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Legislative Programme

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:33 pm on 16th June 1999.

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Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party 3:33 pm, 16th June 1999

I begin by pointing out to Phil Gallie, in relation to his comments to Margaret Ewing on unionist parties, that six parties are represented in this chamber, three of which support independence as an end aim, albeit that two of those parties have only one member in the chamber. I call that constitutional progress.

Also, after Paul Martin's outrageous attack on the people of Bearsden this morning, the Minister for Children and Education may want to defend his constituents at the next Labour group meeting and bridge the yawning chasm inside the Labour party group.

I thank the Executive for its courtesy in allowing Opposition front benchers foresight of the statement and for not announcing some of the measures before they were heard by the Scottish Parliament, although the Inverness Courier appears to have foresight of something on Gaelic that we have not been warned about. That is a precedent that should be followed at all times in this chamber. A little less action from those responsible for the hyperspin that comes from the publicly funded Labour press office and a bit more representation in the chamber would be a good thing.

That said, the programme is, to say the least, very light indeed. Some of the helium that filled the balloons of the election campaign has clearly found its way into the legislative programme.

There is, however, much in the programme that we welcome. This morning and this afternoon, Labour spokespeople have said much about social justice and other such measures. I would say to them, as was said all through the debate, that it is all very well expounding in rhetorical flourishes the great aims of the Labour movement as was, but there is nothing in this programme to tackle jobs, poverty or housing. This morning Alex Neil made a similar point: we have three pages of rhetoric in the First Minister's statement followed by no action. On the Executive benches, there is a growing trend to say a lot on one thing and then to act entirely differently.

The legislative programme contains nothing on freedom of information, an issue from Labour's own programme, which is mentioned in its manifesto and other statements. We are told by press briefings that Mr Wallace will make an announcement on the issue, but why is it not on the legislative programme? There is nothing on the status of the Gaelic language, notwithstanding the report in the Inverness Courier; nothing on a national waste strategy despite a Scottish Environment Protection Agency green paper to that effect; nothing that develops the white paper on social work; and nothing on a drug enforcement agency. From my perspective most important of all, there is nothing on housing. After Fiona Hyslop's contribution this morning, the Government must surely act on a homelessness strategy and we must hear something about what it is going to do to tackle homelessness.

I see that Mr McConnell has left for coffee, but I will discuss the financial strategy. I welcome the idea of openness and clarity in a financial strategy which is put before the Parliament. I point out that my colleague Mr Swinney and I have been calling for such a strategy since February 1998 and before. It took Labour 10 months in the Scottish Office to respond to our request and, when we got a response, there was a distinct lack of clarity and detail in its expenditure plans. For example, the plans were broken down to the detail of a £3.5 billion expenditure line on health.

We want to pursue the issue of a financial strategy. Before the bill comes to the chamber or, more accurately, before the financial issues statement is discussed, I hope that the Government will allow Opposition spokespeople foresight on what will be said so that we can prepare adequately in advance and scrutinise the Government's programme. I have written to the head of the civil service asking for such a briefing.

I hope that the financial strategy will bring an end to the practice of announcing cash rises that disguise the fact that we are experiencing real-terms cuts in public spending. Michael Forsyth started the trend and the Labour party has taken it up with gusto in its first budgets. I hope that there will not be any more repeat announcements of the same spending plans, trying to dress them up with new PR every day to give the publicly funded Labour spin office something to do. I hope that Labour will open up the accounts and expenditure plans of the entire Scottish government community, which includes local government. I hope that it will publish the cost of the statutory requirements placed on local government rather than just the spending grants that they have been given. That will reveal the mismatch and the gaping black hole in local government finance for the coming four years which will lead, without fear of peradventure, to rises in council tax as a direct result of Labour cuts.

I see Cathy Craigie at the back. She has heard me go on about Labour cuts throughout the election campaign and I apologise for the fact that she is about to have to do so again.

We should examine the context in which we are discussing the Government's legislative programme, which is one of serious stringency in public expenditure. I will run through one or two examples from the Government's published figures. Labour is spending £121 million less on education in its first three years in power than Michael Forsyth, that great beneficiary of public services, did in the Tories' final three years. Labour is spending £176 million less on housing in its first three years in power than the Tories did in their final three years. Labour, the guardians of the people's councils, spent £1.31 billion less on local authorities than the Tories in their final three years. The list goes on and on.

More important, there is the issue of the Barnett squeeze, which was raised in an SNP Saltire paper last summer and taken up by the Fraser of Allander Institute during the election campaign. Will the Government answer for the fact that spending in the area of the Scottish block will increase two and a half times more slowly than the equivalent spending in England? Why is it that health spending in Scotland can take that hit? Is it because our health standards are becoming so much better than those in England are? Of course not. If spending that amount today is justified, why is spending that amount over the next period not justified? During the next three years, we will have £387 million less spent on the health service in Scotland than if the increases were in line with those in England. The Government's health spokesperson should consider that point closely.

In that context, I would like to draw to members' attention, as Mr Salmond did earlier, the Liberal Democrat approach to the issue of tax-varying powers. Given the context that I have just laid out, why is it that during the election campaign the Liberal Democrats said that, if necessary, they would use the 1p of the permitted tax-varying powers once they saw the budget announcements from Gordon Brown in spring 2000? We have not seen those budget announcements, yet in the partnership agreement the Liberal Democrats agreed not to use the tax-varying power during the first Parliament. Despite the cuts and the absolute carnage being caused across the public sector, for some reason, overnight and with no explanation, the Liberals have agreed to a volte-face on their potential commitment to using-