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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 21, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 21 December 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time


General Question Time

Welfare Reform (Homelessness)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact United Kingdom Government welfare reform, as part of its austerity agenda, is having on homelessness in Scotland. (S5O-01604)

The UK Government’s welfare cuts have increased the financial pressures on households and have increased the risk of homelessness or hardship. We know from the National Audit Office report published in September that the UK Government did not effectively assess the impact of welfare reforms on homelessness, and a survey from Street Soccer that came out this week showed that a third of people believe that they or someone they know could be at risk of homelessness. Cuts in welfare spend in Scotland will reach £4 billion a year by the end of the decade, which will impact on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.

Every year, we spend more than £100 million to help relieve the worst impact of UK Government welfare cuts and to support those on low incomes. That includes mitigating the bedroom tax to help more than 70,000 households in Scotland to sustain their tenancies. We also support people in crisis through the Scottish welfare fund. We have strong homelessness rights in Scotland, and a focus on preventing homelessness. I would prefer it if we were able to use that £100 million to enable us to invest in our priorities, including tackling homelessness.

Earlier this month, Presiding Officer, you and the Minister for Local Government and Housing, along with Angela Constance, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, me and an inspirational 8,000 other people took part in the Social Bite sleep in the park initiative, to help end homelessness and rough sleeping in our country, and to help alleviate the difficulties that the UK Government’s policies are causing for people. In order to support initiatives such as sleep in the park, and in contrast to the UK Government’s policies, can the minister provide an update on the proactive and purposeful action that the Scottish Government is taking to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in Scotland in partnership with local authorities, the third sector and others?

As Mr Macpherson knows, the Scottish Government established the homelessness and rough sleeping action group, which is a short-life action group involving the third sector, housing associations, academia and local authorities. I am pleased to say that, since the group was established in October, it has moved quickly to recommend actions to minimise rough sleeping this winter. Those actions will increase emergency accommodation and outreach provision for people who are at risk of rough sleeping, and will be crucial in supporting and protecting people this winter.

The Scottish Government accepted all of the group’s recommendations and we are moving rapidly to implementation, backed with a total funding package of £328,000, including £262,000 from the Scottish Government and £66,000 from Social Bite, the Simon Community Scotland, Govan Law Centre and Crisis. We continue to work with local authorities and other partners through the homelessness prevention and strategy group and the regional housing options hubs, to support councils in the prevention of homelessness and the discharge of their duties towards homeless people.

Glasgow has had a higher rate of adults claiming out-of-work benefits than any other Scottish city, and it has a high rate of adults claiming incapacity benefit. Does the minister share my concerns about the roll-out of universal credit scheduled for Glasgow next year, given the impact on housing and the impact that we already know that universal credit has had on tenants?

Yes, I share Ms McNeill’s concerns. Many have warned the UK Government about the roll-out of universal credit, which, in my opinion, has been somewhat shambolic. I was pleased to see that the Church of Scotland has this week also criticised the UK Government for the roll-out of universal credit. On top of that, we have also seen the benefit cap, which has had a major impact on families right across Scotland and beyond. The UK Government should have a real rethink about its welfare reform policies and social security cuts, and end austerity so that we can protect the most vulnerable people in our society.

Children with Autism (Waiting Times)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce diagnostic waiting times for children with autism. (S5O-01605)

Integration joint boards are responsible for the strategic planning and decision making for all services delegated to them, including diagnostic services for autistic people, in line with their statutory obligations and Scottish Government policy. Health and social care partnerships are responsible for the delivery of local services based on the planning decisions made by integration joint boards and are, therefore, responsible for the implementation of local autism strategies and action plans.

However, improving diagnostic services remains a Scottish Government priority for the Scottish strategy for autism. It is recognised that waiting times are too high across both child and adult diagnostic services and that is why the Scottish Government is investing in an improvement programme to work with health and social care partnerships to reduce waiting times for autism assessments.

Last week, one of my constituents received confirmation that her 11-year-old son, who was first referred to the autism community assessment pathway in October 2016, will not have his first appointment until next year. The reason given is that the children’s health service in Fife has been unable to recruit for any of its advertised posts. I am sure that the minister will agree that having to wait for more than a year and a half to see a specialist is unacceptable. Notwithstanding the steps that the minister has outlined, how can she provide assurance to my constituents that the specialists required will actually be recruited?

I am disappointed to hear of Dean Lockhart’s constituent’s case and that they have to wait so long for an autism diagnosis. It highlights to me the fragility of many of our mental health services across the country. We are investing more—we have invested £150 million extra in mental health services—and the health improvement teams are working with a range of health boards and social care partnerships across the country to make sure that in the future they have sustainable services.

Draft Budget 2018-19

To ask the Scottish Government how its draft budget will grow the Scottish economy. (S5O-01606)

The draft budget delivers more than £4 billion of infrastructure, a 64 per cent uplift in the economy, jobs and fair work portfolio, a new £150 million building Scotland fund, procurement for a £600 million investment in our R100 programme, £2.4 billion in our enterprise and skills bodies and the most attractive system of business rates in the United Kingdom. Those major investments will underpin our focus on innovation, infrastructure and investment, internationalisation and inclusive growth.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his response and take the opportunity to wish him a very happy Christmas.

In the Finance and Constitution Committee meeting yesterday, we heard evidence from the Scottish Fiscal Commission about its forecast for Scottish economic growth over the next four years, which lags far behind the rest of the UK, as the cabinet secretary will know. Perhaps more worryingly, the forecast for productivity in Scotland also lags far behind the rest of the UK. What specific measures in the cabinet secretary’s draft budget will deliver improvements in productivity?

I wish Murdo Fraser a very merry Christmas, and a happy new year when it comes, as well. I think that that is the nicest thing that he has ever said to me in the chamber. It is nice to see the festive season having its effect even on Murdo Fraser.

I do not have enough time in general questions to cover the whole range of actions that will make a difference to economic growth, but I am convinced that the investments that we are putting in place in creating the right competitive environment for businesses, supporting innovation and internationalisation, addressing skills issues and supporting businesses to upskill, grow and take advantage of digital potential will ensure that our economy performs more strongly. Of course the SFC forecasts are absolutely critical to Government, but a range of other forecasts were far more positive about Scotland’s economic prospects.

The cabinet secretary mentions the range of non-domestic rates reliefs that he has in place. Is it not the case that there is a lack of evidence about the effectiveness of that rather blunt approach and that we would be rather better off focusing such initiatives on those businesses that achieve some of the social and economic priorities of the Scottish Government, whether that be paying the real living wage, investing in skills or meeting the business pledge priorities?

I will be specific on one aspect of that. The Government has committed to undertake a review of the small business bonus scheme in order to ensure that we can maximise its economic and social benefits.

I think that it is true to say that the scheme has been a lifeline to our businesses and it has supported many communities, but we want to make sure that we can do even more with the reliefs and the financial support that we provide to our business community.

Stroke Rehabilitation

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that multidisciplinary goal setting is in place for stroke patients as soon as possible as part of their rehabilitation. (S5O-01607)

We expect health boards to take forward the actions in priority 7, “Transition to the community”, and priority 8, on “supported self management” and “Living with stroke”, in our “Stroke Improvement Plan—August 2014”, which includes an action for goal setting to ensure that the appropriate care is provided for individuals in need.

The Scottish stroke improvement team supports managed clinical networks to evaluate board performance and identify areas of concern, and it works with them to implement local action plans to improve the delivery of stroke care across Scotland. That support includes visiting all boards at least once a year to review stroke care with board representatives to assess performance, to highlight achievements and good practice and to formulate an improvement plan for areas of concern, where necessary.

The “Scottish Stroke Improvement Programme—2017 report” shows that multidisciplinary goal setting has been fully implemented in only three health boards. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is insufficient for stroke survivors and that they should not have to deal with a postcode lottery?

We know that early assessment and the provision of rehabilitation through multidisciplinary working in the first few days following an acute stroke achieves the best outcomes for the person. In my initial answer, I referred to the assessment of boards’ performance and, more important, the improvement plans that they are then expected to take forward. We will ensure that that process continues in order that stroke services are improved in every board area.

What information is available to people who have experienced a stroke to make them aware of the services that they should receive in the community?

The Scottish Government continues to work with national health service boards and the third sector to ensure that stroke patients and their families have access to the right care and support.

Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland’s interactive self-management website,, which is funded by the Scottish Government, can be used by anyone who has been affected by stroke. Stroke services have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, a person-centred approach that includes goal setting and the provision of a range of self-management approaches.

Waiting Times (NHS Grampian)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its work to reduce waiting times in NHS Grampian. (S5O-01608)

The Scottish Government is working closely with colleagues in NHS Grampian to support improvements around key performance targets.

NHS Grampian has received more than £8 million this year to improve all parts of the patient pathway—that is, out-patient consultation, diagnostic tests and in-patient and day-case treatment. A number of initiatives are under way to support sustainable improvements, including additional theatre sessions being delivered across a range of specialties from January 2018. We have also allocated more than £1.3 million to NHS Grampian to support resilience across unscheduled care pathways over the winter.

I wrote to the cabinet secretary some months ago about the case of my constituent who has been waiting almost a year for cardiac surgery. To her credit, the cabinet secretary agreed that that wait was unacceptable. However, we now know from the most recent figures that only 33 per cent of patients who are waiting for child and adolescent mental health services in Grampian are seen within the 18-week target. That is by far the worst record in Scotland, and it is far below the national figure of 73 per cent. Does the cabinet’s secretary agree that that, too, is unacceptable? Will she make clear the timeframe within which she expects waiting times in Grampian to reach the national waiting times targets?

NHS Grampian is being supported to make improvements in waiting times across all specialties. Maureen Watt referred to mental health services in response to an earlier question, and we have a huge programme of work across CAMHS, including investment, more staffing and plans for each board to improve its waiting times. Some boards have further to travel in making those improvements, but we will continue to work with NHS Grampian and others to ensure that that happens.

Investment is hugely important, and we have made a commitment to fund the national health service going forward. If the Tory tax plans were followed in 2018-19, NHS Grampian would receive £49.5 million less than it will receive under our budget. Jamie Halcro Johnston might want to support our budget to ensure that NHS Grampian gets the support and resources that it requires.

Cold weather significantly increases the pressure on our accident and emergency departments. Will the cabinet secretary outline what additional steps have been taken to help winter planning and support people to transfer through the system over the winter months?

The combination of flu-like illness, norovirus and orthopaedic trauma has caused significant pressures on not only A and E services but the Scottish Ambulance Service in response to the increase in the number of cases. We have invested £22.4 million this year—a record level in any year—to support unscheduled care and winter resilience across health and social care services. However, it is a challenging time. Winter is always challenging, but the past couple of weeks have been particularly challenging and I place on record my thanks to all the staff who are working so hard in those challenging circumstances.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the capacity issues in NHS Grampian are having an impact on patients in the islands. She will also be aware that NHS Orkney is considering developing relationships with other health boards to address the long waiting times. Will she ensure that NHS Orkney is able to redeploy the full amount of the resource that is currently paid to NHS Grampian to deliver services?

I am happy to discuss that further with Liam McArthur. It is important that patients in NHS Orkney get access to prompt treatment. Traditionally, as Liam McArthur said, that has been provided by NHS Grampian, but we now have the Golden Jubilee national hospital, which provides a number of fantastic services for patients throughout Scotland. I am happy to write to Liam McArthur with further details but, if he wants to have a meeting to discuss the matter further, I am happy to sit down with him and do that.

Income Maximisation (Targets)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will set targets for income maximisation and help reduce the overall amount of benefits that go unclaimed. (S5O-01609)

Income maximisation is a key element of the delivery plan under the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017, which we will publish in April 2018. Income targets are already at the heart of the act, and income maximisation will be an important element of the action that is taken.

We already fund a range of welfare advice services from the fairer Scotland budget to support people to maximise their income and to support the uptake of benefits. Over this parliamentary session, we will continue to deliver a programme of activity to increase the uptake of social security by encouraging people to exercise their rights and claim the benefits to which they are entitled. I am grateful to Citizens Advice Scotland and Young Scot for their engagement with us on that.

As the member knows, with Mr Rowley’s support, we have discussed a joint approach on the matter with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. I look forward to progressing that approach further in the coming months.

The minister has also agreed to place a duty to maximise incomes on the new social security agency and has said that she wants to place the emphasis on the devolved Scottish system. Surely, there should be a no-wrong-door approach in Scotland. It is in the interests of the Government and the agency to set a target to increase the uptake of benefits across all areas of responsibility—reserved, devolved and local.

We can set a target for the uptake of benefits only if we have a baseline from which to start. However, as Mr Griffin and members throughout the chamber know, unfortunately, the United Kingdom Government’s Department for Work and Pensions does not collect that data, so we are a bit stuck in setting the baseline from which we might move on to a target.

I also gently make the point that, given that today is our last day before the festive recess, our colleagues in the Labour party might do better to turn their attention to the United Kingdom Government’s failure to mount a benefits uptake campaign rather than presume that the Scottish Government will continue to pick up the mess and fill the gaps that the UK Government’s policies continue to cause for our citizens. It might be more effective if Labour members were to join us in ensuring that our Conservative colleagues at Holyrood and Westminster understand the damage that they are causing and their responsibility to make redress.