First Minister

Part of Contract Research Staff – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:32 pm on 22nd November 2001.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent 2:32 pm, 22nd November 2001

I thank Robin Harper and Tommy Sheridan for nominating me. It is almost becoming an annual event.

The past few weeks have not been happy for the Scottish Executive. It is now important to learn from experience and to look ahead. A fresh start is needed. A more open, more inclusive and more accountable style of government is also needed. I know that even the new leader of the Scottish Labour party has admitted belatedly that a problem of cronyism exists. If that problem is not tackled, it could corrode the heart of government, as well as local government and the public bodies that are supposed to serve us. The early introduction of proportional representation in local government elections and the scrutiny of public appointments by a parliamentary committee would help to ensure a more inclusive and more open style of government. However, it is not just a change of style that is required, but a change of policy. I will outline some of the policies for which I stand.

"Education, education, education." It is now recognised that education is a lifelong experience rather than something for only one age group. It is therefore anomalous that responsibility for education should be split between two ministries. To achieve a more joined-up approach, one minister should be responsible for all education, be it pre-school, at-school or post-school education. Educational priorities should include an expansion of nursery education so that every three and four-year-old child has the right to a full-time—I emphasise "full-time"—place. In primary and secondary schools, class sizes must be further reduced. In further and higher education, a more generous student grant system should be introduced, combined with the complete abolition of tuition fees or any similar payments before or after graduation.

The Executive should support free nutritious meals for all children. It is a national disgrace that, in Scotland in 2001, about one in five children live at or below the official poverty line, yet the Executive's target date for the eradication of child poverty is not until 2020. That means that many children who are born today are doomed to spend the rest of their childhood in poverty unless we introduce a more ambitious timetable to help them.

At the other end of the age spectrum, our pensioners also look to the Scottish Parliament for more effective action to help them. We must implement in full the Sutherland recommendations on the care of frail elderly people. We must accelerate the provision of central heating for all pensioners and the introduction of a nationwide concessionary travel scheme. We must also ensure justice for the Scottish Transport Group pensioners, some of whom are in the public gallery today.

I said that education should be a lifelong experience—so should sport, whether through participation, enjoyment or both. To give sport a higher priority, there should be a dedicated minister for sport. However, to avoid an increase in the ministerial salary bill, I would demand that all ministers accept an appropriate salary decrease. That would also create scope for a dedicated minister for culture and a dedicated minister for tourism, given the important contributions of both areas to the Scottish economy.

In Scotland we are blessed with one of the finest natural environments in the world. The mountains, glens, lochs and rivers of Scotland are not simply the property of the landed gentry, but part of our national heritage. There was justifiable outrage that the draft land reform bill did not include a genuine right of access to the countryside. That blunder must be rectified when the bill is redrafted. Executive support should also be given to the proposed organic food and farming targets bill. That is a big priority.

On public expenditure, our priority should be investment in essential services such as education, housing and our national health service, especially to reduce waiting times. For capital projects, the private finance initiative is not good value for money and council tenants should be given a genuine choice of tenure instead of being blackmailed into accepting housing stock transfer.

Some of the policies that I have outlined would require more investment, which might use up more than the entire Scottish block grant from Westminster. The Scottish Parliament is probably the only Parliament in the world that is completely dependent on another Parliament for every penny that it spends. Consequently, this Parliament has less fiscal responsibility than a local council. The Scottish Executive must demand full fiscal freedom so that we can use the taxation system to bring about a radical redistribution of wealth and improved investment in our essential services.

Finally, I would like an enhanced role for the Parliament. Members are, first and foremost, representatives of people; if we acted accordingly, the people would be the beneficiaries. The Parliament was not created by political fixers and it is not the property of politicians or of one political party. The Parliament was created by the people of Scotland, it is the property of the people of Scotland and it must respond to the needs and priorities of the people of Scotland. If we do that, we shall build a better, fairer society in which people are recognised as equals whatever their social background, age, gender, religious beliefs or ethnic origins. We are all Jock Tamson's bairns and the Scottish Parliament must seize the opportunity to make Scotland a land of opportunity for our people.