SNP Conference: Sturgeon tempers Indyref2 timing talk and announces NHS pay rise

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after giving her keynote speech. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after giving her keynote speech. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
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Nicola Sturgeon attempted to dampen SNP expectations of an early second referendum in her keynote speech to her party conference.

The SNP leader said it was more important to persuade voters of the case of independence than focusing on the timing of another poll.

Her plea for patience was made in a speech that saw Sturgeon announce a three per cent pay rise for NHS staff and more financial help for students.

In the past Sturgeon has said she would give an update on her referendum plans this autumn, a time-frame designed to give her time to consider the implications of Brexit.

But in her speech to a conference attended by 2,500 activists in Aberdeen, Sturgeon said the party’s duty was to concentrate more on the “why” of independence than the “when”.

“As we wait for the fog of Brexit to clear, our opportunity - indeed, our responsibility - is this,” Sturgeon said. “Not just to focus on the ‘when’ of independence. But to use our energy and passion to persuade those who still ask ‘why’. Right now, that is the more important task.”

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The First Minister was speaking at the end of a conference held two weeks after the SNP published its new blueprint for independence.

Sturgeon said Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission document would “provide the platform” to renew the case for independence.

She said Wilson and his fellow contributers had done an “excellent job”, despite the document coming in for criticism at the conference.

On the opening day, the economist and former SNP MP George Kerevan said its proposals would leave the Scottish economy “at the mercy of the banks”.

Faced with criticism of letting constitutional matters interfere with the “day job” of running the country, Sturgeon made a series of high profile policy announcements.

From next month NHS staff will receive a three per cent pay rise, an increase which she said would make health employees better paid than those south of the border, even after tax.

Under the move, 147,000 ‘Agenda for Change’ staff, such as nurses, midwives, allied health professionals, therapists, paramedics, support staff and administrators will benefit. It does not affect doctors, dentists or senior managers.

Staff currently earning up to £80,000 will receive at least a three per cent uplift, and those earning £80,000 and over will receive a flat rate increase of £1,600.

READ MORE: £120k fund to boost Indyref2 push

Sturgeon said a nurse with five years’ experience in Band five pay grade would be £430 pounds per year better off.

A healthcare assistant at the top of Band three would be £630 pounds richer. According to the SNP leader, an auxiliary nurse with a year’s experience would be more than £830 better off in NHS Scotland than in NHS England.

In another key announcement, Sturgeon promised to increase student support, particularly for those who had been in care or were from poor families.

This year the bursary for care-experienced students in further and higher education will be increasedear to £8,100. The £5.5 million increase will bring their cash in line with the Scottish living wage.

A further £16 million will be invested next year in increasing college bursaries and university grants for students from low income families.

In addition, the repayment threshold for student loans will be raised from £18,000 to £25,000 from April 2021. This year maximum repayment period for student loans will be lowered from 35 to 30 years.

Building on the SNP’s promise to double free childcare and create 11,000 jobs in the sector, the SNP leader announced a “huge” national nursery construction programme.

“By the end of this Parliament, around 750 nurseries across the length and breadth of our country will be built, expanded or refurbished,” Sturgeon said.

Last night Scottish Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw criticised the speech claiming her domestic policy annoucements were a “warm up” for “banging on about independence.

“She is out of touch and leading a divided party. This was a tired speech from a leader running out of time,” Carlaw said.

“We also saw the usual hypocrisy of Nicola Sturgeon simultaneously moaning about UK cutbacks while at the same time spending millions extra - thanks to UK funding.

“The SNP’s campaign used to be ‘It’s time’. Increasingly Scots are saying to Sturgeon that ‘Time’s up’.”

Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray dismissed Sturgeon’s pledges on student education as “vague rhetoric”.

Gray said: “Scotland’s students have been waiting six months for the SNP government to respond to their own review of student support.

“Now we discover that it was being held back to give Nicola Sturgeon something to say at her party’s conference.”