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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 14, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 14 November 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Products (United States Tariffs), Decision Time


General Question Time

Survival Sex

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of women, including single mothers, resorting to so-called survival sex because their universal credit payments do not cover the basic needs of daily living. (S5O-03761)

It is absolutely disgraceful that women should have to resort to survival sex, as it is sometimes known—even the term makes my blood run cold—for their most basic needs such as food and shelter. It is a very complex issue; however, it is clear that already vulnerable women are being badly affected by universal credit’s worst aspects, such as the five-week wait, punitive sanctions and the hated two-child limit.

We support the recommendations in the United Kingdom Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee’s recent report on the issue. We have also repeatedly called on the UK Government to fix the problems with universal credit, to protect the most vulnerable in society, and to prevent more people being pushed into poverty, such as the women to whom Maureen Watt referred in her question.

I am sure that, like me, the minister was saddened and angered to hear that Community Food Initiatives North East, the Aberdeen-based community food bank—a great organisation that won an award in the Parliament this week—has been contacted by the local police to help women who are engaging in sex work as a result of this desperate situation. Does that not demonstrate how totally out of touch recent Tory Westminster Governments have been with the benefits system, and emphasise that all powers that relate to social security should be transferred to this Parliament as soon as possible?

No-one in the chamber will be surprised to hear that I completely agree with Maureen Watt. [Interruption.]

Order, please. The minister is answering a question.

It would have been nice if Maurice Golden had actually been in the chamber for the first question and understood how serious the issue is, instead of sitting there laughing like a child. [Interruption.] He is still rattling on.

It is imperative that all powers that relate to social security are devolved to the Scottish Parliament immediately. In 2018-19, we invested £1.4 billion to support low-income households, which includes £100 million per year to mitigate the most damaging parts of universal credit and to try to prevent the very situations that Maureen Watt has highlighted. However, the sheer scale of the UK Government cuts makes mitigation by the Scottish Government unsustainable. In fact, Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said that

“mitigation comes at a price, and it is not sustainable.”

We agree with him. He also commented that Scotland is on “a very different trajectory” to England when it comes to the social protections of its population.

Clearly, mitigating aspects of universal credit does not address the fundamental flaws in the system—only full powers over the delivery of universal credit and the wider social security system being given to this Parliament will do that.

The Scottish Government’s strategy, “Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls” defines commercial sexual exploitation, such as prostitution, lap dancing, stripping and pornography, as

“forms of violence against women and girls.”

Given that the strategy acknowledges that such behaviour

“stems from systemic, deep-rooted women’s inequality”,

what steps is the Scottish Government taking to support women who are trying to leave prostitution and to prevent more women and girls from falling victim to violence in that way?

The Scottish Government is absolutely committed to preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls. We are implementing equally safe, the Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities led strategy for preventing and eradicating such violence.

In November 2017, we published our plan, “Equally Safe: A Delivery Plan for Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls”, which contains 118 actions over four priority areas to help us challenge harmful stereotypes and attitudes, improve front-line services and hold perpetrators to account.

In November 2019, we will publish our second “Equally Safe” progress report, which will highlight key progress and outline some of the priorities for the year ahead.

The Scottish Government has committed to consult on challenging men’s demands for prostitution as well as seeking views on reducing harm and supporting women to exit prostitution.

The consultation is in its very early stages and we are working with key stakeholders to map what the consultation should include. The drivers for women entering into prostitution, including economic hardship, which, as the member highlighted, may be exacerbated by the role of universal credit, are being considered as part of the process.

Aluminium Cladding (Support for Affected Property Owners)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it can provide to the owners of properties, including in the Western Harbour development in Edinburgh, who are facing difficulties in trying to sell or remortgage because their homes have aluminium cladding. (S5O-03762)

We are aware of the difficulties being experienced by people across Scotland who are trying to obtain mortgage lending for properties with external cladding—and that applies to all external cladding. I know the anxiety that this will be causing home owners across the country.

Although responsibility for mortgage lending is reserved to the United Kingdom Government, we are doing what we can to push for a solution as soon as possible. Scottish Government officials held discussions with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors this week. Officials have also held discussions with the UK Government and UK Finance, most recently with the UK Government on Wednesday 6 November.

I wrote to the UK Government on 18 October and to UK Finance on 5 November seeking early action, with a further letter to the UK Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on Friday 8 November, to impress upon them the importance of a quick solution.

In doing so, I have offered Scottish Government assistance to support the industry’s development of a sensible way forward. We continue to push for a solution that takes account of Scotland’s legal system and particular requirements.

A constituent contacted me just yesterday to say that the sale of their flat had fallen through because the purchasers simply could not get a mortgage. As the minister just highlighted, this is an issue not only in Edinburgh but across Scotland.

As the minister pointed out, there are separate legal issues affecting us in Scotland because of Scots law. Will he work on clear guidelines with mortgage lenders to make sure that Scottish legal issues are dealt with separately from the issues in the rest of the UK?

As I pointed out in my initial answer, I have already been in touch with the secretary of state on two occasions to try to find a resolution to this issue. We do not control mortgage lending here in Scotland; it is a UK reserved matter. I hope that Mr Balfour and the Conservatives will join me in pushing Mr Jenrick, the secretary of state, to respond, so that Mr Balfour’s constituents and other home owners who find themselves in difficult positions can be helped by a solution put forward by us in co-operation with the UK Government.

I wish that we had control of all these matters here; it would make life much easier. While that is not the case, I ask others in the chamber to support us in trying to get the UK Government to take action on this issue.

Question 3 has been withdrawn.

Young People’s Employment Rights (Awareness)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to raise awareness among young people of their employment rights. (S5O-03764)

Increasing understanding about employment rights and responsibilities is key to creating fairer workplaces.

Learning about the world of work forms a key part of the school curriculum and employment rights are a key part of career education for young people at school, particularly in their senior phase. We support the Scottish Trades Union Congress unions into schools programme, which helps young people to understand the importance of workers’ rights and the role played by trade unions in the modern workplace.

Bodies such as the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, Citizens Advice Scotland and trade unions can play an important role in advising young people on their rights at work.

Citizens Advice Scotland’s do the right thing campaign is currently raising awareness among young people of their rights at work. CAS has found that one in 10 young people does not know that the minimum wage is a legal requirement and it sees numerous cases of young people being taken advantage of at work. The charity is also collecting examples online of poor employment practice to better understand the issues that young people face at work. Will the minister therefore encourage young people to submit any bad work experiences anonymously to CAS so that it can continue to campaign for a fair deal at work for young people?

I agree with David Torrance that it is an important campaign. I encourage young people to submit to the campaign any examples of where they feel that they have not been treated fairly at work, and to raise them with Citizens Advice Scotland, trade unions or ACAS, which has a statutory role to provide advice on employment matters. The campaign is important, and it is important that young people know their rights at work, and where to go for advice.

Will the minister join me in giving her 100 per cent support to the McStrikers—the McDonald’s workers who have this week walked out in protest at low pay and poor employment practices in one of the world’s most profitable companies? Does the minister agree that a £10-an-hour living wage and a revolution in employment rights, as promised by the Labour manifesto, would be the best present that young workers could receive this year?

On the strikes and the points that Neil Findlay raised, I would support any individual who raises concerns about poor practice, particularly when their employers have a duty to ensure fair working practices. I would be happy to pass on Neil Findlay’s question to the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, Jamie Hepburn.

On ensuring that workers across the country have a fair wage and fair practices, it is the SNP Government that has introduced—within the powers that we have—the fair employment practices that we see in this country.

Although members may raise any question that they wish to, I remind them to try to keep direct political election campaigning out of their question or answer.


Yes, Mr Lyle.

Question 5 has not been lodged.

Third Sector Mental Health Services (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the delivery of mental health services delivered by third sector organisations. (S5O-03766)

Local integration authorities are responsible for planning and commissioning services, and we expect them to engage third sector organisations as key delivery partners. In this financial year, integration authorities have received more than £6.4 billion to deliver that work. Additional investment, which will rise to £35 million in 2021-2022, is committed to the delivery of 800 additional mental health workers in key settings, which can include the third sector. That is additional to the provision of counsellors in schools and in further and higher education, and to the direct Scottish Government funding to third sector organisations for actions in delivering mental health services.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of organisations such as Ayrshire Cancer Support and Break the Silence, which deliver specialist mental health services in my area. I am sure that other members have similar organisations in their constituencies.

Given that the national health service routinely signposts patients to those organisations, does the cabinet secretary agree that the third sector is capable of shouldering some of the load that is piling up on child and adolescent mental health services, and that we urgently need to reassess the way in which we fund that sector?

I certainly agree with Brian Whittle that the third sector plays a vital role across Scotland, including—as he referred to—in my constituency. I made the point that we have provided £6.4 billion to integration authorities to deliver those services. It is for the integration authorities to design, commission and plan for services that best meet their local needs, and we provide significant financial support for that.

Integration authorities, which involve local authorities, health boards and the third sector, should maximise local resource to ensure that services are delivered. I think that Brian Whittle would agree that it would ill behove the Government to centralise even further than the Conservatives already accuse us of doing by intervening in the matter directly. I expect integration authorities in Ayrshire to carefully consider how they use their third sector expertise.

Staff in mental health charities work selflessly to improve and treat the mental health of others. How can the Scottish Government support the mental health of the staff who deliver those mental health services?

Mary Fee is absolutely right that all staff across mental health services—statutory or third sector—work extremely hard and often selflessly, going beyond the expectations that are placed on them, and her question forms part of the work that we are undertaking post Sturrock. We have input from third sector organisations on how we create a positive working culture that very much focuses on the wellbeing of those who deliver those services.

As ministerial working group progresses its work into the new year, I will be happy, in due course, to ensure that members are updated on the initiatives that will be taken forward.

Scottish Welfare Fund (Crisis Grants)

To ask the Scottish Government how many people in the Stirling constituency have received a crisis grant through the Scottish Welfare Fund. (S5O-03767)

The most recent published statistics show that since April 2013, Stirling Council has awarded 11,880 crisis grants and 4,705 community care grants to 6,025 unique households. The total value of crisis grants awarded by Stirling Council in that period is more than £1 million.

Those are startling figures. Does the minister agree that the 2019 Heriot-Watt University report “State of Hunger” is a damning indictment of the United Kingdom Government’s welfare system? There are delays in universal credit payments, some people are being turned down for disability payments and others are receiving sanctions, cuts are being made to the value of payments and more and more people are being forced to use food banks. Does the minister also agree that any politician who has defended that system should hang their head in shame? The people of Stirling and Scotland deserve so much better.

I absolutely agree. The research that Bruce Crawford mentions shows that income is a key driver of food bank use and points to the UK Government’s welfare reforms and cuts.

Let us look at what a Conservative, or any other politician, might choose to defend. In addition to the list that Bruce Crawford read out, thousands of families are being pushed into poverty. For example, 86 per cent of universal credit claimants have seen a decrease in the amount that they can earn before they lose their entitlement and 91 per cent of Scottish households whose housing benefit has been capped contain children. If any Conservative or other politician chooses to defend that record, they should feel utterly ashamed of themselves.

We will continue to choose a different path and to protect our people and communities. We will treat those folk who need most support with an approach that has dignity and fairness at its heart.

Acceptance rates for crisis grants have been falling steadily since the start of the scheme and, in the latest quarter, they have hit an all-time low of just 63 per cent in Stirling. Will the minister explain why only two thirds of applications are currently accepted and what the Government can do to reverse the falling trend?

We will continue to work with local authorities and to fund the Scottish welfare fund because of its utter necessity to families who require such help. If we did not have that safety net for people, they would be destitute because of the severe and punitive impact of welfare reforms and cuts.

I will continue to work with Mark Ruskell if he wants to raise further issues. We will continue to support the welfare fund, because it is delivering for those who most need it.

Poverty and Inequality

To ask the Scottish Government how it is tackling poverty and inequality. (S5O-03768)

This Government is committed to tackling poverty and inequality. Last year, we invested £1.4 billion to support low-income households, including £100 million in welfare mitigation measures. We will further enhance that support with our Scottish child payment, which has been described as a “game changer” in tackling child poverty.

Estimated social security spend of £350 million this year, including on our best start grant, offers financial support across the early years to low-income parents.

We will almost double the amount of funded early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours by August 2020. We are helping people to work and earn more through fair start Scotland and a £22 million package of intensive support for parents.

Collydean community centre in my constituency is set to benefit from direct investment from the Scottish Government’s communities fund. That is great news for Glenrothes. However, does the cabinet secretary share my anger that for every penny that goes into my community from the Scottish Government, pounds are stripped straight back out by cruel Tory benefit reforms, proving that what people in my community need more than anything is full welfare powers devolved to this Parliament and used in their best interest?

I agree absolutely with Jenny Gilruth, and I am happy that Collydean community centre has benefited from the fund. She is right: the Tories have cruelly cut welfare since 2010, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. We in this Government are left to mop up the United Kingdom Government’s mess by mitigating and plugging the gaps, trying to do our best to support our communities.

The new social security agency provides a glimpse of what we can do with the powers that we have to build a social security system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect. Imagine what we could do with full powers over welfare to build a country that cares for its people, as opposed to what the Conservatives are pursuing, which are politically motivated, ideologically driven, callous, punitive cuts.