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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, December 21, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is portfolio question time and the portfolio today is social justice. Members who wish to ask supplementary questions should press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question.

Homelessness-related Deaths

1. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to data from National Records of Scotland showing a rise in homelessness-related deaths since 2017. (S6O-02910)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

It has been encouraging to see a fall in the number of drug-related deaths for a second year, but behind every statistic is a human being and so those numbers drive our commitment to prevent and end homelessness in Scotland. We have established a ministerial oversight group on homelessness in order to bring ministers together to identify actions to prevent and end homelessness, and we are committed to acting on the recommendations of the temporary accommodation task and finish group, which include providing funding for councils and social landlords to bring empty homes back into use and increasing allocations to homeless households.

Colin Smyth

In response to the Government’s budget, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations described the 26 per cent cut in funding for house building as

“an absolute hammer blow for tackling homelessness”.

The Chartered Institute of Housing and Shelter both said that it is “devastating”, and Homes for Scotland has said that it is “shocking”. The Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations said that the Government’s target for house building

“is now dead in the water”.

They cannot all be wrong, can they? Will the minister tell us what the impact will be of the utter madness of cutting £200 million from the housing budget? How many more families will be homeless as a result of the cut? How many more lives will be lost because of homelessness?

Paul McLennan

The most important thing is where we find the money from. We heard Mr Gibson’s comment about the 20 per cent cut in capital budgets, and I look forward to Mr Smyth making proposals in any Labour amendment to tackle that issue. We did not want to be in that position in relation to the budget.

As for Mr Smyth’s key points about homelessness, the homelessness budgets are being left intact. I have had discussions with the likes of local authorities and the organisations that he mentioned, such as the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and Homes for Scotland, on maximising the opportunities. We will continue to work with them and other organisations to maximise the opportunities from the £60 million fund that we announced earlier this year and in relation to acquisitions and allocations. I come back to the point that I look forward to seeing in any Labour amendment to the budget how Labour would find additional funding.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I send my thoughts to the families and friends of people who have died while homeless, which relates to the question. Over the past decade, 2,175 people have been discharged from hospital with no fixed abode registered. I welcome the fact that the figure is coming down from a high of 336 in 2017 to 58 in 2022-23. Will the review of housing policy include a public duty that no one should be discharged from hospital with no fixed abode?

Paul McLennan

As we know, the housing bill will be introduced at the appropriate time. We have talked about the prevention duties, which I cannot go into detail on. One reason why we brought together the ministerial oversight group on homelessness was to look at such issues. Ministers who are responsible for that area are part of that group. We continue to look at the issues, but I cannot go into detail on what will be in the bill.

United Kingdom-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership

2. Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact that the United Kingdom-Rwanda migration and economic development partnership may have on its new Scots integration strategy. (S6O-02911)

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

We have of course opposed the UK Government’s repugnant plans to relocate people to third countries since the memorandum of understanding with Rwanda was announced in April 2022. Legislation that breaks our moral and international obligations further damages the UK’s international reputation.

The Scottish ministers continue to challenge the UK Government on the issue, but we are committed to working with our partners at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Refugee Council on refreshing the new Scots refugee strategy, partly to ensure that it helps to mitigate—where it can—the effects of the UK Government’s damaging actions.

Willie Coffey

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which the Tories are passing at Westminster, is an extremely dangerous piece of legislation. It is needless, dehumanising and legally unsound. What communication has the minister had with her UK Government counterparts to underline how strongly the people of Scotland reject that appalling bill?

Emma Roddick

We have been clear and consistent in our strong opposition to the policy since it was announced, and we will continue to raise with UK ministers significant concerns about this cruel, ineffective and expensive policy and to reiterate our opposition in the light of the bill. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has stated that it does not consider the UK-Rwanda migration and economic development partnership to comply with the UK’s international obligations. The UK Government must explain how it will ensure the welfare of extremely vulnerable people in any arrangement to transfer or relocate people who are seeking asylum and must be transparent about how much that is costing.

Poverty (People in Debt to Public Bodies)

3. Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what work to tackle poverty it is currently undertaking to support people who are in debt to public bodies. (S6O-02912)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

This year, the Scottish Government has allocated almost £3 billion to support policies that tackle poverty and protect people during the on-going cost of living crisis. We have now committed next year to bringing forward a one-off, £1.525 million emergency fund to support councils in helping remove the impact of school meal debt on families. We also protect the most financially vulnerable through the council tax reduction scheme, which supports more than 460,000 households across Scotland with an average saving of £800 per year.

Scottish ministers continue to encourage public bodies to share good practice on debt assistance and collection, promoting empathy and dignity for people struggling with debt.

Carol Mochan

After a lengthy campaign from trade unions and third sector organisations—in particular, I commend Aberlour for its campaign—I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to providing the funding that will see school meal debt cleared. However, it remains a very short-term fix. If the Scottish Government is truly committed to reducing the debt owed to public bodies in the future and for the long term, will it increase the thresholds for free school meal eligibility, which Aberlour research suggests have barely risen in 20 years? Increase in eligibility for free school meal provision is a key ask, and a fair one, too.

Paul McLennan

The point that Carol Mochan has made about the free school meal scheme will, I think, be considered in the future.

On the support that is already out there, there is the Scottish child payment, which we heard the First Minister talk about. As for investment in support, one of the key things is to prevent people from getting into debt in the first place. In 2023-24, we invested more than £6.5 million in supporting free debt services in Scotland. That is part of the wider package for income maximisation.

During the week, I visited the Community Help and Advice Initiative in Edinburgh to see its work, which puts a real emphasis on accessible advice. That is a really important point that I would like to emphasise, too, because it is all about going out and meeting people where they are—in schools, in healthcare facilities and in childcare facilities.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

The budget decision to wipe school meals debt will come as a great relief to the families of 30,000 children and demonstrates the targeted interventions that are needed to tackle poverty, despite the limitations of devolution. Will the minister outline how the draft Scottish budget seeks to help low-income families overcome the challenge of escalating bills and debt?

Paul McLennan

Westminster austerity continues to impact our ability to help households. In setting the budget, we adopted a values-based approach that is focused on our three missions, which include tackling poverty. Through that, we are committing £6.3 billion in social security benefits and payments—an increase of more than £1 billion compared with 2023-24—and are funding the £12 per hour real living wage for social care and early learning and childcare workers who deliver funded provision. When we combine the changes to tax and social security, we see that 58 per cent of households are better off under this system than that in the rest of the United Kingdom, given that the majority of those households are in the bottom half of the income distribution.

Carer Support Payment (Western Isles)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of its new carer support payment in the Western Isles and other pilot areas. (S6O-02913)

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

Carer support payment, which replaces carers allowance, was successfully launched in pilot areas on 20 November, and I thank colleagues in Dundee City Council, Perth and Kinross Council and the Western Isles Council for making that possible. The benefit is a key milestone in improving support for unpaid carers and will be available to carers in full-time education who cannot currently get carers allowance.

Figures published by Social Security Scotland this week show that we received 160 applications in the first four weeks, with 40 already authorised. The agency will publish official statistics, including a breakdown by local authority, in February.

Will the cabinet secretary say what strategies the Government will employ to maximise take-up of the new benefit in the Western Isles specifically?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Alasdair Allan has raised an important point about benefit take-up. That is exactly why Scotland, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, has a benefit take-up strategy. I am sure that he is aware of and has already had discussions and meetings with Social Security Scotland’s local delivery network—again, a unique service in Scotland—which is there to ensure that agency staff are going out to work with the third sector and with people directly to support them in their applications. That is very important work that we can do locally, alongside the usual marketing campaigns that are on-going in local pilot areas.

Scottish Child Payment (Aberdeen)

To ask the Scottish Government how many children in Aberdeen have received the Scottish child payment since its inception. (S6O-02914)

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

Social Security Scotland routinely publishes information on Scottish child payment applications, payments and the number of children actively in receipt of the payment. Although the latest statistics do not currently include information on the total number of children who have benefited from the Scottish child payment, they show that, as of 30 September this year, 10,265 children residing in Aberdeen City were actively benefiting from it.

Kevin Stewart

I welcome the increase to the Scottish child payment that was announced in the budget. The benefit has been described as a “game changer” in the fight to eradicate child poverty. What is the Government doing to ensure that all those who are entitled to the payment in Aberdeen and across Scotland are receiving it?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

In my answer to Dr Allan, I referred to the work of the local delivery staff, which is an important aspect of the delivery of all benefits, including the Scottish child payment, throughout the country. We have, of course, proactively undertaken online and offline marketing campaigns, and those will continue to run in the future at various points. We are keen to ensure that the information about benefits is available in the places where families are already accessing their services, such as schools, general practitioner surgeries, community centres and libraries.

The work that is being done is important, and it is why, although there is still more work to do, the take-up rate for the Scottish child payment is very high.

Employment Injury Assistance (Firefighters Diagnosed with Cancer)

6. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether its plans for the delivery of employment injury assistance include support for firefighters diagnosed with cancer, in light of reported calls for that welfare benefit to be made available to that workforce. (S6O-02915)

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

We recognise that there is a range of views on the current industrial injury scheme and the prescribed diseases. It is a hugely complex scheme and a significant investment over time will be required to update eligibility and administration, while also protecting the payments that disabled people rely on.

As I set out to the Social Justice and Social Security Committee last month, we intend to consult on a range of issues relating to the delivery of employment injury assistance shortly.

Jackie Baillie

Last week, the Fire Brigades Union’s regional secretary told the Daily Record that it wants a statutory expert council to be established so that he and his colleagues can have a seat at the table when the new benefit is designed, independent of the Government. The FBU’s DECON research shows that large numbers of firefighters get cancer and that it is, therefore, an industrial disease. Firefighters want to have their voice heard in the design of the benefit, and the cabinet secretary knows that she will have to deliver the benefit very soon. Will she back the FBU’s call, back Mark Griffin’s bill and give them their seat at the table?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Government has made its position on Mark Griffin’s bill clear. We do not think that it is sensible to have a discussion about the introduction of a Scottish advisory council without employment injury assistance being in place—it is but one part of a jigsaw.

I very much hear what the FBU has said on the fact that we need to have the FBU, other unions and stakeholders at the table when we are designing the benefit. That is exactly what we have done with every other benefit that we have implemented in Scotland. I give my guarantee that, regardless of whether the bill goes ahead—that is a matter for Parliament—I will absolutely ensure that they have a seat at the table and that their views are taken account of as we design any benefit.

Personal Independence Payment (Eligibility Criteria)

7. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the MS Society’s reported call for personal independence payment applications to end the so-called 20m rule and replace it with a 50m threshold until an alternative is found. (S6O-02916)

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

The Government has noted the calls to replace the 20m rule. Adults in Scotland in receipt of PIP are transferring to the adult disability payment, which delivers an improved experience for disabled people in Scotland and considers a person’s mobility needs more fairly and consistently.

The independent review of the adult disability payment will examine eligibility criteria, including the 20m rule. The Scottish Government will consider all recommendations arising from that review, including the case for any changes and their deliverability and affordability. The UK Government has not committed to establishing a similar review for the personal independence payment.

Fulton MacGregor

The establishment of the independent review into ADP is welcome as a step to create a disability assistance benefit that fully meets the needs of disabled people. I know that that has been campaigned for by the MS Society, which welcomes the move. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the scope of the review into ADP will not be limited and that it will be free to make any recommendation that it deems fit and necessary to achieve that aim?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

An important priority for the independent review will be engagement with disabled people and stakeholders, including, I am sure, the MS Society. I encourage full engagement with that review. More detail on how to do that will be provided as the review progresses and following the appointment of a chair. The chair will be independent of Government and will, of course, make recommendations as they see fit.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

There are high rates of incidence of multiple sclerosis in my constituency. Just walking one footstep over 20m during an assessment on one day can brutally stop someone’s eligibility for social security payments. Constituents have told me that, on some days, walking 20m might feel like climbing Everest and, on other days, it might not be so tough. The so-called 20m rule as a measure is not fit for purpose to assess eligibility for PIP or ADP, so why is the Scottish Government still clinging to it, even if that is only temporarily?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

One of the important aspects that we have been clear about is that we have to ensure the safe and secure transition of benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions to Social Security Scotland. That means that major changes are exceptionally difficult to make because we would, in effect, then have a two-tier system with one rule applying for some and one rule applying for others who still remain on PIP before case transfer.

Once safe and secure transition is complete, we will, of course, look to see whether further changes can be made. However, I stress to Beatrice Wishart that we will have to look at the experience of others and how we can improve things, but we will also have to look at the affordability of those items.

Private Rented Housing (Energy Efficiency Standards)

8. Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the housing minister has had with ministerial colleagues regarding any impact on the availability of housing through the private rented sector of its energy efficiency reforms. (S6O-02917)

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

Of course the Scottish ministers meet regularly to discuss matters of mutual portfolio interest. There is a long-standing policy to introduce energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector, recognising that tenants have limited powers to make changes themselves. Previous legislation was delayed due to Covid impacts. We now propose to introduce standards as part of a heat in buildings bill, with a target date five years from now and almost a decade since we first consulted on standards. We have commissioned further research on potential impacts on the housing market to ensure that future regulations work for all sectors.

Alexander Stewart

Landlords now face having to renovate their properties to reach a minimum energy efficiency standard by 2028. Letting agencies have warned that the proposals, combined with the Scottish National Party-Green rent cap, could result in landlords having to leave the private rented sector, thus creating a shortage of housing stock. What analysis has the Scottish Government conducted of the impact of its reforms on the private rented sector?

Patrick Harvie

As I said in my first answer, we have commissioned further research. I reinforce the fact that the proposals come as no surprise to anyone in the private rented sector. This has been policy for a long time, and the proposals not only allow an extra five years for compliance but propose an alternative means of meeting the standards by simply working through a standard checklist of applicable measures. That will make the approach flexible, easy, affordable and less disruptive to ensure that the energy efficiency standards are met.

The result will be an approach unlike elsewhere in the United Kingdom, where similar proposals were scrapped by the Prime Minister recently, adding some £300 extra a year on to the energy bills of private rented sector tenants. Mr Stewart might think that that is acceptable, but the Scottish Government does not think that it is. We will save private rented sector tenants money on their energy bills. That should be a natural expectation when people rent their homes.

Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

Does the minister agree that tackling fuel poverty has to be the central aim of the Scottish Government’s new deal for tenants in the private rented sector, who are disproportionately in poorly insulated properties? Can he expand on that?

Patrick Harvie

Yes, indeed. The new deal for tenants consultation set out our vision for a rented sector that plays a part in ensuring that everybody has access to a warm, safe, affordable and energy-efficient home. In October, a report on the cost of living showed that some 46 per cent of households in the private rented sector will be in fuel poverty. That is double the rate of owner-occupier households in fuel poverty.

We want the rented sector, whether that is social or private, to provide tenants with good-quality homes that reduce their energy bills but also help to deliver our net zero aims. The regulations on which we are currently consulting will seek to achieve that.

That concludes portfolio questions on social justice.