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Meeting date: Thursday, December 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament 09 December 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Human Rights Day 2021, Portfolio Question Time, Culture, Budget 2022-23, Decision Time


General Question Time

Good morning. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place. Face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The first item of business is general questions.

National Health Service Recovery Plan

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its national health service recovery plan. (S6O-00514)

As the NHS recovery plan states, we committed to reporting progress against commitments in the plan on an annual basis. The plan was published at the end of August this year. Therefore, we would aim to provide the first official annual update next summer.

Under the present Government, 1,300 beds have been cut over the past 10 years. That is one in six beds at the Inverclyde Royal hospital and one in five at the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley. Before the winter crisis struck, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said that Scotland needed 1,000 extra beds. Is it the Government’s intention to reverse the cuts to bed numbers? If so, by how much, and when?

This Government has an impeccable record in ensuring that the NHS is well resourced. We will no doubt hear more about that in the budget statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy this afternoon. We have record staffing under this Government and the highest-paid staff anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Regarding beds, the Government’s determination, both pre-Covid and on a continuing basis, is that patients are treated close to their home, in the community, as best as they possibly can be. That means a reduction in the number of beds in our hospitals. We are desperately trying to work with local authorities, health boards and health and social care partnerships to move from our acute sites people who can be clinically and safely discharged into our community and to reduce the number of delayed discharges. If we do that, we free up hospital beds.

I spoke this morning to Jane Grant, chief executive of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. She made the offer that, if any member—including Neil Bibby, I am sure—wishes to speak to her about any of the pressures in the board’s acute sites, including the RAH, she would be happy to speak to them.

I ask the Scottish Government for an update on the provision of increasing support to general practice from a range of healthcare professionals, including pharmacists and physiotherapists.

The member raises an incredibly important point. We know how vital the contributions of our multidisciplinary teams are. That takes me back to the point about keeping patients and the public in our communities, as opposed to their having to go into hospital and to acute sites.

In addition to the £155 million provided to health and social care partnerships to recruit multidisciplinary teams this year, our winter action plan has made additional funding available to assist with the recruitment of extra

“pharmacists to help with patients’ repeat prescriptions and medicine reviews ... as well as physiotherapists to treat musculoskeletal issues in the community”,

thus further accelerating our aim

“to have Board-delivered pharmacy and nursing support in all 925 of Scotland’s General Practices”.

Councillors (Pay and Conditions)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the resolution at the recent Scottish National Party conference reportedly calling on the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to work together “to ensure that the pay and conditions for councillors will significantly improve”.(S6O-00515)

The Scottish Government is committed to fair pay and conditions for our councillors. I reiterate that I am open to discussing with COSLA how we might support it to further consider the issue, including by considering making improvements that will help to increase the diversity of councillors. For context, we introduced a new mechanism in 2017 that ensures that councillors’ pay is increased annually in line with the percentage increase in the median annual earnings of public sector workers in Scotland. I look forward to working with COSLA further on this important issue.

I accept that the minister is relatively recently in his post, but the issue has been dragging on for quite some time, and I would have hoped for a little more urgency than his being “open to discussing” it. Can he say that there will be a serious uplift in councillors’ pay, perhaps in April 2023?

For context and fairness, it is important to state that my predecessor, Mr Stewart, looked at the issue very seriously and, of course, we have had the pressing issue of the pandemic in recent times as a factor in those considerations.

I understand that COSLA’s barriers to elected office special interest group is due to publish its findings shortly. As soon as that information is available, I will consider it carefully and arrange a meeting with our partners in COSLA to jointly review and discuss what steps we can take to address the matter.

In a recent Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee evidence session on the issue, the committee heard that underrepresented groups, such as women and young people, are particularly affected and are put off standing for local government because of low remuneration. How can councillor remuneration be reviewed? Will the minister meet me to discuss that process further, please?

It is vital that, collectively, we encourage a wider range of people to seek election, including more women and young people, so that councils can better reflect the society that we live in. Councillors’ pay is important, of course, but it is not the only barrier to the lack of diversity among councillors in Scotland. As I have said, the issue is important and recognised. That is why I am certainly open to, and enthusiastic about, exploring it further with COSLA, which, as I said, has been reviewing the issue in its barriers to elected office special interest group. I look forward to engaging with it shortly.

Argyll and Bute (Policy Development)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is ensuring that the views of Argyll and Bute’s diverse communities are taken into account in the development of its policies. (S6O-00516)

It is critical that we involve communities in the development of our policies, so we regularly engage with partners, including local government, community groups, third sector colleagues and young people through, for example, our young islanders network. The Scottish Government carries out all appropriate impact assessments in developing or updating policies, strategies or services, including equality impact assessments and island communities impact assessments, which is in line with the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018.

Argyll and Bute is a place of beauty and isolation but also of many diverse communities that depend on local jobs and services. Infrastructure needs investment, and there has been an acceleration in the price of housing, perhaps as a result of the pandemic. Without intervention, it may become more difficult for local people to stay in their own communities. How will national planning framework 4 reverse that? What advice does the cabinet secretary have to ensure that my constituents’ voices in Argyll and Bute are heard?

Jenni Minto has made important points. We have, of course, committed to delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, 10 per cent of which will be in remote, rural and island communities. Delivering that is part of a £3.44 billion investment in this parliamentary session. Some £30 million of that investment will support the continuation of the rural and islands housing funds, which have been described in a Scottish Land Commission report as “game changers” for community-led housing development.

We are also investing £30 million of capital through the islands programme, and draft national planning framework 4 supports the repopulation of rural Scotland, including an updated approach to providing quality homes, and embeds an infrastructure-first approach in development planning. I encourage members to highlight to their constituents that the public consultation and engagement opportunities to help to inform NPF4 will run until the end of March next year.

Superfast Broadband (Orkney)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made on the roll-out of superfast broadband in Orkney. (S6O-00517)

Work is under way through the reaching 100 per cent north contract to bring subsea cables to Eday, Flotta, Hoy, Rousay, Sanday, Shapinsay and Stronsay, with survey work now complete and build currently scheduled to begin next summer, weather conditions permitting.

In the meantime, the reaching 100 per cent Scottish broadband voucher scheme will ensure that anyone on Orkney can access superfast broadband. We recently announced a three-month extension to the interim voucher portion of the scheme—the closing date is now 31 March 2022—to ensure that everybody, particularly those in the north of Scotland and on our islands, can have more time to take advantage of that scheme.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her response and for her willingness to meet me, Orkney Islands Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise over the summer to discuss how 100 per cent broadband coverage might be achieved in the islands that I represent. From those discussions, she will recall concerns that the proposed fibre roll-out will leave unconnected many households and settlements in Orkney and that the voucher schemes risk being too piecemeal to plug the gaps. What progress has been made in identifying ways to allow local co-ordination of the resources that are needed to ensure that every household in Orkney gets access to the superfast broadband that has been promised?

I thank the member for that question and for his constructive engagement in two meetings that I have had this year with him and with officials from Orkney Islands Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Presiding Officer, going into minute detail would probably take longer than you would like. However, now that we have certainty over what the R100 north contract will deliver, we are keen to work strategically with Orkney Islands Council and with suppliers—around 70 are currently registered to deliver superfast broadband services through the scheme—to ensure that we maximise the reach of the scheme as far as possible. I am happy to look in more detail at any specific issues that are raised.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the number of premises that will be reached by 2026 under the lot 1 contract has fallen by more than a third? Will she further confirm, as her Government appears to be giving both dates, whether the target for delivery of lot 1 has been delayed from the end of this year to the end of the 2026 calendar year or to the end of the 2026-27 financial year?

This is a good opportunity to remind the member that telecoms and broadband are reserved to the United Kingdom Government, but that the Scottish Government has stepped in to deliver the reaching 100 per cent programme because of failure to date.

As of 2 December 2021, superfast coverage in the Orkney Islands stands at 66 per cent—up from 11 per cent in 2014. The £384 million R100 north contract is expected to deliver 59,276 connections in total. Build is expected to be completed by 2026-27.

Ethnic Minority Communities (North East Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update—[Interruption.]

Sorry, Ms Chapman. Colleagues, I would like to hear Ms Chapman’s question, please. I would be grateful for your co-operation.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the actions under way to tackle the reported inequalities experienced by ethnic minority communities in the north-east. (S6O-00518)

We are determined to play our part in eradicating structural and systemic racism across Scotland, informed by the views and lived experiences of minority ethnic people. Through our immediate priorities plan for race equality, we aim to ensure an equal and anti-racist recovery from Covid-19. That is backed by our £21 million equality and human rights fund, which has enabled Grampian Regional Equality Council to carry out valuable work in gathering lived experiences alongside quantitative data, providing the evidence that is needed for the development of strong and effective anti-racist policies to improve outcomes for minority ethnic people in the north-east.

GREC has recently highlighted significant racial inequalities in the region across housing, health, education, employment, justice and more. For example, ethnic minorities have suffered worse job losses during Covid; Africans have the highest percentage of degree-educated people but the highest unemployment rates; hate crime is up 14.5 per cent in Aberdeen and 23 per cent in Aberdeenshire; and asylum-seeker men who were recently accommodated in an Aberdeen hotel will have minimal support, provided by a private company, with only £8 a week to live on in the initial stage of their application process.

Question, please.

Will the cabinet secretary outline what more we can do to ensure that those vulnerable people are not further marginalised?

Maggie Chapman has raised the important issue of asylum seekers and refugees. I am happy to write to her with more information about the work that we are doing in relation to people who have no recourse to public funds and preventing destitution.

Maggie Chapman also mentioned hate crime and, again, I am happy to write to her with more details. The rise in hate crime is concerning and we should all take that very seriously.

Finally, on support during the pandemic, we supported the development of the ethnic minority national resilience network to help individuals, families and organisations during this time, and we provided more than £312,000 to support minority ethnic communities. There was a particular focus on young people and older people who are experiencing isolation. Again, I am happy to write to Maggie Chapman with more detail.


To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to improve the support that is available for people who are affected by strokes. (S6O-00519)

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that people who have had a stroke receive the best care as quickly as possible. We are delivering our programme for government commitments on stroke, including the delivery of a national thrombectomy service which, to date, has received more than £9 million of investment. A national service is expected by 2023. We are developing a progressive stroke pathway document, which will set out our vision for what stroke services in Scotland should deliver across the patient pathway, including access to stroke rehabilitation and support for people who have experienced a stroke.

A vision report on stroke is one thing, but delivery of real change on the ground is quite another. What additional funding will be attached to the progressive stroke service? Who will be held accountable for its delivery? Will the minister put in place a reporting framework to ensure that the necessary improvements take place?

Alexander Stewart is absolutely correct. We have invested a great deal of money. I already mentioned the £9 million that has gone into delivering a thrombectomy service. Our stroke improvement programme’s annual report describes very accurately what is happening on the ground. The key findings from the most recent report show that, despite the immense challenges that our national health service is facing, we have delivered some increases and improvements in the delivery of care to Scottish stroke care standards. We should take this opportunity in the chamber to commend all those people who are working on the ground to deliver improvements in services, despite the immense challenges that we face.

Breast Screening (Self-referral)

To ask the Scottish Government when the self-referral breast screening programme will resume for non-symptomatic women over 70 who have had breast cancer. (S6O-00520)

The breast screening programme in Scotland routinely invites women aged 50 to 70 for screening, in line with the United Kingdom National Screening Committee recommendations, which are based on the best available evidence about the benefits and risks of breast screening for women at different ages.

The option for women aged 71 and over to self-refer into the breast screening programme is currently paused, so that, while Covid-19 continues to impact capacity, services can prioritise appointments for women for whom the benefits of screening are already clearly established. The pause applies to women over 71 who have previously had breast cancer and have completed their recommended period of annual surveillance. Self-referrals will resume once the time between screening rounds for eligible women is 39 months across all screening centres.

We continue to emphasise that it is important for women of all ages to be breast aware, and to report any possible symptoms of breast cancer to their general practitioner as soon as possible, so that those can be investigated.

I have been contacted by three different women in their 70s who have all previously had breast cancer and were advised by their clinicians that they needed regular screening. Now they have been told that the only way for anyone over the age of 70 to be screened is if they find a lump. Does the cabinet secretary understand how worried those women are about not being screened regularly? Their fears of a recurring breast cancer being missed do not go away when they turn 71. What does he plan to do to reinstate the screening programme in order to give those women the protection and reassurance that they deserve?

I think that Mark Griffin has written to me with the details of one constituent, and I am due to reply to him shortly. If he wishes to write to me with further details of the constituents he referenced, I will be happy to look into those cases.

Any woman who is a breast cancer survivor has increased screenings and annual surveillance for a period of five years post-treatment and we expect that to continue whether they are under or over the age of 70.

I reiterate what I have said before. Any woman who is concerned about symptoms should speak to her general practitioner, and the clinical pathways should be available for those symptoms to be further investigated.

That concludes general questions.