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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Agenda: Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Justice for Families (Milly’s Law), Care Home Visiting Rights (Anne’s Law), Urgent Question, Point of Order, Education Reform, Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill, Scottish Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund (Trustees), Scottish Human Rights Commission (Appointment), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Elsie Inglis


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice, Housing and Local Government

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next portfolio in question time is social justice, housing and local government. I remind members that questions 5 and 7 are grouped together and that I will take any supplementaries on those questions once both have been answered. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or indicate so in the chat function by entering the letter R during the relevant question.

Housing Strategy (Vacant Buildings)

To ask the Scottish Government how its housing strategy will support local authorities to take action in relation to vacant, derelict and abandoned buildings. (S6O-00830)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

Our “Housing to 2040” strategy recognises the importance of tackling vacant properties and highlights a range of actions. Those include support to local authorities through empty homes partnerships, use of the £50 million vacant and derelict land investment programme and supporting the delivery of homes in town centres and at the heart of communities by repurposing existing properties. Our affordable housing supply programme already supports the redevelopment of existing properties. During the second half of our 110,000 affordable homes target, we will accelerate funding to bring more existing homes into the programme, as well as building new ones.

Emma Harper

Scotland has almost 11,000 hectares of vacant and derelict sites. That is equivalent to 20,556 football pitches. In the South Scotland region, there is the George hotel in Stranraer, the InterFloor factory in Dumfries and the N Peal building in Hawick, among many others. The Scottish Land Commission stated that those sites have a detrimental impact on community health and wellbeing. March is land reuse month, so can the cabinet secretary provide an update on what additional steps the Scottish Government can take to help communities to deal better with vacant, derelict and abandoned buildings?

Shona Robison

The draft national planning framework 4 proposes a stronger planning policy position on tackling vacant and derelict land and buildings, which will play an important role in helping to support and improve wellbeing for local communities. In addition, last year, we launched our low-carbon vacant and derelict land investment programme, which aims to help tackle persistent vacant and derelict land. The fund is built around four pillars of action—urban green spaces, community-led regeneration, low-carbon housing and renewable energy. The fund will open for stage 1 applications in April, and all local authorities are eligible to apply.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The Local Government and Communities Committee recommended the introduction of compulsory sale orders in 2019. Despite being included in the latest Scottish National Party manifesto, there appears to be little movement on that issue. Can the cabinet secretary update Parliament on the plans to introduce compulsory sales orders?

Shona Robison

We are developing proposals for compulsory sales orders and compulsory purchase orders in the context of the actions and policies that are set out in “Housing to 2040”. Officials are undertaking a piece of work to scope and clarify the additional benefit of CSOs over and above the CPO process. Some issues and challenges need to be worked through, in order to ensure that, for example, the sales process is compatible with the European convention on human rights, and I am sure that Mr Stewart will appreciate that. The introduction of new powers has to be considered carefully, particularly if existing powers could be used to achieve the same outcome. That work is on-going and I am happy to keep Mr Stewart updated.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

Lots of people are homeless in Glasgow, but 2,659 residential properties are currently vacant on a long-term basis, and hundreds of square feet of vacant commercial buildings could be converted into residential properties, if there was a will to do so. However, often, the VAT arrangements militate against that, because VAT on residential conversions and adaptions is charged at 20 per cent, whereas, for demolition and new builds, it is 0 per cent. Will the Government make representations to the Treasury to deal with that issue at source? Will the Government also consider a VAT-offsetting scheme for Scotland, so that we can move forward and get retrofitting under way at scale?

Shona Robison

As Paul Sweeney recognised, VAT is a reserved matter, but I am happy to hear more about his suggestion. If he wants to write to me with more details, I am always happy to consider suggestions. I laid out in my initial answers a determination to look at vacant and derelict land, as well as buildings that need to be repurposed, and I am keen that we use our collective resources across Government to do that. We need to do everything that we can to enhance the affordable housing supply programme and regenerate some of our town centres. I am happy to hear more details of what Paul Sweeney was suggesting.

The next question is from Emma Roddick, who joins us remotely.

Discretionary Housing Payments

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the allocation of discretionary housing payments in Scotland. (S6O-00831)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

We estimate spend on discretionary housing payments to be £82 million in 2021-22, which is up from the £71 million that was budgeted for in 2020-21. Of that, £71 million mitigates the bedroom tax in full and helps more than 92,000 households in Scotland to sustain their tenancies. An additional £10.9 million mitigates the damaging impact of other United Kingdom Government welfare cuts, including the benefit cap and changes to the local housing allowance rates. We estimate the DHP budget to be £79 million in 2022-23. Of that, £68.1 million will be used to continue to mitigate the bedroom tax.

Emma Roddick

Recent figures from the UK Government on equivalent discretionary housing payments in England and Wales show that, remarkably, that total spend on DHPs adds up to only slightly more than the payments in Scotland. Will the cabinet secretary join me in expressing frustration that Scotland is forced to spend a proportionally enormous sum in order to offset regressive Tory policies such as the bedroom tax, when we could instead use those funds to actively and progressively build a fairer, greener future?

Shona Robison

I agree with Emma Roddick that it is frustrating that the UK Government plans to spend £100 million on discretionary housing payments for all of England and Wales in 2022-23, while the Scottish Government will spend £80 million to mitigate the impact of cuts to the welfare system. The fact that we need to spend that money at all shows that the UK welfare system is not fit for purpose. If we did not have to mitigate UK Government policies that have been imposed on us, we could further invest in measures to tackle the priorities of this Parliament, including poverty. I appeal again to the UK Government to get rid of the bedroom tax at source.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

Will the cabinet secretary clarify what is being done to raise awareness of the tenant grant fund and ensure that tenants who are in need of help with rent arrears are able to access the support as soon as possible?

Shona Robison

We have been working with local authorities and third sector partners to ensure that awareness of the tenant grant fund is as extensive as it can be. We continue that work, because the fund is important, particularly in this difficult time of rising living costs. We will continue to raise awareness and encourage people to apply.

Local Authorities (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the comments by the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, who said that local authorities are at breaking point. (S6O-00832)

The Minister for Social Security and Local Government (Ben Macpherson)

We are living through very serious times, and no one underestimates the challenges that public services are facing. However, for context, it is important to note that, when the Scottish Fiscal Commission evidenced that the overall Scottish budget was to reduce by 5.2 per cent in real terms in 2022-23, the Scottish Government increased local government funding by more than £1 billion for next year, which is a real-terms increase of 6.3 per cent. The Scottish Government will continue to regularly meet and, crucially, collaborate with COSLA and local authorities to ensure that the people of Scotland continue to receive the high-quality public services that they expect.

Sue Webber

The City of Edinburgh Council plans to borrow £1 billion to fund city spending over the next four years. Borrowing while interest rates are rising will involve a difficult balancing act, which will bring with it significant financial risk. Does the Scottish Government agree that its persistent underfunding of local authorities has led to councils such as the City of Edinburgh Council having to take such high-stakes financial risks?

Ben Macpherson

For context, it is important to recognise that the City of Edinburgh Council will receive £915.4 million in 2022-23 to fund local services, which equates to an extra £86.7 million to support vital day-to-day services, or an additional 10.5 per cent in comparison with funding in 2021-22.

As we move forward with local government finance, there will be considerations, which I am sure that the member will wish to speak to the finance minister about. One such consideration is the funding formula, which will require engagement with COSLA. The Scottish Government is always open to hearing suggestions to improve the funding formula, but proposals must properly come through COSLA in the first instance. We also continue to collaborate with our colleagues in local government on the development of a fiscal framework.

If Conservative members come to the chamber with legitimate concerns—it is their prerogative to do so—it would be more helpful if they also brought solutions for a change.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

How credible is it for the Tories to complain about local government funding in Scotland when the UK Government has cut local authority funding in England by 37 per cent in real terms over the past decade? Can the minister ever envisage a situation in Scotland in which a local authority closed five children’s centres, as Labour-run Nottingham City Council did this week because of Tory cuts?

Ben Macpherson

As he always does, Mr Gibson has made important points on the issue, and he has helped to set out an important context. Although local government funding in Scotland is not wholly comparable with that in England—we need to be candid and honest about that—the Local Government Association set out on 5 October in its 2021 spending review submission that English councils

“had already dealt with a £15 billion real terms reduction to core government funding between 2010 and 2020.”

That underlines the point that I made in my first answer to Sue Webber—what the Scottish Government is providing in the next financial year is significantly more beneficial than what is being provided to councils south of the border.

Local Authorities (Front-line Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has with local government regarding support that it can provide in order to maintain local authority front-line services. (S6O-00833)

The Minister for Social Security and Local Government (Ben Macpherson)

Ministers regularly meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and individual local authorities to cover a range of issues, including support for front-line services. I will meet the COSLA presidential team very soon as part of our monthly engagements. Following the announcement of the Scottish budget on 9 December 2021, the First Minister, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Economy and the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, on separate occasions, met the COSLA leadership team and council leaders to discuss the impact of the budget on the 2022-23 local government settlement.

During that process, councils asked for an additional £100 million to deal with particular pressures. We heard them, we listened and then we went further—we allocated an additional £120 million at stage 2 of the Budget (Scotland) Bill.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am sorry—before asking my question, I should have declared that I am a councillor in the City of Edinburgh Council.

Thank you, Ms Webber. I have slightly lost my place. I think that Liam Kerr has another shot.

Liam Kerr

Yes, thank you, Presiding Officer. The minister mentioned the budget. This year’s settlement for Aberdeenshire Council is nearly £45 million less than the Scottish average would provide. Even with a proposed council tax rise, the council will still be nearly £15 million in the red.

Across Scotland, the impact of the cuts to which the minister referred is on public toilets, music tuition in schools, bus services and so much else that directly impacts people’s lives. No amount of window dressing and spin from the minister will bring back the countless services on which people depend that have had to be axed. Will the minister demand that his Government review the non-ring-fenced funding allocation to Aberdeenshire Council and finally give a fair share to the north-east, so that the council can support the services on which people depend?

Ben Macpherson

For context, Aberdeenshire Council will receive £521.3 million in 2022-23 to fund local services, which equates to an extra £44 million to support vital day-to-day services, or an additional 9.2 per cent in comparison with 2021-22.

Liam Kerr referred to Aberdeenshire Council. If members want to see changes for particular local authority areas, they need to consider that the local government needs-based formula that is used to distribute the quantum of funding that is available for local government is kept under constant review, as would be expected. Crucially, that is agreed each year with COSLA, on behalf of all 32 local authorities.

The Scottish Government is always open to suggestions to improve the funding formula. However, as I said, proposals must properly come through COSLA in the first instance.

There is on-going constructive engagement with local government and COSLA about ring fencing and flexibilities. We look forward to continuing that in the period ahead.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. Local government financial returns for 2020 show that Aberdeen has the highest debt level per head of population in Scotland. For every Aberdeen resident, that stands at £4,954. West Dunbartonshire is the council with the next highest level of debt per head of population.

Local government funding is vital to ensure the delivery of front-line services, and debt is a normal aspect of funding arrangements. However, debt must be not only serviced but repaid. Does the minister agree that it is vital that local authorities exercise prudent and responsible management of budgets to prioritise the delivery of key services over tempting big spending opportunities?

Ben Macpherson

Prudence in the public finances is of particular importance to all in government. Audrey Nicoll makes important points about Aberdeen City Council and more widely on local authority finance. I will note the points that have been raised today. I encourage the member to engage with my colleagues in the finance team on the matters that have been raised.

Jackie Baillie has a supplementary question.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Does the minister accept that local government cannot function well when demoralised staff are being offered a further real-terms cut to their pay? Does he believe that it is acceptable for those on the lowest wages to be offered a few hundred pounds, while senior officers are offered a cost of living increase of about £2,000? What will he do about that?

Ben Macpherson

In answering that question, I will first put on record again ministers’ admiration of and gratitude for all the efforts and contributions that local authority staff members have made throughout the pandemic in the recent period. Having worked for a local authority in such a role, I know how hard they work.

Ms Baillie will know that these are points of engagement that finance ministers discuss regularly. We discuss those matters with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and with local authorities individually, and we will continue to engage on those important points.

People Displaced by Conflict or Climate Change

5. Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what support is available, including through local authorities, to provide accommodation in communities for people displaced by conflict or climate change. (S6O-00834)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

The support that is available varies depending on the person’s status. People who arrive through United Kingdom refugee resettlement programmes are usually supported by local authorities, having been matched with housing that was identified by the local authority prior to their arrival. All 32 of Scotland’s local authorities have supported refugee resettlement.

People who arrive in the UK through a visa programme are usually responsible for finding their own accommodation, and they may be restricted from accessing local authority housing or housing benefit by conditions that are set out in UK Government-reserved immigration legislation. People who are seeking asylum are restricted from accessing council housing or housing benefit. They must apply for Home Office support and accommodation if they would otherwise be destitute.

Both we and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have made it clear to the UK Government that Scotland stands ready to play our part. We are absolutely committed to continue to support people who may be displaced, and to provide support from day 1 of their arrival.

Maggie Chapman

I have asked in the chamber before about what is becoming, by stealth, institutional accommodation for single men asylum seekers in hotels across Scotland. Many of those men have been in hotels without proper support or community for many months.

Today, I want to ask what we can learn from the failures of the Afghan evacuation scheme, which has seen resettled families end up in bridging hotels for many months. Recent figures suggest that 12,000 people are still stuck in limbo and have not yet moved into settled accommodation. Once again, the dysfunctional Home Office has let refugees down. We know that places of institutional accommodation, such as hotels, are not homes. They are not places where people can find safety and sanctuary and can start to rebuild their lives. As we look to create routes to safety for Ukrainian refugees, how do we ensure that that does not happen in future resettlement schemes, such as what we would want in place for people from Ukraine?

Shona Robison

Maggie Chapman makes a number of really important points. The Scottish Government is clear that refugees and people who are seeking asylum must be treated fairly and with dignity and respect at all times. Integration should be supported from day 1, and people should be accommodated in the community with the support that they need to rebuild their lives.

The current situation, in which thousands of people are in hotels across the UK, is a reflection of the UK Government’s failing asylum and resettlement systems, which will, of course, become worse if the Nationality and Borders Bill is passed. Unfortunately, the UK Government’s response so far to the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis has shown that lessons have not been learned. We need a comprehensive settlement programme that focuses on people’s needs and ensures partnership with the Scottish Government, local authorities, the third sector and, importantly, communities.

Ukrainian Refugees

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to resettle Ukrainian refugees in Scotland. (S6O-00836)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

Scotland has a proud history of welcoming refugees and people who are seeking asylum. The Scottish Government and Scotland’s local authorities have made it clear to the United Kingdom Government that they stand ready to offer refuge and sanctuary, where necessary, for those who may be displaced.

The UK Government’s current proposals to support Ukrainian refugees via community sponsorship are insufficient, and the Scottish Government continues to call on the UK Government to act now to develop a comprehensive resettlement programme. The Scottish Government is working with the Home Office, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, local authorities and other partners to provide people with the safety and security that they need to rebuild their lives.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

Since the beginning of the war two weeks ago, the Home Office has issued fewer than 1,000 visas to Ukrainian refugees under the early schemes that it has announced. Desperate families who are fleeing for their lives are meeting cruel barriers that are set by an unwelcoming Government.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the best way for us in Scotland to convince the UK Government to help those in need of refuge is for Scotland to demonstrate that we already provide everything that people who are fleeing that conflict might need, including homes and education, translation and trauma services?

In particular, will the cabinet secretary describe how those who want to offer the use of second homes and room in their own accommodation can do so? Has the Scottish Government completed necessary readiness assessments with the Scottish Parliament and the UK Government to help to drive forward on the issue?

Shona Robison

The fact that the UK Government has issued fewer than 1,000 visas is, frankly, embarrassing, given the scale of the response by other countries across Europe, many of which are a lot poorer than our country, in opening their doors and accommodating people. As the First Minister has said, we should allow people in and sort the paperwork later. Despite that, we are working at pace to ensure that we stand ready to receive people, on the assumption that the UK Government’s position cannot hold. That work is on-going.

Work is also on-going to try to co-ordinate the response from the community so that there is a single place where people can offer support, because people want to help. Some of that support will be utilised, although, for good reasons, some of it might not be. The Scottish Refugee Council will be a critical agency in that immediate first-place support, and we are working with it to help it to scale up.

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will recognise the immense outpouring of empathy and willingness from citizens right across Scotland to provide assistance and shelter in response to the humanitarian plight of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. In my constituency, several efforts are in progress right now to take refugees into people’s homes in the area. However, as we do not have control over borders, can the cabinet secretary provide an update on the discussions that are taking place with the United Kingdom Government to cut the red tape and get folk here?

Shona Robison

As the member can imagine, we are in regular discussion with the UK Government about the issue. As I said, there is a need for a sizeable Government-led resettlement programme that is up to the scale of the task, and we continue to urge the UK Government to take that action. The First Minister has written to the Prime Minister urging the UK Government to waive all visa requirements for any Ukrainian national seeking refuge in the UK and to offer immediate refuge and sanctuary for all those who may be displaced. We have to stand in solidarity, and we need to be ready. As I said, we stand ready to provide that practical support, aid and sanctuary for those who need it.

I will be able to take questions 6 and 8 if I can get brief questions and answers.

Question 6 is from Meghan Gallacher, who joins us remotely.

Unsafe Cladding

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported concerns expressed by home owners over the delay to help residents in homes with unsafe cladding. (S6O-00835)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

We appreciate that this is a difficult time for affected home owners, and my officials are in regular contact as we progress our pilot programme of work. Within that programme, multiple surveys are on-going. The reports will be finalised in the coming weeks and will allow us to understand what actions need to be taken to further support home owners in those buildings. We first have to assess buildings to ensure that the complex engineering requirements of each building can be addressed appropriately. We continue to urge developers to play their part where construction is found to be unsafe. We remain in discussions with the United Kingdom Government regarding its plans for its £4 billion developers fund.

Meghan Gallacher

In August, the Scottish Government announced a pilot scheme to assess the number of affected buildings, with free tests to be carried out on 25 apartment blocks. However, not one survey has been completed, despite the scheme being launched six months ago. The lack of progress in Scotland could be putting people who live in those types of buildings at severe risk. Can the cabinet secretary give reassurances today as to when the surveys will be completed and when the findings will finally be published?

Shona Robison

I reiterate what I said in my earlier answer: multiple surveys are on-going, and they are complex, given the engineering issues and the specialist skills that are required. The reports will be finalised in the coming weeks, which will allow us to consider which buildings can be deemed to be safe and, importantly, which buildings will require remedial action to be taken. Of course, the £97 million that is available will go some way towards dealing with that, but we absolutely need clarity from the UK Government on the consequentials and on the developers levy.

My Welsh counterpart and I have written to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to call for our Government to be part of any discussions with developers, given the impact on our countries. We do not have powers to institute a developer tax or to compel UK developers to contribute to a fund in Wales or Scotland. We therefore need the UK Government to clarify whether we will be part of that fund, but so far we have no clarification.

Homelessness and Rough Sleeping (Edinburgh)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to help support the ending of homelessness and rough sleeping in Edinburgh. (S6O-00837)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

We have provided the City of Edinburgh Council with £6.3 million to date to develop and implement its rapid rehousing transition plan. That includes funding through the housing first programme for about 170 people with multiple and complex needs.

In addition, we have provided more than £600,000 to establish a rapid rehousing welcome centre for people at risk of rough sleeping, and more than £21,000 of flexible emergency funding to front-line homelessness organisations.

We are also delivering new homes. Since 2007, Edinburgh has received £558 million through our affordable housing supply programme funding, and it will benefit from nearly £234 million in this parliamentary session.

Miles Briggs

In the capital, 5,147 people are registered as homeless and 1,505 children are in temporary accommodation. Edinburgh faces a homelessness and housing crisis, but it is being short-changed by £9.3 million due to a bureaucratic anomaly. I have raised the matter with the cabinet secretary and various other Scottish National Party ministers, but I have still not received an answer or a solution. Will she agree to urgently meet me, representatives from across the capital and the City of Edinburgh Council leaders in order to fix the situation and give the capital the resources that we need to end homelessness?

Shona Robison

The majority of the funding that local authorities receive for tackling homelessness is provided through the annual local government finance settlement. The distribution of funding through the local government settlement for 2022-23 was discussed and agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and the City of Edinburgh Council will receive its fair share according to the formula. However, we remain open to looking at whether the position needs to change.

In relation to the £9.3 million, Miles Briggs will be aware that what has happened is a result of the choices that the City of Edinburgh Council made about where homelessness services sit. It is for the council, not for the Scottish Government, to decide whether changes are made. That decision is for local decision makers. If Miles Briggs thinks that they should be delivering their homelessness services separately and differently, he should discuss that with them.