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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 18 April 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Preventative Health Agenda, Business Motion, Decision Time, Addaction


Topical Question Time

Benefits and Welfare Eligibility (Reforms)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that United Kingdom Government reforms of benefits and welfare eligibility are unfairly impacting on women. (S5T-00509)

The UK Government’s welfare cuts are fundamentally unfair and are having a hugely damaging and disproportionate impact on women. Women are twice as dependent on social security as men are, and 75 per cent of the cuts since 2010 have come from the pockets of women.

New cuts that will come into force this month are all the more concerning because, in many households, women are the primary, or even sole, carers of children. Of in-work families receiving child tax credits, 87 per cent are women, and of all the single-parent in-work families receiving child tax credits, 94 per cent are women. Therefore, these cuts represent a massive step backwards for equality for women right across the UK.

When it comes to the Tories’ appalling policy of limiting child tax credit support for children unless a woman can prove that she was raped, does the cabinet secretary agree with the position of Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid, which have refused to be third-party assessors for that vile policy, along with many other organisations in Scotland and Northern Ireland that have roundly called for it to be scrapped?

The heinous policy to limit child tax credit support for children, particularly the exemption that requires a woman to prove that she was raped, is completely unacceptable, deeply harmful to women and their children, and a fundamental violation of women’s humans rights. There are no circumstances under which it can be acceptable for a woman to have to disclose that she has been raped in order to access social security for her child. The UK Government must scrap the policy as a matter of urgency. It is anti-women, anti-family and fundamentally wicked. I totally understand the position of the many organisations that have refused to support the policy. I very much agree with the joint statement by Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid that

“the problem is not that organisations are unwilling to change their service to help operate the family cap and rape clause ... The problem is the policy, and this is what must change.”

Before I ask my next supplementary question, I pay tribute to Alison Thewliss, who has campaigned on the issue for the past two years. Suddenly, everyone else seems to be waking up to the fact that this is going on. Given that tax credits are provided to working families who are on low incomes, will the cabinet secretary estimate the effect that the policy might have on child poverty in Scotland and on the in-work poverty of women with children?

I, too, pay tribute to Alison Thewliss MP, who has worked hard across the political divide to build as much consensus as possible on this much-hated policy.

At the end of the day, it is the children who will be most affected. Our efforts to reduce child poverty across Scotland will be made all the harder as the Tories in Westminster continue their assault on the poor. It now seems as though Theresa May wants to continue that assault for another five years.

By 2021, about £1 billion will be cut each and every year from welfare spend in Scotland, with a £0.2 billion cut coming from the changes introduced this month alone. The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that a three-child family will lose on average £2,500 a year; that families with four children or more will lose £7,000 a year; and that 4 million families across the UK will see their entitlements fall. By 2021, 50,000 households in Scotland will be impacted by the two-child cap on child tax credits.

The impact is massive; the reach is far and wide. There is no doubt that Tory policies will push families into poverty and crisis, so it is no wonder that they have scrapped their child poverty targets.

What exactly is the decision here that the cabinet secretary dislikes? Is it the decision to restrict child tax credits—a decision that is widely supported by taxpayers across the country, as I think that we will see in the forthcoming general election—or is it the decision to make a number of exemptions to that policy? If it is the former, the Scotland Act 2016 ensures that this Parliament has the power to do something about it, either through the top-up power or through the power to create new benefits. Does the cabinet secretary intend to use either of those powers? If not, why not, given her rhetoric on the matter?

There is nothing like a bit of rhetoric from the Tories or a bit of deflection from a policy that is anti-women, anti-family and fundamentally wicked. The policy violates women’s human rights. It is interesting that, rather than uniting with other parties in the Parliament to oppose a much-hated policy that is anti-women, anti-family and fundamentally wicked, the Tories would prefer to be apologists for and to defend that policy. Mr Tomkins always expects the women in the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to clear up his Government’s mess. As well as expecting the Scottish Government to mitigate his Government’s mistakes, he expects this Government, this Parliament and the people of Scotland to pay twice. Whether we are talking about the 15 per cent of social security spend that is in the process of being devolved to Scotland or the 85 per cent of the social security system that will remain reserved, we are all entitled to expect to have a social security system that is fair and which does not penalise women and children.

The policy is wrong not just for women and children in Scotland but for women and children right across the United Kingdom. If the Tories intend to save £12 billion from the cuts, they should pass on to Scotland our share of those savings so that we can make different choices—choices that are based on dignity, fairness and respect.

The family cap will push more women and children into poverty, and the rape clause is an indefensible policy that does not belong in a civilised society. The strong opposition that we are seeing to the reforms reflects the anger that exists to the changes.

Gillian Martin talked about the role of third parties and the strong stance that has been taken by women’s organisations. Will guidance be issued to the public sector? What is the expectation in terms of compliance in Scotland?

Claire Baker probably knows from what the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport said on the radio this morning that we are opposed to healthcare and other staff and specialist organisations being used by the Department for Work and Pensions to implement its policy. For the reasons that I have outlined already, we are concerned about the proposed third-party assessment model. We have grave concerns that no suitable infrastructure or training to support the implementation of the policy has been put in place by the UK Government, and none appears to be forthcoming.

It is extremely important that we do not expect our healthcare professionals to act as gatekeepers to the benefits system. The chief medical officer for Scotland has advised that she cannot agree to disseminate guidance, because she wants to seek the views of the professionals who are expected to act as approved bodies. She wants to get further information about unintended consequences. In addition, the widely publicised letter from the Royal College of Nursing to Alison Thewliss has raised many concerns.

Children (Physical Punishment)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent comments by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland on protecting children from physical punishment. (S5T-00516)

The Scottish Government does not support physical punishment of children. We have no current plans to introduce Government legislation in the area, but we will consider carefully the member’s bill that we understand John Finnie intends to introduce.

We continue to support positive parenting and we recognise that physical punishment can set children the wrong example and is not an effective way to teach children discipline.

It is perhaps worth reminding members what Tam Baillie said at the weekend. He told The Herald that his failure to see the law on justifiable assault of children being changed is

“the biggest regret of his eight years as children’s commissioner.”

It sets us apart from practice in most civilised countries and has led to sharp criticism from the United Nations.

We all share the ambition for Scotland to be the best country in the world in which to bring up children. Does the minister believe that we can justifiably claim such an ambition as long as we maintain the practice of physical punishment?

As I have stated, the Government does not support physical punishment of children. We take an approach that is about positive parenting and about ensuring that parents feel confident and empowered to take other approaches to disciplining their children. Evidence from the growing up in Scotland longitudinal study that the Government is carrying out demonstrates among parents in Scotland a significant shift in the attitude to physical punishment.

As I said, the Government does not have current plans to introduce legislation in the area, but we are aware that John Finnie will introduce a member’s bill on the matter, to which the Government will give careful consideration when the bill comes before Parliament.

I thank the minister for that further clarification. One of the criticisms of the proposed legislation is that it may seek to criminalise parents or to interfere unduly with family life. I believe that that criticism is misguided. As with the ban on smoking in public places and in cars when children are present—the legislation on which was introduced by my former colleague Jim Hume—this is about changing culture and practice. Does the minister agree that when Ireland recently introduced a similar change in its law, it did not result in parents being criminalised or being unable to control their children, and does he also accept that introducing equal protection against assault could help to reduce physical abuse of children in this country?

In Scotland, the area of legislation to which Liam McArthur refers predates both his and my time in Parliament. I believe that the legislation was piloted through Parliament by Jim Wallace, who was the Minister for Justice at the time. There was much debate in Parliament around the position that the Scottish Executive of the time took. We will always pay close attention to international examples and the experiences of other countries. As I have said already, the Government will give consideration to John Finnie’s bill when he introduces it to Parliament.

I hear everything that the minister has said, and Mr Baillie’s comments are a welcome contribution to our debate. The minister will be aware of growing support for equal protection from assault for children. I note the detailed comments that he made to Liam McArthur, and his reference to international examples. Is the minister able to indicate what priority the Scottish Government gives to the very clear position that the UN has taken on ending physical punishment of children?

The Government considers the findings in terms of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Work is taking place across all portfolios in the Government, including mine, looking at how we can ensure that the principles that sit behind the UNCRC are taken forward in the Scottish context.

Can the minister reassure families that they are the key part of our society and that parents are the key part of their children’s lives? Can he give examples of what the Government is doing to support families, parents and children?

The Government’s aspiration is that all Scotland’s children have the best possible start in life. As I said to Liam McArthur, we believe that the way to do that is to have parents who feel empowered and confident to support their children as they grow up. The Government is taking forward a number of different strategies in that respect—the national parenting strategy being the most obvious.

Also, as part of our children, young people and families early intervention fund, we have awarded £14 million to 116 organisations that support children, families and communities across Scotland. Within that, around £4 million has been allocated to organisations that work specifically in parenting and family support. The Government is committed to ensuring that parents across Scotland have the support and advice that are required to ensure that they can make positive impacts on the lives of their children and be a positive support to them as they grow up.

The minister will know that, in the past, the Scottish Conservatives have raised concerns that a smacking ban would criminalise parents. It seems that the ban that was introduced in New Zealand has not been wholly successful. In his response to Liam McArthur, the minister said that the Scottish Government is considering international examples, so can he advise Parliament what lessons the Scottish Government has drawn from the smacking ban in New Zealand, in particular in relation to false allegations and the risk of criminalising parents?

I would not single out any one example as being indicative of what may or may not occur in the Scottish context. Liam McArthur cited Ireland and Douglas Ross cited New Zealand. We can look broadly at international examples and determine what will be the right approach for Scotland. The Government currently takes the position that its approach is to promote positive parenting strategies, although we are nonetheless aware that Mr Finnie intends to introduce legislation to which we will, as a Government, give careful consideration when we see its detail.

Given the convincing body of evidence that shows that physical punishment can have a long-term negative impact on a young person’s mental health and wellbeing, can the minister tell me how he plans to work with the Minister for Mental Health to address that issue, and what action he is taking to ensure that the long-term impacts of physical punishment will be considered as a factor in the roll-out of the 10-year mental health strategy?

As I mentioned, we take a cross-portfolio approach to our responsibilities under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by looking at how each portfolio interacts with the convention’s requirements.

On Monica Lennon’s specific question about the mental health strategy, we will also be taking forward a child and adolescent health and wellbeing strategy, which will very much tie in with the mental health strategy and its long-term aspirations.

As I said in my initial answer to Liam McArthur, we recognise the negative impact that physical punishment can have, which is why we, as a Government, take the very firm position that we do not support it. The approach that we take is around promoting positive parenting, which we seek to advance through the work that we are progressing and the funding that we allocate.