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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 07 December 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Sea Fisheries and End-year Negotiations, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Paisley for City of Culture 2021


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Communities, Social Security and Equalities


Disability Awareness

1. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to support a national campaign to raise awareness of disability and reduce stigma, in light of the recent report by Disability Agenda Scotland. (S5O-00429)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

I welcome the publication of Disability Agenda Scotland’s report. Last week, we published “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Our Delivery Plan to 2021 for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”, in which we commit to delivering a one Scotland campaign in 2017 to reduce stigma. The focus of the awareness campaign will be on employment, which is also a key theme in Disability Agenda Scotland’s report.

Jeremy Balfour

In Scotland, only 43.8 per cent of individuals with disabilities are employed, compared with 72.3 per cent of the wider population. In recent years, employment rates have actually fallen among some disabled groups. The DAS report acknowledges that disabled people still do not feel equal, and although there are nice words and documents, the aim of improving matters further is simply not being achieved. That is not good enough. Will the minister confirm what the Scottish Government will do to get employers to treat disabled people as they treat the wider population?

Jeane Freeman

In the disability delivery plan that I mentioned, we make a commitment to reduce the employment gap in Scotland by half and to consult public agencies and local authorities on setting a target for public sector employment. I fully intend that we will do a great deal better than the United Kingdom Government. A recent report by the all-party parliamentary group for disability highlights that it will take the UK Government until 2065 to meet its target of halving the employment gap for disabled people if it goes at its current slow pace—a bit like for welfare benefits.

In addition, we will work specifically with employers in Scotland to ensure that they take advantage of the UK access to work fund and that disabled people seeking employment are aware of the fund and are assisted and advised on how to apply to it.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

Does the Scottish Government agree with me that one way to reduce the stigma experienced by those with disabilities is for the Tory Westminster Government to treat people with dignity and respect, rather than threaten to reduce their incomes by slashing disability benefits, and to stop imposing draconian benefit sanctions on some of the most vulnerable in our society?

Jeane Freeman

I do, of course, agree. I find it very disappointing that our Conservative colleagues to my left—although clearly not politically—insist on groaning every time we mention exactly that damage that the UK Government is doing. Indeed, let me quote another report: the National Audit Office points out that the sanctions regime is costing £285 million while producing a saving of still only £132 million. It also points out that there is very weak evidence to support the DWP’s sanctions approach. Any notion that sanctions and reducing benefits encourage people into employment—as opposed to what we know for a fact, which is that they increase poverty among those individuals—is of course false. Our colleagues in the Scottish Tory party can continue to try to support and promote the UK Government’s policy, but it is being dismantled by the minute and the public is becoming very well aware of that.


Local Government Finance

2. Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the Audit Scotland report, “Local government in Scotland: Financial overview 2015/16”. (S5O-00430)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities (Angela Constance)

The Scottish Government considers the Audit Scotland report to be a fair assessment of the financial position of local authorities in Scotland. The report highlights the pressures that councils, like other parts of the public sector, face, but also identifies that, despite those pressures, councils are continuing to deliver improvements to services and that the pressures are approximately the same as the reduction in the Scottish Government’s total budget over the period 2010-11 to 2016-17. The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at helping councils to meet future pressures. We welcome the report and would expect all local authorities and councillors to consider and take any necessary action to implement its recommendations.

Maurice Corry

The crucial detail in the report is that councils are starting to use their reserves to fund services: thirteen did so in 2015-16 and more will do so in the next few years. That cannot continue.

Audit Scotland says that it is

“concerned about councils’ slow progress in delivering services differently, rather than relying on incremental savings to existing models of service delivery.”

Does the minister agree that the current situation is unsustainable? What specific actions will the Scottish Government take to help councils to have the sense of ambition that Audit Scotland says is necessary for them to adapt?

Angela Constance

Audit Scotland came to the view that the overall financial health of local government was generally good. It reflected that there was a slight increase in the overall reserve that is in the gift of local authorities, with a reduction in overall debt. Nonetheless, the report identifies significant challenges that lie ahead and the need for local authorities to consider how they work to deal with them.

That underlines the importance of public sector reform. It is no secret that this Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities are of the shared view that how we do business will have to be different and that we will have to continue on the journey towards reform of public services, in order to make the public pound go further, improve outcomes for communities and, crucially, ensure that communities are more involved in decision making and the allocation of resources.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the reduction in real-terms funding of councils since 2010-11, which is proportionally the same as the cut to the Scottish Government’s total budget over the same period, is due to the continuation of the United Kingdom Tory Government’s failed austerity agenda?

Angela Constance

Yes, of course I agree with that. It is clear that local government has been treated fairly, despite the cuts to the Scottish budget from the United Kingdom. Local government finance settlements were maintained in Scotland on a like-for-like basis over the period 2012-16, with extra money for new responsibilities. Taking into account the additional £250 million to support the integration of health and social care, the overall reduction in 2016-17 funding equates to less than 1 per cent of local government’s total estimated expenditure.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

We are right to point out where failed Tory austerity is damaging Scotland but, regardless of who is to blame, the Government has disproportionately cut the local government budget.

Regardless of that, the big question that local government workers and people across Scotland are asking is: what is this Parliament going to do about it? This week, the president of COSLA, David O’Neill, warned that up to 7,000 jobs could go as a result of a cut of £500 million. Given that the cabinet secretary’s brief covers inequality, poverty and all the work that senior ministers are trying to do, has she had or will she agree to have carried out an impact assessment of the cuts that will take place across local government?

Angela Constance

Of course an equality impact assessment is done of the Government’s budget as a whole. The crucial thing that we must recognise is that local government has had the same reduction in its funding as has been imposed on the Scottish Government by Westminster. I am glad that, unlike our Conservative colleagues to my left, Alex Rowley recognises the impact of Westminster austerity. The impact is not just in the reduction of financial resources for this place and, therefore, for our partners in local government; there are other impacts. I am conscious that, as a result of austerity, local government will have increased demand on its services. This Government is having to continue, where possible, to mitigate against the very worst aspects of austerity, such as welfare reform.


Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Meetings)

3. Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. (S5O-00431)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities (Angela Constance)

Ministers regularly meet COSLA to discuss a wide range of issues as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland. I last met Councillor David O’Neill on 1 December and my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, met COSLA group leaders on Tuesday 6 December as part of the series of meetings to discuss the spending review and the forthcoming 2017-18 local government finance settlement.

Edward Mountain

Two weeks ago, it was reported that COSLA had withdrawn from negotiations over the increase of local taxes used for central policy aims. That followed COSLA’s view that

“There is a clear and honourable link between taxes raised from local householders being spent on local services and this has been a Scottish tradition for generations. The Scottish Government will destroy that link”.

Does the minister agree with COSLA, or does she believe that it is wrong?

Angela Constance

I certainly do not agree with Mr Mountain’s characterisation of the situation. As I said in my original answer, my colleague Derek Mackay met the COSLA group leaders only this week to discuss the forthcoming financial settlement; Mr Mackay has repeatedly put on record, as have other ministers, that all council tax collected by each local authority will remain with each local authority, and that any additional revenues that local authorities raise from the unfreezing of the council tax will also remain with local authorities.


Gypsy Traveller Sites (Minimum Standards)

4. Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last received an update from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities or the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers regarding the enforcement of minimum standards for Gypsy Traveller sites. (S5O-00432)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities (Angela Constance)

There is no requirement for COSLA or the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers to update the Government on progress towards meeting the minimum standards for Gypsy Traveller sites. However, the Scottish Government has met COSLA and ALACHO officials to discuss issues around sites, including site quality, and it will continue to do so.

Mary Fee

Across Scotland there are numerous examples of minimum standards still not being enforced at Gypsy Traveller sites since the Scottish Government published its guidance in May 2015. For example, Duncholgan Gypsy Traveller site near Lochgilphead is one that I have visited. Despite residents raising numerous concerns over lack of basic provisions for years, no action has been taken and no progress has been made in improving the very poor living conditions there. The Duncholgan site lacks adequate lighting, the road is still in an extremely poor condition, and the site has no bus stop.

It is clear that the current enforcement strategy is failing, as the concerns of residents are being ignored and the improvements at many sites have been minimal at best. Will the minister take responsibility for, and control of, the situation and implement an inspection programme for all Gypsy Traveller sites in Scotland, to ensure that Gypsy Travellers do not have to continue to live in substandard conditions on sites that are failing to offer basic provisions or to meet minimum standards?

Angela Constance

I can reassure Mary Fee by saying that Kevin Stewart, the Minister for Local Government and Housing, has written to Argyll and Bute Council with reference to the site that she mentioned.

On the broader work that the Government is doing, we will review progress towards implementing the standards with site tenants, site providers and other key stakeholders during 2017. We have said that we expect sites to meet the standards by 30 June 2018, and we are also considering linking the guidance to the Scottish social housing charter, which we consulted on recently and which appears to have been well received. The purpose of the Scottish social housing charter is obviously to improve the quality of services received by all members of the community, and that will give opportunities for clearer statements about what the Gypsy Traveller community is entitled to expect. I hope that including the site standards in the charter indicates the seriousness with which the Government takes the issue of poor standards on Gypsy Traveller sites.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I thank Mary Fee for raising this question. The issue was always high on the agenda of the Equal Opportunities Committee when I was a member, and we were particularly concerned about the relationship between local authorities, local communities and Gypsy Traveller sites.

What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure on-going cohesion with local communities, local communities and Gypsy Traveller sites?

Angela Constance

The Scottish Government works closely with COSLA on this issue. It is a joint aim of the Government and COSLA to ensure cohesion between Gypsy Travellers and the settled community. There are a number of aspects to the issue, including the revised guidance on unauthorised sites, which will set out responsibilities for the Gypsy Traveller community and local authorities.

It is important that we also emphasise the contribution that Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller communities have made to our national life, and we will include that in the strategic programme of work, which will be published during 2017.

We are working to better identify better practice in community cohesion work, using the results to inform better collaborative approaches with our partners across the public sector and the third sector. We will also explore ways to support public bodies in implementing the element of the public sector equality duty that is concerned with fostering good relations, with regard to race equality and community cohesion.


Personal Independence Payments (Descriptors)

5. Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to amending the descriptors for the activity “Moving around” that are used to assess personal independence payments. (S5O-00433)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

As the member knows, we have carried out an extensive consultation exercise to help to inform our approach to social security in Scotland, and we will publish our report on the consultation responses early in the new year. Those consultation responses will help to inform the work of the disability and carers benefits expert advisory group that will be established to provide recommendations and guidance on eligibility criteria, assessments, and disabilities and conditions that should be given an automatic or lifetime award.

Richard Lyle

Is the minister aware that, presently, the descriptor requires people to stand and then move more than 1m but not more than 20m, either aided or unaided, if they are to be considered for the mobility scheme and other support? That descriptor is causing loss of provision to many people in my constituency. What further changes does the Scottish Government intend to make in order to deliver a fairer, people-centred social security system—rather than what the Tories are doing—in our communities, when we have the power to do so?

Jeane Freeman

I assure the member that I am aware of the changes that have been made in that descriptor, not only from my work as a minister but as a constituency MSP. Many constituents have explained to me in detail the significant distress and subsequent hardship that have been caused to them.

We have been clear from the outset that our social security system will be an investment that we collectively make in ourselves and in each other, that the system will have embedded throughout its operation the key principles of dignity, fairness and respect, and that, in order to get that right, we need to build the system from the ground up. To continue our commitment in that regard and ensure that the system is built on the foundation of real, lived experience and expertise, in January we will launch the recruitment exercise for 2,000 volunteers to join our experience panels. Those volunteers will be drawn from individuals who currently receive one or more of the 11 benefits that will be devolved to the Scottish Government, and will work with us in the long term to help us to make the right improvements and the changes that are needed to every aspect and detail of how our system will work, including where assessments are done.

The approach that we will take will ensure that there are fewer assessments, improved decision making and greater use of lifetime and long-term awards, and that all of that will be based on evidence, as opposed to what too often appears to be subjective opinion.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Is the minister considering the removal of the private sector from a new Scottish disability assessment process? Will the assessments be run purely by a public sector agency?

Jeane Freeman

The question of how assessments will be done—where we think that they are necessary—is part of the consultation exercise. It would be contradictory of me to argue that we should build the system from the ground up and listen to what people tell us and then to make a decision now about how we would conduct assessments, in advance of that consultation exercise and in advance of the 500 responses being properly analysed and our being able to see what they say.

We have in Scotland a public sector provider that has some input into the assessment process, but we will make the decisions about what the assessments should be, how many we think we will need and how they will be conducted, based primarily on the evidence that we receive and on that building-from-the-ground-up exercise that I mentioned. We will, of course, inform Parliament in due course of the approach that we intend to take.

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

As of next year, the Scottish Government will have legislative power over a number of benefits, including those associated with the extra costs of living with a disability. What consideration has the Scottish Government given to further devolving disability benefits at local level, to health boards, local authorities or new partnerships, to allow for personalised care packages?

Jeane Freeman

As Ms Well knows, the next key step that we have to take is to bring a draft bill to Parliament before next summer to create the legislative platform that we need in order to deliver benefits. Work on how and in what manner those benefits will then be delivered, and on who might do that—I have answered on that previously—is part of the current options appraisal work to bring options to ministers about the exact shape and nature of the new social security agency for Scotland. As that exercise reaches its conclusions in the early part of next year, we will take decisions on that basis and, of course, inform Parliament.

However, I do not accept that personalisation of care and an approach that is based on the principles of dignity, fairness and respect is either a localised system or a nationalised system; I do not have that binary approach to the matter. I look forward to receiving the options that come to me from the stage 2 options appraisal and considering what is the best mix that we can take forward, in a way that is efficient for our public finances and which ensures that a maximum amount of our expenditure goes on the benefits themselves.


Hostel Accommodation (Glasgow)

6. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with Glasgow City Council regarding the hostel for homeless men, the Bellgrove hotel. (S5O-00434)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

Homelessness services are the responsibility of local authorities, and addressing the needs of the residents of the Bellgrove hotel is therefore a matter for Glasgow City Council. However, we are aware of the concerns around the Bellgrove hotel and my predecessor met the leadership of Glasgow City Council to discuss the issue.

Since being appointed as minister, I have taken an interest in the issues associated with the Bellgrove and I have asked officials to continue to engage with the council on the Scottish Government’s behalf; discussions have focused particularly on strategically reviewing Glasgow’s homelessness services.

I know that Mr Mason has taken a close interest in the issue, and I think that he will agree with me that the best interests of the Bellgrove’s residents can only be met as part of a wider approach that helps to address issues such as rough sleeping and the provision of homelessness services for those with the most complex needs in Glasgow.

John Mason

As I expect that the minister will be aware, the BBC screened a documentary on the Bellgrove hotel in 2000. Nothing of any real substance has happened since then, and there is no real inspection regime for the Bellgrove. Will the minister consider strengthening the Care Inspectorate’s powers to require it to inspect such establishments?

Kevin Stewart

I am willing to consider whether there is a future role for the Care Inspectorate in the regulation of institutions such as the Bellgrove. However, the hotel is licensed as a house in multiple occupation and Glasgow City Council has used the HMO licensing framework to require some improvement in its condition. The priority is to ensure the wellbeing of the Bellgrove hotel’s residents and to see to it that their needs and wishes are considered. The hotel is not typical of homeless accommodation in Scotland, and the case involves very complex issues. I assure Mr Mason that I will continue to keep a close eye on the matter. This morning, I met representatives of Glasgow homelessness network, and Mr Mason can be assured that I will continue to look at all aspects of homelessness and rough sleeping in Glasgow.


Fuel Poverty

7. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will set a new target to eradicate fuel poverty. (S5O-00435)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities (Angela Constance)

We will consult on a new fuel poverty strategy, including a new fuel poverty target, next year. That will involve the commissioning of an independent review of the definition of fuel poverty, as recommended by the fuel poverty strategic working group, so that we ensure that we set the correct policy objectives and have the correct basis for targeting resources and measuring progress. We remain committed to our ambition of eradicating fuel poverty

Jackie Baillie

The cabinet secretary will be aware of a small but welcome drop in fuel poverty, but 748,000 people—one in five of Scotland’s population—are having to choose between heating and eating, so setting a target to eradicate fuel poverty remains essential. I press her on when she will bring forward the strategy that will contain that target. Can she also tell me whether she will review the winter fuel payment and winter fuel allowance as part of that process?

Angela Constance

We must ensure that there is a synergy between our work on social security and our work on fuel poverty. There were some important recommendations—there were more than 100 recommendations—in the reports from the two independent working groups on the overall strategy and on rural fuel poverty.

Although the latest statistics show a welcome decrease, with nearly 100,000 fewer households in fuel poverty, nonetheless—as Jackie Baillie said—748,000 households continue to be fuel poor and 203,000 households are in extreme fuel poverty. We need to progress the work apace, and it must be done properly.

In my initial answer, I outlined the work that must be done over the course of next year. Next week, Kevin Stewart will meet the Scottish fuel poverty forum to discuss the work that has been done by the working groups. We will give our response at the beginning of next year.

In the first half of next year, the work to look at the definition of fuel poverty will commence and be completed. The next stage, later in the year, is to introduce the strategy for consultation prior to the introduction of the warm homes bill in year 2 of this session. If Ms Baillie would appreciate more detail, I am happy to meet her.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The Scottish Government publishes its budget next week, which will give it the opportunity to allocate some of the very generous allocation of £800 million extra in capital that the United Kingdom Government has passed on in the autumn statement to be spent on energy efficiency measures to help tackle fuel poverty. Will it do so?

Angela Constance

Addressing fuel poverty and investing in measures to tackle it has always been a priority for this Government. It is a shame that that approach has not always been replicated by the UK Government, which in June 2015—as members may remember—ceased the green deal scheme without any warning, thereby removing £15 million in consequentials.

As a Government, we have not demurred from investment and we recognise its importance. From 2009 onwards, we have invested £650 million and, in our programme for government, we have the additional commitment of a further £0.5 billion over this session of Parliament. However, we have to remember that the biggest driver of increases or decreases in fuel poverty is the price of domestic fuel. Fuel poverty in Scotland would be around 8 per cent rather than 30 per cent if it was not for the inflation-busting increases in domestic fuel costs. It is a pity that the UK Government has not done more to tackle the rising costs of fuel.


Local Government Funding

8. Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the money raised by local authorities should be kept in their areas. (S5O-00436)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

All the money that is raised by local authorities through the council tax, non-domestic rates or locally set fees and charges is kept in their communities, unless they choose to spend it elsewhere.

Finlay Carson

Since the Scottish National Party came to power, local authorities have been strangled by a Government that is intent on centralisation. The current council tax grab is a further example of that. The Government is happy to talk the talk about community empowerment, and for years the SNP has bleated on about the democratic deficit in the UK, so perhaps it should look at its erosion of, and the increasing deficit in, local democracy and accountability. Does the Government intend to centralise any more local authority spending?

Kevin Stewart

Mr Carson obviously did not listen to the first answer that I gave him. He talks of a “council tax grab”. The Scottish Government has been clear that all the money that is raised through the council tax will remain in the local authority area in which it is collected, just as from 2011 we have allowed all local authorities to keep their non-domestic rates. Of course, locally raised fees and charges are also kept by local authorities. Mr Carson should pay due attention to the initial answer that he is given before coming up with a supplementary that is way off the mark.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Does the minister agree with the Resolution Foundation that

“The SNP’s tax increase would raise revenue in a progressive manner, with the tax rise falling harder on higher income households”?

Will the minister expand on how all local authorities receive their fair share of funding through a needs-based formula?

Kevin Stewart

On the first question, I agree with the Resolution Foundation that our reforms to the council tax will protect household incomes, make local taxation fairer and ensure that local authorities continue to be properly funded while being more accountable.

On the second question, the needs-based formula takes into account population bandings, levels of deprivation, remoteness—including the extra cost of providing services to our island communities—and road links. The formula is kept under constant joint review with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that it is as fair as possible.


Employment and Support Allowance

9. Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how many people in Scotland it estimates would be impacted by the United Kingdom Government reducing employment and support allowance to claimants placed in the work-related activity group. (S5O-00437)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

The Scottish Government is very disappointed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not take the opportunity to reverse his proposals to cut employment and support allowance in his recent autumn statement. That was despite the House of Commons passing a motion calling for a pause in the proposed cut, and despite the Department for Work and Pensions’s estimate that the cut will affect around 500,000 families across the UK. Those who are affected will see their support reduced from £102.15 to £73.10 per week when the cut is introduced in April 2017 for new claimants. Unfortunately, employment and support allowance is, and will remain, fully reserved to the UK Government.

Ben Macpherson

Does the minister agree, first, that the cut of £30 a week for people who are unable to work lacks any evidence base suggesting that it will move disabled people into work; secondly, that it will act as a real disincentive to disabled people who are trying to get back into work; and, last, that it will produce only further hardship for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions?

Jeane Freeman

The cut that Ben Macpherson refers to is, of course, a 28 per cent reduction in support for disabled people. That cut is from a Government that tells us that it wants to help disabled people to move into employment and, indeed, to halve that employment gap. It is hardly surprising that the report that I referred to earlier pointed out just how long it will take the UK Government to meet the target that it claims it wants to meet when it is doing so much to prevent itself from even getting there.

There is no evidence whatsoever that cutting benefits or imposing sanctions assists people or incentivises them into employment. Indeed, evidence from Sheffield Hallam University that the Social Security Committee has recently read, and other evidence, including the National Audit Office’s report, all indicate the contrary: that cutting benefits and imposing sanctions further drive people into poverty and, in themselves, make it very difficult for individuals to have the means by which to seek employment and sustain it. Further cuts to what limited benefits there are to support people in that exercise seem to me to be utterly contradictory to the UK Government’s claimed approach—although it is really not surprising when one thinks about the ideology based on which the Government operates.

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Now that the Scottish Government has top-up powers in benefits, will it tell us precisely how and when it will use those powers?

Jeane Freeman

I have to say that that was nothing if not predictable. As we have—[Interruption.] If the chaps over there will just pause for a moment, I will reply.

We have made very clear the steps that we have to go through in order to deliver the benefits that will be devolved to us. We have also made clear, both in the manifesto on which we were elected and now, as the Government in Scotland, where we will use the top-up powers and where we will introduce new benefits. To do anything in addition is, of course, a matter of political choice, in the circumstance that the Scottish budget has been significantly reduced—by just under 10 per cent—over a number of years.

I also make the point that what my Conservative colleagues on my left are arguing for is, of course, that people in Scotland should pay twice: first, because the UK Government is choosing to make political choices that attack the most vulnerable people, and secondly, to mitigate that choice. We are already spending £100 million a year just to stand still and to mitigate the worst effects of what that Government is doing, which the Conservatives continue to defend. It ill behoves them to argue that we should do more than we are doing when their sights should be trained on getting their party’s Government to stop the policies that it is pursuing.


Independent Review of the Scottish Planning System

10. Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking in response to the findings of the independent review of the Scottish planning system. (S5O-00438)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

Since the independent panel’s report was published, the Scottish Government has undertaken a rigorous programme of work, including extensive stakeholder discussions and research. We are using that work to develop a package of reform, including legislative change, as well as wider actions that can be taken forward ahead of a planning bill.

Alison Harris

Does the Scottish Government accept that there should be a focus on reusing brownfield sites as one way of boosting house building in Scotland?

Kevin Stewart

The Scottish Government will look at a number of things over the piece in the planning review. We have invited more than 100 people to participate in six themed working groups. We have commissioned research into infrastructure charging mechanisms, enforcement, 3D visualisations and barriers to engagement. We have also launched a consultation on raising planning fees. We will look at all aspects of planning and I hope that many folk will engage during the course of the consultation, which will begin in early January. I am sure that, during the course of that consultation, there will be discussions about use of brownfield sites.


Disabled People (Benefits Cap)

11. James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the Westminster reduction in the benefit cap will have on disabled people and households in Scotland. (S5O-00439)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

The Scottish Government has voiced to the United Kingdom Government its serious concerns about the impact of the new lower benefit cap. The benefit cap is, and will remain, reserved to the UK Government.

The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that the benefit cap reduction will affect around 5,000 households in Scotland. However, a recent Chartered Institute of Housing report estimates that the number that will be affected in Scotland is higher, at around 6,700 households, which include more than 20,000 children.

Although claimants of personal independence payment and disability living allowance and claimants in the employment and support allowance support group are excluded from the cap, people who are placed in the work-related activity group for ESA might be subject to the cap.

James Dornan

I visited Shelter on the day when the reduction in the welfare cap took effect, and that morning I witnessed staff dealing with a 7 per cent increase in calls. Does the minister think that the imposition of welfare cuts by the UK Government will put people at further risk of homelessness?

Jeane Freeman

Yes, I do. Even over the short time for questions this afternoon we have heard a catalogue of cut after cut by the UK Government. Those cuts affect the people who are least responsible for the current state of the UK economy and who are least able to meet the demands that are placed on them.

There is clearly a risk of homelessness as households struggle to make ends meet. Rent arrears are increasing as a result of cuts to funding for temporary housing and as universal credit is rolled out, which puts many households at a heightened risk of homelessness. We are working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and others to consider how temporary accommodation is provided and to address the issues, and we will continue to raise with the UK Government our concerns about the impact of welfare cuts.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

That concludes portfolio questions.