04 September 2003

S2M-293 Closing the Opportunity Gap

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-293, in the name of Margaret Curran, on closing the opportunity gap. There are three amendments to the motion.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The Executive's document, "Closing the Opportunity Gap", states:
"Many of the obstacles which people face are deep-seated and complex. But that is not an excuse for shirking responsibility."
I am sure that that thought will be shared across the chamber. It is good to hear passion on a subject in the Parliament because, too often, our debates are anodyne, mundane and without passion. I congratulate Des McNulty for his most passionate contribution; I will return to the content of what he said later. If we cannot bring passion to the subject of the lives of ordinary people and of those with the fewest advantages in our society, we deserve opprobrium and contempt from the wider community.
The Executive's document has many words in it. I have not counted them, but I counted 28 objectives and 68 targets. I must point out, however—just to give a scale and a context—that the aggregate funding to support those targets and achieve those objectives over three years is less than the aggregate shortfall in spending in the Scottish Executive's budget over the past three years. That puts in context our preparedness to tackle the opportunity gap in our society.
Let us make some other comparisons that might illuminate today's debate. In 1979, the Labour party had been in power in the United Kingdom for five years, so let us ask some questions about then and now. In 1979, was there a dental health service in Scotland? Today, do poor people and others across Scotland have effective access to dental health on the NHS? In 1979, could the poorer families in our society afford for their children to go into higher education? Would those children end up educated and able to take their place in the world unburdened by debts? In 1979, yes; now, no.
Maureen Macmillan: Perhaps Stewart Stevenson will tell us how many people could access higher education in those days compared with now.
Stewart Stevenson: Of course we have made progress. The number of people in higher education has risen but, in opening up access to more people, we have disadvantaged those from poorer families by burdening them with a lifetime of debt after they have achieved their tertiary education qualification.
Johann Lamont is obviously intent on joining the select group of members who have returned from the summer break with injuries of one sort or another. She chose to shoot herself in the foot in a very cavalier fashion when she said that, if anyone knew how to persuade a child to take a free school meal, she would like to hear from them. Her Executive colleagues appear to think that they can do so. Their document states that they will
"By 2006 ... increase take-up, especially among pupils eligible for a free school meal."
I hope that the Executive is right—
Johann Lamont rose—
Stewart Stevenson: Yes, come on, Johann. Put them up; I will knock them down.
Johann Lamont: The issue is complex. There is a difference between making somebody eligible for a nutritious meal and making them eat it. Improving nutrition is more complex than simply providing it free. If somebody could get my daughter to eat a nutritious meal, for a start I would bless them, but I could afford to pay for that meal. The free school meal might help her nutrition, but it would necessarily trap resources that could help children who are in poorer circumstances than my daughter's. The only point that I was making is that the issue is complex and not as simple as is sometimes suggested.
Stewart Stevenson: I agree with every word that Johann Lamont has said, but I return to the Executive's claim that it will
"increase take-up, especially among pupils eligible for a free school meal."
The Executive seems to have the answer, but I share Johann Lamont's scepticism.
Des McNulty talked about the 1920s and how we have overcome absolute poverty according to its 1920s definition. The interesting thing about that is that absolute poverty obviously has a different definition today. We can play around with numbers—Mr Monteith made a bold attempt to do so—but the bottom line is that, when the Executive came to power in 1999, it used absolute poverty, as then defined, as one of its measures for success. The Executive has clearly failed on that measure.
Des McNulty criticised John Swinney for focusing on economics in yesterday's debate and not mentioning poverty—
Dr Murray rose—
Stewart Stevenson: I do not have time.
However, Des McNulty went on to talk about a laudable Clydeside project, which is an economic and social project. That is an important point, as it illustrates the complexities and difficulties of the subject of today's debate.
The minister got very aerated when the word "fraud" appeared in the debate in connection with SIPs. When The Scotsman used that word on 19 May in its report on SIPs, I am afraid that that was the word that seemed to meet the need. The Chamber's dictionary that we have in the chamber gives "deceit" as its first definition of fraud.
The Deputy Minister for Communities (Mrs Mary Mulligan) rose—
Stewart Stevenson: I really do not have time. The minister will have time in her summing up.
As I said, the first definition of fraud is deceit. We are deceiving people as to what the SIPs can achieve. I think that it was Gerry Hassan who said that SIPs
"are seen as the champions of the people and the down-trodden, but are really looking after their own interests".
Indeed, the core of the debate is the question of the way in which the Scottish Parliament behaves and how others at Westminster have behaved. Would the Scottish Parliament have chosen, as the Inland Revenue has chosen, to sell off its physical assets to a tax haven, thereby reducing the money available for this and many other subjects?
It is interesting to note that we have heard not a single word in the debate about the disabled. As MSPs, we featherbed ourselves. If an MSP is, or becomes, disabled, support is provided for as long as that MSP is a member of the Parliament. In the wider world, support is provided for three years. We have heard something about pensions today. As MSPs, we earn one fiftieth of our salary each year for our pension. Out there, teachers get an eightieth and in the wider community, few people get anything at all.
The poverty that contains the poor is many faceted. One of the things over which the Scottish Parliament has no power is the high marginal tax rate of those in benefit. As MSPs, we pay a 40 per cent marginal tax rate on our earnings, but the poor often pay between 90 and 95 per cent. Examples such as that illustrate the poverty of ambition to take on the real powers of a normal country and of a normal Parliament and to start to solve our problems and deliver for the poor in Scotland.

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