Before we proceed with the next item of business, I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask that members take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use only the aisles and walkways to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.
The next item of business is a Scottish Government debate on the programme for government 2021-22 and the economy. I call Kate Forbes to open the debate for the Scottish Government. Under the rules on self-isolation, the cabinet secretary joins us remotely.
Yesterday, the First Minister announced our programme for government, which sets out our ambitions for the next 12 months and the duration of this session of Parliament. I think that we would all agree that its publication comes at a hugely important time in the pandemic, when we remain focused on keeping the country safe with the recent surge in cases as we tentatively move towards recovery.
Despite the challenges, this year’s programme for government marks a moment of renewed hope and opportunity. It sets out the actions that we will take to nurture economic prosperity for all of Scotland’s people and places, whether they be urban or rural. It reinforces our commitment and support to the entrepreneurs, the business leaders and the workers who, day in and day out, produce, create and provide services that our economy and communities depend on. In so doing, they provide employment opportunities and drive investment and innovation in the economy. Our role is simple: it is to enable and support that entrepreneurial drive, and to ensure that Scotland remains a great place to start, to develop, to locate and to grow a business.
We want to create a pro-prosperity, pro-business and pro-jobs environment that fosters entrepreneurship and makes Scotland an even more attractive place for investors. We can stimulate business growth by investing in our people and expanding opportunities. We can also do it with well-paid and fair jobs while securing a just transition to net zero.
Our new 10-year national strategy for economic transformation will be key to delivering that vision. It is due to be published in late autumn alongside a new national challenge competition, which will provide up to £50 million to projects with the greatest potential to transform Scotland’s economy. It will be a crucial part of building the successful, thriving and prosperous Scotland that I hope all of us in the chamber want to see. It will deliver the long-term, transformational change that we need to build a sustainable, fairer and more inclusive economy, where everybody can flourish.
It is clear that the pandemic has taken its toll on Scottish businesses, putting livelihoods at risk. All of that has been exacerbated by the impact of the recent European Union exit. Since the start of the pandemic, all of us, including our businesses, have made sacrifices to protect public health. Helping those hard-hit businesses get back on their feet, and our economy back to growth, is crucial.
Over the past 18 months, we have invested strongly to support Scottish businesses, providing more than £3.7 billion in direct business support since March 2020. We extended 100 per cent non-domestic rates relief for all retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation premises for all of this financial year. Alongside other measures, such as a reduction to the poundage, that ensures that Scotland offers the most generous non-domestic rates regime anywhere in the United Kingdom. In addition to those policies, we have committed more than £1.7 billion to build a stronger and more sustainable economy.
Our support has gone further than that provided in the rest of the UK. In January, we provided more than £238 million through retail, hospitality and leisure top-up grants. As a result, those businesses in Scotland received significantly more than their counterparts south of the border. Our culture, heritage and events sector received £175 million, which is far more than we have received in consequentials from the UK Government.
Of course, our work does not stop now. We will continue to work with those businesses that have seen the hardest impact as we move forward. That will include extending and refreshing the way that we work in partnership with businesses, large and small, in every part of Scotland.
The small business bonus scheme, fresh start relief and business growth accelerator will continue for the lifetime of this session of Parliament. We are also supporting the recommendations of the tourism recovery task force, considering the best approach to future years, as well as promoting a thriving rural economy through the new £20 million rural entrepreneur fund.
I am in no doubt that an innovative and entrepreneurial private sector is essential to supporting a wellbeing economy and to delivering this programme for government. The programme for government clearly sets out our intentions to help create and support that entrepreneurial private sector.
Alongside our enterprise agencies and the Scottish National Investment Bank, we will support businesses at the forefront of developing the technologies of tomorrow by increasing funding for research and development to £100 million over this session of Parliament, which was a specific ask by some of the business organisations.
We recognise the vital role that international trade and investment plays in enhancing productivity, and we will work to deliver our international economy plans, underpinned by our values-led vision for trade.
We are also continuing our work to develop a digital economy, which is particularly close to my heart. We are implementing the recommendations of the Logan review and providing £100 million to improve digital capabilities across businesses.
In addition, CivTech will receive £46 million to create more opportunities for innovative businesses and up to 700 new high-value jobs. We will also deliver future-proofed mobile and broadband connectivity the length and breadth of Scotland through our Scottish 4G infill and reaching 100 per cent programmes, and we will begin delivery our five-year £35 million programme to digitally transform planning services.
Over the next five years, we want to invest to help businesses in promoting the good green jobs that will help to secure the just transition to net zero. Although we have a moral and legal obligation to meet our ambitious targets to end Scotland’s contribution to climate change, I firmly believe that there is also an enormous economic opportunity to be grasped. We want to do that while ensuring that we deliver the just transition that will have a positive impact on every aspect of our lives, including through the delivery of job security and fairer work.
Our co-operation agreement with the Greens will only push us further forward in our plans to do that. The green jobs fund will provide £100 million over the next five years to help businesses to create employment through investment. Our commitment to infrastructure is steadfast: we will invest in the infrastructure that we know we need to boost our green recovery, with £33 billion invested over the course of this session in the national infrastructure mission to create new jobs and markets and provide benefits across Scottish supply chains.
In the coming year, we will start work to develop options for the creation of a new national infrastructure company, and we will announce the first pathfinder projects for the green growth accelerator ahead of the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26. That will mark an important first step in unlocking up to £200 million of public sector investment and incentivising local authorities to deliver low-carbon infrastructure. The Scottish National Investment Bank will continue to build its portfolio, with £1 billion capital funding over this session.
Although good green jobs represent enormous economic and environmental opportunities for Scotland’s recovery, we need to make sure that those opportunities are distributed fairly and meet the needs of our businesses. We are all acutely conscious of the current chronic labour shortages in sectors that are central to our recovery, including tourism, hospitality and logistics, which are clearly connected to the UK Government’s damaging migration rules. We have written to the UK Government to ask for an urgent meeting and to push for changes that would increase Scotland’s ability to import and distribute essential goods.
The Government, together with a number of business organisations, has pressed and will continue to press the UK Government to urgently revise its immigration policy before further damage is done. Going forward, we will continue to work with businesses to understand their skills needs, address long-standing recruitment and retention challenges and equip people with the skills that employers need now and in the future. We want to promote and maximise employability and skills interventions that will help workers enter or progress in sectors where there is demand. In that process, we will support into fair work those most impacted by the pandemic: young people, women, lone parents, disabled people, those from minority ethnic communities and those from lower income households.
In order to do that, over this session of Parliament, we will invest an additional £500 million to support the jobs of the future, including through the upskilling and reskilling of people to access those jobs and the addressing of skills gaps and shortages. Young people will also be supported into employment, with up to £70 million for the young persons guarantee this year, and we will invest up to £20 million through our no one left behind partnership.
There is no doubt—I think that we in the chamber all agree on this—that when we look back, we see that the pandemic has brought with it suffering and sacrifice in our business community and beyond. However, as we look forward, we see that recovery means that we can do things differently to deliver a just transition and push our economy forward, creating prosperity, business opportunities and jobs. The programme for government that was announced yesterday gives us the basis to start the journey towards that economic transformation.
As we engage in this debate about the programme for government, it behoves us all, once again, to recognise and understand that the expectation from the public, as was shown clearly yesterday, is that the Parliament’s primary focus will be on economic recovery from the pandemic. In the same context, I have no doubt whatever that business and industry want certainty, stability and a long-term strategy from Government that will protect jobs, people’s real disposable incomes and incentives for investment and economic growth.
On that question of growth, given all the debate last week about the Green Party’s approach, I say this: it is true that there are several important measures when it comes to assessing the progress of any economy, and it is true that gross domestic product and gross national product are incomplete measures, notably because they omit variables such as externalities, but that does not take away from the fact that GDP and GNP remain the most important internationally recognised economic measures, precisely because they measure the net output or value added of an economy in terms of the goods and services that are purchased with money. They will, therefore, always be an extremely good guide to the areas of the economy that are working well in terms of securing employment, improving productivity and creating new investment, all of which helps to determine real disposable income. If we do not have that strong economic growth, we all suffer. Common sense surely tells us that.
Yes. I said that there are other measures that determine economic progress. However, growth is the primary concern in any economy because it provides the facility to do other things that are important and to enable measures that can reduce some of the inequalities in our society.
It does not matter which business—be it small, medium or large—we talk to, which economic forecaster or public policy unit we listen to or which financial services we speak to: they unanimously tell us that economic growth is the most important thing post-pandemic. When it comes to the Greens, I am afraid that it really is the Greens against the business world.
“Our government’s ... priority is economic growth ... we are doing everything we can to get the economy growing again.”
When John Swinney, as finance secretary and Deputy First Minister, gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, he explained why the Scottish Government’s priority was to maximise investment and support economic growth. Earlier this year, in reaction to concerns that Sir Tom Hunter raised about the SNP’s approach to business, Kate Forbes said:
“That is why the Government is absolutely committed to being pro-prosperity, pro-growth and pro-business”.—[Official Report, 2 June 2021; c 17.]
I do not disagree with any of those three senior SNP ministers when they make such comments, because they are right about the importance of growth. Why on earth would they go into coalition with a party that is fundamentally opposed to that as a priority? That tension will dominate the coalition for however long it lasts.
Kate Forbes said at committee on 31 August that she would like to build a 10-year economic strategy, and she repeated that today. She also said that that cannot happen in full because she does not have the necessary funds from the UK Government to address exogenous shocks to the economy, nor does she have sufficient information about the timescales that will underpin how Scotland will benefit from various UK Government projects such as the shared prosperity, levelling up and community renewal funds.
On that point, I think that there will be welcome news in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s next budget and details of the funds will emerge. However, when Kate Forbes complains about the UK Government not providing the necessary funds to assist with the critical economic challenges that lie ahead, I really wonder how she thinks that the Scottish Government would have been in a position to fund the Covid recovery without the massive injection of UK cash, especially in terms of furlough and the huge assistance that is now to be provided via the health and social care plan.
That is a bizarre question for Liz Smith to ask, because she knows the answer to it. The question that I put back to her is this: how does every other country in the world manage to do that? Does she think that Scotland would be unique among the almost 200 countries of the world in being unable to support our economy through the Covid pandemic?
I ask for less chat across the room. If Ms Smith wishes to ask Mr McKee to confirm or clarify or whatever, perhaps Mr McKee could stand up and not do this sotto voce, if that is possible.
I am not going to take the intervention, Presiding Officer, because I really cannot believe that Mr McKee asked that question. It is abundantly clear—[Interruption.] No, I will not, Mr McKee.
Let us look to Professor Mark Blyth, who is, I believe, one of the Scottish Government’s top advisers and an independence supporter. He warns that the upheaval of independence would be “Brexit times 10”, and that view is shared by many in the Scottish business community and, indeed, among the public.
On the Conservatives’ side of the chamber, we are very clear in our minds that the economy brief must have as its primary focus policies that will support enterprise—especially by assisting small-scale business and new start-ups—and drive innovation and sustainable infrastructures. That is particularly true for the small business sector. We should remember that many of our small businesses are those that help our local communities most of all, and that small businesses provide 43 per cent of private sector jobs. Those firms have faced a disproportionate Brexit burden and disproportionate debt—a point that was made strongly to me and Murdo Fraser when we met the Federation of Small Businesses a few days ago.
We support the small business recovery plan, including the business rates relief aspects, because it is clear that the current system of taxing non-domestic property does not work for too many businesses. [Interruption.] I will not take an intervention, if the member does not mind.
Physical retailers find themselves paying higher taxes than their competitors despite the fact that they support more local jobs. At the Finance and Public Administration Committee yesterday, an interesting comment was made by Kevin Robertson of the Scottish Property Federation, who argued that legislative change might be needed to make the tax system more modern and efficient.
We then have all the skills issues. Sandy Begbie and Scottish Financial Enterprise have made it clear that we need better pathways for apprenticeships that take advantage of the huge global fintech market, technology hubs and net zero objectives. They are also clear about the need for connectivity and collaboration among firms in Scotland, much better links between governments and the private sector, and the development of far more digital skills.
I will finish with the very important point that there is huge demand among businesses and the public for better value for money in public services. The Scottish Government has presided over disasters such as the ferries and Burntisland Fabrications, to name just two projects that have brought into serious question transparency and accountability when it comes to public money.
It is interesting, too, that the Auditor General is making some strong criticisms of the gap between Scottish Government commitments and its delivery, and parliamentary committees have in some cases concluded that there has been a catastrophic failure in the management of public money in procurement. Members have heard me speak about transparency several times in the chamber. I hope that the new parliamentary session will do a lot to improve transparency, accountability and the scrutiny of financial decision making.
I am absolutely clear, Presiding Officer, that there should be one focus and one focus alone, and that should be economic recovery.
The pandemic is not over—it is peaking. Recovery is not under way—it has barely begun. The project of recovery will demand our full attention for the duration of this parliamentary session and beyond. The success or failure of that project will shape a generation. That is the challenge that the programme for government needed to rise to. My fear is that it barely engages with the requirements of the recovery, let alone its challenges or how to address them.
The word “recovery” appears, but the announcements on it are either retreads or so inconsequential that they barely scratch the surface. A word that is mentioned, however, is “independence”. Independence would not be quick. There would be 20 years of economic uncertainty and cost and capital flight—“Brexit times 10”. That is not my analysis but that of Professor Mark Blyth, who is one of the First Minister’s leading economic advisers.
Recovery demands urgency and prolonged action—it will not be done by 2023 and it is clear from the First Minister’s statement yesterday that she is more comfortable with a constitutional circus than the seriousness that is demanded by economic recovery.
Ministers should talk to businesses; they do not think that the recovery is done and they are worried. They have debts—even those that have never traded with debt. Small business owners have cashed in their pensions and remortgaged their houses to keep going. Customer volumes are down on what they should be. Businesses have no clarity on what measures may be coming next and they know that some habits have been changed for ever by lockdowns. It is not just small retailers or shops that have been affected. Online has risen by 50 per cent, with the majority of that going to the large online retailers. Footfall is 30 per cent down and chains are shutting 30 stores a week. Retail is 10 per cent of private sector employment, and we have to ask whether it will continue to be.
However, it is not just retail that has been affected. Right across consumer-facing sectors, the patterns and stories are the same. The recovery plan needs to deal with these things: debt, changed behaviours, resilience and, most important, jobs. Businesses whose balance sheets are loaded with debt need practical and financial help. Figures from the FSB show that small firms have taken on £4.1 billion-worth of debt over the past 18 months.
On changed behaviours, businesses need help to transition, because their customers are not coming back if they are working from home and shopping online. On resilience, we need clarity and advice so that businesses have systems in place to continue to trade as and when new measures are imposed to control the virus. The most important point is jobs; the jobs that we did before the pandemic may not be the ones that we do post-recovery. We must help people to reskill and retrain and businesses to adapt; if we do not, the consequences will be counted in those jobs being lost.
That analysis or something similar to it is completely absent from the programme for government. More important, a sense of urgency is absent. We have the promise of an ill-defined 10-year economic transformation plan to be delivered some months in the future, but economic recovery cannot wait 10 years; we need a 10-month plan to help reskill people and businesses to transition. We need a 10-week plan to ensure that businesses survive and people keep their jobs when furlough ends. We do not need more expert groups taking months to produce another report to be ignored by Government; we need ministers to get a grip, take responsibility and take action now.
I would be grateful if Mr McKee would enlighten me on that.
Daniel Johnson says that we should take action now: we have announced £500 million for upskilling and work learning, £20 million for the national transition training fund, £20 million for the no one left behind partnership, £70 million for the young persons guarantee and £20 million for the rural entrepreneur fund. I could go on and on—we are doing a lot.
Every one of those numbers needs to be divided by five. In the coming year, only £150 million will be spent on reskilling or transition and training. Given that 150,000 people were still on furlough through the summer, that is a drop in the ocean and Mr McKee should recognise that.
Without bold action, Scotland faces an unemployment crisis that will become a national emergency. I will mention some more numbers. Between April and June this year, there were 119,000 people unemployed in Scotland, but the national training fund, which was just referenced by Mr McKee, targeted only 17 per cent of that population. That is shamefully inadequate.
We have to ensure that small businesses can access specialist digital support, but the funds that are being offered are not nearly enough and one is a reannouncement of a scheme that is already oversubscribed. Further to that, there are only two Covid-related business support schemes; both are reannouncements and will come to an end in this financial year.
I come to green jobs. The Scottish Government has been very keen to lace green words and credentials through the programme for government, but most if not all of the green measures are recycled. What impact have the Greens had on the programme for government? We got the answer today, because it was confirmed in the press that the Scottish Government has scrapped its plans for a publicly owned energy company. It is clear that any influence the Greens might have had has been sold out for ministerial job titles without any ministerial influence.
Does Mr Johnson agree that it is ironic that today, just a week after the Greens joined the Government, we have learned that the wind farm turbine factory in Machrihanish in Argyll is closing permanently? That does not demonstrate much of a commitment from the Government to supporting green jobs.
It strikes me that the Government is more interested in green posture than in green delivery. The announcement regarding the wind turbines simply underlines that fact.
Not only has the Government brought forward little to address the economic recovery, there is no detail or explanation about how existing policies and Government machinery will be used to sustain the recovery. There is no mention of a role for Scottish Enterprise, South of Scotland Enterprise or Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The announcement on the Scottish National Investment Bank is not new, and it is a cut. There is no plan for how those agencies should work or co-ordinate to enable or deliver recovery.
The stark fact is that, despite enterprise support being needed now more than ever, the Scottish National Party Government is spending 40 per cent less in real terms than was spent in the final year of the Labour Administration. The figure now is £500 million, compared to £800 million in real terms in 2007. Despite the fact that we have one additional agency, a new investment bank and a new apparently integrated board, 40 per cent less is being spent during a global pandemic than was spent at a time of economic growth.
The lack of vision, strategy or clear plan from the Government should come as no surprise. The Government’s economic record is marked by failure and calamity, from dodgy ferries to empty airports to empty and unused turbine yards. When it comes to the economy, the Government’s position seems to be, “Pandemic? What pandemic?” The effects of the coronavirus will be with us long after the disease and illness subside. This is a time for serious politics and serious politicians. I am afraid that the PFG demonstrates that, on those measures, the Government and ministers are seriously deficient.
Liz Smith, who unfortunately is just leaving the chamber, made an interesting slip. She said that independence would be “Brexit times 10”. That is from a member of the Conservative Party, which claimed that Brexit was going to be a good thing for our country. Liz Smith admitted that there is deep uncertainty in the Conservative Party about the reality of Brexit. The point is that Brexit and independence are as bad as each other. The mistakes of Brexit should not be repeated and should be remembered when we enter this next phase, as the SNP tries to move forward on independence. Of course independence would be Brexit times 10, which is why we should not repeat the mistake.
I rise to defend my colleague Liz Smith, who disappeared to the back of the chamber momentarily. I simply want to clarify that, in saying that, she was quoting Professor Mark Blyth—she did not say that it was her view. She was quoting the view of the Scottish Government’s new starry-eyed economic adviser.
That is a wonderful contortion—I congratulate Murdo Fraser on that complicated explanation.
That extremes position, in which the Conservatives and the SNP are as bad as each other with their propositions on Brexit and independence, is repeated in the positions of the Greens and the Conservatives on economic growth. It was interesting to hear Liz Smith explore that important area. I rarely say this, but I think that John Mason was right that we should not have absolutist positions on the issue. It is not about having GDP or nothing; it is about having a balance and making sure that we take into account the social and economic impact as well as the environmental impact. Governments in the past—particularly Conservative Governments—have had an almost absolutist commitment to economic growth to the exclusion of all else. The absolutist positions of the Conservatives and the Greens are at the extremes and do not help us to move forward in the debate.
Liz Smith is now free to leave the chamber as she wishes, because I will not refer to her any more.
Coming out of the pandemic was always going to be much more difficult than going into it. We have seen that in the many business failures and the incredibly turbulent position that we are now in.
I happen to think that it is a good thing that workers are getting paid an awful lot more, especially those who were on low wages. Of course it is challenging for businesses, which are finding it difficult to get good workers to open their businesses. Many of them have been operating under restricted hours as a result, and they are not able to meet the pent-up customer demand that we have seen in recent weeks. Of course it is a good thing that workers are being paid more, but the challenge for business is considerable.
There has also been a shortage of materials, partly as a result of manufacturing disruption and, again, the pent-up demand that has come through. Of course, there is Brexit as well. We have not seen the worst of Brexit yet, because the pandemic has partly held the world in suspension. We may see the full consequences of Brexit that are yet to hit when the full release of the pandemic comes. Businesses are also facing pressure—good pressure—on climate change, with increasing demands from government and society to reform their operations.
All of those things are incredible pressures. For me, adding on top of that the challenge of independence would be reckless. I agreed with the First Minister when she said, in the election campaign, that the recovery would come first. I think that the recovery is going to take a very long time to secure. We have seen the turbulence now, and it will take even longer to get on top of it. Even if we take into account the massive challenges that we face in our social care sector, in recruiting workers, through economic pressures and with issues around the NHS, it will take a long time to recover from the pandemic, and I think that it would be reckless to pursue independence in the process.
The Government is good at promises. I give it credit for that. It has endless promises; there are lists of commitments that it has made. However, its delivery is very poor. Just consider its industrial strategy. I reluctantly return, once again, to the subject of the Lochaber smelter. There is no sign at all of the 2,000 promised jobs for the Fort William area. We are barely keeping the company alive. Referring to Ferguson’s, there is no sign of those ferries for the desperate islanders who want reliable ferry services. As for Burntisland Fabrications Ltd, there is just no sign of the company at all: it collapsed, despite significant Government investment. When it comes to delivery on its promises, the Government is not particularly good.
I entirely agree with the points that Mr Rennie has just raised. Does he agree—I think he probably does, given what he said in the previous session—that there is a lot to be said for improving the scrutiny process in the Parliament for public procurement and how money is spent? We know far too little about who owes what and who owns what.
I agree with Liz Smith on that—that is a very sensible proposition.
I will quickly go through some of the key priorities for the coming period. We need to reform the skills and training agenda. We need to ensure that the apprenticeship levy works more effectively—it is a disincentive for training. We need a 12-month Covid recovery visa—that is a UK Government responsibility that it needs to deliver. We need to sort out the driver training programme—that is going to be a real priority. There is also the matter of universities. Some of our most international institutions are under incredible pressure just now. They are major economic drivers, and we need to support them so that they can do more of what they do well.
We are still living in and with a pandemic and its impacts. We should reflect, however, that the Scottish Fiscal Commission has amended upwards its predictions for economic growth for Scotland, and downwards for unemployment. That is positive.
I wish to focus my remarks on the economic transformation and the just transition to the net zero future that members across the chamber want to see. The programme for government is ambitious and bold, and it is based on a full manifesto that was emphatically endorsed by a victory in the election in May. Do not underestimate the expectations of the people of Scotland for us to work together to tackle the most serious of challenges facing our economy, our society and our environment.
Oppositions oppose, but they must also rise to the occasion when the circumstances demand it, as a pandemic and a global emergency do. However, parliamentarians should not be uncritical. The challenge for the programme for government must be to move beyond strategy and policy and funding announcements, and focus on effective delivery and implementation.
The First Minister stated yesterday that the recommendations of the just transition commission are to be accepted. That was accompanied by the Scottish Government’s very welcome response to the commission’s report, with specific actions and commitments, backed by policy and funding, set out in the programme for government.
We face the twin pressures of Covid recovery and the drive to net zero but, unlike other countries, we do so in the context of an unmanaged and damaging Brexit. I know that the Government has a relentless focus on the mitigation of Covid impacts, but that cannot, and must not, constrain our drive to net zero.
In a world that has changed so much, the future direction of our country—our economic recovery, our net zero direction and the values of the country that we want to be—should be in the hands of the people of Scotland, through an independence referendum. Political choices matter, and we face a UK Government that wants to tax the youngest and the poorest to pay for much-needed health and care funding rather than introduce a windfall tax on those who have profited excessively from their Covid crony contracts.
I represent the constituency of Linlithgow, with towns and villages across West Lothian that have known their fair share of industrial transition. That transition has often been unfair and unjust, and we must learn the lessons of the past in shaping the future. The collective pardon for miners will be welcomed by my constituents, just as the UK Prime Minister’s crude and clumsy mischaracterisation of the demise of the mining industry in Scotland was unwelcome.
Scotland needs a managed just transition to transform our energy production, distribution and use, and to tackle heat, housing and transport needs in particular. I welcome the fact that the Scottish energy strategy will have a just transition at its heart, and that the 10-year economic transformation plan will have it embedded, too. I welcome the fact that sector plans will be part of that, and that there will be a skills guarantee for transitioning energy workers.
We need to mobilise private funding, not just public funding, and Government can incentivise private investment through smart, bold policy and regulatory decisions in housing and transport.
The programme for government contains short-term immediate measures to help businesses to recover. For example, in the important area of tourism, it will provide continuing rates relief, which is very much welcomed by many in the tourism and hospitality sector. In addition, £100 million for digital and business capacity, which was one of the issues that Daniel Johnson raised, will be delivered as part of the programme for government.
The money for rural entrepreneurs—£20 million of investment—will help to revitalise various sectors, and the £10 million for tourism infrastructure projects will help to attract more tourists to visit those areas. It is important that we listen to business. The sector-led tourism recovery task force has put forward recommendations, and the programme for government is supporting those with £25 million.
The programme for government not only addresses the short-term pressures that members have talked about, but includes the long-term measures that we need in order to secure the green economic recovery. There is £1.8 billion to reduce the emissions from heating in homes and buildings and to tackle fuel poverty—that is bold and ambitious.
There is £500 million for a just transition in north-east Scotland. It is vital at this point that we recognise the needs and demands of that area, and the need to support the green jobs of the future by upskilling and re-skilling people. I look forward to the announcements regarding the green jobs fund, which will come forward shortly.
There is £5 billion to maintain and improve, and—importantly—to decarbonise, rail services—[Interruption.]
I am just about to close.
There is £240 million for an energy transition programme, and £1 billion for the Scottish National Investment Bank. Only yesterday, SNIB announced an investment of £6.4 million in the world-class tidal energy company Nova Innovation. All that is in a programme for government that matches the reality of coping with immediate issues with policies, funding and the drive to deliver a just transition to a net zero future. I commend it to Parliament.
The First Minister describes her Government’s new partnership with the Scottish Greens as “genuinely ground-breaking” and a new and better “way of doing politics”, and she argues that it provides a “strong foundation” for strong and decisive action. However, yesterday’s programme for government is the opposite of strong and decisive action—it is clear that we are in for another five years of tired and rehashed policy and another five years of constitutional navel gazing.
I have listened to debates on six programmes for government in this chamber and I am always amused by the fact that SNP back benchers are clearly told to use the words “bold and ambitious” to describe the new policy programme. Fiona Hyslop did just that a few minutes ago, and it happens every time. Sometimes we get a bit of variety—instead of “bold and ambitious”, we are treated to “ambitious and bold”. However, calling a programme for government “bold and ambitious” does not make it so, and this year, as ever, the same is true. The programme for government is not bold and ambitious; it is cautious and timid—it is thin, thin gruel.
Despite warm words from the First Minister on focusing on recovery from the pandemic, we only have to read a handful of paragraphs in the foreword—[Interruption.] I am sorry—I would like to make a bit of progress.
We only have to read a handful of paragraphs in the foreword, or to have listened to the First Minister in the chamber yesterday, to learn of the SNP’s plans to foist another referendum on Scotland at some point before 2023. Where we have we heard that before?
We are now in a new session of the Scottish Parliament, and the programme for government was a real opportunity to focus on the pressing need to create new jobs, rebuild our economy, sort out the long-standing problems in our national health service and close the attainment gap. However, the SNP-Green coalition has opted to park those urgent priorities and put them to the side, rather than deliver for communities across Scotland.
Willie Rennie was absolutely right to focus on delivery. Fiona Hyslop also talked about delivery, and delivery is the problem. The words of Stephen Boyle, the Auditor General for Scotland—a neutral in this debate, with no axe to grind—are worth paying attention to. He said that there is
“a major implementation gap between policy ambitions and delivery on the ground” and that
“there’s a mismatch between the Scottish Government’s vision of a more successful Scotland—where poverty is reduced, and economic growth is sustainable—and how we assess public sector performance.”
That is the real issue and it goes beyond Brexit, indyref 2 and Covid, because the shiniest policies in the world, if they are not delivered, mean nothing.
In the short time that is left to me, I want to look at how the programme for government will impact the region that I represent and where it is missing the mark. I had hoped to see concrete and deliverable policies that would help rural and remote parts of the Highlands and Islands recover from the pandemic. In the past five years, when it comes to delivery, my region has witnessed a catalogue of failures from this Government, such as the failure to deliver 100 per cent superfast broadband to every home and business by the end of the last parliamentary session or the failure to deliver on key infrastructure problems and help to reverse the worrying trend of rural and island depopulation.
However, the greatest failure is the Government’s inability to sort out the crisis with our ferry service, which is causing misery and mayhem for residents and businesses across the Highlands and Islands. The programme for government makes several minor commitments to maintain existing policies, such as road equivalent tariff where it is applicable on current routes, or a pledge to establish further transport integration at ferry terminals. The glaring omission is a commitment to build any new ferries during this parliamentary session. The ferry network has seen breakdowns on an unprecedented scale in recent months. Given that more than half the active ferry fleet is operating beyond its life expectancy, there has been ample opportunity to commit to new vessels in addition to the two delayed vessels that we await.
On rural depopulation, I noted that the programme for government commits to creating a rural entrepreneur fund and an islands infrastructure fund. Those are welcome measures, but I am concerned about whether the Government will be able to deliver on its pledges. As I discovered recently by asking a parliamentary question, over the past five years, the SNP Government passed on less than half its rural housing fund to local authorities and just over half its islands housing fund. In addition, the Shetland Islands have received nothing from the islands housing fund in the past five years. On that basis, how can we be confident in this Government to deliver on its new commitments?
The programme for government falls desperately short on infrastructure commitments. It expects that the R100 programme will not be fully delivered to homes and businesses across the north lot area until 2027—six years away. That is a damning indictment. Just five years ago, the SNP made a cast-iron commitment that it would be delivered by this year, 2021, before this session of Parliament had begun.
I know that the programme for government makes minor commitments here and there, but it is clear to members on the Conservative benches that it could have said, and committed to, a lot more.
Despite the Government forming a coalition with the Scottish Green Party, its lack of ambition for Scotland remains static. The Scottish Conservatives have a bold commitment to deliver a number of bills in this session of Parliament, which we hope will receive support from others. As we recover from the—[Interruption.] I am waiting.
As we recover from the Covid pandemic, now is the time for fresh ideas that will stimulate our economy and create new, high-quality jobs; it is not the time for another divisive independence referendum that turns focus away from what really matters to the people of Scotland.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to explore some of the content of the Scottish Government’s programme for government. There is much there to commend, but I promise Mr Cameron that I will studiously avoid using the words “ambitious” and “bold”, given that they offend him so much.
In my short speech, I can highlight only a few of the many important initiatives that are detailed in the document, but given that the economy is very much my priority as we come through the pandemic and face the disastrous consequences of a reckless Brexit, I will focus on that aspect of the programme.
I welcome the emphasis on a green, sustainable and prosperous recovery for all. Managing the economy at any time is a challenge, given that Scotland has only some of the levers with which to do so. Managing the economy is too often tenuous, and relying on the Tory Government in London to do the right thing by our economy, over which they have far too much negligent control, is an exercise in futility.
The programme seeks to tackle those areas of the economy that we can influence, and to strengthen and nurture our businesses. Many businesses in our economy are struggling—the double hit of the pandemic followed by Brexit has left us with a fragile and uncertain economic future. Everything that we can do to support our economic accelerators, and mitigate those that tend to deflate our progress, must be done.
I cannot deny that it would all be easier if we had control of our own future and were able to direct our resources to the best effect. However, we do not have that control, so we must do all that we can with what we have.
I will focus on the solid facts of the programme for government. Developing a wellbeing economy is a hugely ambitious task, particularly in the situation that we are now in. However, that situation is also an opportunity to do things differently. Economic prosperity is essential for all our futures, and, within that, the economy is an integral part of our society. Pooling together economic development, the environment and social wellbeing makes simple sense.
I welcome the first £200 million tranche of capital for the Scottish National Investment Bank—the total is £1 billion over the next five years. The provision of patient capital to help technologies and innovative businesses is vital. Many of the technologies on which we are relying to drive net zero are not yet developed to a point at which they can deliver the benefit that is hoped for, and they need capital to do so.
Putting in place regional economic partnerships makes absolute sense. Regional strategies and recovery plans will attract new public and private investment. New ways of working and closer co-operation between local businesses and local and national Government are incredibly important. The investment of an additional £500 million across this parliamentary session in delivering a fair, just and sustainable recovery, and putting people at the forefront of economic delivery, is good news. It will support new sustainable green jobs and help to equip people to take on the new jobs of the future.
I note that £200 million will be spent on adult upskilling and retraining, which will be essential as our economy settles into a new reality and shape. In its first 100 days, the Scottish Government established a green jobs workforce academy, which will provide support for, among others, oil and gas workers to transition into low-carbon sectors. Overall, the college creates the opportunity to provide a single solution for those who are seeking transition into green jobs. To further support that, the green jobs fund will provide £100 million in capital over five years to help businesses create green employment through investment, with opportunities to retrain and upskill in new and high-growth areas. I think that members will note a heavy emphasis on retraining and upskilling throughout the entire approach to the economy, and to pulling it through the pandemic and Brexit.
The young person’s guarantee has been an important and well-used scheme. The initiative allocated £70 million, which, combined with past investment, will provide 24,000 new and enhanced opportunities for young people. Given the impact of the current economic situation, young people tend to be affected more than other demographics, so the scheme is hugely important.
Fair work has been a long-term ambition for the SNP Government. It is indeed time for all employees of companies that receive public funds to be paid the living wage. I would also welcome the abolition of zero-hours contracts and similar conditions.
I agree with the member about wellbeing and job creation, including green job creation, but will he comment on the closure and mothballing of the only offshore and onshore wind turbine manufacturer?
That is a little bit outwith the scope of the speech that I am delivering—I am sure that others will touch on that.
I note the commitment to exploring the possibility of a four-day week. As a long-term private sector employer in my past life, I have some doubts about the practicality of that, but I am certainly willing to see the evidence. I suppose that one concern is that the productivity rate in relation to gross domestic product across the UK is poor compared with that of our competitors in Europe. How do we lift productivity levels to meet the competition, while reducing working hours and accommodating additional productivity gains to compensate for those reduced hours? As I said, I will wait for the evidence on that.
Delivering a just transition will not be easy, but it is necessary. The national infrastructure mission will increase investment in infrastructure by £1.6 billion by 2025-26. That should be a game changer, and the supply chains that will enable the use of the funds will be a key part of making the investment deliver for our economy.
Local and international supply chains are under intense scrutiny. Brexit has led to severe disruption of existing supply chains at all levels. For the investment to work, supply chain issues must be addressed. Of course, the best and quickest way to address them would be for an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU—that makes absolute economic sense.
Scotland is a trading nation and the ambition to increase exports by 25 per cent of GDP by 2030 is laudable. Our trade balance is immeasurably better than that of the struggling UK. However, all that has been placed under threat by Brexit.
There are so many other initiatives in the programme for government, but there is no time to touch on more than a small number of them. I am pleased with the overall tenor of the programme, and it moves Scotland in the right direction. My biggest concern is that technology must move quickly, supported by the investments that we have shown. The whole Parliament should be able to get behind and support the programme. I commend it accordingly.
When I delivered my first speech in the chamber, I was clear that I came to Parliament to fight for workers in my region and across Scotland. That fight is necessary because the lives of too many workers are constrained by the reality of our economic system, which enables a few to accumulate ever-greater wealth at the expense of the many. Workers are increasingly undervalued and faced with low pay, insecure work and poverty. After 14 years, the SNP has failed to offer a transformative vision for our economy.
Our economy is built on declining public services, rising levels of inequality, an ever-shrinking manufacturing base and increasingly insecure work. The programme for government represented an opportunity for the SNP to transform our economy to address those issues, but we have instead been presented with proposals that just tinker around the edges.
The Government has confirmed that it intends to publish a national strategy for economic transformation—a strategy that has been sorely lacking for 14 years. There was no strategy to save jobs and vital manufacturing assets when the Government stood by and allowed BiFab and the Caley rail works to be closed, and there was no strategy to promote democratic ownership of essential utilities, which are still run for private profit, not public good.
Given that the climate emergency is the greatest threat that we face, I am disappointed by the Scottish Government’s on-going lack of ambition in that area. It promised to deliver 130,000 green jobs by this year but, in reality, it has fallen far short, delivering just over 23,000. The First Minister has announced that a biodiversity strategy will be published by next autumn, but the programme for government appears to contradict that.
I represent the north-east, so I am keen to ensure that we deliver a just transition for the region, given its dependence on the oil and gas sector for jobs and the wider local economy. However, we do not have a green industrial base, so we are forced to rely on turbine imports from Denmark, Spain and Germany to drive our shift to renewable energy. The programme for government refers to the creation of
“a £500 million Just Transition Fund for the North East and Moray”,
but it provides absolutely no detail on how the fund will be invested.
In 2017, the Scottish Government pledged to create a publicly owned energy company, which Scottish Labour has been calling for, but, years later, we have heard nothing about its development. There are now reports that ministers are set to abandon the pledge altogether.
Despite the scale of the climate emergency, the Scottish Government is seeking private finance and investment to deliver the green energy and technologies that we need. That is an abdication of responsibility. The Scottish Government should not be outsourcing tackling the climate emergency. It should be taking a central role in co-ordinating Scotland’s response.
When it comes to tackling the fundamental issues in our economy, the Scottish Government is failing. More than 300,000 workers across Scotland are on less than the real living wage, striking ScotRail workers are being denied pay equality and cuts to local government are hollowing out public services.
The programme for government was an opportunity to announce the real changes that are needed so that we can tackle the climate emergency, end inequality and bring economic power into the heart of our communities. The Scottish Government has failed to grasp that opportunity.
I welcome the programme for government outlined by the First Minister and, in particular, the actions to ensure that Scotland has the opportunity to become a modern, normal, independent nation as soon as conditions allow. Fundamentally, it is about having the freedom to make policy choices based on the needs of the Scottish people. There are huge opportunities to be grasped. I will focus on how best to support the Government’s ambitions in two areas: investment in transitioning to a green economy and the need to overcome barriers to progress.
The commitment to transitioning to a net zero economy is very welcome and hugely ambitious, but the Government cannot do that alone. Businesses must change what they do and massively increase investment. According to October 2019 data from the World Bank, significant investment in infrastructure for the next 15 years alone will be required, costing about $90 trillion by 2030.
We cannot move away from our reliance on fossil fuels by simply stopping the use of fossil fuels. We need to invest heavily in new businesses, such as those that are built around hydrogen technologies. Bringing to reality the power-to-X concept, which I recently discussed with lead researchers at the University of St Andrews, is a case in point, and it is particularly important for my Falkirk East constituency, which includes Grangemouth.
The United Nations has claimed that, if our investment patterns do not change, we are on course for a 3.5°C rise in global temperatures, which will be devastating for our planet. It points to, for example, the need for pension funds and investors to move quickly and at scale to decarbonise their portfolios. For us, that must include consideration of how we leverage pension investments in support of the Government’s ambitions.
Where better to start than at home? Back in April, I was disappointed to read in Business Insider that our parliamentary pension fund had not, at that time, fully divested itself of fossil fuel investments. Having looked at the 32 Scottish local authority pension funds, I note that almost £50 billion in total is currently being invested by 11 regional funds. Strathclyde Pension Fund and Lothian Pension Fund are the largest and most developed in terms of climate investment practice.
All funds acknowledge the need to address net zero ambitions to some degree. There is, however, some distance to travel, so I was pleased to note in the Scottish Government’s response to the just transition commission that it plans to develop guidelines for voluntary disclosure. My personal view is that that should be required as soon as possible, given the issues with comply or explain reporting, which is more often explained in terms of corporate governance.
There is however two-fold good news. First, internationally, the World Bank among others has identified that transitioning to a green economy can unlock new economic opportunities and jobs. The bank claims that an investment of £1 is likely on average to yield £4 in benefits. Secondly, because of Scotland’s existing progress with renewable energy and our other natural advantages, we are ideally placed to exploit the new opportunities that will create many more jobs in the future.
Economically, however, all is not sweetness and light, thanks to the current UK Government. As we look towards the future, we find that a toxic combination of Brexit and the Internal Market Act 2020 creates barriers to progress. As recent research by the Fraser of Allander Institute and others has pointed out in relation to the 2020 act,
“The effect is to circumvent not only the Barnett Formula but the devolved governments themselves.”
Part of the UK Government’s response to Brexit has been to set up funds that are aimed at addressing lost EU structural funds, but whereas our Scottish Government was in the past able to assess needs and set appropriate priorities, the UK Government’s replacement funds currently bypass the Scottish Government and set up a competitive bidding process for local authorities. What is interesting is that the lead department managing that competition will be England’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Liz Smith declines to intervene. That speaks volumes.
I am not aware that such a ministry has any expertise to assess Scottish needs. The lesson here must be that until we achieve Scottish independence, we will always be at the mercy of the whims of a Tory Government in Westminster that fundamentally does not have Scotland’s interests at heart.
Yesterday’s programme for government announcement was incredibly disappointing, especially for rural Scotland. The programme jeopardises rural jobs, rehashes old announcements and fails to tackle the urgent need for action in rural communities as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. What it does prioritise, however—it takes the reader only until page 4 to work it out—is the SNP-Green obsession with independence and breaking up Britain at a time of crisis. The programme puts their campaign for separation front and centre, above recovery from the pandemic, which is nothing short of reckless.
Today, in the chamber, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care took questions from MSPs who are worried about constituents not being able to see a general practitioner. In my constituency this week, the Coldingham practice closed. That is another rural practice shut—another one on the list—because the Government has failed to attract GPs to rural areas. In the First Minister’s statement, we heard concerns about rising Covid cases, yet the nationalist coalition will pursue a white paper on independence, diverting time and resources away from the things that matter to the people of Scotland.
Although the programme for government outlines policies that will benefit rural areas—I welcome the increased funding for more women in agriculture, for example—it falls at the first hurdle when tackling the deep-rooted problems that rural communities face. There are questions to ask about how the policies will encourage diversity and how the legislation that the Scottish Government proposes to introduce on succession planning will lower the average age of farmers, which currently sits at 59. The agritourism growth strategy group is a fantastic idea, but it is one that is taken straight from a Scottish Conservative policy.
One may debate whether a soufflé should be reheated, but these are old ideas rehashed. The rural entrepreneur fund is simply a rebadged, reworked SNP 2021 manifesto commitment. The manifesto said the SNP will
“Create a new, £20 million Rural Entrepreneur Fund”.
Now, the nationalist coalition’s programme for government says:
“in the coming financial year we will launch a £20 million Rural Entrepreneur Fund.”
I think that that is the same thing.
The member seems to misunderstand the purpose of a manifesto and a programme for government. The manifesto says what we are going to do and the programme for government brings those things into the chamber for debate. Does she expect us to put things in the manifesto and then not deliver them?
The fundamental fact remains that this central-belt focused SNP-Green Government has simply missed the point when it comes to the rural recovery, leaving Scotland’s farmers on the scrap heap. For example, they are calling for the doubling of land for organic farming, but, under this Government, between 2012 and 2019, the amount of organic land decreased by 40 per cent and now stands at just 1.6 per cent of total Scottish land.
The Scottish Government is not listening to rural Scotland. Why has the SNP not acted on its own commissioned research, which highlights the widespread abuse of Scottish gamekeepers? Why is there no reference to the scourge of fly-tipping, which injures wildlife and farm animals and which my colleague Murdo Fraser will introduce a bill to tackle within this parliamentary session?
Let us take the SNP’s obsession with bringing Scotland back into line with deeply unpopular EU regulation. Farmers across the country whooped with delight at the prospect of leaving the cumbersome and bureaucratic red-tape-ridden common agricultural policy regime, with its three-crop rule and land-based payments rather than meaningful interventions to drive productivity and efficiency. Because of the desire to align with the CAP, Scotland is put at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the UK, because our internal market is worth three times that of the EU.
Where is the draft farming and food production future policy group report? It is still in draft form and has not been published, but it highlights the group’s dismay with the CAP and its failure to deliver environmental objectives, with payment levels not always correlating clearly with public benefits.
Further to that, the SNP’s proposed realignment with the EU’s controversial regime for pesticide regulation is a massive worry for farmers. We saw the debacle over glyphosate. In our fight against climate change and food sustainability, we cannot afford to leave decision making to Brussels. We know that gene editing reduces the need for the application of pesticides, which, in turn, would help the Scottish Government’s poor biodiversity record and help the agricultural sector to meet climate change targets. As the country moves towards net zero in the coming decades, the agricultural sector has been identified as a sector that can lead the way in tackling climate change.
With the newly announced Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights and the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity taking up their positions, I have been left to wonder when the Government will unveil the next minister for compost, country bumpkins and the winter solstice, adding to the burgeoning number of special advisers and civil servants paid for by the taxpayer.
Fundamentally, the programme for government is designed to meet Green demands and prop up numbers to push an agenda to break up Britain. In effect, it is a one-trick disaster duo. To build on Donald Cameron’s points on delivery, one might ponder that, if the Greens’ U-turn on vaccine passports sets a precedent for future dealings, will they will be happy to sit back when their new partners fail to deliver on rural housing targets, island depopulation, ferries, job creation and the economy? There is no mention of infrastructure or the things that matter to people in the rural economy.
I know that my time is up, so I shall leave it there, but the Scottish Conservatives are the only ones who can deliver for rural Scotland.
What is our economy for? What are the values that underpin it? What do we need to do to support the kind of economy that we want?
Those are three of the fundamental questions that any Government must ask when considering how to govern and what legislation, policies and strategies should make up its programme for government. I have spoken here before about how the Scottish Greens seek to address those questions. We want our economy to serve society—to create the context within which all members of society can reach their potential. Such an economy must be based on care, creativity and co-operation, not driven by the profit motive.
The fallout of the 2008 financial crisis and the current economic shock of the pandemic have demonstrated the failings of the conventional economics that Liz Smith talked about and of the pursuit of endless economic growth. We understand that, mathematically never mind ethically, it is not possible to have infinite growth in a finite system without that system collapsing. Therefore, as we rebuild our economy, we must grasp the opportunity to do things differently and to reorient our economy so that it can support everyone to have what they need to live a good life, while supporting society to respect our planetary boundaries.
We have already begun that journey, and the programme for government is Scotland’s next step. However, it is not perfect—it does not do everything that we might wish it to. For instance, it does not go as far as I would like it to in challenging assumptions of industrial strategy. The advice that has been provided on Ferguson’s shipyard and BiFab has not been good enough. We need to look for advice from other sources.
The programme for government also does not—indeed, it cannot—go as far as many of us would like it to, because we do not have all the economic levers at our disposal. Given the powers of independence, we could see a plan—a Scottish Meidner plan, as it were—to give workers progressively more ownership of the economy. We would also be able to maximise the enormous potential in a Scottish green industrial revolution. We know that we have the expertise and the history to lead the way in heavy industry, manufacturing and engineering.
Nevertheless, there are key shifts in thinking in the programme for government that give me hope. We know that the same things that we need to tackle the climate emergency are what we need to support economic recovery from Covid: investment in public transport, job creation in upgrading Scotland’s homes, and building up our renewables industry. Our recovery must be investment led. That the UK Government wants to cut spending by at least 5 per cent across all departments is terrifying. We cannot cut our way to success, resilience or prosperity. The Scottish Government must invest, and it is committed to investing and playing an active role in developing and growing green industries and ensuring that workers and wealth redistribution are at the heart of our recovery plans.
At the heart of the programme for government is a commitment to a green economic recovery that is based on the policies and expenditure plans that were agreed in the co-operation deal between the Greens and the Scottish Government. That deal will mean billions of pounds of public money being invested in green industries, as well as determined action to ensure that public funds do everything that they can to support positive outcomes for workers and the environment.
Investing in energy efficiency is the cheapest and most effective way of creating green jobs and reducing emissions. The Green co-operation deal will result in at least £1.8 billion being invested in making Scotland’s homes and buildings more efficient, tackling fuel poverty and creating new jobs and opportunities for builders, roofers, plumbers, heating engineers, joiners, window fitters and many more. This is tried and tested: from Germany to South Korea, energy efficiency investment was central to countries’ recovery from the 2008 financial crash.
We will also see the start of the investment of £5 billion in improving, expanding and decarbonising our railways to deliver a modern, reliable and zero-carbon train service, as well as major economic benefits. For every £1 billion that is invested in the rail sector, £1.6 billion is generated and 14,000 jobs are created.
I must make progress.
Regional rail links, including rural rail links—such as the one that is to be developed in my region, as a result of the co-operation agreement, to link Peterhead and Fraserburgh to Aberdeen—will play a vital role in supporting local economic development. We need only look at the Borders railway, which has carried millions of passengers—
We need to look at rail infrastructure in all regions across Scotland, because it is the future of both transport and community connectivity. We know from the Borders railway—which has carried millions of passengers since opening and has attracted investment and tourism to the area—that it is a real way to generate economic sustainability. [Interruption.] I will make progress, if the member does not mind.
The deal will also see billions more being invested in the onshore wind industry, in addition to the rapidly growing offshore sector, and the Greens will seek to ensure that that investment also creates jobs and opportunities in the supply chain. We cannot continue to see our domestic manufacturing fail while turbines are imported.
The Green deal will also see conditionality applied to all Scottish Government support, so that public money is always forwarding the just transition and promoting fair work. That includes requirements to pay the real living wage, recognise trade unions and ensure that recipients of public grants are not engaging in tax avoidance. That is what investment-led recovery looks like, and it is the economic recovery that people and the planet need.
Although I am proud of the difference that the Greens are making, we need to do more. Trades Union Congress analysis of public spending on the green recovery and job creation in the G7 countries shows that the UK is lagging far behind, with Germany investing three times more per person and France four times more. Although we are doing what we can in Scotland, we need the UK Government to do its bit—to reject austerity and to commit to a long-term programme of green stimulus spend.
Failure to invest in a green economic recovery would be a disaster for our planet and for our economy. We have our work to do, but the prize will be a prosperous, successful and resilient economy that supports a fair and green Scotland.
I welcome the programme for government and, in particular, the commitment to an independence referendum, which, as is always worth repeating, the people of Scotland voted for. It is also worth repeating that Scotland has been dragged out of the EU against the wishes of its people by a party that has not won an election here since 1955.
The Scottish Government is to be praised for stopping work on the independence referendum last year to focus on the pandemic, while the UK Government pressed ahead with a disastrous Brexit. It is absolutely clear that becoming an independent country is essential to building the Scotland that we know is possible, and to allow us to rejoin the EU. [Interruption.] I will not take an intervention, as I need to make progress.
Scotland simply cannot afford to be part of a UK that is intent on destroying its economic base. We see shortages of labour and increased complexity in European trade. Let us take, for example, a small business in the heart of Stirling, the Scottish Gantry. It has spoken about its customs nightmares, saying that it has had great difficulty securing wine imports and exporting whisky products. It is drowning in paperwork and red tape. That is a damning indictment of the Westminster Government, which has betrayed Scotland’s many world-class businesses with its Brexit obsession. It is good to see Kate Forbes press the UK Government on those issues.
There is so much in the programme for government to be commended, but I particularly want to highlight three areas. Having spent a career in housing, building housing for people in need, I welcome the continuing expansion of the affordable supply programme, with a further £3.5 billion of investment and the building of additional 110,000 new homes.
Since 2007, more than 1,700 social and affordable homes have been built in the Stirling constituency, and over the next five years, a further £53 million will be invested. The SNP Government continues to transform areas such as the Raploch, which were abandoned under Labour, into attractive and vibrant communities. It is thanks to the SNP Government and its abolition of the right-to-buy policy that councils are now able to build new homes, supporting the investment and excellent work of 150 housing associations that work right across Scotland. Building new homes is vital for our economy, as it creates high-quality jobs and apprenticeships while improving the health, wellbeing and life chances of our communities.
That brings me to the next aspect of the programme that is to be welcomed. There are numerous references in the programme to support for jobs, businesses, the high street and our tourism sector. One would not know this from the comments of the Opposition parties, but Scotland under the SNP Government has an excellent record in increasing and supporting employment. Unemployment in Scotland currently stands at 4.3 per cent, which is below the UK average of 4.7 per cent and well below the London figure of 6.2 per cent.
Like Fiona Hyslop, I welcome the pardon of miners across Scotland, including those in my constituency, in Bannockburn and the eastern villages. The vicious and vindictive actions of the Thatcher Government obliterated an entire industry almost overnight. Many experts believe that there is a particular link between problem drug use, poverty and inequality caused by the UK’s rapid deindustrialisation. The loss of industries and the complete lack of any strategy to replace them destroyed communities. The Scottish Government is still having to deal with the legacy of that industrial vandalism.
Listening to the contributions in the chamber, it is clear to me that many Opposition members want to ignore the problems that their parties have created for Scotland. The Scottish Government already spends far too much time and resources mitigating the impact of UK Government policies. It now also has to try to mitigate all the negative consequences of Brexit. Now, at the worst possible time, the UK Government is introducing a tax on jobs, with the increase in national insurance to pay for social care reforms in England.
The Liberal Democrats want us to forget their enthusiastic role in imposing austerity in Scotland, which was really just an excuse to cut public spending and tax the poor, and we cannot forget that the Labour Party had the power to transform the whole of the UK from 1997 to 2010. [Interruption.] No, I am about to finish, but thank you. Instead of, for example, tackling inequality, poverty and homelessness, the Labour Government kept the House of Lords, spent billions of pounds on the Iraq war, which cost millions of lives, and bailed out the bankers with billions of pounds of public money. Of course, Labour recently voted for Johnson’s supposedly “oven-ready” Brexit. [Interruption.]
Thanks, Presiding Officer.
I welcome this ambitious programme for government, in particular its commitment to giving our people the right to choose their future and the opportunity to build a fairer, greener and more sustainable economy for everyone in Scotland and those who come after us.
The pandemic is, first and foremost, a health crisis, but it has also fast become an economic one. Too many lives and livelihoods have been lost, and still today families fear for the health of their loved ones, their jobs and their incomes.
Never has it been more important for this Parliament and this Government to step up to the mark, but the programme for government fails to do that. It lacks urgency. The First Minister’s statement yesterday was littered with references to the lifetime of this parliamentary session, except when it came to the coalition’s priority, another independence referendum, which the Government wants within months.
At a time when this Government and this Parliament should have a laser-like focus on delivering a national recovery plan from Covid, on health, schools, the environment and the economy, nothing should distract us from that focus. As Willie Rennie rightly said, it will take a long time to deliver the recovery that we need.
The programme for government is long on rhetoric about recovery but short on detail and a plan for how to deliver it. There are many worthwhile initiatives in the programme but, as Daniel Johnson said, the announcements are either retreads or so inconsequential that they barely scratch the surface. There is no overarching thread, there are no clear aims and there is no immediate strategy. The individual initiatives, taken together, do not go far enough.
We cannot wait for the publication of a 10-year economic strategy when 32,000 young people in Scotland are out of work right now. That figure has risen sharply in the past year as young people have faced the challenge of entering the labour market in the midst of a pandemic—and they have often been trying to enter sectors that have been hit hardest and in which Government support has failed to match what has been needed, such as retail, hospitality and tourism.
Ivan McKee’s problem is that the young persons guarantee does not do what it says on the tin. It does not guarantee real opportunities for all those 32,000 young people—[Interruption.] The minister’s programme for government talks about opportunities for 24,000 people, but there are 32,000 unemployed young people at the moment.
The SNP-Green Government still thinks that a zero-hours contract is a positive destination.
I appreciate that Mr McKee fails to take responsibility, ever, for the powers that he has. The minister and his Government constantly refer to zero-hours contracts as positive destinations. Why do they continue to do that? It shows a lack of support for getting rid of zero-hours contracts.
We need an ambitious jobs scheme that delivers a guarantee of a job, training or education for every one of Scotland’s young and long-term unemployed people. Given that furlough, which currently supports 141,000 jobs in Scotland, often in sectors that have a high proportion of young workers, is coming to an end, the youth unemployment figure might rise further. At the very least, it will not fall sharply as a result of this Government’s programme for government.
We need to ensure that the skills and talents of our young people match the opportunities and vacancies that will arise in the future. The number of vacancies fell sharply in recent years, compared with the position prior to the pandemic. According to the Scottish Government’s Scottish employer skills survey, last year there were half the number of vacancies that there were in 2017. Despite that, employers said that a quarter of vacancies were hard to fill because of the skills shortage.
As the number of vacancies increases, not just through new demand as we reopen the economy but as a result of an increase in automation, there are reports of labour shortages across the board—from farm workers to heavy goods vehicle drivers. That is partly because of Brexit and the barriers to overseas labour; it is also due to a multitude of structural factors, which go beyond our exit from the EU.
There is a difference between a labour shortage and a skills shortage, but we will not tackle the former, in the long term, if we do not tackle the latter. There is much in the Government’s future skills action plan with which it is hard to disagree, but there is—again—little that is new in the programme for government that will ensure that the scale of the response matches the scale of the labour and skills-gap challenges that we face.
No wonder that in its response to the programme, CBI Scotland said:
“employers will be frustrated not to hear more about plans for upskilling and retraining.”
A lack of urgency and scale is reflected, too, in the SNP-Green Government’s response to the report of the just transition commission. Fiona Hyslop described the report as welcome, but the Scottish Trades Union Congress said that the response
“leaves much to be desired on future job creation and ensuring the burden of climate change is not carried by workers and the less well off.”
As Mercedes Villalba said, that shows that little has changed since the SNP Government promised 130,000 green jobs by 2020 but instead cut the number of people directly employed in such jobs to just over 23,000. The cabinet secretary referred to the Scottish Government’s £100 million green jobs fund, but that was announced almost a year ago and it has yet to create a single job.
As Daniel Johnson and Mercedes Villalba asked, what has happened to the plans to establish a publicly owned energy company? In June, the leader of the Scottish Greens attacked the SNP for not moving quickly enough on that plan, yet today the Greens are part of a Government that appears to have ditched it altogether.
The programme for government could have put climate and not the constitution first, with a real plan for a just transition that focused on developing the skills that are needed in the green recovery and on protecting jobs and communities that are impacted by the transition to net zero. It has not done so.
I want to highlight one other area where we need to go further than the programme of government does, and that is the future of our town centres. If you walk down any high street at the moment, you will see that the fastest-growing market is for providers of “To let” signs. Shop closures have accelerated in the past year, but our high streets have been in decline for a lot longer. We cannot wait until the proposed retail strategy comes out some time in the future.
We need an immediate fiscal stimulus package to encourage people back into our shops safely and to prevent lockdown behaviours from embedding permanently. The lifting of restrictions and the Government’s Scotland loves local fund and loyalty card—welcome and laudable as they are—do not scratch the surface of the plummeting footfall that our town centres have faced. We can and should go further by providing a meaningful high street voucher scheme and creating a level playing field for bricks-and-mortar shops and online retailers through proper reform of business rates. We need to think outside the box when it comes to our high streets, and come up with ideas such as investing in getting more people to live in our town centres again.
As we face up to the uncertainty of what the current, third Covid wave might mean, lives and livelihoods are still on the line and businesses are still on the brink. We can genuinely build back better if we make the right choices by supporting businesses more now to get through the crisis and by investing to create a stronger, more inclusive, more resilient and greener economy.
However, we need a Parliament and a Government that are relentlessly focused on the issues that will matter over the next few years. That means a Parliament and a Government that will always put the recovery first, and not another independence referendum.
In presenting the programme for government yesterday, the First Minister and her team had a simple choice to make. They could bring forward a set of proposals that would unite Parliament and the wider country and focus on what is important, or they could decide to focus on measures that would divide us. It must be a matter of great regret that they chose the second option.
It was entirely clear in advance of the debate what the priorities for Scotland are, at this point. We must focus on economic recovery, as Liz Smith set out earlier, in order to help to replace jobs that have been lost and to support businesses that have suffered so much over the past 18 months. We must also focus on rebuilding our public services, on helping our NHS—which we know is creaking at the seams—and on repairing the damage that has been done to the lives of our young people due to their having missed education.
The member who opened for the Tories declined my opportunity to deny that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for England would lead the overruling of the democratic Scottish Parliament in assigning structural funds. Perhaps Mr Fraser might want to deny that, instead.
Scotland has two Governments. It has a Government here and a Government in Westminster, and those Governments should be working together for the good of people in Scotland. I say to Michelle Thomson that I hope that, if the UK Government decides to start spending money in her constituency, she will not turn it away and say, “We don’t want that money”. I hope that she would welcome it on behalf of her constituents, because that would be the sensible thing to do.
I have set out some of the issues that should have been addressed in the programme for government yesterday. Sadly, however, it did too little to address those issues.
The voices of Scotland’s businesses are very clear about where priority should have been given. The chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, Liz Cameron, said that supporting business recovery must be at the front and centre of the Government’s priorities. We agree with that. A bold plan for jobs recovery was needed, with a target from the Government for the number of new jobs that would be created.
Earlier in the debate, Daniel Johnson made a very fair point about the need for action now. We have heard a lot about long-term plans over five years, but now we cannot afford to wait. Action needs to start now, because we want to see the Scottish economy growing faster than the economy anywhere else in the United Kingdom, instead of it lagging behind.
Instead, the new SNP-Green coalition—
That might have been the case over the past month or two, but the long-term trend is very clear; we have been lagging behind the United Kingdom, as the minister would have known, had he done his homework.
The First Minister has appointed to her Government people to hold ministerial office who are actively hostile to the principle of economic growth. It is little wonder, therefore, that business voices who were once enthusiastic supporters of the SNP are so dismissive of the approach that is now being taken. At the weekend, Jim McColl, who was once the yes campaign’s biggest cheerleader, said how badly he had been let down by the Government and how he felt used by it. Sir George Matheson, the former chairman of the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers and another enthusiastic SNP and yes-campaign supporter, expressed his concern about the power-sharing deal, and stated:
“this raises concerns about whether the contribution of business is still valued.”
That is the business reaction; it is not the reaction from pro-union business people but from people who had pinned their colours to the SNP mast. That is their reaction to what the Government is doing, and there is nothing in the programme that will reassure them.
Instead of proposals that will take Scotland forward and unite us, we see a set of proposals that will divide us. We see a proposed bill to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which is so contentious that last week there was one of the largest-ever demonstrations outside the Scottish Parliament, with hundreds of women from—[Inaudible.]
The First Minister is saying that she dismisses the concerns of hundreds of women from across Scotland who came to the Parliament to express their concerns. She is saying, “Shame on them.” What a disgrace. The First Minister is not listening to the concerns of those women. We await the detail of the bill, but the Scottish Conservatives are absolutely clear that women’s rights must be protected in the context of GRA reform; I know that those concerns are shared by many SNP MSPs.
There are also proposals to establish a national care agency, which amount to what has already been described as a “blatant power grab” from local authorities. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has already complained that it was given just a few hours’ notice of the huge scope of the overhaul of public services that is proposed; not just adult social care, but children’s services, community justice, alcohol and drugs services, social work and elements of mental health services are all to be centralised and brought under Edinburgh control, rather than decisions on them being taken at local level.
The Scottish Government continually demands that powers be passed down to it from Westminster, but it is a Government that likes to hoard power here at Holyrood. It wants to strip powers away from local authorities and to build empires for Scottish ministers. That is not something that we can support. It is dividing Scotland when we should be uniting it.
By far the worst and most divisive proposal is the one on preparations for another independence referendum. It is hard to imagine anything more damaging, more out of touch with the public mood and more disdainful of the concerns of business than pursuit of another divisive referendum at this particular point in our history, when the country faces so many other challenges. It is a misuse of public resources to divert the time of civil servants away from vital work to focus on that.
We know that the public does not want another referendum; we know there is not support for it, just as there is not support for independence. It is an obsession of the party of Government and of the First Minister to pursue the breaking up of the United Kingdom, when there are so many other priorities.—[Interruption.]
What is worse is that the plans to introduce a referendum bill at some point in the future are utterly pointless, because holding a constitutional referendum, as we all agreed in 2014, is outwith the powers of the Scottish Parliament. We would waste parliamentary time on a bill that would go nowhere and which would be all about stirring up division and allowing the First Minister to grandstand to her party faithful when she knows—and we know and they know—that she has absolutely no ability to deliver that objective. It is, put in the simplest of terms, a total and utter waste of parliamentary and Scottish Government time.
However, there is one thing that I agree with the First Minister on, which is that a new case for independence is needed, because the one that was presented in 2014 is now exposed as a work of fiction—whether on oil, Scotland’s finances or currency. The person who led that campaign—the former First Minister and a man whose name can no longer be mentioned—has been airbrushed out of SNP history.
Now we have the SNP’s shiny new signing and its latest economic guru, Professor Mark Blyth, setting out the hard realities of independence, which in his words, as quoted by Liz Smith earlier, would be “Brexit times 10”. That is not a unionist politician saying that; it is not even a non-aligned academic. It is the Government’s newly appointed chief economic adviser, who is a cheerleader for and supporter of a separate Scotland. He says that, in his view, independence would be 10 times more damaging than Brexit. Therefore, every time we hear someone on the SNP benches mumping and moaning about Brexit or blaming supply chain issues exclusively on Brexit, let us remind them that their expert says that it would be 10 times more damaging to go down the route of independence.
It is shameful that independence is the Government’s priority at this time, but it is all too typical of an Administration that is out of ideas and which would divide us, rather than unite us. It has nothing new to offer the people of Scotland, and the programme for government should be rejected.
As is customary, I will take a few minutes to comment on some of the points that have been made, although I will not be able to get round everything in the time available to me.
Just to close off a point that Liz Smith made, I point out that every other country in the world borrowed to get through Covid, and Scotland would have been no different were we an independent country. Let us get that nailed, because it is hugely important.
Murdo Fraser cannot resist talking down Scotland’s economy at every opportunity. If he had done his homework, he would know that, over the period from before the pandemic in February 2020 until now, Scotland’s economy is down 2.1 per cent, whereas the UK economy is down 2.2 per cent. On unemployment, which some of my colleagues have mentioned, the figure for Scotland is 4.2 per cent, whereas for the rest of the UK it is 4.7 per cent. There is still work to do but, if we want to make comparisons between Scotland and the rest of the UK, at the moment, we are doing better.
Daniel Johnson talked about business engagement. I can tell him that I talk to businesses every single day of the week. I had two meetings with businesses this morning before I came to the chamber to deliver this speech. Those businesses talk about labour market shortages and the issues that are affecting them. We recognise and understand that. We have businesses engaged in the work that we are doing on the national economic strategy. They recognise the value of that and, as Daniel Johnson did, they recognise the importance of having a long-term strategy to address the issues. That is exactly what we are doing.
I hear what the minister says, and I do not doubt that he has those meetings, but is he listening? The reality is that, in a few short weeks, 150,000 people who have been on furlough will find themselves having to go back into employment. Surely, there needs to be at least a contingency in case those people’s jobs are no longer there for them. Where is that contingency in the programme for government?
There is the £500 million skills investment and the range of other interventions that I talked about through which we are supporting people to get back into work. At the moment, we face a labour market shortage in every single sector across the economy, and we have people whom we need to work with so that they can take up those opportunities. If the member talked to businesses the way that I do, he would understand that the labour market shortage is their biggest issue.
Willie Rennie talked about that issue and mentioned the high wages that the shortage has driven. We welcome that, too, and, as I go through my remarks, I want to say more about our proactive efforts to embed that in our economic strategy. Willie Rennie also talked about material shortages and shortages of HGV drivers in logistics, which are largely driven by Brexit. We are working hard to influence the UK Government where we can on many aspects, including visas for drivers to support our industries. We are working hard with the construction sector and others at a detailed level to address the material shortages that are affecting businesses right across Scotland.
Fiona Hyslop made valid points that reinforce my point about our strong engagement with business. She talked about the tourism recovery task force, which worked in conjunction with Government to identify £25 million of support, which has now been invested to support the sector. We are now moving on to look at the phase 2 proposals from the group.
I know that the minister engages with business, and he has assisted me with many businesses in my constituency. However, given all the disruption that he has talked about that has in part been caused by Brexit, does that not make him pause to think about the disruption that would inevitably come with independence?
Independence will create opportunities—and I will come on to talk about that in my later comments.
I do not have much to say about Donald Cameron’s speech: it was bold but, I am afraid, not ambitious.
Other members spoke about the importance of the real living wage. I remind Labour members that, if they had not taken their ridiculous position on the Smith commission, we would already have dealt with the issue through devolution of employment law. Colin Beattie and others raised the point. The programme for government has a very strong commitment on conditionality—something that I am delighted to pursue regarding the real living wage and other aspects of the fair work first agenda. Our green ports agenda that we are taking forward is one of the first areas where we will embed that conditionality to lift wages across the country.
On Mercedes Villalba’s speech, apparently Labour does not support private sector investment in the economy now. Who knew? That is a very interesting policy shift.
The £3 billion green investment portfolio is intended precisely to attract international investment and to invest in our green transition to net zero, along with the public sector investment. We need both of those in order to deliver. One point that Michelle Thomson made very well was about the £3 billion green investment portfolio and locking in that investment, as part of our global capital investment plan, alongside the work of the global ethical finance initiative, setting up Scotland as a centre for environmental, social and governance—ESG—investment, which is something that we are very proud to take forward.
I will now move to a conclusion. How many minutes do I have left, Presiding Officer? Three or four? Okay.
The debate has been about our programme for government, a programme that recognises the essential importance of Scotland’s economy to our recovery and transformation and that recognises the Government’s commitment to supporting and working with businesses the length and breadth of the country. This Government is unashamedly pro-business. We understand the need to grow Scotland’s economy, to create prosperity, to fund our public services and to create opportunities for all of Scotland’s people to realise their potential. We understand the need for that growth to be completely aligned with our overriding twin imperatives of delivering net zero and delivering on our fair work agenda. We understand that productivity is key to a successful economy. We recognise that the wellbeing economy—providing opportunities and prosperity for all of Scotland’s people—is built on a strong, productive economy.
The range of measures detailed in our programme make that clear: our initiatives to strengthen the skills pipeline that our growth businesses need to support workers transitioning to low-carbon sectors or those entering the labour market for the first time; our initiatives to support investment in the economy, including public sector investment in our public services and infrastructure, and to intelligently stimulate private sector investment in our growth businesses and in the wider economy; our initiatives to support entrepreneurship across all sectors of our population, specifically targeted at key groups including women and rural entrepreneurs; and our initiatives to further internationalise our economy and to drive up exports, despite the vandalism inflicted on the economy by the UK Government’s misguided Brexit policies.
Our programme delivers on our wider ambitions for Scotland, with the just transition to net zero contributing to the global efforts to address the climate emergency and to create a fair-work nation, a country where everyone is paid at least the real living wage. We are working with businesses, sector groups and regional economic partnerships across the country to deliver on those ambitions, to create the high-productivity, high-innovation, high-technology, high-wage economy that we all want to see—an economy that works for everyone.
The programme also recognises the limitations of our current powers on investment, employment law and international trade, and elsewhere. Rightly, it calls for the people of Scotland to have a say on whether all those powers should come to this Parliament as an independent country. That is the opportunity that it will create for those businesses.
Our national strategy for economic transformation will be published later this year. As the cabinet secretary has made clear, that will be a national endeavour, co-produced with stakeholders across the country and implemented alongside businesses. It will build on top of the initiatives in the programme for government, and it will be an ambitious 10-year agenda to transform Scotland’s economy. I look forward to working with businesses and others across the country to deliver that bold and ambitious agenda.