Speech: Members’ Business Debate- Scottish Woodlot Association (October 30th)

I, too, congratulate Aileen McLeod on bringing the debate to the chamber. I am pleased to speak about woodlot licences and family forestry in Scotland, both of which I support because of their potential value to Scotland’s rural economy through job creation and forest management. As a member with a keen interest in woodland crofting, I understand the need for woodlot licensing and support it fully. Like Alex Fergusson, I wish that I had thought of the idea myself. I believe that a diverse forestry sector could come as a result of the licences and family forestry, and we should recognise the merits of both.

I will speak generally about the potential benefits of the licences but, before I do so, I express my delight at the awarding of Scotland’s first woodlot licence in August for land on the Corsewall estate, near Stranraer. I am delighted by all that I have read about Mark Rowe and Angus Carrick-Buchanan and their agreement to have a fantastic management plan for 37 hectares on that estate. The plan allows Mr Rowe to engage in the felling and abstraction of timber, which he will then be allowed to process and sell as firewood and sawn timber. In return, Mr Rowe will pay an annual rental for the woodlot to Mr Carrick-Buchanan.

That is a good method of managing land and, as Mr Carrick-Buchanan said,

“This pilot project with the Scottish Woodlot Association sets out to prove that the woodlot licence holder, the woodland owner, the environment and the local economy can all win.”

Woodlot licences will be important because they will potentially link local people, land management professionals, forest owners, timber processors and buyers in a co-operative working arrangement, which will provide benefits to existing forest owners and rural communities alike. Woodlot licences could provide the means to create many new jobs in the rural economy and could encourage people to live and work in rural areas.

In British Columbia, where woodlot licensing was pioneered, 12,000 people make all or part of their living from woodlot licences. I am sure that members will agree that that is an impressive statistic. It is rightly acknowledged that woodlot licences will bring undermanaged woodland into production, which will lead to more forest management activity than at present. That will involve the input of new machinery and existing and new contractors and will open up new supply chains. Woodlot licences also have the potential to produce thousands of tonnes of wood that could be used locally as firewood or for small-scale log processing or fed into supply chains for large-scale timber processors and renewable energy generators.

Family forestry is another aspect of any debate about woodlot licences. Woodlot licences can connect many more young families to the resourceful land that we have. Families have been squeezed out of land leasing because most land use is dominated by large-scale industrial agriculture and industrial forestry and because the price of land and forest has been rising. For example, it can cost more than £10,000 for the purchase of just one hectare of forest. Until now, forestry has not had any prospect of a mechanism for leasing land through farm rental as is the case in agriculture but, with woodlot licences, that can change. They will allow small-scale, decentralised forestry to thrive, and will act as an important stepping stone in the creation of a new woodland culture for Scotland in the 21st century.

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Speech: Stage 1 Landfill Tax Bill (29th October)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill and I welcome its stage 1 completion. I thank fellow members of the Finance Committee for their commitment, interest and dedication in scrutinising the general principles of this important bill. I also thank the Government for its feedback on the committee’s report, which has made the Government’s position clear on a number of the committee’s concerns.

As a result of the bill, the Scottish ministers will become the tax authority for the purposes of the Scottish landfill tax. That is a great step forward. I have confidence in the ability of the Scottish ministers and their staff to take responsibility for the Scottish landfill tax as well as for other important taxes such as the Scottish rate of income tax. The bill enables ministers to make an order to designate another tax authority, and I welcome the move by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth to set up a new body, revenue Scotland, as Scotland’s tax authority for devolved taxation. Revenue Scotland already exists as an administrative function within the Government, and the Government has been consulting on provisions to establish it on a statutory footing.

The Government has indicated that it intends that the administration and collection of the Scottish landfill tax should be undertaken by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency on behalf of revenue Scotland. Landfill tax administration and collection would become a new function for SEPA, which already visits and inspects landfill sites as part of its environmental regulation duties. That would offer significant advantages for the Government. The existing knowledge and considerable expertise in SEPA will create opportunities for significant efficiencies and other operational benefits in relation to the administration and collection of the Scottish landfill tax. I therefore support the Scottish Government’s intention to have SEPA in charge of the administration and collection of the tax.

Although I give full support to the general principles of the bill, I draw the Parliament’s attention to two areas of concern. First, I believe that one further waste exemption could be considered. Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 states:

“If no person has, after reasonable inquiry, been found who is by virtue of subsection (2) above an appropriate person to bear responsibility for the things which are to be done by way of remediation, the owner or occupier for the time being of the contaminated land in question is an appropriate person.”

That means—I think—that individual property owners might end up footing the bill for contaminated land remediation through no fault of their own. There are live examples of individual householders who have been charged vast sums for the remediation of contaminated land.

In the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth’s statement to Parliament on 7 June 2012, he described four principles that underlie the Government’s approach to taxation and he reiterated them today. They are certainty, convenience, efficiency and that the tax is proportionate to the ability to pay. It is that final principle that I believe is relevant here. My suggestion is that consideration should be given to including in the bill a measure to allow for the costs of contaminated land remediation to be waived if an individual property owner is found to be on contaminated land, has in no way caused the contamination but yet has been unfortunately designated the status of appropriate person because of the lack of someone being found who actually caused the contamination. By putting such a measure in place, the Scottish Government would ensure that its principle of taxation being proportionate to the ability to pay is adhered to.

The second concern relates to the committee’s suggestion that there should be a lower rate of tax on island waste, for materials for which there are never likely to be viable recycling or recovery routes. Although the Government has made its position clear on that, I still believe that a review of the issue could be carried out. In Shetland, Enviroglass provides a local solution for Shetland’s waste glass by recycling all the glass that is collected by the local authority through its bottle banks. That has been essential in minimising the financial and environmental costs that shipping glass to mainland UK for recycling would incur. However, not all island communities are fortunate enough to benefit from such a scheme and a review could help to find alternatives for the islands that lack the means to cheaply recycle waste materials.

A final aspect of the bill that I will speak about relates to the Scottish Government’s zero waste agenda, which is an ambitious programme of change that aims to create an environment in which we make the most of resources and minimise Scotland’s demand on primary resources. That is to be achieved by maximising the reuse, recycling and recovery of resources rather than treating them as waste. The Scottish landfill tax will play an important role in maintaining the economic stimulus that is required to harness those waste management opportunities and in directing the Scottish economy towards a prosperous future with secure access to resources. By doing so, Scotland could follow the great example of its Nordic neighbour Sweden and make productive use of waste that would otherwise build up at landfill sites.

We must ensure that environmental organisations continue to be supported by the landfill communities fund. The Scottish Wildlife Trust, for example, has received £3.6 million to date, which has helped it to develop and manage essential environmental and community projects.

The Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill is a good and valuable piece of legislation. It does what it is supposed to do: it provides legislative provisions for a Scottish landfill tax to replace the UK landfill tax regime. It provides the Scottish Government with real power to take important decisions on a crucial area of taxation and makes use of the experience and expertise of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. It is conducive to the Scottish Government’s zero waste agenda as we look to greener energy alternatives. Therefore, I support the general principles of the bill.

Speech: Al-Anon Family Groups

On September 24th, I spoke in Gordon MacDonald’s Members’ Business debate on Al-Anon Family Groups. Below is a transcript of my contribution.

I thank Gordon MacDonald for securing the debate. This is a topic that should be debated in the Parliament again and again. Our relationship with alcohol is such a big issue that I hope that a debate on it is secured on at least an annual basis so that we can talk openly about Al-Anon.

Most folk in Scotland have relatives or friends who live abroad. Most of us also have an alcoholic in the family or within our circle of friends. At first, most of us do not understand the relationship with alcoholism, but we need to come to understand what is happening to the alcoholic, the symptoms of alcoholism and the effect that the condition has on other members of the family. I think that I am right in saying that, for every person suffering from alcohol addiction, another eight or 10 people are suffering all the symptoms. The madness, the irrationality and the extraordinary behaviour of the alcoholic are often reflected in what become the madness and the irrationality of the lives of those who are trying to live with that person. Al-Anon absolutely understands that.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Al-Anon is the friendships that are made when the alcoholic first comes to understand or realise that he or she is sick. The organisation that befriends and understands and is constantly there to remind the person suffering from the symptoms of alcoholism is a wonderful thing to be part of.

For the wives—and, increasingly, the husbands—who attend Al-Anon, there is the knowledge that they are part of not only a self-help group, which is literally what Al-Anon is, but an organisation that is truly international. As we have heard, AA started in Ohio in the United States, but the organisation is now international to the extent that, wherever one might go, there will be an Al-Anon meeting taking place, if not that night, the following night or the following morning. There are Al-Anon friends around the globe, because, as we know, every addict is a recovering—not a recovered—alcoholic.

Many of us have had the experience of living with alcoholism or someone who is recovering from alcoholism, and nothing settles it like an Al-Anon meeting. The genuine help from Al-Anon is to be welcomed, so I am delighted that Gordon MacDonald has raised the issue in the Parliament. We need to spread the word about Al-Anon to the many hundreds of thousands of people across Scotland who still do not know about it, as it brings incredible comfort. I thank Gordon MacDonald very much for bringing the debate to the Parliament, and I thank the members of Al-Anon who are in the public gallery for the work that they have done and continue to do to bring people to sobriety in Scotland.

SPEECH: Land and Buildings Transaction Tax Bill, Stage 1

Jean’s speech for this afternoon’s debate at Stage 1 of the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax Bill. Check against delivery.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

As a Member of the Finance Committee, I have had the opportunity to take part in the evidence sessions on the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT) Bill. Two things have struck me in those sessions; one, how broken Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) is as a method of taxation, and two, the fantastic opportunity open to Scotland to begin to recalibrate its system of taxation for the public good.

The description of SDLT as “a strong contender for the UK’s worst-designed tax” by the Institute for Fiscal Studies is very appropriate. The slab structure of taxation under the current Stamp Duty system discourages sales of residential properties at prices immediately above its thresholds, creating distortions within the market and adding to the angst already suffered by those attempting to buy or sell a home.

It is madness that a house worth £125,000 will result in no tax burden, but a home worth £1 more results in a £1250 bill. It would be a matter of public scandal if personal income was taxed in such ways; why, then, has it been deemed appropriate for house sales to be carried out this way?

The proposed move from Stamp Duty’s slab structure to a progressive structure under the auspices of the LBTT is therefore to be welcomed, particularly in the current housing climate. There are already enough challenges posed by the unsustainable housing bubble to men, women and families across Scotland in finding affordable housing; I am glad to see us removing some of these challenges by making common sense reforms where and when we can.

One of the other major problems with the current SDLT regime is the amount of money lost through tax avoidance schemes. The removal of sub-sale relief, which has been frequently identified as a facilitator of tax avoidance, from the LBTT will hopefully work in tandem with the Government’s other anti-avoidance measures to help increase the tax take and ensure that everyone pays their fair share.

One of the other measures that will greatly benefit my constituents is the proposal to exempt Rural Housing bodies from paying LBTT. As I have said before in this Chamber, any steps that we can take to promote the building of affordable housing should be considered, and hopefully this will encourage more to be built.

Although there are many elements of the Bill that are to be considered further at Stage 2, and indeed others such as the taxation bands, collection arrangements and block grant adjustments that will require further scrutiny in the months and years to come, I think I speak for the whole Committee when I say that we are encouraged by the considered, deliberative and open approach being taken by the Government on this Bill. Although I am aware that the Cabinet Secretary is not inclined to support relief for zero-carbon homes, I am aware of a proposal for a fiscally neutral energy efficiency modifier that has emerged since oral evidence was given by energy organisations in February. I would ask the Cabinet Secretary and the Government to consider their proposal as the Bill progresses.

I must confess that, in considering this Bill, I was mindful of the suggestions raised in Professor Mirrlees’ review, and echoed by Andy Wightman in his submission to the consultation, on what sort of taxation regime we should have for property. I certainly have sympathy with Mr Wightman’s suggestion for a radical overhaul of the way in which we think about land and property, but I am also aware that the Scotland Act 2012 only allowed for any replacement for SDLT to be a tax on transactions.

Therefore, although I would be inclined to support some sort of land value tax, I appreciate that we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good on this occasion and that the LBTT provides a solid move towards a more equitable system.

Finally, Presiding Officer, I note that this is the first of three pieces of legislation emanating from the Scotland Act 2012 that will begin to increase this Parliament’s powers. I look forward to the day that this Parliament has the full, normal powers of any other nation and is able to bring about the substantive changes in our economy and society we do desperately need.

I support the Bill.

SPEECH: Closing Speech, Trident Debate, 20th March 2013

16:27
Jean Urquhart: We have had a good debate and, again, I repeat my support for the Scottish Government’s bringing this entirely relevant matter to the chamber.

Ruth Davidson’s suggestion that the retention of Trident nuclear missiles showed responsible government led to Alasdair Allan’s brilliant question whether she was also suggesting that every country without a nuclear deterrent was irresponsible. Of course, the answer was that they were when perhaps the answer should have been that countries without nuclear weapons are more responsible with regard to global as well as local security.
Ruth Davidson: My point was that the UK was a responsible signatory to the NPT and that countries such as North Korea and Iran that, since the NPT’s establishment, were seeking to bring on nuclear weapons were indeed irresponsible.
Jean Urquhart: I rest my case. We still have not heard a reasonable answer to Alasdair Allan’s still relevant question.

All sides of the chamber will agree that multilateral disarmament is to be desired, but how do we achieve that? Somebody has to go first and I believe that, with independence, Scotland could do that and be the leader in the world as it has been in so many other areas.

We heard extraordinarily emotive language from Ms Davidson, who talked about us

“walking away from our neighbours”.

In fact, we will be walking towards our neighbours.

Ruth Davidson gave us a terrific list of alternative uses for the money that would be saved by ending the nuclear deterrent, all of which have been suggested by members of the SNP. There is no lack of ideas—it is a shame that she could find nothing to recommend Trident.
Ruth Davidson: The comment about

“walking away from our neighbours”

was a direct quote from Angus Robertson at the SNP conference, which I believe the member attended. My point in listing the huge number of alternatives was to point out the number of times her former colleagues in the SNP have spent the £163 million for Trident. By my reckoning, it is about 20 times per year.
Jean Urquhart: I am well aware of what the member intended, but the point is that those are all worthy areas on which to spend the money and areas where it is needed.

Ken Macintosh stated that the SNP is somehow not serious about getting rid of Trident and that the debate was some kind of jokey waste of time so that a bit of rhetoric about independence could be heard. How dare he? Many people have an ambition to rid the United Kingdom of nuclear weapons, but the difference is that his party has had its shot and failed.
Ken Macintosh: I certainly did not think that the SNP was joking—independence is a deadly serious matter. However, how does the SNP’s desire to get rid of Trident square with its desire to remain as a member of NATO?
Jean Urquhart: The SNP has explained its position on that. I do not agree with it, so why would I try to explain it?

There is a real issue for the Labour Party. We know about the number of people with Labour Party membership cards who believe that the only route now to be rid of Trident on the Clyde is to vote yes in the referendum.

Mr Macintosh suggested that the issue that he again highlighted is shattering the unity of the SNP. I should know about that. The disagreement is not over the outcome of unilateral nuclear disarmament; it is about the route that we take to achieve the goal. The big common factor—and the big difference with the Labour Party, which has failed in its ambition—is self-determination by the Scottish people. I can assure Mr Macintosh that, on that, there is no disunity. Labour needs to understand that inescapable fact. Better together? I do not think so.

What a funny wee speech from Mr McMahon. When someone knows that they are wrong, they often cover it up by poking fun at people who are trying to deal with a serious subject. He is right that the Scots arnae stupit. They have had 60 years of political rhetoric and claims that we will be rid of Trident from the Clyde, but nobody has achieved it. Now, it is within the grasp of the Scottish people to achieve self-determination and unilateral nuclear disarmament, and to head towards multilateralism. I urge them to do that.

Those members who are not in the SNP or the Independent and Green group need to think on this: if they believe, as most of us seem to do, that the only option that is open is the one that everybody has, come October 2014, will we be closer to being free of Trident if we vote yes to better together, or if we vote to be able to make the decision for ourselves? I ask members to support my amendment.

16:33

 

SPEECH: Opening Speech, Trident Debate (20th March 2013)

15:04
Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I am sure that it has not escaped the notice of those members in the chamber that I am the only member of the independent and Green group to speak in the debate. It is unfortunate that business has been scheduled during the PCS strike, and that it has kept my fellow group members away from the debate. Members of all parties had to cross picket lines today but the topic of Trident is so central to my support for independence that I decided to come in to speak to my amendment.

At the outset, I make it clear that I support every element of the Government’s motion and applaud its decision to bring the subject to the chamber for debate. Our amendment is designed to add strength to the motion and not to replace, denigrate or contradict it. I also express my sadness, but not my surprise, at the better together campaign for issuing a briefing in advance of today’s debate on what they think is the positive case for Trident and attempting to score points against the Government over the issues raised in my amendment. I thought that, at least on the issue of squandering billions of pounds on unnecessary, unworkable and immoral weapons of indiscriminate slaughter, there would be some sort of consensus and serious debate, regardless of constitutional preference. However, it seems that the better together campaign is now a cold house for anti-Trident campaigners. It has alienated churches, unions, peace groups, and the majority of the people in Scotland.

It will not come as news to many in the chamber that the issue of an independent Scotland’s NATO membership led me to become an independent member. I cannot support Scotland’s membership of a nuclear alliance, particularly when it pressurises its members to spend a minimum of 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence, regardless of the geopolitical circumstances of the time. Not surprisingly, NATO expects a contribution to its military common fund from each member state. In 2011-12, that amounted to £106.7 million from the United Kingdom. That means that, even if we could secure an opt-out from any collective military efforts, we would still be contributing financially to drone attacks on civilians and other aggressive military action.

I doubt that those who rail against NATO actions in Afghanistan will make allowances for Scotland because we were not the country that pushed the button. The UK should have been outraged when two innocent young Afghanis were killed recently by NATO troops because they thought that they were terrorists. There was hardly a whisper from the UK Government.

Nuclear weapons are a stain on humanity, whether they are in Scottish waters, American bases or Russian silos. The argument of those who wish to keep Trident essentially boils down to, “After you, I insist,”; in the Labour Party’s case, if it is cheap enough, it does not seem to mind. However, a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament report entitled “Nowhere to Go” highlights the fact that there are no viable alternative bases for Trident in the UK. If we get rid of Trident from Scottish waters, it is gone for good. My concern is that the disarmament of the UK would not be in NATO’s interests and that barriers will be erected against such a step.

Although Canada and Greece have removed nuclear weapons from their soil as members of NATO, I believe that those weapons had reached their sell-by date and those countries had the strategic cover of close neighbours who host nuclear weapons. The imposition of nuclear missiles on German, Belgian and Dutch soil, against the wishes of their Parliaments and citizens, should be a warning to us all about the co-operative nature of NATO.

Norway’s experience with NATO should also be a lesson. Although Norway has successfully resisted the imposition of nuclear weapons on Norwegian soil, it has not succeeded in changing NATO’s nuclear policy, which was reaffirmed last year at its Chicago conference. Every member of NATO is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but no significant efforts have been made to reduce the number of weapons that the alliance holds and shares. The treaty has therefore failed.
Bob Doris (Glasgow) (SNP): I have a lot of sympathy with much of Jean Urquhart’s amendment but will she also acknowledge that the Scottish Government has made it clear that if it comes to a choice between NATO and a nuclear-free Scotland, a nuclear-free Scotland will win every time?
Jean Urquhart: I accept the member’s statement—of course I do. However, there is a positive alternative to NATO membership that allows Scotland to act as a responsible global citizen. There are many examples of other nations that operate outside NATO and yet are more than adequately prepared to defend themselves. Those countries are not pariahs on the world stage and are not subject to threats from abroad. Given the recent St Patrick’s day celebrations in America, one would have to be very brave to claim that Ireland’s non-membership of NATO has somehow resulted in its isolation or affected its ties with the world’s remaining superpower. Ireland, along with a number of other non-NATO countries such as Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria and much of central and eastern Europe, is a member of partnership for peace, which promotes bilateral co-operation between NATO and the partnership for peace countries on a case-by-case basis.
The Presiding Officer: The member needs to start winding up.
Jean Urquhart: Although some of those countries plan to accede to NATO, others view partnership for peace as an opportunity to co-operate internationally without compromise and without signing up to a military alliance that is predicated on a nuclear first-strike policy.
The Presiding Officer: You must bring your remarks to a close, Ms Urquhart.
Jean Urquhart: As the SNP campaign for nuclear disarmament briefing in advance of the NATO debate stated, an independent Scotland

“should not sneak timidly onto the world stage, afraid of our own shadow.”

Getting rid of Trident would herald the beginning of real nuclear disarmament, as would a distinctly different Scottish defence policy.

I move amendment S4M-05988.1, to leave out from “and further” to end and insert:

“; considers membership of NATO to be a barrier to the removal of Trident, whether as part of the UK or as an independent Scotland; believes that membership of an alliance predicated on a nuclear first strike policy is as harmful to Scotland’s international reputation, and poses the same threat from external agents, as the presence of a nuclear deterrent in Scottish waters; notes that European countries such as Ireland, Finland and Sweden are not members of NATO and are still considered to be full, cooperative members of the international community; further calls on the UK Government to disarm Trident and not to replace it with any other nuclear weapons system, and commits to ensuring that, in the event of independence, Trident will not be permitted to operate from Scottish waters.”

15:11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speech: Stage 1 Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill

I am pleased to have the opportunity to support the bill’s basic principles at stage 1. Although a lot of my colleagues have identified during the debate issues that require more work or consideration, I think that there is consensus that work can be done to improve the sustainability, accountability and transparency of the aquaculture and wild fisheries sectors. Indeed, the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s report on the bill commented that

“the current draft of the Bill is very much the starting point, and should the Bill reach Stage 2 it will require amendment in order to make it … robust”.

There is no doubt that the cabinet secretary and the Government have a tough and delicate task on their hands. Again, the committee’s report reflected the difficulties in finding consensus on the way forward on contentious issues due to current difficulties between the aquaculture and wild fisheries sectors. Although it is not something that can always be addressed by legislation, I am sure that we would all agree that improving the relationships could and should be part of the process.

The importance of the aquaculture and wild fisheries sectors to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands communities must not be underestimated. The popularity of Scottish salmon continues to grow at an exponential rate, with aspirations to increase sustainable production by 4 to 5 per cent per annum until 2020.

Enabling the sectors to continue to grow and to provide jobs and exports in an ecologically sound manner is essential to ensuring the sustainability not only of the sectors but of many rural and remote communities. However, do we know what the increase of 5 per cent per annum until 2020 will look like? Planning applications are already being refused on the basis of proliferation. We need a national plan if we want to see such growth.

Recognising the opportunity for Scotland and realising its potential is the right thing to do. Being sensitive to the natural environment, legislating against abuse by a large industry, always protecting the fantastic wild salmon and its life cycle and believing that quality must not be compromised by quantity should all be Scotland’s trademarks.

Of the issues that the bill seeks to address, I am of the opinion that the presence of sea lice and the strategies used to contain them will be paramount to the bill’s success. I welcome the minister’s announcement of £1 million of funding for scientific research. I believe that that is essential not only to reassure the public but to ensure that we have sustainable growth in fish farming.

In conclusion, I support the bill at stage 1. I look forward to seeing work on the bill continue over the coming weeks and months to create a strong framework for the sector.

Speech: Stage 1 of Budget Debate (January 23rd)

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I will use the time that I have in this stage 1 debate to reflect on the difficult choices that the cabinet secretary and the Government have faced in preparing the budget.

I am mindful of Professor David Bell’s conclusion in his report on the budget back in September:

“The Cabinet secretary is largely constrained by the settlement from the UK government, which in turn reflects its policy towards the UK’s current fiscal deficit.”

In the face of those constraints, and as I said in the Finance Committee debate on the draft budget before Christmas, I fully support the cabinet secretary’s budget for 2013-14 and the choices that he has made. We do not have the flexibility of normal countries as our budget is handed to us from on high. For example, restoring money to our colleges would mean cuts elsewhere—cuts that others have failed to outline or propose. In many instances, the choice that we have is Sophie’s choice, where money that could be used in so many different areas cannot be allocated to them all.

I was pleased to see the cabinet secretary’s thoughtful and considered written response to the Finance Committee’s report, which was debated in the chamber on 20 December, as the response answered many of the points that were raised in our report. I was particularly heartened by the information that the Government outlined on the economic impact of public sector investment in next generation broadband, with almost 14,000 indirect jobs being created between 2013 and 2028. That might seem a long period of time, but the ambition is welcome.

As a Highlands and Islands representative, I very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s recognition of the need to deliver improved connectivity in areas where next generation speeds are not yet possible. A reliable broadband service in the Highlands and Islands is the greatest gift that the budget could deliver to the region, as it would open up opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises that are currently at a disadvantage due to their geographic location. It is no use having superfast broadband in Kilmarnock if Kiltarlity does not even have a dial-up service. The Government’s commitment to all parts of Scotland is to be lauded.

I was also glad to hear, in response to recommendations that were made by the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, more details of the work that the Government is undertaking on public procurement. As Jim and Margaret Cuthbert attested to in their evidence to the committee, Germany’s strategy of breaking down larger contracts into smaller chunks to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for them is eminently sensible. Given the preponderance of SMEs in the Scottish economy, I am keen for the Government to continue to consider the idea as part of its bid to make the most of what we have.

As a member of the Finance Committee, which agreed its report on the budget, I hoped to see the helpful and constructive tone of our evidence-taking sessions extend to the chamber. I think that, in taking evidence from various organisations and other committees, every member of the committee was acutely aware of the difficult decisions that are being faced in these difficult times. I am convinced that the cabinet secretary has produced the best possible deal for Scotland, but I look forward to hearing positive, constructive and costed suggestions from the Opposition parties on how they would propose to improve it.

Speech: Employability Debate, 8th January 2013

My first opportunity to speak in the Chamber in 2013 was in a Finance Committee debate on employability. I’ve placed the speech below for those interested.

Although I am a member of the Finance
Committee now, I was not a member when it
heard evidence on employability. However, as
other members have attested to, employability ties
in with many other issues across our
constituencies—not the least of which is multiple
deprivation.
Some people may think that areas of multiple
deprivation are located only in urban areas and
that regions such as the Highlands and Islands are
somewhat immune from its worst effects. That
could not be further from the truth. As the
Government’s Scottish index of multiple
deprivation shows, Caithness, Ross-shire,
Inverness, the Western Isles, Argyll and Bute and
Orkney—to name but a few—all contain data
zones that have been identified as being among
the most deprived parts of Scotland. That
becomes more alarming when we consider that
the data zones in rural Scotland often cover very
large areas that perhaps mask even more acute
problems in certain towns and villages. Although
the Government has produced its own SIMD data
map, which is useful for examining the issue,
Holyrood magazine recently highlighted a Google
map that had been overlaid with the SIMD data
and which provides an easier snapshot of
deprivation. I cannot recommend it highly enough
to colleagues.
A key message that came out of the evidence
sessions, and for which I have much sympathy, is
that it is important to place employability in the
wider context. As others have emphasised in
today’s debate, employability is not about getting
people into just any job, but is about finding the
right job for the right person and helping to make it
as easy as possible for long-term benefits to be
accrued by, and confidence to be instilled in,
people who may have been looking for a job for
some time. In my opinion, that must mean a strong
focus on the small and medium-sized enterprise
sector. In my experience—both as an employee of
small businesses and as an employer—the trust,
responsibility and camaraderie that are gained
through working for a small business can be worth
their weight in gold to employees.
I believe that Highlands and Islands Enterprise
was right to point to its work with Nigg Skills
Academy and the Social Enterprise Academy in
helping to establish learning and employment
opportunities in the Highlands and Islands, as well
as to its work on supporting the region’s small
businesses that hope to grow. Employment can
take on many different guises—it is not always the
direct Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 route—and it is
vital that we support those from every possible
angle.
However, I acknowledge the issues that have
been raised by the Federation of Small
Businesses, whose evidence pointed out that
small businesses often recruit on an informal or
personal basis rather than as part of any national
scheme. In addition, many employers in my region
employ seasonally, which adds another layer of
complexity to the debate. The FSB has also
recently provided further evidence on the barriers
that small businesses in the Highlands and Islands
face. It is an extraordinarily good read that
highlights some of the problems that we face in
overcoming such barriers.
In conclusion, I thank every organisation that
gave evidence on employability to the committee
last year, and I thank the then members of the
committee for their work. It is vital that Parliament
continue to examine issues that affect
communities across the country where, through
our actions and attention, we can bring about the
necessary change.
I will add a final comment on Hanzala Malik’s
criticism of the Government for challenging the
colleges. We cannot have change without change.
From evidence that I have received, I can say that
young people have been let down by those selfsame colleges, so we have to investigate that and
make change happen. That is part of what we need to achieve here; I hope that we do it.

Statement

As many of you will know, I have resigned from the Scottish National Party due to its change of policy in relation to NATO membership post-independence. I will continue to sit in the Scottish Parliament as an independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands.

I would like to make it clear that I remain fully committed to securing a Yes vote in the independence referendum in 2014, and that I will continue to support the Scottish Government on most issues.

For the time being, I will continue to be a member of both the Finance Committee and the Equal Opportunities Committee, and will maintain my involvement in a number of cross-party working groups within the Parliament, including the Crofting Cross-Party Group of which I am Deputy Convener.

I would like to thank those who have been in touch to offer their support and advice, particularly those from the Highlands and Islands who I have been so proud to represent since May 2011 and anticipate serving as one of their MSPs for the rest of this parliamentary term.

I look forward to hearing from many more people across the region in the months and years to come and to working with them to make Scotland a fairer, more prosperous and more peaceful nation.

Jean Urquhart