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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 24, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 24 January 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Remembering the Holocaust, Committees’ Pre-budget Scrutiny, Decision Time


General Question Time

Energy Companies (Vulnerable Households)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it is aware of energy company practices that exacerbate fuel poverty and indebtedness of vulnerable households seeking to reconnect their supply following disconnection. (S5O-02809)

The Scottish Government is concerned that the United Kingdom Government has failed to create an energy market that serves all Scottish households fairly, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances.

The most recent data from the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets show that there were no disconnections in Scotland in 2017, which is welcome. However, those data do not capture the daily reality of self-disconnection by fuel-poor, indebted and vulnerable households. Self-disconnection data are not currently reported on; we continue to call for Ofgem to further investigate the hidden impact of self-disconnection, in line with the refresh of its consumer vulnerability strategy.

Before Christmas, I raised concerns about the unreasonable barriers that households in the Wyndford estate in my constituency were facing when reconnecting their heating and hot water supplies.

My office worked with Citizens Advice Scotland and Scottish and Southern Energy to secure reconnection for 33 households by Christmas eve. However, dozens of homes remain disconnected, and significant concerns remain about prohibitive reconnection charges, unreasonable repayment schedules and the way in which energy companies define vulnerable households. For instance, energy companies are not including families with children in the definition.

I appreciate that energy is reserved, but fuel poverty is very much this Parliament’s concern. Will the minister meet me to consider how we can support vulnerable households in such situations?

I commend Mr Doris for his work to help those 33 households before Christmas. I also commend colleagues such as Christina McKelvie, who has done an enormous amount to support vulnerable customers who are at risk of disconnection.

Bob Doris is right to raise the issue. Scotland’s vulnerable energy consumers remain a high priority for this Government, and fuel poverty is a key priority for the Government. That is why, in 2016, we called energy companies to a summit, to discuss action to address fuel poverty and the extra costs that low-income families face.

In January last year, the second energy summit met, at which energy suppliers and consumer groups were challenged to work collaboratively to improve consumer outcomes, in line with our ambition to eradicate fuel poverty. The work remains a high priority as we develop our Scottish energy consumer vision and action plan. To date, the energy companies have been supportive of the work that we are trying to do in that respect.

I will be happy to meet Mr Doris to tell him more about the work that we are doing. I am keen to hear from him about his constituents’ experience of reconnection charges and to understand the impact of the issue on families in his area.

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests in relation to renewable energy.

What plans does the Scottish Government have to close the fuel poverty gap between urban and rural housing?

Mr Burnett raises a fair point. In the debates that we have had about an energy efficient Scotland and fuel poverty, the Government has acknowledged the additional factors that sometimes impact on rural households. In many cases, rural properties face greater exposure and there is a greater need to heat them, and of course the fuel that is used is often more expensive, if customers are unable to access gas through the mains system.

We are taking forward issues to do with rural and island communities in the work that we are doing to support an energy efficient Scotland. My colleague Kevin Stewart—who has joined us in the chamber—is leading for the Government on fuel poverty and is very much involved in that work. I am sure that, like me, he is keen to hear from members about how we can best tackle fuel poverty in rural areas.

Ambulances (Staffing)

To ask the Scottish Government what its policy is on staffing ambulances. (S5O-02810)

The staffing of ambulances is an operational matter for the Scottish Ambulance Service. However, we expect the service to ensure that all ambulance resources are staffed appropriately to meet patient needs.

Over a decade ago, when the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was health secretary, she warned against single-crew call-outs. She said at the time:

“The Scottish Government’s policy is clear: traditional accident and emergency ambulances should be double crewed, with at least one member being a paramedic, unless there are exceptional circumstances.—[Official Report, 4 June 2008; c 9260.]

That is not happening in Dumfries and Galloway, where in some instances ambulance crews are manned solely by technicians, which potentially puts patients at risk. Is that yet another example of the Scottish National Party Government, even after 11 years in power, failing to deliver on its policy commitments? Will the cabinet secretary commit to addressing urgently the worrying situation in Dumfries and Galloway?

That is absolutely not an example. The fact of the matter is that Scottish ambulances are not routinely single crewed, although there can be exceptional circumstances where that happens. The percentage of shifts covered by single-crewed ambulances in the south-west region for the period July to September 2018 was 2 per cent, against a national average of 2.3 per cent. Those percentages therefore demonstrate the impact of the delivery of that policy not only in Mr Carson’s region but across the country.

What about paramedics?

It would be helpful, Presiding Officer, if I addressed the question that we heard through the microphone system as opposed to the one that I have just heard.

The Ambulance Service has an action plan to reduce, wherever possible, instances of single crewing. We are monitoring that through regular update reports. However, none of our emergency workers should have to worry about their own safety as they carry out their work. The Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 includes the imposition of penalties of up to 12 months’ imprisonment or a £10,000 fine, or both, following conviction for offences against ambulance staff.

What is the cabinet secretary’s position on ensuring that there is enough ambulance provision to cover Inverclyde when ambulances take patients to the Queen Elizabeth university hospital?

When ambulances are away from their local area taking patients to hospital, it is important that sufficient resource remains in the area to meet the needs of local communities. That matter has been raised with me elsewhere, and I am continuing to discuss with the Scottish Ambulance Service how it is rolling out its testing of change, which was most recently introduced to cover the Elgin to Aberdeen corridor. In order to ensure cover, the SAS should backfill, using resources from other stations where appropriate. The SAS also uses tactical deployment points whereby, to ensure that coverage is as wide as possible, ambulances are stationed at specific points throughout the country and not just based at their station. However, that and other matters remain the subject of on-going discussion between me and the Scottish Ambulance Service to ensure that the resources that are there—and we have made additional resources available to the SAS—are deployed appropriately to suit both the patient and the geographical demands of our country.

Citzens Basic Income Pilot Schemes

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the citizens basic income pilot schemes. (S5O-02811)

Following our commitment to explore a citizens basic income scheme, we made available a grant worth £250,000 for local authorities to scope out the feasibility of small pilots. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire made a successful collective bid in March 2018. A steering group composed of the four local authorities and NHS Health Scotland, with support from the Scottish Government, has begun research into the feasibility of a pilot.

Is it possible to do a full pilot scheme if the Department for Work and Pensions is not involved and we do not have control over its functions? Clearly, the income of a lot of people comes from the DWP.

Any decision to proceed with a pilot will be subject to the findings of the steering group’s feasibility study, which will set out the full details of the ethical, legislative, financial and practical implications of implementing a pilot on the ground. However, the member is right to raise the issue, because a pilot scheme would not be viable without full powers over tax and social security, or, at the very least, the full co-operation of the United Kingdom Government. We are in contact with the DWP about the issue and engagement is on-going. We will endeavour to keep the member updated on progress.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.

NHS Lanarkshire (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met NHS Lanarkshire and what was discussed. (S5O-02813)

Ministers and Scottish Government officials regularly meet representatives of all health boards, including NHS Lanarkshire, to discuss matters of importance to local people. I last met the chair of the health board on 10 December and will meet her again this coming Monday.

The number of general practitioner practices in Lanarkshire has fallen by 10 per cent since 2007. What is the cabinet secretary doing about that?

Mr Simpson is, I hope, aware of our primary care reform plan, which incorporates the new GP contract and other measures. Significant additional resource for the primary care reform plan is planned for in the draft budget. I therefore look for his support for that budget.

The plan looks at how we deliver on the GP contract, particularly around multiskilling and GP clusters, in order to ensure that provision is appropriate across local areas and takes account of geography and other issues.

I have had discussions with colleagues around the particular demands and issues that relate to rural GP practices. We will ensure that the plan develops in a way that fulfils our need and that of local people to ensure that individuals receive the right care from the right professional at the right time.

That sits alongside significant additional resource in the draft budget—I repeat that I therefore look for support for that budget—for increasing GP training places and the number of undergraduate medical students, supporting the continuation of the Scottish graduate entry medicine programme as well as continuing the specific measures that we have introduced to encourage GPs into more remote and rural areas.

Universal Credit (Two-child Limit)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the announcement by the Department for Work and Pensions that the two-child limit on universal credit payments will be partially rolled back. (S5O-02814)

Although the United Kingdom Government’s decision not to extend the two-child cap and rape clause will be welcome news for a small number of Scottish families, it changes nothing for families with third or subsequent children born after April 2017. Tens of thousands of families will still feel the negative impacts of the two-child limit in the longer term, which effectively creates a two-tier system.

Critically, the decision does not remove the rape clause, which is a dehumanising and appalling abuse of the human rights of the child and the parent. The Scottish Government has long called on the UK Government to end the two-child limit and the abhorrent rape clause in it, and will continue to do so.

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s answer. Will she tell members how many people have been impacted, and will be impacted, by the two-child cap, what amount of money they will lose and what difference the partial rollback will make?

DWP statistics show that 3,800 Scottish families did not receive entitlement for their third or subsequent child in the first year of the two-child limit.

Our analysts have estimated that up to 40,000 households across Scotland will ultimately still be affected by the two-child limit, which will result in a reduction in welfare spend in Scotland of around £120 million by 2020-21, when the policy is fully implemented and universal credit is fully rolled out.

Early analysis shows that fewer than 1,000 families will be impacted by the recent announcement by the UK Government. That is why the Scottish Government will continue to call for the two-child cap and the rape clause to be scrapped in their entirety.

Childcare Practitioners (Qualifications)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the new required qualifications for childcare practitioners. (S5O-02815)

A significant body of evidence and analysis—not least the 2017 “Rapid evidence review: Childcare quality and children’s outcomes” by NHS Health Scotland—links having a well-qualified, high-quality workforce to improving outcomes for children.

That is why the “Funding follows the child and the national standard for early learning and childcare providers: principles and practice”—published jointly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in December 2018—requires that all staff who are included in adult to child ratios must either have obtained or be working towards the benchmark qualification for their role. For the first time, childminders will be required either to be qualified or to be working towards a qualification, to the same level as other early learning and childcare practitioners.

From August 2020, all registered staff who are delivering the funded entitlement will have at least started to work towards their qualification, rather than waiting until the end of the full five-year registration period to secure the relevant qualification. We believe that that will further enhance the quality of ELC.

Does the minister recognise that a significant number of managers, particularly older managers, who already run successful, high-quality private nurseries, might now be forced out of their careers because undertaking a level 9 qualification at such a late point in their careers is neither desirable nor feasible? The Scottish Government knows that we need a high number of experienced managers for the expansion to 1,140 hours to succeed. Will the Government commit to reviewing whether an exception to the demand for a level 9 qualification should be made for an individual who is already in post and where an inspection process has already provided an assurance on the quality of the services being delivered?

As I said in my first answer, there are very few changes, given that the registration of the ELC workforce is regulated by the Scottish Social Services Council. Since 2011, all registered ELC managers and lead practitioners must either hold the Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 9 benchmark qualification or agree that their registration is subject to a commitment that they secure it in their first period of registration. The requirement for those staff to obtain the qualifications has not changed as a result of the national standard.

Do the new childcare qualifications include training in tackling poverty? That is particularly relevant given the revelation in the Sunday Mail this week that staff in Broomloan nursery in Govan are feeding children and their parents with donations from local businesses. Although compassionate staff are to be commended for taking direct action, does the minister agree that such poverty is unacceptable in our rich country? What exactly is the Scottish Government going to do about that shocking situation?

I absolutely agree that that situation is unacceptable. The member will know that this issue is a particular passion of mine: we live in the sixth-richest country in the world and have the hungriest children in Europe. That is largely down to the United Kingdom’s Government’s welfare system.

Budget (Renfrewshire South)

To ask the Scottish Government how the proposals in the draft budget aim to support communities in the Renfrewshire South constituency. (S5O-02816)

The Scottish Government is committed to delivering inclusive economic growth across all of Scotland and the 2019-20 Scottish budget sets out a continued commitment to invest in regeneration activity to stimulate sustainable and inclusive growth and to empower and improve the wellbeing of people and communities.

Recent years have seen significant investment in new housing in Johnstone, new council housing in Barrhead for the first time in a generation and the regeneration of Barrhead town centre. Will the cabinet secretary set out how the budget will continue to support housing and the regeneration and improvement of our town centres?

There is more investment to come. The draft budget proposes £50 million for town centres specifically. I will work on the distribution and allocation of that in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. In 2019-20, we will continue our track record in the delivery of housing. The affordable housing supply programme has confirmed a resource planning assumption of £15.6 million for Renfrewshire. The council’s strategic housing investment plan indicates that 286 new homes will be completed in 2019-20, with site starts planned for a further 839.

For completeness, I add that a resource planning assumption of £5.9 million for East Renfrewshire has been confirmed. That will allow East Renfrewshire Council to complete 22 new homes and in 2019-20, it will have site starts for a further 134 homes.

That is the Scottish Government working in partnership with local authorities to regenerate town centres and deliver the housing that Scotland needs.

Kinship Carers

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether non-looked-after kinship carers should receive the same level of financial support that foster carers and looked-after kinship carers receive when looking after children who have experienced family break-ups or the death of a parent. (S5O-02817)

Kinship carers of non-looked-after children can receive the same level of financial support as foster carers where there is a kinship care order in place under section 11(1) of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. We are aware that kinship care orders are not always right in individual cases. The member has raised several issues with ministers over some time and I am grateful for that. We continue to be conscious of those issues and consider how best to ensure that kinship carers get the support that they need.

I have constituents who are kinship carers, having voluntarily taken in their grandchildren, for example, but who do not meet the criteria for kinship carer allowance, which seems to be payable only where there is a risk element involved. That means that they are struggling financially. Will the minister consider reviewing the criteria for the kinship carer allowance to make it available to kinship carers of non-looked-after children?


The agreement on kinship carer allowance does not apply to all kinship carers and, as the member states, that has raised concerns among those who do not meet the eligibility criteria. The Scottish Government provides clear guidance on how local authorities should assess whether a child is at risk of becoming looked after. As with all such guidance, we will keep these matters under constant review.

Because each kinship carer’s circumstances are unique, the Scottish Government funds Citizens Advice Scotland to provide specialised advice for kinship carers along with signposting to local support services, including support on financial and legal matters. We have worked with, and will continue to work with, our social security colleagues, including those in Westminster, to ensure that kinship carers can access a variety of benefits to alleviate the additional costs of caring for their family’s children.