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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 15 March 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, European Union Referendum (Reports on Implications for Scotland), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Commonwealth Day 2017


Portfolio Question Time

Mental Health (Stigma and Discrimination in the Workplace)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what is being done to tackle mental health stigma and discrimination in the workplace. (S5O-00767)

The Scottish Government provides £1 million per year, along with £0.5 million from Comic Relief, to fund see me, which is Scotland’s national programme to end the stigma and discrimination that can be associated with mental illness. See me delivers the see me in work programme to support and enable employers in Scotland to create a mental health-friendly workplace where staff feel safe and able to talk openly about mental health and to support employees who are experiencing mental health issues to access their rights.

The Scottish Government also provides NHS Health Scotland with funding to provide programmes that are specifically targeted at workplace settings, including the healthy working lives and work positive programmes, which workplaces sign up to. Between April and November 2016, one-day mentally healthy workplace courses were delivered to 418 people and 221 businesses, and 7,921 people accessed the online course. That was the first year in which the online resource was actively promoted to employers. The mentally healthy workplace training for trainers course, which has been delivered to 34 trainers and 16 businesses, qualifies those who attend to deliver the mentally healthy workplace course at a local or business level.

Work positive courses were delivered to 113 people and 80 businesses to allow them to use the work positive resource in their businesses and identify the work-related issues that are causing stress to staff.

I asked the question because I have had a number of cases recently of people who take antidepressants, for example, being prevented from either entering other sectors of employment or progressing in their careers, so I think that this is a very important issue.

A study that the Mental Health Foundation did last year found that one in six adults had reported symptoms of a mental health condition in the period 2012 to 2015. Further, 20 per cent of adults reported symptoms of depression in 2014-15. Statistics in the report also show a link between deprivation and depression.

While the statistics are already alarmingly high, what can be done to encourage those who are afraid of the perceived stigma attached to mental health issues to speak up and seek help?

I say to Mairi Evans and everyone in the chamber that we should all encourage people to talk openly about how they are feeling and encourage any person who is experiencing depression or any other mental health problem to come forward and seek support, for example from their general practitioner. GPs are well placed to advise and guide patients regarding appropriate treatment or management of symptoms. Out-of-hours support is also available from NHS 24, through the breathing space service and from the Samaritans.

On the stigma associated with mental health, as I said in my first answer, we fund the see me programme, and we are already seeing the benefit of tackling stigma and discrimination, with record numbers of people coming forward for support. We have also taken other awareness-raising actions to break down stigma, and our new mental health strategy will include ways in which we can further have parity of esteem and continue to reduce stigma.

The minister will know that Scottish Conservatives have been urging more businesses to introduce workplace mental health champions. Is that something that the Scottish Government will look to take forward in the new mental health strategy? Will the minister confirm to Parliament when the new strategy will be published?

I will answer Miles Briggs’s second question first. The mental health strategy will be published in the coming weeks.

On his point about working with businesses, I am engaged with businesses. In the coming weeks, I have an event with the Royal Bank of Scotland, at Gogarburn, and I am sure that a number of businesses—not just RBS—will be at that event.

I look forward to engaging further with businesses and workplaces as the mental health strategy is published and taken forward.

Social Prescribing (Referrals to Third Sector Support Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken to ensure that social prescribing enables general practices to refer obese patients and people with type 2 diabetes, and other medical conditions, to third sector support services. (S5O-00768)

The Scottish Government funds the ALISS—a local information system for Scotland—programme through the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland. That online service enables GP practices to connect people to sources of support in the community across the full range of health and care services, including support services for diabetes and weight management.

We also fund the links worker programme, which is on the front line of the battle against health inequalities. The programme provides a dedicated individual, working in GP surgeries, to provide one-to-one support to people to address issues such as poverty, debt and isolation that are making them unwell. Over the next five years, we will increase the number of links workers in disadvantaged areas to 250.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that organisations such as jogscotland are being used by GPs to help our most vulnerable patients. How does she feel that those third sector organisations can continue to operate when they are having their budgets slashed by the Scottish Government?

I am sure that Alexander Burnett is aware that a number of organisations are funded by the Scottish Government through organisations such as sportscotland to ensure that patients’ social needs and needs for physical activity and sport are taken forward. Obviously, in the difficult financial climate, difficult decisions are being made around the funding to particular organisations. However, discussions will continue to make sure that there is a broad range of organisations to which people can be referred.

Where third sector organisations come together with community health organisations to have a multidisciplinary team approach involving not just health professionals but those in third sector organisations—whether sporting organisations or others—who are able to offer something to patients, there is scope to improve signposting and cohesiveness, so that patients coming through the door of community health services can be signposted to the right organisation, whatever that organisation is.

Chronic Pain (NHS Grampian)

To ask the Scottish Government what treatment and support are available to chronic pain patients in the NHS Grampian area. (S5O-00769)

It is the role of the Scottish Government to provide policies, frameworks and resources to national health service boards so that they can deliver services that meet the needs of their local populations. Within that context, it is a matter for NHS Grampian to plan, budget for and deliver the services required to meet the assessed needs of their resident population, including chronic pain patients.

In NHS Grampian, we are seeing improvement in patient waiting times, with patients across the region receiving treatment at a pain clinic within 18 weeks, rising from 68 per cent in September to nearly 77 per cent in the most recently published figures. We will continue to support all boards as they continue to work to improve pain services.

I am sure that, like me, the minister cannot begin to imagine what it is like to suffer from chronic pain, but there has been some good news of which she may be aware. A pain clinic was recently reinstated at Dr Gray’s hospital in Elgin, in my constituency, due in no small part to the patients group, aptly named Affa Sair, that was set up a couple of years ago and which has been very effective for patients in Moray and beyond.

However, unfortunately many chronic pain patients are still unable to have procedures such as pain-relieving injections or other treatments at Dr Gray’s and have to travel to Aberdeen. The minister will be aware that that is particularly problematic and inconvenient for those with this particular condition. Would the minister be willing to look at the issue to ensure that chronic pain patients in Moray have access to the treatment that they need closer to their own doorstep, hopefully at Dr Gray’s? Will she accept an invitation to come and meet the Affa Sair group in Moray at some point in the near future?

My officials have made an offer to meet Affa Sair, in the first instance to be clear on the issues and concerns that the group has. I do not think that the offer has yet been taken up, but I too am happy to meet the group. I will also instruct my officials to look fully at the issues that Richard Lochhead has raised.

While the Information Services Division figures are encouraging and show that there has been improvement around waiting times, Richard Lochhead is absolutely right to raise these local concerns. My officials, along with the patient group, will work together to identify where further improvement can be made and I am happy to engage with the member on the issue and to keep an eye on progress.

There are challenges for chronic pain patients not just in Grampian but right across Scotland. NHS Grampian is one of six health boards that is failing to meet the 18-week referral to treatment waiting time. Last year alone, health boards failed to meet the basic standard for 3,227 patients, half of whom were from Glasgow. Despite that, the Government has decided to close the centre for integrative care in Glasgow. How can that be an acceptable situation for any patient who has chronic pain? What specific action will the minister take?

It is not closed.

The cabinet secretary says that what I say is misleading, but I reassure her that the only misleading is being done by the cabinet secretary herself.

We need to correct a number of inaccurate assertions that Anas Sarwar has made. The centre for integrative care has not closed at all; in fact, therapies are still being provided at the centre, all of which are delivered during usual business hours.

In-patient services are closed.

My understanding is that Anas Sarwar tried to imply that the centre is closed, and that is not accurate. I am making sure, just for the record, that other members in the chamber absolutely understand that.

We are the only part of the UK to routinely publish data on waiting times for those with chronic pain. Although we must never be complacent on the issue, improvement has been made. I set out where improvement has been made in NHS Grampian, and it has been made nationally as well. However, we have given £100,000 to the University of Dundee to look to capture the data better so that we have the full story and we understand where we can make further improvement. The deputy chief medical officer will be overseeing and monitoring waiting times to ensure that we provide that much-needed help to people who suffer from chronic pain. We recognise the real stress and strain that it puts on people’s lives.

I hope that that gives reassurance to Anas Sarwar, who seemed a wee bit unaware of some of the facts.

Physical Activity and Sport

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to ensure that physical activity and sport are available to all, irrespective of background or personal circumstance. (S5O-00770)

The Scottish Government is committed to increasing rates of physical activity. The active Scotland outcomes framework sets out our ambitions for a more active Scotland and is underpinned by a commitment to equality. For example, there are now better and more opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to participate in sport and physical activity right across Scotland, with 157 community sport hubs up and running, and that number will increase to 200 by 2020. Over the past year, sportscotland has worked with five local authority partners to provide additional support to identified hubs within the bottom 5 per cent of areas in the Scottish index of multiple deprivation. Sportscotland plans to expand that support to eight partners.

The minister and her Government talk about their desire to close the health inequality gap and focus on preventable health issues, yet it is by their actions that they should be judged. Jogscotland is free for all who participate and has 40,000 people per week—and growing—80 per cent of whom are women and 70 per cent of whom were previously inactive. However, it has had its funding withdrawn by the Government. We then find out that the organisation is deemed so important to the prevention of mental health issues that the Scottish Association for Mental Health is prepared to pick up some of the tab to keep it going. SAMH understands that it is far more effective, treatment-wise and cost-wise, to engage sufferers and potential sufferers in that way. If a mental health charity recognises the importance of that approach to the prevention agenda, why do the minister and her Government refuse to learn that lesson?

Sportscotland has provided Scottish Athletics with a one-off payment of £65,000 to help jogscotland. I hope that the member recognises that. We will of course continue to look to see where we can further enhance the offer around the country to ensure that more people become more active.

Brian Whittle comes to the chamber weekly and is critical of the Government. Holding us to account is the right thing to do and it is part of the normal democratic process, but when he comes repeatedly to the Parliament, representing the Tories, and asks us to do more to help with equality and to help the vulnerable, that always sounds a bit hollow. The Scottish Government continues to have to mitigate and soften the blows brought about by his party’s Government and its approach to austerity and welfare reform. On top of all the work and spending that we have had to do to mitigate the welfare reforms and austerity measures that his Government continually takes to punish the most vulnerable in our country, the Government has, since 2009, invested more than £800 million in sport and activity. We will continue to work hard and work on our record of providing opportunity to increase and encourage activity for everybody across the country, and we will take absolutely no lessons from the Tories on that.

What progress has been made on the implementation of the Scottish National Party manifesto commitment to a network of regional sports centres?

I thank Ivan McKee for the answer—I mean the question. [Interruption.]

Order. Let us hear the minister.

I appreciate Ivan McKee’s question, because he is right to raise the SNP’s commitment to a network of regional sports centres. It is important to recognise that sports facilities across the country are the best that they have ever been, due to the collaborative approach that has been taken across the sporting system. [Interruption.]

I hear a lot of members trying to heckle me while I am speaking. It would be appropriate for them to listen to my answers and the points that I am trying to make. Sportscotland remains committed to working with its partners to develop a network of national and regional facilities in which people can get involved in sport, whether that is in school or education, club or community, or performance environments.

We have already seen Oriam, the national performance centre for sport, open its doors in August last year, the national parasports centre will open shortly and the new national curling academy at the Peak in Stirling is well under way and due for completion later this year. I hope that that gives a bit of a flavour of our continued efforts to ensure that our facilities in Scotland continue to be among the best.

Suicide Rates (Disparity across Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent Samaritans report, which recorded a disparity in suicide rates across local authorities. (S5O-00771)

Any death by suicide is a tragedy. Sadly, the link between deprivation and risk of suicide is well known, as is the variability of suicide rates from one locality to another. We will take the report’s recommendations into account, including by placing emphasis on inequalities, as we develop a new suicide prevention strategy for publication early next year.

In Scotland, although suicide rates are higher than average in the most deprived areas, it is important to recognise that that inequality gap has narrowed over the past decade. Scotland’s overall suicide rate has fallen by 18 per cent over the past decade or so, and the number of deaths by suicide in 2015 was the lowest in a single year since 1974.

From our discussions with a range of stakeholders, including Samaritans, it is clear that there is a perceived need to refresh and invigorate local suicide prevention action. That will vary from area to area, depending on local circumstances and local needs, and that is something to which we will pay particular attention in the development of a new suicide prevention strategy.

The Samaritans report highlighted that a person living in a deprived area is three times more likely to commit suicide than someone living in an affluent area. Inverclyde, in my region, has the highest suicide rate of any local authority in Scotland.

The causes of and reasons for suicide are varied. For example, figures released last year by the time for inclusive education campaign show that a quarter of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community had attempted suicide at least once; a statistic that shocks and deeply saddens me.

What actions will the Government take to better identify and improve outreach to people who are in high-risk areas and high-risk categories?

Jamie Greene raises the very important point that a suicide prevention strategy should take into account different activities and problems in not just local areas but groups such as the LGBTI community, who we know suffer from particular mental health problems—an issue that will be addressed in the mental health strategy and will also be taken forward in the suicide prevention strategy. I thank Jamie Greene for his question.

The minister will know that I raised the report with the Deputy First Minister during last week’s First Minister’s question time, and I am grateful that my suggestion of an evaluation of the previous strategy will be considered. I look forward to a reply from the minister on that in due course.

The Samaritans’ report stresses that cross-governmental and cross-departmental co-operation is required in approaches to suicide prevention and that the development of all welfare, housing and employment policy should include an evaluation of the potential unintended impacts on mental health and suicidal behaviour. Will the minister consider those aspects in the next suicide prevention strategy? What assurances will she give that her office is working in co-ordination with other Government departments to tackle and to prevent mental health challenges?

I assure the member that this Government works across portfolios on all aspects of government. I am well aware that improving the physical and mental health of the nation is not simply down to me as the Minister for Mental Health or, indeed, my colleagues in the health portfolio, but down to many other ministers, including those with portfolios in housing, communities, education and the environment. We are all in it together.

Sport (Participation by Women)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to encourage more women to regularly participate in sport. (S5O-00772)

The Scottish Government is committed to increasing rates of physical activity for everyone in Scotland, and our ambitions for a more active Scotland are underpinned by a commitment to equality. My strategic guidance letter to sportscotland emphasises the importance that the Scottish Government attaches to equalities. Our programme for government has a number of commitments, including a £300,000 sporting equality fund that is aimed at increasing the number of women and girls who participate in sport. Details of the fund will be announced shortly.

Scottish governing bodies of sport are doing good work on the equality standard for sport. Cricket, snow sport and karate provide excellent case studies of governing bodies taking steps to increase diversity on their boards, opportunities for women to participate, and support for coaches and role models. I am delighted that sportscotland is the latest public body to achieve gender equality on its board following last month’s appointment of five new members.

I am sure that the minister will be aware of the findings of a survey that the Health and Sport Committee carried out as part of its sport for everyone inquiry that show that, across all age categories, rates of non-participation in regular sport and physical activity are higher among females than among males. I therefore urge the minister to focus on the barriers to participation that the survey uncovered, including caring and family commitments, the feeling of self-consciousness and negative experiences of physical education at school. What consideration will she give to how more women can get involved regularly in sport?

How we get women and girls more active continues to be a challenge and, as Jeremy Balfour rightly points out, non-participation rates are higher among those cohorts. He is also right to point out that we need to work hard to unpick, understand and overcome the multiple layers of potential barriers.

Sportscotland has identified equalities and inclusion as a key priority in its corporate plan. It is progressing our programme for government commitment and it is establishing an equality in sport and physical activity forum to take forward the recommendations on broader equality issues from the equality and sport research.

The member is right to raise the issue and to continue to apply pressure. My strategic guidance letter also emphasises the importance that we attach to equalities.

What impact does the minister expect on women’s sporting participation levels, and particularly parasport participation levels, from the £12 million—half of which is from the Government—that is being invested in the unique state-of-the-art sports facilities at sportscotland’s Inverclyde national centre in Largs, which we both recently visited?

The national centre in Largs will be a first for Scotland and across the United Kingdom. It was good to get an opportunity to visit the centre, along with the constituency member, and to see how much attention to detail has been applied to ensure that the facility will be for everyone, regardless of their physical abilities. We should all feel proud of it.

The centre will open soon. I hope that it will increase activity levels for disabled people who have an interest in sport and activity. The centre is also determined to be a community asset and resource and to provide opportunities for girls, boys, men and women—young and old—across North Ayrshire and beyond.

NHS Ayrshire and Arran (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met NHS Ayrshire and Arran and what issues were discussed. (S5O-00773)

Ministers and Scottish Government officials regularly meet representatives of all health boards, including NHS Ayrshire and Arran, to discuss matters of importance to local people.

Since the publication of the Scottish Government’s national drugs strategy “The Road to Recovery” in 2008, the Government has taken a strongly recovery-focused approach to problematic drug and alcohol use. In my constituency, North Ayrshire alcohol and drug partnership has cemented its reputation as a leader when it comes to recovery, with countless local successes, including cafe solace and the funky films project.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s new partnership for action on drugs in Scotland, which was launched in January. One of the top three priorities is listed as

“building communities focused on recovery and tackling stigma”.

Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on the partnership’s work and in particular on the development of the priorities and the work plan through the themed groups?

The partnership for action on drugs in Scotland—PADS—and its sub-groups are making good progress on tackling problem drug use through reducing harm, embedding high-quality and consistent services and developing recovery-centred communities. The Minister for Public Health and Sport attended the PADS meeting on 8 March, which focused on two of its priorities: the Harry Burns review and children who are affected by parental substance misuse. The Scottish Recovery Consortium, which is funded by the Scottish Government, is working alongside PADS to ensure that recovery and lived experience are at the heart of its work.

North Ayrshire is a leading ADP, and it continues to exceed the national waiting time target for local delivery plans. It has implemented a number of recovery-focused initiatives, including two recovery community cafes, with a third site due to open shortly, as well as nine smart recovery meetings embedded across North Ayrshire. I pay tribute to the partnership for the work that it is doing.

In November last year, the cabinet secretary promised the parents of six babies who tragically died at Crosshouse hospital in Ayrshire from 2008, and whose deaths were deemed unnecessary, that there would be a full official review of their children’s deaths. Given that promise, will she explain why five out of six of those families have discovered that the review by Healthcare Improvement Scotland will not consider their children’s cases in detail, as their deaths occurred before the end of 2013? Will she intervene to ensure that the cases of all six families, including the cases of the babies who died between 2008 and the end of 2013, will be given the full and official review that the families were promised and deserve?

This is an important matter. I should say that the HIS review is independent. HIS has said that its representatives have met all the families who wanted to be involved. The member draws attention to the December 2013 date, which was specified by HIS because of the terms of reference of the review, which was to focus on whether NHS Ayrshire and Arran adhered to the national framework in dealing with significant adverse event reports, given that the previous review looked into cases prior to December 2013. That was the rationale for looking at cases beyond the December 2013 date, as cases before that date had already been looked into under the previous review.

It is important that, in taking forward the review, HIS is able to engage further with the families. I encourage it to do so to address their concerns. We must not lose sight of the fact that the review was established for a specific reason, which was to consider whether NHS Ayrshire and Arran adhered to the national guidance in dealing with significant adverse event reports since the previous review. I encourage HIS to engage further with the families, which I hope will address some of their concerns.

Stroke Recovery (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support is in place to assist people who have had a stroke with their recovery and in becoming as independent as possible. (S5O-00774)

Stroke remains a clinical priority for the national health service in Scotland and the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government recognises the importance of recovery from stroke. The Scottish Government’s stroke improvement plan, which was published in August 2014, includes priorities on supporting self-management and rehabilitation.

It is up to individual NHS boards to deliver the level of stroke services that is required in their area, which depends on local and individual need. Boards are responsible for delivering stroke care services via their stroke managed clinical networks. The Scottish stroke improvement team supports managed clinical networks in implementing local action plans to improve the delivery of stroke care across Scotland.

Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland has raised concerns that national health service provision of rehabilitation for people who are recovering from strokes and who have a long-term condition often ends far too soon and that, when they return home, such people are left without vital on-going support. What will the Scottish Government do to ensure that, across Scotland, a consistent pathway of rehabilitation is available from the NHS through to community support?

We are seeing improvements across the country, but we will always take cognisance of concerns that are raised by individuals, organisations and groups.

We have started to collect data on rehabilitation. From November 2015 to January 2016, a rehabilitation sprint audit was conducted, and a second pilot is planned for the period from Monday 23 January 2017 to Sunday 2 April 2017. There is on-going analysis and data capture to see where we can make improvements. The issue also relates to delivering the full integration of health and social care to ensure that the right care packages are in place and that people who have suffered a stroke can get the help that they need in the right way and at the right time.

Cold Homes and Fuel Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government how the national health service tackles health issues resulting from cold homes and fuel poverty. (S5O-00775)

We know that health inequality is closely linked to income inequality. That is why the Scottish Government is committed to tackling poverty, including fuel poverty, as a priority. We recently published our fairer Scotland action plan, which sets out 50 concrete actions that we will take during the course of this parliamentary session to tackle inequality, such as developing referral pathways between NHS services and local services to maximise the income of patients; tackling the poverty premium; and delivering at least 50,000 affordable homes over the parliamentary term.

Since 2009, we have allocated more than £650 million to tackling fuel poverty and, as we announced in the programme for government, we will make available £500 million during the next four years, which means that more than £1 billion will have been committed by 2021 to tackle fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency.

The World Health Organization says that 30 per cent of excess winter deaths are caused by cold homes and that a preventative approach could save the NHS £80 million. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and the existing homes alliance Scotland have recently recommended that the energy performance certificate rating of properties in areas in which there are fuel poor households should be improved to band C as a minimum, and ideally to band B. Does the Scottish Government support bringing all properties into band C by 2025? I appreciate that this is a matter that goes beyond the minister’s portfolio, but will she give a commitment to discuss targeting the poorest households to ensure that they reach the EPC rating that will prevent them from living in a cold home, so that we can eradicate the scourge of people living in cold homes?

I will certainly get the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities to write to Pauline McNeill on some of the specific issues that she raises, which are important but slightly outwith my portfolio. She will be aware that we are consulting on a new long-term fuel poverty strategy, including proposals for a new overarching target in autumn 2017. That will feed into the development of a new warm homes bill, which we plan to introduce in 2018. I suspect that that will provide a further opportunity for her to raise some of the issues and proposals around targeting that she has raised today. I will ensure that a more detailed response is sent to her in due course.

Shelter Scotland estimates that one in 10 households in Scotland is affected by dampness or condensation, which the existing homes alliance says can aggravate conditions such as heart disease, stroke and flu and increase the risk of mental health problems. What action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that fewer homes are affected by conditions such as dampness or condensation?

Further to what I said to Pauline McNeill, we have established an independent panel of experts to review the definition of fuel poverty, as recommended by the Scottish fuel poverty strategic working group. The review, which is due to be completed in late summer, will look at whether changes are needed to help us to better target our efforts to eradicate fuel poverty in the forthcoming warm homes bill. I am sure that the issue of tackling dampness that Donald Cameron raised will be explored.

I must remind the member that part of the reason why people struggle to pay their household bills is to do with welfare reforms. [Interruption.] The Tories might not like to hear the truth, but if household budgets are cut through welfare reforms and people who are in work are poorer due to cuts to tax credits, it is hardly rocket science to establish that they will struggle to pay their fuel bills. The Tories can guffaw all they like, but there is a direct correlation between welfare reform and people’s ability to pay their bills. The consequence is fuel poverty. The Tories can shake their heads all they like, but everybody else knows that to be the truth.

NHS Ayrshire and Arran (Underrecruitment of Consultants)

To ask the Scottish Government whether NHS Ayrshire and Arran’s reported underrecruitment of 30 consultants will adversely impact on its ability to safely operate the combined assessment unit at Ayr Hospital when it opens in May 2017. (S5O-00776)

National health service boards across Scotland, including NHS Ayrshire and Arran, have a statutory responsibility to carry out workforce planning and must make every effort to fill existing gaps to ensure that services continue to be delivered safely. The Scottish Government works closely with boards to give them the tools that they need to improve workforce planning. Under this Government, the number of consultants in NHS Ayrshire and Arran has increased by 62 per cent to more than 290 whole-time equivalent consultants. Additionally, in spring 2017, we will publish our national and regional workforce plan, which will improve workforce planning practice to make it clearer what should be planned at national, regional and local levels.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the welcome opening of the new combined assessment unit will, in all probability, result in increased admissions to Ayr hospital. If experience elsewhere is a guide, how does she envisage the additional workload being dealt with by the already overstretched staff at Ayr hospital specifically, and NHS Ayrshire and Arran generally, when waiting times for first appointments for many disciplines are already among the longest in Scotland?

I know that John Scott has raised those issues before—quite rightly—and it is important that the Scottish Government supports boards such as NHS Ayrshire and Arran to ensure that they have the correct staff in place to deliver the services that local people need.

As I said, there has been an increase in the number of consultants and other staff, but demand has also grown. What is important in workforce planning—whether for the combined assessment unit or for the rest of NHS Ayrshire and Arran’s services—is that it gets the right configuration of staff, and we will continue to support NHS Ayrshire and Arran to recruit. There are opportunities to look at recruiting clinicians to network positions where posts are very hard to fill and are specialist in nature; network positions involve clinicians being recruited to work across more than one site, which makes the posts more attractive.

I am happy to continue to talk to John Scott about this matter as we take it forward and, if he wants a meeting to discuss it in more detail, I will be happy to meet him.

Chronic Pain Treatment (Waiting Times)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to claims that return patients who require regular treatment are not counted in chronic pain waiting times, and what action it is taking to address the reported excessive delays that some face before receiving treatment. (S5O-00777)

Scotland is the only nation in the United Kingdom to routinely publish chronic pain waiting times. That is a clear sign of the Government’s commitment to making improvements for people who live with chronic pain.

Chronic pain waiting times data that was published on 14 March by the Information Services Division showed an improvement in the number of patients who were seen within 18 weeks, which rose from 60.4 per cent to 64.5 per cent during the quarter ending in December 2016. I recognise that there is more progress to be made and the Government will continue to support national health service boards to ensure that chronic pain patients get swift access to the care that they need.

Appointments for return patients will always be subject to individual clinical assessment.

I thank the minister for her response, but she did not answer my specific question about return patients not being recorded. She will be aware of reports last week that thousands of chronic pain patients are suffering in what has been described as a “hidden national scandal”. It seems that new chronic pain patients are given priority in a bid to meet the Scottish Government’s target of 18 weeks from referral to first treatment, while return patients who need regular treatment are not counted. Will the minister consider including such patients in future reports?

A return patient who has commented on the matter is Chris Bridgeford, a pain sufferer from Forres, who founded the Moray-based Affa Sair support group for chronic pain sufferers, which the minister mentioned in response to an earlier question. He said:

“We have people despairing of their lives due to huge delays in treatment.”

What more can be done to ensure that chronic pain patients in Moray and throughout Scotland who require regular treatment get treatment when and where they need it? In her earlier answer, the minister talked about meeting Affa Sair; will she include all members of the Scottish Parliament who cover Moray in the meeting, so that we can continue with the cross-party work that has been successful locally?

In my previous answer, I said that there have been improvements in NHS Grampian, because we have chosen to be the only country in the United Kingdom to publish the waiting times. I think that that indicates our commitment in the area.

Of course, we need to ensure that we fully understand the picture, which is why, as I said in my response to a supplementary to Richard Lochhead’s question, we have given the University of Dundee £100,000 so that it can consider how we can better capture the data and drive improvement. The deputy chief medical officer will oversee and monitor waiting times to ensure that we get a full picture on how we can better help people who suffer from chronic pain.

I said that I would meet Affa Sair. I am instructing my officials to meet the group first and to do some work on the situation in Grampian. We will ensure that the member gets an update on that.