Business Support

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 2nd December 2020.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Let me get right to the nub of the debate. The Scottish Government has received £8.2 billion in Barnett consequentials since the start of the pandemic, and according to the Scottish Parliament information centre, which is independent of any Government and political party, £2.2 billion remains to be formally allocated.

Let us take the cabinet secretary at face value. By my reckoning, more than half of that figure is currently unallocated and unspent, while businesses are going to the wall and jobs are being lost. There does not appear to be, on the part of the Government, any sense of urgency about getting the money out to where it can make the most difference. Let me repeat that businesses are going to the wall now. Jobs are being lost now—not next month or next year, but now.

Small business Saturday is this weekend, as members said. It is an initiative that Labour encouraged when it was in Government and it is embraced by us all. It encourages us to support local small businesses in our communities, not just now but all year round. In a spirit of consensus, I also commend the Scotland loves local campaign, because all efforts to protect our high streets and small businesses are welcome.

However, there will be no shopping in my area on Saturday. There will be no going out to restaurants, no looking for Christmas presents at my local shops and no retail on offer, other than supermarkets and takeaways. My high street is a ghost town, as is the case in the 11 local authority areas that are in level 4 of the framework. In other words, we are in lockdown.

I recognise that there is a public health crisis, but we need to minimise the economic crisis, which is having a huge impact on jobs and livelihoods. That means putting support in place now and over the next few months, to sustain businesses until the vaccine is in play and restrictions can be properly lifted.

I made those points in the debate a few weeks ago and I make no apology for repeating them. The hotel support fund, for example, which had £14 million in it, was oversubscribed. Only 30 per cent of applicants got an award. Small, family-run hotels—some are in my area—have received no support at all and are on the brink of closing. Many have furloughed staff and some have had to lay off staff completely. Many are struggling to stay afloat and see no future, despite news about the vaccine.

The coronavirus restrictions fund and hardship fund were allocated some £48 million between them. How much has been spent? I deal with more and more companies in my area that have been rejected. Some were not eligible, because the criteria were too tight. Hotels were rejected. Small businesses in the local supply chain were rejected. People without business bank accounts were rejected. Bed and breakfasts were rejected. The list goes on. Despite our questions, we have still not been told how much was spent and how much is left over. The coronavirus restrictions fund closed on 3 November, four weeks ago, so there should be no excuse for not providing the information.

I will give a couple of examples. A small business that supplies local hotels and restaurants with hygiene supplies did not get a grant and was told that it was not eligible for hardship funds because it does not trade in perishable goods. However, there is a local craft brewer that will need to get rid of its cask ales because the pubs are shut. That business’s product is perishable, but it is clearly not perishable enough, because it did not get help. It will have to throw its beer away—many of my colleagues will regard that action as criminal—but we are talking about people’s livelihoods.

Now we have the strategic framework business fund, but the criteria have not substantially changed. How many businesses will be eligible to apply? How many have already applied and been rejected, and how much has been set aside? I have asked the Scottish Government time after time, but no figure has been provided. Grants in those categories are paid four weeks in arrears when the need is immediate. What about the discretionary fund? £30 million for supply-chain companies and people such as taxi drivers is incredibly welcome, but the fund is not yet open and there seems to be no date in sight.

There are more than 350,000 small businesses in Scotland that employ 1.2 million people. They account for 99.3 per cent of all private sector businesses. They need our help not next month or next year—they need it now.

I will finish where I started. The Scottish Government has £2.2 billion that has not been formally allocated and more than half of that is not spent, while businesses are going to the wall. It needs to get the money out.