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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 18 December 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, ScotRail Franchise, Ferguson Marine, Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motion, Decision Time, Financial Abuse


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio question time, and we start with education and skills. I remind members that questions 4 and 6 have been grouped together. That means that question 4 gets a supplementary and question 6 gets a supplementary. Anyone who wants to ask a supplementary thereafter will come in after that. I hope that you took notes.

Pupil Performance Data

To ask the Scottish Government how it is responding to reports that knowledge of changes in pupil performance is at a 70-year low. (S5O-03917)

We simply do not agree with that assertion. We now collect and publish literacy and numeracy performance data at national, local authority, school and stage level on an annual basis. That data covers around 50,000 pupils, and gives us detailed information on writing, reading, listening and talking, and numeracy. We did not have anything approaching that much detail when curriculum for excellence was implemented.

The independent commission on school reform was clear last week that our data on school performance is worse now than at any time since the 1950s. That is because the Scottish National Party has scrapped almost every survey of pupil performance and pulled Scotland out of every international study except the programme for international student assessment, which incidentally showed our schools plummeting to record lows in maths and science. If the cabinet secretary is so convinced that he is making improvements to Scottish education, why does he keep abolishing any impartial evidence that could back him up?

I completely disagree with Mr Burnett’s series of baseless assertions. The Government has subscribed to the PISA analysis, which was reported on two weeks ago. Last week, I made a statement based on the collection of data on the performance of 50,000 pupils across different levels of curriculum for excellence. When that data is published, it will enable us to respond to the challenges that it throws up about performance in individual schools, so that we can improve outcomes for individual children and young people in our education system. I believe that we have more data, more information and more ability to improve performance in Scottish education and, as a consequence, to improve outcomes for children and young people.

As a matter of fact for Mr Burnett, the data on Scottish education in the PISA analysis shows that performance in reading has improved significantly and that performance in maths and science is stable, although it needs to improve. That is what we are working to achieve.

Co-ordinated Support Plans (Review)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the review of co-ordinated support plans for children with additional needs will be conducted as part of or subsequent to the Morgan review of additional support needs. (S5O-03918)

As part of the review of additional support for learning, Angela Morgan is considering the different approaches to planning that are used to meet children and young people’s needs. Ms Morgan will report to the Scottish ministers and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in early 2020. The findings from her review will be used to inform the work that is being done to enhance implementation of additional support for learning, including the review of the use of co-ordinated support plans.

I asked the question because, in response to a written question that I lodged, the cabinet secretary said that the review of co-ordinated support plans would take place as part of the Morgan review. I also wrote to the people who are conducting the Morgan review, who confirmed the opposite—that it would take place subsequent to their review. I am simply asking for clarification: will it be part of the Morgan review or subsequent to it? I currently have two contradictory answers.

I apologise if we have been unclear in communicating the position to Mr Greer. The answer that I have just put on the record is designed to say that Angela Morgan will consider the different approaches to planning that are used to meet children and young people’s needs. That may raise issues about co-ordinated support plans, which we will go on to review as a consequence. If we have not expressed it clearly before, I hope that that sets out the position as clearly as I can.

As the cabinet secretary knows, this is really important because the co-ordinated support plan is the only mechanism that gives a child and its family recourse to certain legal rights. Back in August, we discovered figures showing that, even of those children with additional support needs who receive support from not only education but social work, only 3 per cent have co-ordinated support plans and, therefore, access to those legal rights. Whether it is through the Morgan review or subsequent to it, will the Deputy First Minister undertake to act to ensure that more children with additional support needs get access to the legal rights that this Parliament has legislated for them?

I agree entirely with the direction of Iain Gray’s point, that any child or young person who needs a co-ordinated support plan should have that co-ordinated support plan. That was the legislative intent of Parliament and that is what should be applied.

As Mr Gray knows, the decision on whether a young person has a co-ordinated support plan is not mine; it is the statutory responsibility of local authorities. That statement is not in any way an attempt to pass responsibility; it recognises a statutory fact. However, I take seriously the point that Mr Gray raises, that if a child needs a co-ordinated support plan, they should have it. That is the intent of legislation. I hope that what comes out of the Morgan review is information that enables us to take more action, if it is required, to address the issue that Mr Gray has raised with me today.

In the past 10 years, the number of additional support needs teachers has reduced, but the number of pupils requiring ASN support has increased markedly, with 31 per cent recorded as having additional support needs. One ASN teacher has described to me the heavy workload, given that it takes four to six hours to complete getting it right for every child forms for each child. How can the Scottish Government ensure that ASN teachers have time to devote to pupils while dealing with the necessary paperwork?

The definition of additional support needs has expanded significantly in the period referred to by Beatrice Wishart. That accounts for the significant increase in the number of young people who present with additional support needs. It also demonstrates the fact that we are trying to address the needs of those young people within the mainstream education system, where of course we have an increasing number of teachers. In relation to all staff who are supporting pupils with additional support needs, we are seeing a rise in numbers. The most recent data, from 2018, shows 17,412, which is an increase from 16,343 the previous year.

It is important to recall the necessity of ensuring that the needs of individual children and young people are met, and met properly. That is what statute says. Whether that support is provided by a mainstream teacher, who is properly trained to deliver it, or by additional specific staff who deal with additional support needs, we must ensure that the needs of children and young people are met. It is the statutory responsibility of local authorities to ensure that that is the case.

North West Community Campus (Root Cause Analysis Report)

Presiding Officer, I apologise that, due to other parliamentary business, I need to leave the chamber after my question.

To ask the Scottish Government when the root cause analysis report on the North West community campus in Dumfries will be published. (S5O-03919)

The root cause analysis report has now been finalised with Dumfries and Galloway Council and other stakeholders. The Scottish Futures Trust will publish the report, along with lessons learned, early in the new year.

When I asked the same question in August, the cabinet secretary replied that the review was complete, so I am unsure why it has taken six months to get to where we are.

Given that the company responsible for the shoddy workmanship at the North West community campus continues to receive millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money for public sector contracts, and that the review has been carried out by the Scottish Futures Trust, which is part of the model that let people down in the construction of the school, how can people be reassured that the review will get to the real cause of the problem and not be simply a whitewash?

It would be best to see the report once it is published. That might give an insight into the issues that it will raise. I would expect the report to look at the circumstances that have led to the very real issues that presented themselves at the North West community campus. I am not going to prejudge that report. It will come out and I am happy to consider the issues that arise; I will not speculate on what its content might be.

It is safe to say that it is important that the highest-quality work is undertaken on a contractual basis by all contractors—and, where that is not the case, that contractors should be held to account.

Teacher Numbers

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the latest teacher number statistics, and what steps it is taking to retain teachers at all levels of education. (S5O-03920)

The school census data that was published last week demonstrates that the action that the Scottish Government is taking on teacher recruitment is working. Teacher numbers have increased for the fourth year in a row, rising to 52,247 in 2019, which is an increase of 288 on the previous year. We now have a 10-year high in overall teacher numbers, and a 39-year high in primary teacher numbers.

To further improve recruitment, we are offering bursaries for career changers to undertake teacher education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. A new phase of our recruitment campaign is under way, and we have added Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University as teacher education providers.

I welcome the new numbers. I know that the Deputy First Minister is acutely aware of the current shortage of Gaelic teachers. I welcome the action that has been taken by the Scottish Government to date to increase their numbers, such as the Gaelic immersion for teachers—or GIFT—programme. The bursaries that are offered through Bòrd na Gàidhlig to help with course fees are also welcome. However, has the Scottish Government given any consideration to raising the bursary level higher so that it matches the STEM bursary, which would go a long way towards encouraging more teachers into Gaelic-medium education?

Mr MacDonald is correct that Gaelic teacher education is a priority for the Scottish Government. I discussed many of those issues at a gathering of Gaelic-medium educators in Edinburgh just a couple of weeks ago, where we focused on some of those challenges.

The question of the bursary level is a matter for Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which has made a welcome intervention. It also offers a variety of other teaching support to help individuals participate. I will—of course—raise with Bòrd na Gàidhlig the suggestion that Mr MacDonald made.

I also note that one of the challenges that we need to address is whether there are more teachers who are Gaelic speakers who could be persuaded to strengthen their capacity in the Gaelic language to be able to be part of the Gaelic-medium education system in Scotland. That is one of the themes that are being examined in the faster rate of progress initiative on the Gaelic language that I commenced in August 2018, which is about ensuring that we deliver on the contents of the Gaelic national plan that was formulated by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and approved by ministers.

Teacher Recruitment

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve teacher recruitment. (S5O-03922)

We continue to support universities in the development of new and alternative routes into teaching, including a focus on increasing the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers. Over the past two years, those routes into teaching have attracted around 800 people who may not otherwise have entered teaching.

We offer bursaries of £20,000 for career changers to do teacher training in STEM subjects, where the demand is at its greatest. A new phase of our teaching makes people recruitment campaign is under way, and—as I indicated to Mr MacDonald in my previous answer—we have added Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University as teacher education providers.

The latest statistics demonstrate that the Scottish Government’s recruitment drive is working. Will the cabinet secretary tell the Parliament and—at the same time—inform the public how the ratio of teachers to pupils in Scotland compares with the ratio elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

To add to what I said earlier in relation to the new initial teacher education providers, yesterday, I visited Edinburgh Napier University and, some weeks ago, I visited the new principal and vice-chancellor at Queen Margaret University—our former clerk, Paul Grice—to see the new initial teacher education courses. I pay tribute to both universities for taking the initiative and offering their services in that important endeavour, where they are delivering very strong results.

In relation to Mr Paterson’s question, there are fewer pupils per teacher in Scotland than in any other country in the United Kingdom. Although the data is not directly comparable, in primary schools, there are 15.9 pupils per teacher in Scotland compared to 20.9 in England, 22 in Wales and 22.3 in Northern Ireland. In the secondary sector, there are 12.4 pupils per teacher in Scotland compared to 16.3 in England, 17 in Wales and 15.7 in Northern Ireland.

Ardrossan Academy

To ask the Scottish Government what financial support it will provide to North Ayrshire Council to support the construction of a new Ardrossan academy. (S5O-03921)

I am pleased that an Ardrossan community learning and innovation hub—to replace Ardrossan academy and Winton primary school—is one of the projects to benefit from the first phase of the new £1 billion learning estate investment programme.

Will the cabinet secretary advise on how much the Scottish National Party Government has invested in building new schools in North Ayrshire since 2007? Will he also advise on what has been delivered for that investment, compared to the £400 million that it is costing the people of North Ayrshire, over 30 years, for the five private finance initiative schools that were built by Labour prior to 2007?

The Scottish Government supported the construction of Garnock community campus and the Largs campus, which are for pupils aged two to 18. We have supported them with significant funding of more than £44 million. That funding has enabled the creation of two world-class educational facilities in North Ayrshire, which I know will be well used by North Ayrshire Council. They are offered as part of sustainable funding, unlike the expensive system of PFI, which was such a burden for local authorities across the country.

Programme for International Student Assessment Results (Maths and Science)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the performance of Scotland in maths and science that was recorded in the recent programme for international student assessment results is its poorest. (S5O-03923)

The PISA results for 2018 show that our performance in science and maths is in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, and it is statistically similar to Scotland’s results from the previous survey in 2015. Those results are stable—but stable is not good enough. We are committed to the measures that we have put in place to drive improvement in attainment across Scotland, and in particular to close the poverty-related attainment gap.

If you are brief, your colleague Mr Cameron will be able to ask his question.

I shall be brief, then. I asked very specifically about the PISA results, which show that Scotland’s performance in maths and science is at a record low—in maths it has fallen from 17th to 31st since the Scottish National Party took office. It is an appalling indictment of the Government’s mismanagement and a shameful legacy to bequeath to our children. Does the cabinet secretary have any ideas on how to arrest that slide? When will the statistics start to improve?

Mr Kerr could, possibly, have said that our reading score has improved significantly, but he chose not to. Instead, he indulged in the perpetual, miserable, anti-education agenda of the Conservatives, which is all about talking down Scottish education. They tried it in the election last week and they took a hammering. They were sent homeward to think again. Scottish education is improving and the Conservatives are going downhill very fast.

Support for Learning (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support pupil learning in the Highlands and Islands region. (S5O-03924)

The Scottish Government is undertaking a range of actions to support pupil learning in the Highlands and Islands. In 2019-20, schools in the four Highlands and Islands authorities together received a total of more than £4 million in pupil equity funding.

In the same year, the Highland Council received more than £900,000 from the Gaelic specific grant to help meet the costs of Gaelic education. Highland Council is also in receipt of £4 million in capital funding to support the building of the new Gaelic school in the Inverness area. In 2018-19, around £750,000 of Scottish Government funding was used by the northern alliance regional improvement collaborative to support educational improvement across the alliance region, including in the Highlands and Islands.

I ask Donald Cameron to please be brief.

New figures that were published by the Scottish Government show that teachers in the Highland Council region have reported that only 60 per cent of pupils in primary 7 have reached the expected level for writing, and only 62 percent have reached it for numeracy. Does the Deputy First Minister accept that those figures are totally unacceptable, and what will his Government do specifically for primary 7 children in the Highland Council region?

As a consequence of the extensive data that the Scottish Government has collected—which totally contradicts the silly first question that was asked by Mr Burnett—we are now able to have the discussion on the subject that Mr Cameron has raised. He is quite right that performance levels in Highland schools need to improve. That is why the Government puts in place financial support for the northern alliance to assist in building and improving educational performance. It is because of the data that we have put in place that we know where the challenges are and we can support schools to improve their performance levels—that is exactly what the Scottish Government is going to do.



Scottish Ambulance Service (Response Times Policy)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact has been of the Scottish Ambulance Service’s response times policy. (S5O-03925)

The impact of the introduction of a new clinical response model in the Scottish Ambulance Service in November 2016 has been extremely positive.

By focusing on responding as quickly as possible to the sickest patients, the new model is saving more lives. Evaluation of the new model showed a 44 per cent increase in 30-day survival rates for cardiac arrest patients in the first year, which equates to 1,182 people. In this year, to date, of the 547 cardiac arrest calls to which the service has attended where the patient presented with a shockable rhythm, 54.8 per cent of patients have been taken to hospital following the SAS achieving return of spontaneous circulation.

I raise a particular issue about what I think is a mismatch between the Scottish Ambulance Service guidelines, which put diabetic patients at low priority, and the advice of Diabetes UK, which is that any patient who becomes unconscious due to hypo needs an ambulance.

Does the Scottish Government agree with Diabetes UK on that? The context is that a constituent of mine who was unconscious waited three and a half hours, not for an ambulance but for the Ambulance Service to check whether he was still alive and needed support.

The member wrote to the Government about the issue and has received a response. She will be aware that there is a formal investigation into why that happened, because a three-plus hour wait for a clinical call-back is not acceptable.

It is appropriate that the Ambulance Service triages patients, to ensure that the people who most need an ambulance get the service fastest. That approach is working and is saving lives. Clearly, if the triage approach is to work properly, call-backs are needed. I am aware that the Scottish Ambulance Service is investigating the case that the member talked about.

How often, in some timeframe, are emergency calls waiting while Orkney’s only land ambulance is already on a call? Has there ever been a time when no—

Mr McArthur, it is unfortunate that we cannot quite hear you clearly. I will get the broadcasting people to put the sound up. You have such a gentle voice. Will you repeat your question?

I will do my best, Presiding Officer.

How often, in some timeframe, are emergency calls waiting while Orkney’s only land ambulance is on a call? Has there ever been a time in the past six months when no land ambulance was available on mainland Orkney?

I thank the member for repeating his question. I will need to look into the issue. I will be speaking to the Scottish Ambulance Service tomorrow morning, so I will raise his point directly with the service.

General Practitioner Practices (Tayside)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that, since 2009, the number of general practitioner practices in NHS Tayside has fallen from 69 to 63, while the average practice list size has increased. (S5O-03926)

The reduction in GP practice numbers in Tayside is, in part, the result of practice mergers since 2009. Mergers can prevent practices, particularly small or single-handed ones, from closing, by reducing risk and increasing resilience. In addition, three practices have closed in Tayside since 2009. Bridge of Earn, Ardler and Stobswell were all small independent practices.

The Government has put a number of measures in place to support GP practices; I am happy to ensure that Mr Fraser has details of those measures.

I have been contacted by a constituent in Perth who expressed concern about the times that they have to wait to get a GP appointment. The situation has been made much worse recently, following the closure of the GP practice in Bridge of Earn and the allocation—without any consultation—of hundreds of extra patients to the lists of city GP practices. What more can the Scottish Government do to assist with the situation?

As Mr Fraser and I know, the Bridge of Earn practice closure was—this is probably the best way to describe it—not well handled. We have raised the matter directly with NHS Tayside, to ensure that there is no repetition of that. I think that we have also been in contact with the GPs from the practice and the practice to which patients have been reallocated, and we have offered to hear from them whether there are additional measures that we could offer and which they would find useful in enabling them to accommodate the additional patients.

The final point is that, as Mr Fraser knows, the issue of primary care and GP practices is not just about GP numbers; it is about the whole multidisciplinary team. I am pleased to say that, across NHS Tayside, including in Perth, we have seen a significant increase in the number of multidisciplinary teams. Those teams use the professional skills of advanced nurse practitioners, pharmacists and pharmacist assistants, and physiotherapists. There is more to do, and I am happy to take any specific suggestions Mr Fraser might have with respect to the specific GP practice that he referred to.

Mental Health Treatment for Children and Young People (Waiting Times)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to reports of worsening delays in the waiting times for children and young people to receive mental health treatment. (S5O-03927)

I have been absolutely clear that long waits for children and young people to access mental health treatment are unacceptable.

There is no simple solution in the face of increased demand for children and young people’s mental health services. That is why we are undertaking an ambitious programme of work to monitor and drive forward performance in mental health waiting times across Scotland, while also supporting early intervention in community settings and across the third sector, local government and the national health service. That includes £250 million to support positive mental health for children and young people, in addition to £58 million over four years specifically to improve access to child and adolescent mental health services and psychological therapies, and to invest in additional staff.

Through the children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing programme board, which is jointly chaired by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, we are implementing the key recommendations of the Coia task force, the youth commission on mental health, and the Scottish Association for Mental Health audit of rejected referrals.

I thank the minister for her answer, and I understand what she is saying. Nevertheless, local delivery plan standards state that 90 per cent of young people should start treatment for those services within 18 weeks of referral. However, figures for the most recent quarter show that only 64.5 per cent met that standard. Will the minster explain why that mental health crisis has not improved, despite a commitment to improve early intervention?

As I said in my previous answer, we are working very closely with CAMHS and others to ensure that we improve overall performance on meeting the CAMHS waiting times standards. We have committed to publishing a new CAMHS specification, which lays out the standards that children and young people, and their families, can expect. That work has also been informed by the SAMH audit of rejected referrals. In the 2019-20 programme for government, we set out our plans to work with NHS boards to deliver trajectories to meet the mental health waiting time standard by December 2020. Those trajectories will be set out in boards’ annual operational plans, ensuring that performance is tied to funding.

Looked-after children are a group for whom CAMHS support can be vital. When children move placements and into new areas, they can drop off already-long waiting lists and end up at the back of the queue. What assessment has the Government carried out of that situation, and what action is it taking to ensure that all looked-after children can access appropriate mental health support when they need it?

I thank Mary Fee for raising that issue. She may remember that one of the strands of the work of the Coia task force was to highlight vulnerable children who are at risk: both those who are looked-after and accommodated and those who are in the youth justice system and going through children’s panel hearings. The children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing programme board will be looking at the specific recommendations made by the Coia task force to ensure that that particularly vulnerable group of children does not fall through gaps.

Palliative Care (Homeless People)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to extend access to palliative care services for homeless people. (S5O-03928)

Our strategic framework for action on palliative and end-of-life care makes it clear that we want everyone who would benefit from palliative care to have access to it, including people who are homeless.

To achieve that vision, it is essential that health and social care professionals have early planning conversations with people who are nearing the end of life to ensure that they get the care and support that is right for them. With that in mind, we have focused our efforts on supporting front-line health and social care services to engage more frequently and meaningfully with homeless individuals, so that they can access care and support services as quickly as possible.

I chair the cross-party group on palliative care, which has suggested improvements including palliative care nurse specialists working with homelessness services, palliative care beds being provided specifically for homeless individuals and a range of other measures. Will the minister carefully consider the range of innovative suggestions that the CPG has made to improve the service that is provided to that highly excluded group?

I thank the cross-party group for its work. Its suggestions are a useful contribution to the discussion, and I will ensure that they are passed on to the homelessness prevention strategy group, which is co-chaired by the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning and a representative of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. It oversees the implementation of “Ending Homelessness Together: High Level Action Plan”, and includes a public health representative.

At its most recent meeting, on 10 December, the strategy group discussed the steps that could be taken to improve joint working between health and homelessness services. That is an appropriate area to focus on to ensure that we are getting that joined-up work in relation to the important issues that the member and the cross-party group have raised.

Sadly, a rising number of homeless people are discharged from hospital with no home to go to. Previously, the Scottish Government has said that it has no plans to update research or to collate data on use of health services by homeless people. Will the Scottish Government reconsider that?

The data that Monica Lennon refers to was collated in 2018. The homelessness prevention strategy group has to consider how we can use that data to ensure that people get the support that they need when they need it. One of the first issues in that regard is ensuring that, when we are dealing with people who are in that situation, their housing needs are met. That is why the housing first model is important. People have complex needs: if they have a complex health need but nowhere to stay, that presents real difficulties. The housing first model is positive and provides us with a good opportunity to act. We are in the early days of implementation of that approach, and I know that various housing first models are used across the country. However, the anecdotal feedback that I have heard so far is generally positive.

NHS Highland (Locum Staff)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to assist NHS Highland to reduce its reliance on locum staff. (S5O-03929)

The number of medical and dental staff in NHS Highland has increased by 55.2 per cent between September 2006 and September 2019. NHS Highland continues to focus on reducing the cost of locums and its reliance on them. On-going actions that have been taken directly by NHS Highland include a weekly control meeting; an on-going cost improvement programme; continuing work to recruit to a cohort of clinical fellow posts; recruiting to permanent posts, including offering flexible working and alternative roles to encourage doctors to work in NHS Highland; and engaging a medical recruitment agency to focus on international recruitment to vacant posts across NHS Highland, which is meant to emulate the success of NHS Grampian in that regard.

NHS Highland is also working with the national health service’s Scottish global citizenship programme to offer new opportunities to doctors to work as remote and rural consultants in rural general hospitals while being able to participate in global citizenship in Scotland and abroad.

We know now that construction of the new elective care centre will be delayed until early next year, and figures show that NHS Highland is spending more than £20 million a year on bank, relief and agency staff payrolls. Is the cabinet secretary sure that she will be able to fully staff the elective care centre—when it is finally finished—without increasing those costs?

It is worth noting that the figure for agency nursing and midwifery staff in NHS Highland has decreased. Although Mr Mountain is correct overall, such facts are important.

The member will be pleased to know that, in the last quarter, the vacancy rate in NHS Highland decreased to 11.7 per cent, and the number of longer-term consultant vacancies of six months or more decreased by 7.4 per cent.

A range of work is going on in recruitment. Our work to create the Scottish clinical collaborative, which we are undertaking with the Royal College of Surgeons and the north region boards, which includes NHS Highland, NHS Grampian and NHS Tayside, is perhaps most interesting. Very experienced consultants who are towards the end of their careers will take time to work in remote and rural areas, which will be of great assistance to NHS Highland.

Our workforce planning includes building in the needs of the elective centres, as well as other parts of our service. I am sure that Mr Mountain was pleased to see publication of “An Integrated Health and Social Care Workforce Plan for Scotland” on Monday.

NHS Grampian (Waiting Times)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it plans to take in response to statistics showing that 65.4 per cent of patients referred to NHS Grampian were treated within 18 weeks. (S5O-03931)

As part of what is in the Scottish Government’s “Waiting Times Improvement Plan” we are making more than £108 million available to health boards in this financial year in order to increase capacity in the system through, for example, more staffing, evening and weekend clinics and additional theatre sessions, all of which will ensure progress towards delivering on that plan’s trajectories. That investment includes over £11 million to NHS Grampian where, using those additional funds, recent improvements have been put in place, including increasing capacity at Aberdeen royal infirmary, recruitment of additional staff, and utilising additional capacity at the Stracathro regional treatment centre and the Golden Jubilee hospital for orthopaedic patients.

Sadly, long waiting times are a familiar story in NHS Grampian, and in the north-east we fall far below the national average. On the back of the news on waiting times, an NHS Grampian spokesperson stated that if a patient’s condition worsened, they should contact their general practitioner. However, recent GP figures show that Grampian has lost 13 GP surgeries in the past 10 years. With longer waiting times and a decreasing number of GP surgeries, can the cabinet secretary explain how patients can get the vital treatment that they need?

On elective work and the initiation of the cancer waiting time, it is fair to point out that NHS Grampian has, for the second year, met the 31-day cancer waiting time target for the second quarter, and is seeing improvement towards reaching the 62-day target.

For most patients, the trigger for referral comes from their GP surgery, so I can in some ways understand why the piece of advice from NHS Grampian that Peter Chapman referred to might have been given to a particular patient.

However, I expect health boards to be in constant touch with the patients on their waiting lists in order to keep them updated on when they should expect their appointments and, if there are delays, to explain why. If Mr Chapman is aware of particular instances in which that has not happened, I will be happy to hear about them so that I can deal with them directly with NHS Grampian, as I have done with other health boards.

Free Personal and Nursing Care (East Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government how many people in East Ayrshire receive free personal or nursing care; what the qualifying age groups are to receive this, and what the annual cost is. (S5O-03932)

The latest figures that are available in free personal and nursing care Scotland statistics show that the number of people in receipt of free personal and nursing care in 2017-18 in East Ayrshire was 1,680 at a cost of £13.3 million. As Mr Coffey will know, as of April this year, personal care is free for all eligible adults.

I thank the cabinet secretary for the positive impact that the service—which is unique to Scotland—is having on the most vulnerable people in my constituency. Are there any plans to evaluate formally the impacts and outcomes of the policy so that we can consider further improvement in years to come in this important area of care?

That is an interesting question, for which I am grateful. There are no specific plans for such an evaluation, although I am very happy to give further thought to how we might do that, and to whether it would produce valuable information for us.

Willie Coffey will be aware that this year we are—as was indicated in the programme for government—undertaking a programme of work on reform of adult social care, which we will conclude in the coming year. I have recently had a useful meeting with Alzheimer Scotland to look at what more we might do in terms of personal care and healthcare for individuals who suffer from dementia. That work will allow us to consider what more we might do in those areas. In order to balance things, we might have to do much of it in a phased way, depending on the overall cost.

I am very open to looking at what more we might do. Work is already under way on providing personal care and healthcare support for adults who require that from us in order that they can live independently, with respect, and as close to home as possible.

That concludes questions on health and sport. We will shortly move on to questions on communities and local government. While we do, I remind members that questions 2 and 4 are grouped together. Jamie Greene has lodged question 2 but is not here. He had better have a good explanation for that. We will move from question 1 straight to question 4, and then on to question 3, because I know that members are sort of expecting that.

Business Improvement Districts

1. Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding streams and other support is available for alternative mechanisms to the business improvement district model. (S5O-03933)

BIDs are a means to empower local businesses to raise their own funds to deliver their locally agreed plans. There are no set funding streams for alternative mechanisms. The Scottish Government funds Scotland’s Towns Partnership to provide support to organisations and groups that have an interest in establishing BIDs or other approaches to improving their town centres and neighbourhoods.

The cabinet secretary may be aware of the challenges that are being faced in towns in Fife this year. This week, businesses in Cupar have supported the digital improvement district there, but in Dunfermline, the Dunfermline Delivers BID lost its recent ballot. Dunfermline Delivers is re-emerging as a community interest company with some funding from Fife Council as a transitional measure, but it is seeking alternative funding. This year, Kirkcaldy4All decided not to go for a third ballot and is trying to reinvent itself as a digital innovation district. As the cabinet secretary can see, the model is fragile. What consideration is being given to how the changing nature of the high street and the pressure that businesses face have impacted on the ability of BIDs to be successful?

I welcome the news that Cupar has approved its digital improvement district, which is the first in Scotland. We are disappointed that Dunfermline Delivers was unsuccessful in its renewal ballot. I understand that, as Claire Baker said, the council is looking at options to build on the work of Dunfermline Delivers and has agreed to provide a transition fund to help the organisation to repurpose and develop a new BID. I met the constituency member, Shirley-Anne Somerville, about that, and I know that she has been helping the group.

We want to keep BIDs under review so that they are delivering for town centres. There is a lot of success across the country, and that is why Scotland’s Towns Partnership is looking to develop a new and more expansive model for BIDs, to allow them to deliver more inclusive and energetic partnerships and improved resources, to have more impact and, ultimately, to bring greater sustainable growth to all areas in Scotland. STP is looking to support BIDs in a more fulsome way so that they can avoid some of the disappointment that I know has been expressed in Dunfermline. That will help to empower our communities to take more control over their town centres.

I am happy to engage with the member. I know that Shirley-Anne Somerville has been making good representations on behalf of Dunfermline Delivers, but it is important to note that Fife has also benefited from a number of other funding streams, such as the regeneration capital grant fund, which has supported town centres across the region.

Communities (Tackling Inequality)

4. Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports communities in tackling inequality. (S5O-03936)

In 2018, we invested over £1.4 billion on support directed at low-income families. That includes key investments to deliver more affordable homes, tackle fuel poverty and support our attainment Scotland fund, and more than £100 million to mitigate the worst impacts of the United Kingdom Government’s welfare cuts. Our new £11.5 million investing in communities fund will provide vital support and investment to around 250 organisations to enable them to tackle poverty, inequality and rural disadvantage across our communities. Our tackling child poverty delivery plan outlines our concrete action to reduce child poverty. That includes plans for our new Scottish child payment, which is worth £10 per child per week and will be paid to eligible families with a child under six by Christmas next year.

Auchenback Active, which is based at the Auchenback resource centre in Barrhead, in my Renfrewshire South constituency, does a power of work to tackle inequality in its community, including distributing Christmas presents so that children from across the area receive a gift over the festive period. Will the cabinet secretary join me in thanking Auchenback Active for all the work that it does all year round, and will she accept my invitation to visit the Auchenback resource centre next year to see its brilliant work first hand?

Absolutely. Like Tom Arthur, I pay tribute to Auchenback Active for the work that it is clearly doing across its community and for its effort and endeavour. I wish that it did not have to make some of that effort; if only severe welfare cuts had not been imposed in too many of our communities, such work would not be necessary. However, I pay tribute to Auchenback Active for not sitting back and letting things happen, and for ensuring that children in the area get the support that they deserve.

The work of community-led organisations such as Auchenback Active is truly inspiring. They deliver tangible positive outcomes for local people, and I am happy to commend the good work that they do.

I would be happy to visit Auchenback Active next year. If Tom Arthur gets in touch with my office, I am sure that we will be able to fix a date soon.

House Building

3. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to encourage more house building in heavily populated urban towns and areas, such as Coatbridge. (S5O-03935)

Scottish planning policy is clear that development plans should guide most new urban development to take place within existing settlements or in planned extensions. We are now preparing Scotland’s fourth national planning framework, which will set out where development is needed to support sustainable and inclusive growth areas in Scotland.

The minister will be aware that, in Coatbridge, which makes up the largest part of my constituency, new housing is very much welcome to regenerate the area and improve living standards, whereas, in the northern part of my constituency, such as in Stepps and Gartcosh, new developments are often more controversial because they are often proposed in the green belt. I again pay tribute to the work of the save Stepps green belt group, which I have previously written to the minister about. What is the Scottish Government doing to encourage house building on derelict and brownfield sites in urban areas rather than greenfield land?

Scottish planning policy quite clearly states that the reuse or redevelopment of brownfield land should be considered before new development takes place on greenfield sites. The efficient use of our finite resource will also be considered in the review of the national planning framework, which we are about to embark on.

Takeaway Food Outlets (Planning Policy and Guidance)

5. Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how its planning policy and guidance to local authorities on takeaway food outlets take account of its policies on healthy eating. (S5O-03937)

The 2018 report “Research Project: To Explore the Relationship Between the Food Environment and the Planning System” notes the lack of interaction between Scottish planning policy and diet. We have committed to exploring that issue further as we prepare the fourth national planning framework, and we would welcome discussion of those issues as part of the engagement programme for NPF4.

In my Midlothian North and Musselburgh constituency, there have been several instances in which a multiplicity of new takeaway food outlets have been rejected by both the local community and the council but approved by the Government reporter on appeal. Are stronger guidelines that favour healthy eating likely to be developed?

I agree completely that planning policy should do all that it can to support health and wellbeing in all our communities across Scotland. As I said in my previous answer, I would welcome views in the chamber and beyond on how that can be achieved.

We will begin early engagement on NPF4 from January next year. In the meantime, I should say that reporters are required to make their decisions in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise, and having fully considered all the evidence before them, including representations from members of the public. I would welcome any submission that Mr Beattie, or any other member, wants to make so that we can get this right for NPF4.

What is the minister’s response to a council in England that has managed to implement a food van exclusion zone around schools? Will the Scottish Government consider that as a way forward in healthy eating planning?

As I have said, I would welcome a submission on this from any member. If they want to provide evidence of what has happened elsewhere, I am more than willing to look at it.

National planning framework 4 will see us go out and consult as many stakeholders as possible on a variety of issues. Many have an interest in healthy eating and the part that planning can play in that. As I said to Mr Beattie, I would welcome any submission from Mr Whittle on this subject.

Question 6 was not lodged.

Fire Safety Certification (Tower Blocks)

To ask the Scottish Government, further to its answer to question S5O-03821, what plans it has to require privately owned flats in tower blocks over 11m high to have fire safety certification. (S5O-03939)

There are no plans to introduce fire safety certification of the type that Mr Rumbles describes.

Provisions to address fire safety in buildings are required under building regulations at the point at which building work is carried out. That applies to all dwellings, regardless of tenure or building height.

Mr Rumbles might be interested to know that we have produced fire safety information leaflets containing advice for residents in high-rise buildings on how to prevent fires in the home and what to do if one starts in their building. Those are being delivered to all homes in high-rise buildings and will also be available in libraries and community centres.

Although we know that building regulations are not retrospective—the minister said that to me last time—Scottish ministers have the power to direct local authorities to require existing buildings to conform to current building standards under section 25 of the Building (Scotland) Act 2003. Why is the minister so reluctant to use that power?

This is a complex issue. I am often castigated in the chamber for using ministerial direction, although I do so rarely. If Mr Rumbles wants, I would be more than happy to sit down with him and building standards officials to discuss the issue in some depth.

I should make it clear that the Scottish Government is not complacent about building standards. That is why we put in place the expert panels to advise us on building standards and fire safety.

We will continue to engage on all those issues so that we get it right. Members would be upset if I started using ministerial direction, but I am more than happy to talk to Mr Rumbles further on the issue.

I am interested to hear the minister’s comments; it is appropriate that we get this right.

In the meantime, what advice would the minister give to my constituents who are still experiencing problems and have concerns about the valuation of their properties when they attempt to sell them and put them on the market?

I share Ms Boyack’s concerns, and my heart goes out to those who are having difficulty with selling their properties and moving on. I met our officials again this morning to try to ensure that we can move UK Finance and, more important, the United Kingdom Government, further forward on the issue.

As members are aware, I have written twice to Robert Jenrick, the UK secretary of state; I have also sent him a reminder letter. Now that the UK Parliament is back, I hope that Mr Jenrick will furnish us with a response so that we can do what is necessary to ensure that Ms Boyack’s constituents, and many others across the country, can get out of the difficulties that they are in. Members can be assured that I will continue to do all that I can to move the issue on.

Coul Links (Planning Decision)

8. John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government when the planning decision on the proposed development of a golf course at Coul Links will be announced. (S5O-03940)

We are giving full consideration to the reporter’s report and recommendation, which we received on 27 November, and a decision will be issued as soon as possible.

Given that the proposed development could affect a European protected site and that the decision could be made after the United Kingdom has exited the European Union, what environmental governance arrangements will be in place to provide oversight of such decisions and to ensure that environmental standards will be upheld?

I have to be very careful in what I say, as Mr Finnie well knows, because the planning application in question is still live.

In general, since Ramsar sites were first designated in Scotland, they have been protected through co-designation under other regimes. Scottish Government policy on Ramsar sites, which was established in 2000, is that they be treated in the same manner as Natura sites. Natura sites are special areas of conservation and special protection areas, which are designated under the European birds and habitats directive. Although variations in the expression of that policy over the years necessitated the publication of guidance earlier this year, the policy has not changed.