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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 15, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 15 December 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Edinburgh World Heritage Site, Point of Order, Draft Budget 2017-18, Food Waste, Scottish Land Commissioners and Tenant Farming Commissioner (Appointment), Business Motion, Presiding Officer’s Ruling, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time


Basic Payment Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government how many eligible farmers and crofters have received a letter explaining their entitlements under the 2015 basic payment scheme. (S5O-00479)

Sixteen thousand, one hundred and sixty-two confirmation of entitlement letters have been issued to eligible farmers and crofters explaining their entitlements under the 2015 basic payment scheme. Officials are continuing to work hard to resolve outstanding issues, and there is a clear need to focus on providing farmers and crofters with the information that they require.

Would you mind pausing for a second, minister? I think that the speakers are turned off, even though the microphones are on.

That is good, because it was the wrong answer.

Please continue, minister.

It was a great answer the first time, but I will try again.

Fourteen thousand, one hundred and sixty-two confirmation of entitlement letters have been issued to eligible farmers and crofters explaining their entitlements under the 2015 basic payment scheme. Officials are continuing to work hard to resolve some of the outstanding issues that we know about, and there is a clear focus on providing farmers and crofters with the appropriate information that they need to understand what payments they have received.

We have rightly prioritised getting money into people’s accounts and maximising the funds that we can access from Europe before the 15 October deadline.

I thought that the first answer was much better than the second one.

I commiserate with the minister, whose portfolio seems to expand in front of our eyes every day. It is absolutely not his fault that the Government cannot yet confirm that the information technology computer system for farmers and crofters across Scotland, on which £180 million has been spent, will work in 2017 but, in that light, can he tell Parliament when the entitlement letters that have just gone out for the previous year will go out during 2017? Can he confirm that the appeal mechanism, which is very important for crofters and farmers who may disagree with what they have been allocated, is still open to crofters and farmers, and that that will remain the case during 2017?

I will try to give Tavish Scott some of the assurances that he requires. I thank him for his kind commiserations.

The serious point that we must make is that the Government has learned lessons. Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, has been working hard with officials and those on the IT side of things to ensure that we learn lessons from 2015. For example, we are putting ourselves on to a better footing by hiring more staff for our rural payments and inspections division offices. I know that, this morning, the cabinet secretary had a discussion with those who are in charge of the IT system to seek their assurances for 2016. We have learned lessons from the first year of the new common agricultural policy regime that will help our 2016 processes.

We have received IT assurances, and I give Mr Scott the assurance that final processing of applications for payments will be undertaken. We expect and anticipate that 2016 payments will be made and substantially completed between then and the end of the payment period. The cabinet secretary has offered to update Parliament on progress in January.

As far as the appeals process is concerned, I give Mr Scott the assurance that no farmer or crofter should be disadvantaged by the outstanding entitlement letters that they are due to receive and that the appeal and review mechanism is still in place.

We all know about the shambolic way in which the Government has handled the delivery of CAP payments, which has been a complete disaster for rural communities. Just this morning, a constituent contacted me to tell me that he has yet to be given a full breakdown of his payments. Does the minister understand the huge frustration and the difficulties that those problems are causing to farmers, producers and crofters?

If he is being fair, the member will understand that the cabinet secretary, Fergus Ewing, knows—as all of us in the Government know—that of course things could and should have been done better. We regret the mistakes that were made and we apologise to any farmer or crofter who has been disadvantaged by them.

What we are doing—what the cabinet secretary has been tirelessly doing—is to ensure that farmers are not disadvantaged when the new payments come in. The early loan scheme in November was hugely well received and I have given assurances about the IT system. I suggest to Mr Chapman that, instead of carping from the sidelines, he can be part of the solution, if he wants. Rightly, he can question ministers and the Government about what can be done, but I think that farmers and crofters, even in the area that Mr Chapman represents, would want him to work with the Government to try to find solutions so that farmers and crofters are not disadvantaged. As I said, the cabinet secretary will provide regular updates and has promised to update Parliament early in the new year.

Question 2 has not been lodged.


Refugees

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding Scotland’s role in supporting refugees entering the UK. (S5O-00481)

Scottish Government officials are in regular dialogue with Home Office officials about support for refugees who settle in Scotland. Ministers have also discussed the issue and I discussed the resettlement of refugees and unaccompanied children, among other issues, when I met the immigration minister in October. I am very proud that Scotland has now welcomed around 1,250 Syrian refugees under the Syrian resettlement programme since October 2015.

I welcome the fact that East Dunbartonshire Council has at long last agreed to take refugees: four families and four unaccompanied children. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in addition to providing the refugees with housing and education, it is essential that a welcoming committee from the communities involved helps to integrate the families socially by helping with language and local knowledge?

Like the member, I welcome East Dunbartonshire Council’s decision to participate in the resettlement programme. I am pleased to say that, by 2017, all local authorities in Scotland will be involved in supporting refugees to settle in Scotland. It has to be acknowledged that considerable preparatory work needs to be done by local authorities before refugees arrive in their communities to ensure, for example, that the right accommodation, services and supports are in place.

I know that there is a wealth of expertise in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, other local authorities and third sector organisations that East Dunbartonshire Council is drawing on as it prepares to welcome refugees. Many councils have engaged closely with their local communities through volunteering programmes or other means to make best use of the enormous good will that is out there to provide befriending and other support, whether it is English language practice or other ways to welcome refugees into our communities. I am pleased to acknowledge that Ms Mackay is working closely with the Twechar healthy living and enterprise centre to arrange a community team to help with that integration from day 1 and to give a very warm welcome to refugees when they arrive in East Dunbartonshire.


Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems

To ask the Scottish Government what assurances it can give to customers who signed solar energy green deal agreements with Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems Ltd, which ceased trading in April 2016, in light of reports that some have found their energy bills increasing by up to three times and the value of their homes being adversely affected. (S5O-00482)

I am very sorry to hear that customers who signed up to the United Kingdom Government’s green deal scheme in good faith are facing difficulties from a scheme that was meant to help households to reduce their energy bills. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that we have heard of customers facing difficulties under the scheme, and we have raised our concerns about it directly with the UK Government. We have also worked with the relevant regulatory bodies to ensure that redress routes through both the green deal and the financial ombudsman are available to anyone in the circumstances described. I urge anyone who thinks that they have been affected by the scheme or is struggling to pay their energy bills to contact Home Energy Scotland, which can provide support on the matter.

Dozens of my constituents in Blantyre have approached me to complain that they have been missold solar panels by Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems Ltd under the UK Government’s green deal programme. That is having a huge impact on them financially and personally as they deal with the distress that it is causing them. I believe that the issue is not confined to my constituency of Rutherglen. Can the cabinet secretary give my constituents reassurance that the Scottish Government will press the UK Government for a resolution to the misselling of solar panel deals in Scotland, which is causing people to have huge debt for years to come and properties that they are unable to sell?

I know that Ms Haughey has been working hard on the issue in her constituency, both representing her specific constituents and raising the matter over the piece. I reassure her that the Scottish Government has made a number of requests over the past few years for the UK Government to strengthen its consumer protection processes. The previous housing minister wrote to the then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, at the end of last year, emphasising the need to ensure that the UK Government’s schemes offer protection to Scottish customers, and we will continue to press the UK Government to take action wherever possible.

Given the significant issues that have been raised in connection with HELMS, Scottish Government officials convened, with ministerial approval, a UK-wide enforcement group in December 2015. That group was comprised of, among others, representatives from the green deal, the financial ombudsman, the Energy Saving Trust, Citizens Advice Scotland, trading standards and the UK Government. The meeting was used to highlight issues that Scottish consumers were facing. I am pleased to say that, through that process, we have facilitated and agreed redress routes through the ombudsman for customers who feel that they have been missold plans under the scheme.

I also highlight that the Scottish Government funds home energy Scotland, which is an advice service that is on hand to support and guide consumers on the matter. I will ask my officials to liaise directly with Ms Haughey to help her constituents to access that support if they have not already done so.

I draw the cabinet secretary’s attention to the fact that HELMS was also involved in insulating homes in Glasgow Provan under the green deal. My constituents have been left without building warrants and with work of an unknown quality, which means that many cannot get insurance or claim the cash back. They are thousands of pounds out of pocket and their homes need remedial work. Given that my constituents went ahead confident that the company appeared on a list of approved installers authorised by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, what can the Scottish Government do to support them and get the UK Government to take some responsibility?

We are aware that around five customers received external wall insulation from the company, which was partly funded through the early phases of the Scottish Government’s cashback scheme, and that they have been left with work that is not up to standard and for which they have no building warrant. I understand that Mr McKee’s office has been in correspondence with the Energy Saving Trust about his constituents.

We have instructed the Energy Saving Trust to support those customers and to liaise with the manufacturers of the external wall insulation system to establish what remedial works can be carried out under the guarantee and what is required in order for the customers to get a building warrant from their council. We anticipate that we will shortly have paid out all outstanding claims from householders through that scheme, and I confirm that we will do what we can to help those householders to resolve the situation. If Mr McKee is aware of any more constituents who are in the same situation, I ask that his office continue to pass those details to the Energy Saving Trust.


Care Homes (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure the continued viability of rural care homes. (S5O-00483)

It is for health and social care partnerships to determine the need for care home places in their localities and to work with others, including providers, to meet that need.

The Scottish Government will continue to work with national health service boards, local authorities and other stakeholders to drive up quality in the community and ensure that appropriate social care provision is available. The formula that is used in the distribution of the Scottish Government’s funding to local authorities takes into account a number of needs-based factors including rurality and the additional cost of providing services to island communities. We provided a further £250 million in the 2016-17 budget to support partnerships to protect and grow social care services.

For a care home to be financially viable under the national care home contract, it needs to have at least 60 beds. However, in many rural areas it is not possible to make the care homes that size, and they are coming under threat of closure. I know of a few care homes in my area that are in that position. Does the minister agree that, with the rising age of the nation, keeping open rural care homes is vital to ensuring that the elderly who need that support are able to stay as close as possible to their homes and local communities?

I am aware of the concerns about particular care homes—Auchinlee and Craigard—and their potential closures. Argyll and Bute’s health and social care partnership is working closely with the Care Inspectorate, providers, residents and relatives to ensure that, where closure is unavoidable, the disruption to residents is minimised and the closure is implemented with minimal impact.

Specifically regarding Auchinlee, I am aware that Mike Russell has been meeting the care home owners, and I think that another meeting has been arranged for 19 December with representatives of the relatives action group and a staff representative. It is really important that, where solutions can be found, we support that.

Maurice Corry makes an important point, but he should also recognise that many more people are now being cared for at home, avoiding the need for them to go into a care home. That is different from 10, 15 or 20 years ago. However, if he would find it helpful, I would be happy to write to him with more details on those local issues.


Water Meters

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to ensure that water meters are placed in accessible locations. (S5O-00484)

It is important that water meters are placed in locations that ensure that the volume of water consumed by the customer is recorded accurately. Although the accessibility of the location is important, it needs to reflect other constraints such as the layout of the existing pipework and the connections to other properties. In general, meters are located externally at the boundary of a premises. Scottish Water’s meter code of practice, which was published in 2013, provides guidance on the preferred location of meters.

Recently, a farmer in Dumfriesshire told me that meters had been put in inaccessible places, making it difficult to take a reading. Is it possible to relay to Scottish Water the importance of meters being positioned in accessible locations, or repositioned if necessary?

Meters can indeed be relocated with the agreement of Scottish Water. I mentioned in my first answer some of the other constraints in connection with that work.

I understand that Business Stream has arranged a meeting with NFU Scotland on 22 December to discuss this and other issues and that both Scottish Water and Business Stream have contacted the member’s office to discuss the matter.

As I explained, any alterations will be constrained by the configuration of the existing pipework and connections, but I hope that the member will take up the offer of meetings.


Pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorders

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that pupils with disorders on the autism spectrum have equal opportunities in school. (S5O-00485)

We want all children and young people to get the support that they need to reach their full learning potential. Local authorities have duties under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, as amended, to identify, provide for and review personalised support for children and young people who face barriers to learning, including those arising from autism.

Recent statistics from Enable Scotland highlight that more than half of children with learning difficulties and/or autism believe that they are not fulfilling their potential at school. Just this week, statistics have shown that the number of special school teachers has dropped by 9 per cent since 2007. Does the Government agree that that represents a concerning position for those children and that more must be done to provide more funding and support for pupils with additional support needs?

I had the very good fortune to meet Enable Scotland when it was in Parliament highlighting many of those issues just last week, and it was a helpful and informative discussion. The central point of the proposals that Enable Scotland has put forward is that we must use every opportunity to ensure that the statutory guidance and the statutory framework that are in place are used to meet the needs of young people within the school situation.

On the comparison with 2007, I note that we have seen since then a growing sense that young people should be educated within a mainstream environment. That follows from the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc Act 2000. We need to ensure that our education system is fulfilling young people’s needs. In some circumstances that will be within a mainstream setting and in other cases it will be in a special educational setting. We must make those judgments according to the needs of young people themselves.

Given the loss of more than 400 additional support needs teachers since 2009, how many more teachers does the Government expect local authorities will be forced to cut as a result of today’s budget announcements?

I point out to Mr Greer that teacher numbers were shown to have increased on Tuesday, and that is because the Government made an absolute commitment to ensure that that happened. I welcome the fact that teacher numbers increased.

In a couple of hours, Mr Mackay will set out the Government’s budget and I look forward to hearing the measures that he sets out this afternoon and the positive impact that they will have on Scottish education and other public services.