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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Topical Question Time

Ovarian Cancer Treatment

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent reports that treatment for ovarian cancer is a postcode lottery and has left some women with no option but to pay for private healthcare. (S6T-01555)

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

Cancer quality performance indicator data that was published in May covering patients treated between October 2018 and September 2020 showed apparent variation in survival rates. Regional cancer networks have undertaken improvement work to reduce ovarian cancer surgery waits. The Scottish Government continues to monitor those activities and support progress in improving overall care for ovarian cancer patients.

The national health service continues to prioritise cancer care, and when there is an urgent suspicion of cancer, every effort is made to ensure that a patient is seen quickly, with median waiting times to treatment for those on our urgent pathways being four days.

Carol Mochan

I thank the minister for that answer, but I am dismayed to read the reports in the Sunday Post that clearly detail a two-tiered health system in which the wealthy can afford treatment and even those on average incomes have little choice but to spend most of their savings on surgery to keep them alive. If someone is poor, it seems as though their option is to hope against hope that they get surgery on the NHS before it is too late.

As we know, ovarian cancer is often detected very late and receiving treatment in a timely manner is imperative if patients are to have positive outcomes. Will the minister detail how that situation has come to pass, and what the Government will be doing for women who have had to spend so much money simply to save their own lives?

Jenni Minto

I read the same article that Carol Mochan referenced, and I absolutely understand the concern that is being caused. We have met clinical leads to understand current practice and how we can continue to improve outcomes. Improvement work has already started. The Scottish ovarian cancer clinic network has set out immediate and short-term actions, including increasing theatre capacity and mutual support between health boards.

Carol Mochan

It has been two years since the women’s health plan was announced in an effort to tackle health inequality, but I put it to the minister that there has rarely been a time since the foundation of the NHS when it has been so dangerous to be a woman who is not well off in Scotland. Depending on where people live, the situation could be even worse. What immediate and urgent action will the Government take to stop the postcode lottery and restore confidence to people who are waiting for life-saving interventions?

Jenni Minto

As I outlined, we are doing immediate work with health boards. We should remember that the women’s health plan is the first of its kind across the four nations of the United Kingdom. The start of the process was about creating the conditions for change and developing a sound foundation for ensuring that women’s health needs will be considered in all future Government and NHS Scotland policies.

It is clear that the plan focuses on a specific set of objectives and priorities, which are based on evidence of inequalities and the improvements that women have told us are needed. I accept and recognise that ovarian cancer is not specifically mentioned in the current iteration of the plan. Future aims and priorities will be developed in collaboration with women and girls.

Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

The Scottish Government’s new cancer strategy includes a clear focus on providing equitable access to treatment. Can the minister say any more about the work that the Government is undertaking to deliver that goal?

Jenni Minto

The Scottish Government has committed to providing health boards with £10.5 million by 2027 to improve the capacity of and access to systemic anti-cancer therapy. Last month, we published the monitoring and evaluation framework for the cancer strategy, which includes a commitment to evaluating the impact of our policy outcomes on health inequalities through the analysis of disaggregated and intersectional equality data whenever that is feasible. As I said, we are working with the Scottish cancer network to implement a national plan that will ensure that capacity and demand are aligned and that we establish a sustainable service model across Scotland.

Degree Classifications

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that students at Scottish universities receive their degree classifications. (S6T-01559)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

Following consultation with its membership, the University and College Union withdrew its marking and assessment boycott at universities across the United Kingdom, effective from 6 September. The impact of the boycott has varied across and within institutions. Now that the boycott has been withdrawn, it is my clear expectation that Scottish universities with backlogs work at pace to complete outstanding marking assessments in order to provide affected students with their final awards and degree classifications.

I take this opportunity to thank students who have been impacted for their resilience during what must have been an extremely difficult period for them. I also thank people across the sector who have worked hard to support those students and to put mitigations in place wherever possible.

Liam Kerr

The minister is right to thank students and those who support them. However, today, 1,670 students at Scottish universities await their degree, and 950 await a classification. As a result, job offers, further education offers and the joy of graduating have been lost. Does he agree that the underfunding of university teaching and research over many years is at the root of the situation? What does he propose to do about that?

Graeme Dey

Let me start with a point of agreement: the impact on students has been deeply regrettable.

During my 12 years as an MSP—let alone my time as a minister—I have never come across a sector that has been satisfied with its funding. Inevitably, we hear calls from across the chamber that more public money is the solution for everything, but, given that the Government finds itself in the most challenging of budget circumstances, it is not possible to deliver that. However, I point out gently to Mr Kerr that we continue to invest £2 billion a year in our colleges and universities and that our universities are undertaking much work to grow their income away from the principal public source.

Liam Kerr

The growing of income exposes the universities to a lot of international funding. Many of our universities are increasingly reliant on such funding and the marking situation could impact on the confidence of international students about coming here. What impact does the minister think such a reduction in international students could have on our universities’ reputation and funding and how will he prepare for that?

Graeme Dey

The fantastic global reputation of our universities is such that I think it unlikely that the impact of the marking boycott that we have just had would be as Mr Kerr suggests. However, clearly, any impact on numbers of international students would be an issue. Of course, he is right that, if such action became a feature going forward, there could be a reputational risk for the sector and the individual institutions concerned.

However, there is a willingness to reset relationships within the sector between institutions and the teaching staff so that they are more harmonious. There is an opportunity to do that and avoid such action happening again. Sitting right up there alongside the demand for a fair and affordable pay increase for lecturers—we should not forget the support staff as well—are the issues of insecure contracts and the gender pay gap. The principals to whom I speak tell me that they are up for addressing those issues. If we can make progress on them, we can go a long way towards bringing peace to the sector.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

The minister will be aware that there are still disputes in the sector and that, when challenged on such disputes, the Government blames university principals and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. The minister is not a bystander or commentator; he is a minister. Ensuring that students in Scotland get the best education possible is his responsibility. Having degrees classified now and in the future is crucial for that. What is his plan to sort that out now and to ensure that the situation does not happen again?

Graeme Dey

It is absolutely the case that there is no direct role for ministers in the matter. Nevertheless, I have engaged with the union and the individual principals. As I just outlined, there are things happening behind the scenes that will get us into a better position not just so that we do not have a repeat of the situation but so that we have genuine harmony within the sector.

That concludes topical questions. There will be a short pause while the front benches organise themselves.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. By way of advisement, we are slightly earlier than the scheduled time for the commencement of the next debate and I understand that there are members who are still making their way to the chamber

The Presiding Officer

I am aware of that fact, Mr Whitfield. It is an opportune moment to remind members that almost every item of business in the Parliament is follow-on business and that all members should bear that in mind and ensure that they are available as required.