottish Government what information it has regarding the provision by local authorities of parking sites that are suitable for Gypsy Travellers. (S5O-01219)

The provision of Gypsy Traveller sites is a matter for the relevant local authority. The Scottish Government does not routinely collect information concerning sites in Scotland. All Scottish local authorities must, by law, produce local housing strategies that set out their priorities and plans for delivering housing and related services. Those strategies should include plans for meeting any Gypsy Traveller housing needs, including addressing any requirement for provision of suitable sites.

While noting the particular difficulties in Moray, where Tory part-time MP Douglas Ross was recently a member of the council administration that has failed to provide any such parking sites, does the minister believe that rather than vilifying Travellers—who make a valuable contribution to society—as a “top priority” problem, as he described it, Mr Ross and others in his party should work to address that deficiency?

Yes, I agree with Mr Stevenson. As I set out in my first answer, the provision of suitable Gypsy Traveller sites in Moray is a matter for Moray Council, based on its local housing strategy. Councillors should look at the needs that are highlighted in their local housing strategy and address the issue accordingly. Gypsy Traveller communities are among those that are most disenfranchised and discriminated against in Scotland. The Scottish Government values the Gypsy Traveller community, the contribution that it makes and the important role that it plays in enriching Scotland socially, culturally and economically. We are committed to tackling all forms of discrimination and to promoting a multicultural society that is based on mutual trust, respect and understanding.

Integrated Health and Social Care (Voluntary Sector)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making to ensure that voluntary sector groups are treated as equal partners in the development of integrated health and social care. (S5O-01220)

The Scottish Government promotes and values the contribution that the voluntary sector and other third sector organisations make to the integration of health and social care. Integration authorities must involve the third sector in the strategic commissioning and locality planning process, and a third sector representative is required to be a member of the integration joint board. IJBs also have the flexibility to include nominations of people including representatives from the voluntary sector. However, that will vary due to local circumstances.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but it does not address some of the needs and concerns of the voluntary sector that I represent in South Scotland. Before I became an MSP, I was involved in the third sector on a voluntary basis, and I know about its fragility and the challenges that it faces. Healthy Valleys in Lanark and Borders Voluntary Care Voice in Galashiels have expressed concerns to me about funding security and continuity, training opportunities and—most important of all—status recognition. What can the cabinet secretary do to reassure those groups and groups across South Scotland and more widely?

If Claudia Beamish wants to write to me about the specific concerns that those local organisations have, I would be happy to look into them in more detail. The Scottish Government has established and supported a network of third sector interfaces to support and fund third sector organisations at local level. More than £12 million of funding was provided to the 32 third sector interfaces that cover each local authority area in Scotland, and I would have thought that organisations in Claudia Beamish’s area would have benefited from that. However, if she wants to write to me, I will be happy to look into the matter in more detail.