Website survey

We want your feedback on the Scottish Parliament website. Take our 6 question survey now

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 02 November 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, National Health Service (Audit Scotland Report and Service Development), Sectarian Behaviour and Hate Crime, National Health Service, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Welfare Conditionality Study


Portfolio Question Time

Decommissioning Jobs

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making with keeping decommissioning jobs in Scotland. (S5O-00271)

Our commitment and approach to the opportunities that are presented by decommissioning are clearly outlined in the programme for government. On behalf of the Scottish ministers, Scottish Enterprise is developing a decommissioning action plan, which should be published by the end of the calendar year. At our instruction, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise are carrying out work to identify potential sites for investment with a view to increasing capacity for larger decommissioned units to come ashore at our ports and harbours.

It is important to recognise that decommissioning the top-side infrastructure is a relatively small share of the overall contract value and many Scottish supply chain companies are very active in the decommissioning market. We hope to further support them in the future. Our transition training fund is also available to help those who were made redundant from the oil and gas industry to retrain for opportunities that might arise in decommissioning. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work and I will chair a meeting later this month with North Sea operators that are involved in decommissioning projects to better understand the opportunities in decommissioning, as well as the challenges that our oil and gas supply chain faces in maximising those opportunities.

I note that the minister did not give a commitment to publish the strategy before Christmas, which was the previous commitment. Will a high-level strategy working group chaired by him or the cabinet secretary be included in that action plan? Is the minister satisfied so far with the engagement of Scottish Enterprise in decommissioning opportunities? After meetings Scottish Enterprise, I am not convinced that there are a sufficient number of people working on that full time.

Will the minister accept my invitation to visit the port of Dundee as a potential decommissioning site before Christmas?

There are a number of issues there. On the role of the high-level working group, there will certainly be a strong level of ministerial engagement. The cabinet secretary and I—and, indeed, the First Minister—have all been involved in discussions on decommissioning, and I give a commitment to Jenny Marra and to other members who are interested in the issue that there will be a high level of ministerial engagement in the subject.

On Scottish Enterprise’s role, it should be recognised—and I hope that Jenny Marra will be pleased to know—that the Scottish supply chain is already capturing much of the offshore decommissioning work. That is according to companies that are involved in the sector, including Maersk, which said that at an Oil & Gas UK board meeting. I am aware that the vast majority of the decommissioning work that is going on at the Brent field, particularly the plugging and abandonment work, is being captured by the Scottish supply chain. There are great successes, although perhaps they are not as visible as we would like them to be. Ensuring that the industry is recognised for the work that it is doing in decommissioning is one aspect that we can improve. Scottish Enterprise has been very active in that and it is supporting a number of innovative companies in Scotland to innovate for the decommissioning market. I have visited a number of those companies myself.

I have already been invited to visit Dundee harbour by Joe FitzPatrick, but I am more than happy to meet the member in Dundee at some point in the near future to discuss the possibilities for exploiting decommissioning in the city.

How many people is it anticipated will be employed in decommissioning Hunterston B nuclear power station when it eventually closes? How many years will it take to complete the decommissioning?

That is an important question, although I appreciate that it is on a slightly different subject from that intended by Jenny Marra’s question. Decommissioning activity that is being undertaken in the nuclear sector involves some skill sets that will be transferable to the oil and gas sector. I have spoken to at least one company that has expressed an interest in project management in that sphere.

It is difficult to anticipate at present the exact nature of the jobs that will be sustained in decommissioning Hunterston B, although experience with existing decommissioning sites in Scotland would suggest employment levels of several hundred people for about 20 to 25 years. The Scottish Government is working with Scottish Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and other partners to increase Scotland’s skill capacity in nuclear decommissioning. We know from work that was undertaken in Chapelcross that 280 workers were employed in that capacity—and 200 were employed at Hunterston A—but those were different technologies, and different solutions might be required for decommissioning at Hunterston B.

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests with respect to my work in the oil and gas decommissioning sector with Zero Waste Scotland and, in particular, the production of the report “Offshore Oil and Gas Decommissioning”, which was launched just a little over a year ago.

I recognise the concerns that were expressed by Jenny Marra about the commitment of Scottish Enterprise to this area. Will the Scottish Government consider investment in an upgrade of port facilities—most likely in Nigg or Shetland—so that Scotland has the ability to decommission a platform that is recovered via the single-lift method, as opposed to some of the large-piece or small-piece decommissioning options that are available?

I want to defend the roles of Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, both of which are active in this area at the moment and are helping us to identify what port-side investment opportunities might be available to capitalise on the funding that is available for decommissioning. I refer the member to my initial answer, which stressed that we are working with both organisations to filter through the number of interested ports and harbours that are looking to capitalise on the work.

I also emphasise the point that I made to Jenny Marra that the vast majority of the contract value is, thankfully, being secured by the Scottish sector. The removal of the top-side infrastructure is a relatively small share of the total contract value, but it is an important share and we will, obviously, do what we can to try to secure that as well.

In addition to the transition training fund, which does not help workers to keep their current skills up to date, will the minister consider the possibility of establishing a job retention fund for oil workers, which could assist in refresher courses for skilled workers, which can cost them, personally, between £300 and £400?

Obviously, I would be keen to hear from Elaine Smith if she has specific examples of individuals requiring support whom we have been unable to support through the transition training fund. I emphasise that we need to be careful to ensure that we help those who are most immediately threatened by redundancy, rather than those who perhaps are still in the sector but are looking to divert their skills into other areas that might have more growth potential. The transition training fund is being taken up well. We are seeing a high level of spend through the fund and I believe that it is having an impact by helping a growing number of individuals who are affected by the downturn in the industry.

I am glad to hear members mention the transition training fund. Yesterday, I hosted an event with people who are involved in the fund and I hope that members got a chance to talk to them.

Aside from the issue of decommissioning jobs, does the minister agree with the Oil and Gas Authority on the high remaining potential in the North Sea, following a strong licensing round, and does he also welcome the arrival of new entrants into the region? What representations will the minister make to the United Kingdom Government ahead of the autumn statement to call for exploration and development to be incentivised?

This week, I attended the maximising economic recovery of UK petroleum—MER UK—meeting in London, where, among other things, I raised the contact that the cabinet secretary had had with Greg Hands before the UK Government reshuffle, which was used to emphasise the need for loan guarantees to be brought forward as soon as possible to the smaller independent operators in the North Sea, in particular, to free up their balance sheets so that they can release resource and undertake more exploration.

I am encouraged by the high take-up of the licensing round. I think that that shows a continued interest in the UK continental shelf. That is encouraging at a time when there is, perhaps, a tendency to be all doom and gloom about the future of the oil and gas industry. There are companies that are growing in the industry at the moment, and we need to help individuals to access the opportunities that arise from that and to transfer their skills into those productive areas.

Youth Unemployment

I declare an interest as a member of Unite the union.

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce youth unemployment. (S5O-00272)

The Scottish Government is committed to reducing 2014 levels of youth unemployment by 40 per cent by 2021 through the actions that are set out in “Developing the Young Workforce—Scotland’s Youth Employment Strategy”. Youth unemployment fell by 9,000 from the strategy’s baseline figure of 52,000 in January to March 2014. The developing the young workforce programme reports on progress annually, and the second annual report will be published later in the year.

Clearly, apprenticeships are an important vehicle to help reduce youth unemployment. What can the minister do to reduce inequalities in apprenticeships, such as young women being paid considerably less than their male counterparts and being more likely to be unemployed at the end of their apprenticeships? How many young women on modern apprenticeships are ineligible for statutory maternity pay due to the low youth rates of pay, which is a point that has been raised with me by Unite the union?

I am always willing to hear from any trade union about any concern that it has and to respond to it.

More broadly, I concur with the point that was inherent in Elaine Smith’s question that there is much more that we need to do to ensure that women are better represented in our modern apprenticeship offer. They are not alone; there are others with particular characteristics that we need to do more in relation to. That is why we tasked Skills Development Scotland with taking forward the equalities action plan; it is doing that right now.

What action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that all local authorities work to deliver the Scottish living wage?

That is a well-timed question, because this is living wage week, which the First Minister kicked off on Monday by announcing the new rate of £8.45 per hour. I am very pleased that all local authorities in Scotland pay the living wage to their staff; that is very welcome. It goes along with the other range of activities that we take to promote the living wage, through commissioning the Poverty Alliance to promote the accreditation scheme. We now have 630 accredited living wage employers in Scotland—some 20 per cent of the United Kingdom total—and that may be why, among the four constituent nations of the UK, Scotland has the highest percentage of the workforce paid at least the living wage.

The inflexible way in which Skills Development Scotland manages its grants is causing problems for the Blackburn local employment scheme in my region. The First Minister said last week at question time that the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work would meet me and representatives from BLES to try to resolve the issue. Since then, I have had no contact from the cabinet secretary. When can we make that meeting happen, as it is a matter of urgency? All we need is some flexibility in the way in which SDS deals with grants and we will be able to help even more of the young people in that area than the 3,000 who have already been helped.

I know that that is an issue that Neil Findlay, among others, has taken up. Fiona Hyslop, as the constituency representative, has also written to me on the matter. I understand that the cabinet secretary has written to Neil Findlay and I am sure that he will be getting back in due course.

European Union Funding

To ask the Scottish Government how much Scotland has received from European Union structural and investment funding and how many jobs this has supported. (S5O-00273)

Scotland has received about €4.75 billion in structural funds since the policy began in 1975. Those funds have helped to build digital networks, roads, harbours and causeways, have been invested in urban regeneration and business premises and have supported skills and training.

Every seven-year programme is slightly different and has a different focus. It is not possible to estimate the total number of jobs supported since 1975, but the 2007 to 2013 programmes were worth £750 million and supported 99,107 people into work; they created 44,311 jobs and provided business support to more than 80,000 small and medium-sized enterprises. The 2014 to 2020 programmes are worth a further €940 million, which is about £800 million, to Scotland.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that reply, which lays bare the damage that Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will would have. Does he agree that the continued uncertainty surrounding Brexit is already putting at risk potential investment in Scotland by business?

I agree. If the member talks to colleagues in the education sector—especially in higher and further education—he will know that that is the case. Leaving the EU is likely to weaken the economy, according to the UK Government’s analysis. Leaving the single market could lower Scotland’s gross domestic product by more than £10 billion.

Our starting point is to protect our relationship with the EU, and we are considering all possible options to ensure Scotland’s continuing relationship with and place within the European Union. In addition to the jobs and financial benefits that we have received, we benefit massively from being a more rich and diverse country because of our membership of the European Union.

I seek assurances from the cabinet secretary that ring-fenced funding allocations and targeted benefits to the Highlands and Islands as a transition region will be honoured by the Scottish Government. There is major uncertainty in this post-referendum, pre-Brexit phase. Will Highlands and Islands businesses and agencies be supported and not disadvantaged?

David Stewart will know that that is exactly the Scottish Government’s aim. My colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution has made a number of statements on that, and I am sure that he will say something else specifically on that shortly, so perhaps David Stewart will give us the benefit of the doubt and wait until that statement is made. We share the same aim, which is to ensure that SMEs and individuals in the Highlands are not penalised by any reduction in ring-fenced or other European funding that might be coming to them, and we are making good progress towards ensuring that that assurance can be given.

European funding has been enormously beneficial in creating jobs in the Highlands, as has been touched on, and bodies such as Highlands and Islands Enterprise have received European grants. Will the cabinet secretary reassure my constituents that Highlands and Islands Enterprise will continue to be supported in the work that it does to create jobs and economic growth in the Highlands?

We recognise the different social, economic and community development challenges that face the Highlands and Islands and we are determined to maintain dedicated support that is locally based and is managed and directed by HIE. The member will be aware of the First Minister’s statement that HIE will remain in place as a non-departmental public body. The Scottish Government believes that future budget provision will be sufficient to meet HIE’s funding needs and will allow it to meet its obligations and maintain the capacity to support key sectors.

Business and Trade (Non-European Union Countries)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to show that Scotland is open for business with non-European Union countries. (S5O-00274)

The Scottish Government is building on the ambitious internationalisation agenda that was set out in March this year in “Scotland’s Trade and Investment Strategy 2016-21”. To make it clear that Scotland is open for business with Europe and with the rest of the world, we are establishing a minister-led trade board to bring together business interests; we are further developing the globalscot network; and we are appointing trade envoys to champion export market opportunities.

Scottish Government agencies are working to help more Scottish businesses to become exporters and to attract inward investment into Scotland. I appreciate that this relates to the EU, but we are opening innovation and investment hubs in Dublin, London, Brussels and Berlin as well as doubling the number of Scottish Development International staff across Europe. Following the EU referendum, the Scottish Government is engaging directly with businesses to listen to concerns, provide reassurance and reiterate that Scotland remains open for business.

The First Minister has made clear her efforts to boost trade with the EU in the wake of the EU referendum result through measures such as those that have just been referred to. However, in 2014, less than half—42 per cent—of Scotland’s exports were destined for the EU, which was a decline of £985 million on the previous year. The destination country for the largest amount of Scottish exports is the United States of America.

There is considerable trade growth potential in the huge world market of 7 billion people, as compared with the EU population of 500 million. Will the Scottish Government commit to taking new specific measures, together with the United Kingdom Government, to increase Scotland’s trade influence in parts of the world other than the EU, post-Brexit?

I think that it was evident from my first answer that we commit to doing that. For example, we have engagement in Kazakhstan coming up shortly and engagement in the middle east that relates to the oil and gas industry. In addition, we have a substantial presence in the US and China, which we want to build on.

Gordon Lindhurst makes an interesting point about the UK Government. His question acknowledges for the first time among the Conservatives that two Governments are involved in the economy of Scotland. Last week, not a single Conservative member would concede that the UK Government shares responsibility for Scotland’s economic performance, so I am pleased that Gordon Lindhurst has done so.

I made it clear to Liam Fox when I met him that we are happy and keen to work jointly in areas where it makes sense to do so and so that we do not duplicate effort. For example, I had a meeting with a large group of chief executive officers from India, which was in conjunction with the UK Government. We are happy to take that approach, but it takes two to do that and we are waiting to hear more from Liam Fox about how we can encourage that.

I mentioned the engagement in Kazakhstan, which will happen next year. We have decided to work with the UK Government on that, because that can produce the best results. We are happy to do that, but it takes two to tango.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if we had the powers to reinstate post-study work visas, we could give the message that Scotland is open for business to people with skills who can contribute greatly to the Scottish economy?

That is one area in which one hopes that joint working between the Scottish Government and the UK Government will produce a beneficial effect. Even if the UK Government did not want to continue the use of post-study work visas in the rest of the UK, it could, through working with the Scottish Government, allow Scotland to use them.

A similar constraint in the US was quickly changed when the potential economic damage to the country was acknowledged, as will be the case for Scotland if people who study here do not have the opportunity to work here. The return of the visa would restore an important economic lever to Scotland and send a clear message around the world that Scotland is open for business.

We all care about increasing exports but, in evidence to the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, a number of independent experts told us that the greatest potential for growth in exports lies in our proximity to our nearest market. What is the Scottish Government doing to increase exports to the rest of the UK, which is Scotland’s largest and nearest export market? What new initiatives is the Scottish Government bringing forward?

I have detailed some of those initiatives in my previous answers. Our nearest market is actually the European Union—we are in the EU single market. The member might want to acknowledge that fact and do a bit of work on the subject.

We are trying to defend our position in the EU market. Unfortunately, Scottish Labour is trying to provide political cover for its friends in the better together campaign and among the Brexiteers by trying to talk up the UK aspect. I am keen to increase our trade activity with the rest of the UK, with the EU and——as I highlighted in my answers to previous questions—around the world. I do not see that those three aims should conflict with one another; we should support them all.

I apologise to members whose questions I could not take.

Treasury (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the Treasury and what matters were discussed. (S5O-00281)

I last met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the finance ministers’ quadrilateral meeting on 24 October. We discussed the prospects for the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s autumn statement and areas of common interest in relation to the economy, public finances and Brexit.

I will shortly write to the Finance Committee to provide further details on the key points of the meeting. I used the opportunity to call once again on the UK Government to end austerity and to address the economic uncertainty following the European Union referendum.

At the meeting, the chief secretary confirmed HM Treasury’s agreement to approve the Scottish Government’s request for annually managed expenditure cover for the Scottish growth scheme, and to increase to 15 per cent the budget exchange limit for financial transactions. I, along with my counterparts from Wales and Northern Ireland, reiterated my concerns about the UK Government’s approach to the public finances and the economy and asked for a commitment from the Government to bring forward an economic stimulus while not reducing the current devolved settlements.

I will continue to make those points directly to UK ministers, including at a meeting of the joint exchequer committee tomorrow.

The progress on the growth scheme is very welcome. Can the cabinet secretary expand further on the UK Government’s position on potentially reopening Scotland’s current constitutional agreement?

All the devolved Administrations made the point clearly that we do not want our finance settlements to be reopened negatively. We want a positive fiscal stimulus—which should be possible, considering that the UK Government and the chancellor have moved away from their predecessors’ positions on fiscal surplus.

As we have just heard from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, the Scottish Government believes that the UK Treasury should pursue a policy of fiscal loosening in the autumn statement. How much extra money does the Scottish Government think the Treasury should borrow?

That is a matter for the Treasury, in terms of the figures that it arrives at. As we have said, the UK Government has abandoned the economic targets that it failed to meet and should now turn to borrowing to stimulate the economy. That opinion is widely held, and we would welcome such a move. With regard to resources that can fairly stimulate our economy, the more, the merrier—

Limitless borrowing!

Mr Fraser may object, but that seems to be the mood music from the UK Government, so he may be performing more somersaults on the Tories’ economic policies.

Local Authorities (Fiscal Autonomy)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has for local authorities to be given greater fiscal autonomy to raise their own money and manage their local economies. (S5O-00282)

Our reforms to council tax, including proposals that are currently before the Parliament, are, together with the lifting of the council tax freeze, key steps towards making local taxation fairer and ensuring that local authorities continue to be properly funded.

In addition, we have established an external review of non-domestic rates, which will report next summer, we will consult local government on the assignation of a share of income tax, and we are engaging stakeholders on local taxation of vacant, derelict and development land.

The Scottish Government is cutting Glasgow City Council’s budget by more than £130 million over the next two years. It is the biggest cut that Glasgow City Council has ever faced. The Scottish Government seems to be passing on to Glasgow a bigger share of cuts than has been passed on to it by the United Kingdom Government, for some reason.

Is the cabinet secretary aware of the impact of delays in setting the budget on councils such as Glasgow, which face unprecedented cuts? Is he aware of the effect on the third sector, which provides vital services for the most vulnerable people? When can the Scottish Government provide certainty and fairness for Glasgow? Is it time for some devolution of power, so that Glasgow can manage a bit of its own economy?

I am happy to engage with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local government more widely on further devolution of powers. A good example of such work in practice is the city deal. Glasgow is a substantial beneficiary of the city deal, and we want it to work. It is more than £1 billion of investment—which has, of course, been totally discounted in comments about the wider local government settlement. This Government has protected local government over the period of real-terms reductions from the UK Government.

Distribution is discussed jointly with COSLA. I encourage councils such as Glasgow City Council to consider their position in relation to COSLA, so that local government can speak with one voice and arrive at decisions on such matters, in partnership.

Will the cabinet secretary say whether local authorities can be flexible in how they apply second-home council tax, in order to meet the needs of their communities?

Yes—in essence they can be flexible. The regulations that we were able to make recently will allow for further flexibility in relation to council tax discounts for second homes, including the ability to vary the level of discount between 0 and 50 per cent.

Will the cabinet secretary tell us whether he is still open to the idea of a tourism tax, which local authorities could apply in their areas by retaining 100 per cent of tourism tax receipts to fight the cuts?

That is a fair question. A small number of local authorities have approached me about the issue and I am engaging with COSLA on the basket of local taxes. Although we have no plans to introduce a tourism tax, the issue is worthy of discussion, so I will have those discussions with local authorities that are interested in such a levy.

As part of the proposed reforms to council tax, the Government agreed to increase support for households with children. How many children will benefit from the increase in the child allowance in the council tax reduction scheme?

The increase by 25 per cent in the child allowance in the council tax reduction scheme will benefit up to 77,000 households by an average of £173 per year and help nearly 140,000 children.

Question 3 has not been lodged.

Procurement Policy (Best Value)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that its procurement policy delivers best value. (S5O-00284)

The Scottish model of procurement has at its heart value for money, which we see as an appropriate balance of cost, quality and sustainability. The need to achieve such a balance informs our approach to procurement, which is increasingly being recognised internationally as an exemplar of good practice.

The Scottish baby box is a fantastic initiative that involves spend of approximately £6 million per year, thereby potentially offering additional benefits through creation of jobs in manufacturing and supply businesses.

Tot Spot, in my constituency, is one such business, and is looking forward to tendering for the manufacture of nappies for the baby box, which will create jobs in a deprived area of Glasgow. Can the cabinet secretary assure me that every effort will be made to ensure that companies such as Tot Spot have an opportunity to play a role in the excellent initiative and, in the process, to create jobs in Scotland?

I am not about to award contracts through answers to oral parliamentary questions, but I can say that the answer is yes, in so far as procurement rules allow it.

Of course, there are many potential advantages to the baby box, including through its procurement.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary would agree that procurement policy should be used to improve the rights of workers. Does he therefore share my disappointment that only 0.2 per cent of Scottish companies have signed up to the business pledge, which can be used to secure the living wage and ensure that there are no zero-hours contracts for workers? What steps will he take to increase the number of companies that sign up to that important pledge?

I agree with James Kelly; there is an ambition to expand the number of businesses signing up to the business pledge. We can all reflect on how we can encourage more businesses to take up the pledge. When I visit businesses I ask them whether they are supportive of it, and whether there are any elements that they need further encouragement on. We should all give further consideration to promotion of the business pledge in order to get as much good work out of it as possible. Certainly, the Government will continue to promote the policy actively for all the social, ethical and economic benefits that it brings.

Scottish Public Sector Green Information and Communications Technology Strategy

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making with the Scottish public sector green ICT strategy. (S5O-00285)

The green ICT strategy, which was published in May 2015, provides guidance for the public sector to contribute to this Government’s wider climate change targets. It aligns with assessment tools that have been developed as part of the amendments to the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, specifically in the Climate Change (Duties of Public Bodies: Reporting Requirements) (Scotland) Order 2015. They will be reported annually, beginning in November 2016.

We have also included green ICT principles in the “Digital First Service Standard”, which was published in May 2016 and set minimum levels for delivering digital public services. The standards apply to all digital public services that are being created in and by central Government. An assessment process is due to be rolled out in early 2017 and will be augmented and improved over time.

A recent Audit Scotland report on NHS 24 found delays in implementation of the new IT system. It said:

“In 2009, NHS 24 began work on its Future Programme. The programme’s objective was to improve patient experience by modernising NHS 24’s core telephone and online technology. The implementation of the new system, originally scheduled for June 2013, is still not complete.”

Given that, and the year-long delays on other IT projects, how will the Scottish Government be able to achieve its goal of establishing newer, greener infrastructure?

We have made progress on the monitoring arrangements around such projects, which will give us better checks and balances, stronger procurement and greater and deeper expertise. I am happy to share some of that information in writing with David Stewart, if he would find it helpful. I hope that that would reassure him that our processes are far more robust as a result of learning lessons from the mistakes that have been made in the past.

In relation to the Scottish Government’s recent award of a £48 million framework agreement for the supply of information technology consumables, how was the ICT lifecycle impact mapped, and how was the disposal of the IT consumables incorporated in the specification that went along with the scoring award criteria for the contract?

I thank Maurice Golden quite genuinely for that very comprehensive question. It truly deserves a comprehensive answer, and I am happy to give him one in writing.

Scottish Futures Trust

To ask the Scottish Government what savings it expects the Scottish Futures Trust to achieve in delivering projects. (S5O-00286)

The Scottish Futures Trust is on course to achieve the objective set out in its corporate plan for 2014 to 2019 and achieve savings of between £500 million and £750 million.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Scottish Futures Trust programme, Scotland’s schools for the future, helped build the new Lasswade high school in my constituency. Will he update the Parliament on how the work on Lasswade high school subsequently informed the Scotland’s schools for the future programme?

The new Lasswade centre, along with Eastwood high school in East Renfrewshire, was part of a pilot project that saw the Government and the two councils work together to jointly procure both schools in a groundbreaking £65 million collaborative initiative that saved £4 million as a result of the partnership approach. It was the first time that two councils had come together to procure two new schools. The initiative has proved successful, with the collaborative model being used by other local authorities to achieve benefits in savings across the programme. That kind of working will inform the programme from this point onwards.

Public Contracts (Prompt Payment)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the prompt payment of bills relating to its public contracts has been sustained. (S5O-00287)

The Scottish Government remains committed to helping businesses by paying invoices early and aspires to pay all undisputed supplier invoices within 10 working days.

The Scottish Government purchases some goods and services using the electronic purchasing card, and payment performance is measured by taking into account both EPC and invoiced transactions. For the first six months of the current financial year—from April to September 2016—the Scottish Government and bodies that share its financial systems have paid 98.8 per cent of all transactions within 10 working days.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that impressive answer. I welcome the Government’s performance on the swift payment of bills. Can the cabinet secretary update the Parliament on project bank accounts and say whether they will be used to support businesses in the construction sector?

I thank Mr Lyle for saying that that was an impressive answer—I thought that it was short and to the point, but it gave a very impressive figure for the Government’s compliance in achieving its payment target.

Following the successful completion of the trial programme of project bank accounts that was recommended by the review of Scottish public sector procurement and construction, the Scottish Government has published guidance on the implementation of project bank accounts in construction contracts. I encourage their use because it is important for subcontractors and the supply chain.

Small Businesses (Taxation Policy and Insolvency)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the link between taxation policy and small business insolvencies in Scotland. (S5O-00288)

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of small and medium-sized businesses to our economic prosperity. As part of our overall approach, we are committed to using the tax powers that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament to support sustained economic growth. Our small business bonus scheme is, for example, removing or reducing business rates for more than 100,000 premises this year, and we have committed to expansion of the scheme so that it lifts 100,000 properties out of rates altogether.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of recent insolvency service statistics that show that, since the financial crisis hit in 2008, the number of corporate liquidations in Scotland has increased by 21.5 per cent while the equivalent figure for England and Wales has fallen by 23.1 per cent. Can the cabinet secretary please explain that disparity? Can he also explain how the Government’s plans to tax businesses an extra £262 million in business rates will help to reverse that trend?

I am happy to check the figures on liquidations and insolvencies, because the picture that Mr Mountain paints does not reflect the figures that I have for corporate insolvencies. I am happy to probe that further. However, we cannot break down the figure for small businesses, which was the premise of Mr Mountain’s question.

On the wider issue of business rates, we have the most competitive package of business rates reliefs in these islands and I want to sustain that. We have the Ken Barclay review and we have matched the poundage. I would also point out that the number of small and medium-sized enterprises in Scotland grew from148,000 in 2010 to an impressive 163,000 in 2015.

What steps are being taken to give Scottish businesses a competitive advantage over their counterparts in other parts of the UK?

I again refer to the small business bonus scheme. The Federation of Small Businesses says:

“The Small Business Bonus continues to give most Scottish small firms a competitive advantage over counterparts in other parts of the UK.”

That shows how valued the small business bonus is and why it should continue.

European Union Funding

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on the continuity of European Union funding in light of Brexit. (S5O-00289)

EU funding benefits Scotland significantly, supporting jobs, delivering infrastructure, sustaining rural communities, providing valuable support for the farming and fishing industries and delivering research funding for universities. I have personally met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on two occasions since the Brexit vote, and I have written to him, making clear the Scottish Government’s view of the insufficiency of the original EU funding guarantees that were provided by Her Majesty’s Treasury in August 2016.

The UK Government has recently revised its position on EU funding guarantees to cover in full the payment of all EU funding contracts for structural funds and for fisheries and farming projects that are entered into before the UK proposes to leave the EU, even if the payments extend beyond the Brexit date.

I am pleased to confirm today that, having considered the detail of the UK Government guarantees, I will be passing on the guarantees in full to Scottish stakeholders to provide stability and certainty for those key sectors of the Scottish economy.

When the University of Edinburgh’s principal, Sir Timothy O’Shea, addressed the Scottish Affairs Committee on 24 October he warned that Brexit might have a “catastrophic” consequence on higher education in the UK, emphasising that one third of the university’s research outputs

“are done in collaboration with other EU countries.”

What reassurance—if any—can the cabinet secretary give the science sector on future funding and access to the horizon 2020 fund?

I have advised the member and the chamber that I have been able to pass on the guarantees that I have received from the UK Government, but there is absolutely no clarity in what happens after that date. That issue must be pursued with the UK Government.

It is true to say—I share these concerns—that Brexit poses a massive threat to higher education research development and a host of other areas. Therefore, it is really important that this Government—indeed, this Parliament—continues to stand up for Scotland.