On Tuesday, the first day back after the Christmas recess, I spoke in the Scottish Government debate on: Supporting Public Services, Tackling Inequality and Growing Scotland’s Economy.
Whilst I welcomed the debate these are big issues each in themselves and we cannot give any of these subjects justice in a half day debate in the Scottish Parliament. I hope we will focus on these issues in the debate leading up to the Scottish General Election in May this year and that these important issues for Scotland will form the basis not just of debate from the political parties’ but also the basis of their manifestos for those elections given their significance for communities in Scotland.
Below you can watch my speech and read the full text. The whole debate can be found on the Parliament web site.
TEXT – Public Services, Inequality and the Economy Alex Rowley (Cowdenbeath) (Lab):
As Mary Fee said, three big issues are being debated today: public services, tackling inequality and growing Scotland’s economy. In the time that we have had in the debate, we have been able to do them some justice. However, I certainly look forward to the debate over the next four months and I hope that they will be the big issues that we will debate as we go forward to the Scottish general election.
To reflect on the debate, I will start with Ruth Davidson’s comments about the Conservatives making a play to be the official Opposition in Scotland. I say to her that for the first time in more than half a century, we have absolute poverty in communities the length and breadth of Scotland, which is absolutely down to the policies of the Tory Government. I do not know about “SNP bad”, but I certainly know that the policies of the Tories and what they stand for in Scotland are bad. I am sure that the people of Scotland will recognise that at the polls in May.
Bruce Crawford talked about “SNP bad”, but I thought that it was the SNP that came up with that term. So, if Bruce Crawford is unhappy with it, he will need to give his own party a ticking off. However, Bruce Crawford also talked about record numbers of flights and air passenger duty, and said that he could not understand why Labour would oppose the SNP’s policy on APD. We have record numbers of flights in Scotland right now and airline companies are reaping the rewards from record low levels for fuel costs. However, abolishing air passenger duty will cost us millions upon millions of pounds. The Scottish Government is willing to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a tax cut in an area where it would be fine to do so in good times, but at the same time we are seeing hundreds of millions of pounds being cut from public services right across Scotland. That is the choice and, for me, the choice that I would make every day would be to invest in public services.
Kevin Stewart said that he wanted to concentrate on what Nicola Sturgeon had to say and I will do likewise. I am someone who tends to believe that his glass is always half full. Where I see policy and investment, I will welcome that. I take the example of health and social care. I have raised with the Deputy First Minister on a number of occasions the need to shift funding from health to health and social care in recognition of the fact that community care does not come cheap, and I welcome the fact that he said in his budget that he intended to do that.
However, there is a further crisis in social care, which brings me to another issue that the First Minister raised: the living wage. She rightly highlighted the success of the efforts that have been made on the living wage, in that more and more companies are introducing it, but that is causing problems in some sectors, particularly health and social care. If the living wage is to be paid in that sector, the money needs to be found from somewhere. Given that the majority of the moneys that go into health and social care go in through the public sector, if we want care workers up and down Scotland to be paid a decent wage—the living wage—we must recognise that it is the responsibility of Government to put money into that. Labour in Scotland has said that we will fund the introduction of a living wage right across the care sector in Scotland and I hope that the SNP will consider doing that with us.
We also need to recognise where we can grow jobs in the economy in the short term. One such area is the care sector. This morning, I read about a company in the care sector in Fife that has reported losses for the first time. One reason that it gave for that was the use of agency staff. It is having to bring in agency staff because there is a major problem with recruitment and retention in the care sector. We must recognise that, in investing in the living wage, as well as investing in quality social care across Scotland, we would be growing the economy and growing the number of jobs, and the case for that is absolutely clear.
For me, when it comes to the economy, the key issue is jobs—good jobs—for young people and for the long-term unemployed. I am talking about quality jobs that will last and around which we can build our future. That is why what we need is a strategy for jobs, to ensure that we can give everyone that opportunity and show that we are ambitious for all the people of Scotland and not just some of them.
On 2 December, I wrote to the Minister for Housing and Welfare to welcome the fact that Nicola Sturgeon had confirmed that the Government had a commitment to building 50,000 houses for rent. I see that that has become a commitment to building 50,000 affordable houses. Shelter Scotland and others have talked about the need for 50,000 houses for rent to be provided—
I wrote to the housing minister and I set out a number of proposals. The First Minister constantly invites those who have ideas to bring them to the Government. I made some very positive suggestions to the housing minister. There is a consensus that there is a housing crisis in Scotland. Shelter Scotland tells us that there is, and we know that from the statistics. There were 150,000 households on local authority waiting lists as of 31 March last year.
For Labour in Scotland, housing is a big issue and we will talk about housing and bring forward more proposals for housing in the coming weeks and months. I hope that we can have a debate on housing in Scotland.
As our leader, Kezia Dugdale, announced today, we will help young people to get on the housing ladder. Many young people in my constituency and, I am sure, in other members’ constituencies find it difficult to raise a deposit to get a mortgage. Particularly since the banking crisis, banks are not helping young people. Labour in Scotland will help young people to get houses, but we are equally clear that Labour will build houses and ensure, in partnership with local authorities, that we build social houses for rent—recognising, as Shelter Scotland has said, that we have a housing crisis.
I finish where I started. My glass is always half full. I and Labour in Scotland will work with any party in the chamber to tackle inequality, get good public services and create jobs so that we share the wealth throughout the whole of Scotland.