30 October 2014

S4M-11332 Supported Business

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): Good afternoon. The first item of business is a debate on motion S4M-11332, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on supported businesses.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

The word “very” is duly noted, Presiding Officer.

It is clear from the debate thus far that there is a pretty broad consensus—it may stop at the aisle to my right, beyond which the Conservatives sit—that the issue of supported business is important and is one on which we have shared objectives. If we differ, I think that we do so on means, not objectives.

Let me commend two speeches, which have best illustrated that consensus and the nature of the challenge. One is the most recent speech by Siobhan McMahon, who has taken a close interest in the subject over a period. Although I do not necessarily agree with everything that she said, no one who listened to her could doubt her commitment. Mike MacKenzie made an outstanding speech from the Scottish National Party benches that captured the essence of the debate.

The Government’s motion quite properly talks about

“enhancing commercial viability through business support and action to increase public and private sector procurement”.

We have talked about the quality of the products that supported businesses can produce, and what has been said is correct. Very early in my married life—I have been married for 45 years—the first bed that we bought was from Blindcraft. It was an excellent product at an excellent price, and it was delivered to us. I am sure that many of us have had very good interactions with supported businesses at various stages in our lives.

Why did I go to Blindcraft? I did so first because I knew about the business and wanted to support it, but also because it made sense economically and I would buy a good product. It is disappointing to hear, as we have done, that comparatively little money is available to help supported businesses to market themselves, which we might all want to ponder from here on in.

Let us talk about what profit actually is. In its briefing for the debate, Inclusion Scotland highlights that, for every £1 that the Treasury spends on the DWP’s access to work scheme, it receives £1.60 in additional tax, so the intervention makes a profit. That leads us from the particular to the general. When we support people who require a supported environment in which to work, the odds are that the economics of that will make sense, but if we have people who have dropped out of the system and who, because of a lack of social contact, a lack of income and a lack of integration into the wider community, require more economic and social support, the cost rises. In other words, a profit is involved in supporting supported businesses. We do not have to be moral about it, as it almost certainly makes economic sense.

The trouble is that the position of people who work for supported businesses is being conflated with the position of all people who require any money from the state, who are being portrayed as leeches on the state for whom funding must be cut to the bone. The reality is that a proper economic examination of the issue would come up with a very different view.

Some interesting activities go on in supported industries. I looked into supported industries around the world and found that some of them are keeping old crafts alive. For example, in the town of Sorède in France, there is what is thought to be the last manufacturer of whips—I know that we could all think of uses for whips in this debate and many others—which is a supported business that uses local materials. We often find that supported businesses operate in little niches that are of value and interest. Such activities are going on all around the world.

An article from the New Statesman in 2013 made a few interesting observations on the subject. The first point to note is that we need to be slightly careful about when the reduction in the number of people employed in the supported business sector started. The first round of closures started under the Labour Government in 2008, when 1,600 workers were given the boot. Five years later, the DWP found that only 200 of those 1,600 people had been successful in finding jobs. Therefore, it is a long-run problem, and we should not point at any single individual or any single Government, although what is being done now will certainly not be helpful.

On 4 March 2013, Jim Sheridan asked a question in the House of Commons about the £8 million that was supposed to be made available to former Remploy people to find work or access benefits. It appears from Esther McVey’s answer and, more fundamentally, from the work of Private Eye—a print publication for which I have the highest regard—that it is unclear whether anyone got anything out of that. Most of the money seems to have been spent on unpaid volunteering, work experience or coffee mornings. On that basis, even the money that has been made available to support people in that position seems not to have been wisely deployed.

We meet people with disabilities in our everyday lives. I regularly go to a local cafe where the majority of the staff are people with disabilities; they do not work in a supported enterprise but in a supported environment within an enterprise. There are many models that will suit many people.

The Government and its companies and agencies do very well. I remember meeting Eric Ruthven on a visit that I made as a minister to the CalMac Ferries office in Gourock. He started working there in the 1990s after coming out of a supported environment. He is now a valued member of staff—he is probably the best-known member of staff to people who get the ferry at Gourock—and he received an MBE for the charitable work that he has done locally. We should never underestimate people with disabilities.

I close by thinking about big and small private companies—public companies. There is increasing pressure on them in a number of ways to behave morally. There is increasing adoption of the living wage without legislative requirements. That is good news. Corporate social responsibility is debated in many boardrooms across these islands. We should ensure that this is the next subject that is debated there. We could do what the Danes have just done in legislation on the environment—companies in Denmark now have to give an environmental statement as part of their annual reporting. Such a move could prove useful here.

Finally, I address the 118 public authorities that the Labour amendment mentions. I have looked at the list of the 20 supported businesses and racked my brains to see what exactly the Water Industry Commission for Scotland would be able to buy from any of them. I am sure that the commission is eager to use them, but it has a good complement of furniture that is relatively modern.

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab): I think that I made it clear to the minister that I was suggesting a mandate of at least one public contract on local authorities and health boards, which we know buy uniforms and beds that are made by sheltered workplaces. If the minister would like to exclude quangos such as Scottish Water that he knows do not buy anything that supported businesses make, that would be a decision for the Government.

Stewart Stevenson: I am not sure whether I have been reinstated to a previous position, because I appear to have been addressed as the minister, but I will reply anyway. The Labour amendment says 118; I merely suggest in the kindest way that my colleagues in the chamber must proofread their amendments more carefully before lodging them, because the 118 certainly includes the Water Industry Commission for Scotland. I am not saying that it is impossible for it to purchase from a supported business at some future date but, if we were to make that a legal requirement, that would be a substantial difficulty.

Thank you for the extra time, Presiding Officer.


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