On Thursday 7th September John spoke in the closing stages of the debate on the Scottish Government’s debate on its Programme for Government 2017-2018. You can read John’s speech below or you can watch it here:
- John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green):
I welcome many of the announcements in the programme for government. For example, we are very pleased that the public sector pay cap is to be scrapped. However, we need to realise that expectations will need to be managed as there is a requirement to deliver on years of lost income for valued public servants.
Part of the discussion that we need to have is about tax powers, and the Scottish Green Party should be counted in on that discussion. Two years ago, we proposed using the new tax powers to cut taxes for people who are on lower-than-average incomes and to raise taxes for those who are on higher-than-average incomes. That is more progressive than the across-the-board rises that others are proposing, and it is entirely about making Scotland fairer and raising funds for high-quality public services. We will be happy to engage with others on the issue. However, we have one plea. Let us be creative with those powers rather than just making tweaks to a system that we have inherited from the United Kingdom Government. Last year, we got the Scottish Government to cancel a tax cut for higher earners, so let us see if we can go much further this time.
It has been suggested that this is the greenest programme ever. Time will tell, but in the interim, the Scottish Green Party will scrutinise. We recognise that we have no monopoly on environmental issues and we welcome the growing consensus that the planet faces significant challenges and that collaborative working is required.
Many of the First Minister’s announcements have the potential to mitigate climate change but, as ever, the devil is in the detail of, for example, the finances behind each of the announcements, the policies that will be developed, the way in which those policies will interact, their overall direction of travel, and their review and assessment.
I will talk about some of the policies individually. The phasing out of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 is to be welcomed, as is making the A9 Scotland’s first fully electric enabled road. If that is the plan, let us start from the north and head south from Thurso for once. It is a good ambition but, given the fact that many of the manufacturers are stopping making petrol and diesel engines, was it not going to happen anyway?
Shifting to electric cars can help to reduce air pollution and climate change emissions, but it will not tackle congestion. Investment in our railways, buses and bike lanes will do that. The programme for government says that the electric superhighway sends an important signal on the future of motorised transport in Scotland. It certainly does—it sends the signal that the motor car is still king.
There is a similar push to electrify the railway that runs alongside the A9. The Scottish Government had an aspiration to electrify all the lines between Scottish cities by 2030. Next year, the Highland main line will get refurbished high-speed trains. I spoke to a rail expert about that and he described them as diesel guzzlers. Surely that situation cannot go on beyond 2030, because those trains will be more than 50 years old.
We welcome the doubling of funding for active travel to £80 million from 2018-19 but that, of course, reflects the previous underinvestment and should be compared with the annual £150 million subsidy that the Scottish Government plans to give the most polluting form of transport by cutting the air departure tax. A cut for aviation will increase inequalities, which is entirely inconsistent with the Scottish Government’s commitment to social equality. Aviation is used disproportionately by those in higher income groups, and 70 per cent of all flights in the UK are taken by the wealthiest 50 per cent of the population.
In contrast, people on lower incomes depend disproportionately on buses, walking and cycling, and the recent Scottish budget saw spending frozen on those modes of transport. To put the £150 million into perspective, it is almost three times the total support for buses through the bus service operators grant. We welcome the extension of the bus fund, but it is quite apparent that the Scottish Government has low expectations for buses. Indeed, our transport minister recently said:
“Our own survey data shows that the proportion of bus journeys undertaken in rural areas is significantly lower than that of urban areas. As such, currently in rural areas there can be limited capacity for mode shift to bus.”—[Written Answers, 14 March 2017; S5W-7631.]
There is no reason to believe that that is a limiting factor in modal shift. Rather, it is a recognition of the shortcomings in the quality of transport in semi-rural and rural areas. However, the Scottish Government’s position was that it did not envisage growth in bus use. I hope that the new approach signals a change.
On the innovation fund, the £60 million to deliver wider low-carbon energy infrastructure solutions for Scotland is very welcome. It will, of course, take a lot of energy in every respect to deliver on that. A bill is coming up on planning, which the Green Party maintains a keen interest in. There are opportunities to reflect some of the policy announcements in the decisions that are taken on that bill.
I turn to the ScotRail franchise contract. We welcome the cross-party engagement. The Scottish Green Party’s call is unequivocal: we want to see rail nationalised. Although that is not presently possible, we would like the service to act like ferries in serving our communities, not shareholders.
Low-emission zones in the four largest cities are very welcome. That announcement is maybe an example of Green pressure bearing fruit. My colleague Mark Ruskell led a debate on the issue earlier this year and has asked questions at First Minister’s question time on it. Of course we welcome the creation of four zones in the cities, but there are 38 pollution hotspots across Scotland in a number of areas, including in Inverness, which is my home town. There must be consultation. In the consultation that is going on, the Scottish Government must consider the funding options and it must jointly fund with the local authorities.
The advisory group on reducing waste, the possible levy on coffee cups and the deposit return scheme are good.
On what is missing, a Government that allowed dogs to be mutilated could have offset that shameful episode by having a complete ban on fox hunting and closed-circuit television in abattoirs.
The announcement on a human rights advisory group is very welcome.
The position on education is unacceptable. In addition to a reform of school governance, the plans include
“a comprehensive review of how local decisions are made and how local democracy is working”.
Education is a huge part of local government, and if the Government proceeds as planned, local democracy will not work. I ask the Government to listen to the range of voices on that.
Finally, I welcome, of course, the announcement on care for under-65s with degenerative illnesses. I hope, like the cabinet secretary, that Westminster will not claw back the benefits.
The presumption against custodial sentences of 12 months is very positive, but Conservative colleagues would do well to understand the intention and that sentencing judges have autonomy. Sheriffs must, of course, have confidence in alternatives to custody. The £20 million for drug and alcohol services has to take into account the moneys that have been lost.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
- John Finnie:
I thank the Government for the support for the proposed bill on equal protection from assault for children. I hope that it does the same for my colleague Mark Ruskell’s proposed 20mph limit bill.