4. As the First Minister knows, throughout the pandemic the Scottish Greens have made the case for greater protections for people who rent their homes. It was pressure from the Greens that led to the introduction and extension of the winter evictions ban and the introduction of the tenant hardship loan fund. It was a Green amendment to emergency legislation that gave students the right to terminate their tenancies.
However, there is more to do. What is missing is serious action to tackle out-of-control rent rises. Does the First Minister accept that the idea of rent pressure zones has failed, given that there is not a single such zone operating anywhere in Scotland? What more does she plan to do to tackle rising rents and to prevent people in the private rented sector from building up unmanageable debt?
I would not necessarily accept that the legislation that was put in place, including that on rent pressure zones, has been as Patrick Harvie has characterised it. The onus is on local authorities, which have been given the flexibility to do so, to take action where they consider it necessary and appropriate.
However, I accept that there is more that we can do on that front. Patrick Harvie has run through the various steps that the Government has taken. I am happy to give him and the Greens due credit for their part, but I am sure that he would also give the Government credit—I hope that he would—for being very responsive to where action in the face of the pandemic has been necessary. I do not close my mind, nor does the Government close its mind, to doing more on how we might better regulate the private rented sector—not just in the short term, during the pandemic, but looking to the longer term.
By necessity, any further legislation would require to be introduced in the new session of Parliament, after the election. My party will put forward proposals for that in the course of the election campaign, as I am sure that Patrick Harvie’s party and others will also do. It might be that we could find parliamentary consensus on what needs to be done. I am open minded and will continue to listen to proposals for both the short term and the longer term.
I give the Government credit when it listens and acts, but that has not happened on the issue of rent controls. High rent is just one of the factors that are keeping many households in poverty. As we look forward to recovery from the pandemic, there are stark warnings about the future increases in poverty that our country might see. The Scottish Government has eye-catching targets on child poverty, but even before the pandemic we were on track to miss them. Almost one in four children in this country lives in poverty. If we do not act, the number will rise dramatically. Citizens Advice Scotland has warned about rising debt. Home schooling has increased household costs for many people, incomes are under threat and the United Kingdom Government’s social security system is still unworthy of that name.
Surely the Scottish Government needs to show more ambition both in its budget for next year and in the longer term to support the household incomes of those who are most in need, whether that means expanding free transport and school meals, investing to cut energy bills, reconsidering its position on public sector pay or providing an uplift on the Scottish child payment. There are many actions that need to be taken to support the household incomes of those most in need.
I very much agree with those sentiments, but it is not true to say that the Scottish Government just has eye-catching targets on child poverty; we have game-changing policies in place—and I use that term because it is the one used by anti-child poverty campaigners. There is the new Scottish child payment, for example, which is just taking effect now to put extra money into the pockets of low-income families with children.
My party has already set out plans to extend free school meals to all years in primary school throughout the year, including school holidays, if we are re-elected in the election in May. We have taken steps throughout the pandemic to put extra money into the pockets of those on the lowest incomes and we will continue to look to do that.
Through our affordable housing programme, we have built almost record numbers of new houses to try to deal with some of the pressures on housing availability. I think that the Scottish Government doing all those things that I have spoken about puts us in a unique position in the United Kingdom. The equivalent of the Scottish child payment, for example, does not exist in any other UK nation. I hope that, in future years, it might.
We are taking action to back up those targets but—and this is a big but, which I think we all have to consider—we need to do more. We know that poverty—child poverty in particular—is too high and we know that the pandemic and the inequalities that it has both exposed and exacerbated run the risk of making that problem worse. We all have to challenge ourselves to do more. I know that the Scottish Government and my party, in setting out plans for the next session of Parliament, are focused on doing that, and I hope that that is true of parties across the chamber.