This is a programme for government that was delayed from last week because Nicola Sturgeon prioritised taking Green MSPs into her Government over outlining her plans for the year ahead. Her priorities were wrong last week and they are still wrong this week. Another independence referendum is front and centre of the First Minister’s plans for the year ahead. In a statement that is 27 pages long, it takes Nicola Sturgeon four paragraphs to reach a mention of independence. It is right up there, in front of all the other priorities that we should—[
The member mentions all that as if it were never made clear, either in the manifesto or in the election result, that the SNP is in favour of a referendum on independence.
The election that Mr Allan refers to is one in which the SNP failed to win a majority.
Let us remember that Alasdair Allan, Nicola Sturgeon, Humza Yousaf and all the SNP MSPs—like all the Conservative MSPs, Labour MSPs, Liberal Democrat MSPs and Greens—said in the election that our priority for each and every one of the 129 of us would be Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic. However, that is not the priority of the First Minister. She told the people to trust her to prioritise the recovery, but she has put another independence referendum front and centre—in paragraph 4 of her statement.
We agree on the importance of the recovery from Covid. I wonder whether Douglas Ross will take the opportunity to comment on any of the 26 and a half pages of the statement that set out bold and ambitious plans to lead Scotland out of the pandemic. It is his speech, but perhaps we can hear some of that in due course.
We will hear some of what was totally omitted from the First Minister’s speech, but I will come to that in a moment.
Nicola Sturgeon has put independence above Scottish jobs and separating Scotland is the top priority for her Government, rather than a recovery. The SNP Government’s focus on the future of Scotland is on a referendum, not on getting through the pandemic. Surely the Government should be pouring every single bit of time and effort into our economy, tackling drug deaths and remobilising our NHS? But no, it has put independence at the forefront again.
The Government will start work on a detailed prospectus for an independent Scotland, taking time and resources away from the priorities that it should be focusing on and putting them towards another independence referendum. Nicola Sturgeon is giving us a new white paper on independence instead of a plan for jobs, a plan to tackle drug deaths or a plan for the recovery of our NHS.
However, there are elements of the programme for government that we support—elements that the Scottish Conservatives have led on for the past year. We welcome the fact that the big headline policy trailed ahead of the document was wraparound childcare. We announced that that policy would be in our manifesto for May’s election some time before the First Minister announced that it would be in hers. Ensuring that parents can continue in the job—[
Douglas Ross wants to know what I was saying to the health secretary. I said that listening to Douglas Ross is like listening to playground politics and that we should all raise our game. Now that he wants to join me in that, perhaps we could hear some substance from Douglas Ross instead of what we have had for five minutes into his speech.
The irony of Nicola Sturgeon accusing anyone of playground politics will not be lost on people who are watching the debate.
She asks for substance; I was saying that the Scottish Conservatives welcome the commitment to wraparound childcare because we can see how important it is to ensure that parents can continue in their jobs and continue with secure employment when their child moves from nursery and early years into primary school, and that all children are able to benefit from extracurricular activities such as sport and music lessons, not just those who have the ability to pay.
As the son of a school dinner lady, I welcome the continued roll-out of free lunches and breakfasts in primary schools; again, that is a policy that was first put forward by the Scottish Conservatives and voted on in the Scottish Parliament in the previous session.
However, the positives in the document are far outweighed by what we cannot agree with and the major areas of inaction. The First Minister describes her investment in the NHS as a record investment, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies made clear during the Scottish Parliament election that a £2.5 billion increase over five years is worse than the Barnett consequentials of what is promised to the health service in England. That seems like far from a record investment.
We cannot see a repeat of the Government’s previous tactic of siphoning off health funding for other priorities, which is what we saw when Nicola Sturgeon was health secretary. As a bare minimum, we need to see the Scottish Government’s health funding increases being spent on health, here in Scotland. We know from recent United Kingdom Government announcements that we will see hundreds of millions of pounds in Barnett consequentials delivered to the Scottish Government. That gives the SNP a second chance to do what we called for it to do during the election: rip up the flimsy pamphlet from last month and produce a paper on NHS remobilisation, because that has to be the priority going forward.
Give our NHS the support that it needs—not in five years’ time, but right now, this year. Give clinicians and healthcare professionals the funding that they need to end the backlog in treatment in hospitals, restore accident and emergency waiting times, speed up our ambulance services and return to full face-to-face general practitioner surgeries. The First Minister has to confirm that every penny of that one-off injection will be put at the disposal of our NHS staff. Anything less would be a slap in the face to the brave health service workers who have done incredible work over the past 18 months.
I come to an area that the First Minister glossed over, which is not surprising because she has admitted that she took her eye off the ball on the matter. Her statement re-announces what the Scottish Government said last year that it would do to tackle the drug deaths crisis in this country when the figure stood at 1,264. That has now jumped to 1,339. What new policy, new action or change is there from the Scottish Government? Nothing. The programme for government outlines exactly what was outlined in January this year, before the record number of deaths that were announced this summer. [
.] The First Minister should listen.
I was saying that, every single day in Scotland, more than three people die from drug overdoses and drug abuse. The response from the SNP Government, which has seen an increase in drug deaths in all of the seven years in which Nicola Sturgeon has been the First Minister, has been to make no change to the plan and proposals it made in January this year—they are exactly the same as what it has proposed in the programme for government.
Does Mr Ross recall the statement that I made in the Parliament on 3 August? One example of a new policy was the announcement that we would have, for the first time, a national rehabilitation and recovery service for children and families, backed up by £8 million-worth of investment.
I was responding to what the First Minister said and what she has put in her programme for government, which is exactly the same as what has been announced before. Indeed, that announcement only put money back in that Nicola Sturgeon and SNP members voted to take out. After seven years of increasing numbers of people losing their lives because of drug misuse in Scotland, I thought that we would hear more from the Minister for Drugs Policy or the First Minister on that issue, but we are not doing so. We are not hearing vital proposals, which is why the Scottish Conservatives will bring forward our own plans for a right to recovery bill, to ensure that that national scandal is treated with the laser focus and resources that it deserves.
The programme was a chance for the Government to commit to our proposal. It will be a disappointment to many, both inside and outside the chamber, that the SNP has failed to do so.
On social care, we had promises of a major centralisation towards a national service and about stripping accountability and control away from local government. It is clear that the SNP Government wants to entrust councils with little more than bin collections—although, from looking at the state of Glasgow at the moment, I am not sure that Susan Aitken would be able to deal with even that. The Scottish Conservatives will oppose that damaging reorganisation, which will see funding spent on administration rather than on front-line care staff.
The programme lacks support for our economic recovery. It is clear that the economy is not a top priority for the Government. Throughout the week in the lead-up to today, we have heard calls from the Confederation of British Industry and the chambers of commerce for the Government to prioritise the economy and our recovery from the pandemic. They will not be happy with what we have seen.
The document is the usual myriad of schemes, but we know from the Government’s record on such funds—shown by the growth scheme and the Scottish National Investment Bank—that it announces a big number and has no intention of ever paying out that money. Businesses throughout Scotland have already reacted with concern to the formation of the nationalist coalition between the SNP and the Greens. The programme for government was the First Minister’s chance to reassure them and to show them that the Government still considers jobs and growth to be a priority, but they will have received no reassurance at all from the statement. A number of business representatives and organisations have called for specific priorities and policies, and they have not heard about them. All that we get from the Government is the news that it will press ahead with damaging policies, such as the car park tax.
The Government is continuing to press ahead with its proposals to make permanent Covid laws that were brought in as emergency legislation. I am sure that we will discuss that more, later on this week.
On education, we have heard about a continued push by the SNP with the same failing agenda, which has seen Scottish education fall from being among the best in the world to being considered internationally average. It is moving away from exams, courses that teach knowledge and rigorous standards. We welcome the Government’s continued move towards scrapping the Scottish Qualifications Authority, but that alone will not undo the harm that the SNP has caused a generation of young people. We have no confidence in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review that is entirely Government managed.
Are we getting much extra time, Presiding Officer?
I took some interventions, and I was pleased to do so, because this is a debate.
The programme for government confirms what we already know about the nationalist coalition, which is that the Government is being drawn away from the priority of working for Scotland and from the priorities that really matter to people. There will be tens of thousands of SNP voters who no longer recognise the party that they voted for, who rejected the extremist views of Harvie and Slater at the ballot box only to watch in horror as Nicola Sturgeon let them walk through the front door of Bute House.
We cannot support the programme, because it puts another referendum ahead of our recovery from the pandemic. Not only does that disregard the essential support that we have seen over this period from the UK Government, it is also totally the wrong priority. It is irresponsible and it is reckless. The fact that the Government cannot park its obsession when it is faced with the countless problems that face Scotland today tells us everything that we need to know about Nicola Sturgeon and her priorities.
When our NHS is on the brink of a fresh winter crisis and our economic recovery hangs in the balance, the SNP and the Greens would prefer to waste taxpayers’ money on preparing for a second independence referendum.
This is a programme for independence, not a programme for government. As long as the coalition continues to put separation at the top of its plans, the Scottish Conservatives will continue to oppose that nationalist agenda.
Scotland needed a programme for government that recognised the scale of the challenge that our country is facing, but instead it got a programme that is short on big ideas. It is not good enough, it is not bold enough and it will not do enough.
Undoubtedly, there are individual measures in the announcements that we can welcome and support—Anne’s law is a good example of that. However, this programme for government does not go far enough.
Barely a week goes by without someone from the Government’s front benches declaring something mundane, rebadged or self-serving as historic. However, the dire truth is that, despite the SNP’s rhetoric, the only historic things today are the levels of poverty in our streets, the numbers waiting for treatment in hospitals and the depth of the economic crisis facing our country. In the face of those challenges, this is a tired and rehashed programme from a party that has clearly run out of big ideas.
This disappointing programme for government shows that there is a lack of ambition from this SNP Government. Seriously, is that it? Is that as good as it gets? Is that the scale of ambition for this country? I do not think so. [
.] I would like to make a bit of progress before giving way.
This Government’s record is defined by delays, broken promises and a gulf between spin and action, and it seems that we can expect more of the same.
We are up against a global pandemic, a growing healthcare crisis, a jobs crisis and the climate emergency. There is no time to waste. However, instead, we get this piecemeal plan.
This may surprise the First Minister, but there are ideas that are bigger than independence. I accept that the pandemic has changed all of our lives and has left a devastating legacy that that we must confront, but it would be wrong to suggest that all of our country’s problems are because of the pandemic. Many of the challenges that we face predate Covid-19.
We are all aware that the pandemic has not gone away. Cases are at record levels, the vaccine is working but the overall progress is stalling and we have a Government that does not appear to have a coherent strategy for this phase of the pandemic. All of that holds back our nation and our national recovery. I see that the Scottish Government is proposing to introduce a Covid recovery bill, but that must be about embedding protections for our nation, not embedding state control. We will debate issues around that later this week, but it is clear that this is an attempt by the Government to look in control of a virus that is clearly out of control.
Let us look at the big challenges facing our country. One in four children in Scotland lives in poverty. That is more than 250,000 people. On the first day of this parliamentary session, the First Minister said that fighting child poverty should be the driving mission of the session. In the previous session, we set legal targets without caveat and without condition, and it is clear that the measures in this programme for government will not meet that ambition.
Let us be clear: there can never be an acceptable level of child poverty. One child in poverty is one child too many. One night that a child spends in poverty is one night too many. Therefore, we again call on the Tory Government to think again about its plan to scrap the uplift of universal credit. However, let us be clear: when we set that legal target in the previous session, it was without condition and without caveat. More than 100 organisations wrote to the First Minister demanding immediate action and the immediate doubling of the Scottish payment, and every faith leader wrote to the First Minister demanding immediate action.
We should double the Scottish child payment immediately, then double it again next year. That simple act would cut child poverty by nearly a third, transforming 80,000 lives. If we do not do that, we will miss that legal target. It is bad enough to break the law, meaning that hundreds of thousands of people are left on NHS waiting lists, but it is another thing to break the law and abandon hundreds of thousands of children to live in preventable poverty.
T his is one of the most important issues that we face. Anas Sarwar’s predecessor as Scottish Labour leader called on me to deliver a payment for children of £5 a week. We are already delivering £10 a week—so, doubling what we were originally asked to do—and we have given a commitment to double that again to £20 a week as soon as we can put the budgetary provisions in place. That is what children in poverty need: a Government that is going to do the serious work to deliver as quickly as possible the commitments that we want to deliver. That is very different from simply plucking figures out of thin air, with no idea whatsoever of how to deliver them. Frankly, children across Scotland living in poverty deserve better than what Anas Sarwar is offering.
I welcomed the £5 payment and the £10 child payment—I am talking about the original policy—but the reality is that when we set that legal target in the previous session, it was not for a press release or so that we could say, “Yes, this Parliament’s thinking big”. It was to set a legal target for this Parliament to meet. If we do not take meaningful action, we will miss that legal target. That might be a bad news story for the Parliament on one day, but that bad news story would mean thousands of children still living in poverty across our country—that is why we need urgent action.
However, that lack of ambition is not just evidenced in the child poverty target—it is also seen in the approach to the NHS. Across Scotland, 600,000 people are left languishing on NHS waiting lists, and even before the pandemic, that figure was 450,000. Rather than publish an NHS recovery plan that was dismissed as unrealistic by health workers, the First Minister could have shifted the machinery of the Government into tackling that crisis head on. We could have seen the programme for government bring forward a real NHS recovery plan that got services back on track, prioritised dealing with the backlog in diagnostic services and care, delivered a credible workforce plan and rewarded so many undervalued staff by raising social carers’ pay to £15 an hour.
Instead, we have seen a focus on rhetoric and a failure to confront the reality, with no credible plan that will reverse the crisis in our NHS. That utter lack of ambition is, again, not limited to the issues of poverty or the NHS but is seen in our jobs recovery and economic recovery. In Scotland, 30,000 young people are unemployed. We are creeping towards the cliff edge of furlough, but there is no coherent plan for how we provide a jobs guarantee and an economic development plan for all parts of our country to make sure that we have an inclusive urban, rural, coastal and island recovery.
Scottish Labour called for the most ambitious job creation scheme in the history of the Scottish Parliament to confront that crisis: guaranteeing a job for every young Scot by investing in a national training fund and a business restart fund. However, the only meaningful job creation scheme that we have seen is for the First Minister’s pals in the Parliament. That is not quite what we meant by a focus on green jobs. In 2010, the SNP promised 130,000 green jobs by 2020, a laudable aim to help tackle the climate emergency. However, the number of people directly employed has fallen to just over 23,000. The Scottish Government’s £100 million green jobs fund, announced almost a year ago, has yet to create a single job.
We keep hearing about a just transition, but unless we act right now, we will not get the buy-in that we need to give communities support. We need a truly workers-led transition so that the Scottish Government does not repeat the mistakes of previous Tory Governments, when whole communities were left on the unemployment scrap heap. The programme for government could have put climate, not the constitution, front and centre, with a focus on a real plan for a just transition that focused on the skills needed in a green recovery and protecting jobs and communities impacted by the transition to net zero.
On education, there is not enough in the programme to support Scotland’s Covid generation. However, they were being failed long before the pandemic. The truth is that Scotland’s pupils have been short changed by the First Minister, whose attempt to promise the world delivers little.
It is right that the failed Scottish Qualifications Authority will be scrapped, but the scars of the pandemic will mark our education system for years to come. An entire generation of pupils will bear the weight of that disruption as they go through their education. That could, without serious action, weigh heavily on their life chances and life outcomes.
Despite that, the action to support pupils and teachers to work against the disruption of the pandemic has been minor at best. The number of full-time equivalent teachers in schools is 1,700 fewer than when the SNP came to office in 2007. More than 2,600 teachers have dropped or lost their professional registration during the past five years. That is a warning sign to this Government that keeps being ignored.
Whatever action we take now, we will have to rebuild after more than a decade of SNP cuts, which damaged our education system before the pandemic even hit. We reiterate our call for an education comeback plan, including a personal tutoring programme for pupils of all ages and a genuine effort to encourage people to work in our education system. Anything less than that is an abdication of responsibility to our country’s future.
I end by repeating my plea to the Government: focus on the challenges that our country is facing, and focus on our country’s priorities, not the SNP Government’s priorities. Scotland deserves a national recovery plan that meets our ambition to build a fairer and stronger Scotland together. Instead, what we have seen in this programme for government is just another example of a pattern that has defined the SNP Government’s approach: promise big, never deliver, blame someone else and hope that people have forgotten about it when it gets round to promising the same again. Frankly, Scotland deserves better.
After everything that we have been through, Scotland needs new hope right now. We need new hope in our fight against the climate emergency, whereby we take serious action on the way that we move about and the way that we build and heat our communities, and on the decarbonisation of our economy. We need new hope for our young people that they might once again enjoy the world-beating education that they are used to, access jobs of their choosing and get on the housing ladder, no matter where they come from. We need new hope for the health of the nation, whereby people can receive the care that they need in safely staffed settings instead of being lied to by a Government-sanctioned letter that tells them that they will be seen in 12 weeks when there is no hope that they will be seen in 50 weeks. However, in the pages of the programme for government, there is little in the way of that new hope to be found. Rather, it is old hype, reheated and, as Anas Sarwar has said, rebadged. Indeed, we have heard many of the assurances before.
It has become a sombre tradition for the Liberal Democrat response to the programme for government to highlight mental health waiting times. This will be the fourth year in a row that we have done so. Each year, the First Minister promises to bring down waiting times, but each year the waiting times for children, young people and adults all increase. The first time we raised the issue, 208 children were waiting for more than a year. The next year, that number had more than trebled and the First Minister described that as unacceptable. However, last year we reached a new high, with 1,500 children on the waiting list. Official statistics that were published this morning show that 2,138 children and young people are now waiting for more than a year for first-line care.
Before the pandemic, the only thing that the SNP’s waiting times recovery plan had delivered in three years was the longest queue in the national health service for our most vulnerable children and young people. Now, the SNP-Green coalition is promising to clear waiting times in two years. I welcome that—I really do—but I want to know how that will happen. The Government needs to immediately publish its workings on that in full. Children and young people deserve access to the very best care. They must not be parked on medication or referred to inferior online interventions just because ministers have a target to meet. It requires proper investment, on top of the £120 million already secured by the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the previous Scottish budget, and an ironclad plan to increase the workforce.
A similar laser-beam focus will be needed to tackle the drug deaths catastrophe that Anas Sarwar just mentioned. I sincerely hope that this will be the last year that we have to raise those problems in the chamber.
If I lay to the side those concerns, there are aspects of the—
Since the Government came to power, there has been an increase of almost 80 per cent in child and adolescent mental health services staffing. We will continue to do our best for young people across the country. I respectfully say that it is not helpful when Mr Cole-Hamilton calls some of the services that are being delivered inferior.
If someone is referred to a website called Beating the Blues when they have anxiety or self-harming behaviour, that is an inferior intervention. The Government may have invested in the CAMHS workforce, but the truth and reality of the situation is found in the statistics that were published this morning. The minister cannot ignore the problem.
There are aspects of the programme for government—on school meals, the child payment and Covid business support—that the Liberal Democrats welcome. We also welcome the overdue expansion of funded child care, but we will be paying close attention to the capacity strain in the sector and to how flexibility is afforded to meet the needs of families that work irregular hours or have training needs.
We also welcome the planned reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, because the GRA is harming people every day. The proposed reforms do not seek to endanger women or create an environment for predation. Instead, they will offer trans and non-binary people the dignity and freedom that are enjoyed in countries such as Ireland and France, which have already reformed their gender recognition laws. In those countries, concerns about a suggested link between self-identification and abuse have just not been realised. It is because the Government deferred parliamentary consideration of the reforms that the debate has become so toxic.
Alex Cole-Hamilton will have seen that Police Scotland today accepted corporate criminal liability for events around the M9 crash in 2015. The case is still live, so I am restricted in what I can say, but it is clearly a significant case with consequences for both the police and the Government. Does Mr Cole-Hamilton think that it would be appropriate for the Government to consider apologising for what happened?
I will certainly proceed with caution, Presiding Officer. Willie Rennie makes a powerful point, but those are not matters for me. I am certain that he would have intervened on the First Minister earlier had he been permitted to, so I offer the First Minister the opportunity to address Willie Rennie’s concerns by intervention just now.
Mr Cole-Hamilton, please resume your seat. On a point of clarification, the First Minister’s contribution this afternoon was in the form of a statement, and the member will be aware that statements are given with no interventions or interruptions accepted. Mr Cole-Hamilton will be aware that that is what the Parliamentary Bureau agreed to.
It is particularly important that I behave responsibly in responding to that point. I am not aware of the stage of the court case today, but it may well be a live criminal case. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for me to respond in substance. As soon as it is possible for the Scottish Government to do that, however, we will.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek clarification from you in relation to the nature of the statement that the First Minister gave. Is it not the case that the First Minister herself insisted that there should be a statement today with no interventions and that it is not a case of convention or procedure of the Parliament?
Mr Kerr, I have attended the same Parliamentary Bureau meetings as you have attended. We discussed the matter and the bureau agreed that that was the way forward. As the member will be aware, issues concerning programme for government debates are always under review, and that will be the case as we go forward.
I am grateful to the First Minister for taking time to address Willie Rennie’s concerns. The centralisation of Police Scotland, and the careless manner in which it was rammed through, will forever be one of the biggest mistakes of this Government. It was not just that control rooms descended into chaos; it was the target culture that went with it, and stop and search.
The experience of the botched and rushed centralisation of the police in Scotland is one of the many reasons why the Liberal Democrats are so worried about the planned ministerial takeover of social care. In today’s statement, we heard further detail about the proposals for a national care service, but the term is deceiving in itself. The First Minister has many talents, but she is not some 21st century Nye Bevan. The NHS, our most trusted national institution, was forged in the rubble and poverty of war. It answered a need for treatment that was free at the point of delivery, and it has established a template for socialised medicine the world over.
To call it a national care service is disingenuous. There has been no suggestion that this will be a socialised model of care, and it certainly will not be offered free at the point of delivery. It is a gimmick and a ministerial power grab. As such, the Scottish Liberal Democrats stand with the Royal College of Nursing and other stakeholders who believe that the proposals will distract from and delay implementation of other important reforms.
I want to address the centrepiece of the coalition Government’s agenda, starting with a reflection on the SNP’s new partner. Only in Catalonia will we find another Green Party that seeks to blend environmentalism with separatism. Everywhere else, the international green movement is rightly dedicated to strengthening ties with neighbours as the logical and progressive route to addressing the global threats that we all face.
The coalition agreement that was confirmed last week will be greeted with concern by those who vote Green on the basis of the climate emergency. The Scottish Greens have hitched their wagon to an Administration that has repeatedly missed its own emissions targets, in large part due to a lack of ministerial interest in anything that is unconnected to the constitution.
One would hope that Green ministers would relish the opportunity to hold the SNP’s feet to the fire on the issue. However, far from anchoring the attention of Government to the climate emergency—which is where the attention of every nation in the world should be—that existential crisis that we all face inexplicably plays second fiddle once again to independence. Indeed, the First Minister had not drawn breath before the road map to that shared goal was laid out. She has clearly learned nothing from taking the independence referendum campaign off pause on the eve of the deadly second wave last year. [
.] I do not have time.
The hour is late; the world is on fire. If the Greens will not step up and prioritise the climate emergency, the Liberal Democrats will.
The last thing that we need right now is the introspection of another referendum, but, despite everything, this coalition will drive for holding one, by legal means or otherwise. Despite platitudes about a new prospectus, it will likely ask people to vote blind on a proposition. This “land of milk and honey” and “it’ll be alright on the night” approach seems to be the central pillar around which everything else is built, at a time when warning lights are blinking across the dashboard of public policy. I say to the Government, if it has civil service time for a new white paper, it should get officials to focus on the business—
I am just closing now, Presiding Officer.
It should get them to focus on the many aspects of public policy that are crying out for their attention.
Scotland needs new hope right now—for the climate, for our patients, for our young people and our businesses—
I appreciate the opportunity to take part in the debate. It certainly looks as though a wide range of things are coming up to build on the SNP’s excellent record over the past 14 years. In passing, I welcome the abolition of dental charges, the creation of a victim’s commissioner, the building of more affordable housing, and the provision for 10 per cent of front-line health spending to be devoted to mental healthcare.
However, for me, one of the highlights of any year is the budget. Although the budget bill will have its own timetable, there is now agreement that all of us on committees should be thinking about the budget all year round. Therefore, on the question of the budget timetable, I hope that Westminster will be more responsible this year and will hold its budget process first—for preference, during the autumn—so that we can set our budget in the light of that, and so that local government authorities right across the UK will know where they stand with their budgets. Westminster announcing its budget in March is, frankly, irresponsible.
It is easy for all of us to say we want more money for this or for that. This morning at the Finance and Public Administration Committee, we heard suggestions about moves including increased child payments and reduced business rates, but there was reluctance to say where the money should come from to pay for them. We have seen that again this afternoon, from Anas Sarwar. We were told this morning that doubling the child payment would cost some £220 million; I presume that quadrupling it would cost at least £440 million. We need to know where that money would come from.
It is more challenging to say, for example, that there should be more money for mental health, but that to balance that, there would be less for hospitals, or to argue for more for colleges but less for universities. That is the responsible way of looking at things.
I say to the Opposition parties and the parliamentary committees that I hope that if, as we go through the budget process, they have different priorities from those of the Scottish Government, they will say so.
The budget process and scrutiny would also be more meaningful, and the public might engage more, if we heard some more realistic alternative proposals for higher expenditure in some areas and lower expenditure in others. I think that past committees have been reluctant to say that any sector should get less money, but it seems to me to be clear, from being on the Finance and Public Administration Committee, and from a briefing that we saw this morning, that
“tough spending and taxation choices await”.
I therefore encourage committees seriously to consider, when they are proposing increases in one area, making recommendations for reductions in another.
I turn to plans for the national care service. There have been many good aspects to care, both in care homes and at home. However, some aspects could be improved, one of which is the traditionally low pay of care workers, many of whom are women.
As a Parliament and as a country, we have choices to make. Do we want to take a more localised approach with different fees, standards and wages across the country, which some people would call a postcode lottery, or do we want a more consistent approach to fees, standards and wages, which some people would call overcentralisation? Those are serious questions; we must grapple with them.
I am happy to take that point. Politicians have tried to dress that up and to pretend that we can have both consistency and local decision-making, but one—either more centralisation and consistency, or more localisation—must be prioritised.
We must also seriously consider the cost of a national care service. If there are consequentials from Westminster, that will be well and good, but the service must not be funded by national insurance increases. NI is a regressive form of taxation that kicks in for the lowest-paid workers some £3000 earlier than income tax does. Income tax is by no means perfect, but it is more progressive, with those who are better able to pay more doing so. In contrast, increases in NI hit the less well-off people hardest. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has said that the national care service is a “distraction”. I do not agree with that. However, the service will come at a cost that we must tackle.
It was difficult to prepare my speech with little knowledge of what would be in the First Minister’s statement. I will mention one or two other issues.
The proposed gender recognition bill is likely to be interesting. People’s views on that subject are very polarised and I am not sure whether we can find middle ground that we can all agree on, or whether it is inevitable that one side will defeat the other. I hope that we in Parliament can handle the bill in a civilised way. We dealt with same-sex marriage quite calmly within Parliament, even if feelings were running high outside it. I hope that we can do the same again.
Some of us have signed up to the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy of Scotland’s charter for responsible debate, which talks about debates being informed, respectful and inclusive. Although we can disagree on issues such as self-identification, I hope that we can accept that there is a range of views and that we can be respectful even when we disagree.
I look forward to debate and discussion on many other topics that were raised in the First Minister’s statement. There is to be a consultation on the “not proven” verdict. I hope that one of the options will be to have two verdicts: proven and not proven. I welcome the fireworks bill, which will help the Dogs Trust at its base in my constituency. Dogs—and some people—experience a terrible time with fireworks.
I also welcome the minimum income guarantee and, of course, a referendum on Scottish freedom.
It is great to be back after the summer recess; I look forward to a busy year ahead. The programme for government offers us many opportunities. I look forward to getting more into the detail in the coming months.
Much has changed since last year’s debate on the programme for government. With more Scots having been protected by the roll-out of vaccination, we can turn our attention to the major challenges that are facing us all. How we address those challenges will define us as a nation for years to come.
As Douglas Ross said, securing Scotland’s economic recovery and creating jobs must be a priority for this Parliament. That is why Conservatives have called for the programme for government to ditch plans for an unwanted second independence referendum so that we can tackle the economic emergency that we all face.
Presiding Officer, I hope that you will indulge me because, given my brief, I would like to focus on our NHS, which is at crisis point. Even before the pandemic, Audit Scotland warned in 2019 that Scotland’s NHS was under increasing pressure, with rising demands and costs, while it was struggling to meet key waiting-time standards. Moving forward to 2021, we can see that the immense pressure that has been brought to bear by the pandemic has exacerbated those challenges.
Throughout the pandemic, health workers across Scotland have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of adversity. However, it is important that we are clear about the scale of the pressures that our NHS faces as we head into the winter. Many services are at risk of spiralling completely out of control. Meanwhile, bodies including the Royal College of Nursing have made it clear that staff are exhausted, burned out and demoralised following months of acute pressure.
Several of the commitments that the First Minister announced in her statement are welcome—not least, the investment in our front-line services—but they are, frankly, long overdue, given the scale of the challenges that our services face.
I will take as an example accident and emergency services, which are on their knees. Last week, Scotland recorded its third consecutive week of record lows for A and E performance. With nursing and medical staff being pushed to the limit, more Scots are being forced to wait longer for emergency care. As staff who work on the front line have acknowledged, the figures are the kind that we typically see in the harshest winter months. That is not sustainable, nor is it acceptable.
The pressures are also having clear knock-on effects on other emergency services that people rely on in times of need, including the Scottish Ambulance Service. Members are hearing from their constituents of cases in which vulnerable people have waited for hours on end for ambulances to arrive. In one case, the wait was a staggering 16 hours.
Something that the First Minister did not mention in her statement this afternoon was long Covid—an awful aspect of the disease, in which horrible symptoms can linger for weeks or even months on end. Figures point to there being about 70,000 people in Scotland who are suffering with long Covid, which has a debilitating impact on their physical and mental health. The failure to act on long Covid has also placed undue pressure on our NHS. That is why, with my colleague Dr Sandesh Gulhane spearheading our work, we have been demanding that the Government treats long Covid with the seriousness that it deserves.
However, if the NHS recovery plan is anything to go by, we have a long way to go. As part of our suggested—
Annie Wells said:
“If the NHS recovery plan is anything to go by, we have a long way to go.”
Does she recognise that her party in the UK Government has basically copied our NHS recovery plan? It is also looking to increase mental healthcare spending by 10 per cent. I also point out that our £1 billion investment is higher than the £600 million investment that Annie Wells says the Tories will commit to NHS recovery.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that intervention. However, I was talking about long Covid, and the £600 million that I spoke about was just to deal with the backlog that our NHS is facing and to help front-line staff to achieve what they are being asked to achieve.
As part of our suggested response, we call for the establishment of specialist long Covid treatment clinics to offer vital support to the people who are worst affected. I recognise that the Government has set aside funding for research and innovation, but we are clear that practical support is urgently needed for long Covid assessment, treatment and rehabilitation. To put it simply, I say that so many Scots are suffering with long Covid, and many cannot afford to wait any longer for help.
Over the years, we have—sadly—become accustomed to the shocking statistics on deaths that are linked to alcohol and drug addiction. Not only was the number of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland last year the highest that it has been for 12 years, but drug deaths have also soared to record levels, with the 2020 level representing the seventh annual increase in a row.
Given that awful record, people rightly expected—as Douglas Ross pointed out earlier—new measures in the area to form a key part of the NHS recovery plan. Yet again, however, the plan has been found wanting, with nothing new in the document to address alcohol-related and drug-related deaths. Given that we have a clear public health emergency that has significant implications for victims and the NHS, the Government must make the matter a top priority.
With the backing of recovery groups, the Scottish Conservatives will bring to Parliament a bold and ambitious bill on the right to recovery. We want to make sure, with additional funding targeted at residential rehab, that everyone can access the necessary treatment that they need in order to survive and get better.
I recognise that our country has been gripped by the pandemic. Ensuring that our healthcare system is match fit will be one of the greatest challenges that any Government will face. However, I remain concerned that, in several areas, the programme for government fails, at least in substance, to respond properly to the array of the greatest challenges that we face.
It is a great privilege to speak in the debate on our programme for government for the parliamentary year. Last week, I spoke about Argyll and Bute’s amazing natural larder, so I am very pleased to see that a good food nation bill will be introduced to Parliament. The link between diet and infection has been emphasised during the pandemic. That piece of legislation will be most welcome.
However, today I will concentrate on some of Argyll and Bute’s other natural resources: its wind, water and geography. All three of those combine to make Argyll and Bute a renewable energy powerhouse.
By 2030, the Scottish Government aims to generate 50 per cent of Scotland’s overall energy consumption from renewable sources, helping Scotland to become a net zero economy. The 26th UN climate change conference of the parties—COP26—in Glasgow is our opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5 per cent. Onshore wind, solar and hydro all operate the length and breadth of my constituency. The proposed development of the W1 wind farm will bring in offshore wind, and I am sure that it will not be long before the power of the tide in the Sound of Islay is captured. Over the summer, I visited 11 islands across Argyll and Bute, many of which have invested in community renewable energy schemes.
When I first moved to Islay, I was part of a small team that established a community wind turbine. With the feed-in tariff that was available then, as well as generating renewable energy for the grid, our turbine created funds for our community. It is expected to raise around £2 million over its 20-year life—a local initiative with positive effects on the wealth, wellbeing and environment of the islanders.
In the programme for government, there are opportunities for islands to lead the way to reaching net zero emissions targets by 2045: in introducing 100 per cent renewable energy, creating circular economies, making homes and buildings greener to heat, tackling waste and introducing sustainable transport.
No; if the member does not mind, I would like to continue.
There are a few islands in my constituency that I know would be perfect for piloting those things. Iona Renewables has developed a local energy road map, which lays out a vision for how a community-led scheme can work towards owning, generating, storing and using energy on the island. It is in discussions with the Scottish Government to take that to the next stage.
In Kintyre, the East Kintyre renewable energy group highlights the socioeconomic implications of wind farms, and maximises the benefit to the community for agreed developments. It is also exploring opportunities for community shared ownership in new developments, to help fund projects that have been identified in the local area plan.
A circular economy is important in making such things work, and I cannot leave Kintyre without mentioning CS Wind. The current situation is very disappointing for the Campbeltown community, with a highly skilled workforce and a factory—which is sitting empty—both being unproductive. I will work with the community, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Government to try to get a resolution to that sorry state of affairs.
Throughout Cowal, hydro power schemes are dotted across the landscape. Many are micro schemes; however, the Loch Striven scheme, which was built in 1950, is still providing power. That is infrastructure investment from 70 years ago. I welcome the establishment of a national infrastructure company to deliver for the public good.
On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the official opening of the Glen Noe hydro scheme. With a capacity of 2MW, it can provide sufficient renewable electricity to power around 1,400 homes each year. The scheme will also invest £3,000 into the local community every year. The work was completed using Scottish contractors, and NatureScot has complimented the regeneration work, which has embedded the scheme perfectly into the landscape.
It is clear that one size does not fit all but, to reach net zero by 2045, we need to be flexible in our sources of energy. Harnessing our natural energy, looking at the best schemes for the environment, and investing appropriately in our workforce to enable a just transition are all key elements of the programme for government.
The programme for government pledges to increase the annual native woodland creation target to 4,000 hectares, which is welcome. However, Jenni Minto will know that the biodiversity strategy has a target of between 3,000 and 5,000 hectares. Does she share my concern that we could see a decrease instead of an increase?
Argyll and Bute is at the centre of a perfect storm for renewable energy. For it to work for everyone, we need to ensure that communities are properly informed and consulted by power providers about changes to hardware in their area in order to find the best solutions. I look forward to the consultation on a new onshore wind policy statement.
Argyll and Bute holds another very important natural asset in combating climate change: the carbon sink that is the Celtic rainforest. I have to declare an interest as the Parliament’s champion for these amazing places. Yesterday, I had the pleasure and educational experience of visiting one near Crinan.
Plantlife Scotland’s website explains that the combination of high rainfall—there is a lot of that in Argyll and Bute—and stable mild temperatures makes the woodlands very humid, allowing for the growth of some really special residents: lichen, mosses, liverworts, fungi and ferns. It is those species that really make the Celtic rainforests what they are. Not only do they help maintain the humidity in the forest; they give it a mysterious and magic feel—they certainly do. Those natural habitats are of worldwide importance, and I am pleased that there is Scottish Government investment of £500 million to expand them as a nature-based solution to the climate emergency, backed by a natural environment bill.
I will end on a personal note. In 1999, I sat in my office in BBC Scotland watching the live broadcast of the reopening of the Scottish Parliament. I watched with pride and confidence as my home country took a major step on the road to being in charge of its own destiny. Little did I expect then to be standing here now, representing Argyll and Bute in the parliamentary session in which a bill on a second independence referendum will be debated and, I believe, passed. The people of Scotland will soon have the opportunity and the right to vote on who they believe is best to lead Scotland to economic recovery and growth.
There are some announcements in today’s programme for government that I and many others will welcome: a national care service that ends non-residential care charges, a disability and equality strategy and a bill to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004. I will work with the Government where I can on all those matters, in particular where they reduce poverty and progress equality and human rights.
However, I am really disappointed, as some of the crucial things that I had hoped to hear are missing. In Scotland today, 26 per cent of children live in poverty—that is one in four children. One child in poverty is one too many, and one day in poverty is too long. That is why I am deeply disappointed that the Government has not committed to doubling the Scottish child payment immediately. Doing so would make a massive difference to families right across Scotland right now. It would lift at least 10,000 children out of poverty.
As it stands, we are set to miss the child poverty targets that we set ourselves in law—targets that were agreed unanimously by this Parliament before the pandemic, and without caveat. That is why we are deeply disappointed not only that there is no commitment to increase the payment right now but that the ambitions outlined in the programme on child poverty—the ending of which we in Scottish Labour will be laser focused on—do not go nearly far enough.
Members will be aware that we in Scottish Labour believe that the Scottish Government must go further and faster. It must double the payment now, and again within the year. An increase to £40 a week is the best chance that we have of meeting our interim child poverty target of 18 per cent. We did not pluck that figure out of the air: the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have modelled it. In one action, we could lift a further 50,000 children out of poverty and make a real difference to lives right across the country.
I urge the SNP-Green Government to recognise the urgent need to act now to tackle the scourge of poverty in the country.
As the First Minister said, the Government wants to increase the Scottish child payment as early as possible. Does the member recognise the wide range of other actions in the programme that will reduce household costs—from rents to school uniforms to public transport and many more costs—and make a significant contribution to tackling child poverty?
Yes, there are actions in the programme that will reduce costs, but none of them alone will do enough—and even all of them together will not do enough—to reach the target of reducing the child poverty rate to 18 per cent in the time that we have. Also,
18 per cent of children living in poverty is still a lot of children. We need to go much harder and faster on all those things.
Some 260,000 children in Scotland live in poverty and there is no more time to waste. In 2019, the Scottish National Party announced the Scottish child payment as a “game changer”, but it is a game changer only if the game is changed and action is delivered; announcements alone do not do that.
Not only has the Government not yet doubled the payment, but not all children who should get the payment get it. Currently, 125,000 children are missing out on the Scottish Government’s bridging payments as a result of a discrepancy between the eligibility criteria for the Scottish child payment and free school meals. The Government is aware of that and I await clarification as to what it intends to do about it. It is not good enough that children fall through cracks that we all know are there and can be filled by immediate action. The gaps are not just abstract concepts in parliamentary speeches; they represent real children, real families and real lives.
The Scottish Government must act now to get payments to those children and work towards full roll-out to all six to 16-year-olds. It must do all that it can to ensure that families who receive the Scottish child payment can do so and that those who are not able to receive it yet can get it. That is why we have repeatedly called for full roll-out and automation.
Beyond that, the Government should introduce a supplement for lone-parent families and families that have a disabled person in them—groups that are disproportionately in poverty.
We know that if the cruel cut to universal credit goes ahead—which our colleagues in Westminster and in this Parliament, and other members here will do all that we can to oppose—some families in Scotland will lose their eligibility for the Scottish child payment. We have asked, and I ask again, that the Scottish Government commit to continuing to pay the Scottish child payment to the families who currently get it. We cannot simply blame things on the Tories in Westminster and move on; we have to act here. We have the powers, and the Scottish Government must use them to get money into people’s pockets.
Members of this Parliament will have heard me say, time and again, that we must—please—not fall into the trap of thinking that there is nothing that we can do. In my experience, when people say to someone, “You can’t”, it is because they have not seen the person’s potential to act. In Scotland, we have that potential; we are just not using our powers to their full potential.
The things that we have not heard about in the programme for government show that. Right now, all that we are doing with our powers on disability benefits is improving their administration as we implement the rule book that has been passed down from the Department for Work and Pensions. The programme that was outlined today includes no plans for changes to the eligibility criteria for or adequacy of the payments. The Scottish Government could have created a truly radical new system. Instead, it has ignored calls to reform that part of the system.
We must be ambitious. We are here to transform lives. Tackling poverty is a mission that needs the focus of all the Government and the Parliament. It should be a national mission. That is why Labour members will push both Governments to use all existing powers and to go hard and fast.
As we come through the pandemic, we must think bigger and be bolder than before. We cannot go back to normal; we have to go forward to something better. Where there really is a will to do that, there is always a way. We can increase the Scottish child payment, with a supplement for families that have a disabled person in them, right now. We can write our own rule book on the eligibility for and adequacy of disability payments, right now. We can reform the Scottish welfare fund, so that it acts as a lifeline for all who need it. We can reform carers allowance, so that more of the hundreds of thousands of carers who do not get any financial help get some help.
If this Government is serious about ending child poverty, progressing a minimum income and genuinely making Scotland the best place in which to grow up and live, it will do those things and take action now.
Far from offering a bold and ambitious plan to help us to rebuild and to recover from the pandemic, the SNP Government is simply offering more of the same. We are back to tired arguments that are peppered with grudge and grievance.
That approach did not cut it pre-Covid and it certainly does not cut it now—unless, of course, we are talking about street cleansing in the First Minister’s home city, Glasgow, where cuts seem to be the SNP’s only answer.
The truth is that it does not matter how many shiny new policies and initiatives Nicola Sturgeon sets out, because the people of Scotland know the reality. They know that, just like in previous years, promises are made that are not kept. They know that the gap between the rhetoric and what happens in our communities is growing with each of the SNP’s 14 years in office. Worse still, the level of ambition has dropped, and the SNP’s promises this year seem even less noteworthy than last year—yet another sign of a tired Government that is out of new ideas.
Nicola Sturgeon might believe that she pulled off a great con trick in bringing the Greens into her Government to spruce it up, but I suspect that she will come to see that being anti-jobs and urban-centric and wanting to break up the UK are the very things that stood between her and the SNP majority that she craved and expected. She did not really need the Greens to help with that. The sad reality is that nothing that we have heard today takes away from the fact that we have a nationalist Government here at Holyrood that is more interested in a referendum than in recovery. It is beyond me how those in power expect people to believe that a referendum is possible in the first half of this session of Parliament while simultaneously claiming that a referendum will not take place until after the pandemic. It is a nonsense claim that hangs like a dark cloud over this programme for government. Worse still, it is a betrayal of the many sacrifices that people across this country have made during the past 18 months. Surely to goodness we deserve a break and a chance to focus on the things that really matter. That means not just talking about the challenges but having the will to take forward the policies needed without any distractions and the inevitable division.
Take education—an area where past promises loom large. Whatever happened to closing the attainment gap? Why can ministers still not tell us when they expect to see progress? What happened to the promise to make education the top priority? Perhaps the Government could remind us what happened to the planned education bill in the previous session of Parliament? Silence, because, rather than sort out any of the issues that the SNP Government has created on its own watch, and admitting that it has got things wrong and that its decisions have caused standards in our education system to decline, this Government would rather paper over the cracks with a combination of new policy initiatives that sound nice in theory but do very little in practice, and more radical reform that makes it hard to measure outcomes at all.
The fact that we had to wait for a report from the OECD for the Government to admit that anything was wrong is depressing. The criticisms in the report are even more shocking when we realise just how hard ministers worked to influence the findings and the limit that they put on dissenting voices even taking part. It should not have taken international concerns for the SNP to agree to act. Parents, teachers and educationists here in Scotland, as well as Opposition parties in our national Parliament, have been voicing concerns for years. Surely anyone who cares about Scottish education would want to work with people to make things better, not simply ignore them. As I asked last week, where is the big vision? Where are the plans to turn education around? When will we see a return to the tried-and-tested methods that we already know work? Silence. Instead, all we get from this SNP Government is the galling sight of the First Minister patting herself on the back for the belated decision to reverse SNP cuts to teacher numbers—cuts that left us badly short during the pandemic. No apology for doing it in the first place, and no apology to the young people who have already been let down. And so the Government ploughs on, making the same mistakes over and over again.
We see that today in the announcement on childcare. It is something that we on these benches support and called for but, once again, where is the detail? Where is the practical, evidence-based work on how that pledge will be delivered in practice? It comes at a time when existing early learning and childcare settings are struggling to recruit the staff that they need in order to fulfil existing plans. As is so often the case with this SNP Government, providers feel most annoyed not about the substance of what is being announced and set out in Parliament but about the fact that no one took the time to seek their views. There must be a better way to do government than this.
In closing, I say that this is not a programme for government that rises to the challenge of the day. It is merely a public relations exercise that tries and fails to repackage the SNP’s tired thinking and policies as something new and bold. Over the summer, perhaps there was too much focus on getting the Greens on board, and backing up their extremist plans, rather than on looking right across the chamber and our society to build a forward-looking coalition that is based on new ideas that respond to the challenges of today and does not drag us back to the arguments of the past.
Green MSPs warmly welcome the programme, which comes on the back of our truly historic agreement with the Scottish Government. From its very first day, the Parliament was designed for sharing power across the chamber and with the people.
Since 1999, every major political party except one has entered government at Holyrood. Now, more than ever, is the right time for the Scottish Greens to step up. Although we are the first generation to witness the catastrophe of climate change, we are also the last generation that can address it. Those who deny the need for stronger action on the climate when our world—our home—is literally burning down are betraying future generations.
The transition that we have to make must be just and leave no one behind. For sectors such as oil and gas, there must be more than a vague hope that the new jobs will appear soon. That is why I am delighted that we have Lorna Slater’s drive and expertise at the heart of the Government. She understands the industry from the inside out, and she knows how to use the toolbox to deliver that transition.
A new deal to double the capacity of onshore wind energy, support for marine and offshore renewables, a £500 million transition fund for the north-east and the requirement for just transition plans for sites such as Mossmorran are really just the beginning. The deal will deliver transformative change.
Housing is a basic human right, but it is a disgrace that many tenants and their families now pay more each month in rent than it would cost to pay a mortgage on the same property. We urgently need a new deal for tenants and I am delighted that Patrick Harvie, as the first ever minister for tenants’ rights, will be leading on the delivery of new rights, rent controls and regulation.
There is international experience that shows that we can learn and move forward. The green deal and the commitment to tackle the issue—due to the poverty in our society, as has already been pointed out in the debate—mean that we will come forward with a package that will work and deal with the crisis.
Our agreement commits to building new, better homes, and retrofitting existing homes, at a pace and scale that have never been seen before. There will be more than £2 billion of investment in warm homes, with standards that will keep the bar high. It is a green new deal for housing through which public investment levers in private investment, creating new jobs in the supply chain and tackling climate change and fuel poverty.
We need more homes, but they need to be affordable and future proof. They must form neighbourhoods that are designed for people to safely get around by foot, wheel or cycle and are connected to local services and green space. Our reforms to planning and road safety will start to deliver that vision, while a trebling of investment in active travel will allow the biggest reprioritisation of road space that has been seen in generations. To put it simply, places will need to put people, rather than cars, first.
Investing in the links between our places will continue to be important but, first and foremost, such investments need to deliver on traffic reduction, safety, community benefits and climate adaptation. The days of simply investing in roads that lock in car dependency are over. We expect a strategic transport projects review to deliver a step change—
The member needs to recognise that as I, too, live in a rural area, I know that some roads will be absolutely necessary for the reasons that I have already pointed out: safety issues, climate adaptation and connectivity. However, the days of unlimited growth of public roads are over—it is just a waste of public money. There are better priorities for us to invest in now.
We expect that investment to come through the strategic projects transport review, which is a step change: £5 billion investment in rail with a public operator running rail services in the public interest, new funding for councils to deliver models of public bus ownership and the delivery of free bus travel for under-22s. There will be a strong future for those public services.
Under the agreement, our debt to the natural world will start to be repaid. Legally binding nature targets will be set to restore nature and drive the reform of planning, agriculture and fisheries policies that have led to catastrophic collapses in biodiversity in the past. The nature restoration fund, established by the Greens under the last budget, will be dramatically increased to drive action. Nature networks of Atlantic woodland and rainforest, pollinator superhighways and kelp forests can now be planned, paid for and protected.
Our connection with the natural world will be strengthened with a third national park in Scotland. Our human right to a healthy environment, the need for environmental courts to deliver justice and a future generations commission will all be advanced while we work with the Government to reform driven grouse moors, crack down on wildlife crime and even bring back the beaver properly.
In this Parliament, we must not hold back on the rights of the most vulnerable groups. No one should be made destitute because of their immigration status. Trans and non-binary people deserve as much dignity, equality and inclusion as the rest of us. We need to double down to eradicate hatred and misogyny wherever it rears its ugly head.
Covid has brought into sharp relief the need for action to address the mental health crisis, the staffing issues in our schools and the need to provide care as a basic human right. Our agreement will give Parliament the foundations for change in those areas. There will be more availability in mental health services in our communities, 5,000 new teachers, with a stronger additional support needs workforce, and the first step next year to establish that pivotal, national care service.
The Scottish Greens are a party in a hurry. We will stretch the powers of the Scottish Parliament to their limits and then we will ask the people whether they want to complete the journey to independence. We look forward to working with all those who share our vision.
I am extremely proud to talk about the programme for government over the next six months. I will start with a quote:
“Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business.”
Who said that? None other than Winston Churchill. Indeed, politics is a serious business. Let us not forget that the SNP won an overwhelming victory in May on a manifesto that deals with the serious issues that we face, from climate change to Covid and Brexit. In normal times, facing one of those issues would be difficult enough, but facing all three requires a programme for government that deals with them all. Although the challenges are daunting, they present us with an opportunity to do things differently.
We have heard those on the Tory benches complain about lack of support for business, yet they supported the Brexit withdrawal in the middle of the pandemic, and look at the impact that we now face in Scotland—empty shelves and massive drops in exports.
We need a steady hand and a steady Government to guide us through the next five years. People in Scotland overwhelmingly voted for the First Minister and the Government to take Scotland forward. The programme for government rightly focuses on the recovery from Covid, but it also focuses on sustainable recovery that looks to the future.
I will focus on a few key areas. As we emerge from the pandemic, we will strengthen and improve our health and social care system, so that everyone gets the care that they need, while recognising and repaying the efforts of staff, given the toll that the pandemic has had on them. We will see the NHS benefit from a £2.5 billion increase over the parliamentary session, which is an increase of 20 per cent. That will help Scotland’s health recover from the pandemic.
The creation of the national care service will also mark the biggest reform of health and social care since the creation of the NHS and will help to ensure that every patient’s care is focused on their individual journey. The Scottish Government is already investing record amounts in the NHS, but that 20 per cent increase will help to transform the way in which we deliver services and will ensure that the system is ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead. Recovery from Covid-19 across society is the Scottish Government’s first and most pressing priority, and the programme for government will allow the health service to continue managing Covid-19 and our longer-term population health challenges.
Primary care funding will go up by 25 per cent over the parliamentary session, with half of all front-line health spending invested in community health services. I know from discussions with constituents that that is extremely important. That will include investment of £29 million to provide an additional 78,000 diagnostic procedures, as well as increasing in-patient and day-case activity by 10 per cent by 2022-23 and out-patient activity by 10 per cent by 2025-26. I look forward to working with the health secretary and seeing the benefit of that investment in the East Lothian community hospital. I also welcome the additional £250 million investment to tackle the drugs issues that we face in Scotland.
I want to touch on families. Douglas Ross said that the recent agreement between the Scottish Government and the Greens is anti-family, but I warmly welcome the introduction of free wraparound care for low-income families. Nearly 1,800 families in my constituency benefit from the Scottish child payment, but they will be hit by the cut in universal credit that is set to be imposed by the Tories and supported by the party opposite. There is silence on that subject although Craig Hoy, the MSP for South Scotland, whom I competed against, supported that cut in a radio interview a few weeks ago. Free wraparound care will be much welcomed. It will give families support and the ability to access the services that work for them. On top of the 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare, that shows the Scottish Government’s commitment to families. I also welcome the £500 million whole family wellbeing fund.
I am aware that I have only six minutes, but I welcome the announcement on gender recognition reform, which is much needed. The announcement on tackling misogyny is also welcome, and there are measures in relation to tackling climate change and, of course, the ability of people in Scotland to decide on their future, with the pro-independence majority—[
.] No, I need to make progress.
This is a programme for Covid recovery that supports families and investment in our health recovery. I look forward to delivering the programme and the benefits that my constituents in East Lothian will feel.
I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I own a rented property in North Lanarkshire.
Today, we learned that research by Shelter Scotland put the cost to councils of housing those who have been made homeless due to evictions to manage arrears at £28 million in the year before the pandemic. Perhaps anticipating that research, the sector reiterated the statement that it signed with the Government in June, saying that it does not evict those who are working on a repayment plan. The City of Edinburgh Council’s SNP housing convener, after the council decided to end its short-lived eviction ban, said that the council
“will only ever go to court as an absolute last resort”,
but also, tellingly, that it goes to court
“to prompt engagement with tenants”.
If we ever needed an example to show that our housing system is broken, a housing convener who is charged with overseeing a council’s homelessness service telling the press that it uses court proceedings to shunt tenants to pay arrears is one.
A report that was commissioned by Shelter Scotland on understanding the true cost of evictions in Scotland said that just 20 per cent of social rented evictions result in the property being recovered. In addition, the cost of eviction, when it happens, is not just financial. The process can be highly stressful and potentially damaging to mental and physical health, and it has lasting impacts on the mental health of children.
I welcome today’s confirmation that work is under way on the rented sector strategy, but the programme for government will leave tenants waiting for years. There will not be a housing bill this year, and we do not know when there will be legislation on rent controls and a new private rented sector regulator, as the Government’s ambition is to introduce legislation
“by the end of the Parliamentary session.”
Having no legislation on rent controls will mean that vital data will not start to be collected, and, like the planning and transport bills in the previous session, implementation will be pushed into the next session of Parliament. Of course, the SNP and the Tories threw out the chance to legislate for a fair rents bill in February, in the previous session.
Having no housing bill will mean that the homelessness prevention duty is also unlikely to become a reality until the second half of this parliamentary session, which means that tenants will have to rely on promises rather than rights in legislation. In meetings that I had over the summer, I was told that the bulk of what is in “Housing to 2040” must get under way in the next 18 months if it is to be a success, and that includes the rented sector strategy.
Before the summer, we debated at length the need for an extension to the evictions ban in the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill. Ten weeks on, the promised grant fund has not been launched. We are told that the Government is working at pace, but it will be the end of the year before hard-up tenants even get access to the fund. Many—no doubt including the four in five who were unsuccessful under the loan scheme—will be well into their six-month notice period by now, and evictions in the social rented sector are already up by 500 per cent.
The premise of the loan scheme was woefully inadequate, and its success rate was dismal. More than twice as many people were rejected as were successful, and many of those were rejected because they failed a credit check. Rather like the revolving door of threatening court action and then having to rehouse people as homeless, that was symptomatic of a broken housing system. It is not unreasonable to expect the Government to comprehend that tenants who were struggling to pay their rent and were in arrears and a dire financial position, and who sought support from the Government, might not have satisfactory credit records.
Our homes have never been worth so much to us as they are now. They are a first line of defence against Covid, but the summer has exposed a gulf between the haves—who are comfortable enough to own a home, possibly work from home and make renovations, with house prices shooting up at the fastest rate in 14 years—and the have nots. The number of households in temporary accommodation is the highest on record, and they are now staying for a staggering 199 days.
In meetings with stakeholders, we have discussed the fact that there is no true understanding of the affordability of housing—private, social rented or otherwise. In fact, the Government does not know how to define housing affordability because it does not have or collect the data. It needs to be able to determine what affordable is. Is it any wonder that organisations have described the system as broken?
I welcome a plethora of the commitments, including that of getting all our housing stock to the level of energy performance certificate C, but we are a long way off tenants and owners understanding their responsibilities or the costs that lie ahead. Those reforms are not insubstantial, as they strike right at the heart of tenants’ rights and housing affordability in general. It is tenants and owners, not the Government, who will fund those changes.
Over the summer, I was told repeatedly about the pressure on tenants’ rents, which fund new builds. That is becoming considerable. Although the affordable housing supply grant looks set to increase, tenants’ costs will be stretched further by their funding the changes in energy efficiency and decarbonisation.
In discussions with landlords and letting agents, Citizens Advice Scotland has found that they are supportive of greater energy efficiency but that there is a perceived lack of financial and technical support to inform decision making. If we believe that housing is a human right, we should be affirming those rights for tenants in law before substantial housing reforms are implemented.
We had the opportunity to pass a fair rents bill towards the end of the previous session of Parliament. That we will now not get the opportunity to pass a fair rents bill until the end of this session is a glaring omission from the programme for government.
From the outset, I want to join the First Minister in recognising the impact that the pandemic has had on every part of our society, in particular the physical and mental health of our fellow citizens. My condolences go to everyone who has lost a loved one to Covid-19 and, equally, my thanks go to all the health and social care staff in the community and in hospitals who work every day to keep us safe, healthy and well. I remind the chamber that I am still currently a registered nurse.
The programme for government will work to protect families, businesses and communities across Scotland and is focused on the recovery from the pandemic. Since being elected in May, the Scottish Government has already taken positive steps to support our NHS and health and social care workforce. The Government has published an NHS recovery plan setting out how it will achieve a 10 per cent increase in activity in key services. I am a member of the Health and Sport Committee, and today we heard from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, Humza Yousaf, about the plans that are in place to address many of the health needs that have been identified, including issues around non-communicable diseases, which were highlighted in the report that the British Heart Foundation published yesterday.
A 4 per cent average pay increase this year for NHS agenda for change staff has already been implemented and was seen in pay packets in June, and the Government is already on course to increase direct investment in mental health services by 25 per cent over the course of the session, which is particularly welcome given the impact that the pandemic and its restrictions have had on health and wellbeing. The Government has also begun the consultation on legislation to establish a national care service, and I look forward to closely engaging in its progress.
The first three rapid diagnostic test centres for cancer have already opened. One is in Dumfries and Galloway, in the new Dumfries and Galloway royal infirmary. That is good news and good progress. However, I want to raise an issue around cancer pathway arrangements across Dumfries and Galloway. Currently, people with cancer across the area are required to travel to Edinburgh—a 266-mile round trip from Wigtownshire—for types of cancer treatment such as radiotherapy instead of going to Glasgow, which is closer. That is because Dumfries and Galloway is part of the South East Scotland Cancer Network and not the West of Scotland Cancer Network. NHS Dumfries and Galloway says that patients are offered a choice of place to attend but constituents tell me that they are not. Additionally, unlike in other rural parts of Scotland, such as the Highlands and Islands and Ayrshire and Arran, patients in Dumfries and Galloway do not automatically receive reimbursement for travel over 30 miles. The reimbursement that can be accessed is means tested. I, along with Dr Gordon Baird, Dr Angela Armstrong and Galloway community hospital action group, have been calling for changes to the situation around place of treatment and travel costs. I will be grateful for action on those points as we progress this ambitious programme for government.
The programme for government also commits the Scottish Government to building on our already world-leading environmental policies in the face of the global climate emergency. I welcome that, in doing so, the Government has committed to protecting outdoor green spaces and promoting and enhancing biodiversity.
As a rural MSP, the member will no doubt recognise that, although the reaching 100 per cent programme for national digital infrastructure was announced in 2017 with a commitment to be completed by 2021, it is now not expected to be completed in the central and south of Scotland areas until 2024 and 2025 respectively, and not until 2027 in the north. Does the member agree that the SNP Government is great at big announcements—and regurgitated ones, as we have heard today—but is terrible in delivering on them and is failing rural Scotland?
What I would say is that I am keen to progress the work that is being taken forward to use whatever digital technology we can to enhance everybody’s access to the internet. We know that that is important as we are planning our recovery from this pandemic.
The programme for government outlines a specific commitment to establish a new national park in Scotland. I want to highlight the work of the Galloway National Park Association, which is lobbying for it to be located in Galloway, particularly through its new “It’s got to be Galloway” campaign, which I support.
The programme for government also makes a commitment to implementing the strategic transport projects review 2, which will improve road, rail and other infrastructure across Scotland.
In response to Oliver Mundell’s intervention on Mark Ruskell about roads, I note that, on ITV’s “Representing Border” last week, Patrick Harvie said that he does not oppose improvements on roads on the grounds of safety and efficiency, specifically mentioning the A75 and the A77. Therefore, I certainly cannae wait—[
.] I do not have time to take an intervention. I certainly cannae wait to hear what investment will be announced when STPR2 is announced later this autumn.
The programme for government is full of progressive commitments, including the doubling of the carers allowance, establishing the neurodiversity commissioner, improvement in tenants’ rights and protecting health. I look forward to the programme for government being implemented.
The Conservatives continually say that the Scottish Government is prioritising independence over recovery from the pandemic. However, I would argue that independence will aid our recovery. It will give the Scottish Parliament full control over our finances, criminal justice, reform of drugs policy, employment law and equalities, to name just some areas. Without full control over those areas, the Scottish Parliament is restricted in what it can do. Independence is required to deliver that fair, progressive and equal Scotland, and I want to be part of that.
It has been an interesting debate. Scottish Labour will welcome some elements of the programme for government, but we want to be a constructive Opposition party, so where we think that the Scottish Government is getting it wrong or not going far enough, we will hold the Government to account and suggest the alternative routes that it needs to take.
For example, we will support Anne’s law and the pardon for miners, which is long overdue. We will also support the principle of a good food nation, but I ask the Scottish Government to look at the work that my former colleague Elaine Smith and my current colleague Rhoda Grant have done, because it is not the headlines that matter but the detail, the ambition and the delivery.
In that spirit, I also welcome the commitment to build a new Edinburgh eye pavilion, which was a major election issue that became a cross-party issue. I am glad to see that that commitment is included in the programme for government, but it was only a one-liner. We want to know the details; we want to know that it will be properly funded by the Scottish Government and we want a timescale for the new building, because the old building is not fit for purpose and NHS Lothian has had plans to replace it for years.
It is not enough to make headline announcements, though, because we need legislation that will make the differences that our constituents need. The national care service is a case in point, because the funding will be vital in ensuring that it delivers. In the previous session of Parliament, we saw patients stuck in hospital without the opportunity to access care and step-down care, and there have been years of underinvestment in care and adaptations to people’s homes.
In addition, a top priority has to be reinvestment to ensure that we keep people who work hard as care workers, and who have been through difficult circumstances during the pandemic, supporting their families and the families with whom they work. That is why Jackie Baillie’s campaign, which the Scottish Labour Party strongly supports, for increased pay and national terms and conditions for all our care workers is vital. Those are the first actions that are needed; we want a detailed commitment to the value of our care workers and to ensuring that they can develop their skills.
We must also ensure that we reverse the increases that we have seen recently in delayed discharges. Those numbers rising again is bad news for patients and their families and it reinforces the need for wider care in our communities, which requires proper local planning. We do not want a centralised national care service; we want our councils to be funded and empowered to work together so that the future demand that will need to be addressed will be met. We want to see, for example, a reversing of the cuts in Edinburgh. At a time when we are seeing an increase in delayed discharges, we also see the proposal to close council care homes without proper analyses of what is needed and of people’s future needs and demands.
I am keen to hear in the Government’s closing speech how the £800 million that the First Minister has promised will be spent to make sure that the transformation in care that we need across the country happens—not just in payments for care homes and care staff, but in support for unpaid carers.
Mark Griffin rightly highlighted the need to invest in local councils so that they can deliver the investment in community services on which people rely, whether that is schools or the new housing that is needed.
It was so fascinating to hear the First Minister offer £1.5 million for libraries across Scotland, especially given the proposed cuts in her own city. Our arts and culture services are vital to the wellbeing of our recovery across Scotland. We need to invest in those services.
There is irony in the Scottish Government’s putting centre stage the demand for more powers for itself while centralising the powers of local councils. Some 14 years on from the promise to scrap what the SNP described as the “unfair council tax”, we have seen zero progress on that promise, even when there has been cross-party willingness to work with the Government to come up with better solutions to enable our councils to be properly funded. We still have no idea what the Government will propose. Again, more work needs to be done.
Pam Duncan-Glancy and Anas Sarwar spoke passionately about the need to tackle child poverty. Even with today’s announcement, children will still be living in poverty—a situation that will be exacerbated by the UK Tory Government’s dangerous cut to universal credit. We need to be clear that the pandemic has pushed our country backwards and has put people on low incomes under even more pressure.
We need to ensure that our students get a comeback plan and we need the long-awaited action on the education attainment gap to be delivered. We need new teachers to be given not just short-term commitments to appointment, but the promise of careers, with on-going support for our schools and eradication of the inequalities that our schoolchildren experience.
On poverty, it was disappointing not to hear any reference to fuel poverty in the First Minister’s statement. Fuel is another example of where the cost of living is rising. The cost of energy is rising. Mark Ruskell made important points about the importance of investing in existing homes, but there must be a joined-up strategy to invest in our communities, eradicate fuel poverty, create new jobs and create new incomes for our communities. Again, I was disappointed not to hear anything about development of community-based and community-owned heat and power networks and companies, which would not just enable the transition to low-carbon heat and power, but would reinvest the profits and create jobs in our communities.
We need to make sure that it is not a top-down plan for our country. There needs to be investment in our communities, led by our communities. There needs to be a partnership of respect between the Scottish Government and councils. That is long overdue. We did not get that in the previous parliamentary session, so it is vital that we get it in the current one.
There is irony in hearing discussion about the journey to independence when we still face major problems in the run-up to COP26. I very much welcome the First Minister’s commitment to investing in active travel. That necessary investment must be in safe dedicated routes, so that the parents of the young children who will be getting free bikes will not worry about them using those bikes. That means that we need to invest not just in existing roads, which have deteriorated in quality, with councils cutting spend on potholes, but in new dedicated routes.
Today, just as we sat down for the debate, there was irony in hearing the Minister for Transport justify cuts in ScotRail services. At a time when we want people to get into using trains, with more choice and not having to use their cars, we will see train services being removed. I know people who will have to shift from travelling by train to travelling by cars, because their community will no longer have a service that they can use. How can that make sense when we are trying to have a just transition?
If we consider buses, the situation is worse. The cuts have been going on for years. We have been losing buses; during the previous parliamentary session, bus services were reduced. Therefore, although I welcome the increase in free bus travel, including for young people, we need services that every bus user is encouraged to use, because doing so is free. We support more people getting access—everybody needs to be able to access the services.
The services need to be there for them, and they need to be locally driven and locally accountable. During the last session of Parliament, we amended the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to deliver powers that need to be implemented, so that we see more local community-led bus services, like Lothian Buses. That is a success that could be replicated across Scotland.
However, that needs political effort—everyday effort—and that is why it is disappointing to hear that the SNP will be diverting political energy and the work of civil servants from what should be the top priority, which is not just getting through the pandemic but recovering from it and from the steps backward that we have seen on poverty, with people losing their jobs.
Let us make this session of Parliament successful. Let us not pull our country apart. Let us work together, because even the SNP supporters of independence have warned about the decades that it would take to recover from leaving the UK and about the fact that it would be 10 times worse than Brexit. Let us think about that.
It is that time of year. The programme for government is generally when the Government and its back benchers get excited about its plans for the coming year. Most of the time, it tends to whip itself into an energetic and self-congratulatory frenzy, but there did not seem to be much of that this year. We listened, but there did not seem to be much of that in the muted response from members on the centre benches.
More important is what happens outside the bubble of the chamber, because the programme for government tells the people of Scotland what the direction of travel is for the Government of the day. In this case, it is a new Government—a new and energetic Government; just look at them.
The programme for government tells the people of Scotland where the Government’s priorities really lie, and after listening to the debate I am afraid that the prognosis is deeply worrying for all of us.
Scotland faces significant and huge challenges as we try to rebuild from Covid-19. We have heard from members across the chamber about some of the severe challenges that we face, and I will go into some of them.
The programme announced today is as unfortunate as it is disappointing, because we are now essentially governed by a tired nationalist party with no new ideas, made worse by being backed up by a radical nationalist party with all the wrong old ideas. What a dangerous mix that will prove to be for our country, because few people—including, I suspect, many in the SNP—truly believe that the Green pact is good for either government or Scotland.
The proof is in the pudding. Today’s programme for government did not even try to pretend that Covid recovery is front and centre of the Government’s priorities. We did not get past the first page of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech before the words “independence referendum” crossed her lips. It took three pages before she mentioned the NHS, education, mental health, ferries, roads, businesses or, God forbid, jobs. There were three pages of Scotland’s First Minister talking up why she thinks it is a good use of our civil service’s time to draft a new white paper on separation when I think—and I believe that most sensible MSPs think—that every minute and ounce of its fibre should be spent on tackling Covid recovery and the real-world issues that real people face outside this building.
There were, of course, bills announced and announcements made that we should welcome, such as those on tackling fireworks and on mesh removal—I include even the good food bill, which has made an appearance in a programme for government for the fourth time. There are policies that have cross-party support, for which many members have been pushing for years—on childcare, school meals and achieving net zero. In my view, those rightly command cross-party support.
However, there were headline announcements such as those on the five-line Covid recovery bill or the national care service, that were sorely lacking in detail. We have been in the chamber throughout, and health and social care have been at the forefront of all our minds over the past 18 months, but today’s statement was inexplicably silent on the economy and jobs. Why? The question is important because the two are interlinked: a strong economy pays for strong public services—we do not need a white paper to tell us that. A strong economy leads to better health and social outcomes. The two are interlinked.
What is required is boldness, the likes of which we have not seen for a very long time in the Scottish Government—bold targets on economic growth, bold statements on job creation and bold ambition on new business start-ups, apprenticeships or reshaping our high streets. I am afraid that economic growth has for too long been seen as a dirty concept in the corridors of this Scottish Government.
The Confederation of British Industry called on the Government to use its announcement today to make good its promise to prioritise our economic recovery. Its failure to do so surprises no one. There is a history of litanies of failure in similar speeches that we have heard in years gone by from the First Minister. On R100, a target was missed and reannounced. On house building, the target of 50,000 affordable homes was missed. A huge issue for Scotland’s island communities is the disastrous ferry procurement and manufacturing process that is being overseen by the Government. Where in today’s speech was the First Minister’s plan to build the three dozen ferries that our islands need? There was nothing—not a peep, no plan, no mention of it. That is a disgrace.
I also have concerns about the influence that the Green Party will have on our rural communities. I want a firm commitment from the Government today that not a single promised infrastructure project for rural Scotland will be canned under pressure from Green ministers. If the Government does drop a project, it will have to explain, not just to the Parliament but to the electorate, why that happened.
It does not take much to listen to some wise advice. The former MSP Alex Neil was right when he recently said that this Government has
“significantly increased the centralisation of decision-making”,
and that that has been
“detrimental . . . to our poorer and remoter communities”.
The Government’s track record on that is so poor, why should we trust that anything will now change?
Let me address some other issues and thoughts about today. If last week’s protests outside Parliament are anything to go by, the debates that we have around complex issues such as gender recognition reform have already turned quite toxic. We have a really poor track record of contentious debate in this Parliament. It does not bode well, so far. The Government’s bills on hate crime, offensive behaviour at football and named persons are all a testament to how not to legislate. Let history not repeat itself. I agreed entirely with John Mason when he made the very good point that respect must lie at the heart of our deliberations on complex and rather divisive issues. It will do so on our side of the chamber, and I hope that it will do so on the Government’s side as well.
I cannot give way, as I have a lot to get through, but I agree with Mr Mason’s statement.
Let us talk about education, because that was the Government’s number 1 priority in the previous parliamentary session—apparently. Alex Neil was right: where in the programme for government are there any bold and radical changes? Why is it that, after 14 and a bit years of this Government, a quarter of pupils are starting secondary school with poor literacy and numeracy? Why has the SNP failed to deliver its 2007 manifesto commitment to reduce class sizes to 18? Why did it shelve its education bill, and why is that bill not in this programme for government? We set down the gauntlet now for the First Minister. Now is her chance to truly reform Scottish education and put it at the top of every damn international league table imaginable, where it should be. We should not settle for average—we have settled for it for too long. Now is the time to listen and act.
Let us talk about—[
.]. The First Minister said in her statement that she
“will protect Police Scotland’s resource budget”.
Let us not forget that that is after having sought to make a billion pounds of savings by 2026.
The First Minister talks the talk on supporting victims of crime, but let us not forget that it was her Government that cut legal aid and has spent double the amount of cash on services for offenders than it has on services for victims.
Of course, that is typical of the SNP: it creates a problem and then it rushes in and saves the day with its own solution. It was the First Minister’s Government that oversaw the backlog of tens of thousands of court cases, stretching our justice system to breaking point long before Covid. It was her Government that oversaw a record number of prisoners on remand—at a rate of one in four, it has been dubbed a human rights tragedy. It is was also under her watch that there were 7,300 confiscations of illegal drugs by prison officers, a figure that has gone up by thousands and thousands year on year. It remains a fact that people are entering our judicial system without a drug addiction and leaving prison with one. Domestic and violent crime are on the rise—the list goes on and on. We do not need endless, long-grass consultations on the dual role of the Lord Advocate, or the not proven verdict, or victims’ rights; we need action.
This is not day 1 of a new Government. It is the 15th year of an old one that has failed to tackle Scotland’s gravest problems: our drugs and alcohol travesty, our ferries fiasco, our lagging economy and the gap in life expectancy between Greenock and Giffnock.
Having listened to endless promises in today’s statement of billions of pounds of rehashed fund after fund, I wonder why neither the First Minister nor any of her back benchers stood up to acknowledge where on earth all the money will come from. Nothing is free. Every giveaway that the First Minister announces costs money. There was no acknowledgement in her statement of the role of the UK Government in supporting Scotland and the Scottish Government. Perhaps her new, honest paper on independence might eventually tell the people of Scotland where all those billions of pounds will come from. The money will not come from oil if Patrick Harvie has anything to say about it.
The programme for government is more of the same timid and tired managerialism that we have come to expect from a tired Government. I say with some depression that if this is the height of the Government’s ambition for Scotland, we have a long five years ahead of us.
I welcome the opportunity to close the debate for the Government and I apologise for being unable to do so in person due to a requirement for Covid self-isolation.
The annual programme for government debate stirs up a series of positive and negative reactions. We have heard many positive remarks about the programme for government from Sarah Boyack, Pam Duncan-Glancy and SNP members, but we have also heard negative reactions from Douglas Ross, Anas Sarwar, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Jamie Greene and Oliver Mundell.
What those comments and negative reactions ignore is the outcome of the election, to which none of them referred. The outcome was that the SNP gained ground, the Green Party gained ground, the Labour Party lost ground, the Liberal Democrats lost ground and the Tories were as flat as a pancake. I encourage the commentators that I named to recognise that their strategy of endless negativity and of always talking down the genuine achievements of the Scottish Government is getting those three parties nowhere. It has not advanced their electoral cause.
The public have handsomely supported the SNP and the Green Party, which led to the positive discussions that we had over summer and the creation of the partnership agreement. Mark Ruskell gave a clear and strong explanation of the merits and strengths of sharing power across Parliament and with the public, which he cited as part of the foundation of this Parliament. Our partnership agreement is designed for that type of sharing.
Alex Cole-Hamilton made a fair point about international co-operation agreements in which green parties have been involved. He said that green parties had participated in progressive Governments around the world. I am glad that we have added Scotland to the list of areas of progressive co-operation.
The First Minister made it clear in her statement that the programme for government focuses on a number of key themes. The Government’s immediate and highest priority is the challenge of Covid. We will address deep-seated inequalities in society and confront the climate emergency. We will mitigate the consequences of Brexit—we heard absolutely nothing from the Conservative Party about the dire implications of Brexit. We also heard about the importance of shaping our choices about our economy and society by giving people in Scotland a choice about their constitutional future. I will return to that topic later.
The programme for government is focused on the immediate challenges of Covid recovery, but it is also about setting the direction of travel for Scotland to be able to take the decisions that matter about the future of our country.
In summing up for the Government, I want to comment on a number of specific issues, and the first is child poverty. That is an example of an area where the Government wants to act more and go further and faster than we have been able to go so far. Pam Duncan-Glancy said that the Government must do exactly that. Patrick Harvie made it clear in his intervention that there is a range of measures that the Government has taken and is taking—on school clothing grants, free school meals and the abolition of core curriculum charges, to name but three—where we are significantly reducing the cost of schooling and therefore family budgets, and making an impact on child poverty. That is in addition to the early steps that we have taken on the child payment.
However, as the First Minister said earlier, the question of doubling the child payment, which is an aspiration that the Government would wish to achieve at the earliest possible opportunity, is one of the decisions that we will have to take in a budget process, so the opportunity is there for the Labour Party to engage constructively with us on how we make the hard financial choices that will have to be made if we wish to progress on the agenda earlier and at a faster rate, which the Government is intent on doing.
The second issue is energy and climate change. Jenni Minto made a powerful speech about the renewables capacity of Argyll and the islands, and Mark Ruskell set out some of the elements of the programme for government that emerged from the partnership agreement with the Greens in order to ensure that we are able to deliver the investments in energy-efficient housing that will strengthen the country’s ability to meet the aspiration of achieving net zero, and to do that in a way that supports families in overcoming poverty into the bargain.
I am certain that the contributions of Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie to the Scottish Government and the partnership agreement that we have reached with the Scottish Green Party will help us significantly to advance on those questions and to ensure that the aspirations, which are broadly supported in Parliament, can be taken forward in an effective way across the whole of the current session of Parliament.
The third issue that I want to talk about is the proposed national care service, which I am certain will be the subject of a great deal of substantive debate. It represents a bold and significant reform to the way in which we deliver care services in Scotland. John Mason accurately highlighted the challenge that will lie at the heart of the debate. At times, there are demands in Parliament for there to be much greater consistency in the standards of care that are delivered around the country. Indeed, there has been enormous parliamentary pressure on ministers on many of these questions.
However, one person’s demand for there to be less variability and, therefore, more consistency is another person’s rush to centralisation. If Parliament wishes there to be more consistency or much less variability so that our citizens in every part of the country can be assured of the quality of care and the standards that they should be entitled to expect, what will come with that is some requirements being inherent in the national care service in the same way we experience in our national health service.
We cannot duck that issue or that sensitivity about the importance of what will lie at the heart of the decision making around a national care service, because it is integral to the decisions that we will take about consistency of service provision around the country. The Government will, of course, engage constructively with our local authority partners on all those questions, but if Parliament wishes to see progress on consistency of care services around the country, it has to be prepared to will the means by which that will come about. That is the rationale behind a national care service.
Finally, I want to talk about the question of the independence referendum, which dominated a number of speeches from members across the political spectrum. I very much agree with a point that Annie Wells made about the question. She said that how we address the challenges of Covid will define us for years to come. I think that that is absolutely correct, and I do not want the response to Covid to be defined for my country by Boris Johnson and the people he surrounds himself with in the UK Government, because I do not agree with the direction of travel that that UK Government represents. What I agree with is the right of the people of Scotland to make their own choices and decisions, and to define how they wish to take forward the steps that Scotland makes in recovering from Covid.
The decisions that we take now will affect the economic opportunities in our society and the way—and the extent to which—we tackle inequality. I certainly do not want to be in a situation whereby we do not do everything in our power to tackle the fundamental inequalities that have bedevilled Scottish society and which have been exacerbated by Covid. I want the Scottish Parliament and the people of our country to have the powers to determine those issues. They can do that by taking the power into their own hands, through a referendum on independence. That is the promise of this programme for government, alongside a range of other significant priorities, not least of which is protecting the country from the effects of Covid. That is the mission to which the Government is committed, and we look forward to doing that in the spirit of the partnership that we have constructed with the Scottish Green Party, and which we are determined to sustain for the years to come.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. For the benefit of those who are watching our proceedings, I ask you please to make clear that it is not possible for any of us to intervene on speakers who are participating virtually. Clearly, many things have just been said by the Deputy First Minister that some of us on these benches would have liked to ask him about, but it is not possible for us to do that because he is not here—that is for a good reason, but it is important that the watching public understand why there was no debate on the substance of what the Deputy First Minister has just said.
I thank Stephen Kerr for his point of order. It is indeed the case that the Deputy First Minister is currently, for wholly understandable reasons of public health and safety, unable to attend Parliament.
We are aware of, and have had discussions within and outwith the Parliamentary Bureau on, the frustration that members can feel when they are unable to intervene in specific situations. However, this case is the result of a specific set of circumstances. We will move on to the next item of business.
For clarity for members, the debate on the programme for government 2021-22 will continue tomorrow afternoon. I remind members that, if they have spoken in the debate this afternoon, they must be present in the chamber for closing speeches tomorrow afternoon.