Meeting date: Thursday, April 20, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 20 April 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, International Workers Memorial Day, Defence Basing Reforms, Standing Orders Rule Changes (Supermajorities), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Points of Order, Correction
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- International Workers Memorial Day
- Defence Basing Reforms
- Standing Orders Rule Changes (Supermajorities)
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Points of Order
First Minister’s Question Time
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-01149)
Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
Last night, I was at an event in London, discussing the benefits of United Kingdom aid with Bill Gates. I have no idea where Mr Gates stands on our constitutional future, but here is what he said about the UK aid effort:
“You are the reason that malaria deaths are down in entire villages, and lifesaving vaccines are now reaching kids in the most remote parts of the world.”
We are about to fight a general election campaign in which we know what the Scottish National Party’s message will be; that living in the UK under a Conservative Government will be “hell on earth”. Given the work that this country does around the world and the conditions that people face in other parts of the world, I ask the First Minister at the start of this campaign: does she really think that that is a fair description of life in this country?
Like Ruth Davidson, I support whole-heartedly the commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product on helping the world’s poorest communities. It is something that the SNP argued for long before it was ever a Tory commitment.
I heard Bill Gates’s comment last night. I also heard him in a number of interviews, and I heard him express concern, as others have expressed, that the Tory manifesto for the forthcoming election will drop the 0.7 per cent commitment. I welcome Ruth Davidson’s commitment, but will she assure the chamber today that the commitment will be in the UK Tory manifesto for the next election? No Tory UK minister has yet been willing to give that.
On the wider issue of the election, I think that the key issue is: who is going to stand up for Scotland against an increasingly hardline Tory Government? The Prime Minister herself has made it very clear that in this election her objective is to crush dissent so that she can do whatever she wants. People across Scotland have to be clear: there is no safe tactical Tory vote at this election. We have seen the damage that Tories do with a small majority—[Interruption.] I know that they do not want to hear this, but with a small majority, the Tories have cut Scotland’s budget, have imposed the bedroom tax, the rape clause and cuts to disabled support and have robbed women of their pension entitlement. Let us think about the damage that a Tory Government could do with a bigger majority. If the thought of a one-party Tory stranglehold at Westminster horrifies, and if we want effective opposition in Scotland, that opposition can come only from the SNP.
Theresa May herself gave the commitment to the aid budget when she was at the Department for International Development’s East Kilbride headquarters, which administers aid all around the world.
Let us get back to the SNP’s contribution. I quote:
“Hell on earth. Eternal damnation in a bottomless pit”.
Those are direct quotes from the First Minister’s back bencher Joan McAlpine, writing about life in the UK in a national newspaper this week. On the one hand, we have people such as Bill Gates talking about the brilliant work that his foundation is doing alongside British aid workers and the summit that his wife is hosting this summer with the UK Government to support millions more women and girls in getting access to contraception, and on the other, we have Nicola Sturgeon’s colleagues writing offensive and negative trash about our country. Who does the First Minister stand with: Bill Gates or Joan McAlpine?
I will say a number of things to that. First, Ruth Davidson says that Theresa May has given the commitment. Well, the morning after she called the general election, Theresa May was on the radio and was challenged to commit to putting the 0.7 per cent commitment in the manifesto. She would not do it. She was challenged to do something else; she was challenged to say that the Tories would have a commitment to the triple lock on pensions in the manifesto, and she would not do that, either. I think that we should look very closely at the commitments that the Tories make and those that they do not make at this election.
Secondly, I support the work that DFID does around the world, and I am proud of the work that this Government does in Malawi and other countries around the world, too, helping women to get contraception as well as many other things. But do you know what I find utterly abhorrent? That, as DFID does things like that overseas, at home the Tory Government is forcing women to prove that they have been raped before they get access to benefits for their children.
I will give Ruth Davidson a chance to do today what she has shamefully refused to do so far. Do not pass the buck. Stand up here today, tell the chamber and tell Scotland straight: do you support the rape clause in principle, or do you, like me, think it is utterly abhorrent? Answer the question.
I will answer the question in the same way that I answered it in the press this morning: if the First Minister does not like the two-child tax policy, she can change it. But the truth is—
The truth is that the First Minister is always happier complaining about the UK Government than she is doing anything herself. The way that the SNP is readying itself to pour negativity on this country at this election is shameful.
She might not like it, but Scotland is part of this United Kingdom. If the First Minister really wants to set out her stall at this election, is a practical vision of how she is governing Scotland not the very least that we should all expect—or, given how education and the economy are going, is she banking on the fact that Scots just will not buy it?
Shame—shame on Ruth Davidson and shame on the Conservatives. We have just seen the true colours of Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives. Given the opportunity to stand up and clearly join others in the chamber to say that the rape clause—a clause that forces a woman to prove that she has been raped before claiming benefits for her children—is morally and in principle wrong, Ruth Davidson refuses to do so. That is utterly shameful. It brings into sharp focus the key issue at the heart of the general election.
I ask people to think about this. The rape clause has been introduced by a Tory Government at Westminster with a tiny majority. If that is what a Tory Government can do with a tiny majority, let us just think of the damage that an unfettered, out-of-control Tory Government can do with a bigger majority. If people in Scotland want protection against a Tory Government—
If people in Scotland want an effective, strong opposition to a Tory Government, they will not get it from unelectable Labour, and they will not get it from the Lib Dems, who still say that they would support a Tory Government; they will only get it from the SNP, and Scotland needs protection from the Tories.
In the weeks ahead, members on these benches will set out our vision of a United Kingdom that is a force for good in the world, and we will stand up for Scotland’s decision to stay in the United Kingdom. We will say no to a second referendum, so that Scotland can get on with building better schools and better public services.
What about the SNP’s plans? The First Minister’s very first intervention in the election has been to say that she would put Jeremy Corbyn in number 10. Is that because, uniquely, the First Minister sees in Mr Corbyn the wisdom, the foresight and the leadership skills that are needed in a Prime Minister, or could it possibly be because, in his own words, Jeremy Corbyn is “absolutely fine” with another referendum on independence? Is that the alliance that she was really seeking when she was down in London?
This is pretty tired stuff from the Tories. We only have to take one look at the polls to know that Jeremy Corbyn ain’t going anywhere near number 10 Downing Street—on his own or with the help of anybody else.
That brings us back to the core issue. Because of the unelectability of Labour, Scotland faces the prospect of an unfettered, out-of-control Tory Government, and we know the damage that that can do to Scotland, to our budget, to the vulnerable, to pensions and to our economy. That is the choice for Scotland—to vote SNP to make sure that Scotland’s voice is heard and that Scotland has protection against the Tories. The problem for Ruth Davidson, as she has clearly set out today, is that Scotland knows the Tory vision for Scotland—the rape clause, penalising the vulnerable, taking Motability vehicles away from disabled people. People across Scotland know the vision and the programme of the Tories, and that is why people in Scotland know that if they want protection against that Tory vision, they must vote SNP.
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-01142)
I have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
In recent weeks, the First Minister has joined me in calling out the Tories on the horrific rape clause. She has accused Theresa May of seeking to undermine devolution and she has said that the Tories are taking us off a cliff edge with hard Brexit, and she has just told us that we have seen the damage that a Tory Government can do, so why did the Scottish National Party abstain yesterday, instead of voting with Labour to get rid of the Tory Government?
I hate to be the one who has to point it out to Kezia Dugdale, but it was not the SNP that voted with the Tories yesterday in the House of Commons. It was Labour members who trooped through the lobby with the Tories. She knows the lobby I mean: it was the one that had “turkeys” and “Christmas” written above it. The idea that in this election Labour will replace the Tories is, frankly, pie in the sky. The issue and the threat at this election is that, due to Labour’s complete unelectability, we face an unfettered, out-of-control Tory Government. We know that the Prime Minister wants to silence opposition, so the question for Scotland is this: if people want a strong opposition to the Tories, if they want MPs who will stand up and be a voice for Scotland, then the only party to support at this election is this one, the SNP.
Labour members of Parliament voted yesterday to get rid of the miserable Tory Government. Imagine my surprise when the SNP MPs did not do the same. The First Minister has said that she wants an honest debate, so let us have it. It suits the SNP for the Tories to stay in power. That is why SNP MPs refused to vote Theresa May out of office yesterday, and every day that the Tories remain in power 430,000 Scots go without a real living wage, Women Against State Pension Inequality go without the pension that they have worked their whole lives for, and young people have their housing benefit stripped away. It suits the SNP for the Tories to stay in power, because the only thing that the SNP has ever cared about is independence. Will the First Minister tell us what is more important on 8 June, kicking the Tories out of office or having another divisive referendum?
Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable and will leave Labour carping from the sidelines. How do we know that? Because that is what Kezia Dugdale said about Jeremy Corbyn. I agree with Kezia Dugdale about how awful and how damaging the Tory Government is. That is why I think that it is so utterly shameful and disgraceful that Labour has allowed itself to get into a position where the Tories are 20 points ahead of them in the opinion polls UK-wide, and are even ahead of them in Scotland. That is Labour’s failure and it is an utter disgrace.
That brings us back to the core point at stake in the election. The only thing standing between an out-of-control, unfettered Tory Government and Scotland is the SNP. If the people want to make sure that the Tory Government can be held to account, if they want to make sure that there is a strong focus for Scotland and if they want to make sure that Scotland is protected against exactly the policies that Kezia Dugdale talks about, they must ensure that they send back SNP MPs to Westminster.
In 2015, the First Minister told Scotland to vote SNP to keep the Tories out. How is that going? I say to her in all seriousness that if Jeremy Corbyn were Prime Minister there would be no rape clause, no more housing benefit cuts and no more austerity. I will proudly campaign for that over the next six weeks as she campaigns for independence.
The last time that we voted in a general election, Nicola Sturgeon said this:
“I have made it very clear that if you vote SNP in this election, that is not a vote for independence, nor is it a vote for another referendum.”
Time and again, we were told that a vote for the SNP was not a vote for another referendum. Will the First Minister have the decency to tell the voters before they vote that she will use this election as another excuse for a divisive referendum—or, once again, will she wait until the day after?
The mandate for another referendum was sought and won at the Scottish Parliament elections last year. This election is about who will stand up for Scotland against the Tories. It is about who will stop the Tories silencing and crushing the Opposition.
Kezia Dugdale has the nerve to stand up and somehow blame the SNP for the fact that the—eh—Tories did not lose the election. [Interruption.] I am almost speechless that the SNP is to blame for the fact that the Tories won the election in 2015. It was Labour’s fault. If Labour had won every seat in Scotland, it would still have lost to the Tories across the UK. Labour is unelectable and utterly useless. That is the tragedy of UK politics right now.
That brings us back to the central point. I ask every voter to think about this seriously. The Tories want people to think that there is a safe, tactical Tory vote that they can cast in the election, but every single Tory vote cast in Scotland will help Theresa May make sure that she has the ability to do whatever she wants to do. If people do not want an out-of-control Tory Government, if people want protection, a strong Opposition and a strong voice against the Tories, they have to make sure that they vote SNP in Scotland.
To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-01145)
Issues of importance to the people of Scotland.
The Scottish National Party’s deputy leader, Angus Robertson, struggled to explain his party’s Europe policy on the radio yesterday. Five times, he was asked what policy would be in the general election manifesto. Five times he was asked, and five times he was not able to answer. He became so desperate that he even asked all the listeners to write in with suggestions. It was answers on a postcard, so the First Minister has a chance to influence the policy. Does she want full membership of the European Union to be in the SNP manifesto?
The SNP’s policy on Europe is absolutely clear. We want Scotland to remain a member of the European Union. I do not think that anyone could have missed that over the past few months.
It is interesting that Willie Rennie somehow tries to criticise me when I say that I want Scotland and the United Kingdom to remain in the EU but that it is important that we prioritise membership of the single market. It is interesting that he criticises me for that, because that is what Tim Farron, his own leader, says. He wants the UK to stay in the European single market—the priority is staying in the single market.
There is no doubt about my policy. I want Scotland to remain in the EU. The doubt is about what on earth the Liberal Democrat policy is on this—or any other—matter.
If the policy is that clear, why can the First Minister not just say that it will be in the manifesto? That would be clear. She is dodging, just like Angus Robertson was yesterday.
The Liberal Democrats, in contrast, are crystal clear. We want Scotland in the heart of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom in the heart of Europe. The general election is a chance to change the course of the whole United Kingdom. The more Liberal Democrat MPs that are elected, the greater the chance that we have of changing the direction of the country.
Just like she did in the moment when she joined the Scottish National Party all those years ago, the First Minister only cares about independence. She has only ever cared about that. We know what she and her Government are up to. She is trying to get Brexit supporters back on side, so she is going soft on Europe. It is fair to ask whether EU membership will be in the manifesto, so what is the First Minister’s answer? Will she tell us?
Let me try in simpler words: I support membership of the European Union. Surely even Willie Rennie can understand that.
There was another politician dodging questions yesterday, was there not? I saw Tim Farron challenged in the House of Commons by Stewart McDonald, who is one of my excellent colleagues in Westminster. Tim Farron was challenged by Stewart McDonald to rule out supporting a Tory Government, and he refused to do so.
There we have it: Labour is unelectable and the Liberal Democrats propped the Tories up for five years and will not rule out doing it again. If people want Scotland’s voice to be heard against the Tories, if they want Scotland to be protected against the Tories and if they want a party that stands up against the Tories, there is only one party that will do that: the SNP.
How is the Scottish Government standing up for human rights in the face of Tory attempts to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998?
We will oppose vigorously any attempt to scrap the 1998 act. We know that if the Tories get their way, scrapping it is exactly what they want to do, which makes it all the more ironic that Ruth Davidson is talking about work overseas. One of the worst things that the UK could do and the worst message that it could send internationally is to be seen to roll back on human rights. The SNP will always oppose that and always stand up for human rights.
Will the First Minister confirm that airport expansion, new flight routes and the scrapping of air passenger duty are all Government policy? Does she agree that it is rank hypocrisy for members of the Scottish Parliament, MPs and Government ministers to pretend to their constituents that they oppose those policies, when all the while they compliantly voted them through in Cabinet?
I want Scotland to have the best possible connections with the rest of the world, because that is good for not just people in Scotland but our businesses that are seeking to expand and export more overseas, so I make no apology for wanting our aviation connections and other transport connections to be as good as they possibly can be. I am also very clear about our responsibility to tackle climate change. This Government and, indeed, this Parliament should be proud of the world-leading action that we are taking to tackle climate change.
United States (Visit)
To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on her visit to the United States. (S5F-01158)
Yes. I visited the United States between 2 and 7 April, attending events and meetings in California and New York. The visit focused on trade and investment, boosting tourism, sharing best practice across the public and private sectors, and promoting Scottish innovation, entrepreneurship and culture. The relationship between Scotland and America is an important one, with deep and long-standing ties that are reflected by the strong economic, cultural and personal links of our citizens. The visit was an important opportunity to assure businesses and visitors from the US that Scotland is an outward-looking and welcoming country that remains very open for business.
I was particularly pleased to see that climate action was high on the agenda, with the First Minister signing a climate deal with the Governor of California. In the Highlands and Islands and throughout Scotland, renewables are transforming communities, creating employment and helping us meet our climate targets. While the Tories at Westminster trash subsidies for green energy, how can we continue to meet our global obligations to tackle climate change in partnership with allies around the world?
It is important to stress that Scotland is making huge progress in delivering our climate change ambitions, but we still have much to achieve.
In the US, I met the Governor of California to discuss how our two Administrations can work together to achieve our shared ambition of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and we pledged to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. We discussed the importance of offshore wind power in tackling climate change and agreed to share knowledge and best practice in developing that technology. We also offered to help the Under2 Coalition, which represents more than 1 billion people, to prepare for a major summit in 2018 that is aimed at persuading national governments to increase their efforts to tackle climate change.
There is no doubt that many of the policies of the current United Kingdom Government fly in the face of our efforts to tackle climate change, which is another reason why it is so important that we continue to have voices in Westminster arguing for policies that will support us and not hinder us in meeting those ambitions.
I was amused to see the First Minister under a banner that described her as “Queen of Scots”—which is not quite how I hear her being described nearer to home.
The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, is currently in London and has made it clear that the United States Government wishes to come to an expedited trade arrangement with the United Kingdom when we leave the European Union. When the First Minister was in the United States, what formal discussions did she have with the Government of the United States about future trade relationships? What assurances did she give the US Government that the Scottish Government would do everything that it could to ensure that an early trade deal is arrived at?
I am glad that Jackson Carlaw watched the “Women in the World” summit that he mentioned, and I hope that he also heard the gasps of horror from the very large audience that was listening at the summit when I outlined the rape clause policy that has come into effect—
The First Minister misrepresented the policy.
Jackson Carlaw says that I misrepresented the policy, so let me set it out very clearly for members. The rape clause policy puts an obligation on a woman to prove that she has been raped if she wants to claim tax credits for more than two children. If Jackson Carlaw thinks that that is a misrepresentation, I invite him to come to the chamber and tell members exactly what the rape clause policy entails, and to do what Ruth Davidson failed to do, which was to have the courage to say that it is morally reprehensible to have such a policy on the statute book.
I met a number of business representatives and other economic interests in the United States—
The US Government.
I did not have meetings with the US Government; the visit was focused on trade and investment. In every conversation and visit, the message was clear that Scotland remains open for business. Given the Tories’ Brexit obsession, it is all the more important that we get that message out in not just the United States, but in every country in the world.
School Building Defects
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports of defects found in school buildings. (S5F-01162)
The health, safety and wellbeing of pupils and staff when at school are of paramount importance. Following the publication of the “Report on the Independent Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools”, the Minister for Local Government and Housing wrote to all local authorities to highlight the issues raised and recommendations made by the report. The minister underlined the importance of adhering to building regulations, technical standards and the inspection processes that are in place to protect the public. The minister has also written to and met leaders in the construction industry to ensure that they are aware of the findings and recommendations in the report, and to ensure that we can rely on quality workmanship and control processes.
I accept that local authorities have the statutory responsibility for school buildings, but following publication of the Edinburgh schools report, surely the Scottish Government has a duty to ensure that those responsibilities are deployed. That is why I raised with the First Minister on 26 January safety issues regarding the Wick high school campus, which she chose to sideline.
Why has it taken problems arising in 72 schools around Scotland for the Scottish Government to take the matter seriously? Will the First Minister provide an unequivocal guarantee that work is being done with local authorities to ensure that all school buildings in Scotland are safe?
There are a number of points to make.
I note that, later in First Minister’s question time, Adam Tomkins will ask a question that challenges me to leave all responsibilities that are not specifically those of the Scottish Government to local authorities and not to interfere in local authorities’ responsibilities, so the Conservatives have a bit of a consistency issue.
I accept that the Scottish Government has responsibilities, which is why I set out the action that it has taken. We did not wait for the independent report; we wrote, as I described, to local authorities shortly after the Oxgangs primary school situation arose last year. We acted promptly, as the public would have expected us to do.
It is also important to note that none of the schools that require remedial work was built under the Government’s current schools programme; they are historical school-building projects. Nevertheless, we have to ensure that all school buildings are safe and that lessons from previous private finance initiative programmes are properly learned and implemented in the future. The Government is absolutely determined that we will discharge our responsibility to do so.
The schools in question were, of course, built by Labour and the Liberal Democrats under the PFI. The First Minister will know that in North Ayrshire the Labour-run council built four new schools a decade ago, with construction costs of £81 million. Between 2007 and 2037, £401 million will have to be paid in unitary charges to the companies that built them, which includes £12.7 million this year. That is the equivalent of buying an £81,000 flat, paying a mortgage of £1,114 a month for 30 years, then not even owning it at the end of those 30 years.
Does the First Minister agree that Labour’s reckless handling of our public finances while it was in office continues to rob North Ayrshire and much of Scotland of funds that could have been put towards delivering better local services, and that it is high time that Labour apologised for the legacy of incompetence that it has left our schools, North Ayrshire Council and other local authorities throughout Scotland?
Yes, I do agree. It is fair to point out that the report says that the financing method was not in itself responsible for the defective construction, although it states that implementation of contracts by the partners involved could have been stronger. Questions really must be asked and, in due course, answered about old PFI contracts, which many people at the time feared were putting profits before quality. The costs of Labour’s disastrous PFI deals are still taking significant sums of money away from vital public services.
The Government is determined to secure maximum value for money in existing PFI contracts. The Scottish Futures Trust has worked on behalf of ministers for some time with public bodies to identify the scope to improve the efficiency and performance of those contracts. That work will continue.
The whole episode has raised serious questions about previous Labour Administrations, so perhaps one day Labour will have to answer them and—yes—apologise.
The issue has had a distinct impact on my constituency. A year ago, the pupils at St Peter’s RC primary school had to go elsewhere and Liberton high school had to host pupils from neighbouring Gracemount high school. Dozens of families who send their children to Oxgangs primary school live in my constituency. The underlying issue was the failure of contractors to install tie rods in the walls of the school buildings; that failure was not picked up by building control. We have learned that scores of school buildings across Scotland have similar structural faults that building control has failed to pick up. It is clear that there are issues around the sign-off procedure, how building control works and, fundamentally, the safety checks. What changes to, and reviews of, the building control process and regime will there be?
That is a very fair question, and I want to respond to two aspects of it.
First, I recognise the disruption that was caused for pupils across Edinburgh last year. The independent report says that the negative educational impact on children
“is likely to have been relatively limited”,
but that does not take away from the disruption and concern that pupils and parents experienced last year—especially older pupils who had to sit exams. Everybody deeply regrets that.
Secondly, we have to reflect very carefully on the scrutiny of work and building control processes, and ensure that there is an appropriate level of independent scrutiny of building work. The Government is reviewing all existing guidance on appropriate supervision in contract management so that we can be assured that best practice is available as a matter of course in all construction projects. The schools were not built, in the main, under the Government, but that does not change the fact that, as the incumbent Government now, we have to ensure that the right lessons are learned and that those lessons are applied in the future. We are absolutely determined to do that.
Sexually Exploitative Behaviour (Private Rented Housing)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports of sexually exploitative behaviour in the private rented housing sector. (S5F-01166)
I was extremely concerned—horrified, actually—to read the reports that the member refers to. The Minister for Local Government and Housing has already written to the website that hosted the adverts, asking it to take action. As a Government, we are already taking action to tackle such issues through the implementation of equally safe, which is our strategy to tackle any violence against women and girls. We are also taking action to improve the availability of and access to housing for everyone, and action to tackle the poverty and inequality that can so often render people vulnerable to being exploited in such a way.
Any person always has the right to refuse to consent to sexual activity. Forcing someone—in any way—to participate in sexual activity is a crime. We continue to keep all laws under review to ensure that they are fit for purpose in tackling these unacceptable behaviours.
We know that sex for rent adverts have been posted online for properties in Scotland, but we have no way of knowing how many tenants are currently in such arrangements. As the First Minister says, the practice opens the door to vulnerable tenants, who are often facing homelessness and poverty and who find themselves in commercially exploitative arrangements.
I welcome the First Minister’s reports of the action that is being taken by the Minister for Local Government and Housing, but I ask her what action the Government will take to ensure that any landlords who are found to be offering such arrangements are properly dealt with. More specifically, what action is being taken through the equally safe project? Has the Government had time to have discussions with any groups that support vulnerable women who seek accommodation, to raise awareness of such exploitative practices?
Let me assure the member that we will look carefully at what action we can take, further to what we are already doing, across all those areas. The minister will be very happy to meet the member to discuss that in more detail, if that would be of interest to her.
The member raises particularly the situation of landlords. Where they behave unacceptably, clearly there are provisions to seek to deal with that. I suspect that, in cases such as the one that she highlights, often the problem will be that there is no formal tenancy agreement. They will be informal arrangements, which does not make them any more acceptable—in fact, much less so—but sometimes that will be one of the challenges. They are not formal arrangements in which there is a recognised or registered landlord. Nevertheless, the issues are serious. There are wider issues involved, but I will undertake to ensure that the minister considers all the suggestions that the member makes, and the offer of a meeting stands if she wishes to take it up.
The First Minister acknowledges that not all such circumstances will involve registered landlords. However, in order to register, landlords must comply with a fit-and-proper-person test. Is it not pretty clear that any such exploitative arrangements should lead to an automatic fail of such a test, and revocation of any existing landlord registration?
My simple and straightforward answer to that question is yes. I struggle to see how anybody who placed an advert of this description would pass the fit-and-proper-person test. Patrick Harvie and other members will be aware that there is a proper statutory legal process that local authorities must go through before they can take landlord status away from somebody, and I could not, in any situation, pre-empt that. However, we are all agreed on the unacceptability of the examples that have been brought to the chamber’s attention, so, just as I did in reply to the member who spoke previously, I will undertake to discuss this with the relevant minister, to make sure that the Scottish Government is taking whatever appropriate action we are able to take.
Local Authorities (Devolution)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on Reform Scotland’s view that local authorities should be responsible for all matters that are not specifically reserved to the Scottish Parliament. (S5F-01167)
First, maybe the Tories should start practising what they preach occasionally on some of these issues.
Local authority responsibilities are set out very clearly. The focus of the Scottish Government is on encouraging councils to empower communities across the country. It is important that we do not consider just what power local authorities should have but also how local authorities then transfer more of their power to local communities. That is why our Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 puts additional powers into the hands of communities to hold their local authorities to account. We are also discussing with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities how to achieve our aim of having at least 1 per cent of council budgets decided in that way, building on the work of our £2 million community choices fund.
Yesterday, we published our local government election manifesto, in which we argue that councils in Scotland should focus on growing their local economies. Cities in England, from the northern powerhouse to the midlands engine, are being given ample new powers to do just that. Can the First Minister identify even a single power that she would devolve from this Parliament to our cities to enable them to do the same?
Local authorities of course already have a power of general competence, so there is nothing standing in the way of them getting on with the job that they should be doing, which many are doing well, of growing their local economies. As the member is aware, the Government has promoted and delivered city deals, sometimes in partnership with the United Kingdom Government, so we are making sure that there is not only devolved power in the hands of local authorities but substantial additional investment at their disposal to do the things that support economic growth. We will continue to do that. I look forward to seeing many more city deals in the years ahead, not least in the city of Edinburgh and its surrounding areas.
I am a great believer in giving local authorities the powers and resources that they need to do the job in local communities, but I do not want to see those powers stop at local authorities, because real community empowerment is important, too, which is why the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 is so important.
I welcome the Reform Scotland paper, which contains a lot with which Greens agree. We believe that local government should have far greater fiscal autonomy. Some weeks ago, we published our proposals for a fiscal framework between the Scottish Government and local government. Does the First Minister agree that, just as the Scottish Parliament is getting more fiscal autonomy and just as the Scottish Government has entered into a fiscal framework with the UK Government, so too should those relationships be mirrored with local government?
I think that there is some merit in that. Indeed, ahead of the Scottish elections last year, we indicated a willingness to talk to local authorities about what additional tax powers would lie better with them rather than with the Scottish Government. In fact, Scottish local authorities already have autonomy. For example, they have the ability to lower business rates, if they think that that would help to grow their economy. The Government is certainly willing to have that discussion. Obviously, we have local government elections in a couple of weeks’ time and, after those elections—when we will, I hope, have new administrations in some parts of the country—we can take forward that discussion across the political spectrum and with council administrations the length and breadth of the country.
Back in 2007, the First Minister said that the council tax was unfair and that no amount of tinkering with it could make it fair. Does she believe today that the council tax is still unfair, or has the tinkering with the bands made it fairer?
Yes, the rebanding has made the council tax fairer.
I will say two things to Labour on that. First, during the first term of the Scottish National Party Administration, Labour blocked the abolition of the council tax. Therefore, it ill behoves Labour members to stand here and somehow argue for it. The second point that I would make about Labour’s position on the council tax underlines the hypocrisy that is sometimes at the heart of its arguments. Labour’s local government manifesto, which it published this week, says on page 6:
“The SNP council tax freeze has crippled local government”.
As well as being complete nonsense, that statement is utter hypocrisy because, right now in Scotland, only eight council administrations are proposing a continuation of the council tax freeze and, guess what, every single one of those eight councils is Labour led. So there we have it—Labour might say one thing in the chamber about the council tax, but its administrations across the country do the complete opposite.