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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 20, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 20 February 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Climate Change and Agriculture, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill: Stage 3, Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Police Scotland (Budget)

1. Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con)

The Scottish Police Federation, the Scottish Police Authority and the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents all say that this year’s budget allocation for policing is wholly inadequate. Why is the First Minister ignoring those warnings?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, let me point out to Jackson Carlaw and everyone in the chamber that in the draft budget for the year ahead we have committed an extra £42 million of funding for Police Scotland. That is a 3.6 per cent increase and includes an increase in resource funding to protect officer numbers and an increase in capital funding. That is important and welcome.

As the deputy chief officer of Police Scotland, David Page, said recently:

“The draft funding settlement for policing in 2020-21 includes an uplift of revenue funding of £37 million, which is £17 million higher than originally anticipated ... This is something that we welcome.”

Stewart Carle of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents said, in his submission to the Parliament’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing:

“it is certainly welcome that the settlement includes an additional £37 million in the Police Scotland budget.”

I recognise that in our Police Service, as across all our public services, an impact is still being felt from a decade of Tory austerity and we will continue to work to protect the police and our other public services. We are in a budget process and I say to the Conservatives, as I say to other parties across the chamber, that if they want to bring forward credible proposals in the next stage of the process the Government is willing to discuss them.

Jackson Carlaw

The First Minister needs to get up to speed with her Government. We have come forward with credible proposals that have been communicated to her Cabinet Secretary for Finance. It is quite clear that neither she nor her Government have come anywhere close to meeting the budget allocation that front-line officers and the SPA believe is needed to ensure a sustainable policing service.

The First Minister can dissemble all she likes, but that is what front-line police officers—in Parliament today and deeply concerned by the issue—are saying. The chief constable has personally made it clear that Police Scotland needs money to retain officers, to begin to tackle the huge problems in the police estate and to give front-line officers the equipment that they need to keep the public and themselves safe.

There is a black hole of £49 million in Police Scotland’s budget. What is the First Minister’s advice to Police Scotland on how it should deal with that funding gap? Should it cut officer numbers, continue to let the ceilings fall down in police stations and much else besides, or fail to issue essential equipment?

The First Minister

I and this Government will continue to work closely with the chief constable and the Scottish Police Authority. This, of course, is the Government that has maintained police numbers at 1,000 more than we inherited. Jackson Carlaw is the representative of a party that, in the rest of the United Kingdom, has cut police numbers by 20,000. Perhaps he should reflect on that.

I said that we would listen to credible proposals. I remind the chamber that, over the past decade, the Tories have presided over a real-terms cut in the Scottish budget of £1.5 billion. Jackson Carlaw has regularly put forward proposals for tax cuts for the richest that would cut another £500 million out of the Scottish budget, yet he makes spending pleas the cost of which amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds.

We have delivered a budget that is fair and that focuses on protecting our public services, growing the economy and tackling the climate emergency. We will talk to and listen to other parties, as we are doing, if they have credible suggestions to make. I ask Jackson Carlaw to look again at the credibility of what he is proposing. In this Government, and in our new finance secretary, in particular, he will find a Government that is very willing to listen.

Jackson Carlaw

Perhaps we can get back to the problems that Police Scotland faces, which the First Minister could do something about.

The First Minister trumpets the budget settlement that has been given to Police Scotland, so let us have a look at it in detail. The resource budget is still at least £13 million short of that which the police need just to stand still, and the capital budget faces a real-terms cut, which is the second real-terms annual cut in a row.

Here is what Police Scotland says that that means:

“the current capital allocation for policing is amongst the lowest in UK policing on a per capita basis, is low compared to other public bodies in Scotland and will undoubtedly inhibit our ability to keep up with the threat, harm and risk posed to the people of Scotland from increasing crime”.

That is at a time when the Scottish Government is receiving a funding uplift of £96 million from the UK Government’s investment for extra spending on policing. Why is the First Minister short-changing Scotland’s police officers?

The First Minister

The draft budget increases Police Scotland’s budget by £42 million. In 2016-17, Police Scotland’s capital budget was £20 million. In the draft budget that has just been published, it is £40 million.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Oh!

The First Minister

In other words, it has doubled in the space of a couple of years. That capital budget includes £5 million of extra funding that was specifically requested by the service to accelerate its commitment to greening its fleet.

We will continue to do everything that we can to protect our front-line police officers. I say again that we are doing that against the backdrop of a £1.5 billion austerity reduction in our budget that has been imposed by the Conservatives. That means that Jackson Carlaw and his colleagues have an absolute cheek to talk about our public services. We will continue to put our public services first. If Jackson Carlaw has credible proposals to make and is willing to say how they should be funded, of course we will always listen.

Jackson Carlaw

Hollow cries of “Oh!” from Richard Lyle do not pay for more police officers and do not pay to fix a broken police estate.

The wider risk here is obvious, and it has been spelled out bluntly by the Scottish Police Federation in Parliament today in its submission to the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing. It said:

“The police officers we represent are working harder than ever. They are under strain and it is taking its toll on their physical and mental health and their families. Their working conditions are not satisfactory. In some cases through no fault of our own, we are not providing a good service to the public.”

The choice is clear—the First Minister must increase police funding or she will be putting the public at risk.

The First Minister

I lead a Government that has kept police numbers at 1,000 more than the level that we inherited. We have done that at a time when Jackson Carlaw’s party has slashed front-line police numbers by 20,000. That is the reality that every police officer across the UK is all too aware of. We are also making sure that our police officers get a decent pay rise, which is more than can be said of Mr Carlaw’s colleagues south of the border.

In the draft budget, we have increased Police Scotland’s funding, and we will continue to listen to all proposals. Here is a challenge for Jackson Carlaw: given the £1.5 billion Tory cut and the £500 million that Jackson Carlaw would like to take out of our budget to give tax cuts to the richest in our society, if he and his colleagues want to tell us where else in the budget we should cut funding in order to fund his proposals, I will be more than happy to listen. However, he must say how they should be paid for, not just where he wants to spend more money.


General Practitioner Surgery Closures

2. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

On Tuesday evening, I attended a public meeting in Salsburgh, a community that faces the closure of its local general practitioner surgery. Last year, the surgery was cut from five days to three. Now, without any consultation, local people have been told that it will close completely at the end of March.

The people of Salsburgh know that, if their surgery closes, they might never get it back. That is why, on Tuesday night, they resolved to fight for its future. They want the First Minister’s support, but, in a letter to me, she washed her hands of the matter. Can the First Minister tell the people of Salsburgh why she believes that the state of our national health service and the closure of GP surgeries is not a matter for her?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

It is absolutely right that patients should be able to see their GP when they need to. That is why we have a record number of GPs working in Scotland. There are more GPs per head of population in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom, and we are currently working to plans that will increase their number by at least 800 over the next few years.

We expect health boards to engage with and support patients wherever there are changes to the services that they receive at their practice, and I expect that to be the case in the GP practice that Richard Leonard referred to.

The vast majority of GP practices in Scotland are independent bodies that are contracted to deliver services to the NHS. We will continue to support primary care, particularly GPs, and we will continue to encourage health boards to make sure that their services are always accessible.

Richard Leonard

Promises of future numbers are little comfort to those communities that are facing cuts and the closure of their GP services next month.

The truth is that the anger that I heard on Tuesday night is not limited to Salsburgh. Across Parliament, members of all parties are acutely aware of local GP services that are at high risk because of staff shortages, policy decisions and under-resourcing. However, that awareness might not extend to all members of Parliament. Last week, another local community gathered at a packed public meeting to try to save its GP surgery from closure, but the local member of the Scottish Parliament apparently missed her invitation. Tarbolton is in the health secretary’s constituency.

If the First Minister’s Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport does not know about a GP closure in her own constituency, why on earth should people believe that her Government will solve the GP crisis that patients are facing here, in Scotland?

The First Minister

These are obviously important matters for communities across Scotland, which is why we are putting record funding into our national health service. It is why we have record numbers of people working in our national health service.

Richard Leonard said that it is not enough to talk about future numbers, but more GPs are working in the NHS now than was the case previously. The number of trainee doctors has increased by more than 10 per cent since 2007. We have an increased number of GP training places, and there are a number of recruitment initiatives across the country for doctors in general. For general practice, in particular, we have a new GP contract in place that was agreed with the British Medical Association, to tackle some of the challenges that GPs are facing.

Those are the steps that we are taking in practice to tackle the challenges. As I said a moment ago, there are more GPs per head of population in Scotland than in any other part of the UK—and I point out to Richard Leonard that that includes Wales, where his party runs the Government.

Richard Leonard

The First Minister, of all people, should know that Tarbolton is not in Wales: it is in Scotland.

There is a workforce crisis in primary care services. It is happening now and here, in Scotland, and it goes all the way back to the First Minister’s door. It takes at least 10 years to train to be a GP and, 10 years ago, the First Minister was the health secretary responsible. This winter saw the worst accident and emergency performances on record, with thousands of patients waiting more than four hours for treatment. Last weekend, public health consultant Dr Helene Irvine said,

“Many would not need to use A and E if they had timely access to a GP who knows them.”

When will the First Minister accept that she cannot claim that she is protecting Scotland’s NHS if she is not protecting Scotland’s local primary care services?

The First Minister

The point that I am making is that the NHS faces challenges in every single part of the UK, and health services face challenges in virtually every country in the world. We are putting record sums of money into our national health service, we have record numbers of people working in our national health service and we have increasing numbers of GPs and GPs in training. That is why our health service is performing better. Yes, it still faces challenges, but it is performing better than the health service in any other part of the UK.

Richard Leonard wants to make it all about the Scottish National Party, which is why it is entirely legitimate to contrast and compare. He says—[Interruption.] The Conservatives do not like it either. They say—

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Order, please.

The First Minister

The Tories say that things would be better if they were in power, and Richard Leonard says that things would be better if Labour was in power, so let us look at the reality here, in Scotland. Richard Leonard mentioned A and E performance. In December last year, against the four-hour target, the performance in Scotland was 81.6 per cent. That is not good enough, but in Tory England it was 68.6 per cent. [Interruption.] It was 68.6 per cent where the Tories are running the Government, and in Wales, where Labour is running the Government, it was 66.4 per cent. Yes, our health service faces challenges, but all the evidence says that the SNP is meeting those challenges better than any other party in the UK.

The Presiding Officer

Could we have order from all members? I encourage Mr Russell and Mr Swinney, in particular, to set a ministerial example. Thank you.


Mossmorran Petrochemical Plant (Flaring)

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

The First Minister will be aware of the major unplanned flaring incident at Mossmorran last Thursday, the poor environmental rating that was published yesterday by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the walk-out by some workers over reported concerns about health and safety. What assurances can she give to my constituents, who remain very anxious about safety, health and environmental impacts?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Annabelle Ewing for raising what is an extremely important matter for her constituents. Ministers are in absolutely no doubt about the very understandable concerns of the local community, which are evidenced in the many complaints that SEPA has received regarding recent incidents.

With regard to safety, the complex falls under the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015, which are enforced by the Health and Safety Executive and SEPA. We have been assured that both regulators continue to monitor the situation closely. As things stand, all SEPA’s published data suggests that there has been no breach of United Kingdom air quality standards.

The Scottish Government is staying in close contact with the regulators. I hope that members appreciate that it would not be appropriate for ministers to interfere in independent regulatory decisions. However, I absolutely recognise the seriousness of the issue, and I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform would be happy to keep Annabelle Ewing and others who have an interest updated.


Mossmorran Petrochemical Plant (Public Meeting)

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

As the First Minister has just heard, the Mossmorran plant is in crisis. Communities are suffering and workers are striking. Meanwhile, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform and the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands have both refused, once again, to meet the local community at an emergency public meeting that is scheduled for tomorrow night. Will the First Minister ensure that the Government is represented at that meeting, to explain to communities around Mossmorran exactly what is going on?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am happy to consider any request of that nature.

I want to make it very clear that it is not the case that ministers are refusing to attend a public meeting because they are not interested in the issue. Regulatory enforcement actions are under way, and it is important that ministers respect the independence of that process. It would not be in anybody’s interest for ministers to step into territory that is, rightly, for SEPA and the Health and Safety Executive. However, ministers understand and appreciate the seriousness of the issue. We will continue to stay in very close contact with the regulators and will take whatever steps lie within our responsibilities to ensure that appropriate action is taken.

The environment secretary will be happy to keep interested members fully updated as appropriate and as far as possible.


Quaich Project

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

What is the First Minister’s position on reports that the Quaich Project has offered so-called debenture schemes to corporate donors on what the project acknowledges is common good land in Edinburgh?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I believe that such matters are for local government. However, I am happy to look into issues that are appropriately raised in the chamber, and I would be happy to write to the member when I have had the opportunity to look into the matter that he has raised.


Personal Independence Payment (20-Metre Rule)

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

One of my constituents has multiple sclerosis. She lost her higher rate mobility allowance under the personal independence payment’s 20-metre rule assessment. That meant that she also lost her Motability car, and her independence. The Multiple Sclerosis Society has been lobbying this Government and this Parliament to scrap the discredited PIP 20-metre rule. We have the power to do so. In the interest of dignity, fairness and respect, will the First Minister agree to scrap that discredited rule so that my constituent, and all those with MS, can live with MS with dignity?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I have enormous sympathy with the issue that Alex Rowley has raised. I hope that he will listen carefully to my answer.

I am acutely aware—and the Scottish Government is acutely aware—that individuals who have fluctuating condition such as MS are failed badly by the United Kingdom’s benefits system. All too often, it acts as a barrier to disabled people accessing the benefits that they are entitled to. I know that particular concerns have been raised by the MS Society Scotland about the 20-metre rule and how mobility is currently assessed. We are carefully considering how the Scottish Government can better assess mobility to meet peoples’ needs than is done currently.

We are absolutely determined to make improvements to the current system. However, we also need to understand—this is an important point—the potential effects that changing eligibility could have on access to other benefits that are not under the control of the Scottish Government. PIP is used by the UK Government as a qualifying benefit for other benefits, such as disability premiums. We are working closely with the UK Government to ensure that any changes that we want to make would not put at risk access to vital UK benefits and payments that remain reserved.

I hope that that assures Alex Rowley that we are looking very carefully and very seriously at that issue, and that we are doing so from a position of enormous sympathy with the argument that he has made.


Nuclear Submarine Safety (Near-Collision at Cairnryan)

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Given the United Kingdom Government’s lack of response to my repeated correspondence regarding progress with the investigation of a near-collision between a nuclear submarine and a passenger ferry leaving Cairnryan in November 2017, is the First Minister able to contact the UK Government to help me obtain a response that will reassure my constituents that sufficient safety measures are in place to avoid that ever happening again? More generally, does she agree that nuclear submarines have no place in Scotland or anywhere around the world?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I certainly look forward to the day when there are no nuclear weapons—not only in Scotland and the UK, but in the world.

On the issue of safety, which I know is of huge concern to people, I am happy to ask the relevant minister to contact the UK Government to seek the assurances that Emma Harper is looking for.


Super-Fast Broadband (Gleddoch Hotel)

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

The Gleddoch hotel in Renfrewshire has a slow internet connection that profoundly impacts its business. It would cost an eye-watering £165,000 to install a fibre broadband connection from its local exchange, which it cannot afford. Like all businesses, it was promised super-fast broadband by 2021, but that will not be delivered. Can the First Minister set out what support there is for the Gleddoch hotel to get a fibre connection as soon as possible?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am happy to have Paul Wheelhouse look into the particular issue of the Gleddoch hotel. He will get back to the member.

On the general issue of broadband, Paul Wheelhouse recently updated Parliament on the Government’s plan. Our commitment to everybody having access to broadband by 2021 is being taken forward. Where that cannot happen through the fibre programme, people will be offered vouchers.

However, on a matter that is substantially reserved, this Government will invest £600 million to provide superfast broadband to every commercial and residential premises in the country, at faster speeds than are available in any other part of the United Kingdom. This is a story of Tory failure in reserved matters, which this Scottish National Party Government is having to step in and fix.


Ministry of Defence (Investment)

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

The Ministry of Defence recently invested £63 million into pier facilities at Glen Mallan on Loch Long in my local area, which will create and sustain many jobs for the local community.

Will the First Minister join me in welcoming that investment by the MOD to enable the United Kingdom’s new aircraft carrier strike force to berth on the shores of Loch Long, and does she recognise the major investment that the MOD is bringing to the Scottish economy?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I welcome investment in Scotland in the UK’s conventional defences, after many years in which we have seen cuts to the conventional defence footprint in Scotland. I hope that we will see that investment continue. I take the opportunity—as I am sure that all members would—to pay tribute to all those who work in our armed forces.


Nursery Teachers (Numbers)

3. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I agreed with the First Minister when she set out plans to expand nursery education and when she pledged that we needed quality, not just quantity. Can she tell me why her councillors in Edinburgh want to remove nursery teachers from this city’s nurseries?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As an aside, I should say that I do not remember Willie Rennie agreeing with me on those matters; however, my memory may be failing me.

I am absolutely committed—as is this Government—to ensuring that we deliver the doubling of early years education and nursery provision. That is on track, and Parliament is regularly updated on it. I absolutely agree that quality, and not just quantity, is important. For example, that is why the funding settlement supports payment of the living wage to make sure that we attract the best people into early years education. We will continue to take forward those plans, because not only are they for the benefit of young people across our country but they will save working families thousands of pounds every year.

Willie Rennie

That was quite an astonishing dodge. In the past hour, Alison Murphy from the Educational Institute of Scotland appeared before the City of Edinburgh Council to describe the cuts to nursery councils as the

“worst example of a short-term cut with devastating long-term impacts.”

That is the action of a Scottish National Party council, half a mile up the road, led by her favourite council leader, on what she called

“the most important infrastructure project of this Parliament.”

We know that nursery teachers improve quality—the Government’s independent workforce review told us that. They help give children the best start in life and close the yawning inequality gap.

It is not just in Edinburgh: 40 per cent of nursery teachers across Scotland have been chopped. We find that those who have the best qualifications as teachers become too expensive to keep. What is the First Minister going to do about this terrible mistake in her big project by her own council? Will she call Adam McVey before it is too late?

The First Minister

Local authorities will take the decisions that they think are right for their areas. Willie Rennie constantly talks about the need to empower local authorities.

I will talk about what this Government is doing. This Government is presiding over possibly the biggest expansion in the early years workforce that we have seen in the lifetime of this Parliament. Since 2017, we have created more than 2,000 additional higher national certificate places and more than 800 graduate-level manager places. We have increased the number of qualified staff available and we are creating just under 2,000 additional college and university places. Uptake of early learning and childcare modern apprenticeships have increased by 24 per cent on the previous year, and investment in the BA childhood practice ensures that we are upskilling the whole workforce.

The fact is that we are doubling childcare provision and that we are seeing the employment of thousands more workers in that sector. That is a good-news story for children and parents across the country, which is why Willie Rennie cannot quite bring himself to welcome it.


Prisons

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

The First Minister will be aware of this morning’s publication of a report from the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee that highlights the crisis in Scotland’s prisons and the urgent action that is needed to address the issues. That follows on from years of underfunding of the Scottish Prison Service, which has resulted in 50 per cent overcrowding at Barlinnie, where many prisoners are doubling up in single occupancy cells. Illness and mental health issues are on the rise among prison officers and, very seriously, there were 258 deaths in prisons between 2008 and 2018. Those are serious issues that have been raised consistently. We have had a lot of words and platitudes, but when are we going to get action?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Let me talk about action. The budget plans that we announced two weeks ago committed an additional £50 million for our prisons, which included a £30 million increase in revenue funding for staffing and other operational costs and a 43 per cent, or £20 million, increase in capital funding. We are investing in the prison estate, prioritising the female custodial estate. We are progressing plans for the replacement of Barlinnie and the development of HMP Highland to replace HMP Inverness. That investment is strong, and rightly so.

Of course, the core challenge that our prisons face is a prison population that is too high. Right now, too many people are in prison who would be better punished elsewhere. When I say “better”, I mean better for them and for reducing their risk of reoffending, as well as better for society as a whole. That is why we are taking forward a range of reforms. We have extended the presumption against short sentences, expanded access to electronic monitoring and invested in bail supervision as an alternative to remand. Actually, since November when the committee was considering the issues, prisoner numbers have already reduced by around 200 because of the actions that we are taking. That is good progress, but we will not be complacent; we will continue to invest and reform to ensure that we continue to have a safe Prison Service, as we do now, and that we provide justice services that are in the interests of society overall.


Scottish Visa

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

In light of the widespread criticism by Scottish industry and employers of the United Kingdom Government’s immigration proposals, will the First Minister outline what response UK ministers have made to proposals for a Scottish visa?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Shamefully, UK ministers have at this stage dismissed out of hand the constructive proposals that the Scottish Government has made on a Scottish visa. The proposals on immigration that were published yesterday are wrong in principle. They brand as low-skilled people who care for us in our care homes and hospitals, farm our land, process our fish, build our houses and look after our tourists in our restaurants and hotels, and imply that those people are not welcome here. That is shocking and shameful, and it should be opposed.

The UK Government’s proposals are also devastating for the future of our economy. Our demographics mean that we need to continue to attract people here, and those proposals will make it much harder. The proposals will make Scotland poorer in future. They are the biggest risk to our economic prosperity that we face. I read in the newspapers this morning that the Scottish Tories are “livid” about the proposals, and so they should be. However, rather than being quietly livid, should the Scottish Tories not be standing up for Scotland and doing something about it?


Asylum Seekers (Right to Vote)

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

I am pleased that the First Minister agrees that the language and the policy on immigration from the United Kingdom Government this week have been deeply damaging. Does she agree that it would be a clear signal that Scotland is more welcoming if we gave those who seek asylum here the right to vote through the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, which we will consider today?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Obviously, Parliament will debate those issues later this afternoon. The Scottish Government has set out its careful and considered position on that. We come from the perspective of wanting asylum seekers to be welcomed here and given the right to work here and play a full part in our society. We carefully consider all those issues.

I am proud that, in Scotland, we have—I hope—cross-party consensus that, generally speaking, the people who live here, no matter where they come from, should have the right to vote in our elections and to make a full contribution to the kind of country that we are and the one that we want to be.


Post-Mortem Reports (Toxicology)

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The First Minister is aware that thousands of bereaved families are facing agonising delays to find out why their loved ones have died. The Crown Office has now told families that it could take a whole year before they receive a final post-mortem report. Those families are living with the trauma of a sudden or unexplained death and they feel failed and abandoned. They were relieved when the First Minister told the chamber last month that that injustice has her full attention. What action has been taken to end those shocking and cruel delays and will she meet some of the families who are coming to Parliament in the coming weeks to hear first hand how the issue is affecting them?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Those are matters that are principally for the law officers. I discuss those issues regularly with the Lord Advocate; indeed, when I see him later today, the toxicology delays that we have talked about before will be among the matters that he updates me on. Investments have been made and work is on-going to deal with that issue.

The other issue that has been previously raised in the chamber is delays to fatal accident inquiries, and I have set out before the issues that the law officers have to deal with there. I know that it is in everybody’s interests that decisions are taken as quickly as possible. I am very happy to ask the Lord Advocate to update Monica Lennon on those issues and answer any further questions that she has.


Access to Medical Services

4. Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what concerns the Scottish Government has regarding difficulties that people with visual impairment can have in accessing medical services because a digital by default approach is increasingly being used. (S5F-03978)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The charter of patient rights and responsibilities makes clear that everyone should be given information about their treatment and care in a format or language that meets their needs. The charter was revised last summer and we have written to all national health service boards to remind them of their responsibilities under it. We have made clear our commitment through our see hear strategy to support children and adults who have sight loss to access the health services and social care that they need.

Christine Grahame

This seems to be an issue across Scotland. For example, Newbattle general practice, which serves my constituents, has adopted e-consult as the means of securing a general practitioner appointment, with only a few exceptions. Constituents have expressed concern that that presents difficulties for them due to visual and other impairments. Does the First Minister agree that, although online systems have their place, they are not the be-all and end-all and that accessible alternatives must be readily available depending on the needs of the individual patient? Otherwise, the system can act as a barrier and have unintended consequences such as giving patients no option but to use A and E instead.

The First Minister

Yes, I agree with that. It should be clear to any practice and any health board that their appointment systems must be accessible to all people regardless of their circumstances. Like Christine Grahame, I believe that there is a place for e-booking systems, but we must encourage health boards to ensure that, when someone has difficulties using the internet, they can call and speak to someone in person. I will ask the health secretary to look at the case that Christine Grahame raises and engage with the health board to ensure that the principles that are outlined in the patient rights charter are being fully implemented.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Does the First Minister agree that, if we deploy some fairly simple technology properly, we can ensure that sections of the community such as people who are visually impaired can be confident in participating fully in society? If so, what will the Scottish Government do to enable that deployment?

The First Minister

Yes, I agree with that. The Scottish Government works with health boards to enable the deployment of existing and new technologies, and the principles in the patient rights charter that I have spoken about are very important. It is incumbent on health boards, whether through technology or in other ways, to make sure that their services are accessible and we will continue to make sure that health boards realise and live up to those responsibilities.


Diabetes

5. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking in response to reports that the number of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes has risen by 40 per cent in the last 10 years. (S5F-03975)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Reducing the prevalence of type 2 diabetes is a priority. In 2018, we published “A Healthier Future—Framework for the Prevention, Early Detection and Early Intervention of type 2 diabetes”, which sets out measures to make a significant impact on prevention and remission by improving support for people with, or who are at risk of, type 2 diabetes. Since then, we have invested an additional £4.5 million to give people better access to weight-management services to support effective and sustained changes to diet and lifestyle. Diabetes Scotland said last week that creating

“healthy environments which support people to make healthier choices”

Is critical. That is why “A Healthier Future—Scotland’s Diet and Healthy Weight Delivery Plan” sets out more than 60 wide-ranging actions to make it easier for people to eat well and have healthy weight.

Jamie Greene

I thank the First Minister for those comments, and I add my support for the great work that Diabetes Scotland does.

The reality is that type 2 diabetes is on the rise, which is a worrying trend. The number of people in Scotland who have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is 250,000. However, it is estimated that up to 26,000 Scots are living with the condition but have not been diagnosed. The majority of those new cases will be linked to obesity, but the good news is that type 2 diabetes is not just treatable, but is preventable, and in many cases reversible, with the right mix of medication, diet and lifestyle changes.

In light of that, what specifically is being done to identify undiagnosed cases, so that those people can be treated? What is the Government doing to improve treatment of those who are currently living with the condition? More important, does the First Minister believe that it was a mistake to scrap the flagship policy of health checks for 40-year-olds in Scotland, given that that has removed a vital opportunity to identify potential cases at an earlier age?

The First Minister

We encourage early detection and diagnosis across a range of conditions. Jamie Greene is right to focus on the importance of that. I am sure that he has read “A Healthier Future—Framework for the Prevention, Early Detection and Early Intervention of type 2 diabetes”, in which all those strands were deliberately included.

Prevention is key, which is why the healthy environment that Diabetes Scotland talks about is really important in supporting people to eat healthily in order to maintain healthy weight. Early detection is also important. I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to provide more details about how that aspect of the framework is being taken forward.

As with any condition, if it is not detected and diagnosed, treating it and—as Jamie Greene said—in the case of type 2 diabetes, possibly reversing it, are not possible. Those are important priorities, which is why they are deliberately focused on in the framework.

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The First Minister will be well aware that Scotland has one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in Europe. It costs the NHS £1 billion a year in avoidable complications, and one in 10 hospital bed days relates to diabetes. Does the First Minister share my view that we need radical and immediate action to reduce the long-term complications of diabetes, which is a condition that maims, blinds and kills?

The First Minister

In general terms, I share that view. Obviously, the specifics are important. As David Stewart knows from his long-standing interest in the topic, that means taking action across a range of areas, as I have just been saying.

Prevention remains the most important focus, in many respects. That is why we will, during this session, introduce a bill on restricting food promotions to ensure that people are supported to eat healthily. Treatment is also important, so there is a lot of investment and effort in our national health service to ensure that people have access to the best available treatment.

I appreciate David Stewart’s interest and I know that he is aware of the actions that are under way. The health secretary and others in the Government are always willing to have discussions about what more we can do to prevent people from getting diabetes, and to support those who have it to live with it in a way that—hopefully—sees the condition being reversed or which, at the very least, enables them to manage it without further complications.


Coronavirus

6. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the First Minster what action the Scottish Government is taking to prepare the national health service to deal with the coronavirus. (S5F-03958)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As it stands, today there are still no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Scotland. However, it is clearly prudent to assume that that will change in the days and weeks ahead. Our NHS is well prepared to respond to disease outbreaks, and has in place tried and tested measures for managing public health incidents of this type.

Health Protection Scotland and the Scottish Government continue to work closely with boards on their preparedness for managing potential cases. Health Protection Scotland has already produced specific guidance on investigation and initial management of suspected cases, which has been communicated to boards via a letter from the chief medical officer.

The establishment of testing facilities in Edinburgh and Glasgow has enabled quicker notification of results. The Scottish Government is encouraging organisations to ensure that business continuity plans are refreshed, in light of the coronavirus. We are also promoting good respiratory hygiene practices in order to minimise the risk of catching and spreading it.

Jackie Baillie

I welcome the First Minister’s response. The spread of coronavirus has been rapid, and the number of people who have been affected has increased dramatically.

We do not have any confirmed cases of infection in Scotland, but it is just a matter of time until we do. On that basis, can the First Minister tell me what additional planning has been undertaken to ensure that there are sufficient infection-control staff, additional isolation facilities and sufficient bed capacity in our already overstretched hospitals to cope with the virus?

The First Minister

It will be just a matter of time until we see cases here. There is still a lot to learn about the virus—whom it affects, whom it affects most severely, how it spreads and the rate of infection. That knowledge is developing almost every day.

We are currently, and sensibly, using the pandemic flu plan to assess and prepare resources and response planning. Health Protection Scotland has produced clinical and laboratory guidance for investigation and initial management, which I spoke about earlier today. We are looking very carefully at the resources that health boards have and need, and at how they would be required to redeploy resources in the event of a serious outbreak of coronavirus. We have activated the Scottish Government resilience room to support those efforts: I chaired its first meeting on 29 January.

I assure Parliament that plans are well under way and are well developed. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will keep Parliament fully updated, as the situation develops.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you. That concludes First Minster’s questions. We move on shortly to a members’ business debate in the name of Maurice Golden, on tackling climate change and the role of Scottish agriculture. There will be a short suspension to allow members, the First Minister and members of the public in the gallery to change seats.

12:46 Meeting suspended.  12:48 On resuming—