15 September 2004

S2M-1672 Relocation of Public Sector Jobs

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Our next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1672, in the name of Des McNulty, on behalf of the Finance Committee, on the relocation of public sector jobs. ...
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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate all the Finance Committee members on a comprehensive, readable and—I hope—understandable report. It reflects well on the Parliament's committee processes.

I will talk a little about the factors that the Executive is using to determine where jobs might be relocated to. There are four. Socioeconomic issues that contribute 50 per cent; business efficiency and improvement contribute 20 per cent; sustainable transport links contribute 15 per cent—I am not absolutely clear that I know what they are, but perhaps we will hear later; and suitable accommodation contributes 15 per cent. I focus on those factors because they open up a bit of a can of worms. I welcome the fact that the Executive will be more open about the factors that are used in future relocations—that is a useful step forward.

I will talk a little about my area and Aberdeenshire generally. Aberdeenshire Council expects population decline in my area in the years to come. The unemployment rate in my constituency is about three fifths of the Scottish average, so one might think that we were doing much better than the Scottish average. Unfortunately, when many people lose their jobs, they leave the area or work away from home. Members will know of fishermen who are working off the west coast of Africa. My constituents have lots of get up and go, but that affects the numbers.

The rate of self-employment is another important consideration when examining the numbers, because in my constituency it is more than twice the Scottish average. When people drop out of that way of earning a living, they are not reflected in the figures. Average earnings in my constituency are just slightly under the Scottish average, so it looks as if we are doing reasonably well, but the median figure is substantially below the Scottish average. In other words, the figure as an average is distorted by the fact that a relatively large number of people have very large earnings. Therefore, there is genuine difficulty with many of the factors that are used to identify a socioeconomically deprived area.

Of course, in The Press & Journal today, a Labour MP is complaining about the transfer of 100 jobs from Aberdeen to Greenock. I say good luck to Greenock; that is fine. Over the past five years, there have been transfers of 95 jobs into Aberdeen with the Food Standards Agency Scotland and the Common Services Agency, so in many ways we are back to where we started. People will come to the north-east and will relocate to parts of Scotland in general. For example, there are vast numbers of people with Geordie accents in Peterhead because of recruitments that took place 15 or 20 years ago. Those people now do not want to leave the area—they are embedded in it—and that is great.

Fergus Ewing made some useful comments about putting letters and e-mails that are part of decision making into the public domain. I point out that the Executive published a code of conduct for procurement in public agencies that makes it very clear that contracts are expected to be in the public domain. If that is the case, we should apply similar standards to relocation. I hope that we will hear that that will be done.

We must be aware that the day of the central office—of concentrations of labour in administrative functions—will end at some point in the future. I do not know when that will be, but we already have the technology to enable, for example, a remote-working office to be located in Barra, which I visited a few years ago. It is quite small, but four people in an office there perform work for people who are well distant. I also know of a gentleman who works for BT's development lab at Martlesham in Ipswich and who is based on the west coast of Lewis; he is doing some tremendous stuff down a fat communications point. I have been involved in joint projects with people in Australia and India that have relied on teleconferencing.

Teleconferencing is going to change a lot. I have seen an experimental system that is so realistic that, when one sits across the desk, one forgets very quickly that one is not in the same room as the other person. I had the experience of someone turning away from me because they were sneezing. They were actually 50 miles away, but the system was so realistic that they did not realise that they were not sitting in the same room as me. I have also seen three-dimensional television work in an experimental way.

Teleconferencing will move away from gimmicky ideas and, in perhaps 20 or 30 years, its realism will change the face of how we work. I hope that people will therefore be able to choose where they stay, because not everyone—I say this as a country loon—believes that cities are the epitome of civilisation. Indeed, I take an entirely contrary view on that.

Fergus Ewing talked about cost and there are two important aspects to that. Compensation for loss and recompense for inconvenience are proper, but bribery disnae work in the long term, and we have to reconsider it.


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