Equalities Q&A with Angela Constance
Angela Constance, Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities speaks to Holyrood about local government, equalities and homelessness
Angela Constance: Picture credit - Alex Aitcheson
The local government elections were held in May; do you feel they were overshadowed by the snap general election?
The vital services that councils in Scotland provide are so ingrained in our daily lives that it is easy to take them for granted – but voters are entitled to a proper debate about how these services are delivered. I think this year, we managed this to some extent – certainly in my own council area we did. As the Cabinet Secretary responsible for local government, I was also happy to debate the government’s record in supporting local authorities in the face of continued austerity from Westminster, and our radical community empowerment agenda.
It is fair to say that the snap general election did overshadow the latter stages of the council campaign. But voters are rightly cynical about politicians who play games with elections – Theresa May took the support of people for granted, expecting to romp home with a much larger majority and voters responded by taking away her majority.
Councils are obviously facing difficult times financially, how do you think that will affect Scotland’s communities and how do you help build resilience?
We have treated local government very fairly despite the cuts to the Scottish budget from the UK Government. This year’s local government finance settlement includes the extra £160 million to support investment in local services added at Stage 1 of the Budget Bill, plus other sources of income available to councils through reforms to council tax and funding for health and social care integration. This means the overall increase in spending power to support local authority services now amounts to almost £400 million or 3.7 per cent. This will be welcome news for the people and our communities the length and breadth of Scotland.
We continue to work with local government and other public services to drive forward a reform agenda. With its focus on the Christie Commission principles of partnership, prevention, people and performance, the Scottish reform agenda is absolutely designed to build in resilience to the delivery of services and to communities themselves.
The Scottish Government has ambitious housing targets, how confident are you that they’ll be met?
Access to quality housing is a vital part of our drive to secure economic growth, promote social justice, strengthen communities and tackle inequalities. Despite the UK Government’s austerity programme, we are determined to increase and accelerate housing supply and we will support local authorities and the industry to deliver their housing priorities – with quality homes in mixed communities that fit local needs.
Our new, ambitious target means we have committed to delivering at least 50,000 affordable homes, including 35,000 social homes, backed by over £3 billion investment during the lifetime of this parliament. This is a 67 per cent increase on our previous five-year target of delivering 30,000 affordable homes, which we exceeded – indeed, from 2007-08 to 2016-17, we have delivered a total of 68,040 affordable homes, far more than the 38,015 delivered from 2000-01 to 2006-07.
We know that the foundations for a strong affordable housing programme must be set in the early years of the five-year target period to support the volume of building required. A budget increase of over £100 million in 2016-17 led to more than 10,000-unit approvals being achieved in the first year of the target period – a record-breaking level representing a 29 per cent increase on the total number of approvals achieved in the previous year. And for the first time, we have committed to year-on-year increases in funding for affordable homes, which has resulted in more than £1.75 billion being shared by local authorities for affordable housing over the next three years, so, I’m confident that we will meet the 50,000 target. It won’t be easy, the target is ambitious, but we have shown previously that we can deliver and we will again.
What is being done to tackle homelessness?
In Scotland, we have some of the strongest rights for homeless people in the world. And we have world-leading provisions in place to respond to homelessness whenever it occurs. We are continuing to focus on prevention by providing funding and work with local government and a range of partners at a national level to ensure tackling homelessness remains a priority. This includes our collaboration with local government to develop the housing options approach – preventative action that can reduce housing problems and homelessness, by addressing the causes of housing pressures and any related issues. Recent figures show thousands of people have benefitted through this.
Progress is also being made in tackling homelessness overall and there has been a 6 per cent decrease in the number of households assessed as homeless, continuing the downward trend of recent years. This is good news and shows the actions we are taking are having an effect, but we are well aware we must keep focused on tackling this important issue and that there is still more to be done. One of our priorities is addressing homelessness for people with more complex needs, including those who may be rough sleeping, and for whom just providing accommodation is not always enough to prevent homelessness happening again. We are working closely with partners in the third sector and areas such as health to help address this more entrenched form of homelessness.
Why is ‘community empowerment’ important?
We believe it is right that communities have a say on how services are delivered, as well as how resources are spent. Effective community empowerment requires a change of culture throughout the development, design and delivery of public services. This change is being supported through legislation like the Community Empowerment Act, the Islands Bill, our plans for education governance reform, and our support of City Deals. And we are working closely with local government to finalise arrangements for a review of local decision-making. This review will help us to understand what communities want to see happen, and inform a Local Democracy Bill which we will introduce later in this parliament.
Participatory budgeting – now most commonly known in Scotland as ‘community choices’ – supports one of the principles of public service reform, giving people an equal opportunity to participate and have their voice heard in decisions shaping their local community and society. Before 2014 there were just a handful of participatory budgeting events across Scotland. Since then we have invested £2.7 million through the innovative Community Choices Fund and will invest a further £2 million this year. This has already enabled over 25,000 members of the community to allocate millions of pounds to over a thousand community projects.
The Social Security Bill was recently introduced to parliament, why is it so important?
The publication of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill is a very significant milestone for the Scottish Parliament and for devolution. It is truly historic legislation which demonstrates that we will always make decisions that will create a fairer and more just society where and when we have the power to do so. The bill will make our social security system in Scotland the first in the UK to be based on the statutory principle that social security is a human right.
The UK Government is forcing through the worst welfare cuts in living memory, pushing hundreds of thousands more people – including many children – into poverty. Their treatment of the sick and the disabled has been, at times, frankly, disgusting. In stark contrast, we have put dignity and respect at the heart of everything we are doing with these new powers – not least, in our decision to remove the private sector from disability benefit assessments. We believe that people should get all the help they are entitled to. That is why the bill includes a statutory principle which reflects the Scottish Government’s commitment to help maximise people’s incomes and encourage the take-up of all benefits.
We also believe that we should put people with lived experience first and involve them in the design of processes and services. Over 2,400 people have volunteered to join the Experience Panels, from across Scotland and representing all of the devolved benefits, to help us build our new social security system. Once these new powers are fully devolved and operational, we look forward to a whole new era – giving Scotland the social security system it deserves.
Were you disappointed that both recent elections (local and the general election) failed to return a gender balance?
Yes, I am disappointed at the lack of gender balance from recent elections – although it was encouraging to see an increased number of female candidates, up from 24 per cent in 2012 to 30 per cent this year. As a result, the number of elected female councillors has also risen – up from 24 per cent in 2012 to 29 per cent this year. There is obviously still a considerable way to go before equality is achieved in elected positions but we are seeing progress. This is demonstrated within COSLA itself, where we have seen for the first time, a gender balance in the senior roles, including the election of a female president.
And it is also the case on our public boards. We have significantly shifted the gender balance on public boards, but I want to go further – which is why we published the Gender Representation Bill with an objective for public boards that 50 per cent of their non-executive members are women by 2022. We know that more balanced boards leads to better decision making and by the end of 2016, over 45 per cent of all board positions were held by women, compared with 34.5 per cent in 2004-05. This is the highest level of female representation on public boards since recording began, so I think we’re starting to make real progress.
You recently introduced the Scottish Government’s plan to tackle hate crime, in the light of the terrorist attacks, how important is this?
There is no place for intolerance, discrimination or violence in Scotland and we must continue to tackle the underlying causes and conditions that allow hatred and intolerance to flourish. Tackling hate and prejudice starts with government leadership. That’s why I am in the process of establishing a multi-agency delivery board – which I will chair – to drive forward the good work of the Advisory Group on Hate Crime, Prejudice and Community Cohesion which we set up back in 2015 to look carefully at these issues. We’re also setting up a panel of advisers to ensure our approach is informed by the best evidence and thinking, and later this year, I will be launching a national campaign to raise awareness of hate crime and the impacts of it.
We still have a lot of work to do to ensure that everyone in Scotland can celebrate their identity, and recent international events have served to reinforce that there can be absolutely no complacency on this front. And while it is right that we take firm action to tackle hatred and intolerance, we should also reflect positively on the unity, strength and determination we see again and again. We must never lose sight of that as we focus our efforts to ensure fairness, equality and a respect for rights exists across all of our society.
Child poverty is still a big problem in Scotland, what is the government doing to tackle this terrible issue?
I know from personal experience how tough it can be for children living in poverty and that is why it is an absolute priority for me to do all I can to tackle it. It is deeply frustrating that the UK Government is making the challenge even tougher, with a cuts agenda that is pushing more and more families into poverty. In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that over one million more children will be living in poverty across the UK in the period to 2020-21, in large part because of UK Government cuts to social security.
We are taking a very different approach here. Our Fairer Scotland Action Plan, which was published last year, sets out 50 concrete actions that we will take over the course of this parliament to tackle poverty and inequality, such as establishing a new Best Start Grant and introducing a Scottish Baby Box to help reduce the costs of providing for a child in the early years; and tackling the poverty premium that means that if you’re on a low income, you tend to pay more for basic goods and services. But the challenge isn’t just about tackling poverty, it’s about preventing it too, so we are expanding funding of early learning and childcare to help parents get into work or work more hours when they want to. We’re delivering at least 50,000 affordable homes over the current parliamentary term, because housing costs are such a major part of family budgets. And we’re making sure that economic growth in Scotland – delivering good jobs, new infrastructure and services – genuinely benefits everyone.
I introduced a bill to parliament in February this year that will establish Scotland as the only part of the UK with ambitious statutory income targets. It also sets out a robust framework for measuring, monitoring and reporting on child poverty at a national and local level. The bill will ensure that tackling child poverty is front and centre of everything we do; starting with the first delivery plan which will be published by April next year.
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