Website survey

We want your feedback on the Scottish Parliament website. Take our 6 question survey now

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 25 September 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Product Recall Database


Portfolio Question Time

Social Security Spending (Impact of Welfare Reform)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact United Kingdom Government welfare reforms have had on Scottish social security spending. (S5O-03567)

The Scottish Government’s 2019 welfare reform report found that when universal credit is fully rolled out, welfare reforms since 2015 could have reduced social security spending in Scotland by around £500 million per year. That will be the impact of the benefit freeze, reductions in universal credit work allowance and the two-child limit.

The cuts only build on a yet larger set of United Kingdom Government welfare reforms that have been introduced since 2010. Previously, our 2018 welfare reform report estimated that by 2020-21, total cuts since 2010 could have reduced annual social security spending in Scotland by a massive £3.7 billion per year.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm how much the Scottish Government spends on mitigating harmful UK Government policies? Does the cabinet secretary agree with the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, who wrote that

“mitigation comes at a price and is not sustainable”?

I very much agree with Professor Alston and his recent reports. Unfortunately, the scale of the UK Government social security cuts is so vast that it is not possible for the Scottish Government to mitigate them in full, especially given that our resource block grant has been reduced by £2 billion in real terms since 2010-11.

Nonetheless, the Scottish Government is continuing to invest more than £100 million this year to mitigate the worst impacts of the UK Government welfare reforms. That is part of the estimated £1.4 billion that we are investing in 2018-19 to support low-income households.

Universal Credit Housing Element

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Social Security Committee’s recommendation that universal credit housing element should be paid directly to a landlord by default, with the option for a tenant to opt out. (S5O-03568)

As stated in my answer to Jackie Baillie on 26 June, the Scottish Government

“worked directly with people in receipt of universal credit in Scotland”

when developing the universal credit Scottish choices. The feedback received was that

“people wished to have a choice about whether or not to have the housing costs in their universal credit award paid directly to their landlord ... almost 50 per cent of the people who have been offered the choices have taken up one or both.”

In other words, people have had the flexibility to decide for themselves

“whether it works better for them to have their housing costs paid directly to their landlord.”—[Official Report, 26 June 2019; c 12.]

Research by Citizens Advice Scotland has shown that rent arrears have shot up by 40 per cent since 2012. That is why the Social Security Committee heard evidence that paying rent directly to landlords with an opt-out for tenants was a “no-brainer”. Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether officials have assessed the social return on investment of the £2.50 that is paid each time that flexibility is used, and whether the experience panels have carried out any research in response to the committee’s recommendation?

I recognise the Social Security Committee’s recommendation on that and, more widely, I recognise its report. I point out to James Kelly that that was not the universal view of those who gave written and oral evidence to the committee. As I said in my original answer, we built Scottish choices by directly asking people who are in receipt of universal credit what they wanted.

The experience panels have not looked at the issue since the publication of the Social Security Committee’s report. However, as a Government, we are committed to a review of Scottish choices, so I look forward to hearing what those with lived experience of universal credit say about the choices that we have on offer—we can act on that accordingly.

A recent Trussell Trust report found that food banks experienced a 30 per cent increase in demand in areas where universal credit had been in place for a year. Does the cabinet secretary think that it is time that the UK Government listens to the overwhelming evidence about the hardship that universal credit is causing and fixes the flaws in the system, starting with the five-week delay for new claimants?

The UK Government needs to look very urgently at universal credit, although it has spectacularly failed to do so to date. There are a number of significant problems with universal credit. Clare Adamson is quite right to point out the five-week wait, which, from recent reports, is having an impact on rent arrears. The minimum five-week wait before receiving the first payment, together with the direct deductions as a result of loans from the DWP, is the single biggest problem that people are having with universal credit.

As I did with her predecessors, I urge the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to listen to that evidence and act upon it.

Scottish Child Payment

3. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how many children will be taken out of poverty by the Scottish child payment. (S5O-03569)

By the end of 2022, once it has been fully rolled out, the Scottish child payment is expected to lift 30,000 children out of poverty, reducing relative child poverty by 3 percentage points. It will also help to stop families falling into poverty and mitigate some of the worst effects of UK Government welfare cuts. The first payments for under-sixes will be made before Christmas 2020.

Along with the wider actions set out in our “Every child, every chance: The Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2018-2022”, the Scottish child payment sets Scotland apart as the only country in the UK that is taking concerted action to ultimately eradicate child poverty.

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s response and the announcement in the programme for government that the new benefit will be introduced early for the most vulnerable children, many of whom are in my constituency of Coatbridge and Chryston. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the Scottish child payment will have no cap on the number of eligible children in a family, unlike the UK Government’s callous two-child benefit cap and rape clause?

I confirm that there will never be any cap on the number of eligible children in a family for the Scottish child payment, or any other social security payment. Numerous independent projections that have been published over the past year have shown that child poverty is set to rise in Scotland as a result of the UK Government’s continued welfare cuts, and particularly as a result of policies such as the two-child cap and the benefits freeze. Such policies should always be opposed for the hardship that they cause and the impact that they have on families in child poverty. They run counter to the principles of dignity, fairness and respect, on which the social security system in Scotland is based.

Given that the Scottish Fiscal Commission believes that the take-up of the best start grant will be 69 per cent at best, but could be as low as 45 per cent, does the cabinet secretary agree that moving towards an automated payment—if that could be achieved—would substantially reduce the barriers and make deeper inroads into child poverty?

I recognise Pauline McNeill’s continued commitment to ensuring that we do all that we can in Scotland on automated payment. We looked very seriously at the issue when working on how to deliver the Scottish child payment. We settled on our approach of an application-based process, because it offers a more timely and efficient model for delivery. It simply would not have been possible for us to introduce the Scottish child payment within the timescales that we announced if we had not done that. I did not want a delay, and nor did Aileen Campbell, with whom we have been jointly working on the Scottish child payment. Those are the reasons behind that decision.

However, as I have said to Pauline McNeill in the past, I am more than happy to look at whether we can do anything more in the longer term on automation of social security in general.

Pension Credit (Mixed-age Couples)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact will be on mixed-age couples in Scotland of the United Kingdom Government’s decision to exempt them from claiming pension credit. (S5O-03570)

I am deeply concerned about that regressive policy, which punishes older people for having a younger partner. The Scottish Government estimates that the change could lead to an annual loss of as much as £7,000 per household, and by 2023-24 could affect as many as 5,600 households in Scotland.

The issue is not just about the money. As Age Scotland has rightly pointed out, the policy could also have a devastating effect on the health and wellbeing of some older people, as they struggle to pay bills and heat their homes.

Nearly 6,000 households in my Ayrshire constituency are not getting the pension credit that they are entitled to. The United Kingdom Government admits that, across the UK, a staggering £3.5 billion that is earmarked for the poorest pensioners does not reach them. Does the cabinet secretary support the charity Independent Age in its the call for the UK Government to reform pension credit to ensure that everyone who is entitled to it receives their money?

I absolutely concur with those remarks. It is imperative that we do all that we can to increase benefit take-up. The Scottish Government will do that in relation to the benefits that are devolved, but there is an absolute responsibility on the UK Government also to actively encourage take-up, which is something that it has failed to do in the past.

Ruth Maguire is right to point out that £3.5 billion is being lost. That affects 1.3 million households that are entitled to pension credit but are not receiving it. That is not a new problem, and the UK Government must be urged to act to ensure that those who are entitled to benefits receive that money.

Social Isolation and Loneliness (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support people in the Highlands and Islands who are experiencing social isolation and loneliness. (S5O-03571)

It is important that our work to address social isolation and loneliness includes rural communities. Over the summer, I spent time on Skye and in the western Highlands, where I had the pleasure of visiting a number of important projects that are working to tackle social isolation and loneliness, including RagTag and Textile Ltd in Broadford, and the Fort William Men’s Shed. Those projects are working tirelessly to build communities and support individuals, and it was a joy and a privilege to be able to spend time with them.

We know that rural communities can face particular challenges around social isolation and loneliness, so we have engaged with key stakeholders such as Scottish Rural Action and Scotland’s national rural mental health forum as part of our wider work to build a more connected Scotland.

I want to reassure Edward Mountain that particular challenges that are faced by the Highlands and Islands—and, indeed, other rural communities in Scotland—will form an important part of our work, going forward.

Befrienders Highland plays a vital role in tackling loneliness and social exclusion. The problem is that the money that it has been awarded by the Scottish Government will run out in March next year. Can the minister assure me that she will assess the feasibility of longer-term funding so that organisations such as Befrienders Highland can continue to establish communities and provide the invaluable support that they offer at the moment?

I am delighted to give Edward Mountain that assurance. The social isolation and loneliness strategy fund is worth about £1 million. We are already working with the implementation group to consider how we can roll that out and meet the ambitions of the strategy. The member will probably like to know that we have already spent some of that money. Within the past month, we have given about £80,000 to befriender networks to do exactly the work that he has just mentioned.

We are absolutely committed to looking across all investment into communities with an eye to maximising alignment with the strategy. We have some money to use for that—which is unusual. We have started to spend it, starting with befriending networks, because we know exactly the value of their work.

Two-child Limit (Effect on Families in Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what information it has regarding how many families in Scotland have been denied entitlement to benefits due to the two-child limit. (S5O-03572)

The Scottish Government’s 2019 welfare reform report shows that, according to the latest statistics, more than 8,500 families across Scotland had been denied entitlement for at least one of their children by April 2019. The report also estimates that around 3,400 of those households were headed by a lone parent.

Over time, more and more families will be affected by the limit, and by the appalling rape clause. The 2019 welfare reform report estimates that the two-child limit could reduce social security spending by up to £120 million a year in the long run, which would affect around 40,000 households.

Kirkcaldy Foodbank, in my constituency, has seen unprecedented levels of demand over the past 12 months. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the uncaring and out-of-touch United Kingdom Tory Government continues to attack the most vulnerable people in our society through universal credit? Can she explain what steps the Scottish Government has taken to mitigate those actions?

The Scottish Government considers it unacceptable that families have been forced to resort to food banks. Last week, the Trussell Trust published research that noted that, in some areas where universal credit has been in operation for more than two years, food bank demand has increased by as much as 48 per cent.

I will continue to call on the UK Government to listen to that evidence, to halt the on-going migration of people to universal credit and to fix the problems that we all know about, as well as taking action on the wider punitive measures, such as the two-child cap.

We are investing more than £100 million this year to help to mitigate the worst of the impacts of the UK Government’s benefit cuts. That is part of overall spending of £1.4 billion, which I mentioned earlier, and which we are investing to support low-income households.

Is Social Security Scotland collecting data on the best start baby payment for third and subsequent children in families? That data would be extremely valuable if the current or any other Administration were to decide to support families with three or four children who were missing out because of the UK Government’s callous cap.

In the best start application forms, applicants can include details of other children, so that we can ensure that, if they are eligible for other elements of the best start grant payments they will be given that money, too. Social Security Scotland is looking seriously at ensuring that we maximise take-up of the best start grant, which potentially involves its knowing about other children in a household if the applicant wishes to pursue that.

As I said in my original answer, any Government wishing to mitigate the effects of the two-child limit would, of course, have to meet the £120 million cost of that. We are not simply mitigating the two-child limit; we have gone further, with the introduction by Christmas 2020 of our Scottish child payment.

Devolution of Social Security Powers

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the timeline for the devolution of the powers set out in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. (S5O-03573)

Sections of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 will be commenced as and when appropriate in order to ensure a safe and secure transition of powers.

I set out a timeline for delivery of the remaining devolved benefits in February this year. In June, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government set out our assumptions on how the new Scottish child payment will affect that timeline. I will update Parliament shortly on our work since June with those assumptions.

As the cabinet secretary said, Aileen Campbell said in June that the Scottish child payment would have implications for delivery of other aspects of the social security programme. The social security programme director recently said that his team does not know whether it can hold to the dates for several benefits that were provided by Aileen Campbell, and that feasibility work on timescales around the Scottish child payment has yet to be finalised.

Has the Scottish child payment caused any knock-on delays to disability benefits, carer benefits or transfers? Can we be sure that there will be no further delays, given that the current team seems to be unsure of whether or when it can deliver the benefits?

I absolutely assure Alison Harris that the current team and the Government are determined to deliver devolution of disability payments, and to deliver the Scottish child payment. We had to make timetable changes because of the introduction of the Scottish child payment. That was inevitable, with the introduction of such a major policy and the radical action that was required for the changes to be made. They were difficult decisions, but I hope that Parliament and wider stakeholders will appreciate why we have done it.

As I said in my original answer, in June, Aileen Campbell set out the implications for the rest of the devolved benefits that are to come here. We are working to test those assumptions, and I will update Parliament on our final assessments. I can say at this point that work is going well on that, so I hope to be able to update Parliament on the finer details very soon. Alison Harris can be assured that that work is on-going and is being treated very seriously.

Social Security Scotland (Information Technology)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress Social Security Scotland is making with the information technology infrastructure for wave 2 benefits. (S5O-03574)

The Scottish Government is making good progress on scaling the existing wave 1 technology and systems for wave 2 benefits to introduce more capability, to continue to provide a consistent multichannel experience for our clients, and to ensure, above all, that they are paid on time, every time.

In July, there were concerns that the internal knowledge management system, which supports and supplies staff with policy documents, benefits information, eligibility criteria and links to legislation, was causing issues for staff at Social Security Scotland. How have those concerns been addressed?

They have been addressed because we recognise that we will continuously build on what we have achieved in wave 1 in order to be able to deliver what we are looking to do in wave 2. The entire devolution process in social security has been set up to ensure that what we do lays the foundations for the more complex work. That is an agile process that will be iterative over time, and the work is going exactly as the programme was intended to go, to ensure that we build on those strong foundations. I am absolutely confident that we will deliver on wave 2, just as we have successfully delivered on wave 1.


To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the new CBI Scotland and KPMG Scottish productivity index, which reportedly shows productivity as starting “a lap behind” competitors. (S5O-03575)

The index and the associated report are positive and constructive contributions to the debate on raising Scotland’s rate of productivity growth. It is encouraging that the report’s recommendations are broadly in line with Scottish Government policy.

Scotland is making progress on productivity. The historical gap between Scotland and the United Kingdom has reduced in recent years. Between 2007 and 2018, Scotland’s productivity growth was higher than that of any other country or region of the UK, including London. However, the Scottish Government is far from complacent, and it will continue to pursue higher productivity growth through our economic action plan and related commitments.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that update. CBI Scotland and KPMG say:

“Scottish productivity hasn’t shifted for decades and we don’t expect drastic changes in the near-term.”

In nine of 15 key areas that the report analysed, including skills, training and wellbeing, Scotland is falling far behind the rest of the UK. Will the Scottish Government formally respond to the report? Will it act on any of the specific recommendations that the report makes? More generally, is the cabinet secretary more positive about Scotland’s productivity prospects than CBI Scotland is?

I am equally positive, because I was at the launch of the report with CBI Scotland and other partners, such as KPMG and businesses that welcomed the Government’s response. Jamie Greene would do well to share my positivity and positive approach.

Some of the economic indicators that were mentioned were subsequent to a UK and, indeed, global financial crash. That gives some of the explanation as to why we are going through a particular economic cycle. The current threat of Brexit is, of course, threatening our current economic indicators which, over the most recent piece, have been outperforming those of the rest of the UK in record low unemployment, soaring exports and progress on productivity. Even gross domestic product growth in some quarters has outperformed that in the rest of the UK. Some of those economic indicators are on the turn because of the UK Government’s decisions and incompetence.

Of course I will respond on productivity—indeed, I have already done so. Jamie Greene possibly missed the Scottish Government’s response. We will have more to say through the Scottish budget process and the refreshing of the economic action plan.

I welcome the recommendations, the constructive approach and the new indicators to show how we can tackle productivity, but surely the Conservatives recognise that the UK Government has a role to play, as business does, in enhancing productivity. We are certainly a willing partner in that shared journey.

Can the cabinet secretary point to any area of Government economic policy that might be failing and which he accepts responsibility for?

It is perfectly open to the Opposition to try to pick on our record, but it is disappointing that, with the greatest threat to Scotland’s economy right now being a no-deal Brexit that could bring about a recession in the UK and Scotland to catastrophic effect, Neil Findlay chooses to attack the Scottish National Party. That tells us about the priorities of the Labour Party in Scotland right now.

Barnett Consequential Funding (Education)

To ask the Scottish Government how much of the £1.2 billion of recent Barnett consequential funding will be allocated to education. (S5O-03576)

The consequentials that we will receive after the United Kingdom spending round for next year will be allocated through the Scottish budget process. Any additional funding is to be welcomed and will be spent wisely, but it will not reverse the damage that has been done by a decade of UK Government austerity, which is now being compounded by the threat of a no-deal Brexit.

Given the on-going concerns across Scotland about teacher shortages, including those that were mentioned by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills’ international council of education advisers and those that were cited in the survey of headteachers that was published today, what discussions is the minister having with the cabinet secretary about addressing teacher shortages in key subjects and in additional support for learning?

The Deputy First Minister will have a number of conversations as we go through the Scottish Government’s budget process. If Liz Smith feels passionately about any line in the budget, she and her party are welcome to engage constructively in the budget process.

The Scottish Government does not ring fence consequentials according to UK Government decisions. We set our own priorities for the people of Scotland, and the value of that is seen in the fact that school spending per pupil is consistently higher in Scotland than it is in other UK countries.

Just 22 days ago, Liz Smith stated in a question to the First Minister that the consequentials that are coming to the Scottish Government amount to £1.9 billion. Today, her question states that the amount is £700 million lower than that. Does that not highlight, again, why we should always wait to see the colour of the Tories’ money before we start spending it?

I could not agree more. The money to which Liz Smith referred will be agreed after this year’s spending round, and we will await receipt of that money before we decide how it will be allocated.

Financial Support for Companies (Fair Work First Principles)

To ask the Scottish Government whether trade union access and the promotion of collective bargaining, as set out in the fair work first principles, are conditions for companies receiving Government financial support, including grants from enterprise agencies. (S5O-03577)

Through the fair work first principles, the Scottish Government will attach conditionality to as many grants, funding streams and public contracts as we can by the end of this parliamentary session. The fair work first programme will ask employers to commit to investment in skills and training; payment of the real living wage; no inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts; action to tackle the gender pay gap; and, in relation to Mr Rowley’s question, genuine workforce engagement.

The Government seems to have difficulty in giving a straight answer to that question. Yesterday, Colin Smyth asked whether the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ collective bargaining agreement would continue in place for the northern isles ferry services, but he did not get a straight answer. The trade unions have been writing to ministers, but they have failed to get a straight answer. An essential part of the fair work first principles, as set out by the Scottish Government, is trade union access and support for collective bargaining agreements. Is the Government absolutely clear about that? Is it making clear that those will be conditions for any public funding that goes to any company in Scotland? It is a straightforward question.

I find it an odd question. I have been very clear in the points that I have set out. We have published our fair work action plan, which sets out the great importance that we place in the principles that the independent fair work convention laid out in relation to genuine workplace engagement. Trade union representation and collective bargaining are important elements of such activity.

We are taking forward our fair work first agenda, and we are working with partners to ensure that the agenda is rolled out. We are engaging with a range of early adopters who are committed to the fair work agenda, and we will continue to work with the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the fair work convention.

If Mr Rowley is particularly keen to discuss the matter with me—I do not think that, hitherto, he has contacted me directly—I would be very happy to speak to him about it.

Diversity in the Workplace

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to encourage diversity in the workplace. (S5O-03579)

The Scottish Government is committed to increasing diversity in the workplace as part of our ambition for inclusive growth. We aim to encourage diversity in the workplace through the implementation of actions across a range of activity, including those in the “Fair Work Action Plan”, “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Employment Action Plan”, “A Fairer Scotland for Women: Gender Pay Gap Action Plan” and “A Fairer Scotland for All: Race Equality Action Plan 2017-21”. Those actions, which include extending the workplace equality fund and promoting the benefits of diversity in the Scottish business pledge, will help to make Scotland a better and fairer place to live and work.

Does the minister agree that schemes such as the CRER—Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights—political shadowing scheme and the disability internship programme in the Parliament are an excellent way to engage with underrepresented groups in our workforce? Would he encourage other members to take part in such activities, as I have done?

Yes, I would. I have taken part in those programmes in the past, and I have found them to be invaluable to me. I hope that those who have participated in them, working with me, have found them useful, too. I think that they are of great benefit. That is why the Government provides funding to the equal representation coalition to do things such as produce the toolkit to help political parties to improve the diversity of their membership; it is why we fund Inclusion Scotland to operate internships in the Scottish Government; and it is why I would encourage others to take part in the CRER shadowing scheme, as Clare Adamson, I and other members have done in the past.

How can the Scottish Government encourage diversity when one of its agencies, Marine Scotland, aided by the Scottish Government’s personnel department, continues to abuse my constituent, a whistleblower who stood up against abusive sexist behaviour in a male-dominated workplace? That case alone discourages women from applying for work in male-dominated sectors.

I will not comment on the specific case, because I believe that it could be the subject of on-going activity and I do not think that the Presiding Officer or anyone else would want me to do that. However, I have laid out the range of activity that we are utterly serious about in relation to the fair work action plan, at least halving the disability employment gap, the gender pay gap action plan and the race equality action plan. The agenda is one that we are very serious about.

To avoid confusion, I should have noted earlier that question 4 was not lodged. We now move on to question 6.

Scottish Enterprise (Exclusivity Agreements)

To ask the Scottish Government what criteria Scottish Enterprise uses to determine the appropriateness of its exclusivity agreements with developers, and how such agreements can be challenged. (S5O-03580)

All property and land transactions that are undertaken by Scottish Enterprise are governed by the “Scottish Public Finance Manual”. They are also subject to Scottish Enterprise’s own internal governance processes. Exclusivity agreements are commonplace in the property industry and are considered by Scottish Enterprise on a case-by-case basis, with reference to the “Scottish Public Finance Manual”. As an exclusivity agreement is a contract between two or more parties, anyone who is considering a challenge to such a contract would need to seek the appropriate legal advice.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary is aware of the specific example of Flamingo Land Ltd’s proposed development at Loch Lomond, which has received nearly 60,000 objections, making it the most unpopular planning application in Scottish history. Despite the fact that the application has been withdrawn in the face of such huge, widespread opposition, the community cannot pursue other alternatives, such as a community-owned option, because of the exclusivity agreement that Scottish Enterprise has. Surely that community should have options other than having to go to court. Surely it should be in the driving seat in determining the future of that site.

To be fair, Patrick Harvie’s question was framed in general terms and I replied in general terms.

On the proposition in question, I am sure that I heard Jackie Baillie ask the First Minister about the possibility of public ownership and a community buyout. If I remember correctly, the First Minister said that that option should be explored, and I concur with that.

Of course, ministers cannot prejudice any planning application or interfere with the operational independence of Scottish Enterprise in relation to a matter that might be live, but I can say, without prejudice to any planning application, that every planning application should be considered on the merits of the case and the appropriate planning material considerations. Everyone involved in the process should maybe reflect on the outcomes and on public opinion and the level of objections that was generated. I hope that that is helpful for everyone’s understanding.

Living Wage Employers

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the number of employers paying the living wage. (S5O-03581)

As of 19 September 2019, there were 1,586 living wage accredited employers in Scotland. Proportionately, that is more than five times more than there are in the rest of the United Kingdom. In total, 80.6 per cent of all employees in Scotland receive the living wage, which is ahead of England at 77.1 per cent, Wales at 74 per cent and Northern Ireland at 72.3 per cent, making Scotland the best performing of all the UK nations.

Although those figures are really encouraging, they still amount to around 20 per cent of people who work in Scotland not receiving the living wage. Does the minister agree that every responsible employer should pay it, as the clue is in the title—it is the “living” wage?

Yes. The Scottish Government is a great advocate of the real living wage, which is why we were the first accredited Government across these islands. I agree with Ms Mackay that, although it is welcome that 80 per cent of employees are paid it, it is still the case that 20 per cent—or one fifth—of the workforce are not paid it. We want to do better than that, and I encourage employers to follow the example of those who have become accredited and get on board, become accredited, and make sure that they pay all their staff at least the real living wage.

Small Town Economies (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the economies of small towns. (S5O-03582)

We understand the economic challenges that are faced by businesses in our small towns, and we are providing a £50 million town centre fund to stimulate growth as part of a wider £5 billion capital infrastructure investment. In addition, our non-domestic rates relief—which is worth more than £750 million—is the most generous in the United Kingdom, and the small business bonus scheme removes, or reduces, rates burdens on small businesses across Scotland.

In spite of that, small towns struggle to access funds to regenerate their communities. However, it is not always just about money. Dunbar community council recently took me around a number of derelict residential and business properties in the town that speculators have bought and then refused to maintain or sell, undermining the community’s efforts to regenerate the town’s economy.

How does the Scottish Government intend to address the blight of derelict properties and recalcitrant owners?

Iain Gray is right to point out that it is not just about money; in many cases, it is about empowering communities to take action in such circumstances. Of course, communities were empowered to do that through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. That, in conjunction with supporting businesses in the centre of towns through our rates and funding and grants systems, should—hopefully—provide Dunbar community council with the support that it needs.

In July, the United Kingdom Government announced a £3.6 billion package of support for town deals in England, which will benefit 100 different communities. Given that a number of small towns in Scotland face similar challenges to small towns south of the border, does the Scottish Government have any plans to follow suit and introduce town deals?

We await further clarity from the UK Government on that specific proposal. However, the commitment of the Scottish Government is to ensure that every area of Scotland is covered by a deal, including regional deals, which—of course—include some of those towns. On the case that the member mentioned, we await further detail from the UK Government.

That concludes portfolio questions on finance and the economy. I will give everyone a little time to shift seats before we move on to the next item of business.