Cabinet (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 2nd December 2004.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 12:00 pm, 2nd December 2004

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Scottish Executive's Cabinet. (S2F-1243)

I asked that as slowly as I could.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

And the First Minister is eternally grateful. My papers are falling on the floor.

At next week's meeting of the Cabinet, the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport will report back to us on her visit to Australia this week to support the Scottish team in the youth Commonwealth games. I am delighted to be able to report to the Parliament that, after only two days of those games, the Scottish youth team has already won 14 bronze medals, seven silver medals and seven gold medals. The team deserves all our support.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I echo the First Minister's comments—we are all proud of the team and wish it the very best of luck in the remainder of the games.

The First Minister will be aware that the unfair council tax—the tax that hits pensioners and hard-working families hardest—has risen by 50 per cent since Labour came to power. Does the First Minister consider that to be acceptable?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

That figure is not true. As I have said before in the chamber, every year since devolution, the increase in the council tax in Scotland has been smaller than the increase in the final six or seven years of the last Conservative Government. The council tax in Scotland is going up by less than council tax in England and Wales is going up. That is partly because of the way in which we have worked with local authorities in Scotland to ensure that they deliver better value for services, but also because we are using our resources to fund properly education and the other critical local services that local government in Scotland supports.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

For the First Minister's information, band D council tax has risen by 50 per cent since Labour came to power. If he thinks that it is any comfort to hard-pressed pensioners and families in Scotland to say that, in England, it has gone up by 70 per cent, he should think again.

I have a positive suggestion for the First Minister. Earlier this week, the Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform announced a package of public sector efficiency savings. In local government, the efficiency savings for next year alone are in the region of £80 million. Some people doubt whether those savings can be made without cuts being made in council services, but if the First Minister is confident that they can, does he agree that the people who should benefit most from the cutting of waste in councils are the hard-pressed council tax payers who have seen their bills go up by 50 per cent under Labour? Instead of simply cutting from councils' budgets the amount that they have been told to save and keeping the savings centrally, as the Executive intends to do, will the First Minister give back the money to local authorities to pay for a freeze on council tax next year?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

It is precisely the purpose of our measure to ensure not only that we have adequate and, indeed, strengthened funding for local services and that, over and above investment in front-line services, we bring about improvements in those services, but that increases in council tax levels are even more reasonable than they have been in recent years. Those twin aims are in line with the views, opinions and aspirations of the people of Scotland. Miss Sturgeon simply cannot come to the Parliament week after week to demand more money, offer no reforms and then stand up and claim that, in some way, she could cut taxes.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The money in question is the money that the First Minister is telling us can be made in efficiency savings. I asked him a specific question that was not about keeping increases as low as possible, but about freezing council tax. The average projected increase in council tax next year is 4.5 per cent. For families and pensioners who are already struggling to pay their bills, that could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

An extra £80 million in council coffers could wipe out that increase and allow council tax to be frozen next year. If the First Minister believes that that much can be saved by cutting waste in councils, surely council tax payers should get the benefit. Surely even the First Minister cannot think it fair to force councils to make efficiency savings and still have to raise council taxes to pay for services.

Instead of siphoning off the money to pay for a stream of headline-grabbing ministerial announcements, will the First Minister give the money back to local authorities, to allow councils to give respite to people by freezing council tax next year? Yes or no?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

This is absolute, total hypocrisy from Ms Sturgeon and the Scottish nationalist party. Every SNP spokesperson who has spoken about this since July this year has condemned the efficiency savings that we are going to deliver in local government and national Government in Scotland and has said that they will result in job cuts and reductions in front-line services. Now, not only is Ms Sturgeon supporting the efficiency savings, but she is saying that she does not want the money to be reinvested in front-line services.

The services that the SNP claims to support and which it is always demanding we spend more money on are services that she wants to be cut so that she can finance a tax cut. She should sort her policy out, one way or the other. The SNP should either support services or support tax cuts. It should support either our approach, of improved services that are well financed through efficiency savings, or it should support the Tory policy of tax cuts, if that is now its position.