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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 2, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 02 May 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Rwandan Genocide (25th Anniversary), Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Motion without Notice, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Local Government Autonomy (Ring-fenced Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the impact on local authorities’ autonomy of increases in ring-fenced funding. (S5O-03170)

Local authorities have complete autonomy to allocate more than 92 per cent, or £10.3 billion, of the total funding that is provided by the Scottish Government, plus all their locally raised income. They can allocate that funding on the basis of local needs and priorities, having first fulfilled their statutory obligations and the jointly agreed set of national and local priorities.

It is important to note that ring-fenced funding is money for increased investment in services such as those in our schools, nurseries and town centres.

Although the percentage of the budget that is ring fenced has gone up, core general revenue funding has gone down across the country. That has squeezed the budgets of councils that need that money to carry out their everyday services. Does the cabinet secretary recognise that reducing core funding has a negative impact on councils’ ability to provide and maintain sport and leisure facilities?

We have worked with local authorities and have increased the proportion of funding that they get. It is also important to recognise that we have worked hard to provide local authorities with a fair settlement. I remind Brian Whittle what the consequences might have been if we had followed his party’s tax plans. Potentially, there would have been £500 million less going to local authorities, which could have meant £14.9 million less for Dumfries and Galloway, £11.4 million less for East Ayrshire and £10.5 million less for South Ayrshire. I also remind him of what that would have meant for sport and leisure facilities.

We will continue to work with and support local authorities in the work that they do. My colleague, Joe FitzPatrick, will always prioritise ensuring that we get our nation active.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the overall additional funding in 2019-20 will amount to more than £600 million? Is it not the case that the 3.8 per cent real-terms increase in funding empowers local authorities to decide how to improve lives in local communities?

Absolutely. I confirm that, this year, taken together with council tax income, local authorities will have access to more than £600 million of additional total funding. That is real funding to deliver services that will benefit local communities the length and breadth of Scotland. The Scottish Government will continue to work with our partners in local government to make sure that we continue to provide a fair settlement, recognising the good work that our colleagues across local government do.

As the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has pointed out time and again, £400 million of new commitments were built into the budget this year. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work said that councils would have to deprioritise.

This morning, the Dunfermline Press reported that Fife Council does not have the resources to properly look at standards in food premises.

Ask a question, please.

The council said that cuts in staffing and budgets are responsible for that. Does the cabinet secretary accept that, in communities right across Scotland, services are being cut? Should we not be honest with the public?

Mr Rowley, that was a long supplementary question.

I will be honest and remind Alex Rowley that local authorities have the autonomy to allocate more than 92 per cent of the budget that the Scottish Government provides to them. I already confirmed to Richard Lyle that, this year, taken together with council tax income, local authorities will have access to more than £600 million of additional total funding.

We do not pretend that coping with the financial challenges that we face is not a challenge for everyone in public life. Nevertheless, as I outlined to Richard Lyle, we have provided a fair settlement and increased funding to local authorities. We will continue to work with local government to deliver on the shared outcomes and national priorities, and to enable them, as they set their budgets, to take the necessary action for their local priorities.

Social Housing (Greenock and Inverclyde)

To ask the Scottish Government how much has been invested in social housing in the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency since May 2011. (S5O-03171)

Between May 2011 and March 2018, the Scottish Government invested more than £40 million to deliver more social housing in Greenock and the Inverclyde local authority area. That investment has supported the completion of 829 homes for social rent in communities across Inverclyde, and it means that Inverclyde will make a significant contribution to delivering the 50,000 affordable homes target and meeting housing demand across the area.

I very much welcome that investment and, indeed, much of the Inverclyde local development plan, which proposes a number of locations to be zoned for social housing.

However, does the minister agree that Inverclyde Council should take a cautious approach and have more concern for public safety in respect of the potential for overprovision as well as in relation to proposals such as the one for Kirn Drive in Gourock?

Scottish planning policy makes it very clear that the impacts of development on traffic and road safety should be taken into account in plans and decisions. I cannot comment further on sites in the Inverclyde area, because I am expecting the local development plan to come before me very shortly.

Electrical Safety Checks (Social Rented Sector)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on introducing five-yearly electrical safety checks for homes in the social rented sector. (S5O-03172)

Social landlords are required to ensure that electrical installations are safe to use in the homes that they let. Although the frequency of electrical safety checks is not prescribed, landlords should take account of the guidance in the BS7671 wiring regulations, which recommends that a competent person inspect and test electrical installations in rented housing at intervals of no more than five years.

It seems strange that there is a stricter regime for private landlords, who have to make inspections every five years, while, as we understand it, quite a number of housing associations make such inspections only every 10 years.

Everyone deserves to be able to live in a safe home that is protected from fire. When the Parliament introduced a specific duty for five-yearly checks in the private rented sector, we did so in response to evidence that private tenants were considered to be particularly at risk. However, I agree with the principle that the same level of protection should apply to all rented housing, and I am happy to confirm that that point will be considered when the guidance on the Scottish housing quality standard is reviewed.

Relative Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government what policies have been put in place to tackle the reported rise in relative poverty in Scotland’s communities. (S5O-03173)

Key policies such as fair start Scotland, our expansion of funded early learning and childcare and investment in devolved social security measures are all contributing to tackling poverty and inequality and making Scotland a fairer and more prosperous country. In addition, we have outlined a range of concrete and ambitious actions in our tackling child poverty delivery plan, which is backed by a £50 million fund. Poverty levels continue to be impacted by United Kingdom Government welfare cuts, which are estimated to reduce social security spending in Scotland by £3.7 billion by 2020-21. That is why we are also investing an annual £125 million in mitigation.

In 2017-18, Dundee overspent its share of the Scottish welfare fund by more than £104 million, and Dundee City Council paid for that overspend from its own pocket. Despite the clear need to support those living in deprivation, the Scottish Government has cut by £100,000 its 2018-19 allocation of the Scottish welfare fund to Dundee. Will the cabinet secretary explain to the chamber why this Scottish National Party Government has taken such a callous approach to tackling relative poverty in Dundee, and will she commit to ensuring that communities—

Thank you.

—receive their fair share?

Bill Bowman has a bit of a brass neck coming to the chamber and demanding that we further mitigate the devastating impacts of his Government’s actions and the politically motivated and ideologically driven decisions of his party at Westminster, which will remove £3.7 billion from social security spending by 2020-21. He has to concede that that will have a devastating impact on people’s lives, including those of the most vulnerable people, in Dundee and across the country.

As I pointed out to Brian Whittle, Tory tax plans would have taken £500 million out of the public spending budget. That would have meant £13.9 million less to spend on services in Dundee, the city that Bill Bowman is talking about. He needs to look a wee bit closer to home to see where the cause of poverty lies—and it lies with his party and his UK Government.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that unclaimed welfare benefits are a key cause of financial hardship? In particular, does she agree with a point that Age Scotland has highlighted, which is that the Department for Work and Pensions estimates that 40 per cent of couples who are eligible for pension credit are not claiming it and that upcoming pension credit changes on 15 May could cost mixed-age couples up to £7,000 a year?

I appreciate that those changes come from the Conservatives, but why is the Scottish Government not giving priority to ensuring that there is maximum uptake in Scotland by mixed-age couples before the switch to universal credit?

I point to the financial health check service that we fund, which Citizens Advice Scotland delivers through bureaux across the country. There is also a freephone number that people can call to access support and help to make sure that they claim all that they are entitled to. That freephone number is available to any of Elaine Smith’s constituents who require that additional support and help.

Can the cabinet secretary outline whether the Scottish Government would be better equipped to tackle relative poverty in Scotland if it followed Tory spending plans, which would see £0.5 billion less being available this year to invest in public services?

I totally agree with Kenny Gibson’s point. We would not be better equipped if we in this chamber had followed the Conservative tax plans. As he highlighted, implementing the income tax plans alone was forecast to leave the 2019-20 budget more than £500 million worse off. I can reveal to Kenny Gibson that that would have meant £13.3 million less to spend on services for his constituents. Again, the Conservatives need to look a wee bit closer to home to see where the causes of problems with inequality lie—and they lie with their decisions.

Food Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its response to the report on food poverty, “Dignity: Ending Hunger Together in Scotland”. (S5O-03174)

At the heart of our approach to food insecurity are the independent working group on food poverty’s dignity principles, which underpin our fair food fund. We have increased the fund from £1.5 million to £3.5 million this year. The fund supports dignified and rights-based responses to food insecurity, helping to tackle the causes of poverty.

No one should be left hungry and have to rely on charitable food provision in a country as prosperous as Scotland; everyone has a right to food. It is shameful that United Kingdom Government welfare cuts continue to force people into poverty and food insecurity, although we are mitigating the very worst effects; we spent £125 million last year alone.

Given that West Lothian Foodbank reports a 40 per cent increase in demand since the roll-out of universal credit, does the cabinet secretary agree that we will not be a rich society until no man, woman or child has to rely on food banks? Will she therefore support calls by Nourish Scotland, the Scottish food coalition and the 1,400 respondents to the good food nation bill consultation to incorporate in Scots law the right to food?

I agree that no one should have to rely on charity to eat in a nation as rich as Scotland. That is why a rights-based approach already runs through the actions that we are taking and we are challenging the UK Government’s welfare reforms, mitigating their impact and investing in dignified responses through our £3.5 million fair food fund. We are certainly grateful to the respondents to the good food nation consultation, which recently closed, and we will look at how we may give better effect to a rights-based approach in practice.

The national task force that the First Minister committed to setting up following the recommendations of the advisory group on human rights leadership will be considering all internationally recognised human rights, including the right to food.

Planning (Scotland) Bill (Agent of Change Principle)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will initiate cross-party discussions regarding agent of change in advance of stage 3 of the Planning (Scotland) Bill. (S5O-03175)

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of ensuring that new development does not adversely impact existing businesses, particularly music venues. I welcome the support for that view from others across the chamber.

I am happy to discuss the agent of change principle with Mr Macdonald, as I have already done with others, to make sure that we get this right for stage 3.

I know that the minister acknowledges that the planning system does not currently protect live music venues adequately, but I recall from discussion at the Local Government and Communities Committee that he does not wholly support the approach that the bill currently takes. What approach does the Government intend to take when the bill is considered at stage 3?

I am fully committed to the agent of change principle, as was shown by the recent circular that the chief planner issued before we even considered the bill. I have said throughout that we will look closely at the principle—particularly in developing the national planning framework 4.

I have no doubt that the provisions on culturally significant zones that were added to the bill at stage 2 were well intentioned, but they would have serious adverse consequences, which I spelled out at stage 2. They would place a range of duties and burdens on our planning authorities and the development sector, with a hefty price tag that could affect the viability of investment in development that we need and thwart our ambitions to reinvigorate our high streets.

We must get this right and strike the right balance. That is why I have been pleased to talk to a number of MSPs about how we can reshape the bill at stage 3. I am more than happy to have similar discussions with Mr Macdonald.

Very briefly, please, Mr Simpson.

Does the minister agree that positive cross-party talks about the bill have been going on for some time and will continue? If Mr Macdonald had spoken to his colleague Mr Rowley, he would know that.

I am pleased that folks from all the parties in the Parliament have engaged with me on the issue. I am happy to talk to party representatives and to individuals who have concerns. My door is always open. We must get stage 3 of the bill right, and I am sure that we can do that together, with co-operation.

Local Government Finance

To ask the Scottish Government when it next expects to publish a local government finance circular. (S5O-03176)

The Scottish Government publishes local government finance circulars whenever there is a requirement to provide local government with new or updated information. There are set occasions when circulars are issued, but there are no set dates.

In 2019 to date, the Scottish Government has issued four local government finance circulars—on equal pay, the approved 2019-20 local government finance settlement, non-domestic rates interest for 2019-20 and capital receipts to fund transformational projects. All the circulars are published on the Scottish Government’s website.

Briefly, Mr Kerr.

Recent figures show that north-east councils make up four of the 10 local authorities that are least funded per head in Scotland. That is a massive inequality in funding for core services. Schoolchildren and pensioners in the north-east receive significantly less per head than those elsewhere. Can the cabinet secretary justify the fact that north-east councils do not receive their fair share of funding and tell the people of the north-east when they can expect a fair deal from the Scottish National Party?

Local authority funding is allocated under a needs-based formula that is kept under constant review and agreed each year with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Since the 85 per cent funding floor was introduced in 2012, Aberdeen City Council has been allocated more than £50 million over and above its needs-based formula funding allocations.

Perhaps Liam Kerr did not hear the points that I made in response to his colleagues Brian Whittle and Bill Bowman. I can reveal to Liam Kerr that, if we had followed his party’s tax plans in the budget, Aberdeen City Council would have £17.6 million less and Aberdeenshire Council would have £24.2 million less, because those plans would have taken £500 million out of our budget.

My plea to Liam Kerr is to look a wee bit closer to home for where the funding challenges might have lain if we had followed his party’s plans. If he is concerned about the people of Aberdeenshire and the north-east, he should look to his party and its damaging welfare changes.

I will get Mr Harvie in.

Anti-destitution Strategy

To ask the Scottish Government, further to its commitment in its response to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee report, “Hidden Lives: New Beginnings”, by what date it will publish its anti-destitution strategy. (S5O-03177)

You must be brief, cabinet secretary.

The Scottish Government committed to working with stakeholders to take forward the development of an anti-destitution strategy that focuses on people with no recourse to public funds. We also committed to considering some of the committee’s other recommendations as part of that work.

In February, as a first step, the Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities launched updated guidance on no recourse to public funds, and we expect to publish the anti-destitution strategy by the end of the year.

I make the case for as much acceleration of that work as possible. The anti-destitution strategy is necessary because of the actions of the likes of Serco. The minister will be aware that this week Serco is again reported to be issuing eviction notices to some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers in their accommodation—people who literally have nowhere else to go. That will create another wave of destitution. Would the minister tell us whether Serco consulted the Scottish Government before taking that new action and will she contact Serco immediately to insist that the action be stopped, because there is no alternative destitution provision for those people?

I will certainly look into that. I am also aware that an appeal is being lodged by Govan Law Centre. I concur with the view that changing locks and thereby forcing people into destitution is a dismal practice. That is why we continue to raise the issue with the Home Secretary, making the point that there needs to be a far better way to prepare and support people in the asylum process. We should not have a system that forces people into destitution and homelessness. I will look into the issue further, make any representations that we need to make and make the point to the Home Secretary that it needs to be sorted and sorted quickly.

That concludes portfolio questions.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I ask whether the cabinet secretary, under the rules, procedures and standing orders, might want to amend the record. In answer to question 5, the cabinet secretary said that

“everyone has a right to food.”

However, the Government’s good food nation bill consultation explicitly ruled out implementing a right to food—

I will stop you there, because what you have said is not a point of order and I do not want to take time out of the stage 3 debate. There is a process for correcting the record, and I am sure that the cabinet secretary has heard what the member has had to say. It is not a point of order—please sit down.