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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Legal Aid Solicitors (Action), Early Learning and Childcare, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Prostitution Law Reform


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Health and Social Care

Good afternoon. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The first item of business is portfolio questions, and the first portfolio is health and social care. I remind members that questions 2 and 8 are grouped together and that I will take any supplementaries to those questions after both have been answered. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or indicate so by entering the letter R in the chat room during the relevant question.

To get in as many questions as possible, I would prefer short and succinct questions, and answers to match.


Programme for Government (Tobacco, Alcohol and Unhealthy Food and Drinks Consumption)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made on the commitments in its programme for government to tackle the consumption of tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food and drinks. (S6O-00303)

We are committed to taking bold population-wide approaches to reduce the significant harms of tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food and drinks, which is why we will introduce a public health bill during this parliamentary session. We are in the process of developing an updated tobacco action plan to reduce smoking rates to 5 per cent or under by 2034. We are also driving forward our alcohol framework, which contains 20 actions to reduce alcohol-related harms and embed the World Health Organization’s focus on tackling the affordability, availability and attractiveness of alcohol.

A healthy diet from an early age is a major contributor to tackling inequality and the stubborn attainment gap, as, I am sure, the cabinet secretary would agree. Given that there is such a disparity across the country in food provision in our schools, and with so much of the public procurement purse going to importing inferior foods—despite the high quality of food produced by our farmers—does the cabinet secretary agree that it is time that the Scottish Government’s public procurement policy ensures that, wherever possible, produce available through the central Scotland Excel contract is high-quality home-grown food? That would be to the betterment of our children’s health and wellbeing.

I certainly agree with much of what Brian Whittle said and with the importance of not just the availability of healthy food but its price relative to that of unhealthy food. I am more than happy to have these conversations with my colleagues in Government, particularly Ivan McKee, who leads on many of these matters.

I am sure that when we introduce the public health bill, which of course is a programme for government commitment, we will engage widely with colleagues across the chamber, and I am sure that Brian Whittle will want to be part of those conversations. I am happy to take away the constructive suggestions that he makes.

We have a supplementary from Carol Mochan, who joins us remotely.

The Scottish Government has committed to halving childhood obesity by 2030. Can the cabinet secretary outline what steps the Government is taking to make community sport more inclusive, accessible and affordable for families who cannot afford the expensive cost of participating in sport, to ensure that sport plays its rightful role in meeting the targets that the Government has set out?

I thank Carol Mochan for that important contribution. In relation to some of the commitments in the PFG to help get us towards that target of halving childhood obesity by 2030, we have made available £650,000 to help health boards and local partners support services that encourage and reinforce good nutrition, healthy eating habits and, importantly, physical activity for children under five and their families. That goes back to Brian Whittle’s point about early intervention. Some of that funding goes towards physical activity for children under five.

I will write to Ms Mochan with further detail of what we are doing to make sport as inclusive as possible, particularly for those who may find participation difficult because of the financial barriers.

According to research conducted by the Alcohol Health Alliance UK in 2020, more than 70 per cent of alcohol labels do not include the low-risk drinking guidelines, despite the industry reaching a voluntary agreement with the UK Government to include them. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s research indicates that only 17 per cent of people in Scotland are aware of the chief medical officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines.

People deserve to know what they are consuming and to be aware of the harm—

May we have the question, please, Ms Mackay?

Will the cabinet secretary consider mandating nutrition and health information on alcohol labels, to enable people to make informed choices?

Yes; we are always happy to look at constructive suggestions from members of any party.

We have good four-nations discussions with the other health ministers on such issues. I have had recent discussions with Ed Argar on the Health and Care Bill, which touches on devolved competences. We do not have an agreement on the legislative consent memorandum in relation to the bill, some of which strays into the area that Gillian Mackay raised. I am happy to look at suggestions, including hers.

I am a strong supporter of alcohol minimum unit pricing. The evidence is pretty clear that it has had a significant impact. However, the value of the 50p rate has been eroded by inflation in recent years. When will the minister increase the minimum unit price beyond 50p?

As Willie Rennie knows, we keep the matter under regular review. The point that he made is not unreasonable. He will forgive me for not having to hand exactly when the next review is due, but when we have undertaken it, I will write to him about the outcome.


Dental Treatment (Access)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what it is doing to ensure that patients have access to dental treatment. (S6O-00304)

I recently wrote to the profession about our plans for the recovery of national health service dental services. The letter set out a package of new improvements to support NHS dental teams in tackling the backlog of care, including enhanced examinations for all patients—children and adults. That builds on recent funding announcements of £7.5 million for new dental drills and £5 million for ventilation improvements.

This Government’s commitment is to build back NHS dentistry and ensure that NHS dental teams are focused on tackling the significant backlog in patient care. Our immediate focus is recovery; further reform will follow once the sector has been stabilised. Reform at this stage would be a disruption.

The purpose of the successful measures that we have introduced is to ensure that NHS dental services emerge well placed to care for the oral health of the whole population and that there can be a return to increased patient contact, as the wider public health position allows.

The British Dental Association Scotland says that four in 10 Scottish dentists could quit the NHS if Scottish Government Covid payments are withdrawn and that the cabinet secretary could be remembered as the man who killed dentistry in Scotland.

I am sure that the BDA is relieved that it will get a reply to its letter of 15 October. Does the cabinet secretary intend to sit down with the association and discuss its serious concerns?

The BDA will be in a meeting that I am hosting this afternoon with a number of staff-side representatives. I have engaged with the BDA before.

I do not recognise the claims about what the BDA has suggested, but I am keen to hear more about the results of its survey.

We have invested significantly in the dental sector during the pandemic. For example, we have provided £50 million in financial support payments, in addition to between £30 million and £35 million to provide free personal protective equipment. That is on top of the figures that I mentioned—the £7.5 million for new dental drills and the £5 million for ventilation improvements. We are funding the dental sector as best we can.

We will not withdraw emergency support payments all of a sudden; we are looking to do that in April next year, to allow time to move from the current emergency arrangements to a more sustainable funding model. I am happy to engage with the BDA to discuss the issue further.


Dental Services (Work Models)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to claims by the British Dental Association Scotland that “plans to return national health service practices to pre-Covid models of work may devastate dental services”. (S6O-00310)

As I said, I wrote to the profession recently about our plans for recovery. If the letter is not publicly available, I will put it into the Scottish Parliament information centre so that members can see it for themselves.

As I said, this Government’s commitment is to build back NHS dentistry so that it recovers, and then to consider reform, but wholesale reform of the dental sector at this stage would be severely disruptive. I will not rehearse everything that I said about the substantial investment that we have made to support the sector during this difficult time.

I had planned to ask about the Government’s commitment to maintaining support for practices in rural and island areas, yet David McColl of BDA Scotland has warned of a potential mass exodus from NHS dental services across Scotland. Will the health secretary now withdraw his proposals and think again? Given how badly the negotiations have gone, does he still have confidence in his chief dental officer?

Yes, of course I have great respect for and confidence in Tom Ferris, our chief dental officer. I do not recognise some of the claims being made by the British Dental Association. I am keen to test those further with the BDA but, clearly, it has done a survey, and I have been clear in my responses to Russell Findlay and Liam McArthur that I want to sit down with the BDA: my door will be open to it for further negotiation.

I re-emphasise the point that the emergency payments are not dropping off the edge of a cliff next week, next month or even this year. We are talking about potentially moving to a position of withdrawing the emergency payments on 1 April next year. We can never be sure about these things, but I would certainly hope that we will be out of the grips of the emergency phase of pandemic by then.

However, given that the BDA has said what it has said and given the questions that have been asked by Russell Findlay and Liam McArthur, I can confirm that I will continue my engagement the BDA, in the hope of getting to a position where we can all agree on the future recovery of the dental sector.

Many of my Argyll and Bute constituents who live on islands must travel to the mainland for dental treatment, which can be expensive, and the islands that have dental practices can struggle to get the necessary staff. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on the work that the Scottish Government is doing to ensure that patients in island communities have access to affordable dental treatment?

I am not sure that I have to declare an interest, but I have two cousins who own a dental practice on one of the islands in Jenni Minto’s constituency. As she can imagine, I hear from them regularly on all matters related to islands and dentistry.

I can confirm that the Scottish Government has been looking closely at access to NHS dental services in remote and rural areas over the course of our time in government. Scottish dental access initiative grants are available in the areas of Scotland where there are access challenges. The grants provide practices with capital funding to support new practice builds or the extension of existing premises that provide NHS care. We are currently conducting a review of the areas of Scotland that qualify for that support.

We have in place a range of recruitment and retention incentives, which pay up to £25,000 over a two-year period to newly qualified dentists who decide to practise in areas with access challenges. Payments are also made to dentists who return to the workforce after a break of five years or more. We are presently considering new areas to be included in those incentives.


Covid-19 (Booster Vaccine Appointments)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to reports of patients being given appointments for a Covid-19 booster vaccine within six months of their second dose of the vaccine and who were therefore unable to have the booster at the appointment. (S6O-00305)

Covid-19 booster vaccinations in Scotland started as soon as possible once the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation provided advice stating that the booster dose should be offered no earlier than six months after completion of the primary vaccine course. People in Scotland are being invited for their autumn and winter vaccinations. To date, we have followed JCVI advice by inviting those who are eligible for boosters according to the same priority as for the initial vaccination programme.

Those who are eligible can receive their Covid-19 booster and flu vaccine at the same appointment. We are maximising co-administration where possible. Those who completed their primary course of the Covid-19 vaccine less than six months ago were offered only the flu vaccine and were asked to make a follow-up appointment for their Covid-19 booster, in some cases, from a given date.

Following updated advice to support operational flexibility, those attending for their flu vaccine can now, in some cases, be offered a Covid booster from five months. The Covid-19 booster vaccine will help to extend the protection against severe Covid-19 that was gained from the first two doses, specifically against hospitalisation and death over this winter.

I have been contacted by dozens of constituents who are finding navigating the system confusing, if not impossible. I will give just one example. My mother-in-law has been waiting weeks past the six-month point for her Covid booster. She has been calling the helpline every day to no avail, until today. I checked with her, and she received a letter today offering an appointment at 7 am tomorrow morning. She can make that appointment, which is different from the situation with her flu jab: she was offered an appointment in Gorebridge, which is two buses away and a two-hour round journey—and that is for a women over the age of 70 who lives by herself.

She is not alone. Constituents are finding—

Mr Johnson, could you please come to a question?

Constituents are finding the situation confusing—they lack information and the helpline does not help. Does the cabinet secretary think that that is good enough? If he does not, what will he do to fix it?

I will make a couple of points. We are administering a record number of flu and booster vaccines in our autumn and winter programme. I appreciate that, in some areas, it has not worked as well as it should have done. I do not know whether Mr Johnson was in the chamber for my statement yesterday, but in my response to his colleague Jackie Baillie I acknowledged that, when close to 500,000 flu and booster vaccines are administered, there are cases in which things do not work well. My offer to every member is that, if particular issues are not being resolved by their health board, I am more than happy for them to come to me.

I am sorry to hear about the difficulties that Daniel Johnson’s mother-in-law has had. I am pleased that she is able to make that appointment tomorrow, but I would not expect to receive a letter for an appointment with less than 24 hours to go. I reiterate the point that I made yesterday: our autumn and winter booster and flu vaccination programme is going at an incredible pace, but there have been some glitches, particularly in areas of Lothian. If I can help any members to resolve those issues, I am more than happy for them to contact me directly.

Before I call the next question, I remind members that I would like succinct questions and succinct answers from the cabinet secretary.


Domestic Abuse (Support for Ethnic Minority Women)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken, and will take, to support the mental and physical health of ethnic minority women who are victims of domestic abuse. (S6O-00306)

We continue to invest significant levels of funding in specialist front-line services. Through our new delivering equally safe fund, we recently confirmed allocations to 13 projects that specifically support minority ethnic women who have experienced domestic abuse and gender-based violence.

Following our mental health and transition recovery plan, we commissioned research from the Improvement Service to help us to better understand and address the mental health and wellbeing needs of women and girls who are experiencing gender-based violence. That has included engagement with minority ethnic groups. A final report with recommendations will be published this winter.

Anyiso is an organisation in my Anniesland constituency that supports women in those difficult circumstances. It has been reported that the domestic abuse of women in ethnic minority communities often goes unreported in Scotland due to religious or cultural reasons. What measures are in place, or can be put in place, to ensure that those women are able to access the support that the minister has outlined?

Domestic abuse has a devastating impact on victims and we continue to encourage all those who experience such crimes to report them and seek support. We remain committed to raising awareness of domestic abuse. Later this month, we will launch a campaign to reach those who are most at risk and ensure that survivors are aware of the support that continues to be available. We support Scotland’s domestic abuse and forced marriage helpline, which is there to support anyone who has experience of domestic abuse. The helpline is available 24/7 and offers translation services for service users who prefer to use a language other than English.

I launched the communities mental health and wellbeing fund at Saheliya, here in Edinburgh, which seeks to promote the mental health and wellbeing of communities, with a particular focus on local at-risk groups, including ethnic minority women. The Government funds research that explores south Asian women’s end-to-end experiences of criminal justice in the context of domestic abuse, including when seeking support during and following domestic abuse. We expect that report to be published in December 2022.

A quarter of cases in the sheriff court are domestic abuse cases. The main barrier to victims of domestic abuse taking their abusers to court is the cost of, and access to, a lawyer who specialises in domestic abuse. Has the minister had, or will he have, discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans about how access to legal aid can be improved to ensure that women can access a lawyer who specialises in domestic abuse?

As Ms McNeill rightly pointed out, that is more a matter for my justice colleagues. I, of course, have conversations with them regularly and will pick up with them the points that Ms McNeill made.

I am sure that all of us in the chamber are extremely supportive of Scotland’s equally safe strategy, and that we want to make sure that women and girls who face domestic abuse have all the recourse that they can.


Winter Pressures (Support for National Health Service Boards)

To ask the Scottish Government what assistance it is providing to NHS boards that are currently experiencing pressures ahead of winter. (S6O-00307)

I updated Parliament on 5 October 2021 on how we are supporting the NHS and social care services to alleviate winter pressures, including by providing £300 million to help to get people the care that they need as quickly as possible over the winter period.

Yesterday, I announced additional winter funding of £10 million for health boards in order to reduce the time that people need to spend in hospital so that others can be admitted more quickly. That funding will be targeted at enhancing local teams throughout winter—for example, through the deployment of expert physio and occupational therapy staff at accident and emergency units to triage people who are best treated elsewhere.

Patients and general practitioners are raising a high level of concern about the roll-out of Covid vaccine boosters and the uptake of flu vaccinations. At a time when health boards are grappling with additional staff shortages and an increasing number of resignations, GPs in Alness and Invergordon in my region have notified NHS Highland that they will be handing back their contract from early next year.

What is the Scottish Government doing to support GPs and health boards with those issues and to alleviate the pressures on hospitals before they face the even greater pressures of the winter?

A significant amount of investment has gone into our health board areas and primary care to help with some of the pressures that they are facing. However, I cannot divorce the pandemic from the current pressures. The indirect and direct pressures of the pandemic are being felt right across the NHS, from primary care and acute settings to social care. That is why the £300 million winter package that I mentioned seeks to address all those areas, including by giving an additional £28 million—speaking from memory—to primary care.

As Rhoda Grant can imagine, I regularly speak to colleagues in health boards and in organisations such as the British Medical Association, which represents doctors, about the challenges that they are facing. The Government will leave no stone unturned and will look for help wherever we can get it, including, as we have done, from the armed forces, who are helping with our vaccination programme, for which I am grateful to them.

Yesterday, the cabinet secretary stated:

“Facing those challenges, health and care staff on the front line continue to give their all to keep us safe, and I take this opportunity to reiterate my appreciation and gratitude for their enduring efforts.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2021; c 13.]

That, along with the £10 million that he announced, will not and cannot help those staff today, tomorrow or over the coming weeks.

Last-minute redeployment of nurses and allied health professionals between departments in hospitals or different hospitals in the same board is very common and has been for some time. That is now to include physiotherapists and occupational therapists being redeployed to A and E departments to triage and treat patients who would otherwise have to see nursing staff.

Could we have a question, please, Ms Webber?

However, those specialist roles have very different levels of expertise. What support and training is the Scottish Government providing to upskill healthcare professionals who are redeployed to A and E departments from clinical services elsewhere in order to keep patients and staff as safe as possible?

Sue Webber will be aware that physios are present in acute settings. They are very skilled at what they do, and the level of skill and training that they will bring to emergency departments will help to ensure that those who come into A and E with musculoskeletal conditions, for example, can be treated in the most appropriate way. Nonetheless, we will, of course, continue to work with health boards on the skilling that is required.

I am grateful to Ms Webber for her question, because it gives me another opportunity to thank our health and social care staff for all that they do for us. That is why we have record staffing numbers in Scotland and the best paid NHS and social care staff of any country in the United Kingdom.


National Health Service (Negligence and Misdiagnosis) (Support for Patients)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures are in place to support people who have experienced long-term mental or physical harm as a result of NHS negligence or misdiagnosis. (S6O-00308)

The Scottish Government expects NHS Scotland to provide high-quality healthcare that is safe, effective and person centred. When unintended or unexpected harm occurs, the relevant healthcare provider will provide appropriate medical support and care that addresses the needs of the patient for as long as it is required.

An individual can make a complaint against a healthcare provider and can consider seeking compensation when that is appropriate. Legal advice and assistance can be sought through the Law Society of Scotland, and legal aid is available to people who pass the financial criteria. Compensation payments for clinical negligence take into account both physical and psychological harm that might have been caused.

My constituent has suffered psychological and physical abuse as a result of the historical treatment of children with type 1 diabetes at the Cruachan home in Balerno. I ask the cabinet secretary to urge the health board to meet my constituent so that they can get the redress and closure that they so desperately deserve.

Clearly, I do not know the details of the case that Jim Fairlie mentions, but I would expect health boards to be engaging. If that is not happening, I would be happy, offline, to get the details from Jim Fairlie and do what I can to encourage such engagement.


Covid-19 (Vaccine Trial Volunteers)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it has put in place to ensure that Covid-19 vaccine trial volunteers have the same access to public events and travel as other people. (S6O-00309)

All participants in a clinical trial of a currently non-approved vaccine or a blinded study were sent a paper record of vaccination certificate in September to use in place of the app. Those certificates are fully equivalent to the digital version and can be used for access to domestic venues. They will also permit smoother inbound entry to the United Kingdom.

Although the app does not currently cover clinical trials, we are working to include participant data for use in the app.

On 2 September, the First Minister stated that nobody who participated in vaccine trials

“will be disadvantaged in any way.”—[Official Report, 2 September 2021; c 16.]

That position has been repeated at least five times.

However, Dr Roy Soiza, leader of the Novavax trial, tells me that there is no question but that the triallists for that vaccine have been disadvantaged. Will the cabinet secretary give me an assurance that when the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approves the Novavax vaccine, which is likely to happen within weeks, people who have participated in that trial will have their vaccination status recognised on the Scottish vaccination passport within a month?

Of course, when or if the Novavax vaccine is approved by the MHRA, we will work as quickly as we can to ensure that our app is able to register that vaccine. My officials are working hard on that in the case that any of the non-approved vaccines are approved by the MHRA, so we will do that as quickly as we can.


Social Justice, Housing and Local Government

We move to portfolio questions on social justice, housing and local government. I remind members that questions 2 and 6 are grouped together and that I will take any supplementaries on those questions after both have been answered.

If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or indicate so in the chat function by entering the letter R during the relevant question.


Local Government (Decision Making)

To ask the Scottish Government to what extent it takes local government decision making into account when considering proposals previously rejected by a local authority. (S6O-00311)

I understand that officials unsuccessfully tried to obtain clarification from Mr Greene’s office on what proposals he is referring to in his question. In the absence of that clarification, I have assumed that Mr Greene is referring to planning decision making, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, Mr Arthur.

The Government is committed to seeing the right developments in the right places. As Mr Greene knows, the right to appeal certain decisions by planning authorities is an important part of the planning system, and independent reporters make the final decision on the vast majority of appeals. Independent planning reporters take full account of the planning authority’s position, alongside that of other parties involved, including members of the local community.

I will explain, in case the minister is not aware, that North Ayrshire Council recently rejected—unanimously, on a cross-party basis—a local wind farm proposal. That decision has been referred to ministers. I suspect that no comment will be offered on that specific case, but given that last year half of all the local government decisions that were called in by ministers were overturned, what confidence can the people of North Ayrshire have that local decision making and views are ever truly respected by the Scottish Government, regardless of which minister chooses to answer such questions?

The Parliament passed a bill on the matter in 2019. I must make it clear to Mr Greene and the chamber as a whole that ministers cannot comment on live planning issues under the ministerial code, and that is right and proper.

I appreciate that Mr Greene has raised a specific issue, but I encourage him to contact the minister for planning. We will certainly make Mr Arthur aware of the issues that have been raised today.

I am sure that, if Mr Arthur were here, he would wish to state to Mr Greene that, in the most recent financial year, reporters issued 135 planning appeal decisions that granted planning permission to almost 50 per cent of cases; and that, in the same period, local planning authorities in Scotland decided approximately 25,000 planning applications, granting planning permission in 94.5 per cent of cases.

Kenneth Gibson has a supplementary question.

The Tories rejected third-party right of appeal and supported the right of appeal for developers before the Parliament passed the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019. Although I believe that the Rigghill wind farm development in my constituency, which is what Mr Greene’s question is about, should not be approved, does the minister agree that independent reporters should be able to look afresh at that proposal and that for Scottish ministers to be accused of interference by a Tory MSP is a bit rich, given his Westminster boss’s continued meddling in devolved matters?

I reiterate that ministers cannot comment on live planning issues. However, I note the points that Mr Gibson has made around the process of the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019, and that the considerations around equal right of appeal and the right of appeal for developers were considered as part of that process. For clarity, the Conservatives rejected the equal right of appeal and voted for the maintenance of a developer right of appeal.


Affordable Homes (Remote and Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to encourage more affordable homes to be built in remote and rural areas. (S6O-00312)

We recognise that good-quality affordable housing is essential to attract and retain people in Scotland’s remote and rural communities. We have committed to delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, of which 70 per cent will be available for social rent and 10 per cent will be in our remote, rural and island communities. We will develop a remote, rural and island action plan to deliver that. We will invest £3.44 billion in this parliamentary session towards the delivery of more affordable homes across Scotland, with £30 million of that investment supporting the continuation of the rural and island housing fund.

South of Scotland Community Housing was funded after a study by Shelter Scotland identified a shortfall in rural housing supply in Dumfries and Galloway. Providing technical and professional support to 35 communities and landowners, SSCH helps to deliver affordable homes that address specific local needs. Community Land Scotland and the Scottish Land Commission have praised SSCH’s remarkable work and would like it to upgrade its operations, but the charity now finds itself in a precarious position after the Scottish Government stopped its revenue funding in March 2020. Given its proven track record in rural housing delivery, I am sure that the minister will agree that it is ludicrous that its core funding has been halted. What assurances can the minister give that its immediate future will not be in doubt?

I will write to Finlay Carson on the specifics of South of Scotland Community Housing. However, we want to work with third sector partners, registered social landlords, social enterprises and housing co-operatives to help us deliver what is an ambitious programme across Scotland, including in remote and rural areas.


Affordable Homes (Building Costs)

I draw attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests as the owner of a rental property in the North Lanarkshire Council area.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to a report from Falkirk Council that states that the average cost of building a new affordable home is set to rise to £240,000, from £144,823 in 2014. (S6O-00316)

Current pressures on materials and supplies are contributing to rising construction costs. We are working closely with industry, through the construction leadership forum, to address the factors behind that.

We have also set up a short-life working group and are working at pace with industry on what solutions Scotland can offer to those global challenges. We operate a flexible grant programme. Local authorities and registered social landlords should apply for the grant funding that they need to deliver affordable housing projects, taking into account their planned level of borrowing and being satisfied that tenants’ rents remain affordable.

Even with the housing infrastructure fund, which is now available only to RSLs and local authorities for affordable housing, the proposed urban social rent benchmarks are set at £78,000 and £71,500, which will leave the providers considerably short. Homes for Scotland advised that, due to infrastructure constraints, new homes on brownfield land are often commercially unviable for any housing tenure. Does the support for regenerating brownfield sites for developments of all tenure go far enough? Does the Government have plans to give further support?

I recognise those issues and, of course, we are keeping them under review. With regard to the benchmarks, I am sure that Mark Griffin is aware of the work that has been going on with local government and the housing association movement. The new set of benchmarks will be adjusted on an annual basis to account for inflation, and, as I said earlier, we need to keep those matters under review. We do not know how short or long term the cost pressures will be, and, as I said in my initial answer, we are working through them and working with the housing sector to keep the momentum of the affordable housing supply programme going at pace.

The cabinet secretary is aware that the Highlands and Islands face distinct challenges when it comes to housing. Will she elaborate on the ways in which the Scottish Government is showing flexibility in its support for a sustainable and affordable housing strategy in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands?

Scottish Government housing staff work closely with local authorities and other stakeholders to respond to specific local challenges and locally identified housing priorities. The affordable housing supply programme has the flexibility to award grants at levels that recognise the development challenges that rural and island communities face, and, as I said in an earlier answer, support is available through the rural and island housing funds, which are backed up by £30 million of investment over this parliamentary session. Together, those funds supported the delivery of 6,000 affordable homes across rural and island Scotland over the past parliamentary session. We remain committed to the housing action plan. I had a fantastic visit to Fort Augustus, where I saw 12 fantastic affordable homes being delivered for local people.

Notwithstanding what the cabinet secretary said, figures last month revealed that 900 people in Orkney—out of a population of fewer than 22,000—are on the housing waiting list and face an average wait of more than two years. With Covid prompting inward migration and rapidly increasing costs, alongside the proposed removal of local connection from homelessness legislation, does the cabinet secretary really believe that the Government is doing enough to assist island authorities such as Orkney Islands Council to ensure that there is sufficient affordable housing to meet that rising demand?

Today, and on numerous occasions, I have laid out the scope of what we are doing, such as the 100,000 homes that we have already delivered and the ambition for 110,000 affordable homes going forward. However, we need to make sure that those homes are spread equitably. That is why we are bringing forward a specific plan for rural and island Scotland, which will give an opportunity for members such as Liam McArthur and local community organisations and housing providers in Orkney and elsewhere to input into that plan, in order to address the specific needs of their local areas. However, the scale of our ambition is hard to dispute.

As others have said, the issues in the Highlands and Islands are particularly bad, with people moving up to the area because of Covid and people buying buy-to-let properties. Has the cabinet secretary given any thought to the Hebridean Housing Partnership’s initiative to sell houses only to local people who will live and work in the area?

I know that there have been a number of innovative ways of retaining housing stock within local areas, such as bonds whereby, if a local person or family purchases a property, it remains in the local community. Those things are not easy and there is no single solution.

Obviously, we are addressing issues regarding short-term lets and secondary letting. Councils already have the power to introduce control areas, and that power must be used according to the needs of the local area. However, if Rhoda Grant writes to me with more detail of the issue that she has raised, I will be happy to give her a more detailed response.


New Affordable Housing (Energy Efficiency)

To ask the Scottish Government how its housing strategy ensures that all new affordable housing is built to be as energy efficient as possible. (S6O-00313)

All new homes that are delivered through the affordable housing supply programme meet Scottish building regulations, which set high levels of energy efficiency. We are currently consulting on improvements to those energy standards, for introduction next year, and we are strongly focused on reducing the overall energy demand in new homes.

We also aim to ensure that all new homes that are delivered by registered social landlords and local authorities will be zero-emissions homes by 2026, which, among other things, will mean greater use of off-site construction in the social rented sector to deliver high-quality and energy-efficient homes.

Given the on-going rise in energy costs and the impact that it will have on many of our most vulnerable people, it is vital that we do what we can to limit the amount of energy that houses require. How do we ensure that social landlords, in particular, focus on energy efficiency from the start of the process for all new builds?

The Scottish Government recognises the impact of fuel costs on tenants and the need for new homes to be designed to be as energy efficient as possible. For social landlords, the affordable housing supply programme supports the delivery of high-quality, energy-efficient homes and provides additional funding where homes are built to higher levels of energy efficiency than those that are set out in the current building regulations, which makes homes even more affordable to heat.

As I said in my first answer, through the building regulations, we are also reviewing the energy standards to deliver further improvements in energy efficiency and emissions reduction for all new homes. Following the recent review of investment benchmarks, additional funding is also now available to social landlords, through the affordable housing supply programme, to install heating systems with zero emissions at point of use.

Does the minister acknowledge that, as a result of the decision to halt all installations of energy-efficient oil and liquid petroleum gas heating systems, there will be unintended consequences for households that are living in fuel poverty in off-grid, mainly remote and rural communities? Many properties—20 per cent—in rural and remote Scotland are, in the Scottish Government’s own research, identified as not being technically suitable for renewable technologies such as air-source and ground-source heat pumps. What impact assessment was undertaken before the minister made the announcement?

No one who had already been offered an LPG system or an equivalent system has had the offer withdrawn. In fact, all those that were in the pipeline had commitments made, and those commitments were honoured.

Now, particularly as the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—is taking place in Glasgow, we should all be conscious that simply continuing with some of the most polluting heating systems that are available to us is really not an option if we want to support householders in all parts of the country to reduce their emissions.

We continue to provide a wide range of interventions for those who might previously have been offered LPG systems, and we are committed to continuing to review and improve the offer that is available.


Rent Control

To ask the Scottish Government when it plans to introduce a system of nationwide rent controls. (S6O-00314)

The Scottish Government has committed to delivering a new deal for tenants and to consulting on the options, delivering legislation and implementing an effective national system of rent controls, with appropriate mechanisms to allow local authorities to introduce local measures, by the end of 2025. We will set out proposals for taking forward that work in our forthcoming rented sector strategy, which we aim to publish for a full public consultation by the end of this calendar year.

In the previous parliamentary session, I introduced my Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill, which had widespread support, including support from the minister, Patrick Harvie. A key aspect of that bill was that private rents should not be capable of being raised by more than the consumer prices index plus 1 per cent.

I was pleased that David Alexander from the property firm D J Alexander suggested in a press release recently that a system in which annual rent rises for sitting tenants were capped at 1 per cent or 2 per cent “could be workable”. Do we have to wait until 2025 before at least some action is taken to protect tenants across Scotland who face exorbitant rents? I whole-heartedly welcome the proposals, but does the minister agree that we must do something before 2025? Otherwise, tenants will be priced out of their homes.

We have a full programme of work to be enacted well before the end of 2025. I commend Pauline McNeill for her work on the issue in the previous parliamentary session and I hope that she will work constructively with the Government to take forward our new deal for tenants under the rented sector strategy.

Some work under the strategy will be implemented earlier. Aspects including the models of rent control need proper work to examine the range of options that exist, including those that were included in Pauline McNeill’s member’s bill. However, there are other options and models that we need to examine to get the system right.

In Scotland, we have already gone through a process of designing and adopting a system of rent controls that did not work. Rent pressure zones have never been used and have not changed anyone’s rent. Let us not get it wrong; let us spend the time to consult openly and get the model right. I hope that we will be able to work constructively with colleagues across the—

There seems to be a technical problem. I hope that we got the gist of the minister’s response. Can you hear us, minister?

Yes—I can hear you fine. Can you hear me?

I can hear you now; your picture froze for a moment. We will move on to a supplementary question.

There is a mixed picture of the effects of rent control policies that have been introduced around the world. In Sweden, they have reportedly led to a second-hand market of sublet properties.

Several industry experts have warned that rent controls are not the answer to Scotland’s housing crisis. What analysis has been carried out of the potential benefits and pitfalls of the proposed rent control system?

I hope that the member will acknowledge that some of our work to develop models and consult on proposals is intended to do exactly what he asks for—it will look at the full range of potential benefits and how to avoid unintended consequences.

There are those in the private rented sector who do not have the instinctive recoil against the principle of rent controls that some might think. I hope that the member will acknowledge that continuing with the situation in which people in parts of the private rented sector are—to be frank—being price gouged is not acceptable. We need to deal with the unacceptable rent increases that some people have been living with.

I welcome the minister’s assurance that reforming the private rented sector remains high on the agenda. Will he provide more detail on the Scottish Government’s work on constructing a new deal for tenants?

As I said, our forthcoming rented sector strategy will set out our ambitious proposals to deliver a new deal for tenants. That is a commitment in the Scottish Government and Scottish Greens co-operation agreement, which was published in August. The strategy will include plans for a new housing regulator for the private rented sector. It will include enhanced new rights for tenants, such as rights that give people the ability to decorate their homes and keep pets—things that speak to the dignity of people living in their homes. In addition, it will include restrictions on winter evictions and a range of other measures.

I look forward to publishing the strategy. I hope to have constructive engagement on the detail with members of all parties.


Housing (Support for First-time buyers)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it plans to provide to first-time buyers. (S6O-00315)

First-time buyers can access a variety of support, including the help-to-buy smaller developers scheme and the low-cost initiative for first-time buyers—LIFT. First-time buyer relief for land and buildings transaction tax means that an estimated eight out of 10 first-time buyers continue to pay no tax at all.

The fact is that the help-to-buy scheme in Scotland has now been shut off to first-time buyers, unlike the scheme in England. That has resulted in young Scots increasingly being denied the dream of getting on the property ladder. House builders are saying that, across Scotland, first-time buyers are not presenting.

What support do ministers plan to provide in the budget to first-time buyers? Will the cabinet secretary look to restore the help-to-buy scheme in full?

The context is that there was a 66.5 per cent cut to the Scottish Government’s financial transactions budget in 2021-22, which arose from the United Kingdom Government’s spending review. That meant that difficult choices had to be made. We chose to target the limited support that was available at low-income buyers, who are the most marginal, by maintaining the LIFT scheme. It should be noted that the UK Government does not run an equivalent scheme for low-income purchasers.

Being more targeted in such support for first-time buyers is important, given that an evaluation showed that 72 per cent of first home fund buyers and 80 per cent of help-to-buy buyers would have been able to purchase a property that met their needs without Scottish Government financial assistance. If Miles Briggs and the Conservatives are saying that they want to shift money away from helping those on lower to moderate incomes to purchase a property to helping those who have more resources at their disposal, he should bring forward proposals for the budget. He should tell us where the money will come from to support those who—as I just demonstrated with those figures—would be able to purchase a house without Scottish Government assistance.


Welfare and Benefits (Care-experienced Young People)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that welfare entitlements and other benefits such as council tax exemptions are taken up by care-experienced young people. (S6O-00317)

We are committed to maximising the take-up of Scottish benefits among all those who are eligible, and our approach to that is set out in our latest benefit take-up strategy. We are aware of the additional challenges that care-experienced young people often face in accessing entitlements. Social Security Scotland is engaging with a range of corporate parents to raise awareness of devolved benefits among that group, in line with its corporate parenting action plan.

Local authorities have a duty to promote the entitlements that they administer, including council tax reduction, and they have a statutory responsibility under the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 to provide continuing care to eligible care leavers.

Gillian Mackay may ask a succinct supplementary. Please give a succinct answer, minister.

I have heard from care-experienced young people that there are issues around claiming council tax exemptions for those who leave care between the ages of 16 and 18, even if they leave care during that period and then return. Can the minister advise whether that is the case? If it is, will the Scottish Government seek to address that disparity?

In the interests of time, I will say that Gillian Mackay raises an important point that I am keen to take up with her in correspondence after the meeting.

Thank you, minister. Before moving on to the next item of business, I remind members that Covid-related measures are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.