Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Wednesday, May 25, 2022
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Community Wealth Building, Point of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Solar Energy
- Portfolio Question Time
- Community Wealth Building
- Point of Order
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Solar Energy
Portfolio Question Time
Health and Social Care
Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio question time, and the first portfolio is health and social care. Members who wish to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question or enter the letter R in the chat function. As ever, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and answers to match.
Alcohol Minimum Unit Pricing
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the impact of minimum unit pricing of alcohol. (S6O-01118)
Public Health Scotland is leading a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of minimum unit pricing of alcohol, details of which can be found on its website. The evaluation is taking place over a five-year period, and a final report will be produced in 2023.
The evaluation covers the impact of minimum unit pricing in four outcome areas: implementation and compliance, the alcoholic drinks industry, consumption and health, and social harms. As the evaluation is on-going, it would be premature for us to draw conclusions from the findings of the reports that Public Health Scotland has published so far.
Some charities have been calling for a 65p minimum unit price. Does the Government think that that is a possibility?
The on-going work on the level of the minimum unit price is still under way. It is important that that work be carried out thoroughly in order to ensure that any change to the level has a robust evidence base.
We know that the pandemic has changed the drinking behaviour of some people—none more so than those who were already drinking heavily before it began. There is more work to be done to understand better the continuing impact of the pandemic on alcohol-related harm. That goes much wider than the impact on MUP; it also encompasses the impact on treatment and support services. It is too early to know whether the changes in drinking behaviours during the pandemic are temporary or not. That will be relevant to a review of the price.
With regard to reviewing the level of MUP, it is currently too early in the process for us to make a decision on what level the price might be set at, or to say when that might happen. The legislative procedure to change the minimum unit price requires a Scottish statutory instrument that is subject to affirmative procedure. As John Mason will know, that means detailed scrutiny. It is important that we take the time to get it right, so there will be a full public consultation on the matter. I will provide more detail on timings once officials have worked through the details.
Many people and organisations, including Labour members, have called for a social responsibility levy to tackle problems relating to alcohol and drug misuse, yet the powers in the Alcohol Etc (Scotland) Act 2010 have not been used in that way.
Last week, I met Alcohol Focus Scotland, which has called for more work to explore what can be done to ensure that money that is raised through initiatives such as minimum unit pricing can be spent not by the producers but on health interventions. What further action is the Government taking in that regard?
As Paul O’Kane will be aware, we have already achieved a number of things. Minimum unit pricing is one policy, but we have taken a number of other actions. For example, we have lowered the drink-driving limit, introduced the multibuy discount ban and increased the number of alcohol brief interventions. We are currently evaluating all those policy inventions.
As I said, there has been a significant change in drinking behaviour during the pandemic. We need to interrogate that and try to understand it better, while evaluating all the measures that we have taken, in order to find a way forward.
Nonetheless, I absolutely agree with Paul O’Kane that although we have done a lot of work over the years to tackle the unhealthy relationship that Scotland has with alcohol, it is still a significant problem for us. During the first year of the pandemic, 23 people’s deaths a week were directly related to alcohol. There is, therefore, much more work to be done, and I am willing to consider all options.
Women’s Health Screening (Waiting Times) (Glasgow)
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of long waiting times for women’s health screening in Glasgow. (S6O-01119)
Following the temporary suspension of all adult screening programmes in March 2020 as a result of Covid-19, the programmes have since resumed safely, and in a phased way that initially prioritised higher-risk screening participants.
The Scottish breast screening programme is doing work to increase screening capacity, including through deployment of additional mobile units and additional appointments in evenings and at weekends. Recently published annual statistics show that uptake in the recommended age range of 50 to 70 has exceeded pre-Covid levels, having risen to 75.1 per cent, which is above the 70 per cent performance target.
With respect to cervical screening, participants on the non-routine, or higher-risk, pathway are receiving screening invitations at the same time as they would have done pre-Covid. Those who are on the routine pathway now receive invitations up to around six months later than they would have done pre-Covid. The programme will continue to monitor that and look for opportunities to improve it.
The most recent available data shows that more than two thirds of people are waiting more than 12 weeks for gynaecology appointments, which is beyond the treatment time guarantee, and that almost 60 per cent are being left to wait even longer—16 weeks for some, and we do not know how much longer beyond that.
Does the minister think that it is acceptable for women to wait so long? Will the Government publish more data on women who have waited beyond 16 weeks? Will it set out what it will do to support health boards to reduce waiting times?
That question takes us away from the territory of screening and into the territory of diagnostics. The screening programme has recovered well from its pause, I have to say, but the entire national health service system is suffering the impact of a pandemic that we are still coping with daily.
I am aware that some NHS boards are experiencing longer-than-usual waiting times for procedures including colposcopies. That is concerning, but we are regularly reviewing waiting lists, and clinical experts are involved in that assessment in order to ensure that people are seen as early as possible and according to their level of risk.
In recognition of the challenges that are faced by health boards, we have agreed additional funding to address capacity challenges and increased waiting times for colposcopy. As part of the NHS recovery, we are doing that for all other fields as well.
Tess White has a supplementary.
Leading health charities have in recent days called on the Scottish National Party-Green Government to urgently appoint a women’s health champion, as was promised last August. There is no time to lose. That is why I am extremely concerned that the appointment might not be made for another two years. Can the minister tell us, in black and white, when exactly that role will be established, so that women can access the healthcare and treatment that we deserve?
Before the minister answers, I will repeat the lead question, which was:
“To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of long waiting times for women’s health screening in Glasgow.”
The supplementary obviously goes well wide of that. However, I appreciate that it has been asked, and whether the minister wishes to give a short response to it is up to her.
I will give a very short response. When we set out the women’s health plan, the appointment of women’s champions was a medium-term ambition. We are absolutely on schedule to achieve that within the timescales that we set out in the plan.
Specialist Services (Miscarriage and Pregnancy Complications)
To ask the Scottish Government when the scoping exercise into the availability of specialist services within national health service boards for miscarriage and unexpected pregnancy complications will be completed. (S6O-01120)
All NHS boards have been contacted in relation to the scoping exercise into the availability in NHS boards of specialist services for miscarriage and unexpected pregnancy complications. A lead professional for each board has been appointed. The scoping questionnaire will be sent to all NHS boards by the end of this month, and the deadline for all completed responses is the end of June. The results will then be analysed over the summer.
I appreciate that update from the minister. It has been three months since we met my constituent Louise Caldwell to discuss progress. I am a bit concerned that the questionnaire has not gone out yet, but I hope that the work will be completed by June.
Is the minister confident that the Government will have compassionate miscarriage services in place in every health board by the end of 2023, as was promised? Will she join me in paying tribute again to Louise Caldwell, who has single-handedly brought the matter to Parliament’s attention and is in touch with thousands of women in Scotland who need that action now?
I certainly will join Monica Lennon in her tribute to Ms Caldwell. One of the incredible privileges of this job is that we meet people at the most difficult times in their lives when they use their experiences to improve things for people who come after them. Ms Caldwell is in exactly that category. It was a privilege and a pleasure to meet her. My officials have been in on-going contact with her.
With regard to timescales, it is very difficult at the moment to be absolutely certain; we do not know what is going to happen in relation to the pandemic over the summer, the winter or the next year. Our intention is certainly to stick to the original timescales, if we can, and as much as that is practical.
Pre-eclampsia affects 6 per cent of pregnancies and can, if it is undetected, prove to be fatal for mother and child. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends that the NHS carries out four simple placental growth factor tests to diagnose pre-eclampsia. However, previous scoping work has identified a potential issue with the suitability of laboratory services and facilities in Scotland. Will the Scottish Government commit to resolving the issue as soon as possible, so that expectant mothers in Scotland can be offered those crucial tests and have their babies in safety?
I am grateful to Kenneth Gibson for highlighting the importance of early intervention and of diagnosis and treatment of pre-eclampsia. I understand exactly how worrying pregnancy-related complications can be for women and their loved ones. We are committed to ensuring that all women receive high-quality safe maternity care.
As the member knows, we have tasked the Scottish Perinatal Network with examining adoption of placental growth factor testing for pre-eclampsia in Scotland, following the draft NICE guidance that was published for consultation in March. The draft guidance includes reference to two further placental growth factor tests, which takes the total number of tests available to four. The network’s first steps will be to understand how, in practical terms, the additional tests can be conducted, and then to identify any challenges to implementation. Work is under way on that. I will be more than happy to write to the member with an update, following further scoping activity.
Covid-19 (Mental Health and Wellbeing)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address any mental health and wellbeing issues arising from people experiencing loneliness, in part due to restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-01121)
The Scottish Government recognises that social isolation and loneliness are public health issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the associated restrictions. During the pandemic, we issued a wide range of advice on maintaining positive mental wellbeing, for example, through our “Clear Your Head” campaign and on the NHS Inform website.
On 7 May, I announced £15 million for year 2 of the communities mental health and wellbeing fund for adults. That follows on from the £21 million that was provided in 2021-22, and it will support small-scale community projects to improve mental health and wellbeing and to address issues such as social isolation and loneliness.
The Government is investing £10 million over the current parliamentary session to tackle social isolation and loneliness more broadly. Of that funding, £1 million has been allocated for immediate work by organisations that tackle social isolation and loneliness, including through helplines, befriending and practical support.
I thank the minister for his very full answer. Given that there have been significant impacts on the mental health of older people in particular, many of whom were isolated for long periods during the pandemic, and that they are now even more isolated and stressed as they struggle on their pensions to cope with the rise in inflation to 9 per cent, does the minister agree that it is high time that the Tory Government took immediate action to raise the state pension and ensure that the 40 per cent of pensioners who do not claim pension credit get it? Does the minister agree that that would certainly improve their mental health and wellbeing?
I absolutely agree. It is well past time that the United Kingdom Government introduced an emergency budget to protect the most vulnerable people in our society, not least our pensioners. Rumours abound that, in the face of the crisis that centres on number 10 over Sue Gray’s party report, which was released earlier today, the UK Government might finally take some action tomorrow. Time will tell whether that actually happens and whether any announcement is remotely sufficient. It is time for the UK Government to take cognisance of people’s real difficulties during the cost of living crisis and the impact that those are having on their mental health and wellbeing.
Although the pandemic undoubtedly exacerbated feelings of loneliness among much of the population, a huge benefit to many people’s physical and mental health was the ability to access and use green space. Given that a consequence of the Government’s poor record on health inequalities is that fewer people from our most deprived areas visit the outdoors regularly, will the minister update Parliament on cross-departmental Scottish Government plans to make outdoor spaces accessible to all and to close the gap in use between our most deprived communities and our least deprived communities?
I am well aware of the value of green spaces in our communities and of how beneficial they have been to people during the pandemic in particular.
As a former planning minister, I assure Ms Mochan that cross-Government work is being done on these issues. I am sure that she, and others in the chamber, will be cognisant of our plans for 20-minute neighbourhoods and our work to ensure that local people have a say in their neighbourhoods through local place plans. I am quite sure that the public will make their views known about the valuable role of green spaces in our society.
Can the minister outline what support is available specifically for rural communities, such as those in the north-east, where specialist mental health facilities might not be available locally and where accessible public transport connections are not sufficient or even available to enable people to easily access services based elsewhere?
Although there are many positives about rural life, we also recognise that there can be challenges relating to rural isolation. Those might be increasingly felt by those in remote communities, as a result of the pandemic.
We are working in partnership with the National Rural Mental Health Forum to ensure that those communities have equal and timely access to mental health support and services. Our community mental health and wellbeing fund for adults has provided support for projects that tackle social isolation across our country, including in rural communities.
Question 5 has been withdrawn.
To ask the Scottish Government what recent assessment it has made of delayed discharge in the national health service. (S6O-01123)
We are constantly closely monitoring the delayed discharge position through the collection of daily management information received from health and social care partnerships across the country. I continue to meet weekly with selected health boards and their local authority and partnership colleagues, alongside the Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care, to discuss issues and actions taken to address the delays.
Health and social care partnerships are fully committed to reducing delays, and they continue to work tirelessly to support hospital discharges. However, the whole health and social care system remains under significant pressure as more people come through hospitals who need high levels of care and support to go home.
Our discharge without delay improvement programme—which is backed by £5 million-worth of funding—continues to progress across Scotland with the key aim of improving patient flow through, and discharge from, hospital.
In February 2015, the then Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport said that she wanted to
“eradicate delayed discharge out of the system,”
yet we are seven years on and the situation is worse, not better. In fact, since that failed promise was made, the equivalent of more than 10,000 years—yes, 10,000 years—of delayed days have been spent in hospital by people who are ready to go home. Does it remain the Government’s aim to eradicate delayed discharge, and if so, by when?
I gently point out to Craig Hoy that something significant has happened since 2015, during the last couple of years, that has exacerbated pressure on social care and acute sites: the pandemic. That has not only affected Scotland, of course; it is happening in health and social care systems across the United Kingdom. For example, the rate of delayed discharge in England is almost double what it is in Scotland. I give that example simply to point to the fact that issues related to the pandemic have had an effect on health services across the country.
We will continue to invest. I have announced more than £300 million to help with winter pressures. A significant proportion of that is recurring funding, and much of it went into social care and improving the delayed discharge situation.
The number of delayed discharges is far too high, so we will continue to take action to reduce it. Of course, we would like to get to a position where nobody is delayed in our hospitals, so we will continue to invest in that and I will leave Craig Hoy to come up with no solutions and grumble from a sedentary position.
I hope not to grumble from a sedentary position.
Since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister seven and a half years ago, £960 million has been wasted on delayed discharge. I acknowledge that the cabinet secretary provided additional funding, but that was done some time ago and it does not seem to be working because delayed discharge is still going in the wrong direction. When does the cabinet secretary expect to see improvement, and when will delayed discharge be ended—or is that going to be another abandoned promise?
No. We will continue to work hard to reduce delayed discharge. If it was not for the funding that I mentioned, the situation would be far worse than it currently is. In March of this year, the total number of delayed discharges in Scotland was 1,836. The latest figures show an improvement in that picture, but the number is still far too high. Jackie Baillie and I do not disagree on that.
However, there is not a panacea or a simple solution to the problem. If there was, I suspect that Governments across the United Kingdom—including in Labour-run Wales—would have figured one out by now.
We are working hard to invest in social care. That is why we have provided funding to increase the pay for adult social care workers in Scotland, which will be part of the solution. We will continue to invest, and I hope that we will continue to see the trajectory of delayed discharges moving in the right direction.
We are talking about another typical grand promise by the Scottish National Party that has not been delivered. It promised to eradicate delayed discharges completely; we were told that they would be all gone. That was long before the pandemic. Therefore, there is no point in the cabinet secretary pointing at England, the Opposition and everybody else when he is in charge of the policy and has failed to deliver it.
No progress is being made; in fact, we are going backwards on delayed discharges. When will the Government minister accept that the promise to eradicate delayed discharges has not been delivered? When will he deliver a policy that actually works?
We are not going in the wrong direction. As I mentioned, in March of this year, the total number of delayed discharges was 1,836. The figure is now below that, and we hope to continue to make progress in the right direction. Willie Rennie, Jackie Baillie, Craig Hoy and I probably all agree that those numbers are still far too high.
We will continue to invest—as I have done, by putting in more than £300 million of winter funding, much of which is recurring and much of which is going into social care—to help to provide solutions. I will not take lectures from a Liberal Democrat about broken promises.
Dermatology Services (NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde)
To ask the Scottish Government what provision exists to provide an in-patient specialist dermatology service for patients within NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. (S6O-01124)
The requirement for in-patient dermatology bed provision has significantly decreased over recent years, with a trend towards focusing on ambulatory care. A number of enhancements have been made to the ambulatory care services across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to reflect that trend.
However, although in-patient dermatology admissions have fallen significantly, arrangements are in place to ensure that any patient who is clinically assessed as requiring in-patient treatment can still be admitted to hospital. Such patients will be admitted to an in-patient medical bed and managed by the dermatology medical and nursing team.
As part of recovery plans and remobilisation, the specialty will continue to review the best provision of care, although it should be noted that, regardless of the outcome, there will be a continuing commitment to meet patients’ needs and expectations, including through the provision of in-patient care for dermatology patients, when that is clinically indicated.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer but, unfortunately, the reality on the ground might be a wee bitty different. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde no longer has any dedicated in-patient dermatology beds. That means that the quality of life, the work and the mental health of my constituent who suffers from severe atopic eczema have deteriorated dramatically.
The elimination of dedicated specialist beds at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital puts my constituent in a much inferior position for what is out-patient day care at the Glasgow royal infirmary. I have asked NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to urgently review the provision of specialist dedicated beds. Will the cabinet secretary look at the issue, too, contact NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and ask it to seriously consider the review that I am calling for?
I will, of course, have a conversation with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde about the issue that Bob Doris has raised. My understanding is that if any patient is clinically assessed as needing in-patient care, such care will be provided. Bob Doris’s constituent has had a different experience. It seems as though he has already contacted the health board, but he is welcome to raise the issue with me.
It might not be appropriate to carve out speciality beds where the demand is relatively low—notwithstanding the impact that the condition that Bob Doris mentioned has on his constituent. It should be the case that if anyone is clinically assessed as needing in-patient care, that will be managed and specialty dermatology services will be provided to them. I will be happy to pick up the detail of that with Bob Doris.
Bob Doris makes a great point about how dermatology issues affect mental health and quality of life. That applies not just to Bob Doris’s constituent, but to everyone.
More than one in 10 dermatology patients have to wait more than a year for an out-patient appointment. We know that the use of images in referrals to dermatology departments speeds up the process, but only five health boards are using such a system. Why are all of them not doing so? Why is the use of images in referrals not already a national standard?
Sandesh Gulhane makes an important point. I will work with health boards up and down the country to make sure that we speed up the use of technology. We saw that during the pandemic, but it should not have taken a pandemic for us to make sure that the Near Me video technology was in place when accessing general practitioner services. I will make sure that a conversation is held with every health board about how we can speed up the pace of the use of technology for dermatology services.
Question 8 was not lodged.
That concludes portfolio questions on health and social care. We will now move onto the next portfolio after a short pause so that front-bench teams can change their position if they wish.
Social Justice, Housing and Local Government
The next portfolio is social justice, housing and local government. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should please press their request-to-speak button or enter the letter R in the chat function during the relevant question.
Again, I make a plea for succinct questions and answers to match, otherwise I will not be able to take all the questions.
Interlinked Fire Alarms (Installation)
To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the reasonable period of time for households to install interlinked fire alarms in line with the new legislation has now passed. (S6O-01126)
The legislation improves fire safety and ensures that the same level of protection applies to all homes. What is a reasonable period will depend on individual circumstances, which is why it is not defined in legislation, including in the case of the new fire alarms standard. On 21 January 2022, the Scottish Government, in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, published a statement confirming that local authorities will take a proportionate and measured approach to compliance.
We have a law that came into force more than four months ago. It was rushed through in defiance of warnings from Conservative members and many others, but we still do not have a date on which people risk being criminalised for non-compliance. Will the cabinet secretary commit to providing some form of date or guidance? If not, will she give us guidance as to when she might be able to do that, on behalf of all the people who do not know what the situation is going to be?
Russell Findlay will have heard my first answer, which was that what is a reasonable period will depend on individual circumstances—it is not uncommon for that phrase to be used in legislation. The period is not defined in other legislation and it is not defined in the new fire alarms standard. Local authorities have a broad statutory responsibility to tackle substandard housing in their areas, and they have said that they will take a light-touch approach.
It is disappointing that Russell Findlay portrayed the Opposition’s defiance to the legislation as being something of merit. Alasdair Perry, from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, said:
“Having the earliest possible warning of a fire in the home can and has saved lives and property. Having interlinked alarms installed will allow everyone, anywhere in the house to take action as quickly as possible.”
Why would anyone want to oppose that and make a virtue of opposing it? I find it difficult to understand that.
The cabinet secretary has said that local authorities have a duty to enforce and uphold the new standard for fire alarm systems. Have all local authorities enforced that standard for their own tenants?
As I understand it, there has been a high level of compliance with the new standard among local authorities and registered social landlords. A small number of properties are still to be done, but the intention is to get to 100 per cent compliance as quickly as possible. Good progress has been made, and I would be happy to write to Mark Griffin with the latest figures if he would find that helpful.
To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the number of people facing eviction in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-01127)
The latest data show that eviction action by landlords in both the private and social rented sectors reduced significantly and remained at a low level throughout the worst of the pandemic. Private sector evictions have recently started to return to pre-pandemic levels, but the level of social rented sector cases remains substantially lower than pre-pandemic levels.
We are committed to providing increased stability, quality and affordability in renting. That is why, through our new deal for tenants, we are taking forward reform including strengthened tenant rights, rent controls and a new regulator for the private rented sector.
In recent weeks, the Social Justice and Social Security Committee has heard evidence that sheriff officers are making up for lost time since the pandemic. The committee has also heard about the remarkable cost of the eviction process for local authorities—in a relatively simple case, it is an estimated £24,000 to evict people who must then be rehoused in temporary accommodation anyway. It is surely better for all to avoid that situation. What is the Scottish Government doing to minimise evictions and work with local authorities and others to support people who are in danger of eviction?
I share Mr Choudhury’s concern about the issue—as we all do, I hope. However, it is overstating the case to say that people are “making up for lost time”. As I said, the level of social rented sector evictions remains low compared with pre-pandemic levels. Private rented sector eviction actions have started to return to pre-pandemic levels, but they are certainly not above those levels.
On the immediate action that is being taken, as Mr Choudhury will know, the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill will put on a permanent footing two measures that were introduced on a temporary basis: pre-action protocols for the private rented sector and all repossession grounds being discretionary, so that all the circumstances of both the landlord and the tenant must be taken into account. I hope that the chamber will welcome that.
Does the minister welcome—as I do—the fact that the measures that improved fairness in the private sector during the pandemic have been incorporated into part 4 of the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, which will ensure a better balance between the rights of tenants and the rights of landlords? Does he welcome the fact that that move is supported by Shelter Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland, Living Rent, Public Health Scotland and Police Scotland?
Yes, indeed. As I said, making the measures permanent is a very positive step. The wider proposals that were set out in our new deal for tenants consultation made clear the Government’s commitment to seeing improvements in the rented sector, to ensure that people are treated fairly and can access good-quality property. Putting the provisions on a permanent footing is an important step towards achieving that.
All eviction grounds for council and housing association tenancies have been discretionary for 20 years, so the provisions also contribute to our aim of developing a more unified approach across all forms of renting. They will reduce the gap in outcomes between the social and private rented sectors, as we recognise that adequate housing is a human right for all.
Social Security Scotland (Staffing)
To ask the Scottish Government what the implications are for Social Security Scotland of the redeployment of staff to the agency from the Department for Work and Pensions. (S6O-01128)
There are no current plans to redeploy any DWP staff to Social Security Scotland. Furthermore, since Social Security Scotland was created, in 2018, no staff have been redeployed to it from the DWP.
I thank the minister for that reply, although I think that it is quite shocking. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents DWP workers, has quite rightly mounted a campaign to save their jobs and avert the closures, under the banner “First we were clapped, then we were scrapped”. In November 2021, Boris Johnson went so far as to call them “miracle workers”. He might be in need of a miracle worker himself, now that the Sue Gray report has been published.
Last week, the Auditor General for Scotland produced a report on Social Security Scotland. In it—I hope that the Minister will listen to this—he said that
“timescales are challenging and substantial risks remain, including ... getting operational staffing in place.”
He spoke of
“a high, and increased, reliance on contractor staff ... around 47 per cent.”
He said that that was
“driven mainly by ongoing challenges with recruiting staff with the relevant skills and experience needed.”
Could we have a question, please, Mr Leonard?
Can the minister reassure Parliament and those 64 DWP workers in Aberdeen and the 101 DWP workers in Kirkcaldy who are facing redundancy that, rather than send in the partnership action for continuing employment team, the Government will enter meaningful talks with PCS and the DWP to transfer and redeploy those workers?
I am not a DWP minister, so I cannot be held accountable for the UK Government’s actions, as Mr Leonard will be aware. However, we are recruiting significantly to Social Security Scotland as it scales up, building on the significant achievements that were acknowledged in Audit Scotland’s report, and as it continues to roll out new Scottish benefits and undertake significant case transfer.
As of 31 December 2021, Social Security Scotland employed more than 1,900 staff. The member will be aware that we expect to employ more than 3,500 full-time equivalent staff across Scotland by March 2023. Of course, those vacancies will be open to everyone who wishes to apply for them. Indeed, there has been further recruitment since Audit Scotland undertook its investigation and analysis to prepare its important report.
We continue to recruit, and we have adequate staffing to serve the people of Scotland as things stand. We look forward to welcoming more people to Social Security Scotland as we continue to take the devolved benefits programme forward.
We all agree that the UK Government’s decision to close 42 DWP offices, putting 1,100 jobs on the line, is a staggering situation during a cost of living crisis. Does the minister agree that the UK Government should rethink its plans and put hard-working staff and DWP service users first, categorically ruling out any further closures and redundancies?
Yes, I do think that. I should have acknowledged that in my answer to Mr Leonard as well as in my answer to Mr Kidd.
Furthermore, Social Security Scotland has well-established links with Skills Development Scotland, which runs PACE. That partnership provides support in the case of large-scale redundancies, which may be needed should the UK Government proceed with these closures—which, of course, we do not want.
As I said, Social Security Scotland is also in the process of recruiting across a range of roles. It will work with all relevant partners to understand the situation that has been raised by Bill Kidd and Richard Leonard and to actively promote vacancies to anyone who is facing redundancy. Social Security Scotland has experience of working with other partners in the civil service with a view to supporting positive outcomes for people who find themselves facing redundancy. At the same time, it is appropriately diligent in its operations.
Social Security Scotland (Benefits Delivery)
To ask the Scottish Government what its assessment is of Social Security Scotland’s efficiency in delivering benefits. (S6O-01129)
The Scottish Government has designed a social security system that is straightforward for people who are applying for benefits either online or by other means that suit them best. Also, when considering disability benefit applications, we aim to get decisions right first time much more regularly than the DWP has, thereby reducing the need for lengthy and inefficient appeals processes. A great deal of thought has gone into improving our system in that regard compared with the DWP.
It is worth noting that, in its client survey, 92 per cent of respondents rated their overall experience of Social Security Scotland as “very good” or “good”. In addition, when case transfer is complete, the agency’s operating costs will be comparable to those of the DWP.
I hope that the minister is aware that there has, of late, been an issue with incredibly slow processing times for many of the devolved benefits. For example, in January this year, the average processing time for a best start grant was 30 days—the longest ever. How will the minister address the snail’s pace processing times?
Mr Balfour is inaccurate in his description of the agency’s performance because, as the client survey has evidenced, people’s experience of applying to and dealing with the agency is very positive.
We are always looking to improve the efficiency and client experience of our services—for example, we are putting a lot of investment and thought into automating benefits. Child winter heating assistance is already automated, low-income winter heating assistance will be automated, and no one will have to reapply for our disability benefits, because they will be automatically transferred from the DWP to Social Security Scotland.
We will also automate two of our family payments—the best start grant early learning payment and the best start grant school-age payment—in line with the Scottish child payment, where we already have the information to do so. A lot of work is going on to continue to improve the system, but efficiency is already at the heart of everything that we do.
The minister mentioned Audit Scotland’s report, which I also welcome. It highlights the Scottish Government’s significant achievement in the scale and pace of delivering those benefits. Will the minister provide more detail on what the Audit Scotland report says about the experiences of people who engage with the new Social Security Scotland system?
I encourage all members to read the report, which praises our approach to ensuring that people help to design our social security system every step of the way. In relation to the people who use our new Social Security System, the report states:
“There is a conscious focus on the needs of service users, building on the principles of dignity, fairness, and respect. People are positive about their experiences of engaging with Social Security Scotland.”
There are currently only a few thousand cases for the adult disability payment, but that is due to rise quickly in the next five years to almost 500,000 cases. People depend on that money, so how confident is the minister that everyone will get their money on time, when the ramp-up starts this summer?
Mr Rennie makes very important points about the scale-up as we go through the different phases of the pilot. We are in phase 1, and there will be two further pilot phases before a national roll-out at the end of August. That is why we continue to undertake recruitment and refine our systems, so that people who apply for benefits receive a good service and a much better experience than they would with the DWP as they go through their application process.
We will initiate case transfer for adult disability payment from 13 June, and there are regulations before Parliament on that at the moment. That will begin the process of delivering for the clients who are applying and those who are being case-transferred in. We are focused on making sure that that is done as safely and securely as possible to serve the people of Scotland.
Question 5 has been withdrawn.
Social Security Benefits (Roll-out)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of social security benefits. (S6O-01131)
Social Security Scotland delivers 12 benefits, seven of which are completely new forms of financial support that are not available elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and they support low-income families, carers and disabled people.
As Audit Scotland stated last week, that has been a significant achievement in challenging circumstances. This year, Social Security Scotland will ensure that £3.9 billion in payments reach around 1 million people, as well as preparing for further benefits that are due to be delivered and transferring around 700,000 cases from the Department for Work and Pensions.
I will say more about that to Parliament in our debate tomorrow.
Audit Scotland’s report last week forecast that the adult disability payment case load will increase from 20,000 in 2022-23 to 475,000 by 2026-27. Considering the numerous delays to the roll-out of devolved benefits, can the minister guarantee that the Scottish Government is fully equipped to respond to the rapidly increasing case load?
Minister, I understand that you dealt with that subject in response to Willie Rennie’s supplementary question, but if you have anything further to add in light of the specific framing of Ms Gosal’s supplementary, please go ahead.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. To elaborate on my first answer, the Audit Scotland report was complimentary about what has been achieved so far in very challenging circumstances, including the pandemic.
Parliament should be mindful that, during the pandemic, both the Scottish Government and the UK Government had to reprioritise resources and delay some of what we were doing. The delivery of devolved social security is a joint programme with the UK Government—with the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Scotland Office. When it comes to what we do next and what we still have to deliver, engagement between the two Governments is very important to doing that successfully and we are committed to working constructively with the UK Government as we do that and as we undertake case transfer.
The fact that we have delivered 12 benefits—seven of which are new—is remarkable progress, as is acknowledged in the Audit Scotland report. We have introduced benefits that were not in the programme when the Scottish Parliament passed the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, so progress has been significant, and I look forward to the debate on this tomorrow.
I can take two supplementaries, if we have brief questions with brief answers to match.
Regarding the forthcoming roll-out of adult disability benefit in Glasgow, I am already hearing from my constituents, who are welcoming the “no requirement to reapply” feature. Does the minister agree that, once the benefit has been set up, that feature will provide reassurance and dignity to people in receipt of the benefit?
Yes, it will, and that stands in contrast to the UK Government’s managed migration to universal credit, where people will need to reapply without any support.
We will safely and securely transfer 700,000 adults and children from the DWP to Social Security Scotland. That transfer is already under way. Each and every one of those people will be transferred automatically, with no need whatsoever to reapply. We will contact them about their transfer both before and after it happens, to keep them informed. That is a key part of our approach to the adult disability payment, which also removes degrading DWP-style assessments, which so many disabled people told us they found distressing and intrusive.
What progress has the Government made in developing a leaving fund for women fleeing domestic violence?
I am happy to consult the ministers who are responsible for that area and to supply an answer to Pam Duncan-Glancy in writing.
Social Wellbeing (Discussions)
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the local government minister has had with local authorities regarding services to promote social wellbeing. (S6O-01132)
I regularly meet representatives of local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss a wide range of issues as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland.
We have a joint programme board with local government to oversee work to achieve the Covid recovery strategy, which has a fundamental focus on tackling inequalities and improving wellbeing for everyone in our communities. We are working closely on the creation of our child poverty action plan and local delivery plans as part of our national mission to tackle child poverty.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that the emphasis that is placed on the holistic social wellbeing approach by the newly elected Scottish National Party administration in Perth and Kinross Council is a positive and promising example of how local government can put the Scottish Government’s vision of a wellbeing economy into practice at all levels, and suitably adapt it to the needs of the local community?
I am delighted that the new SNP administration in Perth and Kinross is embedding social wellbeing in its local approach. To support more local councils and regions to embed the wellbeing economy approach into their local strategies, we have committed to publishing a wellbeing economy framework. I am sure that the Scottish Government will have a lot to learn from Perth and Kinross, as will other councils.
The decision by the SNP-Green Government to cut more than £250 million of council funding is clearly impacting on the ability to deliver local advice services. What assessment have ministers made of the loss of advice services, because those services are so important to our fellow citizens—including in Perth and Kinross, where they might also face cuts?
This Government has increased funding to advice services because we understand the importance of ensuring that people get access to the advice that they need, particularly in these times.
I would add that it is a bit rich for Miles Briggs to talk about local government funding. We have delivered a 3.6 per cent cash-terms revenue budget increase to Scotland’s councils between 2013 and 2020. Over that same period, English local authorities faced a cash-terms revenue cut of 14.7 per cent.
The Local Government Association has just set out in its “Spending review submission 2021” that English councils have already dealt with a £15 billion real-terms reduction to core government funding between 2010 and 2020. Miles Briggs says one thing when his party is in Opposition, and then, of course the Conservative Party does a completely different thing when it is in Government.
Housing Strategy (Dementia-friendly Homes)
To ask the Scottish Government how its housing strategy will support local authorities with developing dementia-friendly homes. (S6O-01133)
As set out in “Housing to 2040”, our aim is for everyone to have a safe, high quality home that is affordable and meets their needs in the place where they want to be. That is why our affordable housing supply programme is already supporting the provision of dementia-friendly homes in communities across the country, where that has been identified as a strategic priority by local authorities. North Lanarkshire Council, for example, recently completed 27 new homes at Caledonian Avenue, Bellshill, using best-practice principles for dementia design, backed by almost £1.6 million of Scottish Government investment.
Approximately 90,000 people are living with dementia in Scotland, with roughly 20,000 people diagnosed each year. Due to Scottish National Party council cuts, care and repair services have been reduced or scrapped in local authority areas including North Lanarkshire Council, while other local authorities provide only a basic level of service to people who are living with dementia.
Given the need for more dementia-friendly homes, does the cabinet secretary agree that care and repair services are essential, so that people can live at home, and independently, for as long as possible? Does she also agree that cutting local authority budgets impacts the most vulnerable in our communities?
If Meghan Gallacher had been listening to my previous answer, she would have heard what I said about local government funding and that we have given an increase. Times are tough and, in a fixed budget, we have to give a fair settlement to local government, but we also have to fund social security benefits—of course, the Conservatives supported the doubling of the Scottish child payment. We have to balance all those things. I am not aware that the Conservatives came forward with any amendments to the budget asking for an increase in local government funding. I may be mistaken about that, but I do not think that they did.
On the important issue of people with dementia, of course care and repair services are important, as is the range of services that support people with dementia. However, I said to Meghan Gallacher that, through our affordable housing supply programme, the Scottish Government is directly providing £1.6 million in funding to make sure that homes in the North Lanarkshire Council area and others are fit for purpose for people who have dementia. That is something that we are happy to do, and to support across other local authority areas. It is not factually correct to say that we are not investing in dementia services, because I have clearly demonstrated that we are.
That concludes portfolio questions on social justice, housing and local government.
There will be a short pause before we move to the next item of business.