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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 15, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 15 November 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Proposed European Union Withdrawal Agreement, Physical Activity, Diet and Healthy Weight, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Barnett Consequentials (Retail Sector)

To ask the Scottish Government how much will arise in Barnett consequentials from the reduction in business rates that was announced in the United Kingdom budget, and whether it will allocate all of this to support Scotland’s retail sector. (S5O-02559)

We received £42.9 million consequentials from the United Kingdom retail discount scheme. This is in the context of real-terms cuts to the Scottish resource block grant of £2 billion since 2010.

As Mr Bowman will be aware, Barnett consequentials accrue to the Scottish Ministers and decisions on the full package of non-domestic rates measures for 2019-20 will be made as part of our Scottish budget process. We have a competitive NDR package, and do not actively hypothecate Barnett consequentials, other than those for health.

As reported in the press this week, according to the Scottish Retail Consortium, 11.1 per cent of Scotland’s shop units were vacant last month, compared with the UK rate of 9.6 per cent. In October, footfall plummeted by 7.5 per cent on high streets.

While the UK plans to give £900 million towards business rates relief, cutting a third of expenses for small retailers, the Scottish National Party has doubled the large business supplement, costing businesses hundreds of millions of pounds. With Scottish retail facing real difficulty, why can the Scottish Government not commit now to halving the large business supplement and matching the UK’s rate support for retail, and give some good news for firms in Dundee’s High Street, Reform Street and elsewhere?

The UK Government is working wonders for the British economy right now, is it not? No wonder the UK has the lowest forecast GDP performance of any European Union nation at the moment. I will take no lectures from the Tories on how to run an economy or any parts of the economy.

It is interesting that Bill Bowman mentioned Dundee High Street. Like most other high streets, Dundee High Street would have benefited from the small business bonus that has protected so many of our retail properties across the country. It was opposed by the Conservatives in their failure to support the Government’s successive budgets.

The bonus has ensured that Scotland has the most competitive package of business rates anywhere in the United Kingdom. I will keep that reputation as we go towards the Scottish budget. If I replicate all the decisions that the Tories make in terms of Barnett consequentials, that would mean replicating the cuts as well. This Government makes different choices on our public services. We will make the right decisions by the people of Scotland and support our economy in a far more credible way.

Would the Government set out how many recipients of the small business bonus scheme there are in 2018-19 and how much is being provided in relief over that period? How does that measure up to the SNP’s manifesto commitment to lift 100,000 properties out of business rates altogether?

I take great pleasure in updating the chamber on those numbers. The small business bonus scheme has provided a record £254 million in relief to 119,400 properties in 2018-19. Therefore, we have met our manifesto commitment, lifting 104,500 recipients out of business rates altogether.

Support for the retail sector will not be helped by the fact that there are 470,000 people in Scotland not being paid the living wage. That is an unacceptably high figure and means that a large portion of those people do not have the money to spend in and support those shops.

Will the cabinet secretary support Labour’s plan for a £10 per hour living wage? What consideration will the cabinet secretary give in his draft budget to addressing the unacceptably high number of people who are not being paid the living wage?

It would be better if real devolutionists ensured that the power to set the living wage rested with this Parliament, rather than with Westminster.

I am looking at the decisions that we can take around the living wage. It is the Living Wage Foundation that sets the rate that we have pledged to follow. We will continue to do that. I am looking at those other matters. I am looking at retail and specific sectors as well, recognising that some sectors have more challenges than others in the delivery of the principle. However, this Government has delivered more than any other Government in the UK and more than any previous Scottish Administration in taking forward the fair work and living wage agendas.

Autism and Learning Disability

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce the inequalities faced by autistic people, and people with a learning disability. (S5O-02560)

We are committed to transforming the lives of autistic people and people with learning disabilities. We have listened to their aspirations and needs and want to address the inequalities that they face throughout their lives. Our programme for government sets out our priorities and shows that we want autistic people and people with learning disabilities to have the same freedoms and opportunities as other citizens of Scotland.

Next month, we will launch the refreshed keys to life implementation framework, which recognises that people with learning disabilities have the same aspirations and expectations as any other person.

Can the minister assure me that discussions are being held right across Government portfolios—in education, health, employability, social security and other departments—so that the holistic approach can be used to ensure that people with autism and learning disabilities are given good life opportunities and the ability to improve their independence?

As the member highlighted, autistic people and people with learning disabilities need holistic support across health, social care, employability, education, criminal justice, social security and social connectedness. In refreshing both the autism and learning disability strategies, wide engagement has taken place across the relevant Scottish Government portfolios. An example of that is the cross-policy links between employability and equality colleagues that led to a commitment to halve the disability employment gap. Another example was the engagement with social security colleagues that led to the inclusion of autistic people when designing the new social security system.

Stromeferry Bypass (A890)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its involvement with the Highland Council regarding the Stromeferry bypass in Wester Ross. (S5O-02561)

The A890 at Stromeferry is a local road and is the responsibility of Highland Council. Transport Scotland has provided technical advice to council officials and their consultants on the transport appraisal process since 2013, and I can confirm that it is in receipt of the final appraisal report. The report reflects the substantial amount of work that was undertaken as part of the appraisal process, and a response will be provided in the near future. As roads authority for the A890 at Stromeferry, the final responsibility for the decision to upgrade or improve the route ultimately lies with Highland Council.

Given that the report into the condition of the rock face is now in the public domain, will the Scottish Government agree to work with Highland Council and Network Rail on a sustainable and economically viable solution for this lifeline route?

I recognise the importance of the route to communities across Ms Ross’s constituency.

Highland Council recently provided the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, with a copy of the report prepared by the consultants, AECOM. Officials at Transport Scotland are reviewing the report, along with the transport appraisal prepared by the council, which includes the options that have been identified therein. They will continue to provide technical assistance as necessary to identify the correct solutions.

They have also worked closely with the Highland Council and Network Rail to identify a temporary solution in terms of the crossing on the railway. As I said earlier, the final responsibility for a decision to upgrade or improve the A890 at Stromeferry ultimately lies with the Highland Council as the roads authority for the route. However, I give a commitment to Gail Ross that we will continue to work closely with the council.

In the past, blasting has been used to remove the overhanging rocks at Stromeferry, which has weakened four specific areas. A permanent solution to that will cost £5 million. Will the minister offer to help the Highland Council fund that £5 million to sort out the four overhangs until Transport Scotland responds to the report that was submitted over a year ago?

The member will appreciate that I cannot give any commitments on funding today. The cabinet secretary is not here, but I will certainly relay the member’s question to him. I recognise the importance of trying to provide as much relief as possible to local users of the infrastructure in the meantime, while a longer-term solution is found. As I said to Gail Ross, we are committed to providing as much technical support as possible to the council and indeed Network Rail to identify a solution. Discussions around funding will have to take place, but that is a matter for the cabinet secretary.

Michelin Tyre plc (Action Group)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made since the establishment of the action group for the Michelin plant in Dundee. (S5O-02562)

On Monday, I convened the first meeting of the action group, at which the members agreed the purpose, remit and actions of the group. We will pursue all possibilities for retaining and/or repurposing the plant as a matter of urgency. We are actively working with pace and vigour on our proposition.

I have again pressed the United Kingdom Government to bring what it can to the table, including seeking additional resource via city deals or industrial strategy resources, and I will keep members advised accordingly.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that consideration will be given to putting more than one option to Michelin, including retention and repurposing? What commitments were made by the UK Government at the action group meeting, including in relation to any additional resources that could be made available through the Tay cities deal or other funding sources? How does that sit with the comments that the Secretary of State for Scotland made to the media after the meeting? Can the cabinet secretary shed any light on that?

Shona Robison asks an important question about the range of options that are available. I have made it clear to the action group and to members that Michelin does not wish to revisit its decision, but that it is interested in the proposition that we will put to it in approximately two weeks’ time. We are looking at a range of options to put forward, based on the best intelligence that we have.

On the contribution of the UK Government, we are relying on the UK Government to use the intelligence and support that it can bring to bear to help us to co-produce the proposition that we put to Michelin. I have also made requests for additional resources, given the clarity that we have on the Tay cities deal, the industrial strategy and the sector deals.

I can neither confirm nor clarify the remarks of the secretary of state because, at the action group meeting and in the private meetings that I have had, I was given assurances that the UK Government would assist us to co-produce the proposition that we make to Michelin and that it would look at funding streams to help us to do so. I also got agreement on that from Greg Clark, the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and my first call after First Minister’s question time will be with another UK Government minister, in relation to the industrial strategy.

Therefore, I cannot square what the UK Government has said to me about providing support for our proposition to Michelin with what the Secretary of State for Scotland said to The Courier on the day of the action group meeting. I hope that support is forthcoming, and that is what I am working on, so that we can genuinely work in partnership to put the best possible proposition to Michelin and secure the company’s on-going presence at the Dundee site. We should all be absolutely united on that.

According to media reports, the Scottish Government has invested £8 million in the Michelin plant. Can the cabinet secretary confirm the status of that investment? Can he confirm that it will be used as leverage to secure as many jobs as possible at the plant?

What a disappointing response that was from the Conservatives in the context of my remarks about our collective efforts.

As far as leverage is concerned, Michelin is genuinely interested in our industrial proposition for this country, the work that is being done on research and development, the skills and the workforce that we have in Dundee and the good will that exists across the action group towards putting forward the best possible proposition.

I have said previously that there were Scottish Enterprise grants to help the plant to transform and that it was doing that. If we come to the issue of leverage around clawback, of course that will be used but, right now, the priority must be on focusing on continuing with the commercial manufacturing function at the Dundee site and ensuring that the company has an on-going presence there. We must do everything that we can to retain as many jobs as possible in view of the company’s position not to revisit the original decision.

I will leave no stone unturned and will explore every avenue in order to put the best possible proposition to Michelin, and I could do with support from the UK Government to get the best possible outcome for the people of Dundee.

I reiterate Labour’s support for the work of the action group that the cabinet secretary has convened. Does he agree that all parties on the group are committed to working together to get the best possible proposal and result for the Michelin workforce and for Dundee?

Yes; they are all attendees at the action group, and the other business and industry experts who will help to feed into it are giving us the necessary intelligence and assistance to put forward the best possible proposition. In that sense of solidarity and unity, the workforce is key, as well as the local authority members and others. I appreciate the cross-party support that we have enjoyed so far to take forward that work. It will keep us energised as we get to the opportunity to present the case to Michelin.

Neonatal Intensive Care Units (Location)

To ask the Scottish Government when recommendations will be published for the location of the three national neonatal intensive care units, as outlined in the 2017 “The Best Start” report’s five-year plan. (S5O-02563)

The perinatal sub-group of the best start implementation programme board is currently undertaking an options appraisal to identify the locations of the neonatal intensive care units. That work will move into a testing phase shortly, after which recommendations on those locations will be made to me.

In three recent written questions, I asked the cabinet secretary whether she thought that it was acceptable for prematurely born babies to travel between the north-east and the central belt for emergency neonatal intensive care treatment. She did not answer, instead citing potential transport links between the two. Let us be clear that the issue is about life-saving treatment for the most vulnerable babies. Does the cabinet secretary accept that any attempt to remove that lifeline service for the north of Scotland would be ill-advised and dangerous?

As Mr Mason will recall, in the answer to those questions I made it absolutely clear that no neonatal units will close as a result of the best start recommendations for neonatal intensive care. The best start report does not recommend a reduction in the number of neonatal care centres in NHS Grampian or, indeed, anywhere else.

My point is that the testing for intensive neonatal care is in the option appraisal stage. It will then move to a testing stage and those recommendations will come to me. At that point, I will make what I consider to be reasoned decisions based on the recommendations and testing. Let me repeat that no neonatal units will close as a result of the best start recommendations, which came from a group of highly experienced practitioners, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nursing, obstetricians, consultant anaesthetists and many others. I will work with their clinical judgment about the best maternity care and configuration for women and babies in Scotland, and not Mr Mason’s.

Arts and Culture Facilities (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding it provides to arts and culture facilities in Glasgow. (S5O-02564)

The Scottish Government continues to provide extensive support to the arts in Glasgow. Four of the five national performing companies are based in Glasgow and receive grants of more than £20 million a year. We have also invested extensively in Glasgow’s cultural infrastructure, including £6.25 million towards the Kelvin hall refurbishment and enabling the National Library of Scotland to have a core presence in Glasgow for the first time in a joint project with Glasgow museums and the Hunterian museum. We are investing £5 million in the Burrell renaissance project and £6 million in the Citizens Theatre redevelopment.

All that investment is on top of the festival 2018 cultural programme in Glasgow as part of the highly successful European championships, which was supported with £63 million of Scottish Government funding.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that there is no central funding for the day-to-day running of the national facilities in Glasgow, which compares with the tens of millions of pounds that go to facilities in Edinburgh. At the same time, there has been a 20 per cent cut in Glasgow’s budget. Will she review the funding of arts and culture facilities in Glasgow to look at running costs?

Anas Sarwar is mistaken. If he had listened to my answer, he would know that the national facilities in Glasgow are four of the five national performing companies, which receive grant of more than £20 million a year. Glasgow is well funded. I did not mention the £27.5 million of funding from Creative Scotland for regularly funded organisations, the £8.5 million grant for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Glasgow royal concert hall or the £5.45 million of grants for Scottish Opera, as part of Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. Glasgow is doing extremely well from support for the arts and funding from the Scottish Government.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the arts in North Ayrshire received only £192,000 in grants last year compared with the £20 million for Glasgow that she mentioned. Per capita, Glasgow receives almost 25 times as much as North Ayrshire. What steps will the Scottish Government, working in conjunction with Creative Scotland, take to build capacity in North Ayrshire and help to close that gap?

One of the things that we are supporting is Creative Scotland’s place partnerships and North Ayrshire is part of that. In the past year, we have protected Creative Scotland’s budget—indeed, we have increased it by £6.6 million to rectify the shortfall in funding from the United Kingdom national lottery. More can be done to ensure that the extent and range of cultural funding reaches communities across North Ayrshire and other areas, and I am happy to supply the member with more information about that.