Legislative Programme

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 10:36 am on 16th June 1999.

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Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 10:36 am, 16th June 1999

Mr Salmond's memory does not fail him on this occasion. As became clear during the election campaign, our objections are now twofold: first, the increases imposed by the Labour Government are higher than those involved when we supported the escalator concept; secondly-this is the key issue-when we get to the top of the escalator, we get off the escalator. We are now getting off the escalator, whereas the Labour party wishes to continue upwards and upwards. It is determined, with the proposals outlined in its transport bill, to put further tolls and taxes on motorists and businesses. I thought that, during the election campaign, I was crystal clear on that point on many occasions, but I am happy to reinforce it now. The truth is that Labour, supported by the Liberal Democrats in their coalition Government, is continuing its UK policy of introducing taxes by the back door in Scotland. We will oppose the Government's every attempt to impose new stealth taxes on Scots.

If the financial procedures and auditing bill is intended, as it apparently is, to facilitate the control of public spending-at least in principle, if not in practice-it is welcome. Members may recall that, last week, Mr McConnell, the Minister for Finance, claimed that there was no mention of financial prudence in our manifesto. He obviously did not read very much of it. If he had, he would have seen that the first commitment in it was to "no new or higher taxes on Scots".

As a prominent advocate of new Labour double-speak, Mr McConnell clearly has trouble with plain English, so I will spell it out again for him. A commitment to oppose additional taxation of any kind means, by definition, that we must live within our means and control public spending in Scotland. We will be happy to support the prudent use of public finances under the Executive's management and I am happy to reassure Mr McConnell-our new iron chancellor-on that point. If Mr McConnell is really concerned about public spending in Scotland, he should-as I have said before-examine the cost of this bloated Government and the soaring costs of the Scottish Parliament building project at Holyrood.

The Executive's aspiration to raise education standards is, of course, laudable and welcome. Where its proposals build on the policies the Conservatives introduced in government, we will support them. However, imposing on councils a statutory duty to raise standards will, in itself, make not one whit of difference. Why do we need a law to state what should be a blindingly obvious responsibility? If our preponderantly Labour councils have failed in that responsibility, is it not time-as we said in our manifesto-for some real devolution in education through transferring the management of our schools to local communities?

Choice of nursery education for the parents of pre-school children is missing from the Government's proposals. We firmly believe in returning to a system of nursery vouchers, which allows parents to choose the nursery education that is best suited to their, and their children's, needs and does not force them to accept the diktat of their local council.

Talking of councils, I come to another feature of the legislative programme. Any reform of local government must aim to restore public confidence in our local authorities, which is sadly lacking. Let us face it: the Executive's ethical standards bill is no more and no less than a damning indictment of the unacceptable face of Scottish Labour in local councils. The Labour party created what the First Minister called the "distinct Scottish need" that requires the attention of the Parliament-attention to cleaning out their own middens.

There are aspects of the Government's proposals that we welcome. In particular, I welcome the two important measures of law reform: on land tenure and in relation to incapable adults. I believe that in both areas modernisation of the law will be welcomed and widely supported in the Parliament. I cannot help but note, however, in relation to land tenure reform, that some of the greatest abusers of the feudal system are Labour councils who exploit their position as feudal superiors to extract consent payments from their citizens for home extensions and alterations for which they as councils have already given building warrants and planning permission. In Edinburgh alone, the Labour-run council extracts from citizens more than £40,000 a year in this way. Legislative time could be saved if such invidious practices were not sustained by Labour in local government.

In relation to the incapable adults bill, I welcome reform of the law in relation to financial management and welfare of the incapacitated. It is an area with which I am well acquainted from my professional life as a solicitor. I think it is right, as Mr Salmond suggested, to exclude the contentious section 5 proposals at this stage so that the practical reforms that I believe will enjoy all-party support can proceed, and other proposals, such as living wills and consent to treatment, which raise major moral and ethical issues, can be more fully examined. Those issues are in any event more appropriate for a member's bill than for an Executive bill.