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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 16, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 16 March 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Non-domestic Rates (North East Scotland), Draft Climate Change Plan, Farriers (Registration) Bill, Decision Time


General Question Time


To ask the Scottish Government how it will take forward the recommendations of the advisory group on tackling sectarianism. (S5O-00787)

The Scottish Government has been working to take forward the recommendations of the advisory group with relevant organisations since publication in May 2015. I tasked former advisory group chair, Dr Duncan Morrow, with conducting a review of the implementation of the recommendations, and his findings were published on 6 March 2017. Dr Morrow gathered evidence from a wide range of sources, including the Scottish Government and all parties in the chamber, and I would like to thank everyone for their constructive contributions.

It is very clear from the review that work remains to be done and that we all have a responsibility to meet that challenge. The Scottish Government is fully committed to building on Dr Morrow’s work. We have invested £12.5 million over the past five years to tackle sectarianism, including £9.3 million directly invested in community-based projects across Scotland—more than any Government before.

The minister will be aware that Dr Morrow asks frequently in his report:

“If not strict liability, then what?”

Does the minister agree that the introduction of strict liability on Scottish football clubs would go some considerable way towards reducing not only sectarianism but homophobia, misogyny and other unacceptable behaviours in Scottish football?

I am aware of Dr Morrow’s comments in that regard, and I am also aware that Mr Dornan is proposing a member’s bill on strict liability. The consultation period is on-going and I look forward to seeing its results, in due course.

In the meantime, we will continue to work with the Scottish Premier Football League, the Scottish Football Association, clubs and other partners to ensure that the recently revised rules and associated guidelines on unacceptable conduct are robust, transparent and effective. The revised rules and guidelines are welcome, but without a concerted and sustained effort, we will not be able to eradicate offensive behaviour from our national game. There is scope to do more, and I encourage the SPFL and the SFA to work to that end.

I refer members to my declaration of interest as a football referee for the Scottish FA.

The minister will be aware that the advisory group also recognised the risk that strict liability could have unintended consequences. One of those unintended consequences would be the cost to clubs. A club in my region—Elgin City Football Club—has submitted a response to Mr Dornan’s member’s bill consultation saying that

“a system of strict liability would leave us open to crippling and business-ending costs”.

What is the minister’s response to that concern?

I hear what the member says. The process of Mr Dornan’s consultation is, of course, on-going. I imagine that Mr Ross would wish to consider making his own representations to it, as well. The Government will consider and reflect on the results of that consultation when they are presented to us.

Small Business Bonus Scheme (North Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government how many businesses in North Ayrshire pay no rates because of the small business bonus scheme, and how many will be exempt in 2017-18. (S5O-00788)

The small business bonus scheme provides 100 per cent relief to around 2,100 properties in North Ayrshire in 2016-17 and is estimated to provide 100 per cent relief to around 2,300 properties in 2017-18.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that positive reply. That clear and concise work to reduce the rates burden for almost half of our small businesses contrasts sharply with the muddled thinking of the United Kingdom Chancellor of the Exchequer, who abruptly cancelled his ill-conceived proposed increase in national insurance contributions from self-employed people—who are often the very same folk that this Scottish National Party Government is helping with their business rates. Does the cabinet secretary agree that UK Tory ineptitude shows that small businesses in Scotland can rely only on the SNP to support and defend their interests?

I find myself—of course—in agreement with that point. This Government is delivering its manifesto as it relates to small business. It has gone beyond the manifesto in lowering the tax rate to Scotland’s small businesses—indeed to all businesses—through the poundage. In lifting 100,000 properties out of rates altogether through the small business bonus, lowering the tax rate and delivering that enhanced package, we have responded very well in delivering our mandate and our manifesto commitments.

In this Parliament of minorities, I have to reach out to the other political parties to get support for my budget. It appears that the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer at Westminster could not even get the support of his own Tory members to support his budget proposition. We will keep delivering for Scotland.

I recently met Morningside Traders Association in my constituency. A number of its members have had relatively small changes to their rateable value, but because their rateable values take them over the £15,000 threshold and because of the removal of the 50 per cent tax band, they have had large increases in their rates bills. Their point was that removal of the 50 per cent small business bonus band has led to something of a cliff edge. What impact assessment has been made of the removal of that band and of the relatively large increases that businesses can experience from a small change in their rateable value over the £15,000 mark?

I remind Daniel Johnson that the Labour Party opposed all the reliefs and actions that the Government set out to support small businesses and businesses throughout Scotland.

In the budget, I detailed how local authorities could also assist businesses through local rates relief support. Therefore, there is a further opportunity for local authorities to assist, where they think they can go further than the national package.

There will be a full revaluation report that will, of course, be delivered through the actions of the assessors, who are independent of the Scottish Government. That report can set out the picture post revaluation. We have looked at the impacts of revaluation as we have responded through the course of the budget process and beyond, and I will continue to consider them to ensure that we have an excellent business rates regime that is competitive and supports people through revaluation.

Faced with the chaos from the Tory party and the opposition from the Labour Party, people can trust only the SNP to support businesses in this country to be able to respond to the challenges that they face.

It is interesting to hear the cabinet secretary talk about trusting the SNP. The reality is that official Scottish Government data show that nearly a third of all businesses in North Ayrshire will be hit by business-rate hikes. Because of revaluation, a number of small businesses are concerned that they will be taken out of the small business bonus scheme, and very little clarity has been provided on that. How many businesses in North Ayrshire will be taken out of the small business bonus scheme by the increase in their business rates? What assistance will the Scottish Government provide to those businesses?

That question ignores the answer that I gave to Mr Gibson. More businesses will benefit from the small business bonus, which the Tory party has opposed, and all businesses will benefit from the reduction in the poundage. That was the right action to take.

We have looked at the package of reliefs. If the Tories and the Labour Party want to look further at enhanced measures for support, maybe they should support local authorities in delivering such schemes.

A number of sectors have welcomed the actions that we have taken. I remind all members that many people have waited for the reduction in their business rates as a consequence of revaluation. More than half of all businesses will pay nothing, and 70 per cent of businesses will pay the same or less than they did before. That is the right package to support businesses throughout Scotland.

The full details of the impact of revaluation will come out as the assessors provide the final information, and I will look in future financial years to see what further support we can provide.

All the actions on business rates in this country have been totally undermined by the Tories and the Labour Party. They have made a lot of noise, but they have made absolutely no difference to supporting businesses in this land.

Town Centre Regeneration

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to local authorities to help with the regeneration of town centres. (S5O-00789)

The Scottish Government agreed the town centre first principle with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and all council leaders. The principle asks that the impact on the town centre be considered in all investment decisions as a starting point. I am pleased that the principle is gathering traction, with local authorities applying it to suit their own local circumstances.

We support local authorities through the measures that are set out in the town centre action plan, which sets the conditions and supports activity across the wider public, private and community sectors to tackle the key issues in town centres across Scotland.

We fund and support the Scottish empty homes partnership, which provides practical assistance to councils and others to help owners bring their empty homes back into use. It has been central to developing Scotland’s network of empty homes officers, and 17 councils now have a dedicated empty homes resource. By April 2016, the empty homes partnership had assisted in bringing over 1,680 properties back into use.

To add to the range of tools that are available to tackle empty homes and property, we are committed to bringing forward provisions for compulsory sale orders as part of on-going land reform measures. However, more work is needed to ensure that any powers that are introduced are effective in tackling the impact of abandoned buildings, particularly those that blight town centres and neighbourhoods.

Does the Government agree that the United Kingdom Government’s insistence on charging full VAT for the restoration of buildings while new builds are zero rated has a detrimental impact on efforts to regenerate town centres?

As Ms McAlpine points out, that remains a reserved matter. Regrettably, it is clear that the UK Government is not likely to give us a hearing on that matter.

Although we do not have hard data to support the member’s statement, it is a logical conclusion that zero VAT would help in the regeneration of many of the properties that she has referred to. We are focused on other ways to support the regeneration of our historic town centres, for example through the provision of grant support, such as that disbursed under the conservation area regeneration scheme. That scheme, which is administered on behalf of the Government by Historic Environment Scotland, is aimed at addressing repair works to town centres and high streets where appropriate, bringing local vacant or at-risk buildings back into use.

I recognise that the member has a major interest in the topic and I intend to visit Dumfries, where I know she has been asking numerous questions on the issue.

Question 4 was not lodged.


To ask the Scottish Government what the outcome was of the discussions between it and the Scottish Council for Jewish Communities regarding the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. (S5O-00791)

Scottish Government officials are due to meet the Scottish Council for Jewish Communities and the Community Security Trust on 23 March 2017 to discuss these issues. I refer the member to my written answer S5W-05829, which indicated that the Scottish Government agrees with the definition that has been adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

I still receive regular inquiries from constituents in Eastwood, which is where the largest Jewish community in Scotland resides, and they are very grateful for the personal support of the First Minister, who recently attended an event in the community. I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for what she has said. I hope that we can achieve an early outcome in which Scotland can join the other Governments that have adopted the resolution.

I am grateful to Mr Carlaw for the tone and tenor of his supplementary point. I also point out that, just a few days ago, in a written answer to Ross Thomson on the same issue, I replied:

“We agree with the definition produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and consider the resolution they have adopted to be a helpful guide to the different manifestations of anti-Semitism.”—[Written Answers, 14 March 2017; S5W-07668.]

Donald Trump (Possible Visit to Scotland)

6. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what communication it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding a possible visit to Scotland by Donald Trump. (S5O-00792)

The UK Government has not communicated with us regarding a possible visit by the United States President. The Scottish Government wants to build a constructive relationship with the US Administration based on the shared fundamental values of equality, tolerance, diversity and human rights for all regardless of faith, race, gender or sexual orientation. However, the First Minister has made it clear that we would not support a state visit while the current travel ban is in place.

I am a little surprised that the cabinet secretary thinks that those values are shared by the US Administration. However, it has been widely reported that the UK Government is considering moving the state visit to Scotland, partly in order—apparently—to avoid public protest. Both Governments must surely be aware that millions of people around the world, and certainly many thousands in this country, stand ready to oppose the Trump regime and everything that it represents, and that, if there was such a visit to Scotland, it would be met with the biggest public protest seen in many years.

Can the Scottish Government assure us that Police Scotland will do nothing to limit or suppress that legitimate public protest, including non-violent direct action where appropriate? Can the cabinet secretary also confirm that the Scottish Government will not follow the UK Government’s line of instructing its employees not to criticise Trump on their personal social media accounts?

The member raises a number of issues. In relation to solidarity with the values that I set out, I think that many people in the United States reflect those values, and we should respect those people. The member might be aware that, only a few hours ago, a judge in Hawaii placed a block on the current travel arrangements. I think that that will be supported by many people, not just in the US but internationally.

On the member’s point about potential protests, I think that the people of Scotland have already made clear their intention to stand in solidarity with people who face a negative reception from the current US Administration. On his point about Police Scotland, we have a good record in this country of making sure that we support freedom of expression and protest that is done in a peaceful way, which should be policed accordingly.

On the member’s final point, freedom of speech must exist in lots of forms and fashions, and it is regrettable if the UK Government is seeking to gag its own members of staff.

Airbnb (Business Rates)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the business rates review will consider the potential of charging properties marketed through platforms such as Airbnb. (S5O-00793)

The Barclay review group has a wide remit to consider all aspects of the business rates system, including properties that do not currently pay rates, such as Airbnb lets. The group will make recommendations to the Government in July.

Will the cabinet secretary update the Parliament on the work that is being undertaken by the regulatory review group on the regulatory environment in Scotland for key sectors that are affected by digital disruption?

I understand that the review group has scoped research on impacts in the housing sector, which I hope will help to inform the review. All those matters can be taken into consideration as we respond to the Barclay review.

Equal Pay (Local Authorities)

8. Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures are in place to ensure that there is equal pay for local authority staff across Scotland. (S5O-00794)

The Equality Act 2010 requires that women should be paid the same as men for doing the same or equivalent work. Local authorities, as employers, are responsible for ensuring that they comply with the 2010 act, and we expect all Scottish local authorities to comply with their legal obligations.

I urge councils that still have to settle outstanding equal pay cases to do so quickly, so that people are not waiting even longer following their loss of income.

The minister will know that the dispute on equal pay with 5,000 employees of Glasgow City Council has moved to the Court of Session on appeal, after the Employment Appeal Tribunal found in favour of the claimants. Does she agree that the council must stand by its promise to reach agreement over post-job evaluation pay arrangements and deliver pay equality for all those people?

I am sure that the member understands that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases or an on-going legal matter.

Let me say very plainly that equal pay is not a matter of choice. It is a legal requirement for all employers, including local authorities. The Government and I have been consistently robust and public in our criticism of local authorities that are taking excessive time to settle equal pay claims. Some cases go back more than a decade, and the excessive delays are entirely unacceptable. We are right to expect local authorities and all public authorities to lead by example on something as fundamental as equal pay. I reiterate that local authorities must settle their claims and that they must do so soon.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, when it comes to equal pay claims, the pension contributions should also be included when an equal pay settlement takes place?

I support that. It is important that anyone who has an outstanding equal pay claim, particularly women, gets what is due to them. We have to be clear in our expectations of that.