Engagements

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 11:59 am on 14 June 2007.

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Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour 11:59, 14 June 2007

Perhaps appropriately, given the question I have to ask, I regret the fact that I am not at an engagement this morning: I refer to the funeral of Lord Ewing. He was one of the leaders of the constitutional convention, and a decent and honest man, who played a part in creating this institution. I wish that I was at his funeral, but I am sure that all members will join me in sending condolences. [ Applause. ]

To ask the First Minister what engagements he has planned for the rest of the day. (S3F-50)

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I join Jack McConnell in paying tribute to the late Harry Ewing. In addition to what Jack McConnell said, I can tell him that Harry Ewing was a doughty and formidable opponent in debate, but always fair minded and always constructive. Across the political spectrum, we will miss him very much indeed.

I have a number of engagements planned, including picking up the phone to the head of the Glasgow 2014 bid team, following the Commonwealth games committee's validation of the bid as "truly impressive". As Jack McConnell knows more than anyone, there is still a long way to go in the process, but I think that all in the chamber should welcome the technical excellence of the Glasgow bid, and pay tribute to everybody connected with it.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I strongly endorse those comments.

There is a report today from the investigation into the Kerelaw secure unit in Ayrshire. Many of the young people who went through that secure unit will have joined those not in education, employment or training. Is the reduction in the number of young people not in education, employment or training still a national priority for the Scottish Government?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Indeed it is a national priority for the Scottish Government. As the debate in the chamber last week indicated, it is a key priority for this Administration. We may differ from Jack McConnell on how to bring about that reduction, but let there be no doubt—and I think this crosses the parties in the chamber—that it is a key priority in politics in Scotland.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I welcome that assurance. Young people who are in that position need skills.

Scottish employment reached another record level yesterday, and Scottish Enterprise has today identified skills as a national priority for our people and for our economy. My party was committed to 50,000 modern apprenticeships and a target for degree or level 4 qualifications for the Scottish population. Will the First Minister commit to a target for degree-level qualifications? Specifically, will he commit to a target for modern apprenticeships?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

As we indicated in that debate last week, within our first 100 days in office we will introduce our skills strategy for Scotland.

The skills strategy is extremely important, as indeed is access to education. As the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning indicated yesterday, we should be aware that over the past three to four years, the participation index of our youngsters going to university has been falling for the first time in recorded educational history in Scotland. That is why we addressed the issue in the decision we took yesterday to abolish back-end fees in Scottish universities.

I offer Jack McConnell this information, which I believe will be announced today by the Secretary of State for Scotland—some areas of employment are reserved issues, on which we co-operate with the Government in London. Last week, I agreed to the appointment of the chairman of the commission for education and skills; I am not at liberty to say who it is, but it is somebody of high character and of great experience. That will be announced today as an indication of areas in which this Government is determined to co-operate with the Government in London.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I will take that as a no. There are no targets for modern apprenticeships and there are no targets for degree-level qualifications. It is a matter of serious regret that the first action of the new Government has been not to help those who do not have degrees, but to help those who have them and have already found work.

People who are not in education, employment or training often face homelessness, too. In 2003, the Parliament committed to the target of ending homelessness by 2012. Will the First Minister commit to that target here today? If so, will he explain why his first act in housing policy will be to help those who can already afford to buy a home by giving them a £2,000 grant, which will inflate housing prices, rather than to build more affordable homes, which would help those who are not in education, employment or training?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Yes, I can commit to that target, and we will outline that in the housing debate next week.

There is a substantial difficulty with Jack McConnell's position. I agree that we have to do far more on skills training for all our youngsters. The fall in the number of children who go to university, as shown in the age participation index, is a real problem in Scottish society. I agree that we have to do far more on social housing and that is exactly what the Administration intends to do. If we had a former First Minister's question time, the question would be, "Why didn't he do any of that in the past six years?"

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

This is First Minister's question time. I am happy to ask the questions and demand answers.

As Mr Salmond said, this is about decisions. It is about young people who are not in education, employment or training being a national priority and it is about skills being a national priority. It is not about splitting skills from economic development and it is certainly not about helping those who are already in work and have degrees. It is about tackling homelessness and building affordable homes. It is not about inflating house prices by giving grants to those who can already afford to buy houses.

In those and other areas, the First Minister is concentrating on short-term bribes rather than long-term strategies for Scotland. Will the First Minister stop governing for the SNP and start governing for Scotland? When will he announce to the Parliament his strategy for tackling young people who are not in education, employment or training and giving them a better chance in life?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I have heard of people not taking no for an answer, but it is extraordinary not to take yes for an answer to the question on housing targets. To describe the abolition of fees and barriers to universities in Scotland as a short-term bribe is foolish. Politicians who took advantage of free education, such as me and Jack McConnell, should be careful about pulling up the ladder from the next generations.

Where we disagree is on the best way in which to bring forward a skills strategy. As Jack McConnell has said in a number of debates, the Labour Party believes in national skills academies. That is the Labour Party's policy. We believe that we are fortunate in Scotland in that our college system already addresses, and is acceptable and responsive to, employers' needs.

Jack McConnell has told me on a number of occasions to pay attention to the Parliament and its verdicts. I remind him that when he put his policy to the Parliament last week he was defeated by 64 votes to 63; I am paying attention to the Parliament. Another person who has been telling me to do that is Tavish Scott. Unfortunately, he did not turn up last week to tell me to pay attention to the Parliament.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

As Kerelaw school has been mentioned, I call the constituency member involved, Irene Oldfather.

Photo of Irene Oldfather Irene Oldfather Labour

Is the First Minister aware that provisional placing on the disqualified from working with children list, which happened to a number of former Kerelaw staff, does not disqualify a person per se from working in a child care position? Does the First Minister agree that, in the interests both of protecting children and of staff who have been placed on the list without a criminal conviction, it is essential that referral cases from provisional to permanent status are dealt with as quickly as possible? When the full report is published, will he ensure that speedy action is taken on the matter?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

That is an important question. For the benefit of those in the chamber, I point out that Jack McConnell, as First Minister, made a public apology in the Parliament to the adult survivors of abuse that was committed while they were in care. Following that apology, the previous Executive announced a raft of measures, which are continuing, including the establishment of an independent systemic review of the history of in-care abuse during the period 1950 to 1995. The review will be complete in September. Its purpose is to identify exactly the nature of the question, the systems that were in place to protect children and the shortcomings. The final report should help to identify how in-care abuse happened and why the systems failed to prevent it.

The report that Glasgow City Council published today shows that a number of individuals have been referred to the disqualified from working with children list. I am sure that Irene Oldfather understands that I cannot say anything specific about that, but I can confirm that the report shows that a number of people have been referred to the list.