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I welcome today’s debate on a complex set of issues, and the Scottish Government’s recent paper; it is not perfect, but it is a start.
Of course, the striking of future trade deals is a reserved matter, so it is important that we frame our discussions on trade through existing structures. The report is right to focus on expanding exports among businesses that would make the greatest impact on our economy. The more holistic approach involving Government, enterprise agencies and the wider business community is certainly worth while.
Our export figures have diverged from those in the rest of the UK over the past two decades. Having been roughly equivalent in 1998, they are now more than 10 per cent apart as a share of GDP, at 20.1 per cent in Scotland compared with 30.2 per cent across the UK.
We also have the problem that simply not enough businesses are exporting, despite having the capacity to do so. The 8 per cent of businesses that have the right profile for exporting but are yet to try must be given the chance to do so. That highlights that there is an important role for export skills training, which is a key element that was not considered in depth in the paper. Our business culture has become more risk averse than it was in previous generations. Helping businesses to export more would go a long way to correcting that.
Training in languages could be improved, particularly in German, given that Germany is one of the main target markets that are identified in the report. Given that the Government’s target to increase exports by 50 per cent since 2010 has been missed by some margin, at a cost of £3.7 billion to the economy, there is considerable ground to make up, so it is important that we all engage with this issue and try to provide some solutions.
For our part, the Scottish Conservatives have set out a variety of proposals that seek to improve how we go about exporting, through our independent report “A New Scottish Model.” Chief among the main proposals is the creation of a Scottish exporting institute to gather experts in the field and use their experience to help with export training and certification. That is a serious suggestion and I ask ministers to consider it in the strongest possible terms. It could be of use not just across the country but across different sectors, too.
In my region, North East Scotland, one of the most important sectors is of course energy. As we emerge from a downturn in the oil price and explore new sources of energy, it is important to try to help organisations in the sector expand their reach in all manner of business activities. Scotland has a surplus of natural resources, so we should work to make the most of any opportunity to use them. I understand that the minister will be speaking at the energy exports conference in Aberdeen next month. That is the exactly the kind of event that ministers should attend.
The plan and our discussion today are steps in the right direction. We need to improve our exporting performance and consider ideas on their merits, no matter where they come from. I hope that we will be able to scrutinise concrete proposals in due course and, where necessary, make changes to advance the economic potential of our exports.