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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 17, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 December 2020

Agenda: Trade (Disclosure of Information) Bill, First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Economy (Dumfriesshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to accelerate projects that will support the economy in Dumfriesshire. (S5O-04865)

We are investing £85 million in the borderlands deal to support projects that will accelerate economic growth across Dumfries and Galloway, and I am pleased that the United Kingdom Government has finally agreed to match our pledge to fund the borderlands deal over a 10-year period. We have established South of Scotland Enterprise to accelerate economic growth in Dumfriesshire and across the south, backed by an operating budget of £27.3 million, and we have committed more than £3.1 million to the Dumfriesshire area specifically for projects that are supported through the South of Scotland Economic Partnership. We continue to work with local partners to progress all projects as swiftly as possible.

I really appreciate that answer. On the borderlands deal, will the cabinet secretary ensure that projects such as the proposals for Chapelcross in my constituency and the dairy research hub at the Barony campus are prioritised? Will she impress on her Cabinet colleagues that improving connectivity, particularly by improving the A75 and providing a number of new stations, is important in ensuring that the region’s economy grows?

The member has identified a number of areas that are being looked at in different ways by some of my colleagues. I am sure that they can update him when they are able to do so.

In relation to the Chapelcross borderlands project, I understand that a business case was requested by local partners to ensure that there is a clear strategic vision and the necessary industry buy-in to secure the required private sector investment to ensure the site’s long-term sustainability. Clearly, the borderlands investment is predicated on investments by the UK and Scottish Governments. The project is led locally, but with a particular eye to the fact that it should generate additionality through private investment. The initial outline business case was received in late November and is being looked at now.

It is important that our economic recovery is also a green recovery. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on the steps that are being taken to ensure that Scottish Government investment delivers environmental returns?

A green recovery is part of the focus. That was the advice from the advisory group on economic recovery. Our programme for government sets out our investment in our green new deal, which includes a ground-breaking sum of £1.6 billion to transform how we heat our homes, £60 million to help decarbonise industry and £100 million for a green jobs fund. In our updated climate change plan, we announced another £400 million of low-carbon fund commitments, which will continue to drive a green recovery. The infrastructure investment plan will lay out different opportunities and plans to boost inclusive growth, build sustainable places and tackle the climate and nature crises.

Burntisland Fabrications

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on BiFab. (S5O-04866)

As the member will be aware, I gave evidence to the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee on Tuesday 15 December and made a statement on BiFab in the chamber on Wednesday 16 December.

Deloitte was appointed as the administrator on Monday 14 December. I have agreed to provide funding in the short term, if there are insufficient funds in the business to remove the immediate threat of redundancies while a sale of business process is pursued. I encourage all interested parties who share our objective of a strong future for the workforce and the sites to contact the administrator.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her reply and for the helpful update that she gave to Parliament yesterday. As she will be aware, for the communities that I represent, the jobs are more important than the identity of the company. From my point of view, it is the jobs that are brought into Arnish that matter.

In seeking to be open to other potential uses for the yard, is the Scottish Government considering the potential for leasing arrangements that might enable multiple companies to use the yard?

That is clearly an issue for the administrator in the first instance, but we are making sure it is aware of the different proposals and ideas and, indeed, of the local aspects, whether in Fife or the member’s constituency, where the Arnish site lies.

We agree with Highlands and Islands Enterprise that a truly successful outcome for Arnish must support year-round economic activity. We are also making it clear to the BiFab administrator that the priority is sustainable long-term employment that enables the peaks and the troughs to be balanced. We want prospective tenants—whether one company or, as Dr Allan suggested, multiple companies—to demonstrate their ability to provide a pipeline of activity. We recognise that Arnish is a strategic asset to the Highlands and Islands, so we would want to ensure that, in addition to use being made of the existing fabrication shops, future tenants could benefit from forming a complementary part of the emerging blue economy cluster on the wider site.

We are mindful, too, of the wide range of economic opportunities that the Stornoway deepwater terminal—the £49 million package for which the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism announced last week—can provide and are keen that the Arnish yard can benefit from that investment.

Claire Baker has a supplementary.

Yesterday, the cabinet secretary said that the chances of the Neart na Gaoithe project coming to Scotland are “receding”. What can the Government do to support Saipem in awarding the NnG contract to the Fife yard, or does the cabinet secretary believe that time has run out for the jobs that were promised to Fife?

I certainly do not believe that. The opportunity is there for the NnG contract to be delivered in Scotland, but it is not in my gift to make that happen. That is Saipem’s decision, and it will look at competitive tendering. I pay tribute to EDF, which was encouraging of the NnG project—or a small part of it, at least—being delivered in Scotland. If there is a company that can deliver the project under an agreement with whoever takes over the yard, or if the company itself can take over the yard, it is still possible that the project can be delivered, but that will be a challenge, so I think that we should manage expectations.

That is why, on a number of occasions, I have impressed on Saipem our belief that the project can and should be developed. There is an element of self-interest in that, particularly given that more procurement will require to be delivered by supply chains in Scotland in the future, with ScotWind and with the statement of procurement principles that we have established. As I set out on Tuesday and again yesterday, if the United Kingdom Government can change the contracts for difference scheme, that will provide the impetus and the incentive for companies such as Saipem, and other developers, to deliver work to the yard. I think that that is one of the levers that would mean that it would be in Saipem’s self-interest, and that of other players, to deliver the NnG contract. However, we must be realistic—that will be a challenge.

Newly Self-employed People (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what financial support is available for newly self-employed people who have not been able to access other forms of support during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04867)

I am very aware of the concern about those who have had difficulty in accessing financial support, particularly the newly self-employed. That is a group for whom the financial challenges are particularly acute because of the fact that they are excluded from support through the United Kingdom Government’s self-employment income support scheme.

In recognition of that, we acted swiftly to support the newly self-employed back in April by introducing the newly self-employed hardship fund, which provided £2,000 grants to more than 5,500 people. In response to the on-going disruption caused by the Covid-19 restrictions, we have also committed to providing an additional £15 million to run a second round of the newly self-employed hardship fund, which will build on the first iteration of the fund by providing further £2,000 grants. We are working closely with local authorities to deliver the second round of the fund, and further details will be made available in the coming days.

I very much welcome the additional discretionary funding that has been put in place.

Because of the UK Government’s actions, which the cabinet secretary mentioned, some constituents who have contacted me—they include taxi drivers—have had next to no financial support since the pandemic started. When does the Government expect that people will be able to apply for and access the discretionary funding? Can the cabinet secretary clarify whether taxi drivers will be able to apply for that funding or whether they will have access only to the separate funding stream?

Originally, the discretionary fund that has been made available to local authorities was seen as a possible source of funding for taxi drivers. Since then, we have identified an additional £19 million specifically for taxi and private hire vehicle drivers. That fund will be available in January. The focus of the local authorities fund is specifically on those who have had no additional financial support. Some taxi drivers will have been able to benefit from either the furlough scheme, if they are employed, or the self-employed scheme. However, we are very cognisant of the fixed-cost issues that taxi drivers face, and that is why additional funding of £19 million has been identified to support them.

Covid-19 Pandemic (Engagement with Business Stakeholders)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to engage with business stakeholders to inform its response to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04868)

Ministers have engaged extensively with business leaders, businesses and their representative organisations on the response to the Covid emergency and its impact on the economy. We have engaged with businesses or their representative organisations on more than 780 occasions since the beginning of March 2020. That includes engagement with the main business organisations, including the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, Scottish Financial Enterprise, the Scottish Retail Consortium, the Scottish Tourism Alliance, Scotland Food & Drink and a range of other industry groups.

We continue to engage and work with businesses to respond to the Covid emergency and its impact on the economy.

Like many parts of our economy, the manufacturing sector has been hit hard by the pandemic. Will the minister provide an update on the steps that the Scottish Government is taking with stakeholders as it works to secure a sustainable future for the sector?

I acknowledge that the pandemic has been a very difficult time for the manufacturing sector in Scotland, in common with many sectors. We have worked closely with it and its workforce to ensure that it was able to operate safely throughout the pandemic period.

On recovery, the Scottish Government published “Making Scotland’s Future: A Recovery Plan for Manufacturing” for consultation on 4 December. The draft plan was developed in partnership, again, with representatives from industry, along with representatives of trade unions, the public sector and academia. Its launch creates an opportunity for wider stakeholder input. I encourage Ms Maguire and others who have an interest to take part in the consultation.

Give Key Workers a Break Campaign

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests; I am a member of the GMB union.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the GMB Scotland campaign, give key workers a break. (S5O-04869)

Our shop workers have done a fantastic job in difficult times throughout the Covid pandemic. In that regard, they should be recognised by all of us and, of course, by their employers. The employers should recognise and reward staff suitably for their efforts throughout this most difficult of years; the Scottish Government encourages them to do so.

We are sympathetic to the GMB campaign so I urge retailers to consider the necessity of opening on boxing day and new year’s day. I have written to all the party spokespeople to see whether we can reach a united position on that, and I will meet the Scottish Retail Consortium on Monday.

I am grateful to the minister for his response. I welcome the fact that Asda has responded positively to the campaign and will give workers a day off on boxing day—although it is, of course, disappointing that they will have to use their annual leave for that.

Last week, in response to my colleague Neil Bibby, the First Minister said that she would look at the request to use powers under the Christmas Day and New Year’s Day Trading (Scotland) Act 2007 to give key workers in supermarkets and large shops the day off on new year’s day. Can the minister provide an update on whether the Scottish Government will go ahead with that and give key workers a much-deserved day off? Will he also comment on the Government’s position in relation to other large supermarkets and shops that have not followed Asda’s lead? Will the Government say more about that?

On the last point, I hope that Ms Lennon heard what I had to say in response to her first question. I urge retailers to look very closely at whether it is necessary to open on those days, particularly in the light of the impact that this year has had on their workforce.

On the proposition of utilising the Christmas Day and New Year’s Day Trading (Scotland) Act 2007, I spoke with Mr Bibby and the GMB about that last week and corresponded with the Public Petitions Committee about it this morning. Utilising the 2007 act would be difficult. I have to be candid about that. Not only is there a requirement for consultation before the laying of any order to effect such a closure on new year’s day, but it is necessary to publish an economic impact assessment and an assessment of the impact on family. In addition, such an order must be laid before Parliament a minimum of 40 days before new year’s day. I hope that Ms Lennon can see the difficulties that would be involved in utilising that particular piece of legislation.

As I set out in my initial answer, I am seeking to speak with all parties to see whether we can establish a way forward.

Covid-19 Pandemic (Support for Businesses)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support businesses that are struggling to operate during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04870)

Since the start of the crisis, we have invested more than £2.3 billion to support businesses across Scotland. We have allocated a further £570 million of support for business and the wider economy, which includes funding for the strategic framework business fund and the recently announced £185 million targeted support to help impacted businesses and sectors through the winter. The range of business help and support that is available can be found at the website.

The reality is that the hospitality industry in Glasgow is on its knees and is suffering from the impact of the pandemic. Some businesses have not been open since March. The reality is that jobs will be lost and businesses will close. What direct discussions have taken place with representatives of the hospitality industry on support, and to consider limited lifting of some restrictions in order to avoid a wholesale loss of jobs?

I do not know whether Mr Kelly was listening to my answer to Ruth Maguire, in which I set out that ministers have engaged with business organisations on more than 780 occasions since March. I assure Mr Kelly that a significant amount of that activity has been dialogue with the hospitality industry, in particular. My colleague Fergus Ewing—the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism—and I have led in many of those discussions. We are very cognisant of the challenges that the sector faces and will continue to meet the sector to discuss what more can be done. Of course, as was announced just last week, additional support for the sector is being deployed. We will continue to look at what more we can do as we make our way through the pandemic.

Information that has been released on support grant applications, which closed in July, shows that 15,000 applications are still outstanding. With that scale of backlog, does the minister have confidence that local authorities will be able to cope with distributing the recently announced new support schemes, in order to save businesses that are struggling to survive?

Minister, did you manage to hear that?

Yes, I did, and the answer is yes, I do.

He obviously heard it.

Question 7 has not been lodged.

Covid-19 Pandemic (Supermarkets)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the supermarket sector regarding the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04872)

The Scottish ministers and Scottish Government officials have engaged regularly with supermarkets and other food retailers on a range of issues throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, we have worked closely with them to ensure continuity of supply to Scotland’s islands and to provide priority delivery slots to people who were shielding during the lockdown.

Food Standards Scotland has produced guidance for all food businesses, including retailers, that supports risk assessment and risk management to help them to operate safely. That includes a self-assessment tool for food businesses to use to ensure that implementation of Covid-19 safety measures continues to be effective. During the Christmas shopping period, stores will be markedly busier, so in order to ensure the safety of staff and customers, it is vital that existing measures are followed.

Does the minister expect that the Scottish Government will have any further information that it could pass on about how much money it expects to be returned by supermarkets in Scotland that have decided not to accept the rates relief that was put in place as part of the package of support for the retail sector of the economy during the pandemic? I think that I first heard about that initiative from my colleague Shona Robison. Does the minister agree that that money represents an opportunity to provide even greater support to businesses in my constituency and across Scotland that have been hit hard by the on-going pandemic?

First, it is right that we commend the supermarkets that have committed to reimbursing the public finances with support that they received through rates relief. Every penny that is returned to us will be invested in our recovery from Covid-19 and will be used to support those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

We think that the value to Scotland of that funding could be in the region of £200 million. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance has written to the Treasury to seek urgent clarity on how the moneys from retailers will be made available. We are very clear that any revenues that are voluntarily repaid by ratepayers in Scotland should remain in Scotland and not be withheld by the United Kingdom Government.

That concludes portfolio questions. I know that some members who have put themselves forward for the debate under the next item of business are not in the chamber. They should realise by now, in the session, that it is follow-on business.