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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 18 March 2020

Agenda: Business Motion, Covid-19 (Economy), Covid-19 (Supporting our Communities), Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Motion, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Covid-19 (Supporting our Communities)

The next item of business is a statement by Aileen Campbell on Covid-19 and supporting our communities. The cabinet secretary and her colleagues will take questions at the end of the statement, so there should be no interventions.


Yesterday, the First Minister told the Parliament that we are facing an unprecedented situation that requires an unprecedented response, at scale and pace, to help people who are most at risk in our community. I want to be clear to the chamber and to the citizens of Scotland that our actions will be guided by doing all that we can to protect the health, welfare and wellbeing of the people of Scotland.

We are in the midst of a worldwide public health emergency that is now being strongly felt here in Scotland. None of us has gone through anything like it before, so we need to respond in new ways. That means being flexible, adaptable and ready to respond to challenges as they arise. We want to show our support to all sectors and people in Scotland, and that support will be provided through funding, through communication and through our actions. Scotland’s response to the pandemic will require everyone—councils, the third sector, businesses and communities in their widest sense—to work together and to step up to the challenge.

The First Minister, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the chief medical officer have already clearly set out the groups whose health is most vulnerable to Covid-19, and whom we are looking to shield most urgently. We will be working with third sector partners that have contact with, and already support, those who are clinically vulnerable to ensure that people receive the right advice on what precautions to take. Those who support them will also have the best information available on how to keep people safe.

Our focus, of course, will be on the people and communities that are most at risk financially and socially. However, wider society will also need our help, and we must recognise that many people will not be used to asking for or accessing such support. This pandemic will disrupt lives like never before, and it will cause financial hardship and have a negative impact on our wellbeing. Actions might include ensuring that people can access funds or food in times of financial crisis, that homeless people are looked after, and that people are not lonely or feeling cut off with nowhere to turn if they are social isolating or social distancing.

We will do our utmost to respond but, as the First Minister said yesterday, we need to be open and transparent and to acknowledge that we will not always get things right. However, people should be assured that protecting and supporting our people during these unparalleled times is the absolute focus of the Government.

As a Government, we know that we must respond differently in these exceptional times, and that we cannot do that on our own. Therefore, we will work with partners and organisations in all sectors to ensure that those who are able to step up and support people and communities are enabled to do so by the Government. The nature and scale of the pandemic mean that a dynamic and adaptable response is required, so our funding package will be focused on delivery, not bureaucracy, and support, not red tape.

We want all sectors, whether the private, public or third sector, to think about what they can do. Our collective response will be directed by the fact that local authorities, local businesses, community groups and the third sector know and understand the support needs of their communities the best.

Today, on behalf of the Scottish Government, I will announce significant resources. However, let me be clear that, unless we work with local partners, the impact of our investment will not be felt by those who need it most, so my message today is that, if we can help our partners to help the people of Scotland, we will. Our partners should tell me their solutions or ideas to help those most in need, then we can work together to provide at pace the support that is required to do that.

I announce today that the Scottish Government will be making £350 million available to support people in need.

The £50 million in Barnett consequentials from the United Kingdom Government’s hardship fund is being passed directly to local authorities to support their local resilience and hardship plans. The hardship fund for councils in England will be going to shore up their depleted welfare funds and provide more council tax relief. However, for two reasons, that will not happen in Scotland. First, we have maintained our support for the council tax reduction scheme over the past few years. Secondly, we will provide additional funds to support the scheme, if necessary, thereby freeing councils to use this money to directly address their local needs in the best ways that they see fit.

We will also provide an additional £45 million for the Scottish welfare fund, which is administered by our partners in local government and which makes community care and crisis grants available to those in need in times of crisis and emergency. That more than doubles the current £35.5 million fund and will be accompanied by an increase in flexibilities and new guidance to make sure that the fund is able to fully support people in times of financial crisis.

We have a robust council tax reduction scheme in place that is already supporting more than 450,000 people and is ready to support more. Of that £350 million package, £50 million will go towards supporting the increased demand for Scottish social security benefits and the increased cost of the council tax reduction scheme that we expect to see.

We will establish a £70 million food fund to support households—including those of older people—who might be worried about accessing food, whether due to an income drop or self-isolation. Local authorities will be able to use funds to support those who receive free school meals and to work with all organisations in all sectors, including community groups and local businesses to co-ordinate the response. Funds will also be available to support strategic national activity.

We will provide £50 million for a wellbeing fund to provide support to our third sector partners in the main—but others, too—that will require additional capacity to deal with, for example, the societal challenges that are caused by self-isolation or distancing, which may compound the vulnerability of those who are already living in difficult circumstances, such as those experiencing fuel poverty or those at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

A £40 million supporting communities fund will be established to underpin the inspiring work that is already under way in our neighbourhoods and communities, which will prove essential to our nation’s resilience.

A £20 million third sector resilience fund will be established to help our valued third sector cope with cash flow and business health.

Finally, we will keep £25 million in reserve to allow us to flexibly respond and react with agility to the challenging times ahead that we cannot at this point plan for.

It is with such flexibility and responsiveness that we will respond to those who are seeking to help others. Just as we are responding nationally as a Government, we know that groups and organisations large and small want to do the same. In many cases, they are already planning their response so that they can support those who they work with every day and their local communities.

Some have already approached us with their plans and sought our assistance. I will provide three examples of us agreeing funding today to let that support start immediately.

Last week, Age Scotland asked whether we could help it with a significant expansion of its helpline to increase its capacity to deal with a rise in the number of calls from about 100 a day to around 1,500 a day. Today, the First Minister announced that we are providing £80,000 to allow Age Scotland to provide that essential support to older people.

I am pleased to confirm today that we will be working in partnership with Social Bite to enable free food and essential supplies to be delivered to organisations working with those in need in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. We have made £500,000 available for that initiative, which will provide up to 3,000 meals daily and will be up and running by Friday.

We also want to help local grass-roots organisations. The Health Agency, which is a small grass-roots organisation in Wester Hailes—one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh—asked us today for assistance to allow it to establish a volunteer buddy system that will provide a check-in phone call to people in their community, to ensure that crucial social connections are maintained and to provide food packages for the next three months to around 400 families in a community where around 85 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals. We said yes to the £65,000 that the Health Agency needs to work with the partners that it has lined up to take forward that response.

Those are just three examples of organisations large and small that are stepping up when society needs them; we will support them to do so.

We are also taking action to support people who rent their homes. This is a time for all landlords, whether in the social or the private sector, to be flexible and adaptable to their tenants at a time of national and possibly personal crisis. If tenants experience issues with paying their rent, they should go to their landlord and explain the issues. We, as a Government, and society as a whole, need landlords to help their tenants immediately as part of an overall society response. We cannot have people being made, or at risk of being made, homeless at this difficult time.

Today, we have written to social landlords to urge them to be flexible and to provide support and advice to tenants who experience financial hardship. We expect them to meet that challenge and support their tenants at this difficult time, when benefits might take time to be applied for or paid. We know that social landlords have their tenants’ interests at heart, and national and local government will work with them to help with their contingency and resilience planning.

In the private sector, landlords will need to be equally supportive during the public health crisis. We need to get the balance right between protecting tenants and ensuring that landlords can continue to provide housing. To support that, through legislation, we will address a temporary change in the current Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016. Currently, landlords can move to eviction if a tenant is in arrears for at least three months in a row and if at least one month of rent is unpaid. At present, first-tier housing tribunals will not uphold that if the reason for non-payment of rent is a delay or failure in the payment to tenants of welfare benefits, such as housing benefit or universal credit. That is a crucial part of our current legislative protection. The temporary change that we will make goes further and will increase that rent arrears period from the current three months to six months. We do not want private sector landlords to be disadvantaged by a lack of rent. However, the reality of what we face means that, if landlords do not support their tenants, it is not just the tenants who will be negatively impacted; all of society will pay the price.

Many landlords have mortgages, and the banks have agreed a three-month mortgage holiday. We commend that and we urge private landlords who need that facility to apply for it. However, we need more; we need that holiday to be increased to six months and to provide for all mortgages, including buy to rent. Therefore, we will write to UK Finance and the United Kingdom Government to urge them to move to providing six-month holidays for all mortgages. Such a move would help tenants and landlords across the UK who need that vital support. To paraphrase Fiona Hyslop from yesterday, just as the people helped our financial institutions at a time of crisis, now it is the financial institutions’ time to do the same.

That is our response to Covid-19 with regard to supporting communities. Using the powers that we have, we will build on the support systems that are already in place. We will step up our support, but we are aware that the safety net of statutory sick pay and 85 per cent of welfare benefit spending lie with the UK Government, including all policy and administration over income replacement benefits. Therefore, if they are eligible, I urge people to ensure that they get statutory sick pay. If they are not eligible and they have a fluctuating or reduced income or hours, or, unfortunately, have been made unemployed, I urge them to access universal credit, which is a benefit that covers a variety of elements, including income replacement and rent elements and child tax credits.

Many people might not have accessed the welfare benefits system before outside child benefit or a pension, but that is what the social security system is for. That is the social contract we pay into: we pay for the safety net so that it is available in our time of need. This is definitely our hour of need.

Given that it is a time of great need, and although we welcome the actions of the UK Government to date, there are actions that only the UK Government can take, because that is where policy and administration of sick pay and welfare benefits lie. The numbers of people who rely on them will increase.

I understand that the UK Government is considering ways to further support individuals. In that regard, now would be a good time for it to reconsider its approach to welfare and to look to increase child benefit, increase the levels of sick pay and increase universal credit. UC must be made more flexible. Hardship grants—not loans—need to be made available.

The UK Government must also lift the benefit cap, increase housing allowance rates and, most importantly, reverse the cap on children. I appreciate that those are suggestions that the UK Government has been opposed to in principle before, but these are not normal times and I would urge it to reassess those policies, given the unprecedented challenges that we face. I say that not to score political points but because of the impending and massive need to support those who are already in hardship and those who will be plunged into hardship because of the impact of the pandemic. If the UK Government takes those actions, we will welcome that unreservedly.

Among the many negatives that we are seeking to mitigate today, what gladdens my heart are the countless acts of kindness and empathy that I have seen on display. There is no getting away from the fact that this is an uncertain time for everyone, including the Government. Life as we know it is postponed. We need to get used to a new normal. Although there is a medical need for social distancing, we cannot—we must not—forget that connectedness and kindness help to sustain our wellbeing.

Our communities are strong and they are resilient, and it is that strength, along with a deep desire to help, that is motivating so many groups, charities, organisations, businesses and, importantly, individuals, to do what they can to look out for one another, particularly those most at risk. That community response has been fantastic, is to be commended and is to be emulated. We know that people will want to help others and we know that we need to keep people safe.

Our first step has been to establish the funding packages that I have just outlined to the chamber. Our next step will be to move to directly work with partners and community groups to ask how they can help harness that community spirit, to back up the measures to support people that I have outlined and to fill the gaps in lives that people may now face.

We will work fast to provide advice and information on how the public can help to fulfil that urge and determination to help, because I have seen that it is there in abundance and we need to harness it for the public good. We need to provide a safety net for people experiencing hardship, and we also need to provide a community safety net for people without close families or friends nearby to help them through these challenging times. If any groups or organisations can safely support others in their community—whether it is with befriending phone line services, helping people with the messages, walking the dog or other things that might help people cope with the social isolation and loneliness that they could now face—we encourage them to do so.

We are also aware of the pressures that will be created by people staying at home and the potential impact for services that offer support for victims of gender-based violence. We are offering weekly teleconferences with stakeholders to review impact and demand on services. Information on the support services that are available will be widely disseminated.

Scotland’s response to tackling Covid-19 will primarily and rightly be a medical and scientific one, but the human qualities of kindness and empathy are critically important to helping our country emerge from this tough challenge.

I look forward to members’ questions.

I believe that, as well as the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People will also be available to answer questions.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. That was useful.

I want to make a small suggestion. Because we are in this crisis—it is a crisis, and a fast-moving one—it would be useful if both cabinet secretaries were to have weekly or maybe more-than-weekly conversations with spokespeople from other parties, so that, when we get to statements such as this one, we are all on the same page and are all buying into what the Government is doing. That is exactly what we want to do. As Jackson Carlaw has said, we are all in this together and we all need to pull together and work together. That is a genuine offer, and I hope that it is taken up.

I welcome what is in the statement—the announcement of extra money and of various new funds—and agree that we need to act quickly.

I want to ask about two areas: homelessness and rents. In the statement, there were a couple of mentions of the homeless, but no great detail. At a time when winter night shelters such as the one at the Glasgow City Mission are closing, I would like to hear about alternative accommodation for homeless people. Given the situation that we are in, we do not necessarily want homeless people to be in shelters, but there should be somewhere else for them to go. Will the cabinet secretary address that?

People who fail to pay their rent because they are suddenly put into financial hardship due to the virus could end up homeless. I welcome the news that the cabinet secretary wants to change the legislation, but will she say how quickly that will be done? I know that we are up against it with regard to the parliamentary timetable. Has she spoken to landlord organisations about the matter? There is a risk that landlords will get out of the private rented sector, and we would not want to see that.

I appreciate the constructive points that Graham Simpson has raised. In response to his plea for us to continue to work with and inform Opposition members, I say that I and Shirley-Anne Somerville will absolutely work as best we can and establish a rhythm of ways in which we can keep everyone—most importantly, possibly, the Opposition spokespeople—updated and informed I hope that he understands that some of this has been pretty fast paced, so it might not have been as easy as usual to ensure that information flows to Opposition spokespeople, but from now on we will keep them updated.

On homelessness, I covered a range of points in my statement, but we absolutely want to make sure that we are supporting people who are homeless and sleeping rough. We have already announced, for instance, the £500,000 to Social Bite in relation to the provision of food. On the closure of the winter night shelter in Glasgow, we are absolutely making sure that there are resources to help with that. We are also exploring and developing plans to increase capacity in the coming days, including through the use of hotel bed spaces and vacant student accommodation. We are trying to explore everything to find ways in which we can support people who need to self-isolate, and ensure that they can do so safely.

On Mr Simpson’s question about people who rent, the legislation will need to move pretty quickly. It will be a fast-paced bit of legislation and we will implement it as quickly as Parliament can enable. Of course, it helps that the Opposition parties are indicating that they are fairly supportive of it. That will enable us not only to ensure that we have the appropriate scrutiny but to legislate quickly to meet the needs of the people. Kevin Stewart has engaged with and written to a range of stakeholders about the provisions that we need to introduce on housing, homelessness and the rented sector more generally.

I thank the cabinet secretary and ministers for all that they are doing in the crisis. However, I think that the Government should go much further, and I want to set out where I think we should go.

The first thing is that tenants are going to be extremely vulnerable. The cabinet secretary knows that, and she has set out the reasons why she agrees with that. However, will the Government look at an approach that broadly mirrors what we are doing for mortgage payers? There should be no evictions across the board, regardless of housing tenure. That is the approach that we need to try to take. As the cabinet secretary said, there will be mortgage holidays for those who buy to let, but that needs to be passed on to tenants.

The cabinet secretary is right with the approach that she has taken with landlords, but it must be harder to evict. We want to talk about the cabinet secretary’s proposal in detail, because we do not think that it goes far enough. We believe that the whole amount needs to be uplifted. We can see what she is trying to do with the extension from three to six months, but if someone is one month in arrears, they will still be caught out. We want the period to be extended, and we want to discuss that with the cabinet secretary.

We believe that the pre-action protocols that are in place for mortgage holders should also be considered for renters, to mirror that provision. The objective would be to prevent people from going into arrears and building up huge debts. That is a huge issue. We also believe that rent breaks are essential and should be common practice. I would like to discuss with the Government how rent breaks could become a central feature for renters during this period.

In the social sector, where we might think that it would be easier to provide rent holidays, local authorities are appealing for the Government to say whether it will underwrite that in some way. The concern is that, if a rent holiday is given in the social sector, that will have an impact on local authorities.

I thank Pauline McNeill for her questions and the points that she has made. Generally, we agree that people should not be evicted because of this pandemic. We are seeking to do that through the legislation and the details that I set out in my statement. That is absolutely a place of agreement. We do not want people to be evicted. There should be no evictions during this period, when we are trying to cope and deal with the pandemic, the impact that it has on people and the risk of that impact for people’s mental health and wellbeing.

We will continue to engage. If members have ideas and thoughts that they want to share, we will continue to engage with them and have that discussion.

We also need to make sure that we align the provisions that I set out with the wider benefits system. We need to make sure that people are getting all that they need and are entitled to, in order to support them during this time, when people might be plunged into financial hardship. That approach can route people to other passported benefits and help them to keep their financial resilience intact.

We will continue to engage with social landlords and local authorities. I have announced a package of support measures that should be considered in order to ensure that people who are living in social rented accommodation do not have the fear of eviction over their heads or financial vulnerability placed on them if they have challenges in meeting their rent. A range of measures is in place, together with a significant and sizeable chunk of money. We also have a bit in reserve, so if some of those issues require us to put a bit of extra resource into other areas as the pandemic continues, we will be able to do so.

We need to be adaptable and agile. On the whole, we agree that no evictions should happen, and one way in which we believe we can make sure that there are none is through the legislation that we propose today.

I have two questions for the cabinet secretary. She has mentioned changes to the private rented sector. I have constituents who have received notices to quit, under either parts 1 and 2 of schedule 2 to the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988 or parts 1 to 4 of schedule 3 to the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016. Does the cabinet secretary agree that we should have emergency legislation to suspend those parts of private rented legislation, in order to put into effect what she has just said, which is that she does not want any evictions to take place?

Secondly, the health secretary, the economy secretary and Ms Campbell, just a moment ago, have said that we are in an emergency. I have spoken to colleagues in local government. As the cabinet secretary is aware, local government is a category 1 responder under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. I am aware that local government has been asking the Scottish Government for very specific powers this week. When do the Scottish ministers plan to invoke the emergency powers under the 2004 act to enable councils to respond quickly and flexibly to a wide range of responsibilities?

We have outlined today a package of measures that we believe will bring about the thing that we are all united behind: to ensure that there are no evictions. Again, if Andy Wightman wants to feed in his thoughts, we can look at that, but we believe that this is a practical and pretty swift package of measures that will enable us to ensure that there are no evictions. That is our intent and that is what we aim to see happen.

With regard to local government’s involvement in that resilience, both the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers are involved in the wider Government resilience discussions and meetings that we are having. We are in close contact with local authorities, at SOLACE and COSLA levels, to make sure that they understand what we, as a national Government, are doing and how we can help and support them, and we are discussing what they are doing through their local resilience plans to respond to community needs.

We can discuss the dynamics of what that might mean or look like. We are open to anything. We are not going to be precious about any of this. We need to respond quickly to the needs of our country. That requires us to be bold, imaginative and innovative, and to be a bit uncomfortable at times about what that might mean.

If local authorities want to continue to ask for those things, and they feel that they are not getting the response that they require then, by all means, we will continue that dialogue. However, members should be assured that we are already in dialogue with COSLA and SOLACE regularly, at the top resilience level.

These are sensible measures, but we might need to return to the issue when the chancellor delivers his promised statement to renters. As that might change the environment significantly, perhaps we could come back to this and revise what we are doing.

I want to ask about the bins. How do we ensure continuity of waste collection, and are private skip companies being contacted to assist in these circumstances?

As I indicated to Andy Wightman, we are in regular contact with COSLA and SOLACE. We understand that local resilience plans are looking at all those things—at how we keep society functioning as we cope with this pandemic, which is unprecedented in its nature. Let us not forget that that is the case. We are trying to respond to something that none of us has ever had to respond to. However, those are the basic questions that people are likely to start to ask. It is unfortunate for the many people who are collecting the refuse that they cannot work from home. It is something that they need to do in person, in our communities.

The local resilience plans will accommodate all that. We will continue to ensure that the flow of information is shared where required and that, if people have concerns about their local areas, we can provide reassurance that we can keep society ticking on at the moment, in the way that we need it to, so that people can feel comforted that things are moving in the right way and that their homes are kept clean.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement. I have advised all my staff to familiarise themselves with its contents and to stand ready to signpost our constituents to the right help. It would be very helpful if all members of the Scottish Parliament could be sent an email that includes links to all the funds and mechanisms that have been mentioned, so that we can disseminate the information as needed.

My question is about fuel poverty. We have all received emails from people who have lost their income overnight, perhaps as a result of being on a zero-hours contract. I ask what the Government is doing to ensure that those people are not fuel poor. Can the cabinet secretary outline what is being done to help people pay their gas and electricity bills, so that they can keep warm?

I responded to that question, in part, in the discussions that were had yesterday on some of the actions that we have to take forward, particularly with the energy companies. Energy companies will have a huge role to play in fuel poverty-related issues.

We are engaging with Energy UK on vulnerable energy consumers, and we were in contact with them today to get an update on their work. We have also asked stakeholders—Home Energy Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland and others—to advise Government officials if they become aware of any people who may experience fuel poverty related to the pandemic. We continue to be involved with energy officials and suppliers to ensure that we can respond proactively.

There are also other measures outlined in my statement that may be of assistance, such as the Scottish welfare fund and other emergency measures that people can access. We hope that, with the flexibility that we want to attach to those, people will be able to get money and a response easily and quickly, should they need it.

The point that was made earlier is also very valid. As I am on Twitter and other social media, I am conscious that lots of helplines are coming out, from third sector organisations and from the Government. They are creating quite a lot of clutter for people who might want to navigate the system. I take that point on board. We will see whether there is a way that we can try and corral those resources into a much better place, so that people can easily access the information, direction and guidance about where they need to go to get swift, quick help.

I too thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of her statement.

As part of their recovery, rehabilitation and wellbeing, our vulnerable armed forces veterans rely very heavily on groups that meet at their local veterans centres. In some cases, those groups even prevent suicide. Veterans could be at risk due to the centres being closed on Government advice. Support and protection of both veterans and the wider population’s mental health is of great concern during this time of increased isolation.

Homelessness is also an issue for our veterans. I was pleased to hear the cabinet secretary’s comments about action that she will take, along with the housing minister. I welcome that support.

What will the cabinet secretary do to ensure that a safe alternative form of support can be offered to our veterans over the next period, in place of the closed veterans centres?

I appreciate that the member has a strong interest in veterans and does them a real service by continually acting as their champion in this Parliament.

The member’s question gets to the nub of what I hope was clear in my statement, which is that we are not necessarily always going to be the direct answer to such issues, although we support organisations that are well placed to provide the support that he described.

If the member knows of groups and organisations that can step up to help people in their communities but require a bit of support to do so, I ask him please, through his contacts, to let them know that this door is open and we want to support them to do the work that they do well, which might need to be rejigged and refocused so that they can support people who might have been used to more social gatherings—for example, support might be provided online, in phone calls or in a host of other ways. I ask him to encourage such organisations to get in touch with us quickly.

Personal protective equipment has rightly been provided for hospital and general practice staff. However, as far as I am aware, no such provision has been made for the high street pharmacy staff, including counter staff, who serve our communities. Anyone with symptoms can walk into a community pharmacy and say, “I have a fever and a sore throat; can you take a look?” What protection will the Scottish ministers put in place to help pharmacy staff, given that pharmacies will be required to remain open during this crisis?

That is a real and pertinent issue. We will raise the matter with Jeane Freeman, to ensure that community pharmacists’ concerns are addressed. I think that she answered questions yesterday about protective equipment for GP surgeries.

We need to ensure that when the health service, in its broadest sense, is asked to respond, staff feel that they are being kept safe and protected. I will ensure that Jeane Freeman and her health colleagues undertake to respond to Mr Gibson.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her comment, in response to Gillian Martin, about access to advice, which will be useful. I am glad that she was so positive on that.

The cabinet secretary rightly mentioned the prevention of homelessness. I am interested in hearing more about what can be done to eliminate homelessness, given the particular vulnerability of homeless people to Covid-19 and the need to avoid the spread of the virus.

Constituents have written in to say that they would be interested to know whether vacant homes and tourist accommodation could be used to house homeless people and to try to deliver the long-term change that is needed if we are to eliminate homelessness.

What support will be available to people in the third sector who are working hard to support and protect their volunteers as they act to support homeless people?

We are exploring whether we can use hotel spaces, vacant student accommodation and other currently vacant places where homeless people might be able to go to self-isolate safely if they require to do so. Resources for hand gels and sanitisers have been provided to keep people on the front line safe, but if members hear or detect that that is not happening, I ask them to let us know, so that we can try to rectify the matter as soon as we can.

I point more generally to the third sector resilience fund. Along with businesses, a lot of third sector organisations will be feeling vulnerable about their business models and ability to continue. We have outlined a package of support that third sector organisations can tap into, along with support to enable them to refocus what they do to respond to the pandemic. We hope that that package of measures and practical support with resource indicates the value that we attach to what the third sector does in our communities.

The third sector will be one of the hardest hit sectors during the crisis. I very much welcome the resilience funds that have been set aside.

What action will the Scottish Government take, along with providing that financial support, to ensure that no voluntary organisations are forced into insolvency because of the cash flow difficulties that they will face?

How we can continue to support our third sector and social enterprise during this uncertain time is uppermost in our minds. That is why we have made available a £20 million package for us to support some of those groups financially. They need to let us know if they require that support. We also have some additional reserves in place, so that, if other things emerge, we can adapt and change our approach. I hope that that gives the member the reassurance that he is looking for.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement. It is absolutely necessary to ensure that our population can continue to access essential food and goods in the supermarkets. How will the Government ensure food resilience, particularly in rural areas, for those who require emergency food but cannot get out of their houses because of self-isolation or illness?

That is an incredibly important question. At the basic level, we want to keep people warm, safe and fed. Food resilience will be critical in the months ahead. That is why we have put in place a £70 million food fund to support families that would otherwise be unable to access food. That will also help us to cover some of the necessary support for free school meals and those older people who might also be vulnerable to food insecurity.

Some of that will also support community endeavour. I know that lots of community organisations in the region that Emma Harper represents will already be thinking about how they can help their communities to cope with food insecurity, how they can get food parcels to different people, and how the food banks might want to respond to that need. That is exactly what we want to hear, so that the food fund can get out to the communities that we know need the help.

We also understand that there will be particular logistical challenges in our more rural areas. We want to use that £70 million food fund to respond to that need, to respond to that community endeavour and, when we need to, to work with local authorities to meet the needs of those families that might be vulnerable and of those older people who might require extra support at this time.

If Emma Harper knows of some organisations that she believes can be part of that response, she should let us know.

The cabinet secretary rightly talked about the importance of volunteers at this crucial time. Does she share my disappointment that lifesaving volunteer first responders across Scotland were stood down last night by the Scottish Ambulance Service because of the concerns that I asked about yesterday about the lack of personal protective equipment? That is a real loss as we try to deal with the effects of this pandemic.

I will also give two quick local examples that relate to the food issues that have been raised. Loaves and Fishes in East Kilbride has had to close its doors because of a lack of supplies. It uses cash donations to buy food in local supermarkets, but it has found that the shelves are empty. The organisation is also worried about the safety of its volunteers.

Hamilton churches drop-in centre provides vulnerable people with hot meals in the evenings. It has also closed its services. We have volunteers who want to be present in the evenings and take part, but they are worried about the best way of going about that. What advice and support can the Government give to those local groups and many others that are ready and want to respond but which are finding that they are already facing barriers?

I thank Monica Lennon for raising local issues that perhaps highlight some of the challenges that we will have to find ways of working around.

On our £70 million food fund, we have not ruled out purchasing food ourselves. We did some of that during our preparations for Brexit when we worked with FareShare to make sure that food was in place in case we had to respond to food insecurity issues that might have arisen. Thankfully, we did not have to use all those plans, but they mean that we have a network in place that can respond to some of the issues that Monica Lennon has raised.

We also need to recognise the work that Fergus Ewing is doing. He has engaged with a number of players in the food system to ensure that supply can continue. There is probably also a role for supermarkets, which are already responding to the panic buying that is happening across the country.

We are happy to work with the two organisations that Monica Lennon mentioned to see what we can do to provide support. We have money in place to respond at the pace and speed that are required.

We will look at the point about first responders. We do not want to lose volunteers at this point in time—we do not want that to be the message that goes out. It may be that we can use those volunteers as first responders in other ways that are not necessarily medical. We will continue to work with our colleagues in health to ensure that the army of volunteers, who will be necessary and critical in helping our country to cope, are valued and supported, and we will ensure that their determination to support others is enabled in all senses of the word.

My question is similar to the previous one. How can we and the wider public support the emerging and growing volunteer network to help those who are in isolation, and how can healthy local people get involved?

There are probably a number of ways in which we can help. As I have seen in my own constituency, simply sharing what local communities are doing is one very practical way to help. As a Government, we need also to enable volunteers to feel that they can respond—and do so safely. For instance, when we are supporting people through our homelessness work, we supply hand gel. We may need to consider such measures in order to keep people safe, so that they keep well and we do not compound any issues further.

We are already seeing a number of volunteer networks grow to support the needs of the community that they are part of. We would direct such organisations to the funding that we have announced today, to make sure that they get the support that they need to continue the work that they are doing in their communities.

One of the eligibility criteria for the Scottish welfare fund for a crisis grant is that a person cannot make more than three claims in any given year. Given the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves, and the significant hardship that is likely to be caused by coronavirus, will the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People waive that requirement?

I am delighted to confirm that that is the case. As well as the additional money that is going into the Scottish welfare fund, it is very important that we provide guidance about the new arrangements, and one of the most obvious areas for guidance is the example that Jackie Baillie gave of the three claims for a crisis grant.

As Aileen Campbell has said a number of times, if members wish to see flexibility in other areas of the Scottish welfare fund, please let me or my officials know. We are working on the updated guidance for local authorities and would be delighted to work with members across the chamber if there are other areas in the guidance that we should take forward.

I commend the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government on her statement. The £70 million food fund is especially welcome, but I am concerned that low-income families with schoolchildren, who will not be at school after Friday, might not be able to give them a hot meal each day.

Previously, most councils ran programmes during the summer holidays so that children could get a decent hot meal. Could we possibly ensure that pre-packed meals that can be heated are available for collection at local council offices or food banks, to help to feed our children during this crisis?

If schools are shut, we have a very real and pressing concern about what children who are entitled to free school meals do next. Local authorities are working hard to make sure that that need is met, and we understand that they are already thinking innovatively about how they will respond. We will not prescribe what the response should look like, as local circumstances will change from authority to authority. There will also be lots of examples of community action that will be well placed to support pupils and families across the country.

The need for food is why we have announced the £70 million to help support community endeavour and ensure that we help families that require extra support at this pressing time. We will continue to keep members updated, and I again ask members to keep us informed about where they see need and communities that require a bit of support.

All members know local third sector services, such as the recovery cafe close to my office, which is a lifeline to those who are suffering from addiction. Tackling isolation and loneliness is a key factor in the work of those organisations, which flies in the face of advice on how to deal with coronavirus. What advice and support can the cabinet secretary offer to those organisations, so that they can continue their vital work with some of the most vulnerable in our communities?

Brian Whittle raises an extremely important point. I am aware that there are a number of organisations that support people with addictions or mental health issues, which usually meet on a social basis. That also goes back to the point that Maurice Corry made about veterans.

We are ready to support organisations that are going to have to look at how they provide their service in a different way. For example, some are looking to meet digitally, but they might not have the technology to allow that; that may require funding. That is why we announced funding today both for small community organisations and for national organisations. There are different funding streams.

I repeat what Aileen Campbell said earlier and suggest that all members go back to the areas that they represent and speak to those types of organisation, asking them what they need and whether they have the ability to adapt, or staff up—which is challenging, as they might be going through a diminution in their staffing numbers. If they need additional support, the funds stand ready to assist them. We are very aware of the social isolation and loneliness aspect of the issue; that is a really important area that we need to tackle.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement.

In relation to people who have lost their jobs, who might be facing eviction, and who have never been in the benefits system, I was concerned that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance said, when she was asked about a helpline that would mirror the one for business, that that is a matter for communities.

Will the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government acknowledge that, if we do not get this right, it will have not just a social impact but a massive economic impact and that the people who are facing those challenges deserve the same rigour and certainty as business is being given? Furthermore, does she agree that that is not an add-on but is essential work that is at the heart of what the Government does?

On a practical issue, has the cabinet secretary had any discussions with the credit union movement about the role that it might be able to play in ensuring that people can access the emergency funding that they need?

I absolutely acknowledge the points that Johann Lamont has made. She is right: we must make sure that all the information is right and that it is appropriately signposted. Gillian Martin and Sarah Boyack also made such points.

We need to not see those issues in isolation from statements that have been made previously. In reality, we are working across the Government to ensure that co-operation and collaboration are happening.

We will make sure that there is appropriate signposting and that we can get the right advice to the people who need support and advice about employment rights. We have put packages and support helplines out there already—for example, the money talk team—so that people’s incomes are maximised and that they are directed to the appropriate places for additional financial support. We will continue to work to make sure that the process is streamlined, because people might feel that there are too many helplines, and we need them to go to the right one.

Although I have not had direct conversations with credit unions, my officials will be engaging with them because they should be able to access funding for third sector resilience, or other funding measures that we have announced today, to ensure their cash flow to enable them to respond to the needs of the communities that they serve.

As well as encouraging the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government to engage with the credit union movement, I ask her to respond to the Larder, which is a social enterprise in my constituency. It faces financial wipeout because 84 per cent of its income comes from catering training and employability contracts. Nonetheless, it wants to step in to reach and feed people who are at risk of hunger, and to advise people about how to cook, which is a crucial skill that I think will become more important.

At a very practical level, how can small local organisations such as the Larder quickly and easily access the range of support that has been announced today so that there is no wrong-door approach?

There is definitely provision in the third sector resilience fund to support social enterprises, and we are engaging with social enterprise partners on that. If the Larder has business needs with which it requires assistance, it should apply for that assistance.

The work that the Larder does blurs into the need to tackle food insecurity. It is exactly the type of organisation that should perhaps be looking to refocus what it does to respond to community need and to access funding that we have announced today so that it can step up, feed its community and provide additional guidance. We are familiar with the organisation, and it does that well.

We have just sent to the Deputy First Minister outline proposals for a home delivery service for young people who normally receive free school meals, so we warmly welcome the £70 million food fund. I have heard suggestions about cash compensation being dispensed to those families as an alternative to meals. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the Government’s intention is to ensure that all eligible children and young people receive a meal that is delivered to their home?

I will follow on from Emma Harper’s point about rural communities. As well as making best use of council staff such as bus drivers, for otherwise suspended services, can the cabinet secretary confirm that the Government will engage with the Royal Mail on its offer to become an additional emergency service? Between them, there is the infrastructure to reach every household in the country for the purposes of such a service.

I do not think that we will take a blanket one-size-fits-all approach to free school meals. For some families, perhaps cash in their pockets would be appropriate. All our work as a Government on tackling poverty is about ensuring that we get money into people’s pockets. It might be appropriate for other families to have meals delivered to them. If the Royal Mail is well placed to help us with that and it wants to work with us to do that, we will absolutely work with it.

We have also heard from third sector organisations. I know that I am not talking about exactly the same thing, but Social Bite, for instance, has said that it can get meals out pretty quickly to people who are vulnerable and homeless. We have heard about a range of third sector organisations and community groups that are doing likewise. Local authorities will also be finding their own solutions, which they will have in their resilience plans.

There might not be one answer to Ross Greer’s question; there might be a range of answers, but we have to trust our local authorities to find the right responses for their areas. They know their communities best. If Ross Greer thinks that support or more attention are needed, he can raise such issues in the regular dialogue to which we have committed.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the thousands of students who study in my Glasgow Kelvin constituency and beyond it who are not eligible to claim benefits and receive only student loans and grant support during term time. Those students would normally find work in hospitality or tourism, for example, over the summer months, to fund things such as rent and food. Given the current situation, will the cabinet secretary look to offer such students access to financial support?

I am more than happy to look for other flexibilities in the Scottish welfare fund that can be used, and at whether there are eligibility issues. However, we are limited in what we can do simply because we have powers over only 15 per cent of benefits, not the whole amount.

I am very aware that the Department for Work and Pensions and the United Kingdom Government as a whole are working at speed—as we are—to consider whether there are areas in which they need to build in more flexibility. I would be happy to pass on to them Sandra White’s suggestion about students to see whether anything can be done. I am very keen to work collaboratively and supportively with the UK Government on what we can do in Scotland. If such action can be taken only by the UK Government, I would be happy to share ideas on that.

This Sunday is mothers day, and many of us are already planning to include our older parents by Skyping them into what we are doing as families. That is what we have to do in this new reality, with many older people already being in self-isolation. Many older people in Scotland simply do not have the technology to be able to take advantage of Skype and other platforms that could include them in family events. Could some aspect of the wellbeing fund be used to purchase technological infrastructure to give to older people who are in self-isolation?

Alex Cole-Hamilton has suggested an interesting proposal. I will be happy to take that away and see what can be done. The challenge would be in how to deliver that in reality, because of the practicalities. We are keen to see what can be done for wider community activities to support older people if they do not have access to friends and family close by. I am happy to take that suggestion away and look at it very seriously. The practicalities might get in the way, but we might be able to come up with another solution to the challenge that Alex Cole-Hamilton has rightly raised. I am particularly cognisant that mothers day is coming up.

Across my constituency, unpaid carers will be facing an increase in a range of pressures in the months ahead. Can the cabinet secretary advise what steps can be taken to support carers who might have to self-isolate?

We are giving serious consideration to what can be done to support unpaid carers. We might look to social security, at Scotland or DWP level, to pick up some aspects of that. We are keen to work with the DWP on that.

Gordon MacDonald raises another challenge that is rightly causing concern to many carers who have been in touch with me—the question of what happens if they have to self-isolate or feel unwell themselves. Again, I reassure Gordon MacDonald that the health secretary and her officials are looking very seriously at what needs to be done to ensure that we continue to support people, particularly if carers are unable to deliver the care that they normally provide. I hope that we can reassure the member that we are very keen to look at that issue and that we take it seriously, because I know that it is of great concern to families across Scotland.

The debate has been very interesting and positive, but the reality is that many people in Scotland are not necessarily following proceedings in the chamber, accessing them through social media or reading Government press releases. They simply react to what they see on the national news and in the media.

Many elderly folk live alone and have no family, so they have to rely on our system. Has the Government considered doing a country-wide mass mail-out to every household with specific advice on who to call, so that they can pick up the phone and speak to someone if they are running out of food, need access to medicine or cannot top up their energy, for example? Many people are simply confused by the rapidly changing advice and they might not be following some of the good advice that we are getting from the Government today.

Absolutely. That is a key point that we need to look at. There is no point in setting up those funds if people do not know that they are available and that the support is out there. I hope that the member will be reassured that we are looking to put in place very quickly a nationwide marketing campaign that will build on the encouragement that we are trying to provide for volunteering, so that people know how to do that safely, and that will reassure older people that they can ask for assistance.

We are working with the UK Government on those plans because we are keen not to send out mixed and confusing messages and that the UK and Scottish Governments do not issue different marketing. We are working closely to share ideas. I hope that I can reassure the member that those plans are developing very quickly and that we will also put plans in place to support people and show them how they can access that support.

Following the assurances that the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government gave me yesterday about funding for food needs and community resilience being imminent, partners in Glasgow, including ng homes and Glasgow North West Citizens Advice Bureau, are today drafting an urgent bid and proposal in that regard. I am therefore delighted to hear of the £79 million food fund, the £50 million wellbeing fund and the £40 million supporting communities fund. The bid is likely to be substantial and to straddle all three funds. How will the Government manage that? Should the bid go directly to the Government and the cabinet secretary? If the bid is submitted this week, as we hope that it will be, how quickly will decisions be made and cash be paid out?

I thank the member for raising the good work that organisations in his constituency are doing. The honest truth is that the process just will be managed. We have said that we have to be adaptable and respond innovatively and quickly to need. It might be necessary to blur the lines between the funding pots, because there will, of course, be crossover between all the pots that we have announced today. If those organisations get their ideas into the mix, we can at least start to consider them and work out later how to route the funding.

Age Concern asked us for money last week. We have agreed that and it is now out the door, as was announced by the First Minister today. That is the kind of speed that we will have to work at. As I said at the beginning of my statement, sometimes we will not get things right, but we will endeavour to do what we can because we want to support the people who we are here to serve and represent. With that as our guiding principle, I hope that the decisions that we take are right and that they meet the needs of the communities and people we were elected to serve.

Will the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government consider liaising with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport about the possible issuing of guidance on taking fresh air and exercise outdoors for our physical and mental wellbeing? Can guidance be issued on which groups can go out for those reasons if they keep social distance?

Absolutely. We continually work across the Cabinet. Some of the issues that we have discussed today do not fit neatly into one ministerial portfolio. There is a collective effort across the Government to respond to the needs of our communities. The points that Claudia Beamish makes are absolutely correct. Although, on the one hand, we are talking about self-isolation, we also need to recognise the importance of exercise and activity—as a former sports minister, I am acutely aware of that. We want to get the messages right so that people can maintain their health, not only in terms of the response to Covid-19 but in terms of their wider wellbeing, of which physical activity is a big part.

As has been said, it is difficult to overestimate the impact that social isolation and loneliness can have on our health and wellbeing. There might even be people, such as the elderly, pregnant women or people recovering from addiction, for whom meeting in groups is an essential part of maintaining their wellbeing. Can the cabinet secretary suggest and give examples of ways in which such groups can implement innovative means of maintaining contact while exercising social distancing?

Some remarkable ideas are already being followed through on that, such as the community choir that Christina McKelvie told me about earlier—I do not believe that she is taking part in it, but others will be—and the accordion player up in Shetland that Aileen Campbell told me about yesterday, who is providing online festivities for older people. Innovation is happening, and that is without Government support. Today, we are announcing that, if the Government is required to step in to provide technology or support to allow such activity to happen on an even wider scale and for larger organisations, we absolutely stand ready to do that. Obviously, businesses are looking to do exactly the same thing and to move to online mechanisms where possible.

We need to encourage and support people to be innovative in dealing with the issue and to know that, as Aileen Campbell said in her statement, the Government is here and is ready and willing to support them as they innovate. That is an important message that we can take from today as we consider the social isolation that will occur in our society unless we tackle the issue head on.

The cabinet secretary will know that, as a result of Government policy and pressures on council budgets, many former council assets such as community centres have been transferred out of council ownership to be run by local trusts. The income of such centres is plummeting as events are cancelled on a daily basis. Their charitable status means that they do not pay rates anyway, so any new rates relief scheme will not help them. What will be done to ensure that those community centres are given support to maintain their cash flow? The centres that have contacted me have made it absolutely clear that, without such help, they will have to close down, which will mean jobs and important community facilities being lost.

Again, I point to the package of resources and measures that we have put in place. When we emerge from the current situation, the centres that Colin Smyth talked about will again become crucially important in ensuring the connectedness of communities.

Although none of the pots of money that we have announced today will respond directly to that particular need, we will take away Colin Smyth’s point and get back to him. We might need to be able to support such centres flexibly through the third sector resilience fund. We must think about community endeavour in its widest sense and recognise that, in some cases, there will be a business case for providing communities with such support. I hope that a way can be found for us to help communities that have already stepped up to the plate by taking on those assets and that now require us to support them to continue to run their centres.