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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 December 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Scottish National Investment Bank, Burntisland Fabrications, Business Support, Urgent Question, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, International Whole Grain Day


Urgent Question

The next item of business is an urgent question, which has been selected by the Presiding Officer. As a consequence, decision time will be somewhat later than originally planned, and members will be kept informed about that over the course of the afternoon.

Retail Sector (Jobs)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to the retail sector, in light of reports that thousands of jobs are at risk as Christmas approaches.

This is an extremely challenging time for the retail sector, and a worrying time for those who are facing job loss and an uncertain future, particularly so close to Christmas. Every job that is lost or under threat is a concern.

We have sought to mitigate the impact on businesses, including retail businesses, throughout the pandemic. That has included supportive measures totalling more than £2.38 billion, including business support grants and non-domestic rates relief. In the sad event that any person is facing redundancy, we are providing support for employees through our partnership action for continuing employment. Through providing skills development and employability support, PACE aims to minimise the time during which individuals are out of work.

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, as a director of a company that has retail interests and as a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.

Yesterday’s news that Debenhams UK has collapsed, which came days after the Arcadia Group was placed in administration, bears out the fears of many that the retail industry is facing a catastrophic set of factors this winter. Retail is the biggest single private sector employer. That means that thousands of workers are now facing Christmas with the worry that they may not have a job in the new year.

In light of those events, what steps has the Government taken to support retailers and retail workers? Has the minister held meetings with retail employers and unions? Is the Government looking at specific policy and fiscal interventions, such as the further use of the non-domestic rates regime for retail businesses in level 4 areas, which are unable to trade?

On engagement with retailers and representatives of their workforce, I assure Daniel Johnson that I meet regularly with the Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Scottish Grocers Federation. For the workforce, of course, I also meet regularly with USDAW and the GMB to discuss those matters.

On the support that we are deploying through the framework, I remind Daniel Johnson that, at level 4, essential retail continues; non-essential retail can continue only with click-and-collect services. For businesses that have to close, we are providing grants of up to £3,000 every four weeks.

We will continue to consider what further support we can deploy, but those matters will also be the concerted focus of the retail strategy that I will take forward in due course, in the forming of which all the partners that I have mentioned will have a critical role.

Although it is clear that many of the problems that face the retail industry existed before the pandemic, the pandemic has certainly accelerated processes that were under way. Many people say that the retail industry faces five to 10 years of change in five to 10 months.

There are businesses in level 4 areas that are simply unable to trade. Will the minister say what work the Government has undertaken to assess the economic impact on retail of level 4 restrictions? Will he commit to providing more detailed scientific information about the role that shopping might play in the transmission of the virus? Although large retailers are in the headlines, independent retailers who do not sell essential items and have no online presence are, in effect, locked out of trading at a time of the year on which they rely to keep themselves going throughout the rest of the year.

I recognise and understand the final point that Daniel Johnson made: this is an important time of year. None of us wants businesses to be closed for any longer than they have to be closed. However, public health is the paramount concern at the moment.

On the economic impact, that is something that the office of the chief economic adviser gathers information on. I will speak with that office to see what further detail we can provide.

On the scientific evidence, I will pick up the issue with relevant colleagues and see what other information we can provide.

There has been a move towards online shopping, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Will the minister say more about support for small businesses on our high streets, especially as we approach small business Saturday this weekend?

As Mr Mason said, we are seeing a transfer of activity to online from in-store shopping. That was happening already, but Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation. Our retail strategy, which I mentioned in response to Daniel Johnson, has a role to play, as do other important initiatives that we are taking forward. I remind members that, since March, we have provided £22 million to towns and business improvement districts and that we are undertaking a review of town centres, which will report in due course.

The member is right to highlight that small business Saturday is coming up. That is a reminder of the importance of small businesses to the Scottish economy. Our Scotland loves local campaign is important in encouraging people safely to support their local businesses and economies, and I urge every member to get behind it and promote it.

My thoughts are with the people who face losing their jobs. The news in that regard is further evidence of the hurricane that is hammering the Scottish retail sector. With that in mind, will the Scottish Government provide early assurance that it will not expect every shop to return to full business rates liability next April?

I observe that the news about Debenhams and Arcadia, which is disappointing, is not just impacting Scotland. This is not just a Scottish phenomenon; it is happening elsewhere.

We will continue to consider and try to roll out the measures that we need to deploy to support the retail sector. We will consider other fiscal measures that we might take and set those out in due course, as part of the usual budget process.