Government Programme

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 14th May 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:30 pm, 14th May 2008

The next item of business is a statement by the First Minister on moving Scotland forward. The First Minister will take questions at the end of his statement, therefore there should be no interventions.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party 2:34 pm, 14th May 2008

When I told Parliament that I would make a statement to review the Scottish Government's programme over the past year and share some of our plans for moving Scotland forward, I did not know that the United Kingdom Government would choose to publish its draft legislative programme on the same day. However, it is likely that both statements will be eclipsed by events in Manchester this evening, so I start by conveying the best wishes of everyone in the chamber to Walter Smith and his team for their UEFA cup final match. [ Applause. ]

This coming Friday marks one year since the Parliament voted to appoint the Scottish National Party Government and its ministers. That was a significant day not just for the SNP but—much more important—for the Parliament and for Scotland. It marked the election of the first minority Government in the nation's history, which brought a fresh approach to politics and to Government. Let us reflect on that remarkable cultural change and its impact on parliamentary business.

The past year has ended the misconception that having a minority Government and a Parliament of minorities represents a position of weakness. As we see at Westminster, a Government can have a substantial majority and still be forced into dramatic concessions, but as we see in Scotland, a minority Government can still move quickly to implement its programme and ideas.

Minority Government presents opportunities to Opposition parties that have a positive agenda. [Interruption.] I refer to the Liberal Democrats and their support for our abolition of student fees and our reintroduction of free education in Scotland. As I said on entering government, both the Scottish national interest and parliamentary arithmetic require us to advance our programme policy by policy and rely on the strength of our arguments rather than the strength of numbers. Most members in the Parliament have been able to advance their priorities when they have put forward a strong case. Even the main Opposition party finds itself in a position where its policy pronouncements are subject to greater scrutiny. That might not always be enjoyable, at least for the Labour Party, but it shows that a balanced Parliament is an effective Parliament.

Those changes in our political culture show us that a minority Government can be strong and that the Scottish Parliament can also be strong. The changes have enshrined consideration and reflection at the heart of Government. They embody Scotland's renewed sense of purpose and heightened ambition, and they ensure that the national Parliament governs in the national interest. Together, we have changed the mood and tone of Scottish politics for good.

I will outline the tangible achievements of our first year in Government. We have taken important steps towards our purpose of increasing sustainable economic growth in Scotland. We proposed a new economic strategy with clear targets to measure our success. We set out our spending plans for the current session of Parliament, with new investments that are firmly linked to our economic strategy.

Let us recall some of the specific measures to boost sustainable economic growth in Scotland. We are cutting or abolishing business rates for 150,000 small business premises throughout Scotland. We have removed the tolls from the Forth and Tay road bridges. We are strengthening Scotland's comparative advantage by opening a new institute for the life sciences in Dundee, and we are investing in Scotland's vast potential in renewable energy. We are improving our transport and planning systems in order that we can provide a world-class business environment.

It is precisely because we are in tough economic times that such clarity of purpose is valuable and necessary. Our strategic objective is to build not just a wealthier Scotland, but a Scotland that is fairer. At a time when fuel and food prices are rising quickly and the UK Government has threatened to increase the tax bill for half a million of Scotland's lowest-earning households, we are doing everything we can for Scottish families. That is why, through our historic concordat with local government, we provided new funding to freeze the unfair council tax. It is why we are working to move to a fairer local tax that will be based on people's ability to pay, and it is why we cut prescription charges and will abolish them a year ahead of our manifesto commitment. It is precisely because costs are increasing so much for hard-working families that help from Scotland's Government is so valuable.

Let me outline the progress on our other strategic objectives. The Government has made important steps to build a smarter Scotland. We have launched a new early years framework to ensure that our children have the best possible start in life and we are working closely with local government to reduce class sizes for primary 1 to primary 3. We have launched a new skills strategy and, in addition, despite the tightest spending settlement since devolution, we are providing record funding for our universities and colleges. It is precisely because we must do everything to encourage participation in higher and further education that the Scottish Government has abolished the graduate endowment and restored the historic principle of free education in Scotland.

For a healthier Scotland, we have made significant choices, notably not just in reversing the threatened closure of accident and emergency services in Ayr and Monklands, but in retaining and enhancing children's cancer services in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. I know that many members in the chamber, on this 60th anniversary of the national health service, will welcome the Government's decision to proceed with a new southern general hospital in Glasgow—the biggest hospital development in Scotland's history, and one that will be funded entirely by public investment.

To promote a safer and stronger Scotland, we are increasing police presence on our streets, with 150 additional officers recruited in our first year. We have launched the cashback for communities scheme, which will seize the proceeds of crime and put them to positive use. On our prisons, we know that simply trying to build our way out of overcrowding will not work. So, although one of our first actions was to invest in two new publicly run prisons at Bishopbriggs and in the Peterhead area, the Government is also looking to the McLeish commission for valuable advice on strong alternatives to custody.

For a greener Scotland, support for renewable energy is the cornerstone of our climate change policy. We are committed to an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050—the most ambitious target of any country in the world.

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

We have launched public consultations on the forthcoming climate change bill and on flood risk management. In addition, through the greener Scotland campaign we are working hard to encourage our people to embrace sustainable lifestyles.

Those are the steps that we are taking to deliver our programme in government. However, as we are all aware, Governments and people must respond to immediate and unforeseen challenges, so all of us should remember the courageous response of our people and our emergency services to the attacks on Glasgow airport. We should also welcome the resolve of people and businesses in the face of the recent disruption at the Grangemouth refinery. Furthermore, we should remember that it was this Government that stood up for Scotland's farming communities during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. On each occasion, the Government has shown itself to be ready and willing to co-operate with Westminster to meet the challenges that we have faced as a country.

Last year, I said that we had as our guiding star the long-term Scottish national interest. That will continue to be my and the Government's priority as we move the country forward. We will deliver on our legislative programme and the undertakings that we have made to the people of Scotland. We will take forward our manifesto and resist short-cuts or expedient offers that run contrary to it.

Government is not just about legislation or even about a constant blizzard of initiatives and announcements. It is about a positive tone and approach. [Interruption.]

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

At the heart of the Government's approach is the new relationship with Scotland's local authorities, based around single outcome agreements that enshrine mutual respect and parity of esteem. Before the presentation of next year's legislative programme in September, let me outline key themes for the future. Ambition, innovation and openness are themes that reflect the approach of the Government thus far, and which will reflect it over the coming years and beyond.

The Government's ambition for Scotland is fundamental to our approach in government. That is why we are promoting a climate change bill, which will put Scotland at the forefront of global efforts to tackle climate change.

Further to that, because we understand the positive and unifying role that sport can play in society, we will make every effort to enhance sport in Scotland. Hosting of the 2014 Commonwealth games is a great honour for Scotland, and represents recognition of our passion and ambition. We will ensure that the Glasgow games are the most successful Commonwealth games in history. I am pleased, therefore, to announce a new initiative to increase the potential of Scotland's best athletes and to enhance our culture of sporting success. With new support from the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, the University of Stirling will become Scotland's university for sporting excellence. [Applause.]

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

The University of Stirling will act as the hub of a national network of universities and colleges that provide training and support for Scotland's best athletes.

The Government's ambition for Scotland is well known—it is for the country to take on full responsibility for our destiny, which will allow our people, our economy and our society to flourish. I am therefore delighted to confirm that the Government will press ahead with the national conversation on Scotland's future and thereafter with a bill to provide for a referendum in 2010 on Scottish independence, just as we have always planned. We look forward to the support of the Parliament—particularly that of Duncan McNeil—when we lodge our bill for a referendum in 2010.

To promote innovation, the Government has cut taxes for Scotland's small firms. We will continue to roll out the small business bonus scheme. Following our announcement last month of the £10 million saltire prize, I am delighted to inform Parliament of our decision to direct the annual £2 million saltire innovation fund to Scotland's key sectors of comparative advantage in order to stimulate innovation by our businesses, universities and colleges. The fund's academic strand will take its lead from the outstanding success of the enterprise competition that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs, and the business strand will support our economic strategy by encouraging innovation and knowledge transfer in key sectors.

I turn to openness in our Government, in our Parliament and in our public debate on Scotland's future. We have seen what Parliament and Government can do when they work openly and constructively together in the Scottish national interest, so I am pleased to inform Parliament of new reforms to enhance further the Scottish Government's openness and accountability. The Scottish Government will begin a pilot scheme in the environment portfolio that will substantially and proactively increase public access to information. Later this month, the Government will launch Scotland performs—a new framework for public accountability that is based on the successful model in the American state of Virginia, and which will focus on the national purpose and outcomes that are the core of our national performance framework. [Interruption.]

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. There is too much muttering around the chamber.

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

The Government has an important role in delivering the national outcomes and in shaping a unified partnership with businesses, trade unions, local government, the third sector and our other civic institutions. Tracking of our progress on key indicators—on the economy, health, education, justice and the environment—with the best available information will allow our people to see at all times whether Scotland's social partnership is bringing real improvements to our quality of life, and to consider whether we can do even more as a country. That change is about reconnecting with the people, putting the citizen first and remembering that government belongs not to the politicians but to the people of Scotland.

A year ago, I pledged to work wholly and exclusively in the Scottish national interest. That is what the Government has done and what we shall continue to do.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

As I intimated, the First Minister will now take questions on issues that his statement has raised. I intend to allow about 30 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

I echo the First Minister's good wishes for Rangers in tonight's UEFA cup final.

The First Minister's statement continues the self-congratulation that we have come to expect. Let us be honest—for all the talk of non-stop activity, only two new pieces of policy legislation have been introduced in 12 months. On today's evidence, the approach of style over substance will continue. What the Government offers is not just lightweight; it is positively flyweight. Not only will there be no early referendum bill, but precious little else is new today.

Can the First Minister tell us what is genuinely new in his statement, beyond stealing a Labour idea for our athletes, telling us how the saltire fund will be spent and mentioning an information pilot? Even the Government's spin machine suggested this morning that there would be an announcement on the long-promised measures to tackle the scourge of alcohol abuse in Scotland. We would have been happy to work with the Government on such measures. Where are they?

Overall, the First Minister's statement is more interesting for what is not in it than for what is in it. It talks about moving "quickly to implement" the Government's programme. Perhaps, now that we are one year on, the First Minister could provide Parliament with a timetable for the manifesto commitments to dump student debt, to cut class sizes to 18, to provide a nursery teacher for every child, for free year-round access to council swimming pools, for £2,000 grants for first time home buyers, for matching Labour's school building programme year for year, and for a Scottish futures trust. When?

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

I remind Wendy Alexander that, under parliamentary procedure, the legislative programme for the year will be introduced in September. As she is aware, we are currently going through a programme of 11 pieces of legislation that have been proposed for this year. I remind her of the three pieces of legislation that have already been enacted: the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Act 2008, which Labour was formerly against but voted for; the Budget (Scotland) Act 2008, which Labour said it was against, but on which it abstained in the vote; and the Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Act 2008, which Labour and the Conservatives opposed root and branch, although our historic concordat with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens successfully piloted it through the Parliament. The other eight bills are going through the procedures of the Parliament, and in September, we will announce next year's legislative programme.

I do not mind Wendy Alexander's not wanting to talk about the council tax freeze, the abolition of bridge tolls, saving the hospitals in Ayr and Monklands, or about any other of our blizzard of announcements and measures. Recently, Wendy Alexander has accused the Government of populism. Yes—the Government is popular. That is because we have taken those measures in the best interests of the Scottish people.

Of course, we will proceed with implementing our programme over the four years of this session of Parliament. Wendy Alexander will forgive me if we are not tempted by short-term offers that change day by day, hour by hour and minute by minute.

One of our great national newspapers described Wendy Alexander as the Olga Korbut of Scottish politics, thanks to her political gymnastics. It was actually Nadia Comaneci who got the perfect 10, although she let the judges award it rather than award it to herself.

The Labour Party in Scotland has more in common with Ronnie Corbett than Olga Korbut: far from excelling on the parallel bars, it is in a parallel universe.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I, too, congratulate Rangers, which is the second Scottish football club to reach the UEFA cup final in the past five years. We wish Walter Smith and the entire Rangers squad all the best in Manchester tonight.

I thank the First Minister for the advance copy of his statement; there are, of course, measures in it that I welcome. Labour's referendum mess of the past 10 days has meant that the primary purpose of the Parliament and the real role of the Opposition, which is to hold Government to account, have been completely hijacked by a debate, which although it is important, must not be allowed to obscure the reason why we are here.

This week, we have seen Labour make a series of spectacular U-turns, but sometimes U-turns can be positive, so I had hoped to hear some from the First Minister. Why is there no U-turn on the extension of home detention curfews? Why does the SNP's policy remain one of emptying our jails rather than keeping prisoners in them?

Why is there no U-turn on the SNP's unremitting hostility to the private sector's valuable role in delivering our public services? Why is there no U-turn on the SNP's refusal to mutualise Scottish Water, which would free up £200 million of taxpayers money every year?

Even worse, why is there no U-turn on the SNP's prejudice against housing stock transfer and the First Minister's refusal to collect more than £2 billion from Westminster to write off all Scotland's council housing debt?

I look forward to answers to those questions, and to confirmation that a draft national drug strategy for Scotland will be published by the end of May, as promised.

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

Let me take three of Annabel Goldie's points. As she will remember, the Scottish Government is moving forward with three new prisons. Two of those were, until this Government took office, what we might describe as being in abeyance, given that no key decisions had been taken. Those decisions have now been made and the building of the prisons is going ahead. Those prisons will be run in the public sector. Most people in Scotland think that that is the right way to run our prison service. I make that point because we recognise that we cannot, as has been pointed out, build our way out of the overcrowding problems in Scottish prisons—hence the establishment of the McLeish commission to consider strong alternatives to custodial sentences. However, it has emerged in debates that in 17 years in Government, the Conservative party did not build a single prison in Scotland, as Annabel Goldie may remember. Therefore, she comes late in the day with arguments about prison capacity in Scotland.

On housing, I am sure that Annabel Goldie and the Conservative party do not want to override the democratic wishes of people in Scotland as expressed in referenda. As she will know, people have voted on housing in a number of areas. I am rather attached to the democratic wishes of the Scottish people in referenda, so I hope that she does not mean to set a precedent. She should also acknowledge that the 19 per cent increase in the social housing budget in the comprehensive spending review will enable us to meet our targets on expanding the housing stock. Already, dozens—perhaps even hundreds—more houses are being built in Scotland, compared to the total of six council houses that Scottish local authorities built in the years of Labour Government.

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

On Annabel Goldie's question on drugs, I can confirm that we are moving ahead on the agenda and timetable that has been discussed with her. That is an excellent example of a minority Government in a balanced Parliament working constructively. In the debates on the comprehensive spending review, the budget and, indeed, the abolition of the graduate endowment, most parties in Parliament that have put forward a case and combined with the Government have achieved at least some of their policy objectives. I think that that is right and reasonable and that it is a constructive way for members to consider issues.

On the scourge of drugs, as I have said many times not just to Annabel Goldie but to all parties in Parliament, the Government is willing and anxious to work together with people so that Scotland can see some light at the end of the tunnel in respect of that enduring problem.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

As an Aberdeen supporter—and on the 25 th anniversary of my team's success in Gothenburg—I wish the Rangers team and fans all the very best for an historic victory tonight.

The thing that people remember most about the first year of the SNP Government is its broken promises: on students, on housing, on class sizes, on school buildings, on university funding—the list goes on. Today, that list gets bigger still. The promise of two hours of physical education each week has been broken and contradicted. The SNP used to say that the provision would be guaranteed with specialist teachers; now it says that walking to school will count. Is that not the sort of policy gymnastics that we have come to expect from Alex Salmond?

Not everyone is as generous as I am in their assessment of the SNP Government. Yesterday's Financial Times described the SNP Government's first year as

"doing nothing very much at all".

It went on to talk about

"smugly self-confident politics ... without a hint of modesty".

Does the First Minister expect to keep those elements in the same balance for the forthcoming year? His thin, vacuous statement suggests that he does.

The Financial Times also reported that the price of oil is now $120 per barrel. With that backdrop, why has there been such an incredible delay on the Government's energy strategy? Last May, the SNP said that a strategy was important. In September, we were promised a statement by the end of this year. By February, that had been downgraded to an overview that would be placed on the website. Will we ever really see it?

The First Minister talked about heightened ambition. This weekend he also told a Sunday newspaper that quite a lot of the time he feels quite a lot like King James V. In the same interview, he wobbled on independence and said that he did not favour separation at all; in fact, he said that he preferred a

"social union ... under one monarch".

What on earth does that mean? Does he see a role for himself in the position of sole monarch?

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

As Nicol Stephen knows, we will reintroduce Scottish history into Scottish education, which the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party did not manage to do during eight years in government. I will give the member a starter for 10. For the best part of 100 years, Scotland and England were independent countries sharing the same monarch. Given that the Queen is Queen of another 15 countries around the globe, I should have thought that the concept of countries sharing the same monarch would be clear and easily understandable even for the Liberal Democrats. The member quotes selectively from the Financial Times , but in Scotland the verdict on the Government's first year in office is being passed in a series of opinion polls in many newspapers. Those polls seem to indicate that the people of Scotland are content with our performance, even if we have not met the high standards of Nicol Stephen.

I confirm that walking to school does not count towards the two hours of PE that children are to have each week—I hope that I have put Nicol Stephen's mind at rest. As the Government moves into its second year of achievement, I encourage him with a reminder of the one glint of reason and enlightenment that we have seen from the Liberal Democrats over the past year, when they united with us to restore the historic principle of free education in Scotland. If Nicol Stephen chose to employ that tactic, who knows what our achievements could be over the next three years?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come to back-bench questions. We have far more questioners than we are likely to be able to fit in in the time available, so brief questions and answers would be greatly valued.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

The First Minister mentioned the international links that Scotland is building in North America and elsewhere. Will the Government continue to build on those links in order further to disprove the remarks that were made on Radio Scotland a week ago by former Labour minister Sam Galbraith, who said that, but for the guiding hand of Westminster, Scotland would be "an insignificant little country"?

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

I prefer the verdict of National Geographic on the saltire prize for innovation, the world's largest innovation prize for marine renewables. It described the prize as a brilliant example of how a small country can make a big impact on a global challenge. With due respect to ex-minister Sam Galbraith, I prefer National Geographic 's assessment to his. He always was a dismal character and I am sorry that in his retirement he is becoming more dismal still.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

The First Minister made a couple of passing references to energy efficiency in his statement but none in his answer to Mr Stephen's question. At no time did he explain how a year of saying no to nuclear, no to wind and "not really" to microgeneration is moving Scotland forward in any sense. A year ago, on 4 June, the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism promised an energy strategy for Scotland "in coming months". His MEP colleague Alyn Smith has now written to him to complain that projects the length and breadth of Scotland are floundering because of the lack of a national framework. Eleven months have passed. How many more months will it be before we have a coherent energy strategy?

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

But I paid close attention to what was going on.

I remind Iain Gray that we have made 11 determinations on major electricity generation projects. The average over the previous four years of Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition was four. I should have thought that Iain Gray would welcome the trebling of the number of approvals of energy projects in Scotland over the past year. I hope that he will also welcome the fact that within the next few months we will reach 3GW of renewable capacity in Scotland.

I hoped that Iain Gray would mention the saltire prize, given the nice things that National Geographic said about the level and scale of our ambition. Further, in terms of what is bearing down on consumers and companies across Scotland at the present moment, perhaps Iain Gray will look closely at an initiative that the Scottish National Party first introduced during the passage of the Finance Bill in Westminster in 2005: the idea of a fuel price regulator to modulate the horrendous increases in energy costs that are causing great difficulty for families and businesses across Scotland. In 2005, that initiative was supported by the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Plaid Cymru and the SNP. However, the three main unionist parties combined to vote it down. Perhaps Iain Gray will reconsider whether the introduction of a fuel price regulator might well be a productive and positive step for the Westminster Government to take.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

On the issue of reconnecting with the people, with particular reference to the health service, I am mindful of Coldstream and Jedburgh cottage hospitals, which, in the face of fierce local opposition, were closed by a board full of anonymous people. Against that background, when does the First Minister intend to press ahead with the local health care bill that is set to democratise health boards and make them more responsive and responsible to their constituents?

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

That bill will be introduced before the summer recess and will be a valuable part of ensuring that the national health service is the people's health service. Over the past year, the Government has shown—by the decisions that it has made about the Monklands and Ayr hospitals and about children's cancer services—that, when the evidence is there, we are prepared to resist the centralisation process that was part and parcel of the previous Administration's approach and which leads to such a collapse in confidence when it is applied in certain areas of the NHS.

I welcome the fact that the bill will be introduced and I am sure that Christine Grahame will have many constructive things to say during its progress.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Even from somebody with the nickname that Alex Salmond has, the smarter Scotland section of the speech was remarkably short on detail and concrete achievements.

For example, the early years framework was launched just as the SNP was withdrawing nursery places from vulnerable two-year-olds, closing nurseries and denying families with disabled children £34 million for respite care. Further, the supposed record funding for universities and colleges will come as a surprise to principals, who are cutting teaching jobs as a direct result of the First Minister's Government's spending review. Let us be clear today—

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

The First Minister has performed a spectacular U-turn—[ Laughter. ]

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

He has performed a spectacular U-turn on the position that he set out in this chamber on 6 September. He said that class sizes would be cut to 18 and that those cuts would be delivered by the end of this parliamentary session.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I must press you for a question.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

We know that cuts in class sizes will not be delivered. Two thirds of the councils have said that they are not going to be able to deliver those cuts.



Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Last night on the radio, Maureen Watt said that walking to school would count. What is the Government's position? The First Minister has not answered that question. He said that two hours of quality PE counts.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Very briefly, please, Ms Brankin.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Is Maureen Watt incorrect, and could the First Minister confirm that he has ditched his commitment to deliver smaller class sizes in primaries 1 to 3 in this parliamentary session? Yes or no?

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

We took a long time to get there. Mention of U-turns of any kind should be proscribed in Labour members' interventions for the course of this parliamentary session.

I do not understand Rhona Brankin's inability to see the substantial increase in hours of nursery provision that has already been delivered this year and which will move towards a 50 per cent increase over the course of this parliamentary session. I would like the increase to be even bigger, but the fact that she thinks that a 50 per cent increase is inadequate shows the extent of the failure and ineptitude that we had to build on. What does that say about her party and her time in Government?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

There were two points of interest in the First Minister's speech. First he talked about the importance of this Parliament, then he said that his Government would press ahead with its so-called national conversation. When will the First Minister bring his national conversation to this parliamentary chamber, or is he feart?

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

In early 2010 we will bring referendum legislation to the Parliament, with a view to enacting it and to people in Scotland voting in 2010.

Whatever differences Murdo Fraser and I may have across a range of issues—on just about every issue, now that I come to think about it—if nothing else, the past 10 days have shown that even people who were entrenched opponents of the idea of Scottish self-determination, of people having the right to decide their own future, can sometimes see the light. Whatever the Labour Party's position now is, the past 10 days have demonstrated that there is no such thing as a lost soul in Scottish politics. I exclusively reveal that I do not regard even Murdo Fraser as a lost soul. He will come round to the idea of the people of Scotland having the right to determine their own future.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

This morning at a cross-party meeting, the chief economist of Lloyds TSB stated that the Scottish economy was slowing and that the SNP's target of matching the UK's growth rate target would be achieved as the UK economy contracts. Given the First Minister's typically ebullient statement, will he take credit for that?

That meeting also heard about Scotland's relatively poor business start-up rate. Does the First Minister agree that the number of new Scottish businesses that are profitable, successful and still in existence in three years' time will be central to improving our growth rate? Given that the swingeing cuts to Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise mean that responsibility for business start-ups now rests with local authorities under the business gateway—a move that business has profound concerns about—can he explain why it is that those arrangements are still not in place in the Highlands and Islands and what impact he expects that to have on growth in that area?

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

I am sure that, as convener of a parliamentary committee, Tavish Scott will have paid close attention to the poll of business opinion in The Scotsman newspaper, which showed that the business community gave this Government's performance a 3:1 approval rating.

Let us be absolutely clear: no country in the western world, and certainly not Scotland, is insulated from the impact of a global financial crisis and credit crunch. However, today's unemployment figures show that employment in Scotland is higher than it is in the UK and unemployment is lower. Retail sales and the housing market are holding up better in Scotland than they are in England. The number of bankruptcies in Scotland is lower than it is in England and our manufacturing exports are increasing at a faster rate. In addition, for the first time in a generation, we have had two consecutive quarters in which our economic growth has been above that of the UK.

In no sense does that mean that Scotland is immune from worldwide financial trends, but it means that a number of this Government's policies—notably, the small business bonus—have been of enormous help to the small companies sector in these difficult times. I am sure that at some point in the remaining three years of the parliamentary session, Tavish Scott will compliment that excellent scheme, which many businesses in Shetland think is the best thing since sliced bread.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

The First Minister might be aware of a particularly grievous constituency case that I am dealing with, which relates to the ambulance service. In the interests of the family concerned, I hope that he will appreciate the substance of my question.

All over Scotland and especially in Glasgow, which has the highest rate—39 per cent—of category A calls, there is significant evidence of a lack of appropriate cover because of budget constraints. Can the First Minister confirm that there are fewer ambulances on the streets of Scotland than there were last year? What is he going to do about it?

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

There has been an increase in the number of emergency vehicles in Scotland.

As regards the constituency case to which the member refers, I would be quite prepared to meet her, or to arrange for the Deputy First Minister to meet her, to pursue her concerns.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

The First Minister will be aware of reports about the shameful legacy that the Government has inherited over a range of social indicators, particularly on the welfare of children. How will the Government's programme tackle the scandal whereby one child in four lives in poverty? Is it not correct that Scotland's Parliament and Government need all the powers of an independent country to introduce the massive social reforms that successive UK Governments have failed to deliver on?

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

We are committed to addressing the targets and indicators on child poverty and are consulting on our anti-poverty strategy. Some of our key policies, particularly the stress on early intervention and the free school meals pilot, drive directly at the poverty indicators, especially those that relate to children.

However, I make it clear that we are talking about an area that, overwhelmingly, is under the governance of the UK Government. Many people are concerned about key social indicators such as child poverty or, for that matter, about weapons of mass destruction in Scotland and whether Scottish soldiers should be sent to fight in illegal wars. As those people indicate and consider their own priorities while we pursue the national conversation on Scotland's future, one of the things that will decide the issue is the growing realisation among them that this Parliament needs the powers of an independent and equal country.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

In a month during which we have seen the devastation caused by extreme weather, tough action on climate change is vital. Will the First Minister accept that it is not enough to talk green and that he must act to deliver reductions in greenhouse gases urgently?

The First Minister said that renewable energy is the cornerstone of his climate change policy. When will the Scottish National Party implement its manifesto commitment for renewable generation in every school? When will the Government act to create a mass market for householder renewables? As yesterday's Energy Saving Trust report highlighted, grants are not enough and we need a scheme whereby householders receive a rebate on their council tax or local tax bill. There is support across the Parliament for such action, so will the First Minister act now?

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

Sarah Boyack, who has a long interest in this issue, which I share, will have welcomed the substantial increase in funding for microgeneration in the comprehensive spending review. Perhaps that is why the Labour Party decided to abstain rather than vote against the CSR—who knows? I am sure that she realises that that is in the budget line and that we hope to roll out that programme.

I have just been passed that quotation from the Financial Times. According to the second part of the quotation, the SNP Government has left its opponents "in abject disarray." I am sure that the Liberal Democrats did not want to mislead the Parliament.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

A climate change bill will be welcome, but a year after the Government came to office we have yet to hear any detail about how the ambitious targets will be achieved. What contribution will come from housing, from transport, from energy and from the SNP's so-called sustainable economic policy? When will the First Minister publish a clear and specific programme of action that sets out not just the direction of travel and the destination, but the steps on the journey to a low-carbon economy?

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

As Robin Harper knows, we have set targets for the renewable generation of electricity in Scotland. We are well on course to meeting those targets, which are hugely ambitious and involve 50 per cent of Scotland's capacity—in terms of our usage of electricity—being generated by renewable sources by 2020. I agree with them. The European Union's current heating and transport targets are two other aspects that we must consider, which is why we are introducing a climate change bill. I know that Robin Harper's close examination of the bill as it goes through the legislative process will augment its value and importance and add to a shared experience whereby I hope that the Parliament will proudly declare that we have the most ambitious target in the world and a bill and enabling legislation that will allow us to meet it.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

When does the First Minister plan to introduce a programme of education and information on the choices that will be implicit and explicit in the referendum bill? I hope that he agrees that it is not enough to rely on the Scottish conversations. For example, the requirement for benefits to march hand in hand with taxation, to which Aileen Campbell referred, is not understood by most people in Scotland. The Parliament has a duty to ensure that people understand all the implications of all the constitutional choices that are open to them.

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

As Margo MacDonald knows, the white paper, "Choosing Scotland's Future: A National Conversation: Independence and Responsibility in the Modern World" set out in substantial detail—more detail than has ever been provided before—not just the constitutional option of independence, which we support, but constitutional options that other parties might or might not support. Other parties might find that discussion valuable and insightful as they formulate their policies—who knows?

In phase 2 of the national conversation, which was launched in late March, we specifically moved to a phase of consultation and a conversation with the great institutions and the voluntary sector in Scotland. We are rolling out sectoral conversations with people in the voluntary sector, as they find that their issues are related to the constitutional question and the powers of this Parliament to achieve their ambitions. Relating the constitutional ambitions of the Parliament, and of the parties, to the practical, day-to-day requirements of the Scottish people and our great institutions, will lead to the conclusion that this Parliament needs the powers of an independent parliament if it is truly to serve the Scottish people.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. As you will know from a point that I raised previously, I welcome statements to this Parliament. Statements—especially statements from the First Minister—enhance the role of the Parliament. I think that he will agree with me on that point.

As I understand it, Presiding Officer, all statements have to be agreed by you. I would be grateful if you would explain to the Parliament what arguments were put to you by the First Minister or his office for today's statement, "Moving Scotland Forward", and if you would explain the basis on which you were asked to agree to the statement.

Unlike members of the SNP, I have listened very carefully to every word of the statement. It contained absolutely nothing new; it was a reiteration of points made many times before. The one new point was taken from the Labour manifesto. The statement was interspersed—and this is a serious point—with usually disgraceful, personal abuse from the First Minister, and with continued criticism of the United Kingdom Government. Unlike the statement made in the House of Commons today, which contained many significant legislative proposals—most of which apply to Scotland—the statement made in this Parliament contained absolutely nothing substantial. The statement was an insult to the Parliament and I hope that you will not allow that kind of statement again.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

That was not a point of order for me, Lord Foulkes. My only role in agreeing the statement was in chairing the Parliamentary Bureau meeting that agreed to allow the statement to be made. It is not my role to edit the statement in any way.

That brings us to the end of questions on the statement. We have eaten into the time allowed for the next debate, which was already tight. I apologise to the four members whom I was unable to call to ask questions.