Cuts at councils, where education makes up 40 per cent of revenue budgets, are biting hard.
This week, over two days, Parliament debated "Taking Scotland Forward". For the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie opened our contribution to the debate, and Mark Ruskell closed. Read on to see what Mark had to say...
Listening to the debate over the past two days, I sense that the Parliament has some of the freshness of the first session in 1999, particularly given the large influx of new members. There is also much of the political diversity that flavoured the rainbow Parliament of the second session, and it was good to hear Labour members—for example, Richard Leonard and Mark Griffin—dig deep into their party’s socialist roots and find resonance in the struggles that workers and communities face today.
It was also interesting to hear from the big tent of unusual suspects that has popped up over on the right, including Maurice Golden and Annie Wells. I wish that Mr Golden had got a job as Murdo Fraser’s speechwriter, but I thank him instead for announcing that the Tories are opposed to waste incineration in Scotland. That is interesting news.
There is also some of the finely balanced parliamentary maths of the third session that I hope will deliver a listening Government with the strongest constructively critical Parliament to date. In that vein, along with Rhoda Grant, I welcome the meeting that the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, convened yesterday, which was focused on delivering an immediate solution to the CAP payments fiasco while respecting that the Parliament will want to forensically pick over the lessons learned when the time is right.
As Patrick Harvie has already done, I welcome the First Minister’s commitments to the Green proposals for supporting young carers and the Parliament’s resolve to develop what Christina McKelvie described yesterday as a welfare system that delivers dignity not disdain.
There is much that unites us across the chamber and much cross-party work to do, such as extending childcare, addressing mental health service, providing new affordable housing and supporting small business. However, there are fault lines in the chamber, and the rot of austerity that has been creeping through local government in recent years must be halted.
As Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday, we need to put local communities more in charge of decisions. The hollowing out of capacity in local government that I have seen over the past four years has been devastating. Yes, there have been efficiency savings that make sense—digital service delivery is one such area and the integration of health and social care is another—but there have also been cuts that have borne down particularly on women and the vulnerable; that is inexcusable.
Let me take the central theme of the debate: school education. Although Jenny Gilruth gave a compelling first speech in the chamber, most teachers in Scotland would not recognise the picture that she painted. Although funding for teacher numbers is protected and there has been a consensus on delivering targeted attainment funds, the Government must recognise that cuts at councils, where education makes up 40 per cent of revenue budgets, are biting hard. With rising class sizes, cuts to additional support and specialists and cuts to teacher training and resource budgets, the ability of schools and nurseries to drive attainment is being stretched to breaking point. Do not even mention national testing to primary teachers who have class sizes of 32 and who every night take home 100 jotters to mark.
I welcome the fact that the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has come to the chamber to announce the work that he is undertaking with the Scottish Qualifications Authority. If there is a crisis in education, however, it comes not from the implementation of child protection laws, as Ruth Davidson would have us believe, but from the austerity that council education departments face and the erosion of core resources and specialist support.
Patrick Harvie reflected on Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to participatory budgeting. Most councils are moving towards budget consultations, but they are all about choices over cuts. Would people rather see school music tuition or rural bus services go, or see headteachers split between three schools or road maintenance budgets cut? Bruce Crawford wonders why education has, as he puts it, weaponised. It is hardly any wonder.
The top question asked at every participatory budget meeting to which I have gone is: why can we not raise more money to protect local public services? That is the question that the Government must answer if it is serious about empowerment. The Scottish Government must apply to the relationship between Scottish local government and Holyrood the principles of fiscal autonomy and a fair fiscal framework that are applied between Holyrood and Westminster.
I am pleased that the First Minister has agreed to implement in full her poverty adviser’s report. She will note that a key recommendation of that was to be bold on tax. As Alex Rowley said, we cannot deliver Scandinavian levels of public services with American levels of taxation. It is time for action to create a bold, progressive reform of our tax system that lowers the burden on those who cannot afford to pay more while ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders pay more, including MSPs and the many public sector executives in Scotland who earn more than £150,000 a year.
I turn briefly to climate change. We have a moral obligation to set the most ambitious climate targets that reflect our position as a renewables-rich country, but there is much that we can gain, too. We can create jobs, tackle fuel poverty, tackle the chronic obesity crisis that we have in our communities and link communities that are disconnected from the rail network by investing in low-carbon infrastructure for the future.
There is much to talk about in the chamber and I am sure that we will get on to many of those topics next week. Members on the Green benches will challenge and provide ideas. We will provide ambition and boldness in this Parliament and we will be constructively critical in our scrutiny. I look forward to all of us playing that role in the next five years.