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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, October 26, 2023


General Question Time

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

Insch War Memorial Hospital (Reopening)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the work that it is doing to support the reopening of Insch war memorial hospital. (S6O-02640)

The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care (Michael Matheson)

Any decision on the future use of Insch war memorial hospital will be decided between NHS Grampian and local stakeholders. Once a decision is made, the Scottish Government can consider what support can be offered. I met the community on 3 May this year and encouraged the group to remain engaged with the health and social care partnership as it develops its plans for local services.

Alexander Burnett

Insch war memorial hospital closed at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Despite the efforts of the local community and the manifesto promise of the former First Minister, it has not yet reopened. Given the Scottish Government’s commitment to spend an extra £100 million per year to reduce waiting times, is the cabinet secretary prepared to spend a small percentage of that sum in funding the operating costs of a new modular 12-bed unit at Insch? That would not only significantly reduce pressures on other local health services but would allow beds to be freed up at Aberdeen royal infirmary and, in turn, allow overdue operations to take place.

Michael Matheson

Any plans that the local health board has on use of Insch war memorial hospital are a matter for local partners, who should decide on the best configuration to meet local health needs. Alexander Burnett will recognise that the £100 million that we are investing in tackling waiting lists—it will be £300 million over the next three years—is revenue funding and not capital funding, so it cannot be used for the purpose that he has highlighted. He will also be aware of the challenge that we face in respect of his colleagues at Westminster having cut our capital grant, which means that there is less capital available to invest in our national health service estate and in capital projects right across the country. He might want to encourage his colleagues at Westminster to increase capital expenditure to allow us to invest in such facilities in the future.

Reaching 100 Per Cent Programme (Consultation)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it consulted Elon Musk as part of its R100 programme. (S6O-02641)

The Minister for Small Business, Innovation, Tourism and Trade (Richard Lochhead)

I have never spoken personally to Elon Musk. Maybe that will happen one day. Who knows?

Starlink, which is a subsidiary of SpaceX, which was founded by Elon Musk, was one of the many companies that we engaged with when preparing to launch our reaching 100 per cent Scottish broadband voucher scheme. However, at that time, it chose not to register. We have, however, continued dialogue with Starlink and other providers, and all parts of Scotland are now capable of accessing a low earth orbit satellite broadband connection commercially.

Willie Rennie

That confirms that the Scottish National Party Government is dependent on the controversial American billionaire and his low earth orbit satellites to deliver its manifesto promise on R100.

The truth is that the R100 programme is still going, when it was supposed to have been completed two years ago. The Government itself admits that thousands of people will not benefit from R100 until 2028. Is the minister not even just a little bit embarrassed that he is now using Elon Musk as his latest excuse for failing to deliver the SNP R100 programme on time?

Richard Lochhead

I am not sure whether members noticed, but it was Mr Rennie who raised Elon Musk—not me, as the minister responsible for connectivity in Scotland. I was simply answering his question.

I can say that access to superfast broadband in Scotland has increased by 46.8 percentage points in the past 10 years. That compares with 29.8 percentage points across the rest of the United Kingdom in the same period. We are making really good progress in Scotland, which also benefits Mr Rennie’s constituency. Of the 30,680 premises in North East Fife that have benefited, 28,368 are capable of accessing speeds of 24 megabits per second and above. The R100 project is also rolling out to most of Scotland.

We are, in order to understand what it will mean for Scotland, also speaking to the UK Government about the £8 million that it has announced will be invested in satellite connections.

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

Despite telecommunications legislation being wholly reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government has made more than £600 million-worth of investments through the R100 contracts. Can the minister provide an update on engagements with the United Kingdom Government to extend Gigabit Networks to Scotland’s rural communities, given that telecoms are the UK Government’s constitutional responsibility?

Richard Lochhead

The Scottish Government continues to work closely with the UK Government to prepare for project gigabit activity in Scotland, which will, of course, offer even faster connections. That has the potential to build on the transformational impact of R100 and continued commercial activity.

Of course, we continue to urge the UK Government to be more flexible in its approach to funding for project gigabit and to ensure that sufficient funding is available to deliver across Scotland, where many of the connection costs can be higher than is the case in other parts of the UK.

In September and October this year, the Scottish Government and Building Digital UK carried out a pre-procurement market-engagement exercise with broadband infrastructure suppliers to gauge the level of market interest in bidding for new gigabit-capable broadband contracts in Scotland.

Fishermen’s Safety at Sea (Government Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports the safety of Scotland’s fishermen when at sea. (S6O-02642)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish Government takes the safety of all fishers in Scottish waters very seriously. Although maritime safety regulation remains a reserved power of the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government continues to support the work of the Scottish fishing safety group, which has worked with partners to support a range of safety improvements through the marine fund Scotland. The group is a joint fishing industry and Scottish Government initiative that supports Scottish fishing on safety matters. It has clear aims and objectives involving efforts to achieve zero deaths annually and to reduce the number of accidents across the industry. The group, which is co-chaired by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, consists of 14 representatives from across Scotland and the UK bodies that are responsible for maritime safety regulation.

Beatrice Wishart

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the video showing the aggressive and downright dangerous behaviour last week of the French-registered Spanish vessel Antonio Maria towards the Shetland fishing boat Defiant, 18 miles east of Unst. The Defiant had shot its gear when the longliner Antonio Maria circled and tried to foul the Defiant’s propeller. That is not the first time that there has been such an incident in waters off Shetland. The case of another Spanish vessel—the German-registered Pesorsa Dos—is well documented.

Constituents question where Scotland’s fishery protection vessels were in all that and what action, if any, has been taken to follow up on the latest shocking incident. Can the cabinet secretary respond to that question? Can she also indicate what representations the Scottish Government has made to the UK Government and the flag states about fishing vessels that appear to have little concern for safety at sea and fishermen’s lives?

Mairi Gougeon

I appreciate Beatrice Wishart’s questions and the concern that such incidents have caused. Safety in the marine environment is a complex area, with various jurisdictions involved. If I am not able to cover everything in my response today, I am happy to follow up with the member.

I understand that the incident that took place last Monday occurred outside territorial waters and relates to a maritime safety incident. Under devolution, the Scottish Government’s powers are restricted to enforcing marine and fishery-related offences: they do not extend to enforcement of maritime safety regulations. Maritime safety is a reserved function, and jurisdiction over those incidents rests with the flag-state authorities of the vessels involved.

Although there was no evidence of a fishery offence taking place, the Scottish Government deployed its marine protection vessel MPV Hirta to investigate the incident further, and it has passed information that was gathered to the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

In terms of next steps, senior operational staff are arranging a follow-up meeting with the MCA and Police Scotland to discuss further opportunities to work collaboratively to support safe working practices in the marine environment.

There is much interest among members in this issue, so I ask for concise questions and answers.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

For years, fishery protection staff have been underpaid and undervalued. That needs to change to keep that expertise and experience in the service. What is the cabinet secretary doing to retain officers and to strengthen the protection fleet to enable better policing of our waters?

Mairi Gougeon

Rhoda Grant will, no doubt, be aware that we take a risk-based approach to incidents that are reported to the marine directorate, because we have limited resources. We have a number of vessels, but we have, of course, a very large marine area to try to cover and get across. That is why we have a risk-based approach in place. However, we make the best of the resources that we have.

I very much value and appreciate the work of the teams that we have working across the marine directorate—in particular, in compliance and working across the vessels, which I have had the opportunity to visit.

If there are particular issues that Rhoda Grant would like to raise with me, I would be more than happy to follow them up.

Stroke Improvement Plan (Update)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the delivery of its stroke improvement plan. (S6O-02643)

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

Since the publication of the stroke improvement plan in June, the Scottish Government has appointed a consultant stroke physician as clinical lead for stroke to lead on implementing the plan. We are developing a bundle of rehabilitation measures for inclusion in the Scottish stroke care audit, and we are developing measures of patient experience of rehabilitation. We are also increasing access to thrombectomy procedures for patients who present to spoke hospitals and we are undertaking significant planning to further expand Scotland’s thrombectomy service, with a plan outlining expansion of the national thrombectomy service to be published by the end of 2023.

Roz McCall

I thank the minister for that response and for the information on thrombectomy.

I want to follow up on thrombectomy. The minister will be aware of the medical procedure of thrombectomy. For others in the chamber who might not be aware of it, it can be used where a large blood clot that is blocking blood flow to the brain can be removed. As a result of thrombectomy, a patient might be up and about within days instead of being in a wheelchair for life. It is truly amazing.

Around 10 per cent of stroke patients would benefit from receiving thrombectomy. However, currently in Scotland, it happens for fewer than 1 per cent, which is the lowest level in the United Kingdom.

I note the minister’s words about the Scottish Government’s commitment to the stroke improvement plan moving forward, but I want to push her on when the Scottish Government will publish the blueprint for the steps to get us up to a fully functioning, safe and sustainable national 24/7 service, to make it available to everyone who needs it.

Jenni Minto

I commend the work that Roz McCall has been doing to promote and explain the different symptoms that a stroke could result in. I appreciate that work very much.

The Scottish Government remains committed to introducing a high-quality and clinically safe thrombectomy service in Scotland. The delivery of a national thrombectomy service has already received over £26 million of investment. Through the national thrombectomy programme board and the thrombectomy advisory group, work is being undertaken to drive expansion of the thrombectomy service. We expect additional spoke hospitals to begin referring appropriate patients for thrombectomies in the coming months, to increase geographical access to thrombectomy procedures.

NHS Lanarkshire Neonatologists (Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent meetings it has had with neonatologists from NHS Lanarkshire. (S6O-02644)

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

Scottish Government officials had discussions on the new model of neonatal care with neonatologists from Lanarkshire alongside neonatologists from other Scottish neonatal units at the recent Scottish neonatal consultants group meeting. Senior Scottish Government officials also recently met the chief executive and medical director from NHS Lanarkshire to discuss neonatal intensive care.

Mark Griffin

If the Government is relying on clinical advice that is now five years out of date to downgrade University hospital Wishaw’s neonatal unit, it is absolutely shocking that the minister has not taken the time to meet the experts who run that unit. Will the minister commit to meeting the award-winning experts from NHS Lanarkshire neonatal unit before progressing with the plans to downgrade that absolutely crucial life-saving unit?

Jenni Minto

It is important to recognise that the best start project started in 2018, it has taken evidence from experts on the clinical side, and it is those experts whose advice we are following. Originally, we had eight neonatal units. The number was reduced to five. The next stage, which was reviewed in 2022, involved going down to three.

I am happy to meet the unit staff at Wishaw general hospital. However, it is important that officials continue to meet with the services there and with parents of patients who are involved with the service. We have very much involved Bliss Scotland in all the work that we have been doing; it represents parents who have experienced what must be an incredibly traumatic time in their lives.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

I echo Mark Griffin’s comments about the vital neonatal service at Wishaw general.

Parents and families who have used the service over the many years that the award-winning neonatal department has been open are deeply distressed, worried and concerned that they will not be able to travel locally in order to get the care that they need for their babies and themselves. Will the minister commit to ensuring that she engages with families who have used the service over those many years in order to hear about their life experiences and why the department is so important to them and their families?

Jenni Minto

It is important to remind members that the neonatal unit in Lanarkshire will remain open and will bring the patients—the babies—back as soon as possible. We have made the decisions that we have in order to ensure that the sickest and smallest babies—the most vulnerable babies—get the best treatment ever, and we have based that on clinical evidence. As I said to Mr Griffin, I am happy to meet people in North Lanarkshire.

Alzheimer’s and Dementia Deaths

6. Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported statistics showing that the number of people in Scotland dying from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia has more than tripled in the last 20 years and concerns that the country is unprepared for further expected increases. (S6O-02645)

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

First, our thoughts and condolences are with everyone who has lost a loved one. Scotland’s new dementia strategy was published in May this year, setting out a 10-year vision for dementia policy. It recognises the importance of being able to access a timely diagnosis and post-diagnostic support that is right for those with dementia and for those who are caring for them.

We will soon publish our first two-year delivery plan, which has been developed in collaboration with people with lived experience and with local and national partners. The plan will include measurable deliverables to help us to achieve the ambitions of our dementia communities, as detailed in our strategy.

Alex Rowley

I have read the strategy, and I look forward to seeing the delivery plan, because I find it difficult to see how we get there from where we are now. I recently met a group of carers in Dunfermline, who described to me a dehumanisation of care and a service that is in crisis. Community care is failing people up and down Scotland. What is the plan to tackle the problems that we have right now in social care?

Maree Todd

We have invested more than £6 million of ring-fenced funding over the past two years in dementia post-diagnostic support, and a significant further allocation for dementia PDS in 2023-24 will be issued this year to integration joint boards. That is in addition to the estimated investment in dementia by health and social care partnerships of £2.2 billion—a 14 per cent increase since 2014.

In addition, as we have set out this week as part of our £1 billion national health service recovery plan, we will reduce and address waiting times year on year for all conditions, including dementia.

As the member will be aware, Derek Feeley did an independent review of adult social care in Scotland and said that the system, although it works well in many ways, is under strain. His recommendation was clear: if we keep doing the same thing, we will keep getting the same outcome. He made a very strong case for transformational change, which we are pursuing in the form of the national care service. I look forward to Alex Rowley and Scottish Labour supporting us—

Thank you, minister.

—in that endeavour.

I call Christine Grahame.

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer—I will be brief. I invite the minister to meet, as I have, with the Dementia Friendly Tweeddale group to learn of its work in supporting carers and those with dementia to continue to enjoy life and their activities after diagnosis, and even add more.

Maree Todd

I would be absolutely delighted to do so. I recently visited a dementia meeting centre in Kirriemuir, which was a wonderful experience. I learned a lot from the people who were there, and I would be more than keen to meet the people in Christine Grahame’s area.

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 His Excellency Mr Miguel Berger, Ambassador of Germany to the United Kingdom. [Applause.]