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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 12, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 12 November 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Rural Payments Strategy 2020-21, Environment Bill, Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time, Correction


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Economy and Tourism

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

In order to get in as many members as possible, I would prefer short and succinct questions, and answers to match.

Questions 2, 7 and 8, as well as questions 3 and 4, have been grouped. For those questions, I will take supplementary questions after I have taken all the questions in the group. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or indicate that in the chat function by entering the letter R during the relevant question.

Wildlife Crime (Grouse Moor Management)

1. Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact on the rural economy of wildlife crime linked to grouse moor management. (S5O-04745)

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

Biodiversity and thriving wildlife underpin Scotland’s rural economy. Wildlife crime is completely unacceptable for many reasons, including the damage that it can do to our economy and our international reputation.

Alison Johnstone

Last week—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We have a little time in hand this afternoon, so members do not have to jump in so quickly. [Laughter.]

Alison Johnstone

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Last week, the Government published a long-awaited report on the socioeconomic and biodiversity impacts of driven grouse moor management, which is expected to inform the Government’s long-awaited announcement on whether and how it will regulate grouse moors. However, the report entirely omits the impact of wildlife crime, which the Scottish Government’s own research has linked to intensive grouse moor management. Can the minister explain why it was omitted and say whether it was at the request of stakeholders on the advisory group for the report, the majority of whom represent the industry?

Mairi Gougeon

I am sure that the member is aware that the research that we commissioned is phase 2 of a programme of research that we intended to carry out, and it is primarily on the biodiversity and economic impacts of grouse moors. It was published last week. We will look at it in the round, together with the earlier phase of research that we did and the Werritty report, as we come to consider and issue our response to the Werritty review. We said in the programme for government, and I reiterate, that we will bring that to the Parliament later in the autumn. All the research that we have commissioned will feed into that response.

There are lots of different issues here. Alison Johnstone raises wildlife crime, which is of course a vital aspect of the work that we have been considering as part of the various pieces of research that we have done and the wider Werritty review. It will feed into any decision making, and I say again that we will consider all of that information in the round.

Tourism Businesses (Support)

2. Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what financial support is available for tourism businesses. (S5O-04746)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

As is outlined in the Scottish Government’s strategic framework, from 2 November, grants of £2,000 or £3,000, depending on rateable value, will be available for businesses that are required by law to close. Hardship grants of £1,400 or £2,100, depending on rateable value, will also be available for businesses that remain open but are directly impacted by restrictions. Those grants, which are to be administered by local authorities, will be provided regardless of level to any eligible business and will cover every four weeks of restrictions.

Mary Fee

Many tourism businesses depend on visitors travelling from across Scotland. Given the travel restrictions placed on cross-boundary travel, how will the Scottish Government tailor support for tourism businesses in a way that takes account of the level of restrictions that they find themselves in?

Fergus Ewing

Of course, the travel guidance has an impact in preventing people from the central belt from travelling furth thereof, so the available market for hotels and visitor attractions outwith the central belt is diminished as a result. In addition, the fact that there has been a lockdown in England has substantially reduced the market.

To answer Ms Fee’s question, thus far, we have made a distinction between those businesses that must close by law, to which we will apply payment, recognising that they can make no trading income at all, and those that are permitted to trade but whose trade has been impacted by Covid. I recognise that one could argue that there are gradations of impact, which is undoubtedly true, but we have had to come up with a scheme and we have to get the money out of the door. I am very pleased that we have come up with the distinction between, if you like, hardship and closure. As I said, the grants apply from 2 November onwards.

Tourist Attractions (Support)

7. Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to tourist attractions in light of the on-going restrictions due to Covid-19. (S5O-04751)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

As part of our £2.3 billion package of support to businesses, we have already provided more than £40 million to date, not including provisions through our new £48 million Covid business support as a result of brake restrictions and the strategic framework.

I fully appreciate the impact that the pandemic continues to have on the tourism sector. We are continually seeking to find a balance between action to suppress the virus and the protection of people’s jobs and livelihoods. I met the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions on 4 November in order fully to understand the current challenges that visitor attractions face.

Sandra White

I understand that the Scottish Government has committed funding to visitor attractions. Is the cabinet secretary able to commit to providing support to ensure that iconic visitor attractions, such as Kelvingrove art gallery and museum in my constituency, which draws tourists from around the world, will be able to continue to remain sustainable post-Covid-19? What support can he give to those iconic buildings and museums?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Did you get all that, cabinet secretary?

Fergus Ewing

I am sorry; I did not hear what you said, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Did you hear that?

Fergus Ewing

Yes, I did.

To answer Ms White, who advocates the interests of visitor attractions, including the magnificent Kelvingrove art gallery in her constituency, I would say that obviously we are sympathetic to the impacts on businesses. Our aim throughout is to provide lifeline support; in other words, to enable businesses to survive through the Covid period, however long it may last. Not knowing the duration of the impacts makes that task somewhat challenging, but that is the aim of the task.

Obviously, we are looking carefully at how best to deploy funding available to us through Barnett consequentials, with regard to the need to provide that lifeline support, what support some businesses might already have received, and, particularly, those businesses and sectors that might not have received any support.

Those are difficult matters, but I am acutely aware of their importance, and they are therefore being given priority.

Covid-19 Restrictions (Tourism Sector Input)

8. Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what input the Scottish tourism sector has had into its decision making on Covid-19 restrictions. (S5O-04752)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

Throughout the pandemic, we have maintained regular contact with the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the Scottish Tourism Alliance, UKHospitality and many other tourism business representative bodies and organisations in order to fully appreciate and understand the challenges that they face. For example, in consultation with the industry, we decided to close wet pubs by law in the current guidelines that came into force on Monday 2 November, so that they can access the most appropriate level of support, given that they would be unviable with drink sales alone. We will continue to engage with the sector in order to help to support those businesses.

Tom Mason

The Scottish Conservatives have called for a business advisory council to give businesses the seat at the table that they have been asking for since this pandemic began. That council should almost certainly include representation from the Scottish tourism sector, which has been among the worst hit by the pandemic. The tourism sector, like most other business sectors, has clearly indicated that it wishes to be actively engaged with Government, and a formal council will ensure that future guidance on restrictions is rooted in the practical concerns of the businesses that have to follow them. Will the minister back that proposal?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

At last, a question.

Fergus Ewing

We have engaged thoroughly, in depth and repeatedly with business organisations since March. We debated the issue thoroughly yesterday, when the particular proposal that Mr Mason raises was rejected. The Conservatives have failed to provide any detail about what that council would do, what it would comprise, who would serve on it, what its remit would be and who would be excluded therefrom.

I have engaged with all said organisations on an extremely regular basis, and I am absolutely certain that we listen to them and understand their concerns. At the end of the day, we in the Government have to make decisions that balance public health, lives and livelihoods. That is a difficult act, but I assure the chamber that, although we are always ready to consider any detailed proposal, none has arrived from the Scottish Conservatives, despite the fact that they have been asked by one of our representatives for such details. I do not know whether that proposal has support across the business community. I have not actually been asked to adopt it. The main thing is that my colleagues and I are in regular, indeed, almost daily, contact with everybody involved, and I think that we have established fairly good relationships with almost all of them, to the extent that the current arrangements are as efficacious as they possibly can be.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Four members want to ask supplementary questions, and I will try to take them all. Therefore, I ask everyone to keep questions and answers crisp.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Travel agents have been working throughout the pandemic to get customers’ holiday payments back, but have earned nothing from that. Will the minister consider a special fund, just like the one that is being considered in Northern Ireland?

Fergus Ewing

I am happy to give an undertaking to Mr Rennie, as I think that I did in the debate yesterday, to consider the issue carefully. We are sympathetic to everyone who has been impacted by Covid to a major extent, and that includes the vast majority of the tourism sector. If Mr Rennie has any more details of what he believes would be appropriate, I am happy to meet him to discuss them. I am always ready to consider any detailed and constructive proposal from wherever it comes.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary has been proactive in supporting tourism businesses large and small throughout the pandemic, with limited resources. Can he advise what further steps will be taken to support, particularly throughout the winter, larger tourism business such as hotels, which tend to have high overheads and are often major employers in small and medium-sized communities?

Fergus Ewing

Mr Gibson has been tireless in his advocacy for his constituents in Arran, for example, who were extremely worried at the beginning of the crisis about the ferry situation, which I think has been ameliorated since then, to some extent, at least. We have launched the £14 million hotel support programme to support businesses and jobs in the hotel sector, and the enterprise agencies are in the process of finalising grant support now. Just this morning, I spoke to Charlotte Wright, the chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and I know that that work is nearing completion.

It is my hope that the consequentials will allow us to enhance and extend that support. Major hotels are major employers of many people, which is why in Scotland—I am not sure that that has been done anywhere else in the UK—we established the £14 million hotel support programme in order to support people in their jobs.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

With travel and other necessary restrictions in place, does the cabinet secretary recognise that the distinction between open and closed is meaningless for many accommodation businesses that are closed in all but name and cannot be viable at this time?

Fergus Ewing

There is a vast range of circumstances. In general terms, the impact on accommodation providers is likely to be the most significant because of the diminution of customers in the available market and the fact that there is a certain worry that the regulations may be extended, which is causing forward cancellation of accommodation bookings.

In the accommodation sector, there is particular pressure; however, I am afraid that it is more complicated than Mr Mundell says. For example, in the self-catering sector, small units for one family have done reasonably well in some parts of the country and are continuing to do so—[Interruption.] Mr Mundell is muttering again. He does that all the time from a sedentary position. If he wants to do that, that is up to him, but I want to give the answer.

Some businesses have managed to do reasonably well while they can continue to trade lawfully, but larger self-catering premises serving more than two, three or four families and larger units have been hit extremely hard. The position is rather more complex than the member indicates.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Has the UK Government given any indication that it will give serious consideration to the series of financial measures that are outlined in the Scottish tourism recovery task force’s recommendations?

Fergus Ewing

It has not as yet. I have had five or six conference calls with the UK tourism minister, Nigel Huddleston, and we have a good working relationship. The other devolved Administrations are also on those calls, the most recent of which was towards the end of last week.

We have not yet had a response to the task force’s financial proposals to help the sector recover. That includes a request for a business rates holiday from the Scottish Government and for a VAT reduction and other measures from the UK Government.

I am pleased to say that the task force’s recommendation to hold a UK tourism summit, where representatives from across the islands discuss those matters together, has received a fair wind and a positive response. We are in touch with Nigel Huddleston’s office in order to make the necessary arrangements for that event, which will allow the problems that we are discussing in the Parliament to be raised across the islands. I hope that that will lead to action from the UK Government, as the task force has requested.

Covid-19 Strategic Framework

3. Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to businesses in the hospitality and food and drink sectors in response to the impact of each level of the Covid-19 strategic framework. (S5O-04747)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

The strategic framework sets out the Scottish Government’s new package of support from 2 November, which will provide grants of up to £3,000 for eligible businesses that are required to close by law, and grants of up to £2,100 for those businesses that remain open but must specifically modify their operations. Those grants will be repayable every four weeks for the duration of the restrictions. We continue to engage with the specific sectors that may face unique impacts, including hospitality and food and drink, to consider how best to provide help and support.

Shona Robison

Can the cabinet secretary say what discussions are taking place with Dundee City Council with regard to additional support after Dundee was placed into level 3? Can he provide an update on the funding that the Scottish Government has received from the United Kingdom Government to support business support measures in Scotland in general and in Dundee in particular?

Fergus Ewing

We have undertaken detailed engagement with local authorities, including Dundee City Council, on our approach and on the allocation of tiers. We will continue to work with local authorities as far as possible to address any concerns and to identify what further support might be required.

The overall budget guarantee was recently increased by £1 billion, which we welcome. That is based on a best estimate of consequentials that will flow to the Scottish Government over the period to 31 March 2021. However, we have not yet been provided with a detailed breakdown of that funding or with details of previous funding guarantees provided since July. It is expected that the funding will be required to cover a number of actions, including public health initiatives and transport support, as well as support for business.

We want to do all that we can to support organisations through the crisis, and we continue to call on the UK Government to transfer additional fiscal levers to the Scottish Parliament so that we can have the flexibility to respond directly to the needs of the people of Scotland.

Bed and Breakfasts and Guest Houses (Support)

4. Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure that all bed and breakfasts and guest houses will be eligible for financial support in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04748)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

We have supported bed and breakfasts and guest houses as part of our package totalling more than £2.3 billion. That includes almost £900 million in non-domestic rates relief, £1.3 billion via business grants and a £145 million package for small and medium-sized enterprises and the self-employed. We have also made £3 million available to support bed and breakfasts with no business bank account. Support grants are aimed at businesses that are required to close by law or businesses that remain open but are directly impacted by restrictions. Scotland’s lack of borrowing powers prevents us from fully responding to the economic crisis, and limited funds mean that we must target resources.

However, we are continuing to assess what can be done with the additional consequentials that were recently announced, and we will of course consider support for businesses within the tourism industry as part of that.

Daniel Johnson

In a previous answer, the cabinet secretary referred to businesses that fell through the gaps of previous financial support packages. Bed and breakfasts were one such group, and I was contacted by multiple B and B owners who failed to get financial support because they lacked a business bank account. Can the cabinet secretary give a cast-iron guarantee now that, if further restrictions are put in place that prevent those businesses from operating, they will receive that financial support and will not fall through the gaps once again?

Fergus Ewing

I think that I covered that in part in my original answer, but I reiterate that we are absolutely committed to providing assistance to businesses that require lifeline support. I have already said that accommodation providers, including B and Bs and guest houses, have had a difficult time—there is no doubt about that—and we wish them to survive the crisis.

By analysing the Barnett consequential funds that we have received and how they can best be deployed, we want to meet gaps, provide for needs and provide lifeline support across the sector. That is the work in which we are engaged as a matter of urgency, especially with regard to Parliament’s express wishes yesterday evening. I assure members that we are taking this matter extremely seriously, and I will be having a meeting on the topic with officials later this afternoon.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Three members have not yet had supplementary questions, and I would like to take them all, starting with Colin Smyth. I ask them to be brief.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. The Government published its Covid framework, which stated that hospitality businesses at levels 2 and 3 could open, albeit with different levels of restriction. Days later, however, it imposed regulations closing all non-food-serving pubs and pubs that serve food but do not prepare it on site. Given that we now know that those businesses can access the furlough scheme, whether they are closed or open, can the cabinet secretary tell us why the Government is still refusing to allow non-food-serving pubs to open, utterly contradicting its own framework?

Fergus Ewing

We need to strike a difficult balance between public health and lives and livelihoods. It is sadly the case that the expert health evidence that we have and that is contained in advice given to other Administrations in these islands and given to Governments all across Europe is the same: that people—[Interruption.] Mr Smyth likes to mutter from a sedentary position, like Mr Mundell, but I will carry on with the answer. We have to take decisions to protect public health, and according to the expert medical advice that we have, there is a proven increased risk of Covid infection where people gather together for longer than a certain time. We have to take that seriously.

Of course, none of us want any restrictions to continue for a moment longer than they have to, so these things are always kept under careful review.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I echo Daniel Johnson’s comments about the difficulties for self-catering and bed-and-breakfast businesses that did not have a business bank account and were initially excluded from earlier schemes. Can the cabinet secretary therefore offer a guarantee to me and Mr Johnson that such a mistake will not be made in any future programmes and that businesses will not struggle to get access to the funds that they desperately need?

Fergus Ewing

I sympathise with the point that Mr McArthur makes, so I will repeat what I said in my original answer. We made £3 million available to support bed and breakfasts that had no business bank account. We have encountered the problem before and we dealt with it. I very much hope, therefore, that that has happened. It follows that if a business has suffered in a particular way, provided that it can establish that it is operating as a business as opposed to a non-commercial business, the fact that it does not have a bank account should not prevent it from qualifying for compensation. That was the rationale that was used last time. We wanted to distinguish between, for example, Airbnb properties, where someone is using their property to make a bit of money for a few days a year or something like that, and a bona fide business.

We must be careful with public money. We must make sure that we do not use that money in such a way that it allows fraudulent applications. That has been the subject of some publicity, particularly with regard to other schemes administered by the UK. It is a difficult balancing task, but I want to impress on Mr McArthur and his constituents that I am looking very sympathetically at this. I do not think that not having a business bank account should prevent one from obtaining compensation if one’s business has been severely impacted by the Covid virus.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The business restrictions grant is available only to a prescribed list of eligible businesses that does not reflect the impact of the restrictions on other businesses. Will the Scottish Government review the list of eligible businesses that can receive the restrictions grant? How can businesses be added to that list? Will the Scottish Government give flexibility to local authorities to decide which businesses that are important to their local economy are suffering from the impact of the current restrictions?

Fergus Ewing

I think that I have indicated quite clearly—and, to be fair, to a number of different members— that we are looking at how best we can use the additional Barnett consequentials to meet real need and to help businesses to survive. That is the fundamental principle and if that means that we need to revisit previous decisions, that is something that we should do.

It is perhaps better that we apply an approach to similar businesses across Scotland in a uniform fashion. In other words, I would not want businesses to lose out just because of the particular area in which they happen to operate. On the other hand, we have worked very closely with local authorities, which delivered the grant finance earlier in the year effectively.

I will look sympathetically at Claire Baker’s request. It is part of the overall mix of the work that we are doing at the moment as a matter of urgency, and which I think I have now mentioned on more than one occasion.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Question 5 has been withdrawn and question 6 has not been lodged, so that concludes portfolio questions.