– in the Scottish Parliament on 2nd February 2023.
3. To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to support young people with speech difficulties. (S6O-01862)
We want to intervene early to prevent speech difficulties from arising in young people. An important part of our efforts to address that has been increasing our health visitor workforce by more than 500 since 2014 and expanding funded early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours for all eligible children. Both measures are critical to supporting children’s early language development.
We also recognise the importance of timely access to speech and language therapy. We have increased health boards’ flexibility in reducing waiting times, to ensure that those with the greatest need are seen first, while maximising prevention and early intervention approaches for those who are waiting.
The cabinet secretary talks about early intervention, but the reality is that there is a two-year waiting list in North Ayrshire to see a children’s speech therapist. In fact, the list is now closed, and parents have to go private and pay for assistance for their children. There is a two-tier system in speech therapy in Scotland, due to chronic underfunding and a nationwide lack of speech therapists. I am sure that members across the chamber will be experiencing similar issues. How have we let things get so bad? Early intervention is absolutely key to young people’s learning and development, but if there is a two-year waiting list, the outcomes will be much poorer. Will the cabinet secretary reflect on that? What is he going to do about it?
I will not only reflect on it, but make sure that we take action. Jamie Greene is right to raise the issue of NHS Ayrshire and Arran. I know about the specific challenges that NHS Ayrshire and Arran has had with recruitment and that it has lost some staff in its speech and language therapy department.
I have asked the chief allied health professions officer to engage directly with the board. She has asked NHS Ayrshire and Arran to resume the waiting list for routine referrals, which I know was an issue of concern. I understand NHS Ayrshire and Arran’s decision to close the list for routine referrals, and it is important to say that that decision never affected urgent referrals, which are still being seen. The average referral-to-assessment time is four days.
I do not agree with Jamie Greene’s suggestion that the national health service has been chronically underfunded—that is incorrect. We are putting record investment into our NHS, with a record £19 billion for 2023-24.