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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, April 20, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice, Housing and Local Government

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

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

Affordable Homes

To ask the Scottish Government how many affordable homes it has delivered in the past year. (S6O-02116)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

Scotland has led the way in the delivery of affordable housing across the United Kingdom. Latest published statistics to the end of December 2022 show that, in the calendar year 2022, the Scottish Government supported, through the affordable housing supply programme, the delivery of 9,727 affordable homes—an increase of 1 per cent on the previous calendar year. More than 8,000 of those homes are for social rent, which takes the total number of affordable homes delivered since 2007 to more than 118,000, 70 per cent of which are for social rent.

Alexander Stewart

I thank the minister for that response, which I welcome. Statistics that were released by the Scottish Government last month indicate that the number of new home starts in the last quarter of 2022 decreased by 24 per cent. The housing market is in crisis and, without any plans for how to address it, things can only get worse. Projects are being halted due in part to Patrick Harvie’s rent freeze. Does the minister agree that the recent rent cap will negatively impact on delivery of new homes?

Paul McLennan

One of the key points when discussing the sector is cost: the cost of construction inflation and general inflation costs. Construction inflation is at 16 per cent, which has obviously impacted on delivery of homes in both the social and private sectors. That is the feedback that we have had. The feedback also tells us that the market has slowed down because of the massive increase in interest rates, which I think has been the biggest influence that we have seen in the slow-down of the housing market.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Shetland continues to have a shortage of available housing and long waiting lists for housing association and council homes. Recruitment and retention in key industries and public services is hampered by lack of available housing. The Scottish Government needs to ramp up the pace to deliver its promise to build 110,000 affordable homes by 2032. How is the Scottish Government ensuring that estimates of the number of affordable homes that are needed in rural and island areas are adjusted for the demands of growing industries being attracted to the Highlands and Islands?

Paul McLennan

Beatrice Wishart has made an incredibly important point. At least 10 per cent of the 110,000 target is to be rural housing, which is about 11,000 homes. We are working on our remote, rural and islands housing action plan. I am looking to visit as many islands and rural areas as I can, as part of my work over the summer. I would be keen to visit Beatrice Wishart’s constituency, in that regard.

As I mentioned, we have to look at the 16 per cent increase in construction costs in relation to affordability. I am working on that with officials at the moment. We will see more detailed work in the remote, rural and islands housing action plan. I am more than happy to visit Beatrice Wishart’s constituency during the next few months.

Before I move to question 2 from Bob Doris, I note that the member was not here at the start of portfolio questions. I am sure that you will wish to preface your question with an apology to the chamber.

Low-income Families (Glasgow)

2. Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Indeed, I would have apologised without your prompting, Presiding Officer. That is duly noted and my apologies are forthcoming.

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports low-income families in Glasgow. (S6O-02117)

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

Tackling child poverty is a defining mission of this Government. We are providing a range of support that will benefit families in Glasgow and across Scotland. That includes investment in the Scottish child payment, 1,140 hours of funded childcare, free school meals and discretionary housing payments, which provide direct financial support to people who are struggling with housing costs. We are actively working with partners in Glasgow to connect families to the services that they need in order to thrive, and we have committed to tripling our fuel insecurity fund to support anyone who is at risk of self-disconnection or of self-rationing their energy use.

Bob Doris

I welcome those substantial efforts.

In Tuesday’s child poverty debate, I suggested the possibility of providing a school clothing grant twice in the school year and a summer holiday supplement to the Scottish child payment, which suggestions could benefit low-income families at particularly challenging times. Given that there is to be an anti-poverty summit, how will the Scottish Government consider new initiatives to tackle child poverty—including the suggestions that I have made—and how will those be agreed, as resources are identified?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Bob Doris for his proposals and suggestions. The last point in his question—on when new resources are identified—is the key point because, as Mr Doris knows, one of the challenges is that our budgets are fully allocated. However, we need to look seriously at new ideas, which is why the First Minister has proposed the anti-poverty summit. I believe that invitations are now going out for that.

I am happy to take Mr Doris’s suggestions as read, but if he would like to provide me with more detail in writing, I would be happy to receive that.

Winter Heating Payment (Aberdeenshire)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the number of households that have received the winter heating payment in Aberdeenshire. (S6O-02118)

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

As a 31 March 2023, almost 400,000 low-income households had automatically received their £50 winter heating payment to support them with their energy bills for this winter. All will have received a letter explaining their entitlement to the benefit.

Our first release of official statistics on winter heating payments will be published on 6 June 2023, and they will be released annually, in the future. The statistics will include additional local authority area breakdowns and will be available on Social Security Scotland’s website.

Alexander Burnett

We look forward to the local authority breakdowns. In my constituency, areas such as Braemar and Aboyne have been recognised as having some of the coldest temperatures in the United Kingdom, and previously constituents could have received more than triple the current £50 flat rate. What consideration has the Scottish Government given to people who are now missing out on receiving support that they previously had under the UK’s cold weather payment?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

One of the challenges of the previous scheme, which the winter heating payment scheme has tried to resolve, was that nobody knew how much money they were going to get each year. It was, of course, weather dependent but it did not include aspects such as wind-chill factor, and there was a great challenge in terms of where weather stations are. That created great challenges for people in some parts of the country, who did not receive money that they thought they should be receiving.

With the benefit, we have tried to ensure that people know how much they will receive and when they will receive it, so that there is certainty about what is happening. That is very important when we look at the cost of living crisis that has been exacerbated by Tory mismanagement of the UK economy, including energy prices.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.

Older People and Social Security

5. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether older people and social security are priority policy areas, in light of the decision not to include those in ministerial titles in the recent round of ministerial appointments. (S6O-02120)

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

I am the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, which includes social security. The Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees, as with the previous equalities minister, has responsibility for older people. It is totally clear to anyone that social security and older people are important to this Government, unlike the United Kingdom Government. That is why we are delivering seven Scottish Government benefits that are available only in Scotland, and are mitigating the harm that has been caused by UK Government policies.

Our £50 winter heating payment goes automatically to 400,000 people, including those on pension credit, and we have tripled the fuel insecurity fund to £30 million to support people in hardship. I urge the UK Government to match those efforts.

With no specific minister responsible for social security, what reassurances can the Scottish Government give us that there will be no further slippage in the full transfer of devolved benefits?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

This is the second day in a row that we have tried this; I am going to try once again. I am the minister who is responsible for social security. When Ben Macpherson, as a junior minister, was made responsible for social security, the Conservatives complained that we had demoted the post; however, now they are complaining because it is back at cabinet secretary level. I find it a little bit strange. It is maybe a case of finding a complaint where none is required.

I hope to be able to demonstrate to Jeremy Balfour through the work that we do—and, I hope, through work that we do together—that I will be taking very seriously all the issues that are involved in Social Security, and I will be ensuring that we work towards delivering not only the benefits but the case transfers, as the current timetable suggests.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I cannot believe that the Conservatives are so worried about titles instead of reality.

I understand that the Scottish Government has recently launched a campaign to make people more aware of eligibility for disability benefits. Can the cabinet secretary say more about that campaign?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is a very important aspect that we are determined to carry forward. Not only is that about putting dignity, fairness and respect in the system, but it plays a part in ensuring that people are aware of the benefits that are available, and that they are encouraged to apply for what they are eligible for. I do not know of any UK Government scheme that proactively encourages people to apply for disability benefits and aims to ensure that people get the money that they are entitled to. We are absolutely determined to do that. I encourage all members in the chamber, regardless of their party, to share for the benefit of their constituents the work that Social Security Scotland has done on the campaign.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

In a week in which research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed that the number of people who are living in very deep poverty has increased significantly in the past two decades, does the cabinet secretary at least acknowledge that removal of those subjects from ministerial briefs sends a concerning message about the Government’s commitment in those spaces? Would she also recognise that, although she is a very talented member of the Government, she has a brief that is huge and very varied, and that having a minister who is responsible for older people and social security would be of great help to everyone who is involved in tackling poverty?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am quite happy to take compliments when they are given—by members of the Opposition, in particular.

I say to Paul O’Kane with the greatest respect that one of the things that the Government is normally criticised for is its being too big and having too many ministers. Now it seems that we are being encouraged to have more ministers in my portfolio. Although I might welcome that for my portfolio, I think that it can be seen on the front bench today that we are ably supported by a range of ministers. We will be delighted to work together with the member and others on all parts of the portfolio.

Eviction Cases

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that there were 224 eviction cases involving tenants lodged with the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland in the month to 15 March. (S6O-02121)

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

We understand that the figure of 224 that the member quotes relates to the number of eviction hearings or case management discussions that were scheduled to take place up to 15 March 2023. That is not the number of eviction applications that have been received by the tribunal. Each application can involve a number of hearings or discussions, so the number of those will not be the same as the number of eviction applications received.

The Cost of Living (Tenant) Protection (Scotland) Act 2022 does not prevent landlords serving a notice to leave or making an application to the tribunal, and the tribunal will still make a decision on whether to issue an eviction order or decree. However, enforcement of the eviction must be paused for up to six months, except in certain narrowly defined circumstances.

Katy Clark

I am pleased that the Scottish Government has confirmed that the moratorium on evictions, plus a rent cap, will remain in place until September. However, the number of eviction cases being lodged per month appears to be actually higher than before the eviction ban, due to various loopholes in the legislation. The ban does not apply to tenants with arrears of six months or more, to social tenants with debts of more than £2,250 or where the landlord chooses to sell the property.

Would the minister be willing to look at whether it might be possible to remove those loopholes and at how that would impact on the real situations that tenants face?

Patrick Harvie

We are keeping the operation of the 2022 act under continual review. We will report on it regularly to Parliament, as the act requires us to do.

The member will recall debates during the passage of the legislation on the question of rent arrears. I made the case that, although the arguments are balanced in some ways, the help that people with rent arrears need is not simply to be stuck where they are as they build up ever more unpayable debt. The form of help that they need is direct assistance, and that is what the Government has made available in other ways.

Rather than thinking that we will go back and unpick the legislation, which was passed with the support of Labour colleagues, let us make sure that we continue to operate it as effectively as we can to give tenants in Scotland the protection that they so badly need, and which is so completely lacking in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Poverty (Older People)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent report by Independent Age, which states that one in seven people in Scotland over the state pension age live in poverty. (S6O-02122)

The Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees (Emma Roddick)

The Scottish Government is, of course, concerned about anyone who is living in poverty. It is committed to tackling poverty and recognises the specific inequalities that apply to older people.

The Scottish Government has consistently called for the United Kingdom Government to provide additional support to assist people with the cost of living crisis. However, the chancellor has failed to deploy the full range of powers available to him to make a real difference to people’s lives.

The Scottish Government recognises the pressure on household budgets, which is why, last year and this, we have allocated almost £3 billion to support policies that tackle poverty and protect people as far as possible during the on-going cost of living crisis.

Colin Smyth

I thank the minister for her answer and wish her well in her new role.

Too often, there is a misconception that older people are well off. However, the minister will know that the number of people in later life who are living in poverty in Scotland has risen by 25 per cent since 2012. Therefore, as well as looking at more immediate action to combat that rise in poverty, I ask the minister whether, in her new role, she will give serious consideration to the recommendation in the Independent Age report and the longstanding call by Age Scotland for the establishment of an older people’s commissioner for Scotland to properly amplify older people’s concerns, including that all-too-often-hidden problem of poverty in later life.

Emma Roddick

I absolutely appreciate the concerns that the member is raising, but we do not have plans at the moment to introduce legislation to establish an older people’s commissioner. There are existing commissions that protect the rights of older people: the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. They already play a role in relation to the rights of older people in respect of age as a protected characteristic.

In addition, we continue to work closely with the older people’s strategic action forum on a range of priorities for advancing age equality. We are committed to promoting the rights of older people and ensuring that they benefit from all that we are doing to improve people’s lives. That is why we provide more than £2.2 million to support older people’s organisations, to tackle inequality and discrimination and support our aim of promoting the rights of older people.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I welcome the minister to her place. As all MSPs are aware, the state pension is reserved to the UK Government. Under successive Labour, coalition and Tory Governments, the pension has been one of the lowest relative to wages in Europe. Does the minister know of any commitment by the Labour Party, which seeks to continue Westminster control of pensions, to significantly increase the state pension—the most effective way of reducing pensioner poverty—or is that just more Opposition grandstanding?

Emma Roddick

I am not aware of any substantive proposals from the Labour Party that would reduce pensioner poverty, which was a major issue for older people even before the current cost of living crisis. As the member will know, the levers to reduce pensioner poverty, including control of the levels of the state pension and pension credit, lie with the Government at Whitehall. Only with the full powers of a normal independent country could we properly tackle that, but we will continue to call on the UK Government to ensure that all pensioners are encouraged to take up the benefits that they are entitled to, in full.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

One of the facts that is sometimes not taken into account in arguments around older citizens is the fact that they are often undertaking caring roles in our society for loved ones including grandchildren and great grandchildren. When, specifically, does the Scottish Government intend to deliver the national kinship care payment, which it has committed to, and the extension of the period of time for which carers allowance will be paid following the death of a cared-for person?

The member raises a very important point. I will ask the minister with specific responsibility for that portfolio to get in touch with him with a full response.

Local Services

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it will work with local authorities to ensure access to local services, including leisure facilities, for local communities. (S6O-02123)

The Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning (Joe FitzPatrick)

The Scottish Government believes that everyone should have access to local services, particularly leisure facilities that help to support the physical and mental health of the nation.

We will work in partnership with local government to ensure that the people of Scotland continue to receive high-quality public services. We understand the challenging financial circumstances that local authorities are facing largely because of the cost of living crisis, so we have increased the resources that are available to local government by more than £793 million in 2023-24. It is, however, for locally elected representatives to make decisions on how best to deliver services in their communities.

Maurice Golden

The minister will be aware that Dundee has been without a local swimming pool since the Olympia shut down for repair in 2021. The facility was only opened in 2013 and yet taxpayers are now footing a £6 million repair bill. With so much disruption and money at stake, it is just common sense to hold an independent inquiry, so it is bizarre that the SNP-led council refuses to do that. Does the minister agree that Dundee residents deserve answers that only an independent inquiry can provide?

Joe FitzPatrick

I am well aware of the circumstances in Dundee and the challenges that it is facing. The council is working hard to make sure that people continue to have access to swimming facilities and is particularly focusing on making sure that children can learn to swim using the network of swimming pools in Dundee schools and the leisure facility in Lochee.

On the point about scrutiny and an independent inquiry, the matter has rightly been scrutinised by the council’s scrutiny committee, which is led by opposition councillors. The convener of that committee is the leader of the Labour group and the two deputy conveners are the leaders of the Liberal Democrat group and the Conservative group. If we are talking about independent scrutiny, I cannot see how an opposition-led committee has not managed to do that.

That said, I absolutely get that people are frustrated and I am hopeful that it will not be too long before the Olympia reopens.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, minister. That concludes portfolio questions on social justice, housing and local government. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business to allow the front-bench teams to change position, should they so wish.