Text of speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
Highlands and Islands Enterprise
18 January 2017
“It has never been more important than today that all the country’s resources should be fully exploited, and the Highlands”
“have much to contribute. This is not a case of giving to the Highlands. This is a case of giving the Highlands a chance to play their ... part in the future of Britain.”
—[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1965; Vol 708, c 1086.]
Those are the words of the iconic Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, speaking in the House of Commons during the second reading of the Highland Development (Scotland) Bill, which set up the groundbreaking Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965.
The HIDB was set up with operational freedom—unshackled by ministerial direction—and with combined economic and social development tools.
In 1991, HIE took the HIDB’s place, and both Conservative secretaries of state—Rifkind and Lang—kept those principles alive in the new body.
Professor Jim Hunter, an ex-chair of HIE and an SNP supporter, has been quoted already today. In December 2016, he said in The Press and Journal:
“The Scottish Government’s decision to deprive Highlands and Islands Enterprise of its own board is no bolt from the blue—it is the culmination of repeated moves by SNP Ministers to rein in and now end the independence of the north’s development agency.”
In my view, it is crucial that we keep the HIE board, fight creeping centralisation and give HIE the strategic direction to devise and formulate its own priority initiatives, keeping faith with the spirit of Willie Ross’s passionate address in the Commons in March 1965.
The big question today is why abolish HIE’s board. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Where is the stampede of local people and organisations building the barricades to demand change?
I ask the cabinet secretary to name them.
Hands up how many back-bench SNP members for the Highlands and Islands want this move?
How will HIE’s unique social function be protected?
Where is the evidence of duplication? Who will employ the HIE staff?
Who will appoint the HIE chief executive—the HIE board or the superquango?
Will the changes require fresh legislation, which might well be defeated, or will the cabinet secretary sneak through a so-called Henry VIII order using powers in part 2 of the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010?
I looked at that procedure earlier. Members will be aware that it goes back to the statute of proclamations in 1539, which gave Henry VIII the power to make statute by proclamation.
Clearly, the cabinet secretary has been taking some history lessons over the past few days.
Who will chair the superboard?
Who will be the members?
I will be happy to supply a free map of the Highlands and Islands to successful applicants if required.
I thank the Scottish Conservatives for their positive initiative in securing this debate.
Those words are not often heard from this part of the chamber, which reinforces the point that cross-party consensus exists on the issue.
The SNP faces almost universal criticism in the Highlands and Islands for its centralisation agenda, with opposition from the Lib Dems, the Greens, the Tories, Labour and—we should not forget—Highland Council as well.
In the SNP’s ranks, it has caused discomfort on the back benches, and spies tell me that members of the SNP group at Westminster are muttering into their beer in the strangers bar because of the lack of consultation from SNP high command over the abolition of the board.
Tonight, there is a chance for democracy to strike back.
All that we need is the will to do and the soul to dare.