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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, November 30, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Social Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is portfolio question time and the portfolio is social justice. I remind any members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. There is quite a bit of interest in this question time, so I appeal, as usual, for brevity in questions and responses.

Illegal Migration Act 2023 (Mitigation)

1. Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken to mitigate any impact of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 on the provision of support for refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people living in Scotland. (S6O-02814)

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

The Scottish Government is vehemently opposed to the Illegal Migration Act 2023.

The United Kingdom Government’s plans to implement the act remain unclear, making it challenging for the Scottish Government to consider what action may be possible. We are assessing the scope of the mitigations that are available within our devolved competence.

We continue to deliver a range of interventions to mitigate the impact of the cruel and inhumane UK Government immigration policy, including through the new Scots refugee integration strategy, the ending destitution together strategy, the trafficking and exploitation strategy and the Scottish guardianship service. We also recently launched our paper on migration in an independent Scotland, setting out our approach to migration, which is very much based on the values of dignity, fairness and respect.

Paul Sweeney

Although the act is a product of the UK Tory Government, it will have an impact on areas devolved to Scotland, including child protection and protection against human trafficking. I understand that the Scottish Government worked with stakeholders over the summer on a plan to mitigate those impacts, as the minister mentioned. Will she confirm what steps the Scottish Government will take to strengthen human trafficking and child protection measures in addition to the high-level strategies that she already outlined, and will she set out a clear timeline for the specific interventions that are urgently required?

Emma Roddick

I appreciate the member’s interest in the issue and remember him attending the summit on illegal migration that we held in order to explore potential mitigations. However, as I explained in my previous answer, without knowing the detail of how the act is to be implemented, it is very difficult for us to come up with specific measures to mitigate its worst impacts.

I am more than happy to continue our engagement both with the member and with stakeholders in the wider policy area, to ensure that we get on top of what we can possibly do, within our devolved competence.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

As the recent “Building a New Scotland” paper on migration demonstrates, the only realistic way to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers receive the support that they need from the day of their arrival is to have the full powers of an independent state. How transformational does the minister believe it would it be for asylum seekers to be granted the right to work in an independent Scotland?

Emma Roddick

Having the right to work, and being able to do so without being limited to the shortage occupation list, would be absolutely transformational for people seeking asylum in Scotland. We recognise that access to employment can support people to settle and integrate, enable them to use their skills and experience, rebuild their confidence and expand their social networks while reducing the risk of poverty and reliance on Government support, as well as contributing to our economy and communities.

Scotland has already seen the enormous and valuable contribution made to our economy and communities by refugees and displaced people from Ukraine, who have the right to work from the day that they arrive or are granted refugee status.

Earlier this year, we commissioned our expert advisory group on migration and population to explore the potential impacts of giving asylum seekers the right to work in Scotland, and we expect the group to publish its report very shortly.

Pension Age Disability Payment

2. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to calls from Age Scotland and others to improve plans for the new pension age disability payment by including extra mobility and travel support for recipients. (S6O-02815)

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

I look forward to meeting Age Scotland, because I share its aim to meet the needs of older people in Scotland. That is why my priority is to have a safe and secure transfer to pension age disability payment after its launch. Although that limits fundamental changes to the existing rules, I am determined to ensure that pension age disability payment is delivered with dignity, fairness and respect. That is in sharp contrast to the actions of the United Kingdom Government, which is taking money away from disabled people and threatening them with sanctions—as was announced again in the autumn statement—about which I wrote to the Department for Work and Pensions on Friday.

Colin Smyth

The cabinet secretary will know that a mobility component is available to disabled people below pension age who are in receipt of disability-linked social security, such as the personal independence payment and the child and adult disability payments, but is not available to those who are above pension age, which is arguably ageist. Such a component could give disabled people access to mobility schemes, automatic rights to the blue badge and an opportunity to apply for exemption from vehicle tax, for example. Crucially, it would enhance their independence and wellbeing, as well as relieving pressure on other services. Is that not something that the cabinet secretary thinks we should be encouraging?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We undertook significant work on exploring the feasibility of introducing a mobility component during the early development of PADP, and our analysis found that it could cost an additional £518 million annually. In the current challenging fiscal environment, it is important for us to set out the costs of any proposals. We also have to bear in mind the risk of significant deviation from attendance allowance, given that those who receive it or PADP are automatically passported to a range of reserved benefits and premiums. That may be at risk if we deviate significantly.

In saying all of that, though, I am very keen to continue to work with stakeholders, which is why I will be meeting Age Scotland soon to discuss its campaign.

We have a couple of supplementary questions. The first is from Jeremy Balfour, who joins us online.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

Without a car, many older and disabled people struggle with transportation, especially in rural areas, as local bus services are infrequent and not suitable for wheelchair users. Does the cabinet secretary agree that a mobility scheme in those areas is now essential?

Cabinet secretary, I am concerned that the audio quality was not great. Did you pick up enough of the question to be able to respond?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I think that I did, Deputy Presiding Officer.

I begin, as I did at committee yesterday, by saying that I am pleased that Jeremy Balfour is still able to take part in proceedings. I look forward to welcoming him back to the chamber soon after his operation, but I wish him well for now, as I am sure do colleagues from across Parliament.

As I said in my original answer, there is a significant cost to the allocation of a mobility component to PADP, and we need to bear that in mind. I am sure that Mr Balfour will suggest costed proposals should he wish to make any changes to the regulations as they go through Parliament.

Will the cabinet secretary explain what additional improvements recipients of the devolved pension age disability payment will experience in comparison with the DWP’s attendance allowance?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Despite the fact that it is difficult to make fundamental changes, particularly before case transfer is completed, there are still differences, including more inclusive application channels, in-person support from our local delivery service and the streamlining of routes to set up third-party representatives. With PADP, we will significantly improve the way that we work, as we have done with all the devolved benefits delivered by Social Security Scotland.

Baby Box (Single-use Items)

To ask the Scottish Government what single-use items will be removed from the baby box, in light of the Circular Economy (Scotland) Bill. (S6O-02816)

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

The Circular Economy (Scotland) Bill will establish a legislative framework to support Scotland’s transition to a zero-waste and circular economy, including measures to reduce consumption of single-use items. Scotland’s baby box is providing essential items for the first six months of a baby’s life. A small number of essential single-use items are provided to support the health and wellbeing of mothers and babies, such as breast pads and maternity towels. All items that are provided in the baby box are kept under review to ensure that they are meeting the needs of babies and parents and the latest clinical advice.

Edward Mountain

Given the limited positive impact on new mothers and infants of the baby box, as laid out in The Lancet, does the cabinet secretary believe that ensuring that adequate maternity services are available to local mums in rural hospitals, such as those in Moray and Caithness, is as important?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Local maternity services are important, but I am genuinely disappointed that, at a time when we are seeing more countries coming to Scotland, asking about the experience of the baby box and looking to see how they can learn from it and develop it in their countries, we are yet to convince the Conservatives about its importance. That is very unfortunate, as the evaluation of the baby box highlights the positive impacts that the scheme has had on families, particularly for first-time, younger and low-income parents.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary share my astonishment at the Tories’ long-standing and curmudgeonly view of the baby box? Will she advise how many babies have received the baby box since it was introduced and how it is being received by parents? [Interruption.]

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I hear Mr Mountain accusing me of spin. I am sorry that quoting an independent evaluation of the baby box is described in that way, but there we go.

Kenneth Gibson is right to point to the success of Scotland’s baby box, which is the only one available in the United Kingdom. I am delighted that, since its inception, 282,341 babies born in Scotland have benefited from the baby box. That independent evaluation of parents shows that there is a high level of satisfaction—97 per cent—with the box and its contents, and that 91 per cent of families reported financial savings. I am disappointed that Mr Mountain does not think that that is a success.

I call Kaukab Stewart and ask her to be brief.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I am not alone in having seen a great deal of positive social media attention being directed towards Scotland’s baby box. What assurances can the cabinet secretary give that the Scottish Government will continue to monitor the way in which the baby box is received and to ensure that it stays at the forefront of international best practice?

Be as brief as possible, cabinet secretary.

As I mentioned, it is pleasing that many countries are looking to Scotland to see what they can learn from the baby box, and we look forward to working with international partners on that.

Property Factor Legislation

4. Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I apologise for arriving slightly late to the chamber.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what plans it has to review property factor legislation. (S6O-02817)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

As I said in my reply to Sarah Boyack’s written question in August this year, the Scottish Government revised the code of conduct for property factors in August 2021 in order to make it clearer, drive up standards and improve transparency and consistency.

There is evidence that the Property Factors (Scotland) Act 2011 is working as intended. Nevertheless, I have asked my officials to look at the operation of the property factor sector to see what more can be done to promote on-going improvement in standards, in line with the requirements that are set out in legislation.

Sarah Boyack

My inbox is increasingly full of issues relating to property factors. From the difficulties of setting up and operating residents associations to inaccurate invoices from factors, the ignoring of complaints and issues relating to the costs of landscape management, it is clear that there is a growing problem in Edinburgh and the Lothians. Will the minister therefore commit to meeting me to discuss those issues more fully and to looking at legislative and other solutions that could fix those issues for home owners, which just keep increasing in number?

Paul McLennan

I would be delighted to meet Sarah Boyack to discuss her specific concerns. As she knows, a process is in place for home owners who are not happy with an issue to apply to the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland housing and property chamber. However, I am more than happy to pick up on the specific issues and meet her.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

As Paul McLennan knows only too well, East Lothian and Midlothian are two of the fastest-growing areas in Scotland. However, sadly, many families who buy or rent in new developments are hit by unexpected or higher-than-anticipated factoring bills. Companies have been accused of overbilling, of not doing maintenance work and, in some cases in his constituency, of coercing and bullying residents into changing to more expensive weed-killing solutions that were not necessary. Is it not time that the Scottish Government took a stand through tougher regulation and told rogue operators to “factor off”?

I refer Mr Hoy to my previous answer. I have asked officials to look at the operation of the sector. I will certainly raise Mr Hoy’s points, and I am happy to meet him to discuss them.

Terminally Ill People and Their Carers (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what Scottish social security support is available for terminally ill people and their carers. (S6O-02818)

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

We ensure that disability benefit applications from terminally ill people are fast tracked, so that they receive the support that they deserve as quickly as possible. People who are terminally ill automatically receive the highest rates of disability assistance, and there are no award reviews. Awards are backdated so that people are paid from the day when they became entitled.

I can confirm that carer support payment, which was launched in three pilot areas last week, is available to people who care for someone who has a terminal illness. When delivered nationally, the new benefit will be paid to more than 80,000 Scottish carers.

Ruth Maguire

Members will have been moved by last week’s dying in the margins exhibition, which highlighted the crippling injustice and inequality that are faced by some of our citizens at the end of their life. Will the Scottish Government consider making additional support with energy bills available to those who have a terminal diagnosis?

Further to that, will the cabinet secretary join me and Marie Curie in calling on the United Kingdom Government to give terminally ill people of working age early access to their state pension, which they have paid into, is meant to be there for all at the end of life and could prevent some of them from spending their final days in poverty?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Ruth Maguire for asking that very important question. Recognising the pressures on household budgets, we have increased the winter heating payment by 10.1 per cent for winter 2023-24. The fuel insecurity fund, which was tripled by the First Minister, is available to terminally ill people and households who are at risk of self-rationing or self-disconnecting. Terminally ill children receive the child winter heating payment.

Unfortunately, as Ms Maguire well knows, the Scottish Government does not have control over the state pension age or issues to do with that, but I join her in her ask of the UK Government. It is a very fair ask; quite frankly, I do not think that it is asking too much of the UK Government.

We have also called on the UK Government to urgently introduce a social tariff mechanism in relation to energy to support vulnerable consumers and ensure that social security payments are sufficient to meet people’s needs.

I will take a couple of brief supplementary questions.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

The cost of running vital medical equipment such as a ventilator can be £26 a month. A humidifier can cost £15 a month, oxygen concentrators can cost £61 a month and an air mattress can cost up to £22 a month. The former First Minister said that she would work to ensure that those costs would be covered. Has that happened?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I can confirm that patients using home oxygen concentrators are fully reimbursed for the energy costs that are associated with running that equipment, but Mr Briggs’s question was wider than that. He has, quite rightly, raised that point with me before, as he is keen to see action. I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss that in detail. I recognise his point about the additional costs, although such funding would require to come from the Scottish Government’s pretty much fixed budget.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I was pleased to lead the members’ business debate on the dying in the margins report, which Ruth Maguire referenced. Last week, there was the publication of the state of caring report for 2023, which shows that there are gaps. People who are in receipt of certain income replacement benefits cannot access carers allowance supplement because they are not in receipt of carers allowance. Has the Government done any assessment of the number of carers in Scotland, particularly those who support someone with a terminal illness, who might be falling through the cracks in the system and of the impact that that is having on them?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As Mr O’Kane well knows, we are looking to make improvements to the carer support payment as we bring it in. Some of those improvements—for example, those at launch date—were for carers who are in full-time education.

We are, of course, looking to do more. I am happy to work with Mr O’Kane to hear more about the situations that he talked about. That might have to be done after case transfer is complete, but I take the issue very seriously and we are keen to do everything to support carers, particularly those who support someone with a terminal illness.

Local Housing Allowance (Housing Policy)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent correspondence it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding any impact on its housing policies in Scotland of local housing allowance rates. (S6O-02819)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

Freezing local housing allowance amounted to an estimated cut of £819 million over three years, and it dramatically reduced support for low-income households in the private rented sector, putting people at risk of homelessness. Ministers wrote to the UK Government urging it to reconsider the freeze in May and November this year, and to previous secretaries of state each of the previous years in which there has been a freeze. It is deeply frustrating that the UK Government has taken so long to reverse that damaging cut, and we have, sadly, all seen the consequent damage of that. We sincerely hope that a freeze is never considered again.

Jackie Dunbar

Although the end of the UK Government’s three-year freeze on local housing allowance rates is welcome, there is no denying that the policy led to a brutal shortfall between housing benefits and the actual cost of renting a home, as proven by the Chartered Institute of Housing. Does the minister agree that the autumn statement simply does not go far enough to support financially stretched tenants in Scotland and that it has been left, yet again, to the Scottish Government to pick up the pieces and mitigate Tory welfare cuts?

Paul McLennan

I agree that the autumn statement does not go far enough and hinders the efforts of the Scottish Government in our core mission to tackle poverty and prevent homelessness. As I said, an estimated £819 million has been lost due to the three-year LHA freeze. The Scottish Government is spending £84 million on discretionary housing payments this year alone to mitigate the bedroom tax and benefit cap. We will continue to support those impacted by damaging UK Government welfare cuts, but, if we did not have to spend so much mitigating those, we could further invest in anti-poverty actions to better support Scottish tenants.

We move to question 7. I call Stuart McMillan, who joins us online.

Depopulation (Greenock and Inverclyde)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with Inverclyde Council to discuss any impact of depopulation on the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency. (S6O-02820)

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

In addition to working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on a round-table discussion on population policy comprising all local authorities, the Scottish Government has undertaken extensive engagement with depopulating west coast local authorities throughout the development of our addressing depopulation action plan, which has formed a key part of a wider programme of official and ministerial engagement to inform the plan. Most recently, officials met the chief executive of Inverclyde Council on 8 November, when there was an opportunity for the council to further shape and provide feedback on its draft contents in advance of publication.

Stuart McMillan

The minister is very much aware of the depopulation challenge that Inverclyde has faced and, as the projections indicate, will continue to face—the situation will only worsen over time. Although local government decisions have a role to play in making people want to stay in or relocate to an area, the Scottish Government also has a role to play. Does the minister agree that, as a first principle, all public bodies should consider Inverclyde to be the destination for future investment to help to address the decline?

Emma Roddick

The Scottish Government acknowledges the distinct challenges that Inverclyde and other urban areas in Scotland are experiencing in relation to population decline. That is why tackling urban depopulation is one of the core components of our forthcoming addressing depopulation action plan.

We are working with Inverclyde Council to support the design and delivery of key interventions that will support people to move to, or continue living in, the local area. We aim to be led by local priorities in deciding the shape of that work and upholding the principles of the Verity house agreement during the first phase of a targeted programme of work to address depopulation.

Household Heating Costs (North-east Scotland)

8. Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking with Social Security Scotland to help with the heating costs of households in the north-east. (S6O-02821)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests in relation to energy supply.

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

This winter, we will invest £22 million in our new winter heating payment to provide targeted, reliable support to people who are most in need of help with their heating costs each winter. That will include people on a low income who are disabled, have young children or are older. That is in addition to our child winter heating payment, which is available only in Scotland and provides the families of severely disabled children and young people with much-needed financial support to mitigate the additional heating costs that they face in the winter months. This winter, both the winter heating payment and the child winter heating payment have been uprated by 10.1 per cent in recognition of the on-going pressure on household budgets.

Alexander Burnett

Last December, the United Kingdom experienced its coldest day since December 2010, with the coldest temperature recorded in Braemar. However, my constituents now receive only a one-off winter fuel payment of £55.05, whereas previously they received about three times more under the UK Government’s cold weather payment scheme. Communities across the north-east have already experienced snow this year, and the Scottish Government’s payment will do nothing to support them with their energy bills. Will the cabinet secretary reform the winter fuel payment to bring it into line with the support provided by the UK Government?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

In essence, the member is asking us to take money away from people this year. I will give an example of that. In 2021-22, 11,000 people qualified for the payment administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, and those totalled—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Cabinet secretary, could you resume your seat for a second?

Mr Lumsden, I have previously warned you about making sedentary interventions. Could you please be quiet?

Cabinet secretary, please continue.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will start again.

In 2021-22, 11,000 people received DWP payments that totalled £325,000. In 2022-23, 394,135 people benefited from the Social Security Scotland version of the payment. That is an investment of just under £20 million. In effect, in the year that the payment was devolved, which included last winter, 10,000 winter heating payments were made to people in Aberdeenshire alone. That is pretty much what the Conservatives managed to pay for the whole of Scotland in the final year in which they were responsible for the benefit.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

Winter heating payment recipients will begin to receive support in the coming weeks in the form of a reliable winter payment that does not depend on erratic weather conditions in the way that the DWP’s cold weather payment did. Will the cabinet secretary set out how many more households are likely to benefit from the devolved Scottish system this winter compared with the old system?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have just set out some of that information, so I will stick to the very important summary, which is that the winter payment is something that people can depend on under the Scottish Government, unlike the situation under the DWP and the UK Government. That is because we recognise that many people on low incomes suffer from fuel poverty and need some extra assistance. That is exactly why about 400,000 individuals will benefit from the on-going investment of £22 million that the Scottish Government is putting into this area over the winter.