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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 18, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 18 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Road Safety (Falkirk), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Shared Prosperity Fund and Levelling Up Agenda, Point of Order, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time

Good morning. I remind members about the Covid-related measures that are in place, and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The first item of business is general questions. In order to get in as many people as possible, I would prefer short, succinct questions and answers to match.


Disability Benefits (20m rule)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the “20m rule” within eligibility criteria for disability benefits is dignified, fair, respectful and consistent with the values of Social Security Scotland. (S6O-00396)

From the launch of our replacement benefit, we will be significantly improving how eligibility for adult disability payments will be decided, and dignity, fairness and respect will be at the heart of our approach.

We have also, rightly, prioritised safe and secure transfer of disability assistance to Social Security Scotland. Fundamental changes to the eligibility criteria during the period of transition would put the transfer of nearly 300,000 clients at risk, which is something that no responsible Government would do.

We have committed to a full-scale review of adult disability payment, which will explore how further changes can be implemented, following safe and secure transfer of the benefit.

No evidence yet exists that people who can walk more than 20m have less need for mobility support or that the 20m rule is an effective way to measure mobility. The rule does not take into account the fluctuating nature of many conditions. I, along with the MS Society and others, believe that until policy experts can look at the issue again, changing to a 50m rule in the qualifying criteria would not impact on passported benefits. Will the Scottish Government replace the 20m rule with the previous disability living allowance 50m rule in the interim? It is far from perfect, but it is a better measure than 20m.

As I set out in my first answer, safe and secure transfer of benefits will be critical in the period ahead. Disabled people have repeatedly told us that protecting their payments through safe and secure transfer is a key priority, as are passporting issues.

However, as I emphasised, our approach will be different. We will ensure that the impact on individuals of disability or health conditions, including fluctuating conditions, will be fully taken into account. We know that is not the case under the current system. We are introducing a person-centred way of making decisions on entitlement; we are removing degrading and inaccurate functional examinations and are putting an end to decisions being made on the basis of uncontested observations made by personal independence payment assessors. The approach of Social Security Scotland will be significantly different; I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government set that out in a letter to Pam Duncan-Glancy on 5 November.

On social security decisions, the minister will be aware that Tory and Labour Governments favoured private sector assessments that lined the pockets of the rich while letting disabled people down. Does the minister agree that that inhumane approach, which caused great misery, will have no part to play in our system in Scotland, which has dignity, fairness and respect at its heart?

That is in important point. We know that PIP assessments that are carried out by the private sector often cause a great deal of stress and anxiety to the people who are required to go through them. They also fail to produce accurate decisions, which prolongs stress for clients and costs the public more money in appeals.

We are scrapping that approach and removing degrading examinations. Instead of snapshot judgments, we will base entitlement decisions on a range of supporting information. In-house person-centred consultations will happen only when they are absolutely necessary. In contrast to PIP, choice and flexibility will be embedded in our system.

Questions and responses need to be quicker.

The minister has made it clear that there will be a review. Is he willing to commit today to the review’s decisions being implemented during the current session of the Scottish Parliament, and to their not having to wait for a future session of Parliament for implementation, which would make people with disabilities wait even longer to get the benefits that they are due? Will he commit to full implementation of review recommendations?

I have already talked about the importance of safe and secure transfer. It would be wrong for any Government to commit to implementing the findings of an independent review before the review has even commenced. We will take the recommendations of the review extremely seriously, but we will have to consider budgeting concerns and ensure that changes are accounted for.

The minister is setting a lot of store by the different approach to potentially eradicate the 20m rule’s downsides. Does he think that that approach will eradicate all the problems? If not, can he quantify what the issues will be?

Given time constraints, I would be happy to meet Mr Rennie to talk about the matter in more detail.

It is important that we make changes in delivery through Social Security Scotland while undertaking safe and secure transfer of existing cases and ensuring that we protect people’s passported benefits. The current time is crucial; we need to balance all the various considerations.


Veterans (Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what reassurances it can give to any veterans facing challenges in relation to their local healthcare, housing and accessibility needs. (S6O-00397)

Last year, we published our response to the veterans strategy, which set out our commitments through to 2028 to improve service delivery and support. We report progress against those commitments through our annual update to Parliament, which I delivered last week.

Furthermore, Scotland was the first country in the United Kingdom to establish an independent veterans commissioner, whose recommendations continue to assist—and occasionally challenge—our work, and ensure that wider policies are developed with the views of the veterans sector represented. I continue to explore additional measures that might be appropriate to provide further reassurance to veterans on those important concerns.

I am sure that many of us were touched in some way last week during the remembrance day events. I often think about my grandfather in particular, and how grateful I am to have known him and to have heard his witness of war before he passed. As we remember that past, we must not forget those who need help in the present.

In constituencies including Banffshire and Buchan Coast, a large armed forces community has specific housing needs. How will the Scottish Government ensure that the armed forces will continue to be taken into consideration as the housing sector deals with the challenges that the on-going disruption to supply chains causes, which will undoubtedly impact veterans disproportionately?

I associate myself with Karen Adam’s remarks about her grandfather, about those who have previously served and about the need for us to continue to remember them.

Through our affordable housing supply program, funding continues to be available to build homes that are specifically for veterans. I say “veterans” because responsibility for housing for people in the armed forces rests, as a reserved function, with the UK Government, although we will look to work with it.

When local authorities identify the housing issue as a strategic priority, we will work with them in relation to veterans. We are aware of the current shortages of materials and labour that parts of the construction sector face, and we continue to be advised of developments in that regard, as well as of impacts on the affordable housing supply programme. We are working closely with the construction sector, through the construction leadership forum, to understand and address the factors behind the issue.


Alcohol Licensing (Sales Data)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to reported calls for licensees to be required to provide alcohol sales data to their local licensing board. (S6O-00398)

Data on alcohol sales in Scotland is available through the Public Health Scotland annual publication, “Monitoring and Evaluating Scotland’s Alcohol Strategy”. That data from 2020 shows that the amount of alcohol that is sold per adult drinker in Scotland has fallen to its lowest level for the past 20 years.

The day-to-day administration of the alcohol licensing system in Scotland is the responsibility of the independent licensing boards. Operational decisions about specific requirements that fall on licensed premises, such as the data that should be ingathered to help to inform the development of each licensing board’s statement of licensing policies, is a matter for each individual licensing board to take a view on, based on the needs of its own locality.

Alcohol Focus Scotland has expressed to me that it believes that alcohol sales data is critical for assessment and development of effective policies to reduce the harms that alcohol causes. However, boards cannot get real-time data from license holders directly, and they are particularly concerned about receiving data from off-sales premises, particularly given the impact of the increase in off-sales during Covid restrictions. Could the Scottish Government look at the options, whether through legislation or other means, to compel license holders to provide the data directly to licensing boards?

I respect the view of Alcohol Focus Scotland, but I am not sure that that level of data is necessary to help us to assess the effectiveness of minimum unit pricing. We have in place data gathering to enable monitoring and evaluation of minimum unit pricing. More generally, that information on alcohol sales is available across Scotland.

I take the member’s point. There are likely to be some commercial sensitivities in obtaining the information that he has described at a local level, but once I have looked into the issue further, I will be happy to write to him with more information.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.


Smoking Reduction

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to emphasise the harmful effects of tobacco as part of its aim to reduce smoking and protect public health. (S6O-00400)

Our 2018 action plan commits us to interventions and campaigns aimed at discouraging smoking. We aim to make the practice less acceptable and protect others from the damaging effects of second-hand smoke. However, we are not complacent. In 2022, we will introduce an offence for smoking near hospital buildings. We will also continue to promote our free stop smoking services and other targeted media and social media campaigns. We have also committed to a refreshed tobacco action plan, which will include several new actions and interventions, as we continue towards our goal of raising Scotland’s tobacco-free generation by 2034.

The number of smokers across the country has almost halved in the past 20 years. Despite that drop, smoking continues to kill 10,000 Scots and creates 35,000 hospital admissions a year. Those who live in deprived areas are three times more likely to be smokers.

Across my constituency and in wider Fife, the smoking rate is 13.6 per cent. What action can the Scottish Government take to further raise awareness of the harmful impact of smoking as we continue to work towards our target of a tobacco-free generation by 2034?

The member is absolutely correct to highlight the fact that smoking rates continue to fall in Scotland, but we have more to do, and we need to focus that work in more deprived communities. There is a real health inequality around smoking and its impacts. We are determined to pick up that thread throughout our work on smoking.

Like the member, I am keen to highlight the impact of smoking in Scotland, where 180 people a week are still dying of smoking. It is the fifth most common contributor to preventable deaths. We will tackle that, and I am more than happy to work with the member to ensure that the programmes that we introduce work in his constituency as well as across Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s own 2019 Scottish health survey reported that the number of people in the most deprived areas of Scotland who smoke regularly is more than five times the number of people in the least deprived areas who smoke regularly. Given that there is a direct link between smoking and the increased likelihood of those from deprived areas experiencing ill-health or early death, does the Government think that it is doing enough to look specifically at reducing smoking in our most vulnerable communities?

I am aware of those statistics and I agree with Carol Mochan that we need to do as much as we possibly can and focus our attention on smoking in the most deprived communities.

As I have the opportunity, I want to say that stopping smoking is one of the most important steps that anyone can take to improve their health. The free smoking cessation service is available right across Scotland and I am keen for people to take steps towards stopping smoking in all our communities.

I would be grateful if members could pick up the pace, please.


National Health Service Workforce (Winter Pressures)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with trade unions regarding the impact of winter pressures on the national health service workforce. (S6O-00401)

The Scottish Government continues to have regular and extensive engagement with trade unions. In relation to the £300 million winter package, I met trade union representatives on 5 October, the day on which the package was announced. More recently, I also met with them at a round table earlier this month. Our partnership model is designed so that decisions are informed by health and social care partners and are in the best interests of patients and staff. The trade unions and staff representative organisations are key players in the decision-making process.

When I met Unison representatives at the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley last month, they described in detail serious concerns about staffing and disruption to local services. They were concerned about not just the workforce but the people they care for. I shared those concerns with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care in writing on 8 October, but I have yet to receive a response. Will the health secretary agree to meet those front-line workers, who can see the human impact of delayed screenings and appalling waits in accident and emergency, and explain to them why his recovery plan is not working?

I apologise to Neil Bibby if there has been a delay in responding to him. I met Unison just last week—forgive me; it might have been earlier this week. I am always more than happy to meet site representatives and staff. I look forward to visiting the RAH when it is appropriate to do so. I would be happy to do that, and to get a full response to Mr Bibby.

The feedback on the £300 million winter package that we announced is that it can make a substantial difference, if we are able to get people whom it is clinically safe to discharge out into care settings in our community.

In response to Mr Bibby’s question, I will, of course, be happy to visit the RAH when it is appropriate to do so.


Long Covid

To ask the Scottish Government whether it recognises long Covid as a disability. (S6O-00402)

A person is disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities. If long Covid has such an effect on an individual, they would be likely to be considered to be disabled under the 2010 act.

The Scottish Government encourages all employers to apply fair work principles and a flexible approach in dealing with the impacts of Covid-19 in order to protect the health and wellbeing of their workforce.

What conversations has the cabinet secretary had with his colleagues in Social Security Scotland to make sure that the appropriate benefits will be paid to those who have long Covid? Going forward, will the condition be defined in any guidance, so that tribunals and others, in making decisions, will be able to recognise it?

I will ask the cabinet secretary who has responsibility for social security to write to Jeremy Balfour on those specific issues. We meet regularly. Much of that work is done through the role of, and is the responsibility of, the Deputy First Minister.

We want to ensure that our social security system is based on dignity and respect. Jeremy Balfour and I will have many constituents coming to us who are suffering from the long-term effects of Covid and who will be out of work for the first time. Among the benefits that they will look to for help is the safety net of universal credit. Scottish National Party members, along with members across the Parliament, demand that the United Kingdom Government reverse its universal credit cut. It is not too late for it to re-establish the additional £20, which can make a big difference to people with disabilities and those who suffer from the long-term effects of Covid.


Economic Growth

To ask the Scottish Government what it considers to be the underlying strengths of any economic growth in Scotland. (S6O-00403)

Despite the damaging impacts of Brexit across many vital sectors, Scotland’s economy has significant strengths. We have a thriving tech ecosystem, and a renewable energy sector that provides quality jobs and opportunities for innovation. We have strengths in food and drink, life sciences, financial services and advanced manufacturing, as well as a strong skills and entrepreneurial base, all of which has made Scotland the United Kingdom’s top destination outside London for foreign direct investment.

We are pushing forward with an ambitious 10-year agenda of economic transformation to seize Scotland’s potential and deliver a more prosperous, fairer and greener wellbeing economy. Our national strategy for economic transformation will set out how we will deliver a green economic recovery and support new, good green jobs, businesses and industries for the future.

I note that the minister mentioned the damaging impact of Brexit on our economy. The chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility recently indicated that the impact of Brexit on the UK economy will be worse in the long run than the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Does the minister agree that it is high time that the UK Government provided the additional funding that was promised to Scotland to mitigate the impacts of a hard Brexit that people in Scotland did not vote for in the first place?

The UK Government’s Brexit deal has removed Scotland from a market that is worth more than £16 billion to Scottish exporters, and our companies now face additional costs, delays and barriers. As Mr Dornan has highlighted, the OBR’s latest forecasts show that leaving the European Union will reduce the UK’s potential productivity by 4 per cent in the long run. That compares with a reduction of 2 per cent as a result of the pandemic. We also know that, in the year up to June 2021, exports of Scottish goods fell by 24 per cent compared with the figure for the equivalent period in 2019.

I agree that the UK Government must provide the additional funding that was promised to Scotland to mitigate the harmful impacts of a hard Brexit, which people in Scotland did not vote for.