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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 December 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Scottish National Investment Bank, Burntisland Fabrications, Business Support, Urgent Question, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, International Whole Grain Day


Portfolio Question Time

Communities and Local Government

I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across Holyrood. I encourage members to follow those measures, as appropriate.

The first item of business is portfolio question time. We begin with questions on communities and local government. In order to allow as many members as possible to speak, succinct questions and answers would be appreciated.

Stirling Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met representatives of Stirling Council and what was discussed. (S5O-04801)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including Stirling Council, to discuss a wide range of issues as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland.

We continue to work closely with local government and with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on our strategic approach to suppressing Covid-19 outbreaks. That work includes regular engagement with all local authorities about levels of restrictions and protective measures that apply.

Like many local authorities across Scotland, Stirling Council is facing a growing backlog of repairs to local roads due to the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That backlog is more severe in rural Stirlingshire, where many roads remain unrepaired and potholed after last winter. What additional assistance can the Scottish Government provide to Stirling Council and the Scottish Government road agencies to address the backlog in local road repairs?

We have provided local authorities with resources to help them to cope with the issues that they face. That included a pre-Covid settlement for local government that was an increase of £589.4 million, or 5.8 per cent, in day-to-day spending for local authorities. We continue to work with local authorities and to provide them with support.

If the member wishes to raise issues about particular roads in Stirling, I would be happy to take the matter up and to engage with my colleague Michael Matheson on any transport issues that have arisen as a result of the need for local authorities to focus on Covid. I am happy to engage further with the member, but we have given local authorities resources to cope with the issues that they face.

Community Organisations (Dumfries and Galloway)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting community organisations across Dumfries and Galloway to help the most vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04802)

The £25 million community and third sector recovery programme was launched on 21 September and provides funding for community and third sector organisations as they continue to respond to the on-going impact of the pandemic and to adapt and restart delivery of their community services and activities. The programme also provides business support and investment to help organisations to adapt their operations and their means of income generation to increase sustainability.

A small number of applications for the recovery programme have been received from organisations in Dumfries and Galloway, and assessment is on-going, with one award of £16,712 made to date. The area has benefited through other community funds totalling £1,293,630 from the supporting communities, wellbeing and third sector resilience funds, as well as through an additional £1.8 million investment from the investing in communities fund over the years 2019 to 2022.

I encourage community and third sector organisations that are based in Dumfries and Galloway, and across Scotland, to consider the recovery programme and to make an application.

Many local people, community groups and businesses have gone above and beyond to support vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic, and they deserve our thanks. Two examples have been the Lochside and Summerhill community centres in north west Dumfries, where the teams have prepared and delivered meals to people across the community. Will the cabinet secretary join me in welcoming those efforts and other similar efforts across Scotland, and will she outline how the Government will continue to support community groups to deliver anti-poverty measures throughout the winter?

I pay tribute to the specific groups that Emma Harper has mentioned, as well as to other groups across the country that are doing phenomenal work to look after communities. They are motivated by compassion and care, and they have been critical and fundamental to the country’s response to the virus.

We have recently announced a winter plan for social protection, to help those who are on low incomes, children, and people who are at risk of homelessness or social isolation to cope with winter weather and the economic impacts of coronavirus and Brexit. That is backed by £100 million, and the package includes another £15 million for our community and third sector recovery programme as well as £15 million of flexible funding for local authorities that are entering level 4 restrictions, to support the people and communities that are impacted.

The winter package will be fundamental to the communities and groups that Emma Harper has highlighted, and it will be critical to people as we hit the harder and more expensive winter months ahead. I underline the point that I made in my original response, that her constituents should continue to apply for the funding that is out there.

Food Banks

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to food banks. (S5O-04803)

The Scottish Government provides assistance to food banks in a number of ways, including through over £13 million of funding this year and wider advice and support. We have gone beyond our original £70 million food fund commitment and have now committed over £130 million to tackling food insecurity that has been caused by the pandemic, as well as having committed to the provision of free school meals to Easter.

Our focus is on strengthening household budgets to reduce the need for food aid, and we are doing that by promoting a cash-first response to food insecurity. Our £45 million Scottish welfare fund and the further flexible funding that we have provided to local authorities are helping to get both cash and food to those who need it. We have continued to press the United Kingdom Government to support people further through the social security system, not least by making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent and by extending it to legacy benefits.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will want to join me in praising the work of the Helensburgh and Lomond Foodbank, the Roseneath peninsula food bank, West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare, and food for thought at St Augustine’s church, for all their efforts to help low-income people put food on the table. Their work during the pandemic has never been so important.

Does the cabinet secretary agree with the Trussell Trust that, if we want to end the need for food banks, we need to concentrate on getting money into people’s pockets? If so, I join her in arguing for the retention of the £20 increase in universal credit, but will she consider how to better use the Scottish welfare fund to do that as well?

I thank Jackie Baillie for mentioning all those organisations in her constituency. I started to jot them down, but there were so many that I did not get the chance. I certainly extend my thanks to all the groups that she mentioned—as I did to the groups that Emma Harper mentioned—for doing so much to ensure the resilience of the country.

I echo the calls and pleas of the Trussell Trust. I met its representatives just last week to hear their thoughts and views on how to tackle food insecurity and, in effect, put themselves out of a role by stopping food aid, because it is not the dignified response that we want for people and communities. That is why the winter package that was announced by the First Minister is critical. It is about getting cash to families, because they know how best to spend it and to meet their needs. How they do that should not be dictated to them by the Scottish Government. That is also why we have taken a cash-first approach to food insecurity, using the infrastructure that we have through the Scottish welfare fund.

I agree with the Trussell Trust on that approach, and we discussed areas where we might be able to make improvements. Again, in the work that we will take forward with the trust, we will try to develop good learning, good practice and good ways in which we can make as much use of the Scottish welfare fund as possible, particularly as we go into the darker, colder and more expensive winter months. We also have Brexit challenges ahead, so there is a lot of need for us to ensure that the money that we put in to support families gets to them in the most dignified way possible.

Richard Lyle has a supplementary question.


Presiding Officer, I cannot hear Richard Lyle.

You are not alone. Give us a moment.

We will move on. If Richard Lyle’s connection is restored in time, we might come back to him.

Housing Developments (Delays)

To ask the Scottish Government how many housing developments have been delayed because of the absence of front-loading capital for schools infrastructure. (S5O-04804)


Minister, your microphone does not appear to be working properly. I will suspend the meeting for a moment to see whether we can get the minister a card that works.

14:10 Meeting suspended.  

14:12 On resuming—  

We resume the meeting, and I call Kevin Stewart.

There seem to be gremlins in the works, Presiding Officer.

The Scottish Government does not monitor delays to individual housing developments. However, local authorities do record site programming and build-out as part of their housing land audits.

I suggest that the Scottish Government needs to look at the issue quickly. Over the years, I have raised with the minister the fact that front loading is a serious problem. I intend to write to the minister in the coming days, setting out the number of developments that are being stalled right now and those that will have to stop unless the matter can be resolved. I am having those discussions with local authorities, which are saying that it is a problem but not one that they can solve. At a time when we want to tackle the housing crisis, when we should be encouraging more skills and apprenticeships in housing and when we need more jobs, surely we need to pull together to address this problem.

I point out to Alex Rowley something that, as a former council leader, he already knows. It is the statutory responsibility of local authorities to manage their school estate. The Scottish Government’s funding through the school-building programme is intended to augment, not replace, a local authority’s investment in the school estate. The new £1 billion learning estate investment programme will benefit approximately 50,000 pupils across Scotland by the end of the next parliamentary session. That package includes replacement schools for Woodmill and St Columba’s high schools, in Fife.

Beyond that, city deal commitments mean that we have been in discussion with local authorities about other aspects of this. We put in place the Winchburgh standby facility, and I understand that Fife Council is developing an outline business case to deliver 8,000 new homes in the Dunfermline area, 25 per cent of which will be affordable.

I am always more than willing to speak to Mr Rowley about any issue, and I look forward to receiving his letter. I will make sure that he gets a prompt response.

As a direct result of the chancellor’s spending review, Scotland is seeing its capital budget cut by 5 per cent going forward, with no explanation given. What impact is that likely to have on capital investment not just in schools but in hospitals, housing, roads and so on?

It is, indeed, the case that the Scottish Government’s capital budget is being cut by more than 5 per cent. Scotland needs an infrastructure-led economic recovery to deliver new jobs and speed up the transition to net zero carbon. We know that capital investment can have one of the biggest positive impacts on economic growth, so a cut during this time is especially harmful and goes against the grain, because most other countries are investing in capital projects at the moment in order to ensure an economic recovery from Covid. What that action by the United Kingdom Government means is fewer homes, fewer schools and fewer hospitals, as Mr Gibson has pointed out. That is why we need independence.

Food Banks

We now return to the supplementary to Jackie Baillie’s question, which is asked by Richard Lyle with Aileen Campbell to reply.

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on household incomes across Scotland and the winter period will be challenging for many. What is the Scottish Government doing to support people to stay afloat this winter?

I am glad that we got a chance to hear Richard Lyle’s question. I have given details of some of the investments that we are making that will help in some ways, such as the top-up of the Scottish welfare fund. More particularly and specifically, the £100 million winter package that was announced recently will help to support communities, individuals and families on a range of different fronts, making sure that they are protected as much as they can be and helped as much as possible during the winter months ahead. We hope that that will provide a bridge until the Scottish child payment starts to be paid to families across Scotland in February. That has been described as “a game-changer” for families by anti-poverty campaigners.

Those are a range of ways in which we are seeking to do our best to support the people who have been hit hardest by this nasty pandemic.

Social Inequality (Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is ensuring that local authorities are sufficiently empowered to address social inequality during the pandemic. (S5O-04805)

We recognise the impact that the pandemic is having on people and communities; that is why the Scottish Government has taken decisive action to commit £382.2 million so far in additional funding to local authorities in Scotland, including £50 million of hardship funding and more than £200 million of consequentials to support local efforts during the pandemic.

The funding includes a £30 million package to tackle financial insecurity and enable local authorities to respond flexibly to emerging needs, including supporting households with food, fuel and other essentials, and to cover free school meal provision right through to the Easter holidays. A further £15 million has been made available for local authorities entering level 4 restrictions as part of our £100 million winter plan for social protection.

I have been contacted by individuals and businesses that are unable to access various sources of Scottish Government Covid-19 support because the relevant local authority has determined that the applicant is ineligible. Our local authorities are working very hard to deliver the support in unprecedented circumstances and many of the anomalies have subsequently been rectified through an appeal, but some have not. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that local authorities feel able to apply discretion to the various Covid-19 support schemes when individual circumstances do not meet the exact requirements but are well within the intended spirit of such schemes?

We have provided local authorities with guidance that is flexible and gives consideration to local challenges. We recognise the difficulties of working in such challenging times and have great confidence in the efforts that are being made by local authorities across the country that are working hard to support as many people and businesses in as many communities as they can. Scottish Government officials continue to work closely with their local counterparts to ensure that they are able to deploy the significant resources available to them and respond most effectively to the needs of communities.

If Clare Adamson wants to raise any issues directly with us, I would be happy to hear them and to work through the question of what further advice, support or guidance may be needed to give local authorities confidence around the discretion and flexibility that have been provided.

Homelessness remains a serious problem across the country, with the pandemic bringing it into sharp focus. As we enter the winter period, the problem will only get worse. Glasgow City Council services have seriously let down homeless people and rough sleepers in my city. What action is the Scottish Government taking to encourage the Scottish National Party council administration in Glasgow to fulfil its duties to homeless people across the city?

A huge amount of work has been undertaken in partnership between the Scottish Government—led in particular by Kevin Stewart, who is in the chamber—and local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that we respond swiftly to homelessness needs. Staying safe from the virus requires people to stay at home; they need the safety and security of a home in order to do that, so that work has become an important public health tool.

Local authorities, the third sector and a huge number of others have done an inordinate amount of work to ensure as best they can that people are looked after and cared for. That effort has been no less in Glasgow; I know that there has been a lot of work between the Scottish Government and council officials there to work through and try to overcome any challenges.

An important part of the winter package is about ensuring that we apply additional funding to support homeless people going into the winter. I highlight in particular the recommendations from the homelessness and rough sleeping action group. HARSAG was brought back together as a result of the changing context because of the pandemic, and we are working through those recommendations. Jon Sparkes, who led that work, is also working with us on our social renewal work.

We want to ensure that we support people to keep their homes and avoid homelessness, and that people who are homeless are supported adequately. I know that Kevin Stewart and our officials across Government are working tirelessly with officials across local authorities to ensure that people are supported and protected.

Rent Affordability

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken since 2019 to ensure that tenants can afford their rent payments. (S5O-04806)

We have taken forward a range of additional measures to help tenants in the private and social sectors. That includes an increase in the discretionary housing payment fund from £11 million to £19 million and the development of a new £10 million tenant hardship loan fund, alongside extended eviction notice periods and new pre-action requirements for private landlords.

It is crucial that tenants are made aware of that support, which is why we have delivered a number of awareness-raising campaigns. That has included writing to all private and social sector tenants in Scotland to provide information on their rights and the support that is available to them. We have continued to urge the United Kingdom Government to provide more support to tenants, and we urge it also to uprate local housing allowance rates and make permanent the return to the 30th percentile.

I thank the minister for that answer. However, the reality is that, between 2010 and 2020, private accommodation rents in Scotland have increased above consumer prices index inflation. Last year, rents for two-bedroom properties increased above the CPI inflation rate of 0.5 per cent in 11 out of 18 areas, with the largest increase being 4 per cent in East Dunbartonshire.

Nothing short of real and radical change will protect tenants from unfair rent increases. Will the minister commit to supporting my colleague Pauline McNeill’s Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill?

Although we agree with its overall policy aim of affordable rents for all, we have concerns about the bill, and I have discussed those with Pauline McNeill. I am aware that the Local Government and Communities Committee has issued a call for written views on the bill, and we await with interest the outcome of that exercise. In the meantime, the Government is actively considering how best to address key issues that the bill picks up on, such as a lack of data collection in the sector. Alongside that, we are examining how rent pressure zones could be made to work better in order to tackle rising rents in hotspot areas.

I know that a number of members have concerns about affordable rent. We will move forward on that, and I will continue to keep Mary Fee, Pauline McNeill and other members abreast of what we are doing.

Social Enterprises

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting social enterprises. (S5O-04807)

The Scottish Government acted swiftly to ensure that there were accessible support packages in place for those in the social enterprise sector. That included launching the £350 million emergency communities Covid-19 fund in March, with more than £100 million going directly to the third sector, helping to safeguard thousands of jobs and to protect the vital work that many social enterprises do in communities throughout Scotland.

As we move forward, the support that is required by organisations is changing. In September, I launched the third sector and communities recovery programme, with a £25 million fund that helps organisations to adapt to the changing circumstances in which they find themselves. The programme combines financial support with business advice, helping organisations to recover and to support their communities from the terrible impact of Covid. I can confirm that I announced yesterday that we would top up that fund with a further £15 million as part of our winter package of support for our most vulnerable communities.

I thank the cabinet secretary and welcome that commitment to further funding. That key issue was discussed at the most recent meeting of the cross-party group on social enterprise. Social enterprises are looking towards recovery and will require support to adapt, restart and repurpose.

What role does the Scottish Government envisage social enterprises playing as we move into recovery and as we seek to build back better?

I thank the member for his question and for his continued interest, as convener of the cross-party group on social enterprise.

There is a critical role for social enterprises in helping the country to recover. If we do not just want to revert to the old ways of doing things, we need to think about what we need to do to move forward and to rebalance the economy. Social enterprises are already doing that: they have that social mission driving their purpose and their businesses, and it is that type of business that we want to see more of. They speak to the need for enhanced wellbeing, and they help us to move from our vision of the national performance framework to something much more tangible and real. Social enterprises have a critical importance in helping the country to recover, not just in the social sense but in the economic sense—the jobs and investment will be critical.

The supports that we have in place, delivered in partnership with our social enterprise sector—including loans, further support, help with adapting and advice—are all critical, too, for enabling social enterprises to move forward.

The other thing that we can all do is to support the buy social Scotland campaign, which launched just yesterday. There is a new directory that enables us all, as well as shopping local this Christmas, to think about buying and supporting social products.

Central Scotland Local Authorities (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with local authorities in the Central Scotland region, and what was discussed. (S5O-04808)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities to discuss a wide range of issues as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland. That work of course includes our regular engagement with local authorities on levels of restrictions and protective measures that apply as a result of our efforts to suppress Covid-19.

I ask for a brief supplementary and a concise answer, please.

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary, and I place on record my gratitude to local authority workers.

I am interested to hear the Government’s response to a recent survey carried out by Unison Scotland. It found that only 18 per cent of school cleaners said that they had enough time and the right materials to clean properly. Can the cabinet secretary advise me on how many extra cleaners have been employed in local authorities during the pandemic?

I do not have that detail to hand, due to the very specific nature of the question. Mindful of the time that we have, I will endeavour to find out some detail on that for Monica Lennon and to follow up on any further questions that she might have, if that will be helpful to her.

Thank you—that is indeed helpful.

Social Security and Older People

The next item of business is portfolio questions on social security and older people. I remind members that questions 1 and 5 and questions 2 and 3 are grouped.

Older People in Level 4 Areas (Family Visits)

To ask the Scottish Government what arrangements are in place to allow older people in areas subject to level 4 restrictions to be visited by their family. (S5O-04809)

In our strategic framework, we fully acknowledged the need to protect vulnerable people and to combat isolation and loneliness. Even in level 4, wherein the most restrictive protective measures are in place, people are still able to both enter and travel to another household when there is a requirement to provide care and support to a vulnerable person. In such scenarios we ask that they continue to practice appropriate health precautions, including physical distancing and good hygiene, which minimises the risk to both themselves and, importantly, those whom they are caring for.

To maintain contact with families is vital for the wellbeing of our older people, particularly when grandchildren are involved, and for those older people who might be in care homes. That contact is made much more difficult when families live across different boundaries. Can the minister offer further hope for families that allowing that contact will be among our priorities as we, I hope, come out of the level 4 restrictions on 11 December?

I echo Willie Coffey’s comments. A lot of folk will be looking for some hope that they will be able to see family over the next few weeks. I know family who I am dying to hug, and I am sure that Willie Coffey is exactly the same. That is especially the case for children and grandchildren. We are working really hard to realise that possibility. In the daily briefing today, the First Minister announced the good news that we will see vaccine roll-out in the next week or so; that will give lots of people hope. In the meantime, we are planning as much as we can to lift some of the restrictions over Christmas. Although we are saying to people, “Please don’t, if you don’t have to,” we hope that we are giving a bit of comfort to families to come together and get so much of that love that we have all missed out on.

Older People (Family Visits)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it will put in place to allow older people to be visited by their family during the winter period. (S5O-04813)

As I said in my response to Willie Coffey on the subject of the Christmas period, keeping in touch with family is vital for our wellbeing and we fully recognise the need to enable that to continue, especially during the winter and over Christmas, when isolation can hit people particularly hard.

As well as support being able to be provided to vulnerable people in their homes, people who live alone are able to form an extended household with another household and they can agree on how they do that. We have also reached agreement across the four nations for up to three households—a maximum of eight adults—to spend time with their friends and family for a short period over Christmas. I hope that that is welcome news.

The news is indeed welcome. Has the minister met any groups of care home relatives? They have concerns that the 12 homes that are piloting the lateral flow tests is just not enough. I have been told of worries about the resourcing of visiting plans that care homes have drawn up and that there is sometimes a bit of a delay in directors of public health signing off on those plans. Are any resources going to those care homes?

The policy decisions and directives around care homes do not fall in my portfolio area, but a few weeks ago I met care home families, along with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. I will endeavour to take Sarah Boyack’s questions to health colleagues and get her a direct response on the particular issues that she has raised, for example around the roll-out of lateral flow testing.

Older People (Support in Pandemic)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what support it is providing to older people during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04810)

We know that people have been adversely affected by the pandemic, and we have an unprecedented package of support, which includes specific targeted funding of more than £1.3 million for organisations at a national and local level to help older people.

As part of our funding package of more than £100 million to support people this winter, we will be investing a further £5.9 million to promote equality and tackle social isolation and loneliness, the majority of which is targeted at older people. That includes £4.3 million of additional funding for our Connecting Scotland programme, specifically to get 5,000 older people online this winter. There will also be support through older people’s organisations that are offering a number of services, including signposting to advice and information, delivering food and providing friendship.

We have had older people being pressured into taking out do not resuscitate notices, the discharge of Covid-positive patients into care homes, patients being denied hospital treatment, the personal protective equipment scandal and older people in care homes being denied visitors for nine months, and thousands are dead.

Can the minister look the care home residents of Scotland in the eye, and say that they have been treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve during the pandemic?

The pandemic has been an absolutely horrific situation for everybody and anybody. Of course, it is incredibly difficult to make decisions—it is easier to do so with hindsight. The primary focus of the Scottish Government’s work is to keep people safe from the virus, which I think we have done as far as possible. The pandemic is an issue not only for the Scottish Government; it is a global issue that every single person is grappling with. We will work incredibly hard to make sure that we get through the pandemic and support people, including the older people, of Scotland as much as possible.

Older People (Services in Pandemic)

To ask the Scottish Government what further support will be made available to help services respond to the needs of older people, in light of the Covid-19 restrictions. (S5O-04811)

I continue to meet regularly with the older people’s strategic action forum and the national implementation group for social isolation and loneliness to hear at first hand the emerging issues, and discuss what further support we can provide. That engagement has fed directly into our winter support package, which I mentioned earlier. The package will involve an investment of nearly £6 million, much of which is to support older people, with a particular emphasis on tackling loneliness. In addition, our third sector fund has been increased by £15 million to £40 million, and is open to organisations that are supporting people through the pandemic, including in relation to social isolation and loneliness.

For areas in level 4, we have made available an additional £15 million for local authorities to support people, including older people, in those areas.

I commend the excellent work of day centres and local organisations in Dumfriesshire, which have gone above and beyond to respond to the needs of their members. However, as time passes, it is clear that some of those services, which were redesigned as Covid-19 first emerged, are now under sustained pressure. In the light of the measures that the minister has set out, what further action will the Scottish Government and its partners take to ensure that those smaller, community-run organisations get funding to enable them to keep lifeline services open through the winter months?

I too pay tribute to the organisations across Scotland, including those in Oliver Mundell’s constituency.

In my earlier answer, I mentioned our older people’s strategic action forum. A number of members of that forum, including the Pensioners Forum, Age Scotland, Befriending Networks Ltd and Generations Working Together, have access to thousands of members, and they feed back almost weekly. We also have a fortnightly update from Age Scotland on what it is picking up from older people in the local communities. There is real pressure on services, but there has been additional funding—the winter support package, the additional funding for the third sector fund and the additional funding for local authorities—to ensure that small local organisations get the support that they need.

If Mr Mundell has specific examples that he wishes to raise with me, I ask him to please do so, because I am keen to know that there is a proper geographical spread of all such services.

Particularly for older people, Covid and the related restrictions have demonstrated the value of being connected to the internet. The minister said that there is £4.3 million of funding to connect people. With that in mind, is the minister prepared to meet virtually with digital buddies in the Scottish Borders, which provides older people with not only tablets, but a 24 gigabyte pay-as-you-go SIM card, as well as individual mentoring and support, which builds their confidence in technology? There may be something to learn from the organisation.

I am always delighted to accept an invitation from Christine Grahame. Like Oliver Mundell, she has brilliant organisations in her constituency.

The work to get people digitally connected is incredibly important. We do not think that it is a panacea for everything—digital connections are not what everybody wants right now—but it would be good to link up more people. I am more than happy to meet the group from Christine Grahame’s constituency and give them a detailed update on the roll-out of the Connecting Scotland programme, as we would like to make contact with an additional 5,000 older people.

Christina McKelvie may be aware of reported figures stating that the number of women dying at home with dementia has risen sharply this year—by 75 per cent. Does the minister agree that that is because of pressure on health pathways, as stated by health data analysts? Will she confirm that policy responses for older people during the pandemic are being developed in a way that recognises and differentiates between women’s and men’s needs to address inequalities?

I, too, was quite concerned to read the report that Elaine Smith talks about. Yes—to answer her questions straight. I will speak to health colleagues, because this is another area that does not fall in my portfolio responsibility, although it is one on which I work with colleagues across Government. I will definitely speak with health colleagues on that, because we take seriously our intersectional approach to issues, especially health issues, that affect women and men differently. Clare Haughey is leading the work on our women’s health initiative that is currently under way. I will come back to Elaine Smith with an update on that, because I am incredibly interested to see what we can learn from it and how we can apply it to policy.

Older People (Loneliness)

4. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to research by Age UK, which suggests that 157,000 over-65s in Scotland are expecting to feel lonely over the festive season. (S5O-04812)

The Scottish Government works closely with Age Scotland, which is a member of our older people’s strategic action forum and our social isolation and loneliness national implementation group. We have fortnightly updates from Age Scotland, which ensures that we hear issues as they arise for older people around the country. That is incredibly important, because we recognise the devastating impacts of isolation and loneliness that the Age UK research highlights.

As well as the work on the winter plan and other areas that I outlined in previous answers, I am pleased to say that Age Scotland’s helpline has now received more than £1 million of Scottish Government funding so that it can be part of a network of vital support for older people and their families, which will remain in place over the festive period, into spring and beyond. I encourage all members to promote the helpline, because it is not just about giving people help, but about giving them friendship and a chat, which will be really important for folk over the winter period.

I thank Christina McKelvie for the good news about the Age Scotland helpline.

Highlighting the issues of loneliness and isolation, Age Scotland has asked the Scottish Government to develop a winter action plan to support older people in the hope of getting people connected and supporting services in place.

Earlier this year, thousands of people signed up to volunteer to help others in their community. That is a great resource, but how can it be used to reduce loneliness and isolation for older people over the Christmas period?

As I said, Age Scotland is a member of our social isolation and loneliness national implementation group. Age Scotland raised the issue of a winter plan, and other members of the group supported that. We pushed forward across Government, which is why we now have the winter package, the winter care home plan, the winter vaccination plan and a number of other things. We take winter planning incredibly seriously, and even more seriously in the pandemic.

Murdo Fraser mentioned social isolation and loneliness, as well as the issue of keeping people connected and how to use volunteers for that, which has been a topic of conversation for our implementation group for a while. Many of the organisations involved, if not all of them, have benefited greatly from the massive army of volunteers who came forward this year, and we want to continue that work.

At the last meeting that I had with the implementation group just a few weeks ago, we decided to look at how we can further utilise that army of volunteers and keep some of them engaged. For many of the volunteers, volunteering was the answer to their own social isolation and loneliness, so that was a double win for lots of people. I want to investigate that further and ensure that we can apply that approach to our recovery work as we move out of the pandemic.

Disabled People (Impact of Pandemic)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on disabled people. (S5O-04814)

We recognise that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. We have been working closely with a number of disabled people’s organisations to understand the impact of Covid-19 on disabled people and develop solutions wherever possible. Nearly £275,000-worth of funding has gone directly to DPOs to support their Covid response work, and more funding to reduce isolation is planned over the winter.

We established our social renewal advisory board to focus on tackling poverty and disadvantage and advancing equality. The board specifically considered issues that disabled people have experienced over this period, having wide-ranging discussions and hearing about potential solutions to tackle issues in relation to health, employment, social isolation and loneliness.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the complex challenges that young disabled people face when making the move from school to work, college or university. I trust that she will be aware of my Disabled Children and Young People (Transitions to Adulthood) (Scotland) Bill, which aims to help the 4,000 disabled school leavers each year and ensure that they get the support that they desperately need.

Given the crisis and its disproportionate impact on disabled people, will the cabinet secretary commit to having a discussion with her ministerial colleagues about how my proposal can be taken forward as a matter of urgency to ensure that young disabled people can achieve their full potential, and that coronavirus does not compound the significant inequalities that they already face in their daily lives?

Johann Lamont is quite right to point out that Covid-19 has amplified the existing deep-set inequalities in our society and the importance of tackling them. She is also quite right to point to the importance of the points of transition to adulthood in a young person’s life.

The Government will, as we always do, look seriously at all the opportunities to assist young people—particularly young disabled people—as they progress into adulthood and involve them in discussions about their future.

A United Kingdom survey of 6,000 people by Citizens Advice found that disabled people were at twice the risk of redundancy as non-disabled employees, with one in four disabled people surveyed facing redundancy. Given the poor record of the Government’s flagship fair start Scotland scheme, which found work for only 11,421 disabled people out of a target of 40,000, can the cabinet secretary explain what additional policies are being implemented to improve that situation, which has happened at the hands of her Government?

As I am sure that Ms Hamilton is aware, a number of projects have been impacted by the pandemic this year. As we support people to find alternative employment or, indeed, to find new employment if they are still out of the labour market, we are absolutely determined to support everyone. We have a no-one-left-behind employment strategy to ensure that we deal with people who are far removed from the labour market and who face specific challenges in entering it. That, of course, includes some young disabled people. We are determined to take that issue on, and that is exactly what the Government’s policies are designed to do.

Universal Credit

7. Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it is having with the United Kingdom Government regarding the time that it takes to receive and access universal credit. (S5O-04815)

I remain deeply concerned about the minimum five-week wait for first universal credit payments. Repayable advances are available, but they result in an unacceptable choice between forgoing essentials or incurring debt to be repaid by reducing benefit payments that are already set at subsistence levels.

I have repeatedly written to the UK Government on the issue, most recently on 27 October, urging it to accept the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendation to offer non-repayable starter grants during the five-week wait.

We will continue to urge the UK Government to do the right thing and address that harmful policy, fix the rest of the flaws in the UC system and commit to keeping the £20 uplift next year. Without that uplift, hundreds of thousands across the UK who need support will instead be pushed into further poverty.

Many of my constituents are distressed about the time that it takes for an application to be processed, especially during the pandemic. Has the cabinet secretary had any discussions with her UK counterpart in order to speed up the processing time for universal credit applications? What is her view on the timescales? Can we make progress on non-repayable grants, rather than have people waiting for weeks for money?

I completely appreciate the anxiety that is felt by Richard Lyle’s constituents, which is shared by many across the country who are in the same situation. The five-week wait for the first payment is unacceptable and has been shown to lead to increased debt, hardship and food bank usage.

The Work and Pensions Committee found that, at the peak of universal credit applications earlier this year, more than 200,000 people across the UK faced a wait that was longer than five weeks. In addition, disabled people and those with health conditions are more likely to wait longer to receive their first payment because of the time that it takes to complete a work capability assessment.

Richard Lyle can be assured that I have made, and will continue to make, representations to the UK Government about the issue.

That concludes portfolio questions. I apologise to Fulton MacGregor, whose question was not reached because of a lack of time on a busy afternoon.