Monica Lennon MSP is a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament representing Central Scotland. Her career background is in town planning and she is the Convener of the Cross Party Group on Construction. Here, she talks to us about some of the major issues in the industry and how she sees its future.
Hello Monica. Tell us about the Cross Party Group. What do you see as its aims and objectives?
I’ve been a member since I was elected to the Scottish Parliament in May 2016. It’s well-established and respected as a forum for interested MSPs to come together with people from outside the parliament who have expertise. The group has been established mainly to inform policymaking and to influence the political agenda. The CPG’s aim is for Scotland to have a world class construction industry that delivers best value for its clients. There’s also a big focus on safety and on ensuring there’s a good career path for people. We also want to make sure that construction is on the radar of the Scottish Government and its ministers.
You’ve suggested that the Scottish Government should appoint a Chief Construction Adviser to promote fair work and to drive change in the industry. What benefits would this bring?
There was actually a review of the sector a few years ago and a recommendation for this post came out of that. The collapse of Carillion should be a game changer for the industry and we see it as an opportunity to improve current practices. The Chief Construction Adviser would have appropriate powers to be able to admonish any contractor . We’ve suggested this to the government and are now waiting for a response.
How important do you think it is that the electrical industry is correctly regulated? And why do you think protection of title is important?
I have to admit that I was really shocked to learn that anyone can call themselves an electrician. That does pose a real threat to public safety and it’s why I support the protection of title campaign. This is a safety critical occupation and unregulated individuals shouldn’t be able to use the title of electrician when they haven’t demonstrated that they meet national or industry standards. It would also help consumers make informed choices.
Following the Carillion debacle, what other actions do you think the Scottish Government could undertake to protect small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) when it comes to payment issues? What about project bank accounts (PBAs)?
We do think project bank accounts would be a good idea. The impact of the Carillion collapse on SMEs could have been significantly reduced if these had been used. They reduce the risk associated with insolvency of the main contractor. We know that the Scottish Government has mandated PBAs for projects over £4 million issued by government bodies, but it could go further - the Welsh Government has mandated for over £2 million. So there are potentially other models. We believe SMEs are the backbone of the economy and they are really important in the construction sector. The Scottish Government could also look at procurement, and at packaging contracts into smaller lots. Then it would be easier for smaller firms to bid for those projects. SImplifying the application process would encourage a more diverse range of suppliers - bidding can be quite onerous and time consuming and that can put smaller companies off.
Talking of SMEs, what help could be given to ensure they can get on the local authority procurement ladder?
That relationship is really important. If SMEs are doing well, it really benefits local economies. So there does need to be better partnership working with local authorities. If might be that the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) help to ensure that local government has the correct support. There are definitely opportunities there through vehicles such as the City Deal, and there is a big focus by the Scottish Government on inclusive growth. I think it would be good to see a more transparent audit to see how well SMEs do out of public procurement contracts. Perhaps if these are packaged in smaller lots, it would make it easier for smaller firms to bid.
Turning to a different subject, when are your views on getting more women into the industry?
There’s no getting away from the fact that women are severely under-represented in the construction sector. Only a very small percentage of the total number of apprentices are female - fewer than 1.5 per cent. Construction hasn’t even got 100. So there’s a huge amount to be done. There’s a massive gap there and it’s pretty depressing. Scotland needs thousands more workers to meet demand for construction projects, but we’re narrowing the talent pool if we only recruit from half the population. That won’t plug the skills gap. We’re still wedded to traditional gender roles. Even outside my office in parliament recently, there was a hazard sign saying Men at Work. That’s an example of how the idea that there are different jobs for males and females.
So how do we encourage more women into the sector?
There are different strategies in place, including a Scottish Government Equality Action Plan, but the pace of change is far too slow. We also have to look at the responsibility individuals have. So if you are a teacher, a careers adviser or a parent, you perhaps need to think about that and how you can help. And we do need leadership at Scottish Government level. We can reward and celebrate good practice, but there is still a big challenge - in electrical installation, for instance, there were fewer than five women taking apprenticeships last year. That will be the case in quite a few other categories too. In honesty, that’s pitiful, and leaders in the various sectors should reflect on that. We still have a long, long way to go.
You mentioned apprenticeships, which are clearly fundamental to the sector. What needs to happen to ensure that they maintain their relevance and importance?
About 20 per cent of Scottish apprenticeships are in construction, so they are very important to overall employment figures. I’ve been really impressed by the quality of the courses and the skills that people have. We have to ensure that opportunities are open to more people. There are those who have been through redundancy or are looking for a different career who could come in to construction later in life and bring different lived experiences. The industry has to provide a welcoming environment for them too.
Are you confident about the future of the construction industry in Scotland?
I think there is a really positive story to tell about construction. It’s really, really important to our economy and to our quality of life in terms of building homes, schools, infrastructure and so on. We can’t afford for the sector to fail. To help meet the demand, we need to recruit people and plug the skills gap. To do that, we must ensure that the industry embraces diversity. I think the industry does undersell itself at times - it gets quite a bad image and could do a lot more to make people aware of the fantastic opportunities and different career paths available. There are so many roles. But we need to make sure that we have a champion in the Scottish Government and that’s why it’s important that we keep building up the profile of the Cross Party Group - to ensure that the issues that are important to us are important to ministers too.
And finally, how important is the work that SELECT does within the sector?
It’s been great to learn all about what SELECT does. Of course, it’s part of the Cross Party Group and we had a speaker from it at one of our recent meetings. SELECT has flagged up important issues within construction that sometimes aren’t well known. It has also been really great at helping to guide me as the Convener. Every MSP in parliament should have an interest in construction because it impacts on all of our constituents. To help with that, members of the group can cascade our learning to colleagues. By having SELECT involved - and it has been very hands-on - the group will continue to be a strong voice for the sector.