I thank the First Minister for early sight of her speech.
Last week, in a speech in Edinburgh, I set out some of my priorities for the parliamentary year ahead. I began by pointing out that next week marks the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum of 1997. Famously, after that referendum, Donald Dewar declared that devolution is a process, not an event; it sometimes feels as though we have spent the two decades since then determined to prove him right. The political structures that surround us have often been the central focus of our politics. I hope that we can, as we mark 20 years of devolution, move on to a wider debate about political substance, as well.
To that end, I and my Conservative colleagues are committed to challenging the Government and scrutinising its decisions, but also to proposing our own alternative way forward, in what I hope will be a spirit of respectful debate. We do that with the clear aim of using the powers of this Parliament to make a difference to the lives of the people who live here. At least, that is the plan.
Therefore, in response to the First Minister, I begin by seeking to find what common ground exists, and to find whatever I can to welcome in her speech today. For all that the Scottish National Party might pretend otherwise, that common ground exists: indeed, given how much the SNP has poached from Scottish Conservative manifestoes over recent months, I am tempted to suggest that the programme for government should be called “Something borrowed, something blue.”
Today, I am happy to welcome the Government’s proposal for an education reform bill. That is because the principle of reform has consistently been put forward by the Scottish Conservatives during the past five years. However, our support for the detail of the bill is limited because there is growing concern that the Government is, far from delivering real independence to schools, attempting to centralise control through its governance reforms. That would be unacceptable. To borrow from the SNP’s dictionary for a moment, I say that although we support reform, we will not support a schools power grab by the Scottish Government.
I am genuinely pleased to see the inclusion of a “Frank’s law” in today’s programme for government. It is absolutely a policy whose time has come. Scots who need care should not be divided by an arbitrary line of age. I pay tribute to Amanda Kopel, who has, on behalf of her late husband Frank, campaigned for such a law for years, and has done so with amazing dignity and strength. If the First Minister wishes to expedite the process so that we can get the law working on the ground as soon as possible, I believe that she will have the whole Parliament’s support. She will certainly have mine.
I am pleased that the campaign for a new offence of drug driving that was proposed by my erstwhile colleague Douglas Ross has found favour with the Scottish Government, as has John Lamont’s long-standing call for a south of Scotland enterprise agency.
On public sector pay, the Scottish Conservatives have supported the Governments here and across the rest of the United Kingdom in choosing pay restraint for public sector workers instead of redundancies, as they sought to stabilise the economy following the financial crash. Having righted the ship, it is time to revisit that restraint. Depending on what part of the public sector Scots work in, their salaries can be set either by Holyrood or by Westminster. Although we await the details on timing, levels of increase and the rest, we believe that it is right to revisit that restraint today, and we expect to see movement in the area from the UK Government in the period ahead.
On homelessness, we urge the Government to commit also to a new national homelessness strategy for Scotland. All parties are committed to contributing to one.
We also welcome the announcement of a bill to pardon gay and bisexual men. That is an important and necessary step that will allow us to turn the page on the past and ensure that we no longer label consensual behaviour as criminal.
However much we welcome the tone and some of the content of today’s statement, we are entitled to be sceptical, too. We have just had 12 months in which, it is fair to say, delivery has not been topmost on the Government’s list of priorities. Today, the First Minister has come to Parliament with 16 bills. Last year, she came with 15 bills, but got only four of them through. The public are entitled to ask whether today’s 16 bills will come in front of or behind last year’s leftovers in the queue.
There are also areas in which the Scottish Conservatives will not offer their support—areas in which we will fight every step of the way because the SNP Government has simply got it wrong. It has brought forward a programme to raise taxes and to keep robbers out of the jail.
In her speech, Nicola Sturgeon played down sentences of 12 months or less. However, 17 per cent of all offenders who are done for attempted murder or serious assault received sentences of less than 12 months, and more than a quarter of all sex offenders are given jail terms of less than 12 months.
In many areas, we see the need for criminals to be taken off the streets. That need is greater nowhere than it is in domestic violence and domestic abuse cases, in which keeping the offender in the home environment means that others there can never break free. I remind the First Minister that domestic abuse takes many forms—it can be violent abuse, but it can also be financial or psychological abuse, or intimidation. I see that the First Minister has linked two bills. We will fight to ensure that the option of jail exists. Otherwise, the SNP’s soft-touch Scotland just got a whole lot softer.
On the citizens basic income scheme, we would be concerned if we thought that anything would ever come of it beyond the SNP trying to write today’s headline and the scheme being a bone that the First Minister is throwing to the Green Party. The First Minister’s commitment extends only to working
“with interested local authorities to fund research into the concept and feasibility of a citizens’ basic income”,
So we Conservative members can sleep pretty easily tonight.
It is clear from the First Minister’s words today that the SNP has realised that the absence of domestic legislative activity over the past year was a mistake and that it is now trying to change tack. However, for all the warm words, I am afraid that the evidence suggests that the SNP has still not quite got the message.
On Brexit, the First Minister is right that new powers will come here after we leave the European Union. Conservative members will support that process. However, the First Minister must recognise that the country has had enough of constitutional squabbling; Brexit must not be used by the SNP as another opportunity to retreat to its comfort zone of talking process. If the First Minister really wants to find consensus on that matter, she must instead approach the issue pragmatically. We cannot just talk about where powers lie: we all need to start talking about what to do with the powers that we have, because time is pressing.
Let us just look at some of the enormous challenges that we face in Scotland, including those that have come to light since last we met in this chamber. A survey of more than 3,000 nurses found that half of them believe that patient care is being compromised because of insufficient staffing. Audit Scotland concluded that the Scottish Government has failed to plan adequate staffing for the national health service in the long term, and an ISD Scotland report that has been published today shows a record number of vacancies for NHS consultants and, currently, 3,200 posts unfilled. Figures show that the number of drugs-related deaths in 2016 rose by 23 per cent on the previous year.
Further, the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee warned that there is a risk of the shortage of headteachers increasing in the future. As I said when I stood here this time last year, the in-tray is bulging and we need action.
It is clear that if the Scottish Government is to re-earn the trust and respect of the people of Scotland, it will need to take a new approach that shuns the overpromising and underdelivering of the past, which was compounded by trying to cover things up when inconvenient facts emerged.
For years, we have talked about workforce planning, but it has not worked in 10 years of SNP Government. Government ministers might now choose to hide behind the fig leaf of Brexit, but what were they saying a year, two years, five years or 10 years ago, when Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green members brought the issue of workforce planning to Parliament? They said absolutely nothing.
Let us look again at the Scottish Government’s record over the summer. This time last year, the SNP Government’s big announcement was a new £500 million Scottish growth deal, but last week we learned that the new deal has yet to provide a penny to any Scottish firm. Why the delay?
Last year, the SNP staged major announcements in which general practitioners were told that the Scottish Government was committed to increasing the proportion of NHS funding that was going into primary care. However, over the summer, GP leaders were warned that that cast-iron promise was being watered down.
There have been grand promises that are, in reality, less than the sum of their parts. People want a Government that is prepared to face up to the issues, but too often the Scottish Government has tried to hide them away. It is a Government that asked its own independent poverty adviser to tone down a report that criticised cuts to further education, that urges Audit Scotland to water down its warnings about the future of the NHS, and that does not confront its own failings and is more concerned with trying to fool people into not noticing.
People have a right to be wary of a Government that is, for the 10th year on the trot, promising jam tomorrow—a Government that complains about the levers that it does not have, but which seems to be terrified of the ones that are under its control. As the main Opposition party, we will seek to push the Scottish Government towards a bolder path, by pushing for change ourselves.
Last week, I set out some of my initial ideas and focused specifically on ways to solve Scotland’s housing crisis. Nobody in this chamber can be satisfied with the current situation, in which young people find themselves shut out of the housing market until their mid-30s and a new generation no longer believes that they will match their parents’ living standards, so we must act. If one speaks to people in the sector, one hears that they are utterly frustrated by the drift and delay on planning that they have seen from the Scottish Government—drift that is deterring investment and sending it to Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham and not to Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen. We must find new ways to ensure that 25,000 homes a year are built in Scotland, and we will push the Government to deliver.
Furthermore, we need to address the current state of housing, which is why we will continue to push the Scottish Government to use its growing capital budget to ensure that no one has to live in a hard-to-heat home. A transformational investment in home energy efficiency would be a huge win-win for Scotland by creating jobs, reducing carbon emissions, improving health and helping householders with their energy bills, which is why in Government the Conservatives would introduce a new target to ensure that every home is, by the end of the next decade, energy efficiency rated C or above. As the Opposition, we will attempt to write such measures into the bill that the SNP introduces.
I am pleased to say that tomorrow we will unveil our new NHS advisory panel. Made up of practitioners and health professionals, it will examine how best we can sustain our health service and its traditions for the long term. There is plenty of consensus in the chamber that we need to face up to the challenges in the NHS. We want to play our part in that.
On education, we will press the Scottish Government to push real power down to individual schools and to headteachers, because they are the people who know their schools best. We will set out fresh ways to tackle what is the clear pressing priority of parents, which is to ensure that there are enough teachers in our schools.
We will report back soon with a full review of curriculum for excellence. The warnings that have been given by Professor Lindsay Paterson at the weekend cannot be dismissed out of hand, as the SNP Government has sought to do. The urgent priority must be to address our declining numeracy and literacy standards. We need more investment in teacher numbers, with more flexibility for routes into teaching, and we need root-and-branch reform of our education agencies.
On justice, we will support further prison reforms that focus on rehabilitation. At the same time, we need to give judges the tools to punish the very worst criminals by backing whole-life sentences.
We must also act here to listen to the concerns of rural Scotland and reflect the concerns of people who too often feel left out of Scotland’s public debate. We have had enough of hearing about who is to blame for the lack of rural broadband, for example. People just want to see Government—both Governments—get on and sort it out.
On the economy, we will seek to lead a debate in Parliament on the need to put growth first. The time for endless theoretical debate about the state of our economy in a future constitutional position is over. We need to focus on the more pressing issue of how we will grow the economy now, how we will increase productivity and how we will train and retrain our people for the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow, because the new financial powers here mean that Scotland needs to raise closer to what it spends.
We will continue this year to argue that dragging Scotland down with ever more punitive taxes is not the right way. The First Minister is opening the door on greater tax rises today. We say this: stop taking ever more money from the pockets of Scotland’s workers. We must instead go for growth. The Scottish Government’s own review of business rates last month urged ministers to rethink some of their tax rises. If even its own report is critical of its policy, surely it is time to listen?
The SNP needs, to be blunt, to decide what it believes in. It has tacked left on its new land and buildings transaction tax and has, inevitably, gummed up the market as a result. On the new air passenger duty, however, it has recognized the benefit of competitive taxation. On issues such as APD, we will seek to work with the SNP to deliver something that could be of huge economic benefit to Scotland. We only wish that the Government would show some consistency.
We all are reading that the SNP is, largely for its own political reasons, preparing to march leftwards this year. I humbly urge the First Minister to remember other people too: the small firms, the employers and the taxpayers of Scotland.
On that note, I say that the Scottish Government has announced a business development bank. I welcome the focus on providing finance for capital investment, and I will not be ideological about it. However, it would be remiss of me to avoid pointing out that, yet again, we have been here before, with the establishment of new banks. The Scottish Government announced a Scottish business development bank as far back as May 2013. It was then re-announced in September 2013 and dropped in May 2014 before resurfacing in the First Minister’s first programme for government towards the end of 2014. Since then, it has not only been delayed a few times, but the plan has changed from the setting up of a dedicated bank to being a part of the existing Scottish Investment Bank. And guess what? It still does not operate in full. Overpromising and underdelivering is a theme with the Government.
Given the parliamentary arithmetic of Parliament, I do not seek to downplay the challenge that faces the Government in pushing its agenda through this year. Indeed, we all await with anticipation the great Scottish courting ritual of the winter months—though it may be that Mr Harvie will this year find competition as a suitor from Mr Rennie. Sometimes, I can even muster some sympathy for the First Minister.
However, what all parties will be looking for—from all around the chamber—is a sign of change. If the Government is to earn back the trust and respect of the people of Scotland, which it has squandered in the past year, then it must change, and change fast. It must show that it understands the difference between a genuine complaint and the politics of endless grievance. It must accept responsibility for all of its record and it must fix the mistakes that it has made. It must be frank about the huge challenges that Scotland faces and it must not seek, as its first response, to bury bad news and pretend that it does not exist.
Given what we know of the Government, we will wait to see whether today’s warm words are backed up by action, before we make a judgment. The Government should know this: after the past year, it is on probation with the people of Scotland. It is time to change tack. It is time to deliver.
I welcome everyone back to Parliament, and I congratulate all who were involved in the construction and design of the Queensferry crossing—the magnificent new bridge that links the wonderful kingdom of Fife to the Lothians. It was good to be at the official opening yesterday and I hope that more members will take the opportunity to venture across the Forth and enjoy the delights of Fife.
I also congratulate all the workers involved in building the aircraft carriers. The HMS Prince of Wales will have its naming ceremony in Rosyth this Friday—well done to everyone who was involved.
The First Minister has announced an extensive programme for her Government and she will look for support across the chamber. I make it clear that Labour will not oppose for the sake of opposing; we will work constructively with the Government where it is in the best interests of the people of Scotland to do so. Equally, I hope that the Government, for its part, will be more open to working with others and listening to other ideas and opinions.
The First Minister has listened to us and agreed to lift the public sector pay cap—that is welcomed. Her plan to launch a national investment bank to boost our economy is also good news—that was part of Labour's general election manifesto, as was scrapping the pay cap. Unfortunately, without a Labour Government in Westminster, it will not have the £20 billion of lending power to get it started, but nevertheless we welcome the announcement. We look for complete transparency in how it will be set up and who will be put in charge of what should be a vital part of Scotland’s economic infrastructure.
It seems that in other areas of Government, ears were closed to advice, ideas and experiences. To carry on with the poor education governance reforms, which have been criticised by all in the sector, is pure dogmatic politics. The First Minister has often said that she wants to be judged on what her Government does to improve our education system. Let us remind ourselves of a few of the facts.
We have more than 4,000 fewer teachers than when the SNP came to power; 1,000 fewer support staff than when the SNP came to power; and class sizes bigger than when the SNP came to power. Spending per pupil across all ages is down. If pupil spend had remained the same as the 2010-11 level, primary schools would be £726 million better off and secondary schools would be £308 million better off. I cannot see how what has been proposed today addresses any of that. Indeed, it seems to me that it is a classic avoidance technique: when in doubt, restructure. That did not work for Police Scotland, the fire and rescue services or our colleges, and it will not work for our schools.
I used much of the summer recess meeting people and listening to what they had to say. The teachers I spoke to over the summer told me about the impact of the cuts in schools and classrooms, workloads that have them completely run off their feet, class sizes that are far too large, the need for more teaching assistants in our classrooms, and not having the basic materials to be able to provide teaching and learning of the quality that we need.
What I regret is the £170 million in the local council budget last year, which meant classroom assistants and others being taken out of the education authority. It really is rich for SNP MSPs to come to the Parliament and talk about council cuts, as they voted for those cuts.
Most of the concerns that teachers are expressing are the result of a severe shortage of funding in education. I say to the First Minister that that needs to be addressed if we are going to tackle education issues. Taking control of education away from our councils will not address any of those issues.
That brings me to local government. We must recognise that local councils are on the front line of supporting people who are suffering from failed Tory austerity. Local councils lead on planning and economic development, health and social care, protecting our environment, the education of our children, and the health and wellbeing of our communities. The SNP Government’s obsession with centralising local government and the willingness to pass on Tory austerity to local public services have got to stop. The Government must change course and build a new partnership with local councils that is built on mutual respect, understanding and joined-up planning to tackle the big issues in our communities.
I appreciate what Mr Rowley is saying about local government, which is very dear to my heart, having served as a councillor in North Lanarkshire. He has just talked about cuts. Why did North Lanarkshire Labour fail to use the flexibility in the council tax to alleviate some of those cuts?
In the next budget round, we need to ensure that we do not simply pass on failed Tory austerity to local councils and local public services. I really hope that the First Minister and, indeed, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution are listening to what others are saying.
It is time to use the Parliament’s powers to pay for a fairer and more equal society and to support our public services. It is time to introduce a 50p top rate of income tax, to have an honest discussion with the people of Scotland to show that those who can afford to pay a bit more should do so and to scrap the unfair council tax, as the First Minister once promised she would do, because no amount of tinkering with the bands will make it any fairer. Although the SNP says that it will lift the public sector pay cap, let us be clear that that cannot be done on the back of cutting even more from public services; it must be paid for.
I have listened to hundreds of people this summer—at street stalls and coffee mornings and on the doorsteps. It should be no surprise to the First Minister to hear that people right across Scotland are very concerned about the state of our national health service. We have an NHS workforce crisis, and today new figures show how bad it is. Nursing and midwife vacancies are up; consultant vacancies are up; and, in July, more than 400 operations were cancelled.
I am not sure that anything that the First Minister has said today is going to tackle those major issues in our health service. Will this programme for government bring change for the hundreds queuing outside GP practices, trying to get an appointment; for the people being removed from lists; for those trapped in hospitals, on waiting lists for care packages, operations or to see specialists; or for those seeking mental health support? I am not sure that it will.
It should not be a surprise to hear that people were also raising housing problems. Shelter Scotland says that Scotland has a “housing crisis”; I agree. So, too, do the tens of thousands on council house waiting lists, the homeless and the children who leave school each day with no home to call their own.
I have welcomed the Government’s commitment to build 50,000 affordable homes, of which 35,000 will be for social rent, but I say again that we need a national house building strategy to ensure that that happens. We cannot allow this housing crisis to continue.
That brings me to skills, apprenticeships and jobs. In near enough every sector of our economy, we have major skills gaps. Our ambition must surely be to have a high-skill, high-wage economy, but we have 71,000 people on zero-hours contracts. We also have 40,000 agency workers in Scotland with little security of work, a figure that is predicted to rise significantly unless something is done.
We will work with the Government on the measures that it has announced today, but there must be more than warm words. Will the First Minister listen to us and consider Labour’s proposals for an industrial strategy for Scotland? Actions speak louder than words, and it is actions that we need.
Talking of actions, we have worked with the Government on its Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill. I hope that it agrees to establish an independent statutory poverty and inequality commission for Scotland. However, setting child poverty targets is one thing, but action is needed to tackle child poverty. Again, First Minister, listen to Labour: use this Parliament’s powers to increase child benefit by £5 a week to lift more than 30,000 children out of poverty over the next three years. Actions speak louder than words. Listen to Labour: drop the proposal for the 50 per cent cut in air passenger duty, a measure that will cost Scottish taxpayers about £190 million. Drop that idea and invest the money in tackling the unacceptable poverty levels.
There are positive measures in the Government’s programme, but huge challenges that Scotland faces are not addressed. We will work with the Government where we can, we will hold them to account where we can, and we will introduce the ideas to tackle the big challenges facing communities up and down Scotland in 2017.
I thank the First Minister for the advance copy of her statement. I take this moment to offer a word or two about Kezia Dugdale. I have offered her my best wishes in person, but when someone steps down from a role of service not to their own party but to Parliament, it is appropriate to say so on the record. I am sure that I am not alone and that members of all parties will want to wish Kezia Dugdale well for the future. [
Today’s statement allows us to move on somewhat from the rather symbolic stories of the summer silly season to a little substance. We have seen people fawning over a clock in London and a bridge in Scotland. Without taking anything away from the workforce who are working or have worked on those projects, I am not sure that I want to fawn over military infrastructure either.
We now have the opportunity to move on to the issues of substance from a Government that seems to have been proposing the idea that it is ready for a reset. If that is the Government’s aim, it is perhaps inevitable that every other political party in the Parliament will say, “Look! They’re stealing our policies! Those were our great ideas!” However, I have to say that it was a little risible that a Conservative who is trying, all of a sudden, to talk about affordable housing and energy efficiency took that line and claimed that others are pinching Conservative policies.
Notwithstanding that, the Greens will, of course, welcome many of the measures that are remarkably familiar from not just our 2016 manifesto but many manifestos that the Greens have published over the years. If such policies are now on the Government’s agenda, it is clear that that is because of Green presence in this Parliament. Greens will be necessary to put pressure on the Government to turn paper commitments into real changes.
Let us take the climate change bill for a start. We need to go beyond the track that we are on. The targets that the Government has floated are simply a continuation of our current level of emissions reduction. A commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2040 would be the spur that is needed to ensure investment in the new, low-carbon industries that will create long-lasting jobs for the future.
On clean energy, the Government’s main commitment is on carbon capture and storage. At the moment CCS remains a speculative technology that will not help us in the immediate years ahead, even if it has longer-term prospects.
A deposit return scheme will be very welcome, and if the Government cracks on and gets that done quickly, a scheme might even be in place a mere decade after this Parliament passed the enabling legislation.
We welcome the commitment to phase out petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032, but what is needed alongside it is a commitment to the end of the use of such vehicles, not just to the end of their sale as new vehicles coming on to the market.
For some time we have been calling for more than the one pilot low-emission zone that the Scottish Government has supported, so I welcome the commitment to have four such zones. Having just one pilot was clearly inadequate in the first place; where we are now is where we should have been some time ago.
As for more investment in walking and cycling, there is ground to make up from earlier cuts in that area, and the increase must be sustained for the long term if it is to make a difference.
I had hoped that we might hear advance notice of the decision on fracking that is due by the end of this calendar year. It would have been welcome to hear a commitment today to a full and permanent ban. That is the only decision that not only the Greens but many people in the First Minister’s party will tolerate.
I welcome the commitment to give support—or at least fair wind—to my colleague John Finnie’s proposal for a member’s bill on giving children equal protection from assault. I am sure that that will be one of many examples of constructive Green ideas that the Government will continue to welcome.
A citizens income is perhaps the most radical of the long-standing Green policies in which the Government today gave a signal of interest. We heard about a fund to help local authority pilots. It is Green councillors on local authorities who have been at the forefront of pushing for such schemes.
The case for a citizens income, or universal basic income, has never been stronger. There has always been a principled case for saying that we all, collectively, create the wealth of our economy and we all have a right to share in that wealth. A citizens income would achieve that, as well as recognising the value to our economy of unpaid labour and, in particular, the deeply gendered imbalance in who does that unpaid and unremunerated labour in our society. As we anticipate another wave of automation, the case for a citizens income grows all the stronger.
It might well be that Ruth Davidson is sleeping cosy in the comforting knowledge that such a basic safeguard for people will never be achieved. I have no doubt that those who are responsible for the near destruction of our social security system are sleeping easy. I have no doubt that those who are responsible for the on-going poverty pay and exploitation in our economy are quite unbothered in their comfortable slumbers. I am sure that Ruth Davidson is more comfortable in that regard than she is with spending time in the company of some of her party’s local councillors. However, those among us who want a society that is based on the level of respect to which all human beings are entitled will want more progress on a citizens income.
In education, the responses to the Government’s consultation on governance—from teachers, parents, pupils, expert bodies, academics and unions—have been almost universally hostile to the Government’s proposals. The Government’s rather dismissive and meaningless response seems to have been, “Well, they didn’t want any change anyway.” Parliament will inevitably challenge the Government on its divisive proposals, and we have a right to expect a more meaningful response than the one that the consultees have received.
We welcome the review of initial teacher education, which was clearly needed. Our particular priority has been to ensure consistently high-quality education for those with additional support needs. One in four pupils has those identified needs, so it cannot be just specialist staff—and a reducing number of those staff—who know how to meet those needs. However, we cannot countenance the Government using the review of teacher training to force through the Teach First scheme in Scotland. That fast-track scheme risks putting unqualified and unprepared individuals into classrooms, and it has a lower retention rate than traditional routes into teaching. The Government has proved itself rather too willing to facilitate secretive dialogue on the issue via lobbying through the royal household. We will continue to challenge the Government on those issues.
There is a great deal more that I would have liked to see in the statement, including support to fight child poverty with a £5 top-up of child benefit and support for carers through increased allowances. In the programme for government debate last year, the First Minister indicated support for the Green proposal of an additional young carers allowance. This year, that is still a paper commitment. Let us make sure that, by next year, it is a reality and not just words on the page.
Let us also see support from the Government for my colleague Mark Ruskell’s member’s bill proposal to establish 20mph limits, thereby ensuring safer streets in all our residential communities, and let us see real movement on progressive taxation. The First Minister says that the time is right for a discussion paper—two years after we were made aware that the devolution of income tax powers was coming and a year after we began our first debates on what the Scottish income tax rates and bands should be. It is way past time that we had a discussion. I hope that the discussion is more meaningful than the discussions that we have had on local tax reform, which have, so far, led to nothing except more willingness to debate the options. We need to go further.
I would also have liked to see rather more on the issues on which the Government has had a poor track record, such as animal welfare. Even the UK Government is considering making closed-circuit television mandatory in abattoirs, but the Scottish Government has resisted that. We also need to see action on fox hunting that goes beyond the stated intentions of Lord Bonomy, who said that the goal of his review was to find a way to ensure that hunting could continue. There is much more to do on the animal welfare agenda.
Where we have common ground, we will continue to work with the Government. That includes opposing the UK Government’s destructive and incompetent approach on Brexit. This Parliament represents people who voted by a huge majority to remain European, and we cannot let them down. Where we have constructive work to do with the Government, we will do it, and where it needs to be challenged—either to go beyond its comfort zone or to turn paper commitments into real-world changes—we will be here to push it.
On Saturday afternoon, my colleague Alex Cole-Hamilton and I joined a group of breast cancer survivors called the Port Edgar dragons on their magnificent dragon boat, the Isla May, on the river Forth. They are a wonderful group of women who show gutsy human spirit to improve their health. We had an alternative view of the Queensferry crossing to that of the thousands who were able to cross it above us, but we saw the magnificence of the bridge.
The engineers and workers should be proud of their achievement. Those who argued that the crossing was not necessary need only cast their minds back to the winter of 2015, when the old bridge was forced to close, or a little further back to the discovery that the main cables were corroding. Let us not revisit history. The bridge was necessary for the east coast artery of this country and I am pleased that it has been built.
The recess should have allowed us all to reflect on one of the most turbulent periods in politics for some time. With nine sets of elections and referendums in the last six years, people have had their fill. People want elected politicians to deliver real improvements in their lives. They are fed up with the endless focus on independence. To give credit to the First Minister, she recognised that in June, when she signalled that she was cooling on independence. I was sceptical at the time and will always be suspicious but, for now, we have a chance to focus on real change, and today’s announcement of a presumption against prison sentences of 12 months or less is a start. We have been calling for that for some time. We also support the same-sex activity pardons, and I am pleased that the SNP, after opposing it twice, is now prepared to raise the age of criminal responsibility. We support Frank’s law, too.
However, those were a few bright spots in an otherwise rather dull statement. The First Minister has today confirmed what former ministers said in the papers this morning: the SNP has a lack of ideas, the fire has gone out and the leadership is stuck in an ivory tower. The flat reaction of back-bench SNP members to the First Minister’s statement shows that the fire has gone out there, too. It was 14 whole minutes before there was a round of applause for anything that the First Minister said. [
I loved the fact that Patrick Harvie criticised those parties that claimed credit for policies that were announced in the programme for government before going on to spend the rest of his speech doing exactly that.
Let us look at where we are in Scotland. The waits for mental health treatment are far too long. Today, we hear that more young people are waiting longer for treatment than was the case in the previous period. The situation is getting worse, not better. The international standing of our education system is slipping. The fallout from the botched centralisation of the police service continues. The recruitment of sufficient nurses, doctors and teachers is posing real issues in our schools and our NHS. The expansion of offshore renewable energy is lagging behind.
The First Minister talked about the economy. In its previous programme for government, the Scottish Government said that its flagship policy was a £500 million Scottish growth fund that would pay out guarantees and loans to Scottish business. No loans or guarantees have been paid out. In fact, more than a year later, the promised changes to parliamentary procedures to allow those payments to be made have not even been tabled. The Scottish Government switched some of that scheme to equity funding in June, but Scottish Enterprise has been doing equity funding since it was set up in 1991, so I am not sure why a nine-month delay was necessary to make it happen. The growth fund was supposed to be an urgent response, post-Brexit, to deal with the state of the economy, so we will scrutinise today’s proposals to see whether, this time, they amount to much, because last time’s proposals did not.
When my party was in government, we implemented the McCrone agreement for teachers. That deal on pay and conditions valued the work of our teachers. We need a new McCrone agreement to address the workload and recruitment issues of today. That is an important step that we could take to reverse the decline in our international education standing.
With the budget ahead, there is a chance to inject investment into education for the nursery education roll-out, for schools and colleges and especially for women and mature students. We have proposed the provision of £500 million, which would be paid for by a modest penny on income tax, using the Parliament’s new powers.
It is good that the Government has abandoned its manifesto promise to implement the national funding formula for schools, and it is good that the pupil equity fund—which ministers opposed for years—is still in place.
On health, we must treat mental health as the answer to the long-term problems with the sustainability of the NHS, but to make the strategy work, funds must follow. Without the resources to make it work, the strategy will be insufficient.
We should value the workforce and offer, in particular, good careers for staff in remote and rural areas. The problems that I highlighted about Caithness general hospital need to be adequately addressed. There is no point in shuffling them off because it is miles away. We need an answer to the problems of the rural NHS.
We need to address the recruitment problems in the NHS too. Today we have heard about nurse shortages, but there are also major problems with GPs. People are waiting for weeks to see their GP and many GPs are handing back their practices to the health board because they cannot cope any more. There is little point in the SNP Government boasting about staff numbers when the NHS is short of what is required.
With the departure of the chairman of the Scottish Police Authority, we believe there is an opportunity to inject democracy back into the police. The appointment of the new chairman should be with the agreement of this Parliament, just like the appointment of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, the information commissioner and the other commissioners. That would inject democracy back into our struggling police force.
At the general election, we proposed to lift the public sector pay cap. The UK proposal was to boost the pay of teachers, nurses, soldiers and care workers as well as many others by £780 by 2021. This would be a welcome change after years of, in effect, cuts in pay. Of course, we need to work within the recommendations of the public sector pay bodies and within Scottish resources but we believe that the Scottish Government should take the initiative to lift the pay cap.
Our plan is based on using investment to deliver reform, investing in the talents of our people to achieve great things and to lift the economy, decentralising power and bringing back democracy.
I am afraid the Conservatives’ reckless gamble on Europe means that the Houses of Parliament will be dominated by that subject for some time. We remain of the view that Brexit will be damaging. You only need to visit the fruit farms of North East Fife to realise the economic impact of losing thousands of seasonal pickers from Europe: a direct result of Brexit, the exchange rate and the perception of greater hostility to foreigners.
When the consequences of Brexit become clear, we believe that there should be an exit chute. Even the most ardent Eurosceptics on the Conservative benches did not vote for Brexit to make us poorer. Conservative MSPs, just like everyone else, should have the right to turn back if it will damage our country.
It should be the British people who decide what is next, which is why I am sceptical of talk of a Holyrood veto on Brexit. This is not a Scottish-English battle. It is about the economic and social wellbeing of the whole of the country. We will talk to the SNP Government about how to handle Brexit in this Parliament but we are not interested in driving a wedge between Scotland and England.
This parliamentary term is a new opportunity to deliver change now that there is a possibility of putting the divisions of independence behind us. We have put forward constructive proposals. The big question is this: will the Scottish Parliament and this Government seize that opportunity.
Like others, I have just returned from a busy summer meeting the people who put me here in the first place, who put each of us here in the first place and who expect us to work with courage, creativity and ambition to make Scotland an even better place to work, live, invest and do business.
As I listened to the First Minister set out the programme for government for the coming year, always with a thought as to the impact on the people of my constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, I heard a vision for a fairer, more prosperous and innovative country, prepared to embrace the challenges of the future. Two additional aspects struck me. First, the programme for government recognises that there is so much academic, entrepreneurial and creative potential in the people of Scotland. The people of our communities are our greatest resource, with their ideas, their families and their commitment to collaboration. I see it every day as I work with the people of my constituency.
Government’s role is to create an environment that enables people to be the best they can be, for example by closing the attainment gap, expanding early years education and childcare, and offering intensive support for up to 40 of the most talented and ambitious entrepreneurs to help bring their ideas to market. All those policies, and many, many more, will directly support the people of Scotland, who can then themselves shape a better, more prosperous and more equal society.
Secondly, this agenda, with its coherent, ambitious vision for our future, does not forget any community. The programme for government might have been announced today in Edinburgh, but its contents are for every community in this nation. Previous action by the SNP Government has focused on empowering Scotland’s communities, but the plans announced today for the coming session go even further, so that our communities can lead the nation with home-grown enterprise that attracts investment and nurtures talent.
I want to see our communities flourish and thrive, particularly those that feel disempowered either geographically or economically, because I believe that the nation flourishes only when every community has a stake in our collective future and is able to contribute to the common good.
Those are nice ideas—I imagine that all of us agree—but in this programme for government there are clear, tangible, doable solutions that deliver precisely that. There is not just talk, but action—actions such as enabling communities to control 1 per cent of council budgets, or providing a framework in the Crown Estate bill that enables local communities to benefit from managing assets and devolving power. That applies in urban and rural areas.
The programme for government connects the most remote or disempowered communities, first to each other and then to the wider world. While all eyes are on the Queensferry crossing, the first phase of the £3 billion A9 dualling project is about to open in my constituency—we have waited years for that. It is great news for the Highlands that the Scottish Government will not rest on its laurels but go even further and make the A9 the first fully electric-enabled highway.
I was already pleased that the Scottish Government intends to roll out superfast broadband to 100 per cent of premises, but it will be immensely welcome that the First Minister has put rural Scotland right at the front of the queue for our digital revolution. That means that the most remote communities will be the very first to reap the benefits of comprehensive fibre broadband coverage.
The programme for government also links those small communities with international market centres through international investment hubs that are now in London, Dublin, Brussels, Berlin and Paris. The significance of international connections in transforming our local communities cannot be overestimated.
Food and drink exports, for example, which are now at a record high of £5.5 billion, are a major contributor to not just Scotland’s economy. Many of those exports are sourced from the shores, farms and distilleries of rural Scotland, thus creating jobs and providing sustainable incomes.
Central to any ambitions for economic growth is the critical urgency of building more homes across Scotland. The programme for government is packed full with bold and innovative policies, among which is one on housing that intends to bring vacant properties back into use. Across this nation, numerous buildings that once served a useful purpose now sit idle, from an abandoned croft house on a Highland hill to derelict buildings in the hearts of our cities.
In short, Presiding Officer, the programme for government does not just empower communities by proposing legislation; it does it by devolving power and investing in communities. At its heart is a belief that we cannot move forward unless every one of our communities is moving forward. It tackles head on the challenges of our future, with creativity, ambition and an absolutely relentless determination to unlock Scotland’s potential.
We all know that education plays a key role in contributing to the future prospects of Scotland’s children, so let us start with two grim facts. On the SNP’s watch, the number of primary 7 pupils from the most deprived communities in Scotland performing well in numeracy has fallen to 54 per cent and the figure for writing has fallen to 56 per cent. That is the reality of the SNP’s decade-long record in Government. The attainment gap is getting wider.
The scale of the problem is huge. We are not talking only about the 5 or 10 per cent most deprived communities: we are talking about the bottom third. In Scotland today, a child growing up in the poorest third of households has barely a 50:50 chance of being able to read to the required standard or to count properly by the time they leave primary school.
I am sure that every member of the Parliament thinks that that is completely unacceptable, but the sad truth is that not every member wants to use our law-making powers to address it. We know that there is a direct link between educational underattainment and child poverty. We also know that Parliament has before it the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill. I welcome that bill and I have sought to make it stronger during its passage through Parliament.
We need our law to contain clear, binding and effective requirements on Scottish ministers to take steps to address the consequences of child poverty and to tackle what drives people into poverty in the first place. We tried to amend the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill at stage 2 to address the shocking reality of the Scottish Government’s education record as it penalises children who are growing up in our poorest communities, but we were blocked. We shall try again at stage 3.
I agree with the First Minister that we need to tackle the attainment gap, and I support her Government’s Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill. However, the idea that we can tackle attainment in this silo over here and child poverty in that silo over there, without addressing the direct link between the two, is for the birds.
Let me turn from something the SNP is not doing but should be to something that it is doing but should not be. In one of the first debates that I took part in, I had the audacity to ask John Swinney a question about named persons. Instead of answering, he screamed across the chamber that I should be ashamed of my intervention. Barely a month after that exchange, the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled on precisely the same point that I had raised with Mr Swinney, saying that the SNP’s named person scheme is illegal.
The scheme is illegal. It is violative of fundamental rights. It is disproportionate. And it is back. Instead of the scheme being consigned to the dustbin of legislative history where it belongs, Mr Swinney is seeking to breathe fresh life into the condemned scheme. However, Mr Swinney’s Children and Young People (Information Sharing) (Scotland) Bill is hopeless. In its submission to the Education and Skills Committee, the Faculty of Advocates, no less, makes it clear that a number of the defects with the named person scheme identified by the Supreme Court will still apply if the bill is passed in its current form, which means that more litigation is all but inevitable.
We can avoid that. If the SNP listens to its critics, accepts that its named person scheme is fundamentally flawed, uses the new bill not as a means to fight again a battle it has already lost once but as a way of fixing things for the future, and takes its fingers out of its ears, we can avoid the prospect of yet another nationalist defeat in the UK’s highest courts. I suspect that that will not happen. I suspect that the SNP would rather fight the battles of the past than confront the problems of the present.
One problem of the present that clearly needs to be addressed is housing. In 2007—a decade ago—Nicola Sturgeon conceded that “far too many” people in Scotland were unable to satisfy what she called the “basic aspiration” of home ownership.
In the intervening years, the SNP’s commitment to build 35,000 new homes a year has dwindled to less than half of that, with key development decisions caught up in the congestion of the planning system.
He can wait his turn.
That is simply not good enough when we are faced with a housing shortage on a scale potentially unseen since the second world war. This is our call to action. It is incumbent on policy makers of all political colours to help people to fulfil their ambition of owning a home. We urgently need to revitalise debate on this issue. That is why we have laid the foundations for a housing strategy that seeks to address that challenge head on by increasing the supply of housing and tackling the reasons why it was depleted to start with.
We want to see a new national housing and infrastructure agency and a housing and infrastructure minister in the Cabinet. We have called for 100,000 new homes to be built in the course of this session of Parliament and for 30,000 empty properties across Scotland to be refurbished and brought back into use. We also want to encourage more self-builds; we want to expand simplified planning zones; and we want to look at building a new generation of new towns. This is ambitious thinking but it is the kind of thinking that we need to overcome a defining challenge of the coming decade.
In Scotland we are not short of challenges and we are not short of new political thinking designed to address and combat them. However, it is from the Conservative benches that that thinking is coming, not from the Government. This is not a programme for government, it is a programme for drift. Scotland deserves better.
I thank the First Minister for setting out this bold, ambitious and reformative programme for government. Hubert Humphrey, the lead author of the US Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the creator of the Peace Corps, said that the “moral test” of any Government is how that Government treats those who are
“in the dawn of life”
—the children; those who are
“in the twilight of life”
—the elderly; and those who are
“in the shadows of life”
—the sick, the needy, and those with disabilities.
This programme for government passes that moral test for me. This programme will be transformative; this programme will be outward looking—it already is; this programme will be dignified; and, above all, this programme will be inclusive in its approach, leaving no one behind.
The pursuit of equality is what binds together most of us in this chamber—that as yet elusive equality that places every woman, man and child in parity, regardless of their race, their background or their wealth. Our pursuit of equality before the law—in pay, in conditions and in opportunity—will be at the central core of this Government’s agenda, and I welcome that.
Over the past year, we have seen immense strides in our pursuit of equality, from Diageo becoming the 900th living wage employer, with the Scottish Government on track to deliver the living wage across more than 1,000 employers by the autumn of this year, to our continued work to encourage equal 50:50 gender representation on boards.
Our public sector—the beating heart of our society—has long borne the brunt of Tory austerity. Workers have, for too long, been subject to a cap that was not their doing—a cap that started in Westminster but now ends here in Holyrood. That is not the only thing that this Government has called time upon. The passage of time can bring closure, as we all know. In some instances, time can be a healer. For some, their time has come. Our time has come to right the wrongs of Governments past. In Scotland, we are proud to lead the way in pardoning those whose only supposed crime was to love. With this step, we show Scotland as a nation that celebrates her diversity, her pride, her culture and her colour.
The time has come to celebrate our inclusivity. This Parliament, as representative of our people, has achieved remarkable steps over the past year. The working group on LGBTI inclusive education is tangible progress. I was speaking to some of the young people in the group yesterday and they are excited about what is to come. It is a symbol that this Government, alongside our partners in Stonewall, LGBT Youth Scotland and the barrier-breaking TIE campaign, will make inclusive education a welcome reality.
This is Government manifest. This is the purpose of and indeed the role of Government—to protect, uphold, implement and progress the rights of all and to integrate equality and understanding across the whole of society. Actions speak louder than words, and this Government will take action. From supporting equal protection from assault, which I greatly welcome and I support John Finnie in his aims, to raising the age of criminal responsibility for children—yes, children; let us never forget that—this Government continues to uphold human rights for all and to understand that they are for all. I am incredibly proud of that.
That understanding that human rights are for all has been criminally lacking from the UK Government. It is a Conservative Government that deliberately discriminates—that routinely reneges in relation to the rights of others. If you are disabled, you are subject to a UK welfare system that systematically violates your human rights; you are at the mercy of Tory austerity that has caused a human catastrophe. The United Nations has accused the UK Government of causing a “human catastrophe”—never, ever forget that. If you are a woman, you have a UK Government that condones a rape clause.
May the grace of God help those who happen to be Gypsy Travellers under the Tories. According to Douglas Ross, the Tories would rather crack down on Gypsy Travellers’ rights than uphold them. That was a disgraceful comment that the Tories should rightly be shamed for.
Our commitment to equality and fairness is transposed into the world of work and, as we have heard, as the world of work changes, so must we. The Government, which is modern and focused in its purpose, maintains its pledge to make work fair and equal. That is why it is no surprise that, in Scotland, the gender pay gap is closing and has fallen to 6.2 per cent, compared with the UK-wide figure of 9.4 per cent. We are not quite there, but the Government continues to transform the structures that uphold the gender pay gap. That is precisely why, in the history of the Parliament, no Government has done more to expand free early learning and childcare and to give all parents available opportunities to return to work, assured and confident. Today, we have heard that we will go further by securing multiyear continuous funding, which I am sure will be more than welcome.
We now have the highest employment level on record. That means jobs and possibility and, above all, it gives hope. Hope can move mountains, and some people need only a little bit of hope. The Government offers exactly that. It offers hope that, if someone finds themselves on the downside of disadvantage, they will not be downtrodden, demonised or sanctioned. I am proud of a Government that will not sanction its people and that designs a social security system that is based on dignity. I am proud of a Government that commits to end child poverty and to tackle the tragedy of rough sleeping. I am proud that this Government will lead by example, with purpose, principle and, above all, humanity.
The First Minister described her programme for government as ambitious. That claim has to be judged in the context of what more could be done, much of which was set out in detail by Alex Rowley, and in the context of the bigger picture.
In the previous parliamentary session, I sat on the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, which debated the outcomes of the Smith commission. We interrogated Scottish and UK ministers and we heard a good deal from civil society. The sense from many of those witnesses was of the transformative potential of the new powers. SNP ministers and committee members lost no opportunity to argue that more devolved powers would enable Scotland’s devolved Government to take more of a lead in meeting the challenges that lie ahead. That was all before the European Union referendum in June last year, which put yet more powers up for grabs and made the need for leadership from ministers all the greater.
The SNP has been in office for more than 10 years, and we are discussing the second programme for government that it has brought forward since its re-election as a minority Government after the Smith commission, and since the EU referendum. However, transformative this programme is not. As in 2016, the Government has brought forward a raft of measures. Some are welcome but, as a package, they fall short of a bold turn away from austerity and do not address some of the key issues that matter most to my constituents.
Twelve months ago, when we debated the previous programme for government, the Scottish economy was flirting with recession, yet the Government had failed to produce any comprehensive response to the downturn in the oil and gas industry. Now we are told that there is to be a new approach to manufacturing, but there is still little sense that the Government has come to terms with the nature and scale of the impact of the oil downturn on the Scottish economy.
I was of course pleased to hear the First Minister promise funding for feasibility studies for the acorn carbon capture and storage project at St Fergus in the north-east, albeit that the funding is not millions of pounds but £100,000 and will underpin substantial funding that the European Union provided last May. The First Minister was right that the North Sea has great potential as a store for sequestered carbon, but it is disappointing that the existing productive industries in the North Sea did not merit even a mention in her statement, given that she knows that the oil and gas sector has contributed more than any other industry in recent years to maintaining a manufacturing base across the Scottish economy, from Ayrshire to Fife.
The wider impact of the downturn is plain for all to see in the low growth in the Scottish economy over the past two years. It is also visible in the thousands of people who have lost their jobs over the same period as a direct or indirect result, especially in the north-east. The Government’s response to that crisis was to set up an energy jobs task force, which—after a slow start—provided help to some of the people who were put out of work but has now been told that it is no longer needed. It is remarkable that the First Minister did not even mention such an important Government decision, which was taken only in the past few days. Tommy Campbell, who is Unite the union’s regional industrial officer, expressed many people’s disappointment when he said:
“People are still losing their jobs both off and onshore. On that basis the task group still has a job to do.”
The Press and Journal described the decision as “premature” from a business perspective and wondered why the Government was in such a hurry to up sticks and move on.
Even the Government’s own figures show that support and advice have been provided to only a fraction of the people who have lost their jobs and I know that ministers know that there are more job losses to come. With Offshore Europe delegates gathering in Aberdeen this week, there is already talk of a fourth industrial revolution offshore, which is code for more automation, more remote operations, greater reliance on big data and a future with fewer jobs. If ministers are serious about their high ambition for our industrial future, this is surely the wrong time to end a targeted intervention in a sector of the economy where the existing jobs are still at risk and much of the pain for workers and their families still lies ahead.
The other big risk that we faced a year ago and still face is from Brexit. I hope that there will be a continuing change of emphasis from the First Minister on that. In the first part of the year, the SNP’s response to Theresa May’s Brexit strategy was to promote an exit strategy of its own. Leaving Britain to stay in Europe was not a policy that was likely to attract broad support and it cost the SNP many seats at the general election. More important, it distracted attention from the urgent task of protecting the benefits of our relationships with the rest of the European Union.
Indyref 2 was not quite gone from today’s script, which is a pity, but we have clearly moved into a new phase in the Brexit process and there is still precious little evidence that ministers in the UK Conservative Government have any rational strategy for achieving their objectives in the short or long term. It is therefore all the more important that Scottish ministers concentrate on the task in hand. I welcome their efforts to work jointly with Labour ministers in Wales to define and protect the scope of devolved powers that arise from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill at Westminster and I look forward to working with them where we can agree on shared objectives. The priority must be to get the best outcome for all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom within the context of the referendum result. I hope that that can be the focus of our debates on Brexit.
The Parliament is already empowered in ways that go even further than the ambitions of its founders 20 years ago. The return of powers from Brussels means that it will be empowered still further in the next two years. The challenge for ministers is to go beyond today’s plans, be bold and use all those powers to deliver for the people of Scotland.
I understand that the clock that is behind me is not operating to tell members the time. That is being remedied, but the side clocks are telling members the speaking times. If members are not able to catch those, there is always my pen, which I raise when the speaker has one minute to go.
Today, the Scottish Government has pledged to deliver changes that will be instrumental in the lives of families and young people. There were also significant announcements that will have a positive impact on women and girls throughout the country.
Little more than a year ago, my friend and colleague Julie Hepburn and I successfully put forward a resolution to the SNP’s national council calling for the introduction of an S-card that would allow women and girls to access sanitary products freely from designated locations. Since then, in meetings with the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, Angela Constance, I have pushed for more to be done to wipe out period poverty, on which many of us have campaigned for years.
I point to the research into the issue that I did with my friends and colleagues in women for independence to help inform my work and that of the Government. In particular, I thank Julie Hepburn, Victoria Heaney and Margaret Young from the organisation for all their help in the past year and I thank all the women’s groups that assembled in May this year in Edinburgh to bring more focus to the issue from their perspectives. I also thank Angela Constance and her officials for their can-do attitude when I sat in her office all those months ago.
I am delighted to say that our determination and that of other colleagues in this place and in civic society has paid off. I acknowledge the determination of my colleague in the Scottish Parliament, Monica Lennon, who has worked hard to draw more attention to the issue through her work on period poverty. I am sure that she will join me today in celebrating the effective hard work across the political spectrum on the issue and will agree that it is now firmly at the top of the Government’s agenda. Good things happen when tenacious women work together.
As members have heard, the Scottish Government has agreed to further build on the pilot scheme that was rolled out in Aberdeen in July, which involves working with Community Food Initiatives North East. That pilot will gather the evidence that we need to identify those who are affected. I am delighted that CFINE is also collaborating with Scottish Women’s Aid on access to period products—[
It is rather impolite—[
.] Excuse me, gentlemen. It is rather impolite to laugh raucously during a member’s speech. I think that you would concur—you would not like it to be done to you.
I will get back to the subject of domestic abuse as an issue in relation to period poverty. Period poverty can be an issue for women with controlling partners—women who do not have access to their own money. The issue of coercion and control is a hidden and distressing side of period poverty, and I will visit CFINE in the next couple of weeks to see how its pilot is going. The work that is carried out in that project will help to inform further work by highlighting the additional groups of women who are in need but who might have been missed from initial assessment.
The pilot is in addition to the significant commitment that the Scottish Government has given today to provide free access to sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities. We all know that many girls miss school because, as they lack access to products, they cannot leave the house during their period. We cannot allow that situation to continue as we try to close the attainment gap.
On that issue, I must say to Mr Tomkins, who would not take an intervention from me, that the biggest issue in relation to closing the attainment gap is the impact of hunger and deprivation, which are not caused by anything other than money being taken away from families who are on the breadline, and I think that we all know who has done that.
Stories about period poverty are horrifying to hear, but they illustrate why such measures are so important. The Scottish Government has shown a willingness to lead the way on this important issue of health equality and social equality in our society. I am proud of the work that many people have done on the issue, and it is good to be able to stand in the chamber to welcome the steps that we are taking rather than articulate once again the reasons for action to be taken. When we say that access to period products is a right and never a luxury, we mean it, and today’s announcement proves it. The world is watching us on this, and already we are being hailed as one of the world’s most progressive countries on the issue.
However, this is not the only measure that the Scottish Government is taking to help women. New measures have also been announced on childcare provision. Childcare is a family issue and not just a women’s issue. I spend a lot of my life railing against the fact that caring responsibilities are still seen by many as the sole preserve of women. They are not, but the fact remains that free childcare will have the greatest immediate economic impact on women, who can, if they wish, rejoin the workforce without the sometimes prohibitive cost or lack of availability of childcare being a determining factor. The impact of that on the income tax take will be significant, and I look forward to the promised reports and debate into income tax structures.
Providing the 1,140 hours of childcare that each child will receive is a huge challenge, and it was good to hear the First Minister address the two practical aspects to meeting that challenge: the multiyear package of funding for local authorities to support the recruitment and training of staff and the delivery of new premises to ensure that communities begin to benefit from this life-changing increase in childcare hours ahead of 2020.
Providing rates relief for childcare businesses will assist those providing childcare and will enable nurseries to be sustainable businesses that attract highly qualified staff with salaries that are worthy of their experience and which attract talented people into the childcare sector.
The programme for government is bold. It is very busy and in many aspects—many more than I have time to mention—it is leading the way and building on a record of achievement, not just in the 10 years of an SNP Government but in 20 years of devolution, that we should all be proud of.
The irony is that, when I leave time for interventions, members do not make or take them. We still have a little time in hand to liven up the debate, so I look forward to some interventions, although not on me personally.
I begin my contribution to the debate about the programme for government with reflections on the recent information about teacher vacancies and the recently published Education and Skills Committee report, which has set in context several key schools issues that Conservative members believe should be at the core of policy making for the foreseeable future. In the first instance, the issues relate to the teacher workforce and the available supply of teachers, to supporting and enhancing the quality of the workforce, to the profession’s attractiveness and to retention rates. As such, they lay the basis for taking up the challenge that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development set down when it said that, despite the strong ethos and basic principles of Scottish schooling, the current system does not allow us to reach our potential.
We agree with that statement and we believe that the evidence to support it is incontrovertible. As a result, the stark message in the committee’s report is that, if we cannot attract the right people into our classrooms and retain them, we have little hope of achieving all the other crucial elements of policy—especially raising standards in literacy and numeracy, narrowing the stubborn attainment gap and improving the delivery of the curriculum for excellence.
The report notes that those problems are not Scotland’s alone, which is true, but that acknowledgment will bring little comfort to parents whose children are in schools without the necessary number of teachers or where it is proving impossible to attract teachers in some key subject areas, or to parents of children whose subject choice might be compromised because vacancies cannot be filled.
That comes on top of the concerns that we heard just before recess about teacher training courses and, specifically, about whether enough attention is paid to learning how to teach literacy and numeracy, whether there is adequate support for additional support needs and whether the classroom practice aspect of teacher training courses articulates sufficiently well with the more academic and theoretical aspect.
We should acknowledge that teacher workforce planning is not easy—no one should pretend that it is—but, in its evidence taking, the committee found that significant blockages in the system are preventing better recruitment patterns. They include the lack of accuracy in key data, the lack of availability of supply staff, teacher training inadequacies and local authorities that are still trying to tie the hands of headteachers when it comes to recruitment and to a significant number of other aspects of schools policy.
The blockages in the system that stop teachers getting on with the job that they are trained to do are the reason why the Scottish Conservatives have long believed that we need fundamental reform. I do not for a minute doubt that that is also the reason why the cabinet secretary wants reform but, as things stand, we have grave concerns about the proposed SNP reform.
Let me be very clear about the Scottish Conservative position, which has been reinforced during recess following careful consultation with representatives of local authorities, parents’ groups, headteachers and elected councillors. The reform that is necessary is to free up schools to make their own decisions about how to run themselves without the straitjacket of a one-size-fits-all approach from central or local government. Schools want rid of the tiresome paperwork—I know that the cabinet secretary acknowledges some of this—that, in many cases, has little meaning and which, in some cases, was not devised by teachers in the first place. They want to know that they are fully supported and trained in the profession, and they want to know that it will be their choice alone about how to spend the pupil equity fund.
As the highly experienced Frank Lennon said, the problems in our schools are not all about money, otherwise the greater spend over the past two decades would have yielded much better results. The issue is the lack of autonomy, which denies heads the ability to do so much more. We agree with him that part of the autonomy should lie in teacher recruitment. For far too long, local authorities have strongly influenced who is recruited in each school and they have often been responsible for moving weak teachers from one school to another.
The cabinet secretary proposes to impose an additional regional structure that will be accountable to him, which I am convinced is the main reason why many councillors and many local authority officials are unhappy. He says that that is not his intention and that he intends merely to set up formal collaboration to share best practice. However, if that is the case, surely it does not require another board and layer of government that, by definition, would oversee strategic decision making. As I understand it, all that has left local government wondering where it stands and where local democracy really lies. Far from devolving more powers to schools, the measure is more about centralisation.
Liz Smith argues for reform, but her default position is to criticise the reform agenda that is brought forward. I ask her to reflect on that conundrum that she puts in front of Parliament.
The object of the reforms that I have put in place for the regional collaboratives is to follow exactly what the OECD asked us to do—to motivate greater collaboration, which the OECD thought was absent from Scottish education. I will have no more power as a consequence of that. I will drive a process of collaboration, which is exactly what the OECD asked us to do, and Liz Smith just said that she believes that that agenda should be pursued.
If what the cabinet secretary says is true, the professional development that he is so keen to have in the teaching profession should be built from within. It does not need another layer on top of what we already have, which, as I understand it, is imposing a structure in which local authorities will be entirely accountable to the cabinet secretary. The devolution of power to schools, which we all want, is being undermined by the structure that he is imposing.
To be absolutely clear, I am not in any way undermining the principles of the reforms that the cabinet secretary wants to achieve—after all, they are ours.
Cabinet secretary, nobody in the chamber can argue that the Scottish Conservatives have not been making such arguments for a very long time. It is about the structure that we have grave concerns, and on that basis we will challenge the cabinet secretary all the way through the scrutiny of the education bill.
I have said several times in the chamber that MSPs, like the people whom we all have the privilege of representing, share a unified hope for a better Scotland. We share the challenges that we all want to overcome, such as poverty in our communities, economic vulnerability as a result of recovering from the financial crash and the challenges that Brexit poses, and climate change. Although some are to blame for those situations, all of us are responsible.
We share hopes: we hope for social justice and a fairer society, for greater productivity and international competition, and for sustainability in our economy and our environment. Given all that shared aspiration, let us collaborate constructively to make the most of this year and collectively see the programme for government as an opportunity for all parties to put the next generation before the next press release, tweet or even election.
This ambitious programme for government, with 16 bills and a range of initiatives, covers so much of what we hope for the future. It includes continued investment in our young people, for example in the pupil equity fund, which, when I visited schools in my constituency over the recess, I saw making a lasting difference and closing not only the attainment gap but the aspiration gap. It includes commitments to expand apprenticeships and other initiatives, putting education as the number 1 priority. A commitment to lift the public sector pay cap is welcome, as is a commitment to take forward Frank’s law, which builds on the good work and commitment of many MSPs around the chamber. I am particularly glad to see that the Government is committing to work with the time for inclusive education campaign. I pay tribute to the campaign and everything that it has done.
I also welcome the discussion on how to use our taxation powers responsibly and progressively to strengthen our economy and build a fairer society.
There is so much that I could say about everything that is in the programme for government, but I will focus principally on how it will build a more innovative Scotland, a fairer Scotland and a more sustainable Scotland.
On innovation, investment in business research and development will increase by 70 per cent; £300 million will benefit organisations and businesses such as Nova Innovation, which is based in Leith in my constituency and which is a pioneering tidal wave energy company that is ready to export its tidal technology and expertise across the globe to meet the challenge of climate change.
The initiative to take forward a national manufacturing institute for Scotland will benefit organisations such as the Blake Group, which is in my constituency and which I visited last week. It has been in engineering for nearly 80 years in Leith, and its steel fabrication helped to build the remarkable Queensferry crossing, which was formally opened yesterday. The establishment of a national investment bank will make a sustainable and lasting difference to the economy, and I welcome the ambition for Edinburgh to become one of the top 10 global fintech centres. The provision of an industry-led body that will champion, nurture and grow a fintech community should be welcomed by all—as an Edinburgh MSP, I welcome it particularly warmly.
Building a fairer Scotland is important, and I welcome the programme for government for a range of reasons. The commitments that are in place—which the Social Security Committee, of which I am a member, is taking forward in the Social Security (Scotland) Bill—are vital if we are to use our powers well and responsibly to make an important difference in our communities. I welcome the openness to the consideration of a citizens basic income, which academics and individuals are looking at practically across the globe, in particular in Europe. There is much innovative thinking to which we should be open in building a fairer Scotland.
I welcome the tackling child poverty fund of £50 million. I know how much difference that will make, having gone through stages 1 and 2 of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill.
I particularly welcome the commitment from the First Minister to do all that the Scottish Government and Parliament can do to eradicate rough sleeping. With the Cyrenians, the Bethany Christian Trust and Street Soccer Scotland, and the potential for a Social Bite village in my constituency, the issue is particularly pertinent to the stakeholders whom I represent and to those who bring cases to my surgery each week. There is no doubt that Westminster austerity and welfare cuts are taking their toll in all our communities. We see worrying signs of increases in homelessness and rough sleeping, and it is great that the Scottish Government, while opposing Westminster austerity, will take forward initiatives to tackle homelessness on the streets of Scotland.
I know that I am running short of time, Presiding Officer, but I want to touch on why the programme for government is so important to building a more sustainable Scotland, with low-emission zones, to which Edinburgh City Council and its SNP group are committed, and a doubling of the active travel spend. I especially welcome the deposit return scheme. In recent months, Boda Bars, which owns bars across Edinburgh and is based in my constituency, has pioneered a deposit return scheme that has made a difference. Boda Bars will welcome the Government’s scheme from the perspective of practical recycling, but, as the First Minister rightly said, tackling litter on the streets and beaches is also important, and Wardie bay beachwatch will welcome the scheme for that reason.
There is so much more that I could say. The programme for government is filled with new initiatives, bold ideas, hopes and aspirations. I hope that we will work together to make the most of this opportunity to improve Scotland for all those whom we serve.
Today was an opportunity for the SNP Government to unveil the progressive and radical programme for government that Scotland needs and to show genuine ambition for our country. However, just because the First Minister repeatedly uses the word “ambition”, that does not mean that it is true that the Government is ambitious. She is right: we are a nation with ambition—but we have a Government without ambition.
Today was an opportunity to tackle the crisis in our hospitals, inequality in our classrooms and inactivity in the workplace but, sadly, the SNP has let Scotland down once again. After a decade of SNP incompetence, it is now clearer than ever that we have a Government that is out of original ideas and a First Minister who has taken her eye off the ball and is desperate to play catch-up. She is strong on rhetoric, but weak on delivery.
The First Minister claims that education is her number 1 priority one week and the next week she claims that the NHS is her number 1 priority. In reality, she is driven by only one obsession: trying to fix a way to have another referendum.
In her speech, the First Minister said that she wants to “refresh” and “refocus” her Government. Surely this question has to be asked: can the ministers who created the problems be the ones to fix them? It is now more than a decade since the SNP came into government, so it has to take responsibility for the crisis that we see in our NHS and our workforce.
Nursing and midwifery vacancies are up from 2,500 at this time last year to 3,200. I am pleased that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport finds that amusing; Scotland’s patients do not. Consultant vacancies are up to nearly 500, and there are hundreds of cancelled operations because of insufficient capacity. Some 40,000 bed days were lost through delayed discharge in July alone. This is a day of shame for the First Minister and her failing health secretary.
Today’s programme for government is not even a highlight in a decade of mediocrity. Indeed, the Government has taken mediocrity to a new level altogether. We can have no confidence in the First Minister delivering what she has announced, because the Government has not delivered what it announced in last year’s wafer-thin programme for government. As today’s damning health statistics reveal, things in our NHS have gone in reverse from where they were this time last year.
Let there be no mistake: as we have done over the past year, Labour members will again hold the Government to account and make the argument for progressive policies that will make a difference to the lives of Scots. I am delighted that Labour has won the argument on public sector pay, and I pay tribute to all our trade unions right across the country. I am also glad that our arguments on the proposed organ donation legislation have won.
It is interesting that SNP members laugh about the public sector pay cap. Let us not forget that the SNP, aided and abetted—[
Perhaps members should reflect on the impact that that has had on public sector workers right across the country. The value of pay packets has been driven down by a Scottish Government with the wrong priorities.
Labour members made arguments to scrap the pay cap and every single SNP member remained silent. Where were they when the nurses’ representatives were outside lobbying Parliament? Where were they when we were proclaiming outside that we wanted to scrap the pay cap? Where were they in the protests? Earlier this year, I lodged a parliamentary motion on scrapping the public sector pay cap for NHS workers, and every single SNP MSP from the First Minister down voted against it. They voted against scrapping the pay cap. The SNP’s own submission to the public sector pay review body was to keep the cap in place.
SNP members shout, but they should be hanging their heads in shame, because they have denied workers a pay rise this year. Instead, they are talking about next year— [
.] SNP members shout, but I am sure that they must be privately really angry with the First Minister, because they know that she has failed and that she has taken their cause backwards.
Although we recognise their failure to deliver a pay rise this year, I welcome the nationalists’ U-turn on the lifting of the public sector pay cap. [
I thank individual staff members and trade unions for their support and tireless campaigning on the pay cap issue. We owe Unison, the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, the GMB and all the trade unions that represent public sector workers a huge debt of gratitude for their campaigning over the past year on that important issue.
We have a chance to go further in our progressive policies. I want to see this Government use its powers to deliver a progressive tax system, scrap the unfair council tax and address child poverty head on by increasing the levels of child benefit and using its powers to tackle Tory austerity, not simply multiplying it and passing it down to local government. I want us to focus on creating a country that fights inequality and injustice wherever we see it, not on flag-waving and creating divisions. That is the kind of country that we want to see here in Scotland; if only the SNP shared that mission.
It would also have been interesting to hear why in-patient and day case statistics in Scotland show that 81.4 per cent of patients are treated within 12 weeks under the SNP when the previous Labour Government could not treat that number even within 18 weeks. That perhaps explains why Anas Sarwar was not willing to take any interventions.
I, too, welcome the Government’s announcement in the programme for government on the Turing law. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to John Nicolson, the former MP who attempted to correct a great historic injustice with his private member’s bill in the House of Commons only to see it talked out by the Tory Government. Needless to say, the UK Government’s own proposals are not as comprehensive as those that Mr Nicolson and the campaigners wanted and they are not as far reaching as the changes that are likely to take place in Scotland, as announced today in the programme for government.
I am delighted to hear that the proposed legislation will provide a pardon for those convicted under repealed discriminatory laws and that, unlike under the UK Government’s approach, individuals will not have to apply for a pardon. In Scotland, it will be granted automatically and it will apply to those who have died as well as to the living. That is very much in keeping with the SNP’s record on equality and tackling discrimination, whether in passing the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill or in passing the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Bill, with the first conviction for revenge porn taking place this week.
The proposed Turing legislation shows that this SNP Scottish Government is building on its record. It is showing itself to be more compassionate, more ambitious and more progressive than its counterpart at Westminster.
Much of what we have heard today can be grouped around those three words: compassion, ambition and progressiveness. We see compassion in the proposal to extend free personal care below the age of 65, or Frank’s law, in the vulnerable witnesses and pre-recorded evidence bill, in the delivery of the best start grant and other benefits, in the support for young carers and in the proposed additional work to tackle rough sleeping.
We see ambition in the proposed creation of a national investment bank, in the expansion of childcare and the number of electric vehicles and in the commitment to advance manufacturing and the fintech sector.
We see progressiveness in our commitment to distribute free sanitary products in schools, universities and colleges—another bold example of this Government’s widely recognised commitment to gender equality. Other progressive measures include the deposit return scheme and the increase in our rate of social house building.
I return to Frank’s law. It has—quite rightly—attracted wide support across the political spectrum. The aim is to extend free personal and nursing care to under 65-year-olds suffering from dementia. However, I understand and hope that today’s proposal goes further than that, in that free personal care will be extended to everyone who requires it, regardless of age. I am particularly delighted about that, because last year I campaigned with Learning Disability Alliance Scotland for a reduction in care charges, after some people in my area experienced a hike in their care charges of up to 500 per cent. We are talking about people who need help to feed and wash themselves, and whose charges were increased by the local authority—the authority has since changed, I am pleased to say—even though the cabinet secretary had allocated additional money to reduce charges.
It is totally wrong that the most disabled people in our society should be penalised in that way, with charges increasing according to the level of disability. It is a shame that the Scottish Government has to step in and legislate to force councils to act, but that shows that the SNP is building on its record on fairness for more vulnerable people, just as we were doing when we mitigated the bedroom tax and when we stepped in to make good the UK Government’s council tax benefit cut.
The national investment bank for Scotland is a great illustration of our ambition and will help to address the challenge that is faced by many small and medium-sized businesses, particularly in rural areas such as the south of Scotland, where access to finance from private sector banking is challenging, even though the banks are owned by UK taxpayers.
The development of the national investment bank will complement the south of Scotland enterprise agency that the First Minister mentioned. I am pleased that the agency is powering ahead. The need for a bespoke approach to economic development in the South Scotland region that I represent is something that I, along with other stakeholders, raised with ministers repeatedly in the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee in the previous parliamentary session. I am pleased that the approach is progressing so well, and I am particularly pleased that the objectives for the new agency include
“Sustaining and growing communities—building and strengthening communities with joined up economic and community support” and
“Capitalising on people and resources—developing skills, promoting assets and resources and maximising the impact of investment in the area.”
I say for members who do not know South Scotland that the region faces challenges that are similar to those that are faced by the Highlands and Islands, such as an ageing population, the out-migration of young people, issues to do with physical and digital connectivity and a significant number of fragile towns and sectors, where wages are traditionally low and there are fewer high-skilled jobs. I am sure that the new south of Scotland enterprise agency will help to address all those issues and I am delighted that the SNP is delivering it.
We have a strong record of supporting small businesses—
For example, we extended to 100,000 the number of such businesses that are supported through the small business bonus.
I could go on; the programme is extensive and ambitious—
Dazzling and futuristic: I refer, of course, to the new chamber lighting and not—I am sad to say—to the programme for government that the First Minister announced this afternoon. It is, I say with reference to last year’s programme, a programme that we might reasonably doubt will ever see completion, given that only three of last year’s 13 proposed bills are in statute.
Of course, there are measures that we welcome, just as was the case in each of the previous Governments that the SNP and others have led. I was on the Public Petitions Committee when Amanda and Frank Kopel proposed Frank’s law, and I am delighted that the Government has embraced the proposal. I have always supported the measured way in which the Government has approached organ donation, so I look forward to seeing that bill. I say on a perfectly personal basis that I look forward to seeing the substance of John Finnie’s bill, too.
However, with a domestic economy that is failing to lead, an education system that is descending into shambles, a healthcare system that is groaning and struggling to provide, and a unitary police force that is in search of reliable leadership and purpose, the Government can no longer spin rhetoric to mask its failings. It is a Government that has run its course, and which is led by a First Minister who is more polarising in Scotland than any national party leader in 30 years.
The First Minister promised us in June a refresh when she made an apology of sorts in the chamber for her performance. We expected fresh faces, at the very least, but instead—alas, at least so far—it is the same old same old.
Amid a record in Government whose true highlights belong to parliamentary sessions long past, the new Queensferry crossing is a standard bearer for all that modern Scotland can achieve. Joe FitzPatrick, together with former Liberal Democrat MSP Hugh O’Donnell, sat with me on the Forth Crossing Bill Committee in the session of Parliament before last. We saw off those who denied the need for a new crossing. We considered tunnels and all manner of variants for crossing the Forth afresh and we settled on, and recommended to Parliament, the routes to and from and the new crossing itself—which we saw Her Majesty open yesterday. At that time, we remarked that the crossing would lend iconic status to the Forth by symbolising both our industrial past and modern Scotland, with the three bridges representing three centuries of Scottish design, guile and achievement.
I add my tribute to all those who have made those paper visions a reality and—yes—to the Scottish Government ministers. We built in significant contingency just in case, but the crossing was completed within budget and more or less on time.
Throughout the summer, it has seemed that Humza Yousaf has, every time a train managed to run on time, tweeted and demanded the congratulations of Opposition politicians. So, let us namecheck Humza Yousaf as the transport minister who inherited the bridge completion date.
Long after all of us in the chamber are but dust and are forgotten, and our arguments relegated to the sort of dull academic history that only Adam Tomkins reads, the new Queensferry crossing will stand as a proud symbol and reminder of our times. We can all be proud of that.
A programme for government needs an Opposition to challenge it. Today, Ruth Davidson articulated an alternative vision and talked about bold initiatives in housing, as did Adam Tomkins. Liz Smith again advocated the sustained policy responses of nearly a decade that we believe are required to restore the reputation, relevance and success of Scottish education. On Thursday, Miles Briggs will set out our approach to health, as will Liam Kerr on justice and Murdo Fraser and Dean Lockhart on the economy.
Meanwhile, Scottish Labour is to have another of its perennial leadership elections. What a spectacle awaits. Before us now will sit Ms Dugdale, Mr Gray and Ms Lamont, who have all been the leader; Daniel Johnson, who desperately wants to believe that one day he will be the leader; Monica Lennon, who believes that she will be the leader after the next one; Mr Rowley, who was happy to be talked of as the next leader until the opportunity actually arose; Jackie Baillie, who could be the leader if she were not the only UK politician to have been fatally wounded by the nuclear deterrent; Mr Stewart and Mr Macdonald, who are both far too sensible to ever try to be the leader; and others who have tried and failed to be the leader, including Neil Findlay, who we all know can be relied on to campaign actively against the next leader.
The Labour leadership contest is now to be held between two privileged and wealthy former public schoolboys. Indeed, if Mr Sarwar—who has been campaigning for the job since May 2016—were to win and Mr Yousaf were to realise his thinly disguised ambition to succeed the First Minister, we would have the extraordinary triumph of two ex-Hutchie boys competing to be First Minister with Buckhaven’s finest—state-educated Ruth Davidson. Progressive politics works in mysterious ways, does it not?
Whatever the published programme for government, we all expect that much of our time will be centred on ensuring that we negotiate the best possible deal for Scotland as we exit the European Union. In the 15 months since the UK voted to leave, I have not yet heard arguments that would persuade me to vote other than to remain, if the referendum on our EU membership still lay ahead. At times, the debate feels like extended discussion to replicate the arrangements that are already in place. I am not inured either to the failings of the EU or the opportunities that we must create if we are to make a success of our departure. However, I have always chosen to respect the decisions of the binary-choice referenda that have been held during my adult lifetime—and I have been on the winning and losing sides of those votes.
The negotiation is not politics as normal. We will leave the EU, the single market and the customs union, so we need to work together to ensure that Scotland and the UK secure a future that is worthy of the name. I am disappointed that, during all this time, Mr Russell’s approach has been pejorative and partisan. Regrettably for Scotland, among UK ministers he has earned a reputation not only for lacking authority—having to refer back on any decision—but for rushing to posture before the cameras after every exchange. Scotland must look to the Deputy First Minister—who I am thankful is now directly involved in the process—to help to find the common ground that clearly exists on fishing, farming and our future population in order to influence and secure a deal.
When Mr Barnier says
“There are extremely serious consequences of leaving the single market and it hasn’t been explained to the British people” and that
“we intend to teach people ... what leaving the single market means”, he is articulating a truth that some people wish to deny, which is that he speaks for the interests of the EU in the negotiations, and that his success will be judged not on how accommodating he is to Scotland and the UK, but on how little he concedes in any negotiation. Kissing our European partners, as Mr Blair did, and genuflecting before those who must secure what is in their interests and not necessarily in ours can only secure a deal that is fool’s gold.
Next week, members of this Parliament will meet Mr Barnier in Brussels. We must not allow him to posture or to “teach” us, as he would have it. We must let him clearly understand that however we voted last year, and whatever divides us politically as a country, should not be misunderstood. It does not mean that we will do anything other than stand together in the interests of Scotland and the UK.
At some stage, I must have offended Adam Tomkins, because he was prompted to make a number of remarks that require explanation and exploration of how they could be made coherently by a member of the Conservative Party. He attacked the Government because we supposedly do not see a link between child poverty and education. Mr Tomkins, who is a Conservative, has made that accusation against us—after the economic damage that has been done to people’s lives by the actions of the Conservative UK Government.
We are determined, through our persistent focus on closing the attainment gap, to address that damage and to establish and recognise the link that exists between poverty and education. We recognise that the solution lies in education providing individuals with the means to overcome poverty and to have a better life in the future.
Mr Tomkins went on to say that we have to tackle with more zeal the challenges in social and affordable housing in Scotland. He is oblivious to the fact that the housing problems that we are wrestling with today were created by the recklessness of Conservative housing policy that sold off the housing stock of our country and did absolutely nothing to protect it for future generations. Thank goodness that our Government is tackling with imagination and boldness the scale of the challenge that exists in public sector housing.
The other Conservative whom I seem to have offended today is Liz Smith. She claimed that the reform agenda belongs to the Conservative Party, but she attacked that self-same reform agenda. I simply point out the inherent contradiction in her remarks.
I thank the cabinet secretary for giving way, because I think that he misunderstood what I said. I am very much in favour of the principle of reform, which we support, but we are not prepared to accept the type of reform that Mr Swinney is trying to deliver, because it is the opposite of devolving powers down to schools.
We will have the opportunity to vote in Parliament on the proposed education bill, which will include a statutory provision to empower headteachers. If Liz Smith wants to vote against that, good luck to her in reconciling the hypocrisy of the position that she has outlined to Parliament today with the substance of what I have set out to Parliament in the education governance reforms.
I will not, at the moment.
The boldness of the Government’s agenda was captured in the speeches of Ben Macpherson, Kate Forbes, Joan McAlpine, Gillian Martin and Christina McKelvie, who reflected on the strength of the measures to strengthen our economy. Our economic performance is, of course, strong. In the most recent quarter for which figures are available, economic growth in Scotland was four times the level of economic growth in the UK, and unemployment in Scotland has fallen consistently and employment has grown.
We have a bold agenda on the environment, as the First Minister set out. We are taking measures to further our ambition on electric vehicles, as well as taking steps to protect our natural environment and to introduce a deposit-return scheme.
We are also introducing reforms on the public services agenda. Jackson Carlaw paid tribute to us for the due and orderly process that we went through in relation to organ donation. We have gone through the same process in relation to Frank’s law in order to ensure that the detail of the proposals that we intend to implement will be effective in meeting the aspirations and needs of the people who advocate the change in question.
Coupled with that is the bold social agenda that the Government is taking forward. I have talked about the work that we are doing to tackle child poverty. Among our social reforms are pardons for individuals who were in the past convicted for same-sex offences, and an increase in the minimum age of criminal responsibility to ensure that our legal framework is appropriate for, and commensurate with, the challenges of our times. That boldness of our agenda has been reflected in the contributions that we have heard in Parliament this afternoon.
One of the other significant themes of the debate has been comments about Brexit. I welcome what Lewis Macdonald said about this Government’s handling of the deep and serious issues affecting the powers and responsibilities of this Parliament that would result from the UK Government’s legislative proposals for Brexit. I am very pleased to be involved, along with my colleague Mr Russell, in the discussions with the United Kingdom Government on those issues. Mr Carlaw thinks that I am the voice of calm and rational common sense in those discussions, so I have to say to him that I agree entirely with the stance that Mr Russell has taken, because I have never seen a more barefaced attempt to grab powers from this Parliament than that which is captured by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
I presume that Mr Carlaw made those remarks a moment ago because he knows that I carefully stewarded the negotiations with the United Kingdom Government on the fiscal framework, which his party applauded me for taking forward and which were done in such a fashion as to protect the interests of this Parliament. I come to the EU withdrawal discussions with exactly the same aim—to protect the interests of this Parliament, which are under threat from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. We must ensure that the UK Government understands that. That is exactly Mr Russell’s intention, and I am delighted to support him in that effort.
The Government has been in office for 10 years and has done a great number of things to improve the quality of life of people in our country. In education, in the course of this Administration there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of highers that are being achieved by young people. Ten years on, we have the best-performing accident and emergency system in the United Kingdom and, 10 years on, we have a 42-year low in crime in this country. Our economic performance, at 0.7 per cent growth in the last quarter, is four times that of the rest of the United Kingdom. That demonstrates the strength of the achievements that this Government has under its belt. We are determined to build on those achievements with an ambitious programme for government that will address the needs of the people of Scotland and ensure that we create a better and safer Scotland.
Thank you. That concludes today’s debate on the Scottish Government’s programme for government.
I remind members that if they have spoken in the debate, or if they intend to speak tomorrow, they should be here for the closing speeches on Thursday.