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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, January 25, 2024


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Social Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio question time. On this occasion the portfolio is social justice. Any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. There is quite a bit of interest in supplementaries. I therefore make the usual appeal for brief questions that do not come in four or five parts and for similarly brief responses from front-bench speakers.


Families in Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether a greater increase in the Scottish child payment or a council tax freeze will do more to help families in poverty. (S6O-03006)

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

The Scottish child payment provides well-targeted support to the lowest-income families. It is estimated that it will lift 50,000 children out of poverty this year. We have committed to increasing the payment, in line with inflation, to £26.70 per week from April, and it is expected that 329,000 children will benefit from it in 2024-25. The Government is working with local authorities to help them to deliver the council tax freeze and to provide much-needed financial relief to more than 2 million council tax payers. Both measures are provided for in the budget, are unparalleled in the United Kingdom and will provide much-needed help for families.

John Mason

Some people, especially those in the third sector, have argued that a council tax freeze will not help the poorest people, because they already do not pay council tax, but that it will help those who are better off, who pay more council tax. How would the cabinet secretary respond to that argument?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

People who have the lowest incomes will benefit most from a council tax freeze. That is because, for them, council tax represents a larger proportion of their income than it does for people who are better off. The freeze is on top of the council tax reduction scheme, which supports people who cannot be expected to afford to pay council tax. However, the cost crisis has seen bills rise for households across the spectrum, and the freeze will give them some certainty for next year.

Councils across Scotland are having to slash their budgets due to the council tax freeze. That means that local services to help people in the most deprived areas will come to an end. How will that help them?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The position has been made clear on numerous occasions by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I am happy to say, once again, that the council tax freeze will be fully funded by the Scottish Government. Work is on-going with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the details of that proposal. That is a very important reassurance, which I am pleased to be able to give to the chamber again today.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

It is recognised that council tax is regressive, which is contrary to the Government’s stated progressive outlook. What work has been undertaken to evaluate other models of less regressive and more proportionate property or land value taxes? When does the Government expect to complete that work?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Council tax represents a larger proportion of overall income for lower-income households than it does for richer households. The council tax freeze recognises the regressive impact of council tax, which underlines the importance of reform. We are committed to a fairer, more inclusive and fiscally sustainable form of local taxation. I have convened the joint working group on sources of local government funding and council tax reform, which is co-chaired by the Scottish ministers and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.


Short-term Lets (Planning Guidance)

2. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will update its guidance to local authorities on planning rules for short-term lets, in light of the recent ruling from the Court of Session that deemed the City of Edinburgh Council’s planning guidance for businesses on short-term lets to be unlawful. (S6O-03007)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

In bringing the judicial review of the City of Edinburgh Council’s local guidance, the petitioners noted that it was not consistent with the Scottish Government’s guidance. In issuing its decision, the court agreed with the Scottish Government’s position on the interpretation of the relevant legislation. Therefore, the Scottish Government does not consider it necessary to update its current guidance, which was set out in planning circular 1/2023.

Murdo Fraser

I am sure that the minister would acknowledge that there is confusion about the law on planning for short-term lets, with different councils taking different approaches. Some councils now require such operators, even if they have been operating for some time, to apply for retrospective planning consent before they will grant a short-term let. Other councils take a different approach. Does the minister not think that updated guidance from the Scottish Government would be helpful, so that we could have uniformity of approach across the country instead of the current confusion?

Paul McLennan

One of the most important points when we set out the policy was about giving local authorities the ability to use their own flexibility—something that was supported in our discussions by the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland, SOLAR.

I am aware that representatives of the City of Edinburgh Council are speaking to petitioners to try and clarify some of the points that have been raised, and I know that discussions are on-going in that regard.

Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

Will the minister make it clear that the court ruling applies only to the City of Edinburgh Council’s short-term lets policy, and that the national legislation underpinning the licence scheme remains robust and applicable across Scotland, with a considerable degree of local discretion?

Paul McLennan

As I mentioned in my previous answer, I can confirm that the ruling applies only to the local planning policy of the City of Edinburgh Council, which relates to the council’s interpretation and implementation of legislation for designated short-term let control areas. The ruling does not impact in any way on either planning or short-term let licensing legislation, nor was the court asked to consider any matters relating to legislation as part of the judicial review. Our view is that the licensing and planning of short-term let accommodation can be operated effectively by authorities so as to respect the rights of hosts and guests.


Social Security Support (Motherwell and Wishaw)

To ask the Scottish Government what social security support is available to people in the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency who are experiencing poverty, including fuel poverty. (S6O-03008)

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

The Scottish Government’s priority is to do everything that we can to help those who are worst affected by the cost of living crisis, which is why, since 2022-23, we have continued to allocate around £3 billion a year to support policies that tackle poverty and protect people as far as possible. That includes our investment of more than £22 million this winter through our winter heating payment to support around 400,000 households on the lowest incomes to heat their homes. We have also invested more than £7 million this year, making more than 30,000 payments of the child winter heating payment to children, young people and their families in Scotland who may have higher fuel needs due to a disability or health condition. There is no equivalent support available elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

We continue to raise our investment, increasing all social security benefits in 2024-25 by 6.7 per cent, in recognition of the challenges that are being faced across Scotland.

Clare Adamson

Energy companies are resuming the installation of prepayment meters under warrant, following updated advice from the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets. I have contacted Ofgem and major energy suppliers, which say that that is a last resort. However, my constituents in Motherwell and Wishaw, who are at the sharp end of that unfair practice by the energy suppliers, tell a very different story. Energy policy remains reserved to Westminster, so what engagement has the Scottish Government had with the UK Government regarding the unfair position that is faced by people who are forced to take prepayment meters?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I very much share the member’s concerns regarding the reintroduction of forced prepayment meter installations. Ofgem’s code of practice requiring suppliers to meet a number of conditions before taking such action is an important step. However, too many households remain at risk from that practice, especially with energy costs remaining so high. We believe that energy suppliers must exhaust all options, including meaningful support to struggling households to manage debt, before imposing prepayment meters. The Minister for Energy and the Environment has raised the matter previously with the UK Minister for Affordability and Skills and will continue to pursue the matter in meetings with the UK Government and Ofgem in the coming weeks.


Social Security Scotland (Support for Claimants)

4. Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government how it holds Social Security Scotland to account to ensure that it is fulfilling its responsibility to help claimants, who request support, to provide supporting information, including obtaining it on their behalf. (S6O-03009)

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

The Social Security Scotland framework document provides accountability and governance to ensure that Social Security Scotland meets its statutory obligations. The framework requires delivery in keeping with our core values of dignity, fairness and respect. Encouraging people to access the benefits that they are entitled to and assisting them through our application process are rights that are enshrined in the social security charter. Assisting people to gather supporting information for disability assistance is a fundamental part of delivering those obligations. Reviewing performance on that is a frequent priority in my discussions with the chief executive of Social Security Scotland.

Foysol Choudhury

The cabinet secretary recently informed me that

“Social Security Scotland are committed to ensuring people applying for disability assistance are helped to provide supporting information, which can include obtaining it on their behalf.”—[Written Answers, 14 November 2023; S6W-22558.]

A constituent of mine advised that, as his claim was being considered, he was not contacted once and nor were the clinicians whom he provided to verify the claims. What data is kept on the number of applicants who may need additional assistance with applications? How often is that reviewed?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am afraid that, from the information that Foysol Choudhury has given and our previous correspondence, he has not directed me to a particular constituent and issue. If he has his constituent’s permission to pass it on, I would be happy to receive that information and to work with the agency to look into it.

It is clear that an integral part of the work on adult disability payments is assisting those who gather supporting information. That is a very important part of the work. I know that we have corresponded on the matter previously, but I am not aware that Foysol Choudhury has raised a particular case in which there has been an issue. I would, of course, be very pleased to look into that along with the agency and to get back to him in correspondence.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

The support that Social Security Scotland provides to claimants has helped it to build remarkably high satisfaction ratings. Those stand in stark contrast to the reputation of the UK Government’s Department for Work and Pensions. Has the cabinet secretary had any recent discussion with Social Security Scotland about how it can maintain or even improve claimants’ experiences?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have been very pleased to have had regular discussions with the agency’s executive team about how we can build on the high satisfaction ratings. For example, around nine in 10 survey respondents said that they were treated with kindness, dignity, fairness and respect. That is, of course, in stark contrast to the reports from the DWP’s previous system, particularly on the personal independence payment. However, it is clear that there is still work to do to ensure that we deliver that service for everyone. I am always more than happy to work with members to see what more can be done to improve that.


Temporary Accommodation (Support for Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is offering to local authorities to help people stuck in temporary accommodation. (S6O-03010)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

We have committed to reducing the use of temporary accommodation and, in response to the recommendations of the temporary accommodation task and finish group, we are investing at least £60 million through the £752 million affordable housing supply programme in 2023-24 to support a national acquisition plan. We are working with partners to develop a new programme for social landlords to maximise the use of existing housing stock alongside targeted partnership plans with the local authorities that face the greatest pressures. Additional funding of £2 million in 2023-24 has been targeted at the local authorities with the largest percentage increases in temporary accommodation.

Meghan Gallacher

What the minister failed to mention is that more than 15,000 households are stuck in temporary accommodation. “The homelessness monitor: Scotland 2024” predicts that homelessness will increase by 33 per cent by 2026. I find it shocking that the Scottish National Party Government has chosen to cut the housing budget and to starve councils of the funding that is necessary to tackle those issues. Does the Scottish Government plan to declare a housing emergency to ensure that the predictions in the homelessness monitor do not come to fruition?

Paul McLennan

It is important to make a few points.

There is a 10 per cent capital cut from Meghan Gallacher’s Government. I hope that she will take that back.

I am glad that Meghan Gallacher mentioned the homelessness monitor, because one of the key things that it said was that the biggest increase is due to the local housing allowance being frozen over a number of years. That is in the report; the member should read it. It also mentions benefit rates being the biggest factor. If Meghan Gallacher is serious about the issue, she should go back to her chancellor about the budget, which is coming in March, and discuss those issues. We spend near enough £100 million a year on discretionary housing payments to support that. If we had a decent level of local housing allowance, we would not need to do that.

There are three main points that Meghan Gallacher needs to take back in that regard. I am glad that you mentioned that because, as I said, the biggest impact is from poverty, which your Government is adding to.

You should speak through the chair, please, minister.


Affordable Homes

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to ensure that it meets its affordable homes target by 2032. (S6O-03011)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

To September 2023, 15,765 homes—of which 77 per cent are for social rent—were delivered towards the 110,000 target. The United Kingdom budget has meant that our UK capital funding will fall by 10 per cent in real terms between 2023-24 and 2027-28. Inflationary pressures, Brexit impacts and wider market conditions have triggered a rise in construction costs and workforce challenges.

We remain focused on our target of delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032. To support that, we are bringing forward to 2024 a review that was scheduled for 2026-27, with a focus on deliverability. We are also accelerating work with the financial community to boost private sector investment.

Katy Clark

Nearly £200 million is to be cut from the affordable homes supply programme. The number of social homes on which construction began was down by 41 per cent in 2023. An average of 7,700 new social homes need to be built every year in order to meet the target. How does the minister believe that that can be achieved if funding is to be cut?

Paul McLennan

I refer the member to my answer to the previous question, regarding the 10 per cent real-terms cut to our funding. That is an issue to mention—we have to deal with those issues. The Institute for Fiscal Studies gave evidence to the Finance and Public Administration Committee on the cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget and the Welsh Government’s budget, which have been made basically to pay for tax cuts. That is the decision that has been made.

I meet and work with local authorities on how we can maximise the deliverability of their own programmes.

There is also a challenge for Katy Clark and her party. If Labour is successful in the election, it is key that it reverses the cut to our capital funding. It also needs to look at local housing allowance rates, which are important. I hope that, if a Labour Government is elected, we can discuss those issues and bring forward proposals, because those are the main things that are impacting on deliverability.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Can the minister confirm that the previous Labour Administration built only six council houses in Scotland between 2003 and 2007, and that this Scottish National Party Government, despite Tory austerity and Sir Keir Starmer’s refusal to turn on the taps if he becomes Prime Minister, is still building 1,157 houses this year, which is nearly 200 times more than Labour built over four years?

Paul McLennan

Indeed—a total of six council houses were built in the last four years of the Labour-led Government in Scotland. That is in stark contrast to the last few years of this Government, when 7,564 new council houses have been built. That is 1,260 times the number that were built under the last four years of the Labour-led Government. I am proud that, from April 2007 to the end of September 2023, we worked with the sector to deliver 126,396 affordable homes, more than 89,000 of which are for social rent, including 23,625 council homes.

I come back to Mr Gibson’s point about Keir Starmer’s refusal to turn on the taps. There is a real challenge for Labour on housing if it is elected—I will come back to that point later in the year.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

Scotland’s

“affordable homes target risks becoming an impossible dream.”

Those are not my words but the words of the chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations. The Scottish Government set a target of 10 per cent of all affordable homes to be in rural and island communities. Last year, however, there was a record low in approvals and completions. Does the minister now accept that that target is unlikely to be met?

Paul McLennan

In my first answer to Katy Clark, I mentioned that we are bringing forward to 2024 a review that was scheduled for 2026-27, with a focus on deliverability. I also mentioned some of the issues that have had an impact on house building, such as inflationary pressures and the impacts of Brexit, as well as wider market conditions, which have not helped. As I mentioned, there is also the 10 per cent cut to our capital funding.

Miles Briggs mentioned rural homes. I have discussed with rural developers the cost of construction, which has had an impact in that regard. That comes back to the point about interest rates and construction inflation over that period. I continue to meet local authorities in rural areas to deliver houses there.


New Homes (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to increase the number of new homes started in rural areas. (S6O-03012)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

I have been engaging closely with a range of partners such as local authorities, housing providers and businesses, including at a recent round-table event, to support the delivery of more affordable homes across rural Scotland. That work is underpinned by our recently published “Rural & Islands Housing Action Plan”.

We will invest more than £556 million in affordable homes across Scotland in the next financial year, including through the demand-led rural and islands housing funds and the rural affordable homes for key workers fund. We also provided funding for the Communities Housing Trust and South of Scotland Community Housing to support communities to deliver more affordable homes in rural and island communities.

Liz Smith

That is helpful, but I want to double-check that, out of the 110,000 affordable homes that are planned by 2032, 10 per cent is the proportion that is supposed to be built in rural and island communities. Can I check that figure, please? There seems to be a bit of confusion about it.

The latest housing statistics from the last quarter in 2023 showed that the number of new homes that were started had decreased by 24 per cent. Can you tell us how that will impact on your ambitions to ensure that rural areas are well served, given that such homes are critical to the sustainability of rural communities?

I remind members to speak through the chair.

Paul McLennan

As I have said previously, 10 per cent is the minimum target that we are aiming for, and we will work with local authorities in that regard. If we can deliver more than that, we will. As I mentioned, we had a round-table discussion with major employers about opportunities through, for example, the key workers fund, and we are working with the Communities Housing Trust on deliverability.

We are looking at other opportunities. Liz Smith will be aware of some of the developments in the renewables sector in Inverness. I spoke to developers there, along with the local community and the local authority, about the opportunities for Inverness and the surrounding areas. We are looking to see how we can deliver six or seven renewables hubs, mostly in rural areas. By working with the sector and developers, there is an opportunity to develop more housing in rural areas. I am happy to discuss that later.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Many young people want the chance to live in the rural and island areas where they have grown up and where they have family ties. Even a small number of new properties can have a significant benefit, such as the development by Hjaltland Housing Association of four new homes in Walls, in my constituency. The outcome of the methodology to determine where new houses are built can sometimes differ from the needs that are expressed by communities. What action can the Scottish Government take on that point?

Paul McLennan

Beatrice Wishart will know that I visited Shetland a number of months ago and spoke to Hjaltland about that development. Infrastructure funding was provided for the site. The topography of an area can be a particular challenge, and she knows that we are working closely with Hjaltland and Shetland Islands Council on that. I know that Shetland has had specific challenges with the renewables sector and others that have put real pressure on the area. We continue to work closely with people on Shetland and will have follow-up meetings with them. It is key that we meet local authorities to discuss their individual challenges, such as those that Shetland has. I will continue to discuss Shetland’s particular issues with the people there.


Disabled People

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve the lives of disabled people. (S6O-03013)

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

The Scottish Government is working hard to improve the lives of disabled people. The independent living fund, which supports disabled people, will reopen to new applicants after it received £9 million in investment as part of the 2024-25 Scottish budget. That investment will support about 1,000 new applicants. Later this year, we will implement an immediate priorities plan, co-produced with disabled people’s organisations, which will include a range of actions to support disabled people. In addition, £5 million from our equality and human rights fund supports disabled people’s organisations to tackle inequality and discrimination, further equality and advance the realisation of human rights in Scotland.

Sharon Dowey

The Scottish National Party Government claims that Social Security Scotland is founded on the principles of dignity, fairness and respect. However, Scots with disabilities are being let down by the system. Specifically, the latest Social Security Scotland statistics show that more than a third of adult disability payment applications have been denied, while the average processing time for the child disability payment is about five months. What action is being taken to ensure that everyone who is in need of disability benefits receives them in a timely manner?

Emma Roddick

The Scottish Government recognises that some people have waited too long for Social Security Scotland to make a decision on their application, but work is on-going to address that, and the situation has been improving at pace.

I absolutely stand by the principles of dignity, fairness and respect being embedded in Social Security Scotland. That is borne out by the customer and client reviews that we have received from Social Security Scotland, which tell us that the process is far better than the one that the Department for Work and Pensions down south uses for similar benefits. I urge the member to ensure that the communications to constituents provide the message that people should feel able to ask Social Security Scotland for support and that they will be welcomed when doing so.

Will the minister outline how the reopening of the independent living fund will align with Social Security Scotland’s work to support the wellbeing of disabled people?

Emma Roddick

The Scottish Government recognises the pressures on household budgets, including those of disabled people, who are disproportionately impacted by, and being stretched due to, the on-going cost of living crisis. That is why, since 2022-23, we have continued to allocate about £3 billion a year to social security policies that tackle poverty and protect people as far as possible.

The independent living fund provides additional funding to disabled people, alongside social security and social care funding, which supports them to live more independently. The reopening of the fund realises our commitment to further supporting the disabled people who need it most. The £9 million of extra investment will allow up to 1,000 new recipients to exercise greater choice and control over the care and support that they receive, so that they can be better supported in their homes and their communities.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

This week, Homes for Scotland’s “Existing Housing Needs in Scotland” report showed that 85,000 households are living in properties that do not have the required adaptations or support for the disabled people who live in them. The 27 per cent cut to the housing budget will not help to drive forward the progress that we need on aids and adaptations. Will the minister who has responsibility for equality tell the chamber what assessment was made of the impact that the cut will have on disabled people across Scotland?

We are all too aware that older and disabled people might struggle to find housing that meets their needs. We are taking steps to mitigate that by increasing the supply of accessible and adapted housing.