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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, July 16, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Virtual) 16 July 2020

Agenda: Labour Market Trends, Care Promise, Transport


Care Promise

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on the care promise. The cabinet secretary will take questions after his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

The independent care review published its findings on 5 February and, in her statement to Parliament accepting those findings, the First Minister gave a commitment to update Parliament on progress with next steps. I do so today.

Although the Covid-19 emergency response has had a significant impact on the Scottish Government’s priorities, we have been working with key partners to ensure that the principles of the care review’s promise are reflected in our response to the pandemic, including in the practice guidance and policies underpinning emergency legislation.

“The Promise” report sets out a vision for what the future of care for Scotland’s children and young people could be. It advocates for the provision of more intensive, preventative support to families in order to keep them together where it is safe to do so. It also says that, where that is not possible, the alternative should provide children with a loving home, with positive and lasting relationships and support to thrive. Alongside that, it seeks significant changes to the children’s hearings system and how we respond to children who come in conflict with the law.

It is clear that achieving that will take a fundamental shift in terms of systems, processes and culture, and it will require all of those who are engaged in supporting children and young people to work to develop and maintain positive relationships so that children feel loved, safe and respected.

Although we cannot legislate for love, we can help to create a supportive and nurturing environment in which love is possible. Central to that are relationships. “The Promise” is aligned with the national performance framework and embeds as its vision the commitment that Scotland’s children should grow up loved, safe and respected so that they realise their full potential. The foundations of implementation must maintain that alignment and build on it to shape the required policy and legislation.

Scotland was invited to sign up to delivering the care promise and the significant change that it contained, and I am delighted that so many members across Parliament did so earlier in the year. There was also support from local government—the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said:

“Local Government welcomes the recommendations from the Independent Care Review and encourages all partners to work together to ensure we build a care system that meets the needs of Scotland’s young people.”

Since the publication of “The Promise”, I have been carefully considering what now needs to happen to deliver the plan. The implementation of the care promise requires detailed and complex work across national Government, local government and a wide range of partners. I have been heartened to hear that many organisations that will need to make and deliver on commitments to change have been actively thinking about what that means for them.

I am under no illusions about how tough some of the conversations that lie ahead will be, in particular when we come to discuss some of the key challenges such as how we reprofile existing expenditure that is currently in the system towards delivering more effective outcomes.

We also face a major challenge in how we can achieve that in the immediate future. However, the principle that underpins the care promise is that we come together to collaborate, and to think creatively and differently, in order to deliver the vision and to agree responsibilities and timescales to take the agenda forward.

Let us not forget that we are emerging from an acute Covid response period; I am well aware that we are all trying to find our way to a steady state of delivery and a new normal. Over the past few months, I have observed Scotland responding to the Covid emergency in a way that delivers exactly what “The Promise” called for. We have been able to adapt the way in which we all operate to put people and their needs at the front and centre of our conversations with them. I urge all partners in Scotland who will have a part to play in the delivery of the promise to continue on that path.

Along with our work on incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, which was fully endorsed by “The Promise”, I have been determined that implementation of the promise should not be paused as a result of the current pandemic.

On 5 February, the First Minister agreed in Parliament to the independent care review’s calls for

“an independent oversight body with at least 50% of its members being care experienced including its Chair”.

That can be described as the conscience of “The Promise”, and it has an important role in ensuring that those who are tasked with making the change happen are making good on their promise to implement change.

Governance and reporting will also include the submission of an annual report to Parliament, and over the coming weeks we will see a hive of activity as the recruitment process for the oversight board is developed and communicated. A major development on implementing “The Promise” was the appointment of Fiona Duncan as the chair of the new oversight board. The Scottish Government has been actively supporting her to ensure that she has all that she needs to be able to undertake the role. That includes putting in place a support team, which I am pleased to say includes some of the previous care review team, thereby ensuring that the ethos of that work is built into implementation planning and development.

Ensuring that the voice of care experience is at the heart of the implementation plan is key to its successful delivery, to understanding the challenges around how it lands on the ground and to offering constructive challenge. Only by listening to voices of those who have experienced care can we truly understand the issues and realities and therefore create life-changing solutions. When we get it right, children in care can thrive throughout their lives: they can do well in school, have good mental health and succeed at work. That is why I am so pleased that Fiona Duncan has started to have those conversations as a priority.

We are already seeing examples of partners taking forward “The Promise”, and the work that is influenced by its contents, led by care-experienced young people.

Children’s Hearings Scotland will soon be consulting young people and those who support them on its new “Children’s Rights and Inclusion Strategy”. The strategy aims to empower young people and put their voices at the centre of the organisation’s work in order to ensure that their views are given real weight in the decision-making process and that they have ownership of their rights.

The Scottish Government and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers have jointly established a children and families collective leadership group to consider the impacts of the pandemic on children, young people and families, especially those in the most challenging circumstances, and the actions that need to be taken by local and national Government in response. The chair of “The Promise” oversight board is part of that group, and there has been a specific focus on ensuring that, as we progress through “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Scotland’s route map through and out of the crisis”, families are able to ask for and receive the support that they need. Access to effective family support can be a critical factor in ensuring that a child’s right to be raised safely in their own family remains a reality in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

I have asked the leadership group to look at developing proposals on how we could make that ambition a reality and build on the good practice that already exists across Scotland, focusing in particular on learning from the sector’s response to Covid, in which new collaborations and ways of working have helped us to put the needs of families front and centre.

Collectively, we already know what good family support and the key features that characterise it look like. It should be holistic, empowering for families and rooted in trusting relationships. Help should be early and preventative, at whatever level is required, whether that involves universally accessible support or more targeted interventions.

Above all, we need to recognise that all families, including kinship, adoptive and foster families, need support sometimes. The leadership group has developed a vision and a blueprint that are focused on supporting local services to build on what is working for families in their areas, and on supporting the sector to find new solutions where families’ needs are not being met. I am grateful to the leadership group for taking forward that work.

How we turn the blueprint into a reality is our next challenge, and it will be a key early step in the implementation of “The Promise”. I am pleased that the promise team will be working with the Scottish Government to drive forward a programme of action based on the group’s recommendations, and I am especially pleased to announce that we have identified initial funding of £4 million to make some early progress on those ambitions.

This money will be the first investment in the promise fund, which is being established to support early intervention and prevention work across Scotland in line with the implementation of “The Promise”. The need for change was already urgent, and the current situation means that Scotland’s families need support now.

We all recognise the need for on-going service delivery throughout the process of service redesign. Scotland’s families cannot be left waiting for a better reality to come. The promise fund will provide start-up funding to enable preventative action and early intervention approaches to be put in place. Over time, the work that is funded by the promise fund will become a key part of our new normal: a normal which supports families where they need it, when they need it and for as long as they need it, and listens to them when they speak.

Now is the time for bold, decisive and collective action. We are perfectly placed to collaborate to change the nature and culture of our approach across all Scotland’s support services, not simply polish the existing system. To do that, we must all remain accountable to those with lived experience of care.

The care promise has created a call to action. It gives us the opportunity to stop and think about the basics. What do we need to create the society that we want and need to be? How do we ensure that our children can build and maintain the lasting, trusting relationships that nurture them from childhood to adulthood? I look forward to exploring our collective answers and solutions to those questions. By that route, we can transform the lives of children and young people in our society.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I have only around 20 minutes for that, so I make a plea for succinct questions and answers, please. It would be helpful if members could press “R” in the chat function if they wish to ask a question.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for the advance sight of his statement and his important update. The fact that we are in recess and meeting virtually must not negatively impact on the conclusions or challenges of the independent care review or the promise.

The Deputy First Minister mentioned children’s hearings and said:

“Children’s Hearings Scotland will soon be consulting young people and those who support them about its new children’s rights and inclusion strategy.”

Since March, it has not been possible for children’s hearings to be held face to face because of lockdown, and the centre for youth and criminal justice expressed particular concern about inevitable delays. Given the delicate nature of such cases, what steps have been taken to ameliorate those delays and to manage the experience of those whose cases have been subject to delay? When does the Deputy First Minister expect the consultation with young people about the rights and inclusion strategy to start?

I thank Mr Kerr for his questions. He raises an important point: it is clear that the pandemic has been disruptive to many aspects of public services.

However, a total of 2,966 children’s hearings have taken place since 23 March, when lockdown began. I pay tribute to the work that volunteers, agencies and families have done in enabling such a substantial number of hearings to be held in a virtual fashion. As a consequence of those actions, support, assistance and, in some cases, protection have been provided for children, which has been welcome. Of course, we are now in a position in which face-to-face hearings can take place.

As far as the publication of the strategy is concerned, that is a matter for Children’s Hearings Scotland, but I am assured that it will be an early priority for the organisation. Children’s Hearings Scotland has made it clear to the promise team and the care review how important it is for it to adapt its practice so that it is consistent with the aspirations of the promise, and I am very confident that Children’s Hearings Scotland will do exactly that.

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for providing advance sight of his statement.

I agree that there is a clear and urgent need to transform the experience and lives of those in our care system, but it is now four years since the review was first announced, a year since the First Minister set out initial steps in the programme for government and five months since the report was published. Therefore, we welcome today’s announcement.

What interim steps have been taken since the announcement of the programme for government and the publication of the care review’s report? More important, although we welcome the £4 million that is being provided to make “early progress”, what outcomes is it intended will be achieved through that investment?

It is clear that the scale of the cultural and systemic change that the cabinet secretary acknowledged will be required will require further, more significant investment. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that that is the Government’s intention and outline the scope and scale of the future investment that the Government is preparing to make? We all agree that the change that is required to improve the lives of young looked-after people is an imperative for us all.

Mr Johnson has posed a number of substantive questions, all of which are entirely legitimate.

I very much welcome the sentiment that Mr Johnson has conveyed, which is that we have a shared purpose in improving outcomes for children and young people who have experience of care. That lies at the heart of what I readily acknowledge is an immensely challenging report from the care review, which has led to a significant amount of reflection among different organisations and individuals in Scotland, and an acceptance that current practice must change and be reformed.

The early investment in the promise fund that I have announced today will start that process of reform and will encourage organisations to engage in considering how we can repurpose some of the resources that are already spent in the system to produce better outcomes for children and young people. Fundamentally, that question lies at the heart of our response to the care review’s report.

On a personal level, I found the economic analysis that was produced by the care review one of the most compelling pieces of analysis that I have read in a long time. It said that the country was spending significant amounts of public money—up to £1 billion per annum—that in many circumstances, though not all, were producing poor outcomes. The care review has prompted discussion of that issue, which should force us all to reflect on how we might spend that money better to improve outcomes for children and young people. The investment that we are making is therefore designed to trigger that process.

It has been instructive to see that much of the thinking that the care review shared with us has been put into practice during the lockdown. It was about focusing on holistic family support and on looking at what could be done better—by listening to families, supporting them in their contexts and addressing the difficulties that they face—with the objective of safeguarding children and supporting families so that they can remain together.

I pay tribute to the public authorities that have adapted their practices to do exactly that. That provides a clear example of how the care review’s thinking has now been applied in practice in Scotland. We will have to see an awful lot more of that happening. The work of the promise fund will be designed to leverage such change in the way in which we undertake public expenditure.

If I might make a comparison, a number of years ago, in my former role as Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, I established the reducing reoffending change fund, which was taken forward by our justice colleagues. Through collaborative action, which has focused on improving outcomes, there has been a significant fall in reoffending levels in Scotland as a consequence of kick-starting such investment in the way that we have done with the promise fund. I am optimistic about that approach, which has a proven track record of working. I look forward to Fiona Duncan and her colleagues taking those important steps forward.

We move to general questions. I repeat my plea for short questions and answers so that everyone will have an opportunity to be heard.

To deliver the promise, it is vital that Scotland better understands—and gets better at delivering—the rights of our young people. I would be grateful if the cabinet secretary could update us on exactly where we are on the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law.

Also, given the even greater challenges that our young people face in the current labour market, how will the Government help to ensure that one of the important aims that were highlighted in the care review—to create the conditions that enable care-experienced young people to thrive in the workplace—will be delivered? For example, it will be important for us to remember such young people as we deliver any job guarantee.

The Government intends to introduce legislation that will have the effect of incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law in the final year of this parliamentary session. I expect that to be undertaken, and it will then be for the Parliament to scrutinise and consider that legislation in the normal fashion.

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture has just given a statement to the Parliament on the interventions that we will adopt in the labour market. It is important that those are inclusive measures that reach all sectors of society. We all know that care-experienced young people often require additional support to assist them into the labour market. We will work to ensure that all individuals who require particular support, including care-experienced young people, are able to receive it.

I am very pleased that improving the life chances of care-experienced young people has remained a priority throughout this crisis. Could the Deputy First Minister outline further why the Scottish Government made the choice not to pause this important work during the pandemic?

We acknowledged and understood the significance of the care review when it was published. It has given us a significant insight into the issues and challenges that have been faced by young people who have experienced care. The Government and I were determined that, notwithstanding the multiple challenges resulting from Covid, with which members are familiar, every opportunity should be taken to advance the agenda that was put forward in the care review. I was delighted that Fiona Duncan was able to take on the role of chair of the oversight board, and she is now working in a very focused way to ensure that we have the infrastructure in place to advance the promise.

We intend to take this forward at arm’s length from the Government. Fiona Duncan will be given significant scope to carry forward a challenging approach—it will challenge the Government as well as organisations—to make sure that we have an intensive approach to the implementation of the promise. That is the correct course of action for us to take so that we deliver the swiftest action possible to implement the recommendations.

The published evidence framework stated that there is a case to be made for undertaking work to improve public understanding of the care system in Scotland. What work is the Scottish Government undertaking to ensure that that will happen?

That work will be integral to the agenda that is taken forward by the promise team. We have to understand—this relates to my answer to Daniel Johnson’s question earlier—that we have to refocus the services that are in place. My concern, which the care review report has highlighted, is that many services do not look sufficiently holistically at the needs of individual families. We have to make sure that such holistic family support is available, because it gives us the greatest possible opportunity to address the underlying challenges that families face and which may, as a consequence, mean that a child would have to have experience of the care system. We all know that, if it can be avoided, it is better for young people not to end up in that situation. Our focus is on engaging with partners to understand how they deliver services, with a view to changing the nature of that delivery to meet the aspirations that are set out in the care review report.

A great thing about the care review is its unwavering commitment to making sure that the care-experienced community is at its heart. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that care-experienced young people must remain at the heart of the process as the next important steps are taken?

A strength of the care review report is the degree to which it engaged with people who have experience of care. In essence, in one of the most powerful examples in my years in parliamentary politics, it gave very visible voice to those concerns and aspirations. By securing the contribution and leadership of Fiona Duncan, I was determined to take that ethos forward into the implementation work, so that we would continue to hear those voices challenge us to do better than we are doing.

That is often uncomfortable, and many aspects of the care review report made uncomfortable reading, but it is the right thing to do to ensure that we address the issues properly and deliver remedies and outcomes that are better for the young people concerned. I give Mr Dornan the assurance that care-experienced young people will remain at the heart of the process and, of course, 50 per cent of the oversight board will be made up of people who have care experience.

In its programme for government last September, the Government committed to extend eligibility for free NHS dental care to care-experienced people and to ensure that those on a qualifying benefit are supported with discretionary housing arrangements from April. How many people have benefited so far? Is there an assessment of how many people will benefit in future years?

I do not have that detail in front of me, but I am happy to write to Mr Griffin to give him detailed and specific answers to his questions.

I, too, thank all the care-experienced young people who took part in and helped to shape the care review report. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that it is crucial that, in cases where their staying with family is not possible, children and young people can build the supportive and loving relationships that everyone needs in order to grow and thrive?

That is perhaps, by far, the greatest challenge that exists for us in addressing the evidence that has been put in front of us by care-experienced young people, because the aspirations that Gail Ross has set out are the aspirations of those care-experienced young people. We must ensure that we put in place the practical steps that enable such an approach to take place. That is complex and challenging, and it relies, of course, on the engagement of individuals who are able to create that loving and supportive environment for young people.

As I described earlier, our preventative approach is designed to strengthen and support families; it is also designed to ensure that, where that is not successful, we can put in place all the support to enable young people to have that experience. Although it is challenging, that must remain the central focus of what we are doing to produce the best life chances for those young people—and they deserve to have the best life chances.

We know that children are not under the trained eyes of teachers daily, and there is concern about the children who live in the most challenging of circumstances. Teachers are trying to keep in contact with pupils, but some pupils and families are not responding. Will the cabinet secretary highlight how the Scottish Government intends to engage with authorities to ensure the safety of all children and families?

I will try to reassure Mr Whittle on the legitimate issues that he raises. We have been regularly monitoring throughout the lockdown the proportion of children in the most at-risk circumstances who have been contacted by professionals so that we can be assured of their security and their safety.

The position is improving. To be fair to local authority staff, the position was strong to begin with. If my memory serves me right, the first data set indicates that close to 90 per cent of children with a child protection plan were being seen or contacted by professionals. The figure for the most recent available week—8 July—is 97 per cent. The figure has been well into 90 per cent for many weeks, and that has probably been the case since early to mid-April. Therefore, those in the most at-risk category have been receiving support.

Obviously, Mr Whittle’s point is material to resuming full-time schooling, which, as colleagues know, is my planning assumption to which the Government and our local authority partners are working, because that opens up the opportunity for us to offer more support to young people who may be vulnerable and desperately need to receive support. During the next few weeks, we will be working to ensure that we secure that outcome.

I still have four members wanting to ask a question. I can run on for a couple of minutes, but keep your questions and answers short, please, so that we can get everyone in.

There has been a certain amount of stigma around care-experienced young people. Can the Deputy First Minister suggest how elected politicians such as MSPs or councillors can help to deal with that?

What we can all do most effectively is put our effort into creating the type of holistic support environment that I have talked about, because the care review will be successfully implemented only if the Government, our local authority partners, third sector organisations and a range of public servants focus on the needs and interests of children and families who are in difficulty. If we do that, we have the best chance of addressing the challenges that they face. That is my plea, and I am delighted with the degree of cross-party support that has come forward for the work of the care review; it is well justified by the nature and significance of the challenge, and I look forward to working with colleagues to do as much as we can to secure that objective. I remain open to the contributions of members of other parties on how we can do that most effectively.

The cabinet secretary knows that the Liberal Democrats support the work of the care review.

Research on the pandemic indicates that 18 to 24-year-olds are most likely to have lost work or income. Although young people have relied on the safety net of moving in with family, care-experienced young people do not always have that support, which others take for granted. What early work has been done to consider the consequences of the pandemic for care-experienced young people, and are the support systems up to recognising and responding to their circumstances?

Many of those issues need to be addressed within the specific considerations of employment support, but it is not only about employment support because, as Beatrice Wishart fairly points out, there can be a collateral implication of loss of employment and on the inability to sustain housing and if an individual loses housing, they move into a turbulent and volatile period. The advice and guidance that we have issued, and the practice that I have seen emerging from a range of organisations, is all designed so that we have that holistic support that addresses the needs of individuals and ensures that their unique circumstances as care-experienced individuals can be properly and fully addressed, so that they can go on to have successful lives despite the fact that they may have a negative experience of the loss of employment as a consequence of the pandemic.

I will follow up on Beatrice Wishart’s question. What work is being done to understand the particular impact of the lockdown on care-experienced young people? We all fear that it may be disproportionately detrimental to them. What specific actions are being taken to support care-experienced young people as they return to school—and indeed to ensure that they do return to school—of if they are going on to further or higher education or are facing the challenge of joining the world of work? Will specific resources be provided to ensure that that support is real for care-experienced young people?

It is critical in how we respond to the economic difficulties that have been created by the pandemic that we address the particular circumstances of young people with different background experiences, and that obviously includes those with the experience of care. In the equalities work that the Government is taking forward to make sure that our response adequately addresses all the issues that were identified in the equalities assessment, it is vital that we turn that into practical reality.

We will obviously engage the care review team on what interventions can make the biggest difference in supporting young people with experience of care to enter the labour market or, if necessary, pursue other training and educational opportunities. That is a course of action that will have to be taken by a range of individuals, given the level of economic disruption and the level of unemployment that we expect. We have to focus on the experience of those individuals and we have to recognise that history tells us that in an economic downturn, those furthest away from the labour market in good times will be even further away from it in tough times. We have to ensure that care-experienced young people do not take that route.

What measures will the Scottish Government use to track progress on implementing the recommendations in the report of the independent review of care and will the Scottish Government report to Parliament on that?

We have accepted that there should be an annual report to Parliament and that the oversight board should be very challenging if it does not believe that sufficient progress has been made in a timely fashion to address the recommendations. The Government willingly volunteers for that scrutiny.

Thank you, everyone. That concludes the ministerial statement.

15:46 Meeting suspended.  

15:55 On resuming—