STV leaders' debate: Nicola Sturgeon defends record in government

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon conceded Scotland’s education attainment gap had not yet been closed and cited the Covid-19 pandemic as a key reason as she defended her record in government in the STV leaders’ debate.

Ms Sturgeon, who has been First Minister of Scotland since 2014, was told she had “let down Scotland for the last 14 years” as she was questioned by key rivals on Tuesday night in the second live debate of the Scottish election campaign.

In a debate where each leader had the opportunity to interrogate their counterparts, the SNP’s domestic record and the best way out of the Covid-19 pandemic dominated discussions.

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Scottish election 2021: STV leaders' debate LIVE
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asks a question of Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie. Picture: STV

Leaders were also challenged on their visions for post-Covid Scotland, with unionist parties pressed by both the SNP and the Scottish Greens on Brexit and an alleged lack of ambition for Scotland.

Scottish Tories leader Douglas Ross accused the First Minister of failing to meet promises made in key areas.

He told her: "You have made promises on the attainment gap, victims' rights, broadband, ferries, income tax and the treatment time guarantee.

"You have delivered your promises on none of them. You have let down Scotland for the last 14 years."

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA

He continued his attack by saying: "Now in an economic crisis, you want to wreck Scotland's recovery."

Ms Sturgeon said "progress" had been made in tackling the attainment gap in schools and NHS waiting times had been reducing before Covid-19 hit.

The First Minister added: "I am proud of the record of the Government I have led."

She continued: "Like all governments we make mistakes, and we get things wrong and we do not shy away from putting it right and learning the lessons."

Pressed on her government's records on drug deaths by Mr Ross, Ms Sturgeon admitted that the Scottish Government had taken their “eye off the ball”.

In 2015, Ms Sturgeon had asked the Scottish public to “judge” her on her record on education during her time as First Minister.

The SNP leader was pressed on the SQA exam results scandal of last year by Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie while Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, pressed her on her record on the attainment gap.

Focusing on the issue, Mr Rennie noted Ms Sturgeon had previously said closing the gap in schools would be her top priority.

"We haven't done that yet," Ms Sturgeon conceded.

She said this was linked to the pandemic, stating that "Covid has upended almost every aspect of life here in Scotland".

Ms Sturgeon accepted there was "more to do", urging people to "elect me to be First Minister to continue to build on the progress we are making".

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar questioned Ms Sturgeon over problems at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, which was commissioned when the SNP leader was still health secretary.

The Labour leader said the flagship building had been allowed to open despite a report saying "the water supply was not safe and at high risk of infection".

He said this resulted in 40 infections in child cancer patients, and two deaths.

A public inquiry into the scandal is ongoing, but the Scottish Government has faced criticism for failing to provide the families of those that have died, including the family of ten-year-old Milly Main, whose death was said to be “probably” linked to a possible infection picked up at the hospital.

Ms Sturgeon insisted: "It is not the case that reports that I personally saw that said the hospital was unsafe were ignored. That is simply not the case."

She said "we don't know all of the answers", saying a public inquiry had been set up to provide "full scrutiny".

Mr Sarwar said: "If that was me, I would want to hunt down the answers."

Criticising the Scottish Government’s policy to allow positive Covid-19 patients be discharged into care homes, Mr Sarwar also claimed it was “common sense” to have tested every patient before discharge.

Mr Rennie urged people to “put recovery first” by backing his party, but he faced pressure from both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Harvie over his party’s approach to rejoining the EU without independence.

Mr Harvie said: “As far as I can tell, you’ve given up on us getting back into the European Union.

“I think it’s clear that independence is the only option.”

Raising his opposition to Scottish independence, through which the SNP have said they would rejoin the EU, the First Minister said: “Isn’t your message to the people of Scotland that you don’t think there’s a route back any time soon?”

Mr Rennie claimed Brexit was an example as to why breaking from the UK was not a good idea.

He said: “These were dangerous issues, they needed to be handled with care.

“That’s why we want to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes with independence.”

The Scottish Lib Dem leader said the focus should be on convincing people of the merits of being in the EU.

Mr Harvie faced questions from the Scottish Conservative leader over his party’s support for the SNP, with Green MSPs often voting to help the Scottish Government in Holyrood.

Mr Ross said this showed the Greens were “more interested in helping the SNP than tackling climate change”.

Mr Harvie defended his party’s decision to strike budget deals with the minority SNP administration – something which has happened over the past five years.

“We get results,” the Greens leader insisted, saying his party had won more cash for local services and a more progressive taxation system.

Mr Ross then raised the prospect of the Greens going into coalition with the SNP after the next election, saying they would demand an “end to North Sea oil and gas production” for doing this.

Mr Harvie said it would be for voters to decide what the make-up of the next Parliament would be.

But he stressed: “On oil and gas, we are the only political party to recognise that the world has about three times as much oil and gas as we can ever afford to burn, and that includes the North Sea.

“If the existing reserves in the North Sea were used, the UK would be unable to meet its own Paris climate change agreements.”

Mr Harvie, under prompting from SNP leader Ms Sturgeon, went on to attack the UK Government.

Ms Sturgeon said they were facing “the biggest assault on the powers of the Scottish Parliament since devolution”.

Mr Harvie agreed this was a “reality”, hitting out at the UK Government for “being willing to legislate in devolved areas against the explicit refusal of consent by the Scottish Parliament”.

With the UK Government now planning to go to the Supreme Court to try to stop legislation passed by Holyrood on children’s rights, Mr Harvie added “the idea we have a stable devolution settlement is a nonsense”.

Mr Harvie accused the Tories of wanting to “roll back” on the powers of the Scottish Parliament and “have direct rule”.

Speaking about getting more powers, he said: “I am not particularly interested in the next baby steps. I would like to see Scotland stand up and take its place on the world stage.

“We certainly wouldn’t be able to get rid of Trident if we took the next baby steps and we wouldn’t be able to represent ourselves, whether at the EU or the UN or the climate conference.”

Towards the end of the debate, Mr Ross was challenged by Mr Harvie on his historic position on gypsy travellers.

Mr Ross was reported to have said he was frustrated at having to “bend over backwards for this ethnic minority” as a councillor in Moray.

Mr Harvie went on to ask: “Is it your whole party that is prejudiced against gypsy travellers – or just you?”

Mr Ross said he had already apologised for those remarks, made some time ago, saying he should have answered the question “far better”.

The Conservative leader went on to say there was “far more I can do and everyone can do” for this group.

Ms Sturgeon pressed the Scottish Tory leader on the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s fishing industry.

Mr Ross accepted: “We haven’t done enough for the fishing industry, we need to do far more.”

He said he would “stand up for Scottish fishermen”, but the SNP leader asked him: “Isn’t it the case that whatever the UK Government says, you just do it?

“First ministers need to stand up for Scotland, Douglas, not take orders from Westminster.”

Mr Ross responded by saying: “First ministers need to work with governments around the United Kingdom.

“We will deliver most for the people of Scotland for our recovery, if our two governments work together, not always looking to pick fights.”

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