05 March 2015

S4M-12521 Protecting Public Services and Boosting Scotland’s Economy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on S4M-12521, in the name of John Swinney, on protecting public services and boosting Scotland’s economy.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I want to respond to Alex Rowley’s challenge by agreeing with him on much of the analysis. I will come to the conclusions a little bit later.

An announcement on schools that has been made today by the Scottish Government illustrates, I think, the approach that it is taking. As we know, the Government has reached agreement with all the local authorities to maintain teacher numbers, which is important if we are to train the next generation. The £100 million to improve educational attainment in Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities that was announced last month reinforces what we are doing, and the £21 million that has been announced today for the construction of new school facilities is very much to be welcomed. This Government is addressing the issue of raising the attainment levels of people in communities across Scotland, and the schools for the future programme will create 100 new schools over its length.

We know that the Scottish Government has a view about what should be happening in the UK and the effects that that should have in Scotland; indeed, John Swinney referred to the £180 billion more that we should be spending. It is worth looking at what the OBR has to say about the UK Government’s policy; it says that it will result in cuts of around £94 billion in day-to-day spending on public services. Of course, that does not mean very much—I have never seen £94 billion sitting in a pile—but when we think about it as £1,800 a head we realise why there is such a fiscal drag on the domestic economy for far too many people in our country.

I have a proposal, although I am not certain whether it will be welcomed by the cabinet secretary. In planning our expenditure, we might think about projects that have a particular characteristic that I have not heard discussed very much. We should probably try to spend more of our money on smaller projects, which would enable more of the money to be retained in communities. The big projects will always attract international competition, which brings with it the risk that more of the money will go elsewhere. With smaller projects, more of the money is likely to stay in our local communities, which would perhaps address the issues behind some of the points that Alex Rowley made.

Nigel Don (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP): Although that analysis seems very plausible, I put it to Stewart Stevenson that experience tells us that contracts tend to go to contractors who have the longest balance sheet. Those are by definition the biggest contractors, who may well just displace the smaller businesses that should be winning the contracts.

Stewart Stevenson: Nigel Don is perfectly correct: the strategy is not without risk and we cannot, under competition law, cut large companies out of bidding for small contracts. Inevitably, however, if one has to transport people and goods across the country to work on a small contract, the overhead costs rise, so there is an intrinsic advantage in looking at small contracts.

I will talk about tertiary education, having said a little bit about primary and secondary education. I absolutely welcome the increase in modern apprenticeship places from 15,000 to 25,000, and the objective to raise that number to 30,000. Alex Rowley mentioned a shortage of skilled electricians. Engineering companies in my constituency report skills shortages too, mainly because people are poached for other, more highly paid posts. The focus on delivering employability through the modern apprenticeship scheme and through our colleges is extremely good news.

It is always interesting in a debate when one finds that the amendments from all the Opposition parties simply seek to delete everything that the Government says in its motion after the words, “That the Parliament”. That tells us something about the nature of the debate, but nonetheless I will attempt to create some consensus.

Let us look at which bits the Opposition amendments seek to take out of the motion. All the amendments seek to remove the words

“welcomes the additional £180 billion of investment”


“endorses the approach of the Scottish Government”—[Interruption.]

We hear from members on the Tory benches that they do not welcome £180 billion of investment.

We have heard in the debate about some of the effects that we are seeing. We heard a bit about the minimum wage, which did not rise in line with inflation in three of the last four years of the Westminster Labour Government. The Labour amendment states that the party

“will ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, with rules introduced to give new rights to employees on these contracts”.

Jackie Baillie, contrary to her claim in her speech that the Labour Party is abolishing zero-hours contracts, is simply creating a new version of zero-hours contracts for the future. She can argue for that if she wishes, but I have not heard that argument.

The Labour amendment also states that the party

“rejects full fiscal autonomy in favour of the continuation of the Barnett formula”.

However, Ed Balls said in 2011 that the Barnett formula

“was never intended to be long term”,

and added:

“We are getting to the point where it needs to be looked at again”.

The ambiguities in Labour’s position on all that are substantial indeed.

I have been reading today about blue Labour and Jon Cruddas, who was elected to Westminster on the same day that I came here in June 2001 and has just been praising the Tories’ City agenda.

This Government has a substantial record of achievement in plugging many of the problems that are created by Westminster. For example, we are plugging the gap in the council tax benefit budget.

We are also plugging the gap on the bedroom tax.

I am delighted with what we are doing with more powers. My delight could soar to greater levels, and I look forward to that happening.


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