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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 21, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 21 May 2020

Agenda: Covid-19 Lockdown: Next Steps, Members’ Question Time, Urgent Question, Decision Time


Members’ Question Time

Local Government and Communities

The next item of business is a members’ question time session on local government and communities. This session follows the format that we have used previously only in virtual sessions. If members wish to ask a supplementary to their own question, they should press their request-to-speak button or the online equivalent. Any additional requests to speak will be taken if time permits at the end of the session. As ever, we would appreciate short and succinct questions and answers.

Local Authorities (Income Shortfall)

In its discussions with local authorities, has the Scottish Government been able to quantify the shortfall in revenue income that councils have suffered as a result of Covid-19 because of facility closures and reductions in fees, charges and so on? Is the cabinet secretary aware that Convention of Scottish Local Authorities leaders have agreed to work on a joint letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the impact of that loss of income? What actions can the Scottish Government take to support local government leaders in their approach to the United Kingdom Government?

Ministers are in regular and open dialogue with COSLA on the range of cost pressures that local authorities are facing as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, including the impact of loss of income. Officials have now received COSLA’s analysis of the initial additional expenditure and loss-of-income figures for the period from March until the end of June 2020, in which it has estimated the losses of income to authorities.

We will continue to engage with the United Kingdom Government about the funding implications of Covid-19, including its impact on local government, and my colleague Kate Forbes continues to engage with the UK Government, especially on the financial implications of Covid—not just the implications for the Scottish Government but its impact on local government more generally.

We will continue to keep members updated on how those discussions progress, but no one is under any illusion about the fact that this has been a challenge not just for us but for local government, too.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that those discussions with the Treasury are very important because of the very limited level of fiscal powers that are available to devolved Governments in situations such as this? Does she agree that in this situation, under the fiscal framework, only the UK Government can borrow to support that type of activity and that the Scottish Government cannot?

Absolutely. Nobody is under any illusion about the unprecedented situation in which we and the UK Government find ourselves. That begs the question whether the current fiscal arrangements are suitable to respond to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic.

We want to continue to engage constructively with the UK Government. The First Minister outlined how that constructive engagement with the UK has been critical in enabling us to try to emerge—we hope—from the current restrictions.

We must have discussions about whether the current fiscal arrangements are appropriate for us to ensure that we can protect jobs and our public services, and ensure that we do not revert to the austerity that happened as a result of the financial crisis of 2007-08.

We will continue to engage robustly but constructively with the UK Government, but the situation highlights the shortcomings of the current fiscal arrangements. We want to support people, our economy and our communities as best we can, and that will mean that we will look for borrowing powers.

Construction Works

The answer that Bruce Crawford was looking for was £100 million.

My question relates to the route map that the First Minister has just outlined, and specifically to construction. She said that in phase 1, there would be a three-stage restart—stages 0 to 2—for construction. I have just looked that up. It includes the phrase “soft start to site works”. I do not know what that means. Does it mean that the 6,000 homes in Scotland that are nearly complete can be completed? If it does not mean that, what does it mean?

There is a huge amount of detail about the construction restart, the agreements that we have made on safe operating procedures and the phased approach. I will send all that detail to Mr Simpson, because I will not be able to fit it all into my answer.

The First Minister outlined the phased approach today. Working with the construction industry, we have put together a six-phase approach. The first stages, which the First Minister outlined today, mainly enable getting sites into shape to allow for physical distancing and the hygiene that is necessary. We will move forward incrementally at each stage, and we will work with the industry, trade unions and others to ensure that that phased approach is working safely.

I thank the construction industry, trade unions and others who have worked with us to shape how we move forward. I am sure that we will all work in partnership so that those phases ensure that people are safe in their work.

I will appreciate the details that the minister has promised. Can he ensure that when construction restarts, it is in alignment with supply chains. There is no point in workers getting back on site if they cannot get things such as windows and doors.

I am well aware of that issue from my discussions with industry. In recent weeks, we have been looking at safe operating procedures and supply chain delivery into sites, to ensure that that is done appropriately and as safely as possible. We will continue to refine those safe operating procedures and the phased approach with the construction industry and trade unions. As I said, I thank everyone who has been involved in this really good piece of work. Everyone is aware that if we are to return to operation, we need to do it safely, to protect people.

Before I take the next question, I should mention that Kate Forbes, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, is online to answer any questions that are specific to her responsibility.

Local Authority Services

How is the Scottish Government supporting local authorities to maintain and increase vital services for communities during the Covid-19 outbreak?

I continue to engage regularly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers to ensure that they let us know whether they face any challenges, and I have on-going dialogue with them in response to the pandemic.

In March, we announced £350 million to support communities, the third sector and local government, so that they can respond and support the communities that are the most impacted by the pandemic.

We have on-going discussions with local authorities. In my answer to Bruce Crawford, I mentioned that COSLA has provided its financial analysis of the pressures that it faces. I will continue to engage with COSLA on that matter, to see how we can support one another to ensure that services continue and that they align with the route map that the First Minister published earlier today.

I understand from the City of Edinburgh Council that funding from the Scottish Government has been slow to arrive, which means that the council is 70 per cent short on its spending until the end of June, at a time of huge loss of income from things such as parking and arm’s-length external organisations. When will councils receive the support that they need to keep those vital services going? Will they need to rely on reserves until the Scottish Government gets that urgently needed money to them?

In addition to the funding that we have outlined—the £350 million support package that was announced in March, of which £50 million went to local authorities—and the consequentials that have been discussed, we have agreed flexibility for local government. We have replaced £972 million of lost non-domestic rates income with additional revenue grant of the same amount. Following an agreement with COSLA, we are front loading the normal weekly grant payments by £150 million in May, £100 million in June and £50 million in July to ease local authority cash flow problems. We have agreed to a relaxation of some ring fenced budgets to enable greater flexibility in local authority responses.

In addition to the consequentials that we are passing to local government, we have agreed a package of significant measures and flexibilities to support local authorities and ease their cash flow problems.

Renters (Financial Difficulties)

In yesterday’s debate, Pauline McNeill highlighted that research across the United Kingdom had revealed that

“six out of 10 renters said that they had suffered financially as a result of the UK-wide lockdown. One in five has been forced to choose between food bills and paying rent.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2020; c 56.]

In response, Mr Stewart said:

“I assure Ms McNeill and Parliament here and now that we will, as we begin to gather evidence and data on what is going on out there in real folks’ lives, be more than willing to share the data with Parliament.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2020; c 57.]

When will that evidence and data gathering start and when will it be reported to Parliament?

First, I apologise unreservedly to Mr Wightman for my intemperate remarks and behaviour yesterday. I went too far in the heat of the moment and I will send him a written apology. I want to ensure that we can work across the Parliament in the future to get those things right.

With regard to my remarks to Ms McNeill yesterday, we are more than willing to share with colleagues across the chamber data on what is going on out there as we gather it, in order to see what the exact impacts of Covid-19 have been. We are still in the early stages, so we are not yet able to understand all the impacts across society and it is vital that we look at any analysis as it comes in. For example, we have some work going on that involves a small amount of data collection and analysis to look at how fuel poverty has been affected by Covid-19. As I said, we are more than willing to share that information as we get it.

I thank the minister for his answer. I also thank him for his apology, which is accepted in good faith. I look forward to working with him on these important matters.

My question was specifically about the evidence and data on the financial difficulties that renters are facing. The answer implied that a specific exercise was going to be done on that. That is what I am interested in. From the minister’s answer yesterday, I presume that no data is currently collected on the financial difficulties that tenants are facing—I would welcome confirmation on that point.

We will enhance data collection as we move forward, without a doubt, and I am grateful to colleagues in housing associations and in councils in particular who are carrying out their own work to look at the impact on tenants in the social sector.

We have a little bit further to go with data collection in the private rented sector, but we will have to collect that data in order to look at all the impacts right across the board. As we receive robust data, I will share that with Parliament so that everybody is aware of the impacts that Covid-19 has had on some of our most vulnerable folk.

We now have a series of questioners who are not present in the Parliament. I remind those without the benefit of eye contact to press their button if they wish to ask a supplementary and I call Liam McArthur.

Local Authorities (Financial Support)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I belatedly welcome you to your post—I was not present when you first took it up.

Can local authorities expect the full £155 million of consequentials and, if so, when?

The short answer is yes, local authorities can expect the full £155 million on top of the money that we have already provided to local government, which takes the total that we are providing to local government in additional funding to £300 million. We will agree with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on how that money is to be distributed. I recently received a communication from COSLA about distribution and I will ensure that local government gets that money as quickly as possible.

Tenants (Support)

Can the minister provide an update on what the Scottish Government is doing to support tenants who are in need due to the coronavirus crisis?

As I outlined yesterday, the Government has provided £350 million of funding for those in need to cover all aspects of the difficulties that people may be having in their lives.

The key point for renters is that, if they are in difficulties, they should first contact their landlord to see what help can be provided to them and ensure that they are accessing universal credit or housing benefit, if that is what is required. Beyond that, I know that landlords, particularly in the social sector but also in the private rented sector, are discussing with tenants how to manage rent. In some cases, rents have gone down.

As the member is probably aware, we also announced yesterday an additional £5 million for discretionary housing payments, which those folk who are facing severe financial pressure can access.

We have also asked the United Kingdom Government to continue with the changes that it has made to local housing allowances, which have been put in place as a temporary measure, and we will continue to talk to it about how it should change its current welfare reforms, which of course also have a major impact on renters and those who are most vulnerable.

I welcome the support that the Scottish Government is making available, including the additional £5 million that was announced yesterday for the discretionary housing payment. My concern is to ensure that all tenants in need are aware of the help that they would be entitled to. Is the minister satisfied that there is sufficient signposting to ensure that that information is widely available?

When we announced the no-eviction policy and introduced that legislation, we launched a campaign, mainly on social media but also in other places, to highlight to tenants what they should do and what their rights are. We have also provided money to Citizens Advice Scotland so that it can help those tenants who are most in need. The first campaign reached hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country. It may well be that we have to run it again or, alternatively, look to those in the social and private rented sectors to make tenants aware of their rights. I will reflect on what Ms Ewing said about a further programme of work to highlight those issues. If folks are in difficulty, the key is to contact their landlord.


As the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government will be aware, registrars will issue wedding certificates so that people can get married. However, places of worship and most venues and hotels are still closed. Given the First Minister’s announcement, when is it likely that weddings will be able to take place, either in a place of worship or a hotel or venue?

In many respects, it is very difficult to give a definitive date for when those things can start to happen, but it is clear that the need to make a balanced judgment on the evidence and the continued efforts to suppress the spread of the virus is what is motivating the sequence of those decisions. That is a very difficult and delicate balance and we have articulated that within the document, “Scotland’s route map through and out of the crisis”, which was published today. We need to think ahead about when we might be able to get to a position when we can open places of worship and other business premises. How those family gatherings can be safely configured also needs to be considered.

Although that does not necessarily give any comfort and there is no definitive date as to when weddings might be able to take place, we are absolutely aware of the need to give people certainty and an understanding of when they can start to plan some of those events. The need to suppress the spread of the pandemic, however, has to govern those decisions. As the First Minister said, we need to make sure that there are no bridges by which the disease can spread. We will continue to work and engage with our faith groups and churches to make sure that they understand what they might need to do so that their congregations can meet safely, when they start to return to their places of worship.

We have engaged with our faith groups to try to find and support other ways by which people can observe their faith and feel that connection, which is so important, particularly when people are in lockdown. We will continue to keep the member and the population informed, but we have to make sure that we are governed by the evidence and the information, that we make a balanced judgment and continue to work with the groups that have an interest in weddings and other celebrations.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary is aware that weddings and other forms of public worship vary in size and type of service. Will there be a different standard for smaller weddings compared with larger weddings, and will churches and other places of worship be able to open in different ways, depending on how many people attend the venue?

We are continuing to engage with our faith groups. At the start of the pandemic, I endeavoured to call as many of our faith leaders as possible, because we knew that it would have a real impact on the observance of faith. At this point in time, when people are feeling isolated and removed from their family, they will often look to their faith to find some support, but the ability to do so physically is no longer there. Therefore, we have engaged with our faith groups to make sure that we can move forward safely.

Worship and ceremonies are listed in the document that has been published today, but we have to be careful that we do not put people under any increased risk. That is why we will continue to work with our faith leaders in order that they can put in place some of the measures that are necessary for gatherings to happen safely. At the moment, that will not happen any time soon. This afternoon, the First Minister talked about the very gradual easing of restrictions, and when we can do so more generally, we will continue to work with our faith groups in order to move forward safely. We will keep Jeremy Balfour and others informed as the thinking on the issue progresses.

Licensing Alterations

Many local food and drink businesses are diversifying to meet the challenges that are presented by Covid-19. Some such businesses want to expand to outdoor spaces to meet social distancing requirements when it is safe for them to do so, and many continue to offer home deliveries of food and alcohol, for which they require licences. Will any of the relevant licensing requirements be altered? Can the Government provide advice for businesses that are in that situation?

The Government responded quickly to the coronavirus outbreak by providing new discretion and flexibility in the licensing system through provisions in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020. The changes were warmly welcomed by those in the licensed trade and other licensing stakeholders.

However, it is very important to acknowledge that a licensing regime for the sale of alcohol exists for a reason. As Emma Harper will be aware, Scotland has a challenging relationship with alcohol, and given the dangers of alcohol misuse, it would not be right to simply sweep away the need to license the sale of alcohol. That said, licensing should never be seen as a barrier to those who wish to sell alcohol. The Government expects all 32 licensing boards to have the interests of their communities, including the economic interests of licence holders, at the heart of what they do by ensuring that the licensing regime is operating as fully as possible to aid the recovery from the coronavirus outbreak.

I will not pursue a supplementary question at this point, because I need to go back to my constituents to find out some further information from them.

Housing Construction

I remind colleagues that I am a councillor in Aberdeen.

A vital element of moving forward from the current pandemic is getting construction sites back to building houses. I am glad that the First Minister made reference to that earlier this afternoon. There have been successes, such as in Aberdeen, where the current administration, in the face of severe budget cuts, is on target to build 10 times as many houses by 2022 as the previous administration did between 2007 and 2012. Will the minister commend that progress and pledge to work with local authorities to ensure that they have the support that is required post Covid-19 to deliver the housing that the country needs?

We were on track to deliver 50,000 affordable homes, including 35,000 for social rent, before coronavirus came into play. Although we will not reach that target, it is my ambition, and the ambition of the Government, to ensure that we deliver as many homes as possible during the current parliamentary session.

In order for us to meet the challenge that we set ourselves, the Government has been reliant on partners in local authorities, housing associations, the construction sector and many others. Many folk have put their heart and soul into delivering what was an ambitious housing programme, and I know that, like me, they are sorry that we are in the situation in which we find ourselves.

I say to Mr Mason and to folk across the country that, as we relax the lockdown, the Government will continue to work in partnership with everyone to deliver as many affordable homes as possible, because that is what we need in our country.

Housing Allocations

I want to raise the issue of councils and social landlords not allocating houses. Recently, I contacted the head of housing in Fife, who wrote back to me to say:

“As you will know, the advice from the Government is that people should not be moving house at this time. That is why the Council has suspended normal housing allocations. We are making efforts to allocate properties to homeless households, but this is at a much reduced level to normal.”

When will we start to see the Government working with local authorities to allocate houses, which is crucial? I remind the minister that we were in a housing crisis before Covid-19 came along, so we need to get the housing sector moving again. Is he working with councils so that that can happen?

I am working very closely with local authorities and housing associations so that we get all that absolutely right.

Mr Rowley mentioned the head of housing in Fife, John Mills, who is also the lead in the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers at this time. He is very much involved in the work of the resilience group that is led by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations about how we move forward on that front.

Mr Rowley is right to point out that allocations are being made to homeless folk, and I am keen to ensure that we can move into housing folk who have been in unsuitable accommodation or even, in some cases, on the streets. With local authorities and housing associations, we have also put in place allocation plans for people—women in particular—who have faced domestic abuse, in order to get that absolutely right.

Mr Rowley is a knowledgeable man, so he will be aware that there are sometimes difficulties with allocations when the right repairs have not been done. That has caused some grief, and we are working our way through the issue in order to get things right.

As the First Minister laid out today, we will have a phased approach to the return. We are very aware of the issues relating to the allocation of housing, and we will continue to look at when the right time is for a full return to allocations as was.

I honestly do not believe that that is good enough. We have to get the housing sector moving, because there is a housing crisis. There are people who have been told that they have been given a tenancy, and there are people who are living in massively overcrowded accommodation or in other unsuitable housing. We have to get the sector moving, otherwise all that we will be doing is stoking up the housing crisis even more.

Today, the First Minister said that sales and so on will come in phase 2, but I do not believe that we can wait until phase 2 for councils to start allocating houses again. Will the minister make that issue a priority and look at how we can move things fairly quickly?

I understand Mr Rowley’s frustration about all this, but he will understand that we are dictated to by the virus.

I will add to what I have said previously about getting this right. For example, there have been discussions about how viewings can take place outwith the normal circumstances of someone going into a house with the keys and showing folk around it. The sector is looking at alternatives to its previous ways of working.

However, we must ensure that we get all this absolutely right. That is why I am sweirt to give Mr Rowley a timescale at this moment. I recognise the difficulties. As every member in the chamber will do, I have constituents who want to make a move, but we must do things at the right time. We will continue to update Parliament on how we can move forward on that front and on the work that we are doing with partners to get everything right.

Furlough (Local Government Fixed-term Contracts)

What can be done to support local government employees who are coming to the end of fixed-term contracts and will be ineligible for continued furlough after 1 July?

As Gail Ross knows, she has raised an important issue. Those people’s employment terms and conditions are obviously a matter for local government. However, I hope that in such cases a local authority would give serious consideration to what further support it can offer to ensure continuity of employment. Some of the challenges in our communities that are putting local government on the front line in providing support will require on-going staffing support. I would be very happy to raise that with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities the next time we have a discussion.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, given that many of the posts are in vital sectors including care and learning, local authorities should be encouraging more people into those sectors, at this time?

I absolutely agree. With the publication today of the route map out of the pandemic, we have seen that there will be a change in need for staffing support in areas of importance for local authorities. In particular, as children start to return to school, additional staff will be needed to support, for example, social distancing within schools. Again, I say that I would be very happy to raise those matters with COSLA the next time we have a discussion.

I call Edward Mountain. [Temporary loss of sound]. In the absence of Mr Mountain—for the moment, at least—we have a perfect opportunity for a delayed supplementary question from Liam McArthur, for Kate Forbes.

Tourism Businesses (Support)

Thank you Presiding Officer. I am happy to step back into the breach.

I would welcome a response from the finance secretary on the issue of the many tourism businesses that are unable to access any support because they do not have a business bank account. I know that she has been considering whether local authorities might be able to manage a fund to target funding at those businesses, so I would welcome an update on those discussions.

I am mindful of the issue that Liam McArthur raises. There are a lot of tourism businesses in my constituency, many of which do not have business bank accounts. They form one of a number of different groups that, as yet, have not been able to access support. There are others. Yesterday, the issue was raised of market traders, for example, not being able to get help through the non-domestic rates system.

My approach throughout has been to provide funding and then, when there has been criticism or suggestions have been made for improvements, to go away and see whether we can tweak systems or provide additional funding.

The creative, tourism and hospitality enterprises hardship fund and the pivotal enterprise resilience fund have closed, and additional funding was announced yesterday. I am keen that such groups, one of which Liam McArthur just mentioned with regard to business bank accounts, get help.

I strongly suggest that that is not the end of the story; we will work night and day to get further support in place.

Free School Meals (Summer Holidays)

Although schools are closed, local authorities are still delivering free school meals programmes, and are often providing direct payments to families. The current funding allocation does not meet the cost of delivering the programmes, and many authorities are noting an increase in uptake.

I understand that local authorities were awarded support from the food fund, but that money has been stretched thin across a number of projects. As we approach the summer holidays, will local authorities be funded to continue free school meals provision throughout July and August to support families? How much of the £70 million food fund has been allocated?

Of the £70 million food fund, we gave local authorities £15 million to cover free school meals programmes, and a further £15 million for other food insecurity issues that they might want to address. That was a £30 million pot. Another £30 million was earmarked for the shielded group, and £10 million has been and continues to be used to respond to other food insecurity issues, including awards of funding to FareShare, Social Bite and other groups and organisations that support vulnerable and marginalised people.

The funding lasts until June, which means that we will need to start engaging again on how we will support families over the summer holidays. I am being up front in saying that that will be a challenge, because there are now more people on universal credit. We will need to ensure that food insecurity does not drop off our radar, because there are more people on universal credit, there are more families who will require support over the summer months and, in general, there are more people with stretched finances. We will continue to engage with local authorities, and I will continue to have discussions about the matter with my Cabinet colleagues.

There will be more issues if people have to stay at home for longer over the course of the year, due to the test, trace and isolate approach. We are having to think through a wide gamut of food insecurity issues.

Good work is happening in communities, and lots of groups and organisations are providing support. Forby the food fund, there have been awards of support to local organisations through the supporting communities and wellbeing funds, which are supporting food insecurity projects around the country.

It is not just the £70 million fund that is delivering food projects; the whole £350 million fund is supporting hard-pressed families. Additionally, there has been a doubling of the Scottish welfare fund, which is a crucial piece of financial assistance to families. That links back to our cash-first approach, under which families have the autonomy and agency to make their own decisions, which provides dignity.

A lot of local authorities are delivering free school meals provision as a direct payment—on average, about £10 a week—as part of the cash-first policy.

I hope that the cabinet secretary recognises that some local authorities, including Fife Council, ran their own school meals projects last summer, which were extremely valuable to families. This year, there will be a shorter summer break of about five and a half to six weeks, so perhaps some additional money could be found to provide support to families.

Absolutely—and our engagement with local authorities will continue. I have visited Fife and a number of other council areas during summer and other holiday times when it is challenging for families whose resources are stretched.

That is why we moved swiftly to provide financial support to communities, local authorities and the third sector, and it is why we doubled the Scottish welfare fund and issued guidance to local authorities to make sure that they take the cash-first approach. We continue to think about how, once the restrictions start to ease, we will move into a different phase of providing support in respect of food, and how best, along with local authorities, to use resources in order to protect families that continue to require support.

Church Halls (Small Business Grants)

I have been approached by a church hall in my constituency, which expected to benefit from the extension to charities of the small business grant. However, the local council has refused the grant to the church hall because the rates relief that it receives is based on a church exemption rather than on charity relief. That has happened despite church halls being included in the list of premises that pass the relief test in Kate Forbes’ circular to councils of 30 March. Is the Government aware of that anomaly? If so, how can it be addressed?

I thank Joan McAlpine for that question. What she described sounds like strange decision. I would appreciate further information, and will look into the matter with the local authority.

Our commitment is to provide as much support as possible to charities; that includes churches. That is why we extended the small business grant to include those that were eligible for charitable relief rather than the small business bonus. We backed that up with £30 million. There is also the third sector resilience fund.

However, Joan McAlpine’s question is about a church hall having not received funding. I continue to review the support measures that are in place to ensure that we do everything that we can to provide support, and I am keen to look into that anomaly. We have tried to fix as many emerging anomalies as possible.

I thank the cabinet secretary very much for that answer. The council in question is Dumfries and Galloway Council. I will write to her, and would appreciate her taking the matter up with the council.

Delayed Discharge (Care Home Capacity)

[Temporary loss of sound.]—understand what is happening in relation to delayed discharge. Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, we had record delayed discharge; in March, 1,000 people were discharged into care homes and council services. I am trying to understand where the capacity came from for those people to go to. Was the capacity always there or was the capacity found through additional money?

I understand that it is appropriate to raise those issues when members get the chance. If Neil Findlay’s questions have not already been answered by the First Minister or the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, I will make sure that he gets the responses that he requires.

The decisions and rationale were to ensure that the national health service was not overwhelmed by the virus, and they were guided by the best possible advice. Some of that does not sit within my portfolio, but I will make sure that Neil Findlay gets the responses that he wants if he feels that his questions were not answered when he asked them in the past.

Small Business Bank Accounts

I turn to a point that was raised by Liam McArthur and that I have raised before in the chamber—the issue of business bank accounts and why small businesses do not need them. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance will remember that I raised the matter with her. I also raised it with the First Minister, who agreed that she would ask the cabinet secretary to look at it. After that, the cabinet secretary wrote to me, saying that there was no way that she would change the criteria. Small businesses are advised by their banks not to have business bank accounts, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does not require them; now, they have been left out in the cold. They need more help than just an assurance that the cabinet secretary will tweak the criteria. Will she give small businesses an assurance today that she will help them?

My assurance to every business is that we will look at how we can help it. Edward Mountain will know from my letter that I am very clear that we must balance the challenges around fraud with ensuring that the hurdles that businesses have to leap over in order to get support are minimal. The creative fund was intended to quantify hardship and understand the need as well as ensure that the money was going to genuine businesses.

I recognise that, with a large group of different businesses, from photographers all the way through to bed and breakfasts, it is very hard to get eligibility criteria that work for everyone. That is why I said to Liam McArthur that I am very aware of the groups that still have not had support, including market traders, B and Bs without business bank accounts and a number of others—it is probable that the constituents who are writing to him are the same ones who are writing to me. The work to get support to those groups has not stopped. I will continue to do that work and ensure that the eligibility criteria are such that they do not exclude people without good reason.

In her letter, the cabinet secretary said that the reason for the business bank account requirement was the prevention of fraud, but that is not a requirement that HMRC demands of those businesses in order that they pay tax. HMRC is very happy to accept tax from those businesses, but the cabinet secretary is not happy to give them the grant, because they do not have the right bank account. I urge the cabinet secretary again to do more than simply offer a tweak. Those businesses are feeling really hurt, and I urge her to help them.

I recognise that those businesses need support, but I encourage Edward Mountain to recognise that, in providing those forms of support, it is not good enough to just say that there are no eligibility criteria. We must have the right eligibility criteria.

The member talks about HMRC, but that demonstrates my point. Our schemes are not based on the tax system, because HMRC is reserved to the UK Government. If the UK Government were to establish a scheme linked to HMRC, it would probably allow money to go out faster. However, I am not going to wait for the UK Government to do that. I want to get support to those businesses, and I will ensure that as many businesses as possible get support. We must do that in such a way that we manage our public finances wisely, although I recognise the hardship.

I commend Edward Mountain for raising the issue—it is not the first time that he has raised it. We will try to get the support to those businesses, but we must do that in a sensible way, and we must prudently manage our public funding to ensure that it goes to the businesses that need it.

15:23 Meeting suspended.  

15:24 On resuming—