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Prime Minister (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 16th September 2004.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 12:00 pm, 16th September 2004

To ask the First Minister when he will next meet the Prime Minister and what issues will be discussed. (S2F-1038)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I said last week that I did not want to do this every week, so I apologise, but after what I said last week, it would be wrong not to congratulate Andrew Murray on his outstanding achievement at the weekend in winning the US Open boys tennis championship. [ Applause. ] It would be truly remarkable if the first British person to win Wimbledon for a very long time was a Scot.

I have no immediate plans to meet the Prime Minister, but in my next conversation with him, I intend to raise with him my ambition that the civil service in Scotland should be the most innovative and the best in the United Kingdom. I would welcome his support to help us to achieve that objective.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I, too, congratulate Andrew Murray on raising his game. I am sure that the First Minister will learn some lessons from that.

Lord Fraser's report on the Holyrood project confirms that it was decisions that were taken before the Parliament existed that sowed the seeds of the fiasco that has cost Scottish taxpayers dear. Does the First Minister acknowledge that, regardless of what civil servants messed up and when, and of whether members of the Scottish Parliament voted for the project as he did, or against it as I did, all politicians have been tainted by the whole sorry saga? Does he agree that to move on, politicians must stand up, take responsibility and end the it-wisnae-me culture, and that the first step in that process is to admit the mistakes of the past? If he had known then what we all know now, would he still have voted in June 1999 to press ahead with the Holyrood project?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

As Lord Fraser's report says, it was impossible to know then what we know now, but it was always the case that we had to have a Parliament building in Scotland for our new Parliament and that we wanted a Parliament building that would rise to the occasion, perhaps raise the game and be an international showcase in which we could have the quality of debates that people in Scotland want. It is absolutely the case that in the past five years, people in Scotland have—rightly, as I have said many times— become increasingly angry at how costs have escalated and delays have occurred.

That is why I agree with Nicola Sturgeon that ministers and other politicians should accept responsibility. Last year, I did that as First Minister. I established the inquiry that would get to the bottom of the matter, produce an accurate and full record and ultimately make the recommendations that would allow us to ensure that such a situation did not happen again.

I reiterate what I said yesterday, shortly after Lord Fraser published his report: I support his recommendations in full and I will ensure that recommendations that relate to the work of the Executive, ministers and the civil service are implemented immediately. I will also ensure that we use the report to provide the momentum for further change and improvement and to speed progress towards the sort of civil service and Government in Scotland for which people voted when they voted for devolution seven years ago.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I am sorry that the First Minister dodged the direct question, because what the Scottish people want right now is frankness from politicians. The fact is that if Parliament had voted in 1999 for a pause in the project, that would have saved some of the £150 million that Lord Fraser says could have been saved. That money could have been spent on schools and hospitals.

The fundamental problem that Lord Fraser highlighted is that our system of government too often rests on the principle that civil servants do not tell and politicians do not ask. That is why ministers and Parliament did not have all the facts. Will the First Minister agree that what badly needs to change is a system in which the Sir Humphreys rather than the ministers take the decisions and then take the rap when things go wrong?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

On the third and final point, Lord Fraser made specific recommendations yesterday about the information that should go to ministers. I accept those in full and I will ensure that they are implemented. Indeed, the permanent secretary has said exactly the same thing today. What is important, though, is that we use Lord Fraser's report to move forward. We can all speculate about what might have happened over the past five years. Indeed, it is entirely possible that, if there had been a further six-month delay in the project, the costs could have escalated by £150 million just as easily as they could have been reduced.

What is important is that those of us who now have the responsibilities learn the lessons from what happened and take an accurate record from a very independent figure, someone who has never been a political friend of mine or of anybody on the Executive benches, someone whose reputation is intact and who has put forward a series of recommendations that we can implement. We will take that report and move further and faster towards the reforms that are required.

It should not be the case just that we look forward to further progress and, indeed, praise the progress that has already been made inside the civil service in Scotland over the past five years. We must go further and increase the number of civil servants who are externally recruited and the number who have the professional specialisms that appear to have been so lacking back then. We must use not just new technology, but performance management and everything else that we would expect in a modern organisation to ensure that our civil service here in Scotland performs to the best of its ability and delivers the objectives set by this Government and this Parliament. That must be our objective.

People in Scotland might—rightly—have blamed many people in this Parliament and beyond over the past five years, but they also want us to be mature enough to move on and say that the time has come to learn the lessons and to get on and build a better Scotland.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

But the problem that the Fraser report highlights is not just one of civil servants, but one of the relationship between civil servants and ministers who do not take responsibility. We have a Minister for Health and Community Care who is not in control of hospital closures and a Minister for Justice who does not read the Reliance contract, so the public have a right to conclude that not enough in the culture of Government has changed. It is not enough to promise reforms; the public have to know that change is being made and that lessons are being learned.

The only reason that the truth has come out about Holyrood is that Lord Fraser had full access to the minutes, memos and e-mails between ministers and civil servants—documents that would otherwise have stayed secret for 30 years. He shone a light into Government. We cannot now allow that light to go out. Therefore, will the First Minister now agree to revisit the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 to ensure that the advice that ministers receive and the questions that they ask are always open to public scrutiny? Politicians must be open with the Scottish people at all times. Will the First Minister pledge today to end once and for all the culture of secrecy within Government in this country?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I believe that that is a silly suggestion and it is certainly not one that we are going to take up. If Miss Sturgeon is ever close to Government—I do not expect that she will be—she will understand exactly why that has to be the case. I want the civil service leading the way, not hiding away. I want us in Scotland to have the most innovative, most professional civil service in the whole country. I believe that the reforms that we have brought in over the past five years have already got us down that road. However, we need to go further and faster and we intend to do so. When we do, the civil service in Scotland will not be delivering either for itself or, indeed, for this partnership Government: it will be delivering for Scotland. That is what matters; that is what this Parliament building was ultimately all about; and that is what has now got to happen.