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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 14, 2024


Topical Question Time

General Practitioner Sustainability Loan Scheme

1. Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent British Medical Association Scotland survey, which found that 30 GP practices consider their position to be “precarious” following the pausing of the GP sustainability loan scheme. (S6T-01985)

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

We greatly value the contribution that general practice makes to the nation’s health, and we want to ensure that GP practices have the support that they need. That is why we intend to resume tranche 1 of the sustainability loan scheme in 2024-25, once we have completed the disbursement of funds for those loans already completed and confirmed a budget. That will likely not be until midway through the financial year.

Our preference remains to continue the loan scheme into tranche 2 and beyond. However, that will depend on whether the United Kingdom Government resumes the allocation of financial transaction capital to the Scottish Government.

Tess White

We have massive cuts to health board budgets, reduced funding for primary care, rising overheads and on-going recruitment and retention issues. GP surgeries are desperate for support to make them sustainable. It beggars belief that the Scottish National Party Government would press pause on the scheme. That is a hammer blow to GPs when primary care is in crisis. Clinicians have told me that patients will come to harm because of the SNP Government’s spending decisions. Does the cabinet secretary accept that? Will he restart the loan scheme process immediately?

Neil Gray

Tess White makes a number of points, the first of which is to recognise the undoubted pressure and demand on general practice. I have visited a number of GP practices in recent weeks and have met Dr Buist on a number of occasions regarding the particular issue of sustainability loans and the general situation across primary care.

I have already set out our intention regarding moving forward on the sustainability loan scheme. Austerity has a consequence. We have seen a 62 per cent—nearly two-thirds—reduction in financial transactions. That has a direct consequence on the availability of funding that we are able to pass on. However, we are keen to be able to reopen the scheme to ensure that we continue to support practices in a scheme that is unavailable certainly in England and, I believe, elsewhere in the UK.

Tess White

The reality is that rural and remote communities are being hit especially hard by the crisis in primary care, and the cabinet secretary cannot pass the buck. In the north of Scotland, Burghead and Hopeman surgeries in Moray have closed. Others—such as Braemar and Oldmeldrum surgeries—have handed back their contracts. Scotland has lost around 100 GP practices in the past 10 years. That is a crisis presided over by the central belt SNP Government. Can the cabinet secretary tell GPs and patients today whether he is committed to keeping GP surgeries open and ensuring that care is kept as close to home as possible, because we cannot afford to lose any more GP surgeries?

Neil Gray

In short, yes, I am. I do not accept Tess White’s assertion about the Government. I am a cabinet secretary who is originally from Orkney. I could hardly be counted as being overly central belt orientated.

The point remains that the finances that are available to us are being reduced by the UK Government. The block grant allocation is down, and our financial transactions have been reduced by 62 per cent. That has a consequence for what we are able to pass on.

We have, of course, brought in more progressive taxation to raise additional funds. That is opposed by the Conservative Party. That approach means that we are able to pass on a real-terms increase to our health boards to provide support.

In spite of that, I recognise that there are still challenges. Of course, we will continue to do what we can to support GP practices and primary care because, as I said at the outset, they make an invaluable contribution to our health service and ensure that we avoid people needing to move on to other parts of the health service. However, that is made all the more difficult by the continued fiscal choices that are being made by Westminster Governments.

I am keen to bring in as many members as possible. Concise questions and responses will help.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

Can the cabinet secretary provide any update on the Scottish Government’s latest engagement with the United Kingdom Government regarding those significant reductions to the funding stream for the scheme? Can he provide assurances that the Scottish Government will press the UK Government for the funding to resume?

Neil Gray

Yes. As I have outlined, the Scottish Government’s financial transactions allocation has been reduced by 62 per cent since 2022-23. In March, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government called on the UK Government to provide clarity on the future of our FT allocation and to increase investment in capital projects. However, the UK Government’s spring statement provided no clarity and no additional capital or FT funding for Scotland, coupled with a real-terms reduction in capital funding. We will have to continue making tough decisions to reprioritise our infrastructure pipeline, ensuring that we spend within the limited funding available. Unfortunately, we do not see much light coming from a future Labour Government either, as Labour is wedded to the Tory fiscal choices.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Let me shine a light on the proceedings. Audit Scotland says that the SNP will fail to recruit the promised 800 GPs by 2027, and the BMA says that we actually need 1,000 GPs to meet the increased demand. The GP loan scheme is about sustainability and retention of GPs. Does the cabinet secretary think that the suspension of the scheme helps in any way? Can he guarantee that the Helensburgh general practice will get the loan that it was promised and that it needs?

Neil Gray

I will address two points from Jackie Baillie’s question. First, we are making progress on the recruitment of new GPs, which is up. We have a record 1,200 GPs in training, which is good news that I am sure Jackie Baillie would welcome.

I absolutely understand the correlation between investment in practices and recruitment and retention, and I am not where I would want to be in relation to what is happening with the GP sustainability loans scheme. I am committed to extending it and to moving into tranche 2, but we need further commitment from the UK Government on financial transactions. I am sure that Jackie Baillie will join me in calling on the current UK Government and indeed a future UK Government to ensure that that materialises.

Scottish Men’s Sheds Association (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association could collapse due to the withdrawal of Scottish Government funding. (S6T-01982)

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

The Scottish Government has provided £795,000 of funding to the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association since 2016, supporting the movement to grow from five sheds to 200 across Scotland. We understand that this is a very challenging time for small organisations, and that the SMSA is working to secure funding from charity donors and from the private sector. Given that, I can confirm today that we will work with the organisation to identify and to provide the funding for this financial year to ensure that we support the SMSA in the months ahead to develop broad, sustainable support for this important national organisation. We hope that that will help to avoid future uncertainty and will assist local sheds to flourish.

Paul O’Kane

I am sure that the Parliament will be pleased to hear that reassurance from the cabinet secretary that the Government has looked again at the funding decision. Indeed, I think we heard from the First Minister on Thursday that the decision would be looked at again.

I think that everyone in the chamber can agree that men’s sheds are a linchpin in tackling poor mental wellbeing, isolation and loneliness. They take a preventative approach, with thousands of men voluntarily engaging about their vulnerabilities for the first time.

It is clear that we have been here before: this is not an unusual situation with respect to the funding. The Men’s Sheds Association needs proper stability of funds to ensure that the sheds can continue to have a huge impact on men’s lives. Will the Government go a step further than the answer that was given just now and say what longer-term funding options are being considered by the Government?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is important to consider not just the national picture but local men’s sheds, which are two distinct areas that the Government is keen to support. The member will be well aware that the SMSA is a national membership body that supports the establishment of men’s sheds, and that is distinct from the activities of the nearly 200 local sheds.

Although the SMSA provides a very valuable service, we need to bear in mind that it is not possible to provide permanent core funding to every third sector organisation that would potentially benefit from it. We do not do that for every single third sector organisation. We must ensure that we are working with organisations such as the SMSA to look at their financial sustainability in the long term. That cannot just be from Scottish Government funding, important though that is. Obviously, that will include looking at other funding avenues. We are absolutely committed to working with them to ensure that that happens.

We recognise the preventative nature of the work that men’s sheds undertake, and that that is important. I must point out to the member that support remains available for local sheds, including through the communities mental health and wellbeing fund for adults, the just transition participatory budgeting capital fund and the regeneration capital grant fund. All that is continuing, but I am happy to confirm, as I said in my original answer, that we will continue to support the national core funding as well as those funds, which remain available for the local men’s sheds.

I repeat that we must have concise questions and responses.

Paul O’Kane

I think that the cabinet secretary would want to acknowledge that the national organisation is extremely important in supporting delivery on the ground. Without that umbrella organisation, many of the men’s sheds would not be able to do the work that they do. The situation is evidence of a larger challenge in the third sector in relation to sustainable funding, ensuring that processes are not complex and ensuring that there is clarity about where funding is coming from.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that changing decisions mid-year and not giving information on time is a chaotic way to deliver funding, and that it does not allow organisations such as the umbrella organisation for men’s sheds to function properly? What will the Government do more widely to reset its strained relationship with the third sector and finally deliver on long-promised improved funding models?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Paul O’Kane rightly presents a challenge to which the Government needs to rise. I gently suggest to him that it is not just the Scottish Government that needs to rise to that challenge but the United Kingdom Government, too. For example, when the Scottish Government receives budgetary allocations from the UK Government exceptionally late in the day and we must provide the budget under tight timescales, that makes it more difficult for us to be able to provide certainty for people.

I look forward to working with Paul O’Kane and others if there is a change at UK Government level to ensure that we receive timely notification of Scottish Government budgets. That way, Mr O’Kane and I can work together to support the third sector, as I am sure he would like us to do.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I note that the cabinet secretary said that the Men’s Sheds Association has received £795,000 directly from the Scottish Government. We know that that has been the case for a number of years. However, not all that money has been direct funding; it has been an accumulation of several different funds. We are talking about core funding in the here and now. What will the Scottish Government do to ensure that the life-saving movement is protected and properly funded in the long term? It is the long term that matters.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have just provided reassurance to the chamber that we will provide that funding for this financial year.

Across the chamber, there is universal support for men’s sheds—and quite rightly so. I have visited men’s sheds in my constituency of Dunfermline and recognise the fantastic work that they do. Other members will be in the same position.

I point out to the member that the Scottish Government does not provide core funding for every single third sector organisation. Yes, we need to provide funding where possible, but we must also work with third sector organisations on where other funding opportunities may lie.

Will the cabinet secretary say more about the different funding streams that the Scottish Government provides to support third sector organisations that men’s sheds may be able to benefit from?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have pointed to some of those funding streams already, but I once again confirm that men’s sheds can apply for and already benefit from a range of competitive funds that are available through their third sector interfaces in every local authority area. I have already mentioned, for example, the communities mental health and wellbeing fund for adults and the just transition participatory budgeting capital fund. Local men’s sheds have already secured funding from those monitored and assessed funding streams. In addition, the Scottish Government provides £11.6 million of funding to third sector intermediaries nationally and locally that provide development support to the full spectrum of third sector organisations, including men’s sheds.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

As Paul O’Kane said, we are not in a new situation here. As the cabinet secretary has acknowledged, there is cross-party support for the men’s shed movement. Indeed, I co-ordinated a letter, supported by more than 40 MSPs, to the then Deputy First Minister and now First Minister seeking a reversal of the decision to cut funding last year. The Scottish Men’s Sheds Association is already garnering funding support from other sources, but core funding is vital, and we cannot find ourselves in the same situation year after year. In mental health awareness week, will the cabinet secretary give a longer-term commitment to providing vital funding to a vital organisation?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Support has been shown by members across the chamber, but I specifically acknowledge the work that Liam McArthur has undertaken on the issue over a number of years. He is quite right to point out the importance of providing reassurance in mental health awareness week.

The Government has two responsibilities in the area. The first is to provide funding when possible, and every part of the Government faces budgetary restrictions. The second responsibility is to work with third sector organisations and others to ensure that they are financially sustainable in the long term through a wide range of funders—funding cannot be only from the Scottish Government. We will always look to provide support whenever possible, and we will see what can be done to ensure that the men’s shed movement is financially sustainable and does not rely on only one source of funding, whether it is from the Scottish Government or elsewhere.

Deposit Return Scheme (Legal Action)

3. Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, in the event that the reported legal action raised against it by Biffa and any potential actions by other companies that incurred expenditure in expectation of the deposit return scheme being implemented are successful and lead to any financial losses, whether it will consider suing the United Kingdom Government in respect of any such losses, in light of its reported position that the UK Government is responsible for the scheme not proceeding in Scotland. (S6T-01989)

The Minister for Climate Action (Gillian Martin)

Given that Fergus Ewing is a former Cabinet member, I am sure that he will appreciate that the Scottish Government cannot comment on on-going litigation, so I cannot comment on the substance of his question.

However, the Scottish Government remains committed to the delivery of a deposit return system in order to realise the environmental and economic benefits that it will bring. A four-nations policy statement has been published to ensure that the schemes across the UK are as simple as possible for consumers and businesses, while the devolved nature of such policies is respected. We will continue to engage with the industry and other UK nations to support the delivery of a DRS in 2027.

Fergus Ewing

As a former minister, I appreciate that, when it comes to litigation, one’s cards have to be kept close to, if not glued to, one’s chest, so I expected that answer.

The minister will be aware that the taxpayer has lost £9 million from the Scottish National Investment Bank’s loan being totally written off, and that businesses might have incurred costs of up to £300 million. There was a profoundly concerning dispute between the Scottish and UK Governments. Perhaps, with new leadership, a fresh start might now be appropriate.

Has the Scottish Government considered—and, if it has not, will it now consider—holding an independent inquiry into not just what went so very badly wrong, but how to avoid making such mistakes, should there be some future scheme at UK and Scotland levels?

Gillian Martin

I thank Fergus Ewing for bringing up the issue. The Scottish Government followed the agreed process to secure an exclusion from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and it engaged for two years with the UK Government and other devolved Governments on the relevant common framework. UK ministers have publicly acknowledged that the Scottish Government followed the agreed process at all times.

On Fergus Ewing’s substantive point, along with the other UK nations we will be looking at how we will take forward a workable DRS under the common framework so that the scheme can be simplified and rolled out across the UK, as I said in my initial answer.

Fergus Ewing

In my view, having had 41 meetings and having met hundreds of businesses, among which there are concerns, the defects in the previous scheme and any future scheme are so serious and obvious that it might not be possible to fix them. In the spirit of good will and with the possibility of a fresh start to try to sort out this almighty mess, will the minister meet me and a small group of key businesspeople who are most closely involved and, therefore, best able to explain their profound concerns, so that the minister and the Scottish Government can be better equipped and in a better position to avoid the disastrous mistakes that I believe were made with the previous scheme?

Gillian Martin

I am happy to meet Mr Ewing and any businesses that he recommends that can give an insight into the difficulties that they anticipate with any scheme. Indeed, I am happy to meet anyone who is involved in dealing with the waste that is associated with the drinks containers and the glass, plastic and cans that it was proposed be included in the original deposit return scheme. My answer is a simple yes.

Maurice Golden (North East Scotland) (Con)

When I asked at committee last June, the then minister could not, or would not, say what the total business liability was. What is the total amount of losses, covering both capital and revenue, to business from preparing for Scotland’s failed deposit return scheme?

Gillian Martin

I gently point out to Maurice Golden that the Parliament agreed to the scheme and that it was the UK Government’s refusal to agree a full exclusion from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the minister.

Gillian Martin

—at the 11th hour that radically undermined the right of this Parliament to pass and deliver regulations in clearly devolved areas.

Mr Golden mentioned the cost to businesses, but I add to that this question: what is the cost to the environment of the fact that the scheme is not in place?

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

The last gateway review to be published on the DRS, on readiness for service, which was published in July last year and on which Mr Ewing notably pursued the Government, concluded that the programme’s status was amber/red. That means that

“Successful delivery of the programme is in doubt with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and establish whether resolution is feasible.”

Given the reported legal action, how confident is the Scottish Government that it would be successful, if it went down the route that Mr Ewing has suggested? Given that many businesses—including small and medium-sized enterprises that provide support services in my Lothian region—lost out and jobs were lost, why has the Government not engaged with businesses on compensation before now?

Gillian Martin

I reiterate what I said about talking about any kind of legal action. I cannot comment on litigation, and I will not do that. I will, however, say that the situation is a result of the UK Government’s intervention and its conditions, such as removal from the DRS of glass, and alignment with a non-existent UK DRS. It did not exist and what it would involve had not even been mooted, so we could not say whether we would have been able to align with it. We have maybe got to a place where we can have a more sensible discussion among the four nations of the UK on how we can take forward a deposit return scheme.

Should Ms Boyack’s party get in government, I look forward to working with its ministers in getting a solution for the whole UK.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

The Secretary of State for Scotland made the unilateral decision to block Scotland’s deposit return scheme. He has refused to come to Parliament to explain that decision to MSPs and has failed to provide the evidence that was requested by the Scottish and Welsh Governments for why he excluded glass from the UK scheme, which is, as the minister rightly said, a “non-existent” scheme. The decision has made a mockery of the devolved settlement. [Interruption.]

What has been the wider impact on policy making here in this Parliament, when we have a UK Government that is prepared to act in a reckless way, cheered on by those who do not have the interests of Scotland’s environment at heart?

Minister, if you could answer the substantive question.

Gillian Martin

Not only do I agree with Mark Ruskell, but I would go further and say that processes were put in place—in particular, common frameworks—to avoid such an outcome. The then Scottish Government minister—Mark Ruskell’s colleague, Lorna Slater—worked hard to engage with the common frameworks to get agreement. [Interruption.] The Deposit and Return Scheme for Scotland Regulations 2020 are wholly within devolved competence and were approved by the Scottish Parliament. However, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020—which, by the way, was imposed without our consent—radically undermines the power of the Scottish Parliament. Mr Ruskell is right in his appraisal of it.

Mr Carson, I would be grateful if you would resist the temptation to contribute from your seat.

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

I was interested to hear the minister’s response to Fergus Ewing regarding businesses. In the interests of making progress, I invite the minister to visit Dryden Aqua in my constituency, which has never previously been visited. It is a profitable and eco-friendly glass recycling company that grinds down bottles into particles to replace sand filters in, for example, swimming pools, thereby significantly reducing chlorine oxidation. There are existing glass recycling facilities in Scotland; the minister could visit those first.

Gillian Martin

I am happy to go on any visit in Christine Grahame’s constituency, and that sounds like an excellent scheme. I now have ministerial responsibility for the circular economy, so if anyone wants me to visit an organisation that is involved in such efforts, I am happy to oblige.

That concludes topical question time.