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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, October 31, 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Hong Kong, Portfolio Question Time, European Union Farming Funding (Convergence Funds), The Scottish Greenhouse Gas Emissions Annual Target Report for 2017, Forestry Act 1919 (Centenary), Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill, Sentencing (Pre-consolidation Amendments) Bill, Domestic Abuse Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Correction


Portfolio Question Time

Social Security and Older People

The next item of business is portfolio question time. I will try to get as many members in as possible, so please be succinct.

Disability Assistance and Carers Allowance (Loneliness and Social Isolation)

To ask the Scottish Government what changes it will make to disability assistance and carers allowance to help reduce loneliness and social isolation. (S5O-03685)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Disability and carers assistance will help disabled people and carers to access life opportunities and will reduce barriers to their participation in social activities and relationships. As outlined in “A Connected Scotland: Our strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections”, we know that interaction with others is key to reducing the harmful impacts of social isolation and loneliness. That is why the Scottish Government recognises that social security payments are an investment in people’s wellbeing and provide them with the financial support to make vital connections with others.

David Stewart

At present, unpaid carers for disabled people travel for free when they are in the company of the person whom they care for. Crucially, however, the companion element of the concessionary travel scheme does not assist with the solo travel costs of, for example, collecting prescriptions, doing shopping or visiting the cared-for person in hospital. According to Carers Scotland, one third of Scotland’s unpaid carers struggle to make ends meet, and many cut back on leisure and social activities to cope with the cost of caring. Will the Scottish Government detail the work that it has done in exploring the idea of concessionary travel for carers?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will ask my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, who has responsibility for the concessionary travel scheme, to write to David Stewart directly on what is being looked at in that respect.

I recognise the contribution that carers make to our society. That is why the first act of our new agency, Social Security Scotland, was the implementation of the carers allowance supplement, which, last year, put an extra £442 into the pockets of carers, in recognition of the very important role that they have.

Devolved Benefits (Implementation)

To ask the Scottish Government what formal assessment Social Security Scotland made over the summer of the implementation of wave 1 and 2 devolved benefits. (S5O-03686)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Further assessment of the implementation timetable for the devolved benefits, as a result of the introduction of the Scottish child payment, was undertaken over the summer jointly by officials in the Government’s social security programme and Social Security Scotland. The outcome of that assessment was provided to the Social Security Committee in a letter on 4 October, a copy of which is available on the committee’s website. The Scottish child payment position paper, which is available on the Scottish Government’s website, has also been updated to reflect the most recent assessment, and it sets out next steps.

Alexander Stewart

In a ministerial statement back in June, Aileen Campbell stated:

“Over the summer, officials will carry out further formal assessment of the challenges and develop a clear plan for how to mitigate”

in regard to

“information technology systems, staffing, supplier management and our enabling services”—[Official Report, 26 June 2019; c 44-45.]

at Social Security Scotland. Will the Scottish Government publish the findings in those four areas and update Parliament?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my original answer, we published the findings of the assessments on 4 October, when we confirmed that we will hold to the programme that my colleague Aileen Campbell set out. That information is already available and was given to the Social Security Committee.

Equality Act 2010 (Single-sex Exemptions)

3. Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it supports the Equality Act 2010’s single-sex exemptions that allow for women-only spaces and services based on biological sex when this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. (S5O-03687)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government does of course support the appropriate use of the single-sex exemptions by service providers. That requires a case-by-case approach to determine what is legitimate and proportionate in any given circumstance. There is a requirement on all of us to be precise in the words that we use in this complex area and members will want to note that “biological sex” is not a term that is used in the Equality Act 2010.

Joan McAlpine

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, notwithstanding any current practice, the genuine occupational requirement in the Equality Act 2010 allows a Rape Crisis centre to ensure that its trauma counsellors are biological women, so that no female rape survivor is further distressed by encountering a male voice on a helpline or a male body in a shelter when she reaches out for help?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I can confirm that a specific provision in the 2010 act provides for the option to restrict the employment of a person in a specific role on the basis of whether or not that person has “a particular protected characteristic”. Employers can do that where that is a genuine occupational requirement and where applying the requirement is

“a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

My experience is that organisations of the type referred to are run by dedicated and caring staff and volunteers who have become highly skilled in meeting the needs of vulnerable women and girls over many years. I would expect them to act appropriately and lawfully and to use whichever of the various provisions in the 2010 act they believe necessary in order to deliver services in the best interests of the women for whom they so tirelessly work.

There are two supplementaries.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the 2010 act is right to allow competitive sport to be organised on the basis of sex when

“physical strength, stamina or physique”

are major factors in determining success or failure?

The member rightly points to the 2010 act having provisions on sport. Nothing that the Scottish Government is doing or considering would suggest any changes to the exemptions that are already in the 2010 act.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I hope that we would all support careful case-by-case exemptions that are well evidenced and have a legitimate aim. However, we are also conscious that the debate is being had in a context in which some people—I hope not in this chamber—simply do not accept the reality of trans people’s lives. They do not accept that trans women are women or that trans men are men. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if we were to listen to those arguments and reach a position where trans men had to use women’s spaces, facilities and services and trans women had to use men’s spaces, facilities and services, that would be wrong, discriminatory and unsafe, and that it will not happen in Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Patrick Harvie rightly points out the responsibility that we all have to have that debate, in particular, in a way that respects everybody’s rights. It is certainly my intention and that of the Government to do just that. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s statutory code of practice for service providers, for example, is clear that, in respect of a single-sex service, the service provider should treat a trans man or a trans woman according to the gender in which they present, unless there are strong reasons to the contrary.

Older People (Inverclyde)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to help the increasing number of older people in Inverclyde. (S5O-03688)

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

The Scottish Government supports all older people across Scotland. On 3 April this year, we published “A Fairer Scotland for Older People: A Framework for Action”, which not only highlights the contribution that older people make, but tackles the barriers that they face and the negative perceptions and unfounded stereotypes that are associated with ageing.

Most important, the framework has the voice and the influence of older people at its heart. It draws together a range of work that the Scottish Government is carrying out for older people across many areas, including, but not limited to, employment, housing, health and social care and financial security. We will monitor the progress of the framework and produce an annual report in April 2020.

Stuart McMillan

The minister will be aware that more than one in five Inverclyde residents are aged over 65 and that, year on year, Inverclyde’s population is declining. In addition, over the past 20 years, the 25 to 44 age group in Inverclyde has declined by more than 30 per cent while the over-75s group has increased by more than 20 per cent. What further support can the Scottish Government give to Inverclyde Council to attract people of working age to live and work in the area to ensure that our community is sustainable over the coming years? Will the minister accept an invitation to visit one of our older organisations in Inverclyde?

Christina McKelvie

I will deal with the invitation first. I will be delighted to come along to one of the “older organisations”—or perhaps one of the organisations for older people—in Inverclyde.

Stuart McMillan is absolutely right. We need to be mindful of the fact that we are an ageing population and that we need to grow the population not only in Inverclyde but throughout Scotland to ensure that we have a sustainable and vibrant community and drive improvements in inclusive growth. That includes encouraging European Union nationals to stay in Scotland. Criticising the ending of freedom of movement and having control over our own immigration system in Scotland would be helpful.

The Scottish Government has therefore established a cross-portfolio ministerial population task force to identify work to take forward across Government to address population decline and intensify our efforts where necessary to deal with the very issues that Stuart McMillan has raised.

Scottish Child Payment

To ask the Scottish Government how many parents will cease to receive the Scottish child payment each year for a child who reaches 16 while still in full-time education. (S5O-03689)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Each year, around 20,000 families in receipt of the Scottish child payment could have a qualifying young person in education or approved training turn 16. Scotland has a range of support for young people that is not available elsewhere in the United Kingdom—for example, we have protected the education maintenance allowance, which was abolished in England. That provides financial support to 16 to 19-year-olds from low-income households who are attending non-advanced learning in school or college or fulfilling a learning agreement with their local authority.

Iain Gray

In East Lothian, almost 600 young people who might be eligible for that payment will turn 16 in 2023. Virtually all of them will still be in school, but their families will lose that support. Another 1,000 East Lothian children could lose entitlement in 2021 and 2022 simply because they will turn six years old and the Scottish Government cannot get the full scheme in place until 2022.

The Scottish Government is botching the design and implementation of that important benefit. My constituents were the first in Scotland to face the full impact of the volatility and cliff edges of universal credit, and they really do not need any more of the same, courtesy of the Scottish Government. At the very least, if the Scottish Government gets the data that it requires from the Department for Work and Pensions, will it guarantee that payments will continue for six-year-olds in 2021 and 2022?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That question underlines Iain Gray’s absolute lack of understanding of what the Scottish Government is delivering. We have committed to delivering the Scottish child payment, and we are doing so early. We are delivering the under-sixes payments even earlier than that.

Delivering a benefit in around 18 months is unprecedented not just in Scotland but in the rest of the UK. We are developing it early because we are replicating the functionality of the best start grant. If Mr Gray is suggesting that we should do something more complex than what we can do under the best start grant, that would simply ensure that it would not be possible for us to deliver the Scottish child payment in the timeframe that we have.

Rather than blaming the Scottish Government, which is working within the powers that it has, perhaps we could work together to reflect on the fact that the Scottish Government currently does not have the data to allow us to be able to apply that to the over-sixes. Why do we not work together and ask the UK Government to get that data? If that is possible, we will have to consider whether things can be done within the timeframe so that there is not an impact on disability assistance.

We will work hard to get the data as quickly as possible. I have already asked the new secretary of state about that, and I will do so again when we meet, I hope, in a couple of weeks’ time. If that is possible, we have to be frank about whether things can be done in the timeframe that we have and whether there are other implications. I am sure that Mr Gray would not want any delay to disability assistance.

If Scottish Labour is genuinely interested in eradicating child poverty, it will work with the Scottish Government to ensure that we have the powers here to do that properly.

Social Security Benefits (Two-child Cap)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to alleviate the impact of the two-child cap on social security benefits in Scotland. (S5O-03690)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Unlike the United Kingdom Government’s social security system, our social security system does not have, and will never have, a cap on the number of eligible children in a family who can receive support through our new benefits to help low-income families, which include the three best start grants, best start foods, the Scottish child payment and the council tax reduction scheme. The Scottish Government will continue to oppose that UK Government policy, including its appalling rape clause. That is another reason why all social security powers should be delivered to Scotland.

James Kelly

The Tory two-child cap is an abhorrent policy, restricting payments to families on the birth of a third child and treating those families with total contempt and disrespect. Does the minister agree that the forthcoming general election presents an opportunity, with the election of a Labour Government, to scrap universal credit and put in place a social security system that treats all with dignity and respect?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The next UK election, and every other UK election after that, raises the threat that the people of Scotland will be subjected to another Tory Government, whether that is next time round or the time after that. That is exactly why we need to have the powers up here in Scotland and to be free from the threat of a Tory Government, at this election or any other election in the future. We can ensure that only through independence.

Fraud Mitigation

To ask the Scottish Government what steps Social Security Scotland has taken to mitigate the risk of fraud. (S5O-03691)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Social Security Scotland has effective fraud prevention measures in place, delivered through robust systems and procedures. The measures are detailed in our published counter-fraud strategy. Fraud risk assessments are carried out before the implementation of any benefit, with prevention and detection embedded in the system at design stage.

The risks that Social Security Scotland faces will evolve over time and in line with the different types of benefits delivered. Control systems will be continually developed to respond to evolving risks, protecting our benefits from those who intentionally seek to misuse them while contributing to an economic, efficient and effective system.

As I said, Social Security Scotland has effective fraud prevention, delivered through robust systems and procedures, as is detailed in the counter-fraud strategy.

Liam Kerr

Audit Scotland seems to take a different view. It warns:

“The agency does not yet have an approach to estimating error and fraud levels for the benefits it delivers and for those it will become responsible for”.

As more complex benefits start to be delivered by Social Security Scotland, surely that will become a matter of urgency. When does the minister expect to have sufficiently addressed the concerns that have been raised by Audit Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I hope to reassure the member that we absolutely have the systems in place to analyse and detect fraud for the benefits that exist at this time. Audit Scotland did not identify or report any loss as a result of our not having the current regulations in place. The work that is already being undertaken on fraud is going well.

We are developing social security on an incremental basis. Therefore, the requirements of the benefits that we have at the moment are very different from what will be required when we move to wave 2, for the continuous payments for disability assessment. Just as we move forward with everything else in social security, we will build what is required for the benefits that are available. I am absolutely confident, and the agency is absolutely confident, that what we have in place is relevant for wave 1, and that what we will have in place for wave 2 will be stringent regarding fraud and error—importantly, it will also deliver the benefits that people require and are eligible for throughout Scotland.

Social Security Experience Panels (South Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how many carer and disability benefit recipients in the South Scotland region participate in the social security experience panels. (S5O-03692)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Social security experience panels involve people with lived experience of the benefits system. Two hundred and forty-seven current panel members have addresses in the South Scotland region. That is 11 per cent of current panel members, which compares with the 12.5 per cent of the Scottish population who live in the South Scotland region. Recruitment is open to new panel members, and I would encourage anyone with relevant experience in the south of Scotland, or indeed anywhere else in the country, to take up the opportunity to shape a social security system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect.

Colin Smyth

Just before the recess, the cabinet secretary told the Social Security Committee that experience panels are not being consulted on the Government’s plan to use the consumer prices index for annual uprating. The CPI is set 1.7 per cent lower than the rise in wages, which is twice the rate of inflation. Have the experience panels, which are vital to the co-production approach that the Parliament debated on Tuesday, been asked whether they think that the uprating proposals are fair?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We carried out a consultation on the uprating procedure. As I discussed with the Social Security Committee, the conclusion that the consultation came to was that we have used, and will continue to use, the most relevant and up-to-date measure of inflation, as experts, such as the Bank of England, suggest that organisations use. We will continue to use the most useful national statistics, as we have done this year.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes portfolio question time on social security and older people. Before we move on, I remind members that, if they have a question in a portfolio question time slot, it is a courtesy to the chamber for them to be here for the entirety of that slot.