Scottish Government's Programme

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:40 pm on 5th September 2007.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:40 pm, 5th September 2007

The next item of business is a statement by the First Minister on the Scottish Government's programme. The First Minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should therefore be no interventions.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party 2:42 pm, 5th September 2007

It gives me enormous pleasure to set out the objectives and legislative priorities of the Scottish Government for the coming year. These should be taken with "Principles and Priorities: The Government's Programme for Scotland", which has been made available to every member.

There is a difference between this speech and similar ones that have been delivered in the past. Some of the reasons for that are obvious. The people of Scotland know that this is a minority Government, which operates in a Parliament that is therefore different from any other that has been elected in the history of the Parliament. It is one that has been created by the people, in which the Government can propose and lead, but cannot compel or dictate. As First Minister, I am responding to that democratic desire for shared political leadership by introducing a programme that seeks to persuade, rather than one that asserts the domination of one party, coalition or worldview. I hope that members will find a great deal in what is announced today that reflects those shared values and objectives.

That was a pledge that was made by this Government when it took office 112 days ago; another was that this Government does not believe that every problem—however big or small—can or should be resolved through legislation. Politicians often like to believe that we exist to make law, and that only through constantly changing the law can we achieve our policy objectives. That view of political leadership is mistaken. In its early days, Parliament perhaps felt that it had to legislate to be seen to justify its existence, but Scotland has moved on: just as we have a Parliament and not an Assembly, so we now have a Government, not an Executive.

Today, I ask Parliament to support the 11 Government bills in this year's programme, but never to confuse that legislative activity—important though it is—with the totality of what Government can achieve. In truth, most people believe that there is already too much legislation, and they yearn for a more considered and restricted approach. I embrace that sense of legislative restraint. It is not the purpose of a Government to legislate; rather, it is for Government and Parliament to legislate with a purpose.

Presiding Officer, in that context I will doubtless be criticised by some people on the basis that the 11 Government bills in the programme are still more than the eight bills that were introduced by Donald Dewar in his speech in 1999. Others might criticise because the figure is lower than the 15 bills that were introduced by Jack McConnell in 2003. Such are the joys of national leadership. However, each bill has been properly considered and deserves to be passed in this chamber.

The Government has adopted an approach that is based on three objectives. First, we believe that winning and retaining the trust of the people will require an Administration that is willing to focus on showing competence and direction in the day-to-day business of Government. Secondly, we believe that the people of Scotland want a Government that is based on principle, but which is also able to move with mainstream opinion to build consensus in the public interest. Thirdly, we believe that Government will always be about vision. Restoration of belief in the power of a democratically elected Government to effect change—which remains one of the great challenges for any modern Government—is about focusing on the possible, rather than merely accepting the status quo. That means painting a picture of a better and more dynamic society, and offering Scotland a vision—a radical and inspirational choice for the future. Our national conversation seeks to do precisely that.

At the end of the four-year term of this Government, it is those objectives of competence, consensus and vision against which we should be judged. Of course, that judgment could come earlier if the opposition parties wish to force an election. Indeed, I read that an electoral test could come as early as next month. However, that is a matter for the Prime Minister and, of course, I would not dream of treading on a reserved matter. Just for the record, however, I would welcome a Westminster election next month—as long as it is not organised by the Scotland Office and conducted using electronic voting.

It is the stuff of politics that parties like to have a go at each other. A vibrant democracy demands no less. However, I would be disappointed if the parties that are represented in the chamber were not able to acknowledge some of what the Government has already achieved. Its first 100 days have been marked by a sense of purpose. Specific commitments that we pledged in opposition are now delivered, or are on their way to delivery, in Government; some were even things that we did not say we would definitely be able to deliver.

Let us take an area of Scotland that is dear to your heart, Presiding Officer: Ayrshire and the south-west of Scotland. There have been important initiatives there, such as assisting the Duke of Rothesay in the development of Dumfries house for the nation and for Ayrshire and, even more important, not just saving but developing access to university education at the Crichton campus in Dumfries. In February this year, David Mundell MP said that it would take "a miracle" to save the University of Glasgow's participation in the Crichton campus. It is now official: miracles happen in an SNP-run Scotland.

It is hugely important that all of Scotland should have access to high-quality higher education; just as it is important that all girls in Scotland should have access to cervical cancer vaccination—another announcement that was made beyond our 100-day programme. Looking back on those 100 days, it would be remiss of me not to record my profound thanks to all the people throughout Scotland who united in recent months to face the twin challenges of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak south of the border and a terrorist attack on Glasgow airport. I know that every member will share my view that both serious episodes were responded to in a way that ensured minimum damage and disruption. Both events, in their different ways, illustrated the immense value of Scottish community solidarity.

Against that background, let me turn to the legislative programme itself. I will attempt to approach the bills and the other Government action in a thematic way. I turn first to the economy. Members will recall our stated ambition to create a wealthier and fairer Scotland. Members will also know that sustainable growth is our highest priority, which is why the first meeting of the council of economic advisers later this month matters so much. We look to that council for expert guidance in driving up the Scottish growth rate.

All that this country can achieve depends on developing our nation as a high-growth and vibrant economy. In the modern global economy, even the greatest political ambition is doomed to failure without an economy that drives employment, investment and research and development and which rewards success.

Our economic strategy will focus on three areas in particular: lowering business tax and simplifying regulation; boosting skills; and improving the focus and delivery of our enterprise network. We have already made our intentions clear on reducing business tax and other burdens; in the view of this Administration, lower business tax for small business will provide an impetus to get our local economies moving. We will also reform the enterprise network to simplify delivery of its services to business. The cabinet secretary will make early further announcements on that.

In addition, we are committed to assisting businesses by creating a single environment and rural service for those who deal regularly with agencies such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage.

In terms of the rural areas of Scotland, the coming six years will see a £1.6 billion development programme to support business ventures and encourage business diversification. That is a strong indication of this Government's commitment.

Although much economic policy does not require primary legislation, there are a number of bills that we believe can, and will, make a difference. Accordingly, in this parliamentary year, we will introduce our Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill in order to make good our commitment to remove the tolls from the Forth and Tay bridges. Parliament is aware of the Government's view that it is unacceptable and unfair to leave the two road bridges in and out of Fife as the only remaining toll bridges in Scotland, and removal of the tolls will undoubtedly be a welcome boost to the local economies in Tayside and around the Forth. As we move forward with key infrastructure projects around Scotland, we have made rapid progress with the consultation exercise on the strategically necessary new Forth crossing.

This parliamentary year, we will also introduce our culture (Scotland) bill to establish a new cultural development body—creative Scotland—by amalgamating the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. This year, an incredible 1.7 million tickets were sold at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Culture has, of course, a value in itself, but it also generates jobs and income for our economy. I believe that the bill will pave the way for a much stronger creative sector in Scotland that will serve our economic interests and promote our culture for decades to come. We will also be informed by the Scottish broadcasting commission on the vital role of broadcasting in our national and cultural life.

Another bill that will assist individuals and companies alike is the interest (Scotland) bill, which will be introduced this year, and will develop fair and consistent rules in Scotland for the application of interest rates to payments of debt and damages. As Parliament will be aware, that reform has already been recommended by the Scottish Law Commission and is long overdue. It is my hope that such a measure will achieve cross-party support.

Let me also make brief mention of future legislation in the slightly more contentious area of local income tax. In the coming parliamentary year, we will begin consultation on our proposals to replace the unfair and discredited council tax with a fair local income tax that will be based on ability to pay.

In the late autumn, our strategic spending review will set out our policies for the next four years in a comprehensive and detailed way. Its purpose will be to explain how we will invest the resources that are available to this Government for the remainder of the parliamentary session in order to achieve our ambitions for Scotland. We will therefore, later in this parliamentary year, introduce the annual budget bill to finance the public services that Scotland needs.

The predictions from Westminster are that there will be a tight budget round, but the level of squeeze in the money that is available to Scotland from Westminster will remain unclear until later next month. However, members can be assured that the Government will bring forward a full, transparent and costed programme to meet that budget.

At a time when the national conversation over the future of this Parliament's ability to raise and spend its own revenue based on the success of our economy is centre stage, I pause briefly to note the absurdity of this Parliament's being responsible for spending money that is passed from London while being in a position in which even higher growth and greater prosperity in Scotland will not alter the sums that are available to a Scottish Government—of whatever political hue—to spend in the Scottish national interest. That is a debate to which we shall no doubt return.

A critical aspect of increasing economic growth is creating a smarter Scotland. Already, in the first 100 days, members will have been aware of our efforts to drive down class sizes and increase the number of teaching places, but we need to do more. That is precisely why, in this parliamentary year, we will introduce our graduate endowment (abolition) bill to abolish the graduate endowment fee for graduates from this year forward. That will benefit 50,000 students in Scotland who will no longer be asked to pay back-end fees after university. We do so in the certain knowledge that, if we are to compete as a nation in the global economy, we need to upskill Scotland. That means more Scots in the workforce with higher vocational skills and it means many more with graduate skills, as well. If we are to turn Scotland into a powerhouse economy, we must remove, not erect, barriers to degree-level education. This, after all, is the country that pioneered the principle of universal free education. I am proud to lead a Government that re-establishes that principle.

On rural schools, it remains our position that there should be a legislative presumption against their closure, so it is our intention to bring forward—after the necessary consultation—proposals that will safeguard rural schools and the communities of which they are part.

Some matters do not require legislation at this stage. For example, our commitment to an early years strategy has support across the chamber. Regarding the much-debated issue of free school meals, my Government will establish a pilot of free school meals for all primary 1 to 3 children in selected local authorities.

In the coming weeks, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning will publish our skills strategy in order to provide a fresh agenda for skills and learning in Scotland.

In the coming months, we will also develop our plans for a strategy on science and innovation, which will play a pivotal role in our future prosperity. A skilled people and an economy that has a competitive edge are the ways in which to transform Scotland's economic performance.

The link between economic well-being and the health of the nation is well established. Therefore we will also focus in the current parliamentary year on progress towards making Scotland healthier. We will do so both from an economic perspective and, more fundamentally, as a moral imperative for Government.

Turning around the Scottish health record is a long-term mission and one in which the Government seeks the support of all parties. During our first 100 days, we have already taken important steps towards helping people to sustain and improve their health. We have made a commitment to a new 18-week guarantee, covering the entire patient pathway from referral by a general practitioner to admission to hospital, by the end of 2011. Moreover, we have pledged to abolish the hidden waiting lists that cause anguish and frustration to so many people, and we have established the Sutherland review to examine the future funding of free personal care. We are determined not only to enhance the provision of free personal care but to secure its place at the heart of the social care agenda. Free personal care is an achievement of which Parliament can justifiably be proud—our priority now is to protect and enhance delivery of that care to those who are in need.

We will work with others in the Parliament to improve the Government's efforts to tackle the scourge of drugs, which afflicts so many of our communities throughout Scotland. We have also made it clear to national health service boards that we fully expect them to deliver the 62-day cancer target from December 2007.

Although I know that our decision to continue accident and emergency services at Ayr and Monklands hospitals was fiercely contested in the chamber, the decision that we reached was not just popular—it was also the right thing to do. If the debate on those hospitals reinforced anything, it is surely that none of us must ever forget that the national health service is a public service. It is used by the public and it is paid for by the public. As we look to the parliamentary year ahead, we must never forget that it is the duty of health boards and of responsive Government to take full account of local views and circumstances. Accordingly, we will introduce a local health care bill that will give patients and communities greater involvement in delivery of local health services and which will introduce direct elections to national health service boards.

We will also introduce a public health bill designed to comprehensively modernise our public health legislation, which is set out in a number of acts that date back as far as 1897. The purpose of the bill will be to redefine and clarify the relationships between ministers, health boards and local authorities. It will be designed specifically to strengthen the role of health boards and it will contain a range of measures, including provisions that will give effect to international obligations that are designed to prevent the spread of disease.

In relation to future legislation, it is appropriate to consult on how best to implement the draft patients' rights bill, which includes the right to an individual waiting time guarantee.

Away from primary legislation, but also in the current parliamentary year, we will develop our comprehensive health strategy to equip health services for the challenges of the future. In that strategy, we will detail our plans to provide better access to GP appointments, to introduce health checks in schools in disadvantaged areas, and to take action to increase from 16 to 18 the age at which one can buy tobacco. We will proceed on the basis that what Scotland needs is flexible access to care and a move away from the rigidity of the traditional system.

In my view, public health is the biggest social challenge that faces Parliament and this country. We will require a concerted and united cross-party effort to make progress, but let me be clear about why that challenge requires to be met head on. It is unacceptable that eight of the 10 areas in the United Kingdom that have the lowest life expectancy are in the city of Glasgow. It is surely a national scandal that life expectancy in war-torn Iraq remains higher than it does in some areas of the largest city in Scotland. Furthermore, which member is not shamed by reports such as the recent report from the charity Barnardo's, which highlights that, despite all the efforts of previous Governments, one in 10 Scottish children is living in severe poverty, one in five lives in a house with an income of less than £10,000 and one in three does not have access to a national health service dentist? Those figures challenge our claims to be a caring, compassionate and cohesive society. They should compel Parliament to devise new and innovative ways to reach those in our society whom successive Governments have left behind. Our united belief in social justice demands no less.

It is my hope that Parliament will unite around another bill that we will introduce: the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth games bill. I know that Glasgow 2014 has support across Parliament and the country. If we are successful, the legislation will help to ensure that we will host games of which all Scotland and all the Commonwealth can be proud. The games represent a massive opportunity to promote Scotland on the world stage, as well as an opportunity to develop facilities and to provide the inspiration to more young Scots to become physically active.

In relation to Scotland's international profile, let me also make it clear that we will positively and fully engage in the crucial debates about the future of the European Union. This Government and this Parliament have an obligation to express the views of the Scottish people on all matters that are of concern to them. We were right to do so in relation to the invasion of Iraq, we are right to do so now and we will be right to do so in the future. We intend to reach out to Scots around the globe and to engage with that diaspora in a more substantial and meaningful way. The broadening and deepening of those relationships is critical to our international profile and economic success, just as developing our international aid effort is a moral imperative for Parliament.

To return to domestic matters, it is the stated intention of this Government to create a safer and stronger Scotland. We have already made significant progress in negotiations with Westminster on the transfer of responsibilities for firearms to this Parliament. We will press ahead for agreement, with a view to introducing later in this parliamentary year secondary legislation to protect Scots from the dangers of airguns.

Furthermore, only a fortnight ago, we announced plans for a new prison in the north-east of Scotland. After years of indecision, we have taken a positive decision to replace the Victorian facilities in Aberdeen and Peterhead with a brand new state-of-the-art prison in the area. Moreover, the new prison—like the replacement prison at Bishopbriggs—will be run in the public sector for the public good and not for private profit. That represents a substantial shift in direction from the previous Administration. I was delighted that the initiative received a broad welcome.

Equally, we know that a visible police presence on the streets is the best means that we have of reassuring communities throughout Scotland: high visibility policing deters criminals. That is why we shall set out, later this year, our proposal to work with the police and others to increase capacity by the equivalent of 1,000 officers, and to seek to place them in our communities.

We shall also introduce our judiciary (Scotland) bill, which will legally establish a judicial appointments board and help to modernise the organisation and leadership of our judiciary. That means putting the court system under the direction of the Lord President and enshrining the independence of the judiciary.

In criminal law, we will introduce our rape and sexual offences bill, which will reform the law on rape and sexual offences in the light of the Scottish Law Commission's review. I doubt that there is a member in this chamber who does not recognise the need for action in that area.

Members will know that one of our first acts in government was to make clear our opposition to any new nuclear power stations being built in Scotland. We have made that central to our greener Scotland programme. Those who doubt the potential of our green initiatives should note that on Friday—green energy day—we shall mark the fact that the installed capacity of the range of renewables in Scotland has now overtaken the installed capacity of nuclear power. As we make the contribution in electricity generation, we will introduce consultation on our coming climate change bill, to reflect our obligations to planetary security.

To protect people from the implications of climate change, we will introduce in this session our flooding prevention bill, to modernise our defences against the effects of climate change.

I have set out the Government's immediate plans for the coming year and indicated action to follow in subsequent years. I respect the role and rights of back benchers, so I say to Jamie McGrigor and Ken Macintosh that we will discuss with them how to carry forward their legislative initiatives into law in this session.

Demonstration of competence in government means introducing policy initiatives and legislation that are designed to deliver change for the better in Scotland, but to consider government only in the context of annual programmes is artificial. The big challenges—kick-starting the economy and transforming public health—are about the long term. That is why we launched the national conversation on Scotland's future. That is about creating the vibrant economy, the healthy society and the socially and environmentally just society in which all of us believe.

We have a certain vision, and others take a different view. However, as our programme makes clear, we are ready, willing and able to work in the current devolved Parliament to improve the life of every person in this country. It is vital that we equip Parliament with the tools that will make the progress happen to which we all aspire. Years of underperformance tell us that the status quo is incapable of delivering the step change in Scottish life that we all want. That much is accepted to some extent by every member.

Accordingly, in commending to Parliament our programme for government, I ask that we remain focused not just on this year or next year, but on the country that we can be, the country that we should be and the country that we must be. That is why this is not just a legislative programme, nor even just a Government programme, but a programme for Scotland.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I thank the First Minister for the advance copy of his statement. As I have said, we will not oppose everything that the Government does simply for the sake of it. Labour will support some measures in the proposed programme. For example, I am pleased that modern legislation on sex offences will be introduced. We all hope that that will improve the unacceptably low rates of prosecution and conviction for rape.

Perhaps most significant is not what is in the statement, but what is not in it. Despite the blizzard of briefing, it is clear that the Scottish National Party does not intend to deliver on some of its manifesto promises. During the election campaign we heard, "We will, we shall and we can." However, in the statement and its accompanying document, we have a list of ifs, buts and maybes.

The First Minister may recall that the last time that he and I shared a platform was at the Scottish Police Federation conference on 24 April, when he made a clear commitment to deliver 1,000 extra police officers. The document that was published today says:

"We will work with police forces to increase policing capacity through the deployment of the equivalent of 1,000 additional police officers".

I am not sure what the equivalent of a police officer is. Are we supposed to tell our constituents to dial 999 to ask for the equivalent officer to attend? When does the First Minister expect to deliver on the clear promise of 1,000 extra police officers? When his promise is met, how many serving police officers does he pledge that Scotland will have?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I welcome Cathy Jamieson's welcome for many aspects of the programme. In particular, I welcome her to her—albeit transient—place. I remind Cathy Jamieson that we are talking about a legislative programme for the coming year. However, the Government hopes to be in office to deliver a four-year programme. When we announced our achievements in our first 100 days, the Labour Party published a document that said something to the effect that we had not delivered on our proposal to abolish the bridge tolls or on our graduate endowment proposal. I am sure that even Cathy Jamieson now accepts that those proposals have now been delivered in legislative form and that the Administration will implement them.

In "Principles and Priorities: The Government's Programme for Scotland" and through my statement, we have said that we will work with the police and others to increase police capacity by deploying the equivalent of 1,000 additional police officers. That is 1,000 more police officers than there would have been if the previous Administration had stayed in office after the election.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

The programme seems to be less of a Queen's speech and more the musings of a man who would be king. Mercifully, the programme seems shorter than the speech. Let me not be grudging, however, because the Administration's first 100 days or so have been full of promise, progress, pizzazz and excitement. Tolls are to be abolished on our two main bridges and cuts in business rates are coming. There is a new focus and new political will to tackle the scourge of drug abuse and fresh thinking on how to protect the public from predatory sex offenders. There is an intention to decouple local elections and Scottish Parliament elections and to have a register of tartans. There is a pledge for rural schools and more. We should give credit where it is due—but that is enough about the Scottish Conservatives.

I turn to the programme for government. Being legislation light is not a fault in my book. However, I want to question the First Minister on the details of the programme that he has just announced, as many of the real tests have yet to be addressed.

This session is not just about new laws and acts—it is also about ministerial orders, public service priorities and budgetary matters. The real issue is not so much what is present in the programme, but what is missing from it. When will the First Minister's Government match the Scottish Conservatives' commitment to launch a £1 billion assault on crime and drugs? Why has there been such timidity when it comes to protecting the public? Why the silence on dentistry? Barnardo's has confirmed that there is a crisis in Scotland—what is the First Minister doing about it? Where is the immediate cut in council taxes for Scotland's pensioners? If the First Minister will not commit to the Conservative pledge of 1,500 extra police officers in our communities, when—that is all that the public are interested in—will his 1,000 additional officers reach our streets?

The programme is not so much the sleek racehorse of Scottish government—it is more a three-legged nag with a limp. The great pundit of the political racecourse promised us milk and honey, but the programme that has been announced is not milk and honey. I would settle for bread and butter, but it is not even that. The honeymoon is clearly over.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

That was not very gallant.

I hope that Annabel Goldie will acknowledge that we are doing our best to work closely with her, her spokesperson and others to reach a united view to change the direction of drugs policy in Scotland and therefore better tackle the scourge of drugs in our communities.

Labour says that nothing happened in our first 100 days, whereas the Scottish Conservatives say that everything brilliant that has happened in those days is down to the Scottish Conservative party's wisdom. I think that the success of those first 100 days had something to do with the Government as well as Annabel Goldie's prodding at First Minister's question time.

The council tax proposal that Annabel Goldie mentioned was the Conservative party's proposal at the election, not the SNP's. She will find the progress of the SNP's assault on the iniquity of the council tax on page 4 of the 30-page document. If she reads it, she will see that it contains much of great substance and substantial wisdom.

The other difference between us and the Conservatives—who introduced the council tax in the first place—is the fact that our fundamental proposal is not just to restrict the imposition and burden of the council tax, as on page 4 of the document, but to abolish the council tax because of its unfairness. I live in hope that I will be able to persuade Annabel Goldie of the wisdom of that initiative in the coming months.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

I, too, thank the First Minister for the advance copy of his speech.

This is the lightest legislative programme that has ever been presented to the Parliament. Some of the bills will require little more than a single section. It is so light that it is not even called a legislative programme any more; instead, it has had to be padded out with proposals for things that ministers already have the power to deliver. Is not the new SNP Administration characterised by spin and soundbite? Is the priority of the people of Scotland an expensive name change on ministerial buildings or improvements to the environment, education and the economy?

The soundbite is a demand for more powers on air-guns; the reality is silence on knife crime. The soundbite is about more rights for patients; the reality is American-style litigation being brought to Scotland's NHS. Is the most important thing for our health service the injection of an unlimited number of lawyers? The soundbite is about abolishing tolls; the reality consists of cuts in public transport projects. The soundbite is about wiping away all the debts of graduates; the reality is that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning has already said that the cost of that is "prohibitive".

That is not the First Minister's only problem with money. Can he explain why 83 written questions on his policy priorities have been shuffled off to await the outcome of the spending review? Key decisions have been put off until November.

Today's grand statement tells us a lot by what is not there. The SNP has made commitments that it does not have the capability to deliver on. Where have they gone, the promises that were made to the many, not the few—to students, on class sizes, and many others? The SNP's sums simply do not add up—does the First Minister not now know that? It is all gong and no dinner. For all the presidential swagger from the First Minister, this could be the first day that people start to notice.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Looking around me, I see that it is Tavish Scott who has gone, not the SNP's legislative programme.

I hope that there is much in this legislative programme with which the Liberal party will agree. I was surprised at Nicol Stephen's slightly snide remark about abolition of the bridge tolls. I understood, from earlier this year, that the Liberals were in favour of abolishing the tolls on the bridges over the Forth and the Tay.

He will find in the document what we intend in our approach to student debt and its burden. I hope that, in this session, we will still have the support of the Liberal party in abolishing the graduate endowment. That is a substantial measure that I and, I hope, he, think is for the benefit of Scottish society.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, introduced a range of initiatives over the summer to tackle crime levels in Scotland. Rightly, we are seeking to legislate on firearms, which I hope will receive broad support across the Parliament. Kenny MacAskill has dealt with the issues that Nicol Stephen raises many times over the summer. I find it surprising that Nicol Stephen chooses to start a series of questions by noting the difference—which I accept—between what is in legislation and Government action but then ignores the Government actions that have been undertaken by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice. That seems somewhat paradoxical.

Legislation is not, in itself, the be-all and end-all of Government. Eleven bills for the Parliament to consider—in addition to members' bills—is a meaty programme for members to get their teeth into. As we have demonstrated during the first 100 days of Government, and as we will demonstrate throughout the coming year and, hopefully, throughout a four-year term of Government, this Administration is about action and delivery, not just about legislation.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come to open questions. A large number of members wish to ask questions and it is highly unlikely that we will get everyone in, so I ask members to keep their questions as brief as possible, and it would be helpful if the ministerial response follows suit.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I congratulate the First Minister on the brilliant start that his Administration has made during its first 112 days. It has achieved more in those 112 days than the previous Administration did in eight years.

On a consensual point, when the First Minister is publishing his economic development strategy, will he include specific proposals to encourage the 180,000 people who are currently looking for work—some are on benefit or incapacity benefit—and who are willing and able to work, to get work in Scotland?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I am sure that when the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth introduces our economic plan in the next few weeks, he will bear in mind Alex Neil's comments.

I welcome Alex Neil's public and high-profile support for our programme. Consensus has broken out in the SNP. No doubt we shall spread that consensus right across the parliamentary chamber.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

One of the First Minister's most high-profile promises to the Scottish electorate was to freeze the council tax in every part of the country. Why, therefore, does this remarkably light legislative programme not propose to introduce any of the necessary legal powers to keep that promise?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Wendy Alexander will find that page 4 of "Principles and Priorities: The Government's Programme for Scotland" says:

"We will work with Local Authorities to freeze council tax at 2007-08 levels and begin detailed consultation on our proposals to replace council tax with a local income tax based on ability to pay".

One of the enormous changes that have taken place in Scottish society during the past few months is that now only two local authorities in Scotland are controlled by Labour. I am delighted to tell Wendy Alexander that those two local authorities, and all the other balanced administration authorities in Scotland, are substantially content with the approach of the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth in using agreement and discussion as opposed to imposition, which was the failed tactic of the previous Administration.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

The First Minister spoke of governing on the basis of principle and moving with mainstream opinion. No doubt he is aware that, during the past several years, health board consultation in Scotland became a euphemism for managing opposition away. Does he agree that the previous Executive's failure to address the serious alienation that was felt by the majority in the face of changes to the health service was leading directly to a scunner factor amongst voters that leaked into all aspects of public life? Will he confirm that, whatever the outcome of the consultation on the proposed local health care bill, the key problem of alienation will be tackled directly and that everything will be done to reverse the damage of the previous eight years?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Roseanna Cunningham will acknowledge that our early decisions, such as that to reverse the previous Administration's closure of accident and emergency units, shows that our Government is responsive to public concerns about health. More fundamentally, the health legislation encompassed in our programme will put into statute a health service that is responsive to public opinion. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, I do not believe that that is a charter for lawyers—and I am not sure that lawyers should be saying that sort of thing—but that it is a charter for a people's health service and it is the right way to go.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative

The First Minister mentioned simpler regulation for business. If and when he delivers that, he will have our support. What commitment will the Government make to tackling the burden of regulation and red tape on our public services, those who work in them and those who use them?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

As Derek Brownlee knows, I have given some examples of simplified regulation. He will be aware from today's papers that the Confederation of British Industry has welcomed our approach to business legislation. There is general acceptance in the chamber that it should be possible to ease the burden of complex legislation, especially because many businesses in Scotland are subject to a myriad of enforcement bodies. The member will see in the Government's programme and in coming statements early moves in that direction.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I remind all members of the letter that I circulated earlier today on chamber etiquette.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

The First Minister and the SNP promised that a grant of £2,000 would be made to first-time buyers. Today that commitment has been replaced by a housing consultation paper. Will the First Minister take the opportunity today to confirm what his back benchers freely admit—that the SNP's manifesto promise will be ditched?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I will confirm to Duncan McNeil what is in our programme—that we will consult on and bring forward measures to transform the housing position in Scotland. Remarkably, at Westminster an initiative has been taken in relation to housing in England and Wales. It is some sort of comment on the attitude of the previous Administration, which Duncan McNeil was pleased to support, that it has left us with a fundamental crisis in social housing throughout the country, which we will be pleased to address.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

The First Minister is no doubt aware that the family of Andrew Morton, the young child who so tragically lost his life to the scourge of air weapons, attended yesterday's meeting of the Public Petitions Committee in support of their petition to ban those deadly weapons. Can the First Minister assure Parliament that, in the Government's discussion with Westminster regarding air weapons, he will do all that he can to relay the huge sense of frustration and anger that the Morton family and the people of Scotland feel at the lack of action that there has been to date to tackle the scourge of air weapons and to make it clear that we need legislation in Scotland to address Scotland's problem?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I will certainly do that. I accept the point that Tricia Marwick makes, but it may be of interest to those families for whom the issue is of immediate concern that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, has taken a very responsive attitude to the matter in discussions with me.

There are three ways in which action could be taken quickly. The first is to devolve air-gun legislation to the Scottish Parliament. The second is to delegate it, which would be simple for Westminster to do. The third is for Westminster to pass legislation on the matter. For understandable reasons, I would like such legislation to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament; the fact that it is not devolved is an anomaly. However, in talking to the Lord Chancellor I have found him keenly aware that there is a substantial consensus in Scotland that something should be done on the matter. I was given every encouragement that we will be able to make progress in early course.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Today the First Minister has not mentioned the Aberdeen western peripheral route. However, in a letter of 15 June he said that he would

"ensure that the project is not financed by" public-private partnership funding. Given that the project is vital to the north-east and is subject to a PPP contract, will the First Minister tell us how he proposes to finance the Aberdeen western peripheral route and whether that will lead to further delays, on top of the one-year delay that the Administration has already announced?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Where shall I start? There are two reasons why the construction of the Aberdeen western peripheral route is taking longer than Mike Rumbles would like. First, 8,000 objections have been tabled, largely as a result not of opposition to the route but of the decision making of the previous Administration, which has caused much public anguish.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I know that Mike Rumbles does not want to hear this, but he will hear it anyway. Secondly, last November the Administration that the member supported laid the wrong orders to progress the route, which was unfortunate and caused another delay. Thankfully, the current Administration has put that right.

Finally, only two projects in the history of Scottish roads have been funded by PPP, one of which was the Skye bridge project. I would have thought that even the Liberal party would not want to go down that road again.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

The First Minister promised in his manifesto that he would reduce to 18 class sizes for primaries 1 to 3. I know teachers and others who voted for him on the basis of that promise. Can he confirm that his promise will be delivered in the lifetime of this parliamentary session?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Yes, I can and that is why we have made early announcements to that effect. I cannot remember whether Hugh Henry's reaction to the announcement of the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning of increased numbers of teachers, teacher training places and allocations was as enthusiastic as it should have been, given that we hope we will have his support in driving down class sizes, as opposed to failing abysmally as the previous Administration did.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Today's announcement coincides with the publication of the Sustainable Development Commission's report, which carefully highlights the lamentably muddle-headed approach taken by previous Administrations, riddled with internal contradictions as they were.

Despite its taking rather longer than hoped, we welcome the commitment to a climate change bill to drive annual reductions in climate-wrecking gases. In the interim, can the First Minister give us an assurance that this year and next, his policy intentions will deliver action for a sustainable Scotland and reduce climate-wrecking pollution before the legislation is in place? If so, can we believe it in the face of the announcement of a bill that would lift bridge tolls and take Scotland in completely the opposite direction?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I am sorry that bridge tolls are one of the issues on which Robin Harper cannot support the Administration, but there are many others on which he does. On the burden of the question, the simple answer is yes, we will get on with such action before making legislation. As I am sure Robin Harper well understands, the impact assessment that is required by regulation dictates our timetable for the bill on climate change. He can be absolutely certain that this Administration will have every urgency in bringing forward that legislation at the earliest possible date.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

As the First Minister will be aware, hundreds of Scots die each year from hospital-acquired infections, including methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. What plans does the Scottish Government have under the proposed public health bill to eliminate MRSA from Scottish hospitals, something that the previous Administration signally failed to do?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I am sure that Kenneth Gibson heard the announcement of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing that we will introduce a national screening programme to take account of what is a huge and serious problem in our health service.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

We have been told in the past few months that we have a new Alex Salmond before us, but I do not know that I am fully persuaded. Although I recognise his commitment today to developing Labour policies on cervical cancer and the proposed judiciary bill, perhaps it is too much to ask that the new Alex Salmond acknowledge them as Labour policies.

I welcome his commitment to developing Labour's work on rape. Will the First Minister further match Labour's commitment to fund services of support and information to rape victims, notably the Rape Crisis Network, and guarantee that he will continue with the record level of investment of £3 million to which Labour committed? Further, will the First Minister amend provisions that address issues concerning women's sexual history?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

In this atmosphere of consensus, the new Alex Salmond compliments the new Margaret Curran on raising those important issues. They are very much priorities of the Administration and I hope that they are shared objectives of the whole Parliament. I do not think that Margaret Curran will be disappointed by the Government's attitude to those issues.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I do not wish to make a party political point, but I raised a serious range of issues. I must ask that the First Minister answers my questions.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

First Minister, do you wish to respond to that?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Perhaps Margaret Curran is not the new Margaret Curran that I thought she was, but the answer is yes.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

This is very much the old Bill Aitken.

I welcome the First Minister's announcement on the changes to the prison estate. However, I have some doubts as to the revenue funding, which the First Minister indicated will be made on the basis of prisons being run in the public sector. Is the First Minister not aware that all the evidence suggests that the private sector has been more effective in running prisons? Does the First Minister not accept that he is in danger of putting political dogma in the way of financial responsibility?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I am sure that Bill Aitken is aware that if we had followed the policies of the previous Administration Scotland would have ended up with the private sector responsible for a larger share of our prison population than is the case in California. It is neither dogged nor dogmatic to take the view that, for the overall welfare of society, we should have a publicly run prison service that is engaged fully not only with the containment of prisoners, but with remedial work and changing people's behaviour. That work addresses some of the most fundamental problems in society and it is work that is well done in the public sector.

On a personal note, I turn to the north-east of Scotland. Given Bill Aitken's strong interest in these matters, he will probably have visited the sex offenders unit at Peterhead prison. The officers who staff that unit do one of the most incredibly difficult jobs in Scottish society. They do it because they believe passionately that they can change behaviour and thus make Scotland safer. That is what gets them up in the morning. They do a job that neither I nor Bill Aitken could do—probably no member in the chamber could do it.

The prison officers also believe passionately that that job belongs in the public sector. It would be very foolish to ignore the views of such brave individuals.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

During the election campaign, the SNP pledged to

"write off the accumulated debt of Scottish students".

Today, the First Minister has announced discussions with stakeholders on measures to tackle graduate debt. Will the SNP deliver on its election pledge in this term of the Parliament or has it ditched it?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

We will work to deliver all our election commitments over the four-year period. Jeremy Purvis can correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the previous Administration did nothing to abolish the graduate endowment because the Liberal Democrats could not get the agreement of the Labour Party and yet, within 100 days, we announced that commitment, which is included in the legislative statement. Instead of having two warring factions in an Administration, I hope that Jeremy Purvis will welcome a Government that has taken action to relieve the plight of our students in Scotland.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

In light of the First Minister's remarks at Offshore Europe yesterday morning, will he spell out what the current arrangements are for Northern Ireland to have direct access to revenue from Scotland's oil and gas? What steps does he hope to take to ensure that Scotland gets Scotland's share of the revenue from Scotland's oil and gas?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

One of the reasons that David Cairns, the Minister of State at the Scotland Office, was trying to pick a fight with me yesterday was because of his misapprehension that Scotland would have to be independent to gain control over oil and gas revenues and the direction of policy. Of course, it is true that that would be the best status. We need only look at Norway to see a vivid example of that.

As Brian Adam's question suggests, it is a remarkable fact that, in the past, both the Isle of Man and the previous Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont had direct access to a share of Scottish oil royalties. Given that that is a precedent within the United Kingdom, I appeal to the UK Government to realise that this is a reasonable desire and a reasonable request for Scotland to make: after 30 years of unparalleled wealth that has flowed from the Scottish sector of the North Sea, Scotland should have—and is entitled to have—some sort of share of our own natural resources.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Does the First Minister recognise these words:

"The SNP and the Scottish Green Party will work together to put legislation in place early in the new Parliament for binding annual cuts in carbon emissions"?

Can he tell me which SNP politician said that he would place the green agenda

"at the heart of our plans to take Scotland forward"?

Given the total failure to introduce a climate change bill or a marine bill in the SNP's legislative programme, are not those statements today exposed as empty green words? Those broken promises do not just leave Scotland lagging behind the rest of the UK, they represent a huge slap in the face for the SNP's partners in the Green party. I ask for a straight answer. When will a climate change bill be introduced? When will a marine bill be introduced?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

It is interesting that the Green party represented by Robin Harper is much more complimentary about our green credentials than Rhona Brankin is.

If she had been listening to what I said to Robin Harper, she would know that we are working as hard as we can to bring the climate change bill to effect as quickly as we can. The delays have been caused by the regulatory impact assessment, which was put in place as a result of legislation by the Labour-Liberal Scottish Executive. I know that there was a gap between her period as an environment minister and her return to the front bench, but Rhona Brankin should understand and accept that the problems and delays have been caused by legislation that her party and her Executive introduced. I hope that she will accept the bona fides of the Government when we say that we will introduce the climate change bill just as soon as we are able to do so properly in legislative terms.