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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Urgent Question, Ukraine (Humanitarian Response), Low Income and Debt (Report), Point of Order, Business Motion, Decision Time, World Menopause Month


Contents


Ukraine (Humanitarian Response)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a statement by Neil Gray on Scotland’s humanitarian response to the Ukraine crisis. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

14:30  

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

Like others around the world, we have been shocked by Russia’s continued illegal and unprovoked war in Ukraine. The conflict has devastated the lives of innocent Ukrainians and has forced nearly 11 million people to flee their homes.

We, as a nation, stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Our communities have welcomed thousands of people who are fleeing the war, Scottish families have opened their homes, and our local authorities and third sector partners are working tirelessly to provide people who are often traumatised with the safety and support that they need.

Unlike with the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, we were not able to plan in advance, and homes had not already been found for people before they travelled. The displacement from Ukraine has been on a large scale and swift, causing a humanitarian crisis that Europe could not have predicted or planned for.

To provide a comparison, the Syrian scheme in Scotland saw the planned resettlement of 3,000 people over five years. Providing suitable accommodation and ensuring that those who arrive are able to access health, education and employability support have been a challenge on a scale that we have never experienced before, but our services have risen to that challenge.

Thanks in large part to our supersponsor scheme, Scotland has now offered a place of sanctuary to more than 21,000 people—a fifth of all United Kingdom arrivals and double our population share. That is beyond anything that we could have imagined eight months ago, when the war began. When we launched the supersponsor scheme, we committed to welcoming 3,000 people. We have exceeded that figure seven times over, showing that we did the right thing in offering that additional route to safety.

By pausing the scheme in July, we sought to ensure that we were able to continue to provide appropriate accommodation and support to those displaced people who had already arrived and to those we knew would arrive in the weeks ahead. At that time, I also committed to a review of the scheme. Led by the chief social policy adviser, Professor Linda Bauld, the review convened experts from across national and local government, academia and the third sector. It also included the lived experience of recently arrived Ukrainians. I am grateful to them all for their work.

Today, I have published the results of that review. With the principles of empowerment and sustainability in mind, the review has identified 16 interventions for our warm Scottish welcome, to improve our offer and to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to help those from Ukraine. There are seven criteria for reopening the supersponsor scheme. Those are supported by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers—SOLACE—and our third sector partners. I will briefly go through some of those interventions, focusing on accommodation, in particular. They include positive steps that offer the possibility of creating a real, lasting benefit.

For many people, moving from welcome accommodation to long-term accommodation is a key milestone. It might also be concerning, as it is a recognition that, for the time being, their homeland remains at war and they need to make a home in Scotland for longer than they might originally have envisaged. We want to be there to support them through this time. Our aim is to improve the performance of the scheme, to empower those who are arriving with clear advice and support, and to improve access to long-term housing options, thereby reducing dependency on short-term accommodation.

One intervention that we have already begun is increasing the supply of housing stock through the £50 million Ukraine longer-term resettlement fund. That new funding is in addition to the £5 million that was granted to North Lanarkshire, which has brought 200 properties into use and has started accommodating families. Through the new fund, we have already announced £486,000 in grant funding for North Ayrshire Council, and I am pleased to announce today that Aberdeen City Council has been awarded more than £6 million to bring about 500 void properties back into use, which will make more long-term accommodation available across the city. We are working with all local authorities to encourage and support more proposals.

The Scottish Government does not want anyone to stay in welcome accommodation longer than is necessary. It is clear that a settled home is a better longer-term outcome, so we will set a clearer expectation that stays will be short term, and we will highlight the support that is available to secure longer-term settled accommodation.

With many arrivals now in employment or in receipt of social security benefits, when appropriate, and in line with guests in private host homes and people living in other temporary rented accommodation, we will also consider asking for a contribution to temporary welcome accommodation for those who are still using it. That will help us to improve the prioritisation of limited temporary accommodation for those people who are most in need and those who have newly arrived.

Thousands of Scots were in a position to open their homes to Ukrainians by offering to be a private host. Local authority resettlement teams, supported by our national matching service, are working hard to match volunteer hosts and displaced people. More than 2,790 people have now been matched into private homes.

We want to place people with hosts quickly and safely, but we know that the most successful arrangements happen when the needs of both hosts and Ukrainians align, which is why matching is a two-way process and resettlement leads must listen and take account of the needs and preferences of Ukrainians. Many people might prefer to live in areas close to amenities and services, or close to pre-existing Ukrainian communities. In addition, volunteer hosts will have their own preferences and might not have space for larger families or complex group compositions. Matching takes time and considerable input, so we have increased resources to our local authorities to boost the process, and it might mean that, for some volunteer hosts, there is unfortunately not a match to be made.

There will also be many people who are interested in hosting who have not yet taken the first step, as they are not sure what is expected of them. Therefore, we will launch a Scotland-specific campaign to ask households across the nation to consider offering a place in their home to a Ukrainian. As part of that campaign, later this month, we will hold our first warm Scottish gathering, where Ukrainians and our local communities can come together. The event will showcase Scotland’s many vibrant towns, cities and villages, and it will help Ukrainians to make informed choices about where to live.

The review has had to take into account the fact that we are operating in the context of a cost of living crisis and cuts to our budget by the United Kingdom Government—a UK Government that has failed to act effectively enough in response to the cost of living crisis and that continues to fail in its response to arrivals from Ukraine.

As part of his budget statement, the Deputy First Minister explained that our response to the Ukraine crisis requires us to find about £200 million that had not been planned for. For many months, I have been writing jointly with my Welsh counterpart, Jane Hutt, to ask the UK Government to provide proper funding for Ukrainians who are arriving through the family route, and we have pressed for an increase to the £350 thank-you payments for hosts. None of that has progressed. Indeed, in the chaos of the past few months, the regular meetings that the Welsh and Scottish Governments had with Lord Harrington have been replaced with unanswered letters. I will continue to pursue meetings with the new UK ministers and I will meet my Welsh counterpart, who has just carried out a similar review of arrangements in Wales.

Scotland is facing the most severe economic upheaval in a generation, which is already impacting people, businesses, public services and the third sector. Difficult decisions are being taken that affect all of Scotland’s people, and our offer of support for people who have been displaced by the conflict in Ukraine is, unfortunately, not immune to that.

Let me turn to the reopening of the supersponsor scheme. As I said earlier, we have developed seven criteria that we will use to objectively decide whether the scheme can reopen. Reopening the scheme must be predicated on ensuring that we are able to honour our commitment to displaced people who are already in Scotland and those who are yet to travel. We must be assured that measures are in place to mitigate pressures on local councils and other services, which have been working tirelessly, and that funding is in place to meet the associated costs. Having considered the current position, I have concluded that we are unable to resume applications to the supersponsor scheme at this time.

That does not mean that there are no new arrivals from Ukraine. There are daily arrivals from Ukraine—around 100 a day—and there are more than 13,000 visa holders still to travel. The private sponsor route for Ukrainians remains open.

From the outset, I have been clear that Ukrainian resettlement is a national effort. Scotland’s response has demonstrated the kindness and generosity of the Scottish people. We can be successful only by working with local authorities, third sector partners, community groups, businesses and, of course, Ukrainians themselves. I therefore offer my deepest appreciation and thanks to all those who are providing help and support.

That includes the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain and the consul general, Yevhen Mankovskyi. I thank them for their support. The work of the association reinforces the importance of respecting and listening to displaced people from Ukraine so that we keep people and not process at the heart of our response. I have discussed with the association and the consul general the interventions that I have outlined, and I have explained the rationale behind them. They remain supportive of Scotland’s response, recognising the significant constraints that we face.

The review heard that support should be in place that empowers Ukrainians to make positive choices about their future, and that is our aim through the interventions that are set out in our paper on the issue. The Scottish Government remains clear that Ukrainians are welcome and that Scotland is their home for as long as they need it.

Slava Ukraini!

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The minister will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. Members who wish to ask a question should press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the minister for the advance sight of his statement and for the review of the supersponsor scheme by Professor Linda Bauld. I acknowledge that, earlier today, the minister dedicated time to answer questions from Opposition MSPs. I thank him for his regular engagement on the issue—it would be great if more of his colleagues could adopt a similar practice.

The Scottish Conservatives recognise the efforts that Governments across the United Kingdom have taken to ensure that as many Ukrainian refugees as possible can seek sanctuary from the horrors that continue to unfold in their homeland. We appreciate that there will be profound challenges ahead in ensuring that many of those people can settle in a permanent home and begin to build a new life here. However, despite the best intentions of the minister and his officials—I have never doubted their intentions for a moment—the supersponsor scheme remains mired in problems, which are exacerbated by the housing crisis that the Scottish National Party has made worse by its recent policy interventions in the area. Although a significant number of Ukrainians have arrived under the scheme, the reality for many of them is very challenging indeed.

I therefore ask the minister on what date he expects the supersponsor scheme to resume, given that it has now been paused for four months. I will also ask the same question that I asked on 8 September, which remains unanswered. Can the minister detail specifically the average time that it takes between arrival in Scotland and placement in permanent accommodation?

Neil Gray

I thank Donald Cameron for what was an almost entirely constructive approach to his question—almost. I will try to answer his questions in turn.

On the situation that we face, I do not recognise Donald Cameron’s portrayal of the supersponsor scheme. The scheme is, without doubt, incredibly successful. It has meant that, at the last count, almost 18,000 people have been able to get to Scotland and the UK without securing a private sponsor, and there are many more to come. I will therefore not take any criticism of the success of the supersponsor scheme, which has, without doubt, been incredibly successful.

The challenges with housing that we face in Scotland are not unique to Scotland—they are shared by our counterparts around Europe. I was recently in Poland and saw at first hand the experiences there. I was in Ireland a couple of weeks ago and saw for myself the challenges that are being faced there with regard to housing. Those challenges are very similar to, and in some cases much worse than, what we face. Therefore, it is unfair to characterise the housing challenges that we face as somehow being unique to Scotland.

On the resumption of the scheme, we now have objective criteria by which we will continually assess the issue. When those criteria are met, we will take a decision on resuming the scheme. I cannot put a timescale on that, for the obvious reason that it would otherwise no longer be an objective set of criteria.

The average time that it takes for people to be matched from temporary accommodation into permanent accommodation varies. Just as people vary and the circumstances that they arrive with vary, their needs and what they are looking for will be different. We are looking to match people as quickly as possible, and the process has sped up. That has been helped by the digital matching tool that we have as part of the national matching service. It has also been helped by the investments that we are making in longer-term housing opportunities such as those in North Ayrshire and North Lanarkshire and what is to come in Aberdeen. We will continue to make those investments to ensure that people are given the best opportunities possible post-arrival.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the minister both for advance notice of his statement and for the pre-meeting that he helpfully held with party spokespeople. I also refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

I agree that much has happened that we can collectively be proud of in our response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, especially what has been done by those who have become hosts, the Ukrainian community and the staff and volunteers in local authorities and third sector organisations who have stepped up to support the 17,500 Ukrainians who have arrived to date.

I want to ask about accommodation. We have a long-standing housing crisis in Edinburgh and I want to ask the minister why the £50 million funding allows only repurposing of buildings. My understanding is that vacant blocks do not exist in the city and that we do not have the conversion opportunities that the fund admirably seeks to see.

I therefore ask about the proposal for modular housing. Can we have some clarity on that proposal, because my understanding is that modular homes are already available as an option for new build by both registered social landlords and councils for permanent housing? Is that what is being recommended, given the shortage not just in Edinburgh but in the Lothians and in neighbouring councils? Without a plan, if we are removing one of the meals a day that are currently free in the Victoria ship in Leith, does that not make it hard for people to be able to budget? Will there be cooking facilities in place?

The minister also talked about promoting employment, which I welcome. Can he say what is being done to monitor the employment of Ukrainians coming to Scotland and what is being done on a joined-up approach for employability support? I realise that the past few weeks have been somewhat chaotic at a UK level, but what is that joint Government work in terms of employability and issues such as access to driving licences?

Ms Boyack—

Finally—

Yes—finally, please.

—can the minister say something about interventions 10 to 16 that were recommended by Linda Bauld? Should they not be immediate or short-term rather than into the future?

Neil Gray

I thank Sarah Boyack for her constructive approach both this afternoon and in the meetings that we have had, in which she has obviously been representing the City of Edinburgh Council and her constituents. I am genuinely grateful for the work that she has been doing alongside my Government officials and me.

Sarah Boyack is absolutely right in saying that we should be collectively proud of our response, because it is a collective effort. At the start of the scheme, when we first looked at providing a humanitarian response, I was determined that it was going to be a truly Scotland-wide effort, and I think that we are seeing that. There is one point to correct her on: we have seen over 21,000, rather than 17,000, arrivals, which is the supersponsor element alone. There have been privately matched homes for Ukraine arrivals that take us over 21,000 arrivals in total.

In terms of housing and the flexibility that Sarah Boyack is looking for in the fund, I am happy to hear proposals. I am always happy to hear proposals. I am looking for as many opportunities as possible to see as many properties as possible come forward for people—Ukrainians, clearly, but also to tackle the long-term legacy of domestic homelessness. As I said in the meeting earlier, if she or other colleagues in the chamber have ideas around potential properties that could be repurposed or refurbished, I am happy to consider those.

We are working with Palladium on modular housing. I set out in a previous statement that we are looking at what we can do with modular accommodation, and it is part of the review. I was taking quite a bit of evidence from my Irish counterparts about the work that they are doing on modular accommodation, again to provide longer-term sustainable housing. For us, it is about trying to find appropriate sites for those to go on and looking at how they can be properly utilised and how there can be a legacy from them.

On meals, we are obviously cognisant of the need to run the scheme in an equitable way, making it sustainable and encouraging people to go into longer-term accommodation. We are also trying to ensure that our offer to Ukrainians provides parity with our offer to people who are in temporary accommodation for other reasons, whether that is domestic homelessness or under other schemes. We are trying to do this in a sensitive way that recognises where meal provision is available. There will not be a withdrawal of catering facilities on ships; there might be a contribution to the meals that are available, which will still be getting made.

On employment and the chaos at the UK level that Sarah Boyack has narrated, we are working with the Department for Work and Pensions and Social Security Scotland to provide as wide a support package as possible for people in temporary accommodation on ships and hotels. She hits the nail on the head in saying that our ability to do that work is impacted by the current lack of a proper relationship with UK ministers, which we previously had. Lord Harrington was very open and helpful, but, since he departed, we have not had the same consistency of response, we have not met a minister and, as I have already pointed out, we have not had responses to correspondence, which is incredibly unhelpful and means that we cannot get through what we need to in order to support people here and in Ukraine. The two examples that I gave around the welcome payment and providing parity between schemes are issues that really need to be resolved.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before I call the next speaker, I advise members that we have around 10 minutes and 20 seconds left for back benchers, and 10 back benchers want to ask a question. Members can do the maths. We have spent almost half the time for this item on two questions from front benchers. I make a plea for succinct questions and answers; if we do not get that, we will simply have to drop questions from some back benchers.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I remind members of an interest in that I have been a host to a Ukrainian refugee for the past 10 weeks under the homes for Ukraine scheme.

I have two questions to ask. The first is about the wording of one of the lines in the minister’s statement, which says that those in receipt of social security benefits or in employment will be asked, when appropriate, and in line with guests in private houses, for a contribution to their temporary welcome accommodation. Will the minister explain what that means? I understood that guests in private homes under the homes for Ukraine scheme were not required to make any kind of financial payment. If that is a change, it is a worrying change.

The second question is one on which I have pressed the minister before. Would his Government consider extending the discretionary travel arrangements on free bus passes to all refugees who are living in Scotland, whether they are from Ukraine, Afghanistan or Syria, so that they might better be able to take up offers of accommodation outside our metropolitan areas?

Thank you, Mr Cole-Hamilton. I would not quite describe that as succinct.

Neil Gray

Alex Cole-Hamilton is correct in his characterisation: there is no contribution to be made in private homes. This is about welcome accommodation, on which we are looking to provide parity.

On the concessionary travel scheme, we continue to consider what we can do to provide the support that Alex Cole-Hamilton, Paul Sweeney, Bob Doris and Mark Ruskell have been calling on us to provide. It is a programme of government commitment for us to work with the third sector and local authorities to consider how best to provide free bus travel to people who are seeking asylum, refugees and displaced people from Ukraine. That work continues.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Notwithstanding what the minister has said, what more can be done to support people into employment—in particular, people with existing qualifications who require assistance to convert them to UK-equivalent qualifications, or who require to be upskilled to allow them to continue to work in their professional field?

Neil Gray

We are working with the DWP and local authority and third sector partners to provide employability support to Ukrainians who are seeking employment. They are able to access the Scottish Government’s full range of employment support services, including fair start Scotland, no one left behind services and Skills Development Scotland, which has advisers who are experienced in accreditation and qualifications recognition. We have also been working with Scottish business organisations including Scottish Chambers of Commerce to ensure that displaced people are able to access business-led job-matching support. We will continue to take a collaborative approach where we can.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

Ukrainians coming to Scotland will require legal advice, among other services. Ukrainian lawyers who relocate to Scotland have the capacity to do a huge amount of good here, and the value of their linguistic and legal skills during the crisis has already been highlighted by the Law Society of Scotland. What attempts has the Scottish Government made to utilise Ukrainian lawyers during the resettlement process, and what processes are in place to overcome any Ukrainian-English language barrier?

Neil Gray

We obviously look to utilise anyone who arrives with skills or qualifications, especially those who arrive with language skills and are able to help others who arrive from Ukraine.

Regarding general advice and support, we have commissioned and have provided funding support for JustRight Scotland to ensure that people have access to as much immigration support as possible, so that they can fully utilise what is available to them.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I thank the minister for his very welcome update regarding the recently announced funding for Aberdeen City Council.

I have had the absolute privilege of working with two constituents who hosted a Ukrainian couple who are now settled in their own home and are working, with a son in education. However, despite my constituents’ best efforts, obstacles remain that prevent Ukrainian holders of heavy goods vehicle licences, such as Oleksandr, from obtaining an equivalent United Kingdom licence and securing employment in a sector in which there are significant labour shortages.

Will the Minister explain what he is doing to press the UK Government to address that unnecessary anomaly as a matter of urgency?

Neil Gray

I thank Audrey Nicoll and other colleagues in the Aberdeen area for their support for the bid that came in from Aberdeen City Council. The funding will make a massive difference in terms of providing long-term accommodation to Ukrainians in the area. I am very grateful to Audrey Nicoll and her colleagues for their support.

The licensing infrastructure and the rules that regulate the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency are reserved to the UK Government and the UK Parliament. The Scottish Government is, nonetheless, committed to doing all that we can within our remit for people who are seeking sanctuary in Scotland. I was pleased to hear that the DVLA is currently in contact with the Ukrainian embassy to obtain information on vocational licensing and testing standards, in order to assess the feasibility of an exchange agreement for drivers of larger vehicles. The Scottish Government will continue to call on the UK Government to urgently resolve that matter. I will write to my colleagues in the UK Government to press that issue once again.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The minister will be well aware of local authorities that are struggling to fund places for young Ukrainian refugees who are not permanently settled in Scottish schools. What funding is available to councils that welcome Ukrainian refugees but are currently finding that the welcome fund is not sufficient to deal with the demand for education that they face?

Neil Gray

Michael Marra is right. The UK Government has provided a tariff of £10,500 per person to cover the costs that are associated with supporting people who arrive from Ukraine. I said in my statement and in my response to Sarah Boyack that there is currently no parity among schemes in respect of whether the UK Government offers that support. For example, people who are part of the homes for Ukraine scheme have access to that £10,500, whereas people who arrive via the family scheme do not, which I find to be fundamentally unfair and wrong. That is another area in which the chaos of the UK Government in the past couple of months has meant that we have not been able to impress on it something that the previous minister had great sympathy with and wanted to resolve.

I also think that £10,500 probably falls short of what local authorities require—especially for children who have more complex educational needs. We have provided support over and above that to local authorities for welcome provision; it is up to local authorities to determine how best to spend that money. If there are particular issues and concerns that Mr Marra, or his colleagues in Dundee City Council or elsewhere, would like to raise with me, I am happy to hear those at any time.

Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

It is obvious that we must do everything that we can to make displaced Ukrainians feel secure and supported—not only upon their arrival, but in the longer term. What plans have been made for people who are at the end of their time with private hosts?

Neil Gray

One of the benefits of the supersponsor scheme is that we are already able to consider rematching and to provide temporary accommodation that is not available outside Scotland and Wales. It is unavoidable that host relationships will break down from time to time or will reach a natural conclusion, for a number of reasons. We will work with local authorities to finalise a consistent approach to rematching when that happens, both for supersponsor and private sponsor visa holders.

Some of the interventions that I have set out today will support all displaced people to access longer-term accommodation, including in the private rented sector. Local authorities have also begun contacting hosts and displaced people who are reaching six months of being in a hosting arrangement, in order to begin discussions about next steps.

However, it is important to note that, with our Welsh counterparts, we have called on the UK Government to raise the thank-you payment beyond £350. The one thing that we have received confirmation on—I do not think that this is well known in the public consciousness—is that that payment is available to people beyond six months. If they choose to maintain the relationship, they can still receive that payment.

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I thank the minister for his statement and the briefing that he gave earlier this afternoon.

The review that has been published today is welcome. It contains helpful information and guidance, including on the 16 interventions and the seven criteria for reopening the supersponsor scheme. However, given that the seven criteria are not simple tests, can the minister say a little more about how they will be interpreted, assessed and applied? What other information will he use before taking a decision on whether to reopen the scheme?

Neil Gray

The tests are objective tests that need to be met. We have set out as best we can the tests that we feel need to be met before we can reopen the scheme. It will be no surprise to colleagues that availability of accommodation is part of consideration. The situation on the ground in Ukraine is also part of it, and sometimes those two issues will compete.

We will review the tests constantly, and I will look to do everything that I can to make sure that the scheme is working as effectively as possible, with good flow through the system of people moving from temporary accommodation into longer-term accommodation. That will allow us to reopen the scheme when the tests are met.

Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con)

I want to probe the minister a little further on his response to Sarah Boyack with respect to the Ukraine longer term resettlement fund. I am aware of a possible site in my constituency, which is not local authority owned, that was until recently a care home facility with space for more than 80 residents. It is currently mothballed, but it could offer accommodation to Ukrainian families if refurbishment works were agreed and progressed. Is there a route for such sites to be identified and progressed other than through a local authority, or can it be done only exclusively through that route?

Neil Gray

I said to Sarah Boyack and say again to Jackson Carlaw that I am happy to look at proposals that would provide suitable long-term sustainable accommodation for people arriving from Ukraine. For project management reasons and to ensure that we can provide properties at scale, we have looked for local authorities to do the bidding.

I suggest that Jackson Carlaw speak to his local authority to see whether what he suggests is something that it would be interested in facilitating and being part of. We can then have a conversation about whether there is flexibility in the scheme to allow something like that to take place.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the ministerial statement and questions. I apologise to members whom I was unable to call, but I think that I made it clear how things were progressing. I could not have been clearer in that regard.