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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 March 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Primary Care, Scotland’s Recovery, Standing Orders, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Autism and Learning Disabilities


Contents


Scotland’s Recovery

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-24263, in the name of Monica Lennon, on Scotland’s recovery.

15:44  

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

It has been said many times during the pandemic that we are all in it together. However, although Covid has thrown us all into the same storm, we are most definitely not all in the same boat.

The inequalities that have long existed in our economy and society have affected people’s survival chances and resilience. Therefore, across the United Kingdom, the actions and inactions of Governments and decision makers before and during the pandemic must be scrutinised, and we must learn from them as we plan for Scotland’s recovery.

The poorest people in our country are two and a half times more likely to die from the virus. That is a scandal, and it should shame all of us in this Parliament that one in four children in Scotland are in poverty—and the number is increasing. The next Parliament must not only overcome the virus but overcome poverty and work towards being an anti-poverty Parliament. Far from being an equaliser, Covid-19, and some of the decisions taken by Government in response to the pandemic, have exacerbated structural inequalities

The journey through this public health crisis is not yet over. Vaccines, we hope, are the light at the end of the tunnel. As a result of the vaccines, and tests and treatments, we will get through this. The trauma suffered by our economy and living standards, however, will reverberate for many years unless we take bold action now.

With some 21 days until the pre-election recess, it is only right that we devote some of the remaining time to debating Scotland’s recovery, the risks that face our citizens and the challenges that the next Parliament must rise to. Scotland is facing a crucial transition. The election is in 64 days and our country remains in the grip of a global pandemic. We need a Parliament of MSPs who will do the hard work to fight for and deliver a people’s recovery to reshape our economy and make it fairer for all.

Women are disproportionately impacted by job disruption as a result of Covid-19. They are also more likely to lose their job in the anticipated recession. Since July, women have accounted for the majority of furloughed workers in Scotland. Women make up the majority—some 77 per cent—of key workers in care, early years and childcare, nursing and supermarkets, but they are undervalued, underpaid and underprotected. Research by Close the Gap has concluded that more effective utilisation of women’s skills and talents could be a catalyst for economic growth, worth up to £17 billion to Scotland’s economy. Women’s employment must be central to Scotland’s recovery.

That is not just a Scottish issue, of course—it is a worldwide challenge, and Scotland should be seeking to tackle it head on. In the past couple of weeks, US Vice-President Kamala Harris warned that, in one year, the pandemic has put at risk decades of the progress that we have collectively made for women workers. Our economy cannot recover fully unless women can participate fully. I agree with Vice-President Kamala Harris.

We are also facing the worst jobs crisis in a generation, with young people set to be hit particularly hard. There is significant evidence that, during a recession, people below the age of 25 are more likely to be let go by employers, and less likely to be hired, than older workers. More must be done to ensure that we do not lose a generation of workers to the pandemic.

If we do not act, it is clear that the consequences of the pandemic will scar our economy for decades to come. The recent “Fair Work in Scotland” report reveals that Scotland will not meet the ambition of becoming a fair work nation by 2025 unless bold and urgent action is taken now.

It is extremely disappointing, therefore, that the Scottish Conservatives’ contribution to the debate is to seek to remove the reference in my motion to exploitative and low-paid work. Denying the existence of the underlying problems in our economy is certainly not the way to achieve fair work; in fact, the attempt to remove that reference says all that people need to know about the Tories’ attitude to workers in Scotland.

Scottish Labour is supportive of the devolution of employment law, with a UK floor built in as proposed by the Scottish Trades Union Congress, so we are able to support the Scottish Government amendment. However, we do not want a race to the bottom on workers’ conditions. In this Parliament, we should be encouraging a race to the top.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Does the member consider that the UK Government should either increase the statutory minimum wage or allow us to do that?

Monica Lennon

Labour members want an increase not just to the statutory minimum wage but to the real living wage. I will come on to the importance of that in a moment.

Before Mr Mason intervened, I was going to say that, with greater powers over employment law, there is more that we could do, such as getting rid of the anti-trade union act that the Tories brought in. We could also do more on the living wage across Scotland. However, I say to Mr Mason and his colleagues that not having those powers is not an excuse or cover for inaction on the part of the Scottish Government. I will come to that later. I hope that we mostly agree that we need to put workers’ rights at the heart of the recovery.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I ask Monica Lennon to answer the question that John Mason asked. Also, can she tell Parliament why Labour did not support the inclusion of employment law in the Smith commission’s recommendations, even though the STUC and the Scottish National Party supported it?

Monica Lennon

I make it clear to Parliament that not only does Scottish Labour support the Government, but it is our policy to make a positive case for the devolution of employment law. When we come to the chamber to agree with the Government, it is a shame that that is not enough for Sandra White and John Mason. They want to go back to the arguments of 2014, while we want to focus on the future.

We could talk about this Government’s record—I think that that is why I am getting some interventions. For example, the Scottish Government, local authorities, the national health service and other public bodies spend around £11 billion per year on goods and services. The financial clout of the state could be used for good, but the most recent annual report on procurement in Scotland shows that just 100,000 jobs were supported from £10 billion of public sector procurement contracts, and less than 1 per cent of small and medium-sized enterprises benefited from procurement spend. That is huge missed opportunity and it is not down to the Tories in Westminster; it is down to the SNP in Edinburgh. Scotland’s Government has missed a huge opportunity to act to bring about fair work in the economy—

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

Will the member take an intervention?

Monica Lennon

I want to make some progress.

We need progressive procurement. I hope that the minister will agree with that.

Jamie Hepburn

Will the member give way on that point?

Monica Lennon

I will continue.

The public sector must not reward companies and organisations that engage in blacklisting, operate zero-hour contracts and pay below the living wage. It should reward companies that have fair work and sustainability at their hearts, grow local businesses and support those who have struggled as a result of the pandemic.

We need bold action and investment to stimulate a green and just recovery in Scotland that creates highly skilled and well-paid jobs in the sectors of the future to stave off the prospect of sustained high levels of unemployment.

We need to raise productivity and living standards to tackle poverty and ensure high-quality public services, not more cuts to local government that come from the Government. We need to reduce social, economic and regional inequality. We need a recovery for all Scotland.

We need to decarbonise the economy and tackle environmental breakdown, in line with Scottish Labour’s target of reaching net zero by 2045.

Scottish Labour is committed to achieving full employment. With the private sector already suffering, the only way to stop rising unemployment is for the state to act. Scottish Labour has a bold plan to invest in skills and infrastructure, including social infrastructure, that will improve our quality of life, tackle climate change and create good jobs.

On support for businesses, we know that lockdowns have been necessary, but they have placed enormous financial strain on many businesses, including, in particular, smaller firms that do not have cash reserves. Scottish Government schemes have helped some firms to stay afloat but, for others, support has been patchy and difficult to access. It is estimated that up to one third of those businesses could struggle to repay Government-backed loans, meaning that there is a significant risk that many Scottish businesses could face insolvency.

Around 1 million jobs depend on Scotland’s small business and self-employed community. Harnessing the power of Scotland’s small firms to create jobs will be key to our recovery from the pandemic, and we must see more support for the businesses that are most at risk. I have not been able to follow everything that the chancellor has said today, but I and, I am sure, my colleagues across the chamber are aware that self-employed people have been begging for support for a year—again, it is a case of too little, too late with the Tories.

Our motion also mentions community wealth-building. Radical change can be achieved when there is political will in the Parliament, and community wealth-building is one example of where powers need to be harnessed.

Councillor Joe Cullinane and the Labour-led council in North Ayrshire launched Scotland’s first community wealth-building strategy last year. Its aim is to repurpose the local economy so that it works for local people and protects the environment. As part of the economic recovery, our collective aim should be to replicate nationwide the success that has been seen in North Ayrshire.

I mentioned some of the key workers who have kept our country going and looked after the people in most need. I was really pleased when Parliament came together to include the social care support fund the emergency legislation that we passed, ensuring that low-paid care workers did not have to make do on statutory sick pay or go without any wage at all. That showed the political will to act, and we acted. However, we need to look beyond that and see how we can make those conditions more permanent for the future.

I lost a bit of time with interventions, so I will conclude. We need a recovery that puts people first, especially all those key workers who have kept the country going and those who have been most affected by the harms of lockdown. Scottish Labour will go into the election to put forward the case for doing things differently, because Scotland has been unequal for too long.

I am confident that we will get through the storm of Covid together, but we need to enact bold change and pursue a green recovery that leaves no one behind. As the country heads to the polls in 64 days’ time, that vision of reshaping our economy and society should be front and centre. We are determined that the next Parliament should be about rebuilding and reshaping the economy to build a people’s recovery that delivers fairness for all. That is the choice that the country faces and is why we will continue to make the case for a fairer future.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament believes that the next parliamentary session must be focused on rebuilding the economy for all of Scotland after the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing the structural inequalities that the pandemic has exposed in society and the opportunities that have been continually missed to deliver for workers and transform the exploitative, low-wage economy; calls therefore on the Scottish Government to recognise the need for a bold system change and for urgent action to make Scotland a Fair Work Nation, including prioritising greater support for disabled workers, ethnic minorities, women and young workers who often experience poorer work outcomes and are often more heavily concentrated in precarious and low-paid work; adhering to fair work principles, calls for further support for businesses and sectors hit hardest, to protect and create jobs, and agrees that the green economic recovery must be people-centred and incorporate community wealth building opportunities in order to drive success, wellbeing and prosperity for individuals, businesses and communities across the whole of Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you for speaking to time, Ms Lennon. Perhaps I should have made it clear at the beginning that, for once, we have plenty of time for people to take interventions, but it was still much appreciated.

15:56  

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

I thank Monica Lennon for bringing the debate to the chamber and welcome her to her new role, although I know that it is not the one that she had hoped for. There is not long left in this parliamentary session, but, in the time that we have available, I look forward to any exchanges that we may have.

The debate is an opportunity to highlight the work that is being done across Scotland to support a fair and sustainable recovery and for me to restate the Scottish Government’s absolute commitment to making Scotland a fair work nation. In that regard, I say at the outset that, as Monica Lennon has indicated for Labour, we will not be supporting the Tory amendment for the very same reasons as those that Ms Lennon laid out. I welcome her support for our amendment. I will not linger too long on the point that Sandra White made about where we could be right now if those powers had been taken forward as part of the Smith commission process and vested in our hands, but it is welcome, if somewhat belated, that the Labour Party’s position has changed.

Suppressing Covid-19 and ensuring the safety of Scotland’s population more widely and Scotland’s workforce more specifically is, rightly, a priority and may remain so for some time yet. Since March 2020, to protect jobs during the pandemic, we have committed more than £1.2 billion to drive recovery by, for example, bringing forward capital investment, and we have invested more than £3 billion in direct support for business, including for the newly self-employed. As Ms Lennon mentioned, they are people who have been overlooked by the UK Government’s approach.

I recognise that we have an opportunity not simply to go back to how things were, but to address many of the deep-seated and structural challenges that our country faces in building back greener, fairer and stronger and ensuring an inclusive, resilient and more equal wellbeing economy for Scotland. We moved swiftly in the spring of last year and, as a first step, established the independent advisory group on economic recovery to advise us on priorities. The group recognised the importance of people to our economic recovery, centred on fair work. Through fair work first we are applying fair work criteria such as payment of the real living wage, tackling the gender pay gap and promoting more diverse workforces to more of our public spending, which is helping to create and support secure and meaningful jobs and driving change across workplaces.

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The minister mentioned a wellbeing economy. However, under the SNP, Scotland has declined from 16th place to 21st place in the international rankings for wellbeing. Will he explain why?

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

Universal credit.

Jamie Hepburn

The very response that I might have given was made from the back benches.

It is interesting that Mr Lockhart seeks to absolve his party of any responsibility in the handling of the Scottish economy. I will make the point that I want to see such powers vested in the hands of this Parliament, of which he is a member, in areas such as universal credit and employment law, which would help to drive the creation of a wellbeing economy. He would rather take a different approach.

In response to the situation and the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we must maintain a focus on the cohorts of our population whom we know are already disadvantaged in the labour market and who will become further disadvantaged if we do not get our response right.

Monica Lennon was quite right to mention the position of women in our economy. Our gender pay gap action plan remains important, as do our action plan for women in enterprise and our women returners programme. Those all represent a specific response to the position of women in the economy and will become of ever greater importance as we respond to and recover from Covid-19.

We remain committed to at least halving the disability employment gap. We have extended the fair start Scotland programme for a further two years, which will support unemployed disabled people and those with health conditions or other barriers to move into fair and sustained work.

We know from previous economic downturns that young people are particularly hard hit economically in such circumstances. Our young person’s guarantee is such that, within two years, every person aged between 16 and 24 will benefit from that programme, and we have already committed £60 million in this financial year to supporting its implementation.

I also know that flexible working is crucial to many workers, including those with caring responsibilities, as it enables them to access and sustain good-quality jobs. This year, more than any other, has shown that, for many organisations, flexible working—albeit in unusual circumstances that were probably not an ideal test bed—can work effectively. We will continue to support Timewise and the flexible jobs index in advancing the flexible working agenda.

Support for ethnic minority workers will be central to our recovery. That is why, later this month, we will hold a public sector leaders summit on race equality, which will help to shape future fair work actions.

Community wealth building has been mentioned. The Scottish Government is a supporter of that approach as a practical approach to local economic development that supports the delivery of our wellbeing economy for our country. Building on the work that is already under way in Ayrshire through the growth deal, we are supporting the development of community wealth building in five different geographies across Scotland, working with local partners to produce action plans in each. Such plans are designed to focus on understanding the practical changes that will be needed if we are to build local economic resilience as a means of delivering better outcomes.

We are investing in a green recovery. Between the programme for government and the climate change plan update, which was published in December, we have now committed to allocating £2 billion of additional capital funding over the next parliamentary session to the delivery of low-carbon and natural infrastructure as part of our just transition to net zero.

Monica Lennon’s motion rightly highlights the structural inequalities that must be tackled. I hope that, in my opening remarks, I have demonstrated that we are committed to rising to that challenge. However, we could go further if we had the requisite powers. The law defines much of our experience of the world of work, and, in the Scottish Government’s estimation, the Scottish Parliament should have responsibility for employment law. Given that, we would seek to legislate for a real living wage, against firing and rehiring, for the repeal of the pernicious Trade Union Act 2016, and to mitigate the worst aspects of the gig economy. I hope that that makes it clear to the Scottish Labour Party and to Ms Lennon that any concerns about a race to the bottom would be ill founded were such powers to be vested in this Parliament. We want to use such powers to create a fairer economy.

Ms Lennon mentioned the upcoming election, to which we turn our attention. The Scottish Government will stand on its record—on what we have achieved—and on our ambitions for what more has to be done. The Scottish Government will continue to do all that we can, with the powers that we have, to deliver a fair, inclusive and green recovery. However, we will also continue to campaign for more powers to enable us to do ever more.

I move amendment S5M-24263.2, to insert at end:

“, and that, to properly address these issues, the Scottish Parliament needs to have control over employment law.”

16:05  

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

Allow me to welcome Monica Lennon to her new role as her party’s economy spokesperson.

No one would have thought that the final year of this parliamentary session would have been dominated by a global health emergency, but perhaps its final weeks could be focused on solving the economic emergency that it has caused. Of course, the fact that we can focus on recovery at all is down to the incredible work of the NHS and the British armed forces in rolling out the vaccine. In Scotland, more than 1.5 million people have been vaccinated so far. Across the UK, the figure is more than 20 million. The UK vaccination rate is simply astonishing, and it paves the way for the recovery that we are here to debate today.

The recovery will be particularly important for Scotland’s young people, who have been hit especially hard by the economic crisis—a consequence of many of them working in hard-hit industries such as retail, hospitality and leisure. The young person’s guarantee is a welcome move to help them, alongside the British Government’s kickstart scheme, which is already creating jobs for young people—120,000 across the UK as a whole at the end of January. Sandy Begbie, in the report “Young Person Guarantee: No-one Left Behind”, recommends that the two schemes “complement each other”, and I whole-heartedly agree with Mr Begbie.

Ultimately, the best way to help people of all ages is to get the economy back on its feet. The first order of business in doing that is protecting jobs, and funding support has been crucial to such efforts. However, a year after the crisis began, many businesses continue to fall through the cracks. Just last week, I stood here calling for help for the wedding industry, the cleaning sector and supply-chain companies. They are asking for just enough to see them through the crisis. The food-and-drink wholesale sector, for example, needs more support because the original fund was just not enough. The trade body BACTA—the British Amusement Catering Trade Association—is asking for a £1.5 million discrete fund to help amusement supply companies across Scotland.

The resources are there—support is flowing into Scotland from the British Government to tackle the crisis—so why will the SNP not listen to those who are crying out for help? Its reluctance to use the resources available to it has the public scratching their heads. The approach from the British Government has been critical in safeguarding jobs and livelihoods. Almost a million Scottish jobs have been saved, £20 billion has been spent on tackling the crisis and young people are finding work through the kickstart scheme, which is worth almost £4,000 for every unemployed young person in Scotland—more than double the SNP’s own scheme.

Monica Lennon

I agree that there is a need for speed in getting the funding and support from Government out to the front line, but is it a matter of regret to Maurice Golden that the UK Government has been slow to give business certainty around furlough?

Statutory sick pay is a public health measure. Not having sick pay is putting people at risk. What will he and his colleagues do to ensure that more action is taken to sort out the sick-pay issue?

Maurice Golden

Furlough has been extended to September, there has been £407 billion of support for families, jobs and businesses throughout the crisis and, just today, an additional £1.2 billion in Barnett consequentials has been announced for the Scottish Government. That is all to be welcomed. The VAT cut that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced will help tourism and hospitality. It has been extended, as has the freeze on spirit duty and, crucially, the furlough scheme, as I have said. There is also £27 million for the Aberdeen energy transition zone, £2 million for a North Sea transition deal and access to the £4.8 billion levelling up fund, to get direct UK Government investment in communities that the SNP chooses to ignore.

The British Government has succeeded in preventing an economic collapse in Scotland. It is now for this Parliament to start on Scotland’s road out of lockdown and towards recovery. However, the First Minister’s exit plan is extremely disappointing. There is no hope, no ambition and no certainty for the thousands of businesses that are hanging on by their fingertips.

The Scottish Conservatives have a plan. Swedish-style job security councils would match people who are out of work with new opportunities. Additional support for town centres would open up new business opportunities, boost active travel and improve access. A coronavirus business restrictions advisory council would bring business leaders together to advise on the necessary restrictions. Public procurement would be reformed, to favour local suppliers, protect local jobs and retain wealth in communities. A road map to recovery would focus on low-carbon projects such as decommissioning, district heating and electric arc furnaces.

Those are commonsense proposals for a green recovery, which is strengthened by today’s UK budget. I hoped that other parties would suggest equally practical measures today. To be fair, there is much in Labour’s motion with which we can agree. I mentioned the plight of young people and other disadvantaged groups. However, a detailed recovery proposal is missing. Also, the Labour motion asserts that we have an “exploitative, low-wage economy”. In general terms, the reverse is true, although I agree that a high-wage, more highly skilled economy should be our aim.

The SNP amendment is the most disappointing. Instead of saying something—anything—about its plans for a green recovery, the SNP predictably demands more powers, although it has failed to use its powers time and time again, letting Scotland down. That is a sad confirmation of the SNP’s true priority. It is a strange demand, given that the SNP has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to use the resources that it has. For example, the Scottish Conservatives had to force the SNP to extend rates relief to retail, hospitality and leisure businesses and the newspaper sector.

The public needs this Parliament to focus on them—their families and their communities. That is how we will get the recovery started. We stand ready to deliver.

I move amendment S5M-24263.1, to leave out “the exploitative, low-wage economy” and insert:

“Scottish Government support for workers, jobs and communities, including the development of a roadmap to recovery, the creation of job security councils, establishing a Coronavirus Business Restrictions Advisory Council and additional support for town centres; welcomes the UK Government’s unprecedented support for Scotland’s recovery;”.

16:12  

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I very much welcome the debate, and I echo the welcome that has been offered to Monica Lennon in her new role.

There is nothing in Monica Lennon’s motion with which I disagree. Deep structural inequalities have, indeed, been exposed by the pandemic. This has been a terrible year for everyone, but it has been far, far worse for people who are on low or precarious incomes, people in precarious housing and people who cannot work from home, either because of their employers’ attitudes or because of the nature of their homes.

People have faced issues to do with workplace autonomy. How much control do people have over the public health measures that need to be implemented in their workplaces? Do they really have a voice at work?

There is also historical underpayment of the kind of work—from social care to cleaning—that is critical to the wellbeing of us all.

Issues in retail and hospitality have been mentioned. Those issues are especially relevant to women workers. They are also relevant to younger workers, who are disproportionately represented in those sectors and endure discriminatory minimum-wage rates.

Those structural inequalities cause harm in their own right, but they have also been impacted by Covid. There are people who face low rates of statutory sick pay or no sick pay at all. There are people who do not have the confidence to enter self-isolation when they know that they need to, because they know that they will lose pay as a result. I have spoken to people on precarious contracts who are worried even about taking a test, for fear that they will lose pay if they are not able to work. It remains to be seen whether those structural inequalities will also be evident in roll-out of vaccination through lower take-up in marginalised communities.

The Government’s amendment adds the issue of control over employment law. I cannot disagree with that. I was surprised only at how limited the Government’s amendment was.

Only the Conservatives seem to disagree with the basic premise of the debate. I would vote against their amendment even if it would only add to the motion. The coronavirus restrictions business advisory council that they call for—yet again, that policy is reheated—would, as I have argued before, end up not as a body advising on how best to implement public health measures, but as a group lobbying against public health measures.

However, what the Conservative amendment would delete is far more extreme than what it would add. It would delete reference to the idea of our being a fair work nation. It would delete reference to support for groups that are marginalised in the economy and it would delete mention of a green economic recovery. It would delete even the mere acknowledgment that there are exploitation and low wages in our economy.

We should remember that we are living in an economy in which one of the richest people on the planet, sitting at the top of a company—Amazon—is a billionaire many times over as a result of tax avoidance and paying poverty wages. People who work in that organisation are paid poverty wages and are simply allowed to be exploited. Such a person becomes a billionaire not because he works hard, but by exploiting others. That is the structure of our economy.

The Green amendment, which was not selected for debate, sought to add other perspectives. It is clear that the concept of everlasting growth on a finite planet is unsustainable. However, it is also clear that growth ideology has failed to achieve human wellbeing. Growth happens at times when the gap between the richest and the poorest continues to increase. The rhetoric about a green recovery, which is now heard right across the political spectrum, is increasingly common, but so often it is heard from the lips of those who also support the fossil-fuel industry, road building, aviation growth and all the failed approaches of the past. Essentially, they are still propping up an economy that rests on the waging of a war against nature.

I will finish by saying something about the historical context. As has been said, we, or most of us, want to avoid a return to austerity—to the idea that the burden of what we have come through should rest on the shoulders of those who have the least. At some point, reconciliation will have to be made and we will have to find a way to pay for what we have come through, but it must not be people who are in poverty who pay the bill.

However, that is about more than just the crash of a dozen or so years ago; we need to look at what happened before that. There were decades in which Governments handed over power—away from democratic accountability and on to the markets and the financial system. When those systems failed more than a dozen years ago, there was an opportunity to correct that historical error. The opportunity was not taken. Now, even deeper power is being accumulated in the age of big data, with all its capacity to manipulate people’s behaviour and perceptions. The big players in surveillance capitalism have a kind of power that even those in finance capitalism never achieved.

Important policy questions therefore face us, including how to deliver and fund social care, and how to transition to a sustainable economy and do so fairly. However, the challenges that we face are not solely about those policy choices. Recovery from what ails us as a society must mean bringing power in our society back under democratic accountability. That is a far bigger challenge, and it is one that few Governments around the world are even attempting to address.

16:19  

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I welcome Monica Lennon to her new role in the Scottish Labour Party and commend her for the fine challenge that she posed for Anas Sarwar. I know that we will be able to find common cause on many issues, just as our two parties have done in the past. In that spirit, we will support her motion today.

The Liberal Democrats want a needle-sharp focus on recovery from the pandemic. We will always put recovery first. Any distraction, such as another independence referendum, would let down the thousands and thousands of people who are desperate for work.

First, I will say a few words about today’s UK budget. We support some of the measures, including the extension of the furlough scheme, the extension of self-employment support and the support for 600,000 more self-employed people—the excluded, for whom my colleague Jamie Stone MP has been leading the charge. We also support maintenance of the £20 uplift in universal credit.

I am disappointed with a few things in the budget, including the freezing of the personal income tax allowance from 2022 until 2026. The freeze will hit people who are on the lowest incomes hardest, and will bring more low-paid people into the scope of income tax. That was an issue that we in the Liberal Democrats successfully pursued in Government, so we are disappointed that it is being undermined now.

Most important of all, the budget does not match the scale of the challenge of recovery, in particular for the many small businesses that are on their knees right now, and the millions of people who are still excluded from support altogether.

The UK budget delivers £1.2 billion of normal consequentials, much of which is driven by the restart grants. There is also doubling of the resource borrowing limit to £600 million for the next three years. That will be helpful in my discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance later today.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat economic plan focuses on skills and long-term career advice, new graduate placements with small businesses, new retraining grants for people who need them and enabling more employee and community ownership of businesses.

During the pandemic, serious costs are being borne by all in society, but they are being borne especially by young people. Our 24-point plan includes a myriad of measures that will stand by those people. We support a national accredited internship programme for graduates, which would include short-term bite-sized placements with Scotland’s small and medium-sized enterprises.

We want to provide funding for a training bond, coupled to careers advice, that can be used to support people of all ages to pay for further skills development throughout their careers. It is important that support continues throughout a career, rather than there being shorter-term interventions, as is often the case.

We would expand the apprenticeship programme with colleges, universities and businesses to enable more young people to access places. It would target sectors including low carbon, care, education and artificial intelligence.

Reform of business rates is also required. We want to take the burden off high street retailers and allow them to compete with online rivals. We will encourage enterprise agencies to recognise the value, beyond traditional economic measures, of more diverse sectors, such as care and education.

We advance those measures and more in our 24-point plan. After years of division over referendums and the shock of the pandemic, the economic position in Scotland is fragile. Businesses need greater certainty to face the future, and workers need reassurances that they will not be allowed to fall through the cracks.

Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, the Scottish Government was not doing enough to ensure that everyone could get ahead in life. Scottish Liberal Democrats have long argued that the Government should be using its procurement powers to ensure fair wages and conditions throughout the supply chain.

We have also been critical of the Government’s willingness to pay out millions in economic support to firms such as Amazon, while letting down small home-grown businesses here. Under our proposals, our high streets would be able to compete on a level playing field with online rivals.

If Scotland is to recover from the pandemic, we need to ensure that everyone has a chance to thrive. That means getting talented graduates into small businesses, ensuring that education and retraining are available for life and using the power of the Scottish Government to boost small business.

We must put recovery first.

16:25  

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

I have a number of observations to make. At the outset, I make the perhaps obvious point that we are not yet out of the woods as far as the coronavirus pandemic is concerned. Although there are some green shoots of hope, there are still many obstacles to be overcome, so a cautious approach to easing restrictions is still to be encouraged with a view to ensuring that any further steps forward are not followed by any further lockdowns in the months ahead. That view is shared by many of my Cowdenbeath constituents who are in contact with me, and I am sure that it is also a view that has been expressed by many people across Scotland to their respective MSPs.

It is self-evident that, in the newly elected Parliament after 6 May, we will still be dealing with the pandemic and will need to deploy our resources accordingly. At the same time, there will be a need to deal with the challenges that the pandemic has presented across all aspects of our society, including our health service, economy, general wellbeing and confidence, and we will need to determine how best such challenges should be met and what structural changes will be required to do so successfully.

The second observation that I make concerns the vital importance of ensuring that no young people are left behind as a result of the pandemic. In that regard, I am of the view that the SNP Scottish Government’s young persons guarantee will play a pivotal role. Since November last year, we have seen the positive impact that that excellent initiative has had, with the creation of around 18,000 job, training and education opportunities for people aged between 18 and 24. As far as job opportunities are concerned, I have stressed the importance on a number of occasions in previous debates and statements of ensuring that, when we talk about job opportunities, we are talking about serious stable employment with job progression built in.

As far as younger people and schoolchildren are concerned, it will be vital to ensure that their education is not subject to any permanent damage as a result of the pandemic, so I welcome the additional funding that has been made available by the SNP Scottish Government to deal with such matters and to continue the important on-going work to close the attainment gap. That is a very real issue for some children in my Cowdenbeath constituency and one that is entirely unacceptable.

My third observation concerns the need for a push to see sustainable jobs being created with fair work principles becoming the norm in every workplace. I am aware that, since March last year, the Scottish Government has committed considerable funding to supporting economic recovery, including a £230 million economic recovery stimulus package to invest in capital projects and many other projects, including green projects. At the same time, all the excellent fair work initiatives that have been rolled out in recent years have made, and are continuing to make, a real difference in the workplace.

However, there are two elephants in the room that limit the progress that we can make. First, the lack of the key economic levers that every independent country takes for granted, including appropriate borrowing powers, and, secondly, the lack of power over employment law, including over wages. On both counts, it remains a mystery to me why the Labour Party in Scotland has consistently opposed those powers coming to this Parliament and instead seems to prefer Tory rule, rather than home rule, over our economy and our employment law, which is to the detriment of workers in Scotland.

I take the opportunity to welcome Anas Sarwar to his new role and to congratulate Monica Lennon on a very impressive result in Labour’s internal contest. However, I remain confused about their position on employment law. It is not clear whether what they are saying today is an agreed party policy. Is Monica Lennon speaking about all employment powers or only about some? I look forward to clarification on that in the winding-up speech.

Labour members continue to set their faces against the Parliament having the economic levers that are necessary to do the job. As I said, those are powers that every normal independent country takes for granted. It is only with independence that we will be able to unlock our potential. Independence will put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands.

The Presiding Officer

Before I call our next speaker, I draw members’ attention to the fact that we have a substantial number of members standing down at the election and a diminishing number of debates between now and the election recess. We can expect to see an increasing number of colleagues taking advantage of opportunities to make what may be their valedictory remarks or to thank people.

I say that to highlight the fact that my fellow Presiding Officers and I will exercise a degree of latitude if members in that situation digress slightly from the motion in hand.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Hear, hear.

The Presiding Officer

We have a few such members here this afternoon, Mr Lyle. The first of those is David Stewart.

16:32  

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I, too, congratulate my friend Anas Sarwar on his recent election as Labour leader. I wish him well for the future. He will be part of Scotland’s recovery. I also welcome and congratulate Monica Lennon on her new role. I have worked closely with her on health and sport and I know the fantastic contribution that she made to that brief. I wish her the best for the future.

I will speak about Scotland’s recovery through a Highlands and Islands lens. As the Presiding Officer hinted, this will be my final speech in Parliament after 14 years of service as a member. Some members will react with relief at that news, but I have a sense of sadness, humility and pride. I feel sadness, because parting is such sweet sorrow. I feel a sense of loss about leaving the best job in Scotland, in which I have represented my home and birthplace in the Highlands and Islands. I feel humility, because I have respect and admiration for the great architects of the Parliament and the personalities who moulded its character.

Donald Dewar was a visionary with a wicked sense of humour and an appetite that seemed to defy nature and indeed gravity. Jim Wallace was one of the great understated players in the foundation of devolution. There was the class of ’99—the original members and excellent officials, who were led at the time by Paul Grice.

There were personalities. Margo MacDonald is greatly missed and widely admired. She was a person who could start a party in an empty room. What can I say about Stewart Stevenson? That he is a veteran of the Boer war or the inventor of the wheel? That he discovered penicillin? Perhaps not, but he had me convinced. Jack McConnell was a man of action and ideas, who really understood rural disadvantage. I put on record his support for the University of the Highlands and Islands. The Scottish Government’s job relocation to rural areas was particularly welcome.

I feel pride in this Parliament and in devolution, which is a process and not an event, as Donald Dewar wisely said. Devolution is just a shade younger than my daughter, Kirsty. What they have in common is that they both grew stronger through conflict, experience and rebellion.

The landscape has changed substantially since my first election victory as a fresh-faced councillor in Nithsdale district in Dumfries in 1984—believe it or not—but one aspect that has not changed is teamwork. I thank my wife, Linda, my son, Andrew, and my daughter, Kirsty, for their unwavering support. I thank all my Labour colleagues, particularly those who are here today, and excellent party members over the years, particularly Peter Peacock and Rhoda Grant for their support and for putting up with my bad jokes. I thank all my office staff: Olivia, Donna, Gemma, Chris, John, Laura and Dell—who are led brilliantly by Andrene Maxwell—as well as researcher Kate Fry in Edinburgh, for being a great team.

Believe it or not, I also thank MSPs of all parties. I might not agree with all of you all the time, but I recognise wise contributions when I hear them. I thank the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body staff, who are ably led by David McGill—security, clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre staff. I recognise the invaluable work of those who, over the years, have cleaned the building and served our food.

Before I conclude, I will touch on Scotland’s recovery, particularly within the Highlands and Islands. Before I joined Parliament in 2007, I worked for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and was privileged to meet hundreds of people in the voluntary sector throughout rural Scotland. The work that they do—some of it paid and some of it unpaid—is the very lifeblood of the Highlands and Islands. It delivers services locally and builds the social capital that contains and sustains real rural communities. That does not happen by accident; it is not an inevitable by-product of economic success. The work that those people do in their communities needs to be recognised, valued and, more importantly, given funding to make it sustainable.

Of course, some will ask what the Labour Party ever did to help recovery in rural areas. I take them back to the 1940s, when Tom Johnston, the Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, nationalised hydro power, thereby giving electricity to poor Highlanders for the first time. I take them back to 1965, when Willie Ross, the Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, created the Highlands and Islands Development Board and turned around a massive population decline in the Highlands and Islands. I take them back to 1999, when Tony Blair created the first national minimum wage. It was my privilege to vote for that legislation as a Highland MP. The votes continued all night, and I left Westminster at 9 am. As I crossed Westminster Bridge, heading for my Waterloo flat, I confess that I was happy, although not in a self-serving, party-political way; I was glad to protect the waiters in Fort William, the bar staff in Galashiels and the security guards in Inverness.

We all know the rural development challenges in the Highlands and Islands and beyond, such as distance, remoteness, low population density, lack of access to services and low gross domestic product. My great personal concern is the loss of young people from remote and island communities. However, there are great opportunities for renewal and recovery. It is better to light one candle than to forever curse the darkness. Let us build on the competitive advantage of the culture and the environment. Yes, the hills and glens are important but so is the character of the people.

Rural development needs the intelligence and individuality of the people; we need to develop life sciences, create green jobs in green ports, build clusters of renewables, stimulate research and development in areas such as spaceports, and link industry with universities such as the University of the Highlands and Islands.

I have a great love of American political and military history and, maybe soon, I will have more time to read all the books that are gathering dust on my bookshelf at home. The other day, I read the valedictory speech of General MacArthur at West Point. He referred to a 1920s American ballad that said:

“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”.

In a few short weeks, my parliamentary political career will come to an end, and the torch will be passed to a younger generation. Perhaps veteran politicians never die, they just fade away—a Highlander who loved his job and tried to do his duty. [Applause.]

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Stewart. On behalf of all your fellow parliamentarians, I thank you for all that you have contributed, including to the corporate body, for which very few people give you as much credit as you deserve.

16:39  

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

What a lovely speech from Dave Stewart—I wish him all the best. I see him as a very good example of the character of the people he represents.

I turn to the motion. The next parliamentary session must focus on rebuilding the economy for all of Scotland after Covid-19, and I am glad to support that fulsomely. However, in our economic recovery from Covid, we must never lose sight of the fact that the pandemic—as much of a global emergency as it is—is dwarfed by the nature of the climate and biodiversity emergencies when it comes to the overall potential threat to human life and our economic prospects in the longer term. If our recovery is too knee-jerk and in the interests of short-term fixes, we might inadvertently regress from our progress in driving down emissions and, as a result, create worse outcomes for people’s futures. We should never lose sight of that.

Carbon emissions pose a longer-term threat to human and animal life. If we fail to address those emissions, we will miss the opportunity to lead internationally in low-carbon technologies and the creation of sustainable jobs for future generations that are not hung on the sometimes shoogly peg of geopolitics or fluctuating oil prices. Front-loading investment in emerging innovations and technologies is essential. Ideally, we would do that by borrowing the substantial funds that that ambition deserves—an action that is completely in line with my party’s constitutional ambitions.

The next part of the motion talks about

“the structural inequalities that the pandemic has exposed in society”.

It is a fact that women have been disproportionately shouldering the caring and schooling burden and are more likely to have lost their income. Last month, I led a members’ business debate on that issue, with a fuller investigation into it.

The motion says that

“the green economic recovery must be people-centred”.

In my area, and particularly in the north-east, a just transition with a focus on human rights, including the right to continued and fair work, is central to my hopes for a green recovery. Our plans for a low-carbon future must take rurality, poverty, disability, age and current sectoral economic dependence into account. Young people deserve a sustainable future, but older workers must never be put on a scrap heap as we transition.

The motion mentions

“opportunities that have been continually missed”.

I was interested to hear what opportunities that are currently open to the Scottish Government Labour members think have been missed. On procurement, which I think I heard mentioned, I agree. However, as Sandra White said, our view is that employment law should be in our hands so that we can address exploitative work and, I would add, some stubborn causes of the gender pay gap.

My problem is that addressing those inequalities in the workplace has not been a priority of any Tory Government—the Governments that have been in charge of such things. We have had Tory Governments in place for nearly 70 per cent of my lifetime—members can do the maths. They care little for workers’ rights and look set to roll back existing ones as a result of European Union exit, so forgive me if I do not hold out any hope that Maurice Golden’s election pitch today will change that.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work that my party colleagues Sandra White and Richard Lyle have done on workers’ rights over the years. They are speaking in the chamber for the last time today, and I thank them both for standing up for Scotland in absolutely everything that they have done.

I agree with the motion’s call

“for urgent action to make Scotland a Fair Work Nation”.

We should all be keen to explore what more can be done to make Government agency support dependent on evidence of fair work practices, and I agree that public procurement should follow the same principles, but everything that affects workers’ rights should be our decision. Members here should scrutinise such decisions and legislate for them in this Parliament.

I want a gender pay gap reporting duty that covers all companies with more than 100 employees and that compels those with a sizeable gap to put together an urgent action plan to address it; I want an end to a legal difference in minimum hourly pay for young people who do the same work as older people; I want meaningful mechanisms to address racial and gender segregation in sectors; and I want a social security system that addresses poverty rather than drives people into it.

The motion mentions

“further support for businesses and sectors hit hardest”.

That is fundamental, but, as I said, I want us to be in charge of how we finance that. I note that some union flag-embossed love bombing is proposed. Those behind that proposal need to recognise that they are fooling no one with such pathetic, ill-thought-through and patronising plans. They are pathetic because they are token and cynical gestures that have no engagement with Scots other than the Scottish Tory yes-men MPs. They are cynical and patronising because they are for headline generation only and assume that Scottish citizens are naive enough to be convinced by them. They are ill-thought-out because they refuse to recognise that Scotland’s Parliament, public agencies, citizens and sectors are the best people to decide where money is spent—not a Prime Minister in London who cannot even bring himself to speak to ordinary people in Scottish streets when he comes here for his annual visit to some highly managed press junket at a military base or a Tory-supporting business.

A Scotland that can fully recover, with the climate, our prosperity and fair work at its heart is a Scotland that is in full control of all its decisions.

16:45  

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I wish outgoing members who are delivering their last speeches all the very best. I also thank the Labour Party for giving us the opportunity to debate the Covid recovery. The motion in Monica Lennon’s name seeks to address key points that the Scottish Government should adopt.

The Scottish Fiscal Commission forecasts that Scotland’s economy will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 at the earliest. Societal inequalities exposed by the pandemic have been exacerbated, and we must ensure that the next Government that is elected to Scotland addresses them with a strong recovery and support plan.

Scotland’s other Government has delivered billions to the Scottish budget to support the most vulnerable, as well as an extension to furlough until the end of September. In her new role, Monica Lennon will no doubt welcome two further grants for the self-employed. I am grateful to the chancellor for responding to Scottish Conservative calls for an extension to the £20 uplift to universal credit for another six months so that the most vulnerable in our society receive support.

I want to highlight three groups of people who are negatively impacted by the pandemic: women, young people and people with disabilities.

We must prioritise the disability employment gap as part of the recovery. The latest annual statistics show that, in Scotland, the difference in employment rates stands at a staggering 35.5 per cent, with 81.1 per cent of non-disabled people employed compared with 45.6 per cent of disabled people. That will have changed during the past 12 months, given the pandemic. People living with disabilities have been adversely affected by Covid. A United Kingdom survey of 6,000 people by Citizens Advice found that disabled people were at twice the risk of redundancy as non-disabled employees, with one in four disabled people surveyed facing redundancy. Inclusion Scotland’s chief executive officer, Sally Wither, highlighted that and said:

“The Covid-19 crisis and responses to it highlighted this, aggravating existing inequalities and generating new ones, and putting the human rights of disabled people at further risk.”

That leads me on to the fair start Scotland scheme. The SNP was lagging behind in helping people who were already unemployed before the pandemic. The scheme has been slow off the mark to help people who are in greatest need of employment, including those with health conditions, single parents and those with caring responsibilities or who have additional needs or disabilities.

The £96 million flagship SNP scheme has failed nine out of 10 people. Statistics show that only one fifth of people managed to stay in the job for 13 weeks, while 40 per cent of those referred did not even start on the programme.

For many young people, it has been difficult leaving school or higher education to go into a world where jobs are few and far between. In fact, the number of young people claiming unemployment-related benefits across the UK increased by 122 per cent between March and July last year.

Thanks to UK Government intervention schemes that are available to young people, such as the kick-start scheme, we can see some green shoots. Furthermore, the Scottish Conservatives highlighted the need for a laser-like focus on ensuring that young people reach positive destinations, with apprenticeships and an education guarantee to age 19. With those measures and a fair start scheme and a young person’s guarantee that actually delivered, there could be far more opportunities for young people.

The Covid pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women, from employment to financial security. As was mentioned in Gillian Martin’s recent members’ business debate, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that women are a third more likely to be employed in sectors that were shut down in the first national lockdown and women are at higher risk of job losses. Of course, job losses also have an impact on children. To our shame, almost a quarter of children in Scotland live in poverty. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Scottish Government will miss its child poverty targets.

I welcome Monica Lennon’s comments on the impact on women, but, under the Labour UK Government—we have to be honest here—there was a 25 per cent increase in unemployment among women. It took the Conservative Government to reduce the UK’s gender pay gap from 27.5 per cent to 17.3 per cent in 2019. It was not a Labour Government that did that.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we must see strong economic growth and more opportunities for young women to start apprenticeships or retrain for the jobs of the future in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Scottish Conservatives want to see job security councils set up to work with employers to develop recovery strategies for jobs.

Presiding Officer, I am sure that I have run out of time. I urge members to support the Conservative amendment tonight so that we can ensure that we can work for a recovery together.

15:31  

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I do not know whether that was Rachael Hamilton’s final speech, but I wish her well in her future career, whatever that might be.

There is certainly a lot that I would agree with in the motion. We face a lot of challenges as we move forward out of Covid, but I also think that we can do so with hope and optimism. One of the themes in the motion is clearly low wages, fair work, poorer work outcomes, and precarious and low paid work, and I would like to focus on that area to start with.

There are a number of ways in which we need to tackle those things, and I might as well start with the statutory minimum wage. I believe that that is a key—if not the key—driver in all of this. Ultimately, only when all employers are forced to pay a wage that all their staff can live on will we really make progress. Many employers are decent and want to pay a decent wage, but there will always be some that do not, so a legal requirement is needed.

As we know, the statutory minimum wage is set at Westminster. Ideally, it would raise the wage by a considerable amount, but one option is for the power to do that to be devolved, and I hope that Labour would support that. Of course, some in the business community would complain that they were having to compete with a lower-wage economy in England, but surely that would be better than being dragged down by the system south of the border.

We already know that we do not want to—and, in fact, cannot—compete with low-wage economies around the world. Scotland should be focusing on high-value products, be they in food and drink, engineering or tourism, such that customers pay a higher price and staff get proper pay.

It is true that, even without statutory powers in the area, we can influence pay levels in Scotland to some extent. We are yet to see whether we have more flexibility now that we are out of the EU. However, I note as an example that, when local authorities and the public sector in general procure goods and services, it must be done on the basis not of lowest cost, but of best value. Most of us know that, often, buying the cheapest food or the cheapest car does not represent a saving in the long run.

We also need to accept that there may be a political price to pay for that approach and that it may not always be popular. For example, if we have £1 million to spend on new housing, should we go for 10 homes at £100,000, with some of the workers being paid badly and treated poorly, or should we go for nine homes at £110,000 with all the workers being paid and treated well? We need to be honest about those trade-offs and balances. In the long run, the economy and all of us will benefit from higher wages and fairer conditions, but in the short run we may need to choose between more housing and better-paid workers.

There is also a place for the individual consumer in all of this. Of course, someone who is on a low wage and is struggling with finances is going to have to buy the cheapest food and clothes. That point was made at yesterday’s time for reflection by Mia Fallon and Nathaniel Sweeney from St Aidan’s high school in Wishaw, who had sought to live on £2 a day for food. However, if people’s pay increases, more people can start to have a choice. Many of us already have a choice, and we should be thinking about the choices that we make.

We have seen that with the success of the fair trade movement—I note that it is fair trade fortnight. Do we buy Fairtrade coffee and wine, to mention but two products that I like? They might be a bit more expensive because they are fairly traded, but we know that the terms and conditions of the workers will be fairer.

As a slight aside, I understand that the UK consumes something like £4 billion-worth of chocolate per annum and that 60 per cent of the cocoa used for it comes from West Africa, where some of the workers earn only 74p a day. I got my researcher to check that, and it is 74p a day. Even £2 per day would allow them to afford enough food, children’s education and healthcare. I therefore hope that the recovery will not stop at Scotland’s shores but that we will all learn to think about it more globally. My point is that some people are prepared to pay a bit more and that it is even better when an organisation or a town does that. The Parliament, for example, uses only Fairtrade coffee nowadays, which is certainly a step in the right direction.

Our responsibilities to choose should not stop with fair trade. Closer to home, do we deliberately buy Scottish meat, potatoes and beer whenever we can? Yes, it might be a bit more expensive, but we know that it is creating jobs in this country and boosting our economy. Further, what about holidays, if and when they are allowed again? Will we all spend at least one break each year in Scotland, again creating jobs and boosting the economy? My point here is that we all have a bit of responsibility in this recovery: Westminster does, Holyrood does and individuals do as well.

As I said at the beginning, we clearly face challenges, but we can have hope as we move forward. The Scottish National Investment Bank is just finding its feet, but we need to keep it focused on equality and fairness, making sure that businesses led by women or disabled people get their fair share of investment. It was broadly accepted that Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise had not always concentrated enough on those equality aspects of investments in past years. We therefore need to be sure, going forward, that limited public money is used to the best effect. Inclusion Scotland made the point in its briefing for today’s debate that Covid has had a disproportionate effect on disabled people, so that needs to be different going forward.

Training and skills will be important, too. School pupils and college and university students have all missed out on parts of their courses. Again, we need to focus on upskilling and lifelong learning in the years ahead. As the Open University points out in its briefing, 75 per cent of OU students are working full time or part time, so there are good models there and I hope that we can do things better. Yes, there are challenges ahead and, yes, it will not all be plain sailing, but I believe that we can be positive and that Scotland can achieve a great deal.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Lewis Macdonald, to be followed by Sandra White. I understand, Mr Macdonald, that this is your last speech, too.

16:57  

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Indeed it is, Presiding Officer, and I thank you very much for the invitation to speak this afternoon.

I, too, congratulate my colleagues Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon on taking up their new roles this week, and I congratulate David Stewart on his valedictory speech today. I am one of the class of ’99 to whom Mr Stewart referred and one of those fortunate enough to have worked with Donald Dewar both before and after the creation of the Scottish Parliament. As you have said, Presiding Officer, I am also one of those not seeking re-election this year. Like others, I look back on my 22 years in this Parliament with both humility and pride, with a sense of achievement and with a recognition of the privilege that it has been to serve in the birth and growth of a modern democratic Parliament in this fantastic country. I look back with a recognition, too, of the challenge facing our successors in steering the recovery in the years ahead.

Recovery, as we have heard, is about getting the economy up and running again, and doing it in a way that is fairer and fitter for the future than it has been in the past. Recovery in 2021 is also about health for those who have been ill and are fighting to get back to full physical fitness, as well as for those whose mental health and wellbeing have been affected by social isolation or bereavement, the loss of a job or fear for the future. The Covid pandemic has shown more starkly than anything in living memory just how the health of the individual and the health of the community are intimately linked, and that is how we should view recovery, too.

What is good for each of us is good for us all. Protecting the most vulnerable individual in our family or neighbourhood has been a driver for collective action and sacrifice over the past 12 months, and we will achieve a full recovery only if we take the same approach. To deal with a global pandemic, we have needed to understand how the virus works, to find out who is most at risk, to test and trace those who are infected and to vaccinate whole populations to keep everybody safe. Government action has been required at every level, from global to local, and co-operation has been key.

To restart the economy after Covid, we will need to take the same approach. We will need to understand the challenge, identify those most at risk, monitor impacts and take actions to avert disaster for individuals and whole communities. Just as we have needed Government action at every level and international co-operation to fight Covid, we will need the same to meet the economic challenges ahead.

There can be no recovery in one country, and there can be no recovery without harnessing the collective efforts of all concerned. When the worst of the pandemic has passed, people will not expect Governments to go back to business as usual or to repeat the mistakes of the recent past; people will expect Governments to prepare for the next pandemic, even if the current pandemic is under control. They will expect ministers, for example, to revisit exercise Iris, which tried to predict what it would take to tackle a severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, to see what more we need to do.

So, too, with economic recovery. There have been plenty of warning signs over the past 10 years that all has not been well with our economic health. The gig economy, bogus self-employment, zero-hours contracts, a disadvantaged younger generation, and racial and gender inequality in jobs were all issues long before the coronavirus crisis hit home a year ago. All of them have been exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic. The people who were most vulnerable before have been the people most at risk of losing their jobs or of being exploited by unscrupulous employers, as we have heard only this week. They are the most at risk of long-term loss of income or job security, along with the younger generation entering the jobs market now or in the next few years.

The focus of Government at every level cannot simply be on restarting economic growth on the basis that, somehow, prosperity for some will trickle down to create precarious employment for others. There must also be a focus on ensuring that activity is even across the economy and across all income groups and generations, so that those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic are not left behind by the recovery.

Government support for a just transition in energy production and consumption will be vital for the North East Scotland region, which I have been privileged to represent, and for the country as a whole. There must be no switching off jobs and livelihoods in oil and gas in the way that there was in coal and steel a generation ago. The last thing that we need is another generation of energy workers thrown on the scrap heap because of decisions over which they have no control. However, transition there must be—and that must mean investment in new technologies of energy production, carbon capture and storage, and the conversion of energy-intensive industries, heat and transport to be part of a net zero carbon future. It means investing in better railways, not in more new roads.

Today’s debate has been about the focus of policy over the next session of the Scottish Parliament, which is what the next election will be all about. However, in closing, I must offer a slightly longer-term perspective.

It is over 40 years since I first campaigned for Scottish devolution and for a Labour Government. My children are much the same age now as I was then, and the issues that we are debating today will decide the kind of country and the kind of world in which they will live and work over the next 40 years. I am grateful to all those whose support has allowed me to take part in the debates and decisions of the Parliament since 1999: my party, my colleagues, my staff past and present, my family—above all, my wife Sandra and our daughters Sophie and Iona—and, of course, the voters of Aberdeen and the north-east.

Looking to the debates and decisions that lie ahead, I can say in all sincerity that I am greatly enthused by the talents and energy of the next generation. I wish all those who will take responsibility for those decisions the very best of luck. [Applause.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

As a 99er myself, I am going to miss you. That is supposing that I get re-elected, of course. However, we are continuing as Deputy Presiding Officers, and we have a lot of fun offstage. We will not tell members about that—sorry.

Members: Oh!

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No—not together. That came out all wrong, as usual. I will be writing to Mrs Macdonald to explain that, Lewis. I wish that I had not said that.

I call Sandra White. Is this your last speech, Ms White, or have you not been told? I need to know.

17:04  

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

It is my last speech. As far as I know, I do not have any other speeches.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You can have another go later. Just say that this is your penultimate speech, if you like.

Sandra White

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I pay tribute to everyone who has spoken in the debate—such as my colleagues David Stewart and Lewis Macdonald—and everyone who will speak after me. The speeches have been absolutely fantastic. As someone who has been here since 1999, and who was previously a councillor for 10 years in that lovely place that George Adam talks about, Paisley, I thought that it was about time that I gave over to younger people who can take up the cudgels for me.

I congratulate Anas Sarwar on his new position, and Monica Lennon also. When we came into the Parliament in 1999, we were all new starts and did not know what to expect or what would happen. There was a camaraderie then, simply because we had to rely on one another. I will leave it at that and not mention what is happening now or whether the same camaraderie is still there. However, we do get on with others.

David Stewart mentioned Margo MacDonald. Obviously, I remember Margo MacDonald, too, in the bar at Holyrood, although in 1999 we did not have a bar—it was more Deacon Brodie’s and places like that up at the top of the High Street, where there was an entirely different atmosphere. Maybe what gave us the camaraderie was that we went outside and met the public. I remember the talents of David McLetchie and Annabel Goldie, who are no longer here, although Annabel Goldie, while not in Parliament, is still in Bishopton. I remember Alison McInnes, who was a thoroughly decent lady from the Lib Dems, and Mary Scanlon, too. There were lots of people there—Elaine Smith is still here—and although we all had different aspirations, we all wanted to grow the Parliament for the people who had elected us.

I will turn to the motion in a couple of minutes, but before I do, I want to thank everyone—comrades who are here and those who are no longer with us, for example Kay Ullrich. I thank the committee clerks and the people who work in the Parliament, from the security staff to the cleaners and catering staff, who have made it a joy to come in every morning. They have been fantastic—they have really welcomed us and worked so hard to bring us the people’s Parliament.

I congratulate Monica Lennon on the motion. There is nothing in it that I could argue about, although I will no doubt argue about something. The motion talks about transforming

“the exploitative, low-wage economy”

and mentions

“disabled workers, ethnic minorities, women and young workers”.

It asks for the incorporation of “community wealth building opportunities” and talks about

“wellbeing and prosperity for individuals, businesses and communities across the whole of Scotland.”

Those might have been the things that brought me into politics all those years ago. I have always believed in giving people opportunities, particularly the most vulnerable people. It will come as no surprise that, from an early age—my teens, in fact—I believed that the only way that we could do that was through independence and full powers for Scotland. I have always believed that and will continue to believe it. Speaking to members of the public in my constituency, Glasgow Kelvin, or outwith it, I think that it is coming, for a’ that, to use the phrase. It is certainly not long off. That is why, when I came into this Parliament, I had to push for that. Obviously, it is why I joined the SNP.

That is also why I welcome being able to contribute to the debate. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that, for the people who we represent, we do it to the best of our ability. I have a very mixed constituency in Glasgow Kelvin. As members know, there is a pretty well-off area, while other areas are pretty vulnerable. We have to make sure that we represent everyone, and it is my great belief that the only way that we can raise the levels of wellbeing and prosperity of those people as individuals and of the country is by gaining independence and having the same full fiscal powers as any other country. I believe that that is coming.

For many years, we, in the Parliament, have been working with one hand tied behind our back. Westminster withholds investment and blocks devolution and fiscal powers. I know that Anas Sarwar and I do not agree about what is normality, but for the life of me, I cannot see how it can be normal for a country of just under 6 million people to have to wait for a country of more than 60 million people to tell it what it can do. That is not normal, and we need those powers.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance has repeatedly asked for those levers. In fact, a paper that was produced last year on the UK’s fiscal path set out 10 priorities that the Scottish Government believes the UK Government should follow to bring us out of austerity. It is a sensible route, and some of it has been followed. I think that it was mentioned earlier today in the budget. However, not all of it was followed. We are not even being listened to. How can we be treated as a grown-up country when we are not being listened to?

The pandemic has laid bare massive problems, but we are still working under the limitations of the fiscal framework that we have just spoken about. The additional funding from the UK Government has been welcome but I say this all the time, as do others, and I say it to Mr Golden and the other Tories: it is not a gift from Westminster. It is our money. It is our taxes. It is also about time that that got through.

We have been dragged out of the European Union, which is another example of something that Scotland did not vote for when England did. How can that be normal? What really frightens me—Lewis Macdonald talked about this, too—is how being pulled out of the EU affects younger people. I certainly wanted to remain, for my granddaughter and everyone else. We have been pulled out of the EU and are being driven by a right-wing-thinking Tory cabal, and Tory ego, who line the pockets of their donors by—this has been proven—unlawfully awarding contracts to their acquaintances. I do not want to be part of a country that has a Government that does that.

When we talk about the economy and so on, the Tories are unfortunately pushing austerity. I hate to say it, even though it is true, but the Labour Party leader in Westminster is also pushing austerity.

I will not stand here and say that we cannot have independence. The people of Scotland and the people of England will never achieve what Monica Lennon describes in her motion—I appreciate it and believe everything that it says—as long as there is a Tory Government doon there. Scotland will have to wait and carry on being tied to the strings of the Westminster Government. That cannot be right.

Thank you, Presiding Officer, for giving me extra time. I look forward to coming here again and perhaps we can get a wee drink at the bar with our friends.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

If that is an invitation and you are paying for us all, we will accept.

17:13  

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

First, I add my welcome to Monica Lennon as the new economy spokesperson for Labour and, before he leaves the chamber, I congratulate Anas Sarwar on being elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party. I also congratulate those who have made what could be their final speeches—David Stewart, Lewis Macdonald and Sandra White. I wish them all the very best for the future.

In his opening remarks, Maurice Golden was absolutely right to highlight the importance of the policy response across the UK to rebuild Scotland’s economy. Today, I want to cover three different policy responses: the unprecedented policy response from the British Government; what we have seen from the SNP; and how things could and should be done differently here, in Scotland.

First, when it comes to the policy response from the British Government, there is no doubt that the historic measures that we have seen from the Chancellor of the Exchequer over the past year will lay the foundations for Scotland’s recovery. More than 1 million jobs in Scotland and more than 1 million livelihoods have been saved, 100,000 local firms have been saved and an extra £13.3 billion of funding has been delivered to Scotland.

I will not go into the detail of what the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures show, as Sandra White discussed that in some detail, but they show that Scotland benefits from fiscal transfer from the rest of the UK that is worth at least £2,000 per person in Scotland. That is according to the numbers that are produced by the Scottish Government.

Sandra White

When we talk about GERS, fiscal autonomy and so on, the GERS figures are based on belonging to the UK. They do not take into account Scotland being independent and what we could do then. That seems to go under the radar, but it should be at the top. GERS is not a true statement of what Scotland’s fiscal costs are.

Dean Lockhart

I have to disagree. The GERS numbers, prepared by the Scottish Government, show exactly the revenue from Scotland and spending in Scotland in terms of both Scottish and UK Government spending, and they show a significant fiscal transfer from the rest of the UK to Scotland. Those are not my numbers; they are produced by the Scottish Government, but that is a debate for another day.

Earlier today, further measures were announced by the chancellor to help to rebuild Scotland’s recovery, covering many of the matters raised by the Labour motion: the extension of the furlough scheme through to September, saving millions of jobs and livelihoods; extending the universal credit uplift and working tax credits; increasing the national living wage; and delivering a massive increase in green investment in Scotland. Therefore, while Labour talks the talk on rebuilding Scotland after the pandemic, Rishi Sunak walks the walk again and has delivered big time for Scotland.

It is important to recognise that we are now in a position to talk about emerging from the pandemic only as a result of the world’s most successful vaccination programme, funded, researched and developed by the British Government and, as Maurice Golden said, successfully rolled out by the incredible work of the NHS and the British armed forces here in Scotland. It also has to be said that the vaccination programme was developed in the face of opposition from every other party in the chamber, who wanted and demanded that we join the EU vaccination programme. That decision would have delivered vaccines to only 8 per cent of Scotland’s population, not the 32 per cent that we have vaccinated under the UK-wide programme. The British Government deserves a huge amount of recognition for delivering that real and fundamental road map to recovery.

I turn to contributions from the SNP benches. I genuinely think that they reflect a lack of coherent policy response to rebuilding Scotland’s economy. We have just heard about a proliferation of confusing and difficult-to-access funds that were set up to distribute money from the chancellor. That funding is not getting out to the firms and people in need. The digital boost fund closed within five hours of opening, leaving hundreds of firms without any assistance. The Scottish National Investment Bank, which was mentioned by some SNP members as the great hope of the Administration, was allocated a budget of £250 million this year, but to date only £23 million has been invested at the height of an economic crisis. Less than 5 per cent of the budget of the SNIB has gone out to the people in need.

What about Benny Higgins’s report into Scotland’s recovery, which was debated in the chamber last June but has disappeared without trace? At the time, the Fraser of Allander institute warned:

“Without a focus on practical next steps, the risk is that this report is consigned to the shelf”,

which is exactly what has happened.

As Rachael Hamilton pointed out, when it comes to plans for moving out of lockdown, the First Minister’s exit plan has been extremely disappointing. There is no hope, no ambition and no certainty for the thousands of businesses across Scotland that are on their last legs, about to collapse—no detailed road map about when they can open up.

In his opening remarks, the minister referred to the creation of a wellbeing economy. However, as I explained earlier, Scotland has declined from 16th place to 21st place in international wellbeing rankings. I make the point to the minister that, in comparison with levels in other countries, in Scotland there have been relative declines in education, health and education, all of which are areas in which the SNP has had powers for 14 years. [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No—the member is in his last minute. I was being generous only to the members who are making their final speeches. As far as I know, this is not Mr Lockhart’s final speech. [Laughter.]

Dean Lockhart

As far as you know, Presiding Officer.

I turn to the motion that is before us. I will make this brief. It was remarkable to see the SNP’s response to the Labour motion, which agrees that, after 14 years of SNP Government, Scotland has become a “low-wage economy”. Its amendment seems to indicate that control over employment law is the only solution that would address that, when the solution—the drivers to deliver highly paid, secure jobs—have always been within the control of the SNP. I refer to control over education and skills, training and apprenticeships, economic development, college and university funding, all of which have been cut, and over the creation of jobs in the high-tech digital and renewable sectors, all of which we have not seen.

We need a Government that is fully focused on building back from the pandemic—not one that is obsessed with holding an illegal referendum.

I will support the amendment in the name of Maurice Golden.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Richard Lyle, who will be the final speaker in the open debate. This will also be Mr Lyle’s final speech.

Members: Aw!

17:21  

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I, for one, will miss you. This will be the final time that I will give a speech in the Parliament.

The past year has been horrendous for many of our citizens. It has had an impact on all sections of our society: people have lost their jobs, livelihoods and businesses, which have had to cope with various lockdowns. I have had many e-mails from constituents who face various issues, including concerns about working conditions during the Covid crisis.

Some aspects of the Labour Party’s motion are laudable, but to my mind the Scottish Parliament does not have control over some of its asks—particularly those in the area of employment law. I agree that we must be bold in building back our economy. I am sure that the Scottish Government will build a stronger economy for all our citizens, many of whom have experienced poor outcomes.

Some businesses have not been able to make a single penny since last March. For one full year they have been closed and unable to operate. One such business comes to mind—of course, I speak of showpeople. For the record, I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. Showpeople—showmen and showwomen—do not want handouts; they want to work, but due to Covid they cannot. They are self-employed, so there is no furlough for them. The situation has been hard, and I thank the Government for opening a funding stream for showpeople. When I see what they have lost in a full year’s earnings, it breaks my heart. I know that many others in our society, including wedding planners and photographers, have faced the same.

I want councils to relax licence conditions for showpeople to ensure that we can at least have funfairs operating as soon as possible. If we go back to the same old ways, we will have learned nothing. Unfortunately, due to the Covid crisis, my member’s bill, which seeks to reform licence conditions, will not be passed during this parliamentary session. Councils agree that the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 needs to be reformed. I encourage the SNP and other parties to include that in their manifestos.

We need to be bold in our deeds. When the rules on the pandemic can be relaxed, we need to protect and create jobs. We should not take no for an answer.

Like many members, I want Scotland to succeed and I want the best for our people. I joined my political party in 1966, when I was 16. I was interested in what I could do for my area. I will be 71 this year.

I was 24 when I stood in my first election, in which I was beaten by the Labour candidate. That day, a Labour supporter said to me, “Don’t worry, son. We can weigh the Labour vote here in Lanarkshire,” and so they could. It was the hardest fiefdom to win, but we won it—and Labour cannot say that now.

In a by-election caused by the death of a councillor, I became the first SNP councillor in Bellshill. I won that seat in 1976 and again in every election from then until I left the council in 2007. I served 36 years as a councillor. I am informed that if we combine my time on the council with my time in the Parliament, I am the longest-serving SNP politician, with 45 years of political service. [Applause.] Thank you.

For those 36 years, I was the SNP group leader in the Motherwell district of North Lanarkshire Council. I was also the SNP group leader on the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities from 2007 to 2009, during the first years of the historic concordat, which was introduced by John Swinney and the new SNP Government. I was very pleased to play my part in helping the Government to progress that concordat—even to the extent of being among the first to beat the Labour delegates in a COSLA vote. The man who helped me to beat them, Kevin Stewart, is sitting here. Thank you, Kevin.

I was called “Kenwood the Mixer”, as I stirred up things in the council. We have to stir our economy to get it going. We need to ensure that our mix is correct for all our economy.

A Labour member called me “Demolition Dick”, as I was the first to suggest demolition at my council to resolve severe dampness in three-storey flats. Those flats were demolished, and new houses were built on the site. I encourage ministers such as Kevin Stewart to be bold in seeing new projects take root.

Over the years, I have helped many people to get a house. You know you are getting old when a constituent says, “Mr Lyle, you got my mother a house when she got married. Can you get me one, please?”

I have enjoyed my time as a member of this Parliament. Where has 10 years gone? I never intended to be here, but Alex Neil encouraged me to stand in Uddingston and Bellshill, and I thank him for that. It has been a tremendous experience. I have met a lot of interesting people at Parliament events, and I have had the opportunity to visit places around Scotland with committees. My work on various Parliament committees over the years has been rewarding.

I thank the Parliament staff for all their help. They have been amazing—the best staff ever.

Some would say that I have enjoyed being the shouter during votes in the chamber. One member texted me some weeks ago, saying, “Richard, I’m so glad I hear you shouting what way to vote—because I’ve just voted the wrong way in the last vote.” Hopefully a new shouter will be found in the next session.

I have made a lot of friends, both in my party and in Opposition parties. I enjoy winding up Maurice Golden—although he is looking at his computer now. I thank each and every one of my friends for their friendship, and I wish them all well, especially my good friends over on the Labour benches. I thank members for their kind comments—that goes, I am sure, for all retiring members.

We have to rebuild our nation, and we have to make things better. That is why I became a politician. I believe in independence—there: I have just said it. I want my country to take its place in the world. Let us build a better Scotland in the years to come: a Scotland that caters for all.

I wish the best to you all in the coming weeks and years.

I will finish by thanking my staff, who have supported me over the years. I thank my wife, Marion, my son, Vincent, and my daughter, Marina, for supporting me in my political life. I could not have done it without them. I look forward to seeing more of my family, particularly my grandchildren, Ruaridh, Iona, Nathan and Hannah—who is one today. Happy birthday, Hannah. You will see grandpa soon. [Applause.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much, Mr Lyle. That was a characteristic speech.

I call Annie Wells to close the debate for the Conservatives.

17:28  

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

I, too, send my best wishes to David Stewart, Sandra White, Richard Lyle and Lewis Macdonald. I wish them well for the future—and happy birthday, Hannah, too!

As has been said by others, the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been the greatest upheaval that our society has experienced since world war two. On Monday, we commemorated the one-year anniversary of the first Covid-19 positive test in Scotland. This time last year, we looked on at the situation in other countries with concern from afar at how quickly the virus was spreading. Nevertheless, we went about our daily lives as normal. Our schools were bustling with activity and learning, with students heading into exam season; public transport was teeming with commuters in our biggest cities; and our pubs, bars and nightclubs were in full swing.

None of us could have predicted the impact that the crisis would end up having on all our lives. The Scotland of today looks barely recognisable compared with the one that we left behind at the beginning of last year. However, as we come together as one to face the collective endeavour, there are signs that we are nearing the end of the crisis. Thanks to the dedication of our treasured NHS staff, the UK’s outstanding vaccine roll-out programme and the efforts of the public, we are the most confident that we have been in months that the sun will soon shine on us once again.

Although we hope that the immediate threat of Covid-19 will soon pass, it is certain that we will be dealing with the aftermath of the crisis for years to come. We must act decisively to place Scotland firmly on the road to recovery, building on the incredible support—to the tune of £20 billion—that the UK Government has given to protect Scottish jobs and businesses against Covid.

The Scottish Conservatives have outlined several ambitious proposals for rebuilding Scotland, which will be firmly rooted in doing what is best for Scotland’s communities and empowering them to play a leading role in Scotland’s recovery.

The starting point on the road to recovery could be an overhaul of the existing business support grants system. We have repeatedly urged the Government to take full advantage of the support that it has received from the UK Treasury to save as many jobs and businesses as it can, but constituents on the ground in Glasgow tell me that the grant application process is cumbersome. Currently, there are 44 separate support funds.

We want to simplify the system by creating a single fund that will provide support to all affected businesses, solely on the basis of need. A revamp of the support scheme would give many businesses, from our high street retailers to our local pubs, the confidence that they desperately seek. Such businesses will be key in driving Scotland’s economic rebuild and the rejuvenation of our communities.

Friends and families have spent months apart. The Scottish Conservatives are calling for massive acceleration of investment in Scotland’s infrastructure, to connect our towns and cities like never before. By creating a joint UK and Scotland investment body that could oversee key projects such as expansion of the M8, we can build thriving population centres and new communities between Glasgow and Edinburgh and Aberdeen and Inverness.

Scotland’s councils must have the resources and the autonomy that they need if they are to support our communities beyond the pandemic. Last week, I was disappointed when the SNP voted against our motion that called for a fair funding deal to Scotland’s councils that guarantees councils a set percentage of the Scottish budget every year. COSLA has made it clear that there is a gaping financial black hole of more than £500 million and the settlement that the Government offered this year does not go far enough.

Moreover, a significant amount of Government funding—£800 million in the forthcoming year alone—is ring fenced. That is money over which councils have little to no control. We will continue to make the case that an unprecedented crisis demands unprecedented support. Scotland’s councils deserve far better financial backing from the Government and the freedom to base funding decisions on their communities’ most urgent priorities.

No one in this Parliament should be in doubt about the scale of the challenge ahead. The Scottish people have been tested so much this year, and we, their elected representatives, owe it to them to make rebuilding Scotland and her communities our sole focus.

That is why I am frustrated by the Government’s rhetoric, which suggests that its priority is to hold another divisive independence referendum, even as our fight with the deadly Covid-19 persists. It is reckless and irresponsible, not only because the uncertainty that the new variants present requires us to keep our guards up but because such rhetoric causes serious damage to our economic recovery and social fabric at a time when we all need to pull together.

As the recently published report of the talk/together project, “Our chance to reconnect”, highlighted, dividing people all over again according to where they stand on the constitution would be a serious setback to the brilliant community spirit that was generated during the pandemic. A responsible Government would realise that and unite us. As a people and a nation, we can maximise our economic recovery.

The monumental challenge of rebuilding our country will require 100 per cent of our attention in the years to come. The Scottish Conservatives are ready and determined to meet the challenge head on.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Jamie Hepburn to close for the Government.

17:34  

Jamie Hepburn

Presiding Officer, may I just check how long I have?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Around six minutes. There is a little elasticity, but not a lot.

Jamie Hepburn

I will try to confine my remarks accordingly.

First, I will rectify an omission that I made at the outset of the debate. In welcoming Monica Lennon to her role, I should also have offered my congratulations to Anas Sarwar on his new role. I have done that now and put it on the record.

I thank the members who have taken part in the debate. As we reach the end of our parliamentary session, a number of colleagues have spoken for the last time, and I thank each for their contribution and their public service.

I thank David Stewart and Lewis Macdonald for all that they have done in their time as parliamentarians and in their various roles. I had not realised until he was speaking that, although he was previously a parliamentarian in another place, David Stewart entered this Parliament at the same time as I did. I know that we talk about the class of ’99, but he is part of the class of 2007, of which I am also part, so that has a particular resonance for me.

I thank my colleagues Sandra White and Richard Lyle not only for their years of public service but, given that I have known both of them for a long time, for their friendship and support. I wish them, David Stewart and Lewis Macdonald all the best for their post-parliamentary lives.

Having said some nice things about some colleagues, I turn to Rachael Hamilton. She mentioned fair start Scotland, our employment programme, which she characterised in a way that, frankly, I do not recognise. According to my engagement with those who have participated in and benefited from the programme, they have valued its person-centred approach. It is unclear to me whether she has looked beyond the end of a freedom of information request that her researcher has made for her or whether she has taken the time to engage with and speak to anyone who has participated in the programme. I would commend such engagement to her and to any other member. Whenever I have engaged with people on the programme, I have heard that they value the approach that we have taken of seeing an employment programme as an opportunity rather than as a way of threatening people with sanctions, as the Tories preferred in their work programme.

I will pick up on something that John Mason said, because it has particular relevance to a nonsense point that Dean Lockhart made. John Mason was quite correct to say that we can influence pay in Scotland. We seek to do that. We work with Living Wage Scotland and fund it to take forward the accreditation scheme for the real living wage. That has driven up the numbers of people who are paid at least the real living wage through our fair work first policy, which is being delivered in the first instance by Scottish Enterprise through the provision of regional selective assistance. More employers are paying at least the real living wage. That is why—and this is where Dean Lockhart’s suggestion that we have a low-wage economy in Scotland is a nonsense—of the four UK countries, Scotland has the highest proportion of its working population being paid at least the real living wage.

I want to go further. I am not suggesting for a moment that that is the sum total of our ambitions. Of course I aspire to improved levels of pay and a better experience of the world of work. We will continue to take the approach of engaging with employers and unions in order to embed fair work not just as the basis of improving people’s experience of the labour market but as the means by which we can aspire to that better-paid labour market.

Dean Lockhart

Will the minister take an intervention?

Jamie Hepburn

How much elasticity do I have, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

If it is a short intervention, you should be fine. You still have another couple of minutes or so.

Jamie Hepburn

Well, okay.

Dean Lockhart

Thank you, Presiding Officer—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That is funny; I did not call you, Mr Lockhart.

I call Dean Lockhart.

Dean Lockhart

I am very keen, as you can tell, Presiding Officer.

I thank the minister for giving way. I am curious as to whether the Scottish Government is going to vote in favour of the Labour motion, which refers to the Scottish economy as a “low-wage economy”. Does that not mean that he recognises that, under the SNP, Scotland has become a low-wage economy? Will he clarify that position?

Jamie Hepburn

That is a useful hook for me to come to the point that I was about to make.

I fundamentally agree with the thrust and direction of Ms Lennon’s motion. I think that we need to do better to ensure that people are remunerated more than they are just now, but I reject the notion that we have a low-wage economy in Scotland.

That brings me on to my amendment. There was some concern about its brevity, which Patrick Harvie mentioned. I will certainly bear that in mind and provide copious amounts of text in my amendments in the future. As I have just said, I fundamentally agree with the direction set out in Ms Lennon’s motion, but the motion needed that short amendment.

Maurice Golden said that people of Scotland need

“this Parliament to focus on them”.

Of course they do, but he was suggesting that the amendment that I have lodged somehow has no relevance to them.

I reject the notion that there has not been a broad response to Covid-19 that is in the interests of the people. The idea that employment law has no relevance to the people of Scotland is a nonsense. Maurice Golden opposes my amendment because he supports a statutory minimum wage that is below the rate of the real living wage. He does not want to fix the broken system of statutory sick pay; he does not want to tackle fire and rehire; he does not want to change the Trade Union Act 2016, which prevents better organised labour; and he does not want those in false self-employment to be provided with proper employment rights. He wants his Tory Party colleagues at Westminster to continue their approach to employment law. It is the retention of power in those Tory hands that leads to the race to the bottom. Having the power in our hands in this Parliament will allow us to rise to the top. That is why I commend my amendment to members, and I hope that they will vote for it at decision time.

17:41  

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

How long do I have, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Around seven minutes. I do not know what has happened to you all today, not knowing how long you have got. I feel like the speaking clock, if anybody remembers that.

Rhoda Grant

Thank you.

I also congratulate Anas Sarwar on his election, and welcome Monica Lennon to her new post.

Before I start my contribution to the debate, I pay tribute to my two colleagues who have made their valedictory speeches in Parliament in this debate. They will both be a big loss to our party and the Parliament.

Lewis Macdonald has served the north-east, raising issues that impact the lives of the people who live there. From fishing to the entirety of the energy industry—which he talked about today—he has been the go-to person in the Parliament and has a wealth of knowledge that I will miss. He has served the Parliament as a committee convener and, latterly, stepped up to assist as a Deputy Presiding Officer during the pandemic.

Likewise, David Stewart has worked to support the Parliament as a committee convener, as well as through his unstinting work on the corporate body, to which the Presiding Officer paid tribute earlier. We have shared staff and offices, and I saw at close hand the work that he did for our constituents, including his support for NHS Highland staff who faced bullying and taking the concerns of a constituent in Brora all the way through to the passage of the Buildings (Recovery of Expenses) (Scotland) Act 2014. He will be long recognised for his work on diabetes and cot death. On a personal note, I will miss having a drink with him after work in the Parliament bar—especially the very rare occasions when he paid. [Laughter.]

I also wish Richard Lyle and Sandra White well. Sandra White and I had the privilege of representing the Parliament at probably the worst Sunday service that we had ever been to in our lives. If either of us writes a book, I am sure that the story will take centre stage—more can be shared at a later date. They all made wonderful valedictory speeches, and I wish them well.

When she opened the debate, Monica Lennon said that, at the start of the pandemic, the slogan “we are all in it together” was coined. Sadly, we saw in sharp relief that we were not all in it together. The deep divisions and structural inequalities in our society—from jobs and work to the very ability to survive the virus—grew, and were stark to see.

Patrick Harvie said that those who could not work from home due to space and connectivity issues suffered badly. People who were on zero-hours contracts had no safety net. Women and disabled people were hardest hit by job losses. The burden of caring for relatives and children fell to women as they tried to work from home themselves. Children from families who could not afford laptops and broadband lost out on education. Overcrowded households saw the virus rip through their homes and those living in flats without gardens could not meet with friends or relatives. The outcomes for those who were obese were poor. As John Mason said, there is a connection: poor diet leads to obesity, and those people suffered the worst outcomes from the virus. Even those with dental problems experienced the divide between those who could afford to go private and those who could not. Those on the front line worked increased hours, putting themselves and their families at risk, but they were not all health workers—they were also bus drivers, supermarket assistants and many of the lowest paid in our society.

Those divides are stark and impact every aspect of life. People living in leafy suburbs made decisions that impacted lives that they have no understanding of. Our motion calls for a change in our society. As we recover from the pandemic, we must build a society that is equal and inclusive.

Monica Lennon talked about fair work and the £11 billion procurement budget that could make such a difference. We should insist on a real living wage. We have the powers to do that now, but those powers are not used while the Scottish Government asks for more powers that, again, it will not use. What on earth is the point of power if it is not used? We must use procurement now to enforce a real living wage.

Lewis Macdonald talked about the most vulnerable before the pandemic being the most vulnerable during the pandemic, and, if we do not do something, they will be the most vulnerable after the pandemic. We must use the powers that we have.

As I said, women have been badly hit by the pandemic. Monica Lennon said that it has put equality for women, especially in employment, back by decades. Women are the most furloughed, they make up the majority of front-line workers and they are ones who have to deal with home education and providing care when people are not able to visit elderly and sick relatives.

The minister talked about an action plan, but what is the point of a plan if there is no action? Action is required if we are to make a difference. He talked about a young persons guarantee, which is simply a rebranding exercise with no new initiatives—even he admitted that it would take two years to reach some of those who really need support, and two years to a young person is a lifetime. That will lead to a lost generation—we need to do something now.

Jamie Hepburn

Will the member take an intervention?

Rhoda Grant

I am in my last minute.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The member is in her last minute.

Rhoda Grant

David Stewart talked about Tom Johnston and Willie Ross and their vision, and we need that vision now. We have an opportunity to do things differently and to build a society in which we all have a stake. There must be a fundamental change in which a person’s life chances and life expectancy do not depend on their postcode, all work is valued and, above all else, the workers we depend on for our wellbeing are treasured. As we come out of this crisis, let us grasp that opportunity and create a country and a world where nobody is left behind.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the debate on Scotland’s recovery. We will have a short pause before the next item of business.