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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 10, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Mental Health (Workplace Stigma), Portfolio Question Time, Alternative Pathways to Primary Care, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice, Housing and Local Government

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is portfolio question time, and the portfolio this afternoon is social justice, housing and local government.

I ask members who wish to ask a supplementary question to please press their request-to-speak button or to enter the letters “RTS” in the chat function during the relevant question.

Given the demand for supplementaries today, I make the usual plea for questions and answers that are as brief as possible.

Tenant Grant Fund

1. Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I offer my sincere apologies for the fact that, for personal reasons, I have to leave after my question.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on expenditure in West Scotland from the tenant grant fund, including whether funding has been renewed as a result of its programme for government announcement to widen eligibility. (S6O-01524)

The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

Tenant grant fund spend data to the end of January 2022, broken down by local authority, was published in March 2022. Since then, all local authorities have been asked to provide up-to-date reports covering quarter 4 of financial year 2021-22, as well as for the first two quarters of this year. That information is being collated and quality assured and will be published by the end of the year.

As per the programme for government, local authorities will be able to use any unspent funds to support people who have built up more recent arrears, and guidance will shortly be issued to local authorities.

Neil Bibby

Scottish Labour welcomes the fact that the Government widened eligibility for the fund in the programme for government. We called for that measure in our cost of living plan in August, and the Government adopted it.

However, the Government has not published its updated guidance on widening the scheme; more critically, the £10 million has not been renewed. Given that three of the six councils that are wholly in the West Scotland region have exhausted the additional funding and the other three have just £35,000 between them, that empty gesture will do nothing to help tenants who are struggling with arrears as a result of the cost of living crisis. Will the minister, therefore, renew the funding and ensure that the grant fund is fit for purpose?

Patrick Harvie

I welcome Neil Bibby’s support for the move, even if it was short lived, given that he seemed to not welcome it by the end of his question.

The fund was set up to support tenants during Covid and it was announced that we would extend eligibility in the way that Mr Bibby explained.

Before considering applications that relate to more recent years, local authorities have to consider outstanding applications that relate to arrears that were accrued during the Covid pandemic. That will be made clear in updated communications to local authorities and in the guidance.

However, none of us has to look far to find areas of the Scottish budget into which we would all like to put more money. I hope that Labour colleagues will join us in calling on the UK Government to inflation-proof the Scottish budget to enable us to do that.

Will the minister outline how the Scottish Government intends to make sure that the private rented sector remains affordable and sustainable over this winter?

Patrick Harvie

We have asked local authorities to ensure that the private rented sector is able to benefit from the tenant grant fund, as well as from the other support that we make available. The information and data that are currently being collected by local authorities will be collated and published later this year, and that will show us whether that emphasis has had the desired impact.

I hope that we all recognise that the Scottish Government is putting substantial funding into supporting tenants in all parts of the rented sector during these difficult times.

Affordable Housing (Effects of Inflation)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact inflation is having on its affordable housing programme. (S6O-01525)

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

We are aware of the global issues affecting construction, including the war in Ukraine and rising inflation; those effects have been exacerbated by Brexit and the current cost crisis. We are working closely with the construction industry and housing partners to mitigate those effects where possible and achieve our shared goal of delivering more affordable homes for Scotland. That includes operating a flexible grant system that can take account of increased costs. I am heartened that the affordable housing sector continues to show signs of recovery, with completions having risen by 17 per cent, compared with the previous year to June 2021.

Kenneth Gibson

Does the cabinet secretary agree that new affordable home construction has been undermined by the United Kingdom Tory Government cutting Scotland’s capital grant this year from £4,973 million to less than £4,469 million, which is a fall of more than 10 per cent and amounts to £504.1 million? Does she also agree that unless it reverses that double whammy of cuts to our capital grant coupled with rising inflation due to Tory economic incompetence, there will be further reductions in new builds, and that next week’s UK budget would be a good place to start reversing those cuts?

Shona Robison

Yes. Inflation and the economic chaos that has been caused by the UK Government mean that our annual budget today is worth £1.7 billion less than it was last December. We are facing an enormous strain at the same time as we are focusing on protecting people from the cost of living crisis and mitigating many of the UK Government’s cuts, particularly those that impact child poverty and people on low incomes.

We have urged the UK Government, instead of cutting Scotland’s capital grant, to release additional public spending on infrastructure and to consider other measures to ease those pressures and allow our capital programme to continue at the required pace. I agree with Kenny Gibson that the UK budget would be a good place to start.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

Housing associations across Scotland are reporting that the Scottish Government’s rent control scheme is resulting in chaos and the need to rewrite their economic plans for new construction. How many fewer homes does the cabinet secretary think will now be delivered?

Shona Robison

At the moment, the big impacts on the social rented sector and local authorities are from high interest rates, which affect their loans, and rampant inflation, which has been exacerbated by the actions of the UK Tory Government.

On the rent freeze, as the member knows well, we are working closely with the sector to establish the key considerations for any cap on rents beyond 31 March next year. There has been no impact on rents in the social sector this year because they were already set, so we are talking about the period from 1 April next year. We have said that we will provide certainty by 14 January at the very latest.

In the meantime, we operate a flexible grant system, which we expect will allow the continued delivery of affordable homes. We are working closely with the sector to help it to address some of the challenges. However, as I said in my initial answer to Kenny Gibson, completions have risen by 17 per cent, compared with the previous year to June 2021. We are still seeing projects come in, and I encourage registered social landlords to continue to submit them.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I am keen to understand where mid-market rentals sit with regard to the rent cap legislation. Do they sit in the affordable sector or the private sector? I am keen for mid-market rental properties to be built, but we need certainty for that to happen. Where do they sit?

Shona Robison

I will write to Willie Rennie with further detail, but, in essence, some mid-market rental properties sit in the private residential sector, having been built by the private sector, and some sit in the social rented sector, having been built by RSLs. It depends, but I am happy to write to Willie Rennie with more details, if he would find that helpful.

Poverty Relief (Support for Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting local authorities to deliver relief for residents at risk of poverty during the cost of living crisis and in light of rising energy costs. (S6O-01526)

The Minister for Social Security and Local Government (Ben Macpherson)

We are working with local authority partners to support people who are facing the cost of living crisis. Through the emergency budget review, we have taken a number of actions, including allocating almost £20 million of additional funding to double the December Scottish child payment bridging payment to £260, which will benefit around 145,000 eligible children.

We are making up to £86.6 million available for discretionary housing payments, thereby mitigating the United Kingdom Government’s unfair bedroom tax and benefit cap, and we are giving local authorities more flexibility to support people with energy bills.

We are also providing more than £260 million to support council employee pay rises, which especially benefits lower-paid workers.

Siobhian Brown

In July this year, concerned with the looming energy crisis, I met local churches to discuss the idea of providing warm welcome spaces for the winter. I am glad to see that the idea is being rolled out throughout churches in Ayr, Prestwick and Troon.

I note that, during these difficult times, local authorities are putting in place measures to assist local communities. Scottish National Party-run North Ayrshire Council has launched a massive £450,000 fund to help out residents during the cost of living crisis. Does the minster agree that all councils in Scotland should take similar steps?

Ben Macpherson

I know that all councils are considering these matters. Many local authorities are working to help people with the cost of living crisis using their own resources and powers. That includes exploring the establishment of warm spaces as well as the fund that North Ayrshire Council has set up. If I recall correctly, Glasgow City Council has created a £3 million fund, including £1 million for fuel top-up cards. Midlothian Council has put £29,000 into a heat and eat fund to help families that are not eligible for Scottish welfare fund support. Falkirk Council has allocated more than £500,000 for its household support fund, which has provided cash-first support to 1,000 households since September 2022. A number of actions are taking place, and that symbolises how we all need to work together during the cost of living crisis to support people.

There are a couple of supplementaries.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

The minister will be aware that one of the best ways to help people is to get them appropriate social security benefits. Social Security Scotland announced yesterday that for four days next week it will be taking no online applications and people will not be able to apply for benefits during that period. Does the minister think that is that acceptable? What measures will he take to make sure that my constituents, and his, are not adversely affected by that?

Ben Macpherson

Social Security Scotland is providing more benefits to people in Scotland than are available elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The reason why Social Security Scotland is having to pause applications that are made electronically through its systems during the period stipulated by Mr Balfour is because there are system upgrades and processes that need to be run through in order to deliver the really significant intervention, on Monday 14 November, of our Scottish child payment, which is available only in Scotland, going up to £25 per week per child for eligible children and being extended to eligible children who are under 16. That intervention will take the possible take-up of the benefit from around 100,000 children to an eligibility figure of 400,000.

We are focused on running really good systems and doing things correctly. That involves making sure that the information technology and operational systems in Social Security Scotland are all running as they need to be for Monday 14 November and will help all the people that they can.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

A Scottish Public Services Ombudsman report has found

“a 36.7% increase in Scottish Welfare Fund independent review applications received from the previous year”.

When will the minister be able to tell us about the review of the Scottish welfare fund, and when will the review be complete?

As briefly as possible, minister.

Ben Macpherson

I thank Pam Duncan-Glancy and other members for their interest in this important area. The Scottish welfare fund is an important aspect of how we help people every year, but especially this year. I will be updating the committee very shortly on that review—I look forward to doing so.

Housing Strategy

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

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is regarding the implications for its housing strategy to the latest Registers of Scotland United Kingdom house price index figures, which were published on 19 October 2022. (S6O-01527)

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

“Housing to 2040”, our long-term housing strategy, is designed to be agile. We assess progress and make adjustments as needed. Recognising wider market conditions, in August we increased the thresholds for our open market shared equity scheme by an average of 9 per cent, to support more first-time buyers and priority groups into home ownership. We also operate a flexible grant system, which can take account of increased costs to partners when they are purchasing properties on the open market for affordable use. The economic chaos of recent months that was caused by the UK Government has, of course, not helped.

Alasdair Allan

The latest report showed an annual increase in house prices of nearly 28 per cent in the Western Isles. That is part of a trend that has seen local house prices there rise by more than 81 per cent since 2015, which is more than in any other local authority area. Meanwhile, in areas such as Harris, something like one fifth of the housing stock is tied up in second homes and short-term lets.

Is the cabinet secretary willing to meet me and partners at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to discuss possible solutions to this serious problem?

Shona Robison

Yes, of course. I am always open to discussing housing issues that are raised by members and councils. I am happy to arrange that.

It is worth noting that £43.3 million has been made available in this parliamentary session through the affordable housing programme in the Western Isles. I would expect the council to work closely with relevant partners to ensure delivery of the affordable housing that local communities need. My officials are working closely with the council to achieve that. They are meeting in the islands next week, as well as progressing the development of a remote rural and island housing action plan to support housing delivery in rural Scotland. We will get the meeting that the member requests established as soon as we can.

Housing (Highlands and Islands)

5. Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent Highlands and Islands Enterprise survey in which 76 per cent of people who responded said that “there aren’t enough affordable houses for rent or to buy locally”. (S6O-01528)

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

Although we delivered 3,417 affordable homes in the Highlands and Islands over the previous session of Parliament, we recognise that challenges remain. I am pleased that we are making available more than £422 million to support the delivery of affordable homes in the region during the current session. In recognition of the challenges that are faced in our more remote communities, we are working with stakeholders to develop a remote rural and island housing action plan, which will be published in the spring.

Donald Cameron

It is clear that the lack of affordable housing is one of the main drivers of depopulation in the Highlands and Islands. There are now more than 9,000 households on the waiting list for social homes in the Highland Council area alone. Given that the Scottish Government has continually failed to meet its targets for building affordable homes, what action will the cabinet secretary take to help people in the Highlands and Islands to get homes?

Shona Robison

There are a couple of things to say. First, we have made available to Highland Council a 25 per cent increase on the funding provided over the previous session of Parliament—more than £240 million—and we have the rural and island housing fund. We have also delivered more than 1,600 more homes in rural and remote Scotland in this session of Parliament. There is an increase in the number of homes being provided in remote and rural Scotland.

Secondly, Donald Cameron and his Tory colleagues need to be consistent. He mentioned the need for affordable houses to rent or buy locally. One of the issues of which he will be aware is the loss of homes to holiday and short-term lets. When we introduced legislation to address that and avoid the loss of homes in his and other members’ areas to short-term and holiday lets, to address some of the issues that he raises, he and his colleagues voted against it. We need a bit of consistency from Donald Cameron and others. I do not understand why, when we develop and deliver the levers to address some of the problems that he mentions, he and his colleagues vote against them. There is no consistency in their position.

We also need slightly shorter answers.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

Notwithstanding the cost issues that Kenny Gibson outlined, will the cabinet secretary comment on the progress of the affordable housing supply programme that has been undertaken to ensure that the Government meets its target of 10 per cent of the proposed 110,000 affordable houses being built in rural and island communities?

Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

Gillian Martin raises an important issue. The target of 110,000 affordable homes has been really important. It builds on the 113,000 affordable homes that have been delivered since 2007, more than 6,000 of which have been in rural and island communities. However, we recognise that there are particular barriers to delivering affordable housing in rural Scotland, which is why the remote rural and island housing action plan, which will be published in the spring, is so important. It specifically addresses how we can remove those barriers to speed up the process of delivering affordable homes in rural Scotland. I am sure that, when she sees it, Gillian Martin will recognise the importance of that plan.

Moveable Transactions (Scotland) Bill (Ministerial Discussions)

6. Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government has had with ministerial colleagues on any potential impact on levels of personal debt of the inclusion of individual consumers under the Moveable Transactions (Scotland) Bill. (S6O-01529)

The Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth (Tom Arthur)

The bill is a long-overdue reform of the law of security relating to moveable property, which makes it a matter for the economy portfolio rather than the social justice portfolio.

The main reform in the bill that might impact on individual consumers is the introduction of the statutory pledge. I am in no doubt that it should not be possible to grant a statutory pledge over ordinary household goods, so the impact of that measure on individual consumers is expected to be limited. However, I recently met Citizens Advice Scotland and other debt advice agencies and listened carefully to what they had to say on the matter, and I can confirm to Carol Mochan that I am very well disposed towards strengthening the consumer protections in the bill.

Carol Mochan

As the minister has said, the bill as currently constituted would allow people who are in very difficult financial circumstances to borrow money on the basis of a valuation of their items of around £1,000. It seems that, as you have said, almost every consumer debt and money advice organisation has highlighted the serious pitfalls that that presents for people who are struggling with debt—in short, a bill that is designed to help businesses is suddenly incentivising irresponsible lenders to target individuals in financial distress.

I am glad of the minister’s answer. However, will he seek to speak with colleagues in other portfolios to amend the bill accordingly?

As briefly as possible, minister.

Tom Arthur

I am happy to engage directly with the member. I am now awaiting the report of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, to which I gave evidence last week. I want to consider its recommendations carefully. I recognise and am considering the concerns that have been raised, and I will consider the report carefully. I am happy to meet any member ahead of the stage 1 debate to discuss these matters further.

Homelessness (Children in Temporary Accommodation)

To ask the Scottish Government what actions are being taken to end the practice of children living in temporary accommodation, in light of recent homelessness statistics. (S6O-01530)

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

We want everyone to have the stability of a settled home that meets their needs and to ensure that the time that is spent in temporary accommodation is as short as possible. Our strong homelessness legislation means that homeless households, including those with children, have a right to temporary accommodation, which provides an important safety net.

However, I have asked an expert group that is chaired by Shelter Scotland and the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers for an action plan to reduce the number of people in temporary accommodation, with a strong focus on households with children. The group will produce final recommendations in early 2023.

Miles Briggs

Shelter Scotland says that our “housing system is broken”. Last year alone, the number of children who were stuck in temporary accommodation rose by 17 per cent—a doubling of the number since 2014 and the highest number since records began.

The situation in Edinburgh is now beyond crisis levels, with more than a quarter of all children in Scotland who are living in temporary accommodation living in the capital. We need to see an emergency response. Will the cabinet secretary agree today to personally chair and establish an emergency task force for the capital, to look at the specific issues that are faced by children who are living in temporary accommodation here?

Shona Robison

We already have an expert group—it is chaired by the very Shelter Scotland that the member just mentioned, along with ALACHO—that is looking at Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland, and we should allow it to get on with that work.

In relation to Edinburgh specifically, in the summer, I met the housing conveners for Edinburgh and the other local authorities that are under the most pressure, and I have recently written to the housing conveners in both Edinburgh and Glasgow to follow up on those discussions. I reiterated the ask that they submit proposals that would relieve some of the pressure on temporary accommodation. I have committed to considering all options that are brought forward in order to help with the pressures on temporary accommodation—I have an open door to respond to them, but they need to be brought forward.

Finally, Miles Briggs and the members on the Conservative benches need to recognise that people ending up in temporary accommodation is linked to poverty. People ending up in debt and poverty is, along with the cost of living crisis, a major factor in that situation. We will do what we need to do, but I urge the member to make representations to the United Kingdom Government to support people at this difficult time.

Front-line Public Services (Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the local government minister has had with local authorities regarding running effective consultations on the delivery of front-line public services. (S6O-01531)

The Minister for Social Security and Local Government (Ben Macpherson)

I regularly speak to representatives of local government on a variety of issues regarding front-line services.

Consultations are important for ensuring that local people and communities have a meaningful say in decisions on public services. However, councils are independent of the Scottish Government and, as long as they are meeting any consultation statutory requirements, it is entirely a matter for councils how they carry out consultations. The Scottish Government has no involvement in those processes.

If Jenni Minto is concerned about a particular issue or service, I will be happy to consider it and ask the relevant portfolio minister to respond separately, as appropriate.

Jenni Minto

I thank the minister for his helpful response. As he will know, Argyll and Bute is a hugely diverse area with no two communities the same, and consultations can be held on topics as diverse as education change and the improvement of pier infrastructure, so, when it comes to consulting on local services, one size does not fit all. What guidance would the Scottish Government offer to local authorities to ensure that consultations get the responses that best reflect communities’ needs?

Ben Macpherson

I agree that the diversity of the needs of Scotland’s communities is an important aspect to consider when carrying out consultations, which is why councils are best placed to determine the local needs in each consultation. The Scottish Government has its own consultation guidance, and we seek to engage with a wide range of stakeholders in order to take on a broad range of views and experiences to inform policy and decision making. I would be happy to have further correspondence with Jenni Minto on ways in which the Scottish Government can assist her more in her area.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes portfolio question time. I remind members that those who participate in portfolio question time or any debate are expected to stay in the chamber for the duration of the question time or debate, except if they have been given prior consent to leave early. I noticed that a couple of members dashed out during the course of proceedings, and I would appreciate it if that did not happen in the future.