Ruth’s response to the Programme for Government

6 Sep 2016


“I thank the First Minister for early sight of her statement today.

Presiding Officer, last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Southside GP practice  within my constituency here in Edinburgh Central. I sat down with the two GP partners and discussed the problems they were facing.

Ever-increasing demand on their time and pressure on funding meant they’d taken the hard decision to hand their practice back and it would be taken over by the local health board.

With the building due to be sold next year, they worried the practice itself would be broken up and the thousands of patients it has served for decades would be tossed to the four winds.

The doctors fear they will be some of the first of a very large number of GP partners feeling they have no option but to do the same.

These women are deeply committed to their job – and deeply frustrated at a system which isn’t working for them.

Presiding Officer, if there is one priority this Parliament faces as we get back to work today it is – surely – to spend 100% of our time on issues like this:

  • on people who want to contribute and want to get on – and are looking to government to help them.
  • For the service providers across this land who find their jobs are getting harder, the support is getting less and the centre cannot hold.

And it is time for a government and a parliament which deals with the real and present problems we face:

  • Like the challenges faced by doctors in general practice; a profession which cannot right now find staff because one in four training posts is lying vacant.
  • Like the challenges faced in an education system which is still failing to give our poorest communities a real ladder of opportunity
  • And like the immediate problems we see in our economy – which can too easily feed through to fewer jobs and reduced quality of life for so many.

It is up to us to act.

Because, Presiding Officer, there is a bulging in-tray for this Government to address which requires all of its attention – right now

So, let me set out today what I believe should be the right priorities for Scotland, and set out how we will act in opposition to the SNP Government over this coming year.

Firstly, on the economy.

I read from the weekend’s press that this was to be the First Minister’s priority today – and she is right to do so, even if the evidence of her government suggests otherwise.

Growth in Scotland is already faltering. The oil price crash has hit us hard. And added to that, we know that there will be an impact on the economy due to the EU referendum.

We do not know the scale of it but, as the Prime Minister said at the weekend, we should prepare for difficult times as a result.

I do not try to downplay the significance of the referendum decision for one moment, and I know many people in Scotland remain worried about the future.

However, I do not subscribe to the view that we are helpless to act in the face of Brexit – nor do I think that breaking up a Union worth four times more to Scotland than the EU is going to help matters very much.

What I propose are practical steps that we can take in this parliament to help us ride out the uncertainty, and emerge stronger.

On areas where there is common ground, we will want to work constructively with the Scottish Government to improve legislation.

In her statement, that includes a new manufacturing Institute, Investment in R & D and a decommissioning plan.

Let me say too that we also want to reform Air Passenger Duty – though we believe in a more tailored approach than a blanket 50% reduction will achieve. 

And we need also to work out what impact this will have on our climate change targets – which have been emphasised in the Government’s new Climate change act today.

But the First Minister’s team will not be surprised to learn that we do not see a huge amount of scope over the coming year for SNP-Conservative consensus on the economic path forward.

Overall on the economy, I am left disappointed by the SNP’s failure to listen.  For example, only yesterday, thirteen of Scotland’s leading trade bodies wrote to the Scottish Government over their decision to charge firms higher rates here than they do in England.

They point out that one in eight commercial premises in Scotland are paying more, simply for the privilege of being based north of the border.

There was a time when the SNP saw the unfairness in this.

The former Finance Secretary declared that “putting Scottish business at a competitive disadvantage… is a danger that must be avoided.”

Now, the cash grab of the large business supplement means thousands of Scottish firms have that danger brought to their door.

It doesn’t require another of the SNP’s Commissions or talking shops to see the problem here.

The SNP is quite simply sending out a message that this is a place which doesn’t invest in employers, but punishes them.

A mistake it is making with working families too.

For the first time, this parliament will set new income tax bands and rates for the first time this year – a reform I heartily welcome.

But pushing income tax rates above levels in the rest of the UK isn’t going to help Scottish growth. It will hinder it.

The priority should be to grow the number of taxpayers in Scotland – not squeeze ever more money from an ever smaller number.

Presiding Officer, the economic priority, in short, should be to send out a different message to that which the SNP cleaves to.

Not one that piles uncertainty on top of uncertainty, and charges you more in the meantime.

But which unambiguously states that Scotland is going for growth.

And here I confess to more frustration with the Scottish Government’s efforts.

Elsewhere in the UK, we see politicians – who like the First Minister and myself did not support the decision to leave the EU - putting aside their own disappointment at the result in an effort in order to try and make a crack of it (SADIQ).

By contrast, our own Scottish Government’s response was to release a risible fag-packet calculation of costs – purely to try and hide the facts surrounding Scotland’s own deficit.

Elsewhere in the UK, the message goes out: we’re open for business.

Here in Scotland: it’s ‘we’ll make you pay’.

Surely it’s time for a bit more foresight from our government.

Surely it’s time for an ambitious, positive economic policy which sells Scotland as the place we know it to be – the best place to live and work anywhere in the United Kingdom.

I said two weeks ago I wanted a new type of Scottish Government and what I mean: is one which no longer asks: how will this boost independence? But one that asks – how are we growing the country?

In the last few weeks, we have suggested just a few ways to do just that:

a greater footprint for Scottish Development International so it can sell Scottish goods more effectively abroad,

an acceleration in the broadband programme for our rural areas so that everyone can get access to superfast broadband, not just those living in the central belt and real support for innovation in cutting edge renewables.

In our manifesto we also outlined plans to create a network of Regeneration Zones to attract businesses into some of the most deprived areas in our towns and cities. And we proposed to create a dedicated Enterprise Agency for the South of Scotland, to mirror the remit and work of HIE.

We welcome the fact that the Scottish Government has seen fit to back some of these ideas.

But we also want to see the Scottish Government putting its own money to work in a way that benefits all.   For example, the Scottish Government’s capital budget is set to rise by 14% over the coming spending period.

Our priority is to see that extra money put to a major new investment in home efficiency far beyond the scope of that outlined today.

It will reduce our rates of fuel poverty, cut bills for families, improve the health of our nation – and create thousands of new jobs, ensuring that the money we pay into government helps to support our wider economic future.  Having now accepted the principle, we will push the Scottish Government into greater ambition with the delivery.

At the same time, we urge the Scottish Government to simplify planning and regulation to help support a genuinely ambitious house-building programme for homes of all types – social, affordable and private.

We see the Government has re-announced its homebuilding plan – which we support  – More homes will support growth in Scotland, but – as important –nothing will do more to build a better society than ensuring everyone in Scotland has a decent, energy efficient, warm home in which to live.

So house-building and house-improvement has to be at the top of the agenda, but helping people buy their property must be part of the mix too. LBTT continues to stifle sections of the housing market and must be reformed. While rollout of the Additional Dwelling Suppliment has been a total bourach – with people facing vague and conflicting information from solicitors, estate agents and even HMRC on rules for payment.

All these measures are important.

But the single biggest economic lever that the SNP could pull right now to help the country grow would be to remove the threat of a second referendum.

That is what is holding us back. That is stifling investment in our firms. Taking away that lead weight on our country’s prospects is one thing the First Minister could do right now.  She might have hid it in a throwaway line at the end of her speech, but the bill sits in the Programme for Government as a direct threat to our nation’s economic growth.

Presiding Officer, let me turn to other areas mentioned by the First Minister. There was a time – a golden age – where she said Education was her top priority. For about 6 days people even believed she meant it.

There is now a clear parliamentary majority here to give more power and control to school leaders.

So we will use our position as the main opposition party to ensure that reforms are fast-tracked and are genuine.

Reform should not be used as a way of replacing one form of remote control for an even more centralised version. Local school leaders should have real controls that make a genuine difference.

And we also need new ways of attracting the best and brightest into teaching in our schools – I have made the case for a TeachFirst scheme in this Chamber before.

Reforming Scottish education has been our priority for years and it is good to see the Scottish Government playing catch-up.

But just as reform, it is important we measure the progress we make. I repeat my call for the Government to re-enter Scotland into all the main international education comparison tests.  If a commitment to improvement is real then this government has nothing to fear from it being measured.

On childcare, we agree that more priority should be given to improving childcare services across Scotland – and we want to see more of that money directed to children at the earliest stages of life.

But the Scottish Government needs also to examine the way childcare is delivered.  As we learned recently from the parents’ group, Fair Funding for Kids, in many cases parents can’t take up the childcare they’re entitled to because there aren’t funded places when they need it.

So – as we have consistently been saying - it is vital that the Scottish Government recognises the need to organise childcare around parents’ needs, not the bodies providing the funding.

And, at the other end of the scale, it is surely time that this Scottish Government repaired some of the damage it has inflicted on our College sector over the last nine years.

We have had to stand here and watch a fall of 152,000 college places – at the same time as employers are telling us that the lack of skills in the workplace is now their most pressing problem.

Headline-grabbing spending pledges may look great etched in stone – but it is surely time that the Scottish Government put self-congratulation aside, and got on with helping those who need it. This government has gutted our colleges.

And while the Education Secretary will not have his troubles to seek in delivering on many of his government’s commitments – let me suggest he does one thing to make his life easier.

…and that to clear this government’s disastrous named person scheme from his desk and start afresh – this time with something that isn’t unlawful.

Presiding Officer, we welcome the fact that a new Social Security Bill is to be published, creating a new department to take on the vital task of delivering new welfare powers.

Among those new powers, this parliament will be able to create new benefits in devolved areas and top up UK wide benefits including Universal credit, tax credits and child benefit.

I hope this will start a new phase in the Scottish Government’s approach to welfare – one which spends less time complaining about UK Government policy, and more time spelling out what it intends to do with the powers it now has.

I know this much: expunging the word “benefit” from Scotland’s daily lexicon will not take a single person out of poverty.

What will is a plan which supports the vulnerable and helps those who can work get back into employment.

This should include a dedicated employment programme for disabled people and a clear ambition to halve the disability employment gap.

Only today, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has given us a timely reminder of the need for a long-term plan to tackle the scourge of poverty.

More than anything, we need to use the powers of this parliament to act early. We are spending millions on the consequences of family breakdown, addiction, unemployment and more. We must focus on ways to prevent this breakdown instead.

And it is a similar approach – to try and deal with the social problems we face, not just to pay for the consequences  - which we need in our health service too.

Doctors leaders spoke out just days ago, saying that they are “flat on their face” given the pressures the NHS is facing, through a combination of increased demand, increased expectation and funding pressures.

We support extra funding for health budgets across Scotland, and we spelled that out in our manifesto  – but better thinking is required too.

As we outlined last week, we therefore believe more of the funding pot must now go to general practice, and we believe that a target of at least 10% by 2020 is the right one.

It’s not just GPs who support such a shift – it’s A+E doctors and paramedics, too, who know it will take pressure off their own services.. Shifting resources to primary care, combined with our proposed network of Recovery Centres could significantly improve A&E and emergency waiting times.

And it will allow GPs to do more locally, including on mental health.

Indeed, boosting investment in mental health services by £60m every year could mean that, within the next decade, every GP surgery and A+E department can provide dedicated mental health support. This should be part of a proper 10-year mental health strategy to ensure we achieve a step-change in mental health services.

I am pleased to see the First Minister taking notice of this in her statement today, however the sums identified by the First Minister are well below that which we – and clinicians – have identified as required. Today’s figures on waiting times for young people with mental ill-health should be a wake up call for everyone in this chamber.

In policing – I can welcome and promise positive engagement from my party on the domestic abuse bill outlined today, but express real, serious and genuine concern about the Railway Policing Bill. Police Scotland is under immense stress and pressure to operate as effectively as all in this chamber would wish; while British Transport Police Officers have consistently raised objections and concerns regarding their specialist role being absorbed into the centralised force. We back British Transport Police and ask the government to think again.

There’s plenty in Scotland that needs focussed on

And what frustrates me is that, rather than have a Scottish Government which is prepared to do just this, too often we see its energies diverted into an endless political campaign.

The First Minister’s statement today entirely sums up that up.   Plenty of legislation – but all just served as a warm-up to the attempt to nudge the independence caravan another few inches along the road.

Our vision is for a government which helps people to get by and to get on.

It’s for a government which makes economic growth its priority so we can fund our public services.

And which believes our best interests are served by respecting the decision to stay within the United Kingdom – so we can get on with our lives and move on.

It is hard to spot that unifying vision in today’s programme for government.

Instead we see a Government which seems more focussed on clearing up past mistakes, rather than set a course for the country’s future.

It reeks of a party whose main goal is simply to hang around, hope that the polling shifts on independence – and leave Scotland waiting in the meantime.

The conclusion many people will draw is that the SNP cupboard is bare – except for the only idea they’ve ever had, to split up the UK.

The First Minster sought to create a dividing line between our two parties – and there is plenty that we disagree on.

But the real dividing line in this country is between the SNP desperate to drag us back to a second independence referendum, and the rest of us who all just want to put it behind us and move on.

As we said in the election campaign, we will provide a strong opposition to this SNP Government. Today’s programme for government only shows up the need for a strong alternative too.

And we’ll provide it.