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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 29, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 29 June 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Commission on Parliamentary Reform (Report), Decision Time


General Question Time

Forestry Commission (Trade Unions)

To ask the Scottish Government when ministers last met representatives of Forestry Commission trade unions and what issues were discussed. (S5O-01185)

Fergus Ewing, the cabinet secretary, last met representatives of Forestry Commission trade unions on 10 May 2017. The meeting was arranged to share with the unions decisions about future organisational structures, in advance of the public announcement that accompanied the publication of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill on 11 May.

Is the minister aware of forestry staff’s concerns about the way in which the Forestry Commission’s current appraisal system is working?

Yes, the Government is aware of some of those concerns. Subsequent to that conversation a meeting was arranged—I think that it was on 8 June—with senior management of Forest Enterprise Scotland and the trade unions.

I will say a few things to give Oliver Mundell some element of reassurance. First, an aspect of the review of deer management in the national forest estate will be to identify core competencies and complete a skills gap analysis for wildlife rangers, wildlife rangers’ managers, deer management officers and forest management officers. We should give that review the time and space needed for it to be undertaken.

I know that the relationship between FES, FCS and the trade unions is very good, positive and constructive. If Oliver Mundell or other members wish to raise further issues, the Government will impress on FCS and FES the need to listen closely to those concerns.

What guarantees can the minister give that existing skills and knowledge will be retained during the transfer of staff?

A range of things can and will be done. I will try to give Gail Ross some reassurances on that.

First, we have tried to allay some of those fears by confirming that there will be no compulsory redundancies in the Forestry Commission and FES as a result of the completion of the devolution of forestry. All staff in FCS and FES will be in the scope of transfers to new structures.

Some of the important reassurances that we can give are around the local skills that Gail Ross talks about. I can confirm that the local office network will remain, ensuring continued focus on local engagement and knowledge.

Gail Ross will probably be aware that the transfer is being taken forward under COSOP—the Cabinet Office statement of practice—which is similar to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations. The rights and existing terms and conditions of staff will be protected on transfer. Any changes to that or any alignment to Scottish Government terms and conditions would very much be subject to consultation and negotiation with the union.

New Belford Hospital

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on plans to build a new Belford hospital in Fort William. (S5O-01186)

NHS Highland has started work on the service redesign aspect of the project, and it is working on the clinical brief and the establishment of the service planning data for the existing services in Lochaber. It is developing a business case and undertaking an option appraisal exercise that considers how the services can be delivered, with the assumption being that the balance of care will move towards community health services. Once that work has been further progressed, the business case will be submitted to the Scottish Government for review.

In 2008, the Scottish National Party Government designated the Belford hospital as a rural general hospital, which provided additional support and services for healthcare professionals and the local community. Will the cabinet secretary assure my constituents that the current level of care will be enhanced and that the new Belford will be retained as a rural general hospital?

The replacement for the Belford will be a rural general hospital and its services will be provided as part of a wider redesign across Lochaber. NHS Highland will look to enhance the current level of local services where it is safe and sustainable to do so. I will be very happy to keep Kate Forbes updated on the progress being made.

One of the issues that local groups in Lochaber have raised with me is the very slow progress that is being made. For example, they speak of a series of cancelled meetings. Will the cabinet secretary impress on NHS Highland the need for early and regular engagement with the local community and, in particular, the steering group?

Yes, I will do that. It is important that local communities are engaged in the discussions going forward, but I am sure that Donald Cameron will appreciate that this is quite a complex project. There are procedures laid out, whereby the business case that is submitted must be robust. The capital investment group will look forward to receiving the business case.

I will be happy to keep Mr Cameron updated, and I will relay his comment to ensure that local people are kept fully informed.

Lochaber—Fort William, in particular—is regarded as the outdoor capital of Europe. The Belford hospital has built up a lot of expertise in treating accidents associated with outdoor sport. Can the cabinet secretary reassure people that it will keep and, indeed, develop that expertise?

Yes, I certainly want to make sure that that happens. I appreciate how many major mountain biking and other outdoor events take place in the area. The nature of some of those events is such that some people who have taken part in them have suffered accidents and been taken to the local hospital, where they have received excellent treatment. That is a very important aspect of the service that the Belford provides.

I will relay Rhoda Grant’s comment, but I certainly see the new hospital maintaining that high level of care for accidents and emergencies that arise as a result of such events.

Public Sector Pay Policy

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with unions regarding the future of its public sector pay policy. (S5O-01187)

The First Minister and I regularly meet trade unions to discuss a range of matters, including public sector pay policy. The First Minister has already indicated that the existing pay cap is becoming increasingly unsustainable, and we will be looking to take a different approach in the 2018-19 public sector pay policy. As in previous years, we will engage with unions during the development of the policy, both at ministerial level and at official level, and we expect to publish it as part of the draft budget towards the end of the year.

I am pleased to hear the minister say that the pay cap is unsustainable and that the Government has indicated that it intends to move away from it, but I think that we all deserve to hear a little more detail. When pay restraint was first introduced, it was seen as a short-term measure to avoid job losses in the face of United Kingdom Government cuts. Since then, pay levels have been eroded year after year, and the Scottish Government has gained the powers on taxation and borrowing to allow it to make different choices from those that the UK Government has forced on it in the past.

Now that the Scottish Government has those options, will it at least commit to ensuring that everybody who earns the average full-time salary or below will get an above-inflation increase in the next year? Is that not a basic minimum that we have a right to expect?

Patrick Harvie is right to say that many of the decisions have been taken in the context of fiscal policy that has been largely led by the UK Government. Of course, the financial position has changed as regards the economic levers we have and the choices we can make. I will consider the use of those levers as we go forward.

Yesterday, we had the latest Tory U-turn on the matter—in fact, I understand that there were a number of U-turns over the course of the day, and it was decided that the Tories’ magic money tree did not extend to public sector workers. The Scottish Government has committed to lifting the pay cap. We will engage with the trade unions. I cannot make a determination today but I will, of course, engage positively with the trade unions. I have committed to having a meeting with the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

We understand the situation of people in the workforce on the lowest incomes, whose spending power has reduced as a consequence of rising inflation. That is why we have a position that will take account of the public finances and the cost of living. The First Minister has made it clear that it will not be assumed that the 1 per cent pay cap will be maintained next year or in future years.

In addition, we have targeted support at the lowest paid. Our policy diverges from UK pay policy when it comes to our position on progression and targeting support at the low-paid. Our work on the living wage, our social policies and our position on no compulsory redundancies are in sharp contrast to the policy south of the border. I look forward to positive engagement with other parties and the trade unions.

Yesterday in the United Kingdom Parliament, Scottish National Party MPs who are not in power at Westminster voted in favour of a Labour motion to scrap the pay cap on public sector workers. Can the cabinet secretary explain to those public sector workers in Scotland why, in the Scottish Parliament, where the SNP is in power, every SNP MSP voted against a Labour motion that read:

“This Parliament believes that the NHS pay cap should be scrapped and that NHS staff should be given a real terms pay rise”?

Colin Smyth clearly did not listen to a word I said in my answer to the question I was asked by Patrick Harvie. The Scottish Government will take into account inflation in the future pay policy. Remember that what the Labour Party proposed was basic rate tax rises for the workers of Scotland, including public sector workers. We will take a reasonable approach that absolutely recognises that the time is up for the 1 per cent pay cap. Not only will the SNP commit to that, but we will do it.

Road Works on Motorways (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with BEAR Scotland and Transport Scotland regarding the management of road works on motorways. (S5O-01188)

BEAR Scotland manages and maintains the M90 motorway under the trunk road term maintenance operating company contracts with Scottish ministers. Transport Scotland holds monthly meetings with all its operating companies, including BEAR Scotland, to discuss the programming of works, including road works on motorways, in each of the units. Further meetings are arranged as necessary.

In the minister’s next set of discussions, will he include some discussion about the importance of gantry signs and the relevance of the information on them? As he knows, the M90 has had understandable delays because of the Queensferry crossing, however, there have also been considerable difficulties around the Kinross road works where many of the gantry signs have not been appropriate and have not had the relevant information about the extent of the road works and the decisions that drivers have to make. Will the minister include those points in his next discussions?

I will. I thank Liz Smith for raising the issue, as she has raised it at previous question times. I can confirm that a number of upgrades to our variable messaging signs are taking place, and those will provide more functionality. It is not just about variable messaging signs; it should also be about getting information out to local radio stations, over social media and so on. We are always working with the operating companies to see what more we can do to give drivers and road users as much notice as possible, particularly when disruption is inevitable because essential road works are taking place.

I give Liz Smith a commitment to raise the issue at the next meeting that I or my officials have with BEAR Scotland.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met representatives of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. (S5O-01189)

Ministers and Scottish Government officials regularly meet representatives of all health boards, including NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

Now that the Scottish Government has unveiled its dementia strategy, which is very welcome, is it the Government’s intention to encourage NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and other NHS bodies to engage with the dementia carer voices project’s “You can make a difference” campaign, led by the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland—which has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of people who are affected by dementia?

I welcome the launch of the dementia strategy, which builds on the considerable good work that has already been done, particularly by third sector organisations. The Government is pleased to support the dementia carer voices project’s work, and we are providing funding until April 2018. We recognise the importance of leadership by local NHS boards in taking action to support that work, and I will reiterate that to them. In partnership with the Health and Social Care Alliance, work is under way with all NHS boards to develop a programme for that work. Events have already taken place in NHS Ayrshire and Arran and NHS Western Isles.

Statistics that have been published this week show that Glasgow royal infirmary has the worst-performing accident and emergency department in Scotland, with only 87.9 per cent of patients being seen within four hours, against the 95 per cent target that was set by the Scottish Government. What action will the cabinet secretary take to improve waiting times at the hospital?

A and E performance has improved significantly over the past few months, due to a lot of work taking place with boards on unscheduled care performance and work with the Royal College of Emergency Medicine. The actions that are being taken in every hospital have resulted in improvements in A and E performance, including at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. Glasgow royal infirmary has faced some challenges over the past few weeks, which is why support work that is tailored to that hospital is under way. We want to ensure that the work that has begun to produce results at the Queen Elizabeth, particularly over the last few weeks, is supporting staff in the Glasgow royal infirmary to do the same.

I hope that Annie Wells will find it within herself to acknowledge the progress that has been made on A and E performance across Scotland, which is now significantly better than performance elsewhere in these islands. Perhaps she could welcome that occasionally.

At least a dozen service reviews are in train, which is causing continuing uncertainty at the Vale of Leven hospital. Maternity service proposals are on pause, and this week 300 people attended a public meeting expressing real concern about cuts to out-of-hours services. The cabinet secretary tells me that she is committed to the Vale of Leven hospital, but when will she tell that to Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board, and when will she come and listen to my local community?

The health board and I are committed to the Vale of Leven hospital. Of course, it was the Scottish National Party Government that saved the Vale of Leven hospital from the closure that would undoubtedly have happened under the Government in which Jackie Baillie was a minister.

The chief executive and the chair of Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board are working hard to maintain out-of-hours services, but it is challenging. As Jackie Baillie will know from her discussions with the chair, there is a challenge in respect of general practitioners’ willingness to work out of hours. We need to work through that, so I hope that Jackie Baillie will help to encourage local GPs to go on to out-of-hours rotas. I am sure that she will do that, because she will want to be constructive in these matters.

I would have thought that Jackie Baillie would welcome the pause in the review of maternity services and that she would want NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to examine delivery of maternity services across the area and, therefore, to pause progress on the proposals for the Vale of Leven hospital and Inverclyde royal infirmary. Perhaps, occasionally, Jackie Baillie could welcome actions that the board takes to ensure that the right decisions are made.

Review of Student Support

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the review of student support. (S5O-01190)

The independent review of student support, which is chaired by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, has reached its midway point. A consultation to gather a wide range of views on how students across Scotland access, receive, manage and understand the support that they receive will soon be published. I look forward to receiving the review’s final report in the autumn.

Figures that were published a couple of weeks ago show that, on average, the debt with which Scottish students leave university is now twice what it was in 2007, when the Scottish National Party came to power promising to abolish the debt altogether. Will the review go any way to righting that wrong?

The aim of the review is to assess the effectiveness of the support system for all students in further and higher education. Its entire purpose is to ensure that the system is equitable and fair, and that it supports all students, especially those who face disadvantage. The review is independent of the Government, so it will come to its own conclusions on that.

I am afraid that I will take absolutely no lessons from Iain Gray on the issue, because it was his party that introduced tuition fees in higher education in Scotland. When students across Scotland look south of the border to England, where student debt in higher education is now on average £32,000, they will be glad and thankful that the Scottish Government ensured that that did not happen here, and they will look to the Labour Party to admit that if it had been in power in Scotland, students here would also have been facing that level of debt. Thanks to the SNP and our continued support for free tuition, that will not happen here.

Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on calls to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012. (S5O-01191)

Offensive, hateful and prejudicial behaviour associated with football, and online threats of violence and hatred, continue to be a problem. I share the concerns expressed by equality groups that repealing the 2012 act in the absence of a viable alternative will send entirely the wrong message to the public—that expressions of prejudice and hatred at football matches are somehow condoned and decriminalised.

Police and prosecutors need appropriate tools to tackle hate crime, which is why I commissioned the independent review of hate crime legislation in Scotland. I look forward to hearing the outcomes of the review next year, and I remain opposed to repealing the 2012 act.

It is clear, following the consultation on my proposed member’s bill, that there is massive support for repeal of the 2012 act. It is also clear that there is a majority in Parliament in favour of repealing the act. With that in mind, will the minister agree to work with me on a sensible approach to repealing the act? Will she also work with parties in Parliament and groups outside it on developing a positive approach to behaviour at football matches and tackling sectarianism?

This Government stands on the side of the tens of thousands of football fans throughout Scotland who simply want to go to a football match with their family and friends and not be surrounded by tainted, prejudicial and hateful behaviour.

I have to say that I find it very strange indeed that, at a time when our society faces so many challenges, Labour’s number 1 priority for legislation is to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 without offering a viable alternative. What a strange set of priorities, and what contempt those priorities display for people who are targeted by hateful, prejudicial and abusive behaviour.