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Taking Scotland Forward: Economy

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

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I am capable of doing both, believe me.

I praise the first-time speakers—Ruth Maguire, Rachael Hamilton, Jamie Greene, Colin Smyth, Kate Forbes and Alison Harris—who made excellent contributions. There seemed to be a competition to see who has the most beautiful constituency. All that I can say is that the members who praised their own constituencies have clearly not been to mine. I encourage them to visit the east neuk of Fife, St Andrews and all the places in between, including Auchtermuchty—never a greater town has existed than it. I urge the new members to celebrate the fact that they have made their first contributions in the chamber. I am sure that they will make greater contributions as the years pass.

We are having the debate in quite challenging circumstances. Members have referred to the challenging unemployment statistics, which show a really wide gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The figures were nip and tuck before, but quite a gap is growing—the unemployment rate is 5.1 per cent in the rest of the UK and 6.2 per cent in Scotland. That is the widest gap since 2004.

The reasons for the figures are pretty clear. The issues in the oil and gas sector are known to us all. Ian Wood has said that, this year alone, 45,000 jobs could be lost. Thankfully, I think that the foundations of the tax regime are getting to the right kind of place—not that the tax regime matters this year, when companies are not making much money. There is more work to do, as I am sure that ministers will highlight, but the regime is getting to a place where, if the oil price recovers, we will have the potential to make sure that jobs also recover in the north-east.

We welcome the fact that the Scottish Government and the UK Government have the new city deal for the region, which will allow the economy to diversify. The deal will ensure that we do not depend solely on oil and gas, that we look to other sectors in which the north-east is strong, that we use the skills in the region and that we invest in infrastructure, which is sorely required in that part of the world. That was often neglected on the assumption that the region was capable of coping by itself, but it now desperately needs the investment, which is—thankfully—happening at last.

However, we have also seen massive cuts to the renewables sector. Obviously, it was not enough for the Conservative Party to see the decline of the oil and gas sector; it is now imposing massive cuts to the renewable energy sector. That is having a massive impact on not just the wind sector, but the solar sector, with thousands of jobs lost. Especially at this time, when we face real challenges with the oil and gas sector, we should be investing in renewables, not cutting renewables support. I am sure that the ministers will agree that we have seen business and investor confidence in that sector dramatically shattered. We should look to repair that.

The Scottish Government has contributed towards the problems. I am thankful that the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity apologised earlier for the debacle of the farm payments. I hope that we will now see the money going out the door so that we can close that massive gap in the rural economy.

Thankfully, I questioned the Government on the Chinese rail company. Not one single SNP back bencher raised one single question about that very important issue. They talked about many other valid issues, of course, but not one SNP member raised questions about that. Massive questions have been raised about corruption by the Norwegian oil fund.