I have never been in opposition, but I would have thought that it would be easier to secure results for constituents if members dealt in fact. It does them no favours to pretend that the full £2.2 billion is unspent.
However, I will start with a point about transparency. In this unprecedented year, I accept that there is a need for additional information. That is one of the reasons why we had the extra budget revision in May, and why I offered, exceptionally, to set out more information to the Finance and Constitution Committee in a December update, which will happen in the coming days. When it comes to business support, my commitment is to keeping that committee updated, as far as possible, in order to aid its scrutiny.
People who work with the budget, including those who sit on that committee, will know that the UK Government’s guarantee has been very helpful for planning ahead, but it also means that there is less transparency on what generated the available consequentials, and that funding can be given unexpectedly to the Scottish Government by the UK Government. That allows us to go further when it comes to business support, as well as covering things such as vaccines and the continuation of the transport system.
Some—not many—members raised very constructive ideas about specific sectors and businesses. Gillian Martin talked about being an advocate for the businesses in her constituency—as she has been, and as other members have been who have raised specific points with me which we have tried to resolve. To repay the warm words that Willie Rennie bestowed on me, I say that he, too, has been very constructive in raising specific issues that can sometimes—not always—be resolved.
The discretionary funding is of course a partnership with local authorities. As members are always quick to remind me, when we do things in partnership there is a role for local government in coming to an agreement. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has agreed, internally, the distribution, and we have been agreeing the guidance with it. That guidance, as I am sure everybody would accept, needs to strike a balance between clarity, to make sure that we support the sectors that we have mentioned, such as taxi drivers, and discretion, reflecting for example the fact that businesses in the Western Isles may have different needs to those in the middle of Edinburgh.
On Willie Rennie’s other point, I hope that we can announce additional sectoral support for some of the businesses that he mentioned, including travel agents in particular. Work is going on specifically with the travel agents, to ensure that we capture them all.
Maurice Golden said that business support does not go far enough. I agree. If all members agree on one thing, it is that the need far outstrips the funds available. However, we must be realistic. The funding in Scotland has gone further than the UK policies that generated the consequentials. I am not content just with being slightly better than England. We need to make sure that we tailor our support to the businesses that need it.
Some members talked about long-term recovery. Our primary focus is very much on the immediate response to the economic crisis and businesses in distress, but there are questions about long-term recovery, the future of town centres, reskilling and retraining.
Jamie Halcro Johnston said that we need to look beyond the next month. I agree, which is why I make a plea, when it comes to the budget situation. The future is uncertain, so we must use our funding not just to help businesses now, but to ensure that, in the middle of February, there is funding so that businesses can get the recurring grants.