Equality within the 2023-24 Programme for Government

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 6 September 2023.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-10343, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on equality within the 2023-24 programme for government. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons. I call the cabinet secretary to speak to and move the motion, for up to 13 minutes, please.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. Tackling poverty and protecting people from harm is one of the three critical missions for this Government, alongside our focus on growing the economy and strengthening public services. Those interconnected missions are front and centre of this year’s programme for government, which is unapologetically anti-poverty and focused on delivering high-quality public services. It shows that we can alleviate inequality and poverty by ensuring that we have a fair, green and growing wellbeing economy that provides job opportunities and capitalises on a just transition.

This Government will continue to use our fixed budget to reduce poverty, improve opportunities and reduce health inequalities, protecting people as far as is possible from the harm inflicted by the United Kingdom Government’s austerity-driven policies and the on-going cost of the union crisis. However, only with the full economic powers of an independent nation can we truly eradicate inequality and poverty here, in Scotland.

Delivering fair work and fair pay for all is critical to our missions and a top priority for the Scottish Government. The national health service is the largest employer in Scotland and, through our agenda for change pay offer, we have ensured that NHS employees in the lowest bands have the biggest increases in pay. Building on that, we are committing to providing the necessary funding in the next budget to increase the pay of adult social care workers in the private, third and independent sectors in a direct care role and of those working to deliver funded early learning and childcare to at least £12 per hour—an increase that could be worth up to £2,000 per year for those on full-time contracts. There are more than 200,000 registered workers in the social care sector, and four out of five of them are women. We know that women’s poverty and child poverty are inextricably linked, so not only will this policy help to recruit and retain our workforce in social care and early learning and childcare; it will also be a key step in tackling poverty among women and children.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

Is it still the case that the Scottish Government will stand by the First Minister’s commitment in March for a new national funding framework for hospices in Scotland?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I am sure that that is an aspect that the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care can deal with in his closing speech. I recognise that many hospices, and, indeed, many charities in the third sector, are facing challenges, and we are very keen to support them where we can but within the limited budget that we have.

This Government is committed to tackling the inequality that we have in our community. I only wish that the UK Government had showed even one quarter of our ambition. The UK Conservative Government must face up to the damage and hardship that it has caused by having well over a decade of austerity and welfare cuts. That damage and that hardship have been exacerbated by a hard Brexit and shocking mismanagement of the economy that have led to soaring inflation, spiralling energy bills and the worst cost of living crisis in a generation.

This Government is doing all that it can in the face of that to make a difference. Despite the UK Government’s policies pushing people into poverty, we know that our action is still making a difference. Modelling estimates that 90,000 fewer children will live in relative and absolute poverty this year as a result of this Government’s policies, with our poverty level 9 percentage points lower than it would have been otherwise. That includes an estimated 50,000 children who have been lifted out of relative poverty by the Scottish child payment.

That is a major achievement, but the achievement would be all the greater were we not being held back by UK Government policies that are pushing people into poverty at the same time. UK Government welfare policies, including the two-child limit and the benefit cap, inflict hardship on families on the lowest incomes. The two-child limit alone is affecting 80,000 children in Scotland, and it has removed £341 million from Scottish families since 2017. It is a disastrous policy for people right across this country at their time of greatest need.

If the United Kingdom Government were to reverse key welfare reforms that were introduced in 2015, that would help to lift 70,000 people out of poverty this year, including 30,000 children, and would put an estimated £780 million back in the pockets of the lowest-income households. The Conservatives in Westminster must no longer sit by and watch people suffer—although they may feel that they can, because Labour is promising more of the same. That is why the powers over social security and employment, to name but two, are needed in the hands of this Parliament.

If the UK Government really wanted to do something to alleviate inequality, it could. That is why the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister yesterday, calling for the UK Government to legislate to put in place an essentials guarantee to ensure that social security benefits adequately cover the cost of essentials, including food, transport and energy, and to ensure that deductions such as debt repayments to Government and sanctions or deductions resulting from the benefit cap can never pull support below that level. We know that the Welsh Government also supports that approach. I will follow up with further correspondence to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the coming days.

Over the past five financial years, we have invested £711 million through activities such as discretionary housing payments and the Scottish welfare fund to mitigate the austerity of UK Government policies, including the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and local housing allowance. That money could have been spent on services such as health, education and transport or on further ambitious anti-poverty measures. It could have paid for around 2,000 band 5 nurses each year. That is the price of staying in the union.

However, Scotland cannot wait for the UK Government to act. Although devolution continues to limit what we can do, the Scottish Government is determined to use our powers to the fullest possible extent. That is why, in 2021, we convened an expert group from across the third sector, academia and industry to look at how, under our current powers and within current budget challenges, Scotland can build steps towards a minimum income guarantee. Such a change could be transformational, and I look forward to receiving the group’s recommendations in 2024.

We know that child poverty, in particular, lies at the root of many of the greatest challenges that we face as a country, including tackling health and educational inequalities. The Scottish Government is unequivocal in its commitment to meet our statutory targets through “Best Start, Bright Futures—Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2022-2026”. Delivering on our ambition will mean tough choices, and we will not shy away from the decisions that are needed to reduce poverty and support those who are in greatest need. Neither will we shirk from protecting people from harm, as is outlined in our missions.

Our programme for government sets out how we will work to deliver further progress on those shared ambitions. That includes investing £405 million in our unique and game-changing Scottish child payment this year. The payment, which is worth £25 per eligible child per week, is unique in the UK and, as of the end of June this year, was reaching more than 316,000 children. More than £350 million has been paid to low-income families since the payment launched in February 2021.

To ensure that we continue to support people with the cost of living, we are committed to increasing the Scottish child payment, funeral support payment and all disability and carers benefits in line with inflation. I have to stress that, unlike UK benefit systems, the Scottish child payment does not have a limit to the number of children who can qualify for a family. That is a principle based on dignity, and it is a shame that the Tories and the Labour Party have long since given up on that.

To build on our action to date, we have now set ambitious plans to expand access to high-quality funded childcare by the end of this parliamentary session, starting with those who need it most, to help to tackle poverty and support thousands more parents to take up or sustain employment.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

The cabinet secretary might have seen some correspondence on social media last night from the private, voluntary and independent sector. People in that sector are not very happy with the Government’s proposals, and they think that businesses in the childcare sector will still close. What is the cabinet secretary’s response to that?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

We will, of course, continue to work with people right across early learning and childcare, but I will take no lessons from the Tories, who want us to follow the UK Government’s approach, which is restricted to children with parents who are working. The UK Government is also determined not to pay the living wage, never mind the £12 per hour to which we are committed. Therefore, I will take no lessons from the Scottish Tories on how we should have a system of childcare in this country.

We will, of course, continue to work with stakeholders to make sure that we do what we can to deal with any of their concerns and that we build the best possible childcare system in Scotland.

We recognise that the cost of living is still far too high for many families, who are already struggling with the increasingly unaffordable cost of food, housing, bills and everyday essentials, as well as Brexit and the UK Government’s economic mismanagement. That is why, both last year and this year, we have allocated almost £3 billion to support policies that tackle poverty and protect people as far as possible during the on-going cost of living crisis. Beyond investment in our Scottish child payment, the support includes the continued provision of free bus travel for more than 2 million people, including all young people under the age of 22; the tripling of our fuel insecurity fund to £30 million this year; and the continued provision of one of the most generous free school meal offers anywhere in the UK, which saves parents £400 per eligible child per year.

We will continue to do everything we can within the scope of our powers and limited budget to tackle poverty and support those in greatest need, and we will strengthen support where we can. In 2023-24, we will invest £5.3 billion in Scottish Government benefits, which will support more than 1.2 million people, and we will extend the support that we provide to carers by introducing the carers support payment.

This year, we will invest £752 million through our affordable housing supply programme, and we will continue work on the housing bill, which will create powers for the introduction of long-term rent controls, create new tenants’ rights and introduce new duties aimed at the prevention of homelessness.

We will introduce a landmark human rights bill and invite the Scottish Parliament to bring back the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill for reconsideration stage in order to deliver legislation that protects and enhances a fuller range of human rights within the limits of devolved competence.

We will, of course, ensure that we consult with the intention of introducing to Parliament a bill on the ending of conversion practices in Scotland.

By the end of 2023, we will publish the fair fares review on the cost and availability of bus, rail and ferry services, and, beginning in October, we will introduce a pilot involving the removal of ScotRail peak-time fares in a move that will make rail travel more affordable and accessible during that pilot.

This year’s programme for government builds on the foundations that we already have in Scotland. It strengthens our approach to tackling poverty and inequality, and it provides equitable access to health and social care services and to treatment. We will continue to be frank about the need to make difficult decisions to ensure that we free up resources to target support, and we will always continue to stand up for the people of Scotland against the current UK Government and any incoming Labour Government with pale-imitation Tory policies that hit the poorest hardest at their time of need. That is not what the people of Scotland need at this time or at any other. As a Government, we will use the powers that we have to address the root causes of poverty, but it is only with the full economic and fiscal powers of an independent nation that we can eradicate inequality and poverty in Scotland.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the actions set out in the Programme for Government 2023-24 to build stronger communities, improve social justice, reduce inequalities, including in health and social care, and tackle child poverty; welcomes the investment of £5.3 billion in Scottish Government benefits in 2023-24, supporting over 1.2 million people, including £405 million for the Scottish Child Payment, which is currently helping to improve the lives of over 316,000 children; further welcomes the continued use of the Scottish Government’s fixed budget and limited powers to tackle inequality and poverty and protect people, as far as possible, from the harm inflicted by UK Government cuts and austerity, as well as the ongoing cost of living crisis; notes the continued action to tackle child poverty in key areas including parental employability, early learning and childcare, mental health, transport, and affordable housing; welcomes that 90,000 fewer children will live in relative and absolute poverty in 2023 as a result of Scottish Government policies; notes that reprehensible UK Government welfare policies, including the two-child limit and benefit cap, inflict hardship on families on the lowest incomes, with the two-child limit affecting 80,000 children in Scotland and removing £341.3 million from families in Scotland since 2017, and commends successful pay deals with NHS staff and unions that have ensured there have been no strikes in Scotland, thereby protecting patients and helping the workforce to deal with the ongoing cost of living crisis, and ensuring that people can access the social care support that they need, while recognising the valuable contribution of Scotland’s social care workforce.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

I welcome the opportunity to debate equality in relation to the programme for government, because yesterday’s programme was nothing short of disappointing. Humza Yousaf promised us that he would be his own man and set out his own plan, but there is not a single word in the programme that could not have come from his predecessor. It is quite telling that Nicola Sturgeon is taking part in today’s debate to defend her prodigy’s plan, because she pretty much wrote every policy in the document. That is why the programme is so disappointing. When Scotland needed a bold, new and ambitious plan to tackle the big challenges that our economy and public services face, the best that Humza Yousaf could do was copy Nicola Sturgeon’s homework and continue her Scottish National Party failures.

Before I continue to highlight the problems with the programme for government, I want to mention two areas of consensus in it, which the Scottish Conservatives have outlined in our amendment. On support for families affected by miscarriage, the First Minister will always have my support when trying to support those who have suffered a terrible loss, and I commend him for speaking so openly about his personal experience. I hope that that gives strength to those who have suffered a miscarriage and I look forward to seeing more detail on that work in the coming months.

On childcare, as a new mum, I know not only how quickly childcare costs can rise but what other financial pressures go along with raising a child. I am pleased that the Scottish Government has finally listened to the Scottish Conservatives’ calls to be bold and ambitious when it comes to the roll-out of free childcare. Empowering parents is something for which I have been calling for some time; simplifying the process for parents and giving them more choice over their child’s care is the right course of action.

That does not take away from the crisis that is currently engulfing the sector. Although I will always welcome increased pay for carers, to judge by the reaction on social media last night, the £12 an hour staff wage went down like a sinking ship. The Government still does not get it—it does not understand the needs of the third and private sectors and of voluntary organisations. Staff wages are not the problem; the problem is that, in effect, local authorities set the rates per child for both themselves and their competition. I have asked this question previously: how can a Government organisation be a competitor and a banker at the same time? I make this plea again: fix the funding formula to create equality for the private, voluntary and independent sectors. They are Scotland’s first educators and the Government must do more to support them.

I turn to the problems with the programme. It takes a lot of action to tackle violence against women and girls, which is of course welcome, but it is completely undermined by the fact that the Government is continuing to push forward with its Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. The programme was a chance for the Government to admit that it got it wrong and to drop the bill; instead, it is charging ahead with a costly legal battle to take forward a law that the vast majority of Scots oppose. They oppose it because everyone can see its massive loopholes, which allow predatory men to take advantage of the system. The SNP Government told us that that would never happen. However, last year, mere weeks after the bill was passed, we had the case of Isla Bryson—the double rapist who was initially remanded to a women’s jail after being found guilty. If the SNP truly wants to stand up for the rights and protections of women and girls, it needs to ditch the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. A basic public health issue that the Government could focus on is the misinformation about contraception on social media, which could be contributing to the high abortion figures.

The Government has the message of building better communities. I learned quickly during my time as a councillor that the SNP rips the heart out of communities by ruthlessly cutting councils’ budgets year on year. North Lanarkshire Council alone will need to find £67 million-worth of cuts over the next three years on top of the £228 million-worth of cuts that it had over the past decade.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I am not sure whether the member has paid any attention to what is happening in England, where council after council—both Tory and Labour—is going bankrupt. Will she not take any responsibility for the lack of funding and the financial mismanaging of local government by her Government in England? What a brass neck she has.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

I am not quite sure that the cabinet secretary understands the damage that her Government is doing to local authorities across Scotland—to community centres, vital services and swimming pools. If the cabinet secretary would like to stay for the debate that is taking part after this one, she might see the damage that her Government is inflicting.

I have learned, too, during my short time as an MSP that, to have stronger communities, we need better infrastructure. As we have seen during the SNP’s time in government, fewer GP surgeries and appointments are available, our high streets and town centres are about to collapse and no real investment has been made into our rural communities.

While I am on the point about infrastructure, what about the A9 or the A96? Humza Yousaf’s announcement fell flat yesterday because he committed to dualling the roads but could not tell us when they would be completed. I am not a betting woman, but I bet anything that, if the Greens were not in government, those roads would be further along than they are now. The Greens are anti-growth and anti-roads.

Finally, on tackling child poverty, the SNP promised to deliver free school meals by August 2022. Now it has announced the work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to expand free school meal provision to primary 6 and 7, but that provision does not even include breakfast, which we know is a proven way to set up kids for the day and improve their learning and behaviours in the classroom. Is the Government incompetent or incapable? Either way, it is trying to hoodwink the public into thinking that it is delivering for Scotland when, in fact, it is not.

The SNP will spend this debate praising its record on equality and saying that the programme will continue those achievements. It will be a session of ritual back patting and Nicola Sturgeon defending her legacy. However, beyond the spin, the poorest people in Scotland are being failed by the Government. Drug deaths remain the highest in Europe, alcohol deaths are the highest since 2008 and homelessness has reached an all-time high, with children being placed in temporary accommodation. All the while, women and girls are being failed by the Government, which is hellbent on introducing a gender recognition reform bill, and by not having the correct public health messaging around contraception. Those are the facts that the SNP wants to ignore, but that is the reality that is being faced by people across Scotland.

The programme was a chance to tackle those big challenges. Instead, we have the same rickety promises from a Government that has quite clearly run out of ideas.

I move amendment S6M-10343.2, to leave out from “to build” to end and insert:

“; welcomes the announcement to improve miscarriage care, so that women do not wait until a third miscarriage to receive support; further welcomes the Scottish Government’s intention to bring childcare policy in line with UK Government proposals of providing funded childcare from the age of nine months but calls, however, on the Scottish Government to do more to resolve outstanding concerns, including recruitment, retention and support for private, voluntary and third sector organisations; notes that the Scottish Government has failed to close the attainment gap and roll out free school meals by 2022 as originally promised in 2021, tackle violence in classrooms, or bring forward a new meaningful deal for teachers; further notes that the percentage of children in poverty is equal to that in 2007, and expresses concern over the record-breaking number of children in temporary accommodation; calls on the Scottish Government to declare a homelessness emergency and to find a new approach to children being placed in temporary accommodation; is dismayed that the Scottish Government has missed its deadline for transferring all benefits to Social Security Scotland and that certain benefits could be transferred as late as 2026; welcomes the UK Government’s £94 billion to help households navigate the global cost of living crisis, throughout 2022-23 and 2023-24, and the UK Government’s uprate to benefits by 10.1%; notes that, during the Scottish National Party’s time in government, health inequalities have worsened, with record numbers on NHS waiting lists, high A&E waiting times, unacceptable drug and alcohol death rates and a mental health crisis, and agrees that a health and wellbeing strategy must be at the forefront of the Scottish Government’s plan to tackle inequality.”

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate for Scottish Labour on equalities in the programme for government, and I will begin with areas of consensus.

As Anas Sarwar outlined in yesterday’s debate, there are areas in the programme that Scottish Labour supports. We have long called for improvements in the pay of social care workers, so finally seeing some progress in that area is to be welcomed, despite our being told repeatedly by the Government—including the First Minister when he was health secretary—that that could not be done.

We have also long supported efforts to improve access to childcare across Scotland, because we know that access to good, high-quality and truly flexible childcare can reduce poverty and support people—especially women—into the workplace.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I want to go back to the issue of the social care workforce. I notice that the Labour amendment talks about

“a workable plan for achieving a £15 an hour minimum wage for hard-working social care workers”.

Given that Labour has set itself against any tax increase—whether that is income tax or council tax—could Paul O’Kane explain to us what Labour’s “workable plan” is to get to £15 an hour for social care workers?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

The Deputy First Minister well knows that, budget after budget, the Scottish Labour Party has brought to the chamber proposals on how we can accelerate to £12 an hour and £15 an hour. The former finance secretary said that £12 an hour could not be done and consistently refused to engage on those points.

We have long supported efforts to improve childcare. O f course, we support the actions outlined to move forward the work of Baroness Kennedy’s review of misogyny law and support women and families who have experienced baby loss across Scotland. We have heard very powerful contributions across the chamber in that regard.

However, let us be honest: the relaunch of Humza Yousaf’s Government, which is already tired after just six months, is underwhelming.

Just 24 hours after the statement, it has been met with a lukewarm response at best from anti-poverty organisations, the third sector and wider civic Scotland. It has been described as “a timid step” in addressing injustice by Save the Children. The Poverty Alliance said that it missed a crucial

“opportunity to turn our shared values of justice and compassion into meaningful action”, and it fails to meet the challenges described by Shelter Scotland.

The challenges before us are great. We face twin crises: the cost of living and an NHS on its knees. The response to those crises must match the scale of the challenge. Continuity won’t cut it, as someone famously said. However, continuity from the First Minister is exactly what we got.

The reality does not match the rhetoric. Instead of direct action and new interventions, we have a document that is full of pilots, proposals, exploratory work and steering groups, and many of those initiatives are just reannouncements.

The Government’s flagship policy of removing income thresholds for best start payments is a reannouncement of existing policy, and it will do little for those in the deepest poverty. No new spending has been announced on the child payment; the SNP Government is expecting credit for maintaining the status quo.

On the annual recycled pledge on free school meals, that is now delayed until 2026, and it will begin with a limited roll-out. How many times will the Government promise and then not deliver?

It is clear that this is a tired continuity Government that lacks direction. The reality is that the SNP Government is failing and is out of ideas on how to turn the situation in Scotland around.

T here are clarion calls around Scotland that the Government is going to fail to meet its own statutory poverty targets.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

Given that it is estimated that, so far, the Scottish Government’s anti-poverty measures have lifted 90,000 children out of poverty, is that not the sort of thing that we should be continuing with?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

As I have just said, the Government is on track to miss the legally binding poverty reduction targets that have been set. Clarion calls have been made in relation to the fact that the Government is going to miss those targets. [

Interruption

.] No—I need to make progress.

No organisation has been clearer in making that point than the Fraser of Allander Institute, which has said:

“Missing a statutory target should be a big deal, shouldn’t it? Instead we have had the equivalent of a shrug and a suggestion that the constitutional settlement means we lack the necessary levers.”

We have already heard plenty about the constitutional settlement in today’s debate. We are talking about poverty, on which we can and must do more.

Scottish Labour has offered interventions to tackle the cost of living crisis and to prevent people from experiencing poverty, but they have been ignored by the Government. We have suggested capping the cost of public transport, providing rebates on water bills, implementing mortgage rescue schemes and taking quicker action to pay care workers not £12 but £15 an hour. If the First Minister, the Cabinet and the Deputy First Minister are serious about their offer to listen and work across this chamber, they must engage on our proposals.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

No.

I mentioned care workers because we know how vital health and social care are to ensuring that everyone in Scotland has the best life that they can, but it seems that health and social care are, at best, an afterthought in the programme for government and, at worst, something that the Government does not actively want to talk about. It took the First Minister 22 minutes to mention the NHS in his speech yesterday, and there is a similar absence in today’s Government motion, in which there is just one sentence about health and social care.

More than 820,000 people are languishing on waiting lists, while more than 7,000 NHS vacancies remain unfilled. There is a crisis in our health service, which is being felt every day by people up and down Scotland. That is the reality under the SNP.

Hard-working staff are crying out for action, so where are the big, bold solutions to help to alleviate the pressure? Where is a renewed recovery and catch-up plan? Where is a meaningful workforce plan? Where is the action to properly fix social care to ensure that people can get out of hospital and live good and well-supported lives in their communities?

Of course, we recognise the reopening of the independent living fund, which we have called on the Government to do in successive programmes for government and budgets. As convener of the cross-party group on learning disability, I know that that will be welcomed, but we want the Government to move faster and further than it is doing with the phased approach that it is taking, so that the fund becomes more sustainable.

However, where is the further action on social care? In its 2021 manifesto, the SNP pledged to abolish non-residential care charges. Time and again, we have called on the Government to honour that commitment to disabled people and their families.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member should be concluding.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

Each year, that commitment slips further and further into the parliamentary calendar for delivery.

Today, along with my colleagues, I met campaigners outside Parliament on the issue. Reece, Sandy and Kerry were just some of the people who spoke to me about the huge difference that the removal of non-residential care charges would make for their lives, their wellbeing and their mental health. They told me how disappointed they were not to see that in the programme for government. Therefore, I urge the Government to look again at how we can abolish those charges quickly. We will work constructively with the Government, as campaigners want us to do, to deliver that.

It is clear that the programme for government was billed as a reset moment for Humza Yousaf and a tired SNP Government that has been in power for 16 years but, instead of hitting the reset button, it has been a case of pressing rewind on some announcements and pause on others. The reality is that the people of Scotland, rather than a reset or a rewind, are looking for change. Labour members are ready to rise to that challenge and deliver change.

I move amendment S6M-10343.1, to leave out from “to build” to end and insert:

“, and that no real action has been set out which will reduce child poverty or mitigate the cost of living crisis for thousands of families that are struggling to make ends meet; further notes that the last UK Labour administration lifted 2 million children and pensioners out of poverty, of which 200,000 were children in Scotland, while the last decade of the Scottish National Party (SNP) administration has seen 40,000 more children, and 30,000 more pensioners slide into poverty; notes with concern that almost 9,000 children are languishing in temporary accommodation without a home to call their own because of this SNP administration’s inability to get a handle on the scale of the housing crisis facing Scotland; welcomes the UK Labour Party’s commitment to a new deal for working people within the first 100 days of a UK Labour administration, which will lift children in Scotland out of poverty by delivering a real living wage and improved working conditions, and a fundamental reform of unfair and punitive Universal Credit provisions; condemns the SNP administration’s continued failure to resolve pay disputes with education staff across local authorities in Scotland; regrets that health inequalities are exacerbated by the inertia of this SNP administration; condemns the abandonment of over 820,000 patients stuck on NHS waiting lists for tests and treatment; accepts that this SNP administration has failed to meet its targets for tackling long waits with over 77,000 patients languishing for over a year; is deeply concerned that cancer treatment targets are repeatedly missed; regrets that the mental health crisis continues unabated with almost 2,000 patients waiting for over a year for treatment, and delayed discharge remains shockingly high, costing over £193 million alone in 2022-23; acknowledges that this is largely because of the SNP administration’s failure to fix the growing crisis in social care; calls upon the SNP administration to address this crisis by immediately removing non-residential care charges and set out a workable plan for achieving a £15 an hour minimum wage for hard-working social care workers; recognises that Scotland’s NHS is facing a workforce crisis, with over 7,000 vacancies unfilled, and welcomes the fact that a Scottish Labour administration would transform the NHS to meet the needs of future generations.”

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I am pleased to have the chance to contribute briefly to this afternoon’s debate on the programme for government. Its title—“Equality, Opportunity, Community”—throws up issues that I want to reflect on further, specifically from an island perspective, but I start by saying that there is much in the programme and in the motion that Scottish Liberal Democrats warmly welcome. Indeed, there are quite a few things that we have been calling for. I might gently point out that there are a few initiatives—such as those on heat in buildings, free school meals and the fair fares review—that could charitably be described as frequent flyers in programme for government statements. However, in the spirit of consensus, I declare an obvious interest in those initiatives and confirm my willingness to work with ministers in the hope that they can deliver in those areas for communities such as Orkney, where there is particularly acute need.

Of course, the centrepiece of the First Minister’s statement yesterday, which features prominently again in today’s motion, is the commitment to further expand childcare provision. That is certainly welcome and it has been welcomed around the chamber. It is a good example of an issue on which Scottish Liberal Democrats have pressed successive SNP Governments to be more ambitious. My colleague Willie Rennie frequently raised it with Alex Salmond when he was First Minister, before he was airbrushed out of SNP history. Indeed, I remember Willie Rennie and the Parliament being told repeatedly that expanding the provision of childcare to 1,140 hours could be done only with the powers of independence. I was a member of the education committee at the time, and that assertion was repeated to us regularly by the then cabinet secretary, Aileen Campbell. It was nonsense, of course, and when Mr Salmond realised that it just made it look like the needs of Scottish children and their parents were being held hostage in the interests of the SNP, he relented and brought forward an amendment to the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill.

That experience also showed, however, that the issue is not just about the quantum of early learning and childcare that is offered. Quality, flexibility and availability matter every bit as much, if not more. We know that, as funding for childcare has increased, availability has often contracted. More than 300 private and voluntary childcare services have stopped operating since 2021. There has been a 47 per cent fall in nursery teacher numbers over the past decade. Half of private nurseries say that their business is unsustainable, and a third of childminders have quit since 2016—a figure that the Scottish Childminding Association expects will double by 2026.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

Is it not also a truism that the families who have suffered the most in trying to gain access to child benefits are some of the poorest families in Scotland?

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

That point is very well made by Martin Whitfield.

Even if the Government succeeds in growing the workforce by 1,000, it will still not reach the level that it was at in 2019.

The lack of availability and choice poses problems everywhere for those who are most in need, but it will be a particular issue in rural and island areas. The number of childminders in Orkney has fallen by 40 per cent over the past decade. I know from my mailbag the real impact that that is having on my constituents—not least on women who are looking to return to or remain in employment.

On that theme of equality and opportunity in rural and island areas, let me conclude with a few areas where the Government urgently needs to up its game in the interests of fairness, equality, opportunity and community resilience.

Funding for councils has been squeezed across the board, but Orkney Islands Council continues to suffer from lower funding per head of population than other island authorities. Now more than ever, that is resulting in cuts to services on which some of the most vulnerable in my constituency rely. We need to see a more equitable settlement across our islands.

On transport, the First Minister promised “new ferries”, albeit ones that are already in construction. To date, though, that has excluded replacement of Orkney’s ageing internal fleet, despite the fact that it is as crucial in providing a lifeline to the islands in my constituency as the CalMac Ferries fleet is to islands on the west coast. The task force that was set up to look at that issue needs to deliver and urgently map out a funded programme for ferry replacement.

On road equivalent tariff fares, the SNP Government has failed to deliver cheaper fares on Pentland Firth routes to match those that have been in place for a decade and more on the west coast. SNP ministers blame UK state aid rules, having previously blamed European Union state aid rules, but the Scottish Government has confirmed that it has made no effort to agree a way forward with the UK Government.

The Government’s failure to deliver on its promise of superfast broadband to 100 per cent of premises by 2021 means that the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots remains as wide as ever. Orkney has the poorest coverage and slowest speeds anywhere in the country, which affects access to services, education, business opportunities and much more. The digital divide undermines whatever aspirations the Government might have in terms of equality, opportunity and building resilient communities.

There are many more examples that I could cite that illustrate the mismatch between promises made by SNP ministers and the daily reality for islanders. The programme for government repeats some of those promises and adds quite a few more. Making such promises is easy. What islanders—and people across Scotland—want to see, though, is a commitment to painstaking delivery. That will be the real test of what the First Minister set out yesterday.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move on to the open debate. I remind members that their speeches should be up to six minutes long.

Photo of Kaukab Stewart Kaukab Stewart Scottish National Party

Before I focus on some of the equality measures that are set out in the programme for government, I put on the record how pleased I was yesterday to hear the commitment to bring forward legislation to tackle dangerous cladding on residential buildings, which is an issue that I have been working on very closely with hundreds of residents in my constituency. I met the housing minister a number of times and have even raised the issue during First Minister’s question time. That commitment is a hallmark of a Government that has engaged and responded.

If Scots were ever in any doubt about the massive gap between the priorities of the Edinburgh and London Governments, the programme for government that was announced yesterday demonstrated it very clearly. The Tory UK Government is guilty of negligence and responsible for economic disaster, and it was the incompetent and uncaring architect of the cost of living crisis. All the while, a Labour so-called Opposition sits back and supports the status quo.

Here, in Scotland, meanwhile, we have a First Minister and a Scottish Government with an agenda for change that will empower women, lift children out of poverty and protect our minority groups while promoting growth. Let us be clear that no community can reach its full potential unless all its constituent parts have equal opportunities to contribute. The programme for government and the proposed human rights bill show a true understanding of that, and I look forward to scrutinising the bill with colleagues as it progresses through the Parliament.

The Scottish Government’s record on LGBT+ equality can be measured on the streets. In July, I joined thousands of marchers going through Glasgow city centre for Mardi Gla. That minority group feels supported by Government in ways that it perhaps did not 15 or 20 years ago. In response to an Equality, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee report on banning LGBT+ conversion therapy practices, the Scottish Government said in March 2022 that it was committed to bringing forward legislation, as far as practical within the powers available to it, by the end of 2023. I welcome the update from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice on the timescales. I ask that that be done in a sensitive way so as to avoid retraumatising the people whom we have to listen to.

I am encouraged that such a significant proportion of the Scottish Government’s priorities focus heavily on building a society where women are safer and can contribute better. That includes support for Gillian Mackay’s work to introduce safe buffer zones and the legislation that is to be introduced on misogyny. However, I would welcome any update that the cabinet secretary may have on the progress of the public sector equality duty review, because equal treatment, protection and opportunity in our public services is the gold standard that we all have a right to expect.

Along with many colleagues, I welcome the expansion in childcare, which will be a significant boost for women and their households. In the previous session, Parliament passed its ratification of the UNCRC. I am encouraged that the Scottish Government is working with the Supreme Court ruling on that, and I would welcome an update on when we can expect the amended bill’s return.

We must recognise, as colleagues have done, the significance of the Scottish child payment to families with lower incomes. That benefit does not exist elsewhere in the UK. I met the Child Poverty Action Group during the summer recess and, having called the introduction of the Scottish child payment a game changer, I am pleased that the First Minister committed yesterday to assessing how much further the benefit can go in supporting children from lower-income households, although there are clear constraints on the Parliament’s spending ability and, sadly, it comes down to the money.

However, let us not forget that, while the Scottish Government gives with one hand, the Tory Government takes away with cruel policies such as the two-child limit on benefits and the rape clause. That policy penalises one in 10 children and costs families an estimated £3,235 per year, yet it is—shamefully—supported by Keir Starmer and the Labour Party. Yet again, Labour offers no alternative to the Tories. I note that the Scottish Labour leader has still not responded to my letter to him calling on him to reconsider his position on reversing the two-child cap and the rape clause, which he considers not to be a priority.

Labour might want to stand by while folk all over the country struggle—that is their prerogative—but the people of Scotland can see that the alternative is here. The people of Scotland can see that, as far as possible, this devolved Government has announced a programme for government that will be a game changer, continuing to lift more and more people out of poverty and increasing their opportunities. It is a positive blueprint for change and a vote of confidence in the potential of a country and its people. I welcome the programme for government.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I advise members that we have some time in hand, so there is time for members to take interventions should they wish to do so.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I found it interesting that Kaukab Stewart majored on priorities, because I listened carefully to the First Minister’s speech yesterday, in which he explicitly committed to reducing poverty. I listened to what he said and to what he did not say.

The Government’s motion is titled

“Equality within the 2023 to 2024 programme for government”. If we start from the position that education is a priority and is key to understanding and then addressing poverty and inequalities, it is staggering that there have been so few mentions of schools.

I believe that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills also cares deeply about that, so it worries me even more that it would be deeply irresponsible for the First Minister and his cabinet secretary to sideline the portfolio and relegate education from the number 1 priority to something that is far from it.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I agree that education is a priority but, when I have talked to many teachers in my constituency over the years, they have said that it is difficult to teach a child who has a hungry belly in the morning. The Government has made a difference through free school meal provision, and the Tories should consider that poor children often go to school hungry, which means that they are unable to learn, and that is because of Tory austerity.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

Part of what Mr Stewart said included an important point, which is that Magic Breakfast says that Scotland is an outlier when it comes to having no nationally funded breakfast provision, as the member knows.

If we are going to talk about food in schools, Mr Stewart, a great example of the Scottish Government taking its eye off the ball comes from the 2021-22 programme for government, in which the SNP promised to provide free school meals to all primary schools by August 2022—incidentally, the First Minister seemed to have forgotten that when he spoke on the radio this morning. Yesterday, the First Minister confirmed the words on page 40 of this year’s programme for government, which says that provision will not be universal until 2026—four years later than promised. That was despite acknowledgement of the point that Kevin Stewart made, which is that yesterday’s programme says that the

“highest standards of nutrition” are

“vital to our children’s effective learning.”

That is why the 2021-22 programme for government committed to delivering free breakfasts to all primary and special school children and to starting to pilot provision, which was not mentioned at all in yesterday’s programme for government.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I will carry on and take an intervention if I have time.

That is exactly the sort of smoke and mirrors that the First Minister is employing, and we have to get away from it. For example, page 36 of the programme for government says:

“We have seen good progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap since the pandemic”.

However, according to the 2023 Scottish Qualifications Authority monitoring report, the attainment gap has widened for the third year in a row at national 5 and higher level. Worse is that—despite the efforts of teachers, staff and pupils—attainment has dropped, with SQA attainment statistics showing that the A to C pass rates at national 5, higher and advanced higher are all lower than they were in 2022.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Will Liam Kerr welcome the fact that we have record positive destinations figures for our young people? While he is at it, will he join me and the First Minister in encouraging the Prime Minister to support the essentials guarantee? If he is genuinely interested in putting food intae the stomachs ae bairns, he should support us to ensure that the welfare state allows that in areas that are still mostly reserved.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

Of course I welcome positive destinations, but the cabinet secretary has conveniently failed to remember that, when we talk about destinations post school, there have been 140,000 fewer college places since the SNP came to power. Our Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data shows that there has been a year-on-year reduction in the number of people going, which has to be taken into account.

The point that I made before the intervention was that the situation was despite the best efforts of our teachers, staff and pupils. I do not for one minute lay this at the door of our schools, the staff or the students themselves; I lay it entirely at the door of a Government that promised to recruit 3,500 additional teachers last year but has overseen a fall of 92 in the numbers—a Government that runs a teacher qualification scheme under which the proportion of post-probationers who are teaching in the year following their probation is at its lowest level since 2016 and a Government that leaves at least 5,000 of our teachers on temporary contracts and has presided over what the

Daily Record calls

“an epidemic of youth violence”.

As we learned yesterday from the school estates statistics, the Government presides over a situation in which 60,000 pupils are being taught in schools that are in a poor or bad condition. [

Interruption.

]

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Seriously! Will the member give way on that point?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member will be concluding shortly.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

There are many warm words in the programme for government, but precious few for education. That is a pity because—as I said—I respect the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and I know that she shares my desire to get it sorted. That is why I hope that she will be receptive to our policies to ensure that funding follows the child, to give headteachers more powers over their schools and to empower teachers through a new deal for teachers. I look forward to working with her on that. Part of that is about ensuring that education is always on the agenda, including in relation to motions that forget about it—such as today’s motion. That is why I ensured that it was in the amendment in the name of Meghan Gallacher, and that is why I ask the chamber to support that amendment.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

This is my first speech here solely as the MSP for Glasgow Southside. It is also the first programme for government in 17 years that I have not been involved in as either First Minister or Deputy First Minister. To say that my perspective on politics has altered would be something of an understatement. From here, certain things look different—perhaps a bit clearer, in fact—than from in the trenches of the political front line. I will perhaps return to that later.

First, though, I turn straight to yesterday’s programme for government. I enthusiastically commend it. I cannot claim to be entirely objective, but it strikes a good—the right—balance between building on progress and breaking new ground. Much has been said about the importance of the economy—and rightly so. There can be no strong society without a strong, sustainable economy. However, the opposite, although just as true, has traditionally had less attention. It has been right to address that, and I commend the First Minister for keeping very firmly in vision the mission for a fairer society where everyone can contribute to and benefit from the fruits of the economy.

The economy will never flourish when systemic barriers prevent people from accessing the labour market—especially when lack of population growth is one of the most significant challenges that we face—or when poverty robs too many people of opportunity and fulfilment.

I am extremely proud of the doubling of early years education and childcare provision, which is a vitally important infrastructure project as well as a social initiative. I am also proud of the establishment of the Scottish child payment. Those measures deliver immediate benefits—especially to the 90,000 children who are being lifted out of poverty right now—but the real value will be in the long term. In that vein, I very much welcome plans to further expand childcare. The pilot that was announced yesterday is a sensible approach, and I hope very much that it will lead to mainstreamed provision as soon as possible.

I take the opportunity to mention the Promise to our care-experienced young people—a mission that is, and always will be, close to my heart.

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

The member will be aware of The Promise oversight board. In June, the board issued a report that said that it

“does not believe that delivering the original aims of Plan 21-24 is realistic by next year.”

Does she agree with the board’s assessment?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I believe that that is the case right now, but I do not believe that that is inevitably what has to be. That brings me exactly to the point that I wanted to make.

The Promise is, and always will be, a mission that is close to my heart. Relevant to the point that the member raises is that, as in so many areas, there is a need to make up for time lost to the pandemic, which is why I welcome and applaud the focus that a new Cabinet sub-committee will bring.

The Promise is about improving the lives of young people in care, but we must remember that it is also about something else—supporting families better so that fewer young people need to go into care in the first place. To that end, I look forward to hearing about progress in financing and implementing the critically important whole family wellbeing fund.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I recognise the contribution of the whole family wellbeing fund. However, will the member recognise that, 18 months into the pilot in Glasgow, not a penny has been commissioned yet, and organisations such as Govan Home and Education Link Project that are critical in delivering such services really need some of that money?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I recognise that. It is why progress needs to be accelerated, which is why I mentioned that point.

Another aspect of the programme for government that merits close attention is action to accelerate the green transition, which is essential to safeguarding the planet and building a fairer society. It is also the most important opportunity that we have to achieve sustainable economic growth. I welcome plans to take forward recommendations from the First Minster’s investor panel, which was established towards the end of my time in office.

Moving away from fossil fuels, which we must do, does not mean turning off the North Sea taps overnight—as some mischaracterise it—but turning on new taps. The First Minister is right to criticise the UK Government’s approach. That approach will make a marginal difference to the lifespan of the North Sea, but it comes at a heavy cost to the environment and to the focus that we need on building renewables capacity as quickly as possible. Lastly on the climate, I look forward to seeing Scotland’s world-leading commitments on financing for the loss and damage that the global south has suffered taken forward fully.

I will conclude with a few words not so much on what we do in the Parliament as on how we do it. Before that, I accept my share of responsibility for the state of our political discourse. If anything, though, that makes me more determined to play a part in trying to change it. Polarisation in politics is much maligned. It is the paralysis of action that it can result in that should worry us most. As we embark on a new parliamentary term, perhaps we need to have some principles in mind to guide us.

The first principle is a collective recognition that the challenges that we face require tough decisions, which are by definition hard and often unpopular and will always meet resistance from those who benefit from the status quo. That is not an argument for ignoring those voices, but it is important that we make sure that they do not become an automatic veto on the change that is necessary.

The second point is an acceptance that we cannot just wish for the ends of our policy objectives; we must also have the means to deliver. That means that we need mature debate on how we pay for our policy priorities and on the powers that the Parliament has and needs.

I want the Parliament to be independent and believe that it soon will be. I do not think that I am creating news with that statement. However, that will never stop me from arguing for incremental change along the way. Likewise, those who oppose independence should not close their minds to new powers that allow us to better tackle the big challenges that we face here and now.

Finally, disagreement and robust debate are not just the essence of democracy; they are part of what makes us human. However, the dynamic that that creates is not fixed—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

First Minister, you need to conclude—I am sorry; I mean, Nicola Sturgeon, you need to conclude. Whoops. [

Laughter

.]

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

—it is up to us to choose. Will we choose acrimony and stalemate, or will we use the creative tension to drive improvement for all? I hope that, in this term, we will see more of the latter than the former, and I look forward to playing my part in it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I advise members that there is a bit of time in hand, so I can be generous when interventions have been taken.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I note the commitments of the cabinet secretary and the Government on child poverty, health and social justice, but I hope that I will be forgiven for pointing out that it is all very vague. Unfortunately, however, I think that we can all agree that vague is pretty much what we have come to expect from this Government. Further, not only do the SNP’s back-bench members expect it, they accept it.

After 16 years of varying incompetence and financial mismanagement, we are left with another programme for government that does not amount to much more than carrying on and papering over the cracks. It is a programme for government that suggests that this Administration has run out of ideas and run out of road. Indeed, it is a programme for government that has been described by key stakeholders as timid. Scots are being told of council tax and income tax rises to come, and the top line in this programme for government is one that has been pushed for relentlessly by Scottish Labour: the £12 for carers. However, that £12 for carers is seven months away and it is more than a year since Humza Yousaf first made that promise. We need it now, and we need a route to £15 an hour.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

We have had discussion on that point already, thank you.

Another new flagship policy that was announced was that of removing income thresholds for the best start payments. However, that is not a new policy at all. The Government is simply announcing again an already existing policy commitment. I think that we can do a lot better than that.

Health inequalities in Scotland are growing. We are two years into the so-called NHS recovery plan and it would be fair to say that things are not going well. Some 820,000 people are on waiting lists, more than 7,000 NHS vacancies remain unfilled and getting a dentist appointment is becoming increasingly difficult—it is borderline impossible in a region such as mine, the South of Scotland. By definition, our recovery plan should see things improve, no matter how slowly. However, under this SNP Government, things continue to get worse, and this programme for government highlights the fading ambition of a tired party of government.

Getting those things right provides the basic building blocks of a successfully run health service, but ours is crumbling beneath our feet, despite the best efforts of staff, who are overworked and underpaid. In public health, we are simply not moving with enough purpose. We see review after review of policies that the Government has considered and the enactment for years of a strategy with no real intention of delivery. However, just recently, we learned that alcohol-specific deaths have increased to their highest levels in years, with a tragic increase in the number of women dying. That situation will not improve by tinkering around the edges and moving slowly. We need real and lasting action and we need it now, and this programme for government falls very short of delivering on that, or, indeed, delivering anything. After 16 years, it seems that delivery is not this Government’s intention.

Indeed, the same issues with the announcement of strategies but a lack of delivery exists in women’s health. There was not even a mention of the women’s health plan in the First Minister’s speech to Parliament yesterday, and I have to say that I am not surprised. Health inequalities impacting women in our most deprived areas remain deep and divisive; staff safety legislation that would support women working in healthcare settings has still not been delivered; and there are reports of community midwifery and screening services becoming harder to access in the areas where they are needed most. Our communities want change, but this continuity First Minister and his continuity Government are just offering more of the same, and the reality is that more of the same means suffering for the vulnerable in our population.

We know that social care was put under incredible strain by Covid, yet, after working their fingers to the bone to keep the country moving, carers still cannot see a route to getting £15 an hour from this SNP-Green Government. They will rightly wonder if they will ever receive a decent wage from it. They are justified in concluding that the Government does not value their work enough. I look to the Green members, who have promised that section of our workforce a lot.

There is an alternative. The next UK Labour Government will fundamentally reform universal credit so that there is a proper safety net for people who are struggling to find work.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I will continue, thank you.

Within the first 100 days of that Government, we will deliver a new deal for working people that will ban zero-hours contracts, extend sick pay and ensure that the minimum wage is a wage that people can live on. [

Interruption

.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Ms Mochan, I am sorry to interrupt, but would you resume your seat for one wee second?

Could we have less chitchat across the front benches? It is disrespectful to Ms Mochan, who is trying to make her contribution.

Please continue, Ms Mochan.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

The measures that I mentioned will have a direct impact on inequality and give families the ability to make choices that can help them to build for the future without having to constantly worry about whether they can make ends meet.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Given that Keir Starmer has said that he and Anas Sarwar are

“‘welded’ together on key issues” and that the Labour Party promotes change, will Ms Mochan explain how Keir Starmer intends to make the rape clause be implemented “more fairly”? What does that mean?

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I wish that the Government wanted to talk about its own programme for government. I have set out exactly why—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member is trying to conclude her remarks.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I am going to make progress.

I have set out some of the things that Labour has said that it will do in government at Westminster. The point that should be made to the front-bench members of the SNP Government is that Labour will deliver. We have a history of delivering. When Labour was last in power across the UK, we lifted 2 million children out of poverty, 200,000 of whom were in Scotland. There are now 40,000 more children living in poverty in Scotland than there were a decade ago. That is the SNP’s legacy and it will not be erased by such underwhelming reform as the SNP proposes.

In the here and now, we have to recognise that Scots have suffered through serious financial and health concerns due to the cost of living and the growing NHS crisis. Those same people will expect a bit more from the first programme for government from the First Minister. I imagine that many of them have been left disappointed. I hope that SNP members will consider those points.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

During these challenging times as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and deal with the horrors of Brexit and the brutality of 13 years of Westminster austerity, people have to face the Tory-made cost of living crisis. Now more than ever, the people of Scotland need a Scottish Government that is on their side. That is why I am pleased that the focus of the programme for government is on reducing poverty, creating sustainable growth and providing quality public services.

I welcome the ambition to increase childcare provision and make it even fairer and more affordable for the people who need it most. I welcome the decision to raise the pay of childcare staff and social care workers, who tirelessly work to support the most vulnerable in our society. I also welcome the fact that we will continue to build a social security system in Scotland that is based on dignity, fairness and respect.

At the end of last year,

Financial Times analysis called the UK a poor society

“with some very rich people”.

We have an enormous wealth gap, which is ever increasing across the UK. However, most other countries in Europe—countries that are comparable to Scotland—are wealthier and fairer. They, of course, are independent. That is why I want an independent Scotland. I believe that we could do much better.

Within the powers that we have, we have spent more than £700 million in the past five years mitigating Westminster welfare cuts. The Scottish Government has helped to improve the lives of more than 316,000 children with the introduction of the game-changing Scottish child payment, and we have delivered more affordable housing per head of population than anywhere else in the UK. However, we could do so much more as an independent nation with all the levers of power.

Talking of independence, I can hardly advocate for freedom and independence for our country without thinking of freedom and independence for all our people. Disabled people have been hit badly during the pandemic and by Brexit and the cost of living crisis. Many feel that they have not been served well by public services and that they have not had the support that they require. I am therefore very happy to see a commitment by the First Minister to reopen the independent living fund to allow more disabled people to control—

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I will in a minute.

The independent living fund will allow more disabled people to control their own care and lives, and it will give them the freedom and independence that are enjoyed by those who currently access the ILF.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

My intervention is on the ILF. My recollection is that the SNP promised to open up the ILF some 16 years ago. What has taken it so long?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I think that what has taken us so long—and Jackie Baillie supports it—is Westminster rule and Tory austerity over the past 13 years. Those folks who advocated for the reopening of the ILF recognise that the Scottish Government has had its budget cut over the piece by the Westminster Government.

It is also gratifying to see that there is a commitment in the PFG to review the adult disability payment so that it meets the needs of disabled people in full. There is a pledge to increase our social security payments in line with inflation, and there is the ambition to replace carers allowance with a carer support payment to improve support for unpaid carers. That is all good news, but think how much more we could do with the full powers of independence and no Tory Westminster austerity.

We also need to do more to ensure that neurodivergent people, autistic folk and those with a learning disability can lead independent lives and access services, jobs and housing. I am glad to see that the Government intends to consult on the proposed learning disability, autism and neurodiversity bill this year. I know that the minister, Maree Todd, has a fantastic team of people behind her to drive that work, and a fabulous set of engaged stakeholders, too.

Moving to improve the lives of people does not necessarily require new legislation. We should look to the good that is going on now. We Too!, an organisation in Aberdeen, has teamed up with Codona’s amusements to hold a disabled-friendly night—hopefully, with many more to come. I know that such partnerships are growing in number across the country, but we should all be encouraging more collaborations and fostering a greater understanding of, and meeting the needs of, neurodivergent people.

Project SEARCH, which is a collaboration in Aberdeen between the University of Aberdeen, Values into Action Scotland and public sector partners, has been on the go for a decade. It provides apprenticeships for learning disabled people, which has successfully seen many folk get jobs, have more fulfilling lives and gain their independence. We should be doing more to encourage such projects throughout our country to bring new talent to our workforce.

Equality, opportunity and community are the key goals in the programme for government. It would be remiss of me not to say that, in order to gain equality, maintain opportunity and retain cohesive communities in the north-east, we must have a just transition that works and is supportive of the change that is required. We all recognise that we have to diversify and grow green jobs, and we should all understand that oil and gas still have a part to play as we move to net zero.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Stewart, are you concluding your remarks?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I am almost there, Presiding Officer, thank you very much.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Excellent, because y ou are quite a bit over time.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I welcome the Scottish Government’s £500 million transition fund. I share the First Minister’s ambition that Aberdeen should become the world’s renewable energy capital, and I am keen to support him and the Government to make that a reality. I welcome this programme for government.

Photo of Sandesh Gulhane Sandesh Gulhane Conservative

I declare an interest as a practising NHS GP.

The SNP has been responsible for health in Scotland continuously since 17 May 2007, when Nicola Sturgeon—here today, though leaving—took office as health secretary and ran it for more than five years. That was a time when she cut the number of nurses in training. It was also a time when serious concerns were raised about a certain neurosurgeon, Dr Sam Eljamel, who doubled as a Government adviser. Incidentally, despite patients protesting outside Parliament today, there is no Government backing for a public inquiry.

More than a third of patients are waiting more than four hours to be seen in Scotland’s emergency departments. The situation is getting worse—not in the depths of winter but in high summer. We know that excessive waiting leads to unnecessary deaths. More than 820,000 patients are on waiting lists.

We have an adult mental health crisis and a child and adolescent mental health crisis. We also have record high drug and alcohol-related deaths because people cannot get the treatment and support that they badly need and want.

Scotland’s NHS and support services are spiralling out of control on the SNP’s watch. What happens when vital health services fail? Patients suffer, staff suffer and health inequalities soar. Across our communities most impacted by health inequalities we find the highest rates of alcohol and drug dependence, yet there has been no cohesive strategy and little in the way of action from successive SNP Governments to help families and communities.

The families of the 1,276 Scots who died last year due to alcohol are grieving the loss of their loved ones. Alcohol-related deaths remain their highest since 2008. When we add drug-related deaths to that figure—ours is the highest rate in Europe—more than 2,300 people lost their lives to drugs and alcohol in Scotland last year alone.

Here is a shameful statistic: people in the most deprived areas of Scotland are 15 times more likely to die from drug misuse than those in the least deprived areas. People in our poorer communities suffer the most because of the SNP’s inability to get on top of its brief.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

The member has drawn an important link between health inequality and income inequality. Will he welcome the measures that we are bringing in to tackle poverty in those communities, which will, of course, reduce those health inequalities?

Photo of Sandesh Gulhane Sandesh Gulhane Conservative

I would really like it if the Government was on top of its brief and actually did the things that we need it to do when it comes to healthcare, which I will go on to point out in the rest of my speech.

With regard to alcohol, the SNP has tried one flagship approach: to make alcohol more expensive, and thus, to be frank, deter the less well-off from purchasing it. The trouble is that we know that people are going without food instead. The minimum unit pricing policy has now been discredited by none other than the SNP itself. The SNP Government set out to put a more convenient and positive spin on a Public Health Scotland report into MUP by shoehorning words such as “significant” into the draft so that it could claim a slam-dunk success.

However, there is no slam-dunk success. The SNP was humiliated and it was accused of misrepresenting the analysis by spinning estimates as facts. The SNP also implied that its resounding success was based on 40 different studies that backed its policy. That was not true; it had to rewrite its public announcements.

It is crystal clear that more people—I repeat, more people—suffer alcohol-related deaths now than did in 2018, when MUP was introduced. In fact, men from deprived areas are drinking more with MUP in place, and others are switching to spirits. If we are ever to get a grip, people suffering from alcohol dependence should have the right to access treatment and rehabilitation. That approach—a right to recovery—is backed by front-line experts.

In the time remaining, let me highlight another key area: our NHS workforce. We have seen another increase in the number of nursing and midwifery vacancies, which now stands at over 5,600, and is worse across our rural and island communities. It is hardly surprising that the number of patients on waiting lists is over 800,000. This morning, I attended a Royal College of Nursing round-table discussion with student nurses. Many student nurses are mature students, and their number includes single parents. What was striking to me is that, when a parent decides to train for public service as a nurse, they lose the Scottish child payment that Shirley-Anne Somerville spoke for so long about. If you want to be a nurse in Scotland, the Scottish Government will take away your money. Our nurses are the backbone of our NHS and are crucial to tackling Scotland’s health inequalities.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member has concluded. Thank you, Dr Gulhane. I call Maggie Chapman.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I begin by thanking the organisations, community groups and others who engaged with me in advance of this programme for government. I am grateful to them for their dedication to the communities that they support and serve, because one thing is clear as we talk about delivering equality: we know that it cannot be done by those of us in this place alone. It requires the sharing of information, resources, expertise and so much more.

Another thing is also clear: inequality and poverty are not inevitable. They are consequences of political and economic decisions and choices, and so that is our challenge—to make better choices.

The PFG that we discussed this week is not going to eliminate poverty and inequality in one year. It would not be possible to undo that fast the structures and processes that decades—indeed, centuries—of decision making have created, even if we had all the powers that we need. The UK’s austerity agenda that we have endured also makes our task so much harder. However, the PFG signals a clear and important direction of travel.

My Scottish Green colleagues and I are pleased to see the Scottish child payment at the heart of this year’s PFG. When we argued for the payment to be so substantially increased, alongside mitigation of the cruel benefits cap, we knew that it was the right thing to do. We did not know quite how desperately significant it would prove to be in this crisis of costs and inflation, which is, to be blunt, a crisis of greed and profiteering. Experts and academics, including those at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Professor Danny Dorling, agree that the Scottish child payment is the single most important intervention in anti-poverty action.

However, it alone is not enough for the children of Scotland. Those 300,000 children have already borne heavy burdens in their short lives, and they face more in their futures. We must build on the foundation of the increased payment to provide the shelter that they need from the storms that assail them. Those storms include real damage to the health of children who live in cold, damp, cramped or unfit flats and houses, and those who have no permanent home at all. We have laid important groundwork in protecting and enhancing the rights of tenants. That work, alongside practical action on homelessness, must be prioritised in the coming year.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I am going to make progress.

Health burdens, too, fall heavily on the children who live, play and learn in streets blighted by air pollution. For some adults, low-emission zones are a political football—part of the so-called culture wars. For children with asthma and other conditions, football in the streets can be a cruel joke, and the culture wars are literally a matter of life or death.

In addition to poverty, many of those receiving the Scottish child payment face particular injustices to do with who they are and who cares for them. We know that households that include a disabled person suffer disproportionately in this hostile economic environment. I look forward to the implementation of the immediate priorities plan and to the further transformations that must flow from it.

We know that Scotland still has a problem with racism—yes, it is structural and institutional, and it is also sometimes conscious and deliberate. Children, including Gypsy and Traveller children, face systemic and personal abuse and exclusion. The anti-racism observatory is welcome and has vital work to do and to enable.

We know that some of the 300,000 children who currently benefit from the Scottish child payment will be transgender or non-binary. Many will be gay, lesbian or bisexual. We want them all to grow up in safety, with dignity and equality, with their health needs met in the right place, at the right time, and with freedom from cruel and damaging conversion practices. The Scottish Greens and I will never renege on our solidarity with the LGBTQI+ community.

Some of the children receiving the child payment are refugees; many others are callously excluded from our support by inhuman and often illegal UK laws and policies. I urge the Scottish Government to push the boundaries of the possible, to mitigate those shameful acts, and to welcome all children fleeing from their homes, whether from Ukraine or other places of danger, conflict or repression.

We know, as a dark backdrop to everything that we do, that all Scotland’s children face futures blighted by the effects of climate chaos. 2045 may seem a long time off in election cycles, but those who are babies now will only just be starting out on their adult lives then. Even the end of this century—the furthest reach of our everyday imagination—is a time that they can and should expect to see and experience. North Sea fossil fuel licences might bring short-term gains for a few but, for generations to come, they are warrants of death. For the sake of those children and the families and communities to which they belong, the just transition cannot just be a technical project. They need—we all need—a future that is powered not only by clean energy but by creativity and, most of all, by care.

Every year in this Parliament, the context in which we work becomes more difficult. We act in the shadow of a Westminster Government that is shameless in its brutality and that makes no secret of its hostility towards our work, and a Westminster Opposition that is increasingly reluctant to oppose. I do not underestimate the obstacles that we face, but we can do things differently here. In this chamber, we have a tradition of co-operation across party lines, of attention to the common good and of imagining and working towards a shared generous future. We have the opportunity this year, particularly in shaping our human rights bill, to bring that future closer to hand. Let us grasp it with urgency, compassion and hope.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

Reducing poverty, delivering growth, tackling climate change and providing high-quality public services are rightly the focus of the programme for government that our First Minister announced at the beginning of this new parliamentary term. I was pleased to hear the First Minister describe his agenda as “unashamedly anti-poverty and pro-growth”. The better and fairer Scotland and the more equal society that we would all like to have require our concerted efforts to eradicate poverty, to tackle the cost of living crisis and to create opportunities for businesses and individuals to thrive.

Today, we debate equality, opportunity and community, and actions to build stronger communities, improve social justice and reduce inequalities. Those things will, arguably, make the most immediate difference to the people whom we serve. Like many colleagues from across the chamber, I spent the recess in the communities that I represent, doing additional surgeries and meeting community groups and businesses, to listen and to provide assistance where I could. Among the many and varied things that I and my office team help constituents with, one thing that is constant is the way in which poverty exacerbates every single inequality and any injustice.

People across Scotland have been paying a steep price for economic incompetence, austerity and Brexit. That situation has been caused by successive Westminster Governments over a number of years. In the past five years, the Scottish Government has spent more than £700 million on mitigating the impact of Westminster welfare cuts alone. The current cost challenges, which are being noticed by all but a few households, are a crisis that is felt even more acutely and keenly by those who already have the greatest challenges, and it is harder for them to overcome.

Scottish Government action is making a difference to children and families in my constituency and throughout Scotland. Due to the policies of our SNP Government, an estimated 90,000 fewer children are expected to live in relative and absolute poverty this year, with the poverty level being 9 per cent lower than it would have been otherwise. One child living in poverty is one too many, but progress is being made.

The First Minister quoted the late David McLetchie’s warning about

“worshipping the false god of consensus”—[

Official Report

, 9 June 1999; c 376.]

and said that

“For the good of society ... where we need to pick a side”—[

Official Report

, 5 September 2023; c 12.]

we will do just that.

There are two matters on which I will follow the First Minister’s advice on that front. The first concerns the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill. The aims and principles that underpin the bill are laudable; it is the right thing to do and it absolutely supports keeping the Promise. However, there is an undeniable challenge in balancing the rights of offenders against those of the victims who are harmed by offending behaviour. That is never starker than when both parties are children.

I am sure that MSPs across the chamber will recognise, from their casework, that there are situations in which the balance has been off and has not felt just, and in which the harmed child has been further traumatised by the actions of our care and justice system. The system intended to do its best for the child who caused harm but has—in particular, in cases in which a sexual offence has been committed or in which the harmful behaviour is coercive control and domestic abuse—let down the victim and compromised their safety.

That important balance of rights is not correct in the bill as drafted. Child victims will not have their rights realised if changes are not made. I am hopeful that the Scottish Government will work with me, Victim Support Scotland and others to get the balance right. I appreciate the willingness of the Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise to meet me—I hope that we can get a date in the diary very soon.

Finally, and again on the theme of justice and inequality, and reflecting on how poverty exacerbates inequality and injustice, I note that there are—as colleagues have set out—many measures to welcome for women in the programme for government, but, to be honest, I am pretty dismayed to see no mention of legislation to tackle commercial sexual exploitation within the work on preventing violence against women. For decades now, the Scottish Government has recognised that commercial sexual exploitation in all its forms is violence against women. However, our legislation does not protect women from that particular violence. It is a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality, and women and girls with the greatest vulnerabilities are most harmed. It is shameful that, in this country, men can buy sexual access to women online as quickly and easily as they might order takeaway food. That fuels trafficking and abuse, and it does not harm just the women involved; there are wider societal implications for women and men.

I call on the Government to do three things: to outlaw online pimping and the purchase of women; to hold traffickers, male buyers and those who exploit and fuel demand to account with the full force of our criminal justice system; and to provide comprehensive financial support and exiting services for women who are prostituted and exploited.

For me, a fairer country will be one where no woman is bought or sold, where women and girls have equality, where their lives are not limited by misogynistic society and where the communities in which they live are safe and free from male violence. Any attempts to tackle the pervasive misogyny that harms so many women and girls, as well as boys and men, will be futile if we close our eyes to the issue or look the other way because it is too difficult or there is not a comfortable consensus at the moment. The equal society that we all seek demands actions, which I hope my Government will take.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

A week ago, Scotland’s long-awaited Covid inquiry got under way. We heard, again, tragic stories from families who lost loved ones—more often than not, people who were in later life. It reminded me that, at the height of the pandemic, rarely a day passed when I did not have constituents raising their heartbreaking experiences—not being able to see loved ones in care homes because we failed to get our act together on testing; social care packages being removed when they were clearly needed; the pressure that people felt to sign “Do not attempt to resuscitate” forms; the loneliness and isolation that many older people faced; and, of course, the appalling death rate among people in later life.

During that time, when all the big decisions were being made I kept asking myself who, independent of Government but with real powers and the ear of ministers, was championing the human rights of older people and ensuring that their voices and views were listened to. To be frank, the answer was, “No one.”

Now, the Covid crisis has been replaced by a new health and social care crisis, and it is the people who are in later life who are, again, bearing the brunt. More and more older people are stuck in hospital when they should be at home, but they cannot return there because we do not have the carers who are needed to look after them.

In order to manipulate the delayed discharge figures, others are being moved out of hospital into care homes, often miles from their home and family, as more and more care homes close. All those people want is to return to their own homes, but they cannot do so because there are thousands of care worker vacancies across Scotland.

I will never forget the recent case of a constituent whose cancer had become terminal and who no longer needed medical intervention—just support from carers to make them comfortable. Their final wish was to die at home. Instead, they spent their final days in hospital for no reason other than that there was a lack of carers to deliver the assessed care package that they needed. When we cannot provide carers in such circumstances, it really shows how utterly broken our social care system is.

I welcome the decision by the Government to back the long-standing calls by Labour and the trade unions for a pay rise to at least £12 per hour for care workers—albeit that it comes three years after those calls were first made and is therefore massively eroded in value by inflation, and is still six months away. However, we will not make serious inroads into the care worker recruitment crisis unless £12 per hour is part of a clear plan with a timetable—a first step—to deliver £15 per hour and proper career progression for those who do the invaluable job of caring for our loved ones as if they are their own.

Scotland has a rapidly ageing population that is growing at a faster rate than it is anywhere else in the UK. However, increases in life expectancy have slowed. Too many people are spending far too much of their later years in poor health with poor levels of care, and a growing number are growing older in poverty. There is a misconception that all older people are wealthy, but the Scottish Government’s figures show that almost one in six people of pension age in Scotland is living in poverty. That poverty is often hidden—many older people quietly get on with their lives, not wanting to make a fuss. Pensioner poverty, which sadly does not merit a mention in the Government’s programme, is on the rise.

We are in danger of another pandemic—one that is caused by the rise in the cost of living. It is a poverty pandemic, whose victims are 150,000—and rising—older people, according to the charity Independent Age. Yet, in the programme that the Government published yesterday, older people barely register. There is one direct mention, which is a claim that equality for older people will be advanced by the Government’s

“engaging with the Older People’s Strategic Action Forum”.

I welcome any engagement with the forum and its members, but I would also welcome engagement with the many other groups across Scotland that work with older people every day. However, the Government has not convened that forum for two years and the forum has met only four times in six years. According to the Scottish Government’s website, the forum is chaired by the Minister for Older People, yet one of the first acts of the new First Minister was to axe having a minister with the phrase “older people” in their title, despite condemnation from members of the forum and others.

The programme for government is a missed opportunity to really engage in the issues that are facing Scotland’s older people, despite the relatively modest asks from those who are working with people in later life. Those include the reinstatement of a named minister for older people, a dedicated pensioner poverty strategy and the creation of an older person’s commissioner—an independent champion for people in later life, with real statutory powers.

This week, Scotland’s new children’s commissioner began work, and we wish her well. There are children’s commissioners in every nation of the UK, and there are older person’s commissioners for Wales and Northern Ireland and there is a growing campaign for one in England. Why should Scotland’s older people not have the same right? It is little wonder that, in its 2023 big survey of people who are aged over 50, Age Scotland found that just 8 per cent thought that we decision makers properly consider older people’s issues and that two thirds—up from 51 per cent last year—do not feel valued by society.

Too many of our older people face multiple forms of discrimination. Too often, they are negatively stereotyped when we should be celebrating the immense contribution that they make to our communities. We should put tackling the issues that they face at the heart of government. Sadly, the programme for government fails to do that.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government has shown leadership on equality and human rights, and that is an inspiration not only to many here, but to others across this land and beyond, throughout the world. Our First Minister’s dedication to fighting for those fundamental causes gives me great hope.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said:

“Where, after all, do ... human rights begin? In small places, close to home ... Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Those were wise words from the former first lady and distinguished human rights champion, and they underpin our journey here, in Scotland, to become an equal and inclusive community that is free from discrimination, with our potential realised and full of opportunity for all.

Scotland is already making greater strides towards equality than other parts of the United Kingdom. In 2021, the Scottish Parliament unanimously voted to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into law in Scotland before it was challenged by the UK Government. That bill would have been the most important thing that Scotland could do to protect the rights of children and young people and I urge the Scottish Government to do all that it can to bring the legislation back as soon as possible.

When we passed the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that it was a “significant step forward”. It was passed by a two-thirds majority in the Parliament. Yet again, our democracy and our progressive policies were vetoed by Westminster. Time and again, we march forward unapologetically on human rights only to be thwarted by a UK Government that is hostile not only to human rights, as we have seen with its vile Illegal Migration Act 2023, but to any part of the United Kingdom that dares to do better.

It should come as no surprise. Last year, the UK Government brought forward proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. Thankfully, those proposals have not made progress at Westminster, but that is the uncertain context in which the Scottish people find ourselves. It is for that reason that I wish to focus my remarks today on the proposed human rights bill in the programme for government.

The human rights bill would be a significant piece of legislation that could give effect to a further four of the nine core international human rights instruments of the United Nations. Those would enshrine a right to work and to favourable conditions of work. The bill would cement the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate food and housing. In the context of a Tory cost of living crisis and with the world’s energy and food security threatened by Russia’s abhorrent war in Ukraine, the need to guarantee those fundamental rights has never been more acute.

Yesterday, the First Minister spoke movingly about his past and present experiences of racism. Although racially motivated hate crimes are declining, 1,468 racist crime offences were recorded by the police in Scotland last year. We must commit ourselves by all appropriate means and without delay to a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms, and to promoting understanding between different racial, ethnic and national groups in Scotland.

The abuse and discrimination that are faced by women in society are as perennial as they are pervasive. To the surprise of no woman in the chamber today, that is particularly acute for those in the public arena. We discussed those issues at length on the gender-sensitive audit board, and I am particularly proud that, under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, we introduced the first gender-balanced Cabinet in the UK and that, under Humza Yousaf’s leadership, there are now more women in Government than ever before. In Humza Yousaf’s first programme for government, we have the potential through the human rights bill to enshrine non-discrimination, economic and social rights, and gender equality for all women in Scotland.

Many people with disabilities face barriers that prevent them from participating fully in society. Those barriers take many forms, from financial to physical to cultural. With that legislation, we can make it clear that disabled people have the same rights as non-disabled people and break down the barriers that prevent disabled people from realising their human rights.

Many other communities would benefit from having their rights recognised in the human rights bill, including LGBT people. On that point, I am relieved to hear that the Government is to introduce legislation swiftly to end abhorrent conversion practices. I look forward to ensuring that the rights of LGBT people are included in the bill.

With the human rights bill, we have yet another opportunity to distinguish ourselves from the cruel policies of Westminster and be a beacon for human rights. That will no doubt anger the UK Government, which is doing all that it can to undermine any Scottish progress. In the past five financial years, £700 million has been spent on mitigating the effects of UK Government policy on the Scottish people. The suffering and harm that are inflicted on us by this unequal union, day in and day out, cannot be emphasised enough.

It is the Scottish Government that offers real change. It does so with a programme for government that fights poverty tooth and nail, and which is proud and unapologetic about progressing human rights. We have made great strides in building a modern, inclusive Scotland, but we must not and will not rest on our laurels. Giving effect in Scots law to core international human rights instruments will build stronger communities, improve social justice, reduce inequalities and tackle child poverty.

The cost of the union is clear: it is a cost that is mired in inhumanity. In stark contrast, with its programme for government, the Scottish Government has, with true humanity, shown its commitment to the highest standard of equality for our citizens.

The Presiding Officer:

We move to closing speeches.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I start by correcting the record. Earlier, I said that it took 16 years for the SNP to act on the independent living fund, but it turns out that it was eight years. In that time, 800 people with ILF packages died and the fund remained closed to new entrants, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s promises.

It is fair to say that it has been an eventful year in Scottish politics. When we came to the chamber this time last year, few people would have expected that, this year, we would be sitting through a programme for government with Humza Yousaf as First Minister. I have sat through 24 programmes for government and this year’s has to be the worst—zombies have more life in them than this offering. It is full of mentions of more working groups, more task forces and more oversight boards. There is more recycling of old announcements but no action. It is said that there are some days when years of political action take place. Well, the past year has felt as though a decade has passed in Scottish politics. From cash in envelopes to police tents in gardens, and from allegations of MI5 infiltration to camper vans, it is clear that we are now in the last season of the long-running soap opera that is the SNP Government.

However, I must admit that I feel for Humza Yousaf. This time last year, he would have had no idea that he would be First Minister, and there are few in this chamber who will not join me in realising just how daunting the task ahead of him truly is. The fact is that, after 16 years of SNP government, not a single one of our public services is stronger. Our NHS is in crisis and the economy is stagnant. Now, Humza Yousaf might not have had a long time to prepare for the programme for government, but I already want to ask him whose programme for government it really is. Is it his, is it a leftover from his predecessor or is it really the Greens’ programme for government? I do not expect to receive an answer. As is so often the case with this Government, secrecy and a lack of transparency guide its approach.

The title for this debate is “Equality”. There could not be a more timely topic, because after 16 years of SNP government, Scotland is a deeply unequal place. In fact, inequality has got worse across a range of measures.

Let us take the NHS. Our health service was born with the sole ambition of providing equal access to healthcare for everyone in society, regardless of their means, but the fact is that, under the SNP Government, the very principles of our NHS are at stake. We have the scandalous situation in which well over one in seven of our fellow Scots are on a waiting list. That means cancers going undetected and people living in pain while waiting for orthopaedic procedures. It also means that those who have the means are going into the arms of the private sector, whereas those who do not have that financial option are left languishing on waiting lists. The SNP has allowed a two-tier health service to become a reality, thus widening inequality.

Statistics published yesterday reveal the brutal truth. More than 820,000 Scots are on waiting lists. Almost 80,000 patients have waited longer than eight hours in A and E in this year alone. There are 27,000 patients waiting for mental health treatment. Children—children!—are waiting for years to be seen while their mental health gets worse.

That is only one snapshot of the carnage in our NHS. In this year alone, it has been estimated that there have been more than 3,200 excess deaths. For healthy life expectancy, premature mortality, coronary heart disease and cancer incidence, the gap in outcomes is at its highest point since the statistics began. That is shocking, and members on the SNP benches should hang their heads in shame.

What about the First Minister’s targets for ending long waits? They were set in 2022 but he has already failed to meet them. Thousands of people are waiting for more than two years. We all know that cancer is Scotland’s biggest killer, but the 31-day target and 62-day target have not been met. In fact, the 62-day target has not been met since it was set more than a decade ago.

A and E is overrun. Delayed discharge—something that the current Deputy First Minister promised to eradicate completely—is once more on the rise. There are simply not enough GPs to cope with demand, and Audit Scotland says that the Government’s target for more GPs is not likely to be met.

Under the SNP, social care is also going backwards. Too many people are waiting too long for assessments for care packages and too many are waiting too long for the care packages themselves. Costs of care are rising; in SNP-controlled Glasgow City Council, they are almost doubling. While we wait, the SNP prevaricates about ending care charges—something that it promised to do years ago in its manifesto, but which has not been implemented. That is shameful during a cost of living crisis.

As for £12 an hour, we were asking for that three years ago. The difference then would have been a rise of about £3 an hour. With inflation, that would now be worth £13.83 an hour, so the SNP is still short-changing staff by a total of almost £2 an hour. The cost of living crisis has eroded the SNP’s offer in real terms—

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

No, I will take no lessons from the cabinet secretary.

The SNP’s offer has eroded in real terms and it is making staff wait until April. Shame on you.

NHS and social care staff have been let down by the SNP, from the scandal at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital, where the health board is in denial and locked in a war of words with the inquiry, to NHS Tayside, where the lack of action and toxic cover-up culture fostered by the SNP has failed patients. The SNP has presided over a litany of problems in our NHS and social care, so it cannot be the one that we trust to fix it.

The people of Scotland deserve better than this incompetent, out-of-touch Government. Change is coming, and only Scottish Labour has the vision and the determination to get our country back together.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

It was interesting to listen to the former First Minister’ s opening remarks. I welcome them, because our political discourse has become so defensive. We have seen that this week from SNP and Green ministers around their broken pledges and promises. Collectively, if we are going to solve some of these problems, especially those around equalities, ministers need to start to listen and work with other parties.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

In that spirit, I will respond to a point that Dr Gulhane made about the Scottish child payment. The reason why the Scottish child payment stops is that it has to be based on eligibility for UK benefits. In the spirit of consensus, will Miles Briggs join me in calling on the UK Government not to stop UK benefits for student nurses, so that we will be able to keep paying the Scottish child payment?

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

The cabinet secretary knows that I always welcome the conversations that we have. We do not have them enough, though. That is one of the points that I am making. Cabinet secretaries and ministers are just relying on Green votes now in this Parliament. That is fine, but they are making a mess of legislation as they do that. The legislation on short-term lets is a prime example of that, and the deposit return scheme is another.

I will start on a note of consensus, with aspects of the programme for government that are welcome and that we have been trying to progress with ministers. The bill to finally address unsafe cladding is welcome, and I look forward to seeing full details of that. I hope that, like in England, hotels and public buildings are included. The announcement to finally deliver a national allowance for foster and kinship carers is also a welcome step forward, but we need to see the detail of that.

As the former First Minister stated, the wider policy agenda around delivering the Promise still very much needs to be outlined and developed. I hope that care-experienced young people will hear more from ministers urgently in the coming weeks on how the commitments to expand holistic family support services will be delivered, as Barnardo’s Scotland requested in its briefing for today’s debate.

Paul O’Kane made a number of important contributions to the debate on cross-party consensus and the objectives and targets that we all agreed to set out in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017, which was passed unanimously by Parliament. We all want to eliminate child poverty, and I believe that that is a priority for everyone across the chamber.

In the time that I have today, I will return to an issue that has not been raised by ministers at all today or yesterday, which is homelessness. Statistics show that the situation in Scotland over the summer has been unacceptable, with a record number of children and families now declared homeless and living in unsuitable temporary accommodation.

When the cabinet secretary was appointed in April, I said that we, in the Conservative Party, would work with ministers to help develop and deliver solutions. To date, we have seen very little from ministers, who seem to have failed to see the scale of the housing emergency that Scotland faces, especially here in the capital, and to work to deliver the emergency response that is needed. Cuts to housing budgets and council budgets are the wrong answer.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

How does

Miles Briggs reconcile his concern about homelessness and temporary accommodation with his and his party’s opposition to any policy that seeks to avoid the loss of homes being turned into second homes and short-term lets? How does he reconcile those positions? They do not seem to be reconcilable.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

The cabinet secretary might not want to listen to me, but I hope that she will listen to Alison Watson of Shelter Scotland, who says that the programme for government offers nothing new to meet the challenge of ending Scotland’s housing emergency. She goes on to say:

“Anyone in Scotland currently experiencing homelessness who listened to the First Minister today would have taken no comfort from his words.”

The cabinet secretary should look in the mirror in relation to her record on the issue. In 2020, when 7,000 children were living in temporary accommodation, she said that she recognised that we must go further. In 2021, when 8,000 children were living in temporary accommodation, she was deeply concerned. In 2022, when 9,000 children were living in temporary accommodation, she said that the issue was a national priority. This year, we have a new housing minister who is very disappointed and deeply worried. That is a record of failure—

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

No, I will not. I want to make progress.

It is a record of failure that the new cabinet secretary needs to act on urgently to turn the situation around. Every day in Scotland, 45 children become homeless under this SNP Government.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I do not have the time—I am sorry.

There are 9,595 children living in temporary accommodation across our country, and there is no Government plan to end that situation. Scottish families have been accommodated in former hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfasts, and many have been left sharing toilets with strangers and cooking on kettles.

In many cases, it is not only temporary accommodation but inappropriate accommodation. The situation is escalating out of control. The number of homeless applications has increased by 9 per cent, and 16,263 children are assessed as being threatened with homelessness. The number of children in temporary accommodation is at a record level. That is the record of this SNP Government, and it is shameful.

Children who have been homeless are three or four times more likely to experience mental health problems. Children who have been homeless have increased risks of ill health and disability, which is up by 25 per cent. Any teacher will tell the cabinet secretary, if she would listen, that children in temporary accommodation struggle to maintain relationships and experience increased anxiety. We need a completely new approach to the issue from the Government.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I do not have the time.

I genuinely hope that ministers will use this debate and the new parliamentary term to do something different. Measures to prevent homelessness are already on the statute book. We do not need a housing bill to take those measures forward; they are just not being delivered by local government, because it does not have the resources to do it.

In conclusion, homeless charities across Scotland and cross-party voices are raising the alarm. There is growing concern about the housing emergency that Scotland faces today. We need an emergency response from the Government now and we need fresh leadership from the cabinet secretary. I hope that she will genuinely lead from the front on this, because it has not been mentioned in any debate so far, but it is the biggest issue that ministers should have been dealing with during the summer. If ministers genuinely want to take forward a progressive agenda to address the housing emergency, they will have our support, but they need to act, because this crisis is developing ever more and every day.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

I have listened to all the contributions during this afternoon’s debate, and I must say that Miles Briggs, of the contributors from the Conservative benches, managed to finish on a high point, on his desire to try and find a new way to tackle some of the challenges that our society faces. I assure him that there is determination and willingness to engage in a constructive way when there are constructive suggestions to try to tackle some of the issues that we face as a society.

I, too, have sat through 24 programmes for government in this Parliament. My memory serves me better than Jackie Baillie’s, whose memory—I can only suspect—is clouded by time in this establishment. My recollection is that the worst programmes for government were the first seven that the Scottish Parliament had, which she obviously had a hand in. They were vacuous and lacked ambition. Actually, they were so unambitious that they left money in the bank account of the Scottish Executive at the time, which it handed back to Westminster because it was not even capable of investing in tackling poverty in Scotland between 1999 and 2006. I recall poor quality programmes for government.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

Let me finish my point, and then I will let Jackie Baillie in.

I remember very well the lack of ambition from that Government. I recall well Jackie Baillie holding office with a portfolio that included responsibility for tackling child poverty, but Labour handed money back to Westminster at that time because it could not use the resources to tackle it effectively in Scotland.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I am so grateful to be able to remind the cabinet secretary—because clearly his memory has faded, too—that, when we were in government, our ambition to end child poverty saw 200,000 children in Scotland being lifted out of poverty. Child poverty has gone up under his watch and under the SNP, and now his ambition is to lift 90,000 children out of poverty. Where is his ambition?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

As ever, Jackie Baillie is saying, “Let’s just wipe out the reality of UK Government austerity and the impact that it has on child poverty.” The impact started before Gordon Brown left office, with the austerity programme, and child poverty started to increase as a result.

However, the consequences of political choices in tackling things such as child poverty are very important. We went from a point when people in the Labour Party stated that we do too much social policy stuff and not enough on the economy, to when they told us that we are not doing enough on social policy to tackle poverty in our society. Labour then told us that we need real action on child poverty, but that we do not need any of that social policy stuff to deal with it. Then, of course, the Labour party said that we are doing too much on social policy, and then it said that we are not doing enough social policy, and now it says that Labour members are the champions for the rape clause and the bedroom tax; Labour is the party that is now supporting those policies. To add to that, Labour’s shadow chancellor has said that Labour will follow the fiscal policy of the existing Tory Government if it gets into government next year.

It would be fair to say—I am being generous to its members—that there is a bit of a muddle for the Labour Party nowadays. [

Interruption

.] In reality, it is nothing more than a self-contradictory mess—[

Interruption

.]

The Presiding Officer:

Let us hear Michael Matheson.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

—a self-contradictory mess that you have got yourselves into on social and economic policy. That is reflective of leadership of the Scottish Labour Party that does not have a principle to stand on, when it comes to tackling those issues.

Let us remind ourselves of the policies that Labour has also now wedded itself to. Who does the two-child limit affect? It affects 80,000 children in Scotland; it takes £341 million out of Scottish families’ pockets each year. Of course, we also heard from the Conservative Party—your new buddies—when it comes to social policy. We heard from Meghan Gallacher, who said that we need a “big, bold” idea. Well, here is a big, bold idea for you.

The Presiding Officer:

Speak through the chair always, please.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

Ms Gallacher and her UK Government colleagues at Westminster could, with the flick of a pen, lift 70,000 people out of poverty, including 30,000 children, simply by reversing the cuts that they have made to benefits. That is the type of big, bold idea that seems to be a good policy to pursue, rather than coming here and pretending that you have concern about the impact that austerity is having on local services in local authorities.

The architects of UK austerity sit on the Labour benches and the Conservative benches. The consequences that you refer to are the consequences of the policy decisions that your Government is making and the impact that they are having on communities right across Scotland. So, do not come in here and lecture us on the actions that we should be taking to tackle poverty, because we are a Government that is doing exactly that—with one hand tied behind our back because of the impact of your own policies at UK level.

The Presiding Officer:

I remind the cabinet secretary to always speak through the chair, please.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

I will, Presiding Officer.

Let me turn to our NHS. [

Interruption

.] We are in a situation in which, if you believe what has been set out by the Opposition parties, the challenges that we have in our NHS in Scotland are in some way unique to us—that they exist here, in Scotland, only because of our actions.

When it comes to issues such as waiting lists in the NHS in Scotland, let me be clear and do some comparative work for Ms Baillie and her colleagues. In March this year, in Scotland, on average, 114 patients per 1,000 of our population were waiting on the treatment time guarantee. How does that compare with what was happening in England? [

Interruption

.] Using the same basis, 130 patients were waiting. As for what was happening in Wales, 237 patients per 1,000 were waiting. [

Interruption

.] I will be generous and say that I, for one, do not think that Labour in Wales does not care about the NHS. [

Interruption

.] I believe that they care about the NHS and that they want to—[

Interruption

.]

The Presiding Officer:

Mr Smyth!

The Presiding Officer:

I ask all members to refrain, please, from intervening from a sedentary position, when they are able to do otherwise.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

I am more than happy to take an intervention from Mr Smyth, if he wants to make one.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

Mr Matheson is the NHS minister in Scotland. What do his constituents think about lying on a trolley in his local hospital because waiting lists have gone up to record levels on his watch?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

That is why we put a recovery plan in place, with an extra £1 billion to address those issues. Mr Smyth does not want to recognise the challenges that our NHS is facing on the back of the pandemic and due to increasing demands on our healthcare system. They are not unique to Scotland but are impacting on healthcare systems across the whole UK and globally. If Mr Smyth is particularly concerned about performance, he has only to look at Labour’s performance in Wales, which is significantly worse. He can be assured that we will continue to do what we can to address those issues.

I will turn to alcohol-related deaths, which was raised by Mr Gulhane in his contribution. He made specific reference to minimum unit pricing. I remember a time in the chamber when the Conservatives had a sense of commitment to tackling the problem. Three people were dying per day from a preventable cause. Jackson Carlaw gave a commitment to supporting minimum unit pricing. He did that despite the fact that you, as the Conservative Party—I refer to the party’s position, Presiding Officer—had opposed the initial attempts to put minimum unit pricing in place and had decided to turn it into a party-political issue. [

Interruption

.] I make the point again because I was on the committee that dealt with the matter. I witnessed the behaviour of Conservative members who were on the committee at the time, which resulted in expert witnesses refusing to come back to Parliament and give evidence because of those members’ behaviour. I will not mention whom they were, but it was recorded and set out at the time.

Labour opposed minimum unit pricing—a position that was taken by Jackie Baillie. The party orchestrated an alternative commission under Brian Fearon to come up with an alternative proposal. Those proposals fell flat on their face under the Parliament’s scrutiny. The consequence of that was—[

Interruption

.]

The Presiding Officer:

Let us hear the cabinet secretary!

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

The consequence was that getting minimum unit pricing through Parliament was delayed, as a result of the actions of Opposition parties at the time. That was the reality and consequence for what is, quite clearly, a public health policy. If we did not have it, that would have made the situation even worse than it is today.

I say to Sandesh Gulhane that I think that he does himself and his party no favours by seeking to undermine a public health policy that many leading evidenced-based experts have repeatedly said is making a positive impact in tackling the issue. [

Interruption

.]

If Miles Briggs is to be taken at his word, he might want to have a discussion with his colleagues in his party who are in the health portfolio, because if we are to try to tackle some of the deep-seated inequalities in our society, we need to take action on a collective basis and to recognise the evidence that underlines the benefits of those policies, rather than seeking to undermine them for narrow party-political purposes. [

Interruption

.]

The Presiding Officer:

Mr Gulhane!

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

I am conscious of the time.

To draw my remarks to a close, I say that if we are to tackle some of the deep-seated health inequalities that we face in our society, we also have to recognise the social determinants of many of those inequalities. One of the most significant social determinants of inequality and health inequality in our society is austerity. History has repeatedly shown us the impact of economic austerity on people in our most deprived communities. We, as a Government, are determined to grow and expand our economy for a purpose, to invest in public services and to make sure that we tackle the root causes of social inequalities within our society. We may not reap the benefits of those things in our health service today, but we will in years to come.

I ask Conservative members across the chamber: “Are you, as a party, prepared to work with us in order to deliver that?” It is very clear, from the approach that has been taken by the Tory Government at Westminster, that tackling social inequality is no longer a priority. In fact, expanding social inequality appears to be the objective.

The sad reality is that a party that once said that it believed in strong social policy is now following the path of the Conservative Party. It is following the path of austerity, following the path of the rape clause, of the bedroom tax and of policies that push families and households into poverty—the policies that we know will drive social inequality and create health inequality in our society. One thing that this Government will do is stand up to tackle social and health inequality in our society. Ours is a programme for government that will deliver that.