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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 08 January 2020

Agenda: Palliative and End-of-life Care (Research Projections), Portfolio Question Time, Short-term Lets, European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, Business Motions, Decision Time, Women, Peace and Security, Correction


Portfolio Question Time

Social Security and Older People

Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio questions. As usual, I would like short, snappy questions and nice little curt answers in order to get in as many people as possible. Questions 3 and 6 are grouped together, so I will take question 3 with its supplementary, and then question 6 and its supplementary, and anyone who has supplementaries to those two questions should seek to get in after that.

Gender Recognition Certificates

To ask the Scottish Government how many gender recognition certificates it expects to be issued under its proposed system of self-declaration, and how this compares with the current system. (S5O-03951)

Based on international evidence, we expect around 250 applications per year in Scotland under the proposed new system for obtaining legal gender recognition. The current United Kingdom gender recognition panel does not produce statistics on applicants from Scotland, but we estimate that around 30 people per year who were born or adopted in Scotland obtain legal gender recognition at the moment.

The Government says that its proposals will not diminish the rights of women. However, its own draft equality impact assessment evidences that by citing research from the University of Bristol that criticises single-sex spaces and the exemptions under the Equality Act 2010. It suggests that, for a woman, catching sight of a male body in a changing room should be no more distressing than seeing another woman with a mastectomy.

Does the Government regret citing that research, and does the cabinet secretary agree that the comparison is insulting to breast cancer survivors?

The impact assessment that the member refers to is a draft impact assessment. I would encourage members and members of the public to feed in their responses to the consultation, on both the contents of the draft bill and the draft impact assessment. The research that has been referred to was included because of a reference within the work to show that there is no increased risk of women being attacked in single-sex spaces by trans women. That is why that report was included.

Other parts of the research, specifically the section that the member refers to, are not something that the Government would support—nor do we support any changes to the exemptions in the 2010 act.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that international evidence suggests that where a strict custodial sentence has been applied for a false declaration on a gender recognition certificate, that has reduced or eradicated any risk that the system will be misused?

I would agree with Mr Cole-Hamilton’s assertion. There is great and understandable concern among members of the public, particularly women, that there would be an increased risk to women because of the changes to gender recognition that the Government is proposing. That is why, in the consultation on the draft bill, I have specifically outlined that there is no diminution of women’s rights under our proposals and that the exemptions under the 2010 act still stand. There are strict penalties for anyone who abuses the current system, which would be strengthened under our proposed system.

Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the WASPI campaign. (S5O-03952)

Since 2017, the Scottish Government has written to the UK Government on the issue on six separate occasions. We do not agree with the unfair manner in which the UK Government has imposed the change of state pension age on women born in the 1950s. The UK Government should take responsibility for its actions and should compensate those women who have had their retirement plans shattered and are now being forced back into employment to make ends meet, all because their pension age was changed without fair notification from the UK Government.

My constituent is 62. In 2016, she was forced to take early retirement at 58, following serious on-going health conditions. She is not eligible for universal credit, and she is being forced to use Glenrothes food bank repeatedly just to survive. This past year, it was only because of a welfare crisis fund that she could afford Christmas at all. Does the cabinet secretary think that that is acceptable? Can she confirm what support the Scottish Government can provide to people such as my constituent who, through no fault of their own, have fallen victim to Westminster’s callous pension reform?

Jenny Gilruth has raised that constituent’s case with me before, and I commend her for continuing to do so. It is not acceptable, and I once again call on the UK Government to do the right thing and to compensate women who have had their pension rights taken away.

The Scottish Government’s money talk team income maximisation service is there to help older people. However, the real solution to the pension crisis is for the UK Government to take responsibility and act to end the misery faced by Jenny Gilruth’s constituent and thousands of others like her.

Carers Allowance (Qualifying Criteria)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to change the qualifying criteria for carers allowance. (S5O-03953)

We will consult on changes to carers allowance in early 2021 and we intend to introduce Scottish carers assistance the following year.

Marie Curie has called for an extension of the payment period after the person who has been cared for has died. When someone loses a person they are caring for, it is truly devastating. Does the minister agree that we cannot expect carers to get back on their feet and re-establish their working lives within weeks? How will the carers allowance in Scotland reflect that?

I recognise the issue that Willie Rennie has raised, which is one that stakeholders have raised with me directly. I have already asked the disability and carers benefits expert advisory group for recommendations on carers assistance by May 2020. As I mentioned in my original answer, we will consult in 2021, and I am sure that that will be one of the areas that will be brought up, both in the advisory group’s recommendations and in the consultation when it goes out to members of the public.

Carers Allowance (Earnings Threshold)

To ask the Scottish Government how much the carers allowance earnings threshold will be in 2020-21, and how many claimants reported earnings in 2019-20. (S5O-03956)

Carers allowance is currently being delivered in Scotland by the Department for Work and Pensions on a temporary basis through an agency agreement. That allowed us to introduce our carers allowance supplement in 2018 and to get extra money to carers in Scotland sooner than would otherwise have been possible.

Under the terms of the agency agreement, the earnings threshold for carers allowance in Scotland for 2020-21 will be the same as that applied by the DWP in England and Wales. For 2020-21, the DWP has set the threshold at £128 per week—an increase from the 2019-20 threshold of £123 per week.

The DWP does not produce management information on the reported earnings of carers allowance claimants in Scotland.

The minimum wage is set to rise by four times the rate of inflation, meaning that the earnings threshold is once again falling way behind increases in pay.

At the maximise project in Wester Hailes, the Social Security Committee heard from a mother who lost her carers allowance because of the minimum wage increase last year. The cabinet secretary has said that change could come from 2025, but will she commit to ending the agency arrangements and increasing the earnings threshold as a matter of urgency, so that carers do not have to suffer a further five years of work failing to pay?

As I said in my answer to Willie Rennie, we will introduce Scottish carers assistance in 2022. I urge Monica Lennon to look at the reality of the situation, which I explained to Willie Rennie and to her. We introduced the carers allowance supplement in the way that we did to ensure that it was done as quickly as possible.

If Monica Lennon would like carers assistance to be introduced earlier, perhaps she can tell me, in writing or now, what she would like to change. Would she like not to make the Scottish child payment? Would she like not to introduce the Scottish replacement for disability living allowance for children or the replacement of personal independence payments? We have a timetable for social security. It is full and it is something that we work on very carefully to deliver as quickly as possible. Monica Lennon needs to deal with the reality of what we are doing, and to recognise that the first act that we took within devolved social security was to increase the amount paid to carers.

Ms Lennon is not getting another supplementary, so you will have to deal with that outside of here.

The SNP made a manifesto pledge in 2016 to introduce a new national minimum fostering allowance for kinship and foster care. To date, we have seen no progress. The Fostering Network’s 2019 report on the state of foster care shows that 60 per cent of foster carers feel that the allowance does not meet the cost of raising a child. Does the Scottish Government still plan to introduce a national minimum fostering allowance, and by when will it be implemented?

As the social security representative for the Scottish Conservatives, Ms Ballantyne will recognise that that is not a matter that sits within my portfolio, but I will get the relevant minister to reply to her in writing.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that carers allowance was the lowest-paid benefit by the UK Government, and that the introduction of an additional payment by the Scottish Government means that it is now above the level of jobseekers allowance?

That is indeed the case. Taken alongside the carers allowance, the carers allowance supplement, which, as I said to Monica Lennon, we introduced as the first work of the agency, has meant that the money that is paid to carers in recognition of their contribution to society is a larger amount than jobseekers allowance.

Child Poverty (North Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address child poverty in North Ayrshire. (S5O-03954)

Last year, we invested £1.4 billion in support to low-income households across Scotland, including those in North Ayrshire, which includes £100 million to mitigate United Kingdom Government welfare cuts. Our tackling child poverty delivery plan outlines how we will tackle child poverty, including plans to introduce the new Scottish child payment worth £10 per child per week for eligible households. We have also committed £22 million to parental employment support and we are almost doubling funded early learning and childcare for all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds.

Free school meal entitlement is really helpful for parents. In particular, meals during school holidays provide valuable assistance. What research has the Scottish Government undertaken into local initiatives that provide holiday meals and how will the Scottish Government support the dignified provision of food for families that are struggling?

We have focused £2 million of our £3.5 million fair food fund for 2019-20 on the school holidays. That funding, which is provided to third sector organisations and local authorities to deliver nutritious meals and activity programmes, includes evaluation to understand the impact and to identify best practice. The Scottish Government is supporting communities to respond to food insecurity in a way that promotes dignity by taking a human rights approach to tackling it. We will continue to focus on tackling the causes of food insecurity and we are working with local authorities through the Scottish welfare fund to provide a safety net for vulnerable people on low incomes.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in its valiant attempts to reduce child poverty in North Ayrshire and across Scotland, the Scottish Government is hampered by the impact of UK Government policies such as welfare reform, which has increased child poverty?

It is a sad fact that the UK Government is still pursuing policies that increase child poverty. As you know, Presiding Officer, Scotland is the only UK country to have set statutory targets for reducing child poverty. The UK Government’s assault on welfare and continued benefit cuts makes it feel as though we are fighting poverty with one hand tied behind our back.

Older People (Loneliness)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the action that it is taking to reduce loneliness among older people. (S5O-03955)

The Scottish Government recognises that social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone at any age or stage in their life. I am delighted to update Alison Harris and other colleagues in the chamber that I will be co-chairing the third meeting of the national implementation group for our social isolation and loneliness strategy on 6 February 2020, along with Councillor Parry of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which is one of our key partners in that work. We will be discussing how we can use the allocated funding of up to £1 million to develop solutions that are right for communities throughout Scotland. Organisations that work in communities are key to tackling social isolation and loneliness, and they will continue to be at the heart of that work.

In December, Age Scotland predicted that 111,000 older people in Scotland would sit down to dinner alone on Christmas day, and the First Minister commented on loneliness before Christmas. At First Minister’s question time, she said:

“I very much agree that we should see this as a public health issue.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2019; c 48.]

Is that an indication of a potential Government portfolio change in the near future?

That is below the belt!

I hope that Alison Harris and other colleagues saw the message that I put out at Christmas on social isolation and loneliness, working alongside all those organisations. Age Scotland is another key partner in our implementation group and we absolutely treat social isolation and loneliness as a public health issue. That is why we have joint ministerial meetings to deal with it. I can reassure Alison Harris that that work is important and that we are doing it. Whether there will be a portfolio change is not within my gift.

Television access is one way in which older people can maintain a connection to the outside world. Does the minister therefore agree that the removal of free TV licences for over-75s is a misguided decision and will do nothing to reduce the risk of social isolation and loneliness among vulnerable older people? In addition, will the minister urge the United Kingdom Government to fully fund free licences?

Yes. In my opinion, that will be very detrimental to many older people across the UK. It is a clear abdication of responsibility by a heartless Tory Government that is trying to shift what is a welfare policy on to a public broadcaster. It was a Tory Government decision, which shows that that Government is clearly shirking its responsibility to support older people.

The BBC’s plan to introduce a means-tested waiver based on pension credit has at least shone some light on that benefit and resulted in an increase in its uptake. The UK Government—it is a new Government and is saying that it will do things differently—should recognise that it has a responsibility to fund free TV licences for our over-75s. I hope that our Conservative Party colleagues will take that up with their new colleagues in their new portfolios as they move forward.

Motability Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that there will be a functioning equivalent to the Motability scheme in Scotland. (S5O-03957)

The Scottish Government published details of the accessible vehicles and equipment scheme on 4 September 2019 and will ensure that disabled people receive the same service that they currently receive under the Motability scheme. The new scheme will ensure that disabled people in Scotland can lease a car, electric scooter or powered wheelchair at a heavily discounted rate without having to undergo credit checks from an accredited provider.

The application process for the accreditation scheme opened on 4 October and closed on 4 November, and the Scottish Government will announce the outcome of the accreditation process in due course.

Can the cabinet secretary give assurances that those who are currently on the Motability scheme will have full access to the same equipment and services that they currently have, and can she advise Parliament on the number of providers who are already accredited under the new scheme?

As I said in my original answer to Mr Lindhurst, I will make an announcement on the outcome of the accreditation process in due course. I am unable to provide the number of organisations that will be part of the scheme, but I am happy to provide reassurance that no one who currently has a Motability vehicle will lose out once the new scheme opens. The Scottish Government is working with Motability to ensure that disabled people with a Motability vehicle will keep it until the end of their lease, subject, of course, to their continuing to meet the eligibility criteria of the relevant mobility component.

Disability News Service revealed in November that more than 100,000 disabled people have lost their mobility vehicles after being reassessed as part of the Conservative Party’s disability benefit reforms. Does the cabinet secretary not agree with me that it is a bit rich that the Tories have brought this issue to the chamber today?

Sandra White is quite right to point out that disabled people have been badly let down by the United Kingdom Government as a result of the introduction of the personal independence payment, and it is disappointing that so many disabled people have lost access to a vital scheme such as Motability. We are clear that we will not be taking an austerity-led, target-driven approach and we will deal with what matters, which is providing a good service to clients.

Scottish Child Payment (Backdating Period)

To ask the Scottish Government what the maximum backdating period is for the Scottish child payment. (S5O-03958)

As stated in my written answer to Mark Griffin on 19 December, the Scottish child payment regulations will include provisions to allow the Scottish ministers to make a determination without application where an individual has been unsuccessful in their original application as a result of a qualifying benefit or child responsibility benefit decision. In those instances where it was as a result of an incorrect decision being made on a reserved benefit and the person has since received a backdated award, the Scottish child payment will also be backdated to the point a person first applied for the payment. That is set out in revised draft regulations that were published on 20 December.

As the cabinet secretary will know, under Scottish choices, over 60,000 people have opted for fortnightly payments of universal credit, which provides greater financial security for those budgeting on low incomes. However, as it stands, the Scottish child payment will not be paid fortnightly. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it would be consistent with Scottish choices and better meet the needs of people’s lives if the benefit were paid fortnightly?

We will certainly be happy to look at that when we review the Scottish child payment. I simply say to Mr Johnson that the speed of introduction of the Scottish child payment is unprecedented and that it requires us to look at both the legislative route and the existing functionality within Social Security Scotland. However, it is an issue that I am happy to come back to. I am sure that Mr Johnson would also want to ensure that the first payments can indeed be made by Christmas this year, but for that to happen we have to make decisions around how we can introduce the benefit as simply as possible.

Finance, Economy and Fair Work

We move straight on to questions on finance, economy and fair work. I remind members that questions 1 and 5 and questions 3 and 8 are grouped together, respectively, with the usual consequences if members want a supplementary.

Digital Growth Fund

To ask the Scottish Government how much it has provided in loans through its digital growth fund. (S5O-03959)

The digital development loan is the first pilot programme delivered from the digital growth fund. Its purpose is to provide low-cost finance to support Scotland’s small and medium-sized businesses to invest in the digital technologies and skills necessary to boost growth and productivity. As of December 2019, the total amount disbursed through the digital development loan is £2,142,000. Phase 2 of the programme began in September 2019 and early figures from the first quarter of the second phase indicate an encouraging spike in demand: there are approximately 44 loans in the pipeline, worth around £1.9 million.

The digital growth fund of £36 million was announced in 2017, but through phase 1 from June 2018 to August 2019 only £1.7 million was spent. The minister has indicated that there will be a second phase. Can he confirm whether there will be 21 other phases to ensure that the £36 million is spent, or is that completely unrealistic?

The £36 million was across a whole range of programmes and the digital development loan is one part of that whole suite of programmes. The programme is demand led, and any eligible businesses that want a loan can apply to receive one. We have established a baseline market on which we intend to build with business organisations and the loan providers. We recognise the huge value of that to the economy and we are working with businesses for them to come forward and take advantage of the loans. I encourage any business that is listening to this exchange to do that. If the member knows any businesses, I ask him to please encourage them to come forward. As I said, the programme is demand led and the availability is there, but it is for businesses to come forward and take advantage of that provision.

Digital Economy Budget

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to increase its digital economy budget. (S5O-03963)

As the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work has made clear, it is extremely difficult for the Scottish Government to confirm its spending plans in the absence of a United Kingdom budget. We continue to press the UK Government for urgent clarification. That said, we are acutely aware of the economic potential of Scotland’s digital economy and that is why we will continue to invest heavily in digital infrastructure and skills and encourage investment in digital and data-driven innovation to improve outcomes in policy areas as diverse as health, education, climate change and economic development.

The Scottish National Party Government’s £600 million flagship R100 broadband scheme has been beset by delays in the north of Scotland and now faces legal challenge. Since the R100 policy was announced in 2017, the budget for digital economy has fallen dramatically, from £114 million to £32 million in last year’s budget. Will the minister commit to an increase in the digital economy budget to ensure that rural communities like mine do not fall further behind while his Government sorts out the issues, the contracts are signed and we see R100 starting to be delivered on the ground?

I do not know whether that comes under the minister’s portfolio, but Mr McKee will respond.

You are correct, Presiding Officer, that the matter is not part of my portfolio, but I am happy to comment on it.

As the member is, or should be, well aware, that is a reserved matter. Having said that, the Scottish Government has stepped in to roll out the R100 programme at our expense to fill the gaps left by the UK Government. We are proceeding faster with the roll-out of superfast broadband across Scotland than the UK Government is proceeding on that across the rest of the UK. I understand that my colleague Mr Wheelhouse will make a statement on the matter in the chamber tomorrow.

My question is supplementary to question 1. Can the minister outline what additional support is available to businesses and individuals to build their digital capabilities?

For businesses, our £1.6 million digital boost programme provides SMEs with advice and support in implementing new technologies, reskilling and trading online. The digital development loan makes £12 million-worth of interest-free loans available to SMEs to invest in implementing that advice.

The digitisation of SMEs is also an economic priority of the incoming European Commission, and we will work closely with our European Union partners to understand the most effective interventions for individuals.

In addition to the substantial digital provision through our colleges, universities and apprenticeship programme, we have recently established the £1 million digital start fund, which supports people on low incomes with the right aptitude to reskill into well-paid digital careers.

We have also invested £800,000, through Skills Development Scotland, in the digital skills investment plan and around £3 million in CodeClan that will deliver 800 highly skilled professionals to the Scottish economy.

United Kingdom and Scottish Budgets (Timing)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the UK Government regarding the timing of the UK and Scottish budgets. (S5O-03960)

The delay in the United Kingdom Government’s budget is highly unsatisfactory, as it is needed to provide absolute clarity on future funding for public services in Scotland.

The chancellor’s announcement yesterday, without any consultation or prior notice, that the UK budget would take place on 11 March is astonishing, particularly when I wrote to the chancellor on 22 December offering to discuss budget timing.

I remain focused on introducing a Scottish budget for 2020-21 at the earliest practical opportunity, and we will continue to work closely with the Finance and Constitution Committee, the Scottish Fiscal Commission, and, as I said yesterday, Opposition parties.

The Accounts Commission for Scotland has been expressing its concerns for local government. I am also concerned that, further down the line, the third sector, which often gets money from local government, will have to wait even longer. Can the cabinet secretary give any reassurance to local government and the third sector?

As I said yesterday, I want to ensure that there is an orderly process that builds consensus and confidence in the Scottish budget process and its timing, scrutiny and contents. I will meet representatives from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss matters of interest to local government.

I received a letter from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury just today. He has written to me to say that, as per the detail in my letter to him:

“there are other issues we should discuss in detail and I’d welcome the chance to do so. My office will be in touch to discuss timing.”

I hope that that is a wee bit more constructive than the appalling treatment that the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland have had from the UK Government thus far.

As there was a statement on this subject yesterday, I want short supplementary questions.

Can the cabinet secretary explain how the Welsh Government was able to set its budget in December, despite facing exactly the same circumstances, while he is claiming that he is unable to set the Scottish budget?

Yes, I can explain that, and it is rather revealing that Dean Lockhart does not know the difference between the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Our powers are quite different from those of the Welsh Administration, which relies less on things like the block grant adjustment and tax powers and forecasts. The massive difference between the financial systems of both countries is the explanation why the Welsh Government has gone earlier. Dean Lockhart should maybe do his homework for future finance questions.

Has the cabinet secretary now been able to decide to publish a draft budget ahead of the UK budget to allow local authorities to plan their budgets this year? If not, what steps will he take to assist them to put their budgets in place?

That is a fair question and it is important that the Parliament considers it. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury responded to me today, the day after the UK Government set out publicly when its budget will be, although I had written to the Treasury in November and December. Getting the letter after that decision clearly shows that Scotland is not even an afterthought for the UK Government.

The day after the United Kingdom’s announcement is not the right day for me to set out a Scottish budget date when I have pledged to engage with the convener of the Finance and Constitution Committee, the Scottish Fiscal Commission, and Opposition parties to determine a way forward, rather than just announcing it as a fait accompli. I want to engage a bit more and give confidence in a process that will allow the Parliament to scrutinise a proposed Scottish budget that will command confidence and responsibility in the face of UK Government irresponsibility.

United Kingdom Government Spending Pledges (Barnett Consequentials)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out of the UK Government’s spending pledges and the Barnett consequentials that might arise from those. (S5O-03961)

What the UK Government says and what it does are two completely different things. Until the UK budget is published, we cannot know with certainty what funding will be available for public services in Scotland arising from UK Government spending pledges. We have examined the pledges that the Conservative Party made during the election campaign, and I have written to the chancellor to point out that it is essential that he delivers the promised additional Barnett consequentials for Scotland.

Yesterday, we witnessed all parties bar one unite in the chamber against the utter lack of respect shown by the UK Tory Government for the people of Scotland; we also saw the contempt in which those people are held by the Scottish Tories, who sat here sniggering at their puppet masters’ actions. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is no laughing matter? Will he outline what the consequences of Boris’s botched budget actions might be for the people of Scotland’s livelihoods and the services on which they rely?

I have made it clear that the local government sector has expressed alarm at the delay and at the proposed date for the UK Government budget. Indeed, there are reasons for all Scotland’s services to be concerned, because they are all in a precarious position if we do not have the necessary budget approval in time for the start of the financial year.

Whatever politics were played out by the UK Government yesterday, if we want devolution and this Parliament to succeed, all the parties in this chamber will need to co-operate like never before to ensure that, in these exceptional circumstances, we take forward a budget that delivers for our people, safeguards public services and makes responsible tax decisions to give this country the confidence and certainty that it so desperately wants.

Block Grant Settlement (Timing)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the timing of the block grant settlement. (S5O-03966)

As I said, I have just received correspondence from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I hope that that engagement will be more fulfilling than anything that I have had to date with the current United Kingdom Government.

The block grant settlement for the Scottish Government for 2020-21 is determined in part by the announcements on the UK spending round of 4 September, and also by the UK tax announcements and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s tax, social security and economic forecasts that are produced for the UK budget. Without those, we do not have absolute clarity on the funding that will be available for public services in Scotland. I will continue to engage with the UK Government.

The UK Government’s decision not to deliver its budget until 11 March leaves an incredibly short time for the Scottish budget process, and could put our local services at risk. Does the cabinet secretary agree with the Conservative councillor and resource spokesperson of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Gail Macgregor, that a March UK budget runs the risk of delaying the Scottish Government’s budget and significantly impeding the ability of local authorities to formulate their budgets, meaning that Scotland’s communities will be disadvantaged?

I agree with Councillor Gail Macgregor in that regard.

Not for the first time.

That is very true—it shows the strength of the positive relationship between the Scottish Government and COSLA.

I will meet COSLA to discuss those matters to give local government the support that it will need to get through the process. However, it will be not just local government that is affected, but all of Scotland’s public services. Therefore, I will return to Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity to set out the way forward.

Will the finance secretary commit to spending all Barnett consequentials that arise from health spending in England on the national health service in Scotland?

It has been a manifesto pledge of the Scottish Government to allocate the resource from Barnett consequentials for health to the health services in Scotland. That pledge and practice continues; it is exactly what I have done in my budgets and what I propose to continue to do.

Business Rates (Devolution of Powers to Local Government)

To ask the Scottish Government how transitional rates relief would be affected if business rate powers were devolved to local government. (S5O-03962)

And now for something completely different.

The Scottish Government introduced transitional relief to cap the annual increases in rates bills at 12.5 per cent real terms until 2022 for eligible businesses, which means all but the largest hospitality businesses around Scotland and offices in Aberdeen city and Aberdeenshire.

Amendment 9 to the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill repeals section 153 of the Local Government etc (Scotland) Act 1994 and effectively abolishes the transitional relief and removes the Government’s power to set further reliefs by subordinate legislation.

During the oil and gas downturn, I joined the co-leader of Aberdeenshire Council—now MP for Gordon—and my North East Scotland Scottish National Party MSP colleagues, to negotiate with the cabinet secretary the very welcome transitional reliefs that he has just mentioned.

If the cabinet secretary had not had the power to put in place such transitional reliefs, or national schemes like the small business bonus scheme, what would the impact have been on businesses in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire?

In financial years 2017-18 and 2018-19, ratepayers in Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen received total relief of more than £12.5 million and £14.5 million respectively, due to reliefs that had been set by the Scottish Government through subordinate legislation. The reliefs include the small business bonus scheme, transitional relief and renewable energy relief. [Derek Mackay has corrected this contribution. See end of report.]

There is a concern that section 8C of the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill, which was inserted through an amendment by the Greens at stage 2, will lead to termination of those reliefs and repeal the current power to set new reliefs in subordinate legislation. Let me be clear: not just for that part of the country, but for the whole country, the Scottish Government’s being unable to deliver reliefs around renewable energy and the small business bonus scheme through subordinate legislation would be a retrograde step, considering the usual calls on the Scottish Government to intervene to support sectors and businesses when that is the right thing to do.

Transitional rates relief schemes lower bills and, as we have heard, have done so in Aberdeen city and shire. Does not the cabinet secretary accept the principle that local economic conditions require local variation of rates and that, just as the Scottish ministers and Scottish Parliament can vary Scottish taxes, local authorities are best placed to assess when and where such variations need to be applied in their areas?

I agree with localism. That is why, when I was the responsible minister, I helped to take forward the provisions in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, so that further reliefs can be provided by local authorities if they so wish.

I, as the Scottish Government does, happen to believe in a national universal poundage—a national rate for business—as did the Barclay review, as do business organisations, and as do some trade unions, incidentally. It is right for business to have a national rate and that there is a national poundage for non-domestic rates.

I am surprised that even Scottish Conservative members now support there being potentially 32 levels of non-domestic rates across the country. That is contrary to what business wants. It would remove the Government’s ability to deliver relief through subordinate legislation and would abolish, at the stroke of a pen, the small business bonus and other reliefs. Members should think very carefully about that when we come to the final stage of the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill, because the amendment is anti-business and is a reckless and erroneous move.

Procurement Policy (Zero-hours Contracts)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to calls for it to no longer offer contracts to private firms that employ people on zero-hours contracts. (S5O-03964)

Our response is to continue taking action to tackle insecure work, as part of our fair work agenda. Through fair work first, we are extending fair work criteria to as many funding streams, including public contracts, as we can by the end of the current parliamentary session. Those criteria include there being no inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts, and payment of the real living wage.

Legislation related to zero-hour contracts is reserved, and we have repeatedly made very clear our opposition to the inappropriate use of those contracts and other types of employment that offer workers no job security.

Does the minister agree that most people’s zero-hours contracts mean poor terms and conditions, sometimes no sick pay and, invariably, no pension, and that poor management practices make shift-working at short notice hard for many workers? Notwithstanding the fact that I agree that employment law should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, will the minister assure me that the Scottish Government will use its existing powers to outlaw legally the making of any contract between the Scottish Government and companies that use zero-hours contracts?

We are not able legally to outlaw anything of that kind; Pauline McNeill made the point that employment law remains reserved. I accept that the Scottish Labour Party now seems to have changed its position and supports devolution of employment law, but it opposed its devolution throughout the Smith commission, which means that we cannot take that action. However, I agree with the fundamental premise, and we will continue to take action to do what we can to stop inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts.