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Job Losses (Dumfries and Galloway)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:17 pm on 16th June 1999.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 5:17 pm, 16th June 1999

I will preface my remarks by acknowledging the letter from Mr McLeish that conveniently arrived on my desk at about quarter past two. I acknowledge the £1 million for Dumfries and Galloway's enterprise action plan for 1998-99 and the £2.4 million for the 1999-2000 action plan, but question how much of that money will end up as consultancy fees, feasibility studies and jobs for the boys, rather than jobs for the men and women who need them.

David Mundell described the serious situation in Dumfries and Galloway. While I agree that we must not talk the area down, there are underlying problems with the agriculture and forestry industries, which account for a staggering 30 per cent of the region's gross domestic product. That is a stunningly high level of dependency in anybody's language and the Scottish Agricultural College has projected that there will be 1,700 job losses over three years. The crucial importance of those two basic rural industries is clear to all and the SAC report shows how much the agricultural situation has worsened during the year.

Parliament will not want to hear, nor have I time to give, all the facts and figures that are available to illustrate the demise of agri-forestry, so I will confine myself to a mere two facts. They are stark and sobering. First, in 1996, total farm income in Scotland was £546 million. In 1998, it was £187 million. I still have trouble getting used to the second fact, which is that it is cheaper to import fencing posts from Latvia than it is to manufacture them in Scotland.

That is why 1,700 jobs are at risk in south-west Scotland. Not just farmers' or farm workers' jobs are at stake; the jobs of shop assistants, drainers, fencers, sales reps, forestry workers and saw mill workers-the myriad of jobs that agriculture and forestry help to sustain-are at stake. Entire rural communities are under the severest of threats because of the decline in those most rural of industries.

What can this Parliament do? I strongly maintain that, within the European Union, the Scottish farmer will take lessons from no one on production efficiency. However, perhaps we have lessons to learn in marketing. I hope that the Parliament will be able to promote the benefits of co-operation and co-operative marketing as one positive way of improving agriculture's lot.

I have no doubt that one role of this Scottish Parliament will be to promote Scotland and all things Scottish. I believe strongly that as part of that role the Executive, in conjunction with local authorities and enterprise companies, should work to encourage the further manufacturing of a region's primary produce, so that the region may gain substantially from the added value and increased economic input that rural communities so desperately require.

There is already a deeply held scepticism in many rural areas about whether this Parliament will be of much benefit to them, and I am afraid that the legislative programme that was set out this morning will have done little to alleviate it. We must unite across the parties to set our parliamentary sights on regenerating the rural areas of Scotland. That is the only way in which this Parliament will be deemed a success. Indeed, it is on that that the oft-mentioned but seldom-witnessed new politics will be judged in rural Scotland.

I support totally the call for an Executive-led task force and strenuous backing for the region's efforts to obtain objective 2 funding. In short, I fully support the motion.