NICOLA Sturgeon has pledged to bring legislation before Holyrood to stop youngsters being denied free schools meals and nursery places because of UK Government reforms of tax credits.
The First Minister said if the Scottish Government did not act, 22,000 pupils would miss out on free school lunches as a result of changes to eligibility for tax credits, while 2,000 two-year-olds would not receive free nursery care.
While all children in P1 to P3 benefit from free school meals, after that eligibility is linked to a number of factors, including whether a family receive tax credit payments or not.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Entitlement in Scotland to free school meals is, apart from in primary one to three where it is universal, is tied in part to parents’ receipt of tax credits.
“The cuts to tax credits that the Tories are pushing through at the moment, if we do nothing, will take away free school meal entitlement from 22,000 children across Scotland. It would also remove free nursery entitlement for something like 2,000 two-year-olds in Scotland.
“We’re not prepared to let that happen so over the next few months we will lay secondary legislation in the Scottish parliament to protect that entitlement to free school meals and nursery education, so not a single child in Scotland will lose out on a free school meal or a nursery place because of Tory cuts to tax credits.”
The SNP leader stated: “I’m making a commitment today that is an important indication, just as the bedroom tax mitigation was, just as our welfare fund is, about our determination to mitigate the policies of the UK Government that are hitting the vulnerable hardest.”
The First Minister insisted the provision of free school meals is “one of the flagship policies of this government” and was part of ministers’ commitment to tackling inequality.
The SNP’s record in government would be “at the heart of our campaign” in the run up to next year’s Holyrood elections, Ms Sturgeon told journalists.
“Our campaign is beginning to motor and we will have by the time of our conference next month all of our constituency candidates and our list candidates in place,” she said.
More than 40% of SNP candidates for constituency seats are female, compared with 28% at the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2011.
Ms Sturgeon said: “The gender balance we’ve achieved so far in our constituency selection is much better than we have achieved before.
“When you look at the new candidates we will field in constituencies next year, those who are not already sitting MSPs, 68% of them are women. That’s a fantastic step forward and one I am incredibly proud of.”
The party’s conference in Aberdeen next month will be the “biggest we have ever had”, she added, with the event taking place in a 4,700 seat auditorium - four times the size of the venue for last year’s event.
Ms Sturgeon continued: “I’m setting a target for the party, for our candidates and teams, of knocking on 500,000 doors across the country between our conference and Christmas.
“That’s a target we’ll set so we go into the new year with a campaign that is absolutely firing on all cylinders.”