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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 01 March 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Funding Council Board (Abolition), BBC Scotland Digital Channel, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Safe Drive, Stay Alive Project


Contents


Scottish Funding Council Board (Abolition)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-04286, in the name of Liz Smith, on the abolition of the Scottish funding council board. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I call Liz Smith to speak to and to move the motion. You have eight minutes, please.

14:42  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Members are very well aware that a large part of the Education and Skills Committee’s recent work has been the scrutiny of Scotland’s education agencies. On 16 November 2016, it was the turn of the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, and on 7 December 2016 we heard from the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work about the proposed changes to the four agencies that deliver skills, enterprise and education functions, which includes the Scottish funding council. That day, Keith Brown set out the Scottish Government’s vision for Scotland’s economic strategy, part of which involved the proposed amalgamation of the four enterprise and skills agencies, so that there would be, in his words

“strengthened support for the nation’s economic ambitions”.

Mr Brown told us that the establishment of an overarching superboard was necessary in order to

“effectively align the services that they deliver.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 7 December 2016; c 2.]

Mr Brown also confirmed no fewer than three times—to Johann Lamont, Daniel Johnson and me—that the individual boards of the current agencies would be abolished. John Swinney confirmed that statement on 2 February 2017 at the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, although he was careful to add that the abolition did not involve the SFC itself, something that had been a concern for our colleges and universities when the merger proposal was first announced.

We had it on record—from not one, but two cabinet secretaries—that the Scottish funding council board would be abolished. Not surprisingly, that raised further questions from the further and higher education sectors, and from MSPs, about the justification for the move and on what evidence the proposal was based.

We received from Mr Brown, in response to questioning from the convener of the Education and Skills Committee, Mr Dornan, a robust outline of the reasons for having an overarching board. He said that it would provide much better strategic alignment of the delivery of skills, enterprise and education; a decluttering of the agency landscape; a simplification of the support networks; and the removal of the tensions between national and regional delivery. Those policy principles generally found favour with Universities Scotland, Colleges Scotland, enterprise and business.

However, Mr Brown completely failed to address the other side of the coin. Why did this strategic alignment mean that the individual agency boards—each with their separate legal status—should be abolished? Where was the evidence for that part of the proposal?

My colleagues Tavish Scott and Johann Lamont asked Keith Brown for a list of the organisations that supported the replacement of the individual boards with a central board. After intense questioning and what appeared to be an inability to answer the question, it emerged that the only body that the cabinet secretary could name was Colleges Scotland; however, on further examination, it transpired that although Colleges Scotland could see merit in a strategic alignment of agency work, it had made no specific recommendation to abolish the SFC board.

Of course, as we know only too well from the 329 submissions to the consultation and from exchanges in the recent chamber debate on Highlands and Islands Enterprise, stakeholders made no such recommendation to abolish the boards. Indeed, I venture to suggest that a letter arrived on Mr Brown’s desk from the current chairman of the Scottish funding council board, specifically advising against the board’s abolition. The Scottish Government might like to confirm the existence of that letter, given that attempts via parliamentary questions have so far produced nothing but obfuscation.

We know now that what really happened was that before phase 1 had even begun, the Scottish Government made up its mind that the individual boards would be abolished and replaced by a central board. The hastily carried-out consultation last summer did not flag up any support for the idea, so all we got then was, “Don’t worry—phase 2 will allow us to debate the best governance structure.”

Unbelievably, ministers could not understand why MSPs and stakeholders were so concerned, but surely we were right to be. Indeed, Ross Greer made that point very strongly at the Education and Skills Committee when he questioned the logic of making up one’s mind about what is going to happen and then hoping that enough evidence can be found to support it. Now, of course, we learn that Lorne Crerar is recommending that individual boards not be abolished at all, which is definitely not what we were told by Messrs Swinney and Brown.

Now we have learned of the recommendation that the boards remain but that they be known as delivery boards, the implication being that the existing functions will change. Does that change in function now become the issue? What exactly would a delivery board do? In what respect will its powers differ—or, more likely, be reduced—from the powers of the existing boards? Specifically in respect of the SFC, will the board still be a statutory and legal entity? Will it have the powers to be a source of initiative and advice? Will it be able to challenge the Scottish Government—and indeed colleges and universities—as it does just now? Will the Parliament, not the new strategic board, have powers to allocate resources to the agencies? Finally, will the Scottish funding council continue to have functions way beyond enterprise and skills, such as its crucially important research function? Little of that is clear.

In his recommendations, Lorne Crerar states that his proposals will

“not diminish the responsibilities ... of each Agency”,

but the term “delivery board” suggests that their responsibilities will certainly change, and Mr Crerar makes it clear that there will now be

“new, formal lines of accountability.”

On that aspect, there is an issue about who will chair the overarching board and who will be accountable to ministers. Universities Scotland has made its view very clear indeed. In Andrea Nolan’s letter of 13 December to Keith Brown, she says that there is a

“need for a statutory non-Ministerial body with responsibility for regulatory and funding issues affecting higher education”.

She also made it very clear that that body should have a distinct “legal personality” completely separate from bodies

“with an ‘enterprise and skills’ remit”.

The Scottish Government clearly believes that the new structure does not heighten the risk of Office for National Statistics reclassification, but others are less sure if the chair of the new board is, in fact, to be a minister. Likewise, the Scottish Government has made it very clear that no changes will undermine the higher education sector’s autonomy but, again, cast-iron evidence is required to convince the sector that having a minister as chair of the new board will avoid any politically driven reshaping of the sector. That is exactly why the sector wants a firm guarantee that the Scottish funding council board would have the right to question and challenge ministers and institutions as it does now.

The long and short of it is that we have been left with some very considerable inconsistencies between what two cabinet secretaries have told separate committees, what stakeholders have advised and what Lorne Crerar is now recommending. It is not at all clear why, to have better strategic alignment, we have to unpick the governance structure of all four agencies. There was a complete absence of evidence from phase 1 to support the Scottish Government’s intention and there is now real concern about where on earth the Scottish Government is going. That aspect of the whole debacle is causing the greatest concern.

In recommending better strategic realignment of enterprise and skills and education, the Scottish Government has got completely carried away with the theory and has not thought through what the practice will involve. That is exactly what it did when it meddled in university governance.

The message from the Parliament regarding the Scottish Government’s treatment of Highlands and Islands Enterprise could hardly have been more clear at 5 o’clock on 18 January. To suffer one parliamentary defeat might be regarded as a misfortune; to suffer two would look like inexcusable carelessness.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the key role and legal status of the current Scottish Funding Council board with regard to the financial and strategic management of Scotland’s colleges and universities; is deeply concerned by the Scottish Government’s proposals to abolish the board, given the limited evidence and consultation on this proposal; notes the proposals in The Crerar Review, which recommend that the Scottish Government should retain the current board; demands that the Scottish Funding Council retains its important functions beyond enterprise and skills, and therefore believes that the Scottish Funding Council must not just be a “delivery board” but also have the powers to act on its own initiative and to challenge government as well as to challenge further and higher education institutions.

14:50  

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

I will use this debate to set out again why the Government is reviewing our enterprise and skills system and to set the record straight on our plans for the Scottish funding council. I am aware that there is concern and, indeed, some misunderstanding about the Government’s intentions, so I welcome the opportunity to clarify our position.

I am always happy to work with members to explore constructive ideas about how we can support and maintain sustainable and inclusive economic growth, but the motion does not promote that ambition, and it presents at best a partial view of the Government’s position.

The motion also provides commentary on the Lorne Crerar report, which was published just last week. Liz Smith will be aware that the Government is reflecting on the detail of the proposals that Professor Crerar has outlined and the views of the ministerial review group and that have been expressed by wider interests in taking forward the development of the strategic board. We will continue to listen to members across the chamber through constructive discussion about the way forward, and Mr Brown has said that he will make a statement to Parliament on our next steps in the coming weeks.

I will begin by putting some important facts on the record. The aim of the enterprise and skills review is to take fresh action towards fulfilling our long-term ambitions to rank in the top quartile of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for productivity, equality, wellbeing and sustainability. Those ambitions are set out in “Scotland’s Economic Strategy”. We are clear that, through greater alignment of the work of the agencies, we will ensure that they share collective responsibility for making improvements to Scotland’s economic performance.

The first phase of the review focused on how we can ensure that all our agencies are working together to support our businesses and users of our skills system. Respondents to the call for evidence said that there was a complex and cluttered landscape and that we needed clearer alignment of our services to deliver our national ambitions. That is why we will align the key agencies under a strategic Scotland-wide board while protecting local decision making, local management and local delivery.

In January, Mr Brown asked the chair of HIE, Professor Lorne Crerar, to lead discussions with the other agency chairs and interested ministerial review group members, and to set out a paper on the principles and a potential outline structure for a new strategic board. I thank the Scottish funding council and the other agencies for their helpful participation in that process.

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

For clarity, was it possible for the Crerar report to come out with the view that an overarching board was not the right solution? Was the review free to make that choice or did it have to decide how, once the board was there, it would make that work?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Phase 1 of the enterprise and skills review is complete and the discussions that have followed that, in phase 2, are about how to enact phase 1. We have gone through phase 1 and are now in phase 2. The Crerar report was part of that process, which is very much one for the stakeholders and the agencies to be able to take part in.

Liz Smith

Will the minister take an intervention?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I want to make some more progress, but I would be happy to give way later on.

Professor Crerar’s report has been published and we are grateful to him for producing it. We note that there has been considerable support for his views from stakeholders and a recognition that its focus on collaboration across the agencies is central to success. I highlight again that the report was published less than a week ago and sets out a number of proposals for the Government to consider. I invite members, in this debate and outwith it, to give their views to me and the rest of the Government, because we will go forward in a listening mode until the cabinet secretary makes his statement to Parliament. I want to hear those views.

Liz Smith

Was the minister surprised to have the recommendation from Lorne Crerar that the boards of the individual agencies should exist, as the Scottish Government told us that they would not?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Professor Crerar was asked to work with the other agency chairs to take forward work in phase 2. What he does within that and with the chairs is for him to answer for, but we are very grateful for the work that he and the other agencies have put in.

I can give members the full assurance that we recognise the value of the funding council as a national, strategic, arm’s-length body providing knowledge and expertise on how we focus our investment across the college and university sectors. We will also ensure that any future model supports the Haldane principle that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians.

Liz Smith raised concerns regarding ONS reclassification. Government officials have been in close dialogue with ONS officials over the recent period. They have reviewed the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 and have been offered advice in relation to the enterprise and skills review. The ONS is satisfied that, on the basis of the information available, neither the 2016 act nor the review will impact on whether HE bodies in Scotland are public or private sector. I hope that that allays concerns that have been expressed by members in the chamber and by stakeholders.

I see the review as a real opportunity for the Scottish funding council not only to build on its successes, but to focus on driving improvements in the future. The ambitions of the enterprise and skills review are not about the architecture of governance but about closer alignment and collaboration across the bodies to drive real improvements in outcomes. My focus for the future will be on working with the funding council to ensure that we have an absolute and effective focus on our ambitions for excellence and equity in education. In the meantime, the funding council is very much getting on with its important day job; indeed, just a few weeks ago, it issued its indicative allocations for colleges and universities for 2017-18.

We are reviewing our enterprise and skills system because Scotland is performing well but must do better. We will maintain a national strategic body that allocates funding independently of ministers to our colleges and universities, and for research. The reform and the setting of key local and national economic ambitions for all our agencies can help put Scotland among the top-performing OECD nations. I will work with MSPs from across the chamber and with stakeholders to achieve that goal.

I move amendment S5M-04286.1, to leave out from “key” to end and insert:

“role played by the Scottish Funding Council as the statutory national body with responsibility for funding for teaching and research in universities and colleges; welcomes the report by Professor Lorne Crerar on governance and notes the conclusions, which will be considered as part of phase two of the Scottish Government’s Enterprise and Skills Review; agrees that the Haldane Principle, which says that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians, must remain the foundation of research funding, and further agrees that there continues to be a need for a national body for further and higher education that works within this wider framework for enterprise and skills to allocate funding independently of the Scottish Ministers and to provide government with advice and challenge on issues relating to further and higher education.”

14:57  

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The Scottish Government’s plans to create a superboard are unworkable and unclear, and will threaten the independence of our universities. The need to boost this country’s productivity performance is critical. If we believe in a high-wage, high-skill economy, there is a vital need to focus on the enterprise agencies.

The “Enterprise and Skills Review: Report on Phase 1” is disappointing. It states its broad intent but fails to articulate what needs to change and has only one clear proposal, which is the creation of an overarching board to control all the agencies in enterprise, skills and tertiary education. The creation of that board would result in a body that would have unprecedented scope. Its budget would be in the billions—larger than the combined governance budgets for the police, housing, social security, environment and culture. We have to ask how long the board’s meetings would last for; some pretty strong coffee would certainly have to be served at them.

However, the serious question is whether a single board can truly provide governance and guidance to such diverse and important activities, ranging from regional development to academic learning, from scientific research to vocational education, and from industrial support to apprenticeships.

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Will the member give way?

Daniel Johnson

I will do so in a moment.

It is clear that some of those activities are wholly within the domain of productivity and innovation. Of course universities’ research and academic understanding contribute to productivity, but they have much wider impacts and benefits. Placing them in a governance structure that has a productivity focus could create a real risk that damage would be done that would not be easily reversed.

John Swinney

In the list of different economic activities that Mr Johnson outlined—which was a fair and representative summary of the issues that are involved—he has set out the dilemma for the Government: there are connections between all the different elements of policy to which Mr Johnson referred, and they all, as he admitted in relation to his exception on university research, contribute to productivity in the economy. The objective of the Government’s review is to create greater alignment in that respect.

Daniel Johnson

I hope that I get a little time back.

I accept that those elements touch on productivity. However, the real issue for the universities is that, although they touch on productivity, the vast bulk of their scope lies well beyond the simple, narrow, teleological and utilitarian description that Mr Swinney set out.

The Crerar report, which was published last week by Kate Forbes and then, later, by the Scottish Government, is an attempt to clarify the solutions, but it simply raises more questions than it answers. For one thing, it seems to contradict the Deputy First Minister, who revealed in a parliamentary answer that the individual boards would be scrapped. According to Crerar, they should be retained as “delivery boards”, whatever that means. It is hard to see how the new strategic body will streamline things at all. The creation of delivery boards, sub-committees and a new superboard will mean that two additional layers of administration will be created.

The report suggests that the board could have the ability to set the budgets of the individual agencies. That would represent worrying obfuscation in what is already an obscure budget process—as we all know only too well from recent weeks. Parliament and the public must be able to scrutinise where public money is being spent.

The report also strongly suggests that the board should have a minister as chair; indeed, it contains a special boxed section that celebrates how well a ministerial chair has worked for the convention of the Highlands and Islands. The risk is that the proposal brings with it the prospect that the Office for National Statistics could reclassify universities as public bodies. I accept that the minister said that she has had assurances on that from the ONS, but I hope that, in his summation, the cabinet secretary will pledge to publish that evidence. That is vital, because we have been here before.

When the colleges were merged and new central structures were created, we were reassured that their independence would not be altered and that their ability to borrow and hold assets would remain unchanged, but we all know what happened. The impact on universities would be many times greater than the impact on colleges. Millions of pounds would be stripped from their balance sheets and their ability to lever in investment would be slashed.

Our universities are a success story. They help this country to punch well above its weight, they are outstanding at producing spin-out companies and they are many times more effective than universities in the rest of the UK in terms of their ability to attract research funding. Given that track record and strength, we have to ask several questions. What is the problem that the review is trying to fix? How are our universities impeding productivity and skills development? Most important, given their enduring contribution to Scotland, why put them at risk through this misguided and muddled reform of their governance?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate. It is a short debate, as you know, and time is tight. I ask for speeches of four minutes, please.

15:02  

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The task of the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council is

“to care for and develop the whole system of colleges and universities, and their connections with and contribution to Scotland’s educational, social and cultural life.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 16 November 2016; c 22.]

Those were the words of Dr John Kemp, the interim director of the SFC, to the Education and Skills Committee. It is a laudable, positive and forward-looking remit and one that surely has the backing of every member—indeed, of everyone who wishes to make our country once again a leader in education and academic achievement.

If that is the SFC’s task, what of its governance? As Liz Smith said, we have had confirmation from two cabinet secretaries at two separate committees that the individual boards of the current agencies, including that of the SFC, will be abolished. At the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, all but confirmed that the SFC as an entity needs to tread carefully. The Official Report of the committee’s meeting that day shows that Liz Smith said:

“So it is correct to say that there will be a new funding council model. Obviously, the board of the existing funding council is to go, so the argument would be that there would have to be a new body.”

John Swinney replied:

“There will be changes to the arrangements under the proposals that have been set out today, yes.”—[Official Report, Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, 2 February 2017; c 10.]

But why?

In his letter of 17 January, in which he asked Professor Crerar to chair a review of governance, the cabinet secretary stated that stronger governance

“could be best achieved by creating a single overarching Board to ensure robust oversight, evaluation and common targets which drive hard alignment between our Agencies.”

However, there does not appear to be any evidence to support that statement. In the 329 submissions that were made to the consultation on the enterprise and skills review, not one stakeholder recommended that the boards be abolished. Under repeated questioning by the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, Mr Swinney could not point to a single piece of evidence that shows that abolition of the SFC board has been recommended as a solution to governance issues.

Professor Crerar has now recommended that the individual boards should not be abolished and that they should be renamed “delivery boards” under the direct control of a strategic board. Evidence that supports the likely achievement of a desired outcome should drive policy; one should not start with a policy and try to make the evidence fit it or—worse—simply assert a position without having robust evidence to support it.

I recall a debate in January in which fears were aired that the SFC’s position as a non-departmental public body operating at arm’s length was under threat, because the line between ministers and the SFC is increasingly blurred. Those fears came alongside fears for the independence of the SFC and our higher education establishments that were brought about by the suggested establishment of an overarching strategic board that would be under ministerial control. Universities Scotland could not have been clearer. It said:

“we need to make sure that universities are independent actors—that we are working in partnership with government, but we are still working as autonomous charities, that we are another force of initiative in society and not being brought in to a directive relationship from government.”

Independence from Government could disappear as a result of the changes, and the SFC could become another arm of this ever-more-centralised state.

The independence of our higher education establishments should be sacrosanct, but the proposed changes would likely move us ever closer to direct Government control. It is clear that the Government decided long ago, in the absence of any evidence, that an overarching strategic board under ministerial control is the way forward. The Government should reflect on why it lost the vote on HIE on 18 January, and it should step back from the brink and think long and hard before it proceeds with the proposals. For that reason, I urge support for the motion.

15:06  

James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

Is my microphone working? Hello? [Interruption.]

Members: Hello.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

There is no need to say “Hello” back.

Please continue.

James Dornan

I am sorry, Presiding Officer. I did not want members to miss anything.

The role of the Scottish funding council, as was mentioned by Liz Smith, was explored in the Education and Skills Committee’s evidence session in November 2016, including the importance of being able to demonstrate to key stakeholders such as universities and colleges where it performs a challenge function to Government. The discussion on that role highlighted the need for further clarity about the implications of the review on the Scottish funding council, given the proposal that the SFC board be replaced by an overarching body.

Having heard that evidence, the committee decided to invite the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work to explore the evidence base and to talk about the process that was followed by the Government in generating its phase 1 recommendations, and about the further work that was planned for phase 2. The committee wrote to the cabinet secretary after the meeting, seeking more information about which bodies had suggested the removal of the SFC board and its replacement with an overarching board. I know that that has been mentioned, and it has been said that there is no evidence of anyone suggesting such as thing. However, let us look at some of the consultation responses. Scottish Enterprise called for the creation of a Scottish strategic economic leadership board, Skills Development Scotland asked for a permanent national sustainable economic development board and the University of Strathclyde advocated for a strategic board at Scotland level to exercise strong leadership and to reinforce collaboration.

Liz Smith

Will the member take an intervention?

James Dornan

I have only four minutes, Ms Smith.

Colleges Scotland stated the need for

“an overarching enterprise and skills board for Scotland”.

Those responses all suggest that they are not very happy with the way the system works at present, and that they are looking for a more joined-up way of thinking.

The Federation of Small Businesses, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Scottish local authorities economic development group, Universities Scotland and HIE all suggested that the current system is complex and requires greater co-ordination. I hope that we all agree that that is the aim behind what the Government is doing.

It is not about diluting the power to challenge of the institutions that form the further and higher education system, nor is it about dissolving the autonomy of Scotland’s universities. It is about focus and ensuring that all agencies work together in a co-ordinated fashion to deliver the top 20 per cent—

Liz Smith

I disagree with the statements that James Dornan made about the evidence, which was about greater collaboration. Where, however, is the evidence about abolition of the individual boards?

James Dornan

I mentioned that in my opening comments. They might not have asked for the board, but they clearly asked for an overarching joined-up way of thinking, which does not exist at present.

We have to remember that phase 1 has ended and we are now in phase 2, so for me the debate is too early. I believe that the debate has not been brought to Parliament for the purpose of trying to tease out more information than we have already received. Liz Smith gave the game away at the very end of her speech, when she basically said that the Scottish Government was defeated on HIE, and today is another opportunity to defeat the Government. A debate on an issue such as this should not be about defeating the Scottish Government; it should be about trying to get the information that members require, in the easiest way.

There are lots of issues in education that the Conservative Party could have debated today. I am surprised that it picked this one, because we are in the middle of a process. We should wait until we are near the end of that process and see what comes out of phase 2; the Crerar report was published last week and we are now in phase 2. Let us wait and see what happens. Then, if the Conservatives have things that they want to call the Government out on, they should feel free to do so. The Education and Skills Committee will certainly be doing the same.

15:10  

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

I say to the convener of the Education and Skills Committee that, although it is not the job of Opposition members simply to go after the Government, equally, it is not the job of Government back benchers to protect the Government regardless of what proposals it brings forward.

The fact is that the review of enterprise agencies and other bodies is an unhappy and unconvincing piece of work, which has been hampered from the beginning by lack of clarity about its purpose and the actions that would follow it. It would be charitable to say that it has been ill thought through. We should remember that the consultation on the review took place over one month during the summer, which is deeply unsatisfactory. No explanation has ever been given of the need for such a rush. There was no clarity about why, all of a sudden, the Government needed to do that so quickly and without bringing people with it. That has been a major problem.

No one disagrees that we want a stronger economy and that we want coherence, but the Government is conflating that desire with its set of proposals. We are not divided on wanting a stronger economy, alignment and all the rest of it, but we are dividing on the proposals that the Government has brought forward—allegedly, to tackle that problem. In evidence to the Education and Skills Committee, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work spectacularly failed even to explain what he is trying to do. I recommend the Official Report of that evidence as a bit of light reading for members. They will see a proposal being interrogated and a cabinet secretary unable to explain his purpose; he could not explain or justify the timing of the consultation and he could not provide any evidence of any group or body that had independently suggested the solution of an overarching board. People, of course, agree that there is a problem, but no one suggested that as the solution.

The cabinet secretary has also been unable to give any clarity about what would happen to the Scottish funding council. Indeed, he seemed rather vague about its role in relation to education, if not to enterprise. We all agree that decluttering is, in itself, a good thing, and that it is important that people talk to and work with each other. However, all the evidence tells us that we need decisions to be made as locally as possible. Local economic circumstances and pressures differ throughout the country. Our remote and rural areas are tackling the question of depopulation and the potential for use of the internet, while inner-city Glasgow has a very different set of problems. Therefore, why create the sense that there is only one model that fits our enterprise and skills agenda? To me, that is utter nonsense. Goodness me! Can people not simply talk to each other?

The reality is that the Scottish Government started at the end. It wanted an overarching board and, since then, all we have seen is post-hoc rationalisation to justify that. Now, in the face of pressure and concerns, the Government is shifting the argument. First, we were told that we are getting rid of all boards, and then we were told that we are not getting rid of them. First, we heard that HIE would have complete and utter control, but then we heard that it will not have complete and utter control because there will be an overarching board. Mr Dornan says that we are in the middle of a process, but the fact is that we have had phase 1, which said, without any evidence, what the Scottish Government wants, and phase 2 is about finding a way to implement that. That is not the way to take forward this work.

It is obvious that the legal responsibilities in relation to the funding council have not even been thought about. We recognise the need for co-ordination, but that is the job of Government; it is the Government’s job to do cross-portfolio thinking and to ensure that people work together.

When the Government got rid of Communities Scotland in 2007, we lost all that expertise on housing that could have given the Government advice, information and skills regarding how a housing agency could develop our work. That was a loss. Removing the capability of these bodies to speak powerfully to the Government—maybe not in public, but through giving advice, strategic understanding and their expertise—will, I genuinely believe, be a loss. I do not understand—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am sorry, Ms Lamont. Could you please conclude?

Johann Lamont

I urge the Scottish Government to think again. If it does, I am sure that people across the board will support it.

15:15  

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

Back in January, I said that I was disappointed with the Government’s pursuit of centralisation at any cost without providing the evidence. Two months later, nothing has changed. Concerns have been raised time and again, and they have come from across the political spectrum—from our partners in education, such as the University and College Union and Universities Scotland, and from experts such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh. What we are all concerned about is significant changes being made to the university sector without their implications being properly thought through or evidenced. Despite this being an area of acute and widely held concern, the Government has still not ruled out a minister chairing the new superboard, although today provides an opportunity for it to do so.

The aim of the reforms is clearly to focus the efforts of these bodies towards economic strategy, but the reforms also increase the Government’s influence over and proximity to the bodies. It is worth noting that economic development is not the sole purpose of all four of the organisations.

The new report for the Government by Professor Crerar is welcome, but it continues the centralisation agenda and has done little to allay concerns. It calls for the new superboard to have clear authority to enforce change and for the transformation of the existing agency boards into mere conduits for delivery. The option of the superboard being chaired by a minister remains open. Why, when there are such significant concerns about the proposal, the Government cannot at least offer a gesture of good will by ruling out a ministerial chair is beyond me.

There are two key concerns about the impact that the reforms will have on Scottish universities, which focus on their not being classified as public bodies and their freedom to determine their own academic goals. With those concerns in mind, an increase in Government control over the funding council or at least a strong appearance of that would be irresponsible. I hear what the minister has said about the dialogue with the Office for National Statistics. However, bearing in mind that the Education and Skills Committee has asked for that evidence repeatedly, it would be fantastic if we could see that as well. Such a reclassification could seriously harm the ability of Scottish universities to attract funding from, for example, charitable bodies—particularly those that are based down south. The Government is well aware of those concerns.

The Education and Skills Committee published a report in which it stated that the ability of the funding council to develop and initiate policy itself is key to its ability to function and that it is vital that universities are not reclassified as public bodies. However, both the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, in their appearances before the committee, were unable to provide anything approaching evidence of the effect that the superboard proposal could have on research funding. Nor was sufficient evidence produced to back up the supposed demand for such a centralised board, as members have mentioned. That brought into question not just the proposal but the process by which we have got to this point, which I will quickly touch on.

These Government reforms not only threaten the status and the funding of Scottish universities but raise the question of their purpose. Are Scottish universities to be simply another tool in our economic strategy? No—that is not the ethos that has underpinned the academic and intellectual freedom of our universities since the enlightenment. That was noted by the Education and Skills Committee in our report. Significant elements of the roles that the agencies fulfil are outwith the scope of the review, and the committee recommended that the Government quickly set out what impact the review will have on areas that are outwith its scope.

The issue of evidence is key. The Government has simply been unable to find it, and that is the nub of the issue with the process. At stage 1, the Government decided to embark on the route towards the superboard, giving itself no wriggle room to back out of it. However, there seems to be no evidence of what the effect will be on, for example, university research funding. That is apparently for phase 2. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills conceded in the committee that there are relevant policy considerations for phase 1 but that they were not evidenced in phase 1. To make a clear decision to pursue a policy without having first gathered evidence of its effects is not responsible. It is not acceptable, and the Greens are not prepared at this point to support it.

15:19  

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I thank Liz Smith for bringing the debate to Parliament, not least because it gives us a chance to look at the Crerar report and its implications. Last Thursday, in response to the points of order that had been made about the publication of the Crerar report, the Presiding Order ruled that the Government should respond. The first chance that the Government had to do so was yesterday, when it did not respond. Today, it has the chance to do so, albeit that it happens to be in Opposition time. Parliament will notice that the Government has not yet provided an opportunity for us to debate these matters in its own time.

The Crerar report needs careful examination, because it says some profound things about how we run our country. If the Government—this would apply to any Government—wishes to control from the centre, it should do the honest thing and just abolish the boards of the organisations in question, and indeed the organisations themselves, because the logic of what ministers may or may not want is to have those organisations in-house.

Members should read carefully what Crerar says. On the delivery boards—the word “delivery” is descriptive and very clear—he says that all board members will be required to

“Take direction from the Chair ensuring hard alignment with other Agencies and others to meet the aims and aspirations of the SB.”

The repurposed—that is not a word that I was ever taught in English at school—delivery boards

“should fulfil the functions described and ensure that the aims of the SB can be delivered effectively while also ensuring governance standards are maintained.”

It is crystal clear what will happen to the funding council if the Government implements the report. The funding council is not even mentioned until page 28 of a 31-page report, and no analysis is provided of the different functions that the organisations concerned undertake.

In the conclusions and recommendations section, the report says:

“Through the SB, there will be a direct accountability to Scottish Ministers for the collective responsibility of each Agency”.

How that is consistent with what ministers have said about the independence—academic and otherwise—of the funding council is quite beyond me. I listened very carefully to what Shirley-Anne Somerville said in her speech. She said that ministers are now reflecting on the Crerar report and that they will decide what they are going to do about it in the fullness of time. That means that, although they have the Crerar report, they could—as Liz Smith illustrated—go back to their original position of abolishing all four boards. That was not clear from what the minister said earlier.

We must be clear about the dangers that have been articulated by representatives of the university and college sector. Today, Universities Scotland has said:

“We seek recognition by the Scottish Government that the statutory body boards are sources of initiative, advice and challenge to government rather than just a channel for the ‘delivery’ of priorities set by Scottish Government or the Strategic Board.”

That is entirely inconsistent with the Crerar report—the Government cannot have it both ways. If it believes in the Crerar report, it should implement it, in which case the funding council board will not be worth having, nor will the board of HIE. Interestingly, none of us seems to defend Scottish Enterprise or Skills Development Scotland; I feel sorry for them, because they never get a mention in this context. The boards of the funding council and HIE will cease to exist, other than to do exactly what they are told to do by the Government minister and by the strategic board. That is the choice that we have, and Parliament should vote on that this afternoon.

15:23  

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

In 2014, Scotland was ranked 19th for productivity levels among OECD countries, which placed us only at the top of the third quartile. In 2013, Scotland was in exactly the same position. More of the same will not get the job done. We know that we need to modernise our approach to enterprise and skills development as we work to move our productivity into the top quartile of OECD nations.

Scotland has had great success in attracting investment and in helping companies to innovate, export and expand. Indeed, the Government is now investing £500 million through the Scottish growth fund. We know that we have real strength in our universities, five of which rank in the Times Higher Education world university rankings, but now is not a time for complacency. It is the time to ensure that we drive greater innovation to improve our productivity. Given that our universities receive almost £90 million of research funding a year from EU sources alone, that will be of particular importance in a post-Brexit era.

As the minister has outlined, the context for the debate stems from the enterprise and skills review. The results from the public call for evidence identified four key themes across the whole system. First, there is the “cluttered landscape” of the current system. Secondly, there is “difficulty in accessing support”. Thirdly, there is a perceived tension between national and regional approaches. Lastly, there is a “lack of partnership working”.

However, Professor Crerar’s report is about how we ensure that all our agencies work together in a co-ordinated way to deliver the maximum impact for our economy. The lack of co-ordination was flagged up in the public consultation, and we see it in the governance review of education right now.

Many members who are in the chamber today spoke in the Education and Skills Committee’s recent debate on the role of Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, SDS and the funding council. Those agencies are rightly being held to account by the work of that committee, but let us not forget that the funding council benefited from more than £1.7 billion of Scottish Government funding last year. That is public money.

Of course, we need a national body to allocate funding to further education and higher education, and that has to be done independently of the Scottish ministers. Fundamentally, however, the establishment of an overarching board will not affect the autonomy of Scotland’s universities or how they are governed. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that academic freedom continues to be protected.

Daniel Johnson

Will the member take an intervention?

Jenny Gilruth

I am very short of time so, no, thank you.

Only four months ago, the Deputy First Minister said in the chamber:

“I can give that absolute cast-iron commitment to Parliament today: there will be no Government control of the universities.”—[Official Report, 23 November 2016; col 7.]

Furthermore, it was the SNP Government that strengthened the definition of academic freedom in the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016.

Let us reflect on where we are. The status quo is not working. Look at the OECD statistics. We need Scotland to be sector leading, and the current arrangements do not allow us to be.

It is also important to note that the enterprise and skills review is not just about governance; there are nine other action points that the review considers, including recognising national and regional differences, which Johann Lamont mentioned today; promoting an open and international economy; developing innovation; and how skills provision will drive economic success.

There is on-going dialogue between the Scottish Government and the funding council about the enterprise and skills review, but this is only phase 2 of the review. Like all members, I am sure, I very much look forward to hearing from the cabinet secretary when he returns to Parliament to update us all about what actions the Government intends to take forward.

15:27  

Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

It appears that, before phase 1 of the enterprise and skills review was even on the books, the Scottish Government had made up its mind. There is going to be a strategic alignment of the delivery of skills, enterprise and education. As has been confirmed by the Government and two of its cabinet secretaries—one of whom is missing this afternoon—that means the abolition of the funding council board, as well as the boards of the other agencies, and their replacement by a strategic board. That is a decision that has been taken without the evidence to justify it, so there is only one way to see it—as yet another centralising power grab by the Scottish Government.

There is a fundamental inconsistency at the heart of the Scottish Government’s argument for abolishing the funding council board. As UCU Scotland has highlighted, we simply cannot, on one hand, acknowledge the need for the responsible autonomy and independence of universities, and the need for the funding council to be at arm’s length from ministers, and then, in virtually the same breath, talk about the new superboard being chaired by a Government minister who has power to enforce his view on the funding council, creating the legitimate concern of a puppet board, at the mercy of the political will and whim of the Government.

I welcome the minister’s update about classification. I am sure that, if she has that in writing, she will be happy to provide it to Parliament. There is a genuine concern that the proposed abolition of the funding council board risks the autonomy and the independence of our educational institutions. I am sure that the minister would agree that the reclassification of our universities to the public sector would be catastrophic for their capacity to attract investment to Scotland, and their financial sustainability more broadly.

At a meeting of the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee on 2 February, the cabinet secretary refused to fully commit to dropping the reorganisation plans, even if they would risk reclassification. UCU Scotland has echoed this sentiment, stating:

“This is a very real concern, and we must ensure the arm’s-length, non-departmental public body status of the SFC is retained in more than just name.”

Therefore, I hope that, today, we will get that cast-iron guarantee from the Government, because it would be welcome.

In my view, the Scottish Government is taking a reckless and cavalier attitude to the autonomy and sustainability of our universities, which is both irresponsible and dangerous. Simply put, the proposals have significant implications for the ability of our universities to continue to provide the excellent, globally renowned education that they provide across Scotland.

As I mentioned earlier, the Scottish Government’s proposal is devoid of any compelling basis in evidence. At the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, the cabinet secretary said that the enterprise and skills review is driven by

“the fact that ... .the Scottish economy is not performing in the top quartile of the productivity assessments”.—[Official Report, Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, 2 February 2017; c 8.]

However, it is abundantly clear from the work of both the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee and the Education and Skills Committee that the decisions that have been taken to abolish the funding council board and the other agency boards are totally lacking in tangible evidence. Ministers have, to date, completely failed to declare what evidence or advice they have received to support the abolition of the funding council board in its current form.

It is clear from the work of this Parliament that the Government’s proposals are far from transparent. It is also clear that the Scottish Government’s centralising reforms are unwanted, unnecessary and uncorroborated. I therefore urge members to support the motion in the name of Liz Smith.

15:31  

Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate and to support the amendment in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville. Listening to the proceedings and the wider conversation that has been provoked by the phase 1 report of the enterprise and skills review, I have been struck by the water-like habit of politics to find and amplify the smallest of fissures in our deliberations. Although I would never challenge the primacy of the dialectic in our discourse, we can make progress through debates such as this only if we resist the temptation to indulge in the narcissism of small differences.

Johann Lamont

Will the member take an intervention?

Tom Arthur

I fear, however, that on the question of a strategic board—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please sit down, Ms Lamont.

Tom Arthur

If I had more time, I would take an intervention.

I fear, however, that on the question of a strategic board, that is exactly what some of the Opposition is in danger of doing. That would be a reckless approach at any time, but it is particularly reckless given the economic headwinds that we face as a consequence of Brexit and the importance of enterprise and skills to realising the Scottish Government’s economic strategy. It is also disappointing because, in my opinion, an opportunity for consensus is being missed.

I believe, or at least I hope, that all parties in the chamber are united in support of the Government’s vision of a Scotland that ranks

“among the top performing OECD nations for productivity, equality, sustainability and wellbeing.”

Johann Lamont

Will the member take an intervention?

Tom Arthur

I am sorry; I do not have time.

Week after week, I hear entreaties from Opposition members for action by the Government to improve Scotland’s economic performance. I therefore find it rather disheartening that when presented with substantive proposals for greater co-ordination and collaboration between Scotland’s enterprise and skills agencies, the response of some of the Opposition has been one of dogmatic resistance to any change whatsoever.

Liz Smith

Will the member take an intervention?

Tom Arthur

I am sorry; I do not have time.

It seems to me that the Conservatives, in lodging the motion for this afternoon’s debate, have yet again become somewhat delirious as a result of the rarefied heights of second-party status and forgotten that Opposition should not be reduced to obstinacy. It is simply not credible, on any matter of policy, to demand a response from the Government, only to then reflexively reject any proposition that it puts forward.

I welcome the vision of greater collaboration and co-ordination between agencies that is set out in the phase 1 report of the enterprise and skills review, and I welcome the contribution that Professor Crerar’s report makes to the second phase of the review. I recognise the importance of the role that the Scottish funding council plays and I welcome the Government’s amendment, which recognises not only the fundamental importance of the Haldane principle but the continuing need for a national body for further and higher education.

I believe that, although it is vital that we maximise the contribution that universities make towards the development of a highly skilled workforce, it is also important to remember the broader cultural and societal value that higher education generates. While studying music as an undergraduate and as a postgraduate, I experienced many well-meaning individuals question what economic relevance gaining such a skill set would bring. Indeed, it has become the norm for debates on music education across the United Kingdom and beyond to be framed in terms of utility rather than music’s intrinsic value as an art.

Although it is imperative that our colleges and universities equip people with the skills to compete in a labour market that will become ever more competitive, particularly with the continuing advances in robotics and automation, it is equally important to remember that education can be an end in itself and not just a means. The approach set out by the Government in its amendment gets the balance right. We must maximise the use of the resources that are at our disposal to ensure that Scotland has the workforce to meet the challenges of tomorrow, and to ensure economic growth while preserving the independence of the national body for further and higher education. I urge—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No, I am sorry. You must stop. You are overrunning your time.

15:35  

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

Liz Smith started today’s debate by going back a little over the process that has brought us to today, but it might be worth stepping a little further back, to before the phase 1 review consultation. We are here today because of a paragraph in the SNP’s manifesto that bore all the hallmarks of one that was inserted because of a late realisation that the manifesto said nothing about enterprise and skills and had better say something, so a review was put in. The SNP having done that, we found ourselves lumbered with the review, and now that we have had the review, it is incumbent on ministers to change something as a result. Thus it was that, without evidence and much to the surprise of many of those who were involved in the phase 1 review, we ended up with a proposal for an overarching superboard.

We have now moved on to the Crerar report, which is good in the sense that it insists that we keep the subsidiary boards, including the funding council. However, it appears to support the overarching superboard. As Johann Lamont exposed rather neatly, Lorne Crerar was told that that was a given, and was asked to work on how the structure could be made to work. His answer is that the other boards would have to be reduced in status to delivery boards because it must be so. They would lose their capacity to take strategic decisions and perhaps some financial decisions, and would do the bidding of the overarching strategic board.

I believe that Professor Crerar believes that the overarching board should be chaired by a minister, although he pulls back from recommending that and examines the other possibilities.

The Crerar reports leaves us with the two major concerns that have been expressed since the beginning of the process with regard to the funding council. The first is the potential for a new degree of ministerial control to jeopardise the ONS classification of our universities sector. I heard what the minister said, and I heard the cast-iron guarantee from Jenny Gilruth, although I have to ask what position she is in to give it. Daniel Johnson is right to say that we have been here before, with colleges and with the Scottish Futures Trust. Cast-iron guarantees have been given about ONS classification that have turned out to be simply wrong.

Perhaps the more fundamental concern that we are still left with is about the degree to which the autonomy of our universities might be jeopardised. The minister talked about the Haldane principle, as does her amendment, but that is not enough. Autonomy is not just about research decisions being made by researchers. As a concept, academic and intellectual freedom is much wider and more important than that, and our universities must be able to exercise it without fear or favour.

Mr Scott is absolutely right. Hard alignment, as posited in the Crerar report, cannot mean anything except control by the overarching strategic board and loss of autonomy. The University and College Union Scotland sums it up very well in its briefing paper when it says that we cannot acknowledge the need for responsible autonomy of universities and for the SFC to be at arm’s length and then talk about the new superboard being chaired by a minister and having the power to enforce its view.

The fundamental error is with the utilitarian understanding of our universities as bodies that are solely about driving productivity and economic growth. We do not support that, and the universities, students, academics and trade unions do not support it. The proposal is fundamentally flawed and the Government should think again.

15:40  

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

It might help Parliament if, to try to address some of the issues that have underpinned the debate, I go through the policy process that the Government has undertaken. In doing so, I will cover some of the ground that I went over when I appeared before the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee some weeks ago.

The Government has considered the challenges in relation to the need to improve economic performance in Scotland, which Jenny Gilruth set out in her speech, and recognises that that economic performance is not what it should be. In her speech, Johann Lamont noted that we are all bound together by our desire to improve that economic performance. Therefore, at the start of phase 1, when we started to consider ways of improving it, we had to ask, “Why is that economic performance not what it should be?” When we consulted the ministerial review group and other interested parties, answers came back about the cluttered landscape, the need for partnership working and the requirement for us to ensure that there is more compatibility among the interventions that are taken forward by different aspects of the economic and skills development community. From that evidence, the Government came to the conclusion that the most appropriate way of ensuring that we get that greater coherence and alignment is to take forward the superboard proposals that were the summation of the phase 1 conclusions.

Liz Smith talked a lot about the evidence, and I have rehearsed the arguments with her. The Government conducted a policy analysis in coming to a conclusion about which approach was the right one to take. At the end of that process, the conclusion that we came to concerned the importance of securing greater alignment through the work of a superboard. That explains the process that the Government has gone through.

Iain Gray

I want to pursue the issue of the cluttered landscape. We have been assured that each of the individual agencies will continue to have delivery boards, but that there will be an overarching strategic superboard. Surely that will increase the clutter in the landscape, not decrease it.

John Swinney

It gives us the opportunity to reconcile some of the issues of overlap, duplication and clutter that emerge over time. With regard to the areas of responsibility, the journey that young people go on when they work through the education system can involve the Skills Development Scotland landscape, the college landscape, the university landscape and links to the wider business environment that involve either Highlands and Islands Enterprise or Scottish Enterprise. That illustrates the areas of potential overlap and the need for greater coherence, and that is why the Government came to that conclusion.

The relevance of the issue is contained in the point that Daniel Johnson raised, which I responded to when I intervened on him earlier. Helpfully, he went through a range of the elements in the economic system that are key to driving productivity. Of course, they are the elements that concern the four agencies in relation to which the Government is committed to securing greater coherence and alignment.

Liz Smith

I do not think that anybody doubts what the cabinet secretary has just posited in relation to the need for collaboration and our economic ambitions. That is not the point. The point concerns the evidence for the abolition of the boards as part of that process. I ask again whether it is correct that the chairman of the Scottish funding council sent a letter to the Scottish Government advising that the Scottish funding council board should not be abolished.

John Swinney

We have involved the agencies in the dialogue around that particular question. It is helpful that Liz Smith made that intervention, because she said that everybody agrees about the necessity for coherence and alignment. Given that that is the case, it is strange that that does not make any appearance in the motion that Liz Smith has placed before Parliament today. Johann Lamont, Daniel Johnson, Liz Smith, Ross Greer and Tavish Scott have made a plea for coherence, but the issue does not make a single appearance in the motion.

In a sense, that validates some of the points that Tom Arthur made. The Opposition is prepared to address one particular element of the governance arrangements that it clearly does not like—I totally understand that it does not like that element—but without presenting a route that addresses the need for coherence to improve Scotland’s economic performance. That is what the Government is trying to do. As the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science made clear in her opening speech, the Government will continue to engage in Parliament and Mr Brown will come back to Parliament with a further statement to set out the Government’s intention in response to the issues.

15:45  

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I am grateful that the debate has occurred and that I have the chance to participate in it, not least because the Scottish Conservatives held a similar debate about HIE several weeks ago. Although the SFC and an enterprise agency—HIE, for example—seek to do different things, there are some common themes: both benefit from specialist expertise on their boards and have been set up with a degree of independence from Government, which allows them to operate in a detached but constructive way. However, inexplicably, they are under threat as the tentacles of this centralising Government reach out to bring yet another local or specialist body under ministerial control.

I turn first to Professor Crerar’s report, which emerged last week. In one sense, it is to be welcomed in so far as it recognises the value of the independent boards. However, the devil is truly in the detail. Many people have already commented on delivery boards and how we risk turning robust, arm’s-length boards into simply an extension of Government. Universities Scotland says that that would be

“a detrimental change to their role”.

Professor Crerar notes that the chair of the strategic board could be ministerial or independent, but the language of his report implies that he would prefer a minister-led approach. In the view of many people, that would impair the board’s independence. His report calls for

“real hard alignment of the Agencies’ outcomes”

and says that

“The culture of collaboration must be embedded”.

However, it also says that agencies that do not conform to that culture should be challenged. That language all points to centralisation repackaged, so the Scottish Conservatives are sceptical indeed of the Crerar recommendations, notwithstanding the report’s recognition of the principle of retaining independent boards.

I accept at face value what Keith Brown said yesterday about considering the report. I also accept that the report does not represent Government policy yet. However, many of us are fearful—and given the Scottish Government’s record and centralising instincts, we have good reason to fear.

Such questions are not about party-political affiliation. They apply to any Government of whatever political stripe. Anyone who cares about the workings of democracy should mind about the issue. It is about how much Government should do—it goes to the heart of politics. How far should Government step forward and how far should it step back?

What is there to fear? Scrutiny of Government is a normal part of the political process.

John Swinney

Mr Cameron sets out an important analysis of the relationship between Government, public bodies and public authority. However, there is another issue, which is about accountability. People such as Mr Cameron want to hold the Government accountable for Scotland’s economic performance. Does he not understand that, if the Government believes that there are measures that it needs to take to strengthen that economic performance, it has a role and a right to take forward that agenda?

Donald Cameron

As the Opposition, it is our role to hold the Government to account. Ministers are answerable to Parliament. They appear in the chamber and in committees week in, week out. The boards have a similar role. As Universities Scotland says in its briefing:

“Governance structures need to preserve some independence from Government if they are to respect and protect university autonomy. The SFC must remain as a robust, arms-length body capable of providing challenge to both Government and higher education institutions.”

I will address some of the contributions from members. Ross Thomson, Tavish Scott and Iain Gray spoke of the contradiction at the heart of the proposal. The Government cannot have it both ways: either it supports academic independence or, following Crerar, it goes down the route of centralisation.

Ross Greer spoke of the lack of evidence and rightly pointed out that the Crerar report is continuing centralisation.

Daniel Johnson spoke about the extra bureaucratic layers that Crerar proposes. Johann Lamont spoke powerfully about how the Scottish Government has started from the end and worked backwards. Tom Arthur was as thoughtful as ever, but it was interesting to hear his desire for consensus, his pleading for differences to be resolved and his rejection of dogma, given that I have sat through some pretty dogmatic and non-consensual speeches from him.

Liam Kerr, with his well-deserved reputation for optimism, gave a characteristically optimistic speech. He spoke about the SFC’s policy remit and the ambition—which we all share—that Scotland’s education system should flourish. James Dornan and Jenny Gilruth were right in so far as there is potentially a desire for partnership and streamlining, but it is a giant leap from there to an overarching board and either the neutering or the abolition of the existing independent boards.

I hope that the Government recognises the depth of feeling on this matter, because—yet again—the SNP faces a choice. Either it persists, in the face of widespread opposition, with this wrong-headed plan to impose central Government, or it steps back from the brink.

In the context of this debate, there is a deep irony in what the First Minister said in her speech at the David Hume Institute last night. I warn the Government that it cannot accuse others of ignoring Scotland’s voice when proposals such as those that relate to the SFC and HIE may potentially silence Scotland’s local voices, be they the voices of our universities or those of our regional communities. It cannot allege that others will strip powers from this Parliament when at the very same time it might end up stripping powers from expert bodies such as the SFC. It cannot talk of a democratic deficit and then go on to do something that is as profoundly undemocratic as centralising, under ministerial control, bodies such as the SFC and HIE.