Engagements

– in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd March 2011.

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Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

1. To ask the First Minister what engagements he has planned for the rest of the day. (S3F-2978)

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

Today, I have great pleasure in joining Doosan Power Systems in Renfrew to welcome its planned £170 million investment in an offshore wind research and development centre of excellence for renewables which, along with the jobs announced by Steel Engineering for the same site, will deliver more than 300 jobs for Renfrew. As the memorandum of understanding that we have signed with Doosan sets out, we expect to see 1,700 new jobs for Scotland in this great technology in which we lead the world.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Today, we meet to squeeze in two bills at the end of the First Minister’s time in government. However, thousands of Scots are still waiting for his bill to abolish their student debt. What happened to that? That was a bigger promise than the one that Nick Clegg made to students in England. It was a £2 billion promise—or, as the First Minister likes to have it, a £2,000 million promise. Did the bill just slip his mind or did he never have any intention of ever bringing it forward?

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

As Iain Gray well knows, this Government moved in legislation to abolish Labour’s back-door tuition fees in Scotland. [Applause.]

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

I am glad that the chamber is keeping up with the Labour Party positioning on the matter. In a matter of weeks, tuition fees in Scotland have gone from being “inevitable”—or so said the Labour spokesman a few weeks ago—to being the subject of a pledge on Labour’s pledge card. I welcome Iain Gray’s conversion to the principle of free education in Scotland, which the Scottish National Party has fought for, defended and introduced.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

No, Presiding Officer. Tuition fees were abolished by the Parliament in 2000. I was there, as was the First Minister, as it was just before he ran off to Westminster. I voted for the abolition of tuition fees; he abstained.

We are still waiting on the First Minister’s crazy local income tax bill, too. What happened to that? Did he run out of time or did he just realise that the idea is unfair, unworkable and unwanted? Working families would have had a 30 per cent hike in their income tax. Does he still think that that is a good idea?

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

Let us start with the record, which is important in these matters. Labour introduced back-door tuition fees. If Iain Gray had not voted for the back-door tuition fees that Labour introduced, we would not have had to abolish them in 2007. Iain Gray is not going to persuade many students that they were not paying back-door fees under the Labour Party. Of course, if the Labour Party’s position is that it introduced front-end fees only in England and just back-door fees in Scotland, it will have some difficulty with the student population, who will believe no more than anyone Labour’s last-minute conversion to free education.

Another recent Labour conversion is on the council tax freeze, which also appears on Labour’s pledge card. Labour will have to be very careful in terms of the Trade Descriptions Act if its pledge card turns out to be what the SNP delivered in office in Scotland.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Labour introduced support for students from low-income families. That is what the First Minister abolished. If he wants to, he can speak to students on the matter; they are outside the Parliament. Let us see him explain to them why he did not abolish their student debt as he promised four years ago.

Let us go to the core of Mr Salmond’s beliefs. I always thought that the First Minister was a proud separatist, so why are we still waiting on his referendum bill? We have lost count of how many times it was definitely coming to the Parliament. Now, one of the First Minister’s favourite commentators is writing that the SNP

“is no longer a serious party of separation”.

Is that true? Is that why the referendum never appeared? Has the Scottish Government had a deathbed conversion to the union?

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

I would have thought that, after so many attempts at First Minister’s questions, Iain Gray would have realised that he should not wander from subject to subject when trying to articulate questions in front of the country. The SNP’s policy of free education in Scotland has now been adopted by the Labour Party in the Parliament. I welcome that, but Iain Gray should pause for thought to wonder whether his deathbed conversion will give him any credibility with the students of Scotland. I am happy to confirm that the SNP will offer the people of Scotland the right to vote on their constitutional future.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

After 92 times at this, you would think that the First Minister would have realised that I get to choose what the questions are about, but his turn will come soon enough. Is the referendum not the problem of the past four years? For four years, the First Minister was distracted by a referendum that never was, while unemployment in Scotland raced ahead of that in the rest of the country. There was the nonsense of a national conversation, while youth unemployment soared by 350 per cent. While budgets were rising, the number of teachers and nurses was cut. Now, we have had four weeks of frantic announcements that were held back and timed for party advantage. That does not make up for four years of promises broken, schools unbuilt, projects cancelled, criminals released and thousands extra on the dole. Time is up. Has the First Minister not failed on all the issues that matter to the people of Scotland?

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

Iain Gray should get outside. I have no complaints about the questions that he reads out week after week—they are brilliant from our point of view.

Let us take Iain Gray’s claim on schools. I want to be absolutely precise about this answer. Page 26 of the Labour Party manifesto for the previous election promises 250 more schools to be built. As he will remember, we promised to match that brick for brick. I am delighted to announce that, this very evening, Michael Russell will open Goldenhill primary in Clydebank, the 330th school built by this Administration.

Iain Gray should have the grace to welcome the employment announcements that I have brought to the chamber, which are good news for Scotland. I have been looking at his record as the Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning—yes, he was the enterprise minister. In all the time in which he was enterprise minister, Iain Gray’s top employment figure in Scotland was 2,407,000. Employment in Scotland is now substantially higher than that—2,480,000. If, after a world recession in which the Labour Party played a substantial part when it was in government, we have managed to achieve an employment total—after eight months of rising employment in Scotland—that is higher than the one that Iain Gray achieved when he was enterprise minister, he should learn to welcome that achievement.

As enterprise minister, Iain Gray managed to take Scotland into recession when the rest of the world did not have one. Those employment figures are only one of the reasons why the Government will be re-elected. This morning, the Daily Record had the grace to include the welcoming, terrific announcement that the Government is on fire as it goes to the people of Scotland.