Meeting date: Thursday, September 28, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 28 September 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Worker Ownership, Flexible Working, Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Worker Ownership
- Flexible Working
- Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Land and Buildings Transaction Tax
Does the First Minister think that a tax policy that brings in £55 million less than forecast is a good one? (S5F-01564)
I assume that Ruth Davidson is referring to land and buildings transaction tax, which is the property tax that was introduced when powers transferred to the Scottish Parliament.
Revenues that were raised in 2016-17, which is the most recent financial year, were actually 14 per cent higher than the revenues that were raised in the previous year. Yes—the revenues that were raised were lower than forecast, but that is not in any way unique to Scotland. If we look at the corresponding tax in the rest of the United Kingdom—stamp duty—revenue was 8 per cent lower than the Office for Budget Responsibility had forecast.
The issues have arisen mainly because it is difficult to predict transaction taxes but, of course, the revenues that have been raised also reflect the general economic conditions, property prices generally and—as the Scottish Fiscal Commission said in relation to LBTT—the situation in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.
I was, indeed, talking about LBTT. Let us go through the numbers for Scotland.
The Scottish Government expected £538 million to come from LBTT, but in the end only £483 million came in, which was a shortfall of £55 million. According to property experts, that was due to a considerable drop in activity because of the tax.
Let us see whether we can get some clarity from the First Minister. Early in the summer, her Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution said:
“I’m not an ideologue on this issue. We want the tax to function well and if there’s a case that an amendment of the current bands could help stimulate the housing market in that range, and the revenue it raises, then I will consider it.”
With a £55 million shortfall in a housing market that is “in serious slowdown”, has not that case now been made?
We will, of course, bring our decisions for the tax, and for all taxes for which we are responsible, to be scrutinised by Parliament in our budget.
Let us get into the detail of Ruth Davidson’s question. She talked about a “shortfall”. The £483 million that was raised in 2016-17 was, as I have said, actually 14 per cent higher than the revenues that had been raised in the previous year. That means more revenue being brought into use for public spending.
Ruth Davidson wants to give the impression that a shortfall against a revenue forecast is somehow uniquely to do with the structure of the tax in Scotland. Perhaps she will therefore explain why, on a like-for-like basis, there was in the rest of the UK an 8 per cent shortfall from the OBR forecast.
Let us get into the heart of the suggestions that Ruth Davidson has made. The claim is that the shortfall is because of the rates of tax at the top end of the property market. Unfortunately for Ruth Davidson—who, as we have seen in recent weeks, does not always do her homework on the issues that she raises at First Minister’s question time—the facts tell a different story. Let us look at the data to the end of August this year. Sales of properties that are valued between £325,000 and £750,000 are up by 14 per cent annually. Sales of properties that are valued above £750,000 are up by 10 per cent annually. The monthly revenues for August of this year in both property brackets were at the highest levels since LBTT was introduced.
I have an additional bit of information for Ruth Davidson. Transactions and revenues at the top of the market are actually maintaining their share of the overall market.
So, yes—predicting transaction tax revenue is notoriously difficult to do, as is shown not just in Scotland but south of the border, but revenues in the year that we are talking about are up on the previous year, and the claims that Ruth Davidson is making about the top end of the market are simply not borne out by the facts. Why cannot she just concede that, and perhaps do a bit more research and homework in the future?
The First Minister excels in pretending to answer a question that was not asked, but let us talk about homework. If the First Minister had done her homework, she would have listened to Nicola Barclay, who is the chief executive of Homes for Scotland. I am going to read out quite a lengthy quotation from her, which I hope I have latitude for from the Presiding Officer, because of my first two short questions. She said:
“As we have expressed in submissions to the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament, if we are to have a healthy and well-functioning housing market, we need a tax framework that enables movement up and down all price levels. However, feedback from our members shows that the present system (which varies considerably from that south of the border) is creating significant barriers.”
Here is a thing: the Scottish National Party was warned repeatedly that that would happen. Organisations including the Scottish Property Federation made it clear that the tax rates would gum up the market and reduce revenues, which is exactly what happened. This week, a specific proposal has been put on the table by Homes for Scotland, which wants to make it easier for families to move up the property ladder, and is proposing to extend the 5 per cent band to help them. I will back that proposal. Will the First Minister?
We will bring forward proposals in our budget, which is the right and proper way to proceed.
However, let me pick up on a few things that Ruth Davidson said. First, I am not sure what question she was asking me, if it was not the one that I answered. I gave a very detailed answer to her question. I do not want to repeat everything that I have just said, but the point is that what Ruth Davidson is saying is not borne out by the facts. I have just quoted figures that show that property sales and transactions in the brackets at the top of the property market are not declining, as Ruth Davidson said, but are actually increasing by 14 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively: an increase, not a decrease. It therefore seems to me that the whole premise of Ruth Davidson’s question has crumbled before her very eyes.
However, we come to a broader issue—one that has surfaced in discussion at First Minister’s questions in recent weeks. We hear, day after day and week after week, Tory members coming to the chamber—sometimes declaring their business interests, but sometimes not—calling for extra spending, but again today we have the Tories also calling for a cut in tax for the very wealthiest people in our society. The Tories’ sums simply do not add up.
So, Ruth Davidson has been wrong in her central claims today and—yet again—the Tories have absolutely been found wanting. They want us to spend more, but they also want us to cut taxes. They cannot have the best of both worlds.
I do not even know how you lot are going to pick through all the things that were not said and have been claimed there, but let us go back to the numbers. [Interruption.]
That is not on.
Order, Mr Swinney, please. Ms Davidson knows that “you” refers to the chair, not to the press gallery.
Let us get back to the numbers, because the First Minister says that they went up, not down. However, the embarrassment for the SNP is that the shortfall would have been much worse if it had not adopted wholesale the Tory proposal for the new surcharge on buy-to-let and second homes. The First Minister talks about raising revenue, but there was £100 million, right there. That was not the SNP’s idea: it was ours. On the very first new tax that has been administered by the Government, the First Minister has got it completely wrong. She gummed up the housing market, she blew a £55 million hole in her own budget, which would have been three times worse if she had not picked up the Tory policy on buy-to-let and second homes, and, more important, she squeezed Scottish families out of their first proper homes. Does that sound like competency to her?
We can always tell that Ruth Davidson is floundering at First Minister’s question time when she starts hurling abuse across the chamber—although it has nothing on the abuse that was hurled at me and others by the Tory councillor who was taken off the teaching register because of her behaviour. Ruth Davidson will probably not want to comment on that.
I am not sure what bit of this Ruth Davidson is struggling to understand. As far as people at the bottom of the housing ladder who are looking to own their first homes are concerned, we have reduced the tax burden, because we have made LBTT more progressive than stamp duty ever was—although progressive taxes are clearly offensive to Tory members.
We have a situation in which LBTT revenue is up—it is up, not down—on the previous year, and in which transactions at the top of the market are up—again, I say that they are up, not down—so the whole premise of Ruth Davidson’s question is absolutely flawed. We will continue to put forward progressive proposals that help those who are most in need of help at the bottom, and that make sure that those who have the broadest shoulders pay a fair share.
As I said, I know that the principle of progressive taxation is one that Tory members do not like, but it is one that SNP members will continue to adhere to.
Question 2—Alex Rowley. [Interruption.] Order, please.
New Housing Development
A few weeks ago, I met—
The microphone is on. [Laughter.]
I am going to talk about a serious issue, so I ask that I be given the courtesy of being allowed to do so.
When I met a housing development company a few weeks ago, it raised with me a live application that it has for 900 new houses to be built. The developer had hoped that the application would have been determined by last Christmas but, as yet, it has not been. The developer did not complain about the planning process holding up the work; the problem is the lack of front-loaded capital that is needed to build a new £8 million school as part of the section 75 agreement. The developer cannot afford to front-load that level of investment, nor can the council. I was told that that is not uncommon and that the issue is a real barrier to new housing being built.
Does the First Minister recognise the problem? Does the Government have any plans to address it and get new housing development happening across Scotland?
I thank Alex Rowley for raising that issue. I am sure that he appreciates that, without further detail of the project and the application that he is talking about, there will be a limit to what I can say by way of a detailed response. If he wants to share more detail with me today or write to me after First Minister’s question time, I will make sure that the matter is properly looked into. That said, if the application is live, there will be a limit to what I can say, because due process must take its course.
The general issue that Alex Rowley raises is one that I recognise and one that the Scottish Government works to address. There are often limitations around infrastructure when there is a desire for housing developments to go ahead. That is why the Scottish Government introduced the housing infrastructure loan fund, which is specifically designed to deal with those limitations and bring about the provision of the infrastructure—whether that is schools, hospitals or health services—that is often required to support new housing development.
We will continue to take action to address those concerns and, as I said at the outset of my answer, if Alex Rowley wants to provide me with more detail on the application that he is talking about, I can make sure that that is fully looked into and we can consider whether there is any more that the Scottish Government can do to assist.
It was the general principle that I was asking about. I highlighted one case, but I am told that such situations are not uncommon. The lack of infrastructure is holding up development.
Private sector new build is one part of meeting housing need in Scotland. However, the number of people who live in the private rented sector has risen dramatically over the past two decades. With little regulation, rents have also shot up in the sector. The cost of rents often bears no relation to the condition and value of the properties that are being rented. Indeed, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that the proportion of people who are classed as being in poverty who live in the private rented sector has almost tripled.
Does the First Minister recognise the issue? Is she willing to look at what can be done to address it? Will she consider some form of rent controls?
Alex Rowley will recall that in the previous session of the Parliament, if memory serves me correctly, legislation was enacted that allows action to be taken where local authorities consider that there are problems with excessive rent increases. The Parliament has already acted to introduce some form of rent control provision.
Of course, we will always consider whether there is a case to go further, because, as Alex Rowley rightly said, and as we saw from the Scottish household survey, which was published just this week, the number of people who are living in private rented accommodation is increasing, and it is important not just that private rented housing remains affordable for people but that we take action to ensure that such housing is of a high quality. As someone who represents an urban constituency, I am very well aware of the importance of both those things.
On housing generally, we are investing record sums, as I hope that members across the chamber acknowledge. Over the course of this parliamentary session, we will invest £3 billion in creating 50,000 more affordable homes. On house building completion, we are building houses at a faster rate than any other part of the United Kingdom is doing.
That is the record of this Government, and we will continue to do everything that we can to build on it.
I have continued to welcome what has been getting done, but given the scale of the housing issues, we clearly need to do more.
We are moving towards winter, when the poorest people, in the poorest housing, face the greatest challenges. Energy Action Scotland says that as many as a third of private rented sector tenants in Scotland are in fuel poverty—almost double the figure for people who have a mortgage. The Government has said that it will introduce a warm homes bill, and earlier this month I co-chaired a meeting with Jeane Freeman and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on benefit take-up. What else can be done to help the poorest people, in the poorest properties, this winter?
There is a range of things that can be done—and are being done by this Government. They include, first, continuing to talk to the power companies, to make sure that people, and particularly those on the lowest incomes, are given a fairer deal than has often been the case in the past.
Secondly, there is continuing action to improve the energy efficiency of our housing stock. This Government, unlike other Governments across the UK, has invested heavily in improving energy efficiency standards; a large number of homes have had energy efficiency measures installed, supported by Government funding. Also, we can make sure that we have in place fuel poverty targets that are helping to address the issue. That is why the warm homes bill to which we committed in the programme for government is so important.
Those are all vital issues. As I hope that Alex Rowley and others will acknowledge, this Government—I think that I can say this without fear of contradiction—is doing much more in the area than any other Government across the UK and will continue to do so.
We have a number of constituency supplementaries.
NHS Tayside (Consultation)
NHS Tayside is undertaking a consultation that could lead to the closure of the Mulberry unit, a mental health in-patient facility in my constituency in Angus. I have serious concerns, as do my constituents in Angus and Aberdeenshire—although they have not been consulted—that the consultation breaches Scottish Health Council guidance on major service changes. It offers no alternative to closure, is inaccessible and appears to be a box-ticking exercise. Will the First Minister commit to urgently investigating those concerns, to ensure that NHS Tayside meets its obligation to provide robust and transparent consultation?
The health secretary will certainly relay to NHS Tayside the concerns that have just been expressed. In fairness, concerns about the nature of the consultation were raised with the Cabinet when we had one of our summer Cabinet meetings in Tayside. We will make sure that those concerns are raised and that the health board responds to them.
The proposals about the Mulberry ward and the Murray Royal hospital are part of a Tayside-wide review of adult mental health and learning disability services, which is being led by Perth and Kinross integration joint board on behalf of the partnership of the three IJBs in Tayside and NHS Tayside. It is important that people have opportunities to feed in their views and that people have confidence and assurance that their views are taken seriously. The consultation is not yet closed: it runs until 3 October, and I encourage everyone with an interest to feed back their views.
I would encourage members, including a couple of ministers at the back, to stop having conversations across the chamber.
Hear to Help Angus
Staying in Angus and with NHS Tayside, I want to highlight hear to help Angus, which is a local lifeline service that helps more than 600 people in Angus who suffer from hearing loss and helps to deliver the vision outlined in the Scottish Government’s health and social care delivery plan. In March 2017, Angus health and social care partnership rejected its funding application, and no other funding sources are forthcoming. The service needs £17,000 to survive; without it, it will close, probably by this time next week. Will the First Minister please urgently step in and ask NHS Tayside to save local provision by giving the service the £17,000 that it requires?
Before I address the substance of the question, I should point out that the Conservatives are part of the administration of Angus Council, and I hope that these issues are being raised with the local council, too.
Projects such as the one that the member has talked about are really important. I am not aware of all the details of this particular project, but given that the matter has been raised with me in the chamber, I will make sure that it is looked into and that we have a relevant discussion with the council and the integration joint board. If there is anything further that the Scottish Government can do to help, we will certainly be happy to do so.
NHS Services (Skye)
To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government believes NHS Highland should take to assure the people of Skye that services for the north of the island and Portree hospital in particular will be sustained long into the future.
On Thursday 21 September, the health secretary met the leader of Highland Council, Councillor MacDonald from Skye and the chair and chief executive of NHS Highland to discuss services in Portree, and she made it very clear to the board that she expected Skye to receive a high-quality health service that meets the needs of all the island. As part of that, commitments have been received from the board that out-of-hours and emergency cover at Portree hospital will remain. Moreover, the health secretary has consistently made it clear with NHS Highland that it must continue to engage meaningfully with local stakeholders as work proceeds, and she made that clear again when she met all parties last Thursday.
National Health Service Waiting Times (Paediatrics)
In May, one of my constituents received confirmation that her 10-year-old daughter was on a waiting list to see a paediatric ear, nose and throat specialist. At the end of this month, concerned that the appointment might have gone missing in the post, she called the health board, only to be told that the waiting time for such appointments was now 18 to 20 months and maybe longer. Does the First Minister agree that nearly two years is far too long for a 10-year-old to wait to see a specialist? What is the Scottish Government doing to bring down these massive and frankly unacceptable waiting times?
I agree with the member. Again, I do not know all the details of this case. If they can be passed to me, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will investigate the matter and discuss it with the health board.
As for the general part of the member’s question, we are investing record sums in the health service and record numbers of people are working in it. We are undertaking important reforms to our health service to ensure that, as demand continues to rise—as it will do, because of the ageing population—we have the capacity in place to deal with it. We will continue to take action to support our national health service, but if the details of this particular case can be passed to me, I will be happy to have them looked into.
Air Departure Tax
We already know who will benefit from the Scottish Government’s proposal to cut aviation taxes; after all, 70 per cent of flights are taken by just 15 per cent of people. Those people tend to be the wealthiest, and they stand to gain more than £800 a year from this tax cut, while a couple taking their children on an annual holiday will save only £13.
We also know that people in Scotland understand that they will not benefit from it. When asked about the issue in an opinion poll, fewer than one in 10 people said that this tax cut would make a positive difference to their lives; the vast majority chose investment in public transport, fixing potholes and better infrastructure. With Ryanair now being accused of persistently misleading passengers, I think that most people also know that we cannot really trust the airlines even to pass on the tax cut to passengers. Does the First Minister accept that people know what transport policies will meet their needs and that they do not rate this tax cut?
I have set out in the chamber on many occasions why that particular proposal, which the Scottish National Party Government has had for many years now, is important, in terms of wider economic competitiveness and ensuring that the connectivity of our country supports business and economic growth. On the specific proposals, as I said earlier to Ruth Davidson on another issue, we will of course bring forward our budget proposals when we publish our draft budget later this year, and Parliament will scrutinise all aspects of that draft budget.
Another issue on air departure tax, which the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution has shared with Parliament previously, is to do with the Highlands and Islands exemption. We have concerns about the compatibility with state-aid rules of the exemption that was introduced by the United Kingdom Government. We are discussing with the UK Government how that can be resolved, and we will keep Parliament updated on that.
Lastly, I want to refer to the current situation with Ryanair, which is deeply regrettable. I have serious concerns about the decisions that Ryanair has taken in the past couple of days, which will cause disruption to many passengers travelling between Scotland and London and, indeed, other destinations across Europe. The Minister for Transport and the Islands is writing to Ryanair to pass on those concerns. Of course, alternative flights are available. We also fully support the Civil Aviation Authority’s launch of enforcement action, because it is vital that, at times of disruption, airlines provide full and accurate information to passengers about their rights.
The First Minister talks about the economic basis for her policy, but we have already seen from parliamentary scrutiny that there is no coherent evidence base for it. This has been a bad week for the Scottish Government’s transport policies in environmental terms. The UK Committee on Climate Change said that Scotland needs more action to meet its climate change plans, and it drew particular attention to the inadequate approach to transport emissions. Aviation emissions are now 82 per cent higher than the baseline against which everybody else is trying to cut Scotland’s emissions, but the Scottish Government wants to boost that most polluting transport mode of all. The Fraser of Allander institute has warned that the policy will just lead to more tax competition and a “race to the bottom”, and ultimately to less public revenue for services everywhere throughout these islands.
The policy is unwanted, unnecessary and unsupported by any evidence. Is it not time to dump it once and for all?
Patrick Harvie and I have a long-standing difference of opinion on the issue and, as I said, we will bring forward our budget proposals in due course. However, I am glad that he mentioned the report of the Committee on Climate Change because, although it encouraged us to go further and faster, it also said that Scotland is leading the UK and indeed the world on action to tackle climate change. Of course, the programme for government that I outlined in Parliament just a few weeks ago included proposals to double financial support for active travel and to phase out new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032, which is eight years ahead of the target for the rest of the UK. Later this year, we will announce the first low-emission zone, and we have outlined plans to have low-emission zones in all our major cities by 2020.
Across a range of transport issues, we are taking action to reduce emissions and to meet our climate change targets as they are now, and the even more ambitious targets that will be set for the future.
What engagement does the Scottish Government undertake with the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament? What position does it hold on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was recently successfully passed at the United Nations?
I support that treaty. I want to see a world free of nuclear weapons and I think that countries such as the United Kingdom should lead by example. Instead of spending tens of billions of pounds on a new generation of Trident nuclear missiles, we should get rid of Trident nuclear missiles from the Clyde. We will continue to support action for unilateral nuclear disarmament because, if countries lead by example, the world will be a safer place in the long term as a result. We will support action on that internationally from the UN and elsewhere, because it is the right thing to do morally, financially and for practical reasons.
Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Attendance at Medical Emergencies)
To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service regarding it attending medical emergencies, in light of reports that trials of this service will end due to a dispute over pay and conditions. (S5F-01568)
The Scottish Government is not a direct participant in negotiations with the Fire Brigades Union. The employer is the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which conducts negotiations as part of the United Kingdom-wide National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services. The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs last met the chief fire officer and the chair of the Fire and Rescue Service on Tuesday, when she shared their disappointment that involvement in the medical emergency trials has been suspended, and encouraged continued discussions.
The Scottish Ambulance Service prioritises patients with immediately life-threatening conditions and will take all appropriate measures in those areas where the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest trial has been taking place to ensure that it continues to respond to emergencies without delay.
I am sure that the First Minister will agree that the trials have been a big success, given that in the first year, firefighters have made 41 potentially life-saving interventions.
Is the First Minister aware of the campaign that is being led by my constituents Mr and Mrs McKandie, who lost their son, Keiran, in a tragic road traffic accident when he was out cycling? They have been calling for firefighters to attend medical emergencies as they can be closer than the nearest ambulance. They want to see a change in policy as part of Keiran’s legacy. Understandably, they are shocked that a pay dispute can get in the way of saving lives and they want to see the co-responding of emergency services to all road traffic accidents.
Does the First Minister agree that we need a solution that respects the views of the firefighters who want to continue to deliver this vital service without delay and for co-responding to become standard throughout Scotland, to save even more lives?
I agree with all of that. I am aware of the campaign by Mr and Mrs McKandie, who are greatly to be admired for their efforts, following the tragic loss of their son, to promote improvements in the way in which services respond to emergency incidents. I agree whole-heartedly that the medical emergency trials are an excellent example of public services working more closely together to achieve a common aim and to improve the service that is provided to the public.
As I said in my previous answer, the community safety minister has encouraged continued discussions on pay. We want to see our fire service workers paid appropriately. I am aware that the chief fire officer has written a letter to the Fire and Rescue Service staff asking for discussions to continue on a proposal that is in the best interests of firefighters and communities. I encourage all sides to do all that they can to resolve the issue without further delay.
Can the First Minister provide details on the operational budget provided to Scotland’s Fire and Rescue Service?
As I said at First Minister’s questions last week or the week before, there has been an increase in the resource budget for the Fire and Rescue Service of—if memory serves me correctly—about £20 million. We will continue to support our front-line firefighters, who do an outstanding job on behalf of us all. It is right that the service is appropriately supported and that firefighters are given the rewards that they deserve.
“Reducing emissions in Scotland - 2017 Progress Report to Parliament”
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Committee on Climate Change’s report, “Reducing emissions in Scotland - 2017 Progress Report to Parliament”. (S5F-01574)
I welcome the committee’s report, which recognises that Scotland’s ambition on climate change is amongst the highest in the world. It also recognises our strong progress to date, with statutory targets being met for the second consecutive year, and notes that we continue to lead the UK.
We will take time to reflect fully on the committee’s report as we finalise the climate change plan in preparation for publication early next year. We know that even more needs to be done to continue to meet our challenging targets. That is why the programme for government set out bold new commitments in areas such as low-carbon transport, infrastructure and energy efficiency.
It has already been pointed out today that around a third of households in Scotland are in fuel poverty. In light of that and given the fact that, a week ago, the Scottish Parliament marked Scottish housing day, will the First Minister commit to Scottish Conservative proposals to ensure that every home in Scotland achieves an energy performance certificate rating of C or above by 2030?
We will continue to take action to improve the energy efficiency of our housing stock across all tenures. We set out further ambition on that in the programme for government.
To go back to what I said to Ruth Davidson, that sounds very much like, yet again, the Tories coming to the Parliament and calling on us to spend more money at the same time as calling for tax cuts for the richest in our society. Increasingly, the Tories have no credibility on any of those issues and while they continue to take that contradictory stance, their credibility will continue to sink.
The agriculture sector is a heavy greenhouse gas emitter. The United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change’s report said:
“There has been little recent progress in reducing agricultural emissions”.
It also said—yet again—that
“the Scottish Government should look again at going beyond the voluntary approach.”
I am a member of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. We said that compulsory soil testing is a vital stepping stone in changing behaviours on farms and that that measure should be in the final climate change plan. In my view, the measure should be introduced with support and build on the good practice in the agriculture sector. Will compulsory soil testing be in the final plan? Should each minister be answerable to Parliament for changes in their portfolio in the context of this vital issue?
I will respond to a couple of the points in the member’s question. First, soil testing in the agriculture sector is hugely important. That sector will play a big part in helping us to meet our climate change targets, but it is important to point out that voluntary soil testing already has a high take-up. As we go forward, we need to do more to encourage that take-up to increase even further.
Secondly, the member makes a fair point about the responsibility across Government for meeting our climate change targets. The environment secretary has principal responsibility around the Cabinet table for meeting those targets, but she cannot do that without the support of every other member of the Government. Each and every one of us should be accountable in our portfolio areas—for me, that is all portfolio areas, obviously—to Parliament and the wider public for doing that. We will meet the targets only if we take the action required across our electricity and wider energy sector, our transport sector, which Patrick Harvie has just mentioned, and the agriculture sector.
My final point relates to the climate change plan. We will publish the final plan early next year. We have consulted on the draft and are considering the responses to that consultation. I am not going to say what will be in the final plan, because we have to go through due process. However, I assure Parliament that the plan will be ambitious. It will allow us to meet the current targets that we have set, but we have the forthcoming climate change bill to consider, which will set even more ambitious targets.
We continue to lead not just the United Kingdom, but the world in our ambition, and all of us have a responsibility to make sure that the action that we take allows us to meet that ambition in the years ahead.
Will the First Minister provide detail on how long-term emissions reductions in Scotland compare with the reductions in the rest of the UK? Does she agree that Scotland continues to be considered to be a leader in tackling climate change?
We continue to outperform the rest of the UK on delivering long-term emissions reductions. The most recent statistics show that Scottish emissions are down 37.6 per cent from baseline levels, which compares to a reduction of 35.4 per cent for the UK as a whole. Among the EU15 countries, only Sweden and Finland have done better than Scotland.
We have sustained progress against world-leading targets. As I have just said, we are committed to strengthening our targets further with a new bill in direct response to the Paris agreement. Scotland is at the forefront of international climate action.
Our leadership on the issue has been widely recognised, including by the head of the United Nation’s climate body and the chair of the independent UK Committee on Climate Change. Although we should be proud of that, we should continue to challenge ourselves to go even further.
National Concessionary Travel Scheme
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will give a commitment in the week of international day of older persons that eligibility criteria for the national concessionary travel scheme will not change during the current parliamentary session. (S5F-01595)
We will continue to ensure that our national concessionary travel scheme benefits those who rely on free bus travel, which is why we are asking people across Scotland for their views on how best to ensure that the bus pass is sustainable for the long term.
The consultation is just that—no decisions will be made until all the responses have been fully considered. Whatever the outcome, nobody’s bus pass will be taken away from them and, indeed, some people who do not currently qualify for a bus pass will do so in the future.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. It is true that, in her programme for government, there is a commitment to continuing the concessionary travel scheme, which was introduced by a Labour-led Scottish Executive. However, that commitment is qualified by the phrase
“while ensuring the scheme is sustainable in the longer term.”
Will the First Minister confirm today that there will be no raising of the qualifying age, no administrative charges implemented, no one-off payment required, no means testing and no other barrier introduced that will prevent all those aged 60 and over from accessing the scheme?
I know that Scottish Labour has somewhat lost touch with reality, but is Richard Leonard really suggesting that we should have a scheme in place that is not sustainable for the long term? It is because we value the bus pass scheme and want to see it continue to benefit people right across Scotland that we are having the consultation to make sure that it is sustainable for the long term and that people long into the future can continue to enjoy the benefits of it.
That really is the difference between the SNP and Labour. We fight for Scotland. Scottish Labour just fight among themselves. It was incredible yesterday, was it not? We had Richard Leonard accused by Jackie Baillie of betraying every value that Labour holds dear, and then we had Richard Leonard saying that this was just the latest Jackie Baillie—
I cannot actually say it, Presiding Officer. Let us just say that it is a description that covers much of what Jackie Baillie says in the chamber.
First Minister, the question was about national entitlement cards.
The serious issue is this. This Government continues to take the decisions that are in the interests of the people of Scotland. By contrast, Scottish Labour’s behaviour is selfish and self-indulgent, and it proves that it is not fit to be an Opposition, let alone a Government.
I am delighted that the First Minister has confirmed that all those who currently have a bus pass will continue to receive one. Can she also confirm to me that those who obtain one before any changes may be made will continue to receive it? Can she update me and the Parliament as to the current total number of older and disabled people who benefit from free travel with the national entitlement card and how that compares with the number when this Government entered office after a Labour Executive being in place?
Thousands of people across Scotland are benefiting from the scheme, and we want to make sure that they continue to benefit from it. As well as giving the guarantee that everybody who has a bus pass and everybody who gets a bus pass before the end of the consultation will continue to have it, we have also set out plans to extend eligibility to apprentices—to young people who are making their way in the world—to help them with the costs of travel as well.
This Government will continue to protect such schemes, which are about helping people across the country. That is in stark contrast to a Tory party that is all about tax cuts for the rich and a Labour Party that only wants to fight amongst itself.
I ask the First Minister whether she is aware of Roseanna Cunningham’s statement just yesterday, in which she said:
“encouraging behaviour change that moves people out of cars and into efficient and low-emission buses ... will help to reduce congestion and emissions at the same time.”—[Official Report, 27 September 2017; c 21.]
That is a win-win situation for everybody. Are the Government’s environmental and transport strategies aligned? Are we getting joined-up Government with them?
The short answer is yes. Obviously, I am very well aware of Roseanna Cunningham’s statement yesterday—I thought that it was an excellent statement—in which she set out the action that we are taking in the transport sector to help to meet our climate change obligations. Indeed, I think that today, or very shortly, we will announce additional funding through the green bus fund, which is helping to ensure that we have low-emission buses on our roads as well.
It is absolutely right—for once, and I concede that it is a rare occasion, I agree with Mike Rumbles—to say that getting people out of cars and into buses is one of the most important things that we can do to reduce congestion and lower emissions. That is why the bus pass scheme is so important, but it is also why all the other actions that I have spoken about, around electric vehicles, low-emission zones and doubling the active travel budget, are so important as well.