by a Newsnet reporter
In a major speech to Holyrood yesterday, First Minister Alex Salmond laid out the legislative agenda for the historic majority rule he won in last May’s elections in Scotland. Mr Salmond used the occasion to stress that Scotland intends to take a very different approach to its economic future than the “economically illiterate” path being taken by the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition in Westminster.
For the first time since the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, a Scottish Government enjoys an absolute majority and will be able to pass its legislative programme without relying on the votes of others parties. The First Minister will use his Government’s parliamentary strength to distinguish the Scottish Parliament from the Westminster body. Mr Salmond said that while Britain’s government is focused austerity and deep cuts to public spending and public services, in Scotland the focus will be on jobs, young people and promoting economic growth.
Speaking to MSPs the First Minister said: “Failure to grow means we will never break out of the debt spiral. That is why we have argued consistently against the deep cuts in capital spending being imposed by Westminster.
“We have argued strongly against the coalition’s plans to cut our capital investment by nearly 40 per cent in real terms. It is economically illiterate and endangers recovery.”
But the First Minister also highlighted that Scotland is limited in its current power to control its own economic destiny by the constraints set on the country by the Westminster Parliament. Mr Salmond spoke of his fears that these constraints would be damaging to the growth and balance of the Scottish economy saying: “Our desire to introduce that growth and balance is threatened by the voodoo economics of the London coalition, whose ministers lecture Scotland about our future.”
In a speech which urged people to share in the excitement and “build a better nation”, Mr Salmond said the election result showed that “the people are ready to move on to the next chapter in Scotland’s story.”
Announcing 15 pieces of new legislation including reform of police and fire sevices, the introduction of a minimum price on alcohol, improvements to care services, a children’s rights bill alongside plans for an Early Years Change fund to invest in our youngest children, the creation of Enterprise zones to boost our economy and reform of further education the First Minister called on the UK Government to meet Scotland’s ambitions and work with Holyrood to transfer the job creating powers a majority of people want the Scottish Parliament to have.
One of the central planks of the Scottish Government’s legislative programme will be to increase opportunities for young people in Scotland.
The First Minister said: “Everywhere today, men and women, many of them young, yearn to be productive. They are ready to work, because, very often, a life of unemployment is no life at all.
“Political leaders owe it to these young people, to create the political conditions that that encourage growth. With growth comes work. With work comes securioty and confidence. With confidence comes prosperity and a deeper sense of well being, not just for individuals and families but the wider community. That is how we create the Good Society, the Fair Society.”
Announcing the Opportunities for All Programme Mr Salmond continued: “A jobs agenda is at the very heart of our programme for government. We are committed to doing everything in our powers to reduce youth unemployment which has fallen by 2,000 in the last year – it has fallen but it remains far, far too high.
“That’s why today I can announce the Opportunities for All initiative – a commitment that every single 16-19 year old in Scotland will be offered a learning or training place if they are not in already in a job, a Modern Apprenticeship or in education.”
Considerable media attention was given to another major proposal to be introduced in the coming session of Parliament, the plan to merge Scotland’s fire brigades and eight regional police forces into a single national fire service and a national Scottish police force. These emergency services are currently faced with the need to make efficiency and other savings due to cuts in the funding Scotland receives from Westminster. Mr Salmond explained the Scottish Government’s belief that these savings can best be made by merging the regional forces into a national force in order to benefit from economies of scale. This would protect frontline services.
Mr Salmond said: “Communities don’t care about boundaries, they want services to work together as effectively and efficiently as possible.
“After detailed consideration of all the evidence available, we are persuaded that a single police service and a single fire and rescue service are the right options.
“This is the only way to maintain the number of police officers serving all of the communities of Scotland.”
Mr Salmond also introduced two other important elements in the Government’s programme, the introduction of a bill to set a minimum price for alcohol, and a bill to crack down on sectarian violence at football matches.
However the main focus of the speech was addressing the ambitions of the people of Scotland, the First Minister said: “In May the people of Scotland voted for change. They want this Parliament to have the control, flexibility and freedom to make the decisions that are right for Scotland. Many of the key job creating powers – particularly in relation to taxation and central elements of economic policy lie outside the remit of the Scottish Government. Approximately 90% of Scotland’s revenues are collected by Westminster and are not set with reference to economic circumstances here, or the preferences and needs of our businesses or households.
“With greater responsibility we could address those needs.
“The people of Scotland are ready to move on to the next chapter in Scotland’s story.
“Those voters who put their trust in us also understand that the SNP believe in Independence. They understand that, and they do not fear it. We have won their trust and we will not abuse it.
“We know that they are listening, keen to hear the positive story we have to tell about the future – their future as parents, students, workers, pensioners ,carers, entrepreneurs and professionals. They share our excitement about the project at hand – to build a better nation.
“Independence will improve the future for all these people: the independence generation.”
The bills to be presented to Parliament in the coming session are (in alphabetical order):
Agricultural Holdings & Long Leases
This bill will address ways of encouraging landowners to let land to tenant farmers and will make it easier for farming families to inherit the tenancy of the family farm. The bill will also make a number of simplifications to property law converting some 9000 ‘ultra-long leases’ into ownership by the current tenants with appropriate compensation to the landlord.
Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill
Will introduce a minumum price for a unit of alcohol. This measure was defeated by the opposition parties in the last Parliament, but as the UK parties have now decided to introduce a similar measure in England, opposition to the idea is far less vehement than previously.
Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill
A bill to ensure better management of fish farms, an increasingly important sector.
This bill is a vital part of any Government’s legislative programme, the budget bill determines the funding available for all parts of the Government’s programme. If the bill fails, the government of the day has no option but to resign. In previous Parliaments passage of the budget bill has often been on a knife-edge, but as the Government enjoys a large absolute majority the passage of the bill is guaranteed.
Council Tax Bill
The bill will introduce measures to ensure that Scotland’s housing stock is used more efficiently and the number of empty houses is reduced. It’s estimated that around 25,000 properties in Scotland are unoccupied. One measure in the bill is to allow councils to remove council tax discounts from properties which have been unoccupied for more than six months.
Criminal Cases (Punishment & Review) Bill
This bill is being introduced in order allow the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to decide whether to publish reports of appeal cases where the appeal has been abandoned. This will allow the publication of the report into the appeal by Abdelbasset al-Megrahi. It is widely expected that the information in this report will vindicate the Scottish Government’s account of the release of Mr al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds due to his terminal cancer.
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill
A bill aiming to strengthen and clarify freedom of information laws and make government more open and accountable.
Land Registration Bill
This bill will implement the findings of a Law Commission report and will modernise the Scottish land and property registration system and will deal with issues around conveyancing.
Legal Aid and Scottish Civil Justice Bill
The better off will have to contribute to defence costs in criminal cases and a system of contributions will be introduced saving up to £5m a year. There will be a new Scottish Civil Justice Council to advise and make recommendations on improving the civil justice system in Scotland.
National Library of Scotland Bill
A bill to modernise the regulations under which the National Library operates. The size of the National Library’s board will be reduced, and so called “reserved places” on the board will be abolished. All appointments to the board will be made by Scottish ministers “based on merit and selection”.
Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill
The bill will create two new offences of football-related offensive, threatening or violent behaviour. One relates to violence or disorder at a football match or when travelling to or from a football match, this measure will also apply to fans watching the match in places such as pubs or social clubs. The other measure will relate to serious threats made on the Internet.
Police and Fire Reform Bill
The bill will introduce a single Scottish national police force, and a Scottish national fire service. The new police force will become one of the largest in the UK, second in size only to London’s Metropolitan police.
Rights of Children and Young People Bill
The bill will enshrine the duty of ministers to observe the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in law.
Self Directed Support Bill
A bill aiming to empower people to direct their own care and support and to have informed choice about how their support is provided.
This bill was withdrawn from a previous session of Parliament after Government ministers admitted it was too limited in scope. The new version of the bill aims to assist Scottish Water to develop Scotland’s water resource as a tool of economic growth and an environmental asset that will significantly contribute to the transition to a low carbon economy. Scottish Water will remain firmly in public ownership.