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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 28, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 28 November 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, St Andrew’s Day, Portfolio Question Time, Women in Agriculture Task Force (Final Report), Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill: Stage 1, Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Finance, Economy and Fair Work


Scottish Stock Exchange

1. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the establishment of a Scottish stock exchange. (S5O-03831)

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

The Scottish Government recognises that stock exchanges can be an alternative platform for some companies seeking to raise capital for growth investment, while offering investors the opportunity to contribute to the development of listed companies. The establishment of any stock exchange in Scotland is a commercial matter for those seeking to do so.

Murdo Fraser

Scottish ministers, including Mr Hepburn, were enthusiastic in their support for the project heather scheme to create a new Scottish stock exchange, and Scottish Enterprise pledged £750,000 of public money. We now learn from press reports that project heather’s offices lie empty, staff have gone unpaid and debts totalling nearly £1 million have been run up. What support will the Scottish Government give to those who face losing their jobs as a result of the project failing? Given that there is widespread—

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

That is fine, thank you.

Jamie Hepburn

It was not only me who was supportive of the establishment of a stock exchange; Dean Lockhart, who is in Mr Fraser’s party, also expressed his support, and Tavish Scott hosted a reception on the issue at the Parliament when he was a member. I do not criticise him for doing so. I am sure that Mr Fraser would expect us to embrace such opportunities when we have them.

It is important to place on record that none of the money that Scottish Enterprise offered has been drawn down. However, Mr Fraser is right that, if the project does not succeed and people end up out of work, it is incumbent on us to do all that we can to support those individuals. Mr Fraser and other members can be reassured that we will of course do that.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Businesses in Scotland must have confidence in any stock exchange, whether it be a Scottish or United Kingdom one, and due diligence is an important factor in the financial sector. Can the minister advise us what due diligence was done in the appointment of the new chair of the Scottish national investment bank?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That is somewhat wide of the mark. I was at First Minister’s question time when that issue was raised. It is a matter for the minister whether to answer that, but my ruling is that the supplementary is wide of the original question.

Jamie Hepburn

Mr Findlay can be assured that due diligence is always undertaken and that he will get a response in due course.


Brexit Preparations (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley)

2. Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting small businesses in the Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley constituency to prepare for a potentially damaging Brexit and develop economic links with Ireland and the rest of the European Union. (S5O-03832)

The Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy (Kate Forbes)

We are supporting small business through the prepare for Brexit campaign, which offers advice for companies that are concerned about the impact on their business of exiting the EU.

On 13 November, the Republic of Ireland Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, visited Edinburgh to participate in a bilateral meeting with the First Minister, Ms Hyslop and Mr Russell. That successful visit marks the start of the bilateral review process and an opportunity to continue building a positive relationship with our strong European ally, which is a priority market for our export growth plan.

Willie Coffey

A local business forum that I attended in Kilmarnock last week was well attended, with many small businesses keen to hear what support arrangements might be in place to assist them not only to continue trading with European Union partners but to enhance the relationships where possible. Can the minister assure me and my local business constituents that the Scottish Government will take every opportunity to further develop closer economic and social links with Ireland and the rest of the EU post any Brexit situation, should that occur?

Kate Forbes

We are absolutely committed to that relationship in order to provide opportunities for Mr Coffey’s constituents, and we will build on the good work that we are already doing. In 2018-19, our team in Dublin helped to land six inward investment projects from Ireland and hosted six trade missions from Scotland, which supported more than 60 Scottish companies into the Irish market. Our relationship with Ireland is a priority and we will continue to build on it to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses have opportunities in the Irish market.


Youth Employment (Labour Force Survey Data)

3. Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will retract its statements on youth employment, in light of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority’s recent comments on its use of the labour force survey. (S5O-03833)

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

No. The Scottish Government’s statements on youth unemployment are based on official statistics that are routinely published by the Office for National Statistics, which means that they are the latest available official estimate of youth unemployment in Scotland.

Both the Scottish and United Kingdom Governments regularly refer to results from the ONS labour force survey, as it is the most frequently available source of labour market data. Scottish Government statisticians will continue to work with the ONS to discuss its handling of future publications on youth unemployment statistics and the use of the labour force survey. It is crucial that decisions on the use of statistics are taken by professional statisticians. Therefore, it is a decision for Scotland’s chief statistician, who will reflect on the comments that have been made.

Liam Kerr

As the minister well knows, no one is criticising the national statistics—they are not the issue. The issue is that the Scottish Government selectively cherry picked a misleading number that was based on a sample size that was far too low to be reliable. A number of journalists have said that. The Fraser of Allander institute has said that. The Statistics Authority has said that. Is the Scottish National Party Government so arrogant that it cannot even hold up its hands and admit that it made a mistake?

Jamie Hepburn

I go back to the point that I just made—what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Those are not statistics that we alone use; the UK Government comments on them on a monthly basis, and they are utilised by not only the Scottish Government and the UK Government.

If Mr Kerr does not want the Scottish Government to utilise those statistics, I look forward to the same standard being upheld by his party, which routinely uses labour force statistics selectively as well, to do down the labour market. I have seen Murdo Fraser, Alister Jack and David Mundell do that frequently. If Mr Kerr does not want us to use the statistics, I hope that, in future, he will not use them either.


Scottish Budget Delay (Impact on Dumfries and Galloway Council)

4. Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact will be on Dumfries and Galloway Council of the delay to the Scottish budget because of the general election. (S5O-03834)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work (Derek Mackay)

The lack of any certainty on the timing of the United Kingdom budget for 2020-21 means that we continue to manage an uncertain and challenging situation, which has imposed delays on our plans for the Scottish budget. That impacts on all local authorities along with other public bodies—I understand that.

We continue to work with the Finance and Constitution Committee and the Scottish Fiscal Commission to determine the best approach in the circumstances and ensure that we are in a position to introduce a Scottish budget for 2020-21 at the earliest practical opportunity. I will keep our local government and other partners up to date as that work develops.

Emma Harper

The delay to the budget is causing much frustration and concern in Government, local authorities and the third sector. Will the cabinet secretary outline whether any shortfalls are expected in Government funding of Scottish public services, including third sector organisations?

Derek Mackay

Again, that highlights that the UK Government, once elected, should move to a budget-setting process as quickly as possible so that we have political understanding about how it will impact on the devolved Administrations, not least that of Scotland.

We are concerned about that and we are engaging with local government; I have just come from a meeting with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on this and other matters. I want to be able to give as much certainty as I can as quickly as I can.

Emma Harper’s question was specifically about support for local government and third sector organisations. I know that my colleague Aileen Campbell, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, is engaging with the third sector to give further reassurance about that.

However, fundamentally, it is for the UK Government to proceed swiftly with its budget process, so I have written to both the current chancellor and the prospective chancellor to impress on them the need to move to a budget as quickly as possible.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will be happy to acknowledge that we do not have a UK Government budget because we have an upcoming general election, which is what his party called for.

Derek Mackay

We are where we are. Clearly, I am not calling for a UK budget before 12 December; I am calling for one as quickly as possible after 12 December. The sooner that that happens the better, because that will give more time for me to present the Scottish budget, for Murdo Fraser to look at the numbers and for us to have an argument about the numbers. It is important that the timescale allows as much time as possible for scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament.

As I said, we are where we are. We are waiting for the UK Government to be elected. We all have our preferences for what we want that to look like and how Scotland will feature in it. However, any UK Government that respects devolution and wants to ensure the orderly delivery of public services and tax setting in Scotland should proceed with its budget and share information as quickly and sensibly as possible.


Assaults on Retail Workers

5. Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to prevent assaults on retail workers. (S5O-03835)

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

Retail workers play an important role in our communities and it is right that they have legal protection as they go about their work. In 2019-20, the Scottish Government provided financial support to the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, which, among other matters, provides support to businesses to keep their staff safe while at work. Anyone assaulting a retail worker can be dealt with under existing criminal offences, with penalties all the way up to life imprisonment available to the courts.

Daniel Johnson

I remind the chamber that I am a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. In November, USDAW held its annual freedom from fear week and released its latest survey results of more than 1,000 retail staff, which showed a 25 per cent increase in assaults on retail workers compared to the previous year. Shockingly, it also revealed that 15 assaults on shop workers occur every day in Scotland. Given that and the fact that specific protections exist for workers such as border staff, emergency workers and police, is it not time to consider whether the law needs to change to protect shop workers also? Does the minister agree that people who are concerned about these issues should take part in the consultation exercise that the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee has just launched on my Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill?

Jamie Hepburn

Of course, when any prospective legislation is before this Parliament, it is incumbent on people to take part in a consultation. Just like Dan Johnson, I encourage people to take part in that process. As for his bill, we will consider any proposition for legislation that is advanced in good faith. I believe that Mr Johnson is advancing his bill on that basis, but we will of course need to consider its specific provisions. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, who will lead on the bill, is considering it now, and the Scottish Government will respond in due course.


Consumer Protection (Vulnerable People)

6. Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it can take to better enhance the consumer protection for vulnerable people facing aggressive sales at the doorstep. (S5O-03836)

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

Consumer protection remains reserved to the United Kingdom Government, but through advice and advocacy we are doing what we can to support consumers. The Scottish Government is working with a number of partners to produce a scams prevention strategy that will help all consumers with practical steps to reduce the harm and detriment that aggressive sales techniques can cause.

Dr Allan

I have had several instances brought to me in my constituency of elderly people being told by a company that they must sign up for insulation under the UK Government’s energy company obligation scheme. In one instance, a householder was actually told that they would be breaking the law if they did not. I have also seen numerous houses left in a terrible and, in some cases, highly dangerous condition. I appreciate that that is not a Scottish Government scheme, but what can be done to reign in that cynical behaviour towards elderly and often vulnerable people?

Jamie Hepburn

We are all aware from our constituency case loads of too many instances where rogue traders have been operating under that and previous schemes. Of course, some of the activity can constitute a criminal matter and be subject to investigation and potential prosecution, but I believe that there is a clear need for the UK Government to improve consumer protection as part of its energy efficiency schemes. We have raised that with it, and from January it intends to require all businesses participating in the ECO scheme to be registered with TrustMark, the UK Government-sponsored trusted trader scheme. I welcome that response but, in common with Citizens Advice Scotland and others, we have told UK ministers that those changes come a little too late and do not do quite enough to protect vulnerable consumers.

We continue to work with stakeholders to direct householders to our home energy Scotland service, which provides free, expert and impartial advice to anyone who wants to understand how they can heat their home more effectively and efficiently.


Scottish Growth Scheme (Investment in North East Scotland)

7. Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what the level of investment in the north-east has been as part of the Scottish growth scheme. (S5O-03837)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work (Derek Mackay)

The information requested is not available for the designated area. Scottish growth scheme support is available to companies throughout Scotland. Up to 31 October 2019, £165 million of investment has been unlocked for 277 businesses.

Peter Chapman

I remind the cabinet secretary that the growth scheme was supposed to be a £500 million fund over three years but, with just months to go, the Government’s own figures show that, as of the end of September, £160 million—that is the figure that I have—has been invested and less than £30 million of that has come from the Scottish Government itself. What plans does the Government have to give the north-east the investment it needs and deserves before the scheme ends?

Derek Mackay

The Scottish Government has invested and will continue to invest massively in the north-east of Scotland, whether in infrastructure, business support or support for our public services generally. With regard to co-investment, one of the issues relating to the investment propositions for the Scottish growth scheme was investors’ willingness and desire to invest at the time. I have gone through that forensically at the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee. One of the reasons that we heard for some investment being pulled, or not being seen through to the end, was Brexit uncertainty, and whose fault is that? It is the Tories who have put us in the position of Brexit uncertainty. A no-deal Brexit would be calamitous for Scotland’s economy.

What part of Scotland would be worst affected by Brexit? It is the north-east and, in particular, the city of Aberdeen. The member talks about business support, but we are carrying out many actions, and I will announce further actions through the economic action plan. The biggest threat right now to business and prosperity in Scotland and, in particular, the north-east of Scotland, is Brexit, which has been brought upon us by the Conservative Party, which is reckless, incompetent and financially incapable.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Question 8 has not been lodged, so that concludes portfolio questions on finance, economy and fair work. There will be a short suspension before we move on to the next item of business.

14:16 Meeting suspended.  14:18 On resuming—