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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, April 18, 2024


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio questions on social justice. I remind members that, if they wish to request to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or enter the letters RTS in the chat function during the relevant question.

Adult and Child Disability Payments (Mid Scotland and Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government what the average waiting time is for a determination on adult and child disability payments in Mid Scotland and Fife. (S6O-03308)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Official statistics for adult disability payment and child disability payment, including information on processing times, are routinely published by Social Security Scotland. The figures do not include information broken down by geographies below Scotland level.

The figures based on the most recently published statistics for adult disability payment and child disability payment show that the median average processing time in Scotland was 59 working days for adult disability payment in January 2024 and 97 working days for child disability payment in December 2023.

Claire Baker

I was planning to raise the case of a constituent who had to wait more than six months for a payment, but this morning we have seen the distressing report that nine children have died while waiting for their child disability payments to be processed. Our thoughts are with the families of each of those children.

I know that we all want a social security system that works for those who need support and treats them with compassion and dignity. We have to recognise that part of that involves addressing long waits and delivering vital payments with the urgency that is required.

Today’s press report was heartbreaking. What assurances will the cabinet secretary give that such a situation will not happen again? What action will be taken to ensure that it does not happen again?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

First, if Claire Baker wishes to write to me about the constituency issue that she was planning to raise, I would be more than happy to pick that up in correspondence.

My thoughts are, of course, also with the families of the children who are referenced in the media reports this morning. I take the issue exceptionally seriously, as we all do, as we deliver social security in Scotland.

It is important to point out that, whether it is a child or an adult with a terminal illness, such cases are dealt with exceptionally quickly. We do not publish the times for child disability payment for those with a terminal illness, because such cases are so few in number. However, I am looking at what can be done to publish information to give some reassurance to families in the most difficult of circumstances, if their child is terminally ill.

As I have said in the chamber before, it is important to recognise that, in general, it can sometimes take time to process CDP claims. Unlike under the Department for Work and Pensions system, Social Security Scotland gathers the supporting information about a claim, rather than that being a responsibility for the families. It can sometimes take time to get through that, but I give Claire Baker the reassurance that we are making strides in dealing with processing times.

Processing times are improving, and we are taking further measures to ensure that those with the longest waits are looked at and that decisions are taken by the agency as soon as possible. I will—as, I am sure, Claire Baker and other members would expect—continue to keep a close eye on what is a very serious issue.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I associate myself with Claire Baker’s remarks, and I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comment that she will look into the matter and report back.

However, does the cabinet secretary recognise that it is not just about the waiting time once a person makes an inquiry? There are long delays in people getting through to Social Security Scotland, either on the telephone or by social media. What is being done so that people do not have to hang on the telephone for an excessive amount of time to get an answer to an inquiry?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I recognise that the amount of time taken waiting on the telephone was causing concern. I do not have the figures on those wait times in front of me, but they have improved markedly since concerns were raised. That is thanks to the work that the agency has done to ensure that people have their calls answered much more speedily. I will be happy to provide information and the specific numbers on that to Jeremy Balfour in writing, but I hope that he can be reassured that significant progress has been made on the agency’s call wait times.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Such deaths, which have happened in the context of not only child disability payment but adult disability payment applications, bring into sharp focus the consequences of long waits. Nonetheless, I thank Social Security Scotland staff for managing to get the wait times down. They are now broadly in line with the DWP’s times, which is more welcome.

The cabinet secretary did not set out what practical steps she is taking to improve the system to ensure that such issues do not happen again. Will she give us a bit more colour and detail on exactly what is being done to ensure that we do not have long waits in the future?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

A large number of system changes have been made, but I can perhaps give a flavour of them. I will give Mr Rennie some examples.

We have looked at every step in the process, such as how the application forms, which were co-designed with people who have used the DWP system, be changed so that we can implement suggestions for clients to provide stronger supporting information. That is not to say that we should put the onus on them but, if they were to do that to begin with, it would certainly help. Additional calls are made immediately to people who apply without supporting information, to make suggestions about the types of information—for example, prescription lists—that could be sent in right at the start, to allow that to be included. There is greater use of in-house health and social care teams to support faster decision making, and there is also a review of staffing levels. Those are not the only examples; they are just some of them.

Social Security Scotland staff will soon be in the Parliament and will invite all members to talk to them about particular constituency cases or the work that the agency has been doing. I am sure that they would absolutely welcome the opportunity to talk through Mr Rennie’s question with him in further detail, and I, too, would be happy to do so.

Ministerial Task Force on Population (Rural Communities)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment the ministerial task force on population has made of the potential impact of the centralisation of services on the sustainability of rural communities. (S6O-03309)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

In 2019, the Government established a ministerial task force on population to oversee the development and delivery of Scotland’s first national population strategy in 2021. The task force, which Emma Roddick chairs, brings together ministers from across the Scottish Government, including those who are responsible for key public services, with a clear focus on delivering joined-up policy solutions for our communities. The addressing depopulation action plan, which was published in February, further highlights the action that the Government is taking to support communities, with a clear focus on the role of infrastructure in key services such as education, childcare and health and social care.

Oliver Mundell

Across Dumfriesshire, my constituents are finding it harder and harder to access basic services. National health service dentistry is now non-existent in many parts of the constituency. My constituents in Sanquhar, Kelloholm and Kirkconnel tell me that they cannot see a general practitioner face to face. Gretna community council says that finding the police in the community and getting them there is now near impossible as they have disappeared. In Langholm, people are working hard to get back basic podiatry and physiotherapy services that were taken away during Covid. Does the minister accept that having such poor services makes it harder for elderly, disabled and disadvantaged people to live in rural communities?

Paul McLennan

Mr Mundell raises a number of points. It is key to note that, this year, NHS Dumfries and Galloway has received increased funding of £12.5 million, which takes its overall funding to £364.7 million. I will be happy to take away Mr Mundell’s points as action points if he would like to write to me or the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care about them. He made three or four main points on actions that we are already undertaking. One is to examine how we attract people to work in the area. We are talking about promoting an attractive wellbeing economy, which is really important in my own area. Housing also plays an important part. During the summer, I will undertake a programme of visits to rural communities. I hope that Mr Mundell will consider meeting me on my visits to Dumfries and Galloway to explore the issues that he has raised.

Fossil and Biofuel Heating Systems

3. Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the housing minister has had with ministerial colleagues regarding any potential impact on rural community housing of its decision not to allow the use of fossil and biofuel heating systems in new-build construction. (S6O-03310)

The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

I regularly meet the Minister for Housing to discuss intersecting portfolio interests, including the heat in buildings agenda. The new-build heat standard, which was scrutinised by the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee and approved without opposition, is an essential part of our commitment to reach net zero, and it will have a positive impact on rural housing. The standard was subject to full consultation in 2021 and 2022, with both consultations showing strong support.

New-build homes are required to be highly energy efficient, which reduces heat demand, but bioenergy systems can be installed to provide emergency heating where required.

Elena Whitham

As the MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, where there are many rural off-grid properties that rely on oil and solid fuels as their primary heating source, I ask the minister for clarification of the definition of emergency heating in the new-build heat standard, which states that such fuels can be used in some cases, where a need can be justified.

Given that wood-burning stoves are the most reliable and cost-effective backstop in isolated areas, and that they can help to address the significant issue of rural fuel poverty, can the minister provide assurance that building standards verifiers will interpret the regulations in a way that provides certainty for house builders?

Patrick Harvie

I hope that Elena Whitham will join me in reassuring those of our constituents who currently use bioenergy systems in existing buildings that they are not affected by the changes in the new-build heat standard.

We recognise that emergency use of heating for energy will sometimes be needed, even in new builds, and that may especially be the case in rural and island areas. That is why the standard permits systems for emergency use, which could include wood-burning stoves.

In most cases, we think that, in those circumstances, portable solutions would be more appropriate to provide emergency heating, for example during power cuts. However, the regulations require that heating systems are non-polluting, and a provision for emergency use was added, which, in response to rural concerns, is not restricted to clean heating. The drafting of the technical guidance on what constitutes emergency heating can be difficult to reconcile with the nature of wood-burning stoves, which are generally installed for regular and not just emergency use.

We have heard the concerns that have been raised over the past week about the use of wood-burning stoves, and we fully take them on board. As I said yesterday, we will consider what further clarity is needed in the guidance to address those concerns, and we will continue to work with concerned parties, developers and local authorities to ensure that any updates to the existing technical guidance address those concerns comprehensively.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

The recent heat in buildings consultation undervalues the significance and ability of renewable liquid fuels to contribute to a just transition and allow off-grid households to decarbonise in a fair, easy and affordable way. Will the minister commit to giving renewable liquid fuels a prominent role in the upcoming heat in buildings legislation? Will he look towards removing renewable liquid fuels, such as hydro-treated vegetable oil, from the polluting heating systems criteria?

Patrick Harvie

I do not agree with Mr Briggs’s characterisation of such fuels. The heat in buildings consultation goes far beyond the issue of new builds and looks at how we decarbonise our existing housing stock. The consultation specifically asks what flexibility ought to be included in relation to bioenergy systems. I look forward to hearing the responses to the consultation, whether from those who lobby in favour of the industries whose interests Mr Briggs seeks to reflect or those who hold a wide range of other views about how we decarbonise heating, how we do it fast and how we do it fairly for all communities.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Can the minister give more detail on what the exemptions are? I am puzzled as to how, for instance, one would vent a portable stove. Can he also say how one would apply for an exemption, especially with regard to woodland croft houses—crofts that are created specifically for their renewable heat potential? How do the changes impact on solid-fuel stoves that are used for both cooking and heating and thus make the best use of the resource? Will he publish the island impact assessment including those changes?

Patrick Harvie

In response to more detailed questions yesterday, I set out the information that we have published. I have committed, and I have stated again today, that we will look to work with partners to clarify any aspects of the technical guidance that need to be clarified in order to respond to some of the concerns that have been raised in the past few days.

However, I reinforce that the measures that we are taking forward are about the use of fixed heating systems—primary and secondary—in new-build buildings, including new-build housing. They do not apply to emergency and back-up systems, many of which will be the portable systems that Rhoda Grant has described.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

In recent years, Shetland has seen the vulnerability of its power network. Adverse wind and snow weather events have left homes without power and heating for days. Does the minister agree that that justifies the need for the installation of traditional heating in new-builds for back-up and emergency use? Does he agree that the messaging around that policy has been confused?

Patrick Harvie

I think that the Scottish Government’s messaging has been very clear. I am sorry that some people—including, I am afraid to say, a few people in the Parliament—have sought to misrepresent the approach as a complete ban on wood-burning stoves. It is not, it never has been, and it will not be a complete ban on wood-burning stoves.

Beatrice Wishart is quite right that some of the communities that she has described illustrate why the provisions in relation to emergency and back-up heating systems are important and why the heat in buildings bill needs to reflect on questions about the flexibility for biomass in relation to existing homes.

Shetland is a good example of an area of Scotland where rurality and some of the issues that affect island communities are not barriers to deploying clean heating systems, whether at an individual building level or a district heating level. Shetland is a good example of where the decarbonisation of heating can be achieved in a way that meets the needs of remote, rural and island communities.

Social Security Scotland (Payments for Disabled Children)

4. Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the work undertaken by the staff and officials of Social Security Scotland to complete the move to have all payments for disabled children being paid directly by Social Security Scotland, and subject to the scrutiny of the Scottish Parliament. (S6O-03311)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

I am incredibly proud of the work of Social Security Scotland staff and those in the Scottish Government programme and social security directorate as a result of the work that they have undertaken to achieve that key milestone. All payments for children and young people with a disability in Scotland are now paid by Social Security Scotland. By the end of 2023, more than 47,000 awards were safely and securely transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions disability living allowance for children to our child disability payments. Some £333 million was awarded to support disabled children and young people whose benefits were transferred and their families.

Can the cabinet secretary assure my constituents and people across Scotland that the child disability payment is designed to avoid the stress and trauma associated with the DWP benefit that it replaces?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Rather than asking members to take my word for it, I will quote from a recent STV article on the issue of case transfer, in which Rebecca spoke about the difference that the approach has made to her. Rebecca said:

“There are a lot of hard things about being in a family affected by disability. This was someone taking away one of those. That has been fantastic and I’m incredibly grateful for the values that underpin Social Security Scotland.”

I hope that everyone can take heart from that, because the Parliament passed that legislation. I am exceptionally proud of that, as the minister who has been responsible for social security for half the time that it has been devolved.

In saying that, it is very important that the Government remains open to continuous improvement and to areas that can be worked on. We talked about that earlier. As I said in my responses to Claire Baker’s and Willie Rennie’s questions earlier, I take incredible pride in what has been achieved, but the agency and the Government will continue to work on improvement.

Child Poverty Targets (Budget)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the 2024-25 Scottish budget will have on its targets for reducing child poverty. (S6O-03312)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Tackling child poverty is a critical mission for the Government. In the face of a deeply challenging financial situation, we continue to allocate around £3 billion a year to a range of actions to tackle poverty and mitigate the impacts of the cost crisis on households.

Modelling estimates that this Government’s policies, including the Scottish child payment, will keep 100,000 children out of relative poverty in 2024-25. We remain absolutely committed to meeting our statutory child poverty targets, and we will continue to do everything within the scope of our powers and our budget to deliver the change that is needed.

Alex Rowley

The document “Best Start, Bright Futures—Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2022-2026” states:

“Homelessness has a devastating impact on families and children, increasing barriers to accessing employment and education, disrupting social support networks and negatively affecting mental and physical health.”

In the lead-up to the budget, what discussions—if any—did the cabinet secretary have with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance on the impact on child poverty of the £200 million cut in the affordable housing supply programme?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As the member would expect, I had discussions with the finance secretary and other Cabinet colleagues about the difficult decisions that this Government had to make when we were looking at the budget. I say very gently to Mr Rowley that, in a recent press article, I said—and I meant it—that I believe that tackling poverty is something that we can work with an incoming UK Labour Government on, if Labour is, indeed, successful at the next election; however, it takes two to have that productive relationship, and it takes two Governments to take action.

This Government is continuing to take action to support those who are being harmed by Westminster. Nonetheless, tackling poverty takes action from both Governments, and the best thing that Mr Rowley and I could do together, I hope, is ensure that any incoming Labour Government reverses the cuts to revenue and capital for the Scottish Government. We would then not have to make the difficult decisions that we, as a Government, have had to make.

Child Poverty (Analysis by Child Poverty Action Group)

6. Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Child Poverty Action Group’s recent analysis of official data showing that 4.3 million children were in relative poverty across the United Kingdom, up from 3.6 million in 2010-11. (S6O-03313)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

That analysis demonstrates the devastating impact of the United Kingdom Government’s decade of austerity and welfare cuts on families across the UK. Although it is estimated that the Scottish Government’s policies will keep 100,000 children out of relative poverty in 2024-25, we could go so much further if UK Government policies were not actively working against us.

I have repeatedly called for the UK Government to reform universal credit, including by introducing an essentials guarantee and abolishing the two-child limit, which could lift 40,000 children in Scotland out of poverty. The spring budget was another failed opportunity to make the change that is needed.

Stephanie Callaghan

I agree that child poverty remains unacceptably high, particularly among disabled children, whose families are disproportionately impacted by the cost of living crisis. Nonetheless, Scotland has reduced child poverty, helped by social security measures such as the child disability payment. What steps is the Scottish Government taking, therefore, to increase the uptake of the child disability payment in my Uddingston and Bellshill constituency and across Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

This year alone, we are investing £1.1 billion more than the UK Government gives us for social security. We are taking that very seriously as an investment in the people of Scotland.

We also take very seriously our obligations to ensure that those who are eligible for payments are both encouraged and supported to apply for what they are entitled to. We have already received 6,000 child disability payment applications in North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire, with take-up being driven through, for example, our network of local delivery teams, which is unique to the Scottish system. We will continue to encourage those who are eligible to apply in order to give them that support. I hope that one of the quotes that I used earlier encourages people to come forward and reassures them that there is a system without stigma and with support for them.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I note what the cabinet secretary said in her answer, and in previous answers, about an incoming Labour Government. She will, I am sure, want to support transformational policies such as the new deal for working people, which will put money in people’s pockets.

Does she recognise, however, with regard to her own responsibilities in Scotland, that, prior to the recess, the annual release of official statistics showed that child poverty levels have been static at 24 per cent? That is significantly above the interim target of 18 per cent, which the Scottish Government is now almost certain to miss. Does she accept that she is going to miss those legally set targets? If so, when will she come to the chamber and outline her concerns about that?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I do not accept the premise of that argument. As I said in my original remarks to Stephanie Callaghan, we are absolutely determined to meet our anti-poverty targets. As I have said and will continue to say in the chamber, it would make it a lot easier if there was not one Government trying to lift people out of poverty and another Government—whether Labour or Tory—pushing them into poverty. That would help people a hell of a lot more.

I would like to squeeze in questions 7 and 8, but I will need co-operation. I need short, succinct questions and short, succinct answers.

Older People (Representation)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it is undertaking to give greater representation to older people. (S6O-03314)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

We continue to work with our trusted partners in the older people’s strategic action forum on a range of priorities for advancing age equality. I chaired the latest meeting on 27 February. The report, “A Fairer Scotland for Older People: A Framework for Action” was developed to challenge the inequalities that older people face as they age. The framework outlines the range of activities that we are undertaking to support older people to improve their lives, tackle age inequality and celebrate older people in Scotland. Through our equality and human rights fund, we are investing more than £2.2 million in support of older people’s organisations and age equality projects that deliver positive outcomes for older people.

Colin Smyth

A recent Independent Age survey showed that almost three quarters of those who are over 65 in Scotland think that the issues that they face are badly understood. Age Scotland’s recent “The Big Survey” revealed that just 3 per cent of respondents felt that it was easy for older people to have their voices heard by decision makers. Given that both surveys showed overwhelming support for having an older person’s commissioner for Scotland, why does the minister think that those older people are wrong? Why does he think that the work that he has described is not, in the view of older people, working for them?

Paul McLennan

I had the pleasure of meeting Independent Age a number of months ago, and we talked about some of those issues and the impact on housing in particular. I mentioned the equality and human rights fund, of which more than £2.2 million goes towards providing support for national organisations. That also contributes to the Age Scotland national helpline. Through its work, it identified £1.5 million in unclaimed benefits for older people who called the helpline. We are continuing to invest £3.8 million in funding to support another 53 organisations.

I am aware of the work that Colin Smyth is doing on the creation of an older person’s commissioner. We will consider the evidence that is gathered by the consultation and respond to its findings. Our main priority is to support older people who are facing hardship through the cost of living crisis.

New Homes

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to figures showing that there has been a decrease in the number of new homes started in 2023 compared with 2022. (S6O-03315)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

The Scottish Government has led the United Kingdom in housing, delivering more than 128,000 affordable homes since 2007. More than 90,000 of those homes were for social rent. In 2022-23, there was a disappointing decrease in starts, which was reflected across the UK. The combined impact of inflation, supply chain issues and labour shortages linked to Brexit created an extremely challenging environment, and we remain committed to close partnership working to mitigate those challenges. In the same year that Scotland’s completion rate for new build homes increased to 43 homes per 10,000 people, England’s rate was 38 per 10,000 people and the rate in Wales was 18 homes per 10,000 people.

Liam Kerr

Reported figures show that the number of new builds in Aberdeen fell from 1,182 in 2022 to 553 in 2023. The council says that, due to the work that is needed to address reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in Balnagask, other housing projects will be delayed. Will the Scottish Government reverse its opposition to helping Aberdeen City Council to address RAAC, so that those other housing projects can go ahead?

Paul McLennan

I have met Aberdeen City Council since RAAC was discussed. I also met with it prior to RAAC being identified, and we had numerous meetings before that. As the member will be aware, we have an options appraisal at the moment and we will continue to discuss that and develop it with the council. We have also been very flexible on the funding that it received for housing for those coming here from the Ukraine, and we have worked with it to look at the units that are required.

That does not answer the question.

It does, actually.

Members, just let the minister respond.

Paul McLennan

As I said, we continue to work with Aberdeen City Council on new builds. It is also really important that we have set up a housing investment taskforce, which is looking to get more funding into the system, including more funding for Aberdeen City Council. I am happy to discuss the issue further with the member.

The minister mentioned the housing investment taskforce in his last answer. Can he tell us any more about it?

Paul McLennan

The medium-term outlook for capital remains challenging, with an expected 8.7 per cent real-terms cut to our capital funding between 2023-24 and 2027-28. Given that, I was delighted to chair the first meeting of the housing investment task force just two weeks ago. Over the coming months, members will address longer-term investment barriers to help attract additional private sector funding for all tenures of housing in Scotland.

That concludes portfolio questions.