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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 19, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 19 May 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Union Canal: 200th Anniversary, Portfolio Question Time, Long Covid, Decision Time


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions, and responses to match.

Heart Valve Disease

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on which of the key recommendations it is looking to progress from the report “State of The Nation: Heart Valve Disease in Scotland” by Heart Valve Voice, which was released in December 2021. (S6O-01110)

The report by Heart Valve Voice made recommendations on the need to collect standardised data, develop optimal patient pathways and improve access to echocardiography, all of which reflect the strategic priorities that are outlined in our heart disease action plan.

Of particular note is the progress that is being made by Public Health Scotland on delivering the Scottish cardiac audit programme. We have committed more than £1.5 million over five years to support transformative change in the use of data to drive improvement in cardiac services. In 2021, we provided funding for a project that seeks to improve access to echocardiography. We are working closely with the centre for sustainable delivery to utilise the learning from that project to support improvements across Scotland.

Later this year, I will visit Aberdeen royal infirmary to witness a transcatheter aortic valve implantation—TAVI—procedure being performed. I invite the minister to join me if she wishes to do so. TAVI is less invasive than traditional heart surgery, but in Scotland there is currently a cap of 400 such procedures per year, and we are lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom in that area. Will the minister commit to reviewing the cap? Will she also join me at a round-table event involving the Heart Valve Voice charity?

I think that I will be up in Aberdeen next month. I will be more than happy to visit ARI at any time.

Douglas Lumsden is right. TAVI is provided at three regional centres across Scotland—in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen—with regional referral pathways in place. The national planning board maintains an overview of TAVI activity in Scotland and considers available evidence to support decision making around the rate of such procedures in Scotland. I am confident in that process.

If Mr Lumsden would like to write to me about the round-table event that he is planning, I will certainly consider his invitation. I assure him and the folk at Heart Valve Voice that tackling heart disease is a high priority for us in Scotland and we are determined to improve action on the issue.

New Housing (Town Centre First Approach)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support a town centre first approach to the development of new housing. (S6O-01111)

Our joint response with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to the town centre action plan review outlines actions to embed a town centre first approach. It includes a call to action and sets out ways in which we can all play our part in rebuilding, re-energising and reimagining our towns. We are fully committed to the town centre first principle and continue to engage with partners on it. The principle influenced the development of our draft national planning framework 4 and “Housing to 2040”, both of which will help to deliver more town centre living.

The recommendations in those documents are certainly very welcome, particularly the proposal for a new fund to bring empty properties back into use. However, does the cabinet secretary accept that one of the real problems for social landlords, for example, is that developing a brownfield site is more expensive than developing a greenfield site? Therefore, when it comes to allocating funding for new housing, a bias towards additional funding for those more expensive brownfield sites is needed in order to attract social landlords to build their housing in town centres rather than on a greenfield site, which is the cheaper option.

I recognise some of the issues that the member describes. It depends on the site. Some brownfield sites have flooding or decontamination issues, but not all do. It is right that we encourage development and, in particular, that we encourage social landlords to develop on brownfield sites, so we will obviously do what we can around that.

It is important to recognise that there is already a commitment on place-based investment programme funding, which is backed by £325 million during this parliamentary session. We also have vacant and derelict land funding, which includes the £50 million low-carbon vacant and derelict land investment programme.

The fourth national planning framework—NPF4—will also help with town centre living. Post-pandemic, there may also be an opportunity to repurpose some commercial and retail properties in town centres, which will obviously help with the affordable housing supply programme. I am happy to keep speaking to the member about these matters.

At the Heart of Economic Transformation: Report of the City Centre Recovery Task Force, 2021-22 has some useful and welcome suggestions on restoring domestic living that have a good read-across to support for housing in our town centres. For example, the nine recommendations in chapter 4 of that report include some that relate to “taking on challenging sites”, “brownfield development” and “flexible planning”. Can the cabinet secretary advise which of the nine proposals regarding residential living in city centres could be readily applied to town centres? Will the Scottish Government commit to looking at those recommendations in relation to town centre housing development?

Yes, absolutely. Again, I am very happy to keep Fiona Hyslop appraised as Tom Arthur, who has responsibility for many of the issues, and I consider those matters.

Our second town centre action plan outlines actions to embed the town centre first approach. It is absolutely critical that we join the dots across all elements of Government policy, not least our net-zero ambitions.

I am happy to keep Fiona Hyslop appraised of developments as we move forward on the recommendations.

The cabinet secretary referenced Tom Arthur, who recently visited Galashiels and Penicuik town centres, in my constituency, where he saw the work of local people. Will the Scottish Government liaise with local development trusts such as Energise Galashiels, which are looking at repurposing commercial properties for domestic use?

I am aware of Tom Arthur’s visit, and Christine Grahame makes an important point. I am very happy to commit to liaise with local organisations, which know the opportunities in their areas better than we do. It is important that we try to ensure that we take the opportunity to create more affordable housing in our town centres, which also helps with their regeneration. As I said, we need to join the dots across various policies. Again, I am very happy to liaise with Christine Grahame about those matters.

Wellbeing Economy (Support for Households)

To ask the Scottish Government how it can support households with the cost of living crisis through a wellbeing economy approach. (S6O-01112)

Scotland’s national strategy for economic transformation sets out the vision for a wellbeing economy in which society thrives across economic, social and environmental lines. However, we know that households and businesses across the country are feeling the cost of living, which is why we are doing all that we can to help those who are most in need. We are investing almost £770 million per year in cost of living support, including through a range of family benefits that are not available elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We are doubling the Scottish child payment, mitigating the bedroom tax and increasing Scottish benefits by 6 per cent.

Boris Johnson recently said that we cannot spend our way out of the cost of living crisis, and that, instead,

“We need to grow our economy”.

However, economic growth alone has not brought benefits for everyone. Even before the recent crisis struck, many in the Highlands and Islands could not afford to heat their home or buy enough healthy food. What can the Scottish Government do to put the wellbeing of people and planet above growth for growth’s sake?

The member raises an important point. We both share constituents in the Highlands and Islands, and I know too well the issues that are faced in the area. The UK Government holds most of the powers that are needed to tackle the cost of living crisis, but so far it has failed to take the urgent action that is needed to provide help to hard-pressed households across the Highlands and Islands. We will continue to press the UK Government to take more action, but it is about time that it did take action for an area where much energy is produced, yet where no assistance or support with energy bills is provided.

Question 4 was not lodged.

Multi-establishment Leadership in Schools (North Lanarkshire Council)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with North Lanarkshire Council regarding the proposed implementation of a multi-establishment leadership model in schools. (S6O-01114)

The deployment of headteachers in local authority schools in Scotland is a matter that is reserved to individual councils. As part of their work to organise schools in their area in the most efficient and effective way possible, it is important that the quality of school leadership is maintained.

As such, I am keen to ensure that any proposed changes to school leadership structures are made primarily for educational reasons. I therefore asked officials to engage directly with local authorities, including North Lanarkshire Council, that are considering changes to school leadership structures, in order to understand the rationale for their proposals. My officials have engaged with officers from North Lanarkshire Council on that issue and will continue to do so as appropriate.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the multi-establishment leadership model that has been proposed for Chryston primary school and Chryston high school in my constituency has been met with widespread opposition from parents and politicians. The community very much feels that the issue has not been consulted on to a significant level, and, tomorrow, the primary school will have been without a headteacher for 500 days. What further engagement should North Lanarkshire Council have with the community before implementing such a drastic and radical change?

I thank Fulton MacGregor for again raising in the Parliament this issue, which is clearly a key concern for his constituents. When any change is proposed to deliver education in a different way, it is important that communities are involved throughout the process. In an empowered system, parents and carers should be involved, collaboratively, from the beginning of key policies.

In this case, North Lanarkshire Council has carried out a consultation with the affected families, and it is in the process of analysing the responses. However, I recognise Fulton MacGregor’s point that many people feel that the consultation was not sufficient. They should certainly encourage North Lanarkshire Council to be aware of their concerns, perhaps through Fulton MacGregor’s offices, to ensure that the council knows the strength of feeling on the issue from some of the affected parents.

Online Teaching (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is planning to increase the use of online teaching. (S6O-01115)

Provision of learning and teaching is a matter for individual local authorities, which are responsible for ensuring that relevant parties are consulted and that the quality of learning and teaching is maintained.

As a key component of the national e-learning offer, e-Sgoil, supported by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, has been invaluable during the pandemic in supporting continued access to learning and teaching in the most challenging of circumstances. As we return to more normal times, councils will wish to reflect on the lessons to be learned from online teaching and, in particular, where online learning can support subject choice and enrich and vary learner experiences.

Concerns have been raised in the Western Isles that the policy might mean that junior classes will simply have an adult present in the classroom and that senior classes will be left unsupervised while remote learning occurs. The Educational Institute of Scotland described it as

“an absolute disregard for statutory responsibilities and duties towards pupils as well as a serious undermining of the role of professional, registered teachers.”

Does the Scottish Government acknowledge those concerns, and does the cabinet secretary agree that face-to-face teaching must be the priority? Where a teacher is available, they should be teaching in person rather than online.

I thank Donald Cameron for raising the issue. In many ways, it ties in with some of the answers that I gave to Fulton MacGregor about how important it is that, when changes are made to the way in which education is delivered, that is done in a collaborative way with parents, young people and staff. Donald Cameron mentioned, in particular, the EIS local branch, and I am clear on the views of the EIS, locally.

As I said in my original answer, it is a matter for individual local authorities, but I stress the importance of all councils listening to young people, parents and staff and discussing the pros and cons of change. If it can be done in a collaborative way, that is the way in which it should be done.

Having a teacher in place while pupils are being taught, albeit remotely, means that the wellbeing of pupils is looked after. Indeed, if pupils have queries, it is really important that they have a suitably qualified teacher there with them. Will the cabinet secretary look at the issue again to ensure that every pupil is properly supported locally, as well as being able to take advantage of courses that are taught from elsewhere?

Again, I stress that this is a matter for the councils. I recognise the important concerns that have been raised today, particularly on behalf of staff. The council has stated that the aim of its plan is to provide secondary pupils from small secondary schools with access to a greater range of subjects by sharing classes that are taught in other schools. It has been highlighted that that will enable teachers to continue to live in smaller communities while, at the same time, reaching a wider audience of pupils. The background is that the council is looking at the issue, but that should be done in collaboration with young people, parents and staff. It is, as I have said, the responsibility of the council.

National Health Service Dental Patients (East Dunbartonshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to dentists in East Dunbartonshire to allow them to take on more NHS patients. (S6O-01116)

We are determined to ensure that national health service dental services emerge well placed to care for the oral health of the whole population, and we are now moving forward with NHS dental recovery. From April, we announced revised payment arrangements that reward NHS dental teams according to their activity. NHS dental contractors will receive an increased payment for work carried out, in a fair and equitable response to the current situation of Covid restrictions facing dentistry. That means that NHS dental practices will be incentivised for registering new patients.

In April, we saw that the revised payment arrangements combined with the relaxation of infection protection and control measures are having a substantial positive impact in improving access and ensuring that the sector can quickly return to more normal levels of activity and clear the backlog.

Several of my constituents in Bearsden have raised concerns that a popular local dental practice in the area has ceased providing NHS treatment and is forcing existing NHS patients on to a private monthly payment plan. In light of the Scottish Government’s plans to move to free dental care for all, can the minister confirm how dental treatment can be accessible to everyone in their local community, not just those who can afford to pay?

As I have already intimated, NHS dentistry is a key part of our plan to recover NHS services. We are greatly encouraged by the dental sector’s positive reaction to the relaxation of IPC conditions and the new interim payment arrangements, which I restate are having a substantial effect on patient access. For example, we saw more than 232,000 examination appointments in April, compared with a monthly average of 125,000 during the first three months of the year. That is an increase of 85 per cent in one month.

I understand that there are particular situations such as the one that the member describes, and the Government takes them very seriously. If the member wishes to provide me with further details, I would be happy to look into the situation.

State Aid Rules

To ask the Scottish Government in what circumstances it would provide support to a business in situations where legal advice stated that doing so could breach state aid rules. (S6O-01117)

European Union state aid rules included a comprehensive pre-approval process to ensure compliance prior to any aid being given by Scottish ministers. Interested parties could challenge any award with the European Commission to determine whether any support should be deemed as illegal aid. Sole competence on illegal state aid sat with the European Court of Justice.

By contrast, the new United Kingdom subsidy control regime lacks legal certainty, as it does not have a pre-approval process, despite Scottish ministers advocating for that. The absence of such a process increases uncertainty for granting authorities, making the potential for challenge more likely, which has a detrimental effect on business support. The Scottish Government would, of course, seek to act lawfully at all times, including when providing support to businesses.

In recent weeks, a national newspaper reported sources alleging that the Scottish Government had been advised that its deal with the GFG group for the management of the Lochaber smelter could be in breach of state aid rules. Although the Scottish Government has asserted that the arrangements are not in breach of the rules, it has not addressed the core point on whether advice to that effect had been received, and a risk highlighted. Can the minister give a clear answer on that point? Did the Scottish Government receive advice at any stage that the arrangements that were made with the GFG group might violate state aid rules or otherwise create a legal risk for the Government in its management of the facilities at Lochaber? If so, why was that advice ignored?

The Lochaber guarantee is compliant with EU state aid rules and was approved by the Scottish Parliament Finance and Constitution Committee. The Scottish Government received independent advice in 2016, showing that the fee charged to GFG was on market terms and that the transaction overall was state aid compliant. The guarantee is compliant with EU state aid rules, because it contained no subsidy and therefore did not require EU approval. The actions taken by the Government have, of course, ensured that the operation in Lochaber continues to operate and provide jobs to people locally.

That concludes general questions.