NICOLA Sturgeon yesterday issued a personal plea to Scots voters to re-elect her as First Minister in May with pledges to hand £1,000 payments to struggling parents to help bring up their children and to increase health spending.
The SNP leader also announced £100 million of funding to provide extra support for pupils in struggling schools to help cut the gap in education standards between rich and poor areas of Scotland.
Sturgeon was addressing 3,000 SNP delegates in Glasgow yesterday less then two months before the Holyrood election. She also pledged that the basic rate of income tax will not be changed throughout the next five years as MSPs take on new financial powers – but big earners could face higher taxes than south of the Border.
The SNP is well ahead of the opposition, according to every opinion poll, and poised for a unprecedented third successive term in office in Scotland. The First Minister yesterday said that Labour and the Tories are now locked in a “battle for second place”.
“The choice at this election – just as at any election – is about more than individual policies,” Sturgeon said.
“It is about who you trust. It’s about who you trust most to provide the leadership, the experience, the ambition, the character and the strength of purpose to take our county forward with confidence.
“Today, I ask you this – simply and from my heart – trust me to lead our country forward.”
The First Minister pledged that spending on the NHS will rise every year of the next Parliament if she returns to power, along with wide-ranging reform to meet the needs of an ageing population.
“We must increase capacity for the growing number of routine operations that an ageing population will need,” she said.
“So I also promise today that over the next Parliament there will be five new elective treatment centres – in Edinburgh, Livingston, Dundee, Inverness and Aberdeen.”
New payments for low income parents were also unveiled with the full restoration of the Sure Start maternity grant which was cut by the UK government. Sturgeon announced this is to be increased from £500 to £600 for the first child. The payments of £300 for subsequent children – which was axed entirely by the Tories – is now to be restored in Scotland. The SNP is also to introduce two new further grants of £250 when children start nursery and when they start school.
“If we are going to close the poverty gap later in life we need to do more to level the playing field in the early years.”
Additional funding of £100 million will be shared among headteachers across Scotland, allocated according to the number of youngsters from low income families at the school throughout all primary years and the first three years of secondary.
“It will mean they can invest in extra teachers, classroom assistants, equipment or additional learning support,” Sturgeon added.
A flagship SNP target to have 500 Scottish firms paying the living wage of £7.85 an hour – as opposed to the legal minimum wage of £6.50 – in Scotland has now been met, she announced. This will now be raised to 1,000 by next autumn.
And with recent reports suggesting patchy progress in the roll-out of broadband to rural areas of Scotland, Sturgeon pledged “superfast” digital services will be delivered to 100 per cent of premises across the country.
But the speech was branded “timid” by Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley.
He said: “Nicola Sturgeon claims to support fairer taxes and more investment in education, yet the SNP government has cut 10 per cent from the education and training budget since 2007. That’s why there are 4,000 fewer teachers in our classrooms, 152,000 fewer college students and a gap between the richest and the rest in our schools that remains as stubborn as ever.”