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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 8, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 08 March 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Green-belt Land (Woodhall and Faskine Estates), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, International Women’s Day, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


General Question Time

Licensing Boards (Role in Tackling Alcohol Issues)

To ask the Scottish Government what importance it places on the role of local authority licensing boards in tackling alcohol issues. (S5O-01844)

Licensing boards have a key role to play in regulating access to and availability of alcohol from both on and off-sales, and by extension in helping to tackle alcohol misuse, reduce crime and preserve public order.

The Scottish Government is responsible for the overarching legislation in relation to liquor licensing, but responsibility for procedures and individual decisions lies with local licensing boards, which are made up of locally elected councillors. All licensing boards have wide discretion to determine appropriate licensing arrangements according to local needs and circumstances and their own legal advice.

Local licensing boards now have more concise and targeted data recording alcohol-related incidents, medical admissions and illnesses available to them than ever before. Does the minister consider that local authority licensing boards would benefit from additional powers in order to focus and target resources effectively to combat the alcohol-related issues that are being experienced in their areas?

Licensing boards already have extensive powers available to them to help build their own policies for regulating the sale of alcohol to the public in their area. A licensing board’s key strategic role is the preparation of the licensing policy statement, which includes an overprovision assessment that states whether local boards consider there to be overprovision of licensed premises in any locality in their area.

There has been a significant amount of legislation on the alcohol licensing regime over recent years. There would therefore need to be a strong case before any additional legislation was considered.

The Scottish Government is working with stakeholders to update the alcohol licensing regime guidance and it is expected that that will be issued later this year. If David Torrance has any particular concerns about the operation of the licensing regime in Fife, we would be happy to meet him.

People from areas of deprivation are eight times more likely to be admitted to hospital as a result of alcohol consumption than those from affluent communities. Alcohol abuse is not only a symptom of poverty but can be a driver, and it can have a damaging impact on communities across Scotland.

Will the Scottish Government examine how it can work alongside local authorities to reduce the impact of alcohol within those communities?

The member will be aware that the minimum unit pricing provisions are due to come into force on 1 May, and I am sure that he welcomes that. That is not the only approach that the Scottish Government is taking. We have a framework for action, which is a package of more than 40 measures to reduce alcohol-related harm in Scotland; those measures include the quantity discount ban, a ban on irresponsible promotions, the lower drink-drive limit, improving education on substance misuse and our nationwide alcohol brief intervention programme.

It may be of interest to the member that, while we continue to work with all relevant stakeholders, in addition a refresh of the alcohol strategy is to be introduced shortly.

Alcohol Focus Scotland reported that a number of licensing boards have difficulties in assessing and determining overprovision. The difficulties appear to centre round two interlinked issues: the relationship between outlet density and alcohol problems, and the standard of evidence that is required for a licensing board to find that an area is overprovided. What steps will the minister take to ensure that licensing boards have clear guidance to assist them in their decision making, which in turn will help to tackle the issue of overprovision?

As Mary Fee will be aware, local licensing boards operate independently. At the same time, as I said in my answer to David Torrance, we have been working with stakeholders to update the liquor licensing regime guidance. That is expected to be issued later this year.

If the member has specific concerns, which she may have been getting at, with regard to the criteria for determining overprovision, we would be happy to look at them if she takes them up with us directly.

2 Sisters Food Group (Cambuslang Factory)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its engagement with the 2 Sisters Food Group regarding the company’s consultation on closing its factory in Cambuslang. (S5O-01845)

In the period since I responded to Clare Haughey’s question on 22 February, the Scottish Government has continued to engage with the company, exploring options to support the business and workforce. Scottish Enterprise is meeting 2 Sisters Food Group again this morning to progress those discussions. The meeting was arranged for 1 March, but had to be rearranged because of the impact of last week’s severe weather.

I understand that the partnership action for continuous employment meeting, which was due to take place on 5 March, was cancelled by the company. Our local PACE team is standing ready to discuss how best to support employees and is waiting to hear further from the company.

I want to reassure Clare Haughey and the workforce and wider community that we will do all that we can to save the site and mitigate the impact on the workforce and local economy. As communicated to Ms Haughey, I have written to the company to offer our assistance to retain activity in Cambuslang.

I thank the minister for his assistance with the matter thus far. As he recalled, I asked a question of him two weeks ago, and I have been working with relevant stakeholders to ensure the long-term viability of the site and to support the 450 jobs at the plant. 2 Sisters Food Group is a major source of employment in my constituency, with generations of the same family working on the site, so the effect of any closure would be devastating locally.

I am certain that my constituents and all those who are affected by the potential closure are reassured that the Scottish Government is doing all that it can to keep the factory open. Can the minister expand on the agencies that are involved in the process and list the range of activities that they have undertaken in their attempt to find a positive resolution for the workers and the wider community?

I thank Clare Haughey for her interest in this issue. I certainly appreciate her point about the severity of the potential impact on her local community if the company were to close its plant. Scottish Enterprise and PACE, which is a multi-agency partnership, are the key agencies. Scottish Enterprise is meeting the company again today, as I said, and PACE is in contact with the company. We are also working with the trade unions, and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown, met the Unite union and a company union representative on 22 February to explore viable options to avoid the potential closure. We are committed to working with the unions and all other stakeholders to provide every support possible and to ensure a productive future for the 2 Sisters Food Group site and workforce in Cambuslang.

We are looking specifically at food processing, marketing and capital grants to help with the capital issues, as well as at training, research and development support, and support from the Scottish manufacturing advisory service and Skills Development Scotland. Those are all active areas in which we are trying to support retention of the factory. We have a good track record of working with the company to secure investment in its Coupar Angus site, which gives us confidence that we can work in partnership with the company.

Vulnerable Patients (Safety)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it takes to ensure that people with a violent or threatening past do not work directly with vulnerable patients in health and social care settings. (S5O-01846)

NHS Scotland boards routinely undertake checks of conviction-related information as part of the appointment process, in accordance with the “Safer Pre and Post Employment Checks in NHSScotland: PIN Policy”, drawn up by the national partnership information network.

For regulated work with children or vulnerable adults, all applicants are required by law to become members of the protecting vulnerable groups scheme. For other posts, applicants are usually subject to a disclosure check undertaken by Disclosure Scotland. All national health service boards are required to review every post to determine the type of disclosure check that is applicable. Additionally, disclosure checks are undertaken where individuals are volunteering or undertaking work experience in NHS Scotland boards.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that detailed response. A very concerning case has been raised with me by a constituent whose brother has a profound form of Down’s syndrome and resides in an NHS care facility. He suffered serious injuries due to physical abuse by an employee. The individual concerned was dismissed, and was also found to have a conviction for abusive and threatening behaviour. The family now understands that the individual concerned is back working in an NHS facility with vulnerable patients. Will the cabinet secretary agree to review the procedures that are in place, to ensure that staff working with vulnerable patients are fit and proper persons?

As I said in my initial answer to Anas Sarwar, we have robust national policies in place that clearly set out health board responsibilities in relation to disclosure checks. Those policies include explicit guidance on how health boards should investigate alleged incidents of abusive conduct in the workplace.

Anas Sarwar may recall that I corresponded with his office directly in respect of the case to which he refers, but it would be inappropriate to comment directly on the handling of an investigation into an individual NHS employee’s conduct, which is obviously a contractual matter between the health board and the employee concerned. Nevertheless, in respect of the particular case to which Anas Sarwar refers, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has provided assurances that relevant pre and post-employment checking has been undertaken and that effective risk management and safeguarding processes are in place.

We always keep procedures under review and I stress, as I said in my initial answer, that they are robust and provide protection in a very robust way. However, if Anas Sarwar wants to write to me with any further information on the matter, I would be happy to receive it.

Waiting Times (NHS Grampian)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the action that it is taking to tackle waiting times issues in NHS Grampian and their impact on other national health service boards with which it holds service-level agreements. (S5O-01847)

NHS Grampian is using the £4.9 million from the £50 million that we made available to boards in the current financial year to address long waits across the whole patient pathway, including cancer pathways and specialties such as orthopaedics and ophthalmology. No matter which board of residence a patient comes from, NHS Grampian will treat patients based on their clinical need.

Although there have been some welcome improvements in referral to treatment times, it is still three and a half years since NHS Grampian met national standards and improvements have been in line with the national average, while Grampian continues to lag behind and remains, by some distance, the worst-performing health board in Scotland in that regard. The cabinet secretary has spoken in the past about the work that has been done to deal with waiting times. For example, she told me in September that a service-level agreement was secured with Newcastle for cardiac patients, but the board’s chief executive told me recently that that agreement was never finalised. How can my constituents in Moray and in Orkney and Shetland have confidence that the cabinet secretary is really on top of what is going on on the ground? Can she tell me when she expects waiting times in Grampian to meet national standards?

We continue to work with NHS Grampian and other boards to ensure that patients are treated in a timely manner. We have spent a great deal of time and resource supporting NHS Grampian to improve its waiting times performance. As the member will be aware, we have just agreed a budget increase for health and sport of over £400 million and front-line NHS boards, including Grampian, will receive a baseline uplift of £179 million, with additional investment in reform that will help to reduce waiting times of £175 million. NHS Grampian’s resource budget will be £920.6 million, an uplift of 2.1 per cent, which is the highest of any territorial NHS board.

I should also point out, of course, that as the member and his colleagues voted against the budget, they voted against that increase to NHS Grampian. Perhaps he might need to explain that to his constituents.

Raigmore Hospital (Operating Theatres)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the reported problems at Raigmore hospital, how many operating theatres in Scotland have wooden doors and plaster walls. (S5O-01848)

I take the opportunity to thank all the staff who helped restore the theatres to full capacity as quickly and safely as possible and minimise the disruption to patients. I also recognise that staff across NHS Highland—at Caithness, Golspie and Fort William—helped treat some patients who were due to go to Raigmore.

I have received no indication from NHS Highland that wooden doors or plasterworks contributed to the incident to which Mr Mountain alludes. Health Facilities Scotland has also undertaken a review of the work that was undertaken and its view is that wooden doors and plasterworks did not contribute to the incident. Additionally, NHS Highland is undertaking a serious adverse event review in accordance with its standard procedure. If any lessons come out of either of those reviews, we will share them across NHS Scotland.

I agree that thanks should go to the staff of NHS Highland, across the Highlands, for all the extra work that they put in. Frankly, however, the cabinet secretary did not answer my question, which is: how many operating theatres still have plaster walls and wooden doors?

Construction requirements in operating theatres lag woefully behind requirements for other high-risk areas. Does the Scottish Government intend to invest in operating theatres across Scotland to replace material such as plasterboard and wooden doors with antibacterial plastic walling, to reduce the chances of infection and ease cleaning?

I do not know whether Edward Mountain listened to my answer. Health Facilities Scotland has said that, in its view, wooden doors and plaster works did not contribute to the incident. I am therefore not quite sure why Edward Mountain continues to talk about wooden doors and plaster works when I have just told him that they were not the cause of the issue, according to the experts at Health Facilities Scotland. If he knows otherwise, perhaps he can give me the evidence that Health Facilities Scotland is wrong.

The Scottish Government is investing more than £30 million in upgrading the theatres and critical care at Raigmore hospital. That is a huge investment by the Scottish Government in that one hospital. I hope that Edward Mountain can find it in himself to welcome that £30 million investment, which will lead to major construction and help to ensure that the fabric of Raigmore hospital is as good as it can be, so that it can provide a first-class environment for patients to be treated in.

Poverty and Inequality Commission (Recommendations)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it will give to the recommendations of the Scottish poverty and inequality commission as it develops its plan for tackling child poverty. (S5O-01849)

I welcomed the advice of the poverty and inequality commission following my request to it in November last year. For the commission to have published such a considered piece of work in such a short time is testament to its determination and collective experience.

The advice that the commission has provided is invaluable as we prepare to publish our first child poverty delivery plan in the coming weeks. The plan will have full regard to that advice, and will make it clear how we have responded.

The commission outlines that poverty and inequality cannot be solved through any one portfolio area or policy. It highlights three key mechanisms that increase household income and reduce costs to make the biggest impact on the child poverty targets: work and earnings; social security; and reducing housing costs. The commission also highlights the importance of action to improve the quality of life for those who are living in poverty. I have been working closely with colleagues across Government to ensure an approach that delivers action across every aspect of life, including these key challenges.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in stark contrast to the ambitions of the commission, the UK Government’s continuing austerity and welfare cuts are set to push more children into poverty, and that its policies on tax, the living wage and unemployment will do nothing to support households and help pull families out of poverty?

First and foremost, I believe with every fibre of my being that we can and must end child poverty in Scotland. That is why we led the way with our ambitious Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017.

None of that lets the UK Government off the hook for its inaction or its damaging actions. Independent expert advice from the poverty and inequality commission rightly focuses on devolved powers, but it also recognises that there are factors outwith our control that make our job harder and have an impact on progress.

We know about the impact that the Tory Government’s continuous assault on welfare spending is having because it is well documented. For example, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that the benefits freeze is the single biggest driver of rising poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group has identified that 1 million more children across the UK will be pushed into poverty by 2020 because of the welfare cuts that have been made since 2013. In Scotland alone, welfare spend will reduce by £4 billion by the end of the decade, dwarfing the £3.3 billion spend that will become the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.

The member is absolutely right that the UK Government could be doing far more to tackle what Mrs May describes as burning injustices by, for example, increasing the work allowance in universal credit and by lifting the minimum wage to that of the real living wage. The challenge for each one of us in this Parliament as we go forward is to go beyond mitigating the very worst excesses of the UK Government and to lift children in this country out of poverty.