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Chamber and committees

Social Justice and Social Security Committee [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, September 29, 2022

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Budget Savings and Reductions 2022-23, Pre-budget Scrutiny


Contents


Pre-budget Scrutiny

The Convener

Welcome back. The next item of business is the second of our pre-budget scrutiny sessions. Our scrutiny focuses on the resource spending review and its impact on poverty, as well as the forthcoming equalities and fairer Scotland budget statement.

This week, we will hear from two panels. I welcome to the meeting the first of those: Danny Boyle, senior parliamentary and policy officer at BEMIS, and Graham O’Neill, policy manager at the Scottish Refugee Council. Thank you both for joining us remotely today.

I have a few housekeeping points to make before we kick off. If you wait for our broadcasting colleagues to turn your microphone on before you start to speak, that will be helpful. The screen is in front of me so, if you want to come in on a point, please type R in the chat box or wave at me. There are only two of you, so it will be quite easy for me to keep track. We have approximately 50 minutes for this panel. I will invite members to come in in turn. If members direct their question to one of the two witnesses to kick us off, that will be helpful.

Our first theme is about the impact of the rising cost of living. To start us off, I will bring in the deputy convener, Natalie Don.

Natalie Don

I thank the witnesses for their written submissions. I will start with a fairly general question to open up the discussion. How is the rising cost of living impacting your organisations and the individuals you support? I put that question first to Danny Boyle.

Danny Boyle (BEMIS Scotland)

Good morning. Can everybody hear me okay?

Members: Yes.

Danny Boyle

Thank you. I apologise for not being able to attend in person because I need to attend other meetings later today. Thank you for the opportunity to come along, and it is always a pleasure to see my colleague Graham O’Neill from the Refugee Council.

In short, the impact of the cost of living and inflation is significant, coming as it does off the back of the social, economic and cultural impacts of the pandemic, which exacerbated the pre-existing inequalities that affected ethnic minority communities in Scotland. There is also a significant impact on organisations in the third sector. We are not any different from the general population when it comes to the impact of the cost of living.

However, the circumstances of ethnic minority communities in Scotland, who are more vulnerable to the cost of living crisis and rising inflation, mean that those impacts are exacerbated and lead to significantly more perilous outcomes for people who live in significant social and economic poverty. This is an existential crisis for many people.

When lockdown first occurred, in March 2020, there was a significant increase in destitution—in people being unable to feed themselves or to look after their families. That will potentially be replicated during the current situation. It is very serious.

Thanks. It is important to hear a response from both witnesses on that question, so I turn to Graham O’Neill.

Graham O’Neill (Scottish Refugee Council)

I thank the committee for inviting us to share evidence.

My comments will flow on from one of the points that Danny Boyle made. People in the refugee protection systems—in particular, the asylum system—are already in what we would describe as deliberate UK state-sanctioned severe poverty. I have articulated that to the committee previously, and I touch on it in the written evidence that we have provided.

As we said in our most recent evidence, there has been a long-term degradation of the right to asylum by successive UK Governments, particularly by the past few Conservative Governments. That sadly reached a new nadir with, in essence, the extinguishing of the right to seek asylum for the vast majority of refugees through the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, the asylum provisions of which were commenced on 28 June. I am describing systemic socioeconomic deprivation of rights to people who seek asylum in the UK. First, they are not allowed to work. Secondly, they are provided with a pittance—we do not use that word lightly but, objectively, that is what it is—on which to exist and survive.

09:15  

Of the 90,000-plus people who are in asylum accommodation throughout the UK, 30,000—and the number is growing—are in what we describe as institutional ex-hotel accommodation, because it is not experienced as hotel accommodation. There are people in hotels in eight local authorities across Scotland, including in Glasgow. People in such accommodation receive £1.24 per day per person. That goes for a child, too. That is way below universal credit standard allowance, which is, in our view, a low social security floor anyway. It must be about 10 or 20 per cent of the universal credit standard allowance.

If people are in the more traditional, conventional forms of accommodation in the asylum system—such as flats in communities—which is often called in the jargon “dispersal accommodation” and is better than institutional accommodation, they get £5.83 per person per day. As we have shared with the committee, the range is dependent on the demographics in the family, but that is between 47 and 60 per cent of the value of the social security minimum, which is the universal credit standard allowance.

I do not say “UK state-sanctioned poverty” pejoratively; I say it factually, because that is what it is. People cannot get out of that poverty because they are denied the right to work and are entrapped. The consequences that poverty has for many groups are the same for people who seek asylum. They are resilient individuals, but they are being tested and some people cannot bear it, so there has been an escalation in loss of life within the asylum system. That is one of the tragic consequences of the policy, and we have documented it in our evidence. We think that the conditions for more of that are, sadly, still very much present across the UK.

The headline rate of inflation is already moving between 10 and 11 per cent, but, as committee members will know and as people who experience poverty know, the rise in the cost of living already has disproportionate impacts on the most vulnerable communities, and the headline rate for particular strands of essential spending, such as food, is, to be frank, higher than 10 to 11 per cent.

The impact is very severe. We are terrified of what we will experience over the winter in the UK asylum system, including in Scotland, because people simply do not have enough support already and the value of that inadequate support has been eroded still further by the cost of living increases. It is a social emergency for the most vulnerable people, including but not only people in the asylum system. On top of that, we are seeing huge turbulence, as the Deputy First Minister articulated and as the committee is well aware, which creates even greater uncertainty.

As I said in our written evidence, the Home Office does not have people’s backs at this time—quite the opposite. Often, it pushes people to some of the most dangerous intersections of poverty that are imaginable in the UK. We urge the committee to play its part—I am sure that it will—in articulating the depth of that poverty to the UK Government, particularly the Home Office, and in encouraging the Scottish Government to take more steps. To be fair to the Scottish Government, the circumstances in relation to its resources are very difficult.

As I tried to articulate, the 10 actions that we suggested for Scottish social inclusion of refugees are all within devolved competence. Many of them also do three things. First, they give presence and visibility to refugees across Scotland, building on some of the good work that has been done in relation to Ukrainians. Secondly, they protect people. The actions include particular recommendations about protecting people such as survivors of exploitation. Thirdly, taking those 10 actions not only will prevent harm to people but could prevent the escalation of unplanned costs.

We have mentioned particular issues that we would like to see as priorities. In our view, many people in the asylum system, such as those in the Afghan bridging hotels, are suffering organised abandonment by the UK state. In those circumstances, we desperately need people in Scotland, the Scottish Government and Scottish communities to come in, not abandon people, and be there with them so that they can contribute in the way that people who are called refugees often want to. They are ordinary people who have been in extraordinary predicaments, and they have survived them.

The honest way to put it is that it is grim out there, and it will get grimmer unless corresponding mitigation measures are put in place and, ideally, the UK state starts to give a toss about the asylum system. At the moment, the UK state is extinguishing it through the Nationality and Borders Act 2022.

Natalie Don

Thanks very much. That does not make for easy listening. Somehow, you managed to answer all three of my questions in your first response. I will give Danny Boyle the opportunity to come in on one of my later questions.

Graham O’Neill mentioned the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to increase support. We have spoken about the pressures that face the Scottish Government, which is working with a fixed budget and limited fiscal powers. It is clear that there is a difficult situation, with any funding to one budget having to be taken from another budget. With that in mind, what would be your priorities for increased support?

Danny Boyle

To be honest, that is an incredibly difficult question to answer in the present circumstances. I will rewind slightly. I hope that members hear us loud and clear.

Graham O’Neill has set out the social reality for human beings living in Scotland who are affected by punitive immigration designations that do not have the appropriate level of support attached to them.

We were asked to come to the committee today to broadly answer three questions. Those were:

“• How will the spending allocations for 2023-24 set out in the Spending Review impact on poverty?

• If you think there are measures in the”

resource spending review

“that could increase poverty—what can be done to prevent this.

• What level of analysis do you expect to see in the 2023-24 Equalities and Fairer Scotland Budget statement?”

The reality is that circumstances have now outstretched our evidence and our ambition, and that we face, from past experience, completely unforeseen social impacts on some of our most vulnerable citizens, who are, in theory, supposed to be protected under the racial provisions of international human rights law—the racial provisions on colour, nationality, and ethnic and national origins. It is very clear that that has not been a consideration in any way, shape or form in considering the impacts of the UK mini-budget or the broader budget.

In our written submission, we outlined as well as we possibly could where the resource spending review has made some semblance of strategic and specific interventions for minority ethnic communities in Scotland—in relation to translation services, pay disparity, mental health provision, disease prevention and the development of an equalities strategy—but the reality is that, in the short term, from now until the spring of 2023, those communities and individuals, as well as others, across the UK and Scotland face an existential crisis.

The situation is out of hand. Graham O’Neill and I, as well as colleagues across the third sector, are extremely stretched in trying to respond to that. People are doing the best that they can, but the situation is out of control.

Absolutely. I have taken up quite a lot of time, so I am happy to hand back to the convener.

I thank both witnesses for setting out the reality on the ground as it is at the moment and your concerns for the future.

I will bring in Jeremy Balfour.

Jeremy Balfour

Thank you, both, for coming. I appreciate the situation that you are in, but today we are trying to look forward to next year’s budget. We must remember that we are here to scrutinise the Scottish Government’s budget, not the UK Government’s budget. This is the Scottish Parliament and we are responsible for the decisions that are made here by our Parliament and our Government.

With regard to the budget for next year—we are considering next year’s budget, not the current position—what priorities do you want the Scottish Government to have?

Danny Boyle

Thank you for the question, Jeremy. I do not think that we can ignore the fact that the UK and Scottish Governments’ budgets are inextricably linked and that decisions made at Westminster have a direct impact on our fiscal independence or how we choose to spend our money in Scotland.

If we were to focus singularly on the Scottish budget and what we have, for a considerable period we have called for a much more strategic intervention with regard to race equality. It has been beneficial for the committee—and, more broadly, other duty bearers in the public sector—to hear what we mean when we talk about race. There is a positive duty in the Equality Act 2010 to take into consideration the impacts of decisions made by public services on our colour, nationality or ethnic or national origin. In Scotland, there are multigenerational communities, newer migrant communities, refugees and asylum seekers, all of whom have varying circumstances. The Parliament has heard relentlessly—across multiple committees—about the structural inequalities that continually affect people from different racial groups.

We outlined that, within the resource spending review, there are specific minor mitigations on things such as translation services and others, but what we have called for—and what would be highly beneficial—would be a measure that would replicate the sort of intervention that was made through the rural communities transformation scheme. We called for a race equality framework and race equality action plans. To bring about such a transformation, a race equality transformational investment scheme is needed to influence multiple policy levers. The fiscal objective of achieving that would have to be considered and reflected on.

There are things that we are not doing but that we could do. However, all of that is bound by the present reality.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Thank you both for the evidence that you have given so far and for your submissions.

Most of my questions on the cost of living have already been covered, with the exception of one. How have not only your membership but your organisations been affected by the cost of living crisis?

Who is that for?

Sorry, convener—perhaps we could start with Graham O’Neill.

Graham O’Neill

Like Danny Boyle’s organisation and many other third sector bodies, we are working at the front line with people who are already having to make survival decisions rather than having choices. The systems that were in place for them are now trying to come back and re-emerge after the Covid pandemic. Restrictions have eased, including for us, as a front-line organisation that provides services to refugees.

09:30  

It has been a challenge for us to ensure that we can still have the same quality and breadth of contact with people. We have put in a national helpline for all people who are in Scotland and are looking to access international protection. That is about signposting—getting in contact, getting details and then signposting, which can and does lead to us taking on, escalating and leading on cases, especially in relation to people who are trying to access the asylum system. An important part of our learning has been in trying to make ourselves more accessible in this post-Covid phase.

As you would hope and expect, we are starting to get out about and to work where people are. We work with people through our Afghan citizens information service. Our integration workers do outreach work with Afghan families in the bridging hotels. We are doing the same—as much as we can, as there are a lot of people—for Ukrainian residents who are in hotels or elsewhere. We are doing as much as we can in, for want of a better way of putting it, the asylum institutional accommodation, such as the highly inappropriate place in Glasgow where many families in the asylum system are being put. It is deeply inappropriate accommodation for the families, pregnant women and new mothers who are in there. We are re-emerging and reconfiguring—that is a bit of a pretentious term—our services to make sure that we have the same quality and breadth of provision.

One of our priorities that I did not get the chance to talk about, which comes through some of the work that we do as we go out and about, is that we would really like the Scottish Government to build refugees into its child poverty action plan and, specifically, to build them into local authorities and health boards’ legal duty to annually prepare and review their child poverty actions plans. That flows out of one of the provisions that we mentioned in the 10 actions on poverty that we submitted to the committee.

This might be asked about later on—if so, I will park it—but there is definitely an issue around concessionary travel, which is an absolutely essential measure in our opinion and that of many other campaigners. It would be life-changing for many people in the asylum process. We would like concessionary travel for all low-income groups, because access to transport is a social justice issue, especially in a cost of living social emergency. It has important wider positive effects linked to not only wellbeing but employment opportunities, the ability to commute, access to childcare and so on.

Going back to the point that I made earlier, concessionary travel would be a transformative measure for people in the asylum process who cannot work and do not get access to mainstream social security benefits such as the Scottish child payment. We have been disappointed with some of our discussions with Transport Scotland in relation to a national pilot of such a scheme to build up evidence for inclusion in the national entitlement card scheme.

I wanted to flag up the issues of child poverty, poverty more broadly and the cost of living social emergency, which have really hit us since we have re-emerged after Covid and started to get out and about. Related to that is transport and, specifically, access to free bus travel. We really want the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland to revisit that over the coming year in the new budget. The Welsh Refugee Council pilot showed that the demand that will come from people in the asylum process will be very strong, which would help to mitigate part of the Scottish Government’s rationale in saying that it needs to reduce the concessionary travel provision because demand is not there. I guarantee—the Welsh Refugee Council stuff shows this—that the demand from people in the asylum process will overwhelmingly be there, and it would have wider positive benefits for other people.

There has been a significant effect on partner organisations but, like many other third sector bodies, we are working with refugees out and about across Scotland. Our work is now across Scotland and not only in Glasgow, given that, as I said in our written evidence, we have protection populations across the country, and that will continue.

Thank you for that, Graham.

Danny, are you also able to respond, in particular on the impact of the cost of living crisis on your organisation?

Danny Boyle

I will address two points: the first is the direct impact on our organisation and the second is a response to Graham on the child poverty action plan and what should, potentially, be our ambition with regard to devolved social security powers to mitigate issues such as no recourse to public funds.

First, with regard to the impact of the cost of living crisis on our organisation, I will take the opportunity to outline the reality, which might be replicated across the third sector, for BEMIS and for our staff and members. We work within the domain of equalities and human rights, so our core funding comes from the Scottish Government’s equalities and human rights budget. Ironically, that budget has been largely stagnant for more than a decade. I think that it has increased by maybe £1 million or £2 million between 2010 and 2022. As we know, that is, in effect, a significant real-terms budget cut for people who are working on the front line to support communities through long-term race equality ambitions, asylum processes, a pandemic and now a cost of living crisis.

As far as my colleagues are concerned, the fact that the workforce in the third sector is largely non-unionised means that there is no immediately obvious union to join in order to collectively bargain for progression and all the positive things that we see coming from teachers and railway workers unions. Those colleagues work on the front line with regard to equalities and human rights, so they work with some of the most vulnerable people who face the greatest challenges in Scottish society.

For people who live—or are employed—in that environment, the cost of living crisis is significant. There is no clear pathway to increasing people’s wages or keeping up with the cost of living crisis, because there is no mechanism for collective bargaining. That will have an impact on everybody’s motivation and mental health, and all the things that are affected when people are put into financial hardship, and that obviously has an impact on people’s work. It is worth the committee’s being aware of that and noting it.

Maybe the question for the Scottish Government is about how it intends to increase the budget for core funding for equalities and human rights organisations to reflect the cost of living crisis. At present, we and other compatriot organisations have six months of funding, so we have funding from October until March. That goes against the principles of giving people stability and recognition so that they can plan progressively for the future. Those budget decisions impact everybody. They impact people who need our services as well as the people who provide the services. That is the reality of where we are at the moment.

My second point is about the broader ambitions that could be progressed. As Graham acknowledged, we have a child poverty action plan and the provision of social security in a devolved setting. In our written submission, we mentioned our “A New Future for Social Security in Scotland” paper, in which we said that we need to have a much clearer understanding of how many people in Scotland, especially children, are affected by the punitive immigration designation of no recourse to public funds. The issue is how we use our devolved social security, education and health powers to bypass immigration restrictions, in order to provide support to people who require it. We need to make sure that as many as possible of the people who need it most are encapsulated into our social security system.

We move on to our next set of questions, and I hand over to my colleague Emma Roddick.

Emma Roddick

My questions are for Danny Boyle. We heard earlier from the Deputy First Minister about issues with actions here very much depending on when and whether we get money from decisions that are made down south, and how much money that is. The UK fiscal announcement last week will, of course, have massive implications in many ways. What is your take on its human rights implications?

Danny Boyle

It is beyond comprehension. We can only tell the direction; we do not know what the impacts are going to be. The closest thing that we have for comparison is the immediate impact of lockdown in March 2020. At that time, we saw an exponential growth in destitution, isolation and mental health impacts on ethnic minority communities in Scotland, particularly those who suffer from what we would describe—Graham O’Neill talked about this earlier, and it is not a personal opinion; it is a fact of law—as an institutionally racist immigration system.

Article 1 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination outlines clearly that preventing access to the same level of support that the general population and other people have on the basis of colour, nationality or ethnic or national origin is a form of institutional racism, and that is what our immigration designations are, particularly via the implementation of the designation of no recourse to public funds.

As I outlined earlier, reality has now surpassed evidence and expectation, and this is an existential threat to people’s lives. I will repeat what we outlined when we wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland and the First Minister. Some of this is complicated because it cuts across both reserved and devolved powers. We said that those who will be impacted by the mini-budget, the cost of living and inflation are

“Those subjected to No Recourse to Public Funds”,

“The disproportionate number of ethnic minority people in precarious employment, zero hours contracts, small business holders and students”,

“Asylum seekers and newly arrived refugee families and individuals”,

“Elderly ethnic minority people”

and

“Single parents and mothers”.

We said that the outcomes would be that

“People will struggle to feed themselves and their families”,

“People and families will struggle to keep warm leading to an increase in significant ill-health”,

“People will suffer significant mental health burden and trauma”,

“People will fall into significant and irretrievable debt affecting them and their children’s life chances and future”,

“The most vulnerable through ill health and frailty may not get through the winter”,

and

“Isolation and loneliness will increase significantly”.

That is the reality of what we are facing. Minor mitigation has been put in place by the UK and Scottish Governments, but it will not be enough. That is the impact of budget statements that do not take into consideration people’s lives and human rights.

Emma Roddick

Thank you for that comprehensive answer. The priorities of the spending review here, particularly the ones around child poverty and the climate crisis, comprise things that the committee has heard have particular effects on minority ethnic communities and single parents. Budgets are about decisions and prioritising. Is the prioritisation of those issues something that you support? Is it a contrast with last week’s announcement?

09:45  

Danny Boyle

We will always support the prioritisation of the protection of children, parents and families. However, people who are subject to no recourse to public funds arrangements and punitive immigration designations, who are, in theory, supposed to be protected by the UK and Scottish Government’s incorporation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, are not appropriately reflected in those policy decisions. We covered that in our written submission, and it would be beneficial to hear Graham O’Neill’s views on that, on behalf of the Scottish Refugee Council

The catch-all policies, such as increasing the child payment to £25, will, of course, include the vast majority of ethnic minority families in Scotland, who are incredibly diverse. However, they will not cover everybody. We are banging our heads against a brick wall when we talk about the issue of no recourse to public funds. Those who are most vulnerable and most susceptible to destitution, who were acutely affected by lockdown and were unable to access self-isolation support grants and all the mitigation measures that were put in place by the Scottish and UK Governments, are not covered by such policies, so they will continue to be isolated and face significant and existential threats.

Again, in our written submission, we put forward ideas about how we can share information from the Department for Work and Pensions and Social Security Scotland to ensure that everybody who should be able to access something can do so. That is not in place at the moment. There are people in Scotland who do not have access to that support. We know that anecdotally because we speak to them and engage with them, but the mechanisms of the state do not know who they are. The state is supposed to be there to protect people, irrespective of their immigration designation, but that is not happening at present.

Miles Briggs

Good morning. I want to ask two questions, one of which concerns partner organisations in local government. In not just this budget year but previous ones, as a result of decisions by Scottish ministers, councils have seen cuts to their budgets. In what way would a flat-cash allocation to local authorities impact on your organisations and the services that local government helps to deliver?

Graham O’Neill

Before I answer that, I want to add something to what Danny Boyle was saying about no recourse to public funds. Because that is such a broad and restrictive regime, we hoped and expected to see something about it in the budget statement, and we would look to see that in next year’s budget. The policy affects the most vulnerable people—those who are in the worst socioeconomic and legal predicament and who often have literally nothing. It has various impacts, including repercussions for local authorities—I will use that mention to segue over to your question about local government.

I am not an accountant or a technical expert with regard to finance, but, in the cost of living crisis and inflationary environment that we are in, I view “flat-cash allocation” as a jargon word for a cut. I am not suggesting that anyone wants to make that cut—nobody would, and I am sure that the Scottish Government does not—but that is what a flat-cash allocation can result in.

That approach has an impact on the third sector and communities. Charities exist in order to provide a much more accessible route for people to go down and are much less bound by legislation and so on, so that they can be there for the people who need them. However, we can do that only if we have enough resources to do that. That is why it is important that there is partnership or at least effective liaison between local authorities and third sector organisations with regard to the key things that need to happen.

No recourse to public funds is, sadly, a good example of that. A lot of work has been done in Scotland over the past few years on fair way Scotland, which is a national initiative by housing rights organisations and refugee rights organisations. In essence, it works to apply housing first principles to people who have no recourse to public funds. That is bloody difficult, because the policy of no recourse to public funds wipes away people’s entitlement to key social security, housing and homelessness provisions.

However, having partnerships, as we have tried to do in Glasgow, particularly between registered social landlords and third sector bodies—really great organisations such as Safe in Scotland, which is a charity but has strategic relationships with RSLs and others for the provision of accommodation to people who have been refused asylum but are seeking to re-access the asylum procedure—makes incalculable savings in preventing not only mental health deterioration but unplanned costs for local authorities and others.

Across Scotland, local authorities and charities need to come together, because we have a highly unstable macroeconomic environment. Currently, at the UK level, there is very little visibility of vulnerable groups in the room in which decisions are made. There will be—there are—casualties. That has been the main theme of our evidence, as Danny, in particular, has articulated. Unless local authorities and third sector bodies work closely together, there will be a higher risk not only of people suffering significant mental health deterioration, with all the costs that come from that, but of exploitation by organised crime groups, because, if society pushes people to the margins, they are met, potentially, by organised crime groups. That can make community safety much more of a challenge, because organised crime gets involved in multiple criminal activities.

The key point is that, if we do not come together locally, there will be a much greater cost to the individuals who are affected—who will also be higher in number—and to the services that try to meet their needs. That is why it is so important that, in the next budget—the Scottish budget—there is visibility of no recourse to public funds and visibility of people in the asylum process and minority ethnic communities more widely. We did not see that when we looked at the budget documents.

That is why recommendations 1, 2 and 3 of our 10 actions for a Scottish social inclusion of refugees were about trying to get visibility to people in the policy-making process. That, in itself, if done reasonably well, can prevent people from falling into the predicaments that local authorities and third sector bodies then have to come together on.

I hope that that answer is helpful.

Miles Briggs

Thank you for that. I know that we have limited time, so, before I bring in Danny Boyle, my second question is about what engagement you have had with the Government in discussing those priorities. We, in the committee, have heard loud and clear your ask around people who have no recourse to public funds, but what sort of engagement have you had with the Government on that?

Graham O’Neill

We have had some engagement on child poverty and social security. As we said in our suggested 10 actions, there is a need to ramp up awareness of and education on the entitlement to those provisions, because they are important.

An area on which we have not had engagement, which will be touched on in the following session, I am sure—I just want to emphasise it—is housing. Housing needs to be much more prominent in the next budget because, not only in Scotland but across the UK, people in a wide group of vulnerable socioeconomic and legal communities are put into unsuitable accommodation. Often, that accommodation is privately owned by big landlords who are taking public money to provide accommodation that is not good and that no one would sign up to.

We emphasise that there is a strategic issue in the availability of social housing. In many ways, what we have seen—not only in Scotland but across the UK—in relation to the Afghan and Ukrainian populations shows the fragility of the lack of availability of appropriate social housing. If I do not get the chance to say anything more, that needs to be prioritised and given prevalence in future budget measures.

If Danny Boyle does not want to come in on that, I am happy to hand back to you, convener.

I will hand over to Pam Duncan-Glancy, and if Danny wants to, he can wrap his response to that question into his answers to Pam.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

My questions are about the effects of the flat-cash allocation to local authorities. In addition to the effects that you have already covered, what will the impact be of things such as the employability cuts? I appreciate the point about employability and the intersections with the people you represent, but I am keen to find out whether you think that there will be any implications in that regard. I am also keen to know what you would like the Government to do to engage your organisation. I am not asking about actions that you want the Government to take; I want to know how you would like the Government to work with you in future budgeting processes.

We will start with Danny Boyle.

Danny Boyle

As well as covering Miles Briggs’s question and Pam Duncan-Glancy’s questions as succinctly as possible, I want to provide the committee, people who are watching and the general public more broadly with key information about the infrastructure of what we are talking about.

In 2016, along with the Scottish Government and partners, we launched the “Race equality framework for Scotland 2016 to 2030”. Over each parliamentary cycle, that framework and its overarching ambitions are distilled into what are called the race equality action plans, the most recent of which was for 2017 to 2021. We were then interrupted by the pandemic, which, naturally, everyone focused on, and we are now moving back into the parliamentary cycle.

The race equality action plan has more than 80 action points across six key policy themes. Some of those are the responsibility of the Scottish Government, but the vast majority are the responsibility of other duty bearers, and a significant number are the responsibility of local authorities. We have continually reiterated to other parliamentary committees and in other meetings the fact that the current budgetary allocations at national and local government level are not compatible with the Scottish Government’s race equality framework or the action plan. The stark truth is—this will be exacerbated by the present cost of living crisis, and we know that budgets are finite—that, if we continue on the same trajectory, we will observe small, non-impactful, symbolic gains, while austerity and recession, exacerbated by Covid and the cost of living crisis, will weld a generation of ethnic minority youth and community to further systemic inequalities. That is the truth. There is no other way of putting it.

Despite all of us working as well as we can and despite the best intentions of Government and ministers, that is the reality. That is where we are at the moment.

Thank you. That was bleak but clear. Do you have anything to add on my question about the budgeting process?

Danny Boyle

The budgeting process should follow what is called a human-rights based approach, which involves the PANEL process—in other words, it should be about participation, accountability, non-discrimination, equality and legality. When it comes to budgeting priorities, the panel process should be hard-wired into everything that we do and it should be on-going. It should have a degree of flexibility to enable us to respond to the crises that we are facing at the moment.

The truth is that, as with the pandemic, our systems and the ways in which we conduct our business are not capable of responding appropriately, in real time, to the circumstances that we face. All of us—Government, local government and the third sector—should take account of that and think about how we can learn from it.

Graham, do you have anything to add?

10:00  

Graham O’Neill

Yes—and I promise to be brief.

“Lived experience” is, I believe, the current term in relation to people who are at the front end of the bad stuff, and my main recommendation, alongside that of the PANEL approach being applied all year round, is that it be put at the heart of all of this. That should be done not just because we think that it is, in principle, the right thing to do—it is, of course, the right thing to do—but because, objectively, it gives you excellent insights into what things are actually like and what can actually be done to overcome them.

In other words, a focus on lived experience is not just a charitable thing; it is a deeply important ingredient of what is a neglected part of effective policy making. We should be asking, “What is the script here? How are people managing these issues? How can we overcome them?” Lived experience needs to be at the heart of the process. In fact, the first three of the 10 actions that we have set in the submission are all about process, inclusion and involvement of refugees in policy making, and all we are doing in that respect is what people in the gender equality movement, the disabilities equalities movement and the race equality movement have been doing for decades now, which is getting visibility and awareness of the experiences of groups into the mainstream and the lifeblood of social, economic and political life. That is what we are trying to do, and we think that it should be set as the target in the budget process, especially given that, as the Deputy First Minister has said, options are being restricted as a result of wider macroeconomic pressures. It is all the more important, therefore, that people come together.

In any case, we need to put lived experience at the heart of this. It is not just the right thing to do in principle; it will deliver a lot of benefits with regard to the accuracy and precision of effective policy. You will be able to hear from people who have lived this experience instead of people like me who are at these types of sessions and are involved in the budget process, and those people will often tell you many more useful things than those in third sector bodies with job titles such as “policy manager” will. They have unique insights—ones that they would probably rather not have, because it is often bad stuff—and they should be at the front of all of this.

That is what I would say not just about the budget process but more generally.

The Convener

I thank the witnesses for joining us this morning to give evidence and for their written submissions. I should say that the committee undertook human rights training over the summer; the PANEL principles are therefore at the forefront of our minds, and we think that they represent a key way of undertaking our scrutiny work as best we can.

I suspend briefly for a changeover of witnesses. If everyone could be back in approximately five minutes, that would be helpful.

10:03 Meeting suspended.  

10:08 On resuming—  

The Convener

Welcome back, everyone. I welcome to the meeting our third panel of witnesses this morning. On the panel we have Gordon MacRae, who is the assistant director of Shelter Scotland, and Frank McKillop, who is the head of policy and research at Enable Scotland. Frank joins us remotely.

I have reminded members that we cannot just direct all of our questions to Gordon MacRae because he is in the room with us and that we have to remember that we have Frank McKillop online. As always, I ask members to direct their questions to one of the witnesses to start off, then the other witness can respond if they want to. Frank, I will keep an eye on you, so give me a wave if you want to answer and then give our colleagues in broadcasting a second to turn on your microphone before you speak.

Thank you, both, for your written submissions and for making time to join us today. The deputy convener of the committee, Natalie Don, is going to start us off with some questions on the impact of the rising cost of living.

Natalie Don

Good morning, and thanks for joining us. I will start off with a fairly general question to open up the discussion. How is the rising cost of living impacting on your organisations and the individuals whom you support? I will go to Gordon MacRae first, then to Frank McKillop.

Gordon MacRae (Shelter Scotland)

It is safe to say that we have never seen a time like this. The cost of living crisis is accelerating the depth of homelessness and the experience of bad housing in Scotland. The most recent annual homelessness statistics show how that is impacting on the communities that we are here to serve. It was not lightly that we described the previous homelessness statistics as demonstrating that Scotland’s housing and homelessness system is on the brink of failure. There is a bubble of people who are trapped in temporary accommodation. Homelessness in Scotland is largely indoors, not outdoors, but that should not hide it from our gaze and understanding.

The cost of living crisis, as we are calling it now, is not necessarily a new phenomenon for many of the communities that we are talking about. It is getting harder for people with multiple and complex needs to access vital services and it is harder still for people who do not have the support and capacity to access those services at a point of crisis. However, the situation is also beginning to impact on people who simply need a home.

The homelessness problem is relatively simple to solve: we need more houses. That is why, a couple of weeks ago, Shelter Scotland published our proposal for a Scottish housing emergency action plan. There is more that can be done in Scotland. We cannot be immune to the trends that come from elsewhere, but we can make different choices that can improve the lives of people here.

I turn to Frank McKillop with the same question.

Frank McKillop (Enable Scotland)

Thank you for inviting Enable to make a submission. For us, the impact is twofold. There is an impact on our members and the people for whom we work—disabled people in the communities around Scotland—and there is an organisational impact that is primarily felt through our workforce.

First, on the people for whom we work, it is well documented that disabled people are among the people who are most at risk of poverty in any circumstances. Some of the most comprehensive research on that was done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Headline findings from that research include that 31 per cent of people in a family with a disabled person were living in poverty; 44 per cent of disabled young adults were living in poverty; 66 per cent of disabled people living alone were living in poverty; and—which is perhaps most worrying at the moment—38 per cent of households with a disabled person were experiencing fuel property. That was back in 2016. We know that Covid exacerbated that further and we know that the impacts of the current energy and cost of living crisis will, once again, fall disproportionately on disabled people. Therefore, we have serious concerns about the impact on disabled people.

Organisationally, the biggest impact that we feel is through our workforce. Enable is one of Scotland’s largest social care charities. We employ roughly 2,500 people, and about 2,200 of them are front-line social care workers in communities all over Scotland. As we know, the social care workforce is often not one of the better-paid professions in Scotland, although we have got to a better position. Certainly, everyone in Enable is paid substantially above the current real living wage. The Scottish Government agreed last year to come in with an increased funded pay rate of £10.50 an hour, which was 60p above the then real living wage. Nevertheless, cost of living impacts are hitting our workforce quite hard.

The Living Wage Foundation this month announced the new real living wage of £10.90 an hour, which is a 10.1 per cent uplift. That obviously reflects the current rate of inflation. There is certainly a significant challenge, which the Living Wage Foundation has recognised. Pay across the social care sector has to be higher than it is. We really need the Scottish Government to react to that, because otherwise the challenge will have an impact. As we know, excellent social care is delivered by the workforce. However, our social care system will be at risk if we do not have a workforce who feel secure in their employment, who feel secure in their home lives—they can afford all their bills—and who can bring their whole selves to work to support the people in our communities.

It is vital that front-line pay in social care be addressed. Enable is proud that we are an award-winning and accredited living-wage employer, but we need a swift reaction from the Scottish Government to implement an uplift in funded pay in social care to reflect the new real living wage and, indeed, to go significantly beyond the real living wage. That is not only because of the cost of living pressures but because of the recruitment and retention pressures that remain significant in the social care sector.

Natalie Don

Thank you both very much for your responses. The Scottish Government has set out steps that it is taking to support people through the crisis, but we have been speaking about the extreme pressures that the Government faces because it is working with a fixed budget and with limited fiscal powers, and any increase in one budget has to be funded from another. Given the constraints, are you supportive of the steps that the Scottish Government has taken so far? What would your priorities be, going forward?

10:15  

Frank McKillop

I think that the committee has been looking at the resource spending review. As other witnesses have said, a lot of that has been torn up by recent events, as the economy has moved quite significantly over the past few weeks.

We have welcomed maintenance of funding for health and social care. The increased funding for those areas is not being impacted by the immediate cuts that have been brought about. However, we have concerns. Even at the time of the resource spending review, the Scottish Fiscal Commission noted that inflationary pressures meant that the 10 per cent uplift to health and social care by 2026-27 will be a 1 per cent uplift in real terms. That predated the spiralling inflation that we are now seeing. I am worried about the impact of that.

We also welcome the upholding of health and social care investments. We recognise that a big part of that investment has to go into the NHS’s recovery from Covid, but social care also has to have enhanced funding. As I have mentioned, at the basic level that funding has to be for front-line pay, but we also very much welcome the Scottish Government’s ambition to implement a national care service. We know that that will require significant funding. The independent review of adult social care in Scotland that was led by Derek Feeley estimated the cost of a national care service. Under his proposed model, it would cost an additional £660 million a year, which was based on front-line pay at £9.50 per hour. If we project front-line pay to be, as we hope it will be, somewhere around £11.50 per hour or higher, the figure would be £860 million a year. It is not unreasonable to say that, by the time we get to 2026, it will be over £1 billion a year. That much additional funding will have to be found for social care.

I listened to the Deputy First Minister this morning and entirely appreciate his frustrations about the limits that he must work within. We certainly welcome the fact that health and social care remains prioritised, but greater investment is required for it.

The second strand of my answer is that—needless to say—we had concerns about some of the proposed cuts to employability provision and the impact that that could have on disabled people.

However, if I specifically focus on what we welcome in the Government’s steps, it is the recognition of health and social care as a high priority for the coming years.

Thank you. That was very helpful. I turn now to Gordon MacRae.

Gordon MacRae

We very much agree with the Scottish Government’s stated objectives when it comes to housing and homelessness. It is a rights-based system, and it is about ensuring access to more social housing. Cash is being made available through the discretionary housing payments in the resource spending review. On the recent announcements around the tenant grant fund, we very much welcomed the reversal of the original decision to make that a loan fund and the decision, instead, to turn it into grants.

However, we also recognise that that is not touching the sides of the scale of the problem. It is quite an atomised set of budget pots. We are trying to understand the money that will go into prevention, the money that will go in through local government cuts, and what is actually having an impact. We welcome initiatives including housing first, which require a significant cultural shift within local authority homelessness services, but it is difficult to understand what amounts of money are going where, what their benefit is and what we should do more or less of.

What we come back to is that, when the Scottish Government and COSLA jointly created the “Ending Homelessness Together” plan, an estimate was made of the transition funding that would be required to carry it out, and the available cash fell a long way short of that. Now, we have policy makers who say that there is a negotiation to be had and work to be done with local authorities on what is core funding and what is transitionary funding. What we see are the results, and the results are a record number of children in temporary accommodation, with a reducing prospect of permanent housing. We see more and more people being placed in hotel accommodation and in accommodation that is unsuitable according to the standards that are being introduced. We also recognise that local authorities are being asked to do more with less, which is not a sustainable position.

We have to have an honest conversation about priorities. Shelter Scotland thinks that the priority should be to ensure that we drive forward with increasing access to secure and affordable social housing. We think that that can be done by reprofiling some funds to encourage more buying in the open market, and that it should be done at national level, not by just making a bid pot available to local authorities, but by actually setting an objective. Audit Scotland criticised the previous affordable house building programme for not having an objective beyond a numerical target.

The objective should be what the research that we commissioned from the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations was on: reducing affordable-housing need in Scotland. That objective would be a measurable impact on levels of housing poverty. It is not a stated goal of the Scottish Government—its only stated goal is to build 110,000 homes by 2032. “Housing to 2040” stated a midpoint target of 50,000, but that is no longer a target.

We need to know what the plan is, how it will be delivered and how it will lift people out of temporary accommodation and give our youngsters a real chance for a future.

Thank you very much, Gordon. Thank you, both.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Good morning. Thank you for your submissions and your answers so far.

My first question is for Frank McKillop. In a similar vein to my colleague Natalie Don, I wonder whether you can set out some of the realities of what disabled people are having to do in the cost of living crisis, particularly in relation to fuel poverty. How is it affecting what they do on a daily basis?

Frank McKillop

What is most heartbreaking in what we hear from our members who interact in person with community groups that we run around Scotland is that people often have to restrict the amount of care and support hours that they contract. As we know, charges beyond the budget that they have been allocated through social work departments still apply to a lot of social care that people access. We hear of people having to cut back on care and support hours that they must pay for because those hours are in addition to the budgeted allowance. That has a direct impact on how active and engaged they can be in the community, which is the antithesis of what charities such as Enable believe in, as we exist to support disabled people to be fully involved and included in their community.

We certainly have fears as we head into the Scottish winter. We welcome the UK Government’s action to stem the worst of the projected spiralling of fuel costs. That freezing of prices at least helps, but we should never lose sight of the fact that, from 1 October, the cost of fuel for pretty much every household in Britain will go up reasonably substantially. That will impact especially on people who are living in poverty, which disproportionately includes disabled households. They are more likely to have pre-payment meters and they are more likely to be on the more expensive methods of paying for energy, which also charge for the amount of energy that is used at that time. When payment is based on immediate usage, the individual bills that people face over the winter months can be quite horrific, even though there might be a bit of shielding from the worst of the impacts by the capping that the UK Government has introduced. That is certainly a concern.

Our biggest concern is that we might get to the horrific situation of people choosing not to heat their homes or cutting back on the amount of food that they eat and things like that. That is certainly something that we fear, but the immediate impact of the cost of living crisis that we are already seeing is people unfortunately cutting back on their hours of support and being less active in the community as a result.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Thank you very much, Frank. As someone who uses social care, I cannot imagine what it must be like for people not to be able to rely on it. That is tragic.

The Scottish Government has said that it is doing everything that it can for disabled people to help them through the cost of living crisis. Do you agree with that? Is there anything more that it could be doing?

Frank McKillop

There is frustration in that we always want more to be done. I hear what the Deputy First Minister says about his frustration at the limitations that he is working under and the challenge to others to come up with alternatives.

We would certainly like to see more action around care charging. We know that there is an ambition that care charging will be abolished, as part of the introduction of the national care service. We would like that to come through in the bill’s final form, but we cannot wait four years. Care charging is having a real impact on people now. If it were possible to put n place measures to remove care charging for disabled people, that would certainly have an immediate impact. I wish that there were limitless money to make that happen, but I appreciate the money pressures that exist.

However, if we really believe in the human right of people to be included—I am thinking of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and article 19 on the right to be included in one’s community—and if that is a priority and important to us as a country, we have to find a way of making it a reality. Certainly, ensuring that people have all the support that they require to be fully engaged and active in their community is an important step. As others have said, politics is about decisions and priorities; our view is that that should be a priority for any Government.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Thank you for that really clear answer.

Gordon MacRae, I am hoping to hear a bit about the impacts of the cost of living crisis on your members, and also your thoughts on the impact of the rent freeze and what difference you think that it will make to people in Scotland.

Gordon MacRae

The impact on the people we work with falls disproportionately on people with protected characteristics. One of the big choke points in the Scottish housing system is a lack of larger properties. There is a correlation—I would not want to put it in terms stronger than that, because research on this does not really exist—with the households of people from first and second-generation immigrant backgrounds, people with refugee status and people with physical and mental impairments. The need to provide adapted accommodation is a real struggle, and there is a live legal challenge around the expectations that we have of public bodies to meet housing support needs when they are assessed, as that is not happening consistently.

The overall availability of properties, the availability of cash and the ability of public bodies to secure accommodation in the open market are very limited, and the impact falls disproportionately.

Also, we have never truly done the gendered analysis that is in the “Ending Homelessness Together” action plan; it has been long promised and is now well overdue.

On the second question—whether the Scottish Government is doing all that it can—the answer is no. Otherwise, we would not have published an action plan setting out what else we think it could be doing.

A range of options is available. The rent freeze is good news in that it will stop more people becoming homeless, but it has a relatively marginal impact because of the effect of housing benefit on people at the lowest end. We also know that many—although not all—social landlords have relatively modest plans for the coming year. We want rents to be as low as is practically possible, but we also need to understand the unintended consequences of that. Social landlords seek to borrow the funds to meet their net zero carbon targets as well as build new social homes based on their revenue books, and the compound impact of an unfunded revenue reduction could risk choking off the supply of new social housing.

For us, the answer to the question about the impact of the rent freeze is that we just do not know. Is additional resource attached to the rent freeze to mitigate that impact? We do not know. We understand that it is to last for an initial six months, but there is interest in having the powers to extend it for two subsequent six-month periods. Is a financial forecast available that looks at housing benefit and revenue?

As a housing and homelessness charity, it seems almost churlish to be asking questions about something that is reducing people’s housing costs, but in housing we know that, if you pull the thread in one bit, it starts to unfurl somewhere else. We very much welcome anything that keeps people in the home that they have. However, there are many unanswered questions, and there was not much engagement before the rent freeze was announced. It is now the best part of three weeks in, and we are getting a lot of phone calls from very worried tenants. Are they supposed to pay a rent increase that has come through since 6 September? What are their rights? We cannot answer that just now. It is a bit of a guddle, but the intention is one that we share. We just need to know the detail.

10:30  

I agree. I, too, would like to know more about the detail. I hope that that will become a bit clearer next week.

I have no other questions at this point.

Do you have questions on spending powers, which is the next theme?

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Sure. I will move on to the spending priorities.

Employability has already been mentioned—I think that Frank McKillop raised that issue. Frank, are you aware of any impact that the employability cuts will have on the employability services that you deliver?

Frank McKillop

We do not have immediate fears about some of the contracts that we have in place, but we have potential concerns about the renewal of those contracts in the future. Needless to say, we are actively engaged with the Scottish Government on the nature of the cuts and where they will fall. We have had the early assurance that employability services for disabled people will be less impacted than some of the other programmes that were planned. Obviously, we would certainly want that to happen.

We are concerned that Scotland seems to be lagging a little in addressing the disability employment gap. The disability employment gap in Scotland sits at roughly 32.8 per cent, which is higher than the UK-wide average of 28.4 per cent. We also note that the disability pay gap in Scotland, which is 18.5 per cent, is the highest in the four UK nations. We certainly think that that is a priority area for action, and we have concerns that the £53 million cut to employability is misdirected and that it is perhaps an error. We have no doubt that that will impact us as an organisation in future years, and we certainly feel that it is the wrong priority.

I noted the Deputy First Minister’s comments at the time of the statement about that being related to a more buoyant jobs market. The barrier to employment for disabled people is not the number of vacancies in the economy; the barriers are far more complex. Specialist employability support is extremely important in supporting a lot of disabled people into the jobs market. We thought that there was a misconnection between the two issues, which we would like to see rectified.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Thank you. That is really helpful and clear.

I have a similar question about spending priorities for Gordon MacRae. In your submission, you highlighted that there has been a 17 per cent rise in children’s homelessness. That is tragic. You also noted that the flat cash settlement is setting councils up to fail. Do you have concerns about any of the priorities in the recent DFM cuts or the flat cash settlements in relation to the “Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2022-26”, particularly in housing?

Gordon MacRae

Yes. The concern is mainly around the local government settlement. In our action plan, we called for an audit of the money that is spent on housing and homelessness services, because that is quite atomised. Some local authorities are in partnership with health bodies, and it is not always obvious how services are delivered. Tracking how the money goes up and down over the years can therefore be very challenging, especially for a third sector body such as ours.

We can see that a flat cash settlement is, in effect, a cut at a time in which demand is growing. To its credit, the Scottish Government has repeatedly brought in and injected pots of cash at various steps. We recognise that, in recent history, that has not been a one-moment-only event. However, that does not allow for the type of planning and the quality services that we think could have a long-term impact.

We have called for some different choices. On the capital side, even if the Government does not increase the capital programme, it can choose to make sure that all the money that is already allocated goes into social housing, rather than into mid-market rent and low-cost home ownership. We think that that would be a proportionate response to the nature of the crisis right now.

On the revenue side, because the pressures do not fall equally across all 32 local authorities, we think that there is a role for an emergency fund of the sort that the Scottish Government has introduced in the past in order to really target that money at areas where homelessness is most acute and where the pressure to access accommodation is most acute, which is largely in the east. The challenges in the west tend to be more around access to properties and work with local authority and registered social landlords, whereas in the east, it is literally just about the number of homes that are available.

On the service delivery side, we recently saw people being asked to go to Newcastle to access seven days’ emergency accommodation. That was deemed a reasonable offer, despite the fact that it was the day before one family’s child was due to go back to school in Edinburgh, and that another person had a job in Edinburgh; it was therefore not reasonable. We know why local authorities need to make an offer and do what they can. They cannot do more without access to more resource and more capability. We think there are different choices, without necessarily unpicking all the spending priorities of the Scottish Government.

Thank you. I have no further questions on that area.

We turn to questions from Jeremy Balfour.

Jeremy Balfour

Good morning, gentlemen. I will go back to Pam Duncan-Glancy’s previous questions about the legislation that will be introduced next week. I appreciate that we do not yet know the details of the legislation—we will see it, I think, an hour before the committee sits. Obviously, there might be more issues in Edinburgh and Lothian, but I have a number of constituents who have buy-to-let properties, so their mortgages are being paid by the rent payments that they receive. With mortgage payments possibly now going up because of inflation and interest rates, are you concerned that those people will have to withdraw their properties from the market? One of the other unforeseen circumstances could be that there is less housing available for rent, because people cannot meet their mortgage payments.

Gordon MacRae

It should not be a given that, in an extreme example of lender possession of the property, a sitting tenant is evicted. There are ways of looking at the grounds for repossession that would protect a tenant who has paid their rent throughout that time and met their contractual obligations. I do not have the figures to hand, but a relatively high number of open-market purchases are made by buy-to-let landlords, so it is clearly attractive to have a sitting tenant. In the emergency legislation, we would like to see a suspension of the grounds for lender possession during that period, in order to protect tenants. It is emergency legislation, and these are extraordinary times.

On the broader point of the trend of private landlords leaving the market, it certainly is happening. It is difficult to identify whether there is a difference between the number of landlords and the number of properties leaving the sector—the two are not necessarily the same. That is why I come back to our proposal about the Scottish Government’s role in buying properties. Again, if landlords and property owners are in financial crisis, it is reasonable to seek to support them. One of the ways that the Government could do that is to seek to purchase the property—at the market rate or a suitable rate—and keep the tenant in the property. Otherwise, more people will be made homeless and more people will come into the state system at a time when we do not have the properties to meet their needs. A pragmatic and proportionate response is to think creatively around giving landlords in financial peril an exit route, if that is the right thing for them, but one in which the tenant retains their tenancy.

Jeremy Balfour

Thank you. I will be interested in seeing what comes next week.

Last week, many of our witnesses said that there was no openness and transparency in the setting of last year’s budget. Engagement was lacking, and we did not get the information that we required. Do you agree that additional information will be helpful when engaging in the budget process as we look forward to next year?

Frank McKillop

It would certainly be helpful to Enable if we had earlier sight of the considerations that go into the budget process. Our submissions in that process are generally about our priority areas: good funding for health and social care; funding for the front-line workforce; support for employability; and support for people remaining active and engaged in their communities, and for the opportunities that exist for people with learning disabilities and other disabled people to participate. We would feel more able to make submissions that were the most constructive possible if we had the best possible information on which to base them.

I reflect on the Deputy First Minister’s challenge. We would be better equipped to offer some alternatives and suggestions if we were party to more of the information. There is always the risk that, if the Government’s engagement with the third sector is limited in scope on a fairly wide and broad agenda, we will default to our main priority issues. We could engage more constructively if more information was available to us about the parameters within which the Government is working. That would probably enable us to offer some more innovative solutions. Needless to say, we all want to get the best that we possibly can not only for the people we represent as an organisation but for Scotland more widely. We certainly want to engage in finding solutions; we do not want always just to be lobbying blind without having the full information about the parameters within which we are working. That would certainly be helpful for Enable.

Gordon MacRae

I can make no complaint about the level of Shelter’s access to, and engagement with, the Scottish Government. The Government is probably bored to tears hearing from us. The issue is more about how third sector bodies engage beyond their silos—beyond their sector issues.

I have no qualms about how housing and homelessness policy makers reach out to us to understand what a policy would look like on the ground when time allows and there is a process. The bigger challenge—this follows on from what Frank McKillop and earlier witnesses have said—is to have a genuinely human rights-based approach to budgeting and to consider the panel approach, for example so that we can see what the role of the health budget is. The bill for people with multiple and complex needs in the homelessness system who require access to mental health services gets picked up in the housing sector. If we are going to take an open and transparent approach to budgeting, that is the kind of conversation that we need to have. I am sure that there are parallels in other policy areas.

The Scottish ministers have good intentions but we do not yet have the delivery in terms of putting in place that inclusive budgeting approach.

Emma Roddick

Good morning. I have a few questions about two big policy matters and how they affect homelessness, so I would appreciate it if we could do a bit of a quick-fire exchange.

The Parliament expects to deliberate next week on the emergency legislation for the rent freeze. I am sure that you are painfully familiar with the arguments that the freeze could increase homelessness because of landlords taking their properties out of the rental market. Is that a legitimate concern?

Gordon MacRae

It is up to the Parliament to put protections in place to ensure that that is not the consequence. As I mentioned in response to Jeremy Balfour, there are areas to consider in relation to the grounds for possession. We should also acknowledge that Scotland now has a suite of tools, such as the licensing scheme for short-term lets and the empty homes levy. A number of policy levers could be pulled to get maximum benefit from every property. Taking that joined-up approach would make the difference.

From a fundamental standpoint, should ensuring that people can afford to keep a roof over their heads be a greater priority than allowing landlords to increase their rents?

Gordon MacRae

We would certainly say that the role of Government is to ensure that citizens have access to their human right to a home. If, for any reason, that is in conflict with the interests of business groups and there is a choice to be made, it will come as no surprise that we would say that the Government should back the choice that protects people.

10:45  

Thank you. Do you think that the rent freeze will have a positive impact on tenants? Could it help prevent homelessness?

Gordon MacRae

I think that it will have a positive impact on tenants as a whole but a relatively marginal impact on people who are at the lower end of the market.

Do you think that it could prevent people from becoming homeless who would otherwise have become homeless because they cannot afford a rent increase?

Gordon MacRae

Yes—and, obviously, with the events of the past few days, that issue has become more acute. When the policy was first proposed, people were expecting an increase of a couple of percentage points, potentially going up to 6 per cent next year, but that has been blown out of the water now. We do not know the detail of the rent freeze, how it will be enforced or what policy lever mechanisms will be used in the private rented sector, but the proposal is very welcome in the context of the cost of living. I reinforce the fact that the choice between universal and targeted responses is always difficult. We recognise the desire to take a universal approach, but let us not lose sight of the additional need to have quite targeted support for people at the lower end.

Finally, from your perspective, did the eviction ban during the pandemic have a positive impact on tackling homelessness?

Gordon MacRae

Unquestionably—we did not see the spike in homelessness that would have otherwise occurred. Through its PRS resilience group and social housing resilience group, the Scottish Government brought stakeholders together and made the ban work. We understand that there will be a very similar approach to bringing in the evictions moratorium, and that is to be welcomed. However, there needs to be planning to make sure that, once the moratorium is lifted, the courts system is robust enough and that advice organisations and legal representation are available to people, otherwise we will end up with another bottleneck. We were already beginning to see the system catching up with itself on some of the delayed evictions from the pandemic.

I remember vividly the days of all those meetings to get the sectors together so that we could implement that ban.

Miles Briggs

Thank you for joining us. Earlier, we heard the Deputy First Minister extolling the virtues of Ireland’s policy agendas. The impacts of the rent control policy in Ireland include a 30 per cent increase in homelessness, with a 38 per cent increase in Dublin alone. Do you think the Government has not looked at the unintended consequences of the rent freeze policy?

Gordon MacRae

My understanding is that the Irish example is more around rent controls than the rent freezes that are proposed in the emergency legislation. Historically, Shelter Scotland has taken the view that first-generation rent controls can have the unintended consequence of setting a floor rather than a ceiling for rent. However, I am not aware of anyone truly proposing that kind of first-generation rent control in the upcoming housing legislation. Very much as I said in my response to Emma Roddick, we want to see the detail. We do not take an ideological view on what is good or bad policy; we want to see what legislation says. As I said, the rent freeze is welcome in so far as we know how it will be delivered. With regard to the Ireland example, I would need to know more about the direct cause and effect between the rent controls and the lack of general supply, because there was also a massive crash in supply in Ireland due to the financial crisis that is still working its way through. Disaggregating that from the rent control policy would require an academic. I am sure that Professor Ken Gibb, who appeared in front of the committee a couple of weeks ago, could tell you more.

Miles Briggs

That is helpful. We are also waiting to see the bill and probably will not see it until an hour before the committee has to look at it.

Specifically with regard to rural homelessness, which we maybe do not talk enough about, supply and demand in those cases is often hugely limited. Do you know of any work that has been done about potential consequences for rural homelessness?

Gordon MacRae

To my knowledge, there has not been a specific piece of work, but there is certainly a focus from the cabinet secretary on using 10 per cent of the supply programme to increase accessibility and availability in rural Scotland. Through the housing options hubs, which local government convenes, there is a lot of best practice sharing among the more rural local authorities. It is incredibly challenging to make temporary accommodation provisions in small towns when you are trying to keep people connected to their school, their employment and so on.

Perth and Kinross Council, which is not an entirely rural local authority but which certainly has large rural areas, has some really advanced approaches to providing temporary accommodation by bringing in the private rented sector and doing a lot of tenancy support work at an early stage. That council gets slightly bored of being referenced as the high water mark, but other rural local authorities certainly can learn lessons from it. Ultimately, it is about partnership and the availability of homes, as well as the quality of services and sustaining investment in those services.

Miles Briggs

Finally, I want to ask about an issue that I have raised consistently. We are seeing a really depressing and worrying picture with regard to the number of children in temporary accommodation. I would say that, here in the capital, the situation is at crisis point. Where is the Scottish Government going wrong with the policy direction on that?

Gordon MacRae

I do not want to get too existential about this, but I think that there is a bigger Scottish politics issue in that we tend to focus on the thing that is happening right in front of us. There has been an incredible amount of focus on housing options and the ending homelessness together plan, as well as on people with multiple and complex needs, who have been overlooked for far too long. At the same time, we have seen a growth in the number of children in temporary accommodation because we have not been building enough homes of the right size.

By their nature, families require larger properties. We had a supply programme that was focused not solely but predominantly on smaller units. We have now found that we do not have the larger units, and that is the main issue. That is why, unapologetically, we keep coming back to the point about supply—in housing, all roads lead back to the supply of social housing. By buying and building more larger properties, we will be able to deal with that. For that very reason, the temporary accommodation task and finish group that the Scottish Government has convened as part of the homelessness prevention and strategy group and that is co-chaired by Shelter Scotland’s director, Alison Watson, has already made interim recommendations calling for a national acquisition plan.

Jeremy Balfour has a follow-up question.

Jeremy Balfour

It is a quick question for Gordon MacRae. On Monday, I met with a fairly large homelessness charity in Edinburgh and heard about the impact of the people coming from Ukraine on the demand that already exists. Obviously, we all welcome the Ukrainians coming to Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland, but how do we deal with the other people who are still on the list? Practically, do you see the way forward as being to keep people in the central belt, or should there be a different policy? The committee has discussed previously whether it is better to distribute people throughout Scotland. Obviously, the issue will go on for a number of months, if not years. What is the longer-term approach?

Gordon MacRae

It is incredibly important to say that we must not allow a situation in which there is even a perception that our ability to welcome people fleeing conflict is being played off against the needs of homeless people in Scotland. I was struck by the Scottish Refugee Council’s submission to the committee, which references our call for new supply for that very reason. We note the announcement last week of a £50 million fund that local authorities can bid to in order to try to bring existing void social properties back into use. That is welcome, and there is capacity to do that.

That shows that, where there is a will to make better use of existing properties, we can do it. We need an integrated approach in which we recognise that the more people we can get out of temporary accommodation and into permanent accommodation, the more we create capacity in the temporary accommodation sector to meet the needs of Ukrainian refugees and other communities who are fleeing conflict.

That kind of chain, which involves taking an integrated approach to addressing the needs of people in the homelessness temporary accommodation system in order to free up capacity for people coming from Ukraine whose hosting situation falls through or who are currently being accommodated in unsatisfactory accommodation such as the floating refugee centres, is key.

We also hear from local authority partners that there is a risk in terms of opportunity cost. There are only so many members of staff, heads of housing and senior managers to deliver these services. They are spending a lot of time on the Ukraine issue, and we worry that there is not the capacity to also do the homelessness work.

I very much share the concerns, but I think that we can and should be able to do both.

Jeremy Balfour

I will push on that a wee bit. I think that what you suggest is all very sensible but it is only the best medium-term solution. My question is—given that I do not think that using a boat is a solution for anything except for an extremely short period of time—do you think that there is a short-term answer to the problem?

Gordon MacRae

I am sorry that I did not answer the dispersal element of your question.

The longer-term answer is that the housing needs of communities such as the Ukrainian refugees must be dealt with in a way that disperses them across the country and ensures that we make the best use of the accommodation that we have, but the arrangements must be suitable for those households.

We say that we need houses, but sustaining a house is about connection to the community and access to jobs, family and support networks. There is no point in pushing someone into a property up in Elgin if their support network is in Edinburgh. We have to be sensible, but we also need to be pragmatic. That is not the paradox that I think that some people in Government have sought to make it.

Frank McKillop, from your perspective and that of the people whom Enable supports, do you have anything that you want to mention in relation to homelessness?

Frank McKillop

It has not been a huge issue among our membership, to be honest. A lot of our members live with family members who might be homeowners, some of our members own their own homes and many of our members who rent their homes are in the social rented sector. Therefore, I will bow to Gordon MacRae’s knowledge and expertise on homelessness and housing.

The Convener

Gordon MacRae, I would like to discuss the proposals that Shelter has around changing the approach to affordable housing. I am specifically interested in the idea of considering it from a national perspective. As the COSLA spokesperson on this issue, you will be aware of how tense the situation is when 32 local authorities are looking at where the grant money is going and how much each one’s share is going to be.

What do you think the benefit of having that national approach could be? With regard to the empty homes partnership, how could we increase the speed with which we work collectively to buy back those properties and force a movement away from having properties sitting empty?

Could you also say something about the types of properties that councils and registered social landlords are building, with regard to them being convertible? I am talking about, for example, a two or three-bedroom property being able to become a four-bedroom property if it is built with capacity in the loft or whatever.

Gordon MacRae

I have many thoughts on those issues. The immediate priority is to have a long-term affordable housing programme that is sustained and that builds good-quality houses that meet people’s adaptive needs over their lifetime. We all share the desire to have that, but we cannot get away from the fact that we have a bubble in temporary accommodation right now, and we think that there would be a benefit in having a nationally led programme that would be delivered in partnership with local authorities and RSLs. Taking the money out of the local authority funding system and targeting it where it can have the greatest impact on reducing affordable housing need would allow us to put in place an interim programme that can turn the dial with regard to the number of children and families in temporary accommodation. That is what we are seeking to do.

We are not necessarily suggesting that the Scottish Government should become a landlord; we are suggesting that it direct a purchasing programme that considers what former right-to-buy properties are coming back on to the market within the current constraints of individual local authorities. Many local authorities, including the City of Edinburgh Council, are already buying properties but the question is whether they are able to do it at the scale and speed necessary to meet the levels of demand. We do not think that they are.

11:00  

From our conversations with local authorities, we think that they would welcome such an approach—certainly, the local authorities that are under the greatest pressure would. It is probably a question of having the capacity and skills within the Scottish Government to be able to direct that. However, if the principle is agreed, let us target additional resource where it will reduce affordable housing need. That requires direction. It cannot just be a bid-in system based on who has a land site that is ready to go or who has shovel-ready projects. That is not necessarily passive, but it is reactive and we need to be proactive in identifying where we can put our resource for the greatest benefit.

Miles Briggs

Going back to the rent control policy and unintended consequences, the Scottish Government has set itself a target of providing 110,000 affordable homes. We are now hearing from housing associations that they are not able to deliver that. Given what you said about the need for more supply, what impact do you think that the policy will have? Have you spoken to housing associations about it? They are really concerned about the very negative consequences that it will have on their ability to progress projects, which they might have to scrap.

Gordon MacRae

Are you referring to the rent freeze?

Yes.

Gordon MacRae

As I said, we share the concern that, if the rent freeze is unfunded, it will have a negative impact. However, there are choices that the Scottish Government can make. Just now, there is a roughly 50:50 split between grant funding and the landlord borrowing money. If we want to sustain rent freezes, that balance could shift more towards grant.

I am not a housing finance expert or a housing economist, so there are people who are better versed in that than I am. We share the aspiration to ensure that tenants do not have to pay any more money in rent during an extreme cost of living crisis, but the consequences of that have to be understood and financed. That is why we say that we need to buy and build. Local authorities and RSLs are pretty good at purchasing property when it suits their portfolio. We are saying that we can accelerate that approach, target it and take it beyond the limitations that those individual local authorities and RSLs have in order to ensure that the national aspiration of reducing affordable housing needs can be achieved through national leadership.

The Convener

In RSLs and councils, there is delegated authority for heads of housing to buy back ex-local authority properties as soon as they see that they are on the market. The question is how we make that quicker and bring pace to it.

Gordon MacRae

Or go beyond just buying back former RSL stock.

Yes, especially when it comes to bigger properties. That has been done in the past when looking for a four-bedroom property.

Paul McLennan

Gordon MacRae, I will touch on what you said about changing the approach to affordable housing and building more social housing. What level of discussions have you had with COSLA on its view on that? It is a key partner, along with individual local authorities. There might be capacity issues with how it develops that scheme.

The programme for government announced an increase to discretionary housing payments and an extension of the eligibility for the tenant grant fund. What impact will that have on tenants? Could any other measures be taken to address the cost of living for tenants?

Gordon MacRae

We have not had detailed conversations with COSLA and local government about our action plan, but, as I mentioned, there is already an interim recommendation from the temporary accommodation task and finish group that proposes a national acquisition plan to mitigate the lack of temporary accommodation. That group is co-chaired by the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers—ALACHO—and includes a representative from COSLA. Therefore, as the collective view of that task and finish group, that recommendation is implicitly endorsed by chief housing officers, although I cannot speak for them.

We welcome the additional funds for discretionary housing payments and the change in eligibility for the tenant grant fund. Our reflection on the tenant grant fund is that, so far, it has not gone far enough into the private rented sector. The reliance on local authorities as the promoters of it has bumped up against the challenge that private tenants do not have a relationship with their local authority. There was a good example during the pandemic whereby local authorities made use of the landlord registration scheme to write to all tenants, making them aware of their rights during the eviction moratorium. We suggest that that is something to consider, to ensure that private tenants know that they can access the tenant grant fund, because they are an incredibly hard group of people to reach as an audience segment, to use marketing terms.

Miles Briggs and I sit on the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee as well, so we could take that point back to it.

The Convener

I thank Gordon MacRae and Frank McKillop for coming along. If there is anything that they feel they need to follow up in writing with us, they should feel free to do so.

11:06 Meeting continued in private until 11:35.