Sturgeon Promises More Free Childcare

New SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has put ambitious plans for a massive extension of free childcare at the heart of her campaign to win the next Scottish elections.

Ms Sturgeon - who becomes Scotland's first female first minister in four days time - promised to almost double the amount of care parents can receive for their youngsters at no cost.

She made the pledge in her first conference speech since succeeding Alex Salmond as SNP leader.

She used the address to set out some of her key commitments for the 2016 Holyrood elections, but with the Westminster general election now less than six months away, she hinted that the SNP could hold the balance of power at Westminster.

In those circumstances Ms Sturgeon said her party would "never ever" do a deal with the Conservatives if they failed to win an overall majority in the UK Parliament.

But she said a deal with Labour could be possible - if they would agree to deliver "real powers" for the Scottish Parliament, bring an end to austerity cuts and scrap the Trident nuclear missile system on the River Clyde.

She also appealed to supporters of other parties to back the SNP in May's general election, in a bid to force Westminster leaders to deliver on the vow they made of substantial new powers for Holyrood in the run-up to the referendum.

She said the referendum campaign had "revitalised this country" and added: "We will not let Westminster drag us back to business as usual."

Ms Sturgeon added: "The only language Westminster really understands is that of power.

"So let them hear this message from all around our country. Power over Scotland no longer rests in the corridors of Westminster.

"In Scotland, today, power rests with the Scottish people - and that is where it will stay."

The new SNP leader continued: "The first test of that new democratic order is the general election next May.

"Be under no illusion - if we vote for Westminster parties, they will go back to business as usual.

"The promise of more powers will evaporate. The vow will be broken.

"It was the power of our votes that forced them to make that vow. And it is only the power of our votes that will force them to keep it.

Ms Sturgeon called on Scots to come together in the Westminster election "not as Yes voters or as No voters, but as one united country".

She said: "I speak to everyone across our land who wants to see the promise of a powerhouse Scottish Parliament delivered.

"Let us come together, this time, as one Scotland.

"Lend us - Scotland's Party - your support."

She urged people: "Vote SNP and the message we will carry to Westminster on your behalf is this.

"Scotland's interests will not be sidelined. Not now, not ever.

"We demand real powers for our Parliament. And Scotland will not settle for anything less."

Ms Sturgeon added: "A vote for the SNP next May will mean that Scotland can't be taken for granted again."

In that election she said the "odds on a hung parliament shorten every day".

She told the conference: "Scotland could well hold the balance of power in a Westminster parliament with no overall majority."

Ms Sturgeon said: "If that happens, I promise our country this.

"You won't need to have voted Labour to keep the Tories out, because that's what we'll do.

"My pledge to Scotland today is simple - the SNP will never, ever, put the Tories into government."

While she ruled out any prospect of the SNP supporting the Conservatives in power, she said a deal with Ed Miliband's party could be a possibility.

"Think about how much more we could win for Scotland from a Westminster Labour government if they had to depend on SNP votes," Ms Sturgeon said.

"They'd have to deliver real powers for our parliament.

"They'd have to rethink the endless austerity that impoverishes our children.

"They'd have to think again about putting a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons on the River Clyde."

While the 2015 general election will be Ms Sturgeon's first electoral test as SNP leader, she used her conference speech to make clear some of her priorities for the Holyrood elections the following year.

The SNP had similarly promised a transformation of free childcare if Scotland became independent, putting a pledge on this at the heart of the Scottish Government's white paper.

Opponents criticised the plan then, saying devolution meant the SNP already had the power to improve childcare.

Today Ms Sturgeon said: "We didn't win the referendum, but I am determined that we will make progress.

"With the powers we have now, we will push forward."

Youngsters aged three and four in Scotland, as well as some more vulnerable two-year-olds, already receive 16 hours a week of free childcare, with Ms Sturgeon saying this was "more hours of childcare than in any other part of the UK".

But she added: "So important is good quality, extensive childcare to the school performance and life chances of young people, that we will go further still.

"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-years-olds will receive, not 16 hours, but 30 hours of free childcare each week."

Such a policy would cost about £400,000 a year by the time it is fully implemented, with "major capital investment" also required in nurseries.

Ms Sturgeon said she wanted this building work to be "one of our biggest infrastructure projects for the next parliament".

The former Scottish health secretary said the NHS would also be a priority in her government, as she vowed its budget would "rise in real terms for each and every year of the next parliament" if the SNP wins power again in 2016.

She also pledged a scheme which cuts business rates for smaller businesses would be extended until 2020 if she is voted in as first minister in 2016.

"I intend to lead our party to victory in the 2016 Scottish election," Ms Sturgeon declared.

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