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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 5, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 05 November 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Young Persons Guarantee, Defamation and Malicious Publication (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Social Security and Older People

I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask members please to take care to observe those measures over the course of this afternoon’s business, including when entering and exiting the chamber.

The next item of business is portfolio questions on social security and older people. In order to get as many members and questions in as possible, I encourage short and succinct questions and answers where possible. I remind members to seek to ask supplementary questions in the usual way.

Social Isolation (Older People)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to support older people experiencing social isolation ahead of winter. (S5O-04721)

The past eight months have been very difficult for everyone in society, and I know that the toll on older people has been particularly hard. A number of services are available for older people, including the Age Scotland helpline, which we have provided with £870,000 of funding. That is part of £1.16 million of funding to support older people’s organisations at a national and a local level that directly support the needs of older people during the pandemic, including through work to mitigate loneliness and to keep people connected.

Our £43 million connecting Scotland programme, which supports people to get online, is another source of keeping people connected by getting them online and is also supporting people. Initial data from the first phase shows that more than 40 per cent of people who are accessing the service are over 60. In addition, we have provided £6 million of dedicated funding to provide additional telephone and online support services, £2.6 million of which is to expand the work of the NHS 24 mental health hub and the breathing space helpline.

Many older people are experiencing extreme loneliness after months of isolation from family and friends, and further restrictions have been a real blow to older people’s mental health, happiness and hopes. As we approach the festive period, we must ensure that processes are in place to support vulnerable individuals. Therefore, will the minister back the calls from the Scottish Conservatives for a Christmas isolation strategy?

We are considering in detail the Christmas plan that Alexander Stewart is speaking about. We have a national strategy on loneliness, and we are due to report on it in December, around Christmas time. We previously launched the strategy at that time because we realise the impact that Christmas has on people. We believe that social isolation has great physical and mental health impacts on older people, and, as a Government, we aim to find the best possible balance between the responsibility to protect lives and mitigating the harmful effects of social isolation and loneliness. Alexander Stewart might be interested to know that, just this morning, I spent a few hours with our national implementation group, talking about exactly those issues and how we can tackle them.

Can the minister advise what the physical and mental health impacts are, in terms of morbidity and mortality, that social isolation will have on older people who live alone or in care homes?

That is a great question. We know that the effects of social isolation and loneliness can include, among other things, poor sleep, weight gain and even cognitive decline. It is a serious concern, which is why in “A Connected Scotland: our strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections” it is recognised as a public health issue. The pandemic has exacerbated those feelings for many older people who live alone or are in care homes, and our updated guidance recognises the importance of maintaining safe connections. There is no substitute for face-to-face contact or that human connection that we all need, but conversations through other mediums can help, and we are striving to get the right balance between risk and safety.

For anyone who is struggling, the right help and support must be in place, and we are working towards that. That is why we have provided an additional £2.6 million to increase the capacity of telephone and online services via the NHS 24 mental health hub, breathing space, the website and organisations such as Age Scotland and Befriending Networks.

Supporting Older People

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support older people, including those resident in care homes. (S5O-04722)

Ministers are, of course, very aware of the profound impact that coronavirus has had on people, including older people, families who have loved ones in care homes and residents themselves.

In my earlier responses, Daniel Johnson will have heard about some of the help that we are providing to older people. In addition, we have provided more than £1.16 million to local and national organisations that are supporting older people.

A wide range of support is in place to support care homes, including support to expand and strengthen supplies of personal protective equipment, regular testing for care home staff, ensuring local oversight arrangements and equipping the Care Inspectorate to carry out an enhanced assurance role.

The winter plan that was published on Tuesday set out actions and support to ensure that the adult social care sector, which includes care homes, can safely deliver services through the winter.

I thank the minister for that answer, but there are real on-going concerns regarding access to basic healthcare for people in care homes. I was recently contacted by the daughters of constituents of mine who, during the lockdown, had no access to a doctor in person by videolink or by phone, who received no temperature checks and who did not even receive paracetamol, despite being symptomatic. Tragically, one of those parents died, with Covid as the presumed cause.

That was an appalling situation, and my surviving constituent and their daughters deserve an apology. More importantly, what steps are being taken to ensure that access to basic, fundamental care is provided in care homes as restrictions are reimposed?

I convey my condolences and my heartfelt best wishes to the families who have contacted Daniel Johnson. There has been a huge impact on all residents, staff and families who, sadly, have lost loved ones during the pandemic.

Over the past eight months, across the world, no part of society has been more tragically hit by Covid-19 than our care homes. As Daniel Johnson will be aware, the portfolio responsibility for care homes rests with my colleague Jeane Freeman, and it is right and proper that she answers any queries that Daniel Johnson has. I am aware that he has written to the First Minister and Ms Freeman on the matter, and it is fair that Ms Freeman responds to him. I will alert her to the fact that Mr Johnson is looking to receive a response sooner rather than later.

Disabled People (Covid-19)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has undertaken of the impact of Covid-19 on disabled people. (S5O-04723)

We know that the impact of Covid has been particularly hard on disabled people. As the member will know, the term “disability” covers a spectrum of health conditions and data. A wide range of analysis of the impact of Covid-19 has been published on the Scottish Government’s website. We have also published a range of equality impact assessments, including evidence to support the route map.

We are working closely with key disabled persons organisations to understand the impacts of Covid-19 and develop appropriate action. The co-production of that work is key to getting it right for those people. We have also established the social renewal advisory board, which we have tasked with developing at pace new policy proposals to renew Scotland. One policy circle that feeds into the board is looking specifically at the issues that older people and disabled people have experienced over the current period. It met yesterday, and its members are feeding some of their ideas in to the board as we speak.

A study of 80,000 people that was carried out by the Social Metrics Commission showed that disabled workers are at a higher risk of being made redundant or having their hours reduced as a result of the economic impact of Covid-19. What further steps can the Scottish Government take to protect and support disabled people who are at risk in that way?

Disabled workers have been particularly at risk during the pandemic. Many of them have been isolated at home, where they have perhaps been working without the right equipment, which gives rise to a number of issues. I hope that Mr Cameron will have a look at our home working guidance, which includes a risk assessment tool that supports employers and employees to ensure that the right environment has been provided for disabled people.

In addition, through our fairer Scotland for disabled people strategy, I am working with my colleague Jamie Hepburn and his fairer work team to address some of the issues that disabled people have experienced not only during the pandemic but in the long term. I will endeavour to take Mr Cameron’s question away and consider the impact of the pandemic in that context.

The disabled persons organisations that we are working with have some great ideas of their own on how to tackle the issues around disabled people in the workplace, and we are taking all of those into account in our plans for the future.

Rona Mackay has a supplementary question.

As the minister has said, wearing a face covering may cause difficulty or distress for some people who have disabilities. For that reason, I very much welcome the launch of the face covering exemption card, which will help disabled people to feel more comfortable and confident that they can go about their daily lives free from the fear of harassment or abuse. Will she advise my constituents in Strathkelvin and Bearsden on how the card can be requested?

We undertook work on the exemption card for disabled people, which was launched this week by my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, along with Disability Equality Scotland. It has those exemption cards on its website, and they are also available on the Scottish Government website. I encourage anyone who needs the exemption card to download it or to keep it as a digital image on their phone, to ensure that they do not face some of the challenges of being exempt from wearing a face covering.

What analysis has the Scottish Government undertaken of the impact of Covid-19 on our disabled veterans in Scotland?

That is another smashing question, and I thank Maurice Corry for it. I think that he asked me something similar the last time, and he will know that the Scottish Veterans Commissioner is working very closely with the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans.

This is remembrance week, when we remember the people who have given everything that they have got, especially as some are struggling with the effects of that. One of the key issues in our work to support organisations that support disabled veterans is looking at what they need. Our disability organisations, such as Poppyscotland and the Unforgotten Forces partnership, are all looking at how we can tackle some of the issues, and I will encourage the minister for veterans to give Maurice Corry a fuller update on the detail of that work.

School Children (Holiday Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how the social security system will support families with school-age children during the school holidays. (S5O-04724)

The United Kingdom social security system, which has responsibility for income-related benefits, provides the majority of support to households. That is why we have continually urged much-needed changes to it so that it meets the needs of the people of Scotland.

Here in Scotland, I am pleased that our new Scottish child payment for low-income families with a child under 6 will open for applications from Monday next week, and will provide £10 per week, with the first payments being made from the end of February.

Alongside our best start grant and best start foods, that means that we will provide more than £5,200 of financial support for families by the time their first child turns six. For second and subsequent children, the amount will be more than £4,900.

Although one might think that free school meals would command the support of all parties in the Scottish Parliament, over the past few weeks we have seen the farce of Scottish Tory MPs voting against it at Westminster, while Tory MSPs claim to support it—a move that the Tory education spokesperson has admitted makes his party and his party’s leader hypocrites. Does the cabinet secretary agree with that assessment?

Yes. While the Scottish Government has, through an initial £350 million funding package, been at the forefront of supporting people and communities since the outbreak of the pandemic, it often seems that the UK Government has to be dragged into doing the right thing. That is exemplified by its stance on free school meals, and now by the delay in clarifying the furlough scheme that will be available to Scottish businesses in a future Scottish lockdown, if that is required.

I urge UK ministers to take further action on a raft of measures that are still outstanding—for example, by giving people reassurance that the £20 uplift to universal credit will, right now, be made permanent and be extended to legacy benefits. The UK Government needs to show, as the Scottish Government has shown, that it will do everything that it can do to protect households with low incomes.

Covid-19 (Welfare Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what welfare funding is being made available to support people facing financial hardship as a result of Covid-19. (S5O-04725)

We have provided a £350 million funding package to ensure support for people and communities that are most in need. We have significantly increased the Scottish welfare fund and we have targeted help with housing costs, including through increasing our discretionary housing payment fund and introducing a tenant hardship fund.

In recognition of the additional pressures that unpaid carers have been under, we made an additional carer’s allowance supplement payment in June, which means that over the financial year, eligible carers can get £690 more than carers in the rest of the United Kingdom.

In addition, we have introduced the £500 self-isolation support grant for workers on low-income benefits who risk losing income because they have to self-isolate.

The cabinet secretary referred to the United Kingdom Government’s universal credit uplift—but, of course, that ends in April. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the hardship of families who are affected by its ending should lead to a pile on the doorstep of the Westminster Government for it to deal with, while the Scottish Government does what it can to help struggling families?

I completely agree with Stewart Stevenson’s assessment. As I said in my earlier remarks, we have urged the United Kingdom Government to make that £20 uplift permanent and, which is important, to extend it to legacy benefits. That was needed before the pandemic and is, certainly, needed more urgently now. We need an immediate announcement, so that people do not face uncertainty about whether that vital money will be removed from them in a few months.

Modelling by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that failure to make the uplift permanent will result in 700,000 more people across the UK being pushed into poverty, so the UK Government must do the right thing and ensure that social security support is sufficient to support people during and beyond the pandemic.

Rachael Hamilton has a supplementary question.

We appear not to be connecting with Rachael Hamilton, so we will move on.

Older People (Needs and Rights)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that public services meet the needs of older people and that their rights are respected. (S5O-04726)

The Scottish Government is committed to protecting, respecting and realising human rights, and we are guided by the United Nations principles for older persons.

Although older people are not a homogeneous group, they have been disproportionately affected by Covid restrictions and shielding measures. We have provided around £1.16 million to organisations that are directly supporting the needs of older people, including funding for helplines and food distribution. That has included more than £870,000 for Age Scotland’s helpline and more than £110,000 for older minority ethnic people’s meal services.

I meet the older people’s strategic action forum regularly to hear emerging issues, in order to ensure that our response reflects the priorities that have been identified, and that the standards and the principles of human rights are integrated across our policy making.

The tragedy of care home deaths in Scotland has been described as a “crisis within a crisis”. It is a crisis that shames the Government and is the worst of its kind since devolution: 2,000 older people have died. The Government was slow to act on personal protective equipment, slow on testing and slow to respond to the concerns of front-line workers. It must not be slow to learn lessons, now.

Regardless of discussions with the other Governments of the four nations, does the minister for older people accept that, in order to protect older people in Scotland and to safeguard their rights, there must be an urgent independent inquiry, in line with the democratic will of the Parliament?

The Scottish Government has always placed upholding human rights at the heart of our approach. Since the start of the pandemic, our priority has been to save life, regardless of where a person lives. A framework of legislation protects the rights of individuals who are receiving care, and throughout the pandemic we have worked closely with our colleagues in the national health service, local government and the voluntary and independent sectors to ensure that the needs and rights of residents of care homes are met.

Mr Bibby will have heard the First Minister responding to a similar question earlier today. Her comments reflect my feelings about a full public inquiry, which will come in the fullness of time. The First Minister detailed today what actions she will take to ensure that Parliament knows about that as soon as possible.

Digital Access and Skills (Older People)

To ask the Scottish Government what support is in place to improve digital access, skills and confidence for older people. (S5O-04727)

The Scottish Government has worked in partnership with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations to support digital participation for all. So far, funding totalling around £1.5 million has supported 189 projects, 77 of which self-identify as supporting older people.

In addition, in direct response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the connecting Scotland programme was established with the aim of reducing digital exclusion for digitally excluded low-income people. Phase 1 provides up to 9,000 digitally excluded people who are at high clinical risk with access not just to a device, but to internet connection and data, and to online training and support, for up to a year. Many households in that group comprise older people, and initial estimates are that about 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the people who are accessing the service are over 60.

Online platforms have provided a vital source of connection for people across the country and the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the Scottish household survey found that, in 2019, 57 per cent of over-75s did not use the internet. Age Scotland has said that about 100,000 older people in Scotland ate Christmas dinner alone last year. Many more might be alone this year, with community lunches and festivities being unable to go ahead. As winter approaches, what is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that older people do not face a socially and digitally isolated Christmas?

As our colleague Alexander Stewart, whose question I answered at the beginning of questions did, John Scott has made excellent points. We are taking forward all the issues that came up this morning at our national implementation group on social isolation and loneliness, and we are looking at what more we can do at Christmas.

Maybe it is still a wee bit early to think about what we need to do at Christmas, but John Scott made a good point about 57 per cent of the over-75s not being digitally connected. I wonder how many of them no longer get a free television licence. Maybe a lovely Christmas present from the United Kingdom Government would be the restoration of free TV licences for the over-75s.

We appear not to have a connection to Alex Rowley for question 8. Does Rachael Hamilton have a supplementary question to the previous question?

My question is a supplementary to Stewart Stevenson’s question 5, for the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, Shirley-Anne Somerville.

Throughout the pandemic, universal credit has been a vital safety net for nearly half a million people in Scotland. The Scottish Conservatives believe that the universal credit uplift should continue for the foreseeable future. Will the cabinet secretary double down on her comments and work with me and my Conservative colleagues to urge the United Kingdom Government to make that commitment now, in order to provide the reassurance that many people across Scotland are looking for? After all, when both Scotland’s Governments work together, they serve the people of Scotland best.

I am quite happy to work with anyone in the chamber who wants to further the cause of people who are struggling with low incomes. With the greatest respect to Rachael Hamilton, I say that the issue is how her colleagues down in Westminster will vote on the issue, and what the Westminster Government’s action will be. We do not want continuously to have to have discussions that go on for months. They cause fear and uncertainty for people, although sometimes the UK Government eventually gets round to doing the right thing.

I am more than happy to work with Rachael Hamilton and others. However, perhaps the UK Government could have recognised the issue long before now—as we certainly did—and put the plan into action.

That concludes portfolio questions. I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for her flexibility in dealing with the last question.