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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 17 May 2017

Agenda: Housing Support for Young People, Portfolio Question Time, Fisheries, Teacher Training Programme, Point of Order, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Point of Order, Neurofibromatosis Awareness Day


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Communities, Social Security and Equalities


Social Security Agency

1. Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how it reached its estimate of £150 million annual running costs for the new social security agency. (S5O-00979)

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

The executive summary of the outline business case for the social security agency Scotland, which was published on the Scottish Government website on 27 April 2017, contains a full explanation. Further detail is also contained in the main content of the document at chapters 2, 5 and 9, and in technical annexe B.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

I forgot to say my usual mantra calling for short questions and short answers. I accept that that is required.

Ross Thomson

In the Finance and Constitution Committee, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution conceded that the cost of the delivery of the 11 devolved benefits will be greater than the present cost. When quizzed by my colleague Adam Tomkins on the matter, Derek Mackay was unable to elaborate on the increased cost.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Quickly, please.

Ross Thomson

Has the Scottish Government quantified exactly what the increased cost will be?

Angela Constance

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution conceded no such thing. Of course, what he did and did not say in that committee is in the Official Report.

The agency’s running costs will be around 5 per cent of what we spend on the benefits. The comparable figure for the Department for Work and Pensions is 6.3 per cent. The running costs are estimates from a cost model using activity-based information from the DWP. In a recent statement, Jeane Freeman, the Minister for Social Security, said that the figures would of course be further refined in relation to the nuanced and detailed design of the system, any policy choices that we choose to make and the location of the agency.

The fact that our running costs are estimated at around 5 per cent shows that our figures are credible, that they are compatible with similar United Kingdom Government figures and that they represent value for money.


Dangerous Buildings (Guidance)

2. Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to review the guidance on what constitutes a dangerous building. (S5O-00980)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

The Scottish Government does not provide guidance on what constitutes a dangerous building. Local authorities are responsible, under the Buildings (Scotland) Act 2003, for dealing with buildings that they consider to be dangerous. Local authorities also have powers to deal with buildings that they consider to be defective.

Alison Harris

Has the Scottish Government made any consideration with regard to buildings that, although they are not deemed to be dangerous, are derelict and in a state of major disrepair, and need security monitoring to, for example, keep out children who are putting themselves at risk? Although I appreciate—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That is fine; you have asked your question.

Kevin Stewart

As I said in my initial answer, it is up to local authorities to decide whether a building is dangerous or defective and to take the actions that they feel are necessary, using the legislation that is in place to enable them to do so.


Devolved Benefits (Uptake)

3. Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will encourage the uptake of all of the devolved benefits to which people might be entitled. (S5O-00981)

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

Social security is a human right, and we are determined to support everyone to claim all the benefits to which they are entitled. There is a range of reasons why people do not claim such support. It is disappointing, if not surprising, that the United Kingdom Government has taken no recent action to improve take-up. Ensuring that everyone receives the financial support to which they are entitled is one of the first steps towards putting dignity and respect at the heart of social security in Scotland.

We have made a clear commitment to do all that we can to maximise family income, which is a key method of tackling poverty. As part of that commitment, over the course of this parliamentary session, we will deliver a programme of activity to increase the uptake of social security by encouraging people to exercise their rights and claim the benefits that they are due.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Adam Tomkins is next.

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

What assessment has the Government made of the effectiveness of the—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I beg your pardon—I am whizzing on. Alison Johnstone is quite right to frown at me. You can see that I am out of practice at this. Alison Johnstone has the next question.

Alison Johnstone

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Today, the Scottish Parliament becomes responsible for a range of benefits, including the disability living allowance and the carers allowance. Many of the benefits have complicated interactions with one another, making it even more difficult for people to understand their entitlement. When someone does not—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No, no—let us have a question.

Alison Johnstone

What work is under way to review how the benefits that are being devolved interact with one another, and what steps are being taken to make this complicated system easier to navigate?

Angela Constance

We know that the current system is complex. It is important for the Scottish Government to help people to navigate their way through that complexity. That includes ensuring that our new social security agency has a duty to maximise incomes. The role of the Scottish Government experience panels is very important, as it will help us to know and evaluate what works in encouraging people to take up the benefits to which they are entitled, whether those are reserved or devolved benefits.

As I said in my closing remarks in yesterday’s debate, we will have a round-table discussion with our partners in local government to ensure that the work that we do over the piece in this parliamentary session is consistent and that it is both broad brush and targeted at people who need advice.

Adam Tomkins

Yesterday, I was confused with Jeremy Balfour and now I have been confused with Alison Johnstone—that is probably progress.

What assessment has the Government made of the effectiveness of the campaign that it ran in March, which involved a week-long series of radio and press adverts to highlight the range of support that is available to claimants?

Angela Constance

That is a fair question. As the member will know, the campaign in March was just phase 1. It was a broad-brush campaign to support the general take-up of benefits. The press activity had the potential to reach more than a million people and the radio activity had the potential to reach 1.3 million people. We know that Citizens Advice Scotland has had an increase in casework inquiries and website activity. Work to produce a more detailed, nuanced analysis of the campaign’s impact is still going on.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

What is the value of the unclaimed devolved benefits that the UK Government has failed to encourage the take-up of?

Angela Constance

It is quite difficult to get accurate information in relation to benefits that will be devolved. However, for benefits over the piece—for income replacement benefits and child tax benefits in particular—we know that more than half a million individuals and families are not claiming what they are entitled to. That puts an onus on the Scottish Government to do more, but it also begs big questions about what the UK Government is doing to increase the uptake of the benefits that it oversees and about the tax system.


Carers Allowance (Disability Poverty)

4. Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment has been made of the impact that an increased carers allowance would have on disability poverty. (S5O-00982)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

The aim of the increased carers allowance, as the member knows, is to recognise the vital contributions that carers make to society. We are currently assessing the impact of the policy on other groups, including disabled people—along with other policies—through our equality impact assessments.

Claudia Beamish

Now that both the powers of top-up and the powers to make changes to disability benefits have been devolved and indeed have commenced, we have the power to legislate to improve the lives of carers across Scotland. I take a keen interest in the issue as a co-convener of the cross-party group for carers. Before we get to—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No, no—before you go on, I want a question.

Claudia Beamish

Right. Before we get to carers, we—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No, I want a question.

Claudia Beamish

Can the minister give carers in Scotland greater clarity about the payment of the increased carers allowance, including when and how it will be paid and whether she has considered the possibility of backdating it to September to reflect when the powers of top-up were devolved?

Jeane Freeman

As the member rightly says, we have to bring the legislation to Parliament to give us the legal framework on which to make those additional payments in this area and in others. We will do so before the summer recess. We are considering how we will make those additional top-up payments. If possible, we will do that sooner than we are due to take on full responsibility for the whole carers allowance. In that consideration, we will use the views of our experience panels and our expert group. Of course, if the cross-party group has additional comments that it wants to draw to my attention, I would be happy to receive them.


Benefits Uptake Campaign

5. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government by what date the next phase of its benefit uptake campaign will begin, how long the phase will run, and who the target audience will be. (S5O-00983)

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

We will have a rolling programme of activity over the course of the parliamentary session. The next phase will focus on young carers. During carers week, which runs from 12 to 18 June, we will take action to ensure that young carers are aware of the benefits available to them, and to encourage take-up. We are also working in partnership with Young Scot, Carers Trust Scotland and a wide range of stakeholders that will support that activity.

We all know that carers and young carers play a crucial role in our society, so it is vital that we support them in looking after the people for whom they care, which can often be in challenging circumstances.

Anas Sarwar

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments about young carers. She will be aware of my disappointment about the level of investment in the previous benefits uptake campaign, which I recently raised with the Minister for Social Security.

Across Scotland, up to £2 billion in benefits are going unclaimed, including half a billion pounds-worth of tax credits for more than 100,000 Scots. Has the cabinet secretary considered options for co-location of benefits services? For every pound that is spent advising, it is estimated that £39 is delivered in additional benefits. Will she use the general practice contract process to consider general practices as places for possible co-location of benefits advice services?

Angela Constance

Mr Sarwar is, of course, aware that in phase 1 of the campaign we made a modest value-for-money investment. Our investment in benefit take-up campaigns will increase over this session of Parliament and will amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Co-location is an important issue. We could pick up that topic in our round-table discussions with our partners from local government and elsewhere on how we can work together to increase take-up. Some of the issues that Anas Sarwar raises are for health ministers, whom we could ask to discuss the matter with people who engage with general practitioners.

The member’s point on co-location and people being able to get advice where they access other public services was well made. That features in the work that we are doing in and around social security, as well as in our advice services review.

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

Will the cabinet secretary confirm how much benefit uptake campaigns have cost thus far? What has the Scottish Government done to ensure value for money in their delivery?

Angela Constance

We are working hard to ensure delivery and value for money. There was a modest investment of £6,000 in the broad-brush phase 1 of the campaign. As I said in my answer to Mr Sarwar, that investment will increase to hundreds of thousands of pounds. The Scottish Government is prepared to invest in benefit take-up campaigns because we have half a million households and families that are not getting what they are entitled to, which begs the question why there is no activity from the United Kingdom Government.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

What work is the cabinet secretary aware of that the UK Government is carrying out to increase uptake of benefits to which people are entitled but are not claiming?

Angela Constance

I am not aware of any recent work that has been undertaken by the UK Government to increase benefit uptake. That is disappointing but, perhaps, not unsurprising.


Planning Appeals

6. Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government how many planning appeals determined under ministerial direction in the last year have been contrary to local development plans. (S5O-00984)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

In the past year, nine planning appeals were determined under ministerial direction. Seven of the appeals determined were for development contrary to the relevant development plan and, of those, two were approved.

Mark Ruskell

I hope that the minister acknowledges that public confidence in the planning system will be low where communities have spent years working on local development plans only to have decisions that were in line with those plans overturned. Why has it taken so long to determine the controversial appeal on the Park of Keir development, given that it has been nine months since the public inquiry concluded and nearly five months since the report landed on the minister’s desk?

Kevin Stewart

That is a complex planning application to which ministers are giving full and proper consideration. Every effort is being made to issue a decision as soon as possible.


Scottish Church Census 2016

7. Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish church census 2016, which estimates that the number of churchgoers will have more than halved between 2000 and 2025. (S5O-00985)

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

Freedom of religion and of the choice to worship is an important right in our society. The Scottish church census paints a useful picture of how that right is being exercised. Although it is not for the Scottish Government to express a view on how individuals choose to exercise their faith, we will continue to engage with Scotland’s different faith communities to understand their issues and to listen to their concerns. In relation to that, we would be very happy to meet the church and society council of the Church of Scotland and others to discuss the particular issues raised by the Scottish church census.

Donald Cameron

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer. She will be aware that the report suggests that Christian denominations are seeing falling church attendances. Given the importance of all faiths to the wellbeing of people and society, what support can the Scottish Government offer to all faith groups at this time?

Angela Constance

Scotland is a country with a strong sense of social justice. All faith communities in Scotland, including Christian ones, play a key part in that. On the support that we give to faith communities, we support interfaith work, in which Scotland is a world leader. Interfaith dialogue and relations are crucially important to ensuring that we continue to have good community cohesion. Given the challenges that our society faces collectively, it is imperative that there is mutual understanding and respect, which we know have become more important in recent times.

Our promoting equality and cohesion fund supports interfaith work, but our broader third sector work also supports some of the social justice issues on which our faith communities are very active—a good example of which is the work that all faiths have been doing in food justice.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I remind everyone that I would quite like shorter answers and shorter questions. That was not a rebuke to you, Mr Gibson.


Welfare Reforms (North Ayrshire)

8. Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the impact of its welfare reforms on communities in North Ayrshire. (S5O-00986)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

The Scottish Government has repeatedly called on the UK Government to halt its welfare reform programme. More specifically, we have called for an immediate stop to the roll-out of both personal independence payments and universal credit, as well as an end to the sanctions regime, until the issues of hardship and stress that are caused by those policies are dealt with.

Kenneth Gibson

It would have been good to have had a more specific answer on North Ayrshire. However, does the minister agree with the evidence that was given to Parliament by Professor Steve Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam University, that Tory social security cuts have

“no relationship with employment growth”

and that the evidence

“provides little support for the view that welfare reform is having important and positive impacts on the labour market in Scotland”?

Does she acknowledge that £540 per working-age adult is being taken from the North Ayrshire economy as a result of those reforms?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That was a very long question.

Jeane Freeman

I acknowledge that figure. The figures that I have seen range from £380 per person to £540 per person in North Ayrshire being removed as a result of the welfare reforms. That is, of course, part of the £1 billion that has been removed by the UK Government from people in Scotland in the welfare reforms that have been and will be introduced between 2015 and 2020, on top of the £1.4 billion that had already been taken up to 2015. I agree with Kenneth Gibson that there is no sustainable evidence that any of the welfare reforms are reducing the national debt—which is increasing—or assisting more people into employment.


Whitehill Incinerator (Planning Consent)

9. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I draw members’ attention to my registered interests as a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute, and as a former South Lanarkshire councillor.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will withdraw the planning consent that it issued in August 2015 for an incinerator facility at Whitehill in Hamilton. (S5O-00987)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

The Scottish ministers do not propose to use their revocation powers in that case.

Monica Lennon

I thank the minister for his short answer, but it will come as no surprise to him that I am disappointed by it and that my constituents will also be disappointed, and very angry. Given that the Presiding Officer wants short questions, I simply ask the minister this: why?

Kevin Stewart

When I met Ms Lennon last year, I pointed out that revocation of planning permission would in the first instance be a matter for South Lanarkshire Council. Ms Lennon has already pointed out that she was a member of the council at that point, so I wonder whether during her tenure there she moved for revocation of the planning application.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

Incinerator capacity is projected to increase 12 times in the next five years, which means that councils might be contracted to burn and recycle the same waste. Clearly that cannot happen, so will the Scottish Government consider a moratorium on new incinerator construction?

Kevin Stewart

As Maurice Golden is well aware, it would be ill considered for me as planning minister to talk about applications that might be forthcoming. As for the general policy on energy from waste, his question would be best directed to the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform.


Access to Elected Office Fund (General Election)

11. Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether there are plans for the access to elected office fund Scotland to be open to disabled people wishing to be nominated for the 2017 general election. (S5O-00989)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

Because all aspects of election to the House of Commons are reserved, the Scotland Act 2016 prohibits us from using our fund to assist disabled candidates in the general election. The United Kingdom equivalent of the fund ended in 2015 when the Conservative Party came to power, and repeated calls to reopen it have gone unheeded.

Colin Beattie

Given the fund’s success at the most recent local elections in helping 39 disabled people to take part, 12 of whom were ultimately elected, does the minister agree that such funding levels the playing field between disabled and non-disabled candidates? Will she join me in calling on the UK Government to reopen the equivalent UK fund?

Jeane Freeman

More important than what Mr Beattie or I might say is the fact that candidates who used our fund to stand in the most recent local council elections and organisations including Inclusion Scotland, which monitors and delivers the fund on our behalf, say that the fund significantly levels the playing field. It is proving to be successful, and we will continue it for the Holyrood elections. As we said yesterday, we are looking at how we might use the fund and its approach in other areas of public life, and I am happy to continue calling on the UK Government to follow our example.


Building Works (Community Protection)

12. Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what safeguards are in place to protect communities that are in close proximity to extensive building works. (S5O-00990)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

A range of safeguards is in place to protect communities from the impact of extensive building works in their vicinity, including planning, environmental health, building standards and environmental protection regulations.

Gordon Lindhurst

I have been contacted by a constituent in Edinburgh who lives in close proximity to the former Donaldson’s school, which is undergoing extensive building works, with regard to concerns about dust pollution and adverse effects on people’s health in the surrounding area. Will the minister commit to looking into the issue with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and those in other Government departments to find a solution to the problem?

Kevin Stewart

I suggest that Mr Lindhurst should contact the City of Edinburgh Council and get it to check what is going on at the site. I imagine that that would help his constituent, given that the council has the ability to take action if anything improper is going on at the site.


Affordable Housing (North-east Scotland)

13. Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to increase the availability of affordable housing in the north-east. (S5O-00991)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

We continue to make significant increases to our investment in building more affordable housing in the north-east. In 2017-18, Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council were allocated £12 million and £19 million respectively for their affordable housing programmes, which in itself equates to approximately double the resources that were allocated in 2015-16. Moreover, the Aberdeen city deal includes a £20 million infrastructure funding commitment from the Scottish Government to unlock housing sites and five-year certainty on £130 million of affordable housing grant.

Gillian Martin

As the minister knows, high house prices in the north-east have an impact on whether vacant posts in the public sector can be filled. Are there any on-going schemes to prioritise the availability of affordable homes for those who work in the public sector?

Kevin Stewart

The Scottish Government has provided an additional £8 million to support a 124-unit key worker housing project on surplus public sector land at the former Craiginches prison site in Aberdeen. That project is due for completion in March 2018, and public sector workers who provide an essential service—national health service staff and teachers in particular—will benefit from that offer. The Scottish Government-funded 100-unit housing project at Burnside in Aberdeen is also in the pipeline, and NHS staff will also be prioritised there.

I am sure that Ms Martin was heartened—as I was—to see in Inverurie last week the new social housing development by Grampian Housing Association, which I think was welcomed by all the new tenants.


Benefits Assessments (Third Sector)

14. Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what response it has received from the third sector to the comment by the Minister for Social Security that “the private sector should not be involved in assessments for Scotland’s benefits”. (S5O-00992)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

We have received positive responses from bodies across the third sector, including the Poverty Alliance, the Child Poverty Action Group, Inclusion Scotland and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, and a number of positive responses directly from individuals with disabilities. Our statement was also welcomed by the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Joan McAlpine

Does the minister believe that the model of assessment that the Scottish Government will set up will be better able to deal with claimants’ mental health conditions and fluctuating conditions than the reserved United Kingdom system currently does?

Jeane Freeman

That is certainly our intention. We are working with the disability and carers benefits expert advisory group, with the assistance in particular of Dr Alan McDevitt, who chairs the British Medical Association’s Scottish general practitioners committee, to work with other health professionals and those in the social care sector to devise a much quicker and fairer assessment process that will allow better decisions to be made first time and will allow us to use those with the relevant clinical, medical or social care experience to conduct any assessments that might be required that are relevant to the individual’s condition. Our intention is that that will address the particular deficiencies in the current system, particularly in relation to mental health, fluctuating conditions and other areas in which people from the expert and experienced panels and in our consultation made it clear to us that they wanted improvements.


Scottish Welfare Fund

15. Linda Fabiani (East Kilbride) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent figures that suggest the Scottish welfare fund has supported more than 241,000 households, with awards totalling £124 million. (S5O-00993)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

It is correct that, since 2013-14, we have invested £190 million in the Scottish welfare fund and helped more than 241,000 individual households, a third of which include children. Providing that vital lifeline for people in Scotland is the right thing to do for any caring and compassionate Government. However, it is wrong that people in Scotland and the Scottish Government have to continue to use our resources to paper over the increasing levels of hardship and crisis that people in Scotland face as a result of the United Kingdom Government’s ideologically driven welfare agenda.

Linda Fabiani

Does the minister share my concern that that number of households and amount of money will rise because of the six-week minimum built-in delay in first payments under the UK Government’s universal credit system?

Jeane Freeman

There is growing evidence that the built-in minimum six-week delay in the first payment of universal credit is producing additional hardship. I know that my colleague Maree Todd from the Highlands has raised that on a number of occasions. On Monday, I will talk to folks in Inverness about precisely that problem.

The delay produces additional pressures on our welfare fund, and we have allocated specific additional resource to assist in addressing that. However, the bottom line remains that the problem lies at the source. That is the UK Government’s welfare agenda and its cuts, which it tells us are there to help with the sound management of public finances, although the public debt continues to rise and I believe that it is now about £1.8 trillion.


Child Tax Credit Changes

16. Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how many households in Scotland will be affected by the changes to child tax credits that were introduced on 6 April 2017. (S5O-00994)

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

The Scottish Government remains deeply opposed to the United Kingdom Government’s two-child tax credits cap. By 2020-21, around 50,000 Scottish households will be negatively affected, and the impact will fall on those who can least afford it, thereby pushing more and more families into poverty.

Ruth Maguire

What response, if any, has the Scottish Government had from the UK Government to the Scottish Parliament’s decisive vote opposing the two-child cap and the rape clause?

Angela Constance

I have to advise members that we have had no response at all from the UK Government. As we all know, the rape clause is a fundamental violation of human rights. It is disgraceful that, despite serious concerns being raised in the chamber and by a wide range of organisations, including Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and the Royal College of Nursing, the UK Government refuses to reverse that shameful policy.


Universal Credit Roll-out

17. Maree Todd (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has received a response from the United Kingdom Government to its request to halt the roll-out of universal credit in Scotland following reports that the new system is pushing more people into hardship and debt. (S5O-00995)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

Regrettably, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions did not respond directly to the request by the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities to halt the roll-out of universal credit. He sent a five-page report extolling the virtues of universal credit, which confirmed that the United Kingdom Government has no intention of halting the roll-out.

Maree Todd

As the minister will be aware, universal credit is causing real hardship to individuals in the Highlands. In addition, arrears are causing real hardship to the local council, and housing associations find themselves in the unenviable position of pursuing tenants through the courts for debt that is not of their own making.

Does the minister agree that the situation is completely unacceptable and must be halted?

Jeane Freeman

Yes, I do. The evidence is stacking up by the day that the roll-out of universal credit, and in particular the built-in six-week delay—for which I cannot yet find any reasonable or credible explanation—is causing additional hardship for individuals.

We will aim, with the support of the Department for Work and Pensions, to apply our particular flexibilities, which will allow for the direct payment of rent to landlords and the choice to make twice-weekly payments. However, even those measures will not get us over the six-week delay.

Again, we ask the UK Government to seriously consider halting the roll-out of universal credit until the serious hardship issues that it is imposing on families in Scotland are considered properly.


Atos Healthcare (Meetings)

18. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government when its officials last met Atos Healthcare. (S5O-00996)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

Scottish Government social security officials met with Atos Healthcare on 5 April this year to obtain an understanding of how Atos views the personal independence payment assessment process as it currently operates in Scotland. There are no plans to meet with Atos again.

Richard Leonard

Will the Scottish Government at this stage rule out any involvement—any involvement—with Atos in the design and delivery of the new Scottish social security system?

Jeane Freeman

I believe that I have already done so in my statement to Parliament on the new social security agency. The Government made it very clear in that statement that we see no place for private sector companies in the assessment of benefits.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I come to question 19. The member is not in the chamber, but a good reason for her absence will no doubt be given to the Presiding Officer. Question 20 is from John Mason.


Local Government Elections

20. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the outcome of the local government elections. (S5O-00998)

I congratulate you on getting to question 20, Presiding Officer. I was not particularly anticipating that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

One thing that you must never do in here is take things for granted, Mr Mason.

John Mason

Absolutely right.

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

The Scottish ministers congratulate all the councillors who were elected and welcome the role that they fulfil for their communities. We are delighted that the local government elections were conducted successfully and that the turnout, at 46.9 per cent, was higher than the 39.6 per cent turnout in 2012. We look forward to working with Scotland’s democratically elected councils to take forward our priorities for the people of Scotland.

John Mason

Considerable effort was put in to encourage people to mark their ballot papers 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. However, on looking at a number of papers that were spoiled, it appeared to me that a lot of them had either two or three Xs on them for the parties that had put up multiple candidates. Does the minister have any suggestions on how we can tackle that problem through education or in some other way?

Kevin Stewart

The Electoral Commission already runs information campaigns to inform voters about how to cast their vote. In particular, before any election, a leaflet is delivered to every household that gives people detailed guidance on how to cast their vote at that particular poll. In addition, an explanation of how to vote is sent out with every postal ballot pack, and large-print explanatory notices are exhibited in every polling station, so information on how to vote is available wherever a ballot paper is being completed, whether that is in the home or at a polling station.

Anyone who is unsure about how to vote can contact the returning officer’s office to ask for advice, and polling station staff are also available to help if necessary.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

The SNP got 32 per cent of the vote—the same as in 2012. It has flatlined. Labour was down on vote share and number of seats, but—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I would like a question rather than a party political broadcast.

Graham Simpson

Does the minister agree that, with an extra 161 seats—up 12 per cent—the real winners were the Scottish Conservatives?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I think that I can guess your answer, Mr Stewart, but go ahead.

Kevin Stewart

No, I do not agree. [Laughter.] There was only one winner in last week’s Scottish council elections, and that was the SNP. We had the largest number of votes cast and the largest number of councillors and, of course, we are the largest party in 16 councils and joint largest in three others. We won in the four main cities.

Let us be honest. There can only be one winner in elections. Last week, the winner was not the Scottish Conservative Party and it was certainly not the Scottish Labour Party. The party that polled the most was the SNP.