Presiding Officer, as this is the last opportunity that we will have, I would like to offer Parliament a very brief update on our work to secure a future for Scotland’s steel industry.
Negotiations between Liberty House, Tata Steel and the Scottish Government continue, as we speak, in order to secure the basis for an agreement that would see Liberty House buy and operate the Dalzell and Clydebridge steel plants. The final due diligence on that agreement is taking place at present. The agreement would be facilitated by the Scottish Government and would involve the Government buying the plants and then immediately selling them on to Liberty House for the same consideration. Fergus Ewing will attend the Scottish steel task force this afternoon and will provide further details at that point.
In the meantime, I want to thank the workforce, the unions and the companies for their patience and perseverance. We promised that we would leave no stone unturned in our efforts to secure the future of our steel industry, and that is what we continue to do. [Applause.]
I record my thanks to all members of the steel task force for their hard work and determination; I particularly thank Drew Smith, James Kelly and John Pentland from my party, and our trade union partners.
During the United Kingdom general election last year, Nicola Sturgeon said that she would reverse George Osborne’s tax cut for the top 1 per cent. In pledging to reintroduce the 50p top rate of tax, the First Minister said:
“It is right that those with the broadest shoulders pay a little bit more.”
Yesterday, she changed her mind. The Scottish National Party will now go into the election with a commitment to keep George Osborne’s tax cut for those who earn more than £150,000 a year, even though we now have the power to make different choices from the Tories. Why does the First Minister no longer think that the richest 1 per cent should pay their fair share?
Raising the top rate of tax to 50p could
“raise zero because of the mechanisms by which people can avoid paying tax”.
Those are not my words—they are the words of Kezia Dugdale.
Let me say this, and say it very seriously, to the people of Scotland. Raising the top rate of tax would be politically easy because there are only 17,000 people in our country who pay it; there would be no political risk attached to doing it. However, to do it in the face of analysis that says that, right now, it could actually reduce the amount of money that we have to invest in our national health service and our public services would not be radical. It would be reckless. It would not be daring. It would be daft. Therefore, we will not do it straight away. Instead, we will continue to consider it in the light of our experience and analysis.
In the meantime, we will put forward fair, reasonable and progressive tax proposals. We will ask the better-off people in our society to shoulder a bit more of the burden. Over the life of the next session of Parliament, our proposals—local and national—will raise an additional £2 billion of revenue, which we can invest in our national health service and our public services and in mitigating the impacts of Tory austerity. That is why I will be proud to ask the people of Scotland to back our plans.
The First Minister really should pay attention, because since I made those remarks, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made it harder for people to move their tax liabilities around the United Kingdom.
We have time and again heard excuses: the richest could avoid paying more taxes; there would be a mass exodus from Scotland. It is just that we normally hear them from the Tory party, not the First Minister. It was not just at the general election that the First Minister claimed to support the richest few paying their fair share; on the day of the Smith agreement to devolve the power over tax, she told Parliament:
“if I was taking that decision now, yes, I would raise the top rate of income tax to 50p.”—[Official Report, 27 November 2014; c 10.]
However, now that she has the power to reverse George Osborne’s tax cut for the very richest and to stop the cuts, she refuses to use it. This is the First Minister who made her name as the anti-austerity champion; she went down to England and said that she would stand up to George Osborne’s tax cuts, but the minute she gets the powers back home, the First Minister chooses not to act.
It is no surprise that the Scottish Trades Union Congress—the representative of Scotland’s workers and trade unions—described the First Minister’s tax plans as “timid” and “difficult to fathom”. I want to ask the First Minister the same question that the STUC posed yesterday: if the SNP cannot summon the courage to propose major progressive change at this moment in time, will it ever?
—fairly and progressively.
HMRC cannot stop people moving house. If just 7 per cent of top taxpayers were to do that, we could lose £30 million a year in Scotland—there would be £30 million less for our national health service and public services. I will get on with doing the right thing, which is why we are asking people—[Interruption.]
—to contribute a little bit more, so that over the next session of Parliament we can generate an extra £2 billion to invest in our national health service and our education system, and to mitigate Tory austerity. Those are the sound principles and sound policies that we are putting forward, which is why we know—[Interruption.]
And there we have it: a nationalist First Minister arguing that Scotland cannot go it alone on tax. That really takes the biscuit.
Why does this all matter? It matters because after nearly a decade under the SNP, there are 4,000 fewer teachers in our classrooms and 152,000 fewer college students, and the gap between the richest and the rest in our schools is as wide as ever. The new tax powers mean that we can change that. Last week, the teachers’ union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, called on all parties to protect all education spending in real terms over the next five years. Labour can make that commitment because of the tax plans that we have set out, but the SNP’s tax plans will not raise anywhere near enough to do the same. Why will the First Minister not stop the cuts to education?
We are also taking decisions that will allow us to invest, over the next session of Parliament, three quarters of a billion pounds in tackling attainment in our schools.
I am proud of the record of this Government. We have more people working in our health service, with some of the best and fastest treatment anywhere in the UK. We have rebuilt or refurbished a quarter of all the schools in our country. We have the best school-leaver destinations on record, with young people going into training, education or work more than ever before. This Government has a record to be proud of, but there is much more to do. I am looking forward to persuading the people of our country that I and this Government are the people to get on and do that job.
Nicola Sturgeon will not raise the basic rate of tax, fully reverse the higher rate or increase the top rate, but she wants us to believe that she can find the money to protect education. That is utter nonsense.
The First Minister, who has campaigned for years using the mantra that more powers will mean fewer cuts, now refuses to use the powers to stop the cuts. She says that education is a priority, but she will not ask the richest 1 per cent to pay more to invest in our schools. The SNP says that it is anti-austerity, but it is content to use Parliament as a conveyor belt for Tory cuts. Faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament and passing on Tory austerity, Labour will use the powers. Why is the First Minister’s choice always more cuts? [Interruption.]
The tax proposals that we will be proud to put forward in the election will raise an additional £2 billion for our public services and enable us to mitigate Tory austerity.
We have, in the chamber, Tories telling us that we are taxing too much and Labour telling us that we are not taxing ordinary working people enough. I suspect that the people of Scotland will look at what the SNP is offering and say that it is right, proper, sensible and progressive. That is why they will choose us to continue to govern this country.