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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 16, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament 16 September 2021 (Hybrid)

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Community Jobs Scotland, Portfolio Question Time, Fairer and More Equal Society, Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time

Good morning. I remind members that Covid-related measures are in place and that face coverings should be worn when members are moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The first item of business is general question time.


Ambulance Cover (Mid Scotland and Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the level of ambulance cover across Mid Scotland and Fife. (S6O-00157)

Cover across Fife from today until month end is an average of 92.44 per cent. Additional resources are planned and added as required; for example, there will be two additional shifts in Fife tomorrow and similar resources will be added across the weekend. That will be further supplemented with overtime, as uptake will continue to grow throughout the month. Recently, cover has been 94.2 per cent, and in Fife specifically it has been more than 92.6 per cent.

Through £20 million of investment, we have supported the Scottish Ambulance Service to recruit an additional 296 front-line staff. In Fife, that will equate to an additional 442 double-crewed ambulance hours every week. Nationally, the Scottish Ambulance Service, as we all know, is experiencing extraordinary demand, and the national health service faces significant challenge as a result.

Despite the pressure that coronavirus has brought on our Ambulance Service, which serves some of the most rural areas in the United Kingdom, in 2020-21, crews responded to more than 70 per cent of the highest priority calls in under 10 minutes, and to more than 99 per cent in under 30 minutes.

Constituents were raising concerns with me about the level of ambulance cover, particularly in rural areas, even before the Covid pandemic, and it is clear that the situation is now much more serious, despite the efforts of all ambulance staff. This morning’s newspaper headlines make grim reading, with people now dying as a result of ambulance delays. It has become a national crisis. When will the cabinet secretary get a grip on the issue before more lives are needlessly lost?

I agree with Murdo Fraser not just about the scale of the challenge but about the fact that the newspapers—and not just today—make grim reading, as do a number of cases that members have raised. He will not get a defence from me of some of those unacceptable waiting times, and the Ambulance Service is also aware of that situation. However, I assure Murdo Fraser that no one is sitting on their hands, and that is why we have invested that additional £20 million. Ambulance staff, such as paramedics and technicians, have been recruited, including in the north and east regions, and more staff will come on board during the winter months.

With Parliament’s approval, I plan to come forward on Tuesday with a further parliamentary statement that will give details of the other actions that we are looking to bring forward to help the Ambulance Service in remote and rural areas and right across the country. Of course, any member can send me the details of specific cases that they would like me to look at as Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care.

Staff morale is at rock bottom now. Staff are feeling inordinate pressure and, to be frank, this investment comes far too late. Murdo Fraser is right—the problems were evident before the pandemic. I need to understand from the cabinet secretary why those decisions about investment and staff recruitment were not made years ago when they should have been.

I am happy to provide Willie Rennie with further detail. That investment is from years ago; it started 18 months ago, at the very beginning of the pandemic. He seems to be shaking his head, but I am happy to provide him with that detail. We are now beginning to see that recruitment come through the pipeline, because that investment was made a while back.

Willie Rennie is absolutely right to continue to raise the issue of morale. That is why we have the staff wellbeing hub. I know that Unite the union has raised some issues about morale, and I am more than happy to speak to it, and to take ideas wherever they come from about what more can be done to help morale in the Ambulance Service. Staff morale will continue be important and we will continue to invest in the Ambulance Service. I hope that on Tuesday, with Parliament’s approval, I can give further details on some of the other actions that we are looking to bring forward during this challenging phase.


ScotRail (Proposed Timetable Changes)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what its position is on the proposed timetable changes set out by ScotRail in its fit for the future consultation. (S6O-00158)

As Mark Ruskell points out, ScotRail is conducting a public consultation on the proposed May 2022 timetable, which closes on 1 October. I encourage everyone with an interest to make their views known.

The proposed timetable would operate 100 services more than the current pandemic timetable, which responded to changed travel patterns. ScotRail is of the view that the vast majority of customers will find either that there is no change to their current service or that their service improves, with a more regular interval between services, and so more trains being set. However, I recognise that there are some localised concerns about the proposed timetable. I encourage the public and members of Parliament to make their views known through the consultation.

ScotRail’s proposed new timetable will result in some unacceptable cuts in services and extensions to journey times that will impact people particularly in Stirling, Dunblane, Perth and Kirkcaldy. I have been actively encouraging residents to share their views with ScotRail as part of the consultation. Later this month, I will host a meeting with constituents to better understand how those changes will impact them. Does the minister agree that any significant changes in rail services must be made only after real and meaningful consultation with rail users? Does he agree that ScotRail should accept my invitation to meet rail users, to ensure that their voices are heard?

I very much commend Mark Ruskell for the approach that he is taking to the matter and, yes, I would encourage ScotRail to engage. As I think that I have said before, I have never seen draft proposals contained in a consultation that are flawless or could not be improved on. However, I would say gently to Mark Ruskell that timetables are complex creatures. When you revisit them, it is not as simple as restoring or tweaking component parts. He has concerns, as he has noted, about the impacts on, for example, Perth and Kirkcaldy. However, Invergowrie and Gleneagles in his region benefit greatly from the proposed changes. Unpicking some of the planned alterations could undermine those gains.

Does the minister plan to keep the timetable cuts when ScotRail is nationalised?

As I have pointed out, this is a gain of 100 services over the present timetable. Timetables evolve, as Mr Simpson knows. The whole point of this is to gradually build back and, in doing so, to recognise the emerging travel patterns that we will see as people’s return-to-work arrangements and leisure activities become more apparent. This is a baseline from which we can build and align the services with the needs of the travelling public.

Will the minister provide information on any benefits that would arise from the draft proposals that are being considered under the proposed timetable changes that are set out in ScotRail’s fit for the future consultation?

I have already touched on Invergowrie and Gleneagles as examples of places that would benefit from the proposals, and Dumfries is another, but I also recognise that there are areas that feel aggrieved about the proposals. That is why it is important that everyone engages in the consultation.


Air Passenger Numbers

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the reported decline in air passengers travelling through Scottish airports. (S6O-00159)

In common with airports around the world, Scotland’s airports have seen a collapse in demand throughout the pandemic. The restrictions on travel both at home and abroad were necessary to protect public health. Before the pandemic, Scotland was better connected with the rest of the world than ever before and we are actively seeking to recover traffic and secure new routes, while also ensuring safe travel for passengers and airport staff. Of course, in doing that, we have to attempt to do it in a way that reduces carbon emissions from the aviation sector.

Aberdeen airport recently reported passenger numbers collapsing by two thirds during 2020, leading to its owner posting pre-tax losses of £131 million. That has had a major impact on the connectivity that the minister referenced, which the north-east—already battered by huge business rates, retail closures and poor transport links—can ill afford. Other Governments have recognised the strategic importance of aviation by putting support packages in place. Will this one?

The problem is affecting airports across the United Kingdom. In fact, Aberdeen is faring better than some of our other domestic airports. Working with a multitude of airlines and with airports, the Transport Scotland aviation team is putting in considerable effort to restore connectivity.

Recognising that you have a lot questions to get through, Presiding Officer, I will leave it at that, but I offer Mr Kerr the opportunity to meet and go through some of that in detail, if he would find that useful.

Will the minister set out some of the detail on the work that is being done on route recovery in the air travel sector in Scotland?

That work is extensive. It has primarily focused, in the short term, on reconnecting with North America—Canada, in particular—but the aviation team is working actively in other areas for wider route recovery. Again, if Siobhian Brown has a particular interest in the matter I am more than happy to meet and talk her through the detail.


Publicly Owned Energy Company

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its proposals to establish a publicly owned energy company that will generate and supply energy. (S6O-00160)

As set out in our manifesto earlier this year and in my written response in June, we will focus Government efforts on a dedicated national public energy agency to adapt to the scale and nature of decarbonising 1 million homes and 50,000 non-domestic buildings by 2030. That will provide the co-ordination required to accelerate delivery of transformative change in which almost every building in Scotland will switch to zero-carbon heating. It will lead on educating the public on required changes and provide financial and non-financial support and expert advice to national and local government to deliver that unprecedented project.

We have gone from having an energy company that would actually generate and supply energy at lower cost to having a virtual agency with no additional budget, staff or resource, as confirmed by the cabinet secretary to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee earlier this week. The cabinet secretary tells us that that virtual agency, which is probably a website, with no additional staff or resources is a better answer and a better way to address the challenges of climate change and fuel poverty. Does the cabinet secretary agree with stakeholders that the failure to establish a publicly owned energy company has been a complete policy failure?

The challenges that we face have changed very significantly over the past couple of years. With the publication of our updated climate change plan and the significant statutory targets that we now face in meeting our climate change commitments, we require to decarbonise domestic and non-domestic heating systems at a considerable rate over the next eight to nine years. The key to achieving that objective, and to doing so effectively, is to co-ordinate the action that will be necessary, which is exactly what a public agency will be able to do.

Alongside that, we are also exploring the provision of heat as a service. We consulted on that earlier in the year and we are considering how that service could be delivered through a public energy company, which could support us in taking co-ordinated action and tackling issues such as climate change and fuel poverty.


Managed Quarantine (Costs)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what support it can provide to people undertaking managed quarantine at Scottish airports who are unable to afford the costs but not in receipt of any welfare benefits. (S6O-00161)

International travellers who do not receive qualifying welfare benefits can contact Corporate Travel Management, the United Kingdom Government’s travel agent, to access a deferred payment plan. That plan is available only to UK residents and students with visas to study in the UK, and needs to be paid back in 12 monthly instalments. The Scottish Government has additional hardship measures in place beyond those of the UK Government. If a person who resides in Scotland meets appropriate criteria and is unable to repay the debt, the Scottish Government will fully cover the cost of hotel quarantine and cancel the repayment plan.

Given the inadequacies of the universal credit application and award systems, will an expansion of existing eligibility for Scottish Government support to those who are not on universal credit but who are struggling to pay the costs be considered?

I confirm that we already have an extended list, and that universal credit is only one of the benefits that we take into consideration. If someone has difficulty meeting the cost of managed quarantine and is on benefits such as child tax credit, working tax credit, housing benefit, income support, pension credit, income-based jobseekers allowance or any income-related benefit, we will take their benefits into account when considering whether we should cancel their repayment plan.


National Health Service Dentistry (Backlog)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it will address the backlog in national health service dentistry. (S6O-00162)

We are moving forward rapidly with NHS dental recovery and are supporting the sector to build back to a pre-pandemic level of activity. We have invested additional funding of £5 million to improve ventilation in dental premises and a further £7.5 million for the purchase of speed-adjusting handpieces. Those particular instruments can be used in a wide range of clinical procedures where standard non-aerosol precautions might be applied.

Those measures, alongside a 50 per cent increase in the amount of free enhanced personal protective equipment available, will make it possible for NHS dental teams to see substantially more patients while operating under the current infection prevention and control measures that are required for the safe operation of dental treatment.

I previously received a response that said that a record number of people are registered with an NHS dentist, but constituents are writing to me with their concern that they are still unable to find an NHS dentist with whom they can register, and that delays in appointments are not getting shorter. I am also aware of NHS dentists who have gone private. Is the minister not concerned about that state of affairs, and what action is the Scottish Government taking to fix it?

I am concerned about that state of affairs. The challenge for dentistry is that aerosol-producing procedures and the infection prevention and control measures constrain the level of activity that dental practices can undertake. As we emerge from the pandemic, we expect the situation to improve. Dental practices will be able to register and see new patients. At present, it is more difficult for dental practices to see new patients because of the restrictions.

As the arrangements for dental registration are made through the local health board, a patient who has difficulty finding NHS dental care should contact the health board first in order to access appropriate care.

For patients to be offered private care instead of NHS care is completely wrong and unacceptable. An NHS-registered patient should not be offered private dental care if the same treatment is available on the NHS, and instances of that behaviour should be reported to the NHS board. If the member has examples of those instances, I am happy for her to write to my office and my officials will pass that information to the relevant board.

That concludes general questions.