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Programme for Government 2013-14

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 4th September 2013.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I realise that I am one of the last speakers in the debate—in fact, I am the last back-bench speaker—so perhaps there are not many items to mention that have not already been touched on at some stage. However, I will start by mentioning three of the bills that I am particularly enthusiastic about.

The first is the proposed revenue Scotland and tax powers bill. It seems to me that one of the key features of a real country is that it has its own taxes and its own tax system. Therefore, I am glad not only that we are getting the land and buildings transaction tax and the landfill tax, but that we will get revenue Scotland to oversee them. Although they are relatively small taxes to start off with, every journey starts with one small step, and once Scotland has a taste of operating its own taxation, it will be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. We should not forget that it is estimated that revenue Scotland will cost 25 per cent less than would Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs doing the work.

Second is the proposed housing bill. There are many aspects to that, and we will see more in due course. However, I particularly welcome the fact that there will be movement on the private rented sector. In parts of my constituency—I suspect that other members have seen the same thing—the private rented sector has grown in recent years in places where there was very little of it before. With that growth has come a number of problems, including tenants who have no commitment to the area, landlords who care nothing for communal maintenance, and letting agencies that take no responsibility. Of course, there are good tenants, landlords and letting agents, but I welcome the fact that there will be action on the sector.

Third is the proposed licensing bill, which again covers issues that affect my constituency. Ever since I became a councillor about 15 years ago, the issues of taxis and private hire licences, the competition and tensions between the two, and the picking up of people in the centre of Glasgow to which the council has largely turned a blind eye, have all caused real problems. I am therefore delighted that there will be some movement in that area as well.

Work on scrap metal dealers will also be very welcome. A church in my constituency has lost the lead off its roof twice within about six months, which is incredibly difficult for a small charity to deal with. We are also all aware of the travel disruption that has been caused by copper theft from the railways.

Other key bills have already been mentioned such as those for welfare, food standards, and community empowerment, so I will not touch on those.

Some bills have already been launched and are already working their way through Parliament, and members will not be surprised if I mention same-sex marriage, or the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill, to give it its proper title. Tomorrow morning, the bill starts its journey at the Equal Opportunities Committee, and I look forward to giving it a thorough examination.

I have to say that I am not exactly enthusiastic about the whole concept of the bill, but I would be more relaxed about it if it was only about giving extra rights to lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people and not about endangering anyone else. We have assurances from the Scottish and Westminster Governments that there will be adequate protection for those who disagree, be they denominations or individual celebrants. We also have assurances about freedom of speech. My question is whether those assurances are deliverable or will be washed away by higher courts. Even then, it seems that there are fewer protections for public sector workers or third sector volunteers who speak out with their own personal views. We will look at all that in committee before we have our first debate on the subject in the chamber.

The next topic that I will mention is the budget bill—a hugely important piece of legislation that is done each year and which dominates much of the work of the Finance Committee, as well as having an impact on all committees. I suppose if I was to make one request today to the other committees, it would be for them to make suggestions for the budget, but to please tell us where the money will come from. We had an example today from Mary Fee, for whom I have great respect, who suggested that we spend more money on housing, but did not tell us where she wants that money to come from. Jackie Baillie and Iain Gray also suggested that we could easily find £50 million to cover the bedroom tax: no problem, but where is that money to come from?

During the summer, I met a number of housing associations in my area. The director of one said to me that we should find £50 million to cover the bedroom tax. To give him his due, he was more honest. He said, “Just cut the £50 million out of the culture budget.” Before the culture secretary falls over, I certainly do not agree that chopping money off theatres, music and museums would be a good idea for ordinary people who benefit from those things educationally and in other ways, but could not possibly afford them themselves. However, at least that housing association director was honest and straightforward in that he gave a clear alternative. I hope that we will, during the budget process, get that from Opposition members.

Finally, it has been suggested that we should ignore the constitution and concentrate solely on bread-and-butter issues such as welfare reform and housing. Is that a fair point to make? No, it is not. We all, as individuals, have long-term and short-term plans; it is not about one or the other but about both. I thought that Christine Grahame put it particularly well when she showed how the two are inextricably linked.

Let us not forget why our constituents are struggling with welfare cuts, why they are having to use food banks, why they are seeing college and housing funding being cut, and why we are living in one of the most unequal countries in the world. It is because we are in the United Kingdom that we are seeing those cuts, and that is why we have to leave.