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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 19 December 2018

Agenda: Iolaire Disaster, Portfolio Question Time, Mental Health Services, Early Learning and Childcare Expansion, European Union Citizens (Contribution to Scotland), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Water Charges (Single-person Households)


Contents


Water Charges (Single-person Households)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-14677, in the name of Jackie Baillie, on the Scottish Government to penalise Scots for living alone. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I call Jackie—Jackie Baillie—to open the debate.

You can call me Jackie any time you like, Presiding Officer.

It is too close to recess. I am drifting. I call Jackie Baillie to open the debate.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament disagrees with the Scottish Water proposal to cut the single occupancy discount from over half a million people in Scotland; understands that, currently, 944,659 people in Scotland receive a discount from Scottish Water due to the fact that they receive Council Tax Reduction or live alone; understands that the proposal is to instead offer discounts to only those who receive Council Tax Reduction, regardless of how many people live in the household; believes that this will see hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland, including those in the Dumbarton constituency, being forced to pay for far more water than they are actually using; considers that this will particularly affect older people who are on low and fixed incomes, and notes calls on the Scottish Government to work with Scottish Water to rethink what it considers this ill-advised proposal to penalise those who live alone.

17:08  

Almost 950,000 people in Scotland receive a discount for their water. For the overwhelming majority of those people, the discount is worth 25 per cent of the total bill, which is a lot of money. For the average band D house, that discount is worth £109 a year.

In the summer, the Scottish Government launched a consultation on changing the discount. That change, which has so far received little attention from the Parliament, is the focus of my members’ business debate this evening. I am happy to clarify at the start that the change was suggested by the Scottish Government and not by Scottish Water.

In a nutshell, the Scottish Government wants to increase the water discount for those receiving council tax reduction. That is welcome—I have no problem with that. However, the Government wants to pay for it by taking away the council tax discount from half a million single people.

That is nothing short of an attack on single older people, who might be living alone because they are widowed, and might have a small works pension that means that they do not qualify for council tax reduction. They will find it difficult to manage.

It is an attack on single parents who struggle to manage bringing up children on one income.

It is an attack on half a million people who rely on getting that discount; they will be penalised simply because they live alone.

There is an argument that someone who lives alone will use less water than a household of, say, four people, but there also seems to be an assumption that people who live alone have considerable resources. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the Fraser of Allander institute noted that there are poor people in every council tax band.

Does Jackie Baillie accept that some of us who are single and live on our own would happily pay a bit of extra money?

If John Mason wishes to do so, I am sure that Glasgow City Council would welcome him paying extra. However, that is not the point. The majority of people in this category are on low and fixed incomes. Losing the discount could have serious consequences, as they will need to find more from an existing pot—a small pot—simply to stay afloat. Age Scotland’s briefing for the debate has pointed out that, in a recent survey, six out of 10 pensioners said that they struggle with their fuel bills. We can imagine how much more difficult the Scottish Government will make it if it removes the discount for water from older people, too. The number of older people is set to rise significantly over the next decade; in particular, the number of older people who live alone is expected to rise by nearly 50 per cent.

Has the Scottish Government, in its wisdom as part of its consultation, published an analysis of responses yet? I was told by the cabinet secretary herself that the final consultation report would be presented to a multi-stakeholder group on 25 October and published on Scottish Water’s website thereafter. However, thereafter, somebody ran for cover. Despite emails to Scottish Water and portfolio questions to the Government, the report remains hidden away. I am now told, as the result of a freedom of information request, that it will be published—wait for it—on Friday 21 December when we have all gone home and no one will be paying attention. That is woeful, to be frank, and tells us everything that we need to know about the cynicism of this Government.

I will now turn to the council tax reduction for single-person households. People get the water discount if they get the council tax discount. Members will appreciate the concern that we are witnessing the thin end of the wedge. Today it is the water discount that they are after; tomorrow it will be the council tax discount. Welcome to the new Scotland where people are being penalised for living alone.

This is not far-fetched. A former Scottish National Party MSP, Roderick Campbell, questioned whether the single-person council tax discount should remain at all. When I put that to the First Minister at First Minister’s questions a few weeks ago, I expected her to rule it out. However, she did not rule it out; she pointed to further consultation.

Let us be clear about the cost of the removal of both single-person discounts, for water and for council tax—it would cost the average band D household more than £400 a year. People would need to find an extra £400 on a fixed income at a time when the price of everything is going up but earnings are flat or declining in real terms for the majority of the population.

As I said at the start, providing more assistance for those who are on council tax reduction is welcome, but how it is paid for is the issue at stake. I do not believe that taking from the slightly less poor to pay for the poorest is the right way to do it. I cannot begin to understand why the cabinet secretary appears to be hellbent on making changes that would leave substantial numbers of people in Scotland poorer than they are today.

Let me genuinely ask the cabinet secretary to think again. Has she considered whether there is a way to protect single-person pensioner households? What discussions has she had with the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People? Now that the Scottish Government has new powers, has she thought imaginatively about how those could be used to help people who are on low incomes with water charges? Will she meet Age Scotland and include pensioners directly in a discussion about this policy, which will affect their income going forward? I genuinely hope that we can persuade the cabinet secretary, who is politically astute, not to rush into this. Let us work together to ensure that no one is penalised if they happen to live alone in Scotland today.

17:15  

As is normal, I thank Jackie Baillie for securing the debate. However, I am deeply disappointed in the tone of her motion, and I am also surprised that it was allowed in the first place. The motion talks as if it is a formal and proven fact that the Scottish Government is penalising Scots. However, Jackie Baillie knows that that is clearly not the case. In this fantasy motion, Jackie Baillie goes from, “They’re going to lose their Scottish Water rebate,” to, “They’re going to lose their council tax rebate,” when neither of those things is factually accurate.

Our record clearly shows that this is a Government that takes the necessary action to protect people who are on lower incomes and supports the poorest people in our society, whether it is through our commitment to tackle child poverty—

Will the member take an intervention?

Only if it is not coming of my time.

There is time, Mr Dornan.

I gather, based on his remarks, that the member is asking the Scottish Government to rule out removing the single-person discount for water. Is that correct?

I thought that Daniel Johnson had been here long enough to know the difference between a consultation and something that is not a consultation. The consultation process is still going on. Once a consultation process is completed, the Government looks at the results and makes its decisions. If a Government rules things out before a consultation starts, there is no point having the consultation in the first place. I would have thought that Mr Johnson would know that by now.

The Scottish Government is protecting the poor in a variety of ways. It has made a commitment to tackle child poverty, and is using its new social security powers to support young families on low incomes with a new best start grant, the first payments of which were made on Monday; it has made a commitment to tackle funeral poverty, unveiling a 10-point funeral costs plan to help those who face financial problems during a difficult time; and it has made a world-leading commitment to tackle period poverty. This Government looks after those who need looked after. It is called being progressive. As I look around the Labour benches, I see maybe one or two people who are progressive. Perhaps the rest of the party should give it a go. Some of the older ones on those benches might have a distant memory of a time when Labour was progressive but, since I came into this Parliament, I have seen absolutely no sign of it, except in press releases and speeches.

Since Scottish Water’s creation in 2002, we have seen continual improvement in the work that it does. The collective focus on the need to improve the quality and standards of services, the determination to keep charges affordable and the commitment that is shown by our water industry have resulted in Scotland’s drinking water quality, environmental performance and service reaching their highest levels ever. Those are impressive achievements over a period in which average charges have fallen in real terms and remain among the lowest in the UK. According to the Scottish Parliament information centre, the average annual household water charge in 2018-19 is £360 in Scotland, which is more than 20 per cent cheaper than the charge in Labour-run Wales, where consumers were charged £439 this year. That makes me look forward to Jackie Baillie’s next motion, which I assume will be about what the Welsh Government can learn from the Scottish Government about how to treat people fairly.

However, I do not deny that significant challenges lie ahead, and we have to plan carefully to address those and ensure that the progress that has been made is maintained. We must continue to have a sustainable and high-performing water industry that meets customers’ needs at affordable prices.

As Jackie Baillie well knows, the process of determining charges for the period between 2021 and 2027 is now under way. The Scottish Government plays a central role in determining the key policy parameters to guide that process, and everyone was encouraged to submit their views on key issues that are central to the development of that framework. Those views will be taken into account in the finalisation of those documents at a later stage of the review, which will allow the Water Industry Commission to issue its final determination in March 2020. That determination will set out its view of charges for the regulatory period. It is just a shame that Jackie Baillie’s views were not part of the consultation, as she did not bother to participate in it.

As was set out by the First Minister in November—coincidentally, in response to Jackie Baillie—there is absolutely no proposal to remove the single occupancy discount. The Scottish Government is, indeed, reviewing the responses to the consultation at the moment but, importantly, any detailed changes to the charging policy would be subject to further consultation with customers and stakeholders. Any possible reduction in the discount for single-person households would potentially allow increased discounts for those on low incomes to be introduced, all the same. That is the point that Citizens Advice Scotland has welcomed. It said:

“the ... proposal to increase the maximum reduction for recipients of the Water Charges Reduction Scheme from 25% to 50% ... will provide additional benefit to over 340,000 households on full Council Tax Reduction, and another 160,000 on partial Council Tax Reduction.”

That sounds rather progressive to me.

Will the member take an intervention?

The member should be concluding, Ms Baillie.

I reiterate that no decisions have been taken on the issue. However, when the decision is taken, it will be about ensuring that the help that we provide goes to the people who need it most.

It appears to me that, just as it did during its better together days, Labour continues to try to scare our most vulnerable people in order to make political points.

Thank you, Mr Dornan. Just for—[Interruption.] I ask members to please be quiet. Mr Dornan, you said that you did not know why the motion was allowed. The process is, that the motion was submitted to the chamber desk, which ruled that it was competent—that is the first step and you all know that. Secondly, the parliamentary bureau unanimously agreed, across all parties, that the motion should be debated.

James Dornan rose—

Sit down, Mr Dornan.

I raise a point of order.

Tread carefully—it had better be a point of order.

Do we have clarification of what the boundaries are for a member’s debate?

Sit down, Mr Dornan. Sit down. That is not a point of order. You asked why the debate was allowed and I have explained the parliamentary process. That is why the motion is being debated today. There is no conversation to be had. Thank you. Calm down.

17:21  

My speech completely misjudges the tone of the debate, but I will continue.

I thank Jackie Baillie for bringing this important subject to the chamber. As the member for the rural constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries, I am acutely aware of my many rural constituents who live alone, some through choice but many not through choice. Age Scotland’s briefing ahead of the debate highlighted how, over the next 25 years, the number of older people who are expected to live alone is expected to rise by 50 per cent. It is those people who will be hit by the proposal. That is one reason why the proposal by Scottish Water to reduce the single occupancy discount from 25 to 10 per cent is misguided and needs to be addressed.

It is beyond belief to suggest that single occupancy and vacant homes use as much water as a fully occupied house. There is every reason to maintain the discounts, given the people who will be most affected by the proposed change. However, it is not beyond belief that the proposal is nothing more than an attempt to increase by stealth council taxes on single occupancy homes and vacant properties. Council tax is already a progressive system and people who are on low incomes rightly receive discounts. The proposal demonstrates, once again, that under this Scottish National Party Government, hard-working taxpayers will pay more and get less. Rural users will also be disproportionately hit, which is not insignificant because of another issue facing my constituency—connectivity—which is still a major issue throughout rural areas.

Age Scotland has pointed out that many people simply do not have access to information about applying for the benefits that they are entitled to. Forty per cent of people who are eligible for pension credits do not claim them. Therefore, it is a double whammy: there are extra costs but less accessibility to the information that will assist in getting support.

This morning, I met with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, on the subject of affordable broadband. I wonder how many members, let alone their constituents, know that if a person is in receipt of certain benefits, they can sign up for a £10-a-month home phone and broadband package from BT. If you do not have connectivity, you cannot find out what support you are entitled to. The importance of boosting our digital connectivity across rural communities cannot be overstated. Bringing about improvements can open up further job opportunities and bring our communities closer together—helping to reduce social isolation—and, in this ever more digitally driven world, we must ensure that everyone has access to the information that they need.

Presiding Officer, in the light of what has gone before in the debate, I hope that you and Jackie Baillie will indulge me in going off at somewhat of a tangent. When I initially read the motion, I thought that it was about people living on their own and loneliness, which would have been very appropriate at this time of year.

I was pleased to meet with the British Red Cross to discuss the issue of loneliness. It provided me with a great insight into the effects of social isolation and feeling alone, which was highlighted in the report “Trapped in a bubble: An investigation into triggers for loneliness in the UK”. It is those people who will be most affected by Scottish Water’s proposed policy change.

I met the then Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, to ask what action could be taken to address social isolation and loneliness. It is disappointing that it has taken until this week for the Government to reveal the findings of its consultation, given that the consultation finished at the end of April. In response, my colleague Annie Wells put forward wide-ranging plans to combat loneliness, including national awareness campaigns and—perhaps most important of all—the recognition that the need for loneliness support affects people of all ages.

Tonight, in the spirit of the season—I presumed that the debate was going to be more in that spirit—I pay tribute to some of the organisations that are working tirelessly across Dumfries and Galloway to help people who are living on their own.

I have been quite indulgent, because you did not read the motion properly.

You are absolutely right.

Do not test my indulgence by giving me a big list of all the organisations that you want on the record.

I certainly will not do that.

No, you will not.

At this time of year, when the focus is on goodwill to all men and women, Scottish Water needs to look again at its misguided plans that will punish people simply for their living circumstances.

Thank you very much. I see that you have found your card and I have found my glasses, so things are improving.

17:25  

I start by paying tribute to my colleague Jackie Baillie for securing the debate and lodging her relevant motion. Jackie has a formidable record as a campaigner and in bringing issues of substance and issues that matter to the Scottish Parliament chamber. Scottish Water’s proposed cut to the discount for single persons is no different from those.

We should look at the extent of the issue. The proposal will affect nearly one million people; the geographic breakdown shows that it will affect 138,000 people in Glasgow and 57,000 people in South Lanarkshire. I have no doubt that many people across Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Blantyre will be concerned about the proposals in the Scottish Government’s consultation document. Age Scotland is right to highlight the impact on pensioners. We know that over the next 25 years, the impact will grow by 50 per cent.

It is relevant that we are having the debate at this time of year, when we are also focusing on fuel poverty. A quarter of people in Scotland suffer from fuel poverty, and half of them are older people. A lot of the issues relating to the single-person discount affect older people.

That being the case, the Scottish Government is pursuing the wrong policy. First, the policy is unfair. If the single occupancy discount was reduced or removed, nearly a million people would be affected, including a lot of pensioners.

Secondly, there seems to be an argument about shifting to the council tax reduction element of the water charge. That has very poor uptake, so it would not have the same impact in terms of helping people. There would be unintended consequences to the policy.

I suspect that the Scottish Government is taking the approach because it continues to pursue fundraising options to fill the black holes in its budget—not just this year, but in future years. Nobody should be surprised by that. From the publication of last week’s draft budget, we know that there will be a decrease of £319 million in real terms for local councils alone. There are clear issues with that.

Jackie Baillie has brought a relevant issue to the chamber. Having looked at the consultation, I say to James Dornan that it lists clearly the various current exemptions and says:

“Ministers ... consider that there is a strong case for reducing or removing these discounts.”

It says not just that there is a case, but that there is “a strong case”. That shows how the Government is thinking. It clearly knows that the issue is controversial, given that it will publish the results of the consultation on Friday, when most people will be heading off for the Christmas break. I agree with Jackie Baillie that the Government should rethink its position, if the direction of travel is to reduce or get rid of the discount.

This debate has been relevant in bringing the issue to the chamber, so I hope that the cabinet secretary’s response to it is constructive. As the change would have a detrimental effect on nearly a million Scots, a lot of whom are pensioners, we need to rethink the way forward.

17:30  

First, I declare an interest as the owner of a dormant water distribution company.

I congratulate Jackie Baillie on lodging the motion, which questions Scottish Water’s—or, indeed, the Scottish Government’s—intention to remove the 25 per cent single occupancy discount. The proposal to reduce the discount to 10 per cent will be a significant blow to the ever-growing number of people living on their own in Scotland, and will not bring Christmas cheer to the many hundreds of thousands of people who will be affected by the proposal, if the Scottish Government has its way.

Of course, the move will affect not just people who live alone; it will affect single people on low and fixed incomes, as well as elderly people, who will feel most upset if the Scottish Government reduces the discount. In addition, information that has been provided by Age Concern, and which has been used by other members, suggests that over the next 25 years the number of older people living alone in Scotland is set to rise by almost 50 per cent. The Scottish Government’s proposals will see all those people facing increased council tax through increased water rates.

We know that the Scottish Government is consulting on proposals on how to change the charging structure for Scottish Water customers, and we are aware of the growing need to fund new infrastructure projects in Scotland, as Victorian water distribution and sewerage systems become obsolete and are simply overwhelmed by lack of capacity and higher rainfall resulting from climate change.

However, such renewal must not be undertaken at the expense of pensioners, single people or the least well-off people in our country. For example, desperately needed new infrastructure in Prestwick in my constituency, where frequent external sewer flooding is now a regular occurrence, must not be funded in that way. Rebuilding the sewerage network to deliver new external sewer capacity must be delivered from charging and taxing those who are better able to afford such costs, so I hope that the Scottish Government, through Scottish Water, will soon create the new infrastructure that is so desperately needed in Prestwick without feeling the need to put its hands in the pockets of those who are least able to afford it.

With regard to water rates and new charging structures, I note that water rates are just one of the many costs that disproportionately affect people who live on their own. At the moment, the reduction is only 25 per cent, and it is important that Government remembers that 40 per cent of the people who are eligible for pension credits do not claim them. Other benefits to which many of our proud but often lonely elderly are entitled are also unclaimed, and I am always happy to ask our ever-helpful South Ayrshire Council and the Department for Work and Pensions in Ayr to organise a benefits check for any of my constituents, just in case they are missing out on benefits to which they are, properly, entitled.

I again congratulate Jackie Baillie on securing and promoting this lively debate on a very important issue. The Scottish Conservatives certainly agree with her motion in this last members’ business debate before Christmas. It is in the spirit of Christmas that we urge the Scottish Government to listen to Jackie Baillie and the many speeches in the debate before it reduces discounts on water rates for single people.

17:33  

I restate at the outset that this is a debate on a consultation about which no decision has yet been made. The consultation dealt with a number of issues, one of which was whether the current discounting system could be better focused on those who are most in need.

Water charges in Scotland remain among the lowest in the UK, and the range of discounts, exemptions and reductions that we offer to classes of customers who face specific circumstances are not available elsewhere. That is a source of pride, and it shows the merits of our public sector ownership. However, I make it clear that the discounts and exemptions are not Government grants or subsidies, but are paid for by other household customers. The current range of discounts costs them £146 million, which is equivalent to nearly £63 in the average bill.

It is not unreasonable to ask whether the current system helps the people who have most difficulty paying. That is what we set out to consider, and what led us to put the proposal in the consultation. We did that after close discussion with Citizens Advice Scotland, and in the light of research that was undertaken by it. Research that was undertaken by the Fraser of Allander institute on behalf of CAS, and which was published on the CAS website, estimated that 12 per cent of households in Scotland spend more than 3 per cent of their weekly income on water and sewerage charges. That is 297,000 households that could be said to face affordability issues.

The research noted that not all single-occupant households face affordability issues. Indeed, they do not: as John Mason pointed out, a fair number of MSPs might be in that category. Being a single-person household does not equate to inability to pay. The research by the Fraser of Allander institute also concluded that households that are in receipt of council tax reduction are those that are most likely to face affordability issues.

The consultation was about finding out whether there is a way to support better the people who are most vulnerable. I am surprised that anyone would think that that is not a reasonable question to ask.

I do not think that anybody is disputing that what we want is that the people who have least gain from the discount. However, the method by which the Government has chosen to do that is to remove the discount from others who cannot afford to have it taken away.

I commented that single-person household status is not related to affordability. I said that we worked with Citizens Advice Scotland. Members might want to look at its report, which was published in September, entitled “Charting a new course: A study in developing affordability policy for water and sewerage charges”. The results of the consultation have been analysed and are now online. People can therefore see who did and who did not lodge submissions to the consultation.

Further research, consultation and engagement with the potentially affected demographics and relevant interest groups will be undertaken prior to a decision being made. I reiterate that no decision has been made.

Meeting closed at 17:37.