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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament 19 January 2022

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Fire Alarm Standards, Local Government Funding, Education and the 2022 Examination Diet, Standards Commission for Scotland (Appointment of Member), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Asda Foundation


Portfolio Question Time

Health and Social Care

Good afternoon. I remind members of 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 portfolio questions. I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and answers in order to get in as many members as possible.

Waiting Times (Conditions other than Covid-19)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce waiting times for patients with conditions other than Covid-19. (S6O-00626)

The First Minister and I launched the “NHS Recovery Plan 2021-2026” in August last year in response to pressures on national health service services that were caused by the pandemic. The plan sets out key headline ambitions and actions to be developed and delivered now and over the next 5 years. That is backed by more than £1 billion of investment over the next five years, of which £80 million has been invested in this financial year to support NHS boards to target the backlog of treatment and care.

Although it is important to stress that recovery and reducing waiting times for patients with conditions other than Covid is the immediate task, the plan is fundamentally about ensuring that the recovery process delivers long-term sustainability and alternative pathways of care that allow people to be treated more quickly and, crucially, closer to home.

The cabinet secretary pointed to the “NHS Recovery Plan 2021-2026”, which the British Medical Association warned on its release contained “worrying gaps”, and towards which little progress was made in the months before the omicron variant emerged as a significant concern.

In many areas, the pandemic has not created new problems but has exacerbated pre-existing issues. Weekly accident and emergency figures are the worst on record and there is continued poor performance on the 62-day standard for an urgent suspicion of cancer referral to first treatment. Almost 60,000 people have been waiting for treatment or diagnostic tests for more than 12 months.

Can the cabinet secretary tell me how long it will take for the delays and backlogs to be meaningfully tackled, and does he accept that although there might be more NHS staff than there were before, demand is higher? How will the Scottish Government tackle the backlogs without piling considerable additional pressure on existing staff?

Jamie Halcro Johnston is in genuine danger of denying the impact that Covid has had. I am not saying that there were no issues, challenges or problems pre-pandemic—of course there were. However, it would be equally ridiculous to suggest that the pandemic has not had a major impact—rather than a slight or marginal impact—on the NHS and the services that it provides.

I will not rehearse all the targets and ambitions in the recovery plan, but I note that, crucially, we intend to increase NHS capacity by at least 10 per cent to address the backlog of care. We will increase our funding to the NHS. The next financial year will see it getting a record settlement of more than £18 billion. We will continue to ensure that we have record staffing in our NHS and that the staff are the best-paid NHS staff in the United Kingdom.

As I said in my first answer, we want to ensure that there are appropriate alternative pathways that allow people to be treated as close to home as possible.

Getting access to primary care treatment is of fundamental importance. The health secretary will be aware of the challenges that NHS Lanarkshire faces, which are driven by demand and staffing pressures and have resulted in NHS Lanarkshire scaling back some of the services that are provided by general practitioners. I am reassured that that is being reviewed weekly, and I am reassured by the conversations that I have had with the health secretary about the situation. Can he update me on action that the Scottish Government is taking to support NHS Lanarkshire, and general practices in particular, to allow those services to return as quickly as possible?

I thank Neil Gray for raising the issue with me directly. I will host a meeting with Lanarkshire MSPs from various political parties and the health board on Monday. I spoke to Dr Andrew Buist from the BMA today on the issue. Access to GPs is crucial.

We will support staff across the NHS where we can. Neil Gray will be aware that an exemption exists that allows staff to return when they are a close contact of somebody who has tested positive. That used to require a negative polymerase chain reaction—PCR—test, but I have, based on clinical advice, removed that requirement, which should help with the staffing issue.

No single thing can help with the staffing issue, but we are doing many things. I assure the member that we have regular engagement with NHS Lanarkshire, in particular.

Waiting times were already a significant problem before the pandemic hit. Before the pandemic, 450,000 people were waiting. Now, the number has gone up to 650,000. One of the royal colleges has told me that one significant barrier to catching up with waiting lists—certainly, for operations—is that there is simply no space in hospital settings. In addition to creating capacity, what consideration has the cabinet secretary given to utilising spare theatres, such as those at the Vale of Leven district general hospital?

Jackie Baillie has asked a good question and made an important point. The Government is working centrally to see where we might have theatre space, where we might have nursing and clinical staff, and how we can marry the two. Some of that work has been done.

The Golden Jubilee national hospital plays a crucial role, and I talk to the health board regularly about how to maximise its capacity. However, Jackie Baillie is right that other acute care sites exist, which might have the theatre space but not quite the number of clinical staff. That work is on-going; I am happy to continue to keep Ms Baillie and other members updated on it.

Minor Injury Units (Reopening)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will release its plans for the reopening of minor injury units. (S6O-00627)

I make it clear that there is no national policy to close minor injury units. Throughout the pandemic, the majority of MIUs have remained open, but I know that in some health boards—NHS Grampian, for example—units have closed temporarily to allow staff to be allocated to areas with the greatest need, such as in Covid assessment centres.

I should also say that we do not have a specific policy on the provision of minor injury units in communities. We leave local health boards to make those decisions at the local level, following clinical advice.

To ensure that everyone can continue to get the right care at the right time, we have invested £23 million this year for the redesign of urgent care. Under the new approach, NHS 24 is now available 24/7 for people who think that they need accident and emergency services, but whose illness is not life threatening. Through that service, people might be offered a virtual consultation, receive care closer to home or receive a scheduled appointment during a safe time at A and E.

The Turriff minor injury unit provided an essential service to the local community. Without it, Turriff residents have to make long journeys to already crowded A and E departments. Constituents have raised fears about the long-term future of the Turriff MIU, which was shut temporarily 20 months ago.

Can the cabinet secretary commit to the reopening of the Turriff MIU and give a timescale for my constituents who have been deprived of easy access to health care?

I will leave such decisions to be made locally, but I will, of course, raise that point with the health board.

Douglas Lumsden’s central point is correct. If minor injury units are not open, first, people might have to travel further, and secondly, they will go to acute sites that are already busy and under pressure.

I completely understand and agree with the member’s rationale that minor injury units should remain open where possible; they are open in the vast majority of health boards. However, Douglas Lumsden is right to raise the specific issue. I will raise it with the health board and update him on those conversations.

Figures that were published yesterday show that for the week ending 9 January only 60.4 per cent of patients who attended A and E in NHS Forth Valley were seen within four hours. I thank all the staff who continue to work immensely hard to try to improve that situation.

Given the pressure that has been placed on A and E departments, has consideration been given to reopening a minor injury unit in NHS Forth Valley?

I am sure that consideration has been given to the matter. I speak to the Forth Valley board regularly, and I know that Gillian Mackay does, too—she and I had a conversation before Christmas around the specific challenges in relation to NHS Forth Valley.

Although NHS Forth Valley is challenged, I expect improvement. I will not comment on next week’s figures until they are published, but we know that the week ending 9 January was particularly pressured because of the high level of staff absences, Covid occupancy and the cumulative effects of the pandemic over the past 22 months.

I assure Gillian Mackay that NHS Forth Valley is leaving no stone unturned in trying to better that performance. I expect it to continue to ensure that local members are kept updated on the improvement plan.

Question 3 is not lodged.

Care Inspectorate (Inspection and Assessment of Care Homes)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the Care Inspectorate in its role of inspecting and assessing care homes. (S6O-00629)

My officials and I are in regular contact with the Care Inspectorate to discuss a range of strategic issues including inspections and resources. Under the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010, Scottish ministers are also required to approve the Care Inspectorate’s annual scrutiny and assurance plan, which underpins their activity and is reviewed regularly. In 2021-22, the Scottish Government provided the Care Inspectorate with additional and recurring budget of £4 million to meet resource pressures.

The number of inspections of care homes has decreased by 41 per cent, from 1,372 in 2016-17 to just 812 in 2020-21. That decline was happening even before the pandemic. Following storm Arwen, it has come to light that a number of care homes and assisted living sites did not have adequate resilience planning, and that would have been picked up by inspections. Does the minister agree that the reduced resilience is a direct result of the decrease in the number of inspections? What action will he take to rectify that?

I am keen to hear from Mr Burnett the details of those resilience matters. If he wishes to write to me, I will respond accordingly.

During the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, the Care Inspectorate, with the agreement of Scottish ministers, took the decision to scale down inspections, recognising that they might put an unnecessary burden on the care sector. It could also have contributed to the spreading of Covid-19 and put its inspectors at risk. That reflected the position of other United Kingdom and Irish regulators. That decision has been criticised, but it was the right thing to do. On-site care home inspections resumed in May 2020.

During the pandemic, it has not been possible for the Care Inspectorate to inspect all adult care home services in the conventional way. Instead, the Care Inspectorate has adopted a more targeted, intelligence-led and risk-based approach to service inspections. That approach has prioritised on-site inspections of care homes for older people and of services where immediate risk is identified.

Last week, it was reported that one third of Scottish care homes are now restricting visits because of the high prevalence of infections in communities and the interpretation of a managed outbreak by public health authorities. Relatives, however, feel that, with a correct testing regime and protective measures in place, visiting should be maintained in line with guidance. Indeed, some have called for the Care Inspectorate to take on the key role of checking that testing is robust, comprehensive and publicly reported in inspection reports to provide confidence and keep homes open to visitors. As we move forward, will the minister look at that role for the Care Inspectorate in monitoring, reporting and ensuring that care homes remain open to visitors?

The Care Inspectorate is already looking at homes in which visiting is not what it should be. I thank the Care Inspectorate for the help that it has given the Government during these times.

I hope that changes to the Public Health Scotland guidance, which will be issued today, will make some differences and ensure that relatives have access to their loved ones in care homes. As always, I am keen to hear from members where there might be difficulties so that we can follow those up with colleagues in the Care Inspectorate in order to get it right for residents of care homes and their relatives.

Social Care (Financial Support for Personal Protective Equipment)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to extend financial support for PPE in the social care sector. (S6O-00630)

Social care providers can claim back PPE costs over and above their usual amount. In 2021-22, £862 million has been allocated to help with costs arising from Covid-19, which demonstrates our commitment to supporting the sustainability and resilience of the sector.

A decision will be taken in due course about all financial support measures for social care providers post-March. Support is also available to social care providers, including unpaid carers and personal assistants, through local PPE hubs for emergency PPE supply. We are working with NHS National Services Scotland on how best to supply PPE over the longer term.

I thank the minister for that commitment.

The cost of PPE is only one of the increased costs that the sector faces. Will the minister heed concerns and ensure that it is fully funded for the true costs of care through the renegotiations on the national care home contract?

The Government is not involved in the negotiation of the national care home contract. That is a matter for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the care providers—they are the ones that make the decisions on that, not the Government.

I want to ask about access to FFP3 masks in social care. Have risk assessments been carried out by employers if FFP3 masks are not routinely provided? Are those dynamic assessments that reflect increases in the levels of coronavirus transmission? Are individual assessments available for those staff who consider themselves to be at risk?

In November, winter respiratory guidance was published that sets out the appropriate PPE to use in different circumstances. All of that is in line with the World Health Organization guidance.

PPE guidance is developed by infection prevention and control experts on a four-nations basis. The United Kingdom IPC cell is responsible for providing advice and guidance in relation to PPE requirements and IPC measures more generally.

If Ms Baillie requires further detail, I would be happy to respond accordingly, but we are following the updated guidance.

Social Care (Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its discussions on social care provision in Fife. (S6O-00631)

We are in daily contact with health and social care partnerships, and we continue to monitor closely the on-going impact of the pandemic and the challenges that that brings for the social care sector nationwide. Health boards and health and social care partnerships have provided assurances that people who are in need of the most urgent care and support will continue to receive it and that its delivery will be prioritised.

The Scottish Government’s “Adult Social Care Winter Preparedness Plan 2021-22” sets out measures to address social care provision in all local authorities, including Fife Council, and outlines how we will support people who use services, the workforce and unpaid carers.

Although I well understand that responsibility for the delivery of social care services in Fife lies with Fife Council, NHS Fife and, of course, the health and social care partnership, given the very great challenges in Fife at this time, notwithstanding the tremendous efforts of our front-line social care staff, what help can the Scottish Government offer so that all those who need social care get the services that they are entitled to on a timely basis?

I thank Ms Ewing for her question. I know that she has been pursuing the matter vigorously. At question time last week, she asked the Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery whether we thought that folk in Fife were straining every sinew to deliver for people locally. Having talked to the chief officer of the health and social care partnership on Monday, I think that that is the case. She has said that the past three weeks have been the most strenuous three weeks in her career, and I believe that staff are doing all that they can.

As for Government support, NHS Fife was allocated £7 million from the additional £300 million of winter funding that was announced on 5 October. That included £2.7 million for interim care and £4.2 million to expand care-at-home capacity. I know that Fife is ensuring that that money is spent wisely and that it is doing its level best.

We fully appreciate the problems that local partnerships are having in providing social care at this time. Yesterday, the Deputy First Minister convened a special meeting with local council leaders, health boards and local authority chief executives, along with representatives from the third sector, to identify further ways in which we can support the social care sector, including in Fife. We will continue to have those discussions and to monitor, and we, as a Government, will continue to do all that we can to support the social care sector across Scotland.

The minister really should not be satisfied with the assurance that those with the most urgent needs are having them addressed, because, every single day in Fife, many people are not getting important and essential visits. They are missing out on meals, tuck-ins and medicines. Will the minister realise that the issue has been building up for years and that we should no longer take carers for granted? We need them, we need them now and we should start paying them properly.

We recognise that there needs to be support for the social care sector. On the issue of pay, we have announced two pay increases, funded by the Government, over the past few months. We have a way to go in relation to pay and conditions. One of the reasons why I am so keen to see a national care service is so that we can have national pay bargaining and set the right conditions for folk in the sector.

I agree with Mr Rennie that there are folk out there who are not getting the levels of care that they had previously. However, we are at the most precarious stage in this pandemic. Although I am glad to see the number of Covid cases reducing, there are still a number of Covid cases. There are folk off and winter pressures, and it is fair to say that staff are tired, too.

I know that NHS Fife is doing its level best, and we will continue to support its staff in any way that we possibly can. The daily discussions between the Government and health and social care partnerships will continue. We will do our level best to support them to the utmost, and I know that they will do all that they can to support the folk in their communities to get the right care.

Long Covid (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the support that it is providing to the reported increasing number of people with long Covid. (S6O-00632)

We continue to implement the 16 commitments contained in our approach paper, which is backed by a £10 million long Covid support fund.

We have launched a long Covid information platform on NHS Inform to help people manage their symptoms, and we continue to support clinicians to access evidence-based information and advice to inform assessments, investigations and referrals.

Finally, NHS National Services is establishing a strategic network, bringing together clinical experts, national health service boards and—most crucially—those with lived experience, to support the on-going development, resourcing and implementation of services for people with long Covid.

In September 2021, the Scottish Government earmarked £10 million for a long Covid support fund. Four months on, what improved or better co-ordinated services are now in place to care for and support the 100,000 Scots suffering with long Covid? Why has the Government decided not to invest in dedicated long Covid clinics?

I thank Pam Gosal for recognising the investment that the Scottish Government has made, which is crucial and important and will help when it comes to the development of our long Covid response. That response is developing, of course, because we are continuing to learn more about long Covid as time goes on. That is why we have also taken the decision to invest in research, which is important, alongside the practical action that I outlined and that our framework outlines.

Of course, there is nothing preventing NHS boards from developing long Covid clinics using, for example, the Hertfordshire model, which I think Pam Gosal and other colleagues have referenced before. There is no barrier to boards doing that, but to suggest or allude to the idea that long Covid clinics are the panacea or solution for those who are suffering from long Covid would be misguided. We let health boards take the approach that works for them locally.

I am pleased that we have invested £10 million. I will continue to keep a close eye on and pay close attention to the issue, and if further resourcing is required, we will continue to explore that.

Breast Screening Programme (Resumption of Self-referral for Over-70s)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the date by which self-referral for over-70s to the breast screening programme will resume. (S6O-00633)

Although programme capacity remains challenging due to Covid-19, the pause on self-referrals allows appointments to be prioritised for women aged 50 to 70. However, I recognise the anxiety that the pause is causing, and I have asked officials to accelerate consideration of restart options that would not unduly impact appointment times for the eligible screening population. That will not be easy. Any decision will be informed by clinical advice and the on-going pandemic.

In the meantime, if anyone, of any age, is concerned that they may have symptoms of breast cancer, they should immediately make an appointment with their general practitioner practice.

With cancer diagnosis rates down during Covid and the overall rising trend in the incidence of cancer, many women in my constituency have been concerned about their inability to self-refer for breast screening. As the minister knows, Orkney is one of the areas that are reliant on mobile screening units turning up every three years. Does she accept that, as the screening service returns to pre-pandemic arrangements, there is a case for looking at what more might be done in places such as Orkney to ensure that those who need and wish to be screened can have that opportunity, and can she confirm that there are no plans to move from a three-year to a five-year cycle for screening?

I fully understand the concern of the women in Orkney and I can assure everyone that women who live on the islands will not be forgotten. Work on options to restart will consider the impact on those who rely on mobile screening solutions, whether on the islands or on the mainland.

On the review of screening frequency and screening age, all those decisions are guided by the United Kingdom National Screening Committee, which will be looking at evidence. I am not aware of a change to five-year screening, but should the committee come forward with that recommendation, we would be inclined to accept it, because it would be based on clinical evidence. The UK National Screening Committee looks at all the evidence relating to screening programmes and gives guidance on a four-nations basis, and all four nations tend to follow that guidance.

I regret that, as we are over time, I cannot take any further questions. There will be a short pause before we move to the next portfolio.

Social Justice, Housing and Local Government

The next portfolio is social justice, housing and local government. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question, or indicate so in the chat function by entering the letter R.

Inequalities and Child Poverty (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is tackling inequalities and child poverty in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley. (S6O-00634)

Tackling child poverty is a national mission for this Government and we are making considerable investment to increase family incomes and reduce household costs. In 2020-21, we spent £2.5 billion in targeted support for low-income households, including nearly £1 billion to support low-income families with children. This year, through our Scottish child payment and bridging payments, we will put around £130 million directly into the pockets of low-income families across Scotland who need it most, including in the member’s constituency. We will further increase the support that is available to families by doubling the Scottish child payment to £20 per week from April this year.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her detailed answer.

On 11 January, the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee heard Unison join with the Tories to complain that the Scottish budget will do nothing to reduce inequalities in Scotland. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the Scottish Government has spent £594 million on mitigating the budget cuts that the Tory Government imposed on the poorest people in Scotland, which includes £83 million to pay for the bedroom tax alone? Will she also confirm that we will continue to fund child support payments and expand the school clothing grant and free school meals in my constituency? Will she confirm that those measures are just a few examples of how the Scottish National Party Government is directly tackling child poverty and inequality in Scotland?

I confirm that, and I confirm that the 2022-23 Scottish budget continues significant investment to tackle poverty and inequality and strengthen public services, including more than £3.9 billion towards benefits expenditure, which will provide support to more than 1 million people in Scotland. We are also investing £831.5 million towards the delivery of affordable housing, £65 million for employability support and the first £50 million of the whole family wellbeing fund. We will continue to fund the expansion of free lunches and the provision of free meals during school holidays to the children who most need them.

I will take a supplementary question. I note that the question related to child poverty in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley; I also note that both the questioner and the cabinet secretary widened out the subject matter.

Only one in four eligible children will get the Scottish child payment at the £20 rate: 170,000 children will not get the new rate because they are on bridging payments, and 125,000 children will not get anything at all. Those children need the extra money. Will the cabinet secretary say whether she will double the bridging payment for those families?

As Pam Duncan-Glancy knows, she and I had an exchange about that at the Social Justice and Social Security Committee last week, when I told her that we are fully committed to rolling out the Scottish child payment to under-16s by the end of 2022 and that, until full roll-out, we will continue to deliver the innovative bridging payments of £520 a year, making use of local authority data to deliver immediate support to around 150,000 children at a cost of £78 million a year.

We have gone as far as we can with the doubling of the Scottish child payment to £20 from April 2022. Of course, if Pam Duncan-Glancy or anyone else wants to discuss amendments to the budget, I am sure that we can do that, but members will have to show from where in the budget the additional money would come.

Unsafe Cladding (Help for Residents)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to help residents in flats that have unsafe cladding. (S6O-00635)

We are committed to ensuring the safety of people in homes with unsafe cladding. We are progressing with our single building assessment and cladding remediation programme, which is free to home owners, and 25 high-priority residential blocks of flats have already been selected for the initial phase of the programme. Inspections are under way and we expect the first completed reports soon. We expect that the majority of buildings will be shown to be safe. Where issues are found, we will seek appropriate solutions for remediation and urge other parties, such as developers, to play their part.

We have been pressing the Scottish Government to take action on the matter for years and it has failed to do so. Thousands of Scots are trapped in unsafe flats, with little hope of ever selling them.

Last week, in England, Michael Gove put developers on notice. They have two months to agree to a funding scheme, or measures could be put into law. What is happening here? Clauses in the Building Safety Bill will allow the United Kingdom Government to introduce a levy on developers of high-rise buildings. What is happening here? Why has flammable cladding still not been banned in Scotland? When will it be banned?

That is quite a misrepresentation of the position. The single—[Interruption.]

Excuse me for a second, cabinet secretary. I do not want all that shouting from a sedentary position. We want to hear the answer from the cabinet secretary, please. Cabinet secretary, please resume.

The single building assessment has been an innovative approach, and it is being considered in other parts of the United Kingdom. Our assessments will help us to understand the scope and scale of the cladding issues across Scotland.

To reassure people, while the majority of buildings will be shown to be safe, where issues are found we will seek the most appropriate solutions for remediation. We of course want other parties such as developers to continue to play their part where construction is found to be unsafe.

The member mentioned Michael Gove. I have written to Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but I have yet to receive any detail on consequentials in addition to the £97.1 million. I will continue to press the secretary of state for details in relation to the original £3.5 billion announcement that was made in the UK budget in February last year. In relation to the announcement of an additional £4 billion on 10 January, which we were notified about only on the day of the announcement, we welcome the announcement on making developers pay, but we need to see the detail of what that means for the Scottish budget. We need to go beyond the £97 million, but we need to know what resources will be coming forward.

We will continue to make the progress that we are making through the innovative single building assessment. I would have thought that members across the chamber would welcome that.

The cabinet secretary has just answered the question that I was going to ask, but I will repeat it. Can she advise us what updates the Scottish Government has had from the UK Government regarding the consequentials that it has promised and we are expecting in order to take the work forward?

Cabinet secretary, you can give a very brief answer if you feel that you have already answered that question.

As I said, I am happy to keep Parliament apprised of any response that we get from Michael Gove and the UK Government, but it is important that we can give certainty for the remediation programme beyond the £97 million that we have already committed. We are determined to progress with the single building assessment and to get the works under way and done, but we need the UK Government to give us clarity on the funding that will be available beyond the £97 million.

This is a Scottish Government responsibility. The minister must understand that flat owners across the country are deeply anxious at the snail’s pace that the Government is moving at. When will we get some progress so that we can give flat owners assurance? What is the date by which the work will be done, and what funding will be forthcoming from the Government?

I do not know whether Willie Rennie heard my first answer, but I said that there is already work under way on the 25 high-priority residential blocks of flats, which were the pilot for the single building assessment, so that we can see what the scale of remediation is likely to be across Scotland. As I said in my initial answer, the inspections are under way, and we expect the first completed report soon.

I would have thought that, when we are getting on and doing something, which other parts of the UK are looking at because it is a good model, that would be welcomed. I am as keen as anyone else in the chamber to make progress, but specific, complex engineering projects have to be undertaken. When we get the completed reports, I will be happy to keep Parliament updated about them.

Covid-19 (Welfare Support for People in Employment)

To ask the Scottish Government how its welfare policies have supported people in employment who have been impacted by Covid-19. (S6O-00636)

We have a wide range of support available for people in employment and on low incomes. That includes the majority of our social security benefits: our five family payments, discretionary housing payments and the £500 self-isolation support grant. Local authorities have awarded 56,317 self-isolation support grants, totalling £28.2 million, between October 2020 and November 2021. Our Scottish welfare fund has provided almost £63 million to around 60,000 households since March 2020 to help those on low incomes. By October 2021, around 530,000 households had received our £130 low-income pandemic payment, which was an investment of nearly £70 million to assist people in need.

Does the minister agree that the level of statutory sick pay, which is set by the United Kingdom Government at one of the lowest rates in Europe, has been found wanting during the pandemic? Will he join me, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and anti-poverty groups in calling for an increase in statutory sick pay, ensuring that it gives the necessary financial support to those who are unable to work due to Covid-19 and other health conditions?

I would absolutely agree, and because employment law is reserved, we will continue to call on the UK Government to increase statutory sick pay to match the real living wage.

Earlier in the pandemic, the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to ask the UK Government to make statutory sick pay more responsive. In September last year, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy wrote to the chancellor, asking him to reconsider the closure of the statutory sick pay rebate scheme. We are in agreement that the current level is not fit for purpose, and we will continue to make that point to the UK Government at appropriate opportunities.

One of the few positives to come out of the pandemic is that flexible working from home has become more mainstream. It suits many disabled people. Will the minister commit to engaging with employers and reporting back to Parliament on how we can continue to foster that inclusive working style post-pandemic, while taking into account issues of isolation, loneliness and social participation?

I thank Jeremy Balfour for raising those important points, and I agree with the sentiment behind his question. I would like to take that suggestion away and engage further with Mr Balfour and the finance and economy ministers to consider the points that he has raised.

Local Authority Decision Making (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will support local authorities to make decisions on local services based on local priorities. (S6O-00637)

Local authorities are independent corporate bodies with their own powers and responsibilities. The Scottish Government has committed to supporting councils with a finance settlement of over £12.5 billion in 2022-23. That represents a cash increase of £917.9 million, or 7.9 per cent, which is the equivalent of a real-terms increase of 5.1 per cent.

Analysis by the Scottish Parliament information centre shows that almost 18 per cent of councils’ budgets is ring fenced for Scottish Government initiatives, which is a steep rise from just 4 per cent in 2018-19. Why has ring fencing increased by over four times in recent years? Does the minister acknowledge that that reduces the ability of councils to deliver services based on local needs?

Although ring-fenced funding is meant to increase investment in services such as our schools and nurseries, local authorities have autonomy to allocate 93 per cent—£11.6 billion—of the funding that we provide, plus all locally raised income.

However, the Scottish Government recognises that local authorities have repeatedly called for the removal of ring fencing in the settlement and for a greater focus on trust and partnership working. On that basis, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, Kate Forbes, has committed to reviewing all ring-fenced funding as part of the forthcoming resource spending review. We would welcome constructive engagement from local government in that process to ensure that the removal of any ring fencing goes hand in hand with achieving our shared priorities and outcomes, while also ensuring maximum value for money.

The Social Justice and Fairness Commission, of which I had the pleasure of being deputy convener, reported last year. It recommended an increased use of participatory budgeting in local government to ensure that local people had a greater say in their local communities and felt that there was greater local accountability and that their communities reflected their needs. Would the Scottish Government support an expansion of that?

The Scottish Government certainly does support participatory budgeting as one mechanism for involving people in decision making. In my constituency, I have seen the significant success of participatory budgeting in the Leith Chooses initiative. Our national participatory budgeting support programme has enabled more than 122,000 voters to have a direct say on the disbursal of more than £6.6 million. We will continue to work with the national participatory budgeting strategic group, which has produced the framework for the future of participatory budgeting in Scotland, with a particular focus on health and wellbeing, education, housing and climate change.

Affordable Homes (2032 Target)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to build 110,000 affordable homes by 2032. (S6O-00638)

Scotland has led the way in the delivery of affordable housing across the United Kingdom and I am proud of our record of delivering more than 105,000 affordable homes since 2007.

We remain committed to our target of delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032. To support that aim, our draft budget increase of £174 million for affordable housing brings investment in 2022-23 to £831 million and total investment across this parliamentary session to £3.6 billion. That means that we can continue the important work, started in 2007, of ensuring that everyone in Scotland has a warm, safe and affordable place to live.

Affordable housing is particularly important in Edinburgh, where the average house price has now surpassed £300,000 for the first time. However, affordable housing statistics that were published last week show that only 822 affordable homes were completed in Edinburgh in 2020-21. That is a drop of more than 35 per cent on the previous year.

Homes for Scotland has warned of flaws in the City of Edinburgh Council’s proposed city plan 2030 and says that it will not be able to meet the housing demand in the coming years. Will the Government step up investment in affordable housing? Will the cabinet secretary guarantee that councils such as the City of Edinburgh Council will be able to access the grant funding that they need to meet local housing demand?

Edinburgh will benefit from investment of £233.8 million towards the delivery of more good-quality affordable homes. That is an increase of £32.4 million on the previous five years.

Sue Webber talked about progress over 2020-21. I point out that, during that time, the affordable housing programme was hit by the pause in non-essential construction from 23 March to 10 June. Construction then resumed in a safer, slower way in line with social distancing guidelines but, of course, that had an impact on the pace of the delivery of affordable homes whether in Edinburgh or anywhere else. I am sure that Sue Webber and most reasonable people listening understand that.

Progress is picking up again. As I said in my initial answer, we are determined to make progress on the delivery of affordable homes in Edinburgh and elsewhere. I make the point that the Government’s per capita spending on affordable housing is more than three times higher than the UK Government’s. We will continue to prioritise the delivery of affordable homes, which is in stark contrast to the Government south of the border.

What work is under way with local partners regarding the 11,000 affordable homes that are secured for remote, rural and island communities?

With £3.6 billion of funding in place for this parliamentary session, we are working closely with partners to plan the delivery of affordable homes in rural, remote and island communities. Our demand-led rural and islands housing fund is supporting community groups and others that are not able to access the main affordable housing supply programme. We have committed to develop a remote, rural and islands housing action plan informed by a wide range of stakeholders, including community representatives, as that will be vital to ensuring that the plan delivers for more remote rural and island communities.

Rent payments are the single biggest cost for many households. Year on year, rent increases from social landlords squeeze already stretched family budgets. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that affordable housing is truly affordable?

I welcome Ruth Maguire back to the Parliament. It is great to see her here.

We have a clear interest in housing association rent affordability. That is even more the case given the pandemic, which for many people has caused hardship and increased living costs.

Individual social landlords are legally required to consult their tenants on any rent increases, and to strike the best balance between rent levels and meeting the housing needs of local communities. The Scottish social housing charter requires landlords to take account of what current and prospective tenants are likely to be able to afford, and the Scottish Housing Regulator monitors rent levels and rent affordability.

We are considering how to build on the strong work on rent setting in the social rented sector that has already been put in place as part of the rented sector strategy that we are currently consulting on. Lastly, we have committed to develop a shared understanding of housing affordability that is fit for the future and takes account of the real costs of housing.

Homeless Accommodation (Rural Communities)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to provide homeless accommodation in rural communities. (S6O-00639)

Providing a suitable home for everyone is at the heart of our “Housing to 2040” strategy, and we are providing local authorities with investment of £53.5 million over 2018 to 2024 to tackle homelessness and move people as quickly as possible into settled accommodation with the right support.

Communities will also be supported by the continuation of the rural and islands housing fund, which is backed by £30 million of investment in the current session of Parliament. We have committed to delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, of which 70 per cent will be for social rent and 10 per cent will be in remote, rural and island communities.

Many of my constituents cannot access homeless accommodation in rural areas at all and are having to move into the city of Stirling, where they are remote from work and family support. How will the Scottish Government support councils to provide homeless accommodation where it is needed?

As I said, more than £53.3 million of resource planning assumptions have been allocated to Stirling Council’s affordable housing supply programme for five years up to 2025-26, and we are providing up to £30 million in the current session of Parliament for the demand-led rural and islands housing fund.

As I said, we are developing an action plan for remote, rural and island housing. Stirling Council has received more than £430,000 to develop and implement its rapid rehousing transition plan between 2019-20 and 2021-22 and will receive an allocation of £132,000 for 2022-23. That funding helps to prevent homelessness and provide settled accommodation to homeless households.

Last year, there were more than 27,000 households in Scotland assessed as being homeless, while 47,000 homes, valued at £8 billion, lay empty, including in rural areas. Compulsory purchase powers are no use to councils without fair funding.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s “Housing to 2040” proposal to establish a new fund to enable local authorities to bring empty homes back into residential use. Can the minister confirm by what date the fund will be ready to receive applications from councils, and how much it will make available in its first year of operation?

We are determined to bring as many empty homes as possible back into operation. The empty homes officers, who have been working in local authorities to identify empty homes, have been doing a really good job.

I am happy to keep the member informed once we are in a position to announce the beginning of the empty homes fund, the timeframe that we will be working to and the amount of money that will be in the fund. I will keep the member updated on that.

There are two more questions listed in the Business Bulletin. I am keen to take them both, so I would appreciate succinct questions and answers.

Fire Safety Regulations (Compliance)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on whether all homes are on track to comply with the new fire safety regulations by February. (S6O-00640)

The regulations were introduced to protect lives and property, and to bring owner-occupied and social rented properties into line with the private rented sector and with new-build homes. We encourage everyone to install the alarms. As the regulations are not yet in force, information will be collected in the next Scottish house condition survey. As we have consistently said, the legislation says that work should be done within a reasonable period that takes into account individual circumstances, and no home owner will be penalised if they are unable to do the work.

I thank the minister for her answer, but it is pretty shocking, given that the regulations were delayed by a year because of a lack of publicity about them during the pandemic. If the minister cannot tell me how many homes are now compliant, could she at least tell me how many people have received financial support from the fund that was allocated, given the cost of installing fire alarms in people’s homes to meet the regulations and the fact that the Scottish Government underestimated that cost?

In my statement, which is the next item of business, I will outline the publicity that there has been on the issue and, indeed, the awareness that is out there. I will cover that in some detail.

We have put £1.5 million into care and repair and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to support homeowners who might have struggled to put those appliances in place. From the most recent figures, I think that around 2,000 people have been supported in one way or another through the care and repair service, but I will go into more detail on that in my statement.

Scottish Child Payment (Kirkcaldy)

To ask the Scottish Government how many families in the Kirkcaldy constituency have received the new Scottish child payment. (S6O-00641)

We do not publish statistics on the Scottish child payment by constituency. However, we have data at local authority level which shows that just over 8,700 applications from clients in Fife had been approved for the Scottish child payment between the opening of applications in November 2020 and September 2021. The statistics are published quarterly and those figures are based on the most recently available official statistics, which cover the period up to the end of September 2021. Doubling the payment to £20 from April 2022 underlines our commitment to deliver on the national mission to tackle child poverty.

The Scottish child payment has already made a huge impact and the doubling of the payment shows that the Scottish Government is committed to using the limited powers that it has to tackle child poverty. As we look ahead into 2022, can the cabinet secretary outline how the Scottish Government will provide further financial support to people with the roll-out of new devolved benefits?

We are committing over £3.9 billion for benefit expenditure in 2022-23, providing support to over 1 million people in Scotland by March of next year. That includes doubling and extending the Scottish child payment, which is forecast to benefit 334,000 children by the end of 2022; our new low-income winter heating assistance, which will guarantee a £50 payment to around 400,000 low-income households from next winter; and replacing the United Kingdom Government’s personal independence payment with the new adult disability payment from next summer, benefiting around 20,000 people in 2022-23, rising to over 400,000 in 2024-25.