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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 30, 2024


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio questions, and the portfolio on this occasion is social justice. I remind members that if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question. There is quite a bit of interest in asking supplementaries, so I make the usual appeal for questions not to come in four parts with a long preamble, and for responses to be similarly brief.

Child Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what steps it is taking to address child poverty. (S6O-03500)

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

Eradicating child poverty in Scotland is the First Minister’s, and the Government’s, top priority. We are providing a range of support to families, including our game-changing Scottish child payment, which—as statistics that were published this week show—was benefiting more than 329,000 children by the end of March. We have also funded childcare, free bus travel for under-22s and free school meals for more than 277,000 children.

Modelling that was published in February estimates that our policies will keep 100,000 children out of relative poverty in 2024-25. On 4 June, I will provide an update to Parliament on the progress that has been made on tackling child poverty.

Gillian Mackay

Given that around a quarter of children in Falkirk, in my Central Scotland region, are living in poverty, according to the most recent statistics that have been published, what specific steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure, through its strategy, that take-up of social security benefits is maximised and that automatic access to benefits is advanced?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Gillian Mackay is right to point out the importance of automation. I am pleased to see that the statistics for the Scottish child payment also demonstrate the automated payments that are now being made for best start grants, for example. Those came in before the Scottish child payment was in place, and we have now enabled aspects of the application forms and the payments to be automated to ensure that people can get what they are entitled to. I am determined to see what more we can do on that over the years ahead.

There are a couple of supplementaries.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Last week, Professor Danny Dorling told the Social Justice and Social Security Committee that Europe is paying close attention to the Scottish child payment as an example of how policy can radically reduce child poverty levels.

Given how Barnett consequentials work, would the cabinet secretary encourage the United Kingdom Government to do likewise—taking an evidence-based approach to tackling child poverty and removing the many barriers from Westminster that have an impact in that regard?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Bob Doris for bringing to my attention Professor Dorling’s remarks. I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Dorling when I was down in London a few months ago, which I found very insightful.

The member is right to point to the fact that the Scottish child payment is available only in Scotland. If a UK Government of whatever persuasion was to follow our lead and ensure that it had a universal credit and welfare system that actually met people’s essential needs, which is why we have asked for an essentials guarantee to be introduced at UK level, some of the changes that could be made through that would allow the Scottish Government to receive Barnett consequentials in that area. We should think about what more this Parliament could do if we were funded effectively to eradicate child poverty.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

One Parent Families Scotland has found that

“39% of children in single parent families live in poverty”,

but the delivery of 1,140 hours of free childcare is not sufficient to enable single parents to work, as it covers only the school day. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that the provision of 1,140 hours of childcare is delivered more flexibly in order to meet the needs of families, in particular single mothers?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I had an interesting discussion with One Parent Families Scotland on that matter and other matters when I met its representatives recently. I point out to Foysol Choudhury that the Government is exceptionally proud of our record on delivering childcare. Since the Scottish National Party came to power, we have seen a doubling in the hours of free childcare that are available.

Under the current system, it is up to local authorities to ensure that there is flexibility to be able to meet the needs of the public in their area. I am sure that the member would wish to take up the matter with the City of Edinburgh Council, as I presume that that is the area in question, or with whichever councils are involved, to ensure that they are delivering for everybody, including single parents.

Discretionary Housing Payments (East and South Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding it provided to East and South Ayrshire councils in 2023-24 for discretionary housing payments. (S6O-03501)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

The Scottish Government provided more than £2.6 million to East Ayrshire Council for discretionary housing payments in 2023-24, which supported more than 3,400 households. South Ayrshire Council received more than £1.7 million, which supported more than 2,000 households.

In 2024-25, the Scottish Government has increased the total discretionary housing payment budget by £6.8 million. The extra money that the Scottish Government provided through discretionary housing payments is just one of the actions that we are taking to help households across the country through the cost of living crisis.

Elena Whitham

Statistics that were released this week show that more than 135,000 awards were delivered across Scotland for discretionary housing payments in 2023-24, with more than 4,000 in East Ayrshire and more than 3,300 in South Ayrshire. As they are our main tool for mitigating harmful United Kingdom Government welfare policies, such as the bedroom tax, can the minister comment on the importance of discretionary housing payments as a means to prevent vulnerable households being driven into homelessness in Scotland? How can we promote their uptake?

Paul McLennan

Discretionary housing payments are a vital tool in reducing poverty, safeguarding tenancies and preventing homelessness. That is why we have invested more than £613 million since 2017. Discretionary housing payments are just one action that we are taking to help households across the country to mitigate more than a decade of austerity from Westminster Governments. We are investing around £3 billion a year in policies that protect people as far as possible in the cost of living crisis. That includes an extra £6.8 million in the budget for discretionary housing payments in 2024-25 to directly mitigate punitive policies such as the bedroom tax.

Question 3 is from Paul O’Kane, who joins us remotely.

Food Poverty

3. Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address food poverty, in light of the recent figures published by the Trussell Trust showing that its network distributed 262,400 emergency food parcels in the last 12 months. (S6O-03502)

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

It is not acceptable for anyone to have to rely on emergency food parcels.

This week, I visited the Courtyard Pantry Enterprise in Glasgow, where I saw at first hand how trusted community organisations can support families to access healthy, affordable foods and refer them to financial advice services.

Scottish Government policy choices have helped to slow the pace of demand for food parcels in Scotland, and Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom not to see an increase in the number of parcels distributed through the Trussell Trust network last year. However, we must work with any incoming UK Government to urgently fix the issues with universal credit that are driving food bank use.

Paul O’Kane

Last year, the cabinet secretary published a nine-point plan to end food bank use, but the Trussell Trust stated unequivocally that it was “disappointed” with the lack of ambition in the plan and that it failed to show the “requisite leadership and urgency”.

I hear the cabinet secretary saying that the Scottish Government would want to work with an incoming Government, so I am sure that she will agree that an incoming Labour Government—which would prioritise ensuring that work pays and that we support the stabilisation of the economy so that food prices go down—would be very welcome.

How does she respond to those comments by the Trussell Trust? When will she return to her nine-point plan and ensure that it is delivered with the ambition that is required?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am happy to work with any UK Government of any persuasion that has the best interests of the people of Scotland at its heart. That is why I am disappointed to note that Paul O’Kane’s party does not seek to change any of the Tory austerity welfare policies that we have.

Given the level of concern from trade unions on some of the employability and fair work measures that may or may not happen if Labour is elected, I wait to see what happens in reality.

It is important to point to the fact that the cash-first approach that the Scottish Government has developed has been welcomed by many people within anti-poverty charities and organisations. I was pleased to see how that work has helped people; it is not just about establishing more dignity for people but about ensuring that we support them out of poverty.

I hope that Paul O’Kane will join me in recognising the Trussell Trust’s call for a UK Government to establish an essentials guarantee—something that the Scottish Government has been calling for for some time. [[Applause.]

I call Bill Kidd for a supplementary question.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

Thank you, Presiding Officer, and I thank my colleagues for the applause. [Laughter.]

Will the cabinet secretary comment on the Fraser of Allander Institute data that shows the significant impact that the Scottish child payment has already had on food bank usage in Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The latest research demonstrates the impact of the Scottish child payment in assisting people who are struggling to feed their families. It has successfully reduced food bank usage for specific types of households. The families of more than 329,000 under-16s were benefiting from the Scottish child payment at the end of March. However, I absolutely recognise that we need to do more, because any family or individual who goes to a food bank is in crisis, and we should not be at that point in this day and age. That is why we have a social security system that is here to deliver for the people of Scotland. I can only hope that, at some point, we have a UK Government that does the same in relation to its responsibilities for social security.

Employment Injury Assistance

4. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I remind members of my voluntary entry in the register of members’ interests.

To ask the Scottish Government when it anticipates the first payment of employment injury assistance will be made. (S6O-03503)

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

The Scottish Government launched a consultation on employment injury assistance on 30 April. The consultation, which closes on 24 June, will provide vital insights into how employment injury assistance can better meet the needs of disabled people in Scotland in the future and is an important first step in the longer-term reform of the United Kingdom industrial injuries scheme in Scotland.

Richard Leonard

Four years after the devolution of the benefit, the Government has finally launched this consultation paper, in which it admits that there is widespread concern and in which it admits that this has been a low priority. The new First Minister has promised us more concrete actions and fewer strategy documents, and yet here we are with yet another consultation paper. Does the cabinet secretary not understand that those former professional footballers with dementia, those firefighters with cancer, those workers across occupations who are suffering from long Covid, and all those women workers with industrial injury and disease contracted through their work expect more understanding, demand more urgency and deserve more concrete actions from this Government?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Women Against State Pension Inequality deserve urgent action, and the women who required equal pay deserved urgent action. I am not entirely sure where Richard Leonard was when those issues were being discussed, particularly those in Glasgow.

It is important that we develop a system that is done in consultation. That is exactly why we have a social security system in Scotland that is working effectively. One of the challenges is that, since the war, successive Governments of every colour have led us to a UK industrial injury scheme that consists of warehouses of paper forms. That scheme is not fit for purpose, nor has it been changed by any Government. I appreciate that there is frustration about the need for change; it is unfortunate that people have not seen that change under successive UK Governments for decades.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Based on what the cabinet secretary just said, will she confirm that transferring the current system to Scotland must be the emphasis and that it is a major task? Will she also point out, or ask Richard Leonard, where the money for all the extra benefits that he is looking for would come from?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

John Mason knows—and I hope that many members across the chamber understand—that our position has always been to have a safe and secure transition of benefits from the UK Government to a system here in Scotland. That is all done based on dignity, fairness and respect.

The member is quite right to point out that we need to ensure that the transfer is done safely. That is exactly why—again, we go back to the point on the urgency of a consultation, which will be considered by Government—we need to take account of the changes that people want to see. The existing scheme has seen no changes since it was introduced in the post-war era.

Cost will be a factor, but it is important that it is only one factor. We need to ensure that we deliver a system that provides dignity, particularly for those the system has failed to date.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

The availability of expertise on industrial diseases has been raised as an issue for any potential future Scottish employment injury assistance advisory council. Will the cabinet secretary confirm what scoping has been carried out to see whether enough experts in that field are available in Scotland?

As briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The member raises an important practical point that we need to look at. It is disappointing that the United Kingdom Government has ensured that we—the Scottish Government—cannot ask the current council for advice, which means that we need to look for other approaches, and we will do that through the consultation.

Disabled People (Treatment as Benefit Claimants)

5. Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that disabled people who receive Scottish social security benefits are treated lawfully, in light of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s reported investigation into the treatment of some disabled benefits claimants by the United Kingdom Department for Work and Pensions. (S6O-03504)

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

We have very serious concerns over the UK Government’s treatment of people applying for disability benefits, so I welcome the investigation. The Scottish Government has taken relevant public sector equality duties into account throughout the development of disability assistance, which has been assured through processes of drafting and publishing comprehensive equality impact assessments.

The Government is committed to undertaking such assessments with every new policy that impacts on disabled people. Scotland’s social security system is designed on the principles of dignity, fairness and respect. Those are the values of this Government and of the people of Scotland.

Rona Mackay

Will the cabinet secretary expand on specific measures that are in place to ensure that the assessment processes for Scottish social security benefits adhere to those principles of fairness, dignity and respect for disabled claimants? How do those measures differ from those used by the UK Department for Work and Pensions?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I was pleased to hear about the real difference that the new system in Scotland is making when I was on one of my most recent visits to Forgewood community centre in Motherwell. There, I heard directly from carers and from people who they care for about the difference that it makes having no private sector assessments as part of the system and having a system that has been designed with people to maximise the benefits that they are entitled to, given that social security is a human right. That compassionate approach is in stark contrast to the DWP’s approach.

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

It is clear that our social security and benefits ambitions in Scotland have a quite different foundation from those elsewhere on these islands, but we must continue to improve. What work is being undertaken to ensure increased and improved understanding of chronic but very variable conditions across our social security system, so that people do not have their needs judged based on their best days but are instead supported to cope and thrive on their worst days?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Maggie Chapman raises an important point that was raised by many people when we were designing child disability payment and adult disability payment. They felt that the application system and the assessment process did not work for people with variable conditions. That is exactly why we went through a consultation process to design our current system with people who have that experience, to ensure that the application form and the way in which decisions are taken are the best that they possibly can be for those people. It is clear that the system is still new, and we will have more to learn, but we are determined to do that.

Question 6 has been withdrawn.

Rural Affordable Homes for Key Workers Fund

7. Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I apologise to members for my late arrival.

To ask the Scottish Government how its rural affordable homes for key workers fund will help tackle island depopulation. (S6O-03506)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

I recognise the importance of good-quality affordable homes to attracting and retaining people in our rural and island communities, including for key workers. This year, we will invest nearly £600 million in affordable homes across Scotland, including through the demand-led rural and islands housing fund and the key workers fund, from which four affordable homes have already been approved in Orkney.

Between 2016-17 and 2022-23, through the wider affordable housing supply programme, more than 10,000 affordable homes have been supported across rural and island areas, and more than 1,100 of those have been delivered in island communities.

Kenneth Gibson

The lack of workers is the key constraint for many island businesses and public services. The fund is a welcome measure for attracting and retaining people in our island communities. How flexible will the scheme be, given that organisations such as the Arran Development Trust have highlighted issues with accessing the affordable housing supply programme and the rural and islands housing fund?

Paul McLennan

My officials recently met the Arran Development Trust to discuss the concerns that have been raised and to encourage collaborative working with North Ayrshire Council to support delivery of high-quality permanent and affordable homes for key workers where they are required. The £30 million rural and islands housing fund can also support delivery of high-quality homes, which can help to attract and retain economically active workers in rural areas, and community groups such as the Arran Development Trust are able to access the fund.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I know that the Deputy Presiding Officer will welcome the four homes that have been provided in Orkney, but there has been nothing else across the country for a whole year now. It is clear from what Kenneth Gibson has said that the criteria for the scheme are way too limited. Will the minister review the criteria and consider the development of a national empty homes fund for island and rural communities?

Paul McLennan

I will pick up on those two points. I mentioned the four homes that have been approved in Orkney, and discussions are on-going with councils in the Western Isles, Argyll and Bute, Fife, Perth and Kinross and North Ayrshire about the delivery of projects. It is important that the projects be delivered strategically across areas; it is not just about individual projects.

On the member’s point about empty homes, the Scottish Government has, I think, spent about £3.5 million on developing 9,000 empty homes. That funding is available across Scotland. I am happy to pick up on issues that the member has raised about rural communities in that regard.

There are many other developments. For example, we are working with Highland Council on the freeport provision in that area, and we are working with Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks on the key workers’ accommodation, both temporary and permanent, that is required for renewables hubs.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

When I last raised with the First Minister the issue of the provision of housing to allow Portree community hospital to be open 24/7, he gave me a long list of actions that were being taken around the Broadford hospital. Although those are laudable, they do nothing to keep the Portree hospital open when it is required. How will the Scottish Government provide housing for key workers specifically in Portree?

Paul McLennan

I was in the chamber when that issue was raised. One of the key things that we talked about in relation to key workers was the strategic overview that the local authority must take. It would be the first port of call in that regard.

I am happy to meet Rhoda Grant and people in the area to discuss that particular point. If she wants, she can contact me after this.

Question 8 is from Rachael Hamilton, who joins us remotely.

Equality Act 2010 (Guidance on Exemptions)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to update any guidance that it provides regarding the application of single-sex exemptions under the Equality Act 2010 in public buildings in Scotland. (S6O-03507)

The Minister for Equalities (Kaukab Stewart)

Rachael Hamilton will be aware that the Equality Act 2010 is largely reserved. The United Kingdom Government has recently issued a call for input, which extends to Scotland, seeking examples of guidance on single-sex spaces. There are no immediate plans to update any guidance in that area.

Rachael Hamilton

I am afraid that I have lost sound to the chamber, Presiding Officer, but I will ask my supplementary question.

Women’s groups have expressed concerns about the use of gender-neutral toilets in changing places. A UK Government consultation found that 81 per cent of respondents agreed with the intention that separate single-sex toilets be provided in public buildings. Does the Scottish Government plan to mirror the UK Government in bringing forward requirements for single-sex toilet facilities in non-domestic buildings?

Kaukab Stewart

As the member has said, the matter relates to building regulations in England only. The Scottish building regulations require all new buildings to provide sanitary facilities for all occupants and visitors. Those who make a building warrant application are responsible for designing proposals that satisfy the building regulations. Such proposals should give appropriate consideration to the provision of male, female and unisex facilities to meet the needs of building users. The building regulations do not address the onward use of buildings by those who can and cannot use toilets based on a person’s gender or sex.

That concludes portfolio question time.

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

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am very supportive of members being able to work in a hybrid way in the Parliament, given that I am a working mother, but it is the responsibility of everyone taking part to have secure connections. I am concerned that the minister has given answers that the member asking the questions could not hear, by her own admission. What more can we do to ensure that members have secure connections, so that those who ask questions of the Government can hear the answers?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I do not think that that is a point of order, but it is not an unreasonable point, and I will reflect further on it. If there is anything to say to members on the matter, whether in the chamber or in writing, I will ensure that that happens.