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Chamber and committees

COVID-19 Recovery Committee

Meeting date: Thursday, December 2, 2021

Agenda: Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Ministerial Statements and Subordinate Legislation


Contents


Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Convener (Siobhian Brown)

Good morning, and welcome to the 13th meeting in 2021 of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee. This morning, we will take evidence on the Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill at stage 1.

I welcome Sandra MacLeod, chief officer of the Aberdeen city health and social care partnership; Michael Clancy, director of law reform at the Law Society of Scotland; Mike Brewer, deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation; and Susan McKellar, operations manager at the Scottish Women’s Convention. Thank you for giving us your time this morning.

This will be the first of the committee’s evidence sessions on the bill before we hear from the Deputy First Minister on 16 December. Each member will have approximately 12 minutes to speak to the witnesses and ask their questions. We should be okay for time, but I apologise in advance if I have to interrupt members or witnesses in the interests of brevity.

I will ask the first questions. What are your views on the rationale for the bill? Is the bill as proposed the most appropriate route for achieving its objectives?

Sandra MacLeod (Aberdeen City Health and Social Care Partnership)

Good morning. The bill’s support for people on low incomes in helping them to remain in self-isolation is a positive move. In addition, from a national health service perspective, not returning to the previous date is also a positive move, given the impact—[Inaudible.]—that that would have.

Sorry—I think that your sound has cut out. Do you have anything else to add?

Sandra MacLeod

No.

Thank you.

Michael Clancy (Law Society of Scotland)

Good morning. I will not comment on the appropriateness of the policy; I can leave that for others to do.

On whether the bill is the most appropriate measure, the policy memorandum makes it clear that alternatives were considered. One was to allow the mandatory compensation provisions in the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 to resume when schedule 21 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 expires. Another was to issue regulations under sections 56 and 58 of the 2008 act, but there were doubts about whether those regulations would be flexible or broad enough. It would also have been possible for the Government to use powers under section 90 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 to extend the modification of the 2008 act, but that extension would, initially, have been only to 25 September 2022, and such modifications would be subject to six-month extensions thereafter.

Therefore, I can see perfectly clearly why the Scottish Government alighted on the solution of producing the bill that is before the committee today. I have not consulted any of my colleagues on this, so I hope that I am not talking out of turn, but it seems to me that the bill is the most appropriate way to go. It is clearer, it allows the Government to achieve its policy objective and it ensures that we get the opportunity to give evidence to the committee, as we are doing today.

Mike Brewer (Resolution Foundation)

The bill is an odd one because, basically, its purpose is to stop the Scottish Government paying out large amounts of money to everyone who has to self-isolate, with an estimated cost of £300 million a year. It focuses attention on the support that exists for people who need to self-isolate through the self-isolation support grant. It is vital that that grant continues while the coronavirus crisis continues and there is a pressing need for people to be able to self-isolate.

Susan McKellar (Scottish Women’s Convention)

We support the bill. Anything that will help families on a low income to maintain a level of income while they are having to self-isolate is of benefit. Given the uncertainty around coronavirus at the moment with new strains coming out, it is more important than ever that we keep the flexibility to be able to provide the self-isolation support grant for those on the lowest incomes.

We move to questions from Murdo Fraser.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Good morning. I would like to ask about two different areas. My first question is for Michael Clancy. In your submission on behalf of the Law Society, you make a process point about the Scottish Government’s power to make regulations and the requirement that it should publish a statement of reasons along with such regulations. You say:

“it should be made clear that the statement of reasons should also explain why it is necessary to make the regulations urgently before they were approved by the Parliament.”

Could you expand on that and explain the background to your thinking on that point?

Michael Clancy

The provisions in section 4 of the bill on the making of regulations include the provision that

“If the Scottish Ministers consider that regulations ... need to be made urgently ... subsections (2) and (3) do not apply, and ... the regulations (the “emergency regulations”) ... must be laid before the Scottish Parliament, and ... cease to have effect on the expiry of the period of 28 days beginning with the date on which the regulations were made”.

Therefore, if emergency regulations are made, the Scottish ministers must at the same time lay before Parliament a statement of reasons for making the regulations. The point is that there is no definition of “emergency”. The only reason that is given in section 4(4) is that the Scottish ministers consider that regulations

“need to be made urgently”.

Why they think that regulations need to be made urgently is the question to which we are seeking the answer.

That is why we have suggested that the statement of reasons should also explain why ministers require

“to make the regulations urgently before they were approved by the Parliament.”

There could be many reasons for that—for example, there could be a significant spike in coronavirus cases across the country or there could be issues in relation to finance. It is not for me to speculate as to what the Scottish ministers’ reasons might be in the future.

However, we think it appropriate for ministers to be transparent about the reasons for urgency, and for those reasons to be made clear to Parliament, so that, in contemplating the regulations after they have been made—it is important to remember that Parliament will do that after the regulations have been made—it can assess whether it was appropriate for ministers to take the route in section 4(4).

I hope that that answers your question, Mr Fraser.

Murdo Fraser

That is helpful. We can take up the issue with the Scottish Government representatives when we see them.

I have a question on a different issue, which I will address to Susan McKellar from the Scottish Women’s Convention. I was concerned to read in your consultation response that none of the women whom you consulted had been successful in accessing the self-isolation support grant or local self-isolation assistance service, despite them all having had to self-isolate. I do not know how many women you spoke to in that respect, so it would be helpful if you would clarify. It is clearly a point of concern, because the whole purpose of putting in place the grant scheme for self-isolation was to support those who are in that situation and need additional financial assistance.

Will you give us a bit more background, and explain why people were not able to access the grant? Did they find that it was too difficult to apply, did they apply and get turned down, or were there other reasons?

Susan McKellar

We wanted to put in a consultation response with regard to the self-isolation support grant, so we put out, through our network, an online survey, which reached more than 4,000 women. I think that more than 100 women replied to the survey. We also went out to our networks and asked women whom we knew had self-isolated whether they had received the grant. Some of them did not even know that it existed and that they were able to claim, and others said that they did not know how it would affect their current benefits. Some people were on universal credit and thought that, if they claimed the grant, the money would get taken off their universal credit in the future.

There was not much information coming out from the advisers. One lady phoned to find out whether she was entitled to claim, and when she was asked whether she was on benefits, she said no. She was in a low-income bracket, but she never claimed benefits because she always worked. As she did not claim the benefits, she was told that she was not entitled to the grant, although she probably would have been entitled because she was not even on the real minimum wage. However, that put her off applying for the grant.

In other cases, people thought that it would be too much hassle to go through the process to get the money, or that, by the time they got the money, they would be back at work anyway, so they did not bother. That was another reason behind it.

Access also depended on which health board was putting out the information. One woman said that she got an SMS text message saying that, if she wanted to apply for the grant, she could do so by replying to the SMS. Seven weeks later, she had not received anything back.

A lot of different things are contributing to preventing women from accessing the funds. I think that some women did not want to claim benefits due to the stigma and discrimination that are attached to doing so. Those are just some of our findings after speaking to the women.

Murdo Fraser

That is really helpful.

To follow up on that point, did you get a response from the women whom you consulted as to whether they thought that there was enough publicity around the scheme? Were they aware of it? If so, how did they hear about it?

Susan McKellar

We heard from women that there was not enough publicity about the scheme. There should have been information in health centres and other places that they were able to access at the time. They should have been advised about the scheme at the first point of contact. The situation has been getting better, but when the grant was introduced earlier in the pandemic, not much information came out about it.

As you can see from the statistics, since the furlough scheme stopped, uptake has increased. People have had to look for money from elsewhere because they do not have any other income when they have to self-isolate.

Women also said that the closure of libraries and other places is making it more difficult for them to access information. In addition, technology poverty means that people do not have online access at home. Therefore, the information has to be more accessible for women; it needs to be available to them at places where they are able to go at the moment. The women felt that there was not enough support to access the services and have someone talk them through the process.

Does Sandra MacLeod or Mike Brewer want to add anything? Sandra MacLeod is nodding.

09:15  

Sandra MacLeod

Really valid points have been made. To pick that up, I will share local practice from Aberdeen. The poverty agenda is significant in relation to health, so it is important that people can access all the support. From the area, we have received 3,234 applications for the grant, but the reward rate has been only 53 per cent. The approach was initially restrictive, but changes have definitely helped that to move forward.

A dedicated web page and online application form have been created. When staff phone to tell people that they must go into isolation, they promote the scheme and offer help to fill in the application—if that is required, someone will phone back. We also have our crisis support line for people, which might help with online challenges.

I acknowledge what Susan McKellar said. However, there is evidence, and people are promoting the opportunity to help under the poverty agenda.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Mr Brewer said that the bill is unusual in that it will involve saving rather than spending money. I know that, if we left the 2008 act in place, the total cost could be £380 million, but what would an individual be entitled to instead of £500? Does Mr Brewer know?

Mike Brewer

The answer is that the figure is not known. The estimates that were given by the Scottish Government or by the Scottish Parliament information centre—I forget which it was—recognised that the cost might be very high, at £300 million, because the Government might be obliged to compensate high earners for their full earnings loss. That is one reason why the cost of not passing the bill would be very high. If everybody had to be fully compensated for their earnings loss, regardless of their earnings level, the cost to the Scottish Government would be very large.

Does that happen if somebody gets Ebola? Has the 2008 act ever been used in that way?

Mike Brewer

I am afraid that I do not know—sorry.

John Mason

Can any other witnesses help me? It does not look as if they can. I will ask the Government the question when it appears before the committee. I think that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said, as a comment, that we need to provide full pay and comprehensive support, but that would be expensive.

We are not looking at the payment level, but some submissions covered the figure of £500. I am not sure who to put this question to—perhaps it is for Susan McKellar. Is £500 appropriate? Has the system worked? You said that a lot of people have not received the payment. Should the amount be higher? Should the payment be organised differently?

Susan McKellar

The £500 is beneficial to anybody who is getting no income. Quite a lot of the women we spoke to were on low incomes—for example, they were in minimum-wage jobs in the hospitality sector that were precarious and had zero-hours contracts. For them, any money would help.

The women who did not claim said that they lost money in real-terms benefits, because they had more electricity and food costs. They had to do their shopping online from shops that delivered, which are more expensive than shops that do not deliver—supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl are a lot cheaper than Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, but those are the only ones that do deliveries. One woman said that she used quite a lot of her savings in isolation, because she did not think that she was entitled to claim the benefits.

We would say that £500 is a fair estimate, but it should be in line with real life. Poverty is the major factor, so we need to ensure that the amount meets the real living wage criteria, which might be more than £500. It would need to take account of each aspect—what that person was earning and missing out on in real terms, including their electricity and food.

John Mason

I will stick with you. I think that the figures show that only one in eight workers are entitled to the payment and you have made the point that some people are not getting it. What about a single mother who is a bit further up the scale? Perhaps she is just managing to cover her mortgage, food, electricity and all the rest of it, but she will not get anything for self-isolating. Is there a problem there?

Susan McKellar

We think that there is a problem. Those are the people who can get tipped into that poverty bucket, as we would say. Ten days is a long time not to have any income, and it was 14 days before. If someone is not entitled to the grant and their employer pays them only statutory sick pay, they will lose a big chunk of their money and they probably do not have any savings to dip into. It will set them back and they will always be trying to get back on their feet and on to an even keel.

With the cost of electricity going up, fuel poverty is a major issue at the moment, as is food poverty and insecurity. More people are trying to access food banks than ever before and most of them are working. They would come into the same category. Eligibility should be looked at on that basis. What would be the real cost to someone of spending that time in isolation and would it put their income below the real living wage? If so, they should be entitled to the grant.

John Mason

My final question is for Sandra MacLeod, but anybody else can come in, too. When people are asked whether they self-isolate when they are meant to, 94 per cent say that they do, but figures show that in practice only 74 per cent do so. People’s claims are somewhat out of line with what they do. What is your feeling about self-isolation? Is it working? Are people doing it?

Sandra MacLeod

Our understanding is that it is one of the key contributors to breaking the chain of spread of the disease, so it is helpful. The situation is progressing, but I suppose there will always be people who choose not to follow the guidance and do not self-isolate. As Susan McKellar has rightly highlighted—and the bill is trying to achieve this—anything that we can do to encourage and support people to self-isolate is a positive step.

Is there anything that we could do apart from paying the money?

Sandra MacLeod

I am not sure. We are encouraging people to do it. We can give them acknowledgement. We have contract tracers and provide a high level of support, including volunteer assistance. All that is in place, but it sometimes comes down to personal choice and whether people are willing to expose other people to the risk.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I want to pick up on something that Sandra MacLeod said. I was interested to hear what Aberdeen city health and social care partnership is doing to promote the grant. It would be good if you could send that information to the committee. Does any member of the panel think that there is a general issue about promotion? Should the Government and people on the ground do more to promote the fact that people can get support if they are struggling?

Susan McKellar

We can always do more to promote these kinds of grants and initiatives. The problem is that we are bombarded with so many different messages and they change a lot, so people are not sure what the current guidelines are and what processes they should go through. The television adverts promoting self-isolation and staying in are great, but they do not say that people are entitled to support. They do not tell people to ring a national phone number to check whether they are eligible for a self-isolation support grant. More has to be done on that.

More than 700,000 people have had Covid—[Interruption.]

Susan McKellar’s screen has frozen. Can we bring in Michael Clancy?

Michael Clancy

Two thoughts crossed my mind in relation to this discussion, but Susan is back live now so perhaps she wants to conclude her point.

She is not back yet. We cannot see her on our screens.

Michael Clancy

Okay, thank you. Two thoughts crossed my mind. First, under section 56 of the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008, there has to be a notification in writing that the person is required to quarantine or self-isolate, as we call it. That notification in writing might be where information about the grant is made available directly to the individuals concerned who would be eligible to get a discretionary payment under the act. That might be a way of getting the Scottish Government to explore getting the information directly to those who might be eligible to claim the self-isolation support grant.

Secondly, I turn to Mr Mason’s point about 90 per cent of people saying that they will comply but only 70 per cent doing so. If a dispute arises about a person’s entitlement under section 56 of the 2008 act—in other words, whether they have self-isolated—or the amount of compensation, the act contains a dispute mechanism that allows for arbitration. If that does not result in agreement, it will then go to the sheriff.

Applying those sorts of solutions to questions about entitlement to the grant might take another leap of faith and might require further tweaks to the legislation, but it gives us an idea of resolutions to the issue of getting notification about the information, the question of who is isolating and whether they are actually doing it, and how one can resolve a dispute that might arise about entitlement to a grant rather than compensation under the act.

I hope that that is helpful.

Susan McKellar is back and she would like to come back in.

Susan McKellar

I am sorry about that; I lost my signal.

I was saying that it would be helpful to do more with adverts and stuff like that to show people, especially those on a low income, that there is support out there.

I was listening to what Michael Clancy said about the grant and I think that there has to be discretion there. We had one woman who said that her contract for a new job was due to start the day after she was told to isolate, so she was not entitled to the grant or any statutory sick pay and that left her in a precarious position for 10 days. We have to look at discretion in the bill. We have moved the issue forward on some of the criteria for the grant that Sandra MacLeod talked about earlier, but we need to look at certain conditions in an intersectional way to see what kind of things can happen and how we can make sure that as many people as possible can get the grant.

More than 700,000 people have had Covid, but there was only a 6 per cent uptake, and we know that poverty is a lot higher than that.

We know that people are not claiming, so we need to do more to ensure that they are aware that they can access it. People are not getting reasons why they are being rejected; sometimes, they are just told, “Your claim is unsuccessful”. We need to be more transparent about why claims are being rejected, and we need to keep information and data about that in order to see whether certain groups of people are missing out and for what reasons.

09:30  

Alex Rowley

Thank you. Those points are important in looking at the wider spread.

I have a quick question for Michael Clancy about the relevance of the 2008 act. There is consensus that it would not be suitable for the current Covid pandemic. Is the act too widely drawn? Do we need to revisit it at some point?

Michael Clancy

We have recommended that the whole vista of emergency legislation needs some revision in relation to whatever emergencies there might be. Prior to the pandemic, the options that would have been at the hand of Governments to deal with things would have been the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 or the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. We have not seen or heard of the 2004 act since it was enacted and applied, I think, in relation to some agricultural emergencies in the early 2000s.

There is a need to look at why we got into the position whereby, in 2020, the United Kingdom Coronavirus Act 2020 had to be enacted at such speed, with only four days of parliamentary consideration in Westminster, and why it was necessary for the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020—the Scottish Parliament’s first coronavirus act—to be taken under the emergency procedure. We can understand why its second coronavirus act—the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Act 2020—could be taken at a little bit more leisure. Nevertheless, the fact that we had to make all that law indicates that our previous law for dealing with emergencies might not have been fit for purpose or up to dealing with such problems.

After the current emergency is truly over and things have settled down sufficiently—I cannot begin to predict when that will be—we should all get our heads together, look closely at our emergency legislation and apply it. Clearly, the coronavirus legislation applies only to coronavirus. If some other viral agent or form of emergency were to be visited on us, we could not just apply coronavirus legislation to that circumstance, so what would we do? We need to consider a law for emergencies and make sure that it is fit for purpose and flexible enough to meet every contingency.

I would like to bring in Sandra MacLeod.

Sandra MacLeod

My response has been covered by the two previous witnesses.

Okay—thank you. I will go to Jim Fairlie.

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

I want to come back to Michael Clancy on the point that he just made. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 was brought in following the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 to prevent people’s access to the countryside and farms. Is that a UK act, and does the Scottish Government have any access to it? Is it reserved or can the Scottish Government use it?

Michael Clancy

Let me just call it up on my computer so that I can answer your question. It was enacted in 2004 and covers all kinds of civil contingencies, not simply foot and mouth. It was not directed at that specific emergency but at all kinds of emergencies.

The meaning of “emergency” under the act is

“an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom, ... an event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment of a place in the United Kingdom, or ... war, or terrorism, which threatens serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom.”

For the purposes of explaining that, it goes on to describe, for example,

“loss of human life ... human illness or injury”

and

“disruption of services relating to health”

as other causes or features of an emergency.

One could argue that the act could apply to the coronavirus situation. However, in evidence either to the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords or to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, Michael Gove explained that the act had really only been brought into effect in contemplation of something larger than a virus and was more focused on war or some other such contingency. The coronavirus legislation has been brought in specifically to deal with Covid-19. The 2004 act has a far broader conspectus and is more applicable to other forms of disruption to our national life.

You asked whether the act is amendable by the Scottish Parliament. It is UK legislation and I think therefore that the answer is that it is not amendable. I have not checked schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, but I think that civil contingencies are a reserved matter.

Jim Fairlie

You have raised something that I had not thought about. I had never heard of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. I assumed that the act was about foot and mouth when you said that it was from the early 2000s.

The 2004 act is there, and we currently have the Coronavirus Act 2020. I go back to what you said about the need to look at having some sort of public emergency act after this is all done and dusted. Coronavirus has affected not only people’s health. Should we have looked at a broader picture and used the 2004 act? The pandemic has affected business, freedoms, poverty and every aspect of society. Would it not have made more sense to use the 2004 act, which relates to civil contingencies, rather than creating an act that relates to health?

Michael Clancy

It is possible to debate which piece of legislation should be deployed for every circumstance and challenge that the country faces. It is likely that the 2004 act was looked at and discounted as not giving the UK Government and the devolved Administrations adequate powers to deal in very quick order with what was recognised as a global threat.

It was probably the right decision to go for a comprehensive piece of stand-alone legislation that dealt with the problems of the coronavirus. There was a four-nations action plan to deal with coronavirus in place at that time and the four nations agreed on coronavirus legislation as being the first building block of that. The devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales created more legislation and subordinate legislation, which grew exponentially to cover all aspects of restrictions on movement and other issues too. It is fair to say that that was the right thing to do and that the 2004 act was probably thought about and discounted because it was not as broad-based and did not provide adequate powers to the Governments operating throughout the UK.

Jim Fairlie

I apologise for being an absolute pedant here, but if we had gone down the route of using the 2004 act, would it not have been the same principle that those powers would have been devolved for the period of time to allow the devolved Administrations to use them?

Michael Clancy

This is taking us off the topic of the day, but the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 was created with a different perspective on the challenge that might be faced. Parts of the act are usable—there is a way in which the act divides up the issues of urgency, consultation, enforcement and so on—and the use of emergency powers can be determined by a senior minister of the Crown. However, essentially, the Parliament would have to rewrite the act to take account of coronavirus, and if you were to try to modify the act to make it clear which authorities were being empowered to do what and what powers were being given, we would end up with the coronavirus legislation.

It was probably the right decision to go with specific coronavirus legislation and to deal with it in the way in which it was dealt with originally in the Coronavirus Act 2020, which was on a four-nations basis, but allowing the devolved Administrations to make law in the devolved sphere—and in Scotland, allowing the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, to make law that was specific to Scotland, which dealt with amendments to Scottish law in the devolved sphere. We can cite examples of that in relation to movement in and around Scotland, movement out of Scotland and questions about the way in which the courts operated and other things.

In one respect, we would have ended up in the same place, but the right answer was chosen to enact legislation specific to the threat of coronavirus.

Mr Fairlie, does your next question relate to the self-isolation bill?

Jim Fairlie

Yes. My question is for Susan McKellar. You sent a questionnaire out to 4,000 people but got only 100 responses. I am not disputing the fact that we have to get our messaging better, but did you get 100 respondents who did not get the grant, although 500 did? How would you know how many people are not getting it? In Aberdeen, there were 3,234 respondents and a 54 per cent success rate. That is not high enough—I accept that—but why was your response rate so low?

Susan McKellar

I think that it was so low because everyone has got so much else going on at the moment. It is a busy period, especially for women who have had the joys of having had to home school and make sure that they were caring for other family members—those responsibilities predominantly land on women. The ones who responded to us were the most upset about not getting the grant because of the situation that it put them in. Other women were doing other things and were not even aware that it was a grant that could be claimed.

We think that there was a low response because we just send the survey out and take in what we can. We went out to our networks and asked women from different organisations what information they were getting back. Although 100 women responded to the survey, many did not, probably because of everything else that has been going on.

09:45  

Quite a lot of our women members are teachers or parents, and some are older adults who do not have the technology to enable them to answer our surveys. That is a huge issue. The Scottish Women’s Convention is trying everything that it can to reach as many women as possible, but some of the women in the Highlands and Islands do not have broadband, so we cannot get their views as regularly as we might otherwise do.

At the time of the survey, we did not have the support to enable us to phone people in order to get more respondents to give us that information. The responses that we got were from women who had experienced a negative effect and wanted us to be aware so that we could pass that information on to the Scottish Government and health boards. The respondents were from different health board areas, in which there were different outcomes. One woman was in West Dunbartonshire and another was in Glasgow, and they were dealt with by their health boards in totally different ways.

That just goes to show that there is a lack of parity, depending on who is dealing with the application. It sounds as if Aberdeen is getting it right and, from what we hear, Glasgow is doing quite well in getting the message out and informing people that there is a grant that they can get. However, other health and social care partnerships are not doing so well. That might be to do with the way that the NHS is running in those areas, and whether it is at capacity because of Covid.

Many of the women who are part of the Scottish Women’s Convention are aware of that. They know that the NHS is to be protected, and some of them did not even want to apply for the grant because they knew that their application would take vital time away from other things in the NHS. That was another reason that we were given.

That is some background information on the survey responses.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Good morning. I will be reasonably brief, because a lot of the points that I wanted to cover have already been discussed.

The self-isolation support grant is there to encourage people to self-isolate, and to ensure that they are not put in a position where they have to make a decision on whether they self-isolate or are able to pay their bills. With that in mind, I want to raise a couple of points with Susan McKellar.

You talked about the impact on those who are on zero-hours contracts or in part-time work, who would perhaps feel the inability to work most keenly. They have an issue with having to prove loss of income, given their particular circumstances. Does that cause a difficulty for them in accessing the grant? At the end of the day, it is about ease of access to the grant.

You also mentioned those who do not fall within the criteria for the grant, but whose income versus expenditure may be finely balanced, as it is for many of us, and whose inability to work would seriously impact their ability to pay their bills. Is the scope of the grant wide enough?

Susan McKellar

We do not think that it is, with regard to what people are losing money-wise in real terms. Women on zero-hours contracts said to us that, because their work is precarious, even if they were able to isolate for 10 days and did not get work during that time because they could not do it, they would then be affected in terms of getting shifts in future. Some of those employers are very unscrupulous and do not adhere to employment law in the way that they should, and the workers are not protected.

That issue came up in relation to unions. We spoke to women about being part of a union, especially if they are on a zero-hours contract. The issue was that that would cost them money, even though the cost is quite low. In addition, they do not want to rock the boat because that might prevent them from getting shifts in the future, which would have a serious impact.

Some of the women who had been told to self-isolate would do so, but they were pressured from their employer to hurry up and get back to work because the business was short staffed. That has a psychological impact on the person, who thinks, “I need to try to get back to work as soon as I can.” If someone is not entitled to a grant, and they are not getting that money, it puts pressure on them to break the isolation rule. We need to look at that as well.

We need to look at income when it comes to zero-hours contracts. Some weeks, people could get 32 hours; other weeks, they could get eight. We need to look at how, overall, someone’s income generally runs, as the Government does for tax credits; people are paid for a certain income and, if that goes up, the payment reduces—that kind of idea. We need to look at that especially for women who are on that breadline; if isolating is going to cause them not to achieve, in real terms, the living minimum income that they need, they should be entitled to get that grant. There should be something in there to say that they are able to claim for that and to prove their claim.

Thank you. I have a final quick question, probably to Sandra MacLeod, about the legislation’s impact on the health boards. How would it impact on your health board?

Sandra MacLeod

Previously—I have checked—as has been said, there was not a huge uptake for payments under the 2008 act. The grants are managed by local authorities. People are informed through contact tracing. When people are contacted to say that they are required to isolate, the contact tracers ask whether they need assistance, advise them of the grants and link them to the local authority.

The impact on the health board, at this stage, would therefore not be significant—in a positive way. If the current arrangements were not in place, the workload and the distraction of processing all those claims and payments would have had quite a significant effect on the health board. The situation has, in a way, been positive and has allowed us to work with key partners across the systems. It has allowed local authority and health board colleagues to link with the third sector in a community planning approach.

To summarise, there is minimal impact on the health board, which is what was intended, and which has a positive impact on the health board’s ability to deliver its services.

The Convener

Since no member has further questions, I thank the witnesses for their evidence and for giving us their time this morning. If witnesses would like to raise any further evidence with the committee, they can do so in writing; the clerks will be happy to liaise with them about how to do that.

I suspend the meeting to allow a changeover of witnesses.

09:52 Meeting suspended.  

10:28 On resuming—