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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 7, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 07 December 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Brain Tumour Awareness, Air Quality (Low-emission Zones), Sea Fisheries and End-year Negotiations, Decision Time


General Question Time

A75 and A77

To ask the Scottish Government what the scope is of the recently announced report on developing the A75 and A77. (S5O-01544)

The south-west Scotland transport study will consider the rationale for improvements to road, rail, public transport and active travel on the key strategic corridors, including the A75, the A77 and the railway corridors to Stranraer and Carlisle via Kilmarnock and Dumfries, and will have a particular focus on access to the ports at Cairnryan. It will examine the case for change in relation to transport infrastructure investment.

In 2016, while visiting my constituency, the Deputy First Minister pledged further investment in the A75. Indeed, the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform at the time declared in an election pledge that there was a clear demonstration of the Scottish National Party’s commitment to the region. Only last year, the Deputy First Minister said that to grow the economy and new jobs we need to improve further the region’s transport infrastructure, and yesterday the Minister for Transport and the Islands announced to the chamber that the Scottish Government intended

“to honour the commitments and promises in our manifesto.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2017; c 67.]

When will the Government honour that clear commitment to Galloway and West Dumfries and provide not just another report but substantial investment in the A75 and A77, which is desperately needed?

On the question about substantial investment, we have invested £50 million in the A75, in six new schemes, and £35 million in four schemes for the A77, and we will be investing in the Maybole bypass. Does the member not have even a tad of shame about coming to the chamber week after week, demanding that we spend more, while his party is cutting taxes for the wealthiest and his Tory Government colleagues—when they can find time in between making a complete pig’s ear out of Brexit—are robbing this Scottish Government to the tune of £500 million over the next two years?

Non-domestic Rates

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that the non-domestic rates system is fair to businesses. (S5O-01545)

We are doing everything within our powers to support our businesses. This year, we have reduced the non-domestic rates poundage by 3.7 per cent and have funded the most competitive package of rates relief available anywhere in the United Kingdom, worth around £660 million, including the small business bonus scheme, which will lift 100,000 properties out of rates altogether.

We have also gone beyond the recent Barclay review recommendations, with new measures to drive investment. In addition to the growth accelerator, which will mean that businesses pay no rates increases for the first year on new and improved properties, we will ensure that every new-build property does not pay a penny in rates until it is occupied for the first time. Further details will be confirmed in the draft budget next week.

The Scottish Government has dealt with only 0.2 per cent of appeals from the non-domestic rates revaluations earlier this year. That accounts for just £161 million of the £5 billion worth of appeal revaluations in 2017. Does the cabinet secretary have any estimates on the number of businesses that are going to the wall while waiting for an appeal to be heard?

It really is quite incredible: Gordon Lindhurst, like pretty much every other Tory member, is totally ignorant of the facts when it comes to non-domestic rates. The Scottish Government does not determine appeals in relation to business rates; there is a separate and independent due process for that. It is the case that many businesses appeal their valuations, and material considerations are taken into account, but it is an independent process for a reason.

I will tell the member what I will not do: I will not follow what the UK Government has done in this regard, which is to charge for appeals, causing consternation south of the border. I do not always quote the Scottish Property Federation or the Scottish Retail Consortium when it comes to non-domestic rates, but they are right when they say that the Scottish Government is ahead of the curve when it comes to reforming our business rates regime.

Can the cabinet secretary give assurances to the businesses that qualify for, and benefit from, the small business bonus scheme—there are more than 100,000 such Scottish businesses—that the scheme will continue to ensure that we have vibrant town centres and an encouraging environment for start-ups?

Yes, I can absolutely confirm that the small business bonus scheme will continue. It is on course to lift 100,000 properties out of rates altogether. Although Opposition politicians pretend to care for their town centres, this Government delivers to give them a lifeline in these challenging times. What is more, our package will not only support those properties; I am going to write to other small businesses that I think might be eligible for the small business bonus.

We take the right decisions, we fund our promises and we reach out to support our communities, including the business community, while the Opposition carp from the sidelines.

Thyroid Disorders

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disorders. (S5O-01546)

The Scottish Government’s role is to provide policies, frameworks and resources to national health service boards to allow them to deliver services, taking account of national guidance set out by the British Thyroid Association. A clinician’s prime duty is to do no harm and, in making a diagnosis, we expect clinicians not only to take account of all the evidence presented to them, which will include test results, but to consider each patient’s symptoms, circumstances and experiences.

We expect all clinicians to demonstrate a patient-centred approach through full engagement and shared decision making on mutually agreed outcomes. That approach is at the heart of all Scottish Government policies and, in particular, the chief medical officer’s report “Realising Realistic Medicine”.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that encouraging response. I was pleased that, in response to my recent members’ business debate, a commitment was made to help thyroid sufferers. There has also been good news in NHS England, as triiodothyronine—or T3—will not be removed from the prescribed medicines list after a successful patient-led campaign. However, we need a clear answer on T3 here in Scotland. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that general practitioners and health boards will continue to prescribe that life-saving medicine?

As T3 is licensed, it can continue to be prescribed on the NHS. There are no plans to remove T3 from NHS Scotland. Formularies are set and agreed by boards based on recommendations from local clinicians, clinical expert groups, the latest clinical evidence and any recommendations that come via the Scottish Medicines Consortium.

In my initial response, I should have paid tribute to Elaine Smith’s work in this area over a long period. It is recognised that a small proportion of patients do not tolerate thyroxine—or T4—which is the main prescribed drug for treatment in this area, so T3 is available where the clinician is satisfied that it is the safest and most clinically effective treatment option for the individual patient concerned. That is how things have been done and it is how matters should continue to be done.

Scottish-Irish Relations (Post-Brexit)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Irish Government regarding continuing free trade and the free movement of people between Scotland and Ireland after Brexit. (S5O-01547)

The Scottish Government is in regular contact with the Irish Government on European Union matters. On 5 October, the First Minister met the Taoiseach in Dublin and, on 10 November, there was contact at the British-Irish Council; last Friday, Fiona Hyslop met the Irish foreign minister—who is now the Tánaiste—in Dublin; and, in September, I met the Irish foreign minister in Cambridge in the margins of the British-Irish Association.

The best outcome for Scotland—which is, of course, what people here voted for—is continued EU membership. However, short of that, it is essential for jobs, living standards and our economy that we retain our place in the single market and the customs union. That will ensure that the damage from Brexit is minimised and that we can deepen the very close economic and social ties between Ireland—an EU member—and Scotland and ensure continued freedom of movement between our two countries.

Does the Scottish Government agree that the United Kingdom Government’s reliance on a shabby deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep afloat risks hundreds of thousands of jobs across these islands and that it is time for the Tories to put the public good before their own political survival?

We must always be careful when we talk about the circumstances in Northern Ireland. The Scottish Government has been a long-term supporter of peace in Northern Ireland and particularly of the Good Friday agreement. Clearly, any actions that damage or imperil the Good Friday agreement and the balance of powers in Northern Ireland are not helpful. In that regard, the agreement with the DUP is clearly a disruptive force.

We seek to ensure the very best for Ireland—north and south—and to ensure that the difficulties of the past are not returned to, and we approach the issue responsibly and carefully.

Salvesen v Riddell Case

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the situation with people affected by the Salvesen v Riddell case. (S5O-01548)

The Supreme Court published its judgment in the Salvesen v Riddell case in April 2013. The case has now ended.

I have to assume that the member is referring to the litigation that has followed on from the Supreme Court decision. Tenant farmers and landlords are currently engaged in live litigation against Scottish ministers. If that assumption is correct, it is not possible for me to provide an update.

I refer the member to rules 7.5.1 and 7.5.2 of the standing orders, which concern sub judice matters. Under those rules, I am constrained in what I may say about any matter that is the subject of the current litigation.

I thank the cabinet secretary, and I am sure that the member will be aware of the restrictions.

The Scottish Government promised to deal favourably with tenants who are caught up in the Salvesen v Riddell case, but it has not, which meant that the tenants had to sue the Government. However, even though the tenants won the case, the Scottish Government has continued to delay payment and compensation. That is bad enough, but the Scottish Government has obtained a ruling to pursue the families of those tenants for court costs.

When will the Scottish Government honour its commitment to those tenants, who have already lost their homes and businesses, and compensate them fully so that they can make a fresh start?

Most of that question related to a live case. If the minister wishes to make a brief comment, he may do so.

It seems to me that the question is almost entirely out of order. Although I cannot talk about any matter that is subject to current litigation, I am able to say that tripartite mediation was previously offered by the Scottish Government on the basis that, if any party wished to submit a compensation claim against the Scottish Government as part of that process, the Scottish Government would step outside the mediation to consider the matter, and, if liability were accepted, it could continue to be part of that process. No party took up that offer before the tenant farmers lodged their case in court against Scottish ministers, including their associated compensation claims.

Aside from the court action, we have facilitated and funded a Scottish Government mediation service between tenant farmers and their landlords to provide a forum for tenant farmers and landlords who wish to engage to discuss and explore the resolution of issues between them. The mediation service lasts until 2018, and we have made up to £13,000, excluding VAT, available for the costs that are associated with the undertaking of mediation by those landlords and tenant farmers.

I conclude by pointing out to the member something of which I suspect that she is extremely well aware. The Salvesen v Riddell case arose because of a flaw in the law that was passed by the previous Labour-Liberal Administration. That flaw in the law, which the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association pointed out, is such that the current Administration has effectively been left to pick up the pieces.

NHS Fife (Meetings)

6. Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met NHS Fife. (S5O-01549)

The Scottish Government meets regularly with NHS Fife to discuss matters of interest to the people of Fife.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Levenmouth and parts of Glenrothes in my constituency are among some of the most disadvantaged areas in Scotland. Does she agree that the number one priority for NHS Fife and for Fife’s health and social care partnership should be providing services that directly tackle health inequalities?

I certainly agree that NHS Fife and Fife’s health and social care partnership should be working with partners across Fife to tackle health inequalities and their underlying causes.

For its part, the Scottish Government is focused on addressing the underlying causes by ending poverty, paying fair wages, supporting families and improving our physical and social environments. We continue to protect the most vulnerable and people on low incomes. To that end, we are investing more than £100 million every year to mitigate the worst impacts of the United Kingdom Government’s welfare cuts. We are funding things such as the links worker programme, which is right on the front line of the battle against health inequalities, and we have committed to increasing the number of links workers who support general practices in Scotland. There are now 53 in post, and more will be recruited next year. I am sure that the people of Fife will benefit from those links workers.

In September, more than 1,150 people in NHS Fife had waited for more than 18 weeks for treatment. That is the highest number on record. How will the cabinet secretary ensure that that upward trend is reversed as soon as possible?

Alexander Stewart should recognise that, despite the challenges that it faces, NHS Fife’s performance on waiting times has been very commendable; indeed, the work that it has done to improve some of its waiting times is being looked at elsewhere in Scotland.

Mr Stewart will be aware of the £50 million that has been deployed this financial year to make improvements to waiting times. NHS Fife has received £3.4 million of that. In addition, Professor Derek Bell is doing work to reform the way in which elective capacity is organised, to make sure that we can meet the demands and expectations of the population in the here and now and into the future.

NHS Grampian (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact has been on NHS Grampian’s patient service record of the figures from the Scottish Parliament information centre, which suggest that the board’s NRAC funding targets have not been met since 2009, leading to a £165.6 million discrepancy. (S5O-01550)

As I explained last week, NHS Grampian was 3.7 per cent behind its target funding allocation when the NHS Scotland resource allocation committee formula was introduced in 2009-10. That is a position that we inherited. The Scottish Government has invested significantly in supporting the boards that are behind parity and, since 2015-16, NHS Grampian has received additional funding of £47 million for the specific purpose of accelerating the achievement of NRAC parity.

We expect all health boards, including NHS Grampian, to meet and maintain national performance targets and standards from the resources that are provided. As with all boards, we are continuing to work with NHS Grampian to ensure that public money is being used effectively to deliver better services, better care and better value.

Is the cabinet secretary aware—I hope that she is—that, in the past year in NHS Grampian, there have been 3,471 fewer planned operations than in the previous year, that NHS Grampian has the second-worst waiting times in Scotland, that hundreds of operations have been cancelled for non-clinical reasons and that specialist services to treat veterans have now been withdrawn because of a lack of funding from the board? Is she also aware that the NRAC formula aims to give NHS Grampian only 90 per cent of the funding of the average health board per head of population, which is the lowest level in the country? Is she satisfied with that state of affairs?

We are working very hard with NHS Grampian to make improvements. Of course, it has received a share of the £50 million to make those improvements, and it is working hard across the whole of the north region to look at how elective capacity can be better organised.

Mike Rumbles fundamentally misunderstands how the NRAC formula works. The Scottish Government is supporting all national health service boards that are behind parity, and it has committed an additional £884 million over a six-year period to those boards that are below their NRAC parity levels. All boards are now within 1 per cent of parity. Given the year-to-year movements in the NRAC target allocations, it would not have been possible to move NHS Grampian—or any other board that is below parity—to absolute parity, as that would have resulted in an equivalent reduction in funding for those boards that are above parity, which include NHS Shetland and NHS Orkney. I do not imagine that Mr Rumbles’s Lib Dem colleagues would have wanted me to take that action.

The NRAC formula works by bringing about a gradual movement in the funding of those boards that are below parity. That is the sensible and responsible way to allocate funding to the NHS boards.

It has recently been reported that NHS Grampian spent more than £10,000 on a trip to recruit nurses from Australia and commissioned a US delegation to help to reduce waiting times. All the while, the health board is having to make £75 million-worth of savings by 2020. Does the cabinet secretary admit that her Government’s failure to put in place proper workforce planning has left NHS Grampian understaffed and struggling to meet waiting time targets?

NHS England, of course, has no workforce plan, as Jeremy Hunt revealed just a few weeks ago, so I will take no lectures from the Tories about workforce planning. We have expanded the number of our nurse training places to 2,600 and I encourage all boards to look at innovative ways of recruiting nurses, rather than criticising them for doing so.

I will end on this note: the biggest impact on recruitment in Scotland for nurses, care staff and others is the absolutely reckless Brexit approach that is being taken by the United Kingdom Government, so the Tories should not come here and lecture us about recruitment to the national health service.

That concludes general questions. Before we turn to First Minister’s questions, I am sure that members will wish to join me in welcoming to our gallery the Hon Dr Darryl Plecas, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.