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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 30, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 30 January 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Public Works Loan Board Rate, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, European Union Exit, Drugs and Alcohol, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Social Isolation and Loneliness (Highland)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the Highland Council and NHS Highland to discuss social isolation and loneliness. (S5O-04069)

I have not met Highland Council or NHS Highland specifically to discuss social isolation and loneliness. However, local authorities are a vital partner and I discuss their crucial contribution with Councillor Kelly Parry of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, who is co-chair, with me, of the national implementation group for our social isolation and loneliness strategy. Imperative to success is our joint working with wider members of the national implementation group, including YouthLink Scotland, the Campaign to End Loneliness, Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, Voluntary Health Scotland, Generations Working Together, sportscotland, Befriending Networks, Age Scotland, the Carnegie UK Trust and Architecture and Design Scotland. Lots of joint work is going on.

I thank the minister for that answer and for the long list of people she is working with. Age Scotland’s share what you love campaign aims to cut the loneliness and isolation figures in half by 2025 by encouraging everyone to spend a small amount of time with an older person who lives alone. Can the minister confirm whether the Scottish Government, Highland Council and NHS Highland are working together to support that campaign? If so, what specific actions are they taking?

I thank Edward Mountain for that follow-up question. He is absolutely right about the share what you love campaign and the importance of spending time with people. Members might have noticed this week that PG Tips, in co-ordination with Age UK, has a great social media campaign about sitting down, having a cup of tea and catching up with people.

We take such campaigns seriously, we support them and we work closely with Age Scotland and others on them. Edward Mountain can be reassured that we are committed to them. Sometimes, just having a cup of tea, phoning up somebody that we have not seen for a while and spending time with people that we have maybe fallen out of touch with can really help to tackle social isolation and loneliness. That is even more important in rural areas, where it can be difficult to meet up with people.

Such campaigns are key to the work that we are doing. I am keen to hear more about what Edward Mountain is involved in in the Highlands and Islands, and maybe we can share some of that joint working.

As convener of the cross-party group on older people, age and ageing, I know that loneliness and isolation is a recurring theme both in the Highlands and Islands and across the rest of the country. For many older people who suffer from loneliness and isolation, a television can be a lifeline. Will the Scottish Government continue to make the case for the United Kingdom Government making a U-turn on the decision to end free TV licences for Scottish pensioners and funding that vital service for our older people?

Sandra White will not be surprised to hear that I was deeply disappointed by the BBC’s decision, which was ultimately a result of the UK Government shifting what should be a welfare policy on to the BBC and shirking its responsibility to support older people.

The BBC’s plans to introduce a means-tested waiver based on pension credit will fail to help many vulnerable people, yet, in 2021-22, it will still cost about £250 million to administer. I hope that the 1.3 million households across the UK that are eligible for pension credit but do not currently claim it will now do so. There has never been promotion of that important benefit, and many people will continue to be unaware that they are entitled to it.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the UK Government should recognise its responsibility and fund free TV licences for all over-75s.

Scottish Child Payment

To ask the Scottish Government how many children will be eligible for the Scottish child payment when it goes live. (S5O-04070)

An estimated 170,000 children aged under 6 will be eligible when applications for the Scottish child payment are opened in autumn this year, with first payments being made by the end of 2020. Of all children living in poverty, almost 60 per cent are in a household where the youngest child is aged under 6. Given that the early years in a child’s life are key for their long-term outcomes, we looked hard at what we could do to support those families more quickly. That is why we are launching the benefit two years ahead of our original timetable.

Once the payment is fully rolled out, it will benefit up to 410,000 children, lifting 30,000 children out of relative poverty. At a cost of £180 million a year, that is a significant investment in our children and families.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that excellent answer. The Scottish child payment has rightly been described as a game changer that will make a massive difference to families across Scotland. The cabinet secretary has said that she will encourage people to get their applications in early, due to the expected volume. How will she ensure that eligible families get that message?

We are committed to reducing poverty and ensuring that payment reaches those who need it most. Extensive communication campaigns will support that, particularly through Social Security Scotland, and we will continue to actively promote the payment to eligible families—just as, at Inzievar and Holy Name primary schools this morning, I promoted the continued take-up of the best start grant school age payment. As with all our benefits, we will work with stakeholders and partners to embed its promotion into local services such as midwifery, nurseries, and school placement services. That builds on the success of the best start grant, whereby the pregnancy and baby payment paid out more in two months than had been paid out in an entire year by the Department of Work and Pensions benefit that it replaced.

Earlier today, the Social Security Committee heard from the Scottish commission on social security a recommendation that the Government consider a double lock to upgrade the child payment: to increase it by either the consumer price index or median income growth, whichever is the higher. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that she will accept that recommendation?

I have listened carefully and responded to previous reports from the Scottish commission on social security, and I will do the same for the latest one, in detail. I am grateful for the support that it is providing to the Scottish Government and for its work within the tight timescales that we are setting.

We have already made a number of changes to the regulations as a result of SCOSS’s considerations of the Scottish child payment. For example, we introduced a 12-week linking period when people fall out of the qualifying benefit or child responsibility benefit entitlement, to make sure that they stay in our system, in case they become eligible again. I continue to listen to the commission, and I will respond in due course to each of its recommendations.

Vulnerable Older People

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to protect vulnerable older people. (S5O-04071)

Nobody should be subjected to any form of harm or abuse, and we take strong action to protect the most vulnerable in our society, including our older people. For example, we have made the ill treatment or wilful neglect of adults receiving health or social care a criminal offence, and we recently consulted on hate crime legislation, including the introduction of a statutory sentencing aggravation of age-related hostility.

I thank the minister for that response, and I recognise that some positive steps are being taken.

The statistics paint a worrying picture. Figures from Action on Elder Abuse found that almost 1 in 10 elderly Scots had fallen victim to crime, including physical abuse, thefts and intimidation, and that only a fraction of those offences had led to prosecution. Additionally, 94 per cent of people think that older people are specifically targeted for abuse due to their perceived physical frailty or mental vulnerability. Does the minister agree that no elderly person should ever be subjected to any form of abuse and that protecting those vulnerable communities should be a real priority?

I agree, absolutely. Liam Kerr will have heard in my initial answer about the work that we are doing on the proposed hate crime bill, and I know that he takes a particular interest in that. I have listened to the issues that have been raised with the Government by Action on Elder Abuse. We have no plans right now to create a specific offence of elder abuse, but we are looking at how we could do that through the proposed hate crime bill. We have the issue always under review, and we are always talking to the people who are involved in the area. Action on Elder Abuse is a key partner in the work that we are doing.

For far too long, the United Kingdom Government has ignored the issue of pensioner poverty, with its unfair treatment of women who were born in the 1950s, its cutting of pension credit for mixed-age couples and its taking of TV licences from some pensioners. Does the minister agree that vulnerable older people would be better protected if the powers were taken away from Westminster and given to the Scottish Government?

The minister should just say yes.

I will not, because he might get too used to that.

The Scottish Government has written to the UK Government numerous times on the issue of the women who are affected by state pension increases, urging it to find a solution to support those women. As we know, that has been constantly refused. I appeal again to the UK Government to look again at the WASPI women’s situation and to address the issue now.

The Scottish Government estimates that the UK Government’s decision to remove entitlement to pension credit for mixed-age couples could lead to an annual loss of as much as £7,000 per household and that it could affect as many as 5,700 Scottish households by 2023-24. That is an unacceptable doubling down of policies, causing harm to older people, and we have called on the UK Government to reverse that decision.

We will continue to invest more than £100 million to mitigate the worst impacts of the UK Government’s welfare reforms, but it is clear that the best way to protect the most vulnerable older people in Scottish society would be a full transfer of powers over social security to the Scottish Parliament.

Older and Disabled People (Access to Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it takes to ensure that older and disabled people can easily access local services. (S5O-04072)

The Equality Act 2010 provides a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity. The Scottish Government is working to promote equality across Scotland through the strategies in “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” and “A Fairer Scotland for Older People”, with work being taken forward locally. Equality law recognises that bringing about equality may mean that local services make changes, such as removing physical barriers or providing extra support. That relates to the duty to make reasonable adjustments. Reasonable adjustments seek to ensure that older or disabled people have, as far as is reasonable, equal access—that is, the same access as everyone else.

Obviously, much of the information about local services is on the internet, which some people may have difficulty accessing. Will the Scottish Government join me in recognising the work of AbilityNet, a charity that provides technology support for people of all ages who live with any disability or impairment? Is there anything that the Scottish Government can do to support AbilityNet’s aim of helping to build a more accessible digital world?

I absolutely agree with the member’s point. I have not come across AbilityNet, so I ask Alexander Burnett to send on any information that he has on the organisation. I reassure him that digital connectivity and the ability to access digital information are very high on the agenda in our fairer Scotland strategies for disabled people and older people. I include in that the use of assistive digital technology as a means by which older and disabled people can get on in their everyday lives and maintain their independence. I am absolutely committed to that. If Alexander Burnett has any other ideas about how we can improve in this area, I will be happy to hear them.

Older People

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making in taking forward the proposals in its paper, “A Fairer Scotland for Older People”. (S5O-04073)

The Scottish Government will publish the first progress report on the framework for action in “A Fairer Scotland for Older People” in April 2020. The first annual report is being co-produced with our key stakeholders in the older people’s strategic action forum. I will next meet the forum on 25 February, and I am looking forward to discussing the progress that we are making with the more than 50 cross-cutting actions contained in the framework and to considering other ways in which we can develop our work to ensure that people are healthy, happy and secure in older age anywhere in Scotland. The members of the older people’s strategic action forum always ask me to emphasise the word “action”, because that is what they are looking for.

I thank the minister for that helpful response. Recent figures show that more than half of workers over the retirement age in Scotland want to continue to work. That is to be welcomed, as older people have a wealth of experience and skills to contribute to the economy. However, in order to do that, they will need support to reskill or retrain. What specific steps is the minister taking to help older people to reskill and retrain, especially given the thousands of part-time college places that have been cut and the lack of apprenticeship opportunities for older people?

I agree whole-heartedly that older people want to work longer, although some of the women involved in the women against state pension inequality campaign, who have to work longer, have a different perspective on the matter. In Jamie Hepburn’s portfolio, work is being done around a fairer Scotland in the workplace, including on maintaining healthy environments and on people’s ability to retrain and take up training opportunities. I am involved in one such piece of work on older women in the workplace, involving support for women who are going through the menopause to maintain their place in the workforce. I am sure that Jamie Hepburn will be happy to give the member an update on the work that he is doing.

Intergenerational Support

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to promote intergenerational work to support older people. (S5O-04074)

The Scottish Government values intergenerational work because it breaks down barriers between generations, tackles negative attitudes to ageing and strengthens our local communities.

We have funded our national experts on intergenerational good practice, Generations Working Together, to the tune of £95,000 in the 2019-20 financial year to build more inclusive communities and ensure that integrated, intergenerational approaches create positive change.

Over the past year, I have been on many visits and attended many events, all of which have been joyful, but the most joyful visits have been to projects on intergenerational working, because they involve an extra bit of magic.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment, which is outlined in the framework for action, to encourage activity that brings generations together.

Following the success of intergenerational living projects in Denmark and the Netherlands, is the minister aware of the calls that have been made by organisations such as Age Scotland for intergenerational living to be piloted? Such pilots could involve, for example, older people renting out a room to a student or having younger people living in or alongside care homes. Are there any plans to pilot such schemes in Scotland?

In the intergenerational work that we are doing, which involves different generations working together in communities, the great programme in Denmark, in which younger people live and work with older people, comes up time and again. A number of local authorities are looking at that programme. I do not have up-to-date information on where they are with that work, but I hope to raise the issue at the next meeting that I have with them. If I get additional information on the issue, I will let Mr Balfour know what is happening. I know that some developmental work is on-going, but I am not yet in a position to tell him about it; I will get back to him.

Social Isolation (Rural Communities)

To ask the Scottish Government how it tackles social isolation among older people in rural communities. (S5O-04075)

People can feel isolated or lonely at any age or at any stage of life, and where they live can play an important part in that. That is why we consulted communities across Scotland, from Galashiels to Lerwick, to hear their views on how we can support people to build connections and on how we can enable that through transport, housing, public spaces and digital technology. Those conversations directly informed the development of “A Connected Scotland: our strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections” and will underpin the upcoming delivery plan, which is on its way.

The retired farming social group in Dumfries and Galloway has been tackling loneliness and isolation for the past two years. Around 50 members attend meetings on a monthly basis. For a variety of reasons, people with rural and agricultural backgrounds often become isolated, but the group’s future is at risk because of a lack of funding to help to pay for travel costs.

How can the Scottish Government assist with funding to support the group to expand and become sustainable for the future?

I thank Finlay Carson for raising that issue, which Emma Harper has raised with me as part of her work. The group has invited me down for a visit, which I hope to go on very soon. I get to go on lots of visits, and I hope to get round them all.

The member is absolutely right about some of the pressures that the group has raised. It has asked us about financial support, and we have suggested that it look at some of the opportunities that exist to get involved in community planning and funding. We have passed on further details about how the group can do that, but if there is any more that the member thinks that we can do, I would be happy to hear from him.

The answer that the minister has given to Finlay Carson means that my question has been responded to, so I will not take up any more of the chamber’s time.

Thank you very much, Ms Harper. There is a lesson there for every member.

Welfare Reform (Disabled People)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the United Kingdom Government’s welfare reforms are having on low-income families in Scotland that include a disabled person. (S5O-04076)

On 23 January, the Scottish Government published its report on the impact of the UK Government’s welfare reforms on disabled people. The report shows that the existing benefits system makes it too difficult for disabled people to access the support that they need and are entitled to. Since the introduction of personal independence payments, 39,000 people have lost their disability benefit entitlement. Since then, there have been 30,000 cases across Scotland in which claimants of disability benefits have had to go through a stressful appeals process to receive what they were rightfully entitled to after the Department for Work and Pensions initially made the wrong decision.

Recent figures show that the DWP refunded employment and support allowance to 112,00 people who were owed it, but sadly 5,000 of those people died before they received the money that was rightfully theirs. No system will be free from human error, but the rising number of DWP mistakes point to a systematic problem. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if the Tories continue to refuse to fix the problems embedded in the system, social security powers of that kind should be transferred to Holyrood so that we can build a system that puts dignity and fairness at its heart?

It is, indeed, shameful that 5,000 people died before they were paid what they were entitled to through the DWP’s reassessment process—a process that was only necessary due to the DWP’s own errors. The devolution of disability assistance means that we can introduce a decision-making process that will be robust but fair, and in which we will do all that we can to get the decisions right first time. However, many benefits claimed by disabled people, including ESA, which Alasdair Allan mentioned, remain reserved to Westminster. The Scottish Government cannot address all the unfairness in the current UK benefits system without the further devolution of powers over social security. It is imperative that all powers relating to social security are devolved to the Scottish Parliament to protect the most vulnerable people in our society.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that PIP has now been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. In her answer to Alasdair Allan, she indicated that she felt that the mobility criteria were being falsely interpreted by the DWP, which was having a bad effect on individuals in Scotland. Will she confirm that the PIP regulations to be introduced by her Government will be radically different from those of the DWP?

What is important is not just the regulations—important though they are—but encouraging people to apply for support for which they are eligible, making the application process as simple as possible and having a decision-making process that gathers information speedily and correctly so that the decision that is made is right the first time. I am absolutely confident that, through Social Security Scotland, how we deliver social security in Scotland will be radically different from what is done by the DWP.