Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Taking Scotland Forward: Economy

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 31st May 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I welcome Keith Brown to his new position and thank him for the meeting that he generously gave us this morning to explore his portfolio and the portfolios of his team. I look forward to constructive engagement, even if we might not agree on every occasion. Perhaps we will hear more of that later.

Today is an opportunity for us to set out our constructive suggestions for the minority Government. We should remember that it is a minority Government and that it will require the support of others across the chamber to make progress. We should encourage the Government to come out of the timid corner that it has been hiding in, with its lack of ambition for growing our economy.

Liberal Democrats believe that our people can be a magnet for investment, growth and jobs for Scotland. People in this country are the route to economic recovery, and we should invest in them in order to secure economic progress. However, thousands of people are off work every year because of depression. We need a step change in our mental health services in Scotland in order to help those people to be active participants in the workforce. Improving their mental health means an improvement in the economy.

Employers are crying out for a skilled workforce. We need transformational investment in education to train our people with the skills that employers need. That is why the Liberal Democrats have been arguing for a £500 million investment in nurseries, schools and colleges.

However, we also need improved infrastructure. Improvements in broadband, mobile phone services and transport will ensure that our people have the best, on which they can thrive. With those measures, we can grow the economy, but the Scottish Government’s programme is far too timid to meet the challenges that have been outlined.

My original intention was to use this debate to focus on the challenges that our economy faces and the steps that are required to get it back on track. However, this is the first chance that we have had to question the new cabinet secretary since he was appointed to his post; given that the answers about the £10 billion memorandum of understanding were published this morning, I must focus on that now.

Members will recall that the MOU with SinoFortone and the China Railway No 3 Engineering Group was signed with uncharacteristic modesty by the SNP Government, just before the election. Apparently there was too much else happening to announce an international deal worth £10 billion. I cannot imagine what else was going on at the time that would merit that being put lower down the priority list.

I want investment for Scotland, but it has to be ethical investment, with appropriate due diligence conducted before anything is signed. We know that the SNP has lost the argument when it puts out the kind of rubbish that it put out this morning, saying that we are talking down Scotland and accusing us of negativity for daring to ask any questions. [

Interruption

.] The SNP is at it again now—trying to silence us. I will never be silenced in asking serious questions about the conduct of this Government.

I have read the documents that were published today under freedom of information legislation and the parliamentary answers that go with them—two months after questions were first raised about the project. The papers confirm our worst fears: no due diligence was conducted before the document was signed. The Government and, apparently, the Chinese railway company representative knew nothing about the corruption and allegations of human rights abuses related to this multibillion-pound agreement. Someone had concerns, however, because multiple attempts were made by officials to remove reference to the China Railway Group from the MOU and the press statements. Why was that? We have had no explanation.

The First Minister said that no specific projects had been agreed, but she sent a message—a special letter—to express her delight that specific projects had been well received. Mr Brown will remember that when we had a debate in the early stages of the election campaign, he claimed that the companies had a track record of working in the United Kingdom, and he cited Port Talbot as an example, so he appeared to be comfortable with their involvement. However, that claim was not true, was it? The China Railway Group has not been operating in Port Talbot, although SinoFortone has. The CRG has been rejected by Falkirk Council, and the Norwegian oil fund—we in this country often look to Norway—has withdrawn investment from the CRG following concerns about the risk of not merely corruption but gross corruption. Most damning of all, Amnesty International has condemned the behaviour and ethics of the China Railway Group after the company threw people out of their homes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Those revelations are devastating and, far from clearing the Scottish Government, they make the position worse. Let us look at what we have: officials sought to Tipp-Ex the China Railway Group out of the documents, the CRG has no involvement in Port Talbot, and the CRG has been rejected in Norway, turned down in Falkirk and named and shamed by Amnesty International. However, the Scottish Government has—as when the cabinet secretary generously took an intervention from me—refused to rule out investment from the company. If all those operators, countries, review groups, ethics groups and councils have ruled it out, why on earth is the Scottish Government keeping the CRG on the table?