Alex Johnstone MSP

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Member of the Scottish Commission for Public Audit
Trustee of the Scottish Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund

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Meeting of the Parliament 18 December 2014 : Thursday, December 18, 2014
Alex Johnstone

—but those who will pay for them, too. That is a challenge that will keep us thinking for many years to come.

16:12  

Meeting of the Parliament 18 December 2014 : Thursday, December 18, 2014
Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con)

In Scotland, we are extremely lucky to be part of the United Kingdom—an economy that is now growing faster than any other economy in the developed world. Contrary to the policies that were adopted by many of our European colleagues, particularly those in the eurozone, the policy that we have decided to follow is, throughout the United Kingdom and in Scotland, creating jobs and economic growth at a time when many of our European neighbours would kill for such an opportunity. Yet, we have a persistent problem.

Here in Scotland, in many areas—perhaps all areas—there is a desperate labour shortage, yet when jobs are created they are filled largely by immigrants. I am one of those Conservatives who does not oppose immigration, particularly immigration within the European Union, but it still concerns me that we do so badly when it comes to getting our unemployed into the jobs that we are now creating. The consequences of that failure are obvious and are clearly stated in the two reports that we have in front of us today.

I will address the issues specifically. When it comes to sanctions, there is obviously a problem. The sanctions regime seems to attack the same people time and again. However, I want to take a step back and take a broader view of sanctions. First, I refute the suggestion that sanctions are somehow the invention of the current coalition Government. Sanctions were introduced some time ago, under the previous Labour Government. In fact, only in the past 12 months has the level of sanctions gone past the peak that was achieved in 2007, when Frank Field was the minister responsible. Let us therefore take no lessons from the previous Government on the implementation of sanctions.

Nevertheless, there are problems with sanctions as they are applied today. There is a broad understanding that, if we are to have a welfare regime and a benefits system, some kind of enforcement and disciplinary measures will be necessary. The report “Re-thinking Welfare: Fair, Personal & Simple” does not go so far as to suggest that we do not need a disciplinary and enforcement mechanism. Yet, for many of the individuals who have experienced sanctions, it is a very difficult circumstance to find themselves in. Many of them do not understand why sanctions have been applied, and a great many more have gone through the process of having their mandatory reconsideration and the sanction threat being withdrawn. There is an appeals procedure and, as with many appeals procedures in the welfare system, there is a surprisingly high success rate of appeals. However, in my view, that is symptomatic of a system that is not being appropriately administered rather than a system that is itself inappropriate.

Let me move on to the other reports. Several times today, we have heard members say that the demand for food banks is caused entirely by the implementation of sanctions. We have heard others suggest that low wages are a large cause. A moment or two ago, however, we heard a brief mention of the evidence that was provided by Mark Ballard on behalf of his employers, who went to some length to explain the causes of the demand for food banks. He understood that the drivers include high food prices.

We have been through a five-year period in which food prices peaked at a very high level. High fuel prices have also been a driver. No one is giving away free electricity, so free food from a food bank will be the option that people choose. Sadly, extremely high transport costs have contributed to family difficulty and, as we have heard on more than one occasion during this debate, some people have been unable to travel to food banks or have had to walk many miles to take advantage of their service.

Food banks as a whole balance people’s opinions, and we must be careful what we say about them. I agree with everybody here that it is unfortunate that food banks are currently necessary. However, they are a wonderful example of how, when a need is identified, human beings can pull together and work together for the benefit of all. I pay tribute to everyone who works in a food bank, large or small, or who makes a contribution to food bank, to keep that essential service in place while it is necessary.

Our challenge is to work to ensure that it is not necessary for ever. The opportunity presented to us by the Smith commission agreement is one that the Scottish Government is underestimating. The opportunities that universal credit presents are extremely positive and the universal credit system, administered by the Westminster Government, will contribute enormously to the simplification and efficient provision of support in the main benefit areas.

The Smith commission agreement gives us huge new opportunities to top up benefits or create new benefits and support systems that we can deliver here in Scotland. The challenge, however, is to achieve the political consensus necessary to do that. In effect, we can pay any benefit we like, as long as we raise the money through taxation here in Scotland. We must all pull together and work together to argue a case that is acceptable to not only those who will take advantage of the systems that are provided—



Meeting of the Parliament 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Alex Johnstone

I thank the minister for his answer. Five weeks ago I asked the First Minister the same question and he told me that recovery was on the horizon. Since then, oil prices have dropped by a further $25 a barrel.

The minister will be aware that the service industry is vital to the economy of Scotland, particularly in the north-east. Is there any action that the minister can take at this stage to encourage confidence in that industry in order to prevent any attempt at downsizing or relocating to other markets from the north east and to ensure that we are in a position to take up where we left off when prices eventually recover?



Meeting of the Parliament 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
8. Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what the economic impact on Scotland is of the recent fall in crude oil prices. (S4O-03828)



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Alex Johnstone

Absolutely.

Moving on, I think that through a system that has a great deal to commend it, we are doing well on ending the use of hostels to deal with homeless people and we are finding ways to give good-quality accommodation to those who require it. However, there are still loopholes and holes in the safety net that people fall through. That is why it is important that John Mason has brought the issue, which has already been aired in the press and on television, to the Scottish Parliament. If nothing else, there is an obvious requirement to get much better value for taxpayers’ money. There is also a significant requirement to improve standards. Standards have been improved across much of Scotland and Glasgow—we have heard how there are much better examples even within a few hundred yards of the Bellgrove hotel—so surely something can be done.

It is very difficult to pick our way through the regulations in this policy area. However, it is surely not beyond the wit of senior, well-paid civil servants to find a way to do something. I hope that we will find a way to protect the rights of individuals and to encourage reasonable levels of investment even from the private sector that will deliver for people who are in need of housing.

I will close by saying the same thing that John Mason said. Notwithstanding everything that I have said, surely those 140 people deserve somebody’s help. That is our job.

17:20  

Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am the only member who will speak in the debate who does not come from the area where the Bellgrove hotel exists. However, I am keen to speak for two reasons: one is that I want to take a slightly different approach to one aspect of the issue; the other is to take the opportunity to back almost everything that John Mason said.

There are two key things that we must remember. The first is that the private sector works very effectively in the provision of accommodation for a great many people. It provides private rented flats and homes and it operates effectively in the area of houses in multiple occupation, particularly in cities and towns where universities and colleges are a strong part of the local economy. The system works effectively in certain circumstances, so we have to be careful not to regulate it out of existence.

My second point relates to the people who live in the Bellgrove hotel. If they are in need of care, that is what they should have. However, they are obviously people who are outside the care system. From a legal point of view, they are private individuals and they must have the right to continue to make decisions about their lives and the way in which they conduct themselves. The circumstances in which they find themselves in the Bellgrove hotel are obviously distasteful and unsatisfactory. In the opinion of many, the conditions are inappropriate and, from the descriptions that I have heard, I agree. However, the individuals have rights and they are free to live as they see fit. It is important always to remember the rights of those individuals.



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con)

Can the minister clarify for my benefit whether the regulations will apply only to renewable heat or whether they could apply to the renewable heat element of a combined heat and power unit?



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Alex Johnstone

I would not suggest for a moment that the minister misled the committee, but it has to be said that we took evidence from users of the fund and were left with the clear impression that some of them believed that their applications had been held until the end of the 48 hours rather than being dealt with in a much quicker time.



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Alex Johnstone

Will the minister take an intervention?



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Alex Johnstone

The balance between the reduction in tax credits and the increase in tax thresholds should have delivered for the majority of householders. If there are individuals who have suffered as a result, we need to know about them, but on balance the figures that are quoted regularly are simply inaccurate.

It is important that we realise, as we move forward, that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are about to gain a great deal more power to enable them to use their resource to pay benefits and welfare. However, in the system that we are about to enter, if we want to pay more we will have to tax more. Many of the speeches from back-bench members in the debate have failed to address that prickly subject. If we choose to do something differently, we will have to explain how it will be paid for. There is a great deal that we can do differently, but we will have to find ways to pay for it.

Once again, I commit to supporting the bill at 5 o’clock.

16:31  
Vote DetailMSP VoteResult

S4M-11901.3 Neil Findlay: Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce—As an amendment to motion S4M-11901
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YesDefeated

S4M-11901.1 Mary Scanlon: Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce—As an amendment to motion S4M-11901
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11830.2 John Swinney: The Smith Commission—As an amendment to motion S4M-11830 in the name of Ru
>> Show more
NoCarried

S4M-11830 Ruth Davidson: The Smith Commission—That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the Sm
>> Show more
NoCarried

Amendment 6 moved by Dr Richard Simpson on motion S4M-11826 Maureen Watt: Food (Scotland) Bill—That
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825.3 Claire Baker: End of Year Fish Negotiations—As an amendment to motion S4M-11825 in the n
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825.2 Jamie McGrigor: End of Year Fish Negotiations—As an amendment to motion S4M-11825 in the
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825.1 Tavish Scott: End of Year Fish Negotiations—As an amendment to motion S4M-11825 in the n
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825 Richard Lochhead: End of Year Fish Negotiations—That the Parliament welcomes the successfu
>> Show more
AbstainCarried

S4M-11763.3 Margaret Burgess: Private Sector Rent Reform—As an amendment to motion S4M-11763 in the
>> Show more
NoCarried

Search for other Motions lodged by Alex Johnstone
EventIdTypeSub TypeMSP NameParty NameConstituencyRegionTitleItemTextFormattedAnswer DateAnswerStatusIdExpectedAnswerDateAnsweredByMspApprovedDateSubmissionDateMeetingDateProductionStatusIdRecordStatusIdStatus DateOnBehalfOfConsideredForMembersBusinessCrossPartySupportRegisteredInterestSupportCountSupportDateIsEventLinkCurrentMinister
Motion S4M-11849: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 09/12/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11763.1: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 02/12/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11603: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 18/11/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11494.2: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 11/11/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11295: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 24/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11023.3: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 29/09/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-10777.2: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 12/08/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-10185.1: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 02/06/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-10051.2: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 14/05/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-10003: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 08/05/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Search for other Questions asked by Alex Johnstone
EventIdTypeSub TypeMSP NameParty NameConstituencyRegionTitleItemTextFormattedAnswer DateAnswerStatusIdExpectedAnswerDateAnsweredByMspApprovedDateSubmissionDateMeetingDateProductionStatusIdRecordStatusIdStatus DateOnBehalfOfConsideredForMembersBusinessCrossPartySupportRegisteredInterestSupportCountSupportDateIsEventLinkCurrentMinister
Question S4O-03828: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 08/12/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03820: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 01/12/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03731: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 17/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4T-00839: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 17/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03707: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 10/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4F-02352: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 30/10/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03568: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 22/09/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03503: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 12/08/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03476: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 04/08/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03383: Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Date Lodged: 09/06/2014 Show Full Question >>

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