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Chamber and committees

COVID-19 Committee

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Agenda: Subordinate Legislation, Covid-19 (Social and Economic Impact of Restrictions over Winter)


Covid-19 (Social and Economic Impact of Restrictions over Winter)

The Convener

Welcome back to the meeting of the COVID-19 Committee. Under item 3, which is on the social and economic impact of restrictions over winter, we will take evidence from a range on stakeholders on the social, cultural and economic impacts of possible restrictions on travel and social gatherings over winter, particularly over the festive period.

I welcome Dr Liz Cameron, director and chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce; Matt Crilly, president of the National Union of Students Scotland; Willie Macleod, executive director of UKHospitality Scotland; Adam Stachura, head of policy and communications at Age Scotland; and Dr Maureen Sier, director of Interfaith Scotland.

I ask each of the witnesses to give brief opening remarks and to comment on any issues that they wish to raise with the committee on the subject matter that I have just detailed.

Dr Liz Cameron OBE (Scottish Chambers of Commerce)

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the committee. There is no doubt that, from a business and economic point of view, our priority was and remains being able to trade as successfully and safely as possible. Given some of the previous remarks, it is worth mentioning that businesses have invested millions and millions of pounds in making our environments as safe and secure as is practically possible. We already have a massive amount of regulations that we follow in order to make our premises safe and secure. It is important to make that point.

There is no doubt that the words that have been used in the past 24 to 48 hours have been “desperate”, “disillusioned” and “fatigue”. People have asked where the light is that we can all move forward to in order to be able to open up our trade as practically as possible.

There is also an issue around the travel restrictions, which will have a major impact. They will not just affect our retail and hospitality industries, although they are the top ones that are suffering. There is also the issue of having our lights put on and then put off. As far as business is concerned, this is now the third round of restrictions. Many businesses will now not be able to put their lights back on after the additional lockdowns, which have had and will continue to have an impact.

Although we understand the Government’s intentions, and we absolutely support the need to look after our people—our employees, suppliers and customers—we challenge and question the reactive nature of the plans that have been put in place for business. We care desperately about our people, and we have secured very safe environments, but that does not seem to have been recognised.

We are concerned and uncertain about how the Government is measuring movements from tier to tier in different geographical areas, and about how it is weighting economic factors. We got buy-in from everyone three weeks ago about the necessity of what was happening, but we are now struggling to understand how the decisions are being driven and what data and evidence are being used to get us all back on board as quickly as possible.


Matt Crilly (National Union of Students Scotland)

Thank you for having me along today. Students have unwittingly found themselves at the heart of the Covid crisis in Scotland. We support any measures to ensure the safety of students, staff and all our communities.

I will start with the winter break. We welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement of mass testing of students. That is of central importance for student welfare, and we support it as a strategy for getting students home for their winter break. We have had a really difficult term, with many students, particularly those who stay in student accommodation, having to self-isolate for extended periods. The announcement gives some real certainty for students. We have conducted mental health research that has shown that students often rely on family and friends as support networks, so we are very grateful to hear that the Scottish Government is considering mass asymptomatic testing to try to facilitate them going home.

We need to make sure that students who remain in student accommodation are supported through the winter break. Staying there could be an isolating experience for those students, so we need to make sure that support is available to them.

I will touch on some of the restrictions more broadly. Students often struggle with their mental health. Research that we conducted immediately prior to the pandemic showed that nearly half of students struggled with their mental health because of a lack of money or financial pressures. Although the increase in restrictions on the hospitality industry and the retail sector is completely understandable for health and safety reasons, and we support that, we need to ensure that students are supported while those restrictions are in place. Students often find themselves employed in those sectors. It is often the more precarious work in our society, so if bars, restaurants and cafes are closed, students lose access to the tips and things that they often rely on to get by.

We welcome the moves by the Scottish Government on the mass asymptomatic testing of the student body. We would welcome a wider look at mental health and the financial position that students find themselves in.

Lastly, we are not entirely sure what things will look like in January, but if there is a return to campus, we really want to avoid outbreaks like those we saw in the late summer and early autumn, particularly in student accommodation. We think that learning should be online as a default, and we should be looking at whether practical courses can be delivered in person. Students need a bit of clarity. We need the public health officials to look at that, so that we avoid repeating what happened in the late summer.

Willie Macleod (UKHospitality)

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the committee.

From a business and a hospitality industry perspective, I endorse much of what Liz Cameron and Matt Crilly have already said about hospitality. The main issues that I want to mention up front are covered by the overview that Covid has clearly had a huge impact on businesses’ turnover, profits and viability. They have little or no cash flow. They have unbalanced their balance sheets by incurring additional borrowing, and they have coped with constant change, often at short notice. Dr Cameron mentioned the investment in safety and personal protective equipment, which probably amounts to between £80 million and £90 million for our industry in Scotland. There has also been an impact on our staff through loss of jobs and income; Matt Crilly touched on that point.

Our chief executive gave evidence yesterday to Westminster’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and said that, based on Office of National Statistics data and our own surveys, we think that 600,000 jobs have been lost or remain at risk in hospitality—which would translate to about 50,000 jobs in Scotland. Earlier this year, I estimated that as many as 70,000 to 100,000 jobs in hospitality could be at risk in Scotland; to put that in context, the wider hospitality industry employs 285,000 people.

I will also touch on the impact on our customers, who have been denied normal social activity and life events through travel restrictions and restrictions on leisure day trips with their families and their ability to take holidays. There has been an impact on local and business customers. Last week, we saw impacts on people’s ability to celebrate Diwali and we are looking forward to the festive period with considerable uncertainty.

If there is an opportunity later, I can perhaps say more about the impact on business. Nonetheless, I note that we will publish a survey later today that shows that businesses think that they will trade at about 72 per cent of last year’s level at level 0 in Scotland, which declines to 13 per cent of last year’s level at level 4. There is therefore significant impact on viability and profit under the current five levels in Scotland.

Looking ahead, the industry needs on-going sector-specific support. We do not think that we will see much recovery in 2021; we think that it will begin in 2022. We need to look at the adequacy of support to meet the fixed costs of closure and not only the fixed costs when businesses are closed; there is a cost associated with actually closing down and reopening a business, which is significant. The principle issues in relation to which we need help to get us through this are an extension of the business rates holiday, an extension of the reduction in VAT—which is of course a reserved matter—and the ability of tenants in rented property to be protected from repossessions.

The hospitality and tourism industry is innovative and resilient. Given the opportunity to trade at normal levels, our industry will recover quickly. We will begin to employ people, we will kickstart our extensive supply chain, and we will quickly contribute to public sector revenues through the taxes that we collect. I will finish there; I thank the committee for the opportunity to give that summary.

Adam Stachura (Age Scotland)

I thank the committee for the invitation to join the evidence session. I will be brief, as I think that we put a fair bit in our written submission, although that was also brief. There is no doubt that, although Covid has had a massive impact on all our lives, it has been particularly devastating for older people in Scotland, considering the high death rate among people over the age of 75. Three quarters of deaths have been in that age group and about half of all deaths have been in care homes.

Winter will be a really difficult time for older people. We anticipated back in the summer the necessity of looking forward and having an action plan for winter in order to support older people through it. One of our principal concerns is the astronomical level of loneliness and isolation that has been prevalent throughout this year, and which will only increase through the winter months with shorter days, poorer weather and all the restrictions that are in place. The Scottish Government and health officials must tread a fine line between protecting lives and public health on one side and the quality of life on the other. That is important.

Regarding loneliness and isolation, although not all pensioners will fall into that category, 350,000 pensioners in Scotland live alone. Our research showed that over 100,000 older people ate their Christmas lunch alone last year. We expect that figure to increase exponentially. That is equivalent to one older person in every street. Before the crisis, 200,000 older people could go for at least half a week without seeing or hearing from anyone. We know that has gone up.

We would like to see all older people having the support that they require to get through the next few months. That could include support with access to medical treatment, which could be challenging to get to depending on which level their local authority is in. Access could also be challenging if they are shielding. The service for people who are shielding has essentially stopped, but there are people who feel that they need to stay in that category. It is important that the services and support that were put in place in response to the first lockdown can be quickly turned back on so that folk can have a good quality of life.

Dr Maureen Sier (Interfaith Scotland)

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the committee.

Everything that has been said also applies to faith communities. Members of those communities are not very different to other members of society and are involved all sorts of things, from running businesses to being elderly.

There is a sense of community at the heart of faith. It has been difficult for faith communities to give up getting together: going in large numbers to the mosque on Friday, or to the community hub that is the gurdwara, or to the synagogue or church. There is a sense of what it means to be a faith community. People get support from being together and that has been taken away.

Faith communities offer rites of passage, such as marriages and funerals. Humanists also do marriages and funerals. That can be complicated. Families have expectations that cannot be met because of the pandemic. That is a burden for faith communities, although they have been resilient.

There has been good dialogue between the Scottish Government and the faith communities about safely reopening places of worship and ensuring that there can be limited engagement with community gatherings and places of worship so that people can come together. That guidance has been helpful for faith communities.

The impact on the elderly has already been mentioned. Many faith communities have an elderly population, which has been mentioned in some of their written submissions. Those people may not be connected online, which exacerbates their loneliness and isolation. A wide range of faith communities are involved with Interfaith Scotland. They have moved almost everything online and have done so creatively and dynamically, but there are still people who are unable to connect online. They miss that community connection, which impacts on their mental health.

Everything that has been mentioned already also has an impact on faith communities.

Festivals such as Guru Nanak’s birthday, Hanukkah and Christmas are coming soon. Christmas is a festival for the Christian community, but there are also cultural implications to how that is handled. The current lockdown and the system of levels are there in order to perhaps free people up and allow them to come together for that religious and cultural festival. The faith communities have been supportive of all that the Scottish Government is doing to keep people safe and looked after.

I want to touch very briefly on funds. Some of the minority faith communities pay for their priest through donations. At the Hindu temple, for example, weekly donations pay the wage of the priest. That has been removed, because they cannot have large numbers of people at temples, so there is some financial struggle in the faith communities.


The small grant funds that the Scottish Government has made available to ensure that there is PPE, cleaning of places of worship and ability for faith communities to come together—albeit in small numbers—have been much appreciated.

It is very hard to imagine how things are going to change. There is continuing support for faith communities, which is much appreciated. Taking care of the lonely and vulnerable and collaborating with the faith communities when guidance is being prepared that the communities will have to implement has been really effective and appreciated.

Everything that impacts on all the other sectors of society, also impacts on the faith community.

The Convener

Thank you all for those useful and illuminating comments.

I will now bring in members of the committee. If witnesses want to come in, the best way to do that is to type R in the BlueJeans chat box. We will try to hear from as many people as possible but, obviously, we are time limited. Therefore, we will try to fit everyone in if we can.

If members want to direct a question to a specific witness, they should please do so when they ask the question.

The first question is from the deputy convener, Monica Lennon.

Monica Lennon

I thank the witnesses for their helpful opening remarks. There are a lot of questions and not a lot of time, so I will try to pick out a few questions and return later if there is time in hand.

I will start with the economic and business support side. It has been good to hear from Dr Cameron and Mr Macleod. Given that a lot of areas of Scotland are now under level 4 restrictions and we know that businesses rely on the run-up to Christmas and the holiday season, are there estimates of what the losses will be to the retail and hospitality sectors, which will be hit the hardest as a result of level 4 restrictions? What will be the impact on jobs?

I was struck by what Dr Cameron said about the challenges with the reactive nature of some of the plans. Others, including Dr Sier, have said that there has been good dialogue and consultation with Government. Is that still not happening well enough between the business community and Government?

Dr Cameron

In answer to the question about estimates, we have recently carried out a survey among our members—it is on-going—in which we asked about the strategic framework and the various levels. We asked about the financial support in particular, and more than 68 per cent of survey respondents said that the financial support was not appropriate. It does not even scratch the surface for a number of businesses that are now entering their second or third lockdown. The financial support is absolutely not sufficient.

Furlough has been hailed as the panacea for everything. It has absolutely stopped or delayed the job losses that we expected to hit in November or at the beginning of December, and its extension has been helpful. However, we have to understand that the scheme makes up a low percentage of the basic costs of opening the doors and running a business and that rent, rates, hiring equipment, loan repayments and employer’s national insurance all add up. The business support sounds good, with the one-liner of £30 million being announced yesterday, but businesses this morning and late last night still did not know how to apply, and that pattern has been repeated with many lockdowns. Local authorities did not even know what guidance they should be following, except that it is discretionary. The funding might not hit businesses for another few weeks, but businesses cannot wait that long.

There is a pattern. We have fed that back and there have been lots of opportunities to learn—for example, from the initial closedown of Aberdeen. The learning is that, when policy announcements are made, we must be certain that the process is ready immediately after that, because expectations are being created in the business community and, as I said, it is already desperate. How long will we have to wait to understand whether we can apply? We know that local authorities, irrespective of which level they are in, will need to know what support will apply.

The situation in relation to businesses in the tourism sector is interesting because, as Willie Macleod will confirm, a high volume of their customers come from other parts of Scotland—in some cases it is as high as 90 per cent. There are businesses in the Borders that are sandwiched between different levels, many of whom have decided this morning that they are closing, even though they are not in a level where that restriction applies. They are being forced to close and have the horrendous situation of employees potentially being out of a job, with everything that that means.

Mental health and wellbeing are an issue. It is not just about business; it is about the business community, and employees rely on us being able to keep our doors open. There needs to be, and there should have been, an awful lot more forward planning. Governments have been looking at the issue for nine months, although I am talking only about Scotland for the moment. There needs to be a bit more forward planning, because the Government has the intelligence, the data and the information, so we struggle to understand why we are getting only three days’ notice of a change in restrictions. We are struggling to understand why areas that are moving down to level 2 from level 3 will not move for another week—why is that?

On business engagement, since the outset of this horrendous pandemic that we all face as human beings, we and other business organisations have thrown everything that we have at working in partnership with the Scottish Government. We have influenced it in a number of areas and we have given our guidance when that was required. We will continue to do that, because we are all in this together. However, can that engagement be improved? Absolutely, and we are about to commence a discussion with the Scottish Government and its officials on how we can map out a future flow of quality engagement.

That does not mean simply consultation, because we need to go up a level. You can consult and just tick a box, although I am not saying that that is happening. We have to redesign the engagement and partnership between parliamentarians, whoever is leading the Government at a particular time and business, because we will not survive this situation if we do not focus on that and on improving and investing in testing in Scotland. We want as many business premises as possible to be able to initiate testing. That is where the investment needs to go and that should be the priority.

The restrictions that were placed on us last time round did not work, so I am not yet convinced that closing down businesses constantly is the answer. It is clear that the pinch points in the spread of the virus are home environments. Unfortunately, none of us has the real levers to close down homes. We need to redesign how we develop our future plans and our exit strategy.

That is helpful.

Willie Macleod

I feel that I need to put an absolute figure on each of the five levels in Scotland. I will preface what I am about to say by saying that I am speaking about the situation in which the hospitality industry finds itself in Scotland, but the situation is no different in any of the other component parts of the UK. Much of what I am saying is being said by my colleagues in Westminster, Cardiff and Belfast. This is very much a UK-wide issue. We need to look at the recovery of hospitality and tourism at a UK-wide level.

I am not sure who stole whose script this morning, but I endorse everything that Liz Cameron has said. We got the results of our survey last night, and we can look at the response across the hospitality sector in Scotland as a whole. At level 4, 75 per cent of the businesses that responded to the survey said that they would no longer be viable. To me, that suggests that they are at the point of closure. Nineteen per cent of businesses reported that they would operate at a loss, only 3 per cent thought that they would break even and only 3 per cent thought that they would return a profit.

There is clearly less of an impact at the other four levels, with level 0 representing a much more positive outlook, but there is no doubt that hospitality businesses are in deep trouble. A number of business types have not been able to reopen since the first lockdown. Those businesses, which include music venues, meeting and conference centres and nightclubs, are in deep trouble.

Every pound that the Government—whether it is the Government at Holyrood or the one at Westminster—allocates to our industry is welcome, but the sad fact is that, even with support through 100 per cent relief on business rates and the reduction in VAT, we are still in trouble. Our revenues are not growing and our cash flow is in a dire strait.

On the grants that are currently available, again, I endorse what Liz Cameron said about the need for a lot more detail about the financial support. We are looking at somewhere between £1,500 and £4,000 of grant support per four weeks for businesses that are closed. We also have to think about businesses that are in effect closed because the regulations have such an impact on their ability to trade and are tantamount to closing them down. In other words, the business model is severely constrained because of the restrictions.

We can compare the grants that are available with the fixed costs of closure. The average hotel in Scotland incurs £62,000 in fixed costs when it is closed. The average medium-sized pub incurs between £6,000 and £10,000 a month in fixed costs when it is closed. There are also costs related to closing down—stock needs to be written off, for example—and there are costs when businesses reopen. We need financial support that matches the costs that are being suffered by such businesses, because otherwise they will not survive and we will not have an industry to deal with the recovery when it comes.


The furlough scheme helps, and we very much welcome its extension until the end of March. That will give us some breathing space, and we might need that to continue. However, it is important to realise that, although furlough rightly provides an underpinning of the income of individuals who are affected by the pressures on our businesses, it does not actually put money into their cash registers. Businesses still have to meet their share of employment costs and bear the costs of closure. We must consider how we will support businesses adequately as we move forward.

Both the Westminster and Holyrood Governments have engaged well with the industry. However, there is a question about how we should define engagement and consultation. Although there has been a lot of dialogue on guidance, I am not sure that we have had meaningful consultation to the extent of allowing the business community to contribute to setting the regulations or the pace at which they are introduced. However, we believe that, through proper consultation, we could make a contribution to the decisions that Governments reach. We could help to get those right first time, and we might be able to iron out unintended consequences, examples of which have been most evident in areas such as licensing law.

Monica Lennon

Those first answers were long, but they have been useful.

I turn to our remaining witnesses. We have heard a lot about the impacts of business closures, such as what they could mean for job losses. Those all add to the uncertainty and the poor mental health that we have heard others talk about. I ask Matt Crilly, Adam Stachura and Maureen Sier to respond briefly on those aspects.

There has been a lot of hype around and focus on the festival of Christmas. Irrespective of whether people are of the Christian faith, Christmas matters to many of them, because it is all about togetherness. There is a lot of pressure on people to have a normal Christmas, and to be happy, joyful and grateful for whatever time they might get to spend together. However, at the same time, we hear that there will be a lot of economic pain and uncertainty about jobs. We know that, in the hospitality sector, that will affect many younger workers. However, we have a lot of age discrimination in this country, so older workers will also be worried.

In a nutshell, could each of you name one thing that the Government could do to help in that respect? Is there more of a role for our third sector, which is close to communities, and for our faith communities to support people who might be struggling with mental health issues, loneliness and isolation?

Matt Crilly

A crucial step that the Government could take to help students through the current restrictions is to invest more in discretionary funding. The areas of the economy that have been hit hardest by the restrictions are the ones where students work. Scottish Government research that was published on 30 October noted that our education institutions reported significant financial hardship in students who have lost employment opportunities or whose families’ income has declined. Most students are not eligible for universal credit so, if their income is hit, it is really hit and they will struggle. We need more investment in discretionary funding so that universities and colleges can support such students.

As for what the third sector could do, we have also been calling for investment in student associations, universities and colleges to help students to get through the winter period in particular. At this time of year, students have exams and their final assessments are due. For those who are currently on campus, lockdown will be difficult. Even at the best of times, things are difficult for students when they are in the middle of exams; they will be a lot harder if they cannot take a break from that intensity.

We would like investment in student associations, universities and colleges to help students, particularly those who will stay in their accommodation over the winter months. We have care-experienced students, estranged students and international students for whom their halls are their home. They are not going home for Christmas or for the winter break. People are really vulnerable at that time, so we need to ensure that there is investment so that they get wellbeing support, access to food and drink if they have to self-isolate and so on.

Monica Lennon

That is an important point. I am getting in trouble now for taking too long, so I will ask Adam Stachura and Maureen Sier to be really brief. I am sorry to race through this, because your points are really important.

Adam Stachura

The point about older workers is important. Obviously, the group that is most impacted economically is younger workers, but the second most affected group is older workers. We have an ageing population and a rising retirement age. We have people who do not have enough in their retirement savings and who will have real difficulties in future. Furlough has been hugely important, because it has allowed people who are working to delay being laid off, but it also gives them hope that they can continue in employment. There are big challenges in that regard. We cannot forget about that group, because older workers are not having it easy by any stretch of the imagination.

Over the festive period or the month of December, the Government should consider the big challenge for community groups that normally help to tackle isolation and ensure that people have access to food to tackle malnourishment and so on. Those groups are closed—the doors are closed—because they cannot operate. They are largely run by voluntary organisations that do not have the right kind of support to operate, and they also might not have the guidance that they need to keep the doors open. Those places are going to struggle throughout the Christmas period to support people across the country. We need a package of support—not just financial but in-person support—to enable community groups and organisations to operate for all the people who will be isolated and lonely and having a difficult time.

Maureen Sier

I will take a slightly different approach and say that I encourage the Scottish Government to see the faith communities of Scotland as an incredible resource. They have already demonstrated how committed they are to supporting the lonely, the vulnerable and the isolated, and how able they are to do so through all kinds of measures such as food banks and food deliveries. They know their communities. Although only just over 50 per cent of the Scottish population is affiliated in some way with a faith community, that is a lot of people, and there are lots of volunteers in faith communities. There are structures, buildings and religious leaders who are listened to, so the messaging gets out to the communities and, in that way, we are reaching at least 50 per cent of the population. The messaging will be really important, particularly around the Christmas festival, but around all festivals. Hanukkah and the birthday of Guru Nanak are coming up, as well as other festivals.

Faith communities are built on things such as inspiration. How will we inspire people to see that the festive period can still be festive, but in a very different way from what we are used to? There will be massive disappointment and challenges. I was touched by the figure that Adam Stachura gave of 100,000 elderly people eating Christmas dinner on their own. The Covid pandemic has shown us that people are prepared to reach out to their neighbours. They are prepared to open their metaphorical doors—they cannot open their literal doors—to phone someone who is lonely and isolated, for example. Faith communities have done that. They have set up communication networks to ensure that everyone on their books who lives alone gets a call or is supported to know how to engage with technology.

We should see the faith communities as a resource. Like everybody else, they might be vulnerable, struggling, disappointed or short of money, but they are also an incredible resource. We need to get the messaging right and make sure that the faith communities are getting that messaging out to their respective and diverse communities.

A tiny final point is that we should not take our eye off the ball on issues such as hate crime. While all that we are talking about is going on, hate crimes are still being committed against those who are perceived as other or different.

The Convener

Thank you. We have about an hour left, and six members of the committee have still to ask questions, so I ask witnesses to give slightly briefer answers. I remind everyone that we have submissions from all the organisations on the panel. The focus of the session is on winter and the festive period, rather than the general effects of Covid, although I know that it is sometimes hard to untangle all that. The answers have been useful and incredibly helpful, but it would be good if we could focus them.

With that rap on the knuckles, I turn to Stuart McMillan.

Stuart McMillan

My question is for Dr Cameron and Willie Macleod. In the submission from UKHospitality, Mr Macleod touched on extension of the current restrictions, and welcomed the fact that they will be reviewed each week. Dr Cameron’s submission highlights that

“support interventions must be directed by real-time data and business intelligence”.

Do the witnesses consider weekly review, which is based on the most up-to-date data, to be the correct approach? I am aware that the current one is the most important quarter for the retail and hospitality trades. Do the witnesses want a different mechanism, going forward? I put the question first to Dr Cameron.

Dr Cameron

I was hoping that you would not ask me to go first, Stuart, but thank you.

Yes—weekly review is appropriate and review should remain at that frequency. However, we hope that if, leading into the Christmas period, we see quick decreases in spread and the right trajectory is achieved, we could consider more reviews per week. I do not think that that will be possible, because of the data that the Scottish Government is working to. Experts tell us that they are, in some cases, a week behind so, at times, we are two weeks behind the ball. I do not have knowledge to enable me to say that it could be done quicker, so I will stick with weekly reviews.

On real-time data, in normal sources of information our economic data always lags behind, but the Government has the opportunity to have daily calls with the business community. Witnesses here today represent many different business organisations, but in this situation and leading into the festive period, we all have the same view of the impact. Therefore, it would be helpful if we could sit down more regularly with key ministers and the people who make the decisions.

Willie Macleod

I am mindful of the need for brevity—much chastised, am I. The winter period is—[Inaudible.]—our businesses and our customers.

The importance of the weekly review—particularly for businesses in level 4 areas—is that businesses can see the direction of travel, provided that the data that the Government is using is up to date. We have been told that the current levels will apply until 11 December. A business in a level 4 area will want to know the direction of travel—are they likely to stay in level 4, or might they move out of it? That applies right down through the levels, because there is also a risk for businesses in areas that might move up a level. Regular weekly information would be useful. The winter period is crucial to businesses’ turnover and profitability, and many will not experience that this year.


Stuart McMillan

As Willie Macleod knows, I convene the cross-party group on tourism. At our meetings in the past, we have discussed many aspects of hospitality, and we will continue to do so.

Some written submissions touched on the travel ban. There are areas that have higher numbers of Covid cases than neighbouring authorities, which are in lower tiers. Do witnesses—in particular, Willie Macleod and Dr Cameron—think that travel restrictions are the correct thing to do in order to protect areas that have lower Covid levels?

Willie Macleod

I fully understand and appreciate the reason for travel restrictions and the reports that they could well be enforced legally. There is no doubt that the travel restrictions are placing a significant additional burden on businesses that would otherwise want to be open at this time of year. The restrictions have resulted in cancellations, and have put pressure on hospitality businesses to decide whether to accept reservations from particular groups or families. A lot of responsibility should be placed on private individuals to respect the restrictions that are placed on them; I do not think that businesses can monitor that.

Dr Cameron

We would have liked the travel restrictions to remain as guidance, with encouragement of compliant behaviour, rather than the legislative approach, which I understand has just been approved. We do not agree with that.

Some evidence quite clearly shows which events cause growth in the number of cases of the virus in geographical areas where it is increasing. It shows the cause and it shows what percentage of growth comes from which events and where. We are not fully convinced that individuals travelling is the cause of a high percentage of cases of the virus being transmitted.

Stuart McMillan

I will make a final point before I move on, convener. Dr Cameron’s point about events is a valid one. In recent weeks, there have been some major sporting events, as well as bonfire night events but—and I am talking about my constituency, here—they have not permeated into the figures. There might end up being a pattern that ties in with sporting events being shown on television.

In addition, every week people go to supermarkets to purchase food. One of the reasons why I posed the question in the earlier evidence session, especially in relation to larger supermarkets, is concerns that have been raised with me by a staff member in a supermarket.

Mark Ruskell

Mark Crilly mentioned in his opening statement a move to online learning or blended learning, as the default. I am aware of concerns that in August some institutions, including the University of St Andrews, decided that face-to-face teaching would be the default.

How have the universities and colleges moved on from that, in the past few months? Is there certainty for students about what they will come back to in January? I am thinking about the fact that, under the Covid regulations, students have the right to cancel their leases within 28 days. Right now many of them might be asking, “Actually, will I be going back to halls in January? What if it’s all going to be all online learning? Why don’t I just do it from home?”

Matt Crilly

My worry at the moment is that we have not learned the lessons from September and October, so I do not think that students have certainty about what teaching will look like in January. In fact, it seems that for some institutions, especially the universities, there is a financial imperative to have students arrive, because they could otherwise suffer the loss of international tuition fees income and rental income from students. Some institutions are still promising a blended-learning approach, in which students will be expected to have some in-person delivery and some online delivery. We are also worried about that.

You are right that students will be considering now what they want to do after their winter break, including whether they want to go back permanently. However, to make an informed decision about that, they need to know what January will look like; I think that students do not have that certainty, at the moment.

It is really hard for us to plan. We do not know what the pandemic will look like, and we do not know how the virus will spread, but students would really value some medium-term certainty about what their learning will look like. I think that things that can easily be done online should be done online, in order to try to mitigate some transmission.

Are there particular institutions that are hedging their bets and not telling students whether teaching will all be online? Can you, at least, point to universities that are giving students clarity?

Matt Crilly

I am not sure that I want to land individual institutions in it, at the moment. The problem is not necessarily that one institution is doing one thing and another is doing something else; it is very much a sectoral issue.

It seems that we are all in one basket; again, there is talk of blended learning coming in in January. Some institutions are promising that, but I think that students will ask with some degree of scepticism whether it will be possible. Given where the virus is now, I do not know that it will be significantly safer for us to be on campus for in-person delivery come January, at the peak of winter.

Does that mean that clearer guidance is needed from Government?

Matt Crilly

Definitely—we think that there should be strengthening of the guidance. Actually, the new level 4 guidance states that everything that can be done online should be done online, and that only the most essential practical and placement-based learning should take place in person. We think that that is a sensible approach, given that we are in a pandemic.

Mark Ruskell

Thanks for that.

I turn to our business representatives. From the written submissions, we see that it is obviously hoped that we will have an economic recovery. One submission talked about the potential for a K-shaped recovery, in which there will be substantial winners in sectors that are able to adapt and grow, but in which other sectors will really struggle.

I point to larger corporations, such as Tesco. In the first half of this year, between March and August, Tesco’s profits went up by nearly 30 per cent. Amazon’s profits went up 35 per cent last year; I suspect that they will be a lot higher this year. That is before we even get to the golden quarter for retail sales.

Do the business representatives see growing inequality between the large corporates and the small business sector? If so, what should we be doing about it? Should we be attempting to introduce a windfall tax or a business rates levy on the larger organisations that are, in a way, being incentivised by the current lockdown arrangements because they are selling essential goods and are also able to sell other goods to consumers? I will direct that question at Liz Cameron, to start with.

Dr Cameron

As we all know, different models of doing businesses are being driven by our behaviours. Food and drink sales went up dramatically—they have gone up dramatically over the past 10 days of lockdown, as well. We are not going out and there are restrictions around alcohol in restaurants, so people are buying more alcohol; apparently sales of a particular drink—I was about to say it—have gone up dramatically in the past week. That, in itself, is storing up major problems for us post-Covid—although that is not the remit of the committee.

The ways in which we shop, engage and interact, and how we live and work are driving all the increases and consumer behaviour, and that will continue. Some businesses have increased substantially in the past nine months; information technology, for example, is a sector that has increased, because of our hybrid working models.

As to Mark Ruskell’s question about what we do about that, do we leave it to market forces and the free economy that we are in? As the committee has probably gathered, my inclination would be to do that.

However, here is my “but”: having said that, I note that small businesses in particular are really struggling, and have been for some time. Many people have already lost not only their jobs and businesses, but the focus of their livelihoods. We need to look at how we can support entrepreneurs to start new businesses. Regardless of whether they are sole traders, in my book entrepreneurs are key.

The big corporates—retailers such as the one that Mr Ruskell mentioned, in particular—have increased their turnover, but they have also changed and have invested in changing their business models. With that, new supply chains have been created.

We therefore need to have a round-table discussion about what the new economy in Scotland will look like in quarter 1 and quarter 2, and about how we can support diversification and the creation of new opportunities for individuals and businesses that have employees whose sector has slumped and cannot, to be frank, be restarted. That discussion could include where funding comes from, although I do not want to go into that right now.

That is what we should focus on and plan for now, to be ready to help to restart our businesses and to give people hope that we can do that. They may not be in the same businesses as they were in before, but it is about giving people hope that they can work with Government and Government officials. We need to look at where business support is focused, the level of investment in it, and whether it is working or we have to revisit where it is being made.

Mark Ruskell

Governments are always going to have limits on how much they can invest in small businesses to support that economic recovery. Would you not want even a small amount of Tesco’s £551 million profit from the first six months of this year being spent on small high street retailers?

Dr Cameron

If someone were sitting here representing Tesco, they could say, first, that they have shareholders and, secondly, that they pay their corporation tax to the Government.

That said, there could be an opportunity to have a conversation with Scotland plc to ask what we can now do together that will help to restart the economy, although it might be a short-term lift. We have, for example, the youth guarantee and the kick-start schemes. Many businesses are already supporting those Government initiatives, but not by creating jobs that would not exist otherwise; we were already doing that, because, in our hearts and minds, we believe in our communities. There are different ways in which Scotland plc is supporting others and communities, and there could be an opportunity to have that conversation.


Willie Coffey

Matt Crilly, at the beginning, you told us a bit about some mental health research that had been carried out or is perhaps being carried out—I am not sure. Particularly in the run-up to Christmas and new year, which is an important time for everybody, not least all our students, are there any key messages emerging from that that you can share with the committee? What might we be able to do to help?

Matt Crilly

That was research that we commissioned and conducted just prior to the pandemic and which released around three weeks ago. There are some lessons from that, because it points to some of the crunch points for poor mental health among students. Seventy-two per cent of students said that their first year of study was a time when they had concerns about their mental health and wellbeing. What does that mean for us just now? In student accommodation, where we have seen the virus outbreaks, it is predominantly first-year students, who might be 17 or 18 years old. Nearly three quarters of students said that their first year was the time when they struggled with their mental health. That is a big worry going into the winter break for those students in student accommodation.

Around half of students were struggling to cope with workload. Again, more than half had to wait for access to the support that they needed. Students struggle in winter because that is when their assignments are due. Fifty-nine percent of students said that they turn to their friends for informal mental health support, and 54 per cent of students said that they turn to their family for informal support to get through times with poor mental health.

The move that we are seeing from Scottish Government to try to safely get students home for the winter break, if that is what they want, is positive. The testing that is being done to allow that is very welcome. We ask for funding to support those students who remain in student accommodation and in private flats around campus to ensure that they have access to enhanced mental health and wellbeing support and some sort of social interaction. In normal years, student associations put on events such as Christmas dinners for the students who are left isolated in their accommodation. That will be harder this year, of course, but there are lots of supportive things that we can do.

Willie Coffey

That is very good.

Liz Cameron, we are coming up to the Christmas and new year period and we are in the second wave of the virus. As a constituency MSP, I was inundated with inquiries from small businesses across Kilmarnock and the Irvine Valley, many of whom said that they did not qualify for any assistance or support as part of the official Government schemes. Has Scottish Chambers of Commerce been able to assess the impact of that? Are we in a better position now, as many parts of Scotland move to level 4, to help those businesses that might have fallen through the gaps between schemes in the first place, so that that does not happen again this time?

Dr Cameron

We have improved. When we entered this situation, big announcements were put out, but I do not think that we fully understood the assets that we have and how fragile some of our businesses are. We have learned from that experience.

However, there have been gaps. In particular, sole traders and businesses such as tourism companies, food suppliers or events consultants who are on their own—of whom there are hundreds or thousands—all fell through such gaps. We lobbied the UK Government about that where it was appropriate, and we also highlighted cases to and lobbied the Scottish Government. In the past couple of weeks, we have had some movement, in that we have managed to get such individuals incorporated into the criteria for certain grants, but there are still gaps.

If we look at the discretionary funding that has been announced, let us be clear about where that will go. Sectors involving one or two-person businesses—for example, small retail or tourism organisations—that are on our high streets and might be family businesses have not had access to any funding whatsoever. For small businesses that look after playgroups and play centres, there is movement in the right direction, but for the past eight months they have had nothing.

I know that the committee is in a rush, but I would like to read from an email that was sent to me by the operator of a hospitality business in the Highlands. He said that his business is now in quite an eerie position, with

“nothing to apply for, no forms to fill in and no battles left to fight. It’s like a sudden fall over the cliff. We all hear what is happening and [are] on the receiving end of the new laws and restrictions, but the focus is on those who are actually in the restricted areas”.

His question is, what about those who are not, as well as being in level 4? We have two or three other such examples, which we are pulling together to present to the Scottish Government.

Therefore there have been gaps, and there are still. For example, it has been announced that taxi drivers, who are a massive group, are now included in the support criteria. However, the playgroup area employs nearly 5,000 people across Scotland. Such remaining gaps need to be filled quickly. We have been saying that for a long time, during which we have already lost a lot of businesses. When I hear people say that they are working at pace, I am not quite sure what that pace is. Businesses need money now—not in two weeks’ time, because they cannot survive if they have to wait until then. As we head into the festive period, we are now at the point when some businesses’ hope of a last possibility for them to bring money in has been taken away from them because of the restrictions. We need a reality check on that situation, to see what we can do.

Thanks very much for highlighting that, Liz.

Matt Crilly

One of the gaps in the hospitality sector support that the Scottish Government has introduced relates to student associations. I am sure that committee members who have been students will have many fond memories of student union bars. Student unions are charities, so they are excluded from accessing the hospitality sector support. We have heard indirectly that they are suffering financially from not having their traditional levels of bar income, but they are not necessarily eligible to apply for the available support.

Dr Cameron, is Scotland’s warehouse and delivery network infrastructure coping with the shift to online buying for the festive season?

Dr Cameron

It is coping right now, but gaps are appearing, especially after yesterday’s announcement. There could be opportunities in that area if we could get more businesses to diversify. For example, we have an army of taxi drivers. We should be using that resource to fill those gaps. The period leading up to Christmas has always provided a business opportunity, and that area is very much growing. More businesses are putting their stuff online, and we would like to see more small businesses involved in that regard.

On warehousing, we could be putting quite a lot of products in offices that are not being used right now. Businesses that are involved in warehousing and delivery are struggling, but they will get through it, because they are considering other ways to take people on in the short term. They always recruited employees in the short term leading up to the Christmas season, and that has now increased substantially.

Some retailers that are not able to open up are already exploring the possibility of increasing their click-and-collect services, which will give them some ray of hope for increasing that opportunity. Click and collect has an additional role that will be played in the run-up to the festive season.

Maurice Corry

This season and the situation that we are in can be viewed as an opportunity for entrepreneurial members of your organisation.

I come from a business background, and I would say that your ideas are extremely good, Dr Cameron. Have you put them to your members?

Dr Cameron

That is an interesting question. I have not put that idea to our members in the way that I have just presented it to you. Businesses are already making that move themselves. We are quite resilient when we need to be, and we are desperate, so we are looking at every opportunity.

Many businesses have already moved to using click and collect more, and they are moving more stuff online where they have the capacity and competence to do that.

Turning to restaurants, the supply chain and food suppliers, I know that there is a great company down in Ayrshire that has already been involved in the creation of food boxes. It launched its Christmas-in-a-box idea last week, which involves a full Christmas dinner delivered to people’s homes. That sort of idea gives businesses a way to bring in some level of income. We are quite resilient.

As I say, I have not put that idea to our members in the way that I have just presented it to you.

Maurice Corry

That is a good idea—it is something that you could put forward.

I turn to Willie Macleod on the question of the festive season. Where are the specific sectors that are falling through the cracks, particularly those that rely on the festive season for making most of their income?

Willie Macleod

In our sector, that is probably felt most acutely in level 4 areas, where businesses are closed and hotels are restricted to accommodating essential travellers and workers only. The cracks are also being experienced by businesses are in places where there are travel restrictions and by businesses whose customers are less inclined to—[Inaudible.]—even in level 3 areas.

Christmas will be extremely difficult for businesses in level 4 areas. Many hotels have closed, because they are not getting forward bookings and there is no anticipation of a buoyant festive period. In the other areas, the restrictions on opening hours will have a significant impact, too. Impacts on businesses also impact on customers and their ability to do what they would normally be doing at this time of year.

On that basis, is the support there for them? Are they getting support in their time of need?

Willie Macleod

As I think I suggested earlier, the Government has made grant support available to businesses that are legally obliged to close. I made the point earlier that we do not think that that is adequate. In many circumstances, it is not available to businesses that can continue trading but whose viability is so compromised by the restrictions on trading that they might as well close, even though they are not legally obliged to do so.


It comes down to the adequacy of the support to meet the costs that those businesses are incurring. Many will have done everything that they can to keep their staff on the books, and the extension of furlough has helped with that, but it does not help the business cash flow and it does not help to meet the remaining fixed costs that those businesses are incurring.

Thank you; that is super.

My final question is for Adam Stachura. What special communications are you doing for the festive season among your clientele?

Adam Stachura

Throughout lockdown and going into Christmas, we have been doing and looking at doing a range of things. The Age Scotland helpline was scaled up in March to take more than 10 times its usual level of calls, and we got support from the Scottish Government to do that. A lot of that was about signposting and referring people to the support mechanisms that existed through lockdown and beyond.

The level of calls resulting from loneliness and isolation has increased massively. We have a friendship line, which was developed and properly launched in June but which has a big focus on the period going into Christmas; I use Christmas to mean the months of December and January. People can call us on a freephone number—0800 124 4222—to speak to somebody. People we are speaking to have not spoken to anyone in days or weeks. I spoke to somebody a couple of months ago for whom I was the first person they had spoken to all week. It is devastating and heartbreaking to realise that that is the impact of the restrictions. Those communications are going out through media channels and we are looking to get support from members of the Scottish Parliament, members of Parliament and councillors in disseminating that information to their constituents. There will be information about that in due course.

Thank you very much.

Annabelle Ewing

Good afternoon. It has been a comprehensive discussion, so I will try not to duplicate anything. I thank all five witnesses for your time today and for all that you are doing behind the scenes, because I am sure that your lives have gone from fairly to exponentially busy, and it is much appreciated.

My first question is for Liz Cameron and Willie Macleod, in that order. In the past, I have run a small business and I recognise the pain that you both talk about. I have enormous sympathy for that and I note what you have said about support. This committee meeting will be actively listened to and reflected on, and you have made your points extremely well.

I turn to broader issues that we have not really explored. Yes, 11 local authorities in Scotland are at level 4 and 21 are not. Last night, to catch up for my information, I looked at where we are in comparison with Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and Germany. [Inaudible.] Spain has been closed and, in France, people get fined €135 if they leave their home without meeting the requirements of the essential purpose for that. Bars and restaurants are closed. In Belgium, no essential shops are open. In hotels, people can have a meal only in their room. We are seeing that right across Europe.

I understand the frustration, but it has to be directed at the pandemic, because there is not such a difference in the way that the virus is presenting in Scotland that we would be in a position to take an entirely different tack to that being taken in many other countries across the European Union.

Dr Cameron

Thank you for your comments acknowledging the work that we are all doing. We appreciate that. I also want to say that, when we come to committees, there is no blame factor. That is not where we are coming from in making our comments. We are not blaming the Scottish Government for the position in which we find ourselves.

You are absolutely right that it is a global pandemic, and we have been watching what is happening in Europe, particularly in France and Germany. In fact, Germany went into its second lockdown way before the United Kingdom and Scotland. You make a valid point about what we could have done differently, if we compare ourselves with other areas in Europe.

I am also looking outside Europe at countries that probably responded faster than countries in Europe and elsewhere, although hindsight is a wonderful thing. Those lessons are there for us to learn, which is why we keep pushing for our forward plan. We were entering a dark tunnel, and nobody knew whether there was any light coming. Nobody knew what was ahead of us. I have to say that Governments and others were very much in a reactive mode, and in some cases, we are still reacting. We must look ahead, because it is important to learn and to improve on where we are at in Scotland.

We are an exceptionally small nation. Our economy was not as strong as those of our friends, cousins and colleagues in Europe, so we were behind the curve. For us to catch up, post Covid, we need to move faster. I know that I am not answering your question directly, but, looking forward, let us look at countries that brought in mass testing earlier. Let us look at the Liverpool example. That has been criticised by some because only 100,000 people were tested. So what? I want to see somewhere in Scotland doing mass testing. I do not know whether that would be an additional pilot scheme—I do not care what we call it—but we want mass testing to be introduced as soon as possible. Investing in testing has the potential to get us out of this situation faster, while safeguarding against job losses in the areas where that is possible. It is about investing.

We are all talking about the vaccine right now. Does the Scottish Government have a plan? I do not want to wait until other nations in the UK have their plans. Have we got a plan in place? Can it be shared with our communities, so that we understand that the short-term pain might be even shorter if we have the confidence and information to say, “Here’s Scotland’s vaccine plan. It’s going to start on 1 February, and this is how it’s going to take place.”? That has the potential to change the behaviours that we are having to sweep up behind right now, that we cannot control. That is the best answer that I can give you.

Annabelle Ewing

I understand that the health secretary will be making a statement to Parliament tomorrow on the vaccine, so watch this space. Willie Macleod, you have heard what Liz Cameron has said, and the point was raised earlier that there has been a lot of investment by businesses, particularly hospitality businesses, in trying to make premises as safe as practicably possible, which is recognised, but the virus does not really respect that. Having said that, looking forward to next year, we know that we are not going to see our lives go back totally to normal as a result of the vaccine per se. Realistically, there will be a period in which our lives will be a lot better with regard to how much freedom we have, but they will not be quite back to normal. Therefore, investment now is crucial for that period—for next year.

Looking forward, the hospitality and tourism industry has been working on a plan for recovery. It would be interesting to hear from Willie Macleod about a few key points in that plan and about his key asks for what he sees as vital to secure the recovery that we all want to see next year.

Willie Macleod

I will focus on the Scottish tourism recovery task force, which is an industry-based group that looked at how we might move forward as we cope with the current issues from the pandemic and how we might move beyond it while retaining our competitiveness internationally, which will be important. We have a very competitive international hospitality industry and the same applies to tourism. The task force report is due to be considered by the Cabinet later this month or in early December, and it contains a wide range of recommendations about how to help businesses recover—[Inaudible.]—considering future investment levels and, importantly, how we stimulate demand.

Some of the issues in the report are as broad as how we best resource VisitScotland and VisitBritain to promote our countries to the international market to get international tourism to return. That has all but collapsed because of international confidence levels and the problems faced by the aviation industry. To be able to offer a safe product and service to domestic and international consumers will be important. In addition to supporting our industry, which is my job, we will have to support the aviation industry and get the ability to travel back to as near normal as possible, which will depend a lot on testing at airports.

I hope that we are not setting too much store by a vaccine, but if we can get an effective vaccine and effective global vaccine arrangements, that will hasten our return to normal. However, I do not think that anybody anticipates a return to normal in the near future. Our estimates are that it will be well into 2022 before businesses recover.

I also hear about the difficulties of the in-bound travel trade—the tour operators and destination management companies that are an important part of our supply chain in bringing international visitors to the country. I am hearing harrowing tales about how their turnover has dropped, and they do not anticipate any recovery until the second quarter of next year.

I urge the Scottish Government, and all politicians, to have a look at the recovery task force and move at pace to implement its recommendations. Having said that, we recognise that money does not grow on trees and there will have to be priorities.

Annabelle Ewing

Thank you for that comprehensive answer. There are indeed many issues to be considered in relation to hospitality and tourism. I will ask one more question, convener, if I may, of Maureen Sier. I appreciate the other witnesses, but the questions that I was going to ask Matt Crilly and Adam Stachura have been answered, so colleagues have done the job there.

Maureen has raised important issues about faith groups, the importance of faith to people’s lives and all the various festivals that are coming up and that, in fact, have been happening under restrictions. We have the—[Inaudible.]—at Christmas, which is important for Christians and non-Christians alike. There have been calls for a 24-hour armistice in churches and so on, but I wonder in relation to the discussions and the planning that is going on among interfaith groups, what concrete ideas are you coming forward with that you could put to Government and that would meet the overarching safety considerations? What ideas do you have to make that work?


Maureen Sier

Thank you very much for your question, Annabelle. I would like to look back just for a second, if that is okay. Interfaith Scotland had an online festival just last week, which was Scottish interfaith week. Its purpose was to lift the spirits of faith communities, interfaith groups, organisations, and people who were engaging with the festival, which had the theme of connecting. That is a really huge theme in relation to what faith communities do; they connect. They connect with their parishioners, for want of a better word, whether that is through the mosque, the gurdwara, the synagogue, or the churches. They stay connected with people.

I have been listening really intently during the meeting and behaviours or the way that people behave have been mentioned a number of times. Faith communities have a very powerful role to play in getting their message out to the 2.5 million people that they represent—the half of the population who deem themselves to be affiliated with a religious tradition—and helping them to abide by behaviours that are helpful to the country when it comes to keeping people safe.

The Government has also done some simple things, and I think that it should continue. For example, Interfaith Scotland has managed a small grant fund for small places of worship, which are getting less income than usual because people are not going there, and they want to stay open and enable that community connection. That small grant fund has allowed for the cleaning of those vast buildings, and for them to put in place PPE, hand sanitisation, clear signposting and all that kind of thing. A community safety fund is also being rolled out, because, again, when buildings are lying empty, vandalism and all that kind of thing can take place. A lot is already being done.

On what Interfaith Scotland and the faith communities can do, I think that messaging and behaviour are the key things. We need to get the messages out to those communities. There is evidence that the black and minority ethnic community is negatively impacted by Covid. I think that it is really important to get clear messages out, particularly to minority faith communities with which black and minority ethnic communities engage.

I will touch a tiny bit on travel, because that has been mentioned. One of the things about Christmas, and perhaps all festivals, is that people travel to their families and places of worship. If, for example, people cannot go out of level 4 in the central belt, how do we tell them that they are not going to be with their family at Christmas if their family happens to be in level 3, 2 or 1? What has been said about students applies widely to those in particular levels. There will be a huge cultural expectation that people will be together at the festival period; Hanukkah and Christmas come particularly to mind. If that is not going to happen, what will it be like to deal with that disappointment?

There is something that I want to mention very briefly, although it is a tiny bit off topic, albeit not too far. Scotland is a wealthy nation, compared with the majority. I think that it is the 14th wealthiest nation in the world. There is wealth. For example, I was stunned to hear about the kind of wealth that is available to the multinationals through the huge increases in their profits. Although there might be a little bit of resistance, how can that be redistributed? Faith communities have always had the poor and vulnerable at heart. Ensuring that there is equality of treatment and of access to things, and of just being fair to people is very much the raison d’être of faith communities.

I wonder whether something could be done with what I think is extreme excess. There must be a fair way of redistributing it that does not negatively impact on those businesses in a huge way. If they are making profits of £560 million, while small businesses are suffering, there is some imbalance. Perhaps the Christian community is the prophetic voice of religion. Something is out of balance; how do we rebalance it and give people fair access to the wealth that is in Scotland? If we are the 14th wealthiest nation, there is no doubt that somebody somewhere has got that wealth. Looking at redistribution is really important.

Thank you, Maureen. You end on a thought-provoking proposition, which I am sure is also being listened to carefully elsewhere, including the Scottish Government’s finance team.

Our final questions come from Shona Robison.

Shona Robison

Most of my questions have already been asked, but I want to pick up on Dr Sier’s final point. We all understand the frustrations of businesses and the challenges that they face. Liz Cameron and Willie Macleod in particular have spoken about the need for more resources for those who are struggling, especially small businesses. However, Willie also made the point that money does not grow on trees. I therefore want to push Liz Cameron a point that Mark Ruskell made earlier.

When we consider who will pay for our recovery, it surely cannot be right for the whole burden to fall on individual taxpayers. There will have to be a proportionate contribution from the large corporations that have made the most money during the pandemic. I understand that Liz Cameron represents a number of organisations and might be reluctant to come out explicitly in favour of that suggestion. However, it would be interesting to know two things. The first is what she thinks her organisation’s small business members would think of that as a way of supporting their recovery as we move forward. Secondly, would she be willing to canvass those members about balance in the matter of who should pay? I will be interested to hear her comments on that.

Dr Cameron

You asked whether I would canvass our members on your suggestion, which we might say is about equality and sharing wealth. Such an agenda item has been out there for a wee while and has been moving higher up the priority list. At one end of the scale, some of our corporate members who might be making millions—and others who might still be making lots of money—might say that they have already contributed through paying corporation tax. That is one view—please stick with me on that for a moment. If they were sitting here, they would probably tell the committee that they also contribute greatly to their communities in a variety of ways, such as through creating or maintaining jobs and supporting employees, communities and charities. The starting and stopping points for that list could be quite long. In creating supply chains, many of them already develop and support buy local campaigns. Ensuring that more of their supplies come from local suppliers helps small businesses, which in turn helps them to build up their own businesses.

I will take your suggestion on board, Shona. I will ask the question and put the idea out there. I will ask how our corporate members feel about it. As I said in my response, there is a conversation to be had. I am always one for encouraging, engaging and working in partnership for the greater good of Scotland’s communities. Local chambers of commerce are central levers for local communities. Although we represent businesses, we also represent the third sector and a number of other organisations, so we contribute greatly to our communities.

That suggestion is worth discussing. I will take it away, ask the question and enter into discussion as we move forward. There is something there. Whether it should be, for example, a one-line question about tax bands—such as whether a proportion of corporate members’ earnings of X amount over a profitable margin should go to X, Y and Z—is an interesting concept. It will be worth discussing that to find out whether it would be the best way forward in growing our overall economy. Alternatively, if we are talking about having new tax bands, would such a potential move impact on investment coming into Scotland and on Scottish businesses’ competitiveness?

There is a lot in that question. Although I have not given a direct yes or no answer, I have said that there is a discussion to be had. I will canvass our members, because we will need to do so. If we are looking in that direction of travel we must consider carefully the potential positive and negative impacts.

Shona Robison

I thank Liz Cameron for her positive response. Those are the big discussions that we will all have to have. I recognise what she said about some big businesses having protected local supply chains and looked after their staff, but I point out that not all have done so. I put on the record that there have been big differences in how companies have responded to the pandemic, particularly in regard to their workforces. That is all from me, convener.

The Convener

I have a final question, which is for Dr Maureen Sier. I ask for your reflections on our approach to places of worship over the festive period, given that in the normal course they are busy, with a lot of people attending services. The answer might depend on where we are with restrictions at that stage, but do you have any observations on that?

I note that your computer appears to have frozen, so you might not be able to answer that question, but I would be interested to hear your closing reflections if you are still online. If not, we can leave it. Can you hear me?—[Interruption.]—I do not think that Dr Sier can hear me, so we will leave the question there. Perhaps we could catch up on it offline.

I thank all our witnesses for their evidence and for giving us their time. That concludes our meeting. In due course the clerks will advise members of the arrangements for our next meeting, which will take place next week. I again express my grateful thanks to all our witnesses for a really interesting session.

Meeting closed at 12:27.