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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, June 20, 2024


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio question time, and the portfolio is social justice. As ever, I would appreciate succinct questions and answers in order to allow as many members as possible to ask their questions.

Homelessness (Veterans)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the housing minister has had with ministerial colleagues regarding support available for veterans at risk of homelessness. (S6O-03605)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans attends the ministerial oversight group on homelessness, which I chair, in order to make connections across portfolios. The group last met on 5 June 2024, and it has met four times previously.

Working alongside the veterans minister, I am committed to raising the profile of veterans’ housing and homelessness at relevant meetings to ensure that stakeholders are aware of their obligations to provide veterans in Scotland with the best possible advice and support. I have had similar discussions with the Scottish veterans commissioner and veterans housing organisations.

Maurice Golden

Veterans often struggle to navigate the myriad support available to them, whether it be for homelessness, addiction or access to employment. Would the Scottish Government consider co-ordinating and documenting all the support that is available, to create a one-stop shop for veterans’ support?

Paul McLennan

I am happy to have a discussion about that with Maurice Golden. We have previously had discussions about housing options and organisations that do that job in Edinburgh. I am happy to pick that up for other parts of Scotland and to see what we can do on that issue.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

Following Poppy Scotland’s successful count them in campaign, census information on the number of veterans in Scotland has recently been published for the first time. How does the Scottish Government plan to use that information to better support veterans, including through preventing homelessness?

Paul McLennan

The inclusion of a question on veteran status in the census for the first time marked a significant step forward in developing the evidence base on veterans in Scotland and their characteristics. In conjunction with our annual national homelessness statistics, officials will analyse the census outputs, which we will use to consider how we continue to support veterans and their families. A further update on our work to use emerging evidence to understand more about the circumstances and needs of veterans will be provided in the veterans minister’s next annual update to the Parliament.

Question 2 is from James Dornan, who joins us online.

Child Poverty Practice Accelerator Fund

2. James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the second round of the child poverty practice accelerator fund is anticipated to have in advancing the First Minister’s mission to eradicate child poverty in Scotland. (S6O-03606)

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

I was delighted last week to announce round 2 of the child poverty practice accelerator fund, which supports the First Minister’s mission to eradicate child poverty. We will make available up to £500,000 this financial year to support projects to test new and innovative ways to support the mission. That builds on the fund’s first round, launched in 2023, which is supporting a range of work, including important early intervention. Local authorities and health boards are already undertaking transformative work to tackle child poverty, and the fund supports them to go further to address root causes.

James Dornan

The child poverty practice accelerator fund demonstrates how real investment in eradicating child poverty benefits families, our society and our economy. Under the plans put forward by the major Westminster parties, however, it seems that both the Tories and Labour are unwilling to make that investment, instead opting for low taxes for high earners and painful public spending cuts. Will the cabinet secretary outline what actions she and the Scottish Government require from the incoming United Kingdom Government if we are to achieve the First Minister’s mission to end child poverty in Scotland for good?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As the First Minister and I have said in the chamber before, we stand ready to work with an incoming UK Government to not only tackle but eradicate child poverty. Mr Dornan is quite right to point out the choices that make that more difficult. As he said, both of the major Westminster parties are focusing on low taxes for high earners and painful public spending cuts, rather than the eradication of child poverty.

Given that, this year, the Scottish Government has committed more than £3 billion to policies to tackle poverty, it is disappointing that no change has yet been suggested down at Westminster. It is inevitable that that will make the Scottish Government’s job more difficult, but we are determined to do what we can within the fixed financial envelope that we have and the powers that are available to the Parliament.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

The scale of the challenge that we face in Scotland is serious. As poverty levels have been static for the 17 years of this Scottish National Party Government, attempts to find new and effective approaches are welcome, but stakeholders will be concerned about how frustratingly slow the turnaround often is between learning about good practice and implementing it across the country. Indeed, in its recent report, the Poverty and Inequality Commission said that, in its next update on the child poverty figures, the Scottish Government

“cannot just point to actions already taken nor propose more small-scale tests of change.”

How will the cabinet secretary ensure that learning from the accelerator fund is used nationwide to give us whatever chance is left of meeting the statutory 2030 targets?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Government remains absolutely committed to achieving the child poverty targets that have been laid down in statute. At the moment, the effect that the Scottish child payment is having is not yet showing up in the child poverty statistics, but our modelling suggests that it is having a very important impact.

What will not help is the £18 billion-worth of cuts that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that the spending plans of both Labour and the Conservatives will make in our public services. [Interruption.] That makes it more—

Please resume your seat for a second, cabinet secretary. I will not have sedentary chitchat across the benches while someone else is speaking.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That makes it more difficult for us to eradicate child poverty. However, as I said in my original answer, we are determined to do everything that we can. Children and families in Scotland deserve no less of this Government or, indeed, of any incoming UK Government.

Question 3 has been withdrawn.

Hostel Safety

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that homeless women are not safe in hostels. (S6O-03608)

The Minister for Equalities (Kaukab Stewart)

It is vital that the use of emergency accommodation for women who are experiencing homelessness does not exacerbate any of the issues that may have led to them presenting as homeless, such as domestic abuse, mental health issues, substance use or a disability or impairment.

Temporary accommodation is an important safety net and, when support services are provided, care must be taken to ensure the safety of everyone who is accommodated. Our homelessness statistics show that accommodation in the social rented sector is the most common type of temporary accommodation that is used by local authorities. Social rented accommodation accounts for 55 per cent of the temporary accommodation that is used by local authorities, with hostels being used in only a small number—9 per cent—of cases.

Ash Regan

The most recent figures, which go up to 2022, show that 67 women in Scotland had died in homeless accommodation over a three-year period. The fact that the situation is getting steadily worse as a result of systemic failure is acknowledged by the Scottish Housing Regulator.

Sinead Watson, a 33-year-old woman who spent 40 weeks in homeless accommodation, spoke of her experience. She said:

“Over the past months, I have stayed in three separate hostels. I have been threatened, assaulted and robbed. I have had no sense of security or safety, and women with addiction are bribed into sex. I saw it in all three hostels that I stayed in. The women in these hostels are fair game.”

We urgently need to provide safe and secure same-sex emergency housing to stop more women dying. That would be a simple first step in ensuring that these vulnerable women in crisis are not put at further risk of rape, sexual assault and trauma.

Ms Regan, we need a question.

Will the Government commit to protecting vulnerable women in crisis by ensuring that temporary accommodation in Scotland is single sex?

Kaukab Stewart

I thank Ash Regan for raising such an important point and pointing out the trauma that women are going through.

The Scottish Government is committed to dignity and respect for all. The Equality Act 2010 provides protection for women. The Scottish Government strongly supports the separate and single-sex exceptions that are in the 2010 act, which allow for women to have single-sex spaces.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I agree with Ash Regan. The Government needs to understand the facts of what people are experiencing. The minister mentioned a figure of 9 per cent, but in Edinburgh it is much higher. People are being mixed together in unacceptable situations: families, single men, and women who are experiencing homelessness. Often, those women have fled domestic abuse but are put into those situations, and they then leave them to become homeless, because they feel safer on the streets. Will the minister look at reviewing the situation, and get the third sector to be part of that? In so many options out there, we do not use the third sector, and it wants to be part of a solution.

Kaukab Stewart

The Scottish Government’s delivering equally safe fund is providing more than £7 million this year to local women’s aid groups for support for services for women and children.

We have introduced provisions in the Housing (Scotland) Bill that, if passed, will put a duty on social landlords to develop and implement a domestic abuse policy that outlines how they will support their tenants who are at risk of homelessness, including protecting the right of women to stay safely in their own homes. We will continue to work closely with the housing and violence against women and girls sectors to develop statutory guidance to accompany that duty.

RAAC (Social Housing)

To ask the Scottish Government how many homes provided by social landlords have been identified as containing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. (S6O-03609)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

The Scottish Housing Regulator has been engaging with social landlords to understand the context of RAAC in their properties. The latest figures from the regulator show that 13 social landlords have identified the presence of RAAC, and 1,994 homes are affected.

Richard Leonard

Last week, we marked the seventh anniversary of the Grenfell tower tragedy. It has taken the Scottish Government seven years to bring forward and get passed the Housing (Cladding Remediation) (Scotland) Act 2024. In seven years, only two multistorey dwellings in Scotland—out of more than 100—have had any remedial action taken to remove inflammable cladding. People have been evacuated from their homes, from Tillicoultry to Torry, because of the dangers of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. How long will they have to wait? What is the Government’s timescale for ensuring that all those living with RAAC in their homes, across Scotland, are safe?

Paul McLennan

There are a number of issues in that. The cladding issue is similar in some ways to RAAC, but it is different in many other ways. RAAC can be present in buildings without posing an immediate risk. I have engaged with a number of local authorities—for example, West Lothian Council and Aberdeen City Council—over the specific options that they are looking at. We await option appraisals from a number of local authorities. I meet them regularly on the subject.

As I have said, there are specific guidelines to recommend whether a property is safe. I will continue to engage with local authorities in that regard, and with the regulator. I am happy to discuss that further with Mr Leonard.

Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

Given that the Scottish budget is already stretched to the limit by Westminster capital spending cuts, will the minister call on the incoming United Kingdom Government to prioritise a dedicated RAAC fund as a matter of urgency, with appropriate consequentials for Scotland?

Paul McLennan

As members will be aware, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had committed to

“spend what it takes”

to deal with the issue of RAAC. However, no funding has been forthcoming, and neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives have committed to any financial support in their election manifestos. In addition, the UK Government failed to inflation-proof its capital budget, which has resulted in nearly a 9 per cent real-terms cut in our UK capital funding between 2023-24 and 2027-28. I hope that members across the chamber will join me in calling on an incoming UK Government to deliver a dedicated fund. [Interruption.] I can hear Mr Leonard talking about that. If he can speak to, and use any influence that he has, with an incoming UK chancellor or UK housing minister, I will be happy to discuss that with him.

Members, this is not a free-for-all across the chamber. Speak through the chair, please. Thank you.

Emergency Accommodation (West Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the provision of emergency homeless accommodation in the West Scotland region. (S6O-03610)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

Scotland has the strongest rights in the United Kingdom for people who are experiencing homelessness. Local authorities have a duty to provide temporary accommodation to any homeless household that needs it. In some cases, that might be done on an emergency basis. Local authorities are responsible for assessing demand for temporary accommodation and provision in their areas. Recent homelessness statistics show that local authorities in the West Scotland region consistently provide temporary accommodation to people who require it. We have maintained the homeless budget at broadly similar levels to last year’s. I regularly meet housing conveners across Scotland to understand the pressures in their areas, including the demand for temporary accommodation. We last met on Tuesday. In addition, I met representatives of Glasgow City Council this morning to discuss that specific issue.

Russell Findlay

Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting with Police Scotland and others about a hotel in Paisley being used as emergency accommodation. Local families are living in fear due to regular outbreaks of violence and blatant drug dealing. Police are never far away from the place. The authorities wrongly downplay that as antisocial behaviour, which it is not—it is criminality. One woman told the Paisley Daily Express that occupants are

“drinking, smoking, smashing glass, swearing and making abusive comments to people, particularly women and kids when they go past. It’s unpleasant and threatening.”

What, if anything, can the Scottish Government do to end that misery for residents?

Paul McLennan

I will add some context. Local authorities in the West Scotland region, which Mr Findlay represents, are receiving more than £1 million of funding for rapid rehousing transition plans. I would be happy to pick up the issue of the particular property that he has referred to. It has not been fed back to me, but I would be happy to liaise with him on that and take it up with officials.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

The erosion of UK Government benefits, including housing benefits, is a significant driver for homelessness and the need for emergency accommodation in Glasgow, the west of Scotland and beyond. Has the Scottish Government made any assessment of the record £90 million of discretionary housing payments that it has provided to mitigate those cuts? Does the minister agree that the key way to support homelessness prevention and to avoid emergency accommodation in the first place is for any incoming UK Government to significantly uplift housing benefits, which have been gutted by a decade of Tory austerity?

Paul McLennan

I fully agree with Bob Doris’s statement. His view is backed up by a recent report by Crisis through its homelessness monitor study, which picked up that two of the biggest issues are local housing allowance and the rate of universal credit. This year, the Scottish Government has increased the funding for discretionary housing payments by £6.8 million, to provide additional support for households who are struggling to meet housing costs. Discretionary housing payments are a vital tool to reduce poverty, safeguard tenancies and prevent homelessness. However, the fact that we need to spend that money at all shows that the UK welfare system is not fit for purpose. We will continue to push whichever party forms the next Westminster Government to end the bedroom tax, scrap the benefit cap, and permanently link local housing allowance rates with rents, to end the uncertainty that private renters face.

Poverty (Black and Ethnic Minority Households)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle poverty in black and minority ethnic households. (S6O-03611)

The Minister for Equalities (Kaukab Stewart)

Despite Scotland receiving the most challenging settlement in the history of devolution in last year’s United Kingdom Government budget, the Scottish Government is doing all that it can to prioritise investment to tackle and reduce poverty here, including investment that will benefit black and minority ethnic households. That includes committing £6.3 billion for social security benefits and payments, investing nearly £600 million to support the delivery of affordable homes and providing more than £370 million to enable free bus travel for more than 2 million people. In addition, our anti-racist employment strategy seeks to reduce income inequality for racialised minorities by supporting employers to address barriers so that people from such minorities can enter, progress in and stay in employment.

Pam Gosal

According to the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, underemployment disproportionately affects black and minority ethnic communities, with underemployment severely contributing to the growing proportion of families in in-work poverty. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that high-quality and secure work is made available for people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds?

Kaukab Stewart

I have already referred to the Government’s anti-racist employment strategy, which I believe is having an impact. It sets out the actions that the Scottish Government will take to reduce employment inequalities for racialised minorities. They include evaluation of the minority ethnic recruitment toolkit that we published in 2020, and the development of an anti-racist workplace training framework. The impact of those actions will be measured through the evidence plan for the fair work action plan, to ensure that they support our ambition of becoming a fair work nation.

Benefits (Expenditure)

8. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of Audit Scotland’s analysis showing that Social Security Scotland’s benefit expenditure budget was £5.1 billion in 2023-24, which was an increase of 22 per cent on its 2022-23 budget, what action it is taking to reduce expenditure on Scottish social security benefits, including through assisting people into meaningful paid employment. (S6O-03612)

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

Social security is a priority for this Government, and we are proud of our significant investment to ensure that people receive the support that they are entitled to. When all our benefits have been introduced and clients have been transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions, Social Security Scotland will support around one in three people in Scotland, the vast majority of whom are disabled and unpaid carers.

We continue to support employment opportunities within the limits of our devolved powers, with up to £90 million for employability services through the no one left behind plan this year, and the remaining delivery of fair start Scotland funding.

Jamie Greene

I am pleased that the minister mentioned those with disabilities in our workforce, for example. One of the points of feedback from Inclusion Scotland was that many people who had to leave the workplace due to the pandemic have struggled to get back into work, and have found the whole process quite daunting. What is the Scottish Government doing to support jobseekers and employers to assist those who have been out of the workplace for a particularly long time to make that move, which can be daunting, and to get them back into the workforce?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Jamie Greene for that question. It is important that we look at the disability employment gap and what can be done. Some of the responsibility and powers for that lie with the Scottish Government and some with the UK Government, and both Governments need to do more on it. We are determined to do just that.

A number of mechanisms and policies are in place—I mentioned no one left behind in my original answer. That is a very important way of making a tailored service available to everybody. The Government also works with employers to ensure that they recognise the importance and significance of the role that disabled people and their carers can play in the employment market—even those who have perhaps not been in the labour market for some time. That is a commitment that we are absolutely determined to take forward.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

On 4 June, in the stage 1 debate on the Social Security (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, Tory social security spokesperson Jeremy Balfour said:

“As a Parliament, we should be demanding that all benefits in Scotland are inflation proofed.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2024; c 28.]

That should be a priority even if our block grant from the UK Government is below inflation. Mr Greene clearly disagrees with that. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is astonishing that the Tories are utterly incapable of speaking with one voice on something as fundamental as Social Security Scotland’s budget?

Cabinet secretary, please respond on the matters within your responsibility.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mr Gibson is quite right to point out the variety of different calls that I receive from the Scottish Conservatives on the issue. In his original question, Jamie Greene seemed to suggest that we may wish or need to cut social security expenditure. I say to the Conservatives and to the Labour Party, which shares its policies on social security with the Conservatives, that the best way that we can do that is through changes in the UK social security system so that we do not have to spend, for example, £134 million a year mitigating some of the worst excesses of the UK Government’s system. That would allow the Scottish Government to work to introduce more anti-poverty measures, which we are determined to do. It is disappointing that the current Government—and, I would suggest, any incoming Government—is refusing to take up that challenge.

That concludes portfolio questions on social justice. There will be a very short pause before we move on to the next item of business, to allow front-bench teams to change positions, should they so wish.