Face-to-face with Colin Mackay: SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon sat down with Colin Mackay to outline the party’s message ahead of May's election.

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Over the coming weeks STV will be hosting a series of exclusive interviews with the main political party leaders taking part in May’s Holyrood elections.

Next up is the leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon, who sat down with STV News political editor Colin Mackay to outline the party’s message and vision for the country.

Colin Mackay: Nicola Sturgeon, there is a lot of free stuff in your manifesto. How can you afford it?

Nicola Sturgeon: We set out the medium term financial strategy in January. The Scottish Government published that. That took account of the independent forecast by the Scottish Fiscal Commission, the OBR, and the assumptions about growth in our budget over the next five years. It gave three scenarios: high, medium and low. And we costed our manifesto slightly under the medium forecast. So it is based on the growth principally on the devolved tax revenue as our economy starts to recover.

CM: But you couldn’t do it without the Barnet Formula or the block grant could you?

NS: Interestingly when you look at the medium term financial strategy, and it is published for everyone to see, devolved tax revenues are estimated to grow by about 20%…

CM: But you could do without the extra funding could you?…

NS: The overall budget is expected to grow by 14%. The reason for that is because the Barnet Formula part of our funding is growing more slowly—that’s what’s holding overall budget growth back. But let’s nail this point Colin. The money that we get is not given to Scotland as some kind of favour. It comes from taxes that we pay in Scotland that first send to the Treasury in London only to get back. Or it comes from the massive borrowing that the UK Government is quite rightly taking to help us get through the pandemic.

CM: One of the big free promises is dental care. Dentists are quite concerned about that because they worry it could restrict the free treatments they give. Also they are worried it could be seen as a bit of a middle class giveaway given that people on benefits get free dental care anyway…

NS: We will talk to the dental community as we roll that policy out. It’s really important to stress that those are worries that will not be well founded. We will make sure we talk to the dental profession to make sure we avoid any unintended consequences…

CM: Why haven’t you spoken to them already? They say you have cancelled meetings with them…

NS: If that’s the case then I apologise for that. This is a political manifesto but the Government has ongoing consultation and dialogue with professions in the NHS and other sectors as well. But can I complete this point; it’s partly about completing the restoration of the NHS to its founding principal: providing free health care at the point of need. But it’s also part of a bigger shift here. If we take away barriers to people accessing health care, then they will get that health care earlier and it helps to shift to more preventative care and treatment. In the year before the pandemic, almost 4000 people ended up in accident and emergency departments, because they had dental health problems. Perhaps not all but some of those problems may have been averted if people got to the dentist earlier and perhaps cost was a barrier for many people.

CM: You mentioned the pandemic. We are a year on from the outbreak. 10,000 deaths. Do you think as many people in Scotland would have been vaccinated, if we had been independent?

NS: Yes.

CM: How can you say that, when you look at the other independent countries that you mentioned during your manifesto launch the other day, Ireland, Denmark. We’ve vaccinated almost three times more than them…

NS: Because this notion that the UK has only been able to procure the vaccine and vaccinate so many people because we’re out the EU is not born out, firstly by the reality that the UK was still in the transition period, therefore subject to all of the rules and regulations of the EU, when it procured the vaccine. European countries are able if they so wish, particularly during health emergencies to procure in the way the UK did…

CM: But no other EU country is anywhere close to where Scotland and the UK is…

NS: Scotland could have chosen to procure the way it thought was best. There is absolutely no evidential basis to say Scotland would not have vaccinated as many people as we’ve vaccinated right now…

CM: Except when you look at every other European country. If you look at Ireland for example, they are planning to try and get all their over 70s done by the end of next month. We will have done all our over 40s by then…

NS: Scotland, and a Scottish Government would have chosen to procure the vaccine in the way that they thought was most effective and efficient. Now you’re just basically plucking this out of thin air saying “Scotland had it been independent we wouldn’t have been able to do that”. As long as we had a sensible Scottish Government like the one we’ve got just now and the one that I hope is re-elected come May 6.

CM: So you’re saying that Ireland, other EU countries that you’ve spoken about Denmark, Norway, they’ve done it wrong. They’ve not been sensible?!…

NS: I’m not making a comment on any other country. You’re doing that. I’m talking about Scotland. I’m talking about the decisions we’ve taken the decisions that I think had we been the government as an independent country we would have been able to take. At the heart of your argument, which a lot of politicians who were on the Brexit side of the EU referendum make, is that the UK would have been prevented and therefore by extension, any other country in the EU, would have been prevented from procuring the vaccine in the way the UK did it—had the UK still been in the EU. The point I’m making is the UK was in the transition period, it was still subject to all the rules so that point clearly is completely false.

CM: 260,000 children living in poverty in Scotland. That’s up 50,000 since you became First Minister…

NS: So child poverty is far too high in Scotland as it is in every other nation in the UK. Of course child poverty in Scotland, is the lowest of the four UK nations. It is up 50,000 because of welfare cuts that have been introduced at Westminster. Most of the independent commentators on child poverty say very clearly that the reason child poverty has risen in Scotland and across the UK is because of welfare cuts. But what we’ve done over the past parliamentary term is put in place a game changing, that’s the word of child poverty campaigners, policy to do something about that. The Scottish child payment, which is already up and running paying £10 a week for children up to age six in low income families about to be extended to children up to the age of 16, and if we are re-elected doubled in the next term of Parliament. So we have a situation in Scotland where we’re trying to lift children out of poverty with the powers we’ve got. But the powers at Westminster are being used in a way that plunge more children into poverty.

CM: You’re going to double it by the end of the Parliament. That misses the interim target set out in the Child Poverty Act by cutting it by 18% by 2023-24. You’re missing your own target…

NS: We said in the manifesto we’ll do it over the term of the Parliament. But of course we’ll set out in budgets…

CM: It actually says in page 28 by the end of the Parliament. Are you going to do it by 18% by 2023-24?

NS: These are statutory targets. I think I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong on this if this has changed in the wee while. We’re the only government in the UK that still has statutory targets. So, we are bound by law, and we will do what it takes to meet those and that’s the point I was going to make. We will set out the phasing of that policy when we put forward a budget and a programme for government, if we are re-elected.

CM: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that you could actually hit the 90% target of 2030 right now if you put the child payment up to £40. Why don’t you just do that, and actually stop child poverty?

NS: Your first question to me Colin was, “your manifesto’s full of giveaways. How are you going to pay?”…

CM: But wouldn’t that be a good one. To say you’re going to eradicate child poverty.

NS: I think in what we set out we will lift children out of poverty and we will meet our statutory targets.

CM: You’ll lift 47,000 out. But you could lift 240,000 out…

NS: We will set out through as we have done in our manifesto, the action on the child payment, free school meals…

CM: You could lift people out quicker. You’re just not going to do that?

NS: That’s not the case. We’re putting forward a costed, affordable plan that is going to lift children out of poverty. The child payment in its current form, let alone its doubled form, is something that no other government in the UK has in place. And that is the determination we have. To lift children out of poverty, and make child poverty a thing of the past.

CM: You’re going to recruit 3500 teachers and classroom assistants. How many of each?

NS: Again, over the pandemic we recruited 1400 additional teachers…

CM: This is what we are looking at in the future. You’re talking about 3500. How many of each?

NS: We haven’t made that calculation yet.

CM: Have you spoken to the EIS about it?

NS: I was going to try to help you with the answer if you give me a moment. Over the last parliamentary term, we’ve employed 3000 more teachers. In the pandemic 1400 more teachers and 200 classroom assistants. So that’s perhaps a rough idea of the balance we will strike there. But yes we will discuss with teaching unions and local authorities, local authories being the actual employers of teachers and classrooms assistants. But we are making clear the funding is there to build on the 3000 extra teachers we’ve recruited over this parliament, to recruit 3500 teachers and classroom assistants. Now, we also want them to have some flexibility to find the balance that works in their own situations.

CM: In your last manifesto you said you wanted to close the poverty related attainment gap. You could have done better on that, couldn’t you?

NS: We could have done better and I want us to do better. We were making, and are making real progress here. We would have done better had covid not upended every aspect of our lives. But if you look at National Fives we reduced the attainment gap by a third. At level six we’ve redusced it by a fifth. More young people are going from deprived communities to university than was the case five years ago. But I want to do more. I want us to do better. We’ve made progress and if we are re-elected we will continue that forward progress that we’ve already started.

CM: So you could have done better in education. You took your eye off the ball with drug deaths. Hospitals opening years late. Failing to meet waiting times. It’s not a great record to take into this election is it?

NS: I do not agree with that characterization of it. People have a choice, whether they want a first minister and a candidate for first minister to sit and arrogantly say “there’s no room for improvement, there’s not more that we want to do” or whether they want to first minister says “you know what I’m really proud of our record. Here’s the areas where I want us to do better, this is what we’re going to do to do better” and people will make that choice.

CM: On the economy you say in your manifesto that you’ll set over the first six months of the Parliament, a new ten year strategy for economic transformation. You don’t have one for recovery yet then?

NS: Well you know the Benny Higgins review that took place last year that has already put in place, a strategy that for example a recommendation which is already being implemented for the young person guarantee, giving every young person between…

CM: Well if you’ve already got a ten year strategy why do you need that?

NS: Well others can say, we don’t need that ten year [strategy], but it’s actually a good thing to look ahead. We have recovery from the pandemic. We’ve got the imperative to meet net-zero which is a big obligation but a massive opportunity as well. So we are I think doing the right thing saying that we’re going to bring businesses, trade unions, academic experts together to look ahead and say “what are the goals we want to achieve as a country over the next ten years” and how do you go about doing that. So some people would say that’s not necessary. I think it is necessary and I think it’d be a fantastic opportunity.

CM: In the last Parliament you lost two ministers to sleaze. You were embroiled in court cases. Why should the people of Scotland trust you to be the government?

NS: Because I think we’ve got a good record. I think we’ve done a good job for Scotland.

CM: But you’ve just admitted you could have done better…

NS: I think that any government that has been candid will say “we’ve done well here. But because of circumstances we could have been better here”. But why should people trust the SNP was your question. Firstly because we’ve demonstrated over the last year we are the government with the commitment and the experience to lead the country through the pandemic. We’ve put forward a bold programme for government to kick-start a recovery. And yes we want to give people in Scotland the choice over the country’s future once the pandemic has passed and, you know, that’s what I’m asking people to put their trust in on May 6.

CM: And yet your party has split over the last year of so. How can you claim you can lead the country to be a united Scotland as an independent country when you can’t even keep your own movement united?

NS: I think if you look beyond the headline of opinion polls, and I appreciate opinion polls are not what counts. It’s the election result that counts. But if you look beyond the headline of opinion polls, the underlying statistics, what you see is SNP support is strong. It’s very united…

CM: You must be disappointed it split on your watch…

NS: The SNP hasn’t split. We’ve had a relatively small number of people decide to support another party. That is their right and I respect their right to do that. But to say the SNP is split is a massive, massive overstatement. If you look at the opinion polls and the election result, I take nothing for granted. What is interesting, and this was obvious in the debate you so expertly chaired, was that all of the other parties in this election are vying to be leader of the opposition. It is only me and the SNP that are putting forward a serious programme to be the government and that’s what the country needs.