Cabinet (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 22 January 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 12:00, 22 January 2004

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Scottish Executive's Cabinet. (S2F-549)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

The next meeting of the Cabinet will discuss our progress towards implementing the partnership agreement to build a better Scotland.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I am sure that the Cabinet members will discuss that with the same frankness and honesty that we saw this week from their former colleague Mr Galbraith. It is amazing how the truth comes out when Labour ministers no longer have to tell porkies on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Mr Swinney is rightly concerned about future burdens that our students might face, but I am much more concerned about the very real burden that our students will definitely face from next year. Will the First Minister confirm that, as of April next year, our graduates will be sent a bill for £2,000 that they will have to start paying off when their earnings reach the paltry level of £10,000?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I would have thought that the answer was fairly obvious, given that the Parliament passed the legislation that created the graduate endowment. As I said, in addition to the important principles of free access for Scottish students to higher education; expanding the quality of, access to and expenditure on higher education in Scotland; and the reintroduction of student grants; it is vital that students in Scotland return a contribution to the pot after they have graduated. I believe that students see that as reasonable and that Scottish taxpayers see that as reasonable too.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The First Minister and the Scottish Executive have been playing with words on the subject for the past three years. At the end of the day, whether the charge is called a fee, an endowment or a tax, it is a liability; it is compulsory and it must be paid. The truth is that more people believe in the Loch Ness monster than believe that tuition fees have properly been abolished in Scotland. Scottish students know that that is a lie, Sam Galbraith knows that that is a lie and, I believe, deep down the First Minister knows that that is a lie.

The only people who are in denial about the issue are the Liberal Democrats. However, last week, their United Kingdom leader, Charles Kennedy, pointed out that, under the Prime Minister's proposals for England, a graduate student who earns £15,000 a year will pay a marginal tax rate of 42 per cent, which is more than a millionaire pays. Mr Kennedy is right, but he has obviously forgotten what his Liberal colleagues in the Scottish Executive have done. Apart from the fact that students in Scotland will start paying when their income is £10,000 and not £15,000, does the First Minister agree that exactly the same tax rate will apply to our students from next year?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Mr McLetchie is wrong. Scottish students will in fact be liable for payments at exactly the same rate and in exactly the same way each year as will be the case for their colleagues south of the border: the margin at which the payments start will be £15,000. The payments will be tailored in exactly the same percentages in terms of income for students in Scotland and England. We will clarify our plans for that in the coming weeks, as we have said that we intend to do.

We will ensure not only that Scottish students in our higher education institutions do not have to pay top-up tuition fees or tuition fees up front; not only that we have the student grants and bursaries that we reintroduced ahead of the game in the rest of the United Kingdom; not only that we have real-terms increases in higher education funding; but that we also have that additional contribution. As the commitment of Mr McLetchie's Conservative party and Mr Swinney's nationalist party is to cut that money out of the higher education budget, they must say where those cuts would hit, how many students would lose out, how many university courses would close, how many departments would be affected and how many research laboratories would not have the equipment that they need. The real debate on the issue is whether we should have investment or cuts and that is where the answers will have to come.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The First Minister prides himself on being a mathematician, so I will ask him to do some simple arithmetic. Will he confirm that, under his proposals, when a graduate earns more than £10,000 a year, as well as paying 22 per cent in basic rate tax and 11 per cent in national insurance, 9 per cent of their income will be used in repaying the so-called graduate endowment? Do not those figures add up to a marginal tax rate of 42 per cent? Is not that a higher rate than a millionaire pays in Scotland on his investment income?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

As I said earlier, it is entirely appropriate that students who benefit from the income that comes from having a university degree make an additional contribution to the system. That is already accepted in the system of student loans. The additional payments that students will make in Scotland—or anywhere else in the UK—will be exactly the same as they would have been under the student loans system. We will ensure that, in Scotland, those students who earn not £10,000 but £15,000 will pay the same rates as their colleagues south of the border. However, we will also ensure that Scottish universities stay ahead of the game in the UK and elsewhere.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Is the First Minister aware of press reports today concerning the joint schools campus in Dalkeith? Does the First Minister agree that parents, pupils and staff in Dalkeith have worked hard to make the shared campus project a success and that a handful of isolated incidents should not be used as an excuse to introduce segregated playgrounds or be allowed to overshadow the benefits of this state-of-the-art development? Does he further agree that Cumbernauld-based Donald Gorrie's ill-informed attack on the project and Midlothian Council in today's Daily Record serves only to demonstrate his complete ignorance of the project and of the local issues involved?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I do not want to get involved in comments on individual statements that have been made on this matter, but I will say that, on the radio this morning—we should not believe everything that we hear on "Good Morning Scotland", but as it came from the horse's mouth I will accept it—I heard the local schools representative say that he believed that some of the children involved in the incidents were not pupils at the school. If I urge any perspective on members in relation to this matter it is that, when we view developments in schools, we should examine the facts first. We support the head teachers, parents and others who want to ensure that the school with which they are involved—whether it is a shared campus, is near another school or has a history of tension or violence—is a decent place in which to learn.

The facilities in Dalkeith are first class and have the potential to ensure great educational opportunities for the children involved. I will be proud to open that campus in February. However, I want to ensure that we back the head teacher and the parents in ensuring that behaviour on the site is as good as it possibly can be.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does the First Minister acknowledge that he might be part of the problem as he has raised the expectations of the public and pupils by connecting the tackling of sectarianism with the use of joint campuses? Does he recognise that campuses that are the size of the one in Dalkeith will always have problems with pupils? Does he agree with Rhona Brankin and me that support should be given to the teachers and pupils in that school, who are adopting a commonsense approach to the issue?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I think that I just said that I would urge us all to support the head teacher and the parents in that regard. Frankly, we have all known for some time that the SNP was opposed to the school building programme, but I am amazed to hear that Fiona Hyslop is opposed to a first- class educational facility in Dalkeith that will be enjoyed by pupils in that area for thousands of years to come. I will be proud to open that facility in February and I hope that the pupils who will benefit from it will remember what Fiona Hyslop just said.