Meeting date: Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 28 October 2020
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Miners’ Strike Review, NHS (Winter Preparedness), Energy Inquiry, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Reunification of Germany (30th Anniversary)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Miners’ Strike Review
- NHS (Winter Preparedness)
- Energy Inquiry
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Reunification of Germany (30th Anniversary)
Portfolio Question Time
Constitution, Europe and External Affairs
Good afternoon. Before we begin, I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask that members take care to observe the measures during this afternoon’s business, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Members are also reminded of the need for pace and brevity in both questions and answers in order to allow all questions to be taken, if possible.
The first item of business is portfolio question time.
Meetings with United Kingdom Government (Constitutional Matters)
To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the United Kingdom Government to discuss constitutional matters. (S5O-04681)
I should make clear that I often raise with the UK Government the issue of the profound damage that the UK Internal Market Bill 2019-21 will have on the powers of the Scottish Parliament. I did so at the meeting of the joint ministerial committee on European negotiations on 3 September, and will do so again at the next meeting of the committee, which is scheduled for tomorrow.
On 10 September, the Minister for Europe and International Development participated in a quadrilateral meeting with the UK Government and ministers from the other devolved Administrations, to discuss progress on the ongoing review of intergovernmental relations. The minister also had a call on 10 September with UK Government ministers to discuss fisheries protection and maritime security, and another call on 1 October with UK Government ministers to discuss borders.
I know how passionate the cabinet secretary is about accuracy, and I also know that—as I do—he cares about putting the pandemic before politics, so he must have been surprised when he heard the First Minister’s statement on 16 October, during which she said that she had “paused” the independence campaign through the pandemic. If we look at any minister’s Twitter account, including the First Minister’s, they are flooded with references to independence and indyref 2.
In this Parliament, on 1 September, the Government said that the independence referendum bill would be at the heart of its programme for government and would be expected in the coming months. Can the cabinet secretary confirm on what date the independence referendum campaign was paused and on what date it was unpaused?
There is a letter from me to Michael Gove that indicates that we have paused it, and that letter is dated March—possibly 16 March. I will check that and come back to the member. The independence referendum will be unpaused—in the sense that we will work on it—only when we are preparing for the bill, which is to be published before next year’s election.
I am surprised by Anas Sarwar’s line of questioning. I would have thought that, in considering constitutional matters, the member might want to consider Brexit and the Internal Market Bill in order to see the damage that is being done by Brexit, and that he might consider the fact that the UK Government has not only not paused Brexit, but is intensifying the search for an increasingly damaging Brexit. That seems to me to be the issue that should be addressed, and I am surprised that the member refuses to do so. Perhaps the closeness between the former “better together” friends is now being seen again.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is time for the UK Government and Opposition parties in the chamber to acknowledge the huge strength of feeling across Scotland in favour of another independence referendum, given the momentous changes—including Brexit—in recent years? If they have faith in the union and confidence that they can win the arguments, they should, rather than obstructing, work to facilitate the right of people in Scotland to decide their own future, and they should back another independence referendum.
Kenneth Gibson has made a very valid point. We have the extraordinary spectacle of the Labour Party: it has championed the right to self-determination across the globe, but when it looks at Scotland, and the opinion polls that say that the people of Scotland want to exercise their right to self-determination, its own selfish interests come first. However, the people of Scotland know that and have already judged the Labour Party. We can see that from the trickle of members who are on its benches now. There will be even fewer of them next year.
Covid-19 (International Development Programmes)
To ask the Scottish Government what proposed changes have come from its review into international development programmes in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04682)
In the programme for government, which was published on 1 September this year, the First Minister set out the Government’s intention to review our approach to international development. The impetus for a refresh of the strategy is that we ensure that we are focusing our work on areas where we can make the biggest difference in our partner countries, against the new backdrop of Covid-19. That work is on-going, so in answer to Mr Briggs’s question, I say that no proposed changes have, as yet, come forward from the review.
One of the changes that was being proposed was around health spend and health support for developing countries. In the light of the pandemic, what discussions have taken place about supporting developing countries to access a vaccine, once one is globally available? Given the pandemic’s negative impact on our national health service, what have ministers here in Edinburgh learned about the impact on the health systems of developing countries?
I have held a number of discussions with our partner countries’ Governments, and with representatives from civil society groups in each of those countries, on their thematic priorities. Mr Briggs is absolutely right to say that healthcare is a priority for a number of our partner countries. However, it is not for the Scottish Government to direct what future schemes will look like, so I hope that Mr Briggs will appreciate that the review is on-going, in that respect.
On how we are supporting our partner countries, Mr Briggs will be aware that we ring fenced £2 million from the international development fund as part of this year’s financial contribution to Covid-19 efforts in our partner countries.
Access to vaccines has not yet been raised with me directly. Obviously, we do not yet have a vaccine. I am not ruling that conversation out for the future, but I would like Mr Briggs to understand that conversations are on-going. Healthcare remains a priority for us in Scotland, and he is absolutely right to say that our partner countries could benefit from expertise here. Part of that work is already being done through, for example, NHS Scotland’s partnership with Malawi.
United Kingdom Trade (Jobs)
To ask the Scottish Government what estimate it has made of the number of jobs in Scotland that rely on frictionless trade across the UK, and how that could be impacted by constitutional change. (S5O-04683)
Both Scotland and the UK have benefited enormously, in terms of jobs, from being part of the European Union single market, with all the economic benefits that flow from being inside the world’s largest trading bloc. In terms of population, the single market is seven times the size of the UK alone, and offers huge opportunities for an independent Scotland.
The UK Government’s decision to impose trade barriers through its extreme Brexit policy will hit manufacturing particularly hard. Scotland’s manufacturing exports to the EU, and to countries with which the EU has trade deals, are worth more than Scotland’s manufacturing exports to the rest of the UK.
The question that people in Scotland will be asking is this: who should be trusted to rebuild our economy after the global pandemic? Should it be Boris Johnson’s ultra-Brexiteer Tory Government, or a Scottish Government that is equipped with the full powers of independence?
I am sad to say that the cabinet secretary did not answer my question.
There is no doubt that Covid has had a devastating impact on jobs. The cabinet secretary has taken every opportunity to make clear his lack of respect for the democratic decision of the UK to end UK membership of the EU, but the fact remains that more than 60 per cent of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK. The Fraser of Allander institute estimates that more than half a million jobs rely on that trade.
As the UK completes our withdrawal from the EU, can the cabinet secretary guarantee that the Scottish Government will put jobs first, and will not compromise Scotland’s frictionless trade with the rest of the UK?
Michelle Ballantyne is labouring under a fallacy that we hear from her colleagues all the time. If it were true that one had to be within a single political relationship in order to trade, the UK would not be leaving the EU. However, the UK has based its entire argument on the fact that that is not the case. What we have is a double standard, and the only thing that drives that double standard is extreme dislike of the people of Scotland having a say about their own future. That is antidemocratic, and will damage Scotland far more than anything that anybody else does. The reality is that the danger to jobs comes from the member’s party’s Brexit. She should hang her head in shame.
On that theme, what impact does the cabinet secretary believe the UK Government’s decision to leave the Brexit transition period in the middle of a global pandemic and an economic recession will have on jobs and the wider economy in Scotland?
The contrast between that question and the previous question is stark, because Gillian Martin’s question acknowledges the damage that Brexit will do—in particular, the damage that it will do during a global pandemic. It will make an appalling situation even worse.
The EU is the largest single market in the world, and it is Scotland’s largest international trading partner, with exports to it being worth £16.1 billion in 2018. All forms of Brexit, especially the ridiculously damaging forms that are the only things left on offer, would harm Scotland’s economy and result in lower household incomes in the long run, compared with what would happen with continued EU membership. That is the reality, and it is time that the Scottish Conservatives admitted to their own role in that shameful reality.
Brexit (Glasgow Economy)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to ensure that a no-deal Brexit does not impact on the Glasgow economy. (S5O-04684)
Johann Lamont is right to be concerned about Brexit—not just a no-deal Brexit but the low-deal Brexit that is all that remains on offer. The economic and social impacts of European Union exit will be felt across all regions of the country, including, of course, in Glasgow. Scottish Government modelling indicates that, if no deal is reached and we end up trading with the EU on World Trade Organization terms, that could lead to a loss of up to 8.5 per cent of gross domestic product in Scotland by 2030 compared with what would happen with continued EU membership.
The Scottish Government continues to direct all the resources that are available to it to support resilience and mitigate the impacts of leaving the EU. That includes our work with local authorities such as Glasgow City Council and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to identify specific interventions that can, as far as possible, mitigate the effects on our communities and businesses.
At the beginning of this year, before the pandemic hit, Glasgow’s budget was already cut by an astonishing £42 million. Indeed, Glasgow has been at the forefront of unjust and brutal cuts over the past decade. With the added threat of a no-deal Brexit and all the financial implications of that, will the cabinet secretary use his authority to ensure that the Scottish Government reviews the funding to Glasgow as a matter of urgency with a view to protecting the economy of our largest city?
Glasgow suffers from what has historically been called elsewhere “the Highland problem”. The full resources that should be available to the people of Glasgow in their area are not available to them, because they go elsewhere. Exactly the same has happened in the Highlands, and exactly the same has happened in Scotland.
I agree with Johann Lamont that the solution is to ensure that the resources of Scotland are applied to the problems of Scotland. If we do that, we will be able to tackle our long-standing issues and face up to the threats that come from Brexit, the Tory Government and Scotland not being independent, for example. I have to say to Johann Lamont that the solution is more obvious: support independence and you will get the outcome that you are looking for.
Brexit (Engagement with United Kingdom Government)
To ask the Scottish Government what its latest engagement has been with the United Kingdom Government regarding the Brexit negotiations. (S5O-04685)
The joint ministerial committee on European Union negotiations, at which the four Governments in the United Kingdom are supposed to collectively oversee negotiations with the European Union, has not met since 3 September, despite repeated requests by the devolved Governments. I admit that there were attempts from both sides to find a date but, in particular, the committee did not meet in the run-up to the European Council meeting on 15 and 16 October—the Prime Minister described that meeting as a crucial milestone—and nor was there any discussion with the Scottish Government about the UK Government’s response to the European Council.
That is consistent with our experience throughout the Brexit process. At every stage, the key decisions have been taken—usually wrongly—by the UK Government, and it has taken no account of the overwhelming vote in Scotland to remain in the EU.
A meeting of the JMC(EN) has been arranged for this Thursday, and I will once again press Scotland’s interests at that meeting. However, it is clear now that, because of the UK Government’s position, the only possible outcomes to the negotiations are either a damaging low deal or, even worse, no deal at all.
Given the hard Brexit that the UK Government is seeking, does the cabinet secretary believe that, even if the UK Government agrees a deal with the EU, there will be considerable disruption following the end of the transition period in just over two months’ time?
It is inevitable that there will be disruption at the end of the transition period. That is absolutely clear, and the UK Government has admitted as much. It is in no sense ready for what is about to take place, and that is a tragic situation.
The Scottish Government will work as hard as we possibly can and we will do everything within our power to protect the people of Scotland but, as I have said repeatedly, we cannot do everything. There is an appalling mess of the UK Government’s making. It has been aided and abetted by the Scottish Conservatives and it has not been opposed by the Labour Party with the vigour or intention that it should have shown. That is a serious set of circumstances. As I say, the Scottish Government will do everything that it can in the circumstances, but we know where the blame lies.
New Zealand Government (Engagement)
To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has had with the New Zealand Government. (S5O-04686)
The Scottish Government values the strong and enduring relationship that we have with New Zealand, built over hundreds of years of migration, cultural exchange and trade. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, our officials have been sharing our respective experiences and learning as we aim to minimise the negative impact and transition through and out of the crisis. Through the wellbeing economy Governments initiative, which includes Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland and Wales, we collaborate with the New Zealand Government as we pursue our shared ambition of delivering wellbeing economies that build inclusive, sustainable, and resilient societies.
The minister anticipated my supplementary on the wellbeing economy Governments partnership, which describes its aim as being
“To deepen understanding and advance shared ambition of building wellbeing economies.”
Does the minister agree that the ambition of building a wellbeing economy is even more important as we look to the future and to rebuilding after Covid-19, and that we should agree more generally that New Zealand, a small independent country, is an example that Scotland could learn much from?
Mr Arthur is absolutely correct. International solidarity has arguably never been more important. It is imperative that we learn from others as we continue to combat the impacts of Covid-19.
The group that Mr Arthur alluded to and which I mentioned in my original answer is focused on promoting the sharing of expertise and on delivering wellbeing through the economic approach. In April, a policy lab was held virtually and it focused on a comparison of the overall responses to the pandemic and how a wellbeing lens could help to guide economic recovery. A further three of those virtual policy labs have been organised to analyse specific emerging issues across all member Governments in light of the pandemic.
Mr Arthur’s point on independence for Scotland is something that I whole-heartedly support.
Island-based Veterans (Support)
To ask the Scottish Government how it supports island-based veterans. (S5O-04687)
The member will be aware that, on 21 January, I presented to Parliament the Government’s response to the extensive consultation undertaken on the strategy for our veterans, at which time I clearly set out the commitments that we have made to the veterans community in all parts of Scotland and the actions that we are taking between now and 2028 to improve service delivery and mainstream support across five cross-cutting factors and six key themes. Additionally, the Scottish Government’s support for the armed forces and veterans community is reported annually to Parliament, and with the agreement of the Parliamentary Bureau, I would anticipate that the 2021 update will occur next month.
Among the many visits that I made last year in developing my understanding of the way in which we support our veterans on the ground, I travelled to Mr McArthur’s Orkney constituency to meet the council and NHS Orkney to learn more about how they are supporting veterans who are living there. I must say that I was most impressed.
I thank the minister for his response, for his endorsement and for having made the trip up to Orkney.
The Scottish Government recently announced an additional introductory discount for veterans across Scotland who are participating in the veterans railcard scheme. However, for isles-based veterans, the benefits of that discount are cancelled out by the cost of full-price ferry travel to the Scottish mainland. Will the minister consider applying that discount more broadly for islanders by extending it to cover ferry travel to the Scottish mainland as well as on ferry routes from the smaller isles?
As we have heard, in October, Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government launched the veterans railcard at a discounted price for veterans in Scotland. The railcard, which offers a 34 per cent discount on travel, will be available at an overall cost of £15 until March 2021. That introductory price compares with £21 elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Sitting alongside that, Transport Scotland’s national concessionary travel scheme for older and disabled people provides free bus travel throughout Scotland for those living in Scotland who are aged 60 and over and for eligible disabled people. In addition, the scheme provides four ferry journeys to or from the Scottish mainland each year for qualifying island residents. Injured veterans with mobility problems or those in receipt of the war pensioners mobility supplement are eligible for that. However, we have no plans to extend the scheme to include all military veterans.
Many of the veterans on our islands, such as the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, come from the merchant navy. What actions has the minister undertaken to connect with the merchant navy and its veterans to ensure that they are supported?
I have made a concerted effort in the veterans community to acknowledge the role of the merchant navy. Unfortunately, merchant navy veterans are all too often forgotten, and that is very wrong. I attended a merchant navy day event in my constituency to commemorate their role. If Mr Corry, in his role in the cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community, has any further suggestions, I am more than happy to engage with him on that.
Remembrance Sunday (Permitted Events)
To ask the Scottish Government what events it will permit on remembrance Sunday. (S5O-04688)
The remembrance period in November serves a vital purpose in allowing everyone in Scotland a moment to pause, reflect and be thankful to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. However, remembrance events this year will require to be scaled back from previous years, as a consequence of the need to control the coronavirus pandemic.
This year’s national service of remembrance will be held at the Scottish national war memorial inside Edinburgh castle, with representatives from the Government, the armed forces and faith organisations laying wreaths. It will have significantly reduced attendance compared with previous years, and strict controls will be in place, in line with the current guidance on services in places of worship which, sadly, is necessary. As a consequence, the service will be closed to members of the public.
I understand that it will be disappointing for many people that the national service will not be open to the public, but we encourage the people of Scotland to participate in remembrance in whatever way they can do so safely. We have been working closely with Legion Scotland and Poppy Scotland, in addition to local authorities, to ensure that remembrance events that take place can do so safely and in line with Scottish Government guidance.
Even in the middle of our global pandemic, we must not forget the sacrifices that were made in wars past to protect our freedoms today. I will be attending two safe events in North East Fife: one in St Andrews and one in Cupar with my colleague Wendy Chamberlain MP, which will be video recorded for later viewing on social media and through wider opportunities.
I am keen to encourage people across the country to show imagination in finding ways of marking the day. What advice can you give to organisations? Where can they go to get support and how can they make sure that we remember those who have sacrificed their lives for us?
Presiding Officer, I hope that you will allow me a bit more time to answer, because that is a terribly important question and I recognise a lot of interest in it out there.
Following discussions with Legion Scotland and Poppy Scotland, the Scottish Government has advised all local authorities that local remembrance events can proceed as long as they adhere to the relevant guidance for outdoor events or places of worship in their area. All gatherings that involve more than six people from two different households will need to be organised as an event in line with that guidance and will require the approval of the relevant local authority. As part of that, organisers will be required to limit the number of people attending, to maintain social distancing at all times and to complete a risk assessment, to limit the risk of transmission of the virus. To help ensure consistency of approach, the current guidance for those categories of event has been issued to all local authorities and key stakeholders, along with the associated checklist that details the steps that must be taken before events can proceed.
Like Mr Rennie, I will attend an event in my constituency, in Carnoustie. I am very much aware of the terrific effort that the organisers have made to ensure that it can be conducted safely.
That is the position regarding direct participation, but there is also the issue of non-participatory attendance. Members across the chamber will be aware of events in their constituencies that normally attract the wider public, who look to pay their respects in quite large numbers. My message for that wider public is this: please do not go there this year.
To pick up Willie Rennie’s point about virtual coverage, Legion Scotland and Poppy Scotland, for example, will be broadcasting the national service of remembrance from the Scottish war memorial, so that everyone can participate virtually from the safety of their own home. I encourage members of the public to tune in to that service and pay their respects in that way, in the hope that by next year we can return to our normal way of paying tribute on remembrance Sunday.
Economy, Fair Work and Culture
Covid-19 (Support for Central Scotland Businesses)
To ask the Scottish Government what further support it will make available to businesses in Central Scotland that continue to be affected by Covid-19 restrictions. (S5O-04689)
On 21 October, the First Minister announced an extension to the restrictions that were imposed on 9 October, and further additional financial support for the businesses affected by those restrictions.
More than £40 million has been earmarked for the Covid-19 restrictions fund for the current period, including grant support for businesses that have had to close because of restrictions, and hardship grants to businesses that are not required to close, but whose business has been impacted, including pubs and restaurants outwith the central belt and some businesses in the hospitality supply chain.
There is also a £9 million scheme to contribute to support for furloughed employees, and an £11 million contingency fund to help other businesses that need support, but are not eligible for either the new grant or employment support schemes. Yesterday, we announced that the first phase of awards through the contingency fund will provide one-off support to nightclubs and soft-play centres that have been closed since March. Details of the support that is available are on the Scottish Government’s website. Future business support arrangements are set out in “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Scotland’s Strategic Framework”.
I have been contacted by businesses in Lanarkshire that are struggling after seven weeks of restrictions, including taxi firms that do not qualify for any support. For example, Wellman Cars, which is based in Hamilton, is fighting to survive and protect jobs. With further restrictions expected, will the Scottish Government give urgent support to taxi companies and others that are falling through the cracks? Given that ministers are advising against use of public transport just now, what more can the Scottish Government do to help taxi firms to get key workers to their work safely?
As part of the initial Covid response, we worked with taxi companies in particular in order to help to provide them with additional income. There was, for example, a scheme to support contracting to get patients to the health support that they need.
As part of the response in Aberdeen, we also provided Aberdeen City Council with a discretionary fund, some of which could be used for taxi services, which were identified as a particular sector in which demand might be limited by closures elsewhere, although they were still able to operate.
The contingency fund that I have just described has an element of discretion that will allow local authorities to identify businesses such as taxis, so I encourage Monica Lennon to talk to her local council to see whether it can use its allocation to support important businesses, such as the one that she mentioned in her question.
Nightclubs can currently apply for support grants, but only if they have not opened at all since March. They can do so by, for example, changing their licence in order to open as a pub. That is the situation that faces Brian Fulton of Holdfast Entertainment, who spent £12,000 trying to adapt his premises in order to keep going, only to have to close again after one week and then find out that he cannot now, as a result, receive support. Does the cabinet secretary recognise how unfair it is to penalise people who are doing everything they can do to save jobs? Will she allow nightclubs that are simply trying to survive to apply for support?
I recognise the issue, and it is being addressed as we speak. On nightclubs in particular, those that provide curated music have been able to apply to the cultural venues fund that is being administered by Creative Scotland, but those that do not provide curated music are now being provided with a nightclubs fund because it is important that we support them.
Maurice Golden has raised an important point. Because of the challenges that businesses are facing, many are adapting and many will have to do that for some time to come, either because of a collapse in demand, or perhaps because they can no longer open because of the level that their area is on. Adaptation of business will, therefore, be really important.
So many businesses have changed in the past few weeks because of the collapse of the furlough scheme, as was. Many people anticipated that and therefore changed their business. We do not, however, want to penalise people for adapting their businesses. I therefore take Maurice Golden’s point very seriously. It is being addressed as we speak, as I said, and an announcement will be made shortly for businesses such as the one that he mentioned.
I declare an interest, in that my cousin owns a recording and rehearsal studio.
The Covid-19 business hardship fund is restricted to hospitality businesses and gyms, but they are not the only businesses that are affected. Will the Government urgently review the criteria for the fund in order to include other businesses, many of which are in the commercial culture sector, that are unable to operate under the current restrictions—especially the disallowing of multiple households from meeting indoors—or will she give a commitment that those businesses will have access to the contingency fund?
I just talked about the current scheme, which has the contingency fund and two other elements—one for businesses that are closed and the second for those that are not closed or being required to close, but whose revenues are being impacted. As we move on to the next scheme, which supports the strategic framework, that element remains. Businesses whose demand has collapsed or has been reduced but that are not required to close can apply for that lower level of funding support. We will keep a regular eye on how that develops.
The schemes have obviously been developed quickly, and there is always room for adaptation and change. As Claire Baker is, I am keen to ensure that the culture sector—in particular, music—continues to be supported. That is why we are focusing so much on the sector as part of our use of the £107 million in consequentials and the additional Scottish Government support.
Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made an open-ended commitment to support businesses in England for as long as is necessary. He can do that because he can borrow to pay for it, whereas the Scottish Government cannot.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that the United Kingdom Government must provide the same funding guarantee to Scottish businesses or, if it will not do that, that it should provide the Scottish Government with the necessary financial powers to protect the future of Scottish jobs and businesses?
Yes—obviously, I agree. Our concern is that that the support will be demand led; we know that business grants for businesses that are affected by the tier 2 restrictions in England have not generated further consequential funding, at this stage.
We definitely and urgently need clarity on funding. My colleague Ms Forbes wrote to the chancellor on 20 October about the issue. The £700 million that was provided to Scotland as part of our consequentials is meant to last for six months, until the end of the financial year. It is meant to cover public health, transport and a host of other public service areas.
It is unfair for businesses not to have the same guarantee of funding, should they move between different levels, be required to close or be impacted even if they remain open. They should not be restricted in their ability to access funds, and we do not want the limited amount that we have to run out before the end of the financial year. We urgently need clarity in order that we can make sure that Scotland is treated as fairly as England and other parts of the United Kingdom, in that regard.
United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund (Discussions)
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the UK Government regarding the timeline for the draft consultation on the UK shared prosperity fund. (S5O-04690)
Scotland’s European Union structural fund programmes close in two months, but the UK Government has failed to provide appropriate detail about their proposed replacements. Preliminary conversations took place in Scotland in late 2018, but despite my best efforts there has been no substantial engagement since. Recently, a scheduled meeting with the UK minister with responsibility for communities and local government was cancelled without explanation, and no alternative date was provided.
None of that is acceptable, but I assure Mr Beattie and other members that we will keep trying to get meaningful engagement with the UK Government on the matter.
Professor David Bell wrote a media article last week and concluded:
“A future UKSPF ... needs to be devolved: Whitehall doesn’t know best when it comes to understanding the needs of communities and businesses in Scotland.”
Does the minister share that view, and should we be concerned that Westminster will grab those powers and funds from Scotland?
I am increasingly concerned that Westminster is seeking to grab those powers and funds from Scotland. Michael Gove, when he spoke at the Finance and Constitution Committee last month, was unable to give his word that Westminster will not, without the Scottish Parliament’s consent, pass legislation in respect of devolved areas.
That position was endorsed by Paul Scully MP, who stated in an interview that the shared prosperity fund will be controlled directly by Westminster, bypassing the Scottish Government. I have written to Mr Scully to demand confirmation and clarity on those plans, but to date I have received no response. It is clear that there is strong support for that funding and those powers staying in Scotland, and I will keep on fighting to achieve that.
Scottish Growth Scheme
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the Scottish growth scheme. (S5O-04691)
The aim of the Scottish growth scheme has always been to unlock investment—public sector, private sector and European—to support businesses, especially young technology-based businesses, that cannot readily access the capital that they need from traditional sources such as banks. The scheme is demand led and, despite the impact of the current Covid pandemic, as at 30 September 2020 it has unlocked investment of some £273 million in debt and equity for 481 companies.
I thank the minister for that answer, but—as she will be well aware—£500 million was promised when the scheme was launched. Given the current climate, what more will be done to ensure that as many businesses as possible across the country can have access to the money that was promised to them three years ago?
As the Conservatives well know, it is a scheme, not a fund. It is not £500 million of public resources that have to be allocated or distributed—it is demand led, as I said. As the member appreciates, there are challenges just now, which is why we have ensured that, in the marketing and promotion of the scheme, we are targeting those companies that are in need. In particular, we are appointing fund managers who can identify micro and smaller companies that can benefit as they evolve, develop and react to opportunities in these difficult times.
We will continue to help and support businesses through the scheme, but I point out that one funding stream, which includes European investment funds and the European regional development fund, will be cut off as a result of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.
Lockdown (Treatment of Staff)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take in relation to hospitality and other businesses that may be treating their staff unfairly during the lockdown restrictions. (S5O-04692)
In the absence of powers over employment law, we are employing all levers that are available to us to embed fair work practices in workplaces across Scotland and to keep fair work at the heart of our economic recovery. That is why, on 19 July, we issued a refreshed joint statement with the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and business organisations, outlining our shared commitment to fair work practices in Scotland. Although we are very conscious of the challenges facing employers and businesses at this time, adopting fair work practices is now more important than ever.
Many workers in the hospitality trade have been treated very unfairly during the pandemic. Some high-profile venues have disregarded their rights, often by denying them furlough and eroding their terms and conditions. Does the minister agree that there must be an increased focus, now and post-Covid, on the treatment of workers, particularly those in the hospitality trade?
I agree with that premise. I am acutely aware of the need for us to embed fair work practices in the hospitality sector and across the whole economy. Although I do not know the specifics of the examples to which Rona Mackay referred, I would be happy to receive the details if she wanted to provide them. Such things are happening, which is very concerning, and we must collectively commit to addressing those issues.
The Scottish tourism recovery task force that Fergus Ewing and I jointly chair recently published a series of recommendations in the area, and we will take that work forward in due course.
We appreciate that there are limitations around employment law, but it is vital that steps continue to be taken to deal with unfair working practices and unscrupulous employers. Concerns have been raised throughout the pandemic about unfair fire-and-rehire policies. Does the minister share my revulsion at that practice, and does he agree that steps should be taken to stop it?
That practice has been reported as a concern over the recent period, and I will be able to discuss it with the STUC and its affiliates. I have concerns about that type of practice not being wholly compatible with our aims around fair work. Ms Maguire correctly makes the point that employment law is reserved, but I have recently written to Gavin Newlands MP, setting out the Scottish Government’s broad support for his private member’s bill, which seeks to tackle the matter. Ms Maguire and other members will follow with interest where Mr Newlands’s bill ends up going.
Covid-19 (Impact on Highlands and Islands Businesses)
To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out of the impact of Covid-19 on businesses across the Highlands and Islands. (S5O-04693)
We are liaising with local authorities and enterprise agencies so that we may better understand the impact of Covid-19 and the wider actions that are required to enable recovery in local communities and wider regions.
A recent report published by Highlands and Islands Enterprise found that the impact of Covid-19 on the regional economy will be significant. The report emphasised the importance of tourism and visitor spend in the local economy. I will continue to examine the regional impacts to ensure that the specific needs of Scotland’s regions are supported.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that there are many parts of the region where the loss of even one business or a small number of jobs can have a disproportionate impact on the local economy and community. Building on the work that the cabinet secretary has said Highlands and Islands Enterprise is already doing, how are Business Gateway offices being utilised in identifying areas where businesses or jobs are at risk, and how are they being tasked and resourced to target interventions and support accordingly?
Business Gateway can provide support and will be the first point of contact for many businesses. The online support that is available across Scotland is helpful for all businesses.
Jamie Halcro Johnston raises an important point about resilience in particular communities. At the discussions that took place at the convention of the Highlands and Islands on Monday, in which I took part, the leader of Highland Council raised that concern in relation to resilience over the winter period. We are acutely aware of the point. Part of the consideration during Monday’s discussions at the convention sought to identify what could be done in different areas. It was clear that resilience and opportunities in different communities vary from one part of the Highlands and Islands to another, so support must be particularly responsive to the needs of individuals.
Jamie Halcro Johnston mentioned the impact that just one or two businesses can have: we are very much alert to that, and I thank him for drawing that point to everyone’s attention.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that businesses in the Highlands and Islands have faced restrictions while having to work hard to serve those who were encouraged to take staycations this year. I have been asked by businesses whether, in the future, rather than locking them down together with the whole of Scotland or a wider area, it is worth allowing them to stay open and serve their local community. In that way, they can provide a service to their local community and save jobs in remote rural communities.
That is an important point. The adoption of more localised, local-authority-based levels for restrictions brings with it some consequences—some intended and some unintended—and issues around travel potentially represent one of those. What is expected has pretty much been set out, but I absolutely agree that people’s ability to serve their local community will be important for the resilience of those communities in the future.
The discussions that have been taking place with the hospitality and tourism sectors, which have involved my colleague Fergus Ewing and others, have been addressing some of those issues. Things may develop, and we will see what the final document looks like and what it says.
Rhoda Grant makes a point about how we can continue to provide opportunities, particularly in relation to businesses serving local communities, depending on their size. The situation can be variable—the Highlands and Islands is an enormous area—but that can be part of the continuing considerations.
I am concerned that the current grant scheme is no longer fit for purpose. Yesterday’s changes will reduce the number of businesses that are compelled to close, particularly in hospitality, even though those businesses will in reality remain closed, because the restrictions that are still in place are so tight that they will not make it worth opening. The changes could result in a reduction of a third in the grant that would be available to them.
Will the cabinet secretary reconsider the grant scheme as well as the balance of support between hardship and compulsion to close, to ensure that we get that right and support the businesses that need it?
We are open to continuing to discuss and consider the issues around access to different types of support, depending the position of a business. If businesses are required to close, they have the opportunity to benefit from the £3,000 grant. However, they can also benefit from the job support scheme. That scheme is set at a rate of 60 per cent. If businesses that are impacted can access the job support scheme, they can be financed and supported in relation to employees that work only one day a week. That is at a different level.
I hear what the member is saying and the point has been raised in the discussions that we have had. We have had to develop schemes rapidly: we announced our funding for the current closures on the same day as we heard the latest job support scheme changes, so it is a moveable feast, as the member can see.
Businesses want to know what they can access and we have to incentivise their being able to open and trade when that is possible, rather than having people see closure as a better option. If the member is saying that, by allowing, through the levels, more businesses to stay open, we might penalise them in terms of grants, I hear him and we will reflect on the point.
United Kingdom Government Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
To ask the Scottish Government what communications it has had with the UK Government regarding extending the furlough scheme. (S5O-04695)
The Scottish Government has made repeated representations to the UK Government about extending the furlough scheme, including in correspondence with UK ministers.
We have consistently raised concerns about the importance of extending support and about the many people who continue to fall through the gaps in UK provision. We welcome the recent changes to the job support scheme. Under the new scheme, when the business is open, an employee will get a minimum of 73 per cent of their normal wages, compared with 80 per cent under the original furlough scheme. Similarly, the self-employed are provided with only 40 per cent of a three-month average income, which is completely inadequate and fails to protect otherwise viable businesses and livelihoods during these unprecedented times.
We appreciate that the recent changes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced go some way towards addressing the shortfall. However, the Scottish Government believes that that support does not go far enough—or indeed for a long enough period of time—to effectively mitigate the on-going impact on workers and the economy.
Further to the reference to the job support scheme—I have my doubts whether it will do what it says on the tin—has the Scottish Government made an estimate of the resulting job losses, which are already happening in Scotland as furlough has petered out and the new, rather inadequate, scheme has been introduced? Those losses are already happening in my constituency of Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale.
Constituency MSPs will clearly be aware of what is happening in their area. The Scottish Government is as yet unable to provide an estimate of the number of job losses in Scotland, given that the job support scheme was updated only at the end of last week and that it has taken three announcements about it in the space of a month to even get to this point.
The issue causes great worry and anxiety to businesses. The chancellor has been too slow; we are now three days away from the end of the furlough scheme and, as Christine Grahame pointed out, many businesses already face redundancies and some have completed the redundancy processes by now. The chancellor also needs to do more to set out what support he will provide to the 160,000 workers in Scotland who are still on full-time furlough.
Covid-19 (Support for New Ways of Working)
To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support businesses adapting to new ways of working as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04696)
We have worked and continue to work in collaboration with industry, trade unions, regulators, local authorities and others, including equality organisations, to publish and refine sectoral guidance to support the continued safe recovery of our economy.
To date, we have provided an unprecedented package of support to businesses. As we look ahead to a new levels approach, we will continue to work collaboratively to understand and ensure, as far as we can and with the resources available to us, the support for businesses that are required to close or that are otherwise affected, by protective measures.
I thank the minister for a difficult-to-hear response; I think that I picked up its main theme. I thank the minister for the answer, as far as I could hear it, and I remind him that the Government’s own digital growth fund has not paid out anything like the £36 million promised by the Scottish National Party in 2017.
Will the minister confirm to us here today that the digital growth fund is still open? If it is still open, for how much longer will it be so?
The digital growth fund is not directly in my purview. I commit to taking that question away and coming back directly to Mr Corry with a comprehensive update. I hope that he has heard that.
Thank you. That concludes portfolio questions. We will move on in a moment to the next item of business.