5 September 2018

Programme for Government 2018-19

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): We continue the debate on the Scottish Government’s programme for government 2018-19.

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

That was an interesting opening observation from the Conservative benches. It is the first time that I have heard Murdo Fraser boast that the pound in his pocket is worth less than it was worth before Conservative policies and actions affected it. I will welcome hearing what he says in two years’ time when the effect of higher costs for importing components that are required for manufacturing industry in these islands hits home. There is a short-term benefit, but the long term is much more problematic. We should talk about Brexit in relation to the economy. It is a huge challenge to the Scottish economy and the economy in these islands, but it will not inhibit the Scottish Government from taking the actions that will support Scotland’s further development.

I will say a few words about a few of the announcements in yesterday’s statement from the First Minister. Before I talk about banking, I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests. I spent 30 years in banking and came into politics to improve my reputation.

I strongly support the establishment of the Scottish national investment bank. The way that the world of finance and cash works is changing fundamentally for businesses and will do so even more for individuals. For example, in Sweden, there are now only 25 bank branches that deal with cash because the society has, in essence, become cashless. We will get there as well. The Scottish national investment bank, which will focus primarily on investment in the first instance, could in the longer term consider how we support communities that will lose more and more local branches—as they are already—so that the right kind of financial services are available. That will often be through technology assisted by trained people.

I welcome the proposed biometrics bill. I encourage the Government to pay close attention to what has happened in India with the Aadhaar system. That is an identity card system that has issued cards to 1.22 billion cardholders since 2009. An important point about it is that around 50 per cent of the cardholders are functionally illiterate. Therefore, it is an easy-access system and it has many lessons for what we might want to do on biometrics. The Aadhaar card is based on retinal scans.

I will say a wee thing about electoral reform. I hope that we can persuade the Boundary Commission for Scotland to give us more granular detail when it makes boundary changes so that we can see what houses are at the edges of our constituencies. It is not a big deal.

On non-domestic rates, I would like the Government to work with the assessors on how they factor empty premises into the assessment of the value of rents. In the north-east of Scotland, quite a lot of fish factories are empty. The actual rents paid are taken into account for the ones that are occupied, but no account is taken of the fact that it is impossible to let other factories at that rate of rent. The assessment should be made across the board. The valuers know about the empty factories because they consider them as well. I will talk to them about it because I realise that the Government does not control that subject, although it provides guidance.

I warmly welcome the increased investment in infrastructure. I hope that we will think about whether we can support industries that will be particularly hard hit by the absence of workers from Europe when people go back to Europe because of the immigration rules. Perhaps we can help the fish processing industry to increase its levels of automation and the soft fruit industry to develop new technologies for harvesting. In turn, that would create new products that we could sell around the world. I hope that those ideas will be considered for inclusion in the infrastructure investments. Of course, it is up to the industry to come forward with proposals and I have been talking to people in both of those industries about what they might do in that regard. That is about middle-term to long-term investments rather than short-term ones, but it is important nonetheless.

If you will allow me, Presiding Officer, as there is no motion, I will pick up on one thing that is not directly to do with the economy but which I am particularly interested in—the announcements in relation to mental health. In 1964, I worked in mental health as a nurse for eight months. My father-in-law was a psychiatric nurse and my sister-in-law is a psychiatric nurse. I am absolutely clear about the value of investing in people’s mental health and of helping people with early signs of mental ill-health in schools. That mental ill-health might otherwise develop into a real cost to the economy—to come back to that—but, more fundamentally, investing in mental health will benefit people in Scotland: it will improve their lives, not just their wallets.


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