Website survey

We want your feedback on the Scottish Parliament website. Take our 6 question survey now

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 29, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 29 November 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, St Andrew’s Day 2018, Homelessness, Decision Time


General Question Time

Mental Health Strategy (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what its strategy is for tackling mental health issues in rural areas. (S5O-02629)

Action 12 in the “Mental Health Strategy: 2017-2027” outlines our commitment to supporting the development of the national rural mental health forum. The forum was established in 2017 and, through Scottish Government funding, it helps people in rural areas to maintain good mental health and wellbeing. The forum also develops connections between communities across rural Scotland to reflect the unique challenges that are presented by rural isolation. Membership has grown from 16 to 60 organisations, with the forum meeting quarterly to discuss outcomes such as how people in rural communities can overcome barriers to accessing and seeking mental health support.

I thank the minister for that encouraging answer, and I welcome action 12. The forum’s increased membership is evidence of demand and need. The forum is making a difference in tackling mental ill health in the unique context of rural Scotland, where around a million Scots live and where deprivation is hidden. I recently held an event for local employers in my region to highlight the help and support that the forum can provide. Will the minister continue to work with the forum throughout the lifetime of the Government’s mental health strategy?

Government funding for the forum covers the financial year 2018-19, and the 2019-20 spending review process is on-going. I certainly recognise the work of the forum under its chair, Jim Hume. The forum has done some fantastic work and it is now the national network for driving change rurally.

The minister will be aware of the closure of two wards at the Royal Cornhill hospital in Aberdeenshire. The closure has given rise to concern in my constituency about the capacity for dealing with patients from Orkney. Will she investigate those concerns and provide reassurances that there will be the capacity to meet the needs of patients from the islands?

I assure the member that the Scottish Government is aware of the ward closures and that it is working closely with NHS Grampian to ensure that there is capacity. If the member would like to write to me with his specific concerns, I will certainly be able to look into them and get back to him.

Levels of depression in the agricultural sector are thought to be increasing, and the suicide rates of farmers are among the highest in any occupational group. It is understood that one agricultural worker per week takes their own life in the United Kingdom. What mental health support is being offered specifically to farmers and agricultural workers in rural areas?

As I said in my answer to Claudia Beamish, there is the national rural mental health forum, which is doing a lot of work with farmers and the farming community. I expect that that work will continue. The national suicide prevention action plan will look at suicide prevention measures throughout the country. That work will involve looking at specific occupations and reviewing suicides to see whether lessons can be learned to prevent further suicides.

People in rural and urban areas in my region tell me increasingly that they can access services only when they are desperate and in crisis. What does the minister advise I tell people who come to me and say that they are seeking help but cannot get it?

The Government prioritises mental health. That is evidenced by the increased spending over the past few years: we spent £1 billion on mental health in 2017-18. I encourage anyone who is experiencing a mental health crisis to seek help from their primary care team. There are also telephone services, such as NHS 24 and breathing space, that people who are in crisis can use.


To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to tackle sectarianism. (S5O-02630)

We continue to work towards a sectarian-free Scotland by supporting a wide range of activity in formal and informal settings. That includes supporting work by organisations such as Nil by Mouth, Supporters Direct Scotland and the sense over sectarianism campaign. We are supporting the delivery of Scotland’s first national education resource for tackling sectarianism, which is freely available to all. That work builds on a record investment of £13.5 million over the past six years, which has supported 120 projects to deliver anti-sectarian education and activity across Scotland. We continue to see a positive impact in the communities that are benefiting from that work.

The cabinet secretary may be aware that, on Tuesday evening last week, I convened the first meeting of the cross-party group on combating sectarianism in Scottish society. It was great to be joined by fellow MSPs from the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Conservatives and the Greens, as well as by external members from the Church of Scotland, Nil by Mouth, the Scottish Women’s Convention, the West of Scotland Regional Equality Council and others.

I am encouraged by the work of the Scottish Government in addressing sectarianism and I welcome last week’s publication of the final report on the legal definition of sectarianism. However, does the cabinet secretary agree that the only way we can end sectarianism is by working together as a society? Will he commit to work with the cross-party group in the future?

Yes, I will commit to work with the CPG in the future.

I want to take a moment to put on record the outstanding work that James Dornan has done personally to tackle sectarianism. As is evident to those of us who are on social media, he has taken a huge amount of personal abuse for standing up to sectarianism in Scotland. He should be commended on that. He has dealt with that with a huge amount of dignity.

I am very pleased that James Dornan has convened the cross-party group and I am pleased to see that there is cross-party consensus that we must tackle the problem of sectarianism. I hope that he and the group will come to a view on how best to tackle the problem. The Government will work closely with him on that.

The Government is working on legislation on hate crime and we are considering sectarianism and whether to introduce a statutory aggravator of sectarian prejudice. The consultation is currently under way and we will keep an open mind on that. Whenever we can assist in relation to the law or—as Mr Dornan suggests—education, I will be willing to consider any good ideas that come forward, whether from the CPG or from Parliament.

Air Travel to Islands (Access for Disabled People)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to improve access to air transport for disabled people who wish to travel to and from island communities. (S5O-02631)

We continue to make airports across the Highland and Islands accessible to people with reduced mobility through our subsidy of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. HIAL and its airline customers provide services and equipment to enable people with reduced mobility to access air services. HIAL continually reviews its service provision to ensure that barriers to travel for people with reduced mobility are removed as far as possible.

I draw the cabinet secretary’s attention to the case of Fiona MacKinnon, a resident of Tiree, who suffers from two serious health conditions, one of which requires her to fly to Glasgow to attend regular appointments at the Beatson centre. Due to her fluctuating weight, which is a result of her medication, she is sometimes deemed ineligible to fly. What action can the cabinet secretary take to ensure that Fiona can travel with dignity and that others in her situation can do so, too?

I understand that HIAL has engaged with the issue and with the individual on taking flights to Glasgow. The most up-to-date information that I have is that the matter has been resolved by HIAL and that there is equipment in Tiree to support the woman to access air services as and when necessary. However, if the member would find it helpful, I am happy to ask HIAL to contact him to provide further details on that.

Personal Independence Payment and Disability Living Allowance (Delivery)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will rule out the delivery of personal independence payment and disability living allowance by the Department for Work and Pensions under agency arrangements. (S5O-02632)

People who rely on disability benefits have consistently told us that what matters most to them is that they are paid the right amount of money on time, so the most important consideration will be to ensure a safe and secure transition of the benefits from the DWP. The timetable and delivery schedule will be announced in the next year.

I note the cabinet secretary’s answer and remind her that disabled people are desperately keen to know how and when their benefits will be fully delivered by Scotland’s new social security system. They want an end to the DWP’s involvement in their disability benefits. For carers, the Government has agreed that the DWP should continue to deliver carers allowance for the next two years, with no changes to earner thresholds or study restrictions, and with payments and debts collected under Tory rules. That would not be acceptable for disability benefits. Can the cabinet secretary today confirm that there will be no DWP involvement in disability benefits?

I appreciate Mark Griffin’s challenge to the Government to do more and to do it faster. As Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, I certainly bear that in mind when I work through the programme for this. However, I am also conscious that members rightly tell me and the Government to learn lessons from past public sector programmes where we or—particularly around universal credit—the United Kingdom Government have done things in an ill-advised fashion and not at the correct speed.

I am conscious that we must have a realistic timetable and delivery mechanisms in place when delivering this programme, which is a joint programme with the DWP. As I said, those will be announced next year. The pace will be quick on this—the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed only earlier this year. However, the overriding priority must, and always will, be safe and secure transition.

The member raised the issue of the carers allowance supplement and the decisions that we took on that. Those decisions were taken specifically to ensure that we could get money to carers who have the lowest incomes directly and quickly. That was the first step on the Scottish Government’s journey of looking at carers, and we will continue to look at issues to do with carers very seriously in the future.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the Scottish National Party Government will maintain disability benefits, not cut them; ensure that they remain universal, not means tested; and reform the disability assessment process to ensure that it works for service users and that disability assessments will be carried out by the public sector in Social Security Scotland?

The member is right to point to all those commitments that the Government has made. We are committed to maintaining the level of the disability benefits that are paid to individuals and to raise it annually by at least the rate of inflation. We will also protect disability assistance by ensuring that benefits continue to be non-means tested.

We are involving people who receive those benefits in the design of our system’s process for disability benefits. I therefore know that they want to ensure that the assessments are undertaken in-house by Social Security Scotland, ensuring that the DWP and private sector agencies will no longer be involved in the assessment process.

NHS Lanarkshire (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport last met the chief executive and chair of NHS Lanarkshire, and what was discussed. (S5O-02633)

Ministers and Scottish Government officials meet regularly with the leadership of all our national health service boards, including NHS Lanarkshire, to discuss a range of matters. On Friday 2 November, I chaired NHS Lanarkshire’s annual review at University hospital Hairmyres and went through a number of matters with the chair and the chief executive.

Cole Thomson from East Kilbride is six years old. His mum, Lisa Quarrell, is desperately trying to find a cure for the crippling epileptic seizures that leave Cole paralysed and unable to speak. So far, Cole has not been prescribed the medicinal cannabis that could greatly help his condition. Cole has touched the hearts of thousands of people, and a petition led by East Kilbride Community Trust is pushing for urgent action. Time is not on Cole’s side. Will the cabinet secretary do everything that she can do to ensure that Cole gets the medicine that he needs?

I am grateful to Ms Lennon for her supplementary question. I absolutely understand the issues that she raises and the distress and upset that are being caused to the family.

Prescribing of medicinal cannabis rests on regulatory changes from the United Kingdom Government. Those changes came into effect on 1 November, so we very quickly issued guidance to our health boards and practitioners at that time.

I am happy to look at the case further and to speak with the member about the particular questions that it raises, and about what we—the Scottish Government and the health service—can do to assist.

With regard to the cabinet secretary’s discussions with NHS Lanarkshire, I welcome her decision to review the consultation on possible sites for the proposed new Monklands hospital. Can she advise Parliament how long the review will take?

I am grateful for that supplementary question and for Richard Lyle’s support for the decision that I took to review the process for identifying the options that should be consulted on. It is important that I make it clear to Parliament that I have expressed absolutely no opinion on the location.

I have made it clear to NHS Lanarkshire and, I hope, to residents of the area that the Government supports a replacement for the current Monklands hospital. The issue that is being reviewed is the manner in which a view is reached on the choice of alternative locations, the manner in which the decision on those choices is taken, and the manner in which the consultation is held. We want it to be held in such a way as to ensure that the maximum number of voices are heard before the board reaches a view on the recommendations that it wishes to make to me for my decision.

We are finalising the specific terms of the review and who will lead it: I hope to be able to make an announcement on that very shortly. I expect the review to take a relatively short time, because of what it will look at. I am very conscious that the Government, the board and—I am sure—residents of the area want to move quickly to reach a fully informed, genuinely considered and publicly consulted-on view on the recommended best location for the new replacement hospital for Monklands. I will announce the personnel, the remit and the timetable of the review shortly.

In NHS Lanarkshire, the absenteeism rate has climbed for the fourth year in a row, from 4.7 per cent to 5.7 per cent, compared with the Scottish Government target of 4 per cent that the SNP has never achieved. The rising workload that is a result of staff shortages is playing a huge part in that.

The cabinet secretary recently announced an extra 2,600 nurse and midwifery places. Although those additional places are very welcome, they will not even cover the posts that are currently vacant. Does she recognise that workforce planning still falls short of what our NHS requires?

I recently announced an increase—for the eighth year in a row—in the number of nursing and midwifery places. I also announced the continuation of the highly successful return to practice programme for nurses who want to return to practice after a period of absence, as well as an increase in the pre-registration work that the Open University in Scotland undertakes, which is another very successful programme.

Through our work on the number of nursing and midwifery places, we are acting to ensure that we maintain the increase in recruitment that is necessary. We are doing the same with regard to medicine undergraduates. The allied health professions, too, are an important area of work in which we are looking to ensure that we recruit and train in a range of different ways in order to widen access across all the professions.

Our workforce plan is based on the best evidence that we have available, and it continues to be refined as that evidence improves. Our Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill is currently being considered by Parliament and is about to reach the decision-making stage at stage 1. It will assist us in providing further robust evidence for our workforce planning.

I do not accept Mr Whittle’s assertion, and I make the point that the Scottish Government has the most advanced NHS workforce planning in the United Kingdom. Perhaps he could take down south some lessons on how we are doing things.

Nitrogen Dioxide Pollution (Aberdeen)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that 13 locations in Aberdeen have illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution. (S5O-02634)

Aberdeen City Council has produced an action plan containing a number of measures to improve air quality. The Scottish Government is working closely with the council as it implements the measures in the plan, and is providing practical and financial assistance to monitor air quality and to support delivery of measures. As announced in the 2017-18 programme for government, the council will establish a low-emission zone in Aberdeen by 2020.

I remind members that I am a councillor in Aberdeen City Council.

I know that the cabinet secretary will be as worried as I am by the reports in The Press and Journal, given the potential deadly consequences of such levels of pollution. In some areas, it is as high as 48 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre, which is well above the European Environment Agency’s air quality directive limit of 40 micrograms per cubic metre. According to British Lung Foundation research, King Street is one of the worst-affected streets in the city; it is home to the Aberdeen community health and care village, so patients are forced to breathe that toxic air on the way to receive their medical treatment.

Therefore, I ask what consideration the Scottish Government has given—either itself or through the Scottish Environment Protection Agency—to making additional support available to the local authority, so that it can take action against the pollution now, rather than just waiting for the low-emission zone in 2020?

As I indicated, the Government is already discussing that with the local authority and has provided funding over a number of years to do the necessary work. I agree with Tom Mason that such results are a real concern, especially in urban areas, where there are hot spots that create significant difficulties. However, work is on-going in Aberdeen, and a number of things are being done to improve air quality. I mentioned the air quality report already. We know that the Aberdeen western peripheral route will make a significant difference to air quality in Aberdeen. A further city-wide traffic count is proposed, following the opening of the AWPR. There is work going on.

I have also just announced that an independently led review of the cleaner air for Scotland strategy will take place. I hope for input from everyone to that. However, we must, equally, keep an eye on specific problems and, as I said, speak directly to local councils about them.