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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Agenda: Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (Infection Incident), Portfolio Question Time, Revoking Article 50, Climate Emergency, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Point of Order, Decision Time, Diet Products (Celebrity Endorsements)


Portfolio Question Time

Local Government Funding

To ask the Scottish Government what impact its budget has had on local authorities. (S5O-03052)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

The 2019-20 local government finance settlement provides an increase in revenue funding of £298.5 million and capital spending of £207.8 million. Taken together with the increases in council tax, the overall additional funding available in 2019-20 will amount to over £600 million, a real-terms increase of 3.8 per cent.

Local authorities are empowered to make decisions to utilise this significant package of funding to ensure that they deliver the positive outcomes that the people in local communities across Scotland expect and deserve.

Alexander Stewart

Figures produced by the Scottish Parliament information centre reveal that, nationwide, there was a real-terms reduction of 3.1 per cent, which translates to in excess of £300 million in cuts, meaning that every single local authority in Scotland has to radically reduce services.

When will the Scottish Government recognise the needs of local councils and support them accordingly, to ensure that they have adequate resources to support the communities that they serve?

Aileen Campbell

I remind Mr Stewart of the answer that I just gave, which is that, overall, we will be giving councils a real-terms funding increase of 3.8 per cent. I also gently remind Mr Stewart that if we had followed his party’s tax plans, £500 million would have had to come out of public services—perhaps even out of the local government budget—so we will take no lessons from the Conservatives about how to marshal our budget. Instead, we will continue to focus on supporting local authorities and making sure that we work in partnership with them to deliver the outcomes that the people of Scotland deserve.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Does the cabinet secretary accept that £400 million-worth of new financial commitments were placed on local government and that that is where the discrepancy between Mr Stewart’s figures and her own comes in?

Does she agree that we need a better relationship with local government and that we should start to work more closely with local government now in looking at next year’s budget?

Aileen Campbell

I believe that we have a fairly strong and positive relationship with local authorities. My regular meetings with the member’s colleague, Alison Evison, have embedded that partnership further. We will continue to work in partnership with local authorities on budget issues, while of course recognising that we are all facing financial challenges.

I remind Alex Rowley that we have provided for the commitments that we worked on in partnership with local authorities—such as our commitments on early learning and childcare and health and social care—within the budget settlement.

I take on board Mr Rowley’s interest in local government. We will continue to work in a constructive partnership with local government and we will continue to work with local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on future budget management.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Housing, Regeneration and Community Empowerment Support (Almond Valley)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting housing, regeneration and community empowerment in the Almond Valley constituency. (S5O-03054)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

The Scottish Government supports activity in those areas in a number of different ways. The Scottish Government’s affordable housing investment in West Lothian will be substantial, at more than £60 million over the current parliamentary session. In the Almond Valley constituency, we will support the building of high-quality affordable housing in Livingston, Fauldhouse, Polbeth, Pumpherston, East Calder and West Calder.

Through our empowering communities programme, the regeneration capital grant fund and the recently announced town centre fund, the Scottish Government will support locally developed regeneration projects to tackle inequality and deliver inclusive growth in West Lothian.

Angela Constance

West Calder and Harburn Community Development Trust has developed plans—in consultation with the community—for the old co-operative building in West Calder, in essence to celebrate and use that asset of our heritage to create a regeneration hub and a modern community facility.

Can the cabinet secretary advise on how local organisations can access and pursue regeneration funding, and will she meet me to discuss further how local organisations across Almond Valley and West Lothian can pursue regeneration funding?

Aileen Campbell

I would welcome the chance to meet Angela Constance to discuss what sound like incredibly exciting developments and projects in her constituency. On funding, we provide the regeneration capital grant fund, which is one example of how we are working together with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local government to support community-led regeneration in our most disadvantaged and fragile communities.

We recently announced the projects that are due to be supported by that fund, and plan to invite proposals from local authorities and other eligible applicants for 2020-21 funding soon. I am happy to meet Angela Constance to engage with her on the projects and ensure that we furnish her with information that will support her constituents.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Can the cabinet secretary tell me why, in a decision that has clearly not empowered communities, the Government overruled its own reporters and rode roughshod over the views of my constituents, permitting the likely closure of the Bo’ness road?

That question is not about Almond Valley constituency matters. However, if the cabinet secretary wishes to answer it she can.

Aileen Campbell

It might be difficult to furnish Mark Griffin with information, given that the application and planning process are live. If he wants to raise those issues, he can do so through the usual channel of writing to us.

Credit Unions (Payroll Saving)

To ask the Scottish Government how it can assist credit unions in encouraging the uptake of payroll saving. (S5O-03055)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

The Scottish Government plays a key role in promoting the clear benefits of payroll savings schemes to employers. We will continue to raise awareness of payroll deduction partnerships through, for example, the Scottish business pledge.

Linda Fabiani

Can I ask the cabinet secretary also to consider further—and perhaps discuss with the United Kingdom Government and regulatory authorities—how credit unions can be supported to expand their operations, perhaps in relation to enabling home ownership for savers and housing provision in their area of operation?

Credit unions such as East Kilbride Credit Union have ambitions to further help their communities, but their ability to do so is constrained by the rules framework under which they work. I understand that in Ireland, for example, derogations allow credit unions to be more involved in their local communities.

Aileen Campbell

I thank Linda Fabiani for her question and recognise her clear interest in the issue. I enjoyed the event that she hosted in Parliament, which shone a light on the good work that credit unions do across the country. I am aware of the fantastic work of East Kilbride Credit Union. Most recently, I was interested to learn about its home start deposit scheme, which aims to help first-time buyers to get a foot on the property ladder.

We are aware that there is ambition, but that it cannot be met because of the regulatory circumstances in which we find ourselves. That shows that many of the powers that are needed to support such innovation are reserved. We will, of course, continue to push the UK Government, because it is unfortunate that we have ambition from our credit unions that cannot be met because of the regulations, which we have no power to change. We will continue to push the UK Government to make the necessary changes.

Accessible Housing

To ask the Scottish Government how many accessible homes have been built since May 2016. (S5O-03056)

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

Our annual outturn reports publish the percentage of affordable new-build completions that meet the housing for varying needs standards. The information that was returned for 2016-17 shows that 91 per cent of new-build units met the standards in that year, with the figure rising to 99 per cent in 2017-18. Information relating to 2018-19 will be published later in the year.

Local authorities are responsible for assessing and meeting the housing needs in their areas, and I confirm that we will shortly publish guidance on the setting of local housing strategy targets to support the delivery of more wheelchair-accessible housing across all tenures and to enable annual reporting on progress.

Claire Baker

I thank the minister for his full answer—I will read the Official Report to pick up the detail of what he said.

The minister will be aware that the Equality and Human Rights Commission recently concluded that disabled people in Scotland are being robbed of their dignity and independence due to a chronic shortage of accessible housing, stating that many disabled people are unable to leave their homes or are forced to live in a single room, which leads to mental health pressures.

The minister will know that the EHRC has called for at least 10 per cent of new builds to be accessible. At committee, the minister said that the target was arbitrary, but will he commit to requesting information on the volume of accessible housing that is currently available through local authorities and make it available to the Parliament?

Kevin Stewart

I have been clear to local authorities on the delivery of wheelchair-accessible housing, and I have said that, although we have benchmark figures for housing, we will be very flexible with local authorities that want to build wheelchair-accessible homes or housing with more bedrooms if there is a need for those in their areas. I recently visited a new development in Cupar, in Ms Baker’s region of Fife, which has done very well in building both wheelchair-accessible housing and houses with more bedrooms.

It is key that the local authority housing strategy targets are right. I said that we will publish the new strategy guidance shortly—in fact, it will be published later this week. We will keep a very close eye on these matters, and I urge local authorities to use the flexibility in subsidy that they have at the moment to deliver for the people in their communities.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

Does the minister recognise that accessible housing is not just about wheelchairs but involves many disabilities? Does he also recognise that adaptation is often an afterthought for local authorities and that houses often have to be adapted once they are built instead of accessibility being at the front of planning approaches so that accessible houses are built appropriately for people with many different types of disability?

Kevin Stewart

In my original answer, I highlighted the fact that, in 2016-17, 91 per cent of the housing that was delivered in the affordable programme met the housing for varying needs standards, and the figure has now risen to 99 per cent.

I have listened very closely to what stakeholders have said on the matter, and I say to Mr Balfour that the housing for varying needs standards are a bit old now—they are nearly 20 years old. I commit to reviewing those standards in the near future, so that we will continue to build and deliver housing that is fit for purpose not only for folk with special needs today, but also for tomorrow.

“Housing is a human right”

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Shelter Scotland report, “Housing is a human right”. (S5O-03057)

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

We are committed to ensuring that Scotland is a modern, inclusive nation that protects, respects and realises internationally recognised human rights. The Scottish Government embraces constructive challenge and is happy to support action that pushes public institutions to go further in embedding human rights.

In its recent report, the First Minister’s advisory group on human rights leadership recommended a new human rights framework for Scotland that would incorporate human rights treaty obligations, including the right to adequate housing, into domestic law. The First Minister welcomed the vision for how Scotland can show leadership on human rights.

Scotland already has some of the strongest rights in the world for people facing homelessness, and we believe that that provides a strong platform from which we can do more. Our “Ending Homelessness Together: High Level Action Plan” demonstrates our commitment to housing as a human right and sets out how we will achieve our vision that everyone has a home that meets their needs and homelessness is ended.

Alex Rowley

I think the minister is saying that that right will be incorporated, but I ask him to confirm that.

As the minister said, the First Minister’s advisory group on human rights leadership published a report last December that recommended a new human rights act for Scotland. Is that going ahead? Does the minister accept Shelter Scotland’s proposition that housing should be a central element of that legislation? If he does, is he making representations to ensure that housing will be a key part of it? What is the timeframe for the legislation?

Kevin Stewart

I cannot give Alex Rowley a timeframe, but the advisory group has been quite clear, as has the First Minister.

At this time, it is key that we protect the human rights legislation that we have. That legislation is very much under threat if we end up with a hard Brexit or even with a softer Brexit, because the United Kingdom Government has not made a commitment on human rights.

Over the piece, this Parliament has done very well, under Governments of all political guises, to enshrine people’s rights, and our homelessness legislation shows that. However, we can and should go further. We should be co-operating across the board, doing all that we can to protect human rights legislation, which could very well be at risk if we leave the European Union.

I call Fulton MacGregor. I ask that he be brief.

Will the minister outline the work that is being undertaken to end homelessness and how that is affecting the long-term trend in homelessness applications?

Kevin Stewart

The Scottish Government is fully committed to tackling and preventing homelessness. As the member will be aware, in November 2018, we published jointly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities our “Ending Homelessness Together: High Level Action Plan”, which sets out our five-year programme to end homelessness and transform temporary accommodation in our country. The plan is backed by the £50 million ending homelessness together fund, which will support the plan’s delivery and help to drive sustainable change. The ending homelessness together fund is targeted at transformative projects that support local authorities and others. We have already allocated £23.5 million from the fund and the health portfolio for a rapid rehousing and housing first approach, which can make transformational change.

Former Social Housing (Compulsory Cosmetic Upgrades)

To ask the Scottish Government what support is available to owners of former social housing units who face compulsory cosmetic upgrades to their buildings. (S5O-03058)

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

Owners who have acquired houses under the right-to-buy scheme are subject to the same rules as other home owners. The local authority can require them to carry out work on housing that is substandard, dangerous, defective or in such a state as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance. If they live in a tenement, they might also be obliged, by a majority decision of other owners, to contribute to common works to repair, maintain or install insulation, or to carry out other work that is required under their title deeds.

I do not believe that such works can fairly be described as “cosmetic”, but if an owner needs support, the local authority has wide discretionary powers to provide assistance. It is for the local authority to determine what assistance should be provided in different circumstances, in accordance with local priorities and resources.

Alison Harris

A constituent of mine who owns an ex-council flat that he rents out recently told me that he is required to pay £12,000 for “compulsory”—that is the council’s word, not mine—cosmetic upgrades to the building’s exterior. He is not in a financial position to pay that and would struggle to secure a loan. He does not want to be put in a position whereby he has to evict tenants in order to sell the flat to cover the costs. He is in a catch-22 situation. When support is not available from the council—

I am sorry, but can you just ask your question?

What assistance can the Scottish Government offer my constituent, who cannot afford the five-figure bill?

Kevin Stewart

It is very difficult for me to comment on an individual case. By the sound of it, the member is talking about a landlord in the private rented sector. There are, depending on where that person lives, loan funding opportunities. I cannot comment any more. If Alison Harris wants to write to me about the case, I will look into it. However, as I said, all home owners, including private landlords, are responsible for their own properties.

I call Stewart Stevenson to ask question 8. The question, reply and supplementary will have to be quick.

Regeneration Capital Grant Fund

To ask the Scottish Government how much communities will receive from the regeneration capital grant fund in 2019-20. (S5O-03059)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

We were delighted to announce earlier in March that, for 2019-20, a further £20 million will be invested in our communities through the regeneration capital grant fund. That funding is offered to support locally-led regeneration projects in our most disadvantaged and fragile communities across the country.

Does the cabinet secretary expect that £20 million to be as successful in supporting projects right across Scotland as the fund has been in supporting the Banff silversmithing project and Home Bakery in Macduff?

Aileen Campbell

Absolutely. Such projects and the fund enable local people to be in the lead, to be engaged with, to be listened to and to be responded to. Local communities and local organisations know their spaces and places best. That is the principle that underpins the RCGF and the newly announced town centre fund. I am happy to engage further with the member on particular projects in his constituency.

Universal Basic Income

To ask the Scottish Government under what circumstances it would introduce a universal basic income. (S5O-03060)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government is committed to reducing poverty and tackling inequality, and we are interested in any proposal that would help us to achieve that, including a citizens basic income. We have invested £250,000 over 2018-19 and 2019-20 to fund a feasibility study that will set out the ethical, legislative, financial and practical implementation of a basic income.

Graham Simpson

Europe’s first national Government-backed citizens income scheme, which was in Finland, has just been scrapped. Finland found that the scheme did not incentivise people into work. Does the cabinet secretary believe that a universal basic income is a realistic option here? Will she take into account the reasons why Finland made its decision?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We will take into account the evidence that is coming from across the chamber. My colleague Aileen Campbell, who leads on the citizens basic income, will do just that.

I am rather disappointed by Graham Simpson’s tone. I compare it with the words of Adam Tomkins in the Daily Record, in which he considered a CBI thus: “Radical idea could herald revolution in social security provision and unite left and right”.

We should look at all options to tackle poverty, and we are doing that through the feasibility work that is going on with four local authorities. The Scottish citizens basic income steering group is looking at all the evidence, and we will progress on the basis of analysis of that evidence. I hope that all members will get behind that.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the strong support in Fife for a CBI pilot. However, there are concerns that a Scottish pilot could be scuppered due to lack of co-operation from the Department for Work and Pensions. What conversations has she had with her counterparts in the United Kingdom Government about a pilot? What further steps will she take to ensure that the DWP helps us, rather than hinders us?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said, Aileen Campbell is leading on the matter for the Government. However, I know that a great amount of work is going on with the DWP, because if the idea is to go forward, it will be imperative that we have co-operation from the UK Government in order that we can build our understanding. We have had reassurances from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who has offered co-operation. We are certainly taking her up on that offer because we need to build understanding of the scale and scope of the work, and we need the UK Government to carry on in partnership with us in that process.

Social Security and Child Support Tribunal (Statistics)

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

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the most recent social security and child support tribunal statistics regarding employment support allowance, disability living allowance, personal independence payment and universal credit appeals. (S5O-03061)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Latest statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that, from October to December 2018, 70 per cent of appeals were found in favour of the claimant. That increased to 73 per cent for cases involving PIP. Those figures demonstrate that the system of decision making is, in effect, broken, which is leaving many vulnerable claimants facing a difficult and stressful journey as they apply for payments to which they are entitled. It is clear from those statistics that the DWP should look closely at its decision-making process, when impartial and independent scrutiny overturns so many decisions.

Fulton MacGregor

Many members will, like me, have had countless constituents telling of their ordeals—an ordeal is exactly what it is to deal with the DWP. People with complex physical and mental health issues are continually being beaten down and often retraumatised by the system. The latest statistics, which were spoken about by the cabinet secretary, show that the majority of people—a staggering 70 per cent—have won their appeals. Does she think that that further demonstrates the fundamental flaws that are at the heart of how the DWP operates?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I absolutely agree with Fulton MacGregor’s analysis. I am sure that no member in the chamber will not have heard in their surgeries stories about people who are dealing with the DWP—in particular, the assessment process.

We are determined to take a completely different approach with the devolved benefits. We will do all that we can to reduce the number of vulnerable people who go to appeal, by ensuring that the right decision is made at the initial application stage, by getting right the application process and the desk-based decision making, with face-to-face assessments being done only if information cannot be gathered in any other way. That is right for the individual and right for an agency that is fit for purpose.

Older Carers (Assistance)

To ask the Scottish Government what assistance it plans to provide to older carers of pensionable age who are providing care of more than 35 hours per week. (S5O-03062)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government is committed to building a system of support for all carers that recognises their needs and supports them to have a life alongside caring. We will fully consult on our plans to introduce carers assistance in Scotland. Any and all proposals to change carers allowance will require to recognise that it is a benefit with a number of complex interactions with reserved benefits, including pensions. I will not make changes without ensuring that those interactions are fully understood.

Claudia Beamish

Older people who are aged 65 and over are by far the largest group who provide care, but recent figures show that only 1 per cent of the carers allowance supplement went to that group, as most pensioners have only an underlying entitlement. That additional payment could make a real difference and could enable pensioner carers to afford a few days’ respite in their retirement. Can the cabinet secretary set out what assessment has been made of paying the supplement to those with underlying entitlement, and say whether older carers can hope and expect the payment in the future?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I appreciate Claudia Beamish’s point, but I refer her to my original answer. Because of the overlapping benefit rule for which the Department for Work and Pensions retains responsibility under the devolution set-up, if we were to pay carers assistance to pensioners, the DWP could see it as an overlapping benefit and so reduce the benefit entitlements in other areas, thereby leaving the carer no better off.

I am thoroughly committed to making changes to the carers allowance and to social security payments when there is a clear case to do so, but we need to do that in full recognition of the complex interactions that exist, in particular with the reserved benefits system, which we cannot control. We cannot make any changes without that understanding of the interactions and the work that we must undertake jointly with the DWP to work through them.

Older People (Community Engagement)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it will take to promote more community engagement with elderly people, given Scotland’s ageing population.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I do not think that that is how question S5O-03063 appears on the Business Bulletin. Members should read out what is down as the question. Unless I have the wrong question, there was a slight change to the phrasing, but never mind.

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

The Scottish Government backs a wide range of community engagement activities to support our ageing population, and I have had the joy of visiting and meeting many of them over the past few months. We have introduced our national social isolation and loneliness strategy, which prioritises community empowerment and recognises the impact on loneliness at every age and stage of life. We are also working locally with our partners including Age Scotland to directly support initiatives that promote active community engagement in later life, such as men’s sheds and other organisations.

Colin Beattie

The minister may be aware of initiatives in my constituency, such as the Hollies drop-in centre in Musselburgh or the men’s shed in Mayfield. What steps will the Scottish Government take to ensure that such successful schemes will continue to thrive, in my constituency and across Scotland?

Christina McKelvie

I know well from a previous life the benefit that day centres bring to local communities and the people who use them, as do men’s sheds—they both play key roles in supporting their local communities.

The Scottish Government will continue to work with its partners to develop men’s sheds and to support the positive mental and physical health benefits that they provide. I will also be delighted to chair the first meeting of the implementation group for our innovative social isolation and loneliness strategy in April. The strategy recognises the values of community initiatives of the sort that Mr Beattie describes, and we will build on that work when we take forward the strategy.

We will shortly publish the older people’s framework, which will be informed by older people, who have been in the driving seat for the framework the whole way. The framework will tackle the negative perceptions of older people, highlight the contributions that they make and tackle the barriers that they face. In my opinion, such initiatives play a crucial role for older people who may be at risk of social isolation and loneliness, and some of them have even told me that the initiatives have saved their life.

Social Security Benefits (Roll-out)

To ask the Scottish Government on what date it took the decision to delay the roll-out of the second wave of social security benefits. (S5O-03064)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We will take full responsibility for the remaining devolved benefits from 1 April 2020. The timetable for delivery was determined after careful consideration of feedback from people who have lived experience of the current system, who stated very clearly that their priority is that their benefits are delivered safely and securely. I also took on board the views of stakeholder organisations.

The timetable that has been agreed is ambitious but achievable and will protect people and their payments. It takes into account the joint nature of the project with the Department for Work and Pensions and the need to link in with reserved benefits, as well as the level of change that is required to make the benefits fit for purpose. In doing that, we will deliver on our commitment to provide a system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect.

Jeremy Balfour

I am disappointed to note that the cabinet secretary will still not tell us what the exact date was. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Scottish Government was never going to make the 2021 target, when consultation documents on disability assistance and terminal illness have only just been launched? Will she apologise to the disability community, who were expecting those benefits to be devolved by 2021, yet the Government has failed to meet that promise?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my original answer to Jeremy Balfour, we will take full responsibility for the remaining devolved benefits from 1 April 2020. I will take no lecture from the Scottish Conservatives on how to run a welfare system. If we look at the counterparts in the DWP, they were six years late for the roll-out of universal credit, three years late for personal independence payments and we still do not know when the full application will begin. Therefore, I will take no lectures from the Tories on how to run welfare.

It is due to the scale of the change that we need to make, particularly for disability benefits, that we need to ensure that we get it right. We need to ensure that those who have been so badly affected by their treatment by the DWP will receive entirely different treatment here, through Social Security Scotland. Months of detailed consideration have gone in, with the engagement of stakeholders, and the position papers that I launched on 28 February set out the huge amount of detailed work that has been done in planning for the next phase of delivery.

Our research with experience panels and the advice from our expert advisory group that I have had were the basis for the 28 February statement, and I am proud that we will deliver a system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect.

United Kingdom Welfare Reforms (Impact on Women)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact UK Government welfare reforms have had on women in Scotland. (S5O-03065)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The UK Government’s welfare reforms have had a disproportionate impact on women, who are twice as dependent on social security as men.

Analysis by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that the cumulative impact of tax and welfare changes since 2010 has fallen disproportionately on women. On average, women were estimated to lose £940 per year, compared with £460 per year for men, by 2021-22. The benefit cap, and the two-child limit and its abhorrent rape clause also impact women disproportionately.

Indeed, Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said that the UK Government’s welfare system may as well have been created by

“a group of misogynists in a room.”

Shona Robison

Is the cabinet secretary concerned, as I am, that the lack of transitional protection for those who naturally migrate to universal credit, for example when they have a change of address, could have an adverse impact, and that it may force women to stay in abusive relationships, so that they do not lose those funds for them and their families?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I absolutely agree with Shona Robison that it is very concerning that women who are forced on to universal credit without transitional protection now face further barriers to leaving abusive relationships. We will continue to urge the UK Government to halt the natural migration on to universal credit, because thousands of people are losing out on transitional protection while none of the fundamental flaws of universal credit has been dealt with.

The Scottish Government is also concerned that the UK Government’s policy of making a single payment of universal credit to a household can act as an enabler for domestic abuse, and we are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to identify how best we can introduce split payments on universal credit in Scotland, to give women access to independent income.

Disability Assistance (Assessment Descriptors)

7. Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what input disabled people, disabled persons’ organisations and other stakeholders will have into the design of the assessment descriptors for disability assistance for working-age people. (S5O-03066)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Disabled people and their carers have had significant input into the development of disability assistance in Scotland. Their experience and views have helped us to shape the proposed policy changes that are outlined in the consultation on disability assistance.

The consultation invites views on all the activities and descriptors that are associated with disability assistance for working-age people, and it provides an opportunity for disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and stakeholders around Scotland to input into the design of the policy.

Alison Johnstone

Does the Scottish Government share concerns that the personal independence payment criteria are not always appropriate for people with mental health conditions? How will the Scottish Government work with people with such conditions and the organisations that represent them to ensure that the descriptors for disability assistance are fair?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Alison Johnstone is quite right to point out the concerns that people have had about the current PIP system, as it does not deal adequately with mental health conditions or fluctuating conditions. We are cognisant of that as we move forward.

As we work through the consultation responses, it is important that we ensure that what we build is fit for purpose for every case that comes forward. I am happy to work with Alison Johnstone and stakeholders to ensure that we get our replacement for PIP right, particularly for those with mental health conditions or fluctuating conditions, who have been so badly served by the current system.

Best Start Grant

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made on delivering additional payments of the best start grant to help with early learning costs. (S5O-03067)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We are on track to deliver the early learning and school-age payments by summer 2019. On 6 March, Parliament approved the regulations that create the new payments. We continue to build the information technology systems that are needed to process applications and make payments to eligible individuals. Social Security Scotland is recruiting and training the staff who will provide operational support.

Mary Fee

To ensure that the nursery and early learning payments deliver for children, how will the Scottish Government assess what the payments are being used for? How will they reach the most vulnerable children, such as the children of prisoners, black and minority ethnic children and Gypsy Traveller children?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We do not assess or set any requirements for how people use their payments. It is for the individual to decide how to use them, as it is their entitlement. However, Mary Fee raises an important point about getting the process right to ensure that all demographics and all parts of Scotland’s population are aware of the payments and that they get support to apply for them.

As we did with pregnancy and baby payments, we will take seriously our obligations to encourage take-up of the payments and we will ensure that they work not only for the majority of applicants, but for all demographics, for example the Gypsy Traveller or BME communities. We are determined to get that aspect right.

As I have said a number of times, I am more than happy to work with members on the issue, including with Mary Fee if there are particular communication aspects that she would like us to look at. It is important that we get the process right and are open to learning.