Prime Minister (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 9th December 2004.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 12:00 pm, 9th December 2004

I welcome the news that Michael Ferguson, the patient who absconded from Carstairs earlier this week, has been reapprehended, and express my hope that that incident will result in a review of the decision-making process.

To ask the First Minister when he will next meet the Prime Minister and what issues will be discussed. (S2F-1269)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I confirm that a restricted patient—which is the proper way to describe these matters—who failed to return from a period of unescorted leave on Monday 6 December has been apprehended by the police and has been returned to the state hospital. I intend to report to all members of the Scottish Parliament about the circumstances surrounding the case, and any action that might now be required, either during question time today or in due course.

I have no immediate plans to meet the Prime Minister.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I am sure that every member will look forward to the reporting of the full facts of that incident.

A few weeks ago, the First Minister said in the chamber that council tax rises would be no more than 2.5 per cent. Yesterday, the Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform blew that commitment out of the water when he said that next year, council tax will increase by more than the Executive would like. I ask the First Minister to come clean and to confirm what he now expects the increase in council tax to be next year.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

That is completely untrue. The council tax targets that ministers have set for next year, the year after and the year after that, have been absolutely clear. The budgets have been set on the basis of those increases. Yet again, right across Scotland, those increases will be less than they are in the rest of the United Kingdom. If councils are operating their budgets efficiently, there is no reason for them to have increases above those levels.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform said yesterday that council tax will increase next year by more than the Executive would like. The First Minister might refuse to say exactly what that increase will be, but everyone else in Scotland knows that it is likely to be double what he promised just a few weeks ago. Does he begin to appreciate the burden that the council tax places on those who can least afford it, such as hard-working families and those on fixed incomes, for example pensioners? Since 1997, the average bills have increased by 50 per cent but, yet again, the First Minister is setting his face against doing anything to help, just as he did last week, minutes before the Chancellor of the Exchequer got to his feet and announced more money for English councils in order to keep council tax rises in England substantially lower than last year. Will the First Minister explain to Scottish council tax payers why he is refusing to lift a finger to give similar respite to them?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Yet again I point out that the assertion in the first question, which was repeated in the second question, is completely untrue. The figures, as set out consistently by both finance ministers in the past three or four months, have been clear. Local authorities understand those figures, and they now understand clearly the targets that they have to achieve to stay within the figures, because they have to operate the financing of their services efficiently. We will assist them in doing that, but it is ultimately their responsibility to set their council tax increases at a level that is affordable locally. That level will continue to be less in Scotland than it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom, because we are financing local services properly. It is simply untrue to suggest that the council tax has risen by more than 50 per cent since the change of Government in May 1997. The initial increase that Ms Sturgeon adds magically into the figure was set under the Tory Government, which was responsible for council tax rises in 1997. As I said last week, in each of the five years of devolution, the council tax has gone up by less than the increases in the last six or seven years of the Conservative Government prior to 1997. Ministers here remain committed to efficient government and to proper financing of public services.

As I said last week—Ms Sturgeon has failed to address this—it is simply disingenuous of every front-bench member of the Scottish National Party to argue, week after week, for increased spending on every aspect of local services and then to advocate tax cuts and restrictions on local expenditure. That is sheer hypocrisy, and it needs to stop if we are to have serious debate in the chamber.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The Scottish Executive's position is riddled with contradictions. The reality is that, as the Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform confirmed yesterday, council tax payers in Scotland face an increase of 5 per cent in their bills next year. What angers Scottish council tax payers most is the fact that, between the efficiency savings that he is taking away from councils and Scotland's share of the money that was announced by Gordon Brown last week, an extra £100 million will go into the Scottish Executive's coffers next year. I know that it is nearly Christmas, but there is no need for the First Minister to play Scrooge. Why will the First Minister not give the money that is available—with no cuts in services—back to councils, so that they can keep council tax rises down and give some relief to council tax payers, who have already been hit far too hard?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

It is interesting to hear SNP members cheering. Alex Neil, who is sitting behind the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, was cheering that remark. He clearly does not want us to use any of the additional money that was allocated to the Scottish budget last week for child care—which is vital for securing greater employment in Scotland—or to ensure that the training and skills that are available to people in England are available to people in Scotland. He obviously thinks that we should not use the money in that way but use it to cut council taxes locally. That directly contradicts the calls that we hear regularly from him, from Ms Sturgeon and from other SNP members.

SNP members should be consistent. If they want to advocate increased spending on areas that are in our budget or in the local budgets, they should do that. They should not come here, week after week, advocating additional spending and then, when the opportunity comes for a cheap and easy headline, advocate tax cuts that would not match up to the spending that we desire and which they claim to want too.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Before question 2, members will wish to join me in welcoming to the VIP gallery Neil Kinnock, the chair of the British Council's board of trustees. [ Applause. ]