Scottish Parliament Wednesday 19 November 2008
[The Presiding Officer opened the meeting at 14:30]
The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on fuel poverty. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.
The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing (Nicola Sturgeon): Today, I reiterate the Scottish Government's continued commitment to tackling fuel poverty and to meeting the 2016 target, which is to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that no one is living in fuel poverty by 2016. I also want to respond to the recommendations of the Scottish fuel poverty forum.
Our six-point plan for the Scottish economy includes help for households that are experiencing difficulties in the current economic climate. We are determined to improve energy efficiency in homes, to do more to tackle fuel poverty and to offer better financial advice to vulnerable households.
The review of fuel poverty in Scotland that was published in May made for sobering reading. It reported that fuel poverty is on the increase despite huge investment in programmes across Scotland and improved energy efficiency in our homes. It also reported that rural communities are struggling and are not well served by existing programmes, and that key stakeholders such as Energy Action Scotland are calling for urgent reform.
I therefore re-established the Scottish fuel poverty forum last May to bring in expert stakeholder advice to get our fuel poverty policy back on track and to shape it for the future. I am sincerely grateful to the forum and its chair, the Rev Graham Blount, for all their work and for reaching their conclusions within the tight timetable that I set. I am pleased to announce today that, having carefully considered the forum's report, I have decided to take forward its key recommendation of replacing the central heating and warm deal programmes with a new comprehensive energy assistance package from next April.
The new package will present a holistic solution. It will tackle all aspects of fuel poverty—not only energy efficiency. Alongside measures to improve the home, it will include access to energy audits, energy tariff advice and advice on income maximisation. Just as tackling fuel poverty is part of our wider agenda for tackling poverty and building a Scotland where everyone can flourish, the energy assistance package will be a key part of the tackling poverty framework that I will launch next week.
The energy assistance package will improve on the existing fuel poverty programmes by reaching more people, by providing a wider range of support in one integrated package, and by beginning to tackle rural fuel poverty much more effectively than has been the case thus far. As we all know, tackling fuel poverty requires that a three-pronged approach be taken: we must improve energy efficiency; we must maximise household incomes; and we must ensure that people pay a competitive price for energy. The new energy assistance package will deliver action on all three of those requirements.
The new package will have four stages. At stage 1, all callers to a freephone number will be given advice on energy savings and a free energy audit. At stage 2, all low-income households that are at risk of fuel poverty will be offered an energy tariff check to ensure that they can take up social tariffs and use cheaper payment methods. A good quality benefits and tax credits check will also be offered as an integral part of the package at stage 2. At stage 3, through a partnership with carbon emissions reduction target providers, all households in the CERT priority group—which is all those who receive income-related benefits or who are aged over 70—will be offered free insulation measures such as cavity wall and loft insulation.
At stage 4, as recommended by the forum, enhanced energy efficiency measures, including central heating, will be provided to households that are most vulnerable to fuel poverty, and to those who live in homes with very poor energy efficiency. That will go much further than the current fuel poverty programmes by offering tailor-made solutions and by fuel poverty proofing the Scottish housing stock for the future. For the first time, the measures that are included in the package will make a real difference to rural fuel poverty.
Today, I am publishing the findings of our renewables pilot, copies of which are available at the back of the chamber. I apologise for the fact that, owing to an administrative error, copies of the report were not provided to spokespersons in advance of the statement.
In response to the report's recommendations, the package that I am announcing today will include renewables heating systems for the first time. As an alternative to expensive measures such as oil-fired central heating, the measures that will be available at stage 4 will include air-source heat pumps for homes that are off the gas grid. It will also include solutions for insulating homes that have solid walls.
The enhanced measures at stage 4 will focus on households that are most affected by fuel poverty: those who live in homes that have very poor energy efficiency that are not only expensive to heat but are likely to have a higher carbon footprint. Addressing those homes and allowing more innovative measures such as air-source heat pumps and solid-wall insulation will meet both our fuel poverty and climate change objectives.
From next April, in enabling that part of the package to happen, I will increase the maximum grant cap from the £3,500 that is allowed under the existing central heating programme to a new cap of £4,000 for most homes under the energy assistance package. I will also allow up to £6,500 for homes that cannot be sufficiently improved under the lower cap. That is an increase of £1,000 on the central heating programme upper cap of £5,500 and it will benefit many rural fuel-poor homes.
As recommended by the forum, the new energy assistance package will help more households overall and it will focus enhanced measures on the least energy efficient homes, which are lived in by the most fuel-poor households. As I signalled last month, from next April—for the first time ever—enhanced energy efficiency measures will, through a range of measures to improve energy efficiency, including central heating where appropriate, help low-income families that have children under five or disabled children under 16.
We know that rising fuel prices are a real source of worry for our older people, so pensioners who live in private sector homes that are below average energy efficiency will continue to benefit from enhanced measures—including central heating, where appropriate—if they receive the guarantee element of pension credit or are aged over 75. We have kept our promise to ensure that all people aged over 60 in private sector households that have no central heating will continue to be eligible for free central heating without condition.
The 2016 target is challenging. As the review highlighted, it is important that available resources be put to good use. I am grateful to the forum for making recommendations for an energy assistance package that will ensure value for money within existing resource levels, but I am mindful of its conclusion that more resources are needed, in the face of high fuel prices. Last month I announced that we would allocate an extra £10 million to the central heating programme in this financial year to help thousands more pensioners this winter. From next year, we will join up funding across the Government and the private sector to ensure that the energy assistance package provides a one-stop shop for householders who are worried about high fuel bills, as well as helping to meet our climate change and wider energy objectives. In the spirit of that holistic package, and to maximise value for money, resources from across Government for energy efficiency advice to households, income maximisation for individuals, fuel poverty and household renewables will be pooled in one package.
The package will operate in a seamless manner for the consumer and will provide us with the flexibility that we need to meet fuel poverty and our wider poverty, climate change and energy objectives. It will be supported by funding worth £55.8 million per annum—20 per cent more than existing fuel poverty budgets. We will also make better use of Government resources by funding only those elements that energy companies are unable to fund under CERT. As we announced in September, we are working with the six main energy supply companies, through the CERT strategy group, to ensure that Scotland gets its fair share of CERT funding. Let us be clear—a fair share for Scotland would generate around £100 million a year for energy efficiency measures. We have secured agreement with the energy companies that they will, through the energy assistance package, provide standard insulation measures, such as cavity wall and loft insulation. That will free up Government resources for the more innovative and expensive enhanced measures.
As the forum recommended, we will deliver the new energy assistance package through our energy saving Scotland advice centre network. The network's regional centres already provide advice on energy efficiency. We will build on that, to have them act as the first point of call for fuel-poor customers. The centres will provide advice, carry out energy audits and refer customers to CERT providers for standard insulation measures. In partnership with existing advice providers, they will arrange for benefits and tariff checks to be carried out and they will assess eligibility for enhanced measures, such as central heating and solid wall insulation, which will be delivered by a managing agent. To ensure a smooth transition, I have extended Scottish Gas's managing agent contract by a year, so the company will arrange for installation of the enhanced measures until March 2010. A tender exercise for the contract will be carried out beyond that date.
To meet the 2016 target, we need collaborative working. We will continue to work with a range of partners, including the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, individual local authorities, stakeholders and the voluntary sector, in order to meet our shared objective.
The fuel poverty forum's role has in my view been invaluable, and it is my intention that it will continue to operate with the Rev Graham Blount as its independent chair. Its first item of business will be to review its membership and structure, and to build links with the English fuel poverty advisory group to ensure that Scottish interests are fed into the reserved areas that impact on fuel poverty.
The Government welcomed the Prime Minister's announcement on 11 September on the enhancement of the carbon emissions reduction target and the new community energy-saving programme that is being developed. My officials are participating in that work as it proceeds. With Scotland having three times the rate of fuel poverty of England, I am keen—I am sure that we all are—for Scotland to get its fair share from the initiatives.
So far, I have addressed the central recommendation of the fuel poverty forum, but the forum also made a number of other recommendations that are worthy of further consideration. We will work with partners to explore the forum's suggestions of bulk purchasing for the fuel poor, and developing a loan scheme for people who are more able to pay for energy efficiency measures themselves.
There were a number of recommendations for the United Kingdom Government, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets and the energy companies, which I would commend to all of them. We intend to continue to press the UK Government to ensure that the most vulnerable customers benefit from mandatory social tariffs, and that those on prepayment meters are given a fair deal.
We expect Westminster to take action—as we have done—this winter. That is why the Scottish National Party's Treasury spokesman, Stewart Hosie, has written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer calling for a package of support for fuel-poor people in next week's pre-budget report. We need a VAT holiday on all household energy bills, a cut in VAT on all energy efficiency measures and a one-off additional payment of £100 to all pensioners this winter.
We also need the Treasury to relax its inflexible accounting rules so that we in Scotland can access the £120 million of Scottish fossil-fuel levy payments that are currently held by Ofgem but which are inaccessible to the Scottish Government. It is simply unacceptable in my view, and, I hope, in the view of every member of the Parliament, that in an energy-rich country such as Scotland, so many people are in fuel poverty and are worrying about their fuel bills.
The Government is determined to live up to its responsibilities to right that wrong, and we call on others to do likewise. I commend this statement to Parliament.
The Presiding Officer: The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement, for which we have about 30 minutes. I call Mary Mulligan. [Interruption.]
I beg your pardon—I was not correctly informed. I call Cathy Jamieson, to be followed by Mary Scanlon.
Cathy Jamieson (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab): I apologise, Presiding Officer. I will look into why you were not correctly informed.
I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement and for her apology for the associated documents not having reached us in advance. I am sure that our spokespeople will have the opportunity to read them and to return with comments later.
I welcome the establishment—or re-establishment—of the Scottish fuel poverty forum and the Rev Graham Blount's work on it. We want many of the measures that have been announced to be implemented and will support them, where we believe that it is the right thing to do.
I do not think that anyone would argue that advice and information and income maximisation are not important elements of any strategy, but the danger is that the warm words do not translate into warm homes. It is vital that speedy action be taken to move people through the four stages and to ensure that the most vulnerable people get the assistance that they need under the energy assistance package.
Can the cabinet secretary say how many more people she believes will benefit from the new scheme that she is putting in place? On the £10 million that has been allocated to help more pensioners this winter, how will the money be targeted quickly and effectively to ensure that pensioners who are currently on waiting lists are not left waiting until the winter is over?
I draw the cabinet secretary's attention to recommendation 28 of the forum's report. The recommendation is aimed at energy companies, but it also merits the Scottish Government's attention. With central heating schemes and so on going into homes, it is important for the Government to protect its investment. Can the cabinet secretary assure me that, rather than wait for the energy companies to do it, she will herself ensure that maintenance contracts, with some kind of insurance for new heating systems, are part of the overall package that families get?
Nicola Sturgeon: I thank Cathy Jamieson for her comments and questions, which I will deal with in order. First, I want to correct slightly what I said in my statement about the renewables pilot report: I have just been informed that it is available from the Scottish Parliament information centre, but is not yet available at the back of the chamber. I can only repeat my apology for the fact that the report has not been available so far. I will be more than happy to take any questions from spokespeople once they have had a chance to read the report; I will answer either in writing or through meetings.
I thank Cathy Jamieson for what I will take as a reasonably warm welcome for my statement—if members will pardon the pun. I was glad to hear her welcome the work of the fuel poverty forum and many of the measures that have been announced today. She is absolutely right to say that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. It is absolutely essential that, to use her phrase,
"warm words … translate into warm homes."
Getting people through the various stages of the energy assistance package, as appropriate, will be absolutely important because the key weakness of the programmes that we are replacing is that although significant amounts of money were being spent on central heating—I am not for a minute knocking the benefits that that delivered to people—fuel poverty was still increasing. The money was not being spent effectively to tackle fuel poverty, which is what we definitely want to tackle now.
Cathy Jamieson asked how many people we expect will benefit at each stage. If members read the report of the fuel poverty forum, they will see that it is anticipated that perhaps 15 per cent of the population—115,000 people—could be helped at stage 1, and that perhaps 5 per cent could be helped at stage 3. It is my intention that the enhanced measures that will be available at stage 4 will help about the same number as have benefited from the central heating programme.
Cathy Jamieson asked about the additional investment in this financial year. That process is in train. As members are aware, we installed a record number of central heating systems in the private sector last year. At this stage, we have installed more systems than was the case at the corresponding time last year. My firm intention is to ensure that we install at least the same number as we did last year. That is particularly important, given that people are struggling this winter with the effects of sky-high hikes in fuel bills.
On Cathy Jamieson's last point, I am more than happy to look at recommendation 28 in the fuel poverty forum's report from the perspective of the Government, rather than the perspective of the fuel companies.
Mary Scanlon (Highlands and Islands) (Con): I also welcome the more comprehensive energy assistance package, which replaces—or, should we say, extends—the current central heating and warm deal programmes. However, we also acknowledge that it will take some time to go through the detail.
Given that I represent the Highlands and Islands, I welcome the emphasis on tackling rural fuel poverty. I welcome, for example, air-source heat pumps for homes that are off the grid, particularly given that I understand that one in three homes is off the gas grid. We would also welcome solutions for insulating homes that have solid walls, which is a huge issue in rural areas.
My colleagues at Westminster are committed to addressing the prepayment meter charges and the issue of requiring energy companies to offer social tariffs to vulnerable households—to which the cabinet secretary referred—and advice on how to switch to the cheapest tariff. I appreciate that some of the issues are reserved, but has the Scottish Government had any meetings with energy companies here in Scotland about the prepayment meter charges and, if so, were any agreements reached?
When the cabinet secretary used the phrase "without condition", did she mean that persons aged over 60 will not have to live in a house without central heating for a year before they are eligible for the free central heating programme?
Many people in Scotland today are facing unemployment and hardship and many others simply want to reduce their carbon footprints. What is in this Government package of measures for them?
Nicola Sturgeon: I thank Mary Scanlon for her constructive response to my announcements. She raises important points about the measures that I have announced and their ability to help, for example, people who live off the gas grid.
People in rural communities will benefit greatly from the redesigned package through two aspects in particular: first, the inclusion of renewables in the package for the first time; and secondly—in order to make the first possible—the increase in the cap on the grant levels, which will make more possible some approaches to tackling fuel poverty that were previously outside the scope of the programme. Both moves are extremely positive.
Stewart Maxwell has recently met energy companies, as has John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth. We raised a range of issues in those meetings. Mary Scanlon rightly spoke about the considerable anxieties that people have about 40 or 50 per cent increases in gas and electricity prices this winter.
We have also put in place an agreement with the energy companies to work together to ensure that Scotland gets its fair share of the CERT moneys. We have established the CERT strategy group under Stewart Maxwell's convenership. It will publish its strategy shortly. That commitment is important in expanding the resources that are available in Scotland to tackle fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency.
Let me stress that, under our new system, anybody over 60 who does not have central heating will be eligible for free central heating on the same basis as under the previous system. There will be no means testing—we gave that important commitment, and we will ensure that that continues.
Mary Scanlon's final question was on what the package offers people who want to reduce their carbon footprints, live more efficiently and place less of a toll on the planet. The package offers benefits and advantages to the large number of people in that category. Stage 1 of the energy assistance package is open to everybody. During it, a free energy audit and advice on saving energy and energy efficiency are available to everybody, and I am sure that many people will take up those opportunities.
Liam McArthur (Orkney) (LD): I thank the cabinet secretary for an advance copy of her statement. I welcome the publication of the Scottish renewables heating pilot which, I know from her ministerial colleagues, has perhaps enjoyed a difficult birth.
Liberal Democrats led the debate in March on the fuel poverty forum's being re-established, so I welcome its report and recommendations, and the confirmation that the Government intends to implement its central recommendations and to keep the forum in place. Perhaps less welcome and a little more questionable was the cabinet secretary's reference to the activities of her MP colleagues in Westminster.
Does the cabinet secretary accept that the Government's cuts in the eligibility criteria for the central heating programme announced in May, followed by the benevolent reinstatement of entitlement to coincide with the SNP conference in October, created some confusion, particularly among pensioners, many of whom may have been put off applying? What has the take-up for the scheme been since May, and is she still confident that Scottish Gas has had the requisite number of applicants to meet its targets?
The cabinet secretary referred to the 20 per cent increase in the package that has been announced today. That seems to relate to the £10 million over and above the budget that was announced at the SNP conference last month. However, will she explain where the £7 million that was announced last November and earmarked to help eligible pensioners fits in with the budget?
Nicola Sturgeon: I thank Liam McArthur for a warm and constructive welcome for the measures, although I am sorry that he disagrees with the references to my MP colleague Stewart Hosie—he is brave to do so in the presence of Stewart Hosie's wife. If Liam McArthur disagrees with the suggestion to call on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to introduce a VAT holiday for pensioners this winter and to increase the winter fuel payment by £100 for all pensioners, I am more than happy to have that debate with him. I suspect that I know which side of the debate most pensioners in Scotland would be on.
The substantive part of Liam McArthur's question was on the changes to the eligibility criteria that I announced on 22 May. I do not think that they created confusion—it was the right thing to do. The changes allowed us to bring back under control a fuel poverty programme that was out of control. He should remember that a range of stakeholders who really know what they are talking about called for the reforms, which allowed us to make drastic reductions in the waiting list and, more crucially, to ensure that the money that we were spending on installing central heating was being spent on the people who were most likely to be in fuel poverty. That is the right way to proceed and to ensure that we get value for taxpayers' money.
Liam McArthur asked about the number of systems that have been installed so far this financial year. It is almost 9,000—I can provide him with the precise number—which is more than had been installed in the corresponding period in the previous financial year. As I said in response to Cathy Jamieson, our intention is to ensure that, through the additional £10 million that we have invested this financial year, we at least equal the record numbers that we achieved last year.
The £7 million that Liam McArthur asked about was allocated and spent in the previous financial year. It allowed us to install a record number of central heating systems in that financial year. The £10 million this financial year is completely separate from, and additional to, that sum.
The Presiding Officer: We come to open questions. We are fairly tight for time and I have no time available to take out of the next debate; if members are short and sharp, we will manage to get everybody in.
Alex Neil (Central Scotland) (SNP): I give a general welcome to the energy assistance package but ask the cabinet secretary to examine some of the criteria and rules in the programmes. For example, whether a central heating system is working is apparently defined by whether it heats two or more rooms. I have a case in which two bedrooms are heated but the main living area—
Alex Neil: It seems that that applies to back benchers but not front benchers, with all due respect, Presiding Officer.
Alex Neil: I ask the cabinet secretary to review the rules and criteria to make them more flexible in such cases.
Nicola Sturgeon: I thank Alex Neil for his question and his welcome for the announcement. I hope that our redesign of the system will address the point that he raised, because eligibility for the enhanced measures at stage 4 will be driven in part by the energy efficiency rating of an applicant's house rather than an assessment of their central heating system per se. If their house had a below-average energy efficiency rating—which could be caused by a central heating system not working effectively—that would make them eligible for the enhanced measures, if the other criteria were also fulfilled. I hope that, by moving away from the old definitions to new ones that are, in my view, more sensible, the point that Alex Neil raises will be addressed.
Mary Mulligan (Linlithgow) (Lab): I, too, welcome the cabinet secretary's announcement, which builds on the successful central heating and warm deal programmes. I ask her to clarify how much of the funding that she announced will be allocated to local authorities. Why are local companies such as McSence in Midlothian seriously considering laying off workers because a local authority has not yet been able to allocate funds to warm deal work that has already been surveyed? That is only one example that I have. Does she accept that that affects not only people who are at risk of fuel poverty, but jobs?
Nicola Sturgeon: I am more than happy to discuss the detail of the individual cases that Mary Mulligan raises. That might be more productive than trying to second-guess their circumstances.
The £55.8 million for the fuel poverty programmes that I mentioned in my statement is largely routed through the managing agent to pay for the installation of central heating under previous arrangements and, in the future, central heating and other enhanced measures. Therefore, I am not sure what the member's local authority point refers to, but I am more than happy to discuss it with her in more detail.
I will make a general point about the benefits of the programme that I announced, not only for people who live in fuel poverty but for the economy more generally and small businesses in particular. Not only have we announced an additional £10 million that is to be spent on installing central heating in this financial year, but we are increasing the money that is available in the next financial year by pooling budgets across Government. Through the CERT strategy group, we might access up to £100 million to install energy efficiency measures. All that work must be done by companies—mainly small companies—so the announcement is good news for the economy as well as for people who live in fuel poverty.
Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP): I welcome the statement. As the cabinet secretary knows, concern has been expressed that people who live in remote and island communities have not benefited as they should have from previous schemes to cut fuel poverty. How will the new energy assistance package redress the balance to ensure that people who live in such communities maximise the support that is available to them?
Nicola Sturgeon: I repeat that one weakness of the previous system was that it served people who live in rural communities badly relative to people who live in other parts of Scotland. Mary Scanlon touched on some reasons for that.
Two linked aspects of my statement will particularly benefit people who live in rural communities. One is the inclusion of renewable heating systems in the package for the first time. I mentioned air-source heat pumps, which have enormous potential. The second aspect is that more innovative measures will be made possible by the increase in the cap. Taken together, those elements will mean that our new programme can tackle fuel poverty in rural areas much more effectively than the programmes that it replaces.
Sarah Boyack (Edinburgh Central) (Lab): I welcome the announcement that renewable heat can be included in the central heating programme in rural areas. Given that, will the cabinet secretary encourage housing associations and local authorities to include renewables in their new build and refurbishment programmes? Housing associations are being told that Government funding does not provide for renewables.
Nicola Sturgeon: I am more than happy to look into the detail of Sarah Boyack's question and to write to her with a full answer. In general, I hope that she will take it from the tenor and the thrust of my statement that the inclusion of renewable heat systems is important not just for environmental reasons, although those are extremely important, but for the fact—which emerges strongly from the renewables pilot report—that renewable systems can play a big part in helping people to heat their homes more efficiently and more cheaply, which will tackle fuel poverty. I hope that she takes encouragement from those remarks.
Jim Hume (South of Scotland) (LD): I, too, welcome the cabinet secretary's announcement. Of course, prevention is better than cure in energy use. The SNP said in its manifesto that it would tighten building regulations on insulation in new builds, but that was not mentioned today. In an answer to a parliamentary question, Stewart Stevenson said that the Government intended
"to consult … with a view to introducing revisions",—[Official Report, Written Answers, 25 August 2008; S3W-15098.]
but intentions and views will not keep homes warm.
Jim Hume: Will anything be done to tighten building regulations on insulation in the near future?
Nicola Sturgeon: I am sure that Jim Hume is familiar with the Sullivan report, which was on building standards. We have given a commitment to consult on those important issues. As I am sure Jim Hume recognises, we need to consider serious practical and financial questions properly before determining how to proceed.
I could not agree more strongly with Jim Hume's central point that prevention is better than cure. That is why the holistic nature of the package that I have announced is important. Through a range of measures, it will help people to heat their homes as efficiently and cheaply as possible. Energy audits, tariff checks and benefit checks to ensure that people maximise their income are all incredibly important. I hope that they will prevent people from getting into fuel poverty as well as lift them out of it.
Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green): I welcome the cabinet secretary's statement and her acknowledgement that more resources are needed to deal with fuel poverty. Does she agree that taking a universal approach by providing free energy audits to all households removes an important barrier to uptake? Is she working with her colleague Mr Swinney on proposals for the current draft budget so that we can take the same universal approach to physical measures such as energy efficiency initiatives and renewable heat systems? That would be in keeping with the Government's support for my amendment that was discussed at last week's energy efficiency debate.
Nicola Sturgeon: I assure Patrick Harvie that I often speak to and work closely with Mr Swinney on these issues. I am very aware of the Greens' views on the need for universal, area-based approaches—there is much merit in that approach—and we look forward to discussing further with Patrick Harvie how we might develop those ideas.
As Patrick Harvie mentioned, there is a universal element in stage 1 of the package that I announced, which is access to free energy audits. That is important, for the reasons that I gave Mary Scanlon and for the reasons that Patrick Harvie gave. I look forward to continuing to work with members of all parties, and in particular with the Greens, to ensure that we continue to develop our policy so that we do everything that we can to achieve our shared objectives.
Sandra White (Glasgow) (SNP): I thank the cabinet secretary for her welcome announcement that families with a disabled child will receive help with central heating where appropriate, as I have a number of constituency queries about that. Will families who will be eligible be able to register their interests immediately with Scottish Gas so that, when the package comes on stream, Scottish Gas will be able to contact those families straight away?
Nicola Sturgeon: Stages 1 and 2 of the energy assistance package will be up and running very quickly because the essential infrastructure to deliver those aspects is available through the advice centre network to which I referred. The more advanced measures, especially those at stage 4, will come on stream as of April next year. It may be possible—at the risk of using another pun—to get a pipeline going before then.
I am glad that Sandra White referred to the extension of eligibility for the enhanced measures, which are to be made available to low-income families with children under five or disabled children under 16. Although all the measures that I have announced are significant, if I had to single out the most significant, I would highlight that measure because it will deliver great benefits to some of our most vulnerable families, who I am sure will welcome it as a result.
Duncan McNeil (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): I, too, welcome today's ministerial statement. I was interested to learn of the cabinet secretary's support for universal measures at UK level, despite her introduction of means tests and targeting here in Scotland. Will she confirm what savings will accrue to the Scottish Government as a result of excluding from the free central heating programme those pensioners who are not in receipt of pension credit? Finally, in these difficult times, how does she justify asking pensioners on a fixed income to pay for the investment that she announced today?
Nicola Sturgeon: Duncan McNeil should possibly have listened to his front-bench colleagues before deciding what questions he would ask. The Scottish National Party Government has not introduced means testing. In fact, the concept of means testing was introduced into the central heating programme by the previous Labour Government. We gave a commitment that everyone over 60 who does not have a central heating system would continue to be eligible for a free system without any means testing. I have reiterated that commitment today.
For the avoidance of doubt, I advise Duncan McNeil that today's announcement is not about making savings. We are not making any savings in the programme; on the contrary, we are investing more money in order to tackle fuel poverty through such programmes. We are also ensuring that the money that we spend is targeted properly to those people who are most in fuel poverty. I would have thought that someone who professed to care about social justice would welcome that approach.
Given that Duncan McNeil could not welcome our approach, it is perhaps appropriate for me to quote the director of Help the Aged in Scotland. She said:
"Help the Aged … is pleased to see the Forum's … recommendations adopted by the Scottish Government. The new … package will offer more effective help for the most vulnerable … households than the current programme".
I think that most people in Scotland will be more interested in that view than in the rather grudging position of Duncan McNeil.
Bob Doris (Glasgow) (SNP): I welcome the cabinet secretary's statement, and I regard it as a move on from previous, well-intentioned attempts to tackle fuel poverty, and a move towards attempts that are strategic and well organised, unlike the previous attempts.
I welcome the significant 20 per cent increase in funding from the Scottish Government. How are negotiations going with energy companies to achieve Scotland's fair share of £100 million per annum for CERT money?
Nicola Sturgeon: I may disagree with the Opposition—the previous Administration—in many areas, and I may question its motivation in many areas, but I do not question the motivation behind the central heating programme. I agree with Bob Doris that it was well intentioned. It delivered benefits. Unfortunately, a reduction in fuel poverty was not among those benefits. That is why many stakeholder organisations called for the programme to be reformed, and it is why we are right to deliver reform in our announcement today. I am delighted that there has been such cross-party support for it.
Discussions with the energy companies on ensuring that we receive a fair share of CERT money are on-going and are progressing well. The next meeting is in January, and the strategy of the CERT strategy group will be published shortly after. If we succeed, as I am determined that we will, the prize for Scotland will be an additional £100 million that we can spend on ensuring better energy efficiency and better success in lifting people out of fuel poverty.
Alex Neil: On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Two weeks ago, when you made a ruling about brevity, you quite rightly made no distinction between back benchers and front benchers. However, in the 30 minutes allowed for questions on this statement, the first three questioners got 14 minutes between them, with the back benchers yet again squeezed into the balance. I ask you to review the situation in the light of your own ruling, and ensure that back benchers are treated more fairly in the future than they have been to date.
The Presiding Officer: As Mr Neil well knows, it is entirely for the Presiding Officer to determine how a debate will be conducted. The front-bench questioners stuck within the time limits that were given to them. I remind the member that time is taken up by answers as well as by questions, but I will consider the point that he has raised before the next occasion on which a ministerial statement is made.
Jeremy Purvis (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD): On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek guidance on ministerial statements. I am fully aware that you are not responsible for the content of such statements, but the copy of the statement that we received earlier included the lines:
"We expect Westminster to take action this winter. That is why SNP Treasury spokesman Stewart Hosie has written to the Chancellor".
Whether that is a good or bad thing, this Parliament is not able to hold Westminster members of Parliament to account.
Are you, as Presiding Officer, able to say that the content of ministerial statements should focus on the responsibilities of the Scottish Government, rather than on the responsibilities of its parliamentary party colleagues at Westminster, whose work we cannot scrutinise?
Kenneth Gibson: On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Is it appropriate for a member who was not even here to listen to the statement to come in at the end, after the questions on the statement, and raise a point of order about the content of the statement?
The Presiding Officer: It is every bit as appropriate for that to happen as for somebody to come in halfway through the statement and ask a question on it.
Parliamentary Bureau Motions