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I am pleased to speak in the debate on the Scottish Government’s programme for 2013-14.
As we have heard during this two-day debate, a number of important measures have been proposed in the legislative programme for the coming year—measures that will make a real difference to people’s lives. That is what the people of Scotland trust the Parliament to do—to focus on measures that improve the lives of our citizens.
In the six minutes that are available to me, it would be impossible to do justice to each of the 13 new bills that are proposed, but I will make some comments about at least a few of them. Starting off from my trade as a lawyer, I will make a few comments about the weighty changes that are proposed to Scots law. In particular, I highlight the proposed courts reform bill, which is intended to bring the system of civil justice into the 21st century, thereby improving access to justice for our citizens and making it speedier, which will be welcome to all those who practise in the civil courts.
Another weighty bill in that area is the proposed damages bill, which will make long-overdue changes to damages for personal injury, inter alia by extending the time limit within which an action can be brought and by consolidating and updating existing legislation, as recommended by the Scottish Law Commission.
Both those bills are to be welcomed. As a former MP in the House of Commons, I can say without any hesitation that, if our Parliament in Edinburgh had not been reconvened, no such important modernisations of our legal system would have received such a focus. For Westminster Governments, Scots law reform was never top of the agenda or, for the most part, even on the agenda. There was neither the time nor the inclination to proceed with it. However, with our Parliament in Edinburgh, we can bring our procedural laws up to date to ensure that our legal system is fair and robust and, crucially, meets the needs of our citizens.
That is one of the many examples of the opportunities that flow from being able to take decisions about our country in our Parliament. As a member of the Welfare Reform Committee, I also mention the important Scottish welfare fund bill. It will provide a statutory footing for the Scottish welfare fund, which was set up in April this year.
I very much welcome the fact that, in setting up the fund, the Scottish Government recognised the importance of there being a safety net in our society for those who face hardship. That is a fundamental principle that, surely, must underpin any welfare system in a civilised country. However, again, the contrast must be made with the Westminster Government. It retains power over all other key aspects of the welfare system that affect people in Scotland, but it has removed the safety net for the most vulnerable citizens.
As we heard yesterday in the eloquent speech from my colleague Christina McKelvie MSP, the Westminster Government has reached a new nadir in its treatment of our most vulnerable citizens: people who are terminally ill, such as those with motor neurone disease, have been told by the United Kingdom Tory Government minister Lord Freud—who, I understand, previously acted as an adviser to the Blair-Brown Labour Government in Westminster—that the answer to being evicted under the bedroom tax would be to take in a lodger. Words fail me, but I am sure that people throughout Scotland will feel sick at heart—indeed, sick to their stomachs—about such inhumane treatment.
There is another future for Scotland. We do not need to put up with such appalling and obscene treatment of sick and vulnerable people by a Westminster Government for which we did not vote and that, according to most polls, most Scots do not trust. We can complete the powers of this Parliament by taking to ourselves power over welfare. We have shown that, with the limited power that we have with respect to the Scottish welfare fund, we can create a fair system based on civilised principles.
Surely it is a better future for the people who care most about Scotland—the people who live and work here—to take decisions about the welfare system that they would wish to operate in Scotland. Having heard Ms Baillie’s speech—her usual negative contribution to such debates—I say that I for one do not see why people in Scotland, and particularly our most vulnerable people, should accept the second-best approach and the limited ambition of mitigating the measures that have been taken by Governments that we have not voted for. Why do we not seek to have the power to take such decisions for ourselves?
It should be pointed out for the record that the SNP has said unequivocally that we would abolish the bedroom tax within one year of an independent Scotland taking its rightful place in the world. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, failed yet again today to commit to abolishing the bedroom tax. Ms Baillie should reflect on machinations in her political party before she comes to the chamber.
I mention as a member of the Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee that, in addition to the 13 new bills that the First Minister set out yesterday, a number of bills are undergoing legislative scrutiny. They include the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill, which provides the framework for the vote in 2014. A yes vote is a vote for Scotland to get the tools that it needs to secure a prosperous and fair society. A yes vote means that decisions about Scotland are taken by those who care most about Scotland—the people who live and work here. Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands—that sounds very good to me.