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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 27 February 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Carers Allowance Supplement, Justice, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2019


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Communities and Local Government


Criminal Justice Social Work (Demand for Services)

1. Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with local authorities regarding any expected increase in demand for social work services over the next 12 months. (S5O-02909)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

The Scottish Government has regular engagement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, including bilateral meetings between the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the COSLA spokesperson for health and social care, which consider a wide range of issues, including demand for social work services.

Negotiations on the annual local government finance settlement are conducted between the Scottish Government and COSLA on behalf of all 32 local authorities. In 2019-20, we are increasing our investment in social care and integration to exceed £700 million, underlining our commitment to support older and disabled people and to recognise the vital role that unpaid carers play.

Daniel Johnson

The presumption against short sentences is an important policy move, but it requires support from criminal justice social work. Can the Government tell the Parliament how many criminal justice social workers there are currently and whether any increase in demand for criminal justice social workers is anticipated because of the move towards a presumption against 12-month sentences? Was any increase in the demand for criminal justice social workers experienced with the move to the presumption against three-month sentences?

Aileen Campbell

I thank Daniel Johnson for the question and for highlighting an important issue around how we approach our criminal justice system and how we rehabilitate and support people. He points out that there will be a shift in how we approach that work more generally across all services—it will require a multi-agency approach. I do not have the specific figures that he requested, but I will endeavour to get those figures and the details that he requires.

The social services workforce numbers 202,090, which is 7.7 per cent of all Scottish employment. Since 2008, the workforce headcount has increased overall by 2.6 per cent, so there has been an increase. I do not have details of the specifics beyond that, but I will endeavour to make sure that Daniel Johnson is furnished with those figures.

Because a cross-portfolio approach is being undertaken, it will require me to work with my colleagues across the Government, including Humza Yousaf and Jeane Freeman, on these issues, which impact on people’s lives.


House Prices (Open Market Shared Equity Scheme Thresholds)

2. Linda Fabiani (East Kilbride) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it will give to revising the open market shared equity scheme thresholds in order to address varying house prices within local authority areas. (S5O-02910)

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

New threshold areas and prices for the open market shared equity—OMSE—scheme were implemented in December 2018 following consultation with local authorities and COSLA. The new threshold prices are based on the most recent house price data that is available. They ensure that the scheme continues to be targeted at those who need help to access the affordable housing market and that all areas are able to benefit from a viable scheme with a reasonable number of purchases. We will monitor the impact of those changes, and threshold prices will be reviewed annually.

Linda Fabiani

In East Kilbride, the scheme is not targeted, therefore all areas are not taken into consideration. For many years, I have been writing to respective Scottish Governments about that in relation to the rent-to-mortgage scheme and now in relation to people who wish to get on the home-ownership ladder with help from what seems, on the surface, to be an excellent scheme.

In East Kilbride, where house prices are higher than in the rest of South Lanarkshire, people have been even further disadvantaged by the fact that the threshold has now dropped. Will the minister look at that sooner rather than later—and certainly earlier than in a year’s time?

Kevin Stewart

I thank Ms Fabiani for her question. I know that she has been tenacious on the subject on behalf of her constituents. Following the recent review, we increased the number of threshold areas from 28 to 38, reflecting the subdivision of larger threshold areas into individual local authorities to better support local markets. The Lanarkshire threshold area was divided into North and South Lanarkshire. Although that has been beneficial for many people, it may not have been quite so beneficial for people in East Kilbride.

Increasing the number of threshold areas and prices to a great degree would be complex to administer and, in some cases, difficult for buyers to understand. It would also undermine the original principle of the scheme. However, I am more than willing to meet Ms Fabiani to speak about the situation that she has come across in her constituency. I will also continue to keep all these matters under review, because I want as many first-time buyers as possible to benefit from the scheme.

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

I wonder whether the minister can tell me what by metric it is decided that properties in a given area should be subject to a golden share and how agreements to determine golden share properties are reached between the Scottish Government and local authorities.

Kevin Stewart

I am unable to give the member a direct answer—I would have to look at each individual local authority’s agreement with the Scottish Government. If Michelle Ballantyne wants particular details, I will be happy to respond if she drops me a note to that effect. If she wants just a general overview, I am happy to write to her. I will talk to Ms Ballantyne at the end of this portfolio question time to see how she wants to approach the matter.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Has the minister considered putting more resources into improving the profile of the open market shared equity scheme, particularly given that it promotes existing homes, not just new homes? By contrast, the help-to-buy scheme seems to focus on first-time buyers and new homes. Does the minister agree that we need to promote existing homes as well as new homes for first-time buyers?

Kevin Stewart

I agree with Ms McNeill that we need to promote all the help-to-buy schemes, including OMSE, and we have budgeted £70 million for OMSE in 2018-19. Seventy-five per cent of the folk who are applying to that scheme are aged 18 to 35, and 99 per cent of them are first-time buyers, with the other 1 per cent coming from priority access groups. The average household income of those folk is £24,000. The scheme has benefited many people right across the country, and I am happy to continue to promote it as well as the other help-to-buy schemes that we have in place.


Sheltered Housing (Abuse of Residents)

3. Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what support is available for residents of sheltered housing complexes who experience sustained abuse by other residents. (S5O-02911)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

Abuse in our communities is unacceptable, and we recognise that tackling the issue requires a multi-agency approach. Individual landlords, councils and the police all have a responsibility to tackle antisocial behaviour in social housing. Councils can use antisocial behaviour orders to ban abusers from places or from contact with people; the police and the courts can deal with threatening or abusive behaviour; and, under current legislation, councils and other public bodies must act to support and protect adults who are at risk of harm.

Alison Harris

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, abuse can come in many forms. I have been contacted by elderly residents from a particular sheltered housing complex in the Falkirk area who have grave concerns about the level of support that their housing association is providing. They have been repeatedly subjected to mental and physical abuse by others in the complex, and some have become too frightened to leave their own homes.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that that should not be allowed to happen, and can she advise me on what I can say to those residents so that they feel free and safe from isolation?

Aileen Campbell

I appreciate Alison Harris’s raising the issue, which will, I am sure, also be of interest to my colleague Christina McKelvie, who has ministerial responsibility for older people.

I would be happy to meet Alison Harris if that would assist her, because there might be different ways to approach the matter depending on whether a council property or an owner-occupied property is involved. The matter could be approached in a whole host of ways. Antisocial behaviour orders and the legislation that underpins them are one route by which people can raise concerns. Nonetheless, there are a number of complexities around how such behaviour manifests itself in our older population, and a lot of delicate handling and sensitivity will be required. I offer to meet Alison Harris in order to understand the context a bit more fully so that we can work with her to support her constituents.


Fire Safety (Domestic Properties)

4. Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to improve fire safety standards, including requiring domestic properties to be equipped with smoke, heat and carbon monoxide alarms. (S5O-02912)

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

The Scottish Government is committed to achieving improved fire safety. In June 2017, following the Grenfell tower tragedy, the Scottish Government took immediate steps to establish a ministerial working group on building and fire safety. The group has agreed a number of recommendations to improve building and fire safety, including lowering the height of buildings on which cladding must be non-combustible or must pass a full-scale fire test; extending the mandatory installation of sprinklers in flats, and in larger multi-occupancy dwellings and those in which care is provided; providing specific fire safety guidance to residents of high-rise domestic buildings; and the introduction of guidance for fire risk assessments. Those measures are in addition to the new minimum standard for fire and carbon monoxide detection for all homes, which will come into force in February 2021.

Gil Paterson

Does the minister agree that a single death from residential fire is one too many and that the improved standards will help to ensure that residents in my Clydebank and Milngavie constituency and, indeed, throughout Scotland will benefit from a high level of protection, irrespective of where they live and whether the home is private, social or new build? Does he agree that those standards should be promoted extensively by the Parliament and everyone else?

Kevin Stewart

I completely agree with Mr Paterson that one death from fire in Scotland is one too many.

Significant progress has been made in fire safety as we look to realise our vision for safer and stronger communities across Scotland with a long-term decrease in the number and rate of fatal fire casualties. However, none of us can be complacent about the matter. It has been proven that fire alarms save lives, and investments in them are among the most important investments that can be made to protect life and property. Through the improved standard for fire and carbon monoxide detection, we can ensure that everyone will benefit from the same high level of protection, whether they own their home or rent from a private or social landlord.

I thank Mr Paterson for talking about promotion. It is up to each and every one of us to promote the changes and to ensure that people adhere to the new standards that we are setting. I am happy to talk to any member about how we can help them to promote the scheme.


Community Services (Funding)

5. Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding it gives to local authorities for the provision of community services. (S5O-02913)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

The Scottish Government’s 2019-20 budget will provide local government with overall funding totalling more than £11.6 billion. The vast majority of that funding is not allocated for individual services, as it is the responsibility of individual local authorities to manage their own budgets and to allocate the total financial resources that are available to them, including for the range of community services that they deliver, on the basis of local needs and priorities, having first fulfilled their statutory obligations and the jointly agreed set of national and local priorities.

Elaine Smith

Is the cabinet secretary aware that, according to public sector trade unions, more than 31,000 local government jobs have been lost in Scotland since 2008? That means 31,000 fewer people providing services directly to their local communities, which has put growing pressure on those who remain in work and has resulted in community, library and leisure centre closures and reduced staffing and reduced hours in the services that remain open. As that undoubtedly has an impact on Government policy on issues such as health and wellbeing, loneliness and isolation, and obesity, how does the Scottish Government intend to audit the impact of community, library and leisure centre closures?

Aileen Campbell

The aspirations for the work of local and national Government are held jointly and are articulated through our national performance framework, through which we will ensure that we deliver on the key criteria. That includes wellbeing, and some of the issues that Elaine Smith mentioned in relation to libraries and leisure facilities undoubtedly contribute to the sense of wellbeing that we feel in our communities.

We have protected local government as best we can. We have provided councils with more resources overall and in revenue and capital terms. The budget, which was passed just a week ago, enhanced our offer to local authorities to help them to provide and support services and to respond to the needs of their communities. I do not think that the Labour Party came up with any proposals on how it would help to fund the services that Elaine Smith mentioned to ensure that people can continue to enjoy the facilities that are provided across our councils.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

A representative from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities told the Local Government and Communities Committee that

“it is evident that councils are collapsing in England and Wales. We would absolutely not want that level of cuts to Scottish budgets.”—[Official Report, Local Government and Communities Committee, 9 January 2019; c 15.]

Does the cabinet secretary share that view? What have Scottish ministers done to protect local government budgets in Scotland from what has happened in England under the Tories and in Wales under Labour?

Aileen Campbell

The member makes a very good point. We agree with COSLA’s analysis of what has happened to local authorities across England. Those authorities have faced real-terms budget reductions of 28 per cent between 2011 and 2018. In comparison, we have endeavoured to protect and treat fairly local government in Scotland.

I mentioned the total funding of £11.6 billion that goes to local government in Scotland, that we work in partnership to deliver the aspirations that are set out in the national performance framework, and that we have worked with our colleagues in the Green Party to ensure that we create a budget that works for the whole of Scotland.

While other parties criticise the budget in the face of what they are doing in other parts of the United Kingdom, we will continue to work hard in protecting and treating fairly local authorities by supporting the good work that they do in delivering for our communities across the country. Kenneth Gibson is absolutely right to say that we should never forget the difference in approach between this Government and those in other parts of the UK.


Affordable Homes Target

6. John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether its target to build 50,000 new affordable homes will be met. (S5O-02914)

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

We are making excellent progress towards our target of delivering 50,000, affordable homes—35,000 of which will be for social rent. The most recently published quarterly housing statistics show that, from April 2016 to the end of September 2018, we have delivered 19,400 affordable homes—11,825 of which are for social rent—which keeps us well on track to deliver our ambitious target over this parliamentary session. The Government can be very proud of its record on affordable housing, having now delivered more than 80,000 affordable homes since 2007.

John Scott

The minister will be aware that the Scottish National Party’s 2016 manifesto stated:

“Over the next parliament, we will invest £3 billion to build at least 50,000 more affordable homes.”

The minister says that the Government has delivered 19,000 homes, but it has not delivered 50,000 more affordable homes in the built environment. Can the minister give us the real figures on how many new affordable homes will be built over this parliamentary session? Will it be anywhere close to the 50,000 target?

Kevin Stewart

The majority of homes that will be provided through the affordable housing supply programme will be new builds, but the programme also includes rehabilitation projects, off-the-shelf purchases and homes for low-cost ownership from existing housing stock. To reflect that mix, we have always referred to the delivery of more affordable homes, because many local authorities have asked us for the flexibility to allow them to buy back stock in certain places, so that they have the right affordable social housing in their areas. I would have thought that Mr Scott would have liked that sort of localism, given that the Conservatives have been punting the idea for so long.

In Mr Scott’s constituency, we have completed projects through Ayrshire Housing, Hanover Housing Association and South Ayrshire Council such as Limonds Wynd, Doonholm Road, Lochside and many others in Ayr, and we are currently on site in Peebles Street, Whitletts primary school and James Brown Avenue. In Troon, the West of Scotland Housing Association has completed phase 1 of Earl’s Green, with phase 2 now going on. That is good news for Ayr and the whole of Scotland, which is benefiting from that ambitious housing programme.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I apologise to Mr Mason and the subsequent questioners—we did not make a lot of progress. I would encourage more succinct supplementary questions and answers.


Social Security and Older People


Social Security Scotland (Diversity)

1. Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that Social Security Scotland has a diverse workforce that represents our society. (S5O-02919)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Social Security Scotland is working with a wide range of stakeholders to recruit a diverse workforce, with practical measures to broaden the applicant pool such as developing accessible job descriptions and adverts and removing barriers such as qualification requirements for entry-level roles. Moreover, unsuccessful candidates are being offered feedback to support and encourage them to reapply for future roles. Social Security Scotland has also undertaken outreach activities to promote jobs to the wider community and to provide practical support to potential applicants in the areas where the roles are based.

Ruth Maguire

A notable commitment in the social security charter is the involvement of

“those with lived experience in measuring performance”.

How will success be measured in respect of recruiting a diverse workforce?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Ms Maguire is quite right to point to the social security charter, as it embeds absolutely everything that this Government and the agency is doing on social security. The agency is working to publish data on its workforce to ensure transparency and drive continuous improvement in its selection process. However, although we have seen progress in those areas, we are never complacent, and we are always open to doing more—for example, to work with stakeholder organisations and others—to review the progress that we have made to date and to see what more can be done to improve. I and the agency are committed to that process.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

How many of the people working at the agency previously worked in the Department for Work and Pensions, and what percentage of the new workforce do they make up?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The agency does not collect statistics on people’s last place of employment, but we ensure that every person who comes through the door is committed to our established agenda of fairness, dignity and respect. Every person is assessed on their ability to carry out that agenda, and that assessment happens through the application, recruitment and induction processes as well as through continuous professional development. I am proud that everyone who has chosen to work for our agency is carrying out that agenda.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

How many members of the executive advisory board are from a minority background, and what steps is the cabinet secretary taking to increase diversity on the panels, in the leadership of Social Security Scotland and in the associated commission?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Although the agency is moving in the right direction on this matter, we still have work to do. I must pay tribute to Anas Sarwar for his work on the issue, particularly in the coverage that he gave to it a couple of weeks ago, and I am happy to correspond directly with him on this and ensure that he is put in touch with the agency so that he can carry on these conversations. Although we have taken steps to address some of the areas, there is quite clearly more that we can do, and we are open to having those discussions.


Social Security Charter

2. Bill Bowman (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is taking to meet the commitment in the social security charter for the “system ... to be efficient and deliver value for money.” (S5O-02920)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We are committed to funding social security to ensure that we deliver a service that is based on dignity and respect, that is an investment in the people of Scotland and that provides clear value for money for the public purse.

Affordability and value for money are key considerations in our decision-making process. All resource commitments and investment decisions are subject to the development of robust business cases that fully consider evidence-based option appraisals and value for money in line with the Scottish public finance manual. We produce forecasts of benefits to support policy development, evaluation, delivery costs and financial management and we consider the implications for each system change and the impact on the whole of the Scottish budget.

Bill Bowman

The Scottish Government is consulting on the job grant, which is stated to be for youngsters and specifically for people aged between 16 and 24. Dundee, which is in my region, has the lowest employment rate in Scotland and significant numbers of older people who are out of work. The situation is worsening, with recent company closures at Michelin and McGill’s and further possible redundancies following the Scottish National Party’s council budget cut, and it is evidenced in the worrying statistic that one in 10 people in Dundee has never held a job. Taking that into account, can the minister explain the fairness of discriminating against the older job market by offering the grant solely to younger people?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The proposed job grant is but one aspect of the work that the Government undertakes, particularly under my colleague Jamie Hepburn, to support all those who are seeking to return to the job market or who need additional support to move on. I am disappointed that the job grant is being viewed in such a manner, but if the Conservatives were genuinely interested in broadening it or in another proposal, I would have expected to see the details of that during the Scottish budget process. However, I did not see them. If the member genuinely has a proposal that he wants the Scottish Government to look at, I look forward to seeing the details of it and in particular how he would choose to fund it.

Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

I think that the cabinet secretary will be waiting quite a while for that.

The charter was co-produced by people with lived experience of the system and promises to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Will the cabinet secretary outline in more detail how that approach differs from that taken in the United Kingdom social security system, which has of course been severely criticised by the United Nations?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Shona Robison is right to point to the concerns that the UN—most recently, through the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights—has expressed about the Department for Work and Pensions system and its impact on individuals. I refer Ms Robison to the charter, which I know she is aware of as a member of the Social Security Committee. It is a direct response to ensure that, in Scotland, we never get into a position where social security is seen as anything but a human right, we treat everyone with dignity and respect and people get the payments that they are entitled to.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Sending £6 million to the DWP to administer carers allowance and giving up any ability to change any of the rules on the allowance does not seem to be value for money. Will the cabinet secretary rule out any agency arrangements for disability benefits and will she end the agency arrangements for carers allowance at the earliest possible opportunity?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We will look carefully at any agency agreement that we undertake, but I gently remind the member that it is because we undertook an agency agreement with the DWP that we were able to begin paying the carers allowance supplement only a matter of weeks after the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 received royal assent. We would not have been able to do that if we had waited until we had put in place a carers allowance programme and the delivery mechanism for it. The choice was simple: we either did it with the agency agreement—through which the DWP continues to pay carers allowance and we make an investment of £33 million in the carers allowance supplement—or we did not do that. We made sure that the money went into carers’ pockets as quickly as possible, which was the right decision.

The Presiding Officer

Question 3 was not lodged.


Men’s Sheds

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

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports men’s sheds. (S5O-02922)

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

The Scottish Government supports the national men’s sheds movement in a variety of ways. We provide core funding to the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association, which supports individual men’s sheds on a wide range of practical issues, such as start-up, health and safety and asset management.

We also support local shed development. We are currently running a series of regional events to support local partners and shedders alike, and to encourage a place-based partnership approach to tackling social isolation and loneliness, and to improving mental and physical health. I should say that the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association has been a key stakeholder in the development of the social isolation and loneliness strategy. I hope that that will encourage others to get involved in their local men’s shed or to add to the 164 that we currently have in Scotland.

Finlay Carson

The men’s sheds movement has been established for many years. Dalbeattie Men’s Shed in my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries, has more than 50 members and is a unique place where men can come together and socialise with a purpose. The approach has a positive impact on men’s mental health and wellbeing.

Shedders are an autonomous bunch, with each shed being run by the men themselves, with their own rules and policies. Can the Scottish Government confirm to shedders in Dalbeattie and throughout Scotland that there will be no change to self-rule if funding is allocated directly from the Scottish Government in the future?

Christina McKelvie

I am aware of Dalbeattie Men’s Shed, as well as the Rhin’s Men’s Shed in Stranraer, which I think has an event coming up to which my colleague Emma Harper is going.

We absolutely agree that the men’s sheds movement should maintain its autonomy and independence. I am happy to work with the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association on the issues. If there is a specific issue with Dalbeattie Men’s Shed, I will be happy to listen and to work with the association and Finlay Carson to deal with it.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The minister is aware of the contribution of groups such as Orkney Men’s Shed to tackling not just social isolation, but mental ill health. What discussions has she had with her health colleagues about the possibility of attracting funding from health boards to support local men’s sheds?

Christina McKelvie

That is an interesting perspective from which to look at the issue. We work closely with a lot of community partnership organisations, including Age Scotland, Glasgow Caledonian University, the community ownership support service, local authorities and the third sector. If there is merit in speaking to my health colleagues on the matter, I am happy to hear about it. I can see the benefit in doing that, because social isolation and loneliness can exacerbate a mental health issue or be the cause of it. If there are ways to work together to minimise mental ill health, I am happy to hear about them.


Draft Disability Assistance Regulations

5. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government by what date it will publish its draft regulations for disability assistance. (S5O-02923)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

People who rely on disability benefits have consistently told us that what matters most to them is that they are paid the right amount of money on time, so the most important consideration will be to ensure a safe and secure transition of all the benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions. The timetable and delivery schedule will be announced in due course, and the publication of draft regulations will be subject to that timetable and delivery schedule.

Jeremy Balfour

I thank the cabinet secretary for her non-answer.

I hosted a meeting with many leading third sector disability organisations recently, and we all welcome the Scottish Government’s consultation on disability regulations. However, will the cabinet secretary acknowledge that the Scottish Government is, by not providing a clear date or timescale for publishing the draft regulations, causing unnecessary suffering and concern to many vulnerable people who are in receipt of disability benefits? Is this really how the Scottish Government wants to lead on the principle of treating Scottish people with dignity, fairness and respect?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

A lot of disabled people speak to me about the absolutely inhumane and degrading treatment that they suffer at the hands of the DWP, day in and day out. That is why we are determined to ensure that, when we deliver our disability benefits through Social Security Scotland, there will be a radically different approach taken, in which people are treated with dignity, fairness and respect.

When we publish the consultation on disability benefits, I am sure that people who have experience of the current DWP system will see a marked and welcome difference between what we propose and what they are suffering at the moment.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

As many members did, I welcomed last year’s announcement that there will be no private sector involvement in the disability assessment process. Will the cabinet secretary say why it is vital that we take a different approach from the United Kingdom Government’s often cruel and humiliating assessment regime?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Ruth Maguire is right to point out the cruel aspects of the assessment process. That is one of the areas to which the Government will make key changes, as we have announced, in order to ensure that there is no private sector involvement, and that the new assessment process is fairer and is based on standards, rather than on case volumes.

The agency will undertake the assessments and provide a flexible service, including home visits when required. It will also ensure that the assessment process works effectively for people, whatever their condition or disability. When we build our system on a culture of dignity and respect, that will flow through the attitude of the assessment staff and ensure that those who have to apply to Social Security Scotland will be supported through that process, rather than be treated in the inhumane and undignified manner that they are treated day in and day out by the DWP.


Pension Credit (Entitlement)

6. Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact will be on older people in Scotland of the United Kingdom Government’s use of universal credit to limit entitlement to pension credit. (S5O-02924)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We fundamentally disagree with the UK Government’s decision to make that policy change, which is expected to leave pensioners as much as £7,000 a year worse off simply because they have a younger partner. Thousands of couples in Scotland are expected to be hit by the policy over the coming years, and the UK Government expects 15,000 couples across the UK to be affected this year alone. I have written to the UK Government about the matter, outlining my concerns and asking for clarity on the impact that it will have.

Bill Kidd

Independent analysis from the Scottish Parliament information centre has found that 10 per cent of households in Scotland that claim pension credit are likely to be affected. Does the minister agree that that severe and unfair cut is wide in its reach and affects many families who will have little or no means to adjust to the sudden drop in their income?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I completely agree with Bill Kidd. Once the policy is in place, the affected families will find themselves much worse off than they could have anticipated. They will no longer be entitled to claim pension credit, and will instead be forced to claim universal credit, which is much less generous for couples.

We know already that universal credit is causing problems for people who are claiming the benefit—members across the chamber will see that in their surgeries and mailbags—and that its introduction has led to an increase in rent arrears and has forced people into hardship. In the past couple of weeks, even the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has admitted that universal credit has led to an increase in hardship and the use of food banks.


Social Security Tribunals (Access to Representation)

7. Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure that social security claimants have access to representation at tribunals. (S5O-02925)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We recognise that allowing people to have access to a representative at a tribunal hearing is an important aspect of the rights-based approach. The procedural rules for the Scottish social security chamber ensure that individuals can be represented, and allow them to be accompanied by a supporter at their hearing.

Iain Gray

The problem is, of course, access to someone who can provide that support. The Scottish Legal Aid Board’s decision to cut its making advice work programme has meant that across the Lothians and the Borders 12 experienced and highly skilled front-line workers are about to lose their positions. That will leave my constituents with almost no access to anyone with the experience to represent them at tribunals. Will the cabinet secretary get SLAB to reverse its decision?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I recognise that a difficult decision not to continue funding for some Scottish Legal Aid Board projects had to be taken, but the Scottish Government continues to provide £2.7 million to fund 27 advice projects across the country. SLAB has always been very clear, in its communications, that rolling funding was never intended, and that the funding should not be seen as core funding for the organisations that run the projects.

However, we will do everything that we can from within Social Security Scotland to ensure that individuals have help with their appeals, including information and signposting to organisations that will be able to assist them further, and that that is built into the process of the agency as it makes its determinations.


Social Security Assistance (Erroneous Underpayments)

8. Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will minimise erroneous underpayment of devolved social security assistance. (S5O-02926)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Our focus is on paying the right people the right money at the right time.

Social Security Scotland has put in place a range of robust measures to prevent errors from occurring. Those include clear pre-claim guidance for clients to ensure that we have all the right information from the outset, and clear technical guidance for our staff, alongside on-going training and support to help them to make the right decision the first time. We also ensure that we have a robust checking process for applications.

If we make an error, we will put it right and we will learn from our mistakes, thereby ensuring that we continually strive to improve our service.

Alison Johnstone

We are advised that claimant error mostly involves people failing to keep the Department for Work and Pensions aware of a deterioration in a functional need. I appreciate the cabinet secretary’s comments about pre-claim guidance, but what specific support will be given to help people to complete their applications fully and accurately and, importantly, to keep Social Security Scotland up to date with their needs? What quality assurance will be put in place to monitor official errors?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Alison Johnstone is quite right to point out that the vast majority of underpayments of personal independence payments and disability living allowance in the reserved benefits system are caused by people who are already on a benefit failing to report an increase in their care or mobility needs and, therefore, losing out.

The solution to that will in large measure come down to the culture in the agency, which will build up trust between the agency and recipients of payments so that they are encouraged to come forward and feel supported by the agency, which is there to ensure that they get the money to which they are entitled. That is an important aspect of the underpayments work that we are committed to undertaking.