Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
The next item of business is stage 3 proceedings on the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill.
In dealing with the amendments, members should have the bill as amended at stage 2, the marshalled list of amendments and the groupings of amendments.
I draw members’ attention to the fact that there is an error in amendment 18. It should relate to page 9 of the bill and not page 8. That should be in members’ notes.
I remind members that the division bell will sound and proceedings will be suspended for five minutes for the first division of the afternoon. The period of voting for the first division will be 30 seconds. Thereafter, there will be a voting period of one minute for the first division after a debate. Members who wish to speak in the debate on a group of amendments should press their request-to-speak button as soon as possible after I call the group.
As well as observing social distancing at all times, members should know that we are not able to pass around notes or messages. We do not have the usual facility to ask our staff to pass notes to and from the chair or the business team. Any member who has a query, question or message that they wish to pass forward should use their device and email the business team.
For clarification, I am not Mike Russell.
I thank Mark Griffin for raising an important issue in the stage 2 deliberations yesterday. The Government agrees that, with the public being asked to do extraordinary and difficult things, the importance of
“communicating in an inclusive way” what is being asked of them and, of course, what is changing has never been more vital. In recent days, we have seen examples of that through the use of British Sign Language provision in the First Minister’s briefings. A clarificatory amendment to amend the new duty in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 and to include a definition of “inclusive communication” has been lodged. I urge members to agree to the amendment.
I move amendment 1.
Amendment 1 agreed to.
Amendment 2 recognises that trade unions have played a vital role in helping to keep people working, services running and citizens safe throughout the crisis. They can carry out that role only if they can get access to workplaces to offer advice and support to members and work with employers.
In their day-to-day role, trade unions work very closely, and without rancour, with most employers, resolving workplace issues at source. In many areas of the economy and society, employers sadly do not allow trade unions to access workplaces so that they can speak to their members. Many of us will have been contacted by staff members across various sectors who are worried about the safety of their workplace. The first thing that all those people will say in their conversations with us is, “Please do not give my name,” because there is, too often, a climate of fear within the workplace. Being represented and recognised by a union takes away some of that fear and gives workers a voice in their places of work.
Amendment 2 seeks to give unions right of access so that they can speak to employees of companies who are contracted to do work that is paid for by the public purse—it is nothing more than the basic right to go into workplaces and speak to people. I have to tell you that this is not the revolution—that can wait for another day. It is simply the basic right for unions to go into workplaces and speak to people about their welfare, wellbeing and employment. Members should remember that the work is being paid for by the public purse, with taxpayers’ money.
The Scottish Labour Party seeks to use public procurement policy to deliver on the fair work agenda. Amendment 2 is supported by the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the GMB, Unite the union, Unison and all the major trade unions. I hope that members will support that basic right.
Amendment 3 seeks to ensure that employees of companies that are contracted to do work that is paid for by the public purse to deliver goods or services during the Covid-19 crisis are paid at least the real living wage. The amendment is straightforward and it will lock in a key fair work principle. I previously tried to implement that change when the Parliament debated the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Act 2014, but at the time, the lead minister, who is now the First Minister, rejected it, saying that that was because of European Union procurement law. We are now told that we can implement that change and that the Government claims to be doing that in the social care sector. If it can be done in social care, it can also be done in other areas of the economy. However, I have to question whether it is, indeed, being done in the social care sector, because if anyone looks at vacancies for cleaners, carers, drivers and caretakers on the websites of many companies that are delivering public contracts funded by the taxpayer, they will see that many of those jobs are advertised at rates of pay that are below the living wage.
The guidance that the minister referred to at stage 2 is being ignored—and regularly. That is why the unions support my amendment. Even though they are part of the fair work agreement with the Scottish Government, they are fully behind the measure. I hope that the Parliament will support amendment 3 at decision time.
I move amendment 2.
I draw members’ attention to the register of members’ interests, which shows that I am a member of the Poverty Alliance and an associate member of the National Union of Journalists, which is relevant to group 2 and to later groups of amendments.
As I said during the discussions at stage 2, I support Neil Findlay’s amendments in the group, as they add important measures to the bill, and I hope that all members will support them.
At stage 2, I lodged an amendment that addressed the provision of business support in a range of forms to firms that are based in tax havens. The Scottish Green Party has been campaigning on that in the past fortnight. Since we established an online petition, over 7,000 people in Scotland have added their names, calling for that important restriction, which has already been adopted by Governments in Denmark, France and Wales, among other places. We know not only that there is a groundswell of support but that it can be achieved within devolved competence, given that Wales has already done it.
I lodged my amendment to introduce that measure through the bill and, I have to confess, I expected that the Scottish Government would say, “We will try to find a way to do that, but not in the bill.” I was pleased that Michael Russell agreed that the measure should be included through an amendment to the bill, although he persuaded me that some aspects of my amendment would have risked rendering it beyond the scope of devolved powers.
It is an important point of principle that we are able to add problematic tax jurisdictions beyond those that are on the European Union’s list. My amendment would have enabled us to do that, but that option—that flexibility—could have risked the whole amendment being incompetent, so I have accepted that we cannot do that now. We will have to build on that case, to ensure that all problematic tax jurisdictions—all tax havens—are restricted from receiving taxpayer-funded support.
The cabinet secretary also said during the stage 2 debate that he thought that that measure should apply to coronavirus-related support as well as to support that is given for other purposes, and I agree with him on that.
It is important that we worked together, because now we have an amendment that I believe the Government will support and because the opportunity to address this injustice has to be taken.
If any of us walks up and down the high street or into a shopping centre in Scotland, we will see high street names that have arranged their tax affairs to hide their wealth through tax havens. That wealth was generated by their workers, who were often on poverty wages and zero-hour contracts. They are hiding that wealth from taxation, and that legal tax avoidance is one of the principal sources of inequality and economic injustice.
I will in a moment. We should be shutting down that legal tax avoidance. In the meantime, we should certainly be saying that there is no coronavirus bailout for firms that use tax havens.
I would like to think that what is happening in these extraordinary times is going to be the catalyst for a great deal of change. All economic activity that is still happening is now clearly dependent on state intervention and public money.
I think it always was. Private sector economic activity always was dependent on the things that we pay for and provide for collectively in society: infrastructure, education, healthcare and the rule of law. Those things are provided collectively, and the private sector depends on them. It is unconscionable to say that businesses should receive a public sector bailout if they have been arranging their affairs so as to minimise their contribution to those public goods.
This is a time when Governments around the world need to be retaking what they should never have given away: the authority to direct the shape of the economy in a way that meets the public interest. This is one small step in that direction, and we will continue to build on it.
I was going to start my comments by saying that I agree with Patrick Harvie, but he rather spoiled it with the nonsense that he came out with at the end of his contribution.
It is not true at all to say that all economic activity is propped up by the state at the moment. Huge sectors of the economy are still operating—for example, the production and sale of food, DIY shops and the finance sector. Huge sectors of the economy continue to operate as they did before.
Mr Harvie and I should not fall out, though, because I agree with him on the principle. I agree that companies that are not paying tax have got an impertinence to expect the taxpayer to support them if they fall on hard times, as we are now seeing. I do not at all dispute the principle of what Mr Harvie is trying to achieve with amendment 93.
However, there are issues with the wording of the amendment. Perhaps Mr Harvie, as he winds up, or the cabinet secretary or the minister in their contributions, can assist with what the amendment is proposing. My colleagues in local government have raised concerns about the wording of what is being proposed in both amendment 93 and amendment 94.
Amendment 93 states that grants should not be paid to persons—or, presumably, companies—that are
“based in a tax haven” or that are
“the subsidiary of a person based in a tax haven” or that have
“a subsidiary based in a tax haven” or are
“party to an arrangement under which any ... profits are subject to the tax regime of a tax haven”.
The difficulty with that is that many of the grants that we are talking about are administered by local authorities. How do we expect the officers in a local authority who receive an application from a body with an address in the local area to be able to make that assessment of all those detailed matters? How will that information be made available to them in the short space of time that they might have in which to deal with an application?
The problem is even more acute when it comes to amendment 94, because those tests will have to be met as well as further tests about whether that person’s company has adopted country-by-country reporting of financial, economic and tax-related information for each jurisdiction in which it operates. How a local authority finance department is meant to have access to that information is beyond me. Perhaps the cabinet secretary can give us some comfort on these issues.
I am grateful to Murdo Fraser for giving way. I was so excited by making wider points that I knew would annoy him at the end of my speech that I forgot to mention amendment 94, which is quite separate. I have agreed amendment 93 with the Scottish Government. I hope that it will support amendment 94, but I have no idea whether it intends to.
It seems entirely reasonable and consistent with the principles set out by tax justice campaigners in Scotland, the UK and around the world that we should have transparent reporting by multinationals. The alternative is that we continue with the status quo. Does Murdo Fraser have anything to suggest about how multinationals that jump through these loopholes can be held to account so that the economic activity that they generate can benefit the public purse rather than just their own shareholders?
Mr Harvie is trying his best to fall out with us. I would have thought that he would try to get our support for his amendments rather than thrust us away. He talks about multinationals, but the problem is that we might be talking about any small business on any high street in this country that the local authority would have to assess to see whether it met this incredibly complex test or whether it adopted country-by-country reporting of financial, economic and tax-related information.
Labour will support amendments 93 and 94, in the name of Patrick Harvie. It is entirely reasonable to take that approach. I suggest that the public will ask why on earth we would give handouts to anybody who refuses to pay their taxes in this country and hides their wealth offshore.
Neil Findlay talked about using the procurement system. Every member must be aware of how worrying and difficult it is for workers at this time. People are worried sick about going to back to their employment if it is not safe. There is a lot more in the bill to address that, but the very idea that the Government would hand over taxpayers’ money to companies by procuring services from those companies without insisting on the basic right of every individual in Scotland to be a member of a trade union and on the ability of trade unions to access employees in the workplace is ludicrous. I could understand the Tories not supporting trades unions having access, but most people would be surprised by Scottish National Party members lining up and voting with the Tories against giving trades unions access to workplaces. I hope that those members will think about that and support the amendments in the name of Neil Findlay.
I will address all the amendments in the group, but I will start by repeating something that the First Minister said at First Minister’s question time, which was that to oppose an amendment does not mean opposing the desired outcome of that amendment or its principle. It means opposing amendments that are badly drafted or lodged for reasons that are entirely to do with playing to the gallery and have nothing to do with achieving a result.
I make that point because there is a clear way of taking emergency legislation through that gets the best out of the Parliament, which is to work with the Government to do so. There are notable examples across the chamber of how that has worked on this occasion. I am glad to say that, later, we will recommend support for Monica Lennon’s amendment, which we rejected yesterday. I understand that Monica Lennon reached out to the cabinet secretary and that they had a constructive conversation about how it might go forward. I hope that that will be an example to other members of her party. I am sure that this is not good for her political career, but I will be nice to her about it.
I do not want to do that; if it makes anyone blush, I am about to make Mr Tomkins blush, too. That may be a harder and less desirable task.
I simply want to make the point that, in relation to a number of amendments, we have been able to constructively discuss how we should move forward. The amendment on marriage is one example, and there are others.
The way not to do it is to come along with something that, as in the case of one of Neil Findlay’s amendments, you have proposed several times before, in other circumstances, and say, “There it is, take it or leave it—and, if you do not support it, you are the epitome of what we are opposing. You are the devil incarnate.”
No, I will not take an intervention. [
.] The other reason why I will not take an intervention is that everything that Mr Findlay has said this afternoon, he said at stage 2—every single thing. There is an issue about members coming back to the chamber with a slightly altered amendment and simply repeating themselves.
I have to say that Mr Findlay’s two amendments are not the way to take forward emergency legislation. I do not oppose trade union involvement and I do not oppose trade union membership—indeed, I am a member of a trade union myself. However, I oppose the assumption that, if you not do support Mr Findlay, you are opposed to trade unions. That is not true and I will not allow it to be said to be true.
Let us now deal with the substance of the amendments. Mr Findlay knows this, because I told him yesterday—it is either that or his attention span is very short, indeed—[
.] Well, people who know Mr Findlay better than I do will have to make a judgment on that issue. He was told yesterday that genuine workforce engagement, such as trade union recognition, is one of the five key criteria for accessing grants. It has been attached to business support grants that are awarded by Scottish Enterprise since April 2019, and from April 2020 it also applies to grants that are awarded to businesses by the other enterprise agencies.
In addition to that, the new pivotal enterprise resilience fund and the creative, tourism and hospitality enterprises hardship fund, which have been introduced specifically to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19, ask grant applicants to demonstrate similar commitment. There is therefore no intention of excluding unions. It is quite the reverse—the conditions indicate that they should be there.
Mr Findlay knows that that is the case and he is back here again not because he assumes that the amendment will be agreed to but because he can virtuously wave and say, “Look at what the bad people have done to me.” That is in fact also true of his second amendment. The second one is perhaps almost worse, because with it he is lodging an amendment that is not just from yesterday but, by his own admission, six years old. Nonetheless, he is bringing it back yet again in circumstances in which he knows it would be impossible to put it in place. We will hear other impossibilist demands later this afternoon, which I shall address in those terms.
Mr Findlay knows that the legal position remains as it was at the time that this was considered for the purpose of the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Act 2014. The power to set the rate of a living wage is reserved to Westminster. I would much rather that Westminster was not involved, but it is. The Scottish Government will, however, use the levers at its disposal to address the living wage and procurement. We have issued both statutory guidance and best-practice guidance to public bodies on addressing fair work practices, including the living wage and procurement. That guidance applies to all regulated contracts, whether relating to coronavirus or not.
Both of Neil Findlay’s amendments are therefore a chimera and they should not be considered seriously. I want to make sure that there is as much consultation with trade unions as possible. I have been a member of a trade union for all my working life and I will not be lectured to by Neil Findlay on what he thinks I should be measuring up to. [
Let me now turn to something more constructive. I thank Mr Harvie for lodging something more constructive and for doing what I have been talking about. Mr Harvie came to this debate and to this bill with a proposal that he wished to see on the face of the bill. There has been a constructive discussion about that proposal and the Government will accept amendment 93. We will not accept amendment 94, as we think that to do so creates difficulty, but we have worked together on amendment 93 and it does what the people of Scotland want us to do.
I do not believe that the difficulties for local authorities would be insurmountable in any sense. Grant conditions are applied presently to all those who apply to local authorities. They are easily met and there is a process of discussion and debate for those who cannot meet them. All MSPs know that we get that from constituents all the time, and that is where we would be.
I think that amendment 93 is proportionate and simple and says something that the people of Scotland believe to be true. Moreover, it has been the result of the type of discussion and consultation that means that it is possible for the Government to work with an Opposition party to make progress on something important, and I thank Mr Harvie for that.
I am sorry that I cannot move further with regard to amendment 94, but I will encourage the chamber to support amendment 93. Having heard Mr Fraser say that he believes in the principle of it, I am sure that he will also remember the Westminster maxim that the vote follows the voice, and that he will support the amendment.
The Presiding Officer:
One second, Mr Findlay. The contributions across the chamber are in danger of descending into personal remarks and insults. I was going to interrupt the cabinet secretary, who was also in danger of doing that. I warn Mr Findlay to continue with winding up his remarks rather than winding up the chamber.
It is interesting that Mr Russell remarked that I made no effort to reach out. We had one day to get these amendments in place. There was not a single effort by the Government to contact me on any issue bar one. Jenny Gilruth phoned me about freedom of information and said that she would phone me back—I still await that call.
The minister said that she would call me back the following day, and there was no phone call whatsoever—no effort. Mr Russell made no effort to engage on any of the issues and never came near us.
Let me tell the chamber why no effort was made: the Government had already cut a deal with Mr Tomkins, Murdo Fraser and the Tories behind the scenes that, in return for some concession on FOI, a yellow-blue alliance would defeat any progressive move in the bill. That is the reality of the new coalition, or maybe of an old coalition that is back together.
The Presiding Officer:
I know the point and will be careful to ensure that members speak to the amendment that is in front of them. In the current situation, several arguments were put to Mr Findlay that he was taking a political stance and he is responding by suggesting that the other parties have taken such a stance. He is absolutely at liberty to make that argument in his winding up.
The cabinet secretary has said that I believe that it is terrible if people do not support me—he personalised it—and that I will attack them. This has nothing to do with me; it is to do with the issue that is before us today, which is justice for workers in a difficult situation.
The cabinet secretary says that we cannot put something down, get it defeated and bring it back again. I wonder when he will apply that to his plan for independence. That is what he does, Presiding Officer.
I know who will judge today’s proceedings—the workers in care homes and key sectors of our society who, across the piece, have kept us going in this pandemic. They will watch today’s proceedings in Parliament with dismay. I will press amendment 2.
I sincerely thank the Scottish ministers for supporting my amendment. There is a joint concern about the reporting of domestic abuse during the lockdown, which has become rather alarming recently. It is not just a Scottish phenomenon: unfortunately, the statistics apply across the world.
Amendment 4 removes the term “domestic violence” and replaces it with “domestic abuse” to better reflect the modern term that has developed through the Government’s legislation. It places a duty on ministers in undertaking reviews under section 12(1)(a) and reporting each review under section 12(1)(b) to take into account available information from Police Scotland about
“the nature and the number of incidents of domestic abuse during each reporting period”.
The bill provides that those reviews should take place every two months, with the first review taking place on 31 July.
The focus of the review would be to determine whether the provisions of part 1 remain necessary. Amendment 4 requires ministers to factor in information relating to domestic abuse where it is relevant—for example, if there is a change to
“the nature and number of incidents of domestic abuse” during the lockdown period, which may affect the assessment of, or the need to modify, the terms of a criminal justice undertaking.
Members will know that undertaking conditions are particularly useful in protecting complainers in such cases. The information to be taken into account is information that is received by Scottish ministers from Police Scotland or placed in the public domain by the police. It is important to note that there is no duty to provide specific information, but I believe that the available data will be more meaningful and will help inform our approach to domestic abuse rather than there being a requirement for data to be requested each time that ministers exercise their powers under the legislation.
Again, I thank the Government and I move amendment 4.
I acknowledge that the terminology is “domestic abuse”, although I have always thought that any form of abuse is a crime; however, I understand why the term is used in amendment 4.
I remind members—and others—that there are people suffering who are in lockdown with a violent partner. Abuse can be not just physical, but mental. I thank Pauline McNeill for amendment 4.
It is a Scottish Government priority that victims of domestic abuse and gender-based violence get the support that they need during these challenging times, and are kept safe from harm.
Earlier this month, we published guidance on domestic abuse to support the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020, so as to ensure that anyone who is experiencing domestic abuse, or any form of harm, is in no doubt that they may leave home to seek help or support from services, family or friends; to report it to the police; or to take measures to stay safe.
We entirely support the aim of Ms McNeill’s amendment, and I ask members to support it.
Amendment 5, which is based on a recommendation by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, has been prepared with the help and support of the cabinet secretary and his officials, for which I thank them.
The purpose of the amendment is to improve, strengthen and extend the safeguards that the Parliament has very carefully put in place, which govern—and are needed to govern—the exercise by ministers and public authorities of emergency powers. Those powers have been legislated for only because they are necessary. They are subject to sunset provisions—in the bill, in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 that we passed last month, and in the United Kingdom Coronavirus Act 2020, to which the Parliament gave legislative consent in March.
There are serious requirements on ministers to report regularly and frequently to the Parliament on the use of the powers that have been conferred upon them. However, in its recent work, the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee identified that not all secondary instruments that have been made in the name of the coronavirus, or relating to it, have been made under either the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 or the UK Coronavirus Act 2020—so, strictly speaking, the reporting requirements do not apply to that broad range of delegated legislation.
The DPLR Committee recommended that we should extend the reporting requirements on ministers, so that the Parliament is informed regularly of the exercise of powers not only through the statutory instruments that are made under the emergency legislation, but through those that are made, with regard to coronavirus, under more general legislation. I lodged an amendment for the COVID-19 Committee’s consideration yesterday at stage 2. The cabinet secretary agreed with the principle, and now agrees with the detail.
I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for his support, and I hope that I have done justice quickly to the matters that the amendment addresses.
Presiding Officer, I have written to you, to business managers, and to the conveners of the COVID-19 Committee and the DPLR Committee, setting out the approach that the Government intends to take to fulfilling the reporting commitments that we entered into during the passage of the legislative consent motion and then the first bill.
I am glad to have done so. We need to ensure full and proper parliamentary scrutiny of how we are using the powers, and to make sure that we do not use them for a moment longer than is needed. We have a commitment to transparency and scrutiny, and a mechanism for taking that forward.
At stage 2, Adam Tomkins lodged an amendment that would have gone a bit further by requiring a report on all Scottish statutory instruments that were made for a reason that related to coronavirus. As he said, he was echoing the views of the DPLR Committee. There were difficulties with Mr Tomkins’s amendment. It referred to all Scottish statutory instruments, but there are categories of SSI that are not the responsibility of the Scottish ministers, such as acts of sederunt and acts of adjournal. Therefore, the requirement to report on all SSIs that were made for any reason relating to coronavirus, even if that was not the primary purpose of the instrument, would have required ministers to determine whether it was appropriate for instruments to remain in force and would have spread a very wide net.
It was widely agreed, therefore—and I am grateful to Mr Tomkins for his agreement—that we should focus on statutory instruments that have come forward as a result of the legislation that we made here and the legislative consent motion, and that we should include instruments that are made with the intention of dealing with the pandemic, as the DPLR Committee wanted us to do, rather than drag everything into the net, because there are instruments for which we are not responsible and which we do not make.
Amendment 5 fulfils those requirements. I am happy to support it and I recommend that the Parliament agrees to it. Then we can get on with the process of reporting, which will have to start very soon, because the legislation that we passed at the beginning of April requires us to make the first reports to the end of May and, subject to the Parliamentary Bureau, it is my intention to start the process in the second sitting week of June, with a statement to the Parliament on 9 June, a report at that stage, and the COVID-19 Committee moving ahead in the way that we have suggested—but the final decision on that will be for the bureau.
Amendment 5 agreed to.
Much of this group is very similar to what was presented to the committee yesterday—that seems to be a bit of a running theme today.
I have lodged amendments that deal with student housing, which I talked about yesterday, and I worked with Kevin Stewart, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, to tidy up the amendments that we considered yesterday, following Mr Russell’s advice.
Amendments 6 to 8 would merely tidy up the bill to make clearer which students can give seven days’ notice. The bill as drafted provides that someone who signs a lease for the next academic year during the pandemic, knowing the risk, can give seven days’ notice to get out of the lease. Amendments 6 to 8 would remove that provision and are backed by Universities Scotland and the Scottish Property Federation.
Amendment 91 relates to the council tax relief that is available to student housing providers. Again, I am grateful to Mr Stewart for working with me on the amendment. Dwellings that are occupied by students—and some other people—are normally exempt from council tax under paragraphs 10 and 12 of schedule 1 to the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) (Scotland) Order 1997, which are referred to in amendment 91. When such a dwelling becomes empty, it usually qualifies for empty property relief for six months if it is unfurnished and unoccupied; if it is furnished and unoccupied it usually qualifies for relief for up to four months, under paragraph 11 of that schedule.
Amendment 91 would add a further relief: if a dwelling that has been exempt under paragraph 10 or 12 becomes unoccupied for a reason related to coronavirus on or after 17 March this year, it will be exempt from council tax, whether or not it is furnished.
The intention is for amendment 91 to relate to dedicated blocks of student housing; the member is absolutely right.
With the exemption of amendment 9, in the name of Mike Russell, the other amendments in the group look familiar, because yesterday the committee debated and rejected amendments that were almost exactly the same.
Amendment 9 appears to be eminently sensible. It injects a pre-eviction phase into proceedings, in which landlords should talk to tenants. In reality, that should happen anyway. We will support what could be called the “It’s good to talk” amendment.
The content of amendment 10, in the name of Pauline McNeill, was debated and rejected yesterday. Creating a rent support fund for tenants sounds good, but it is not required as enough support is already available.
Andy Wightman has slightly tweaked the amendments that we debated yesterday. His rent freeze proposal now exempts the social housing sector—no doubt much to its relief. Therefore, he is directing his fire solely at the private rented sector that he so admires.
Andy Wightman’s amendment 11 contains the interesting proposed new subsection (2)(b)(1A), which appears to bar any new rent taking effect—presumably, it will bar even a rent reduction, which, as I pointed out yesterday, has happened in a number of cases in which landlords and tenants have talked with one another.
I gently point out that Graham Simpson is not correct in that regard. The provision in that proposed new subsection that
“The landlord may not serve on the tenant a notice proposing a new rent” would be an addition to section 24 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1998, which is a provision about securing an increase in rent.
I stand corrected on that, and I apologise to Andy Wightman. However, that does not change the fact that he wants a rent freeze. Furthermore, the proposed freeze on increasing rent for two years could lead to landlords leaving the sector, leading to fewer rental properties. That would not be good.
Andy Wightman’s other amendments are about grounds for eviction. We dealt with that in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, so the provisions are not needed. Extending the period in which landlords cannot take eviction procedures led to the landlord loan fund, which is designed to prevent rent hikes in the medium term. Amendment 14 mentions the fund. All loans, including that one to landlords, must be repaid. Rent has to be repaid. We cannot send out a signal that it is okay for people not to pay their rent, and that, in essence, is what Andy Wightman’s amendments would achieve.
We reject all the amendments in this group, apart from my amendment 8 and Michael Russell’s amendment 9.
I move amendment 6.
Graham Simpson has explained his amendments 6 to 8 and 91, so I will keep my comments brief. The amendments deal with issues that he raised during stage 2. If they are passed, properties normally occupied by students that are exempt from paying council tax, which are or have been unoccupied since 17 March for a reason related to the coronavirus, will continue to be exempt from council tax while unoccupied. The measure would be in place for the duration of the legislation.
As the Government indicated during stage 2, we support the principles behind what Graham Simpson is seeking to achieve, we have worked with him on the amendments and we are content to support them all.
I turn to amendment 9. During yesterday’s meeting, I said that I would introduce such an amendment, to recognise the need to ensure that we protect tenants who find themselves in rent arrears during the pandemic. The amendment gives ministers a new regulation-making power to create private landlord pre-action protocols. The regulations will be used to specify actions to be taken by landlords to support their tenant when seeking to end their tenancy on the basis of rent arrears.
The amendment also means that the housing and property chamber of the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland must take account of the
“extent to which the landlord has complied with pre-action requirements” before making an application to the tribunal when determining whether to grant an eviction order.
We will look at that carefully as we move forward. We already have pre-action protocols in the social housing sector, and I think that we could have those permanently in the private sector.
To ensure that the regulations will be effective and workable, we will work with stakeholders—including Mr Wightman, and representatives of landlords and tenants—to develop them. They will also be subject to Scottish Parliament scrutiny and approval through the affirmative procedure.
I turn to the amendments in the group that were lodged by other members. We all know that the wider impacts of Covid-19 are increasing pressures on households and leading to great financial hardship, including some folk having difficulties in paying their rent. Many more people will now be on benefits for the first time and will be subject to the UK Government’s benefit cap. Others will have seen their household incomes decrease substantially, which might lead to their having difficulty in paying rent.
We have therefore been looking at ways in which to support people during the crisis. I am pleased to announce that we are increasing the amount that we are making available for the other discretionary housing payments—DHPs—that are available outside our full mitigation of the bedroom tax. We will increase that amount by a further £5 million, to more than £16 million, which will support tenants who are now under severe financial pressures in situations in which the UK Government’s welfare state is not providing the safety net that it should.
I am on the side of tenants. The Scottish Government had already increased DHPs to a record level and brought forward protections from eviction. It was also we who introduced a £350 million wellbeing fund to support people during these difficult times, which is £200 million more than the consequentials that we received from the UK Government. That support more than doubles the Scottish welfare fund that can be accessed by those on low incomes. The Scottish Government is working with landlords to ensure that they take steps to support tenants who face financial difficulties and is providing funding to the advice sector to help people who are currently in difficulty. The Scottish Government has consistently and constantly called for this Parliament to be granted powers over the welfare state, which remains inadequate to support people. The powers on income repayment benefits are still not in our hands, though—I wish that they were. If people want us to be able to take further action, they should back our having the full powers to do so.
I should say that lodging amendments without consultation or thought for their impact or how they might work in practice is not the way to support tenants across Scotland—or, indeed, social landlords, who have been very vocal in their criticism of them by saying how unhelpful they are. As the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has pointed out, if we had passed some of the amendments that were debated yesterday, they would have had not only a grave effect on social landlords but a major impact on tenants and communities. That is why it is unwise to lodge such amendments without consultation.
I am always more than willing to help folk who need the most help. The most vulnerable people in our society should be supported. It would be easier for us to do so if we had full control of the benefits system. I have already announced additional money for DHPs. We will continue to talk to the sector about what is going on out there and what support is actually required.
As Mr Rowley can probably well imagine, I have spent a huge amount of time in recent weeks talking to the sector about how we can approach difficulties in the future.
Earlier, during First Minister’s question time, Patrick Harvie pointed out that we have made major inroads in terms of tackling homelessness during the pandemic period, and I certainly do not want to go back to a situation in which folks are back on the streets and there is increased homelessness. To avoid that, we all need to work together to provide solutions that work for people and for the sector, particularly the registered social landlords and the local authorities, who were also not particularly in favour of the amendments that we are discussing.
Beyond that, the chamber should recognise that, as well as bringing in the no-eviction proceedings for six months, the Parliament has the ability to extend that for a further six months and then a further six months after that. In order to protect people, that is something that we might have to move to do.
I would not want the minister to be left with a misunderstanding of the point that I was making during First Minister’s question time. Some temporary steps have been made in relation to the private rented sector and there has also been improvement in terms of the immediate temporary accommodation for people who have been homeless, as well as the ending of unsuitable accommodation. However, there are profound long-term challenges around trying to ensure that a far-worse problem does not arise as a result of the pandemic. The director of Shelter Scotland said:
“It’s hard to see now what is going to prevent a tidal wave of evictions sweeping people into homelessness services”.
I note that that comment was made after the Government blocked some of the amendments that we moved yesterday.
I can assure Mr Harvie that the Government is in constant communication with people across the sector. We are looking now at how we can move forward after the emergency period. We want to ensure that we safeguard people in their homes and make them as secure as possible. We will continue to have those discussions and continue to take action, if required, to ensure that people are safe and secure. However, what I cannot do—what this Government cannot do—is pass amendments that have huge unintended consequences, as has been pointed out, particularly by the registered social landlord sector. That does no one any good whatsoever, and that is why, in all of this, there needs to be discussion around what can be achieved to protect people.
Mr Wightman’s amendments are much the same as those that he lodged at stage 2, and my arguments remain much the same. I will address them in turn but, first, I will deal with Pauline McNeill’s amendment 10. I reiterate that we want to do our level best for tenants and ensure that people who are facing financial difficulties leading to rent arrears are supported to access all the help and advice that is available, and we have made clear that no landlord should evict a tenant because they have suffered financial hardship due to coronavirus. We expect landlords to be flexible with tenants facing financial hardship and to signpost them to the sources of financial support that are available, and we believe that that approach provides the right support, balancing the needs of tenants and the ability of landlords to support them. I cannot support amendment 10, but I am more than willing to continue to discuss these matters with Pauline McNeill, who I know has a real interest in them, and ensure that we do our level best to make sure that the system is working in the right way for the most vulnerable people.
Amendment 11 would prevent landlords in the private rented sector from being able to increase rent for a two-year period from the day that the bill comes into force. As I made clear yesterday, the amendment takes into account neither landlords’ nor tenants’ individual circumstances, including their financial circumstances. Neither does it consider the different impacts that the coronavirus outbreak is having on various sections of the population or the country as a whole.
Legislation is already in place that provides stability to tenants in the private rented sector. Under that legislation, rents can be increased only once a year, and three months’ notice has to be given. If a tenant is waiting for financial support such as universal credit, action cannot be taken. In addition, tenants have the right to challenge any unfair rent increases. My concern remains that a two-year rent freeze might have significant unintended consequences for housing supply and might impact on the viability of the PRS. Landlords might sell up and sell the homes from under folk, which is the last thing that we need during the current period.
On amendment 12, there would be significant practical challenges to administering the provisions in determining who was eligible. It is likely that significant financial costs, which are unquantifiable in the time available, would be involved in assessing whether tenants met the requirements for their rent-arrears liability to be removed.
Amendment 13 remains unchanged from stage 2, as do the concerns about it that I outlined yesterday. It would not be right for us to tell an independent judicial body to disregard particular evidence as to why rent arrears occurred in particular cases. The First-tier Tribunal has discretion, under emergency procedures, to consider whether an eviction is reasonable and the tribunal must be able to take into account the full circumstances of a case.
On amendment 14, we have been clear that no landlord should evict a tenant who has suffered financial hardship due to Covid-19, and we have acted to prevent tenants from eviction action during the emergency period. Additionally, we have given the First-tier Tribunal discretion when considering whether it is reasonable to grant an eviction order. The tribunal can take the full circumstances of the case into account, including whether the landlord has been the recipient of a loan from the Government.
We are clear that landlords will not profit from those loans, which must be paid back. The purpose of the loans is to facilitate landlords working with tenants to manage arrears, but the amendment risks putting off landlords from applying for a loan and instead seeking eviction at the earliest opportunity. Under the provisions of amendment 14, to take a loan, landlords would need to be willing to accept a lack of transparency in the current period, which would impact on their ability to operate the rental property. That outcome would not be beneficial for tenants. I also have serious concerns that the amendment is not compatible with the European convention on human rights.
As the First Minister pointed out at First Minister’s question time today, we need to look carefully at all the issues as we move forward, and we need to do the right things at the right times. That means that we should not accept amendments that may well be detrimental to what we are trying to achieve. I am more than happy to continue discussions with parties across the chamber. At this point, I would normally say that my door is always open, but instead I should say that my phone number is there to be rung. Some folk do that on a regular basis; others do not take that opportunity, but the offer is there. Let us do what we can to help those who are most vulnerable.
I will speak to amendment 10 in my name, which is on a tenant support fund. I should say that I have Kevin Stewart’s number, but only because I moaned to his officials because Graham Simpson has it. He has had it for much longer than I have. I might use it, one of these days.
I think that the minister will agree that I have never said that the Government has not taken reasonable measures. What the Government is not seeing ahead is the magnitude of social and economic devastation if we get this wrong. We might disagree on that—I think that we do. The measures that the Government has taken are reasonable, but it is up to the Opposition to say, “You should up your game.” I am doing my job and I am being quite honest: the Government is not being radical enough.
I have a proposed member’s bill—known as the Mary Barbour bill—that I hope will see the light of day. The Government has not said no on the issue, but it has not been radical about it, either. In the context of the debate, I ask the Government to think a wee bit about how much more radical it needs to be.
Students who have graduated wrote to me yesterday to ask whether they qualify for universal credit. The minister made a point on this. Many students will not qualify for universal credit; undergraduates do not qualify for universal credit and cannot pay their rent.
A month ago, research by Opinium for
The Guardian showed that six out of 10 renters said that they had suffered financially as a result of the UK-wide lockdown. One in five has been forced to choose between food bills and paying rent. I have not seen Scottish figures, but if the Government has them, it would be useful to share them with members. I urge the Government to have a close look at them, in looking ahead. Six in 10 renters have suffered financially because of the lockdown across the UK; I do not think that the figure will be much different in Scotland.
I am sure that the minister will agree that loss of tenancies is not just about individuals who, through no fault of their own, have had to stay at home because they cannot go to work, or who have lost their job. Another member—I cannot remember who—said that some companies are using the furlough scheme and running redundancy programmes at exactly the same time. The extent of abuse is extremely alarming.
We have not even begun to see how bad the situation could be. I have said before that the magnitude of the bank crash—although we have being seeing the ripples for over a decade and are still experiencing them—is, in comparison, a cakewalk. I hope that I am wrong about that, but that is where I am coming from.
I assure Ms McNeill and Parliament here and now that we will, as we begin to gather evidence and data on what is going on out there in real folks’ lives, be more than willing to share the data with Parliament. Obviously, the data on what is happening to people will guide our views on the path that we will need to follow in the future, and should inform all of us about the steps that we will need to take.
I welcome that assurance; the matter is urgent. That picture will help us to see whether the Government has got it right or wrong. Many low-paid workers are struggling and that is not their fault, and many of them are in the rented housing sector. Not everyone will have the means to pay their full rent or be able to apply for universal credit.
On the discretionary housing payment, I welcome the £5 million fund, which is important, but we need a wider discussion on who the Government thinks the fund will help. I do not believe that it will cover everybody. Many people who are self-employed or who pay themselves a small dividend will not qualify for a discretionary housing payment, so there will be gaps. The Government’s provisions need to be radical enough to make a difference. That has to be the tone.
My amendment 10 is an amalgamation of stage 2 amendment 22, in my name, and amendment 16, in the name of Andy Wightman, on a tenant hardship fund. I am sure that members will agree that they amount to the same thing. We must have some basic principles for the future. We might agree about preventing eviction, but we must have the right measures to do so. We must prevent mass housing debt building up, because that will impact on individuals and the economy. Helping people who fall through the gaps will require more action.
My amendment 10 says that it will be for ministers to decide on the rules for such a fund. However, it is important to send a message about making sure that we do not miss anybody, and to say that people who rent their properties are important to the Government. That is why the Government should change its view.
We have yet to hear Andy Wightman speak to his amendments. Yesterday, Labour supported his amendment on a rent freeze; it would be helpful if he could address some of the issues around funding, in that regard.
Incidentally, I note that today the rate of inflation is 0.8 per cent. There are predictions that it could fall to zero, and that we could get into negative inflation. We have to bear such things in mind before we get too concerned about unintended consequences.
Amendment 13 raises the question whether we should tell tribunals how to conduct their business in relation to evictions. Given that we are in an emergency situation, I do not see why public policy should not be that tribunals get some direction—even for a short period—on preventing evictions.
Amendment 12 provides for disregarding all rent arrears amassed during the emergency period, if it can be clearly shown that the person’s situation had become critical in that period.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to rethink its decision not to support a tenant hardship fund, for which amendment 10—which is an amalgamation of amendments that Andy Wightman and I lodged at stage 2—would provide, and to be more radical in its thinking.
I also ask the Government to come to the table more quickly, if it can, with analysis of who would potentially face eviction and who would potentially be unable to pay their rent. We might be talking about a short period of time rather than a long period; none of us really knows what is ahead. I urge the Government to up its game and to reconsider its position on amendment 10.
As members will be aware, the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 provides some welcome protection for tenants by ensuring that notice periods will be extended beyond statutory limits. It ensures that all tenants who are evicted during the emergency period will have a longer period before they are required to actually leave their home. I lodged amendments to the bill that became that act that sought to ban any such proceedings from being brought at all during the emergency period. However, those amendments were defeated.
In this bill, I seek to provide further protection for tenants, including beyond the end of the emergency period, when it is anticipated that tenants will remain vulnerable to eviction as a result of the financial hardship that they experience during the emergency period. Yesterday, all my amendments were defeated by Conservative and Scottish National Party members of the COVID-19 Committee, but not one of them went on the record to explain why.
As my colleague Patrick Harvie pointed out earlier today, last night, in response to the defeat of those amendments, the director of Shelter Scotland said:
“It is hard to see now what is going to prevent a tidal wave of evictions sweeping people into homelessness services which were barely coping before the pandemic.”
Today, Amnesty International provided a briefing to members, which states:
“While the government’s move to stop evictions and expand protection to tenants by extending the term of the notice period for eviction to six months in most cases is welcome, the fact that this is a temporary measure and the lack of clarity on payment of rent arrears accrued over the period of pandemic is cause for concern. Without adequate material and other support, families who have lost jobs and income during the pandemic will struggle to cover rent arrears in the immediate post pandemic period and more so in the context of the looming economic crisis. Unless urgently addressed, this will likely result in large-scale evictions and a huge spike in homelessness.”
In the absence of any signals that ministers wish to do anything of substance, I have listened to the concerns that have been raised and have lodged amended amendments that I hope will attract support from members.
At this point, I want to address some comments that the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, Michael Russell, made earlier. He said that there was an appropriate way to bring forward issues and work with the Government on them.
Kevin Stewart said in his remarks that we should all work together and that he would be happy to continue discussions. I want to lay on the record that last week, on the day after the bill was published, I contacted Mr Stewart’s private secretary and told her that I was willing to share my policy intentions with the Government. She welcomed that approach, and I therefore sent my policy intentions to the minister. That was more than a week ago, and I have heard nothing since then.
You cannot continue discussions that never started. If the Government wants to have a dialogue with Opposition parties, it needs to speak to us. I made the effort and said, “This is what I want to do.” The Government ignored that approach, and it has continued to do so right up until today. The only conclusion that I can take from that is that it does not want to do anything. That counters Mr Russell’s allegation concerning the view that if you do not support an amendment, it means that you oppose the policy.
I have had no correspondence or discussions about how to improve my amendments. A key change from stage 2 is that none of my amendments now applies to social tenancies. They are all restricted to private sector tenants under the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988 and the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016.
Does the fact that the member has changed his amendments and removed social landlords not rather suggest that they were flawed in the first place, which is exactly what housing associations have been telling him?
No, it does not. It reflects the fact that there was opposition in that regard yesterday. I do not accept the arguments that have been put by a small number of landlords in the social rented sector. I would be quite happy to work with them, as I would with anybody else, to see how the proposal could be refined. However, in order to have a chance of getting it through Parliament today, I have chosen to focus our concerns on those tenants who are in the weakest position.
Amendment 11 provides for a rent freeze for two years. Unlike under my stage 2 amendments, it would apply only to private tenants and the date from which the two years would begin would be backdated to 1 April—it would not be, as the minister said in his remarks, the date of the act coming into force—to ensure that landlords who have agreed reduced rents in response to the crisis would not be adversely affected by the measure. I made that change in response to legitimate concerns that, where landlords have reduced rents by, say, 30 per cent, that should not be the baseline of the rent freeze.
Amendment 12 recognises that many tenants will simply be unable to pay their full rent because of their personal financial circumstances. Again, I have changed the proposal. The amendment applies only to private tenants and the wording has been tightened further to ensure that it applies only in relation to tenants who are, as proposed new paragraph 3A(1)(b) of schedule 1 states,
“facing unusual or extreme hardship”.
Ministers would have the power to specify further details in regulations.
It is vital to have a provision, albeit that it would be applied only in extreme circumstances, to write off some rents. We do that, in effect, in the free statutory debt solutions that we have—bankruptcy, protected trust deeds and the debt arrangement scheme.
Mr Stewart said that the wording of amendment 13 has not been changed, but it has been. The proposal that I have brought back today is restricted to private tenants. It is an important amendment. The minister said yesterday that no one should be affected because of the coronavirus, and he said that again today. The reality is that, once amendment 9 dies, as it will, there will be nothing to stop landlords pursuing tenants for eviction due to arrears that were accrued during the emergency period that are beyond those tenants’ control.
All that I am trying to do with amendment 13 is to ensure that, once the emergency period is over, no landlord may seek to evict a tenant for rent arrears that were accrued during the emergency period. It is vital to point out, because this has been widely misrepresented, that we would not be writing off any rents whatsoever. They would continue to be owed to the landlord. All that I am seeking to ensure is that no one can lose their home because of those rent arrears.
I encourage members to reflect heavily on the evidence that Amnesty International has given us today. It points out, rightly, that this is a human rights issue. There was a very good chance—I am already in discussion with a Queen’s counsel about this—of a challenge to the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988 on human rights grounds before the crisis. If, after the crisis, we see people—families, single mums, older people or whoever—being evicted due to rent arrears that accrued during the crisis, I believe that that will be a violation of their human rights.
Amendment 14 has the same basic effect as amendment 13, but it is much narrower in scope. It is restricted to tenants of landlords who are in receipt of a loan under the landlord loan fund.
I welcome Pauline McNeill’s amendment 10, which we worked on together. Notwithstanding the welcome increase in the housing fund, which Mr Stewart mentioned, there is still a case for amendment 10 and we will support it.
The proposal in amendment 9 was described to me by the minister yesterday, at stage 2, as being some kind of response that will ensure that tenants get a bit more of a fair hearing, as it were, in a tribunal. However, the provisions in amendment 9 will last only as long as the emergency period, so the amendment will do nothing to help tenants after the emergency period is over. It is rather a betrayal of the Government’s claim that no one should be evicted during the emergency period if it lodges an amendment—amendment 9—that specifically envisages the First-tier Tribunal having pre-action protocols during the emergency period. If it were true that no one should be evicted, there should be no cases coming to the tribunal during the emergency period.
We will be voting against amendment 91, which is in the name of Graham Simpson. Last night I was researching the private providers of large blocks of private student accommodation, and I did not find a single one registered in the United Kingdom. I found Malta, the Isle of Man, Liechtenstein and the British Virgin Islands. I do not see why any of those companies, which have made 12 to 15 per cent returns on capital in tax havens, should be relieved of the obligation to pay a modest sum of money to the local authority to maintain the very fabric and infrastructure on which that organisation relies for its return on capital. That is a disgrace, and we will be voting against amendment 91.
Over the past 24 hours, there has been a veritable outpouring of frustration from tenants that modest amendments—and this would be laughed out of court in any other European country—
Mr Wightman proclaims that the amendments that he is referring to are modest amendments, yet since they were lodged, housing associations and others have said how detrimental they would be for communities, tenants and landlords.
The proposals were described by the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations as “calamitous”. The forum talked of Mr Wightman extinguishing rent arrears across the board. That is the kind of scenario that Mr Wightman has not taken into account when formulating his amendments. If he had actually talked to us, we might have found a way forward in order to protect tenants and to move on, but that has not happened. Sending me an email with demands is not discussion, and Mr Wightman should take note of what others do with regard to their discussions. They manage to get their amendments—
Mr Wightman’s own group is a prime example. During consideration of the Planning (Scotland) Bill, he failed dismally to get any amendments through, unlike just about everybody else in his group. It is time that he discussed things properly, rather than getting on his high horse and dictating to people—not just to the Government but to housing associations and others.
That was a diatribe and I reject that characterisation. I will publish the email that I sent to Mr Stewart. It was not a demand; it specifically said, “These are the things I would like to achieve, and I would like to discuss them with you.” The reason I wanted to discuss them with him was that, if he agreed to some of them, we could perhaps have made some progress, whereas if he did not agree with any of them, it would have been worth knowing then, so that I did not have to waste my time drafting amendments that the Government would not support.
I will publish that email. It was not a demand. As for the point about the Glasgow and West of Scotland forum and all the rest of it, that organisation does not represent the interests of tenants; it represents the interests of landlords.
Yes, it does. It is a forum of housing associations, and housing associations are landlords. A small number of them are community-based housing associations or co-operatives, but the large majority of them are landlords. The tenants would benefit from a rent freeze. Moreover, the amendments that I have lodged for today do not apply to that sector, so the critique is irrelevant.
I will conclude where I left off. There has been a veritable outpouring of frustration from tenants that modest amendments—as I was saying, they are so minor that this would be laughed out of court in any European country—that are designed to provide the kind of protections that are taken for granted in most European countries look not to be getting support today. That is a matter of regret.
We will have to revisit the whole question of the private rented sector. Mr Stewart said that one of the disadvantages of placing any conditions on the landlord loan fund is that the landlord might sell the property. The only reason why that is a problem for tenants is that the Parliament decided that, if someone is selling a property, that allows them to evict the tenant. That is not the case across Europe. If a landlord sells a croft, the crofter is not evicted. If a landlord sells a tenant farm, the tenant farmer is not evicted. Why on earth should a person, a young family, a single mum, an older couple or people whom I have worked with be evicted just because the landlord wants to sell?
I have dealt with dozens of families that were being evicted from short-term lets because people wanted to sell them. That is not compliant with human rights, and that is not an argument for not doing something more to strengthen tenants’ rights.
The UK has the second-highest eviction rate across the European Union. England, Wales and Northern Ireland will contribute much to that—I do not know what the balance is—but that is not a good place to be.
I encourage members to support my amendments. They are modest, and they provide vital protections to people who have no capacity to respond to the crisis financially but who face the real threat of losing their home.
I start by speaking to Pauline McNeill’s amendment 10. I thank her for lodging an amendment on the issue again. This is the first opportunity that I have had to comment on the issue in the chamber and to respond to those who have contacted me on the various amendments.
Last night was my first opportunity to look carefully at the Scottish Government’s position, which seems to be that housing costs could already be met through the discretionary housing payment system and that creating a new system would be seen as duplication. That is a reasonable argument, and I accept it.
I welcome the fact that discretionary housing payments had been set to increase this year to £71.2 million, which would have been an increase of £10 million. Some £12 million of that was specifically for unmet housing costs for struggling tenants. There is also, of course, the additional £5 million that has been mentioned this afternoon, which I also welcome.
However, it is fair to say that a struggling renter who is not entitled to benefits is unlikely to receive a discretionary housing payment. Perhaps the person is a furloughed worker or one of the people whom Pauline McNeill mentioned. They might be struggling not just with the rent but with a variety of costs in the household budget. Of course we have to look again at how we can help those individuals.
I am looking to find out from the Government whether we will continue to explore how the needs of those struggling renters can be met as we go forward. I do not think that the mechanism that Pauline McNeill has proposed will achieve that because of the duplication aspect, but we have to look at the issue again. If time permits, I will make some suggestions.
I can give Mr Doris the same assurance that I gave Ms McNeill. We will continue to look at all that is happening out there. We have to look at the data and what is happening to people out there in order to get this right. Earlier, the First Minister made it very clear that, as a Government, we will continue to do all that we can to support folks in greatest need as we move forward.
I welcome those reassurances from the minister.
There could be a pan-UK solution. Housing benefit is, of course, a reserved matter, but the Parliament has quite rightly set a precedent with discretionary housing payments and having top-up benefits to get folk who are struggling with housing costs out of poverty. Will there be criteria that relate to the £5 million that has been added to discretionary housing payments, extending such payments beyond people on benefits, for example?
There is also the Scottish welfare fund. Some £22 million has already been allocated to local authorities. The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People wrote to me on Monday, telling me that £23 million remains unallocated. I have to admit that I have no idea whether that should go to struggling tenants in the private rented sector, because we cannot spend the same pound twice. However, we have to look at the best way to direct that £23 million. Perhaps the solution could be to help renters who are struggling.
I put those ideas out there, and members will have other ideas, but we must come together as a Parliament to find solutions rather than have a petulant argument in the chamber. We have to think constructively and positively about how we can take the issue forward.
I do not want to say much about amendments 11 to 14; I have not had time to look at them in detail, given that they were published at 12 o’clock today. I looked in detail at the equivalent amendments that were lodged at stage 2, about which I had significant concerns.
Given that we are looking at the private rented sector, I re-read Pauline McNeill’s proposed fair rents (Scotland) bill, and its provisions looked pretty positive and robust to me. I think that her bill would make a real contribution.
Unfortunately, I cannot support amendments 11 to 14, but once the dust settles on the bill, we have to come together as a Parliament to drive forward a real solution.
I will focus my comments on Andy Wightman’s amendments 11 to 14. I think that he speaks with sincere passion about housing and always makes a valuable contribution to our deliberations and debates. His presence is an asset to the Parliament. However, that does not mean that I agree with him.
I agree with amendments 13 and 14, but not amendments 11 and 12—being a good Liberal, I can say that I see Jackie Baillie laughing at that—-and I will explain why.
I will vote in favour of amendments 13 and 14 to prevent evictions as a result of rent arrears that are caused by the crisis that is before us. As Andy Wightman said, some people will be really suffering and need to be protected in law.
I heard what the minister said, but I am not happy that the Government is merely advising people—the advice that is being given is quite right, but advice is not mandatory. The Government’s advice is that landlords should not be evicting people. The job of the Parliament is to make the law. I agree that the job of the Government is slightly different, but the Parliament is here to make the law and we need to protect people. When we passed the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, I raised the point that there is a great difference between advice and the law.
Let me given an example. The First Minister is constantly telling people not to travel to work that is non-essential, but the legislation allows people to travel to work. If the Government wants to stop journeys to work that is non-essential, it should have put that into the legislation that we all supported unanimously—but it did not. It now advises people not to travel to work that is non-essential. However, people are still travelling to work that is non-essential, and they are not breaking the law.
I have the same worry that people will be evicted against the advice of the Scottish Government. The Parliament has an opportunity to make sure that it gets the law right. We should have done that when we passed the first coronavirus bill, and we failed to do so. We should not make the same mistake with the second coronavirus bill—that is the fight.
I disagree with Andy Wightman on amendments 11 and 12. So far in our debate about housing, tenants and landlords, no one has mentioned the consequences for those whom a lot of people call “unintentional landlords”.
I represent the north-east of Scotland and I am aware of the housing crisis in the area, which hit well before coronavirus. There are problems in the North Sea oil and gas industry and I know people who have had to move away from the north-east because of work and who cannot sell their property—they are stuck, and they rent their property out. They do not want to be landlords, but they are landlords. If Mr Wightman’s amendments are agreed to, their income would dry up.
I thank Mr Rumbles for giving way.
The income of those landlords would not necessarily dry up—that implies that rent is their sole source of income.
It is important to remember that a landlord who rents out a home presumably has a home of their own. The home that they rent out will be worth a substantial sum of money, and they will be quite wealthy. However, for the tenant who is in the landlord’s property, that is their only home. Presumably, they are not wealthy, given that, by and large, the poorest members of society are renters. There is not really a direct comparison.
Andy Wightman makes a very good contribution to the debate, but, unfortunately, he is wrong when he says that those landlords are wealthy people, because they are not. I know people who have had to move out of their home in the north-east to Glasgow or Edinburgh, or somewhere else, where they rent.
It does not matter whether those people are small in number. We are creating the law of the land, and it affects people. I would have thought that Andy Wightman would have the good grace to realise that he has forgotten those people. It is very important that, when we make legislation, we do not forget people. We make legislation for everyone, across the board. I cannot support his amendments 11 and 12 for those reasons. We forget people at our peril.
I support Andy Wightman’s amendments 13 and 14 because, on the important issue of people who are affected by coronavirus being evicted, we cannot rely on good will and Scottish Government advice. We got it wrong in the first coronavirus bill, and we must not get it wrong in the second.
I will press amendment 6.
This has been a lengthy debate. It has been passionate at times, and people have had their say. I genuinely like Mr Wightman and I do not like to see him get agitated, but he did get rather agitated. However, he speaks passionately.
I do not want to go over all the old ground, but I will mention what were, for me, two of the best contributions that we have heard so far. One came from a possibly unexpected source—Bob Doris. Mr Doris is a very partisan man who always toes the party line, but on this occasion he analysed the issue very well when he talked about the tenant rent support fund and made some really helpful suggestions. He is to be applauded for that.
The second contribution that I want to mention came from Mike Rumbles, whom we have just heard. He spoke about unintentional landlords in the private rented sector. There are a good number of people who have found themselves having to rent out their home for various reasons. He mentioned people who have had to move away and rent out their property, but there are others who rely on income from their former homes—for example, to pay for care home fees—and who are not necessarily wealthy people.
I agree with the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning when he says that Andy Wightman’s amendments could have unintended consequences. We could end up with people leaving the sector. I do not think that Andy Wightman wants that, but it could result from his proposed measures.
None of us knows how this is going to pan out. Some people are now moving from what we might call the Airbnb sector into the private rented sector, which could have a downward effect on rents in parts of Scotland. We need to be very careful of unintended consequences.
I will leave it there, Presiding Officer.
Amendment 6 agreed to.
Amendments 7 and 8 moved—[Graham Simpson]—and agreed to.
Amendment 9 moved—[Michael Russell]—and agreed to.
Amendment 10 moved—[Pauline McNeill].
I will focus my comments on amendment 15, which seeks to bring in a system of national collective bargaining in the social care sector. The crisis in our care home sector is not new—it has been with us for many years—but the Covid-19 outbreak has brought it smack bang into the public’s consciousness.
Over the years, we have read report after report on the problems in the sector. Common Weal published another one today—very good it is, too, and I commend it to all members.
Central to the problems in the social care sector is the private provision of services. Care is an industry. Its provision outside the public and third sectors is, in the main, driven by the profit motive. HC-One, the owner of the Skye care home, owns more than 50 care homes in Scotland. It is owned by a property and venture capital firm that is registered in the Cayman Islands.
According to the
, Britain’s biggest care home operator has declared a loss in every year except one since its creation in 2011, yet it has still managed to pay out more than £48.5 million in dividends. Despite warning that local authority funding cuts have brought the sector to the brink of financial crisis, it has paid no corporation tax in that time. Does anyone really believe that the care of the elderly is the priority for a company that operates on that basis?
In order to generate those dividends, companies such as HC-One make their profit by driving down the pay and conditions of the staff who provide the care. In the past few weeks, we will all have been contacted by staff who are worried about their safety, their health, PPE and the wellbeing of the residents they care for. A climate of fear exists in the social care sector, where the workers are doing their very best to help our elderly and vulnerable people by providing compassionate care despite the system, not because of it. Often, rather than being paid the living wage, they are paid the minimum wage or just above it.
In a statement on 12 April, the Scottish Government said:
“Social care support workers providing direct adult support will have their pay increased to at least the Real Living Wage rate”.
That statement is central to the problem, because what happens is that employers such as HC-One decide which staff provide direct adult support. Today, I checked HC-One’s website. Here is a list of job vacancies that are currently available and their hourly rates of pay: wellbeing co-ordinator, £8.72; care assistant, £8.84; senior care assistant, £9.22; kitchen assistant, £8.72; chef, £8.72; maintenance operative, £9. Is feeding people not direct adult support? Is caring for people not direct adult support? Is keeping their home safe and secure not direct adult support?
What about the home care sector? Well, here are the adverts on the Scottish Care website today—we should remember that Scottish Care represents the care home owners. The post of support worker, based in Huntly, which involves helping with personal care, including bathing, is advertised at £9 an hour; a care assistant post in Perth is advertised at £9.25 an hour; and support workers are required for Stonehaven, Renfrewshire, Glasgow and West Lothian at a rate of £9 an hour. So much for everyone who provides direct adult support receiving at least the living wage; it is simply not happening.
Many of the carers we are talking about are on zero-hours contracts; get statutory sick pay only if they are made ill through work; receive no travel time; and have to use their own phones and buy their own uniforms. Care is among the most precarious and exploitative sectors.
Amendment 15 seeks to begin a process to address all of that by establishing a system of national collective bargaining in the private care home sector. That would give workers a voice, protection and a structure to ensure that issues around safety, staffing, patient testing, residents’ care and wellbeing, conditions at work and pay can be discussed and negotiated without fear that individuals will be picked off and victimised by their employer. Most important of all, such a system would drive up morale and the quality of the care that is provided.
Not all care providers act like HC-One. Some small family businesses and others are responsible and care for their staff and patients, and for those who provide services. They have nothing at all to fear from my proposal. Today, we have the opportunity to continue with the broken system that is the status quo, or we can begin the process of much-needed change in this vital sector.
During yesterday’s meeting of the COVID-19 Committee, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs said that any actions must be “practical, proportionate and possible”. I absolutely agree. If we are able to provide, at extremely short notice, schemes to support landlords, Airbnb owners and private schools, and to create numerous schemes to support businesses, including a national furlough scheme for millions of workers, why are we somehow uniquely unable to bring together representatives of workers and the owners who employ them to speak to one another about health and safety, pay, conditions and care home staffing? It is nonsense to suggest that that cannot happen, and it is nonsense to suggest that it would take for ever for that to happen.
At 8 o’clock tomorrow evening, we will all be on our doorsteps to clap for the very people who would benefit greatly from amendment 15. I appeal to members to please support it.
I move amendment 15.
People who work in social care, including in care homes, are the unsung heroes of this crisis. Beyond our weekly applause on a Thursday evening, those key workers need urgent practical support as well as our appreciation. Amendment 16 seeks to go some way towards that by putting a duty on the Scottish ministers to establish a social care staff support fund for the duration of the crisis. That will allow payments to be made to care workers who might experience financial detriment as a result of disruption to normal patterns of work, or limits on their ability to work at all, because they are self-isolating or are unable to work shifts in multiple care homes for coronavirus-related reasons.
I am grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Jeane Freeman, for the constructive dialogue that we have been able to have between the late hours of last night and the early hours of this morning, before the 9.30 deadline for lodging amendments. Colleagues who are on the COVID-19 Committee will know that a similar amendment in my name fell at stage 2 yesterday. I am pleased that we have now been able to reach agreement, because it is the right thing to do. I am glad that the Scottish Government has confirmed today that it will support amendment 16, and I hope that all members will back it.
I lodged my amendment partly because of the serious concerns that I have about the on-going issues around testing and the confusion that exists over the application of recent changes to testing guidance. It is right that all staff should receive regular testing, but worries about being unable to live on statutory sick pay if a staff member tests positive should not be a factor in receiving a test or deciding whether to work in a Covid-19-positive workplace.
I believe that there needs to be a mechanism in place to ensure that there is no financial detriment to social care staff who have to self-isolate or who are otherwise unable to work their usual hours because of restrictions that are caused by coronavirus. My amendment has been informed by discussions with GMB Scotland, Unison and the Royal College of Nursing, and the Coalition of Care and Support Providers in Scotland submitted supportive comments in relation to my very similar stage 2 amendment, amendment 24.
The COVID-19 Committee has taken evidence from experts such as Sir Harry Burns, who has warned that asymptomatic staff are unwittingly spreading Covid-19 in care homes and health settings. Asymptomatic or not, Covid-positive staff should not be at work, but neither should they suffer financial detriment as a result.
Amendment 16 is also drafted in a way that takes into account workers who have already suffered detriment since the beginning of the emergency period; it should allow issues of pay loss—backdated to March—to be considered.
My proposal is a temporary emergency measure that will make sure that no one falls through the cracks, but the intention is not to let care providers off the hook when it comes to ensuring that staff are properly paid. Labour members look forward to working with the Government and employers in the coming weeks and months to further strengthen the rights of staff who work in social care.
In the immediate term, it is not wise to do nothing or to rely on the hope that employers will continue to pay full wages, rather than workers having to rely on statutory sick pay. These are unprecedented times, and we need to look after the carers who are looking after the most vulnerable.
I ask all members to support amendment 16, and I support the other amendments in the group.
This is the largest group of amendments in our consideration this afternoon; I apologise for that, because 46 of the 52 amendments are in my name. I will explain why. There are a large number of technical amendments, but I will address each of the six substantive amendments in turn—amendment 15, in the name of Neil Findlay; amendment 16, in the name of Monica Lennon, which we have just heard about; amendment 79, in the name of Jackie Baillie; and three in my name. If one has any understanding of the history of socialism, one will see that the contrast between the amendments from Neil Findlay and Monica Lennon is that between impossibilism and possibilism. What we heard from Neil Findlay is not possible; we cannot put in place a system of collective bargaining by dictation overnight, nor can we do it in a week or a month. We can do what the Scottish Government has been doing, which is to move towards that, say that we support it, negotiate with those who are involved and agree with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to meet the additional costs that are associated with Covid-19. [
.] No, thank you.
COSLA has issued guidance to local government and health and social care partnerships on how they should support social care providers. We are committed to working with the entire sector to move that work on. We have established with the unions and other partners a fair work in social care implementation group, which reports to the Scottish Government and COSLA, and there is a jointly chaired ministerial strategic group. We are working to take all that forward, but we cannot take it forward just like that. We cannot do it by a short amendment in an emergency bill; it is impossible to do that, and Neil Findlay knows that. He has a history in the trade union movement and he would be outraged if a private employer tried to behave like that—to impose a change immediately, on the basis of a brief paragraph, and ignore all the negotiation that needs to take place. That is the impossibilism of Neil Findlay. Members should reflect on that. We are spending time on something about which we had the same argument yesterday afternoon. It was clear then that it could not be done—not that it should not be done—yet we are back here doing the same thing.
Then there is the possibilism argument. Monica Lennon and I might have our differences, but I commend her for being persistent on that and talking to the right person, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. I was not the right person to talk to; that is surprising to Jackie Baillie.
Amendment 16 is a practical and possible way to go forward, because it puts money into the hands of those who need it most. One of the issues that have been discussed is how we get money directly into the hands of those who need it most and ensure that it does not get diverted within the system. Those crucial issues are being addressed, and money will be provided. That is the possible, and it is going to happen. I commend amendment 16 to the chamber and I hope that everybody will support it.
On the issue of collective bargaining, could the cabinet secretary explain—as many of us support the principle of working constructively with the trade union movement—why he thinks that the Scottish Trades Union Congress has tweeted its support for the amendment if it is so out of keeping, in his view, with the way that trade unions would expect those issues to be negotiated?
I know that I am sometimes accused of taking on too much, but I cannot speak for the STUC. I think that it is likely that the STUC would support any—[
] Clearly, if there are members who wish to speak for the STUC, they are entitled to do so, but I cannot speak for it. I am telling members what is practical and possible, I am telling them what we can and cannot do and I am telling them that the Government wants to work with the STUC and others to get this done, but it cannot be done in the way that has been suggested by Neil Findlay. There are no ifs or buts—it cannot be done in that way.
Are there any parallels with how we brought in collective bargaining in the further education sector, which we did by planning in a structured way to get to the point where we got some success? That is the track record of the Scottish Government. Does it hold out some hope for the social care sector?
I hope that the process goes more smoothly than it sometimes went in the further education sector, but that may be because I was the cabinet secretary who was responsible for it at the time—I do not know, but Mr Doris is right to say that it takes a considerable length of time and a great deal of effort to do. If I had said to the employers at that stage, “Just do it,” it would not have happened. Negotiation makes the difference.
Mr Leonard says from a sedentary position, “Just do it,” but it would not happen. I have to say that the wish is not the same as the deed.
I have great sympathy for amendment 79, in the name of Jackie Baillie, but I hope that she would accept that what the Scottish Government proposes is the right way to move forward. There is a considerable issue in inviting us to—in fact, insisting that we—issue almost 1,100 emergency condition notices at this time. That is not a reasonable thing to do, given that we accept the need to do a great deal in the sector. We are doing everything that we possibly can. That is a practical objection that needs to be borne in mind—so does reconfiguring the Care Inspectorate system to make all the changes that need be explored on every occasion. I do not think that that is the right thing to do at this stage. I have no objection to debating that or looking at it, but it would be very difficult to do and I do not think that it meets the requirement of proportionality.
Let me now come to the many amendments in my name. They can be broken down into three issues: care homes emergency directions; emergency intervention orders; and the giving of notices by the Care Inspectorate. I will deal with amendment 83, which covers the last issue, first. It is essentially a technical amendment that allows the Care Inspectorate to send formal notices by electronic means as well as by post during the pandemic. We have applied that measure in a range of areas and there is nothing particularly exceptional about the amendment. Jackie Baillie is seeing an opportunity here to send 1,100 emails, but the trouble is that care homes would have to reply with details. That would require 1,100 replies to be sent back by individual care homes and dealt with. I am glad that I headed that one off at the pass before Jackie Baillie had the chance to raise it.
Let me talk about the other two issues. Amendment 25 is about emergency directions. Both of the amendments on emergency directions were presaged by what I said yesterday at the COVID-19 Committee when I moved the original amendments. Both amendments are designed to make effective what the committee agreed is required. The amendments enable health boards to direct the care home service in their area during the coronavirus pandemic and allow such steps as may be specified to be made where there is, in the phrase that I used yesterday,
“a material risk to the health of persons at the specified accommodation.”
That allows the health board to quickly intervene, give appropriate direction to ensure that improvements are swiftly implemented to protect residents and staff. If those directions are not complied with, the health board has powers to
“take entry ... and recover from the provider of the care home service the costs incurred”.
A sheriff can grant a warrant to authorise the health board to enter and take those steps. That is a necessary action, but I hope that it never has to be used.
The amendments on emergency intervention orders are immensely detailed. However, a sharp-eyed observer will have seen that many of them say the same thing.
What is required is to change some of the wording that we agreed yesterday, in order to make the interventions effective, and also to do something that is important: to enable the Scottish ministers to make an application for an emergency intervention order in either the Court of Session or the sheriff court. Given that the courts are not sitting as normal, having that flexibility would allow Scottish ministers to apply to either court and get an order as quickly as possible. The amendments make it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that the Scottish ministers can seek an interim order from the court . That assures that the Scottish ministers can obtain an order very quickly. I made it clear yesterday that there has to be a level of proportionality. The amendments introduce that; there are very strict conditions under which it can be done.
The amendments essentially complete the process that we started at stage 2 yesterday, and I hope that members will support them and amendment 16, in the name of Monica Lennon.
It is with regret that I am not willing or able to support amendment 79, in the name of Jackie Baillie.
As I have said, Neil Findlay’s amendment is an example of impossibilism, and the Parliament should not indulge in that.
I am always grateful for his sympathy, but I would of course prefer his support. He pre-empted my comment about electronic notices. I was interested to hear about those. I suggest that a condition can be placed on a care home by the use of just one email; a response is not required.
Although the cabinet secretary’s comments were creative, I do not feel that they were in any way accurate. There is nothing, therefore, to stop members from supporting amendment 79.
I am grateful to members who passed an earlier amendment at stage 2 that will give statutory underpinning to the requirement for care homes, and the Care Inspectorate, to be totally transparent in their reporting arrangements about the numbers of deaths in care homes. Members will recall the scandalous lack of accountability in the Care Inspectorate’s refusal to provide information on the number of deaths in our care homes, so I am grateful for the support of all Opposition parties.
Amendment 79 considers the areas that require to be monitored if we are to tackle Covid-19 in our care homes effectively. Care homes have become the epicentre of the pandemic.
There have been issues with the lack of availability of PPE, and, in some cases, with its poor quality. Staff of the HC-One care home in my constituency told of PPE having been locked in cupboards while Covid-19 raged through the home.
I note that HC-One homes in Scotland, from Castle View in Dumbarton to Home Farm in Skye, have experienced more than 200 deaths from Covid-19. Our sympathies are with those who have lost loved ones, but I say to the cabinet secretary that they need more than our sympathy—they need us to act.
Then there is the question of testing. The lack of testing for staff and residents has been appalling. The hesitation—in some cases, the refusal—to get staff and residents tested is baffling. I know that the Scottish Government has been slow on testing, but some care homes appear to be reluctant to do it in case the staff go off sick. It is as if they would rather have care home staff carrying the virus into work than being off. I want the Care Inspectorate to monitor that.
Including such issues in the conditions of registration of care homes would show their importance, and would ensure that the Care Inspectorate knew what was expected of it. After all, the Care Inspectorate is about ensuring that standards are met, and what can be more important than ensuring that the standards and arrangements are met for the care of our older people during a pandemic? Yet, despite that, the Care Inspectorate has been posted missing during the pandemic.
It is beyond disappointing that, at a time when the Care Inspectorate should have been stepping up to the plate, it appears to have taken a light-touch approach and stepped back completely. At a time when people are dying in their hundreds in care homes across the country, that was an extraordinary decision, and I am surprised that ministers agreed to it.
The Care Inspectorate has now taken action at Home Farm on Skye, but what about Castle View in Dumbarton, where, unfortunately, more people have died, and for which inspection reports have not been great? The truth is, it recommended inspections only a couple of weeks ago. For 10 to 12 weeks, it has been missing. That is not good enough. It has a job to do.
Amendment 79 would put beyond any doubt expectations and demand for action on the areas that we know will make a difference. I hope that members will support it.
The cabinet secretary says that it would be impossible to set up national negotiation of terms and conditions and pay for private sector workers. I remind him that John Swinney, when he was finance secretary, worked with COSLA to introduce a national rate for all care providers. Until that point, local authorities negotiated rates locally. That sometimes ended up in chaos, so a national rate for care home owners was introduced, to try to stabilise the sector. The cabinet secretary’s case does not stack up.
If one thing is evident from this crisis, it is that the way in which we organise, run and deliver health and social care in care homes and in the community is not fit for purpose. This is an opportunity to start to address that.
I have never forgotten the full care package that my dad had before he died. He was ill, and he had four visits a day from different carers. Some carers came from the council and some came from agencies in the private sector, but the care that they all gave was first class. However, the carers who were working for the council had far better terms and conditions and pay than the carers who were working for the private sector.
I do not disagree with a word that Mr Rowley has said. However, I strongly do not believe that we can achieve the imposition of national terms and conditions by means of eight to 10 lines in an emergency bill.
We want this to happen, but it cannot happen as a result of what we have heard today. We are working towards it and doing what we can to bring it about, but it is simply unfair to people to imply that it can be done with a magic wand. There is no magic wand.
I spoke to Gary Smith from GMB Scotland yesterday. He made the point that an emergency that we have to address is that there are care workers up and down Scotland who are terrified of being tested, because they do not want to be told to self-isolate and rely on statutory sick pay. That is an emergency that must be addressed now.
Will the Government give an indication that it will address the whole issue of care? That is what is needed. Recently, a care home in Kirkcaldy said that 14 people had died and that the deaths were directly related to Covid-19. The number of deaths is running into the 20s and we do not yet know the final outcome.
When we get through the worst of this crisis, there will need to be an inquiry to find out what on earth went so badly wrong. The Care Inspectorate will have to answer questions. That is why I urge the minister to rethink his view on Jackie Baillie’s proposal. It is not just that so many people have died; it is that people in care homes are at risk and we need to step up the action that needs to be taken.
Out of respect to the workers, the Government needs to signal that it is going to do something—and do it very quickly—to address the unfair way in which workers have been treated.
Surely, every MSP recognises that that is the case. I would even have thought that the Conservative Party would support our having a united front and recognise the need to get in place a national system of bargaining and negotiating to give all care workers in Scotland, regardless of who employs them, the same terms and conditions and the same wages. Surely, the Government will accept that. Surely, it will at least give a commitment to address the issue as a priority and as an emergency.
Monica Lennon and Jackie Baillie have done a good job with their amendments; it is Neil Findlay’s amendment 15 that most concerns me. It troubles me. As a trade unionist who was a shop steward and who is the convener of the cross-party group on older people, age and ageing—care homes come up all the time in its meetings—I agree completely with everything that he and others, including the cabinet secretary, have said. How those who work in care homes are treated is a disgrace. However, amending the bill as he proposes is not the way to go about fixing the issue.
I have raised the issue with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, in the Health and Sport Committee and in the chamber, and I have been given assurances that things in the care sector will not stay the same. They cannot stay the same. Yes, the biggest problem is the terms and conditions. The private sector runs more than 74 per cent of care homes; the rest are run by a mixture of other bodies, which include local authorities, charitable organisations and churches.
The need for national collective bargaining is not the only issue. Other issues include training and wages—it is a bigger picture. Amendment 15 does not fit into the bill. I have great sympathy—I think that everybody has—with the member’s views, but we cannot just place a sticking plaster over this small part of the issue and include that in the bill. The issue must be looked at in the round. We need to make sure that care workers are valued. They do a great job. Someone cannot just come in and do their job; people need training and they need to have higher national certificates, for example. Those are the issues that need to be covered.
I am sorry, but I cannot support amendment 15. It does not go far enough; it is far too narrow to be fitted into the bill. [
.] I am sorry that Richard Leonard is laughing at that. Perhaps he should speak to the workers in Glasgow City Council. His GMB trade union did nothing to help or protect them, so he should not laugh at me. We are talking about vulnerable people, and people who work in the care sector should be treated properly. The amendment does not fit into the bill.
I agree with everything that Neil Findlay has said—I do not think that it is fair to laugh, because I do not find the issue at all funny—but this is just not the right place for what he is seeking.
Jeez! I am sorry, but where do I begin with that contribution, Presiding Officer?
We have heard from the cabinet secretary that what my amendment calls for simply cannot be done—that we cannot impose terms and conditions on a sector. No one is attempting to impose anything on a sector. We are trying to set up a framework—a structure—so that the two sides can get round the table and get on with it. That is normal; it is how things operate in any collective bargaining position. It is nothing to do with anyone from outside imposing anything.
The cabinet secretary says that it cannot be done, but it is not Brexit, the Good Friday agreement or the unification of Germany. It is not so complicated that it would take forever; it could be done fairly quickly. We know that there are circumstances in which there are disputes and it looks as though the two sides are so far apart that there will not be an agreement, but very often they can come together and quickly get one. If that was impossible, the very responsible people at the STUC would not be supporting the proposal, and neither would the GMB, Unite, Unison or any of the other trade unions. When I convened the Health and Sport Committee, Scottish Care called for it. The only people who do not seem to support it are the Government. I am not seeking to dictate terms and conditions for anyone; my amendment simply seeks to set up a structure. No matter how confidently and determinedly the cabinet secretary says that it cannot happen, that does not get over the simple fact that he is just wrong.
It is bizarre that we can set up a furlough scheme for millions of workers and other schemes for the self-employed, to help sole traders or to help people with mortgages, rent or food deliveries and everything else that has been going on, but somehow—uniquely—we cannot get two sides of a sector round a table to discuss the terms and conditions of people who deliver vital care. Mr Russell is deluded if he thinks that that is the case. I am looking towards members such as Christina McKelvie and Clare Haughey—although I am not sure whether Ms Haughey is in the chamber—who have had experience of being trade union organisers in the workplace. They know that what Mr Russell has said is nonsense.
Amendment 15 is simply about setting up a structure and nothing else. We expect the Tories to oppose such proposals root and branch—it is in their DNA and their ethos to oppose people being fairly rewarded at work—but I appeal to members, especially those on the SNP benches, not to vote down amendment 15 today and then tomorrow night go out and applaud the people who would benefit from the very move that it proposes.
I am pleased to speak to amendments 17 to 24 in my name.
We all know that the scale of the economic devastation caused by Covid-19 has yet to be fully appreciated. Thousands of people have already lost their jobs. If it had not been for the job retention scheme, thousands more would have joined them. Indeed, yesterday we heard OVO Energy announce the loss of more than 2,600 jobs, the majority of which are in its customer services division in Scotland, and today Rolls-Royce announced the loss of 9,000 jobs, many of which are in Scotland. Thousands of people are now out of work and facing financial uncertainty. Regrettably, there will be more to come. We talk about the coronavirus as having caused a health crisis, but it has undoubtedly caused an economic crisis, too.
The way that we live our lives means that we all have debts of one description or another. Whether it involves mortgages, car loans, store cards or credit cards, debt is a factor of modern-day living. When someone is working and has an income to service that debt, it is not a worry. However, when they lose their job, that balance goes, the equilibrium is shattered and they suddenly find themselves in a position in which they are simply unable to cope financially and cannot service the debt. The anxiety, the sleepless nights and the spiral into poor mental health all follow that. People need our help desperately.
Amendment 17 builds on the Scottish Government’s proposal for a debt moratorium that it included in its first piece of emergency coronavirus legislation. The proposal was welcome, but, to be honest, it felt like a job half done, because we know that, unless we freeze interest rates, fees, charges and penalties, the debt continues to grow. Thankfully, many responsible lenders already do that—they get it—but many do not, most notably payday lenders, whose additional interest charges and fees can lead to eye-watering levels of debt. An initial debt can increase by literally thousands of pounds, sinking the individual into even more financial strain.
My proposal is time limited. It is not intended to be in place forever and a day. It goes hand in hand with the moratorium and allows people time to arrange to settle their debts or to be subject to full diligence and recovery action. It gives them much-needed breathing space. Breathing space is, of course, the name that was given to the exact same proposal that is being consulted on by the UK Government. The proposal was a Conservative manifesto pledge. Some would say that it is very radical, but it is just a matter of decency and common sense, and I cannot begin to tell members of my sorrow and disappointment that the Tories in Scotland are turning their backs on a proposal from the Conservative Party at a UK level. I am sure that somebody will have a word with Boris.
I turn to the SNP. At stage 2, the Scottish Government said that this was all too difficult to do and that it could not get its computers to work in time, which is an excuse that it used in relation to the Care Inspectorate amendment that I just moved. It said that the proposal would be practically impossible to deliver. I took that at face value and went back to the experts in the money advice sector, who came up with a solution. Accordingly, I have amended my original proposal to set out exactly how it could be delivered. Therefore, there is nothing to stop it being implemented. If anyone needs further convincing in relation to amendment 17, I say that it is supported by Citizens Advice Scotland; StepChange, the debt charity; Money Advice Scotland; the Govan Law Centre; and specialist money advisers such as Alan McIntosh. Those are the experts in the field, and we should listen to them.
We can talk all that we like about social justice, but now is our opportunity to do something about it. Tackling poverty must be more than something that we put in the nice-to-do box. We need to act, and there is no more important time to act than now. I hope that members across the chamber will support amendment 17.
Amendments 18 to 24 should be supported across the chamber, because they come after detailed negotiations with ministers. I thank Jamie Hepburn for his willingness to compromise. It is fair to say that the midnight oil was burned and that it was only this morning, with 15 minutes to go, that agreement was reached—I am truly exhausted.
I am grateful that the Scottish Government recognises that it should lower the up-front charges that it levies for access to bankruptcy solutions. That is absolutely the correct thing to do. It had been a little timid and, under its proposals, the poorest people would still have had to pay. It is the case that people considering bankruptcy are not cash rich and that the fees act as a huge barrier to access. I wanted to remove the fees completely, but have come to an agreement with the minister to have exemptions for all those who are in receipt of a range of benefits, from all forms of employment and support allowance and jobseekers allowance right through to universal credit. That would apply to minimal asset process bankruptcies and full administration bankruptcies, making a real difference to many people who are experiencing debt.
These amendments are welcomed and supported by the whole money advice sector in Scotland. They are about recognising the terrible times that we are in and providing a lifeline to people whose world has just come crashing down. I hope that members will tonight support all amendments from 17 to 24.
I move amendment 17.
On amendment 17, I give credit to Jackie Baillie for trying to find a way to overcome the many obstacles to delivering such a freeze that were considered at stage 2. As I said at that point, the Government is attracted to doing something along those lines, and we have already consulted publicly on doing that.
However, we remain of the view that, at this time, it is simply not possible to produce major policy proposals that have coherence and which do not have any unintended consequences.
As evidence that I call people back, I say that I am grateful to Jackie Baillie for working with Jamie Hepburn and our officials on amendments 18 to 24. Those amendments replace her stage 2 amendment that would have abolished all up-front bankruptcy debtor application fees with a more targeted measure that focuses on those who most need our support—those who are in receipt of the benefits that are listed in the amendments. For the first time, those benefits include contribution-based benefits as well as purely income-related ones. The amendments also remove the requirement for the individual’s sole income to be from benefits.
That is quite a big change to our approach, and one that we will want to review to ensure that there are no unintended consequences and that we take the right approach across all applicants. However, as Jackie Baillie mentioned, these are extraordinary times and, for the initial five months for which the bill’s powers are due to run, it is right to suspend some of our normal caution and move quickly with the legislative proposals, given the impact of Covid-19 on the economy generally. In due course, and as quickly as we can, we will consider the issue again to ensure that we have a considered approach across the system.
I congratulate Ms Baillie on having convinced us that we should do more, and I am delighted to say that we will support amendments 18 to 24.
I am grateful to ministers for their work in coming to a compromise with me.
In relation to amendment 17, I am not trying to find a solution; I have found a solution that the Government can implement. I refer the minister to the consultation that the Accountant in Bankruptcy undertook. The results have not been published and no action has been taken on the back of it. Given the unprecedented times in which we live, it is time to take action. I commend the minister whole-heartedly for her words about suspending “normal caution” in relation to amendments 18 to 24. That applies to amendment 17, too, so I hope that all members will support all the amendments in my name.
The Presiding Officer:
The result of the division is: For 22, Against 56, Abstentions 0.
Amendment 17 disagreed to.
I remind members that, as a result of an error in the marshalled list, amendment 18 will be called after amendment 21.
Amendments 19 to 21, 18 and 22 to 24 moved—[Jackie Baillie]—and agreed to.
Amendments 25 to 72 moved—[Michael Russell]—and agreed to.
Amendment 73, in the name of Michael Russell, on marriage and civil partnerships, is grouped with amendments 74 to 78.
At stage 2, the committee agreed to an amendment that was lodged by Adam Tomkins on marriage and civil partnerships. That will require ministers, along with the registrar general for Scotland, to take steps to ensure that solemnisation of marriage and registration of civil partnerships continue to be available during the emergency period. In addition, ministers will need to prepare reports to Parliament on what has been done, and on the number of marriages and civil partnerships that have taken place.
The Scottish Government was happy to support the amendment, which came after persistent advocacy on the issue by Adam Tomkins. I think that he was right. Other members have joined in, and I have received considerable correspondence on the issue.
We have lodged technical amendments to make minor changes—they will not change the substance of what was agreed. Amendments 73 and 76 will make minor changes to affect the language of legislation on marriages and civil partnerships that are registered rather than solemnised.
Amendment 74 reflects drafting conventions with references to articles of the European convention on human rights, and amendment 75 clarifies that the reports to Parliament by ministers will cover steps that have been taken by Scottish ministers, and those that have been taken by the registrar general.
Amendment 77 will correct a minor typographical error. It will change
“no late than 14 days” to
“no later than 14 days”.
Amendment 78 will make the definition of “emergency period” consistent with the approach that is taken elsewhere in the bill.
I move amendment 73.
I will record two things: first, my support for the amendments, which will tidy up the work that was done yesterday, in particular to include civil partnerships within the scope of the amendment from yesterday, and secondly, my thanks to the cabinet secretary and his officials for co-operating with us on this important change.
Amendment 73 agreed to.
Amendments 74 to 78 moved—[Michael Russell]—and agreed to.
Amendment 79 moved—[Jackie Baillie].
Amendments 81 and 82 would require Scottish ministers to establish a scheme of free bus travel for NHS and social care workers during the emergency measures. The Government’s “Stay at home” message has been clear: people should travel or go to work only when it is essential, and they should, if possible, avoid public transport.
For our NHS and care workers, who really have stepped up to the mark, travel to their workplace, where they look after and care for our loved ones, does not get more essential.
Of course, they have avoided public transport where they can, but for some key workers—often the lowest paid—public transport is their only possible means of travel to work. The very least that we can do at this time is recognise their commitment, dedication and compassion as best we can. One way—a very small way—to do that is to remove one of the financial burdens that they face.
Free bus travel for NHS and social care staff would not cost the taxpayer more. As is the case with free travel for NHS staff in Wales, bus operators would, in return for the substantial and welcome financial support with which the Scottish Government already provides them, be required to allow those staff to travel for free.
As members will know, the Scottish Government is continuing to pay the bus service operators grant and concessionary travel reimbursements at forecast levels, despite there having been a fall of about 80 per cent in concessionary travel passenger journeys. The Government is topping up the difference between actual usage under the concessionary travel scheme and forecast usage, and the total budget for grants and concessionary fares is worth more than £260 million for the year.
Local authorities and transport agencies are continuing to pay for school transport contracts and subsidised non-commercial routes, even though those buses are running either not at all or at vastly reduced frequency.
It is therefore not too much to ask of our bus companies that they should, in return for that support, not only continue their good work in focusing on routes for key workers, but allow the small number of NHS and social care staff to travel on those buses for free.
Ideally, I would like a scheme to cover rail travel as well, as is the case in Northern Ireland and Wales. I have for some time been pressing the Scottish Government to introduce such a scheme, but I appreciate that that would require discussions around rail franchising. So far, the Scottish Government has, sadly, chosen not to pursue that route.
For bus travel, however, a free travel scheme could be implemented almost immediately. There would be no need to provide new concessionary travel cards—in Northern Ireland, health and social care trust staff are entitled to free public transport simply by showing their photographic identification badge, and people who work in the private care sector, including in care homes, show photographic ID and a letter that has been signed by their employer. In Wales, NHS staff simply have to show their NHS pass in order to travel on public transport for free. I therefore ask: why not in Scotland?
Some members might argue that such a scheme would mean that more people would travel by bus, but it would be a bit of an insult to our NHS and social care staff to say that they would choose to travel by public transport, which they have been advised to avoid if they can, unless they really had to do so. This is about easing the burden on workers who already travel by bus.
There is no evidence whatsoever from Northern Ireland and Wales that a rise in passenger use has resulted from the free travel schemes that have been brought in for key workers there. We know that the proposed scheme can work, because it is working in Wales and Northern Ireland.
As the Scottish Government confirmed on 1 April—in the update to MSPs from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance—the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity asked operators to provide free bus travel for NHS workers when he announced the financial support for bus operators. He would not have asked them if he did not support free travel, or if he thought that it could not work or was not affordable within the existing financial support that the Scottish Government provides.
Some operators, including Borders Buses in my region, have responded positively, but most have not. Leaving the decision to bus operators has, unfortunately, not worked. If free bus travel is good enough for people in some parts of Scotland and for NHS and social care staff in Northern Ireland and Wales, surely it is good enough for all our constituents across Scotland who work in the NHS and social care sectors, to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude.
I move amendment 81.
I record my support for amendments 81 and 82 from Colin Smyth. As he will know, the Scottish Green Party supports fair and free public transport as a long-term objective, and we have taken steps in that direction. Amendment 81 would, in the current circumstances—as Colin Smyth said—expand free bus travel to cover a relatively small number of extra people, but it would be an extremely welcome step.
Having said that, I hope that when we hear more next week from the transport secretary about the long-term trajectory for when lockdown begins to be eased, there will be a clear plan for how to help bus services remain viable. If some commercial operators believe that their services are not viable, we will need much more proactive engagement from the Scottish Government with regard to how we use the recently created powers to set up publicly owned local bus companies. That will be one of the most important ways to ensure that services on which NHS workers, care workers and everybody else depend will still be there in the era of social distancing.
I am very supportive of what Colin Smyth has done, and I am glad that he has raised the issue.
Our health and social care staff are indispensable and are under incredible pressure, so we have to do everything that we can do to support them. That means finding a way to make what is proposed happen. I think that the only difference between me and Colin Smyth now is to do with how we will make it happen. He is right to say that some Scottish bus operators are already offering free travel to national health service workers, on presentation of an NHS identification card. We welcome those initiatives, and we need more of them.
The question is whether we should set up a formal administrative scheme with all that that would require in terms of machinery, issuing of cards and establishment of criteria for the concession, or do what is being done in Wales and Northern Ireland, which is to make it as simple as possible and ensure that people can use services on presentation of simple proof that they will have of their work. That would be the better thing to do, and is likely to happen more quickly and be more effective.
As Patrick Harvie said, the transport secretary will report to Parliament next week, and there will be an opportunity for him to consider how he will ensure that what is proposed will happen, based on the resources that the bus companies are getting.
There is, however, an issue with the wording of the amendments, which leaves some dubiety. One of them appears to capture all local authority workers. Sympathetic as I am to that, it would be untenable.
What we need to do—I would like to do this—is commit to ensuring that the schemes continue to grow, and to finding a way to make them grow. Colin Smyth is right about what should happen; that approach will be much faster. We need to ensure that the proposal happens in a much simpler fashion than might be the case with a formal scheme, and we need to ensure that Transport Scotland and the minister work with Mr Smyth and other concerned people to ensure that it happens.
Fortunately, we do not require legislation to make it happen. Section 40 of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2005 can be used to create a scheme very simply, given where we are almost at.
I think that the best way forward is not to endorse amendments 81 and 82, but to say that the transport secretary, Transport Scotland and Mr Smyth will work together to get what he proposes up and running as quickly as possible, and to expand—as he rightly said—what already exists, in order that we can provide what we really want.
I commend that approach to Mr Smyth. I know that he has exchanged correspondence with the cabinet secretary for transport. I think that we now need some additional urgency to make sure that his suggestion happens quickly.
I thank the cabinet secretary for his comments. I have been asking for a scheme for several months, and the cabinet secretary now appears to be saying that the Government is going to introduce such a scheme. I am unsure why it kept saying no over the past two months, but is suddenly saying yes.
A couple of things that the cabinet secretary said are simply not true. First, he said that my amendments would require an entirely new scheme to be set up, with concessionary bus passes being produced. It would not. The wording replicates the schemes in Wales and Northern Ireland. NHS and social care staff would, in order to get on a bus, be required simply to show their NHS pass or, if they work in a private care home, their ID pass and a letter from their employer. That is what happens with Borders Buses and elsewhere. It is simply not true to say that my amendments would require an entirely new system to be set up.
The cabinet secretary said that the transport secretary will make a statement on Tuesday. I ask him—I will certainly take an intervention on this—whether he is saying to Parliament that, when the transport secretary makes his statement on Tuesday, he will commit to replicating in Scotland the concessionary travel scheme for NHS staff and social care workers that exists in Wales? He knows what that scheme is and how it works, and he has asked operators to do it, but they have not done so, so far. Will the cabinet secretary give a commitment that that will happen on Tuesday?
No. I am sorry. I wish that I could give Colin Smyth that commitment, but I am afraid that I cannot. I can say that there is a commitment to making sure that it happens, but I cannot tie the transport secretary to that timescale. That is why I want him, Mr Smyth and Transport Scotland to discuss how it can be done. I wish that I could go further, but I cannot.
The way to make it happen is to vote for amendments 81 and 82, which will do exactly what the cabinet secretary says he wants to be done, in a short time.
I will pick up the cabinet secretary on another technical issue. He said that amendment 82 would cover all local government staff, but that is simply not true. The criterion that is used in amendment 82 is the same as the one that was used by the Government in its safe staffing bill—now the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Act 2019—with the definition of “social care workers” being workers who provide care services. That is covered by the safe staffing legislation, and the definition in my amendment is the same. It is not true to say that the proposed provisions would cover every single local government worker: that is not what has been set out in my amendments 81 and 82.
I will press amendments 81 and 82. If the Government is genuinely committed to its scheme, it should note that the amendments will deliver the same scheme as those that exist for bus services in Northern Ireland and Wales. I would like to go further and include rail services, too, but that is not what the amendments concern.
The proposals would also not require additional funding from the taxpayer. Frankly, I say that if the Government wants to deliver such a scheme, members have to vote for my two amendments.
Amendment 84 seeks to extend the reach of the Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus Reliefs) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 to include the production of newspapers. It would put newspapers in the same category as businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, which are given one year’s rates relief under the regulations.
Let me explain why I think this is an important matter. As we know, local newspapers are a vital source of information, particularly at the present time, when people are seeking information about what they can safely do, what is going on in the world and what messages Government and health authorities are telling them. They often derive that knowledge from local newspapers. People may not be able to access local newspapers in physical form, but many local papers have websites that people are accessing.
Local newspapers are important, but they are suffering extremely hard times at the moment. Those that have continued to publish have seen a collapse in revenue. Circulation is down 25 per cent. Advertising revenue is down 75 per cent, which is not surprising, as many of the businesses that would normally advertise, such as hotels, restaurants and retailers, are not operating. These are extremely difficult times in the world of local newspapers.
Some famous titles, such as the
, have stopped publishing altogether—at least in physical format—and maintain only an online presence. Others are struggling on in print, but all are in real difficulty.
Local newspapers are important to us. As MSPs, we rely on them to publish details of our surgeries, to take our press releases and to print photographs of us at local galleries, agricultural shows, school visits and all the other things we do. We rely on them, and they now rely on us to give them the support that they need to continue.
Last week, the Scottish Government announced a package of advertising for newspapers. It is welcome, but it will not go far enough to support local papers when it is spread thinly across every title in Scotland. As long as the current conditions pertain, with an extended lockdown, there will be the potential for a very serious impact on local newspapers.
Some would ask why we should single out newspapers for support in this fashion. They are not having to close as shops and hospitality businesses are. However, they are in a relatively unique position. They are continuing to operate, but—unlike some other businesses, such as food retail, which are doing very well—newspapers are seeing a collapse in revenues. For that reason, they need to be supported. At a time when we are hungry for vital information, it is important that we convey health messages to the public.
The total cost of supporting business rates for the newspaper sector for the entire year is less than £4 million. We are not talking about a huge amount of money, but we are talking about a mechanism of providing support that would make a significant difference to the viability of those important local services. I believe that we should support our local papers, so I will be moving amendment 84 in my name.
While I am on my feet, I will comment briefly on amendments 85 and 86, in the name of Alex Cole-Hamilton, which I am sure he will say more about in a moment. They are sensible amendments that deal with a practical issue that has been identified. People, particularly retailers and small business owners, who pay business rates not directly but as part of a package through their rent, are not able to claim relief. Mr Cole-Hamilton’s amendments seek to rectify that ill, and I think that they are worthy of support.
I move amendment 84.
Before I move the amendments in my name, I will say a word in support of amendment 84, in the name of Murdo Fraser. At a time when we are passing unprecedented levels of power to the Scottish Government, the UK Government and the police, it is absolutely vital that we maintain a thriving media industry to hold them all to account. That starts with our local papers.
I echo the remarks made by Mr Fraser a moment ago, because those papers are struggling. Although they are still operational, revenue is down and it is set to stay down. We as a Parliament should grasp with both hands any opportunity to offer them support.
My amendment 85 is a resurrection of an identical amendment that was very narrowly defeated in committee yesterday. Amendment 86 is a slight iteration of the same but it is more focused—I will come on to that.
The amendments come from casework. I am sure that all MSPs have had this kind of casework in the time following the howl of human pain that greeted the advent of the coronavirus and the restrictions that we rightly imposed on our society and our economy. Cracks have been emerging all over the place, and individuals and companies have fallen through them.
To my mind, one of the most glaringly obvious cracks is in the business rented sector. There was no means of directing support to business other than through the business rate process, or non-domestic rate system. However, that meant that businesses that have a rateable value that would qualify them for support through the grant scheme but which pay their business rates through an intermediary—that is, through a rental agreement or a management charge for the rented service office space that they occupy—do not qualify for the support. There are many such businesses in my constituency, particularly at the Gyle industrial estate, where there are a range of managed and serviced-accommodation premises. They can qualify for the support in every other way, but it is the bureaucratic detail of who actually pays the rate to the council that qualifies businesses for support.
I urge the chamber to support amendment 85.
I understand that there might be some concern about how we guard against fraud. To that end, my amendment 86 relates explicitly to organisations that are named on the valuation roll but which pay business rates through an intermediary rather than directly themselves. The amendment will help a range of organisations. It is not limited to those that occupy Regus office spaces and run very wealthy companies; it will apply to people who operate trading stalls, too.
I ask the chamber to support my amendments.
On amendments 85 and 86, I welcome the fact that Alex Cole-Hamilton has brought the issue to public attention. The Greens voted against his stage 2 amendment yesterday because it was a hybrid amendment.
It is important to make clear to the chamber that, broadly speaking, there are three classes of non-domestic rate payers. There are those who occupy the premises, pay rates to the council, claim under the small business bonus scheme if they wish and are eligible for business grants. That group accounts for the large majority of ratepayers. There are then tenants who occupy offices that are owned by other people, but their offices are on the valuation roll and are valued. They are eligible for and claim under the small business bonus scheme, but the payment goes to the landlord, and they have been left out. The third group are tenants who are not on the valuation roll and do not pay rates directly; it is all wrapped up in the landlord rent. There is a real danger of fraud in relation to that category, because anybody can get a barrow, sign the lease with somebody and say that they are a small business. That is why we had some concerns.
We are very supportive of the intentions behind amendment 86, but I draw Alex Cole-Hamilton’s attention to the fact that, on 30 April 2020, I asked Kate Forbes, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, whether people who occupy premises within a larger property but who are on the valuation roll could be brought into the business grant support system. They are on the valuation roll, so there is no risk of fraud—we know who they are, the value and so on. She said that that was a “very reasonable question” and that she
“would like to make that possible.”—[
, 30 April 2020; c 4.]
Since 30 April, I have not been sighted on the Government’s intentions in that regard, but my understanding is that it is working on that. We will wait to see what the Government says about where it is going with its intentions in relation to the ratepayers that are covered by amendment 86. If the Government gives me the encouragement that it is still working on the matter and intends to make the change, there might not be such a need for primary legislation in that regard.
I want to say a few words about amendment 84, in the name of Murdo Fraser, which relates to newspapers. My concern is about the state of our local papers. National newspapers are also struggling, but local papers have been downsizing and centralising for years. I started my career in local papers and at that time most small towns had a local paper office, but now we would struggle to find them. That change has been to the detriment of the industry and of democracy, because we need newspapers to hold us and councillors to account. Increasingly, that is not happening.
Some local papers were on their knees before the crisis, and this has just made the situation worse. Pretty much all local and national journalists are working from home, and newspapers are being produced remotely. I see a real danger that companies will see this as an opportunity to cut costs even further in the long term, once the crisis is over, so any help that we can give to newspapers—local or national—is to be applauded.
Andy Wightman asked for an indication of the Government’s thinking. I am always happy to be positive to Mr Wightman, and I can be positive about our thinking.
The Government will do this—I am authorised to say that. The issues are what criteria we apply, and—as Mr Wightman has indicated—the need to be nuanced in eligibility criteria. There is not a blanket way of doing this, because there are differences between the businesses that would be involved.
I say to Alex Cole-Hamilton that I agree with him, we are committed to doing this and we hope to make an announcement very soon. All of us will have had such cases in our constituency workloads; however, I ask him not to move his amendments.
I am grateful for the cabinet secretary’s assurances, and I am contemplating not moving my amendments. However, does he recognise that Andy Wightman first raised this very significant issue, which is causing real pain and viability issues for businesses around the country, on 20 April? Time is ticking by, and we need reassurance as soon as possible. Will the cabinet secretary commit to expediting the process so that help is given to those suffering businesses as soon as humanly possible?
I am more than aware of the pressures on businesses in my constituency, as each of us will be. I want to make sure that problems are resolved as quickly as possible, because I do not for a moment want to see anybody left in difficulty. However, it is sometimes difficult to get the right scheme, so the commitment that I can make—I know that Alex Cole-Hamilton knows this from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance—is that we are working flat out to get it right, and we will get it right as quickly as we possibly can. We want it to happen, and that is the assurance that I give to Alex Cole-Hamilton. I cannot put a number of days on it because I do not know, but Alex Cole-Hamilton has spoken to the cabinet secretary about the matter, and I know that she will speak to him again. I hope that he will not move his amendments 85 and 86, so that we can introduce a scheme that is properly nuanced and detailed.
On amendment 84, in the name of Murdo Fraser, I know precisely where he is coming from. The Scottish Newspaper Society has spoken to me, as it has spoken to many people in the Parliament. I have reservations about the proposed approach, and I will make them clear. As has been referred to, I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance has already agreed with the Scottish Newspaper Society not only the first tranche of £440,000 of advertising to be provided to local newspapers, but now another £3 million in increased advertising costs. That is a sizeable package of about £3.5 million. Murdo Fraser indicated that he thought that the cost of rates relief would be about £4 million. The estimates that I have seen are slightly higher than that, but let us not fall out over £1 million or so. There is broad equivalence in the sums.
Unfortunately, we do not have unlimited sums available to us. We have already spent more than we have had in consequentials, and it is very difficult to see how we can add to that sum. There is a package of money, and the question is how is it spent. We certainly want to listen to people about how it is spent, but it appeared that there was an agreement that it should be spent on advertising. If it is to be spent on rates relief, that will do a number of things. It will benefit larger organisations rather than smaller organisations. In England, for example, the rates relief package is a total of £1,500 per newspaper, and it applies only to local newspapers. Larger and more national organisations would do better out of the proposed scheme than local newspapers would. Some local newspapers will receive a payment because they are registered for the small business bonus, so there are issues there, too.
There is a difficulty in continuing to add to the £3.5 million another £3.5 million, £4 million or £5 million. That is the simple, practical difficulty. If members vote for it, the proposed scheme will favour larger, national newspapers and it will diminish the support that is available to local newspapers. That is not what we want. I entirely share the view that we should be supporting newspapers and putting money into doing that. The question is how we put the money in and what we actually get for that money.
I would like to see both national and local newspapers receive support. I would very much like to see—I will be shameless and name them—
The Ileach receive support
. The Ileach is a very good community newspaper; these days, I appear in it almost as much as Donald Cameron appears in it. It is a community enterprise and a charity, and we need to ensure that such bodies survive, along with the national newspapers. However, it simply is not possible to do everything.
Members will make up their minds, but what has been agreed for advertising in the agreement that we had with the Scottish Newspaper Society seems to us to be a more effective way of targeting the resource. It favoured smaller enterprises and also provided advertising for larger enterprises.
I point out that papers in Scotland will receive financial support from the UK Government and the Scottish Government, so there is a double benefit coming to them. It is up to members, but there are limits to what can be spent, and what has been agreed is what is best in terms of favouring all the sectors. I hope that members accept that.
I thank Alex Cole-Hamilton and Andy Wightman for indicating their support for amendment 84. I listened carefully to what the cabinet secretary said. Indeed, as I acknowledged earlier, the advertising package that the Scottish Government has already announced and committed to is welcome. As the cabinet secretary knows, Conservatives do not often come to the chamber to ask for more money to be spent on things, but given the vital importance of newspapers in conveying information at this time, particularly to those who are housebound and who have few other ways of accessing that information, this is an important exception to the normal rule.
I press amendment 84 and I encourage members to support all the amendments in the group, should Alex Cole-Hamilton decide to move his amendments.
The Presiding Officer:
The result of the division is: For 41, Against 38, Abstentions 0.
Amendment 84 agreed to.
Amendments 85 and 86 not moved.
Group 11 is on freedom of information. Amendment 87, in the name of Michael Russell, is grouped with amendments 88 and 89. Jenny Gilruth will move amendment 87 and speak to all the amendments in the group.
As I said to the COVID-19 Committee yesterday, the Scottish Government respects and has listened to the will of Parliament, which has clearly indicated where it thinks the balance should be struck in relation to freedom of information during the emergency period. The Government’s amendments on FOI seek to ensure that the will of Parliament is delivered.
Amendment 87 makes minor changes to ensure that the amendments that were made at stage 2 operate correctly. It renumbers the inserted text in paragraph 6 of schedule 6 to the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 and resolves an issue with the way conjunctions work. Those minor changes ensure that, when the amendments are made, the Scottish Information Commissioner will be able to consider the reasons why an authority failed to comply with the timescales that are set out in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
Yesterday, we heard that the public interest should be the overriding consideration when the commissioner considers the reasonableness of explanations for failure to comply. The Scottish Government thinks that the public interest would undoubtedly be at the forefront of the commissioner’s mind in making decisions, but the bill places a requirement on the commissioner, and amendment 88 seeks to ensure that that is clear.
Amendment 89 is entirely technical and removes duplicated references to the first coronavirus act being amended. Taken together, these amendments are technical in nature and are directed at making sure that the will of the Parliament is delivered effectively. I invite members to support them on that basis.
I move amendment 87.
We will support all the amendments in the group.
Emergency legislation should confer powers on ministers only where it is strictly necessary to do so. By and large, the legislation that we passed on 1 April and the bill that we are considering meet that test. However, there were two important exceptions to that in the bill that was passed in April. The first, which was the unnecessary power to cancel trial by jury, was removed by the Government. However, the Government persisted with the second, which was its unnecessary and unwise powers with regard to freedom of information. It is very welcome that, given the difficulties in having to legislate in an emergency and in an expedited manner—and, indeed, in having to do so remotely—all four Opposition parties in the Parliament were able to come together and co-operate to deliver on what was, as Jenny Gilruth has just said, the clear view of the Scottish Parliament right from the beginning that those powers should never have been legislated for in the first place.
I record my thanks to Neil Findlay, Ross Greer and Alex Cole-Hamilton for working together with me to deliver a result. There are very few issues—indeed, I cannot think of any other issue—that would put Neil Findlay, Ross Greer, Alex Cole-Hamilton and Adam Tomkins in the same corner. However, this is that issue.
By and large, all our coronavirus legislation strikes a balance. In the bill, we have sought to strike a balance between landlords and tenants, and between social care providers and care home residents. We now finally have the balance right on freedom of information, as well. That holds the Parliament in high stead, and I welcome it.
Amendment 87 agreed to.
Amendments 88 and 89 moved—[Michael Russell]—and agreed to.
I am grateful to Alex Cole-Hamilton for lodging the original amendment and for a discussion that we had to have over the past 24 hours in light of the fact that it has emerged that the legal position is more complicated than the single aspect that the amendment addressed. I am also grateful to him for being prepared to engage on the issue. We now realise that, as well as roads legislation, there is planning law and the interests of neighbours to be considered according to existing statute.
I am keen to recognise the clear wish of the committee and
Alex Cole-Hamilton to offer hope to hospitality businesses in these very difficult times. In order to try to achieve that, I want to propose a way forward with the amendment, which will reconcile the legal issues that have arisen.
First, if my amendment is agreed to, it will remove the effect of
Mr Cole-Hamilton’s amendments yesterday.
Secondly, we will set out the legal situation more fully in a letter that I will lodge with the Scottish Parliament information centre.
Thirdly, the Scottish Government will take the matter forward by ensuring that, as we plan and prepare to move on out of lockdown, we will be mindful of what the will of the Parliament was in finding ways to ensure that cafes, restaurants and similar places can observe social distancing by making use of outdoor spaces, including roads and pavements, provided that they do not obstruct their safe use by others.
Finally, we will, of course, involve local authorities, businesses, communities and others in considering how the approach can be implemented in the best way at the most appropriate time and the agreed time in their own areas. Many will already have started to think about that in light of the amendment, and more will do so when the First Minister gives details about her plan tomorrow.
I am glad that hope was the keynote of
Alex Cole-Hamilton’s amendment yesterday. The Scottish Government and I share that hope, and we want to make it a reality when the science and the medical advice tell us that it is safe to do so.
I move amendment 90.
I echo the words of the cabinet secretary and thank him for the open-handed way in which he dealt with my stage 2 amendment and for walking me through the legal hinterland that was unknown to me prior to it. I also thank the members of the COVID-19 Committee for supporting the amendment by a majority. That sent a powerful and important message to our hospitality industry. Let us remember that the hospitality sector will struggle as a result of the lockdown for far longer than many other industries in our society, and for at least as long as social distancing is, by necessity, imposed on it.
My amendment sought to give the hospitality sector some hope in how it might box clever and think about new ways to open, trade and offer a service. It was never a charter for cafes or bars to invade pavements to the impediment and restriction of those with sight loss or other disabilities; rather, it was about using the cityscapes that we are already thinking about redesigning—by widening pavements and closing roads—in our councils, towns and cities in recognition of the new realities that lockdown restrictions bring. My amendment was also never intended to be a trigger for us to leave lockdown early—it was not about firing a starting gun for cafes and bars in town centres to start decking out tables and chairs in contravention of lockdown restrictions. Again, it was showing a line of sight as to what the world might look like when, in its own good time, the Government starts to ease those restrictions.
We also need to think about following international examples. When Australia started to relax lockdown restrictions for social venues, cafes and bars, very restricted numbers of people—a maximum of five people for an entire premises, or one person at a time—were let into those areas, and businesses realised that it was just not worth a candle, as they could not put themselves on a paying basis. Frankly, the punters just did not enjoy it; it is not a very social atmosphere to be part of. In comparison, Vilnius in Lithuania has almost declared its town centre an open-air cafe and it is already starting to introduce the measures that my amendment sought to bring about.
I hope that we can move forward in the spirit of consensus, as the cabinet secretary has said. I look forward to working with him and the Government in the coming weeks to realise the intent behind the amendment. The will of the Parliament was clearly expressed during stage 2 in support of making that happen, so I support the cabinet secretary’s amendment.
Amendment 90 agreed to.
Amendment 91 moved—[Graham Simpson].
I have been very much looking forward to debating the intricacies of traffic regulation orders all day; now I will get my 15 minutes of fame—I will be able to nail this one. [
.] All right; I will make it one minute.
Clearly, walking and cycling have never been more popular. The purpose of amendment 92 is to make it easier for councils to introduce emergency measures such as pop-up cycle lanes and footpaths that can keep us physically distanced and safe. Having that space will help to prevent infection from Covid-19; it will also make sure that we are physically distanced from road traffic, which will prevent accidents and save lives. That is a critical issue, as road traffic levels will inevitably rise as we come out of lockdown in the weeks to come.
It is difficult to see how some form of physical distancing will not be needed in six months’ time. We will need temporary measures for some time, and it is important that councils have the time to monitor and review their effectiveness. In some cases, councils will consider whether to make measures permanent. However, the length of time for which temporary measures can stay in place under the order process is just six months. After that, councils will need to take time out to fill in applications to Transport Scotland for emergency order extensions.
Amendment 92 would simply extend to 18 months the current six-month time limit that exists in relation to footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways, cycle tracks or byways that are open to all traffic, so that the approach is the same as it is in the order process for roads.
The Society of Chief Officers of Transportation in Scotland, which represents all 32 council road departments supports that approach. SCOTS has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity to indicate its support, as have Sustrans, Cycling UK and many others. We should listen to the people whose job it is to run our communities and keep us safe during this difficult time. That was my only agenda in lodging amendment 92.
I move amendment 92.
Amendment 92 would extend the maximum duration of temporary traffic regulation orders. As I said yesterday at stage 2, temporary reallocation of road space away from vehicles, through pop-up cycle tracks, for example, can be achieved through TTROs that alter the use of existing roads that are currently used by vehicles, as opposed to the route that the amendment seeks to achieve. Measures can be put in place for up to 18 months and can be extended for a further six months, if the procedures to make them permanent are commenced.
As with amendment 43 at stage 2, which we debated yesterday, amendment 92 would apply to all TTROs, rather than just those that are made in response to Covid-19. They would apply to TTROs for the purpose of road works or dealing with damage or danger that is not connected with Covid-19.
Mr Ruskell’s approach is well intentioned, but local authorities are already able to do—and are doing—what his amendment seeks. For those reasons we cannot support amendment 92 and ask him not to press it.
We are perhaps in danger of ending stage 3 proceedings pretty much where we began, albeit with a less impossibilist tone.
There has been a lack of engagement from the Government on not just amendment 92 but other amendments that have been considered this afternoon. I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, well over a week ago to raise the concerns of officers—the people on the ground who implement traffic regulation orders and who are calling for changes. I have had no reply. There has been a complete lack of engagement.
During yesterday’s virtual meeting of the COVID-19 Committee, I offered to work with the minister on an amendment, but I received no response. I got in touch with the Government last night, I circulated a draft amendment and I asked for feedback and engagement. I asked the Government to take into account the views of officers on the ground who are working to deliver the Government’s objectives on space for distancing. Again, no response, no reply and no commitment at all.
At this point, I want to press amendment 92 to a vote, because it would provide what officers are calling for. The current system is cumbersome; it requires councils continually to go back to Transport Scotland to request extensions to temporary measures. It is at the discretion of the issuing authorities—the councils—to determine how long they want a traffic regulation order to remain in place. If an order is made in connection with road works, as the minister said, or something that does not need to last, councils can withdraw it. However, they should not be forced to continually re-apply for something that they want to last for the duration of this legislation and this crisis.
It is disappointing that we are having to get into a technical discussion about TTROs in the Parliament. The matter should have been sorted out by Scottish Government officials, working with the people who implement orders on the ground. I feel that I am trying to do the Government’s job here, at stage 3, but I will represent the people who I know are the experts in the area and who know what needs to be done. I will press amendment 92.
The Presiding Officer:
The result of the division is: For 21, Against 56, Abstentions 0.
94 disagreed to.
That ends consideration of amendments. Before we move on to the debate, would members like to take a short break? Members are indicating that they would like to crack on. That is fair enough. I remind members who are leaving the chamber to observe social distancing rules.
At this stage in proceedings, I am required, under standing orders, to decide whether any provision in the bill relates to a protected subject matter; that is, whether it will amend the franchise or the electoral system for Scottish parliamentary elections. In the case of this bill, in my view, no such protected matter is affected, so the bill does not require a supermajority for it to be passed at stage 3.
The Presiding Officer:
That is a good point. My understanding is that we will have a truncated debate and that therefore decision time will come forward. The debate will last roughly 30 minutes and will end at roughly 6.40.
We will have a short pause before we begin the debate to let some members leave the chamber.