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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, June 1, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon, colleagues. Our next item of business is portfolio question time. I ask any member who wants to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. As ever, there is quite a bit of interest in supplementaries, so I ask for succinct questions and responses to match wherever possible.

Disability (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is offering to people recently diagnosed with disabilities. (S6O-02308)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

When someone is diagnosed with a long-term condition, which may mean that they are a disabled person, they may need a range of support. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that everyone who is living with a long-term condition is able to access the best possible care and support and benefit from healthcare services that are safe and effective and put people at the centre of their care. We also provide support to disabled people through a range of services such as social care provision; social security, including a range of disability benefits; employment support; and wider work to promote equality.

Jeremy Balfour

The Scottish Conservatives are looking at proposals to introduce a loan scheme to help people who have recently been diagnosed as disabled to meet the costs of equipment up front. Will the cabinet secretary agree to meet me to discuss that proposal further?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am always happy to meet Jeremy Balfour to discuss that or any other issue. I hope that, when he brings forward proposals, he will include estimates of how much they would cost and suggestions about how we could meet that additional cost.

Third Sector (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the third sector. (S6O-02309)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government values the important role of Scotland’s third sector. The latest estimate by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is that, in 2021, the public sector invested a record £3.3 billion to support the work of the third sector, with £840 million coming from the Scottish Government via a range of programmes.

We fund and work in partnership with infrastructure organisations—such as the SCVO, Volunteer Scotland and the third sector interfaces—that support the third sector and create the right conditions for it to thrive. We are committed to developing a fairer funding approach with the aim of providing stability and reducing bureaucracy.

Maurice Golden

The third sector is in dire need of multiyear funding settlements. I welcome the earlier statement by the cabinet secretary but, in response to those comments, the SCVO chief executive, Anna Fowlie, said:

“Despite similar statements made by previous governments, progress to date has fallen far short of what is required”.

Cabinet secretary, will you commit today to moving beyond your aspirational statements on the subject and publishing a timetable that details your Government’s plans for how you will implement fair funding, including multiyear funding, for the third sector?

Questions should be asked through the chair.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I met the SCVO very recently to discuss this and other issues, and I was very grateful for its time that day. I hope that members will be reassured not only that the fairer funding arrangements were committed to in the First Minister’s prospectus but that we have made further commitments recently.

The on-going volatile economic circumstances have presented additional challenges that make it more difficult for us to provide any certainty over investment beyond the next 12 months. Regrettably, we have therefore not been able to move forward with multiyear funding to the extent that we would have wished in this financial year. However, as I said to the SCVO when I met it, I am very happy to continue to work with it to see what we can do on that and, indeed, on the wider aspects of the fairer funding commitment.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I asked the previous cabinet secretary a similar question in October and I think that we heard a very similar answer. It feels like we consistently have the same response from the Government.

I am aware that the cabinet secretary has committed to a wider review of charities in Scotland. Will she commit to reviewing multiyear funding as part of that process?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Yes, the Government is committed to a wider review of charities, but we are already committed to fairer funding. I say to the member that the reason why the answers were similar is that we remain under very volatile economic circumstances that continue to present challenges to the Scottish Government’s ability to introduce more multiyear funding than we already have.

However, I recognise the significance of the matter, particularly to the third sector. As I said in my answer to Maurice Golden, we are committed to working with the SCVO and the wider third sector to see what more can be done on multiyear funding but also on the wider aspects of the fairer funding commitment.

Depopulation in Rural and Island Communities

To ask the Scottish Government how it is tackling depopulation in rural and island communities. (S6O-02310)

The Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees (Emma Roddick)

A key theme in the Scottish Government’s population strategy is focused on ensuring that our population is more sustainably distributed, so that our communities, wherever they are, can flourish. The ministerial population task force has committed to publishing in autumn 2023 an action plan to address depopulation, which will include a place-based focus on areas that are experiencing depopulation, with a discrete focus on rural and island communities.

Additionally, in 2022, the Scottish Government published a proposal for a rural visa pilot, to facilitate migration to rural and island communities. Despite widespread stakeholder support for the scheme, we have, to date, received no response from the United Kingdom Government.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

The Scottish Government’s targets for the delivery of superfast broadband have been missed. Local healthcare services have been cut, suspended or lost entirely. Often, care packages are undeliverable because of severe recruitment issues. Roads are in an increasingly perilous state and are pothole ridden, while our ferries network lurches from one crisis to another. There is a shortage of homes to rent or buy. Often, that is the reality of rural and island life after 16 years of the Scottish National Party Government. How does the minister think that that impacts on the sustainability of our rural and island communities?

Emma Roddick

We absolutely recognise that factors such as housing, infrastructure and connectivity—the member mentioned that, but it is, of course, reserved—are essential to attracting people to Scotland’s rural and island communities, and to retaining them. That is why we have established a cross-cutting ministerial task force, to ensure that the broadest range of issues are considered and addressed when it comes to our population challenges.

There is no quick fix to the challenges that we are discussing, and we have to work with regional, local and community partners to ensure that, collectively, we deliver a sustainable solution to the challenges that our island populations face. Our action plan for addressing depopulation intends to take such a place-based approach to addressing those challenges.

There are a number of supplementary questions, and I want to get them all in, but they will have to be brief, as will the responses.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

The organisation Uist Beò recently shared a story about a global alliance manager for Hewlett Packard who was able to relocate to South Uist thanks to remote working. In its policy on addressing depopulation, what assessment has the Scottish Government made of similarly increasing remote working opportunities in the civil service, particularly when it comes to allowing civil servants to live on island communities?

Emma Roddick

I am grateful to Alasdair Allan for that important question. The Scottish Government is completely supportive of flexible, remote and hybrid working options for our workforce. Our national islands plan makes a commitment to demonstrating that jobs and careers can be sustainable and successful on our islands. Our islands policy team, for example, includes those who are from the islands or who live on them and who have specific expertise on islands policy. Furthermore, our carbon-neutral islands project funds community development officers who support individuals to return to their islands.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Depopulation is caused by people finding it too difficult to live in rural and island communities. Ferry failures are a current driver of depopulation. The South Uist ferry is being cancelled—again—for almost the whole of June. That follows similar lengthy cancellations in April and May.

Ask a question, please.

Stòras Uibhist calculated that each day costs the local economy £46,285. The people of South Uist cannot afford to lose £3 million. It is criminal neglect.

Ask a question, please.

Will businesses be compensated? If not, they will fold, causing further depopulation.

I will have a question.

Will the minister act?

Emma Roddick

I suspect that most of that question is for my colleague the Minister for Transport, but I completely recognise the spirit in which it was asked. There are so many issues that we have to tackle if we are to tackle depopulation, including transport and infrastructure. The Scottish Government recognises that we have a role to play in that. That is why we are producing an ambitious and delivery-focused plan that will span portfolios to tackle depopulation.

Finally, and very briefly, I call Beatrice Wishart.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Comments in the almost 1,000 responses to a survey that I launched last week on the Serco NorthLink Northern Isles ferry service have outlined the thoughts of some that they may have to leave Shetland due to capacity issues and their inability to travel on their preferred date. Will the Scottish Government meet me to discuss the outcome of the survey and the role that transport plays in tackling depopulation?

Emma Roddick

Again, I suspect that I would be giving a commitment for a different minister to meet Beatrice Wishart. I am more than happy to take on board any specific comments that she has about tackling depopulation as we work on the plan.

Child Poverty (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce child poverty in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley. (S6O-02311)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We are providing a range of support that will benefit families in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley—and, indeed, across Scotland—including investment in the game-changing Scottish child payment, 1,140 hours of funded childcare, free bus travel for under-22s and the Scottish welfare fund. Our five family payments, including the Scottish child payment, could be worth more than £10,000 by the time that an eligible child turns six, and more than £20,000 by the time that an eligible child is 16 years old. We also continue to support free welfare, debt and income maximisation advice services, with funding of at least £11 million allocated this year.

Willie Coffey

When you come to this place, one of your key hopes is that you will make a difference to the lives of the people you represent—and what a difference the Scottish child payment is making for families in my constituency. Instead of deliberately driving more families into poverty like the Tories do, the Scottish Government is putting hard cash into the hands of families and helping around 4,000 youngsters in my constituency to escape poverty. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it was crucial to extend the eligibility and value of the payment to reach out to as many families as possible? Will the Government continue to do everything that it can to lift more families and youngsters out of the scourge of poverty within the lifetime of this Parliament?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Willie Coffey for that question. Indeed, modelling that was published in March 2022, before the most severe impacts of the cost of living crisis, estimated that the Scottish child payment would lift 50,000 children out of poverty and reduce relative child poverty by 5 percentage points in 2023-24.

Statistics published this week show that, as of 31 March this year, 303,000 children are now benefiting from the Scottish child payment, with more than £7.2 million paid to clients living in East Ayrshire since the payment launched in February 2021. It is a game-changing payment, which we are pleased to have been able to provide. What a shame, Presiding Officer, that the United Kingdom Government continues, through its welfare regime, to push children and their families further into poverty at the same time.

Kaukab Stewart joins us remotely.

LGBT+ Support

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its work to improve the lives of LGBT+ people in Scotland. (S6O-02312)

The Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees (Emma Roddick)

We are committed to advancing equality for LGBTI+ people and to promoting, protecting and realising the rights of every LGBTI+ person.

We are funding a range of projects to tackle inequality and we are working closely with organisations to provide service improvements and support, as well as research and engagement with the community to ensure that their voices are heard and their rights are realised.

We are also committed to introducing a bill to end conversion practices relating to both sexual orientation and gender identity, as far as possible within devolved competence, and to developing a non-binary equality action plan.

Kaukab Stewart

The latest Police Scotland hate crime figures show a 67 per cent increase in hate crimes against people for their sexual orientation and a 350 per cent increase in crimes against people for their transgender identity since 2014-15. The culture war that is being waged against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is clearly not victimless. At the beginning of this Pride month, does the minister agree that anyone who stokes hatred against the LGBT+ community, however subtle they might be in doing so, is every bit to blame?

Will the minister confirm that she will press ahead with the manifesto commitments and implement reforms to gender recognition as well as a full ban on conversion therapy for all LGBT+ people?

Emma Roddick

That was very well put by Kaukab Stewart. The Scottish Government unequivocally condemns any form of hate crime. In March, we published our hate crime strategy, setting out our vision for a Scotland where everyone lives free from hatred and prejudice.

As I said, we are committed to ending conversion practices. We also plan to establish a Scottish conversion practices helpline, in recognition of the impact that this debate might have on those who have experienced conversion practices.

We remain committed to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. As Kaukab Stewart knows, we have taken the decision to defend the democratic will of this Parliament by challenging the United Kingdom Government’s unprecedented use of a section 35 order, which was used despite the UK Government having not raised any concerns or asked for amendments throughout the bill’s nine-month passage through this Parliament.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Inclusive and safe community spaces are vital for LGBT+ people. The Coorie Creative social enterprise in Stirling is leading the way in that regard, particularly through its clothes alteration project for trans and non-binary folk. Will the minister join me in welcoming the work of that incredible project and congratulate Coorie Creative on its upcoming summer residency at the V&A in Dundee, where it will be working with many disadvantaged groups across the city?

Emma Roddick

I am happy to do so, and I am grateful to the member for bringing that to my attention. Inclusive community spaces that allow LGBTI+ people to feel safe and supported are so important, which is why the Scottish Government has, between 2021 and 2024, provided more than £3 million to organisations to promote LGBTI equality in Scotland. That has included support for community projects such as the LGBTI rainbow mark—a sign that is displayed in social safe spaces to increase positivity and visibility and to reduce isolation. We also support initiatives that ensure that LGBTI+ voices are heard, such as LGBT Youth Scotland’s youth work and LGBT Health and Wellbeing’s age project, which is a programme of social opportunities and self-advocacy work for older LGBTI+ people.

Social Security Scotland (Client Concerns)

6. Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what processes it has in place to identify and act upon any concerns raised by clients of Social Security Scotland to ensure that the system meets its aims of putting dignity, fairness and respect at the heart of all of its actions. (S6O-02313)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Treating people with dignity, fairness and respect is at the heart of Social Security Scotland’s approach. The social security charter sets out what people should expect from our system. Anything that is raised will be dealt with following Social Security Scotland’s compliments, complaints and suggestions process, which can be found on the website. If details have been provided, clients will be contacted. Social Security Scotland uses feedback from that process, alongside feedback from a client panel, as well as responses to regular surveys, in performance reporting to identify what needs investigation and action. It uses that to inform continuous improvement and business planning.

Ivan McKee

Constituents have raised concerns about long timescales for dealing with claims—up to 28 weeks in some cases—and about the process for interacting with professionals who provide support and evidence for claims. Concerns have also been raised about the treatment of applicants. That suggests that more work is required to ensure that the system fully meets its aims of ensuring dignity, fairness and respect.

I have written to the cabinet secretary with details of those issues, and I welcome her reassurance that there is a robust process in place to identify and address such issues at their root. I would welcome the opportunity to engage directly with Social Security Scotland on those matters.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am very happy to receive case studies—with the client’s permission—from Mr McKee and other members in order to ensure that the agency learns from cases as they come in.

The average wait for adult disability payment is about four months. Some cases are taking longer than that and therefore longer than they should. I reassure the member that Social Security Scotland has undertaken significant work to speed up the decision-making process and that it is seeing a rise in the number of applications on which a decision is reached each week, while still holding firmly to the dignity, fairness and respect agenda.

There are several areas in which the agency is making improvements. I will be happy to provide further detail for Mr McKee when I receive his letter. I am sure that the agency would be happy to provide that detail directly to Mr McKee, too.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

Does the cabinet secretary recognise that the current delays to benefit processing, especially of adult disability payment, are unacceptable? What has been done to ensure that decision times are met? The current standard does not meet the mantra of dignity, fairness and respect.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I covered a fair amount of that in my original answer, so I will perhaps give some specific examples while emphasising that people who are eligible for the payment will be paid from the date on which they applied.

I will give some examples of work that is going on. Social Security Scotland has introduced an additional measure to ensure that there is a quick phone call back to a client when an application has been made but extra information is needed, in order to avoid delays. The agency is also drawing on the expertise of in-house health and social care practitioners, who are now available to support case discussions earlier. That has had the direct result of allowing staff to reach decisions more quickly.

Those are just two of the many processes that have been put in place to speed up decision making. I agree with the member that it is taking too long. He has my assurance that the matter has my full attention, as I said when we discussed the matter previously.

Ukrainian Refugees (MS Ambition)

To ask the Scottish Government what proportion of those previously accommodated on the MS Ambition are now in settled or permanent accommodation. (S6O-02314)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

All guests on the MS Ambition successfully disembarked the ship by the end of March. A great deal of work was undertaken by the Scottish Government, Glasgow City Council and other key partners to support guests into suitable alternative accommodation; I thank partners for their collegiate working on that. We have not published data specifically on people from the MS Ambition who were matched to accommodation but, since the supersponsor scheme began, about 6,000 individuals have been matched or rematched to accommodation in Scotland, and about half have gone into social or council housing.

Bob Doris

The supersponsor scheme is a significant success, but demand for rapid housing is an understandable consequence of it. Some Ukrainians have stayed in temporary accommodation for long periods. Given that it is right for people to move to more permanent accommodation across the country, will the Scottish Government commit to prioritising easier access to the private rented sector in appropriate locations, to give families the space and certainty that they need?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Bob Doris is correct that welcome accommodation, including ships, is intended to provide an immediate place of sanctuary. Our priority is to settle people into longer-term accommodation. Displaced Ukrainians can find it difficult to access private rented housing; the review of the supersponsor scheme, which was published in November, covered that. The Minister for Housing and I are looking at a range of options, which could include further support, to enhance existing local interventions and help people to access private rented sector housing.

Key Workers in Rural Areas (Empty Homes)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the progress of its plans to bring empty homes back into use as affordable homes for key workers in rural areas. (S6O-02315)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

Good-quality affordable housing is essential to attract people—particularly key workers—to rural communities and retain them. We are making available up to £25 million for affordable homes for key workers, which is one of a range of actions that we are taking to support the delivery of 110,000 affordable homes across Scotland by 2032, with at least 10 per cent of them in remote, rural and island areas. In June, we will meet Scotland’s Housing Network to share with local authorities further information on the fund, and we will include details in our remote, rural and islands housing action plan, which will be published shortly.

Alasdair Allan

Job vacancy rates in NHS Western Isles continue to increase. Given that many young local people cannot find an affordable home locally, we risk potential additions to the workforce moving elsewhere. How can the Government help to fill NHS, social care and other essential job vacancies in island areas?

Paul McLennan

We recognise the challenges in recruiting key workers in rural and island areas. The fund has been put in place to support the broader work that local authorities undertake to meet the housing needs of key workers, including work through the affordable housing supply programme.

We fully expect local authorities to engage with public sector employers, including NHS Scotland, to identify properties that can be purchased for or targeted at key workers directly or through leasing arrangements with employers.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

After 16 years of the Scottish National Party Government, the number of long-term empty homes in Scotland has more than doubled to more than 27,000. SNP and Green ministers are presiding over a housing crisis and do not seem to have a plan to fix it. I will ask a specific question. When will the Government introduce emergency legislation to put in place compulsory sale orders and ensure that unoccupied properties can be lived in again as homes?

Paul McLennan

As I said, we are looking at the rural housing action plan, which we will publish shortly. We continue to fund the successful Scottish Empty Homes Partnership. As we move into phase 2, we want to develop a more strategic approach to bring more empty homes back into use and embed the approach in the partnership and with its delivery partners. That will help us to deliver our aims of making best use of existing stock, as I said, and of increasing the supply of affordable housing for those who need it.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

People including key workers in the east neuk of Fife are desperate for a home that they can afford. What work has the minister done to promote use of the rural housing burden mechanism, together with the Communities Housing Trust? That has succeeded in the Highlands but has not been spread to the rest of the country.

Paul McLennan

Mr Rennie and I have met to discuss that matter on a number of occasions. As I mentioned, the rural housing action plan is not only to do with remote areas, although there are, obviously, remote and rural parts of Fife, too. As I said, we will publish the action plan shortly.