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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, February 22, 2024


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio questions, and the portfolio on this occasion is social justice. As ever, members wishing to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question.

Housing (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address the housing emergency in Glasgow. (S6O-03102)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

Glasgow housing conveners say that their biggest pressure is increasing numbers of newly recognised refugee households, driven by Home Office mismanagement of the asylum process. With no additional support from Westminster, we have provided more than £121 million to Glasgow to fund homelessness services and to increase the supply of social and affordable homes.

Homelessness pressures have been exacerbated by the United Kingdom Government’s freeze of local housing allowance. I have today written to the relevant secretary of state, ahead of the UK budget, to urge implementation of the LHA uplift in the years beyond 2024-25, and I hope that the member will help with those calls on her colleagues at Westminster.

Annie Wells

Homelessness is spiralling out of control in Glasgow, and it should never have reached a point where Glasgow City Council had to declare a housing emergency. Unfortunately, the work around Sighthill and the Red Road in the north of the city is moving at a snail’s pace, with only a fraction of the demolished homes being replaced with new builds. At the same time, we are faced with a Scottish Government that has cut £200 million from the housing budget. What action is the minister’s Government taking right now to increase the supply of affordable homes in Glasgow, so that no one is left on the street?

Paul McLennan

I have mentioned the £121 million that we have used to fund homelessness services in Glasgow and to increase the supply of social and affordable homes, and there are a number of other things that I want to mention. First, the capital budget cut from the member’s Government equates to 10 per cent—and there are a few other things, too. The member will be aware of this year’s homelessness monitor from Crisis, which has just come out, and one of the biggest issues that it discusses in relation to the increase in homelessness is LHA rates. Again, I refer the member back to the letter that I wrote today, and I hope that she can support the request contained in it.

As for the asylum process and the dispersal process, it is good that the asylum process has been speeded up. However, no additional funding is coming from the UK Government for that at all—none whatever.

I therefore have a couple of asks of Annie Wells in that respect. First, the capital budget needs to be restored following the cut; LHA uplift has to be brought back; and there must be funding to follow the asylum process.

I have met representatives of the housing associations on a number of occasions. We are looking to work with the Scottish Cities Alliance, of which Glasgow is a part, to bring forward some of its developments as quickly as we possibly can.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

The Scottish Government must adopt a range of approaches to address housing pressures, not just in Glasgow but right across Scotland. I feel that part of the approach should be to ensure that existing housing stock is being used effectively. Can the minister update the Parliament on his work to ensure that long-term empty homes are brought back into use? That would go some way towards addressing the current situation.

Paul McLennan

Our investment of £396,500 in 2023-24 continues our support for the Scottish empty homes partnership, which has worked closely with local authorities including Glasgow City Council to bring more than 9,000 homes back into use since 2010. The partnership’s role was recognised by an independent audit of the effectiveness of interventions to bring empty homes back into use, which we commissioned and published last year.

We have already acted on some of the audit’s recommendations, such as working with local authorities to improve statistics on empty homes and providing powers to grant a grace period from council tax premiums for new owners of long-term empty homes. My letter of 19 September 2023 to the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee set out a range of our other activities to bring more houses back into use.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations released YouGov polling that showed that 80 per cent of people believe that we are in the grip of a housing emergency. Indeed, a number of authorities have declared an emergency, with more to follow. Why is the Government so reluctant to acknowledge what everyone else seems to see, which is that we are in a housing emergency? I fully accept that, as the minister said in his response to Annie Wells, some factors are outwith his control, but why not declare that emergency and get everyone around the table to start addressing it?

Paul McLennan

I acknowledge that we are in a difficult position at the moment, but it is the same for the United Kingdom Government and the Welsh Government. The most important thing is the actions that we take. Annie Wells talked about Glasgow; when I meet local authorities, as I regularly do, we talk about actions that we need to take.

If there is an incoming Labour Government, I would ask it to look at restoring the capital budget after the cut. I have also referred to the LHA uplift rate, and I hope that Mark Griffin can take that issue back to an incoming Labour Government.

We are working very hard. We have provided £556 million in the draft budget so far, and we are looking at working closely with Glasgow, Edinburgh and other local authorities. However, the actions that we take are the most important thing and, as I have said, I will continue to work as hard as I can to make sure that we build houses as quickly as we can.

Question 2 has not been lodged.

Best Start Grant (Falkirk East)

3. Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what work is under way to ensure that eligible families across Falkirk East, and the wider country, are aware of and can apply for the best start grant before the deadline of 29 February. (S6O-03104)

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

We have made it easier for families to get the best start grant school age payment, with people in receipt of the Scottish child payment now paid the school age payment automatically. There is no need to apply separately.

Since November 2022, we have made more than 43,000 early learning and school age payments. Some people who do not get the Scottish child payment are still eligible, and Social Security Scotland is actively promoting the payment across different channels ahead of the application deadline.

Michelle Thomson

The best start grant goes hand in hand with the best start food grant to benefit families most in need. The most up-to-date figures show that the pregnancy and baby payment and the best start food grant made up the majority of applications, at 59 per cent and 81 per cent respectively, while applications to other aspects of the best start grant, such as the early learning payment and the school age payment, remain at 23 per cent and 13 per cent respectively.

Can the minister confirm whether the early learning payment and the school age payment will continue to work through an automatic awards scheme if parents are in receipt of the Scottish child payment? What more can be done to raise awareness of those specific benefits?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The member raises an important point about ensuring that everyone who is eligible and entitled to a benefit is encouraged and supported to apply, so that they can get what they are entitled to.

I can confirm that the auto awards scheme is in place. Early learning and school age payments are an important part of the work that we are doing on automation, which makes it easier for families to maximise their take-up. Some of the official statistics might be playing catch-up in showing that, but we are confident that the automated payments are working successfully in driving up take-up. Latest estimates of take-up rates indicate a significant impact from automation, with the take-up of the school age payment rising from 77 per cent in 2021-22 to 97 per cent in 2022-23.

Social Security Scotland continues to raise awareness, but I am happy to reassure the member that we are continuing to keep a close eye on that. I encourage all members to work with their constituents to ensure that we do everything that we can to raise awareness of the Scottish child payment and the associated family payments that are associated with and attached to it.

Inward Migration (Rest of the UK)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to attract more working-age people from the rest of the United Kingdom to come and live, work and pay tax in Scotland. (S6O-03105)

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

We will continue to take action across Government and with partners to promote Scotland as a career destination, highlighting the breadth of job opportunities available across Scotland. The things that set Scotland apart from the rest of the UK, such as free prescriptions and access to a world-class education system, show that Scotland is a welcoming, inclusive and diverse society. As part of this approach, in 2024, the Scottish Government will launch a talent attraction and migration service to help to attract, relocate and settle working-age people and their families in Scotland, including people who are currently living in the rest of the UK.

Ivan McKee

Scotland already benefits from more working-age people coming here from the rest of the UK to live and work than those who move in the opposite direction. A modest 20 per cent increase in the number of people moving to Scotland would have the potential, if they were all higher-rate taxpayers, to raise an additional £1 billion in income tax revenues over the course of a parliamentary session. What proactive work is the Scottish Government doing to attract more working-age people from the rest of the UK, and what results has that work delivered so far?

Emma Roddick

Ivan McKee is right to point out the economic impact and benefit of having more working-age people. Employers are helping us to develop the talent attraction and migration service to ensure that it can support businesses to attract workers from outwith Scotland who have the skills that are needed.

Our addressing depopulation action plan outlines support for local communities and economies to be sustainable, which includes attracting the skills and people that are needed. Evidence shows that those who choose Scotland as their home help to grow our economy, increase productivity and innovation and address skills shortages. They also contribute positively to communities, culture and public services. As I have already stated, the unique benefits of living in Scotland set us apart from the rest of the UK.

There are several supplementary questions.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

Any understanding of the Laffer curve seems to escape members on the Scottish National Party front benches. Rather than increasing the number of taxpayers, the SNP seems hellbent on sending them away in what has been termed the “tartan exodus”. One of the main deterrents to living and working in Scotland is the widening tax gap, which is also likely to impede the economic growth that is needed to deliver public services. When taxpayers leave—as is inevitable—how does the minister intend to protect spending on public services?

Emma Roddick

Investment in public services is crucial, as the member has said. That is exactly what we are providing through our progressive tax system, which asks those who are on the higher earning scale to pay a little bit more into the public purse to allow us to provide the types of services that will encourage people to live and work in Scotland. I think that people choose where to live based on many factors and not simply because of their tax bracket. I hope that the offer that we have been putting forward to people, as I outlined in my answers to Ivan McKee, will encourage the people with the skills that we need to make their lives in Scotland.

I am genuinely puzzled. Net migration to the UK was at 750,000 last year, but the population in Scotland is projected to decline. Why are we not managing to attract more of those 750,000 people?

Emma Roddick

I have been clear throughout all engagement in the chamber on the topic of migration that the UK’s migration system does not work for Scotland. The fact that people are not managing to move to Scotland and that they are not seeing the unique offer that Scotland has for them when using the routes that they are able to take to come to the UK, is a symptom of that issue. We are proposing changes to a range of things, including through introducing the talent attraction and migration system, which will allow people to be matched to highly skilled jobs that they can take up in Scotland. We are also proposing to the UK Government that asylum seekers be allowed the right to work in Scotland, and we are asking that the offers in Scotland are communicated properly to people who seek a place where they can contribute positively to a community.

John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

I warmly congratulate the minister on the work that she is doing in relation to tackling the question of depopulation in parts of Scotland. That goes to the heart of being part of a Government that acts in the interests of the whole of the country.

Will the minister commit to work with colleagues with different responsibilities to ensure that we link the work on tackling depopulation to the work on economic opportunity, so that, in some of the more isolated and remote areas of Scotland, we are able to create a growing population based on good, strong economic opportunities?

Emma Roddick

Absolutely. An exciting part of the work on addressing depopulation is the fact that it involves every portfolio across Government. I will work with ministers whose responsibilities cover all areas because we know that the drivers of depopulation and the ways in which we can attract people to those areas that are suffering depopulation, and retain them there, touch on every area of Government. I will work with ministers who are responsible for the economy, transport, housing and the environment to make sure that we empower people to remain in the communities that they grew up in, to take up skilled work in areas that are suffering depopulation and to rebalance our population and ensure that public services can be sustainable, no matter where they are.

Questions 5 and 6 have been withdrawn.

Benefits Uptake

7. Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that people are claiming all the benefits that they are entitled to, in light of figures obtained by Policy in Practice showing that £18.7 billion of benefits went unclaimed across the United Kingdom in 2022-23. (S6O-03108)

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

The Scottish Government asserts that social security is a human right, and we are committed to helping people to access the support that they are entitled to.

Through our benefit take-up strategy, we are implementing a range of take-up initiatives, including access to independent advocacy support and targeted marketing of payments. Local delivery teams assist people in completing application forms and can signpost them to other information and services. The £12.5 million of funding that we are providing this year for income maximisation, welfare and debt advice includes more than £4.59 million to support organisations that help people to access their social security entitlements and maximise their income.

Evelyn Tweed

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar was recently quoted in the New Statesman as saying that Holyrood had been largely “a social policy parliament” and that he wanted to correct that. Given that it is clear that social security and benefit uptake are a low priority for the Labour leadership, can the cabinet secretary provide an assurance that, unlike Westminster, Holyrood will continue to challenge austerity and cruel measures such as the bedroom tax and the two-child cap?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

This Government will continue to call for an end to measures such as the bedroom tax and the two-child cap. We will also continue to press the UK Government to implement an essentials guarantee at the forthcoming UK budget. It is deeply disappointing that Labour is simply promising more of the same Tory austerity. It is not necessary to hold a review in order to know that the two-child cap and the bedroom tax are utterly inappropriate parts of any social security system.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government will continue to provide record investment in benefits expenditure, which demonstrates our commitment to tackling poverty right across the country. That is exactly why we are spending more than £1.1 billion more than the UK Government gives to the Scottish Government for social security. We are there to protect the people of Scotland through continued austerity, regardless of the colour of the Government at UK level.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

The cabinet secretary and her predecessor said that no one would lose out because of Scottish National Party changes to our social security payments, but we know that that is not true. The winter heating payment has left many people in the Highlands and Aberdeenshire out of pocket. Will the cabinet secretary undertake a review of that policy so that people who live in Aviemore, Braemar and Aboyne do not continue to lose out at the hands of the SNP-Green Government?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am happy to provide in writing to Mr Briggs the figures for the number of people who are benefiting from our winter heating payment and the investment that is being put in. Over the years, because of the vagaries of the previous Westminster system, there was doubt about whether people would get any money at all, how much money they would get and when. They now have certainty—[Interruption.]

Mr Lumsden!

Shirley-Anne Somerville

In addition, a much more substantial number of people are getting that funding. The need for such certainty and security for many more people across Scotland came through in our consultation, and that is exactly what we are delivering.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

The record of the most recent Labour Government in lifting millions of children and pensioners out of poverty by expanding social security payments and encouraging uptake of those payments speaks for itself.

Analysis by the Scottish Government that was published in November last year showed that only three quarters of eligible people had taken up the young carer grant, that only 61 per cent of eligible people had taken up the funeral support payment, which was down from the previous year, and that only 15 per cent of eligible people had taken up the job start payment. Is that not another example of the SNP levelling legitimate and justified criticism at the Department for Work and Pensions and saying that it will do things better, but failing to do so?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The member fails to point out that many of the benefits that he has mentioned are not even available from the DWP but have been brought in only in Scotland because we are committed to delivering for care-experienced people. The job start payment is one of the benefits that is available only in Scotland.

The Labour Party promises a review to see what it might do at some point in the future, but we have already made changes to the job start payment because we recognise that there is more to do on the take-up of that benefit. That shows a Government that not only is delivering new benefits in Scotland but is continuously adapting and improving the service that we give to the people of Scotland. That action and delivery does far more to tackle poverty than the promise of a review.

Nappies (Cost)

8. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking through the delivery of benefits to help families with the cost of nappies, in light of the reported increase in nappy theft linked to the cost of living crisis. (S6O-03109)

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

We want to give children the best start in life and we are using our new social security powers to make that happen.

Our game-changing Scottish child payment, which is available only in Scotland, provides £25 a week to low-income families for each eligible child, and the best start grant pregnancy and baby payment helps with the expenses associated with pregnancy or with having a new child. Families are able to use those payments to best meet their needs, which could include buying nappies.

Subject to parliamentary approval, we will increase those payments—and indeed all social security payments—by 6.7 per cent from April 2024.

Monica Lennon

Notwithstanding the support that is available, we know that being unable to afford essential baby items is a reality for too many of our constituents. Nappy rationing is a horrible reality for many families and has a devastating impact on babies, children and parents.

The environmental benefits of reusable nappies are well known. They can also save families significant amounts of money, but the up-front costs can be a barrier. Scotland’s baby box gives families the opportunity to try reusable nappies, but the opt-in for that is quite low, at around 14 per cent. Will the cabinet secretary outline the ways in which the Government can come to understand that low uptake, raise awareness and make it easier for people to use such reusable products?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I begin by recognising Monica Lennon’s long-standing work on the issue. She is right to point out that the baby box raises awareness of the benefits of reusable nappies, as well as providing a nappy voucher. Provision of that voucher is intended to help families to start using reusable nappies free of charge and also signposts families to the Scottish Government’s Parent Club website, which highlights the benefits of using reusable nappies and provides helpful advice and tips about nappy use.

The James Hutton Institute has commissioned research into the barriers to re-using nappies. The final report is expected by the end of March and I will be happy to ensure that I, or other ministers, provide that information to Monica Lennon if she does not have it to hand when the report is published.

I also ask Ms Lennon to join our calls on the United Kingdom Government for an essentials guarantee. It is not acceptable in this day and age and in this country to have benefit levels that do not allow people to buy the bare essentials of life. Whether those are nappies or baby formula, they are exactly the products that people should not be rationing, which is why this Government has asked for an essentials guarantee. I am disappointed that we have had no reply or commitment on that from the UK Government.

That concludes portfolio questions on social justice. There will be a brief pause before the next item of business in order to allow front bench speakers to change over.