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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 19 January 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Topical Question Time

Fishing Communities (Compensation)

1. Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

With your indulgence, Presiding Officer, I thank my constituent who has just given our time for reflection.

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding compensation for fishing communities, in light of the disruption at ports since the end of the European Union exit transition period. (S5T-02617)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

No substantive discussion on a compensation scheme for Scottish fishing communities has taken place, and it is simply unacceptable for the UK Government to launch such a scheme without consulting the Scottish Government. The deal that was reached with the EU demonstrated the UK Government’s profound lack of knowledge of, or concern for, Scottish seafood interests. The industry will rightly be concerned that delivery of the compensation scheme will be in the same vein. However, this Government will continue to stand up for Scottish fishing, and we will do everything that we can to ensure that the compensation scheme reflects the real and lasting damage that has been done to the Scottish seafood sector.

Stewart Stevenson

Right now, shellfish exports are being spoiled beyond usefulness because barriers exist where there were none a month ago. When does the cabinet secretary, or when do his colleagues, expect to have interaction with the UK Government about proper compensation funds from that body, which would keep afloat the many small businesses that are vital part of distant coastal communities?

Fergus Ewing

On several occasions, in representing the Scottish Government at the EU exit operations committee, I have made it clear that the UK Government—having sought Brexit, delivered it in a cack-handed way and ignored the advice of the Scottish Government and of industry to seek a grace period—is now responsible, and solely so, for the losses that have arisen as a result of its failings. I have made it clear that compensation is required, including early last week at an XO meeting. I have repeated that call when attending other XO meetings on behalf of the Scottish Government.

To date, the UK Government has not given the Scottish Government any details of the package. Yesterday, in an apparently off-the-cuff remark, the Prime Minister indicated that the package for the whole UK industry might be as little as £23 million. To put that in perspective, I point out that last year the Scottish Government delivered to the Scottish sector alone Covid compensation and support of £23.5 million.

However, I expect that the UK Government will need to start communicating with us on the matter, and I have called upon it so to do.

Stewart Stevenson

Today in Peterhead, there were but a few hundred boxes of fish in a market that was built to process 10,000 boxes each day. The quotas for the next six years involve no meaningful expansion of catching opportunity—indeed, they include some critical reductions. That is due in no small part to Westminster incompetence and deliberately chosen trade-offs. What options exist to remedy that for fishermen in the north-east, across Scotland and, for that matter, across the UK?

Fergus Ewing

The reduced prices and reduced availability of fish at market are, sadly, direct results of the Brexit boorach. I stress that my imperative—my number 1 priority—is to make sure that we in Scotland, working with local authorities, with Food Standards Scotland and with DFDS and other hubs, resolve the difficulties as far as is within our power. I have had detailed discussions, of course, with the leading stakeholders in the fishing sector across the whole of Scotland, and will continue to do so.

It is difficult for me to see that the problems can accurately be described as “teething problems”, which is the phrase that UK ministers use. I fear that the problems are more serious and deep seated. Indeed, there are so many of them—57 varieties, as I told the XO committee last week—that it seems to me that the UK should seek a derogation from the EU in relation to the requirements. Probably the only reason why it does not do so is that the request might be rejected because the UK Government has forfeited goodwill in the EU.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The UK Government has taken responsibility for its share of the problem that the sector has faced over the past few weeks and has stepped up with a £23 million compensation fund. It is clear that the Scottish Government was not prepared for the end of the transition period. Can the cabinet secretary state unequivocally whether the delays that were caused by Food Standards Scotland—an agency for which he is responsible—have now been sorted out?

Fergus Ewing

I am sorry that the Scottish Conservative representative is making that serious allegation, on which Mr Halcro Johnston has not provided me with a shred of evidence to back it up. It is quite astonishing that a member of this Parliament should make such allegations without checking the facts.

The facts are that the Scottish Government was working flat-out in the run-up to Brexit and for years before it, and that it joined the industry in asking for a derogation period. That was not because problems have arisen through there being insufficient staff in FSS and local authorities, but because the UK Government decided not to take, from me and from the industry in Scotland and elsewhere, the advice that it should seek a necessary period in which to try a wholly untested system, in order to ensure that the difficulties and huge complexities arising therefrom could be addressed, and so that the plethora of public bodies involved could successfully work together to navigate that system.

I find it extraordinary that the Scottish Tories do not accept responsibility for the Brexit boorach that they have created, and that not one of them has yet had the guts to admit that the deal is a bad deal for Scottish fishing.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The fishing industry has been used as a political football and there is anger in the Shetland fleet. It is just a month since I was told by Michael Gove that the Government would

“ensure that, in Kent, we do not have the type of traffic disruption that some have feared.”—[Official Report, Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, 15 December 2020; c 13.]

However, that is precisely what has happened.

My colleague Alistair Carmichael led an urgent debate on the matter at Westminster last week. It is time that politicians and all parties and Governments worked together to find the solution. Will the cabinet secretary push for real focus across Government, so that short-term disruption does not turn into long-term loss for parts of our fishing industry?

Fergus Ewing

I assure Beatrice Wishart that over the past five years—and especially during the past two years—Scottish Government officials and I have worked tirelessly to impress on UK colleagues just how important it was to be prepared for the disruption that Brexit would cause, with an estimated 150,000 export health certificates being required. We worked tirelessly and ceaselessly to prepare; now we are doing the same to resolve the difficulties.

As I made clear, the first priority is to get things started. The sad thing is that, because we are not an independent country that has full control of all such matters, we are dependent on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—UK customs—which does not recognise types of Scottish fish, to do the job for us. Sadly, It has been found wanting.

It is only because of the pressure that the Scottish Government has brought to bear over the past week that the Prime Minister has been shamed into making off-the-cuff remarks about making compensation payments. That could—to be frank—have been avoided, had the UK Government done its job properly in the first place.

Royal Hospital for Children and Young People

2. Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government when the opening of the Royal hospital for children and young people will be completed. (S5T-02619)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Jeane Freeman)

In May last year, I informed Parliament that work on the hospital was expected to be completed by 25 January 2021, but I highlighted at the time that Covid-19 might adversely affect the timeline. As a result of a key engineering team needing to self-isolate for two weeks and other Covid-related amendments to working practices, the completion date of the hospital has been delayed by two weeks, until 8 February.

It is important to recognise that a number of services transferred safely to the new site in May, including out-patient services at the department of clinical neurosciences, neurophysiology and diagnostic radiology. In mid-July, we moved neurosurgery, along with neurosurgery theatres and interventional neuroradiology. Finally, in respect of children’s services, neurology and orthopaedics transferred over the summer, while children and adolescent mental health services transferred earlier this month.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

The hospital has been at Sciennes Road since 1895. Staff are very fond of it, but they will be looking forward to the benefits of 21st-century facilities. The latest construction hold-up, announced on Friday, will not be much of a surprise to those who have been waiting years already. There is a lot for the public inquiry to get to the bottom of. A freedom of information request from the Liberal Democrats last week revealed that we have already paid £28 million in repayments for the building. However, we are hopeful that the end of this building saga is now in sight, so that we can get on with treating people in a better setting.

Transferring services in winter can be tough at the best of times, so how will the Government and the health board ensure that that happens smoothly in these worst of times? What is the timeframe for the transfer of each remaining department and service? The cabinet secretary has told me that the 2,000 snagging issues that were previously identified have been resolved, but what expectation is there of further snagging?

Jeane Freeman

The final transfer of services will be made exactly as all the others have been until now, which is in direct consultation with the clinical teams involved and in a timescale and manner that the clinical teams are content with. Consultation with clinical teams on patient safety and the management of all the other demands on their time has been a feature throughout the process. Remember that, earlier this month, a further set of services were transferred.

The completion date of 8 February allows a six-week notice period for service migration, which we would expect to happen around 22 or 23 March, depending on the hospital and services being able to manage all the other demands on their time and the clinical teams being content.

The out-patient services that remain at Sciennes are cardiology, haematology, complex respiratory—including cystic fibrosis—the plastics dressings clinic and, of course, the emergency department.

The additional cost—the payments that have been made by NHS Lothian, having taken ownership of the hospital, to enable the new hospital to meet its contractual obligation—is payment for a site that is now considerably occupied. Occupation of the hospital will be complete around 22 or 23 of March, when the final services will transfer over into a safe, effective and highly-valued site that offers the best of new design and technologies for the children of Lothian.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

Can we take it from that answer that 23 March or thereabouts will be the date on which there will cease to be patients at the old Sciennes building?

There have been terrible twists in the story of this pandemic. Has the Government explored retaining the old building until the pandemic is over, in case there is another twist in the story and we need greater hospital capacity? From an infection control perspective, extra space is potentially really valuable. Have any discussions taken place with the site developers, who might understandably be eager to get to work?

Jeane Freeman

There were about six questions in there. If Mr Cole-Hamilton would like to write to me, I would be happy to answer them in detail.

I have put a deliberate caveat on the final transfer in March because, of course, clinical teams need to be content that that is the right, safe and proper time to do it, bearing in mind what they are experiencing and responding to—admirably—in relation to the current pandemic. Let us be clear about that caveat.

In terms of how that transfer will take place and what will happen to the existing site, NHS Lothian and the Scottish Government will continue to be in discussion with the clinical teams and the leadership of the existing hospital as they move to the new hospital, as well as with the planned purchasers of the site at Sciennes, in order to make sure that we have maximum flexibility without unnecessary additional cost, so that we can finally complete the transfer to a site that is now safe.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

What impact has the delay had on other NHS Lothian infrastructure projects? Ministers recently told NHS Lothian that they will not provide the money for the replacement Princess Alexandra eye pavilion, for example. Can the health secretary guarantee that future projects in NHS Lothian that require investment will not pay the price for the delays and mismanagement of the new sick kids hospital?

Jeane Freeman

Later this afternoon, Mr Briggs and I will have a conversation about the position on the eye pavilion. There has been no impact on other infrastructure projects. I made it clear at the time when I halted the move that the additional cost of making the new site good and safe would be borne by the Scottish Government, and that is the case. There is no direct impact on other areas of infrastructure in NHS Lothian or elsewhere. Mr Briggs and I will discuss this afternoon how we can ensure that modern services are available and improved for the citizens of Lothian in ophthalmology and other related matters.

The Presiding Officer

Apologies to members whom I could not call. We now move on to the next item of business.