Prime Minister (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:10 pm on 6th March 2003.

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Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 3:10 pm, 6th March 2003

To ask the First Minister when he will next meet the Prime Minister and what issues he will raise. (S1F-2553)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I expect to meet the Prime Minister regularly over the coming weeks and I will discuss with him a wide range of issues.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I am sure that the First Minister will. I noticed earlier today that the Scottish National Party was getting very exercised about the date of the budget. I am much more concerned about the content of the budget. I hope that the First Minister will try to persuade the Prime Minister to reverse the increase in national insurance contributions that will take effect in next month's budget. Not only will that increase hit working people, but, in essence, it is a tax on jobs. At a time when our growth rate in Scotland is a miserable 0.1 per cent per annum and the service sector in this country has just reported the worst monthly downturn since September 2001, does the First Minister agree that it would be in the best interests of the Scottish economy to scrap those damaging tax increases?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I am grateful to Mr McLetchie for raising the issue of the budget. I notice that Mr Swinney was not quite brave enough to do so, despite the fact that his party put out a press release this morning saying that, in 1995, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP had challenged the BBC on the scheduling of a "Panorama" programme. Mr Jim Wallace and I remember trying to persuade the SNP to take part in the court action about that, but the SNP was frightened to stand up for Scotland and would not do it. A bit of honesty in the SNP would not go amiss—[Interruption.]

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Order. We are getting well wide of the question.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I am looking forward to the budget, whenever it takes place. Scotland is enjoying the lowest mortgage rates, the lowest interest rates, the lowest rate of unemployment and the lowest inflation in my adult life—since I was 15, none of those measures has been as low as it is today. The budget will be good for Scotland, good for the United Kingdom and good for growth.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Scots are also paying what are probably the highest taxes in Mr McConnell's lifetime and there is no prospect of an abatement. [ Interruption. ] Oh, yes we are. The proportion of tax to gross national product is higher today than it was under the Conservative Government. We are not getting value for money in terms of the economy for all the taxes that we are paying.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

What about the Holyrood project?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Do not get me started again on the Holyrood building—we shall leave that pleasure for another day. We all know that Mr Rumbles and his pals voted to waste £340 million on the Holyrood building. I am talking about other instances in which taxpayers in Scotland get poor value for money. Some £627 million of taxpayers' money is being spent on our enterprise budget and we are simply not seeing a return through higher growth or prosperity. I ask in all seriousness whether the First Minister has never thought to himself what Scottish businesses might have done with some of that money. Why will he not consider using the Parliament's powers to cut business rates so that we can find out what Scottish businesses can do?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

That is another interesting subject. The Scottish Enterprise budget has been restricted this year and in years to come because we are reducing administration costs. We are delivering efficiencies inside that organisation. For clarity, I would like to put firmly on the record the fact that there is no divide between the Scottish Executive and Scottish Enterprise. The real divide in the chamber and in Scotland today is between the partnership parties, which support investment in training and skills and in business support in Scotland, and the Opposition parties, one of which would cut £150 million from that budget while the other would cut £250 million from it.

There is perhaps a secret agenda. Mr Murdo Fraser, who is a front-bench spokesperson for the self-same Conservative party, said last June:

"The only correct Tory conclusion is that Scottish Enterprise should be abolished."

For the Conservatives, it is not good enough just to abolish the comprehensive education and health services of Scotland; they want to abolish Scottish Enterprise as well. Thank goodness they will never get the chance.