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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 21 March 2018

Agenda: Business Motion, United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Portfolio Question Time, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Communities, Social Security and Equalities

I want to get in as many members as possible; members have taken the trouble to lodge questions, so we should try to reach them all. It is a collective effort, so I ask for snappy questions and contained answers.

Scottish Welfare Fund (Households Assisted in Renfrewshire South)

To ask the Scottish Government how many households in the Renfrewshire South constituency have been assisted by the Scottish welfare fund since 2013. (S5O-01907)

Between April 2013 and September 2017, the Scottish welfare fund has helped 23,500 households in Renfrewshire, with more than £5.6 million having been allocated in crisis grants and community care grants, thereby providing a vital lifeline for people in Renfrewshire and across Scotland, and helping people in desperate situations who cannot afford to buy everyday items such as food and nappies, or to meet basic living costs.

What impact does the minister consider the United Kingdom Tory Government’s welfare reforms have had in terms of pushing people into circumstances in which they have needed the support of the Scottish welfare fund?

Welfare measures that have been passed since 2010 are expected to reduce annual spending in Scotland by £3.9 billion by 2020-2021. There is no doubt that the UK Government’s welfare reforms—in particular, the in-built wait for the first payment of universal credit—are pushing people into crisis.

In its report, the Trussell Trust highlighted a 17 per cent increase in use of its food banks in universal credit full-service areas, which is more than double the national average. The number of Scottish welfare fund crisis grant applications has also increased by 50 per cent since the introduction of universal credit in Scotland, of which 14 per cent is due to a delay in benefit payments.

It is imperative that the UK Government take action to reverse the freeze of working-age benefits, that it remove the child benefit two-child restriction, and that it halt the roll-out of universal credit before more people are pushed into poverty.

How many armed forces veterans’ families have been assisted by the Scottish welfare fund in Renfrewshire South?

I do not have that detailed information to hand, but I am very happy to source it and write to Maurice Corry with it.

Does the minister accept that the Scottish Government’s 7 per cent real-terms cut to the Scottish welfare fund since 2013 means that councils have fewer resources? The Scottish Parliament information centre says that 26,000 more crisis grant payments could have been made had the funding kept pace with inflation.

What I do accept is that the overall cut to the Scottish budget has made political choices for this Government difficult. We are doing our very best to support the most vulnerable people in our communities, and our welfare fund demonstrates that admirably.

Universal Credit (Support for Recipients in Inverclyde)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to people in Inverclyde who are in receipt of universal credit to assist them to have greater control over their household budget. (S5O-01908)

We believe that it is important to give people choice over how to manage their money. Since last October, people making a new claim for universal credit in full-service areas, such as Inverclyde, have had the choice to receive their universal credit award twice monthly and to have their housing costs paid directly to their landlord. Since January, that choice has been extended to everyone in universal credit full-service areas.

To the end of December, some 5,800 people with new claims have been offered one or both of the universal credit Scottish choices, and about 2,500 people have taken up one or both of those choices. As far as we understand it, the information available about those choices and their delivery has been clearly understood by those who are in receipt of universal credit and those choices are being used.

That information is very helpful. Given the extension of the universal credit choices to existing universal credit claimants, how many households does the Government expect will benefit from those choices, once universal credit has been fully rolled out?

We expect up that to 700,000 households will be able to benefit from universal credit Scottish choices by the end of the planned universal credit roll-out by the United Kingdom Government, which is currently timed for 2022.

Loneliness and Social Isolation (South Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle loneliness and social isolation in the South Scotland region. (S5O-01909)

As part of our engagement process, our draft strategy—which we launched in January—has included the organisation of a series of events to hear from local communities and organisations. We have already hosted an event in Dumfries, and one is planned in Galashiels.

The draft strategy includes a commitment to consider the particular issues and barriers related to isolation in rural areas. It is important that we hear from communities about what will make a difference for them.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s strategy. Does the minister agree that we should recognise the work that the national rural mental health forum, which is run by the mental health charity Support in Mind Scotland, is undertaking with respect to the unique challenges that are presented by rural isolation?

There are undoubtedly particular issues across all ages in our rural communities, which has been highlighted by, for example, the campaign by the Scottish Association of Young Farmers.

The national rural mental health forum is a strong national network of rural people and stakeholders who are driving change to enable people in rural communities to be open about their mental health. It uses a solid evidence base to improve people’s lives and to create a programme to influence policy makers, including the Government. I encourage the rural mental health forum to contribute to the consultation on our draft strategy. I am sure that it will be able to present a number of important ideas for us to consider.

Universal Credit (Impact)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the impact of universal credit in areas where it has been introduced. (S5O-01910)

As Bruce Crawford will know, the Scottish Government has long been making known our concerns about universal credit to the UK Government. On 21 March last year, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities wrote to the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Damian Green, raising a range of serious concerns and calling for a complete halt to universal credit roll-out.

On 28 September 2017, I wrote a joint letter with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, based on significant evidence from our local authorities, urging the Department for Work and Pensions to reconsider and halt roll-out of universal credit. I reiterated that request when I gave evidence to Westminster’s Work and Pensions Committee on 24 January this year.

Unfortunately, the UK Government has never indicated a willingness to engage with us on those issues, and has instead forged ahead with a system that is clearly not suitable for the people who need it. The concessions that that Government made in autumn last year, including reducing the six-week wait for the first payment to five weeks, simply do not go far enough.

Although I am pleased that our universal credit Scottish choices are being taken up by people across Scotland, I am well aware that we have very limited powers over universal credit. We cannot fix the problems that are caused by the UK Government’s decision to freeze the amounts that are paid and by the systemic problems in roll-out. Only the UK Government can do that, so we will continue to press it, in that regard.

Is the minister aware that the Tories in Stirling Council have no faith in universal credit, given that they have called for the council to spend £600,000 over the next three years to mitigate it? That council’s public safety committee recently reported that victims of domestic abuse are losing their financial independence under universal credit’s single-parent system, which is making people who are in controlling relationships even more vulnerable, so what more can be done to persuade the UK Government to dispense with the system, to halt it as a matter of urgency and to review and address the serious faults?

I am, indeed, aware of that situation. It is further proof—if proof were needed—that universal credit is failing the people of Scotland. The DWP already has, through alternative payment arrangements, the ability to provide split payments for households in which domestic or financial abuse is a problem.

However, in my view that approach shows a flawed understanding of the nature of domestic abuse and the controlling characteristics in it from which victims suffer. The Scottish Government is exploring with the DWP how we might exercise a choice for people in Scotland by introducing split payments for universal credit, but that is made complicated by the fact that the benefit is itself reserved. The DWP would have to deliver any such choice for us, and it would, of course, charge us for that. A far better solution would be for the DWP to pay attention to my colleague Dr Philippa Whitford and her attempts at Westminster to get the system changed at source and to have split universal credit payments as the default.

Gender Equality (Promotion)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the need to promote gender equality. (S5O-01911)

Our position is that we will continue to take action to promote and achieve gender equality in our country. I am pleased that a great deal of progress has been made on gender equality in recent years, but there is always much more to do.

Our recent action includes taking tangible steps to improve the lives of women and girls in Scotland and to challenge inequality where it persists. Already this year, we have passed legislation on women’s representation on public boards and on domestic abuse. We are taking forward action to tackle the gender pay gap and to make work fairer for women by, for example, transforming our childcare offer, challenging pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and supporting women to return to work. Moreover, we are continuing to invest in tackling and preventing violence against women and girls and in providing the support and services that they need.

I was depressed to be made aware at the beginning of March of the detention of 35 women by the Iranian authorities for attempting to attend a high-profile football fixture. A number of my constituents have written to me on the matter, which stands in contrast with what we are doing in Scotland. Not only have we taken important steps to encourage women and girls to become interested in football, but that success has been demonstrated by the success of the Scottish women’s national football team, who qualified for their first major championships—Euro 2017—and have made an unbeaten start to their 2019 world cup qualifying campaign.

Given that Scotland is a nation that has made important advances in encouraging women into football, will the cabinet secretary join me in urging FIFA and its member associations to do all that they can to ensure that the Iranian Government lifts this shameful ban and gives gender equality to women to allow them to both participate in and spectate at football and other sporting activities in Iran?

I will certainly raise the details of Mr Carlaw’s request in relation to FIFA with my health colleagues, who have responsibility for sports policy. The member makes a fair and credible point about the impact that sport can have on improving equality for women and girls and, as I have said, I will take that forward with my colleagues in health.

In the spirit of Mr Carlaw’s question, I want to congratulate the Scottish women’s rugby team on their successes during the recent six nations championship.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that full devolution of employment law to Scotland would fully equip the Government to tackle gender inequality in the workplace here?

I really do not want to get into any rivalry between rugby and football supporters. I am not much of an expert on either sport, but I know that both have an important place in our national life and in the advances that we make on equality.

As for Clare Adamson’s substantive question, employment law and, indeed, equality law remain reserved to the United Kingdom. That means that issues such as maternity and paternity rights, which the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee drew attention to yesterday in its report on fathers in the workplace, are all reserved. Our work on encouraging employers to take more flexible approaches to family-friendly working environments and working hours is undertaken through persuasion, and it is fair to say that we do not have the full range of powers that would give us more tools and more choices to address issues such as fairness at work.

Inequality (People from Lower-income Backgrounds)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it offers to people from lower-income backgrounds to tackle inequality. (S5O-01912)

The Scottish Government is absolutely committed to supporting those on low incomes and to tackling inequality. We are taking a wide range of actions. There is, for example, our continued commitment to the living wage. We are delivering 72,500 affordable homes; significantly increasing the investment in free childcare and early learning; providing free school meals for all primary 1 to primary 3 pupils and throughout school for pupils from low-income households; providing a baby box to every newborn child in Scotland; and investing in free prescriptions and residential care.

We are spending £750 million on our attainment challenge and driving forward the recommendations of our commission on widening access so that every child—no matter their background or circumstances—has an equal chance of going to university by 2030. On top of that, we invest £100 million a year in welfare mitigation to protect those who are on low incomes from the worst impacts of United Kingdom Government welfare cuts.

We will, of course, go further with a range of actions in our child poverty delivery plan, which I look forward to sharing with Parliament next week.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that a big barrier to tackling inequality that is felt by young people in rural and hard-to-get-to areas is the cost associated with travel to apprenticeships, further education or even higher education? Will she look into helping young people on limited budgets who live in rural areas and face unforeseen expenses to access opportunities in order to tackle inequality?

Yes, indeed. I am sure that Rachael Hamilton is aware of the consultation on our broader transport policy that is being led by the Minister for Transport and the Islands, Humza Yousaf. There are also proposals to assist young modern apprentices in particular with the cost of travel.

We understand and appreciate, of course, that there are additional barriers in rural communities—one of which is transport—particularly for young people. Given the tone and tenor of Rachael Hamilton’s question, we will certainly take that issue forward.

In September, it was reported that 104,000 pensioners were missing out on £238 million of pension credit. The Government then spent a quarter of a million pounds on an older persons benefit uptake campaign. How many people responded to that campaign? How many older people are now better off as a result of it?

That information will be published shortly.

On the broader issue of council tax relief, we invest heavily in the council tax reduction scheme. It is important always to stress that relief is available to affected households. Councils should, of course, publicise the relief when bills are issued. As Mr Griffin has acknowledged, that has featured in our benefits maximisation campaigns. We will get back to him about the specific information that he requested.

Universal Credit (Impact of Income Tax Starter Rate)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that people do not lose universal credit because of the starter rate of income tax. (S5O-01913)

That issue clearly highlights the complexities of our current devolution settlement. Universal credit claimants who pay tax at the starter rate benefit from Scottish income tax policy. They will pay less income tax than people would pay anywhere else in the United Kingdom because of the new band that we have created. The UK Government controls policy for universal credit and has stipulated that it should be calculated according to an individual’s income after tax. That means that, whenever we reduce tax for an individual, the UK Government’s rules will operate to reduce their universal credit entitlement.

We are aware of the complex interaction between Scottish income tax policy and entitlement to universal credit, which is reserved to the UK Government, and we will continue to engage with it as universal credit is rolled out across Scotland.

The minister is, of course, aware of the work of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, which has told us that someone on the starter rate will get only £7 and not the £20 that the Scottish Government promised them. I understand that the fiscal framework makes provision for a transfer back to the Scottish Government. Has the minister asked for that money? How much is it? How will the minister pass that on to the people affected?

It is not, of course, the Scottish Government’s fault that individuals receive less as a consequence of the UK Government’s rules on universal credit. I have explained that the UK Government’s rules on universal credit, which is a benefit that it controls, say that it will be calculated after tax. Therefore, when we increase an individual’s income as a consequence of our tax policy, the UK Government will reduce that income because of how it applies its universal credit rules. [Interruption.] My colleagues on my left—they are on my left only with regard to the seating arrangements in the chamber, of course—can shout and moan as much as they like, but they must accept responsibility for the decisions on universal credit of their party in government at United Kingdom level, which make the situation precisely as I have described it.

I turn to Ms Dugdale’s supplementary. As she knows from the answer that Mr Mackay gave previously in the chamber, we are in discussions with the UK Government on how those arrangements work. The issue is more complex than it might first appear, as matters that relate to the fiscal framework and the Smith commission always are.

The answer to all that is to pass to the Scottish Parliament all the powers to do with social security and taxation. That would let us get on and do a better job than the one that is being done for us down south.

United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to mark the UN international day for the elimination of racial discrimination. (S5O-01914)

I congratulate Mr MacGregor on the motion that he lodged to mark this significant day, which was debated earlier, and on securing cross-party support for it.

To mark the day, I published a blog on our fairer Scotland website, in which I highlighted that this year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which I noted is as relevant today as it was on the day on which it was signed. I also referred to the independent race equality adviser’s report and her 70 recommendations, which formed the starting point for our race equality action plan. I was pleased to announce that we will provide funding of around £70,000 to one of our key race equality partners, BEMIS, to deliver a programme of local and national events that is aimed at involving minority ethnic young people in the year of young people.

I am very much looking forward to attending an event tomorrow to celebrate young people’s creativity in tackling racism, which will be hosted by Show Racism the Red Card.

I welcome the actions that the Government is taking to tackle racism. Given that it is actions that matter, does the cabinet secretary agree that all workplaces and establishments, including political parties, should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to racism and discrimination against minorities?

I do. The member is right to highlight that a zero-tolerance approach to racism and racial discrimination is needed. That response is needed now, and it must be consistent.

I agree that strong and effective action must be taken against anyone who commits a racist hate crime. All those who occupy leadership positions in public life must make clear their rejection of racist and Islamophobic abuse and must take action against anyone who makes statements of that nature.

It was good to see Anas Sarwar and Humza Yousaf showing a united front at the weekend in response to the racist and Islamophobic abuse that they routinely experience, which I am sure we are all absolutely appalled by, but it is important to stress that it is not just for Anas Sarwar and Humza Yousaf to stand united on the issue—we must all stand united in tackling racism in all its forms.

Will the Scottish Government support the call from BEMIS for Scotland’s national identity to be as inclusive as it can be and for it to include the integration of refugees and asylum seekers into Scottish society? Does the cabinet secretary agree that anti-refugee sentiment has no place in Scotland or in our society?

I agree. It is, indeed, a case of one Scotland, many cultures. I hope that the member has seen that reflected in the good cross-party civic Scotland work that we have done on our immigration strategy for new Scots.

Period Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle period poverty. (S5O-01915)

In our programme for government, which was published in September, we committed to introducing a scheme to fund access to free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities. Scottish Government officials are currently working with key stakeholders including the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland to ensure that provision can be put in place by the autumn term this year.

We are also committed to considering further action to support others on low incomes in the light of the findings of the pilot scheme in Aberdeen. The pilot is currently being evaluated, and I was pleased to announce recently that we will continue to make sanitary products available to those who took part in the pilot while the evaluation is completed.

Is the cabinet secretary aware of the urgency of the matter for people in Aberdeenshire, where the Tory-led council has now determined that those who require such products must come forward for them, thus potentially stigmatising those who require them by reason of poverty?

I agree that free and accessible provision in schools is vital to tackling the issue, which is why this Government has committed to making that happen in schools across Scotland from the start of the next academic year.

Recent research that we carried out in partnership with Young Scot found that having to ask a member of staff for sanitary products was the least popular option among those in education. Officials have worked closely with stakeholders, informed by that important research, to develop a set of guiding principles for provision. Those principles include ensuring that dignity is front and centre and that students’ views are taken into account in developing the delivery approach.

It appears that the approach of Aberdeenshire Council is not consistent with students’ views or with our guiding principles. I encourage it to look again at its delivery approach in consultation with students. I and my officials stand ready to assist either the MSP for the area, councillors or officials.

I call Monica Lennon. As you have already had a supplementary question, Ms Lennon, I ask you to be brief.

I commend the Scottish Government for its work on the Aberdeen pilot scheme. I have been to visit the pilot scheme, and the volunteers at Community Food Initiatives North East are doing fantastic work. Is the cabinet secretary able to say when the interim report or anonymised data from the pilot scheme will be shared? When will the Government come to a view on the merits of universal access?

We are working hard to do that as quickly as possible. It will not be done before Easter, but I certainly hope that that work will be complete before the summer months, and I will endeavour to make sure that it is.

Empty Homes (Private Sector)

To ask the Scottish Government what its policy is regarding empty homes in the private sector. (S5O-01916)

Empty homes can be a blight on communities and are a wasted resource at a time when people across Scotland need homes. Our policy provides support to local authorities and other organisations to encourage private owners to bring their properties back into use.

We work with the Scottish empty homes partnership to deliver an advisory helpline and a network of dedicated empty homes officers across Scotland, and more than 2,800 homes have been brought back into use since 2010. In the programme for government, we committed to doubling the funding for the partnership, and we want to see empty homes officer support in every local authority. I am pleased to see the partnership’s hard work come to fruition, with a new empty homes officer post being agreed by Aberdeen City Council last week.

Local authorities also have the power to charge an empty homes levy under the Council Tax (Variation for Unoccupied Dwellings) (Scotland) Regulations, which we introduced in 2013 as an additional tool to encourage the private owners of these properties to bring them back into use, and we provide dedicated funding through the £4.5 million empty homes loan fund and the £4 million town centre empty homes fund.

I welcome the minister’s answer, as, indeed, I welcomed the decision by Aberdeen City Council last week. In particular, I welcome his support for a network of empty homes officers. There is evidence of a direct correlation between such dedicated posts and success in bringing empty homes back into use. The minister also mentioned the levy. Does he believe that local authorities now have all the powers that they need to tackle the problem?

I know that the levy is being used, and I have no evidence from local authorities to say that it is not working. I am always more than willing to listen to what local authorities have to say in these areas, and, if they come forward with further proposals, I will certainly consider them. We want to do all that we can to ensure that empty homes are brought back into use.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Incorporation)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to incorporate the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights into Scots law. (S5O-01917)

Many of the rights that are identified in international human rights treaties already find expression in the law of Scotland, including rights that are set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The First Minister’s advisory group on human rights leadership, which is chaired by Professor Alan Miller, has been asked to consider the potential effects of incorporating international human rights treaties into domestic law and the means by which that might be undertaken in practice. The group will make its recommendations by the end of this year, and we are clear that any mechanism that is designed to secure the further incorporation of international treaties must be practical and deliverable and must result in genuine improvements in the daily lived experience of individuals across the whole of Scottish society.

Given the Government’s commitment to deliver a collaborative process to determine the rights that should be incorporated, and given the recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on Great Britain’s lack of progress in implementing the covenant, can the cabinet secretary advise me of her view of what should be the first right or rights to be incorporated?

There is a question. Thank you very much for that, Mr Wightman. I think that I would be standing here all day if I gave my deliberations about that on the hoof, although, as members would expect, I do have some personal preferences. It is important that we allow the First Minister’s advisory group to show leadership in the area. As I said in my original answer, the Government is clear that the benefits of incorporation need to be practical and must deliver real improvements to real folk in their real lives. It is fair to say that there is a job of work to be done in better understanding the mechanism and process for getting to that place.

On the issue of collaboration, it is important that the member is aware that the advisory group will meet every few months and will work hard to collaborate with civic Scotland. I am sure that the member will be able to feed into that process.

Ministerial Working Group on Gypsy/Travellers (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when the Gypsy/Travellers ministerial working group last met. (S5O-01918)

The ministerial working group on Gypsy/Travellers met for the first time on 1 February 2018, and the minutes of that meeting have been published on the Scottish Government’s website. There will be three further meetings this year, and we will share a set of draft actions in early 2019.

I am pleased to hear that the group met in February. Considering the broad scope of the ministerial group and that it is working across Government portfolios, how will the cabinet secretary seek to record and measure data that are specific to the Gypsy Traveller community so that we maintain a realistic view of progress?

The member raises a fair point about the importance of the data being consistent with our approach across the range of equalities. We need the right data and it needs to be proportionate, because we could invest all our time and money in contemplating and completing research and seeking out data. Given that it is, rightly, imperative that the Government act, it is important that we take a proportionate approach to data. The member’s question is a fair one. Our overall approach is laid out on our equality evidence website, and we published a strategy on equality evidence some months back.

On measuring success, I emphasise that the ministers who are involved in the ministerial working group—including me, as the chair—are absolutely determined to make demonstrable progress on issues of inequality that have impacted on the Gypsy Traveller community. It is well established that that group experiences the worst outcomes of any group in Scotland across a range of indicators, and we are determined to put that right.

Universal Credit (Roll-out)

13. David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the recent roll-out of universal credit and the impact that it has had on vulnerable people in Scotland. (S5O-01919)

As the member will recall, when I wrote jointly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to the Department for Work and Pensions Secretary of State back in September last year calling for the roll-out to be halted, we included evidence from local authorities that had been on universal credit the longest that showed that they were experiencing two and a half times more rent arrears for universal credit claimants than for those on housing benefit. Local authorities also reported an increase in administrative costs to them that was up to three times more than the funding that was received through their delivery partnership agreement with the DWP. Additionally, we know the demand impact on the Scottish welfare fund, which we have already touched on.

Although Scottish choices on the direct payment of rent to social and private landlords are relatively new—they were introduced for new claimants in October and rolled out for existing claimants in January—I am hopeful, given the take-up so far, that that will benefit not only individual claimants but landlords, in terms of rent arrears. Nonetheless, that is only one part of the difficulty with universal credit. We are well aware of its impact across Scotland.

The minister will be aware that universal credit was introduced in Fife in December. The local authority’s head of revenue and commercial services did not mince his words when he said:

“I can see a car crash happening when Universal Credit is fully rolled out”.

We are witnessing a sharp rise in rent arrears, food bank referrals and crisis grants to local authorities where universal credit has been rolled out. Does the Scottish Government agree that that is indicative of a system that is not working properly? What additional support, if any, has the United Kingdom Government provided to Scotland to address those challenges, as it continues to push forward the disastrous roll-out of universal credit?

That question was a wee bit too long-winded. Trim it next time, please.

I agree with David Torrance. I have said many times that the roll-out of universal credit should be halted and that the systemic problem should be fixed. The policy that freezes the benefits within universal credit should be addressed by the UK Government. Other than because it does not want to lose face, I do not understand why any sensible Government would not do as we are urging the UK Government to do.

The UK Government has not provided any additional support to help to address the problems that are being faced, despite those problems and the impact of them on our local authorities and on the Scottish Government being repeatedly demonstrated to the UK Government.

Social Security System (Support for Appeals)

To ask the Scottish Government how the Scottish social security system will support people seeking to appeal decisions (S5O-01920)

We have always been clear that people will have a right to challenge a social security agency decision if they believe that the agency has not made the right decision, and that we should make that process as simple and straightforward as possible.

I am pleased that we have support at stage 2 for the amendments that I lodged to make the appeal process easier while retaining the individual’s right to decide what they want to do. The amendments will ensure that the agency does all that it can to help an individual with an appeal, including providing information about the process, providing the right form to make an appeal and signposting the individual to organisations that can provide them with independent support throughout the process.

In addition, and in contrast with the current system, I have amended the Social Security (Scotland) Bill to ensure that we will make short-term financial assistance available when a decision to reduce or stop a continuing payment is being challenged. We will not use the removal of financial support to pressure individuals to accept decisions that they believe are wrong.

The minister mentioned that financial support will not be removed in the new Scottish system. Can she give us some details on the timing in terms of when a new decision is made? Removing financial support results in a cliff edge and in people having no support at all when a decision is appealed.

Short-term assistance has been introduced precisely to ensure that an individual is not financially penalised right through to appeal at tribunal level, while they pursue their right to challenge a decision of the Scottish social security agency. When the tribunal reaches its decision, the agency will pay whatever level of benefit that the tribunal has determined that the individual is due. I hope that that provides the member with the answer that she seeks. I am happy to talk to her further so that she understands what we are proposing.

The minister will be aware that, at present, the Social Security (Scotland) Bill does not allow a claimant an appeal to a first-tier tribunal if the appeal relates to overpayment. Will she look at that issue afresh and keep the system as it is? At the moment, if the claimant disagrees with a decision by the agency on overpayment, he or she is allowed an appeal to a first-tier tribunal.

I thank Mr Balfour for raising that issue because it addresses a fundamental misunderstanding of what is in the bill. There is, in fact, a right to appeal because, if the agency tells an individual that they have been overpaid, it does so because it has made a new determination. That determination is open to challenge right through to appeal. Therefore, any view on the agency’s part that an individual has been overpaid is as open to challenge right through to appeal as any other determination that it might make.

That concludes portfolio questions. I apologise to the five members whom I have been unable to call.