Ruth Davidson’s speech in response to the First Minister’s programme for government

25 May 2016


Ruth Davidson made a speech in response to the First Minister’s programme for government in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon.

Full speech as follows:

Thank you Presiding officer, and I thank the First Minister for the advance copy of her speech.

With this session, this parliament begins the real work of holding the government to account for the next five years.

I believe that task has never been more important.

We get down to business today in the knowledge that decisions on education, on the health service, and on all our public services have been stacking up – and now require our attention.

Added to that are the huge new responsibilities this parliament is soon to take on over tax and welfare.

No longer are we here simply to argue over how best the government spends a fixed sum.

We now must decide how best we raise money – which people and business that money is taken from – and how best we grow the economy to ensure that those funds increase.

The rewards – and the risks – are great.

What is clear to me is that if the last parliamentary session was about deciding the shape and identity of our country, this next parliamentary session should be about setting the policy direction and goals of our country for the coming years.

For me, it makes facts, analysis and evidence-based policy provision all the more important.

This is something my group of MSPs will be determined to bring to this chamber and to its committees.

The Conservative group was elected on a promise to provide a strong opposition to the Scottish Government.

That doesn’t mean shouting louder, emoting harder, or a more frenzied gnashing of teeth – instead we intend to provide a forensic challenge to the policies of this government.

If the government wants support, then we’ll want to see the evidence and the facts that back their plans up.

And we will set out a clear vision for how we hope they will proceed.

We want a government which uses the tools of the State to create a stronger society.

….which doesn’t seek to crowd out individual freedom, but to liberate it.

….which offers support for communities and families to lead better lives, prioritising those who need it most.

…but which recognises that government cannot do it all – that government at its best is not an imposition but a partnership with society.

The First Minister has been criticised for caution and inaction during her first 18 months of tenure. It’s a criticism which has stung.

The fact is that the first minister and her team now have a huge opportunity to build that partnership and to use the next 5 years in office make a real, lasting difference.

But it does require the government to take the right course.

Either it can take the easy option which says – just keep things quiet, manage their way around problems, take regular pot shots at the UK Government – all in the hope that the show stays on the road until the promised day of Indyref2.

Or it can take the harder road.

A choice which focuses on bringing about long-term change, right now.

Change that won’t be easy.

Change that will cause conflict among vested interests and create hostility, of that I’m certain.

But change that will show this government has left its mark.

….that will show, in a decade’s time, that this Government wasn’t just about one thing, and one thing only.

But that it made a lasting difference that Scotland can benefit from.

We asked to be a strong opposition in the election because we wanted to encourage that better government – and that is the task we set ourselves today.

.. .

On policy, The First Minister has said that the economy and education are her priorities.

So let me start today on one and end on the other.

On the economy, we welcomed the news yesterday that inward investment is up in Scotland – a lesser woman than me might remark that it is good to see how all the funds corked up due to the independence referendum are now being released.

But we should not allow one set of good figures to blind us to the facts

Last year, Scotland’s growth rate was 0.4% behind the UK’s as a whole.

Unemployment is rising again, up by 8,000 in the most recent figures.

The jobless rate is higher than that of the whole of the UK, at 6.2% compared to 5.1%.

These figures, say the Federation of Small Businesses, are an amber warning for the Scottish Government.

And that note of caution is being repeated by firms large and small across Scotland.

Liz Cameron, of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, tells us that Scotland is now on a knife edge between further growth on the one hand, and a new period of recession on the other.

We know we have an economy which is dangerously reliant for growth on big infrastructure projects, which alone are not enough.

So we need to plan for growth. A plan which demonstrates that Scotland is open for business.

On tax, this is not about ideology, it is simply about recognising the reality we face.

The test for us when deciding whether to support or oppose this government will be whether we are helping or hindering growth.

We will call out short-sighted fixes or tax raids born of envy rather than common sense.

We will oppose the Government’s planned increase in business rates on many firms across Scotland – a plan which is still awaiting justification in any way at all.

And we will propose as well as oppose – with evidenced based policy to show how a competitive system of taxation in Scotland can be of benefit to us all.

Quite simply, we must give people and firms reasons for starting here, for settling here, and growing their businesses here.

Now, I am aware that the Scottish Government will face pressure to do the opposite.

Indeed, I read already that the three amigos leading the Greens, Labour and the LibDems are ganging up to form a new high tax alliance.

I just remind my Labour and LibDem friends today that it was this positive, forward looking vision for Scotland – of hitting hard working people in the pocket – which saw them lose 13 seats between them earlier this month.

If you want to keep charging up the valley of death – please, be my guest.

But to the Scottish Government, I say in all seriousness: there is no long-term future in a policy direction which will only suck enterprise out of Scotland.

We need to support and encourage our businesses, not hobble them by imposing levies, doubling supplements an increasing rate rises.

Now, of course, it is not just through tax that this Scottish Government can boost the economy. There is so much besides.

Two areas in particular will be a priority for us.

We will press the Scottish Government to encourage a new housebuilding revolution in Scotland.

With better regulations, a streamlined planning system and improved infrastructure, we should aim to build 100,000 new homes over the coming 5 years. Half of them affordable.  – So  I welcome the First Minister’s commitment to 50,000 affordable homes over the next parliament. We will hold them to that

And, secondly, with the Scottish Government’s capital budget rocketing over the coming years, let’s see that put to good use.

We will press for a transformative investment in energy efficiency – and we will call for £1bn to be invested in our warm homes proposals.

Not just to cut bills and to reduce emissions – as important as each of these are – but to help the mental, physical and respiratory health of home dwellers  and  to create thousands of new jobs as well.

The money is there. The Scottish Government has previously said that Energy Efficiency is a National Infrastructure Priority, today we’re told of a Warm Homes bill – but up to now they’ve shown no plans and allocated little budget on actually making it so.

We say put your money where your mouth is. Make Energy Efficiency a proper national infrastructure priority. 65% of all homes and 80% of rural properties have an EPC rating of D or worse.

Invest in bringing these homes up to scratch. Allocate 10% of the capital budget by the end of the parliament – reduce fuel poverty, start actually hitting some of our environmental targets, create a warmer, healthier Scotland and see thousands more people employed – and that employment spread right across the country, to even the most remote areas.

I was going to say “and before members on the government benches start protesting about a lack of funding” but I see they’ve already started,  I suggest they first examine whether their own government is spending its own money wisely.

Last week, we learned the full scale of this government’s failure to deliver the CAP programme.

Hundreds of millions of pounds ripped out of our rural economy.

We are now lumbered with a programme costing nearly £200 million which will deliver less for more, which could soon run out of money, and which may land us with a financial penalty from the EU of £125 million.

It is a scandal and it has severely damaged this government’s claim to competence.

I for one don’t think families in Scotland should have to pay higher taxes to pay for that.

I for one want to see this Scottish Government clear up a mess which is entirely of its own making and for which it should be utterly ashamed.

But the economy, and wealth creation, is only one side of the equation. Public services and the provisions by government lie on the other.

On the health service, as we said in our manifesto, we will support financial protection for the NHS.

We will join others in backing a significant increase in mental health services – because we know this will have huge benefits in the long term.

Our new health team will also seek to work constructively with the Scottish Government to find consensus where appropriate.

We know too that a functioning healthy society doesn’t come simply by investing in a good quality NHS to treat those who are ill: it only comes if we think more broadly about health.

So we will support greater integration between health and social care. It is the same person who needs help with adaptive housing and help with illness.

We want to see new welfare powers used to encourage people back into jobs – with a target to halve the disability employment gap.

And we will back and support measures in our prisons to cut reoffending, with a review of all purposeful activity – so that more released criminals are freed not just from jail but also from the cycle of crime.

Finally, I wish to turn to education.

I welcome the First Minister’s focus on this in her speech – and indeed, it is a good step forward that she wants to be judged on her performance.

As I said at the start of this speech, this is the time for concerted action. And it is now time for us all to be bold in our thinking.

Too often, we as a nation have hidden from the hard facts with the self-satisfied claims about how great Scotland’s education system was in the past.

However true that once was we cannot afford to allow ourselves to do so now.

– not when standards in maths are tumbling;

– not when there’s a lower proportion of children in primary reading well;

– not when the number of Secondary pupils who feel they ‘belong’ to their school has fallen since the turn of the century.

We should – as a parliament – agree that the status quo is no longer an option.

This is not about left versus right. It is about focusing on what works, and having the courage to challenge and to change where necessary.

So let me set out what I think are the priorities.

We all now agree across this chamber on the vital role played by early years’ education.

A statistic we have heard too often in the last few months is that, at age 5, a child whose parents have no qualifications is often already 18 months behind the vocabulary of a child whose parents are degree-educated.

The Scottish Government has proposed offering 30 hours of childcare a week, which is a welcome step.

We will, however, propose that instead of offering this for mostly 3 and 4 year olds, more should be allocated to children aged 1 and 2, particularly those from deprived communities.

Let’s take action to stop the attainment gap at the point at which it starts.

In the state school sector, we will urge genuine reform.

As the OECD report into Scottish education made clear earlier this year, Curriculum for Excellence is at a watershed.

The report concluded we must now give strong leaders in schools and in local communities the chance to deliver it successfully.

Our simple principle will be to demand that more power and control is driven down to where it belongs: among school communities.

It seems that, in this area, there is consensus  – and I have to say we were flattered during the election campaign to find that so many Scottish Conservative ideas published in January were repackaged in the SNP manifesto in April.

We on these benches will use influence to ensure these ideas come to fruition. We welcome today’s announcement of a summit on school reform and I take this opportunity to confirm my attendance and that of my education team.

The government says that local school communities should have more say over education: we agree.

The government also now says it supports the creation of so-called ‘school clusters’, with their own governing bodies – and again we agree here too.

These are already being trialled in some parts of Scotland, and they are the right approach.

Let’s be clear what the aim is.

It’s to give strong school leaders the chance to coordinate and run their local school communities- because that’s how great schools are created.

But where we will oppose the Government is on any attempt to further centralise control over education.

The new Education Secretary must resist the temptation of assuming he can improve things by ensuring he controls all the levers in Edinburgh.

Whether through a National Education Service or a series of yet more quangos overseeing schools, this is the wrong step.

Instead, this SNP Government would be better served by spreading a little independence around our education sector.

And, while he’s at it, I urge the new Education Secretary to reinstate Scotland in some of the international surveys we no longer take part in, and reverse his predecessors’ mistakes.

Now, when it comes to Higher Education funding, I got the distinct impression from the election campaign that I may not get much change from the SNP on my ideas there.

I do say this, however.

Slap yourselves on the back about the benefits of free university education if you must.

But remember it comes at the cost of slapping Further Education colleges in the face.

And it’s seen poorer Scots less able to even walk through the front gate of a university than if they lived anywhere else in the UK.

Education should be the best way to change lives for the better – but the SNPs middle class giveaways means those who’ve most to gain from life changing chances, are those that are harmed most by this government’s policies.

We, on these benches, will continue to push for more funding for FE colleges over the course of this parliament to reverse the SNP cuts in the last one.

The Further Education sector has for too long been treated as a second-class service in post-16 education and we will pressure the Scottish Government to put in place a comprehensive plan to increase spending.

Lastly, Presiding Officer – since this too is now in the Education Secretary’s brief – we will continue to press him to re-think the deeply flawed named persons scheme before it is too late.

We all have honest disagreements about the rights and wrongs of this scheme.  Of where focus should lie and resource targeted.

I simply warn the SNP that it is now becoming increasingly clear that the statutory scheme they are proposing is unworkable.

Does the First Minister really want to press ahead a scheme which is putting people off applying for primary school head-teacher posts, as the leader of Aberdeen city council says it is?

That, according to many health visitors, will wreck the trust between them and the families they visit?

That has lost the support of more than half the populace of this country?

There is a growing consensus in this parliament that if this policy is not revoked altogether, there should at least be a pause.

I urge the SNP Government to consider that and to re-think this chaotic plan immediately.


So Presiding Officer, in conclusion….

Opposing where necessary.

Proposing when required.

This is the strong opposition these benches will offer over the coming five years.

With a clear goal in mind: to ensure Scotland gets the better government we deserve and which will make a lasting difference to our nation’s future.

The constitution will, I know, always be a constant driving force behind the SNP’s agenda.  I had hoped we might get through an entire Sturgeon speech without the mention of independence, but sadly she proved me wrong once again

However, with our schools in need of reform, with a health care system to protect, with an IT shambles to sort out and a new tax and welfare system to run, I do suggest –respectfully – to the SNP benches that there is more than enough to be getting on with.

The parliament that decided whether or not to leave UK is over.

In this parliament, let’s get on with leading within the UK instead.