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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 4, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Virtual) 04 February 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Infrastructure Investment Plan and Capital Spending Review 2021-22 to 2025-26, European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time, Land Ownership History (Impact of Slavery), Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion


Portfolio Question Time

Health and Sport

Good afternoon, and welcome to this virtual meeting of the Scottish Parliament. The first item of business is portfolio question time. If members want to ask a question that is within the portfolio that is under discussion, they should please put an R in the chat box.

Physical Activity and Sport

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it is giving to measures to encourage increased physical activity and participation in sport, in light of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people’s health. (S5O-04969)

Being physically active is all the more important during the Covid-19 pandemic, because we know that there are significant benefits for both physical and mental health at a time when those are most needed. We have worked closely in partnership with sportscotland to support the sporting sector throughout the pandemic, enabling sporting organisations to access financial support and helping them to develop sport-specific Covid-safe guidance. That has enabled a large number of sports to continue to operate in communities across Scotland within the overall set of restrictions that are in place at any given time. We are now working with partners on further plans to ensure that physical activity is a key part of Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic.

As the minister will know, to be successful, any measures will, rightly, rely on the knowledge and expertise of local organisations for their delivery. Those are organisations like Showcase the Street in my constituency, which works to promote physical activity through dance to a variety of age groups. What support can the Scottish Government give to organisations such as Showcase? How does the Government intend to capture the views of such organisations on what they believe is essential in the recovery from the pandemic?

Shona Robison is right about the importance of initiatives such as Showcase the Street. They are all the more important because they are rooted in local communities and work with them to try to achieve positive change. They are vital in encouraging and supporting young people in Scotland to try to be as active as they can be.

The work by initiatives such as Showcase and other groups will be all the more important as Scotland recovers from the impact of the pandemic, so I am keen to engage with them. I want to hear the views of Showcase on what it regards as important for supporting such groups to continue the valuable work that they do. I hope that Shona Robison will encourage Showcase the Street to contact me, and I would be more than happy to listen to its views and discuss the matter further with it.

Brian Whittle can ask a short supplementary question.

A recent report to the Health and Sport Committee showed that 75 per cent of people have reduced or significantly reduced their physical activity during Covid and that we have lost a whole year of recruitment for youngsters into sport. It will take planning and resource to rectify that. What is the Government doing to ensure that that planning and resource is in place?

The member raises a vital point, and it is one that we are cognisant of. As I said in my previous response, physical activity, and doing what we can to encourage it, will be vital as we come out of the pandemic. I assure the member that discussions are on-going, including with sportscotland, to look at what work we can do in that area. We want people to do what they can to be physically active, which I know is difficult with the restrictions that are in place currently. That could even be taking a few minutes to go for a wee walk outside.

Physical activity will be a key focus for us as we transition through and out of the pandemic, and it will be a key focus of my work.

Unless we have shorter questions and answers, we will not get through all the health questions.

Heart Disease Improvement Plan

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide a detailed timeline for the publication of the successor plan to the 2014 heart disease improvement plan. (S5O-04970)

Work on the refreshed heart disease improvement plan is under way, and we expect to publish it in spring.

We recognise that engagement with key stakeholders, including people living with heart disease, is vital in getting right the priorities and actions in the plan. The engagement work will commence shortly. That will enable us to work collaboratively to minimise preventable heart disease and ensure that everyone with suspected heart disease has timely and equitable access to diagnosis, treatment and care that supports them in living well with their condition.

Around 68,000 people across my Highlands and Islands region are living with heart and circulatory disease. It is a major health issue for many and one that I have raised with ministers previously. I welcome the recent publication of the British Heart Foundation’s draft strategy, which has been developed in partnership with clinical and patient communities.

I was surprised to note that the Government spent only £1 million to implement the 2014 heart disease improvement plan, but committed £17 million to its cancer strategy and £42 million to its diabetes strategy. Given that nearly a third of deaths are as a result of heart and circulatory disease and that more than 700,000 people live with the daily effects of the condition, will the minister commit to resourcing a successor plan for heart disease to comparable levels?

As part of our work to refresh the heart disease improvement plan, we are working to understand what funding will be required to deliver against the actions that will be contained in it. That will very much be a part of our on-going work.

Test and Protect System (Accessibility)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken to ensure the test and protect system is accessible to all. (S5O-04971)

The accessibility of testing is a key priority of test and protect, and our testing strategy and expansion plans highlight our approach to prioritising testing for different groups of people.

We have worked with health boards and local authorities to plan the locations of walk-through local test sites, particularly in areas where people might not have access to a car. We have also ensured that the needs of different groups with protected characteristics are met via the testing system and through different testing routes. The sites have disabled access routes and can accommodate families and those who might require privacy while being tested. They can also be adapted to local community needs by providing instructions in languages other than English.

In addition, to enable self-isolation, we provide practical and financial support to those who require it through the national assistance helpline and through outbound calls from local authorities to try to reach those who would otherwise not receive the support that they might require to self-isolate.

I had a constituency issue in which the individual concerned had no email address and no internet access on their phone and was unable to obtain a test. I have, of course, taken action for that person. Will the minister comment on whether that is a gap in the system? If there is no gap, will the minister provide information on what people who might find themselves in that situation should do?

First of all, I am really sorry to hear about the experience that Ruth Maguire’s constituent had. Obviously, we recognise that internet access might be an issue for some people and booking online might not be an option for them when they are trying to book a test. In such cases, people should call 0300 303 2713, which is the helpline for anyone who might need assistance with booking a test. Obviously, that will help to support people to access a test without requiring access to the internet.

The issue shows that our plans to expand testing are vital. Pilot projects have been under way on what more we can do in rural areas and we have the walk-through testing sites. We are doing all that we can to make testing as accessible as possible. I hope that all those measures will prevent such issues from recurring.

Public Health (Gambling)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on a recent University of Sheffield report, “Interventions to reduce the public health burden of gambling-related harms”, which recognises that gambling should be treated as a serious public health concern. (S5O-04972)

We welcome the report from the University of Sheffield. Gambling has the potential to negatively affect the physical and psychological health and the social functioning of people who gamble, and of others around them.

In common with our approach to other compulsive and addictive behaviours, we address problem gambling as part of wider health issues. Anyone who believes that gambling is affecting their health or that of a loved one should consult their general practitioner, in the first instance. Out of hours advice and support can be obtained from NHS 24 or the Breathing Space helpline. The NHS Inform website also contains advice and signposting information.

When a person with addictive or compulsive behaviours is referred to a service for treatment, it might not be to a specialist gambling addiction programme. However, the clinical team will work with the individual to identify issues and problems that are important, in order to support their recovery and to provide evidenced-based treatment.

The Scottish Government is already working with BeGambleAware and the Gambling Commission on implementation of the commission’s national strategy to reduce gambling harms, which was published in 2019. We are working closely with Public Health Scotland to assess existing evidence on which pathways to treatment are likely to be most successful in Scotland, including evaluation of pathways that are being trialled in other nations. We are also keen to understand why some people with problematic gambling are not accessing treatment and support services.

I thank the minister for that full answer. The report talks about reducing demand for and supply of gambling opportunities. Will the minister say what more we could do to protect people who are most at risk—for example, children and young people?

The Scottish Government recognises the harms that are related to gambling. For that reason, responsibility for tackling it rests with public health authorities. As with other issues involving addiction, we adopt a dual focus of reducing the burden that is caused to individuals and society while protecting children and young people from potential harm. To reduce that burden, we are implementing, in Scotland, the Gambling Commission’s strategy, which aims to restrict the levels of gambling that cause harm. Through education and early intervention, our approach to the strategy will also focus on giving children and young people more information about gambling harms.

Health Services (Impact of Long Covid)

To ask the Scottish Government what research has been undertaken regarding the long-term impact of long Covid on Scotland’s health services, and whether it is considering establishing long Covid clinics. (S5O-04973)

Rehabilitation, clinical input and research are all critical aspects of our recovery from the impacts of Covid.

We are prioritising three main areas: delivery of a framework for supporting people through recovery and rehabilitation; establishment of a living clinical guideline for healthcare professionals, which is directly helpful to general practitioners and clinicians in identifying on-going symptoms and provides a definition of best practice; and, through our chief scientist office, we have directly funded four rapid research projects at Scottish universities to consider such impacts, particularly in lung health but also in other areas.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her detailed reply. Since lodging my question I have had an opportunity to discuss the issue with the chief executive of NHS Forth Valley. Given her response, and that of the cabinet secretary, I am satisfied that the issue is in hand both locally and nationally. Unless the cabinet secretary wishes to respond further, Presiding Officer, I am content for you to move on.

That is very kind of you, Mr MacDonald.

Would Jeane Freeman like to give a quick response?

I thank Mr MacDonald very much. I will say two quick things. This is a developing area of research and understanding, so although we have put in place a number of measures, we continue to look at what more we need to do, as understanding of what long Covid involves grows, particularly in relation to people who suffer from it.

Do-not-resuscitate Orders

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the use of do-not-resuscitate orders during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04974)

The Covid-19 outbreak has brought about no change at all to our guidance on “do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation” decisions. Those decisions are made by clinicians. However, if a clinician feels that a patient would, as a result of their clinical circumstances, not benefit from CPR, ultimately, like other treatments, it should not be offered. However, other treatments can still be provided and, of course, no doctor would refuse a person’s wish for CPR to be administered if there is a possibility that it would be successful.

On 10 and 17 April last year, letters were issued to general practitioners from the Scottish Government’s chief medical officer, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners providing advice and support on having care planning discussions, within which DNACPR notices may be discussed, if the patient raises the matter.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. However, concerns have been raised by several vulnerable people that they, having been contacted by national health service staff, felt pressured to accept DNACPR orders as part of their anticipatory care plans, due to their vulnerability to Covid-19.

In some cases, such orders seem to have been added to people’s plans without their knowledge or consent, so it appears that there has been a change in use of those orders in the NHS in Scotland. Will the cabinet secretary therefore commit to undertaking a thorough investigation into use of the orders during the pandemic?

I would undertake to commit to an investigation into use of such orders in any circumstances, if there is evidence that they have been used inappropriately by clinicians.

I do not know whether Mr Cameron is referring to historical concerns, which were looked into, or to current concerns, but if he would care to give me detailed information, I will happily take the matter up with our chief medical officer—remembering, of course, that decisions on whether such notices should be applied to particular patients are not Government decisions, but are clinical decisions. Therefore, it is appropriate that, if an investigation were needed, it would be clinically led. I would be happy to look into the issue in any circumstances and will wait to hear from Mr Cameron.

Curling Rinks (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to curling rinks. (S5O-04975)

The Scottish Government announced a £55 million emergency sports funding package in December last year. Scottish ice rinks, including skating and curling rinks, were allocated £2 million in emergency Government funding as part of the sports rescue package. That funding includes support for rinks that support Scotland’s world-class curling programmes, as well as recreational and professional skating.

We are continuing to work closely with sportscotland and a range of Scottish governing bodies, including Scottish Curling, to fully understand the financial challenges that are being faced across the sector.

I am grateful for that response. The minister will know very well just how important Kinross Curling Club has been over the past 350 years in the support that it has given not just to the community ,but to national and international bonspiels. However, the club has been really struggling due to the impact of Covid-19 and was, unfortunately, not able to access the £10 million digital boost development grant because it was so oversubscribed.

Exactly what extra support is the Scottish Government able to provide to curling?

The package that we announced and the £10 million of funding are in addition to sportscotland funding, which had been made available. I think that £1.5 million was available through the Covid recovery support fund, which was providing support for the governing bodies. I think that between £600,000 and £700,000 of investment went to Scottish Curling, which was given in a couple of instalments last year.

We continue engagement with the sports sector, sportscotland and governing bodies to find out what further help and support we can provide, because I realise that there are huge challenges across the sector. That is why we have tried as much as we can to assist through the financial package that we have already given.

Maternity Care (Mental Health and Wellbeing Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what mental health and wellbeing support is available to expectant women and new mothers. (S5O-04976)

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring equitable co-ordinated access to mental health provision for new mothers and their families throughout pregnancy and during the postnatal period.

We know that looking after the health and wellbeing of mothers is vital for them and for their children, and can contribute to breaking the cycle of poor outcomes from early mental health adversity. That is supported by £50 million investment over four years, which is being overseen and directed by the perinatal and infant mental health programme board.

We are working with all health boards across Scotland to establish and expand specialist perinatal services. That includes specialist community perinatal mental health, infant mental health and maternity and neonatal psychological interventions services. Initial staffing for those developments should be in place by the end of the financial year, and we will work closely with boards going forward, in order to develop the services further.

Midwives, health visitors and general practitioners are often the best sources of advice and support with regard to mental health and wellbeing. Health visitors play a vital role in the health and wellbeing of children and families in our communities, and are at the core of delivering universal early years services.

Caithness health action team has reported that travel from Caithness to Raigmore hospital, in Inverness, and being many miles away from home and family, are negatively affecting some women’s mental health. It advocates use of the model that is currently operating in NHS Orkney for maternity services. Will the health team work with NHS Highland and others to ascertain the pros and cons of that model for Caithness?

It is essential that women in Scotland, including those who live in remote and rural areas, receive a safe high-quality service from the NHS.

We continue to work with maternity transport groups as part of the best start programme. An expert group examines transport of pregnant women and newborn babies. As part of that group’s work, specific consideration is also being given to the pathways and protocols for remote and rural transfer across Scotland.

The best start north steering group has been established by four health boards in the north of Scotland and is overseen by the chief executives of NHS Highland and NHS Grampian. The group seeks to understand the resources, constraints, challenges and opportunities in the current systems, and we welcome the group’s conclusions.

Additional support can be so important to the wellbeing of both parents and newborn children—even more so during Covid. A constituent of mine, whose partner works away from home, is really feeling the strain. Can she form a non-familiar support bubble to access the support that she needs?

We recognise the difficulties that new parents—mothers, in particular—face in developing informal relationships with their peers at this time. However, there are measures in place to ensure that those who are more vulnerable continue to have access to support through whatever means are most appropriate—one example being peer support for mental health. They will also continue to have access to universal services, including maternity and health visiting, to further aid access to local community support. We do not propose adjusting existing guidance for that group at this time.

Communities and Local Government

If any member wants to ask a supplementary question, they should put an R in the chat function while the original question is being asked.

Budget Measures (Community Resilience and Wellbeing)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures in its draft budget will help build the resilience and wellbeing of Scotland’s communities. (S5O-04977)

The published draft budget proposes a range of measures important to resilience, wellbeing, recovery and renewal for our people and communities, including support for jobs, skills, businesses and health services. That includes £100 million for the green jobs fund, £98.2 million to improve digital connectivity and £1.9 billion for primary healthcare to help deliver more services in the community.

Other measures include £81 million committed to regeneration programmes for the next financial year, including the £13.6 million empowering communities programme, which enables communities to tackle poverty and inequality on their own terms. The budget will also provide investment in local and national third sector infrastructure, supporting the capacity and growth of social enterprises.

I particularly welcome the recent investment in North Lanarkshire Council, and across Scotland, from the regeneration capital grant fund. As well as mitigating the impact of United Kingdom Government welfare cuts, what other action is the Scottish Government taking to tackle deep-seated poverty and inequality?

The member is right to point out the amount of work that we do to mitigate. That does not rest easy with us, because we do not want to be always mitigating the acts of another Government. The action that we have taken on our own terms includes committing more than £500 million to protect people and communities that have been impacted by Covid and providing more than £200 million to local authorities from consequential funds, which includes increased investment in the Scottish welfare fund, discretionary housing payments and third sector community organisations across the country.

The budget also continues significant investment to tackle poverty and inequality and strengthen public services, including £23.3 million for our tackling child poverty fund and £68 million for the game-changing Scottish child payment, which will begin payments for children under six later this month. Investment in that new benefit is part of almost £3.6 billion of investment next year in Scottish social security and wider social support that will be delivered via local government.

Ensuring that local authorities are funded properly is key to protecting wellbeing and rebuilding after the pandemic. The recent budget will mean that councils will require to make cuts to organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland. Those cuts would not be necessary if councils were given a fair deal—the type of deal that was suggested ahead of the budget last week. If the cabinet secretary will not provide funding to Scotland’s councils, what will she do to ensure that the Government protects vital services and prevents them from being eroded?

I have set out a number of ways in which we support activities to help to protect the most vulnerable, who are the most impacted by the actions of the UK Government that the member supports. Those actions include, for instance, not uprating universal credit, which we have continually asked for.

Forby all that, as my colleague Kate Forbes set out last week, the budget for the local government settlement is £11.6 billion, and that continues to provide local government with a funding settlement that is fair and affordable.

The budget has several stages to go through, so if the member wants to suggest any further activity or any shifts on those budget lines, he should engage with me or with Kate Forbes directly. We will continue to work with our third sector partners, including Citizens Advice Scotland, to make sure that they can continue to deliver the advice, support and help that is so necessary, particularly at this time. We will always look to make sure that we can provide longer-term funding to local government and the third sector. It would be useful if we were given the benefit of the same approach by the UK Government in the way that it indicates its budget settlement to the Scottish Government.

Shetland Islands Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met representatives of Shetland Islands Council, and what was discussed. (S5O-04978)

The Scottish Government engages with all local authorities and health boards on a weekly basis as we work together to respond to the impact of the pandemic on our island communities.

The islands are blighted by high levels of fuel poverty and, with many household budgets stretched more than ever because of the pandemic, it seems like a problem that is only set to get worse. Unfortunately, people were left disappointed last week when the budget provided only a small increase in funding for fuel poverty and energy efficiency programmes, with no sign of the critical fuel poverty strategy. What action has the Scottish Government taken so far to develop that strategy? Will it be published in the current parliamentary session?

We take all those points very seriously indeed. The fuel poverty measures that were set out in the budget also included the winter support package, which includes £7 million of funding, because we recognise how difficult this time of year is, particularly for those rural and remote communities that do not have the ability to link into mains provision of fuel and heating.

We continue to invest, work with partners and provide support where we can to help to enable people’s fuel poverty-related needs to be met. I am happy to engage with Beatrice Wishart if she feels that there are other things that can be done to support her communities in Shetland and, by default, other communities across rural Scotland.

However, we are committed to tackling fuel poverty. That is set out in our Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act 2019, and we have set out measures in the budget. We have invested additional money through the winter support package and we continue to be committed to responding to the needs of people across the country.

Out-of-school Care Services

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with third sector and community organisations providing out-of-school care services. (S5O-04979)

We know that out-of-school care services play a vital role in enabling parents and carers to access work, addressing economic and social exclusion and providing improved outcomes for children, and they will be vital as we move out of lockdown and into recovery in the coming months.

The Scottish Government and the Minister for Children and Young People, Maree Todd, regularly meet the Scottish Out of School Care Network, which represents the regulated out-of-school care sector in Scotland, including third sector and community organisations. Over the course of the pandemic, Scottish Government officials have engaged directly with SOSCN members through online events, and the discussions have largely focused on Covid-19’s impacts on out-of-school care services.

SOSCN has also played an active role in the early learning and childcare sector recovery working group, which has helped to shape guidance documents and support packages for the childcare sector in response to the pandemic. There have been 17 meetings of the group, with SOSCN being represented at all of them, and the latest was held today. SOSCN also represents the out-of-school care sector on the childcare sector working group.

I thank the cabinet secretary for acknowledging that out-of-school care services are vital for thousands of parents in every part of Scotland. Worryingly, however, many of those services will not be able to reopen when the time comes. When Scotland is able to get back to work, these services, including First 4 Kids, which is a charity in my region, will be vital to allow parents to get back to work. What specific help will the Government offer the sector to support the businesses and jobs that rely on it?

First, I recognise all the points that Alison Harris has highlighted. They illustrate why the out-of-school care sector is so important as part of the recovery. That is why, as I set out in my original answer, it has been integral to the work that the Government has been taking forward to respond to current issues that are affecting the sector as a result of the pandemic and to look to the future and consider what recovery looks like and how we can support the sector.

There have been funding announcements throughout the past year, and I know that Maree Todd continues to take a keen interest in what more we can do to support this vital sector to support people getting back into work when restrictions are eased. Forby that, in my portfolio, we have supported the third sector with recovery through the £350 million package that we announced in the spring of last year, with support going to a variety of sectors.

We will continue to work with and support the sector, and Maree Todd is taking an active leadership role in that. On the specific group that Alison Harris mentioned, if she writes to us to ask us to consider what other things we can direct it to, I will be happy to pass that on to my colleague, if that would be helpful.

I put on the record my thanks to all our third sector partners, who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic.

How will the funding that was announced in the draft budget ensure that the third sector can continue to help people and communities to recover from the impact of the pandemic?

Gillian Martin is absolutely correct. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has used the phrase “never more needed”, and the pandemic has shown that our third, community and volunteering sectors have never been more needed. The country’s resilience simply would not have been there had those sectors not been enabled to step up and support communities across the country, which has prevented an increase in stretched capacity issues for our statutory services. The sectors are hugely important and we need to support them as much as we can.

The 2021-22 draft budget announced that funding of £26.1 million will be provided through the third sector unit for key infrastructure organisations that support the wider third sector network. It is important to recognise that, although that is an explicit line in the budget, it does not tell the whole story of support. Every portfolio across every bit of Government will have support in place to help the third sector in delivering on its outcomes and ambitions.

As we set out in our programme for government, we are continuing to provide funding to support the third sector to respond to the on-going challenges of the pandemic, and we are thinking about how we support the sector to recover. Significant resource has been put in place and we continue to work with the third sector directly to ensure that, if we need to take actions and carry out activities, we should do so with the agility that is apparent in the third sector more generally.

I should point out the social renewal advisory board’s recent publication “If Not Now, When?”, which sets out a number of activities that can be taken across Government at all levels and across public life to ensure that we can reverse some of the inequality that our society faces and support our third sector to deliver on that.


To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce homelessness. (S5O-04980)

We have an ambitious strategy to end homelessness, backed by a £50 million fund. We updated our strategy in October 2020, following recommendations from the homelessness and rough sleeping action group.

We have committed £37.5 million to support councils to implement rapid rehousing, and our housing first pathfinder programme has delivered more than 400 tenancies. We have increased protections for people experiencing domestic abuse and replaced night shelters, and we are making excellent progress towards our goal of eradicating rough sleeping.

Our strategy is informed by the voices of those with lived experience and steered by the homelessness prevention and strategy group, which I co-chair with the community wellbeing spokesperson of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

The reality is that the extension of the unsuitable accommodation order for all homeless persons has twice been delayed and the affordable housing budget has just been reduced by £132 million. Those actions by the Government are hampering efforts to reduce homelessness. Does the minister agree with Shelter Scotland that building affordable housing should be the “cornerstone of Scotland’s recovery” from the pandemic? Will the Scottish Government reverse the cut to the affordable housing budget?

I agree that housing should be the cornerstone of our recovery. We have invested heavily in social and affordable housing during this parliamentary session and we will continue to do so in future.

On our budget, I would say to Mary Fee and other colleagues that we have faced a cut from Westminster of £218 million in housing consequentials. We have faced a cut of 66.5 per cent in financial transactions—[Inaudible.]—amounts to £312 million. If Mary Fee and other colleagues want to join me in calling on Westminster to reverse those cuts so that we can consider supporting housing to a greater degree here in Scotland, I would welcome that. I appeal to all members to join us and say to the UK Government, “This is not good enough, and we want that money back.”

Highland Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when the communities secretary last met the chief executive of the Highland Council. (S5O-04981)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including Highland 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 the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on our strategic approach to suppressing Covid-19 outbreaks. That includes regular engagement with all authorities about levels of restrictions and protective measures that apply.

I last spoke to the leader and the chief executive of Highland Council on 11 November.

Officers in Highland Council have the right to emergency powers as a result of the national lockdown. With plans in place for the relaxing of the lockdown restrictions in late February and March, does the cabinet secretary believe that now is the time for democratically elected councillors to resume control of local councils?

I have outlined a range of ways in which we continue to engage. We work in partnership with local government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which is the umbrella body, to ensure that the response to Covid-19 is appropriate and proportionate and is suppressing the virus.

We are in a global pandemic, the results of which are hugely harsh and traumatic. In my experience, councils throughout the country have played a full and rigorous part in ensuring that we can keep our communities safe. They have a full and active input into the decision-making process, and they will continue to engage on that basis.

As I have said, I have engaged regularly and thoroughly with local government, including through the umbrella body. In addition, our officials work and engage with COSLA and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers to ensure that we make decisions on a collective and collaborative basis to suppress the virus and steer our country through an awful set of circumstances, and that we can bring some sense of normality back to people’s lives as quickly and as safely as possible.

Planning Conditions (Negotiations)

To ask the Scottish Government what criteria it uses to assess requests for an extension of negotiations on planning conditions when only one party supports such a request. (S5O-04982)

We seem to have little sound issues with Mark Ruskell and the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart. We will do the best that we can.

There is no set list of criteria for such consideration. That is because the circumstances of each case, including the elements in any planning obligation, are different.

It will not surprise the minister to hear that I still have grave concerns about the farce at Park of Keir. The developer has requested and been granted more than a dozen fruitless extensions to negotiations. Is there a point at which a minister can say that a development proposal has had more than enough—[Inaudible.]—time to agree to an application, and it must be rejected?

I presume that the minister heard enough of that question to be able to respond to it.

I had some difficulty, Presiding Officer, but I will respond as best as I can. If I do not answer the question completely, maybe Mr Ruskell can write to me.

We are aware that planning obligations can be a source of delay in the planning process, and we encourage negotiations to be conducted as timeously as possible. I always urge everyone to be as co-operative and collaborative as possible in reaching a conclusion to negotiations.

Highland Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the Highland Council and what was discussed. (S5O-04983)

As I have already intimated, ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all local authorities, including Highland Council, to discuss a wide range of issues that affect our communities and to ensure that we can improve outcomes for the people of Scotland.

I wonder whether they discussed the current proposals of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland on cuts to representation for some our most remote, rural and island communities. Parity in island council areas has been set at one councillor for every 800 people, yet in Highland Council, the parity level has been set at 1,800. As a result, we have fewer councillors to cover a huge geographical area, including islands, which creates a substantial democratic deficit. What will the cabinet secretary do to ensure that the people in those remote, rural and island communities are properly represented?

With regard to the boundary commission review that Rhoda Grant has described, my colleague Graeme Dey has written to and is engaging with Highland Council on that issue. I encourage all councils to engage constructively with the boundary commission and articulate any concerns that they have, including the concerns of such communities as Rhoda Grant has mentioned. I would point her to Graeme Dey, as he is taking forward that work and engaging with Highland Council. If she would like to alert me to particular aspects of the issue—if we could be doing something differently or if there are things that she feels her constituents are unable to proactively engage on—she should let us know, and we will make sure that Mr Dey and the commission are aware of those local concerns.

Scottish Borders Council and Midlothian Council (Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Scottish Borders Council and Midlothian Council in the last three months. (S5O-04984)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including Scottish Borders Council and Midlothian Council. As I have said already, we discuss a wide range of issues as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government and improving outcomes for the people of Scotland.

Despite Scottish Borders Council receiving a 4.1 per cent increase in staff budget, the Tory leader of the council is full of complaints, which is not a surprise, especially with regard to the council receiving extra cash only if it does not increase council tax. Did she write to complain about that?

As I have said in previous answers, we have provided £11.6 billion to councils through the local government settlement, and we will continue to provide local government with a settlement that we believe is fair and affordable. Of course, the budget has a number of stages yet to progress through, but it includes a further £259 million of non-recurring Covid-19 consequentials, and local authorities will have complete autonomy to allocate their agreed shares of that.

If the leader of Scottish Borders Council has specific concerns about her allocation, she should let us and her colleagues know, and they can then negotiate the budget settlement. We have provided flexibility so that she will be able to allocate those resources as she sees fit. We have provided a settlement to local government that is fair and affordable and which delivers on the shared outcomes that we want for our constituents.

Social Security and Older People

The next portfolio is social security and older people. Again, I ask that any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question says so in the chat box.

Child Disability Payment (Design and Delivery Plans)

I note my interest in that I am the parent of a child in receipt of disability living allowance.

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made in involving individuals with experience of disability living allowance in the design and delivery plans for the child disability payment. (S5O-04985)

The Scottish Government has worked with people who have lived experience of the current social security system since powers over social security were devolved, including people with experience of disability living allowance for children. That work includes our experience panels, our public consultation on disability assistance, which received 189 responses from individuals, and extensive user testing of our systems and processes. Their input has been vital in helping us to develop and deliver a system that is built on the values of dignity, fairness and respect.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer and for meeting me prior to the pandemic to discuss these matters. The cabinet secretary will know from the correspondence and the discussions that we have had that I am concerned about the renewal process for the disability living allowance for children, which often requires huge amounts of paperwork to be filled in. Can she say a little bit more about whether that system will be different under the child disability payment? Will it be tested during the pilot phase, which she announced in her statement in Parliament in November?

I assure Mark McDonald that we are taking the issue very seriously. I know that the issue causes great concern to many parents and young people themselves, and that is why we are determined that it will be different.

I have recently had contact with my officials about the issue. It is an area that we do not have to have completed before the pilot, but we are aware that it needs to be ready as soon as any young person has to go through that process. In that case, we will do a lot of user testing to ensure that young people and adults, as well as the stakeholders who might represent some of them, are fully involved.

Mark McDonald is quite right to say that the transition from child to adult services or to adult benefits can cause a great deal of stress, and we are determined to use as much of the information that we already have for a child to assist them with that transition. I will endeavour to keep Mr McDonald updated on the progress that we are making, and I will be happy to work with him on the issue.

We have a short supplementary question from Jeremy Balfour.

Mr Balfour, I am afraid to say that you are silent. I do not know why but it is not like you. We will move on and, given time, we will try to bring you back in later with your supplementary to question 1.

Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit (Uplift)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding retaining the £20 uplift to universal credit and working tax credit. (S5O-04986)

The Scottish Government has written to the UK Government on five occasions with requests to make the £20 per week uplift permanent and to extend it to legacy benefits. Most recently, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance wrote to the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer on 27 January, calling on the UK Government to announce the retention and expansion of the uplift in the March budget. Analysis by the Scottish Government indicates that cutting that support would move 60,000 people, including 20,000 children, into relative poverty in Scotland. We will continue to urge the UK Government to make the required changes to ensure that the benefit process works for the people who need support and not against them.

The Resolution Foundation said that, if the uplift is cut, 1.2 million people in the UK will fall into relative poverty. The cabinet secretary has just highlighted that 20,000 children in Scotland would be affected. Does she therefore agree that, notwithstanding silence or failure to respond to five communications, each and every one of us should make every possible effort to draw the UK Government’s attention to this catastrophe that is affecting too many of our young people and families in need right across the UK, particularly in Scotland?

I agree with Stewart Stevenson that we all need to make every effort to persuade the UK Government about that. We have consistently called for the change, but I am also encouraged by the calls from across the political spectrum and third parties. For example, the all-party parliamentary group on poverty, which is co-chaired by a Conservative member of Parliament, this week published a report calling on the UK Government to maintain the £20 per week uplift and to scrap the benefit cap. There is wide support for that, because people recognise and understand the impact that not doing it will have on adults and children right across the UK. With that level of support, I hope that the UK Government will do the right thing and change tack.

Child Disability Payment (Design and Delivery Plans)

I will go back to question 1 for the supplementary from Jeremy Balfour.

Can you hear me, Presiding Officer?

I can hear you loud and clear.

Thank you. The Scottish Government has had four and a half years to deliver the new social security system. It is welcome that it has tested the system and spoken to people with lived experience. Will the cabinet secretary now confirm that it will be delivered on time and that there will be no further delays or excuses?

I am genuinely sorry that Mr Balfour continues to take that tone when we discuss the implementation of social security measures. He will be well aware that the timetable changes have been made because of the impact of coronavirus not just on the Scottish Government but on the Department for Work and Pensions, the health and social care sectors that we heavily rely on and our partners in local government.

We have now replanned for child disability payments and adult disability payments, as I announced last year. I genuinely hope that we can work together across the Parliament to ensure that the implementation of child disability benefit in Scotland is a success. I hope that Mr Balfour will join in the welcome for the progress that we are making in exceptionally difficult and challenging times.

Older People (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it supports older people. (S5O-04987)

Since the start of the pandemic, the Scottish Government has provided more than £1.3 million in support for older people’s organisations at a national level, as well as supporting local community projects that help older people. That includes £1 million for Age Scotland to expand the capacity of its free helpline, which provides advice, support and friendship to older people and their families. The Minister for Older People and Equalities continues to meet the older people’s strategic action forum regularly—most recently, last week—to discuss other ways in which the Scottish Government can provide support.

Since the start of the pandemic, many of my elderly constituents are having to rely considerably more on technology, not only as their main or only source of communication but for online banking and health services. Worryingly, the internet is increasingly becoming the only way to access those lifeline services, but not everybody has access to those tools to support their daily living and wellbeing at home. Even people with access to the technology may not have access to fit-for-purpose broadband or the skills to use those platforms. There is undoubtedly a growing divide between the people able to access, and those excluded from, online support. What is the Scottish Government doing to support elderly constituents in a rural area such as mine, who suffer disproportionately because of poor or no rural broadband?

The member is right to point out the importance for many older people and those in other parts of the community of using digital communications during the pandemic. That is why the Scottish Government has the connecting Scotland programme, for example, which is being delivered through the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. The programme has supported 189 projects so far, of which 77 have identified themselves as supporting older people.

The Scottish Government is also funding digital champion networks to ensure that we are not just delivering devices but enabling, encouraging and training older people and others to use that technology. We will continue to look at the area, because we recognise that it is important to ensure that people have the ability to connect with others digitally, if they wish to.

The cut to pension credit means that older couples in Scotland could be £7,000 worse off per year. Will the Scottish Government please continue to push the United Kingdom Government to reverse that punitive cut?

I can assure Bill Kidd that we will continue to do that. The Scottish Government fundamentally disagrees with the UK Government’s decision to change the eligibility criteria for pension credit for mixed-age couples. That will have a grave impact on the incomes of many couples across Scotland. We have made representation to the UK Government on the matter and we will continue to do so.

Older People (Loneliness)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to combat loneliness among older people during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04988)

I know that on-going restrictions are hard for many and can exacerbate or cause loneliness and isolation, which—as we are all aware—is a clear social harm.

The Minister for Older People and Equalities meets regularly with our older people’s strategic action forum—as I said, most recently, last week—and receives updates from our stakeholders and their networks. Through our £100 million winter funding package, we have recently invested nearly £6 million in promoting equality and tackling social isolation and loneliness, which includes £4.3 million of additional funding for the connecting Scotland programme, which I mentioned in my previous answer. The specific aim is to get an additional 5,000 older and disabled people online, as we know that tackling digital exclusion is one of the best ways to prevent social isolation and loneliness.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, post-Covid, community-based activity will be crucial in tackling increased loneliness and poor mental health among our older people as a result of the lockdown restrictions. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that such activities are still available to older people post-Covid, and how will it help to promote them?

Brian Whittle is right to point out that, while digital exclusion is one aspect that we can tackle, we also have to ensure that people have services available to them. One of the best ways that we can do that is through the close contact that not only my officials, but the Minister for Older People and Equalities and her officials, continue to have with large organisations and community organisations across Scotland so that we hear directly from them. I know that the minister takes that area of her work exceptionally seriously. If Brian Whittle would like to point out to her any examples from his constituency, I am sure that she would be delighted to hear from him.

Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods Payments

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the impact that best start grant and best start foods payments are having. (S5O-04989)

Those payments provide vital support during children’s critical early years and have been welcomed across Scotland by families both in and out of work. More than 148,000 best start grants and best start foods payments have been authorised, providing over £46.9 million for those families who need that support most.

The interim evaluation of best start grants showed that the payments have eased financial strain on low-income families and prevented some families from going into debt. Together with the Scottish child payment, more than £5,200 of financial support will be provided to eligible families by the time that their first child turns six, and more than £4,900 will be provided for second and subsequent children. The three benefits can be accessed through a single application, which makes it easy for eligible families to access the money to which they are entitled.

In rural communities, poverty is often hidden, so I would like some specific detail on what the Scottish child payment and other forms of Government assistance for families will do to alleviate child poverty in the north-east, particularly at this very difficult time.

Gillian Martin is quite right to point not only to the best start grant and the best start foods grant but to the Scottish child payment. The applications for the Scottish child payment opened on 9 November, and the payments will start this month. We are keen to ensure that we extend and encourage eligibility for the payment as much as possible. It is an equivalent payment of £10 a week to families with eligible children who are in receipt of low-income benefits.

As a Government, we are determined to increase uptake, for example by ensuring that we write to every eligible family for which we have contact details. However, I encourage every MSP to do their utmost to ensure that their constituents know about the payment. It is important that people access the payment at this time, as it can make a big difference to them. I am sure that Gillian Martin is doing her best to do just that in her constituency.

Benefits System

To ask the Scottish Government how the current benefits system can be used to support people who have been impacted financially by the Covid-19 pandemic and are currently not receiving the benefits that they are entitled to. (S5O-04990)

Statutory sick pay and low-income benefits such as universal credit are an integral part of the financial support that is available to people at this difficult time, and they remain reserved to the United Kingdom Government. We continue to call on the Department for Work and Pensions to play its part, taking a more strategic approach to maximising the take-up of reserved benefits, retaining the £20 per week uplift to universal credit and extending it to legacy benefits, scrapping the two-child limit and removing the benefits cap.

The Scottish Government is committed to maximising people’s incomes, and that has, of course, been made all the more urgent in the context of Covid. In response to the pandemic, we have increased the Scottish welfare fund budget significantly, to £57.5 million; we have launched the £500 self-isolation support grant for low-income workers who need to isolate; we have introduced a £100 million winter plan for social protection; and we have launched a £250,000 income maximisation marketing campaign aimed at low-income families.

I thank the minister for that answer. I particularly welcome the additional publicity so that people will know to apply for what they can benefit from. Lots of support organisations are keen to see that.

What consideration has the Government given to extending the eligibility criteria for the discretionary housing payments? That is an important issue for renters and home owners whose incomes have plummeted during the pandemic.

We continue to work closely with local authorities to ensure that there are no gaps in our provision to protect people at this difficult time. We have made significant budget increases to both the Scottish welfare fund and discretionary housing payments, and we will continue to work with local authorities to ensure that they are meeting people’s needs.

I welcome the extension of the £500 self-isolation grant to people who earn less than the living wage. How will the Scottish Government ensure that people are aware of the support that they are entitled to receive?

As I mentioned in the debate in Parliament yesterday, the Government is determined to ensure that people are aware of the support that exists—not just financial support, but the wider support—and there will be national and local media campaigns to promote that.

We are keen to ensure that people are aware of that support in this time of need, so we are considering what information can be included when community testing is under way, for example. Calls should be made proactively to people who allow their details to be given to local authorities when they phone test and protect, so that the local authority can proactively phone that person not just once but again during their isolation period to offer them both financial and wider support, and so that everyone knows that there is support out there for them at what we know is a difficult time, during self-isolation.

Given that around 85 per cent of social security is still reserved to the UK Government, does the cabinet secretary agree that the UK Government needs to have a benefits take-up strategy to ensure that everyone can get the support to which they are entitled, particularly during this very difficult time?

Shona Robison raises a very important point. The benefits take-up campaigns that the Scottish Government is running are not just about our benefits; they encourage people to ensure that they are getting all the support that they can get.

There is also a responsibility on the UK Government to do the same, and I think that it can do much more. It is not just me who thinks that. With my colleagues from Northern Ireland and Wales, I wrote to the UK Government, encouraging it seriously to consider running a benefits uptake campaign to ensure that people know that support is available, particularly as we know that many people who need support may be experiencing the benefits system for the very first time. Unfortunately the UK Government does not, to date, seem to be willing to take up that offer, but I hope that it will in the future.

Social Security Priorities 2021-22

To ask the Scottish Government what its social security priorities are for the financial year 2021-22. (S5O-04991)

As we set out in the Scottish budget, we estimate that we will invest £3.6 billion in social security payments in 2021-22 as we continue to establish a social security system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect.

As well as mitigating some of the impacts of United Kingdom Government welfare cuts, those funds will tackle poverty and support carers, young people and low-income families through our range of benefits.

My priority for this year will be to ensure that those who are entitled to the flagship Scottish child payment receive the support that they need, which we are backing with an investment of £68 million in this year alone. As I mentioned earlier, the first payments will be made this month to families of children under six, and we will continue the roll-out of our disability benefits this financial year with the introduction of the child disability payment.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her comprehensive reply. How many applications have there been for the £10 Scottish child payment across Scotland, and in North Ayrshire specifically? I note that, in order to further increase uptake, the Scottish Government is writing to eligible families. By what date will that exercise be completed?

I am happy to say that, according to our management information as at 31 January, there have been 73,000 applications for the Scottish child payment across Scotland. The latest official statistics show that, at 31 December—which is a slightly different timeframe—there had been 1,810 applications from North Ayrshire.

We are absolutely committed to maximising take-up, as I mentioned in an earlier answer, which is why we are writing out to eligible families. That will be completed before the benefit opens officially, in the middle of February.

Disability Payments (Delivery Timetable)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the delivery timetable for the three disability payments. (S5O-04992)

As I set out to the Parliament in November, our first Scottish disability benefit—the child disability payment—will be piloted in the summer this year and rolled out fully from the autumn. That will be followed by the adult disability payment, which is our replacement for the United Kingdom Government’s personal independence payment and which we will pilot next spring and roll out fully by the summer.

All of that is, of course, subject to the continuing impact of the pandemic on our delivery partners, which include the UK Government, local authorities and, of course, health and social care. We continue to work closely with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to re-plan the delivery of the remaining devolved benefits with that in mind.

In the cabinet secretary’s statement in November, to which she referred, she said that she had held discussions with the health and social care professionals who were needed to introduce the child and adult disability payments. Will she provide an update on when all such relevant professionals will be in place and in a position to ensure that the benefits can be rolled out?

Separately, does the cabinet secretary have a timeline for when precisely the pension-age disability benefit will be introduced?

We are on track to have in place all the healthcare professionals that we require for the pilot and then for the full roll-out of the child disability payment. The member can be assured that we are continuing to work very closely with the health and social care sectors to ensure that we are able to deliver those benefits. However, we are also cognisant of the pressures that they continue to face because of the on-going Covid pandemic.

On pension age, I am sure that Liam Kerr will appreciate and understand that the pandemic is still on-going and, therefore, still impacting on and affecting—[Inaudible.]—not just the Scottish Government, but the DWP and the health and social care professionals whom we will require for all our disability benefits, in different ways. We are continuing to work with all our partners to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information possible, although the pandemic is on-going, and we will do what we can to provide that information to Parliament and to members as soon as we and the DWP have agreed a joint timetable for the delivery of the remainder of the programme.

That concludes portfolio questions on social security and older people. We will now move on to the next item of business.