20 May 2015

S4M-13203 Scotland’s Economy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-13203, in the name of Jackie Baillie, on the future of Scotland’s economy.

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

I will posit an approach to how we might deal with the issue that is before us. We should describe the problem, obtain information about it, extract meaningful data and normalise the data across the timeline over which it is spread. From that, we should identify solutions, compare the identified solutions with one another, select solutions to take forward, find the finance and undertake implementation. We should then start again, because it is unlikely that one time round the loop will solve the problem.

One thing that has come out of the debate is that, in our describing of the solutions, there is comparatively little difference between us across the chamber. We accept that there is before us a challenge that will endure over the long term, but we must make progress on it.

We are not doing quite so well at obtaining information. We have a table from Dr Jim Scott’s research, but there is no context.

Johann Lamont: How many times in the past eight years have finding data, interrogating it and finding solutions already been done? The point is not to diss the evidence that somebody has presented but to accept that there is a problem and ask whether we are spending the money on the right things.

I am concerned that SNP back benchers, rather than the cabinet secretary, seem to want to close down the debate and argue about the evidence rather than agree that there is a problem and come to an agreement on what the solutions might be.

Stewart Stevenson: It would be helpful if the member listened to what I said. I acknowledged the challenge that is before us, and I do so again for the hard of heeding, if any thus described are present now.

To return to Dr Scott’s data, such extract from it as there is tells me almost nothing of itself. It tells me nothing because it fails a number of the tests that I described. I accept that it is data. It has a timeline, but I have no knowledge of what normalisation has been done between the different parts of the timeline so that it is proper to compare one year with another.

Neil Findlay: Will Stewart Stevenson take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I will make a little progress, but I might come back to Mr Findlay.

I also have no information about the sources of each element of data that is on the single sheet of paper that has been provided.

Neil Findlay: Will Stewart Stevenson give way?

Stewart Stevenson: One moment, please.

An academic paper would normally have the information that I mentioned. I expect that the whole paper has it, but I say gently to my Labour colleagues that it would have been helpful to their cause and to good debate if we had had the whole paper.

Neil Findlay: It is abundantly clear that neither Dr Scott nor anyone in the chamber is on the same intellectual wavelength as Mr Stevenson, but that comes as no surprise to any of us. Perhaps, in his wisdom, he could tell us what the problems are in Scottish education. We will all sit here rapt at his intelligence.

Stewart Stevenson: I am conscious that I have six minutes but, although I accept the plaudits that are due more to the genetic inheritance from my parents than my own efforts, I make the point that the real issue on which we all have to engage is that we must make common cause to get the whole picture in front of us so that we can pick out and start to agree on the bits that we want to prioritise.

The Labour Party’s motion moves to solutions. For example, it talks about

“doubling the number of teaching assistants and 10 new literacy teachers in each of the associated primary schools of the 20 high schools facing the greatest challenges”.

I cannot possibly rebut that proposal, because I do not have any of the workings for how we have arrived at it as the magic bullet. By the way, it might be the correct answer. I do not reject it because it has come from the Labour Party, but neither can I accept it, because I have no workings, so I do not know on what axioms it was based, what the in-built assumptions were or even what the policy objectives were in any detail.

I turn to the underlying numbers behind the Labour Party’s proposal. Earlier, I asked how much it would cost to employ a teaching assistant and a literacy teacher. I got a fairly definite £20,000 for the former and a less certain response on the latter.

Iain Gray: Perhaps Mr Stevenson will excuse the memory of an older man. The correct figures are £36,705 for a literacy specialist and £14,880 for a teaching assistant. That includes national insurance and pension payments.

Stewart Stevenson: That is excellent. I will certainly go away and look at that information and I am sure that colleagues will equally do so. However, I say gently that it would be helpful to have such information before a debate rather than when the last back-bench member speaks, and I asked for it earlier in the debate.

In my last 45 seconds, I will illustrate how numbers can mislead. An article in today’s Financial Times says that productivity in the UK is falling and that that is a good thing. The reason is that some of the relatively low-skilled jobs that have been difficult to fill in places such as London are being filled. That is helping the overall economy, even though productivity is going down because those jobs are being filled. That is an example of how numbers can confuse without explanation and discussion. Let us have explanation and discussion.


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