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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, March 16, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice, Housing and Local Government

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon, colleagues. The first item of business is portfolio question time and the portfolio this afternoon is social justice, housing and local government. I remind members who wish to ask a supplementary to press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question.

Adult Disability Payment Mobility Component (Consultation)

1. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is promoting the current consultation on the mobility component of the adult disability payment, in light of reported concerns of campaigners that the eligibility criteria unfairly downgrade benefits for those with conditions such as multiple sclerosis. (S6O-02012)

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

The adult disability payment was developed in close co-operation with disabled people. We have made several improvements to provide a far more positive experience, compared with people’s experience of the personal independence payment, which the ADP replaced. Social Security Scotland seeks to apply the eligibility criteria fairly and consistently to get more decisions right first time.

We have been raising awareness of the consultation on the eligibility criteria for the mobility element of the adult disability payment through stakeholders, including disabled people’s organisations, and through consultation events. We are encouraging people to reply to the consultation and tell us about their experiences of the adult disability payment.

Fulton MacGregor

Does the minister agree with the view of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, which has been in touch with me on the issue, that an individual’s mobility cannot be evaluated solely on their ability to walk on a flat surface for 20m, as that does not take into account variable surfaces and the fatigue that takes hold after exertion. Will the analysis of the consultation take that into account?

Ben Macpherson

It is essential that Social Security Scotland makes person-centred decisions that take individual circumstances into account. That is why Social Security Scotland case managers have training and guidance on considering the individual mobility needs of disabled people. That includes how to take into account the impact of pain, fatigue and fluctuating conditions, starting from a position of trust.

The consultation asks people to give their views on the eligibility criteria for the mobility component, including the 20m rule, and the impact of fluctuating conditions. We encourage people to contribute to the consultation. The analysis will reflect people’s views on the matter.

We have a couple of supplementaries, the first of which comes from Jeremy Balfour, who joins us remotely.

If the distance in the mobility rule was extended from 20m to 50m, how much would that cost? If the minister does not know what that figure is, will he write to me with it at a later stage?

Ben Macpherson

I am happy to take that point away on behalf of the member. Such considerations are important considerations with regard to the financial position. However, at the moment, I encourage people to respond to the consultation on the issue.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

The Government promised that there would be pre-consultation engagement with stakeholders, but conversations that I have had with people in the sector suggest that that did not really happen. I ask the minister to set out more detail on any pre-consultation engagement that took place and to say which organisations the Government engaged with.

Ben Macpherson

We engage with stakeholders with regard to the adult disability payment on a regular basis. I think that the most important thing for all of us to do now, for the collective common good, is to encourage people to contribute to the consultation. I know through her social media that Pam Duncan-Glancy has done that, and I thank her for that. I encourage others to do the same.

Community Housing Trusts (Funding)

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

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on delivering the Bute house agreement commitment to ensure that community housing trusts are adequately funded so that they can support the delivery of enhanced rural home building plans. (S6O-02013)

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

I am delighted to say that we have made significant progress in delivering that commitment. Last week, I met the Communities Housing Trust to provide an update.

I recognise the vital support that those organisations are continuing to provide in rural and island areas to ensure that the right homes are delivered in the right places to meet the needs of communities. My officials will continue to progress that as a priority strand of the remote, rural and islands housing action plan, and I will provide further details shortly.

Ariane Burgess

I thank the cabinet secretary for that encouraging answer. Does she agree that community housing trusts play a vital role in ensuring that affordable housing and placemaking are delivered in some of our most remote rural areas, where the addition or return to use of only a small number of homes can make a difference to whether a school or a shop stays open or closes? That is why the agreement between the Green MSPs and the Scottish Government attaches such importance to securing their funding.

Shona Robison

I fully recognise the important work that is undertaken by community housing trusts to support the delivery of more affordable homes in rural and island communities, where delivery of what we might think of as a small number of homes can make a big difference in terms of the sustainability of a local economy and public services and can help with the retention of people in an area, particularly young people. I have seen at first hand the high-quality, energy-efficient homes that have been delivered by communities through the rural and islands housing fund, including in Fort Augustus and Stracathro, and I have heard from tenants how those projects have made a significant impact in our local communities.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

The Scottish Government has been active in identifying innovative ways to finance the pledge of 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, of which 10 per cent will be in our rural and island communities. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that that rural focus has been successfully built into the Scottish Government’s housing strategy?

Shona Robison

Yes. We are making £3.5 billion available through the affordable housing supply programme during this parliamentary session to support the delivery of the ambitious target of 110,000 affordable homes by 2032. That includes support of up to £30 million through our demand-led rural and island housing fund for communities and organisations that are not able to access traditional affordable housing funding, and it works alongside our wider affordable housing fund. Further, shortly, we will publish the remote, rural and islands housing action plan to support the delivery of homes in rural and island communities.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I strongly support the community housing trust model alongside the use of rural housing burdens. I think that it can play an important role in constituencies such as mine in the east neuk, where there is a real problem with the growth of second homes and holiday lets. However, not many councils outwith the Highland areas know about that power or those trusts. What more can the Government do to encourage the use of that model in places such as Fife?

Shona Robison

Willie Rennie makes a fair point, and I hope that the new remote, rural and islands plan and the funding sustainability of community housing trusts, which, as Willie Rennie points out, operate mainly in the north of Scotland, as well as in the south of Scotland, mean that those trusts will be able to share some of that good practice and expand some of the good work that they are doing, because we know that it is a model that works. I am happy to keep Mr Rennie appraised of that.

Unpaid Carers (Economic Inequalities)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle any economic inequalities faced by unpaid carers. (S6O-02014)

The Minister for Equalities and Older People (Christina McKelvie)

We value all carers for their contribution, which is why our carer strategy sets out what the Scottish Government is doing to tackle the economic inequalities that are faced by unpaid carers. It takes a cross-Government approach to financial inclusion, including through social security and supporting carers in employment and education. The carers allowance supplement—which will be five years old this year—and the young carers grant are Scottish Government benefits that are available only in Scotland. They are vital in this area and are providing further financial support to unpaid carers. Those receiving carers allowance supplement this year will receive £541 more than those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Paul O’Kane

As we move into spring and summer, we all hope for some needed respite from household expenditure, with energy use dropping. However, that is little comfort to tens of thousands of households across Scotland who continue to exist on the precipice of financial insecurity due to exorbitant energy bills. Indeed, unpaid carers can face significantly higher energy costs, as some must operate essential life-sustaining equipment.

In response to questions in the chamber from me and my colleague Jackie Baillie, the Government has stated that it will look to provide additional support for unpaid carers in relation to that life-sustaining equipment, but no detail has yet been forthcoming. Can the minister say if and when the Government plans to publish details of and perhaps a timetable for such additional funding to be made available to carers?

Christina McKelvie

Paul O’Kane makes a serious point about the impact of the cost of living crisis. We have heard those same concerns from all the support organisations and carers that we know. Introducing the carers allowance supplement alleviates the problem in some way. The health secretary is dealing with the specific points around medical equipment, and I will ensure that he responds to Paul O’Kane as soon as possible.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

My MP colleague Wendy Chamberlain is taking a bill through the United Kingdom Parliament that would give unpaid carers the right to take leave from their job. What additional steps can the Scottish Government take to support unpaid carers and ensure that any inequalities that are faced by unpaid carers are addressed?

Christina McKelvie

I will look with interest to Wendy Chamberlain’s work on that because, as Beatrice Wishart knows, employment law is reserved to Westminster. However, we have heard the same concerns from carers and their support organisations about the impact of the challenges around work and the rules alongside that. We are working on our fair work principles, and we will publish a response in the coming weeks on the carer support payment, which was highlighted in a recent consultation. We can come back with that information when we have the consultation analysis.

Compulsory Purchase Orders (Conversion of Empty Homes into Council Housing)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has plans to reform the compulsory purchase order process to make it easier to convert empty buildings into council housing. (S6O-02015)

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

Local authorities already have broad compulsory purchase powers to support a range of development and regeneration projects, including bringing vacant, derelict and underused land or property back into productive use. The Scottish Government remains committed to reforming and modernising the compulsory purchase system in Scotland to make it fairer, clearer and faster for all parties.

Katy Clark

An estimated 112,300 properties in Scotland are unoccupied at any one time, and nearly 30,000 are empty for over a year. More than 130,000 people are homeless or on waiting lists. Will the Scottish Government carry out an analysis of how compulsory purchase orders are currently being used, with the aim of making it easier for councils to provide housing to people who are in need?

Shona Robison

I will say two things about that.

First, an audit of empty homes is currently under way to gather evidence about the effectiveness of our current approach and to help with thinking on options for future policy and funding. I should say that the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership has already helped to return more than 8,000 homes to use as warm, safe and secure housing for people who need it.

As a first step, we will establish an advisory board, which will be appointed to help to inform the development of options for reform of the compulsory purchase order process. It is important that we look at what levers we have and what additional levers we need. I absolutely agree that we need to incentivise the bringing back into use of empty homes and, perhaps, that we need to have disincentives to people hanging on to empty homes that are not used productively.

I am happy to keep Katy Clark updated on the matter.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Compulsory sale orders are another lever that local authorities could use to get properties back into use. The Government consulted on their introduction. Is the Government’s policy still to support their introduction? What has the Government done to work through some of the human rights issues that the cabinet secretary mentioned previously in the chamber?

Shona Robison

Mark Griffin is aware, as I am, of the implications on the European convention on human rights of compulsory sales orders, which continue to receive careful consideration. I would be happy to update him on that when more information is available, if he would find that helpful.

Question 5 was not lodged.

Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan (Progress)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on progress with its tackling child poverty delivery plan, including in relation to expanding free school meals provision. (S6O-02017)

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

We are focused on delivery of the wide-ranging actions in “Best Start, Bright Futures—Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2022-2026”, and we will lay a statutory annual progress report before Parliament by the end of June 2023.

In relation to free school meals provision, Scotland already has the most generous provision of free school meals anywhere in the United Kingdom, with 362,000 pupils benefiting from support during term time. That saves parents £400 per eligible child per year. Provision includes all pupils in primaries 1 to 5 and eligible pupils in primary 6 to secondary 6. Recent additional investment that has been announced means that we will expand free school meals to all primary 6 and 7 pupils who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment.

Monica Lennon

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for that update, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to rolling out universal free school meals.

Six months ago, the Government said that it would pilot universal free school meals in secondary schools. Can the cabinet secretary confirm which schools are involved and how the pilot is going? Will she or the relevant minister agree to meet me and campaigners, including the Scottish Youth Parliament and the Scottish Trades Union Congress women’s committee, to see how we can speed that up?

Shona Robison

I am happy to make sure that Monica Lennon is furnished with the information about which schools are involved—I do not have that information in front of me—and we will make sure that she has a meeting with the relevant minister to discuss the issues in more detail.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has noted that among the poorest 30 per cent of households, those with children will see their incomes being boosted by around £2,000 a year, on average, as a result of Scottish Government benefit policy and progressive taxation. Can the cabinet secretary give her response to that analysis?

Shona Robison

I certainly welcome the IFS’s analysis. It shows the positive impact that progressive choices are having on low-income families, even within our limited powers and budget. An important part of that impact are the 13 devolved benefits, seven of which are available only in Scotland, including the game-changing Scottish child payment. That is in marked contrast to what is available in the rest of the United Kingdom, in particular under the UK Government’s welfare system. That shows the difference between our two Governments: we want to tackle poverty and inequality, not push people further into hardship.

Illegal Migration Bill

7. Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its assessment is of any potential impact that the United Kingdom Government’s proposed Illegal Migration Bill could have on devolved social justice powers and the duties of Scottish local authorities. (S6O-02018)

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

We have written to the UK Government to state unequivocally that Scottish ministers do not support the Illegal Migration Bill. It is imperative that safe and legal routes exist for people who are seeking safety and protection from war and persecution, but the bill will remove the right to seek refugee protection. That risks pushing people into exploitation and destitution. We should be upholding the United Nations refugee convention, not undermining its international protections. We are currently considering the detail of the bill, including the impact on people and services and any legislative consent implications.

Siobhian Brown

The Immigration Law Practitioners Association says that the clauses of the bill that deal with modern slavery and trafficking breach the UK’s obligations to victims of trafficking under article 4 of the European convention on human rights. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the actions of the UK Government are not only deeply immoral but illegal?

Shona Robison

The Home Secretary was unable to state that the bill’s provisions are compatible with the European convention on human rights. That tells us all that we need to know about that abhorrent bill, which follows on from the shameful UK Nationality and Borders Act 2022.

A further restriction on provision of support to human trafficking victims penalises particularly vulnerable people—people who have suffered unimaginable trauma, including sexual exploitation or being forced, through violence, to work for no pay—and will prevent them from accessing the safety and support that would be available to them in the UK.

Children will be left in a shocking position until they turn 18, when they will be detained and removed to a third country where they have no connections or family. That cannot be allowed to happen. I would have thought that the whole chamber would agree on that.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

The UK Government’s Illegal Migration Bill is likely to have a significant impact on migrants and asylum seekers in Scotland. Scotland’s legal profession alone will likely see the number of cases in their case loads skyrocket under the bill’s provisions for removal.

Many asylum seekers who have arrived here have risked their lives and arrived with nothing, so it is likely that the legal assistance that many asylum seekers would require would have to be done pro bono. Will the cabinet secretary advise what the potential impact of the bill will be on Scotland’s legal aid service?

Shona Robison

There are many issues about the bill: Foysol Choudhury has raised one issue about the impact that it will have. Of course, the real concern is that the bill will leave more people destitute and without recourse to public funds. That has a major impact on services as well as on the individuals themselves.

We will continue to do what we can by supporting third sector organisations, some of which are involved with provision of legal support and legal advice, and we will consider what more we can do.

However, let us be under no illusion: the legislation will have a profound impact on the people who are affected and on services here. We should all unite in condemnation of the UK Government for the move.

Local Services (Support for Local Authorities)

8. Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support local authorities to ensure that the provision of local services, including swimming pools and leisure centres, meets the needs of local communities. (S6O-02019)

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

The Scottish Government believes that everyone should have access to local sport and leisure facilities that help to support the physical and mental health of the nation.

We understand the challenging financial circumstances that local authorities face, which are significantly due to the cost of living crisis. For its part, the Scottish Government has increased the resources that are available to local government by more than £793 million in the 2023-24 financial year, which is a real-terms increase of £376 million or 3 per cent.

Tess White

Bucksburn swimming pool is a much loved and hugely valued community resource, but it is due to close on 16 April because of devastating cuts to the Sport Aberdeen budget by Aberdeen City Council. It is the only pool in Aberdeen that has a shallow stair entry for elderly and disabled people and it is used twice weekly by the additional support needs department of Bucksburn academy. The nearest pool will be two bus rides away.

More than 8,400 people have signed the petition to keep Bucksburn pool open. Will the Scottish Government intervene with Aberdeen City Council and Sport Aberdeen to give hope to the local community, and save Bucksburn swimming pool?

Ben Macpherson

We are aware of Aberdeen City Council’s decision to close Bucksburn swimming pool and we understand the disappointment that members of the community feel at that closure.

However, the Scottish Government understands, too, that although everyone should have access to local leisure facilities, it is for local authorities to manage their own budgets and allocate the total financial resources that are available to them, including on leisure facilities, on the basis of local needs and priorities.

We note Tess White’s points and we are, following the financial package that the United Kingdom Government announced yesterday to support swimming pools in England, examining what support can be provided to the sector in Scotland.

If Tess White wishes to submit follow-up correspondence on the question, first to the local authority and then to Scottish ministers, we will, of course, consider it.

I very much welcome the £13.5 billion local government settlement. Can the minister say any more about the new deal for local government, especially around fiscal flexibility?

Ben Macpherson

The Scottish Government is committed to working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers to agree a new deal for local government, with the aim of agreeing shared priorities and providing greater flexibility over local funding, with clear accountability for delivery on those shared—that word is important—priorities and outcomes.

The new deal for local government reflects the desire on both sides to reset the relationship between the Scottish Government and local government. The Deputy First Minister made it clear in his letter of 15 December to the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that we want to develop a partnership agreement at pace and that we look forward to doing so.

That concludes portfolio question time. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item of business to allow members on the front benches to change.