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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 13 December 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Parliamentary Liaison Officers, Topical Question Time, Education (Improvement Plan), International Migrants to Scotland, Decision Time, Walking


Topical Question Time

Amazon (Working Conditions)

1. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of “intolerable” working conditions at Amazon’s Fife warehouse. (S5T-00259)

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

It is important that all employees in all workplaces are treated fairly. The Scottish Government is doing everything that it can to drive up employment standards and to promote good working practices with the powers that are available to us.

Willie Rennie

Reports by an undercover reporter about workers camping outside the warehouse have lifted the lid on Amazon. In one case, the company penalised a worker for being in hospital with a kidney infection. Last year, the Scottish Government paid almost £1 million to Amazon, even though it did not pay all its workers the real living wage. Will the minister rule out paying Amazon any more grants?

Keith Brown

All the grants that were awarded to Amazon have been paid and the conditions that were attached to them have been fulfilled. It is also true to say that those grants go back many years to 2005.

I am concerned about the reports over the weekend. My office has been in touch with Amazon and we are working on establishing a meeting to take place in the next seven days, so that the issues can be raised.

The matters are of concern to the Scottish Government, as they will be to anybody. It is important that we do what we can to raise them. We do not have the powers to change the living wage or the employment laws that would allow us to take the action that we would like to take. We would like to legislate for a living wage—we have said that on many occasions. In the absence of those powers, we can make representations and speak to Amazon to make clear that we find such practices unacceptable. That will happen in the next few days.

Willie Rennie

I am afraid that the minister has ducked my question. When I have raised the issue with the First Minister before—I have done so on a number of occasions—she has sent Roseanna Cunningham to the Amazon warehouse. What happened with those meetings? Did she tell Amazon that it would receive no grants? If not, why not? It is about time that the Government was clear on whether it will give Amazon grants.

Keith Brown

I have just said to Willie Rennie that we have no outstanding grants and that there are no proposals from Amazon for further grants. We have no intention of providing further grants, not least in the absence of any application. In the case of previous applications, the conditions that were attached to the grants have been fulfilled and the grants have been paid, as were the grants that were made by the previous Liberal Democrat-Labour Administration. I imagine that the same conditions applied at that time.

It is important that we do what we can to bring jobs to Scotland, which is the purpose of the grants. It is also important that we promote fair work and practices, and that will be the focus of my meeting with Amazon in the coming days.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Amazon has a global value of £290 billion, with £6 billion-worth of revenue in the United Kingdom, yet it pays little tax. It gets employees to opt out of the working time directive to get a job and, as we have heard, it threatens workers with the sack if they are off sick and it pays so little that staff are camping out in order to avoid travel costs.

I understand what the cabinet secretary is saying about the grants that have been given to Amazon in the past. However, will he review the conditions that apply to any regional selective assistance or other grants that are given by the Government to companies—not just to Amazon but to all companies—so that they reflect fair work practices?

Keith Brown

First, I thank Jackie Baillie for acknowledging the simple fact that we do not hold the powers that would allow us to insist on a living wage or the employment practices that she mentions.

For future grants, we will continue to look at each application on its merits. Jackie Baillie will know that the Living Wage Foundation often works with companies that do not pay a living wage in the belief and the hope that it can encourage them to pay a living wage. In fact, companies can even be given accreditation in advance of their paying the living wage.

The focus of our activity must be on, first, bringing jobs to Scotland and encouraging job creation. We must also encourage those companies that do not pay the living wage to do so and drive up the nearly 80 per cent of people in Scotland who are paid the living wage. That is the practical and responsible way to go about the matter.

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Although the cabinet secretary does not have the power to create new employment laws, what steps is he taking to ensure that Amazon is in compliance with existing employment laws? Amazon is not a signatory to the business pledge, which has been signed by fewer than 300 businesses in Scotland—that represents less than one in every 1,000 businesses. Is he pleased with the current uptake of the business pledge?

Keith Brown

I did not mention this in my response to Jackie Baillie’s point, but we have no powers to raise tax from those companies and, as I have mentioned already, the same is true for employment law. I have written to Amazon and we expect to meet it shortly. Of course, we are looking at and we will review its practices, not least in relation to the press reports that we have had over the weekend, but not only in relation to those reports.

It is extremely important that we encourage companies to sign up to the business pledge. There are many other companies that are currently considering it. They want to know about the terms and the provisions of the pledge to see whether they can meet them. It is a good initiative and it is important that we start to do this—the UK Government has not done it. I would have thought that Dean Lockhart would welcome the initiative and the 300 companies thus far—plus the others that are considering it—that have signed up to vital provisions, which, to remind Dean Lockhart, include a commitment to pay the living wage.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

The cabinet secretary will be aware of repeated reports in the media that Amazon has been hostile towards unionisation. In fact, a couple of years ago, the GMB described one unionisation drive there as like being “in the French Resistance”. Will the Government commit to ensuring that union membership is available and respected for staff members at all companies that receive grant funding and subsidies from the Government?

Keith Brown

We routinely encourage companies throughout Scotland to recognise and to work with trade unions, because we believe that the influence of trade unions is a positive for workforce development and for the welfare of workforces. We do that as a matter of course. Companies have the right not to do that and, when that has happened in the past, we have been willing to get involved by making connections with relevant trade unions or by encouraging companies to reconsider their position. We will continue to do that when we deal with companies in the future.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

In 2012-13, Amazon paid £3.2 million in corporation tax on £4 billion-worth of UK sales and it claimed back £2.5 million in public grants, plus a further £1 million last year, as Willie Rennie said.

Tax avoidance, low pay, poor working conditions and no trade union recognition—what exactly is the Government’s message to companies that breach the principles of fair work and breach the business pledge? The Government needs to call them out. Those employers need to be exposed for what they are—exploiters, cheats and throwbacks to a Victorian era.

Keith Brown

I have done precisely what Neil Findlay says in his point. I have contacted Amazon, as my predecessor Roseanna Cunningham did, and we intend to put those points to it and, in particular, the allegations that were made at the weekend.

Neil Findlay started by talking about tax. We do not have the power to insist on a tax regime to clamp down on what I agree with Neil Findlay are widespread tax practices that we do not condone.

Neil Findlay

The Government could stop paying them grants.

Keith Brown

Neil Findlay does not want to listen. We would not want those practices to be repeated if we had control over those tax-raising powers. As ever, there is a great deal that Neil Findlay and I agree on but, at each point, he is determined to ensure that that is not the public perception. Regardless of that, I will continue to work to encourage Amazon and similar employers to have good and fair working practices, and to recognise trade unions.

British Medical Association General Practitioner Survey

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the latest BMA GP survey. (S5T-00254)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Shona Robison)

As demonstrated by the recent joint memorandum, we are working closely with the BMA to deliver a new vision for general practice and primary care that will help to address the workload challenges that are faced by Scotland’s GPs. That is why, by the end of this parliamentary session, we will have increased spending on primary care services to 11 per cent of the front-line national health service budget. We will deliver an extra £0.5 billion for building a genuine community health service with general practice at its heart.

Anas Sarwar

Let us look at the figures in the BMA survey. We already knew that one in three practices is reporting a GP vacancy now, and that practices are closing. The BMA GP survey found that 91 per cent of GPs believe that their workload negatively affects the quality of patient care, and that only 7 per cent of GPs think that consultation times are adequate. New figures that have been published by the BMA today show that 35 per cent of GPs plan to retire from general practice in the next five years, 20 per cent plan to move to part-time work, 6 per cent plan to move abroad and 6 per cent plan to quit medicine altogether. That is directly linked to the £1.6 billion cut to GP budgets that the Government has imposed over the past 10 years.

Will the cabinet secretary take responsibility and accept that her party has been in control of the NHS for 10 years and that, in her two years as cabinet secretary, she has overseen declining performance? Will she therefore apologise to Scotland’s GPs and their patients?

Shona Robison

We are getting on with working with Scotland’s GPs, through the BMA, on a new contract that will deliver a new vision for primary care, along with £0.5 billion additional investment over this session of Parliament.

Investment in GP services has increased in cash terms each year under the SNP Government. It has risen by £175 million, from £704.6 million in 2007-08 to £879.9 million in 2015-16. That is a cumulative increase of £920 million, under the Scottish National Party, to 2015-16.

We accept that there is more to be done, which is why we are working on the new contract and why I announced a £20 million package to help to ease pressures on workload in the short term and to contribute to putting general practice on a more long-term sustainable footing.

I have said in the chamber on a number of occasions that I acknowledge the pressures that Scotland’s GPs are under. That is why we are working hard with the BMA to deliver a new contract, address workload issues and ensure that we get general practice and primary care on to a more sustainable footing.

Anas Sarwar

It is clear that the cabinet secretary is not saying “Sorry” to our patients and our NHS workforce.

The reality is that there has been a real-terms cut of £1.6 billion under the SNP Government. I welcome the reversal of the cut to GP budgets, but my fear is that it may be too late and is nothing more than a sticking plaster after 10 years of SNP mismanagement.

Labour has pressed the Government to take steps to help to alleviate the pressure and to build for the long term; to reverse the cuts to funding and to prioritise retention and recruitment of GPs; to increase funding for auxiliary staff including nurse practitioners, mental health nurses, counsellors, physiotherapists and others to work in practices and support GPs; to expand the minor ailments service in pharmacies to help to take the pressure off GPs; and to use the opportunity of the new GP contract to renew and revitalise primary care. The chair of the BMA’s Scottish GP committee has said that if the Government does not change course

“we could soon be in a situation where we do not have enough GPs to deliver effective care to patients.”

Will the cabinet secretary accept our proposals and avoid that being her legacy?

Shona Robison

I do not regard £500 million over the session as a “sticking plaster”. An 11 per cent share of NHS front-line funding is exactly what the profession has asked for, and that is what the Government will deliver.

Anas Sarwar ran through a number of suggestions. Maybe he should look at what is already happening, because all the things that he suggested are already happening. The new model of primary care will be built around multidisciplinary teams, and the minor ailments service is being tested in Inverclyde as we speak. Those things are going forward. He should, perhaps, do his homework before he turns up to the chamber with a list that is a direct lift from what the Scottish Government is already doing.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Three weeks ago, the City of Edinburgh Council passed its local development plan and, with it, rubber-stamped nearly 5,000 new family homes in my constituency, in which a new health centre has not built in 45 years. That will lead to potentially 20,000 new patients exerting demands on practices that are already on their knees. When I raised that with the First Minister two weeks ago, she unfairly suggested that I was trying to tell local authorities how to do their job. I was asking for the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the Minister for Local Government and Housing to work together so that the forthcoming planning bill can give local authorities the tools that they need to compel local developers to consider building things such as health centres, and to rule out developments on the ground that they include no healthcare infrastructure. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that she will work with the Minister for Local Government and Housing to that end?

Shona Robison

The First Minister’s point was that the Liberal Democrats often criticise us for what they term “centralisation”, but then come to Parliament asking us to tell local government what it should do on such matters.

However, in a spirit of consensus, I will agree with Alex Cole-Hamilton that we need appropriate primary care infrastructure in new housing developments and where there is increased demand. My officials and I have had regular discussions with NHS Lothian around the need for infrastructure investment in primary care and—as far as I am aware—plans are being developed to ensure that the primary care infrastructure is fit for purpose. There are particular issues in NHS Lothian, so I have spoken to Alex Cole-Hamilton and other Lothian members to ensure that we address those short-term issues that are very real for patients who are struggling to access a GP.

I am happy to write to Alex Cole-Hamilton with further details of what NHS Lothian is planning. I will do that after topical question time has finished.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The cabinet secretary may be aware that figures that were released today show not only that there are fewer GPs in Scotland than there were two years ago, but that there is now the lowest number of practices since her party came to power. In fact, the number of practices has decreased in every year in which the SNP has been in power. There is rising demand, more GPs are nearing retirement and there is a significant GP shortage, so will the cabinet secretary take responsibility for her party’s abject failure to manage primary care over the past 10 years?

Shona Robison

I accept responsibility, which is why we have come up with a comprehensive plan for what we will do to turn the situation around in general practice and primary care. The issues that Donald Cameron has raised today are exactly the issues that the NHS in England faces. Before he levels criticisms here, he should look at the situation down south. To be fair to the UK Government, some of the actions that it is taking to address problems in primary care are the same as the actions that we are taking here.

We are making sure that we have the right workforce in the right place, and that we have more GPs and other health professionals so that we can deliver multidisciplinary teams. We also need to ensure that clusters are developed so that practices can be supported with staff in the right places. All the actions that I have laid out, along with the additional funding of £500 million over the course of the parliamentary session, will help to address those issues. I am happy to make sure that Donald Cameron, or anyone else who wishes them, is furnished with the details of those actions.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

That concludes topical question time. Before we move to the next item of business, members will wish to join me in welcoming to the VIP gallery Her Excellency Ms Janice Charette, who is the Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. [Applause.]