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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 19, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 19 March 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Covid-19 (Education), United Kingdom Coronavirus Legislation, Business Motion, Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill, Point of Order, Business Motions, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

We resume with portfolio questions on economy, fair work and culture. Questions 1 and 2 have been withdrawn.

Labour Market Strategy (Employment Rights and Pay)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it takes to ensure that its labour market strategy protects the rights and pay of people in sectors perceived as undervalued or insecure. (S5O-04288)

The labour market strategy sets out the Scottish Government’s approach to delivering a fair and inclusive labour market that drives our country’s economy. The strategy, particularly its commitment to fair work, reflects all aspects of labour standards and supports the vision of Scotland becoming a fair work nation by 2025.

The Scottish Government has repeatedly called for the devolution of employment law, which is a position that is supported by the Scottish Trades Union Congress. Although employment law remains reserved to the United Kingdom Government, we will do all that we can within our current powers to protect workers, including those in precarious employment. For example, in 2019-20, we have promoted payment of the real living wage by increasing funding for living wage Scotland to £380,000, and we continue to encourage all employers to pay the real living wage, including through our procurement powers. We are targeting sectors with long-standing low-pay cultures, and we continue to reduce the gender pay gap to the smallest in any part of the UK.

We want to create a successful labour market that works for everyone by delivering fair work in which all employees are treated well and are paid a decent wage.

I very much welcome the fact that there is on-going work and that the STUC is being made aware of it.

Over the past few days, we have reflected on how the care sector is undervalued, with short-term contracts, and there is a real challenge in making sure that we are resilient over the next few weeks. What work is the Scottish Government doing to redesign such sectors of employment so that we create new career opportunities and make employment that is currently perceived as undervalued or insecure more secure and properly valued so that, when have a shock such as we are having at the moment, people will still be in work and have jobs to go to?

I know that some work is being done in the care sector to reshape opportunities there. Will the minister undertake to look at that and to keep the Parliament updated on developments in the care sector and other sectors in which we could see meaningful change over the next few weeks and months?

Of course, we all recognise the huge importance of the social care sector, especially in these particularly difficult times. There are two parts to that. As Sarah Boyack will be aware, the Scottish Government is committed to rolling out the real living wage in that sector. We have been delivering that for a number of years, and we will continue to work with the trade unions to ensure that people in that sector are treated as they should be, according to fair work principles. There is also the longer-term ambition, to which we are hugely committed, of making those jobs more valuable and secure. That can be done through a range of activities, including innovation. As more technology comes into the sector, those jobs will become more valuable and more highly regarded. We are all committed to that, and the current situation drives that home.

Four members want to ask supplementary questions. If they are concise, we will get through them.

As the minister alluded in his initial answer, many aspects of employment are reserved, including pay. Does the minister agree that the full devolution of employment powers would better equip the Scottish Government to protect and improve workers’ rights?

Yes, of course I do. We have repeatedly called for that to happen and, as I highlighted, the STUC joins us in those calls. I encourage those parties in the Parliament that have not already done so to join us in making those calls, because the more of those powers we have devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the better able we will be to deliver for the workers we are talking about.

The minister says that we all recognise the importance of the care sector, but that is clearly not the case. If we did, it would not be a sector that is defined by low pay, insecure work and a lack of career structure. Care workers will look at us when we say such things and will want us to take action.

One way in which we could change the ethos and culture of care would be by returning to national collective bargaining. The employers and the trade unions want that. Will the Government facilitate that discussion with a view to returning to national collective bargaining so that we never again get in the position in which carers are treated as they are at the moment?

The issue of collective bargaining is being addressed by my colleague Jamie Hepburn through the work that is being done around fair work first. A number of sectors have been identified to work with the STUC to map out the position on that and to understand how we can make progress, and I know that Jamie Hepburn is engaged in conversations to pursue that.

I want to ask about insecure employment. I have just received an email from workers at a large firm who are on zero-hours contracts. They have just been made unemployed and, naturally, they are very stressed and worried about that. How is the Scottish Government engaging with businesses to promote fair work practices at this very worrying time?

With regard to zero-hours contracts, that legislation is reserved to the United Kingdom Government. The Scottish Government firmly opposes the inappropriate use of such contracts and other non-standard types of employment that offer workers little or no security. We continue to work to make progress on that agenda, where we have the power to do so, but the fact that the issue is entirely reserved makes it difficult for us to move forward as far or as fast as we would like to.

On the subject of insecure and underpaid work, the minister will be aware that people who work in the creative sector are often expected to work for nothing, by virtue of their performances being free, or are extensively underpaid for the work that they produce. Will the labour market strategy work recognise the issues that have been identified in that sector?

Yes, that sector will be considered by the labour market strategy. I refer to my earlier comments: the Scottish Government is opposed to the inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts and other non-standard types of employment that offer workers little or no job security. We intend to work with the STUC and others to address that issue as best we can, given the powers that we have in this Parliament.

Questions 4, 5 and 6 have been withdrawn.

Employability Services

To ask the Scottish Government what role it has in promoting the uptake of United Kingdom Government employability services. (S5O-04292)

Under the Scotland Act 2016, the Scottish Government’s duty is to make sure that disabled people and those at risk of long-term unemployment get the support that they require to move into and towards work.

That is now being taken forward by fair start Scotland. Fair start Scotland has already supported more than 19,000 people, with more than 5,000 people moving into work in a dignified and respectful way. We work with the UK Government and other partners to ensure that services are aligned and delivered for the people who need them most.

I am aware that fair start Scotland is the devolved employability service. It recently released some troubling statistics showing that only 276 people who had left the programme had secured a job for a year. Even more troubling is that in May 2019 the Scottish Government said that fair start Scotland will support 38,000 people over a three-month period, but a month later the Scottish Government published materials saying that the programme

“will reach a minimum of 38,000 people”

by 2023. In the answer to a parliamentary question that I asked to follow up on the issue, it was confirmed that the date would be 2023.

In the current crisis, many people who are already struggling to get a job that meets their needs will now be even more worried about that. Can the minister clarify the numbers and explain why the targets in relation to that important service were moved?

It is important that Michelle Ballantyne acknowledges that the programme addresses the needs of the most vulnerable people and those who are furthest from the labour market. It will take time to bed in.

I draw the member’s attention to a fact that I already mentioned: 19,000 people have been supported, with 5,000 of them having moved into work. It is also important to recognise that a recent evaluation report showed the 92 per cent of participants in the programme felt that they had been treated with dignity and respect, and that 80 per cent felt that they had a choice about the type of support that they received. That shows this Government’s approach to employability services.

Scottish Enterprise (Suspension of Grants)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported concerns that the suspension of grants by Scottish Enterprise is because of organisational mismanagement and not success in stimulating demand for strategic investment. (S5O-04293)

Scottish Enterprise always has to consider how best to focus available resources, including grants. Because of its success in stimulating demand for strategic investment, it already has significant commitments for 2021 and beyond. To the end of February, 179 offers for large capital grants from Scottish Enterprise, totalling £103 million, have been accepted. That includes £66 million for 48 research and development projects, and £29 million for 82 regional selective assistance projects. Those represent more offers and more associated capital grant funding than in any of the previous three financial years.

Scottish Enterprise is also committed to working closely with customers and partners to understand the impact of Covid-19, and it will tie in with the £2.2 billion-worth of measures that the Scottish Government is introducing by supporting business through the Covid-19 helpline, as well as through the very fine website, which is the best way for businesses to find the information that they need.

The cabinet secretary will appreciate that the landscape has changed since I lodged my question. I appreciate what she says about the successes of Scottish Enterprise, but she will be aware that it ran out of cash well before the end of the financial year and that staff who were supposed to be helping businesses have been unable to travel without the authority of two managers.

There are suggestions that 40 per cent grants were offered when companies expected only 30 per cent. If that is not true, it is certainly heavily rumoured. I caveat this heavily, but when the time is appropriate, will the cabinet secretary look more closely into the matter to make absolutely sure that Scottish Enterprise did run out of money for the reasons that she has given today?

It is very important that Scottish Enterprise makes sure that every penny of public funds is spent to develop business. That is what it has done. I do not base things on rumour and I certainly want to hold Scottish Enterprise to account. That is my job, and I have already done that. I am confident that it has managed to maximise income, as has been reported. The figures are much better than they have been in previous years.

At no point does Scottish Enterprise stop supporting business. I want to reassure Pauline McNeill on that.

I recognise the critical role of Scottish Enterprise at this time. Can the cabinet secretary provide additional information on efforts to upscale the coronavirus business hotline?

As I have indicated, clearly there is heavy demand on that hotline and, importantly, on the website. I encourage all businesses to access the website first. The findbusinesssupport website includes many frequently asked questions, most of which are about the United Kingdom Government announcements of Tuesday night and yesterday. Clearly, we want to ensure that business rates will be applicable immediately when they come in in April. The 100 per cent reliefs will be very welcome.

In terms of the additional information that is required, we want to focus efforts on the helpline, which had 2,300 calls on Tuesday and 1,850 calls yesterday. It has the resources that it needs. Five thousand businesses have now received the Covid-19 email newsletter, and we are upscaling with 80 additional staff to help to screen calls.

I appeal to members to direct businesses to the website in the first instance, because we understand that the great majority of the questions that are being asked are dealt with on it.