THE BIG INTERVIEW: Jamie Hepburn MSP is Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills in the current Scottish Government. Here, we ask him to cast his eye over the construction industry and outline how he and his political colleagues are working towards future success
Hello Jamie. What are your views on the current state of Scotland’s construction industry?
There was strong growth over several years, largely predicated on significant growth from high-profile and welcome public infrastructure projects, such as the Aberdeen West Peripheral Route and the Queensferry Crossing. Over the last year there has been some contraction in these projects, with the industry returning to previous levels. However, it’s encouraging to see that output in the last quarter was up by 1.8 % on the previous quarter. That’s very positive and something we want to continue supporting. That’s why the infrastructure investment of nearly £4 million we are taking forward is critical and why our ambition to deliver at least 50,000 more affordable houses over the five-year term of this Scottish Parliament is vital.
How aware is the Scottish Government of the impact on electrical businesses of issues such as retentions and late payments?
These are issues not just for electrical businesses, but I know they cause real concern in the construction sector.
The UK Government was consulting on retentions earlier this year. We will see what the analysis says and draw our own conclusions. Late payment causes difficulty across all sectors, in particular for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). We seek to lead by example and have our own policy of prompt payment for services we procure. In addition, we set up the Scottish Business Pledge, which we are encouraging businesses to sign up to, and one element of that is a commitment to prompt payment.
How important is it that the people of Scotland use properly-qualified electricians?
I’d hope that would be self-evident. It’s fundamentally important that if anyone is having electrical work done in their home or business, they are sure the person undertaking that work knows what they are doing. The need to have someone who is fully qualified cannot be overstated.
So how can we reassure the people of Scotland that electricians are properly qualified?
This is one area where trade bodies such as SELECT have an important role to play. Most electricians will register with those bodies and that should give people reassurance. There is always an issue of whether or not those working in the sector should be compelled to register, and about the classification of people as electricians. That was raised with Keith Brown when he was Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work and it has been raised with me. Mr Brown subsequently set up a working group to look at this issue and we are continuing to look at it and, as always, I retain an open mind. But uppermost is that we must make sure that people are confident that anyone doing work for them is the appropriate person and knows what they are doing.
What is the Scottish Government’s position on making it an offence to install electrical work when unqualified to do so?
We will look at this issue through the working group I mentioned above. Scottish Government civil servants are liaising with the sector and will communicate back to me. My door is always open and I will speak to any representative body or employer who wants to discuss this. We really need to know what the ramifications would be. For example, if someone decided to do work in their own house we couldn’t stop them, whether or not they were qualified. There are questions around making such action a criminal offence and protecting the status of electricians and I have an open mind on these matters. But ultimately, any decision made must be proportionate, focused on supporting the sector and, above all, help make sure that work carried out in a home, business or public building is done to a safe standard.
Are you confident about the future of the construction industry? Will Brexit have an impact?
Brexit could have an impact because we know there are EU nationals working in the construction sector. Employers from a range of sectors are concerned about sourcing labour, which up to now they have been able to do from other parts of the EU. We need to be able to fill any gaps that emerge. In the construction sector that situation is being helped by the huge number of people taking apprenticeships. What’s more, through the Scottish Funding Council we are creating a first of its kind – a construction innovation centre in Scotland. This is a £7.5 million investment to make sure the Scottish sector can remain innovative, come up with new ideas and practices, and provide more ways of working to keep ahead of the curve.
What about the next generation? How important are modern apprenticeships to the industry’s future?
Apprentices are not only vital to this sector, but to all sectors and the future of Scotland’s workforce more generally. We need to carry on supporting more opportunities for people to come through that are properly qualified and have the necessary skill sets. We will continue to do that with modern apprenticeships. In particular, it’s positive to see continued growth in the number of electrical apprenticeship starts.
And finally, what is the Scottish Government doing to encourage more electrical apprenticeships?
I am proud that since the SNP came into government we have supported more than 250,000 people through a modern apprenticeship. In 2017/18 alone, we had a record year and this year we have a target of 28,000 new starts across all modern apprentice frameworks.
The good news is that we are on track to meet our target of having 30,000 starts in 2020. We are doing what we can to support young people – and also older people – to get the chance to gain an apprenticeship. Needless to say, construction and the electrical industry are an extremely important part of that progress.