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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 01 February 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Legal Aid Review, Female Genital Mutilation, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, State Pension Inequality


Portfolio Question Time

Third-party Right of Appeal (Planning Applications)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to revisit the granting of third-party rights of appeal in planning applications. (S5O-00609)

The introduction of a third-party right of appeal in the planning system has been considered on a number of occasions, including in our recent independent review of planning, which did not support such a change. Our on-going consultation focuses on the strengthening of engagement early in the planning process, rather than on the introduction of new appeal rights after a decision has been made.

Is the minister aware that many individuals and community groups feel that the planning system is loaded too much in favour of the applicants? Where is the fairness in applicants’ being able to appeal against a local authority’s refusal to grant planning consent when the same right is not given to objectors when planning consent is granted? What more is the Government planning to do about that?

We want more decisions to be made locally, and the expansion of the range of applications that can be delegated and made subject to local review procedures means that decisions will be taken at the lowest local level. The proposals in the consultation, which reflect those from the independent review, identify that more meaningful early collaboration will ensure that that happens.

I am keen to ensure that we become much more focused on ensuring that community planning and spatial planning come together. That is the best way to deal with all of this, rather than having even more centralisation and ministers having to decide on applications. We can do much to improve the system through use of new technologies. I hope that Ms Harris will respond to the current consultation and encourage all her constituents to do likewise.

Although the review did not recommend an equal right of appeal and the Government has ruled it out, it is true to say that people who commented—in particular, community organisations and groups—are in favour of such a right. Does the minister agree that, for the consultation and the process to have public confidence, we need to be able to answer the question why, when there is no equal right of appeal, there is any right of appeal? What rights will be in place for communities?

Our proposals, which reflect the independent review, follow on from wide public consultation and the focus on improving performance and confidence in the system. We also have to ensure that there is confidence about achieving the sustainable economic growth that we all want for Scotland.

The most important thing, as I said to Ms Harris, is to ensure that we get things right at the earliest possible part of the process, rather than having appeals at the end. That is why I am so keen to ensure that we engage communities through community planning—and that we bring spatial planning into that—so that they have their say at that point. All that is entirely valuable, and I believe that that is the best way forward. However, the Government will listen to what people have to say in the current consultation.

Local Authority Planning Rejections (Appeals)

To ask the Scottish Government what assurance it can give communities that objections to proposed developments will be fully considered in the appeals process, given the reported 25 per cent increase in the last year in the number of local authority planning rejections that were overruled by ministers. (S5O-00610)

Independent reporters consider all material considerations, including valid community representations, when making planning decisions on behalf of Scottish ministers. Our current planning consultation paper supports the independent panel’s view that appeal decision notices should clearly summarise how community views have been taken into account.

Residents in East Renfrewshire face the prospect of losing Broom park, which is a cherished community green space, to development. With mental health, obesity levels and poor fitness all topics of serious concern, it would be a mistake to allow the destruction of a resource that provides opportunities for recreation, exercise and social interaction. Does the Scottish National Party Government recognise those benefits to the community? What assurances can be given to the save Broom park protest group that the Scottish Government will support it in opposing the development?

Maurice Golden may be aware that I cannot, as planning minister, comment on individual cases that may cross my desk. If he was not aware of that, I ask him to take account of it when formulating questions in the future.

On the member’s initial question, the figure of a 25 per cent rise in the number of planning appeals that were allowed is due to a misrepresentation of DPEA—planning and environmental appeals division—decisions and the inclusion of work other than planning appeals. Figures for 2016-17, although they are obviously as yet incomplete, suggest that the percentage of appeals being allowed is in line with the figures for years for which we have complete data. Any fluctuation in the number of planning appeals in which the original decision has been overturned would be significantly lower than the 25 per cent level that is suggested by Mr Golden.

I would ask the residents whom Mr Golden mentions to engage, too, with the planning consultation. I reiterate what I have said previously: I want communities to become much more involved in the planning system in the early stages. That is the point at which they should have their real say, rather than relying on the appeals system.

Further to that comment, does the minister agree that the focus of the Scottish Government must be on strengthening engagement in the planning system? Does the minister recognise the benefits of stronger early engagement as a more positive and constructive approach?

I fully agree that early engagement in the planning process is essential, and Mr Lyle is absolutely right to highlight that. Our current consultation sets out proposals for improving engagement, including through a new right for communities to plan their own places, as well as measures to secure more meaningful engagement from the outset in both planning and decision making. That would be much more constructive than introducing the right of appeal at the very end of the process, as has been asked for by others.

Scotland Act 2016 (Commencement Orders)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it is confident that the United Kingdom Government will lay its commencement order in time for the Scottish Government to take forward its social security plans. (S5O-00611)

The joint ministerial working group on welfare, which comprises ministerial representatives from the Scottish Government, the Scotland Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, agreed at its most recent meeting on 11 October 2016 that the UK Government would work with the Scottish Government to transfer legislative competence by June 2017. That agreement is reflected in the published minutes of that meeting, and in all our discussions with the UK Government and the DWP since then we have been very clear that we expect the timetable to be adhered to.

Assuming that the commencement order is laid according to that timetable, we will introduce our social security bill to the Scottish Parliament by the end of this parliamentary year. Work on the bill is proceeding on the basis of that clear and unequivocal agreement.

Does the minister agree that it is the DWP that is responsible for the progress and delay of commencement of the relevant sections of the Scotland Act 2016, and that because the timetable is imperative in ensuring safe and secure transition of the powers, the DWP must take responsibility for the timetable, as it stands?

Clare Haughey is right that both Governments have a role in the exercise. The UK Government and the DWP are wholly and solely responsible for laying the necessary commencement order, which will allow the Scottish Government to meet our commitment to introduce a social security bill before the end of the current parliamentary year. That responsibility, naturally, extends not only to progress but to delay. However, we have not been talking to the UK Government and the DWP about delay; we have been talking to them about adhering to the timetable that we agreed in that joint ministerial working group. That said, safe and secure transfer of vital benefits that ensures that no payment is missed and that no recipient has to go without, requires that a large-scale programme of work be carried out jointly by the Scottish and UK Governments and the DWP. In delivering that, we will be accountable to the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland; I am sure that the UK Government and the DWP accept that they will be accountable for their parts.

The minister has said before that there is no delay, and in her answer to Clare Haughey she talked about “adhering to the timetable”. In that context, what is the timetable for the Scottish Government to publish its summary of the responses to the consultation exercise on social security?

We are almost at the end of receiving and looking through the independent analysis of the consultation responses and drafting our response to it, so I expect to be able to publish both in the coming weeks.

Charity and Third Sector Funding

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to ensure that charities and third sector organisations that support communities are appropriately resourced. (S5O-00612)

Charities and third sector organisations play a crucial role in supporting our communities and are key to driving forward social justice and inclusive economic growth. The third sector has access to resources through a range of programmes across the Scottish Government, and funding for the core third sector budget in 2017-18, will be protected at the 2016-17 level of £24.5 million.

When I visit and speak to third sector organisations, whose services are crucial in the community, I find that on-going funding is the major concern that is consistently raised. Organisations in my area, such as Addaction, which works with alcohol and drug addiction, WG13, which gives second chances to young people who are looking to develop work and life skills, Centrestage or the Holiday Project—and many more—are much better placed to deal with community issues than central Government. With an ever-decreasing pot to apply to and the declining resource of the Big Lottery Fund, will the Scottish Government consider how it can best support those vital community resources and influence the length of term of any funding to allow for proper planning and stability for service users and providers? After all, how effective could we be in our roles if we needed to seek annual re-election—shudder, shudder?

I thank Mr Whittle for his supplementary question because, unlike his equalities spokesperson a few weeks ago, he has taken the opportunity to advocate for and champion the role of the third sector. In our day-to-day jobs, we all rely on third sector organisations, which are often at the forefront of tackling poverty and inequality in our country.

Mr Whittle’s point about the need for longer-term security of funding is well made. We have a manifesto commitment on making it far easier for the voluntary sector and the third sector to access funding. We are also looking at three-year rolling funding, where that is appropriate.

Mr Whittle made a point about the voluntary sector having the reach into communities that statutory agencies struggle to have. I welcome his endorsement, praise and support of charities and the third sector. I hope that some of his colleagues learn from his example.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the Scottish Government has no intention of introducing an anti-advocacy clause that would restrict the activities and campaigns of charities and third sector organisations, as the UK Government has done?

I can confirm that the Scottish Government has absolutely no intention of introducing an anti-advocacy provision, as the UK Government has done. Charities and the third sector have been part of shaping Scotland for many years. They bring an insight and perspective to public policy, and we make absolutely no apology for operating in a way that enables our partners in third sector organisations to participate in policy development and to provide honest challenge. That is important.

One of the strengths of the third sector is that those organisations are not afraid to speak truth to power. That is not always comfortable for Governments, but it is part of who we seek to be, and we have no wish to deter that important part of the democratic process.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the fantastic work that is done on income maximisation by advocacy and advice workers in third sector and voluntary organisations. In order to provide those vital services, those organisations rely on local government for £8.75 million-worth of funding. How does the cabinet secretary think that the £327 million-worth of cuts to local government will impact on income maximisation advice and advocacy in the third sector, given that reliance on local government funding?

The reality is that tackling inequality, poverty and the systemic disadvantage that exists structurally in our economy is at the heart and the core of this Government. I believe that local authorities have been given a fair offer. When we consider the additional resources that are put into education, health and social care, we can see that there has been additional investment in services and on the front line.

Mr Griffin makes an important point about the role of advice services in relation to income maximisation. I endorse that. Across Government, we are investing between £40 million and £50 million in advice services. There are some specific funds for advice services that are very much focused on income maximisation. Further, at the beginning of the year, the Government announced a new fund: the £29 million aspiring communities fund, which has been matched by money from the European social fund. There are many sources of funding, and it is our job to ensure that we get maximum impact in that regard. The point that Mr Griffin makes about income maximisation is well made. Income maximisation is often the key to unlocking issues around disadvantage and, indeed, discrimination.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex-inclusive Education

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the time for inclusive education campaign pledge, which calls for LGBTI-inclusive education. (S5O-00613)

Ministers recognise that these are concerning issues and are committed to understanding more fully the current experiences and views of children and young people in schools. The Scottish Government will continue to work with all key stakeholders, including TIE, Stonewall Scotland and LGBT Youth Scotland to address their concerns.

It is important to better understand the relationship between mental health issues and bullying, and in particular the impact on LGBTI young people. We will take action to address that, including commissioning research, if appropriate.

I take as a matter of trust the fact that the Government has good will on these issues, and I hope that the Government understands that there is good will across the political spectrum on these issues, too, as evidenced by the fact that the 40-plus MSPs who signed the campaign pledge represent members of all political parties. I hope that we can agree that the issue is something on which we can make substantial progress together.

The campaign pledges include some things that could be done relatively quickly and straightforwardly, such as monitoring inclusion activity in schools, ensuring that bullying is properly recorded and developing teacher-training materials. I hope that progress can be made on all five elements of the campaign, including curricular inclusion, in the near future.

Given the level and breadth of political support for the campaign, will the cabinet secretary commit to giving a full written response, in detail, to the campaign pledges? Can she indicate how long it will take for the Government to produce that kind of response?

I thank Mr Harvie for the tone and tenor of his question. I will indeed supply a full written response. It is appropriate that I do that in partnership with the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

Mr Harvie will be aware, from the comments that the First Minister made only a few weeks ago, that the Government and ministers are supporters of the TIE campaign. The First Minister made crystal clear her commitment and determination to take forward the issues that have been identified.

We need to move from words to deeds. The Deputy First Minister has taken some early actions with regard to the delivery plan for education, with a timescale of reporting back this year. As a Government, we are considering our options for how we achieve what we all want, which is a better experience, better support and better outcomes for young people. We have to give serious consideration to how we achieve those in the context of how our education system currently operates.

Nonetheless, there are great opportunities for early action. As the equalities cabinet secretary, I am particularly interested in the issues around monitoring and reporting. I am aware that there have been surveys by TIE and Stonewall Scotland, as well as the health survey on bullying behaviour in schools. To me, that points to a need for more comprehensive research, but with the purpose of being a springboard for action.

Nonetheless, we need to look at where we can quickly move from words to deeds.

As the cabinet secretary will know, all schools must pursue an anti-bullying strategy. As many of us will recall from our own school days, children can be bullied because of their appearance, their ethnicity, the way they speak and a host of other reasons. Does she agree that schools must rigorously oppose the bullying of any pupil, regardless of the cause, wherever and whenever it occurs?

Yes. The Scottish Government has to take bullying, in all its forms, very seriously. Bullying of any kind, including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, is unacceptable and has to be addressed swiftly and effectively wherever and whenever it arises.

Children and young people have to feel safe, happy, respected and included in their learning environment. All staff have to be proactive in promoting positive relationships and behaviour in the classroom, in the playground and beyond, in the wider learning community.

We will publish our refreshed anti-bullying guidance later in the year, once the Deputy First Minister has had the opportunity to consider all the points that will be raised by the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee.

Carers Allowance (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government when carers allowance will be increased for carers in Glasgow. (S5O-00614)

Increasing carers allowance to the same level as jobseekers allowance, which will provide an additional £600 a year to carers, is one of the key commitments that we have made for our new social security powers. It reflects the recognition that we give to carers, who make such an important contribution to our society. We are in active discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions to assess options for delivery, ahead of the new social security agency being fully operational. At this point, it is not possible to confirm exact timescales.

I agree whole-heartedly with the policy of increasing carers allowance to the same level as jobseekers allowance. That will benefit carers who sacrifice their own lives to care for others—11,000 of them in my region, Glasgow. The minister is right to suggest that a £600 increase will be a lifeline for many carers, and it will represent a £6 million boost for carers in Glasgow alone. The reality is that the powers for that top-up came in September 2016, so I think that carers across the country deserve a direct answer about when we can expect the increase to take place. It is one thing to demand powers; it is a second to get a power; and it is a third to deliver justice and fairness for people who deserve the extra support.

I am glad that the member recognises that there are stages in this exercise. We have been around this a few times in the chamber. Those stages are that the United Kingdom Government has to lay the commencement order, we have to bring the bill to the Parliament, and we then have to establish our own social security agency to deliver, at our own hand, the increases, changes and improvements that we intend to make to the 11 benefits that will be devolved to us.

In advance of that, we rely on the DWP to make any changes that we might wish to make in the interim. I have just explained to Anas Sarwar that we are in active discussion with the DWP about its capacity to deliver any increase to the carers allowance in advance of us working through the proper stages to secure the safe and secure transfer of benefits to this Government. That is an indication of our recognition of the importance of the commitment that we have made to carers and of our intent to deliver that before we have the agency to deliver it for ourselves, but I cannot give a timescale at this point, because those discussions are on-going. As I made clear in an earlier answer, at this stage and throughout it is a joint exercise between this Government and the UK Government and the DWP. We need the DWP to be able to deliver that increase for us at this point, just as we have agreed with it how it will deliver the flexibilities in universal credit that I was pleased to announce a couple of weeks ago.

Charities and Third Sector (Social Role)

To ask the Scottish Government what role it considers charities and the third sector play in helping people and creating an equal and fairer society. (S5O-00615)

The third sector is a pillar of our society and is at the forefront of our drive to tackle poverty and inequality in Scotland. We should be proud that there are more than 45,000 third sector organisations operating in Scotland and that more than a quarter of the population volunteer. Many play their part in building a better and fairer Scotland for us all. That is why I have protected the third sector budget at the 2016-17 level of £24.5 million, to maximise the impact of the sector in reducing disadvantage and inequality, working with communities to tackle tough social issues at source.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that a recent comment piece by the Tories’ equalities spokesperson that gave credence to a tabloid investigation that was full of inaccuracies—or fake news, as some people might call it—and revealed the Tories’ preference for restricting the activities and campaigns of Scotland’s charities was shameful, and that we should instead celebrate the important role that the third sector plays in highlighting policy issues and providing a voice on public policy?

Yes. I personally found some of the stories that appeared in the press offensive and disrespectful to the thousands of staff and volunteers who work very hard for charitable causes up and down the country. Of course, the press and journalists are absolutely free to say and do as they wish; I would not want to interfere with that in any way. However, I was somewhat disappointed that a Tory member aided and abetted what I perceive to be a slur on an entire sector.

As members of the Scottish Parliament, all of us across the chamber know that we have benefited from and, no doubt, used and quoted from the briefings, information, policy work and evidence to committees that have been provided by our vibrant third sector. Our third sector organisations provide value for money and punch above their weight. They are, I repeat, a pillar of our democratic and transparent society. They are not afraid to speak truth to power, whoever is in power, and they are at the forefront of community-led action to tackle poverty and inequality.

A report that was published yesterday by the veterans’ mental health charity, Combat Stress, highlighted that Scottish veterans are much more likely to end up living in deprived areas than ex-servicemen and women in the rest of the United Kingdom. In a sample of 3,000 ex-service personnel, more than half were found to be living in some of the most deprived areas of Scotland. What action might the Scottish Government take to work with charities and the third sector to ensure that our veterans are adequately equipped with the resources that they need to meet the complex challenges that they face when they leave the military?

I welcome that question. I am a former prison social worker, and often in my case load I had ex-squaddies who had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and then abused drugs and alcohol and committed an offence. As a back bencher in the Parliament, I led a debate on the issue and did some work with stakeholders on the overrepresentation of veterans in our mental health system and our prison system. The member raises an important point, and he rightly points to the evidence that came to our attention yesterday.

In the Government, Keith Brown, over and above his responsibilities as economy secretary, has responsibility as a champion for veterans. We must remember that we have to work closely with the Ministry of Defence, which has responsibility, as we all do, for those who have given their utmost to serve their country. We must continue to care for them when their active service is over because, if we do not, that has extreme ramifications not just for them as individuals but for their families and communities. If there is further information that I can provide the member with on the work that we are doing in the third sector, I am happy to provide it. Colleagues across the Government are with Jamie Greene in the endeavour to do far more for our veterans.

Planning System (Regeneration and Economic Growth)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure that the planning system will drive forward regeneration and promote long-term economic growth. (S5O-00616)

Planning has a key role to play in delivering Scotland’s economic strategy. The importance of the role of planning in supporting regeneration and long-term economic growth runs through the proposals in our current planning consultation. One of the four outcomes that support the Scottish Government’s vision for the planning system is

“supporting sustainable economic growth and regeneration, and the creation of well-designed, sustainable places.”

Will the minister set out how Scotland’s planners can empower our communities and provide a stable environment for investment through the uncertain times that we live in?

We want Scotland’s planning system to empower people. We have invested in tools such as the place standard, which provides a framework for communities to get involved in the planning process. Use of the place standard is an excellent opportunity for people of all ages to take part in conversations about the quality and future of their places. Our proposals on long-term spatial planning and the delivery of infrastructure and housing will provide a secure environment for growth investment.

Beyond that, as I said in earlier answers, I want communities the length and breadth of Scotland to be involved in planning, and the incorporation of community planning and spatial planning is extremely important. As I did with other members who asked questions on this issue today, I encourage Ms Mackay to get as many of her constituents as possible to respond to the current planning review.

Funding and Support (Inequalities Projects)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding and support it provides to projects that aim to tackle inequalities. (S5O-00617)

In October 2016, the Scottish Government published its “Fairer Scotland Action Plan” to help to create a more socially just society. A number of budgets across the Government provide support to tackle inequality. For example, the social justice and regeneration budget allows us to deliver a range of actions to achieve social justice, including £3.6 million to support advice and advocacy services and £1 million to tackle food poverty. The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the £20 million empowering communities fund empower local people and help communities to deliver action to tackle poverty and inequality. In addition, the equality budget, at £20 million, supports activity to promote equality across the range of protected characteristics. There is also our recently announced funding of £29 million to support communities and third sector organisations to develop new ways of helping people to overcome disadvantage in their communities.

On tackling health inequalities, the cabinet secretary will be aware of the eat canny project in Moray, which is run by four local charities—Community Food Moray, Elgin Youth Development Group, REAP and Transition Town Forres. The project has held over 200 cooking classes and taken many other initiatives to help to make it easier for people to access healthy eating in their communities.

Its funding is due to run out in March. I am sure that the cabinet secretary agrees that it is really important that it continues its good work. I know that various cabinet secretaries have funds that could help that kind of project to continue in our communities throughout Scotland. Is the cabinet secretary willing to have her officials look at what help could be made available to the eat canny project, so that it can continue its good work in the Moray communities, just as similar initiatives are working elsewhere in the country?

I am aware of the excellent work that eat canny undertakes, in particular its work to tackle health inequalities through food.

Mr Lochhead is right: there are a range of alternative funding sources. For example, the aspiring communities fund will provide support to communities to work collaboratively with partners to accelerate the design and delivery of what I stress are community-led initiatives to tackle poverty, inequality and exclusion. The Government funds community food and health (Scotland), which provides a range of advice and support to groups on things such as practice development, community retailing, nutrition and cooking classes and runs an annual development fund. I can write to Richard Lochhead with more detail on that and on the work that is undertaken across Government.

Question 10 has been withdrawn.

Food Banks

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports food banks. (S5O-00619)

We believe that access to sufficient nutritious food is a basic human right and that no one in a nation that is as rich as Scotland should have to access food banks, which is why we have established a £1 million a year fair food fund. It supports the development of approaches that support people who are affected by food poverty and do so in a dignified, sustainable way that reduces reliance on emergency food aid.

The fair food transformation fund, which is a subset of the fair food fund, supports 36 projects, 14 of which are food banks that are adapting their model to provide more dignified responses.

I had a productive meeting with the Trussell Trust recently in which we discussed key areas where we could work together, including by supporting the trust to carry out some key research into food poverty.

I put on record my thanks to the Trussell Trust for educating me and a number of members about the wonderful work that all food banks do and that has become necessary in today’s world. Importantly, many food banks now go beyond the role of ensuring that people do not starve by performing a wider advocacy role.

Is there a Government policy on the long-term use of food banks? Necessary though they are now, in the long term we would want to see progress towards ensuring that they are not a necessary part of society.

Further, would the minister consider an all-party meeting to discuss the use of food banks, so that we could perhaps get an understanding of the Government’s approach to their funding, given the wider role that they seem to be playing?

Yes. I am always happy to meet Pauline McNeill and other members to discuss our long-term approach to tackling the causes and consequences of food poverty.

I am sure that Pauline McNeill is aware of the short-life working group on food poverty, which produced the report “Dignity: Ending Hunger Together in Scotland”. We very much based our policy and approach on the work that the group did on the fair food principles, which must have dignity at their heart, and on opportunities for service users both to have a real say in how services are delivered and to volunteer or upskill.

Of course, we must all be in the business of finding ways to eradicate the need for food banks, as opposed to allowing them to become normalised. As a result of the work that we have done with the short-life working group, we are focused on moving from food charity to food justice and are pursuing work in a number of areas to achieve that. I am always happy to discuss that work in more detail.

I agree with many of Pauline McNeill’s comments. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the United Kingdom Government’s maladministration of benefits, its benefit cuts and its benefit sanctions have continually pushed more and more people into food poverty, that they have increased the demand for and the number of food banks in Scotland and that that shocking trend needs to stop?

Yes, that is my view, as a Scottish Government minister. It is also the view of the independent third sector, which points to clear evidence that the current benefit conditionality and sanctions regime is neither fair nor proportionate.

The Scottish Government and stakeholders have highlighted the negative impact of sanctions on individuals across Scotland. It is clear that sanctions have been a major driver of food bank use. According to the most recent figures from the Trussell Trust, the number of people who seek assistance from food banks continues to rise, and issues to do with benefits account for 44 per cent of referrals.

It is clear to me that food poverty is a symptom of wider poverty and that the UK Government’s welfare cuts and punitive sanctions regime are pushing more and more people into acute income crisis. That is a shameful situation in an advanced and successful country and economy such as ours.

I apologise to members for not getting through very many questions.