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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Primary Care, Scotland’s Recovery, Standing Orders, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Autism and Learning Disabilities


Portfolio Question Time

Local Government (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address the needs of local government. (S5O-05065)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

Maintaining a close constructive partnership with local government has always been a priority for the Government. That partnership approach enables us to meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities regularly and to respond positively to the needs of local authorities and their communities. For example, I recently undertook extensive engagement with local authorities on our levels approach in the strategic framework, which will continue; we are supporting the European Charter for Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, which is a long-held aspiration of COSLA; and the overall Covid-19 support package for councils is up to almost £1.8 billion over this year and next year.

James Kelly

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but the needs of local government have not been helped by a decade of Scottish National Party cuts. Cumulatively, £937 million of cuts have piled agony on to local communities, which has resulted in councils having to cut services and has undermined their ability to protect jobs. That can be seen in South Lanarkshire Council’s budget, which, as the cabinet secretary will be aware, has been cut by more than £5 million. When will the SNP start standing up for local communities and stop cutting local government budgets?

Aileen Campbell

We have continued to, and always will, treat councils fairly. I set out a range of ways in which we engage regularly and thoroughly with local government. The current settlement that is being decided on through the budget process means that local government will get £11.6 billion, which is a fair and affordable settlement. Day-to-day funding for revenue services will increase by £335.6 million, which is a 3.1 per cent increase on last year’s settlement.

South Lanarkshire Council will receive a total funding package of £649.3 million to support local services, which includes an extra £15.5 million to support vital day-to-day services.

During the Government’s tenure, we have managed to deliver fair and affordable settlements for local government, treat councils fairly and engage with them thoroughly despite being under a decade of Tory austerity. We will continue to engage positively with local government as the budget bill progresses through Parliament.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Has the Labour party approached the cabinet secretary to say from whence additional funding for local government should be sourced—perhaps from the national health service, justice or education budgets? If additional funding is to come through increased taxation, has Labour said who would pay and by how much taxes should be increased?

Aileen Campbell

My colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance has been liaising with all parties in the chamber to discuss their budget propositions and to listen to their priorities. Interestingly, I am not aware of any specific Labour proposals on where additional funding should be sourced. We will continue to hear about the budget developments in Westminster, and the finance secretary will continue the discussions with Opposition parties. However, as far as I am aware, despite the calls for more money, I have not heard any specific proposals from the Labour party.

Homelessness Report

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the final report of the homelessness prevention review group. (S5O-05066)

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

We commissioned that work in response to the homelessness and rough sleeping action group’s recommendations for ending homelessness. We welcome the prevention review group’s recommendations, and we are grateful for the commitment of Crisis and other partners in delivering the report. I express my thanks to people with lived experience of homelessness, because of the vital role that their lived experience had in shaping the recommendations.

Shifting the balance of services and response towards prevention is more important than ever, given the current public health and rapidly developing economic crises. We will give full and proper consideration to the recommendations and will publish our formal response later this year.

Patrick Harvie

The report includes many valuable contributions to the debate on how to prevent homelessness, and I hope that the Government will take its recommendations seriously. It would be good to know early on whether the Government intends—as has been recommended—to make permanent some of the emergency changes to the private rented sector that have been made as a result of coronavirus.

What additional measures does the minister believe are necessary to strengthen the position of tenants in the private rented sector as part of the drive to prevent homelessness?

Kevin Stewart

I completely and utterly agree with Mr Harvie that it is a valuable report. The Government will consider it and improve on our homelessness prevention legislation at the earliest opportunity. We made that clear at the outset, when we commissioned the report in 2019. The recommendations are thorough and we will need to work through them to get the right legislation in place.

We will look to see how we can implement some of the measures that have been put in place during the pandemic period in normal, day-to-day business. For example, I would like pre-action protocols for the private rented sector to continue. I am sure that none of us wants a situation in which we put people in cliff-edge situations at the end of the pandemic. We must do all that we can to prevent homelessness as we move forward.

It would be useful if the UK Government did a U-turn and continued with the universal credit payments that are being made at the moment, looked more closely at housing benefit and got rid of the benefit cap. Those actions would help prevent homelessness without doubt, and I hope that the UK Government will do them.

Question 3 has been withdrawn.

Sectoral Funds (Ring Fencing)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had regarding changing the ring-fence criteria concerning the sectoral funds distributed by local authorities. (S5O-05068)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

The Scottish ministers have listened carefully to local authorities and have taken steps to replace the number of Covid-related ring-fenced funding streams. For example, during the current financial year, councils will have complete autonomy to deploy as they see fit the additional Covid funding of £275 million that was announced on 16 February, the £120 million discretionary fund to support their local business community and the general £259 million that has been confirmed for next year.

The Scottish Government will continue to work in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authorities to ensure that our communities receive the lifeline support and services that they expect and deserve.

Rhoda Grant

I wonder whether the cabinet secretary has listened to businesses, because I have raised the rigid criteria that are attached to those funds with the Scottish Government on a number of occasions. Many organisations find that they do not easily meet those criteria, and they will therefore miss the safety net that is available.

Some of those companies are paying off staff as I speak. At this late stage, will the cabinet secretary review that and hand a lifeline to companies that are folding? Those are companies that, with help, could survive and boost our economy post-Covid.

Aileen Campbell

My colleagues Kate Forbes and others, including Fiona Hyslop, have engaged regularly with local authorities and businesses about the support that should be in place to help businesses. Discretionary funding has been put in place to support the local business community and to ensure that there is autonomy for local authorities to support those businesses, which are critical to their local economies.

If the member has particular businesses that she wants to raise as an example of where the plethora of support packages do not fit businesses’ needs, I am sure that my colleagues would be really interested to know, because we want to ensure that we do all that we can to support businesses. That is why we have adapted and changed the funding to meet the needs of businesses, which we engage with regularly.

Rhoda Grant

I clarify to the minister that the businesses pay harbour dues and canal dues. That is the same as paying business rates but, to date, they have not received a penny. They are folding, and they need the minister’s assistance now.

Aileen Campbell

I made the offer—I think quite clearly—that, if the member has particular businesses whose plight she wants to raise, she should do so, so that we can work collectively to make sure that they get the support that they require. I think that that is a fair offer. The member has raised particular businesses with particular needs in a communities and local government question session, and I am offering to meet her or to find some ways and solutions to help to support those businesses.

James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

This subject comes up fairly regularly at my Local Government and Communities Committee. Will the minister outline what changes the SNP Government has made to previous ring-fenced funding streams to provide local authorities with greater flexibility in deciding how best to allocate their total resources to services?

Aileen Campbell

When the SNP came into government, we removed the vast majority of ring-fenced funding streams by removing ring fencing from the funding and adding it to the general revenue and capital grants. That reduced the total amount of ring-fenced funding by £1.8 billion. With the introduction of the pupil equity fund and the expansion of early learning and childcare, the total amount of ring-fenced funding for 2021-22 is less than 8 per cent of the total local government finance settlement.

We endeavour to continue to work with local government to ensure that it has the resources that it needs. I indicated to James Kelly just how much that means for them in terms of their day-to-day spend.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Since 2013-14, the amount of money given to Scotland’s councils that has been ring fenced by the Scottish Government has increased by 6 per cent. That means that councils have no control over almost £800 million. Communities across Scotland have different priorities. When will the Scottish Government recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach is not working and provide the funding that is necessary to support local services and rebuild our communities?

Aileen Campbell

Forgive me, Presiding Officer, but I think that, when I was in the chamber last week, the Tories were precisely proposing a one-size-fits-all approach to local government.

I set out in my response to James Dornan that, when we came into government, we reduced ring fencing, and I set out what the level of ring fencing is within the current budget. I set out to James Kelly just how much we have increased the local authorities budget settlement by. That is going through the budget process as we speak, and I set out what it means in terms of day-to-day revenue increases for local authorities.

We will continue to work with local authorities to make sure that we continue a fair and affordable settlement for them that enables them to meet the priorities of the communities that they serve.

Question 5 has been withdrawn.

East Lothian Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met East Lothian Council and what was discussed. (S5O-05070)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including East Lothian Council. That engagement enables discussion on a wide range of issues as part of our shared commitment to work in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland.

Iain Gray

Over the past 20 years, East Lothian has experienced the highest percentage increase in population in Scotland, with growth of three times the Scottish average. Over 10,000 new homes are being built in the county as a requirement of the Scottish Government’s national plan. Such growth requires significant extra resources in order to meet the increased demand on local services, but East Lothian Council has not received such additional investment, leaving it with a gap of over £4 million in its revenue funding for 2021-22. Can the minister explain why East Lothian is not being given the fair funding that it needs to support local services?

Aileen Campbell

I set out earlier that we engage with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities regularly around financing, which is done through my colleague Kate Forbes, in particular. If there are to be any changes to the distribution settlement, that has to come through COSLA. The Scottish Government has always maintained the position that, if there is to be—and if there is a desire for—a change to the distribution settlement, we would be open to discussions on that. However, that has to come through COSLA, so I advise Iain Gray to direct his local authority to engage in such discussions with COSLA.

Housing Adaptations

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with local authorities about housing adaptations. (S5O-05071)

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

Health and social care partnerships are responsible for the planning and funding of housing adaptations, so the Scottish Government has had no direct, specific discussions with local authorities about adaptations. We have committed to reviewing the current housing adaptations system and we are engaging with all those who are involved in the adaptations process, including local authorities. We want to ensure that we improve and streamline the system and maximise the impact of investment while meeting the needs of people.

Annabelle Ewing

It is good to hear of the on-going review. However, in the current climate of the coronavirus pandemic, can the minister clarify whether housing adaptations should, in fact, be considered as essential works for the purposes of the coronavirus legislation that is in place? Will the minister undertake to impress on local authorities how important it is that housing adaptations are now expedited?

Kevin Stewart

I thank Ms Ewing for what I think is a very important question. The coronavirus general guidance for safer workplaces provides examples of essential works. Adaptations are essential if they enable someone to be discharged from hospital or address an urgent health or welfare issue. There is no reason to delay necessary adaptations unless the occupants are shielding or choose not to have workers in their home. It is, of course, important for all risk assessments to take place to ensure that all health protection measures are in place to keep workers and householders alike as safe as possible while any essential work is carried out. However, that work should be carried out, as it is essential.

Affordable Homes (Target)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to meet its target of building 50,000 affordable homes. (S5O-05072)

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

The latest published statistics to the end of September 2020 show that, since April 2016, we have delivered 36,046 affordable homes, over 24,000 of which were for social rent. That would have been an increased number, but the impact of Covid meant that there was a necessary pause in the delivery of affordable homes at such a critical time in our target period. However, we are continuing to work closely with all partners across the housing sector to deliver the remaining homes as quickly as it is safe to do so.

Tom Mason

I remind colleagues that I am a councillor in Aberdeen City Council. In line with Aberdeen’s local outcome improvement plan, the council agreed that the on-going programme of 2,000 new homes will be built to the industry gold standard, which makes them greener and cheaper to run, with better natural light and sound insulation; provides a dedicated space for working or study and storage for an electric wheelchair; and will lead to a reduction in fuel poverty. Does the minister agree that that model would be ideal for similar projects across Scotland? Will he join me in welcoming the exemplary work of Aberdeen City Council’s leadership in taking that plan forward?

Kevin Stewart

I have heard since 2012, I think, that the council in Aberdeen is going to deliver 2,000 council homes, but we have yet to see very many of those on the ground. The Government has given additional funding to Aberdeen, above its resource planning assumptions, from moneys that were not spent by other local authorities. I hope for the sake of my own constituents that those homes will be forthcoming.

Obviously, I want to see quality improved throughout the country. With the Government’s decarbonisation agenda to tackle our climate emergency, it is important that we continue to drive up quality. The Government has, of course, a number of pilots going on, including in Edinburgh, to ensure that we can do our level best in providing and delivering low-carbon, quality homes.

I hope that Mr Mason will go back to his colleagues in Aberdeen City Council and push them forward on delivering their promise of 2,000 homes.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I would be grateful for the minister’s views on the Tory Government’s decision to slash the allocation of financial transactions and the impact that that will have on the support that is available to home buyers and the delivery of new homes.

Kevin Stewart

There has been a significant cut of 66.5 per cent in the total Scottish financial transactions budget in 2021-22. That is two thirds of a budget slashed by the United Kingdom Government, and it amounts to a reduction of £412 million. The Scottish Government has mitigated that as far as possible, but that cut has led to some difficult choices about the use of the allocation in 2021-22 and has, of course, resulted in a reduction in the first home fund budget and the need to close the main help to buy Scotland scheme.

I wish that Tom Mason and his colleagues, who continually go on at us about increasing the housing supply, would go to their Westminster colleagues and tell Rishi Sunak to give us that money back, because it is required to deliver homes to meet Scotland’s need. It is a pathetic scenario that the UK Government has cut budgets to the extent that it has. Two thirds of a budget has been slashed.

The Presiding Officer

That brings us to the end of the communities and local government portfolio questions. I have just noticed in BlueJeans that that might be the last contribution from the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell. This is certainly the last time that communities and local government portfolio questions are timetabled before the end of the session. I put on record my thanks to Aileen Campbell for her contribution over many years as a parliamentarian. [Applause.] That said, I might select a topical question for her between now and the end of the session, so she should not quite switch off yet.

I am also conscious that we are now in March and there are only three weeks left until the end of the session. There will be several opportunities, including in the debate later this afternoon, for members to make potentially their last contributions. I hope that we will be able to acknowledge that in a fitting manner.

Low-income Households

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how its social security measures will support low-income households. (S5O-05073)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Our new social security system is already increasing financial support to thousands of people on low incomes, including families with young children, carers and those who have lost loved ones. The budget forecasts that we will invest £3.5 billion in 2021-22. Some £435 million of that is for low-income households through the best start grant, the Scottish child payment, the carers allowance, the carers allowance supplement and funeral support payments.

The Scottish child payment is a game-changing intervention in our fight against child poverty. It is the most ambitious anti-poverty measure that is currently being undertaken anywhere in the United Kingdom, and it will make a direct and significant impact on the incomes of thousands of low-income families.

I noticed that the Northern Ireland Executive decided to provide a winter payment to recipients of disability benefits and pension credit. Would the Scottish Government consider a similar scheme?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have looked with interest at what the Northern Ireland Executive has done in that regard.

The Department for Communities is responsible for delivering disability benefits and means-tested benefits, including pension credit, in Northern Ireland. The fact that it has the data and technical infrastructure to do that enables the Executive to agree the payment and deliver it relatively simply and at short notice.

When I considered a similar payment in Scotland, I noted that it would require the development of entirely new systems and processes, with complex dependencies on the Department for Work and Pensions that would take time to develop. That is one of my frustrations with the current devolved settlement. Unfortunately, I therefore had to rule out a similar intervention.

However, the Scottish Government has committed more than £0.5 billion of additional investment to help people and communities during these difficult times. Alongside that, we have introduced the child winter heating allowance this year for the most severely disabled children with day-time and night-time care needs.

I should have indicated that question 1 is grouped with question 8 in this question session, so I will turn to question 8 next, before taking supplementary questions.

Low-income Families with Children (Covid-19)

To ask the Scottish Government how its welfare policies have supported low-income families with children during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-05080)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Throughout the pandemic, the priority for Scotland’s social security system has been to ensure that families continue to be paid the money that they rely on and that of our game-changing new Scottish child payment is delivered.

Alongside that, we have committed more than £0.5 billion of additional investment to support people and communities impacted by the pandemic, with a particularly strong focus on children and families. That includes £140 million to promote food security, of which £51 million was specifically invested to continue the provision of free school meals for eligible families during school closures and holiday periods. Our £100 winter hardship payment put £14.4 million in families’ pockets, and we have committed to a further £16.8 million to reach up to 168,000 families through a spring hardship payment that is to be paid shortly. We have also introduced the £500 self-isolation support grant.

Does the cabinet secretary feel that such policies could only work in Scotland, or could neighbouring countries such as England learn from them?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am sure that all countries across the United Kingdom can learn from one another when it comes to what can be done to support people through the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

I agree that the UK Government could be doing more to support low-income families, particularly those on universal credit. I note that the chancellor has announced that the UK Government will continue the £20 uplift on universal credit until September. It is an unfortunate development that the chancellor has gone that far and no further, because the fact that the £20 uplift was brought in shows, in itself, that universal credit was not fit for purpose and was not enough to live on in the first place. I therefore encourage the chancellor to look once again at that, and to update the legacy benefits, too.

Self-isolation Support Grant

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact has been of widening the eligibility criteria for the self-isolation support grant. (S5O-05074)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

From 16 February, we extended the eligibility criteria for the grant to anyone who needs to self-isolate if they earn the real living wage or lower; to applicants who are entitled to a council tax reduction because they are on a low income; and to people with caring responsibilities for someone over 16 who is asked to self-isolate, where the carer themselves meets the other eligibility criteria. Those changes mean that an additional 390,000 people could be eligible for the grant, should they require it, which will help to remove any financial barriers to isolating. We will begin reporting on the figures on the impact of the updated eligibility from April 2021.

Mark Ruskell

I look forward to seeing those figures.

As we make strong progress in suppressing the virus, the numbers will dwindle, but the importance of self-isolation will increase—it will be critical in order to prevent new variants from taking root. We have seen an example of that in Aberdeen this week. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if low numbers of people need to self-isolate, we could make those grants unconditional, so that people self-isolate as quickly as possible—within hours—instead of waiting days or weeks before making a decision?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I agree with Mark Ruskell that we absolutely need to ensure that people understand and appreciate the importance of self-isolation. I think that they do; when we look at the levels of compliance across the country, we can see that people are taking this very seriously. I thank them for what they are doing.

As we have always done since we introduced the self-isolation support grant, we have worked with local authorities and others to see what more can be done to support people who are self-isolating. The eligibility criteria that we now have are wide enough to ensure that we provide support to people who are on low incomes and require that support.

More can be done to support people who are in self-isolation. In addition to the self-isolation support grant, there is also what we need to do to ensure that businesses encourage and support their employees to self-isolate, for example. I know that Mark Ruskell and some of his colleagues have been keen for the Government to look at that, so I assure him that we are looking at the situation in the round, and that we will continue to keep the support grant under review to see what else can be done to continue with this important part of our work on coronavirus.

Social Security Scotland (Cost)

To ask the Scottish Government what the most recent estimate is of the cost of establishing Social Security Scotland. (S5O-05075)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The programme business case, which was published in February 2020, describes implementation costs of £651 million to 2025-26. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that we have had to replan our delivery schedule and, although we anticipate the phasing of the costs to change between years, we anticipate remaining within that overall figure.

We still expect Social Security Scotland’s administration costs to align with the programme business case once the agency is in a steady state. The business case stated the cost of administration at around 5 per cent of the value of benefits paid, which is broadly comparable to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Finlay Carson

The benefits take-up report that the Scottish Government published this week outlines a range of reasons why people are unaware of their benefit entitlement. What specific work is the Social Security Scotland local delivery team in Dumfries and Galloway doing to ensure that my constituents understand and can apply for all the relevant benefits for which they might be eligible?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I point out to Finlay Carson that the Scottish Government has a benefit take-up strategy, unlike the United Kingdom Government. I hope that the UK Government will set up a take-up strategy because we are not responsible for all benefits up here. I would like all Governments to work together on that, and I recently wrote to the UK Government about it, along with my Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues.

Local delivery will play a valuable part in our agency’s work with stakeholders to make them are aware of what is being done in the local area, and in its work to support individuals to provide information for an application form and to ensure that they feel supported during the process. Again, that is very different from the experience that people have of the DWP.

We are absolutely committed to having a benefit take-up strategy that works well, not just because it is our statutory duty to do so, but because it is the right thing to do for people. Of course, there is much more that could be done outwith local delivery work. Aileen Campbell’s portfolio supports teams in Citizens Advice Scotland and other agencies to work on income maximisation, so that people across the country know what benefits they are entitled to. I would hope that all Governments across the UK could support that work.

How many people throughout Scotland have received payments through the new social security system? What is next year’s budget for payments?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Scottish Government provided more than £540 million in payments between the introduction of Social Security Scotland in September 2018 and 31 March 2020, through the delivery of eight benefits. By the end of the current financial year, the payments administered by the agency are forecast to support more than 113,000 people. As set out in the 2021-22 budget, and in line with the Scottish Fiscal Commission forecast, we are committing £3.5 billion in forecast social security payments, to reach more than 800,000 people. That money will go directly to the people of Scotland who need it most, including, of course, £68 million for the first full year of the Scottish child payment.

Question 4 has not been lodged.

Scottish Child Payment

To ask the Scottish Government how many Scottish child payment claims it has received for individual children and households, and how many have now been accepted and paid. (S5O-05077)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The latest published management information shows that, by 28 February, Social Security Scotland had received 98,000 applications for the Scottish child payment. Of the 85,000 applications that had been received by 14 February, 55,000 applications had been processed by the end of February. That means that 65 per cent of the applications that were received before 15 February have now received a decision. In total, 52,000 of the processed applications were approved.

Parents and carers will receive a letter advising them of the outcome of their application in due course. Details of when people should expect their first payment and how much it will be will be contained in that letter. An application could contain more than one child. Further time is required to interrogate the decisions and payments data to be able to produce robust estimates of the number of children. More detailed information on application outcomes and payments, including an estimate of the number of children who have been approved for the Scottish child payment, will be included in the next release of official statistics, which will cover the period to the end of March and is due to be published on 11 May.

Mark Griffin

I am pleased that families are starting to receive this crucial payment. The cabinet secretary knows that up to 173,000 children are eligible for the payment. It has rightly been described as a game changer, but it is only a game changer if children actually get it. How does the cabinet secretary plan to reach all those 173,000 children and would the Government consider backdating the payment for up to a year for those who are perhaps unaware of their entitlement and apply later on?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

With reference to backdating, the system for the Scottish child payment has not been built with an ability to backdate. If we were to do that, as I explained to Mark Griffin before the Scottish child payment went live, we would have had to delay the go-live date for the payment and we felt that it was important to get the payment in as quickly as possible and for money to be received as quickly as possible. We will endeavour to do everything that we can. I referred in a previous answer to the benefit take-up strategy and I will give one example of what we have been doing on that.

We have written to the individuals we know of within the data feeds from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, proactively inviting those people to apply, and we will continue to do that as more people access the qualifying benefits. That is an example of something that the agency has done before for best start grants and is now doing for the Scottish child payment, and we will continue to do that in the future as new people access the qualifying benefits.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

Making people aware of the new payment is very important, as others have said. The cabinet secretary mentioned that the Government has contacted potential applicants who are receiving benefits. Is there any other way that the Government can make people aware that the new benefit, which is a life changer, is available to the people who are entitled to it?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I can perhaps elaborate on what else we have done for the Scottish child payment. A lot of work has been done with key and trusted stakeholders, for example to ensure that they were aware of what was going on with the Scottish child payment and encouraging people in their networks to apply for it. A number of stakeholder road shows took place at the end of last year to support that work, and we are planning a multimedia campaign later this month, targeting parents through television and digital advertising. I gave one example to Mark Griffin and I hope that some of the other examples that I have given to Sandra White demonstrate how seriously we are taking that issue.

Loneliness and Isolation

To ask the Scottish Government what action the Minister for Older People and Equalities takes to ensure that its policies do not contribute to loneliness and isolation. (S5O-05078)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We know that Covid has impacted communities, including many thousands of older people. That is why we have provided funding throughout the financial year. Our winter plan provided more than £6.5 million of targeted action on equalities, covering isolation and loneliness, and digital exclusion. In the spring of 2020, our £350 million communities funding support, which consisted of four funding streams, including a £50 million wellbeing fund, supported third sector activities in communities. The £12 million immediate priorities fund also provided investment, through national partners, to support Scotland-wide or multi-area work. That rapid response was a reflection of our concerns about the seriousness of the situation and our recognition of the need to support communities during the crisis.

Edward Mountain

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the time-and-task model for commissioning social care for elderly people, which sometimes involves little more than a 20-minute daily visit, should be scrapped, as it prevents carers and the recipients of care from having time to talk?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am aware that Mr Mountain has had discussions on his time to talk campaign, which I understand he announced at the end of last year. He raises a fair point about our ability to ensure that we are looking after people and seeing that they receive good care, which I think we can all agree is what should happen. People might have different ideas about how that could be done and the different models that could be used. I am sure that the work that Mr Mountain is doing in his campaign will tie in well with the work that we all want to achieve to ensure that people get the care that they rightly deserve and should have in their own homes. I am sure that Mr Mountain will continue his work on that campaign and will inform the Scottish Government of how we should proceed.

Social Security Scotland (Client Survey)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the report “Social Security Scotland Client Survey: 2018-2020”. (S5O-05079)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

I welcome the report and, in particular, its key finding that 90 per cent of clients who responded said that their overall experience was either “very good” or “good”. It is a credit to all Social Security Scotland staff that they were given that endorsement by clients, who were surveyed last year at a time when the agency’s services and staff were also coping with the serious disruptions caused by coronavirus. The agency was established on the footing that its systems should be designed with the people of Scotland and be based on their evidence. The report demonstrates the Scottish Government’s determination to live up to that commitment.

Of course, there will always be room for improvement, but the report’s findings, including that the overwhelming majority of respondents—around 87 per cent—said they were treated with dignity, fairness and respect, are clear evidence of two things. First, they show where we are on our goal to deliver a Scottish social security system that has those values at its heart and that succeeds. Secondly, they show how far we have come on moving away from perceptions of the system operated by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Stewart Stevenson

The results of the survey are hugely encouraging and represent a welcome departure from the system that the United Kingdom Government operates, which the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights described as

“punitive, mean-spirited and often callous”.

What lessons does the cabinet secretary think the UK Government could learn from Scotland’s social security system? Does she believe that people in Scotland should not be forced to accept toxic Tory policies?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

What we have achieved in social security in Scotland is testament to the hard work that has gone on both within the Government and, importantly, with our key stakeholders and all the individuals with lived experience who have taken part in the process, so that we could deliver the system that we are now delivering on.

I should pay tribute to my predecessor in this role, Jeane Freeman—not only because she is sitting close to me in the chamber but because of her work in this portfolio before I took over, which laid the groundwork for the results that I am announcing today. The whole of Government can reflect on what can be done when we have lived experience at the heart of our policy making. That is a lesson not only for the Scottish Government but for all public agencies across the UK. It is the right way and the best way in which to make policy. I, for one, am very pleased that Ms Freeman took the opportunity to ensure that our social security system had that in its very bedrock when she set it up.