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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 10, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 10 May 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Highlands and Islands Airports (Car Parking Charges), Energy Efficient Scotland, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Breast Cancer Treatment (Perjeta)

The First Minister and all members of the Scottish Parliament will have read further stories this week of women in Scotland dying from breast cancer and unable to receive the drug Perjeta, which is a life-extending drug that is available to patients elsewhere in the United Kingdom. There will be women this week, and in the weeks to come, who will hear the devastating news that they have HER2-positive secondary breast cancer. Because Perjeta is a first-line treatment, they need to get it quickly in order to benefit from that additional time to live. What would the First Minister advise them to do?

There will not be a single family in Scotland that has not been touched in some way by cancer, including breast cancer. All of us know that being diagnosed with cancer is an incredibly difficult time not only for patients, but for their families and friends. One thing that is very important is that patients get speedy access to appropriate treatment, and where appropriate treatment is considered to include drugs, it will include drugs.

However, as I have said many times in Parliament, and as members across the chamber will appreciate, decisions in Scotland on approval of drugs are not taken by ministers, but are—rightly, in my view—taken independent of ministers and of Parliament by the Scottish Medicines Consortium. Those decisions are based on clinical effectiveness and cost effectiveness.

With regard to the drug Perjeta that Ruth Davidson has highlighted today, national health service national procurement officials are currently engaging with the pharmaceutical company that manufactures it—Roche—to explore how it can offer the drug at a fair and transparent price. I believe that those discussions are building on discussions that took place between the company and Scottish Government officials last week. My message to the company today is to encourage it to resubmit Perjeta to the SMC at a transparent price, in order to allow the SMC to do its independent job.

It will always be a source of concern that particular drugs that patients feel will benefit them are not approved, even if just for a short time. Of course, some drugs are approved in Scotland that are not approved in other parts of the UK, and vice versa. These are always difficult issues, but perhaps because they are so difficult it is important that we respect the independent processes that are in place.

The fact is that, if women in Scotland lived just a few miles away, south of the border, they would not have to think about moving house or uprooting their family in order to have access to a medicine that will keep them alive. We know that a deal was done between the NHS in England and Wales and Perjeta’s manufacturer. The First Minister told us two weeks ago, and reminded us again just a moment ago, that the drug company is in discussions with NHS Scotland. She also made the point that the Scottish Medicines Consortium makes decisions independent of Government, but can she at least say today that, if the same deal is offered to Scotland as was offered to and accepted by England and Wales, it will be accepted here?

I certainly hope that that would be the case, but that is a decision for the Scottish Medicines Consortium. I do not have access to all the details of the deal. I do not know whether it is the case with Perjeta, but such deals are often commercially confidential.

It is an important and serious issue, and Ruth Davidson’s characterisation of it is not entirely fair. For example, I could point to another drug for treatment of advanced breast cancer that is available and approved in Scotland but is not currently approved in England. Other drugs fall into the same category. It is sometimes too easy to characterise such decisions as she has.

Sometimes such situations arise precisely because we have in place our own processes. England goes through a different process, through the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. We have the Scottish Medicines Consortium, and that process is widely backed by members across the chamber. Such decisions are difficult and it is right that we support the SMC in taking them. If what Ruth Davidson is encouraging Roche to do is ensure that the price that is offered to NHS Scotland is as reasonable, fair and transparent as the price that was offered elsewhere in the UK, I would certainly endorse that, and I hope that the discussions that are under way will lead to exactly that.

I understand that the SMC makes its decisions independent of Government, but I also gently remind Parliament that the Government sets the framework under which those decisions are made. Because there is a cancer drugs fund in England, Perjeta has been available down south for more than four years and it has had an effect. For example, Bonnie Fox’s son was just four months old when she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in 2015. Because she lives in London, she can receive Perjeta and is still alive to see her son’s third birthday. However, for years, women in Scotland have been missing out on that treatment. The drug has gone back and forth to the SMC for a decision three times since 2013. Can the First Minister honestly say that the system that her Government has overseen for all those years has done its best by such women?

If I was talking about a different drug that was not available in England, I guess that the same arguments could be made in reverse.

The decisions are the outcomes of independent processes. It is not about an unreasonable refusal to fund, but about making sure that the company submits a fair price. If we do not insist on companies submitting fair prices, we are able to make fewer drugs available for patients. That is why the processes are so important.

Ruth Davidson rightly said that the Government sets the framework. I am sure, therefore, that she is aware of the significant reforms that have been introduced in recent years. For example, between 2011 and 2013, the combined SMC acceptance rate for orphan and cancer medicines was just 48 per cent, but because of the reforms that we have introduced, between 2014 and 2016 SMC approval of ultra-orphan, orphan and end-of-life medicines is now 75 per cent. The reforms are therefore leading to improvements.

However, that does not remove the need for very close consideration of individual applications. I want to see as many medicines and drugs approved and available to patients as possible, but we would not be providing a good service to patients if we did not have a robust and independent process in place. It is right that we do, and all of us should support it. Of course, that responsibility is particularly important for the Scottish Government, which is we have been having the discussions that I have spoken about, and why we are encouraging Roche to resubmit at a fair and transparent price that will allow the drug to be approved.

In Scotland today, women with secondary breast cancer are faced with a choice: they can move their home for a chance live longer, or they can stay put in the knowledge that that chance is denied them here. We urgently need a deal on Perjeta and we need to fix the system now.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport promised a new system of negotiating on the cost of medicines in December 2016. At the time, Mary Allison, the director for Scotland of Breast Cancer Now said that we need to

“deliver these changes quickly and effectively. There’s no time to lose.”

It is now May 2018, 17 months later. So what is taking the Government so long to fix the system in order to help women to access medicines such as Perjeta? Can the First Minister give the exact date when her Government will put in place the new negotiating system that she promised, so that we have greater access to treatments that let people live longer and better-quality lives?

The Montgomery review was asked by the Government and health secretary to recommend reforms, and there is an ongoing process of implementing those reforms. It is partly because of the reforms that we have implemented that the figures that I read out earlier have been achieved. Further work is being led by NHS National Services Scotland right now. It is important that we continue to reform the system, as I am sure will be the case in other parts of the UK, to ensure that it operates as well as it possibly can.

However, the important point is that no matter how good and efficient the system is, that does not remove the need for individual decisions to be taken on individual drugs. There is a process under way on Perjeta. I hope that it concludes positively and as quickly as possible, but part of the responsibility in that is the drug company’s responsibility to come forward with a fair and transparent price for the drug. I hope that one thing that we can agree on today is to encourage the drug company to do exactly that.

I do not think that it is fair to characterise the process as Ruth Davidson has in part characterised it today; we could, equally, do that in reverse for other drugs not available in England. We have systems in place, but the decisions about drugs are difficult. I am sure that the health secretary will identify with what I am about to say. When I was Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, such decisions were among the most difficult decisions that confronted me. However, the most important thing for me then as a health secretary and now as First Minister is to have confidence in the processes that we have in place. I do have confidence in those processes. Of course they are always open to improvement, but we must ensure that they are independent in order to get the right and fair results for all patients across the country. That is what we are determined to do.

Childcare (Glasgow City Council)

How many families will be hit by the 57 per cent hike in childcare charges that is proposed by Glasgow City Council?

The decisions that Glasgow City Council has taken—and they are decisions for Glasgow City Council—also involved, as I am sure Richard Leonard is aware, extending beyond the national recommended provision the number of free hours for families who earn less than £30,000, as I understand it. The council has been working hard to accelerate progress towards the doubling of free provision, and it has been doing that in a way that targets those at the bottom end of the income scale. Of course, we are committed nationally in that regard, and in the past couple of weeks we agreed a deal with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the funding of our transformation of early years education and childcare. That is something that I hope members across the chamber will welcome.

The question that I asked was how many families in Glasgow will be affected by the Scottish National Party’s decision to hike up childcare charges. The answer, according to a freedom of information disclosure, is 5,000. We are talking about 5,000 families who are already struggling with the cost of living, such as the Spence family. Sarah Spence works for the national health service as an assistant practice manager in Anderston. It is a vital job, but she told me:

“I feel like I will be forced to give up work to look after my son, which is unfair, as I love my job in the NHS and I do not want to not work.”

Today, the childcare costs for her 18-month-old son, Ollie, are £420 a month. With the proposed increase, the family will have to find another £220 a month. First Minister, how many working-class families do you know with a spare £220 a month?

In my constituency in Glasgow, many of my constituents benefit from the free childcare that Glasgow City Council makes available. As I said, Glasgow City Council has made a number of changes to its provision, including increasing the number of hours that are provided free to families, as I understand it, who earn under £30,000.

The reason why we are working so hard and investing so considerably to increase the provision of childcare is to reduce overall costs for families, not just in Glasgow but across the country. The reforms that we are in the process of implementing with local authority colleagues will save families across the country thousands of pounds a year, as well as giving young people the best start in life. That is a direction of travel that all members of the Parliament should warmly welcome.

First Minister, at your party’s conference in Glasgow last October, you said:

“some parents still face a struggle to find and fund the childcare they need to allow them to work. We are going to change that.”

How does a 57 per cent hike in childcare charges change that struggle for working families for the better? It doesn’t, does it? It changes it for the worse. First Minister, this will not allow people to work; it will slam the door on work for people. Will you listen to what 5,000 families across the city of Glasgow are telling you? Will you add your voice to their demand? Will you stick to your word? Will you stand up for those families and against these outrageous increases?

It is because I believe so strongly in what I said in the speech that Richard Leonard has just quoted from that, by the end of this parliamentary session, the Government, with our partners in local authorities, will be investing almost £1 billion in total, doubling the amount of free childcare that is available to families across this country and doing something that Labour never did in all the years that it was in power. We will get on with the job of providing the money to local authorities to allow them to double their provision of free childcare—something that will be of benefit to children and families the length and breadth of this country.

I remind members that they should always speak through the chair.

We have a constituency question from Liam Kerr.

Hoax 999 Calls

On Tuesday this week, The Press and Journal reported that hoax calls to Aberdeen firefighters are at a five-year high. Such calls tie up vital resources and put the lives of our brave firefighters and members of the public at risk. What steps will the Government take to crack down on hoax 999 calls? Given that many of them are from those who are struggling with mental health difficulties, is this not another case where local, joined-up approaches from multiple services will succeed over top-down centralisation?

First, my strong and unequivocal message to anybody making a hoax call to one of our emergency services is, “Don’t do it,” because such calls tie up resources that those in need are depending on.

On the broader part of the question about mental health, I have a great deal of sympathy with that, which is why we are investing in mental health workers in non-health settings, and particularly in criminal justice settings. That is something that I announced recently, perhaps in the same speech that Richard Leonard has just quoted from.

The provision of mental health support is an important issue, but of course not everybody who will make a hoax call is in that position. We all have a duty to remind people of how precious our emergency services are, how reliant we all are on them at times, and how we all have a duty to treat them with the utmost respect.

Shahbaz Ali

The First Minister will be aware that, last Thursday, 25-year-old Shahbaz Ali, a Syrian refugee, was stabbed six times in Edinburgh, and he is now critically ill in hospital. He was trying to protect his young female cousin when he was attacked at a hostel in the city. What support is the Scottish Government and its agencies giving to local authorities and communities in Edinburgh and across Scotland in terms of protection and reassurance following what clearly appears to have been a racially motivated criminal act?

I thank Andy Wightman for raising the issue. I am, of course, aware of the case of Shahbaz Ali, who was attacked and seriously hurt in the early hours of Thursday morning last week. Clearly, a criminal investigation is under way into the incident and, as we are not yet aware of the full circumstances of the case, we are obviously restricted in what we can say about this specific case.

What I will say more generally, though, is that Scotland must stand united at all times against all forms of racism and all types of hate crime. We want Scotland to be—and to be seen to be—a refuge from war and persecution, and any attack on any individual or group of people living in Scotland, regardless of who they are or where they come from, should be seen as an attack on all of us.

The Scottish Government will do what we can, with the local authority in Edinburgh and other groups, to provide as much reassurance and support as possible. I am aware that there is a fundraising campaign to raise funds for this particular individual, and I am sure that many people across the country will want to support that.

Crack Cocaine (Fife)

Police are battling a significant rise in the amount of crack cocaine flooding the streets in my region, and particularly in Fife. Officers have found that drugs have become much more available over the past six months, promoting a fear of an epidemic. The Scottish Government’s drugs strategy is clearly failing the residents of Fife. What future robust measures will be put in place to combat this issue as a matter of urgency?

We will continue to support our police in the vital job that they do to get drugs off our streets, and our police work hard every single day of every week in doing exactly that. We are never, and we never will be, complacent about the risk, the threat or the impact of drugs, but I would disagree with the member’s reference to the Scottish Government’s drugs strategy. The latest figures indicate that the number of adults who reported drug use decreased from 7.6 per cent in 2008-09 to 6 per cent in 2014-15, and the latest survey of drug-taking behaviour among young people shows that the majority of 13 and 15-year-olds have never used drugs. We have to be aware of that context while, of course, continuing to treat drug use as seriously as we do.

Cocaine (Glasgow)

On the same topic, what is the First Minister’s reaction to the news this week that, in Glasgow, cocaine can be delivered more quickly than pizza?

Obviously, I am concerned at what has been reported on cocaine use, which is something that should concern all of us. As I said in response to the previous question, we are never and we never will be complacent about this, but we must put these issues in the context that I just did, in terms of the declining use of drugs among the adult population.

We are also giving additional resources to improve the provision and quality of services for people with substance misuse issues. Although it is not exactly relevant to the cocaine issue that Adam Tomkins has raised, one of the measures that we and Glasgow City Council support—and, indeed, that the whole Parliament supported a couple of weeks ago—is a safe consumption facility in Glasgow. We need to look at different ways of dealing with the drugs issue, and we are certainly open to doing exactly that.

Bus Service Funding (Scottish Borders)

Does the First Minister share my concern that the Tory-led Scottish Borders Council is reducing its share of funding for the bus service X101/102, withdrawing its contribution of just over £135,000 in favour of a measly £35,000, which will affect many of my constituents in places such as West Linton and Penicuik? Does the First Minister agree that that flies in the face of encouraging the use of public transport, and will she raise the matter with the Minister for Transport and the Islands?

As I said earlier, in response to a question on another issue, those are matters for the local council. However, I can well understand that the situation that Christine Grahame has outlined will be of concern to people in her constituency. I am sure that the transport minister would be happy to discuss that further with her, and that she will take up that opportunity.

Brexit Deal (Referendum)

I want to ask the First Minister about Brexit. The Conservative United Kingdom Government’s Foreign Secretary says that his Prime Minister’s plan is crazy. Labour members of Parliament are in open revolt. Two years on from the referendum on leaving the European Union, Brexit is a shambles and is damaging the country. The First Minister’s trusted former adviser Noel Dolan says that it is time for her to back a referendum on the Brexit deal. He is right, is he not?

First, I will take the opportunity to tease Noel Dolan mercilessly—in many years of being my adviser and helping me with First Minister’s questions while I have been in opposition and in government, he managed to avoid being the story, and then, not long after his retirement, he managed to do the opposite.

However, on the serious issue, in all sincerity I will say that it is not the Scottish National Party that will be a block if there is to be a second referendum on the EU issue. If there should be any prospect of that, it will not be the SNP that Willie Rennie will need to convince but one of the main parties at Westminster. Given that, at the moment, we cannot seem to convince even the Labour Opposition at Westminster of the case for the single market, I am not sure that there are many grounds for optimism. However, I suggest to Willie Rennie that his target on this issue is the wrong one.

I will make a second, and quite important, point. I understand that the motivation for people who argue for having another EU referendum is that they hope that the result would be different from the result last time. However, that is not really relevant in Scotland because, in the EU referendum, Scotland voted to remain. The problem is that our remain vote has been completely ignored. What guarantee can Willie Rennie give people in Scotland that, if that were to be the outcome again, our remain vote would not be ignored all over again, in exactly the same way?

The problem for the First Minister is that time is running out. We could be leaving the EU within months. She has told us before that she is sympathetic to the idea of there being another referendum on the Brexit deal. However, if she is so sympathetic, why does she not just pick it up? Noel Dolan was not alone in speaking up for a Brexit deal referendum. Another former adviser—Kevin Pringle—agreed. They are two of the great thinkers in the SNP. [Interruption.]

First Minister. Oh, I am sorry—I thought that you were finished, Mr Rennie. Please carry on.

Keith Brown has a degree of sympathy for the idea, and Ian Blackford is open to looking at it as well. [Interruption.] With the backing of so many people in her party, and given the damage that Brexit is doing to the country, is the First Minister prepared finally to make a decision to put her Government behind a public vote to back a referendum on the Brexit deal?

First—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I thought that Willie Rennie had not finished—I was enjoying that so much.

I thank Willie Rennie for his warm words of praise for many of my SNP colleagues. I remind him that all those great thinkers—I agree that they are all great thinkers—support Scottish independence. I hope that they will persuade Willie Rennie on that issue.

Not all of Scotland wants independence.

I will concentrate on Willie Rennie for the moment.

In all seriousness, the SNP is not a block to that referendum, but, equally, the SNP is not capable of bringing about a second referendum on the EU position. Willie Rennie would be better spending his time trying to persuade Labour of his position, and I hope that, together, we can all spend our time trying to persuade Labour of the case for the single market and the customs union. I agree with Willie Rennie’s characterisation of Brexit—it is a complete and utter shambles. I hope that common sense will break out in a number of ways, but Willie Rennie would be better spending his time trying to persuade those who could make a bigger difference on the matter. I will leave the great thinkers of my party to persuade him on a host of other things, too.

World War One Commemorations (Islay)

One hundred years ago, the people of Islay witnessed the tragedies of the sinking of HMS Otranto and SS Tuscania off the coast of Islay, which resulted in a huge loss of American servicemen who were en route to support the allied forces effort in Europe in world war one.

Will the First Minister join me in thanking the people of Islay and the world war one commemoration committee of Islay for the very moving service of commemoration at the war memorial in Port Ellen and the other commemorative events that were held on Friday last week in the presence of Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence, senior representatives from the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments and senior diplomats from the United States of America, France and Germany?

Yes, I will. I was very sorry personally not to be able to be in Islay on Friday last week, as I had to attend the funeral of a personal friend in Glasgow.

The service and commemorations were tremendous. I thank the world war one commemoration committee not only for its work on the Islay commemorations, but for all the work that it has been doing to commemorate the battles and key events of world war one. The commemorations were an opportunity to pay tribute to the spirit and generosity of the people of Islay, and to the American servicemen who benefited from that generosity. I thoroughly endorse all the comments that Maurice Corry made.

Breast Cancer Drugs (Interim Excepted Period)

I listened carefully to the exchanges between the First Minister and Ruth Davidson on the breast cancer drug, Perjeta. As we know, one of the recommendations that Labour members won from the Montgomery review of the Scottish Medicines Consortium was for there to be an interim excepted period, in order to allow for life-prolonging medicines to be made available while the SMC and the medicines company negotiated a price. Why has that recommendation not been implemented? Surely that is the answer, so that these life-prolonging drugs can be given to breast cancer patients.

Drugs can already be made available on an exceptional basis through individual patient treatment processes, which is an important part of the process that is in place. As I have said, we are introducing on an on-going basis the recommendations of the Montgomery review. Some recommendations require very careful consideration, and I hope that Anas Sarwar and others will accept the need for that. We will continue to take forward such reforms to ensure that patients get the fair access to drugs and medicines that we all want to see.

Doctor Offers (Administrative Error)

On Tuesday, a young doctor in my constituency contacted me to say that 10 days ago, after a gruelling recruitment process, she had been awarded a place to become a consultant in her desired field of medicine. On Friday, a week after making plans with her partner to move house, she received the devastating news that, due to an administrative error, all offers were being withdrawn. Overall in Scotland, that error has affected more than 100 doctors, some of whom have bought houses and resigned positions on the strength of their offers. Does the First Minister support calls for an inquiry into the matter? Will her Government consider offering some form of compensation to doctors in Scotland who have been financially disadvantaged by the mistake?

As Alex Cole-Hamilton is no doubt aware, the issue that has arisen is United Kingdom-wide and is affecting doctors in not just Scotland, but other parts of the UK. We are of course paying very close attention to it and will consider the particular points that Alex Cole-Hamilton made. If the doctor in his constituency wishes it, I am sure that the health secretary would be happy to correspond with them directly to see what advice and help can be offered. I will ask the health secretary to correspond more generally with Alex Cole-Hamilton about the action that the Scottish Government will look to take to make sure that the situation is rectified and cannot happen again in the future.

BT Job Cuts

This morning, BT announced that it will cut thousands of back-office and middle-management jobs, while creating additional jobs to support network deployment and customer service. Can the First Minister advise members of the implications of that decision for Scotland?

I am aware of the announcement that was made by BT this morning. As yet, we have had no indication from BT of exactly how that will affect its Scottish operations. We will seek further information from BT over the next couple of days and, in an appropriate way, we will share that with members who have an interest.

Obviously, this is a concerning time for the company’s employees who might be affected by the decision, and Scottish Government officials have already contacted BT Scotland to offer guidance and see whether we can provide any assistance. As we receive further information, we will share it with the Parliament.

Parcel Delivery Charges

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will provide an update on progress towards tackling excessive parcel delivery surcharges affecting parts of Scotland. (S5F-02329)

I recognise the long-standing concerns about parcel deliveries to our rural areas, and I very much appreciate the work that has been undertaken by Richard Lochhead and organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland and Highland Council. This Government has worked with them and with others on the issue, including on the development of a statement of principles for fair delivery charges, which was subsequently adopted by the United Kingdom Government.

On 27 June, the business minister will host a meeting with parcel delivery companies, retailers, consumer groups and others to discuss what further action we can take. I assure Richard Lochhead that we will continue to do everything that we can, but I remind members that the regulation of prices for parcel deliveries is reserved to Westminster. It is time that the UK Government also took serious action to address the issue.

I thank the First Minister for the news about the ministerial meeting that will take place.

I continue to be inundated with cases of unjustifiable and excessive parcel delivery surcharges that have been imposed on homes and businesses in Moray and throughout Scotland by some companies, although other companies deliver free or for a modest charge.

It is not just a rural issue. For instance, the major online retailer Wayfair Ltd imposes surcharges for the delivery of some items to Falkirk, Greenock, Dundee, Paisley and other places but offers free delivery to places such as Penzance, in the south of England. It is welcome that online platforms such as eBay and Amazon, which I have met, recognise that there is a problem and want to help us to sort it out, and it is welcome that the Advertising Standards Authority is now dealing with companies that promise free delivery to the UK mainland but exclude parts of mainland Scotland.

Is the First Minister aware that many retailers continue to apply an additional charge after transactions, which is illegal, and that other companies simply refuse to deliver to parts of Scotland?

Hurry up, Mr Lochhead.

Given that the case for regulation, which the First Minister mentioned, is getting stronger and stronger, will she personally intervene and take the matter up with the UK Government so that we can scrap the £36 million surcharge on Scotland?

I thank Richard Lochhead, who has done absolutely sterling work on the issue. He has raised awareness at a Government level and has contributed to some of the actions that are now being taken to address it.

The issue mainly affects rural areas, but we have just had a timely reminder from Richard Lochhead that it is not only rural areas in Scotland that are affected by the imposition of unfair and excessive delivery charges. The practice has to end, and we, in the Scottish Government, are determined that we will play our part in ensuring that that happens.

I assure Richard Lochhead that we will again take the matter up with the UK Government, because meaningful change will happen only if the Government that holds the main levers and responsibilities takes a far more active role. We have made many representations in the past, and we will continue to do so. The UK Government should insist that all consumers—whether they are based in rural communities or in major cities—receive fair, transparent and timely delivery of their parcels. People everywhere in Scotland have a right to expect that.

Legal parcels are being delivered by companies to households all over Scotland containing illegal drugs, including street Valium selling at 20p a tablet. What powers does the First Minister have at her disposal to stop the legal delivery of illegal substances?

That is an important issue. The member is raising the issue of illegal substances, but there are often issues with the delivery of other goods that can be damaging or that can be used in a damaging way.

I will ensure that a letter goes to the member, setting out exactly what powers the Scottish Government has and where we may need to look to the UK Government—again—to take action. For example, consideration is currently being given to proposed legislation to deal with the issue of knives, and that includes parcel deliveries. If it is acceptable to the member, I will ensure that that information is provided to her. We are doing everything that we can to address what I recognise is a serious issue.

National Health Service (Cancelled Operations)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government will take to reduce the number of cancelled NHS operations. (S5F-02315)

We continue to support health boards to keep all cancellations to a minimum through better scheduling and planning of elective care. In 2017-18, 830 operations were carried out each day on average, which compares with around 22 operations cancelled for capacity or non-clinical reasons. NHS Scotland staff numbers under this Government are at a record high, and we have committed to an additional 2,600 nursing and midwifery training places as well as additional medical training places over this parliamentary session.

This year, NHS Borders has consistently had the highest or second-highest rate of cancelled operations due to capacity or non-clinical reasons. After one of my constituents had her operation cancelled, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport wrote to me, calling it

“highly regrettable and totally unacceptable”.

My constituent’s operation was cancelled again, however, and the cabinet secretary wrote again—again saying that it was unacceptable. When will the First Minister realise that we need action and that simply repeating bland statements of regret and saying that it should not happen is just not good enough?

I would never diminish the importance of any patient having their operation cancelled for a non-clinical reason, but it is important to point out—as I did in my original answer—that that will concern a very small percentage of the total number of operations that take place each and every day in our health service.

We are working with health boards to reduce the number of cancellations and to reduce waits, and we will continue to do so. The elective access collaborative programme and the modern out-patient programme, which is being developed, are about improving the position, and we will continue to work on them.

In March, there was an increase in the number of cancelled operations that was particularly down to the very adverse weather that we faced. In many health boards, more than half of all cancellations for non-clinical reasons were down to the weather.

We will remain focused on ensuring that the number of operations that are cancelled for reasons that are not clinical is kept to an absolute minimum.

Neart na Gaoithe Project

To ask the First Minister what impact the EDF Energy announcement on the acquisition of the Neart na Gaoithe project will have on renewables jobs and the supply chain in Scotland. (S5F-02328)

We welcome the purchase of the Neart na Gaoithe project by EDF Energy Renewables. Let me give some context to the matter. In August 2017, the Fraser of Allander institute estimated that the project would contribute 0.6 per cent of gross domestic product—about £827 million—to the Scottish economy over its lifetime. The institute also predicted that the project would create thousands of jobs during the construction phase and more than 230 operations and maintenance jobs over the 25-year lifetime of the wind farm.

As I think I mentioned in the chamber last week, I met the chief executive officers of EDF Energy and EDF Energy Renewables last Thursday afternoon, and they committed to meeting the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy as soon as possible to discuss their plans for the project. I raised the matter with them then, and the next meeting will provide a further opportunity to seek assurances on how the Scottish supply chain will benefit from the acquisition.

I share the First Minister’s welcome for the project and I look forward to hearing more from the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy in due course. Does the First Minister also agree that support for training will be vital if workers such as those in BiFab are to take full advantage of such opportunities? If so, what training support will her Government’s agencies provide to ensure a future for the yards in Methil and Stornoway as well as the yard in Burntisland?

Yes, I believe that training is important for the future of the industry, and our agencies Skills Development Scotland and Scottish Enterprise already focus very much on that. Indeed, one of the particular things that we focused on during the oil and gas downturn was a training initiative, which I think Lewis Macdonald welcomed at the time, that helped people working in that sector to retrain for other sectors including the renewable energy sector.

Lewis Macdonald mentioned BiFab. Although there are no guarantees, this is one of the projects that give grounds for optimism for the future of companies such as BiFab. As members know, we are focused on doing everything that we can to support BiFab. When the acquisition by DF Barnes was announced, it was made very clear that it was not a magic solution and that hard times still lay ahead. The yard has to win contracts. However, the acquisition means that BiFab has not closed, and we now need to support it to win contracts from projects such as Neart na Gaoithe to ensure that it has the bright future that all of us want to see.

In July 2016, Brian Wilson, the former Labour energy minister, told the BBC:

“offshore wind in Scotland is pretty much dead”.

Does the First Minister share my view that Brian Wilson has been proved wrong—again—and will she join me in calling for everyone who wants to see the creation of valuable jobs in Scottish engineering and everyone who wants to fight climate change to get behind the development of all the offshore wind farms in the Forth and Tay, given the enormous potential that they have in both regards?

I agree very strongly with that suggestion. We have seen massive reductions in the cost of offshore wind in recent times, and there is huge potential for Scotland in that area. The Forth and Tay projects have a combined economic value in excess of £6 billion, which in turn presents real opportunities for the Scottish supply chain. Although the placing of contracts is always a commercial decision for developers, collectively, our aim is to secure as much work as possible for Scotland. We will combine our efforts and those of our enterprise and skills agencies to help to achieve that. Offshore wind is undoubtedly a massive opportunity for Scotland, and many of those who predicted otherwise have been proved very wrong.