Willie Rennie’s programme for government: Better schools, mental health care, more democracy in police

Yesterday the Scottish Government unveiled its Programme for Government for the coming year. It wouldn’t have to go far to beat last year’s which saw precious little legislation. However, there is some stuff that we can welcome, so long as it delivers what it says on the tin. Lib Dems pardons for those convicted of consensual same sex activity, consultation on gender recognition and more inclusive sex education, presumption against prison sentences under 12 months, free personal care for people under 65 with seriously disabling conditions and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12. This last measure is one which they shamefully and resolutely refused to do during the last Parliament despite pressure from the then Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesperson Alison McInnes.

There is still precious little investment in mental health. The warm words doesn’t match up to the facilities available on the ground. One real pinch point is the transition from child to adult mental health services. Young people have to wait up to a year and more to even be seen by the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Once they have managed to be seen, the treatment is good – but when they hit 18, there is very little for them and the services are arranged in a very different way. A child can go from fairly intensive support to nothing.

Below is Willie Rennie’s full speech in response to the Government’s programme in which he sets out Lib Dem priorities of using the tax powers to invest in education and to provide more and better mental health services.

He also suggests that the Lib Dems are sceptical about Holyrood voting against the European Withdrawal Bill because he thinks that the SNP are using it to drive a wedge between Scotland and England. Certainly the issue is more complex – both Scotland’s governments are letting it down in this regard.

“On Saturday afternoon, together with Alex Cole Hamilton, I joined a group of breast cancer survivors called the Port Edgar Dragons.  We were on their magnificent dragon boat Isla May on the River Forth.  They are a wonderful group of women who show gutsy human spirit to improve their health.

We had an alternative view of the Queensferry Crossing whilst thousands of lucky people enjoyed a stroll over the magnificent new structure.  The engineers and workers should be proud of their achievement.

“Those who argued it was not necessary only need cast their mind back to the winter of 2015 when the old bridge was forced to close or a little further back when it was discovered that the main cables were corroding.

“As with any project of that scale it has not been without its problems but it was a necessary investment to guarantee one of the major arteries down the east of the country.

“The summer recess should have allowed us all to reflect on one of the most turbulent periods in politics for some time.  With nine sets of elections and referendums in the last six years people have had their fill.

“People want elected politicians to deliver real improvements to their lives. They are fed up with the endless focus on independence. To give credit to the First Minister she recognised that in June when she signalled that she was cooling on independence.  I was sceptical at the time and will always be suspicious but for now we have a chance to focus on real change.

“And today’s announcement on a presumption against prisons sentences of twelve months or less is a start.  We have been calling for this for some time.

“After opposing it twice I am pleased to see the SNP are now prepared to raise the age of criminal responsibility. These are real liberal measures which we will support. Yet the problems our country faces are significant.

“The statement from the First Minister today confirms that former ministers speaking out are right.  The SNP has a lack of ideas, the fire has gone and they are stuck in an ivory tower.

“Let’s look at where we are. The waits for mental health treatment are far too long.  Today we hear that more young people are waiting for longer than the last period. The situation is getting worse not better.

“The international standing of our education system is slipping. The fallout from the botched centralisation of our police continues. The recruitment of sufficient nurses, doctors and teachers is posing real issues in our schools and NHS. The expansion of off-shore renewable energy is lagging behind. The First Minister talked about the economy.

“This time last year the Scottish Government said its flagship was a £500m Scottish Growth Fund that would pay out guarantees and loans to Scottish business. No loans or guarantees have been paid out.

“In fact, the promised changes to parliamentary procedure to allow these to happen haven’t even been tabled a year later.

“The Scottish Government switched some of this scheme to equity funding in June. Equity funding is something that Scottish Enterprise has been doing since it was set up in 1991, so I am not sure why it needed a nine month delay.

“This was supposed to be an urgent response to the economy. So we will scrutinise today’s proposals to see if they amount to much.

“When my party was in Government we implemented the McCrone agreement for teachers.  The deal on pay and conditions valued the work of our teachers.   We need a new McCrone agreement to address the workload and recruitment issues of today.  This would be one of the important steps we could take to reverse the decline in our international education standing.

“With the budget ahead there is a chance to inject investment into education for the nursery education roll out, schools and colleges – especially for women and mature students.  We have proposed £500million paid for by a modest penny on income tax – using the new powers of this parliament.

“On health we have to treat mental health as the answer to long-term NHS sustainability.

“We should value the workforce and offer, in particular, good careers for staff in remote and rural areas.

“We need to address the recruitment problems in the NHS.  Today we have heard about nurse shortages but there are major problems with GPs too.  People are waiting for weeks to see their GP and many GPs are handing back the practice to the health board.  There is little point the SNP Government boasting about staff numbers when the NHS is short of what is required.

“With the departure of the Chairman of the Scottish Police Authority we believe there is an opportunity to inject democracy back into the police.  The appointment of the new Chairman should be with the agreement of this parliament just like the appointment of the Children, Information and other commissioners.

“At the General Election we proposed to lift the public sector pay cap.  The UK proposal was to boost the pay of teachers, nurses, soldiers and care workers by £780 by 2021.  This would be a welcome change after years of effective cuts in pay.  Of course we need to work within the recommendations of the public sector pay bodies and within Scottish resources but believe the Scottish Government should take the initiative to lift the pay cap.

“Our plan is based on using investment to deliver reform, investing in the talents of our people to achieve great things, to lift the economy, decentralising power and bringing back democracy.

“I am afraid the Conservatives reckless gamble on Europe means that the House of Parliament will be dominated by that subject for some time.

“We remain of the view that Brexit will be damaging.  You only need to visit the fruit farms of North East Fife to realise the economic impact of losing thousands of seasonal pickers from Europe.  A direct result of Brexit, the exchange rate and the perception of greater hostility to foreigners.

“And when the consequences of Brexit become clear we believe that there should be an exit chute. Even the most ardent Euro sceptic on the Conservative benches did not vote for Brexit to make us poorer.  And Conservative MSPs, just like everyone else, should have the right to turn back if it will damage our country.

“It should be the British people that decide what’s next which is why I am sceptical of talk of a Holyrood veto on Brexit.  This is not a Scottish-English battle it is about the economic and social wellbeing of the whole of our country.  We will talk to the SNP Government about how to handle Brexit in this parliament but we are not interested in driving a wedge between Scotland and England.

“This parliamentary term is a new opportunity to deliver change now and that there is a possibility of putting the divisions of independence behind us.  We have put forward constructive proposals.  The big question is this: will the Scottish Parliament and this government seize that opportunity.”

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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