Meeting date: Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 06 December 2017
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority, Ferry Services (Fares and Funding), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Parcel Delivery Charges
- Portfolio Question Time
- Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority
- Ferry Services (Fares and Funding)
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Parcel Delivery Charges
Portfolio Question Time
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce the number of children living in material deprivation. (S5O-01554)
Through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, we are setting ambitious targets to reduce the numbers of children living in material deprivation. Our action to meet those targets will be outlined in the delivery plans that are due under the bill, the first of which will be published by April 2018. The plan will be influenced by a programme of engagement with key stakeholders and interest groups, and by the formal advice that I have requested from the Poverty and Inequality Commission. The scale of the challenge is, of course, significant, and all the more so in the face of the on-going United Kingdom Government programme of welfare reform.
The first delivery plan will be underpinned by our new tackling child poverty fund, which is worth £50 million. That is alongside a range of measures that we already undertake, including almost doubling the funding provision for early learning and childcare by 2020, providing free school meals to primary 1 to 3 pupils and providing a baby box of essential items to give every child the best possible start.
The bill also places a focus on local action, with reporting by local authorities and health boards. In addition, we recently published experimental statistics to help to inform local need.
The report “Children in families with limited resources across Scotland 2014-2016”, which was published last week, highlights that 20 per cent of children in Scotland live in combined low-income and material deprivation households. The characteristic most likely to impact on children and ensure that they live in families with limited resources is worklessness, with 66.7 per cent of workless families having children who are living with limited resources. That key finding reinforces the position of the Scottish Conservatives that one of the important elements in combating child poverty is reduction of the number of workless households. Action that has been taken by the UK Government has caused the percentage of workless households across the UK to fall to a record low level, but progress remains persistently slow in Scotland. Will the minister acknowledge that the Scottish Government should be targeting its resources on reducing the number of workless households in Scotland in order to combat child poverty?
It is perhaps unfortunate that Tom Mason did not, by the sounds of it, pay an awful lot of attention in a debate in Parliament only a few weeks ago, when we unanimously passed the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, with Parliament agreeing that statutory income targets are absolutely vital. However, we also agree across the chamber—or, at least, I had thought that we did—that there is a wide range of causes and consequences of child poverty and its drivers. Of course, the member failed to mention that the number of families who are in work and experiencing poverty is on the rise.
In essence, there are three broad drivers of child poverty. Cuts to social security and to support for low-income families are drivers, and income from employment is another important driver. That is why I am pleased that Scotland is the best-performing nation in the UK in that regard, with around 80 per cent of people here earning at least the living wage. Of course, the cost of living is another important driver for pushing families into poverty.
Has the cabinet secretary assessed the impact of the austerity and welfare reform policies of the Tory-led UK Government on child poverty in Scotland? Is the Scottish Government getting increased funding as a result of the savings to the UK Treasury from those austerity policies, which take money directly from the poorest households?
The Scottish Government published a report earlier this year—I think that it was in June—setting out the research evidence on the impact on Scotland of Tory austerity and, in particular, of welfare cuts.
We know—many stakeholders concur with our assessment—that £4 billion will be taken out of welfare support in Scotland by the end of this decade, That will, of course, have its biggest impact on the people who are most in need. Meanwhile, the SNP Government will continue to do everything that it can with the powers and resources that are at its disposal. As I outlined earlier, although the challenge is great, and the challenge to eradicate child poverty is made harder due to the actions—or inactions—of the UK Government, we are nonetheless determined to proceed and move forward in Scotland. The first step following the passage of our legislation will be to introduce the cross-government cross-cutting delivery plan.
In Glasgow, 3,500 families who are eligible for free school meals do not claim them. What can the Scottish Government do to improve take-up? Will it work with local authorities to ensure that more families benefit from free school meals?
Pauline McNeill has made a very important point. We take a range of actions across the Government to improve provision of information to people about what they are entitled to receive or to apply for. Jeane Freeman, the Minister for Social Security, has led a lot of activity on a welfare benefits campaign about take-up. Other actions are far more targeted, and we work hand in glove with partners. As we proceed with our delivery plan and our journey towards eradicating child poverty, we will work very closely with local partners to find better ways to help families to access quickly the support to which they are entitled.
Sustainability of Council Services (Discussions)
To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions the Minister for Local Government and Housing has had with councils regarding the sustainability of services. (S5O-01555)
Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities to discuss a range of issues as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for all the people of Scotland. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution has met a number of individual councils and is currently undertaking a series of meetings with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities ahead of his 2018-19 draft budget announcement next week, which will include the local government finance settlement for next year.
The minister will be aware that the Scottish house condition survey of 2015 highlighted that 8 per cent of our housing stock is in extensive disrepair, 33 per cent is in disrepair and requires urgent attention, and 73 per cent of all dwellings have a degree of disrepair. What assessments has the Scottish Government made of local authorities’ abilities to fund and repair their deteriorating properties? What funding has the Scottish Government made available to local authorities to address that growing problem?
Local authorities manage their housing budgets through their housing revenue accounts. Beyond that, on affordable housing, John Scott will be aware that the Government is committed to £3 billion of investment over the course of this parliamentary session to deliver 50,000 affordable homes, of which 35,000 will be for social rent.
Budgets would be much easier for all of us to deal with if it were not for the fact that the Tories will cut this Parliament’s budget by £500 million over the next two years. That is the Fraser of Allander institute’s figure, not the Government’s. The Tories constantly carp about spend, but the reality of Tory policy is the Tory agenda of cuts to public services, austerity for the poor and tax cuts for the rich. I wish that John Scott would talk to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask for an end to those policies.
I would have thought that John Scott would have known that a housing budget is entirely separate from a revenue budget. I was a councillor for 36 years, and I know that.
Will the minister confirm whether the 2017-18 finance settlement, including the increase in council tax and health and social care integration funding, means that local government has an extra £383 million, or 3.7 per cent, in support for services, compared with 2016-17?
Richard Lyle is very aware of housing revenue accounts and how councils spend from them: it is a pity that Tory members do not seem to be aware of that. [Interruption.] The Tories are snickering from the sidelines: they would do well to do a bit of homework on local government finance.
Richard Lyle is absolutely right. With all the measures that were put in place, including council tax reform, health and social care integration and other moneys, there was an extra £383 million for local services last year. An additional £21 million would have been available for local services if eight Labour-led councils had chosen to increase their council tax revenues, but they chose not to do so. Those councils were Labour-led Aberdeen, South Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire, Stirling, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian. It will be interesting to see how they react this time round.
I am surprised that the minister did not reference the recent Convention of Scottish Local Authorities report that demonstrated how much the Scottish National Party Government has penalised local government, which has resulted in £1.4 billion of cumulative cuts and 15,000 job losses.
In terms of the common budget, is this Government finally going to get off the fence, use the powers of this Parliament, take some responsibility to promote progressive taxation and give local government the fair funding settlement that it deserves?
Mr Kelly’s question is a bit bizarre in some regards: I would have thought that he would point the finger very firmly at the Tory Treasury and its austerity policies, which have led to massive budget cuts over the piece for this Parliament.
In real terms, over the 2010-17 period, local government’s share of the Scottish budget has stayed the same. Over the 2016-18 period, local government’s share of the budget fell by just 2 per cent. [Interruption.] However, Mr Kelly and his colleagues—I can hear Ms Baillie from the sidelines—should go and look at what has happened to local government funding south of the border, where some councils have faced 40 per cent cuts, under Tory rule.
Planning Law (Protection for Live Music Venues)
To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure that planning law provides adequate protection for live music venues. (S5O-01556)
I am committed to exploring the agent of change principle and how it could be embedded into our planning system so that we can protect the established and emerging talent in our music industry. We are currently exploring some options and will continue to engage closely with our stakeholders, including the music industry, in developing the best proposals. I will be happy to lodge amendments to the Planning (Scotland) Bill if I conclude that that is the right approach.
I welcome the minister’s willingness to explore and engage with the agent of change principle. He has previously made the point that live music venues can be unfairly jeopardised in ways that the agent of change principle does not entirely prevent. He will know that that is why the Welsh Government is planning to give local councils the power to designate areas of cultural significance for music to provide an additional level of protection in particular areas. When the minister is exploring those matters, will he consider introducing such a power for Scottish local authorities?
I applaud Mr Macdonald for constructively engaging on the issue, as have other members, including Tom Arthur and Fiona Hyslop—the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs—who has a close interest in the matter.
I fully intend to meet representatives of the Musicians’ Union shortly, and I will continue to liaise with the cabinet secretary for culture to see whether there are any other issues that we need to think about in dealing with the situation. I assure Mr Macdonald that I will look at what the Welsh Government is undertaking and will have a conversation with the cabinet secretary for culture. Mr Macdonald can be assured that I will continue to keep him appraised of what we are doing in that regard.
I bring the minister’s attention to the course of action that has been taken by the United Kingdom Government, which ensures that noise impacts must be properly factored in by planning authorities in cases where developers attempt to turn offices into residential accommodation, which I feel is appropriate. Will the Scottish Government follow suit and show support for live music venues, as the UK Government does?
I am unaware of any proposals by the UK Government to introduce the agent for change principle. As I outlined in my answer to Mr Macdonald, I am aware of the moves that the Welsh Government is trying to undertake. I am also aware that Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is looking at that for the next London plan, and I am aware that the state of Victoria, in Australia, has already changed its planning policy. I am unaware of any UK Government proposals in that regard, but I will look to see what it is up to in that area of business.
Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the work of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group. (S5O-01557)
I am pleased to say that the homelessness and rough sleeping action group, which was set up in October, has moved quickly to recommend actions to minimise rough sleeping this winter. Last week, the First Minister announced that the Scottish Government has accepted all those recommendations, and we are moving rapidly to implementation backed by a total funding package of £328,000, including £262,000 from the Scottish Government.
Those actions will increase emergency accommodation and outreach provision for people who are at risk of rough sleeping and will be crucial in supporting and protecting people this winter. The action group has also started work to identify what needs to be done to achieve long-term, sustainable solutions to end rough sleeping for good and to transform temporary accommodation. I thank the action group for its work to date, and I look forward to receiving its future recommendations.
I warmly welcome that answer, and I particularly welcome the additional funding. Does the minister agree, however, that the long-term focus of the action group needs to be—as it is—on sustainable solutions that prevent people from sleeping rough in the first place? Will he confirm that its focus is now on looking at the practical and systems changes that are required to end rough sleeping for good?
I completely agree with Ms Maguire. We asked the action group to move quickly to identify actions that can make a real, direct difference for people who are at risk of sleeping rough this winter. We know that some of the actions that are needed to help people right now, at the point of crisis, such as expanding winter care shelter provisions, are not the right answers for the long term. That does not mean that they are not the right thing to do here and now for those who are at immediate risk of rough sleeping, but they are just the start of the work that is required to meet our shared ambitions.
The action group has begun work on the longer-term challenges that we set it—of ending rough sleeping for good, of transforming the use of temporary accommodation and of moving towards ending homelessness. The Government is committed to tackling and preventing homelessness, and we look forward to the forthcoming recommendations on the longer-term actions that are needed.
I am glad that the minister is talking about the longer term as well as immediate actions. According to Homeless Action Scotland, one of the main reasons for rough sleeping in Glasgow is relationship breakdown or family breakdown. What action is the Scottish Government taking to mitigate the impact of that problem?
Relationship breakdown is one aspect of homelessness, but what are causing much more grief out there at this moment in time are Tory austerity and social security cuts. Members do not need to take my word for it. The National Audit Office assessment was scathing of the UK Government, saying that the number of homeless families in the UK has risen by more than 60 per cent and that that is likely to have been driven by the UK Government’s welfare reforms.
The National Audit Office accuses the Tory Government of having a “light touch” approach to tackling the problem. We, in Scotland, have taken a different approach. We are investing in trying to resolve those difficulties, whereas the Tories are actually adding to the woes and creating even more difficulties for the most vulnerable people in our society. They should hang their heads in shame.
I will bring the debate back to the recommendations that have just been published. I welcome them and note that they have a focus on reducing rough sleeping this winter. I note that wellbeing is mentioned under “Other considerations”. Will the minister advise us how health fits in? I refer specifically to the health needs of women who are sleeping rough, including access to medicines and, indeed, sanitary products.
I am always happy to engage with Ms Smith on those issues. I know that she takes a great interest in them.
One of the recommendations that the action group has made and that the Government has accepted is that personal budgets should be made available to deal with people’s individual needs. I was horrified to read, the other week, the press reports of a woman being forced to use leaves because she had no access to sanitary products. I hope that it will be possible to use personal budgets in that regard over this winter.
As we move forward, the action group will consider in more depth how personal budgets can be used for a number of things including sanitary products and other hygiene products. I hope that the money that has been allocated will go a long way in trying to resolve some of the horrific situations that have been reported of late.
Aluminium Composite Material Cladding (Guidance)
To ask the Scottish Government what guidance it can provide for owners of properties affected by aluminium composite material cladding. (S5O-01558)
We have directed owners and local authorities to guidance and advice issued by the United Kingdom Government on steps that should be taken by owners of properties that might have aluminium composite material on them. That guidance is applicable in Scotland and includes steps to have the material tested and to commission an independent fire safety assessment, as well as information on large-scale fire tests, which will help owners to understand what materials on their building need to be replaced to reduce the fire risk.
I stress that an independent fire safety assessment is key to determining any course of action as, depending on the type of ACM, the extent of its coverage, the design of the overall cladding system and other fire safety features, there may be no need to take further action.
The minister will be aware that there are properties in Glasgow that have ACM cladding. One of my constituents stays in an affected block. Despite being approved at the time when it was put in place, the cladding would not currently gain planning permission. Consequently, the owners are being charged thousands of pounds to have a fire warden on patrol and the replacement cladding will come in at somewhere between £6 million and £9 million. Will the Scottish Government explain what it is doing to help worried property owners such as my constituent?
Glasgow City Council is communicating with owners, factors and others on the buildings that Mr Kelly highlighted. Buildings are primarily the responsibility of owners. However, local authorities have broad discretionary powers to provide assistance for work that is needed to bring any house into a reasonable state of repair. They are best placed to make decisions about what assistance should be provided to address local circumstances and priorities. However, I assure Mr Kelly that I and my colleagues in the ministerial working group—the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, Angela Constance; and the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Annabelle Ewing—will continue to liaise with Glasgow City Council to determine exactly what the situation is.
“16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” (Support)
To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to the campaign, “16 days of activism against gender-based violence”. (S5O-01559)
The First Minister and I, along with many of my ministerial colleagues, have signed and publicised a pledge to support the 16 days of activism. This is an important period during which we must reflect on progress that has been made and the substantial contribution of activists and organisations in this area. However, the 16 days also serve as an important reminder that much remains to be done.
That is why this Government is taking action. On 24 November, I launched a delivery plan for equally safe, Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls, and backed that with more than £1 million of additional funding. The plan contains 118 actions over four priorities, and with it we hope to achieve a step change in this area.
On 28 November we held a parliamentary debate to mark the 16 days of activism. In that debate, I called for men everywhere to stand shoulder to shoulder with women in sending a clear message that violence against women and girls is never acceptable. The strong cross-party consensus in the debate showed that tackling gender-based violence is, indeed, everyone’s business.
What funding apart from that £1 million is the Government providing to tackle violence against women and ensure that victims receive the support that they need? How does the cabinet secretary expect higher education institutions to respond to the delivery plan?
We are investing significant levels of funding to support a range of specialist front-line services to ensure that women who are affected by violence or abuse are able to access support when and where they need it.
With regard to my equalities portfolio, this year alone I have invested almost £12 million to support the vital work of local women’s aid organisations and rape crisis centres across the country. Earlier this year, I introduced three-year rolling funding for those services, which is vitally important to allow those organisations to plan for the future and to support and enable them to do what they do best.
Nationally, we invest in two national helplines, and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has invested £20 million over a three-year period to strengthen the justice response in this area and to increase advocacy.
James Dornan raises the important issue of higher education. It is vital that our campuses and institutions are safe spaces for students, and that any student who experiences violence or abuse feels that they are able to report it and that it will be dealt with appropriately. We are working hard with further and higher education institutions to use the learning from the equally safe in higher education project that ran at the University of Strathclyde in order to ensure the safety of students and embed that better understanding of the issues.
What actions is the Scottish Government taking to address the disparities that can exist between rural and urban areas when it comes to service provision for victims of rape and sexual assault, particularly in relation to travel issues, forensic examination and access to specialist advocacy groups?
I appreciate the interest in this area that Ms Wells expresses. I point out to her that through the work that is led by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the resources in his portfolio, additional funding was given to Rape Crisis Scotland to ensure that there is an additional advocacy worker in every project across Scotland. As a result of further work that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has led, there are now improved services in the northern isles, which were announced earlier this year. Other work that is being done through the task force that is chaired by the chief medical officer is getting into the detailed and sensitive issues around forensic services, in order to ensure that we can implement the highest of standards in terms of care, support and treatment for women and victims across Scotland. Regardless of whether they live in an urban or a rural community, people have the absolute right to expect the same standards to apply to them in this regard.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that there is a financial element in nine out of 10 domestic abuse cases, which is precisely why we are pleased that the Government has supported the use of split payments of universal credit to both partners. Will the cabinet secretary or the minister lodge regulations to deliver split payments well ahead of the second reading of the Universal Credit (Application, Advice and Assistance) Bill in March, so that we can ensure that we can deliver automatic split payments in Scotland?
Mr Griffin raises an important issue. Ms Freeman and I have heard from stakeholders about the potential contribution that split payments could make to women living in controlling and coercive circumstances. We want to take care with implementation; it is our desire to deliver split payments, but we want to be sure that we get implementation absolutely correct. We are still in the depths of the detail of the discussions around that. I am sure that Ms Freeman will want to update members and the Social Security Committee at the earliest opportunity.
To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making in developing the delivery plan to tackle child poverty. (S5O-01560)
The first delivery plan that will be required under the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill will be due by April 2018. It will make a comprehensive statement of cross-Government actions to make significant progress towards the ambitious targets that are set out in the bill. A programme of external engagement is under way with key stakeholders and interest groups, and those with direct experience of poverty.
A formal request for advice has been issued to the poverty and inequality commission and, shortly, I will write to the conveners of all relevant subject committees to seek their views on priorities and actions for the delivery plan.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has projected that an additional 1.3 million children will be in relative poverty in the United Kingdom by 2021-22 compared with 2015-16. That makes the scale of the challenge associated with the development of the child poverty plan all the more stark, particularly in the face of the UK’s on-going programme of austerity and welfare cuts.
I thank the cabinet secretary for a serious answer to a serious question. I was beginning to wonder whether there was a misprint in the Business Bulletin, because it says “Portfolio Questions”, not “Kevin Stewart’s Pantomime”.
Let me see whether I can elicit another serious answer from the now frowning cabinet secretary. The recently published Joseph Rowntree Foundation briefing “Poverty in Scotland 2017” says:
“The biggest driver of future poverty is the educational attainment of children when they leave full-time education”.
What will the delivery plan say about the action that the Scottish Government is taking to close the attainment gap?
I assure Mr Tomkins and the rest of the members in the chamber that the delivery plan will account for and articulate the action that we are taking and will take to close the poverty-related education attainment gap.
We always welcome the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which is always in-depth and thoughtful. My recollection is that it describes the benefits freeze as the single biggest policy driver behind the rising poverty that is hitting families in and out of work.
The foundation has raised other issues. I do not say this to take any comfort, because it is a serious matter, but the fact that Scotland generally has lower poverty than elsewhere in the UK speaks to the progress that the Scottish Parliament has made in a number of cross-cutting areas.
However, we all know that the reality of day-to-day life is that poverty is still too high in Scotland and it is projected to rise, so the advice that our poverty and inequality commission will give to ministers and civic Scotland is very important. That contrasts sharply with the position south of the border, where the members of the UK social mobility commission resigned en masse. That is a sorry state of affairs for the UK Government, and I have written to it on that matter. Alan Milburn and the other members resigned from that commission because of the lack of conviction on the part of the UK Government in addressing poverty, inequality and social mobility.
We are absolutely serious that our delivery plan will address educational attainment, but it will go broader than that and will tap into the talent and expertise of organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We need to look at issues such as the living wage, housing, the rising cost of living for families and how we support the poorest families to achieve a better standard of living.
Does the cabinet secretary agree with the research that has been presented to the Parliament by Sheffield Hallam University, which says that the loss of £4 billion in benefit income has weakened some of Scotland’s poorest economies and cost them more than 10,000 jobs following welfare reform, thereby delivering exactly the opposite of the outcome that the Tories claim to advocate—namely, a reduction in child poverty?
As we have debated and discussed many times in Parliament, the stark facts are backed up again and again, whether by the research that Mr Gibson mentioned, the research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which we all quote from liberally, or the work of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which all demonstrate that the work that the UK Government is doing is counterproductive to tackling child poverty in this country. By the end of this decade, 1 million more children across the UK will be living in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation points to the progress that we have made in Scotland; it is absolutely right to also point to the fragility of that progress as a result of UK austerity and so-called welfare reforms.
To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made to end rough sleeping this winter. (S5O-01561)
As I said earlier, the Scottish Government has accepted the recommendations of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group on reducing rough sleeping this winter. We have accepted those recommendations and we are providing £262,000 of funding to support rapid implementation of the actions.
Actions were prioritised on the basis of the ability to implement them at speed and to ensure the potential for the most direct and biggest impact, focused on our main cities. Those actions will be crucial to supporting and protecting people who have nowhere safe and warm to sleep this winter.
Ending rough sleeping is a national priority for this Government, which is why the action group has also been tasked with making recommendations for actions for the Government to take to eradicate rough sleeping for good.
I agree with the minister that we need a long-term approach. However, the initial target of minimising rough sleeping this winter is too woolly to mean anything. It allows the Government to claim any reduction as a success. In terms of numbers or percentages, what would the minister regard as a success?
In my book, one person rough sleeping in the streets is one too many. The job that we tasked the action group with was to provide us with its recommendations on what we need to do this winter to do the best that we possibly can for the most vulnerable people in our society. The action group has done so. We have accepted all its recommendations and have come up with the finance and the resource to deal with those recommendations. Now, the job is to get on with doing the best that we can to help all those folks, who are the most vulnerable people in our society.
Personal Independence Payments Assessment Centres (Moray)
To ask the Scottish Government what response it received to representations it made to the United Kingdom Government regarding the location of PIP assessment centres and the impact that this has had on claimants in Moray. (S5O-01562)
I know that the member wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke, last month on the issue. For too many, the PIP assessment is already a stressful experience, and I fully agree that it is not acceptable to compound that with a requirement—in the case that Mr Lochhead raised—to make a round trip of about 100 miles, with the additional difficulty that such travel involves.
Mr Lochhead will be aware that we have repeatedly called on the UK Government to halt the roll-out of PIP in Scotland. The roll-out has been beset by delays. Many people have had to undergo stressful assessments, and many have lost entitlements, including access to the Motability scheme and linked support to carers allowance and other benefits, with devastating consequences.
I find it difficult to express the distress that some of my constituents have been put through, given that people sometimes find it uncomfortable leaving their home or travelling anywhere, never mind to Inverness for a PIP assessment that might determine their income for the foreseeable future. I have had a response from Michael Hewson, chief client executive of Independent Assessment Services, who told me in response to my concerns that it is going to reduce the number of people who have to travel to Inverness for their assessments and that it will instead offer home consultations.
Given the distress that that journey is causing, does the minister not agree that the answer is for Moray to have its own assessment centre full stop? I have heard of people taking time off work to help others—at their own expense—go through to those assessments, because of the stress that that causes.
I am of course pleased that, as a result of Mr Lochhead’s representation, the situation in his constituency might be alleviated. However, it is of considerable concern to me that the Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed that it does not even trouble to know how many people across the country are affected in the way that Mr Lochhead has outlined. Minimising that, which includes conducting assessments at home where appropriate, or as close to home as possible, is exactly the route that should be gone down.
I agree with Mr Lochhead that, for as long as the DWP continues to have responsibility for that benefit, an assessment centre in Moray would be the right way to go. However, we will not be going down that route—we will not be using private contractors to conduct assessments. I am particularly pleased about that, given that Monday’s DWP statistics show that very few of its contractors have met its quality standards over a considerable period of time—indeed, since January 2014.
We will reduce the number of assessments that are needed, using evidence at first decision in order to minimise that approach, and where assessments are necessary, we will provide them locally, in an individual’s own home or in local premises, and they will be conducted by people with experience of the condition that is being assessed. The long-term answer is, of course, for Scotland to have control of social security.