The Scottish government is not walking away from its controversial proposals to ditch the HIE board, despite receiving a bloody nose from opposition parties at Holyrood this week.
The SNP administration suffered a parliamentary defeat over its plans to establish a new management body to oversee all of the country’s enterprise and skills agencies – plans which prompted widespread fears over centralisation.
But the vote is not binding and the Scottish government must now decide how best to respond to the opposition.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, when asked if she would accept the majority will of the parliament, said only that the government would “reflect” on what had happened.
Nationalist MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Maree Todd – who defended the Scottish government’s controversial proposals during a visit to the isles last year – insists the focus should now turn to what changes economy secretary Keith Brown proposes when the matter is brought back to parliament in a few weeks.
She said time would tell what a new structure for the agencies would look like, and highlighted a paper being produced by HIE chairman, Professor Lorne Crerar, which “distills down” exactly what made HIE a success.
“At the moment it’s not government policy to have a [HIE] board in future,” she said.
“We would say, ‘let’s wait and see what’s suggested at the next step’ before we absolutely, staunchly say, ‘let’s stick with what we’ve got’.”
It came after Isles MSP Tavish Scott raised the issue during First Minister’s Questions, calling for the HIE board to be retained in its current form.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Scott said: “Nicola Sturgeon should today have accepted parliament’s vote to keep the HIE board. She did not.
“What is it about a parliamentary defeat that the SNP do not understand? MSPs from every party except the SNP have argued for the retention of the HIE board. That view won. So why will the First Minister not accept democracy? MSPs from all parties will keep up the pressure on this government to accept and honour the decision that parliament has reached.”
Ms Todd pointed to “scaremongering” in the opposition benches over the HIE plans, adding one Conservative member had wrongly said HIE itself was being “disbanded”.
“I don’t agree with the centralisation argument on this one particularly because what they’ve done is set up a new agency for the south of Scotland. It’s anything but centralisation. What the new structure is going to look like we really don’t know yet.
“Lorne Crerar is working at the moment to produce a paper that distills down exactly what it is that makes HIE so successful at doing what it does. The plan is to hang onto all of that and fit it into structures all around the country so it can increase productivity.
“The time we really need to focus is when Keith Brown comes back to parliament in a few weeks time. He is absolutely listening. He’s listening to all the concerns. We’ll see what he brings back.”
She said she was supportive of the work HIE had done, but argued Scotland needed to become more productive.
“There’s never been a time when it’s been more vital than now, with the new fiscal settlement. The country really needs to do well,” she added.
“It’s absolutely incumbent on the government to do all it can to increase productivity.”
She said the aim of the review was to reduce duplication of effort across the agencies.
“That doesn’t take away from the fact that HIE have done an absolutely outstanding job. I’m completely confident that will continue.”