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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 22 March 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Independence Referendum


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Communities, Social Security and Equalities


Universal Credit (Rent Arrears)

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

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to reports that every tenant in homeless accommodation in the Highlands is in rent arrears following the roll-out of universal credit by the Department for Work and Pensions. (S5O-00797)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

The roll-out of universal credit is indeed causing unacceptable levels of anxiety, hardship and rent arrears. In particular, the six-week wait for the first payment, which I know is turning out to be even longer in areas like Inverness, is pushing people into crisis and resulting in significant rent arrears for local authorities and landlords. That is why the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions requesting a halt to the roll-out of full-service universal credit until those problems are fully resolved by the United Kingdom Government.

Maree Todd

I am delighted to hear that the Scottish Government has asked for a halt to the roll-out of universal credit, as it is clearly damaging my constituents and pushing them into poverty—we are seeing record rent arrears of £900. Does the minister agree that the universal credit system must be paused until the UK Government resolves the issue of it being a minimum of six weeks before someone gets their first payment, which for a low-income family can mean the difference between heating and eating?

Jeane Freeman

I certainly do agree with that. Again, we have a UK Government pursuing a policy regardless of its negative and damaging impact on people’s lives. It is simply a disgrace that in pursuing that policy, the UK Government is continuing to fail to address the weaknesses in the policy and in its delivery. Many issues, such as the six-week delay, which I find totally unacceptable, were identified by the Westminster Work and Pensions Committee, are being investigated by the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee and have been raised by local authorities and the Local Government Association. Again, however, the UK Government is not listening, which is why I suspect Frank Field, the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, has accused the Government of having its “head in the sand”. Again, we are having to urge the UK Government to address those issues immediately.

I am very glad to accept the invitation to meet Ms Todd, Drew Henry MP and local partners in Inverness to discuss the difficulties facing their constituents.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the minister’s answer and I agree that the roll-out of universal credit must be halted. However, halting the roll-out will not stop the hardship that families in East Lothian and Inverness are experiencing. I hope that the minister will extend discretionary housing payments to stem the problem in those areas and that she will send the bill to Damian Green.

Stopping the roll-out will undoubtedly impact on the use of our flexibilities here in Scotland. Last week, Engender called on the Scottish Government to review its proposals because

“the draft regulations do not meet their intended objective.”

With no set implementation date for the housing payment flexibilities and that date potentially being put back further, will the minister come forward with regulations to deliver split payments, so that we can be sure to use those flexibilities to deliver the gender equality that is sorely lacking in the current Tory system?

Jeane Freeman

I have to say that I admire the member’s optimism that we would pay for something and send a bill to the UK Government with any expectation at all that it would be paid back. We are already committed to £116 million a year from the Scottish Government to mitigate the very worst effects of the UK Government’s welfare cuts.

In terms of the implementation dates and the point that the member made with regard to Engender, we have already said that we are considering actively how to implement our commitment to deliver on split payments. Indeed, Engender is involved in that discussion. The consultation on the regulations on flexibility was simply on the two aspects of fortnightly payments and the payment of rent direct to social and private landlords, and we will rely on the DWP to deliver those. Along with calling for a halt to the implementation and roll-out of universal credit, we will begin discussions with the DWP on how it will implement our flexibilities and we will continue our discussions with Engender and other organisations on exactly the criteria that we could reasonably use to implement the delivery of split payments. I will, of course, inform the Parliament and the Social Security Committee when we have reached that decision.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Part of helping homeless people is to ensure that they have not only houses but also jobs available for them. Under the Scottish National Party, long-term unemployment has more than doubled, to nearly 50,000 people. What action is the Scottish Government taking to help those in long-term unemployment to find work and thus reduce their dependence on welfare?

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

That is not quite the minister’s brief, but perhaps she will answer very briefly.

Jeane Freeman

I am more than happy to do so. Of course, Mr Mountain will also know that, as far as youth unemployment is concerned, Scotland now has one of the best records in Europe—next only to Germany and certainly much further ahead than the rest of the UK.

Our actions in helping those moving from unemployment to employment of course include our devolved employment programmes, in which, by not applying sanctions, we are absolutely confident that we will have greater success than is currently the case—without the hardship, misery and anxiety imposed on those who have to go through the UK Government’s employment programmes. In addition, our job grant proposal—it is a manifesto commitment; we will come forward with the implementation details in the near future—will help those individuals. Without pre-empting a later question, I say to Mr Mountain that if the UK Government would do the right thing on housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds, we might indeed have fewer people who are homeless.


Children Living in Poverty

2. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to raise the incomes of families with children living in poverty. (S5O-00798)

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

The Scottish Government is committed to maximising incomes and tackling poverty and inequality. That is why we have taken a number of actions to help low-income households, in the face of the United Kingdom Government’s austerity agenda and welfare cuts.

Let me give the member—and the chamber—some specific examples. We are investing massively in childcare and early years. The total benefit to families from the commitment of 1,140 hours of funded entitlement is estimated to be worth over £4,500 a year per child. We are also providing free school meals for all children in primary 1 to primary 3, saving families around £380 per child per year. We are maintaining our commitment to support people in Scotland affected by United Kingdom Government welfare cuts, via the Scottish welfare fund—mitigating the bedroom tax—and the council tax reduction scheme, which together provide substantial support to tens of thousands of families every year. In addition, our “Fairer Scotland Action Plan” sets out 50 concrete actions that we will take over the course of this session of Parliament to tackle poverty and inequality.

Colin Smyth

Last week, it was revealed that child poverty in Scotland is on the increase, with 40,000 more kids falling into poverty. Despite that rise, the First Minister failed to mention the word “poverty” once in her conference speech at the weekend. Today, we will spend two minutes talking about child poverty as opposed to the two days for which we will have been debating the possibility of another independence referendum. Will the cabinet secretary use those two minutes today to commit the Scottish Government to real positive action that will make a difference, by supporting calls by the Child Poverty Action Group to widen the scope of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill to allow for a £240 per year rise in child benefit this year, taking tens of thousands of children out of poverty? This Parliament has the powers to help to tackle child poverty. Will the cabinet secretary use them?

Angela Constance

This cabinet secretary has been working to eradicate child poverty all her political life. It is to be regretted that there was very little comment last week from the Opposition on the truly shocking rise in child poverty that we are seeing in Scotland—and, indeed, across the UK—in a country as rich as ours. It is purely unacceptable for us to have one in four of our children—that is 260,000 children—in Scotland living in relative poverty. As part of our programme for government, we are in the process of introducing the fundamentally important Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, which is all about eradicating child poverty in this country.

With regard to Colin Smyth’s point about child benefit, I have said on many occasions in the chamber that as we proceed with the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill and our new social security powers, we must discuss and debate with, and challenge, each other on what more we can do with the powers and resources that we have. I do not aspire to close down any aspect of that debate.

If we are to be successful in turning round the child poverty situation in this country, we must ensure that we get more support to those in need. The Labour Party’s proposal would cost £225 million each year, and £7 out of every £10 would be spent on children who are not living in poverty. As a Government, we have to proceed by getting more support to those children who are in most need, using the new powers that we have and working towards our very ambitious targets on affordable housing.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary comment on the potential impact on those women with families on low incomes who rely on child benefit, given that they will now be asked by the UK Government to prove that they have been raped in order to get payments for a third child?

Angela Constance

We are fundamentally opposed to that policy, which is, to be frank, inhumane and irrational. Indeed, I will go further and say that I consider the policy to be barbaric. We remain deeply concerned about the impact of the policy on low-income families, many of whom are already feeling the effects on their income of other so-called welfare reforms.

To be clear, no acceptable process can ever be put in place that involves a woman being forced to disclose that she has been raped in order to access social security support for her child. Many organisations have said likewise, and their experience in the field should be heeded.

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

I associate myself and my party with a number of the remarks that the cabinet secretary made in response to Colin Smyth’s question.

The Life Chances Act 2010 requires UK ministers to report on the number of children who are living in workless households. As we know,

“work is the best route out of poverty”.

Those are not my words, but the words of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Why, therefore, does the Scottish Government’s Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill not include a similar provision for Scotland?

Angela Constance

Adam Tomkins needs to recognise that although work is imperative, it has to pay. The scandalous and shocking figures that were published last week show that the proportion of poor children who live in working households has now reached 70 per cent. It is quite clear that, in this country, work is not paying.

Despite evidence of economic growth, we are seeing no real rise in wages. Although there are many different measurements of poverty, and child poverty in particular, we have to galvanise action around the fact that income—or lack of it—is the biggest driver of poverty. We all know that to be true.

That is why, in the face of a Conservative Government that has scrapped statutory income targets, we have embarked on a journey to reintroduce targets and make them more ambitious than the targets that the Conservatives scrapped. Given the rise in child poverty in Scotland and across the UK, it is perhaps not surprising that the Tory Government scrapped the targets, in order to sweep child poverty under the carpet.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Most of Scotland will have been horrified last week to see the increase in child poverty. While the role of failed Tory austerity in a lot of that child poverty does not escape me, the important point is what we do about it—that is what people want to see.

The previous Labour Government lifted more than 200,000 children in Scotland, and more than 1 million children in the United Kingdom, out of poverty by introducing tax credits. The cabinet secretary might want to take a targeted approach to child poverty and has argued that the Child Poverty Action Group’s idea of £5 on child benefit would not do that. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity to look at increasing tax credits and at targeting funding through free school meals. There are a number of ways to target funding.

We need to work together on this. Is the cabinet secretary willing to work across the Parliament to tackle the unacceptable blight of child poverty in Scotland?

Angela Constance

I am more than willing to work across the Parliament and across local and national government and civic Scotland to address the absolute scandal of child poverty in a country as rich as ours. With kindness, I remind Mr Rowley that—if my memory serves me correctly—the Labour Party actually voted against free school meals. He raises an interesting point about the Labour Government’s use of tax credits from 1997 to the early 2000s. Labour made progress on child poverty before the figures then stagnated.

There is indeed more to be done. We should have a sense of urgency and of impetus. I remind Mr Rowley that, unfortunately, we do not have powers over tax credits. We will always look at what more we can do, but the reality is that with 15 per cent of welfare spend, we cannot make up for all the unfairness in the remaining 85 per cent. The Government is investing heavily in childcare and early learning. We have a new £29 million programme that is looking at tackling poverty, a commitment to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes and of course 50 very concrete actions, as set out in our “Fairer Scotland Action Plan”.

Although I am absolutely open to scrutiny, we should all examine our hearts closely to look at what more we should be doing, and I sometimes wish that the members on the Labour benches would point the finger a bit more at that lot on the Tory benches.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you. We have spent a lot of time on the early questions. Can we have brief questions and briefer answers, too, please?


Social Housing

3. James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the provision of social housing. (S5O-00799)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

The provision of social housing is and will remain a priority for the Government. We are committed to maintaining and expanding our social housing stock as part of creating a fairer society. To do that, we have clearly set out our ambition by committing over £3 billion-worth of funding for the delivery of 50,000 affordable homes in the current session of Parliament. Of those, 35,000 will be for social housing, which is an increase of 75 per cent on our previous social rented target, which as we know was not only achieved but exceeded.

James Kelly

A recent reply to Alex Rowley MSP said that there has been slow progress towards the Scottish Government’s target of achieving 35,000 social rented properties, with only 6,000 forecast to be completed. Given that backdrop, it was something of a surprise to find out last week at the Finance and Constitution Committee, when Derek Mackay presented evidence on the spring budget revision, that there is an underspend of £20 million in the housing budget, which has been allocated elsewhere. If the minister thinks that housing is a priority, does he not agree that that is an outrage and that he should seek even at this late stage to reverse the decision and ensure that the £20 million is spent in this financial year?

Kevin Stewart

I think that Mr Kelly was at the Finance and Constitution Committee on Wednesday 15 March, when that matter was discussed. We have had a healthy and encouraging start to the programme, with a rise of over 20 per cent in new-build starts of affordable homes approved in 2016. The figure of £20 million that Mr Kelly quoted relates to money from the affordable homes supply programme that was given back to the capital departmental expenditure limit to be redistributed, with the understanding that it would be reallocated to the AHSP at a later date.

To reiterate, we have committed £3 billion of resource over the course of this session of Parliament. If Mr Kelly is looking for scandals, the biggest scandal is that, in the last term of the Labour-Liberal coalition, it managed to build a total of only six council houses in Scotland.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

What investment will the Scottish Government make in social housing in South Lanarkshire over this parliamentary session and how many social housing homes will that provide?

Kevin Stewart

The Scottish Government will make available more than £35 million to South Lanarkshire Council in 2016-17 and 2017-18 for the delivery of its affordable housing priorities. It will be used to deliver an estimated 600 completed homes for social rent over those two years.

We know that councils need as much notice as possible of their full resource planning assumptions for 2018-19 and beyond, which is why later this year the Scottish Government will bring forward for councils a new offer of resource planning assumptions to March 2021.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

It is interesting to hear how much money is going to South Lanarkshire. What is the minister doing to ensure that money goes to smaller housing associations not just in South Lanarkshire but across the country?

Kevin Stewart

I know that Graham Simpson has asked similar questions before. What I want to see across the country is co-operation between all partners to deliver the 50,000 affordable homes. As Mr Simpson is well aware, I have been looking at councils’ strategic housing investment plans and looking very closely at the involvement that community-based housing associations have in delivery. I said to the Local Government and Communities Committee that I would report back to it after analysis of those SHIPs was complete and I intend to do that. I will endeavour to let Mr Simpson know exactly what the situation on community-based housing associations is at that point.


Volunteering

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

To ask the Scottish Government how it encourages volunteering in communities. (S5O-00800)

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

The Scottish Government recognises the vital contributions that volunteers make to communities across Scotland, and we provide a range of support to enable people to participate on issues that matter to them. Our £1.1 million volunteer support fund provides for community-level grants to create new or enhanced volunteering projects and to increase the diversity of volunteers, and we provide £800,000 to Volunteer Scotland to develop, promote and enhance volunteering across Scotland. In addition, the £8.4 million that is provided through Scotland’s third sector interfaces and Voluntary Action Scotland includes support for volunteer development.

Edward Mountain

As the Scottish Government knows, the volunteering rate in the Highlands is well above the national average. In 2015, nearly 77,000 people in the Highlands volunteered through an organisational group. Interestingly, more women than men volunteered. Does the Scottish Government support Highlands and Islands Enterprise and its investment in projects such as project trust in Argyll, which encourages volunteering opportunities? How will it use information from the Highlands to roll out what is being achieved there across Scotland?

Angela Constance

It is true that the volunteering rate is higher in rural areas than it is in urban areas. The volunteering rate in rural areas is 65 per cent, compared with 49 per cent in urban areas. Highlands and Islands Enterprise does a stellar amount of work on supporting social enterprise and volunteering in its part of the world.


Third Sector Interface Model (Funding 2017-18)

5. Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government when details of funding for the third sector interface model for the 2017-18 financial year will be finalised. (S5O-00801)

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

Third sector interfaces, such as Voluntary Action Shetland, had their funding protected at the 2016-17 level for the first quarter of 2017-18. With a draft Scottish budget published in December 2016, we wanted to ensure that third sector organisations had sufficient time to plan and discuss their work for the next financial year. A further offer of grant funding for the remainder of 2017-18 will be issued shortly.

Tavish Scott

I thank the cabinet secretary for that reply and the letter that she wrote to me on the needs of Voluntary Action Shetland, which is doing important work in this area. Does she accept that the point that she has made—about funding for one quarter—demonstrates the challenge regarding long-term staff contracts and providing services over a period of time? Will she undertake to at least explore the possibility of moving back to three-year funding, which would be inordinately helpful not just for Voluntary Action Shetland but for voluntary organisations more generally?

Angela Constance

Yes, I accept the substance of Mr Scott’s question. On the funding for the next financial year, we hope to have issued grant funding by the end of April or the beginning of May. We are glad to have been able to protect the overall third sector budget at £24.5 million. Mr Scott’s point about the need to move to three-year rolling funding is well made. He will have noted that we have made progress on that with the equality budget. We will be looking to extend that to other areas where the third sector benefits, in line with our manifesto commitment.


Highlands and Islands Devolution

6. Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what powers and responsibilities have been devolved to Highlands and Islands communities in the last 10 years. (S5O-00802)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

Empowering communities has always been a focus of this Government. We want to strengthen communities’ voices in the decisions that matter to them and to empower people to take forward the solutions that can make a difference to the communities where they live and work.

Our Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 provides communities with new rights to participate in community planning and make participation requests. It also introduces provisions on asset transfer to make it easier for communities to take over public sector property for the benefit of their communities.

Our community choice programme also enables communities in the Highlands and Islands and across Scotland to make decisions on local spending priorities.

We want to continue to improve the relationship between citizens, communities and councils, which is why our programme for government set out our commitment to review the roles and responsibilities of local government.

Kate Forbes

A number of communities in my constituency are using the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 to do everything from building houses to building hydro schemes, health centres and schools. What analysis is the Scottish Government doing of the act’s success, and how is it helping communities make the most of the act?

Kevin Stewart

I am always interested to see communities thrive and use the 2015 act to their benefit. I am particularly pleased to hear about community hydro schemes; there is a very successful one in my constituency at Donside Village.

The Scottish Government will keep under review the different parts of the 2015 act in order to look at the impact on improving outcomes for people and communities across Scotland. The part of the act on participation requests comes into play on 1 April. I will keep a close eye on what is happening across the country to see where participation requests are being utilised. That will show whether a council is already engaging well with its communities, but Miss Forbes can be assured that we will continue to analyse and review every aspect of the act.


Planning System Review

7. Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making on improvements to the planning system, in light of the review of the Scottish planning system. (S5O-00803)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

Following extensive stakeholder engagement, we published a consultation paper in January inviting views on our 20 proposals for change. The consultation is open until 4 April and, since January, we have held a number of engagement events and public drop-in sessions around the country and have engaged with a large number of stakeholders on our proposals.

I hope that everyone will take the opportunity to make their views known, and I look forward to seeing the responses.

Gordon Lindhurst

Yesterday, the Scottish Government announced that a decision on the proposed Pentland film studio on the outskirts of Edinburgh would not be affected by the purdah rule that is in place for the local government elections in May. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that that decision will be made before the elections, or is it another delaying tactic by a Government that is scared to make what should be a local decision before a local election?

Kevin Stewart

I thank Mr Lindhurst for the promotion; it is news to me that I am now a cabinet secretary.

Mr Lindhurst and other members should know that it is not the job of the planning minister to speak in the chamber about live planning applications. We received the report on the Pentland film studio from the reporter on 22 December, just prior to the Christmas and new year holidays, and officials have been looking at it in the meantime. A decision will be taken after it has been analysed.


Social Security Delivery

8. Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on 72 per cent of respondents to its consultation on social security in Scotland believing that it should aim to deliver social security through already available public sector services and organisations. (S5O-00804)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

Although it is true that 72 per cent of respondents to our consultation said that social security should be available through public sector services, 84 per cent also stated that the social security agency should deliver all the devolved benefits. That shows that the people who responded, in more than 500 written responses and in the many meetings and discussions that I attended with individuals and organisations, know there is a variety of models that need to be assessed. In the spring, I expect to announce a preferred model for the social security agency, and that decision will draw on evidence from a detailed options appraisal exercise as well as the responses to the social security consultation. We will hold true to our commitment that the social security system will be consistent and person-centred and will uphold the principles of dignity, fairness and respect.

Jackson Carlaw

I had also noted the contradiction between those two responses. Given the shambles that ensued when the Scottish Government last embarked on a bespoke delivery system—for farm payments, which shambles persists to this day—what confidence can the people of Scotland have, and what assurances can the minister give, that the Scottish Government’s incompetence will not be history repeating itself?

Jeane Freeman

I do not want to start trading shambles with Mr Carlaw, but we touched on the shambles around universal credit at the start of this round of portfolio questions.

I have already given the Social Security Committee the absolute assurance that we will learn from and build on all the lessons from various information technology and other programmes conducted by this Government and the United Kingdom Government as we build our social security system and service for Scotland. That is precisely why we are taking the planned approach that we have talked about so often in the chamber—learning from the consultation exercise and, importantly, using direct personal experience through our experience panels, which I am sure that Mr Carlaw and other colleagues are promoting for us, and recruiting the 2,000 volunteers whose personal experience we will draw on and gain much from.


Housing Benefit (18 to 21-year-olds)

9. Mairi Evans (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has received assurances from the United Kingdom Government that it will not impose the changes to housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds in Scotland while discussions regarding a possible exemption are on-going. (S5O-00805)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

I regret to say that we have not had that assurance. The Department for Work and Pensions rejected our request to draft its regulations in such a way as to allow us to use existing Scotland Act 2016 powers so that we could ensure that young people would not lose access to much-needed housing support.

Despite on-going engagement and a number of requests to that effect, we have not received any reassurances from the United Kingdom Government, even though the DWP’s regulations are expected to come into force on 1 April. That is disappointing and dismissive of the difficulties that many young people face in obtaining and sustaining a tenancy in Scotland.

Mairi Evans

I agree that the response is disappointing. Does the minister agree that it is appalling that the Tory Government is removing housing support from vulnerable young people and that the impact of the policy will lead to a rise in the level of homelessness among people in that age group?

Jeane Freeman

I agree with that. The policy will clearly lead to a rise in the level of homelessness among the 18 to 21-year-olds whom we are talking about. The Government’s commitment is to retain housing benefit for that age group. The ludicrous consequence of the United Kingdom Government’s policy is that, although our strong homelessness legislation in Scotland means that a young person who is assessed as homeless will be entitled to a minimum of temporary accommodation and, therefore, will become eligible for the housing element of universal credit, they will not be able to move into settled accommodation without losing that entitlement. As the chief executive officer of Centrepoint said, the UK Government should scrap the policy rather than try to make a bad policy work.


Poverty (Minority Ethnic Groups)

10. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in light of the findings in the report, “Shifting the Curve”, that people in minority ethnic groups are often the most disadvantaged and can face additional barriers when trying to get out of poverty. (S5O-00806)

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

We want to remove the barriers that minority ethnic groups face as we aim to create a fairer, more equal Scotland. Our race equality framework, which was published last year, set out our approach to tackling a range of poverty-related issues through to 2030. Actions include improving information and services on benefit uptake and money advice among minority ethnic groups, and publishing an equalities evidence strategy in spring 2017.

Our fairer Scotland action plan provides a set of poverty and inequality actions that will benefit all of Scotland, including minority ethnic groups, such as bringing forward the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, tackling the poverty premium and delivering at least 50,000 affordable homes over the current parliamentary term.

Scottish ministers also benefit from advice on our approach from both the race equality framework adviser and the independent adviser on poverty and inequality.

Fulton MacGregor

Given the Scottish Government’s on-going anti-poverty work, and the aspirations of the race equality framework to tackle poverty for minority ethnic communities, will the cabinet secretary consider asking the independent adviser on poverty and inequality and the race equality framework adviser to meet and discuss the intersections of race and poverty and what could be done to address the disadvantage and barriers that are faced by minority ethnic communities?

Angela Constance

I am pleased to say that the advisers have already met to discuss their respective roles and are due to meet again next month. I will ensure that both advisers are aware of the concerns that Fulton MacGregor has raised today. In the meantime, we are working to ensure that the advice that we receive from our advisers is joined up and encourages co-ordinated cross-Government action. That is why our fairer Scotland action plan is also committed to establishing a national poverty and inequality commission later this year. I will release details of that commission shortly.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Does the cabinet secretary recognise my concern about the European Court of Justice ruling that says that employers can ban their workers from wearing a headscarf at work? The ruling has a particular impact on Muslim women accessing the labour market, but it also has implications for Catholics who might wear a cross at work, Jewish men who wear a skullcap or Sikhs who wear a turban. Can the cabinet secretary say what the Scottish Government will do to address this issue and what action, if any, needs to be taken here to address the impact on employers and on Scottish courts?

Angela Constance

We are very much aware of the judgment from the European Court of Justice, which has ruled that, in some instances, employers have a right to have an internal rule to not allow the wearing of philosophical, political or religious symbols, including, for example, the Islamic headscarf for women. My position and the position of the Scottish Government is that we will never tell women what to wear. It is a matter of individual choice and conscience whether a woman wants to wear a headscarf that is of significance to her personal beliefs. I can confirm, as I did yesterday at a race equality framework event to mark the anniversary of the publication of the action that we will take in and around race equality, that we have no plans to introduce any legislation on this matter, and we are not required to do so.


Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill

11. Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to concerns that the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill does not contain sufficient measures to lift children out of poverty. (S5O-00807)

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

We consulted extensively on the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill and have received broad support for our proposals. John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group welcomed the bill, saying:

“The ambitious new targets and the legislative framework that underpins them will help ensure that child poverty remains high on the political agenda and that government is consistently held to account.”

I could not agree more. The bill will make Scotland the only part of the United Kingdom with statutory targets on child poverty and demonstrates that we, in stark contrast to the UK Government, will continue to prioritise tackling child poverty.

Adam Tomkins

The bill contains a number of provisions that will measure child poverty, but the point is not just to measure it but to tackle it. Does the Scottish Government accept that there is a link between child poverty and educational underattainment? If so, and given the First Minister’s claim that closing the attainment gap is her top priority, why does the recently introduced Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill contain no provision that requires the Scottish ministers to take steps to address, or indeed to close, the attainment gap?

Angela Constance

It is somewhat ironic that the reason why we are having to introduce a child poverty bill in the first place is that the UK Government scrapped statutory income targets. Statutory income targets recognise that the main driver of child poverty is lack of income. As a Government, we will not be found guilty or wanting on that issue, unlike the UK Government, which seems determined to sweep child poverty under the carpet.

I also say to Mr Tomkins—although I am sure he knows it—that the bill will require ministers to meet four ambitious statutory targets to reduce child poverty by 2030. The targets set the framework for action. The action itself comes from policies, which is why the bill also requires ministers to have a child poverty delivery plan with very specific measures and policies to lift children out of poverty. The first plan will be published next year and updated in 2021 and 2026.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes topical questions. Apologies to members who I was not able to call. We are quite tight for time, given the number of speakers who wish to contribute to this afternoon’s debate.