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Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:48 pm on 3rd June 2015.

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Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Business, Innovation and Skills) 2:48 pm, 3rd June 2015

Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to give my maiden speech—and, indeed, for reminding the House that I should be heard uninterrupted. That makes me feel a little more at ease. Within this speech I intend to give the House a sense of who I am, both as the new Member for Edinburgh West and also as the shadow Business, Innovation and Skills Minister. However, before I do so, I must add my own tribute to Charles Kennedy, who was a politician I greatly admired, including for his wit.

Edinburgh West’s boundaries, like those of many other constituencies, are not strictly limited to the area in its name. They extend from the beautiful South Queensferry, with its iconic rail bridge, through Kirkliston and Ratho and into the city, encompassing Edinburgh airport, the headquarters of the Royal Highland Society and the Royal Bank of Scotland, and then into the west end of the city, past Edinburgh zoo—is it too early in my speech to get three for the price of one in panda jokes? Passing parts of Stenhouse, Carrick Knowe and Corstorphine, Edinburgh West includes Murrayfield, a beautiful place as well as the home of our Scottish rugby. On the other arterial route into town, it includes Barnton, Cramond and parts of Blackhall, as well as Drylaw, Pilton and Muirhouse.

For many, Edinburgh West is a place of comfortable living, and visitors would need to look hard to recognise the innocuous building in Drumbrae as a food bank, one of several in my constituency. It is easier to sense the daily struggle for many in Muirhouse, where chronic underemployment and social deprivation is apparent.

Throughout the constituency, as in many other areas, small businesses are endemic. Small and medium-sized enterprises form around 99.3% of Scottish businesses, and “small” businesses, meaning those with zero to 49 employees, form about 99.1%. They are indeed the backbone of our community.

Interestingly, though, Edinburgh as a whole demonstrates the parallel worlds of wealth alongside poverty. I am constantly reminded of the danger warnings from the world-renowned economist Stiglitz that an unequal society not only limits our ability to compete, but is

“both a cause and a consequence of volatility”.

My predecessor, Mike Crockart, was considered to be a hard-working MP, and many years ago we worked together as colleagues in Standard Life. I have to say that we often found debates about politics a lot more interesting than the debates about pensions. Despite a robust campaign, he was unable to resist the swing away from the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National party came from fourth in 2010 to first in 2015. I wish him well in his future career.

Let me say a little about myself. I started life as a professional piano player, and then spent many years delivering large-scale business and IT change in financial services. I then set up my own small business. Politics was always an interest, but it became a passion as I became involved in our debate about independence. I and many other business owners investigated the business case for independence, having gone through the numbers, having gone through the economics and having looked at the status quo and asked how we could grow our economy in new emerging markets. We looked at the risks, looked at the opportunities and concluded that that was the right way to go. I was joined by literally thousands of business owners in coming to that decision. Of course, we know that the strong economy that we all seek—we want targeted growth by the use of effective economic levers—underpins the public services from which we all benefit.

We have touched today on the forthcoming Bills, and I will personally watch with interest. My driver in this debate is about the ambition that must underpin what we want to achieve. I will therefore be watching to see whether there is an appropriate level of ambition and vision. Will the enterprise Bill provide measures that really encourage and support small businesses? Will it start to take steps to address the chronic lack of available liquidity for those businesses? Will the full employment and welfare benefits Bill really aim to deliver full employment, or will it focus on yet more cuts—the self-same cuts that mean we have to support people, whether through housing benefit or working tax credits? I have to say, that does not make sense to me.

Will the housing Bill simply tinker around the edges of English planning laws, or will it really support affordable housing and new jobs to help the sector recover from what has been a very difficult time? Will the national insurance contributions Bill provide real reforms to incentivise business and, if not, will the Government devolve national insurance to Scotland so that we can do so?

Will the European Union Referendum Bill pander to the Eurosceptics, or will it allow the framework for a proper realisation of the benefits to business of the free movement of goods, services and people? We know that the EU is the main destination for Scotland’s international exports. The Daily Telegraph recently quoted Giles Merritt, head of the Friends of Europe think-tank in Brussels, as saying:

“Everybody is very aware that Britain is the next big problem on the horizon. The mood is that we’ve got to save the British from themselves”.

It may be that the austerity agenda will drive all that is presented to the House. The need for cuts was sold as being to decrease the debt and the deficit, but during the last Parliament, the Chancellor failed on all of his own measures. Arguments against austerity were trodden underfoot by what Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, calls “a bogus narrative”, and the Office for Budget Responsibility notes that the UK is the only country where the deficit has been reduced not by growing but by cutting. Growth must now be the focus, and it begins at the bottom in a virtuous cycle, as people spend money in their local communities and in their local businesses.

Much more importantly, will the Scotland Bill really offer the sort of power we need to grow our economy, to invest, to create jobs and ultimately to provide more sustainable and worthwhile wealth? To what extent will it support our drive for a culture of investment, innovation, research and development and increased productivity, for a renewed focus on manufacturing and new infrastructure, and for all the ambition the SNP promotes? We seek “powers for a purpose”. We seek to make a difference and to link the policies of economics, labour and welfare for better outcomes. Surely that is what good government must be about.

I fear that the Scotland Bill provides little of what we seek. It falls comprehensively short of fully implementing the Smith commission’s recommendations, which themselves fell short of the vow promised during the referendum.

The UK Government must honour the Smith commission promises in full. It is important to emphasise that the commission, which was a response to support for independence in the referendum, is a floor on new powers, not a ceiling. Those are the minimum powers, and we need an appropriate response to the number of new SNP Members we see here on these green Benches.

It is time for thought-leadership about our business and how we do business. We will seek to make progressive business alliances that encourage ambition, aspiration, investment in infrastructure and innovation. To do that, we must rebalance our focus on to smaller businesses, as it is them that will fuel growth. We must also seek to combat the relentless navigational pull of London, and to that end we do indeed support devolution for cities across the UK and putting power back in the hands of those who understand best what is required.

Business is and always was an enabler for society. It is time to look afresh at our definitions of success and how we create the conditions for success. Crude measures of growth by GDP per capita are outdated. The leading economies use the so-called “happiness indices”, which provide a link with an holistic, embracing, rounded society of which business, innovation and the supporting skills form a part. I look forward to taking part in driving positive change for my constituents in Edinburgh West, for business, innovation and skills in Scotland, and across all of these isles.