Meeting date: Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 30 September 2020
Agenda: Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Supporting Students through the Global Pandemic, Family Care Givers, Agriculture Bill, Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Albion Rovers FC (Mark Millar Donation)
- Point of Order
- Portfolio Question Time
- Supporting Students through the Global Pandemic
- Family Care Givers
- Agriculture Bill
- Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Albion Rovers FC (Mark Millar Donation)
Portfolio Question Time
Social Security and Older People
We begin this afternoon’s formal business with portfolio questions on the theme of social security and older people. Our first question is from Mark Griffin, who joins us remotely.
Covid-19 (Disability Assistance Benefits)
To ask the Scottish Government how its planned disability assistance benefits will support people experiencing the long-term health impacts of Covid-19. (S5O-04633)
People experiencing long-term impacts on their daily lives as a result of Covid-19 will be encouraged to access disability assistance benefits in the same way as clients who apply with other health conditions and disabilities.
The cabinet secretary will know that many key workers have caught Covid-19 in the workplace and that, sadly, some have died. Health workers, carers and retail and public transport workers have been—and still are—on the front line. Some are already suffering from so-called long Covid, which is the most devastating disease that Scotland has seen in the workplace in a generation.
Will the cabinet secretary say how the Scottish Government might use its powers on assistance for people with employment injuries to support workers who are suffering from the long-term impacts of Covid-19? How might people who have contracted the virus at work contribute to the Government’s thinking?
The Government is keen to ensure that it is supporting front-line workers who have contracted Covid-19 as a result of their employment. That is something that I know the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport in particular has taken seriously, especially when it comes to health and social care staff.
We will, of course, look at all the powers that we have in the Scottish Parliament to ensure that we protect workers as much as possible, and to ensure that we can reduce as much as possible the numbers who contract Covid-19 through their employment.
We encourage people who have long-term Covid-19 and are experiencing symptoms to access the benefits system as anyone else would, as I said in my original answer. However, we will, of course, review closely whether more can be done on the issue.
Scottish Child Payment
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the estimate by the Scottish Fiscal Commission that 194,000 children under six will be eligible for the Scottish child payment. (S5O-04634)
I am proud that we are using our new social security powers to introduce the Scottish child payment, which will open for applications in November, with first payments to start from the end of February 2021.
The payment will provide £10 a week to families who are on a low income, and with no cap on the number of children who can be claimed for. It will support up to 194,000 children this year, which is a 14 per cent increase since the last Scottish Government forecasts were given. That rise is due to an increase in the number of people who are receiving universal credit as a result of the pandemic.
The SFC’s forecast is, as the cabinet secretary said, considerably higher than its original estimate, due to more households needing to rely on United Kingdom benefits. Although the new Scottish child payment will make a world of difference to low-income families, does the minister agree that many households are not served well by the UK Government, which has cut benefits to children and capped family benefits, and that reversing those decisions would make a huge difference in tackling child poverty?
I agree absolutely with Joan McAlpine. We have continually called on the UK Government to scrap the two-child limit, the rape clause and the benefit cap, and to fix other flaws in the universal credit system.
We know, for example, that more than 13,000 households in Scotland are affected by the two-child limit, and are receiving around £232 less per month than they would otherwise get for every child over the limit, and that more than 6,000 households are impacted by the benefit cap, and are losing on average £2,600 a year. That would be unacceptable at any time, but it is particularly so at this time.
Prior to the pandemic, the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that ending the benefit cap and the two-child limit would bring 10,000 children out of poverty in Scotland. In June, it reported that their removal could prevent the expected rise in child poverty resulting from the pandemic.
We will do what we can within the powers of the Scottish Parliament. We are demonstrating that with the launch of the Scottish child payment, but with our having responsibility for only about 15 per cent of the UK Government’s benefit spend, there is clearly an absolute imperative for the UK Government to take seriously its support for low-income families at this time—and, indeed, at all times.
I remind members that portfolio questions 3, 4 and 8 are grouped together, so any supplementaries should be taken after question 8, but members can press their buttons to request a supplementary at any time.
Question 3 is from Annie Wells, who joins us remotely.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Older People)
[Inaudible.]—Covid-19 restrictions, what action it is taking to help older people who are more likely to be at risk from extended periods of loneliness. (S5O-04635)
We missed the beginning of that question, but I think that Ms McKelvie can answer from the written version of the question.
Yes, I can. Thank you.
We know that the pandemic has created and exacerbated feelings of social isolation and loneliness for individuals, and we understand that the new restrictions will continue those challenges.
I continue to meet regularly—most recently on 10 September—with the national implementation group for our social isolation and loneliness strategy. I am pleased to say that we have extended the funding that is available to organisations including Befriending Networks, Generations Working Together and Age Scotland to enable them to continue to work together with us to address the harms that are caused by this awful pandemic.
I also recognise the mental health impacts that social isolation and loneliness can bring, so we have provided an additional £2.6 million to expand the work of national health service mental health and wellbeing services. Work continues with Public Health Scotland and mental health partners to ensure that social isolation and loneliness remain at the forefront of our approach during the pandemic and beyond it.
As we move into the colder months, it will be essential for older people to have contact with their loved ones—their families and friends. What, if any, restrictions are likely to be lifted for the colder months for that specific group of individuals?
I cannot yet say what restrictions will be lifted. Obviously, that will be led by the science and by Public Health Scotland and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, who will determine where restrictions are applied and disapplied, which is challenging.
However, we have been working closely with organisations and with health colleagues on winter planning and how it can be informed more closely by the work of the social isolation and loneliness national implementation group and our older people’s strategic action forum. We continue to feed all that into a proposed winter plan. We will provide Annie Wells with updated information on that, via my health colleagues, as soon as possible.
Covid-19 (Older People)
To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact on older people of reduced contact with family and friends as a result of Covid-19. (S5O-04636)
We have never before seen anything like this awful virus and the restrictions that are in place to keep people safe. I know that we have all had experience of those. A careful balance has to be struck to keep the virus under control and protect lives. We measure everything against four social harms, and we are, of course, aware of the impact that the restrictions have across society on families and friends who have not been able to have face-to-face contact or make the usual social connections. That will, of course, include many older people. We hear about that from our older people’s strategic action forum and about the work that it is doing to alleviate that.
We have taken a number of steps to mitigate the impacts. In addition to the actions that I just outlined to Annie Wells, as part of the £350 million communities fund, we have provided approximately £2 million to projects in communities across Scotland that are supporting older people. That includes preparing and delivering meals, signposting to information and local support, and offering telefriending and telephone support services.
“When my mother moved to the care home she started to settle in and pick up—until lockdown. She has severe anxiety and depression and this has been deteriorating since I have not been allowed to visit.”
That is just one example of the many families who are suffering as a result of the restricted visiting regulations for care homes. What can the minister do to change Government policy in this very important area?
The impact of the restrictions on visiting has not been lost on any of us over the past few weeks. We probably all have family members that we want to spend time with—it has been very difficult not to do that. There will be a debate on the issue later this afternoon, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has met families who are looking for changes to the restrictions. There might be updated guidance on that. The health secretary will be in a much better position to update Willie Rennie on the position than I am. I had a conversation with her yesterday on the topic, and I will have a follow-up conversation with her tomorrow.
If Willie Rennie is minded to accept this, I will get the most up-to-date position from the cabinet secretary after her meetings with families, and I will let him know what progress has been made.
Covid-19 (Family Contact with Older People)
To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the imposition of more restrictive regulations in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, what discussions the minister for older people has had with the health secretary regarding allowing families contact with older relatives while in care. (S5O-04640)
The answer is similar to the one that I have just given Willie Rennie. We are very aware of the profound impact that the coronavirus has had on so many people, including those who want to visit their loved ones in care homes as well as the residents. We know that visiting is a fundamental part of the health and wellbeing of those who live in care homes and that they really need it. I recognise how incredibly hard it has been for residents and their families not to have regular face-to-face contact.
I have been kept fully apprised of the situation. As the member may have heard me say earlier, I spoke with the health secretary just yesterday and I will have a follow-up meeting with her tomorrow, at which I will get an update on the work that she has been doing with families.
A complex balance needs to be struck in allowing visiting to take place safely. In making sure that everyone gets what they need, we must take account of the risk of harm. That is part of the work that we need to do. The Scottish Government continues to work with Scottish Care and others on such difficult decisions. As I said, the health secretary recently met campaigners, and we are looking forward to receiving an update from her on that.
It is important to make the point that, with the exception of care homes that are in areas where local restrictions are in place, the restrictions that were announced by the First Minister will not have any further impact on care home residents and their families. In areas where further restrictions are not in place, there will be fewer impacts.
My 22-year-old constituent Lucy wrote to me to say:
“I am my Grandma’s Power of Attorney and also my Mother’s legal Guardian ... I feel a great deal of responsibility to keep them both safe and well ... Having two family members in care homes during a pandemic is extremely difficult. I had to go 4 whole months without seeing my mum due to lockdown.
Visiting restrictions are having a devastating effect on people’s mental health.”
She went into a lot of detail on the situation that she has faced and what she thinks could be done.
Will the minister show compassion and meet Lucy to work out a way forward on the issue?
Gordon Lindhurst will know that, since 3 July, care homes have been able to permit residents to meet one designated visitor outdoors, provided that their home meets certain strict criteria. In addition, since 10 August, care homes have been able to allow outdoor visits involving two or three visitors once a week, and I know that some care homes have designated visitors for indoor visiting.
As I said in response to previous questions, work is being done on the issue right now. The health secretary met some families last week, and I know that she plans to meet them again. We will ensure that we get up-to-date information on the situation and that every step that we take is informed by those families and that it strikes a fine balance that takes into account the risk of harm. We will give Mr Lindhurst an update on that as soon as we can, which I am sure will give his constituent some comfort. I will ask the health secretary to consider involving his constituent in the conversations that she is having with other families, with a view to ensuring that she gets the hearing that she wants to get.
The pandemic has emphasised the importance of digital connectivity for education, for access to public services and online shopping and for staying in touch with friends and family. How will older people be helped by the Government’s new Connecting Scotland programme?
The £5 million first phase of the Connecting Scotland programme is being delivered in partnership with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, local authorities, third sector organisations and the digital sector, led by ScotlandIS. More than 7,500 people who, clinically, are at increased risk of getting Covid have been supported with a package of a device, internet connection and support to get online. Demographic data on end users is still being collated from the 456 organisations that are supporting end users through Connecting Scotland, but initial evaluations show that around 40 per cent of those users are aged 60 and over.
The minister has said that living with varying degrees of lockdown and loss of contact with family and friends is hard enough for all of us, but does she agree that it must be even worse for disabled elderly people, particularly those who are currently being denied audiology services, which means that they cannot interact with family or listen to the television or use other devices such as phones?
Will the minister commit to assisting my elderly deaf constituent who has been without a hearing aid since July and desperately needs a replacement to alleviate his isolation and loneliness?
I am happy to do that. If Elaine Smith wants to drop me the details of her constituent, we can raise the matter on her behalf to make sure that he gets the support that he needs.
Work is being done right now to enable care homes to allow such routine services to recommence. Work is under way with our health colleagues and social care professionals to ensure that face-to-face meetings with podiatrists, physiotherapists, optometrists and dentists can go ahead, and I am sure that audiologists will be included in that.
If Elaine Smith drops me a line, we will get her the most up-to-date position. The situation will be linked to what NHS Lanarkshire is doing, so I will have a personal interest in the matter.
Covid-19 (Disabled People)
To ask the Scottish Government how Covid-19 has impacted on disabled people. (S5O-04637)
We have been working closely with a number of disabled people’s organisations to understand the impact of Covid-19 on disabled people and, wherever possible, to develop solutions to issues as they have emerged. We have had regular contact with disabled people’s organisations throughout the pandemic, at both official and ministerial levels, and nearly £275,000 of funding has gone directly to DPOs to support their Covid response work.
On 17 September, the Scottish Government published a number of statistical releases that set out the evidence that we have that tells us about the impact of Covid-19 across the protected characteristics, and they can be found on the Scottish Government’s website. We know what disabled people are more likely to be affected by. They have difficulties in getting food and medicines, paying bills and collecting pensions or benefits, and those are the areas where they are most likely to need help. We also have reports about people feeling anxious about becoming seriously ill with Covid-19 and, of course, feeling lonely, which we have just spoken about.
The minister may be aware of the report that was produced in August by the Glasgow Disability Alliance, which is based in my constituency. It feels that inequalities have been supercharged by Covid. Will the minister commit to engaging with the GDA and disabled people in general to make sure that they are involved, that their rights are respected and that they are supported?
Yes—absolutely. I speak to the GDA’s chief executive officer, Tressa Burke, regularly, especially during the pandemic. Tressa is a member of our social renewal advisory board and takes part in regular disability round tables with officials and ministers.
As a direct response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the Scottish Government has granted the GDA over £190,000 to meet specific needs. The funding supports its welfare rights helpline and wellbeing helpline. The GDA piloted the work to have disabled people digitally connected, often for the first time, and I have heard stories about how transformational that has been for some individuals. That is being done in conjunction with our Connecting Scotland programme, which I outlined to Rona Mackay. The GDA has also received further funding to help it to deliver food to isolated people.
However, it is always a pleasure to get the opportunity to meet the GDA, and I can absolutely commit to engaging with it.
Wave 2 Benefits (Delivery Timetable)
To ask the Scottish Government when it will provide an update on the social security delivery timetable for all wave 2 benefits. (S5O-04638)
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the Scottish Government, Social Security Scotland and the Department for Work and Pensions, whose support we need to transfer social security powers. As I set out in April, we are having to rework our timetable to deliver the remaining devolved benefits and complete case transfer. That is an on-going and complex exercise.
We need to consider the impact of the pandemic not only on our services, but on the availability of health and social care professionals across health boards and local authorities to bring their expertise to the co-design and delivery of disability and carer benefits at a time when many of them are still needed on the front line to support communities during the pandemic. That includes the recruitment of practitioners to help us to make consistent, high-quality decisions about entitlements and the role that health professionals and local authorities will play in providing the agency with supporting information on clients’ applications.
We also have to take account of the extraordinary pressures that the DWP is still experiencing following the unprecedented demand for universal credit, which is impacting on the resources that it is able to devote to the devolution programme.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but can she tell me, first, what the current staffing level is within Social Security Scotland and what it should be; and, secondly, when the body will be sufficiently equipped to deliver all the wave 2 benefits that could and should have been fully devolved and delivered by now? Lastly, does she welcome the UK Government’s work to continue to deliver the benefits successfully on her behalf?
I will respond to the member in writing on the current staffing level in the agency, but I can confirm today—and I reassure him about this—that the agency has the number of staff that it requires to deal effectively not only with the live benefits, but with the Scottish child payment, applications for which will open soon.
Recruitment for dealing with the Scottish child payment has largely been done just before or during the pandemic. I assure Peter Chapman that we are ready to deliver the benefits that we have said that we will deliver this year.
The member attempts to deride the work of the Scottish Government and the agency but, as I said, the pandemic has affected all parts of the Scottish Government and of the UK Government, which includes the DWP. Elements of the devolution programme in the DWP are not staffed in the same way as they were pre-pandemic—as is right; I make no criticism. That is a responsible move by the DWP so that it concentrates its efforts where they are needed.
We will update Parliament as soon as we can. We depend partly on the DWP, because we have a joint programme with it. The DWP is under extreme pressures too, as I hope Peter Chapman appreciates. We will continue to work constructively with it during the devolution of benefits.
Recruitment for dealing with the Scottish child payment has largely been done just before or during the pandemic. I assure Peter Chapman that we are ready to deliver the benefits that we have said that we will deliver this year.
The member attempts to deride the work of the Scottish Government and the agency, but, as I said, the pandemic has affected all parts of the Scottish Government and the UK Government, including the DWP. Elements of the devolution programme in the DWP are not staffed in the same way as they were pre-pandemic—as is right; I make no criticism of that. That is a responsible move by the DWP to ensure that it concentrates its efforts where they are needed.
We will update Parliament as soon as we can. We depend partly on the DWP, because we have a joint programme with it. The DWP is under extreme pressures, too, as I hope Peter Chapman appreciates. We will continue to work constructively with it during the devolution of benefits.
Covid-19 (Older People)
To ask the Scottish Government how it supports organisations helping older people through the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04639)
Older people have been adversely affected by restrictions that have been put in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus, and we have provided a range of support for them. As I have outlined in a number of answers, we continue to support organisations—for example, from our £350 million communities fund—that directly help older people, such as Age Scotland, whose vital lifeline provides support to older people, including through advice and friendship, on a range of issues.
The Scottish Government has provided more than £1.1 million to support older people’s organisations at a national level and has supported local community projects that help older people. I meet the older people’s strategic action forum monthly—the most recent meeting was on 17 September—to hear at first hand about the issues that older people face and to consider what additional support the Scottish Government can provide.
Following some of the bad press that young people have got lately, will the minister commend young people’s befriending services, through which they voluntarily befriend vulnerable elderly people and help them with loneliness? Will she commend in particular the award-winning scheme at Calderglen high school in East Kilbride?
I am absolutely delighted to do that. As the member will know, Generations Working Together is a nationally recognised centre of excellence that supports the development of intergenerational work across Scotland. It is also a valued stakeholder and a vocal key member of the older people’s strategic action forum, which carries out excellent work.
Along with creating training and guidance around intergenerational practice, the organisation runs a number of projects to promote intergenerational activities, including the valued befriending project at Calderglen high school. Now in its 10th year, the befriending scheme pairs up senior pupils with older people in the community and is valued by both pupils and older people. The school was recently awarded the most improved project 2020 by Generations Working Together, which is a great achievement for the school and all the volunteers.
The befriending project is organised in association with Claremont church, and Generations Working Together is working with the church minister to set up Zoom meetings to facilitate online connections between younger and older people.
We could not possibly miss out mentioning local activist Avril Anderson and the great work that she does locally in ensuring that young people and older people get connected.
Covid-19 (Aviation Sector)
To ask the Scottish Government how much funding it is allocating to support the aviation sector to recover from the impact of Covid-19. (S5O-04641)
As part of our £2.3 billion package of business support, we have provided 100 per cent non-domestic rates relief for airports and ground handling providers in 2020-21—something that is not available in England or Wales. That relief is worth an estimated £18 million.
We are also working with airports on route recovery, to help rebuild connectivity for business and tourism and win back routes and employment opportunities. As part of that work, we provide support to airlines in the form of co-operative marketing packages, and we provide market intelligence and data on the potential of the Scottish market.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that update.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Fraser of Allander institute recently warned that many thousands of jobs are at risk of being lost due to the pandemic. We all accept and understand some of the reasons for that, but the First Minister, in a recent update to Parliament, shared her opinion that no one should travel overseas. That advice will be taken literally by many in Scotland. Does the cabinet secretary agree with that sentiment? Should people be travelling overseas? Has the cabinet secretary considered with her Cabinet colleagues the introduction and implementation of testing and detection facilities in our airports? Surely that is one way of saving what is left of our vital travel industry.
That is, of course, one of the major concerns that I have about the cliff edge that we know is coming at the end of October. The chancellor may well have just written off thousands of Scottish jobs when the furlough ends in October.
On the substance of the point, Jamie Greene mentioned testing. We know, for example, that Covid has an incubation period of up to 14 days, so we are looking very carefully at how we can operate, on a four-nations basis, additional measures at airports that might be required. That includes testing. We want to continue to explore the quarantine and testing balance to ensure that the risk to public health is minimised.
The First Minister has been very clear that she is not casting judgment on the choices that people make. However, with the potential for the number of cases to increase, we need to ensure that we provide guidance and support to individuals to take the right decisions to minimise the spread of the virus and ensure that we eliminate and suppress it.
The news today that the preferred bidder for Prestwick airport does not wish to complete the purchase of the sale will be deeply worrying for the 300 workers who are directly employed by the airport and the many thousands across Ayrshire whose jobs rely on it. Is that a wake-up call for the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government to listen to the trade unions that represent those workers and to provide more sector-specific support before the current unemployment crisis in aviation turns into an unemployment tsunami?
On the latter part of Colin Smyth’s question, he is right to say that we need to work together to ensure that we prevent the risk of mass redundancies. That is precisely why we have been calling for two things: an extension to the job retention scheme, because the replacement does not avert the risk of mass redundancies; and additional consequentials to ensure that we can tailor our response. Where we can go further, we have done so—that was demonstrated in my first answer on rates relief. We are willing to go further but, with a fixed budget, we cannot do so without additional consequentials.
Can the cabinet secretary say how many direct and indirect jobs would have been lost at Prestwick and through the wider supply chain if the Government had taken the advice of North Ayrshire Council’s Tory group leader Tom Marshall and closed Prestwick airport?
Glasgow Prestwick airport directly employs around 300 people, and it has been estimated that it supports a further 1,400 jobs indirectly. Frankly, the Tories need to wake up to the risk that we face when it comes to mass redundancies across the country.
Alexander Burnett is joining us remotely for question 2.
Non-domestic Rates (Revaluation)
To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has had with local authorities regarding the proposal in its programme for government for a revaluation of non-domestic rates in 2023. (S5O-04642)
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests in respect of businesses that pay rates.
The Minister for Public Finance and Migration, Ben Macpherson, is also joining us remotely.
Councils were notified through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation. The Scottish Government also engaged with a number of business organisations in advance.
The challenges around the tone date for the next revaluation were the key determination in our decision. A tone date of 1 April 2022 will allow for market conditions to properly adjust to any post-Covid and post-Brexit effects—more so than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Parliament, taking account of the views of key stakeholders, will have the opportunity to consider the subordinate legislation that we will introduce this year to set the revaluation on 1 April 2023, with a one-year tone date.
According to the Scottish Government’s own figures, Aberdeenshire businesses have lost out on Covid-19 funding because of controversial rate hikes, with 73 per cent of properties in Aberdeenshire paying more following the increase in 2017, despite the oil crash in 2015. That meant that fewer than half of all businesses were eligible for grant funding. Will the minister review the support that is available for those Aberdeenshire businesses, or will he continue to use the north-east as a cash cow?
I remind Mr Burnett that the position that we have taken on the 2023 revaluation is the same as that taken by the United Kingdom Government; it also has broad support from the Federation of Small Businesses. Of course, there are considerations for us in the period before the budget with regard to support for businesses, and we are considering those prudently. Like all aspects of the support that we are considering as a Government, those considerations are dependent on the financial position that is available to us.
I urge Mr Burnett to relay his points and any ideas that he has to me and I will consider them in good faith. However, I emphasise the position that the Scottish Retail Consortium has also highlighted: there is a cliff edge coming, not just with the end of furlough, but at the end of this financial year when it comes to business rates.
I wish to work with all members of the Parliament to urge the UK Government to take action to create the Barnett consequentials to support business rates in the next financial year in the way that we have been able to do together during this financial year.
Question 3 has had to be withdrawn.
Autumn Budget Revision
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the autumn budget revision. (S5O-04644)
As I outlined in my ministerial statement yesterday, the Scottish Government’s financial response to Covid-19 is now over £6.5 billion. That follows the autumn budget revision deploying £2.5 billion of funding, £1.8 billion of which is for health and social care.
Many businesses and organisations are currently facing financial difficulty as a direct result of Covid-19 restrictions—often specific to Scotland—having been placed on them. For example, soft and indoor play centres have been allowed to open in the rest of the United Kingdom, but not in Scotland; outdoor education centres are not being allowed to provide residential education; and self-catering accommodation providers were told one day that they could open and host mixed households and the next day were told that they could not.
Will any of the unspent £537 million of Barnett consequentials that the cabinet secretary says are fully committed to the Covid-19 response be spent on those sectors? Without more direct support, the clock is ticking down to the point where many of those organisations might have to close.
Although the £500 million of resource consequentials that the member references are formally unallocated, the balance is fully committed. When it comes to providing specific support, he will know that when the Aberdeen City Council area was facing a localised lockdown, we provided a package of support of £1 million to ensure that some of the local businesses could get grants.
As normal, we were not informed in advance about the UK Government’s equivalent scheme and the announcement on 9 September about providing grants of up to £1,500 to businesses in England that are impacted by local lockdowns. However, I am pressing the UK Government in the hope that there will be funding implications and consequentials for Scotland that we can use to develop broadly equivalent schemes for sectors that are not able to open, or for localised lockdowns.
A lot of the aid that we have been able to give to businesses and others has been a result of the United Kingdom’s funding. Does the UK Government’s failure to have an autumn budget have any impact on the cabinet secretary’s projections?
It has significant implications. Delaying the UK budget this autumn is deeply problematic, as anyone who was involved in last year’s budget process on any side of the chamber will know. In terms of our funding position, every penny is deployed and committed to our Covid-19 response. The two areas that I have been pressing the chancellor on are to either extend the job retention scheme to avoid the cliff edge or to provide additional consequentials so that we can tailor our response in the event of localised lockdowns or for the sectors that are hardest hit.
The cabinet secretary told us yesterday, and has just repeated in her answer to Colin Smyth, that there are more than £500 million of Barnett consequentials that are unallocated, but she also says that that money is fully committed. Both those statements cannot be true at the same time, so which is it? Is the money available or is it fully committed, and if it is fully committed, when is she going to tell us what it is fully committed to?
I know that, as a long-standing member of the Finance and Constitution Committee, Murdo Fraser understands how the budget revision process works. He will know full well that we have two opportunities to revise the budget, and we have had a third opportunity this year. That means that we formally update the budget position in those revisions. It does not mean that every penny is allocated at every budget revision.
As for the finances that are not yet formally allocated, he will know that the Treasury guaranteed a certain amount of consequentials, and I was very grateful to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for announcing that. That means, however, that not all the finances should be allocated at this point. We will continue to connect the funding that we have been given to, for example, the issues that Colin Smyth raised around localised lockdowns. We need to compensate local government for the lost income scheme. We are providing further support for transport networks, which we know are under funding pressures. We have the scheme for individuals who are self-isolating. Those are all committed areas of spend that are not formally allocated in this budget revision but will be committed in February.
Covid-19 (Budget Shortfall)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it has concerns that it could face a budget shortfall this financial year as a direct result of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04645)
The Covid outbreak, as well as our exit from the European Union, presents an unprecedented challenge to the Scottish Government’s resources. In the absence of additional fiscal powers, consequentials and reprioritisation of spending remain the only funding sources available to us.
We have already undertaken significant reprioritisation, of around £600 million to date. Without additional United Kingdom Government funding or flexibility, we face the impossible choice of either not funding further essential Covid spend and thus harming recovery, or making deep cuts to other areas of expenditure, which would similarly undermine the recovery and directly impact the people of Scotland. It is an impossible choice that we have been given.
I wonder what that impossible choice will mean for service delivery and employment in the public sector and, indeed, the wider Scottish economy.
[Inaudible.]—Covid, we have maintained funding for key public services. We will do everything in our power to continue to do so. We will use every power and every penny at our disposal. Public sector employees are crucial in the delivery of those services and in our response to coronavirus. Our commitment to their employment, including to no compulsory redundancies, remains in place.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Business Support)
To ask the Scottish Government how much funding it is allocating to support businesses in the west of Scotland to sustain the local economy as increased restrictions are implemented. (S5O-04646)
As the member will know, restrictions in the west of Scotland mainly concern households, so no specific funding has been allocated for local restrictions there. We have provided a package of direct support to business that is worth over £2.3 billion. That support is provided on top of support from United Kingdom Government schemes, which can and should go further to support Scottish businesses through these challenging times, for example, most obviously, by extending the job retention scheme.
We are pressing the UK Government for clarity on the funding implications for Scotland of its local restrictions support grant, so that broadly equivalent schemes can be developed in Scotland.
One of the worst-hit sectors throughout the Covid crisis has been the tourism and hospitality industry, which provides a vital lifeline of work for many of my constituents. A recent study by the University of Edinburgh highlights a significant risk to younger businesses in the sector that have no profit and increasing debt. With the increased likelihood of a second wave of infections and continued localised lockdowns ahead, what action has the Scottish Government taken specifically to offer financial support to younger businesses in the tourism sector?
I agree with Maurice Corry that tourism and hospitality have been particularly badly hit. That is precisely why we have put in place the hardship scheme and the pivotal enterprise resilience fund to provide additional support, which was not available elsewhere.
I also gently say to the member that that is precisely why we are pleading with the UK Government not to write off businesses that still have not opened or cannot open, which is what the new job support scheme will do. The chancellor is determining what is and is not a viable business, but we know that what he believes is not always the case, given that some businesses would be able to operate in normal circumstances but, through no fault of their own, cannot yet do so.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Business Support)
To ask the Scottish Government how much funding it has allocated to support businesses in areas that have been affected by localised lockdowns. (S5O-04647)
When it came to the localised lockdown in Aberdeen city, we allocated £1 million to provide grants to businesses that were required to close due to local restrictions. That included discretionary support for sectors that were not required to close as well as support for those that were. As of 23 September, 257 grants have been made. We will continue to consider the needs of businesses to reflect the circumstances of local outbreaks and we are pressing the United Kingdom Government for clarity on the funding implications of its equivalent scheme, which is the local restriction support grant.
Yesterday, the First Minister flippantly dismissed the genuine concerns from Aberdeen, showing that the Scottish National Party Government dismisses concerns about the impact of shutting down businesses for three weeks. Those concerns are not patent nonsense. People’s livelihoods are at risk. There are inconsistencies in the SNP approach to Aberdeen and Glasgow, and that sets an unfair precedent and creates anxiety about potential future lockdowns. With Covid cases on the rise again, and my constituents rightly worried, in the event of an SNP-inflicted lockdown, will the Scottish Government commit to publishing supporting evidence to back up its decisions and tell us when a financial lockdown support package will be created and will be available to cushion the blow to the Scottish economy?
What is absolutely patent nonsense is assuming that we base decisions on localised lockdowns on anything other than cold, hard evidence. When it comes to local restrictions and business support, perhaps the member could join me in pleading with the UK Government to provide the clarity that I have asked for on the consequentials coming from its local restrictions support grant. When it came to the Aberdeen lockdown, we moved ahead of the UK Government to put in place the £1 million of support. Rachael Hamilton knows full well that, with a fixed budget, and without any fiscal flexibility, the only source of funding that we have is consequentials. As soon as those are available, we will be able to develop our equivalent scheme.
We all know how important the furlough scheme has been in supporting businesses that were affected by coronavirus. With many sectors still unable to reopen and others being required to close, it is the wrong time to bring the scheme to an end. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that the job protection measures that were set up by the UK Government last week do not go far enough, given that our economy has not yet fully reopened?
In Scotland, 217,000 people remain on furlough and the chancellor has said that the scheme is designed to support viable jobs, but it is still unclear how those in what he would classify as unviable jobs will be supported. It is disappointing that the scheme makes no provision for local lockdowns, the needs of sectors that are dealing with on-going restrictions, or those that have not yet reopened. I share David Torrance’s concerns, which were also reflected in comments from the Scottish Tourism Alliance and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The cabinet secretary will be aware of the significant concerns of the self-catering industry about the changes in guidance on household composition; 60 per cent of businesses have already experienced cancellations, and 42 per cent expect significant financial losses. What action will the cabinet secretary take to minimise the impact on the sector of the revised guidance coming from the Scottish Government?
Jackie Baillie will know that I have many self-catering properties in my constituency, so I also get the casework.
First, Fergus Ewing has spoken as recently as yesterday to the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers to understand its concerns and see what more we can do. Secondly, Jackie Baillie will know that there was financial support for self-catering businesses during the first lockdown. I am keen to ensure that we provide what support we can to those businesses, but the big issue is that the replacement for the job retention scheme will not do so, and we do not have the funding that would allow us to tailor our response to Scotland. We will use every penny that is at our disposal to provide support but, at this point, we do not have the funding to develop new schemes for financial support.
To ask the cabinet secretary whether guarantees will be offered to ensure that, whether it is Barnett consequentials or not, newly announced funding will be directed to cash-strapped councils and we will not see a repeat of the situation that occurred during the summer when councillors were crying out for funding to be delivered.
The member will know that we have already passed on more funding to local authorities than we have received in consequentials. I will make three other points. Recently, we agreed additional funding of £49 million for local authorities; we are developing a lost income scheme to help councils that have lost out on income, fees and charging; and, thirdly, I have written to the chancellor with a package of fiscal flexibilities for local authorities that the leader of my local council, Highland Council, who is not an SNP member, called a game changer. I hope that that package will provide the support that local authorities need.
Tax Revenues (Impact Assessment)
To ask the Scottish Government whether an up-to-date impact assessment on Scottish tax revenues post-Covid-19 and post-Brexit has been prepared. (S5O-04648)
The Scottish Fiscal Commission, as Scotland’s official forecaster, published a report on the likely fiscal impacts of Covid-19 on 3 September. The report shows that the pandemic continues to have a profound effect on the fiscal and economic outlook in Scotland. The Scottish Fiscal Commission’s work to date has been based on an orderly withdrawal from the European Union on 1 January, so it is clear that those forecasts might be worse. The fact that we still do not know the precise nature of Brexit is unacceptable and it makes our modelling and planning very difficult.
Does the Scottish Government have concerns about future Barnett funding arrangements, given the predictions that a lethal combination of Brexit and the winding down of the furlough scheme will be seriously detrimental to the economy?
We have committed to spending all the £6.5 billion of additional Barnett funding to tackle Covid-19. If we are to meet the combined challenges of Brexit and Covid, as well as supporting economic recovery, we need either additional funding or the powers to respond. The fact that, right now, we are overly reliant on policy choices made by the United Kingdom Government means that we are responding to those multiple issues with one hand tied behind our backs.