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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, May 11, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio questions on social justice. Once again, I make a plea for succinct questions and answers to allow as many members as possible to have the opportunity to participate.

Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill

1. Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its legal challenge to the decision of the United Kingdom Government to issue a section 35 order in relation to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. (S6O-02212)

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

Russell Findlay was present when I gave a statement in the Parliament on 19 June on the reasons for the decision to challenge the UK Government’s issuing of a section 35 order. In that statement, I noted the strict limits on what it was possible for me to say in relation to that challenge but said that, in the interests of transparency, we intended to publish the terms of the Scottish Government’s petition for judicial review. Following that statement, the petition was published in full on the Scottish Government website.

As Russell Findlay will be aware, the Scottish Government cannot comment any further on what are now live legal proceedings.

Russell Findlay

Two weeks ago, I asked the cabinet secretary to explain how the Scottish National Party can push its gender self-identification law while, at the same time, Humza Yousaf says that a rapist who is claiming to be a woman is “at it”. The First Minister continues to tie himself up in knots over that fundamental contradiction. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the SNP cannot answer that question because to do so would be to admit that its self-ID law is wide open to abuse by male sex criminals?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As members will be well aware, the aspects around those who are in the prison estate often include individuals who do not have a gender recognition certificate. Therefore, what is in the bill that was passed by an overwhelming majority of members of the Scottish Parliament will make no change to the risk assessment that happens in each individual case in the prison estate.

Social Security Scotland

To ask the Scottish Government when it last engaged with Social Security Scotland. (S6O-02213)

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

There is close engagement with Social Security Scotland, as an agency of the Scottish Government, on a daily basis. As the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, I also meet the chief executive regularly to maintain oversight over the activities of the agency.

Thanks to that close collaboration we have established a social security system that is based on the principles of dignity, fairness and respect. We are now delivering 13 Scottish Government benefits, seven of which are entirely new forms of financial support that are available only in Scotland.

Stephanie Callaghan

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing that clarity.

The application for adult disability payment from one of my constituents was delayed due to their general practitioner taking over five weeks to provide the key health information required for their application to progress. Will the Scottish Government explore additional options to enhance communications between Social Security Scotland and GPs to promote quicker decisions and payments and to avoid lengthy waits? Is there potential to streamline information technology systems at GP surgeries to speed up that processing?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The agency is looking to ensure that it progresses a number of avenues so that people can have their applications decided as quickly as possible. Obviously, GPs are only one source of information that Social Security Scotland can go to. The agency will consider whether it should go to a GP, another professional or, indeed, someone else who knows the individual client well enough to be able to provide supporting information. It is also working with partners such as GPs and GP practice managers to ensure that we all learn from a benefit that is now live but still very new.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

In recent weeks, there has been a growing number of reports of the Social Security Scotland website not functioning properly. Several of my constituents have waited for hours for responses from web chats. What representations have been made to the cabinet secretary on how Social Security Scotland plans to fix those issues?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

There is a high demand for web chat and a high demand on the telephone lines. Social Security Scotland has already taken action to try to ensure that clients who phone in receive more timeous replies. The agency is also looking at what more can be done with the telephony system to improve efficiency. I will be happy to work with the member and provide further updates on that in due course, as the agency develops.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

We have heard again from the cabinet secretary that dignity, fairness and respect are the guiding principles of Social Security Scotland, just as we did when she spoke of the bill to create the agency in 2019. However, we know that the Government has failed to deliver. It has handed back social security powers, such as the administration of carers allowance, until 2025, leaving thousands of Scots at the mercy of the Tory-run Department for Work and Pensions. Indeed, as we have just heard from Jeremy Balfour, there are serious issues around call handling and web chats, with 28,000 calls to Social Security Scotland involving people waiting more than an hour. I am sure that the cabinet secretary would recognise that that does not match the 2019 aspiration.

What has she done since coming into post to deal with the operational performance of Social Security Scotland to ensure that it looks and acts like the system that was originally promised?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Clearly, there had to be some changes to the timetable, which we made clear at the time, particularly because of the impact of Covid. That was not just because of challenges with the agency or with the Scottish Government but because of the very understandable pressures that were on the DWP as it sought to assist people at the very start. That context needs to be borne in mind.

I am heartened by the discussion that I had with another member today, when we talked about what was felt by people who are being responded to by the agency. As this member reported to me, people feel that they are being believed for the first time, so I think that we should take heart from the fact that we are delivering a system that has dignity, fairness and respect at its heart. Yes, there is more to do; yes, we have much more to do—for example, on the waiting times for the processing of adult disability payments—but the agency is taking action. I meet the chief executive regularly and will continue to do so as we work through further actions that can be taken to improve things.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Eight to 10 weeks was meant to be the maximum time that anyone would wait for adult disability payments, but that is becoming the average waiting time. Has the Scottish Government misjudged that timescale and what is being done to address waits?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We currently have a four-month average processing time and one factor in that is that the agency, unlike the DWP, has responsibility for the supporting information and the collation of that information.

We heard from Stephanie Callaghan that it sometimes takes other agencies and organisations some time to reply to Social Security Scotland with the sort of information that will allow a decision to be taken. That is exactly why the agency has already taken a number of steps to ensure that it is going to the right people for information.

It is also important to ensure that we take the time—not too much time, of course—to make sure that the person’s eligibility is checked and that the decision is the right one the first time round because we do not want to see what happened with the personal independence payment, where many people were turned down and then had to appeal.

It is taking an unnecessarily long time at the moment, but the agency already has a number of measures in place to ensure that that will improve.

Minimum Income Guarantee

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has conducted any analysis of the potential cost to the public purse of introducing a minimum income guarantee. (S6O-02214)

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

The work to define what a minimum income guarantee could look like for Scotland, including costs and delivery, is led by an independent steering group. That comprises a strategy group of cross-party members of the Scottish Parliament, including Miles Briggs, and an expert group from across the third sector, industry and academia.

The expert group published an interim report in March, which set out early considerations for a minimum income guarantee. The group will publish a full report next year, which I expect to include consideration of the costs of a minimum income guarantee.

Annie Wells

As the cabinet secretary mentioned, the Government’s working group on a minimum income guarantee was established almost two years ago. Although it produced an interim report in March, the report contained absolutely no information on the two most important questions—the level of the income guarantee and how much it would cost. Until the Government sets out the cost, this plan is a fantasy. However, in two years, it still has not managed to even do that. Why is the Scottish National Party Government wasting time and resources on pie-in-the-sky proposals?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The question from Annie Wells is deeply disappointing. I say that because when we were at the anti-poverty summit a few weeks ago, that was one of the areas that many campaigners strongly urged Government and Opposition parties to look at. That is not to say that it is a simple answer and it does not necessarily mean that it is all deliverable within our devolved context. However, it is deeply disappointing to see Annie Wells ruling out aspects. I presume that the questions that she has raised have been issues on which cross-party MSPs on the strategy group are challenging the expert group.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

The current cost of living crisis, which is unprecedented in scale, comes on top of a decade of Tory austerity, exposing the insufficiency of the UK Government’s safety net. What difference would it make if key welfare and employment powers were held in Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

One of the challenges when we are looking to see how we can tackle poverty in Scotland is what we can do within the powers that we have. We have seen with the game-changing Scottish child payment that the Scottish Government is determined to move forward with what it can do here, but, clearly, if we continue to have the vast majority of welfare powers and all the employment powers being held by the Tories at Westminster, we will consistently be held back in what we can do in Scotland.

House Building

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to encourage house building in Scotland. (S6O-02215)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

Over the course of this parliamentary session, we are making available £3.5 billion to support the delivery of more affordable homes. Within that £3.5 billion, we have published five-year local authority resource planning assumptions, totalling £3.221 billion. That has provided the confidence, certainty and assurance that the housing sector needs in order to deliver progress towards our ambitious 110,000 affordable homes target by 2032, and build on our achievement of having delivered more than 118,000 affordable homes since 2007, more than 83,000 of which were for social rent.

Sandesh Gulhane

Despite that, a £200 million project by Get Living, a build-to-rent specialist, which aimed to build 1,500 homes in Glasgow, was recently put on hold. A spokesperson for the group said:

“Rent controls have unintended consequences that only served to exacerbate the underlying problem.”

Will the minister admit that his Government’s rent freeze has negatively impacted house building? Will he support the Scottish Conservative’s call for a housing delivery agency?

Paul McLennan

Analysis of the rent freeze policy is still on-going, and I am sure that Mr Harvie will pick up on that in due course. However, context is key to the first question that the member asked. Only today, we saw interest rates rise for the 12th time in a row, to 4.5 per cent. Construction inflation is at 20 per cent. Regarding the member’s area, there has been a 17 per cent rise in funding from the previous parliamentary session for the Glasgow area and in South Lanarkshire, which he also represents, there has been a 30 per cent rise. I met Glasgow City Council yesterday to discuss how we take those programmes forward.

Social rented and affordable housing is incredibly important for my constituents. Can the minister say any more about the £3.5 billion programme that he has already referred to and how it is being targeted?

Paul McLennan

I refer the member to my answer to Mr Gulhane in which I spoke about the work in Glasgow and pointed to the ambitious funding programme and the increased funding. As I mentioned, more than £3.5 billion has been directed towards delivering the strategic priorities of local authorities. I am planning to meet as many local authorities as I can, including Glasgow, where I met council representatives yesterday.

Seventy per cent of the affordable homes to be delivered need to be for social rent. From April 2021 to the end of December 2022, our affordable housing supply programme supported the delivery of 12,430 homes for social rent, which is 77 per cent of the total affordable homes that we delivered during that period. We are also supporting home ownership for people who need support through our low-cost initiative for first-time buyers—LIFT—shared equity scheme, which helps people who are on low to moderate incomes to buy their first home; 1,678 households benefited from that support in the same period.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned about the accessibility of their homes. Despite properties being advertised as wheelchair accessible, there are no fire evacuation procedures for disabled tenants. If there were to be a fire, they would be stuck in their homes and unable to get out. What could the Scottish Government do to ensure that emergency escape routes for disabled people are designed in homes and implemented from the start when building properties?

Paul McLennan

Broadly, there is an assessment of the guidance on housing for varying needs that is being prepared at the moment, which looks at how we tackle that issue. I am happy to pick up the specific issue with the member and come back to her on that.

Scottish Welfare Fund

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the delivery of the Scottish welfare fund. (S6O-02216)

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

The Scottish welfare fund provides an essential source of crisis support and helps with independent living. Since it began in 2013, in excess of £380 million has been paid to more than 500,000 households. As our response to the recently published independent review sets out, we are working with local authorities and stakeholders to put in place an action plan with agreed improvements so that the fund continues to deliver for those who are in need.

Paul Sweeney

Last year, research into the cost of living crisis from the Poverty Alliance and the Scottish Women’s Budget Group recommended better promotion of the Scottish welfare fund. However, it has been put to me that Glasgow City Council feels that it cannot promote the fund because the fund is oversubscribed, which means that many low-income families in Glasgow cannot access this lifeline support. Given how much local authorities such as Glasgow rely on central Government for funding, will the cabinet secretary commit today to providing councils with the resources that they need to deliver the fund to families who desperately need it?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Local authorities have an obligation to promote the fund to those who they think need its support. I take the member’s question in good faith, but this is my second set of social justice portfolio questions and the second time that a Labour member has asked me to spend more on something. That is all very welcome, and I will listen seriously to suggestions about how the Government can and should spend more money, but we must discuss how that could be paid for. I would be more than happy to discuss that with the member as we move forward.

Miles Briggs has a supplementary question.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I apologise for not being in the chamber at the start of portfolio question time, Deputy Presiding Officer.

Community care grants are part of the Scottish welfare fund. What plans does the Government have to reform the application process for families and individuals who are caring for someone who has been released from prison or a young offenders institution? Will such payments be able to be made before people leave such institutions?

Mr Briggs raises an important point. We have had the Scottish welfare fund review and we are working out an action plan. If something can be done on the issue, I will be happy to update him in due course.

Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that a big hit on the Scottish welfare fund is from mitigation of UK benefit sanctions. Does she share my astonishment—and, I am sure, the astonishment of Mr Sweeney—that Labour has reneged on its pledge to scrap universal credit and has said that it will keep the sanctions regime? Is it not clear that change is not coming?

I call the cabinet secretary to respond on matters that are her responsibility.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is a concern that the UK Labour Party is reneging on a number of pledges that it had made. That is important to the Scottish Government’s powers and therefore the Scottish Parliament’s responsibilities because of how challenging it is for the Scottish Government to continue to mitigate the effect of UK Government policies. It is deeply disappointing—but, unfortunately, not surprising—that there is very little difference between the UK Labour Party and the UK Conservatives on a number of benefit sanctions. That shows in particular that Scottish Labour continues to be a branch of the UK Labour Party.

Homelessness (South and East Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle homelessness in South and East Ayrshire. (S6O-02217)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

Our ending homelessness together plan sets out how we will prevent and tackle homelessness nationally through the implementation of rapid rehousing, scaling up the housing first approach and introducing new homelessness duties, which will ensure that all public bodies work together to prevent homelessness.

Since 2018, we have provided £1.94 million for local rapid rehousing plans in the local authority areas that the member mentioned. Those authorities also receive more than £1.24 million annually for homelessness prevention. Over the parliamentary session, we are making available more than £132 million for affordable housing in the two authorities, which is an increase of 17 per cent on the previous session.

Sharon Dowey

Last year, the number of homelessness applications for July to September increased by 60 on the previous year in East Ayrshire and by 41 in South Ayrshire. What engagement has the minister had with those local authorities? What specific plans do ministers have to develop a solution to rural homelessness?

Paul McLennan

I have already met the City of Edinburgh Council and Glasgow City Council and I would be happy to meet the two local authorities that Ms Dowey talked about to discuss their plans and go into more detail. With regard to looking beyond, we talked about the rapid rehousing programme, and more work needs to be done on that, again, with the local authorities. I am happy to offer the member a meeting with the two local authorities to discuss that.

Bill Kidd has requested a supplementary question, and I am happy to allow his question, but I remind him that it must relate to tackling homelessness in South and East Ayrshire.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer—that reminder is very handy.

Can the minister explain how proposed powers to raise council tax in South Ayrshire on second and empty homes could help to tackle homelessness by maximising the use of existing housing stock across the country?

Paul McLennan

Our aim is for everyone to have a safe, secure and warm home. Local taxation is one measure that can influence ownership patterns and availability of homes to meet local needs. When we introduced powers in 2013 that enabled councils to vary or remove council tax discounts, the number of second homes reduced and the revenue that was generated was ring fenced for local affordable housing. Extending those powers—to enable councils to choose to charge a council tax premium—could further encourage behavioural change in how we use homes, and I look forward to seeing the responses to the current consultation on that proposal.

Child Poverty (Greenock and Inverclyde)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to tackle child poverty in the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency. (S6O-02218)

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

We are providing a range of support that will benefit families in Greenock and Inverclyde and across Scotland, including investment in the 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.

Stuart McMillan

The cabinet secretary will be very much aware of the Trussell Trust’s end-of-year figures for 2022-23, which indicate that the number of food bank parcels that were distributed in my constituency rose by 36 per cent. The figures for the whole of Scotland showed that the Scottish child payment seems to have had an impact, because the rise in the number of households with children receiving food bank parcels was nowhere near the levels that were experienced elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but I am still concerned that the payment was not enough to protect every family from food insecurity. Does the cabinet secretary, therefore, agree that that shows that Scotland is taking a different approach to tackling child poverty and that, if the UK Government is not prepared to match progressive policies such as the Scottish child payment, it should devolve the necessary powers, so that we can go further to help low-income families in Greenock and Inverclyde and across Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is very easy to see the contrast between the approaches of the Scottish and UK Governments. The Scottish Government has not only introduced the Scottish payment but gone from the original campaign ask of £5 to the position that we are in at the moment. That is very important. At the same time, of course, the UK Government was cutting universal credit by £20, and that is the real challenge. For example, we are making £84 million available to local authorities to spend on discretionary housing payments to mitigate directly UK Government welfare policies. That is a frustration and it should be a frustration for everyone in the chamber.

Illegal Migration Bill (Impact on Asylum Seekers)

8. Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with local authorities regarding any preparations for the potential impact of the proposed Illegal Migration Bill on asylum seekers currently accommodated in hotels in Scotland. (S6O-02219)

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

The Scottish Government is deeply concerned that the United Kingdom Government’s Illegal Migration Bill will push people deeper into exploitation and destitution. We have urged the UK Government to stop the bill and focus on improving the asylum system to increase the quality and speed of decisions. That would reduce the number of people who are accommodated in hotels and the risk that they are left in prolonged limbo without the ability to work or access services.

The provision of accommodation for asylum seekers is entirely reserved to the UK Government but, of course, has an impact on our local authorities. I will discuss that with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities spokesperson for community wellbeing when I meet her shortly.

Ariane Burgess

Moray Council and Health and Social Care Moray will be supporting people who are seeking asylum and arriving in my region over the coming weeks. How can the Scottish Government support the oversight group to ensure that our communities are fully involved in welcoming those residents and that we do not see a repeat of the short-notice changes to accommodation arrangements that have been seen in other areas?

Emma Roddick

The “New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018-2022” provides a framework that can help planning to support people seeking asylum in line with our principle that integration should be supported from day 1 of arrival.

New Scots was developed in partnership by the Scottish Government, COSLA and the Scottish Refugee Council. Asylum accommodation is reserved to the Home Office, which should engage with local authorities as early as possible. We believe that the Home Office also needs to provide long-term funding for local authorities and services that recognises the true costs of asylum dispersal to local authorities and enables better support for people seeking asylum as well as those local communities.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

As the minister has outlined, the Scottish Government, councils and the third sector have worked well to implement Scotland’s new Scots strategy, which supports refugees and asylum seekers into our communities from day 1 of arrival. For Westminster to disrupt that good work would be unforgivable. What communications has the Scottish Government had with UK Government counterparts to express Scottish communities’ opposition to the bill?

Emma Roddick

The Scottish Government has made our opposition to the bill very clear. The Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture wrote to the UK Government in March to say that we condemned the bill’s cruel and inhumane provisions and to urge it not to proceed with the bill.

On 25 April, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice again wrote to emphasise Scotland’s significant concerns and our intention to lodge a legislative consent memorandum due to clauses that alter the executive competence of the Scottish ministers, and to point out the opposition of this Parliament to the bill following the passing of a recent motion.

Thank you, minister. That concludes portfolio question time. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business to allow front-bench teams to change position should they wish.