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26 September 2013

(S4F-01587) Royal Mail Privatisation

4. Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

To ask the First Minister whether the Prime Minister has responded to his letter calling for a moratorium on the privatisation of the Royal Mail. (S4F-01587)

The First Minister (Alex Salmond): I am disappointed that I have not yet heard from the Prime Minister. It is clear that the people of Scotland resoundingly do not want this misguided privatisation and that the moratorium should be confirmed as soon as possible.

Stewart Stevenson: It is surprising that the First Minister has not had a response.

Yesterday, Labour Party members, at their conference in Brighton, overwhelmingly backed a resolution that called for the renationalisation of the Royal Mail should the sell-off go ahead. Will the First Minister urge Mr Miliband to back the position of the Scottish Government by publicly endorsing the views of his party, which could render the privatisation infeasible?

The First Minister: It is true that I have not had a response from the Prime Minister, but I seem to have got a response from the Labour Party conference, which is all to the good. Now that, after six months, the Labour Party has followed the Scottish National Party policy of repeal of the bedroom tax, we should welcome the Labour conference’s endorsement of our call to take the Royal Mail back into public hands.

I am told that the resolution was passed overwhelmingly. I hear that it might even have been passed unanimously. I presume that that means that the Scottish delegates at the conference, such as Johann Lamont, voted for the renationalisation of the Royal Mail. [Interruption].

I do not know why Johann Lamont is pointing; I am just saying that if the resolution was passed nearly unanimously, I assume that she was there, speaking for the majority wishes of the unions and Labour Party members. That makes the attacks that I had from MSPs following First Minister’s questions last week all the more strange. So, which is it: the response to public ownership that we saw so resoundingly from the Labour conference, or the back calling at the SNP that we saw from Labour MSPs last week?

25 September 2013

(S4O-02423) Fuel Poverty

2. Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

To ask the Scottish Government how the draft budget supports people affected by fuel poverty. (S4O-02423)

The Minister for Housing and Welfare (Margaret Burgess): The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth announced the Scottish Government’s spending plans for 2014-15 and 2015-16 on Wednesday 11 September. For fuel poverty, he announced a budget of £79 million in both years. As with this year’s budget allocation, we will use our funding to lever in private sector funding from the utility companies that are seeking to meet their obligations under the energy companies obligation to create a fund of £200 million per annum. That will be used for both area-based and national scheme delivery through our HEEPS—home energy efficiency programme Scotland—schemes. The budget will address the fuel poverty forum’s interim report recommendations on Scottish Government funding programmes, continue to support our targets to eradicate fuel poverty as far as practicable by 2016, and contribute to meeting our climate change commitments.

Stewart Stevenson: Does the minister agree that, at 31 per cent among rural dwellers in Aberdeenshire, current levels of fuel poverty are unacceptably high? I very much welcome the financial support that the minister has identified. With the full powers of an independent country, what more could we do besides putting in place the mitigations that are currently available to us?

Margaret Burgess: The member will be pleased to know that, under our current measures, Aberdeenshire Council has the second-highest allocation in Scotland, at £4.4 million. That will provide assistance to just under 2,500 households in the area. I am sure that the member will be pleased to note that. Alongside what we are currently doing, the Scottish ministers continue to work to protect the interests of consumers. In the future, the expert commission on energy regulation will look to provide evidence on what improvements could be made to Scotland’s stewardship of electricity and gas regulation in an independent Scotland. The commission will provide advice on ways in which an independent Scotland could promote fairer, more affordable energy prices, given the need to address fuel poverty, and measures to improve energy efficiency.

Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab): With an estimated 29 per cent of Scottish households currently living in fuel poverty—a level that has failed to drop below 25 per cent since 2007—can the minister inform us how the national retrofit programme will ensure that Scotland meets its 2016 target? Is the minister supportive of the Labour Party’s energy price freeze commitment?

Margaret Burgess: To repeat what I said earlier, we will continue to work to protect the interests of Scottish consumers and continue to fund the HEEPS programme, which is providing measures throughout the whole of Scotland—unlike the United Kingdom Government, which has put zero into that. On the other question, there are some big ifs in that. If there were a future Labour Government, it is unclear how it would implement that future policy. Has Labour spoken to the fuel companies and what is their commitment? What would be the eventual impact on fuel bills?

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I will allow a brief question from Alex Johnstone.

Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con): As the minister will be aware, one of the reasons for high fuel costs in rural areas is the high cost of off-grid gas and oil supplies for heating. What advice and support can the Government give to those who seek to create buying clubs to cut the cost of off-grid supplies?

Margaret Burgess: We are currently looking at that issue. We have been in discussion with some rural communities, particularly in the islands—I discussed the issue when I was up there during the summer recess—and we continue to talk with them about that. We well appreciate the difficulties that island and rural communities face because they are off grid, as the member mentioned. I would be willing to sit down with the member to inform him what discussions we have had so far and where those are going. If he has any other suggestions to offer, I am willing to discuss them with him.

4 September 2013

(S4O-02326) Oil Fund

Drew Smith (Glasgow) (Lab): 5. To ask the Scottish Government in what year it anticipates an oil fund could be set up in an independent Scotland. (S4O-02326)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth (John Swinney): The fiscal commission working group is developing a fiscal framework to ensure that, from the outset, an independent Scotland will have in place a mechanism to manage year-on-year changes in oil and gas revenues and to ensure that, when appropriate, a proportion of those receipts is invested for the long-term benefit of the people of Scotland. The fiscal commission working group will in the coming weeks publish a report on the operation of an oil stabilisation and savings fund.

Drew Smith: I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer—although he did not provide us with a better answer than the Deputy First Minister managed on Radio Scotland yesterday.

Does the cabinet secretary at least accept that tax revenues from the North Sea cannot be spent twice in an independent Scotland, any more than they can be in any other country? Given the conflicting views that have so far been expressed by Scottish ministers on the matter, will he tell us now whether he plans to take money from public services to pay into an oil fund while Scotland remains in deficit?

John Swinney: The Scottish Government’s position on an oil fund has been absolutely consistent, and it is that we can contribute to an oil fund only when the circumstances and opportunities enable us to do so.

The illustration that I give to Mr Smith is about the last year for which information is available. That information shows that, in 2011-12, Scotland had a relative financial surplus of £4.4 billion. To translate that into other language—for the benefit of Mr Smith—that means that Scotland was in a stronger position, in terms of our public finances, than the rest of the UK. That opens up choices for Scotland to spend more of that differential advantage, to invest more in an oil fund or to reduce the level to which we borrow. However, those opportunities will arise only if we are able to exercise the control that would enable Scotland to take those decisions and to have the responsibility for doing so. Of course, we cannot do that under the current constitutional settlement and will not, if Mr Smith has his way, be able to do it in the foreseeable future.

Scotland has experienced a wasted opportunity because of the way in which our oil revenues have been mismanaged since the 1970s by UK Governments. This is the opportunity for Scotland to take control of those issues and to ensure that we have the ability to invest the wealth of Scotland to create the most secure possible future for the people of Scotland. That will arise only out of independence.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP): Does the cabinet secretary agree that Alistair Darling was being honest when he was interviewed on the BBC’s “Hardtalk” on 19 August and conceded that UK Governments have wasted oil revenues by not investing in an oil fund? Will the cabinet secretary note that, in that interview, Alistair Darling admitted that there was no question but that Scotland can be successfully independent?

John Swinney: Alistair Darling’s comments are an interesting departure from all that he presided over when he was a minister in the United Kingdom Government. His admission that Scotland has the ability, the capability and the resources to be independent is a welcome concession at such a late date. Given the fact that he has been part of the regime that has so wasted Scotland’s oil resources, his admission that he now sees the advantages of an oil fund is also welcome. Of course, he is not alone—many other commentators have recognised exactly the point that Mr Darling has now made—but it is welcome when we have some conversions in the arguments that our political opponents put forward.

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