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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 10 December 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Oversight Board, Education (Performance), Human Rights Defenders, Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament, Decision Time, Miscarriage


Topical Question Time

Royal Hospital for Sick Children (Maintenance Work)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that the Royal hospital for sick children is fit for purpose, in light of reports that the existing building needs over £700,000 of significant maintenance work. (S5T-01916)

The £700,000 figure relates to backlog maintenance, which includes works to improve the environment for patients and parents, fire safety, heating, ventilation, roofing and redecoration at Sciennes. Parent overnight accommodation and the hospital’s catering facilities for families and staff have been improved.

The Scottish Government oversight board continues to assess what further improvements are required to ensure that the existing sites can continue to provide high-quality, safe clinical services. On 17 October, the oversight board agreed to the replacement of interventional neuroradiology equipment at the department of clinical neurosciences. At the sick kids, the board has begun work to increase the emergency department capacity, to maintain flow in advance of the winter months; the enhanced area will be clinically operational from tomorrow.

Anyone who has spent any time at the old sick kids building does not need an answer to a freedom of information request to tell them that maintenance on the building is overdue. While my daughter was there, the members of one medical team were one and a half hours late for their daily ward round because the ceiling had fallen in on their meeting room. The sad truth is that the old site had been allowed to deteriorate on the promise of a new building—a promise that it is clear has still to be met.

The £700,000 figure covers just the significant maintenance defects; it appears that a total of £1.5 million of work is needed. There is particular concern about the reports of issues having been identified with ventilation and water systems, given the very serious issues that have been uncovered elsewhere in this country.

Can the cabinet secretary provide insight into the nature and seriousness of those defects? Are there any concerns for the safety of current patients? When were the issues identified? When will the work to address those defects and the full £1.5 million-worth of remedial works be complete?

As I am sure that Mr Johnson will recall, when I made a statement on the situation at Lothian sick kids hospital, I addressed the work that was needed at the new site and at the existing sites until the new site is safe for use, and I advised the chamber of an estimated £16.1 million bill. I think that I also provided a breakdown of that figure, £7.2 million of which has been set aside to meet the costs of maintaining and improving the existing site.

Further work has been under way to increase the footprint of the emergency department and the waiting area for it, to move out-patients and to undertake work including on the ceiling that Mr Johnson mentioned. That work, which the staff identified when I visited them in September and asked what was needed, has been undertaken by the board.

As far as ventilation is concerned, NHS Lothian has confirmed that the ventilation systems at the DCN site and the sick kids at Sciennes have been reviewed in line with recent changes to national guidelines, that they continue to be safe and that some upgrading work might be needed because it will be necessary to use those systems for longer than was originally planned; much of the additional work that is needed has arisen because of that.

NHS Lothian remains at level 4. With our oversight board, we continue not only to look at the existing sites and what needs to be done there and to make sure that that work is done, but to progress the work on the new site to ensure that it meets the timeline that I set out previously.

I would like the cabinet secretary to clarify what she has just said. Is the £1.5 million figure the total bill for the required works, or will any additional categories need to be included? Is the £1.5 million sum, which has been reported in the press, included in the £16 million sum that she mentioned? If not, when will we know the final cost of putting right two hospitals that are, by the Scottish Government’s own definition, substandard?

We have agreed that the two hospitals need to be replaced, but the replacement hospital needs to be safe before patients and staff can go there. It is unfair to the patients and the staff who currently use those sites to use the phrase that Mr Johnson used. The staff are working very hard to ensure that those sites continue to deliver the very high quality of service that they deliver.

As I have said, the total amount that we estimated would be required to make the new hospital fit for purpose, to maintain the existing sites and to meet other costs was £16.1 million. The £1.5 million will be part of that. Of course, that comes from the NHS Scotland budget, not from NHS Lothian, so it should have no impact on NHS Lothian’s overall financial viability.

I will be happy to report back to Mr Johnson on the final cost of other works that might be required once all that work has been completed. That includes moving new equipment at the new site into the existing sites, which is sensible, so that it can continue to be used. There is also the additional equipment for the DCN to ensure that it can continue to operate as fully as it needs to.

The cabinet secretary has specifically mentioned the ventilation system. The response that I have received from NHS Lothian on the matter states:

“The ventilation systems have also been reviewed in line with recent changes to national guidelines. Although this guidance does not apply to existing facilities, our review outlined maintenance and upgrades that would be required if it was to apply.”

Given the national concerns around ventilation systems, what has the cabinet secretary specifically asked NHS Lothian about that, given that the existing hospital might still be used not just for a year but beyond that?

The NHS Lothian response is accurate in that the new national guidelines do not apply to existing sites. I have asked the oversight board to continue to have detailed discussions with NHS Lothian about what additional upgrades may be required and what impact they may have, and to carry out the risk assessment of those upgrades against the impact on existing patient and healthcare delivery, so that we can take a decision about what level of upgrade to the existing ventilation system is required, if any, to take it through to the autumn of next year.

In addition to the maintenance backlog at the existing hospital, is it acceptable to the cabinet secretary that NHS Lothian is still paying about £1.4 million a month to a private consortium for a replacement hospital that is unsafe and has not seen a single patient? What action has the Government taken to investigate the possibility of the payments being stopped and of the money that has been paid out already being recouped to the health service?

As we have explained before, the money that is being paid per month is part of the contract, and that contract is the responsibility of NHS Lothian. It became the board’s responsibility when it took completion of the new hospital. If the board stopped paying that money, it would be breaking the contract.

The public inquiry will investigate those matters and, in relation to the suppliers of the hospital, to call them that—Integrated Health Solutions Lothian, Brookfield Multiplex and others—we will see where responsibility and liability lie. At this point, I share Ms Lennon’s frustration about money being spent on something that cannot be used while additional money has to be spent to ensure that the existing sites continue to deliver high-quality healthcare. I absolutely share that frustration. However, I would not urge any NHS board to break a contractual requirement that it has entered into. I do not intend to tell the board to stop paying the money and, if it ever thought that it should stop paying it, I would strongly urge it not to do that, because it has entered into a legal contract.

As for the wisdom of taking completion of the site when, self-evidently, as we have discovered, it was not suitable for patients and staff to move into it, all those other matters will be picked up and examined forensically in the public inquiry. My focus is on ensuring that the existing sites remain fit for the patients and staff who need them as we continue on track to deliver entry into the new hospital in a manner that is safe for patients and staff.

Scottish Qualifications Authority (Spending Practices)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent reports on spending practices at the Scottish Qualifications Authority. (S5T-01917)

The Scottish Government expects all public sector bodies, including the Scottish Qualifications Authority, to ensure that their travel and subsistence policies deliver the best possible value for money for the Scottish taxpayer. The SQA has made it clear that all international travel and accommodation bookings by its staff are pre-approved, accounted for against set budgets and subject to external independent audit. In addition, the SQA has recently completed a review of its travel and subsistence policies and, as a result, has aligned them more closely with those of other public sector bodies.

Value for money is, indeed, something that we should all be able to expect, but it is hard to continue with that expectation in the light of recent revelations. Anyone who thought that the SQA’s business was looking after Scottish education would have been astonished to learn about £17,000 being spent on business-class travel to Saudi Arabia, with officials staying in the most top-end hotels that they could find. It has been said that security is one justification—or excuse—for using top-end hotels, but I hardly think that Athens is a war zone where the only way to stay safe is to stay in the lap of five-star luxury.

Does the cabinet secretary recognise that a culture change is needed in the SQA, and in other bodies that treat themselves to such luxury at public expense?

Mr Harvie’s question includes two substantive points. The first is about whether there is any justification for international activity by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. That is a longstanding part of the work of the SQA and has occurred for many years. There is, of course, a debate to be had about whether it is appropriate, but it has become the established practice of the SQA.

The SQA’s international operations also bring economic benefit, because they use the skills, reliability and authority of the Scottish Qualifications Authority in certification of learning in other jurisdictions. As I said, there is a debate to be had about whether that is appropriate, but it has over many years been judged to be an appropriate way for the SQA to proceed.

The second substantive point is about the value for money of public expenditure that is associated with that activity. As I have indicated to Mr Harvie, the SQA has recently completed a review of its travel and subsistence policies and has, as a consequence, aligned them much more closely with those of other public sector bodies. That is what I would have expected, so I am glad that it is the case.

I certainly hope that in the future we see greater alignment with value for money. However, leaving aside the question of luxury and moving on to the wider issue of international relationships, clearly pursuit of such relationships around the world needs to have an ethical dimension. I question the idea that luxury holidays to the Ritz-Carlton in Saudi Arabia are about developing a relationship with that brutal regime. We should not treat that brutal dictatorship as simply another potential business partner and source of funds.

It has been reported that all Government departments in the Saudi dictatorship have benefited from that relationship. Can the Scottish Government say whether it is true that Saudi Ministry of Defense personnel have been involved in securing the services of the SQA? If that is true, is it even remotely morally justifiable?

I cannot confirm that for Mr Harvie, but I will explore the issue and write to him. The substantive question that Mr Harvie raises is whether it is appropriate for the SQA to be involved in international activity. I fully acknowledge that that is a point for debate.

The SQA is obliged, as a public body—although it operates independent of ministers—to contribute to the advancement of equality. It also has to be mindful, in all its actions, of whether that duty is being fulfilled by the activities that it undertakes. I will raise with the SQA the issues that Mr Harvie has raised with me. When I see the chief executive of the SQA tomorrow for one of our routine conversations, I will ensure that those issues are fully and openly discussed, so that the SQA board can reflect on them.

The cabinet secretary is aware that on several occasions, the Education and Skills Committee has discussed what expenditure is in the public interest when it comes to the SQA. As he rightly said, that is a legitimate debate to have.

However, does he agree that there has been an issue about transparency, and that in relation to the recent allegations—they are only allegations—which have required members of Parliament to probe further, the questions could easily have been answered by SQA officials?

There should be transparency on the issues, and a legislative framework is in place to enable that. As I have indicated to Parliament today, the SQA has recently completed a review of its travel and subsistence policies. It will, I am sure, reflect on the question of transparency around those policies.

Small Businesses (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support small businesses. (S5T-01920)

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting small business and to creating the conditions in which businesses are empowered to grow and succeed.

One of the primary ways that we support small businesses is through the most generous package of rates relief in the United Kingdom, which includes the small business bonus scheme. As of 31 May 2019, more than 120,000 properties had received support through the small business bonus scheme, with 111,000 of them receiving 100 per cent relief. The amount of small business bonus relief that was awarded in 2019 was £266 million—up from £248 million at the same time in 2018.

Many small businesses require the help of the Scottish Government’s small business bonus scheme to continue to trade. At this point, I declare, as an MSP, that my constituency office receives relief through the small business bonus scheme. I wonder how many Opposition MSPs have declared that interest at committee.

It is, I am led to believe, proposed by Opposition members that we remove that much-welcomed scheme. Am I wrong? Will the minister also advise Parliament what could happen if the scheme were to be removed by hypocritical Opposition members?

Richard Lyle is right. As matters stand, Opposition MSPs—the Tories, who profess to support business; Labour, who claim to support progressive tax policies; and the Greens—voted for an amendment to the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill that would, in effect, abolish the small business bonus scheme, as well as many other important reliefs that support economic growth and increase fairness. Incidentally, those were two key themes of the Barclay review.

The small business bonus scheme is a vital part of our package of measures to assist smaller businesses. Over the past few weeks, the business community has spoken very clearly and very loudly about its views on abolition of that relief.

There we have it. The Opposition parties would remove the scheme at their peril. The SNP Government has helped small businesses to survive and wishes to see continuation of the scheme. What steps has the Government taken to ensure that it will continue?

We will continue to work with stakeholders to ensure that the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill supports growth, improves administration of the system and increases fairness. It is concerning that many of our key stakeholders, including the Federation of Small Businesses, the Scottish Retail Consortium and UK Hospitality, no longer believe that the bill as it stands—that is, as it has been amended by the Tories, Labour and the Greens—supports growth and increases fairness.

I welcome the fact that the Local Government and Communities Committee will take further evidence on that change to the bill. I have offered to provide further evidence to the committee in the new year, so I look forward to its response.

While we are on the topic of hypocrisy, the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill will penalise small businesses through a £7 million per year tax hike on the independent schools sector. The policy has attracted widespread criticism not just from the Opposition, but from the education sector and parents. The bill Is clearly flawed, in that respect. Will the Scottish Government listen to those concerns and commit to sitting down with Opposition parties to find compromise and a sensible way forward on that important issue?

I am surprised that Jamie Greene asked a question about independent schools as a supplementary to a question about businesses, given that independent schools have been at pains to say that they are not businesses, but charities. Nonetheless, I have committed to discussing the issue further.

Jamie Greene repeatedly stands up and talks about things such as the roll-out of broadband and mobile connectivity; however, the Conservatives just voted to abolish rates relief in the form of fibre broadband mobile mast relief to ensure that new-build properties are not liable for rates in the first 12 months. As such, the hypocrisy comes at the moment from the Tories, who no longer have a leg to stand on when it comes to supporting business.