Iain Gray : A Better Scotland

View the video Iain Gray : A Better Scotland

Scottish Government's programme Speech in the Scottish Parliament 3 September 2008

I will comment on the Government's programme from the perspective of my party's commitment to our central purpose when we were in power, which was economic growth and social justice.

We regard the two as being absolutely inseparable but, during the summer, the First Minister confirmed his view that it is possible to separate economic policy from its social consequences—that we can somehow separate pit closures from the devastation in mining communities.

The great fear is that because the Government's overarching commitment is to only one priority—sustainable economic growth—it may abdicate its responsibility on social justice or naively presume that social good will inevitably emerge from economic activity, when we know that that cannot be the case.

I am concerned that there appears to be no reference to tackling gender, race or disability inequality and no mention of community regeneration and the deep-rooted inequalities in some communities.

We all know that no advance in equality ever happened by accident, and that it is absolutely critical to scrutinise spend with proper understanding and to use evidence about whom it benefits.

I seek reassurance that the SNP will learn the lessons of its first year in power and equality proof its budget and reflect on its decision to accept single outcome agreements without any evidence of equality impact assessments.

I recently met representatives of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to discuss that very issue.

They were obviously concerned, but they told me that the explanation is that the timetable is too tight to expect local authorities to fulfil that responsibility.

That seems to be a perverse argument, given that the Government established the timetable.

I am gravely concerned that the single outcome agreements, which will determine so much in addressing inequality, will not undergo that impact assessment.

The proposed abolition of council tax makes my case.

It is evident that an equality impact assessment of the proposal would confirm that it would not affect the most disadvantaged people because they do not pay council tax, and that those people would suffer disproportionately as a result of the cuts in services that would necessarily follow as a consequence of the largest tax cut, which was so proudly vaunted earlier.

Bill Wilson (West of Scotland) (SNP): Will the member give way?

Johann Lamont: Let me finish this point.

SNP members can argue for council tax abolition if they wish, but it is unacceptable to assert that it would address inequality, when it would not.

Bill Wilson: I find it remarkable that Johann Lamont seems to be saying that people on low incomes who may be in poverty do not pay council tax.

Johann Lamont: If the member had listened carefully, he would know that I said that "the most disadvantaged people" do not pay council tax.

It is claimed that abolition of the council tax would meet the needs of the most disadvantaged people.

SNP members can support abolition if they will, but they should not use the poor to defend the policy.

There are serious issues in housing for whoever is in power.

I was determined not to be provoked by the response of the Scottish Government to the announcements by the UK Government.

I was depressed, however, by the line that was taken, which was, "They have copied us."

Even if that were true, which it is not, it is hardly an adequate response to the serious issues that we all face.

The £100 million that has been committed by the Government has been welcomed.

I welcomed it because I asked the Government to release it, but all through the summer it refused to do so, then it did so through pressure.

There are hard questions around that £100 million.

The housing minister confirmed that £40 million of it has not yet been agreed.

The Government has to understand the consequences of the anxiety that that creates.

I do not have time to go into all the housing issues, but I urge the Government to listen—if not to me, then to the housing sector, which says that the Government's core approach is damaging.

If the Government has the stature to reverse its decision in "Firm Foundations: The Future of Housing in Scotland", it will have our support.

I return in my last minute to social justice.

The minister might wish to reflect on the article in Third Force News that highlights the anxieties of the voluntary sector about what is happening to the fairer Scotland fund, which has, of course, been cut.

The sector says that it is being squeezed out of the social inclusion process.

We all know how important that process is to housing in particular.

I urge the Scottish Government not just to assert its commitment to equality and social justice, but to show its seriousness, if not in response to me then to the serious people in the sector.

Its budget decisions and programme for government should show that, unlike the First Minister, it understands the absolute centrality of economic and social factors in determining Government action.