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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 30, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 30 March 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Elmwood Campus, Mental Health Strategy, Transvaginal Mesh Implants, Unconventional Oil and Gas, Enterprise and Skills Review, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


General Question Time

Public Transport (Child Fares)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on extending child fares to the age of 18 for all forms of public transport. (S5O-00848)

The national concessionary travel scheme for young people already provides discounts on bus and rail travel within Scotland for all young people living in Scotland aged 16 to 18. Using the Young Scot smart card, the scheme offers a one-third discount off the adult single fare on any registered bus service in Scotland, one third off most rail journeys in Scotland and a 50 per cent discount on rail season tickets. Eligible island residents also receive vouchers for four free ferry journeys a year. In addition, the Scottish Government will introduce free bus travel for modern apprentices aged under 21 in 2018. We will also be providing three months’ free bus travel for recipients of the job grant aged between 16 and 24 once that benefit comes into force.

I thank the minister for that comprehensive answer. The minister will be aware that Naomi Eisenstadt, the Scottish Government’s adviser on poverty, recently said that there needs to be a bit more focus on the 14 to 19 age group—the late teens. For example, those who are 16 or 17 are four and a half times less likely to be in employment than those in the 18 to 21 age group, the minimum wage for young people is half that for adults and apprentices earn even less than that. It is unfair with regard to the independence of 16-year-olds that, on their 16th birthday, they begin to pay the full fare on all public transport.

The minister has just told the chamber about the various discount schemes that are available, but to take advantage of them young people are required to travel at off-peak times or to spend more than £12 on their fare. I think that it is time to focus on a transport policy for young people up to the age of 18 that will enhance their independence. The Government needs to go further if it wants those young people to see that there is something in Government policy for them.

I acknowledge the constructive approach that Pauline McNeill has taken with me on the issue. In fact, we are due to meet later today on the issue. I reiterate that there are discount schemes for those aged 16 to 18 that offer a third off the adult single fare on any registered bus service; and there is a third off most rail journeys. However, I do not discount what Pauline McNeill says.

We are going through the process of the national transport strategy review at the moment and I think that it would be a wise move for us to look at what Pauline McNeill describes as a potential inequality. I am more than willing to work closely with her on the issue, on which the Scottish Youth Parliament has also approached me. Of course, she will understand that there are financial constraints, but I am willing to be as open-minded as possible and see what we can do at the moment. As I said, the discount schemes that we have are working well; notwithstanding that, I look forward to our meeting later today.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (Accident and Emergency Waiting Times)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde meets its accident and emergency waiting times target. (S5O-00849)

The Scottish Government’s national unscheduled care team has been working closely with the local teams across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, especially with Queen Elizabeth university hospital and Glasgow royal Infirmary. The team are supporting implementation of the six essential actions and the implementation of an action plan, which was agreed with the chairman of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde in December 2016 for the Queen Elizabeth university hospital.

The action plan for that hospital focuses on priority actions that will minimise delays for patients in A and E and the immediate assessment unit, including enhanced staffing for extended periods throughout the day, evenings and weekends; a focus on enhanced discharges early in the day from all areas of the hospital; and enhanced escalation measures introduced into patient-flow meetings held three times per day. A number of those actions have been implemented so far and we have started to see results, especially in the IAU, where waiting times have been reduced by 7 percentage points and the number of appropriate discharges has increased.

Performance across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde in January 2017 was 89.3 per cent, compared to 91.8 per cent for Scotland; and, in the year to January 2017, performance was 92.2 per cent. However, I recognise that more needs to be done to ensure a sustainable improvement in performance across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, including in the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. My officials meet the chairman and his senior management team regularly and continue to support progress against the action plans.

The Queen Elizabeth has had the lowest level of compliance 13 times in the past 20 weeks. Despite the Scottish Government’s target for 95 per cent of patients to be seen within four hours of arriving at a hospital, the Queen Elizabeth had the lowest compliance of any individual site, with only 81.7 per cent of patients being seen in the required time. The target has not been met for a single week since September last year. What will the minister do to improve access to emergency care in Glasgow?

I have already said that a number of actions have been taken. Government officials continue to meet the chairman of the board regularly. We are working with the local team to support prompt recovery and sustainable improvements in A and E and the IAU. The support team is made up of people with clinical improvement expertise and is led by the Queen Elizabeth university hospital clinical director for medicine and supported by the national unscheduled care team. We are beginning to see improvements, but we concede that more needs to be done. That is why our Government officials are working hard and are working closely with professionals at the Queen Elizabeth.

Will the minister please advise the chamber how many A and E consultants were employed by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde in 2007, how many are in post now and what the impact has been on patient care?

In September 2007, there were 25 whole-time-equivalent consultants specialising in emergency medicine in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. In December 2016 there were 75 whole-time-equivalent consultants specialising in emergency medicine in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. That is an increase of 50 whole-time-equivalent consultants, or 200 per cent, under this Scottish National Party Government.

Sustainable Rural Bus Services

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what it is doing to support sustainable rural bus services. (S5O-00850)

The Scottish Government will provide bus subsidy of £53.5 million in 2017-18. The subsidy—the bus service operators grant—is paid directly to operators and its aim is to support the overall bus network and help passengers with the cost of fares. In 2012, the basis of paying BSOG was changed to making payments on the distance that is run by vehicles, which particularly benefits rural areas, where bus service routes are longer. We have maintained the base rate of BSOG at 14.4p per kilometre, which shows a commitment to the Scottish network, particularly in rural areas. In addition, local authorities are funded through the block grant to subsidise bus services that they deem socially necessary. In 2015-16, the spend on that was £59 million.

The minister will be aware of the recent takeover of First Group’s Borders operations by Borders Buses Ltd. Although it is encouraging to hear that some services are being expanded, the long-term future of some other lifeline bus routes in the Borders is still unclear. With council budgets being cut across Scotland, local authority subsidies are being withdrawn, which means that some rural routes are simply no longer commercially viable. In light of the comments by First Group that the impact of the Borders railway was the main reason for its decision to withdraw, is the minister confident that enough work is being done to understand the impact of the new rail line on rural bus routes?

The first thing to say is that the Borders railway is a great success, which I think that members across the chamber recognise.

I spoke to Colin Craig of West Coast Motors—who, by the way, would be keen to talk to the member as well—and he gave me some key reassurances. The first was that jobs would be protected, which is important for the local economy. The second was around service continuity. He said that his company took over on Sunday morning and that services have not been affected and have been running smoothly since then. Of course it is for that private, commercial company to look at its long-term service provision in that area, but Colin Craig gave me strong reassurances that the first thing that it will do is look at making structural efficiencies within the company as opposed to tweaking or withdrawing certain routes. Through the block grant, the Government is providing money for local authorities to be able to subsidise socially necessary services, as John Lamont described. I encourage John Lamont to speak to Colin Craig at West Coast Motors, which is making an investment of £3 million in 30 new buses for the fleet for the Borders. I certainly got reassurances, and I am sure that John Lamont would get those reassurances, too.

Notwithstanding John Lamont’s scaremongering about Borders Buses—I take it that he does not want the railway line to be extended through his constituency—my constituents and I are generally impressed by and cautiously optimistic about the takeover by West Coast Motors under the livery Borders Buses. I recently met Colin Craig. Like the minister, I was impressed by him. Is the minister happy to meet Colin Craig and me to discuss the future of the bus services throughout the Borders and Midlothian? Will he, as he has already done with me, welcome the success of the Borders railway?

After her put-down of John Lamont, I will be happy to do whatever Christine Grahame wants me to do. I am more than happy to meet her and Colin Craig.

In fairness, I should say that people across the chamber have recognised and mentioned the success of the Borders railway, including Rachael Hamilton, who is in the chamber. Are there things that we can look at to improve the Borders railway in future years? We have committed to look at the feasibility of extensions to the railway line—and we will meet that commitment. We celebrate and welcome the success of the Borders railway, but we will also make sure that the provision of bus services continues, particularly in our rural areas.

Only this morning, bus company representatives told me that they are being discouraged from promoting the use of the free bus pass. Doing that would be very helpful, especially for areas in rural Scotland, particularly in North East Scotland, which is the area that I represent. Is it Government policy to discourage the promotion of the free bus pass for rural bus services? If so, why? I would be happy to hear that it is not Government policy to do that.

No, it is not.

Nurseries (North East Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what help it provides to nurseries in the North East Scotland region. (S5O-00851)

This Government has done more than any previous Administration—or, indeed, the United Kingdom Government—to expand and invest in early learning and childcare. We have provided an additional £10.9 million of revenue funding to Aberdeen City Council and £14.6 million to Aberdeenshire Council over 2014-15 to 2016-17 to support the expansion to 600 hours of free childcare through local authority nurseries and private and third sector providers. Over the same period, we have provided additional capital funding of £5.4 million to Aberdeen City Council and £8.7 million to Aberdeenshire Council.

Four weeks ago, I asked the First Minister to support a nursery that was facing closure due to hikes in business rates. With no help forthcoming from the Scottish Government or additional assistance being provided to Aberdeenshire Council, that nursery has closed its doors. Parents, including a newly qualified general practitioner, are unable to find nursery places or to return to work. Will the minister explain how that news addresses the issues that are faced by the nursery, the people in the north-east who want to return to work, or the well-publicised shortage of GPs?

Let us just deal with the facts about Bridges Pre-School Nurseries. It operates two facilities in Westhill in Mr Burnett’s constituency—one in Lawsondale Avenue and one in Arnhall. The nursery at Lawsondale Avenue is closing, but it provides no places that are funded through the Scottish Government or the local authority. However, council officials have advised that the company’s Arnhall nursery will continue to be open and that all the children who attend Lawsondale Avenue nursery will be offered a place there. Perhaps Mr Burnett will check his facts. While he is doing that, he might want to reflect on the fact that he voted against the £660 million that this Government has invested in business rates relief, and that his Tory colleagues in Aberdeenshire voted against the local business rates relief being put in place by Aberdeenshire Council. Perhaps, before he comes to the chamber and tries to spin a yarn, he should first check his facts.

A75 (Planned Upgrades)

To ask the Scottish Government what upgrades are planned for the A75. (S5O-00852)

Since 2008, the Scottish Government has invested more than £50 million in six road improvement projects along the A75.

As set out in the programme for government, the forthcoming review of the strategic transport projects review will assess recommendations for strategic transport infrastructure priorities in Dumfries and Galloway, including the A75 corridor, and in the rest of Scotland.

As Finlay Carson knows, I recently visited Springholm and Crocketford, where I held positive discussions with residents and businesses on further traffic management measures.

I thank the minister for that response, and I also thank him, on the record, for taking the time last week to come to Springholm and Crocketford in my constituency to hear at first hand the concerns of the residents who face the daily nightmare of huge numbers of lorries travelling to and from the ferry port at Cairnryan. I also welcome his commitment to improving traffic-calming measures, although I am sure that having visited the route and recognised that action must be taken, he will see that traffic calming is simply not enough to solve the problem.

Given that the draft national transport strategy review is not expected until next year, with the strategic transport projects review unlikely to follow until some time in 2019, will the minister acknowledge the immediacy of the problem and commit to an accelerated process to bring forward the desperately needed bypasses for Springholm and Crocketford? Will he also explore how the Government can mitigate the huge burden of road upgrades on rural businesses that are adjacent to the A75 when seeking planning permission to expand?

When I met residents and businesses, I found their views to be mixed. One or two of the shops said that they are not in favour of a bypass because it would take traffic away from them. However, we should bear it in mind that some residents are very much in favour of a bypass.

I have to point out that the measure is a long-term ambition. As Finlay Carson rightly pointed out, there is a process that we must go through, which includes the national transport strategy review and the review of the strategic transport projects review. For the time being, however, we will look to introduce as quickly as possible the reverse-discrimination lights that we want at Springholm, plus some measures that we have said we will explore at Crocketford. I hope that that gives the member some reassurance.

I should also say that we had a good Dumfries and Galloway transport summit, which had been called for and was organised by my colleague Joan McAlpine. There are on-going actions that Finlay Carson and the public can keep on top of and see progress on.

Does the Government agree that it is vital for appropriate projects for the A75 and other roads to be identified locally and put to the review of the STPR for consideration? Furthermore, does the minister acknowledge that prioritising the stretch of the A75 between Dumfries and Gretna would bring greatest economic benefit to the area?

I will be brief. Joan McAlpine makes a very good point. I thank her again for calling for the transport summit, which the Deputy First Minister chaired and I attended, and I say to her that we are open minded about suggestions that come through the review of the STPR. I also confirm that the stretch of road that she mentioned will be given consideration in the review of the STPR.

With regard to projects being brought forward for the A75, the minister will be aware that when in 2009 the local transport agency, the south west of Scotland transport partnership, undertook an appraisal, under the Scottish transport appraisal guidance, of possible road improvements in Dumfries and Galloway, the option of dualling the A75 between Gretna and Dumfries was assessed but was deemed, at that time, not to be cost effective under the assessment criteria. Does the minister recognise the need to review those criteria to ensure that the significant economic benefits to Dumfries and Galloway of dualling the A75 are properly recognised? That is, of course, an issue that was raised at the transport summit to which the minister referred.

I do not think that it is necessary to review the criteria, although I am more than happy to listen to Colin Smyth’s suggestions in that respect. As he will understand, there are competing priorities across the country. Wherever I travel, there are people who—understandably—want improvements in their local area and constituencies, and we are always looking to be as accommodating as possible. However, all that must be seen within the financial constraints that we are under. If the member has specific suggestions that he would like me to look at again with regard to the STPR refresh, I am open minded.

Residential Care for Older People (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports residential care for older people in rural areas. (S5O-00853)

This Government’s integration of our health and social care services is one of the most significant reforms since the establishment of the national health service, which is allowing health and social care partnerships to make decisions that are right for their local communities, including people who live in our rural areas. We have taken action to protect our social care services and to deliver on our shared priorities. In the coming year, there will be almost half a billion pounds of NHS investment in social care and integration, and part of that investment will provide for continued delivery of the living wage for care workers, support for adults, and sustainability within the sector.

The formula that is used in distribution of the Government’s funding to local authorities takes into account a number of needs-based factors, including rurality and the additional cost of providing services to island communities. The Scottish Government will continue to work with NHS boards, local authorities and other stakeholders to drive up quality in all of our communities to ensure appropriate social care provision is available.

The minister will be aware of the news that the Haven care home in Uig on Skye has announced that it will close in a matter of weeks, which is clearly a matter of concern to current residents and their relatives. Will the minister assure me that the Scottish Government will provide what support it can to ensure continuity of care for residents?

Yes. As with all care home closures, the safety and wellbeing of the residents are paramount. We absolutely recognise the concern that Kate Forbes has expressed on the issue, and we have discussed the matter with NHS Highland, which is working in partnership with the provider and the families to seek alternative provision for the current residents. We will provide whatever support we can to local agencies to help them to address the issue.

In all cases of closure, the Care Inspectorate will work closely with the provider, the residents and the individual health and social care partnerships concerned to ensure that the health and wellbeing of every resident are assured, and that any changes that are required are implemented with minimal disruption. If she wishes, I am happy to meet Kate Forbes to provide further reassurance.

That concludes general question time. Before we turn to our next item of business, I am sure that members will join me in welcoming to the gallery His Excellency Mr Arkady Rzegocki, who is the ambassador of the Republic of Poland to the United Kingdom. [Applause.]