NICOLA Sturgeon has defended the use of private sector companies being paid to help set up the National Care Service – despite millions in public funds set to be handed over to firms.

The First Minister has been warned against using National Care Service plans “as a Government slogan to delay action until 2026” after a damming social care report from Audit Scotland.

The document found there are “huge challenges facing the sustainability of social care”, saying reform “cannot wait” for the Government to set up the National Care Service.

The Scottish Government is drawing up plans to establish a publicly-funded National Care Service and has received more than 1,300 responses to a consultation on the proposals.

Social Care Minister Kevin Stewart told MSPs that "analysis of the responses is currently under way", adding that "we expect to be able to publish a report on the findings as soon as possible".

But Labour health spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, has called for SNP ministers to stop handing public funds over to private companies and instead use the “wealth of expertise” in the social care sector.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon: National Care Service a 'fitting legacy from the trauma of Covid'

Speaking at First Minister's Questions, Ms Baillie asked Ms Sturgeon “how much is being spent on private sector contracts in preparation of the proposed National Care Service”?

The First Minister insisted that it was “entirely appropriate for the Government to procure specialist services to support the development of our National Care Service proposals”.

She added: “All contracts awarded by the Scottish Government are subject to robust contract management and adhere to the principles of transparency.”

But Ms Baillie vented her frustration, stressing it was “disappointing” that “so far £700,000 has been outsourced to big private sector consultancy firms to develop the National Care Service”.

KPMG, which was awared a £546,000 Scottish Govenrment contract for the "business case and operating models" for the National Care Service, has ceased bidding for UK Government tenders after its involvement in a host of scandals.

Ms Baillie added: “KPMG alone were awarded a contract of £500,000 to develop the business case and now I discover that the private sector is lining up to benefit from a multi-million-pound contract for IT and data services for the National Care Service.

“Why is this happening at a time when KPMG are not bidding for UK Government contracts because these have been suspended, pending investigation?

“Why is the First Minister using private sector consultancies when there is a wealth of expertise in the social care sector that understands what needs to be done?”

The First Minister stressed that “where it makes sense to use external expertise to free up civil servants to focus on the policy development and implementation, we will do that, as other governments do that too”.

Ms Sturgeon pointed to “a contract to analyse the consultation responses” to the National Care Service.

She said: “It’s routine for analysis of consultation responses to be undertaken independently.

“This work is often put out to an open, fair procurement process. That very independence is normally considered a good thing.

“I can only imagine the howls of bias we would hear from Jackie Baillie had we decided to analyse the consultation responses internally instead of having it done independently.”

Earlier, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar warned there are “serious risks” if the issues facing the social care sector are not dealt with soon.

READ MORE: Scotland's social care 'crisis' can't wait for nationalisation, report warns

Mr Sarwar said: “We had a staffing crisis even before the pandemic and now services are reporting they do not have the staff they need.

“This is a stark report that makes clear a lack of action now presents serious risks.”

He called on the SNP Government to back Labour’s plans for an immediate pay increase to £12 an hour.

Mr Sarwar added: “We have been calling for a National Care Service for over a decade but it can’t now be used as a Government slogan to delay action until 2026.”

Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government is aware of the urgent need to reform social care.

She said ministers will establish the National Care Service before the end of the current session of Parliament.

The First Minister said: “In the meantime, we are increasing investment in social care.

“We are increasing the pay of those who work in social care, because recruitment and retention and the valuing of the social care workforce is an important part of what we need to do.”

Pay has increased 12.9 per cent compared to March 2021, she said.

Ms Sturgeon added: “An increase of 12.9% is actually what we have already delivered.

“Does that go far enough? No. And we have said that we want it to go further.”

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) also warned about the impact of social care workforce shortages on Thursday.

The college said it is leading to rising numbers of delayed discharges in hospitals, putting further pressure on the NHS.

Professor Andrew Elder, president of RCPE, said: “We call on the Scottish Government to urgently prioritise workforce over service redesign or integration for the moment, and move even more quickly to build an appropriately trained social care workforce.

“It is only by doing this that we can hope to build sustainable systems that minimise unnecessary admissions to hospital, help people to get home from hospital without unnecessary delay, and avoid our ‘winter pressures’ lasting all the year round.”