The first 12 minutes from First Minister’s Questions on the 17th March is little short of amazing.* I have included the relevant extracts from the official report at the Scottish Parliament website, and rendered especially relevant sections in bold, just so any readers can properly analyse what was said – and not said – in said exchange.
Consider: based on that exchange – and it is hardly unrepresentative of the opposition – who would you prefer to be the First Minister of Scotland?
*Greenock & Inverclyde’s candidate Stuart McMillan also has a starring role in this installment of FMQ, beginning from 26:30, asking the First Minister for her response to the UK budget which has ended up the cause of such a kerfuffle. Gaun yersel, Stu!
We now move to First Minister’s Questions. Question Number One: Kezia Dugdale.
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S4F-03298)
Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
After yesterday’s budget, we can start today on a consensual note. Both the First Minister and I agree that George Osborne’s spending plans are bad for Scotland. In fact, it was a typical Tory budget, with tax cuts for the top 15 per cent of earners but spending cuts for everyone else. When our schools are facing cuts and thousands of people are losing their jobs, a tax cut for high earners cannot be the priority. When the powers are devolved next year, Scottish Labour would reverse that tax cut for the top 15 per cent. Can the First Minister confirm whether the Scottish National Party would do the same?
We will set out our detailed income tax proposals early next week, and they will be based on our judgment of what is right for Scotland now and in the long term. However, let me be absolutely clear today: a large tax cut for 10 per cent, actually, of the population—those on the highest incomes—at a time when support for the disabled is being cut and our public services are under pressure is, in my view, the wrong choice. That money should be invested in our public services and in protecting the vulnerable. That is why I was so surprised yesterday to hear Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, say that he actually supports these tax cuts.
People listening will know that that was anything but a clear answer from the First Minister. [Interruption.]
Let me explain why. Nicola Sturgeon has said that this is the wrong choice, but she has not said that she would take a different one when she has the power to do so. [Interruption.]
Order. Let us hear Ms Dugdale.
This is an important issue about our priorities. Scottish Labour is absolutely resolute and we have been so since October—we would reverse George Osborne’s tax cut for the top 15 per cent because, when classroom assistants are being cut and teachers are having to buy their own materials, when the gap between the richest and the poorest kids is as stubborn as ever and when thousands of people are losing their jobs because of cuts to councils, a tax cut for the better-off simply cannot be a priority. This Parliament should not be a conveyor belt for Tory austerity. [Interruption.]
The First Minister has spent her entire career arguing that more powers mean fewer cuts. People deserve a clear answer, so I will ask her once again. Will she back Labour’s plans to reverse George Osborne’s tax cut for the top 15 per cent—yes or no?
If we can just dispense for a moment or two with the mock indignation, we should reflect on the fact that, for any fair-minded person who was actually willing to listen to my answer, it was a very, very clear answer indeed.
I said that the choice of giving a fairly hefty tax cut to 10 per cent of the population—the highest income earners in our country—was the wrong choice. I think that that is fairly clear. I then said that we will set out our plans for income tax early next week. I have always said that we would set them out prior to the dissolution of this Parliament, and that is what we will do. Finally, I said that I thought that we should and would choose to invest that money instead in our public services and protecting the vulnerable. I think that anybody who is fair minded who was listening to what I said will find that a very clear answer indeed.
That is why I say to Kezia Dugdale that, given that I am answering the question very clearly, perhaps she should not waste her energy on trying to persuade me of this argument. Instead, she should use her energy on trying to persuade Labour’s shadow chancellor, who said yesterday that Labour would support the increase in the 40p threshold.
Twice I have asked the First Minister—[Interruption.]
Twice I have asked the First Minister whether she will reverse George Osborne’s tax cut for the top 15 per cent, and both times she has told me that she does not support the plan. However, she has not yet said whether she would reverse it.
The new tax powers that are coming to Scotland give us a real opportunity to stop George Osborne’s cuts. I have already said that this Parliament is surely not a place that should pass on Tory austerity; instead, it should stop it. Faced with the choice between using the powers of this Parliament to invest and carrying on with the cuts, we can choose to use the powers.
If we cannot get a clear answer about the top 15 per cent, let us see whether we can get one about the very richest few. I believe that the top 1 per cent—or those who earn more than £150,000 a year—should pay more tax so that we can invest in education. Page 5 of last year’s Scottish National Party manifesto says:
“We will also vote for … the reintroduction of the”
50p top rate of tax. Will this year’s manifesto make the same commitment?
The problem for Kezia Dugdale is that the people who are watching this are starting to laugh not with her but at her as she pointedly refuses to hear what I am saying. Let me try again—[Interruption.]
Let us hear the First Minister, Mr Bibby.
—and let me make it as simple as possible: the Scottish Government will set out our detailed income tax proposals early next week, before the dissolution of Parliament, as we have committed to doing.
Secondly, I have said and will say again—now, I think, for the third time—that the chancellor’s decision yesterday, in a budget in which he cut support for the disabled, confirmed that the Scottish Government’s budget between now and 2020 will reduce by £1 billion in real terms and piled more pressure on our public services, to give a large tax cut to the 10 per cent of the population at the highest end of the income spectrum is the wrong choice. Clearly if I think that it is the wrong choice, it is not a choice that I am going to make myself. Perhaps that is simple enough for Kezia Dugdale.
At a time when our services are under pressure, it is important that we protect our public services and, of course, protect the things that taxpayers in Scotland enjoy but which taxpayers in England do not, such as free education for young people going to university, free personal care for our older people and free medicines for people who are sick. I will continue to take decisions that are fair and balanced and which are in the interests of people across our country, in the interests of our public services and in the interests of our economy, and I will leave Labour to its increasingly desperate battle to hang on to second place.
I think that the people watching this at home are wondering why the First Minister of Scotland cannot answer a question with a simple yes or no. [Interruption.]
That answer was a bit like the First Minister’s answer about fracking. She says that she is highly sceptical, but she will not actually spell out how she will do it any differently.
The First Minister tells us that she is against the cuts and opposes Westminster’s austerity agenda, but when faced with a choice between using the powers of this Parliament to invest and carrying on with the cuts, she chooses cuts and refuses to use the powers. She has just stripped £500 million out of school budgets and vital public services; she will not confirm that she will reverse Osborne’s tax cut for the top 15 per cent; and she will not even commit to her manifesto pledge from last year on the 50p tax rate.
The powers of this Parliament mean that we can choose a different path from the Tories. We have a choice: we can either wring our hands and wave the cuts through, as the SNP chooses to do, or we can use the new tax powers to end austerity, which is what Labour argues for.
Is there any power that the First Minister is prepared to use to stop the cuts?
Kezia Dugdale’s line of questioning reminds me of the Labour Party in Scotland in general—it is going absolutely nowhere. When Kezia Dugdale was scripting these questions, you would think that she would have factored in the possibility that I would answer the question at the first time of asking, and that she would have the ability to amend her subsequent questions.
Let me say, for the fourth time, that I think that George Osborne’s decision to cut taxes for the 10 per cent of the population at the highest end of the income spectrum is the wrong choice, and that I will not take the same choice. I have said that four times; surely somebody on the Labour benches must have understood me. [Interruption.]
Unlike Labour, I have also set out what I will do with local taxation. We have not heard Labour comment on that yet. I have set out plans for local taxation and, in a few days, I will set out plans for income tax. Taken together, those plans will be fair, reasonable and balanced, and they will protect our public services and our economy. I will continue to argue in favour of that position, and perhaps that is why trust for this Scottish Government is at an all-time high. Perhaps Kezia Dugdale will want to reflect on that when she continues in opposition, on whatever side of the chamber that might be.
And that’s why she’s our First Minister.
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