14 April 2005

S2M-2694 Skills

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 14 April 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2694, in the name of Jim Wallace, on skills.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Today's is a timely debate because the subject affects everything that happens in Scotland. Our success or failure in the matter will determine the long-term future of everyone in our country. In the absence of targets for what we are trying to achieve in our economy, it is kind of difficult to know whether we will succeed. There is an old saying: "If you don't know where you're going, you won't know whether you've got there."

The kind of targets that I and my colleagues on the SNP benches wish to see for Scotland's economy are distinctly different from those that are hinted at and suggested from the shadows by members on the Government benches. We need targets for economic activity in Scotland that exceed those for the rest of the United Kingdom in order that we can make progress because we have been underperforming relative to the rest of the United Kingdom for a number of years—we could argue about how many years.

However, targets are not the issue; delivery on targets is. We must also not be afraid of being a confident country—or of being the best small country in the world, as someone who occasionally sits on the Executive benches says—that competes within the settlement that we have currently with the other countries and areas of the United Kingdom. Competition in that context is the sin whose name must not be spoken too often, but it is time that we heard it.

I keep returning to an astonishing experience that I had when I suggested in committee that we should allow councils to set planning fees for themselves instead of telling them what they should charge. I was telt by a minister, "Oh, but we can't have competition." That attitude permeates too much of the Executive's thinking.

I turn to some of what the First Minister said today at question time. He suggested, if I heard him correctly—I think the figures sustain this—that 87 per cent of Scots graduates who take up employment do so in Scotland. That is good; the figure is higher than it has been for some time. Let us be fair and say that some progress is being made. It might also be interesting to know how long those graduates stay; to know—of the 13 per cent who are currently not taking up employment in Scotland—how many come back; and to know how many foreign people we manage to retain in Scotland. There are some numbers for that and they are modestly encouraging.

Of course, as I suggested when I intervened during Murdo Fraser's speech, it is clear that the Tories' policies would be absolutely disastrous. I do not think that the business community has quite caught up with the fact that the Tories would require any company that employs someone who has a work permit to put up half of that person's annual salary if they want to keep the person on board. If that policy were implemented, I estimate—based on the number of work permits in my constituency—that the cost to businesses in Banff and Buchan alone, which is only one of 73 constituencies, would be in excess of £1 million.

Furthermore, in relation to people who are seeking their first job, if an employer has a choice between putting up half a year's salary, which is about £9,000, given that the average graduate starting wage is £18,000, to employ someone who needs a work permit, such as a highly skilled person who came from China to study in our country—currently, just under 1,700 students from China, many of them excellent, do so—or employing someone for whom that sum need not be put up or leaving the position vacant, I think I know what the employer will do.

As members would expect, I have been looking at less obscure sources of information than the Tory party website and from those sources I see that the category of occupation that has the highest number of employees who receive training is personal services occupations, in which the figure is 50 per cent. I also see that the training rate—that is, the percentage of employees who receive any sort of training—is 43 per cent. That is all well and good, but it means that more than half of our employees are not getting in-service training. We have to consider ways of increasing that figure substantially.

In the Scottish Enterprise Grampian area, which includes the area that I represent, 24 per cent of companies expect to have recruitment problems, which is largely due to the fact that there is an inadequate skills base upon which they can draw.

I am worried about the drop in the proportion of people who are going into training and I am also concerned about something that I have been told—but have not yet confirmed—which is that colleges are having to deal with the funds that they are given in a new way, in that they must make an operating surplus to pay off capital debt and that much of the new money that they are getting is hypothecated.

There is little doubt in my mind and in the minds of my colleagues that we could do better if we had more powers. The challenge for the Government benches is to show that, with the powers that we have, we can do better than the rest of the United Kingdom. That is at best not proven, but I think the jury votes guilty.


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