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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 31 October 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Ferry Services, Early Years, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Caledonian Pinewood Forest


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Communities and Local Government

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The first item of business is portfolio questions. In order to get in as many questions as possible, I prefer short, succinct questions and answers to match.


Asylum Seekers (Local Authority Support)

1. Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met representatives from the Home Office to discuss the resources that Scotland’s local authorities require to support asylum seekers. (S5O-02479)

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

The Scottish Government believes that the Home Office must fund all local authorities properly and equitably for the crucial role that they play in supporting people seeking asylum. Local authorities in Scotland should not be treated differently from those in England.

I have made my deep concerns about the issue clear to the immigration minister in meetings and correspondence, most recently at a four nations meeting on asylum on 15 October.

Sandra White

Although the Scottish Government stepped in recently to assist with asylum seekers facing destitution in Glasgow, that has not been a permanent solution. Can the cabinet secretary provide any further information on negotiations with the Home Office regarding equity of funding for Glasgow City Council as a designated Home Office dispersal area?

Aileen Campbell

I believe that we need a long-term, sustainable solution to ensure that local authorities that are participating in asylum dispersal are properly funded and that people who are at the end of their asylum process are not left facing destitution and homelessness. We will continue to raise the issue with the Home Office, and we note that the Welsh Government and English local authorities have made similar concerns known. I am deeply disappointed that the Home Office has so far chosen not to act on those concerns, leaving the Scottish Government, local authorities and the third sector to pick up the pieces. I look forward to tomorrow’s debate when members of the Parliament will also get a chance to raise their voices on this issue.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I very much welcome the minister’s approach and her sincerity on the matter.

Does the Scottish Government agree with the Glasgow City Council task force that there is no legal barrier to the use of public funds to provide emergency accommodation for people who are themselves designated as having no recourse to public funds?

Aileen Campbell

What we have done, within the competencies that we have, is to provide third sector partners with the ability to help people who are facing destitution. Recently, I visited Positive Action in Housing and provided additional funding to help the charity to cope with the influx of people that it is having to deal with, in light of decisions that have been taken on asylum seekers in the city.

As I said, it is about ensuring that our local authorities are treated equitably. The Home Office needs to listen to that call if it wants local authorities to continue to provide homes for people who seek refuge and asylum in our country.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I agree with the cabinet secretary and Sandra White that all local authorities should be treated equally.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that forced destitution of asylum seekers, who are already vulnerable, is an inhumane policy that should be reversed? Will she indicate to the Parliament that accommodation and advocacy, in particular, should be given to asylum seekers who have been refused asylum by the Home Office?

Aileen Campbell

I absolutely agree with Pauline McNeill’s sentiment as she articulated it.

I underline that we provide funding to services for asylum seekers who live in Scotland, to help people to avoid destitution, where we can. We are also providing an additional £130,000 to strengthen advocacy and advice services that support people who are seeking asylum and people who are at risk of eviction.

As I said, tomorrow’s debate will give us an opportunity to flush out more of those issues.


Housing (Dumfries Town Centre)

2. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the development of better housing in Dumfries town centre. (S5O-02480)

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

The Scottish Government has allocated almost £88 million over this parliamentary session to support the delivery of Dumfries and Galloway Council’s affordable housing priorities. The funding may contribute to the council’s aim to improve town centre living, through its town centre living fund, in relation to which a priority is increasing the supply of affordable housing.

We also support the Scottish empty homes partnership and specialist empty homes officers to provide assistance in returning empty homes to use across Scotland, including in Dumfries and Galloway.

Colin Smyth

I am aware that the minister has met the Midsteeple Quarter project in Dumfries. Its aim is to take ownership of and refurbish disused buildings to create enterprise space and housing above shops. Does the minister agree that such a project is entirely the type of community-led fightback against the decline of our town centres that the Government should support? Will he consider making the project a pilot scheme that is backed by Government investment, so that the Midsteeple Quarter has the funds to buy back the properties?

Kevin Stewart

I pay tribute to those who are active in the Midsteeple Quarter group and to folks who have been involved with the Stove Network as a whole. Their community activism is leading to change in Dumfries. I was pleased that Dumfries and Galloway Council held an empty homes conference the other week, which Colin Smyth and I attended. I am pleased that the council is using money that it has raised from council tax on second and long-term empty homes to provide a fund to ensure that new homes in Dumfries town centre become a reality. I will keep a close eye on that.

I ask other local authorities to look at what Dumfries and Galloway Council is doing, because that sort of work needs to be replicated elsewhere and others could follow that council’s example.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Finlay Carson—I will let the question stretch to include Galloway.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

I am sure that the minister will agree that it takes a combination of factors to create a vibrant and sustainable town centre for residents and businesses. The United Kingdom Government’s budget announced a package of rates relief for English streets that is worth £900 million. We would love such a package in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I would like to hear your question.

Finlay Carson

Does the minister agree that such a policy would invigorate business and housing in town centres?

Kevin Stewart

In Scotland, we have had the small business bonus for some time.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

For 10 years.

Kevin Stewart

Yes—for 10 years, in fact. Businesses the length and breadth of Scotland have benefited from zero or reduced rates. We have put in place a fair package of measures to ensure that small businesses continue to thrive.

Beyond that, we will work closely, as we always have done, with Scotland’s Towns Partnership in promoting the town centre first principle. I will, of course, continue to meet people throughout the country to see where we can export best practice in order to reinvigorate Scotland’s town centres.


Planning Appeals (Consideration of Local Views)

3. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government how the views of local communities are taken into account by ministers during consideration of a planning appeal. (S5O-02481)

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

Our planning system is inclusive, and the views of the local community are fully taken into account, along with all relevant material considerations, in reaching decisions on all planning appeals, including those of national importance on which Scottish ministers normally make the final decision.

Liam McArthur

Last month, Orkney Islands Council rejected applications by Hoolan Energy for two proposed wind farm projects at Hesta in South Ronaldsay and Costa in the west mainland. Both proposals have given rise to considerable public concern locally, regarding the potential impact on landscape, habitats, wildlife and amenity. Given that Hoolan Energy has confirmed that it is appealing the council’s decision, can the minister explain what opportunities there will be for objectors to make their case to those in Government who are responsible for considering the appeals? What assurances can he give that the views of the local community will not simply be overridden in the process?

Kevin Stewart

Obviously, I cannot comment on live applications, as Liam McArthur and other members know. A reporter, who is aware of the time-critical nature of the appeals, has been appointed to make a decision on both appeals. All representations that are made by the local community on the planning applications are forwarded to the reporter by the planning authority, so that they can be fully taken into account in the determination of the planning appeals.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Is the minister aware that many of my constituents in Stepps have no confidence in the current appeals system, particularly following the Scottish Government reporter’s decision to allow a planning application that had been refused to go ahead on green-belt land at Hornshill and Gateside farms in Stepps? Does he agree that we must value our green-belt areas, listen to the concerns of communities and respect local decisions?

Kevin Stewart

As Elaine Smith knows, I cannot comment on any live, on-going application. However, reporters are appointed to take the views of all, including, as I have just explained to Mr McArthur, the views of communities. Reporters work independently and they take account of the local development plan and material considerations in reaching their decision. They are independent and they listen to communities. I think that our system is fair in that regard, and that it takes account of all views.


Participatory Budgeting

5. Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how successful it considers participatory budgeting has been since the implementation of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. (S5O-02483)

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

Supported by the Scottish Government’s £6.5 million community choices fund over the past four years, participatory budgeting has gone from strength to strength, and has established itself firmly in Scotland. Last year, more than 70,000 people voted for the things that matter to them in their communities, with almost 1,000 local organisations securing funding.

Participatory budgeting has been very successful in supporting the aspirations of the 2015 act by putting decisions about how we invest in communities into the hands of the people who live and work in them.

Michelle Ballantyne

Is the Government aware that delivery of participatory budgeting is taking up significant local government officer time, and therefore has a significant cost attached to it? What support will the Scottish Government supply to assist with on-going delivery of participatory budgeting?

Aileen Campbell

I have just outlined that we have supported the policy with significant resources. The decisions that people are making are better decisions not only for their communities but for the local authorities. We are ensuring that we support local authorities through the process.

Participatory budgeting has grown across the country, and is enabling and empowering communities to take decisions. Most people would agree that that is a good thing; I hope that local authorities also agree that it is a good thing.

Furthermore, we are providing support for communities of interest. Glasgow Disability Alliance published the “Budgeting for Equality” action research report and is helping to ensure that people with disabilities can take part in making important decisions.

The key thing is that we want to ensure that everybody gets a chance to have their say in how decisions are made where they live, because that often results in better decisions for the community.


North Ayrshire Council (Meetings)

6. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will next meet North Ayrshire Council. (S5O-02484)

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

Ministers and officials will continue to regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including North Ayrshire Council, to discuss a wide range of issues, as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland.

On 24 August, I met representatives of North Ayrshire Council at Ardrossan academy to announce the roll-out of free sanitary products across all schools, colleges and universities in Scotland. One of the representatives was the council’s chief executive Elma Murray, who is set to retire soon. I record my thanks to her for her unstinting commitment to the people of North Ayrshire and to public life.

Jamie Greene

I also place on the record my thanks to Elma Murray, and I wish her successor the very best of luck.

The reality is that, like many local authorities, North Ayrshire Council has been on the receiving end of Scottish Government cuts in recent years. In the most recent Scottish budget, it got a £5 million reduction in its funding. [Laughter.] I am glad that Kenneth Gibson, it appears, thinks that that is funny. Given that we now know that the Scottish Government’s block grant is going up, does the cabinet secretary agree that there is really no justification for further cuts to North Ayrshire Council’s budget?

Aileen Campbell

It is Halloween, and Jamie Greene certainly had a nightmare with that supplementary question, because despite the rhetoric from the Conservatives, austerity is far from over. In fact, we continue to experience cuts from the United Kingdom Government. Our resource block grant has been cut and for 2019-20 is almost £2 billion lower, in real terms, than it was in 2010-11. That is the reality.

Jamie Greene should realise that this Government continues to treat local government fairly, and he should look a bit closer to home for where the cuts start.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

When the cabinet secretary next meets North Ayrshire Council, will rates be discussed? Last week, Jamie Greene claimed that North Ayrshire businesses pay 65 per cent more than businesses in the rest of Scotland, with payments of £225 million, and said that non-domestic rates should increase in line with the consumer price index rather than with the retail price index.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that North Ayrshire Council’s non-domestic rates income was £41.665 million in 2016-17, that businesses pay the same non-domestic rates as the rest of Scotland and that—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

A shorter question, please.

Kenneth Gibson

Can she confirm that in the current financial year, the CPI is being used and that Jamie Greene needs to do his homework on such matters before attacking the Scottish Government?

Aileen Campbell

It seems that Jamie Greene has a continuing run of nightmares in articulating his views. I confirm to Mr Gibson that businesses in North Ayrshire pay the same level of non-domestic rates as those in other local authorities across Scotland. It is simply nonsense to suggest that they pay 65 per cent more.

Businesses are also benefiting from the most generous package of rates relief that is currently available in the UK. Statistics that were published only this morning confirm that it is estimated that more than 3,000 businesses in North Ayrshire will benefit from our small business bonus scheme in 2018-19. That benefit will be worth £5.8 million to the local economy. I am sure that Mr Gibson will make good use of those positive facts and figures.


Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board Strategic Plan (Implementation)

7. John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what role local government will have in implementing the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board’s strategic plan. (S5O-02485)

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

The Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board is independent and will develop its own plans for how to engage with local government in implementing its strategic plan.

The board’s membership includes local government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities representation, and ministers expect the board to ensure that local government continues to be fully involved and engaged. The Scottish Government supports the board’s stated commitment to on-going engagement, including with local government. Ministers believe that local government is an essential element of the good governance of Scotland, and remain committed to working closely with COSLA and other local government interests.

John Scott

Local government is mentioned twice in the 47-page document, which presents a complex structure for shaping skills development. There is a real risk of confusion about the role of local authorities. Therefore, I ask what specific actions the Government will take to make local influence in skills development stronger, not weaker, and what role local authorities will play in that.

Aileen Campbell

I reiterate the fact that the board’s membership includes local government and COSLA representation: the very heart of the board’s decision making includes local government. I expect the board to continue to ensure that local government contributes fully and is fully involved and engaged.

We, along with our partners in local government, have a joint governance role across Scotland, so when economics, enterprise and skills are on the agenda it is important that local government continues to be involved and to have an active role. That is exactly what we expect from the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board’s plan.


Planning (Minority Groups)

8. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, as I am a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that planning policies and decisions do not discriminate against minority groups. (S5O-02486)

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

Under existing legislation, ministers and planning authorities are required to perform their statutory functions in a manner that encourages equal opportunities. The Planning (Scotland) Bill also includes provisions to ensure that all members of the public have a greater say in planning the future of their places.

Monica Lennon

Travelling showpeople often live in caravans or mobile homes, so when development is proposed on neighbouring sites it is important that impacts such as noise and vibration take account of the different types of accommodation that could be affected. Does the minister agree that planning policies and decisions should help to protect and facilitate the traditional way of life of showpeople, and is he satisfied that current planning guidance and practice are adequately protecting them?

Kevin Stewart

I spoke at some length about Gypsy Travellers and showpeople at stage 2 of the Planning (Scotland) Bill this morning. The quality of our places matters to all of us, and planning has a responsibility to ensure that the needs of all our communities are understood and met. Planning can play a vital role in ensuring that Gypsy Travellers have safe and secure places to stop or settle. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that Gypsies and Travellers are properly involved in planning for the future of their places. As I said to Ms Lennon and the other members of the Local Government and Communities Committee—the offer is open to all members—if they want to know what the Scottish Government is doing in terms of research to get that right, I am more than happy to provide that information.


Affordable and Social Housing (Contribution to a Low-carbon Future)

9. Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is ensuring that the housing that is built as part of its affordable and social house-building programme contributes to a low-carbon future. (S5O-02487)

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

All projects that are funded through the Scottish Government's affordable housing supply programme are required to meet current building standards. Over and above that requirement, a higher level of grant is available for homes that are built to a higher and greener standard. New homes in Scotland are now producing about 75 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions than homes that were built to the 1990 standards. Of the energy performance certificates issued for new homes, 95 per cent achieve an A or B rating for environmental impact.

Gillian Martin

Will the minister update Parliament on the Government’s thinking on three issues that will drive down carbon emissions: the potential to set a net zero carbon standard for new buildings, through use of carbon offsetting measures; enabling, in new buildings, infrastructure for electric-vehicle charging; and ensuring that all new builds are as energy efficient as technology allows, thereby reducing the need for future retrofitting?

Kevin Stewart

We are investigating the idea of a net zero carbon standard for new development as part of our current review of building regulations.

On 19 October we launched the plugged-in households initiative, which aims to widen access to electric vehicles, including through housing associations and car clubs, so that communities across Scotland can share the benefit.

A review of the energy standards that are set by building regulations started earlier this year and includes a focus on reducing energy demand. It will also consider the extent to which it is practical to future proof new buildings to support further change, such as decarbonisation of heat that we use in our buildings.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I have to move on to the next set of portfolio questions. I apologise to Gil Paterson, who is the only member whom we did not manage to reach.


Social Security and Older People


Social Isolation (Older People)

1. Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce levels of social isolation among older people. (S5O-02489)

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

By the end of the year, we will publish our social isolation and loneliness strategy. Our draft strategy was published in January 2018 and it identified that older people should feature as a prominent group within the strategy, as we recognise that they are more at risk of being affected by social isolation and loneliness.

I have recently been meeting a wide range of stakeholders and partners on the details of the final strategy and last week we published the analysis of the consultation responses. In addition, we have included a new national indicator for loneliness in the national performance framework.

Rachael Hamilton

Social isolation is likely to cost the national health service as much as £12,000 per affected person and it can be as significant a risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Due to lower levels of connectivity, it is very likely that those who live in rural areas may experience isolation and loneliness. Given the high burden on the NHS, what steps is the Scottish Government taking to combat social isolation, particularly in rural areas?

Christina McKelvie

We are working on all those aspects of the impact of social isolation, especially in relation to rural strategies. One of the aspects and a key theme that is emerging now is rural connectivity and rural transport projects. I had a lovely visit with Christine Grahame to the Gallowheels project a few weeks ago, which is a great example of such projects. A key element in the work that we are doing on social isolation and loneliness is about connecting people and especially about looking at rural areas and at how we can work together collaboratively to answer those questions.


Social Security Spending

2. Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the estimates for social security spending in the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s May 2018 economic and fiscal forecasts. (S5O-02490)

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

As set out in the Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016, the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s independent forecasts of devolved social security expenditure are used to inform the Scottish Government’s budget. The Scottish Fiscal Commission will publish its next “Scotland’s Economic and Fiscal Forecasts” report, which will include updated forecasts for social security expenditure, on 12 December to accompany the Scottish budget for 2019-20.

Alison Harris

In the past, ministers have sometimes hinted that they do not agree with the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s forecast. Last year, for example, the finance secretary argued that the Scottish Fiscal Commission was more cautious than the Scottish Government on income tax forecasts. Will the cabinet secretary therefore confirm whether the Scottish Government has plans to do any of its own modelling or projections of welfare spending or will she confirm that it will always use the Scottish Fiscal Commission figures?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We have a team of officials who work on forecasting and they also work closely and share their information with the Scottish Fiscal Commission. Our modelling and forecasting as a Government has been there right from the beginning of the social security process.

The Scottish Fiscal Commission’s forecasting is what has to be used for the budget. I accept that it is challenging to forecast what the expenditure will be on some of the social security aspects, because they are the result of what is a new power for Scotland. We are delivering, for example, best start grants, which are new, and we are encouraging take-up more than the current Westminster system does. However, the member can be assured that Scottish Government officials work closely with the Scottish Fiscal Commission and share all their forecasting and modelling information.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary has said in recent written answers that the Scottish Government could be paying over £2.5 million to the Department for Work and Pensions to deliver Scottish choices and that the full year of delivery of carers allowance by the DWP will cost the Government £5.9 million. Can the cabinet secretary set out how much she expects to pay the DWP in the remainder of the current session of Parliament to deliver Scotland’s devolved benefits?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mr Griffin is quite right to point out that we have to pay the DWP for the choices, such as Scottish choices, that we make. Split payments in universal credit will be another aspect that we will need to look at.

I do not have the information for the current session of Parliament because we are still negotiating with the DWP, and on split payments, for example, we need to establish what we as the Scottish Parliament would like to see before we get into detailed negotiations with the DWP. However, I will be sure to keep the Parliament and particularly the member up to date with our work on that process.


Loneliness and Isolation (Older People)

3. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it can give to older people who find themselves lonely and isolated. (S5O-02491)

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

We are supporting a range of initiatives to tackle social isolation and loneliness among older people, including funding for the Age Scotland helpline, support for the development of men’s sheds and support for a range of local community-based projects that bring older people together to spend time with each other. I look forward to building on that further with an older people’s framework, which we will launch in 2019 to help to focus on promoting a positive image of older people, tackling prejudice and ensuring that older people’s voices are recognised in decisions on their services.

John Mason

The minister may be aware of the Bellgrove hotel in my constituency, which is in effect a private hostel with a lot of older, lonely and isolated residents. It is believed that the hostel management intercepts the residents’ mail, which makes them even more lonely and isolated. Is there anything that the Government can do for the residents?

Christina McKelvie

Mr Mason is right: I am well aware of the Bellgrove hotel. Any interception of another person’s mail without their consent is a criminal activity, and as such the concerns should be reported to the police.

As the member is aware, the Bellgrove hotel is a privately owned hostel and is not typical of the homelessness accommodation in Glasgow. If he can give me more details of his constituents’ concerns, I will be happy to pass them on to the housing ministers.

Homelessness is a clear example of how people can become socially isolated and lonely, and we are recognising and taking a real interest in such people’s needs during the process of the social isolation and loneliness strategy.


Older People (Definition)

4. Linda Fabiani (East Kilbride) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it defines “older people”. (S5O-02492)

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Be careful, minister. [Laughter.]

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

The Scottish Government focuses mainly but not exclusively on the over 50s, while recognising the importance of removing barriers to positive ageing for everyone. That age is chosen because, for many, it is a point at which life circumstances start to change in ways that have implications for the future—for example, in relation to working patterns, caring responsibilities and long-term health conditions.

As I mentioned earlier, we will publish next year an older people’s framework, which is being developed with older people’s organisations. It will cover combating negative stereotypes and celebrating the contributions that all citizens can make, whatever their age.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I do not know whether Ms Fabiani is happy with that definition.

Linda Fabiani

I had not realised until now that our minister is actually elderly—[Laughter]—and some of us are positively ancient. I suggest that the age be looked at as part of the strategy, because I am sure that few 50-year-olds feel that they are elderly.

People are living longer lives these days, and I have quite often seen in East Kilbride serious problems where carers who are themselves elderly are looking after daughters and sons who have disabilities or learning difficulties. That is a particular kind of caring and it needs a different approach and special consideration. There is a group in my constituency of East Kilbride, which many members are aware of, that has done a lot of work on the issue over the years. I ask the minister to come and hear at first hand what some of the issues are.

Christina McKelvie

If only I could rescind the offer of the cake that Ms Fabiani ate at my significant birthday party recently—I would take it back off her. Anyway, she makes a very important point about carers. We all know that, under the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016, all carers now have rights to have their individual needs and personal outcomes identified. For the first time, they also have the right to support for any identified needs that meet the local eligibility criteria. A major focus of those new rights is that support, information and advice for carers should be tailored to their individual circumstances and characteristics, including any needs that are due to their age. I would be absolutely delighted to visit Ms Fabiani and her constituents in East Kilbride.


Rent Arrears (Universal Credit Recipients in Mid Scotland and Fife)

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

To ask the Scottish Government what support it can provide in response to the reported increase in rent arrears among universal credit recipients in the Mid Scotland and Fife region. (S5O-02493)

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

We expect to spend over £125 million in 2018-19 on welfare mitigation and measures to help protect those on low incomes. That includes more than £60 million in funding for discretionary housing payments, of which over £50 million is to fully mitigate the bedroom tax. As a result of cuts by the United Kingdom Government, welfare spending will be reduced in Scotland by £3.7 billion in 2020-21. The Scottish Government cannot mitigate cuts of that scale. Mounting evidence shows that universal credit claimants are more likely to be in rent arrears. The very limited measures that were announced in the UK Government’s latest budget do not address the fundamental flaws in this discredited system.

Mark Ruskell

I thank the minister for that robust answer. In Stirling, even though universal credit was introduced for just a few months last year, it led to an increase in rent arrears of 15 per cent while, in Fife, there was an 82 per cent increase in crisis grant expenditure as a result of universal credit. It is clear that the policy is putting huge strain on families and is a vindictive attack on our welfare state. Is the cabinet secretary confident that the funds that are available within the constraints of the Scottish Government’s budget will be enough to cope with universal credit roll-out and in particular the managed migration that will take place in the next year?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I pointed out in my original answer, the scale of the welfare cuts that are coming to Scotland make it impossible for the Scottish Government to mitigate them. The £3.7 billion-worth of cuts are simply too enormous to mitigate. The member is absolutely right to point out that universal credit is an entirely flawed system. The budget this week was an opportunity to stop the roll-out of universal credit, end the benefit freeze, scrap the absolutely inhumane and indefensible two-child policy and fully reverse cuts to work allowances, but that opportunity was not taken. I spent this morning speaking to constituents in Edinburgh, where universal credit will be rolled out soon, and they are frightened of the consequences that are coming. It is a shame that the UK Government did not respond to that this week.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

What is the cabinet secretary’s reaction to reports that CFINE—Community Food Initiatives North East—which is one of Aberdeen’s biggest food banks, has warned that, to ensure that it can cope with the full roll-out of universal credit in Aberdeen, it may no longer be able to supply other organisations in the north-east of Scotland, and that it has called this a “scary time”?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is an extremely concerning time. The fact that we are seeing increased rent arrears, which Mark Ruskell pointed out, and increased numbers of people going to food banks in the areas that have been served by universal credit is testament to how bankrupt the system is. I am concerned to hear Gillian Martin’s reports about what is going on in her constituency and with that food bank. I fear that it may not be the only food bank in Scotland that is suffering such demands.


General Practice (Community Link Worker Recruitment)

6. Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what progress it is making with its commitment to recruit up to 250 community link workers to work in GP surgeries by the end of the parliamentary session. (S5O-02494)

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

Responsibility for community link workers sits in the portfolio of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. Community link workers continue to form a core component of primary care reform. Our commitment to delivering 250 link workers by 2021-22 is on track. As part of our support for the new GP contract, the Scottish Government is funding integration authorities to deliver that commitment. Integration authorities have set out how they will do that in their primary care improvement plans.

Annie Wells

Despite a pledge by the Scottish Government to recruit 250 community link workers by the end of the parliamentary session, it was revealed last month that, as of September, just three workers had been recruited in nine months, taking us to a grand total of 56. Not only are we making little headway in terms of numbers, but 38 out of the 56 workers in post are on fixed-term contracts, some as short as 18 months. These are vital health workers who can connect people to non-medical sources of support in the community.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please get to your question.

Annie Wells

What action will the minister take to drastically improve this extremely slow progress?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I pointed out in my original answer, we are on track to meet our commitment of 250 workers. I know that Annie Wells is fully aware of that, because of written answers that she has received from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport on progress in that area. We are determined to fulfil our commitment of 250 workers.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Maureen Watt, briefly, please.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary join me in congratulating Aberdeen health and social care partnership, which has concluded a contract with the Scottish Association for Mental Health to provide 20 link workers across all 30 city GP practices for a two-year contract, with a one-plus-one option, to the value of £0.7 million? Is that not an example of the money being there and of the fact that it requires will, commitment and drive at a local level to make the policy happen?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I absolutely welcome the work that has been going on. Maureen Watt is quite right to point to that improvement, which shows that the Government remains on track to fulfil its commitment of 250 workers. I am pleased to hear about the development in the member’s constituency.


Social Security Scotland (Information Technology Budget)

7. Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what budget it expects Social Security Scotland to have for IT for the rest of the parliamentary session. (S5O-02495)

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

On 1 September 2018, Social Security Scotland became an executive agency of the Scottish Government. The agency’s 2018-19 budget for information technology is expected to be £3.4 million. That budget will grow in future years, as systems and processes to support further devolution go live.

The outline business case for the agency for social security in Scotland was published in April 2017. It estimated the costs of the agency at a steady state of between £144 million and £156 million per year. Social security devolution is a complex and multiyear programme of activity. The process is not yet complete, and systems and processes are being developed. The social security agency will not reach a steady state until welfare devolution is complete.

Liam Kerr

It is a huge undertaking and, after the Scottish National Party’s failures on common agricultural policy funding, the Police Scotland IT system and NHS 24—I could go on—people will be very nervous. What specific lessons were learned from those examples to ensure that the new system will work?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Audit Scotland report that looked at a number of public sector IT projects, what is going on in social security and the new powers that are coming to the Scottish Parliament said that we are making “good progress” with Social Security Scotland and our social security programme.

We recognise that it is a complex area. It is the biggest change to devolution since this Parliament was set up. That is why we are pleased with our progress with the programme, which remains on time. The progress that we are making with Social Security Scotland can only go well if we have good co-operation from the Department for Work and Pensions. I hope that Liam Kerr will encourage the DWP to hold to its commitments on IT, as that will ensure that we deliver to our timetable.


Vulnerable Older People (Protection from Bogus Callers and Rogue Traders)

8. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures are in place to protect vulnerable older people from bogus callers and rogue traders. (S5O-02496)

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

The Scottish Government is committed to protecting and supporting vulnerable older people.

We continue to work with Police Scotland, trading standards and partners including Neighbourhood Watch Scotland and Crimestoppers to raise awareness, provide practical advice and encourage the reporting of any suspicious activity.

Following a report by the nuisance calls commission on empowering and protecting individuals, we have implemented an action plan to protect people from scam callers, which includes the funding of call-blocking units for vulnerable consumers. We have also implemented preventative measures through the nominated neighbour scheme to build resilience and encourage communities to look after each other.

Jeremy Balfour

Sadly, doorstep scammers commonly target older people. Only last week, an 86-year-old lady from Livingston lost hundreds of pounds when bogus traders called at her home. Will the minister commit to further discussions with her justice colleagues on the issue and consider additional awareness-raising campaigns, particularly on darker nights?

Christina McKelvie

Absolutely. That is a great point to bring up. As Jeremy Balfour will know, Crimestoppers leads the if in doubt, keep them out national doorstep crime campaign. There are many other aspects of the work that we do with Police Scotland and other organisations. I would be happy to brief my justice colleagues and see how we can make progress on that issue.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes portfolio questions. I apologise to Joan McAlpine and Alexander Stewart, whose questions we did not reach. We have to move on to the next item of business, as time is very tight in the following two short debates. I will not have a pause; I will fill in time by singing or talking while members get to their seats.