KEZIA Dugdale yesterday said Scottish Labour would increase tax on the highest earners to pay for an ambitious plan to help deprived children fulfil their potential at school.
In her first speech to the Scottish conference as leader, Dugdale spoke of her determination to help children get to university whatever their background.
Labour intends to use new Scottish income tax powers to introduce the 50 pence tax rate on Scots earning more than £150,000.
The £110 million generated per year would fund a Fair Start Fund, which would be given to headteachers to help 72,000 children from deprived areas.
The size of fund given to schools would depend on how many pupils require help, and headteachers and school staff would be given the freedom to decide how it is used.
Under the scheme, which would cost an estimated £78m a year, the most needy children could benefit from a range of interventions including more specialist help, smaller class sizes and more teachers or classroom assistants.
At the Perth Concert Hall, Dugdale attacked an SNP education record which included 6,000 children leaving primary school this year unable to read properly.
“That record disgraces this nation and it constrains its future,” the new leader said, as she sought to contrast Labour’s approach to education with the SNP’s.
Dugdale mocked Alex Salmond’s decision to unveil a commemorative carving quoting himself saying that the “rocks would melt with the sun” before he introduced tuition fees, saying she would refrain from “carving complacency and self-congratulation in stone”.
She then added: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I accept even one working class boy or girl who can’t get to university just because their family wasn’t rich enough or their school wasn’t posh enough or the system just did not believe in them enough.”
Dugdale went on to outline plans to give every child in care who wants to go to university £6,000 of full grant support.
She said she wanted to turn around a failing system which meant that children in care were more likely to go to jail than university.
“These are our children,” she said. “The children you and I are responsible for bringing up. When I strive to close the gap between the richest and the rest, when I seek to widen access to our finest institutions, I do so with these young people in mind.”
Signalling her intent to introduce a 50 pence tax rate with new Holyrood powers, Dugdale said: “We will pay for this education plan by making different choices from the SNP and by asking those very top earners to pay a bit more tax. A tax rise on the richest not because we are against aspiration but because we are for it – for every child in Scotland having a world-class education.”
With Labour’s fortunes at a low ebb after their near wipeout at the hands of the SNP at this year’s general election, Dugdale attempted to contrast her approach with the Nationalists’.
Nicola Sturgeon’s stewardship of the NHS was attacked, with Dugdale saying: “The SNP, under pressure from Labour, have now promised a ten-year plan for the NHS… Nine years in government to come up with a ten-year plan.”
Dugdale promised a “different approach” to NHS management, saying she wanted to make caring a career – an approach, she said, that would help to tackle bed-blocking.
At a time when one in five care workers are leaving their job each year, she said Labour would try to ease NHS bed-blocking by guaranteeing a real living wage for care workers.
Her announcement was greeted with applause from delegates.
“It’s Labour’s mission that those post-war babies, born to the NHS, will be cared for into their 70s and beyond with the dignity and respect they deserve, by people with time to care,” Dugdale said.
“By improving care we will relieve the pressure on our frontline NHS.”
But the most intense applause was for her widely trailed pledge to restore tax credits in Scotland.
Dugdale received a standing ovation when she talked of her key policy to reverse George Osborne’s hugely controversial tax credit cuts.
Labour intends to fund her policy by not taking on the SNP’s plans to abolish air passenger duty and rejecting the UK government’s plans to give tax breaks to middle earners by raising the income tax threshold to £50,000.
Labour believes not going ahead with the abolition of air passenger duty would enable it to use the £250m raised by the levy to help fund its policy.
A further £440m would be available as a result of not pressing ahead with the Conservatives’ plans to raise the higher rate income tax threshold from £43,600 to £50,000.
But her approach was criticised by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who attacked Dugdale for denying Scots the proposed UK government tax break.
Davidson said: “Scottish Labour’s big idea this weekend is to make Scotland the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom. It’s a plan which shows this is no longer a party which is on the side of ordinary families.”