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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 26, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice, Housing and Local Government

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

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

I remind members that questions 4 and 5 are grouped together. I will take any supplementaries on those questions after both have been answered. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button, or indicate so in the chat function by typing “RTS” during the relevant question.

Local Government (Economic Conditions)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with local government about any impact the prevailing economic conditions are having on the delivery of local services. (S6O-01820)

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

Ministers and officials meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and individual local authorities on a regular basis to cover a range of issues, including support and the delivery of front-line services.

The budget acknowledges the corrosive effect of inflation on our finances and those of all public services. Recognising those challenges, last week the Deputy First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government wrote jointly to COSLA to reaffirm our commitment to working with local government on how we can operate and collaborate on reform to ensure that we provide sustainable people-centred services.

Michelle Thomson

Like the Scottish Government, my local council, Falkirk Council, has been affected by the economic chaos that the Tory-led Westminster Government has overseen. Inflation, in particular, is a huge issue, which has a resultant impact on the cost of delivering key services and capital projects.

What further fiscal flexibilities is the Scottish Government considering for councils as they, too, struggle with the latest wave of Westminster austerity?

Ben Macpherson

Michelle Thomson has raised important points. The Scottish Government is working with COSLA and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers to agree a new deal for local government in Scotland that will give councils greater certainty and flexibility, and greater scope for discretionary revenue raising, including through potential changes to council tax and the introduction in Parliament, in due course, of a local visitor levy bill.

We would welcome further suggestions from local government. We make that point to local authorities regularly, and we will engage constructively on proposals from them and others. However, we would also welcome support from across the Parliament as the Scottish Government continues to press the United Kingdom Government for additional funding to invest in our public services, including the key priorities that we share with our partners in local government.

Landlords (Guidance on Damp Prevention)

2. Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I am an owner of a rental property, in North Lanarkshire.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what guidance it gives to landlords in all sectors to help to prevent and deal with damp, condensation and mould in their properties, including when this was last revised. (S6O-01821)

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

The Scottish Housing Regulator wrote to all social landlords on 1 December 2022 on the importance of having appropriate systems to identify cases of mould and damp. The regulator works with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers to identify and promote good practice.

For private landlords, the tolerable standard, which includes standards on dampness, was incorporated into the repairing standard in 2019. That means that issues can be raised with the First-Tier Tribunal for Scotland, which has powers to require landlords to carry out repairs to meet the standards.

Mark Griffin

I think that most people would agree that it is utterly devastating that it has taken the tragic case of Awaab Ishak for damp, mould and condensation to rise up the public debate agenda.

In Scotland, beyond the estimates that we get from the Scottish house condition survey, we do not have an entirely accurate picture of how bad the issue is. No statistics are provided by the Government or the regulator that allow us to identify particular problem areas or problem buildings. Will the Government instruct that an urgent data review be carried out across local authorities, registered landlords and private sector associations, and commit to issuing interim guidance on how to tackle the issue, which seems to be becoming more and more commonplace—certainly, judging from the contents of MSP colleagues’ inboxes?

Patrick Harvie

I certainly share Mark Griffin’s sentiment about the case of Awaab Ishak and the reaction that it has provoked throughout the United Kingdom, including in Scotland.

It is worth reinforcing the fact that Scottish housing has been improving. In 2019, the Scottish house condition survey showed that 91 per cent of homes in Scotland were completely free from any sign of damp or condensation, which is an improvement on 86 per cent in 2012.

There is still much more to do, which is why we will consult on a new cross-tenure housing standard that will move beyond traditional models of fitness for human habitation to a new model that meets people’s expectations of housing as a human right and delivers homes that underpin health and wellbeing. Mark Griffin is right to say that there is more that we need to do: we will keep the issue under active consideration.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

The minister will be aware that the Scottish house condition survey pointed towards 14 per cent of social sector homes having issues with either mould or damp. Will the Scottish Government consider putting in place a reporting system to track the issue in the socially rented sector, and might that system also be extended?

Patrick Harvie

In my first answer to Mark Griffin, I set out the requirements that already exist for the social rented sector. Landlords are required to meet the Scottish housing quality standard as part of the Scottish social housing charter. Progress against that standard is monitored by the Scottish Housing Regulator. Guidance on meeting the standards, including detailed advice on dealing with damp, is already provided to social landlords and is regularly updated. We are also working on the repairing standard that is due to come into force for the private rented sector next year.

I reinforce the message that significant work is under way in the area and that we will continue to ensure that any further actions that are required are taken in the future.

Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

Inability by a household to properly heat their home can make any problems with mould and damp much worse. Will the cabinet secretary outline the support that is available to households in Scotland who aim to improve energy efficiency and lower their energy bills while keeping their homes warm and free of damp?

Patrick Harvie

I am grateful for that inadvertent promotion to cabinet secretary. Home Energy Scotland is our flagship domestic energy efficiency service. It provides free and impartial advice on energy efficiency, renewable heating and fuel poverty, and it provides support for people in Scotland to go greener at home while reducing their bills.

Home Energy Scotland is the main referral point for our funding schemes, including warmer homes Scotland, which is our national fuel poverty scheme, and the new Home Energy Scotland grant and loan scheme. We are also investing £64 million in 2023-24 as part of our locally delivered area-based schemes, which is enabling more fuel-poor households to benefit from a whole-house retrofit. As I have in the past, I encourage all members to ensure that their constituents are aware of those forms of support and advice.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

What more can the Scottish Government do to provide practical tools and guidance to landlords to measure damp, condensation and mould, and to provide advice and support to tenants to establish the correct insulation and ventilation for modern and older homes, in order to prevent instances such as that involving the two-year-old who died in England?

Patrick Harvie

Several of the areas of activity that I have already mentioned, particularly the advice and support that is available for householders from Home Energy Scotland, go some way towards addressing Beatrice Wishart’s question. I also mentioned the work on developing a cross-tenure housing standard that will move beyond the concept of fitness for human habitation and towards standards to deliver homes that will underpin health and wellbeing. All that work will continue to address the issues that the member raises.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Question 3 has not been lodged.

Before I call question 4, I say that, as members will be aware, a petition for judicial review of the Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Act 2022 has been lodged with the court. I make it clear, therefore, that questions 4 and 5 were lodged prior to the petition for judicial review. However, for the purposes of the sub judice rule, members should avoid referring to matters that are under consideration in the on-going judicial review and to the specific provisions of the Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Act 2022 that are under challenge.

I call question 4.

Rent Freeze (Effect on Availability)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the effects of the current rent freeze on the availability of rented accommodation. (S6O-01823)

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

Although it is an administrative rather than a statistical source, the most recent sector-wide data is from the Scottish landlord registration system, which shows that, in December 2022, there were 340,149 private rented properties registered in Scotland. That is slightly more than the 339,632 properties that were registered in August 2022.

The Scottish Government monitors landlord registration data monthly. Landlord registration and related data was analysed in our first report to the Scottish Parliament on the operation of the Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Act 2022, which was published on 12 January.

Liz Smith

The minister will know that a topic of very considerable debate at the Finance and Public Administration Committee in recent weeks has been the concern over behavioural change arising from some aspects of Scottish Government policy. The rent freeze is just one example. It is all very well to say that it is helping with the cost of living situation, which it is, but it is also creating some worrying reactions from landlords, which are now hindering rather than helping the housing market. Does the Scottish Government recognise the serious concern about that?

Patrick Harvie

I am very pleased that Liz Smith acknowledges that the actions that we are taking and have taken are helping with the cost of living crisis and are necessary for people in that context.

I am aware of surveys that have been carried out by landlord bodies that look at the possible intentions of landlords in the future. I caution that it is difficult to interpret those because they relate to what landlords may or may not choose to do in the future. That does not translate directly into the number of properties that might be affected, nor does it take into account new landlords entering the sector.

As I said in my first answer, there has been no fall in the number of properties on the landlord registration system. However, I acknowledge that it would take some time from any decision to sell before a sale was completed and the property deregistered, so we will continue to monitor trends in the register and other data.

Over the longer term, it is really important to acknowledge that, since devolution, the Scottish household survey has shown a very significant growth in private rented sector tenancies through a period of increased regulation.

Rent Freeze (Effect on Availability)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has conducted on the effect of the rent cap on the number of homes available for rent in the private sector. (S6O-01824)

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

I refer Mr Simpson to the answer that I have just given to Liz Smith. The private rented sector is dynamic: it is made up of tens of thousands of small-scale landlords and there is constant coming and going within the sector. Those landlords who leave the sector may, in turn, sell to other landlords, and of course new landlords enter the sector.

It is significant that the size of the private rented sector has more than doubled over the long term since devolution, even during a period of generally tightening regulation. As is acknowledged in the report from the cross-party group on housing, which Mr Simpson is involved in, regulated markets can in fact be attractive to institutional investors.

Graham Simpson

I thank the minister for that answer, but he appears to be in denial on the matter, because data from Propertymark shows that 85 per cent of letting agents have reported that landlords want to sell up. The Scottish Property Federation estimates that £700 million in residential investment has been paused or lost. Will the minister at least accept that, if the Government imposes policies such as blanket rent freezes, they can have negative consequences?

Patrick Harvie

I remind Mr Simpson of what I have said repeatedly on the matter. I hope that he is not in denial of the reality, which is that the number of registered properties in the private rented sector has not decreased. It increased slightly over the first three months, between August and December. We will keep that under review.

The work that Graham Simpson referred to as “data” is surveys of landlords’ possible intentions in the future. It is not data about properties actually being deregistered and no longer being available in the private rented sector.

I come back to the wider point that, if we look not only at the past 20 years or so of the private rented sector’s more than doubling in a period of tighter regulation but at the experience of a number of other European countries where the rental market is more regulated, bigger and more viable than ours, it is perfectly clear that an approach that seeks to achieve everyone’s human right to adequate housing is entirely compatible with a viable rental market.

Scottish Child Payment (Coatbridge and Chryston)

To ask the Scottish Government how many children are estimated to be eligible for the Scottish child payment in the Coatbridge and Chryston constituency. (S6O-01825)

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

Official statistics for the Scottish child payment, including application and payment data by local authority area, are routinely published by Social Security Scotland.

The Scottish Fiscal Commission produces estimates and forecasts of eligibility for the Scottish child payment, but only for Scotland as a whole, rather than by region. However, internal Scottish Government analysis suggests that around 7,000 children in the Coatbridge and Chryston constituency could be eligible for the Scottish child payment each year from 2022-23 to 2027-28.

The Scottish child payment is getting money to low-income households at a crucial time, and more families than ever are eligible for support, which is a good thing for Fulton MacGregor’s constituents and families all across Scotland.

Fulton MacGregor

The payment will indeed make a significant difference to families in my constituency. In the face of the soaring inflation that has been caused by the United Kingdom Government’s economic mismanagement, it is most welcome that the Scottish Government has continued to prioritise investment in measures that will help to eradicate child poverty.

I am aware that the Scottish Government is investing significantly more in social security than the funding that it receives from the UK Government. Will the minister outline what that spending will achieve?

Ben Macpherson

In 2023-24, we are committing £5.2 billion to benefit expenditure, providing support to more than 1 million people. That includes £442 million for the Scottish child payment. That £5.2 billion is £776 million above the level of funding that is forecast to be received by the Scottish Government from the UK Government through block grant adjustments. The choice that we have taken represents a significant investment in people and is key to our national mission to tackle child poverty collectively. It will help low-income families with their living costs, support older people to heat their homes in winter and enable disabled people to live full and independent lives.

East Renfrewshire Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with East Renfrewshire Council. (S6O-01826)

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

Ministers and officials have regular meetings with representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including East Renfrewshire Council, 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 and communities of Scotland. We also regularly meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. East Renfrewshire Council has never specifically requested a meeting with me but, if it ever wanted to do so, I would, of course, be open to such an invitation.

Paul O’Kane

The minister spoke about partnership working, but he will recognise COSLA’s disappointment that the Government has again refused to engage on local government finance. Indeed, the much-acclaimed £550 million in additional funding for local authorities is political spin: the figure has been condemned by COSLA and new analysis has revealed that the reality is closer to just £38 million. East Renfrewshire Council has been dealt a flat cash settlement, despite soaring inflation at more than 9 per cent, and faces a £30 million shortfall.

Given the proportion of income that comes from the Government’s general revenue funding, local authorities are being forced by the Scottish National Party Government to make unthinkable cuts to local government services and/or to raise council tax. What choice would the minister advise East Renfrewshire to make: reduce school opening hours or make large increases to council tax? When will the Government get back round the table with councils such as East Renfrewshire and give communities a fair deal?

Ben Macpherson

I assure the member that Scottish Government ministers regularly meet COSLA, as the representative body for local authorities. They have done so in recent weeks; indeed, there will be further engagement later today.

On the financial situation, it is factually correct to state that the local government settlement has increased by more than £570 million in cash terms. That is in the context of our settlements from the UK Government having suffered a decade of austerity, with average real-terms cuts of more than 5 per cent, equating to a loss of £18 billion. In that context, as I have said, we are increasing the resource available to local government by £570 million, which is a real-terms increase of £160.6 million, or 1.3 per cent.

I appreciate the strong feelings on the matter in local government and among members, and I can assure the member and other colleagues that we are engaged constructively and seriously with local government. If Mr O’Kane has suggestions with regard to the budget process, he should submit constructive proposals to finance ministers. The Scottish budget has been affected significantly by inflation and public finances are under pressure in the round so we need to be solution focused together. If Mr O’Kane has any constructive suggestions, I am sure that my finance colleagues would welcome them.

Question 8 has been withdrawn, so that concludes portfolio questions. There will be a very short pause before we move to the next item of business, to allow the front-bench teams to take their positions.