Nicola Sturgeon insists £20m on second independence referendum is ‘really good investment’

Nicola Sturgeon has insisted spending £20 million on a second independence referendum is a “really good investment” as she faced stern criticism over public sector cuts.

The First Minister was accused of a “shameful” use of money as more than £1 billion is set to be slashed from key public services, including councils and the police, in coming years.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said £20m could pay for more teachers, nurses or police officers.

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He insisted Scotland was “paying the price for Nicola Sturgeon’s mistakes”, with the country facing “the worst financial outlook” since devolution.

It comes after the Scottish Government published its resource spending review, which sets out its broad spending plans for the next four years.

Funding in areas such as social security and health is due to rise, but budgets elsewhere will experience real terms cuts.

Meanwhile, a total of £20m is earmarked for another independence referendum next year.

Police representatives called the review “absolutely brutal”, while the Law Society of Scotland said it “risks disaster for the justice sector” and amounted to a real terms cut of at least 20 per cent by 2027.

Cosla, the council umbrella body, called it "deeply concerning”, adding: "Put simply, the plans as they stand will mean fewer jobs and cuts to services."

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said the review “will put our communities and our members who serve them in greater danger”.

Speaking during First Minister’s Questions, Mr Ross said: “Spending £20m on a divisive referendum in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis is shameful.

“Nicola Sturgeon’s eye is off the ball again. She’s obsessing about independence, when people across Scotland overwhelmingly want the focus to be on the issues that really matter to them.

“That £20m could pay for more teachers, nurses, police officers. It could pay for more support for people facing rising energy bills and higher costs at the supermarket.”

Ms Sturgeon said the spending review sets out the “very heavy price” of continued Westminster decision-making.

She said the UK Government had cut Scotland’s resource funding by more than 5 per cent in real terms this year, and constrained growth over the next four years to 2 per cent.

The First Minister said inflation in the UK was the highest of any G7 country “thanks to the folly of Brexit”.

She said: "Every year right now, the Scottish Government is having to invest more than £700m mitigating the impact of Westminster policies that Scotland did not vote for.

"The bedroom tax, the rape clause, the removal of Universal Credit, plunging more people into poverty.

“So, yes, I think that £20m – 0.05 per cent, one half of one tenth of 1 per cent of the entire Scottish Government budget – to give the people of this country the opportunity to choose a better future, yes, is and will be a really good investment.”

Mr Ross said the Scottish Government had received the biggest block grant from the UK Government ever and had “squandered it”.

He said: “The spending review shows the real cost of the SNP’s failures on the Scottish public – a fortune wasted on ferries, BiFab, Prestwick Airport, failures at the Queen Elizabeth hospital, the list goes on and on and on.

“And the consequences of those failures for our country are devastating.”

A poll by Ipsos Mori for STV released on Wednesday suggested support for and opposition to independence was deadlocked at 50 per cent.

The poll also found 50 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed wanted to see another referendum before the end of this parliamentary term in 2026.

David Phillips, associate director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, previously said budgets for local government, the police, prisons, justice, universities and rural affairs are set to fall by around 8 per cent in real terms over the next four years, equivalent to a real terms cut of £1.1 billion.

Murray Etherington, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said this would hit the courts, judges, prosecution service and legal aid.

He said: “We are already struggling with the capacity to reduce court backlogs that will run until 2026 as a result of the pandemic.

"Complainers and witnesses are already waiting far longer to reach a resolution in court.

"The presumption of innocence is central to our justice system, yet there are twice the number of people on remand awaiting trial than before the pandemic and they are being held far longer in custody and at huge financial cost because of these delays.

“For legal aid firms that had already seen a generation of underfunding, this announcement is hugely discouraging as we await more detailed proposals from the Government on addressing the current legal aid crisis."

John McKenzie, FBU Scotland regional secretary, said: “The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has already suffered the loss of a thousand members of staff, cuts to crewing levels and stagnation of pay.

“The announcement by [SNP finance secretary] Kate Forbes shows a zero increase in the budget for the service over the next five years.

"If enacted, this will put our communities and our members who serve them in greater danger.”

Gail Macgregor, Cosla's resources spokeswoman, said: “Every year at Budget time, Cosla argues for fair funding for local government to maintain the essential services our communities rely on.

"No increase in our core funding damages these services and [Tuesday’s] announcement will see this continue for at least the next three years.

"Our communities are starting to see and feel the difference."

Both Cosla and the FBU are now seeking urgent talks with Scottish ministers.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said the Government was devoting twice as much money to a second referendum as it was to Long Covid care.

He said the number of people suffering from Long Covid had risen to 155,000, or almost one in 30 Scots.

Elsewhere at FMQs, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said there were 708,000 people – one in eight Scots – on an NHS waiting list.

He said 30,000 people were waiting more than a year for inpatient treatment such as hip replacements, knee replacements or heart operations.

Mr Sarwar accused Ms Sturgeon of “a litany of failures”.

The First Minister said “significant progress” was being made on reducing waiting times before the pandemic.

She said she was proud of the work the Government does to support the NHS.

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