Like many others around the chamber, I speak to businesses every day about the devastating impact of the public health crisis on their trade, operations and income. Much of the fragile optimism of the summer months, as we eased out of lockdown, turned to pessimism and despair as the virus resurged and additional measures were necessary to suppress the virus.
All of us have stories and examples of grief, loss and worry. However, business owners, employers and employees in many sectors have had the additional trauma and despair of staying afloat in impossible circumstances.
I want to say at the outset that I know business support—in the form of grants, non-domestic rates relief or advice and guidance—does not replace all the lost income and does not compensate for an open, thriving economy. That is why, through the strategic framework, we have sought to move away from a blanket approach to keep as many businesses and as much of the economy open as possible, and it is why our objective is to get the economy trading as fully as possible by suppressing the virus.
As Richard Leonard rightly said, the health crisis and the economic crisis are interdependent. Managing the virus effectively enables the economy to stay open and businesses to trade. In turn, protecting the strengths of our wider economy will have long-term health benefits because ultimately a strong, fair trading economy and business base protects and creates jobs, reduces poverty and reduces wider health harms.
Today’s announcement on the vaccine is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Scottish Government is ready to deploy the vaccine quickly and safely. I know that in many cases businesses are operating with hugely reduced trade, that reserves are almost depleted and that they have exhausted business support. However, there is hope.
I also take hope from the way that businesses—large and small—have been public spirited. I commend and thank Tesco for voluntarily choosing to refund the public finances for the support that it received through rates relief. Tesco has taken that decision in recognition of its resilience through the crisis. I know that that will not be possible for every business, but I encourage those that have been similarly resilient to follow Tesco’s lead. We are looking at providing a means by which other businesses can follow suit. I can confirm that every penny returned to us will be invested in Scotland’s recovery from Covid and will be used to support those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic—[
I have only four minutes in which to set out the Government’s position. I will take as many interventions as members like in my closing comments.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we deployed every penny of business support as quickly as possible. We have invested £2.3 billion to support businesses and recovery. There was over £48 million to help businesses affected by restrictions in October and £972 million for non-domestic rates relief. Our small business and retail, hospitality and leisure grant funds were worth £1 billion. There was over £185 million of additional funding for the pivotal resilience scheme to support key anchor businesses and the hardship fund for businesses that did not pay non-domestic rates. There was also a package of sectoral support measures, for example for seafood and fisheries.
Since November, that support has changed. Our strategic framework is complemented by the business fund that is administered by local authorities, providing set grants of up to £3,000 every four weeks to eligible businesses that have been closed or directly impacted by restrictions. That grant support is in place as tier levels are reviewed and applied locally
One of the difficulties of not having access to HM Revenue and Customs, or to a nationwide business tax, is that support for businesses that fall through the cracks must be deployed sector by sector. We will continue to announce funding for businesses that have fallen through the cracks. To that end, last month we announced another £45 million to support business, of which £30 million was for a new local authority discretionary fund and £15 million was for a scheme for the newly self-employed.
I often hear it said that we should copy English schemes. If we had copied the UK Government’s approach, there would have been no hardship fund, no pivotal resilience fund and no newly self-employed fund. There would have been less generous recurring grants for businesses caught in the tiers and levels: the smallest businesses receive less in England and those outwith tier 2 that do not have to close by law receive substantially less, if anything.
I am in no doubt about the trials that businesses face right now, in my constituency and across the country. We have used every penny at our disposal to provide support and will continue to do so where we can. The reference to £2.2 billion in the Labour motion is ridiculous, as anyone with a calculator would know. I can assure members that all funding available to us is being, and will continue to be, used to support businesses.