Scottish Government (Record)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 5th March 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:15 am, 5th March 2009

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-3609, in the name of Johann Lamont, on Scottish Government failures.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

It is a privilege to open this important debate for the Labour Party. I am happy to speak to the motion, "Scottish Government Failures", which is in my name.

In discussing the Government's failures, the first question is the political equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel—which one do we start with? The remarkable gap between the Scottish National Party's view of itself and the reality could be laughable, but it represents the serious matter of opportunities lost for people throughout Scotland who depend on the Government at every level to act in their interest.

It is clear to us all that SNP ministers take themselves very seriously, but our central contention is that the SNP is not serious about government. What it has done lags behind the action that the Administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland have taken to use the powers that are at their disposal to make a difference, to be creative in stimulating economic activity and to put jobs and training centre stage. It is ever more apparent that, ultimately, the SNP will always put its party interests first. It is evident that the SNP's first, last and only priority is creating the conditions for separation.

That is why we plan to support the Liberal Democrat amendment. The referendum issue provides an example of SNP failure. The SNP could have had our support for an unrigged referendum—in which I am certain that the people of Scotland would have rejected the SNP's separatism—but it spurned the offer. Now, times and economic circumstances have changed. It is clear to us that a referendum would now be an unnecessary distraction from the challenges for the Government in sustaining economic activity and protecting people, their families and their communities. If—as ministers told us—it was outrageous to vote against the budget to secure apprenticeships and Labour's budget dividend at a time of economic recession, how much more risky is it to create uncertainty to persist with a priority of constitutional division?

As for the SNP's amendment, rarely have I seen such a self-regarding and complacent amendment, even by the SNP's monumentally self-regarding and complacent standards. As SNP members ditch policies or pretend that other policies that are dead in the water still have life in them, they congratulate themselves because they are doing well in polls that they commissioned.

As a schoolteacher, I spent many years encouraging youngsters to be self-confident and full of self-esteem. However, I used to say, "Even when you believe in yourself, you still have to open the book and work." The First Minister might be bristling with self-confidence, but that is ill placed when he will not do the work that being in government demands. We have a six-point plan that did not even make its way on to the back of a fag packet; an analysis of the economic situation by the First Minister that changes daily and is informed by a view of the world that suggests that economic policy can be separated from its social consequences; and a Government that is spinning fit to burst by telling us how well it is doing. The Government centralises credit for the good news and delegates the blame for anything else. It is incapable of facing the reality of crumbling schools, teachers out of work and community projects closing.

There are too many broken promises to list them all, but even the edited highlights of not dumping student debt, not reducing class sizes and—of course—not introducing the local income tax are substantial. As we watched the public relations machine move into action to dump the local income tax—the SNP told the press about that before its own back benchers knew—we were puzzled as to why the persistent breaking of promises seemed to matter so little. All that was required was the wheeling out of an alibi. Of course, we made a simple mistake. We thought that the SNP thought that its manifesto commitments mattered. The reality is that the SNP does not regard its failure to deliver on its promises as a problem because, for the SNP, the manifesto's purpose was to get the SNP elected and not to describe what the SNP would do once it was elected. The process of promise making and promise breaking was, and is, an entirely cynical calculation about how to secure power.

Alongside the broken promises is the failure to deliver. The SNP actively chose, at a time of turmoil in the financial markets, to cut support to build affordable housing for rent. When we need security in housing and in construction, the SNP has wilfully developed policies that create uncertainty in the housing sector. When SNP members are told that their policies are not working, their only response is that somebody else needs to give them more money, although the money that they have is not being used as it should be to meet housing need.

In health, the statistics show that bedblocking is re-emerging and that huge challenges exist locally. In justice, the police figures will not be achieved and an arbitrary cut in sentences of under six months will be made, while in this city alone, £100,000 is being stripped out of community sentencing support. In transport, the strategic transport projects review was dismissed as a wish list. On the environment, early action on emissions is lacking. In culture, the First Minister tells us that there is a renaissance, but unprecedented numbers of artists tell us that there is a shambles. In addressing poverty and disadvantage, the Government no longer has targets and no longer attempts even to assess the impact of its policies on disadvantaged groups. The SNP Government no longer attempts to secure equal access to services and no longer ensures that budgets are informed by concerns about poverty rather than rhetoric. That leaves the most vulnerable people in our communities without protection in these challenging times.

We have the damaging consequences of the SNP being against public-private partnership developments, although its opposition has never stretched as far as baulking at cutting the ministerial ribbon to open such developments. The SNP has found it impossible to produce the Scottish Futures Trust, so it has a particular tartan nationalist take on the Thatcher mantra, "There is no alternative." The Government says, "There is no alternative, so we shall simply not build at all." [Interruption.]

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. Only one member should speak in the debate at one time, but several other debates seem to be going on, for which all sides are to blame.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I regret that the Government is incapable of listening to people's concerns about its failures.

Government demands more than a shrug of the shoulders, especially when the Salmond slump is the consequence. [Laughter.]

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I say to Mr Swinney that it is easy to laugh at me, but laughing at businesses and communities that are under the cosh is a different matter.

The Scottish Government's figures show £1.3 billion of construction projects in 2007. Under the SNP, that figure was slashed to £300 million in 2008. The cost of that reduction in jobs, economic activity and the benefit of those projects is breathtaking and frustrating. That reality should make us rage at the Government's incompetence and lack of concern.

I have said that a referendum bill is unwanted and would be a distraction at this time. However, a greater charge than the wish to waste time and energy on pursuing a referendum bill in such uncertain times can be laid at the SNP's door. I beg the Presiding Officer's pardon while I find my place—I assure members that what is coming is worth the wait. When those with vision fought for and shaped the Scottish Parliament and when the Labour Party made decentralising power a priority—the SNP stood sullenly apart from all that campaigning and debating—we did not imagine that any party that secured power in the Scottish Parliament, which was intended to bring decision making closer to those who understand what is needed in our communities, would seek to reduce the Parliament in economically tough times to the role of spectator to ministerial decisions, as the SNP Government has.

We did not imagine that any party that sought power would use this institution crudely to say time and again what it could not do so that it could pursue its separatist agenda. The depressing charge against the SNP is that it will never strain every sinew and never use every power at its disposal to protect our people because its life's work is to establish that the Parliament cannot work as part of the United Kingdom. If there is ever a choice between action to improve people's life chances and action to improve the SNP's political chances—a choice between a fix and a fight—it is no contest for the SNP. It will never do all that it can, because it does not want people to feel that the Parliament serves them as part of the United Kingdom.

Although there is political knockabout in witnessing the SNP's self-aggrandisement, its finessing of hard questions, its spin doctors and their PR and the increasingly embarrassing spectacle of a First Minister demeaning his office by focusing on providing the cheap laugh rather than answers, there is no political knockabout in the realisation that the alibi seeking, the excuses and the spin are not about managing political action but are a substitute for it.

We have had enough of failure and will talk later in detail about how the SNP is letting down the people of Scotland on each of its responsibilities. We have had enough of inaction and a party-political strategy masquerading as a Government. It is about time that the SNP took responsibility for the powers that it has and used them in the interest of the people in this country. Scotland deserves far better than it has had so far from the SNP Government.

I move,

That the Parliament notes that SNP manifesto promises have been broken on a wide range of issues including health, housing, community safety and education; further notes the absence of a credible strategy to address the needs of people facing difficult economic circumstances and to tackle poverty and disadvantage; regrets that the Scottish Government prefers to focus its attention on the powers it does not have in order to pursue its party's agenda of separation, and urges the Scottish Government to examine how it might effectively use the powers at its disposal to meet the needs of people by sustaining economic activity and employment and supporting communities across Scotland.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 9:27 am, 5th March 2009

Even by Johann Lamont's standards, that was a pretty miserable performance. I assure her that, contrary to her assertion, it is anything but easy to laugh at her. She is not called No-laughs Lamont for nothing.

If truth be told, the debate is nothing more than a fig leaf to hide the fact that the Labour Party in Scotland has nothing positive to say and absolutely nothing constructive to contribute to the debate.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Wendy Alexander famously said that the Labour Party had not had an original idea in 100 years. How right she was. It shows no signs of ending that record run.

It is a bit rich—in fact, more than a bit rich—for Labour to talk about the delivery of our manifesto because, halfway through the parliamentary session, we have already delivered half of the manifesto on which we fought the election. In the words of Iain Gray, who has not even bothered to turn up for this important Labour debate—

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

It is a Labour debate. [ Interruption. ]

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. The point has been made.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

In Iain Gray's words, Labour has ripped up its manifesto because it was written on the back of a fag packet.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Johann Lamont says that Labour lost the election. It certainly did and, from her performance this morning, we see why.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

No.

We will take no lessons on delivery from the party that promised at successive elections to reform the council tax and make it fairer but, after 10 years in power, managed only to put it up by 60 per cent. We will take no lessons from the party that promised to cut youth crime by 10 per cent but presided over an increase of 16 per cent, and the party that delivered fewer than half of its manifesto commitments over two terms in office. A long, hard look in the mirror might have been more appropriate for Labour than any attack on this Government's record.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

I will not mention local income tax, the first-time home buyers grant or the police numbers target. I have one simple question for Nicola Sturgeon. On page 19 of its manifesto, the SNP said that it would introduce a not-for-profit trust—where is that trust?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The Scottish Futures Trust is well established, as is the not-for-profit approach. That contrasts with the record profits through the private finance initiative that Andy Kerr still seems to propose.

Happily for the SNP, it is not Labour's verdict on the Scottish Government that counts, but the verdict of the Scottish people.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Lord George Foulkes can make himself heard without making an intervention.

We are ultimately accountable to the Scottish people and, when the next election comes, we will be happy to stand on our record.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

Will the cabinet secretary give way on the point about the Scottish people?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The cabinet secretary has made it clear that she will not take an intervention, so sit down please.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Even now, ours is a record of solid achievement. The Opposition might girn and whine, but the polls put the SNP considerably and consistently ahead of Labour. That suggests that the Scottish people have a somewhat more positive view of the world because they know that this Government is on their side. As a result of our actions in the teeth of Labour opposition, council tax bills have been frozen.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

With respect, the cabinet secretary seems to be making it clear that she is not taking an intervention.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

That is a council tax cut in real terms. Business rates are lower. Education is free again, because the Labour-Liberal tuition fee has been abolished.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

No.

Patients are being treated more quickly and are paying less for their medicines thanks to the Government's policy of abolishing prescription charges. The cost of a prescription in Scotland is due to fall to £4 on 1 April. Let us contrast that with the position under Labour south of the border: in the past couple of minutes, it has been announced that, on 1 April, prescription charges in England will increase to £7.20—a policy that has been condemned by doctors.

Here is the real contrast: an SNP Government that provides real help when people need it most and a Labour Government that simply adds to their burden.

Communities have more police on their streets, and that increase is set to continue year on year. I have heard some scepticism being expressed about whether police numbers at the end of this parliamentary session will be 1,000 higher than the number that we inherited. We have rightly been cautious about that. We will recruit 1,000 more, but overall numbers depend on retirals and people leaving the service. Let us not forget that we inherited a spike in police retirement and the lowest recruitment level since devolution.

However, we are now two years into the session and police numbers are consistently rising, so we are in a much better position to forecast what the figure will be at the end of the session. I announce that we will undertake a police force projection study and will be very happy to publish the results. Given our recruitment policy, we are confident that the outcome will be positive. If it turns out that there will be 1,000 more officers at the end of the session than at its start, I will expect everyone who has doubted that to apologise unreservedly.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Perhaps Richard Baker wants to apologise early.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I will not apologise for the 1,500 extra police that were put on the streets when we were in government, in stark contrast with the current position. However, the SNP's promise was not for a projection study but for 1,000 extra police. Was the Cabinet Secretary for Justice wrong when he said that that will not happen?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Labour's manifesto did not promise a single additional police officer and we inherited the lowest recruitment rate since devolution.

The Government has a record to be proud of. Our actions have helped to reduce the financial burden on individuals, families and businesses. That reduction matters at a time when people feel the pain of Labour's recession. However, we know that, in times of economic pain, we need to do even more to help. That is why we have devised our six-point economic recovery plan and will continue to develop it to respond to Gordon Brown's downturn. We have already accelerated capital spending and increased the funding to tackle fuel poverty, which has enabled us to install a record number of central heating systems. We have put together a package of measures to help people who are in mortgage difficulty and increased the funding for it from £25 million to £35 million. I reassure the Liberal Democrats that our efforts are concentrated on economic recovery and will remain so.

Anyone who seriously believes that the issue of economic recovery can be divorced from the issue of the powers that the Parliament has with which to achieve economic recovery is deluded. The fact is that the state of our economy and the constitutional future of the country are inextricably linked. As a Government, we are doing everything within the resources and the powers that we have at our disposal both to help people to deal with the impact of recession and to help the country out of it. We will continue to do that.

The truth—the hard truth that every member of the Parliament has a duty to face up to—is that, without fiscal powers, the power to borrow and the normal powers of an independent country, we will always have one hand tied behind our back.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

No.

That is why it is not only right to give the people of Scotland the option to vote for independence; in these economic circumstances, it is imperative that we give them the right to choose independence. It is anti-democratic, disgraceful and downright wrong for any politician—Labour, Liberal or Tory—to stand in the way of the people's right to decide.

It is not just the SNP that backs a referendum. We know that a few members on other benches do, too. I wonder whether John Farquhar Munro will be allowed to vote with his conscience at 5 o'clock this evening.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I am told that he will not even be allowed to be in the chamber.

More important, we know that 59 per cent of Labour voters, 63 per cent of Liberal voters and even 63 per cent of Tory voters want a referendum. The leaders of the Opposition parties should give their members a free vote on a referendum. Are they so scared of the result of such a referendum that they will block it at any cost? From what we have heard from Labour members today, they are not saying "Bring it on" so much as cowering in the corner.

I conclude by flagging up the real and present danger to Scotland's economic recovery—the £500 million of cuts that are planned by the Labour Prime Minister and the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer. Labour says that that is all about efficiency savings. The truth is that it is about jobs and services. Those cuts will cost more than 8,000 jobs; the national health service share of those cuts alone is equal to 5,000 nurses or 1,000 doctors. Anyone who has Scotland's interests at heart will join the Government in opposing those cuts. Anyone who does not oppose those cuts will be judged at the ballot box.

I am very happy indeed to commend the record of Scotland's first SNP Government to Parliament, and I move amendment S3M-3609.3, to leave out from first "notes" to end and insert:

"commends the Scottish Government's record of achievement since May 2007; believes that the benefits to the Scottish people of lower council tax bills, lower business rates, lower prescription charges and a return to free education are reflected in the SNP's excellent poll ratings; notes the Scottish Government's six-point economic recovery plan that is providing much-needed assistance during Labour's recession; believes, however, that additional economic powers for the Scottish Parliament, in particular borrowing powers, are essential to steer the Scottish economy out of recession and thereafter to support economic growth; condemns the £500 million in cuts that the UK Labour government plans to impose on the Scottish budget in 2010-11 and 2011-12, which will cost more than 8,000 jobs and represents a serious threat to economic recovery; calls on all parties with Scotland's interests at heart to oppose these cuts, and looks forward to continuing a lively debate and National Conversation about Scotland's future."

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. In what I understand is a heavily oversubscribed debate, can you reassure the members who are unlikely to be called that we will not have to sit here and watch time being allocated to members who do not have the courtesy to wait until they are called before they start their speeches? Or should I take it that the only way in which to be heard in the chamber is to heckle?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I am not sure that that is a point of order. It is entirely up to Presiding Officers to decide how they conduct the debate. We are trying to fit in as many members as possible, and I have made quite clear my view on some of the sedentary interventions that have been made. Points of order such as this will reduce the possibility of our calling some members to speak.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 9:39 am, 5th March 2009

After almost two years in office, the Scottish Government cannot—despite what Nicola Sturgeon says—get away from the fact that it has done very little of substance. It came to power full of its own promises. I think that the SNP believed that its new Government would be a radical and reforming Government. After all, it was committed to dumping student debt—getting rid of not just the student endowment, but all student debt. It was committed to an extra 1,000 police officers, but what we have now is a projection. It was committed to matching, brick by brick, the previous coalition's school-building programme. We were going to have lower class sizes and nursery teachers for every nursery-age child. We were going to have a Scottish Futures Trust that actually did something. Of course, we were also going to get rid of the council tax and replace it with a fairer local income tax. That is not even to mention the first-time buyers grant of £2,000 and the generous kinship carers allowances. Wow. Utopia was meant to be here.

Over the past two years, we have seen those and other commitments being ditched, one after another. On the council tax, every SNP candidate said that getting rid of that discredited tax was their main priority. However, the Government did not even go to the trouble of introducing a draft bill to Parliament to test support for its plans. On the funding for capital projects, answers to parliamentary questions from my colleague, Jeremy Purvis, revealed that only two of the 35 capital projects for which the SNP takes the credit did not originate under the previous coalition Executive.

In two months' time, in my constituency, we will have the long-awaited reopening of Laurencekirk railway station. Nicol Stephen, as a previous transport minister, gave the go-ahead for that project and allocated more than £3 million to it. I wonder who will open the station in May—I could certainly have a guess. Should we congratulate the current Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change on not cancelling it?

The chief executive of Transport Scotland admitted in a letter to Danny Alexander, the member of Parliament for Inverness, that work on multimillion pound Highland road projects that are included in the strategic transport projects review will not even start for at least another eight years. The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change, Stewart Stevenson, admitted in Parliament just last week that he did not take one project out of the STPR. However, he did not put one project into it either. That is marvellous work from the do-nothing transport minister—or perhaps I should call him the do-something transport minister, as what he did was delay the whole thing for six months while he did nothing. Our transport minister elevates doing nothing very much almost into an art form.

On education, does the Government really expect us all conveniently to forget the fact that the slogan "Dump the Debt" appeared on every leaflet, badge and postcard that it distributed to students? The campaign was very effective. My own sons, who were students, were tempted to vote for the SNP on the regional list because of that promise, which was sent directly to them in the post. However, I persuaded them not to be so silly as to vote for the SNP on that basis and I am glad to say that they did not do so. Nevertheless, many others did and I believe that the SNP will rue the day that it abandoned that promise.

I could list a whole raft of populist policies that the SNP Government has unceremoniously dumped, but that would take a great deal of time and I have only three minutes left. It seems to me that the Scottish Government has spent the past two years doing very little indeed. Perhaps it will become known as either the do-nothing Government or, at the very least, the do-very-little Government. Perhaps its new cunning plan is to appeal to the voters at the next election, in 2011, as the Government that does nothing but does it very well.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

I am sorry to interrupt the member's flow, but I cannot help but recall that the last time my friend John Farquhar Munro had leave of absence it was to bury a cow. What reason has been given for his absence today, which has denied him the opportunity to talk some sense on the issue of a referendum?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I am perfectly willing to take interventions on matters of substance, but I think that we should concentrate on the issue at hand.

Ironically, the two large items of policy that the Government has not dropped are the two items that it should drop. It should certainly drop its ill-conceived plans to demonise young people as far as irresponsible drinking is concerned. Instead of introducing new alcohol laws that miss the point, it should enforce the laws on alcohol that we already have. It will not do that, of course, because that would require the allocation of additional resources, and it needs to be seen to be doing something.

The second policy that the Government should drop is its divisive plans on separation. This is where I come to our amendment. Over the past 24 hours, we have heard a great deal from the SNP about the undemocratic nature of the opposition to its plans to hold an independence referendum. We live in a representative, parliamentary democracy. We in this chamber are the democratically elected representatives of the people. We should never forget that. People elected us to these benches knowing that we do not support the break-up of the United Kingdom. It would be a huge betrayal of democracy if we now abrogated our responsibility on this issue. If people had wanted a referendum on independence, they would have voted SNP at the previous election; and if people want independence now, they can vote SNP at the next election. However, if they want a radically reformed home rule settlement, in which we have much greater tax-raising powers, and much more control over our own affairs within the United Kingdom, they can vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2011.

The Scottish Government must end its obsession with separation from the UK and must focus on protecting jobs and boosting our economy. That is what is important to the people of Scotland. The Liberal Democrat amendment seeks to put an end to speculation about parliamentary support for a referendum on separation. It will be made absolutely clear at the vote tonight that the Government has no such support. Ministers should drop their divisive plans and spend the next two years working hard to build an economic recovery. I urge Parliament to support the Liberal Democrat amendment.

I move amendment S3M-3609.1, to insert at end:

"and calls on the Scottish Government to concentrate its efforts on economic recovery and abandon its divisive plans for a Referendum Bill for the remainder of its term of office."

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 9:46 am, 5th March 2009

I thank the Labour Party for giving us the opportunity to debate the SNP Government's record in office, but I was a little disappointed with Johann Lamont. She clearly did not have her porridge for breakfast, because we were spared the now familiar lesson from the Labour front benches on how to make confetti out of the SNP manifesto. She should have given us that lesson, because the SNP manifesto of 2007 will go down in history as one of the greatest frauds perpetrated on the electorate in recent years. Forget the surgeon's photograph of the Loch Ness monster, the Roswell alien autopsy video, and the Hitler diaries—they have nothing on the SNP manifesto when it comes to deluding the public.

The SNP promised a £2,000 per head housing grant for first-time buyers, and there has been no sign of it. The SNP promised a one-in-one-out policy for new business regulations—a policy subsequently dismissed by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth as "too simplistic" and then ditched.

The SNP promised that student debts would be wiped out and loans replaced with grants, and there is no sign of that. It promised class sizes of no more than 18 in primaries 1 to 3—a policy that we found out last week would take another 87 years to implement, by which time most of the original intended beneficiaries would be pushing up the daisies. The SNP also promised a local income tax, which thankfully has now been ditched along with all the rest of the promises.

What will the SNP do with its manifesto at the next election? What a challenge: will it simply rerun all its old promises and ask for another shottie, or will it tear up the manifesto and start again? In the latter case we would be entitled to ask why we should believe a word of the new manifesto when the previous one turned out to be such a fantasy.

When did it all start to go wrong for the First Minister? I think that we can trace much of his present plight back to the humungous loss of credibility that occurred at the time of the bail-out by the UK Government of HBOS and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Back in September, the First Minister was forever telling us that those were two well-run Scottish institutions: they were soundly based and laid low only by the infamous actions of the so-called "spivs and speculators".

What a difference six months makes. Only last Thursday at First Minister's questions, a loyal SNP back bencher—yes, incredibly, there are still a few in existence—Shirley-Anne Somerville slated the Royal Bank of Scotland for

"the poor judgment of senior management".

She went on to rail against

"the folly of previous RBS senior management".—[Official Report, 26 February 2009; c 15274.]

How times have changed. Let us never forget that it was the First Minister's bosom buddy Sir George Mathewson, the man he hand-picked to chair his Council of Economic Advisers, who personally hired Sir Fred Goodwin as RBS's chief executive.

Where does the Government go from here? Well, one bright idea is still left to it, although it is an old and tired idea—an independence referendum. The Government is now devoting all its energies to the legislation on that and has even appointed Mr Russell as a minister dedicated to the task. With the pledges on smaller class sizes, student debt, housing grants and local income tax all gone, how long can the pledge of an independence referendum survive?

I do not believe that there is any majority in the Parliament for a referendum. I hope that that will become clear tonight, but who knows when we are dealing with the Liberal Democrats? Their amendment represents the Lib Dem position at 9.40 this morning, but how many times will it have changed by 5 o'clock this afternoon? And where, as has already been asked, is the elusive John Farquhar Munro? He is a man who, uniquely in his party, has a fixed and principled position on a referendum, albeit one with which I disagree. Is it true that, by a remarkable coincidence, he has an unbreakable constituency engagement today? Or has Mike Rumbles locked him in a cupboard, a tactic last used during the passing of planning legislation when poor Jim Mather was held captive by the SNP whips to prevent him from voting for third party right of appeal?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I do not think that any member in this chamber could gag John Farquhar Munro.

Are the Conservatives relying on Lord Forsyth, a member of the House of Lords—an unelected chamber—to demand a referendum? I think that it was Lord Forsyth who said, "Bring it on."

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I know that Mr Purvis sometimes has ideas above his station, but we are not in the House of Lords now. This is the Scottish Parliament and, to a man and woman, my party's members will vote in favour of his party's amendment this evening—despite all the temptations to do otherwise that he puts in our way. What a pity that the Liberal Democrats are not showing the same discipline in their party that we Conservatives are showing in ours.

People in Scotland want the Government to concentrate on the real concerns that affect them and not on an obsession with constitutional upheaval. It is time for the SNP to drop its referendum plan and get on with delivering real help for the people of Scotland.

Notwithstanding my criticisms, the Government has done some things right: it has removed the tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges; it has cut business rates for small businesses; it is introducing a new drugs policy for Scotland; and it has brought in a £60 million town-centre regeneration scheme. What do all those things have in common? It is, of course, that they are all Conservative policies. My advice to the SNP Government is therefore this: if it wants to get back on track, it should read this perfect guide—the Conservative manifesto from 2007. It is far too sturdy a document for anyone even to attempt tearing it in two. Some of the good ideas in it have already been implemented, but there is much more that could be done.

As my colleague David McLetchie has said before, the next best thing to a Conservative Government is a Government that does Conservative things.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

That is this Government.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I can see that Mr Kerr agrees with me. It is not too late for even this Government to see sense and find its way again.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 9:53 am, 5th March 2009

We have certainly heard plenty of rhetoric from the SNP this morning, but let us look at some of the reality.

We are now two years into the SNP Government, and it ought to be considering what its actions mean for local communities instead of looking to the past or trying to put the blame on the UK Government. After two years of the SNP Government, health boards across Scotland are being forced to consider hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of cuts. That is not because of Westminster; it is because, after eight years of Labour investment at record levels, the SNP has delivered the worst settlement for the NHS since devolution.

Nicola Sturgeon can sit there, refusing to listen and continuing with the complacency and arrogance that are becoming her hallmark, but it is not just Labour that is saying that about the NHS.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Not at the moment.

This is the reality: NHS Tayside is planning staff reductions to meet its targets; NHS Forth Valley is taking more than £1 million away from acute services such as accident and emergency; and NHS Borders is looking at staff numbers. In my constituency, NHS Ayrshire and Arran is having to consider plans for uncosted cuts in maternity and orthopaedic services to help save £22 million.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

No—but I will come to Ms Sturgeon in a moment.

NHS Highland has said that efficiency savings alone will not address its £36 million deficit and that it is now considering

"issues that were previously thought to be scary or untouchable".

I would like to hear what the cabinet secretary has to say about all that.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Will Cathy Jamieson comment on the fact that, since the Government took office in May 2007, 5,000 more people are working in the NHS? She is talking nonsense, but in light of that nonsense will she join me in opposing the £500 million of cuts, which would cost 5,000 nurses in the NHS?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I am interested in Nicola Sturgeon's comment that health boards are talking nonsense—my points came from the considerations of health boards throughout Scotland.

I will come to jobs. The SNP expects health boards to meet the on-going costs of new policy commitments without providing additional resources. As Johann Lamont said, we have the return of bedblocking and, this week, the news that SNP-controlled Stirling Council is to shut two old people's homes to cut costs. That is the latest in a series of local and national cuts. In total, 170 posts are going in Stirling Council and about 50 administration posts are going as part of the package. The Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon are failing to protect jobs at a time when that protection is needed the most.

Nicola Sturgeon has also failed to address the concerns about NHS estate management that were highlighted in an Audit Scotland report. In December, it was reported that patients at Glasgow's Southern general hospital had to be given—[Interruption.] There is no point in Nicola Sturgeon saying, "Oh, here we go," because that is no comfort to the patients who have to be given extra blankets to keep warm because the surgical block in the Southern general is regularly left without heating. That situation is not acceptable, and the cabinet secretary should concentrate on dealing with it. Surely a reliable heating system—[Interruption.]

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. I am sorry to interrupt, Ms Jamieson.

I have already commented on the unnecessary nature of some of the exchanges that are taking place. I would be grateful if that ruling was observed.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

A reliable heating system is surely not too much to ask for. It is one of the most basic requirements in any hospital, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will turn her attentions to that.

Earlier this week, the British Medical Association published a consultation on the future of general practice, which highlighted the association's concern that investment in premises has stalled. I call on the cabinet secretary to accept that the Scottish Futures Trust is simply redundant and to consider alternative funding mechanisms to ensure that the hospital estate is improved and maintained. We need real investment in the much-needed community health facilities that our communities hope to have.

As has been said, the promised support for kinship carers simply has not materialised. It was highlighted in December last year that the Scottish councils are simply not delivering the promised package of support, and many carers groups rightly feel that they have been abandoned by the SNP Administration. The UK Government has sought, through a £340 million package, to provide the support that carers need, but the Scottish Government cannot find it in its heart to guarantee that the £34 million that it will receive will be passed on to those in need.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

If the member can tell me one thing that she did to help kinship carers in the eight years in which Labour was in power, I will be immensely surprised. The Scottish Government introduced the policy and is delivering; the frustration has come largely from the Labour Party and Labour councillors.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I refer Michael Russell to all the work that was done as part of "Hidden Harm—responding to the needs of children of problem drug users". The problem is that the policy is not being implemented. Despite the rhetoric from the SNP, the reality is that kinship carers throughout Scotland are not getting the cash.

The Scottish Government must consider the rhetoric and the reality in relation to sport. The SNP's 2007 Holyrood election manifesto pledged free access to council swimming pools but, of 32 councils, only two—Labour-run Glasgow City Council and Inverclyde Council—provide free year-round access to swimming pools for children under 16. The residents of Girvan in my constituency were dismayed to find that their swimming pool had been abandoned by South Ayrshire Council last month after SNP councillors voted to back the closure of several activity centres and other facilities.

Nicola Sturgeon suggested that Labour had made no constructive contribution. I refer her to our 15-point action plan to tackle hospital-associated infections. I know that she has already begun to consider some of the issues, but I press her to take account of the plan and to act on the recommendations, which have been backed by experts, to ensure that patients in hospitals are given the care and protection that they need.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party 10:00 am, 5th March 2009

This somewhat sterile debate started with a dreary droning diatribe from Johann Lamont. From what we have just heard from Cathy Jamieson, it seems as though it will not get much better from the Labour benches.

I turn to the smaller parties first. It is a wee bit rich of Murdo Fraser to talk about broken promises. I remember the first devolution referendum in 1979, when the proposal was passed by a small majority but defeated because of Labour's infamous 40 per cent rule. The Tory party promised to introduce a better devolution bill, but it completely reneged on that and, as a result, we had to wait 20 years for the establishment of the Parliament, which the Tories fought against. If we are talking about broken promises, that is a biggie.

In the 18 years in which Murdo Fraser's party was in power, it de-industrialised the country. I worked in the steel industry, and when Labour came to power in 1974 there were 27,000 steel workers. By the time the Tories came in, the figure was down to 11,000, and by the time they left office, it was in the hundreds.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

The last time I took an intervention from Lord Foulkes, he did not return the compliment when he spoke immediately after me, so I will certainly not take any interventions from him. I will take one from Mr Fraser.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Does Mr Gibson accept that, in 1997, when the Conservative Government of glorious memory left office, Scottish manufacturing exports were at an all-time high and that, since then, they have been in decline?

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

We have a Labour Government in power in the UK. As we know, every Labour Government in history has increased unemployment and debt. It looks as though Gordon Brown's Government will follow the Labour tradition.

If we wanted to consider what the Liberal Democrats have done in power—I mean real power, not jumping on Labour's coat tails, as they did for eight years—I am afraid that we would have to go back to the days of Lloyd George and Asquith. I do not want to go back that far.

It is appalling for Cathy Jamieson to talk about the health service. She ignored the fact that, in Ayrshire, a £53 million hospital is to be built in Irvine to deliver new mental health services and that the budget is increasing from £497 million when Labour was in power to £564.5 million. By my arithmetic, that is a 13 per cent increase in two years. Cathy Jamieson should also recall that Labour promised to spend any additional money on education, not on health, so she does not seem to know the content of her party's manifesto.

The SNP will deliver 30 per cent higher expenditure on the central heating programme by the beginning of the next financial year and more than 400 extra police officers. Police officers in my area tell me that, when Labour left office, the training centre at Tulliallan was so run down that people could not get into it. It took some time to build it up again, but a couple of weeks ago about 70 probationers came out to my constituency to ride shotgun on the buses with senior officers because Tulliallan was packed with the number of trainees that we are putting through it. We will reach our target of 1,000 extra police officers.

Members mentioned what Stirling Council and other councils are doing. We abolished ring fencing so that local councils can take their own decisions and, frankly, if Cathy Jamieson is unhappy with what local councils are doing, she should take that up with those councils. We have not introduced the proposal made by her party under its previous leader for a 3 per cent year-on-year cut in local government budgets; instead, we have allowed councils to reinvest savings. If anyone talks about the paucity of the settlement that the Scottish Government has delivered, they should think about what has come from Westminster.

Let us consider how Labour did, not in the first two years of its term in office, but in four years. The Sunday Times published an analysis of Labour's broken promises in its first four years. The pledge to provide a nursery school place for all three and four-year olds and the promise to promote intervention on early years education to improve literacy and numeracy were not delivered. The recruitment of 1,000 additional teachers was not delivered. Every child in Scotland was to have access to an after-school club, but after four years fewer than one in 10 children could access a club.

Labour was to halve the number of deaths from coronary heart disease and cut deaths from cancer by 20 per cent—again, that was not delivered. There was a promise to set and monitor targets to speed up treatment and shorten waiting times, but the waiting list increased by 10,000 and waiting times increased by 30 to 35 days. Labour pledged to free 60,000 children from poverty in its first term in office, but child poverty actually increased over the period to 310,000 children.

Members will love this next broken promise as it is a classic: a continued fall in council taxes coupled with high standards of service. What actually happened, of course, was a 42 per cent increase in four years. Labour promised to speed up the operation of the courts system, but the number of crimes and offences soared by 38,000 and the number of convictions plummeted by 29,000. Of course, we have all seen the chaos that has been delivered by the UK Government in the past couple of years as a result of the global recession that the UK played a major part in creating.

I want to talk about the referendum. The Liberal Democrats want us to break a manifesto pledge on holding a referendum, which is an ironic call to make in a debate that is allegedly about breaking manifesto pledges. How bizarre is that? We all know about John Farquhar Munro's position on a referendum but, according to Richard Cook, the Tory candidate for the Westminster seat of East Renfrewshire, five Tory MSPs also support a referendum. Perhaps Murdo Fraser should take the shackles off those colleagues of his.

We should have a referendum on independence—there is no reason why we cannot have one. Yesterday, we found time to debate the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille—and why not? Yesterday also saw the Tories lodge a motion about a driving centre in Wishaw and Labour lodge one about raising money for sick kids in Edinburgh. Those are laudable topics, and we have plenty of time to debate them and similar issues, with a focus on the recession. There is no reason why we cannot have an independence referendum in order to deliver a better future for Scotland through its re-emergence as an independent sovereign state.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 10:06 am, 5th March 2009

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. We are coming to the halfway point of the SNP Administration's time in office, and we need to hold it accountable for the promises that it made at the election and examine the extent to which they have been delivered.

As the motion in Johann Lamont's name correctly points out, members on the Scottish Government benches like to focus much of their attention on powers that they do not have rather than on those that they do. This week, SNP MSPs have lodged motions on subjects ranging from the abolition of NATO to arms embargoes and fiscal autonomy. The fact is that SNP members want to talk about anything but their record in office.

It is no coincidence that, in her speech, Nicola Sturgeon did not mention schools once. Furthermore, there is not one education minister in the chamber. That great work of fiction, the 2007 SNP election manifesto, made around 30 policy commitments on education and children. Tempting though it is, time constraints make it impossible for me to go through every promise, but they are divided into two broad categories: the clear policy commitments, which have not been kept; and motherhood-and-apple-pie platitudes, which cannot be effectively measured.

It is no coincidence that the SNP's list of supposed achievements in its amendment does not include one promise delivered on schools. Labour has a proud history of investing in our children and our schools, and it is frustrating to see the progress that we made in the first eight years of devolution being squandered by an Administration that does not share our values. While we want to give people opportunities to make the most of their lives, the SNP devotes its time to seeking opportunities to remove Scotland from the UK.

When the First Minister is forced onto the back foot, he is fond of quoting the Burns line:

"facts are chiels that winna ding."

Let us therefore have some hard facts about four key areas in which the SNP is simply failing to deliver.

On early years, the SNP pledged to

"increase the provision of free nursery education for 3 and 4 year olds by 50 per cent" and deliver access to

"a fully qualified nursery teacher for every nursery age child".

We might expect that such promises would be delivered by an increase in the number of qualified nursery teachers. Indeed, the First Minister said on 25 September that the number of nursery teachers was increasing substantially under the SNP Government, but sadly that was another example of his all-too-familiar bluster and spin. The number of whole-time equivalent nursery teachers has fallen, not risen, under his watch. That is what the statistics say, and all of the sleight of hand and spin that the SNP machine can muster will not change that. I ask Mr Russell to tell us how that 50 per cent increase in nursery provision and improved access to nursery teachers will possibly be achieved against a backdrop of falling numbers of nursery teachers.

On physical education, the SNP manifesto was explicit:

"we will ensure that every pupil has 2 hours of quality PE each week delivered by specialist PE teachers."

Depending on whether we listen to the former Minister for Schools and Skills, who had the temerity to tell the truth on the issue, or the SNP's spin doctor, we hear that those two hours of quality PE either include time spent walking to school or will not be delivered by specialist PE teachers. If the SNP's own ministers do not know the party's policy on PE, what hope is there for the rest of us to get to the bottom of this complete shambles? Will Mr Russell confirm in his winding-up speech whether the SNP manifesto commitment stands?

On class sizes, the SNP said:

"We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less".

Later, the First Minister added for good measure—in this very chamber—that that commitment would be met in this parliamentary session. At the halfway point in the session, only 13 per cent of children in primaries 1 to 3 are in classes of 18 pupils or less. Further, as was pointed out last week, at the current rate of progress, the SNP's commitment will be met not by 2011 but by 2095, give or take a year. We should also recognise that the policy is forcing up class sizes in the later years of primary school.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I would like to remind Rhona Brankin of three facts about class sizes. The proportion of classes with more than 25 pupils is now down from 38 per cent to 23 per cent. Will she congratulate the SNP-led West Lothian Council, which has more than doubled the number of children in primaries 1 to 3 who are in classes of 13 children or less from 10 per cent to just under 25 per cent? Will she—

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Does the member accept that Labour did not keep any of its class size commitments?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Order. Interventions should be brief, not mini-speeches.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

That was a classic case of the use of selective information. Is the member seriously telling me that class sizes are going down in all West Lothian schools? That is absolute rubbish, and I will not take any lessons from Angela Constance.

In a masterful piece of understatement, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning described the class size figures as "disappointing". They are more than that: I hope that Mr Russell or Ms Sturgeon will take the message back to Fiona Hyslop that they are a massive and embarrassing failure on the part of this Government. I say to Nicola Sturgeon that they are not something to smirk at.

There is utter confusion on the policy in the SNP ranks. The First Minister said that the promise would be delivered by 2011, but he seems to have been overruled by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities SNP education spokesperson, who insists that there is no target for local councils, merely a vague and open-ended commitment to making progress.

On our school estate, the SNP pledged to match Labour's school-building programme "brick for brick". The same paragraph said that the Scottish Futures Trust would

"release more money to invest in the frontline".

Two years on, what progress has been made? The much-hyped Scottish Futures Trust still has not delivered a pizza, to use Alex Salmond's phrase. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning has opened plenty of schools, but they were all planned and delivered by the previous Labour-led Administration. In a recent written answer, the Scottish Government claimed to have built or substantially refurbished 152 schools since May 2007, but, funnily enough, the Government was strangely coy when it came to revealing when those schools were commissioned.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I do not have time to go into the SNP's broken promise on dumping student debt, and the grotesque waste of talent that is represented by the increasing number of newly qualified teachers who are on the dole. As with so many important areas, the reality does not match the rhetoric.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

The SNP was willing to say absolutely anything to get elected. I urge members to support the motion in Johann Lamont's name.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 10:14 am, 5th March 2009

The only thing that is missing from Labour's motion is an assertion that the evil SNP Government drowns little puppy dogs.

This is the second time Parliament has had such a debate from Labour. The first took place after the Scottish Government's first six months in office. We might think that, after two years, Labour would have come to terms with the fact that it did not win the Scottish Parliament or council elections. Instead, however, it tries to suggest that the Scottish people were deluded into voting SNP. Not a bit of it—Labour is as negative now as it was during the election campaign, and that negativity explains why it did not win the Scottish Parliament election. Labour defines itself by what it is against, rather than what it stands for—first and foremost, Labour is against the SNP.

My father was in the Labour Party for most of his life. He let me stay up to watch Harold Wilson win the 1964 general election. What struck me about my dad was his deeply held belief about what Labour was for. He believed for a long time that Labour would be there for him and for the community in which we lived. I cannot remember my dad ever talking about what Labour was against—he talked about what Labour was for, and what he thought a Labour Government would do when it came to power.

Labour forgets that the votes in debates such as this do not matter that much. It matters that Labour voted down our budget, and it matters what people in our communities think about the progress that the Scottish Government has made.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

Will the member give way on that specific point?

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I will not take an intervention from Lord Foulkes, whether he is standing up or sitting down shouting.

It is clear that, whatever happens at 5 o'clock tonight, the people out there know that the SNP Government is delivering for them, despite the fact that it is a minority Government and the fact that the Labour Party prefers to play games and to have juvenile student-union debates instead of making the contribution that it should make in the chamber.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the start of the miners' strike. The communities in which I grew up and the communities that I have the honour of representing in the Parliament are still suffering from the effects of a Tory Government that created a scorched earth policy. When Labour came to power in 1997, it promised to end child poverty, and to reduce it by 2010. The Labour Party was in power in this Parliament for eight years, yet the levels of poverty in Levenmouth, Kennoway and parts of Glenrothes are among the highest in the country.

Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer for much of that time, and now he is Prime Minister, striding across the world stage like the bit player he is. The man who promised to halve child poverty by next year is failing even to make a dent. The recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that on current estimates, the UK Government will fail to meet its target by 2010, and that to meet that target, the UK

"would have to invest an estimated £4.2 billion a year".

We have a Prime Minister who fiddled the books, and a Labour Government that could never find the money to tackle poverty, but which bailed out the banks to stop them failing. The same Labour Government has failed the one in four children in Scotland who is still living in poverty.

Scotland's children are twice as likely to be poor as those who live in Scandinavian countries.

The SNP Government has met 50 per cent of its manifesto commitments after two years. I am proud of a Government that has delivered the removal of the tolls from the Forth and Tay bridges, which was opposed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats in office; that has frozen council tax for the past two years, in comparison with a 60 per cent increase under the Labour and Liberal Democrat Administration; and which has introduced free school meals for all primary 1 to primary 3 children in Scotland, which the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats also opposed in office.

I am proud of an SNP Government that is reducing prescription charges and will abolish them, which should be compared with the increase that the UK Government announced today for charges in England; that has put the highest number of police on the streets, in comparison with the abandonment of our communities to the criminals by the Labour and Liberal Democrats; and which has abolished the graduate endowment, which Labour and the Liberal Democrats introduced.

I turn to the Liberals, who want the Government to concentrate on the economy rather than on the constitution. That is from a party that voted against an SNP Government, and then voted for it when the First Minister wrote to the Calman commission. That is hardly putting the economy first. Harriet Harman spoke recently about the court of public opinion, but in the Scottish Parliament, the unionist parties want to deny the court of public opinion—the people of Scotland—the chance to vote in a referendum on their own future.

The people voted for an SNP Government because we offered vision and hope—and we have delivered—rather than the negativity of the Labour Party. Labour has learned nothing, and as a result it will be in Opposition in the UK and in Scotland for a very long time.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 10:20 am, 5th March 2009

Normally, the failures and broken promises of an incoming Government are to be condemned or regretted by Opposition parties and the general body of electors. However, in the case of the SNP Administration, we Conservatives positively welcome and commend many of the broken promises and U-turns that we have witnessed in just two years.

However, a failure being welcome or a promise being broken is no reason to ignore it; that is why, in the interests of the public record, those are duly noted in the motion. We should note the failures of the SNP Government, because they are a testament to the fraudulent prospectus that is otherwise known as the SNP election manifesto. That document is regarded by many as being about as financially sound as the prospectus for the recent Royal Bank of Scotland rights issue—although we must remember that it was signed off by a former Royal Bank economist.

Accordingly, we must note the fact that £2 billion is not being spent on dumping student debt, which is one of the most dishonest election promises ever made by a political party in this country. It contravened every single principle of moral hazard, and if the policy had been implemented, it would have had a devastating effect on funding for other aspects of higher education. We must also note the failure to implement grants for first-time home buyers. That was another ludicrous, ill-judged and dishonest promise that was never going to see the light of day, and it was duly killed off in barely half a sentence by Nicola Sturgeon in her statement to Parliament on housing in June last year.

We particularly note—and enthusiastically welcome—the abandonment of the local income tax. Contrary to the Government's assertions, that had nothing to do with the parliamentary arithmetic which, on the local income tax issue, demonstrates that one motion was passed and another was lost. The proposal hung in the balance, and in terms of the parliamentary arithmetic, there was all to play for. In reality, the abandonment of local income tax had nothing to do with arithmetic, and everything to do with the fact that the policy was legally incompetent, fiscally illiterate and financially inept. The basic sums simply did not add up, and they never did, either before or since the current financial crisis began. The policy was condemned by every single business organisation in Scotland as well as by many others who responded to the consultation document.

If the Scottish Government gives up the fight on local income tax at the first whiff of grapeshot, with a parliamentary vote so delicately balanced, we should perhaps expect total capitulation in the face of the parliamentary vote tonight, when the Parliament will decisively reject the SNP's referendum bill proposal. Perhaps, however, the situation will be one in which arithmetic will provide the flimsiest of excuses for a retreat on one policy but will be ignored in favour of a wasteful, kamikaze divisive approach to another.

On "The Politics Show" on Sunday, Michael Russell said that the issue should be taken to a vote in the Parliament. We will not disappoint him—we will have a vote tonight. The real issue is whether he will pay any attention to the result and drop the proposal for a referendum bill, so that we can get on with the compelling and overriding priority for Scotland: tackling the effects and consequences of the recession.

I have already commented on the ill-fated first-time buyer grants policy, which bit the dust so unceremoniously, but there are other aspects of housing policy on which the Government's attitude and approach is perverse, to say the least. Earlier this week, a Scottish Government press release stated that Nicola Sturgeon had written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer,

"urging him to take 'radical steps' and deliver new housing investment through the 2009 Budget."

She said that the UK Government must inject at least £500 million to invigorate Scotland's house building industry, and she claimed that

"Within our limited powers, the Scottish Government is doing all it can to build more homes, support the construction industry and keep the economy moving."

However, the short answer is that the Government is certainly not doing all that is within its powers to increase investment in housing. As we pointed out—not for the first time—in a debate last month, the Government is wilfully turning a blind eye to the £2 billion that Her Majesty's Treasury has put on the table to wipe out our councils' accumulated housing debt in return for their transferring—with the consent and approval of their tenants—their stock to community-based housing associations. That would facilitate a level of new investment in affordable housing in Scotland that would more than match the £500 million that Nicola Sturgeon is demanding.

Frankly, given her Government's pathetically passive, if not downright hostile, approach to stock transfer, she has a cheek to demand more money from the Treasury. There is more money on offer from the Treasury, but the Government wilfully refuses to accept it. As we know, however, brass neck has never been in short supply in the SNP. For that reason, I support the motion and the Liberal Democrat amendment.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

When it comes to election manifesto commitments on schools—[ Interruption. ]

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I am very sorry. I got my Smiths mixed up. I call Margaret Smith.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 10:26 am, 5th March 2009

How could you, Presiding Officer?

I welcome the opportunity to speak—more than I did 20 seconds ago—and to reflect on the Government's performance as we approach the halfway mark in this session. Mr Gibson challenged our record in Government, but Liberal Democrats are happy to stand on our record of scrapping tuition fees, introducing proportional representation for local government and investing in schools and the police throughout Scotland—not to mention the record of a previous Liberal UK Government, which introduced the old-age pension. I am sure that everybody in the chamber welcomes that.

We will work with the Government on a programme of economic recovery. We proved that in the recent budget discussions. We will support the Government when it brings forward the right policies for Scotland, be it scrapping the graduate endowment or revisiting the legislation on additional support for learning, as we did in a consensual debate yesterday. I say that just to remind people that we can be consensual.

We accept that there are ways in which the constitutional situation can be changed to help our constituents directly, which is why we set up the Calman commission and encouraged the Government to engage with it so that we can work together to secure borrowing powers and more. This is why we want more powers for the Parliament—so that we can make a difference for our constituents. This is not the time to focus on a referendum, which would further destabilise Scotland and the United Kingdom at a critical time.

In the chamber three weeks ago, the First Minister claimed that the SNP had achieved almost half its headline manifesto commitments, yet to my knowledge no list has been provided. I am sure that the Government would provide such a list if it could back up its claim. Evidence of the commitments that it has failed to achieve or abandoned altogether is much more forthcoming.

Education has been one of the most disappointing areas for Government U-turns. This week, it was the legislative presumption against rural school closures that got the heave. [Interruption.] That is not to say that we did not welcome that. Early in the Government's term, the flagship education policy of dumping student debt was unceremoniously dumped. It was abandoned by the SNP without any attempt to build support in Parliament or to bring the matter to the chamber. That pattern has been repeated over and over again. Key election commitments have been dropped without a fight, including the local income tax and the £2,000 that the SNP promised to first-time buyers.

We are living with a minority Government that governs by assertion. No wonder it is now trying to pretend that it never made the debt pledge to students in the first place. In March 2008, Fiona Hyslop told "Politics Now" that the SNP never promised to write off student debt. Does she really expect students to forget that "Dump the debt" was emblazoned on every leaflet and badge across every campus in the country? Scotland's students remember that, and they know a U-turn when they see one. Unfortunately, many of them failed to recognise an undeliverable election bribe when they saw it.

During the election, the SNP also clearly promised class sizes of 18 in primaries 1 to 3 by 2011, but it is now clear that there is no obligation on councils to deliver that, and we now hear that only 13 per cent of pupils in P1 to P3 are being taught in classes of 18 or fewer. Surely the Government has to admit that it has, to all intents and purposes, abandoned that commitment as well.

What about the commitment to match brick for brick the previous Executive's school-building programme, which led to improvements throughout Scotland? In government, the SNP has allowed building projects that were started under the previous Executive to continue while allowing new projects to stall due to delays and uncertainties because of the disaster and failure that is the Scottish Futures Trust. Only after budget negotiations with the Liberal Democrats did the Government decide to provide a funding stream to allow new school-building programmes to begin. Let me make our position crystal clear: we want the capital infrastructure that will revitalise our economy, deliver better services and guarantee work for our construction industry to be built. At present, we are able to take advantage of affordable land and homes. Edinburgh alone needs 12,000 homes in the next 10 years. There are opportunities, but the Government is failing to grasp them.

That lack of vision is part of my particular criticism of the Government. At every turn, it seems to be prepared to compromise and settle for the adequate. It said no to a direct rail link to Edinburgh airport, no to a multimodal crossing of the Forth, and no to the investment that is required to meet Edinburgh's need for affordable housing. The Government grabs the easy option—the populist trinkets and baubles that will sparkle for a moment in a press release, but which will ultimately fade. It grabs the easy option with an unquenchable ability to blame others for its failures, whether they are local authorities, the Opposition, "spivs and speculators" or, more usually, the UK Government. However, time and again it is the Government's own promises that are discarded—for example, on kinship care allowances or the provision of nursery teachers. Time and again, it lets us down.

The SNP inherited record numbers of police officers, but it is now clear that it will not meet its manifesto commitment to have 1,000 extra police officers. It has been rehashing, rephrasing and recalculating that pledge since it got into office, but the bottom line is that it promised 1,000 extra police officers by 2011. If there are not 17,265 police officers on the streets of Scotland by May 2011, ministers will have failed. We know it, and the people know it. It is only the SNP that thinks that Scots cannot count.

The SNP may say that it has had to abandon some of its policies because there has been no majority for them in the Parliament, but if that was true, surely it would have abandoned its plans for independence and a referendum. There is certainly no majority in the Parliament—or in Scotland, for that matter—for a referendum. Members of the Parliament from the Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour parties stood on manifesto commitments against independence and against referendums. That is the majority that was elected to this place. Not for the first time, the SNP Government has managed to forget that point, but it is not the majority. It does not have some God-given right to expect something different from those of us who were elected on a commitment not to have a referendum on independence. That is indeed what we will vote for in the Parliament.

Now is not the time to waste efforts on a referendum bill. People throughout Scotland badly need Government support and realistic policies that will make a difference. The Government has dropped the local income tax proposal and the student debt pledge. Only one flagship policy remains, and it is time to drop that, too. The Government should drop its referendum bill. I urge members throughout the Parliament to vote for the Liberal Democrat amendment, which proposes that the Government do just that.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 10:33 am, 5th March 2009

Many of the 1.2 million people who voted SNP during the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections marked their crosses on the ballot paper in the belief that the SNP Government would deliver 1,000 more police officers in addition to the 16,265 it inherited from the previous Government, but it is becoming clear that the SNP Government will fail to deliver on its promise.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I will give way in a moment.

Let us be fair in this respect. Many of us on the Labour seats are fair and reasonable individuals—Margaret Curran, Johann Lamont and Hugh Henry, among others. We can be reasonable, and we accept that the Government faces many challenges in delivering its manifesto commitments. The SNP Government has created a niche market in blaming the Opposition when the going gets tough. Let us be clear—we do not oppose the Government's plan to deliver 1,000 more police officers than it inherited, but what we need from the Government is for it to show humility, and not the projection study that Nicola Sturgeon mentioned.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

In the spirit of fairness—although I would not be entirely convinced by the members whom Paul Martin cited as evidence of that—does he accept that the projection study that the cabinet secretary mentioned today will give us the answer once and for all? I am sure that the member will be glad that we will all know the answer.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I will not take lectures from Mike Russell on fairness.

Today's debate gives the SNP Government the opportunity to say that it is sorry to the Scottish people for its broken promises, including the failure to deliver an increase in the number of police officers to 17,265 by 2011. I sense that some SNP members are perplexed by my comments, but they have this opportunity to rebut what I have said. I see that both Kenny Gibson, who is an ambitious back bencher, and Nigel Don, who is a veteran member of the Justice Committee, are in the chamber. They have this opportunity to rebut my comments by confirming that the Government will have 17,265 police officers in place as per the SNP's manifesto commitment. I will welcome a rebuttal from Kenny Gibson on that point.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

We said that we would deliver 1,000 extra police officers by the end of the parliamentary session and I expect us to do that. We have delivered 441 additional officers in less than two years, so there is no reason why we cannot reach 1,000. I am sure that the projection will show that we are on course to do that.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I welcome that point from the ambitious back bencher, Kenny Gibson. I wonder what that commitment will do to his career. We can watch with interest.

SNP members also have the opportunity to correct me if I am wrong in saying that, of the 441 police officers to whom Kenny Gibson referred, 197 were recruited by money that was provided by local authorities. In press reports earlier this week, rather than express his thanks to local authorities for making sacrifices in their budgets to bail him out, Mr MacAskill sought to put the SNP's spin on the very little progress that has been made and on the budgetary commitments that the Government has failed to make. As I have said on many previous occasions, it is unacceptable that the SNP Government should claim that its interventions have made a difference to police numbers. I have a restricted document with me today that confirms that, despite the SNP Government's conditioning of the public message, the SNP's interventions have not made a difference on police numbers. The document shows that many of our police authorities intended to review their recruitment levels regardless of the Government's intervention.

On previous occasions, many members have asked why the Labour Party did not promise to deliver 1,000 extra police officers, so I remind them that making the promise is easy, but delivering on the promise is the challenge. The people will judge the Government not on the promises that it made but on the broken promises on which it has not delivered. I remind Tricia Marwick that, although that might be what the SNP Government stands for, that is not what the Labour Party stands for. We stand for honesty and for giving the people of Scotland manifesto commitments on which we will deliver.

On tackling alcohol abuse, there can be no doubt that the Scottish Government—through the offices of Kenny MacAskill—has grabbed many of the headlines. One of those has been that the polluter should pay. In August 2007, Mr MacAskill said:

"The effects of alcohol on our city and town centres is not cost free and those who profit from it must contribute to addressing it. It's not right that taxpayers pick up the whole of the bill, licensees should pay their way too."

Such a "get tough" message on alcohol abuse from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has received support on previous occasions from those of us on the Labour benches. During the passage of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, I lodged an amendment that would have allowed us to ensure that the polluter pays, but my amendment was opposed by Fergus Ewing and Bruce Crawford. Because of their opposition, we were unable to introduce that polluter-pays principle. Mike Rumbles—whom I see on the other side of the chamber—will recall that amendment. The polluter-pays principle is not accepted by all members of the Scottish Government, which is divided on the issue. I remind the Government that opposition to the polluter-pays principle came not from the Labour benches but from the SNP benches.

In conclusion, I call on the Parliament to support the motion in the name of Johann Lamont.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 10:39 am, 5th March 2009

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I think that voters look for three things in election manifesto commitments on schools: they want our children to be able to read, write and count properly; they want good classroom discipline; and they want our children to have a well-rounded education, which goes well beyond what happens inside the classroom.

What is the reality of the SNP's school report card? Remarkably, the SNP's manifesto made no mention of the words "literacy" and "numeracy". Notwithstanding that glaring omission, we have been reassured in Parliament on countless occasions that improving literacy and numeracy is at the heart of the Government's schools strategy. So it should be, not least because of the vast number of academic studies that have identified that Scotland should be doing so much better, especially in the later years of primary school. That point was clearly agreed in our very first debate of 2009, when the Parliament unanimously supported a Conservative amendment

"to ensure that pupils in Scotland are properly schooled and tested in the basic skills of literacy and numeracy by the end of primary 7"

After that debate, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning said that she was particularly pleased by the consensus that had been demonstrated throughout the debate about the need to maintain a strong focus on improving literacy and numeracy skills from the early years. Good. However, as a result of Parliament's resolution, the cabinet secretary has an obligation to take action on testing literacy and numeracy by the end of primary 7. We do not need more testing in terms of quantity: we need more rigorous testing that cannot be misinterpreted, held back, pushed forward or diluted as the political mood suits.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I agree thoroughly with Elizabeth Smith, but can she outline how she would deal with pupils who fall below the qualifying standards?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I can provide Margo MacDonald with an article that I wrote for The Times Educational Supplement , in which I deal with that matter.

On school discipline, the SNP said clearly that it did not believe that Labour had tackled the issue effectively. In opposition, Fiona Hyslop made strong pleas for regular publication of statistics showing the levels of serious indiscipline in schools, but in government she will not hear of that because, she claims, it is far too difficult to get comparable statistics.

Well—let me give the SNP some comparable statistics: physical assaults with a weapon increased from 286 in 2006-07 to 366 in 2007-08; physical and verbal assaults on school staff rose from 6,398 in 2006 to 9,121 in 2007; 126,000 school days have been lost to exclusions and, in a staggering 85 per cent of cases, it seems that no other educational provision is made. However, there has still been no SNP-led Parliament debate on school discipline. Despite the fact that discipline issues are at the very top of the agenda for teachers and teaching unions, nothing has been done to tackle the problem. "Never mind," says the SNP, "because smaller class sizes will be a far more effective way of addressing both the 3Rs and discipline issues." This is the SNP's great flagship policy:

"We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less"— although I think that it meant to say "or fewer".

What happened? Only four local authorities said that they could deliver the policy with existing resources. The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland said that the policy, which the SNP costed at £40 million, would cost more like £422 million. In 15 of the 32 single outcome agreements, no mention is made of class size policy. Worse, this week it was revealed that the rate of progress was precisely 0.9 per cent, at which rate the policy would take 22 parliamentary sessions to be delivered. That makes a complete mockery of the SNP's policy and its concordat.

If that is not enough, there are similar stories to tell about failures to deliver on crumbling school buildings, teacher employment numbers, school meals, physical education—which I see is being called "motivation" this morning—and access to a full-time nursery teacher. That is a shameful record, for which the Scottish Government should apologise unreservedly to parents, pupils and teachers.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 10:44 am, 5th March 2009

First, I thank Margaret Smith for reminding us that the Liberals were once in government somewhere. She has made me feel younger than I have ever felt before.

I know that Opposition members need to do something with their debating time, but to set aside a whole morning's debate on our alleged failures, when we would need—and I am being kind—debate after debate after debate to examine their failures, is a waste of our time. I refer to the eight unimaginably dull years of Labour's marriage of convenience with the Liberal Democrats. We are having this debate against the background of 13 years of Labour mismanagement from Westminster, where, as we all know, the real power lies—as the current depression demonstrates. We have had 13 years—unlucky for the Scottish people. Let us hope that Gordon "Blunder" Brown, who is clinging to hopes of redemption by shamelessly fawning at the feet of Barack Obama and coorying up to Congress, calls a general election soon.

It is unfortunate that Johann Lamont is not here. In her heroic and desperate spin on Labour failure she tried to body-swerve the economic disaster of that financial guru and saviour of the financial world, hapless Gordon. Unfortunately for Gordon, he is at odds once again with Alistair Darling, who knows blame when he sees it, unlike Gordon or Harriet Harman, who, trapped like a rabbit in the media headlights, said blindly that Sir Fred Goodwin—who was knighted by Labour for services to banking—will not receive his pension because Gordon says so. That is okay then. I look forward to the Sir Fred Goodwin stripped of his pension retrospectively bill being introduced soon at Westminster.

As Gordon Brown swans around the States desperate to look relevant, Scotland's economy and jobs crash. Without real financial powers in Scotland, we are fire fighting. As jobs are lost and marriages end under the burden of debt, this Government has to pick up the pieces for people who are made homeless and whose health, happiness and future crack under the strain. It is our health service that will pick up the pieces.

What a bare-faced cheek to turn on this Government, which faces a further £500 million Westminster cut in its budget. That is completely the wrong way forward.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

Dear me. Compliments from the SNP—I should be worried. What does Mrs Grahame say about the 25,000 jobs that have been lost as a result of the failure to introduce the Scottish Futures Trust?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Mr Whitton should look at the crash of jobs that will take place week after week in Scotland. What he has just said is a prime example of his failure to recognise that the problems for Scotland start with London control.

Just for the record, Andy Kerr told me that Mr Whitton was a rising star.

The economy needs stimulating through infrastructure investment and there are strains and stresses in our rented sector, housing and the NHS.

When it was in power, Labour failed to get attendance allowance back when Scotland introduced free personal care—that is £40 million down the tubes. We would not even get our council tax benefit back if we introduced local income tax—another £450 million down the tubes.

It is unfortunate that David McLetchie is not in the chamber. He moaned about housing, but £500 million went on the trams in Edinburgh, which are absolutely hated. It is as rare as hen's teeth to find somebody living in the capital city who wants the trams—and the cost is rising.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

The member has just met someone living in the capital city who has the vision to see why we should have a proper tram system and who looks to this Government for enough money to provide it.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

As members know, I am very friendly with Margo MacDonald, but I have not checked her teeth recently. People in the capital city who support the trams project know that it is turning into a fiasco.

We must not forget the Borders railway. Mike Rumbles, who listed all the transport projects, would not let me intervene. For 30 years, David Steel—from boy to Lord Steel of Aikwood—did not deliver a railway in the Borders—that is the Liberal Democrat legacy. This Government put money into the structures that are being put in place.

The Liberal Democrats have been exposed as anything but the party of democracy. John Farquhar Munro has been sent into exile—perhaps to bury the metaphorical cow, we shall never know—but he is not allowed here today to speak freely for the party of democracy.

Even Tavish Scott said, of the constitutional future of Scotland, in The Scotsman on 27 August 2008:

"I am not intuitively against making sure that people have a choice and an opportunity to cast a vote on these things."

Where is Tavish Scott today? What do the Liberals believe in? We do not know.

Another figure has been banished from the chamber. Where is Wendy Alexander now?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I beg her pardon. She has arrived. I am delighted to take an intervention from the not-forgotten Wendy Alexander, who said, "Bring it on." The Labour Party is not saying that anymore; it is supporting all the other unionists.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Why did the SNP not take the opportunity when it was given it?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

We are taking it. Wendy Alexander can vote with us tonight and reject her party's motion. She should join us—we are on her side.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 10:50 am, 5th March 2009

Had my amendment been selected, I would have tried to persuade my friends and acquaintances, and others in the Government, that when they are in a hole they really should stop digging. The referendum was proposed about a decade ago, when the SNP was not cutting too much mustard. It was a bad idea then to try to short-circuit an honest campaign of information about the merits of independence and it is an even worse idea now, given current global political and economic affairs.

Had my amendment been selected, I would also have tried to appeal to my friends and opponents in the Opposition parties in the Parliament. I would have asked them to admit that the political landscape has changed dramatically since they first pounced on the SNP's ill-thought-out tactic—the referendum is a tactic, not a policy or a strategy—as a convenient stick with which to beat it. The Opposition parties also owe it to Scots to probe fundamentally many of the assumptions that marked the previous demarcation line between nationalists and unionists.

Ever since the Parliament was established, the certainty felt by many—perhaps most—members in the pro-union parties that Westminster was Scotland's best shield against comparative poverty, aggressive attack and anonymity on the world stage must have been shaken, if not shattered, by the proof of Westminster's inability to shelter us from economic storms now or in the future.

Let us have a national catch-up campaign to work out where stands Scotland in what might be a brave, and is certainly a new world order, instead of the tired old reprise of the old arguments and politicians singing the same old songs at each other.

I have always believed that we can achieve the optimum benefit for all the people who live in Scotland only if we stretch ourselves to the limit, exercise full sovereign powers, rely on our determination and imagination and accept responsibility for the effect of our actions on people outwith our borders. That is how we will grow as a community and a nation. That is what I have always wanted for Scotland, and since I have been in this Parliament that belief has grown.

How we express our unique contribution to the global economy and to internationalism must change with the times. To pick up on what Mr Rumbles said, this Parliament requires the sovereignty, or independence, to order its own priorities, whether in defence, foreign relations or social policies. The dominance of London, which was the centre of perhaps the greatest empire that the world has ever seen, lives on in folk memory and in its assumptions about how it relates to the rest of the country. We must establish equality in the union.

In the other union of which we are a part, times are a changing—perhaps we should think about changing, too. Following enlargement, countries in the European Union with a common interest are forming groups such as the Mediterranean group and the Baltic group. That is probably inevitable. Should not the offshore grouping of islands presently encompassed in the British-Irish Council respond to EU and global realpolitik by developing co-operation in policies and operations and a social union among the peoples of these islands?

If we establish sovereignty for Scotland and Wales, if that is what the Welsh want, what is to hinder the formation of a new union among the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—or a united Ireland, if that is what the communities there want—the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands? Perhaps there can even be a new style of autonomy for our island groups in the north, if that is what they want. I suggested that such co-operation could be referred to as a new union, but it would be a union of the spirit, not of the institutions and fixed furniture of Government. The latter can be overtaken by events, as we have just seen. That is one element of the educative and informative debate that the Parliament should be encouraging, in addition to the SNP Government—along with the other political parties—running a programme of information explaining the differences between devolved and sovereign powers and the impact on the work of the Parliament.

I urge my fellow MSPs not to put the cart before the horse. A referendum is a mechanism, not a holy grail or sacred flame, which, to hear some Nationalists talk these days, one would think that it was.

We need first to think about the new possibilities. When our fellow citizens have had a chance to reflect on the choices that are open to them, the time might be right to talk about having a test of opinion and a referendum.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 10:56 am, 5th March 2009

Yesterday, the Local Government and Communities Committee had the pleasure of hearing the new Minister for Housing and Communities set out his hopes for housing in Scotland. However, not even Mr Neil's dulcet tones could disguise the failures of this SNP minority Government on housing.

As we have heard, the first promise to bite the dust was that of giving all first-time home buyers a £2,000 grant. I must confess something: the SNP was right to drop that promise. The scheme was never going to work. It would have risked distorting the market and it would not have been a cost-effective use of public money. That said, I must put the question: was the SNP incompetent, or worse, in making the promise?

The biggest challenge for home owners at the moment is the risk of repossession. At best, the SNP Government has been complacent in its response to repossessions. When urged by my colleague Cathy Jamieson and other MSPs such as Ross Finnie, Margo MacDonald and Patrick Harvie to introduce the same court protections that people in England and Wales enjoy, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing said that she knew best. Despite people in England and Wales having a court protocol that ensures that repossession is a last resort and an automatic right to legal aid, Ms Sturgeon has done nothing. The Minister for Housing and Communities has now arranged to meet Mike Dailly of Govan Law Centre to discuss such issues. We can only hope that, although the cabinet secretary was not prepared to listen and act, the minister will be.

The Scottish Government might try to defend its record by claiming that the examples that I have quoted thus far relate to the private sector, over which it has no control and therefore for which it cannot be held responsible. However, it has no such defence when it comes to its record on public house building. It has caused problems for housing associations, including in terms of their development programmes.

We heard earlier from the cabinet secretary—I am sorry that she is not now in the chamber—that she is a huge and passionate supporter of the housing association movement. Despite that, she has cut the grant funding to housing associations. Individual housing associations are now having to find an average of £10,000 additional funding per unit for their development programmes. Having to find that additional money has meant that they have had to reduce the number of houses that they propose to build.

Even after hearing all the evidence in which people said that the policy was the wrong policy at the wrong time, the cabinet secretary's response was only partially to reduce the cut. The announcement in February that half the cut was to be reinstated was too little, too late. We will see the effect on completion rates in future.

Last week, the Scottish Government published figures for housing starts and completions. We all expected to see a reduction in the figures for the private sector, but the most damning figures were those for the public sector starts and completions for which this Government is responsible. In the second quarter of 2007, housing association starts were 550, and yet, by the second quarter of 2008, the figure had fallen to 320—a reduction of 230.

The figures for completion—possibly the most important figures, as they relate to houses that are ready for people to live in—also show a fall. In the first three quarters of 2007, 2,881 houses were completed and yet, in the first three quarters of 2008, the figure had fallen to 2,041—a reduction of 840, or 29 per cent. How can this Government possibly justify such a reduction, particularly as demand for housing is increasing? New build housing is important because of the increased demand for affordable housing. If we are to meet the 2012 homelessness targets, the Scottish Government needs to increase the number of new builds, not let the figure decrease.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I am interested in what the member says about the homelessness target. Does she agree with Iain Gray that the Labour Government introduced the best homelessness legislation in Scotland and then did not fund it?

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

Clearly, Ms Marwick did not listen to Iain Gray. The previous Executive built over 31,000 affordable homes.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

Perhaps Ms Marwick would like to listen to what the likes of Shelter Scotland, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, the Scottish Council for Single Homeless and the local authorities have to say. They have been warning that the 2012 target will not be reached. We are talking not about a target, but real homes for real people.

We know that one of the best ways in which to tackle homelessness is through prevention. Shelter tells us that calls to its helpline have increased by 130 per cent and yet cuts are being made to its budgets, such as to its family project in Edinburgh. What is the Scottish Government doing about that? Nothing.

In the debate, we have heard anger and frustration at the Scottish Government's lack of direction and—crucially—action. At a time of increased demand for housing, we are seeing a reduction in housing starts and completions. At a time when construction jobs are plummeting, the SNP Government has cut housing association grant funding, an action that has led to fewer jobs being available.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You should be finishing now, Ms Mulligan.

The Scottish Government needs to build more houses, provide more jobs, deal with repossessions and homelessness, and reinstate all the cuts that it has made to the housing association grant. This time, it has to take action and not just make empty promises.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party 11:02 am, 5th March 2009

In May 2007, many hoped for a new era in Scottish politics. People hoped that a minority Government would lead to a more mature, positive and constructive approach to politics in Scotland. What a small hope that was. Bizarrely, within five months, new Labour lodged a motion in which it condemned Government failures. Again, before the Government has even completed its second term, new Labour has brought forward another debate on the same issue.

So desperate is new Labour that, when the SNP Government announced that Scotland now had 440 new police officers, its spokespersons did not welcome that—oh no, they did not—but condemned it as a failure. Only new Labour could condemn a Government for achieving the halfway point in a programme prior to—not after, but prior to—it reaching the halfway point of its term in office.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

No, thank you.

The only failure is the collective failure of common sense on new Labour benches. Have Labour members never heard of the boy who cried wolf? Is the last speaker not a member of the party that increased homelessness by 50 per cent during its rule?

However, I will, in the spirit of reasonable and positive co-operation, consider Government failures. Can I think of one? It is true to say that the Government has failed on one issue: it failed to protect the Post Office from the wholesale destruction that new Labour visited upon it. The Scottish Government could not stop new Labour from stripping from the functions of the Post Office the payment of road tax, television licences and the direct payment of pensions—that list merely scratches the surface.

Members should not take my word for that. In The Guardian of 24 February, the former Labour minister, Peter Hain, said that under

"a ludicrous and unfair system of promoting competition, which I'm afraid our Government"— that is Labour, by the way—

"has been responsible for, private operators were able to provide the profitable mail services while the Royal Mail had to provide the expensive ones".

That is what a former Labour minister said about his party's policies in systematically weakening the Post Office.

Just as new Labour salami sliced the services at the Vale of Leven hospital, so too has it salami sliced the services that the Post Office provides. In both cases, the aim is the same: the destruction of a formerly effective public service. It is also true to say that the Scottish Government could not stop the new Labour initiated post office consultation, which delivered savage cuts to post offices throughout Scotland. As yet, the Scottish Government has not stopped new Labour, under the leadership of the not once but twice disgraced Lord Mandelson, privatising the Post Office—a privatisation based on spurious justifications that have been demolished by the Communication Workers Union.

We now have the bizarre example of Hugh Henry calling for the Post Office to become a people's bank while simultaneously supporting a Labour Government that is hell-bent on destroying that very organisation.

The new Labour motion condemns the Scottish Government's pursuit of the policy of independence, as if pursuit of independence is separate from the Scottish Government's commitment to seek not only to build a fairer Scotland but to contribute towards building a fairer planet.

A brief look at the foreign policy of the United Kingdom, with particular attention to the unethical policies of new Labour, clearly reveals why, if Scotland wishes to contribute to a better world, it must do so outwith, and disassociated from, the brutal foreign policies of Westminster. In Indonesia, the UK helped Suharto in his coup and the UK provided the weapons to attack East Timor. More than 1 million Indonesians and East Timorese died, with new Labour fully complicit in their murder. For seven years, the UK has been fighting in Afghanistan. The justifications that new Labour provides for that are remarkably similar to those provided by the Soviets. New Labour cannot claim that it is fighting for democracy in Afghanistan while it backs the most brutal and vicious of warlords. In respect of equality, it is now more dangerous to be a woman in Afghanistan than it was under the Taliban.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

No. Sorry, but I am short of time.

In Diego Garcia, the native people were ethnically cleansed from the island by new Labour and those people are still dying in exile in Mauritius. [Laughter.] I do not think that that is a cause for laughter. I point out to Labour members that their Government cleared those people from the island and left them to die in exile.

In Iraq, new Labour supported US sanctions. More than 1 million died, including at least 500,000 children under the age of five—Halliday and other senior United Nations officials were unequivocal that it was genocide. New Labour then started a war—another million dead and 2 million fled. New Labour can claim no moral superiority over Saddam: 2 million dead and 2 million fled.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

One moment, please, Mr Wilson. I have had a good look at the motion and the amendment and I am slightly concerned about the way in which you have moved away from what we are supposed to be discussing. It would be helpful if you could consider that and come back to the motion and the SNP's amendment—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

If you continue along these lines, I may have to consider ruling you out of order, and please do not speak while I am speaking. Thank you.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Thank you, Presiding Officer. That addresses my point of order.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, the motion and the SNP's amendment both clearly mention independence. Given that, it is right and proper that I mention the struggle for independence and discuss why it is necessary.

What reasonable person can object to the fundamental principle that the people of a nation have the right to determine its destiny in a referendum? As for unreasonable persons, there are, of course, the Liberal Democrats. They are liberal, so long as people agree with them, and they are democratic, as long as they decide what goes. Has a party ever been so inappropriately named?

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Mr Wilson should be finishing now, thank you.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government has reintroduced free education—a Government success—against new Labour opposition.

The Scottish Government's refusal to bow to new Labour's agenda of privatisation, its rejection of new Labour's unethical foreign policies and its insistence on the democratic rights of the Scots are no failure. Rather, they are a resounding success.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour 11:09 am, 5th March 2009

What a shame it is that Bill Wison did not get elected to the leadership of the SNP.

Throughout the morning, we have heard about the many areas in which the SNP minority Government is failing the people of Scotland. I will focus my brief remarks on what is probably the greatest failure of all—the utter failure of the SNP to tackle the problems facing the Scottish economy.

According to the First Minister, Alex Salmond,

"Scotland's greatest asset is our people", yet the organisation tasked with delivering training for the people, Skills Development Scotland, is in turmoil, having declared that it will have to make 160 of its staff redundant. You could not make it up. The SNP Government will have to put a PACE team into the organisation that runs the PACE teams to see whether it can find alternative jobs for the jobseekers.

Elsewhere, Scottish Enterprise has been neutered and the business gateway service is in a mess. It takes some doing to get the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Institute of Directors to combine, with many other organisations reflecting Scottish opinion, in opposing the SNP Government's flagship policy of local income tax. Despite repeated warnings that it would not work and a universal monstering in the court of public opinion, which is so favoured by Tricia Marwick, Mr Swinney ploughed on. Even as late as 2 January, he was saying:

"The Government is working towards bringing forward a bill in 2009 to abolish the unfair council tax and replace it with a fairer system of local income tax."

Last month, Mr Swinney finally bowed to the inevitable and announced that he was abandoning SNP plans to introduce local income tax—that is another broken promise.

Both Mr Swinney and Mr Salmond repeatedly talk of planned reductions in public spending that are due to be introduced next year. The truth is that the Scottish budget will increase in real terms over the next three years; the Scottish Government will have £100 billion to spend in that period, but we do not hear about that.

The Scottish Government does not have much to say about its Scottish Futures Trust, either; a scheme so good that no one would use anything else to fund public procurement—the SNP even said that it would pay for the new Forth bridge. Fourteen months later Scotland is still waiting for the SFT. Meanwhile, the pipeline of construction projects has dried up and 25,000 jobs—yes, 25,000, Christine Grahame—have been lost.

What we have in the current SNP economic policy is an SNP-started, Swinney-supported, Sturgeon-sanctioned, Salmond slump that has cost Scotland dear in jobs lost and missed investment opportunities; it is a massive failure in economic policy. Each P45 received by a Scottish worker has "delivered by the SNP" stamped on it.

Labour produced a 15-point plan to stimulate the Scottish economy. It was so good that Mr Swinney plagiarised most of it, but he has not implemented all of it. There is more to do and he should be doing it. Only yesterday, the Treasury and the Scotland Office pointed the way for the SNP Government to pay for the new Forth crossing—once again, devolution is delivering.

The true test of the SNP's economic policy is whether the SNP means what it says about the people of Scotland being the country's greatest asset and delivering for them.

If everything is so wonderful in the SNP's la-la land and Labour is so unpopular, how does Tricia Marwick explain the Labour victory in the Glenrothes by-election, in the heart of her constituency? The good people of Fife know when they have been conned, and the people of Scotland know it too. Their verdict on the SNP council and the SNP Government is that it has failed.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 11:13 am, 5th March 2009

There is no doubt that many people voted for the SNP in the 2007 election on the basis of a series of high-profile and clear policies. It was not a groundswell for independence. People were more concerned about education and their children's schools, policing in their communities and the fairness of local taxation. [ Interruption. ] Mr Gibson, who is already intervening from a sedentary position, et al on the SNP benches cited the support for a referendum of my friend John Farquhar Munro, Lord Ashdown, Lord Forsyth and Wendy Alexander but, as Margo MacDonald reminded us, we should not conflate a tactic with a belief in independence. We could equally look at what Michael Russell, who is summing up in the debate, said about the SNP's European policy in 2004. He said:

"at the time of independence, we should have a referendum on continued membership, fairly argued and with equal resources on both sides. Then Scotland will decide."

Does the Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution still agree with the member who was standing for the leadership of his party? A free vote in the SNP on that issue may well be his next call, and I am glad to see that the debate on NATO has resumed on the SNP back benches.

If there were a parliamentary majority in this place for such measures, the debate would be different, but there is not—as will be amply demonstrated at decision time. All that we ask is that the SNP uses the same arguments that it has used for student debt and for local income tax when it comes to the tactic of a referendum.

At a time when gross domestic product figures are telling us that the recession will be longer and deeper in Scotland than it will be in any other part of the UK, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government must stand up, listen and act strongly. A separation debate is not the response to a long and deep recession in Scotland. We should be looking more to Catalonia than to Quebec for an international example.

The SNP amendment calls for the "lively" continuation of the national conversation, but the ministerial blogs that were so frequent in 2007 are rather quieter in 2009. Through a freedom of information request, we found out that, before the collapse of the Icelandic economy, more than 100 references to Iceland were made in internal Scottish Government documents; in the three months that followed the collapse, there was only one such reference. In Norway, income tax on middle-income earners is 15 per cent higher than it is in Scotland. In Ireland, a crisis budget has been put forward.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I will give way to Professor Harvie later, if I have time.

Are Norway and Ireland the models for us to follow? The Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution said in the foreword to his book "Grasping the Thistle":

"becoming independent is very different now for Scotland than it was, for example, a century ago for Norway or Ireland."

Perhaps his co-author wrote that part. The minister suggested on Sunday that his co-author wrote most of the dangerous parts of the book.

Nicola Sturgeon said that Scotland needs sovereignty over fiscal power. However, the SNP Government would keep the pound sterling before entering the euro zone. The cabinet secretary said that Scotland should have sovereignty over all economic policy, but the SNP would keep the Bank of England and British interest rates.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

The member has just illustrated the point that I wanted to make. Those arguments stopped when chaos hit the international money markets. We do not need to have those arguments any more; we have moved on.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

It is unfortunate, but 47 members of the Parliament are not listening to Ms MacDonald. There might well be an opportunity for people whose approach is more gradualist to engage in a proper debate, and the route for that might well be through the Calman process, into which the SNP has been dragged kicking and screaming. We do not know whether Margo MacDonald is joining the Liberal benches as a new federalist. The question is how we take forward the Scottish economy in a recession that will be longer and deeper here than it will be in other parts of the UK. The situation is not helped by the grinding to a halt of infrastructure projects under the current Administration, which happened before the recession started.

The SNP Government does not acknowledge its responsibility. It blames councils if they do not do what it wants them to do, and it blames the UK Government at all other times. The SNP will never say that it has received a sufficient budget from Westminster. Westminster was being blamed even when Alex Salmond was praising the management of HBOS in September and committing £100 billion that he did not have from a Scottish central bank that it was not his policy to establish. The credibility of a key plank of the SNP's argument has gone.

Local income tax was supposed to be a talisman that would create the kind of society that the SNP wanted. Clear promises were made to students to dump their debt. The Forth replacement crossing was to be paid for by patriotic Scottish families, who would buy patriotic Scottish bonds through the Scottish Futures Trust. All those policies, which were critical to the Government's core programme, are in shreds—and I have not mentioned class sizes and other policies.

We will work with the Government on areas on which there is common ground. However, our minority Government has a majority ego, which at times is hard to stomach. The SNP cannot call for greater sovereignty over Scottish affairs if it will not take responsibility for decisions that are within its power.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 11:19 am, 5th March 2009

What has been described as stage 1 of the referendum (Scotland) bill is drawing to an end. It was predictable that the debate would generate more heat than light, but the debate has had the remarkable effect of uniting in a common purpose members of greatly contrasting views. Who would have thought that we would find united under one banner Murdo Fraser and Johann Lamont, David McLetchie and Mike Rumbles, and me and Margaret Curran? That is a situation that I think will make Margaret Curran even more uncomfortable than it makes me.

Members on the Conservative benches are fair. As Murdo Fraser said, it has not all been failure. I am quite sincere when I say that progress has been made towards a replacement Forth crossing; the burden of business rates for small businesses has been alleviated; a new drugs policy is being introduced; and there is a £60 million commitment to a town centre regeneration scheme.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I am coming to that.

However, a review of the Government's record, under almost any heading, is a depressing exercise. Many sections of Scottish society will be bitterly disillusioned, including students, teachers, parents and victims of crime. The SNP's culpability lies not in its inability to fulfil its promises but in the making of those promises in the first place, when there was not a scintilla of hope of their being fulfilled. In economic and financial terms, some of the promises that the SNP made were abject nonsense. The SNP's failure has been brought about not by the lack of a parliamentary majority but by promising policies that were never going to work. That lesson must be brought home to the SNP.

On education, the SNP has left a string of broken promises on class sizes, teacher numbers and student debt. The SNP said in its manifesto:

"it's time to dump student debt."

That commitment was dumped. The SNP said:

"We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils".

There has been little progress on that, and the SNP's failure to make a legislative commitment to the policy indicates that it ain't going to happen.

The SNP's promise to maintain teacher numbers despite falling school rolls is inconsistent with a situation in which one in five student teachers cannot find a job, as we heard as recently as December.

On justice, there has been scant regard for the victims of crime. I concede that there has been progress on police numbers, given the number of officers who are coming out of Tulliallan, but the SNP had to be dragged kicking and screaming to agree in last year's budget to increase the 2007 figure by 1,000. How the SNP achieves that is for the SNP, but the money has been allocated for that purpose and the increase simply must be achieved.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I am sorry. I am short of time.

The SNP, with its soft-touch-Scotland approach, has failed to appreciate the difficulties that victims of crime experience. The irresponsible use of home detention curfew to reduce prison numbers is shocking. Tomorrow, we will learn the precise terms of the criminal justice and licensing bill, which I suspect will resemble a neds' charter in many respects. The SNP has floated unrealistic proposals on licensing, which will not find a majority in the Parliament and would not help to address the problem that they are intended to address, which is tragic.

Government is about priorities. Surely, a major priority was the SNP's commitment to first-time home buyers. What happened to that? It was binned, because it was never practically possible. The commitment to local income tax was binned, because in financial terms it was arrant nonsense.

There is no demand for independence. At a time of acute financial difficulty, the like of which the country has never experienced, the SNP is going off on a frolic of its own. I have seen no credible canvass of public opinion that suggests that there is more than 25 per cent support for independence.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

It is too late.

The SNP won the 2007 election—just—and I concede that it had a spectacular result in the by-election for the Glasgow East Westminster constituency, but those results were more a commentary on the unpopularity of the Labour Government than an indication of a popular wish for independence.

We may have differing ideas around the chamber as to how to sort out the economic problems that we face. Whose fault the problems are can perhaps be debated another day, but they cannot wait for us to address them. Mr Russell in particular should apply his undoubted energies and abilities not to this frolic of his own but to introducing, in conjunction with his colleagues, cogent plans for improving Scotland's economy.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 11:25 am, 5th March 2009

As this is my first opportunity to talk about my future frolic, I look forward to it very much indeed. I do not know what it will do for me, but it is certainly making a great deal of money for my publishers. I know that they are profoundly grateful.

I have a certain sense of déjà vu this morning, because we have had so many of these debates in the past. To be entirely fair, we had them when the SNP was in opposition and now we have them when Labour is in opposition. However, perhaps none has been as gloomy as this one, which was led, of course, by the rainmaker of Scottish politics, Johann Lamont, a woman who can conjure up the blackest of clouds out of the bluest of skies. I have to say that I was beginning to lose the will to live after about a minute and a half of that.

However, a shaft of light came eventually from an unlikely source: Mary Mulligan. She talked about the debate being the result of pent-up "anger and frustration." Indeed, that is true and it shows up, I am afraid, the rather nasty side of what used to be called the people's party. The pent-up anger and frustration are not in the Scottish people, as Mary Mulligan indicated, but in the 46 Labour MSPs, whose sense of historic inevitability about their right to rule was shattered in May 2007. Until they recognise what they have done wrong, they will be unable to do anything right—I give them that useful contribution.

I have long believed that what people in Scotland want is a positive approach to politics. They want ambition in Scotland. They do not want to be talked down to; they want to be talked up. What we have heard from every Labour speaker today, alas, is simply a talking down. It is frustration that they are not sitting in the Government seats in the chamber. However, the reason why they are not sitting in these seats is that they did so little so badly when they were here.

I will devote most of my attention to the issue of the referendum. The Liberal Democrat amendment is a dangerous and worrying one that needs to be tackled seriously, so I will tackle it very seriously indeed. Before I do so, let me just say a word or two about infrastructure. We could talk about a range of other things, but nothing that we have heard about specific policies is true, so let us put that to one side.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Can the Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution list the SNP Government's achievements on its promises on schools?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Well, £2 billion-worth of investment is where we start, but I would ask Rhona Brankin to look in the mirror, view the achievements of a Government of which she was a member and then have a period of silence—something that Ms Brankin is not good at but from which she would learn.

Before we come to the issue of basic democracy, let me just touch on the issue of infrastructure. I was very interested to see that both the opening and closing Liberal Democrat speakers talked about the need to drive forward infrastructure and the terrible delays in the system that were being caused by the Government. That is certainly one of the things that we read about in Scottish local papers. For example, there have been calls for work on, to name but a few, a Nairn bypass; the Laurencekirk junction; accelerating the Aberdeen bypass; an Elgin bypass; the A9, A96 and A82; dualling the A9 north of Inverness; the Leadburn junction in Peeblesshire; and a Selkirk bypass on the A7 from Ladylands to Bridgeheugh. How exactly all that equates with the views of Nick Clegg, who said that the Liberal Democrats would pay for £20 billion of cuts by cutting major road projects by 90 per cent, does not appear easily understandable. Nor does it fit well with the views of Tavish Scott, who believes that the Scottish Government is being far too conservative in looking for savings in infrastructure projects. I am afraid that, on this matter as on many others, the Lib Dems appear to say one thing in the pages of "Focus" and quite another when they speak in Parliament.

The real worry about the Lib Dem amendment, however, is contained in a single sentence that Mike Rumbles used earlier. He said that it was a "betrayal of democracy" to allow people to vote. What a curious view to have.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I said no such thing. If the minister checks the Official Report when it is published, he will find that I said no such thing. We live in a representative parliamentary democracy. We are the representatives of the people.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Well, I think that my ears did not deceive me. We shall find out, but I hope that I am correct. However, even if Mike Rumbles's words were not exactly as I said, the implication was there that it was a betrayal of democracy to allow people to vote.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I believe that it is a disgrace. I am glad that Mr Rumbles agrees. Self-censorship is a wonderful thing. Now he will be able to look back.

It is 10 years since the Parliament came into being. We all remember those words of Donald Dewar when the Parliament opened:

"'There shall be a Scottish Parliament'—I like that."

Everybody at the Parliament's opening accepted that we were involved in a process, not an event. Over 10 years, the Parliament has learned a lot. Devolution has had its ups and downs—not the nonsense of today's debate but the real ups and downs of dealing with the governance of Scotland. After a decade, it is entirely legitimate to ask what should be next. Indeed, I remember the Liberal Democrats and others saying that there should be a time to consider how the Parliament works, then we should look forward. The period that they set for doing that was a decade. We have had that decade, and now we take things forward.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

From a sedentary position, Mr Rumbles shouts, "Calman!" Let me say that there is a range of views. A real democrat, let alone a real liberal, would encourage a range of views to come forward.

I want the people of Scotland to be given the facts. Knowing those facts, they can then choose how they want to go forward.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I am sorry, but I must make progress.

It is far from a betrayal of democracy to allow people to vote on the facts. It is, indeed, the triumph of democracy to ensure that people are given the facts and then go forward.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I am sorry, but I will not.

I go further and say that it is our duty as elected representatives to do exactly as I described, particularly when times are hard. Indeed, the history of constitutional change shows that, when times are hard, people need to look for the weapons that they need to argue for their future, to defend themselves in the international world and to ensure that they have the economic powers that can help them to survive. Those are the things that the Parliament needs and the issues that we need to discuss. The facts about that are what we need to put to the Scottish people.

That is the job that I intend to do because it is about empowerment. It is about empowering the Scottish people and extending Scottish democracy. The Parliament's job is not to spend time on political navel-gazing that is born of resentment and bitterness, which is what we have seen. That is an irrelevance to the Scottish people. What we need to do is raise the ambitions and expectations of the Scottish people. We do that by telling them the truth about where we will go.

The Lib Dem amendment is an insidious thing. We see in the Labour motion the usual girn and complaint. Labour has nothing to contribute to Scotland's future. However, if the Lib Dem amendment is really the will of the Parliament, it is an insidious attack on democracy. It is tacit support for Labour cuts and an undermining of the prospects of the Scottish people for their entire future. I will not be complicit in that. I came into politics to help the Scottish people and I will continue to do so.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour 11:34 am, 5th March 2009

I, too, came into politics to help the Scottish people. I say to members that if that is what we are getting from Mike Russell, the Scottish people still need a lot of help.

Substantial comments have been made about the Government during the debate. I say to Mike Russell, who is a man in the SNP for whom I have some respect, that for him to dismiss in such a disgraceful manner the substantial points that elected members of Parliament have made about health, education and housing is a denial of his office.

I had hoped, perhaps vainly, that the Government would pay attention to some of the serious issues that Scotland faces. Let us cast our minds back to the election of 2007. The Government and the First Minister promised that they would seek to work with Parliament, but we have seen no evidence of that today. [Interruption.] I hope that I will not be interrupted by sedentary comments throughout my speech—such comments are another illustration of the SNP's dismissal of Parliament.

The Government promised that it would be willing to listen to evidence and to address concerns that were put to it, and that it would always pursue the national interest, but what do we have? For a Government that seeks to extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament, it seems very reluctant to use the powers that it already has. There is a minute legislative programme and policies are announced to the press before they are announced to Parliament. First Minister's questions are appropriately named, because they are definitely not First Minister's answers.

We now have enough experience of the SNP in government to know that it is prepared to ignore the will of Parliament when that suits it—for example, on a public inquiry into the terrible events at the Vale of Leven hospital. In defiance of the clear facts, it dismisses every concern about cuts as scaremongering, denying the reality that thousands of Scots experience. We have seen that clearly from both Mike Russell and Nicola Sturgeon in today's debate. Members who have come here to represent their constituents' interests have just been cast aside by the Government. That is not the job of Government, and the SNP should not do it.

Perhaps worst of all, during this global financial crisis the Government has been posted missing. That is our charge against the SNP this morning. It has made a mockery of its manifesto and its election pledges. In the debate, we have heard a litany of deceit on student debt, first-time buyers, promises on drugs and mental health funding, and local income tax. The Scottish Futures Trust is also appropriately named; presumably, it is meant to work only in the future, because it can never work in the present. I noticed that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning nodded assiduously when she was challenged on matching brick for brick Labour's record on primary schools. I look forward to the SNP matching the promise and commitment that we delivered. Off the top of my head, I can name seven new schools that were built in my constituency. I will be after the SNP on when we will get the next seven new schools from it.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

No, I will not.

The SNP's gall is breathtaking. Mike Russell thinks that all the main parties should agree to a free vote on an independence referendum. That is not in our manifesto, but we are supposed to bail out the SNP. It is not an issue of conscience—[Interruption.] Hang on—I will address the issue of a free vote.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

The SNP says that we should bail out its manifesto commitment on independence when it has shown absolutely no commitment to the rest of its manifesto commitments.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I was just about to mention Christina McKelvie. If she waits, I will come back to her in a second.

Is it not interesting what issues the SNP prioritises for a free vote? How about a free vote on a public inquiry into the C difficile outbreak at the Vale of Leven hospital? At a meeting of the Public Petitions Committee, John Wilson and Christina McKelvie voted for such an inquiry.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I am sorry, Ms Curran, but we are tight for time and you cannot take any interventions.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

What a shame—perhaps Christina McKelvie can explain another time why she buckled under instruction from Nicola Sturgeon. When it comes to honouring pledges, the SNP speaks with no credibility.

The fundamental point today is for us to recognise the changed economic circumstances in which we live. We have witnessed an SNP that wants to play at being a Government but, when times are hard, fails to raise its game to meet the demands that we face. We know that Alex Salmond used to work for the Royal Bank of Scotland, but is a man who short-sells for a living, who uses a tax haven to protect his profits and who recruited, mentored and set the tone for Fred Goodwin the right person to chair the Council of Economic Advisers? Let us not forget Alex Salmond's stunning intervention earlier in the crisis, when he said that he would have organised a £100 billion liquidity bail-out of the banks, without any consequence for the rest of us. This is the man who told us that Ireland and Iceland were the two great models for Scotland. Is it not time that the SNP acknowledged the failure of that argument?

Paul Martin was right. It is time for the SNP to say sorry—sorry for the promises that have been broken and for its presentation to the Scottish people of a list of inflated proposals that were unworkable, uncosted or undeliverable. Let us use this debate to send a clear message to the Scottish Government. Now is the time to focus on the issues that are uppermost in the minds of Scottish families. I say to Mike Russell that those issues are jobs, not an SNP referendum; public services, not SNP projection studies; investment, not SNP housing cuts; and substance, not SNP spin. These are serious times, and it is time for some honesty and proper action from the SNP Government.