Speech to Scottish Conservative Spring Conference
I welcome this opportunity to join with fellow Conservatives as the only party that stands for a low tax, low regulation regime, and the commitment to actually deliver a better transport system.
I believe, like you, that Scotland has the potential to be a dynamic and competitive economy, worthy of its historical reputation as a nation rich in ideas with an innovative and creative people. Given the right environment our businesses have the potential to increase our economic growth that has been so stagnant in comparison to the rest of the UK since 1997.
Unlike the other political parties in Scotland, the Scottish Conservatives have consistently argued for a pro-enterprise agenda by cutting business rates and investing an additional 100 million pounds in our transport infrastructure. I believe that these two policies will have the greatest impact on Scotland's economic growth to the benefit of all businesses.
I do not find it acceptable that Scotland can suffer a recession while the UK economy remains stable and that business rates can be almost 9% lower in England and 9.4% lower in Wales. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have proved that they do not understand how to create a dynamic and competitive economy.
It is also clear that there is not one single tangible policy that the SNP will deliver for businesses on May 2. They have already conceded that their policy on business rates will only be completely delivered at the end of a four year parliamentary term. The SNP's opposition to public-private partnerships indeed directly undermines its credibility as a pro-enterprise party, as it seeks to exclude the private sector and, in so doing, denies people the choice in quality services.
The recent press coverage about the Scottish Government's failing economic agency, Scottish Enterprise, highlights that its approach is failing the Scottish economy. Allegations of programme slippage, laxity of management, failure to apply for European Union funding, and excessive use of consultants, does little to inspire anyone with confidence that our economy is in good hands. Make no mistake, Scottish Enterprise is the responsibility of Iain Gray and Jack McConnell, as well as the highest paid public servant in Scotland, Robert Crawford.
The Enterprise Networks spend over £116 pounds per year for every man, woman and child in Scotland, and they need to be accountable for their actions, or inaction. We are determined that an independent audit be done and have called for an evaluation of the organisation's staffing arrangements to clarify how much this massive organisation spends on its own PR and consultants. It has become quite clear that there is growing unrest and unease both within the organisation and from the business community that Scottish Enterprise cannot effectively deliver the Scottish Government's smart, successful Scotland that we have been promised for four years.
The Scottish Conservatives will reform this organisation and we are committed to ensuring both value for money and delivery of higher economic growth. Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise will be retained as signposting organisations and will be tasked with offering advice to all businesses and providing training to improve their relative competitiveness.
It is our belief that although there may be a role for the state to help businesses improve skills and provide advice, it should not be expected to dish out grants to a few businesses that are not available to all. It is not and should not be the role of government to pick winners. We seek to reduce the dependency culture that is clearly not working as is evident from the 22.6% drop in new businesses recorded in the third quarter of 2002, compared to the second quarter alone.
Our opponents also accuse us of threatening the present focus and funding of training and skills, but let me make this clear, the Scottish Conservatives will be retaining the entire budgets of lifelong learning and the present priority area of training and skills within the enterprise networks.
But there does need to be a complete rethink of how government improves the current economic climate, and contrary to what Labour, Lib Dems and the SNP believe, the answer is not simply more money.
Politicians and bureaucrats do not have all the answers. As Conservatives we trust business men and women to spend their own money on their businesses to best effect. The other tax and spend parties suffer from the misconception that higher spending delivers greater economic growth. It doesn't - widely quoted OECD research has shown that a 1% increase in the tax ratio is associated with a reduction in output of 0.6-0.7% of GDP.
The Scottish Conservatives are committed to cutting over £260 million pounds from the overall enterprise budget to restore the uniform business rate, improve transport infrastructure and focus on skills.
This is our agenda for generating stronger economic growth.