As the First Minister said yesterday, the programme for government comes against the backdrop of unprecedented circumstances—circumstances that threaten a humanitarian emergency in every community in the country. The crisis is impacting on people of all walks of life, but that impact will not be evenly felt. People on low incomes, those with poor health or who are in precarious work, those with families—especially young children—and people renting their homes will be among the hardest hit.
As a responsible Government, in order to support people, especially during this winter, we are determined to act to mitigate the impact of the crisis to the maximum extent possible within our limited powers and resources. That includes providing support for energy bills, childcare, health and travel as well as social security payments that are not available elsewhere in the UK. The programme for government also outlines important steps to support people who rent their homes, and that is what I will focus on in my speech.
First, on financial support, we are providing more than £88 million in housing support this year. That builds on the £39 million of additional funding that has already been provided to protect tenants as a result of the pandemic. In our programme for government, we have committed to extending eligibility for the tenant grant fund. That means that, as well as supporting tenants with pandemic-related rent arrears, the fund will now be able to help people who are struggling to pay rent due to cost of living pressures. We are also providing an additional £5 million for discretionary housing payments so that they can help people with energy costs as well as with rental liabilities. That takes our total investment in DHPs to more than £88 million and provides a lifeline for many people.
For some people, renting a home is a choice that they have made freely and happily, and their rented home is of good quality, secure and affordable. For others, that is not the case. People who rent, especially in the private rented sector, spend a greater proportion of their income on housing than do people who own their homes. Tenants have, on average, lower incomes. In the private rented sector, energy standards are also poorer. Therefore, many people who live in a rented home already faced an incredibly challenging and precarious financial situation, and the new crisis only exacerbates those problems for many tenants throughout Scotland.
Although we know that, as the Government regularly restates, there are many responsible landlords who provide a good service and try to protect their tenants, we also know that that is not universal. I am certain that I am not the only MSP who has constituents getting in touch about eye-watering rent increases.
Few people would defend the extraordinary inaction from the UK Government over the summer or the frankly insulting remarks of the man who overstayed his tenure in Downing Street, who said that people should deal with the energy crisis by buying a new kettle. We have to hope that we will see some significant action from the new Prime Minister. However, throughout the leadership campaign, she repeatedly refused to commit to providing sufficient support to deal with the crisis. That is not what the Scottish Government will do.
We have examined what we can do within our devolved powers and limited budget to support people who are bearing the brunt of the crisis now. We have, of course, already taken important steps. We put in place direct support and stronger housing rights during the pandemic, and we have since made them permanent. In doing so, we made it clear that we would continue to seek new ways to give the support that is needed. That is why our programme for government sets out new, immediate and bold action that we will take.
We will work with the Parliament to introduce emergency legislation that will be designed to protect tenants by freezing rents and imposing a moratorium on evictions until at least the end of March next year. We will ensure that rents are, in effect, frozen from yesterday, when the announcement was made, and we will introduce a prohibition on executing eviction decrees for a limited period, which will be similar to the measures that were in place during the pandemic.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has warned against Government rent controls in the social housing sector. What consultation—if any—has the Government undertaken on the measures?
The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government and I have had conversations with the social housing sector. We are very aware that we need to take account not only of the protection that people need from rent increases but of the social housing sector’s need to invest in the provision of new homes and improvements in quality. We will continue to make great efforts to engage with the sector as we move forward.
The proposed rent freeze will be in place across both parts of the rented sector. Any emergency action must, by definition, be temporary and its on-going necessity must be continually reviewed. Therefore, given the huge uncertainty as to what the next six months and beyond will bring, we intend to build in regular review points and consider carefully whether and how any measures might be extended beyond that initial period and how those measures will impact on and complement the longer-term reform of the rented sector to which we have already committed during the parliamentary session.
Like Labour, the Scottish Greens are committed to providing support for tenants. In their manifesto, they committed to supporting student renters. They said that,
“regardless of housing provider,” student renters would
“have the same protections as those with Private Rented Tenancies” and that the party would
“Ensure that rent controls apply to student accommodation.”
Now that the minister is in Government, I want to check with him and get his confirmation that he stands by that and that the rent freeze will also apply to student accommodation.
I appreciate that, Presiding Officer.
I commend the member for her prescience: the very next paragraph in my speech is about exactly that issue. She will be aware that, in the longer-term work that we are doing on the new deal for tenants, we have been undertaking a review of purpose-built student accommodation. In relation to those emergency measures, our plans include students who are renting in the private rented sector. We want them to benefit from the protections that we are putting in place. For students who are in university or college halls of residence or in PBSA, the structure of the contracts is different and often includes energy costs. Therefore, we are working quickly to determine exactly how we can give parity of protection to those students, as it is our intention to achieve that.
I will move on to the issue of evictions. We have always been clear that eviction by a landlord, whether private or social, should always be a last resort when all avenues to sustain a tenancy have been exhausted. Through the recently passed Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Act 2022, we are ensuring that pre-action protocols, which provide further protections against evictions, are made permanent.
However, once again, we find ourselves in unique and unprecedented times. In recognition of that, alongside our bold action to freeze rents until at least the end of March 2023, our emergency legislation will also seek to place a moratorium on evictions. Similarly to the restrictions that were put in place during the pandemic, that action will effectively halt the service and enforcement of evictions across the rented sector. However, cases related to antisocial behaviour or criminality will be allowed to proceed. We are considering what additional safeguards are required, particularly for landlords who find themselves in financial hardship.
Emergency legislation is the linchpin of our action, but it is by no means the whole story. For example, people need to know what their existing rights are—and they are stronger rights than those that exist in other parts of the UK. That will be increasingly important during the next few weeks. Any tenant who, as a result of the announcement that we made yesterday, is told by their landlord that their rent will increase immediately should know that that is illegal and can be challenged. Private landlords must give three months’ notice of any rent increases. Our intention is to shape our emergency legislation to make sure that any notices that are issued after yesterday’s announcement will not come into effect.
Of course, a private landlord cannot simply throw someone out of their home; they must follow the strict legal processes and conditions that are in place. To try to evict tenants without following those routes is illegal and should be reported to the police immediately. If, over the coming days and weeks, any tenant finds that their landlord is trying to immediately increase their rent or make them leave their property without giving the required notice, I urge them to please seek advice from an organisation such as Citizens Advice Scotland, Shelter Scotland, a tenants union or their local housing department. I ask all members to share those messages about the existing rights, as it is very important that we do so. In order to drive awareness of the new and existing protections that are in place for tenants, we will undertake a further awareness-raising campaign over the coming months.
People who rent are not just worried about paying their rent; they and other households are facing many other pressures, which is why we provide such significant financial housing support. That is also why the programme for government commits us to doubling our fuel insecurity fund to £20 million to help households that are at risk of severely rationing their energy use or self-disconnecting entirely. We have also recently committed to an additional £1.2 million to enable the immediate expansion of energy advice services, to ensure that households and businesses receive the support and guidance that they need. We want to make sure that people get all the support that they are able to access, so we are preparing a new Scottish Government cost of living website, which will bring all the potential support and how it applies to people in different personal circumstances into one place.
There is a huge amount more. I am sure that members will highlight their concerns during the debate, and the cabinet secretary will add to my remarks, no doubt, when closing. To be clear, though, all the additional help is already needed—it is by no means an alternative to our demand for a major intervention on energy prices, which the UK Government must make to prevent the October price rise and put additional support in place.
This Government has already proposed bold new plans to deliver longer-term work on a new deal for tenants. We initiated that well before the full nature of the cost of living crisis became clear. It is right that we act now to protect tenants in the context of these exceptional pressures, but our longer-term aims remain. We will keep reviewing our work on that longer-term reform as we go, to ensure that we respond to the immediate pressures without losing sight of the aim of delivering the new deal for tenants that is so vital and needed.
Yesterday’s programme for government debate set out the extent of this Parliament’s concern about the cost of living challenge that faces both of Scotland’s Governments, not just in terms of addressing the significant economic problems that we are all grappling with as a result of rampant inflation but, just as important, in terms of the resulting social and personal cost in our communities. It is good to hear what the minister has just said about the advice service that will be provided in that regard.
The editorial in Saturday’s
Financial Times could hardly have been more blunt in its economic analysis of the fragility of the economy, which was that many businesses and members of the public are on the brink, and there is little optimism that the current situation will be short lived. It said:
“A failure to directly support at least the most vulnerable households and enterprises would be catastrophic for the economy”, and it acknowledged that the effort that is required is on the scale of that which was required to tackle the pandemic.
It has been clear for some weeks that the £37 billion package of support that was announced some months ago by the UK Government, including the £400 payments that will start for households in October and the additional support with winter fuel and disability payments, is not enough, and it is certainly not enough to help those who are most in need.
That is a good question, and I think that the issue was raised in the House of Commons at lunch time today. I believe that some important detail will be forthcoming on that point. The member is quite right to say that the issue affects quite a lot of constituents.
It was also good to hear at lunch time much more about the direction of travel for the new Truss Government when it comes to additional support. In particular, I want to welcome the acknowledgement that what is happening now is on the scale of the pandemic. Most of the economic analysts this morning are predicting a package of upwards of £150 billion of support—that is above the level of support for the Covid pandemic and it would also represent the largest welfare bailout in recent history. Likewise, Liz Truss has indicated that an energy price cap is likely to be put in place at around £2,500 instead of the predicted £3,500.
I hope that those measures will persuade the First Minister that the UK Government is taking this matter extremely seriously. I hope, too, that she will respond accordingly to that commitment, and to the assurances from the new chancellor that there is a need for a large package of support now rather than a package of support that is made available through several incremental changes over time. I think that that will give a little bit of help and much needed relief in the short term.
I hope that the First Minister will also acknowledge and support the assurances that were made by the Prime Minister in her first public statement that this large package of short-term support will be accompanied by policies to address the longer-term imbalances in energy markets. That is important because, as Governments set about tackling this awful crisis not just in this country but in others, too, it is important to pay attention to the most recent economic analysis, and most especially to the factors that are affecting the supply and cost side of the economy, and then those that are affecting the demand side, because tackling each requires slightly different policy approaches.
The on-going war in Russia—especially the action of Vladimir Putin regarding the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline—is, as everyone agrees, the root of the trouble for the supply chains and the basic costs of production.
Independent reports have indicated that Brexit has increased food prices by 6 per cent and that sterling has lost 10 per cent of its value, which has impacted on imports. Does Liz Smith agree that Brexit has had that effect? Does she agree with those independent reports?
I think that Christine Grahame knows my views on Brexit, but it is quite clear that Brexit is by no means the root cause of all of the problem. It is very much a global crisis. Many countries that are not involved in the Brexit situation have to contend with exactly the same forces that we have to contend with. Christine Grahame should bear that in mind.
How many times in recent weeks have we been told that businesses, many of which are at the heart of our communities, are on the brink of closing their doors? The situation is not just creating viability issues for those businesses in our constituencies; it is affecting our schools, hospitals and care homes, many of which are the backbone of our society.
Liz Smith raises a very important point about the wider cost crisis that is impacting on public services and businesses throughout our economy. Does she agree that the intervention from the UK Government on energy prices must ensure that all those organisations gain that benefit and that the cost should fall on the shoulders of those who have been raking in record profits?
Yes, I agree with that point. It is not just about the public at large; it is very much about the future of our businesses, and any package of support must deal with the concerns that businesses are facing. I would still like to see the removal of VAT on fuel prices, because that comes through in everybody’s production costs. However, we will have to wait until tomorrow’s announcement by the Prime Minister to find out exactly what that targeted support could be for businesses as well as for the public.
We also need a re-evaluation of world energy markets and a diversification of energy sources. That will not be easy, because of the inherent contradictions in the short term when it comes to pushing ahead with greener options while making the best use of the supply of fossil fuels. I know that the minister will not like that point, but a balance is required. It makes no sense to harbour total opposition to nuclear energy and the exploitation of oil and gas resources in the North Sea. We need a genuine mix of energy if we are to avoid a serious problem in the future. That mix must be based on need but also on incentives that allow new investment in green alternatives. That is why we must be careful about arguing for longer-term windfall taxes. We must not disincentivise those who can place significant sums of money in our green alternatives.
Would the member like to reflect on transmission charges, which act as a disincentive to people in Scotland to do renewable energy, because it costs far more to get that energy on to the network here than it does in the south of England?
Surely that is a way of keeping down the costs to consumers. That is exactly the point that consumers will want addressed in the cost of living crisis.
I will sum up quickly—[
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I believe strongly that the UK Government must be bold with its economic assistance, but that does not mean that the Scottish Government has no part to play. My colleagues will address some of the issues as we move through the debate.
There is an expectation among our constituents that we act together, listen to one another, talk and co-operate and that we are united in our approach to dealing with the situation. I will repeat what I said yesterday: I do not think that the constant bickering about constitutional issues is at all helpful.
The cost of living emergency means that households are seeing their incomes squeezed like never before. People who are on low incomes or living in poverty were already choosing whether to heat or eat; the choices that they now face are devastating.
Organisations and businesses are also struggling to cover costs, particularly those in the third sector, which—against a £1 million funding cut—faces ever greater demand for its long-recognised expertise in poverty and inequality.
Without sustainable multiyear funding, the support that the sector offers is at risk.
Governments must act right now. The new Tory Prime Minister’s inbox will be, as ours are, bulging with despair and challenge on a scale that has not been seen in generations. Sadly, I do not hold out much hope that she will meet that challenge. I desperately urge her to bring down bills and to listen to my colleagues in Westminster, who have long called for a windfall tax on the energy giants, which are reporting excessive profits at the expense of people.
However, it is not all down to the Tories—the Scottish National Party has failed us too. It has not used the powers that are already held in Scotland to do its bit to ease the bite of the crisis. I welcome the announcement on when the Scottish child payment will be increased and rolled out, and I recognise the impact of that payment. However, it is not enough. For those who are already in receipt of it, it amounts to £30 extra this year. For many, it is too late—the delayed roll-out has meant that the over-sixes either have been left on bridging payments and missed out on vital uplifts, or have fallen through the cracks and received nothing at all. All that has led to children in Scotland missing out on £5 million every single week.
The reality is that much of what was announced yesterday was a rehash of previously announced policies that the Government has delayed and failed to deliver.
I do not understand how Pam Duncan-Glancy can call it “a rehash” when people will receive the money in their pocket from 14 November, which is a date yet to come. Surely she can find it in herself to welcome that money going into the pockets of the families that need it most.
The cabinet secretary will be well aware that the announcements on the Scottish child payment were made on 9 December last year, in relation to doubling the payment, and in the child poverty delivery plan in March, to add a fiver to it. The date that was announced yesterday is the new bit, which is why people who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment will only get £30 extra this year. It is a not a new or significant commitment, and it already means that thousands of children have missed out on millions of pounds. The cabinet secretary and others can shake their heads all they like; that is the reality in Scotland.
Much of what was announced yesterday was a rehash. Despite the SNP’s claim to have spent billions of pounds in response to the current crisis, the Parliament’s impartial information service is clear that much of that relates to long-standing commitments that go back many years, including commitments that were made by the Labour Party when it was in office more than 15 years ago. The actual figure is nearer £500 million, of which half was to pass on the UK Government council tax rebate. The people of Scotland need action and a Government that will be bold and level with them, not one that is more interested in scoring political points than in getting people the help that they need.
Neither Government has the ambition—both are tired and neither is bold enough to tackle the crisis. Members can laugh if they like, but I can tell them that people in Scotland are not laughing.
It is not good enough for the Government to sit on its hands when it holds the power to change people’s lives. It is galling to hope that people do not notice because the comparator is the worst Tory Government in history. The Scottish people are not daft, but they are desperate. They can see their bills going up and their purses getting emptier, and they recognise the lack of support that is coming from the SNP.
We have seen countless opportunities pass by, when the Government could have put money in the pockets of the people who desperately need it. For example, I have heard from disabled people who cannot afford to charge their wheelchairs. The Scottish Government could have acted, but it did not. It failed to live up to its own fuel poverty strategy by refusing to expand the child winter heating assistance to disabled adults and those on all rates of assistance. It failed to keep its promise to maintain the uplift to the carers allowance supplement, and had it used the social security powers for the real radical change that was promised, we would have a more adequate and fairer disability and carers benefits system, and people would have been off to a better start at the beginning of the crisis.
The SNP says that it does not have the powers that it needs to act, but that is not true. When Scotland received consequentials following the UK Government’s initial cost of living package, inadequate as it was, the SNP lazily picked up the blueprint that was drawn up by the Tories and copied it, meaning that some of the most well-off got support, while those who needed it received barely enough to scratch the surface.
There is no excuse: we gave the SNP a plan and showed it how to give the money to the people who needed it most, but the SNP did not use it. Our plan would have seen £1,000 of support get to people who needed it, capped bus fares, cut rail fares and reversed water charge increases—every household would have got a £100 rebate on them. Crucially, we would have targeted £400 at people who needed it the most and were hardest hit. Disabled people, unpaid carers and people on low incomes would have received desperately needed support, and there would have been money left over for the welfare fund too.
It is not too late. The Scottish Government can act now, and I urge it to do so. The problem now is deeper and bigger, so the solutions must be bigger and bolder. Children who are on bridging payments will not receive what they are eligible for until the end of the year—that is a long time to wait when someone is struggling to put food on the table. Doubling it now would really help.
We know the role that debt plays in poverty. People are borrowing money to pay for the basics and to cope with rising bills. Increasing the funding for money advice services to ensure that people get the support that they need to manage what little they have will be crucial. In addition, a winter eviction ban would, of course, ensure that no one is left out in the cold in winter.
Over the past decade, the mismanagement of our economy and the failure of both Governments to work together has meant that living standards and real wages have failed to grow and that we have entered the crisis from a position of significant disadvantage. The country and its people are on their knees. We need more than sticking plasters to get us back on course; we need a stronger, more secure economy that does not just mask poverty but ends poverty and inequality for good.
I am pleased that the Scottish Government is dedicating this time to debate the cost of living and energy crisis. In the coming days, we will see what plans the new Prime Minister will set out for the country to tackle it.
The Liberal Democrats have already called for—in some cases, they were the first to call for—the rise in the energy price to be scrapped; a support scheme to help businesses deal with the rise in energy prices, as the cap does not apply to them; a national programme to insulate homes; and a doubling of the warm home discount and the winter fuel allowance.
It is no exaggeration to say that people are fearful and worried sick about how they will pay their energy bills this winter. The fact is that many cannot pay the sums that are being spoken about. That insidious thought is impacting on businesses and households alike, and it is imperative that our Governments do all that they can.
It is not difficult to see disastrous consequences ahead, should we continue down this path: pensioners, including already hard-hit WASPI—women against state pension inequality—women, further limiting heating and eating; single-person households struggling; parents trying their best to feed their children while working all hours to make ends meet; and more children being cold and hungry and growing up in poverty. The child payment increase will help the worst affected, but people with low fixed incomes are already struggling with limited budgets and there will be businesses that cannot survive eye-watering energy cost increases.
Although the programme for government outlined the measures that the Scottish Government will take, more needs to be done.
Last week, Shetland Islands Council highlighted that, by next April, 96 per cent of households in the islands could be in fuel poverty. To stay out of fuel poverty, households in Shetland would need to earn £104,000, compared with £52,000 for their UK counterparts. The irony of Shetland contributing to making Scotland energy rich, as the First Minister described it yesterday, is not lost on those of us who live there.
It is important to highlight the difference in weather patterns across the UK. Not everywhere has experienced the recent 40°C heat and some may never have switched off their heating this summer.
Households across rural Scotland rely on heating oil, rather than on mainline gas. There is no price cap on heating oil and there has been little support from either Government so far to directly help those households.
Homes across Scotland lack adequate insulation to benefit energy bills and efforts to save energy to help tackle the climate emergency.
Yes, I agree that those people are affected by being off-grid. The impact of that is felt across rural Scotland.
Recent Scottish Liberal Democrat research indicated that it could take us more than 300 years to insulate every fuel-poor home in Scotland, at the pace the warmer homes Scotland scheme is working at. One can only hope that the new investment that was announced yesterday will speed up that process.
The cost of travel is also a great consideration for many households. Petrol prices have fluctuated over the summer and cars are essential in many parts of Scotland. Public transport is not cheap to operate, and it is expensive to use, especially when budgets are squeezed. For many who are reliant on daily train or ferry services to commute, additional travel costs can feel like paying a second mortgage. Although the Scottish Government will point to its announcement on freezing ScotRail prices, that will effectively be in place for only two months.
Any money that is available in the system should be used to help people to navigate the cost of living crisis, not to reheat divisive political arguments.
I took part in yesterday’s debate on the programme for government, and it was difficult to disconnect any of it from the cost of living crisis. The Scottish Government has clearly made a choice to support people and do what it can to address huge household cash-flow issues.
On the other hand, the new Prime Minister has launched straight into offering a so-called reward for nothing more than being rich, by cutting tax for high earners and prioritising what she calls “economic growth”, which we know is her shorthand for saying that the rich are getting richer, rather than making sure that people in UK countries can access food and warmth.
The fact that the Scottish child payment is being raised for the second time this year is the perfect illustration of the SNP’s priorities, but it is far from the only measure here that will have a huge impact for those who are in poverty or who are just about managing.
When I campaigned for independence in 2014, we talked a lot about a tale of two Governments and a tale of two futures. However, this is not just a tale of two futures; it is a tale of two presents. As social security is partially devolved and partially reserved, it provides a perfect illustration of the contrast between the UK Tories’ approach to social security and the fairness that we have here.
The Social Justice and Social Security Committee recently received a briefing from a researcher at the University of Glasgow that dug deeper into the statistics on Department for Work and Pensions benefit sanctions. Many of us will remember the rising Covid rates this spring but, in May 2022, a universal credit claimant who was out of work was around three times more likely to be on benefit sanctions than to have Covid. One in fourteen such people were under sanction at that time. The DWP’s approach is punitive, hostile and degrading.
Social Security Scotland, on the other hand, is already delivering 12 benefits, seven of which are new and exclusive to Scotland, and has outstanding feedback. In the most recent client survey, 93 per cent of respondents described their overall experience as very good or good, which is a higher satisfaction rate than the DWP’s target number, which it is still a long way from reaching. The difference is now so stark that I struggle to see how anyone can deny it.
The member will be aware that there was a target for the adult disability payment as well, but it is now no longer on the Social Security Scotland website. Does she agree that we need to ensure that the target is retained so that people know how quickly their application will be processed?
It is very important to have targets. Pam Duncan-Glancy and I are both members of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, and it is important for us to be able to scrutinise such matters. I know that that question has been raised in the committee and I am sure that an answer will be forthcoming.
One Government is making itself and its donors richer, and one is supporting people through a cost of living crisis. One Government sees the value in keeping kids out of poverty, and one contemptuously insists that it will not resort to what it calls handouts, as if handing food to a hungry bairn is a bad thing.
This summer, my team and I spent a lot of time trying to get help for constituents who had responded to my cost of living survey. Ninety-eight per cent of respondents to that said that they were worried about their energy bills, and that even included people who are really quite well off. Seventy-four per cent said that the cost of living was affecting their mental health.
We are talking about fundamentals. There is a disagreement between the UK Government and the Scottish Government about what sort of society we want to be. Do we want to be a society in which we look after one another, or one that protects the wealthiest and engages in a race to the bottom on employment, housing and even human rights for the rest of us?
Across the Highlands and Islands, folk are displaying their intention to have the kind of society in which people look after one another. In South Ronaldsay, where Orcadians are likely to face extreme fuel poverty and struggle to heat their homes this winter, a local church has turned into a warmth bank. That should not be necessary, but thanks to inaction from the UK Government, people will rely on such places to survive.
The anti-democratic stance that the Tories are taking is up to them, but Scotland does not agree with them. I do not know how many times this country will have to vote SNP before the Tories admit to themselves that their insular conservative politics are just not winning hearts and minds. Scotland has made its choice, and the SNP Government is simply listening and acting on the wishes of the electorate. If the Tories will not listen, hell mend them.
I begin on a note of consensus regarding some aspects of the programme for government that
I welcome, and which I have indeed campaigned for. The children’s care and justice bill is a welcome development, and I hope that it will finally deliver on the promises that have been made to care-experienced young people. I also hope—as I have discussed and hope to discuss again with the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills—that it represents a move to end restraint of children in care settings. The First Minister has made a number of key promises to care-experienced young people, and this must be the time when they are delivered on.
I also welcome the announcement of the establishment of a Scottish patient safety commissioner. The devil will be in the detail on the proposal, but it can and must help improve patient advocacy.
In the limited time that I have today, I wish to concentrate my comments on housing, as the Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights did. It is clear that storm clouds are starting to gather on the horizon of the Scottish housing market. Over the past year, the cost of building a home has increased by an average of 17 per cent. Over the past two years, the cost of building a new home in Scotland has increased to over £200,000. The decision by SNP ministers to remove the first home fund and help to buy for first-time buyers has pulled the ladder up for many aspirational Scots, and it has negatively impacted on the housing sector.
The national planning framework, as it stands, is not fit for purpose, and it needs to be redrafted to help facilitate the delivery of housing and renewables targets. We need a housing revolution in Scotland. It is disappointing that the Scottish Government has not included housing as a key infrastructure priority through its national planning framework. That needs to change. If there is going to be a slowdown in the construction sector in the months ahead, it is vital that both the Scottish Government and local government work to retain construction jobs, so I hope that ministers will actively consider reintroducing help-to-buy schemes and moving forward on shovel-ready projects.
On first-time buyers support, as Miles Briggs will know, we have shifted resource to those who can least afford to buy so as to help them to get on to the property ladder, which they would not otherwise be able to do. He will also know that those who accessed the previous funds would have been able to purchase without that support. In the light of what the Deputy First Minister said earlier about constrained finances, is Miles Briggs saying that we should shift that money away from those on the lowest incomes towards those who are better off? I just want clarity about where that money is coming from.
On the question of supporting people to enter the property market, the cabinet secretary will be aware that so many people who do not have the money for a deposit relied on the schemes, which, for many, now do not exist. Builders are saying that first-time buyers are not coming forward for properties in Scotland. Those homes do not just exist for them to then—
The evidence, which I can send to Miles Briggs, is that the first-time buyer market is actually very buoyant. There may be issues in the city of Edinburgh, for all the reasons that we understand, but on a Scotland-wide basis the first-time buyer market is very buoyant. Surely we should be putting our resources to those who would otherwise not be able to enter the housing market without government assistance. If Miles Briggs wants to widen that provision, he must tell us where the money is coming from.
Not for the first time, the cabinet secretary does not understand Edinburgh. As for where first-time buyers want to get on the property ladder, the current price does not allow them even to get on to it. [
.] Well, there has been no solution brought forward by the cabinet secretary; the Government has pulled the ladder up. [
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I do welcome the provisions that have briefly been outlined today on homelessness prevention, which will be included in the housing bill. However, the housing bill cannot simply be an attempt to cover over SNP cracks in the wall. The housing crisis that we are facing is a result of the fact that SNP-Green and Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Governments over the past 20 years have failed to deliver the affordable homes that they promised to communities across Scotland.
The announcement of a rent freeze scheme may have grabbed the headlines, but there has been no consultation or opportunity for Parliament to properly scrutinise how it will be legally implemented. Ministers must now demonstrate how they intend to deliver on the policy.
Clearly, we will introduce legislation, which will go through parliamentary scrutiny, and it has to meet the legal tests, just as any proposed legislation going through Parliament does. Is the member actually saying that we should have signalled our intention in advance, resulting in a wave of rent increase notices before that legislation was in place?
I am saying to the minister that he should have consulted, because just a few short months ago, when he and his colleagues voted against Labour’s proposals, he described them in the chamber as unworkable and said that, in the long term, they would heighten the risk of eviction and destabilise an already vulnerable housing sector.
Perhaps that is why, as I have said to him, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations is warning the Government that rent controls will destabilise the social housing sector. It would be extremely regrettable—indeed, it could drive a Scottish housing crisis—if the policy results in fewer rental properties being made available, especially in parts of Scotland such as the capital where the private rental market is already overheated.
I am concerned about the impact, because the Scottish Government’s proposals could lead to the loss of private rented property. I do not know whether Labour expects that to happen or whether it would be happy with that, but we cannot allow private rented properties, especially in the capital, not to be made available. That would mean that they would not be available for students—students could be camping in fields when they go to university, as we have seen in parts of Europe. We cannot allow that to happen. Those properties cannot leave the market, because there are no homes to replace them with.
Organisations that have expressed concerns are looking for an answer. The answer is a mixed housing approach with more social rented affordable housing targeted at lower earners; it is not to destabilise the sector even further.
It is concerning that the Scottish Government has still not published its review on housing for varying needs. Organisations such as MND Scotland have called for action to fast-track applications for adaptations and accessible housing for people with life-limiting conditions such as motor neurone disease. I hope that the review will be published as soon as possible.
The programme for government has the potential to drive a housing crisis in Scotland. Ministers should be warned that the problems that they are seeking to solve could be made much worse by their actions. I hope that they will think properly about what they are proposing.
Oh! I just extended my speech because I thought that we had time.
I welcome the increase in the child payment to £25 and the extension of the payment to every child under the age of 16 in a qualifying household, which is due by the end of the year. This is the only part of the UK with that intervention. More than 2,500 children in Midlothian and a similar number in the Borders are already benefiting from the payment. Surely to goodness members across the whole chamber can say that the policy is a great idea.
The freeze to rents for private and social housing is a bold but necessary move—we are in a crisis. Free school meals for primary 5s and those younger—with the determination to extend the policy to all children in primary school—assist fundamentally the wellbeing of children and the family at large. In the first three years of the policy, baby boxes have been delivered to more than 144,000 homes, with an incredible 93 per cent uptake. We have free prescriptions, while prescriptions now cost more than £9 per item in England. We have free bus travel for all under-22s and over-60s. We have no tuition fees. Those are just a few examples of the socially just measures that the Scottish Government has carried, and is carrying, forward.
That is a different world from the one south of the border, and it is a pity that Pam Duncan-Glancy is not here—[
.] Oh, she is back. I am glad that she is here, because she seemed to think that we are sitting on our hands. If that is sitting on our hands, let us have more of it. I am proud of those initiatives.
Let me get into my flow a wee bit.
The energy and cost of living crisis has reminded us how vulnerable devolution leaves us. The public sector pay increases were budgeted for when inflation was at 3 per cent, but it is now at 10 per cent, and it will probably rise. Of course, people rightly look to protect themselves and their dependents from this economic tsunami, and the Scottish Government is right to try to meet the demands, but we must all accept—although Opposition parties seem to think that we have a forest of money trees—that, with a fixed budget and very limited borrowing powers, money will be cut from other budgets. Devolution must wait for this unelected Prime Minister to, perhaps, give the devolved Governments so-called handouts.
Importantly, the crisis exposes the fragility of the UK economy under the stewardship of the Tories and their successive—although not successful—Prime Ministers and the stark limitations of devolution.
The UK economy was always built on the sands of consumerism and credit. Energy, wind power and tidal power have not really financially benefited Scotland or the UK. Those turbines in the Borders are not Scottish built—they are probably Danish—and the energy from our natural resources was hawked off to international companies, as happened in the 70s with the oil. Even the retail energy companies are owned by a Spanish group for Scottish Power and by the French state for EDF Energy.
In the 70s—this is an important history lesson—inflation flew off the Richter scale by more than 23 per cent, while oil revenues flooded the UK Treasury. Not a penny was saved for a rainy day; every one was used to prop up a failing UK economy. Norway, by contrast, set up Statoil—still more than 60 per cent state owned—and saved that unexpected energy bonus in the Norwegian pension fund, which is now in credit in trillions. The UK banked nothing.
UK debt is more than 100 per cent of gross domestic product. If it were a business, it would be filing for bankruptcy. Add Brexit to that—I say to Liz Smith that my reference was to a report by the UK In A Changing Europe think tank on the impact of Brexit on the economy—and it perhaps explains partly why we are at the bottom with regard to inflation, apart from Russia. We have the highest inflation rate of the G7. Those are hard lessons for Scotland, and they have to be learned.
Here is the bigger picture.
We need action, now, from both the Conservative and SNP Governments, to help people with the cost of living. Scottish Labour will continue to offer solutions that will make a difference. With rising fuel prices and rising bus and rail fares this year, we need meaningful action now to reduce the cost of public transport, as the Trussell Trust evidenced in its briefing for today’s debate.
Few people are hit harder by those costs than people who are in work on modest incomes and who have to spend thousands of pounds to commute to their work. The Government needs a legislative and policy programme to make life easier for them, not more difficult. For too long, we have seen the opposite approach, which was illustrated earlier this year when the SNP-Green Government legislated for a workplace parking levy. We warned that it was wrong, then; the Government needs to recognise that it is wrong, now.
Taxing people on low incomes who have no choice but to drive to their work is not fair, and it will only make the cost of living crisis worse for them. There should be a moratorium on that commuter tax, but there is no mention of such a thing in the programme for government.
We are working with Edinburgh’s Labour council to ensure that we work on modes to get people out of their cars, which would not induce a workplace parking levy. Such a levy was not in the manifesto of the Edinburgh Labour group.
The workplace parking levy powers were introduced following the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019. However, three years on, we still have not seen the introduction of bus regulation powers, which were contained in the same act. Many people in my region who use the bus do so because they cannot afford a car, yet they have been hit by exorbitant bus fares from private bus companies.
From Sunday, thanks to the leadership of Labour mayor Andy Burnham, people in Manchester have seen the introduction of a capped single bus fare of £2, which will make a real difference to working people there. Even the former Tory Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, subsequently announced a roll-out of such a fare across England. Where is the same leadership in Scotland to tackle the broken bus market?
In the city of Glasgow, which the First Minister represents, and in many parts of the west of Scotland more widely, the cost of an adult single bus journey is £2.65. It is not fair that working people in my region pay significantly more to take the bus than people in Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds and London do.
Sorry, I have to make progress.
Where, too, is the national smart travel card that Nicola Sturgeon promised in 2012? The Government managed to deliver free integrated travel cards for the global delegates of the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26. We were told then that progress was being made on the introduction of a smart travel card, but it is still nowhere to be seen. As with the public energy company that was promised, the SNP talks a good game but fails to deliver on its promises.
Yesterday, the First Minister announced a freeze on ScotRail fares until March next year, but she neglected to mention that fares had already risen by 3.8 per cent in January—an increase that was introduced two months before fares went up in England and Wales. When ScotRail fares are already too expensive, the Government’s action is not nearly enough to help Scotland’s hard-pressed commuters and get people on to public transport.
There is a better way. We need to be bolder—look at the difference that the €9 ticket in Germany has made in increasing passenger numbers and reducing carbon emissions. There were 15 per cent more passengers in June compared with before the pandemic, and 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 emissions have been saved. We will not get people on to public transport unless we make it more affordable. That is why Scottish Labour has called for ScotRail fares not only to be frozen but to be halved for three months, to help with living standards and the climate crisis, and to help to grow revenues in the long term.
Yesterday, in his speech in the chamber, Douglas Ross said that the cost of living crisis is
“one of the biggest threats to livelihoods in our lifetimes.”—[
, 6 September 2022; c 21.]
I agree, but the current cost of living crisis is not the first threat to livelihoods that my community in Motherwell and Wishaw has had to face in my lifetime at the hands of a Conservative Government. I am old enough to remember the miners’ strike, the closure of Ravenscraig, food parcels for the community, fuel poverty and the hated poll tax. The simple truth is that, in the intervening years, some people in my community have barely recovered.
Douglas Lumsden demanded that the just transition fund for the north-east be spent in full, but the steel industry in my community was thrown on the scrap heap, along with the livelihoods and aspirations of my community. That is a mistake that the Scottish Government will not make.
I and my colleague Marion Fellows will host two cost of living events in the constituency for our constituents. The first will take place in the Lanarkshire Association for Mental Health wellbeing centre and cafe in Wishaw this Friday, and the second will take place in Motherwell’s Dalziel building, where our offices are, the following week. Many third sector, council and Government organisations will be there to help people financially and with their mental wellbeing at this incredibly difficult time.
I am urging my constituents to make use of the two events, where there will be local third sector mental health organisations, such as the Miracle Foundation and You Are My Sunshine—YAMS—as well as food banks from across the area, of which, I am sad to say, there are too many—we should not need food banks in 2022. However, they will be at our events. Today, some of them have put out an appeal because their stocks are low as a result of an incredibly busy weekend.
Organisations that help with financial insecurity will also be there, such as Christians Against Poverty, the credit unions in our area and Citizens Advice Scotland. I was heartened to hear Patrick Harvie say that the Government is trying to build a hub to bring all those threads together to support people in the community. I very much look forward to working with him on that.
We will also have people from warmer homes Scotland, the fire brigade and St Andrew’s First Aid at the events, in order to help people to make their homes as safe as they can be as they face different challenges this winter. In addition, people from Social Security Scotland, Welfare Rights, the Department for Work and Pensions and employability services will be there, and support will be available for families from organisations such as One Parent Families Scotland.
We will highlight the many vouchers that are available from private organisations and supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl; the pet aid programme that is operated by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which supports people who are struggling to feed their pets at home; and the organisations that can make available free period products in their local area.
Thirty years after the closure of Ravenscraig and the poverty that I saw in my community then, I am appalled that I am having to host such events. However, we will do as much as we can to support our constituents and we will highlight all the Social Security Scotland benefits that are available. I cannot list them all now, but we will encourage the uptake of benefits such as the best start grant early learning payment, best start foods, the carers allowance supplement, funeral support payments and, of course, the adult disability payment that has already been mentioned, which people have a right to.
I have to say that, in all of this, I am fed up with mitigating the decisions that are made elsewhere. I am fed up mitigating the bedroom tax, welfare reform, the two-child cap and the rape clause. I want our country to be able to make its own decisions. I do not want to be pleading with a Westminster Government to do a windfall tax. I want us to be leading on this.
This programme for government comes in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that is without precedent in the devolution era. The Scottish Government’s response is the right one: protect the vulnerable in the short term, while addressing the long-term structural problems that have often been caused by decades of deregulation in the pursuit of profit.
On housing, it is clear that an evictions ban and a rent freeze are needed, but deeper reforms must also happen. When I see just how bad the quality of rented flats is in areas such as Stirling, I know that the crisis goes beyond costs—it is also about the dismal living conditions that are placed on some tenants, which need to be tackled urgently.
That is why the new deal for tenants, announced by the First Minister yesterday and expanded on by Patrick Harvie today, is so critical. I know that the Scottish Government will continue to reach out to those who are equally passionate about fixing the housing crisis to design the right solutions.
I am very grateful to the member. I am sure that he agrees that the cheapest energy is the energy that we do not use, so he will want to see incentives for residential rented properties to be made more energy efficient by their landlords. Does he agree that we should maintain the rent freeze on all properties until they reach energy performance certificate rating C requirements?
The issue about private rented accommodation and the quality of energy efficiency measures is being dealt with in the heat in buildings strategy, and I know that the minister is on top of that issue. We need to improve that quality across the private sector.
On transport, the freeze on rail fares is a welcome assurance to commuters. Free bus travel has already benefited hundreds of thousands of young people and their families, and hundreds of thousands more will join them in the months ahead. More fundamental long-term reform is coming to break the cycle of decline in bus services, reverse Tory deregulation and bring services under public franchises and municipal ownership.
On energy, funding for more direct advice and grants will give many more householders the ability to control their energy use and even generate their own energy. However, this Government is pushing up against the limits of the devolution settlement. To go further, it needs the fiscal power to fight Tory austerity, alongside the regulatory powers to make energy markets work for people and planet, rather than profit.
Oil and gas companies are recording billions of pounds in profits while half a million Scots have simply no money left after paying household bills. When BP’s boss bought a £5 million house with his bonus earlier this year, he talked about the corporation having
“more cash than we know what to do with”.
Meanwhile, people on prepayment meters have been disconnecting their homes to avoid rising bills.
Fundamental reforms are needed that lie beyond the powers of this Parliament. Although Scotland’s electricity generation is dominated by low-cost renewables, electricity prices still move in lockstep with wholesale global gas prices. That is wrong and it needs to be changed.
Like the banks before them, no energy company is too big to fail, and nationalisation in the public interest must now be on the table. Just as bankers and Governments were responsible for the 2008 financial crash, now, in 2022, it is the oil and gas corporations and the Governments that aid and abet them that are fuelling the cost crisis and the collapse of our climate. With Jacob Rees-Mogg in charge of energy at Westminster, the chief arsonist has now been sent in to put out the fire.
The obscene revenue from oil and gas could have been used to fund clean energy transition and independence from global markets. However, the so-called windfall tax was, in fact, a tax-avoidance scheme for more drilling.
We do not have to look far to see how a genuine windfall tax could have been used. Germany, Italy and Spain are all raising billions of euros to support their people through this crisis.
Scotland has the richest renewable energy reserves of any country in Europe. It is time that we had the power to use that energy for the common good, and not for the few.
The global cost of living crisis must be the top priority for both Scotland’s Governments. I am looking forward to seeing what the new UK Government brings forward for families and businesses tomorrow.
As we heard, the UK Government has already announced £37 billion of support, with all people who are on means-tested benefits receiving £1,200. UK households will receive £400 next month to help with energy costs, and this morning there was the announcement of a 36 per cent uplift in spending and a 22 per cent increase in recipients—that means that 50,000 people in Scotland are under the UK’s warm homes discount scheme.
Scots expect their devolved Government to be doing much more. Yesterday, the First Minister said that
“the powers to act ... do not lie with this Parliament ... If they did, we could have acted”.—[
, 6 September 2022; c 9.]
But the Scottish Government does have powers. For example, it could have created a cost of living support fund, as we have called for it to do, to provide additional payments to the most vulnerable households. It could deliver additional funding to local councils to support families who are at risk of being unable to make housing payments or to buy essentials. It could have created a rural hardship fund to support off-grid households. It could rule out income tax and business rate rises. It could urgently review its ill-informed total opposition to nuclear energy and North Sea gas.
However, this is a Government that is hindered by the fact that it does not know how to target support. Last week, a response to a parliamentary question that I asked revealed that
“at present there are no National Statistics estimating the number of households in fuel poverty in 2020 and 2021.”—[
, 22 August 2022; S6W-09956.]
It is a scandal that this Government does not have up-to-date data on who is in fuel poverty.
“it is not a lack of political will that stops us. It is a lack of money.”—[
, 6 September 2022; c 11.]
I suggest to John Mason that we examine that. People are well aware that the UK Government is providing the highest funding settlement ever—a union dividend that is in excess of £12 billion, or £2,184 for every person in the country.
People also know that this Government underspent its budget by £650 million last year and is putting £20 million into its plans for another referendum. That is the wrong priority at the worst possible time. The Government is squandering more than £1 million a year on a team of 22 civil servants who are writing a new prospectus for independence.
Also, as we discovered recently, up to 2021 the SNP Government had wasted £4.5 billion of taxpayers’ money through delays, overspends and the like.
In a global crisis, frivolous and wasteful spending such as that proves that the SNP Government’s priorities are not the same as those of the people whom it serves. Those are spending choices that have been made by this Scottish Government. If the SNP’s budget really has been maxed, that is simply because the “political will”—to quote the First Minister—of this Government is to spend time and money fomenting grievance and promoting separation, at a time when Scotland and the whole UK need to come together.
Both Governments must do more. The UK Government has proved that it will step up. This SNP Government already has the powers and the money. What it lacks is the political will. That is what needs to change.
I am sure that I speak to the experience of many of my MSP, third sector and public sector colleagues when I say that I have referred too many families to food banks over the years. This summer, I had to ask our local food bank for parcels of food that did not need to be cooked for families who had no funds, and had a prepayment meter and nothing in the cupboards.
It is summer. It has been a particularly warm one, but—to state the obvious—winter is coming. What will people who are already vulnerable do when the inside of their house is as freezing cold as it is outside? What about the 116,000 Scottish pensioners who already live in extreme fuel poverty?
The situation that is unfolding is of a scale that requires an emergency response. The increase in the Scottish child payment is such a response: its importance cannot be overstated. I am particularly concerned about the effects that increased fuel poverty will have on children. Those effects are immediately apparent in physical health, but there will also be long-term effects on mental health and cognitive development. Infants who live in cold homes burn calories trying not to be hypothermic and hypoglycaemic, rather than using their energy for growth and organ development. Children in cold homes experience higher than average rates of chronic ill health, and families that include children with health conditions or disabilities who rely on electricity powering their medical equipment will be hit even worse.
Let us be clear: a freeze on energy bills should be just that and not a temporary pause that generates a future bill from the UK Government that families will be asked to pay back. Energy costs in the UK are 30 per cent higher than they are for our European Union neighbours. The UK Government has all the powers to combat those soaring costs, just as EU countries have.
The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee is about to publish our report on health inequalities, and I fear that the wrong decisions being made this winter by Liz Truss will be the root cause of widening health inequalities for children in 20 years’ time.
I have lost count of the number of people in my rural area, Aberdeenshire—which, incidentally, is thick with wind turbines—who have asked me this question: “Why are our fuel bills so high when we generate all this cheaper wind-generated electricity?” It is a perfectly reasonable question, and one that was rightly raised by Clare Adamson when she talked about unfair transmission charges. It is cheaper for EU countries to sell their electricity to our grid than it is for Scottish companies.
I do not have time. If our energy system does not work for our citizens, whom does it work for? Scotland has the energy, but it needs the powers.
We are all here because we want to help people. It is why we do the job, but too many members think that it is sufficient to ask the Scottish Government to mitigate the root causes of poverty. Mitigation is a temporary fix. When the source issue remains, and the people who are responsible for energy, welfare and every fiscal lever do not act appropriately, our mitigation gets swallowed up. It is just not enough.
The Scottish child payment and fuel insecurity uplifts that were announced yesterday are lifelines, as is widened eligibility for the warmer homes scheme. How many weeks will it be before that is swallowed up by the surging cost of fuel and inflation of food prices? How long before the hard-won pay deals for workers are cancelled out by increased household costs that are outwith this Parliament’s control?
Scotland needs the powers of a normal independent state to tackle all our cost of living problems at source in order to protect the people of Scotland. At a cost of £3.60 per person in Scotland, a Scottish independence referendum seems like a very wise use of £20 million.
I believe, as all members do, that we are, if we are not already deep into one, on the cusp of a national emergency. I see it every day in my region, and now that we have returned to Parliament I am distinctly aware that the issue should be the primary focus of the Scottish Government, going forward.
The cost of feeding your family and heating your home in this country is unmanageable, and in many cases it will be fatal. We have to frame the debate in those terms, because that is how worrying the situation is. Anything less than that is not serious and will not work.
I thank the Trussell Trust for all its work, and I particularly thank Fiona, whom I visited in Peebles during the recess. Fiona brought home to me the reality of people’s lives at this time. The Trussell Trust’s research has revealed that more than 2 million people across the UK have skipped meals during the past three months in order to keep up with other essential costs. Fiona told me that mothers, fathers and carers are choosing not to eat so that their children can eat, and that grandparents are skipping meals in order to put money aside for heating their homes this winter. We often hear from both Governments that Scotland and the UK are the best places to live and raise a family, but that is all just public relations nonsense, if the reality is as stark as that, for so many people.
I have said this in the chamber before and I say it again: I deplore the Tory Government’s attack on working-class people. The Tories are the friends of the rich and show no interest in redistributing wealth to those who need it most. We know that the new Prime Minister will try to deregulate and strip taxes from the wealthiest, and we also know the effect that that will inevitably have.
So, now, more than ever, we need the Scottish Government to step up and use the powers that it has to help those who need it most. Scottish Labour has called for immediate action, including a rent freeze, a winter eviction ban and more affordable public transport to directly support people at the sharp end. After visiting Aberlour Child Care Trust and meeting young families in Dumfries, I also call on the Government to wipe out school-meals debt. That simple action could bring great relief to many families.
It is promising that some of those commitments have been met in the programme for government, but we need emergency legislation in order to implement them without further delay. I want to make an important point, which is that we need to get a grasp of how long the measures have taken. My colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy raised that. In my kindest moments, I might say that the SNP just has poor time-management skills, but we must do this with urgency. The increased child payment, for example, is very welcome, but why have six to 16-year-olds had to wait 21 months to claim what they were promised in 2018?
Would Carol Mochan acknowledge that the Scottish child payment was created during the pandemic as one of seven new benefits that the Scottish Government is delivering? It is a remarkable achievement in that time, and it is widely acknowledged in that sense.
Would she also recognise that the joint programme of social security delivery in Scotland requires engagement with the DWP, and that the Scottish Government has moved at pace to deliver the Scottish child payment, its extension and its uplift?
The member knows that I do not like pats on the back for the Government. We must do more and we must do it faster. That is the ask.
We have dithered on an emergency rent freeze when the writing was on the wall. We even saw the ludicrous spectacle of the Scottish Green Party going out of its way to tell us that that could not be done—but it can be done.
We must remember that proper reform is not a one-shot policy announcement for a polling increase here or there, or for a day of positive press attention. It alters the course of people’s lives for the better through determined and consistent action. I look to members on the back benches when I say that we should be asking Government to do everything that it can—even when it is our own party that is in Government.
All that is why Scottish Labour is calling for an emergency cost of living act.
As the long days of summer passed with no one in charge of the good ship Westminster, it became clear that this crisis needs emergency action akin to the pandemic response. In that response, we cannot forget that the inequalities that were magnified by the pandemic are being underlined and reinforced by the current crises of galloping inflation and horrific energy costs. Those who were already operating on the margins with deficit budgets now find themselves facing unimaginable poverty. We must also recognise the disproportionate impact on women and those facing multiple inequalities and the very gendered crisis of incomes that exists.
Lamentably, food banks have become a necessary part of a UK whose welfare safety net has been hammered by a decade of Tory-led austerity, and we are now hearing of countless cases of those lifeline larders dealing with bare shelves as donations start to dry up because households can no longer afford to put a few items in the collection trollies and supermarkets reduce their bulk buying, which means that there is less to share out.
At a time when more folk will need support to ensure that hungry bellies receive sustenance and fears rise for safety as people turn their heating off and use camping stoves and candles indoors, I am thankful that we have a Scottish Government that is using as many avenues as possible to put money and support where it is needed most, and that is creating a social security safety net that is seen as the glue that binds us and not as begrudged handouts.
Bringing forward the increase and extension of the unique and lauded poverty-busting Scottish child payment will help parents buy essentials for their families. Increasing the pot for discretionary housing payments and extending it to include money for energy costs is a welcome move that will directly help those who cannot afford that most basic of human needs: warmth.
The announcement of emergency legislation to introduce a moratorium on evictions is also to be welcomed, as is the proposed rent freeze, which I am sure we can all agree demonstrates that the suggestions that are made by other parties can be listened to and deployed where appropriate. That will give a level of comfort to tenants across the country who face unaffordable rent increases and the threat of eviction during the coldest months.
It is important to note that, as a country, we have also taken the decision to divert moneys to mitigate the effect of wrong-headed UK policy choices, such as the bedroom tax and the benefits cap, as Christine Grahame outlined. Our decisions to introduce the baby box, extend early years provision, protect free tuition and free personal care, extend free bus travel to people under 22 and extend free school meals demonstrate that, with some powers, we can protect our folk despite budgetary constraints. I ask members to imagine what we could do as a normal independent country. The asks from Labour members show us that they seem to think that we are that independent country already.
I spoke about food banks, but I will also mention the clothes count too campaign, which seeks to highlight and unite the work that is being done by clothing and baby banks across the country. I have used a clothing bank and supported countless others to do the same. Their work means that dignity is assured for families that face impossible budgetary choices.
I will not repeat the asks that my party colleagues have of the UK Government, but I extend a plea to the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to right the wrong of leaving people under the age of 25 suffering the indignity of a universal credit standard rate that is a poverty-inducing 20 per cent lower than the rate for their older peers. Their bills are no less than those for the rest of us. Addressing that would be an indication that she takes reducing poverty, not just reducing overall spend, seriously.
My final ask is that the cost of doing business be seen as an urgent issue and that the UK Government intervene to prevent further business closures in my constituency and across Scotland. Without immediate intervention and an energy price cap for businesses, disaster looms. Over the past month, more than 10 businesses in my constituency have already shut down. That is not acceptable.
I hope that, in her closing speech, the cabinet secretary will say when the rent freeze legislation will be published and outline the legislative timeline. As of this morning, it had not been published and it does not feature in the proposed business for next week that we will vote on. However, we know that the matter is urgent. The minister set out in his opening speech that it is not beyond anyone’s imagination that, regardless of the First Minister making a commitment yesterday to freeze rents, some landlords will go out and hike rents as we speak. Tenants who do not know their rights might well accept that hike without challenge or awareness of the looming freeze. It is important that the proposed legislation be published and that it increases people’s awareness of their rights as of yesterday.
That freeze was the centrepiece of yesterday’s announcement, along with the introduction of a winter evictions ban and the expansion of the eligibility for the tenant grant fund. We welcome the Government’s support for our proposals, but why wait? Why the delay? Why did it take the summer for the Government to realise that keeping our homes running, warm and safe was at the heart of the cost of living crisis?
The growing pressure over the summer has put people at breaking point. Energy, housing and food bills just keep going up. Research by YouGov for the Trussell Trust found that more than 2 million people who receive universal credit have skipped a meal since the spring. Citizens Advice Scotland reports soaring numbers of online inquiries for advice. Views on its website for “grants and benefits to help pay energy bills” and “struggling to pay energy bills” are up more than 120 per cent. By March, the number of children in temporary accommodation climbed by 1,000 to 8,835. That came before the Bank of England increased interest rates to 1.75 per cent.
The cost of living crisis is clearly a national emergency, but the Government has found no urgency. It spent the summer grandstanding, jetsetting and showboating when, instead, it could have come back to the Parliament and shown the people of Scotland that it was ready to go and ready to act. The Government has had the whole summer, yet it has said nothing. The summer culminated in the national bin strikes—strikes and an industrial dispute that the SNP banked on wriggling out of. It took the city that we are in smelling like a landfill site during the Edinburgh festival for the Government to finally accept its role in making sure that vital workers are paid a fair wage.
Yesterday, the First Minister said:
“We will put as much money as possible into people’s pockets through decent pay rises”.—[
, 6 September 2022; c 13.]
However, for years, council workers have campaigned and rallied outside the Parliament, protesting that the Government and successive finance secretaries have washed their hands of any role in local government pay. Paying waste collectors, school cleansing and catering staff and other low-paid local government staff has always been in the gift of the Scottish Government; it has just chosen to ignore that.
However, there is a pattern of behaviour through the Government’s actions. When Opposition parties bring forward policy suggestions and proposals, the Government just attacks.
We have brought forward proposals that, amazingly, the Government has adopted as its own a month or two later. After two months of attacking my colleague Mercedes Villalba for her detailed proposals to protect tenants during the cost of living crisis, all of a sudden, those proposals are great and the Government has adopted them as its own.
The Government has continued with its grievances over powers and its spin. It rolled out all the excuses under the sun. At a COVID-19 Recovery Committee meeting, I heard that the proposal to implement a rent freeze was not competent, that it would be subject to legal and human rights challenges and that the Government had not consulted on it. Those were all excuses that members of the Green Party advanced but now seem to accept were nonsense.
Why did the Government not use the month of June to work with Mercedes Villalba? Instead, it scaremongered, saying that the plan would increase rents. It did not say that it would work on any of the European convention on human rights claims over the summer; it just said that the plans would force evictions. It just said no.
I think that the member will acknowledge that we did not just say no. We went into the matter in a substantial amount of detail. It was very clear, even from the closing speech in the stage 3 debate on the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, that, regrettably, the member who was moving amendments 72 and 73 on rent freezes was relying on a legal precedent that not only was decades old but related to the renting of a single property that was let out without toilets or running water, which had to be installed at the tenant’s own expense. That was the precedent that was being cited to justify a two-year blanket rent freeze.
I hope that the member can accept that the Government is getting the detail right, which is what we have to do if we want the protection to exist in the real world.
Mr Harvie is a seasoned parliamentarian. He knows the parliamentary process and he knows full well that, if the Government had said in June that it accepted the principle of a rent freeze that my colleague Mercedes Villalba was proposing, it could have worked on the detail as the bill made its way through the Parliament. It is not good enough to say at the very end of stage 3 proceedings that the proposal was not competent. There was no effort made to work with my colleague to make sure that there were workable proposals to protect tenants. We could have had those in place months ago, which would have protected tenants for far longer than by only implementing the proposals now.
Many thousands of people will struggle to heat their homes this winter or keep a roof over their head. The issue is urgent and it should have been dealt with in June. However we expect to see the emergency legislation being lodged in the Parliament this week.
I begin by citing my entry in the register of members’ interests: I am an honorary vice-president of Energy Action Scotland and I derive some income from rental properties in which I have an interest.
There has been a degree of consensus in the debate about the severity of the problems that the country is facing. We have heard about the rising cost of energy, in particular, and the impact that that is having on many individuals. People are genuinely fearful about their ability to meet the costs of heating and lighting their homes, among other rising costs.
Importantly, it is not just individuals and households who are affected; there is also a large impact on the business sector, of which Liz Smith reminded us. Many small businesses, particularly in fields such as hospitality, are currently seeing horrific quotes for energy for the coming year. It is the same in the care sector. One nursing home in Fife contacted me to say that its estimate for electricity had gone up from £13,000 in the current year to £130,000 next year. With the cost at that level, the business is not viable and will have to close its doors, with devastating consequences for staff and residents. That story is repeated across the country. We are facing a crisis situation that requires urgent action from both of Scotland’s Governments.
Earlier in the year, we saw a £37 billion package of support from the UK Government, including payments of £400 to households, starting in October, to help with fuel bills. Although that was welcome, it is now clear that that does not go far enough. Some fair points have been made in the debate about those who have off-grid properties that rely on bottled gas or oil and who were not covered by that £400 payment. I listened with interest to what the Prime Minister had to say about that earlier today in the House of Commons. We will hear more tomorrow from the UK Government about what additional support will be provided. As Liz Smith said, it appears likely that there will be measures to cap energy costs for households. We await details of that—it will be a welcome move—but we also need to see support for businesses that are impacted and, indeed, other organisations.
It is not good enough for SNP members to see all of this as being down to the UK Government, as they have done during this debate. We also need to see action from the Scottish Government—a Government that, let us remind ourselves, now has the highest budget in the history of devolution, if we discount the one-off additional Covid support that was provided last year; a budget that is up 10 per cent in cash terms compared to last year. Also, let us not forget that the block grant provides an additional £2,000 above the UK average for every man, woman and child in Scotland, thanks to the Barnett formula and fiscal transfers from south of the border—fiscal transfers that, incidentally, this SNP Government wants to end, even though it benefits from that extra money.
The Scottish Government is fond of telling us that it has a fixed budget, but that is not quite true. This is a Government that has not just a record block grant from Westminster but extensive tax powers over income tax, land and buildings transaction tax, landfill tax, non-domestic rates and council tax—a package of around £20 billion in tax powers. It is a Government that has powers to borrow, albeit that it had already maxed out the credit card long before the current crisis hit.
Of course, under the fiscal framework, the overall size of the budget that is available to this Government is determined by the performance of the Scottish economy and the Scottish tax base relative to those of the UK as a whole. We know that, because our economic growth and our tax growth have been lagging behind those of the UK, our budget has been shrinking. All of those things are matters that the Scottish Government could give its attention to.
There is much that the Scottish Government could do to help the situation—Liam Kerr gave us a list of initiatives that the Government could take forward. We are also seeing water charges rise when Scottish Water is directly under the control of this Government. Neil Bibby mentioned the workplace parking levy that this Government legislated for, which heaps additional costs on commuters who have no alternative to using their cars to get to their place of work. Further, many Scottish workers have to pay more income tax than workers elsewhere in the United Kingdom, thanks to choices made by this Government.
We have already seen broken promises from this Government. By now, there should have been free school meals in every year of primary school, but the introduction of that policy has been delayed. Also, the much-vaunted public energy company, which was promised five years ago, has long since been abandoned by the SNP even though it promised that that would make a real difference to people’s bills. Further, Energy Action Scotland, an organisation of which I am proud to be an honorary officer and that is the charity at the forefront of providing vital support for people in fuel poverty, was told just weeks ago that its entire budget support from the Scottish Government was being removed. I am pleased that, according to civil servants, that decision seems to have been reversed, but it would be good if the minister, when she sums up the debate, could confirm that Energy Action Scotland will get the funding that it needs instead of being threatened with having its budget cut entirely.
At the start of the debate, Patrick Harvie set out on behalf of the Government its proposals for a rent freeze. As Miles Briggs told us, that move is already causing a great deal of concern for private sector landlords, a large proportion of whom are not wealthy, large conglomerates or companies but the owners of simply one property—perhaps one that they bought to supplement their pension—who are already seeing substantially rising costs, including mortgage payments.
As I acknowledged in my speech, landlords are in different financial circumstances. We seek to recognise that, and there are landlords who have done their best not to pass on rent increases in difficult times. However, does Murdo Fraser recognise that there are also landlords who have sought to exploit every opportunity to increase rent? What does he say to my constituents and those around the country who are being notified of rent increases of 30 or 40 per cent or more? Does he not share my concern about our need to protect people from that kind of behaviour?
The measure that is being proposed by Mr Harvie and this Government will affect every landlord in the country. Even landlords who face rising mortgage payments and insurance costs will be hit with the same measure. Letting agents are reporting that the trend of private landlords selling up and leaving the marketplace is being accelerated at a time when there is already, as we heard from Miles Briggs, a mismatch between supply and demand. From all the international evidence, including the evidence from Sweden, Ireland and Berlin, we know that rent controls have the inevitable consequence of reducing the supply of rented properties. At a time when people are queuing up to try to rent properties, the proposal will simply damage the sector even more. As we were told earlier, it is not just an issue for the private rented sector—the social rented sector faces exactly the same issues.
In conclusion, I agree that there is more that the UK Government will do, and we look forward to hearing about that. However, rather than just sitting on the sidelines, criticising others, which it is so good at, this SNP-Green Government needs to step up and do much more than it is currently doing. The measures that it has already announced go nowhere near far enough, and it needs to do much more to play its part in tackling the crisis that the country faces.
In the main, this has been a good, helpful and constructive debate. However, before I continue, I will deal with Murdo Fraser’s last point.
Looking at what we can do to make this country fairer and more equal is at the heart of the work that I and this Government do every day, and we have looked under every stone for every opportunity. For Murdo Fraser to describe that in the way that he did—after months of inaction from the UK Government, which has been posted missing—is really quite galling, even for him.
Let us get back to looking at the facts, rather than the fiction. I am very pleased that our programme for government gives such prominence to the action that it is vital to take right now in order to tackle the cost of living crisis while also maintaining our strong, long-standing approach to social justice. This Government has allocated almost £3 billion—this year alone—to a range of support that will contribute to the mitigation of the impact of increased costs on households.
With regard to Pam Duncan-Glancy’s point, I do not think that people care about when announcements were made; they care about the money in their pockets. Christine Grahame gave a really good example of that when she highlighted the £9 prescription charges that people in England will be paying—as highlighted today by the BBC—while we have scrapped prescription charges. It might not have been announced this summer, but that puts money in people’s pockets—money that they do not have to spend on prescriptions—and it matters.
The £3 billion package also includes actions to tackle child poverty, reduce inequalities and support financial wellbeing, alongside the hugely important social security payments that are either not available anywhere else in the UK or far more generous. I will come to the child payment in a moment.
To address the point about the dates, I am afraid that the cabinet secretary is missing the point. I was not suggesting that money in people’s pockets is the bad thing; I was suggesting that the announcement was dressed up as a new cost of living approach, which is not the case. The payment is something that the Government was already doing. It is a good thing—I am not saying that it is not a good thing—but it is something that the Government was already doing. The date that was announced was the new bit—that is my point.
It is all about support to households. If someone needs a prescription today, surely it is the prescription charge not being there that matters, not when that was decided.
We are supporting, and will continue to support, people in all areas of life with free childcare, no tuition fees and five family benefits to help low-income households with the cost of bringing up a family, along with additional support for unpaid carers, including financial support through our carers allowance supplement, and through new support for fuel bills, which is more vital than ever.
The UK Government must play its part. I know that the Tories have been talking among themselves for the entire summer, but they need to get out of that niche, because no one at all—I would probably include some people in their party and their supporters—believes that the UK Government has done what it needs to do. We need that clear action from the UK Government because it has the levers.
Over the summer, I have ensured that Shelter and other organisations that can help us to resolve the temporary accommodation issue are now working to tell us what further action we need to take. Further action will be taken to address that issue.
Is it ironic that, in his speech, Miles Briggs said that he wanted the focus to be on supporting those first-time buyers who are better off. That is what he said. Is it not ironic that, in the same breath, he says that wants more effort to be put into tackling the use of temporary accommodation? We cannot do all those things. Liam Kerr asserted that we do not know how to target support. All that comes from a party that essentially wants to fund tax cuts before public services. That is a bit rich indeed.
While we continue to do everything possible within our powers, we have made clear time and again the urgent action that is required from the UK Government. Despite a finite budget, this Government is doing all that it can. Earlier, the minister spoke about the additional bold actions that we are taking to ensure that tenants will be secure in their homes this winter. In his speech, he talked about an eviction moratorium over the winter, which seems to have been lost on some Labour members. That is an important action.
As I said, the actions that we have taken during our years of government collectively add up to substantial household support for families. If we had not done that, the crisis today would be even worse for people.
One of those actions is the Scottish child payment, which is a vital new benefit to tackle child poverty head on. Although campaigners called for a £5 payment, we said that we would introduce a £10 payment for all under-16s. We also said that we would go further by introducing it early for under-6s, so that within a couple of years of announcing that significant new financial support, we were getting money into the households of more than 100,000 children.
We went even further by introducing bridging payments ahead of the introduction of our full Scottish child payment. Therefore, I am delighted that yesterday, the programme for government confirmed that that will be in place from 14 November. On that day, all those who are currently in receipt of the payment will see it increase to £25, which is a 150 per cent increase in eight months. That is money in people’s pockets. It is also the day on which we will open applications to eligible families with children under the age of 16.
In March, I published “Best Start, Bright Futures: tackling child poverty delivery plan 2022-26”, which sets out bold action to drive progress on our national mission to tackle child poverty. The impact of the current crisis makes meeting our interim statutory child poverty targets even more challenging, but even more important.
We estimate that 400,000 children could be eligible for the Scottish child payment when it is extended. Based on the modelling that was undertaken in March, it is estimated that it will lift 50,000 children out of poverty and reduce relative child poverty by 5 percentage points next year. That is an astonishing goal, given the crisis in which we are living. I am aware that the crisis makes achieving that very challenging. However, in the current difficult circumstances, the Government will continue to prioritise efforts to tackle child poverty. Of course, the Scottish child payment is only one of our five family payments that support children in the early years.
We know that having to apply for benefits can be a barrier, preventing some families from accessing the support to which they are entitled. Therefore, we will also award the best start grant early learning and school-age payments automatically, without the need to apply, to eligible families that are in receipt of the Scottish child payment.
We believe that social security is an investment in people, and we take our responsibility to make people aware of their entitlements very seriously. We have a benefit take-up strategy that sets out a series of actions to make sure that people access the support to which they are entitled. We will do more of that.
We are going further to help people find out what support is available. By the end of this month, we will launch a new website that provides a one-stop information source for people to find out what they are entitled to—benefits provided by the Scottish or UK Governments and a range of other support, such as how to reduce their energy and household costs and how to access reliable debt and welfare advice. I commend Clare Adamson’s work in her locality, and I encourage others to do the same.
We will continue to do what we can in these unprecedented times. As a Government, we are committed to taking some hard decisions to ensure that we can do that. While taking this emergency action, we will continue to look to the future and build a better Scotland for all of us, making communities and households more resilient and able to flourish and succeed. However, we know that we must have the full powers of independence to be able to fully achieve that for our nation.