I hope that you, Presiding Officer, and members enjoyed a great bank holiday weekend. I thank those who do not take bank holidays, such as the people who are employed in our service sector in leisure, hotels and catering, and in the information technology sector, where coverage is expected 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It takes people from all walks of life to assemble a political party. I am proud to stand here among advocates, academics, historians, farmers, businesspeople and retailers. They are talented individuals who are eager to oil the cogs of the inner workings of Scotland as part of the wider United Kingdom. Some would say that the harder one works, the luckier one gets. Put simply, our election result was based on sheer graft and a clear message that appealed to voters, who returned the Scottish Conservatives as the fresh new face of opposition. We will deliver and we will not disappoint.
I am not sure that I agree with Colin Smyth about movement of talent. I grew up on my family farm in the Welsh borders—the farm that my grandfather returned to after serving for his country in the second world war with the Shropshire Yeomanry, and the same farm that my father and brother now run together. It was not just a rite of passage, but years before, my father took me aside and asked me whether I would like to take on the farm. He understood that I was capable and that I merited the same opportunity that was traditionally reserved for sons of sons. Flattered, but with other ideas, I graciously turned down his offer and, after graduating, started work in the agriculture sector in southern Scotland, miles from the homestead.
My new job took me as far west as Ayrshire, through to Dumfries and Galloway, sweeping east to Lauderdale and Berwickshire and as far as the coastline in East Lothian. Fast forward 25 years, and I am now proud to be a member of the Scottish Parliament representing that very swathe of Scotland, which I regard as my home.
My experience of running our family business has given me an insight into what works and what does not work. In the Parliament, we need to address the two big problems for Scottish business, which are business rates and a skills shortage or gap. As my colleague Murdo Fraser said earlier, business rates in Scotland have increased by 42 per cent in the past nine years. The focus in Parliament needs to be on attracting more business to Scotland. At the moment, the Scottish Government is making it harder for those who want to do business in Scotland by hiking up business rates and reintroducing sporting rates. Future investment is being turned away and damaging Scotland in the process.
We should not neglect our rural economy. I am proud that our farmers and producers play a significant part in the upkeep of our land and in the production of some of the finest food and drink products in the world. That sector accounts for Scotland’s biggest non-energy export, and has generated a record turnover of £14 billion. The tourism sector complements our business sector and is vital to the Scottish economy. Our rural partners in vibrant towns and villages set the stage and the scenery for more than 15 million visitors to Scotland every year. Spending by tourists in Scotland generates around £12 billion, contributes around 5 per cent of total Scottish GDP and accounts for nearly 8 per cent of employment in Scotland. I am passionate about breathing life into our rural economy. Much more must be done to redistribute that wealth into the wider rural economy.
On our skills gap, attracting new business and investment to Scotland is a responsibility that we must take seriously. The Scottish Government must provide people with the resources and skills to meet the needs of business. In East Lothian, for example, only 18 per cent of pupils go on to further education—compared to the Scottish average of just over 24 per cent. An uplift simply cannot be achieved if the Scottish Government continues to cut college places. Already, 152,000 places have been cut. Those are the courses that are required for people to enter the business that we want to attract.
The Federation of Small Businesses has already warned that there is a lack of skills and that it is impacting on growth in Scotland. The time to act is now—before the problem escalates. Ironically, even the most successful growth sectors will have a problem with skilling up the next generation of technological specialists. The latest Scottish technology industry survey reveals that the digital tech sector has experienced such fast growth that Scotland cannot keep up with its demand for skills. That is another reason to support the provision of college places and address the increasing deficit of ability.
The task ahead is clear: to attract business to Scotland, to encourage businesses to grow and to ensure that Scotland has the skills to meet our future demand. That can be done only by stopping cuts to the college places and the rises in business rates.
I thank the hands that feed us in rural towns and communities—small businesses such as the ice cream shops in Innerleithen and North Berwick and the coffee houses in Lauder and Dunbar. My role in Parliament is to work with those local businesses and the tourism industry to ensure that our economy thrives and to drive it.