Clinical Waste Collection (Public Inquiry)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th May 2019.

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Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

2. To ask the Scottish Government whether it will agree to a public inquiry into issues relating to the collection of clinical waste and its impact on the national health service. (S5T-01640)

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

I do not consider a public inquiry necessary, given that the Government has taken a number of steps to ensure that clinical waste continues to be collected without a negative impact on our NHS. Robust contingency measures were activated on 7 December 2018, when Healthcare Environmental Services Ltd withdrew collection services from the majority of NHS boards. Those arrangements ensure that waste is appropriately stored, collected and disposed of in line with industry regulations and that there has been no disruption to NHS services.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

It is disappointing that the Scottish Government is not supporting a full public inquiry. I agree with Professor Hugh Pennington, who is a leading expert in bacteriology, that a public inquiry should be held in the interests of patient and staff safety, taxpayers’ money and protecting our NHS from failed private contracts. Does the cabinet secretary believe that she has a duty to get to the bottom of the clinical waste scandal, so that it can never be repeated?

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

The nature of the clinical waste scandal, as Ms Lennon characterises it, is that a company breached its contractual obligations to our health service in Scotland. Having done so, and having failed to take up the opportunity of having an additional 20 days in which to meet those obligations, which it was afforded as part of the contract, our contingency measures—which we had planned for, given the difficulties that the company was experiencing with the NHS south of the border—were activated.

Those contingency measures continue. The framework agreement was in place and was out to tender, but that process had to be delayed because of the change in market circumstances. A new contract has now been awarded, which is effective from 1 April, with the usual transitionary period, and it will take full effect from a date in August. With all of that in mind, I do not believe that the scandal—if it is such a thing—is of either this Government’s or NHS Scotland’s making. All our attention should be focused on that company meeting its obligations not only to the health service in Scotland but to its employees. It is not right to make the Government the focus.

I have a great deal of respect for Professor Pennington’s expertise and knowledge, but what he said was from the perspective of “what I’ve been told”. I prefer to base my actions and decisions on proven evidence, and that is what I will continue to do.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

Unfortunately, the Parliament has heard very little of the evidence. The cabinet secretary will recall that, at the start of the year, Scottish Labour asked her to pause the procurement process and bring the contract back into the NHS. She is correct in saying that the private sector has failed, and she has previously said that that has put the NHS at risk.

Over the weekend, media reports said that contingency plans are costing double the amount that the original contract cost. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether that is accurate? I hear what she says about the transition period, but we understand that Tradebe is a bit behind with the contract. Given those delays and the fact that it will cost £100 million over 10 years, will the cabinet secretary give further consideration to bringing the contract back into public hands?

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

The contract has been awarded. Changing that would risk the Government being held in breach of contract, and I am not prepared to put the Government at risk in that way. I do not know where Ms Lennon got the information that she has heard, but my understanding is that we are on track for Tradebe taking full responsibility for the contract from the date in August that has been agreed. Contingency arrangements continue, of course, and there will be a phased transition between the contingency and the new contractor.

As I said in my statement on 23 January, I will come back to the chamber to update members on the final cost of the contingency arrangements, either through an inspired question or by other means. As I also said in that statement, contingency arrangements, by their very nature, cost more. However, I suspect that the numbers that Ms Lennon is quoting do not take account of the necessary and sensible deduction from the cost of the contingency arrangements of the cost had HES met its contractual obligations in normal course, which it unfortunately did not.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I ask the cabinet secretary specifically about the 200 tonnes of waste that are still stored at HES’s site in Shotts. Will the liquidation of that company and its associated companies have an adverse impact on the timing of the disposal of that waste?

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

The recent Scottish Environment Protection Agency inspections have not identified any significant environmental risk and have identified no risk to the wellbeing of local communities. However, SEPA continues to monitor the situation on both sites—in Shotts and Dundee—weekly. I am awaiting further information as to whether the recent liquidation of the company allows SEPA to act differently from how it is currently acting. I will be happy to advise the member of that once I have the additional information.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

There have been reports of waste piling up at health centres and not being collected from general practices. Can the cabinet secretary assure us that that is not continuing, and can she say where the waste will be taken when the new contract comes into effect?

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

A number of assertions and reports have been made, all of which are investigated when they come to my attention. When there were difficulties early in the contingency arrangements, in December and January, those difficulties were resolved. The cycle of collection under the contingency arrangements follows the cycle that was in the HES contract. Clinical waste that is of greater risk to the public is collected more frequently than clinical waste from, for example, dental surgeries. The collection rotation cycle remains exactly the same as it was under the HES contract.

When there are any media or other reports, they are always investigated by my officials and SEPA. So far, they have been found to be either false or out of date—or, when they have highlighted discrepancies and mistakes that have been made, those have been corrected. At this point, the monitoring continues, there is no risk to the public or the environment and we continue to keep a close eye on the situation. As I said to Mr Neil, when we have additional information about whether the company’s liquidation might affect SEPA’s actions, I will make sure that members are informed.

I would want to be absolutely accurate in my response to the member’s point about the transportation of the waste under the Tradebe contract.

If he is content, I will write to him with that detail. I do not have it in front of me, but I will happily share it with him later today.