Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
18 January 2017
I welcome the debate and I support the motion.
The Highlands and Islands Development Board and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have, between them, more than 50 years of proven economic and social success. Why would anyone want to dismantle that? Despite how the Scottish National Party Government wriggles and recants, that is exactly what it is trying to do. John Swinney’s announcement of the end of the HIE board was met with anger and disbelief in the Highlands and Islands.
Will the member take an intervention?
Let me make some progress.
In response, Keith Brown tried to appease by saying that he expects there to be strong Highland representation on the new single board. He also told me that there was no commitment to a single geographical headquarters for the new board. Does that mean that the Government has not decided where the new board will be located or maybe that it will not have a base at all?
The more digging we do, the more it seems clear that the SNP is making it up as it goes along. Its only aim is centralisation and a power grab that ignores the needs of the Highlands and Islands. The SNP now wants to take away the very essence of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, whose roots are firmly based in the region, and to make it subject to a board that covers not only enterprise but education and skills.
Does the member accept that only phase 1 of the review has been published and that the reason why we do not have all the details is that we await phase 2? Does she also accept that she voted for the Government’s motion welcoming the publication of phase 1, which stated that a statutory board would be created?
Rhoda Grant :
We know now that the board of HIE is going to be dismantled, which we did not know at the time of that vote.
The announcement of that proposal was sneaked out in answer to a different question.
We did not have that information and we actually gave the Government the benefit of the doubt—we will maybe learn from that.
When the Highlands and Islands Development Board was founded in 1965, its main remit was to stem population decline from the north-west Highlands and the islands and at the same time enhance the way in which the economic and social needs of the whole area were met.
Most people, including the cabinet secretary, agree that it has been a success.
At the last count, the population had increased by 20 per cent.
However, that is not to say that the job is done. Many parts of the region still face challenges that are as great as those in 1965 and we need to redouble our efforts to meet the demands of and challenges facing those communities.
That is where HIE’s social remit comes in and why we have lodged our amendment.
HIE has used its funding and knowledge to support businesses that would not have been supported elsewhere in order to strengthen communities and ensure that people have access to services.
It has supported businesses such as pubs and petrol pumps that would never be supported in other parts of Scotland.
Our amendment seeks to emphasise that point.
We have seen economic development over the past decades, but it has decreased over the past few years due to budget cuts.
Communities of course complain that they cannot get the help from HIE that they once did.
They want HIE to have its own distinct board and the ability that it once had to grow their local economies.
The Scottish Government’s approach should not be a surprise, as it has a track record on centralisation.
In the Highlands and Islands, we once had our own police force, governed by a joint board that was made up of locally elected representatives, but the Government centralised that; it did the same with the fire service in the Highlands and Islands, which is now centralised.
All that has had disastrous results for service delivery.
This time, it is HIE. What next?
The Scottish Government must recognise that it has no support for the plan.
The Government cannot tell us who supports scrapping the HIE board, but I can give a lengthy list of those who totally oppose it.
For example, Dr Stephen Clackson from Orkney Islands Council told me:
“Before long, with a single police force, single ambulance service, single fire and rescue service etc, this country will have come to resemble a large English county. The SNP will have transformed Scotland into Scotshire!”
How ironic that, as Donald Cameron said, the HIDB was set up by a UK Government in Westminster and is now being dismantled by a Scottish Government in Edinburgh.
That was not the aim of devolution.
Regardless of what the Scottish Government says, the move is taking powers from the Highlands and Islands and centralising them.
Power over how an organisation spends its budget is the crux of decision making, and the new board will retain power simply by being able to open and shut the funding tap.
We must make a stand to save not just the HIE board but the very essence of HIE, and to demand the re-empowering of an organisation that has made a real difference to the economy of the Highlands and Islands.
I make a direct plea to SNP MSPs for the Highlands and Islands: they might have been put up for election by the SNP, but they were elected by their constituents—do not let them down at decision time tonight.
I move amendment S5M-03438.1, to insert at end:
“, and recognises the impact that the Scottish Government’s plans for centralisation will have on HIE’s unique social remit.”