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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 31 January 2018

Agenda: Urgent Question, Portfolio Question Time, Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Bus Services, Correction


Portfolio Question Time

Carers Allowance (Uprating)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason carers assistance is not included in its proposed amendments to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. (S5O-01734)

I think that Ms Beamish is referring to the uprating amendment, as carers allowance is in the Social Security (Scotland) Bill.

Later this year, we will honour our commitment to implement our carers allowance supplement. That will provide extra money for carers, up to the rate of jobseekers allowance, in recognition of the important role that they play. It is an increase of substantially more than the rate of inflation.

Under our proposed amendment on uprating, ministers would have a statutory duty to review annually the rates of social security assistance, to assess the impact of inflation. That will give ministers the flexibility to consider different effects on the different types of carers assistance that we will provide, such as carers allowance and the young carer grant.

I thank the minister for that answer. Looking to the future, I urge the minister to support the amendments that have been lodged by my colleague Mark Griffin, which would afford Scotland’s 72,000 carers allowance recipients the same protection from inflation, which is currently running at 3 per cent. The minister will recall that I have a strong interest in the issue, as co-convener of the cross-party group on carers.

In August, the minister told me, in answer to a question, that the combined weekly rate of carers allowance and carers supplement would be £73.10 in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but does she accept that passing on the United Kingdom Government’s benefit freeze will leave carers more than £50 worse off in real terms in 2019-20, while the Government saves—by our calculations—£5 million?

I recall Ms Beamish’s long-standing interest in and commitment to carers across Scotland. I point out that the increase that we will implement as our very first delivery of social security benefits—once the bill has passed through Parliament and received Parliament’s approval and royal assent—will be that increased allowance, which is a 13 per cent increase on the current state of play for carers.

I take the view that the right place to discuss and negotiate amendments on a bill is in committee, and I look forward to the stage 2 amendment procedure, which will begin tomorrow at the Social Security Committee.

The low incomes tax reform group has written to the Social Security Committee with concerns about how the carers allowance supplement will interact with the tax regime across the whole UK. Have there been any discussions with the UK Government and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs to ensure that no one who receives the supplement will have to pay additional tax?

I have not had the benefit of seeing the letter and I do not know whether the group has written to me, as it has written to others. However, we have a fiscal framework that makes it clear that where an individual’s income increases as a consequence of the Scottish Government’s exercise of power over devolved benefits, that individual should not subsequently be penalised or lose the increase through their interaction with UK matters, be they to do with benefits or tax. Our officials are in constant discussion with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that.

I am sure that Mark Griffin will recall that we previously talked about the abolition of the bedroom tax at source, which we will do, and the potential impact that that might have with respect to the UK Government’s benefit cap. I am pleased that we have managed to resolve that matter, some of which we will discuss when we consider the Social Security (Scotland) Bill.

I am happy to look again at the issue in order to be sure that we are in the right place, but I think that the fiscal framework that we negotiated is our starting point. The framework is very clear about individuals not being adversely affected by UK Government decisions when they have had their situation improved by Scottish Government decisions.

Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the work of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group. (S5O-01735)

I am pleased to say that the homelessness and rough sleeping action group, which was set up in October, has moved quickly to recommend actions to minimise rough sleeping this winter. The recommendations have been implemented and were backed by a total funding package of £328,000, which included £262,000 from the Scottish Government. That swift action is increasing emergency accommodation and outreach provision for people who are at risk of sleeping rough, and is providing crucial support and protection to people this winter.

The action group is now examining longer-term actions to end rough sleeping for good and to transform temporary accommodation, and its recommendations are due in the spring. Crucially, the action group is engaging with the wider sector and partners and is learning from people with direct personal experience of homelessness, as it takes its work forward.

I am grateful to the action group for its excellent work to date, including its commitment to working at pace, and I look forward to receiving its further recommendations.

I thank the minister for that answer. According to the recently released document, “Homelessness in Scotland: Bi-annual update 1 April to 30 September 2017”, Edinburgh saw the largest increase in the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation in Scotland last year. As at 30 September 2017, the 25 households in Edinburgh in unsuitable accommodation accounted for 74 per cent of the Scottish total, and the 11 breaches of the Homeless Persons (Unsuitable Accommodation) (Scotland) Order 2014 were 92 per cent of the Scottish figure.

I heard what the minister said, but will he explain why the Scottish Government has failed to deliver the 2011 Scottish National Party manifesto commitment to build more than 6,000 new socially rented houses each year? What, in particular, is the Government doing to reverse those trends in Edinburgh?

Since the Government came to power in 2007, we have built more than 70,000 affordable homes in Scotland. Our ambition is, as Mr Lindhurst will be aware, to deliver over the current parliamentary session 50,000 affordable homes, 35,000 of which will be for social rent. Edinburgh will get a large amount of resource to ensure that homes are built in this city, too.

I am not happy with the City of Edinburgh Council about the unsuitable accommodation that some folk are in. The council has recently breached the unsuitable accommodation order 11 times; the only other council to have done so is East Lothian Council, which has done it once. I want to ensure that Edinburgh and other councils around Scotland take cognisance of the recommendations from the action group. We will look at them closely and implement them to try to improve the situation around the country.

I point out to Mr Lindhurst that since 2010 homelessness in Scotland has decreased by 38 per cent. We could do even better than that if we did not have the constant Tory austerity that has blighted our country.

Research by Glasgow Homelessness Network in 2014 found that 65 per cent of people who asked for help were told that there were no beds left in the city. Those are the most recent figures that I can find. The minister will be aware that homeless people have a statutory right to emergency accommodation, but that does not seem to be happening everywhere across the country.

The Scottish Government does not collect data on how many people or families asked for emergency accommodation or were given emergency accommodation. If the minister is serious about tackling the problem, surely he will agree that it is time to start collecting data on the number of people who have a statutory right to emergency accommodation but are being turned away.

I remind members that local government has the responsibility for dealing with folks who present as homeless. I expect every local authority to abide by the legislation that Parliament has put in place.

I have been robust in saying that I want to know about any gatekeeping that is going on in councils, and when they do not respond appropriately to meet folk’s needs. I am grateful to the organisations and individuals who have provided me with details of that.

I will continue to look at such situations. I am not averse to looking in depth to see whether we require any more data at any point. I know that the action group is looking at the situation closely and I expect it to make some recommendations, which the Government will also look at closely.

I think that I heard the minister say that rough sleeping is down 38 per cent since 2010—

Members: Homelessness!

Is it homelessness?

I understand that rough sleeping is up 169 per cent in England. Does the minister think that we have lessons to learn from the Conservatives down south, or do they have lessons to learn from us?

The UK Government could learn many lessons from us.

Mr Mason is right: in England, in the past seven years, there has been a 169 per cent increase in rough sleeping. Here in Scotland, because of our prevention activity, rough sleeping numbers have fallen by about 41 per cent in the same period since 2010.

Scotland has some of the strongest rights in the world for homeless people. Everybody who is found to be homeless is entitled to housing, and most people are provided with settled permanent accommodation. In stark contrast to the light-touch approach of the Westminster Government, we are absolutely committed to tackling homelessness. That is why we have established the £50 million ending homelessness together fund to drive sustainable and lasting change and to tackle homelessness in Scotland.

The Westminster Government could do a great deal more if it was to look at its policies on welfare reform, on cutting social security, and on putting a cap on benefits. Those are adding to the woes of people in Scotland and right across the United Kingdom.

Community Councils (Empowerment)

Can the Scottish Government say what arrangements are in place to empower community councils? (S5O-01736)

I am sorry, Ms Mackay, but that is the supplementary. Could you ask the first question? I think you asked your supplementary instead of your first question.

No, I asked my question.

I beg your pardon.

Through the new participation requests, the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 creates opportunities for community councils, on their terms, to enter into dialogue with public authorities about local issues and local services. I know that a number of community councils have already taken advantage of that opportunity. In addition, since 2016, a number of community councils across Scotland have received a total of £337,000 from the community choices fund to directly involve people on local spending priorities.

In December last year, the cabinet secretary launched the local governance review with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. An extensive engagement process will help us decide how best to bring control over local public services closer to communities. Community councils can help to ensure that the views of the communities that they represent are heard loud and clear.

My apologies again, Ms Mackay.

Does the minister agree that community councils are the lifeblood of our communities and that local authorities should be engaging with them at every level?

I certainly welcome the approach of the community councils that undertake a wide range of roles and activities for the benefit of their communities, and I agree that local authorities should be engaging with their community councils on local issues.

As I said in my initial answer, through the provision of participation requests in the 2015 act, we have given community councils the right to raise the issues that are of importance to them. I hope that community councils across the country will take advantage of that right if the need arises.

Promotion of Human Rights

To ask the Scottish Government how it is encouraging public bodies to do more to promote human rights. (S5O-01737)

Human rights are relevant to the work of every public authority in Scotland. All public bodies have a responsibility to act in ways that respect, protect and promote human rights. The Scottish Government actively supports and encourages public bodies to act in ways that make human rights real for every member of Scottish society. We do so by working in partnership, by demonstrating leadership and, where necessary, by issuing guidance and bringing forward legislation.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, now more than ever, the risks that have been created by Brexit and the United Kingdom Government’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 mean that we must be resolute in encouraging human rights, which should be embedded in everything that we do, as they make a difference in helping people in live in dignity wherever their community is in Scotland, and whatever their circumstances?

It is imperative that we acknowledge that the UK Government’s proposals to repeal the 1998 act or even to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, combined with the potential impacts of Brexit, present a real danger to the human rights protections that we currently enjoy. They put at risk the most vulnerable members of society and hit them the hardest. Therefore, the Scottish Government is committed to defending the existing human rights safeguards that are provided by the Human Rights Act 1998, the Scotland Act 1998 and European Union law, and to embedding human rights, equality and respect in everything that we do, so that everyone in Scotland can live a life of human dignity.

To that end, we want to go further. As members might recall, the First Minister recently established an advisory group on human rights leadership to make recommendations on how Scotland can continue to lead by example on human rights, including economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.

New Housing Stock

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had regarding the provision of new housing stock to meet future needs. (S5O-01738)

As part of our more homes Scotland approach to support the increase in the supply of homes across all tenures, I and my officials take every opportunity to engage with stakeholders to drive forward the planning and delivery of more homes. That happens at national and local levels and involves housing providers, local authorities, house builders, infrastructure providers and policy experts from a range of organisations. The Scottish Government is constantly seeking ways to build more homes and looking to push forward new and innovative approaches to resourcing and delivery.

The “Housing Statistics for Scotland Quarterly Update” document that was published last month revealed that 4,503 new-build homes were completed between April and June 2017. That brings the total for the year to the end of June 2017 to 17,178, down 1 per cent compared to the previous year. Those findings come against the backdrop of the number of new homes completed having fallen by a third since 2007. Can the minister confirm how he intends to increase the supply of new-build housing to sufficient levels to ensure Scotland’s future prosperity?

The Government intends to increase supply through our more homes Scotland approach, which will deliver 50,000 affordable homes across Scotland over the course of this parliamentary session, with 35,000 of them being for social rent.

I will give Mr Stewart examples of the resourcing behind that in the region that he represents. Over the period, Clackmannanshire Council will benefit from £24.48 million, Fife Council from £137.02 million, Perth and Kinross Council from £71.235 million, and Stirling Council from £38.397 million. That is a total of £271 million in Mr Stewart’s region alone; there is £3 billion across Scotland to deliver 50,000 affordable homes.

Beyond that, we continue to invest in our shared equity schemes, which allow new owners to enter the market. We will also continue to work with all the stakeholders that I mentioned to continue to drive the matter forward to ensure that Scotland gets the homes that it needs and deserves.

How does the Scottish Government’s supply of affordable housing per capita compare to the United Kingdom Government’s supply in England?

I am sure that there is about to be some noise from the Tory benches.

Since 2007, the supply of affordable housing per head of population in Scotland has been a third higher than in England. That difference in supply has become even more pronounced over the past three years, which reflects our continued commitment to deliver affordable housing. Since 2014, we have delivered 50 per cent more affordable housing units per head of population in Scotland than have been delivered in England.

I recently visited the Rock Trust, an organisation that supports young homeless people in Edinburgh. It told me that the single biggest reason why young people in Edinburgh are declaring themselves homeless is because they have had a negative experience of coming out. That is, 40 per cent of the people who arrive at the Rock Trust’s doors identify themselves as homeless because they have had a negative experience of telling their parents that they are gay. What work is the homelessness and rough sleeping action group doing to address that fundamental root cause of youth homelessness?

I thank Ms Dugdale very much for that question. I, too, have recently visited the Rock Trust and I applaud it for its efforts and the work that it does.

During my time in office, I have met young folk on homelessness issues, including members of LGBT Youth Scotland, who have done a huge amount of work on the matter. The homelessness and rough sleeping action group is considering closely the situation that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face. I fully intend to ensure that, in future, young people are present on our strategy group to deal with homelessness. We will without doubt take cognisance of the experience of all young people but, in particular, that of the LGBT young people who have faced the difficulties that Ms Dugdale highlights.

Social Housing

6. Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had regarding the provision of social housing. (S5O-01739)

As I confirmed to Alexander Stewart in my previous answer, as part of our more homes Scotland approach to support the increase in the supply of housing, I and my officials take every opportunity to engage with stakeholders to drive forward the planning and delivery of more homes. My officials and I met housing conveners at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities last week and officials met Scottish Borders Council this week to discuss the provision of social housing.

As we heard, the latest figures show that the Scottish National Party is not meeting its new social housing completion commitments and new-build completions have stagnated. In his answers to questions from Gordon Lindhurst and Alexander Stewart, the minister outlined commitments that the Government has to numbers. What steps will the SNP Government take to increase the availability of new social rented homes to meet its housing commitments and ensure that Scotland has sufficient provision of, and scope for, appropriate housing to meet future demand, particularly for people who seek larger accommodation?

I am glad that the housing convener in the Scottish Borders, who I met recently, is a little bit more positive than some of the folk on the Tory benches. Over the course of this parliamentary session, the Scottish Borders will benefit from investment of £62.678 million. I have told the Scottish Borders housing convener and others that looking at need in their areas should be driven by local housing strategies and local knowledge and that the investment of that money should feature in their strategic housing investment plans.

I have also said that in terms of need, if an area requires housing for larger families, my officials will look closely at what subsidy may be required for that. We have put in a level of flexibility. The same message has been given on housing for disabled people. My officials are always willing to meet local authorities, including housing conveners, to make sure that we get this right.

Local authorities must ensure that their local housing strategies—and the needs and demands assessments that they carry out—are right. However, we will be flexible on a number of these issues.

What support is the Scottish Government giving to increase the supply of affordable homes in my constituency of Renfrewshire South?

In Renfrewshire South, we are doing what we are doing right across Scotland. We are increasing the amount of resource that we are giving to every council area and ensuring that they have the stability and comfort of knowing what money they will receive over the next number of years. That gives them the ability to plan in some depth. Many local authorities are already doing extremely well on delivery; others with housing association partners are taking a little longer to get plans in place.

I am committed to ensuring that we meet our ambitious target of delivering 50,000 affordable homes right across the country to benefit Renfrewshire South and every other constituency in Scotland.

Housing Needs (Older People)

To ask the Scottish Government how it meets the housing demand of older tenants with mobility issues. (S5O-01740)

The Scottish Government wants everyone to have a home that is the right size, is in the right location and is able to meet people’s needs, and we want to ensure that people are able to live independently.

In spring this year we will—jointly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—publish a refreshed age, home and community strategy, setting out plans to ensure that the housing needs and choices of older people are met.

We are investing more than £3 billion in affordable housing to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes over this parliamentary session, which is a 76 per cent increase on our previous five-year investment; 35,000 of those homes will be for social rent.

Most of those homes will be delivered by housing associations and councils and they will be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to meet people’s varying needs as they age and their mobility decreases. The latest available statistics show that 91 per cent of homes built by housing associations and councils in 2016-17 met housing for varying needs standards. I expect that level of compliance to continue to apply to the delivery of the 50,000 affordable homes target.

Appropriate adaptations can help older and disabled people with mobility issues live safely and independently in their own homes. We are working with health and social care partnerships, older and disabled people’s organisations and the housing sector to ensure that people who would benefit from adaptations to their homes can access these services when needed.

In Edinburgh, older tenants with mobility issues are awarded gold priority, which entitles them to a ground-floor property. However, there are not enough homes to meet the demand. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to encourage more developers to build suitable affordable homes for older people with mobility issues?

As I said earlier to Rachael Hamilton, I expect local authorities to look at social housing need in their areas. I cannot remember the contents of Edinburgh’s strategic housing investment plan off the top of my head, but it is clear that some local authorities seem to have done more work in the area than others.

I think that I highlighted to Pauline McNeill the other week that Angus Council stated that it was looking to make 16 per cent of its new homes suitable for wheelchair access and specialist need. The City of Edinburgh Council and other local authorities need to use the knowledge that they have to ensure that the new houses that are built are the right houses, and that they include provision for older and disabled people.

On the private sector side, I have tasked my building standards officials with looking at what we need to do to ensure that private housing is improved for the needs of older and disabled people. That work is on-going. There will of course be the publication of the joint document with COSLA later in the year, which will highlight what we are doing in the area.

I am sure that the minister will agree that looking after the housing requirements of our wounded veterans community is vital. The Scottish Veterans Garden City Association, which does sterling work for our veterans community, has been working closely with several local councils, where possible, to provide housing that meets the physical requirements of disabled veterans and provides inclusiveness within their community, which veterans so dearly need.

Will the minister consider bringing that work to a national level, and encourage all local authorities in Scotland to engage with third sector organisations such as the Scottish Veterans Garden City Association, so that we ensure that housing is built appropriately for hard-to-reach groups such as our so-deserving disabled veterans?

I encourage all local authorities to work with all partners that have an interest in housing. I had the pleasure of meeting representatives from the Scottish Veterans Garden City Association at a recent opening of a Link housing scheme in Edinburgh, and I am very pleased that the City of Edinburgh Council has reached agreement with the association on housing provision in Edinburgh. I encourage all local authorities to do likewise.

To help meet our housing needs in Scotland, it would also be very useful if there was a little co-operation from the Ministry of Defence on some of the land, housing and buildings that it owns in Scotland. The Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, who is also the veterans minister, is sitting to my right. I know that he has made lots of effort to try to get the Ministry of Defence to live up to what I see as its responsibilities to help us in that regard. I wish that the answers that he got back were more positive than they have been. Maybe Mr Corry can help to make the Ministry of Defence see sense and co-operate with the Scottish Government on those matters.

Disability Benefits

To ask the Scottish Government which stakeholders it has had discussions with regarding providing alternatives to cash in lieu of disability benefits. (S5O-01741)

Alternatives to cash were raised with us during our extensive consultation on social security in Scotland in 2016. Since then, there has been on-going engagement with a number of stakeholders, including the disability and carers benefits expert advisory group, the ill health and disability benefits stakeholder reference group, and others.

We had always intended that cash alternatives would be a choice for individuals. I have listened to those who have rightly pointed out that our draft social security bill does not clearly reflect that. I have lodged amendments, which I hope, with members’ support, will ensure that choice is central to cash alternatives.

I thank the minister for that response and I hope that the bill will give claimants real choice

She will be aware that the Department for Work and Pensions has begun to review the cases of 1.6 million people who claim personal independence payments, including 13,000 people across the Highland region, to establish whether they should have been treated with parity regardless of their condition. Will she give me an assurance that she will make specific provision so that no Government can ever again unfairly differentiate between physical and mental conditions in the determination of disability assistance?

I welcome the UK Government’s decision not to appeal the ruling, to begin what is an extensive and significant piece of work on its part to identify the individuals who have been adversely affected by its decisions and to take steps to remedy that. We will keep in close contact with that in as much as we can, and in as much as the DWP is willing to share with us information about individuals living here in Scotland.

I absolutely give Ms Grant the assurance that she seeks. We have brought forward a rights-based social security bill, which is now the subject of detailed discussion. Along with the fact that in our Parliament we are required to comply with the European convention on human rights and we have a responsibility as ministers, under the ministerial code, to make sure that we behave and act in that way, that should go some way to not only providing the assurance that Ms Grant seeks but ensuring that we deliver on it through our practice.

How does the minister see the use of experience panels influencing the delivery of devolved benefits under the new social security system?

Members will be aware of the 2,000 volunteers that we have recruited to our experience panels and our most recent extra recruitment exercise to bring in additional young carers to assist us with that aspect of our work. The rationale behind that is that we will build a proper system if we found it through listening to those with personal experience of being on benefits, paying attention to that experience and addressing those concerns.

So far, the experience panels have been involved in initial design questions, particularly around the first wave of benefits that we have committed to delivering, such as the carers allowance supplement, the best start grant and funeral assistance. They have helped us with everything from the nature of the application form right through to how decisions are made, how people are informed of them and the manner of the communication that they receive from us on the various choices, and they have tested some of the online offers that we are beginning to design and build. They will continue to be with us and we will top them up where necessary. We will look to increase our reach to hard-to-reach groups that are perhaps not as well represented on the experience panels as we would hope through our work with stakeholders such as the Scottish Association for Mental Health and others. The panels will continue to be with us in this exercise right through to the end of this parliamentary session. I hope that a future Government would also consider following such good practice by involving those who will use the system in designing it.

Third Sector Support (Funding and Development)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the statement in its programme for government that the “third sector needs stability of funding and the opportunity for longer term planning and development”, how this is being rolled out across its departments and agencies. (S5O-01742)

All funding under the Scottish Government’s equality budget moved to three-year funding at the start of 2017-18 and we have increased that budget by £2.375 million for 2018-19. Our community capacity and resilience fund is enabling community groups to secure a three-year rolling funding commitment to their work. We have also announced three-year commitments for the social entrepreneurs fund and the volunteering support grant from 2018 onwards.

Support for the third sector is from a wide range of portfolios and we will continue to extend three-year rolling funding where possible across the Scottish Government. Together with a transparent and fair basis for the extension of core funding, that will give the third sector a significant level of stability of funding and the ability to plan ahead.

Given the statements in the programme for government, does that mean that voluntary organisations that currently receive one-year funding can now look forward to three-year core funding to allow them the opportunity for longer-term planning and development?

As I have already said to Mr Findlay and others on numerous occasions in this chamber, we have very firm commitments to the voluntary sector.

It is a shame that Neil Findlay did not welcome the progress that we have made thus far, despite the difficult financial position that is imposed on us by the United Kingdom Government, with its austerity and cuts. Nonetheless, we have made good progress with three-year funding. Organisations apply for funding, and applications are considered on their merits.

It is also a shame that Mr Findlay did not welcome the increase for the equality budget, the protection of the third sector budget of £24.5 million, the empowering communities fund and our £8 million commitment to third sector interfaces the length and breadth of Scotland—I must say to Mr Findlay that that includes £234,000 to Voluntary Sector Gateway West Lothian; that is money that this Government is investing locally, and I wonder whether West Lothian Council will continue to make its investment of £60,000.

What tools and techniques is the Government using to measure the social impact of its funding awards to the third sector?

Social impact informs a wide range of our work across Government. If the member looks at, for example, grant award letters, he will see that we look at the impact of our continued and significant investment in the third sector.

We are particularly interested in the third sector’s role in public sector reform and meaningful civic engagement, and in its contribution to the economy—Scotland’s social enterprise census has helped us to unpick some of that. We are interested in the contribution that the voluntary sector can make to the wellbeing of not just individuals but communities and in how the sector, working in partnership with Government, can help to tackle some of the toughest social problems.