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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 01 September 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Programme for Government 2020-21, Care Homes, Logan Review (Technology Sector), Committee Announcement, Agriculture Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Topical Question Time

School Pupils (Positive Covid-19 Tests)

To ask the Scottish Government how many pupils have tested positive for Covid-19 since schools reopened. (S5T-02350)

Since the start of term, 77 young people aged 12 to 17 have tested positive, and 40 children aged 5 to 11 have tested positive.

I thank the cabinet secretary for those numbers. In his response, perhaps he will give an indication of the number of pupils who have been tested to elicit those positive results.

From its analysis of the data, does the Government know whether that cohort of positive results is from transmission from community to young person or from young person to young person, and whether there is any known onward transmission from young people to adults?

Will the cabinet secretary give a cast-iron guarantee that full and successful contact tracing has taken place for the households of every pupil who has tested positive?

Jamie Greene’s first point was about the number of tests that have been carried out. The number of pupils in the 12 to 17 age group who tested positive was 77 and the number who tested negative was 11,208. In the five to 11-year-old category, 40 pupils tested positive and 28,664 tested negative. The positivity rate for five to 11-year-olds was 0.1 per cent. The positivity rate for the 12 to 17 age group was 0.7 per cent.

Full contact tracing is undertaken for all positive cases that are detected, and I pay tribute to the enormous industry that is put into that effort by the contact tracers. They have a really difficult job to do; they do it with proficiency and accuracy, and comprehensively.

On Jamie Greene’s other point, in relation to the work that is carried out in schools, every effort is made to understand where infection has come from. On the evidence that I have seen, the virus is contracted mostly in household settings—not in every case, but that is the predominant explanation. It may also involve international travel, which has resulted in quite a number of the cases with which we are wrestling.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that helpful update on the numbers. That has clarified that there have been more than 30,000 tests of young people, of whom just over 100 have tested positive.

Last week, the Scottish Conservatives highlighted the issue of access to testing. Clearly, there has been a rise in the number of people seeking testing—perhaps that is a symptom of children going back to school. We have also called on the Government to supply every school with a number of home testing kits—that is a simple move that would benefit those from vulnerable households or who are unable easily to access mobile or drive-through testing facilities. Does the cabinet secretary agree with that suggestion? If not, why not?

Any individual who has the symptoms of coronavirus should access a test. That can be undertaken through various means—through drive-through testing facilities or testing kits that are despatched to individuals. I am satisfied that appropriate mechanisms are available to enable all individuals who have the symptoms to secure a test.

Increasing numbers of tests are being undertaken. In the first week of schools being back, 1,496 tests were undertaken in the 5 to 11 age group. In contrast, in the week ending 30 August, the number was 17,109, which is more than a tenfold increase in testing for that age group. I am confident that we have an appropriate level of testing in place to meet the needs of individual young people.

Three members wish to ask a supplementary question.

The cabinet secretary said that teachers and nursery and school staff would have access to testing on demand, to provide additional reassurance to those who work in schools. Will he confirm whether that additional testing route is now in place in all local authorities in Scotland? How many tests have been undertaken via that route?

That testing route is available in all local authority areas. I do not have the data on how many staff have accessed it, but if we can disaggregate the data in order to answer the question, I will write to Beatrice Wishart with the details.

Yesterday evening, I retweeted St Aidan’s high school in my constituency, which had placed the open letter from Professor Jason Leitch on its Twitter feed. What was the rationale for releasing the letter, and how can we better disseminate the important information that is in it?

We took the decision to release the letter to provide greater clarity and information for parents on distinguishing between the symptoms of the common cold, which is a common challenge and a prevalent problem at this stage in the year when schools return, and the symptoms of Covid, which are fundamentally different. The national clinical director’s letter was designed to assist with that. It has been widely shared, and I am delighted to hear that it has been shared in Clare Adamson’s constituency.

I pay tribute to schools, which adapted swiftly to the introduction of face coverings in secondary schools yesterday. I have spoken to a number of headteachers, who paid tribute to the extraordinary level of compliance from pupils with the guidance that came into effect yesterday.

Is the cabinet secretary satisfied that the resources that schools need to provide protection against Covid are being made available by the Government?

I raise that point specifically because I have taken it up with the education authority in Fife. Many teachers there have told me that local budgets that were meant to be spent on learning and teaching are being cut in order to provide sanitiser and personal protective equipment.

Will the cabinet secretary give me a guarantee that the Government will make that money available? Will he look specifically at Fife, where there are issues?

I have seen the reports to which Alex Rowley refers, regarding Fife and individual schools. The situation is this: the Government has made available £20 million directly to local authorities across Scotland, on the basis of a distribution formula that was agreed with local government, which is designed to meet the additional costs of school reopening. That is new money that the Government has put on the table.

We have said that where local authorities tabulate the extra financial costs of reopening schools in the post-Covid climate, the Government will look at those costs. We have also said that we are prepared to meet a further £30 million of costs.

The scenario that Mr Rowley put to me in which schools are being asked, for example, to dip into their learning and teaching budgets to provide sanitiser should not arise, given that the Government has put in place up to £50 million of new resources to meet exactly those costs—which it is imperative to meet—in schools so that our schools can be as safe as possible. If Mr Rowley has specific examples that he wishes me to pursue, I will be happy to receive information on those from him.

Scottish Welfare Fund

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason the Scottish welfare fund is reportedly being underutilised. (S5T-02357)

The figures that we published today show that crisis grants increased by 45 per cent during April and July, with expenditure increasing by 62 per cent. That shows that the continuing combination of United Kingdom welfare cuts alongside the economic impact of Covid-19 unfortunately means that the Scottish welfare fund is far from being underutilised.

As part of the £350 million community funding that was announced in March, we more than doubled the fund in anticipation that more people would need that additional financial support, not just during lockdown but throughout this year.

As the member knows, the fund is delivered by local authorities, and we continue to work with them to increase awareness of the fund. I am considering further ways in which we can ensure that people know about the fund and that as many people as possible who need that support are able to access it.

The impact of Covid-19 on people with low incomes is stark, and many desperately need assistance to meet even their basic living costs. However, the data that the Poverty and Inequality Commission has published show that throughout April, May and June this year, the Scottish welfare fund was underused. Only £8.6 million was spent across those months, which is more than £1 million less than in the same period last year. That spend is only 15 per cent of the budget available this year, whereas at the same point last year 25 per cent of the budget had been spent. The commission has subsequently stated:

“in the 3 months at the epi-centre of the biggest public health crisis in over a century, it does not seem right that the money allocated to the Scottish Welfare Fund is not being used to maximum benefit.”

It is clear that the Scottish welfare fund is not being accessed by all those who need it. When the Scottish Government is considering how to increase access, will it commit to raising awareness of the fund and having a campaign to highlight how those in need can access it?

The figures that have come out over the past couple of months are for crisis grants and community care grants. Local authorities spent 62 per cent more on crisis grants between April and July than they did in the same period last year, which shows that local authorities are responding significantly to the increased demand for support from people facing financial crisis.

Demand for community care grants, which are provided to support people to live independently, is lower than last year. Given that a community care grant is typically six times the value of a crisis grant, it is perhaps not surprising that overall expenditure has been reduced. Some local authorities have reported that the reduction in demand for community care grants might be because there has been a reduction in new tenancies and house moves.

The Scottish Government is keeping a very close eye on the matter. As I said in my first answer, the Scottish welfare fund is delivered by local authorities. However, I am giving close consideration to what else needs to be done at a national level to ensure that those who require the support of crisis grants at this time are aware of their existence. I will work with local authorities to ensure that we do just that.

Although the forthcoming Scottish child payment is welcome, we know that it will not be paid for another six months. Families across Scotland are struggling due to the effects of the pandemic, and they need help now. We know that there is money available in the welfare fund. The Poverty and Inequality Commission believes that a cash-first approach is the most dignified way of helping those in need. Will the Scottish Government therefore use the fund to create a one-off grant to eligible families, equivalent to what they would have received as a Scottish child payment, to see them through until that payment is available in February?

I am afraid that it is not as simple as Ms Grant makes out. To set up a new fund that would replicate the Scottish child payment would require the data and processes to be available to make those payments. That is why we are working as fast as we can to deliver the Scottish child payment, which, despite all the difficulties that we have had because of Covid and lockdown, is being moved by only two months from our original timeframe. That demonstrates this Government’s commitment to the delivery of the payment.

That is by no means the only thing that the Government has been doing to ensure that low-income families are supported. Much of it was set out by my colleague Aileen Campbell in her speech to Parliament last week, when she reported on the tackling child poverty delivery plan. We are implementing a number of different measures to ensure that we support families at this time, very much on the basis of a cash-first process.

Given that the Scottish welfare fund is delivered by local authorities, will the cabinet secretary outline what role local authorities have in ensuring that citizens are aware of the fund and how to access it?

Mr Arthur is quite right to point out that the welfare fund is administered by local authorities. There is national statutory guidance, but awards are made at local authorities’ discretion.

I am aware that the Poverty and Inequality Commission raised concerns that there are differences in the ways in which local authorities deliver the fund, make people aware of it and support people to access it. That is done through local publicity and local referrals. If there is something that can be done at a national level, I am keen to do that, but I am also keen to work with local authorities to make sure that they are delivering on their obligations, as I am sure that they would like to do.

I very much welcome the Scottish Government’s early action in March to double the Scottish welfare fund, but does the cabinet secretary agree that the real issue here is that the increased demand during the pandemic is further evidence that UK welfare benefits are simply not sufficient for people to make ends meet?

Mr Brown makes a very important point; the crisis grants are there for assistance in times of crisis. It would be lovely if we lived in a time when people were not forced to get to that crisis point in the first place, because the welfare system at the United Kingdom level—from where the support for low income largely comes—was sufficient for them to deliver on their obligations to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. Unfortunately, that is not the case, but we will continue to press the UK Government to stop people falling into crisis in the first place.

An important part of that is the continuation of the furlough scheme; if the UK Government decides to end it, I fear that that will lead people into requiring the Scottish welfare fund and further crisis grants. That cannot be the best way to deal with people at difficult times in their lives during the pandemic.

Women in particular have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Will the Scottish Government consider utilising underused funds to prioritise the needs of lone-parent households or those with childcare and care responsibilities? A practical suggestion might be supporting access to services that are currently available only online, because face-to-face services have not yet resumed.

Across Government, we have undertaken urgent work to ensure that we deliver support to those who have been digitally disadvantaged during the pandemic. I will take recommendations and suggestions from any party and I welcome Rachael Hamilton to her role as the new spokesperson on the issue.

I will give a suggestion back. One of the biggest reasons why people are falling into poverty during Covid-19 is the benefit cap. If the UK Government reduced or took away the benefit cap, people would not be falling into poverty in the first place and would therefore not need the crisis grant.

Advice Services

To ask the Scottish Government what advice services are available to people across Scotland, and whether it considers that such services are adequate. (S5T-02361)

Numerous organisations provide advice to people across the country, from small local community organisations to large national organisations including the Citizens Advice Scotland network, Shelter Scotland and StepChange. Of course, local authorities also provide advice services for their communities.

The Scottish Government recognises that access to independent advice plays a critical role in helping people to understand and exercise their rights and to seek solutions in a range of areas such as housing, debt and social security entitlements. That advice is funded through a mix of local and national Government funding, as well as from other sources. The Scottish Government invests more than £12 million in a number of projects that are delivered by a variety of advice services across Scotland.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that reply. She mentioned citizens advice bureaux. That is obviously the thought behind my question, because, in Glasgow, five of our extremely trusted and well-known citizens advice bureaux might have their funding withdrawn by Glasgow City Council. I do not think that CABx are perfect; in some ways, they are old fashioned. I do not like people having to queue on the pavement to get into them, and they are bureaucratic. However, they are trusted and well known, and they provide a wide range of services. Is there a need for more emphasis on national rather than local funding?

I thank John Mason for raising that critically important question in the chamber. Citizens advice bureaux support people in our communities across the country. As he knows, the majority are individual charities, with each bureau being responsible for its own funding, including any core funding from the local authority as well as project funding from other sources such as the Big Lottery Fund. For example, through the Department for Work and Pensions, the network receives £4 million for delivery of a universal support programme. The Scottish Government also supports and funds CABx to deliver a variety of programmes through Citizens Advice Scotland. In 2020-21, our funding is £5.3 million to support the network to deliver, on our behalf, projects such as welfare mitigation, our money talk team and kinship care projects.

We use a great spread of bureaux across the country to support people who are vulnerable. In the context of the Glasgow bureaux, meetings are on-going to discuss how they can move forward, and I await the outcome of those meetings. Thereafter, we will work collectively to do what we can to make sure that those who are most vulnerable and financially challenged receive the help that they need in the most appropriate way.

I thank the cabinet secretary for going into further detail on that issue. We heard from Glasgow City Council that some of the CABx put in very good applications while some put in quite poor ones. There seems to be inconsistency in the sector. Do we need the sector to be more joined up, and should the Scottish Parliament deal with CABx more directly instead of going through Citizens Advice Scotland?

As I said, each citizens advice bureau works individually and is responsible for its own funding. As a Government, we have put significant resource into CAS to ensure that we get support to people who require it. The situation in Glasgow is one for Glasgow City Council to deal with—I am not privy to the applications, so I cannot determine whether there is a difference in the quality of those applications. However, I understand that there are on-going discussions in Glasgow. We await further information to see where those take us.

I am happy to engage further if there are ways in which we can ensure that the support is as well co-ordinated as possible. Ultimately, we are all focused on positive outcomes for individuals and we want individuals to get support in the right way. However, the situation in Glasgow is for Glasgow to deal with, and we await the outcome of the discussions. I encourage all parties to keep those discussions going.

I apologise to Patrick Harvie and Pauline McNeill, who both wished to ask a supplementary question.