Engagements

– in the Scottish Parliament on 10th March 2011.

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Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

1. To ask the First Minister what engagements he has planned for the rest of the day. (S3F-2945)

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, if I may, I will briefly mention two important homecomings. First, I mention the return of the body of Lance Corporal Tasker, who was from Kirkcaldy, in Fife. The story of Liam Tasker and his dog Theo, and their courage, their life-saving activities and their sacrifice, has touched many, many people across the country. The Parliament sends its condolences to Lance Corporal Tasker’s family.

Secondly, we should welcome home the team from Grampian Fire and Rescue Service. The team of six has just returned from New Zealand, where it has been assisting the search and rescue operation following the devastating earthquake in Christchurch on 21 February. I know that the Parliament values immensely the team’s contribution, which is something that everyone in Scotland can be proud of. [Applause.]

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I am happy to associate Labour members with the First Minister’s remarks. We send our condolences to the family of Lance Corporal Tasker.

I see that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing will speak to the British Medical Association today to tell them how well she is doing. She might be better speaking to patients, such as the 24,500 patients who had their operations cancelled by the national health service last year. Does the First Minister think that that is good enough?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I am sure that Iain Gray acknowledges the tremendous work of the health service and the fact that waiting times for operations and treatment have been slashed in Scotland during the past two years. The most recent statistics show that at 31 December 98.8 per cent of patients were waiting 12 weeks or less for operations and 99.6 per cent of patients were waiting 12 weeks or less for in-patient or day-case treatment.

There are a variety of reasons why operations have to be cancelled, but the whole Parliament should acknowledge that the figures, which are the best-ever statistics that our national health service has achieved, indicate that our doctors and nurses, and all workers in the health service, do exceptional things on behalf of us all.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Twenty-four and a half thousand cancelled operations last year is not the best statistic that the NHS has ever had. Behind every number is a personal story. Yvonne Williams, from Helensburgh, represents one of the 24,500. She was due to have her gall bladder removed at Vale of Leven hospital last year. The hospital cancelled the operation with four hours’ notice, because there were not enough beds. She was given a new date and told to phone the hospital on that day at 5.30 am to ensure that it had enough beds.

There are reasons why operations are cancelled. Yvonne’s operation was cancelled because there are not enough acute hospital beds. In opposition, Nicola Sturgeon said that she would increase the number of acute beds in the NHS, but in Government she has cut them. Why has she broken her promise to patients?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing will be happy to look at the circumstances of an individual case.

I am sure that Iain Gray would not want to give the Parliament or indeed the wider public the impression that the health service is failing the public in any sense. It is not doing so. Ninety-eight point five per cent of operations go ahead as planned when patients come to hospital. We would all like it to be 100 per cent—of course we would—but 98.5 per cent is an impressive statistic. As with the other statistics that I quoted, the hope and belief is that we can get the figures up to record levels.

Iain Gray should remember that the number of hospital beds fell every year when the Labour Party was in control of the Scottish Administration, so it seems rather foolish to try to make a political point on the issue. I am sure that he will acknowledge that 98.5 per cent of operations going ahead as planned, although not the 100 per cent that we would all like to be achieved, is nonetheless a formidable statistic on achievement in our health service.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

The number of long-stay beds indeed fell under our Administration—as we transferred patients to care in the community, where their care properly should be.

Nicola Sturgeon promised to increase the number of acute hospital beds. Over the past year alone, NHS Tayside has cut 100 beds; Glasgow has cut 200 beds; Grampian has cut 600. NHS Scotland has lost 1,400 acute beds over the past year and 4,000 acute beds have been cut since Nicola Sturgeon took charge. That is why more operations are being cancelled. Last year, 2,500 staff were also cut from the NHS, with hundreds more job losses planned. Beyond the press releases and the photo opportunities, is it not the truth that the First Minister has failed to protect our NHS in Scotland?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I am glad that Iain Gray chose to ask about staffing in the national health service in Scotland. We have the statistics, of course. In quarter 1 of 2007, the figure was 153,400. In quarter 3 of 2010, it had risen to 161,300. That is an increase of 7,900, or 5 per cent. That includes 1,500 more medical and dental staff. The dental staff are particularly important, as that increase has led to 1 million new dental registrations in Scotland. This country has a public dental service again. There are more than 1,000 more nurses and midwives, and nearly 1,000 more allied health professionals.

We have been able to achieve those expanded staff numbers in the health service because this Administration did not go down the road that the Labour Party stood on at the last election—to remind members, that involved having no consequentials awarded to the national health service in Scotland. The Labour Party stood on a manifesto that said that health would just have to cut its cloth while money was directed elsewhere. We know that more money has been spent on the national health service under this Administration and that that has allowed the increase in staff numbers.

Looking to the future, anyone who saw the extraordinary “Newsnight” interview, when Iain Gray was asked whether national health service funding would be ring fenced and he could not answer, will know that the present Administration’s commitment, even in these difficult times, to award consequentials to the national health service stands in stark contrast to a party that does not even know the answer to that particular question.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I will take on the First Minister any time when it comes to who will stand up for our NHS. Telling us his spin in a quiet voice does not make it any less spin. Last year, 2,500 jobs were gone—652 of them in Glasgow and 705 of them in NHS Lothian—and 3,000 more job losses are planned in NHS workforce plans. The health secretary promised not to cut bed numbers, but she has done. She wrote personally to NHS staff, saying that their jobs were safe, but they are not. She promised that delayed discharge would be zero, but in one NHS area 93 people died waiting to get out of a hospital that they did not need to be in.

The First Minister boasts that our NHS is better than England’s. I should hope so. In England, the Tories are dismantling the NHS. Is that the best that he can do? Has not the First Minister broken his promises on the NHS, just as he has done on schools, jobs, students, class sizes and everything else?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

The three commitments that we have given are, first, that there will be no compulsory redundancies in the NHS in Scotland in the lifetime of this Government. Secondly, we said that at the end of the current parliamentary session there will be more staff working for the national health service in Scotland than there were at the beginning of this Administration—that is the 7,900 figure that I mentioned earlier. Thirdly, we are looking extremely carefully at ensuring that we can redeem a commitment in terms of awarding all consequentials to the national health service, and we intend to do that.

Iain Gray says that he is willing to take me on. I point out that, in terms of making that commitment to the health service, he was not even able to take Gordon Brewer on, never mind me.

As far as the tone of answering or, indeed, asking questions is concerned, I think that putting forward reasoned arguments with backed-up statistics is a good way to do things. If Iain Gray objects to my speaking to him in a quiet voice, I point out that appearing every week as Mr Angry does not make him either tough, effective, or respected by people in Scotland. [Interruption.]