The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-00382, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on mitigating, tackling and responding to the skills impact of Brexit. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or put R in the chat function if they are joining us remotely.
I call Richard Lochhead to speak to and move the motion—you have around 13 minutes.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I welcome you to your new role in Parliament. I hope that all my years of being very nice to you have put me in good stead for this debate and beyond.
I am delighted to open this debate in my new role as Scotland’s Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work. I take the liberty of using this opportunity to thank the people of Moray for placing their trust in me again to serve them for the next five years.
Today, I am asking Parliament to recognise and respond to many of the skills issues that are being experienced by key sectors of our economy, given the complex and unpredictable dynamics in our economy that have arisen due to the pandemic and which have unfortunately been compounded by a hard Brexit and the cessation of free movement. As we emerge from Covid-19, workers and businesses across Scotland face new and growing uncertainties. For many employers, something approaching a perfect storm is here. They face increased demands, but with a tightening labour market and a real prospect of staff shortages. For others, Brexit has introduced all kinds of onerous barriers to trade, weakening their ability to be fully productive as we emerge from the pandemic or even to export their products to Europe.
The United Kingdom Government was warned by the Scottish Government and many others to avoid going through with a hard Brexit in the middle of a pandemic, but those voices were ignored and we are now paying the price. Businesses and our economy have been severely impacted by a pandemic that no one wanted or expected and as a result of necessary measures to save people’s lives. A hard Brexit was also not wanted but was, by choice, foisted on Scotland, despite damaging consequences being predicted and expected.
I am sure that members across the chamber will have read recent reports concerning the many employers that are currently struggling to recruit workers. Both Covid and Brexit are impacting on the labour market and the economy. For businesses such as Crieff Hydro, the end of free movement has now, as the owner, Stephen Leckie, put it, “come home to roost”. The imminent summer holiday period is a crucial time of the year for the hospitality sector, but businesses such as his have confirmed that they still have a large number of vital roles to be filled. Their difficulties are not unique but are characteristic of trends across the hospitality and tourism sector, among others.
In recognition of the challenges facing the hospitality and tourism sector, I am pleased to confirm that we will give additional support this financial year for upskilling and retraining in the sector via the national transition training fund. Furthermore, the Scottish Government is working with partners, including UKHospitality Scotland and Skills Development Scotland, to promote the range of careers in the sector. I will shortly launch a marketing campaign to help to reduce the number of vacancies in the hospitality and tourism sector and to promote tourism as a career of choice among our target audience of 18 to 30-year-olds in Scotland.
M any industries in Scotland rely on overseas workers and have done so for many decades. However, Daniel Johnson’s points are valid in some cases, and I will return to that later in my speech.
The hospitality and tourism sector can be great to work in, and we should always remind people of that. We should all urge our constituents to seek out good opportunities in that area.
Employers in food and drink manufacturing also report an unprecedented drop in the availability of workers over the past six months in Scotland, which they attribute to Brexit’s immediate impact and the effect on labour mobility alongside pandemic-related disruption. Just this week, I received a letter from the director of Brightwork Recruitment, which provides at peak time almost 4,500 workers to the sector and works with clients such as Diageo, William Grant & Sons and Pernod Ricard Chivas, which is close to my heart as it is in my constituency. The letter highlights the concerns of many in the food and drink industry that, as they approach the fourth quarter of the year, the increasing skills shortages will be too great for many businesses that manage our great Scottish products.
We have been working closely with the sector to launch a food and drink recovery plan that contains a range of activities that support the skills needs of businesses in food and drink to mitigate and reverse the damage that has been caused by both Covid-19 and Brexit. We are also delivering a new youth employment programme across the industry to encourage more young people into it.
The minister’s speech thus far has been more about Brexit grievance than about the real crisis in Scotland, which is to do with skills availability and levels. Can he explain why modern apprenticeships, which are very much part of his remit, have collapsed across Scotland between 2019-20 and 2020-21? There were 13,719 in quarter 2 of 2019-20 compared with 3,633 in the same quarter of 2020-21.
I will not take any lectures from Conservative members given that their amendment to the motion is a rant against Scottish independence and our industries are speaking about the impact of Brexit. This Scottish National Party Government has delivered record numbers of apprenticeships, but in the past year to 18 months we have, of course, experienced a pandemic in which it has been difficult to deliver many of the apprenticeships. I think that everyone in Scotland apart from the member understands that.
The national transition training fund has been underutilised by a significant degree. Why has that happened? The fund is an important factor in trying to get people into work.
Willie Rennie, as the Labour amendment does, raises an important point that I am just about to address. Modern apprenticeships are seen as one of the key drivers in building businesses’ resilience, productivity and long-term sustainability in the food and drink sector. We will continue to work with Skills Development Scotland to maximise the uptake of apprenticeships and support current apprentices to complete their training.
Meanwhile, Logistics UK has reported a shortage of around 76,000 heavy goods vehicle drivers across the UK, and the Road Haulage Association has reported that one in 10 companies are now experiencing severe barriers to recruiting drivers—[
.] I have taken a lot of interventions so far.
I am aware of the Road Haulage Association’s 12-point plan to increase the number of HGV drivers. It seeks a seasonal visa scheme and the inclusion of the occupation on the UK’s skilled worker shortage occupation list, as well as other measures. Although some of its asks are for the UK Government—we hope that the UK Government is listening—we stand ready to work with the industry to develop solutions that ensure the flow of goods in and out of and across Scotland. One issue is the backlog to testing. The RHA estimates that around 30,000 HGV tests have been delayed, which prevents new drivers from taking up their posts. I am encouraged by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s prioritisation of driving tests for HGV drivers.
For Scotland’s small and medium-sized enterprises, the impact of Brexit should not be underestimated. A Federation of Small Businesses report found that 40 per cent of small firms in Scotland pre-Brexit employed a worker from the European Economic Area compared with the UK average of 26 per cent. Scotland is second only to London in terms of reliance on EEA workers. In tourism and hospitality, the figure jumped to 45 per cent. The FSB also reports that SMEs with workforces led by international workers generate around £13 billion for the Scottish economy, so the impact will be significant for the sector at the end of free movement.
Emmanuel Moine, who is chair of the Inverness Hotels Association, said:
“Two years’ ago, 60 per cent of my staff were from the EU. Where do I go now to replace them?”
The true scale of the challenge remains unclear, but it is known and widely evidenced that a skilled and dynamic labour force is crucial for this country’s economic prosperity. That is why the Scottish Government is investing £2 billion in the skills system every year and has committed to invest an additional £500 million to support new jobs and reskill people for jobs for the future over the course of this session.
I realise that the member has taken many interventions and I am grateful to him for taking this one. In relation to skills of the future and the green economy, we know that much of wind farm construction, for example, is done abroad and imported and we know that those who service that sector are imported as well. We also know that, in the health sector, there are many medical professions where the number of those applying for those positions from Scotland far outstrips the number of available places. Does the minister consider that there is an opportunity for our home-grown talent to get into those industries?
There are of course opportunities for home-grown talent, but we have to look at the demographic projections for Scotland, which show that our working population is decreasing and we are increasingly reliant on people moving here to live and work, as they have done for decades, if not centuries. Such people are made most welcome, because we are an outward-looking, welcoming and internationalist country.
In October last year, we introduced the national transition training fund to address some of the challenges and in response to the threat of rising unemployment, which members have mentioned. However, demand for support was suppressed by successive furlough extensions, which is why we have perhaps not seen the uptake that we anticipated, as the Labour amendment mentions. We agree with much in that amendment, but I just wanted to cite the reason why that is the case with the fund. The fund delivered more than 6,000 interventions for the first phase, and delivery of the provision through colleges and universities will continue until the end of July. As always, we will keep the initiative under review.
We will press the UK Government to extend the furlough scheme for those who need it, and we will continue to offer retraining opportunities for those who need them. We will support the sectors that face the greatest challenges. We will continue to invest in retraining and upskilling opportunities to ensure that Scotland’s workforce is ready for the jobs of the future.
We have committed to delivering, within the first 100 days of the new session of Parliament, a green jobs workforce academy to equip our workforce with the skills that are needed to enter into or progress in jobs that are essential for our green recovery.
The Government has long argued that Brexit will be a disruptive force for Scotland’s society and economy. Thankfully, Scotland remains an attractive location in which to live and work. As last week’s EY survey demonstrated, overseas investment in Scotland bucked the UK trend by increasing during 2020 despite the many restrictions that were in place.
Although investment has held up, it is clear that Brexit disruption is beginning to manifest itself. Constituency and regional MSPs must speak to businesses in their areas every other week and get the same feedback: that Brexit is having a massive impact on many parts of our economy. That is certainly the case in my area, and I am sure that it is the case throughout the country and in other members’ experience.
Of course, it is not just about the lack of labour; the costs of trade barriers and the difficulty in sourcing materials that have arisen from Brexit are also causing massive problems for the economy in Scotland.
I return to what we can do in Scotland and what employers can do for themselves, which members have mentioned. At a time of skills shortages, it is important that employers grasp the opportunities to become more competitive. The key to that is fair work. The Scottish Government believes that we need more than just jobs. Our commitment to the fair work principles is vital to creating the kind of society that values wellbeing as well as prosperity. We are committed to creating jobs that are greener and fairer and which benefit our economy and society.
Through promoting diverse and inclusive recruitment and working practices and adopting the fair work principles, and by investing in workforce development, training and upskilling, employers will benefit from greater innovation and productivity. Not only is that vital to addressing the skills shortages, employers will benefit from an enhanced reputation that will help them to attract talent. A fair work employer will stand head and shoulders above others.
The Scottish Government, guided by the independent Fair Work Convention, which will soon look at sectors such as hospitality, can support employers to create much fairer workplaces. Ultimately, of course, it is for the employers to make that change. I am pleased to say that I have heard some good examples from hospitality companies that I have spoken to in the past few weeks of how they are improving wages and working conditions, scrapping split shifts and talking about four-day weeks. That is the way forward, and it is an important indication of systemic change in the sector, which I hope we will see across many sectors.
In the employer skills survey that was undertaken between October and December last year, 74 per cent of employers highlighted that upskilling would be needed in the year ahead. Our commitment to delivering a skilled and productive workforce that meets the needs of employers and equips the current and future workforce with the skills for the future predated the pandemic. We will continue to invest in skills and our workforce.
Our economy requires workers from across Europe and beyond if we are to benefit from world-class sectors such as hospitality, tourism, agriculture, health and social care and higher education and research. We value those who come here to work and make Scotland their home. Their contribution not only supports our industries but enhances our culture and society. We need people to contribute at all levels of the economy, including in vital roles in tourism and some of those other sectors. UK Government immigration policy fails to address Scotland’s distinctive demographic and economic needs and disregards the workers on whom we have come to rely and who have been vital during the pandemic. Migrants have been closed off and put off by the UK Government’s hostile immigration policy and Brexit.
As we move forward, we all have a part to play, and I am asking employers to innovate to attract workers into sectors and occupations that are crucial to our economy. I call on the UK Government to listen to and act on the concerns of those Scottish industries that face the twin challenges of the pandemic and Brexit, and to work with us to support employers and workers through the times ahead.
That the Parliament agrees that a skilled and productive workforce is vital to addressing labour market inequalities, creating fairer workplaces and delivering an inclusive, green recovery; recognises that employers in sectors disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic are now reporting skills shortages as a result of the ending of free movement, and that colleges and universities share concern over the impact of Brexit on staff and student mobility; agrees that delivering a skilled and sustainable workforce will require action and collaboration from both the Scottish and UK governments, along with employers and key partners, and welcomes the Scottish Government’s continued commitment to upskilling and retraining, including through the extension of the National Transition Training Fund to 2021-22 and commitment to invest an additional £500 million over the current parliamentary session to support new jobs and reskill people for the future.
Listening to the minister, it would be all too easy to forget that we are assembled here in the world’s most powerful devolved Parliament—a Parliament with the power to change the lives of people in Scotland for the better. In a tidal wave of doom, members would be forgiven for letting the fact that we have a Government that is answerable to this chamber, and that could act not tomorrow but today, wash over them.
The people of Scotland deserve better. They deserve better than a Scottish National Party Government that has had coming on for 15 years to do something about such issues, and better than ministers who have the brass neck to come here and voice disquiet about the action of others, but who have nothing to say about the fact that they have been caught out doing nothing themselves.
Although the events of the past year—whether we are talking about the global health pandemic or the decision of the people of the United Kingdom to forge a new future outside the European Union—have made the skills shortage more visible, the truth is that those events did not create it. No—our skills shortage was created here in Scotland, and telling us that someone else is responsible will not solve it. Instead, we need a bit of humility and honesty from the SNP. Of course, I am not expecting us to get that.
D o we not need a bit of humility from not just the SNP Government but the Conservative Government, given that, ultimately, Brexit is costing jobs and having an impact on businesses, and has resulted in us having fewer people here to do the work? Therefore, perhaps a little humility from Conservative members would be in order, too.
I simply do not agree with Mr Johnson. I think that Brexit presents real opportunities for people right across the UK and, in years to come, I believe that we will see that it was the right decision.
I do not expect the SNP to let the facts get in the way of constitutional grievance. I will not say who does gloomy better, but it is clear that Michael Russell has passed the baton of Brexit doom-mongering on to Richard Lochhead. That trademark tactic is a sure-fire sign that the SNP is in trouble, and it is no wonder that it wants to create a smokescreen, because its record on skills speaks for itself. The SNP promises future action, but talk is cheap.
A few years ago, if I remember correctly, the Parliament unanimously backed the devolving of immigration powers to Holyrood. Why has that not been delivered, given that many sectors in Scotland are asking for such powers to come to this Parliament so that we can help them to get through the current crisis?
I think that Mr Lochhead is incorrect in that recollection. Although it is true that our immigration system needs to work better, many sectors of the Scottish economy value having a UK-wide immigration system. We need proposals that work not only for people here in Scotland but for the United Kingdom as a whole. That is what the people of Scotland backed when they voted to stay part of the UK back in 2014.
The SNP forever promises that it will act. It forever promises new plans and proposals on skills, but it does not back them up with the level of commitment or investment that is needed. We know that a skills revolution and mass retraining is possible. To see that, we do not need to look much further than the events of the past year.
I do not claim that this is a positive example, but it shows that it can be done. There are literally thousands of people across Scotland who have shown that it is possible to reskill and retrain in a heartbeat—sadly, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen numerous examples, including the bar workers who started driving delivery vans, the chefs who moved into construction, the beauticians who worked in supermarkets, the tour guides who became home carers and the theatre costume designers who turned their hand to manufacturing face masks. Each and every one of them are unsung heroes of this pandemic who have gone above and beyond, not just to look after their own families, but those of others, too.
However, the truth is that that type of thing should be normal and not exceptional. In normal and not exceptional times, it should be driven by individual choice and not just by economic need, and it should be supported by the Government, because gone are the days of a job for life.
It is time to get serious about supporting people to retrain and upskill, and that means moving past a point where we expect the majority of learning and training to be completed by the age of 22. It means adopting much more innovative and flexible policies such as the individual learning accounts that CBI Scotland is promoting, which would mean people being incentivised and financially supported to enhance their skill sets at key points in their lives.
The member makes an interesting point about the flexibility of the workforce, but another fundamental component is the need to ensure that there is sufficient demand in the economy for people to be employed at income levels that give them dignified and uplifting lives. Does he recognise that there is potentially an issue in that regard with economic planning at both the Scottish and UK levels? Does he agree that we are simply not providing enough jobs to allow those opportunities and that expecting people to chase jobs that do not exist is actually a form of abuse?
The member makes an important point. Those things are all parts of the package, but skilled job opportunities already exist in our economy. We have to find a better way of supporting people to move into the jobs that exist, and we need to help them to train to take advantage of those opportunities.
That does not mean just dipping our toe in the water; it means getting behind system-wide change and acknowledging that the SNP Government’s plans for apprenticeships do not go far enough. That is why the Scottish Conservatives want unlimited apprenticeships for Scotland’s young people. We want a demand-led model that ensures that funded places reflect employer and economy needs, not just arbitrary and unambitious SNP targets.
It also means recognising that progress is all but impossible in an environment where college funding has been cut to the bone and our further education sector is looking at how to survive in the here and now rather than helping to drive future strategy or supporting learners to gain the skills and knowledge that they need to fulfil their potential and benefit our economy.
If the SNP Government is serious about skills, can it explain why we have a trend of decreasing college student numbers on its watch? Rather than hang their heads in shame, SNP ministers come to the chamber and defend the indefensible. They hide behind grudge and grievance. Why did Richard Lochhead not turbo-charge the college sector when he was responsible for it? Was Brexit to blame?
Likewise, in the here and now, colleges and universities are being badly served by this Government, which seems not to understand the urgency of getting back to face-to-face, small-group learning. It is almost impossible to see how we can properly prepare learners in technical and science-based subjects without enabling some in-person tuition.
Thousands of short-term, part-time places have been cut. That is not the feedback that I get from my constituents. The minister says that members should go away and listen to people. I think that he should reflect on what people in the college sector—and, I suspect, many of his constituents—are saying.
At the height of the pandemic, we needed to be cautious, and we need to be cautious now, but we also need to find a pragmatic balance that recognises the consequences of holding back another year of learners in our further and higher education settings. With lead times for starting up new courses being anywhere from six to eight weeks, we urgently need a plan to be set out now. We were able to do it for schools, so let us not pretend that it is impossible to set out a detailed route map for further and higher education.
I turn to the most ridiculous and hypocritical part of the motion. Let us remember that we are in the midst of the greatest challenge that humankind has faced in generations and the whole planet is continuing to grapple with the effects of Covid-19. Here, in Scotland, the Scottish Fiscal Commission has forecast that our economy will not return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024, and businesses that have been unable to trade for over 400 days are still being forced by law to close their doors. Many people continue to experience the health consequences of Covid.
In that context, most Governments are rightly focused on protecting jobs, remobilising health services and making sure that young people catch up on lost learning, not to mention trying to roll out vaccinations to their populations.
The huge difference between Brexit and Scottish independence is that we had already set an exit date for leaving the EU before the pandemic started. Throughout those negotiations, as we have seen during the vaccine debacle and in Northern Ireland, the EU was probably the least reasonable negotiator on the planet, so the idea that we could have knocked back our exit from the EU and got a better deal than the Government delivered is fanciful.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government is willing to put our recovery at risk by continuing unnecessarily to dangle over our country the prospect of a further divisive referendum, which the people of Scotland did not vote for— unlike the people of the UK, who did vote to leave the EU. There seems to be no acceptance of reality or the huge uncertainty and instability that a referendum would fuel. I cannot see how SNP ministers have the bare-faced cheek to come to this chamber and tell us that Brexit is having a negative effect on the labour market but that, somehow, putting up a hard border at Gretna would be a positive. Not only would it be a huge betrayal of the many people, families, businesses and organisations across the country who are treading water just to survive; it would be a massive distraction from tackling the issues that we are discussing today.
Therefore, rather than stoking up the arguments of the past, whether they be on Brexit or independence, we need a Government that is willing to pull its finger out and get on with using the powers that it has to do something to address the skills shortage that it has overseen.
I move amendment S6M-00382.1, to leave out from “that employers in sectors” to end and insert:
“the changing labour market and the potential skills shortages created and highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and calls on the Scottish Government to take further action to mitigate these shortages, including creating more apprenticeships, reversing the trend of decreasing college student numbers that has occurred under the current SNP administration, setting out plans for a return to in-person small group learning in higher and further education and introducing Individual Learning Accounts as called for by CBI Scotland; notes the need to work constructively with the UK Government to maximise the opportunities for Scotland outside of the EU, and calls on the Scottish Government to avoid needless disruption to the labour market by abandoning its plans to hold a divisive independence referendum while Scotland is recovering from a global pandemic.”
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests: I am a member of the GMB and Unite trade unions.
The long and tortuous progress of Brexit, which has bedevilled us since 2016, is often debated as a constitutional issue that stands separately and drags us away from the class politics that underpin a socialist analysis of our economy and society. However, it is easy to forget that constitutional wrangling creates victims, too, most of whom are working class people, whether the issue is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, women’s rights or immigration and trade and—as we debate today—the skills that underpin policy in that regard.
Immigration was front and centre of the Brexit debate in the lead-up to the referendum. We saw Nigel Farage’s infamous posters, which will go down as a shameful moment in our history. We heard the same myths—repeated over and over—about migrants’ negative impact on wages and public services, when we know that all evidence points to the contrary. We also witnessed a wave of hate crime against migrants and against British-born people of colour, who were told that they do not belong in the Brexiteers’ nationalist utopia.
Today, almost five years after the Brexit vote, millions of EU nationals still find themselves in limbo. Those who arrived in the UK under the freedom of movement arrangements are being forced to apply just to be able to stay in their own homes with their loved ones. We hear harrowing stories of people who have spent years or decades living and working in Britain but whose settled status applications are being rejected by the Home Office.
The Tories failed to recognise any of those issues in their amendment, and if they have their way, millions more people will soon be subject to the hostile environment that brought us the Windrush scandal. Although the Green Party’s amendment was not selected today, the Labour Party whole-heartedly endorses its endeavour in that vital matter.
Scotland cannot let migrant workers be an afterthought in the Brexit process. Polish nurses and Romanian cleaners are just as much a part of the working class as their colleagues who have British passports. For example, the feminist organisation Engender estimates that one in five workers in the social care sector was not born in the UK. Migrant workers occupy some of the most important yet undervalued roles in our society, and the Scottish Government must use all its power to ensure that they are treated fairly. That is why Scottish Labour is calling for the extension of trade union recognition, to prevent the exploitation of migrant labour in undervalued sectors.
Trade unions have achieved what was previously thought to be impossible, by building up popular recognition of key workers during the pandemic into a determined campaign that extends beyond mere goodwill to a fight for terms and conditions that would allow every worker to live a dignified life. As we move towards a national care service, the Scottish Government must take the next step to ensure that all those who employ workers in Scotland across health and social care formally recognise trade unions and their right to bargain collectively on behalf of their members.
We face an economic challenge in Scotland that we tried to address in previous years under a Labour Government—most noticeably through the fresh talent initiative in 2004, which was successful in reversing Scotland’s historic population decline.
From 1801 to 1901, the Scottish population grew by 180 per cent, but from 1901 to 2001 it grew by just 10 per cent. It is projected that the working-age population in Scotland will grow by just 1 per cent in the next 10 years. That presents a huge demographic challenge for Scotland.
There are many reasons underlying that trend, and it cannot simply be blamed on Brexit, although erecting borders, with all the friction that they bring, certainly does not help matters. The fundamental structure of the Scottish economy is in critical and urgent need of reform. We need to build on previous initiatives, such as the fresh talent initiative, and ensure that the national transition training fund realises its full capacity, in order to drive towards a high-skill, high-wage economy that has community wealth building at its heart.
We must robustly challenge the idea that migration is simply a tool to provide low-skilled, low-wage, casualised and seasonal work in fragile communities in which young people, such as those in my generation, are deprived of economic security.
I welcome Paul Sweeney to his role and to Parliament.
Irrespective of whether the Conservatives have ever voted for immigration powers in this Parliament, the Parliament has voted many times for immigration powers to be devolved. Given that many businesses and sectors would welcome the Parliament having more powers over immigration—powers to grant visas, for example—does Paul Sweeney support such an approach?
That is certainly an exciting and interesting point. I hope to reach the detail of our proposal in my speech. I will save it until later; I will get to it in due course.
It is certainly not a question of immigration undermining wages and conditions. We have to look at the positive aspects of immigration. Organised labour has been under systematic assault for many years. That is what has driven down wages and that is why wages have stagnated. The power of organised labour to bargain collectively in this country has been systematically undermined for years. That is the root cause and the heart of the problem. It is compounded by a reactionary approach to industrial development in Scotland that sees investment in high-skilled jobs and technologies diverted out of the country as more of our industries fall under foreign ownership. We saw that at the Caley railway works in Springburn, and we are seeing it play out once again at McVities in Tollcross.
Our amendment calls for an effective industrial strategy, to prevent such tragic loss of jobs, secure Scotland-owned industrial development and promote upskilling in the workplace.
International movement of labour is a class issue. The kind of skills-based system that the Tories are planning for will inevitably favour wealthier migrants over poorer ones. The proposed minimum income requirements would not only deprive Scotland of the talent that keeps our economy afloat; they would mean that living and working legally would become a privilege awarded to the lucky few, not the many.
Pam Gosal’s intervention was timely. I completely agree that the attainment gap remains a mark of national shame in Scotland. Every party has to put its full weight behind addressing it. We saw the issue being played out in the Scottish Qualifications Authority exams scandal last year; I was astounded by the incredible level of structural inequality that that revealed. We should urgently address the matter.
Let me respond to the minister’s point. Labour is calling on the Scottish Government and the UK Government to collaborate on the development of a flexible visa scheme that would empower workers to resist exploitative employers and underpin efforts to unionise workers who are fearful about their immigration status. Canada’s immigration system, which is co-managed by the federal and provincial Governments, could provide a useful benchmark for us to consider in Scotland and the UK as a whole. I say to the minister that the Scottish Government will certainly have an ally in the Labour Party should it pursue that idea in seeking to reform our constitutional arrangements in a positive and constructive fashion.
I have worked with Scottish Enterprise on promoting initiatives such as the ScotGrad scheme, which has brought in international graduates and foreign language students to help to promote Scottish exports abroad, and I can say that the Tories’ xenophobic migration policy is a real threat to the future economic prosperity of this country. However, the Scottish Government could do much more, too.
On a Scottish, British or European level, Labour will always promote and support policies that are rooted in advancing economic opportunity, human dignity and the ability to grow our collective potential as a country. That is why I invite colleagues across the Parliament to support our amendment.
I move amendment S6M-00382.3, to insert at end:
“; notes the disappointingly low uptake of the National Transition Training Fund to date and believes that upskilling and reskilling Scotland will require more ambitious interventions; acknowledges that the Scottish Government must do more to enhance the standard of living in Scotland, work with the UK Government to support flexible visa schemes and build on previous initiatives, such as ‘Fresh Talent’, in order to effectively address the skills shortages within key sectors of the economy and make Scotland an attractive location to live, work, study and do business; recognises the need for an effective industrial strategy, and calls on the Scottish Government to develop such a strategy to prevent the loss of skilled jobs, promote upskilling in the workplace and promote the extension of trade union recognition to prevent exploitation of migrant labour and secure future fiscal sustainability.”
In June 2016, on the eve of the Brexit vote, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel made the following statement:
“there will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.”
Five years later, despite those three individuals now occupying the highest offices in the UK and having absolute authority to make good on that promise, we know it to be yet another leave campaign lie. The UK Government’s settled status scheme is the opposite of an automatic right to indefinite leave to remain: it is conditional, as members said, and until the UK Government was shamed into dropping this policy, there was a £65 application fee for the privilege of even making the attempt. That is hardly living up to the commitment to treat EU citizens no less favourably than they were treated previously.
With just two weeks left before the deadline for applications to the settlement scheme, hundreds of thousands of applications are stuck in a backlog. The UK in a Changing Europe, a research body from which Parliament has heard a number of times, has warned that the backlog leaves a large number of people facing legal uncertainty, even if their applications were lodged on time. There is far greater concern for the unknown number of people who have not yet applied to the scheme and who will not do so before the deadline.
The UK Government has confirmed that it will make allowances for those with “reasonable grounds” for missing the application deadline, but it has not said what those reasonable grounds are.
The member will be aware that the UK Government has said that the legal status of those EU nationals will be unaffected by the passage of the deadline, and that their cases will be considered in due time, so there is no threat to their rights. The spectre that Mr Greer is creating does not exist. It is another example of the scaremongering that this Parliament could do with less of.
I am sure that Mr Kerr genuinely believes that, because I am sure that he sincerely wishes to believe that the radical right-wing agenda through Brexit that he supported is not causing significant damage to his constituents, but it is causing damage. We all know that, from our inboxes. We have already seen our constituents being discriminated against because, for example, landlords are taking advantage of the application scheme backlog to raise questions about their tenants’ eligibility to stay in this country.
The UK in a Changing Europe think tank is non-partisan—it is seen as credible by members of this Parliament and the UK Parliament and even by the UK Government—and it is raising the spectre of people being, in essence, legally undocumented after the passage of that deadline. The UK Government was warned of the backlog—
Future Borders and Immigration, said:
“We have already confirmed that someone who has applied to the EU settlement scheme by the 30 June deadline, but has not had a decision by then, will have their rights protected until their application is decided.”
That could not be clearer. It is in black and white; it is a fact.
As I explained to Mr Kerr a moment ago, the delay is being used by unscrupulous landlords and by employers—there are two examples. The UK Government is simply not enforcing such an approach. It has not provided enough support for those individuals.
It is fine for Kevin Foster to say that, and of course we welcome the UK Government giving clarity that those applications will be processed, but the fact is that that Government is not supporting the very people whom it put into this position in the first place. The UK Government has used those individuals as pawns, first in a negotiation and since then in multiple election campaigns, and now it has left them in limbo and uncertain of their legal status. Mr Kerr needs to recognise the incredible level of uncertainty that many of our constituents feel.
The impact that the situation is having on individuals and families is severe, and that should be our primary concern, but the wider economic, social and cultural hit cannot be ignored. Scotland relies disproportionately on inward migration to meet our labour needs, largely because of our reliance on the tourism, agriculture and university sectors, but that is not a priority for the UK Government.
When it became clear that the post-Brexit immigration system would be deeply damaging to Scotland, this Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee put questions to the chair of the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee. It was pointed out to him that the UK Government’s proposed rules would be seriously detrimental to tourism and agriculture, in particular, and that those sectors make up a far larger share of our economy than is the case for the economy of the UK as a whole. His response was that those sectors might simply need to “contract”. Given that Mr Kerr is so keen to contribute to this debate, it would be welcome if he could tell members whether he agrees with that. Given the area that he represents, does he agree with the chair of the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee that maybe the Scottish tourism and agriculture sectors just need to contract, because their needs do not match the agenda of the UK Government?
To be absolutely clear, the member answered his question with what he said. The Migration Advisory Committee is an advisory body, not a Government spokesman. That was not someone enunciating Government policy. It is an advisory body that gives advice. Advisers advise and Government ministers decide. That is not the Government’s policy.
The Government accepted the MAC’s recommendations in full, and those sectors are now explaining the impact that those policies have had. Mr Kerr is absolutely right to say that advisers advise, but the Government accepted that advice and is now implementing that advice, and we are now seeing the impact of that advice on the Scottish economy.
A moment ago, Mr Kerr mentioned Kevin Foster, a UK immigration minister. He came to this Parliament to defend UK Government policies on the premise that we could somehow create a higher-wage economy in the UK. He could not quite explain the connection between the UK Government’s immigration policies and the desire for a higher-wage economy, and he was not willing to take the one step that is immediately available to the UK Government to create a higher-wage economy, which is to raise the minimum wage to a level at which people can actually afford to live. If the UK Government is committed to seeing wages increase, it should take the easiest tool that it has at its disposal, which is the national minimum wage, and raise it to a level above the poverty line.
The question of wages takes me to the other important point, on which I will close. The UK Government’s policy choices are a combination of the malign and the simply ridiculous. The labour shortages that are noted in the motion are not all down to immigration and wage policies. They are down to employers who are not willing to treat their staff with dignity. They are down to far too many employers in tourism, hospitality and agriculture who will not pay their staff a living wage and offer them a secure contract. I have no sympathy for a business that advertises for staff with poverty wages and zero-hours contracts and is unable to fill those posts.
That is one area in which the Scottish Government has some control. It cannot set wages but it issues hundreds of millions of pounds in business support grants, with no attached condition of paying staff a living wage. If the Scottish Government is committed to a high-wage, high-skill economy, one of the easiest tools at its disposal is its ability to set a basic condition on the public grants that are given to businesses that they should pay their staff a wage on which they can afford to live. I would welcome it if, in his closing remarks, the minister could respond to that point.
I recognise that I have run over my allocated time.
Oliver Mundell is a mild-mannered and gentle member of the Parliament, so I cannot believe that he drafted the Tory amendment. It is not possible that such an intelligent member could draft such an ignorant amendment.
There is, of course, no doubt that we should recruit locally when we can, and that we should seek to upskill, reskill and educate the workers of this country and make sure that they can access lifelong learning. However, that cannot be done overnight in the way that Oliver Mundell has sought to impose on the Government.
I will let Oliver Mundell in shortly. He completely ignores the problems that have been created by the points-based immigration system. He does not mention them in his amendment and did not seek to raise them in his speech. He has completely ignored the seasonal agricultural workers scheme pilot, which was bedevilled by problems that were caused by the UK Government. He did not mention the EU settled status scheme, which, despite protestations, still has problems with its registration process.
I will, in a second. It is impossible to have a rounded debate about the problems that we are facing with recruitment, employment and training in this country without acknowledging the biggest elephants in the room—the problems that have been caused by the UK Government.
The member mischaracterises my speech, because my point is exactly that we have had almost 15 years of SNP government and some of those things should have started a long time ago. It is not good enough just to keep bringing in migrant labour to plug the gaps. We need to start doing something here in Scotland to train our young people for the future. Does he agree?
Oliver Mundell tries to paint it as a black-and-white picture, but it is not an either/or. Of course this Government should have performed better over the past 14 or 15 years—we agree with that. However, we do not agree with simply cutting off the supply of workers.
We need to constantly regenerate our economy, because we do not have the growth rate in our population that we need—although it could be said that that is also the Scottish Government’s responsibility. The problem is that we cannot simply switch off the supply of workers overnight. The construction industry is very clear about that. It says that, ideally, we would recruit more people locally and train people better to make sure that we have more drivers and more workers here. That is incredibly difficult to do overnight, but that is what the UK Government has forced on the country.
My criticism of the Scottish Government is pretty straightforward. I know that it has failed in many areas of life over the past 14 years. However, to have a proper, rounded debate, we need to recognise that the UK Government has put a wrecking ball through many sectors in the economy. That is intolerable. I thought that Oliver Mundell, being a much more intelligent member, would have recognised that and contributed to the debate in a much more rounded way. [
I will not take an intervention just now.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The member has questioned my intelligence twice. I am used to taking part in robust debates and I am pleased when members intervene on me to disagree on the substance of a speech, but I do not think that it is fair to question my intelligence twice in that way.
I thank Mr Mundell for his point of order. The exchanges have been robust so far, but I am not sure that the references that Mr Rennie made were out of order. In a generally robust debate, I encourage everybody to have respect for colleagues across the chamber.
I invite Mr Rennie to continue.
Perhaps I did not make myself clear, but I was praising Oliver Mundell for being a very intelligent member of this Parliament, which is why I was surprised by his contribution and his amendment. I am full of praise for Oliver Mundell and the contributions that he makes in the Parliament. I will not step back from that.
It is important to recognise that the pandemic has also contributed to the country’s difficulties. The situation is not straightforward and, as much as I am a big critic of Brexit, it is not all Brexit’s responsibility.
For example, the foundations of the problems in the social care sector in particular relate to the amount of money that we pay the workers. Although the recruitment issues were eased during the pandemic, we need to recognise that they are back to being exactly where they were previously. Brexit has, of course, compounded the situation by restricting access to good workers who can be employed in that sector. That is why, in the reforms that are coming, the Scottish Government needs to make sure that it pays the workers appropriately.
The seasonal agricultural workers scheme is another area that has been through great difficulty. It was supposed to lead to 30,000 workers coming to the UK, because we recognised that there was not a sufficient number of workers. Last year, many people who were on furlough worked in the sector, but that is not available to the sector—
In a second—I am running out of time.
As I said, 30,000 workers were supposed to come. However, as a result of the late deployment of two operators in the seasonal agricultural workers scheme pilot, we have rotting fruit in our fields and flowers left unpicked, and vegetables are potentially under threat as well. That is all because the UK Government did not do as it promised, which was to make sure that the scheme was in place. I could go through lots of different sectors, too.
We need to make sure that we have a rounded debate and a rounded policy so that we can achieve the high-skilled, high-wage economy that we seek for the country. We need to be open to good immigration to refresh our society. People who work hard and play their part in society deserve a good job so that they can look after their families, yet they are often let down on both fronts—by the UK Government and by the Scottish Government. We can do so much better.
We move to the open debate.
We are a bit tight for time as a result of interventions and points of order, so I encourage members to include interventions in their allocated time.
Skills shortages are not just about Brexit, nor are the economic difficulties simply about the impact of the pandemic. There is no doubt that there were shortages and difficulties before either of those issues raised their head.
There is also no question but that Brexit presents some real hurdles, which we need to get over somehow or other.
As I referred to earlier this afternoon, the ending of freedom of movement will have enormous consequences for farmers, with potentially huge shortages of seasonal agricultural workers during the picking season. It was on that issue that I tried to intervene on Mr Rennie. The UK Government has deliberately delayed the allocation of two licences, which has meant that the companies will have difficulty in recruiting staff and getting them over here in time for the picking season. We will be left with crops unpicked and rotting in the fields—and it is not as though that has not happened before.
I can see the same issues putting pressure on other areas of our economy, including food processing, factories, abattoirs and the red meat sector. How we will build back at all, let alone build back better, if the construction industry cannot get the workers that it needs is beyond me.
The Tory amendment in Oliver Mundell’s name is frustrating, because, yet again, he focuses on something other than the real challenges that we should be working together to find solutions to. As we saw in their leaflets during the election campaign, all the Tories want to talk about is preventing an independence referendum. The irony is that it is you, not us, who keep talking about the independence referendum. You have a constitutional obsession based on the principle of denying democracy and preventing the people of Scotland from deciding their own futures.
As for Mr Mundell noting in his amendment
“the need to work constructively with the UK Government to maximise the opportunities for Scotland outside of the EU”,
I remind him that, during the election campaign, it was his leader who told the country, in a live debate, that under no circumstances would he work with Nicola Sturgeon on anything, let alone on major issues such as climate change, because we in the SNP believe in independence.
If you want to intervene to square that circle, please do so.
Mr Fairlie is using the usual SNP trick of cherry picking parts of the amendment. I am interested in whether he agrees that his Government has failed when it comes to supporting our colleges, and whether he thinks that that is acceptable or good for young people in this country.
No, I do not agree. I will give an example of one of the things that the Scottish Government is doing right now. The Scottish Government and the Scottish food and drink industry are working together as part of the industry recovery plan. The Scottish Government is funding a careers programme, and, in its first three months, more than 300 teachers have signed up to the good food champions initiative to promote career opportunities in the sector. The Scottish Government is working across a range of sectors to help people into work.
.] No, I will not take another intervention.
The same UK Government completely ignored not only the Scottish Government but a raft of organisations in the agricultural sector when they made propositions about the Australia trade deal. You did not listen then, so why would we think that you will listen now?
The amendment says that the Scottish Government needs to work with the UK Government. How can we possibly work constructively when the Scottish Government has been given no role in any of the negotiations for one of the biggest deals for the country—a deal that will decimate an industry and affect a large part of my constituency?
When the time is right, it is absolutely right that the Scottish people will have a referendum. We will unite this country and remove ourselves from a body that deliberately makes sure that we are cut out of negotiations that directly affect the people of Scotland.
I am not confused at all. It is simple—Scotland should be an independent country
We know for certain that the Tories in this chamber and in Westminster are deliberately making decisions that will definitely harm the people and the industries of Scotland, particularly those in the area that I represent.
In the interests of using conciliatory language, I say that am acutely aware that we all need to be less partisan. That is why I am so disappointed that you mentioned the independence referendum in your amendment.
We certainly need to look for short-term support for the fresh meat, hospitality and soft fruit sectors, which are particularly important in my constituency. It would be good to look at allowing a Scotland-wide unique immigration programme—such a programme exists in Canada, as has been mentioned.
I have spoken to numerous hotels, businesses, restaurants, bakers, builders and haulage companies in my constituency. All are crying out for workers. We need a solution to the problem that we have right now. The Scottish Government should be allowed to have its own system, so that we can bring in the staff that we need.
We have a crisis across so many industries—you are sitting there laughing. What is funny?
We live in one of the most industrious and creative countries in the world. However, we are not giving people the right opportunities to fulfil their potential.
As I mentioned during my maiden speech, I left school with no qualifications, and further education was the springboard that I needed to get back on track. Since the SNP’s coming into power, there are 140,000 fewer college places for people to train, learn and get on in their lives. Training should not be exclusively for people who are leaving school, especially as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. We are seeing a shift in many sectors, and many people—old and young—across Scotland will be contemplating where to head next and what their career will be.
My region has been hit particularly hard in recent times. Two major employers in Bishopbriggs have announced plans to relocate; 1,700 jobs are being taken away from the local area. That means that 1,700 people will have to find a job in a tough market. HarperCollins Publishers is leaving after a 50-year presence in the local area, and Aviva Insurance is moving to new offices on the other side of Glasgow.
In addition to larger businesses, numerous small and medium-sized businesses have closed their doors due to the pandemic, having waited for SNP Scottish Government help that they never got, or that they got too late to save jobs and businesses.
The west of Scotland has a huge tourism sector, which has been placed in stasis for over a year. Many places have reopened but are not yet working at full capacity. As a result, many people are still on furlough or have been made redundant.
Whether through training or support into new employment, we need to do everything that we can to upskill our workforce. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. Families on the breadline need real solutions. Those people have mortgages, bills and dependants to pay for and provide for, just as we do. People who have, sadly, lost their jobs need help, encouragement, action and confidence that their Government will give them every possible opportunity instead of throwing them on the scrap heap and pointing the finger at the UK Government or at Brexit as an excuse to wash its hands of the situation.
Questions must be asked of the Scottish Government and about its approach to education and skills in general. Its absolute failure to close the attainment gap is having compound effects on young people later in life.
I am grateful to the member for giving way. She is absolutely right to ask those questions of the Scottish Government. However, I ask a question of her: does she accept that businesses up and down Scotland are facing very real costs because of Brexit?
That is an interesting question. I have been speaking to a lot of businesses. My family owns a lot of hospitality businesses, too. We need to see Brexit as an opportunity instead of talking about going back in time. To be honest, standing here today, I have heard about borders, Brexit and immigration, but that is all a smokescreen so that the SNP can talk about an independence referendum to break away. Yes, there are problems for businesses, and we must address those. There are attainment gaps. There is a lot going on, but that is down to the SNP, which has failed over the past 15 years. I hope that we will see a lot from the SNP over the next five years, because all I heard from the member today was, “We will—”. Let us see.
I will get on with my speech.
In West Dunbartonshire, for example, the number of pupils leaving school for a positive destination fell by nearly 4 per cent in the last academic year. The SNP’s track record on the skills gap is just as distasteful as its record on pretty much everything else. The SNP spends a measly £3.8 million on individual training for people—just £200 per person. The Scottish Conservatives promised more than double that. The SNP has cut spending on innovation and industries by a whopping £66 million. To top it all off, the SNP flagship digital growth fund to boost skills in digital industries has not even paid out 20 per cent of its funding. The SNP has failed.
The SNP may scoff and sneer at the UK Government’s Turing scheme, but one cannot help but wonder: if it had a European flag instead of a union flag, would its attitude be different? The new Turing scheme will be a targeted scheme, which will be fairer and more balanced than the Erasmus programme. Leaving Erasmus will ensure that, no matter where a person is from—[
] Let me finish, please.
opportunities as everyone else.
In our manifesto, we proposed retraining solutions that would see a training and upskilling revolution take place in Scotland. Our proposals include unlimited apprenticeships for young people. Those apprenticeships would benefit the Clydebank campus of West College Scotland, which has been restricted in its ability to offer places to learn practical skills in recent years. Our proposals—
I am grateful for the opportunity to be sitting down as I give my speech today. I will begin by welcoming my colleague Richard Lochhead to his role, and I really look forward to working with him during this term of government.
During my election campaign, I had the opportunity to meet several businesses and organisations that have suffered the double whammy of Brexit and Covid. That has been compounded particularly by the area’s reliance on the fishing, farming and tourism industries. Fishing sector leaders tell me that they have witnessed the selling out, yet again, of their industry. More recently, that has also been the case for farmers, who are deeply alarmed by the selling out of the Scottish agricultural sector.
For example, it is claimed that Brexit has caused a “massive hole” in the number of people coming to the United Kingdom to pick fruit in the summer, putting growers on the brink. Stephen Taylor, the managing director of Winterwood Farms Ltd, said that the labour market has become “tighter and tighter” and that the impact of Brexit on the flow of workers to UK farms is only getting worse. He said:
“We are not talking about a few tens of thousands, we are talking hundreds of thousands of people less to work in the UK.”
Think tanks, independent research, business sector representatives and accountancy firms are all telling us what we now know: the north-east of Scotland will be the hardest hit by Brexit. We are bracing ourselves for the realities of that hard Brexit, which is only just beginning in its cause of bringing more pain and suffering to the people I represent. The Banffshire and Buchan coast sits within the captivating beauty of Aberdeenshire and Moray—a region that can easily be described as a shire with two tales to tell. It is frequently described as wealthy or affluent, but that description is far removed from the experiences of many in my constituency.
The 2020 Scottish index of multiple deprivation identifies Fraserburgh and Peterhead as being in the top 10 and 20 per cent of the most deprived areas in Scotland. That is compounded by many coastal communities facing the most difficult of times due to the pandemic and the economic consequences of Brexit.
The stark inequalities between those who have a lot and those who have little or nothing are as shameful to us as they are to visitors, who can see poverty and decline from devastating Tory-inflicted policies. When they arrive to take in the beauty of our landscape, many visitors will not be aware of the hidden deprivation that lies under the surface.
That is why I am grateful for the Scottish Government’s commitment to invest an additional £500 million to support new jobs and reskill people for the future, and for the much-needed extension to the national transition training fund. The places that were most at risk economically will struggle to bounce back, but I know that the SNP Government will ensure that we prioritise them in all that we do in providing opportunities for recovery.
The underlying resilience of our economy relies on fair work and quality jobs for all, in order to create a more equal society. However, it goes beyond that. I used the word “recovery” a lot during my campaign and I meant it, but I meant “recover to better than before”. Tackling inequalities, including gender economic inequality, and providing fair work that unlocks people’s creativity, confidence and wellbeing is our case for an economic recovery that will benefit all.
The business case for an inclusive economy is strong. It helps our businesses to innovate and grow, it helps them to compete more effectively on the world stage, and it helps to develop, attract and make the most of our talents in Scotland. There is an opportunity to build a strong national consensus around a national purpose, to learn from other small nations and to adapt lessons to Scotland’s specific circumstances, so that we enable a shift towards our wellbeing economy. We have the opportunity to be ambitious and to rethink how we invest in places and, importantly, who benefits from the investment.
The coronavirus pandemic and Brexit have exacerbated inequalities between and within our communities. I know that this might not be customary, but I want to innovate and to bring together industry experts—the people who work in their sectors every day—to plan for economic prosperity in the north-east. During the recent campaign, I pledged to form and chair a new tourism forum that is composed of businesses and other stakeholder organisations, so that we can come together and speak in a unified voice to support more jobs and investment along my coastal community.
We cannot discuss the implications of Brexit on skills without acknowledging the huge contribution that EU nationals make to our country. The fishing, farming, hospitality and health and social care sectors are reliant on them. The UK Government’s immigration system is not fit for any purpose in Scotland because, in contrast, we value and cherish our EU nationals and their decision to work here and make Scotland their home as they contribute culturally, socially and economically to our country’s prosperity.
Perhaps it is an apt time to highlight the possibilities that could come with having power over all our decisions in an independent country. We would have the opportunity to take charge of our own future. Those who say that we cannot concentrate on more than one thing at a time should perhaps drop the unionist agenda and leave the multi-tasking to us, because full economic prosperity and health and wellbeing come hand in hand with an independent Scotland.
I am pleased to speak in today’s debate on mitigating, tackling and responding to the skills impact of Brexit. I think that we can all agree that a skilled and productive workforce is vital to addressing labour market inequalities, creating fairer workplaces and delivering an inclusive, green recovery. Obviously, as a result of Brexit and the pandemic, there has been major disruption in the labour market. However, skills shortages and the availability of a skilled and sustainable workforce are deeper-rooted issues; they did not start with the recent turn of world events and their impact on Scotland.
Although the events of the past 18 months have had, and are having, a detrimental impact on jobs, and although there has been a negative impact caused by Brexit—which the Tory amendment fails even to acknowledge—it is the failure of the Scottish Government over 14 years in education and skills and its failure to put in place a joined-up strategy for jobs across all parts of Government that is at the root of the skills shortage and the problems in national workforce planning. I have made the argument before that, if we want to see a high-skill, high-wage economy, we must do more to invest in education, skills and training.
It is widely accepted that the UK suffers from a chronic shortage of engineering skills, with around 400,000 engineering roles unfilled according to the Scottish National Investment Bank. Reports also state that three quarters of Scotland’s information and communications technology employers report difficulty in finding workers with the right skillset. The Scottish Government recognises that problem, noting in the future skills action plan that a shortage of technical skills can delay the development of new products, services and technologies.
I emphasise again the failure of the Scottish Government to recognise that Scottish education is not only failing to adapt to the changing needs of our economy but fails thousands of young people in the way that it prepares them for 21st century Scotland. We must halt the decline in educational standards: teachers face burnout, class sizes are far too large and pupils are not getting access to the levels and standards of education that are required to equip them for the modern world of work.
Does the member agree that our education system has moved too far away from knowledge and that helping young people from the most deprived and challenging backgrounds to access skills requires sharing knowledge with them and making sure that they are learning something in school?
A report on curriculum for excellence is due to be published sometime soon. There is clearly an issue with curriculum for excellence, and we must review what has happened. I believe that schools are failing many children and that we must look at the curriculum, but that does not get away from the fact that Brexit is also causing major problems. It is right to raise Brexit, but, if we are serious about the long-term future of the economy, we must address the major failings in our education system.
The member has said that our schools are failing our young people. Does he regret making that comment, given that society is complex? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and other sources of information, research and data have explained how what happens outside the classroom, including poverty and other socioeconomic factors, has an impact on what happens inside the classroom.
We have a major skills gap. All my life, I have seen that people who get education, skills and opportunity can have a trade and can have certainty about their future. Most of those people will do well. The people who do worst in life are those who come through an education system that fails them, and that is happening to far too many pupils in Scotland after 14 years of an SNP Government. We must address that, and we can start to do so by being honest about the number of children in Scotland who are being let down. Teachers warn that they are overwhelmed and under pressure. We can talk about all the other skills, but children who do not have the basics will not succeed in life. That is the level of failure that we must address.
We cannot simply bring skilled workers from abroad to plug the skills gap in Scotland. That is not sustainable. On the subject of economic migration, there is again a Scottish Government failure in joined-up planning and a particular failure to put in place the basic public services that workers require, such as housing. There has also been a failure to explain the case for economic migration to the wider public.
I thank Richard Lochhead for lodging the motion for debate, and I welcome him to his new position.
I will focus on the issues in my constituency around skills shortages caused by Brexit, but I will also focus on the Scottish Government’s actions in mitigating those shortages in the next 100 days and beyond. The motion is quite right to focus on the impact that Brexit has had on our local and national economy and our skills base, and its severe impact on certain sectors.
East Lothian has traditionally had low levels of unemployment and high levels of employment. With its proximity to Edinburgh, up to 50 per cent of our working population travel into the city to work. However, East Lothian’s job density rate is lower than that of the rest of Scotland: it is about three quarters of the Scottish average. I want to attract businesses in the financial technology, life sciences and financial services sectors, among others, to locate in East Lothian, which needs a strong skills base to create more wealth and tackle poverty. We need to encourage talent from not only Scotland but the UK and Europe. This point has been mentioned previously, but Scotland needs an immigration policy that complements our economy, not one that hinders it.
East Lothian has a few key sectors, which the minister touched on earlier, and I will address the impact that Brexit is having on them. I have mentioned previously in the chamber the importance to East Lothian of the tourism and hospitality sector. The sector employs 5,000 people in East Lothian and generates £260 million for our local economy every year. However, I met VisitScotland last week and found that it is already hearing of staff shortages in the sector. Many of those from Europe who were employed in the sector have left because of the impact and uncertainty of Brexit and the EU settlement scheme, which has been mentioned in the debate. A key thing that we all need to do is raise the profile of the sector and create clear career pathways. I am encouraged to hear that Edinburgh College and Queen Margaret University are keen to engage with me on that issue in East Lothian.
On food and drink, I spoke last week about the importance of farming to our local economy in East Lothian. We have over 180 farms and thousands of people employed in the industry. Many farmers in East Lothian supply the food and drink sector, and many of them export all over the world—it is the fastest-growing sector of our economy. In last week’s debate on the Australian free trade agreement, we were assured by Finlay Carson that that was not a done deal and that Scottish farmers would be looked after. Yesterday, we heard news of a deal agreed in principle.
So, were our farmers and our food and drink sector looked after? NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy stated:
“As detail on the proposed terms of agreement around an Australian trade deal emerge, deep concerns will remain about its impact on Scotland’s farmers, crofters and our wider food and drink sector ... The cumulative impact of all such trade deals on extremely vulnerable sectors such as farming, food and drink could be hugely destructive.”
That is a damning indictment of the self-proclaimed party of business: all that for a trade deal estimated to improve gross domestic produce by 0.02 per cent at the most over the next five years. [
No. I am sorry, but I do not have enough time.
I ask the Scottish Tories: is that a price worth paying? I think not.
The EU settlement scheme is a disaster waiting to unfold this picking season, with many farms struggling to recruit. I want to work with NFUS and Scotland’s Rural College to attract new entrants into farming and the food and drink sector, which we need to make as attractive as possible. The Scottish Government must be commended for the extension of the national training fund, which has helped the tourism and hospitality sectors and will continue to do so—careers in tourism and hospitality are rewarding. The Scottish budget includes £125 million for skills and employment support, including the young persons guarantee and the national transition training fund, which I just mentioned. Those are really important. I was also glad to hear the announcement about the continued support for tourism, leisure and hospitality.
That funding is alongside an additional £230 million for Skills Development Scotland. I will have a meeting with SDS tomorrow, to look at how we can target investment into our tourism and food and drink industries. We also need to address issues that have been raised in briefings regarding the construction and social care sectors. Again, clear career pathways with complementary skills networks are key to success.
The Scottish Government is working in collaboration with colleges and universities to create 5,000 industry-focused courses and is working with SDS with an additional investment of £230 million to create new training opportunities and mitigate the skills shortages that are caused by Brexit. It is working with employers on the young persons guarantee and it is providing an additional £45 million to support local partnerships to ensure that no young person is left behind.
Time after time, the Scottish Government has to mitigate Tory policies that damage my constituency and Scotland. It is clear beyond any doubt that the only way to protect Scotland’s interests, its businesses and its place in Europe is for us to become an independent country.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The member did not take an intervention during his speech. I acknowledge that it is technically impossible, if a member is remote and being broadcast into the chamber, to intervene on a speech, but is it in order for a member to give a speech from an office in the Parliament building when there are so many empty spaces in the chamber? That does not facilitate the debate that we intended to have.
My first speech as an MSP, five years ago, was about Brexit and my first speech in this session is about Brexit. The difference this time is that Brexit has happened. Some of us have moved on from that, but the SNP has not.
The title of the debate is negative and the contributions from the SNP have matched that tone. For a party that is built on division and grievance to stage this debate takes quite a collective brass neck. We are having the debate against a backdrop of an economic calamity that has been caused not by Brexit but by Covid, and we do not know how it is going to play out. The signs are that the UK economy could come back very well, but responding to Covid is the biggest challenge that employers face right now. At least the Government motion mentions that.
On the UK bounce back, the unemployment rate has been falling and the employment rate rising, but to listen to some of today’s speakers, one would think that it is impossible for anyone to come to Britain to work. EU citizens who are already here could apply to stay under the EU settlement scheme, and should have done so, and there is a host of other visas and work permits that are open to the world. We have the skilled worker visa, the health and care worker visa, the temporary seasonal worker visa, the youth mobility scheme visa, the global talent visa and the frontier worker permit—Britain is not closed.
The member is right about those issues, but why are people choosing not to come here? It is because they have other countries that they can choose to go to that are much easier to get into. If we are trying to compete to get the best people to come here, we should make it as easy as possible, which was the situation when we were members of the European Union.
I have just outlined a host of ways in which people can come here. They are welcome to come here and Mr Rennie should recognise that fact. Net migration from non-EU countries has risen to its highest level for 45 years.
For the year ending March 2020, an estimated 316,000 more non-EU citizens came to the UK than left; the figure for EU citizens was 58,000.
I was interested to read a paper from the Construction Industry Training Board. Its research shows that 8 per cent of the construction workforce in Scotland was born outside of the UK and that 23 per cent of construction companies that operate in Scotland employ non-UK-born workers. The CITB says that the dependence of employers in Scotland on migrant workers is low—its words—and that only 3 per cent of employers that operate in Scotland feel dependent on migrant workers.
Most construction industry employers that operate here do not expect the introduction of the points-based immigration system to have an impact on their company. Of those that employ migrant workers, 91 per cent do not expect the number of non-UK workers that they employ to change over the next 12 months. That is what they have told us.
That is not to say that there are not challenges. As Willie Rennie said, it is not a black and white issue. I have been speaking to hauliers, too. There is a shortage of lorry drivers, which the UK Government could help to address by relaxing some of the rules—we have to be honest about that. However, with well-paid jobs such as a lorry driver, I have to ask why we cannot train enough of our people to do it and get youngsters interested. The skills gap in the haulage sector has existed for a while and cannot be blamed solely on the UK leaving the EU.
Age Scotland has highlighted the number of vacancies in the care sector, although those figures are quite out of date, given that we have been through the pandemic in the meantime. I suspect that, whatever the current figure is, it will have more to do with the pandemic than with anything else. However, it is a challenge to fill vacancies in that vital sector, and it has been for a long time. That is where our amendment comes in, as it talks about the need to create more apprenticeships, to reverse the trend of decreasing college student numbers that has occurred under the Scottish Government, to set out plans for a return to in-person small-group learning in higher and further education, and to introduce individual learning accounts, as called for by the Confederation of British Industry Scotland.
The Government needs to concentrate less on trying to score cheap political points and more on filling the skills gaps that we have had for years, which is something that should unite us all. All parties will have ideas, and Mr Lochhead should be reaching out rather than trying to stoke grievance.
My biggest fear is not Brexit, which I see as a land of opportunity; it is that we will have a large group of young people left behind because of Covid. The unemployment figures do not tell the full story. Many thousands of people do not show up in the figures. Those people are not claiming benefits; they are just waiting, often in desperation, for things to open up again. Let us give them the hope that they deserve.
I very much welcome this timely debate. I must start with the declaration of an historical interest. In late 2017 and early 2018, I was a co-author of two reports on Brexit and Scottish business that drew attention to the prospect of a hard Brexit having significant implications for skills availability. Brexit has been harder than was anticipated by any of the over 200 business leaders with whom I engaged. It is fair to say that none of the business leaders anticipated the attitude of the UK Government would be characterised by an
“eff business” approach. As a direct consequence, Scotland’s skills challenge is even greater than expected.
I agree completely with the motion when it stresses the challenge to our labour market from the utter madness of the Tory Brexit. Skills shortages are increasing. Ending free movement is hugely damaging. We face a future filled with uncertainty, and the disruption to international trade raises huge questions for business. So one thing is clear—[
I shall not give way. For the record, Presiding Officer, I have noticed a huge difference between this Parliament and Westminster in that the vast majority of members here engage in substantive debate, whereas Westminster is characterised by barrack-room lawyers—hence my refusal to give way.
One thing is clear: the labour market that we need to prepare for is not the labour market of pre-Brexit and pre-pandemic Scotland. Thankfully, the Scottish Government has not been standing idly by and has commissioned a range of work. In this speech, I will reference the Higgins report and the Cumberford-Little report, both of which give a clear sense of what is needed if we are to have the skills to meet the challenges of the future.
The Cumberford-Little report, “One Tertiary System: Agile, Collaborative, Inclusive”, makes a telling observation when it states:
“we must insist on excellence rather than competence within the content, assessment, and currency of technical and professional qualifications.”
That is a welcome call from an excellent Government-commissioned report.
The call for a focus on excellence is mirrored in other quarters—for example, in the Higgins report, “Towards a robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland”, which gives considerable prominence to the importance of skills development in building a sustainable future. Of particular interest is its emphasis on ensuring the provision of high-quality skills that effectively reflect real-world business and economic needs. For example, it raises an issue of business concern in the following terms:
“Many apprenticeships have high value in the labour market, but this depends on their quality ... Expanding the number of apprenticeships in this period of depressed economic activity will be challenging. Generating new apprenticeships that are not of high quality will undermine the reputation and value of apprenticeships.”
Therefore, as such reports make clear, putting quality at the heart of skills development is of fundamental importance.
I hasten to add, however, that I wholly appreciate the competing demands and complexities that the Scottish Government faces. It is right to have a concern for short-term challenges, particularly for young people, given the potential that exists for serious long-term damage to be done to individual figures and the economy, but our concerns regarding the wider economy, business and young people are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly rational to have short, medium and long-term ambitions for the skills sector, where issues of excellence and quality are one of the golden threads.
From a business and economy standpoint, the Government has also undertaken a great deal of work in recent times to develop effective policy frameworks that set a clear international context for our needs. Excellent work that was led by Ivan McKee in producing “Scotland: a trading nation” identified 15 priority 1 countries and 11 priority 2 countries for our exporting ambitions. Separately from that, the office of the chief economic adviser to the Scottish Government conducted a competitor analysis across 66 goods sectors and 19 service sectors, using data from more than 100 countries. That formidable piece of work identified eight key competitor countries for Scotland.
There is a tie-up there. Remarkably, seven countries are priority 1 countries and also our key competitors. I will not list all those countries, but research shows that they have a very high commitment to skills development to international standards. Therefore, I ask the minister whether there might be a case in the future for looking at international skills benchmarking with such countries.
The work that the Scottish Government has done in commissioning external research and undertaking its own research is to be commended. As we move forward, the Scottish Government will have my full support as it faces the complex and developing skills challenges.
This is a crucial debate for us. We need to make sure that the Covid pandemic and the fallout from it do not mask the skills crisis that Scotland was already facing. As the SNP Government’s motion acknowledges,
“a skilled and productive workforce is vital to addressing labour market inequalities, creating fairer workplaces and delivering an inclusive, green recovery”, but those warm words have not yet translated into Government action with tangible outcomes.
As a result of the pandemic, the Scottish Government has received additional consequentials from the UK Government. The Scottish Parliament is one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world, but we face a skills crisis and a jobs crisis—which have, of course, been exacerbated by Brexit—that need to be tackled. Therefore, we need to make sure that the additional consequentials are invested wisely. We need to create a system for reskilling that works for Scotland and pushes the boundaries of what is possible. In the process, real leadership must be shown so that we can address the inequalities and skills shortages that predated Covid.
It must be made clear that the crisis that we are talking about is a Scottish crisis. Over the past 14 years in Scotland, there has been a steady decline in employees receiving job-related training. People who are already in employment—especially those who are on low incomes—need access to training. I will come back to that point. One of the most striking issues to be raised in the excellent briefing that members received from Edinburgh College last week was the number of people in Edinburgh who are in low-paid employment who need access to skills and decent training.? To deliver on that urgent training requirement, our colleges need more funding. I hope that ministers will respond to that point.
It has been revealed that the SNP’s national transition training fund has had an unacceptably low uptake. Leadership means accepting it when things have failed, going back to the drawing board and starting again. The motion welcomes the extension of the fund to 2021-22 and the commitment to invest an additional £500 million in the current session of Parliament, but we need to know what lessons have been learned from what did not work previously. We need to know how success will be measured and, if success is not delivered, how the scheme and the £500 million will deliver the change that we need. I would like to hear a specific comment on that.
The national transition training fund was designed with the expectation of a significant upturn in unemployment, but that did not transpire. I presume that we all agree that that is a good thing. However, I ask Sarah Boyack to reflect on the fact that, even in those circumstances, it supported 6,000 people in phase 1.
Yes, but we need to do more to accelerate this. The points that
Alex Rowley made about the social and educational inequalities that hold people back were right. We need access, and I would like the minister to think about free training opportunities for people on low incomes and precarious or short-term contracts.
How will people be supported to get access to those opportunities and develop their skills, for example in the care sector, which several members have mentioned? We need to make sure that, if training will involve time off work, financial support is available to fill the gap of the missing hours, or uptake will be low. What impact do caring and childcare responsibilities have in preventing women in particular from accessing opportunities?
Scottish Labour has repeatedly raised the issue in relation to the principle of a national care service. Far too many people in the care sector are paid low wages and do not have opportunities to develop their skills or progress professionally, so the sector is not attractive to them as a long-term option. That is why we want nationally negotiated terms and conditions, and training needs to be linked in to that. I want the importance of training in the care sector to be highlighted, because it is becoming more and more vital. We need to recruit more people but also to retain them.
The Scottish Government’s ambitions need to be matched by real goals so that we can identify how they relate to people’s working experience. We also need to think about the job losses that have occurred during the pandemic, which have particularly hit women who have lost employment as they have had to home school or act as carers.
There are some opportunities here. In North Ayrshire and through the work of our UK colleagues in Preston, procurement has been used in such a way that apprenticeship and training opportunities have been created. I would like the minister to address that in his closing remarks.
Members throughout the chamber have mentioned specific sectors that have been hit by Brexit as well as by the pandemic. More needs to be done in those areas to support people to stay in employment and keep businesses going.
Paul Sweeney made some important points about flexible visas, which are also mentioned in our amendment. When Scottish Labour was in power, the fresh talent initiative made a huge difference to our economy. It enabled people to seek employment here after graduation and to switch into work permit employment or other legal migration routes that they qualified for. There was also a scholarship scheme for overseas graduates that enabled them to combine postgraduate study with a year of work experience. That is a good example of how we negotiated vital changes with our UK colleagues to meet our country’s needs at the time.
Something that has come across in this debate is the need for the SNP Government to work constructively to make more demands on the UK Government, but it is also important for the Scottish Conservative members of this Parliament to advocate change for Scotland within their party. As Graham Simpson said, different visas are on offer, but they simply do not meet the needs of the employees that we need in Scotland now.
I want to finish with a point about Edinburgh—
—because we have a particular issue regarding the festivals. I want to know what the Scottish Government is going to do to support people in the city to get access to training, because we are losing huge numbers of jobs due to the pandemic. We are also losing out in retail, and we need urgent action to target those industries.
As other members have done, I welcome Richard Lochhead to his new role, and I also welcome the expression of priorities in his motion. Although the Scottish Government might once have placed all the emphasis on narrow ideas such as economic growth, it is good that the motion prioritises addressing inequality, “creating fairer workplaces” and “an inclusive, green recovery”.
The Government has taken some criticism for even bringing a motion that acknowledges the direct harm from Brexit, but it is absolutely necessary to identify and name the problem, however uncomfortable the Conservatives are about taking responsibility for what they have done.
Although we oppose the Conservatives’ amendment, I acknowledge that they are not all enthusiasts for Brexit like Mr Mundell; others are merely apologists for it. Some of the Conservative speeches today were vaguely coherent, but none appeared to take responsibility for the profound harm that Brexit has done; nor did they acknowledge that pro-independence parties were returned with a strengthened mandate in the election just six weeks ago, so their concern about needless disruption to the labour market can hardly be taken seriously.
The Conservatives’ position is that disruption arising from their anti-European obsession is just fine, even when 62 per cent of the people voted against it. Yet, at the same time, even considering asking the people about independence is somehow intolerable disruption. There is not the slightest hint of consistency in that position. Mr Mundell’s threat of a hard border at Gretna is just one more reminder that it is the Conservatives who seek hard borders, because they want borders to be things that divide and control people, rather than free and open places where people can meet and mix as they wish.
The Greens certainly have common ground with much of the Labour amendment, from the need for wider trade union recognition to stronger action to improve standards of living, and we will vote for it at decision time. I know that Paul Sweeney wants to see deep changes to the UK Government’s immigration system, but I wonder whether he really thinks that years—even decades—of anti-immigrant policy from successive UK Governments will disappear if we just ask for humane immigration policies. If the UK Government was remotely interested in ending its anti-immigrant stance, we could work together to achieve a lot of what Paul Sweeney seeks, but I do not think that Mr Sweeney imagines that Priti Patel would even pick up the phone to discuss that.
Ross Greer set out clearly what a fundamental betrayal of EU citizens the EU settlement scheme represents. I hope that Stephen Kerr now has some understanding of the harmful impact that his Government has had on EU citizens in Scotland and throughout the UK. Ross Greer also mentioned other issues that were raised in the Green amendment that was not selected for debate. At the moment, there is ambiguity from the Scottish Government on the idea of a physical token in relation to the EU settled status scheme. When we raised it before the election, the Scottish Government appeared to be generally sceptical about the idea, but its manifesto subsequently opened the door to that policy. I am still unclear whether it will proceed, and, surely, that decision should have been taken by now.
EU citizens in Scotland make a critical contribution to our society, especially in sectors that suffer from widespread job insecurity, low pay and poor working conditions, as multiple speakers have recognised. We seek action to fix those long-standing problems, not only because so many people’s work is vital to our wellbeing as a society, but because nobody should be expected to live with exploitative working conditions.
The cabinet secretary responded to a challenge from Daniel Johnson on that issue by saying that sectors such as hospitality also offer positive opportunities. However, that risks implying that we should give undiscriminating support to employers, regardless of how they treat their workers. We need to address individual abuses—such as those suffered by staff at the Glasgow bars AdLib and Blue Dog, who are owed hundreds of thousands of pounds in unpaid furlough—but we also need a systemic approach. That requires determination from Government to intervene in order to raise standards across sectors such as hospitality, retail, social care and further and higher education, because those abusive and exploitative conditions are at least as much of a problem in recruitment as are any of the other factors that members have discussed today.
People are clearly suffering because of Brexit and because of the deliberate policy choices of the UK Government, but they are also suffering because of their treatment by employers. Because all employers are now dependent on state intervention in the Covid recovery, there is an unprecedented opportunity for the state to clearly set the conditions for that support, in order to raise standards. If we want an economic recovery that works for everyone, it is vital that we do not miss that opportunity.
There was an important debate to be had today about the future economy. There is a challenge. Many people have recognised that, as much as Covid presents us with challenges, it has accelerated many factors that were present in the economy before.
We have to embrace a knowledge economy that is grounded in skills, but, critically, we also have to focus on productivity based on investment. Ultimately, today’s economy is global; it does not recognise borders. Those who seek to construct borders are trying to push water uphill. However, we have not debated that today. It seems that we have had parallel debates, with two parties of government speaking from parallel universes—both have been on an entirely different planet.
I find myself, not for the first time, in active agreement with Willie Rennie. We have had a debate in which two parties have tried to present things as black and white, but they quite simply are not so.
I say politely to the Scottish Government that it has to recognise the context in which we entered Brexit—it was not one without any issues whatsoever. A characterisation of the economy that I read discussed high unemployment but low productivity, low-quality jobs, a need for increased research and development, shortages and mismatches in the labour environment, and a hollowing out of the labour market. Those things were not stated in some random report, but in Benny Higgins’s report on the future of the economy. They were stated very clearly on an explanatory page. Those were the issues that the Scottish economy faced, and those are the issues that the Scottish Government should have been tackling over the past 14 years. Quite simply, it cannot escape the legacy of its own policy decisions.
Equally, the Conservatives have to face up to the fact that Brexit causes costs: businesses face challenges and there is a shortage in the labour market. Those are simple and unarguable facts. We were in the European Union for decades. [
.] I will take an intervention in a moment.
The single market was created in 1992. From that point, we benefited from the free movement of goods, people and capital, on which businesses came to depend. Costs are created when we break up such a union and put up a border, and businesses cannot simply switch overnight. That is the fundamental reality that is being faced in the economy, and that is why we have skills issues.
Daniel Johnson has made a strong point about the disruption of Brexit and the changes that are effected by it. Does he accept that there are costs and opportunities, that we should have confidence in Scotland’s producers, exporters, businesses and entrepreneurs and that we can go into the world and sell more than we have sold in the past?
I keep hearing about those opportunities, but I seldom hear them defined, let alone quantified. [
.] I am afraid that I will not give way. Until that happens, I will struggle to take a word that is said about such opportunities seriously, let alone acknowledge them.
I will gladly look at the removal of tariffs. However, on trade deals that amount to little more than 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product, we will see in a single year— in the first year of the deal—beef exports from Australia to the UK quadruple in comparison with what Australia was able to export to the EU as a whole. I am very sorry, but—[
] If Mr Kerr would like to intervene again to define and quantify an opportunity, I would be happy for him to do so, but I suspect that he is remaining in a sedentary position for a very good reason.
I am grateful for that intervention.
We must talk about how we address the long-term skills needs. Fundamentally, it is about people and skills, and investment in and support of enterprise and industry.
It seems to me that the Scottish Government has overly relied on the national transition training fund and has simply restated figures around modern apprenticeships. We welcome the apprenticeships and the support, but the Government has to acknowledge that the national transition fund has fallen well short of what it was set up to do. Apprenticeship starts are 20 per cent down on where they were in quarter 4 of last year. Quite simply, young people deserve better because we know that they will be the hardest hit in any downturn. They were the hardest hit in the 2008 financial crash, when youth unemployment almost doubled, and we have seen 15,000 more young people become unemployed in the past year.
However, we must also see better investment and support, because there is an over-focus on skills. Unless we have investment in productivity and in plant and equipment, we will simply continue to be reliant on the low-wage, low-value jobs about which a number of members—in particular, Paul Sweeney and Ross Greer—set out their concerns.
I will do. It is important that we look at the sustainability of the economy, so that we do not rely on low-wage migrant labour. It is important that we have a high-wage, high-productivity economy. That is what Scotland deserves.
I am sorry not to be in the chamber in person, but it is nevertheless a great pleasure to be speaking in my first debate of the new session, after having listened to so many excellent contributions from new MSPs from all parties over the past few weeks.
However, it is somewhat depressing that, although we might be in a new session of Parliament, this afternoon the SNP appears to be restating many of the same tired arguments about Brexit that it made in the previous session.
No one denies that skills should be at the forefront of policy making right now, given the issues that many businesses face with job vacancies. I am making this speech from the Highlands, where the hospitality industry depends on a skilled workforce and is bearing the brunt of over a year of disruption because of the pandemic.
However, let us be in no doubt that the wide panoply of problems that exist did not suddenly begin on 23 June 2016, when the Brexit vote occurred, nor did they begin when we left the EU and formalised a new relationship with our European friends at the start of this year. There have been long-standing challenges in skills in Scotland for many years, and the Covid pandemic has exposed and accentuated many of those issues. This is less about Brexit and much more about the frankly dire record of the SNP in Government over the past 14 years.
As others have said, it is a shame that the Scottish Government has not taken a more positive approach to this debate. We should be debating how we reskill and upskill people in Scotland, especially in light of Covid. We should be debating economic recovery for our communities. We should be debating how to restore Scotland and how we concentrate on people’s everyday priorities. Instead, today the Government is yet again trying to blame Brexit for issues that are very much of its own making.
Graham Simpson said today that there are, indeed, challenges now, but the key to solving them is filling the skills gap, which is something that we all need to contribute to in terms of policy work. Covid-19 has starkly highlighted the increasing skills gap that already existed in Scotland. It is not a new problem but a consequence of years of failing to make significant investment in crucial areas. For instance, we know that the Scottish Government spent only £3.8 million on individual training accounts last year, which were worth just £200 each. Fewer than 20,000 people have successfully applied for them, and the SNP has set a target of only 28,000 for this year. Quite simply, that lacks any ambition at all. We also know that the Government has cut funding for innovation by £66 million since 2019 and that it failed to pay out more than 80 per cent of its digital growth fund, which was designed specifically to boost digital skills training—to repeat, a staggering 80 per cent of that fund went unused.
In education in general, closing the attainment gap would mean that more young people from the poorest backgrounds would be able to access high-quality further and higher education places. That is critical to ensuring that we have a strong domestic workforce that is able to meet the needs of emerging businesses in high-skill sectors. However, we know that the attainment gap has not narrowed in the past few years. In fact, in some cases, it has been growing. Between 2017-19 and 2018-19, the expected gap in the standard of literacy between S3 pupils in the most deprived areas and those in the least deprived areas increased.
It is particularly disappointing that the SNP has committed only £20 million to education catch-up. That is a far cry from our call for £85 million to be spent on a national tutoring programme to help children to catch up with learning following the disruption that has been caused by the pandemic. All of that and more points to a Scottish Government that is happy to deflect from its failings in developing the skills of our working population and young people rather than focusing on delivery.
I will turn to immigration. I stood in Argyll and Bute in the recent election. Predicted depopulation in that constituency in the coming 20 years is very stark and hugely worrying. However, just as the causes of that are far more about the Scottish Government’s decade-long failure to revitalise the local economy and improve connectivity, housing and job creation, so the solutions are increasing investment, improving the road network and helping local business. That has nothing to do with immigration or Brexit and everything to do with economic recovery.
We, in the Conservative Party, value the hard work of those who have come to live, work and raise a family in Scotland. We welcome the fact that more than 260,000 EU citizens have applied for settled status in Scotland, with more than 5 million EU citizens applying across the UK. I join others in calling on anyone who has not yet applied for settled status to do so before the 30 June deadline.
Equally, the Scottish Conservatives welcome those people who come from all over the world to Scotland and want to contribute to our society. At the same time, however, it is important to have an immigration system and process that is fair and robust, and we also support the points-based system as a means of delivering that. It is a system that was once supported by the SNP in its 2014 white paper on independence.
We also believe that it is critical that we continue to have a UK-wide immigration system that recognises where skills gaps exist and looks to close them. To answer Richard Lochhead’s question about the devolution of powers over immigration, we need look no further than the view of leading organisations such as Scottish Chambers of Commerce, which said that it does not
“believe that devolution of immigration powers to Scotland is necessary to achieve a business solution to migration targets”.
CBI Scotland also noted
“the importance of maintaining a single UK-wide immigration policy that gives Scottish businesses the flexibility they need to attract talent.”
It is critical that we have an immigration policy that works and acts to complement a reskilled and upskilled domestic working population. That is why the UK Government should be commended for recognising the need to offer young people more opportunities to retrain and reskill. It is also why the Scottish Conservatives have called for a retrain-to-rebuild scheme that would be worth £500 every year to every single adult in Scotland, and for unlimited apprenticeship opportunities for Scotland’s young people. Those proposals would be life changing for many, and we call on the Scottish Government to implement them.
The Scottish Conservatives want the next five years to be more than a rerun of the past five years. The SNP spent that time obsessing over the constitution rather than getting on with the day job. As a result, the skills gap has grown, the attainment gap has widened and the SNP is failing the people of Scotland. As Oliver Mundell said during his opening speech, the people of Scotland deserve better. The Scottish Conservatives have bold ideas for taking our country forward, and we want to work with others to ensure that Scotland recovers from the pandemic and that we reboot our economy in a way that rewards hard-working people. That is our driving aim, and I encourage the Parliament to support our amendment tonight.
Mr Lochhead and I lodged the motion for debate in a spirit of optimism. Sadly, that optimism came crashing to the rocks during the debate.
It is interesting that Donald Cameron said that today should have been an opportunity to discuss how we will reskill Scotland’s population. That was the purpose of today’s debate. That is the very reason why we lodged our motion for debate today.
In that regard, I agree with the point that was made by Sarah Boyack and Daniel Johnson about the criticality and importance of these issues. I readily concede that not all of the challenges that we face are as a consequence of Brexit—indeed, I would say that our motion also concedes that. Some of them are of long standing, and we have sought to respond. However, the idea that Brexit has had no consequences for the skills base of Scotland’s population or impact on our economy or society is a non-starter.
I will give way to Mr Kerr in a second, because he certainly said some things that I want to respond to—I assure Mr Kerr of that fact.
There are parts of Mr Mundell’s amendment that I have no problem with. For example, I have no problem with the idea of creating more apprenticeships, which we have sought to do year on year, although there have, of course, been some challenges over the past year. However, his amendment cannot be held to be a serious contribution to a debate about the impact of Brexit when it removes, as it seems to, any reference to the consequences for businesses across Scotland—a point that was made by Mr Rowley.
Truthfully, we all wanted to have a substantive debate on skills this afternoon. However, from the minister’s opening speech, it has been a litany of Brexit this and Brexit that. When I intervened and asked a question about the number of modern apprenticeship starts in Scotland quarter on quarter—on which I gave the minister the numbers—it was pooh-poohed and dismissed. I want to understand what is going on in our modern apprenticeship programme and what ministers are going to do to stimulate more modern apprenticeships.
Mr Kerr wants numbers, and I am happy to give him numbers. In 2015-16, we delivered 25,818 modern apprenticeships against a 26,500 target. In 2016-17, we delivered 26,262 modern apprenticeships against a 26,000 target. In 2017-18, we delivered 27,145 modern apprenticeships against a 27,000 target. In 2018-19, we delivered 28,191 modern apprenticeships against a 28,000 target. In 2019-20, we delivered 29,035 modern apprenticeships against a 29,000 target.
That suggests to me that a year-on-year reduction in apprenticeship numbers— as I heard from Mr Kerr— does not stand up to scrutiny. It is fundamentally inaccurate—[
.] He wants more figures—I am happy to give him more figures. In the same period in England, we saw 285,300 apprenticeship starts in 2015-16. Over that same period, by 2019-20, we saw 171,600 starts, which is a reduction of nearly 114,000 starts. I will therefore take no lessons from Mr Kerr and the Tories on the administration of apprenticeships in Scotland.
I am happy to confirm that we will support Mr Sweeney’s amendment. I agree with the broad thrust of what it lays out. However, as people will have sensed, I take some issue with what it terms the
“disappointingly low uptake of the National Transition Training Fund”, which Sarah Boyack also reflected on. I again make the point that the fund was designed primarily to respond to an upturn in unemployment that we had expected to see but which we have not seen. I would imagine that we would all think that that is a good and welcome thing. Nonetheless, in the past year, 6,330 people were supported by that fund and, indeed, the delivery of some of that fund continues through colleges and universities. However, I will not quibble over that minor form of words when we agree with the essence of the amendment, which we will support. We have, of course, also committed £20 million to the fund in the coming year.
Pam Gosal mentioned the Turing scheme and suggested that we would somehow be in love with it if it was branded with the EU flag as opposed to the union flag. We might have appreciated it more if it was a scheme that matched the breadth and scope of Erasmus+ rather than guaranteeing funding only for one year, having no provision for inward mobility to the UK and, critically—this is the important point—offering no support at all for adult education and youth work. Youth clubs and adult learners are cut out of the equation when it comes to the Turing scheme, which reinforces historical inequalities and shows a worrying value judgment as to who the Tories consider deserve the opportunity to experience international exchanges. So much for the Tories’ concern about the attainment gap.
Ross Greer made a valuable contribution, and I agree with the fundamental points that he made about the uncertainty that EU nationals face. In the context of today’s debate, it is important that we send a clear message to EU nationals in Scotland—those who have chosen to make Scotland their home—that they are welcome and we want them to stay here. It is also important that we remind them of the looming deadline for applications to the EU settlement scheme and of the necessity of applying to that scheme, as laid out by the UK Government. We do not think that they should have to do so, but we need to make EU nationals aware of the application deadline.
In his amendment, Paul Sweeney mentions the fresh talent initiative. That initiative was not without merit—indeed, I think that we, as a party, welcomed it at the time—but I am sure that Paul Sweeney would agree that the context in which it was delivered was rather different from the current one. Through our moving to Scotland programme, we will be providing information and advice in order to create a talent attraction service to encourage the workers we need to Scotland.
The impact of Brexit on our economy and our society is serious, and it requires a serious response, as does the question of how we ensure that our population has a skill set to respond and adapt to the times that we are in. We are willing to engage with others, including colleges, universities, training providers and employers, to get that right. We are also willing to engage with others in the Parliament. However, I do not think that today’s debate has been a proper reflection of the necessity to engage with serious intent. I reiterate the offer to every party in the chamber to work with us towards that end.