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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 30 November 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Storm Arwen (Response), Deaths in Prison Custody, Residential Rehabilitation, Gender-based Violence, Decision Time, Lamb for St Andrew’s Day Campaign


Contents


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many people as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.


Energy Use (Charges)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that people are shutting down their electric and rationing their energy use in the face of rising charges. (S6T-00329)

Everyone needs a safe and warm place to call home. However, we know that energy price rises are causing concern, especially for households that are in, or are at risk of, fuel poverty.

Regulation of the energy market is reserved, and we therefore need action from the United Kingdom Government. The Scottish Government is doing what it can by making £10 million available to help people who are struggling with their heating costs. That is in addition to the £25 million that we are providing to local authorities to tackle financial insecurity and a further £6 million that we are providing to third sector partners.

A report by the Wise Group found that

“people who live in homes with electric heating are the most likely to ration use or self-disconnect”.

The group has said that

“the energy crisis has left people unable to boil a kettle or cook their dinner.”

Furthermore,

“Of those who said they ration or disconnect their electricity and heating, 75.4% do so at least every week in Greater Glasgow.”

The group has been told about customers

“spending the day in a sleeping bag just to stay warm.”

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will agree with me that that is an absolute scandal. I worry for ordinary people as the forecast prices begin to rise.

Why did the Government abandon its plans to create a publicly owned company, downgrading it to an agency to advise on energy efficiency? Can we have a fuller discussion about the proposal? If not, how does the Government propose to provide accessible energy with the powers that it has, ensuring that cheaper community-owned heating is more widely available to people who need it?

I am aware of the report from the Wise Group, which highlights a number of very serious concerns about people being forced into fuel poverty as a result of escalating energy prices. However, the energy market is regulated by the UK Government and is outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government.

What are we doing to address the situation? We are providing the additional £10 million to target people who are at risk of self-disconnection as a result of the costs that they are incurring due to escalating fuel prices, and we are doing that through the Fuel Bank Foundation, which is a fund and organisation that works with individuals and families who are experiencing financial difficulties.

In relation to the public energy company, as we set out in our manifesto this year and in our programme for government, the scale and nature of the grounds on which we are dealing with the issue has significantly changed. We now have our net zero commitments, which require us to decarbonise more than a million homes, as well as 50,000 non-domestic premises, between now and 2030. We need to take concerted action to achieve that in a way that is consistent with delivering a just and fair transition, without forcing individuals into fuel poverty.

Earlier today I set out to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee how we are undertaking a consultation on the agency that will be responsible for co-ordinating the approach to achieving our net zero objectives.

The energy markets need to change, however. The existing system is unsustainable. I have raised that with the UK Government, and we now need concerted action on its part to address what is a growing crisis, not just in Scotland but across large parts of the UK.

Let me be quite clear: I entirely endorse what the cabinet secretary has said about the energy market needing to change. We are absolutely at one on that.

Can the cabinet secretary be clear to Parliament on this: has the Scottish Government closed the door completely on a publicly owned energy company, with all the challenges that that presents? I would like a yes or no answer to that.

As the cabinet secretary says, many of the poorest people in our communities have involuntarily become the greenest, because they are being forced to cut their energy. Many of them are excluded from net zero initiatives. According to the Wise Group report,

“Two thirds of respondents felt unable to consider buying an electric vehicle ... or”

install

“more energy efficient heating.”

How, specifically, will the Government go about helping low-income families to share in the benefits of a move to a net zero economy? Scotland has a successful record on renewables, which I applaud. How can ordinary people on a low income share in that success?

On the specific point about the public energy companies, as I have set out at committee previously, we are considering how the public energy agency can help to support the development of heat as a service. That is one of the reasons why we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Danish Government, given its experience in developing district heating programmes and the use of heat as a service, which allows local energy providers to develop and provide energy to a specific local community. That is one of the elements of the remit of the public energy agency. Through the agency’s role in considering such issues, there is scope to examine the prospect of developing some form of local public energy company.

On the specifics of the shift towards decarbonisation and more use of electricity-based energy, one issue is the existing obligation system in the energy market, which needs to change. The system places a greater obligation on the electricity side of the market, which, as a result, forces up the price of electricity. We have called on the UK Government to review the system and consider how it could be changed, because the obligation causes electricity prices to be artificially higher than they need to be.

On the specific point about low-income families, we set out in our document “Heat In Buildings Strategy: Achieving Net Zero Emissions in Scotland’s Buildings” a range of measures that we are going to take forward. That includes how we ensure that the transition to zero-emission technologies for heating is fair and that individuals are not forced into fuel poverty as a result of having to change their heating system. That fairness is exactly what the strategy aims to achieve.

Before we move to the next question, I ask for more succinct questions and responses.

What assessment is being carried out regarding the set-up costs of the national public energy agency?

That piece of work is currently on-going. As I said, we launched a consultation today, which will be fully up and running by 2025 and will appear in virtual form in the next year in order for us to start that important area of work. The costs will be set out in detail as we move forward with the programme.

This winter, households face a perfect storm, with rising energy bills and the £20 cut to universal credit. What support has the Scottish Government provided to families who have been struggling financially throughout the pandemic; what further support will be provided this winter; and what impact will the doubling of the Scottish child payment have on low-income families?

We have been providing a range of support to low-income families during the pandemic, including the £130 low-income pandemic payment, which will have reached around 500,000 households by the end of October this year. We are also putting £130 million in the pockets of families through the Scottish child payment and the bridging payments.

We recently announced further support through the £41 million winter support fund to tackle financial and fuel insecurity this winter. This week, we announced that we will double the Scottish child payment to support more than 106,000 children from April 2022, which will, in time, help to lift a further 20,000 children out of poverty.


Homelessness (Deaths)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the reported number of deaths of homeless people in 2020. (S6T-00328)

Although it is hard to measure homeless deaths precisely, the experimental statistics that National Records of Scotland published today are extremely concerning. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, and I offer my sincerest condolences to anyone who has lost a loved one.

It is unacceptable that lives are cut short in that way when, in many cases, homelessness can be prevented. Scotland already has some of the strongest protections in the world for people who are facing homelessness, but we need to go further. Over the current session of Parliament, we are investing more than £50 million to end homelessness and rough sleeping, including support for rapid rehousing and housing first.

We have committed to introducing new homelessness prevention legislation, and we are improving co-operation between health and housing services, with specific measures to help those who have more complex needs. Finally, in combination with our determination to tackle drug-related deaths, backed by funding of £250 million over the next five years, we are determined to support and meet the needs of people who are facing homelessness.

To be frank, 256 deaths on this Government’s watch is a national shame. Every single death is a tragedy, and that is a shocking increase, as Scotland already had the highest homeless death rate in the whole United Kingdom by far. What is the Government getting so badly wrong?

As I said in my initial answer, I agree that every death is a tragedy, which is why we are taking steps to tackle both homelessness and drug-related deaths. As I said at the end of my initial answer, that determination to tackle drug-related deaths is backed by £250 million of funding over the next five years. Later today, Angela Constance will make a statement and give further information on residential rehabilitation provision.

We have taken considerable action to tackle homelessness, which is backed by substantial resources including support for rapid rehousing and housing first, which have been recognised as being absolutely critical in getting people off the streets and into settled accommodation and providing them with the wraparound support that they need. We know that, when people have addiction or mental health issues, giving them a key to a home is not enough, which is why we are pleased to see that around 85 per cent of tenancies through housing first are being sustained. That is an important way of supporting people to deal with a range of issues that they might face.

I gave the minister another chance, but she still does not seem to have a clue what this Government is getting so wrong. The Scottish Government was astonishingly complacent after it gave homeless people—[Inaudible.]—through the pandemic. The Government thinks that the fact that there have been more than 250 deaths shows that it takes more than a roof to tackle homelessness. Are those 256 personal tragedies not a reflection of years and years of failed Government policies on drugs, mental health and homelessness?

No, I do not agree with that. We have a complex situation involving people with a lot of complex needs, which must all be addressed. The answers are measures such as the rapid rehousing plan and housing first, which are proving to be successful means of supporting people into accommodation and, importantly, wrapping the services around the person.

Working with third sector agencies throughout the pandemic, we have almost eliminated rough sleeping on our streets, which is also important. I do not know why Willie Rennie is shaking his head. It is important that our third sector agencies be commended for the work that they have done to eradicate rough sleeping on our streets.

Willie Rennie raised an important issue in relation to mental health. Poor mental health can be both a cause and a consequence of homelessness, which is why we are working with national health service boards and others to address the issue. As we set out in our mental health transition and recovery plan, in response to the pandemic—and backed by £120 million of funding, including cross-Government investment—we will support the integration of mental health and substance use treatment services. There is no single solution to such complex issues; we need to do all those things and more, which is why the prevention duty is also important.

Charities that work with homeless people think that one reason why the figures have increased yet again is the fact that people are spending longer in the homelessness system. In 2020-21, annual homelessness statistics showed that it was taking 248 days for homeless households to have their cases closed.

What actions will the minister take to put in place measures to prevent that from happening? Will the Scottish Government agree today to Scottish Conservative calls for a full review of access to healthcare services for homeless people and those who are rough sleeping?

Miles Briggs and I have had this exchange on a number of occasions in the chamber, so he will be aware that some of the issues with moving people through temporary accommodation relate to Covid. The pandemic has slowed down local authorities’ ability to free up accommodation and move people from temporary to permanent accommodation. With the support of Government, local authorities are working through those issues.

We are also working with local government to scale up housing first, so that people with the most complex needs can access settled mainstream accommodation, with the wraparound support that I spoke about earlier. That can reduce the time that people with the most complex needs spend in temporary accommodation.

We have also seen a move away from the use of night shelters and hostels towards more supported, housing first accommodation. All those aspects are important, and I am sure that Miles Briggs will join me in supporting the efforts of the third sector, whose work supports our most vulnerable people.

I agree that every death of a person experiencing homelessness is a tragedy, and my thoughts are very much with those who have lost loved ones. Will the cabinet secretary outline what measures the Government is taking to tackle rough sleeping this winter?

I would hope that no one will be rough sleeping this winter. We have in place services to support people throughout the year, with additional services for people at risk of rough sleeping over the winter period.

In line with our commitment to end night shelter accommodation over the previous winter and this winter, we have provided more than £433,000 towards the operation of rapid rehousing welcome centres in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which will provide safe emergency accommodation for those who need it.

We have also made available flexible emergency funding to front-line homelessness organisations across the country through our winter support fund. That will empower front-line homelessness workers to make immediate decisions centred around the specific needs of individuals, and it will assist people to access support in a dignified way.