NICOLA Sturgeon yesterday made it her “personal mission” to tackle inequality and poverty as she announced a multi-billion pound childcare package and promised to increase NHS spending.
The new SNP leader attempted to position her party as one for economic and social progress in her inaugural address to the party faithful in her new post.
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At the heart of her leadership will be a commitment to almost double free childcare in Scotland for toddlers to 30-hours per week over the course of the next Holyrood term. Also at the top of her list of priorities was a pledge to increase Scotland’s £12 billion NHS budget in real terms for every year of the next parliament.
While underlining her commitment to Scottish independence, Sturgeon also tried to reach out to No voters claiming the SNP was “Scotland’s Party” and was the best placed to defend their interests at Westminster ahead of the general election.
Her speech was the climax of the SNP’s autumn conference and was delivered ahead of a week that will see her elected as Scotland’s first female First Minister at Holyrood on Wednesday.
Alex Salmond was on stage as Sturgeon paid tribute to her predecessor, her remarks prompting three standing ovations for Salmond. The capacity audience rose from their seats when he came on the stage before Sturgeon spoke.
Then, as Sturgeon spoke of his “outstanding” service, delegates took their feet twice more to give him an emotional send-off.
Increasing childcare had been a key element in the SNP’s independence White Paper, which was rejected by the No vote on 18 September.
Yesterday Sturgeon reaffirmed the SNP’s commitment to its ambitious proposal to increase childcare from its current level of 16 hours a week to 30 hours. The pledge, which will cost £400 million a year once implemented, will be accompanied by a £600m nursery building programme over the next parliament.
She said that while the new Forth Crossing had been the flagship construction project of Salmond’s reign, nursery provision would be the flagship of her term of office – “a bridge to a better future”.
Sturgeon said her childcare pledge would be open to all three and four-year-olds as well as some two year-olds.
“We already deliver 16 hours a week of free childcare for all three and four-year-olds,” she said.
“I pledge today that our 2016 manifesto will set out an ambitious plan to increase childcare provision. By the end of the next parliament, my commitment is that all three and four year-olds and all eligible two-year-olds will receive, not 16 hours, but 30 hours of free childcare each week.”
Signalling her desire to protect and enhance NHS spending, she said: “As First Minister, the health service will be a daily priority.
“It will also be a financial priority. The revenue budget of our NHS is set to rise in real terms for the remainder of this parliament. If I am re-elected as First Minister in 2016, I pledge today to that it will rise in real terms for each and every year of the next parliament too.”
Those announcements were accompanied by a vow to combine economic success with social justice and give early child the “best opportunity” in life.
“Let me promise you this,” Sturgeon said. “Tackling poverty and inequality – and improving opportunity for all – will be my personal mission as your First Minister.”
Sturgeon said she would become a “champion” of the living wage. From now the Scottish Government would have the living wage as a “central priority” for its contracts.
To emphasise that, she announced that the Government had struck a deal with its cleaning contractor Mitie, which will see all 117 members of its staff who have paid less than the living wage brought up to that level by the end of the year.
Making the point that social justice could only be delivered via a strong economy, she promised to continue the small business bonus for the lifetime of the next Holyrood parliament.
With her first Programme for Government to be announced in a fortnight, she promised “radical action” on land reform, empowering communities, attainment in schools and tackling domestic abuse and gender equality.
Last night a spokesman for Scottish Labour said: “We are pleased that Nicola Sturgeon has finally recognised that her government needs to take action now on improving childcare, protecting the NHS and introducing a living wage. It’s just a shame that for the last three years her government said this wasn’t possible without independence.
Nicola Sturgeon claims she doesn’t want a Tory government. What this makes clear is that if you want a Labour Government and Labour policies like an energy price freeze, increased minimum wage and making sure the most well off pay their fair share with a 50p tax rate then you have to vote Labour. Every vote for the SNP is a vote to help elect David Cameron.”
Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw said: “It’s puzzling to see the SNP commit to things that were supposedly only possible in the utopia of a separate state. Once the showing off at conference has finished, the public will expect the new First Minister to drop the issue of separation, stop preening herself and start running the country.”
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