Meeting date: Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 20 November 2018
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Urgent Question, Best Start Grant (Implementation), Digital Industries, Business Motion, Committee Announcement, Decision Time, Offshore Wind Week 2018
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Urgent Question
- Best Start Grant (Implementation)
- Digital Industries
- Business Motion
- Committee Announcement
- Decision Time
- Offshore Wind Week 2018
Topical Question Time
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the report on the fact-finding visit to the United Kingdom by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and how this will inform its plan to tackle child poverty in Scotland. (S5T-01334)
To anyone who reads Professor Philip Alston’s interim report, its conclusions are clear. It is a devastating critique of the UK Government’s economic and welfare policies, which are causing—I quote—“misery”. The rapporteur has made multiple recommendations about what the UK Government could do differently, including urgently changing universal credit to make it fit for purpose, ending the benefits freeze and scrapping the two-child limit and the appalling rape clause. The Scottish Government has consistently requested UK ministers to take those actions, and we will continue to press the UK Government to change course.
I welcome the rapporteur’s references to the very different approach that the Scottish Government has taken. He highlighted the establishment of a social security system that is guided by evidence and the principles of dignity, fairness and respect, recognised that we are mitigating the worst of the UK Government’s welfare cuts, and described our plans for tackling child poverty as “ambitious”.
We will build on the work of Angela Constance when she was Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities and deliver in full on the ambitions that she set out in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017.
The United Nations special rapporteur said that, despite the UK being one of the world’s richest countries, we have “staggering” and rising levels of child poverty, and he called on UK ministers to open their eyes—although Amber Rudd has confirmed the UK Government’s on-going state of denial. Given that the Scottish Parliament united to pass legislation to end child poverty in the knowledge of the powers that we have and do not have, how will the cabinet secretary take forward the child poverty delivery plan and, specifically, the crucial components of affordable housing, the new income supplement and the tailored employment support programme?
Amber Rudd’s comments yesterday were disappointing. She seemed to dismiss the report and characterise Professor Alston’s language as political in nature. In dismissing the report, she dismissed the consequences of the actions that the UK Government has taken, which have caused great misery to the most vulnerable. The UK Government needs to open its eyes and lift its head from the sand. Child poverty is still too high, and the finger of blame should point squarely at it and its welfare cuts.
We will work to do all that we can with the powers that we have, often with one hand tied behind our back. We will continue our work on the development of the income supplement, which is a complex undertaking. We want to ensure that that work meets our two key principles: that it reaches the greatest number of children living in poverty and that it tops up incomes sufficiently to lift those families out of poverty.
We are on track to deliver our ambitious programme of 50,000 affordable homes, including 35,000 for social rent. Since 2007, we have delivered more than 78,000 affordable homes. We have also begun work on the £12 million programme of intensive employment support.
An update on all those actions will be provided to Parliament by June next year.
Professor Alston said:
“Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to find tax cuts for the wealthy instead.”
He also said:
“it is outrageous that devolved administrations need to spend resources to shield people”
from UK Government policies.
Given that the Scottish Parliament does not accept that poverty is inevitable, what choices will the Scottish Government make, by contrast, to ensure that ending child poverty is core to our forthcoming budget? Given that any mitigation needs to be affordable and sustainable, will the cabinet secretary commit to working with the Parliament to ensure that we continue to work together to end child poverty in Scotland?
We are very clear that the UK budget could have ended the benefits freeze. The UK Government could have chosen to gift a better future for children across these isles, but it chose not to; instead, it decided to prioritise tax cuts for the better-off. That showed an utter disregard for the most vulnerable, and the Tories should be utterly ashamed of that.
However, we cannot sit back. That is why we are spending £125 million this year on mitigating and mopping up the mess from the ideologically driven cuts of the UK Government. However, as Angela Constance pointed out, mitigating everything is unsustainable. The scale of the cut—a £3.7 billion reduction—in welfare spending is the combined total of the budgets of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and NHS Lothian.
I want to use our resources and our powers to create a fairer and more equal country, not just to mitigate the actions of another Government, and I certainly look forward to working with Angela Constance and other members across the Parliament to do just that.
The special reporter noted that the concept of universal credit, in simplifying benefits, smoothing work incentives and providing more skills training, is “in many respects admirable”. Can the minister confirm that the Scottish Government’s policy remains that, in principle, we should simplify benefits and ensure that there is no cliff edge in benefit levels?
Oliver Mundell should be reminded that the special rapporteur also called the system “Universal Discredit”.
We have made many representations to the UK Government to ask it to halt the roll-out of universal credit and to listen to the views of the Scottish Parliament, which has outlined and articulated the dire consequences of universal credit and the way it has been handled. As I said in reply to Angela Constance’s question, the UK Government could have taken a different path in the UK budget, but it chose not to; instead, it prioritised tax cuts for the better-off. Those are not the priorities of the Scottish Government. We will continue to work hard to create a better future for children in Scotland.
Despite the previous question, many members will agree that the UN report is a damning indictment of the Tories’ cruel and ideological approach to welfare and poverty. However, will the cabinet secretary recognise that cuts to local authority budgets are having an impact in Scotland as well as in England? Although I welcome the report’s acknowledgement of some of the good work that is being done by this Parliament, does the cabinet secretary recognise that it has been a year since the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 was passed but the Government has still not brought forward its proposed income supplement? With one in four Scottish children still living in poverty, will she now reconsider that there is a pressing need and accept Scottish Labour’s proposal for quick action by topping up child benefit by £5 a week to lift 30,000 children out of poverty?
I agree with much of what Elaine Smith set out with regard to the report and its damning critique of the UK Government. However, as I outlined to Angela Constance, we are currently working on the development of an income supplement, because the analysis that we had of the proposed top-up proved that we could deploy that resource in a better way to lift more families out of poverty. It is a complex undertaking, and I will continue to engage with Elaine Smith on that work, as I pledged to do with her colleague Alex Rowley.
We have begun work on the £12 million programme of intensive employment support, which directly seeks to help parents who are on low incomes to move into work and to progress their careers when they are already in work. The first delivery projects will commence on that next year. We are taking robust action. We are spending £125 million on mitigation and we will continue to work with other parties to make sure that, where we need to do more, we can do so in a collaborative fashion.
The UK Government’s contempt for the report is emblematic of the contempt that it has shown for the lives of the people who are affected by the issues that the report covers. However, although we should be pleased that the report recognises the distinctive approach that is being taken in Scotland, I am sure that the minister agrees that we should never be complacent. Therefore, I ask how the Scottish Government responds to the section regarding the Scottish welfare fund, which says:
“It is clear to me that there is still a real accountability gap, which should be addressed. The absence of a legal remedy or more robust reference to international standards in the Social Security (Scotland) Act is significant and should be addressed.”
How does the Scottish Government respond to that aspect of the report?
We take all of the recommendations and actions that Professor Alston set out with the utmost seriousness. Of course, I agree with his critique of what the UK Government has been doing. I will take on board the issues that he raised, but nowhere is the Scottish Government’s commitment to human rights more evident than in our work to create the new social security system for Scotland. Section 1 of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 establishes the human right to social security as a founding ideal of the system, and it goes further than article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. There is also strong parliamentary accountability for the delivery of the social security charter that accompanies the system.
In relation to the justiciability of human rights, we require a properly thought-through Scotland-wide approach, which is why the First Minister established an advisory group on human rights leadership led by Professor Alan Miller. We look forward to considering the group’s recommendations. We take Professor Alston’s recommendations seriously, but we have a good platform to build on in order to evidence to him that we are taking forward the work that he says we need to make more effort on.
Kelp (Mechanical Harvesting)
To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the mechanical harvesting of kelp by dredging. (S5T-01337)
That is an issue that I would have expected to deal with at tomorrow’s stage 3 of the Scottish Crown Estate Bill. Currently, the mechanical harvesting of kelp from the sea bed, by a vessel or vehicle, requires a marine licence. Through the marine licensing process, the Scottish Government is committed to protecting the environment and to the national marine plan, which sets a presumption in favour of development that is sustainable. We recognise that kelp is an important part of our marine biodiversity, and having considered amendments to the Scottish Crown Estate Bill, we intend to support Mark Ruskell’s amendment, although some clarifications and qualifications require to be made.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that there has been much correspondence about the matter, some of which I have obtained as a result of a freedom of information request. In a letter to the company in question, which is dated July 2017, Marine Scotland talks about “Your innovative proposal”, which has
“already received strong support from Scotland’s economic development agencies”,
“stand ready to provide further assistance as you take your project forward.”
The letter’s author goes on to say:
“I would like to assure you that Marine Scotland is keen to see this sort of initiative ... This is a priority issue for us ... I look forward to seeing it develop.”
Will the cabinet secretary explain how the promoter of a policy can also be the regulator? Will she also indicate how the public can have confidence that Marine Scotland will act impartially?
I think that members would probably welcome the fact that the Scottish Government and its agencies are looking at innovative industries and thinking about new technologies and what might be developed in Scotland in the future. All Governments will be doing that, and all Governments will be trying to ensure that, within the confines that they might have set in relation to environmental sustainability—which is clearly part of what we are trying to do—they assist in that regard. I imagine that almost any Government would be in the same position.
If environmental considerations were at the heart of Scottish Government thinking, the Government would already have banned mechanical harvesting of kelp by dredging.
The cabinet secretary’s comments and the correspondence that I read out leave open the question of who is actually in charge. Will the cabinet secretary say whether it is she or the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy who is pushing the dredging agenda inside Government? Some 500 businesses are opposed to dredging, including businesses and fishermen in my constituency for whom a pristine environment is a vital requirement.
Marine protection is vital. We have already seen the Scottish Government take a very casual approach to it in the context of ship-to-ship transfers. Who is in charge?
No one is pushing any agenda. We are all trying to ensure that Scotland has new industries and that innovative technologies are considered carefully. That is the basis on which we are working.
As I indicated, tomorrow I will support amendments to the Scottish Crown Estate Bill that Mark Ruskell has lodged. I am grateful for Mark Ruskell’s engagement with me and for his care and his thinking on aspects of the matter, which raises issues that still need to be resolved.
I am not sure that the process in which we currently find ourselves is the best way imaginable to consider any new industry.
The licensing process itself is about bottoming out the environmental issues that require to be considered.
I hope that all members support the notion that new industries should be considered carefully.
For clarification, will the cabinet secretary say which activities will and will not be covered by the proposed approach to which she referred?
People need to understand the complexities of the issue in relation to one or two things. It is our view that the phrase “for commercial use”, which is used in Mark Ruskell’s amendment, should not prevent power stations, commercial ports or similar public infrastructure from removing kelp species for maintenance or other public-interest reasons; nor should it prevent appropriate research and development. Removal by hand cutting should not be prevented; Scottish Natural Heritage has advised that that activity is sustainable.
I will consider the need for guidance or directions to managers on the issues. I need to keep back something to say during tomorrow’s debate, but I can say that I will be announcing a review of the regulatory regime for all kelp harvesting activity, up to and including farming.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement of support for Mark Ruskell’s amendments, which Alex Rowley and I have supported.
Kelp forests are a priority marine feature and play a vital part in sequestering carbon, protecting our coastlines from erosion, providing feeding grounds for endangered seabirds and providing habitat for a wide and diverse range of species, including juvenile fish. That is very important; indeed, I would describe kelp forests as a cradle for existing sustainable industries. Will those important issues be taken into account in the Scottish Government’s deliberations on kelp harvesting?
Those issues have, indeed, been taken into account and will be so during any licensing process—there is not one at the current point. They are all areas that I will expect to look at in any review of the regime for kelp harvesting activity.
Members ought to be aware that there are five different ways of harvesting kelp; it is a complex and diverse industry. A lot commercial activity is already on-going in Scotland and we do not want to disincentivise that.
That concludes topical questions.