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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 14, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 14 March 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Longhope Lifeboat Disaster (50th Anniversary), Portfolio Question Time, Brexit (Impact on Further and Higher Education), Space Nation, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Point of Order, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

Social Housing (Affordability)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that social housing is affordable to tenants. (S5O-02997)

The Scottish Government does not direct individual social landlords on setting rent levels for their tenancies. Individual social landlords are responsible for setting rents in consultation with their tenants. In doing so, they are required by the Scottish social housing charter to strike a balance between the level of the services that are provided, the cost of the services and how far current and prospective tenants and service users can afford the rents. That means that each social landlord should be considering the ability of its current and future tenants to afford proposed increases in the light of the tenants’ circumstances.

On the issue of mitigating the United Kingdom Government’s welfare reforms, this year we are spending around £50 million to mitigate the bedroom tax, helping over 70,000 households in the social sector that are in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit.

When I raised the matter last year, the minister informed me that the Scottish Government would be working with social landlords in 2018 to understand how savings could be made in the affordable housing supply, which could be reinvested in keeping rents affordable. I have a constituent who, after a 6 per cent rent increase last year, has seen his rent increase by 6 per cent again this year, with few or no improvements to his home. That was not the increase that was consulted on by the housing association; it includes a further recalibration of rent structures. He told me that his rent has increased by 30 per cent in the past five years. Does the minister agree that action on the affordability of social housing for low-paid workers is urgent?

Could you adjust your microphone and pull it towards you, minister?

Certainly, Presiding Officer.

As Ruth Maguire has noted, the Government is taking an active interest in the issue of affordability—for example, in the context of the tackling child poverty delivery plan—and we are currently doing research on that issue. The first progress report on child poverty, which will be published in the summer, will set out the progress that we have made on the agenda to date.

I know that social landlords understand the importance of keeping rents affordable and meeting the needs of the people they serve. They must get the right balance between the rents that they set and the level of the services that they provide, including the cost of the services, as I said previously. They must not increase rents without having regard to affordability.

We will continue to work with the sector to agree the best ways to keep rents affordable—for example, through improving procurement capability to deliver efficiencies. I am more than willing to meet Ruth Maguire to discuss the issues relating to her constituent, including whether the constituent has had a financial health check to make sure that he is getting everything to which he is entitled, and the matters concerning the housing association that she talked about.

Ruth Maguire has raised a really important issue. Of course, one of the ways to keep rents down or in check is to build more social housing. The Government has committed to building 35,000 houses for social rent, yet, according to the Government’s own figures, in the first two years of this parliamentary session only 8,500 were built, which is way off target. Will the minister say how he hopes to get the programme back on track?

On rent affordability, in 2016-17, rents for housing association homes were 18 per cent lower in Scotland than they were in England, and rents for local authority homes were 21 per cent lower. There is a big difference between Scottish National Party-run Scotland and Tory-run England in that regard.

The housing programme is on track. We have said that we will deliver 50,000 affordable homes, with 35,000 of those for social rent, and we are on track to do that. I am sure that Mr Simpson knows that that is the case, because I pontificate about it quite a bit. We will continue to deliver the biggest housing programme since the 1970s in contrast to what is happening south of the border, where there does not seem to be the same ethos in relation to the delivery of social housing.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Funded Childcare (North-east Local Authority Providers)

To ask the Scottish Government how many local authority providers in the north-east provide 1,140 hours of funded childcare. (S5O-02999)

Every three and four-year-old, and every eligible two-year-old, will be entitled to 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare from August 2020. At the moment, the legal entitlement is 600 hours—no local authority is under a legal obligation to offer 1,140 hours yet.

Local authorities have been asked to phase in the expanded offer and to ensure that those children who stand to gain the most from extra funded hours are the first to benefit. Currently, 22 local authority settings in the north-east—which comprises Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeenshire Council, Angus Council, Dundee City Council and Moray Council—are offering 1,140 hours. A further 38 local authority settings in the north-east will be phasing in and delivering the extended provision later in 2019.

We are well over the halfway point in the expansion to 1,140 hours of childcare provision, and I am happy to help the minister with her answer. Freedom of information requests have revealed that only eight out of 222 public childcare centres in the north-east are offering 1,140 hours, which is the target. To reassure parents who are feeling let down and to ensure confidence in the delivery of the target, will the minister commit to resigning if she fails to deliver the 1,140 hours in every public childcare centre in the north-east by 2020?

I reassure the member that I am absolutely confident that, in 18 months’ time, when the local authorities are legally obliged to deliver 1,140 hours of free childcare, they will do so. I assure him that we are on target and that we will deliver what is a transformative programme.

The member restricted his question to local authority settings, but I hope I can reassure him further by saying that, as well as those local authority settings that are already providing 1,140 hours, an estimated 77 partner providers are currently delivering the expanded entitlement of 1,140 hours, and at least an additional 22 partner providers are expected to so from August 2019.

If I were building a bridge, Mr Kerr would not expect to be driving over it 18 months before it was built.

Let us not forget that it is the Tories who are in charge of Aberdeenshire Council. On Friday, I visited Hoodles nursery in Oldmeldrum, which is one of many private partner nurseries that are gearing up for the provision of 1,140 hours. What is the minister doing to ensure that partner providers and childminders are included in the free childcare revolution and that parents get to choose the type of provision that best suits them and their children?

Our provider-neutral, funding follows the child approach will empower parents and carers to choose from a range of high-quality providers, including childminders and private and third-sector settings. The power to choose the type of childcare that best suits their child and family is well and truly in parents’ hands. The provider must meet the national standard and have a place available.

Our multiyear funding agreement will enable local authorities to pay sustainable rates to funded providers by 2020. We are committed to supporting providers in the transition to 2020, and we know that they will be absolutely crucial to our success. Our delivery support plan builds on support that is already available, such as the 100 per cent business rates relief, and it sets out further actions to support providers.

Meaningful partnership working between providers and local authorities is key to ensuring choice for parents and carers. The early learning and childcare partnership forum, which was established with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, is helping to share good practice and we will hold a partnership summit this summer as we approach one year to go.

What progress is being made by local authorities to adjust payment frequencies to private, voluntary sector and home-based providers, to encourage local and national sustainability of the 1,140 hours?

A key aspect of our funding follows the child approach, which will be introduced in August 2020, is that local authorities will ensure that funded providers are paid promptly and efficiently for delivering the funded entitlement. That will support the sustainability of funded providers and ensure healthy cash flows. As a minimum, it is expected that local authorities should look to pay a funded provider within 30 days of the start of term; preferably, it will be much sooner. The timing of the payment should be stipulated in the agreement between the local authority and the funded provider or in the general conditions governing the terms of business. There are already examples of local authorities with prompt payment practices, and, as I said, we are encouraging the sharing of good practice through the knowledge hub.

Air Pollution (North Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce air pollution in North Ayrshire. (S5O-03000)

The Scottish Government works closely with all local authorities in Scotland on reducing air pollution. Financial and other support is provided to authorities to assist them with monitoring and, where necessary, with actions to improve air quality. The “Cleaner Air for Scotland: The Road to A Healthier Future” strategy sets out a series of actions for Government, Transport Scotland, local authorities and others to reduce air pollution further across all areas of Scotland. An independent review of the strategy is on-going.

Clearly, one of the main drivers that would reduce air pollution in towns in North Ayrshire and right across Scotland would be improved uptake of low-emission vehicles. How many charging points has the Government installed in North Ayrshire? If the information is not available now, I will be happy to have it in writing later. How confident is the cabinet secretary that the Government will meet its 2032 target, given that the proportion of new car sales that are sales of low-emission vehicles is at only 6 per cent, at the moment?

Jamie Greene knows that that question should be directed to my transport portfolio colleagues.

However, I can advise Jamie Greene that action is being taken in that regard in North Ayrshire. There are currently 12 electric vehicle charging points in place, and six more are being installed. The member should be reassured that the work on vehicle charging points is on-going.

At the end of the day, low-emission vehicle uptake is a matter for all parts of society; it is not something that the Government can absolutely direct. I hope that Jamie Greene will join me in encouraging all car owners who are thinking about new purchases to consider low-emission vehicles.

How do air quality and air-quality targets in Scotland compare with those in the rest of the United Kingdom?

They compare particularly favourably, as one might imagine. In particular, Scotland is the first country in Europe to have adopted, through legislation, a target for fine particulate matter, which is the cause of the biggest concern in respect of the impacts on health of air pollution. We compare well with the rest of the UK and we are fully compliant with European Union requirements for fine particulate matter.

Town Centre Fund

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the operation of the town centre fund. (S5O-03001)

The £50 million town centre fund, which I announced in the budget, has been developed in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and was launched on 1 March. The fund will be distributed across all local authorities to enable them to stimulate and support a wide range of investments that encourage town centres and city neighbourhoods to diversify and flourish. The distribution of the fund was agreed jointly by Scottish Government and COSLA leaders. It will be for local authorities to allocate the fund against the themes of “Town Centre Action Plan—the Scottish Government response”.

I thank the cabinet secretary warmly for allocating the highest amount—some £4.3 million—of that funding to Fife Council. Can the cabinet secretary clarify how, as the member of the Scottish Parliament for the Cowdenbeath constituency, I can ensure that towns in my constituency get their fair share of that very welcome Scottish Government funding?

First, I welcome the warm welcome from Annabelle Ewing for those resources, which will be transformative for our town centres. The precise figure for Fife is £4,335,000. The campaign to ensure that there is fairness for every part of the constituency that Annabelle Ewing represents has, I think, already begun, and Fife Council will be well aware of it. It will be for the council to determine the distribution of that money.

Asbestos-related Illnesses

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to deal with asbestos-related illnesses, and how it supports people with these conditions. (S5O-03002)

The Scottish Government expects national health service boards to provide high-quality person-centred care for all people, including those with suspected or confirmed diagnoses of asbestos-related conditions.

The Scottish Government’s cancer strategy, “Beating Cancer: Ambition and Action”, was launched in March 2016, alongside a commitment to spend £100 million over five years to improve prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment of any form of cancer, and on aftercare for those who are affected, including people who have an asbestos-related cancer.

Today, I am hosting a group from Asbestos Action (Tayside) in Parliament. From experience, I know how much support they give people—and their families—who live with asbestos-related conditions, including mesothelioma, and I thank them for their work.

Concerns remain that a postcode lottery exists when it comes to people receiving the medical or pastoral care that they need and deserve. What is the Scottish Government doing to bridge the gaps in provision, and to raise awareness among healthcare and social workers of the soft support that is available, and of the importance of signposting people to vital services?

I recognise Claire Baker’s personal commitment to the matter and I acknowledge the work of Asbestos Action (Tayside).

Claire Baker has made an important point. On 22 January, we published revised “Scottish Referral Guidelines for Suspected Cancer”, the purpose of which is to ensure consistency around Scotland. The referral guidelines will help to ensure that clinicians have access to the most up-to-date evidence so that they refer patients who have symptoms that suggest cancer to the right pathway at the right time.

I recognise the work of organisations including those that are represented today in the gallery, and I am happy to continue working with Claire Baker on the issue, which I know is of personal importance to her.

Dundee (Economic Plan)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will put together an economic plan for Dundee. (S5O-03003)

We have a national economic strategy and action plan that we are delivering for Scotland. We are working with local and regional partners to build the long-term, resilient and inclusive economic growth that Dundee needs in order to thrive.

Dundee has lost 850 jobs at Michelin Tyre and more than 200 jobs—just in the city—at McGill & Co. We will lose more than 300 jobs at HM Revenue and Customs, which comes on top of job losses at many smaller businesses that have closed. On Monday, Forth and Tay Decommissioning will launch, but we have yet to see jobs materialise, and I note that there is to be no Government presence at the launch event.

The Government has a responsibility to voters in Dundee urgently to prioritise our city for new economic opportunities. Will the cabinet secretary publish a Dundee jobs plan this autumn? Will he please commit to that today?

We have an economic strategy and action plan. That is what the Government is about: we are delivering the actions that are necessary to grow our economy and create jobs around Scotland.

On Dundee specifically—as Jenny Marra well knows—when Michelin decided to leave Scotland, I got involved and we recalibrated our efforts to ensure that it stayed in Dundee. Michelin committed to doing so because of the actions of this Government and our partners. That is significant.

In relation to the public sector jobs that Jenny Marra spoke about and HMRC pulling out of Dundee, was not it the Labour Party that joined the Conservatives to say that, in order to save civil service jobs, people had to vote against Scottish independence? However, as part of the union, we are still losing those jobs. On the other hand, the Scottish Government is delivering 750 new jobs for Dundee through the creation of Social Security Scotland, which is further action for Dundee.

There have been industrial difficulties, but our agencies got involved to support the Dundee economy. We will continue to do that. With the Scottish Government, Dundee gets action; from the Labour Party, it gets empty rhetoric.


To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to encourage companies to establish more apprenticeships. (S5O-03004)

We encourage companies to provide apprenticeship opportunities—of which there will be 29,000 next year, up from 28,000 this year—through a variety of means, including promotional activity during Scottish apprenticeship week, our developing the young workforce regional groups, and activity that is undertaken by the Scottish apprenticeship advisory board. Skills Development Scotland also undertakes a range of promotional activity that sells the benefits of apprenticeships to employers and individuals.

I compliment the minister on his drive for more modern apprentices. I note the new target of more than 29,000 that the Scottish Government has set for next year.

Last week, I visited Saltire heating systems in Bellshill. It is taking on apprentices and now has 30, which is nearly 12 per cent of its workforce. I hope that other firms will follow its lead. As people retire, we need more apprentices to take up the slack right across the range, in every company—from drivers to plumbers to bricklayers. What steps can the Scottish Government take to ensure that we have the correct amount of apprentices, male and female, that Scotland requires in order to meet its future needs and to grow as a country?

I begin by congratulating Saltire for making exactly the type of contribution that we need from employers.

We will continue to undertake our activity to increase the number of apprenticeship opportunities, and to ensure that our system is responsive to employer need. That is exactly the sort of system that we have, and we will continue to engage with employers to ensure that our apprenticeship offer responds to the needs of our economy and society. Mr Lyle, and every other member in the chamber, can be assured of that.

Before we turn to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery the Hon Ted Arnott, who is the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. [Applause.]