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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 28 September 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Universal Credit, Environmental Standards Scotland (Chief Executive), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Scottish Ambulance Service


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I ask for succinct questions and responses.

Lorry Driver and Fuel Shortages (Discussions with United Kingdom Government)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the UK Government regarding lorry driver shortages and related fuel shortages. (S6T-00183)

The Scottish Government has repeatedly requested that urgent action be taken on the shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers. The Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work wrote to the United Kingdom Government in July to press that issue. We have also said to the UK Government that we want it to move to a 24-month temporary workers scheme to enable us to tackle the deeper issues that are at stake.

Scottish Government officials have maintained regular dialogue with their UK Government counterparts on the issue, which has been exacerbated by Brexit. The Minister for Transport is discussing the issue today with the UK Government’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport.

Given the recent comments by the chief executive of NFU Scotland, Scott Walker, who pointed out that

“The whole Scottish food and drink supply chain has been highlighting the crisis and the solutions needed for many weeks now”,

does the cabinet secretary agree that the sidelining of Scotland through the temporary visa scheme is yet more proof of the utter disdain with which Scotland’s interests are treated by the Tory Government at Westminster?

Scott Walker’s comments have been echoed in comments by the chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink, James Withers, who has indicated that the measures that the United Kingdom Government announced at the weekend are “too little, too late”.

We have indicated for a considerable time—indeed, since the whole debate around the European Union referendum in 2016—that, if we lost access to the free movement of individuals, there would be a significant and negative impact on the Scottish economy. That is exactly what is happening now because of the options and choices that have been taken by the United Kingdom Government. The damage that is being done to critical and valuable sectors of the Scottish economy, such as the seafood, fish processing and agricultural sectors, is an example of the wilful neglect in decision making by the United Kingdom Government.

The Conservative Government has faced repeated warnings that the immigration system would damage important sectors in Scotland, including by leaving our vital social care sector critically short of staff. Although migration powers are still reserved to Westminster, will the cabinet secretary outline what urgent action needs to be taken to fix the migration system so that it works for all parts of the UK?

There is a substantial point in Siobhian Brown’s question. We are facing acute shortages of labour in a range of sectors in the Scottish economy. Siobhian Brown mentioned the social care sector, which is an important sector in which it is difficult to recruit the necessary number of staff to support the patients and individuals whom we require to support. That is because of the choices that have been made in the implementation of the Brexit agreement and, in particular, the abolition of the free movement of individuals.

We are arguing that the previous European temporary leave to remain scheme should be implemented immediately, to allow European Union citizens to stay and work in the UK for up to three years. That is in addition to the proposals that I set out in my earlier answer on the steps in relation to the recruitment of staff. We need active measures that will overcome the damage that is being done by the abolition of free movement, and we need action to be taken immediately by the United Kingdom Government, recognising that immigration and migration are reserved issues.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that qualifying as an HGV driver is expensive, which prevents many people from entering the profession. Once young people are qualified, they find it hard to get a job because the insurance premiums for young drivers are eye watering. Is the cabinet secretary looking at ways to train young people to become HGV drivers, and is he speaking to insurance companies about the premiums for young drivers, especially in relation to smaller companies that do not have the economies of scale to make those manageable?

As Rhoda Grant will know, the Government has a range of financial measures in place to support training and recruitment of individuals. The transition training fund is designed to support individuals with additional costs. It can support them to gain particular qualifications and to enter particular sectors. That is one of a range of options in addition to the various education and training opportunities that are available.

I will take away Rhoda Grant’s point on insurance costs and will explore what the Government can do in that respect. Fundamentally, we must recognise that many of the challenges that we face relate to the acute shortage of labour, which has come about as a consequence of the decisions and choices that have been made around Brexit.

Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (Staffing)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of staffing shortages at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital that are leading to health professionals warning about patient safety. (S6T-00184)

Staffing levels in Scotland’s national health service are at a record high, following an increase of 5,000 whole-time equivalent staff in the past year. NHS Scotland’s workforce has grown by over 20 per cent under the Scottish Government. Since March 2020, the number of nursing and midwifery staff in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has increased by 800.

Nevertheless, I fully acknowledge the extremely challenging circumstances in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and across the NHS in Scotland. A range of further interventions are now being actively deployed in the service to support current capacity. That includes provision of additional targeted flexibility, streamlining of recruitment processes and bringing forward of planned recruitment. For example, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde advises me that it has taken steps to bring on board 670 newly qualified nurses, of whom 573 are already in post. The remaining 97 will start as soon as their registration is processed and complete.

I thank the people who are joining our NHS to support us during this challenging period, and I thank the members of the wider workforce, who have shown extraordinary commitment during the pandemic.

The report from the weekend made for grim reading, and said that 339 warnings of understaffing at the hospital have been logged since 2019. There have, due to staff shortages, been 55 near-miss incidents in which there was potential for a patient to be harmed. Apparently, that is just the tip of the iceberg. One clinician has said that the Datix system, which is used to log such warnings, is complex and that the figure of 339 could easily be doubled. He also said that in some places there are

“Two nurses for 28 patients when there should be six”.

Does the cabinet secretary believe that that is acceptable? Will he apologise to the staff who are working under those conditions?

I take on board the comments that have been made by Ms Webber and the staff—I read the article that Ms Webber read—on the complexity of the Datix system. However, the system provides incredibly useful feedback for hospital management and for the Government. I encourage staff to continue to report any issues on that system.

As I highlighted in my first answer to Ms Webber, where problems of understaffing have been identified, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has taken action. It has recruited 670 newly qualified nurses; some have already started and some are starting in the coming weeks. The Government will continue to ensure that our NHS has record staffing levels.

Workforce planning issues are nothing new and Covid has brought obvious challenges, but staffing has been a problem for quite some time, despite the action that we have just heard about. Last week, the GMB union said that there was already an understaffing crisis in the Scottish Ambulance Service pre-Covid.

In the report at the weekend, a clinician said:

“Nicola Sturgeon reduced the number of nursing training places a decade ago and these people would be skilled now and able to work in the NHS. Warnings were given at the time.”

Will the cabinet secretary stop hiding behind Covid to mask the issues that were already present in the NHS, and finally accept that the Government’s lack of action has compounded the current NHS staffing crisis?

I will deal with some of Ms Webber’s inaccuracies. NHS Scotland has the highest staffing levels ever—they have increased by 20 per cent under this Government. In NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, the number of all staff is up: the number of qualified nurses and midwives is up by 9.1 per cent; the number of consultants is up by 46 per cent; the number of emergency medicine consultants is up by 220 per cent; the number of obstetrics and gynaecology consultants is up by more than 36 per cent; and the number of general practitioners is up by more than 10 per cent.

Ms Webber can try all the spin in the world, but it will not detract from the facts. Under our stewardship of the NHS, we have not only record staffing levels but the best-paid staff anywhere in the UK. I stand proudly on the Government’s record of funding and staffing the NHS, in comparison with the record of Ms Webber’s party, whose record is of cutting public services, of not being remotely as generous as we have been to NHS staff, and of having more than a decade of austerity.

Forgive me, Presiding Officer: I will not take lectures from the Conservatives on staffing and funding our NHS.

I remind members that we are tight for time, so succinct questions and responses would be appreciated, please.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that NHS and other public sector staff have done a remarkable job during the pandemic? Before the election, Sue Webber suggested that public sector staff including nurses should, through salary sacrifice, have their pay cut by 20 per cent to match the position of people who were on furlough. Does the cabinet secretary agree that such a move would seriously undermine recruitment of NHS staff and other key workers?

I agree. Incredibly, Ms Webber forgot to mention those remarks when she asked her question; I hope that she will apologise for them. I note that she called salary sacrifice “a policy”. I tell members that the Scottish National Party Government will continue to ensure that NHS workers and social care workers are the best paid in the UK. Ms Webber’s abhorrent comments about our NHS workers show that the Conservatives say one thing in public but another in private.

Police Scotland (Criminal Record System)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that staff shortages and a new criminal record system in Police Scotland are risking dangerous criminals being left on the streets. (S6T-00195)

It is true that Police Scotland is investing in new technology to support transformative change away from legacy systems and to provide staff with tools that will improve recording of criminal records. The programme of change has resulted in restructuring and regrading of roles in the criminal justice services division, which has the support of trade unions that represent police staff.

The organisational changes are an operational decision for the chief constable, and when I met Unison earlier today, it confirmed its support for them. It is vital that Police Scotland work closely with trade unions and affected staff to support them through the period of change.

Police Scotland said that £85.7 million in capital funding in this year’s budget was to deliver significant transformative benefits in areas that include information and communications technology, but the Scottish Government provided Police Scotland with at least £30 million less than that. Is that the real cause of the problems?

No. As I have said, the changes that Police Scotland is making are part of driving the efficiencies that we expect from having a single police force.

In financing, the real source of problems is the Tory Government, which has had austerity budgets for 10 years, has not matched the funding for new police officers that we have provided in Scotland and has not matched the pay for police officers that we have in Scotland. That is the structural problem that undermines our ability to fund the police more.

We increased police funding by £60 million last year and by £75 million this year. That shows that this Government is, unlike the Conservatives, committed to supporting its police force.

I know something about the integrity of police systems, because I reported on Bill Johnstone—an innocent man who was allocated an extensive criminal record on the police computer. He spent more than a decade seeking justice and answers, but doors remained closed. He could not get a straight answer from Keith Brown’s predecessor, so will the cabinet secretary today give a clear undertaking to finally provide Bill Johnstone with the full explanation that he deserves?

That is not really related to the question that was put to me, but if Russell Findlay wants to write to me on the issue that he has raised, I will try to respond, to the extent that that is possible.

The question was about funding and support for the police, which we have provided over successive years. We have more police officers here than there are elsewhere in the United Kingdom; there are 32 police officers for every 100,000 people in Scotland, compared with 23 per 100,000 in England and Wales.

We are the Government that supports the police in this country. It would be good if the Conservatives could—instead of trying to undermine the police, the justice system and even the Lord Advocate—get behind the justice system for once.

Statistics that have been published today show that recorded crime in Scotland remains at one of its lowest levels in nearly 50 years. Can the cabinet secretary outline how measures that are detailed in the programme for government will build on that good progress and help to keep Scotland safe?

The programme for government lays out the fact that we have committed to protecting the police resource budget in real terms for the entirety of this session. We increased the Scottish Police Authority’s resource budget for 2021-22 by 5.2 per cent, to over £1.3 billion. That has eliminated Police Scotland’s structural deficit for the first time since its formation.

We have committed to introducing legislation in this session to change how imprisonment is used, and there will be consultation on initial proposals relating to bail and release-from-custody law this autumn. That will be underpinned by investment in a substantial expansion of community justice, in supporting diversion from prosecution, in alternatives to remand, and in community sentencing, which evidence shows is more effective at reducing offending.

That is not just about reducing crime; we are determined to protect victims, too. This year, we launch our new funding programme to provide practical and emotional support to victims, survivors and witnesses of crimes across Scotland.