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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 26, 2024


Topical Question Time

Women’s State Pension Age (Poverty Rate)

1. Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report on how women born in the 1950s were affected by increases to the state pension age, and given that women are more likely to live in poverty than men, what assessment it has made of the potential impact that changes to the state pension age have had on the poverty rate among women in Scotland. (S6T-01903)

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

The Scottish Government welcomes the findings of the report, which recognise the communication failures by the United Kingdom Government. The Scottish Government has always and will always support the WASPI women—women against state pension inequality—and this is a significant moment for all those who have been involved in that campaign.

We know that too many single female pensioners are living in relative poverty after housing costs—23 per cent compared to 16 per cent of single men in 2020 to 2023, for example. The UK Government must take responsibility for the harm that it has caused to the WASPI women through its maladministration.

Audrey Nicoll

Given the substantial impact that the issue has had on so many women, does the cabinet secretary agree with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s recommendation that the UK Government, whether Conservative or Labour, should apologise for its failure of the WASPI women who have been affected by the increase in the state pension age and set up a compensation scheme? Does she agree that the Department for Work and Pensions should “do the right thing”?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The ombudsman’s report was clear that the DWP must do the right thing right away. That means that the UK Government must not only apologise for the harms caused by the maladministration; it must also act. It must set up a compensation scheme that provides full and genuine compensation for the women concerned.

It is deeply disappointing that, after years of promises made by Labour and Tory members, those parties are both now refusing to accept the report’s recommendations to fully compensate the women who have been impacted. Alan Brown MP has cross-party support to compensate women through a bill. Once again, it is clear that only with strong voices from the Scottish National Party at Westminster can Westminster Governments be held to account, regardless of whether they are Labour or Tory.

Audrey Nicoll

It is incredibly disappointing that, since the publication of the ombudsman’s report last week, the Labour Party has repeatedly failed to give a guarantee that its party in power would honour Westminster’s responsibility to provide justice and full compensation to the estimated 3.6 million WASPI women. Can the cabinet secretary provide assurances that the Scottish Government will urge the next UK Government to deliver justice?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Scottish Government, as I said in my original answer, has and always will support the WASPI women. We are exceptionally concerned about the impact that inaction will have on poverty levels in Scotland. That is why it is important that the Parliament continues to speak about the issue and, importantly, to press for action.

I note that Jackie Baillie was pictured campaigning with WASPI activists just a fortnight ago. Last year, in Paisley, Anas Sarwar walked behind a WASPI banner. The list of every newsletter and campaign leaflet—

This is a ministerial response.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am quite happy for Mr Kerr to press the button and ask a question but, in the meantime, I will continue to deal with Audrey Nicoll’s question, because she is quite right to point to the betrayal of WASPI women. She is quite right to point to the fact that they deserve not just our respect but action. What is very clear is that, at this rate, there will be no change at Westminster, and that is exceptionally disappointing and a betrayal of every single WASPI woman—women whom we have spoken about in the chamber over many a year.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

This is a very serious report, and I thank all the women who have contributed to it and campaigned over many years. Now that the report has been published, will the cabinet secretary take the opportunity to outline what steps she is taking to discuss its implications for WASPI women in Scotland with the relevant UK ministers? I am sure that she agrees that a swift response from this UK Government is extremely important in terms of the next steps, as is listening to the views of all those who are impacted.

Given that poverty and inequality statistics published last week—to which I think the cabinet secretary referred—show static and rising poverty rates among pensioners over the past decade, what more will the Scottish Government do, within its powers, to support pensioners?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I discussed the matter only yesterday, when I was at Westminster and met my colleague Stephen Flynn, who continues to press the UK Government and will press any successive UK Government on what it would do. Disappointingly, he has had no response.

Paul O’Kane should be assured that the Scottish Government and the SNP group at Westminster will continue to press for action. I have a great deal of respect for Mr O’Kane and there are many issues on which we share common cause, but this Parliament cannot just be about mitigating the worst excesses of Westminster, whether they be Labour or Tory excesses. This Parliament is for much more than that. I am deeply disappointed that a Labour representative comes to the chamber and asks what the Scottish Government will do to mitigate the policy of a prospective Labour Government.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I am sure that members across the chamber will agree that time matters in the situation. Given that it is almost 30 years since the original seeds of the scandal were sown and more than 10 years since its impact first came to light and that, as a result, many of the WASPI women have sadly now passed away waiting for justice, I hope that the ombudsman’s decision will be seen as a staging post for the final justice that those women will receive. Does the cabinet secretary agree that we cannot wait or delay the implementation of the recommendations but should extend compensation to the women who are left, so that they can enjoy it in the time that remains for them?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Alex Cole-Hamilton is right to point out that time is of the essence, and that is why I continue to call on the UK Government to take action. The issue is a long-discussed betrayal—I emphasise that it is a betrayal—of the WASPI women. The report laid bare the extent of that. To be frank, change should have happened already. The member and I agree on that but, if the report could become the stepping stone to genuine compensation being put in place, it will have done its job and much more. Disappointingly, however, it does not seem that that will happen.

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I, too, put on record my thanks to all the WASPI women who have campaigned on the issue for so long. Not only should their call for proper compensation be answered—we know that some women have lost up to six years of their pension—but we need to continue to stand with them and join their calls for fair and fast compensation. Will the cabinet secretary outline how else we can continue to support the WASPI women in their campaign for justice?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The ability of the Parliament and the Government to take action on the issue is restricted by our legislative competence on reserved issues. However, the SNP will continue to use its voice in the Government to ensure that we speak up for WASPI women, and I am sure that Maggie Chapman and fellow colleagues in the Scottish Greens will do likewise. It is disappointing that we will not, I fear, be able to call with a united voice on the current UK Government to take the fair and fast action on the compensation that Maggie Chapman discussed.

Cosmetic Treatments

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that Scotland has become the “worst country in Europe” for unqualified beauticians injecting customers with cosmetic treatments. (S6T-01893)

The Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health (Jenni Minto)

The safety of non-surgical cosmetic procedures is a concern and we are actively considering how best to take forward any future legislation in that area. Public consultation has shown overwhelming support for tighter regulation, and we are working towards that with key stakeholders, including healthcare professionals, hair and beauty industry representatives and environmental health officers. My officials took part in a meeting just yesterday.

The sector is fast moving and any future legislation has to be robust and future proofed. Ultimately, we want to ensure that all non-surgical cosmetic procedures in Scotland are delivered from hygienic premises by appropriately trained practitioners who apply recognised standards and use regulated products.

Roz McCall

Tens of thousands of people across Scotland now get dermal filler treatment. As its popularity increases, so do complications such as infection, blocked arteries, blindness and even stroke. Its increased popularity has been mirrored by a surge in unlicensed, counterfeit and unsafe products being passed off as Botox treatment.

In 2021, it became illegal in England for a person under the age of 18 to have fillers or Botox. Stakeholders such as Ashton Collins from Save Face, the United Kingdom Government-approved register for aesthetic treatment, said that she had assumed that Scotland would follow. She said:

“We keep asking for an update and so far there is no agenda for them to do that.”

She went on to say that

“the lack of action in Scotland”

has resulted in young people from the north of England travelling to Scotland

“because they can get treatments under the age of 18 with no questions asked.”

My question to the minister is simple. Will the Scottish Government accept that its lack of action is putting children at risk?

Jenni Minto

I make it clear that my focus is on making Scotland as safe as it can be when it comes to dermal fillers. We need to get it right. As I said earlier, it is a fast-moving area, and I am pleased that I have the engagement of the expert group.

I would be happy for Roz McCall to provide any additional information or evidence that she is aware of around the processes that we are all invested in to make sure that we get this as right as possible. I am pleased that Roz McCall and I have this as a shared issue. If she can share any evidence of concerns with me, I can share them with my officials.

Roz McCall

I am happy to share everything that I have with the minister. However, given that the consultation was completed in 2022, I am not seeing enough urgency from the Scottish Government on the issue. Frances Turner Traill, a prescribing nurse and director of a registered clinic, is concerned that the lack of action from the Scottish Government will actually see patients die. She said:

“It’s been 10 years that myself and colleagues have sat round the table with the Scottish government and very little has been done and it’s inexcusable, because the public is now injecting the public without any redress.”

It is simply wrong that, as another healthcare professional stated,

“It is currently completely legal for a plumber or a hairdresser to inject a 16-year-old girl in the back of a van with no recourse”.

Can the minister confirm today any timescales for potential legislation, because the current situation is not acceptable?

Jenni Minto

I cannot provide a timeline at this time, but I am working incredibly hard with my officials to ensure that we get the issue into the parliamentary legislative process. It is an important area in which we need to find the right legislation at the right time, with the right procedures and regulations.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

The minister is aware of my concerns about the issue. I pay tribute to Jill Best, who is a medical aestheticist in my constituency, for her leadership in campaigning on the matter.

I am aware of the strength of many of my constituents’ concerns about the issue. Can the minister say any more about what consideration the Scottish Government has given to regulating such treatment, and will she agree to meet me to discuss the matter in more detail?

Jenni Minto

As I have just advised members, we are giving active consideration to further legislation in the area right now, and we meet the expert group regularly. Our consideration covers the appropriate level of training and qualifications that might be put in place. As I have said, it is critical to get the details right, and I am grateful to our stakeholder partners. Of course, I would be very happy to meet Stuart McMillan and Roz McCall at some point.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I do not doubt the minister’s sincerity, and I also recognise that she is relatively new in post. I am sure that she is not comfortable giving the answer that she has given, because it would appear that nothing has happened for 10 years. Other parts of the United Kingdom moved ahead three years ago. It is important to understand why we are not making progress. Will the minister explain why it is taking so long? What is stopping us from making faster progress in this area?

Jenni Minto

As I have laid out in my previous answers, we have been working hard with experts in the field to ensure that we get the legislation correct. That is what I am focusing on: ensuring that we get the right legislation in place and that we support people who are wrongly getting injected with fillers that they should not be injected with.

Perhaps we all have a responsibility in this, so I suggest that Mr Kerr take time to spread the word that people should be really careful about where they go.

When will the Government move forward with legislation?

I am suggesting that, as representatives of the people of Scotland, we have a responsibility in that, and I am suggesting that Mr Kerr put it out—

You are the Government.

I am well aware that I am the Government.

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

Mr Kerr, I would be grateful if, when the minister is responding, you were to resist the temptation to contribute from your seat.

Thank you, minister. Are you content that your response has concluded?

I am content.

Thank you. We move to the next question.

Child Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to tackle child poverty. (S6T-01899)

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

The Scottish Government continues to do all that it can within its powers to tackle child poverty. It will continue to invest around £3 billion in the next financial year as part of the Scottish Government’s mission to tackle poverty and protect people from harm. In the 2024-25 budget, we committed £457 million for our Scottish child payment and more than £370 million to support concessionary bus travel for more than 2 million people, and we continue to invest around £1 billion per year in high-quality early learning and childcare.

We recognise that child poverty levels remain too high in Scotland. That is despite Scottish Government action making a difference, with our policies estimated to keep 100,000 children out of relative poverty in the coming year. Our efforts continue to be hampered by the United Kingdom Government’s decade of austerity.

Katy Clark

Data from the Department for Work and Pensions family resources survey shows that, after housing costs, children are more likely to be in poverty than pensioners or working-age adults. What work is the Scottish Government doing to evaluate the effectiveness of the Scottish child payment?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Scottish Government takes very seriously our requirements not only to act but to research the evidence base behind what policies are doing across Scotland. That is why I can commend to Katy Clark a recent report by Professor Linda Bauld, which looked at our social security system and the impact that it is already having, despite its still being relatively new. I give that as one example of what we are doing to analyse the impact and effectiveness of policies, in addition to the actions that we will continue to take next year.

Katy Clark

Figures that were released by the Scottish Government show that child poverty levels have not reduced, despite the Scottish Government saying that that is a top priority. What other work is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that support is targeted at the poorest children?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I mentioned in my original answer, the Government is investing £3 billion in our work to tackle poverty and protect people from harm. Some of that is a universal offering, which I think is an important concept and which I hope that members on the Labour benches will agree is an important aspect of our public services. There are also aspects that are targeted, such as the Scottish child payment. A combination of universal and targeted approaches is right.

Our work is made more difficult by the fact that the UK Government’s welfare system pushes people into poverty and we have a system in which individuals who are on benefits cannot even begin to afford the essentials of life. That is why the Scottish Government has called on the current UK Government to implement an essentials guarantee, which, so far, it has refused to do. It is even more disappointing that UK Labour has also refused to take that action.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

It was not so long ago that Scottish Labour was campaigning for an additional £5 payment for children, but, instead, this Scottish National Party Government introduced the game-changing Scottish child payment of £25 per week per eligible child. Will the cabinet secretary tell the Parliament how many children that has lifted out of poverty and confirm that, unlike the Labour Party, this Government will not renege on its policy of opposition to the two-child benefit cap?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I notice that, while we are trying to have a serious discussion about child poverty, Mr O’Kane and Mr Kerr are sitting on either side, chuntering from a sedentary position. I am not going to be put off by their having a discussion—

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The minister is making a really good point. One reason why we might be talking is that the questions that she is getting are about Labour or Conservative party policies, whereas the minister is here to explain and account for the policies of this SNP-Green Government. That is why there might be some chuntering. I raise that as a point of order because I am sure that the public, as well as you, Presiding Officer, might want to know why we are exercised.

The Presiding Officer

Regardless of members’ views on contributions made by other members, they should always adhere to the requirement to treat one another with courtesy and respect. I ask members to continue today’s business in that regard.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will continue following your lead on the questions that you choose within Parliament and will answer those accordingly.

When we are having a discussion on child poverty, we should recognise the fact that it is estimated that the Scottish child payment will keep around 60,000 children out of relative poverty next year. That is important forecasting work. We also know, as I said in my original answer—which, for Mr Kerr’s benefit, was to a Labour member—that there is more to do.

As an example of how much more could be done, if the UK Government were to abolish the two-child limit, that could lift 10,000 children out of poverty overnight. It is deeply disappointing that neither of the main Westminster parties has agreed to do so. That pushes people into poverty at exactly the time when we are trying to raise them out of it.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Can the minister tell us what impact there would have been on child poverty in Scotland if the Scottish Government had cut taxes by £561 million, as was called for by Labour as part of the Scottish budget? Has there been any indication that a future UK Labour Government, if elected, would replicate the Scottish child payment of £26.70 per child per week from April?

When responding, the cabinet secretary should focus on matters for which the Scottish Government has general responsibility.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will be delighted to do so, Presiding Officer, by talking about the progressive income tax decisions taken by this Government, which provide vital revenue to invest in public services.

It was deeply concerning that, as part of the Scottish Government’s budget process, the Labour party chose—and it was a choice—to put forward a policy that would have taken £561 million out of those services. I can give Mr Gibson some examples of what the Government would not have been able to do. We would not have been able to invest £457 million in the Scottish child payment or more than £133 million to mitigate the worst excesses of the Westminster welfare regime. It is telling that, as we tackle child poverty in Scotland, there is a level of discomfort among both Labour and Conservative members. That discomfort is due to the inaction by both of their parties at Westminster.

That concludes topical question time.