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Small businesses are a crucial component of the Scottish economy. The Scottish Executive and its economic development agencies, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, are committed to improving the support available to new starts and established small businesses. Our strategic priorities are set out in our refreshed smart, successful Scotland enterprise strategy, which I launched on 11 November.
I am a fairly regular visitor to the Federation of Small Businesses and I know that local businesses are particularly concerned about disproportionate water charges and training. What progress has the minister made on those two issues? How many meetings has he held with interested groups such as the FSB to consider the issues? A business that employs only one or two people finds it difficult to release staff for a day's training.
It is important that we continue to work in partnership and to engage with businesses throughout the Scottish economy and specifically the small business sector. In addition to the informal contacts that the Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Allan Wilson, and I have, I have met the FSB on formal occasions during the year.
On water, Ross Finnie and I joined the FSB in a forum in Aberdeen at the end of September. We and the FSB instigated the forum specifically to discuss issues arising from the consultation on the future of water charges and the investment programme beyond 2006.
On training, I accept and emphasise the importance of training and skills development in general in our economy and I recognise the difficulties that small businesses can have in engaging in training if, for example, only one or two people run the business. Members know that the Scottish skills fund was established, following the move towards sector skills councils to replace the national training organisations, to maintain and improve the demand for high-quality in-work training. I am considering how the fund might be adapted to find ways of engaging more with employees in small and medium-sized enterprises and microbusinesses. I accept that there is a particular issue for such employees and I want to think imaginatively about how that issue might be addressed.