We have heard from around the chamber about some of the challenges that small businesses face. I welcome the opportunity to reflect on those challenges, particularly those in my region. As a Highlands and Islands MSP, I am keenly aware of the opportunities and the challenges that small businesses face. Compared with other parts of Scotland, we seem particularly entrepreneurial: small employers are considerably overrepresented in my region, and they are the backbone of our regional economy.
Much of that comes from necessity. This is not about national businesses or global chains reaching into our communities; it is about small businesses that are part of those communities, growing organically and working to create jobs and build livelihoods.
Seasonal employment around the tourist season remains significant in some parts of the region, offsetting losses from other times of the year and stretching out the impact of what might often be a restricted tourist season, so it is especially hard to see once-viable enterprises go to the wall or be under threat of doing so as the result of a virus that has been unprecedented in its impact on all our lives. Across Scotland, hundreds of desperate decisions have been made in offices, shops and pubs and over kitchen tables as business owners question whether they can continue or whether the pressure of their finances has become overwhelming.
For too many people, those decisions have already been made. Unfortunately, the limited data that we have on the impact of the pandemic on rural Scotland will show us what has happened only after a significant delay, but we can see from around the Highlands and Islands the number of businesses that have shut up shop or that never reopened after the first lockdown—businesses that were unable to make the sums add up.
We know that delays in getting support to such businesses can be the difference between them carrying on or failing. We also know how co-dependent businesses can be in smaller communities. A local hotel can be the linchpin for a whole range of local suppliers, and an events business that has been shut down by restrictions may have been the driver of demand in the nearby hospitality sector.
“Thousands of businesses which supply our retail and hospitality sectors are facing similar levels of hardship as those that have been hit directly.”
One message that we have heard continually from many sectors is that support has come only when it was fought for. Equally, when one sector was granted a package of support, others were often left out or were simply treated as an afterthought.
In the Highlands and Islands, many of our small businesses are facing a hard winter. That is not to say that the support available has not been welcome, but in many cases there are real worries that—to quote the Scottish hospitality group—grants and other help will simply not “touch the sides” of the losses that businesses have suffered.
The main glint of light has been the furlough scheme, which has helped businesses across the UK, large and small, to keep staff on and has protected the best part of a million jobs here in Scotland. About £8.2 billion has come to Scotland to deal with the pandemic as a result of UK Government decisions—an unprecedented figure. As the Fraser of Allander institute has highlighted, however, the Scottish Government has held back key sums, failing to get them in a timely way to the businesses that need them.
We are now in the 10th month of Covid restrictions of varying levels of severity. It has been a long slog for many businesses and employees, with a reactive Scottish Government that has too often taken too long to step up and act. We now need an approach from the Scottish Government that looks beyond the next month and that avoids disproportionate impacts on small businesses or on certain regions in our country, with a vision that considers how we emerge, how we recover and how we rebuild after the pandemic.