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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 23 May 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Education (Subject Choices), Housing, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Sistema Scotland and the Big Noise Orchestra


Portfolio Question Time

Economy, Jobs and Fair Work

The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio question time. As usual, ask short questions and give succinct answers and—you never know—we might get through all the questions. Wouldn’t that be good?

Town Centre Vacancy Rates

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to figures from the Scottish Retail Consortium suggesting that town centre vacancy rates have reached a seven-year high. (S5O-02117)

The Scottish Government recognises that the retail sector in Scotland is facing pressures from, among other things, significant changes to shopping habits and new technology. There is no doubt that e-commerce is now having a significant impact. United Kingdom Government austerity measures and Brexit are also affecting consumer confidence and spending.

Despite that, we are doing everything within our powers to support our economy, including our retailers. For example, this year we will enhance measures to support both new development and re-use of vacant property in town centres and elsewhere, as part of a total non-domestic rates relief package that is worth around £720 million.

We are working with the Scottish Retail Consortium to develop a retail strategy that will set out a clear road map to shape future tax and regulatory changes.

Following our review of town centres, and the town centre action plan, we are promoting the “town centre first” principle to ensure that planning and investment supports regeneration and sustainability of towns and town centres. We will continue to use all the levers at our disposal to ensure that Scotland remains an attractive place for retailers to do business.

Footfall in Scotland dropped by 5.6 per cent on last year, with 12 consecutive months of decline. However, let us look below that figure. Shopping centres experienced a 1.8 per cent fall and retail parks experienced a 3.1 per cent fall, but town centres—significantly—experienced a fall of 8.5 per cent. Retail was critical to gross domestic product growth in the past quarter. Given those dismal retail figures, and aside from the action that the minister is taking, what does he anticipate GDP growth in retail will be in the next quarter?

I am an economist by training, but I do not have a crystal ball to predict GDP figures for Ms Baillie. I apologise for that.

However, I take seriously the point that Jackie Baillie has made: the health of our town centres is critical. As, I am sure, she and members across the chamber appreciate, many smaller independent retailers are not e-commerce enabled or are not fully embracing technology. We want to increase our focus on that in order to help them to compete with the bigger non-high street retailers in business parks and retail parks. As always, I am more than happy to engage with Ms Baillie on any ideas that she might have, and I look forward to working with her.

The Stirling Observer reports this week that four high street businesses in Stirling city centre have been forced to close. That comes off the back of a number having been forced to close last year because of the large business supplement. Will the minister listen to businesses across Scotland and stop punishing them with higher rates increases? When will his Government abolish the large business supplement?

As Dean Lockhart knows, we have matched the poundage in England and Wales and introduced a growth accelerator, which is enabling properties that are being redeveloped or refurbished, and which remain vacant until a new tenant comes in, to avoid business rates until they have an occupier. Those are positive measures that we have taken forward to support businesses. I remind Dean Lockhart that 100,000 business premises in Scotland benefit from the small business bonus. That was praised by the Federation of Small Businesses last night. I acknowledge the contribution that the FSB made in bringing about that policy change. We have been supporting our businesses, and the package is worth £720 million in the current financial year.

United Kingdom Domestic Market (Access)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact is on businesses in Scotland of having access to the UK domestic market. (S5O-02118)

Maintaining access between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is in the economic interests of everyone. However,

“You don't fund schools and hospitals and you don't control immigration by crashing the economy and that's what leaving the EU would do.”

Those are not my words, but Ruth Davidson’s. The biggest threat to Scottish businesses is that from a hard Brexit, which could lead to a loss of up to 8.5 per cent of Scotland’s gross domestic product by 2030.

Of course, the UK domestic market is worth four times as much to Scottish businesses as the market in the rest of the EU, despite the fact that the cabinet secretary’s ministerial colleague Mr Russell thinks that the UK single market does not exist, as he told us last week.

Can the cabinet secretary tell us what the impact would be on Scottish businesses’ ability to trade with that vital domestic market if we were to operate a different currency in Scotland from that marketplace?

Murdo Fraser says that the market with the rest of the UK is four times the size of that with the EU. It is worth bearing in mind that the EU single market is eight times the size of the UK market. Our position has always been that we should not have to choose between the two markets. We should have both: we should have free access and trade across the UK and we should have free access and trade across the EU. That is why we have advocated for many years, and continue to advocate, continuing membership of the EU by Scotland—and, preferably, the UK—rather than cutting ourselves off from the single market and the customs union.

It is also true to say that about half a million jobs in Scotland are dependent on trade with the rest of the UK and that half a million jobs in the rest of the UK are dependent on trade with Scotland. It is worth bearing that in mind.

The only people who are talking about erecting trade barriers between Scotland and the rest of the UK are the Conservatives. One wonders why that is the case?

In an analysis of recently published figures on Scotland’s gross national income, the Fraser of Allander institute stated that

“the predominance of company headquarters in London and the South East ... has meant that a higher level of profits flow out of Scotland than has perhaps been the case in the past.”

Does the cabinet secretary agree with me that the huge imbalance of the UK economy is damaging to Scotland, and that the Scottish economy would be far better served if this country had the powers of a normal—

Cabinet secretary—

—independent nation?

Mr Arthur, you have asked your question. Cabinet secretary.

The Scottish Government has consistently said that if Brexit is to happen, Scotland and the UK should remain within the customs union and the single market, as I have just said, in order to continue to benefit from membership of both. There is no evidence that our views have been taken into account by the UK Government, and we still have no idea what the UK Government’s position is, or what position it intends to take.

What is really surprising is that the matter has never—not once—been raised with me by the major opposition party in the Scottish Parliament. That party has not stood up for Scotland’s interests in respect of Brexit. In fact, its members prefer to sit down and shut up rather than cut across their masters in London.

Borderlands Growth Deal

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the borderlands growth deal. (S5O-02119)

We are in regular contact with the UK Government about the development of growth deals across Scotland. I want to ensure that the borderlands inclusive growth deal complements our commitment to establishing the new enterprise agency for the south of Scotland. It is essential that projects that form part of a borderlands deal align with the priorities of the enterprise agency and of the interim south of Scotland economic partnership. That will maximise the impact of investment and deliver the best outcome for the people of the south of Scotland.

Does the cabinet secretary know how much money the UK Government intends to put into the borderlands growth deal, and when we are likely to see it? Can he alleviate the concern of stakeholders about whether UK Government money can be used to upgrade roads, given that some of the links in the borderlands area, for example the A75, take much of their traffic from England and Northern Ireland? Does the cabinet secretary—

That is fine, thank you.

—agree with me that the UK Government should, through the borderlands deal, help to fund upgrades—

No. You have had your question, Ms McAlpine.

—to those roads?

Cabinet secretary.

The scale of the deal will depend on the outcome of negotiations with local authorities. It will reflect the projects that are proposed. We tend to make the proposed projects and their potential impact on the area the starting point—this Government and the UK Government take the same approach. On behalf of the Scottish Government, I say that we want to support a deal that involves ambitious, transformative and realistic projects. I look forward to the UK Government matching our contribution.

It is the case that the UK Government can decide whether it wants to support particular projects, including infrastructure projects. Sometimes, its approach has been to support only projects that relate to reserved areas. However, sometimes even when it has stated that it is taking that approach it has contributed to projects in non-reserved areas. We have to find out more information from the UK Government on its approach to the borderlands growth deal.

The borderlands growth deal has the potential to support the economy in the medium and long terms. However, the cabinet secretary will be aware of current pressures on the local economy of the borderlands area, with the potential closure of Pinneys of Scotland in Annan and the news today that Edinburgh Woollen Mill is planning to move from its historic home in Langholm to Carlisle, with a potential loss of jobs. What support can the Government provide now to support an economy that is under real pressure?

I thank Colin Smyth for giving me advance notice of his intention to ask that question.

First, we will provide, as usual, partnership action for continuing employment support, which has proved in many such situations to be invaluable to affected employees. More than that, we will try to work with the company. We have, with the “Langholm first” group, been trying to get a vision for the area, so it is unfortunate that that decision was made without the proper discussion that I would have hoped for between ourselves and the company. Paul Wheelhouse will be taking the matter forward, but I am happy to write to Colin Smyth with more detailed information about what we are doing.

2 Sisters Food Group

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its engagement with stakeholders and others regarding the closure of the 2 Sisters Food Group factory in Cambuslang. (S5O-02120)

On 17 May, I chaired a meeting of key stakeholders, including the Scottish Government, South Lanarkshire Council, Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, Business Gateway, trade unions and local elected representatives, including Ms Haughey, in her capacity as the constituency MSP for the area. In order to update stakeholders on the extensive work that is under way to help mitigate the impact on staff at 2 Sisters Food Group, we confirmed at the meeting that a partnership action for continuing employment jobs fair has been arranged for 31 May. On Monday, the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work met representatives from Unite the union to discuss their concerns regarding the closure.

I reiterate that I am grateful for the work that the minister has done, alongside the Scottish Government’s PACE team. Will the minister provide an update on the outcome of the meeting, particularly concerning the future of the site, the support that is being given to the wider community and the work that is being done to find future employment for the staff who are affected?

The owner of the 2 Sisters site, Amber Real Estate Investments, has agreed to work with Scottish Enterprise, South Lanarkshire Council and other partners to help find a sustainable future for the Cambuslang site following the closure. As a result of the round-table meeting last Thursday, local elected members have also agreed to consider a number of issues affecting the local economy, and will work in partnership with South Lanarkshire Council on those issues. The comprehensive programme of PACE support will also be deployed.

Does the minister agree that the way in which the 2 Sisters Food Group of companies has operated in recent times means that it has prioritised putting money in the pockets of shareholders over the needs of workers and local communities, and that that has resulted in nothing short of economic vandalism being wreaked on the people of Cambuslang?

I recognise how disappointed and upset the local stakeholders are, including elected members such as Mr Kelly and Ms Haughey, and indeed Ged Killen, the local MP. Feelings are clearly running high at the moment. We had a useful discussion with representatives of the company last week. It would be fair to say that I have access to some privileged financial information and that the costs of addressing the needs of the factory were very significant indeed. I am sure that commercial factors underlie the decision, but that does not lessen our disappointment. We have tried all we could to persuade the company to look at more modern factory provision in the area, to try to retain activity there, but we now move on to trying to work with other stakeholders, including local members, to find other employers that might occupy the site, so that we can turn a difficult situation into a more hopeful one for the future.

Scottish Productivity

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent figures showing that Scottish productivity has fallen 1.9 per cent in real terms. (S5O-02121)

The recent decline in productivity is, of course, disappointing, but annual productivity levels have increased by 5.4 per cent in Scotland since 2007, compared with only 1.7 per cent growth for the United Kingdom as a whole. Furthermore, Scotland’s productivity growth is higher than that of any other country or region of the UK, including London, since the global recession. We are supporting businesses and continuing to grow Scotland’s economy by investing a record £2.4 billion in enterprise and skills, £4 billion in new infrastructure and £600 million in broadband. In the face of the significant risks that Brexit presents to our economy, we are preparing for the future with investments including a new national manufacturing institute and the establishment of the Scottish national investment bank.

After 11 years of this Government, we now have a growth commission report about independence, but under the cabinet secretary’s watch we have seen Scotland fall three places, down to 18th in the international rankings of gross domestic product per capita. Labour productivity is now lower than it was in 2010, and the gap between UK and Scottish productivity is larger than it was nearly 10 years ago. When will the cabinet secretary start focusing on the people of Scotland in the here and now, and on the economy in the here and now, so that we can grow more jobs, rather than the Government focusing on its own ideology?

The period that Anas Sarwar referred to includes a period of eight years of austerity. Scotland is part of one of the most unequal and unbalanced economies in the world, which is often described as an economy flying on one engine—London—and the effect of that, not just on Scotland but on other parts of the UK, is pronounced. It also includes the period since 2007 when the Labour Party wrecked the economy and brought forward much of the austerity, supporting what the Conservatives did on austerity, which of course acts as a dampener on demand.

That has cost people in Scotland an awful lot of money. Rather than talk about labour productivity—although that is very important—perhaps Mr Sarwar should concentrate on the fact that there was not enough productivity in the Labour Party when it had the chance to change things in the economy. It failed the economy. The last words of the last Labour Government were, “There is no money,” and we are still paying the price for that.

I remind everyone that I like short questions and answers, if possible. Alexander Burnett is next, so that is a real test for him.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. The Scottish Government has failed to meet its target of ranking in the top quartile for productivity among key trading partners in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development by 2017. What will the Scottish Government’s new productivity target be?

The Parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee has had a discussion and inquiry on that, and it will make recommendations. It is important that, in addition to taking account of the national performance framework, which the member will be aware of, we take into account the views of people across the Parliament.

The member should recognise that eight years of a Conservative Government austerity programme has an effect on the economy. It dampens demand, not least in the retail sector, which was mentioned earlier. As with the Labour Party, perhaps the way for him to make a meaningful contribution is to acknowledge the damaging effect of the conduct of the Conservative Party in relation to the UK economy. At least Greg Clark has admitted that there are two Governments involved in the Scottish economy, which is a bit more than the people representing the Tory party in this Parliament have done. The UK Government has a vital role to play, and perhaps if those members could admit to that they could play a constructive role in improving the economy in Scotland as well.

Fife Economy

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the Fife economy. (S5O-02122)

Over and above investment in public services and key infrastructure such as the Queensferry crossing and superfast broadband, the Scottish Government continues to make targeted investments to support the Fife economy. Examples include £35 million for Fife as part of the wider Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal; regional selective assistance offers totalling £930,000 so far this year, creating 46 jobs and safeguarding a further 39; dedicated account management support by Scottish Enterprise to over 100 companies in Fife; investment of almost £1.5 million of Scottish Enterprise research and development grants in Fife over the past two years; £14.4 million of business rates relief for 6,762 premises in Fife under the small business bonus scheme; £6 million of targeted support for projects under the Fife task force action plan; and £2.7 million for three capital projects in Fife, following the closure of the Longannet power station, including an enterprise hub at Kincardine. Our commitment to Fife is further demonstrated by our support for BiFab, which has sites in Methil and Burntisland.

It is now three weeks since the redundancies were announced at BiFab. Can the minister give us an update on BiFab? In particular, what discussions is the Scottish Government having with the Canadian owner, DF Barnes, and what progress is being made on securing support from Scottish Enterprise to provide training opportunities that could support employment at BiFab and avoid the level of redundancy that has been announced?

Briefly, please, minister.

As Ms Baker will be aware, we have a minority shareholding in BiFab, but we do not participate in operational management decisions, and staffing levels are a matter for BiFab to consider. However, we have confidence that everything possible is being done to secure new contracts and restore employment to previous levels. In particular, we are looking at the developments in the Moray east offshore wind farm, the Neart na Gaoithe site in the Forth and Tay complex, which has been taken over by EDF Energy, and the Kincardine offshore wind site. We will work closely with developers and with BiFab to try to secure opportunities.

With regard to training, we will write to Ms Baker with details on what we can do on that front.

The number of people in Fife with jobs is now lower than when the Government came to power in 2007, despite record employment rates across the UK. What action is the Scottish Government taking to address that?

As I outlined in my initial response to Claire Baker, we have undertaken a number of targeted initiatives as well as supporting the investment in digital infrastructure in Fife and major transport infrastructure investment in the Queensferry crossing. Those are substantial big-ticket items, and I hope that Mr Stewart recognises that. We continue to engage with the Fife economy partnership. I meet the partnership directly to engage on how we can best support the Fife economy; indeed, I am due to meet it reasonably soon to do that further.

Labour Productivity

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve labour productivity. (S5O-02123)

Between 2007 and 2016, Scotland’s productivity growth was higher than that in any other part of the UK. To help strengthen the skills of the Scottish workforce, we are growing, widening and enhancing modern apprenticeships and we have put in place the £10 million pilot flexible workforce development fund and individual training accounts. We are encouraging employers to pay the real living wage and supporting access to flexible working through initiatives such as the family friendly working Scotland partnership and the carer positive scheme. Those measures contribute to reduced absenteeism, better retention and improved staff morale, all of which help to enhance productivity.

Michelle Ballantyne—briefly, please.

On Friday, Andrew Wilson and the growth commission will publish their much-awaited report, which draws up a blueprint for boosting Scottish productivity and growth. Yesterday—

No; I said “briefly”. We are running out of time.

Yesterday, the economy secretary was unable to answer simple questions about which currency should be used for the new Scottish national investment bank. Will that uncertainty help to increase productivity?

I did not hear the end of the question, but it is tremendous to see that the Conservative Party is taking such interest in the internal developments of the Scottish National Party. Ms Ballantyne can rest assured that the significant effort of the economy team of ministers is ensuring economic growth and enhanced productivity. That has been, and continues to be, our focus.

Thank you. I apologise to the three members whom we were unable to take.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its discussions with the United Kingdom Government in light of the Parliament’s decision to not consent to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. (S5O-02127)

As I promised the chamber, I wrote to David Lidington on 15 May, immediately following the vote of this Parliament on the bill, to invite him to come to Scotland as a matter of urgency and hear the concerns of all the parties that are represented here, and to ask him to set out how the UK Government will implement the Scottish Parliament’s decision. I regret that I have to tell the member and the chamber that, more than a week after that letter, I still have not received any reply.

I thank the minister for that answer, although it shows the complete lack of respect that is shown to this Parliament.

On 4 May, we saw the publication of a leaked draft paper on fisheries, which set out a framework for quota talks in which devolved Governments would, again, be consulted but the Secretary of State for Scotland would have the final say. Can the minister confirm whether any of that has been discussed with the Scottish Government, or does the Tory Government continue to ride roughshod over devolution and this Parliament?

Despite repeated requests, the UK Government has not discussed the content of the proposed fisheries white paper with the Scottish Government. That is absolutely in keeping with its methodology. Indeed, last week, I read about the proposed 100-page white paper on Brexit only because it was in the newspapers—we were not informed about it at all. It is time that the UK Government paid some attention to the democratic legitimacy of this chamber and this Government—and that it negotiated with this Government. Perhaps the UK Government’s friends on the Tory benches—if they are its friends—could put a word in, instead of simply blindly backing what it wants.

The minister has said previously that, despite the Scottish Government’s failure to reach agreement with the UK Government on the withdrawal bill, negotiations on the development of common frameworks will proceed. Is that still his position? If it is, can he update the Parliament on how those common frameworks are, indeed, proceeding?

That remains my position, but I cannot negotiate with somebody who will not come to have a conversation. If Adam Tomkins will persuade his colleague Mr Lidington to come to have a conversation with the party leaders here, that might, I hope, take us a step further on. Officials will continue to discuss those matters, but until Mr Lidington addresses the issues, I do not see how we can have any more influence than we have now.

Glasgow City Council (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the finance secretary considers that Glasgow City Council has received sufficient funding for 2018-19. (S5O-02128)

The Scottish Government, in the face of reductions to resource funding by the United Kingdom Government, has taken the necessary steps to provide a real-terms increase in local government funding. Distribution is jointly agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and key 2018-19 investments in Glasgow include more than £100 million for affordable housing, £15 million for the Glasgow city deal and an additional £35.8 million of revenue funding to support day-to-day services, compared with 2017-18. That, from my point of view, is a fair deal.

Responding to an inquiry on behalf of a constituent who had concerns about a decision of the council to double childcare costs, Maureen McKenna, Glasgow’s executive director of education, wrote:

“In response to the specific question you ask, I can advise that the income to be generated from the fee increase is being used to contribute towards meeting the funding gap in the Council’s budget for financial year 2018-19.”

What is the cabinet secretary’s response to that explanation? Can he explain why he and his SNP colleagues in Glasgow believe that hard-pressed families should carry the burden of bridging the funding gap in Glasgow—

Thank you. The question has been asked.

—given the huge consequences for—

I am sorry; we are moving on. Cabinet secretary, please.

First, the Scottish Government presents competent budgets that have resulted in a real-terms increase for local authorities in Scotland, rather than the incompetent budgets that the Labour Party has delivered in the Scottish Parliament.

You need to explain the gap.

I hear Johann Lamont continuing to heckle me, but she might be interested in the answer. The new SNP administration in Glasgow City Council is cleaning up the mess that it inherited from the previous Labour administration. There were substantial issues.

In relation to the specific question on expanding childcare, it is this Government, not the Labour Party, that will deliver the transformational new childcare commitment. Further, it was the Labour Party that walked away from negotiating with the Scottish Government on local government finance when it walked away from COSLA. Incompetence and chaos are what we get from the Labour Party.

Voting Franchise (Extension)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on extending the voting franchise to all European Union and non-EU adults who are resident in Scotland. (S5O-02129)

I call the cabinet secretary—[Interruption.] Sorry; I call Mr FitzPatrick.

The Scottish Government has recently consulted on extending the opportunity to vote in Scotland to all those who are legally resident here, whatever their place of birth. It is right that people who make their lives here and contribute to society should have the right to vote, wherever they are from.

I apologise for giving you a promotion, which I am not entitled to do.

There is no need to apologise, Presiding Officer.

With the on-going lack of clarity around the arrangements for Brexit, has the Scottish Government considered how the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union will impact on these issues during the transition period and thereafter?

Our proposals will provide clarity by maintaining the right of EU citizens to vote in the Scottish Parliament and local government elections. The responses to the consultation are still being analysed, but the initial indication is that there is overwhelming support for the Scottish Government’s position. The proposals require a two-thirds supermajority in the Scottish Parliament. That would send a clear message to those EU citizens about how welcome and valued they are in our society.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to base the franchise on residence in Scotland. Will the minister confirm whether refugees and asylum seekers who are resident here will be included?

Yes. In my view, people who have been welcomed here as refugees and people who are going through the process of seeking asylum should be included. Scotland is a welcoming country and our intention to extend the opportunity to vote to all those who are legally resident in Scotland, whatever their place of birth, should include refugees and asylum seekers.

Council Tax Banding (Appeals)

To ask the Scottish Government what mechanism is in place to allow a council tax payer to appeal against a banding that they consider incorrect. (S5O-02130)

The process by which a person can challenge the council tax band that has been allocated to a property that they own or are liable for is set out in part II of the Council Tax (Alteration of Lists and Appeals) (Scotland) Regulations 1993. The regulations provide that a formal appeal—known as a proposal—against a banding may be submitted to the relevant local assessor within certain time limits. If no agreement can be reached, the case can be referred to the relevant valuation appeal committee, whose decision is final, subject to an appeal to the Court of Session on a point of law.

What, if any, discussions has the cabinet secretary had with the relevant joint evaluation board on appeals against banding decisions? I would like a full reply and would like the cabinet secretary to take no notice of the timing clock in the chamber that has been introduced to speed up ministerial answers.

That is not a relevant matter, Mr Lyle. I do not expect the cabinet secretary to deal with that.

The matter raised by Richard Lyle is, rightly, one for the relevant assessors and I have outlined the process. However, what I will do for him is raise the matter with the assessors when I next meet them.

In 2007, the Scottish National Party said that it would scrap the council tax. Given the appetite in different parts of the chamber for a replacement for the council tax, when will the cabinet secretary revisit the issue?

The Scottish Government was elected on the 2016 manifesto, and that is the manifesto on which I am basing my deliberations. I have said to all parties in the chamber that I will engage constructively on the subject of local taxation. My door remains open and my offer remains live, and I am happy to engage on the further refinements that we can make to the system to make local taxation fairer. That is a constructive offer to all parties.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of recent developments regarding the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, what its position is on the views expressed during the independence referendum that a yes vote would mean Scotland would be taken out of the European Union and a no vote would see it granted new powers as an equal part of the United Kingdom. (S5O-02131)

Mr Adam is correct in his recollection of what was said during the independence referendum campaign. In a televised debate, the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, said to Patrick Harvie:

“I think it is disingenuous of Patrick to say that No means out and Yes means in, when actually the opposite is true, No means we stay in, we are members of the European Union.”

As we know, Scotland now faces being dragged out of the EU against our will by Ruth Davidson and her fellow Tories. Instead of Scotland being treated as an equal partner, we have seen during this whole disaster that the views of the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland have all been ignored. The UK Government must now respect this Parliament’s will and amend the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, given the overwhelming vote last week. That would be a start to the process.

In the light of the proposals for powers to be retained at Westminster for seven years, why should the Scottish Parliament believe current Tory promises, when promises that were made during the independence referendum campaign have been totally disregarded?

I see no reason at all to believe those promises.

Independence Referendum

To ask the Scottish Government, further to the statement by the First Minister in June 2017, whether it plans to hold a second independence referendum in the autumn. (S5O-02132)

In her statement in June 2017, the First Minister did not say that we intend to hold an independence referendum in autumn 2018; instead, she said:

“At the end of the period of negotiation with the EU, which is likely to be around next autumn, when the terms of Brexit will be clearer, we will come back to Parliament to set out our judgment on the best way forward at that time, including our view on the precise timescale for offering ... a choice over the country’s future.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2017; c 14.]

It is clear from the First Minister’s comments at the weekend that she is about to plunge the country into a second independence referendum. Last week, she spoke about scrapping multibuy pizza offers. Is it not time that the Government scrapped plans for a second independence referendum and concentrated on getting people hospital appointments—

Thank you—you have had your question.

—getting teachers into our schools—

You have had your question.

—and getting homeless people off our streets?

Mr Kelly, sit down.

Scottish Government ministers do the day job every day to deliver for the people of Scotland. A reference was made earlier to Scottish National Party ideology. I can tell members that it is better for people to have belief in their own nation than it is for the Labour Party to swallow Tory ideology, which is exactly what has happened.

I repeat that the First Minister clearly set out her expectations. She is trying to get the United Kingdom Government to a better place; failing that, we will return with a vision for Scotland.

If we are to have a second independence referendum—perish the thought—we will need a better economic proposition than the fairy story that was the 2014 white paper. If an independent Scotland had a budget deficit that ran at 8 per cent of gross domestic product, which is more than three times the UK rate, how would the gap be filled? Would that mean more cuts or higher taxes?

The reality of the Scottish Government’s budget is that we are investing more in the national health service, education, economic growth and infrastructure through the wise decisions that we are taking. As for fairy tales, we do not need to look into the future to see the economic devastation at the heart of the Tories’ plan, because they are delivering it now with on-going austerity, which is a choice at the UK Government’s hands.

I know that unionists in the Parliament have great interest in the growth commission’s report, which will be issued on Friday. Perhaps they should wait to see what the commission says. I am sure that it will show a positive case about what we could do if we had the full levers of independence.

First-time Buyers (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how its fiscal policy supports first-time buyers. (S5O-02133)

More than 26,000 people have benefited from our low-cost initiative for first-time buyers and help-to-buy schemes since their introduction, and the vast majority of those have been first-time buyers.

We have also taken a progressive approach to the setting of rates and bands for land and buildings transaction tax that has prioritised support for first-time buyers and helped home movers to progress through the market. I have also announced plans to introduce a first-time buyer relief for LBTT, with the necessary legislation making its way through Parliament for the new relief to commence on 30 June.

What percentage of first-time buyers in Scotland will be able to benefit from not paying any land and buildings transaction tax?

Specifically, 80 per cent of first-time buyers expect to pay no tax at all, but all first-time buyers will benefit from the introduction of this new relief.

Small Business Bonus Scheme (Renfrewshire South)

To ask the Scottish Government how many businesses receive support from the small business bonus scheme in the Renfrewshire South constituency. (S5O-02134)

Information on the uptake of the small business bonus scheme is not available at constituency level, but in 2017-18 there were 2,665 recipients in the Renfrewshire Council local authority area, benefiting from a total of £6.6 million collectively. Since 2008-09, the small business bonus scheme in Renfrewshire has delivered more than £45 million of relief that can subsequently be invested in the local economy.

Uncertainty over Brexit is impacting on many small businesses in my constituency. What support can the Scottish Government provide in terms of information sharing and scenario planning? Does the cabinet secretary agree that the United Kingdom Government’s reckless approach to Brexit is damaging business confidence across Renfrewshire South and Scotland more widely?

It is a challenge for any of us to scenario plan on the basis of scenarios that have not been detailed by the UK Government and without knowing where we will end up. In fairness, though, we will try to share as much as possible. That is why there is a range of schemes to support sectors across Scotland in relation to what the future might look like.

The leaked UK papers have been something of a vindication of the economic analysis that the Scottish Government has done. That lends weight to the argument that, if we unite, we can change the direction of the UK Government away from its reckless approach and towards one that is far more positive about what we can do in terms of the single market and the customs union.

Wealth Inequality (Fiscal Policy)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking through its fiscal policy to reduce wealth inequality. (S5O-02135)

The Scottish Government is committed to reducing wealth inequality and to delivering policies that support inclusive growth. We are determined to take strong action to reduce child poverty and meet the statutory targets in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017.

Scotland led the way in the United Kingdom by establishing a progressive approach to rates and bands for land and buildings transaction tax, making the amount that is paid more closely related to the value of the property or transaction. Additionally, our reforms to council tax have made local taxation fairer and more progressive, and income tax in Scotland is fairer and more progressive and raises additional funds to protect public services and support the economy.

According to the website The Ferret, the Gini coefficient and the Palma ratio show inequality in Scotland to be at historically high levels that have not been seen since the 1990s. Given that, in the early 1990s, there was no Scottish Parliament, are those figures not clear evidence that the claim of the Scottish National Party to be a progressive party of the left is simply delusional fantasy?

No. The reality is that unionists such as Neil Findlay have ensured that we have not had the powers to deliver true equality in Scotland through a range of measures. That goes for welfare powers, as even after the transfer of powers, we still have control over only a minority of them; it goes for economic policy, as the Conservatives still have control over our macroeconomic policy; and it goes for the very definition of wealth. Much of that will remain in the hands of the Conservative, right-wing, Brexit-mad UK Government that Neil Findlay would rather have governing Scotland than progressive parties with the full levers and full economic powers that could deliver the maximum for Scotland.

We will do what we can with the powers that we have. We have been doing so in a progressive fashion, and we will continue to share the view of Neil Findlay that we all need to do more to tackle inequality in our society. However, to do that, we need the full range of powers, and unionists should assist us in ensuring that the powers of this Parliament are maximised.

How much is the Scottish Government spending to mitigate the worst impacts of Tory welfare policy?

As it stands, my estimate for the welfare mitigation figure is around £125 million for 2018-19.

I cannot call question 10 as the member is not present. Accordingly, as that concludes portfolio questions, we will have a short suspension before the next debate.

14:39 Meeting suspended.  

14:39 On resuming—