Programme for Government
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
5 September 2017
The First Minister described her programme for government as ambitious.
That claim has to be judged in the context of what more could be done, much of which was set out in detail by Alex Rowley, and in the context of the bigger picture.
In the previous parliamentary session, I sat on the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, which debated the outcomes of the Smith commission. We interrogated Scottish and UK ministers and we heard a good deal from civil society.
The sense from many of those witnesses was of the transformative potential of the new powers.
SNP ministers and committee members lost no opportunity to argue that more devolved powers would enable Scotland’s devolved Government to take more of a lead in meeting the challenges that lie ahead.
That was all before the European Union referendum in June last year, which put yet more powers up for grabs and made the need for leadership from ministers all the greater.
The SNP has been in office for more than 10 years, and we are discussing the second programme for government that it has brought forward since its re-election as a minority Government after the Smith commission, and since the EU referendum.
However, transformative this programme is not.
As in 2016, the Government has brought forward a raft of measures.
Some are welcome but, as a package, they fall short of a bold turn away from austerity and do not address some of the key issues that matter most to my constituents.
Twelve months ago, when we debated the previous programme for government, the Scottish economy was flirting with recession, yet the Government had failed to produce any comprehensive response to the downturn in the oil and gas industry.
Now we are told that there is to be a new approach to manufacturing, but there is still little sense that the Government has come to terms with the nature and scale of the impact of the oil downturn on the Scottish economy.
I was of course pleased to hear the First Minister promise funding for feasibility studies for the acorn carbon capture and storage project at St Fergus in the north-east, albeit that the funding is not millions of pounds but £100,000 and will underpin substantial funding that the European Union provided last May.
The First Minister was right that the North Sea has great potential as a store for sequestered carbon, but it is disappointing that the existing productive industries in the North Sea did not merit even a mention in her statement, given that she knows that the oil and gas sector has contributed more than any other industry in recent years to maintaining a manufacturing base across the Scottish economy, from Ayrshire to Fife.
The wider impact of the downturn is plain for all to see in the low growth in the Scottish economy over the past two years.
It is also visible in the thousands of people who have lost their jobs over the same period as a direct or indirect result, especially in the north-east.
The Government’s response to that crisis was to set up an energy jobs task force, which—after a slow start—provided help to some of the people who were put out of work but has now been told that it is no longer needed.
It is remarkable that the First Minister did not even mention such an important Government decision, which was taken only in the past few days. Tommy Campbell, who is Unite the union’s regional industrial officer, expressed many people’s disappointment when he said:
“People are still losing their jobs both off and onshore. On that basis the task group still has a job to do.”
The Press and Journal described the decision as “premature” from a business perspective and wondered why the Government was in such a hurry to up sticks and move on.
Even the Government’s own figures show that support and advice have been provided to only a fraction of the people who have lost their jobs and I know that ministers know that there are more job losses to come.
With Offshore Europe delegates gathering in Aberdeen this week, there is already talk of a fourth industrial revolution offshore, which is code for more automation, more remote operations, greater reliance on big data and a future with fewer jobs.
If ministers are serious about their high ambition for our industrial future, this is surely the wrong time to end a targeted intervention in a sector of the economy where the existing jobs are still at risk and much of the pain for workers and their families still lies ahead.
The other big risk that we faced a year ago and still face is from Brexit.
I hope that there will be a continuing change of emphasis from the First Minister on that.
In the first part of the year, the SNP’s response to Theresa May’s Brexit strategy was to promote an exit strategy of its own. Leaving Britain to stay in Europe was not a policy that was likely to attract broad support and it cost the SNP many seats at the general election.
More important, it distracted attention from the urgent task of protecting the benefits of our relationships with the rest of the European Union.
Indyref 2 was not quite gone from today’s script, which is a pity, but we have clearly moved into a new phase in the Brexit process and there is still precious little evidence that ministers in the UK Conservative Government have any rational strategy for achieving their objectives in the short or long term. It is therefore all the more important that Scottish ministers concentrate on the task in hand.
I welcome their efforts to work jointly with Labour ministers in Wales to define and protect the scope of devolved powers that arise from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill at Westminster and I look forward to working with them where we can agree on shared objectives.
The priority must be to get the best outcome for all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom within the context of the referendum result. I hope that that can be the focus of our debates on Brexit.
The Parliament is already empowered in ways that go even further than the ambitions of its founders 20 years ago.
The return of powers from Brussels means that it will be empowered still further in the next two years.