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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 23, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 23 January 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Air Traffic Control (Highlands and Islands), Farming and Crofting (Support), Portfolio Question Time, Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 1, Consumer Scotland Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


General Question Time

HIV (Marginalised Groups)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reach marginalised groups affected by HIV. (S5O-04043)

The prevention of HIV transmission remains a priority for the Scottish Government, and there is no room for complacency. An estimated 91 per cent of HIV-positive people in Scotland know their status, 98 per cent of those people are receiving treatment and 97 per cent of those who are in treatment are achieving viral suppression. Although we have achieved the United Nations 1990 targets, increasing the number of people who know their status and so can get treatment and move towards virus suppression remains a clear priority.

Earlier this month, Kirkcaldy lost a popular member of its Pride community to AIDS. Ross Scott passed away at the age of just 25, having lived with HIV for two years without knowing his status. Antiretroviral drugs usually allow people with HIV to live long lives but, unfortunately, Ross’s diagnosis was too late for treatment to be effective.

Does the minister agree that we all have a role to play in increasing awareness of HIV and the importance of prompt testing and treatment?

I agree. It is crucial that we remain vigilant and that we work collaboratively in order to continue to make progress. A clear priority is to increase the number of people who know their status, so that they can get treatment. That is why the Scottish Government has set up a short-life working group to consider options for improving HIV testing.

We continue to work closely with national health service boards and third sector organisations to raise awareness and to eradicate the stigma around the virus, including the falsehoods, myths and prejudice that surround HIV. Stigma remains one of the biggest barriers to people getting the HIV test, which will ultimately save lives.

The HIV outbreak among the homeless community was exacerbated by previous cuts to the drug and alcohol budgets. Will the minister confirm that he has made representations to the finance secretary, in the run-up to the budget, to ensure that the Government puts the right money and resources into dealing with Scotland’s drugs crisis?

The HIV outbreak in Glasgow is of huge concern. Neil Findlay is correct in saying that it has affected a community that crosses the boundaries of the most vulnerable groups—people who are homeless and those who inject substances. It is absolutely crucial that we take action to support Glasgow and its health board to respond to the outbreak. There have been several meetings with services in the area, which have brought those services together.

Waverley Care has been doing really useful work, along with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and has been running several projects to engage directly with the most vulnerable populations. As part of that scheme, we currently provide third sector funding of £2.13 million for projects that support people with blood-borne viruses.

Policy Commitments (Costs)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has fully costed the policy commitments it has made that are to be delivered through local government. (S5O-04044)

All new policy commitments that have a financial cost to local government are costed and discussed with local government. That includes an agreed approach on distribution matters.

I met local government colleagues this week, and a key concern that they raised was the issue of adequate funding for the roll-out of additional childcare. They were not against the principle of the Scottish Government’s policy, but they were very worried about the difficulties of rolling out the policy, given the different challenges that exist in Scotland. Is the cabinet secretary aware of those concerns and will he act on them?

I will continue to have discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about the budget and other matters. I will also have discussions with Opposition parties about the budget. Those discussions have begun and I look forward to their continuing in a constructive fashion.

The policy on early learning and childcare is fully funded—an agreement was reached with local government on the funding of that policy, in which distribution matters are also covered. If there are any further concerns, I would be happy to engage with COSLA to have talks on them.

Can the cabinet secretary advise us whether the Labour group, given that it is so interested in full costings, has provided details of how it will cost its own proposals for local government, or said whether those will be funded by tax rises, by switching funds from other budget portfolios or by demanding additional powers for local government, which—as in the case of workplace parking—it will then undoubtedly vote against?

There was a debate on local government funding yesterday. I will set out a Scottish National Party budget to the Scottish Parliament, and it will be for the other parties to engage constructively with me. To answer Mr Gibson’s question, I have not had any detailed alternative costings, but I look forward to such costings being produced if Opposition parties disagree with the proposition that I present to Parliament.

Given that the Fraser of Allander institute has said that the Westminster block grant to Scotland will increase by 2 per cent in real terms in the coming year, does the finance secretary agree that there is therefore no justification for any further cuts to local government funding?

Murdo Fraser’s proposition is very interesting, given that it is the Conservative UK Government that has been cutting our budget in real terms. I point out that we are abiding by our commitment to pass on the Barnett consequentials to the health service.

Of course, we have not cut local government’s budgets. Over the time that I have been the finance secretary, local government has enjoyed real-terms increases in its resources, despite the Conservatives’ calls for tax cuts for the richest in society and their opposition to those budgets, which gave more resources to local government.

Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the implementation of the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016. (S5O-04045)

All the provisions in the act have been implemented except the parts that provide for the creation of sexual harm prevention orders and sexual risk orders. Until the United Kingdom Government amends the necessary reserved primary legislation, those orders will not be enforceable across the rest of the UK, and it would therefore be inappropriate and irresponsible to enact them.

My predecessor and I have raised the matter with UK ministers on a number of occasions but, to date, the UK Government has not identified a suitable legislative vehicle through which to make the necessary changes. We will commence the orders as soon as the UK Government passes the appropriate legislation. Until that time, the existing preventative orders for sexual offending in Scotland and the multi-agency public protection arrangements provide the most robust and enforceable regime for keeping the public safe.

Citizens Advice Scotland has reported a 50 per cent increase in traffic to its web pages that offer advice for people who have been affected by the sharing of intimate images or videos without their consent. The news that the cabinet secretary has just given us on the failure of the UK Government to make the necessary changes is disappointing. What impact will the delay have on the victims in question?

The figure that James Dornan cited is very stark.

The UK Government has indicated that it understands our intent and thinks that there is some wisdom in our doing what we are doing, but it has made no commitments on when it will make the necessary changes to the reserved legislation. Despite the fact that I and my predecessor have asked for that, there is no timescale in place.

As I said, there are orders that we can use at the moment to keep people safe, but we want to have a stronger regime. We believe that that could be possible if we had the orders that require legislative change by the UK Government. In the meantime, we will continue to press the UK Government to pass the necessary primary legislation as soon as possible.

Cancer Treatment (Wigtownshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to allow NHS Dumfries and Galloway to change existing cancer pathways by aligning with the West of Scotland Cancer Network rather than the South East Scotland Cancer Network in order to reduce journey times for treatment for cancer patients in Wigtownshire. (S5O-04046)

The Scottish Government is aware that NHS Dumfries and Galloway has publicly stated its intention to seek alignment with the West of Scotland Cancer Network at some point in the future. Although no formal planning discussions on any realignment have taken place, my officials have been engaging with NHS Dumfries and Galloway on the matter.

Such a significant change would require considerable discussion and planning with other neighbouring boards, and any service change would have to undergo consultation to provide safety and quality assurances and ensure that patients’ waiting times were not negatively impacted.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that direct action by the Government is needed either to increase capacity at the Glasgow cancer centre or to enable another health board to, in effect, swap with Dumfries and Galloway in order to allow it to realign with the West of Scotland Cancer Network?

Given the time that it would take for that action to happen, does she support an interim measure of allowing patients in the west of the region, in Wigtownshire, to realign earlier, or will the Government promote the fact that patients already have the freedom to choose to go to Glasgow instead of taking the long journey to Edinburgh?

At the start of his supplementary question, Mr Smyth touched on the reason why, if realignment is sought, it will take some time to address those matters through planning and discussion between NHS Dumfries and Galloway and other boards. They must be addressed to my assurance in terms of quality, safety and patient waiting times.

Mr Smyth is quite right to say that patients can request alternative treatment locations to those that are on their current primary pathway, and they do that at the moment. I understand that NHS Dumfries and Galloway is very responsive to such patient requests, and I am happy to ensure that that is more widely understood. Of course, the member himself, as an MSP for the region, can contribute significantly to ensuring that constituents understand that that choice is available while other matters are being looked at.

Medicines Dispensing (Single-use Plastics)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is working with drug companies and pharmacies to reduce single-use plastics in the dispensing of medicines. (S5O-04047)

The licensing and safety of medicines is reserved to the United Kingdom Government. Regulations that cover medicines packaging are set out in European and UK law. Provided that the packaging type used ensures the on-going safety and quality of the medicine, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency cannot refuse to authorise the packaging.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in relation to asthma inhalers, for example, things could move at a much faster pace? Only the canisters need to be dispensed; the holders can be reused several times.

I agree that there is a general question that needs to be addressed at perhaps greater pace than is happening at present.

An inhaler device is a precision piece of equipment that works only with canisters from the same manufacturer. The plastic container needs to be robust enough for several cycles, and we would encourage manufacturers to work with the MHRA, the retail authority, on the licensing of products that can be reused.

A recycling scheme for inhalers, which is called Complete the Cycle, has been introduced by GlaxoSmithKline. Inhalers can be recycled at participating pharmacies.

Forestry (Planting Targets)

I alert members to my registered interest in forestry.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its forestry planting targets. (S5O-04048)

Scottish Forestry provides regular updates on progress towards Government planting targets, which are publicly available on Scottish Forestry’s website. The latest figures show that, so far, 10,954 hectares of grant-funded planting has been approved for planting in 2019-20. In addition, Forest and Land Scotland is expecting to plant 400 hectares in 2019-20. The final figures will be published in June.

Recent inquiries and purchase requests to tree nurseries by people wishing to carry out planting have been knocked back, with a shortage of supply being cited. Many people are now having to delay their planting plans until May 2021. Is the cabinet secretary aware of that issue? If so, what is he doing to ensure that it does not impact on Scotland’s planting targets?

I have been aware of the issue for the past two or three years. In fact, in 2017, we started to take action to address it. The situation was exacerbated by summer drought conditions in 2018. That led to reduced supplies of seedlings from affected nurseries, which coincided with big increases in planting in Scotland.

We anticipated the issue some years ago, so we have supported 20 grant applications to bring forward more than £2 million-worth of investment projects by nursery businesses. That has resulted in an increase of, roughly, 25 per cent in the production capacity of tree nurseries in Scotland. In addition, Forestry and Land Scotland is developing plans for expanding its in-house nursery capacity and the private sector is being encouraged to consider new investments in tree nurseries.

Scotland is leading the way on forestry. Last year, we planted 84 per cent of all new plantations in Britain. We intend to continue to give that lead, to address the economy and climate change. I hope that our friends down south are taking notice.

Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to a letter from 27 business groups to MSPs regarding concerns about a proposed amendment to the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill, which would remove ministers’ ability to set business rate poundage and automatically end the small business bonus scheme and other benefits. (S5O-04049)

That assessment is correct.

On 15 January, the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy, Kate Forbes, responded to the letter, confirming the Scottish Government’s unequivocal support for the uniform business rate and her concern over the complexity, risks and unpredictability related to the stage 2 amendment to the bill, which was supported by the Green, Conservative and Labour parties.

The Scottish Government will continue to work with members of all parties to deliver a bill that supports growth, improves administration and increases fairness.

Has the cabinet secretary ensured that members on Opposition benches fully understand the implications of withdrawing powers from his office and from the Government in general, particularly in relation to the small business bonus scheme, which has protected high streets and small businesses both in my constituency in the north-east and across Scotland?

I would like to think that all members are aware of the legislation that they are voting for when they vote for it, so I am surprised by the position of some members on the matter. For example, as of yesterday, Jackson Carlaw’s leadership bid has given us the third running Tory position on the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill. However, the reality is that if support for the amendment moved by Andy Wightman continues through to stage 3, the Government’s ability to set national unitary poundage would be removed, and the reliefs that this Government has supported, such as the small business bonus, would be scrapped.

Unfortunately, Andy Wightman has found a way to be both anti-business and anti-environment, because there are environmental reliefs that would also be scrapped as a matter of law, including reliefs that we were about to try to deliver. For example, they include the deposit return scheme, which I thought that those who support the protection of the environment would also support. As well as the small business bonus, other reliefs that would be scrapped include renewable energy relief, district heating relief and reverse vending machines. Therefore, to support the protection of the environment and to support business, I encourage Opposition members to listen to Kate Forbes’s wise words: do the right thing, understand the law, and understand what you are voting for.

Just as we want a unitary poundage, maybe those parties should have a unitary position—one that is more supportive of the outcomes that we are all trying to achieve.

Piscivorous Birds (Shooting Licences)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the issuing of licences for the shooting to scare, and shooting of, piscivorous birds. (S5O-04050)

Scottish Natural Heritage is responsible for determining licence applications, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Licensing for the shooting to scare, and shooting of, piscivorous birds can be granted by SNH in order to prevent serious damage at fisheries or inland waters.

Applications to solve specific problems are looked at on a case-by-case basis and will only be considered if the applicant can demonstrate that they have explored all other non-lethal antipredation measures and has found them to be either ineffective or impracticable.

As the minister is probably aware, the challenge for local fisheries and river management boards is that applications for those licences require organised systematic counts of the number of birds that are on the river. Many fishery boards are now drastically underfunded and often rely on volunteers, which stifles the ability of the board to conduct the required counts.

Will the Scottish Government work with SNH to support smaller fisheries and river management boards by developing limited licences that are less resource intensive to obtain?

I would be happy to discuss that matter further with the member. I know that she takes a keen interest in the issue, and that she sponsored an event that was held a couple of weeks ago, at which a discussion took place about what we are doing to conserve wild salmon—that is vitally important and is a priority for this Government.

There has been discussion about whether what the member suggests could be included as part of general licences. SNH undertook a review and decided not to include it as part of the general licence. However, I will be happy to consider the matter further and correspond with her.

That concludes general question time.

Before we turn to First Minister’s question time, I am sure that members will join me in welcoming to our gallery Monsieur François Paradis, the President of the National Assembly of Quebec. [Applause.]