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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 31, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 31 May 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Edinburgh City Bypass (A720), Portfolio Question Time, Medium-term Financial Strategy, Housing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time


General Question Time


To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has with trade unions, public bodies, social enterprise and business regarding Scotland’s immigration needs. (S5O-02167)

Migration is crucial to Scotland’s economic prospects and demographic sustainability. The Scottish Government has met with and seen evidence from a range of individuals and organisations on Scotland’s current and future needs.

In November, we set out the evidence about the importance of migration to Scotland in our submission to the Migration Advisory Committee. We followed that earlier this year with a discussion paper on “Scotland’s Population Needs and Migration Policy”, which showed how a tailored approach to migration for Scotland, with new powers for the Scottish Parliament, could work. The Scottish Government shares the concerns of those bodies about the risks of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the hostile-environment immigration policy that is being pursued by the UK Government. The development of the MAC submission and our discussion paper involved close engagement with key stakeholders in Scotland, and we are continuing to engage with partners to build consensus across the political spectrum and wider civic society.

I thank the minister for that detailed and welcome response. He will be aware of the recent Channel 4 news report about the challenges connected with the fishing industry in Barra, in his constituency. We also have the situation of the Canadian teacher who was refused a visa by the Home Office, thereby threatening the provision of Gaelic-medium education on Mull. The national health service and tourism are important sectors, and we want to welcome people to support our communities. The Tories’ hostile-environment policy simply does not help Scotland at all. Will the minister consider reconvening the cross-party ministerial working group that, in the previous session of Parliament, secured support on a cross-party basis to reinstate the post-study work visa, and broadening its remit to address those pressing matters?

I will pick up on a couple of the sensible issues that the member mentions. On the issue of the teacher who was seeking to come to work in Argyll and Bute and who was denied the opportunity so to do, one of the problems behind that and other examples of its kind is that, at the moment, we are in the sixth month in a row in which the UK Government has put a cap on the number of visas for people coming to do that kind of job. No visas are now being made available for jobs with a salary of below £50,000 a year, which is why teachers and others have fallen into that situation.

On fishing, the member will be aware that fishing has not featured highly in the UK Government’s approach to the Brexit talks and has not been high on its list of priorities, with consequences for everyone.

On cross-party working, I am happy to work with the member and others across the spectrum to ensure that we address those and other issues around Brexit.

Crown Use Licence (Biosimilar Drugs)

To ask the Scottish Government what powers it has to enact a Crown use licence to allow the production of biosimilar versions of the breast cancer treatment, Perjeta, and drugs for other conditions. (S5O-02168)

The Scottish Government has power to apply for a Crown use licence, but we do not consider that invoking that power would provide a quick solution to providing the medicine for patients in Scotland. That is because an alternative manufacturer would have to go through a lengthy process of obtaining regulatory approval from either the European Medicines Agency or the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency before it could make a submission to the Scottish Medicines Consortium.

Roche, the manufacturer of Perjeta, has held discussions with NHS National Procurement and I expect that dialogue to continue in order that Roche can bring forward a new submission to the SMC for its consideration.

The campaign body Just Treatment states in its briefing on the issue that

“the key driver of the price is the patent-backed monopoly”.

Breast cancer patients are urging us all to ensure that they can access the treatment that they need.

I am delighted to hear that the manufacturers of Perjeta are in discussion. They need to make an urgent resubmission to the SMC, at a reduced price. However, we should not rule out any legal mechanism or procurement option that would help patients. In Italy, just the prospect of a compulsory licence being enacted helped to reduce the price of a hepatitis C medicine. What lessons is the Scottish Government learning from other countries about access to medicines and drug prices?

We always look to learn lessons from other countries.

As I said, the process that would be required is not a straightforward one. Alison Johnstone made the point that patients should get access to the treatment that they need as quickly as possible. As I said, Roche is in discussion with NHS National Procurement, and that dialogue continues. I urge the company to make a new submission to the SMC, for its consideration. Obviously, the timing of that is with the company, but I urge it to act as quickly as possible.

Alison Johnstone is right to say that the offer should be at a fair price. That is what we would expect from any pharmaceutical company that was bringing forward a product. We hope that Roche will do that as quickly as possible.

The cabinet secretary said that NHS National Procurement and the manufacturer, Roche, are in discussion. Can she say when a decision on the offer is due to reach ministers and the SMC?

Ministers have no involvement in the process, and for good reason. A process has been established, under the Scottish Medicines Consortium, which is independent of ministers, as is quite right, and it is important that all companies follow that process. The role of NHS National Procurement has been to help to have the discussion, to ensure that the company is encouraged to make a submission that is as good as it can be. The company requires to go to the SMC, and I urge it to do so as quickly as possible, as I said to Alison Johnstone, with a fair price offer.

Given the number of women who suffer from an underactive thyroid and have to buy dessicated thyroid hormone from other countries on the internet, simply so that they can function in their daily lives, and given the price of the alternative, T3, will the minister explore the possibility of the Scottish Government enacting a Crown use licence to allow the production of dessicated thyroid hormone in Scotland?

I have written to Elaine Smith about the issue on a number of occasions. The patient’s clinical need is important, and clinicians have the opportunity to use other medicines where it would not be clinically appropriate for the patient to receive the medicine that is normally used for thyroid problems. I am happy to write again to Elaine Smith with more detail.

At the core of the issue is that we have a system. The system has been reformed on a number of occasions, and the Montgomery recommendations are being implemented, which will ensure that the Scottish system for approval of medicines continues to be robust and fair.

Carers Allowance Supplement

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making towards delivering the carers allowance supplement. (S5O-02169)

Carers allowance supplement is a 13 per cent increase to carers allowance, which is to be uprated in line with inflation in future years. The overall investment of more than £30 million a year will benefit 70,000 carers. We are on track to make the first of the six-monthly payments later this summer, despite the Department for Work and Pensions’ delay in providing the full set of data that has been agreed for delivery of the supplement.

It is clearly of concern that the United Kingdom Government is not providing all the information that the Scottish Government needs for the carers allowance supplement. Does the minister think that the UK Government is putting Scotland’s needs at the bottom of its to-do list?

I hope that, by now, members of all parties realise and understand that we are entirely reliant on the DWP to provide the data that we need—it is basic data: name, address, national insurance number and bank account details—for all 11 benefits that will be devolved.

In the case of carers allowance supplement, we agreed the data requirements with the DWP on 9 March. Ten days later, it advised us that there were data sets in the agreement that it could not provide. This is the third time since March that that has happened with the DWP. First, we had its summary announcement of a one-year delay in the agreement to provide us with the delivery mechanism to abolish the bedroom tax at source. Next, we had the four-month delay in providing us with the necessary computer code to deliver on the case management system, and now this.

The Scottish Government remains on track, as Audit Scotland recognises, but we absolutely need the DWP to step up to the plate, and what that requires is for the secretary of state, Esther McVey, to show the leadership that this Government shows in making sure that the delivery of the devolved benefits happens on time, to the right people and in the right way.

It is disappointing that the secretary of state is not living up to the spirit of the comments that she made recently at the Social Security Committee. If the DWP fails to provide full data and carers present themselves and evidence that they receive carers allowance to the new agency, will it be in a position to pay them the new supplement?

I thank Mr Griffin for that question. It is an important one. Before I answer it in full, I say that it is of course disappointing, and I urge Mr Griffin to work with my colleagues at Westminster to continue to press the secretary of state to deliver on the assurances that we have repeatedly had from her and her four predecessors by honouring the devolution settlement and making sure that we work co-operatively together. Officials do a very good job, but we need political leadership.

On those who may be affected by the absence of the data sets, we are working very closely with the carers organisations that are involved to ensure that they help us to reach all those who have the entitlement. We will work very carefully to make sure that all carers understand what they are entitled to and that, if they do not receive that from us in the first six-monthly payment, they should contact us. When they do that, we will most certainly honour that commitment.

Where that does not happen—because they do not know or they have not been reached by our information and do not appreciate that they are due the money—then we will backdate the second six-monthly payment to ensure that they receive the full year’s amount, along with all the other carers in Scotland.

Ambulance Services

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to ambulance services. (S5O-02170)

The Scottish Government provides the Scottish Ambulance Service, which is one of our national health service boards, with governance and with annual funding to provide high-quality emergency healthcare to the people of Scotland. We have invested almost £900 million in the Ambulance Service over the past four years, and we are committed to support the service in recruiting and training 1,000 new paramedics to work in the community by 2021.

I thank my fellow member Liam McArthur for lodging a motion that supports a second charity air ambulance to be based in Aberdeen. Will the minister support the campaign by The Press and Journal that looks to assist the charity to achieve its aims in order to benefit the whole of the north of Scotland?

Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance carries out fantastic work throughout Scotland, helping to save and improve lives every day, and a second helicopter will allow the SCAA to further support the Scottish Ambulance Service to save even more lives. It will be particularly helpful in the more remote and rural areas of Scotland, and it will be extremely valuable in supporting the vision of the Scottish trauma network and our plans to take care to the patient. The answer is yes.

Inspectorate of Prosecution (Right to Review and Complaints)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland’s recent report on victims’ right to review, and complaints handling and feedback. (S5O-02171)

The victims’ right to review gives victims a right to request a review of decisions not to initiate or to discontinue prosecutions. I welcome the Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland’s report, which recognises that the VRR process is robust.

The inspectorate has made 11 recommendations, which echo work that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has been undertaking internally on the victims’ right to review, and I have accepted them all.

On complaints handling, the report recognises that there is a more user-friendly process and that there are improvements in the quality of the service’s responses following the inspectorate’s 2015 report. The inspectorate has rated the service’s response to its 15 previous recommendations on complaints handling: 10 have been achieved, three are in progress and two are outstanding. The two outstanding recommendations are being progressed by the COPFS improvement board.

As the Lord Advocate will know, the report was critical of the COPFS for its failure to notify victims of decisions not to prosecute, and described its approach as being “less inclusive” than in other parts of the United Kingdom, where all victims are usually notified. Does the Lord Advocate’s commitment today to implement the recommendations mean that the rules will be changed so that victims are always notified when cases are not prosecuted, or will victims continue to be left in the dark?

Proactive notification occurs in all solemn cases, in all summary cases within the remit of the COPFS victim information and advice service and in certain other summary cases. In the remaining summary cases, the decision is not proactively notified but victims or their representatives will be advised of it on inquiry.

The inspectorate’s recommendation was that the service should work towards a system of notifying all victims of decisions not to prosecute—whether through the use of information technology solutions or otherwise—and I have accepted that recommendation. The service will now explore possible approaches to the notification of all victims of decisions not to prosecute, including possible IT solutions.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Cambuslang Training Centre)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to build residential accommodation at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service national training centre in Cambuslang. (S5O-02172)

Decisions on such issues are, of course, operational matters for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. I understand that, in fact, there is no current business case for the development of residential accommodation at the national training centre in Cambuslang. The service’s approach is, rather, to invest in training facilities around Scotland to enable firefighters to be trained nearer to home, therefore reducing the requirement for travel and overnight stays at Cambuslang or other locations.

In March 2015, the SFRS closed the Scottish Fire Service College at Gullane, moving training to Cambuslang in order to save £4.8 million per annum. Does the minister believe that the lack of accommodation at the Cambuslang centre, and the resultant use of hotels to house trainees, has delivered the expected savings, or does she share my concern that annual running costs may now exceed the amount that it would have cost to keep the Gullane college open?

Michelle Ballantyne may be interested to note that a major building project is currently under way at Newbridge in Edinburgh to provide enhanced training facilities in the east delivery area. Next year, another major construction project at Portlethen in Aberdeen will provide enhanced training facilities in the north delivery area. She will therefore appreciate that a number of investments are being made in training closer to where firefighters are. The service has also just launched a new training unit at Kirkwall airport in Orkney.

As I said in my first answer—[Interruption.] I see that Jackson Carlaw is laughing, but for Liam McArthur’s constituents that unit is probably quite a good thing.

Finally—[Interruption.] Edinburgh and Gullane are not that far apart.

Finally, as I said in my first answer, the focus is on investment in training facilities around Scotland, and the business case for accommodation at Cambuslang simply does not represent value for money. Of course, if Michelle Ballantyne is concerned about resources for the SFRS, perhaps she would join me in calling on her UK Government to pay back the £50 million in VAT that it has deprived front-line firefighters of over the past five years.

How does the Scottish Government ensure that the local community benefits from those attending the SFRS national training centre and its location in Cambuslang?

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, in line with Scottish ministers’ expectations, considers the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises and including community benefits in all its procurement exercises. Of course, the national training centre in Cambuslang is supported by various local businesses, such as those that provide catering for the many excellent events and conferences that take place there. Clare Haughey can be assured that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service well understands the need to ensure that the local community benefits from the national training centre being in Cambuslang.