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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 21, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 21 March 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Men’s Sheds, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Land Reform, Decision Time


General Question Time

Home Adaptations (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government how the housing minister aims to improve the transparency, accessibility and reporting of home adaptation funding. (S5O-03034)

Integration joint boards are responsible for the planning and delivery of adaptations. We are undertaking a review of existing legislation and guidance on adaptations. That work has a practical focus, concentrating on identifying barriers and areas for development. We intend to issue revised guidance to IJBs later this year, to ensure that the tenure-neutral, person-centred approach to adaptations that I want for all older and disabled people happens consistently across the country.

The Scottish Government publishes a range of information on expenditure on adaptations.

The minister is aware that Scottish Government cash for home adaptations has been frozen for seven years. Now that it has been absorbed into the IJBs, it is almost impossible to track the number of adaptations that have been made or, indeed, what money has been spent. Given the clear link between home adaptations and the demand on social care, does he agree that the matter needs to be sorted out urgently and that we need to be able to follow the money? If so, when can we expect to do that?

I agree that we need to look at the issue in more depth, which is why the review is taking place. The Scottish Government has provided £10 million a year over a number of years directly to registered social landlords for adaptations—that is additional money; primarily, responsibility rests with IJBs.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I want to ensure that we do this right and as openly and transparently as possible, which is why we agreed to undertake the review. I am sure that Jeane Freeman or I will come back to Parliament with more in-depth information on the review once it is completed.

Kezia Dugdale is right: it is virtually impossible to follow the money in the current system. That needs to be sorted out. She mentioned that the money for adaptations has been frozen at £10 million a year for seven years, which is a real-terms decrease of more than £1 million. Does the minister not think that it is time to increase the amount?

As I said to Kezia Dugdale, that funding is additional money. Primary responsibility for budgeting for adaptations rests with integration joint boards; it is they that should ensure that people’s needs in this area are met.

In 2016-17, which is the latest year for which we have figures, the total reported spend by IJBs was £38.413 million. I want to ensure that people know where the money is being spent, which is why we agreed to undertake and have gone ahead with the review—it is the right thing to do.

Has the minister had any discussions with the Scottish War Blinded charity? It receives various grants and has funds available to help people from the armed forces community who are blind or visually impaired.

I am aware of the excellent work of Scottish War Blinded and other veterans charities in supporting and delivering services to disabled veterans across Scotland.

The Government’s housing voluntary sector grant supports third sector organisations that are committed to helping disabled people live independently at home. For example, Housing Options Scotland operates military matters, a project that focuses on housing matters affecting service personnel, veterans and their families.

National Entitlement Card Renewal (Disabled People)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason Transport Scotland requires disabled people to renew their national entitlement card every three years, including when their disability is permanent or progressive. (S5O-03035)

Renewal is due on the ground of disability, as documentary evidence is required to show that the person remains eligible to access the scheme. Although some conditions are permanent, in the majority of cases, circumstances can change. I appreciate that renewal may be an inconvenience for those with a condition. However, the measures are designed to ensure that only those people who are eligible have access to the scheme.

When we asked Transport Scotland about the policy, it said that it was to ensure that all disabled people are treated fairly. How does a costly, demeaning and unnecessary process fit with the Scottish Government’s ethos of treating people with dignity and respect?

The member will be aware that the scheme does not operate on a condition-specific basis; it must operate equitably for the 1.4 million people who have access to the existing national entitlement card and is provided only to those who are entitled to it. The member should also be aware—although he certainly did not reflect this in his supplementary question—that the renewal process is a simplified process that is very different from the reapplication process, the aim being to reduce the burden for individuals who seek to renew their card; the process has been simplified to make it much easier for those who seek renewal.

I have a constituent who was born with disabilities so severe that, throughout her life, she has been incapable of work or forming meaningful relationships, so her sibling deals with everything for her. The United Kingdom Tory Government has subjected her to nine employment and support allowance work capability assessments over the years. Even at 62, she was summoned to appear at Jobcentre Plus in Ayr, many miles from her home, for another assessment.

In light of that, does the cabinet secretary agree that it takes a shocking lack of self-awareness for Tory MSPs to come to the chamber and complain about national entitlement card renewal terms?

That question is rather wide of the mark, so I ask for a very brief response.

It is an utter disgrace that constituents such as the one Kenny Gibson mentions have been put through such a degrading process. The process that the DWP has used is in no way similar to the process that we use for the national entitlement card, which is a simplified process to ensure that it is dignified for those who apply.

Police Scotland (Vietnam Visit)

To ask the Scottish Government what information it can provide regarding the findings of Police Scotland’s recent visit to Vietnam. (S5O-03036)

Since 2014, Vietnamese nationals have been the most frequently reported potential victims of trafficking under the national referral mechanism in Scotland. Labour exploitation was the most common exploitation type for adults and children, but experience of multiple exploitation appears common both in transit and on arrival.

The national human trafficking unit was invited by Every Child Protected Against Trafficking to participate in a two-part best-practice exchange with Vietnam. Police Scotland representatives met representatives of the Vietnamese police and the Ministry of Public Security to discuss options for collaborative work, in furtherance of the recently signed memorandum of understanding between the United Kingdom and Vietnamese Governments.

Children arrive in Scotland from Vietnam on their own, with no parent or anyone to look after them. They are trafficked here to be exploited sexually or for their labour in nail bars and cannabis farms in Scotland. Unaccompanied children are extremely vulnerable, which is why the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 provided that the Scottish guardianship service would step in to give such children legal protection. However, three and a half years on, the Scottish Government has not yet acted on that provision, and Vietnamese and other trafficked children still do not have the Scottish legal guardian that the Government promised them. Why is that? If the cabinet secretary commits today to bring section 11 into force, will he also meet me to discuss its scope, as there are concerns that the Government will interpret it too narrowly and will not fully realise the will of Parliament to protect vulnerable children?

I recognise the work that Jenny Marra has done on the issue and the interest that she has taken in it. We are very proud of the legislation in section 11 of the 2015 act on independent child trafficking guardians, which we will take forward. I will of course meet Jenny Marra; and the Minister for Children and Young People, who is leading on section 11, will also be happy to meet her.

I take issue with some of Ms Marra’s characterisation of the support: support is available for unaccompanied children through the Scottish guardianship service. I have visited the service, which is provided by the Scottish Refugee Council in Aberlour and gets £300,000 of Scottish Government funding. The service has worked with almost 400 young people since its inception in 2010, so let us not make the assumption that there is no support for young people; there absolutely is.

However, the point that Jenny Marra has raised is valid. She asked me to meet her because she has issues around the scope of section 11. Due to those issues, it has taken a bit longer to draft the consultation on section 11, but the consultation will be ready to go out in the spring. If Ms Marra wishes to meet me, or the Minister for Children and Young People, once the consultation has gone out, or indeed before that, we are happy to do so.

Elder Abuse

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle abuse of older people. (S5O-03037)

Abuse in our communities is unacceptable. No person should ever be subject to any form of abuse.

We have made the ill treatment or wilful neglect of adults who are receiving health or social care a criminal offence, and we are currently consulting on the hate crime legislation, including on the introduction of a statutory sentencing aggravation of age-related hostility.

Recently, in my region, several elderly people were abused by a member of staff at a care home facility. The abuse ranged from degrading humiliation to physical abuse. No one should have to go through that, and elderly people are particularly vulnerable. However, the culprit was sentenced to only 90 hours of unpaid work. Does the minister agree that such crimes should be treated more seriously?

Absolutely. That is why, in my earlier answer, I explained to Alison Harris that we are currently consulting on an age-related hostility aggravation in the hate crime legislation. She will know that the Care Commission has done work around the issue and that everyone in Scotland has the right to safe, compassionate, high-quality care that meets their needs and respects their rights. On respecting those rights, we have to look at what Lord Bracadale recommended in the work that he has done for us and consult on those recommendations. I ask every member to encourage their constituents to get involved in the consultation, so that we can tackle the issues that older people face when it comes to vulnerability, hostility and hate crime that is related to their age.

The minister will be well aware that Action on Elder Abuse Scotland gave evidence to the Justice Committee in February. It believes that the real reason that older people are targeted is their perceived vulnerability. Is Scotland meeting its international human rights commitments to older people, and should there be a specific offence of elder abuse?

My answer to David Stewart’s question ties in to my answer to the previous question. Vulnerability is a clear theme that we are working on through Lord Bracadale’s recommendations. Lord Bracadale recognised that older people could be targeted by perpetrators due to their age and their perceived vulnerability. Therefore, vulnerability is a clear aspect of what we are looking at—the consultation looks at age-related hostility, including vulnerability. We are happy to hear any comments that Mr Stewart has on that issue, but we are absolutely taking the matter forward with a serious mind.

Prisoners (Assessment on Conviction)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment the Scottish Prison Service carries out of prisoners when they are first convicted. (S5O-03038)

Every person who is received into a Scottish prison, whether on remand or on conviction, is subject to a multi-tiered assessment process. They will be subject to a reception risk assessment, which is conducted by SPS staff and which identifies immediate requirements and risks that relate to social care, self-harm and addictions. They will get a healthcare assessment, which is carried out by national health service professionals, and those who are serving more than seven days will get a further core screen. Individuals are also asked whether they have children or dependants, and whether they have served in the military.

The prison population is disproportionately made up of people who, on conviction, are in poverty or experiencing addiction or homelessness. Yet, neither the Scottish Prison Service nor the Scottish Government can tell us how many people were in such circumstances prior to their going to prison. How can we possibly address those serious issues when we have no idea of the extent of the problem?

I take issue with Mr Findlay’s characterisation, but the general point that he makes is a valid one. A lot of the people who are in our prisons have addictions or issues around their housing situation or their mental health. Frankly, if such issues were addressed, those people would probably not veer into the criminal justice system at all. We have a shared responsibility, and the Government takes on that responsibility by looking at interventions to deal with those issues before people get into the criminal justice system.

Neil Findlay raises a second and valid point, which is that we need to get better at information sharing between social work, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, the Scottish Prison Service and other agencies. I assure him that I have asked for a meeting with all those agencies and our justice board, which is made up of those stakeholders and many more, to examine the issue of information sharing. The more information that we have on an individual, the better our interventions can be; the better our interventions, the more chance there is of rehabilitation; and the more chance there is of rehabilitation, the less chance there is of people being victims of crime, which means that communities are safer for all.

As the cabinet secretary has acknowledged, mental health checks in our prisons are essential, yet only two mental health professionals have been added to the prison workforce since more were promised in March 2017. In the meantime, both the prison population and the number of self-harm incidents have soared. Is the cabinet secretary concerned that we may have seen a per-head decrease in access to mental health services in our prisons? How many of the 800 extra mental health workers will be allocated to the prison estate?

I acknowledge Liam McArthur’s interest in the issue, and I will try to give him a couple of assurances.

First, the SPS processes to identify self-harm practices have improved. In 2017, there was a further quality assurance process. It is fair to say that some of the rising numbers are because reporting mechanisms are better than they were in previous years. That is not to say that there are not issues around self-harm in our prisons, as we are often dealing with very complex issues and individuals. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, the Minister for Mental Health and I have regular conversations about the mental health needs in prisons.

As Liam McArthur knows, a mental health review is taking place that will look at mental health provision in our prisons. On the specific issue of young people, he will be aware that there is an on-going review of mental health provision in Polmont young offenders institution. I will report to Parliament once that review has been completed.

ScotRail (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met ScotRail and what issues were discussed. (S5O-03039)

I last met Alex Hynes, managing director of the ScotRail Alliance on 23 January and will next meet him on 24 April. My officials remain in regular and constant liaison with ScotRail staff about the full range of operational issues that require to be addressed in order for ScotRail to deliver.

The cabinet secretary may be aware of the packed public meeting in Kirkcaldy a few weeks ago, with Alex Hynes from ScotRail, which was organised by Lesley Laird MP and at which Fife travellers strongly expressed their frustration and anger about delayed and cancelled trains. At the meeting, commuters were told not to expect the peak-time service to return to normal until at least December. Does the cabinet secretary accept that Fife commuters are being badly let down by that appalling service? Will he work with ScotRail to deliver a cut in fares until services return to normal, in recognition of the unacceptable service that Fifers are experiencing?

The member will be aware that we have raised concerns with ScotRail regarding its performance on the Fife circle and other parts of the network in Scotland. That is why we triggered the remedial notice, which was issued to ScotRail on 24 December. That notice required ScotRail to bring forward a remedial plan, and that plan has been submitted to the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland to be considered. We are at an advanced stage in entering into a remedial agreement.

That process is specifically designed to address the concerns of Claire Baker’s constituents and others who have experienced disruption in ScotRail’s performance and to ensure that such issues are addressed continually and consistently. A key part of that is ensuring that ScotRail has access to the rolling stock, which will help to improve performance, including by providing additional capacity on routes such as the Fife circle. That has been delayed because of failures by Wabtec in carrying out the refurbishment work. There has also been a delay in Hitachi delivering the new 385 trains. All of that has had a systematic impact on the process.

Notwithstanding those things, it is important that ScotRail is held to account through its contract with us to provide rail services, and that is exactly what the remedial plan does. We will publish details of that in the coming days.

The cabinet secretary will be aware from my regular correspondence with him that—I have to be frank and say this—my constituents are absolutely fed up with ScotRail’s Fife circle service. Has the cabinet secretary received any up-to-date information from ScotRail—which is responsible for the mess—that would indicate that there is any light at the end of the tunnel?

I fully recognise the frustration of Annabelle Ewing’s constituents about the period of consistently poor performance across the Fife circle. As I mentioned in my earlier response, one of the reasons why we triggered the issuing of a remedial notice to ScotRail was to develop a remedial plan to address the issues that Annabelle Ewing’s constituents are experiencing. We are now at the advanced stage of entering into that remedial agreement with ScotRail to ensure that it is effectively implemented and addresses the concerns of her constituents. We will announce more details of that in the coming days.

Before we turn to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery Talat Xhaferi MP, President of the Assembly of the Republic of North Macedonia. [Applause.]