Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Wednesday, September 28, 2022
Agenda: Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Ferries, National Health Service Waiting Times, Point of Order, Business Motions, Motion without Notice, Research Excellence Framework Results 2021
- Point of Order
- Portfolio Question Time
- National Health Service Waiting Times
- Point of Order
- Business Motions
- Motion without Notice
- Research Excellence Framework Results 2021
Portfolio Question Time
Covid-19 Recovery and Parliamentary Business
We move on to portfolio questions. I remind members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question. I would appreciate short questions and answers to match, in order that we might get through as many questions as possible.
To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on the rolling out of citizens assemblies. (S6O-01380)
The Scottish Government has committed to providing more opportunities for people to share their experiences and views and to influence Government decisions, including—but not limited to—citizens assemblies.
In March, the institutionalising participatory and deliberative democracy—IPDD—working group delivered its report, recommending that infrastructure and processes are required to deliver those commitments and to learn lessons from previous citizens assemblies. The recent programme for government committed to responding to the report. That response will set out steps for how we can routinely involve people, communities and children in democratic decision making.
Does the minister agree that, as we are in the middle of a cost of living crisis that is being exacerbated by Tory budget policies that benefit the wealthy, a citizens assembly forum on the issue is urgently needed?
The cost of living crisis is an important issue for public deliberation, in helping to identify equitable ways, which have public support, to move through the crisis. At present, we are not in a position from which to run a short-notice citizens assembly on the issue.
However, we have set up a people’s panel on wellbeing in 2022 and beyond, which has met three times so far. The cost of living crisis has been discussed with panelists to provide us with in-depth understanding of people’s views on the crisis and of its current and anticipated impact on people’s lives.
Covid-19 Recovery (Programme for Government 2022-23)
To ask the Scottish Government how measures set out in its programme for government 2022-23 will support Scotland’s Covid-19 recovery. (S6O-01381)
Recovering from Covid-19 remains a priority for the Scottish Government. The 2022-23 programme for government outlines the range of actions that we are taking to support that, and it addresses the impacts of the pandemic across our society, economy and health services. It sets out our investment for the next year through the Covid support fund, which assists those who are living with long-term effects of infection; outlines financial support that is available for local economies that are dealing with the impacts of the pandemic; and undertakes to eradicate healthcare waits of more than 18 months in most specialties.
In relation to pandemic or disease resilience, in the Scottish Parliament’s COVID-19 Recovery Committee evidence session on 8 September, Carolyn Low, who is the director of finance at NHS National Services Scotland, said that in the event of a future pandemic crisis that affected only Scotland, the funding would have to come from existing Scottish funding sources. Does the Scottish Government have the fiscal flexibility that it requires to respond to such a crisis?
Mr Fairlie will be familiar with the range of powers and responsibilities that the Government has within the parliamentary system. Of course, one of the key limitations is that we do not have the capacity to borrow for resource spending purposes, other than for very limited purposes in relation to financial management. Therefore, in the scenario that Mr Fairlie has put to me—a pandemic emerging that would require additional public expenditure within a financial year—in order to prioritise dealing with such a pandemic, the Government could provide support only by taking resources that are allocated to other areas of expenditure. Obviously, I would hope that if there were to be an event that happened at United Kingdom level, the wider workings that we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic would be relevant and would be applied. Obviously, the Government would co-operate with that in any future scenario.
One sector that needs help to recover from the pressures of Covid is the social housing sector. The Scottish Government’s programme for government proposes a bill to freeze rents, although we have not yet seen that bill and, I believe, are not to see it until shortly before we are due to debate it on Tuesday.
This week, I received a letter from Kingdom Housing Association in my region. In it, it expresses serious concerns about a rent freeze. It says that
“a rent freeze in the social sector is a serious threat to the Scottish Government’s targets on decarbonisation and affordable housing.”
The letter goes on to say that the freeze will lead to a reduction in the association’s delivery of new homes, as well as
“the deferral of planned maintenance works ... and ... a potential reduction in service delivery standards to tenants”.
How does the Scottish Government respond to those very serious concerns from social housing providers?
Although this is not directly relevant, Presiding Officer, I should remind members of my entry in the register of interests in relation to private rented property.
The issues that Mr Fraser raises on behalf of Kingdom Housing Association are all legitimate questions that Parliament will have to consider when it considers the proposed legislation, so it would be premature of me to give a specific response until the provisions are published. Adequate opportunity has been made available for Parliament to consider that proposed legislation.
The letter that Mr Fraser has quoted highlights the fact that there are really difficult choices to be made in this cost of living crisis. I suspect that we will have a lot of talk about that as I respond to questions this afternoon. There are very difficult choices that arise because inflation is putting enormous pressure on our budgets, and because individual householders face cost of living challenges. The Government has taken the decision that we need to protect people from rent increases for a limited period, given that such increases would exacerbate the effects of the cost of living issues.
Within all that, we will engage constructively with the social housing sector. However, I do not accept the idea that we can navigate our way through the cost of living crisis without difficult decisions having to be confronted. I have been completely open with Parliament about those difficulties; I gave a statement here three weeks ago on the difficulties in our budget. We will have more of those issues to wrestle with in the period to come.
Covid-19 Recovery (Budget)
To ask the Scottish Government what it anticipates the impact will be on its Covid recovery strategy of the reduction to the Covid recovery budget announced on 7 September as part of the emergency budget review. (S6O-01382)
The current fiscal environment presents real and significant pressures. Within the constraints of a fixed budget and limited powers, the Scottish Government is managing the nation’s finances while maximising the support that is available to those who are most affected by the pandemic and by the on-going cost crisis.
The emergency budget review is on-going and will assess all opportunities to redirect additional resources to those who are most in need as well as to reduce the burdens on businesses, stimulate the economy and support our wider recovery from the pandemic. Any changes to budgets that result from that will be formally set out to Parliament in the standard budget revision process.
Given the reduction in the budget, will the cabinet secretary give an update on ventilation in classrooms? Have classroom doors been cut along with the budget?
Frankly, I think that that question trivialises the difficulties that we face. It demonstrates where the Conservative Party is just now. The fact that on today of all days, when the United Kingdom’s public finances face absolute peril, Douglas Lumsden believes that he should use parliamentary time in such a flippant fashion, tells us everything. Mr Kerr has just been on his feet complaining about the quality of answers. Well, I am on my feet complaining about the quality of the questions from Mr Lumsden, who needs to up his game.
Is the reality not that the Deputy First Minister needs to tell Douglas Lumsden that we have a problem with pressure on the Covid recovery budget and all other budgets because we have a crazy UK Westminster Government that is cutting taxes, allowing the pound to collapse and pushing up energy import costs and everything else?
I agree unreservedly with John Mason’s analysis of the current situation and his characterisation of the United Kingdom Government’s behaviour as “crazy”. In its fiscal event on Friday, the United Kingdom Government announced measures that have recklessly undermined confidence in the public finances and the economy, and it did absolutely nothing to alleviate the suffering of individuals in our society, many of whom will be Mr Mason’s constituents.
The United Kingdom Government needs to concentrate on stabilising the public finances, on removing the ridiculous budget provisions that it put in place on Friday and on addressing the serious issue, which I have put to it, that our budget is now, because of raging inflation in our economy, worth £1.6 billion less than it was when we set it. That is the real challenge that we face.
Earlier this month, the Scottish Government wrote to integration joint boards to inform them that they will have to return unspent Covid reserves. That is an extraordinary decision, given that the deadly virus has not gone away and that clinicians warn of a really challenging period ahead for the national health service and social care. Will the cabinet secretary explain why he is raiding the coffers of IJBs at a time when they need support to deliver vital health and social care services? Does he agree that, if it had been the UK Government clawing back money from Scotland, he would have been enraged, and rightly so?
The reason why that needs to be done is that we have to use all the means available to us to support public servants, many of whom work for integration joint boards, to deliver healthcare in our society following increased pay deals to deal with the consequences of inflation.
I do not need to explain this to Jackie Baillie, but I will, just for completeness. The Scottish Government cannot borrow for resource purposes, and we cannot change tax rates during the financial year, so unless the UK Government expands the resources that are available by changing the spending envelope, no extra resources will be available to us.
During my conversation with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on Friday, I took the opportunity to press the case for increases in public spending. He was entirely unsympathetic to my appeals for that step to be taken, so the Scottish Government must, because we do not have access to flexibility, look at various ways in which we can utilise resources in order that we can afford increased pay claims and address other pressures within the financial year. What Jackie Baillie cited is one example of the steps that the Government has to take.
Covid Recovery Strategy (Cost of Living)
To ask the Scottish Government how the cost of living crisis is impacting its Covid recovery strategy. (S6O-01383)
The Covid recovery strategy commits us to actions that support financial security for low-income households. The cost of living crisis represents an unprecedented challenge that is impacting people across Scotland and we are providing significant additional support to help mitigate that situation. By March, we will have invested almost £3 billion in a range of measures for households, supporting energy bills, childcare, health and travel, as well as social security payments.
In our programme for government, we announced several further responses to maximise support for those in need, including a new winter heating payment, the doubling of our fuel insecurity fund to £20 million, £5 million additional funding for discretionary housing payments, and further action to reduce the cost of the school day for families.
Last week, I met Matthew Cole, who is the head of the Fuel Bank Foundation, which is an organisation that mainly provides help for customers on pre-payment meters who are at real risk of having their energy supply cut off.
Given that the Tory United Kingdom Government has decided to prioritise the wealthy at the expense of ordinary families, what powers does the Scottish Government need in order to realise Scotland’s energy potential and to ensure that nobody has their lights and heating cut off when they do not have the cash to top up fuel?
The type of powers and responsibilities needed would be the powers to reform the energy market and to apply a windfall tax to energy companies, which will profit enormously from the rise in energy costs. However, under the current UK Government proposals, the burden of paying for all that support will be added to the borrowing stock and obligations of future generations. Those examples show how getting wider powers for the Scottish Parliament would make a difference.
As Scotland’s economy recovers from the Covid crisis, what can the cabinet secretary say to people who are facing a tough winter of skyrocketing energy costs, especially people, including many of my constituents, who are reliant on heating oil, for which there is no cap?
I have every sympathy with the point that Beatrice Wishart has raised. Indeed, the other week I had the pleasure of meeting Councillor Emma Macdonald, the leader of Shetland Islands Council, after she had published an analysis of the expected increases in costs for people in Shetland and the Orkney islands, which will be at an even greater level because of temperature and limited daylight over the winter.
I have every sympathy with the points that the member has raised and I assure her that we will continue to make representations to the UK Government to provide direct intervention. If we can try to offer support in other ways through some of the financial schemes that the Scottish Government has available, I will ensure that that information is available to Beatrice Wishart’s constituents, so that they might access such funds.
Covid Recovery Strategy (Dundee)
To ask the Scottish Government what funding it has provided to Dundee to support the city’s recovery from the pandemic. (S6O-01384)
The Covid recovery strategy brings together more than 70 actions that will support people across Scotland by increasing the financial security for low-income households, enhancing the wellbeing of children and young people, and creating good, green jobs and fair work.
The strategy also focuses on renewing public services to ensure that they meet the specific needs of people and communities. For example, in Dundee, our best start, bright futures delivery plan, which will help tackle child poverty, is testing holistic support to help parents access work and increase their incomes.
Furthermore, Dundee City Council will receive £353.4 million to fund local services, which equates to an extra £27.8 million compared with the past financial year. That funding is in addition to Covid-19 funding of £50 million through the local government settlement, over and above regular grant payments.
I welcome the additional funding, which has enabled the city’s Scottish National Party council to implement the £800,000 fuel well Dundee scheme, which provides targeted support for energy bills, and to provide £400,000 for tackling food insecurity, £200,000 for money and energy advice and £500,000 for business recovery.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that, although those schemes are welcome and provide crucial support for my constituents, it is unfortunate that the lack of sufficient action from the Westminster Government in areas such as those, which are reserved responsibilities and, indeed, its pursuing of deliberately damaging policies, has required the Scottish Government and Dundee’s SNP council to step in to support local people?
I welcome the steps that the Dundee City Council administration has taken to support people who face challenges at this time. I agree with Mr FitzPatrick that those interventions will assist individuals. I regret the fact that they have been necessary as a result of the lack of action from the UK Government. However, those interventions demonstrate the benefit of Dundee City Council acting on behalf of the people of Dundee, as I would expect it to do.
We will have a brief supplementary from Mercedes Villalba.
Although the money that has been allocated to councils through the local authority Covid economic recovery fund is welcome, it does little to reverse the damage to local services that has been caused by a decade of cuts. The Scottish Government has cut real-terms—
I said “brief”.
—cumulative funding for councils by 4.2 per cent, and we have heard that it is clawing back funding from the integration joint boards. Will the minister provide an assurance that councils will be able to use all the funding that is allocated to them through the economic recovery fund without fear of that being clawed back, too?
In my answer to Mr FitzPatrick, I pointed out that Dundee City Council had received £27.8 million more in funding from the Government than it did in 2021-22. That is in addition to the £50 million of Covid-19 funding that is being provided through the local government settlement.
The Government has been providing substantial support to local government and, in recent weeks, we have provided additional in-year support to enable the local government pay deal to be settled. The Government’s making available those new, additional resources shows that it is doing its level best by local authorities in Scotland.
Covid Recovery Strategy (Fiscal Statement)
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions have taken place with ministers across Government regarding the impact of the United Kingdom Government’s fiscal statement on Scotland’s Covid recovery strategy. (S6O-01385)
Since the Covid recovery strategy was published, and particularly in recent months, rising inflation, the worsening cost of living crisis and the UK Government’s inaction have made it even more critical for the Scottish ministers to focus our efforts on supporting those who are most in need.
We are undertaking an emergency budget review to assess any and all opportunities to redirect additional resources to those who are most in need, to reduce the burdens on businesses and to stimulate the Scottish economy.
The mini budget announced by Kwasi Kwarteng prioritises lining the pockets of the rich through cutting corporation tax and cutting the 45 per cent tax rate that is paid by the wealthiest individuals in the UK. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that we need to focus on rebuilding our economy post-Covid, post-Brexit and in the current context of international uncertainty, rather than take unnecessary risks that will not protect people on low to average incomes?
Yesterday, I set out to Parliament the very significant concerns that the Scottish Government has about the measures that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced on Friday. The concerns that were set out to Parliament yesterday by ministers have been amplified by yesterday’s intervention by the International Monetary Fund, the commentary from ratings agencies and today’s intervention by the Bank of England, which demonstrate that the announcements that were made on Friday were foolish and very damaging, and that they are causing significant financial volatility for the UK. That will have an effect on householders and the public finances into the bargain.
Covid Business Resilience and Support Directorate
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how the work of the Covid business resilience and support directorate is supporting its Covid recovery strategy. (S6O-01386)
The Covid recovery strategy is focused on reducing systemic inequalities and includes commitments to support the creation of good, green jobs and fair work in Scotland. Businesses play an important role in that aspect of recovery, and the Scottish Government has prioritised support for business. For example, in February 2022, the Scottish Government launched the £80 million local authority Covid economic recovery fund, which empowered local authorities to consider how best to support local businesses, communities and households through a focus on targeting support to maximise economic recovery in their areas.
All those steps have been assisted by the work that has been delivered by the Covid business resilience and support directorate.
In June, Audit Scotland noted that it had taken too long to establish internal governance arrangements within the Scottish Government. It noted that it took until March 2021—almost a year after the start of the pandemic—for the business resilience and support directorate to be formed. All the while, there were significant delays in getting support out to businesses, and concerns remain about the fact that significant funds that were allocated for Covid support remain unspent.
What lessons have been learned from the Government’s response? What action has been taken to ensure that any underspend in budget is targeted at continuing to support Scottish businesses?
There were a number of interesting points in that. The Government acted with great urgency and speed to try to distribute funding support, because we recognised the gravity of the crisis that was faced with Covid.
I have read the Audit Scotland report on the funding. On the one hand, it was complimentary about how swiftly the Government moved. That is certainly feedback that I have had from many businesses in my constituency, which have told me that they would not be in business today had the Government not acted so quickly.
That was contrasted by the understandable demand for there to be proper governance around the arrangements. We have to be open about the fact that there is a challenge about the necessity to act with speed, to save businesses, and the necessity to have in place absolutely every check and balance that we would require to have.
Audit Scotland’s assessment of inappropriateness in the distribution of finances in Covid business support was that, in essence, it was of a minimal level. That cannot be said for all funding across the United Kingdom, and there is huge concern from the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons about these issues and the Westminster Government.
There is a difficult balance to be struck, but I assure Mr Halcro Johnston that the Government has approached the issue with the imperative of supporting businesses when they needed that assistance, and to do that as quickly as possible.
Electoral Reform (Consultation)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to consult further on electoral reform in Scotland. (S6O-01387)
Work has been under way over the summer to prepare a public consultation and my officials and I have had helpful initial discussions with several interested stakeholders.
I thank the minister for that very welcome news. Greens have campaigned for a long time for a truly residence-based franchise in Scotland, in which everyone who lives here, including 16-year-olds, has the right to vote and stand in elections.
I hope that the new consultation will go some way to fixing inequalities in our electoral franchise in relation to candidacy rights, although I want to see it go further in extending voting rights to people who are seeking asylum.
How will the consultation encourage particularly disenfranchised communities to respond?
The consultation paper will be published by the end of this year. I have already met a number of key stakeholders in relation to possible consultation topics and I plan to continue that approach. I would be happy to consider any suggestion from the member and discuss further the issues that he has mentioned or any ideas that other members may have for the process.
On that note, we will have two brief supplementaries, the first of which is from Stephen Kerr.
On that note, does the minister agree that the current modified D’Hondt system that we are using disproportionately rewards parties that do not stand candidates in constituencies? Should parties with candidates on the regional list ranking not have to stand candidates in constituencies for the system to be anything like fair and reasonable, rather than our having parties game the system?
As always, Mr Kerr is quite entertaining and has plenty of ideas on this issue. I would say that today is possibly not the time to start talking about rewriting the Scotland Act 1998. It is possibly a discussion for us all to have in the future.
I will spare the minister my full slide show from a recent visit to observe the Swedish election, but since we are on the subject of gaming, would the minister look at the Swedish system, which is the ultra-proportional open-list system, with 28 regions and a national rebalancing mechanism, as a means to avoid gaming of the electoral system in Scotland?
This is not to commit myself to anything at this stage, but I am quite willing to discuss that system with Mr Rennie and have a look at it, and we could possibly take it from there.
Deftly done. That ends portfolio questions on Covid-19 recovery and parliamentary business.
Finance and the Economy
The second portfolio is finance and the economy. Again, should members wish to ask a supplementary question, I encourage them to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.
Impact of Pressures on Business
To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has undertaken of the cumulative impact on business of the pressures of a weak currency, high inflation, rising energy costs and Brexit. (S6O-01388)
The impacts of inflation are affecting businesses across Scotland and have been exacerbated by the United Kingdom Government’s recent announcements, which have seen the pound fall to record lows, and the additional uncertainty that we have seen today.
That comes on top of Brexit. In the most recent business insights and conditions survey, 46 per cent of the businesses that are experiencing exporting challenges said that the end of the European Union transition period is the main cause.
The Scottish Government has engaged extensively with business and supports its calls to the United Kingdom Government for action. However, last week’s mini-budget gives tax cuts for the rich and little for households and businesses that are struggling to pay bills.
We have had six chancellors since 2014. The pound was at $1.64 in 2014 and is now at $1.08 and probably falling. Annual inflation was 2.3 per cent; it is now 9.9 per cent, with forecasts of 22 per cent. The UK was in the euro in 2014; since leaving the EU, Scottish exports have decreased by 14 per cent. The energy price cap in 2014 was £1,100; it is now £2,500. We can add the comments by the International Monetary Fund and credit agencies today.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that the so-called stability of the UK economy, which is often mentioned by unionist politicians, is no longer credible in any way and that our businesses are being damaged?
We are experiencing an acute period of volatility and uncertainty, which was started by Brexit and has been exacerbated by the crisis around Covid, the war in Ukraine and, now, the recklessness of the new Conservative Government. The idea that somehow the United Kingdom can be described as a stable economy, in the light of all the chaos and damage that has been done to business, is a fallacy of the past.
We have two brief supplementary questions.
The Bank of England can only hope that its emergency and unlimited gilt buying operation will be a temporary measure in the defences that are required against an incompetent Tory budget. Former monetary policy committee member Professor Blanchflower said that Kwasi Kwarteng has
“crashed the ... markets ... I’ve never seen such raging incompetence, ever.”
Does the cabinet secretary agree that Scottish people can simply no longer afford to pay the price of being attached to this failing UK state and that the UK Government must not impose swingeing cuts to Scotland’s budget?
There are three points to make in that regard. First, one of the consequences of the chancellor’s recklessness on Friday is the risk of very significant reductions in public expenditure to try to restore market confidence. That would be a disaster for Scotland.
Secondly, the cost of remaining part of the United Kingdom is now acute for people in Scotland, when we see the damage of Brexit and this fiscal mismanagement.
Thirdly, I am struck by the ridiculousness of the Conservative Party demanding that I replicate the changes that the chancellor made on Friday, when we look at the chaos that has been inflicted on all of us as a consequence.
What can the Scottish Government say to businesses in the islands, who already face higher costs than their mainland counterparts and fear for their viability as economic confidence falls and overheads and inflation continue to rise?
One of the issues about which I am most concerned is the scale of energy price rises, even with some of the measures that are now in place, for entirely profitable and sustainable businesses. I give Beatrice Wishart the example—which I have shared openly—of a farmer in my constituency. He explained to me that his energy costs are currently £50,000 a year and that he is being quoted £250,000. A difference of £200,000 is just impossible for that farming venture to find. An individual who is producing food for our domestic market faces the potential of not being able to continue to do so. Beatrice Wishart will have examples such as that one from her constituency.
We have to recognise the enormity of the risk that is faced. The scale of intervention has to be acute, to ensure that businesses that are perfectly viable in every normal circumstance can be assisted through this difficulty, as we assisted them in the context of Covid. However, we should not do that by saddling future generations with the level of borrowing that the United Kingdom Government proposes.
We are tight for time all afternoon. I must encourage more succinct questions and answers.
National Planning Framework 4 (North-East Scotland)
To ask the Scottish Government how the national planning framework 4 will be equipped to attract investment to north-east Scotland. (S6O-01389)
National planning framework 4 will set out clear national policy and spatial priorities for every area, including the north-east. Once adopted, NPF4 will form part of the statutory development plan, will be reviewed every 10 years and will be central to planning decision making locally.
The increase in local application combined with our long-term vision for Scotland in 2045 means that NPF4 will give greater clarity and confidence to people, communities and investors—for example, in actively planning and delivering the just transition from oil and gas to a net zero future for the north-east.
NPF4 will be closely aligned with other Government strategies and will be accompanied by a delivery programme to support better alignment and co-ordination of delivery partners and their funding sources. It is for all sectors and stakeholders to help to deliver NPF4.
Research by Scottish Renewables shows that the average planning decision for renewable energy projects can take around 772 days from submission, which is not compatible with meeting net zero by 2045. Renewable energy is key to tackling the climate emergency, securing Scotland’s energy supply and dealing with the cost of living crisis. Will the minister outline how all that will be delivered, given the timescales that I have referred to?
We recognise the critical role of planning in helping to meet our net zero targets. Our package of planning reforms is focused on delivering clearer and quicker decisions to give greater confidence and predictability to those who plan to develop.
NPF4 will signal a turning point for planning, and we have been clear that responding to the global climate emergency and the nature crisis will be central to that, including by actively enabling appropriately located renewable energy developments. I am also working with the high-level group on planning performance to drive forward a programme to enhance resources and skills.
We have recently increased planning fees to enable additional resources for planning services, and we are preparing to recruit Scotland’s first national planning improvement co-ordinator to support good practice among authorities and users of the planning system.
I have a number of supplementary questions, and I impress on questioners and the minister that everything needs to be brief from this point on.
The minister will be acutely aware of the importance of genuine community engagement for local and regional economic development. Indeed, that is a vital part of the Scottish Government’s commitment to a just transition. Without listening to local voices, economic development cannot be just. How can we ensure that decisions on inward investment to north-east Scotland do not ride roughshod over the wishes and needs of local communities?
People rightly want to be involved, and we want them to be involved in the decisions that shape the places in which they live, work and play. Effective public engagement can lead to better planning decisions and more satisfactory outcomes. Our planning system includes statutory and non-statutory opportunities for engagement, including in the preparation of local development plans that set out the future use of land in the area and the new place plans that were introduced by the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019.
Will NPF4 provide greater flexibility for local authorities so that a community-focused approach to planning can be taken—for example, to tackle vacant and derelict buildings such as the Interfloor factory in Dumfries, which I am petitioning the council to take action on?
The member will appreciate that I cannot comment on specific cases, but we are carefully considering policies in the draft NPF4 on vacant and derelict land. We also undertook a consultation on new-style local development plans. New-style LDP regulations will be laid shortly after the new NPF4 comes into effect.
Last month, the Bon Accord centre in Aberdeen plunged into administration, sparking concerns about its future. Business rates are killing our high streets, so how will NPF4 not so much attract new investment, but allow us to keep what we have?
The draft NPF4 recognises that we need to preserve and reuse existing assets; that comes from our net zero ambitions and from recognising the importance of place and having thriving centres. There are specific policies on centres in the draft NPF4, and we will bring a finalised NPF4 back to the Parliament later in the autumn.
Scottish National Investment Bank
To ask the Scottish Government how many projects and what total value of loans the Scottish National Investment Bank has supported. (S6O-01390)
The bank has made loan commitments of £103 million, and made fund and equity investments of £155 million across 20 companies and projects. Those investments have seen £482 million of co-investment of third-party capital. The investments have supported all three of the bank’s missions on net zero, place and innovation and people.
Businesses, especially those in the green economy and renewables sector, report to me that accessing potential funding from the Scottish National Investment Bank is problematic and wrapped in red tape, and that the bank looks for reasons not to invest and is risk averse. Surely investing in innovation in the renewables sector is what the SNIB is for, so will the Deputy First Minister agree to review the way that the SNIB lends money to ensure that Scotland does not miss out on the significant economic opportunities that the renewables sector brings?
I am very happy to engage on that question, because one of the Scottish National Investment Bank’s priorities is to lend to sustainable projects with growth potential in the net zero environment. I have a list of projects that have been supported to assist that objective. If there are particular examples that Mr Whittle is concerned about, I will happily look at them and explore them with the bank. Over time, we will look at the performance of the bank and determine whether there are any obstacles. However, I assure Mr Whittle and the chamber that the bank is keen to lend to projects in those key areas.
Higher Property Rate
To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the Scottish Retail Consortium’s recommendation to accelerate the process of lowering the higher property rate. (S6O-01391)
Decisions on non-domestic rates—including the poundage and any reliefs or supplements—are considered in the context of the Scottish budget and in line with other Government priorities.
The Scottish budget 2022-23 delivers the lowest poundage in the UK for the fourth year in a row, ensuring that over 95 per cent of non-domestic properties in Scotland continue to be liable for a lower property tax rate than anywhere else in the UK.
I did not hear an answer to my question on what assessment the Government has made of the SRC’s calls.
Back in 2017, the Barclay review, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government, called for the large business supplement to be reduced in order to make Scotland the best place in the United Kingdom to do business. Does the minister agree with the SRC that retaining a higher rate in Scotland is not a competitive approach, and will the Government look again at that policy in its forthcoming budget?
I am very grateful to the SRC for its submission. The point that I made in my original answer was that it would be premature of me to set out what the non-domestic rates policy will be ahead of the budget being delivered later this year. Of course, we very much welcome the submission from the SRC and we will give careful consideration to it.
4 Day Week Global Pilot
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the findings of the survey of participants in 4 Day Week Global’s pilot. (S6O-01393)
The Scottish Government has a keen interest in the trial, and at the halfway point indicative results demonstrate positive experiences for employers and workers. There is no doubt that a four-day working week could bring environmental, health, wellbeing and productivity benefits, which is why ministers are committed to exploring the benefits further. Indeed, the programme for government restated our commitment to support research and advice to improve workplace productivity and wellbeing, including on the delivery of a four-day working week pilot, and we will bring forward specific proposals soon.
A four-day working week could save workers thousands of pounds in childcare and commuting costs. The Labour MP Peter Dowd has introduced a four-day working week bill to Westminster. Will the Scottish Government publicly back that bill?
Like Mercedes Villalba, I am a keen supporter of the four-day working week, and I am enthusiastic about the work that the Scottish Government is doing in this area. An example of that work is our new centre for workplace transformation, which will complement the existing pilot trials that are under way by analysing where there may be gaps in existing literature or analysis to explore possibilities for an alternative working practice that delivers more inclusive balance between work and personal lives.
My declaration of interests records my attendance at the four-day week conference in Valencia, in May, and I shared insights with ministers on that.
As productivity is a persistent challenge for Scotland and the United Kingdom, and as productivity gains have proved to be a key benefit of four-day week pilots—as has recruitment and retention of talented and valuable staff, which is important in a tight labour market—can the minister reiterate the Government’s commitment to a pilot? As the Portuguese Government has also announced that it will conduct four-day week pilots and is keen to learn from Scotland’s work, will the Scottish Government also commit to engage with other Governments on that agenda?
Ministers remain committed to exploring the benefits of a four-day working week, which is why the 2022-23 programme for government includes a commitment to undertake research and advice to improve workplace productivity and wellbeing, including on the delivery of a four-day working week pilot. Our work will be informed by experience that has been drawn from similar programmes in other countries and elsewhere in the UK. Officials have already made plans to meet with the Valencian and Portuguese Governments next month.
Sanjeev Gupta (Meetings)
To ask the Scottish Government when it last met Sanjeev Gupta. (S6O-01394)
The Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, Ivan McKee, last met Mr Gupta, on 15 August 2022.
Their auditors have resigned, there is an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office and the promised 2,000 jobs are nowhere to be seen. Their owners have warned that the plants may, in fact, shut. Does the Government regret ignoring warnings from its own economic advisers about doing deals with GFG Alliance, the owners of the Lochaber smelter and the Lanarkshire steel mills?
The Government’s intentions were clear. We were taking those steps to try to protect employment. There are families who are employed in the Dalzell steelworks and at the Lochaber smelter today who would not be employed if the Government had not helped in that way that we did.
We are trying to ensure that we support employment in our society. There are commitments that GFG has to make to the Government. Those commitments are being delivered on in relation to the payments that are required as part of the financial arrangements that are in place. The Government will continue to monitor those issues and respond to any issues that are raised in Parliament.
Has the Scottish Government had any contact with the Serious Fraud Office regarding the SFO’s investigation into GFG’s activities?
I do not think that I am at liberty to respond in detail to that question, but I will take advice and, if I am at liberty to do so, I will respond further to Mr Halcro Johnston in writing.
With everything that has happened recently, there is a clear risk that GFG and Gupta’s financial empire will collapse. What is the total liability to the public purse if that were to come to pass?
That is a difficult factor to calculate, given the various scenarios that could take place, but I reassure Mr Johnson that the Government has in place arrangements that ensure that all of the payments that are required to be made to the Government are up to date and the asset value of the Lochaber venture is in excess of any liability that could be created in the scenario that Mr Johnson raises in relation to that individual site.
Retail (Cost Pressures)
To ask the Scottish Government how it will address any concerns over cost pressures affecting the retail sector. (S6O-01395)
As outlined in our programme for government, we will work with the business community to identify further measures that can assist in addressing increased costs and economic disruption. However, as the member will appreciate, the powers and resources needed to tackle this emergency on the scale required—access to borrowing, welfare, VAT on fuel, taxation of windfall profits, and regulation of the energy market—currently all lie with the United Kingdom Government. We have continually urged the UK Government to use all the powers and fiscal headroom at its disposal and we will continue to do everything within our resources and powers to help those who are most affected.
We have been calling for the UK Government to introduce a business energy cap for some time. I welcome that it has now done so, but without substantial reform to the energy market, there is a real risk that this temporary measure will prove to be inadequate.
Let us look at what the Scottish Government could do, with
“Potentially thousands of businesses facing closure next year.”
That is the warning from the Scottish Grocers Federation over the proposed deposit return handling fees, which it warns will not cover retailer costs. Does the minister agree that it is worth at least having a review now, a year ahead of the launch, to ensure that retailers will not face serious losses?
I am very much looking forward to speaking at the Scottish Grocers Federation conference next week. We are committed to the launch of the deposit return scheme next year. It is an industry-led scheme, but we have been engaging with business and we will continue to do so, including with the retail sector.
The retail sector is facing substantial pressures as a result of the cost of living, not to mention Brexit. Can the minister provide any further information on the Scottish Government’s latest engagement with the sector regarding meeting current challenges and building resilience for the future?
Yes, we have regular engagement with the retail sector and the wider business community. I co-chaired the first meeting of the newly inaugurated retail industry leadership group on 25 August. We discussed a variety of issues, including the implementation of our retail strategy—particularly developing a fair work agreement and commencing a skills audit, which are both identified as key priorities in the strategy. The next meeting of the group will be in early November and I am happy to keep members updated on its progress.
That concludes portfolio questions. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item of business.