Labour leader Anas Sarwar and now resigned First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

By Bill Heaney

We live in serious times, with the cost of living crisis and a national health service crisis. Given that this is my last opportunity to question the First Minister, I want to ask about the finishing touches to what I am sure will be a handover document for her successor, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar told the Scottish Parliament today.

He said: “It is important to check what she believes is in the in-tray for the next First Minister. After 15 years of Scottish National Party Government, there is not a single Scottish institution that is stronger now than it was when her party took office. From the ferries scandal to the entrenched attainment gap, the NHS crisis and decimated local services, which of her Government’s many failures does the First Minister think that her successor needs to address first?”

But Nicola Sturgeon told him: “I say with the greatest respect that Anas Sarwar is just wrong. Let us look first at some of the institutions that did not even exist when I became First Minister. For example, we have Revenue Scotland, which is making sure that we have the most progressive income tax system anywhere in the United Kingdom. We have Social Security Scotland, which is delivering benefits—including the Scottish child payment—to people across the country, and the Scottish National Investment Bank, which is leading this country’s drive to net zero.

“The NHS is, of course, facing real challenges as a result of the Covid pandemic, but it still has the best-performing accident and emergency departments anywhere in the UK. Tomorrow, I will be in Fife, opening our new national treatment centre, which will deliver more operations for people in Fife. It will soon be joined by national treatment centres elsewhere across Scotland.

“In education, more young people from a background like mine are going to university than has ever been the case. There has been a doubling of early years education and childcare.

“I think that that represents a strengthening of many, many institutions. Does my successor have a tough job? Of course, because we live in tough times, but I have confidence that, whoever my successor turns out to be—whoever is standing here next week—they will continue to build on that record, and they will continue to retain the trust of the Scottish people.”

Anas Sarwar replied: “Nicola Sturgeon likes to talk about records. Here are just a few that have been set in her time, which are piling up in her successor’s sky-high in-tray: record A and E waiting times, with one in seven Scots on an NHS waiting list; record drug deaths; record vacancies for nurses and doctors in our NHS; record levels of children without a home; record levels of homelessness—I could go on and on, but seeing as it is her last First Minister’s question time, I will not do that.

“It is hard to see how Nicola Sturgeon’s successor will be able to fix those problems, as they were sat round the Cabinet table with her. The decisions taken around that Cabinet table have resulted in more than £3 billion of taxpayers’ money being wasted since 2007—that is £1,200 for every household in Scotland.

“At the same time, the SNP spent public money to build a culture of cover-up and secrecy, which is now beginning to unravel, all while Scots struggle to keep their heads above the waterline.

“Given the scale of the challenges that are piled up in that in-tray, does the First Minister agree with two of the three SNP leadership candidates that mediocrity, continuity and incompetence will not cut it?”

Ms Sturgeon added: “I was the health secretary who abolished prescription charges for everyone in Scotland, which is something that, in all its years in government, Labour had never got round to doing. I also took a hospital [Golden Jubilee in West Dunbartonshire] that had been privatised under Labour back into the NHS.

“On Anas Sarwar’s £3 billion figure, we have already shown that to be utter nonsense in previous sessions of First Minister’s question time, but I will not embarrass him by going back to the detail of that again today.

“Let me use another £3 billion figure. That is the amount of money that the Scottish Government is investing each year to mitigate the cost of living crisis to help people to deal with Tory austerity. If we were an independent country, we would not have to mitigate Tory austerity, but, while Labour still prefers this country to be governed by Tories at Westminster, rather than have self-governance and independence here, in our own Parliament, Labour will never be taken seriously in Scotland.”

But Mr Sarwar wasn’t put off: “Like many people across the United Kingdom, I look forward to the next general election, when we can boot out the Tory Government and get rid of the Scottish National Party’s last excuse.

“The First Minister has spent much of her political career talking about mandates. Her successor will inherit the SNP’s woeful record, but they will not inherit her mandate. The most recent election was a pandemic election, one that the First Minister won by her direct appeal to steer the country through the Covid pandemic and recovery.

“That recovery has not even started. In fact, by every metric, things have got worse. Scotland now faces two crises: a national health service recovery that never began and a cost of living crisis in which families face spiralling bills and soaring energy prices.

“As her potential successors squabble over their own records in Government, they cannot escape the facts. They do not have a plan for Scotland and they do not have a mandate from the public. That is why we need an election now.

“So, my final question to Nicola Sturgeon is whether she agrees with her own words: ‘There are no words to describe this utter shambles adequately. It’s beyond hyperbole – and parody. Reality though is that ordinary people are paying the price. The interests of the … party should concern no-one right now. A General Election is now a democratic imperative.”

Ms Sturgeon hit back: “One of the differences between me and Anas Sarwar is that I do not support Tory government of Scotland, because Scotland does not vote for Conservatives. I have fought three general elections as SNP leader and the SNP has won all of them. At every one, we have heard the same messages from Labour and, at every single one, the people of Scotland have given their verdict.

“I am proud of the achievements of the Government that I have led. I will end on another one, because it is related to the Covid recovery and has been achieved in spite of what we are having to deal with from the Conservatives at Westminster.

“Today, Scotland has record high employment and record low unemployment and economic inactivity. We have a good foundation in this country. We face many challenges, but I have every confidence that my successor, who will be standing here next week, will continue to lead this country forward, will continue taking the decisions that are in the interest of this country and will lead this country to becoming an independent nation.”

Top of page: Anas Sarwar with his deputy Jackie Baillie at a recent Dumbarton FC match.

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