Public Service Investment

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:45 pm on 13 June 2024.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat 2:45, 13 June 2024

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-13602, in the name of Shona Robison, on Scottish Government priorities—investing in Scotland’s public services. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 3:13, 13 June 2024

Investing in our public services to ensure that they are effective and sustainable is central to delivering the Scottish Government’s priorities of eradicating child poverty, growing our economy and tackling the climate emergency. However, our ability to deliver that is choked by austerity, Brexit and the cost of living crisis—the simple ABC of Westminster holding Scotland back.

For the past 14 years, we have endured Westminster austerity, which has been an impediment to the delivery of effective public services by curtailing investment in our front-line services. We have seen Brexit forced on the people of Scotland expressly against their democratic will. Brexit has taken the legs out from under economic growth. That has meant that we must work even harder to help Scotland’s economy with the powers that we have, which means that business and our vital public services have had to work harder to fill vacancies and supplement local skills.

The cost of living crisis was created by the Tories and exacerbated by Liz Truss, with members on the Tory benches demanding that we follow her budget. Not content with that damage, the Conservatives’ current spending plans will see nearly £20 billion of cuts, and they want to go further—in their manifesto, they have another £17 billion of tax cuts.

By the looks of it, that is set to be continued by Labour, a party that boasts about sticking to the Tory spending plans, no matter the cost to people. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has clearly laid out the choice that Labour needs to make, with the IFS deputy director saying:

“Unless they get lucky on growth, they would either have to do more on tax rises that they haven’t told us about, or they would have to deliver cuts to the public services that have already been hit by the austerity of the 2010s.”

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

Does the cabinet secretary accept that, if growth in this country had stayed as it was when Labour was last in government, we would have tens of billions of pounds more to spend on public services than we do now?

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I say to Pam Duncan-Glancy that, by many indicators, the Scottish economy is performing better. If we look at the recent Royal Bank of Scotland report, we see that the Scottish economy is the stand-out performer of the United Kingdom. There is much to be commended about Scottish economic performance, but there is work to do. The issue that we have with migration and the labour needs of our businesses and industry relates to the point that I just made about Brexit and the harm that it is doing.

I turn to some newspaper reports that have been generated by senior Labour insiders’ admissions that a Labour Government would make “really difficult” and “pretty unappealing” cuts. Therefore, I think that there is a real issue with Labour not being straight with the Scottish people. Labour calling for more money for local government in its amendment to today’s motion cannot be reconciled with the cuts for local government that are being signalled by a future UK Labour Government. That is a fundamentally dishonest position to take, and it cannot be sustained.

I know that the financial situation remains incredibly challenging, but the Scottish Government will continue to prioritise spending effectively in order to ensure that our public services remain sustainable. For example, the medium-term outlook for our capital budget is particularly difficult. The latest forecasts show that our capital block grant is expected to reduce by almost 9 per cent in real terms between 2023-24 and 2027-28. That is a cumulative loss of more than £1.3 billion that we are not able to invest across Scotland to support our public services to remain efficient and effective.

Quite simply, if the incoming UK Government does not reverse the cuts to capital and deliver a meaningful uplift for investment in public infrastructure, it will have to explain why it has laid a path to greater austerity than the Conservatives caused. Without that change, there will be a significant impact on the capital investment programme.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

The cabinet secretary is calling on others to reflect. Has she reflected on her time as health secretary and on the £20 million cut to drug and alcohol partnerships and the drug deaths crisis that we see, or on the £200 million cut to the housing budget while she was Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government? Where is the Scottish National Party taking responsibility for problems in Scotland?

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I can give the cabinet secretary the time back for the intervention.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

On the housing budget specifically, it is not just the capital cut that we are wrestling with; it is the more than 60 per cent cut to financial transactions. I know that Miles Briggs knows that the financial transactions funding is what underpins the affordable housing supply programme. We cannot have a 60 per cent cut in FTs from the UK Government without that impacting the programme that it funds. We need a reversal of the capital cut and the cut to financial transactions, and that is what we will be pressing for.

The Scottish Government has consistently and proudly prioritised investment in public services and we will continue to do so. Despite the challenging financial situation, we are continuing to take bold and ambitious action to protect and improve our public services wherever possible.

We are using all the powers that are available to us under the current devolution settlement in order to maximise our investment in public services to benefit the people of Scotland. For example, we believe that those with the broadest shoulders should be asked to contribute a little more, and our progressive approach to taxation is central to our investment in public services. That approach delivers £1.5 billion in additional funding to protect our services. Given its opposition to progressive taxation, the simple fact is that, were Labour sitting in our seats right now, it would be delivering £1.5 billion of cuts to Scotland’s public services.

I am proud of the Scottish Government’s legacy of investing in and reforming Scotland’s public services over many years. Across the education and skills sector, we are continuing to invest around £1 billion each year in 1,140 hours of high-quality early learning and childcare. Scotland already has the most generous childcare offer for three and four-year-olds in the UK, and we also make those hours available to the two-year-olds who need it most.

In our health and social care sector, we are working to reduce in-patient and day-case waiting lists by an estimated 100,000 patients over the next three years, with planned investment each year to deliver that improvement to such a critical public service. That comes on top of £19.5 billion of investment in health and social care. In our justice sector, we are investing £1.55 billion in policing in 2024-25, which demonstrates our commitment to keeping people and our communities safe.

The Government has spent around £1.2 billion to mitigate the impacts of 14 years of UK Government policies such as the bedroom tax and the benefit cap. That includes almost £134 million this year alone through activities such as our discretionary housing payments and the Scottish welfare fund. That £134 million could have been spent on our public services—as an example, it would pay for more than 2,500 nurses each year if we did not have to mitigate Westminster austerity.

We have also invested £2.9 billion in 2023-24 across a range of programmes that are targeted at low-income households, which all drive forward our mission to eradicate child poverty. That includes awarding almost £430 million to families through our Scottish child payment, with more than 329,000 children benefiting from the payment—worth £26.70 per child per week since the end of March this year—which is literally keeping food on families’ tables.

Again, with Westminster policies, we have had one arm tied behind our back. One of the quickest interventions that the next UK Government could make is to lift the two-child benefit cap. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that ending the two-child limit

“would lift around 300,000 children out of poverty”

across the UK and 10,000 children in Scotland overnight. Labour is, of course, refusing to do that. The cost to scrap the two-child cap across the UK would be £2.5 billion this year; the cost of keeping Trident is more than £3 billion. That is the choice that Labour is making: it is choosing to prioritise billions in nuclear weapons over eradicating child poverty. That is the simple truth of the matter, which is why I will not be supporting the Conservative or Labour amendments today.

The fact that the Labour amendment would delete a line in our motion that says that we are committed to “high-quality services” and that we welcome

“that public sector pay is higher”

—a line that not even the Conservatives seek to delete—really says it all. I wonder what our trade union colleagues would think about that.

If the proposed Green amendment had been selected, however, I would have supported it, as I believe that reform of the council tax is needed. I am committed to making progress on the matter, on a cross-party basis if we can. The joint working group on council tax will continue to operate, chaired by me, and will next meet later this summer after the pre-election period that has meant that work needed to be paused. At that meeting, it is my intention that the group consider the plans for taking forward the council tax deliberative engagement to conclude before the 2026 Holyrood election. I recognise the issues raised in the proposed Green amendment, which will need to be discussed as part of any reform of the council tax.

As I bring my remarks to a close, it is right that I recognise the invaluable role of Scotland’s public sector workforce, which is the backbone of our society. They do much to deliver public services with kindness, dignity and compassion. I am proud of our approach to public sector pay in recent years. That approach means that, on average, people in key public sector roles in Scotland are now paid 6 per cent more than those in such roles in the rest of the UK. We should remember, however, that the gap in public sector pay between the Scottish Government and the UK Government is a political choice by the outgoing UK Government. What remains to be seen is the political choice that any new incoming Labour Government makes.

For as long as the Scottish Government remains on an effectively fixed budget under the current devolution settlement, there are limits to what we can achieve in investment in public services. However, we will continue to do all that we can to invest in our public services. That is the vision of this Government. It is a shame that other parties do not share that vision and, instead, want to continue the plans that have brought us austerity, Brexit and the cost of living crisis.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the Scottish Government’s continued investment in public services and shares its commitment to maintaining high-quality services that people in Scotland need; recognises the key role that the workforce plays in delivering public services and welcomes that public sector pay is higher in Scotland than other parts of the UK; acknowledges the importance of a socially just and progressive approach to public service design and delivery, underpinned by fair work and a progressive tax policy; agrees that the UK Spring Budget fell far short of what Scotland needs to deliver further investment in public services and infrastructure, and will result in a cut in the Scottish core block grant of around £0.4 billion in real terms in 2024-25 compared with 2022-23; is concerned that significant, real-terms spending cuts, assessed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies as being up to £20 billion by 2028 across the UK, will be needed as a result of the economic plans of either a Labour or Conservative UK administration; calls on the incoming UK administration to bring forward an emergency budget to restore the £1.3 billion cut in Scotland's capital budget, and notes that, for as long as the Scottish Government remains on a fixed budget under the current devolution settlement, there are limits to what it can achieve in terms of investment in public services.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 3:26, 13 June 2024

Members will know that, earlier this week, the Finance and Public Administration Committee announced its latest inquiry, to investigate the Scottish Government’s fiscal strategy and its approach to taxation and the use of capital for innovation and growth, and to analyse what progress has been made in public sector reform, all of which are important when it comes to the debate about investing in our public services.

The demand for that committee inquiry has come about partly because of on-going concerns that the Scottish Fiscal Commission has raised when presenting its objective data on the current state of public finances, partly because of concerns from Audit Scotland about the lack of effective leadership in some aspects of Scottish Government policy, and partly because of the committee’s concerns about the lack of transparency that, too often, clouds the decision-making process here in Holyrood. All of that is set against the current UK economy, where there have been major issues resulting from high inflation, high interest rates and high mortgage rates.

There is an important and, indeed, urgent need to consider how we stimulate investment and, therefore, better protection for our public services. Ask many people across the economy and they will say that they want economic stability, prudent fiscal management, lower taxation and closer alignment of Scottish taxation with UK taxation, well-maintained infrastructure, fewer barriers to trade and a strong emphasis on training and skills. The huge issue for the Scottish Government, however, is that, despite its higher tax rates—and not just for those in higher-income groups—the public is not seeing any improvement in their public services. In other words, they are paying more and getting less. That is an uncomfortable fact—

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I will do so in a minute.

That is an uncomfortable fact, because some people in the Scottish National Party ranks know full well that it cannot continue. If we are going to continue to argue for a higher tax burden, the taxpayer will want something much better in return. That has not happened with educational standards, NHS waiting lists, weak infrastructure—including housing—potholes, ferries or an overstretched police force. That is because the Scottish Government has not placed nearly enough emphasis on economic growth, especially during the Bute house agreement period, when one of the ministers did not actually agree with economic growth in the first place. Perhaps Mr Greer might like to intervene now.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

To be clear, there are many parts of Scotland’s economy that the Greens want to see grow, most obviously the renewable energy sector. We supported the growth of those parts of the economy during our time in government.

The point that I was going to make is that Liz Smith mentioned that people across the country want lower taxation. I am sure that, if all else was equal, that would be the case, but poll after poll has shown that the vast majority of people in Scotland are willing to pay more tax if that money is invested in our public services. That shows the strong commitment to the social contract in this country. Does Liz Smith acknowledge that the Conservatives are vastly out of line with public opinion on that?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I definitely do not acknowledge that. If we listen to many people who are running businesses and operating in the economy in Scotland, the last thing that they want now is a higher tax burden and higher tax differentials with the rest of the UK. I am afraid that I do not accept what the member says at all.

There are some green shoots of recovery, such as inward investment in green energy and the life sciences, but the general trend for business and industry—as spelled out in blunt terms—is pretty depressing.

At the start of my speech, I cited the factors that business and industry want to see in order to be confident about the future, and business and industry has sent a very strong message back to the Scottish Government, both privately and publicly. As Neil Gray announced earlier in the session, when he was Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy, the new deal for business has not been working well enough.

Another serious challenge relates to local government. The Scottish Government certainly does not need me to tell it that the mood in local government is fractious. There were high hopes for the Verity house agreement, but that was blown apart by the Government’s failure to engage with local government, whether on the council tax freeze or the question of multiyear budget funding—we still have not had an answer on that—and by the years of underfunding.

On top of that, we have seen an unhelpful stand-off on the UK Government levelling-up money, which many councils have greatly welcomed but which the Scottish Government seems to have a permanent problem with. The tensions between the Scottish Government and local authorities are not helpful and neither is the tension between the UK Government and Holyrood, because, in this age of deep mistrust in politics, the general public wants to see different levels of government working together.

Let me address the important issue of capital budgets. We know from economic analysts, particularly those who have presented to the Finance and Public Administration Committee, that there was a cut in real terms to UK Government budgets. I acknowledged that at the time of the UK Government budget. More could have been done to protect infrastructure and investment, which, as the Financial Times pointed out, has been weak not only in Scotland but in the UK.

However, it would be helpful if we could have an acknowledgement from the Scottish Government that the block grant is at its highest level ever—the recent Fraser of Allander Institute analysis makes that abundantly clear—and that it has additional ability to increase its capital borrowing, thanks to the fiscal framework that the cabinet secretary signed alongside the UK Government. Let us not forget that the current failures in the Scottish economy are largely due to Scottish Government policy choices.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I will do so in a minute.

It is simply not credible to blame everything on Westminster. I have noticed that that point has been made in many of the TV debates about the general election, which I know that I cannot comment further on, Deputy Presiding Officer.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I mentioned earlier some of the strengths of the Scottish economy. Will Liz Smith recognise that she is not speaking from a strong position? Office for National Statistics figures have shown that the UK economy flatlined in April—there was zero growth—with the UK Government apparently blaming the rain at one point. Can Liz Smith really stand there and criticise the Scottish economy’s performance when the UK economy has been so poor? I understand the need for economic growth, but Liz Smith can surely welcome the RBS report showing that Scotland is a stand-out performer in the UK economy.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The UK economy has not been doing as well as it should be. My point is that the Scottish economy has been progressing even less well, and that has come about because of the choices that have been made right here in Holyrood, not down in Westminster. I simply do not think that it will wash to say that it is always Westminster’s fault.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

It just goes on and on, and, as my colleague has just reminded me, it is a broken record. It will not wash with the public, because it is not correct.

Our public services are a vital cog in the wheel of a more prosperous society, but it is not enough to throw more and more money at them, because history shows that doing so does not improve them. We need a restructured economy and a new tax structure—I am glad to hear that the cabinet secretary is making some progress with her commission; we need to ensure that Scotland is the best place for economic innovation and entrepreneurship; and we need to remove the barriers that businesses persistently claim are holding them back. I finish my remarks on that. Can we raise the game in the things that we can do to make Scotland a first-class economy in which to invest?

I move amendment S6M-13602.1, to leave out from “acknowledges” to end and insert:

“notes that, in so many areas of devolved public services in Scotland such as education, health, local government, housing and justice, there has been a marked deterioration in the services provided over the last 17 years; acknowledges that Scotland is now the most highly taxed part of the UK and that people are paying more yet getting less from their public services; is concerned that, despite the Scottish Government receiving a record block grant, the failure of the New Deal for Business and the Scottish Government’s lack of emphasis on economic growth have contributed to a very challenging fiscal environment, and calls on the Scottish Government to put in place economic policies that will reform the public sector, improve skills and training, reduce the tax burden and foster new investment and growth opportunities across the economy.”

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour 3:34, 13 June 2024

At the outset, I apologise to the chamber for not being on the front bench and for participating remotely. I tested positive for Covid this morning, so I am sure that colleagues would much rather that I participate via a screen than in the chamber, where I would have been sharing much more than my opinions.

Five billion pounds—£5,000 million—is the amount of public money that the SNP has wasted since it took office. That amounts to nearly £300 million for each of the 17 years that the SNP Government has been in office. On European Union funding alone, despite the SNP’s claims to the contrary, it is clear that millions will go unspent and unallocated. Those figures are just the latest example of the Government’s financial incompetence.

That financial incompetence is not just bad management; it is a betrayal of every Scot who relies on or works in our vital public services. The truth of the matter is that the SNP, along with the Tories, wants us to vote for and accept failing public services and a struggling economy, but we deserve better. We want change, because every institution in Scotland has been left weaker by the SNP, and nowhere is that clearer than in our NHS.

On this Government’s watch, our NHS—the finest achievement of a Labour Government—has been allowed to crumble. With an overstretched workforce and an ever-growing patient waiting list, bold changes are required. Here are some shocking numbers from our NHS: more than £1.6 billion has been used on agency spending and £1.3 billion has been lost to delayed discharge. That chaos absolutely has to stop.

Kate Forbes criticised Humza Yousaf for sticking with the same failing strategies, but nothing has changed since John Swinney became First Minister. In fact, John Swinney and his deputy have been responsible for more than half of this Parliament’s budgets—they have been responsible for 13 of the SNP’s 17 budgets. They have had oversight of the vast majority of this Government’s financial mismanagement.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

I thank the member for taking an intervention. Does he truly believe that a Tory austerity agenda, a Tory Brexit and a Tory cost of living crisis have had no impact at all on our national health service?

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

It is clear that they have had an impact. We have had 14 years of Tory chaos, but we have also had 17 years of SNP mismanagement, which have left the NHS in the state that it is in. That is why the general election is a chance to take the first step along the road to change—the first step along the road to delivering an NHS that is fit for the people who rely on it.

I want to touch on local government, which is one of the key delivery partners of our vital public services. Since 2013-14, the SNP has cut more than £6 billion from our local councils. Bins are overflowing, potholes are not filled and libraries and sports facilities are being forced to close. Those cuts are hurting every day. Our local authorities desperately need support, partnership and proper funding but, instead, they get the gimmick of a council tax freeze handed down to them by a Scottish Government and funding that does not cover it.

Those are hard facts that members will not hear from the Government today. Local government core revenue has been cut by £62.7 million and the core capital budget has been cut by £54.9 million. Between 2011 and 2021, funding for parks and open spaces was cut by more than £365 million, library funding was cut by almost £260 million and street cleaning was cut by more than £320 million. Councils face a budget gap of up to £585 million this year, which will rise to £780 million by 2026-27.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I thank Mark Griffin for taking an intervention, and I hope that he feels better soon.

According to a briefing that was provided to the newspapers this morning, non-protected areas of spending, which include courts, prisons, local government, jobcentres, the police and immigration services, would be cut under a Labour UK Government. Can Mark Griffin give us a categorical assurance that that will not happen?

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

I do not listen to off-the-record briefings, and I would advise the cabinet secretary not to either. The Labour manifesto has been published and I am sure that she will have a good read of it and see the kind of change that we will be delivering for the whole of the UK and, I hope, in Scotland in 2026.

Right now, there are more than 1,500 fewer secondary teachers than in 2007. Some areas have been hit harder than others. In my area of North Lanarkshire, there are 211 fewer teachers. Dumfries and Galloway has 204 fewer teachers. Dundee City has 154 fewer teachers. We cannot keep going on like this. It is not only those who use those vital services who are suffering; those who provide the services are also feeling the brunt of the chaos and incompetence of two failing Governments.

Public sector workers do invaluable work for our communities, and the Scottish Government must urgently provide clarity to public sector bodies, unions and workers regarding its future plans for the public sector workforce. It is by working in true partnership with our public services workforce, growing our economy and investing in our public services that we will begin to reverse the decline of the past 17 years.

That is what Scottish Labour will do. Under a UK Labour Government, we will grow Scotland’s economy, create jobs and bring new opportunities. We will renew our public services after years of mismanagement. We will close tax loopholes to fund the NHS and tackle the mental health crisis with real funding increases. We will put forward a true NHS recovery plan that values staff and promotes health. We will prioritise the delivery of economic growth in all parts of the country to create jobs, boost incomes, reduce poverty and allow for greater investment in and, crucially, reform of our public services. We will reverse the abject decline in local government funding.

It is time for change that revitalises our public services and puts the needs of the public first. The man who delivered his first budget in 2007 cannot deliver that change. Scottish Labour will deliver the change that we need.

I move amendment S6M-13602.2, to leave out from first “welcomes” to end and insert:

“recognises that communities across Scotland are being failed by the Scottish National Party (SNP) administration’s approach to reform and funding of Scotland’s public services; notes that there are significant issues across Scotland’s vital public services, including in the NHS, education, local government and housing, and that these issues are having a real impact on inequality; understands that the SNP has consistently failed to deliver the reform that Scotland’s public services have desperately needed over the last 17 years; recognises that funding for local authorities has been cut by a cumulative total of over £6 billion since 2014, resulting in local authorities across Scotland being forced to make difficult decisions on the provision of essential services in order to make ends meet; understands that the NHS is particularly impacted by the SNP’s failure to deliver reform, with £1.3 billion spent on delayed discharge since the Scottish Government committed to eradicate it, and millions spent every year on agency staff; recognises the invaluable contribution of Scotland’s public sector workers, who deliver the services that people rely on in challenging circumstances; believes that improving the terms and conditions of workers across the public sector is essential, especially in areas such as social care; understands that financial mismanagement and a failure to deliver economic growth has resulted in less money being generated for investment in public services; recognises the role that technology can play in improving public services, and calls on the Scottish Government to prioritise economic growth to boost wages and create jobs in all parts of Scotland, as well as financial competence and transparency to ensure that all taxpayer money is used effectively and towards delivering the support and reform that Scotland’s public services desperately need.”

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green 3:42, 13 June 2024

I am glad that we are having this debate this afternoon, although I am a bit frustrated that we are not having a debate dedicated to the fiscal sustainability of Scotland’s public finances, and that we will not have the medium-term financial strategy, the capital spending strategy or the tax strategy before autumn. That is disappointing and frustrating.

Scotland’s public finances are not sustainable without huge changes to our tax policy, significant cuts to public services, or some combination thereof. The Parliament’s Finance and Public Administration Committee has been trying to get both Government and Parliament as a whole to engage with the issue, because it is becoming more urgent. Short-term decision making to balance budgets in year is consistently resulting in poor value for money for the taxpayer.

I had some involvement in two rounds of the euphemistically named “path to balance” exercise to close the Government’s in-year budget deficit. That was difficult work, resolving the tension between the financial reality and the consequences that would come about from reducing spending on important services. I do not envy the ministers and officials who have to deal with that every year.

However, one specific concern that I have about how we go about closing the in-year budget deficit each year is that certain portfolios are bearing a disproportionate burden—specifically, the education portfolio. If we compare justice and education, we see that, for obvious reasons, the justice portfolio spending allocation is largely fixed at the start of the year. There is not much flexibility once we have made those commitments, whereas in education there is more nominally discretionary spending.

When we have gone through a pattern—for reasons outwith the Scottish Government’s control—of in-year deficits, year after year, it means that the portfolios with that discretionary spending have had to bear a really disproportionate burden to close the deficit.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

Not at this point, Mr Whittle; I am sorry.

I am not suggesting that no action has been taken by the Government to address the fiscal sustainability challenge. Government ministers are absolutely right to highlight the additional £1.5 billion that we have available to spend each year on public services because of the progressive changes to income tax that have been made since 2017. That is the result of changes that were tabled, from opposition and from within government, by the Scottish Greens.

I ask those who have opposed those measures throughout the past six years to compare the doomsday predictions that they have made with the reality. Overall tax take in Scotland from income tax is up, and inward migration from the rest of the UK to Scotland is also up.

I think that that is because higher-quality public services are a pull factor. On the point of debate that I raised with Liz Smith a few minutes ago, I have just checked the numbers. Only 9 per cent of people in Scotland want lower taxes and less spending; 43 per cent are prepared to pay more to fund public services. The most recent British social attitudes survey shows very similar UK-wide figures.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I very much agree with the member’s initial remarks about transparency. Does he accept, however, that many businesses in Scotland are finding it difficult to attract highly skilled workers because of our higher tax and the differential between Scotland and the rest of the UK?

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I do not accept that. I accept that businesses in Scotland are finding acute labour shortages across the board. One of the most significant contributions to that is Brexit and the immigration policies of the UK Government.

However, the past six years of income tax change in Scotland reveal how misleading Labour’s claims are. There is apparently “no magic money tree”, to quote the Labour Party’s social media accounts and front-bench spokespeople, but if a UK Government was to replicate Scotland’s income tax system UK-wide, it would generate more than £11 billion of additional revenue for our public services every year. That is enough to abolish the two-child cap seven times over. Labour needs to be honest. It is making a choice to keep the two-child cap on child benefit in place and a choice to keep 250,000 children in poverty, and it should be straight with the British public about that.

The same Labour Party is demanding billions of pounds in extra spending here in Scotland, but earlier this year it voted against raising extra revenue from the top 5 per cent of earners. That is not how maths works. We cannot spend more with less money. The Conservatives have at least listed some areas of public spending in Scotland that they would cut. I disagree with every example that they gave apart from one, which Liz Smith and I can discuss later. However, they have shown an honesty that is lacking on the part of the Labour Party in this debate. If it opposes more revenue raising, it needs to put savings proposals on the table.

For example, I think that the small business bonus scheme represents poor value for money. Small businesses should receive tax breaks and tax incentives but, as the Fraser of Allander Institute found, the way in which we structure the SBBS at the moment means that it has no measurable positive impact. There are savings to be made there, and restructuring would also help genuinely small businesses.

On capital, the Scottish Greens believe that we are still spending too much on road expansion compared with road maintenance and other capital priorities.

I am proud of the progress that we have made and that the Scottish Greens have been involved with, in recent years, in areas such as the devolution of empty property relief, greater council tax discretion in relation to second and holiday homes, and the visitor levy that Parliament legislated on a couple of weeks ago, as well as the commitments that we secured to further work such as the cruise ship levy, the public health levy and the general power of competence. So many of our public services in Scotland are delivered by local government, but it does not have nearly enough financial discretion of its own, certainly compared with the norm across Europe.

As the cabinet secretary referenced, the Greens’ proposed amendment looked specifically at council tax and the reality that we are still basing a tax system on property valuations from 1991. I held it off for as long as I could, but I turned 30 earlier this month and I am younger than the council tax valuation. It has not been in date in my lifetime. I cannot imagine that anybody in this Parliament would tolerate a situation where most people in Scotland paid the wrong rate of income tax, yet the majority of households pay the wrong rate of council tax because the valuations are so out of date.

Reform is clearly needed—reform to our tax system and to our public services—so that we can ensure greater value for money for the public. However, we will not get that reform unless we have an honest debate about what the trade-offs are and unless we are all honest about how we would make the money add up.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party 3:48, 13 June 2024

When I think of public services, as I did when I was writing this speech, I automatically thought—as I am sure many others do—of the support that they provide us with throughout our lives, from the cradle to the grave, often caring for and supporting us when we most need it. In particular, I thought about our national health service. In my remarks, I will focus principally on that institution, which gave me my first opportunity to serve the public, delivered my six children and two grandchildren, took care of my relatives before they passed away and, on so many occasions throughout my life, has taken care of me and my family in our hours of need. I know that I am far from being alone in feeling gratitude for and pride in the NHS. It is a manifestation of our collective commitment to one other and it embodies the values of compassion, solidarity and care.

The Scottish people look to us to provide investment in the NHS: not only investment in monetary terms but investment in the fundamental belief in the institution itself. Many people who stand at a ballot box are looking to vote for the NHS and to see a party dedicated to the protection of it. That is a marker of our society, and it goes beyond ensuring that every person in Scotland has access to the care and support that they need; it is a matter of ensuring that the NHS is there for future generations, too, delivering services when we are no longer here.

I am proud to support an SNP Scottish Government that is committed to improving Scotland’s public services, particularly our NHS, not as a cost but as a vital investment in our future health, equality and prosperity. Proof of that investment comes in the form of an NHS workforce in Scotland that is currently the highest paid in the UK. Scotland has had the best-performing core accident and emergency units in the UK for nine years. NHS funding has more than doubled, and we have the highest number of general practitioners per head in the UK.

As a consequence of the SNP Government’s decisions, £1.5 billion is available to spend on public services in Scotland today that would not be available had the Government not taken the decisions that it has taken on tax. A socially just and progressive approach to public service investment, design and delivery is essential, and that must be underpinned by fair work and a progressive tax policy. That approach ensures that everyone contributes their fair share to the funding of services that benefit all of us. It is about creating a society in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

However, the challenges that we face are significant. Nobody is turning a blind eye to that, but the UK spring budget fell far short of what Scotland needs to deliver further investment in public services and infrastructure. That has resulted in a cut in the Scottish core block grant of around £400 million in real terms for 2024-25 compared with 2022-23. Such cuts hinder our ability to make the necessary investments in our public services. To me, that does not signify a priority on the part of the UK Government to deliver for our NHS. Therefore, I support the Scottish Government’s call on the incoming UK Administration to hold an emergency budget to restore the £1.3 billion cut in Scotland’s capital budget. For as long as the Scottish Government remains on a fixed budget under the current devolution settlement, there are limits to what we can achieve in terms of investment in public services. It is imperative that we have the resources that are needed to support them effectively.

Despite those challenges, people in Scotland currently benefit from policies that are not available in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. They support Scots who are struggling after 14 years of austerity cuts, through measures such as free tuition fees, free prescriptions, free personal care, the Scottish child payment and the mitigation of the bedroom tax. That shows an SNP Scottish Government proving that it prioritises its citizens.

My grandmother was a domestic supervisor at the Royal Cornhill hospital in Aberdeen. Alongside her worked my mother and my auntie. My grandmother had a reputation as a white-glove type, ensuring the highest standards of cleanliness and care. That pride in working for the NHS was a badge of honour in my family. I did a turn as an NHS domestic at Aberdeen royal infirmary, and I remember the pride that my family felt when I started working there. It was celebrated. Before my first late-night shift, my grandmother cooked me a special tea to sustain me, making sure that I was fit for a job that she held in high regard. It was a fulfilling and rewarding job, and one of great importance.

Public services are the core of our society. They represent our collective commitment to care for one another, and we have a deep regard for and pride in them. By investing in those services we invest in the future of Scotland, which is exactly what the SNP Scottish Government is doing.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative 3:54, 13 June 2024

I start by apologising to the Parliament. With the Presiding Officer’s approval, I am being allowed to leave the debate 15 minutes early to attend an event that I would rather not be attending—but I have to.

I am pleased to be speaking in this afternoon’s debate about the provision of services, because the provision of services is not just the provision of things that we need so much such as education or healthcare from the national health service; it also includes the provision of other really important services across Scotland, such as transport services, which is another pet subject of mine.

Very sadly, we have heard today that somebody died on the A9 last night. I am sad to report that there has been another accident just this afternoon, at approximately 12.30 at Dalwhinnie. I have not heard whether that has resulted in a fatality, but I pray that it has not.

We would not be in this situation if the A9 had been dualled when it was said that it would be dualled. I am sure that I do not need to remind the Government that, on 6 December 2011, it announced that it would dual the roads between all of Scotland’s major cities, including the A9 and the A96. I think that Alex Neil was put on the bridge at Luncarty on 6 June 2012 to reannounce that. He did what many Governments do—he reannounced good news. The trouble is that the good news stopped there.

We have not got to the stage of the A9 being dualled. In fact, we found out only this year that it would not be dualled by 2025, which is when we were promised it would be dualled by. It was quite clear from the evidence that a previous First MinisterNicola Sturgeon—knew in 2017 that that delivery was never going to happen. It is sad that it did not happen at that stage for the simple reason that money was available. That was before Covid and before any austerity, which the cabinet secretary believes she can blame for her failures. I do not believe that that is the case. If we had done that in 2017, none of those things would have been issues.

It is also sad that, when I quizzed Nicola Sturgeon about why that had not been done and whether she understood what Alex Salmond had said when he was First Minister, she commented that she was not sure whether he and she were in the same Cabinet. If they had been in the same team, which they claimed to be, I am sure that the A9 and the A96 would have been dualled.

That has had a knock-on effect on all the other transport services across Scotland. We can consider the buses—do not forget that we are spending nearly £300 million on concessionary bus travel across Scotland. Where does that actually get us? A person can get a bus from Thurso to Inverness and a bus back from Inverness to Thurso on the same day, but they can spend only three hours in Inverness—that is all the time that they can spend there. That is all that that allows a person to do. All the money that we are spending on concessionary bus travel is not really helpful for young people or older people coming to Inverness, because they will not have time to do anything when they get there. The question is: is the bus concessionary travel scheme working just for the central belt, or does it need to be expanded to ensure that there are sufficient buses across the Highlands so that everyone can benefit?

Let us consider the trains. We are spending approximately £1.3 billion a year on a train service that we have nationalised, and we have seen the services reduced. If I do not leave the Parliament before decision time to ensure that I get a train back to Aberdeen at 5.30—that is not why I am leaving tonight—there is a fair chance that, unless the train is delayed by 10 minutes, I will not get home until tomorrow. That is a strange position to be in.

If a person was travelling from Inverness to Edinburgh, for example, they could leave at 5 o’clock in the morning and get here for 9.30, but that would not really be in time to start work at the Parliament—I know that most MSPs start before then—and they would have to leave much earlier in the evening, before work had finished, to get back to Inverness.

I was amazed to find that, if a person wanted to go from Wick to Inverness, they would have about three hours to spend in Inverness before they had to get the next bus back. Things get more complicated than that. If a person wanted to get a train back to Wick, they would not even have time to go to a show in the evening. They would have to rely on getting a train across to Wick to go to the cinema, because all the services in Inverness do not work.

Are the trains working? Is that £1.3 billion working in the Highlands? I question that.

I have to come to the ferries. They are probably the biggest white elephant that I have ever seen in my life. We agreed to pay £97 million for them. So far, we have spent £300 million. I do not think that the Government is prepared to guarantee that the Glen Sannox will be finished and released from the shipyard at the end of next month—or maybe it is. I do not think that it can do so, because I do not think that the Glen Sannox will be ready. I think that another delay is coming down the track. Four ferries from the CalMac Ferries fleet are not servicing the islands. That is a critical loss to them.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

How does Mr Mountain think that those who use the A9, the A96 or any other pothole-ridden road in the Highlands and Islands, or those who face ferries that do not work—such as the one on the Corran Narrows, which we had real issues with last year—or who rely on any other transport, will feel when they see members of the SNP Government patting themselves on the back for their service delivery in the Highlands?

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

Mr Halcro Johnston knows as well as I do that the people of the Highlands feel that that is the forgotten part of Scotland and that the central belt gets the investment. An exceptional amount of money was invested in the railway line between Glasgow and Edinburgh, resulting in journey times being cut by 20 minutes. In the time that it took to do that, journey times from Perth to Inverness increased by 20 minutes, which is a disgrace.

I think that I might be out of time. Our health and education services are not the only critical services; there must also be services for people to get around Scotland. This Government has badly let people down in that regard.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party 4:01, 13 June 2024

In this 25th year of devolution, there is an opportunity to reflect together on what has been achieved and to consider what we must do to meet the challenges of the 21st century and achieve what we want to in the next 25, 50 or 75 years.

Context matters. Our collective challenges are complex and our problems are difficult. In communities such as the one that I have the privilege of representing, many of those challenges lead back to things that happened in the 1980s.

The first years of devolution, when I was a lad, were a time of plenty, and perhaps more could have been done. Let us not forget that the Labour Party of that time was also guilty of spending money on things that should not have been priorities, such as the £9 billion that was spent on an illegal war in Iraq.

In 2007, things changed in a number of ways. The SNP came to power for the first time, and the financial crisis happened. That should be remembered, because, since that crash happened, there have been self-inflicted harms caused by Westminster Governments: austerity, Brexit and the Liz Truss Government, particularly its budget. External factors, such as the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have also had an impact. Since the 2010 Government of David Cameron, significant mistakes have caused extreme difficulty and have made Britain, as the Resolution Foundation has said, a poorer country with a very few rich people in it.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party

Is the member aware that the UK economy has made the slowest recovery from the 2008 crash of all advanced economies and that that is highly indicative of macroeconomic issues?

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

Absolutely. The Westminster Government’s austerity policies have not only created social damage and had a negative impact on our public services; they have had a consequential negative impact on our economic performance.

It is therefore remarkable, in my opinion, that the Scottish Government has delivered such progress in the period since the 2007 financial crisis. I could say a lot about that, but let us think only about the journey of a young person living in Scotland, rather than in the rest of the UK.

A young person who is born in Scotland can benefit from everything in a baby box. If they are eligible, they get best start grants. Their family will get more support with childcare. If their family requires it, the Scottish child payment is available. There are free prescriptions if they need them because of ill health. There is free transport to access education, employment and leisure. There is a 90 per cent chance or above that they will go on to a positive destination. There is free tuition at further and higher education institutions. There is more social housing per head of population than elsewhere on these islands. There are safer streets on which to walk around. There are better wages in the public sector. I could say more.

Yes, things have not been perfect, but the state of our public services and the quality of life in Scotland are better because of the Scottish Government. Part of that has been a result of progressive tax policy, but I agree that we need to go further on that. I am glad that a commitment has been made on continued reform of council tax.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

Does the member recognise that the Barnett formula and the record block grant allow for higher public spending in Scotland?

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

It is right that the Scottish taxpayer benefits from the amount that is allocated for public spending in Scotland because of how much our wonderful country contributes and how strong our economy is.

What is a tragedy is that public spending in England is not what it should be because of bad choices by Conservative Governments. There is more to do, and in the months ahead I look forward to hearing what more the Scottish Government will seek to deliver for the people whom we represent. The £0.4 billion real-terms reduction in our budget this year is making that more challenging, as well as the fact that, under either Prime Minister who is on offer in the coming election, it is projected that there will be between £18 billion and £20 billion in cuts to public investment. I cannot believe that the Labour Party is proposing that it will bring about change when it is going to inflict on us billions of pounds-worth of public sector cuts. That sounds as though it is short change to me.

It is clear to me, having looked through its manifesto, that the Labour Party is not interested in offering any more powers to the Scottish Parliament. Anyone who wants the Parliament to continue to evolve and to become even more capable of delivering for the people of Scotland should know that the Labour Party is not offering any more powers.

Photo of Foysol Choudhury Foysol Choudhury Labour 4:07, 13 June 2024

I begin by paying tribute to our public service workforce who, in the past few years, have dealt with so much—the people in our NHS who put themselves at risk and treated people while many of us stayed at home during lockdown; our police force, who do a difficult job to keep us safe; our fire service, which saves lives every day; and all those whose roles are not public facing, yet they remain vitally important, all the same. It is unfortunate that many people in the sector spend so much time working harder to achieve less, in trying to cope with the consequences of the repeated underinvestment and chronic mismanagement that we have seen from the SNP Government.

I hear from constituents every week examples of our public services suffering from underinvestment, as does everyone in the chamber. We hear from people who are stuck on waiting lists for vital operations, whose lives are on hold.

Photo of Foysol Choudhury Foysol Choudhury Labour

I have a lot to get through. I will give way in a minute.

Just this week, I heard from a constituent who has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was told that his tumour is growing, but there is an eight-month wait for surgery and he has no idea when his treatment will start. He is living in fear for his health and is confused about when he will get help.

His experience is far from unique—in the past year, the number of Scots waiting more than a year for treatment has risen by a fifth, to almost 88,000 people. While that happens, £1.3 billion has been wasted on delayed discharges and £1.6 billion has been wasted on agency spending. The SNP is leaving Scottish taxpayers to be let down by the service that is supposed to be there for them in their time of greatest need.

Issues of underfunding are being seen in all our services. Ultimately, the public pay the price. That is clearest in our local authorities. Last month, it was found in an Accounts Commission report that Scottish councils have a budget gap of more than £0.5 billion for the year 2024-25. That is staggering. It represents millions of pounds of cuts to essential public services that the public rely on almost every day—more charges for bins, parking charges, less money for social care and less money for pools or for schools. It is shocking that the SNP decries Westminster austerity while constantly ignoring the concern that is raised by our local authorities about funding of their public services.

For Scotland and the United Kingdom to thrive, we must have economic growth. Our wish to pursue social justice and fund public services sustainably must be met with economic growth to create jobs and boost wages, but the SNP has not been able to deliver the necessary change. The people of Scotland deserve better. Labour market trends data shows that, in Scotland, economic inactivity is higher, unemployment is higher and the growth of pay is slower than they are in the rest of the UK. Rather than having a laser focus on growth, on raising funds for public services and on creating jobs, the SNP would prefer to cover up its shortfall by raising taxes on nurses.

The Scottish people have been let down on two fronts—by the Tories in Westminster, who caused chaos through Liz Truss’s fantasy economics, and by the SNP, which has poured fuel on that fire through mismanagement and waste. The people of Scotland need new leadership that will prioritise growth, reduce poverty and allow for greater investment in and reform of our public services. People in Scotland need change and new leadership—which they will get with Labour in Scotland and at Westminster.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Foysol Choudhury should correct the record. He has given factual inaccuracies in his speech about a number of things, but the one that jumps out is that he said that public sector workers in Scotland are paid less than those in the rest of the UK. On average, they are paid 6 per cent—£1,500—more than public sector workers elsewhere in the UK.

It is really important that there is accuracy in the chamber, so I hope that Foysol Choudhury will correct the record on that point. [ Interruption .]

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

Can I perhaps reply to the cabinet secretary, Mr Halcro Johnston. Thank you.

That was not a point of order. Everybody in the chamber is well aware of how the record can be corrected. The point that the cabinet secretary has made is now on the record.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party 4:14, 13 June 2024

I am pleased to support the SNP motion, but I am also pleased to place under scrutiny the wild claims that have been made by the Tories and Labour alike. I have listened to the debate: those parties are singing from the same hymn sheet, but they also appear to be consulting the same economic witch doctor.

The Tories used to claim that conservatism brought political, social and economic stability, but over the past 10 years they have given us five Prime Ministers, seven Chancellors of the Exchequer and 12 plans for growth. At the same time, their policies have caused harm to society and the economy—not least via Brexit. The chaos that was created by the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss premierships displayed a remarkable degree of incompetence, and Scotland continues to pay the price. Frankly, the Tories deserve to be dispatched to the dustbin of history.

Then, along comes Labour, claiming to be the party of change. If Labour was genuinely interested in pursuing change for the better, it would seek to reverse Brexit. Instead, the party is silent on that, which is an act of political cowardice. The fiscal package of tax rises and spending pledges that the Labour Party announced today equates to around 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product, so I will listen to no claims about what the Labour Party is going to do for public services.

In recent times, Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves and David Lammy have commented about who they claim were the great change leaders of the past. Rather than Clement Attlee, who oversaw the creation of the NHS, or Harold Wilson, who introduced the Open University, they trumpet none other than Margaret Thatcher—that destroyer of communities, who did not even believe in society.

Both the Tory and Labour manifestos claim that they will raise more funds by closing tax loopholes, thereby collecting billions of pounds. However, they cannot spell out how that will be done—I am happy to take an intervention on that point—and neither are they willing to tackle the vastly overcomplicated tax system in the UK, which is full of exploitable loopholes. Similarly, the Tories and Labour claim that they will immediately save lots of money by pursuing productivity gains in, for example, the NHS. That is fantasy land stuff.

Therefore, we should not be surprised that we are in for another dose of austerity if Labour comes to power. We need only listen to Rachel Reeves’s commitment to current Tory policy. As recently as March this year, speaking at the Bayes Business School, she unveiled Labour thinking and emphasised stability of a particular sort. Most critically, she aims to keep the fiscal rule that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, is the greatest bind on policy—the need to have debt falling as a share of national income. The IFS and others have also pointed out that the rule is a completely arbitrary invention of the current Government. Not only will Labour keep the Tory rule, but it is determined to ensure that it binds the Labour Government, too. In the words of Rachel Reeves,

“debt must be falling as a share of the economy”.

She went on to say:

“I will end the practice of the Chancellor being able to scrap the rules at any time”.

She is supposed to make the rules, not follow the Tory ones.

In case there was any doubt, that is one of the main reasons why many bodies have pointed to the coming of significant cuts—a minimum of £18 billion—under Labour, which Labour has now admitted. I point out to members and to the ladies and gentlemen who are watching the debate that that is just the starting figure. Labour is not only putting on a Tory straitjacket—it is going to tighten the Labour belt.

Let us consider the practical implications. Earlier this year, Labour’s Wes Streeting, writing in The Sun , vowed to fight “middle-class lefties” who oppose expanding the NHS’s use of private healthcare. He wants to expand the invasion of privatised healthcare. Streeting has accepted around £175,000 from two donors with links to private healthcare firms, so it is perhaps not surprising that Labour has dropped its “NHS not for sale” commitment. In the past two years, private equity firms have struck 150 deals for UK healthcare companies, according to figures that have been reported by the Financial Times and cited in The Guardian . Those firms have bought up ambulance fleets, eye care clinics and diagnostics companies. As Hettie O’Brien from The Guardian rightly concluded in an article last August,

“When asked how he would deal with the NHS crisis, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting echoed his Conservative counterparts and pledged to use private companies to reduce waiting lists. For investors, it was a show of support. For patients, it’s a worrying indication that our politicians have little intention of arresting the decline of our public health service.”

The implications go beyond those that have been cited by Hettie O’Brien. If new investment in England and Wales is undertaken using that privatisation model, there will be no Barnett consequentials. That is one more example of how our public services in Scotland are just as much at risk with Labour as they are with the Tories. The only way to protect our public services in Scotland is by securing our independence as soon as possible.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative 4:20, 13 June 2024

One of the benefits of being in the middle of an election campaign is that we politicians get to ask our constituents every waking hour what is really important to them in their daily lives. More often than not, the answers bear little resemblance to what we debate in the chamber. I am sure that I am not the only MSP who constantly hears about potholes, difficulty in getting a GP appointment, waits to access treatment in the NHS, a lack of places at university for indigenous Scots, cuts to further education places and a lack of investment in transport infrastructure, and—yes—the issue of tax differentials is increasingly being raised on the doorstep.

Unfortunately and predictably, the Scottish Government has doubled down and relied increasingly on its fallback position of “It’s not us, it’s them”. Interestingly, it is very noticeable that that excuse is increasingly wearing thin with the public.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

Of course we take responsibility for the performance of our public services. We have taken the decision to increase taxation for those who can best pay it so that we can invest in those public services. However, Brian Whittle must be honest with his constituents when he talks about challenges in our public services. If his plans were followed, we would see less investment in our public services, such as the NHS, and those who access them would face even greater challenges. Why will he not be honest with the people of Scotland about the impact that Tory plans would have on our public services?

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

Listening to that intervention, which I am very grateful for, we realise why the SNP has failed for the past 17 years. It has failed to invest in our public services. It is frustrating that so much could be achieved and should have been achieved; instead, there are many examples, as we have just heard, that point to the SNP’s addiction to pop politics and headline grabbing, to the detriment of delivering outcomes.

For example, the Scottish Government is very fond of the phrase “record funding for our health service”, yet it has failed to explain why we have the worst health outcomes. Throughout the time that the SNP has been in office, Scotland has had the worst health record of any European country, from the scandalous rise in drug and alcohol deaths to lower life expectancy, which is still reducing. For the first time in history, children born in Scotland have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

Scotland is one of the most obese countries in the world. We have higher levels of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as a record number of people suffering from poor mental health. Our poor health record leads to higher levels of economic inactivity, which in turn has a negative impact on our economy.

I remember the pledge by the then First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, that improving education would be the SNP’s primary target, yet we see declining standards against international tables, a huge reduction in FE places and a cut to the budget for apprenticeships, which are essential to our green economy potential and the just transition that is so often talked about.

There are universities that are increasingly reliant on foreign student income to make the books balance, to the detriment of indigenous Scottish students, who increasingly find it difficult to access university places, especially for critical careers such as medicine. We need more doctors, yet some Scots with the qualifications to study medicine are being denied that opportunity.

It does not have to be that way. I am slightly concerned that I am about to agree with a point that Ross Greer made, which does not happen very often. We need a long-term strategy that focuses on the problems that we are trying to solve. Integrating approaches across portfolios is the solution—

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

Not just now.

We must understand that investment in certain areas impacts others. For example, our poor health record is the biggest drag on our economic performance, as I have said. The focus has relentlessly been put on getting more finance into the health service and recruiting more healthcare professionals to try to match the increasing need, instead of taking a step back and recognising that we must address the other side of the coin: how do we reduce the need, and how do we get better at retaining staff? Those are more difficult issues to tackle, and they will require a longer-term view.

I advocate that the main solution to our poor health record relies on what the SNP used to declare as its focus, which is investment in our educational environment. The issues that we need to tackle in our schools are poor physical and mental health, behaviour, attainment and, in some cases, hunger and malnutrition—the latter of which is, of course, not necessarily related to hunger. We need to allow our kids into school prior to the school day. I think that an offer of some activity, along with an offer of a healthy breakfast, would be a significant move towards tackling the real issues.

We are chronically short of the engineers and tradesmen and tradeswomen needed for the transition to the green economy, yet the Scottish Government is underfunding the further education sector and cutting apprenticeship places. In what world does that make any sense? All that the Scottish Government is doing with that is ensuring that we will not meet its climate change targets. We will not be able to take full advantage of the opportunities for our economy that the growth in the green economy offers. Of course, the Scottish Government will then rely on its built-in excuse of it being the UK Government’s fault.

One of the solutions to the problem of our overstretched healthcare workers is to develop a better environment for them to work in by freeing them for as much time as possible to deliver the healthcare that they are trained to provide instead of bogging them down in administration. We have so many strengths in Scotland in artificial intelligence and life sciences. Why do we not utilise them to change the healthcare environment?

I realise that I must come to the end of my speech. There are solutions, if only the Scottish Government would lift its head above the parapet just for a moment. Outcomes are what matter. When we invest in education, we invest in health, justice, the economy and welfare. I am afraid that that somehow does not filter through to the Scottish Government.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

We move to closing speeches. I call Ross Greer to close on behalf of the Scottish Greens.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green 4:27, 13 June 2024

I will start by picking up where I finished my previous remarks on local government finance reform. I thank the cabinet secretary for indicating the Government’s support for what was in the Greens’ proposed amendment and for making the point that there should be a cross-party effort on local government finance reform. I definitely welcome those remarks.

If I have picked up correctly what the cabinet secretary has said, the work that will be advanced over the remainder of this year will include the commitment that was made earlier this year to consider a power of general competence for local government. Perhaps the front bench could confirm whether I have picked that up correctly. I see the cabinet secretary nodding; I will take that as confirmation that I have understood that correctly.

I think that that power would be genuinely transformational for local government. The challenge in Scotland is that we have a tier of government that we refer to as “local government”, but it is not particularly local. The 32 authorities are massive by the standards of European local government, and they cannot do very much governing, either. Giving them a power of general competence would be one critical step towards them having genuine power to govern in their local areas.

Bearing in mind that my previous remarks focused a lot on the success that we have had with progressive income tax, the Greens absolutely recognise that additional funds for public services cannot come just from increasing individual tax liability. That is why, during our time in Government, we pushed for the reintroduction of a public health levy and for the carbon emissions land tax.

On the public health levy, I highlight the point that Scotland has introduced minimum unit pricing for alcohol, quite rightly for public health reasons. However, as it stands, minimum unit pricing without a public health levy actually increases the profits of supermarkets. Considering that Parliament has, quite rightly, agreed to increase the minimum unit price, I think that a public health levy would be a very effective step to take alongside that to allow the additional revenue that is being raised and is currently going into the pockets of supermarkets to instead be directed into the health service, and particularly into addiction recovery services.

The Poverty Alliance, Oxfam and others recently challenged the First Minister on the point that Scotland is already a wealthy country. In fact, the amount of wealth in this country has grown considerably in recent years, but it is hugely unequally held. That is why the Scottish Greens are campaigning for a wealth tax on the top 1 per cent—those with assets of about £3.5 million and above. People in that category have only got richer—much richer—in recent years, while everybody else has been struggling during the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. If the model wealth tax that we proposed, based on a paper from the University of Greenwich, were applied UK-wide, it would generate at least £70 billion a year. That is the estimate if we assume a very high rate of avoidance; if we assume a figure from the lower end of the range of avoidance estimates, it could be up to £130 billion a year.

These debates about our public finances are fundamentally about honesty, because they are about how we can afford things. The block grant in Scotland has not come close to keeping up with inflation and pay demands in recent years. We need to face up to the fact that we must either cut or radically reform services to generate savings, or raise additional revenue from elsewhere. We cannot continue to go on as we are, and the onus, as I said earlier, is on everybody to call for more spending to engage in that financial reality. I commend the Scottish Trades Union Congress’s paper from late last year as a good place to start.

However, I do not want to neglect the need for public sector reform. I am a fan of a big state; I think that government should be the expression of the popular will of society. It is where we share power and resources and where we can do transformational things together, especially to protect our most vulnerable neighbours and this planet. There are huge challenges, such as the deeply embedded inequality in the UK and the climate crisis, which require a big, co-ordinated response—the kind of response that only Government and the state can lead the delivery of. I want to see a bigger state in Scotland and to see it do more to meet the needs of people and the planet. However, I do not want just what we have now, but on a bigger scale. We need far more efficient and accountable public service provision.

I want to highlight a reform success story from recent years, which is that of Screen Scotland within Creative Scotland. It has had a transformational impact. Believe it or not—given what colleagues have said earlier—there are areas of the Scottish economy that the Greens really want to see grow and that we are proud to have played a role in growing. One of those areas is our film and TV industry.

Ten years ago, our film and TV professionals were embarrassed by the state of the sector and the lack of support that it received. We now have world-class studios, which are booked out and turn business away. From 2019 to 2021, the value of film and TV in our economy doubled. The sector is employing record numbers of people in a vast range of roles and our international reputation is rapidly growing—the team at Screen Scotland has been absolutely critical to that. It is passionate about what it does, has an excellent relationship with the sector and has a clear purpose.

Screen Scotland is a relatively new part of our public sector landscape. I still believe that the team needs to be separate from Creative Scotland, but what has been achieved in recent years is a blueprint for other areas of public sector reform that could generate considerable economic return for Scotland overall.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I agree with everything that Mr Greer has said. Would he like me to help to organise a visit to the fairly new film studio in Leith to see more of those excellent achievements?

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

A cross-party parliamentary field trip to the film studio in Leith is exactly what we need during an election campaign to foster a bit of cross-party co-operation.

The film studio in Leith is the centrepiece of Screen Scotland’s success, because it was critical to securing it. It is consistently booked out with world-class productions at the moment. We should be really proud of that.

I will make a few additional points. The first is about sharing data in the public sector. The David Hume Institute has made it clear that there is a huge economic loss in Scotland from the lack of availability of public sector data, to the tune of about £2 billion every year. We can achieve much more there.

There are plenty of additional points that I would like to make, particularly around NHS reform, but having looked at the clock, I will simply say that we need to regularly make more time for debates to explore public sector reform and the management of our public finances. It is a key topic that cuts across every portfolio area and affects the lives of everyone in Scotland. I hope that this afternoon can be the start of a more constructive cross-party discussion.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour 4:33, 13 June 2024

I am grateful for the opportunity to close the debate for Scottish Labour, because the value of public services cannot be overstated. Like Karen Adam, Michelle Thomson, Brian Whittle, Edward Mountain, Foysol Choudhury and, I am sure, many others across the chamber, I recognise the value of the efforts of people who work in public service and of public service in general, not just because of my political beliefs or my constituents’ testimonies, but from my own lived experience.

It is no secret—I have said this in the past—that I have relied heavily on public services, some more than others. If it had not been for the NHS and the social care system, my opportunity to live, study, work, achieve my aspirations and more would have been far out of reach. I am hugely privileged to have worked in one of our most cherished public services—the NHS.

It is because of that recognition of the value of public services that I and my party are passionate about building them, protecting them and—importantly—growing our economy and managing public money properly to fund them. Sadly, that is not an approach that other parties in the chamber share. We have heard much today from members on the Government benches about their support for public services, but let us take a look at their record.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

When it comes to Labour’s plans for cuts, we do not need to read Anas Sarwar’s lips. We just need to look at what the experts say. I will take one expert analysis in response to Labour’s manifesto today. Gemma Tetlow, the chief economist at the Institute for Government, said:

“Like the Conservatives, Labour has done little to row back on the spending cuts already pencilled in for the next Parliament.”

Why was she able to say that, having read the Labour manifesto?

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

As I am going on to point out, the cuts that this Government has handed down to local government, education and the NHS—

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I say to the member who is shouting from a sedentary position that I will come to that, but I will be taking zero lectures on cuts or public finances from this SNP Government. We have heard much from this Government about its support for public services, so let us look at its record on them.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

Can I get my time back if I take the intervention, Presiding Officer?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Does Pam Duncan-Glancy agree with Wes Streeting that, when it comes to financing for the NHS and public services, all roads lead to Westminster? What we are about to see from a Labour Government is exactly the same as what we are seeing from a Tory Government, which is public service cuts. That is not good enough. Perhaps Ms Duncan-Glancy can reply to that and say what change Labour really offers, because it is none.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

I think that Ms Duncan-Glancy has got the gist.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I thank the member for that intervention and for the invitation to say what change means. I will come to that later in my speech.

As my committee colleague Ross Greer has touched on, on this Government’s watch, education is a huge issue. Teacher workloads are increasing, teaching has become a precarious career and, across the country, teacher posts are at risk, including 450 in Glasgow alone. The Government says that it has put £145 million into local authorities to protect teacher numbers, but that is against the savage cuts to local authority budgets of more than £6 billion since 2014. That money simply does not protect teacher jobs. It could be—and, in many cases, has been—spent several times over, plugging SNP gaps. That is not valuing our schools as public services.

Anyone who heard what I heard in the Education, Children and Young People Committee yesterday will know that the Government’s record of supporting colleges as public services is no better either. Across Scotland, colleges face cut after cut, year after year, leaving them on what the Government’s own skills adviser has called a “burning platform”, with staff striking in nine of the past 10 years because Government cuts have undermined their pay and conditions, and fewer students able to go to college in the first place. I agree with Shona Struthers, who said to the committee that the inevitable cycle of less for less will impact the social and economic development of Scotland and that it beggars belief that the Government is allowing that to happen to colleges on its watch. That is not recognising the value of colleges as public services—that is decimating them.

On the public service of keeping a roof over our heads, the Government also fails. Housing remains grossly underfunded and unavailable. In the midst of a housing crisis, the Government’s response has been to slash the affordable housing budget by nearly £200 million, and even the former First Minister Humza Yousaf’s last attempts to save his job reinstated only a mere £80 million of that budget. It remains a devastating cut, especially for the 10,000 children living in temporary accommodation. That is not recognising the value of affordable housing as a public service.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

Pam Duncan-Glancy has articulated some of the problems that we collectively face as a society, but I just do not understand how the £18 billion-worth of public sector cuts that are being proposed by her party are going to help in any of those areas in any way.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I respect the member and his contributions, largely in the committee and on finances. I believe that the figure that he is quoting is from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The clue is in the title. The Institute for Fiscal Studies looks at Government spending as it is today. We do not accept that version of Government spending. As Ben Macpherson will hear as I come on to it, we have plans to change the way in which public services are supported in Scotland and across the UK.

Despite the tireless efforts of our staff in the NHS, it, too, has been let down by this Government, as many colleagues, including Liz Smith, have pointed out. It has been plagued by record waiting times, with 800,000 people on waiting lists and millions of pounds spent on agency staff, while care staff are short-changed. Citizens are forced to spend thousands of pounds on private healthcare. [ Interruption .] I know that members on the SNP benches do not like to hear that, but it is true. In addition, because of the Government’s failure to deliver reform, £1.3 billion has been spent on delayed discharge since the Government committed to eradicate it.

Those are not the actions of a Government that values public service, but the good news is that change is coming. Despite what members on the Government benches claim, an incoming Labour Government will restore economic stability, grow the economy, unleash investment, boost wages, create jobs and protect public services in all of Scotland and across the UK. It will tackle tax dodging to usher in more money and more appointments in the NHS. It will tackle tax avoidance to tackle poverty. It will reform planning to unlock opportunities for house building.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

It will invest in state schools by making private schools pay their fair share. It will tax the eye-watering profits of oil and gas giants to bring down energy bills. That is the change that Labour offers, and it is the change that the public know and want.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative 4:41, 13 June 2024

Like other members, I start by thanking and paying tribute to those who work in our public services. As other members have said, they are the backbone of our society, and we should thank them for the work that they do. I never stop thanking them for the work that they did during the pandemic, which we should recognise every day in this Parliament.

During the SNP leadership election in 2023, the now Deputy First Minister famously—or, perhaps, for SNP members, infamously—said to the former First Minister:

“When you were transport minister, the trains were never on time; when you were justice minister, the police were strained to breaking point; and now as health minister, we’ve got record high waiting times.”

I have to say that I do not agree with the Deputy First Minister, because I do not think that she should have just blamed the former First Minister. This Government needs to take responsibility for that, which it has not, and today’s debate has demonstrated that, after 17 years, the Government finds it easy to get into the comfort zone of just blaming others.

The debate has probably not shone any light on where the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament genuinely could transform and reform our public services.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I will if there is time in hand.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

Of course, we take responsibility. Last week, I set out a debate on health service reform. As I pointed out to Miles Briggs’s colleague Brian Whittle, we have taken responsibility to raise revenue for our public services in Scotland. I understand that the Conservatives oppose that, but they need to be honest with the people of Scotland that that would mean a reduction in the amount of money that is available for our public services. When they come here complaining about the impact of austerity, they need to be plain and honest about the fact that they would see even further reductions in investment in our public services.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I will come on to that in my speech. I welcomed what the health secretary said last week. I have been calling for that during the whole time that I have been in this Parliament. We need to have a national conversation about where our health service is. The fact that, every single week, as MSPs, we raise problems about our health service requires us to look in the mirror and consider why that is the case.

We should start by looking at Audit Scotland’s reports. It has highlighted workforce challenges, and has said:

The Scottish Government needs to act quickly to deliver services differently.”

It has called on the Government to act on the workforce crises that our NHS has faced for too long.

Audit Scotland has said that the Scottish Government’s economic strategy “lacks ... political leadership”. There can be nothing more damning than Audit Scotland saying that politicians in the Government are not providing the leadership that we need to grow our economy and deliver our public services.

I want to touch on the recent declaration of a housing emergency by the Scottish Government. That is welcome. Each week, local authorities have declared housing emergencies—last week, it was Scottish Borders Council and, just this week, it was South Lanarkshire Council. However, we need a fundamental look at how we deliver housing in Scotland. I have consistently raised the issue of children living in temporary accommodation. The numbers on that are now through the roof, but ministers have not done things differently. They have put more and more pressure on local authorities at the same time as taking away funding from them. That has delivered the housing crisis, and ministers need to take responsibility for it.

The charitable sector has asked to be part of the solutions and has called on ministers to let it in, but we have not seen that happening, and we are now in a position in which we have another national emergency. We cannot simply allow every part of our public services to be given emergency status.

The cabinet secretary did not mention the need to reform our public services. Over the past 17 years, the SNP Government has neglected that opportunity, and the potential that exists for our public services to be improved has not been realised. Although the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has launched a national conversation, we do not know which direction of travel ministers want to take.

At general question time earlier today, I raised the issue of children being placed in adult services. Over the past 25 years, we have not reformed our mental health services to deliver the levels of provision that we need. We say that we want parity of esteem between physical health and mental health, but we need to make sure that our mental health services are there to respond.

One area that is of interest, and which I hope that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care is looking at, is the reform work that is being done in London in relation to the Metropolitan Police. I know from my casework—I am sure that every member knows this—that, when someone is in a mental health crisis or in distress, we send out Police Scotland to deal with that, which is a completely inappropriate response. The police will then take that person to an accident and emergency department, where they will sit with the police for hours and not get an outcome. They will be taken home, and they might have their meds reviewed. We need to see something different happening.

It is important that we reform services in such a way that the third sector can be used to deliver a different outcome. That is why, as a country, we need to look at the right care, right person model that is being delivered by the Met Police. That model delivers a different response and a different outcome.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I understand what Mr Briggs has said about the need for the right person to intervene at the right time. That is one of the reasons why we have the distress brief intervention projects going on in Scotland. The person who intervenes might be a police officer, or they might be a paramedic or social worker, but it will be someone who has been trained to deal with such situations. That is the right approach to take. In some regards, Mr Briggs and his colleagues need to look at what is already happening across the country with regard to how we treat folks who are in mental health distress.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

The member will know of my interest in this area and of the work that I have done on it in my time in Parliament. In my region, the at-home nurse team in West Lothian, which provides intensive support to prevent children from being hospitalised, is a really important step forward.

I return to the subject of the different model that the Met has adopted. The Met commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, stated that the Met was failing Londoners

“first by sending police officers, not medical professionals, to those in mental health crisis, and expecting them to do their best in circumstances where they are not the right people to be dealing with a patient.”

In opening the debate for our party, my colleague and friend Liz Smith stated that the current failures in the Scottish economy were largely due to Scottish Government policy choices, from not passing on support to Scottish businesses, to its anti-growth agenda, which the Greens brought forward when they were at the heart of Government. I agree with that, and I believe that it is time for Scottish Government ministers to dedicate themselves to growing our Scottish economy to deliver the funding that our public services need.

Another factor, which ministers have not yet acknowledged or addressed, is the fact that we are seeing a shift in population from west to east. That is not being reported on but, in years to come, it will present significant challenges for our country. Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland is the only part of our Scottish economy that is still growing and economically active. On top of that, 80 per cent of potential future growth in the Scottish population is predicted to be here in my region, in Edinburgh and the south-east.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

That is why I have consistently championed investment in our public services here in Lothian, and it is why the Scottish Government needs to look at funding formulas in a way that it has not wanted to do. I have consistently raised that issue with both cabinet secretaries. The City of Edinburgh Council is the lowest-funded council and NHS Lothian is the lowest-funded health board, but we in Lothian are seeing all the pressures of growth. I know that some SNP colleagues would support me in what I am saying about that. Our public services need to be able to respond to that.

We all acknowledge that Scotland is facing many challenges in delivering sustainable public services. However, we need solutions from this Government, not simply a blame game. I will support the amendment in the name of my colleague Liz Smith.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

I call Neil Gray, the cabinet secretary, to wind up on behalf of the Scottish Government. If you could take us up to decision time at 5 pm, that would be most helpful.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party 4:50, 13 June 2024

This debate has highlighted the dedication and commitment of this Government to invest in our public services to better the lives of people across Scotland. However, it has also reflected the challenging fiscal environment that we are currently in.

I will start by reflecting on the contribution that I just heard from Miles Briggs. I wish to engage with him on the work that he is seeking to pursue around mental health. However, although he asked for additional investment in mental health, he concluded his remarks by saying that we needed to pursue business tax cuts instead of investing in our health service. He has also failed to answer the question where we would get the money from to see increased investment in our health service, if not from the more progressive taxation choices that we have made.

The work that we have been pursuing has not been helped by the cut to the Scottish block grant of just under half a billion pounds in real terms in 2024-25 compared with 2022-23, as was outlined by Karen Adam in her inspiring contribution on the pride of public services. As Karen Adam, Miles Briggs, Foysol Choudhury and Pam Duncan-Glancy did, I pay tribute to our incredible public sector workers, who do an outstanding job in the service of the people of Scotland.

In opening the debate, the cabinet secretary for finance made it clear that, regardless of the current limitations on us, we are using all the powers available to us in the current devolution agreement to focus on and prioritise maintaining and building sustainable and effective public services. Investing in our public services is one of this Government’s key priorities; I only wish that it were a priority for other parties in the chamber.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

We are marking 25 years of the Scottish Parliament being in existence. Over that time, collectively, with additional funding from the UK Government, we have doubled the amount of money that we have spent in our health service. I welcome that, and have always supported it. However, we have not doubled outcomes—in fact, in some cases, outcomes are going down. Has the cabinet secretary done any work to look at why we are not getting more out of our health services, even though we have put in more investment over decades?

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

Of course, and that goes back to the points that I raised in the discussion on reform that I instituted last week, which is about the need to ensure that we invest in preventative measures. That work is not just starting; the work that we are doing on the vaccination programme and on minimum unit pricing is already preventing further ill health and ensuring that we are making progress with our health services. The investment that we are making to ensure that 100,000 children are kept out of poverty also has a direct consequence for the outcomes that we will see in our health services. I am more than happy to have that discussion and debate with Miles Briggs and others.

Shona Robison opened the debate by highlighting key areas of investment from the Scottish Government, and that was only some of the investment that we have made in our public services. In addition to what we have heard so far, in relation to my portfolio of health and social care, the 2024-25 budget provides record funding of more than £19.5 billion for NHS recovery and health and social care, which is a real-terms uplift. We have invested more than £14.2 billion of that funding in our NHS boards, with additional investment of more than half a billion pounds, which is an almost 3 per cent real-terms increase.

Despite having one hand tied behind our back by Westminster austerity—as was so eloquently highlighted by Ben Macpherson—our investment in affordable housing in 2024-25 is nearly £600 million. Since 2007, we have delivered more than 40 per cent more affordable homes per head of population in Scotland than in England, and 70 per cent more than in Wales.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

Of course, but this will be for the last time for the moment.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

The cabinet secretary is boasting about housing investment, and yet he acknowledges that we are in the middle of a housing crisis. How did that happen?

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

We have to reflect the financial reality that the Government is currently working with. We have seen a £1.3 billion cut to our capital budget and financial transactions reduced by 60 per cent. In spite of some of those cuts, we have still delivered a far higher per head of population level of house building under this Government than in England or, indeed, Wales. Of course, challenges persist, but we are making that investment.

In the education and skills sector—I declare an interest, as my wife is a teacher—Scotland has the highest level of spending per pupil in the United Kingdom, and the highest teacher pupil ratio. Last year, we invested £8,500 per school pupil, compared with £7,200 per pupil in England and Wales. Since the SNP abolished tuition fees, the number of new Scottish university students has grown by 31 per cent, and we have a record number of students from our most deprived communities.

On social security, the Government is spending record sums this year, with £6.3 billion for benefit expenditure. That is £1.1 billion more than the UK Government gives the Scottish Government for social security. That demonstrates our commitment to tackling poverty, supporting people and avoiding the need for people to rely on those public services. We are investing £614 million in new benefits and payments that are available only in Scotland, such as our landmark Scottish child payment.

I turn to some of the comments that have been made from the front benches. Liz Smith made a point about the block grant. In real terms, the block grant was lower in 2020-21 than it was in 2009-10. We have had 10 years of underinvestment and a decade of austerity. In recent years, there has been a 4 per cent real-terms decrease in total block grant expenditure between 2022 and 2024-25.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

I will try to give way in a second.

I, too, wish Mark Griffin well in his recovery from Covid. However, I must challenge his assertion and that of Pam Duncan-Glancy on local government funding. Of course I recognise the challenges that exist across public services because of the decade and a half of austerity that we have faced, but the Accounts Commission has confirmed that, in the past year, this Government has passed on a real-terms increase to local government, in contrast with what has been done elsewhere in the UK.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

I am very sorry, but I want to make progress. I will come back to Liz Smith if I can.

I highlight the very helpful contribution that Ross Greer made in saying that politics is about choices. Labour’s choices will continue to ingrain poverty through continued austerity for public services and, as he said, the support for our poorest families.

I will now engage directly with the Tory and Labour amendments, which are false and hypocritical and do a grave injustice to those who are working hard in our public services to deliver for the people whom we serve.

First, I say to the Conservatives that Scotland is not the highest-taxed part of the UK. That is patent and demonstrable nonsense. The majority of people in Scotland pay less income tax than they would pay if they lived in the rest of the UK, and the average band D council tax bill in Scotland is £700 less than in England and £600 less than in Wales.

In Scotland, we have taken action to help to mitigate the UK cost of living crisis that has been presided over by the Conservatives, by freezing council tax for 2 million Scots this year. We have used the tax powers that are available to us to mitigate UK austerity by raising £1.5 billion more in revenue than we would have if we had done nothing. Without that, we would have seen cuts to our NHS, local government and other public services, which we have seen elsewhere in the UK. The Tories should at least be honest about that—which Brian Whittle, when I challenged him, squarely failed to do. However, I would expect that action from this SNP Government to be opposed by the Tories, who pass on tax breaks for the wealthiest in society while cutting public services that we all rely on.

Shamefully, Labour also opposes us raising additional finance for public services. I also find it curious that Labour’s amendment would delete the commitment to

“high-quality services”,

the statement that we recognise

“the key role that the workforce plays in delivering”

those services, and the acknowledgement that

“public sector pay is higher in Scotland”

than in the rest of the UK.

It would also delete the criticism of spending cuts from the Tory spring statement. Why on earth would Labour do that? Why would it miss an opportunity to criticise the Tory UK Government and its austerity agenda, especially when Wes Streeting defended the challenges that are faced by the NHS in Wales by saying,

“all roads ... lead ... to Westminster”?

Perhaps that should not be curious at all, however, because Labour is laying the groundwork for the continued austerity that we have been promised from a Labour UK Government—£20 billion-worth of austerity, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies today.

On the one area of public service investment that we might see coming from Labour, which Pam Duncan-Glancy referred to—investment in the NHS—Labour has confirmed that that will be worth just £134 million for Scotland, which is barely enough to cover a 1 per cent pay rise for NHS staff and is less than most of the recent Tory consequentials. That is not change; it is continued short change, and it is continued austerity. That is why Anas Sarwar’s claim that there would be no more austerity rang so hollow the other night, when the First Minister exposed the austerity consensus in the Westminster establishment. Mr Sarwar’s “Read my lips” line had about as much credibility as it did when George Bush used it.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

It took less than 24 hours for Keir Starmer to torpedo it. Last night, he shamefully admitted that there would be continued austerity for families in poverty under Labour, which would not scrap the two-child cap.

While we know who will be taking the decisions—and Labour has told us what it will do, as Michelle Thomson highlighted—the problem for Labour is that it can no longer pretend one thing in Scotland, do another at Westminster and hope that the public will not notice. It will continue with austerity, hurting our communities and public services—

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

Labour will dance to the Farage tune on immigration, hurting our public services and our economy. Only the SNP will stand to break that austerity consensus, and only the SNP will deliver for public services in Scotland. While we continue to rely on decisions taken at Westminster, only independence will deliver the real change that the people of Scotland are looking for.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

That concludes the debate on Scottish Government priorities—investing in Scotland’s public services.