Debate on Supporting Public Services, Tackling Inequality and Growing Scotland’s Economy
Tuesday, 5th January 2016
The First Minister’s Opening Speech:
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I wish you and all members a very happy new year.
Given our discussions at question time a few moments ago, I take this opportunity to express my sympathy to everyone across the country who is dealing with the impacts of flooding, and to express my heartfelt thanks to all those who have been working over the past few days, and who continue to work, extremely hard to respond to the challenges that the flooding is posing.
The year 2016 will be another hugely important year for Scotland. That is why it is right to use this first debate of the new year to look back at the progress that has been made and, more important, to look to the future. Over the next four months there must be a great, ambitious and thriving debate in Scotland about how we will build on our achievements, address the challenges that we face and, in so doing, realise the full potential of our nation. Let me be clear that it is a debate that I, my Government and my party are determined to lead in the months ahead. It is on the strength of our record, ideas and vision for this country that we will ask people to elect us as Scotland’s Government for an historic third term.
In setting out our future priorities, we are building on strong foundations. Today, for example, our national health service has a record budget, has record numbers of staff working in it and is—as we have seen this morning—delivering some of the best and fastest care in the United Kingdom. I again take the opportunity to thank NHS staff for their efforts day in and day out.
We have more world-class universities per head of population than almost any other country in the world. Our universities are also accessible to a higher proportion of students from deprived backgrounds than was the case in 2007. I am proud that this Government has ensured that our universities’ success has not, crucially, been achieved at the expense of the free tuition on which our students depend.
We also have a reformed school curriculum. We have seen record exam passes, and the information that we have about performance in the upper stages of secondary school shows signs of a narrowing of the attainment gap. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we have the potential to become a world leader in education.
We have also taken tough but necessary decisions to reform our police and fire services. As the Deputy First Minister has just said, we have in recent days seen the benefits of the new arrangements in our fire and rescue services as they have responded to flooding.
We have seen crime fall to a 41-year low, and we have built new colleges, schools, hospitals and health centres in every single part of our country. We have not met but have exceeded our five-year target to deliver 30,000 affordable homes, and we have helped into home ownership 20,000 people—three quarters of whom are under the age of 35.
Those are all hard practical achievements. Just as important, although less tangible, is that we have, by trusting the people of this country to decide their future, helped to create a flourishing of democratic debate and have played our part in building renewed national confidence.
Those achievements have made society stronger as a whole, but they have also made a difference for individuals across our nation. It is worth reflecting on the impact on people of just some of those initiatives. For example, before prescription charges were abolished by this Government, 600,000 families who were earning as little as £16,000 a year had to pay for their medicines for conditions including asthma. Now they receive essential medication without financial worry.
In 2007, just 85 per cent of hospital in-patients and day-case patients were seen within 18 weeks, which was the waiting time back then. Last year, 95 per cent were seen within 12 weeks.
In 2007, just 45 per cent of school students stayed on until year 6; now 62 per cent do so. That is because, among other things, we took the decision to retain the education maintenance allowance when it was being abolished by the UK Government.
At the start of 2014, just 4 per cent of Highlands and Islands’ households had access to superfast broadband; by the end of this year, the figure will be 84 per cent, which is making a major difference to the opportunities and quality of life in our rural communities.
On those and many other indicators, we should be proud of our achievements. Our challenge is to build on them. In the run-up to the election, we will set out a range of ambitious plans that will, over the next five years, help to transform our country even further.
Let me make it clear that education will be at the front and centre of our plans for the next session of Parliament. Our attainment fund is already helping more than 300 primary schools across the country. In the coming weeks, we will set out further plans to achieve both excellence and equity in education by building on the work that we are already doing through the attainment challenge. That will start tomorrow, when I will publish the new national improvement framework to ensure that our focus on closing the attainment gap is driven by robust evidence on children’s progress in primary and early secondary school.
In health, we must focus ever more on the needs of our older people, which is why the process of reshaping care is well under way. Health and social care integration is the most significant reform of how we deliver healthcare since the creation of the national health service. In the coming months, we will set out further plans to shift the balance of care and the balance of investment even more decisively towards primary and social care. We have already set out plans to create five new elective treatment centres in order to meet growing demand for hip and knee replacements and cataract operations. In the weeks to come, we will set out detailed plans to further improve child and maternal healthcare, cancer care and mental health services.
Our ambition for public services is matched in other areas. Last month, we received the final report of the commission on local tax reform. Since 2007, households across the country have, of course, benefited from the council tax freeze. In the coming weeks, building on the commission’s report, we will make proposals for a fairer and more progressive system of local taxation. I call on the other parties to do likewise so that the people of Scotland can make their choice at the election.
We will also set out plans to use new welfare powers to create a distinctively Scottish approach to social security.
We will continue to do everything that we can to mitigate the bedroom tax, for example, and to shield people from the worst impact of Tory cuts, but our approach will not just be about mitigating bad UK decisions; we will reject Westminster‘s sanctions-based approach and will place the dignity of individuals at the heart of what we do. Delivery of efficient public services and delivery of humane social security are among the ways in which we will create a fairer and more prosperous country. Make no mistake: those two ambitions go together. We want a society in which strong public services are underpinned by a successful economy, and in which our nation’s prosperity is stronger because it is better balanced.
Our commitment to sustainability means that we will continue to prioritise action to meet our ambitious climate change targets. We want everyone to be able to contribute their talents in full and to be well rewarded for doing so.
Our employability services will focus on improving individual skills and confidence, and on helping people into productive employment. We will promote greater gender equality in the workplace and we will build on the approach that means that Scotland already has one of the highest female employment rates anywhere in the European Union, with greater support for people who are returning to work after maternity leave and increased efforts to tackle the pay gap. We will also build on the success that we have seen over the past 12 months in setting out action to extend even further payment of the real living wage.
We will support internationalisation and innovation as the bedrock of a successful modern economy. We will publish an action plan for manufacturing and a new trade and investment strategy to grow our exports and maintain our position as a leading destination for inward investment. Indeed, it is precisely because we need to strengthen the global links that are so vital to economic growth that we plan to reduce air passenger duty.
Our review of business rates will ensure that Scotland continues to have a competitive business tax environment, and we will set out how we will use new powers over tax fairly and progressively.
We will also continue our strong investment in infrastructure. By the end of this year, the new Queensferry crossing will be completed. Work on dualling the A9 has begun. We will also see major investment in the Aberdeen bypass, the central Scotland motorway network and rail services between our major cities.
We will boost house building even further with our commitment to building 50,000 affordable homes by the end of the next parliamentary session, backed by investment of more than £3 billion. Of course, we will also continue to help people into home ownership through our successful shared equity schemes.
Let me make it clear that our most transformational infrastructure investment in the next parliamentary session will not be in a bridge or a road; it will be in our investment to transform early years education and childcare by providing parents with 30 hours a week of Government-funded childcare. That is double the current provision; it will enable parents to return to work, to pursue their careers, and to know that their children are being well cared for, well educated and given the best start in life. As I have made clear previously, as we extend childcare, we will focus as much on quality as on quantity, with investment in teaching skills—especially in our most deprived areas—as well as in bricks and mortar.
We will use the powers that we have as a Government to the full. Of course, I believe as strongly today as I always have that independence is the best future for our country. That is why, in the months to come, we will also lead a renewed debate on how the enduring principle of the case that decisions about Scotland are best taken by people who live here is relevant to and demanded by the circumstances of the world in which we live today. We will make that case positively and powerfully, and we will do it in a realistic and relevant way. In doing so, I am confident that, over the next few years, we will build majority support for that proposition.
My party enters the new year riding high in the polls. However, the support that we enjoy today has not come easy, but has been hard earned over many years. As we now seek the endorsement of the Scottish people for a third term in office, we will not take one single vote for granted. During the next few months, no matter what the polls say, we will not assume success. We will work for it—we will work harder than we have ever worked before. Our perspective for the future will be ambitious, upbeat, visionary and detailed. The coming months will see this Government and my party set out plans to invest in and improve our public services, to innovate and grow our economy, and to tackle inequality.
Our plans will mark a new phase in Scotland’s journey. They will see us take the next steps towards fulfilling our great national potential. I hope that our plans will win the trust and support of all those whom we are so privileged to represent.