Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided more than £330 million to support businesses and protect jobs across the Highlands and Islands.
That is alongside the £58.1 million budget that we provided to support the work of Highlands and Islands Enterprise across the region. During this financial year, Highlands and Islands Enterprise has supported more than 1,900 jobs, of which 1,125 were safeguarded.
We are also investing £242.5 million in regional growth deals across the Highlands and Islands, as part of a package of measures to ensure longer-term growth and job creation.
Next week, Parliament will go into recess ahead of the election. During that period, the Scottish Government cannot make any funding announcements, yet in the Highlands and Islands, and in the rest of Scotland, companies are going to the wall due to a lack of Covid business support. Sadly, many of those companies are in constituencies represented by cabinet secretaries who have the powers and levers to help but who refuse to use them.
Will the Scottish Government therefore give power and funds to local authorities, which stand ready to assist those companies during this period? To those companies, £2,000 of discretionary support is an insult rather than assistance.
I do not accept the premise of the member’s question. More than £500 million has been distributed to businesses across Scotland since November and more than £3 billion has been distributed in the past year. Those members who did not support the budget would not support its funding for businesses, but business support is part of the budget provision.
The announcement made by the First Minister this week will see payments made for business support in March, as well as a top-up grant—which Rhoda Grant may not be aware of—of additional support to help businesses restart during April and May. There is extensive support.
The discretionary fund has been increased from £30 million to £120 million. Local authorities have discretion in how to spend that. I agree that £2,000 is not adequate, except for micro-companies, but many companies would benefit from that discretionary fund. I encourage councils to use that fund during April.
A number of factors, such as seasonality in the Highlands and Islands snow sport sector, can cause people to start jobs later in the year. Any failure to open the furlough scheme to people who started new jobs since October leaves a significant and growing number of workers without support.
We have called on the chancellor to revise the cut-off date for entry to the scheme, to provide support to people who have started new jobs since the end of October 2020, who will not be able to access their support until 1 May 2021. The member is correct in saying that that is a way of supporting people, particularly those in new jobs.
We know that the Highlands and Islands region has a distinct number of people of people on furlough because of the nature of its economy.
Hospitality is one of the hardest-hit sectors of our economy. Against the backdrop of average debt of £80,000 per site, and with much of the sector relying on evening trade, will the Scottish Government review the restrictions on indoor sale of alcohol and opening times, in order to provide a lifeline to the sector and protect jobs?
That is exactly what we did in discussion with the hospitality industry, and I commend the work of the Scottish Tourism Alliance in particular.
Two things are very important to make sure that companies are sustainable. One is to make sure that customers from across Scotland can reach them, so the major change of allowing all of us to travel across Scotland from 26 April is really important. The other thing that is important for viability is opening hours, which is exactly why we listened to the hospitality industry, which has welcomed the changes that we are making. Do some people in the industry, including pub owners, want to be able to sell alcohol much earlier? Yes, but they have said that right throughout the year.
We have to balance health with the economy. We have managed to deliver hope and confidence with the announcement, which has, by and large, been welcomed by business. There is a route map through these difficulties. For the hospitality sector in particular, initially from 26 April and then from 17 May and onwards, it is really important to get the closed economy back open.
An islands impact assessment of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd’s plans to centralise air traffic services, backed by the Scottish Government, has identified a number of significant economic impacts and no positive impacts at all. In my Orkney Islands constituency, it is estimated that 16 full-time equivalent jobs would go, with the loss of £650,000 in gross salaries.
How does the cabinet secretary believe that that is consistent with Scottish Government principles to support jobs in our islands?
Clearly, my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, whose responsibility this is, has to balance the modernisation of the system, working with air traffic controllers, with the local impact of airports on particular economies that the member points out.
I will draw the member’s concerns to the attention of Michael Matheson and ensure that he is alert to them—I am sure that he is. Obviously, islands impact assessments are part and parcel of the Scottish Government’s approach, and there have to be checks and balances in that. The associated economic benefits of improving the provision of any airport will be essential. Clearly, the Covid implications add another dimension to the impacts that the member is talking about.