It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this important debate on a matter that is not raised often enough in this place. As a former retailer, I have seen many of these issues over the years, and I am delighted that she has been able to bring the debate to Westminster Hall. As we will get into online retail, I bring the attention of hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The hon. Lady talked about the effects on people, communities and indeed companies. She brought up the spectre of the BHS closures, which was deeply hurtful to many people involved. She also talked about the work of local authorities and the possibility of them getting involved, and correctly called for a longer-term strategy and vision from the UK Government.
The hon. Lady talked about the business rate system in England, which is a key issue. I will come on to the Scottish context. She also mentioned the requirement for proper pay for people working in retail. She will be glad to know that in Scotland the real living wage—not the pretendy one—is being promoted by the Scottish Government, which indeed is a real living wage employer. Almost just at this moment, the 1,500th private real living wage employer in Scotland has been unveiled: Johnstons of Elgin, the menswear retailer. It was congratulated by the fair work Minister, Jamie Hepburn MSP. Congratulations to Johnstons; it is a really good example.
John Howell talked about changes to banking and rural communities. I disagree about everyone being able to go on to online banking. Many people with disabilities and people in rural areas need banking facilities in the heart of their communities. In particular, those who are vulnerable need access to cash in a way that cannot be done online. The hon. Gentleman did, however, make an interesting point about town planning, which people should consider carefully.
David Hanson discussed retail’s important contribution to the UK economy and employment. Indeed, in Scotland, retail is the largest private sector employer, accounting for 250,300 jobs. Retailers are kind-hearted, having donated £10 million to good causes in Scotland, and retail accounted for 13% of all new businesses formed in Scotland in 2016. It also accounts for a fifth of all business rates in Scotland.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about out-of-town versus city centre. There is much debate about how we marry the two so that everyone can benefit, because they are realities. That is one for greater consideration. He also mentioned the loss of UK Government offices, which I have seen in the highlands, with the tax offices, Department for Work and Pensions offices, local passport offices and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency offices all coming out of communities and affecting people and local businesses, particularly retail.
The right hon. Gentleman brought up another subject close to my heart: support for post offices. These people desperately need a better deal so they can secure a living wage. As the Minister will acknowledge, there are people in post offices struggling to make a living. The right hon. Gentleman also made many suggestions to the Minister in a very good speech.
Bill Grant talked about regenerating town centres, accepting the online issue. I still get a bit of a shiver when thinking about this future of deliveries by drones, with all these drones whizzing about. The temptation to bat them out of the way might be too strong, but we should be aware that that may come in the future. He talked, quite rightly, about the danger of isolation for the elderly and those who are not internet-savvy—I think he included himself—with different ways to shop. He said that people deserved better, and he talked about the real living wage, so I am sure he will join me in congratulating Johnstons of Elgin.
The hon. Gentleman quite rightly said that local authorities and the Scottish Government should work together. He will be glad to welcome the work that the Scottish Government are doing with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on town centres. As well as providing the best business rates in the UK, the SNP Scottish Government have put together a business rates relief package worth more than £75 million. Ninety per cent. of businesses in Scotland will pay a lower poundage than they would anywhere else in the UK. The Scottish Government have launched a £50 million town centres fund in partnership with COSLA, with local authorities allocating the funds. That goes a long way in promoting the work between Government and the local authorities.