Programme for Government 2013-14

– in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd September 2013.

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Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

The next item of business is a statement by Alex Salmond on the Scottish Government’s programme for government for 2013-14. The First Minister’s statement will be followed by a debate, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

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

It is better for all of us if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by those who care most about Scotland—that is, the people who choose to live and work in our country. That is the simple but, I think, compelling truth at the heart of the case for independence, and the best evidence of it lies in the record of this Parliament.

It is now 16 years since the people of this country, in a referendum, had the confidence and belief to bring this Parliament into existence. In doing so, we as a country and as a people made a choice between two futures and between those who argued that Westminster should decide for Scotland how our schools, universities and hospitals should be run, and those who maintained that we would all benefit if decisions about Scotland were taken here in Scotland.

We now know, beyond peradventure, that taking decisions in Scotland works for individuals, families and communities. The Parliament has demonstrated our concern for the most vulnerable in society. Free personal care for the elderly directly helps more than 77,000 people across Scotland and our legislation on homelessness is seen as an example round the world. We have started to tackle Scotland’s shameful health inequalities through the ban on smoking in public places and legislation on minimum pricing for alcohol. We have helped hard-pressed families by freezing the council tax, by ending charges for prescriptions and eye and dental checks and by ending bridge tolls.

We have revived and protected the ancient and proud Scottish commitment to education by reintroducing free university and college tuition. As confirmed this very day in the first Police Scotland statistics, we have recognised communities’ concerns about crime by adding more than 1,000 additional officers and thus we have seen crime fall to its lowest level for 39 years.

All those measures, and many more, demonstrate that this Parliament is delivering for communities across the country. Conversely, we also know—also beyond peradventure—that there is a heavy cost when we leave decisions in the hands of Westminster. We get Governments that we did not vote for; we get the bedroom tax; we get cuts to capital spending in the teeth of a recession; we get attacks on the poor and on people with disabilities; and we get weapons of mass destruction on the River Clyde.

A poll published yesterday, which is confirmed by the social attitudes survey, asked people whether they trust the Scottish Parliament or the United Kingdom Parliament to take decisions for Scotland and found that 60 per cent of people in Scotland trust Holyrood compared to just 16 per cent who trust Westminster. The contrast and the choice that face the people next year could not be clearer.

This year’s legislative programme, with 13 bills in total, will continue that strong track record not just of the Government but of the Parliament. Of course, not everything that matters can be addressed through legislation, but legislation does matter. All 13 of the bills in this year’s programme will make a genuine difference to people in Scotland. They demonstrate effective governance.

One of the opportunities that is provided by devolution is to reform Scotland’s public bodies and public services to make them more efficient and better at their true role, which is serving the public. When we took office, there were 199 public bodies in Scotland; now, there are 113, which is a reduction of more than 40 per cent. The public sector landscape is less cluttered but more focused and therefore more effective. This year, we will introduce legislation to merge Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, which will enable those bodies to operate more efficiently and will enhance our ability to preserve and protect our heritage.

The focus of public authorities can be really important, especially if a vacuum is developing at UK level. In 2010, the UK Government controversially deprived the Food Standards Agency of its responsibilities for nutrition and labelling. That move was subsequently seen by Westminster’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee as contributing to the UK’s poor handling of the horsemeat scandal. Therefore, the food standards (Scotland) bill will establish a new body to take over all of the FSA’s old functions. The new body will ensure that the industry and public in Scotland can have full confidence in the safety and provenance of our food.

Several other bills this year draw on expert reviews and will ensure that our laws are up to date and that our public services are responsive and efficient.

The mental health and adults with incapacity bill will implement recommendations made by the McManus review group and others. It will improve the efficiency of mental health legislation. Importantly, for the first time, victims of mentally disordered offenders will be notified if the person who has committed a crime against them is being released from custody. Therefore, they will be able to make representations to the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland.

The damages bill will reform key aspects of the law relating to damages for personal injury, enacting recommendations made by the Scottish Law Commission. The conclusion of contracts bill will make it easier for contracts to be agreed electronically, helping to ensure that Scotland is an attractive place to do business. The bankruptcy consolidation bill will make Scottish bankruptcy law more accessible.

The courts reform bill will enable civil cases to be resolved more quickly. It will implement the proposals from Lord Gill’s Scottish civil courts review, including the establishment of a new sheriff appeal court and a specialist personal injury court. It will ensure that cases are dealt with at the right level, recognising the Court of Session’s historic role as the apex of our civil courts and delivering faster, fairer justice right across the system. It represents the most radical set of changes to the civil courts for more than a century.

One other change to the justice system will be of interest to the Parliament. We have all now accepted the need to end the system of automatic early release that was brought in by the Conservative Government in 1993 and left in place by the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition here at Holyrood. It does not command public confidence.

We are now in a position to end automatic early release for sexual offenders who are sentenced to more than four years and for serious violent offenders. That follows the work to stabilise the prison population and then reduce it over time by implementing other recommendations of the McLeish commission, such as introducing strong community-based sentences for less serious offenders. Further steps will follow as we continue the successful implementation of our justice reform programme.

The things that I mentioned—the action on food standards, the new rights for victims of mentally disordered offenders and the major improvements to the justice system—are the fruits of having our own Parliament. I can tell members from 23 years’ experience of Westminster that that Parliament only rarely had the time or inclination to respond to specific Scottish challenges or priorities.

However, those bills—that pattern of legislation—are also part of a larger story. This Parliament listens to evidence and seeks consensus where possible. It has used its powers to create opportunities for people across the country. Through the programme for government that we publish today, it will, over the course of this year, empower communities, create a fairer Scotland, accelerate economic recovery and mitigate the impact of Westminster austerity.

One of the most important bills of the next period is the community empowerment and renewal bill. The bill will strengthen community planning, simplify the operation of the community right to buy and make it easier for communities to buy public sector land and buildings. One of this Parliament’s great early achievements was the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which was introduced by a coalition Government with support from across the chamber. The Government has given new momentum to the right-to-buy provisions of that legislation. We launched the Scottish land fund, established the land reform review group and, earlier in the summer, announced a new ambition that, by 2020, the amount of land owned by the communities of Scotland would double to an impressive total of 1 million acres.

In June, we approved an application to register a community interest in land at Cape Wrath, next to the famous lighthouse. There are, in fact, two famous lighthouses at the north and south tips of our west coast. The southern one, at Mull of Galloway, came into community ownership this year; the land at Cape Wrath is now on its way to community ownership. With due respect to the Ministry of Defence, I suspect that most people in Scotland would rather that the stunning walkways of Cape Wrath—including the northern end of the new Scottish national trail—were in community ownership and freely accessible to the people than that they were an extension to a bombing range.

This year’s summer Cabinets saw additional steps to empower communities. In July, in Shetland, we established a working group to consider greater powers for the island councils. Two weeks ago, in Hawick, we facilitated the borderlands initiative, which sees Scottish Borders Council and Dumfries and Galloway Council working with northern English local authorities. Last week, in Campbeltown, we announced the establishment of a rural parliament to give greater weight to the needs and priorities of remote and rural communities.

This morning, in Dundee, I saw the importance of community empowerment in urban areas. St Mary’s community centre was created by people in the local area. They created a board, raised the funding and drove the project through. I saw one of the art workshops that the centre provides. Everyone I met was passionate about the benefits of the centre and the importance of the work that is done by the community to help itself.

When the Cabinet was in Campbeltown, I spoke about how independence offers an opportunity to renew democracy at all levels in Scotland. That is true at a national level—we can draft a written constitution affirming the most treasured values of our newly independent nation—but it also applies at a local level. Independence is not just about national institutions; it is about releasing the potential of our people and our local communities.

Our licensing bill is a further example of our commitment to stronger local powers. It improves and extends powers for local authorities in areas such as the regulation of metal dealers—a move that will help to tackle metal theft—and the licensing of taxis and private hire cars. The bill will introduce a new offence of supplying alcohol to people under the age of 18. It will also introduce a new licensing system for air weapons. Following the tragic death of Andrew Morton some years ago, there was wide support in this chamber for devolving the regulation of such weapons. Now, this Parliament can finally meet public concern over the issue and find a Scottish solution to a Scottish priority.

This Government recognises that strong public services are a bedrock on which communities and individuals rely. They are an essential part of our vision for a fairer Scotland. Since the start of the Scottish patient safety programme in 2008, standardised mortality in hospitals has fallen by almost 12 per cent. Don Berwick, who was President Obama’s adviser on healthcare and recently advised the UK Government on how to deal with the problems in the health service south of the border, said that the programme is

“without doubt one of the most ambitious patient safety initiatives in the world—national in scale, bold in aims, and disciplined in science … aligned toward a common vision, making Scotland the safest nation on earth from the viewpoint of health care”.

The programme is an outstanding example of how devolution has enabled us to protect the national health service as a genuine public national health service.

Housing is another example. The Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003 is one of the most significant commitments ever made by any Parliament anywhere to assist homeless people. In 2002, 10,000 homeless households were classed as non-priority cases, with no right to settled accommodation. This year, the figure is zero. All people who are made unintentionally homeless now have a right to settled accommodation.

The housing bill that we will introduce next year is a further step towards making decent housing available for everyone. By removing right-to-buy entitlements, the bill will protect social housing stock. It will also strengthen protection for tenants in the private rented sector by introducing new measures to deal with housing disputes and to regulate the letting industry.

The legislation forms part of a broader commitment from this Government to make decent housing accessible and affordable. During the five years of this session of Parliament, we intend to build 30,000 affordable homes, at least 5,000 of which will be council houses. For those who are interested in statistics—I suspect that that includes the whole chamber—that represents a 66,500 per cent increase on the rate of council house construction under the previous Government, when, famously, six council houses were built in four years, all of them in Shetland.

Those commitments—a truly national health service, decent affordable housing—are part of a wider vision of society that is based on cohesion, not division and on social inclusion, not stigma. That philosophy explains why we have made certain services universally available. Pensioners benefit from free bus travel—that is all pensioners. All of us have the reassurance of free personal care being available when we are older.

In 2007, we established that there were actually 600,000 people earning below £16,000 a year who were liable to pay prescription charges. Many people had to choose which prescribed medicine they could take until the Government restored a national health service free at the point of need.

Students have the right to free education, which enables them to earn and then contribute to society through a fair taxation system.

Those advances are what we like to call the social wage. Services are available to everyone, because everyone contributes to society. The same spirit has influenced other Government policies: no compulsory redundancies in the public sector; the introduction of a living wage; and the council tax freeze to help hard-pressed families.

Some people see the price of such policies, not their value. They say that those social gains are not sustainable. I say that what makes them sustainable is that they are universal—part of a social wage. If they were not universal, those in receipt of the social benefit would be separated and stigmatised, exactly as is happening with the UK Government’s welfare agenda. Far from being a something-for-nothing culture, the social wage is a contract that we have with the people of Scotland. To suggest that that is something for nothing is to mimic the bankrupt ideology that prevails in the Westminster Parliament.

The social wage also has an economic benefit. By helping to provide a secure, stable and inclusive society, the public sector will nurture and encourage the talent and ambition of the people. Scotland will be a place in which people want to invest, work and live. The social wage helps to show that prosperity and fairness gang thegither. There is no trade-off between living in a wealthy country and living in a good society.

The social wage is part of the distinctive approach that the Government has taken to supporting recovery in recent years. The Budget (Scotland) Bill will maintain that approach while continuing to drive recovery and long-term economic growth.

We will continue to protect our infrastructure investment programme in the face of the 26 per cent real-terms cut that the UK Government has made to the capital budget. We are supporting more than £10 billion of investment from 2012 to 2015; we are continuing to support key sectors of the economy, such as renewable energy, food and drink, life sciences and tourism; and we are investing in skills. We delivered more than 25,000 modern apprenticeships last year. Ninety-two per cent of those who complete an apprenticeship are still in work six months later.

The success of modern apprenticeships is one reason—just one—why youth unemployment has fallen from 113,000 to 77,000 since Angela Constance was appointed as Europe’s only youth employment minister. The figure is still far too high, but we now have one of the better rates in Europe. Across Scotland, central Government, local government, the third sector and the private sector are making young people our business.

The approach that we have taken so far is working. Last month, Ernst & Young reported that our exports are expected to grow at six times the rate of the rest of the UK over the next four years. Our recession was shallower than the UK’s, and Scotland is performing better than the rest of the UK on all the major employment measures. The number of inward investment projects that Scotland secured increased by 49 per cent last year. This summer, Ernst & Young commented on the

“ongoing rise in Scotland’s relative attractiveness for” foreign direct investment

“compared to most other areas of the UK.”

Members will remember that that is exactly the opposite of George Osborne’s infamous prediction in November 2011. Then, he said that the prospect of independence would deter inward investors. He maintained his disastrous record of economic forecasting earlier this week by suggesting that Canada—which has the best-performing economy in the developed world—was somehow disadvantaged by its independence in comparison with the UK, which has the second-worst-performing economy in the G7. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is in Aberdeen today, continuing that dismal record of forecasting. This morning, I heard him on the radio claiming that Scotland’s gross domestic product would be 4 per cent higher in 30 years’ time if we stayed under Westminster control.

In fact, as an independent country, Scotland’s GDP will be 17 per cent higher in three years’ time, when our oil and gas reserves will be counted for the first time in our GDP statistics. That would place us in the top 10 of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries with the highest wealth per head of population. However, within the UK we are severely limited in the measures that we can take to assist recovery and boost GDP. Key fiscal levers such as public capital investment, corporation tax and air passenger duty remain outside our control.

We have shown the potential for a different approach to taxation. A first step of this Government was to establish the most competitive business rates regime anywhere in the UK. We have legislated to replace stamp duty with a more progressive land and buildings transaction tax. We have also introduced the Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill. The revenue Scotland and tax powers bill will establish revenue Scotland to collect those taxes from 2015. The bill will also put in place a framework that will apply to all devolved taxes.

Over the period to 2020, we estimate that the start-up and operational costs in setting up revenue Scotland will be significantly lower than had we had asked Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to perform the same duties. That could be a sign of the UK’s diseconomies of scale. However, that further makes the case for tax powers being controlled and administered from this Parliament.

The establishment of revenue Scotland will be an historic step, but it is only a first step. After all, those devolved taxes—which are the most on offer from Westminster if we stay in the UK—mean that from 2015 Scotland will collect 15 per cent of all taxation revenue, rather than the present 7 per cent. This Parliament would still be a spending rather than a revenue-raising chamber. That is deeply harmful to Scotland; it means that we cannot use fiscal powers to grow our economy.

As I said, the Scottish economy has performed better than the rest of the UK in recent years. In the first quarter of this year, our economy was 2 per cent below its peak output level of 2008, while the UK economy was 3.9 per cent below. It is worth noting that Canada, which, by implication, George Osborne thinks should merge with the United States of America, was 6.4 per cent above its pre-recession peak.

The contrast between Scotland and the UK and those international ratings demonstrate a truth: this Parliament can mitigate the impact of UK Government policies. Our growth levels can be slightly higher and our employment figures a bit better, but mitigation is what it is. We cannot stop capital spending being slashed; we cannot use taxation policies to encourage business; and we cannot harness all our natural and human resources to build a richer and fairer society.

A further reason why we need independence is that, by next year, the UK Government’s welfare reforms will reduce household incomes in Scotland by almost £2 billion a year. Much of that money is taken out of the pockets of those in work and earning low wages. However, last year, the UK Government announced £350 million more spending on the next stage of Trident renewal. That money is barely one third of 1 per cent of the estimated £100,000 million lifetime total cost of the decision to replace the Trident system. How can any Government choose to embark on expenditure of £100,000 million to renew Europe’s largest concentration of weapons of mass destruction while reducing benefits for the poorest households across the country? As Margaret Lynch, the chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland, asked when she spoke of the impact of the cuts on her organisation:

“How is it possible, in the 21st century, in an advanced capitalist economy ... that we have to have volunteer advisers trained in suicide awareness because the welfare state has been ripped asunder?”—[Official Report, Welfare Reform Committee, 22 January 2013; c 471.]

This Government is providing almost £8 million of support to advice centres across Scotland, so that they can cope as people in extremis come to them for help. That is one of a number of steps that we have taken to mitigate Westminster’s welfare cuts. We have already, jointly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, agreed this year to meet the cost of the UK Government’s cut in funding for council tax benefit successor arrangements. That protects more than half a million people on low incomes across Scotland.

This year, we are providing an additional £9 million towards the new Scottish welfare fund, bringing a total of £33 million. The fund helps vulnerable people in a financial emergency and enables people to get household goods to set up home or to remain in their community rather than go into care. In this session, the Scottish welfare fund bill will put the new fund on to a secure and statutory footing, establishing a safety net for vulnerable people across the entire country.

There is a hugely important point there. I talked earlier about how devolution has protected the national health service in Scotland. When we look at the chaos and fragmentation that has been brought about by health reform south of the border, is there anyone who seriously thinks that Westminster should run our health service? When we see the misery and suffering that is being brought about by welfare changes, is there anyone who wants Westminster to retain control of welfare? An independent Scotland will have the wit to develop a welfare system that lets work pay without reducing people to penury or despair.

In addition to the 13 bills that we are introducing this year, the Parliament will consider the Referendum (Scotland) Bill, which provides the legal underpinning for the vote on 18 September next year, when the people of Scotland will decide this country’s future. Either a yes vote or a no vote has consequences for the future. The real debate is about how to create a prosperous country and a just society. It is about our attitude towards the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, our welcome for people who want to settle here, our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, and our strength as a society to which we all contribute and from which we all benefit.

Even more fundamental, independence is about who decides on those questions. The problem for the no campaign is that it will have to explain why an independent Scotland would be uniquely incapable of taking those decisions for ourselves. Why should we rely on a Westminster system to take decisions—many of which, like the bedroom tax, have been utterly misguided—when we have proved over the past 14 years that we, as a Parliament, are more than capable of delivering real progress for the people of Scotland?

In the months ahead, we may well debate our particular views about education, health, employment and welfare reform. However, one thing that the record of this Parliament demonstrates and on which we should all agree is that it is better to decide things for ourselves than to have others decide for us. In my view, the logic of that—completing the powers of this Parliament, that is, independence—is what the people will vote for in 380 days’ time.

The value of Scotland’s Parliament is demonstrated by this programme for government. That is why I commend it to members. [Applause.]