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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 21, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 21 November 2019

Agenda: Point of Order, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Day, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Television Licences (Over-75s), Motion without Notice, Decision Time


General Question Time

Benefit Eligibility (Scottish Child Payment)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to reports that around 58,000 children will not be eligible for the Scottish child payment benefit when they turn six. (S5O-03797)

When the Scottish child payment was first announced, we were clear that, although the payment would be fully introduced by the end of 2022, early, stand-alone payments would be made for children under six. Those early payments will benefit up to 140,000 families, with investment of up to £70 million. Of all children living in poverty, almost 60 per cent are in a household in which the youngest child is aged six or under.

In order to introduce this game-changing new payment early—two years ahead of the timetable in the tackling child poverty delivery plan—we have had to work within certain technical parameters. We do not have the data for the over-sixes from the Department for Work and Pensions that would allow us to keep making payments, and we need it to agree to a timetable for giving that to us. We have asked the DWP for early delivery of the data, but we are reliant on it to make that happen.

Of course Scottish Labour supports a significant investment in reducing child poverty in Scotland. However, a number of concerns have been raised by third sector organisations. One is that children fall out of eligibility from the age of six, and another is that parents have to reapply because of the chaotic fluctuations that are caused by universal credit. What progress have the cabinet secretary’s officials made to resolve those underlying issues?

As I said very clearly in my original answer, we have to have the data in order to verify that a client is entitled to that benefit, and that relies on data from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the DWP. I hope that Scottish Labour will work with us to encourage the DWP to let us have early sight of that, so that we can find a solution to the problem. We are obviously also very concerned about the workings of universal credit and the fact that they may have implications for people. We are determined to do everything that we can, within the limitations of the constitutional set-up, to ensure that we have maximum flexibility.

As I have often said, I am very happy to work with stakeholders, as we do regularly, and with other political parties to find out what we can do within the powers that we have to unpick the problems and challenges, so that the Scottish child payment works as successfully as possible, which is what we all want.

Will the cabinet secretary remind the chamber how many children will benefit from the Scottish child payment? Does she share my disappointment with the somewhat curmudgeonly approach of Labour, which last year, as I recall, asked for only £5 per child? Rather than welcoming such a positive initiative, which has been called a “game changer” by the Child Poverty Action Group, Labour chooses to carp from the sidelines.

Once it is rolled out fully, the Scottish child payment will benefit up to 410,000 children in low-income families and will lift 30,000 children out of poverty. We are introducing early payments at a speed that is unprecedented not just at a Scottish but at a United Kingdom level. The speed with which we have gone from the discussions on the new benefit to its introduction is unprecedented.

It is disappointing that the Labour Party is not fully supportive of what we are doing with the Scottish child payment. That was seen again yesterday during the debate on universal credit. However, it is very important that we work together as much as possible to ensure that this game-changing payment—as it has been described by leading charities—works well and produces the results that the Government would like to see.

Transport Connections (Remote and Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve transport connections in remote and rural areas. (S5O-03798)

The Scottish Government is already investing to support strategic transport connections to, through and within remote and rural areas. That includes our ambitious £376 million programme of enhancing passenger experience and cutting journey times on the Highland main line and Aberdeen to Inverness rail routes; our commitment to road improvements such as the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness; support for regional air routes to island and rural airports; support for bus services; and investment of £1.9 billion in lifeline ferry services since 2007. Our draft national transport strategy recognises the challenges that remote and rural communities face and sets out our vision for Scotland’s transport system over the next 20 years.

The minister mentions bus routes, but he will be aware that the financial pressure on a lot of Scottish local authorities has led to the number of services on some bus routes being reduced and to some services being lost entirely. In my Highlands and Islands region, more and more communities are without viable bus routes. For example, in Elgin, the 340 service faces the axe after funding ran dry. In the light of recent Government announcements, will the minister confirm whether support will be made available for such routes in rural areas, or is a decline in services simply to be expected?

The member raises important points. I recognise the challenges in sustaining public transport in rural areas. The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity is very supportive of efforts by rural local authorities to maintain and enhance bus services. Although, ostensibly, it might look as though the £500 million investment in the bus partnership fund, which was recently announced in the programme for government, is predominantly about relieving congestion, that could benefit bus passengers on rural routes, particularly as they access urban areas, by relieving congestion at the end of their journeys and improving the reliability of their journey times.

We recognise that the erosion of bus services is a challenge for rural authorities, and I am sure that Mr Matheson will be keen to engage with Jamie Halcro Johnston on the particular issues that he has raised. I highlight that the Scottish Government continues to provide more than £250 million of support for bus services through the bus service operators grant and the national concessionary travel scheme. We continue to support services in rural areas, but I recognise the challenges that have been raised.

Following a notice from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the MV Eynhallow has been prevented from carrying high-sided vehicles to Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre, which has created serious and wide-ranging problems for all three communities. Will the minister ask his officials to provide whatever support to Orkney Ferries is necessary to address the MCA’s concerns? Does he accept that the situation further illustrates the urgent need for the Scottish Government and Orkney Islands Council to agree on a way forward on the funding of replacement vessels for our lifeline internal fleet?

On his latter point, I reassure Mr McArthur that we are engaging with Orkney Islands Council and—for the benefit of other members in the chamber—Shetland Islands Council and Argyll and Bute Council on the future of their internal ferry services. I take entirely the point that we need to work together closely on that.

The specific issue that the member has raised has not yet come in front of me. I undertake to investigate whether we can give any help either by offering advice to Orkney Islands Council to alleviate the issue or by engaging with the MCA. I will come back to Mr McArthur on that with anything that it has been suggested would be helpful.

Question 3 has not been lodged.

Public Works Loan Board (Interest Rate)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact will be on Scotland’s local authorities of the increase in the interest rate charged by the Public Works Loan Board. (S5O-03800)

Any increase in the interest rates charged by the Public Works Loan Board will impact local authority plans if those plans are to be financed by borrowing. The scale of the increase—1 per cent—may affect the affordability of local authority plans and could lead to investment being scaled back or delayed in key areas such as housing or transport infrastructure. That may well include local roads.

Was the cabinet secretary given any notice of the increase by the United Kingdom Government? Does he agree that the increase could put at risk the delivery of crucial infrastructure projects across our communities, such as affordable housing, schools and roads, and that, in effect, it is nothing more than an additional Tory tax on local councils?

I am not aware of there being any notice from the Treasury to the Scottish Government—or any local authorities, for that matter. Keith Brown is absolutely right to say that the increase will have an unfortunate impact on the investment propositions of local authorities that will affect quality of life and local authorities’ plans to boost productivity and invest in local infrastructure. It is an unwelcome increase and it is indeed a Tory tax on local councils. It is unfair on Scottish local authorities. It is not in line with prevailing interest rates, it will lead to councils scaling back some of their investment plans, at a time when the Scottish Government has increased capital support to Scotland’s local authorities, and it shows that the Tory party cannot be trusted with local investment.

Fuel Poverty (Remote and Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it gives to organisations and public sector bodies to mitigate the effects of fuel poverty in remote and rural areas. (S5O-03801)

Since 2013, we have provided £373 million in grant funding to councils to deliver area-based energy efficiency schemes targeting fuel-poor households. That includes more than £91 million to councils serving remote and rural areas. Households in those areas also benefit from an uplift in funding to reflect higher costs of delivery. Our investment in area-based and national schemes, such as warmer homes Scotland, has helped more than 135,000 households make their homes warmer and reduce their energy bills.

My constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross has the highest fuel poverty rates recorded in Scotland, and many areas are classed as “remote rural”. Does the cabinet secretary agree that any new Government in Westminster must urgently consider its policies and practices in relation to remote rural poverty? Will she assure my constituents that she will work with the UK Government to highlight and resolve the crippling effects of fuel poverty in remote rural Scotland?

I give that commitment to Gail Ross and I understand fully the points that she has raised. As a representative of a rural constituency—although it is not as remote as the one that Gail Ross represents—I understand the challenges that are faced by rural communities. We want to put an end to fuel poverty in every part of Scotland and we will do all that we can to do so.

The Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act 2019 was passed unanimously by Parliament. Wherever people live, it is unacceptable that they cannot afford to heat their homes and cook their dinner.

Let us not forget that all poverty, including fuel poverty, is down to a lack of adequate income. It is important to remember that we are continuing to fight all poverty with one hand tied behind our backs, following the cruel and callous welfare cuts and reforms made by the UK Government. We will continue to press the UK Government to follow our example by investing in practical solutions to improve energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty, as recommended by the independent UK Committee on Climate Change. The previous UK Government chose neither to listen to the advice nor to devolve to Scotland the powers necessary to allow us to take further action.

City Region Deal Projects (Climate Change)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that city region deal projects tackle climate change. (S5O-03802)

The Scottish Government is committed to its target of net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045—five years ahead of the United Kingdom. Our support for city region and growth deals aims to drive inclusive and sustainable economic growth at the regional level in line with Scotland’s economic strategy, which has a clear focus on supporting our net zero ambitions. Many of our city deals include projects that will contribute to advancing Scotland’s transition to a carbon-neutral economy, including provision for new energy-efficient housing, and a range of low-carbon and active travel interventions.

New road projects clearly have the potential to make climate change worse, and any that are proposed under city deals should be backed by robust evidence. Unfortunately, such evidence has not been provided by South Lanarkshire Council for its proposed road widening in order to dual Stewartfield Way in East Kilbride. Trees will be uprooted and green space next to the popular James Hamilton heritage loch will be built on, although there is no obvious traffic problem there to be solved. The council is now consulting the public, but its online questionnaire does not even provide people with the option to say whether they are for or against the project. It is a sham.

Will the minister agree to discuss the plans with South Lanarkshire Council, and can he confirm that, if the plans are changed, East Kilbride will not lose out on the £62 million investment?

I hope that Graham Simpson will accept my apology for not promising on behalf of Michael Matheson to meet South Lanarkshire Council, but I will raise the issue with Michael Matheson when he is available.

The important point is that the city deals are about empowering regions to make their own decisions—they are about localism—and we believe that our regional partners are best placed to know what is needed to drive regional economies. However, decisions that relate to the infrastructure investment fund are in the remit of the Glasgow city region cabinet, and we expect the cabinet to take decisions that are in the best interests of the regional economy.

We have made it clear that we expect the cabinet to have a continued focus on testing the infrastructure investment programme for quality impact and continued appropriateness in the light of changing economic circumstances, both at an individual project level and as an aggregate programme. The climate emergency qualifies as a change to economic circumstances, so it is open to local authorities to come together to decide if they want to change a project.

Does the minister agree that, in light of both the Scottish Government and South Lanarkshire Council making climate emergency declarations, it is appropriate to reconsider long-standing projects under the city deal, and to use that opportunity to properly consider innovation in public transport solutions?

I absolutely agree with Linda Fabiani. I will give more detail on what I started to outline in my response to Graham Simpson. The city region deals are about empowering the local partners to make their own decisions. If a governing body said that it wanted to change what was included in its deal, perhaps in the light of the climate emergency, which Linda Fabiani referred to, we would be open to having a conversation with that body. Nothing is future proof, and it is reasonable to allow some flexibility in the deals.

The deals that we have in place are long term—they span between 10 and 20 years—so we recognise that there is a need to be flexible and responsive to changes in the economy and in the wider context, which includes responding to the climate emergency. Michael Matheson would be happy to engage with the partners on that.

Pension Credit (Mixed-age Couples)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the potential impact on households in Scotland, what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding reinstating pension credit for mixed-age couples. (S5O-03803)

I remain deeply concerned about the UK Government’s decision to change entitlement to pension credit. The Scottish Government estimates that the change could lead to an annual loss of as much as £7,000 per household, and by 2023-24, it could affect as many as 5,600 households in Scotland.

After the announcement, I wrote to the UK Government on 15 May, to make my opposition clear and to outline the impact that the change will have on the people of Scotland. The response that I received did not address the concerns about the increased risks of pensioner poverty or the loss of passported support.

The Scottish Government will continue to urge the UK Government to reinstate pension credit for mixed-aged couples.

Given the significant concerns about the impact of UK Government cuts to pension credit, I was worried to hear that the UK Government also intends to incorporate housing benefit in pension credit from 2023. Changes can be used as a cover for UK cuts and trust is at an all-time low. Does the Scottish Government know how many pensioners might be impacted by the changes, and will the cabinet secretary urgently seek an absolute assurance that no pensioner will be worse off due to those UK changes?

Our most recent figures are from August of this year and show that there are 123,000 households in Scotland that claim housing benefit and could be impacted by the change. I will continue to raise many issues with the UK Government after the general election, and I can reassure Bob Doris that I am happy to follow up on the issue that he has raised.

Broadband (Reaching 100 per cent Programme)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to announce any further delays to the R100 programme before the end of the current parliamentary session. (S5O-03804)

I can confirm that, following detailed evaluation, moderation and governance procedures, BT plc has been selected as the preferred bidder for the north lot of the R100 procurement, and that, subject to due diligence and further governance, we intend to proceed to contract with BT as soon as possible. This is further to my announcement on 10 October, in which I outlined that BT plc was the sole bidder for the central and south lots of the R100 procurement.

The minister will be aware that Aberdeenshire is still the second-worst area on the mainland for broadband connectivity, with 18 per cent of homes still unable to access high-speed internet. Will the minister reassure me that the first priority of the R100 programme will now be to bring rural areas in Aberdeenshire to the same proportion of access that is seen elsewhere in mainland Scotland?

On the principle of Mr Rumbles’s question, the R100 programme is setting out to deliver superfast access to 100 per cent of communities in Scotland. I assure him that Aberdeenshire is very much part of our plans for R100.

I highlight that, in Aberdeenshire, the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has been particularly successful. Between its start in January 2014 and September 2019, we increased the proportion of premises with access to superfast services in Aberdeenshire by 65.8 per cent. I accept that there is still 18 per cent to go, but I reassure Mr Rumbles that dealing with that is what we intend to do with R100.