The Scottish Parliament in session at Holyrood in Edinburgh.

By Bill Heaney

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament this week that she is involved in talks with the Scottish Green Party to reach a formal agreement.

She ended the sentence with three important words – “If we can”.

The talks will focus on exactly what the content, extent and scope of any agreement will be., she said.

Ms Sturgeon added: “Any agreement that emerges from the talks will be subject to the necessary approval processes of the Cabinet and each of our parties.”

The First Ministertold MSPs: “During the election campaign, my party promised to focus on steering Scotland through the Covid crisis, we set out an ambitious programme to drive recovery and we pledged to give people in Scotland a choice over our future when the crisis has passed. We were elected on a clear mandate, with a record number of votes, to deliver on those commitments, and that is what we intend to do.

We have already started that work. Our most immediate priority is to lead Scotland safely through and out of the pandemic. To that end, we will steer a careful course back to normality. We will support our test and protect teams, we will implement enhanced public health measures when outbreaks arise and we will deliver vaccinations as quickly as supplies allow. We will also work with the business sector, to provide as much clarity and support as possible.

“We recognise that, as we come out of the pandemic, there will be bumps in the road, as we are experiencing in Glasgow just now. However, the vaccine roll-out gives us firm hope that we are on the right track. Therefore, over the next three weeks, we will set out our expectations for the stage beyond level 0, as—we hope—we return to a much greater degree of normality.

We will also act now to learn lessons for the future. We have already committed to there being a comprehensive public inquiry and, within our first 100 days, we will establish a standing committee on pandemics. We will also lead a wider mission of national recovery and renewal. I have appointed the Deputy First Minister [John Swinney] as Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery, and today he will convene the first meeting of the new cross-party steering group on Covid recovery.

A central part of the Government’s programme is to support our national health service. In our first 100 days, we will publish an NHS recovery plan setting out how we will achieve a 10 per cent increase in activity in key services. We are already implementing a 4 per cent average pay increase this year for NHS agenda for change staff. That increase, backdated to December, will be in payslips from next month.

“Further, we are on course to open the first three rapid diagnostic centres for cancer. The Dumfries and Galloway centre opened last week and saw its first patient on Monday. Centres in Fife and in Ayrshire and Arran will open in the next few weeks.

“As part of our 100-day plan, we are taking steps to permanently end charges in private finance initiative hospital car parks. We will prepare legislation to remove dental charges for care leavers, as the first step towards abolishing dental charges altogether. We will also publish a women’s health plan.

“During the course of this parliamentary session, we will increase spending on the NHS in Scotland by at least 20 per cent. We will complete construction of the new elective treatment centres and, by 2025, recruit an additional 1,500 staff to work in them.

“Over the next decade, we will invest £10 billion in the NHS estate to support the renewal and replacement of health facilities across the country, including the Edinburgh eye pavilion here in our capital city.

“One important investment that I can announce today is the £12 million that we are providing to take East Ayrshire community hospital into full NHS ownership, bringing its PFI contract to an early close. We will also increase direct investment in mental health services by 25 per cent over the course of this session, and we will deliver on action to reduce the unacceptable toll of drug deaths in our country.

“The pandemic has brought home to all of us just how much we rely on care services and carers. I can therefore confirm that in our first 100 days we will legislate to ensure that all those who receive the carers allowance supplement will in December receive a double payment, worth £460.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “Moreover, in our first 100 days we will begin the consultation on legislation to establish a national care service. We intend to introduce that legislation during the first year of this session and expect the service to be operational by the end of it. It will, in my view, be the most important public sector innovation since the establishment of our national health service.

“We will also during the first 100 days complete one of the previous Parliament’s major legacies. From August, all three and four-year-olds, and two-year-olds who need it most, will be eligible for more than 1,100 hours of free early learning and childcare each year. In this session, we will expand childcare further by developing the provision of wraparound care and after-school clubs.

“We will also continue our work to close the school attainment gap. In our first 100 days, we will publish the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on Scottish education and start to implement its recommendations. We will provide local authorities with the first instalment of our expanded £1 billion Scottish attainment fund.

“We will fund councils for the first phase of our commitment to recruit 3,500 more teachers and classroom assistants. We will begin work to ensure that all children have access to a laptop or tablet and will take steps to remove charges for core curriculum activities and for music and arts education, including those for instrumental music tuition.

“”We will increase the school clothing grant and the best start food grant and—before we formally expand the Scottish child payment next year and prepare to double its value—we will provide interim support for eligible children, which will include a £100 payment near the start of the summer holidays.

“To support young adults we will, during this session, raise the age at which people become liable for council tax from 18 to 22. We will establish a new grant of £200 a year for care-experienced young people as part of our promise to those with experience of care. We will continue to develop the young persons guarantee, ensuring that every young person has the opportunity of education, training or work. We will fund colleges to deliver 5,000 short, industry-focused courses for young people and we will establish a green jobs academy and set out the next phase of our national transition training fund.

“That support for skills and young people is part of our wider mission to create a fairer Scotland. During our first 100 days, we will provide 40,000 digital devices to the households that need them most. We will develop a plan to tackle social isolation and loneliness. We will begin longer-term work to develop a minimum income guarantee. We will also invest the first part of our multiyear £100 million commitment to support specialist front-line organisations tackling domestic abuse and sexual violence.

“Throughout this session, we will also support safer communities by investing in our police and fire services and will continue to support good quality affordable housing. In our first 100 days, we will begin work on a new strategy for the rented sector and a review of student accommodation. We will invest a total of £3.5 billion during this session to support our pledge to deliver 100,000 new affordable homes by 2032. We will continue our work to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. We will invest a further £1.6 billion and introduce new housing standards to support the decarbonisation of heating.

“We will also work with councils, businesses and third sector organisations to improve local neighbourhoods. That will include legislation to support community wealth building and steps to ensure more local procurement. In our first 100 days, we will launch the Scotland loves local campaign to encourage more support for local businesses.

“That is just one of the ways in which we will promote economic recovery. During our first 100 days, we will establish a new council for economic transformation. We will support specific business sectors, including food and drink and tourism. We will publish a plan for the safe reopening of cultural venues and performances and we will work with the events sector to support its full resumption.

“We will continue to support our digital ambitions. In our first 100 days, we will restart the digital boost scheme and open a new 5G innovation centre in Dundee. We will fully implement the Logan review during this session. We will also complete our investment in the National Manufacturing Institute, continue to promote our vision for trade and increase infrastructure spending. We will also capitalise the Scottish National Investment Bank with a further £1 billion.

“We will work to ensure that our recovery is fair. We will promote fair work, including through public sector procurement. We will support women entrepreneurs with £50 million of funding for a women’s business centre. We will boost our rural economy through, for example, a rural entrepreneur fund. Over the course of this session, we will help willing companies to pilot a four-day working week as we explore whether the changes in working practices that have been brought about by the pandemic can improve wellbeing and productivity in the long term.

“We will also ensure that our recovery is a green one. In less than six months’ time, Glasgow is due to host the 26th UN climate change conference of the parties—COP26—the most important discussions to take place in the world this year, so in our first 100 days we will publish an indicative national defined contribution, setting out how Scotland will become a net zero nation by 2045.

“We will take further steps to decarbonise our transport network, including, in our first 100 days, beginning the process of taking ScotRail into public ownership. We will work with local authorities to resume low-emission zones in our cities and we will encourage active travel, which will include a scheme to provide bikes for children. “

Ms Sturgeon said the government would introduce legislation to make bus travel free for young people under the age of 22 and convene a bus decarbonisation task force to remove the majority of fossil-fuel buses from public transport by the end of 2023.

She added: “Over the parliamentary session, we will protect and enhance our natural habitats and reduce waste. We will increase woodland creation from 12,000 hectares a year to 18,000 hectares a year. Over this decade, we will invest more than £250 million in peatland restoration. We will ban single-use plastic cutlery, launch a deposit return scheme for single-use drinks containers and introduce a bill to promote the circular economy.

“Finally, we will work to seize the economic opportunities that a move to net zero will create. In our first 100 days, we will set out a strategic investment assessment, as we seek to support the offshore wind supply chain. Over the parliamentary session, we will invest £100 million to support the development of hydrogen technologies. We will help companies in high-carbon sectors transition to low-carbon technologies and services. As we do all that, we will stay true to the principle of a just transition, both here in Scotland and around the world.”

And she pleaded with her fellow parliamentarians: “In Scotland—and right across our world—we have massive challenges to confront and overcome: a global pandemic, the climate emergency, and the need to build an economic recovery that is strong, sustainable and fair. In the face of all that, people across Scotland expect—indeed, I suspect that they demand—a grown-up and co-operative approach to politics that puts the interests of the country first.”

Anas Sarwar, leader of the Scottish Labour Party told the First Minister: “I recognise the scale of the challenge that our country faces as we come through the pandemic. I am willing to work with anyone in the national interest on issues on which we agree. However, let us be clear: this is not day one of an SNP Government; it is day 5,136. Rhetoric is no longer enough—we need action.

It was good to see in the statement the Greens formalising and accepting their long-standing coalition of cuts, but this country needs a bold and ambitious Opposition and a credible alternative, which, under my leadership, Scottish Labour is determined to build.

This Government, too, must be bolder and more ambitious. If the First Minister is serious about focusing on recovery, will she commit, in the first 100 days, to delivering a genuine jobs guarantee scheme for young people and the long-term unemployed; to doubling the Scottish child payment to challenge child poverty; and to remobilising the national health service to confront cancer, which is Scotland’s biggest killer? Further, will she take urgent action to avert a repeat of the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s exams fiasco?”

Ms Sturgeon replied: “Anas Sarwar is right: this is not day one of an SNP Government; this is the beginning of a re-elected SNP’s term of government. The people of Scotland had the opportunity to pass judgment on—what did he say?—5,136 days of an SNP Government, and they re-elected it with a record number of votes.

“Everybody in the chamber, if they care about democracy, has to recognise that basic fact. However, I want to reach out and work together. Not long after the election, I initiated a meeting with Anas Sarwar that I thought was constructive, and I look to build on it.

“On the specifics that Anas Sarwar asked about, we have already established the young person’s guarantee and we are absolutely willing to have discussions about how we build and develop it. Our first budget will set out how we will proceed with the doubling of the Scottish child payment, which is something that we all want to do as quickly as possible.

“On cancer, the work to remobilise our NHS is already under way. I said in my statement that we have already opened, in Dumfries and Galloway, the first of the rapid diagnostic centres that I committed to during the election, and that two more will open over the next few weeks.

“All that work is under way. The Government will get on with it, whether or not the Opposition parties choose to co-operate with us. However, the door is open. Let us genuinely try to do our politics differently. Let us respect differences and debate them vigorously, but, yes, let us come together.

“During the campaign, Anas Sarwar, pictured left,  made much of wanting a different style of politics. It is now time to prove whether he is prepared to put that into action. He will find my door open and a real willingness for us all to work together.”

Lorna Slater, the joint Green Party leader with Dumbarton man Patrick Harvie said: “There is no doubt that the decisions that we make in this chamber over the coming years will shape the future of the whole of Scotland, our society and our place in the world.

“It is our responsibility to get it right, to come together and to take action to secure a fair and green recovery for Scotland. I look forward to our talks progressing.

“We need to roll up our sleeves and practise the grown-up politics of negotiation, co-operation and consensus building. A green recovery means jobs; it means leaving no one behind; and it means reducing carbon emissions and restoring our natural environment. We can succeed, but only if we all pull in the same direction.

Does the First Minster recognise that tackling the climate crisis and building a wellbeing economy means leaving our comfort zones and taking ever-bolder action? Will she integrate that objective across all levels of Government decision making?”

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