Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, June 13, 2024


General Question Time

Good afternoon—or, actually, good morning. [Laughter.] The first item of business is general questions.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health (Admissions)

1. Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will end the reported practice of children and young people being admitted to adult services for treatment, rather than a national health service specialist child and adolescent mental health ward. (S6O-03573)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Neil Gray)

We expect children and young people who require in-patient mental health care to be looked after in age-appropriate facilities. We have three regional young person units providing specialist support to young people from across Scotland, as well as a national child psychiatric in-patient unit.

Very occasionally a young person will be admitted to an adult ward—for example, where they require admission to an intensive psychiatric care unit and cannot be safely cared for in an open adolescent unit. Admission will be for the shortest possible time and under strict conditions, including supervision from child and adolescent mental health service clinicians and following the guidance on admission to adult mental health wards for under-18s.

Miles Briggs

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. I recently held a round-table meeting in the Parliament, when I welcomed Jane and Dave Macdonnell, who told MSPs about the experience of their son, Harris. I thank the MSPs who attended that meeting, at which the Macdonnells bravely read out Harris’s essay, “Escape”, which captured his time being held in an adult service.

Harris said:

“When I became unwell, I was admitted to Huntlyburn Adult Psychiatric Unit, because there were no beds in Scotland available in any Young Person’s Unit. No other young person should have to go through the experience I had.

It was the wrong place for someone who was already mixed up, frightened and unsure of who they were. The environment heightened my anxiety. After treatment for my injuries I was cared for in the Young Person’s Unit in Edinburgh for 2 months and I began my recovery.”

Harris Macdonnell tragically took his own life in 2020.

I welcome the meeting that I recently managed to secure with Maree Todd. The family have had meetings with her, too. I also welcome the news of the fatal accident inquiry that is now to take place regarding Harris’s case.

However, the scandal of children and young people still being admitted to adult services has to end. It has gone on for too long. Will the Scottish Government now act and agree to introduce a ban on children and young people being admitted to adult services?

Neil Gray

I thank Miles Briggs for his work in representing the Macdonnell family, to whom I pass my sincere condolences, and I pay tribute to the incredible work that they are doing through the Harris Trust, in Harris’s memory. I also pay tribute to Miles Briggs for the work that he has done, including the meeting that he held with my colleague Maree Todd.

Of course, such circumstances are horrendous for any family to deal with, and we will keep working to ensure that they are avoided. To enhance future provision, we are providing funding to boards to develop regional adolescent intensive psychiatric care units. We currently have 54 CAMHS in-patient beds across Scotland for children and adolescents, in the Dudhope young people’s unit, the Melville unit and Skye house. Those units admit children and young people from their health board regions, with the flexibility to admit from other regions if the unit closest to a child or young person is full.

I will, of course, take on board the ask that Miles Briggs has raised, but I return to the point that I made in my opening reply, which was that, in some circumstances—I hope that they are rare circumstances—it is necessary to ensure safe delivery of care for children and young people. Sometimes they need to be seen in adult services, but that must be done following the guidance that I mentioned, while ensuring that it is avoided, wherever possible.

Empty Homes Officers (Funding)

2. Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will consider increasing funding for empty homes officers, in light of the First Minister’s reported statement that empty homes are key to tackling the housing emergency. (S6O-03574)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

Since 2010, we have invested over £800,000 to embed empty homes officers within councils through funding for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership. Ariane Burgess rightly highlights the effectiveness of our approach, as endorsed by the independent audit last year, with 9,000 homes being brought back into use.

Although it is for councils to determine how to deploy their resources to best effect, the audit recognised the critical role that officers play in unlocking barriers, particularly with private owners. They are an essential component of the partnership’s co-produced strategic empty homes framework approach to maximising the impact across local authority housing services. We recently updated guidance to councils about utilising the ring-fenced revenue that they derive from the council tax on second and empty homes to fund more officers.

Ariane Burgess

In Tiree, a constituent was recently on the brink of leaving the island, where her family work and volunteer, because they could not find a home to rent. Thirty-six per cent of homes in Tiree do not meet local needs because they are holiday lets or empty homes. Argyll and Bute Council and Tiree Community Development Trust are working hard with the resources that they have to address that, but many people across the Highlands and Islands still cannot find or afford a decent home in the community in which they want to live. What more is the Scottish Government doing to get empty properties back into use as homes for people who need them?

Paul McLennan

I met housing associations and development trusts in Argyll and Bute with the local member about a month ago to discuss that particular point. It is up to the local authority how it uses its funds on empty homes officers. However, there is a real role for development trusts, as well. I would be happy to meet Ariane Burgess to discuss that further, because their role is essential.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

Last month, the Scottish Government declared a housing emergency, with tens of thousands of people struggling to find suitable accommodation. However, the latest Scottish Government figures show that the number of long-term-empty properties has increased by 4 per cent, to more than 46,000, in a year. The Scottish Conservatives, as well as charities including Crisis, have called for the creation of a fund that would allow councils to convert such properties into affordable housing. Does the Scottish Government intend to introduce such a fund?

Paul McLennan

I mentioned our investment. We have invested £3.7 million in the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership since 2010, and we have brought back 9,000 homes since 2010. I know that the Scottish Tories previously announced that they wanted to spend £255 million to bring back 7,400 homes. Our approach demonstrates that it is the best way to proceed.

I meet local authorities and discuss those particular points. We are always encouraging local authorities to take on more empty homes partnerships, but it is up to them. Only this morning, I met the City of Edinburgh Council—which is taking on more empty homes partnerships—to discuss that point. Again, I am happy to discuss the issue with Ariane Burgess.

NHS Lothian and NHS Borders (Finances)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with NHS Lothian and NHS Borders regarding financial stability in the 2024-25 financial year. (S6O-03575)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Neil Gray)

Despite our significant investment in 2024-25, with an increase of over half a billion pounds, which presents a real-terms uplift to front-line boards, the system remains under extreme pressure as a result of the on-going impacts of Covid, Brexit, inflation and United Kingdom Government spending decisions.

The Scottish Government’s financial delivery unit works closely with all boards, including NHS Lothian and NHS Borders, as part of the financial planning process. The Scottish Government has met NHS Lothian and NHS Borders on multiple occasions to develop and implement 2024-25 financial plans this year. Quarter 1 reviews will be held in the coming months to assess their current financial performance.

Craig Hoy

Mr Gray is aware that both health boards face a bleak financial future as a result of the Scottish National Party’s misplaced financial priorities. The decisions that they are now taking are causing real concerns to national health service staff and worried patients. In the Scottish Borders, 92 essential community hospital beds, including in Kelso, Hawick, Duns and Peebles, are at risk. In East Lothian, the Edington and Belhaven hospitals, the Abbey residential care home and Blossom house residential care home have been summarily closed without any consultation. To top it all, general practitioners in East Lothian face massive increases in facilities management fees.

Despite the Scottish Government being the root cause of those problems, it is passing the buck. Michael Taylor of the primary care directorate recently wrote to me to say that, although the Scottish Government had a national approach to the issue of facilities management fees, it was for boards to agree

“any fair and equitable approach”.

Is it not time for the Scottish Government to step in, properly fund boards, and halt those damaging charges and closures?

Neil Gray

There is, of course, a hint of irony in Craig Hoy’s question about the financial stability of our health boards, because our decisions to have a more progressive form of taxation, which means that we have raised £1.5 billion more for public services here in Scotland, were opposed by the Scottish Conservatives.

The allocation to the national health service of the Barnett consequentials that came from the spring budget was also opposed by the Scottish Conservatives. They wanted us to divert that money to business tax relief and are well entitled to do so, but if they had had their way, it would have led to an even worse situation for our health boards because of the financial challenges that they face.

Regarding the situation that is faced by general practices, I, of course, greatly value the work that they do, but it is for boards to come forward and resolve the situation. We invested more than £1.2 billion in general medical services in 2023-24 and are fully committed to increasing the number of GPs in Scotland to ensure that more people get the right care in the right place at the right time. We have a record number of GPs in training and have a head count that includes 271 more GPs in Scotland as a result of our actions. We will keep supporting their work in primary care, which is the bedrock of our health service.

The Presiding Officer

I am going to call Sarah Boyack for a brief supplementary question. Before I do so, I remind all members that the length of questions and responses in this session means that it will be impossible for me to get in all members who wish to contribute.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

With 84 per cent of Scotland’s future population growth expected to be in the Lothians, NHS Lothian is in desperate need of investment, but our health board is already having to make a 6 per cent saving by cutting vital services, including diabetes technology. Yesterday, in a meeting with the cabinet secretary, the campaign group KEEP—keep Edinburgh eye pavilion—reinforced the urgent need for investment in a new eye pavilion. What will the Scottish Government do now to ensure that our health board has the funding to cope with substantial increases in our population now and in the future?

Neil Gray

As I outlined to Craig Hoy, we have passed on a real-terms increase to our front-line boards so that they can respond to the challenges that they face following Covid, Brexit, inflation and the UK cost of living crisis. I recognise that there are challenges despite the 3 per cent real-terms increase, which we have delivered in the face of a falling block grant from Westminster. We have increased the budget for Lothian by £82.2 million this year, but I recognise the challenges that persist.

Sarah Boyack asked about the eye pavilion, but we are in an even more acute situation with capital because of the £1.3 billion cut by the UK Government to our capital budget. It is incumbent on colleagues across the chamber to ensure that they lobby the UK Government—of whichever colour comes next—to invest properly in the health service, rather than continuing the austerity that is currently on offer from both parties.

Housing Standards (Letterboxes)

4. Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Communication Workers Union’s call for housing standards to be updated to ensure that letterboxes are positioned at a suitably accessible height. (S6O-03576)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

The Scottish Government is aware of the Communication Workers Union’s long-standing campaign highlighting the health and safety issues that low-level letterboxes present to its members. I recognise the benefits that addressing the issue would have for its members and, more generally, for the accessibility and safety of homes.

Officials are engaging with the CWU and are assessing the options for amendment to building standards guidance, subject to further engagement with industry stakeholders. That amendment would provide more explicit guidance about the positioning of the letterboxes provided in new dwellings.

Stuart McMillan

I have been working with the CWU’s national health and safety officer for more than a year on the issue of low-level letterboxes and have also been in dialogue with Scottish Government officials. I am told that there are no objections to banning low-level letterboxes in future developments or in door replacements, because that would benefit postal workers by reducing the risk of injury. Will the minister outline the steps that the Scottish Government has taken to implement that policy?

Paul McLennan

I am committed to reviewing the building standards guidance regarding low-level letterboxes and am working with stakeholders, prior to any change to building standards guidance, to confirm that there will be no unintended consequences. Officials will continue engaging with the CWU and with wider industry stakeholders to assess the options for amending building standards guidance. I reassure the member that updates to the guidance will follow that process as soon as is possible.

General Practitioner Numbers

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what steps it is taking to increase the number of GPs. (S6O-03577)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Neil Gray)

Let me be clear: GPs are highly valued in our national health service, and I thank them for their tireless work supporting patients in our communities.

I remain fully committed to increasing the number of GPs in Scotland by 800, by 2027. The GP head count has increased by 271 since 2017 and it is consistently more than 5,000. Training new GPs is key and we have expanded GP specialty training, adding 35 places this academic year and 35 places next year. There are currently more than 1,200 trainee GPs in Scotland, which is a record, and we have invested more than £1 million into a range of recruitment and retention initiatives.

Kenneth Gibson

Will the cabinet secretary advise members how GP numbers in Scotland compare with those in other parts of the United Kingdom? Given that concerns have been raised by constituents about the time that it takes to obtain an appointment, how much have the numbers of patients presenting at GP surgeries risen since the pandemic? What work is being undertaken with surgeries to improve the efficiency of their appointment systems?

Neil Gray

Kenneth Gibson is correct that we have a far higher number of GPs per head of population in Scotland than is present in England and Wales, but we are not complacent about that situation. That is why we are investing in the GP training programmes, as well as the recruitment and retention work that I described. We are also ensuring that there is equity of access between urban and rural areas, which is why the Scottish graduate entry medicine programme is so important, as well as the rural fellowship programme.

We know that 90 per cent of all health service interactions are in primary care, and that the complexity of the needs of patients who are arriving at GP practices has increased, post pandemic. That means that the length of time for which GPs need to see their patients has increased, putting great pressure on those services, which is why we continue to invest in multidisciplinary teams to provide the capacity and support that primary care practitioners need.

Anti-poverty Work

6. Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its work to tackle poverty, in the light of recent analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showing that 86 per cent of low-income households receiving universal credit were going without the essentials and that nearly 1 million people in the United Kingdom are “only £10 a week away from poverty”. (S6O-03578)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Despite facing the most challenging budget settlement since devolution, we are committing more than £3 billion this year to policies that tackle poverty and protect people, as far as possible, during the on-going cost of living crisis. That includes investment in our game-changing Scottish child payment and into early learning and childcare, as well as providing free bus travel for more than 2 million people.

Our action is making a difference, with modelling estimating that our policies will keep 100,000 children out of relative poverty this year. Of course, we could go so much further, if Westminster matched Scotland’s ambition, with policies towards eradicating child poverty such as introducing an essentials guarantee and abolishing the two-child limit.

Collette Stevenson

With austerity, Brexit and the cost of living crisis, those figures are a shocking indictment of 14 years of Tory rule. The Resolution Foundation warns that the Tory’s manifesto plans would slash welfare by another £12 billion. Will the cabinet secretary outline what she will discuss with her UK Government counterpart after the election, given that the key powers are reserved to Westminster? Does she agree that it would be better if the Scottish Government could invest more in its own anti-poverty policies, rather than having to mitigate the cuts from cruel Westminster policies such as the bedroom tax?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Collette Stevenson is right to point out that there is money that the Scottish Government has to invest in our people because we have to mitigate the effect of welfare cuts. Currently, we invest £134 million to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap. It certainly appears that, regardless of who wins the next UK election and who is in number 10, those mitigations will have to remain in place, because no changes will be made. We would like to go further on the issue, but it is difficult to see how we can do that when, despite the promises that have been made, no new funding for anti-poverty measures is coming from either party.

I will take question 7, if members are brief.

RAAC (Aberdeen City Council)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last engaged with Aberdeen City Council in relation to reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. (S6O-03579)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

Scottish Government officials met Aberdeen City Council officers on 4 June to discuss the council’s progress on its planned rehoming programme and its options appraisal for the remediation of properties in which RAAC has been identified in poor condition. I have committed to continuing to engage with council leaders on the issue and plan to meet them over the coming weeks as they continue to make progress on the issue.

Audrey Nicoll

The minister is aware of the significant wellbeing toll that the RAAC situation in my constituency is taking on around 350 households, and I commend council officers for their commitment in supporting tenants as they are rehoused. Similarly, home owners are deeply concerned about the viability of their properties. Many have substantial mortgages and have worked hard to enhance their homes.

The costs that are associated with resolving the matter will be significant. Notwithstanding that the final option is still being assessed, what financial flexibility exists for the Scottish Government and local authorities to work together to identify the most pragmatic possible financial solution?

Paul McLennan

To date, Aberdeen City Council’s only specific request for flexibility has been around the temporary use of Ukraine longer-term resettlement fund homes to assist in its planned rehoming project. The Scottish Government worked with the council to accommodate that request. We will be happy to give due consideration to any detailed proposals that come forward, and I am sure that members across the chamber will join me in calling on an incoming United Kingdom Government to deliver a dedicated RAAC fund.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes general question time. Before we move to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery Nathalie Roy MNA, president of the National Assembly of Quebec. [Applause.]