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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, August 13, 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Motion of No Confidence, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time


The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

Good afternoon, everyone. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the campus. I ask members to take care to observe those measures carefully over the course of this afternoon’s business, including when entering and exiting the chamber.

The first item of business is portfolio question time and the first portfolio is finance. Questions 1 and 8 are grouped together. [Interruption.] I ask members to stop having private conversations, please. I remind members that questions 1 and 8 are grouped together and that questions 3 and 4 are grouped together.

Furloughed Workers (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will allocate to supporting workers in the longer term once the furlough scheme ends. (S5O-04460)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance is joining us remotely.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance (Kate Forbes)

I am disappointed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not extending the furlough scheme beyond 31 October, despite our repeated representations to the United Kingdom Government. Of course, he still has the option to do so, and I do not believe that the £1,000 retention bonus in January 2021 will provide enough support for many workers and businesses.

In Scotland, however, we have already started to act quickly to put in place a business support package worth more than £2.3 billion and we have announced the decision to invest £100 million to support those who find themselves unemployed; that is on top of the £33 million that has already been committed for employability support this year.

Iain Gray

I share the minister’s disappointment that the chancellor will not extend the furlough scheme, but nonetheless we have to do much more. In my constituency of East Lothian, for example, we face a hospitality industry unemployment crisis if we do not increase the support. If the furlough scheme ends before a full quality jobs guarantee scheme is in place, thousands of workers in restaurants, bars and cafes could be laid off. The sector directly employs almost 3,500 people in my constituency alone. Will the minister commit to releasing the finance for a fully funded jobs guarantee scheme?

Kate Forbes

I have already worked with Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture, to release funding to provide support, particularly to young people but across the workforce. We have refreshed our youth employment strategy—developing the young workforce—and we are working with Sandy Begbie, who is leading activity on the jobs guarantee, to ensure that the £50 million that has been set aside for the jobs guarantee scheme is put in place quickly to ensure that there is a job guarantee for young people, as advised by the advisory group on economic recovery’s report.

Question 8 is from Stewart Stevenson, who is also joining us remotely.

Covid-19 (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will allocate to support people who are looking for work or at risk of redundancy as a result of Covid-19. (S5O-04467)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance (Kate Forbes)

As I said in answer to the earlier question, we will continue to make the case that the furlough scheme should not end. However, rather than wait for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to change his mind, we have already confirmed investment totalling £133 million in this financial year to support people towards and into work as we gradually restart the economy. That funding will help people have access to or progress into work, as well as support those who are at risk of redundancy. That is in addition to the £214 million that has already been allocated to Skills Development Scotland this year to work with partners and employers to ensure that every individual has the skills and the confidence to get a job. We are in no doubt about the challenges that face people up and down the country and that is why we have moved quickly to put that funding in place.

Stewart Stevenson

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer and for the substantial sums of money to which she refers. It is particularly important that young people are supported.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that creating and protecting jobs in general will only be possible in true partnership with the business community, trade unions, enterprise agencies and the third sector?

Kate Forbes

Yes, I agree. Throughout the pandemic, we have worked collaboratively with businesses, trade unions, enterprise agencies and charities. The recovery must focus on jobs. We have engaged extensively with businesses in recent months and have discussed our ideas about the economic recovery with many organisations and individuals.

That approach underlines our willingness to listen to and collaborate with businesses, and with those who create jobs. We know that it is their innovation and determination that will be the engine room of our economic recovery. The finance that I have announced is about working through those organisations to create and to retain jobs.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

The tourism industry accounts for a significant part of the local and Scottish economies. Many of my constituents who work in the Loch Lomond area are worried that they will not see a proper recovery until March next year. In the absence of any continuation of the United Kingdom furlough scheme, will the cabinet secretary do something on a sector-specific basis to protect jobs in the tourism industry?

Kate Forbes

The short answer is yes. Like Jackie Baillie, I have a constituency in which many businesses rely on tourism and are now facing real challenges.

I will quickly make three points. The tourism action group has met regularly to look at sector-related support. Secondly, we recently announced additional support to help hotels to recover and to protect jobs there. Thirdly, I have already shared information about the youth guarantee and the substantial sums of money that we have put in place to ensure that young people in particular have the option to train or to get a job. We will work with employers, including those in the tourism industry, to access that support so that they can keep people employed even when trading conditions are challenging.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

If—as seems to be the case—the UK Government does not understand the Scottish economy, particularly sectors such as tourism, would it not be better for the UK Government to give more powers to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to deal with that?

Kate Forbes

I agree with John Mason. That is the bottom line.

We will continue, with businesses and other partners, to make the case for the extension of the furlough scheme. I am extremely concerned about the cliff edge in October. We know that businesses and workers will continue to need support well beyond October, whether that is in tourism or in other industries. That is particularly important in local lockdown areas such as those in Aberdeen, Manchester and Leicester.

We will work with the UK Government on a four-nations solution, but if it does not ensure that the relevant support remains in place to protect jobs, we must have the funding or the fiscal flexibilities to do something similar. Without borrowing powers, we are overly reliant on UK Government consequentials.

Local Authority Leisure and Community Facilities (Reopening)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment has been made of the financial pressures facing local authorities as they seek to reopen leisure and community facilities. (S5O-04461)

The Minister for Public Finance and Migration (Ben Macpherson)

Since 23 March, we have been working closely with Community Leisure UK Scotland and Vocal Scotland to understand both the financial implications for local authority leisure provision and the community impact caused by Covid-19. We have also engaged extensively with ukactive, the body representing private gym operators.

Community Leisure UK Scotland and Vocal, supported by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, have undertaken detailed analysis of the financial impact of Covid-19. They estimate that the deficit in the local authority leisure sector will be £127 million at the end of the calendar year.

Bob Doris

I thank the minister for that sobering answer. Glasgow Life’s clear financial challenges are a key driver in the delay in reopening much of its sport and community estate. I was pleased that the First Minister confirmed to me that the Scottish Government is working with COSLA to see how the Scottish Government can support councils in that area. During those discussions, can there be an examination of how any financial support or partnership financial package will focus on reopening facilities in deprived areas and communities, such as my constituency’s Petershill complex, John Paul academy and Maryhill community centre?

Ben Macpherson

As I mentioned, we are aware of the impacts of Covid-19 on local authority culture and leisure services. We recognise the importance of local authority leisure provision and that communities, as in the places that Bob Doris mentioned in his constituency, will need access to those services as we recover from the pandemic—especially those communities that have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. We also appreciate that Glasgow Life faces a challenging financial position and is making tough decisions. We and sportscotland are in dialogue with Glasgow Life to understand the impact of closures and their specific circumstances in supporting community sport to mitigate the impact of Covid-19. I would be happy to provide Bob Doris with an update in writing in due course if that would be helpful.

Covid-19 (United Kingdom Government Support)

3. Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the additional United Kingdom Government funding to support Scotland’s people and businesses through the Covid-19 outbreak. (S5O-04462)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance (Kate Forbes)

Our position is to welcome the recent UK Government announcement that Barnett consequentials will not fall below £6.5 billion and I can assure the chamber that every penny will be used for the Covid response. However, I am disappointed that the proportionate and reasonable requests on fiscal flexibilities that I have been making and which Parliament has supported have been dismissed by the UK Government. It is not yet clear what level of additional funding will be required to deal with the exceptional circumstances that we face as the situation continues to develop through the financial year, and I will need to continue to engage closely on that with the Parliament and the UK Government.

Alexander Stewart

A cautious estimate of UK Government spending to help Scotland through this difficult period is £15 billion. That is our share of UK schemes such as furlough, the self-employed support scheme, the chancellor’s plan for jobs, business loans, benefit increases and extra cash for the Scottish budget. Does the cabinet secretary agree with the words of her own official, who is quoted in a recent freedom of information request release as saying:

“my view would be that Scotland receives a fair share”

of UK Treasury spending?

Kate Forbes

Of course, the funding is just the nature of where the borrowing powers lie. We cannot borrow, therefore the UK Government has borrowed in order to allocate funding to Scotland and I would absolutely expect us to get our fair share. The point remains that the Covid emergency, whether in the health service or the economy, requires unprecedented support and we have to respond with one arm tied behind our back because we are dependent on policy choices and consequentials that come from the UK Government. Conservative members frequently ask me to increase spending in different areas—I am sure that they will in the course of the next few questions—and I have to say that, because we cannot borrow, we cannot create the headroom to accommodate those requests. That is precisely why we are asking for very simple, very straightforward flexibilities in powers in order to do so more responsibly.

United Kingdom Government Covid-19 Pandemic Financial Response (Discussions)

4. Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions the Cabinet Secretary for Finance has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the financial response to the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04463)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance (Kate Forbes)

I have engaged closely with UK Government ministers throughout the Covid-19 outbreak. The immediate steps taken by the UK Government to support businesses and workers were welcome, and most recently I met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 24 July, when he visited Edinburgh, and I again raised the need for greater fiscal flexibility to enable us to properly manage the impact of the crisis. I imagine that future constructive engagement will be required in order to make progress on that issue.

Gil Paterson

I declare an interest, given that this question relates to furlough. The business that I own, which my son presently runs, has benefited from furlough.

There is no doubt that the furlough scheme has been essential and beneficial to business. I believe that it needs to be extended, otherwise some of the very good work that it has done might be wasted. From our experience, I believe that the economy is recovering slowly, but businesses are still struggling and need more time and assistance, particularly the many businesses in sectors that have not had any help other than furlough. Will the Scottish Government raise that with the United Kingdom Government, with a view to extending furlough and providing more direct support to help business in the short term, until the economy recovers that bit more?

Kate Forbes

I say at the outset how mindful I am of how challenging it has been for countless businesses the length and breadth of the country in so many different sectors. The initial funding that was provided could never have replaced the lost income from the lockdown period.

On providing additional funding, we will continue to use all of our resources and all the powers at our disposal to move quickly to support businesses. We have exceeded the consequentials that were provided for business support and we have to balance affordability within a fixed budget. I am very happy to continue to make the case for additional resource to provide support for the businesses that Gil Paterson mentioned. Where we can, we absolutely will put support in place, like we did most recently with the hotel recovery programme.

Questions 3 and 4 were grouped together and I have two supplementaries.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The cabinet secretary knows that I am a supporter of a universal basic income. Can she tell us what progress she is making, in her discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on implementing that policy, which her Government claims to support?

Kate Forbes

The short answer is we are making very little progress in those conversations. We are making the case through all sorts of different means, not only through my conversations but through my colleagues’ conversations. It is very much a brick wall and I do not see any progress being made through those conversations. We will continue to make the case, but it is clear that in order to make universal basic income a success, we need to have full control over welfare powers, and that is something that we do not have yet.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

Countries around the world are increasing spending to deal with the impact of Covid and they are able to do so because they have borrowing powers. Do you agree that it is disappointing that the UK Government has yet to hand over those powers, which would give the Scottish Government flexibility to help to manage the problems that we are having at the moment?

Kate Forbes

Bill Kidd is right to say that countries around the world are using borrowing powers. The UK Government intends to borrow well over £300 billion to finance its response to the pandemic. That is right, and we value the funding that has come from it, but it is unfortunate that the UK Government has not been prepared to grant the Scottish Government a temporary £500 million borrowing facility—that is about one 600th of its own borrowing level, so it is pretty small in the grand scheme of things.

In the proposals that I have outlined to the UK, we have simply substituted a redundant borrowing power for a more meaningful spending power. Therefore, that leads me to conclude that it has been a political decision to deny us borrowing powers, rather than a financial or technical decision.

Question 5 is from Edward Mountain, who is joining us remotely, I hope.

Schools (Funding for Return)

5. Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I have activated my camera and microphone.

To ask the Scottish Government what additional funding the Cabinet Secretary for Finance has made available to allow schools to return from 11 August. (S5O-04464)

The Minister for Public Finance and Migration (Ben Macpherson)

The Scottish Government has committed up to a further £135 million over the next two years to support the reopening of schools. We are investing £80 million in providing approximately 1,400 additional teachers and 200 extra support staff to tackle any loss of learning; up to £50 million in costs associated with the reopening of schools; £3 million in youth work; and £2 million in the family learning element of the promise. That is in addition to investing £25 million to support digital inclusion and a further £12.6 million for local authorities to continue their provision of free school meals throughout the summer holidays this year.

Edward Mountain

I have been contacted by a group that represents 60 recently qualified teachers who have all completed their probation and training in the Highlands and are currently on zero-hours contracts with Highland Council. They could play a pivotal role in delivering the safe education that our youngsters need. Can the minister give the Highlands an undertaking that some of the funding that he has just mentioned will be available to give those teachers the ability to have permanent contracts in our region and allow them to play the pivotal role in teaching our children that they want to play?

Ben Macpherson

Decisions concerning recruitment and the specifics that Mr Mountain detailed are for local authorities to take. If he would like to write to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and copy that correspondence to me, we can look at the detail and see whether there is any assistance that could be provided, but that is a matter for the local authority in the first instance.

Mark Ruskell is joining us remotely for question 6.

No-deal Brexit (Funding for Preparation)

6. Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will make available to prepare for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, including to the national health service. (S5O-04465)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance (Kate Forbes)

The Scottish Government continues to prepare for the consequences of European Union exit, but I need to make it clear that we will not be able to mitigate all the impacts completely. We also face pressures and uncertainties because of the Covid-19 outbreak. However, we are working closely with other United Kingdom Governments and with the public, private and third sectors in Scotland to ensure that we are all as prepared as possible for all Brexit outcomes.

Mark Ruskell

On 3 August, the UK Government wrote to medicine suppliers asking them to prepare for the end of the transition period and to make stockpiling a key part of contingency plans. Can the cabinet secretary clarify whether additional funding will be allocated to NHS Scotland for stockpiling essential supplies ahead of the potential chaos of a no-deal Brexit?

Kate Forbes

I would expect the UK Government to provide funding for the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s public sector services and the economy.

On the specifics, I am unaware of whether the announcement that Mark Ruskell referenced came with Barnett consequentials, so I will need to get back to him on the precise details. However, in general, we believe that, right now, sufficient funding is not being allocated with those requests and policy decisions to help us to mitigate all the impacts.

Emma Harper has a supplementary question.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Today’s announcement on the lifting of American tariffs on Scottish shortbread is welcome and good news for shortbread makers, but the Scottish whisky industry is still paying a £200 million price for tariffs on single malt exports to the USA. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on what steps the UK Government has taken to have those crippling tariffs on our iconic and financially critical whisky sector lifted?

Kate Forbes

It is for the UK Government to explain its actions to support our whisky industry, which is important to Scotland’s economy. It is clear that Scottish businesses are being hit hard by those tariffs and that jobs and livelihoods are at risk.

At the very least, UK ministers must step up engagement with their US counterparts as a matter of urgency. At the very least, they must put getting those damaging tariffs removed from key Scottish produce ahead of securing any UK-US trade deal. Having left the European Union, the UK Government will have the trade powers that it wanted. Now it must use them and demonstrate that it supports Scottish produce.

Covid-19 (Business Recovery Measures)

7. Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what further measures the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will introduce to help businesses recover from the Covid-19 crisis. (S5O-04466)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance (Kate Forbes)

As Finlay Carson will know, we have already put in place the substantial figure of £2.3 billion to support business. Examples of support that has benefited business include the provision of £38 million for early-stage businesses, £11 million for the self-employed and nearly £1 billion in business grants and rates relief. I am sure that further economic policy measures will feature in the programme for government.

We recognise the need for additional interventions to support economic recovery. As I said to one of Finlay Carson’s colleagues earlier, the way to make such interventions is to ensure that we have the necessary funding, which can then be passed on. There are many calls on funding this year, including for the health service, business support, transport services and local government. We will use the funding that we have and will get it out the door as quickly as possible to support businesses. However, ultimately, we are reliant on consequentials coming to us.

Finlay Carson

The cabinet secretary will know that the office of the chief economic adviser has been undertaking work to assess the regional impacts of the pandemic. It is expected that Dumfries and Galloway Council and Scottish Borders Council will be found to be the two councils that have experienced the greatest impact. For a number of reasons, many businesses, such as beauticians, gyms, driving schools and family-run retail, as well as having their reopening delayed, have not been eligible for grant funding from their local council or enterprise agency.

Does the cabinet secretary recognise that it would be of significant benefit for a discretionary fund to be applied in special cases, where businesses have not to date been funded through existing schemes? Given that the business grant scheme in Dumfries and Galloway has a remaining balance of more than £7.5 million, will the cabinet secretary consider, as a matter of urgency, introducing a discretionary grant scheme that would allow local authorities and enterprise agencies in my constituency to asses claims and provide support on a case-by-case basis?

Kate Forbes

I want to quickly address the point about any underspend. It is worth saying that in order to ensure that money was not sitting in those funds and not being used, we have already redeployed much of that funding through the pivotal resilience fund and the hardship scheme, which, of course, are unique to Scotland.

However, I take Finlay Carson’s wider point that businesses are still in need of additional support, and I go back to what I said earlier. Although I do not disagree with Mr Carson, I must ask him where he thinks that the money to provide support to businesses should come from. By law, we must have a fixed budget. Therefore, when it comes to revenue, any additional funding for businesses must come from the health service, the transport system, local government or elsewhere. Every other Government around the world is funding such important interventions through borrowing. Our primary source of income is the UK Government, so either we need additional funding or we need the powers that would give us the ability to provide the support that Mr Carson’s constituents need. That is why I ask the Conservatives and Finlay Carson to join us in backing those calls.

Kenneth Gibson has a short supplementary.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

On islands, hospitality and tourism businesses are particularly vulnerable. Islands already receive the special islands needs allowance to help with the provision of public services. Will the cabinet secretary establish an islands fund to assist the private sector, and tourism and hospitality businesses in particular?

In response to the previous question, the cabinet secretary asked where the money should come from. As I have suggested on a number of occasions, it is about time that we scrapped the rates relief for our large supermarkets, which have made a substantial profit out of the current pandemic and are making millions of pounds in rates relief. That money could go towards assisting our businesses.

Kate Forbes

As a representative of island communities, I understand the question and the importance of ensuring that there is support for our island communities.

Many of the businesses in our island communities have benefited from the hardship scheme, as well as local authority grants. Although we are unlikely to take a blanket approach, we will continue to look at where we can use any of the funds that we have to provide support. However, at the moment, the focus is very much on jobs and on how we can ensure that everyone who faces unemployment—young people, in particular—can get a job or a training opportunity.

Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I remind all members who are entering or leaving the chamber to make sure that they maintain social distancing. Thank you.

Question 1 is from Maureen Watt, who is joining us remotely.

Environmental Issues (Discussions with United Kingdom Government)

1. Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding environmental issues. (S5O-04468)

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

The Scottish ministers have regular contact with the UK Government with regard to environmental issues. With the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism and the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, I participate in monthly four-nation interministerial meetings in which environmental issues are discussed. Communiqués regarding past meetings of the interministerial group for the environment, food and rural affairs can be found on the Scottish Government’s website.

Maureen Watt

I understand that the Westminster Government intends to publish an energy white paper in September. According to Scottish Renewables, Scotland has the potential of infinitely more renewable resource than it will need. Is it not imperative, therefore, that the Scottish Government has maximum input to the strategy and is dealt with as an equal partner if England is to meet its obligations on climate change? Is the cabinet secretary in favour of a renewables fund for Scotland?

Roseanna Cunningham

As the Committee on Climate Change has noted, our ability to deliver a green recovery in Scotland will rely heavily on willingness and action from the UK Government, given the substantial responsibilities and regulatory controls that remain reserved. The member is correct to point out that the other side of that coin is that the UK Government requires us to achieve our targets if it is to achieve its targets.

The long-overdue energy white paper will obviously be relevant to the energy system’s role and ability to move us towards net zero emissions. However, until we see the details, we will not know the extent to which its proposals are in tune with Scotland’s distinct energy priorities and targets.

Successive UK Governments have squandered Scotland’s oil and gas resources, and that must not be allowed to happen again with Scotland’s renewable resources. In any discussions with the UK Government, we will seek to ensure that the people of Scotland reap the full benefits of our natural resources, and we will consider all options for how to achieve that, which may include a renewables fund.


2. James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to tackle fly-tipping. (S5O-04469)

I call Roseanna Cunningham. [Interruption.] I am terribly sorry. I should take my glasses off so that I can see. I call Mairi Gougeon.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

Fly-tipping is illegal, dangerous and completely unnecessary. Responsibility for dealing with litter and fly-tipping rests with local authorities. We have developed with Zero Waste Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authorities a national waste management marketing campaign that sets out how the public can manage waste responsibly during this difficult time, and it includes messaging on fly-tipping.

The national litter strategy, which also includes measures on fly-tipping, is coming to the end of its five-year lifespan. We are currently considering how best to take that forward, and to take forward a review of policy in the area.

James Kelly

Sadly, fly-tipping is a scourge on many local communities, with areas such as the Clyde walkway suffering from people dispersing litter at sites that people enjoy using for walks and leisure. I commend the Rutherglen Reformer for the work that it is doing to campaign against fly-tipping.

What action is being taken to review the powers and resources that are available to local authorities to ensure that they have an adequate toolkit available to discourage and penalise fly-tippers?

Mairi Gougeon

I completely agree with what James Kelly said, because I think that all members have seen what appears to be a massive increase in the rate of fly-tipping in their communities. We need to get a handle on how massive and wide a problem that is, so I encourage all local authorities to use the litter mapping services that I mentioned, so that we can properly map where fly-tipping is taking place and get an idea of the scale of the issue.

Fly-tipping is a massive problem for local authorities. Perth and Kinross Council has set up a fund to try to help landowners in its area. If local authorities want to set up funds to help landowners in their areas, it is within their powers to do so; such initiatives are important.

We are considering what further action, if any, can be taken, working with COSLA, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Zero Waste Scotland. Better national data will help us to develop plans.

I encourage people to report fly tipping to the dumb dumpers and new litter monitoring initiatives, so that we can find out the scale of the problem and do what we can to tackle it.

I have three requests for supplementary questions, so I ask members to keep their questions quite tight.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

Many land-based businesses have reported an increase in rubbish, including rubbish that is left by irresponsible access takers such as dirty campers. Given that in January 2003 the Scottish Parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which sets out statutory rights of responsible access, will the minister assure the Parliament that she will take decisive action to address such unacceptable behaviour, which is destroying our beauty spots and frightening tourists away? Will she give serious consideration to the merits of helping local authorities to employ additional countryside rangers, not only to help to police responsible access but to deter wildlife crime and add value to the visitor experience in our wonderful natural environment?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before the cabinet secretary responds, I remind members that when I ask you to give quick supplementary questions and answers, it is because I am trying to be fair to all members. It is not fair to colleagues when people use up all that time.

Mairi Gougeon

I thank Finlay Carson for the points that he made. I completely agree: I have been as disgusted as other members have been with some of the scenes that we have seen in our beauty spots. We live in such a beautiful country and it is shocking and disgusting to see it being destroyed in that way by people who are being irresponsible—the few who are determined to destroy things for the rest of us.

A number of issues have been raised. It is vital that we fully consider all the available options for tackling the problem. The review of the litter strategy will be important in looking at the scale of the problem and how we can tackle it. This is a serious issue, about which we need to do something.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The minister rightly cited Perth and Kinross Council and the special fund that it has set up. The cost of fly-tipping is often picked up by private landowners and farmers. Would it be possible for the Government to set up a special central fund to enable councils throughout the country to take such action?

Mairi Gougeon

Of course, the ultimate responsibility remains with local authorities and private landowners. However, an urgent multi-agency response is required and, as I said, I am working with all the different agencies to see what action we can take to try to tackle the issue.

As Willie Rennie said, Perth and Kinross Council has set up a fund. Local authorities have the power to do that.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

In an answer to a parliamentary question, the Government said that it does not know the annual cost of picking up litter and dealing with fly-tipping. The current maximum fines are £80 for littering and £200 for fly-tipping. Will the minister find out how much it costs annually to deal with those issues, so that the budget can reflect the problem? Will she look again at the level of fixed-penalty notices and bring them up to a more punitive level?

Mairi Gougeon

Some of the issues that I talked about in my previous answers will be key to getting that information. It is about ensuring that we have an idea of the full scale of the issues and that we can map that properly and get all the available data together. Again, I say that it is about working with other agencies and getting a holistic picture of what we are looking at. As I have said, we also need to look at the litter strategy. All those points will be pivotal in the discussions.

Question 4 is from Murdo Fraser, who joins us remotely. [Interruption.] I have just been informed that I missed out John Mason. I am terribly sorry. How could I do that?

Raptor Persecution

3. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to prevent the persecution of raptors. (S5O-04470)

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

Tackling wildlife crime and ending the senseless killing of our birds of prey is an absolute priority for the Scottish Government. The recently passed Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 increases the maximum penalties for the most serious wildlife crimes, including the illegal killing of birds of prey and the possession of banned pesticides, to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. Police Scotland has also been given more time to investigate such offences, which I know can be a key issue.

The action that we have taken through the 2020 act reflects the seriousness of such crimes and how we view them in Scotland. They are an absolute affront to the people here, and we remain committed to consigning such crime to history.

John Mason

Does the minister share my support for hen harrier day, which was on 8 August? Does she share my concern that the population of hen harriers across the United Kingdom appears to have fallen by 24 per cent since 2004, that 72 per cent of satellite-tagged hen harriers seem to have been killed on grouse moors and that hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear over grouse moors than they are in other locations?

Mairi Gougeon

John Mason might be aware that I am the species champion for hen harriers, so I absolutely support hen harrier day. Like him, I am appalled to see their continued persecution.

Mr Mason will be aware that we commissioned the Werritty review on grouse moor management. The First Minister has said that our consideration of that report will involve looking at licensing of grouse moors. If we were to go down that route, the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform have stated that it is likely that we would move faster than the five-year period that has been suggested.

I want to make it absolutely clear to anyone who has carried out, or is contemplating carrying out, such despicable crimes against our birds of prey that we are watching and paying attention. Any criminal acts that are carried out now will be taken into account if and when we consider any licensing decisions in the future.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

The problem of raptor persecution has been with us for all of the 20 years of devolution, and a century and a half before that, yet all that has changed is that the scale of killing has continued to increase. Is it not time for the Scottish Government to end the endless reviews and ban the destructive activity of driven grouse shooting?

Mairi Gougeon

As I said in my answer to John Mason, we commissioned the Werritty review, and we will respond to that. I hope that members across the chamber will understand that we had hoped to have done that sooner, but given everything that the Government has had to deal with over the past few months, that has not been possible. I completely understand the anger of not only members across the chamber but members of the public, because such crimes are abhorrent and should not be being committed.

We want to take all the action that we can to prosecute the people who carry out such crimes. The 2020 act allows us to take a huge step towards that. The fact that that legislation has now been implemented shows how seriously we take such crimes. Given the nature of where such crimes take place, the investigation process can be particularly difficult. We want to tackle the issue as best we possibly can, and we will provide our response to the Werritty report in the coming months.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The evidence seems to suggest that a lot of the birds in question have perished on driven-grouse moors. Given the seriousness of the issue and the outcry across Scotland, does the minister not recognise that the Scottish Government needs to set a date to let us know when it is going to make the decisions that the whole country is waiting for it to make?

Mairi Gougeon

Again, I completely understand the points that the member has made. That is why we took the time to undertake a review, and we are considering its recommendations. Over the coming months, we will respond to the Werritty review. I also highlight the other actions that we have taken and the work that we have done to show how seriously we take such crimes in Scotland and how serious we are about tackling them.

Question 4 comes from Murdo Fraser, who joins us remotely.

Emissions Increase

4. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason source emissions rose by 1.5 per cent from 2017 to 2018. (S5O-04471)

Roseanna Cunningham

As I have already reported to Parliament, changes to the national energy mix and freezing temperatures from the beast from the east during the early months of 2018 contributed to a rise in emissions from energy supply and heating use for buildings. However, to set that in context, emissions reductions were recorded in all other sectors, including transport, industry and agriculture.

The figures in question are from 2018, and they predate a huge amount of work by this Government to tackle climate change. Nonetheless, they show that Scotland’s emissions had already gone down by 50 per cent since the 1990 baseline, which is halfway to net zero.

Murdo Fraser

The ambitious climate change targets that the Parliament agreed to have widespread support, but one of the risks that is posed by the Covid-19 situation in relation to transport is that individuals might be more reluctant to use public transport in the future because of the risk of infection, which might drive them back into private cars.

The United Kingdom Government has introduced a number of initiatives to try to encourage greater use of cycling as an alternative mode of transport. Can the cabinet secretary outline what the Scottish Government is doing to promote cycling?

Roseanna Cunningham

On behalf of my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, I point out that significant sums of money were given to local authorities over the period of the Covid emergency to allow them to put in place walking and cycling routes in areas that they deemed to be the most appropriate. Those routes have been shown to be very successful. The Scottish Government’s commitment of—off the top of my head—somewhere in the region of £50 million to enable that to happen was extremely important and was evidence of the Government’s intention and desire for active travel to be part of the mix.

There is now an issue with the use of transport as a result of the Covid emergency, but we know that and are considering what can be done to address it. The member will know very well that walking and cycling provision will probably not assist him in getting to Parliament from where he lives. There has to be more than just walking and cycling provision if we are to ensure that transport remains sustainable.

Two members wish to ask supplementaries.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

According to the Government’s own figures, some of the highest proportions of source greenhouse gas emissions are from methane and nitrous oxide, which are particularly associated with agriculture. Can the cabinet secretary outline what work has been done with the agricultural and land use sector to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions?

Roseanna Cunningham

Agriculture is home to the majority of methane and nitrous oxide emissions in Scotland, and we are working with the industry and other stakeholders to identify and encourage practices that can reduce those emissions—for example, through the advice that is provided by the Farm Advisory Service and Farming for a Better Climate or through the requirements of the beef efficiency scheme. We also continue to look to the future and are increasing our understanding of methane-reducing feed additives and the potential for methane capture and reuse.

The next supplementary is from Claudia Beamish, who joins us remotely.

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

Will the cabinet secretary give an update on what new measures have recently been put in place to help us to contribute fairly and quickly, in the early years, towards our 2030 interim target? I am sure that she will agree that we cannot wait for the updated climate change plan before taking new action.

Roseanna Cunningham

As the member is actively involved in the discussions that we are currently having, she will know that the work that is being done will be published in December. However, the Government as a whole is looking very carefully at how we might allocate the low carbon fund, which is worth £2 billion and will clearly be impactful in a number of areas. The point that I want to make is that such issues are not for only one portfolio; all portfolios in the Scottish Government are considering them closely.

Climate Change (Update on Plans)

5. Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to tackle climate change. (S5O-04472)

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

As I have already indicated, the update to our 2018 climate change plan will be published in December and will set out a pathway to meeting Scotland’s world-leading targets over the period until 2032.

Although the update was previously due in April, the global pandemic has meant that we have been operating in a changed landscape. However, although our starting point has changed, our ambitions have not. We are committed to building a green recovery from Covid-19. The recast plan will draw upon the best available evidence, including advice from the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change, the advisory group on economic recovery, the just transition commission and the sustainable renewal advisory group.

Joan McAlpine

Around the world, emissions fell at the height of the lockdown, but use of private vehicles might increase as public transport is affected by the pandemic. Does that mean that the Government will need to revise its strategy for increasing use of decarbonised vehicles, even though the “Switched On Scotland Phase Two: An Action Plan For Growth” action plan was welcomed as being extremely ambitious when it was launched in 2017?

Roseanna Cunningham

Despite the impact of Covid-19, we remain committed to the ambitious vision for Scotland’s transport system that was set out in the national transport strategy 2. We have continued to progress the switch to ultra-low-emission vehicles since the switched on Scotland action plan was launched in 2017. We have also invested significantly in growing and developing the ChargePlace Scotland electric vehicle charging network, such that it now has more than 1,250 charge points across Scotland, which I think makes it the most extensive network in the United Kingdom.

The pandemic poses many challenges, but we are committed to our ambitious emissions reduction targets and, as part of that, to phasing out the need for petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032, thereby delivering a healthier, cleaner and greener Scotland for generations to come.

I have requests for two supplementaries. May I ask that they are brief?

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

This week, a landslide on the A68 connecting the Borders and Edinburgh, and many other landslides on road and rail networks across Scotland, caused heartache and severe disruption. Will the cabinet secretary commit to looking at how deforestation contributes to water run-off and soil erosion, and to there being a Government investigation into how climate change might have contributed to the devastating impact of extreme weather patterns on Scotland’s infrastructure?

Could I have a brief answer, please, cabinet secretary?

Roseanna Cunningham

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity has already acknowledged the impact of climate change in respect of the events that took place near Stonehaven. I will certainly undertake to discuss with my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism the issues around deforestation, which, of course, he is working incredibly hard to reverse completely.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

It is clear that extreme weather will only intensify in the future, because of climate change. What plans for climate change adaptation exist at major industrial sites such as Mossmorran, where a simple power dip due to the extreme weather is once again bringing flaring misery to surrounding communities this week?

Roseanna Cunningham

I am aware of the situation at Mossmorran. The weather event that we saw seems to have been unprecedented, although I am not a meteorological expert in any way, shape or form. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is currently engaging with Mossmorran to ascertain exactly what happened. I think that there is still a question mark over quite what took place there. In those circumstances, we might be best advised to wait for detailed information about the reality of the situation before we jump to any conclusions that are then rolled out and assumed for other areas as well.

There are three questions left in this portfolio section. I do not think that I can take any more supplementaries.

Access to Recycling (Glasgow)

6. Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what support is available to households in Glasgow to improve access to recycling. (S5O-04473)

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

Local authorities are responsible for decisions on the provision of local waste services within the existing statutory framework. Zero Waste Scotland provides councils with advice and assistance to support and improve recycling services. It also provides information and tips on its website to help householders to access recycling services to reduce waste and increase recycling.

Johann Lamont

I refer to the question that James Kelly asked earlier. In Glasgow, fly-tipping has increased since lockdown, perhaps because there was no access to recycling facilities. Week in and week out, we have seen stories in the local papers about instances of fly-tipping right across Glasgow, and it has been condemned by councillors across all parties.

Does the minister understand that the cuts that have been made year after year to Glasgow’s budget mean that there is less money to fund much-needed services such as those? What contact has the leader of Glasgow City Council had with the minister to lobby for the resources that Glasgow so desperately needs to support the front-line workers who have the difficult job of keeping Glasgow clean?

Mairi Gougeon

I am afraid that I do not have that information; I will have to look at it and get back to the member.

As I have said in my previous responses to questions about fly-tipping, I absolutely understand how big a problem it is, and it will require a multi-agency effort to tackle it. Some local authorities, such as Perth and Kinross Council, which we talked about earlier, have developed their own strategies in an attempt to deal with some of the fly-tipping problems that they have seen. It is within the current powers of local authorities to do that, but we are looking at the problem and at what more can be done.

Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019 (Targets)

7. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that the country meets the targets set out in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019. (S5O-04474)

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

We are taking ambitious action across the board, including through investment in policy development. Our 2020-21 budget included £2 billion of infrastructure investment over the next parliamentary term for measures to support delivery of our climate change plan. It commits £250 million over 10 years to peatland restoration, and a record £53 million to forestry in 2020-21.

More recently, we committed £62 million to the energy transition fund and £66 million for a green recovery as part of our return to work package.

In December, we will publish an update to our 2018 climate change plan to account for the targets in the 2019 act and support a green recovery from Covid-19.

Liam McArthur

The cabinet secretary will be aware that reducing emissions from the transport sector is absolutely critical to Scotland achieving its climate change targets. It will require major investment and support for transmission to low-emission modes of transport. Will Roseanna Cunningham join me in urging the transport secretary to reach agreement with Orkney Islands Council on the replacement of Orkney’s ageing internal ferry fleet with vessels that are more fuel efficient, thus helping to reduce emissions, cut costs, and provide my constituents with a service that is fit for purpose?

I will make sure that I pass the member’s concerns about ferries to my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity.

Nitrogen Balance Sheet

8. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its creation of a nitrogen balance sheet. (S5O-04475)

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

While we continue to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, we remain absolutely committed to our climate change goals, which include the establishment of a national nitrogen balance sheet to enhance the evidence base in areas such as air quality, agriculture and transport.

Initial work to identify data sources is under way in the Scottish Government. We expect to begin engaging stakeholders on the balance sheet later this year and to complete the legislative process to formalise it well in advance of the deadline of March 2022, which was agreed unanimously by Parliament.

Jeremy Balfour

There have been some delays that the public will understand as having been unavoidable because of the Covid crisis, but since the passage of the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, the Scottish National Party has given itself two full years to properly monitor nitrogen flows. Is it not the case that SNP ministers spotted another opportunity to dodge scrutiny and grasped it with both hands?

Roseanna Cunningham

Assuming that the Scottish Parliament’s unanimous endorsement of the delay included the vote of Jeremy Balfour, I am a little puzzled as to why he continues to press the matter.

Nitrogen is an important greenhouse gas, and the balance sheet will support national climate change targets. The extension of the deadline for completing the regulatory process was set prior to Covid-19. We have agreed what I consider to be a pragmatic extension of the timeframe. The limited extension of the timeframe will allow us to do the proper work that will be required across stakeholder groups, which will ensure that there is no risk to the quality of the balance sheet when we are able to produce it.

As far as I am aware, Scotland is the only country in the world to have put a nitrogen balance sheet into law. Although there are other countries that do some nitrogen balance sheet work, Scotland is the only place to have made it a statutory responsibility.

Rural Economy and Tourism

Question 1 was not lodged.

Eat Out to Help Out Scheme

2. Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of the eat out to help out scheme on the rural and tourism economies in Scotland. (S5O-04477)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

Eat out to help out is the United Kingdom Government scheme run by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. It is running every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday between 3 August and 31 August. We do not currently have information on the number of businesses that have signed up to the scheme or on the number of times that it has been used in Scotland.

Graham Simpson

I thank the cabinet secretary for that rather disappointing answer.

I can tell the cabinet secretary that 3,766 Scottish restaurants had signed up to the scheme when it went live on 3 August. Does he agree that that fantastic UK-wide initiative is having a major impact in Scotland?

Fergus Ewing

We recognise that the scheme is making a contribution, but I caution Graham Simpson to be a bit cautious on whether that will be a “major” contribution. This morning, I spoke to three leading hoteliers in Scotland. They say that, unless the furlough scheme is extended beyond October or an alternative job support package is put in place, the resultant number of people who will face redundancy around Britain will be devastating.

I am never churlish, and I welcome any support. However, to say that the scheme is a “major” scheme, as Graham Simpson did, is to fly in the face of what industry is saying and what employees fear.

Claire Baker has a short supplementary question.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

It is estimated that music tourism generates around £300 million for the Scottish economy each year. Some music venues have diversified to provide seated restaurants during this period. Although they are being supported by the UK Government scheme, the new hospitality guidance bans the playing of background—

Will you get to your question, please, Ms Baker?

The new guidance bans the playing of background music. Will the Scottish Government respond to concerns that that approach is too restrictive and that consideration should be given to—

Ms Baker, that is enough. I asked for short supplementaries.

Presiding Officer, it is an important issue, and it is a struggle to get it raised in the chamber. I have five words left to say, if that is possible.

Please be very quick.

Could a background music noise level be specified that would not require people to raise their voices?

Fergus Ewing

Of course I sympathise with the point that Claire Baker makes. As it happens, I studied that issue this morning.

I am acutely aware that artists who make their living from performance in particular have really suffered. That is why I am delighted that Fiona Hyslop is providing assistance to the arts sector in Scotland that will really help a number of people who have made their livelihood from that source.

As far as background music is concerned, we have to be very careful. If there is music and noise in a pub, people talk more loudly, and I am afraid that, as they talk more loudly, the propensity to spread the virus increases. In short, that is the problem that we have. I think that there is recognition across the chamber that the cautious approach that the Scottish Government has taken is sensible.

Will you wind up, please?

Although I sympathise absolutely with the points that Claire Baker makes, “caution” should be our watchword for the time being.

I am trying to be very fair and to allow everybody to get in with an opportunity to ask their question, but members are choosing to disadvantage their colleagues. I ask them to think on that.

North Coast 500

3. David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what representations it has received regarding future development of the NC500. (S5O-04478)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

Through its agencies, the Scottish Government continues to support businesses and communities along the route. That includes engagement with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and a number of community organisations around the north coast 500 area. Areas along the route have already benefited from the rural tourism infrastructure fund—for example, through new parking and viewpoints at Lochcarron and motorhome facilities at Lochinver.

David Stewart

Does the cabinet secretary share my view that the NC500 is the goose that lays the golden eggs for the Highland tourism economy? Does he accept the positive call from north businesses to set up a growth fund to help a bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic?

Fergus Ewing

Yes, the NC500 has been a great success, but there are pressures that we need to deal with, and the rural tourism infrastructure fund is the right vehicle for that. However, I am very happy to discuss with Mr Stewart, who I know has been an advocate and long-standing supporter of the route, how we can further develop it and increase the benefits to businesses and communities along its length.

Tourism (Showpeople and Funfairs)

4. David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what importance it places on the role and contribution of showpeople and funfair operators to tourism. (S5O-04479)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

We recognise the significant and long-standing heritage of Scotland’s showpeople and funfair operators. They form an important and valued part of our tourism sector as well as bringing fun and enjoyment to communities across the country. I know that the pandemic has hit our funfairs extremely hard, and I am pleased that we now have an indicative date for funfairs and showpeople to resume business, provided, of course, that it is safe to do so. We should not prejudge those matters.

David Torrance

The cabinet secretary will be aware that a number of Scottish Showmen’s Guild members have been ineligible for financial support during the crisis. Can he provide reassurance that the Government is committed to working with the sector to ensure the safe reopening of funfairs as quickly as possible and that it will look at financial support for showmen and their families who so far have been left with no income?

Fergus Ewing

Of course we will. As with all sectors, we do not want restrictions to remain in place any longer than is absolutely necessary to protect public health and to continue to make progress in suppressing the virus. I can absolutely assure David Torrance that we are seeking to ensure the safe reopening of funfairs as quickly as it is safe to do so.

Question 5 was not lodged.

Rural Economy (Tourism)

6. Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure that the post-lockdown economy in rural communities benefits from, but does not become overly dependent on, tourism. (S5O-04481)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

We acknowledge that tourism plays a key part in rural economies. In addition to our £2.3 billion package of measures to support businesses, we are working with local authority partners and the United Kingdom Government to support a wide range of economic development projects that will harness local and regional strengths to create jobs and attract investment.

Dr Allan

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the future of islands depends on there being a mixed economy, of which tourism is a vital part. Does he agree that we need to grow our tourism economy as part of a wider package of measures that ensures the development of the housing and infrastructure on which tourism and other businesses depend?

Fergus Ewing

I agree with Dr Allan, who has been a champion of, for example, the crofting grants scheme that has, during the lifetime of this party’s period in Government, enabled us to provide 1,000 families with new homes. That is a really significant creation and, thanks to Dr Allan’s representations, it is continuing.

We also recognise through our national islands plan the necessity of having a thriving business environment that enables individuals in Dr Allan’s constituency to pursue a wide range of economic opportunities.

Wedding Industry (Support)

7. Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to tourism businesses involved in the organising, planning and hosting of weddings in Dumfries and Galloway and other rural economies that are reliant on the wedding industry. (S5O-04482)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

We know how challenging the position on weddings and events has been for couples who planned to get married this spring and summer, and for hospitality businesses that are largely dependent on weddings.

Our package of support for business overall totals £2.3 billion. Many events-related businesses, including some that have been affected by the inability to host wedding receptions, for example, will have been able to access some of those funds.

Our aim is, of course, to try to get the sector reopened as soon as it is safe to do so, and I emphasise the necessity of all hospitality premises continuing to observe the Covid rules and not letting their guard down.

Emma Harper

I have written to the First Minister and the cabinet secretary following contact from several constituency businesses in Galloway. Can the cabinet secretary provide assurances that he will continue to engage with key stakeholders so that those experts can input their best practice ideas in order to safely prepare their businesses for the future?

Fergus Ewing

I am happy to do so, and I confirm that I have been in contact quite regularly with individual businesses that have been most affected, particularly in the Gretna area, which is substantially reliant on hosting weddings, wedding receptions and everything else relating thereto. One of the individuals in business who is most prominent in that area also serves on our tourism task force and is therefore directly able to input his recommendations in that regard.

Above all, we have to keep the restrictions in place until it is safe to remove them. Everyone knows that. However, at the same time, we all want to see an indicative date for the resumption of weddings, which are—obviously—planned on a long-term basis. The sooner that can be provided, in accordance with the safety protocols, the better for those businesses.

I have a few requests to ask supplementary questions, so I ask members to keep them short.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

The weddings sector is hugely important to the Dumfries and Galloway economy, not least in Gretna Green, which the cabinet secretary mentioned. Does he accept that what the sector is asking for is no different from what he did for the tourism sector, which was to set an indicative advance date for reopening? Whether we are talking about a couple looking to tie the knot or a business that will make their day special, advance planning time is absolutely crucial.

Fergus Ewing

I absolutely understand the sector’s wishes, and that is precisely because, as I indicated in my response to Emma Harper, I have engaged directly with the businesses concerned. In one case, I think that there was a 45-minute discussion. I know well that they want to reopen.

Members will be aware that the difference between a group of strangers in a restaurant and a group at a wedding is that everyone in a wedding party knows one other. That is a different social gathering—it is a different context. Like it or not, we cannot ignore that, and we cannot ignore the concomitant additional risks that it brings.

That is why we had to come to the decision not to group the wedding receptions category with the categories that have had the restrictions lifted. We have taken that approach consistently here. Down south, they decided to take a different approach, but then changed their minds. Nonetheless, we all wish to see the sector resume as soon as it is safe to do so. I make no bones about repeating that position—every member knows that it is true.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

I imagine that it was my constituents who have been on the phone to the cabinet secretary. Maybe if he had listened to their expert advice, he would not have been on the phone for 45 minutes. If those venues feel that they can deliver weddings safely, why are we not trusting people and respecting industry experts?

Fergus Ewing

I am afraid that I do not accept the premise of the member’s question. We have shown that we trust people. Since 15 July, I have attended many businesses in the accommodation and visitor attraction sector, and the vast majority of them are taking the situation absolutely and scrupulously seriously. We are trusting them and we are asking them to maintain high standards.

Of course I trust the individuals. I do not want to mention the names of the individuals that Mr Mundell is talking about, who have significant businesses. That is not the issue; the issue is that wedding gatherings are different from gatherings of strangers. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but we have to be honest with people. That is what the First Minister has said all along. We cannot retreat into partisan political viewpoints just because it makes us feel good to utter them. That makes no difference to the facts, which we have to look straight at and act on.

Rural Economy and Tourism Workers (Availability)

8. Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact of Covid-19 has been on the availability of workers in the rural economy and tourism sectors. (S5O-04483)

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

Covid-19 has had serious impacts on our rural and island economies, and particularly on tourism. We continue to monitor the impacts on agriculture, forestry, tourism and other industries, which are predominant in those areas and are particularly reliant on workers from the European Union. That situation continues to develop as communities are still affected by restrictions, so it is too early to fully assess the impact that it will have had. However, the Scottish tourism recovery task force, which has a focus on business recovery and protecting the workforce through retaining and upskilling staff, will examine issues such as the availability of workers.

Alex Rowley

I assume that the Scottish Government believes that the rural economy has a major contribution to make in Scotland’s economic recovery, which we need to build on. If that is the case, does the minister or the Government intend to produce a strategic plan for prioritising strategic investment into the rural economy? For example, thousands of jobs can be achieved in forestry if we invest in the levels of tree planting that we need to have in order to hit our climate goals.

Mairi Gougeon

The member talked about forestry in particular. The cabinet secretary has been leading on that area and has been doing a tremendous amount of work on it, because there is huge potential for growth in such areas. The rural economy is vital and it is important that we invest in those areas.

In my previous answer, I mentioned the tourism recovery task force and a few streams of work that will be considered as we look to rebuild and also develop and grow that industry. A number of plans are under way, because the rural economy is vital and we want it to be in as strong a position as possible.

That concludes questions on the rural economy and tourism. I am sorry that I was unable to allow supplementary questions to Mr Rowley’s question.