The Scotsman 2021 Election Hustings: Scottish Conservatives clash with SNP over record on education and public finances

Opposition figures have condemned the SNP's financial record in government as the party was accused of failing to protect children from the effects of the pandemic by the Scottish Conservative's education spokesperson.

Clashing with the SNP’s Michelle Campbell in The Scotsman’s third virtual election hustings on Tuesday night, Jamie Greene said the Scottish Government had been “reckless” with the public purse.

Referring to Prestwick Airport, which the Scottish Government bought in 2013, Mr Greene said: “You've got an empty airport sitting there that was accumulating debt that will probably be written off.

“You've got you had an empty [Edinburgh] Sick Kids Hospital that was costing £6 million in management fees to a private company that wasn't even an operation and that was long overdue.

“We've got half a million pounds of public taxpayers’ money paying for Alex Salmond’s legal fees, when the government knowingly ploughed ahead … against its legal advice.”

Mr Greene added: “This is a front bench that puts the economy second. In the west coast of Scotland, there's 1,700 businesses that waited over five months for financial support during the Covid crisis from the SNP Government.

“I want a strong Scottish economy, but to do that you need the high tax base – you also need a strategy and you need a coherent government that is responsible with money, and the SNP’s 14-year track record tells us independence is the last thing that Scotland needs.”

Ms Campbell defended her party’s record in government on the hustings covering the West Scotland regional list, claiming its investment in projects like Prestwick Airport had been “about saving jobs”.

Clashing with the SNP’s Michelle Campbell at The Scotsman’s third virtual hustings event, Jamie Greene said the Scottish Government had been “reckless” with the public purse.

“It was either that or letting these companies go to the wall,” she said.

Focusing on the West of Scotland, Ms Campbell said the latest Scottish Government budget had protected 400 jobs in the region with a promised investment of £47m.

But the Greens’ Ross Greer argued the SNP was too soft on the businesses that it bailed out.

The 26-year-old said ministers were “very happy to hand over huge sums of money to private companies” without asking “for nearly enough of a stake in return”.

The Green Party’s Ross Greer argued that the SNP was too soft on the businesses that it bailed out.

“Scottish Enterprise every year gives huge amounts of money out to companies who won't even pay their workers the living wage,” he said.

“So in the end, these people are having to be supported through the social security system or they're going to food banks.

“But the multibillion-dollar companies that they work for, like big multinationals and even arms companies, are getting public money.”

Defending his own party’s history of supporting SNP budgets, Mr Greer said doing so had signed a raft of Green policies into law, including free school meals and free bus travel for under-22s.

He said: “We only vote for budgets once we have secured a range of green priorities and them and our big priority this year was about alleviating poverty.

“So that's why about half a million low-income households in Scotland will receive pandemic relief payments – because the Greens wrote those into the budget.”

On the topic of education, Ms Campbell admitted the attainment gap was not “completely closed”, but insisted that Scottish Government investment had improved the situation for children across Scotland.

She said: “The government has been very clear about the support that will be in place and they have made it very clear that tackling the attainment gap is an absolute priority.

“[Education secretary] John Swinney made it very clear that it's not completely closed, it's going to take time and it's investments by the Scottish Government that has led to those improvements.

“However, I think that often there's a lot of tackling from opposition members rather than trying to find a workable solution.”

Mr Greene replied the Tories “will happily work together to help the government achieve its objectives”, but added: “I should remind the government that they’ve had 14 years to meet some of these objectives.

“It was absolutely galling to hear John Swinney announce he's going to give every child in Scotland a digital device a year after we first closed schools. Well why didn't we do that a year ago?

“Why has it taken until the weeks running up to an election to start making these promises and commitments?

“And let's not forget the mental health crisis that awaits, young people, as we come out of this Covid pandemic.”

Mr Greene said the fact that thousands of young people were waiting over a year to get treatment for mental health was “a huge source of shame on the SNP”.

Candidates also weighed in on the controversial Hate Crime Bill, passed by MSPs in the days before the start of the election campaign.

Mr Greene said a Conservative Government would repeal the “deeply flawed” Bill with a new piece of legislation that protected “freedom of thought”.

Bur Mr Greer said that “80 per cent of the Hate Crime Bill is not contentious”. He said “really unscrupulous characters” had spread false claims about the “silencing of free speech”.

Mr Greer said he “fully expected” the Hate Crime Bill to be amended to give further protections for women in the next session of Parliament, once the misogyny and criminal justice working group reported its findings.

Ms Campbell agreed there had been “a lot of misinformation” spread about the Bill, “some of which has been absolutely abhorrent”.

She said once the experts on the working group reported their findings, she expected “cross party” progress to be made on amendments to the Bill.

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