VisitScotland (Website)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 18 June 2013.

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Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

1. To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with VisitScotland regarding the organisation’s website. (S4T-00402)

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The content of the VisitScotland website is a matter for VisitScotland.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

The minister may be aware that, at last week’s meeting of the Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee, Nicola Sturgeon said:

“They are public authorities—at any time, there are restrictions on how they behave. At any time, on any day of the week and in any week of the year, I as a minister cannot use the resources of the civil service to do certain things that are party political. Public authorities do not operate in a political way, and they will not do so during the regulated period any more than they do now.”—[Official Report, Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee, 13 June 2013; c 564.]

That statement provides little reassurance, given the evidence of the VisitScotland website. Will the minister tell Parliament what is being done to ensure that public authorities steer clear of party politics both in the regulated period and at all other times?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I have rarely heard a more spurious and ridiculous accusation than the one that I have heard this afternoon and seen in publicity that was drawn to my attention today. I say that because the purpose of VisitScotland is to provide information about significant dates, events and matters of interest in Scotland.

Let me retell for members some of the information that VisitScotland displays on its website.

“1901 Queen Victoria dies”— not an event associated particularly with Scottish nationalist propaganda—

“1914-18 Scotland plays a significant role in the First World War ... 1919 The German High Seas Fleet is interned at Scapa Flow in Orkney”.

I could go on to list all the other years and events that are important to our history.

The idea that merely displaying factual information on a website is somehow party political is ludicrous. Had the website gone on to give some other dates—1970: the interests of Scottish fishermen are expendable for the purposes of joining the European Union; or 1975: Gavin McCrone’s advice to the United Kingdom cabinet that the oil wealth in Scotland would be of enormous proportions; or 2011: the most humiliating defeat in the history of the Labour Party in Scotland—we might have the beginnings of some scintilla of evidence.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I am astounded by the minister’s assertions. An organisation whose website ignores the 1939 to 1945 war, which devastated Scotland and every other part of the UK, as well as most of Europe, but records the election—for three months only—of the first Scottish National Party MP must surely have to think again. I ask the minister to reflect, in his calmer moments, on the content of the VisitScotland website and consider whether the evidence is that those issues are ones that would attract people to visit Scotland—which is, after all, what it purports to do.

I also ask the Scottish Government to provide, as a matter of urgency, guidance to public bodies to ensure that this partisan promotion—it can be nothing else—does not occur elsewhere in public bodies that promote Scotland.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

There is still an unfortunate tendency in the ranks of the political classes to assume that conspiracies abound in public life; that Watergate is an omnipresent event in political actions. That is ludicrous. The facts are that the VisitScotland website contains excellent information for those who wish to holiday in Scotland. It contains a huge variety of information, and the reasons why people holiday in Scotland are wide and varied.

I point out to Patricia Ferguson that, at the beginning of this year, CNN—one of the world’s leading media organisations—gave Scotland the accolade of number 1 country to visit in the world. Why did it do that? It did that—this is a matter of factual evidence, not assertion—because VisitScotland is playing a blinder. So it is, and it deserves support from all parties, not the kind of approach that we have seen from Opposition politicians. I very much hope that they will join those who recognise that VisitScotland is indeed doing an excellent job on behalf of Scotland.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I will take lessons from no one about support for VisitScotland. I draw members’ attention to my long record of supporting it in the chamber and anywhere else where I have had the opportunity to do so, in spite of opposition at times from people who should have known better. I simply point out to the minister, if any other evidence is needed, the fact that, within moments of hearing of my concerns, VisitScotland amended its website to take on board just a few of the ideas and dates that I managed to come up with in a two-minute discussion with others. That shows that VisitScotland recognised that its website had got it badly wrong. When will the minister understand that VisitScotland was wrong on this occasion? What will he do to ensure that no other public body gets it as wrong as VisitScotland, unfortunately, did on this one, isolated—I very much hope that it will be isolated—occasion?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I totally and fundamentally disagree with the assertion that any act, utterance or content on the VisitScotland website can be said to amount in any way to any display of any bias whatsoever. That is simply not true. It is a fact that the website set out a number of historical dates. The member was correct to say that VisitScotland subsequently added a number of other dates. That shows how responsive it is; it shows how willing it is to respond immediately to people in Scotland. I know that that is true because, as the tourism minister, I have seen first hand how responsive it is when complaints have been made. I know that, in one particular case in which a small business in the south of Scotland raised an issue, its chief executive, Malcolm Roughead, went to visit the lady for a number of hours. He got out of his quango office and went out to speak to the public. That is the sort of leadership that VisitScotland has displayed.

I am proud to be served by the leadership and staff of VisitScotland. It is playing a blinder for Scotland, and I am astonished that Patricia Ferguson’s question has been asked of us today.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Does the minister really think that the most important event in Scotland in 1945 was the election of an SNP MP?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

VisitScotland did not express any view on the importance or otherwise of any of the events. The information is not meant to be an extensive history lesson—giving that is not the role of VisitScotland or its website. The attempt by Opposition politicians to infer from a series of facts that are set out on a website that there is party-political bias just does not stack up. Were we in a court of law, Mr Fraser would be prevented from making any submission to that effect. Oh that we were in a court of law but, sadly, that is not to be.

There are serious matters that currently affect tourism. There is the level of tax that is imposed in Scotland. Fuel duty is about 40p higher than in Mediterranean countries, and there is the air passenger duty that is imposed by the Conservative-Liberal coalition, which has a very damaging impact on tourism. There is also the level of VAT, which is the second or third highest in Europe. If Mr Fraser wanted to ask about those issues, he would at least be expressing concerns that I heard about yesterday evening from members of the Federation of Small Businesses in Inverness who work in tourism. Nobody outside the chamber has mentioned this matter to me. I have not had a letter from Patricia Ferguson about it or any correspondence, emails or even tweets about it. I have had nothing whatsoever, except from members of the Opposition parties in the chamber. That says it all.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Does the minister feel, as I do, that it is good and useful that we can see against 1888 on the website that

The Scottish Labour Party is formed by Keir Hardie”?

I might argue that the foundation of Celtic Football Club or the opening of Peterhead prison in my constituency, which took place in the same year, was a more important event, but the fact that the VisitScotland website mentions Keir Hardie’s formation of the Scottish Labour Party and, indeed, the foundation of the Scottish Trades Union Congress in 1897 is clear evidence that the website gathers to its bosom a wide range of interesting material.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

Minister—if you can find a question in that.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I think that I have listened to Mr Stevenson over a period of around 12 or 13 years, and I confess that I have often concluded that my education has not been sufficiently developed but that Mr Stevenson was helping me to put that right. I agree that his points are well made.

The main conclusion about all this is that VisitScotland is there to serve the public and to promote tourism. It is doing that by setting out some interesting dates and some interesting points in history. The information that it provides is not meant to imply any judgment or any view, and it does not. That is the point, and it is a point that a first-year law student could grasp in a nanosecond.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

As we have heard, the admission by VisitScotland that it got it wrong gives the lie to much of what the minister has just said. The minister cannot wash his hands of the matter. He and his cabinet secretary set the agenda and the culture here. Will he state categorically for the Parliament that he does not want any more toadying by agencies that are responsible to his department?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

There has been no toadying whatever. I think that that answers the question.

I say to Liam McArthur, with whom I have always had cordial and serious dealings, that his leader was reported in the press as suggesting that Scottish ministers—presumably, me—directed VisitScotland to include the material in question on its website. I make it clear that I became aware of the issue at around 10 or 11 o’clock this morning. I had not been aware of it, because I was too busy looking at serious matters to do with the creation of jobs in Scotland, bringing investment to Scotland and promoting tourism in Scotland. That is what I do with my time.

Mr Rennie’s charge that Scottish Government ministers somehow exerted pressure on VisitScotland to put the material on the website is one of the most ludicrous charges that I have heard, and I hope that he will take the opportunity to withdraw that ludicrous and utterly unsubstantiated assertion.