‘Shortage of GPs and an education system continues to fail the poorest children’
LNicola Sturgeon has been accused of placing a “lead weight” on Scotland’s economy after announcing her government will draw up plans for a second independence referendum that are ready for “immediate introduction”.
Unveiling her programme for government for the coming year, the First Minister announced a £500 million Scottish Growth Scheme to help companies cope with the fallout of the Brexit vote.
She said the three-year scheme represented “an exceptional response to an exceptional economic challenge” but then confirmed she will also consult on a draft Referendum Bill that can be tabled instantly if she concludes independence is Scotland’s best option.
But Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, argued that the “biggest single economic lever” Ms Sturgeon could use to boost growth would be to rule out a rerun of the 2014 vote.
She told MSPs that the First Minister’s threat to stage another referendum was “stifling investment” in Scottish firms and posing a “direct threat” to economic growth. Even before June’s Brexit vote, Scotland’s growth figures were sluggish and last year it had a £15 billion deficit.
Ms Sturgeon made the announcement despite an opinion poll last week stating that only 37 per cent of Scots want another independence referendum before the UK leaves the EU, and a majority would vote No if one was held.
Ms Davidson and Kezia Dugdale, her Labour counterpart, said the rest of the programme for government showed the SNP has run out of ideas after nearly a decade in power, despite deep-seated problems in the NHS and education system.
It included legislation to introduce a separate social security system, following the devolution of welfare powers, replace air passenger duty with a new levy from April 2018 and to make psychological abuse of a spouse or partner a criminal offence.
However, Ms Sturgeon was criticised for her lack of ambition after three of the 14 Bills she unveiled concerned the absorption of the British Transport Police into Police Scotland, clarifying third-party rights in contract law and making civil litigation more affordable.
In a statement to MSPs, the First Minister said the Scottish Growth Scheme would help small and medium-sized businesses with “significant growth or export potential” that are finding it difficult to access finance.
She said it would offer guarantees or loans of up to £5 million per business to help reduce uncertainty in their forward planning. In addition, she promised to move forward with a National Manufacturing Institute to help firms innovate and compete in international markets.
Ms Sturgeon announced that 16 projects will share a £100 million stimulus she has previously unveiled. She also promised to publish a new energy strategy and review school governance, student support and the GP contract.
But, addressing the Brexit vote, she said: “To ensure that all options are open to us, this programme for government makes clear that we will consult on a draft Referendum Bill, so that it is ready for immediate introduction if we conclude that independence is the best or only way to protect Scotland’s interests.”
The UK Government would have to agree to transfer the powers to Holyrood for another vote to take place. However, Theresa May questioned at the weekend whether this should happen given the lack of support among Scots.
Ms Davidson told MSPs the threat of a second referendum is also holding back Scottish companies, arguing: “Taking away that lead weight on our country’s prospects is one thing the First Minister could do right now.
“She might have hid independence in a throwaway line at the end of her speech, but the Bill sits in the programme for government as a direct threat to our nation’s economic growth.”
Instead of presenting a clear vision, she said the Scottish Government had produced a hotchpotch of bills focused on “clearing up past mistakes.” She highlighted a chronic shortage of GPs and an education system that continues to fail the poorest children.
Ms Davidson concluded: “The conclusion that many people will draw is that the SNP cupboard is bare except for the only idea they’ve ever had – to split up the UK.”
Ms Dugdale claimed there was no support on Labour’s benches for another independence referendum despite her deputy, Alex Rowley, previously stating he would not oppose one.
She questioned why Scots would want to leave a union that gives them £1,200 more per head public spending than the UK average and expose themselves “to an economic reality that would mean even more savage cuts.”