19 January 2011

S3M-7716 Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee’s “Report on the public sector’s support for exporters, international trade and the attraction of inward investment.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7716, in the name of Iain Smith, on the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee’s “Report on the public sector’s support for exporters, international trade and the attraction of inward investment.”
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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):

Like others, I congratulate the committee on its work. Like Jeremy Purvis, I have come to this from outside the process and have read the report with some interest.

Paragraph 237 of the report says that not enough companies are looking for assistance. We must remember that there is a fundamental difference between the approach of the public sector and the approach of the private sector. The public sector is, essentially, risk averse—that is something that we need to change—thinks strategically and looks, generally, to the long term. The private sector, on the other hand, is highly entrepreneurial and opportunistic and tends to look to the short term. Sometimes, the two sectors make quite uncomfortable bedfellows. When we add them together, we can subtract one from the other and end up worse off, or we can benefit from the hybridisation that arises from their diverse approaches. It is quite difficult to achieve the latter, but we should certainly try to do so.

Paragraph 247 addresses the need for SDI not to

“duplicate or crowd out the type of advice and support that is currently being provided by other bodies in Scotland”.

That is a self-evident truth that we should take on board.

Fundamentally, we have a two-way street, just as there is a two-way street between the public and private sectors. There is a benefit to us from bringing trade and companies to Scotland and there is a benefit to our getting out and investing and engaging elsewhere.

Paragraph 241 talks about SDI’s physical presence. I am not in as much sympathy with the points that are expressed in this paragraph as I am with others. In the past three and a half years, I have met SDI people in various locations and spoken with them about what they are doing, and I have always been struck that, although they might have an office in Düsseldorf or wherever, they spend a great deal of time elsewhere. I had 1,303 nights as a minister, but I spent only 467 of them at home; the rest were out and about—and not many of them were holidays or party business. I am sure that the SDI employees work on a similar basis and that they spend a bit of the time in their home base but most of their time on the road. Indeed, one third of my 2,769 ministerial meetings were outwith Scottish Government offices.

Iain Smith: The member had too much time on his hands.

Stewart Stevenson: If only I had had more time. I will come back to that issue later.

The key point is that the location of the office is one thing but what is important is the location of the folk who are doing the job.

It is clear that the world is changing rapidly. I first visited China in 1978, and the change that I saw when I visited China as a minister in 2009 was fundamental. In Beijing, there are significantly more cars per household than there are in London, Edinburgh or Glasgow whereas, in 1978, there were probably no private cars at all in China. I visited a wind turbine manufacturer that is co-operating and working with Scottish interests—SDI was key to that arrangement. I visited an electric vehicle manufacturer, where I saw 400 vehicles that were going off to the United States. Ironically, I visited China’s dedicated weather television channel, where I was given the opportunity to see how difficult it is to do a weather forecast. If only I had learned the lesson more thoroughly and remembered it a year later, but there we are. Ho hum—one has to learn from life.

Scotland is famed for its exports. On my world travels, I saw in Burma what is claimed to be the biggest Buddha in the world, which was sitting on a steel stand that was made in Motherwell. Similarly, the ferry that runs across Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia was built on the Clyde. It had to be dismantled to be taken over there and then rebuilt, but it is certainly there.

The Liberals in particular should be proud of the Scotch whisky industry. Lloyd George introduced the requirement—to restrict supply during the first world war—that whisky must be kept in bond for three years. That improved the quality of the brand by eliminating the rotgut and, as a second-level effect, laid the foundations for the Scotch whisky export industry. There are still brands today that state that they are exported under British Government supervision. Of course, Lloyd George’s secretary was Frances Stevenson, so he must have got the good ideas from somewhere.

Educational exports have gone up, as paragraph 248 mentions. I spent some time in the two years before I came to the Parliament lecturing at Heriot-Watt University and had students from more than 20 countries in my class. It is clear that Scotland has huge and very important international connections that we can exploit.

Jeremy Purvis talked about the merchant company that was founded in 1694. That brings to mind, as perhaps it does for Lewis Macdonald, the Aberdeen Shore Porters Society, which was founded in 1492 and claims to be the oldest business in Scotland. That tells us that in Aberdeen the business of exporting, the shore and the harbour have been important for a long time.

I say to Chris Harvie that I have been on the little train from Darjeeling to Ghum; so exciting was it that I kept the ticket. We have that kind of experience to sell to the world.

We should not beat ourselves up too much, as one can take different things from the figures. In table 3 on page 11, the committee provides us with the HM Revenue and Customs regional trade statistics. We can see that, excluding services such as banking and tourism and financial investments, the low in Scotland was £12 billion in 2006, and it has gone back up to £15 billion, albeit that our share is not doing so well. We should look to our successes as well as focusing on our failures.

As we approach 25 January, we should remember that our cultural icons, such as Robert Burns, can deliver a great deal for this agenda. I will be speaking in Bethesda in Maryland on Friday evening, but by internet—I will not be there physically. The modern technology world gives us new export opportunities, and we should try to make use of them.


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