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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 29, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 29 March 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Apprenticeship Week, Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2018 to 2022 , UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, Housing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2018 to 2022

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement from Angela Constance on “Every Child, Every Chance: Scotland’s Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan for 2018-22”. The cabinet secretary will take questions after her statement. If members wish to ask a question, they should press their request-to-speak button.

14:30  

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

I am delighted to introduce “Every Child, Every Chance: Scotland’s Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan for 2018-22” to the chamber.

It is an important day for this Parliament. This is the first of three plans that will take us towards our ambitious 2030 targets to eradicate child poverty, which this Parliament unanimously agreed to in November last year. The consensus that we needed to set statutory targets to reduce and ultimately eradicate child poverty, and to take the action that is required to meet them, was important. It showed that, no matter what part of the political spectrum we come from, we recognise that there is deep-seated, long-standing poverty in our country and we recognise its causes and consequences, and it showed that we want that to change.

The plan could not be more timely. Last week’s child poverty statistics show that, over the period from 2014 to 2017, 24 per cent of children were living in relative poverty after housing costs. Too often, the real damage behind the statistics in such research can get lost in numbers. We cannot forget that behind every statistic there is a child and a family for whom, and a community in which, life chances are being determined by not potential but circumstance, and that is simply unacceptable. Our independent projections show that if we do not step up our action now, United Kingdom Government welfare cuts could drive more than one in three children in Scotland into poverty by 2030. That is not a future that I am prepared to accept.

The projections are stark, but poverty is not inevitable, and we, as a Parliament, agreed to take on that challenge when we voted unanimously to pass the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017.

We are building on strong foundations to continue to support families on low incomes. Our commitment to the real living wage, free prescriptions, free school meals and the baby box, and our massive investment in early learning and childcare and affordable housing reflect our determination to tackle poverty, as does the £100 million annual investment to offset the damage of UK welfare cuts, including the full mitigation of the bedroom tax. Our challenge is not just to mitigate UK Government cuts, but to lift people out of poverty.

Before discussing the detail of the plan, I thank all those who have contributed to its development. We consulted people from around Scotland with direct experience of poverty and, perhaps most importantly, we engaged with parents and children themselves. Equality and poverty stakeholder groups and parliamentary committees also offered the wealth of their experience in various areas and, last year, we established the Poverty and Inequality Commission so that our actions could be informed by independent expert knowledge.

The commission’s advice has been invaluable and we have taken full account of its recommendations. It suggested:

“The Delivery Plan should be clear how its proposed actions will support children from high risk households”,

so the plan focuses on families at most risk of poverty, which we have called “priority families”. They are lone parents, families with a disabled adult or child, young mothers, minority ethnic families, families with a child under one, and larger families with three or more children.

Our plan mirrors the advice of the commission in its structure. It focuses first on actions to make progress on the three key drivers of child poverty: work and earnings; costs of living, including housing costs; and social security.

Alongside the interventions that are aimed at the drivers of poverty, the plan includes action to improve long-term outcomes and quality of life, which was another recommendation from the commission. Our aim is not simply to tackle family poverty now, but to prevent family poverty in the future. Our actions aim to equip children and young people living in poverty now with the skills, experiences and resilience that will enable them to avoid poverty in 2030, when they might be parents. For example, we are investing £2 million in testing the innovative children’s neighbourhoods Scotland programme in an urban area, a small town and a rural community.

The plan also provides £1.35 million new investment for the further education sector to support and scale up preventative approaches, which helps to ensure that young people who have grown up in poverty have sustainable routes to positive destinations and out of poverty. We will also invest an initial £500,000 in a new tailored community education programme on site for Gypsy Traveller pre-school children and their parents.

The plan sets out a range of collaborative, cross-Scotland partnership actions in recognition that the Government cannot eradicate child poverty on its own. We are establishing a new £7.5 million innovation fund together with the Hunter Foundation. That joint investment will support new approaches to preventing and reducing child poverty. We are also providing £500,000 for the healthier, wealthier children approach to income maximisation. That will help to secure financial and practical support through healthcare settings across Scotland for pregnant women and families with children who are at risk of, or experiencing, poverty.

Our interventions tackle the key drivers of child poverty, starting with parents’ work and earnings. Sustainable, fair work is a long-term route out of poverty, so I am pleased to say that we will invest £12 million in new support for parents’ employment that will be developed alongside our national devolved employment support service, fair start Scotland. That will support at least 38,000 people over three years and have positive impacts on around 7,000 children.

Our actions in that section of the plan also include our intention to build a living-wage nation, which will lift at least 25,000 more people on to the living wage in the next three years, and a new package of support for equality at work that comprises new action on the gender pay gap, a new approach to employment developed with disabled people, new support for flexible working and increased funding for the workplace equality fund.

We will also take a range of action to help families with the everyday costs of living right now. We will work to introduce a new minimum amount for the school clothing grant, providing more money for school uniforms and sports kits. We will invest £1 million in delivering support for children who experience food insecurity during school holidays. We will also provide new support for childcare after school and in the holidays.

There will be a new focus on families in our warmer homes Scotland programme, which will deliver an annual average saving of £350 off fuel bills. We will invest £3 million in a financial health check guarantee, which will help low-income families to maximise their incomes and get the best deals. We will also provide £1 million for the Carnegie UK Trust’s affordable credit loan fund, which will increase access to credit and reduce problems caused by insecure incomes.

I turn to the new social security powers, which give us new opportunities. Our new best start grant will provide children in low-income families with payments at key stages during their early years. It is a grant that will not put a cap on children. For a family of two children, that will be an increase of up to £1,400 more than they would get under the UK Government’s current sure start maternity grant. We will also provide more support to carers by establishing a new young carers grant from 2019 and, from this year, increasing the level of carers allowance with a 13 per cent rise for our carers.

I confirm that, over and above our existing social security programme, we intend to introduce a new income supplement to provide financial support to the families that need it most. In planning to introduce the supplement over the lifetime of the plan, we will take the analysis provided by the Poverty and Inequality Commission to the next stage. We will now consider the detail of such a supplement—the level at which it should be set and those at whom it should be targeted—to help to lift the maximum number of children out of poverty. We will also identify a robust and viable delivery route to get the additional income to families. We will need to ensure that delivery costs are reasonable, that complexity is minimised and that the impact on earnings and interactions with UK benefits are fully explored and understood.

We will do that bearing in mind that our priority is the safe and secure transfer of the benefits to be delivered to this Parliament. We will not let down the 1.4 million people of Scotland who are relying on those benefits being delivered to them by the end of this parliamentary session. We will provide an update in the first progress report, which is due next year.

The plan builds on the determination that we showed by bringing the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill to Parliament and gaining unanimous support, but it is what happens next that is important now, as we work to deliver on the commitments that I have set out today. It will mean a country where every child has every chance in life, and meeting the child poverty targets means transforming Scotland.

In 2018, the year of young people, I commend the plan to Parliament.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, cabinet secretary. We move to questions from members.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement and for advance sight of it. There are some things in the statement that I am sure everyone in the chamber will welcome, but I have a couple of questions, just to explore the statement a bit further.

First, the statement contained just one brief mention of affordable housing. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that, at the present rate, the Government will miss its target for affordable housing, which is one of the key areas in helping people out of poverty?

Secondly, the cabinet secretary will be aware that Audit Scotland reported this week that the Scottish National Party Government has not attempted to work out how much it will cost to bring the devolved social security system to Scotland. If ministers are caught out by the costs, the excess cash will have to come from her budget, which will affect the priority families that she has talked about. Will she respond to the report and reveal what steps are to be taken to ensure that there is greater transparency and a better understanding of the overall implementation costs to help with financial planning and decision making?

Angela Constance

I am grateful to Mr Balfour for his questions on affordable housing and transparency on the work that we are pursuing around social security costs. I will come to the point with respect to the Audit Scotland report.

Mr Balfour seems to have his criticism of the Scottish Government, but I wonder whether that implied criticism means that he is absolutely raging at his UK Tory Government. Given that 60 per cent of Scotland’s spending decisions are still made in London; that child poverty is actually rising across the UK—it is lower in Scotland; that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that the benefits freeze is the biggest driver of rising poverty in and out of work; and that, by 2020, welfare spend in this country will be down by £4 billion, I wonder why he has nothing to say about Theresa May and her lack of action on the burning injustices in this country.

I very much expect to be held to account for our responsibilities and our decisions—I absolutely welcome that—but what is good for the goose has to be good for the gander. The Audit Scotland report touches on that, because it rightly highlights that we have two social security systems in this country, and we need to consider how they interact with each other. Much of our progress will be dependent on the DWP’s co-operation with this Government. I have had at least one occasion to write to the secretary of state to query that commitment to work with this Government, and I hope that I do not have to do that again.

I very much welcome Audit Scotland’s recognition, which members will see if they read the report, that

“Good early progress has been made”

on social security and that we are well prepared for the remaining work that we have to do. We know that this is a critical year for our new social security system. Audit Scotland has confirmed that we were indeed on time with wave 1 benefits and that we have good risk management procedures in place. Last week, the Minister for Social Security made an announcement on the Scottish social security agency, which is again on track, and the first phase of recruitment has commenced.

We have bent over backwards to be transparent about the costs, including the emerging costs; we also have a detailed financial memorandum attached to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. However, if members want us to provide even more information, we are absolutely open to doing that. As I said, the minister and I have bent over backwards to keep the Parliament, and the committees in particular, informed.

I reject Mr Balfour’s suggestion that this Parliament and this Government will not meet our affordable housing targets. The latest reports, including a report from Shelter Scotland, say that we are on track to meet our target of 50,000 affordable homes. It is my view that we have lower child poverty rates than elsewhere in the UK because of our substantial investment over the past 10 years in affordable housing. We absolutely know that there is more to do, and we are up for that challenge.

The Presiding Officer

I appreciate that there is political interchange, particularly in the opening remarks. Perhaps we could move to questions and answers from now on.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of her statement. I agree that poverty is not inevitable. However, although the Tories’ callous benefit cuts are plunging more children and working families into poverty, the Scottish Government, after a decade in office, cannot escape its responsibility. Unfortunately, much of the statement seems to promise jam tomorrow. Will the cabinet secretary give more detail on how the Scottish Government’s social security powers will be used to top up family benefits and boost incomes?

The Scottish Government’s universal benefits were mentioned. With 230,000 children living in poverty and one in three children set to be plunged below the breadline over the next decade, will the cabinet secretary stop joining the Tories to block Labour amendments on the £5 child benefit top-up and support that effective and simple-to-administer policy, which we know provides no disincentive to working families? Why has she been ignoring organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group, which says that that measure would be the most effective way of tackling poverty to help give every child every chance?

I note the £1 million investment to tackle school holiday hunger. Given that North Lanarkshire Council alone is investing £0.5 million for that purpose, how can the cabinet secretary be confident that the Scottish Government’s allocation will cover the costs across Scotland?

Finally, a decade on from the SNP manifesto promise of expanding universal free school meals, will the cabinet secretary stop the stigma by feeding all our primary age children and, by doing so, help to alleviate in-work poverty?

Angela Constance

I will do my best to answer questions as efficiently as possible. It is fair to say that, when it comes to what we need to do to tackle and end child poverty, the matter is complex. There are no silver bullets; there are certainly no 60-second soundbites.

I point Ms Smith to the independent and expert advice that we got from the Poverty and Inequality Commission, which we all agreed to establish. We have an opportunity to unite around that advice, unite against the Tories in the UK Government and the devastation that they are causing, and unite around a call for more powers. If the Tories will not fix their broken system, surely we in the Scottish Parliament should have control over the policy in order to pursue the opportunities that we all dearly wish for.

Ms Smith is a powerful advocate for topping up child benefit. I absolutely understand the arguments for that. We have just published figures that show that, if we do not do things differently, we risk 38 per cent of children in Scotland growing up in relative poverty. There is benefit to a universal social wage, but the scale of the challenge is increasing, so we need to look closely at the independent and expert advice, which points to better ways to lift more children out of poverty.

Make no mistake about it: the development of a new income supplement is a substantial undertaking that demonstrates our commitment to reach our ambitious targets to reduce and ultimately end child poverty.

We need to do a range of detailed work, which we will commence next year. The commission helpfully pointed to a package of reforms whereby, if child benefit was topped up, 20,000 children would be lifted out of poverty at a cost of £360 million. It pointed to another package of measures that was more targeted, whereby 45,000 children would be lifted out of poverty.

We intend to keep Parliament informed every step of the way in the development of a new income supplement. I want to take Parliament with us in this substantial undertaking that will involve a substantial investment. We want to debate the detail of that. We want to debate how we get the best and most robust and reliable delivery route.

Finally, we have expanded the fair food fund—[Laughter.]

Angela Constance

This is a very important point about children going hungry in Scotland today. I find that an obscenity. I am answering members’ detailed questions to the best of my endeavours.

We have expanded our fair food fund generally and, on top of that, there is additional funding to target holiday hunger and out-of-school-care hunger in children. We will take that forward in partnership with local government and the third sector organisations that I know are doing so much great work on the ground.

The Presiding Officer

Half of our time has gone on the first two multiclausal questions with multiclausal answers.

A further 10 members wish to ask a question. Do not give me any preamble. Ask the question and we will get an answer. Ask a question with no preamble, and we will go straight to the answer.

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if she is serious about combating deep-seated and long-standing poverty in our country by addressing its causes and consequences, Scotland needs to create an environment that encourages business growth and job creation? Does she agree that we need to ensure that our children have equality of opportunity, whatever their background, by listening to headteachers’ concerns around staff shortages when it comes to closing the attainment gap?

Angela Constance

The fundamentals of the Scottish economy are strong. Part of the commission’s advice on our endeavours to tackle child poverty was that there needs to be a strong focus on the economy as well as on increasing wages and earnings. We know that productivity growth in Scotland is good. We know that employment is on the up.

We know that we need an absolute focus on inclusive growth, which is about delivering growth and tackling inequalities. The biggest risk to economic growth just now is not from this Government, but from the UK Tory Government and its plans to drag us out of the European Union through Brexit.

I hope that the member gets out and about over the recess and in the weeks and months to come to speak to headteachers. I continue to do that, and I know that our massive investment of £750 million over this session of Parliament, in the form of the attainment challenge fund, is very welcome indeed and is allowing headteachers to make flexible decisions based on the needs of their schools.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

As the convener of the Social Security Committee, I am well aware of the work that the Government and the committee need to do to ensure that all legislation and regulations are in place to deliver benefits to the 1.4 million people who are relying on them.

Given the priority that the cabinet secretary and the minister have already given to these plans, can the cabinet secretary explain how the income supplement will fit into the delivery of social security in Scotland?

Angela Constance

This Government’s focus is the safe and secure transfer of 11 benefits to the Scottish Parliament. We are establishing the new social security agency to ensure the delivery of the benefits over this parliamentary session. We are making good progress. That will ensure that people continue to receive their benefits at the right time and that they receive the right amount. That is our top priority.

We also want to get the income supplement right. The details around that are important. We want to ensure that we reach the most people effectively and efficiently. We want to consider our options carefully, as I indicated in earlier answers, to ensure that our investment has the maximum impact on child poverty. We will start work this year on options for the income supplement, and we will provide an update in the 2019 progress report.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The roll-out of universal credit has been shambolic and has been roundly criticised by many members in this chamber. Can the cabinet secretary give an assurance to those priority families that the proposed new income supplement will not rely on, or make use of, that discredited system?

Angela Constance

Mr Griffin makes an important point. The Poverty and Inequality Commission’s evidence on the modelling showed that there is an alternative way, other than topping up child benefit, to reach more children. What we have to do is find the right delivery route to do that. We need to explore the universal credit options—and we will do—but we are cognisant of how problematic universal credit is as a reserved benefit and that we could have the rug pulled from under our feet at any moment. The roll-out has been shambolic and has pushed people into poverty, and the benefit has become discredited although it is much needed by many vulnerable families. This is not all in our gift—the DWP would need to agree to schedule any income supplement into its work schedule and it would charge us for doing that on our behalf.

Christina McKelvie (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will know that the Equality and Human Rights Committee has focused a lot of its work on Gypsy Traveller children, so it was welcome to see £500,000 as an initial investment in tailored community education on site for Gypsy Traveller pre-school children. Can the cabinet secretary tell me how that will address the needs of Gypsy Traveller children in Scotland?

Angela Constance

We will, indeed, invest an initial £500,000 to work directly with Gypsy Traveller families and other partners as part of a tailored community education programme that will be offered on site for families. It will be comprised of three elements: specially tailored play and early learning opportunities for pre-school children; on-site adult learning opportunities for parents and carers; and work with older siblings who are of secondary school age but who are not attending school. We want those components to support children into early learning, help parents with their own literacy and numeracy and offer young people access to a range of different training and learning opportunities. It remains the case that Gypsy Traveller families are one of the most marginalised groups in society, but this Government, with this Parliament’s support, is determined to change that. The member will be well aware of the work that I am leading in the ministerial working group and of our intention to engage with the Gypsy Traveller community, too.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

Given the positive financial health and other impacts of the healthier, wealthier children scheme in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, what gains does the cabinet secretary envisage for families and what outcome does she seek from the national roll-out of that successful scheme—which has been long called for and is welcomed by the Scottish Greens—with £500,000 worth of funding?

Angela Constance

I know that Ms Johnstone has been a powerful advocate of and champion for the healthier, wealthier scheme that has operated in the west of Scotland. It will ensure that families get better and earlier advice and that many families get the benefit or fuel poverty advice to which they are entitled, which will save them money or put more money into their pockets. I also know that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport recently replied to Ms Johnstone that she is happy to meet her to provide more information.

We have made good progress, particularly in the work around the universal health visiting pathway, which is exciting. There is so much additional investment in health visitors that it will become the norm for them to advise families of what they are entitled to and to signpost them to other services—and that can be embedded in other children’s services.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has drawn a connection between poor mental health and child poverty. I have looked through the Government’s plan today, but I cannot see any new investment in child mental health. Can the minister reassure me that there is new money coming into mental health today for children?

Angela Constance

Mr Rennie raises an important point. A significant section of the plan does, indeed, address mental health, and there is, indeed, a correlation between health inequalities and poverty.

He will be well aware of the work that has been undertaken by Ms Watt. The purpose of the plan is to demonstrate how we can get more money into families’ pockets and how we can reduce their living costs. By improving people’s income security, we hope to support the work that is being led by Ms Watt to increase the amount of money in people’s pockets and, by association, improve their mental health.

The work that we are doing on the new employment service and around homelessness is important, too. We are not looking at people as two-dimensional objects. We want to work with people on the basis of their needs, whether to address their mental health or employment issues or ensure that they have income maximisation.

I hope that, once Mr Rennie connects the work that is going on in mental health with the work that is going on to reduce child poverty, he will see that it will take us another step forward.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

The Scottish Government’s ambition to tackle non-term-time hunger aligns well with Glasgow City Council’s extension of free school meals to primary 4 pupils and its new holiday hunger fund. Does the cabinet secretary agree that partnership working with councils and the third sector is vital to such success? Will she meet me and council colleagues to discuss and explore partnership working further?

Angela Constance

I am always delighted to meet members of any political party in this chamber as well as anybody who is working locally to tackle child poverty. As I said earlier, there is additional support in our fair food fund. In particular, we want to join up some of the work on improving out-of-school care and to increase the educational and extracurricular opportunities that children have as well as the number of projects that operate the length and breadth of Scotland to feed our children. There is additional money to address food poverty, which I hope will be welcomed.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

Will the cabinet secretary describe how the Scottish Government intends to support low-income families who are struggling to cope with the rising cost of rent?

Angela Constance

I thank Mr Golden for that question. He will be well aware of our substantial investment in affordable housing. The social rented sector works hard to keep rents affordable, although there is some evidence of rent inflation in that sector. We want to work with housing providers, particularly as they build more houses, to find better ways to make more savings—members will see that detailed in the plan—so that we can prevent rent inflation in the social sector.

We now have legislation on the private rented sector—it was the biggest shake-up in the private rented sector for more than 30 years.

On rents, we continue to fully mitigate the bedroom tax, which ensures that people can remain in their own homes, can afford to pay their rent and are not put at additional risk of homelessness.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

As a result of the Tories’ onslaught on people who are already struggling to make ends meet, we have seen a rise in child poverty in households in which someone works. What will the plan do to support parents who are in that position?

Angela Constance

The member is right. Seven in 10 Scottish children in poverty live in a household in which someone is in work, whereas about one in 10 children in poverty live in a household where all the adults are unemployed. Others might focus on other so-called causes, but we need to be cautious about using terms such as “worklessness”. As the plan sets out, the main drivers of poverty are inadequate income from work—which is what the plan seeks to address with the powers that we have—the high costs of essential goods and the UK Government’s continued welfare cuts. I am pleased to say that the delivery plan highlights a new £12 million programme for intensive key worker support to help parents who have been out of the labour market to get back into work and, crucially, to support parents in low-paid jobs to stay in work and progress their careers.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes the statement. I apologise to members whom we could not reach.