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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, February 8, 2024


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time.

Police Numbers (Edinburgh)

1. Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the most recent “Police Scotland Officer & Staff Numbers” statistics showing the number of police officers in Police Scotland’s Edinburgh division. (S6O-03078)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

The latest statistics on police officer numbers were published earlier this week, showing that there were 48 more officers deployed in Edinburgh as of 31 December 2023 compared to the same point in 2022. Additionally, the city’s E division is able to access specialist regional and national expertise when that is required to meet demand. I welcome the chief constable’s commitment to restarting officer recruitment in March, following the positive budget settlement for policing in the draft 2024-25 budget. That means that the chief constable will have more officers available to deploy, in addition to the almost 1,480 officers who have been recruited since the beginning of 2022.

Sue Webber

Since the Scottish National Party Government decided to merge Scotland’s police forces into one, that action has had a devastating impact on the visible footprint of police officers in our communities. Despite the cabinet secretary’s response, in the Edinburgh police division alone, there has been a drop of 76 officers, which is a loss of more than one in 20 officers in just over a decade. It is no wonder that recorded violent crime in Edinburgh has increased by 10 per cent in the past year alone. Why has the SNP Government left our hard-working police officers to fend for themselves in the face of rising violent crime?

Angela Constance

As I am sure the member is aware, since this Government took office in 2007, Scotland is safer—recorded crime is at one of the historic lows since 1974—and there has been a decrease of 40 per cent in recorded crime. I remind the member that our police officers remain the best paid in the United Kingdom, and that we continue to have more hard-working police officers now compared with what we inherited in 2007.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

While the UK Government continues to slash Scotland’s public service funding, with the latest autumn statement imposing further damage after more than a decade of austerity, the Scottish Government has supported our vital emergency services and has increased pay for staff. Can the cabinet secretary provide detail on the funding that has been allocated in the recent draft budget and what it will mean for Police Scotland?

Angela Constance

If the UK Government is not cutting public services and the Scottish block grant, it is meddling with pension changes, which has a huge impact on the retention of police officers. Protecting front-line services and supporting those who deliver them is a key priority for the Scottish Government. That is why, despite the challenging financial circumstances, there is a very good settlement for the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland in the draft budget. We will invest £1.55 billion in policing in the next financial year, which is a significant increase of £75 million in resource and a 12.5 per cent increase in capital. As the budget progresses, I hope that we will have the Conservatives’ support, for the sake of policing in Scotland.

As ever, there is much interest in the questions. I would be grateful if we could pick up the pace.

Psychological Services (Availability)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure the availability of psychological services for all who need them. (S6O-03079)

The Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport (Maree Todd)

We want people in Scotland, regardless of their background or circumstances, to have access to the right help at the right time when they struggle with their mental or physical health. To support the delivery of that ambition, the Scottish Government published the “National Specification for the Delivery of Psychological Therapies and Interventions in Scotland” in September 2023. The specification sets out what people can expect when they are referred for a psychological therapy. It also details the evidence-based treatments and whole-system approach that services should offer. That includes a choice to access our much-expanded range of digital interventions. More than £1.3 billion will be invested in mental health services and support in 2024-25. The implementation of the specification will help to ensure that our national health service delivers psychological therapies to the highest standard and will enable greater equity and consistency across Scotland.

Fulton MacGregor

The minister will be aware that I have recently written to her about the Lanarkshire Counselling and CBT Centre, which is based in Coatbridge. Set up in 2019, the service has already provided therapy to more than 9,000 people across Lanarkshire. It has more than 100 therapists on hand and can provide individual counselling and group work sessions. Crucially, there is no waiting list, so people can access the support when they need it. Local people seem to really value that service, which is undoubtedly taking pressure off other NHS services. Will the minister be open to visiting the centre and discussing the further supports that are available to allow it to continue to provide that service and to meet the increasing demand?

Maree Todd

Our mental health and wellbeing strategy is absolutely clear on the need for a wide range of options to provide support for those who need it. I am aware of the member’s letter and will respond as soon as I can. I welcome him drawing that to my attention and I appreciate the additional support that the centre is providing in Lanarkshire.

We continue to work with NHS boards across Scotland to offer high-quality, enhanced and specialist psychological care by implementing the new national specification for psychological therapies. We are focusing on increasing public access to free, evidence-based therapies throughout the NHS.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

Recent figures show that one in four consultant psychiatrist roles are currently vacant. All the while, the Government is freezing the mental health budget again and is failing to meet its waiting time targets. Does the minister accept that mental health will be a priority for the Government only when it starts treating it as such?

Maree Todd

We continue to invest record amounts in mental health provision across the country to ensure that people’s needs are met effectively, safely and in a timely fashion. We are working in an unprecedented financial situation, which might lead to difficult decisions about future investment, but we remain committed to supporting all boards to achieve the standard that 90 per cent of patients start treatment within 18 weeks of referral and to improving the quality as well as the choice of treatments. A suite of work is going on across the board—from medical student level to consultant level—to increase the number of psychiatrists and trainees at every level. Recently, we have had huge investment in psychological therapies, so clinical psychology numbers have gone up. As a result of that work, the median waiting time for psychological therapies—from referral to being seen—is now a mere three weeks.

From this point, to enable more members to contribute, we will have concise questions and responses.

Budget 2024-25 (Primary Care Services)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has conducted an analysis of the potential impact that its 2024-25 budget will have on primary care services. (S6O-03080)

The Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health (Jenni Minto)

The draft budget invests more than £2.1 billion in primary care to improve preventative care in the community, by supporting the development of multidisciplinary teams in general practice, sustaining national health service dental care through enhanced fees, and continuing free eye examinations.

In-depth analysis of specific primary care service requirements was fed into budget considerations at both official and ministerial level. For example, delivery projections for multidisciplinary teams were assessed using six-monthly primary care improvement plan trackers, while, for dentistry and optometry—which are predominantly demand-led lines—forecast models and estimates of activity were prepared to inform budget allocation.

In addition to assessment of financial need, equality impact assessments were conducted as necessary to support changes in policy, and they can be found on the budget web pages.

Liz Smith

We know that general practitioner numbers have decreased since 2017 to fewer than 3,500 whole-time equivalents, although demand has increased substantially. Is there not now a strong case for reconfiguring the health budget so that there is more emphasis on primary care?

Jenni Minto

Scotland continues to have a higher number of GPs per head of population than the rest of the United Kingdom. A record number of GPs are working in Scotland and we are committed to increasing that number further. The GP head count now sits consistently at more than 5,000, with an increase of 271 additional GPs since 2017. We also invest more than £1 million per annum in a range of recruitment and retention initiatives, so that working as a GP in Scotland remains an attractive career choice.

Covid-19 (Scottish Government Decisions)

4. Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the United Kingdom Covid-19 inquiry, what its response is to reports that Scottish Government decisions appeared to have been taken for “purely political” reasons, including comments made by the former First Minister’s chief of staff regarding seeking a “good old-fashioned rammy” with the UK Government. (S6O-03081)

The Minister for Parliamentary Business (George Adam)

The comments that Mr Findlay refers to were extracted from evidence regarding the furlough scheme, which was controlled by the UK Government. The comments were for the purpose of delivering the right results: to push the UK Government into action to ensure that furlough would be available to the people of Scotland if the Scottish Government wanted to apply restrictions. Throughout the pandemic, our sole focus and intention was to protect the people of Scotland from the harms of Covid-19. The Scottish Government remains wholly committed to assisting the UK and Scottish Covid-19 inquiries in all their work.

Before I call Mr Findlay, I ask Mr Lumsden to refrain from commenting.

Russell Findlay

Those comments were not from some junior civil servant or back bencher. They were said by former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s right-hand woman, her closest adviser. Liz Lloyd was one of the most powerful people in the Government, with huge influence over key Covid decisions, including on the numbers of people who were allowed at funerals and weddings. When she says that the Scottish National Party should act for “purely political” reasons and provoke a “rammy” with the UK Government, we should believe her. Does that not show the very worst of the SNP’s toxic nationalist agenda—exploiting a pandemic to try to drive a wedge between the people of the UK?

George Adam

First and foremost, I found Mr Findlay’s use of language repulsive given that he was talking about Covid-19 and the families who suffered during that period.

Mr Findlay’s supplementary question was a bit confused at best, but I will endeavour, as always, to try to give the member an answer. As I said in my original answer, it was for a purpose—to deliver results for the people of Scotland, to protect them from harm and to ensure that they had financial liquidity during a very difficult period in our recent past. Surely Mr Findlay thinks that that is a good thing for the people of Scotland.

Humanitarian Aid (Funding Criteria)

To ask the Scottish Government what criteria it considers when determining how to allocate funding for humanitarian aid in situations such as those in Gaza. (S6O-03082)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development (Christina McKelvie)

The primary mechanism through which the Scottish Government responds to a humanitarian crisis is the humanitarian emergency fund. Decisions on which crises to respond to through the HEF are made by the Scottish ministers, based on recommendations from a panel of eight leading humanitarian aid organisations.

We have recently responded to emergencies in Pakistan, Malawi, Ukraine, Turkey and Syria, and Gaza. Key considerations in those cases were which organisations were already on the ground and able to provide a rapid response and value for money. That was the case for Gaza and, similarly, for Zambia, for which I announced last week £500,000 to respond to a deadly cholera epidemic through the Red Cross.

Bill Kidd

The humanitarian crisis that we have seen unfold in Gaza is harrowing and is worsening by the day, underscoring the need for urgent action. Does the minister agree that the only way to ensure mutual peace and security is through the recognition of a Palestinian state, alongside a binding commitment to the two-state solution? Can she say what representations the Scottish Government has made to the United Kingdom Government with regard to such recognition?

Christina McKelvie

I do not think that anyone can look at the images that we are seeing on our TV screens every day and not realise that we need a ceasefire now in order to bring about progress to peace. I wish all the sides well, and I will continue to do that.

We would add our voice to that aim. The Scottish Government supports a two-state solution. We think that it is the only way to progress to peace. In November last year, the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister in those terms. We will continue to make such representations to the UK Government as the issue continues. Today is another example of the Scottish Government calling on the UK Government to get round the table, call for a ceasefire and make some progress to peace in order to support the people—the civilians—in Gaza.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

All of us despair about the on-going conflict and crisis that is happening the world over, but that is my point—there is conflict the world over. In that vein, what criteria does the Scottish Government use to decide where and to whom it sends financial aid and what due diligence does it undertake before and during such financial payments?

Christina McKelvie

I will ensure that Jamie Greene gets more details on our humanitarian emergency fund and our partners in it. Eight leading humanitarian aid organisations are involved in the decision-making process. When they alert us to an on-going or a possible crisis, we take their advice and decide whether it meets the criteria for funding from the humanitarian emergency fund.

The system that we have in place is well rehearsed and organised. I will ensure that Jamie Greene gets more detail on the HEF and conversations with key partners such as Oxfam, which gives us a sitrep almost every day on the situation in Gaza.

Predator Control (Animal Welfare Standards)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that all legal predator control is carried out in a way that is consistent with best practice in animal welfare standards. (S6O-03083)

The Minister for Energy and the Environment (Gillian Martin)

I recognise that control of predators is sometimes necessary in order to protect livestock and other vulnerable species. However, the Government is committed to the highest standards of animal welfare, which we are demonstrating through provisions that we are bringing forward in the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill to ban the use of glue traps and snares, for example. We are also seeking to license the use of certain cage and spring traps to ensure that trapping is undertaken only in line with best practice for animal welfare.

David Torrance

The minister will be aware of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics report “Killing to Kill”, which examines the trapping and killing of animals so that more grouse can be shot for sport. Will that ethical issue be addressed through the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill?

Gillian Martin

Yes, that issue will be addressed. The “Killing to Kill” report highlighted that 39 per cent of animals trapped in a range of traps are “non-target species”, such as hedgehogs and protected species such as badgers. Our recent decision to ban the use of snares in Scotland is in part due to their indiscriminate nature and the unacceptable risk that they pose to non-target species, including other wildlife and domestic species—we have heard many reports of domestic cats being caught in snares.

The Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill will require that individuals who use traps, such as Larsen or crow cage traps, to capture live birds have to undertake training in order to hold a licence. When they are operated in line with best practice, those traps have a much lower risk of trapping non-target species.

Scottish Languages Bill (Areas of Linguistic Significance)

7. Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what support will be put in place to assist local authorities in establishing “areas of linguistic significance”, as set out in the Scottish Languages Bill.

Gus faighneachd de Riaghaltas na h-Alba dè an taic a bhios ann do dh’ughdarrasan ionadail a tha airson àitichean a tha “sònraichte a thaobh cànain” a stèidheachadh, mar a chaidh a chur an làthair ann am Bile nan Cànan Albannach. (S6O-03084)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

The designation of areas of linguistic significance will ultimately be a matter for local authorities. For areas that may wish to be designated as areas of linguistic significance, a range of Gaelic support and provision is already in place, which includes the central Scottish Government funding support, the commitments of public bodies and local activity from Gaelic community organisations. That support will be built on and strengthened by the new provisions in the Scottish Languages Bill. Guidance will also be prepared to assist local authorities in their process of considering areas in their local area that could benefit from designation.

Alasdair Allan

Can the cabinet secretary say any more at present about whether the Scottish Government or Bòrd na Gàidhlig may seek to place a duty on local authorities to establish an area of linguistic significance where, for example, a high proportion of the population are Gaelic speakers?

Jenny Gilruth

As Dr Allan will be aware, it is fair to say that there is a range of opinions on the matter. However, I expect that, during the parliamentary consideration, views will be offered that suggest that the Scottish Government or Bòrd na Gàidhlig should have an enhanced role in the designation of areas of linguistic significance. We are still at a very early stage with the legislation, but I assure the member that I will seriously consider those views and any observations that the Education, Children and Young People Committee might wish to make.