Meeting date: Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 06 September 2016
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Programme for Government 2016-17, Programme for Government 2016-17, Junior Minister, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Stand Up to Bullying Campaign
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Programme for Government 2016-17
- Programme for Government 2016-17
- Junior Minister
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Stand Up to Bullying Campaign
Programme for Government 2016-17
We move to the open debate and I ask members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I also ask all members to show the same courtesy to the leaders of the other parties as we did to the First Minister and not to interrupt their opening speeches. I call Ruth Davidson.14:46
Thank you for remembering my name, Presiding Officer. I was a bit worried for a second. I also thank the First Minister for early sight of her statement today.
Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Southside general practice in my constituency of Edinburgh Central. I sat down with the two general practitioner partners and discussed the problems that they are facing. Ever-increasing demands on their time and pressure on funding meant that they had taken the hard decision to hand their practice back for it to be taken over by the local health board. With the building due to be sold next year, they were worried that the practice would be broken up and that the thousands of patients whom it has served for decades would be tossed to the four winds. The doctors fear that they will be some of the first of a large number of GPs who are feeling that they have no option but to do the same. Those women are deeply committed to their job and they are deeply frustrated at a system that is not working for them.
If there is one priority that the Parliament faces as we get back to work today, it is surely to spend 100 per cent of our time on issues like this, on people who want to contribute and want to get on and are looking for the Government to help them, and for the service providers across the land who find that their jobs are getting harder, the support is getting less, and the centre cannot hold.
It is time for a Government and Parliament that deal with the real and present problems that we face: the challenges that are faced by doctors in general practice, a profession that cannot find staff because one in four training posts is lying vacant; the challenges that are faced by an education system that is still failing to give our poorest communities a real ladder of opportunity; or the immediate problems that we see in our economy, which can too easily feed through to fewer jobs and reduced quality of life for many.
It is up to us to act. There is a bulging in-tray for the Government to address that requires all of its attention right now. I will set out today what I believe are the right priorities for Scotland and how we will act in opposition to the SNP Government during the coming year.
First, I read in last weekend’s press that the economy was to be the First Minister’s priority. She is right to make it so, even if the evidence of her Government suggests otherwise. Growth in Scotland is already faltering. The oil price crash has hit us hard. Added to that, we know that there will be an impact on the economy because of the EU referendum. We do not know the scale of that but, as the Prime Minister said at the weekend, we should prepare for difficult times ahead.
I do not try to downplay the significance of the referendum decision for one moment, and I know that many people in Scotland remain worried about the future. However, I do not subscribe to the view that we are helpless to act in the face of Brexit, nor do I think that breaking up a union that is worth four times more to Scotland than the EU will help matters very much. What I propose are practical steps that we can take in this Parliament to help us to ride out the uncertainty and emerge stronger.
In areas where there is common ground, we want to work constructively with the Scottish Government to improve legislation. In the First Minister’s statement, that includes a new manufacturing institute, investment in research and development and the decommissioning plan. Members on the Conservative benches also want to reform air passenger duty, but we believe in a more tailored approach than a blanket 50 per cent reduction could ever achieve. We will also need to work out what impact that reduction would have on the climate change targets, which have been emphasised in the Government’s new climate change bill that was announced today.
However, the First Minister’s team will not be surprised to learn that we do not see a huge amount of scope over the coming year for SNP-Conservative consensus on the economic path forward. Overall, on the economy, I am left disappointed by the SNP’s failure to listen. For example, only yesterday, 13 of Scotland’s leading trade bodies wrote to the Scottish Government over its decision to charge firms higher rates here than those that are charged in England. They pointed out that one in eight commercial premises in Scotland is paying more simply for the privilege of being based north of the border. There was a time when the SNP saw the unfairness of that. The former finance secretary declared that
“putting Scottish business at a competitive disadvantage ... is a danger that must be avoided.”
Now, the cash grab of the large business supplement means that thousands of firms have that danger brought to their door.
It does not require another of the SNP’s commissions or talking shops to see the problem. The SNP is quite simply sending out a message that this is a place that does not support employers but punishes them. That is a mistake that the SNP is making with families, too.
As the First Minister rightly stated, for the first time, this Parliament will set new income tax bands and rates for the coming year—a reform that I heartily welcome. However, pushing income tax rates above levels in the rest of the UK will not help Scottish growth; it will hinder it. The priority should be to grow the number of taxpayers in Scotland, not to squeeze ever more money from an ever-smaller number.
The economic priority, in short, should be to send out a different message to that which the SNP cleaves to—not a message that piles further uncertainty on top of uncertainty and charges people more in the meantime, but one that unambiguously states that Scotland is going for growth.
Here I confess to a little more frustration with the Scottish Government’s efforts. Elsewhere in the UK, politicians who—like the First Minister and like me—did not support the decision to leave the EU are putting aside their own disappointment at the result in an effort to try to make a crack of it. By contrast, our own Scottish Government’s response was to release a risible fag-packet calculation of costs, purely to try to hide the facts surrounding Scotland’s own deficit. Elsewhere in the UK, the message goes out that we are open for business; here in Scotland, the message is that we will make you pay. Surely it is time for a bit more foresight. Surely it is time for an ambitious and positive economic policy that sells Scotland as the place that we all know it to be—the best place to live and work anywhere in the United Kingdom.
I said two weeks ago that I wanted a new type of Scottish Government and what I meant was this: I want a Government that no longer asks, “How will this boost independence?” but one that asks, “How are we growing the country?” In the past few weeks, we have suggested a few ways to do just that: a greater footprint for Scottish Development International so that it can sell Scottish goods more effectively abroad; an acceleration in the broadband programme for our rural areas so that everyone can get access to superfast broadband, not just those who live in the central belt; and real support for innovation in cutting edge renewables.
In our manifesto, we also outlined plans to create a network of regeneration zones to attract businesses into some of the most deprived areas in our towns and cities. We proposed the creation of a dedicated enterprise agency for the south of Scotland to mirror the remit and work of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. We welcome the fact that the Scottish Government has seen fit to back some of those ideas, but we will continue to push for more.
As regards the Scottish growth scheme, we on this side of the chamber will always work to champion Scottish business and growth but we will seek further detail and input on the mechanics of the scheme before the Government can be assured of our support.
We want to see the Scottish Government putting its own money to work in a way that benefits all. For example, the Scottish Government’s capital budget is set to rise by 14 per cent over the coming spending period. Our priority is to see that extra money being put into a major new investment in home efficiency, far beyond the scope of that which was outlined today. That will reduce our rates of fuel poverty, cut bills for families, improve the health of our nation and create thousands of new jobs, thereby ensuring that the money that we pay into Government helps to support our wider economic future. Now that the Scottish Government has accepted the principle, we will push it into greater ambition with the delivery.
At the same time, we urge the Scottish Government to simplify planning and regulation to help to support a genuinely ambitious house building programme for homes of all types—that means social and affordable homes, but it means private homes, too. House building and house improvement have to be at the top of the agenda, but helping people to buy their property must be part of that mix. The land and buildings transaction tax continues to stifle sections of the housing market and must be reformed, while the roll-out of the additional dwelling supplement has been a total boorach, with people facing vague and conflicting information from solicitors, estate agents and even Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on rules for payment.
All those measures are important, but the single biggest economic lever that the SNP could pull right now to help this country grow would be to remove the threat of a second referendum. That is what is holding us back and stifling investment in our firms. Taking away that lead weight on our country’s prospects is one thing that the First Minister could do today. She might have hidden that in a throwaway line at the end of her speech, but the bill sits on page 7 of the programme for government, as a direct threat to our nation’s economic growth.
I turn to other areas that the First Minister mentioned. There was a time—a golden age—when she said that education was her top priority and, for about six days, people actually believed her. There is now a clear parliamentary majority here to give more power and control to school leaders, so we will use our position as the main Opposition party to ensure that reforms are fast tracked and are genuine. Reform should not be used as a way of replacing one form of remote control with an even more centralised version. Local school leaders should have real controls that make a genuine difference. We also need new ways of attracting the best and brightest into teaching and into our schools—I have previously made the case in the chamber for a Teach First scheme.
Reforming Scottish education has been our priority for years, so it is good to see the Scottish Government catching up. However, as we reform, it is important that we measure the progress that we make. I repeat my call for the Government to re-enter Scotland into all the main international education comparison tests. If a commitment to improvement is real, the Government has nothing to fear from it being measured.
We agree that more priority should be given to improving childcare services across Scotland and we want more of that money to be directed to children at the earliest stages of life. However, the Scottish Government needs to examine the way that childcare is delivered. As we learned recently from the parents group fair funding for our kids, in many cases, parents cannot take up the childcare that they are entitled to because there are not funded places when they need it. As we have consistently said, it is vital that the Scottish Government recognises the need to organise childcare around parents’ needs, not the needs of the bodies that provide the funding.
At the other end of the scale, it is surely time that the Scottish Government repaired some of the damage that it has inflicted on our college sector over the past nine years. We have had to stand here and watch a fall of 152,000 college places while at the same time employers tell us that the lack of skills in the workplace is now their most pressing problem. Headline-grabbing spending pledges may look swanky etched in stone, but surely it is time for the Scottish Government to put aside self-congratulation and get on with helping those who need it, because this Government has gutted our colleges.
The education secretary will not have his troubles to seek in delivering on many of his Government’s commitments, but let me suggest that he does one thing to make his life easier, which is to clear the Government’s disastrous named person scheme from his desk and start afresh, this time with something that is not unlawful.
We welcome the fact that a new social security bill is to be published and that a new department is to be created to take on the vital task of delivering new welfare powers. Among those new powers, the Parliament will be able to create new benefits in devolved areas and top up UK-wide benefits, including universal credit, tax credits and child benefit. I hope that that will start a new phase in the Scottish Government’s approach to welfare—one that involves spending less time complaining about UK Government policy and more time spelling out what it intends to do with the powers that it now has.
We should include a dedicated employment programme for disabled people and a clear ambition to halve the disability employment gap. Only today, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has given us a timely reminder of the need for a long-term plan to tackle the scourge of poverty. More than anything, we need to use the powers of the Parliament to act early. We spend millions on the consequences of family breakdown, addiction, unemployment and more. We must focus on ways to prevent that breakdown instead.
In our health service, too, we need a similar approach of trying to deal with the social problems that we face rather than just paying for the consequences. Doctors leaders spoke out just days ago, saying that they are flat on their faces because of the pressures that the NHS is facing through a combination of increased demand, increased expectation and funding pressures. As we spelled out in our manifesto, we support extra funding for health budgets across Scotland, but better thinking is required too. Therefore, as we outlined last week, more of the funding pot must now go to general practice. A target of at least 10 per cent by 2020 is the right one. It is not only GPs who support such a shift, but accident and emergency doctors and paramedics, who know that it will take pressure off their services. Shifting resources to primary care, combined with our proposed network of recovery centres, could significantly improve accident and emergency waiting times.
On policing, I welcome the domestic abuse bill that the First Minister outlined and promise positive engagement from my party on it. However, I express real, serious and genuine concern about the railway policing bill. Police Scotland is under immense stress and pressure to operate as effectively as all members would wish it to, and British Transport Police officers have raised objections and concerns regarding their specialist role being absorbed into the centralised force. We back the British Transport Police and ask the Government to think again.
There is plenty on which Scotland needs to focus, but I am frustrated that, rather than the Scottish Government being prepared to do that, its energies are too often diverted into an endless political campaign. The First Minister’s statement today summed that up: it contained plenty of legislation but it was all just served as a warm-up to the attempt to nudge the independence caravan another few inches down the road.
Instead of a coherent vision setting out a long-term direction of travel, the Government simply trots out a shopping list of legislation that fails to hang together. Our vision is for a Government that helps people to get by and get on, that makes economic growth its priority so that we can fund our public services and that believes our best interests are served by respecting the decision to stay within the United Kingdom so that we can get on with our lives and move on. It is hard to spot that unifying vision in today’s programme for government. Instead, the Government seems more focused on clearing up past mistakes than setting a course for the country’s future. The conclusion that many people will draw is that the SNP cupboard is bare except for the only idea that the party has ever had: to split up the UK.
At the end of her speech, the First Minster sought to create a dividing line between our two parties. There is plenty on which we disagree, but the real dividing line in this country is between the SNP, which is desperate to drag us back to a second independence referendum, and the rest of us, who all just want to put it behind us and move on.
As we said in the election campaign, we will provide a strong Opposition to the SNP Government. Today’s programme for government only shows up the need for a strong alternative, which we will provide.15:02
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement and I welcome her—and, indeed, all members—back to the chamber. However, before I begin my response to the programme for government, I cannot let one of Ruth Davidson’s last remarks go unchecked. The barefaced cheek of the Tories in saying that the Government must do more for disabled people is outrageous. Every year that Ruth Davidson’s party has been in government, it has attacked the rights and opportunities of disabled people. It must stop.
A year ago, during my last response to a programme for government, and when the Parliament met to elect the First Minister in May, I said that my party would provide constructive and progressive opposition. Where there are areas on which Labour agrees with the Government, it will be happy to provide support. Therefore, I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce a social security bill so that we can begin to make use of the substantial powers that we have to protect people from Tory welfare reforms.
I also welcome the proposed domestic abuse bill, which I hope will go some way towards dealing with coercive and controlling behaviour and bring more such cases to justice. However, earlier this summer, I visited Edinburgh rape crisis centre and I say to the First Minister that, as much as the domestic abuse bill will be very welcome news to it, the centre wants to hear from the Government a promise of consistent, three-year funding and an end to the local government cuts that leave it feeling unstable week in and week out.
I also welcome the proposed gender balance on public boards bill. That very welcome measure is one that Labour members have championed for a long time. I hope that the First Minister will redouble her commitment to the women 50:50 campaign, and I encourage her to do so. That campaign would see us deliver a 50:50 Parliament.
This is the tenth programme for government that an SNP Government has put before this Parliament and although there is much that we can welcome in it, including action on fuel poverty, here is what disappoints me: although, over the past decade, this Parliament has become more and more powerful, the Government’s programme has become less and less ambitious. It seems that the more powers are passed to this place, the more reluctant the Government has been to use them.
If we look behind the rhetoric that the First Minister used today, we can see that the sum total of this tenth programme for government is 12 bills that lack ambition. Take one policy area in particular: education. The First Minister said that education is her priority. When she launched her manifesto, she said that it was her driving ambition. The Deputy First Minister has travelled Scotland telling people that change is coming. However, today, we see that there is yet more delay: it will be another year before this Parliament will see an education bill; and it will be March before new mechanisms for school funding will be consulted on. That sums up this programme for government: it does not address the big questions that our country faces. How do we create a health service that is fit for the future? How can we use the new powers over employability to get people back to work? What action can we take to grow our economy so that everyone benefits and we can close that £15 billion gap in our public finances? All of those questions demand bold and radical action from the Scottish Government, not more of the same.
Across Scotland, our public services are showing strain that we can no longer ignore. Why? Because Tory cuts, passed on by the SNP, are having a direct and real impact on the lives of people across this country. Our schools and colleges have seen cuts to their budgets, removing important life chances from the poorest students. Just two weeks ago, Audit Scotland reported a 48 per cent decline in part-time college students on this Government’s watch, an impact that will be felt mostly by women and those over 25. Today, the very support staff who support some of the people who are furthest from the labour market in education are out on strike over these cuts.
In our national health service, services that the First Minister said were secure are now under threat because of the budget cuts that health boards are having to deal with. In Paisley, where the children’s ward is facing closure, the First Minister denied that there were any proposals for the ward to be axed, but that is now exactly what is being proposed. In Inverclyde, where the maternity service is at risk, the First Minister made a direct appeal to people less than a year ago, saying that there was “no substance” to those fears and that
“There are no plans to centralise services out of Inverclyde.”
Yet, a year—and an election—later, that is exactly what is happening.
In public transport, our bus services are still patchwork, leaving too many communities isolated. The flagship upgrade to the main rail line between Glasgow and Edinburgh is seven months overdue and millions of pounds over budget. Further, major programmes to upgrade infrastructure, including roads, are not going far enough and risk not only creating inconvenience but holding back our economic growth.
The First Minister and the SNP have had nearly a decade, and now they have another five years. Let this be the five years when focusing on jobs, public services and our economy rank as highly as the SNP’s fight for independence. It is not too much to ask for the First Minister to put as much focus on those issues in government as she did in her manifesto. Only 209 of the 24,000 words in the SNP’s manifesto were about a second referendum. The vast majority of Scots, and even many of those who voted yes in 2014, want that same proportionate focus. Why would we take our country down a path that exposes us to an economic reality that would mean even more savage cuts to our public services when we currently benefit from being part of a redistributive union that sees Scots benefit from £1,200 more in public spending than the UK average? However, the Government has made it clear today that it is drafting a bill for a second independence referendum. Let me be absolutely clear: the First Minister will find no support on these benches for a second independence referendum.
The First Minister also has to be clearer about what she wants to achieve as Britain faces the prospect of Brexit. At the beginning of the summer, a second referendum was “highly likely”; on Friday, it was “an option”; and, yesterday, she offered support to Tory ministers who want a soft Brexit and to keep us in the single market.
Labour will continue to make the argument that we have made since the EU referendum, which is that we are better maintaining our relationship with the EU and continuing as part of the United Kingdom. That is the will of the people of Scotland on both issues and it is a will that my party shares.
This Parliament has more powers available to it than ever before. That is why, last week, Labour set out an ambitious alternative to the programme for government—13 bills for a fairer and more equal Scotland. Every one of those bills was backed up by a pledge to stop the cuts and end the austerity budgets that have come from this SNP Government. We would do that by using the tax powers of this Parliament. In education, instead of asking councils to raise the funds to narrow the gap in our schools then clawing it back, we would raise taxes on the top 1 per cent of earners—people earning more than £150,000 a year—and give the money directly to headteachers to help disadvantaged children. That is our priority—to raise taxes on the most well-off to pay for schools.
In comparison, the only tax proposal from the Scottish Government today—in fact, in the first bill in the legislative programme—is a tax cut. It is not a tax cut for the poorest or most disadvantaged but a tax cut to reduce air fares and remove £270 million from the Scottish economy. Mark my words: a social democratic Government does not cut taxes on the rich; it does not refuse to ask the 1 per cent to pay their fair share; and it certainly does not give a handout to those at the top when everyone else is being asked to face cuts.
These 13 bills in Labour’s alternative programme for government represent a bold and radical plan to use the powers of this Parliament to respond to the concerns of people across our country, and they would create real and lasting change. I would be happy to see any of them adopted by the SNP Government because—make no mistake—minority government means that we need to work together in this place. In that, the Government faces a choice: it can look left, and join with like-minded and progressive forces; or it can look right, and make an alliance with a Tory Opposition with no plan to take this country forward.15:12
I thank the First Minister for the advance copy of her statement. It contains many elements that I am happy to welcome—and not just positive individual policy measures such as gender equality on public boards and action on child poverty. Let me respond to some of the closing comments in the First Minister’s statement. If the story of this session of Parliament turns out to be one about a genuine commitment to “social solidarity” versus the right wing
“ideology of the small state”,
I would welcome that. Let me say to those who responded with some scepticism to those words: let us take that as a positive signal that it is our job to hold the Government to account on those words and to ensure that the First Minister delivers.
This third successive term of SNP Government is, no doubt, an exciting time for the First Minister. She has been in the job for nearly two years, but this is the first time that she has set out her own programme for government following an election—an election in which she secured, by some way, the largest number of MSPs for any party. It is, without question, an enviable position. All of us in other political parties recognise that.
The First Minister described the mandate that she has been given. She claimed that people have “endorsed” the SNP’s “policy programme”. It is important to remember that, despite the strong largest-minority position that the SNP occupies, it is still a minority Government. This session will need to be one of compromise and open-minded discussion. There will, as ever, be times along the way when the Scottish Green Party will work constructively, perhaps even to improve Government proposals, and there will be times when we must oppose the Government.
The complex new challenges that are coming to this Parliament, and the profound economic and political uncertainty that have arisen from the EU referendum result—not only from the result but from the fundamental dishonesty of the Brexit campaigners and the utterly and bafflingly incoherent position so far of the UK Government—mean that these are fundamentally challenging times for any Scottish Government. As I put on the record before the summer recess, it is clear that all options to represent and respect Scotland’s strong remain vote must remain on the table. I must say that it is risible to suggest that either we or Nicola Sturgeon are somehow trying to hide the view that independence remains a choice that the Scottish people have a right to make, if they so decide.
The new challenges exist against a backdrop of significant existing challenges, including work towards a fairer, more equal and healthier society, which has not been achieved on the scale that any of us wish for by whichever political party has been in power; the building of an economy that works for everyone in society; and the coming to terms with our environmental limits. That is why I was slightly amazed that the first bill that the First Minister chose to mention was her proposed bill to scrap air passenger duty. The case against that policy is very strong not only in environmental terms, but in social justice terms. Even if the tax giveaway for the airlines is handed on to individual passengers, the lion’s share of that benefit will go to the wealthiest frequent flyers—and that would be at a time when the public transport that people depend on daily is eye-wateringly expensive. Even Ruth Davidson suggests that we might need to work out what impact the policy would have on our climate change targets. Well, we might need to do that if we had not already done it; halving APD would increase our emissions by up to 60 kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, and there is no way around that.
The climate change bill that the First Minister mentioned must achieve what the last one failed to achieve. I take my share of responsibility for that failure, because I was one of the MSPs who scrutinised that bill. It did not, as it should have done, act as a provocation to push Government policy in a new and ambitious direction. The new climate change bill must do that, and not just set targets.
The required investment that will be made in the energy efficiency national infrastructure priority clearly looks like an improvement on the past two years, but that is after a reduction in last year’s budget for that measure. If we are going to give effect to the ambition that is required, it is clear that we need to hold the First Minister to a higher bar when we look at the budget.
I will mention, in passing, the budget bill. The First Minister says that it will be introduced later in the year; there is an important question about how much later in the year it will be introduced. There is a real need for robust scrutiny of the minority Government. I give the First Minister credit where it is due for changing her position on the role of parliamentary liaison officers in committees, for example, because it is important to send the public a clear signal that they can have confidence in the robustness of scrutiny in Parliament. That applies to the budget bill, as well. If our committees’ responsibility to look at the budget is reduced to a one-meeting process, that simply will not be adequate.
The First Minister put a great deal of emphasis on the need for business support—new measures including public investment and support for areas such as manufacturing. Fundamentally, that must operate not in a silo away from the climate change and sustainability agenda. If we truly want to build a sustainable economy that operates successfully to meet people’s needs within environmental limits, we cannot have manufacturing policy, oil and gas policy or anything else making the problems of climate change worse, while in the next office officials scratch their heads about how to reduce emissions. The agendas must be pursued in a united and coherent way.
Public investment in the economy has an important role to play. To offer true value, investment of public money has to be seen not just in terms of business support, exports or gross domestic product. We need to be looking at areas such as employee ownership, ethical business and tax compliance if we want to see the maximum benefit for our society from that public investment. We have welcomed the measures that have been taken so far in inclusive growth and the fair work agenda, but we have also said that they need to go further. If we are still merely encouraging businesses to take up the business pledge, rather than putting in genuine disincentives for those that fail to comply, we will not see that progress.
There need to be similar connections between economic and employment policy and the social security policy that is developed, given that most people who engage with social security are in work. The Greens have already proposed constructive ideas for preventing the worst of the UK’s sanctioning regime from impacting on people in Scotland by ensuring that the newly devolved employment programmes do not hand over information that would be used for that purpose. I genuinely hope that the First Minister will look favourably on that proposal.
I will certainly welcome the child poverty bill, but again we need to go further than merely setting statutory targets. We have seen with fuel poverty targets that targets alone are not enough, especially in areas in which devolved and reserved competences interact and may come into conflict.
I welcome the emphasis on the costs of childcare, but we should expand from that to look at the wider costs of education and the school day, from the costs of uniforms to travel and extracurricular activities.
The attainment fund will have strong cross-party support for action, but we will argue that national policies must be funded from national resources and not from a raid on local taxation.
That brings me to something that is missing: there is no coherent plan to do what the commission on local tax reform proposed, which was to scrap the council tax and replace it with something better. Tweaks of a decades-old system will not be enough. The Greens will continue to press the case for radical reform of taxation policy at local and national levels.
If we do things creatively with the bold intention not just to fund services but to close the wealth gap in our society, we will in this session of Parliament do something dramatic that will give effect to the First Minister’s words about an agenda of social solidarity against the right-wing agenda of the small state that we see elsewhere.15:21
I thank the First Minister for an advance copy of her statement.
I want the Parliament to make Scotland the best again so that everyone can have the opportunity to succeed no matter what their background is; people can live as they wish as long as it does not cause harm to others; and we pass on the planet in a better state than we found it in. Those are the fundamental principles on which I will address the coming parliamentary year.
We must deliver a step change in mental health services so that they are treated on a par with physical illness services and we must deliver policies that enable us to exceed our climate change targets. We should make Scottish education the best again, but we need to make a transformational investment for that to happen. We need to guarantee our civil liberties, as well.
I intend to use the Parliament to provide a clear, hopeful, optimistic, moderate and progressive voice. In a no-borders approach, we will oppose independence and support strong relations with Europe.
Just because the First Minister comes before Parliament to protest that she really does care about the day job, it does not mean that she really cares about it. Day after day and week after week over the summer, she did not focus on that job but made speech after speech about independence. Before the summer, I genuinely hoped that she meant what she said about a broad consensus on Brexit and I hoped that she would act in the interests of the country and not just in the interests of the SNP. However, she has trashed that consensus with her actions.
Today, the First Minister comes before us all innocent, pretending that she did not do that all summer. The First Minister on independence is like a school pupil caught smoking, who emerges from behind the bike sheds with plumes of smoke, a packet of filter tips in her pocket and breath like an ashtray. “But Miss,” she complains, “you are the only person talking about smoking.”
In a desperate bid to resurrect the impression of consensus this week, the First Minister claimed that she was reaching out—wait for this—to the Conservatives in London to form a coalition. That is a brilliant idea. That has worked before. Who would have believed it? I do not, and I do not think that anyone else does either. The First Minister should ditch the charade and her new plans for independence. That would be the best thing for Scotland.
The blow of Brexit and the threat of another independence referendum mean that divisive constitutional politics remain at the centre of our national debate. A dismal scene has been visited upon us by the Conservatives and the SNP. We need progressive, moderate, optimistic and hopeful voices that advance a no-borders approach for the UK and for Europe. If we leave the campaign for Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom to the Conservatives, it will fail; if we leave progressive politics to the SNP, that will fail, too.
If members look at the so-called social democratic record, it is not as rosy as the First Minister claims. In June, the number of GPs in post dropped by a further 90. There has also been a shortfall in the take-up of GP training places. It makes a nonsense of the First Minister’s continued claim that the problem can be solved by creating more training places if we cannot fill the ones that we already have. More than a quarter of GP training places are unfilled, a larger proportion than were unfilled last year. The Royal College of General Practitioners warns that 830 GPs will be needed by 2020. Last year, the figure was 740. The situation is getting worse under this Administration.
On climate change, the Scottish Government is still nailed to the fence on fracking; it will not commit. Its position makes no one happy. The SNP should take a stand against the new frontier of fossil fuels that fracking represents. It should cancel its plans to add 60,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere through tax cuts for the aviation industry through air passenger duty. There is little point in setting new, bold targets if the action that is taken undermines those targets. I propose a warm homes act, low-carbon transport and no opencast coal so we can deliver real change.
On civil liberties, we still have not heard the Scottish Government finally cancel the intrusive super-ID database. It is time to bring it to an end. We have been waiting 560 days for that decision; now is the day to chuck it out. We need to bring back democracy to our police. That is the best way of connecting them to our communities.
The Scottish Government delayed the education attainment figures until after the election. The number of pupils performing well in numeracy at primary 4 has dropped, and no progress has been made on tackling the problems in other age groups, too. On the attainment gap, more than 2,000 schools across Scotland are missing out on support under the SNP’s funding scheme.
The Scottish Government’s performance was found wanting when the education secretary delivered his curriculum guidance to teachers 10 days after they had started the autumn term. Audit Scotland’s report has shown that 40 per cent of part-time college places have been scrapped under the SNP.
On early education and childcare, the Scottish Government has still not given the necessary assurances to parents about when—wherever they live—they can expect to access their free places for three to five-year-olds. We need to remember that this Government promised that nearly 30 per cent of parents of two-year-olds would have a place but delivered only to 7 per cent of such parents.
Attainment, early education and colleges can be tackled by serious and committed investment in education. What is the Government’s answer in its programme for government? It has a limited attainment fund, a review of the funding formula—that is radical—and a return to Thatcherite national testing. We should be investing in schools, colleges and nurseries with a penny on income tax. That is the way to make radical change.
This Government does not, has not and will not take mental health seriously. We get 22 words on that in today’s speech. The strategy lapsed last year, nothing has been put in its place since and today’s numbers on mental health show that the price is being paid by hundreds of teenagers who have to wait more than a year for treatment—indeed, last year, 237 teenagers waited more than a year for treatment. Things are getting worse. I propose extra resources: for primary care, so that mental health professionals can work alongside GPs; for work in accident and emergency and in partnership with the police; and to create extra capacity in child and adolescent services.
I do not know what more we need to do to persuade this Government that mental health is the route through which everyone can participate in our society and economy. Tackling mental health issues is the way to take pressure off GPs and the rest of the health service and to get everyone to reach their full potential. Mental health cannot take another year of second-rate ranking in the Government’s programme.
On the economy, the long-term future for Scotland should be high-skilled, high-wage jobs. That will be achieved by investment in education. Given that the most recent Scottish GDP figures show 0 per cent growth, now is the time to take the matter seriously—we need action. The Scottish Government’s ridiculous position that capital spending delayed from last year can be badged as “accelerated funding” shows the nonsense of its economic policy.
There was no mention in the statement of the delay to the construction of the Queensferry crossing. There was no mention of the £15 billion deficit that was identified in the most recent “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland” figures. There was no mention of the lost contract in relation to the Janice platform, which is going to Norway, and no mention of the oil decommissioning jobs that are being lost to overseas yards. What is the point of having a decommissioning action plan if there is no action?
The Government is so wedded to the cause of independence that it has taken its eye off the ball. It has had nine years in power but it is acting as if it has just taken over. No one will be fooled by that. It is about time that the Government changed its ways, so that we can deliver change for Scotland and be the best again.15:31
I pay tribute to the First Minister—I think that Willie Rennie meant to do that but forgot—for setting out a vision for Scotland through a bold, progressive, transformative programme for government. The programme is ambitious and outward looking.
The Government will govern for all in Scotland; the programme has people at its core, with opportunities for everyone and not just the select few. I will focus on that in my speech.
Despite the major upheaval since the EU referendum, this Government has stayed the course, providing leadership in circumstances when that was needed most. That is demonstrated by the support for our business sector that was announced today. It is my continuing aim to provide such leadership for the people of Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse.
The Government will continue to be at the forefront of transformative politics, so that we give our constituents every opportunity to participate in civic life. We pledge to empower those who have felt ignored or shunned by society and successive UK Governments. We are endeavouring to create a society that has tolerance, respect and dignity at its heart. That is why the Government has reaffirmed its support for the one in five campaign, in addition to creating the democratic participation fund, to widen access to politics for those with a disability. Access to politics should not be an exclusive, closed-doors club, and this Government is offering solutions that promote inclusivity in local government.
Those pledges represent not tokenism or lip-service to the disabled community but transformative politics in action. Our vision is to ensure that barriers to participation are broken down and that people who want to make a difference in local government can do so without discrimination or fear. That is about much more than money; it is about opportunity.
Let us think about the opportunities that our Paralympians will face when they start their endeavours tomorrow. Some of them lost their mobility cars due to Ruth Davidson’s party’s policies in government—it is an absolute travesty when that party’s members talk about caring for people with disabilities.
Our vision is one of opportunities for all, regardless of background or circumstance. Scotland stands proud as a nation that values its diversity. We are a country that believes in the principles of its people and regards us as all equal.
Equality and inclusivity are two fundamental principles that underpin this Government’s vision for the future. To achieve true equality and inclusivity, education is vital. To that end, it is time for inclusive education. It is time to stand shoulder to shoulder with the time for inclusive education—TIE—campaign and organisations such as LGBT Youth Scotland, to reinforce what we in Scotland already know: we are all one people, with the same rights.
Scotland leads the way on protecting people’s rights, despite the best efforts of the Conservative Party—despite that party’s callous attempts to curb workers’ rights through the anti-trade union bill, which the Scottish Government has pledged to resist, and despite its unrelenting pursuit of withdrawal from the European convention on human rights, its so-called repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 and its regressive steps towards creating a so-called British bill of rights.
The Scottish Government has worked tirelessly to protect the rights of all its people, which include the rights that are afforded to us as members of the European Union. Those rights face an uncertain future, to say the least. While ill-equipped Conservative MPs dig their way out of a mess that is of their own creation—apparently, the situation is quite straightforward but complex at the same time—ordinary people are bearing the brunt.
If Brexit truly means Brexit, can Conservative Party members say that rights such as those under the EU pregnant workers directive, which guarantees the right to paid time off for antenatal appointments, are really safe in their hands? Are rights under the directives against domestic violence safe in the Conservatives’ hands? The answer is very unclear, so I welcome the domestic abuse bill, which will be a step forward and which many members across the chamber have campaigned for many years for.
Let me be undeniably clear. Under the Scottish Government, the European convention on human rights will be upheld. The Human Rights Act 1998 is fundamentally written into the Scotland Act 1998. This Parliament, and not Westminster, will be the decision makers. This Scottish Government, and not the Conservatives, will protect human rights; we will not replace those rights with something that is lacking.
We face uncertain times and a precarious political landscape. The fallout from Brexit remains greatly concerning—especially given the glacial reaction of the Conservative Westminster Government—but the Scottish Government has done what it was elected to do, which is to govern.
We have led by example where others have faltered. As I said, we want to foster an inclusive society, and this Government has put its words into action. Our 50:50 gender-balanced Cabinet reaffirms the Government’s commitment to 50:50 representation by 2020 on public boards, councils and even right here in this place.
I am sure that, like me, many members across the chamber will welcome the Government’s bill to achieve gender balance on public boards. That is a policy whose time has come. I ask members across the chamber to work collectively towards that goal and to ensure that the terms “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor” are consigned to history textbooks. The measures to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination and to support women to return to the workplace after they have had children are another superb announcement that I am glad to hear.
The Government was elected to govern for all throughout Scotland. It will strive to ensure that the chamber is representative of homes and workplaces up and down the country. Scotland will continue to be a country where ambition is limited only by someone’s imagination. There remains plenty of work to do, but members should make no mistake that the Government will rise to the challenge. We have a social security bill, a child poverty bill, a warmer homes initiative and a housing bill. I look forward to playing a full and active role in meeting the challenge in order to create a nation that is for all and not just for the few.
I remind members that we are tight for time and that they have up to, not over, six minutes for speeches.15:38
I turn immediately to the education section of the statement. The First Minister has said that the narrowing of the attainment gap will define her Government, and there is therefore an accompanying focus on literacy and numeracy. As Ruth Davidson said, the Scottish Conservatives have a strong and consistent record on demanding action in that field. We contend that the SNP cannot fully deliver unless important reforms are made.
I will put the situation in the context of the main interpretations of the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on Scottish schools, which praised many elements of Scottish education but also raised significant concerns about where we lag behind. Like several key education experts in Scotland, the report states that, although there is common ground on the overarching aims of excellence and equity, there is no clarity of purpose about how the aims will be achieved.
The report praises the ambition to improve standards of literacy and numeracy and welcomes the renewed focus on that in teacher training, which we believe is crucial. However, it then points to failings within the curriculum for excellence guidance, which is confused, obsessed with additional assessment that has little scholastic meaning and so full of jargon that teachers do not know where they stand.
John Swinney was right to make the changes that he announced last week. I hope that he recognises that those changes are necessary not because teachers have made mistakes but because the education agencies in Scotland—Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education and others—as directed by the Scottish Government have been found wanting when it comes to clarity of purpose regarding what is expected of our teachers. The Scottish Government was told that long ago by the Scottish Conservatives and many in education, and it is a great pity that it has taken this long for it to recognise the damage.
It is not enough just to say that we will reduce workloads; that can be done only if there is a genuine commitment to increasing teacher numbers. The cutbacks in local authorities have wreaked havoc with workforce planning, just as they have with the number of additional support needs teachers, nursery teachers and classroom assistants. Last week, we saw the problems that are emerging in encouraging enough teachers to want to become heads. New school buildings are good and very much to be welcomed, but the staffing of those schools is just as important.
On the theme of clarity of purpose, let me deal with the issue of narrowing the attainment gap. We all know what we are trying to do, but doubt remains about exactly how the Scottish Government intends to measure progress towards that. In last week’s letter to the Education and Skills Committee, John Swinney said that there is no single measure by which the attainment gap can be measured. That is true, but we need to know exactly what data is required to measure progress in attainment so that we can judge how well our schools are faring in basic literacy and numeracy.
At the Education and Skills Committee in June, the cabinet secretary said that he did not agree with the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland’s claim that sufficient data was available. I think that he is right, but he needs to tell us exactly what that data must be and how it will relate to the improvements that we want to make.
The First Minister was very specific in saying that she would talk about assessments, not tests. I ask the Scottish Government to explain exactly what is meant by that. In the published national improvement framework there is reference to high-stakes testing and examples are given from other countries. We are not clear at all about what is meant by assessment in the context of the Scottish Government wanting to introduce it, and we will not narrow the attainment gap unless we know exactly what we are measuring to establish what progress is being made. We cannot simply muddle along with weaker literacy and numeracy results, as has been the case for several decades. Teachers, parents and pupils need to see meaningful evidence of improving results.
One of the most interesting trends in Scottish education just now is the desire for greater autonomy and diversity of provision in education. The Scottish Government’s panel of educational experts must surely have been telling the cabinet secretary that there is a strong link between autonomy and successful schools. I hope that that is the main reason for the forthcoming education bill.
The Conservatives want to see radical reform in this area of education to make it much more responsive to parental demand and to allow the professionalism and leadership of our headteachers and teachers to flourish to the full. The shackling, one-size-fits-all comprehensive state education system run exclusively by local authorities has had its day. It was founded on the mistaken policy commitment whereby equality of opportunity and uniformity were seen as one and the same thing and able to deliver better results—they have not.
None of the above can be achieved unless there is a qualitative improvement in the early years. I accept entirely what the First Minister said about the need for a qualitative improvement.
I will conclude with some remarks about colleges and universities, both of which have had to endure an extremely tough time under the SNP, not just in financial terms but in wholesale restructuring. I recently saw an SNP statement that said it had a “strong record” on colleges. Well, the SNP should try telling that to anyone in the sector, because the rhetoric is simply not believed by anyone.
This time last year, we had to endure a completely unnecessary higher education bill that, I may say, lost the SNP many friends in the sector. This time, the proposal is about widening access. That is a laudable aim, but it is not going to be achieved unless the cabinet secretary is able to produce a greater number of university places that are properly funded and will not squeeze out students simply to ensure that 20 per cent of places are taken up by those from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is a major issue for the sector and one that is going to test the SNP to the full.
If education really is the centrepiece of the Government’s programme, there is a monumental amount of work to be done to address the mistakes of the past nine years and to put Scottish education back where it belongs—leading the world.
At some time somebody is going to speak for six minutes or less. I appreciate that it is only a few seconds over but, as those seconds mount up, it will mean that members at the end of the list lose their speaking time, and I do not want that to happen to anybody.15:45
I promise to do my best to stay within six minutes, Presiding Officer.
I welcome the economic measures in today’s statement because, in the situation in which we find ourselves, the priorities for us all have to be jobs, growth and the economy. I particularly welcome the initiative of a new business guarantee scheme, as that potentially represents a substantial new additional investment of £0.5 billion over the next three years in small and medium-sized businesses, and it will be financed without taking resources from other essential services. I hope that Her Majesty’s Treasury will see the common sense in that and not just approve it but—it might want to do its usual—copy an innovative measure from this Government and this Parliament.
In developing the economic arguments in the statement, I would like to make four or five additional points that are behind the statement but not specified within it.
First, there is an immediate huge opportunity arising from the 10 per cent devaluation of the pound since the Brexit vote to give a major boost to certain sectors of the Scottish economy. That is irrespective of whether people support devaluation—Mervyn King recently said that he had spent 16 years at the Bank of England trying to bring about devaluation as the pound was grossly overvalued, which is one of the reasons that the UK has a record trade deficit and no prospect at the moment of being able to close it.
There are three opportunities arising from the devaluation. Number 1 is our ability to export much more to the rest of the world, because our goods and services are much more competitively priced. We have to have a new export drive to take advantage of that competitive pricing.
Secondly, there is an opportunity in some industries for more import substitution—to grow our own goods and services at home rather than rely on more expensive imports from abroad.
Thirdly, there is a major opportunity for the tourism sector. I strongly suggest that, along with the private sector, we look at the Californian model of funding tourism marketing both in Scotland and the UK, and internationally. The 10 per cent devaluation of the pound represents a major opportunity for a further boost to tourism in Scotland in the immediate period ahead, and we should not let that window of opportunity pass us by.
Exports of goods and services, import substitution and tourism: all of those areas can benefit from promotion by a proactive Government working with the industrial and private sectors.
We still have 143,000 unemployed people in Scotland, and that is the next area where some more urgent action should be taken. The Scottish Government has outlined many times that getting as many of those people as possible into work is a high priority. Side by side with the 143,000 unemployed people, we have some dire skills shortages in key sectors. We are short of 4,000 long-distance lorry drivers, and the sector is finding it difficult to recruit. Let us get those people off the buroo and train them for work as long-distance lorry drivers—4,000 jobs could be filled in the next few months with a proper drive to kill two birds with one stone.
We have a major skills shortage in the information technology sector—a major growth sector—because to keep up even with existing demand we need to produce 11,000 new IT graduates every year. We are way behind on that, so let us catch up and create real opportunities, particularly for our young people, in filling the jobs in the IT sector.
We have heard about skill shortages in the NHS and in teaching. A very good example of addressing that is the initiative in the north-east of Scotland where we are training and retraining unemployed people and people made redundant in the oil industry to become teachers and fill job vacancies in the teaching profession in maths, English and a range of other subjects. Let us make that not just a north-east initiative but an initiative in every sector where it is needed across the country.
Finally, I draw the Government’s attention to the fact that it holds well over £500 million of its own capital in shared equity schemes across Scotland in housing. There is a way to recycle that money so that at least some of it can be reinvested in new house building on top of the existing budgets. I strongly urge the Government to look at how that can be done—and I am happy to show the Government how it can get that money reinvested to create new jobs across Scotland, so that we can give jobs to some of the 143,000 people who are unemployed and looking for and willing to work.
You are a star pupil, Mr Neil, as you finished exactly on six minutes. You made a job application as well.15:51
Today was an opportunity for the Scottish Government to unveil a radical programme for government—an opportunity to use the powers of this Parliament to transform our country and to send a message to the Scottish people that this Parliament’s priority is to heal the divides in our country, be they social, economic or political. It was an opportunity to recognise and act on the huge inequalities in our society, not just in life chances but in life expectancy. Instead, we have a Government that continues to grandstand on grievance and which is more focused on old debates, repeated arguments and its own obsessions, while applying the sticking-plaster approach to our most treasured public service, the NHS.
It is clear that that is not enough on health. Today, we got less than 30 seconds in the First Minister’s statement on our NHS. That is not enough for overworked, undervalued and underresourced NHS staff, and not enough for patients and families across the country. Instead, we got only bland words and talk of a plan. The SNP has been in complete charge of Scotland’s NHS for almost 10 years. The NHS in Scotland is independent—the Scottish Government sets its budgets, defines its priorities and oversees its delivery.
Will the member give way?
I will not.
After nearly 10 years in charge, the SNP cannot escape responsibility. Its plans are failing. We have the biggest crisis in the history of the NHS in nursing, with more than 2,200 vacancies, over 300 of which are for mental health nurses. There has been a 600 per cent increase in private agency nursing spend, which is now almost £24 million a year. In the health secretary’s own area, there has been a 1,000 per cent increase in that spend—money that would be better spent on recruiting and supporting NHS nurses. The First Minister cannot escape responsibility either, because when she was the health secretary, she cut training places for nurses and midwives.
We have also had a decade of mismanagement of primary care that sees us in the middle of a GP crisis in which one in four practices is reporting a vacancy, one in four GP training places is unfilled this year, GP practices are closing and hundreds of GPs are taking early retirement—more than 270 in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area alone. All of that is the consequence of the SNP cutting £1 billion from primary care budgets.
The First Minister and the health secretary need to listen to what our dedicated NHS staff are saying, because only a third of them believe that there are enough of them to do their jobs properly and barely 13 per cent of nurses think that our health service can cope.
What about the Government’s record on the expected standards of patient care? Of the Government’s 19 expected standards for the NHS, we are failing on 13 of them, including on early detection of cancer, treatment waiting times, accident and emergency, and child and adolescent mental health.
The Government’s response on failing to meet those standards is not to up its game but instead to attempt to scrap the standards altogether, with political cover from the Tories. The SNP has campaigned in elections and referendums against the privatisation of our NHS, but at the same time it spends more and more taxpayer cash on private health firms. That money could go to front-line services: to doctors, nurses and hospitals.
In the past year alone, almost 40,000 patients were sent for care in private hospitals at a cost of more than £50 million. Patients are forced to travel long distances to be treated privately rather than being seen by their local NHS. More than 2,000 patients have been forced to travel from Grampian to Ross Hall hospital in Glasgow. That is all okay, however, because our Government pretends that there are no problems.
Last week, we published freedom of information responses from health boards across Scotland that showed that boards expect an NHS cuts bombshell of at least £1 billion over the next four years. That will have a direct effect on patient care and pile more pressure on our NHS staff. However, the health secretary’s response was to say that there are
“no cuts planned”
“to suggest otherwise is simply false”.
The health secretary should listen to the residents of the east end of Glasgow who are campaigning against the proposed closure of Lightburn hospital; to the expectant mothers in the west of Scotland who are campaigning against maternity closures at the Vale of Leven and Inverclyde hospitals; and to the parents in Paisley who have relaunched their campaign to protect paediatric services at the Royal Alexandra hospital. She should respond to the tens—if not hundreds—of emails that she has received from patients at the centre for integrative care at Gartnavel who face the closure of their in-patient services. Instead of listening, however, the health secretary chooses to insult their intelligence.
I urge the Government to use the powers of this Parliament to transform Scotland, and to please recognise that there is another way—a better way—forward. We can probably use the powers of the Parliament to increase resources to our vital public services. We can have bold action on the NHS, social care and organ donation, and on the workforce planning crisis that we face in our NHS. Let us forget our obsessions and focus on what the Government is meant to be doing every day: helping the most underprivileged people in our communities and delivering an NHS of which we can all be proud.15:57
I thank the First Minister for setting out the Scottish Government’s programme for government. I do not know whether the policy area that I am going to speak about got 10, 30 or 40 seconds in the First Minister’s statement, but I have six minutes in which to speak about the issues.
Anas Sarwar spoke about obsession. It seems to be an obsession of the Labour Party to constantly oppose everything, which is why the party will continue to be in opposition.
I will focus my contribution on the proposed social security bill, which—as the First Minister said—will enable us to take the first step towards a social security system that is based on respect and dignity. As convener of the Social Security Committee, I look forward to working with members, interested parties and the Scottish Government. We need to ensure that the bill delivers, with dignity and respect at its heart.
Tory welfare cuts have caused the most vulnerable in our society untold misery. I say to Ruth Davidson—although she is not in the chamber just now—and to the Tories on her side of the chamber that sanctioning disabled people is neither dignified nor respectful; it is absolutely disgraceful and despicable. The Tories should not speak about welfare and disabled people, given the way in which they treat folk in the welfare system.
We need to take a different approach with the powers that have been transferred to this Parliament, although I remind Parliament that only 15 per cent—or £2.7 billion out of a total of £17.5 billion—is being devolved. We need to make people aware of that, and we need to be realistic with ourselves and with the general public. The changes will not happen overnight, and I and other members of the Social Security Committee realise that there is a lot of work to be done. We should be telling people that change will not happen overnight and that they should not expect that to happen.
The social security bill will be a huge bill—it will be legislation on a scale that the Scottish Parliament has not seen before. We must ensure that people are aware of its size—and that we get it right.
The Scottish Government has received powers over 11 existing disability and caring benefits, including disability living allowance, personal independence payments and the carer’s allowance, and control over funeral payments, sure start maternity grants and cold weather and winter fuel payments. The Government will also have the power to top up benefits, create new benefits and be flexible in the way in which universal credit is paid by the Department for Work and Pensions. We need to look at how those benefits will be delivered.
For example, the use of private companies to carry out assessments has been an expensive failure. Atos has had its work capability assessment contract withdrawn because of its abysmal performance, which resulted in huge delays and claimants being found fit for work who were clearly not fit for work. Those included many claimants who have a chaotic lifestyle because of mental health problems, as Willie Rennie mentioned. Atos and other private companies must be looked at because they are not up to the mark on the delivery of benefits. PIP claimants had to wait months because of the failure of Capita and Atos to deliver medical assessments. Do we think that that is fit for people in modern-day Scotland?
When the new social security agency is up and running, it must serve people with dignity. I have been out and about in my constituency—as I am sure other members have been in their constituencies—and have spoken to the people who deliver services. I have been to Jobcentre Plus and welfare rights offices as well as Flourish house and other places to get first-hand experience of what people have to suffer. People who have mental health problems might have to present themselves for an assessment at a time when they are feeling better. The people who examine them tell them that they are fine, so their benefits are cut completely. Those people go straight back to the way that they were before. Some people have chronic illnesses that cannot be cured. Why should they have to go every other week to be looked at by a so-called medical expert, Atos or Capita?
I am sure that all members have faced a similar situation to this one. A gentleman came to see me because on 31 December he was sent to Edinburgh to go through an assessment although he lives in the west end of Glasgow. We need to look at where it is best for people to go.
We are talking about real people with real needs, and we need to make sure that they are treated as such. It is our job to ensure that they are treated properly, and I look forward to the committee working on the social security bill.16:03
Today marks an important moment in the United Kingdom’s battle to eradicate poverty, not because of anything that the First Minister said this afternoon, but because of the publication by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation of its strategy to solve UK poverty. I can see that a number of members in the chamber are reading it at the moment.
On reading the strategy document this morning, I was struck by how much of it accords with what Conservatives have been saying for years.
“For those who can, work represents the best route out of poverty”.
That sounds like it was lifted from a Tory manifesto, but those are the JRF’s words.
“Work should always pay and people should be supported into employment”.
Again, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, like the Conservatives, recognises that solving poverty cannot be done by Governments alone but will be achieved only when Governments work with, rather than against, business and voluntary organisations.
In her statement, the First Minister talked about child poverty, and we know that the Scottish Government launched a consultation on a child poverty bill in August. I am sure that everyone in the chamber would want to support the aspirations behind the forthcoming child poverty bill, but the idea that child poverty can be eradicated by legislating it away with the sweep of a draftsman’s pen shows just how impoverished is the Government’s thinking on child poverty. There is no target duty, no matter how well crafted, that will lift even a single child out of poverty in Scotland. I note that we on the Conservative benches are in agreement with Patrick Harvie on that, so we must be right.
Eradicating child poverty is an ambitious and important aspiration for any Government. It is not only an economic imperative but a moral duty. However, we will not achieve it unless we are prepared to confront not only the symptoms and effects of poverty but its underlying causes.
What are those causes? There is no mystery about that—they have been set out over and over again by think tanks such as the Centre for Social Justice. Among the principal causes of poverty are addiction, worklessness, family breakdown and educational underattainment. What does the SNP’s programme for government have to say about those causes?
Will the member take an intervention?
Not at the moment.
What does last month’s consultation paper say about them? Precious little. We have already heard about how skills shortages have been made worse, not improved, by the SNP cutting 152,000 college places, and about how fewer, not more, of our poorer students manage to get to university in Scotland.
The SNP’s record on addiction is every bit as poor. Drug and alcohol funding was cut by £15 million this year; funding for drugs recovery was cut by 11 per cent; and local addiction projects report that their funding has been cut by up to 20 per cent.
That brings me back to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which said in its document today that
“Additional spending on benefits without addressing the root causes”
“has failed to reduce poverty.”
That is a finding that we would do well to bear in mind as we scrutinise the forthcoming social security bill.
All over the world, countries are realising that it is cities that are the economic powerhouses of wealth generation, job creation and growth. From Cleveland and Toronto to Melbourne, Atlanta and the Rhine-Ruhr, policymakers in the US, Canada, Australia and Germany are empowering their cities and devolving powers to mayors, triggering what Bruce Katz has called a “metropolitan revolution”.
Closer to home, that is what the northern powerhouse, the city deal programme and city region devolution are all about: joining cities up with their regional economies to improve transport, transform local infrastructure and create jobs—but not in Scotland. There are no mayors here, and the First Minister did not even mention the word “cities” in her statement.
Whereas in Manchester, for example, devolution is extending beyond transport and infrastructure to health and social care, in Scotland those areas remain resolutely centralised. Devolution has become a one-way street. Powers are transferred from Westminster to Holyrood but, once here, they are hoarded centrally and not passed down to our cities and city regions. Yet, as the Scottish cities alliance argued in June of this year,
“We can only achieve the economic potential for our places and people if we have the levers and the collaborative working arrangements that would allow us to compete with other cities close to home and globally.”
In Scotland, we have grown used to leading Britain’s constitutional arguments about devolution but now we are being dragged back. The Scottish economy is being outperformed by the rest of the UK in terms of growth per capita. Productivity, too, is lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Even recent good news—the 51 per cent increase in foreign direct investment in 2015, for example—is dwarfed by the 127 per cent increase in foreign direct investment seen in the north-west and north-east of England.
If Glasgow, the city that I represent, is to emulate Manchester’s economic resurgence, the Scottish Government needs to act. Glasgow enjoys a labour pool of just over 400,000 people, but more than 1.2 million working-age people live within a 45-minute commute of the city. With a third of Scotland’s economy, a third of Scotland’s jobs and nearly 30 per cent of Scotland’s businesses, it is essential both for the city and its region that the two are closely and effectively bound together.
In England and Wales, legislative provision was made in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 for combined authorities and city region mayors. Although governance structures on their own will not deliver the regeneration, growth and productivity that Scotland’s urban economies need, international evidence strongly suggests that cities and city regions will not thrive without them. I referred earlier to Bruce Katz’s “metropolitan revolution”, which combines new governance structures with new powers to create better outcomes.
The First Minister opened her statement with a reference to this Parliament’s new powers. She also mentioned the devolution from local authorities to communities. However, the missing link—as ever with the SNP—is the transfer of power from Holyrood to the councils and, in particular, the cities of this country.
The First Minister has said that in this Parliament, there will be “a real battle of ideas”. She is right about that.
Can you please wind up?
I am winding up, Presiding Officer.
What defines that battle is a centralised, top-down, nanny-knows-best approach versus our commitment to decentralisation, devolution and localism.16:10
I welcome the programme for government that the First Minister has announced. Before I carry on, I want to pick up on a couple of points that Ruth Davidson made earlier. She spoke about “talking shops” and “commissions”, but surely dialogue with and consultation of the electorate and population of Scotland are good things—or are the Conservatives saying that they do not want to have dialogue with and consultation of the electorate?
Ruth Davidson also said that the proposed legislation “fails to hang together”. However, we will have a budget bill, an APD bill that will certainly help tourism, a housing bill that will help housing associations to borrow money to build more housing, a child poverty bill that aims to take children out of poverty, and a social security bill that aims to provide a decent social security system. Surely those will all tie together to help the economy. In addition, there is the £100 million investment that the First Minister spoke about, the 50,000 affordable homes target for the current session of Parliament and the £500 million Scottish growth scheme. Surely those things will tie in and “hang together”. Maybe Ruth Davidson just was not listening to what the First Minister had to say.
The programme for government is packed full of ideas, bills and actions to take Scotland forward, despite the backdrop of Brexit. As usual, we have heard negative commentary from Opposition members about what is not in the programme, but no one could deny that there is something for everyone in it. There are social policies aplenty and policies to stimulate the economy, and those will go hand in hand to take Scotland forward to being a more socially just and competitive nation.
I welcome the announcement of a new housing bill and the commitment to build 50,000 new affordable homes, which includes 35,000 homes for social rent. Everyone in Scotland has the right to expect a safe, warm and affordable home; delivering on that commitment will help the Scottish Government to achieve just that. Like many other MSPs, throughout the summer I visited a range of organisations. Only yesterday, I had a meeting with one of my local housing associations. One of its key messages was that we should keep the house building programme because it assists with a range of aspects of society including employment, training and health—although we should not forget that it also means that people live in better homes.
The SNP in government has a strong track record on housing, having exceeded the target to build 30,000 new affordable homes over the previous session of Parliament and having restarted the construction of council housing with 5,000 new council houses. That is in sharp contrast with the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, which are in the ludicrous position of having built only six new council houses throughout their last term in office, and with a Tory party that is obsessed with austerity and is taking real investment out of the economy. Building at least 50,000 homes will provide further support to first-time buyers and support the economy, and it will form an essential part of the plans to keep Scotland moving forward.
My constituency of Greenock and Inverclyde has in the past benefited from Scottish Government commitments on housing; I am certain that local housing associations will benefit further. I know that they continually look and plan for new-build projects.
Sandra White spoke about the social security bill. I have encouraged constituents and organisations to take part in the consultation that was launched a few weeks ago, and I spoke about that at an event during carers week. The Scottish Government has already confirmed that it will use its new powers to increase carers allowance to the same rate as jobseekers allowance, to abolish the bedroom tax and to scrap the 84-day rule, which removes income from the families of disabled children. The Scottish Government is determined to put dignity and respect at the heart of social security, instead of the Dickensian approach from London.
I am sure that all parties in the chamber will want to ensure that the limited powers that are coming to Scotland are well managed and are used in a way that is cost-effective and tackles inequality.
Despite Scottish Government requests for the roll-out of universal credit to be halted until the process of delivering new powers to the Scottish Parliament is complete, the UK Government has gone ahead with gradually rolling out universal credit across the UK. According to Citizens Advice Scotland, people on universal credit are far more likely to be in rent arrears. The five-week waiting period before people receive their first payment means that some are in arrears from the start.
Universal credit will roll out in my constituency in November this year. Over the past year, I have engaged with many organisations on it. In the summer, I heard from the local health and social care partnership, the DWP and housing associations. I have also heard from numerous constituents who are concerned about the roll-out of universal credit and how it will affect them.
I am thankful that the Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that, as we implement our new powers and start to make changes, people will continue to have a say in the debates and decisions that affect them—which is unlike what the Conservatives want. The poorest people in society—including the working poor—have paid the price for the Tory obsession with austerity for far too long.
One of the measures that the First Minister announced this afternoon was £100 million for investment. I welcome her announcement that some of that money will be spent at the Inverclyde royal hospital in Greenock and the Glasgow royal infirmary. The IRH is built at the top of a hill that is exposed to the inclement weather that we regularly have in Inverclyde. There is absolutely no shelter, so the hospital takes a battering all year round. There is a backlog of repairs to the building that are required, so any investment in it will be greatly appreciated throughout the district. I also welcome the pilot of a minor ailments service that will take place through the community pharmacies in Inverclyde.
Will you wind up, please?
Certainly, Presiding Officer.
The programme shows that the Scottish Government is getting on with the day-to-day business of running the country. I welcome it. It is good for Scotland and for Greenock and Inverclyde.
We are very tight for time, so I will have to be very strict with members from now on. Some members’ contributions have had to be cut because members took far too long earlier on.16:16
The First Minister is right to open the programme for government by highlighting that this is a new Parliament with new powers but that we are in challenging and uncertain times. When Parliament first started, we raised 10 per cent of our income, then it was 12 per cent. Now it is 52 per cent. That changes the landscape dramatically and brings into much sharper focus our responsibilities for helping the economy to grow.
The picture in our economy is mixed. In one quarter employment levels increase, but in the next quarter they drop. Unemployment levels continue to be stubborn. The Fraser of Allander institute, PricewaterhouseCoopers and many other economists have revised their growth expectations downwards. Across a range of measures, from productivity to inward investment, we lag behind the rest of the UK. We need to reverse that.
Levels of business confidence are troubling: a range of recent surveys show that business confidence has dipped. The Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Fraser of Allander institute and others are all saying that business optimism is substantially down.
Without doubt, the challenge is considerable. We came within a hair’s breadth of recession last year. When we add Brexit to the mix, there is no wonder that there is real concern about the consequences for our economy. In a post-Brexit Scotland, we will require action to match the rhetoric: the politics of assertion need to be over.
I will start with “Scotland’s Economic Strategy”, which was launched 18 months ago by John Swinney. At the time, I said that it was breathtakingly ambitious—after all, we were going to grow at a faster rate even than China. However, there was little evidence about how we would get there—a fact that Audit Scotland highlighted in its report at the start of summer. There is no action plan and no measuring framework; we have no idea whether the strategy is working well, or whether it is working at all. I am renowned for my patience with the Scottish Government, but 18 months on it is not good enough that we are still waiting. We are faced with a review of the institutional architecture that is lacking in focus and is, to be frank, a distraction from the urgent work on the economy and Brexit. However, the cabinet secretary’s response was a less than thoughtful “Let’s bash on.”
Today, we had a flurry of announcements—to which I will turn—but they come against a backdrop of cuts to funding for enterprise. I am not sure that we are doing enough, if we are serious about the economy and mitigating the consequences of Brexit. The truth is that I could not see a lot in the economy section of the First Minister’s speech that was new, but I am happy to be corrected. Her announcement of £100 million in response to Brexit is welcome, but it is a drop in the ocean and it is not new money but underspend from last year.
How much of the infrastructure investment that she spoke about today is being accelerated? Is there any reprofiled capital investment? Is any new money from borrowing on the table? We all agree that capital stimulus can and does help the economy, but I remain to be convinced that the scale of the response from the Scottish Government will be sufficient to achieve the effect that we all desire.
I very much welcome the First Minister’s announcement on the new national manufacturing institute. However, I am sure that she will forgive me for pointing out that she first announced that in February—although, at that time, it was called “the centre of excellence for manufacturing and skills academy”. We do not need recycled policies and announcements; we need this Government to rise to the challenge that is Brexit.
That brings me to the Scottish growth scheme. I am glad that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution is back in the chamber, because this issue is interesting. Scottish Labour introduced a Brexit action plan some weeks before the Scottish Government responded to the economic challenge. We called for accelerated capital investment, for the continued protection of workers and for a Brexit support fund. I genuinely hope that the Scottish growth scheme is achievable, because it will inject money into business where it is most important to do so. We support positive action to help businesses in these uncertain times. However, businesses need certainty, and it would be unhelpful if the proposal has been brought forward without dialogue with the Treasury and simply becomes another area of grievance. Businesses deserve more than that. I look forward to further detail being shared with Parliament.
On jobs and fair work, we need to build on the efforts of the fair work convention and get beyond warm words. It would be helpful to know exactly what is proposed by the Scottish Government. I welcome the revised target for the Scottish business pledge, but I encourage the Scottish Government to be more ambitious, as currently only 250 businesses have signed up to the pledge, against potentially more than 350,000 businesses in Scotland.
On energy, I welcome the decommissioning action plan, the new energy strategy and the warm homes bill. It is a matter of record that I have said many times in the past that it is a national scandal that we have 900,000 households in fuel poverty. The new minister admitted what we all knew, which is that the target of ending fuel poverty would not be reached, but it is imperative that we focus on that, so that people do not have to choose between heating and eating.16:22
I find myself not referring to the speech that I intended to give this afternoon. Instead, I will reflect on my upbringing and the challenges that affected my community.
I grew up in Motherwell and Wishaw, which is the area that I now represent. When I was a teenager, I saw the miners’ strike, I saw the miners pitted against the steelworkers by the policies of the Tory Government and I saw the closure of Ravenscraig, which ended up causing the area of Gowkthrapple in my constituency to have the highest male unemployment rate in Europe, and poverty that was previously unknown in the area. Most of the workers in the area were employed in Ravenscraig, and there was a thriving community with businesses, but the latest figures show that it is still one of the poorest areas in Scotland. I have to say to Mr Tomkins that it was not addictions or worklessness that caused that poverty, but the deindustrialisation that was forced on our communities by the Tory Government, which left communities with no future.
The Government then had no plans for those communities and demonstrated a recklessness that is equalled only by what his Government in Westminster has done in relation to Brexit, where there is also no planning. Governments cannot make decisions about communities that leave them with no plans and expect things to work out right. That was reckless, and we are again seeing recklessness from the present Tory Government.
The Scottish Government introduced the Scottish welfare fund as a safety net for people in poverty that would mitigate the bedroom tax and provide crisis grants for those who were sanctioned by the DWP, under Tory policies. The rate of appeals under that sanction system is nearly 50 per cent. It is unfair and broken, so the Scottish Government has introduced £24 million to mitigate the problems. I do not think that we will take any lessons on child poverty from the Tories, this afternoon.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and I welcome the First Minister’s commitment that the programme will drive sustainable growth, reform education and create opportunities for all. It will transform our public services and empower local communities by getting on with the business of government and delivering for Scotland.
I am about to make a public statement that I have never made before: I am an addict of “The Archers”. I say this not to diminish in any way the domestic abuse problems that exist, but to highlight that the story in “The Archers” at the moment comes close to the very problems that the domestic abuse bill that will be introduced seeks to solve. The programme has raised public awareness about the issues in a way that we, as politicians, might struggle to do. Some of my fellow “Archers” addicts raised more than £130,000 for the domestic abuse charity Refuge.
We have come so far in how we deal with domestic abuse. Every single incident is to be deplored, but it is still an invisible crime in our communities. The new domestic abuse bill will follow on significantly from the work that has already been undertaken by this Government and Police Scotland, and which has transformed the way in which society approaches and reacts to domestic abuse. The formation of the domestic abuse task force and the establishment of the national group to address violence against women have been transformational. Significantly, the equally safe campaign has given some comfort to victims of domestic abuse by tackling the issue at the height of the problems over the Christmas period. Our approach now is robust and effective, and we are learning all the time, but the domestic abuse bill will enhance that work and will prosecute people for psychological and controlling abuse.
Also in justice, I commend the Government for the proposed third party rights bill. Again, we see a Government that is transforming our justice system—it is modernising it and bringing it up to international benchmarks in third party rights. The bill will give flexibility for the introduction of a third party into a contract, and will provide that party with some rights. For example, should it so wish, a construction company or a property developer can extend rights to the potential purchaser of a property. That is a good way forward that will make things clearer for people who are involved in any transactions in relation to such contracts. It will modernise our legal system, so I welcome that move by the Scottish Government.
The growth scheme will be of huge importance to small and medium-sized enterprises, which are very worried about the implications of Brexit, and the possible loss of horizon 2020 funding and the uncertainty that that has brought. However, the growth fund, which will provide £5 million to eligible businesses, will be transformational and will ensure that our SMEs can go forward with confidence at a time when little clarity is coming from any level of government in the UK, other than from the Scottish Government, which has thought through and planned for the implications of Brexit.16:28
I am pleased to contribute to the debate on the Government’s programme and do so in the shortened time allotted to me. I would like to outline some of the concerns that we have about health and say where we think that the priorities should be so that we can all see a healthier Scotland.
I have some initial observations on what the First Minister said this afternoon. Many of the points that she made were the same as points that she made in May and were in the SNP manifesto. I hope that the Government will go beyond those proposals and show more vision and ambition in policy terms. That is especially true in the context of the major challenges facing the NHS, not just in the next five years but way beyond that. People are living longer and increasing demands are being placed on the NHS at various stages. It is critical that the health service receives the necessary funding in order to ensure that it can continue to provide a high-quality service, free at the point of use, for the people of Scotland. Similarly, it is vital that the number of people employed on the front line of the NHS can cope with the ever-increasing demand.
On the funding commitments that were mentioned, Audit Scotland noted that in order to guarantee that health and social care services can meet current demand, the Scottish Government will need to invest between £422 million and £625 million every year. The SNP pledged in its manifesto and the First Minister pledged at the start of this parliamentary session and again today an additional £500 million for the NHS over this session. Although that funding commitment is welcome, it is long overdue, given the chronic underfunding of the NHS that we witnessed during the previous session in comparison to the higher level of NHS funding in England.
In light of the funding commitments, it is imperative that the Scottish Government acts quickly to channel funds into those areas of the NHS that are in urgent need of investment. One of the Scottish Conservatives’ principal areas of concern is the staffing and workforce of the NHS at all levels and across all disciplines, which I do not shirk from describing as being in crisis.
The Government and the First Minister keep saying that there are record numbers of employees. I make two comments on that: record numbers do not mean sufficient numbers, and record numbers of people are getting old in Scotland. It is no answer to say that there are record numbers of staff.
Ensuring that the NHS has adequate front-line staffing is vital so that patients can be attended to as quickly as possible and receive the best treatment. Various major professional bodies have expressed concern at the existing levels of staffing numbers in their respective fields and have done so again this very day. I will not go over the statistics relating to GPs, as they are well known. We know that GPs are retiring earlier, their workloads are increasing and, as the GP workforce ages, younger doctors are not being attracted to the profession. Only yesterday, it was reported that one in every four GP training slots in Scotland is lying vacant. There are problems at both the entry to and exit from the profession.
The SNP has been in power for almost a decade, yet it is not prepared for this crisis in staffing. I say to Clare Adamson that we will not take lessons from the SNP on recklessness when the SNP has left general practice on its knees. Our family doctors are on the front line, but—unbelievably—the percentage of NHS funding that reaches general practice has been going down. As Ruth Davidson said, last week the Scottish Conservatives announced our plans to commit at least 10 per cent of the total NHS budget to general practice by 2020. That would represent a significant increase from the current 8 per cent of total spending. The Scottish Government has known about that, not least because the Royal College of General Practitioners, when it welcomed our commitment last week, said that it had been calling for that for almost three years.
I turn to another body of health professionals. The Royal College of Nursing has indicated that “proper funding” will need to be in place to ensure that regional health boards are able to employ enough staff to maintain safe staffing levels. Today, the RCN said:
“the increase in staff is not keeping pace with demand: the vacancy rate at June 2016 was 4.2%, an increase from 3.7% over the year and, even more worrying, almost 600 posts had been vacant for three months or more”.
This very afternoon, the BMA noted its concern at the increase in the over-six-months vacancy rate. It made a basic but obvious point: it is not enough to create additional consultant posts; they need to be filled.
Those are just two examples from different sectors in the NHS, but there is a clear theme of a severe staffing crisis that has existed for too long in our NHS.
The next few years will be critical for the NHS in Scotland. Our health service faces clear challenges and it is up to the Scottish Government to heed the calls made by the various bodies that represent health staff across Scotland, target funding more carefully and ensure adequate provision of staff across all sections of the NHS.16:33
We live in challenging times. The First Minister has demonstrated again today that her Government is determined to lead with principle and purpose, focused on using the powers of this Parliament to take our country forward and make a meaningful difference at every opportunity.
The issues that we face as a nation are significant, and of course we all understand that. How do we best advance and compete as part of an international economy that is fragile, imbalanced and still recovering from the financial crisis of 2008?
How does Scotland continue to resist and mitigate an on-going, ideological, unnecessary Conservative Westminster austerity agenda? That imposed agenda has hampered growth and sustainable development and created needless anguish and strain for many of the most vulnerable in our society.
How do we best continue to tackle climate change, uphold our human rights, build a fairer country and make Scotland an even more internationalist and outward-looking place?
How do we take our country forward in the uncertain separatist scenario that the Brexit vote and the Tory UK Government have landed Scotland in against our will?
The SNP Scottish Government was re-elected on a record of delivery and a realistic but ambitious platform for change that will meaningfully and purposefully take our country forward despite the challenging financial and constitutional circumstances in which we find ourselves, which I have articulated.
The programme for government that we have been debating reflects the high aspirations, strong legacy of competence and authentic social democratic values of the modern SNP. It reflects a manifesto that was supported when the people of Scotland cast their votes on 5 May. Like our country, that manifesto was multidimensional. The Scottish Government programme reflects the breadth and range of our nation’s challenges.
I will focus on two interconnected elements: equality and fairness, and prosperity. In view of the political make-up of the Parliament, most of our constituents believe in creating a fairer Scotland, and we should always remember that. That is why I strongly support the Scottish Government’s programme to use the new powers that are coming to the Parliament to advance social justice and promote greater equality.
For example, the proposed child poverty bill will step up efforts to eradicate child poverty, and the best start grant and the baby box will make a meaningful difference. The proposed gender balance on public boards bill will enhance equality, promote representation and recognition, and help to encourage similar reform across our society and throughout our economy.
It is important that the proposed social security bill will allow the 15 per cent of devolved social security spending to be allocated to the Parliament and will enable it to use the power to allocate that spending to those in need, with greater dignity and respect. We will soon see the end of the remarkably indecent and ill-judged Tory bedroom tax.
As well as creating a fairer country, we must all work to create a more prosperous Scotland with a dynamic, sustainable and inclusive economy that is focused around fair work to deliver greater opportunities and generate wealth for public services. That is why I endorse the Scottish Government’s plans to support Scotland’s economy, especially in the Brexit environment. For example, an air passenger duty bill will help to connect Scotland to more of the world and more of the world to Scotland. With greater connectivity combined with a new Scottish growth scheme of £0.5 billion of investment guarantees, the Scottish Government’s determination to develop export growth, support SMEs and strengthen links with established networks will, as well as opening up emerging markets, support productivity and encourage investment.
It is clear that, by proposing those measures and more, the Scottish Government is taking robust action to strengthen the Scottish economy and make it more dynamic and inclusive in these challenging times.
I could say a lot more, but my time is up and I know that we are tight for time.16:39
There is no doubt that there are major challenges and pressures in communities across Scotland. We all know that. However, in considering the First Minister’s speech, I want to focus on the positives on which we can work together. There are a lot of positives in the programme for government on which we should be able to work together and bring about improvement across Scotland.
We welcome the social security bill. We will work with the minister and the Government, and we would certainly want to put dignity and respect at the heart of that bill. However, I should be clear that every person in Scotland deserves pity and respect. This morning I was on a picket line in Dunfermline, in Fife, with Unison members that work in Fife College. They clearly believe that they are being denied dignity, respect and fair pay. It is important that, if we are going to make claims about dignity and respect, we ensure that we deliver it for everyone.
A housing bill will be introduced. Our manifesto proposed to build more houses. We can—and need to—work together to build houses. Yesterday, Shelter Scotland launched a homelessness and rough sleeping campaign called far from fixed. It is estimated that more than 5,000 people sleep rough each year; 30,000 households were assessed as homeless; an unknown number are sofa surfing, as it is being described; 10,000 households live in temporary accommodation; and 5,000 children wake up every morning without a home to call their own. Housing is a massive priority because of that.
My issue with the Government is not its commitment to 35,000 social rented houses and 50,000 affordable houses, but with how its commitment will be delivered. Just as the Government has said that it will introduce a detailed delivery plan on its commitment to superfast broadband, we need to have a detailed delivery plan that sets out how we intend to build those houses. The benefits of doing so are clear, given the numbers of people who are homeless and on council waiting lists.
Alex Neil mentioned skill shortages, apprenticeships and the jobs that can be created. If members take Fife Council as an example, it had a programme to build 2,700 houses over the past five years, which it has managed to deliver—yes, with the support of the Scottish Government, but also with the support of tenants in raising the money. The number of apprenticeships and jobs that have been created locally is impressive.
We also welcome the child poverty bill. Again, we will want to work with the Government on that. However, we are clear that we need an anti-poverty strategy across all levels of Government. Today, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its report “We can solve poverty in the UK: a strategy for governments, businesses, communities and citizens”. We need to develop that strategy in Scotland and solve poverty here.
The report makes it clear that, in order to tackle poverty, all levels of government need to be engaged. The Scottish Government needs to be joined up in this place, because the topic runs across every Government portfolio. We need to involve local government, so that that is joined up; we need to involve the dynamic third sector; we need to involve business and industry. That clearly comes across in today’s report.
In welcoming the child poverty bill, I hope that we can pick up on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s work, which has more of a focus on England and Wales, and that we can develop a coherent anti-poverty strategy that will allow us not just to talk about dealing with poverty, but to deal with poverty.
The Scottish union learning fund is mentioned in the programme for government. That is very welcome. The key to the fund is for learners to be able to progress. The cuts on part-time education and the gaps in workers’ skills in particular are a major block.
In my final minute, I will focus briefly on local government. We know that local government has had a really tough settlement these past years. We can see the cuts biting in every community—in services, support and local organisations. The proposal to put £100 million from local government into schools is a good one.
Labour also said that we would raise money: we would put taxes up and invest in public services that way. However, the Government says that rather than put taxes up it will dip into local taxation and start spending that money on its national priorities. As good as those national priorities are, such an approach is an affront to local democracy and to local revenue raising. It is not the way to build strong relationships with local government. As other members have said, decentralisation and the devolution of power are about not just taking powers in Edinburgh but taking powers further down—we really need to stop taking power up the way.
I hope that we can work together on the many bills in the programme that I think can make Scotland a better place. I look forward to working with the appropriate ministers.16:45
The first debate on the programme for government in a new parliamentary session is always important.
I did not hear much optimism from Willie Rennie. I confess that all his talk about smoking was putting me at severe risk of relapsing.
Many members who spoke this afternoon commented on the new powers that the Parliament has in this new session. We are dealing with a new political context. The new powers were expected, of course, and we are well prepared for them. The EU referendum result, however, was not predicted by many people in this Parliament and presents us with many challenges. The Government remains resolute that, as well as taking the opportunities that are afforded by the new powers, it will see Scotland through the challenges that we will face as a result of Brexit, whatever that means and whenever it happens.
The Government will also see Scotland through the challenges that are posed by the financial situation. It is a fact that our budget up to 2019-20 will reduce by 3 per cent and that over the decade from 2010 to 2020 £3.3 billion will have been taken out of the Scottish Government’s budget. Clare Adamson’s anger was palpable when she made her powerful speech about the impact on poverty, equality and the economy in the times that we are living in. Such anger is apposite.
The focus of my portfolio is social security, communities and equalities. That creates the space for us to think differently about how we use the new powers to make lasting progress in Scotland and about how we can pull together on anti-poverty measures across every Government portfolio, working closely with the third sector and our partners in local government.
We are determined to use our new powers to build a social security system that is founded on the principles of dignity and respect. A consultation is under way on the proposed social security bill and our wider policy objectives and I urge as many people as possible, particularly those with lived experience of the benefits system, to take part. I encourage MSP colleagues of all parties to facilitate such participation.
The new powers, particularly on social security, represent the biggest programme of change in the history of devolution. We want to use them to make a difference. We want to—and we will—make different decisions and choices. However, we must recognise the hard reality: with powers that relate to 15 per cent of the welfare state we will not address the unfairness of the 85 per cent that remains reserved.
It is ironic that Conservatives say that we should address the causes of poverty, when every year we spend £100 million on mitigating the consequences of welfare reform and UK Government-imposed poverty. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves running to stand still. We have to face the harsh reality: some £2 billion was taken out of our economy in 2015-16 alone as a result of welfare cuts.
It is also ironic that the Conservatives—the political party that scrapped the statutory income targets that were designed to tackle child poverty, probably because it was not going to meet them—are quoting the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The Conservatives should ask the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group what those organisations think of the UK Government’s scrapping of statutory income targets to address child poverty. It is not possible to have a plan to tackle child poverty that pays no heed to the family income that supports children.
We will introduce our own child poverty bill in the new year. As the First Minister said, that will—arguably—be the most important piece of legislation that we introduce in this parliamentary year. In Scotland, 210,000 children live in poverty. Despite the limitations on our resources and our powers, we are determined to eradicate the obscenity of child poverty in modern-day Scotland.
We are also determined to tackle fuel poverty. Backed by more than £500 million of funding, Scotland’s energy efficiency programme will make a huge difference to ensuring that people’s homes are warmer. It will improve people’s health, help to tackle climate change and support 4,000 jobs per annum.
I say to Alex Rowley that we have a strategy to tackle homelessness and to create more affordable homes, which is our more homes Scotland approach. The approach is about more investment for more houses. Over the parliamentary session, £3 billion will be invested to secure at least 50,000 affordable homes. The approach also focuses on the housing infrastructure fund, on planning and on the skills and expertise that Alex Neil spoke about.
It was ironic that some Opposition members spent more time talking about independence than the First Minister did. The First Minister and SNP members talked about the child poverty bill, the social security bill, the gender balance bill, the domestic abuse bill, the housing bill and the time-bar bill.
This is a new Parliament with new powers in a new political context. We have still to understand the full and crushing impact of Brexit. If our interests cannot be protected in a UK context, surely independence is an option that people have the right to consider. No politician, whether they are a yes, a no or a maybe, has the right to stand in the way of the ability of the people of Scotland to choose their future.
The programme for government is a plan to put power back into the control of the people of Scotland. It is based on the Government’s belief that our strength and unity as a nation depend on every person being able to play their full part without unfair barriers being placed on their ambitions. This is a plan for Scotland’s prosperity and we ask all of Scotland and Parliament to get behind it.
The programme for government debate will continue tomorrow. I remind members who have spoken to be in the chamber for the closing speeches tomorrow.