Orders of the Day — Scottish Development Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:33 pm on 21st October 1987.

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Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 11:33 pm, 21st October 1987

I do not know what the agency has done in its annual report. The presentation may have improved in recent years; there is a similar need in the Scottish Office. The Minister's presentation was dreary. He read his speech with no sense of conviction, but given the quality of the script I am not entirely surprised.

Earlier we had some fairly entertaining similes. The Secretary of State for the Environment was worried about a plague of Scots filling his rather narrow horizons. We saw the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang) doing his Disraeli and shinning up the greasy pole with remarkable agility. Unfortunately, he could not rise to such high standards of eloquence, although we heard a lot about rising to challenges and scattering seed corn. I am afraid that I remained unconvinced.

It is perhaps a modest measure that we are discussing, but no one should be disappointed about that. It raises the borrowing requirement of the Scottish Development Agency. That in itself is unexceptionable. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) has joined us. His support for this measure will have damaged further his already shaky reputation with his friends on the Back Benches. I welcome his no doubt genuine conversion to the importance of public investment in the Government's programme.

The debate is of some importance because it gives us a chance to consider the SDA, and not only in terms of a stylish report, interesting though it no doubt is in terms of colour printing and typographical art. Although I take the statistical point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas), it did not strike me that it was a fiction montage of Sir Robin Duthie. I was remarkably impressed by the collection of snapshots of Ministers in happy attitudes sprinkled about the pages. At one time I thought of presenting an annual prize for the official publication that managed to produce the largest selection of political mugshots. I abandoned the idea because I realised that the SDA would win every year. That would have removed any novelty and excitement.

The SDA's importance is out of proportion to its global expenditure and to the people that it employs. It has a budget of £140 million gross and employs fewer then 700 people. It has an honourable position and role and has a key place in deciding industrial strategy. It could have an even more effective role, given the right support in the fight against unemployment and in the fight to build upon the badly shaken foundations of the Scottish economy which has been so damaged in the last seven or eight years. I welcome the chance to examine the agency's workings and the framework within which it operates.

I accept that finance is not the end of the argument. Many other things must be taken into account. Resources and the budget are important. I do not believe that its record is that which is advertised by the Government.

I listened with fascination to the brief exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) and the Minister. I think that the Minister is being disingenuous. I am sure that he is acting in good faith, but he is misrepresenting the position.

I draw to the Minister's attention a parliamentary answer dated 18 February 1987. I asked a question of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I was given the gross expenditure of the SDA since 1979–80 at constant prices. At 1986–87 prices in 1979–80 the gross outturn of the agency was £134 million and in 1977–78 £131 million. For the last three years the expected outturn was £135 million, £133 million and £131 million. I do not suggest that that is a dramatic fall, but a fall it is. If the Minister says that we do not like the fact that it has gone up in real terms, I return the compliment by saying that he must recognise the facts which his Department supplies and which we are expected to take in good faith. In terms of gross expenditure there has been a fall in real terms; there is no doubt about that.

The Minister might wish to consider other possibilities. He might say that gross expenditure includes the substantial sum which is generated internally by the agency's activities. Perhaps we should examine the Scottish Office's contribution. It peaks at £116·6 million in 1982–3 and this year it will be £88·9 million. There has been a substantial decline in the Scottish Office contribution.

Those facts were supplied by the Minister's own Department in a parliamentary answer on 4 February 1987, at column 714. The gross budget has declined and the Scottish Office contribution has declined even further. If that is represented as a triumphant endorsement of the Government putting their full muscle behind the SDA, we are in the land of double talk and bordering on the absurd.—[Interruption.]—My hon. Friends are encouraging me to give way. Perhaps the Minister would like to defend his earlier statement—he has some explaining to do. I do not want to embarrass him for one moment, but I caution him against easy statements about the budget rising when the Minister's figures show the exact opposite.