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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, October 6, 2022


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice, Housing and Local Government

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio questions on social justice, housing and local government. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question or enter R in the chat function.

I make the plea again for succinct questions and answers, in order to get in as many members as possible.

Cost of Living Crisis (Impact on Poverty)

1. Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

We heard at First Minister’s question time about a report by the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health that says that, due to Tory austerity, 20,000 more deaths than expected were recorded in Scotland in an eight-year period. We want to avoid similar excess deaths in the future.

To ask the Scottish Government what recent engagement it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the impact of the cost of living crisis on poverty levels in Scotland. (S6O-01428)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

I share the member’s concern—concern was also expressed by the First Minister—about that shocking report.

The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have made repeated calls for immediate action to support households. Following the UK mini-budget, the Deputy First Minister has again written to the chancellor seeking a reversal of the damage that was inflicted on people who are already bearing the brunt and having to choose between going hungry or being cold.

We will continue to use the limited powers and finite budget that are available to mitigate the impact of actions that undermine our efforts to tackle poverty, and to press the UK Government for targeted support for householders and businesses, increases to social security and greater financial powers and resources.

The report to which Paul McLennan referred obviously looks back to the previous period of austerity. It is frightening that we could see that repeated—and more so—in a new era of austerity, which, of course, we want to avoid.

Paul McLennan

There is no doubt that UK Government policies are adding huge pressures on people who are already struggling to stay afloat.

Does the cabinet secretary share my frustration that, although the Scottish Government does all that it can to help people, the reality is that there is a limit to what can be achieved without the full fiscal and borrowing powers that the UK Government has?

Shona Robison

I share that frustration. Although the decisions of the UK Government continue to push people into hardship, we have allocated almost £3 billion from our fixed budget—a budget that is worth £1.7 billion less than in December due to inflation.

The harsh reality of a fixed budget is that every pound that we spend to help with rising costs has to be funded by reductions elsewhere. That is why it is vital that this Parliament should have the full powers to tackle poverty and the cost of living crisis, and to support those in need.

Cost of Living Crisis (Additional Resources for Third Sector Advice and Support Services)

2. Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to provide additional financial resources for third sector organisations that are on the front line in providing advice and support services as the cost of living crisis continues to deepen. (S6O-01429)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

The third sector is hugely diverse and often provides lifeline services to our most vulnerable communities, which is why we have invested around £12.5 million this year to support the provision of free income maximisation services and welfare and debt advice.

Although we will do all that we can, our largely fixed budgets and limited fiscal powers mean that we need the United Kingdom Government to take urgent action to support people in need. We continue to deliver on key commitments to the third sector around fairer funding by providing multiyear funding when we can to provide much-needed stability in these uncertain times.

Paul O’Kane

In the summer, I met a wide range of third sector organisations across West Scotland, including the Lochwinnoch community larder and starter packs Inverclyde. New research from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has revealed the precarious situation that third sector organisations are facing, with figures showing that 64 per cent of those organisations have reported an increase in demand and 61 per cent have described facing imminent financial challenges. Many are worried about how they will keep their lights on and doors open.

Will the cabinet secretary commit to establishing a new third sector resilience fund, such as that which was put in place at the start of the pandemic, to ensure that third sector organisations can continue to support the most vulnerable, rather than focus on their own survival?

Shona Robison

Paul O’Kane raises important points, and he is right to highlight the work of important front-line organisations that are really helping people during the cost of living crisis.

The SCVO has estimated that the public sector as a whole invests around £1.8 billion each year in supporting the work of charities and social enterprises. Around £500 million of that comes from the Scottish Government through a broad range of programmes, including on supporting mental wellbeing, community empowerment, children and families and health and social care.

We are talking to the sector about how we move more to multiyear funding because we know that stability is important, not least to the ability to retain and recruit staff. We will continue to have those discussions and, as we engage in discussions through the emergency budget review and the budget beyond that, we will give consideration to the points that the member raises.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

In the members’ business debate on Tuesday night, the cabinet secretary said that she and her officials meet the SCVO regularly to talk about different issues. Will she commit to meeting the SCVO to talk about three-year funding packages?

Shona Robison

As I just said in my answers to Paul O’Kane, we will continue to meet the SCVO and others to talk about multiyear funding. We are already doing that and will continue to have those meetings. However, I make the point to Jeremy Balfour that, if our budgets continue to reduce, either through inflation—there has been a £1.7 billion reduction in the value of existing budgets—or the potential £18 billion-worth of cuts to public services that could come at us from UK Government decisions, that will put at risk funding across the board, including the support that we give to the third sector. I urge him to have the same discussions with his UK counterpart about the importance of maintaining Scottish budgets for those reasons.

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

As a former third sector worker, I recognise how much organisations across Scotland support our communities. It is abundantly clear that additional funding is required from the UK Government to meet the demands of the current cost crisis, especially, as the cabinet secretary outlined, the £1.7 billion reduction in our budget due to inflation. What engagement has the Scottish Government had with other devolved Administrations regarding that issue?

Shona Robison

The Deputy First Minister spoke with the finance ministers from Wales and Northern Ireland last month. They, of course, are facing similar pressures. The Deputy First Minister and his counterparts wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week to request an urgent meeting and called for additional funding to deal with the crisis. It is really important that that meeting takes place because it is not only the Scottish Government that is voicing such concerns. The same concerns are being voiced by the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive as well.

Bill of Rights Bill

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is regarding the impact on Scotland of the United Kingdom Government’s reported plans to withdraw the Bill of Rights Bill. (S6O-01430)

The Minister for Equalities and Older People (Christina McKelvie)

It was welcome to hear that the UK Government had postponed its dangerous, ill-conceived Bill of Rights Bill, which was an unwelcome attempt to deprive us all of the rights and freedoms that are the foundation of a modern, democratic society. It would also have undermined the Scottish Parliament and the devolution settlement. Therefore, I was concerned by comments at the weekend from the UK Secretary of State for Justice, who said that he remained committed to reforming the Human Rights Act 1998. I urge the UK Government to instead reverse its plans and focus on making rights real for everyone across the whole UK.

Fulton MacGregor

Will the minister outline what steps the Scottish Government is taking to ensure the protection of European Union, international and domestic human rights law in Scotland, as the right-wing UK Government, whether through the Bill of Rights Bill or its general approach to inequalities in the UK, continues to threaten them?

Christina McKelvie

In contrast to the UK Government’s regressive approach, our priority is to strengthen the domestic legal protection and practical application of international human rights standards. We have already committed to introducing a new, landmark human rights bill during the current session of Parliament. We also remain committed to incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as far as possible within devolved competence and to aligning with European law in devolved areas where that is possible and appropriate. I continue to urge the UK Government to reaffirm its commitment to the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Affordable Housing Supply Programme (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will overcome reported significant skills and supply chain shortages in the Highlands and Islands to deliver 11,000 rural and island homes by 2032. (S6O-01431)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

The Scottish Government is aware of the global issues that are affecting construction, which are impacting on affordable housing delivery. We are working closely with the construction industry and housing partners to mitigate those where possible and we operate a flexible grant system that can take account of increased costs.

More than 6,000 affordable homes were delivered in rural and island communities over the previous session of Parliament and we are making progress towards our next target. We are aware of the barriers that exist in those areas and we are developing a remote, rural and islands housing action plan to help to deal with them.

Ariane Burgess

Although the housing crisis in the Highlands and Islands is a significant challenge, the opportunities for job creation and investment are significant, too. What work has been done to identify the jobs and skills training programmes that are needed in the Highlands and Islands to tackle the crisis?

Shona Robison

With partners, we have identified the job creation and investment opportunities that Ariane Burgess mentioned. We know that there is a skills shortage, particularly in the construction industry. It is important that, along with Skills Development Scotland and other partners, we encourage young people into those trades and careers, which will have the benefit of keeping those young people living in rural communities. Therefore, the issue is not simply about the provision of housing, although affordable housing is key; it is also about the jobs and other opportunities that go with that.

I will be happy to keep Ariane Burgess updated on the progress that is being made.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

As well as skills shortages, another issue that is affecting the delivery of new housing in the islands is the unwillingness of energy supply companies to install meters in new-build properties. Might the cabinet secretary be minded to liaise with her cabinet secretary colleague Michael Matheson on making representations to the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets about how that market failure might be addressed, not least through the lifting of the ban on distribution network operators fitting meters while they install the supply in new properties in island communities?

Shona Robison

Liam McArthur raises an important point. Of course, that issue affects the ability to get new builds ready for occupation not only in Orkney and the islands, but in other areas, which is very frustrating. I will be happy to speak to colleagues and to come back to Mr McArthur. It is important that we raise such matters as frequently as we can to ensure that progress is made so that the supply of affordable housing is not held up.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

According to the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, among several severe unintended consequences of the Scottish National Party’s rent freeze proposals is a negative impact on

“the development of new homes, improvements to existing stock and the pursuit of net zero targets.”

Reduced development of rented homes in the social and private sectors will inevitably reduce availability when supply is already stretched.

What analysis has the Scottish Government done on the impacts of the Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Bill on housing availability in rural and island areas?

Shona Robison

We have a good track record of delivering affordable housing, whether in urban Scotland or in rural and island communities. The most recent figures, which came out on Tuesday, show that we have delivered nearly 113,000 affordable homes since 2007, more than 79,000 of which were for social rent. That means that 62 per cent more affordable homes have been delivered in Scotland per head of population than in England. The context for our affordable housing supply programme is important.

Over the past two days, we have debated the detail of the emergency measures that we are taking to support tenants and avoid them losing their homes and not being able to afford their rents. We have spoken to the SFHA in detail about working in partnership on an agreement that can be put in place that will ensure that investment in social housing, whether in rural Scotland or urban Scotland, continues to be made.

The point has been made not just by the SFHA but by the Scottish Association of Landlords that the key problem for landlords at the moment is interest rates, which are putting their costs up. Perhaps the member should pay more attention to that. [Interruption.]

It is well seen what side the Tory party is on when it comes to supporting tenants. Perhaps that is why they are where they are in the polls that have been published this week.

The next question comes from Colin Beattie, who is joining us remotely.

“A New Deal for Tenants” (Mobile Home Residents)

To ask the Scottish Government how the needs of mobile home residents will be incorporated in the final version of the strategy, “A New Deal for Tenants”. (S6O-01432)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

The consultation on our new deal sought views on how we can improve accessibility, standards and affordability across the whole rented sector. The focus of the question on mobile homes was on the issues for people who have standard tenancies on mobile homes that are owned by landlords. It also committed us to a post-implementation review of the mobile home site licensing scheme.

We are now considering our response to the consultation about the issues for renters of mobile homes, to identify potential gaps in protections. That will inform our housing bill.

Colin Beattie

The draft new deal for tenants underlined that the Scottish Government intends to carry out a post-implementation review of the residential mobile homes site licensing scheme before the end of this session of Parliament. Although that is welcome news to my constituents who live in mobile and park homes, many of them worry that issues concerning enforcement of the licensing scheme are not being addressed quickly enough. Will the cabinet secretary give an assurance that the needs of mobile home residents will be considered with the same urgency as the needs of those living in other types of residence?

Shona Robison

I am committed to ensuring that people living permanently in mobile homes have appropriate protection. The licensing system for residential mobile home sites was introduced in May 2017 and came fully into force in May 2019. It provides local authorities with a range of powers to help them issue, manage and revoke site licences, and to ensure that sites meet modern standards, which includes the behaviour of site owners. Although the review will seek to make improvements in the licensing framework, local authorities remain responsible for enforcing licensing conditions in the meantime. I will be happy to update the member on progress.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Pitch fees for my Cunninghame South constituents who live on mobile sites rise by a maximum of the retail prices index annually. The gap between RPI and the consumer prices index is increasing, with the cost of pitch fees growing faster than pension incomes. Will the Scottish Government address that by basing uprating on CPI?

Shona Robison

Mobile home pitch fee increases are regulated under the Mobile Homes Act 1983. That act contains a presumption that pitch fees will rise by a maximum of RPI annually. As the member says, there are concerns that the gap between RPI and CPI is growing, with the result that pitch fees are growing faster than pension incomes. We will therefore undertake the required consultation on moving the basis of uprating from RPI to CPI in time for the coming housing bill. That would slow the rate of pitch fee increases in future. I will be happy to update the member on that.

Isolation and Loneliness (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle rural isolation and loneliness, particularly in the approach to the winter period. (S6O-01433)

The Minister for Equalities and Older People (Christina McKelvie)

We recognise that challenges relating to isolation may be increasing in rural communities due to the pandemic and cost crisis.

We support the National Rural Mental Health Forum, which helps people to maintain good mental wellbeing by developing connections between rural communities. Our communities mental health and wellbeing fund has provided £36 million to community groups tackling isolation, loneliness and mental health inequalities, including to 468 projects supporting people who are disadvantaged by geographical location. Our forthcoming social isolation and loneliness plan will outline a range of actions across the Scottish Government that impact positively on social isolation and loneliness.

Emma Harper

The Tory-made cost of living crisis will do nothing other than exacerbate social isolation and loneliness, particularly for those living in rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders. People are being forced to choose between eating and heating, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has stated that 19 per cent of people in Scotland currently say that they cannot afford social outings.

Will the minister outline what further action the Scottish Government is taking to support people’s wellbeing this winter? Does she agree with me that, ultimately, Scotland must have independence to be free from constantly mitigating the harms that the United Kingdom Government creates?

Christina McKelvie

We are taking action within our devolved powers and fixed budget that will help those who are facing the combined effects of higher energy bills, rising inflation and the impact of the UK Government’s policies. Just last week, we launched a new cost of living website so that people can find out about the help and support that is available to them.

The Scottish Government has continually urged the UK Government to focus its efforts on those who are impacted the most, but it has prioritised tax cuts and bankers’ bonuses rather than help for those who need it the most.

I very much agree that only through independence will we have the freedom to make the fiscal decisions that are required to ensure that Scotland prospers and that those who need financial support the most get it and are not forgotten.

The address of the website that I mentioned is I urge everybody to have a look at it.

Affordable Housing (University Students)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is ensuring the availability of affordable housing, including for students at Scottish universities. (S6O-01434)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

Scotland has led the way in the delivery of affordable housing across the United Kingdom. Almost 113,000 affordable homes have been delivered since 2007, over 79,000 of which are for social rent, including nearly 20,000 council homes. The Scottish Government’s per capita spending on affordable housing is more than three times higher than the UK Government’s.

We are also committed to delivering a student accommodation strategy for Scotland, which will be informed in part by a review of purpose-built student accommodation. The review will look at a number of issues including affordability and supply.

Claire Baker

In my region, students at the University of St Andrews are being housed in Dundee due to a lack of local affordable housing, and we have heard about students being advised to defer courses if they cannot find somewhere to live.

The Scottish Government is not directly involved in student housing, but it works with universities. The majority of students are in social or private housing, and although the coming rent freeze is welcome, there will still be a housing crisis in Scotland, with more families becoming homeless and housing completions still being below pre-Covid levels.

When will the housing bill be introduced? Is it still intended that it will be introduced next year? How will it ensure that there will be increased provision of quality affordable housing?

Shona Robison

Yes, the timeframe for the housing bill is the same.

The member mentioned pre-Covid levels. It is important to note that things have lagged because of the pause in construction and that trying to get things back on track has been challenging.

As the member recognised, the Scottish Government has no direct role in the placement of students in accommodation, but we are working with impacted institutions to better understand the issues and to help to seek urgent resolutions. Further meetings are scheduled to take place over the coming weeks. In our discussions with institutions, they have cited a number of challenges. However, institutions have sought to provide reassurance on the steps that they have taken to expand the availability of accommodation to students.

Our affordable housing supply programme continues to expand with projects coming in from all parts of Scotland. We want to encourage that, but we will work with institutions in the shorter term to see whether anything more can be done.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary outline how the emergency cost of living legislation that is progressing through Parliament this week will support students in college or university halls of residence and other types of purpose-built accommodation?

Shona Robison

If it is approved by Parliament, the emergency legislation will ensure that student tenants in the mainstream private rented sector and those in student accommodation—both university and college halls of residence and purpose-built student accommodation—do not see their rents rise. It will ensure that they can remain in their homes. The legislation will be in place until 31 March next year.

We recognise that tenancies in halls of residence and purpose-built student accommodation are structured differently from other types of tenancies, but we are committed to parity of protection.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

International evidence demonstrates that, for many universities in different countries, such as Ireland, the introduction of rent controls has resulted in students being further away from being able to access private rented accommodation. Has the Government done any work to look at what impact rent controls will have in Scotland?

Shona Robison

The impact that it will have in Scotland is to ensure that rents are affordable, that people are not evicted during the winter period and that they can remain in their homes. It astonishes me that, yet again, the Tories are on the wrong side of the argument. They are never on the side of the people who are most impacted by the cost of living crisis. Perhaps that is why they are where they are in terms of public support.

We will continue to support universities, many of which have had those issues for quite some time—well before any discussion was had about the emergency legislation. We will continue to work with those institutions to help them to resolve some of those issues, and will get on with our work to continue to expand the affordable housing supply programme.

I can squeeze in question 8, if question and answer are succinct.

Zero Carbon Heating Systems

To ask the Scottish Government how its housing strategy will support action to deliver the target of 1 million homes to be retrofitted with zero carbon heating systems by 2030. (S6O-01435)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

Our “Housing to 2040” and heat in buildings strategies work together to deliver our statutory targets for climate change and fuel poverty. Commitments such as the aim that all new homes that are delivered for social rent are zero emission by 2026 provide a strong foundation for our heat in buildings programme, as we continue to retrofit all homes by 2045.

We have also committed to introducing a new housing standard by 2025. We will explore how the proposed housing standard and the heat in buildings strategy can be aligned to achieve fair and just implementation.

Brian Whittle

ECO4 is a United Kingdom Government scheme to the value of £1 billion, which councils can apply for. It is designed to improve the energy efficiency of low-income and vulnerable households. What is the Scottish Government doing to encourage all Scottish councils to take full advantage of the scheme?

Shona Robison

I will get the Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights to write to the member on the specific point about the scheme.

For Scotland alone, we are allocating at least £1.8 billion over the parliamentary session to accelerate the deployment of efficiency measures for heat and energy and to support those who are least able to pay. We have also set up the green heat finance task force to recommend ways of increasing individual and private sector investment.

That concludes portfolio questions. There will be a short pause before we move to the next item of business.