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First Minister's Statement: Scottish Government's Programme
9:33 am

Photo of Alex Fergusson

Alex Fergusson (None)

The next item of business is a statement by the First Minister on the Scottish Government's programme. The First Minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should therefore be no interventions or interruptions.

9:34 am
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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

Fellow members of Parliament—I welcome you back for the new parliamentary session and hope that everyone has returned refreshed after the summer recess. I understand, of course, that not all colleagues have been able to put their feet up. Some were preoccupied—some still are—with leadership elections, and all of us were engaged in a summer by-election.

I warmly welcome Tavish Scott as the new leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. [Applause.]

It is also right to acknowledge the service to Parliament of Wendy Alexander and Nicol Stephen, who stood down as leaders of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats respectively. [Applause.]

Concerning the matter of the Glasgow East by-election, John Mason pulled off a stunning victory, which sent out the message that there is no such thing as a safe Labour seat any more, any time or anywhere in Scotland. [Applause.]

Before I move on to the detail of this year's legislative programme, I would like to inform Parliament of the tour that the Scottish Cabinet undertook in July and August, visiting Dumfries, Inverness, Pitlochry and Skye. Around each Cabinet meeting, we held local engagements and a national conversation event with community and voluntary sector leaders that allowed people the chance to question Scottish ministers directly and to put forward their main concerns regarding local and much wider matters. My ministers and I are extremely grateful to everyone who was involved for their enthusiasm and engagement. Those discussions helped to make ever clearer to us the aspirations and concerns of the Scottish people. The meetings confirmed, for example, that the Government is right to focus on the impact of rising prices of food and energy, which is causing such concern to every business and household in the country. We are right to take what action we can as a Government, and to press the Government in London to do much more.

The discussions also showed us a confidence and an optimism in our people that seek expression through our political institutions, looking beyond the immediate challenges to the future of this country and to the opportunities that lie ahead. That is the mood to which the Government is determined to respond, and an expectation that it is our duty to meet: not just for us in the Government, but for every single one of us here, as a national Parliament.

It is a pleasure to present this year's legislative statement. It is the second legislative programme of this Government and it sets out a clear, consistent and confident direction for Scotland. I acknowledge that it is, as previously, the programme of a minority Government. We remain, as always, dependent on the support of other parties in the chamber to secure progress.

Over the past year and more, we have secured progress—Scotland is moving forward. Today, we have a stronger Parliament that is more keenly focused on advancing the Scottish national interest and more responsive to the priorities of our people. That view might not be held universally throughout the chamber, but it is the firm view throughout Scottish society. The recent Scottish social attitudes survey showed that 71 per cent of people trust their Government to act in Scotland's interests, which is up from only 51 per cent last year. Just last month, new research found that Scotland reports the third-highest level of life satisfaction—happiness—of any nation in Europe. We see throughout Scotland a more confident nation—a society that is readying itself to take on much greater responsibility for its own destiny. I say to Andy Kerr that there is always one exception to every survey.

Those are important and positive changes, so it is right to record now the contributions that opposition parties have made in helping to deliver those improvements for Scottish society. For example, Margo MacDonald has been an effective advocate of the position of Edinburgh as a capital city, the Green party has secured progress on public transport and on the climate challenge fund, and the Conservatives are working in partnership with us to ensure effective action on drugs, which are a scourge on Scottish society. The Liberal party joined the Government in the restoration of free education in Scotland.

We have also secured agreement with Labour's leadership candidate, Cathy Jamieson, that the £400 million of council tax benefit is indeed Scotland's money. [Applause.] Indeed, the political ground has shifted significantly in the Labour camp over the summer, with all three candidates at last realising that the current system of council taxation has to change. We look forward to Labour's support in abolishing the unfair council tax. [Applause.]

The Government has a single overarching purpose—to increase sustainable growth. That purpose is supported by our strategic objectives: building a Scotland that is safer, stronger, greener, healthier, smarter, wealthier and fairer. Altogether, this year's legislative programme comprises 15 bills, including a bill on flood risk management that was carried over from last year's proposed programme. In my statement, I will present both the new bills that will support our strategic objectives and some key non-legislative measures, because advancing those goals lies behind all our actions in Government—not just the legislation that we pass.

We continue to focus on growing Scotland's economy because that will bring greater prosperity to families and communities throughout Scotland and allow us to invest more to create the rich society that Scotland can be. That is our social democratic contract with the people of this nation.

We seek to build a nation that is wealthier and fairer. Currently, the most powerful lever that any Scottish Government can use is the Scottish budget. However, the budget is fixed and the Scottish Government has no ability to borrow and has limited discretion on taxation, so if we spend more in one area, the consequence is lower spending elsewhere. That is a particular frustration at a time when it is glaringly obvious that the economy requires a substantial fiscal stimulus—a reflation—to boost demand and confidence. That is why our higher ambitions for Scotland and those of our people should be matched by greater responsibility for economic policy.

The Government is determined to use the economic levers that we have to maximise Scottish resilience in this time of global economic challenge. This year's budget bill will seek approval for our spending plans for 2009-10 and will include fast-tracked investment designed to encourage and support key areas of the Scottish economy: full implementation of the small business bonus scheme; record investment in our transport infrastructure; and increased resources to local government as part of the historic concordat between local and central government in Scotland.

This year, in line with our commitment to a fairer Scotland, we will also introduce a council tax abolition bill. [Applause.]

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Alex Fergusson (None)

At the beginning of the statement, I said that there should be no interruptions. I now ask that there be no further interruptions.

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

The Government is committed to replacing the regressive and unfair council tax with a fair system of local taxation based on ability to pay. The change will help to lift thousands of Scots out of poverty and will, by delivering a net tax cut of £281 million—the biggest tax cut in a generation—provide a vital financial boost to low-income and middle-income households throughout the country. Eight out of 10 Scottish families will be better off. Abolition of the council tax will lift 85,000 individuals from poverty and save the average Scottish family between £350 and £535 a year. I have no doubt that Scotland will judge harshly any MSP who votes to keep the council tax in the face of the overwhelming benefit that would flow to millions of ordinary Scots.

Those two bills on the economy are far from the sum of our intentions. In the face of a global slow-down that has been spurred by high commodity prices and the credit crunch, the Government is acting to uphold our economy's resilience and lay the foundations for a strong recovery. We will make vital investment in affordable housing and ensure the quick and effective deployment of European structural funds. Through the Scottish futures trust, we are ensuring that people in Scotland benefit from modern high-quality infrastructure that supports our public services. We are postponing a review of developer contributions to avoid placing new burdens on development in Scotland.

We are using the opportunity of the homecoming celebrations in 2009 to deliver the maximum benefit for tourism nationwide, and we are taking action to promote energy efficiency and alleviate the effects of rising energy prices on businesses and households.

I have noted many times in the chamber and outside it that others see Scotland as a country on the move, and that we are recognised as Europe's place of the future. The key to fulfilling our country's huge economic potential and to generating truly sustainable growth is to harness Scotland's stock of natural capital, which is why in this year's legislative programme we propose three bills—on climate change, the marine environment, and flood risk management—that seek to build a platform of sustainability for the future of the Scottish economy.

There is—although there should not be—dispute in the chamber about the fact that climate change is one of the most serious threats that we face. Urgent action is needed to cut the emissions that cause climate change. We know from the Stern report and other studies that the cost of inaction will, ultimately, far outweigh the cost of taking the necessary steps to help to stabilise the climate. The Scottish climate change bill will introduce a target to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and a statutory framework to support delivery.

That goal not only substantially exceeds the United Kingdom Government's 60 per cent target but goes further still, placing Scotland at the forefront of global action on climate change.

I referred a moment ago to our stock of natural capital. Annually, Scotland's seas generate at least £2.2 billion of marine industry—excluding oil and gas—and support approximately 50,000 jobs. The seas around our country are home to 40,000 marine species, including 6,500 animal and plant species. There are many competing demands on Scotland's marine and coastal environment from the energy sector, shipping, fisheries, tourism and conservation. As well as simplifying existing marine legislation, the proposed marine bill aims to balance the long-term viability and growth of those industries with enhanced protection of our special marine environment.

Separately, we are conscious of the increased danger of major flooding events in Scotland. In February, we opened a wide consultation on flood management. That valuable exercise garnered wide endorsement for our proposals and I am pleased to announce that in the coming year we will publish a flood risk management bill. The bill is necessary in order to transpose the European Community floods directive. It will help to strengthen co-operation and co-ordination, create a single enforcement authority for the safe operation of Scotland's reservoirs, and help to establish a sustainable risk-based approach to flood risk management.

Each of those bills will help to safeguard the environment. Just as important, they show our commitment to harnessing our economic potential—Scotland's natural capital—to promote sustainable economic growth for current and future generations.

In the past year, we have made significant progress towards making Scotland safer and stronger. We are working with police forces to ensure that, by 2011, an additional 1,000 police officers will be recruited to police our communities. Last year—as we promised—150 officers were recruited and paid for by the Scottish Government and are already working in Scotland's communities. That seemed to come as a disappointment to some members whose manifesto contained no commitment whatever on police numbers. This year, the Government is directly funding the recruitment of another 450 officers over and above the forces' previous plans. As of June this year, we have the record number of 16,339 police officers on our streets keeping Scotland safe.

We will achieve more with three new bills to improve Scotland's justice system. The criminal justice and licensing bill will ensure that prison remains the correct disposal for serious and violent offenders and will ensure that they are dealt with firmly and effectively in prison. Building on the recommendations of the Scottish Prisons Commission, it will reform the community punishments that are available to the courts and reform criminal law and criminal court procedures. Consolidated by the creation of a sentencing council, the bill will ensure that there is public confidence in sentencing decisions.

As members know, we are consulting on a wide range of measures to challenge Scotland's relationship with alcohol. The consultation, which ends later this month, outlines proposals in several key areas: to prohibit off-sales to under-21s; to set a minimum price for alcoholic drink; and to introduce a social responsibility fee. We will reflect on the results of the consultation and use the bill to effect those proposals, which require primary legislation.

We will also introduce a legal profession bill, which will contain the first significant reform of the legal profession since 1980. It will introduce alternative business structures to the legal profession while maintaining its independence and strength.

The arbitration bill will modernise arbitration law in Scotland, something that has been under consideration for at least 20 years. Ensuring that Scotland has codified arbitration rules in statute will make the arbitration procedure more accessible and user friendly, which will benefit individuals and businesses in Scotland who wish to settle disputes outwith the court system.

The Government is committed to improving the country's health and wellbeing and we can point to good progress in the quality of our health care and in major indicators of health outcomes. Scotland's national health service continues to drive down waiting times; indeed, last week, it announced an all-time low in waiting at accident and emergency departments.

This week, we have ensured that Scotland becomes the first part of the United Kingdom to introduce vaccinations for cervical cancer. Over the next few years, every girl under 18 in Scotland will have received that vital vaccine. I know that that major progress in public health will be supported by every party and every member in the chamber.

In addition to working to abolish prescription charges, we have removed a tax on the sick and those who care for them by scrapping car parking charges in NHS hospitals across Scotland. Unfortunately, however, scrapping car parking charges in private finance initiative hospitals is not within our power, unless we buy out the contracts. At least one of the Labour leadership candidates might care to reflect on that as he sees this inequity continue in PFI hospitals.

We are clear about the challenges that lie ahead in improving Scotland's health. Our health inequalities task force, which reported in June, set out an action plan to improve health outcomes across Scotland. We have made it clear that we regard that as a moral imperative and as a mission that will bring far wider benefits to our society and, indeed, to the Scottish economy.

In the coming year, we will introduce a health bill, an objective of which will be to ensure that the future of general practitioner services in Scotland remains within the NHS family and firmly rooted in the traditions of general practice. Moreover, by controlling tobacco's availability and promotion and by introducing a tobacco sales registration scheme and restricting display of tobacco products in shops, the bill will take aim at the problems that are caused by a major factor in health inequality in Scotland and a major cause of the big three killers: cancer, coronary heart disease and strokes. Those reforms will be supported by new resources at the front line: the Scottish Government will commit an additional £9 million over the next three years to support local government and the national health service in delivering measures in the smoking prevention action plan.

I turn now to the measures that we are introducing in education and for our young people. We all know the fundamental importance of a good start in life and a good Scottish education. The early years framework, which has been developed together with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, is an important step in that respect. Through a close partnership between local government, our health service and the Scottish Government, we can help to give our children the best possible start in life.

I am pleased to say that local government is also firmly behind the proposals that will be in the children's hearings bill, which will modernise and strengthen the children's hearings system by bringing 33 separate organisations under one new national body. Children's rights will continue to be properly upheld within the system, which will be more integrated and more effective and will provide consistently good support to volunteers and professionals, which will lead ultimately to better outcomes for children and families.

In Scotland, about 1,000 schools—41 per cent of our primaries and 23 per cent of our secondaries—are classified as rural. Since 1999, more than 50 rural schools have been closed. In that time, three have been kept open by direct ministerial intervention, all as a result of decisions that were made by this Government and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. The trend of rural schools closures causes us concern because such closures can mean real hardship for children and parents in rural areas. As a result, our rural schools bill will introduce a presumption against their closure. Because we recognise that any school closure can be emotive, the bill will improve the consultation process for all proposed closures in Scotland.

We will also introduce amending legislation, through the additional support for learning amendment bill, that will maintain the foundations of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 but enable parents and young people to make out-of-area placing requests. It will allow, in the event of an unsuccessful request, access to mediation and dispute resolution services and will expand the rights of parents and young people to access additional support needs tribunals.

Finally, I will outline three new bills concerning the governance of Scotland. Our aim to introduce a referendum bill on Scottish independence is widely known, so I am delighted to reaffirm to the chamber our intention to introduce it in 2010, in line with our manifesto commitment. I have lost track of the position of the three Labour leadership candidates on this issue. However, I did notice that it was one of the first matters to be addressed by Tavish Scott, following his evelation—[Laughter.]—his elevation, even, to the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. I am sure he can levitate as well. Perhaps I was reading too much into his statement, but I detected a chink of light emerging through the fog.

We will continue to work to improve the governance of Scotland through legislative and non-legislative means. The historic concordat with local government is just one such step. The public services reform bill will introduce further substantive improvements in Scottish governance and will help to achieve this Government's commitment to reduce the number of Scottish public bodies by 25 per cent by the end of this session of Parliament. It will also enact Professor Crerar's proposals for reforming the scrutiny landscape in Scotland, set out a framework for reducing the number of scrutiny bodies by 25 per cent, and simplify scrutiny and complaints handling of public services.

We in the chamber know that, like the creative process, the legislative process is not always straightforward. However, I can inform colleagues that the public services reform bill will also give legal status to the proposed creative Scotland—subject, of course, to parliamentary will.

A good example of Government and Parliament working together is the legislative reform bill, which will take forward recommendations that have been made by the Subordinate Legislation Committee and will mean that some important matters, such as scrutiny of secondary legislation, will finally be covered by Scottish Parliament legislation rather than by transitional orders that were made under the Scotland Act 1998.

Lastly, we will introduce the Scottish Parliament and local government elections bill. I regret to say that we cannot with that bill ensure that Scotland's national Parliament can assume responsibility for Scottish Parliament elections. However, we will enact Ron Gould's recommendation to separate the timing of Scottish parliamentary and local government elections by extending by one year this and the next term of office in councils. The bill will allow access to voting data at polling-station level, which will help to increase confidence in the overall result. We will also consult on Ron Gould's other recommendations, notably the creation of a chief returning officer for Scotland, as we strive to increase public confidence in the electoral process.

That concludes the presentation of this year's legislative programme. It is a programme that shows that this Government is committed to act on behalf of the whole of Scottish society and that, although Scotland faces many challenges, we are responding to them. As a society and as a nation, we will overcome them. We will build a sound platform for long-term sustainable economic growth and a future in which all can benefit and secure their potential.

There should be no limit to our ambitions for the nation, just as there should be no limit to what we can contribute globally if we take on the mantle of leadership and responsibility and work in favour of the common weal. This legislative programme is an important step towards building that strong and purposeful Scottish society.

On climate change and the environment, the programme will propel us into a new leadership role—a role that we should and can feel comfortable in.

I invite colleagues across the chamber to continue to work constructively with us, to help to implement the programme and to take Scotland forward.

Photo of Alex Fergusson

Alex Fergusson (None)

As I said earlier, the First Minister will now take questions on the issues that have been raised in his statement. We have about 45 minutes for this, but a very large number of members wish to ask questions so it would be very helpful if those who wish to do so press their request-to-speak buttons now. I think that not all the names might fit on the screen. I ask everyone to keep questions and answers short, so that we get through as many as we can.

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Cathy Jamieson (Labour)

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I heard what you said about the length of questions.

I thank the First Minister for the advance copy of his statement. I also thank the journalists who so accurately predicted the number of bills that would be in the programme.

It is perhaps unsurprising that I have a sense of déjà vu. If we look through the Scottish Government's statement, we cannot help but notice what is missing from it as much as what is present in the document—I probably made that point this time last year. Class size reduction is absent; further investment in health is missing; and the end of automatic early release has somehow escaped from the programme. How can anyone believe the entirety of the document, when there has been no progress on so many of last year's pledges and promises?

The programme contains measures on which Labour will look favourably, for example the measures on climate change and arbitration and the proposals on school meals, which were in the Labour manifesto. However, other measures will need detailed scrutiny. The devil is always in the detail, of course. In particular, the measures to do with tackling alcohol and tobacco issues will need to be examined, to ensure that they do not simply sound tough but are workable and will deliver the health benefits that are talked about.

The First Minister said that the three members who are sitting on the Labour front bench agree that reform of the council tax is needed. However, all three of us also agree that local income tax is not the solution to the problem. In saying that, we are in agreement with the Institute of Directors, Unison and the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland—organisations that traditionally are not always in agreement. The reality is that a local income tax would cause misery for people who rely on local services and would cut the legs from local government, making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom. Will the First Minister please stop gambling with people's local services to save his political face? Will he have the humility to listen to the people who criticise the local income tax proposal and will he admit that the proposal was a mistake and work with all parties to come up with a property-based local tax that will be fairer for all?

There was little if any mention of the Scottish futures trust in the First Minister's statement. The First Minister promised to match Labour's school building programme brick for brick, but while he prevaricates on the Scottish futures trust not a single brick will have been laid, which is not good enough. Will he therefore give us a timetable that sets out when the Scottish futures trust will be in place and when we will receive further details of the school building programme and the second Forth crossing, which was promised but is in doubt while we await details of the Scottish futures trust?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I know that Cathy Jamieson is auditioning today, but there was a sense of déjà vu—she was right to say that she said exactly the same things about the legislative programme last year. I say to her in all reasonableness and humility that the verdict of the Scottish people during the past year seems to have been more resoundingly in favour than has the verdict of Cathy Jamieson.

I welcome Cathy Jamieson's conversion, in which she has been whole-hearted, on £400 million of council tax benefit not being embezzled from Scotland by the Labour London Treasury. I welcome the Conservative party's comments on the matter, too. On that issue, it seems that the Parliament is united. However, in her attack on the replacement of the council tax by a local income tax, notably Cathy Jamieson omitted two points: first, the support of COSLA in the hysteric vote in June—[Laughter.] I mean the historic vote in June—I was at the meeting and the reaction of Labour councillors when they lost a vote in COSLA for the first time in 50 years was hysterical. The reaction of our local councillors in favour of a local income tax seems particularly important. Secondly, Cathy Jamieson and the two other auditionees say that they will reform the council tax, but is not that what they said when Labour was in government? Where on earth is the definitive Labour proposal for reform?

On the health service, I point out two things to Cathy Jamieson: there is record spend on the national health service in Scotland and there are record outcomes. What a tribute it is, in this year of the 60th anniversary of the NHS, that a major new hospital in Glasgow—an £800 million development—is being built in the public sector and is not going down the blind alley of PFI. For that reason, our proposals on the Scottish futures trust will come forward as this year goes on, intensifying and reinforcing the capital budget that is being applied in Scotland.

In a nutshell, is not this the position? The Scottish National Party in Government during the past year has

"looked and sounded like a party on the side of change while Labour looked and sounded like a party on the side of the way things had always been."

Those are not my words but the words of Tom McCabe in the Sunday Herald on 3 August.

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Annabel Goldie (Conservative)

It is great to be back. Some things might have changed—some people have gone and others have arrived. I, too, welcome Tavish Scott, fog and all. I hope that the First Minister is pleased to see that I am back and raring to go.

It is clear that the First Minister is also raring to go. It is obvious that he wants to replicate Olympic pace in the political arena. I take this opportunity at the first meeting of the Parliament since the Olympic games to praise and congratulate team Great Britain and our fantastic Scottish contribution to its Olympic success. [Applause.] I am looking forward to London 2012. I am certainly looking forward to Westminster 2011.

The Scottish Conservatives in this Parliament will continue to do what we did last year. Our approach will be issue by issue and vote by vote, to do what is best for the interests of Scotland. The Scottish Conservatives will continue to make the difference in Scottish politics. For the avoidance of doubt, will the First Minister confirm that by 2011 police numbers will be 17,261? That was the deal that the Scottish Conservatives secured in the budget.

The First Minister lauds his proposed net tax cuts of £281 million. If he can find that money, I can spend it better and cut the tax bill for every council tax payer in Scotland. What on earth is the point of abolishing the council tax, when the proposed substitute, a national income tax, has been comprehensively rubbished and ridiculed?

On the proposed criminal justice and licensing bill, does the First Minister seriously intend to persevere with the ludicrous proposal whereby a responsible adult aged 20 could buy alcohol at the pub but could not take a bottle of wine home to celebrate the birth of his child?

Finally, can the First Minister confirm that he has given up on his pledges to cancel student debt and reduce class sizes, given their omission from his statement?

Photo of Rt Hon Alex Salmond

Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I cannot confirm that and if the Conservative party had supported the Government in the abolition of student fees, Annabel Goldie would be in a much better position to attack the Government's education policies.

In all fairness, I must say that Annabel has been a source of great reassurance to me during the recess. She is a living demonstration that it is possible for political leaders to stay in office. I am grateful for that and I join her whole-heartedly in congratulating all the Olympians who competed and those who succeeded in the recent Olympic games. Our Scottish athletes, from all disciplines, will be recognised in a reception at Edinburgh castle on Friday.

Annabel Goldie will join me in welcoming the record number of police on Scotland's streets. It is an established statistic that 1,000 additional officers will be recruited through direct Government intervention.

At some stage, Annabel Goldie and other people who oppose a local income tax will have to reconcile their thoughts to the view that, whatever arguments they make against the local income tax, much more profound arguments can be made against the unfair council tax, which is a hated form of taxation. Opponents of the local income tax will have to try to understand why, in every single test of public opinion—I am talking about the people whom we are meant to serve—local income tax beats the council tax into a cocked hat by margins of two or three to one. If at any stage in future the Conservative party starts to reconnect with public opinion in Scotland, its political prospects will be a great deal brighter in 2010, 2011 or whenever.

Photo of Tavish Scott

Tavish Scott (Liberal Democrat)

I thank the First Minister for his statement and for his earlier kind words. I agree with what he said about both Nicol Stephen, my friend and colleague, and Wendy Alexander.

I was struck today by how little of the First Minister's statement was about the big issue facing the people of Scotland today: the cost of living. The past 12 months have seen energy costs rise by 15 per cent, with 30 per cent more to come, food costs rise by £30 a month, and headline inflation up to its highest level for 16 years. It is at times like this that people want to hear how Governments are working together to make their lives easier. They want to know that the SNP Government is not just on the side of spin but on their side.

I know that it is hard for the First Minister to work jointly with London, because the Labour Government is part of what is wrong—dithering, divided, out of touch and on the way out, with Alistair Darling performing some sort of reverse Macmillan, telling us, "You've never had it so bad." However, what is the First Minister doing to make it better? What steps is he taking as a political leader, not as a political commentator, to meet that challenge?

What parts of the First Minister's programme are designed to work consistently with the United Kingdom Government to tackle the crisis in housing? What is happening beyond reannouncing money either side of the border to make buying and renting more affordable? What evidence can he give us that he will put taking action to tackle the rising cost of living ahead of his need to make a political point?

That is what people want to hear; or does the First Minister think that they will understand Governments being tribal when the need to work together has never been so important? It is the economy, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Rt Hon Alex Salmond

Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I am not sure whether, if I described Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown as dithering, divided, out of touch and going out of office, I would necessarily secure their co-operation. However, if I do so, I shall assure them that I am quoting Tavish Scott rather than making up the attacks myself.

Let me point out to Tavish Scott that the cost of living was the first thing that I mentioned substantively in the statement, covering the concerns that were flowing into not just the Scottish Government and ministers but, I suspect, every MSP and constituency office across the country during the recess. That is what is bearing down on people.

In the landscape of rising food, fuel and other prices, is it not good that one cost—the council tax bill—is not going up across Scotland, unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom? Would it not have been encouraging if the Liberal Democrats had supported the move to freeze the council tax in the budget vote earlier this year? Perhaps under the new leadership of Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrats' actions will meet their words on containing rising prices.

Tavish Scott should not in any way belittle the efforts that we are making in the housing and construction market to accelerate as best we can the investment that is necessary. Many of the measures that we announced some weeks ago were, in effect, copied by the UK Government in its announcement yesterday.

As Tavish Scott well knows—I hope to secure his support for increasing the economic powers of this Parliament—we are not in charge of the key commanding economic levers. I am delighted that some of the measures, such as those on stamp duty, that John Swinney suggested to the chancellor, in more polite terms than Tavish Scott, were introduced yesterday. However, they are by no means enough to deal with the economic problems facing the country. We need a substantial reflation. This is the time for a Keynesian reflation across the country to increase demand and confidence.

On a fixed budget—[Interruption.] Let me explain to Tavish Scott's colleagues that, on a fixed budget, if we increase expenditure in one area, we have to reduce it in another. That is not too complex an equation to understand. However, as the Parliament and the country secure the enhanced economic power that we need, we will be able to meet the economic challenges more comprehensively. Everybody in the chamber who does not accept that should consider the fact that, among the major energy, oil and gas producers in the world, Scotland is the single country that is bearing the pain of high energy costs without the advantage of billions of pounds rolling into our exchequer.

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Alex Fergusson (None)

We come to open questions. I remind members that a four-hour debate follows, so questions should be on points of clarification only. [ Interruption. ] If members would like to listen, they might get it right when they come to ask a question.

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Brian Adam (Scottish National Party)

I welcome today's announced programme. The First Minister rightly talked about confidence in the economy. Will he give us an idea of how he and his colleagues might instil confidence in Scotland's economy, by taking steps unlike those taken by the chancellor, which in the past few days have seen the pound drop to its lowest level ever against the euro and drop 22 cents against the dollar? Those falls will have a major impact on the cost of living, as we have to pay for oil.

Photo of Rt Hon Alex Salmond

Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I set out a comprehensive series of measures in the Donald Dewar lecture at the Edinburgh book festival last month, and the Government will pursue those measures. Scotland is not immune from global recession and economic forces, but the Scottish economy is performing robustly and resisting those trends. Employment in Scotland is up and unemployment is down. Economic growth in Scotland has matched or exceeded growth in the United Kingdom for the past three recorded quarters—the first time that that has happened in a generation. I hope and believe that some of the Government's steps and the pace that we are setting are contributing to that resilience. I know that John Swinney and I will have Brian Adam's support for those measures; I hope that they will be supported by members throughout the chamber.

Photo of Rhona Brankin

Rhona Brankin (Labour)

We offer broad support to the children's hearings bill and the additional support for learning amendment bill, although we will need to see the detail.

The First Minister mentioned a rural schools bill. Is it not ironic that, while the SNP is legislating to protect rural schools, an SNP council in Aberdeen is closing urban schools? We view that as hypocrisy.

On this day a year ago, the First Minister pledged to reduce class sizes in primary 1 to 3 to 18 within the lifetime of the Government. Today, that pledge has disappeared. We are seeing class sizes rising across Scotland, especially in SNP council areas.

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Rhona Brankin (Labour)

There is nothing in the document today that will give teachers and parents hope. Will the First Minister commit to legislating to protect smaller class sizes in schools? Today, less—

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Rhona Brankin (Labour)

Today, less than a quarter of last year's probationers have found permanent posts. There is nothing in the statement to address that obscene waste of teaching talent. What does the First Minister intend to do to address that? This Government also—

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Alex Fergusson (None)

I am afraid that I have to stop you, Ms Brankin. I call the First Minister.

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I welcome Rhona Brankin's welcome in the early part of her question. As she knows, probationers get employment throughout the year, and she will remember that, according to last year's survey, 93 per cent of them moved into employment.

I am sure that Rhona Brankin will have learned word for word the concordat commitment on lower class sizes. It is on page 5 and reads:

"Local government will be expected to show year on year progress toward delivery of the class size reduction policy."

I am pleased that, over the summer, single outcome agreements were signed with every single local authority in Scotland. If Rhona Brankin wants to look at a local authority that is enjoying spectacular success in moving towards that commitment, she will not have to travel far from the chamber. She can go to West Lothian to see an authority that is making substantial progress under the terms of the concordat towards the class size reduction policy. If that council can do it, perhaps Rhona Brankin will join me in exhorting her colleagues in a number of councils that I could mention to put more of a priority on low class sizes.

I have hope on this matter. It was only this time last year that the Labour Party was not sure whether low class sizes were a good idea. Now that it is sure, it will join us in ensuring that councils across Scotland follow West Lothian's example.

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Michael Matheson (Scottish National Party)

The First Minister is aware of the widespread concern throughout Scotland about ever-increasing energy prices, with an increasing number of people living in fuel poverty in our energy-rich Scotland. Will he outline what his Government will do in the next year to tackle increasing fuel poverty and will he assure the Parliament that he and his Government will continue to call on Gordon Brown to ensure that the people of Scotland get a fair deal on fuel costs?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

As Michael Matheson knows, we have re-established the fuel poverty forum, which I understand will make its recommendations within the next few days. We expect measures on the substantial matters for which, unfortunately, Westminster has responsibility to be announced next week. We will ensure that Scotland gets the maximum benefit, particularly from measures on energy efficiency, on which we have unfortunately lost out in the past.

The underlying irony of an energy-rich society suffering unacceptable levels of fuel poverty with the risk of great escalation in those levels over the winter should surely concentrate the minds of people who somehow think that Scotland should feel the impact of high energy prices for families and businesses but get none of the benefits of its own vast natural energy resources.

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Malcolm Chisholm (Labour)

I thank the First Minister for his one, casual, throwaway sentence on culture—which is consistent, I suppose, with his level of attendance at this summer's magnificent festivals. More seriously, I ask him when creative Scotland will be established; whether there will still be detailed, amendable legislation to set it up; and whether the Scottish Government received a report in the past few months that indicated that the cost of establishing creative Scotland would be approximately £7 million rather than the £1 million or so that was stated to the Parliament in June.

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

As far as my attendance at the festival is concerned, I point out to Malcolm Chisholm that I have had a reasonably starring role at the past two Edinburgh international book festivals, with substantial audiences.

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Jeremy Purvis (Liberal Democrat)

What does the First Minister mean by "reasonably starring"?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I said "reasonably" to acknowledge the fact that I got nothing like the attendance that Sean Connery managed to mobilise. I also know how encouraged Sean was by the birthday best wishes from Lord George Foulkes.

Malcolm Chisholm should have listened more carefully: the legislative basis for the establishment of creative Scotland is in the legislative programme that I mentioned. I hope that, this time, the Labour Party will bring itself to vote for a policy with which it is meant to agree.

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Christine Grahame (Scottish National Party)

I refer the First Minister to the announcements on public health initiatives on underage tobacco and alcohol sales. Effective enforcement is the test of robust legislation.

Currently, trading standards officers are the enforcers of the law on tobacco sales, but police officers are the enforcers of the law on underage alcohol sales. I ask the First Minister and his Cabinet to consider making both matters the responsibility of trading standards officers, which seems eminently pragmatic and would free up police officers for other duties.

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I will give close consideration to Christine Grahame's suggestion. She will have noticed the substantial stepping-up of the enforcement of the law on underage drink sales that took place over the summer and the variety of campaigns that there were on that.

Her question gives me the opportunity to reflect on the evidence from the various trial runs of the policy on restricting alcohol retail sales to over-21s. We have had pilots in three areas of Scotland: West Lothian, Stenhousemuir and, more recently, Cupar. Each of those experiments has resulted in a decline of almost 50 per cent in antisocial behaviour reported to the police over the period of the trials. Every member of the Parliament should pay close attention to that empirical evidence and, when we come to vote on that aspect of the legislation, bear in mind the welcome that those communities have given to the experiments, before they allow other criteria or prejudices to get in the way of a sensible reform on alcohol consumption, the protection of our young people and civil order in Scotland.

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Dr Richard Simpson (Labour)

Why has the First Minister failed to indicate whether expenditure on the health service in Scotland will be overtaken by that in England within the next four to five years because of the reductions that he made in the previous budget and has failed to redress in the proposed budget? Will the tobacco control element of the proposed health bill include a ban on vending machines, a ban on smoking in cars where there are children and a curtailment of product placement? The last of those is a major problem, because the tobacco industry is one of the most sophisticated at overcoming public health measures.

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

Under the legislation, we will consider carefully the second aspect of Richard Simpson's question. On the first aspect, he is plain wrong in statistical terms because, under present plans, health spending per capita in Scotland will be £2,220 in 2010-11 and health spending per person in England in the same year will be £2,121. A bit less fiddling of the statistical base by the Labour Party might be encouraging for the discourse of political debate in the Parliament.

Richard Simpson is also wrong on political grounds because, only last year, the Labour Party fought an election saying that there should be no consequential increases or efficiency gains for health in Scotland and that every item of the modest increase in spending should be devoted solely to education. He does not have to be a political genius to work out that if the Scottish people had had the misfortune of having the Labour Party continue in office, health spending in Scotland would have been lower than it is under SNP plans.

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David McLetchie (Conservative)

I was interested in the First Minister's answer to Rhona Brankin's question on class sizes, in which he mentioned single outcome agreements. Is he aware that in 21 of the 32 single outcome agreements that his Government signed with Scotland's councils this summer there is not one word about reducing class sizes to a maximum of 18 and that, in the other 11 agreements, the common denominator is a recognition that the policy cannot be implemented without additional resources and the enactment of legislation? If the SNP Government is serious about the policy, why is there no legislative proposal to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 18—albeit over a period of time—bearing in mind the fact that the current legal maximum is 30?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

We need co-operation, not legislation. The reason is that, under the concordat,

"Local government will be expected to show year on year progress toward delivery of the class size reduction policy."

That is the phraseology on such co-operation to which every council in Scotland—even those with the misfortune to be under Conservative influence—has signed up. I am sure that David McLetchie will join me in encouraging his councillors to show the same enthusiasm for the class size reduction policy and the historic concordat as councillors of my party—and, I hope, other parties—will show.

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Jeremy Purvis (Liberal Democrat)

On 27 June 2007, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning told the Parliament:

"We will have a school building fund to which local authorities can request access."

She went on:

"the futures trust will provide a very attractive option for local authorities and I think that many are waiting with great anticipation to use it."—[Official Report, Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, 27 June 2007; c 40.]

They are still waiting and not one new school scheme has been put forward since the SNP took office. Will there be a school building fund under the futures trust and how many school buildings will it fund?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

Schools are moving forward at present because local government in Scotland has an historically high capital allocation, which is allowing building and refurbishment to take place. The details of the futures trust will move forward and I am sure that we will enjoy Jeremy Purvis's support as they do so.

As many members know, I spent a great deal of time at Westminster. Anything that I had to say about the private finance initiative was as nothing compared to the condemnation that it received from those on the Liberal Democrat benches in front of me. I could never understand how that vehement argument against the iniquity of PFI that the Liberal Democrats made at Westminster could be reconciled with their policy position in government of moving PFI across the school and hospital building programme. No doubt, as the proposals for the Scottish futures trust come forward, Jeremy Purvis will be able to reconcile that apparent inconsistency between his colleagues here and his colleagues down there.

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Aileen Campbell (Scottish National Party)

I welcome the Government's indication that it will implement the areas of the Gould report for which it has responsibility. Does the First Minister agree that it is unfortunate that we do not have responsibility for our Parliament's elections and that, if we did, one way to improve democracy would be to lower the voting age to 16?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I agree with Aileen Campbell on both points. For the voting age to go to 16 would be a reformist policy that would be extremely useful and widely supported in Scotland, in that it would involve more people in the civic process. Of course, it would be easier to achieve that—as it would in many other areas—if the Scottish Parliament had responsibility for its electoral system.

I know that members of the Labour Party and others in the chamber have some doubts about that. However, I cannot see how any self-respecting members of a self-respecting Parliament could believe otherwise than that a Parliament should fundamentally have responsibility for its own election system—its own democracy. What sort of message does it send out on the other areas over which we aspire to govern if members in this chamber seem to lack the confidence in our ability to run our own electoral system? I could perhaps understand it if, when responsibility lay elsewhere, everything was working swimmingly and elections were run with a great degree of efficiency. Clearly, that has not been the case. For goodness' sake, will members across the chamber have the self-respect to demand control of our own democratic process?

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Rt Hon Jack McConnell (Labour)

As the First Minister rightly pointed out in his statement, government is about leadership as well as legislation. I hope that he will therefore support all his colleagues in the Parliament who have consistently attacked sectarianism over the years and join us all in condemning the attack on the Celtic coach Neil Lennon and the threats that have been made to Rangers player Nacho Novo, both of which show clearly that bigotry and religious hatred are not yet in the dustbin of history for Scotland. Why has the First Minister not maintained the progress on tackling sectarianism in Scotland that was made in recent years? Will he commit to reconvene the summit on sectarianism in this coming year, chair it personally, and lead Scotland towards dumping sectarianism in the dustbin of history?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

Let me join the former First Minister in the condemnation of the attack on Neil Lennon and concern about sectarianism. This Government, and every member in the chamber, believes and knows that sectarianism is a continuing problem in Scottish society; it is one of the ills that afflicts us. Let him accept that every member across the chamber has the highest priority in tackling that and other ills in Scottish society.

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Sandra White (Scottish National Party)

I thank the First Minister for his statement. In his contribution, Tavish Scott mentioned housing. Indeed, the First Minister said that support for housing was high on the political agenda, with £100 million being brought forward for housing. What support will the Scottish Government give through shared equity schemes and mortgage support to help people to access housing?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

In "Firm Foundations: The Future of Housing in Scotland", the Deputy First Minister announced exactly the budgets for increasing such support. Those are all aspects of tackling the difficulties in the housing market in Scotland, in particular our drive to increase social ownership. I welcome in particular—Sandra White will welcome it, too—the fact that, for the first time in a generation, local councils now have significant plans to re-enter the social housing market. That is a substantial step forward in Scotland.

The housing plans and things that we are doing can only be a part of a general recovery plan for the economy. In terms of the reflation and expansion of the economy, we are—as Sandra White knows—heavily restricted in our ability to inject demand and confidence into the economy. That is why parties across the chamber should join us in calling for exactly that policy. Right now, it is exactly what is needed.

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Paul Martin (Labour)

The First Minister was quick to remind us that his Government had provided the additional funding to allow police authorities across Scotland to recruit an additional 150 police officers. Can he assure me today that the £580,000 that the Government provided to police authorities has been spent on new recruits?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

The fact that that we now have a record number of police in Scotland indicates that our policy is succeeding. Of course, we can guarantee it because it is direct funding. The 1,000 additional recruits are over and above the plans, which Paul Martin supported last year in the election campaign. It is coming into place. Paul Martin mentioned the additional 150 officers in the last financial year; he should also mention the 350 in this financial year. The Labour Party's position in those matters would carry a great deal more credibility—and I heard an echo of Richard Simpson's misplaced comments on the health service in what Paul Martin said—if the Labour Party had made a commitment in its manifesto last year for a single extra police officer in Scotland. It had no such plan. The basis of the sum of Paul Martin's question seems to be his grudging admission that the Scottish National Party's plans for police recruitment, which other parties in the chamber support, are proving to be successful. I am delighted to confirm that.

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Mary Scanlon (Conservative)

Given the proposal for a health bill to keep general practitioner services in the national health service, will the First Minister confirm how many GP services in Scotland are not in the NHS, why the legislation is necessary and whether he plans to extend the proposal to ban dentists from private practice? Also, why has no commitment or support been announced for outdoor education for every child in Scotland?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

Among general practitioners and the British Medical Association, there is huge concern that not closing the loophole would enable practices to move outwith the ambit of the national health service. In that regard, health professionals believe that the Government's commitment in this direction contrasts with commitments that Mary Scanlon has supported. I remind her that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing became probably the first minister with responsibility for health in a generation or more to receive not one but two standing ovations at the British Medical Association conference in July. Many former Government ministers, including health ministers, would be delighted to get such a reaction from any of our workers in the national health service.

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Robin Harper (Green)

I thank the First Minister for his kind words on the Scottish Green Party's contribution to sustainability over the past year and welcome the climate change bill. However, having a climate change bill with an exemption for air transport is a bit like having a diet plan with an exemption for pies, beans, chips and black puddings. There is also the omission of annual targets. Does the First Minister not welcome the fact that 21,000 people who responded to the consultation asked for annual targets? The Liberal Democrats support annual targets, as do the Greens—indeed, even some members of the Labour Party support them. Does he not agree that it is time for us to consider putting the teeth back into the climate change bill?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I am not an expert on pie and beans; I leave that to Mr McAveety and others, who are the specialists on such matters.

I welcome Robin Harper's welcome for the climate change bill. I am sure that his views will be heard as the agenda comes forward for the legislation. He will have plenty of opportunity to pursue the areas that were made strongly in the consultation. Although Robin Harper and I may not agree on every iota of the policy direction for the bill, I know that he supports the thrust of the moves that we are making, not only on overall climate change targets but as far as renewable energy production in Scotland is concerned.

Like me, Robin Harper has been enormously enthused that over the past five weeks almost £1,000 million of new investment in green energy renewable sources has been announced for Scotland. Renewable energy is one of the strengths of the Scottish economy at present.

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David Stewart (Labour)

I will continue on the theme of climate change. I support strongly the points that Robin Harper made. I welcome the First Minister's commitment to bring forward a climate change bill, which is arguably the most important bill that will pass through the Parliament this session. Will the bill include a 3 per cent statutory annual statutory emissions target—a target that was, of course, a SNP manifesto commitment? Will shipping and aviation be included and will we have a basket of all greenhouse gases, not just measures for carbon dioxide emissions? Those measures would make the resulting climate change act an exemplar of best practice not only in Scotland, but in Europe and beyond.

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I welcome David Stewart's general support for the legislation, the detail of which will be published when the bill is published. I assure the member that in every respect the legislation will be more ambitious than the Labour Government legislation on which he and I would be voting at Westminster if we were still together there.

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Margo MacDonald (Independent)

Presiding Officer, you now have a rival for my affections, given the First Minister's kind words. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has confirmed that we face a recession. Given that the decisions of the Bank of England monetary policy committee will have a profound effect on how that is dealt with, and given that the MPC is London-centric, will the First Minister seek an alliance with the First Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland to press for the right to appoint members to the MPC to ensure that the needs of our nations are taken into account fully when its decisions are made?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

The member makes an interesting suggestion. The difficulty is that the monetary policy committee has been formed on the basis that it should be independent of political influence. I have great sympathy with my fellow First Ministers in pointing out that the interests of all parts of these islands do not always appear to be uppermost in the minds of MPC members when they consider the economic landscape.

I agree with Margo MacDonald that the Government, which has responsibility for the key levers in the economy, must find a method of injecting demand and confidence into the economy at present. It can do so either through monetary policy or through fiscal policy. If it is not prepared to influence the MPC in that direction, it must support a major fiscal reflation and expansion. Of all periods in the past generation of economic policy management, this is exactly the time for a Keynesian reflation of the economy in order to sustain demand and confidence. The OECD's report should be a rapid warning to every Labour member of the consequences of continued inaction on the general economy by those who have responsibility for it at present.

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Johann Lamont (Labour)

When the First Minister announced that £100 million would be available to address housing issues, was he aware that there was no guarantee that that money had been secured? That was confirmed last night by the Minister for Communities and Sport, who conceded that £40 million was still being discussed with COSLA. Given the importance of social rented housing, will Mr Salmond listen to what the housing sector is saying and jettison the approach that is at the core of "Firm Foundations: The Future of Housing in Scotland", which involves housing associations being forced into the private market at a time of risk and increased rents? If the First Minister wants to address the issue of housing, will he work with housing associations and others, instead of attacking them?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

We are not attacking housing associations. Perhaps the member should read the warm welcome that forces and people in that sector have given to the announcements that we have made. In the announcement to which she refers, we made quite clear that £60 million of acceleration was under the determination of the Government and that we were discussing the other £40 million with local authorities. The member misunderstands and belittles local authorities in Scotland if she does not believe that they are as enthusiastic as we are about this move forward on housing investment. That is part of the partnership that we now have with local government, but which was so lacking when the Labour Party was in office.

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Bill Kidd (Scottish National Party)

In light of the Scottish Government's welcome abolition of Labour's hospital car parking charges, will the First Minister join me in calling on all trade unions representing hospital staff to realise that the SNP, not the Labour Party, stands up best for their members' interests?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

The announcement on car parking charges is very strong and will give great encouragement to workers throughout the national health service. It should provide a salutary lesson to proponents of the private finance initiative, who presided over the signing of contracts that took control over key areas of the health service out of public hands, of how mistaken they were. Hopefully, at some stage—either within or without a leadership contest—they will recant their past iniquities.

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Elaine Murray (Labour)

Will the First Minister clarify whether the Government will introduce legislation to establish a Scottish futures trust before the next summer recess?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

A Scottish futures trust will be established very shortly. I look forward to receiving Elaine Murray's support for that initiative.

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Mary Mulligan (Labour)

I welcome the First Minister's commitment to retaining an early years framework, but I would do so more if the Scottish Government's actions matched its words. Why is the Scottish Government dropping nursery places for vulnerable two-year-olds? Why is it doing nothing to ensure that health visitor services are retained for all new mothers and babies? Why was there no proposal in the First Minister's statement to introduce a play strategy? Where is the Scottish Government's commitment to improving the lives of our youngest children?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

It is in the early years framework, as Mary Mulligan well knows. As the representative for one of the constituencies in the West Lothian Council area, could she not find any word for a council that is moving forward so rapidly on what should be the shared objective of lowering class sizes, which is a critical part of the early years intervention strategy that the Government supports? Hopefully, it will be supported by Mary Mulligan sometime soon.

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Jackie Baillie (Labour)

I thank the First Minister for his statement, but I am disappointed to note that it did not mention independent monitoring of hospitals and their compliance with measures to tackle hospital-acquired infections such as clostridium difficile. Does the First Minister agree that the current and planned system of self-assessment by hospitals and boards is woefully inadequate? Will he agree to introduce early legislation establishing a robust monitoring and inspection framework, so that we will never again witness death on the scale that occurred at the Vale of Leven hospital?

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Rt Hon Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party)

I remind Jackie Baillie that we inherited the framework to which she refers from the previous Administration. The action plan that has been agreed is of critical importance in addressing the serious problem of hospital-acquired infections in our health service and in society. When there are tragedies such as that which occurred in the member's constituency, and when we have put in place an action plan that is designed to meet the challenge of hospital-acquired infections in a comprehensive way across Scotland, would it not be best for us to unite behind that action plan, to take our health service into a safer future?

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Alex Fergusson (None)

That brings us to the end of the First Minister's statement and questions on the Scottish Government's programme. I thank all members for enabling us to get through the item timeously.