Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, December 1, 2022
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Small Business Saturday 2022, Portfolio Question Time, World AIDS Day 2022, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Small Business Saturday 2022
- Portfolio Question Time
- World AIDS Day 2022
- Decision Time
Portfolio Question Time
Social Justice, Housing and Local Government
Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio questions on social justice, housing and local government. Any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or enter the letters RTS in the chat function during the relevant question. As ever, I would appreciate succinct questions and answers in order that I can get in as many questions as possible.
Social Housing (Damp and Mould)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to address any issues of damp and mould in social housing. (S6O-01628)
The latest Scottish house condition survey, which was for 2019, showed that 99 per cent of social homes were free from damp and 86 per cent were free from any sign of mould.
The Scottish Housing Regulator is responsible for monitoring social landlords’ progress towards the Scottish housing quality standard, which they are required to meet. The regulator can use its legal powers to intervene where there are problems so that landlords make any improvements that they need to make. Scotland’s social rented homes have improved over a number of years to meet the standard.
Many social landlords who own or manage properties across our local authority areas have admitted that they do not place any particular marker on properties to identify that they have damp or mould problems. What measures can the Scottish Government put in place to provide financial assistance to support social landlords in tackling such problems in their properties?
Of course, social landlords are required to use the moneys that they receive through rents to ensure that the investment in their properties keeps them to a good standard. As I said in my initial answer, the latest condition survey shows that, on the whole, social homes in Scotland are meeting a good standard, but there is always room for improvement. That is where the regulator is so important, in ensuring that the sector is striving to make such improvements where it needs to do so. The Scottish Government is continuing to invest in social housing more generally so that new homes are available. It is also important that investment can be made in bringing homes up to standard.
I ask the Scottish Government to provide an update on the pilot by two Glasgow-based housing associations that uses internet of things technology to measure dampness in their properties. The pilot is being delivered by the technology firm North, which has a base in my Renfrewshire North and West constituency and is being backed by £3 million of enterprise funding from the Scottish Government. If it is successful, it could be rolled out to other social housing providers.
We very much welcome the trial, and we support technological innovations that will help social landlords to improve the condition of their homes. The pilot will see sensors in homes sharing real-time data through the internet of things Scotland network, to help local authorities and housing associations to intervene proactively and to minimise issues including damp and mould. The development was supported by funding of £2.7 million from the Scottish Government, £150,000 from Scottish Enterprise and £30,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. We will take a close interest in the outcomes of the trial.
The tragic death of Awaab Ishak raises the very serious impacts that can occur for people who live in damp and mouldy housing. That problem exists across Scotland and is exacerbated by our climate and by the fact that housing is often poorly insulated and ventilated I have a constituent with three children who lives in a Highland Council property that has considerable mould and damp. My constituent provided the council with a letter from her general practitioner detailing that the children’s breathing problems are due to mould, but the council has been slow to take action. Given the cost of damp homes to health services, as well as to the people affected, in what ways is the Scottish Government working to ensure that the prevention of ill health through improved housing conditions is a reality in practice?
The death of Awaab Ishak is absolutely a tragedy. Nobody should lose their life due to poor housing conditions. I am also very concerned to hear about Ariane Burgess’s constituent. I would be happy to look further into the detail of that case if she would like to provide me with the details.
At present, there are defined minimum standards, and, although we do not specify the measures that landlords should take, insulation would normally be needed to meet the required level of energy efficiency. Although housing conditions in Scotland have been gradually improving, we recognise that there is more work to do, which is why we have committed to developing a new housing standard.
As I said, if Ariane Burgess wants to write to me with the detail of her constituent’s case, I will look into the details.
Homeless Project Scotland
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what work it has undertaken to help Homeless Project Scotland find premises in Glasgow. (S6O-01629)
Scottish Government officials maintain regular contact with Homeless Project Scotland and Glasgow City Council. We have encouraged the charity to continue to engage with the council and to explore accommodation options. The council is best placed to support the charity with identifying suitable premises. I understand that it offered properties to Homeless Project Scotland and they were declined, so the council continues to explore potential sites. However, I am aware that, to date, there is a limited number of available properties that meet the charity’s specific requirements. I would encourage both to keep discussing.
The cabinet secretary will remember that, in April this year, the First Minister said:
“I am happy to engage with the Homeless Project to see whether there is more that we, as a Government, can do to help it find a building.”—[Official Report, 21 April 2022; c 19.]
Seven months on, winter is well and truly here, and, with the numbers of homeless people and the use of the soup kitchen increasing due to the cost of living crisis, nothing has really changed.
I welcome the engagement—of course, I do—but can the cabinet secretary tell me why there has been little progress to date and what she can do to help to secure premises for this very worthwhile project?
First, I say to Jackie Baillie that we, too, are concerned about people queuing up in the street for food, particularly in the winter. We all want the outcome of appropriate premises being found.
Jackie Baillie will also understand that it is not for the Scottish Government to find and procure a building; that is for Glasgow City Council. What we can do, though, is encourage both parties to continue to discuss. Jackie Baillie will be aware of some of the issues around the properties that were offered; however, we need to see some solutions here. Glasgow City Council is best placed to find the properties that could meet Homeless Project Scotland’s needs, but there will need to be discussion, dialogue and perhaps compromise from both parties.
In its “Scottish Housing Emergency Action Plan”, Shelter Scotland calls on the Scottish Government to
“Conduct an audit of all homelessness funding—national and local—to identify the true levels of investment and to identify shortfalls”,
which often lead to the situations such as the one that Jackie Baillie has outlined. Will the Scottish Government undertake to do that?
We will always keep funding under review. We are in the middle of our budget process, as Miles Briggs will be aware. If he wants to bring forward some proposals around funding, of course, we will consider those.
In addition to the resourcing that local government gets through its funding, we provide funding through the £100 million ending homelessness together fund. Some of that is focused on programmes such as housing first, which has had a lot of success in ensuring that people are supported not just with a tenancy but with the wraparound support that they require.
We will keep these things under review. I do not think that anyone can question the commitment that we have made through some of our world-leading homelessness legislation, and we have backed that up with real investment as well.
Homeless Deaths 2021
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the latest homeless deaths 2021 figures from the National Records of Scotland, which show that an estimated 250 homeless people died in 2021. (S6O-01630)
These figures serve to remind us of the human stories behind the statistics, and drive our commitment to do all that we can to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place.
We know that experience of multiple forms of extreme disadvantage is linked to higher rates of ill health and premature death. The national mission on reducing drug-related deaths includes work to strengthen partnerships between health and homelessness services to improve outcomes for people experiencing homelessness with complex needs. An independent evaluation showed that Scotland’s housing first programme can transform the lives of people with difficult experiences of homelessness.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that the latest available statistics from the National Records of Scotland show that the homeless death rate in Fife has trebled since 2017. Statistics from Ireland show that, after its rent freeze was introduced, there was a 30 per cent increase in the rate of homelessness. What evidence does the cabinet secretary have that the SNP-Green Government’s recent rent freeze legislation—the Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Act 2022—will not make an appalling set of statistics in Fife even worse?
First, the rent freeze is designed to help tenants afford their rent, and it is disappointing that the Conservatives did not recognise the fact that, in a cost of living crisis that is partly caused by their United Kingdom Government, tenants will struggle to pay their rents. I would have thought that, in a cost of living crisis, the Conservatives might have supported such a measure.
The member will be aware that the rent freeze is in place until the end of March, and we have set a number of criteria around the issue of whether that will be extended. Of course, we are in dialogue with the social rented sector around an agreed outcome with it, which will be announced soon.
On homeless deaths, I have set out the complex nature of the issue, and its relationship with multiple forms of disadvantage relating to things such as drug-related death. We need to understand the complexity of the issue and to link it to a rent freeze is to take a simplistic approach to it.
We will continue to tackle homelessness and invest in reducing drug-related deaths through the investment of £250 million over this parliamentary session. We will do that because we are concerned about the human stories and tragedies behind those statistics.
As the cabinet secretary rightly said, those figures are heartbreaking, and my thoughts are very much with everyone who has lost a loved one.
In addition to the measures that have already been outlined, could the cabinet secretary provide further detail on the legislative measures that the Scottish Government is taking to tackle homelessness, such as, in particular, the suspension of the local connection test that came into force this week, and measures in the forthcoming housing bill?
Local connection requirements have long been recognised as a barrier to people realising their rights, which is why we have removed them. Most people who are homeless want to live in a community where they are already settled, but this change gives people choice about where they live, and the forthcoming housing bill will include rental sector reforms, further strengthening existing rights for tenants, and it introduces new homelessness prevention duties.
Question 4 was not lodged.
Housing Strategy (Local Authority Funding)
To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether current funding provisions will enable local authorities to meet the standards in its housing strategy regarding social housing, including energy efficiency. (S6O-01632)
Although it is for local authorities to determine how they use funds provided to maintain housing stock and ensure compliance with relevant standards, at least £1.8 billion will be allocated over this parliamentary session to help retrofit heat and energy efficiency measures. That includes our £200 million social housing net zero heat fund, which is designed to accelerate the delivery of energy efficiency measures and zero emissions heating systems in social housing. Social landlords can also access the £300 million heat networks fund.
We recognise the challenges that social landlords face and continue to have constructive engagement with them on a range of matters.
I have contacted local authorities to ask them the same question. Some of them have stated that they cannot meet energy efficiency standard for social housing 2 within their housing revenue account revenue alone, and others have suggested that the levels of current support are not enough to meet the Scottish Government’s heat in buildings strategy and new supply programme within existing timescales while keeping rents frozen. When the Scottish Government initialised the rent freeze, did it consider the unintended consequences of the social housing strategy, and especially energy efficiency targets? Irrespective of that, what will it do about that to ensure that those important targets are met?
The Scottish Government continues to have very constructive conversations with social housing providers in the spirit that Brian Whittle has outlined, to gather evidence on the impact of the freeze on rents and on reaching agreement in relation to rent setting in the social sector. That constructive engagement continues.
Social landlords have already made substantial investment in energy efficiency to remove poor energy efficiency as a driver for fuel poverty and to contribute to achieving the Scottish Government’s ambitious climate change emissions reduction targets.
I note the points that Brian Whittle has raised, and I will certainly look to feed back to him on them through colleagues, if that would be of constructive assistance.
The cabinet secretary has indicated that mid-market rentals that are run by social landlords could be classed as social housing with regard to rent-capping provisions. However, in a written answer to me, Patrick Harvie told me the opposite. He said:
“Mid-Market homes are let under private tenancy arrangements”.—[Written Answers, 21 November 2022; S6W-12026.]
Can the minister help me? Are mid-market rents social or private?
Ministerial colleagues will write to Mr Rennie with further clarity. I appreciate that that question is not on energy efficiency, but we will follow it up.
Local Authorities (Support)
To ask the Scottish Government how it supports local authorities to ensure that the provision of local services meets the needs of local communities. (S6O-01633)
The Scottish Government works constructively and in partnership with local government, and it engages regularly and collaborates extensively to serve and support communities. However, we also respect and appreciate that it is the responsibility of individual councils to manage their own budgets and the responsibility of local, democratically elected councillors to make decisions on how best to deliver services in their local communities, on the basis of local needs and priorities.
Pupils and parents celebrated the opening of Dargavel primary school six months ago. However, parents and others in the community warned Renfrewshire Council that the school is half of the size that it needed to be. They were right. The school can take 548 pupils, but it needs space for 1,100 pupils. The council has apologised, but it has said that it cannot explain its monumental incompetence to deliver that vital local service. Can the minister use his position in any way to find out why that local authority got it so badly wrong and how that will be put right?
I appreciate the way in which Russell Findlay has raised that issue on behalf of his constituents. It is clear that it is an important one for his region and those whom he represents, but I direct him to the local council to emphasise his points and his and his constituents’ concerns to it. I am sure that he appreciates that it would be inappropriate for ministers to intervene in matters that are the responsibility of local councils and locally elected councillors, who hold the council to account. We will note Russell Findlay’s concerns, and I will certainly relay the question to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills for her information, but I encourage him to take the matter up with the local authority.
Without the full fiscal powers of a normal European state, the Scottish Government has consistently delivered as fair and affordable a settlement as it can within the fixed budget that it gets. Will the minister underline to his counterparts in the United Kingdom Government that Scottish local authorities need investment from all levels of government to meet the needs of communities as they grapple with the cost of living crisis?
It is important to recognise that Scotland’s settlements from Westminster have suffered a decade of austerity from 2010-11, with average real-terms cuts of over 5 per cent. That equates to a loss of £18 billion over that period. Despite that, local authority revenue funding is £2.2 billion, or 22.9 per cent, higher in cash terms in 2022-23 than it was in 2013-14.
The UK autumn statement does not go far enough to ensure that the Scottish Government can fully support our people, communities and businesses through the most challenging financial situation since devolution. Finance ministers are working through the implications of the UK Government’s budget and we will announce our plans in the forthcoming Scottish budget later this month.
To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made, in the last six months, in removing dangerous cladding from buildings. (S6O-01634)
The safety of residents and home owners is our absolute priority. We are taking forward a robust programme of comprehensive and technical assessments through our single building assessment programme, which, in the past six months, has been expanded to more than 100 buildings.
Assessments are being completed and discussions on remediation are under way and although we expect that the vast majority of buildings will be found to be safe, if immediate action is needed to safeguard residents, we will take action. Through Homes for Scotland, we are also working with housing developers on our safer buildings accord.
I was recently contacted by a group of residents in Glasgow who were astonished to discover that they had been presented with remedial bills running into tens of thousands of pounds due to flammable material being found in the cladding on their buildings. If those charges are not met, many of those residents will face extremely difficult choices and could possibly lose their homes.
After turning to their local MSP in Glasgow, they were told that the Scottish Government has no money to help them. What action is the Scottish Government taking now to support such residents and will the cabinet secretary join me in meeting that group of constituents to discuss financial support in more detail?
Of course I will meet them and if Annie Wells, in advance of that meeting, could send me some detail on that, I will ask officials to look into it, because communication with home owners in relation to those matters is very important.
I said in my initial answer that we would take immediate action to safeguard residents if it is needed; we have already taken such action, including some waking watches, which the Scottish Government is helping to fund.
There are also issues here around responsibility. We have committed £400 million to this programme of work and we have spent almost £1 million so far on assessments. However, where a developer can be found in connection with the property, the remediation needs to be the responsibility of the developer. It is when there is no developer to be found or they no longer exist that the Scottish Government will step in to fund any remediation work. I am not sure what the details are around this case but I am happy to look into it if Annie Wells can furnish me with those details.
“Keeping the Doors Open” (Age Scotland)
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to Age Scotland’s report, “Keeping the Doors Open”. (S6O-01635)
We recognise that community groups are a source of support, particularly in these difficult times, and also that there are challenges for some groups, so we will closely consider the recommendations in the report.
We have committed to investing in order to tackle social isolation and loneliness and we invested £1 million last year for immediate work, including helplines, befriending, and practical support. We continue to work with the social isolation and loneliness advisory group, of which Age Scotland is a valued member.
The communities mental health and wellbeing fund also tackles social isolation, loneliness and mental health inequalities, and £36 million has been made available to that fund this year.
As Christina McKelvie will be aware, Age Scotland’s report reveals the extent of the Covid-related pressures facing our older people’s groups across Scotland. The need to plug gaps in statutory services has dramatically increased the demand for assistance from those groups. In Orkney, dementia diagnoses are not being made and NHS Orkney has withdrawn from podiatry, placing huge pressure on Age Scotland’s Orkney services.
Will the Government accept Age Scotland’s call for a national fund to support older people’s community groups to help its members through the cost of living crisis? Will ministers rethink the decision to remove funding from the men’s sheds movement, which risks undermining an initiative that does such vital work in Orkney and in communities across Scotland?
I know that local authorities, local organisations and lots of charities and third sector organisations are feeling the pinch as a result of the cost of living crisis, which is having an impact on their work and the services that they deliver.
I have visited many men’s sheds and it has always been a joy to do so, because, alongside their own work, they also do lots of public health and community work. In 2013, there were five men’s sheds in Scotland, and there are now more than 200. Since 2014-15, the Scottish Government has provided £570,000 and we have also provided £150,000 to Age Scotland for men’s sheds. In this year, £75,000 has been made available to help the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association to build further success as it continues to develop its business model, bringing new funding partners on board.
I would be happy to speak further with Liam McArthur about what more we can do about particular issues in local areas, especially in rural and island communities.
The Age Scotland report calls on the Scottish Government to continue to recognise loneliness as a key public health issue. What work is the Scottish Government doing through its national strategy to tackle loneliness and social isolation?
In the first 100 days of the new parliamentary session we invested £1 million in immediate work by organisations that are tackling social isolation and loneliness, including helplines, befriending networks and practical support. We also committed to investing in and supporting organisations to tackle loneliness as a public health issue.
As I said, we are working with the social isolation and loneliness advisory group, of which Age Scotland is a valued member, to create a new delivery plan to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 and the on-going cost of living crisis on groups that are most adversely affected. We expect to publish the new delivery plan in early 2023. It will outline a range of actions that the Scottish Government will take to deal with social isolation and loneliness. I hope that the member will look out for that plan and will share it as widely as possible.
That concludes portfolio questions on social justice, housing and local government. There will be a brief pause before we move on to the next item of business.