Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Loading…

Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 18 January 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Trauma Network, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Health, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Point of Order, Caterpillar Plant Occupation (30th Anniversary)


Contents


Highlands and Islands Enterprise

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-03438, in the name of Donald Cameron, on retaining the Highlands and Islands Enterprise board.

I call Mr Cameron to speak to and move the motion. We have no spare time at all in the debate, so you have a very strict eight minutes.

15:14  

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

At the outset of the debate, it is worth casting our minds back some 50 or so years to 1965, when Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s predecessor, the Highlands and Islands Development Board, was set up. At that time, the Highlander was described as

“the man on Scotland’s conscience”.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1965; Vol 708, c 1095.]

There had been more than 100 years of population loss; and low productivity, low income levels and a lack of basic infrastructure were widespread. There had been some improvements, but the glens and islands were still emptying and a way of life was vanishing.

Into that void stepped the Highlands and Islands Development Board. It had six members of staff and a budget of £150,000. Today, HIE has 322 employees and a budget of £74.5 million, albeit that that sum has ominously just been cut by 11 per cent in the draft budget.

The organisation’s 1965 name is instructive. It was not simply another Government body but a board—a board whose remit was specific and definitive and which had extensive powers, dedicated to reversing population decline and revitalising the economy across the Highlands and Islands. It was a board that—uniquely—saw the significance of social development alongside economic development, because it was as important to regenerate communities as it was to regenerate the economy.

When the organisation was renamed Highlands and Islands Enterprise by a Conservative Government in 1991, the board remained intrinsic and HIE has continued with its unique remit to the present day. In fact, the board is more than intrinsic; in terms of its legal definition, HIE is defined in primary legislation as the members of its board. Therefore, contrary to what the Government’s amendment says, any change to the status of the board will necessarily change the legal status of HIE. In law, HIE is its board, and the board is HIE. It follows that, in debating the proposed abolition of HIE’s board, we are not simply discussing the dry, technical structure of just another Government agency; we are debating the fundamental nature of HIE and what it does.

We must not be sentimental; HIE is not perfect. It has not got everything right and it should probably have concentrated more on the peripheral areas in the north and west that are currently at risk of depopulation. Not all of its projects have succeeded—although an enterprise agency is in the business of risk, so there will always be winners and losers. However, it has undoubtedly been a force for good. We now have 20 per cent of Scotland’s enterprises in the Highlands and Islands, despite having only 9 per cent of the population. That is a remarkable achievement, as is the fact that the declining population trend has been reversed. The population of the Highlands and Islands has grown by 22 per cent—nearly 100,000 people—since 1965, which is more than double the national average.

HIE has played a major part in, among other things, the thriving tourism industry, the University of the Highlands and Islands and transport infrastructure. It has invested in cultural activities, in Commun na Gàidhlig and Fèisean nan Gàidheal, and, more recently, in community land ownership. It has truly transformed the region.

To those who say, “Don’t worry. HIE will carry on doing what it has always done, because its network of offices across the region will continue; nothing will change,” I say that if the Government’s ill-conceived proposal goes ahead, everything will change. With respect, there are plenty of organisations that have a presence in towns across the Highlands and Islands—any high street bank, for example—but which plainly operate as national rather than local bodies. It is the board that makes HIE special—having a separate and independent board allows HIE to use the experience and expertise of business leaders to further its aims.

When she gave evidence to the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee last month, HIE’s interim chief executive said that the board helped HIE to prioritise where strategy was implemented. She said:

“The knowledge and expertise of the board members, based on the walks of life from which they come, is useful, as is their insight into the Highlands and Islands.”—[Official Report, Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, 6 December 2016; c 18.]

She said that HIE ensured that board members, as the visible face of HIE, spent time meeting and engaging with businesses and communities. She said that communities appreciate that, because it gives them an opportunity to talk to and influence the board. That is why it is imperative that the HIE board remains and that it

“continues to take all strategic, operational and budgetary decisions”,

as the motion states. Nothing else will do, because nothing else will achieve the same kind of success. Members should be in no doubt that the loss of the board will, in effect, mean the end of HIE as we know it.

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

Will the member take an intervention?

Donald Cameron

I do not have time, I am afraid.

I defy anyone to find an organisation that supports the proposal. Keith Brown revealed last month at the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee that there is not one—he was unable to name one body in favour of abolishing any of the current boards.

The prevailing mood in the Highlands and Islands is the same. Highland Council recently agreed a motion that spoke of the

“further distancing of decision-making and strategy from local communities”.

Jim Hunter—a highly respected figure and Scottish National Party member—has spoken of “centralism run riot” and “ministerial control-freakery”. Those comments demonstrate that, at the heart of all this, something much deeper and more profound is happening that impacts on everyone in Scotland: the inexorable centralising agenda of this Government.

It is a tragic tale. First it was the police. Then it was the fire service. Now we know that there are to be cuts to the core grant to local government, and there is talk of super-health boards.

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

Will the member take an intervention?

Donald Cameron

I do not have time. The minister will have time to respond in his speech.

The narrative of centralisation is fixed and unrelenting. A Convention of Scottish Local Authorities report in 2014 described Scotland as the

“most centralised country in Europe.”

It is no wonder that many of us believe that disbanding HIE’s board is simply the next chapter in that story, and that we will see another local body replaced by an all-Scotland organisation, based here under the watchful eyes of its political masters. Let me even hazard a guess at a name: enterprise Scotland? It is all so predictable.

With HIE, members should note the ultimate irony: a United Kingdom Government in faraway Westminster gave us the board, but a Scottish Government here in Edinburgh will take it away, and that at the hand of the Scottish National Party of all people—a party of devolution and autonomy. When it comes to localism, however, its instincts are anything but local.

Community empowerment cannot be preached while removing powers from local organisations. Communities in the peripheral areas of remote and rural Scotland are not helped by passing power in completely the opposite direction.

Some of the SNP’s Highlands and Islands MSPs are here. Memories are long in our part of the world and the people of the Highlands and Islands will remember how they vote tonight. There are basic questions that they must ask themselves. Either they believe that power is best exercised closest to the people that it affects or they do not; either they believe in local communities deciding for themselves what is in their best interests or they do not; and either they believe in allowing for diversity and divergence from central Government or they do not. What is it to be?

In tonight’s vote, we in this chamber have an opportunity to say enough is enough, to stand up for small communities and businesses across Scotland, to end the withdrawal of decision-making powers from our localities, to end the hoarding of power and influence in the centre and to end—once and for all—the passing of control over vast areas of Scottish life from the many to the few.

I move,

That the Parliament opposes the Scottish Government’s plans to abolish the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE); recognises the vital work that HIE carries out for businesses and communities across the Highlands and Islands, and calls on the Scottish Government to reverse this decision and ensure that the HIE board continues to take all strategic, operational and budgetary decisions.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Keith Brown to speak to and move amendment S5M-03438.2. You have up to six minutes, please, cabinet secretary.

15:23  

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

First, I make it clear that, where possible, I fully intend to listen to the points that have been made. I would like to engage and it might have helped in that regard had Donald Cameron accepted my intervention.

I want to work closely with MSPs from across the chamber to explore constructive ideas about how we can support and maintain sustainable and inclusive economic growth and protect—as we have guaranteed to do—local decision making, management and delivery.

I would have made the point that it seems impossible to reconcile the fact that we are about to be the first Government to establish a south of Scotland agency and our work on regional partnerships as part of the review with the idea of centralisation; indeed, what we are doing is the very reverse of centralisation.

However, my determination to deliver better economic and social outcomes for all Scotland means that I cannot support the Conservative motion. I will briefly explain the rationale for change and the actions that will ensure that HIE continues to deliver for the Highlands and Islands and for Scotland. HIE is not being abolished.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Will the minister take an intervention?

Keith Brown

I am sorry, but are we not in the pattern of not taking interventions? I recognise Liz Smith’s interest, though, so I will take her intervention.

Liz Smith

I thank the cabinet secretary for doing so. On the rationale for change, will he spell out whether he has had any communications from the four boards that he proposes to abolish? What advice has he been getting from them?

Keith Brown

It would take me some time to recite all the information that is contained in the letters, but I have had various correspondence from the boards. As you would expect, they raise an awful lot of issues in respect of which they are very supportive of what the Government is doing, and they also raise issues of concern. It is perhaps too much to go into in a short six-minute speech, but I would be happy to have a further conversation with Liz Smith about it, as I have done already.

When we announced the enterprise and skills review, our aim was to pursue the long-term ambition that was embedded in Scotland’s economic strategy: to rank in the top quarter of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for productivity, equality, wellbeing and sustainability. That ambition is the foundation for the work of our enterprise and skills agencies. Creating greater alignment would help HIE: it would ensure international support, which we do not have enough of now; and more local decision making in relation to skills development could take place in the Highlands and Islands as a result of greater alignment and cohesion.

We recognise the strengths of the four agencies and also that, as good as they are—I think that Donald Cameron conceded this point—they can do more. They have developed since they were first conceived; they have changed their names, they have changed their structures and they have certainly grown in size. As Donald Cameron mentioned, other parts of the Highlands and Islands frequently say that they could do with more of a HIE presence, and there is an important lesson there as well.

The first phase of the review that we have undertaken has shaped our vision, our guiding principles and a set of actions under seven themes. Moving ahead, we will strengthen the strategic direction and governance of our enterprise and skills system and ensure that appropriate regional approaches are undertaken. We will also take action, as I have mentioned, on internationalisation, innovation, skills, digital and enterprise support.

The review has focused on how we can best ensure that our agencies are working together. Respondents said that there was a complex and cluttered landscape, which was often confusing, and that we needed clearer alignment of our services to deliver our national ambitions. That is why we will align those key agencies under a strategic Scotland-wide board and also protect local decision making, local management and local delivery.

I say once again: HIE will not be abolished.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

SNP Highlands and Islands members met the cabinet secretary several months ago to discuss this very topic. Will he now commit to being open minded about retaining some sort of mechanism that ensures local decision making in the Highlands and Islands? Will he commit to bringing the second part of the review back to this chamber for a full discussion of the findings and recommendations?

Keith Brown

In addition to the points that Gail Ross, Kate Forbes, Richard Lochhead and others have made to me about what the structure beneath the strategic board should be and in relation to each of the agencies, there have been a number of other proposals. Some have appeared in the press, where there has been talk of supervisory boards and advisory boards, as there are in other countries; there are suggestions from those who are currently undertaking the review, which will be led by Professor Lorne Crerar, the chair of HIE; and we have had suggestions from members of the different agencies.

So, yes, we have the ability to look at the nature of the decision-making powers that are exercised by the tier between the strategic board and the agencies, if you like, and I spoke to Lorne Crerar this morning to ensure that his review, which has already begun, takes account of the Government’s open mind in that regard.

I am more than happy to come back to the chamber once we have that governance review—not phase 2 of the enterprise and skills review, although I will be happy to come back with that as well, of course. I recognise the interest expressed in both the motion and the amendment and in the discourse that I have had with individual members.

We recognise that the four agencies have strengths and that, as good as they are, we must always seek to improve them. I recognise the success of HIE over a number of years that Donald Cameron talked about—it has had substantial success; indeed, one reason why the South of Scotland members have championed having something similar in their area is that they recognise HIE’s success.

We must build on that in future. The additional support that HIE needs in respect of internationalisation and, perhaps, additional powers for local decision making should be an outcome of the review. The review should also focus on how we get the agencies to work together. It is a question of building on success, engaging with the agencies and delivering more for Scotland.

This debate confirms that all of us in the chamber recognise that HIE is a success story. As has been mentioned, the transformation of the Highlands and Islands over the past 51 years is testament to that. However, it should be recognised that the status quo is not an option, not least given the comments that Donald Cameron made. We are always looking to see how we can improve things.

The future of HIE is secure; it is not being abolished.

I look forward to the rest of the debate.

I move amendment S5M-03438.2 , to leave out from “opposes” to end and insert:

“recognises the vital work that Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) carries out for businesses and communities across the Highlands and Islands: welcomes the Scottish Government's commitment to retain HIE, its legal status, chief executive, management team, local base and local decision-making powers, and expects that the Governance Review being undertaken by the chair of HIE, Professor Lorne Crerar, and others will provide for the work of HIE to be supported by, and more closely aligned with, the other agencies within the Enterprise and Skills Review to drive the changes needed to further improve the economy of the Highlands and Islands and the rest of Scotland.”

15:29  

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I welcome the debate and I support the motion. The Highlands and Islands Development Board and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have, between them, more than 50 years of proven economic and social success. Why would anyone want to dismantle that? Despite how the Scottish National Party Government wriggles and recants, that is exactly what it is trying to do. John Swinney’s announcement of the end of the HIE board was met with anger and disbelief in the Highlands and Islands.

Kate Forbes

Will the member take an intervention?

Rhoda Grant

Let me make some progress.

In response, Keith Brown tried to appease by saying that he expects there to be strong Highland representation on the new single board. He also told me that there was no commitment to a single geographical headquarters for the new board. Does that mean that the Government has not decided where the new board will be located or maybe that it will not have a base at all?

The more digging we do, the more it seems clear that the SNP is making it up as it goes along. Its only aim is centralisation and a power grab that ignores the needs of the Highlands and Islands. The SNP now wants to take away the very essence of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, whose roots are firmly based in the region, and to make it subject to a board that covers not only enterprise but education and skills.

Kate Forbes

Does the member accept that only phase 1 of the review has been published and that the reason why we do not have all the details is that we await phase 2? Does she also accept that she voted for the Government’s motion welcoming the publication of phase 1, which stated that a statutory board would be created?

Rhoda Grant

We know now that the board of HIE is going to be dismantled, which we did not know at the time of that vote. The announcement of that proposal was sneaked out in answer to a different question. We did not have that information and we actually gave the Government the benefit of the doubt—we will maybe learn from that.

When the Highlands and Islands Development Board was founded in 1965, its main remit was to stem population decline from the north-west Highlands and the islands and at the same time enhance the way in which the economic and social needs of the whole area were met. Most people, including the cabinet secretary, agree that it has been a success. At the last count, the population had increased by 20 per cent. However, that is not to say that the job is done. Many parts of the region still face challenges that are as great as those in 1965 and we need to redouble our efforts to meet the demands of and challenges facing those communities.

That is where HIE’s social remit comes in and why we have lodged our amendment. HIE has used its funding and knowledge to support businesses that would not have been supported elsewhere in order to strengthen communities and ensure that people have access to services. It has supported businesses such as pubs and petrol pumps that would never be supported in other parts of Scotland. Our amendment seeks to emphasise that point. We have seen economic development over the past decades, but it has decreased over the past few years due to budget cuts. Communities of course complain that they cannot get the help from HIE that they once did. They want HIE to have its own distinct board and the ability that it once had to grow their local economies.

The Scottish Government’s approach should not be a surprise, as it has a track record on centralisation. In the Highlands and Islands, we once had our own police force, governed by a joint board that was made up of locally elected representatives, but the Government centralised that; it did the same with the fire service in the Highlands and Islands, which is now centralised. All that has had disastrous results for service delivery. This time, it is HIE. What next?

The Scottish Government must recognise that it has no support for the plan. The Government cannot tell us who supports scrapping the HIE board, but I can give a lengthy list of those who totally oppose it. For example, Dr Stephen Clackson from Orkney Islands Council told me:

“Before long, with a single police force, single ambulance service, single fire and rescue service etc, this country will have come to resemble a large English county. The SNP will have transformed Scotland into Scotshire!”

How ironic that, as Donald Cameron said, the HIDB was set up by a UK Government in Westminster and is now being dismantled by a Scottish Government in Edinburgh. That was not the aim of devolution. Regardless of what the Scottish Government says, the move is taking powers from the Highlands and Islands and centralising them. Power over how an organisation spends its budget is the crux of decision making, and the new board will retain power simply by being able to open and shut the funding tap.

We must make a stand to save not just the HIE board but the very essence of HIE, and to demand the re-empowering of an organisation that has made a real difference to the economy of the Highlands and Islands. I make a direct plea to SNP MSPs for the Highlands and Islands: they might have been put up for election by the SNP, but they were elected by their constituents—do not let them down at decision time tonight.

I move amendment S5M-03438.1, to insert at end:

“, and recognises the impact that the Scottish Government’s plans for centralisation will have on HIE’s unique social remit.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We now move to the open speeches. We are extremely tight for time. In order not to jeopardise the next debate, I ask all speakers to aim for three and a half minutes, please.

15:35  

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I will try to cut down my time to meet your deadline, Presiding Officer.

When I started working in Inverness in 1995, I had little knowledge of HIE. In fact, to be truthful, I was somewhat sceptical of what it had achieved and what it could achieve. However, over the 15 years I worked as a surveyor covering the Highlands, my views changed, and I came to appreciate what HIE had achieved in the north. Of course there were times when my original scepticism surfaced, but that was when the HIE board became political rather than dealing with Highland issues.

It is therefore perhaps strange that, like my colleague Donald Cameron, I wish, at the outset of my speech, to identify with somebody with whom I would not naturally identify. I agree with Professor Jim Hunter’s comment on the SNP Government’s plans for HIE and, as Donald Cameron did, I paraphrase what he said: that, in a country as diverse as ours, this is centralism running riot. I agree with that.

We must never forget why HIE exists. Simply put, it aims to increase the number of people who choose to live, work, study and invest in the Highlands and Islands. We should be asking whether it does that well. I believe that it does, and I will give three examples—in fact, I will give two examples, due to the shortage of time.

First, HIE worked with Highland Council, the University of the Highlands and Islands and Inverness Chamber of Commerce to make viable proposals for the Inverness city deal. The result was a £315 million investment. Secondly, HIE invested £25 million in the UHI campus to help make it possible. The result is a campus that we can be proud of, with huge diversity.

What has that excellent work cost Scotland? As we heard, it is £74 million, but that is shortly to be cut. Is that good value? Before I answer that question, it is worth pointing out that the SNP has already cut HIE’s budget by 11 per cent in six years, abolished the 10 local enterprise companies and, to quote Jim Hunter,

“turned the organisation into a Scottish Government ‘delivery agency’”.

Kate Forbes

Will the member take an intervention?

Edward Mountain

I am sorry, but I am very pushed for time, and I know that the member has intervened already.

As a Tory, I am putting myself in a dangerous position by quoting Professor Jim Hunter not just once but for a second time. Members must understand that, if somebody is right, I will stand with them. We should not allow the Government to act further and remove the board, making HIE purely a delivery agency.

We accept, and I think I have proved, that, in local situations, success is more likely if the decision is kept local. Who can deny that? The examples that I have given prove it. That is why the board needs to be local, not situated elsewhere in Scotland.

As Donald Cameron pointed out, we have all been told by the Scottish Government that there has been plenty of support for its plan to scrap the HIE board and to subsume it within a national body. The problem is that we still have not heard who supports that. Furthermore, I do not understand how the Cabinet can interpret as a signal to break up HIE the First Minister saying that

“Highlands and Islands Enterprise does a fantastic job”.—[Official Report, 29 September 2016; c 15.]

Before l close, I briefly mention the compromise by the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, Ian Blackford, on how to dilute the dissent to the Government’s suggestions. We have now done that—I have given it the attention it deserves—so let us move on.

In summary, I say to the Government: “Listen to what is being said to you. HIE is not broken. It works. Stop trying to break it.”

15:39  

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

Words are so devalued in our political discourse that they are hurled about until the air is so thick with exaggeration, hyperbole and superlatives that it is impossible to see the truth. The future of Highlands and Islands Enterprise is the latest battleground in our war of words, and I am really quite disappointed that Opposition parties have spread such fear among local communities and HIE staff with their irresponsible rhetoric.

For Donald Cameron to praise land reform when his party voted against it smacks of the same hypocrisy. That is one thing that the Highlands and Islands have not forgotten. Let me be clear: Dean Lockhart said this morning that HIE was to be abolished, but that is a downright mistruth.

We need a strong economy—not for its own sake, but because our friends and family members need job opportunities, a steady income and reliable public services across this country.

HIE has been instrumental in turning the Highlands around in the past 50 years. Interestingly, it has done that partly with more than £23 million in European Union funding between 2007 and 2013. Therefore, it is cheek—absolute cheek—for the Conservatives to accuse this Government of undermining HIE when their London colleagues will be pulling the rug from under the feet of HIE on EU and other funding for the Highlands and Islands.

I apologise to Edward Mountain, but the purpose of the review is to empower HIE with more resources and to expose HIE to more international opportunities—all that while maintaining the current management structures, the office of the chief executive, the staff and the local decision makers. In other words, the purpose of the Scottish Government’s review is to strengthen HIE’s service to communities. That is devolution of power—not centralisation.

Rhoda Grant

Will the member take an intervention?

Kate Forbes

With pleasure.

Rhoda Grant

Is the member actually saying that the board has no purpose at all? Why are we setting up an overreaching board if that is the case?

Kate Forbes

That is a good point, and a fair one. I think that the board has an important role to play. Over the past few years we have seen that our economy is changing. We need to open up new opportunities. For example, I come from an agricultural background. I see far fewer export opportunities for our food and drink in the Highlands at the moment, under the current arrangements, than there would be if there was more collaboration with others, with local decision-making powers and powers over the budget—on which I agree with Rhoda Grant’s earlier statement—maintained.

First and foremost, I say that we should look at what the Scottish Government has done, often in partnership with HIE, over the past few years and months. The Scottish Government worked with HIE to safeguard 150 jobs at the Lochaber smelter and unlock the potential to create hundreds more. Eighty miles of the A9 are finally being dualled—on time and within the £3 billion budget—after decades of waiting under Labour, Liberal and Tory Governments. Tens of affordable homes are being built across the Highlands and Islands. Communities now own acres and acres of their own land, with new land reform legislation and an expanded Scottish land fund. Investment is being made in tourism, food and drink and renewable energy across the Highlands. We should look at those things; we should look at the exact wording in the review; and we should look at the need to support businesses and communities in the Highlands.

I think that we should stop spreading fear. As a member of the Scottish Parliament for an area of the Highlands, who has lived, worked and gone to school in the Highlands and who loves the Highlands, I look at those things—that list of investments and partnerships—and I see a Government that is empowering Highland communities.

15:43  

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Presiding Officer,

“It has never been more important than today that all the country’s resources should be fully exploited, and the Highlands”

and Islands

“have much to contribute. This is not a case of giving to the Highlands. This is a case of giving the Highlands a chance to play their ... part in the future of Britain.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1965; Vol 708, c 1086.]

Those are the words of the iconic Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, speaking in the House of Commons during the second reading of the Highland Development (Scotland) Bill, which set up the groundbreaking Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965.

The HIDB was set up with operational freedom—unshackled by ministerial direction—and with combined economic and social development tools. In 1991, HIE took the HIDB’s place, and both Conservative secretaries of state—Rifkind and Lang—kept those principles alive in the new body.

Professor Jim Hunter, an ex-chair of HIE and an SNP supporter, has been quoted already today. In December 2016, he said in The Press and Journal:

“The Scottish Government’s decision to deprive Highlands and Islands Enterprise of its own board is no bolt from the blue—it is the culmination of repeated moves by SNP Ministers to rein in and now end the independence of the north’s development agency.”

In my view, it is crucial that we keep the HIE board, fight creeping centralisation and give HIE the strategic direction to devise and formulate its own priority initiatives, keeping faith with the spirit of Willie Ross’s passionate address in the Commons in March 1965.

The big question today is why abolish HIE’s board. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Where is the stampede of local people and organisations building the barricades to demand change? I ask the cabinet secretary to name them. Hands up how many back-bench SNP members for the Highlands and Islands want this move? How will HIE’s unique social function be protected? Where is the evidence of duplication? Who will employ the HIE staff? Who will appoint the HIE chief executive—the HIE board or the superquango?

Will the changes require fresh legislation, which might well be defeated, or will the cabinet secretary sneak through a so-called Henry VIII order using powers in part 2 of the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010? I looked at that procedure earlier. Members will be aware that it goes back to the statute of proclamations in 1539, which gave Henry VIII the power to make statute by proclamation. Clearly, the cabinet secretary has been taking some history lessons over the past few days.

Who will chair the superboard? Who will be the members? I will be happy to supply a free map of the Highlands and Islands to successful applicants if required.

I thank the Scottish Conservatives for their positive initiative in securing this debate. Those words are not often heard from this part of the chamber, which reinforces the point that cross-party consensus exists on the issue. The SNP faces almost universal criticism in the Highlands and Islands for its centralisation agenda, with opposition from the Lib Dems, the Greens, the Tories, Labour and—we should not forget—Highland Council as well. In the SNP’s ranks, it has caused discomfort on the back benches, and spies tell me that members of the SNP group at Westminster are muttering into their beer in the strangers bar because of the lack of consultation from SNP high command over the abolition of the board.

Tonight, there is a chance for democracy to strike back. All that we need is the will to do and the soul to dare.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

Time is tight. I ask for speeches of up to three and a half minutes, please, or members at the end will lose their speaking time.

15:47  

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

I remind the Parliament of my role as the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work.

The work of Highlands and Islands Enterprise is well recognised. It provides valued services to the businesses and communities of the region. There is no doubt that a successful Scotland requires a successful economy in the Highlands and Islands, and HIE is seen as a key driver of that success.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to the Highlands and Islands cannot be doubted. The recent deal to enhance the Fort William smelter and hydro power station, which adds high-value manufacturing and brings in significant external investment alongside Scottish Government support, demonstrates that. The dualling of the A9 and the A96, together with the focus on delivering broadband across the Highlands and Islands as a priority, will significantly improve connectivity.

Let us be clear about the proposals that are outlined in the Scottish Government’s enterprise and skills review. As the Government amendment states, HIE will retain

“its legal status, chief executive, management team, local base and local decision-making powers”,

and it will continue to have autonomy over local decisions, using local expertise and knowledge. All the factors that drive its success will continue. That is not in doubt. The same services will continue to be delivered by the same people to businesses and communities in the Highlands and Islands, which will continue to access those services through local staff in local offices as they do now.

Scotland has enjoyed success in inward investment in recent years, with a large part of that being down to the work of our enterprise agencies, including HIE, but the challenges that lie ahead require us to do more and to do it better. If we are to reach the top quartile of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations for economic growth, productivity and social inclusion, and to do so against the headwinds that have been created by the chaos and confusion of Brexit, more of the same will not be enough. As well as asking our businesses to innovate, we need to innovate across the range of enterprise and skills support services that the Government offers.

Business respondents to the review pointed to a cluttered landscape with a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities leading to duplication and suboptimal use of resources. The system was viewed as lacking coherence and co-ordination. A strategic focus with a single vision, goals and shared ownership is required to deliver more effective collaboration. That is not just something that is nice to have; it is essential to support Scottish business to perform and compete at the levels we need in order to deliver inclusive growth across the Scottish economy.

The review makes it clear that a greater degree of co-ordination is required, and the best way to achieve that is through a strategic board that ensures that the agencies complement and enhance each other. The new single strategic Scotland-wide statutory board will co-ordinate the activities of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. That will strengthen governance and bring greater integration, coherence and focus to our enterprise and skills support for businesses and users of the skills system. It will enable robust evaluation and the development of common targets that are aligned with the national performance framework and the economic strategy, which will aid performance.

There is no threat to HIE or the work that it does to benefit the economy of the Highlands and Islands. The changes that will be brought about as a result of the review will enable HIE to leverage in the support of other agencies and move forward to the next level of its work, and the Government amendment recognises that.

15:50  

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

I thank Donald Cameron for bringing this important debate to the chamber. My colleague John Finnie has long been an advocate and enthusiastic supporter of the role that HIE plays in the Highlands and Islands and he regrets that he is unable to be here to speak in the debate.

HIE has been serving communities in the north of Scotland for more than 50 years, partly in its former guise of the HIDB, and in that time it has achieved remarkable things. The region faces unique challenges and opportunities and, in our view, its needs are best met by a development agency that takes the big view and the long view on the development of the Highlands and Islands and implements its distinctive social purpose alongside conventional economic development concerns.

The report of the phase 1 review highlights the distinctiveness of the Highlands and Islands and the need for an agency that is

“locally based, managed and directed”.

That sentiment is at odds with the Government’s proposal to abolish the HIE board. The Scottish Government’s consultation summary notes that there were

“very few negative issues of note in relation to HIE and responses mentioning HIE were very positive in relation to their specific expertise and support to strengthen communities and address issues faced by remote, rural and fragile areas.”

Last September, the First Minister assured John Finnie that HIE would remain in a position

“to carry out”

its

“functions and provide its excellent services to the Highlands”—[Official Report, 29 September 2016; c 15]

and Islands.

I have three questions for the Government. First, will the cabinet secretary explain how scrapping the board and amalgamating it with other agencies will ensure a continued focus on the Highlands and Islands? Secondly, will he tell me how he proposes to bring forward his proposed changes? Does he plan to introduce primary legislation to enact them or, as David Stewart suggested, does he intend to use the order-making powers in part 2 of the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 as they apply to schedule 5 bodies? The third and crucial question is on status. The cabinet secretary told the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee in December that, in relation to SE and HIE,

“there will be no change to their status”—[Official Report, Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, 20 December 2016; c 10.]

Keith Brown’s amendment talks of retaining “legal status”, but “status” and “legal status” are ambiguous terms. Mr Brown has legal status, I have legal status and Donald Trump has legal status, but we are very different entities. The acid test is—this was the scenario that I put to Mr Brown in December’s economy committee meeting—whether, after the reforms, HIE would be able to take Scottish Enterprise to court over, for example, a disputed liability over property on the Isle of Arran. I am not suggesting for a moment that it would wish to, but would it be able to? In other words, will HIE retain not its legal status but its legal personality after the reforms?

HIE plays a vital role in supporting communities and businesses across the Highlands and Islands. It is widely supported. The changes that the Government proposes are unnecessary and could well undermine the excellent work that is done by HIE. We see no evidence or reason at this time to change the governance of HIE, and the Greens will be supporting the motion in the name of Donald Cameron.

15:54  

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I thank Donald Cameron for making the debate possible by lodging the motion, which the Scottish Liberal Democrats whole-heartedly support. I also thank The Press and Journal for the vigorous campaign that it has fought over the past few months to keep Highlands and Islands Enterprise local. It has acted in the best traditions of campaigning journalism, exposing the lack of any basis or support for the Government’s proposals and keeping the issue firmly in the public eye. Finally, I record my thanks to local businesses in Orkney, across a range of sectors, that have taken the time to voice their concern about the SNP’s plans to abolish the board of HIE.

I have listened closely to the cabinet secretary and his back-bench colleagues this afternoon as they have desperately sought to justify the proposals. In response, I am tempted to quote—as other members have—the highly respected former HIE chair Professor Jim Hunter. That would, at least, give Parliament a fair representation of the concerns that are felt by my constituents and by people across the Highlands and Islands. It would also more accurately reflect the views of most SNP activists and members in the region, of whom Professor Jim Hunter counts himself one. He speaks for most in declaring:

“there is no case—other than ministerial control-freakery—for undermining an agency whose record shows it to be one of Scotland’s success stories.”

As David Stewart said, the HIDB was established in 1965 with Government funding and with powers to act at its own hand. Roll forward half a century and we see how things have changed. Although the First Minister was happy to join HIE’s 50th birthday celebrations last year, since taking office the SNP has taken a hatchet to HIE. First, Mr Swinney’s “decluttering of the landscape” saw local enterprise boards including Scottish Borders Enterprise decluttered out of existence and tens of millions of pounds raided from HIE’s budget. Now that agency is to be stripped of its strategic responsibility for economic development in the Highlands and Islands, including the distinctive social cohesion aspect.

It is simply not credible to argue that a single, overarching superboard encompassing enterprise, skills and funding agencies for all Scotland will have the necessary laser-like focus on the needs of the Highlands and Islands. Yes, effective collaboration between those bodies is essential but, for the past 10 years, SNP ministers have assured us that that has been happening. Now, out of the blue, we are told by Keith Brown that abolishing HIE’s board and centralising strategic decision making is the only way of making that happen.

Unfortunately for the Government, no one else seems to agree. Certainly, no one who contributed to the first phase of the Government’s enterprise and skills review appears to agree. The idea was cooked up in Bute house by a Government with an unhealthy appetite for controlling absolutely every aspect of what goes on in our country. At a time when HIE desperately needs to be reinvigorated to rediscover its early ambition, creativity and independence, SNP ministers seem intent on neutering it. Starving HIE of funds and freedom is not the recipe for success.

I conclude by quoting Professor Jim Hunter, who says:

“In a country as diverse as ours ... this centralism run riot needs resisting.”

The cabinet secretary and SNP Highlands and Islands MSPs should take heed. This unwarranted power grab must be abandoned and power left where it is needed—in the Highlands and Islands. I hope that Parliament will reach the same conclusion at decision time.

15:58  

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

We agree that a review of enterprise and skills policy is an important and urgent priority if we are to promote economic growth and skills development in Scotland. Indeed, figures that were published only today by the Scottish Government show that the economy continues to struggle, with gross domestic product growth of only 0.7 per cent in the past year compared with growth of 2.2 per cent in the rest of the United Kingdom. Today’s figures also show that unemployment has increased over the past quarter to 5.1 per cent compared with a UK average of 4.8 per cent.

Given that economic background, we support some of the objectives that are outlined in the Scottish Government’s phase 1 report on enterprise and skills, including the need for greater alignment and accountability across enterprise and skills agencies. However, as our motion sets out, we categorically do not support the abolition of the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. In addition, we do not support the proposed 33 per cent reduction in the Government’s budget for enterprise support—however, given the time constraints, I will leave that for another day.

The SNP’s amendment to our motion highlights that HIE will retain its separate legal status and local base, but that misses the issue at the heart of today’s debate. As other members have highlighted, HIE’s unique social and economic remit has shaped and been shaped by the unique needs of the Highlands and Islands communities and the businesses that they support, and the HIE board plays a central and vital part in all that. HIE is not just an enterprise development agency like Scottish Enterprise; it has a unique and distinct remit to support and develop communities. Unique needs are identified and addressed by a dedicated HIE board.

Jim Hunter, who wins—by a long way—the award for most quoted person in today’s debate, called the Scottish Government’s attempt to scrap the HIE board a direct “assault” on its founding principles. When the chief executive of HIE gave evidence to the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, she said that the HIE board helps the agency to

“prioritise where we implement strategy across the Highlands and Islands”,

and highlighted the

“knowledge and expertise of the board members”.—[Official Report, Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, 6 December 2016; c 8.]

We want that approach to continue.

As other members have said, a number of stakeholders are against the Government’s proposal and have submitted responses to that effect, but there is little or no evidence of support for the proposal.

If we want improved alignment, accountability and performance across the enterprise and skills agencies, as well as higher economic growth in Scotland, the answer is in the Audit Scotland report “Supporting Scotland’s economic growth: The role of the Scottish Government and its economic development agencies”. Audit Scotland said:

“the enterprise bodies are performing well but the Scottish Government needs a clearer plan for delivering its economic strategy”.

We agree. The Government should follow Audit Scotland’s advice and take a closer look at its own performance and strategy and at how it implements policy, instead of dismantling the board of HIE, which has been successful.

Richard Lochhead (Moray) (SNP)

Will the member take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The member cannot give way, as he is in the final seconds of his speech.

Dean Lockhart

I am about to conclude.

The Government should by now have learned the lessons from the disastrous centralisation of Police Scotland. Centralising decision making is not the right answer, when different parts of Scotland have very different needs and policy requirements. The Scottish Conservatives are clear that the Scottish Government should reverse the decision to scrap the board of HIE and keep a local board, which understands the needs of the Highlands and Islands.

16:01  

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

As members have said, the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee spent a fair bit of time looking at the enterprise agencies, in particular Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. As part of that, we examined the Audit Scotland report “Supporting Scotland’s economic growth: The role of the Scottish Government and its economic development agencies”, which was published in July.

I will focus on the Audit Scotland report. Much of it is very positive. Audit Scotland described what is being and has been done by the HIDB and HIE since 1965, and by the Scottish Development Agency and SE since 1975. A lot has changed in the intervening years. On page 7, Audit Scotland said that the Scottish Government should work with relevant partners to

“identify the full range of public sector support for businesses to identify duplication and potential gaps and to ensure that public sector support complements private sector support”.

Audit Scotland went on—I could quote a lot of the report but I will restrict what I quote. On page 28, in paragraph 67, Audit Scotland said:

“It is not possible to directly compare Scottish Enterprise’s and HIE’s spending. Both record their spending against their individual priorities and categories. This means it is not possible to compare, for example, how much each spends on supporting businesses.”

In paragraph 76, Audit Scotland talked about potential duplication, saying:

“Scottish Enterprise and HIE offer similar forms of support ... The arrangements for providing this support are complex”,

and gave the example of Scottish Development International, which

“is a joint partnership between the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and HIE. It is staffed by Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government and funded through Scottish Enterprise.”

In paragraph 77, Audit Scotland explained that

“Other forms of support are delivered by one of the bodies, on behalf of the other, to businesses and communities across all of Scotland”,

and described how Scottish Enterprise leads on the Scottish Investment Bank, major grants programmes, the Scottish manufacturing advisory service and Co-operative Development Scotland, while HIE leads on community broadband Scotland, the Scottish land fund and Wave Energy Scotland.

As Audit Scotland said,

“It is not clear why some forms of support are delivered jointly or on behalf of the other”.

Sometimes that seems to be for “historical reasons” that everyone has forgotten. Audit Scotland went on to say:

“It is also not clear why some forms of support are delivered separately. For example, Scottish Enterprise and HIE offer the same or similar products and services for businesses (for example training courses) but these are developed, delivered and reviewed separately.”

Finally, in paragraph 80, Audit Scotland described how SE, HIE and the Scottish Government all have sector teams, for example, for food and drink. Those three teams collaborate, which is encouraging, but they all do their own research and analysis.

When I read such a report, I get a bit concerned. Of course the HIDB and HIE have done a tremendous job in the Highlands and Islands—everyone accepts that—and of course we need a specialist service for the region, given its particular challenges, but maybe some things are a little out of date.

Centralisation versus decentralisation is a tricky subject. There is no single right answer for every situation. From what I can see, we are trying to get the best of both worlds. I welcome the Government’s plans.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I thank members for keeping to their time limits. We move to winding-up speeches.

16:05  

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The Highlands and Islands Development Board was created by politicians of vision. I am bound to ask the cabinet secretary where the political vision for the Highlands and Islands is in his mediocre phase 1 proposal. I do not say this lightly, but the proposal amounts to the replacement of good policy with bad.

I remind Parliament of some of the past chairpeople of the HIDB and Highlands and Islands Enterprise; they were big figures in the public life not only of the Highlands and Islands but of Scotland, such as Robert Grieve, Andrew Gilchrist, Ken Alexander—who wrote that the board provided

“leadership and guidance to the development process”

and gave

“a substantial boost to morale in the area”—

and Robert Cowan and Jim Hunter. They were and are people of towering intellect and steely determination, fiercely independent and unafraid to challenge politicians, irrespective of party, in pursuing the best interests of the Highlands and Islands. Those are the very voices of dissent and challenge that I fear that the SNP wishes to silence.

The reasons for creating the Highlands and Islands Development Board were clear, and the clue is in its name—it had an independent board, whose remit was to strengthen the economies and the communities of the Highlands and Islands and to uphold the demand and the right that people should no longer have to leave their islands, their villages and their communities to find work. It is to the credit of the HIDB and HIE that net migration figures for the Highlands and Islands have been reversed. However, behind that global figure lie communities that are still fragile, economies that are still peripheral and therefore still need acute support, and people—especially young people—who still leave to find work because there are not enough opportunities locally.

Those are precisely the reasons why a distinctive agency with strong independent leadership and its own ring-fenced budget is essential. The very idea that one body can deal with everything from the funding of Scotland’s higher education to the micro-economies of fragile crofting communities beggars belief. The overarching board will have less knowledge of and even less interest in the very places that really need an independent board.

The very idea that Highlands and Islands Enterprise will continue to operate unaffected, as we have been told by SNP speaker after SNP speaker in the debate, has not an ounce of credibility. I say to those members that, before they vote tonight, they should have another look at the stated aim in the Government’s phase 1 report. It says that the action is being taken to

“strengthen governance and deliver the benefits of a single system.”

I urge them to read John Swinney’s parliamentary answer from 23 November, when he told Iain Gray that

“the overarching board will replace individual agency boards”.—[Official Report, 23 November 2016; c 6.]

SNP members should make no mistake: Highlands and Islands Enterprise is being administratively disembowelled in their name.

We do not need a business-led Scotland-wide statutory board that is chaired by the cabinet secretary in Edinburgh or Glasgow to determine budgets, operational priorities and so on. Those decisions should be made as close as possible to the people who are affected in the Highlands and Islands.

I fear that SNP members in the Parliament are in denial. However, I say to them that this is no time for silence. The proposal was not in the manifesto on which they were elected, so they should stand up and represent the views of their constituents, not their party leaders, and support the motion tonight.

16:09  

Keith Brown

The debate has certainly been stimulating and interesting. We have heard references to Henry VIII, spies in the bars of the House of Commons, Donald Trump and even disembowelling. Despite that, some important points were made. I reiterate that I am listening to and will take on board the points that members have made.

I repeat the commitment that we have made to HIE, and I recognise the significant contribution that it has made—as a number of members have said—to the region’s economic transformation over the past 50 years.

A couple of specific points were raised by—I am sorry; I forget his name.

Members: Oh!

Keith Brown

It is Andy Wightman. He referred to the Government amalgamating the board with other agencies, but I confirm that the agencies will not be amalgamated. He also raised a question about the future process. As I said at committee, that will depend on the outcome of the governance review, which will help to determine the remit and the nature of the board and thus determine the process that follows. I will come back to Mr Wightman on the point about legal personality.

Richard Leonard asked where the vision for the Highlands is. As has been mentioned a number of times—this relates to Inverness in particular—no previous Government has committed the necessary £3 billion for the A9 and A96 projects. Those projects have been promised for many years and have been taken forward by this Government.

The Inverness city deal was mentioned. The Scottish Government was the biggest contributor to that deal, which also involves HIE. Much of what has happened in the Highlands has taken place through active collaboration, and not only with HIE. One example is the huge Rio Tinto project. Saving those jobs and building on them will have a huge economic impact on the area, given the population sparsity. That was the result of a joint effort between Scottish Enterprise and HIE. We want to see more of that collaboration happening, and it is part of the vision for the new board.

There have also been smaller projects, such as the Mosstodloch to Fochabers bypass. People had been campaigning for a bypass for 50 years, and the project was undertaken by this Government. The need for improvements at the Berriedale braes is being addressed now; that is another long-term ambition that dates back at least to the times when I went to the Highlands during my childhood. There are many other projects that relate to health, life sciences and so on.

The University of the Highlands and Islands was mentioned. The Government provided support for that project, not least to the agencies that were involved.

That is the sort of vision that has been encapsulated in the transformation of the Highlands over many years, as has been discussed today. It is an inspiration for the creation of a new board—not one member has mentioned that—that stands against the idea of centralisation; that is the south of Scotland agency that is being established. The vision that we have for the Highlands is to continue with those achievements.

Rhoda Grant

I am not sure whether the cabinet secretary made a slip of the tongue, but he said that the Government is creating a new board for the south of Scotland. Why would he abolish HIE and then create a new board for the south of Scotland?

Keith Brown

We are creating a new agency for the south of Scotland—that is what I said. In fact, that was an outcome of phase 1 of the review.

The plans that we are putting forward are about improving the services that HIE is able to offer and giving opportunities to businesses and individuals in the Highlands. There has been much talk about the value of the board, and I understand that point, but there should be more talk about the value of the employees of HIE who provide the services. After the review, they will still be there to provide to businesses and individuals in the Highlands the services that are so valued by people locally.

The reforms and the setting of key local and national economic ambitions for all our agencies are important. When other parties in the Parliament have been in government, they have bemoaned the region’s lack of growth, productivity levels and export growth, and our proposals seek to address those issues.

Kate Forbes made an excellent speech. Increasing internationalisation and exports from the Highlands, to which she referred, is central to what we are trying to achieve, and I hope to get support for that from members.

As I said, I have had a number of pieces of correspondence from members, to which I have responded or am responding. I am willing to meet individual members—I have met members already, in some cases where I have initiated the meeting, and I will continue to do that.

A very important point was made about the timescale. The Lorne Crerar-led governance review will report shortly. I understand that members might want to stick to the position that they take now, but they might want to take a new position in the knowledge of what the chair of HIE proposes. I hope that members will approach the results of the review with an open mind, and I will certainly be willing at that point to engage in further discussion and to work with members on all sides of the chamber.

The purpose of our amendment is to ensure that the Parliament

“recognises the vital work that ... HIE ... carries out for businesses and communities across the Highlands and Islands”.

Parliament should welcome the commitment that we have made

“to retain HIE, its legal status, chief executive, management team, local base and local decision-making powers”.

Let us see what will be the total sum of that decision-making power and the organisation’s remit—whether that will contain new powers in relation to skills, for example, which would be welcomed in the Highlands and on which HIE could go further.

I do not understand the point that was made about police and fire reviews by parties that supported the unification of those boards, yet now criticise it.

The enterprise and skills review is very important and should be tested, measured and justified by the extent to which it improves exports from and productivity in the Highlands. I ask people to approach it with an open mind. I also ask for recognition of the efforts of other agencies in the review to drive the changes that are needed to further improve the economy of the Highlands and Islands and the rest of Scotland. Collaboration in that area is what will work for the Highlands.

16:15  

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Unfortunately, I will not be able to take any interventions, because I have a lot to get through in wrapping up all the interventions and speeches that we have heard.

The debate has shown that the SNP’s plans for the centralisation of HIE are ill thought out, lack any support from parties other than the SNP and threaten the excellent work that HIE has done for decades throughout the Highlands and Islands.

I know that we do not use the “L” word in the chamber but, when Kate Forbes put across her views about HIE on Twitter this morning, she said that she was responding to the

“outright lies I’m hearing from the Tories on #HIE”.

Those are very strong words and I do not think that they have been replicated in the chamber today.

Kate Forbes

Will the member take an intervention?

Douglas Ross

No—I have said that I will not.

Calling Scottish Conservatives liars—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

It is for the member to decide whether to take an intervention.

Douglas Ross

Calling Scottish Conservatives liars because we have taken such a strong position against the SNP’s centralisation plans begs the question why we have gained so much support for our opposition. As the debate has shown, every member of every party except the SNP knows the threat that HIE is under if it is subsumed into a national body.

While we are on the topic of misinformation, it was disingenuous of the First Minister to stand up in the chamber weeks before the plans were announced and tell John Finnie that

“Highlands and Islands Enterprise ... has done a fantastic job over the past 50 years and I give the member an assurance that we will make sure that it is in a position to continue to carry out those functions and provide its excellent services to the Highlands of Scotland.”—[Official Report, 29 September 2016; c 15.]

I say to the First Minister and to SNP members that HIE’s position is at the heart of the Highlands, where it has been doing its excellent work for decades, not dragged to the central belt as part of a national body.

I will go over a number of the points that members raised. Rhoda Grant was right to say that Highlands and Islands Enterprise has firm roots in the region and to highlight that Keith Brown cannot and has not given an assurance on where HIE will be based in the region.

Edward Mountain spoke about his experience as a surveyor, as well as the great work that HIE has done in collaboration on the Inverness city deal and the new UHI campus. Kate Forbes continued to give examples of the great work done by HIE, including the 150 new jobs at the Lochaber smelter, the A9 project and house building. I have to ask why, if HIE has done all that great work, the Government has to change it.

Kate Forbes

Will the member take an intervention?

Douglas Ross

No—I cannot take any interventions.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please sit down, Ms Forbes.

Douglas Ross

David Stewart gave a useful history of HIE, and he moved on to parliamentary history by quoting Henry VIII. I was momentarily distracted in looking at the Government front bench and wondering which SNP minister looked least like Henry VIII. I quickly got back into my swing when I listened to Ivan McKee, the SNP MSP for Glasgow Provan, who, after announcing that he is the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, read out the party line exactly.

Andy Wightman asked three crucial questions, which were not fully answered by the cabinet secretary—I am sure that John Finnie briefed Mr Wightman well. Liam McArthur rightly highlighted the excellent campaign that The Press and Journal has run, and Dean Lockhart said that the Scottish Government should follow Audit Scotland’s advice and get its own house in order before looking to scrap the board of HIE.

I have lived and worked in Moray my whole life and I have seen the benefits that our area has gained from HIE. I know that that is replicated across the Highlands and Islands. The only people who are defending the move are elected SNP politicians. I say “elected SNP politicians” because some members of the SNP disagree with the plans. Jim Hunter has been quoted ad nauseam today—by Donald Cameron, by Edward Mountain, by David Stewart, twice by Liam McArthur and by Dean Lockhart—but I have an unused quote from him in which he criticises his own party’s plans. He said:

“As an SNP member, I hope the party’s Highlands and Islands MSPs join with others to reject the government’s plan.”

That leads me nicely to a quote from Keith Brown from yesterday’s debate. He accused Conservative MSPs of doing as we are

“told by the UK Government.”

He continued:

"We will not do that; we are here to represent the people of Scotland."—[Official Report, 17 January 2017; c 69.]

I ask Richard Lochhead, Kate Forbes, Gail Ross, Maree Todd, Fergus Ewing, Mike Russell and Alasdair Allan this question: at decision time tonight, will they do what the SNP Government tells them to do or will they represent the people of Scotland?

As we head towards the council elections, people will be considering who to support who will stand up for their area and against centralisation such as the type that the SNP is imposing on HIE. The public should know that their local SNP candidate will not support their area.

How do I know that? I have in my hand the voting record from a recent meeting of Highland Council. That meeting had a motion in front of it from the independent leader, Councillor Margaret Davidson, that raised concerns about the Government’s plans for HIE. The motion said:

“such an approach is not in the best interests of the Highlands and Islands.”

It continued:

“The Council condemns further distancing of decision making and strategy from local communities”.

That motion was agreed to by 44 votes to 14. Who were the 14 members of Highland Council who we would expect to stand up for their local area but who voted against the motion? They were the entire SNP group at the meeting. SNP members say that they stand up for Scotland, but really they just stand up for whatever Nicola and the SNP Government tell them to. People should not forget that in May.

While the SNP will not stand up for local communities, Parliament can speak for them at decision time. MSPs have sent a strong message to the SNP in the debate and I urge members to support the Conservative motion so that Parliament as a whole can add its voice against the plans.