Sturgeon Speaks On Independence, Energy, and Sanitary Products

10 October 2017, 19:09

First Minister

Nicola Sturgeon has insisted her SNP Government is still trusted to deliver in Scotland, despite the party losing more than a third of its Westminster seats.

In June's snap general election, her party lost 21 of the 56 seats it had secured in 2015, with its share of the vote going from 50% to 37%.

High profile nationalists including former first minister Alex Salmond and SNP depute leader Angus Robertson were among those who were ejected from Westminster as both the Tories and Labour made ground.

Ms Sturgeon, making her key note address to the SNP conference in Glasgow, conceded that there had been "tough days" for the party.

But the Scottish First Minister was clear her government still has support in Scotland.

The SNP leader provided opponents with a "gentle reality check", saying her party was polling at "a higher level today than we were at this point in the honeymoon days after our 2007 win or our landslide in 2011".

She added: "Our lead over the second placed party now is twice what it was in October 2008 - and it is five times that of 2012.

"Ten years into government, the verdict of the Scottish people is clearer than ever. They trust the SNP to deliver for Scotland."

Ms Sturgeon hit out at the SNP's opponents - telling delegates at the conference that Scottish Labour was having it's "annual leadership election".

She said: "Hypocrites, plotters, betrayers, barrel scrapers. No, that's not what we've been calling the candidates. That's what they've been calling each other.

"These days, ferrets in a sack distance themselves from Scottish Labour."

To cheers from the audience she said the Tories were "now back in third place in Scottish politics" as she hit out at the Conservatives over their "racism, misogyny and sectarianism".

She issued a challenge to Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, saying: "The disgusting views that have been expressed by too many Tory politicians have no place in public life.

"It's time Ruth Davidson found some backbone and kicked the racists and bigots out of her party."

Ms Sturgeon added: "The opposition in Scotland are all over the place.

"That's why more than ever the responsibility is on us, the SNP, to provide the good government that the people of our country expect and deserve."

Restating her government's pledge to deliver 50,000 more affordable homes over the parliament backed by £3 billion, Ms Sturgeon said councils would have to spend every penny of their share on new housing.

She said: "We've already set out how much money councils will be allocated each year. And we will not allow any of it to be diverted to other priorities.

"Let me make this clear to every council today. If you don't use all of your allocation to deliver new housing, we will take back the balance and give it to one that can.

"On money for housing - if you don't use it, you will lose it. Every last penny of our investment will go to delivering the new houses that people across this country need. That is our guarantee."

She also announced the Scottish Government will be spending £840 million a year by the end of this Scottish Parliament term to fund their "truly transformational" childcare policy.

Ms Sturgeon said some parents still "struggle to find and fund the childcare they need to allow them to work".

But she pledged: "We are going to change that.

"By 2020, we will deliver 30 hours a week for every three and four year old and eligible two-year-olds.

"It will give children the best start in life. It will free parents to find work.

"And each month it will save families around £350 on the costs of childcare."

She added: "Often when I talk about this policy, I'm asked - sometimes sceptically - if we will really be able to fund it properly.

"Well today we put our money where our mouth is. Over the past few months, we have undertaken detailed work to assess the investment needed.

"Right now, we invest around £420 million a year. I can announce today that by the end of this Parliament, that will double to £840 million a year."

The First Minister said: "That is a commitment unmatched anywhere else in the UK.

"And it is the best investment we can make in Scotland's future."

Ms Sturgeon announced plans for those leaving care to be exempted from paying council tax, following on from the government's review of the care system.

She said: "We want it to have love at its heart. We are also delivering practical help to level the playing field for care leavers - like full grants and guaranteed places for those with the grades to go to university.

"We want to make life a little bit easier for those leaving care. So I can announce today a further step. We will change the law so that all young care leavers are exempt from paying council tax."

She also announced action to improve the environment, revealing the first "Low Emission Zone" to be set up by the Scottish Government will be in Glasgow.

The First Minister spoke out about the global threat from climate change, and said: "Every industrialised country, large or small, must play its part to meet our collective duty to safeguard the environment."

In a message to US President Donald Trump she added: "Let me be blunt about this. That applies just as much to the White House as it does to Bute House."

Environmental campaigners recently described our programme for government as the greenest in the entire lifetime of the Scottish Parliament.

While she described tackling climate change as a "moral obligation" she also said there could be a "massive opportunity", adding that Scotland could be a "world leader in the technologies that will drive forward the low carbon economy of the future".

Ms Sturgeon said: "Jobs and investment are there to be won. So we are leading by example.

"We will end the need for new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 - eight years ahead of the rest of the UK. An ambitious target, but one we know can be met."

She added: "The lesson for our economy is this - by leading the way in using new technology, we send a message to the world that Scotland is the best place to develop it."

Ms Sturgeon confirmed that a pledge in last year's SNP manifesto to explore the option of a new new publicly owned energy company would be taken forward.

By the end of the parliament a publicly-owned, not for profit energy company would be set up, with more details to be set out in the government's forthcoming energy strategy.

She said: "Energy would be bought wholesale or generated here in Scotland - renewable, of course - and sold to customers as close to cost price as possible.

"No shareholders to worry about. No corporate bonuses to consider.

"It would give people - particularly those on low incomes - more choice and the option of a supplier whose only job is to secure the lowest price for consumers."

The Scottish Government has granted permission to the people of Ulva, an island off the west coast of Mull, to bring their island into community ownership, she confirmed.

To help the tourist industry in Scotland's more remote areas, she announced a new £6 million fund to help provide the infrastructure needed.

"The tourist boom that our country is enjoying is great news," Ms Sturgeon said.

"It means more jobs and investment.

"But it can also mean pressure on transport, services and facilities - especially in rural areas."

To help with that she said ministers would set up a new Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, saying this would "allow even more people to enjoy this, the most beautiful country in the world".

The First Minister went on to describe tackling inequality as the "defining challenge" of this generation.

To help tackle the problem of "period poverty" - where women on low income can not afford sanitary protection - she said a new scheme would start in August with products provided free in all schools, colleges and universities.

The move was announced in the Scottish Government's programme for government in September, and Ms Sturgeon said: "This groundbreaking commitment to tackle the gender injustice of period poverty will be delivered from the start of the new academic year next August."

She added: "Scotland and the SNP - once again - leading the way in building a better, fairer country for all."

Ms Sturgeon said a fair society "must be paid for" and reiterated it was time to "consider how our limited tax powers might help us protect what we value most" in the face of Tory austerity and the impact of Brexit.

She said: "Too often, the debate on tax is framed as the economy versus public services. That's wrong.

"Our taxes pay for the support that our businesses need to thrive just as they do for our health service and our schools.

"And our competitiveness as a country is about more than just our tax rates.

"It depends on the strength of our public services, the skills of our people and the quality of our infrastructure.

"It is a fact that a good society needs a strong economy. But let's never forget this. No economy will reach its full potential without a strong, fair, inclusive society."

She described the SNP as being a party that is "internationalist at its core".

And Ms Sturgeon added: "The UK Government may want to retreat from Europe. We intend to stay at its heart."

Fifteen months after the Brexit vote, she said the "Tories' failure to guarantee the rights of EU citizens to stay here shames them".

The First Minister stated: "We don't have the power to guarantee these rights ourselves. I wish that we did. But we will act where we can.

"The Tories want to make EU citizens apply for the right to stay and pay for the privilege. They should think again.

"But if a fee is imposed, I can confirm today that - as a minimum - the Scottish Government will meet the cost for EU nationals working in our public services."

Ms Sturgeon added: "It is a move that will give practical assistance to individuals.

"It will help us keep the doctors, nurses and other public sector workers that we rely on.

"And it will send a clear message to our fellow EU citizens, in actions not just in words, that we welcome you, we value you and we want you to stay."

The First Minister said Scotland's interests were threatened by "chaos" at Westminster, with Labour's position on Brexit "clear as mud" and Theresa May having "lost control".

She repeated claims the EU Withdrawal Bill amounted to a "blatant power grab" on the Scottish Parliament, adding: "We will not allow a Tory government to undermine devolution.

"Our message to the Westminster Tories is clear. Hands off Scotland's Parliament."

However she acknowledged the EU was not perfect, citing state violence in Catalonia during the disputed October 1 referendum on independence.

Ms Sturgeon said: "Sometimes it fails to live up to its founding values of human dignity, freedom, democracy and equality.

"When the people of Catalonia - EU citizens - were violently attacked by police just for trying to vote, the EU should have spoken up, loudly, to condemn it."

She said it was time for the Spanish government to sit down with the government of Catalonia, adding: "It is time for them to talk and to find a way forward.

"A way forward that respects the rule of law, yes. But a way forward that also respects democracy and the right of the people of Catalonia to determine their own future."

While the Scottish Government has delayed plans for a second independence referendum, Ms Sturgeon made clear the SNP still had a mandate for such a vote.

She described the "essence of independence" as being "in charge of the decisions that shape your destiny" and "being in the driving seat and not simply at the mercy of events".

The First Minister declared: "We are the party of independence.

"The case for independence doesn't depend on Brexit. But Brexit does show us what can happen when we don't control our own future."

She highlighted three decisions taken at Westminster - which she said had "changed fundamentally our country's path" but in which Scotland's interests had been "cast aside".

It included not setting up an oil fund when oil was discovered in the North Sea, the imposition of austerity after the financial crash and the pursuit of the "hardest possible Brexit".

"Just think if those decisions had been taken in Scotland," Ms Sturgeon said. "The difference could be dramatic.

"The security of a multi-billion pound oil fund. Investment, not Tory-imposed austerity, and a country at the heart of Europe."

She added: "When we think about those wasted opportunities, it should make us all the more determined that, in future, we will do things differently."

The First Minister continued: "The gap between Scotland's interests and Westminster's priorities has never been wider.

"The House of Commons is polarised. There are deep divides not just between parties but within them.

"Politicians tipped to be future Prime Ministers hark back to Agincourt and Waterloo. They look to the past and the days of empire."

But she said Scotland "must look to the future" and "put ourselves firmly in the driving seat of our own destiny".