Covid-19 (Tourism Industry Support)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 26th May 2020.

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Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

4. To ask the Scottish Government, in light of Specialist Leisure Group Ltd entering administration, resulting in seven hotels across Scotland ceasing to trade, what further steps it is considering to support the tourism industry. (S5T-02197)

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I was very sorry to learn of Specialist Leisure Group entering administration, and our thoughts are with the large number of employees who are directly affected in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.

The Scottish Government has done a great deal to support tourism businesses in these most difficult times. In particular, we have provided very substantial financial support.

Tomorrow—for the sixth time, I think—I will speak with Nigel Huddleston, my UK counterpart. I will be pressing him on the fact that the many businesses that have rateable values in excess of £51,000—in particular, rural hotels in Scotland—have had no grant support from the UK Government scheme. I believe that it is not too late for the UK Government to put right that defect, if it wishes. I very much hope that the UK Treasury will listen very carefully and help such businesses to bridge the gap through these troubled times.

I also want to ensure that relaxations to the furlough scheme are flexible enough to assist businesses in Scotland and meet their needs.

Finally, it is vital that we enable businesses in the tourism sector to resume as soon as they can safely do so. A great deal of our effort at the current time is devoted to that vital task.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

I thank the cabinet secretary for that detailed response.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the crisis has created an extremely difficult environment for coach operators—the Caledonian Travel brand was part of Specialist Leisure Group, for example. Will he outline the discussions that he has undertaken with coach operators about the long-term sustainability of that sector, given the current challenges? Have those discussions included the role that those operators could play in school transport when schools return after the summer break?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I have had a lengthy discussion with a number of coach operators, including representatives of the trade body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK.

Most of the coach operators that operate in the tourism sector do so exclusively. Other operators also work for education authorities—local authorities—in providing school transport. As Mr Finnie’s question implies, it is possible that, in the future, some coaches, at least for an interim period, could help out with school transport, or indeed with public transport—not least because, as I understand it, through working closely with my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, the requirements of social distancing for bus transport mean that only a very small proportion of the seats will be used, meaning that more buses will be required.

Mr Finnie has made a very practical point, if I have interpreted it correctly; it is one that we are interested in pursuing, working with him and with all members.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for confirmation of the important role that the coach sector could play. Is there a role for the Scottish Trades Union Congress in ensuring that any support that the Government provides will underpin the fair work agenda?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Yes. We have always worked very closely with the STUC. Over the years, I have valued its counsel and involvement in ensuring that work arrangements are fair to employees. This is another example of that.

The STUC will be concerned—as I am—that the UK Government has not yet come up with a bespoke scheme to provide assistance for the coach sector, which is so important for the tourism sector overall. If people cannot travel to Scotland to visit our hotels or leave cruise liners to see visitor attractions, or if coaches cannot be used to collect visitors from airports or railway stations and take them to their onward destinations, the task of resuming our successful tourism industry will be that much the harder.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have a few supplementary requests, so it would be good if members could be succinct.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

The tourism sector is very anxious that the Scottish Government may not continue the financial support that has been provided so far, even if it advises that the sector will remain closed during the very important summer season. Will more financial support be available from the Scottish Government if it advises that the sector will remain closed?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Mr Rennie has made a very important point. I understand that my colleague Fiona Hyslop will be making a statement later this afternoon that may be of interest to the member. We in the Scottish Government certainly realise that our job to provide a financial bridge through this difficulty is not yet complete. The bridge is under construction; it is not finished.

We need to continue to work in a non-partisan way with the UK Government on these matters, recognising that the bridge is not yet complete. In particular, the furlough scheme needs to be extended beyond October. This morning, I spoke to a group of north Highland hoteliers who said that the most important single issue to enable their survival would be a more flexible furlough scheme that would allow them options to navigate through to Easter next year, especially if, as now, there is uncertainty as to whether there will be any chance of a summer season for hotels this year. It is essential that we approach the need to provide that support in an open-minded and non-political, non-partisan way; otherwise, I am afraid that we will see the example of the sad administration of the leading company Shearings followed by others. The issue could not be more important, and I very much hope that the UK Government will be of the same view.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

The cabinet secretary has rightly pointed out that the UK Government’s furloughing has been a lifeline for the tourism industry. Will the Scottish Government create a bespoke scheme for tourism and hospitality businesses that are fighting for their survival and which are not eligible for the grants of £10,000 or £25,000 or the creative, tourism and hospitality enterprises hardship fund or pivotal enterprise resilience fund?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I have been absolutely open from the outset that our job is to provide a financial support mechanism to all legitimate tourism businesses, by which I mean not Airbnbs or second home owners who make a bit of money on the side, but genuine businesses that rely for their main livelihood on tourism and now have no business.

I have consistently argued that it is the Government’s business to keep those businesses going and it follows automatically that the bed-and-breakfast establishments, photographers, people involved in field sports, amusement arcades and marinas and small boat owners who may not have been eligible for the original grant schemes require other support. That work is on-going and I suggest that Rachael Hamilton listens carefully to this afternoon’s statement, when I hope that further information will be forthcoming. I absolutely assure her that I support the principle that she has set out. I hope that the UK Government Treasury does not regard the issue as a box that has a tick occupying it. There is no tick in this box. It is our job to complete the bridge and complete the task—and we are determined to do so.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The Bay Waverley Castle hotel is a 77-bedroom hotel in Melrose that is part of the Bay Hotels group. Staff living on site have been given 28 days’ notice to find alternative accommodation, so they have been made jobless and homeless in one go. What assistance can the Scottish Government, perhaps in liaison with the local authority, give to those members of staff?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am not aware of that case. Christine Grahame has drawn it to my attention and, thereby, to the public’s attention. I will ask my officials to look into the matter straight away. It is of concern that, during this period in particular, people will face eviction from their property, but I do not know the individual circumstances of the case in question. I will, of course, undertake to work with Christine Grahame if she wishes me to do so to look into the matter and to see what can be done to help the individuals who are now in an extremely invidious position.