By Bill Heaney
Leading Scotland safely out of the pandemic, urgently confronting climate change, driving a green, fair economic recovery, and boosting opportunities for children and young people are among the core priorities in this year’s Programme for Government, published today.
The programme sets out plans for a record increase in frontline health spending, new legislation for a National Care Service, a system providing low-income families with free childcare before and after school and during holidays, and actions to drive forward Scotland’s national mission to end child poverty.
The programme also includes plans to help secure a just transition to net zero – creating opportunities for new, good and green jobs, making homes easier and greener to heat, and encouraging people to walk, wheel or cycle instead of driving.
Speaking in Parliament, the First Minister said: “This programme addresses the key challenges Scotland faces, and aims to shape a better future.
“It sets out how we will tackle the challenge of Covid, and rebuild from it. It outlines how we will address the deep-seated inequalities in our society. It shows how we will confront with urgency the climate emergency, in a way that captures maximum economic benefit. And it details the steps we will take to mitigate, as far as we can, the damaging consequences of Brexit while offering a better alternative.
“In the face of these challenges, our ambition must be bold. This programme sets out clear plans to lead Scotland out of the greatest health crisis in a century and transform our nation and the lives of those who live here.
“We will deliver a National Care Service; double the Scottish Child Payment; and invest in affordable, energy efficient homes and green travel.
“We will ensure that businesses have the support, and people have the skills, to succeed in the low carbon economy of the future. We will show global leadership in tackling the climate crisis. And we will offer people an informed choice on Scotland’s future. To that end, I can confirm that the Scottish Government will now restart work on the detailed prospectus that will guide the decision. The case for independence is a strong one and we will present it openly, frankly and with confidence and ambition.
“This programme addresses our current reality, but it also looks forward with confidence and ambition to a brighter future. It recognises that out of the many challenges we currently face, a better Scotland – as part of a better world – is waiting to be built.
Building on the progress from the first 100 days of this government, with the co-operation agreement with the Scottish Green Party at its heart, the PfG sets the scene for the next five years. Key commitments for over the course of this Parliament include:
- increasing frontline health spending by 20%, leading to an increase of at least £2.5 billion by 2026-27
- undertaking the biggest public service reform since the founding of the NHS – the creation of a National Care Service – with legislation brought forward by June next year
- improving national wellbeing with increased direct mental health investment of at least 25%, with £120 million this year to support the recovery and transformation of services
- investing £250 million to tackle the drugs deaths emergency over the next five years
- expanding the Scottish Child Payment to under-16s by the end of next year and doubling it to £20 a week as soon as possible after that, with a £520 bridging payment given to every child in receipt of free school meals this year
- investing a further £1 billion to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap and providing councils with funding to recruit 3,500 additional teachers and 500 classroom assistants
- providing free childcare to low income families before and after school and during holidays, and expanding free early learning and childcare to one and two year olds
- investing £100 million over the next three years to support frontline services for preventing violence against women and girls
- providing £1.8 billion to make homes easier and greener to heat, as part of a commitment to decarbonise 1 million homes by 2030
- ensuring that at least 10% of the total transport budget goes on active travel by 2024-25, helping more people to cycle, wheel or walk instead of drive
- delivering a revolution in children’s rights, including across the justice system
- supporting a just transition to a low-carbon economy for people and businesses, including a £500 million Just Transition Fund for the North East and Moray
- investing an additional £500 million to support the new, good and green jobs of the future, including by helping people access training
- delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032 and investing an additional £50 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping
- taking forward the democratic mandate for a referendum on independence to be held within this Parliament and, if the Covid crisis is over, within the first half of this Parliament, while providing the people of Scotland with the information they need to make an informed choice on their future.
However, Tory leader Douglas Ross was unimpressed. He told MSPs: “Nicola Sturgeon has put independence above Scottish jobs and separating Scotland is the top priority for her Government, rather than a recovery.
“The SNP Government’s focus on the future of Scotland is on a referendum, not on getting through the pandemic. Surely the Government should be pouring every single bit of time and effort into our economy, tackling drug deaths and remobilising our NHS? But no, it has put independence at the forefront again.
“The Government will start work on a detailed prospectus for an independent Scotland, taking time and resources away from the priorities that it should be focusing on and putting them towards another independence referendum. Nicola Sturgeon is giving us a new white paper on independence instead of a plan for jobs, a plan to tackle drug deaths or a plan for the recovery of our NHS.
“However, there are elements of the programme for government that we support—elements that the Scottish Conservatives have led on for the past year. We welcome the fact that the big headline policy trailed ahead of the document was wraparound childcare. We announced that that policy would be in our manifesto for May’s election some time before the First Minister announced that it would be in hers.
“We were told that there would be a new style of politics, but it seems that the First Minister likes to announce a new style of politics, but not deliver it herself.”
Douglas Ross, Alex Cole Hamilton and Anas Sarwar, united against the SNP programme.
And nor was the Labour leader Anas Sarwar, who said: ” We welcomed the £5 payment and the £10 child payment—I am talking about the original policy—but the reality is that when we set that legal target in the previous session, it was not for a press release or so that we could say, “Yes, this Parliament’s thinking big”. It was to set a legal target for this Parliament to meet.
“If we do not take meaningful action, we will miss that legal target. That might be a bad news story for the Parliament on one day, but that bad news story would mean thousands of children still living in poverty across our country—that is why we need urgent action.
“However, that lack of ambition is not just evidenced in the child poverty target—it is also seen in the approach to the NHS. Across Scotland, 600,000 people are left languishing on NHS waiting lists, and even before the pandemic, that figure was 450,000.
“Rather than publish an NHS recovery plan that was dismissed as unrealistic by health workers, the First Minister could have shifted the machinery of the Government into tackling that crisis head on. We could have seen the programme for government bring forward a real NHS recovery plan that got services back on track, prioritised dealing with the backlog in diagnostic services and care, delivered a credible workforce plan and rewarded so many undervalued staff by raising social carers’ pay to £15 an hour.
“Instead, we have seen a focus on rhetoric and a failure to confront the reality, with no credible plan that will reverse the crisis in our NHS. That utter lack of ambition is, again, not limited to the issues of poverty or the NHS but is seen in our jobs recovery and economic recovery. In Scotland, 30,000 young people are unemployed. We are creeping towards the cliff edge of furlough, but there is no coherent plan for how we provide a jobs guarantee and an economic development plan for all parts of our country to make sure that we have an inclusive urban, rural, coastal and island recovery.
“Scottish Labour called for the most ambitious job creation scheme in the history of the Scottish Parliament to confront that crisis: guaranteeing a job for every young Scot by investing in a national training fund and a business restart fund. However, the only meaningful job creation scheme that we have seen is for the First Minister’s pals in the Parliament.
“That is not quite what we meant by a focus on green jobs. In 2010, the SNP promised 130,000 green jobs by 2020, a laudable aim to help tackle the climate emergency. However, the number of people directly employed has fallen to just over 23,000. The Scottish Government’s £100 million green jobs fund, announced almost a year ago, has yet to create a single job.
“We keep hearing about a just transition, but unless we act right now, we will not get the buy-in that we need to give communities support. We need a truly workers-led transition so that the Scottish Government does not repeat the mistakes of previous Tory Governments, when whole communities were left on the unemployment scrap heap. The programme for government could have put climate, not the constitution, front and centre, with a focus on a real plan for a just transition that focused on the skills needed in a green recovery and protecting jobs and communities impacted by the transition to net zero.
“On education, there is not enough in the programme to support Scotland’s Covid generation. However, they were being failed long before the pandemic. The truth is that Scotland’s pupils have been short changed by the First Minister, whose attempt to promise the world delivers little.
“It is right that the failed Scottish Qualifications Authority will be scrapped, but the scars of the pandemic will mark our education system for years to come. An entire generation of pupils will bear the weight of that disruption as they go through their education. That could, without serious action, weigh heavily on their life chances and life outcomes.
“Despite that, the action to support pupils and teachers to work against the disruption of the pandemic has been minor at best. The number of full-time equivalent teachers in schools is 1,700 fewer than when the SNP came to office in 2007. More than 2,600 teachers have dropped or lost their professional registration during the past five years. That is a warning sign to this Government that keeps being ignored.
“Whatever action we take now, we will have to rebuild after more than a decade of SNP cuts, which damaged our education system before the pandemic even hit. We reiterate our call for an education comeback plan, including a personal tutoring programme for pupils of all ages and a genuine effort to encourage people to work in our education system. Anything less than that is an abdication of responsibility to our country’s future.
“I end by repeating my plea to the Government: focus on the challenges that our country is facing, and focus on our country’s priorities, not the SNP Government’s priorities. Scotland deserves a national recovery plan that meets our ambition to build a fairer and stronger Scotland together. Instead, what we have seen in this programme for government is just another example of a pattern that has defined the SNP Government’s approach: promise big, never deliver, blame someone else and hope that people have forgotten about it when it gets round to promising the same again. Frankly, Scotland deserves better.”
LibDem leader Alex Cole Hamilton said: “After everything that we have been through, Scotland needs new hope right now. We need new hope in our fight against the climate emergency, whereby we take serious action on the way that we move about and the way that we build and heat our communities, and on the decarbonisation of our economy. We need new hope for our young people that they might once again enjoy the world-beating education that they are used to, access jobs of their choosing and get on the housing ladder, no matter where they come from. We need new hope for the health of the nation, whereby people can receive the care that they need in safely staffed settings instead of being lied to by a Government-sanctioned letter that tells them that they will be seen in 12 weeks when there is no hope that they will be seen in 50 weeks. However, in the pages of the programme for government, there is little in the way of that new hope to be found. Rather, it is old hype, reheated and, as Anas Sarwar has said, rebadged. Indeed, we have heard many of the assurances before.
“It has become a sombre tradition for the Liberal Democrat response to the programme for government to highlight mental health waiting times. This will be the fourth year in a row that we have done so. Each year, the First Minister promises to bring down waiting times, but each year the waiting times for children, young people and adults all increase.
“The first time we raised the issue, 208 children were waiting for more than a year. The next year, that number had more than trebled and the First Minister described that as unacceptable. However, last year we reached a new high, with 1,500 children on the waiting list. Official statistics that were published this morning show that 2,138 children and young people are now waiting for more than a year for first-line care.
“Before the pandemic, the only thing that the SNP’s waiting times recovery plan had delivered in three years was the longest queue in the national health service for our most vulnerable children and young people. Now, the SNP-Green coalition is promising to clear waiting times in two years. I welcome that—I really do—but I want to know how that will happen. The Government needs to immediately publish its workings on that in full. Children and young people deserve access to the very best care. They must not be parked on medication or referred to inferior online interventions just because ministers have a target to meet. It requires proper investment, on top of the £120 million already secured by the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the previous Scottish budget, and an ironclad plan to increase the workforce.
“A similar laser-beam focus will be needed to tackle the drug deaths catastrophe that Anas Sarwar just mentioned. I sincerely hope that this will be the last year that we have to raise those problems in the chamber.”