Prime Minister (Meetings)

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

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Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 12:00 pm, 2nd December 2004

To ask the First Minister when he will next meet the Prime Minister and what issues will be discussed. (S2F-1244)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I expect to meet the Prime Minister tomorrow and I expect to discuss issues of importance to the people of Scotland.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I wish the First Minister well in his discussions with Mr Blair. No doubt they will be swapping notes on so-called efficiencies in government, as that is very much the thought of the day or the week.

Since the First Minister and Mr McCabe are about to tell us about all the money that is supposedly to be saved in the next few years, will the First Minister hazard a guess as to how many billions his Scottish Executive has wasted over the past five years? Further, why is any interest being shown in the subject only now, five years too late?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

That is absolute rubbish. The percentage of the Scottish Executive's budget that is spent on administration has been reduced systematically since devolution. We have ensured, not only in central Government but in local government as well, that there is a constant drive for efficiency. It is absolutely right and proper that, five years into devolution, we now make a further drive for efficiency savings and redirect that resource to front-line services.

We know that the Tories consistently oppose what we are doing in this regard because they oppose that investment in front-line services. They do not want to see additional investment in education. In fact, in Mr McLetchie's area, the Tories have proposed substantial cuts in education. They do not want to see the substantial investment in the health service in Scotland that is part and parcel of this efficiency drive, because they do not want public resources to be used for the public health service; they want them to be used to subsidise those who can already afford to pay. Further, they do not want to see investment in transport, tackling crime and the other areas that we are investing in, because they do not support public services. That was their record during 18 years in office and it is a record that we have proudly reversed. We will continue to do that even more effectively in the years to come.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

We can debate records but, as I adequately demonstrated last week, the health service in Scotland is in a far poorer state today than it was seven years ago. It is galling—and shows a real brass neck—for the First Minister to try to suggest that not a penny has been wasted in Scotland in the past five years. Do not make us laugh. The Scottish Executive is a byword for waste and profligacy in this country. Administration costs are up £50 million since 1999, there are four times as many ministers interfering with the running of this country and there is a growing retinue of cars, advisers and spin doctors. However, we are supposed to believe that the leopard has changed its spots.

If the Executive claims have any real substance, and if the so-called savings are real, why will the First Minister not show us the money by giving some of it back to Scotland's taxpayers in the form of a reduction in business rates, which the Executive could announce next week, or a substantial cut—never mind Ms Sturgeon's pathetic little freeze—in the council tax that people pay? If the money is there and is real, why can the Executive not give it back?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

As I have already said, in every single year of devolution, council tax increases in Scotland have been less than they were during every one of the final few years of the Conservative Government to which Mr McLetchie wants us to return. He does not want a Government or a devolved Parliament in Scotland. It is clear from his remarks again today that he wants to return to the old days when a small group of Conservative ministers ran Scotland by diktat and introduced the poll tax, cut back on transport, health and other important public investments and made sure that our schools languished at the bottom of the league tables instead of rising all the way to the top. The changes that are happening in Scotland today are those for which the people of Scotland voted when they voted for devolution and for Labour and Liberal Democrats to be in Government in this Parliament and driving efficiencies and investment in public services.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

What the people of Scotland want is value for money, which is what they have not had for the past five years. I will tell the First Minister what could be done with all the money that is supposed to be available. We could reduce business rates in Scotland to the level they are at in England; we could scrap the Liberal Democrats £2,000 graduate tax; and we could cut council tax by at least 20 per cent across the board. Why will the First Minister not even consider doing any of those things? Does that not demonstrate that this remains at heart a spend, spend, spend and squander Executive?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

We take a reasonable and balanced approach. As the devolved Government in Scotland, we have said that, during this four-year period, we will not increase income tax as we have the power to do and we will consistently maintain low increases in council tax. We will drive through efficiencies in areas such as water services, where the level of efficiency that the devolved Government is achieving is admired in the rest of the United Kingdom.

People are coming here to see how we are delivering efficiencies and investment in public services right across the board. We are delivering those because we believe in public services. That is what the devolved Parliament is here to deliver for Scotland and we will continue to achieve that.

Mr McLetchie has made clear his alternative agenda today. Even one of the three examples that he gave would mean taking out hundreds of millions of pounds from our schools, hospitals, transport improvements or proposals to tackle crime. There would be fewer police on the street and fewer teachers in our schools; fewer people would be involved in improving our transport systems; and there would be fewer improvements in our health service. That is the Conservatives' agenda for Scotland, and that is why they are so consistently rejected by the people of Scotland.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat

When the First Minister meets the Prime Minister, will he tell him about another Scottish success story? Will he tell him about the excellent track record of the new futures fund initiative in providing employability programmes for those who are furthest from the labour market, such as those with addiction problems, the homeless and ex-offenders? Is the First Minister aware that more than half the members of the Parliament have signed a motion, in the name of Jackie Baillie, that expresses concern about the future funding of the initiative or a permanent replacement for it? Will he take a personal interest in the issue and agree to meet representatives of the charities involved and, more important, those whose lives they have helped to transform, to discuss a permanent replacement for that excellent scheme as well as interim funding, so that highly valued project workers do not have to be made redundant this Christmas?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I agree entirely with Keith Raffan that such investments are important. We are driving through our budget efficiencies precisely because that will allow us to allocate more resources to such important local projects. If there are projects that are concerned about their future, either I or another minister—depending on our diaries—will be only too happy to meet their representatives.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

When the First Minister next meets the Prime Minister, will he raise the findings of the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, which highlights some of the challenges that the city of Dundee still faces, in particular the fact that it has the worst record of mental health problems and teenage pregnancy in Scotland? Will he commit today to meet me and other representatives in the city to discuss how we can respond to some of those challenges?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I have discussed the situation in Dundee on many occasions recently with the leaders of Dundee City Council, local representatives and local people. On all those occasions, it has been clear that although Dundee still faces many challenges, the city is transformed from where it was only 10 or 15 years ago. Many of those changes were inspired by Kate Maclean when she was the council leader before she joined us here in Parliament.

Today, Dundee not only has a stronger economy and a brighter economic future than it has had in recent years, but it has made investment in education, which the Scottish nationalist party would have denied it; it has invested in health services and in improvements in Tayside NHS Board, which the Scottish nationalist party opposed; and, critically, it has two of the best universities in the whole of Europe, one of which has just won an award for being a world leader. Those successes in Dundee need to be recognised and supported at the same time as we take up the challenges to ensure that Dundee prospers even more in the years to come.